Springpatch, U.S.A.

The lost art of colloquial place-naming

Illinois Times

July 29, 1977

Illinois's local poets of place have been replaced by dull-witted bureaucrats and real estate promoters. Every Illinois town has some industrious historian who has cataloged the much more evocative names coined by newspapers and residents, so they are not exactly lost, but Illinois would be better, I think, if more of them were to be found not in libraries but on schools and parks.

For more on this general topic, see "Place-naming" on the Illinois history page.

 

Not one Springfieldian in a thousand knows where Goosetown used to be. Or Rabbit Row. Or Idlewild. Buildings aren't the only things lost to progress. Names, too, disappear as the years pass. Especially vulnerable are the colloquial names which residents attached to their own—and their neighbors'—neighborhoods. Such nicknames are easily lost because, being unofficial, they are rarely recorded. Often they survive only in the memories of the people who used them.

 

Take Goosetown, for example. That evocative label was stuck on a district that extended from the mash heaps back of the Reisch brewery on Rutledge north to North Grand, west to Walnut, and east to Fifth. That much is known. How it got its name is less certain. One account gives the credit to one Mary O'Hara, who drove her flock of geese every day up to Miller's pond near the McCarthy brickyard off North Grand. Another account more plausibly asserts that the neighborhood was thickly populated by German and Irish families who kept flocks of geese, ranging in size from twelve to twenty birds. "From these neighborhood flocks," it is said, "the area is said to have taken its name."

 

East of Goosetown was Rabbit Row, a four block-long warren that stretched along Reservoir from Ninth to Fourteenth. The name became popular because the residents performed prodigies of procreation—in short, they bred like rabbits. The coal miners and mill hands who lived there had few peers as baby-makers. The Fernandes family were champs, numbering twenty-two in all. They were followed by the DeCastros (seventeen) and others with as many as twelve little ones. In Rabbit Row, family feuds took on the nature of wars.

 

Perhaps the most celebrated district in Springfield was the Levee, the old downtown vice district. The Levee is no more. It was not cleaned up—three generations of Springfield cops tried and couldn't do that—but torn down. The antiseptic Horace Mann Plaza stands there now, infinitely more respectable, infinitely less interesting.

 

More ghosts: Idlewild, an old mining settlement on the West Side, fenced in by Governor, Monroe, Stange, and Feldkamp streets, home to Germans, Lithuanians, and Poles who worked underground at Citizen Coal's A and B shafts nearby. Mill Row, along the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Fourteenth, a string of workman's cottages housing the hands employed at Ridgely's rolling mill. Aristocracy Hill along Sixth Street south of Capitol, in the late 19th century the home of many of Springfield's undeserving rich. Vinegar Hill, generally thought to have described the territory around Spring and Cook. It was named after a Civil War-era vinegar works whose location is still argued about, though one imaginative researcher in the 1940s claimed that the place was named after the Battle of Vinegar Hill, fought between Irish and British Royalists near Kildare in 1798. Hollywood, a name of more recent vintage, applied with nice irony to the collection of shanties scattered around the gullies north of Jefferson and west of MacArthur like litter tossed from passing cars.

 

There were others already forgotten. A 1944 article in the late Citizens Tribune notes that “there have been numerous settlements in each section of town known as this 'Patch' or that 'Patch,' or such and such a 'Hill.'” The Cabbage Patch east of the old Fiat-Allis plant is an example of this patch-work. But the biggest "patch" of all is "Springpatch" itself. I have no idea how long the nickname's been around. It is widely used pejoratively to signify the town's alleged backwardly rural nature. (I am here being perhaps too delicate.) The name has its roots in Dogpatch, U.S.A., Al Capp's cartoon hillbilly haven.

 

Lately, however, "Springpatch" has come to be used almost affectionately—among others, by WICS-TV weathercaster Flip Spiceland, whose own handle is a happy match of name and spirit. So popular has "Springpatch" become that some entrepreneur, recognizing a trend when he spotted one, tried selling Springpatch T-shirts adorned with the Old Capitol dome peeking above a field of corn.

 

Neighborhoods still have names, of course, but nowadays they're named more often by the people who build them than the people who live in them. The names—Brentwood, Knox Knolls, Timberlane, Georgetown Colony—have no resonance, no echoes of place about them, only the dull thunk of Formica; they are as stripped of personality as the places they denote.

 

I am pleased to report, therefore, that place-naming is not an entirely forgotten art in the Capital City. Citizens who regularly take the evening air at Washington Park know that the parking area across from the rose garden at the foot of Carillon Hill is routinely taken over by packs of youths of the sort they would not want their children to marry. They are loud and frequently higher than the bass bell on the carillon, and they've driven a lot of people, especially older folks, out of the park.

 

I learned the other day, quite inadvertently, that the spot has been christened by local high schoolers. They refer to it by a name that's both metaphorically and sociologically apt—the Rats' Nest.

 

I hope somebody writes that down. ●

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. 

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. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

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