Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In the middle of the middle of the Middle West

Those of us with ties to the 44 or so Illinois counties lying between I-70 and I-80 have received a gift, but we don't all know it yet. Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois, by my friend and onetime colleague James Krohe Jr., comes closer to unriddling the riddle of the Midwest than anything else I've seen. How is it that a place so bland has such a violent history and uncertain future? 

One way to begin to understand the past is not to blink at it. The author accurately compares the "removal" of Native Americans to recent episodes of "ethnic cleansing at its most ruthless." Similarly in agriculture: "Most of the prairie was  simply destroyed to get at the soils that lay beneath it"; what remains is appropriately preserved in tiny pioneer cemeteries.

The book's eleven chapters proceed both chronologically and thematically, keeping close to the ground. We learn that Decatur was the hub of railroad Illinois, selling more tickets than Chicago or St. Louis; that it took four days for Canton's abandoned International Harvester factory complex to burn down; that the Corn Belt Liberty League did not survive farm prosperity. (The attempted academic renaissance of midwestern studies should do this well.)

There is no slack water here; the author is always thinking. "On a memorable night in 1895, the Fulton County courthouse in Lewistown was burned to the ground as the last act in a bitter county seat war between that town and Canton. The incident provided material for several of Edgar Lee Masters's poems, making it one of the few times county government has inspired readable verse."

And he earns the epilogue, a reflection on the barely casual interest in the region's past that allowed Galesburg's first settlers' "Log City" and the massive World War II Camp Ellis in Fulton County to be obliterated. "The mid-Illinois landscape is peopled with spirits of these forgotten people and places and things . . . Old interurban and streetcar tracks still run through many a Main Street, buried beneath newer paving; where streets are worn, the rails sometimes are exposed, like the bones sticking out of a grave."

For those with roots south of the Quad Cities and north of Alton, this is a must-have. Others may find it a model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Krohe writes weekly in Springfield's Illinois Times and there provides a better biographical background than his publisher. His roots in mid-Illinois go back two centuries. "How does one find oneself turned around, looking backwards rather than forwards the way a real American should? I can say honestly that it was not my fault. My ancestors lured me into it."

Monday, August 14, 2017

Where to arrange to have your ancestors buried

One of my 32 great-great-great grandparents (my mother's father's father's mother's father, ~1771-1822) turns out to have been buried in Mound View Cemetery, which overlooks the town of Mount Vernon, county seat of Knox County, Ohio. I recommend that you arrange to have yours buried there too, if possible. Let me count the ways:

* Twenty-five years ago the local chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society completed readings of all the county cemeteries, including checks against the burial records (which picked up one of my relatives, the last of her line -- evidently nobody was left to add her name to the stone).

* The resulting two-volume cemetery compilation includes maps at two (sometimes three) different scales including lot numbers and owners' names.

* The cemetery roads themselves have the section numbers painted on them, so it is possible to find a given grave marker without hiking for miles.

Another excellent place to be buried, for similar reasons, is Erie, Pennsylvania. What's your favorite?

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Back to the future in a self-driving car

Nobody knows what genealogy will be like in 2117. But three weeks from today, at the BCG luncheon at FGS Pittsburgh, you can hear some things I think might happen. It's not all good news but some of it could be funny.

Benjamin Franklin supposedly asked to be waked up every 100 years to be told what was going on. Is he just as glad we didn't?