Home Sweet Home

Springfield—unlovely and unloved

Illinois Times

January 14, 1977

Illinois's capital city has long inspired tall tales, as local bards try to top each other's insults about the place. In A Springfield Reader,  I noted that out of the dozens of descriptions of the city written by locals in the last one hundred and fifty years only a handful really tell us anything about Springfield. There are several reasons for this, but the natural unwillingness of the local patriot to embarrass Springfield was made stronger by the drubbings the city regularly took in the out-of-town press over its shabby appearance, its sordid vice district, its riots, and its scandals in City Hall.

Typical of the last was the 1947 profile of the Illinois capital in the Saturday Evening Post’s “Cities of America” series by Elise Morrow. It was well-written, as well-researched as a piece of its type needs to be, and thirty years after its publication stands as the best single portrait of postwar Springfield. Perhaps because of that, the editor of one Springfield newspaper wrote, “Writers like Elise [Morrow] visit Springfield regularly. They are as seasonal as the starlings in the statehouse trees and create the same nuisance. ” She was denounced as a “tramp writer” and a “money-mad woman,” and her work was denounced as “juvenile”—all this for apiece which, a generation later, seems not so much biased as merely frank.

Most of the descriptions of Springfield written by local writers, then, were in the nature of a counterattack. But the boundaries between portraying Springfield in the best possible light and distorting the facts, between Battery and untruth, were ill-defined. Many of the claims advanced for the city—fine schools, efficient and honest government—were later proven false, or at least misleading. Whatever their value as advertising, as historical documents they are untrustworthy.

 

Descriptions of Springfield by strangers, however, are more interesting. Unlike their local counterparts, out-of-town writers do not have to live and do business with their subjects (objectivity being not so much the willingness to speak painful truths as the ability to survive speaking them). And, being outsiders, they have not acquired the prejudices of a long residence.

 

Not all descriptions of Springfield by nonresidents are wholly accurate, by any means, any more than all such descriptions by residents are wholly inaccurate. But they are uniquely valuable,because, unlike their hometown counterparts, they bend the truth in unaccustomed ways.

 

"The only thing dumber than living in Springfield." snapped the suit-and-tied diner as he threw his napkin onto his plate, "is liking it." A common sentiment, expressed with uncommon heat. As John Garvey pointed out in a recent issue of this paper, Springfield harbors a sizable and ill-tempered minority who are itching to get out of town, and who are waiting to do it only until: 1) school is over: 2) that phone call from you-know-who in Washington comes through; or 3) Daddy's will is read.

 

I've heard it all before. Once or twice I've heard it from myself. Grousing about Springfield is a pastime old enough to qualify as a tradition. The little restaurant scene replayed above prompted a quick tour through the library to see how other malcontents have expressed themselves on the subject of Springfield's unlivability. The results were interesting.

 

John Hay, for example, didn't like it here at all. Hay was personal secretary to Lincoln during the White House years and coauthor (with his associate John Nicolay) of a formidable biography of the railsplitter. Hay later served as secretary of state under President McKinley and as ambassador to England.

 

By all accounts he was as glad as Lincoln must have been when Lincoln was elected president in 1860—it meant he could leave Springfield. He had been here since coming to town to study law in 1859. At that time he described himself in a letter to a friend as "stranded at last, like a weather-beaten hulk, on the dreary wastes of Springfield—a city combining the meanness of the North with the barbarism of the South."

 

Hay wasn't alone in that opinion. At about that same time a Britisher by the name of John Lewis Payton passed through town on his way west. He stayed only a little while, as "there was little in or about Springfield to interest or amuse a stranger." If, by some reincarnational mischance, Mr. Payton were to resume human shape in one of Springfield's fashionable bars on a Saturday night, he would feel only a little out of place. The music would seem unlistenable and the dress inexplicable, but the conversation would not have changed by so much as a comma.

 

Another visitor (this one from Chicago, which, like Great Britain, is a strange land very far away) sent home this less-than-glowing account:

 

I found things and matters moving along with that steady, old-fogy pace which is characteristic of the place. . . . The people are thoroughly conservative and seem disposed to look upon every alteration, every progressive step as an innovation rather than an improvement.

 

Springfield got a lot bigger between the 1860s and the turn of the century, but apparently it didn't get much better. For example, the Boston Transcript published an editorial about one of our perennial statehouse scandals in 1909. In a snooty bit of scene-setting, the editors commented, and I quote, "Springfield itself is a miserable little town."

 

Springfield's Illinois State Register rallied to the rescue. "The Boston commentator." it pointed out reasonably, " has beans for brains."

 

Even Abraham Lincoln earned his reputation as a storyteller partly at Springfield's expense. One of his favorites was repeated by Paul Angle in Here I Have Lived. It goes like this:

 

Thompson Campbell whom as Secretary of State, had custody of the Statehouse, for permission to deliver a series of lectures in the Hall of the House of Representatives.

 

"May I ask," said Campbell, "what is to be the subject of your lectures?"

 

"Certainly," came the solemn reply, "they are on the second coming of our Lord."

 

"It's no use," said Campbell, "if you will take my advice you will not waste your time in this city. It is my private opinion that if the Lord has been in Springfield once, he will not come the second time."

 

During his first few weeks in Springfield Lincoln felt lonesome and out of place—a common problem among newcomers of any era. He wrote to an acquaintance. "This thing of living in Springfield is rather a dull business, after all; at least it is so to me."

 

So even Lincoln thought the place dull—at first. It is believed that Lincoln, at least, changed his mind. ●

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