Illinois’ bicentennial year is less than 17 months away, but the state hasn’t yet made any plans to celebrate.
In 1918, amid enthusiastic statewide celebrations of Illinois’ centennial anniversary of statehood, Vachel Lindsay wrote The Golden Book of Springfield, in which he looked ahead a century to imagine a utopian vision of Springfield in 2018.
Reading the Golden Book in 2014 inspired Lisa Higgs of Springfield, president of the Vachel Lindsay Association, to start thinking about the future of Springfield herself, and about the approaching Illinois bicentennial. As the former board relations manager for the director of the Minnesota Historical Society, she was heavily involved with that institution’s preparations for the Minnesota Sesquicentennial celebration of 2008. In Minnesota, planning for the sesquicentennial began three years in advance of the celebration.
So Higgs waited, figuring that plans to celebrate the Illinois bicentennial in 2018 would be announced in due time.
By the fall of 2015, “it became apparent that there was nothing being coordinated,” Higgs said. So Higgs rolled up her sleeves and created an ad hoc bicentennial planning commission in Springfield. “There have been lots of groups meeting [about the bicentennial], all waiting to see what happens at the state level, but our group decided that we are a year and a half out, and we need to get moving,” she said.
In May 2014, Gov. Pat Quinn signed an executive order establishing a statewide Illinois Bicentennial Commission. A press release put out at that time by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency indicated that the commission would “plan and coordinate events, activities, publications, digital media and other developments and encourage citizen participation at all levels in every community in the state.”
With a gubernatorial administration change in 2015 and the current state budget impasse, however, the Illinois Bicentennial Commission has been dormant. Meanwhile, organizers at the city and county level throughout Illinois have been aware that the clock is ticking.
Planning for statewide bicentennial celebrations often begins years in advance to allow sufficient time to create a strategic plan, find fundraising and develop initiatives. In Indiana, which celebrates its bicentennial this year, its Bicentennial Commission has been meeting every six weeks since January of 2012. Texas, which celebrates its bicentennial in 2036, has already begun planning.
“In the local history world we’ve been talking about how far behind we are,” said Dr. Devin Hunter, assistant professor of history at University of Illinois Springfield.
William Furry of Springfield, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, agreed. “At the statewide level, the state of Illinois has been very remiss in getting the word out, designing a logo or getting people engaged in any meaningful way. There’s still a lot that can be done, but we need to see some real action, some real leadership that we can rally behind.”
There have been some encouraging signs from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum with the hire of a new director and an Illinois State Historian. When asked about that institution’s plans for the bicentennial, however, Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency communications director Chris Wills declined to comment.
Furry noted that many groups are waiting for a signal from the governor’s office before they begin moving forward with bicentennial plans. “They don’t want to get something going only to have the rug pulled out from under them,” he said.
According to the governor’s office, plans for the bicentennial are underway. The administration is planning for a year-long celebration between December 2017 and December 2018. A website, logo and events calendar are currently under development, and the Bicentennial Commission will be named soon.
“The Illinois Bicentennial celebration will recognize the many cultural, economic, academic and political contributions that Illinois and our residents have made to the nation and the world since our admission to the Union. The celebration will bring together our communities, businesses and civic and academic leaders to honor our history and celebrate everything Illinois has to offer. Residents and visitors will be inspired, educated, entertained and amazed as they experience our celebration personally and virtually. Bicentennial events will promote Illinois as a destination for tourism and encourage Illinois residents to explore their home state,” a spokesperson said.
The history of Illinois statehood
The bicentennial provides an unparalleled opportunity to celebrate the rich history of Illinois and its people, a history that spans more than 10,000 years. The first human inhabitants to this area arrived between 10,000-8,000 B.C. Nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers gave way to more villages of the Woodland Indian culture around 500 B.C. The Mississippian culture, which flourished between 900-1500 A.D., was one of the most complex societies in the world. Its largest urban center, Cahokia, was located near present-day Collinsville. With 40,000 residents at its peak, Cahokia was the largest and most sophisticated prehistoric civilization north of Mexico.
Besieged by increasing warfare and disease, Mississippian cultural dominance of Illinois waned, and by 1250 most of the residents of Cahokia had dispersed. Illinois was sparsely populated by nomadic native peoples when the first European explorers, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, arrived in 1673. Between the late 17th century and 1784, the Illinois Territory passed through the control of the French and British before becoming territory of the newly independent United States of America.
Between 1787 and 1818, the present-day Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory, the Indiana Territory and the Illinois Territory, respectively. Poor transportation networks, the presence of Native Americans and political uncertainty during the War of 1812 initially discouraged settlement. In 1810, the federal census revealed only 12,800 people (excluding Native Americans) living in the territory.
After the war drew to a close in 1815, however, a flood of settlers poured into Illinois, drawn by the abundance of land made available by the federal government on favorable terms. By that time many of the native tribes had been forced westward and the advent of the steamboat made travel easier, so the European-American population of the territory nearly tripled.
By the time Illinois officially became the 21st state of the Union on Dec. 3, 1818, it was home to more than 40,000 people. Most of these were migrants from the South or Upland South who traveled west along the Ohio River. Illinois’ 15 counties were concentrated in the southern portion of the state. The hub of the state’s commercial activity was Shawneetown; the new capital city, Vandalia, 80 miles south of present-day Springfield, was the northernmost town in the state.
The vast majority of migrants to Illinois were drawn by the promise of land, the importance of which cannot be overstated during this period of American history. Cheap western land was the vehicle that drove the economy of the early republic. It provided an avenue to independence and advancement otherwise unattainable in the east. The early settlers to Illinois were movers and shakers, people of energy and vision who began new lives in a new state in the hope of improving their lives. Over the coming centuries they would build canals and railroads, interstates and airports, schools and skyscrapers, in the continuing quest to fulfill that initial promise of a better life rooted in the state’s rich soil.
