TBT: “Not without thy wondrous story…”

Blues Brothers
When Elwood Blues needed to throw the police off his trail he provided a false address on his drivers’ license renewal. As a result, when State Police showed up to arrest him for one or two (or a few dozen) moving violations, they wound up at 1060 W. Addison in Chicago. That is, he sent them to Wrigley Field.

That scene in the legendary 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers didn’t just happen at the intersection of Clark and Addison. It also occurred at the intersection of the top movie in Illinois history and the state’s top building, as voted on by participants in the Illinois Bicentennial’s Top 200 of Illinois contest.

In honor of our state’s 200th birthday, Illinois and the world have had the opportunity throughout this year to consider the greatness of the state’s first two centuries. From the triumphant to the tragic, Illinois has produced a rich and diverse history.

Every two weeks the Top 200 of Illinois contest, coordinated by the Illinois Bicentennial Commission, has picked a different category from Illinois history and offered a number of choices within that category for voters to choose from. They then compile the top ten favorites and announce the standings.

The result has been a tour through two centuries of Prairie State history, honoring everyone from scientists and entrepreneurs to athletes and entertainers. The contest has provided lots of thought-provoking discussions of events in our state’s past and offered a reminder of the truth of that line in our state song: “Not without thy wondrous story, Illinois, Illinois; Can be writ the nation’s glory.”
A John Deere plow car. Photo from deere.com

Illinois farmers feed the nation and the world. Of course, they don’t do it alone; but Illinois’ leadership role in providing for the planet is boosted by not just those working the fields, but by the innovators who make their bounty possible and the entrepreneurs who get it to the consumers.

Tops in the category of Inventions and Innovations is the steel plow, created by the Illinoisan John Deere in 1837 after the cast-iron plows then used by many farmers proved unequal to the task of breaking through Midwestern soil. His invention made our agricultural renaissance possible, and made Deere a household name, even today. Illinois’ top business is Archer Daniels Midland, the Illinois-based “supermarket to the world,” which is one of the largest agricultural processors on Earth, largely from its facilities in Decatur.

Abraham Lincoln in 1865
When discussing Illinois’ history, it is hard not to think of Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase from his first inaugural, referring to the “mystic chords of memory.” It should not be surprising that our greatest President topped five of the twenty categories in the Top 200. Illinois has many terrific museums and historic sites, literally from one end of the state to the other, but the favorite choices of Top 200 voters were the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield and Lincoln’s New Salem historic site near Petersburg. With his rise from a prairie log cabin to the White House, freeing the slaves and saving the Union along the way, Lincoln was an obvious choice for the top leader in Illinois history.

Lincoln, of course, lived a tragic life, marked by suffering and despair at seemingly every turn. It is fitting that his 1865 assassination at Ford’s Theater in Washington should also lead the list of the most heartbreaking moments in Illinois history. Lincoln’s assassination was also chosen as the top unforgettable moment of the 200 years.

Illinois has been the home of four Presidents, beginning with Lincoln, but also including Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Ronald Reagan and the man chosen by voters as the top minority trailblazer in Illinois history, Barack Obama, who made history in 2008 when he was elected as America’s first African-American President.

Our state song also refers to “thy rivers gently flowing,” and “thy prairies verdant growing.” Illinois is filled with scenic beauty rarely matched anywhere else in the United States. Nowhere is this beauty more favored than voters’ choice as the top scenic spots than the historic village of Elsah near the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Jersey County.

Windows of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago
Illinois is famous for its buildings. Chicago’s original designer, Daniel Burnham, was famously instructed to “make no small plans” for the great city, which came to be known years later as the “City of Big Shoulders” thanks to the poet Carl Sandburg. Wrigley Field beat out several other famous structures for the top building title, but no great building gets off the ground without first being visualized by a great architect. The style known as the “Prairie School” of architecture came from the mind of the man selected at the top of Illinois’s Artists and Architects category, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright has famous buildings throughout the nation, including the Dana Thomas House in Springfield.

One place where Illinois has unquestionably left its mark on America and the world is in the field of entertainment and culture. Six categories in the Top 200 salute cultural icons from Illinois, and in each the state shows off its greatness yet again. From TV to movies, theme parks to innovations, Illinois’ greatest entertainer is known worldwide, even a half century after his death. Chicago-born Walt Disney topped the Entertainers category. His Illinois roots are easy to see in the reverence he shows for Abraham Lincoln and Midwestern small towns in many of his creations.

Ernest Hemingway in 1939
It was the Illinois author L. Frank Baum who wrote the top book in Illinois history, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.As great as Baum’s tale of Dorothy and Toto traveling the yellow brick road is, the top Illinois writer according to the survey is the Oak Park-born author and journalist Ernest Hemingway. In addition to his famous novels and reports from early 20thcentury battlefields, Hemingway also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1953 and a Nobel in 1954.

On the stage, voters selected Champaign rock band REO Speedwagon and its more than 40 million album sales as the top musicians in Illinois. Coming from just a few miles to the east is the Danville native Dick Van Dyke, who was picked as the top Illinois actor. And in the athletic arena, voters chose the man who led the Chicago Bulls to six world championships in the 1990s, the great Michael Jordan, as Illinois’ top athlete.

1907 portrait of Lydia Moss Bradley
One of the top energy facilities in the United States is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, near Batavia. The research and experiments done at Fermilab have for decades provided vital information about energy production and physics, and been the foundation of research going on in laboratories around the world. It is a fitting tribute to Illinois’ top scientist Enrico Fermi, who came to Illinois from Italy, created the first nuclear reactor and was a major part of the creation of the atomic bomb.

While Illinois has demonstrated its national leadership in science and innovation, the root of all such discoveries is education, and it was to the field of education that voters directed the title of top groundbreaking woman when they selected Lydia Moss Bradley, the founder of Peoria’s Bradley University. According to Bradley’s current President, Gary Roberts, the school is believed to be “…the only university in the United States that was founded exclusively by a woman using her own resources. She was so far ahead of her time and amazingly resourceful, even by today’s standards. What an incredible woman Lydia Moss Bradley was. We strive daily to carry on her legacy.”

There we have the tops in each of the 20 categories from 200 years of Illinois history. It is a fitting reminder of all that our state and its citizens have accomplished in the first 200 years, and sets a high standard for the generations to come.