In our daily activities, the common place things we use and see have some quality that is interesting and oftentimes fascinating. I look for the interesting everyday and what I find I write about here. Thanks for visiting and I hope you find something of interest on these pages. Please be aware that the writing here is solely the opinion of the author and pairs well with the following beverages: a pint of the dark delicious from England, a tall clay stein full of the Bavarian bubble, or a cut glass tumbler of the smoky Islay goodness from Scotland. – Chef Greg
Home of the Beacon
Prairie Beacon is writing to you from the Midwest Archipelago, a string of small cities stretched across central Illinois’ vast and flat landscape. Each one is an island of urbanity in an ocean of corn and soybeans.
There are five islands; Champaign/Urbana on the east end, Bloomington/Normal and Peoria in the middle region, and Springfield and Decatur at the southern side. They are on the outer reach of the cultural tide that flows down from Chicago into the northern islands and the cultural currents of St. Louis that flows into the southern islands. By one attribute or another, they seem to have attained and maintained that critical mass of population that set the foundation for a city to support a developed culture and a viable economy of its own.
The island I am most familiar with is Peoria, having spent over twenty years living on the tree-lined streets of the Arbor District after I left New York.
Peoria is the oldest of all the islands in the chain, as the following timeline will show.
1691 – Three French explorers establish a trading post on the Illinois River. To put that in the American settlement timelline, the Dutch founded New York City in 1624, Chicago was founded in 1837, the Mob founded Las Vegas in 1938 and the sandy wilds of Long Island, New York, was settled in 1947 with the establishment of Levitown – could not have been settled before the cityfolk arrived.
1832 – German native Andrew Eitle establishes a brewery on the Illinois River. Peoria is on its way to becoming the brewing and distilling capital of the world. In its production heyday, the city would be the highest tax revenue area for the federal government – bar none.
1830s – Soon after, stockyards are built – cattle and pigs are fed on the grain discarded from the breweries and distilleries. By the 1850s, the city is experiencing explosive growth.
1860s – The manufacturing of heavy equipment is established when Martin Kingman and Robert Hanneman Avery returned from the Civil War and pursue careers in the production and sale of farm implements. There, companies would become nationally and internationally recognized in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
1876 – The sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis open a hospital in Peoria. By early 2000, the Peoria hospital increases to a 700-bed capacity and a statewide network of hospitals and healthcare providers employing over 23,000 people.
1889 – Retired farmer and tinkerer Peter Sommer starts manufacturing woven wire fencing under the name of Keystone, now Keystone Wire and Cable. “Horse High, Pig Tight, Bull Strong” will be adopted as its slogan. It is one of the largest wire mills in the world. Keystone has been bought out by an Indian conglomerate and the name changed to Liberty Steel.
1910 – Benjamin Holt sets up a tractor manufacturing facility with 17 employees. This is the beginnings of the modern-day Caterpillar Inc., currently a Fortune 100 corporation employing 100,000 people worldwide.
At its core, Peoria has the character of a traditional, slightly faded, factory town with an undercurrent of big city popular culture in the under-thirty crowd. For the most part, life is centered around work, family and an enthusiastic pursuit of the ‘American’ sports – basketball, football, and baseball. That enthusiasm is evident from spectator attendance at every age level, right into the big leagues. But this city also has music, dance and live theater productions that often reach a level of talent only found in the largest urban centers.
Bloomington/Normal is much different in character than Peoria. It is a conservative, white-collar farm town wrapped around the progressive culture of a state university school campus and the youthful exuberance of its 22,000 students. In some ways it reminds me of the small, prosperous cities and bedroom communities on the eastern seaboard.
It rose out of the prairie grass and oak tree groves in 1830 by an act of government creating the county seat of newly formed McClean county. However, no one confirmed where to locate the new town until a local farmer, James Allin, offered 60 acres of his farm on which to build it. The adjacent town of Normal was more of a business venture established by a Quaker lawyer and real estate investor from Pennsylvania named Jesse W. Fell. The original school that became Illinois State University was located there at the time of the founding. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state. Every year, both towns are flooded with the daily routines of those 22,000 thousand students.
