top of page

Population Politics

Hope v. reality regarding Springfield growth

Illinois Times

April 21, 1978

This column was inspired by a prediction from Springfield area planners that the population of Sangamon County could hit 224,000 people by 2000. From its founding, Springfield boosters have entertained expectations of population growth that went beyond the optimistic to the delusional, and this prediction was no exception. The county had only 189,125 residents in 2000, and by 2020—forty years after this projection was made—the county’s population had not yet reached even 193,000.  


Readers of last Sunday's Springfield State Journal-Register swallowed some demographics with their morning shredded wheat in the form of a front-page article about a forecasted population boom in Sangamon County. The piece cited statistics prepared by the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission which promised that the county's population, estimated to be 169,500 in 1975, will jump to 224,000 by 2000.


Readers—to continue the gustatory metaphor—should take such predictions with a grain or two of salt. Population projections resemble opinion polls in that both are inexact measures of reality which are given far too much weight by intelligent people who ought to know better. As is the case with the polls, it is common for different demographers using the same basic data to come to significantly different conclusions; the state's Bureau of the Budget, for example, released a similar estimate last December that set the county's 2000 population at 210,000 people—six percent less than the planning commission's estimate.


Some local historical population projections have proven definitely to be of the “Dewey beats Truman" variety. In 1909, Springfield was a town of 51,000 human beings, give or take a few legislators. That was more than twice the number living there in 1890. A Chamber of Commerce speaker, mistaking that twenty-year spurt for a long-term trend, said that he couldn't think of a single reason why Springfield shouldn't have 100,000 people "within the next ten years or even sooner." That was sixty-one years ago and Springfield hasn't hit 100,000 yet, a fact which reveals something useful about Springfield, chambers of commerce, and the art of population projection.


To be fair, that guess was as much an expression of hope as a prediction. A presumably more sober analysis was made in 1923 by a Chicago planning firm, American Park Builders, whose nearsighted seers said that Springfield would be home to 200,000 souls by 1968. The actual population in that unhappy year, of course, was closer to 90,000. The population people have gotten better since then, of course, and they may set a precedent and prove themselves right this time.


The really disturbing aspect of the Sunday piece lay not in the numbers anyway. Planners guess that as many as 35 percent of Sangamon County's new residents will settle outside metropolitan Springfield in satellite towns like Sherman, Rochester, and Chatham. That pattern was established in the boom years of the '60s when, like a child who's been given too generous an allowance, we were able to buy great many things that weren't good for us. Families who could afford a new house, two cars, and gasoline bills that would stagger a cab company overran the somnolent farm towns within a half-hour's drive from their jobs in the capital. According to the planning commission, Auburn grew by 50 percent in sixteen years, Sherman by 292 percent in fourteen, Chatham a dizzying 427 percent in sixteen.


Chatham is something of a symbol of surburban growth locally. As population increases, residents begin to demand of their new home all the urban amenities—parks, more police, better streets, traffic lights—all of which make for bigger and bigger village budgets. The town is forced to pursue a suicidal growth policy to build a tax base sufficiently large to pay for them. As the village's planning chairman told a reporter, "We really need a plan to provide municipal services to encourage growth. " In the process the things that made Chatham such an attractive place to live—good schools, quiet, low taxes. small-town atmosphere— are gone, destroyed. Chatham today is a sprawling, ugly middle-class ghetto. Eventually such towns become like Springfield only smaller—much smaller, since they develop most of Springfield's problems without any of its advantages.


Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.


Were the problems associated with suburbanization confined to the suburbs, I wouldn't mind much. Anyone who moves into a cornfield, thus putting a forty-minute drive between him and a tube of toothpaste deserves whatever he gets. Trouble is, we all pay for it. Suburbanization requires the costly extension of roads, utility distribution systems, sewers. It adds to the cost of fixing roads and clearing them of snow. It complicates law enforcement and adds distance to the problems of providing good fire protection and ambulance service. It makes the automobile a necessity instead of merely a convenience, crowding our streets and parking lots, adding to the pressure for new roads and delaying our weaning ourselves of foreign oil. It blights the landscape, strips the countryside of wildlife habitat, destroys irreplaceable farmland, fragments our politics. The face of Progress, seen up close, is pimpled.


It's for these reasons that population—how much and where it grows—will be at the core of local politics for at least next decade. It is a factor in the debate over commercialism and zoning, as Springfield tries to preserve its own tax base against the loss of residential and commercial development to neighboring towns. It is a factor in annexation squabbles as new housing goes up on the city's periphery. It is a factor in the declining enrollments in Springfield schools. It is a factor in the failure to provide park space to an increasingly dispersed population. It is a factor in mass transit planning, sewer construction, tax inequities. It is, in short, a Problem with a capital "p"


Maybe the population projections will be wrong again. Maybe the suburban dream will turn sour. Maybe. ●




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.


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.)




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.

bottom of page