By Ken Bradbury
It was a patronage job, pure and simple. I was a poor college student, I contacted my Democrat committee person and I got a summer job working for the State of Illinois in Springfield. In fact, I did this for two years in a row, first working at the Illinois State Library then in “physical services” in the Centennial Building. These were the Paul Powell days when a state worker making $500 a month would have to pay $300 for a Secretary of State fundraiser. I’m glad there’s no such hocus-pocus in government today. And by the way, “physical services” meant that you carried and lifted things.
However, I did develop a fondness for the Centennial Building in Springfield. I think they call it the Howlett Building now, but the cornerstone was laid on the 100th anniversary of the Illinois statehood. To celebrate our hundredth birthday we built a fine building that’s still standing and very much in use. To celebrate our 200th birthday a minister is going to bless a bunch of motorcycles at the VFW/Foxhole Pub and Grub in Lincoln, Illinois.
Okay, the state will have a few more celebratory events, but the bike blessing is pretty much typical of the effort the state is putting out to commemorate our 200th birthday. Bottom line: the state is broke, they’re not going to spend any money on this, the planning started much too late, and if you want to hold you own event that’s fine. Just tell the state and they’ll put in on their website and call it theirs.
A few of our other “exciting” bicentennial events: kids in Sangamon County will donate pennies to buy a $15,000 Lincoln artifact, a book containing his certification to become a lawyer. An ISU professor will give a speech about the state. The Illinois Institute of Technology will hold a walking tour. Lake Forest will host a walking tour of their Triangle Park. The Polish will hold an Independence Banquet in Niles, Illinois. You can take another walking tour of Crab Tree Farm in Lake Bluff, Illinois. In May there’ll be a seminar on the railroads, postal services and roads of the state. Beyer Stadium in Rockford will hold a Home Run Derby. Chicago will hold a Dragon Boat Race. The Decatur Quilters will have a celebration; in July Chicago will host “The Remarkable Indonesia Fair.” And the list unfortunately goes on and tediously on.
In other words, the state is doing its last-minute under-funded best to throw things together to make it look like a celebration. And all this to applaud a state that has produced four U.S. Presidents plus writers such as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, Edgar Rice Burrows, Vachel Lindsay, Scott Turow, Shel Silverstein, Ray Bradbury, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and about a hundred others. Add to this a few others who made their mark on the world …folks like Jack Benny, Jane Addams, Black Hawk, William Jennings Bryan, Jimmy Conners, John Chancellor, Miles Davis, Walt Disney, Harrison Ford, Benny Goodman, Charlton Heston, Quincy Jones, Will Bill Hickock, Burl Ives, Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, and my personal favorite, Raquel Welch.
Before you beat me to it by mentioning the obvious, I know that the surest way to foul up a project is to turn it over to the government, but darn it, couldn’t we have done better? The story of Illinois, the story of any state, is of its people, and those people have wonderful, fascinating, encouraging stories to tell. There are farmers living in our Central Illinois area right now who are farming the very ground where their ancestors first broke the prairie sod. They have stories. The first Polish to come to Chicago were noblemen fleeing the Polish-Russian War, what followed was a wave of Polish immigrants that became one of the most successful groups of entrepreneurs in our nation’s history. The first coal discovered in the United States was stumbled upon by Marquette and Joliet on the banks of the Illinois River. Two hundred years later the region just south of Jacksonville fueled the nation supporting the Civil War efforts and the expansion of America via the railroads. Some of our nation’s most dramatic labor struggles took place within driving distance of Jacksonville and there are still people alive who can tell the stories. I wish they would. Perhaps the most overlooked group of people in our state’s history were the women …the mothers and housewives …who accompanied their families to this land composed only of prairie grass, extreme heat, killing cold, and plain hard work. They raised huge families in spite of high infant mortality, they made homes out of practically nothing, they worked alongside their pioneer husbands, and often died at an early age. These women broke the first path across this land celebrating 200 years of statehood.
I hope the folks in Rockford enjoy their Home Run Derby and that the Harley Davidson’s of Lincoln get duly and truly blessed, but …I don’t know …can’t we try a bit harder to celebrate the birthday of the Prairie State?