In 1922, another agronomist would play a major part in creating the present-day character of Bloomington/Normal. Retired farmer George J. Mecherle would establish State Farm Insurance with the goal of provide auto insurance to other farmers through a mutual insurance company owned by its policy holders. In less than 80 years, it would become the largest property, casualty and auto insurance provider in the country and the city’s largest employer.
Next on the list is the first southern island in the Archipelago: Decatur. The personality of this metropolis has been shaped by heavy industry, and lately, its struggles against a steep economic decline. Decatur’s industry base is rapidly shrinking and the population with it. The percentage of those living under the poverty level is 22%, the second highest in the archipelago with Champaign/Urbana at a whopping 26.5% combined. This grim economic picture casts a long shadow over many quarters of the city, its leadership notwithstanding. But over the last decade Howard Buffet, son of the investment titan Warren Buffet, has pumped $55 million into the city and the surrounding area to stem the tide of culture and infrastructure decay.
The ever-present sense of struggle in this city is manifested in the citizenry in two distinct attitudes. Some people have accepted this state of decline and a large portion of them have left town, yet many have not given up and find positive opportunities in the idle wreckage, both physical and human.
I will say this about Decatur’s online presences for historical material. What articles I could find were scattered far and wide. Searching the other cities turned up an overabundance of facts, figures and antidotes on the first page of results. Without spending an hours searching, I only learned two things about Decatur’s past: the origin of its name and what prominent business had failed.
Now we move on to the Champaign/Urbana portion of the archipelago. In all my visits to that cozy little island, I can only describe it as a small city sharing space with a big university and a twenty first century high speed, hand held, hip-happenin’, crowd sourcing, chatbot infiltrated, virtual, cloud-based tech community.
Really, it is another city created by an act of government. The Champaign half of the island was formed in 1855 when the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill creating the Illinois Central Railroad. When the railroad laid track down the middle of the state to connect Chicago with New Orleans, Champaign was incorporated to take advantage of this new form of transportation.
The Urbana half of the island was created by an act of government that located the seat of newly formed Champaign county in 1833. That was ten years after the first European settlers moved to the area. Land for the town was donated by two local farmers, William T. Webber, and Col. M.W. Busey.
In 1868, the island was selected as the site for a new state agricultural school, Illinois Industrial University, which would evolve into the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When it opened, it had 77 students; now it has 51,000 students. Even though it has the highest percentage of citizens at or below the poverty level, I did not get the same sense of despair for the economic situation as I did in Decatur. Maybe it gets covered over by the daily routine of all those students rushing around in pursuit of their bright and promising futures.
The last island on the list is the state capital where supersize government spending and the ever increasing undertows of tax revenues from every corner of the realm converge. Springfield reminds me of a smaller version of Washington D.C., but without the international culture component. It’s the Midwestern version of Washington D.C. and home of the 2,054 calorie horse shoe sandwich. That says a lot about the town as well as its appetite.
Much like Peoria, Springfield’s first European settlers were French trappers and fur traders. They arrived in 1818, followed by the first permanent settler, Elisa Kelly, in 1819. In 1821, Springfield became the county seat. Then in 1839, it was designated as the capital of the state, thanks to the efforts of Lincoln and his crowd ‘The Long Nine’.
Since 2009, the city’s capital building has been the laboratory conducting an experiment titled “How to Collapse the Fiscal Structure of State Government” – and I thought New York had proficiency in that skill set!
Sometimes I look at these islands, that sprawling ocean of green and that wide sky above, as the landscape of a self-imposed exile. But it is the landscape of opportunity as well. It has also taught me that life is what you make of it where you make it! For that, I am grateful.
For a map of the Archipelago, see below.