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Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 08:25 am

Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer

 More on the subject of local histories: Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer wrote a history of Sangamon County titled The Sangamo Country. I don’t recall if it was commissioned by or merely published by the District 186 Board of Education, but publish it the board did. The book was aimed at 8th graders, less to inform them of their history, I suspect, than to inculcate a sense of pride that is assumed to be the basis of patriotic sentiment.

It’s easy to sneer at parts of it – the prose seems to have been meant to be read aloud to class – but then, it might have been meant to be read out loud to class.

Mrs. Blankmeyer was a helpful lady of the better sort, a physician’s wife with time of her hands who put it to good public purposes. In 1935 she read the complete 35 volumes of minutes of the town board and city council. She summarized the high points in a 100-page “Story of the City Records,” which was  never published and probably ought to be. It offers choice reading on city hall scandals, on the operation of the public market then in operation, and about attempts to cope of recurrent epidemics and bad sanitation in early Springfield.

The material on pubic health she incorporated into in a very good article that was published by the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, and which gives readers a much better sense of her skills that the county history. (The article is “Health Measures in Early Springfield by Helen van Cleave Blankmeyer, in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Vol. 44, No. 4 (Winter,1951), pp. 323-331.)   

Still. Mrs. B was who she was, as we all must be. Ed Russo, late of Lincoln Library and these pages, recalled her in his fine review of Mark Harris’s biography of Vachel Lindsay, City of Discontent. She was among the local patriots who bridled at Harris’s sneers, and undertook to tell him what’s what. “Society matron Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer sent a three-page letter to the director of the city library offering some ‘small assistance in the preparation of any review which you may decide to give Mark Harris’ book,’” wrote Russo in 1993. “She asked that her ‘help,’ which would deal ‘chiefly with discrepancies which the youthful biographer failed to check,’ be used anonymously. She then followed with a numbered list of points showing errors like political boss Billy Lorimer being given a dark mustache when in fact ‘he was a decided Titian blond.’ The letter shows how she patiently read through the book looking for such faults.”

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