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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004 05:03 pm

An eye for detail brings old Decatur to life

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Decatur: Images of America By Dan Guillory Arcadia Publishing, July 2004, 128 pages, $19.99

One hundred years ago, you could get more than a drink of water on Decatur's Water Street. As Dan Guillory notes in Decatur, a photographic history of Springfield's neighbor to the east, the thoroughfare afforded rye whiskey for the thirsty, new soles for those who were down at the heels, and a little extra cash by way of the pawnbroker. This look at a central Illinois town is part of the Images of America series published by Arcadia Press. Guillory, who recently retired after many years as a professor of English at Millikin University, has taken great care in telling Decatur's story, selecting some 200 archival photographs from many sources. The result is a unique collection that offers an informative snapshot of an archetypal Midwestern city.

The town was named for Stephen Decatur, a hero of the War of 1812 who is best remembered for saying, "Our country, right or wrong." Though Decatur had no ties to its namesake, it often saw a more famous hero in its midst. No Illinois whistle stop, let alone a metropolis of Decatur's size, would be complete without references to Abraham Lincoln's presence in its history. Our 16th president spent his first (and probably his worst) winter just outside Decatur, on the banks of the Sangamon River, in 1830-31. He would return to the town many times as a lawyer on the 8th Circuit, and it was in Decatur's Central Park that he would accept the nomination for president. Richard Ogelsby, Decatur's favorite son and a three-term governor, was there that night, and he would also be the last person to touch the living Lincoln.

Many of the faces peering out from this particular portrait of a city were to become well known as its movers and shakers. But I found myself more drawn to the faces of ordinary men and women who shaped the town in ways its more famous citizens did not. The young woman smiling widely despite herself in a photograph of a family sitting for a formal photograph in 1905, when the camera demanded stern demeanors, speaks volumes to the kind of folks who shaped the spirit of the Midwest. That Guillory notes this small detail speaks to his poetic eye.

I learned much about Decatur in these pages. I am quite willing to admit that as a Springfield native I have been guilty of an unearned sense of superiority toward Decatur. I am happy to report that I had no idea, before reading this book, how inventive Decatur's populace has been over the years. In fact, I am compelled to admit that Springfield's cozy dog pales in comparison to Decatur's cornflakes, roller skates, paint-by-number kits, and flyswatters. Let's also not forget that Decatur is known as the soybean capital of the world. (Yes, I would rather eat a horseshoe sandwich than a soy burger, but in the long run I must admit that soybeans affect the country's economy in ways cheese sauce never will.)

Perhaps the most lasting impression this book will leave is its record of places now known only in memory. Like most of the country's cities, Decatur has lost many of its architectural treasures to the wrecking ball. Collections such as this one will forever keep the memory of those spaces and the people who lived in them alive. Dan Guillory's Decatur is an important book for that reason -- and it is also important for the sheer pleasure it gives to those who enjoy stepping back into a time we see, if only through the lens of nostalgia, as less complicated than the one in which we live.

Dan Guillory will be at the Springfield Barnes & Noble at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 9, to sign his book.

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