The Wandering Whistler in White

Springfield’s abundance of eccentricity

Illinois Times

February 18, 1977

These days people tend to regard the cranks and loonies they encounter on the streets with annoyance or unease, if not disgust, but in the 1970s they were as often cherished for livening up urban life. I offered anecdotes about my several encounters as evidence that Springfield really was an interesting place. I doubt most readers were convinced. Looking back, I’m not sure I was.

 

My friend and I were sitting in Cardo's a week ago, busily reducing a jumbo hot dog to a fond memory, when we heard — or thought we heard — a bird singing. This is unusual, even in a downtown Looking around, my deli at the noon hour. companion spotted a solitary diner seated at a table behind us. He was something of a strange bird himself, decked out as he was in a white suit, shirt and shoes with a bright red necktie and matching red socks. He was whistling bird songs, and very nicely, too. He looked harmless enough, so we went back to our hot dogs. "Nothing to worry about," I explained to my companion. "Forty years ago they would have run him for mayor."

 

The bird-man and I were destined to meet again, however. Less than an hour later I was standing in the check-out line at Osco's, daydreaming, as I often do, about the day when some civic-minded soul with a hacksaw fells those god-awful light poles on the mall, when I realized someone was speaking to me. It was the wandering whistler in white. He was holding up three picture postcards of Lincoln's Tomb and he jabbed at them with his finger as he talked. "You know who's buried there?" he asked. I thought to myself, "General Grant?" but I figured he was serious, so out loud I just said, "No, who?" "The history records say he was a great man, he free the slaves, the Great Emancipator. That's what the history records say." (He talked with an accent that sounded Italian.) "But the Big Boss upstairs" (here he poked at the air above his head) "he told me that he mess up and not treat some of his boys right so he didn't get into his seventh heaven."

 

I nodded solemnly. I thought to myself, "Does Richard Blake know about this?" I was beginning to hope that the line would speed up so I could get out of there. I didn't want this guy to mistake politeness for interest. I'd once missed two buses and a dental appointment trying to shake a Moonie I'd foolishly engaged in a sidewalk debate about whether God is South Korean, and I wasn't about to make the same mistake twice; Mrs. Krohe, as the saying goes, didn't raise no fool. He mumbled something about the gospel according to John, paid for his postcards, walked toward the door, (forgetting his postcards), came back, picked up his cards with a spritely "Thank you Jesus," and left. His exit line, if I remember it right, was "And now to a post office!"

 

The clerk, a kind faced, grandmotherly woman, shook her head and said, to no one in particular, "I get 'em all."

 

This encounter, I am pleased to report, was I hope, my last with neither my first nor, Springfield's resident eccentrics. Any long-time resident of the capital can assemble a sizable roster of favorite fruitcakes. Mine includes such local notables as Dirty Harry, the filthiest man in hobodom, a specimen one out-of-towner said "beats anything I ever saw in New York"; the late Susan Lawrence Dana Joergen-Dahl Gehrmann, builder of the Bannerstone House at 4th and Lawrence, who filled safety deposit boxes in Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Leadville, Colorado, and Grant's Pass, Oregon, with jars of feathers from her pet parrot; the late Courthouse Betty, who dressed in choir-robes and tennis shoes and who attended more trials than John Dean; the flamboyant millionaire business- man whose death was announced in the Chicago Daily News by the colorful (if somewhat misleading) headline, "Millionaire Yippie Dies in Springfield;” the unnamed goof who sometimes makes the rounds downtown carrying a bulb horn concealed under his coat which he honks at startled passersby.

 

This is no recent phenomenon. Elise Morrow reported in the Saturday Evening Post in 1947 that there is at least one resident of Springfield who walks the streets on foggy nights in a shawl and stovepipe hat, convinced he is Lincoln." Morrow noted that "an abundance of eccentricity on every level has made the town almost as impervious to foible as Greenwich Village." Well, that may be stretching it, but not by much. After all, we not only tolerate eccentrics, we occasionally elect them to public office.

 

Morrow didn't try to guess why it is that loonies grow in Springfield like moss on a bucket. Maybe it's because of our close association with the state legislature, an experience guaranteed to foster a forgiving view of human nature. It may also be that the thousand conformities that shape life here breed their own antidote in the form of antic public behavior. Or it may be, as has been so often charged, that people have to be a little bit crazy to live here in the first place. □

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

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 Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

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.

Illinois Great Places

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.

McLean County Museum

of History

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."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

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 Illinois State Museum

 

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

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

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. 

History on the Fox

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

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

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.

University of

Illinois Press

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.

University of

Chicago Press

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

Vivian Maier.

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. 

Illinois Center for the Book

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.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated