In 1834 Jacksonville was the largest city in the state of Illinois. Yes, bigger than Chicago in the pre-Cubs days. Then a few other things started happening. The Potawatomi Indians were driven through town on the trail of death, colleges and state schools started springing up along with a mental hospital, Abe Lincoln spoke against slavery on the downtown square, the Beatles albums started pouring out of Capitol Records, and Garth Brooks came to lunch with 1000 close friends to thank them for turning out 50 million of his records. In the span of 170 years we went from a 160-acre tract of land in the middle of the Morgan County Wilderness to “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places.”
And in case statistics excites you, the females outnumber the town’s males by 10 to 9, and there are 4174 families residing within Jacksonville’s borders. The average Jacksonvillian is 37 years old, a statistic that will no doubt depress most who read this.
Our town’s notable citizens include the father of modern dentistry, the inventor of Braille printing devices, a famous geneticist, one of the nation’s first botanists, the co-founder of Panavision for the movies, a CNN reporter, two Civil War generals, a three-time Presidential candidate, the Missouri State Treasurer, an ambassador to Denmark and Iceland, the governor of the Montana territory, our 13th governor, a goodly number of Congresspersons, a pro golfer on the PGA tour, professional baseballers with the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Cardinals, Minnesota Twins, New York Giants, St. Louis Brown, Pittsburgh Pirates, a bronze medalist in the Olympics, and the guy who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw. Not bad for a town that still can’t get its traffic lights timed out properly on Morton Avenue.
And like all towns our size, there are bits of weirdness in our history and a few things we’d like to forget. . . African-American citizens relegated to the balcony of the Illinois Theatre or the back section of the Times. . . . a city council that took all the power away from the mayor when he turned out to be a Democrat. . . citizens of a certain color being served from a side window only of a soda shop on the square. . .a Presbyterian minister who’d have to leave town on Sunday mornings via side streets since members of certain churches would throw rocks at his horse because of his abolitionist sermons. . . . “Loony Cruising,” when high school boys would drive around the grounds of the State Hospital to shout derogatory remarks at the residents. We’ve had our dark moments. It comes from being human.
It all came into perspective to me on a recent evening as I was waiting for my cast to arrive for a rehearsal at the Playhouse on the Square. A man of about my age rounded the corner of the old Elliot Bank building with his two young grandchildren. The fellow asked about the theatre and various other new constructions on the square and I tried to help him out with my limited knowledge. He told me, “I grew up in Jacksonville but I’ve been in San Diego for most of my life.” He’d come back with his family for a visit and on that night he was showing his grandkids the square where he used to hang out in the 1960’s. “It’s changed so much. . . really nice,” he said. He pointed to a spot on the Farmers Bank side of the square and said, “That’s where the girls always parked so that’s where we’d cruise. The shoppers were mainly here on the east side of the square but on the west end. . . that was the teenagers’ hangout.”
I walked across the street to show him the recently installed memorials to the Constitution and a tree planted in honor of one of my favorite ladies, retiring Lincoln Land star Jan Terry. He said, “When I left town the place was sort of beginning to collapse. I had no idea all this was happening.” He’d just driven in from the west and noted, “Back then the town ended at Massey Lane. Somebody’s built a whole new town west of there now.” I saw my actors pulling up and told him I had to run. He thanked me for my “official” tour and before we parted he said, “But most of all I remember the people. I guess that’s what sticks with you.”
We had a good rehearsal but more than once that evening I found my mind drifting back to my conversation with the fellow. The people. I guess that’s what sticks with you. And those people, those relationships, are something we can continue to build and strengthen without government grants, tax referendums, new buildings or construction. That, in essence, is our town.