Square dancing and snacking on popcorn

There are a lot of things that make Illinois unique. Throughout history state leaders have sought to showcase some of the distinctive elements of Illinois by granting them official status as a state symbol.

Certain symbols are necessary for the functions of government, like the state seal for official documents. Others are so common that it is hard to imagine not having one, such as our state flag. Some of our most well-known state symbols came to receive official recognition in the early 20th century thanks to the work of citizens groups who, for example, helped designate our state tree and state bird.

In the past half century or so, Illinois has dedicated more state symbols, mostly in an effort to showcase items that are exclusive to Illinois (like our state fossil) or products which are strongly identified with our state.

One of these is fluorite, which in 1965 was designated Illinois’ official state mineral. Illinois led the nation in the production of fluorite, which consists of calcium and fluorine. It is a key part of the smelting process for production of steel, and can also be used in making glass, aluminum, portland cement and much more. Fluorite is especially useful for microscope lenses due to its better optics. Hydrofluoric acid is an important part of the process for making fuel for everything from rockets to nuclear reactors. Though it is colorless in its purest form, fluorite can also appear purple, orange, green or blue.

Fluorite occurs naturally throughout the world, but its largest known deposit in the United States is in the lower Ohio Valley, including southernmost Illinois and points to the south. It has been mined in Illinois for almost as long as Illinois has been a state. Crystals of freshly-mined fluorite are known as fluorspar.

In 1942 Illinois surpassed Kentucky as the nation’s leading producer of fluorite, at one point producing more than half the entire nation’s supply. Since then, however, more foreign sources of the mineral were used until the nation’s last fluorspar mine, in Illinois, was closed in 1995.

Hardin and Pope counties were the most productive sources of fluorite in Illinois. The Ohio River town of Rosiclare, the “fluorspar capital of the world,” is the home of the American Fluorite Museum and every fall it hosts the Fluorspar Festival.

While the Fluorspar Festival is a joyful event, it is not known how often the celebration has featured square dancing, which in 1990 was designated as Illinois’ official state folk dance. In so doing, Illinois joined more than 20 other states in officially choosing a state dance, including Connecticut, Arkansas and Idaho who also celebrate the square dance.  

Writer Betty Casey summarizes the appeal of the square dance in The Complete Book of Square Dancing.

“The square dance is uniquely American….The format, many of the folk dance’s movements, and the terminology incorporated into the square dance were brought by early emigrants from other countries to the United States. Borrowed bits from foreign dances such as French quadrilles, Irish jigs, English reels and Spanish fandangos have blended with American folkways and customs into the square dance.”

For a state with a frontier heritage like Illinois, the square dance was a natural fit. Brought west by pioneers in the 19th century, the square dance is easy to pick up and mostly involves following the instructions of the caller while minding one’s footwork. So popular was the dance that the General Assembly passed legislation enshrining it as Illinois’ official American Folk Dance. The bill was signed in 1990 by Governor Jim Thompson.

Those who need a quick breather from square dancing might take a moment to sit down and enjoy a snack. In Illinois that person might choose to munch on some popcorn, which in 2003 became Illinois’ official state snack food.

The popcorn designation was the result of a real-life civics lesson by a teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Joliet. Fran Hollister’s second and third grade students came up with the idea of naming popcorn as the official snack food of Illinois.

When Senator Lawrence Walsh visited their school, the Cunningham students prepared a presentation in support of their idea. They researched actions taken in other states to declare local products as their official state food, and then suggested to the senator that Illinois should follow suit. Walsh drafted and introduced the bill on their behalf.

At the time, according to the Illinois State Museum, more than 300 farms in Illinois grew popcorn on 47,000 acres of land, which placed Illinois as the nation’s third largest popcorn producer. The southeastern Illinois town of Ridgway is known as the popcorn capital of the world and holds a Popcorn Day celebration each fall.

The students had the opportunity to learn about state government and the legislative process first-hand, watching as their bill moved through each step, including a class trip to Springfield to see the bill debated and voted on in the Senate. After a predictable amount of banter between legislators, it passed unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin in the House. The House sponsor, Rep. Jack McGuire, reminded his colleagues that “some of us survived on popcorn on these long nights on the House floor.”

Popcorn became Illinois’ state snack food on January 1, 2004.

Kids had always been involved in the selection of Illinois’ official state symbols. Back in 1908 the question of what the state’s official tree and official flower should be was put up for a vote of schoolchildren who chose the oak (later the white oak) and the violet. A group of third graders in Decatur brought forward the proposal for designating the monarch butterfly as Illinois’ state insect in 1975. In 2001 members of the Future Farmers of America from Monticello and Chicago successfully pushed for the designation of drummer silty clay loam as Illinois’ state soil.

But something about the Joliet students’ advocacy and lobbying campaign caught the imagination of students and teachers in Illinois, and soon more proposals were coming to the General Assembly in the early part of the 21st century.

Just months after popcorn won official recognition, Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo conducted on online poll to find out Illinoisans’ favorite reptile or amphibian. The winners in the contest were both native to Illinois: Chrysemys picta, or the painted turtle, with 16,742 votes and Ambystoma tigrinum, the eastern tiger salamander, with 19,217 votes. The Chicago Herpetological Society encouraged teachers to include the contest in their curriculum. Soon they were advocating for an official recognition from the state, as reptile and amphibian were the only two classes of vertebrates not then recognized with official state symbols (the other three, fish, bird and mammal having already been recognized).

The following year legislation was introduced in the House to ratify the choices as official state symbols. Illinois would join the 17 other states which had state reptiles and the eight others which had officially picked state amphibians. The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bob Biggins, saluted the students in their efforts.

“This is something that was initiated from the ground up, literally in the sense because citizens did it. Students involved in schools throughout the state participated in the contest and the results are before us.”

Once again the vote in the General Assembly was nearly unanimous and both animals became official state symbols of Illinois on January 1, 2006. In including the two animals on the list of state symbols, the Secretary of State would note that the eastern tiger salamander is “the largest Illinois terrestrial salamander” and the painted turtle “is among the world’s most colorful aquatic turtles.”

In the years that followed, two different groups of fourth graders successfully promoted and passed legislation designating the goldrush apple as Illinois’ state fruit and sweet corn as the state vegetable.

Two more additions were made to the list in 2017, with the designation of milkweed as the state wildflower and shelter dogs and shelter cats as the state pet. The following year lawmakers recognized corn as the state grain, the pirogue as the state artifact and cycling as the state exercise. Just this spring the General Assembly voted unanimously in favor of recognizing Penicillum rubens as the state microbe.

Find the full list of Illinois State Symbols here.