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Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017 12:10 am

Solid history, entertainingly told

Krohe’s clever prose makes mid-Illinois history almost fun

This photo appears with Krohe’s chapter, “Making the World a Little More Christian,” above the author’s caption: “Evangelist Billy Sunday revives the sagging faith of Springfieldians in his specially built downtown tabernacle, 1909. How many people came for the salvation and how many for the show is impossible to say.”
Photo COURTESY of SANGAMON VALLEY COLLECTION, LINCOLN LIBRARY

 

James Krohe Jr., Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2017.

This work of solid history, entertainingly told, is mistitled, or rather mis-subtitled; it should read: “A Witty and Profound Account of Life in Central Illinois from Prehistoric Times to the Present.” The author, James Krohe Jr., is well known to readers of this publication as a droll commentator on doings in the greater Springfield area, broadly defined.

The reference to “One-Horse Thieves” is taken from an 1865 letter by Robert G. Ingersoll, the prominent 19th-century orator-atheist-politician from Peoria: “I was at Springfield several weeks during the sitting of the Legislature, and I suppose a more scaly set of one-horse thieves and low-lived political tricksters never assembled on earth.”

The new history is by James Krohe Jr., who has been writing for Illinois Times since it was founded in 1975. His column, “Dyspepsiana,” appears weekly on page 3. Over many years he has contributed nearly 1,000 installments for this newspaper.
Photo courtesy of siu press
Krohe’s low opinion of central Illinois politicians crops up regularly throughout this 300-page volume. Republican Congressman Leslie Arends “never let principle interfere with politics.” In recounting how a new state school for the blind was funded, Krohe remarks sardonically: “The General Assembly seldom passed up a chance to discharge its obligations to its dependent citizens on the cheap.” He describes an open-air tabernacle in Springfield where revival meetings were held by the “baseball-playing, hokum-peddling, ‘polygonal preacher’” Billy Sunday: it “stood at First and Adams Streets, only one block from the Satan’s den that was the Illinois statehouse.” In treating the infamous Springfield race riot of 1908, he observes: “The gambling halls and opium dens and whorehouses frequented by white men were untouched by the mobs, while many of the black businesses that were ravaged (such as barbershops) were eminently respectable by the standards of a town that was home to the General Assembly.” Though Chicago is widely regarded as Illinois’ most corrupt locale, Krohe believes central Illinois has caught up with it: “in a political sense, ‘mid-Illinois’ in the 2000s is metropolitan Chicago.”

Krohe ably describes for a general audience the “wrenching transformations” as the region “moved from Indian country to European-American frontier to industrial heartland to colonial outpost of a global service economy.” Covering economic, political, social, religious and intellectual developments, he enlivens his sprightly narrative with sketches of colorful characters (like the Swedish preacher Erik Janson of Bishop Hill), little-known facts (the Mormons’ gigantic second temple at Nauvoo was in use for less than a month), amusing anecdotes (“The state police memorably described the situation around the capital as ‘quiet except for a few scattered bombings’”), and clever asides (“It is doubtful whether antebellum Illinois’ hogs or its drunks did more damage when let loose; towns passed ineffectual ordinances against both.”).

Krohe’s prose bristles with ingenious figures of speech and turns of phrase. “Springfield and Bloomington are like a rascal uncle and his scout leader nephew.”

“A hog’s ability to convert raw corn into pork makes the animal something of a genius.”

“At the Ariston Café in Litchfield, travelers could eat dinner served on white linens, which was like pumping gas while wearing a tux.”

“Paving mid-Illinois’ roads was like reforming its sinners – neither ever stayed reformed for long.”

Written with wry detachment, streaked with affection, Krohe’s book is no exercise in regional cheerleading. The result of the “wrenching transformations,” he concludes, “was a mid-Illinois that by many measures was dull, complacent, cautious, and bland.” Even by Illinois standards, it “can seem like a backwater,” for “the economic, social, and political centers of Illinois have shifted well to the northeast.” It was not always thus: the region enjoyed a heyday between the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Krohe laments that “for most mid-Illinoisans most of the time, the real history of the region has been not a matter of pride or self-identification or curiosity but indifference.” To illustrate his point, he cites the destruction of Indian villages and campsites, of Galesburg’s “Log City,” of mills and dams, of commercial potteries, of the top works of coal mines and mining gob piles, of huge military installations, and of immense ordnance factories. He deplores Springfield’s historical amnesia about “the origins of the city’s ongoing experiment in municipal socialism or the inter-union violence that sparked gun battles between miner factions in the streets of the capital in the 1930s.”

Krohe laments not only what has been forgotten but also what has been “merely overlooked.” He cites the example of the Lincoln Legals project, whose staff unearthed thousands of documents illuminating Lincoln’s long career as an attorney, making possible “major scholarly advances not only in Lincoln studies but also in the history of mid-Illinois and the Midwest.” In a second edition of his fine book, he might also deplore the virtual suspension of the Lincoln Papers project, that for years had scholars successfully excavating mountains of documents at the National Archives in search of new letters written by and to the 16th president.

Michael Burlingame is the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at University of Illinois Springfield. He is author of the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

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