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."

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