The Republic of Forgottonia

In the early years of American independence, the Mississippi River marked the western border of the United States. With the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, that boundary was moved hundreds of miles to the west. So by the time Illinois became a state in 1818, we were an interior state; that is, we had no international boundaries.

But for a few weeks in the early 1970s that (sort of) changed with the creation of the Republic of Forgottonia in the region between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

The area had long been separated from the rest of the state by the rivers which defined its boundaries. By the mid-20th century, the isolation had been aggravated by the construction of four-lane superhighways to all points in Illinois except its western counties. A map of the state from around this time shows Interstate 74 reaching Peoria and then bending north; around Forgottonia; to cross the Mississippi at the Quad Cities, while Interstate 55 curves around Forgottonia to the southeast, crossing at St. Louis.

There had been plans for a Chicago-to-Kansas City expressway in the original 1956 plan for the interstate highway system (in fact, they went back as far as 1913 in one form or another), but objections from Missouri had scuttled those plans. The Show-Me-State wanted a crossing at St. Louis and a highway from there to Kansas City. An expressway which bypassed one of its two principal cities was out of the question. The project was cancelled, and later attempts to revive it also failed. The unintended consequence on the eastern bank of the great river was that an entire section of Illinois was forgotten about when it came to major highway construction.

Hence Forgottonia.

Of course, it was more than just roads that contributed to Forgottonia’s aggravation with the rest of the state. Railroad service between Macomb and Chicago was suspended. There were other slights too. Western Illinois was one of the few areas of the nation which did not have a public television station by 1970. While Western Illinois University thrived in Macomb, the overall number of institutions of higher learning in the region dwindled when Carthage College re-located to Wisconsin. But it was the lack of modern transportation that galvanized public opinion and created the drive to take a drastic step.

The idea for that step came from Jack Horn and John Armstrong of the Macomb Chamber of Commerce in 1971. Horn and Armstrong hatched a plan to declare the western counties of Illinois as an independent republic. To grab attention for their effort and the region’s needs, the breakaway republic would immediately declare war, just as quickly surrender, and then request foreign aid.

To make the effort successful, it would need a charismatic leader. It found one in a theater student from WIU named Neal Gamm. Gamm was a native of the region, and following the founding of the republic, he was proclaimed its Governor, and would preside over the nation from its new capital city of Fandon, southwest of Macomb in McDonough County.

The drive to attract publicity to the region was wildly successful. Forgottonia’s governor was interviewed by reporters from The New York Times, Sacramento Bee and plenty in between.

Gamm ate up the hype. Clad in a bow tie and long suit coat, he posed for photos in front of run-down buildings with such signs as “Governor’s Mansion” and “Dept. of Mental Health,” and of course the “Republic of Forgottonia Capitol Building,” in an empty storefront on a dusty street. Gamm also appeared on the deck of a shaky-looking bridge with a large sign reading “Republic of Forgottonia Toll Bridge: 25 cents. Region of Little Return on Tax Dollars!” He even led a triumphal parade through the capital city, reporters and photographers in tow.

“It was weird because they were covering it fairly straight,” Gamm recalled in Macomb’s McDonough Voice newspaper in 2010. “If you read some of the articles, you’d swear this was the real deal. Some papers, I think, really thought this was serious.”

Although it was all an especially clever drive to publicize the frustration of a region of the state bypassed by transportation planning, it struck a chord with many citizens around the nation who were disenchanted with their government.

“People were really desperate and they were grasping at straws and I happened to be the most viable one at the time,” Gamm told the Macomb paper years later. “People were frustrated. They needed someone to speak for them and they thought I was it. In a way, I was. At least I got their opinions out there. People just didn’t have any voice.”

Gamm, Armstrong and Horn traveled widely, speaking and promoting their cause. Some local officials objected to the idea of Forgottonia, fearing that it was bringing negative attention to the region that would end up doing economic harm. Gamm did not agree.

“You can malign, humiliate and scream at your politicians and it won’t bother them a bit, but you laugh at them and they can’t stand it,” he said. “That’s what we were doing and we were really good at it.”

The movement did produce some of its intended effects. In 1972, the newly-created Amtrak re-opened passenger rail service between western Illinois and Chicago. Highway funding also began to flow, with construction of the “Central Illinois Expressway” linking Quincy with Springfield and Champaign starting in the late 1970s. The highway was re-christened Interstate 72 in the 1990s. Progress has been slow but steady on a four-lane U.S. 67 from Alton to the Quad Cities, through such former Forgottonia cities as Jacksonville, Macomb and Monmouth. Portions of that highway are also part of the revived Chicago-Kansas City expressway.

The tale of Forgottonia pops back into the consciousness every now and then. Forgottonia is a term still used with pride by some local residents, and a few relics of its time on the world stage still remain throughout the area. Boosters and candidates for office are known to sometimes use the former republic’s name to describe the region. Forgottonia achieved fame once again in 2011 when it was featured in a segment on The History Channel’s program “How the States Got Their Shapes.” In 2018, it was the name of a local business honored by the Macomb Chamber.

Asked if he would be willing to bring the republic back to life again, possibly in the name of economic development, Gamm said he was ready to pass the reins onto a successor. “I’d like for someone to do it again, but I’m too old, too tired. It’s a lot of work.”

He recalled his time in the spotlight of citizen activism favorably, but reflected on the work left to be done. “Just like back then, I know there’s still a lot of people not getting their fair shake from the government and kind of overlooked by the state.”

Governor Neal Gamm, the first and only chief executive of the Republic of Forgottonia, passed away in 2012.