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Virginia Makes the Big Time

A Cass County town goes dry; the world notices

Illinois Times

April 22, 1977

More proof, if anyone needs it, that you never know what might happen if you sit down for a cup of coffee and some pie.


Periodically, the ways in which news is gathered and reported becomes as much a subject of controversy as the news itself. The processes by which facts are transformed into news are mysterious, arcane, something the wise man just accepts without trying to understand, like particle physics or aerosol cheese spread. It's just as well. Sometimes people wouldn't believe us if we told them.


Allow me to explain. For over a year now I have been tracing the histories of my ancestors. That clan first settled in Cass County in the 1830s, and I, hot on their trail, bused myself over to the county seat at Virginia one bright day last November to do some digging in the county records. It's dry work, and after a couple of hours I was sorely in need of refreshment:l hauled myself back into the twentieth century and headed toward the Virginia Inn, a restaurant on the east side of the square. I'd never dined there, but I knew the place by reputation and guessed (rightly, as it turned out) that it would be a nice place to grab a cup of coffee.


Arriving, I noticed a handwritten sign taped to the door. It read, "Due to water shortage, no water served unless asked for." Water shortage? Never heard of it. I knew mid-lllinois was drier than a legislator on Sunday morning, of course, but I wasn't then aware that any place was in such dire straits that conservation measures had become necessary.


A copy of the local paper, the Virginia Gazette-Times, filled in the details with admirable thoroughness. Before the day was out I'd talked with the water works superintendent, the mayor and several townspeople and taken a few pictures. Quicker than you can say, "The boys on the bus," I had my story.


The piece ran in the December 3–9, 1976, issue of Illinois Times under the front-page headline, "The Vanishing Reservoir: Yes, Virginia, There Is a Drought." It was a fair story, but it owed as much to my ancestors' choice of homeland and the civic consciousness of the Virginia Inn's manager as to any journalistic savvy on my part.


"Those things happen," I hear you say. True. In fact, this particular thing happened twice. Eight or nine weeks after my Virginia drought story appeared in Illinois Times, Bob Secter, Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Daily News, was told by his editors to do a Downstate drought story; the story would eventually run along with a related national story, linked by a common headline that read, "Calamity spreads across a parched land." A few days later Secter and his photographer found themselves in Jacksonville. His Springfield staff had suggested that Petersburg or Rushville might be likely subjects for such a piece. But, in order to get to either place from Jacksonville, they had to drive through Virginia. This they did, and, as weary travelers along that road often do, they stopped at—you guessed it—the Virginia Inn. Entering the restaurant, they noticed the same handwritten sign I'd spotted two months previously. "Here," Secter remembers saying to himself, "is our drought story." A couple of interviews and few phone calls later and Secter had his story.


So it was that the town of Virginia, a town that, in its water problems anyway, differed little if at all from dozens of towns like it across the Midwest, found itself again on a newspaper front page, this time in the February 19 city editions (and two days later in the state edition) of the Daily News, in a story telling how Virginians were coping with “the latest crisis to buckle down on the nation's Farm Belt."


But wait. Virginia's fame, already spread across three states, was to grow even more. An alert staffer at Time magazine in New York noticed the Daily News story. Time was putting together a drought story of their own, slotted for the March 7 editions, and the plight of poor Virginia was a natural for it. A phone call or two to Karyl Findley of the Gazette-Times to verify the essentials of Secter's story and — presto!—Virginia was in the big time, or more properly the big Time. “In Virginia, Ill. (pop. 1,800), the town reservoir has only a thirty-day supply of water left, " said Time. Lee Reynolds shut down his car wash. The local laundromat was about to close—but it burned down first."


As Craig Findley, publisher of the Gazette-Times, wrote on March 10, "If rainfall was as abundant as national and regional news coverage, Virginia would be free of its water troubles."


Virginia had gone from obscurity to something like stardom in three months, all because of a handwritten sign taped to the door of a local cafe. That sign put Virginia on the map. I'm not one to tell other people their business, but Virginia ought to bronze that sign, if it's still there; if it isn't maybe they could bronze an empty water glass or something. Some kind of memorial is called for. □




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.

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