Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Downstate cities are neighbors, not friends
March 21, 1980
In 1980 I did not yet understand enough about how geography and settlement patterns explained the distinct personalities of those midsized cities that compose the unusual urban constellation in middle Illinois. Neither did most people who lived there. Note: This version differs slightly from the original but in no important way.
“It’s a shame we have to drive all the way to Champaign to hear a concert in a decent hall,’’ I mumbled absent-mindedly to myself as I watched a fellow music-lover stamp out a cigarette on Herman Krannert’s teak floor. “Sorry. To Urbana,’’ I corrected myself, then corrected myself again, since the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts stands not in Urbana but on the sovereign soil of the University of Illinois, which is to Urbana what the Vatican is to Rome.
I’m hardly the first to make that slip. People in central Illinois have been using “Champaign,’’ “Urbana ” and “U of I” as if they were synonyms for a long time. I used to think this imprecision was just laziness; people have been excoriating Springfield for years when what they really hate is the General Assembly, or the governor, or the state government generally, and slings and arrows are much easier to hurl if one doesn’t take time to aim. (In my town’s defense I have taken to quoting the desk clerk of a downtown Springfield motel who, when I complained one summer’s eve about some Shriners bellowing drunkenly from the balconies, told me that it was unreasonable to hold an inn responsible for the conduct of its guests.)
However, the more I see of this habit the more it begins to look as if ignorance, not slovenliness, is the cause. I fear that people fail to distinguish between Champaign and Urbana, or Bloomington and Normal, or even between Decatur and Peoria because they don’t know which is which. Most of us in the state’s midsection have had a laugh at the expense of slumming Chicagoans who alight in these latitudes thinking themselves to be in “southern” Illinois. But what, besides the nicknames of their college athletic teams, does the typical central Illinoisian know of what one sociologist has dubbed these “cities of the prairie”? Not much. We have reduced their personalities to a series of neat, if often inaccurate, sociological equations in which Peoria = Caterpillar, Decatur = soybeans, Bloomington = Illinois State University and Normal, which ought to equal ISU, equals nothing at all.
Indeed, I know a great many people in Springfield who know more about New York or even London than they do about Peoria or Bloomington or Urbana. A few cosmopolitans among us might be able to tell you the names of the TV news anchorpeople in some of those towns, but even the well-informed among us cannot name their mayors.
I must count myself among that undistinguished company, as I realized while I stood in the lobby at the Krannert, waiting in line during intermission for a glass of punch. I’ve lived in Springfield for thirty years, during which time I’ve made trips to Champaign-Urbana (or, as the U of I styles it lately, Urbana-Champaign). I even lived there for a time as a student, although living on campus in C-U is like living in Leland Grove in Springfield: It confers the right to use the city’s name on one’s mail but it does not necessarily confer familiarity. Even so, I know little about the carelessly named “twin” cities beyond how to get to the Assembly Hall and the first name of Mr. Roberts, C-U’s estimable local TV weatherman.
There are those who would argue that if one knows one central Illinois city one knows them all, that not only are they places that only a mother could love but places that only a mother could tell apart. After all, the Pizza Huts are the same, the Holiday Inns are the same, the shopping malls are the same, the ailing downtowns are the same the vacant schools are the same, the voter apathy is the same, the urban sprawl is the same—all the same. Each took root in roughly equivalent geographical niches.
If one wishes to look for them, one can find even more intriguing—and misleading—parallels. Decatur and Peoria, for example, are both factory towns situated on dirty rivers whose only difference is that Peoria’s reputation as a cultural backwater is national while Decatur’s is only statewide. Bloomington and Normal, like Champaign and Urbana, are “twin” cities of which one harbors a large state university with which its twin is commonly identified. And so on.
Between Springfield and Champaign-Urbana the resemblances are even more striking, and run deeper. (I must here do these cities the insult of treating them as if they were a single entity.) Both Springfield and C-U are dominated by state government whose presence is alternately damned by locals for its influence and courted for the money and status it brings; just as one would never have heard of Springfield were it not for the state capital, one would never have heard of C-U were it not for the U of I. In each case the state enclave forms a city within a city, creating jealousies between what in C-U is called the “town and gown” (and what in Springfield might be called the “town and clown”) elements of the citizenry. Because their economies are heavy with professionals and other white-collar types, more of their citizens work at jobs at which they get their hands dirty only in the metaphorical sense, and also are better educated (and thus richer) than most of their neighbors.
That differences exist is indisputable; we live as if on islands and, like Darwin’s Galapagos finches, have evolved in isolation to create subtle but real differences in the ways we have adapted to our environment. Again using Springfield and C-U as examples, we may note that Champaign has elected a woman mayor—a notable oddity, but it should be remembered that Springfieldians elected a Jaycee to the same post, which to my mind displayed the greater liberality. C-U seems a cleaner place, its neighborhoods less ravaged by commercial blight, while Springfield looks as if its city council uses a Monopoly Board as a zoning manual, with hotels next to railroads and avenues next to jails. For entertainment, C-U has the Illini football team. But Springfield has the Prairie Capital Convention Center, which has more in common with the gridiron IIlini than one might think: both are expensive public works projects designed to boost their local economies which have failed to live up to expectations, both are plagued by management problems and both are taking longer to build than their backers originally predicted.
It is the differences one can’t see by standing in punch lines at concerts that fascinate me. What curious permutations of character, I wondered, as I stood there, are hidden behind the faces of this predominantly C-U crowd? I know that elements of Springfield society possess a preternatural political sense, presumably because of their long association with state government. What peculiarities, then, lay secreted in the genes of Urbana-ites nurtured by the university? And how do they differ from people in Champaign, a town that traces its paternity to the Illinois Central Railroad? Does the world look
any different to a Decaturite, whose town is relatively more vulnerable to the inconstant tides of the national economy, than it does to people living on higher economic ground like Springfield? Is it possible to tell a Bloomingtonian from a Normalite except by their zip codes?
In the absence of more-compelling evidence, however, we are left to infer municipal character from gross economic structure, a handful of history, and the differences in hairstyles among the cities’ TV news teams. We are all neighbors in central Illinois, but we are still far from friends. □
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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