Every 50 years since 1818, Illinois has celebrated the admission of the state into the Union. By 1868, Springfield had been the capital of Illinois for more than 30 years. The 50-year anniversary of statehood was marked by a grand parade culminated by laying the cornerstone for the present Illinois State Capitol building, which replaced the structure now known as the Old State Capitol. The state seal was also revised to include the dates 1818-1868.
Citizens of Illinois in 1918 were proud of their state’s accomplishments and optimistic about its future. The state’s population by then numbered over six million, and agriculture and industry were thriving. The Illinois Centennial Celebration spanned the entire year and included hundreds of events throughout the state. Highlights include the erection of the Illinois Centennial Monument in Chicago; construction of the Centennial Building (now called the Howlett Building) at the corner of Second and Edwards streets in Springfield; placement of statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas at the Capitol Building; publication of a six-volume Centennial History of Illinois; an elaborate pageant staged at the fairgrounds, and the creation of a centennial flag.
The 1968 the Illinois Sesquicentennial was observed with more than 3,000 celebrations throughout the state. Gov. Otto Kerner unveiled a sesquicentennial flag. The Chicago Bulls wore special sesquicentennial patches. And in August, the Old State Capitol building was rededicated after having been rebuilt and restored at a cost of more than $6.5 million.
The future of the bicentennial
Planning for the Illinois Centennial Celebration of 1918 began three years before the event. A strategic plan was presented to the General Assembly in March of 1915 with the warning that “immediate action” was necessary for the celebration’s success.
Today, with less than 17 months remaining until the start of the bicentennial year, grassroots organizations have sprung up throughout the state to plan events in advance of activity from the Illinois Bicentennial Commission.
Under Furry’s direction, the Illinois State Historical Society is planning to release special, bicentennial-themed issues of its publication Illinois Heritage and the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. It also plans to host a Bicentennial Trivia Night for representatives of every county in the state to meet and share the history of their area.
In southern Illinois, 40 counties have joined together to form the South 40 Illinois Bicentennial Celebration Commission. Executive committee member Pete Houseman said that planning began this past April.
“We kept waiting to hear something from the state Bicentennial Commission and we didn’t hear anything, and we realized we were running out of planning time so we started working on our own. We hope the rest of the state will catch up with us,” he said.
The South 40 coalition’s bicentennial plans span three years between 2018-2020 and include writing, art, photography and filmmaking challenges; traveling trunks of artifacts for use in schools; fifth-grade genealogy activities; six major, hands-on projects throughout the area and an exploration of the “Thug Run” corridor of US 51 that Chicago gangsters followed to the southern part of the state during the Prohibition era.
In Springfield, Higgs has been instrumental in the formation of the Illinois Bicentennial Coordinating Committee. Comprised of local citizens with an interest in Springfield’s history, the IBCC plans to coordinate a series of six to 12 public lecture/discussions on a variety of themes that explore the past, present and future of Illinois.
The larger goal of the IBCC, however, is to reach out to representatives from local arts organizations, schools, museums and businesses to get them thinking about ways that they could honor the state’s bicentennial.
“We’re going to serve as a communication hub to help people come up with ideas of ways to celebrate and to put people in contact with each other,” said Higgs. “We don’t want to supersede the state commission, but once it’s in place we’ll be organized and ready to help.”
Inspired by Vachel Lindsay’s Golden Book, the group is particularly excited about challenging people to dream of a vision for the state’s future.
“We hope that Springfield citizens will want to write their own, new Golden Book – not only honoring our shared past but celebrating where we are today and considering the best possible future for Springfield in 2118,” said Higgs.
The IBCC has worked with the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln to establish the Illinois Bicentennial Celebration Fund, which will support projects and activities in Springfield that celebrate the Bicentennial of Illinois in 2018.
“The Community Foundation is thrilled to be a small part of a significant grassroots effort aimed at making this anniversary truly meaningful for Illinoisans,” said Stacy Reed, vice president for programs at the Community Foundation. “The bicentennial is a great cause for celebration, and we applaud this local committee for taking the lead in planning efforts.”
Members of the IBCC report a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement for the bicentennial among the groups they’ve talked to in Springfield.
IBCC co-chair Pam van Alstine said, “Already, our volunteer committee has been overwhelmed by the amount of community interest in making Springfield’s contribution to the Illinois bicentennial worthy of the state’s capital. It goes without saying that the Springfield area’s history is really representative of America’s story. It can all be found right here on our doorstep.”
When exactly is the bicentennial?
A frequent topic for discussion among groups planning bicentennial activities is “which day, specifically, do we celebrate?” The answer is not clear cut; Illinois experienced a series of significant milestones on the way to statehood:
Jan. 16, 1818: Delegates from the Illinois Territory submit a petition to Congress for statehood.
April 18, 1818: President James Monroe signed the bill enabling the people of the Illinois Territory to form a constitution and state government for admission as a state of the union.
Aug. 26, 1818: Illinois adopts its first constitution.
Oct. 6, 1818: Illinois’ first governor, Shadrach Bond, is inaugurated.
Dec. 3, 1818: A resolution to admit Illinois to the Union as the 21st state was signed by President James Monroe.
Writer and historian Erika Holst is the author of Wicked Springfield: Crime, Corruption, and Scandal During the Lincoln Era and Edwards Place: A Springfield Treasure.
To contribute to the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln’s Bicentennial fund, donors may visit www.cfll.org or mail contributions to the CFLL office at 205 S. 5th St. Suite 930, Springfield, IL 62701. If donating by mail, be sure to indicate that your contribution is for the “Illinois Bicentennial Celebration Fund.”