Island in the Prairie

Why is Galesburg where it is? Why not on the Illinois River, or the Mississippi? Why is it literally in the middle of nowhere? It used to be in the middle of the prairie, now it is in the middle of corn and soybean fields. But why? It didn't settle along the railroads. It brought the railroads to it. It didn't spring up along a canal. There was no canal. Galesburg lacked the critical component for a new settlement -- transportation route. So why here?

So why is Galesburg where it is? The answer is simple. It is where it was put. The founding fathers picked a spot in the middle of nowhere where land was available and cheap. It was also an isolated spot. Perhaps this was part of the selection criteria. If Galesburg's founders wanted to create a town and a college based on their own views of what a town and college should be, isolation from outside contrary views might be a plus.

But if isolation was to be a plus, it would have to become self sufficient. This was possible with the right mix of church, farming, and carefully controlled merchants. The prairie was such a dominant feature that Knox College was nearly named ''Prairie College.''

I think most of us fail to recognize how troublesome a tall prairie was to movement. Today with the prairie gone and replaced with farm fields and interstate highways, it is hard to really imagine the original prairies. Prairies were impediments to wagon travel, to travel by foot, and even slowed horseback.

Waterways were critical for the transport of goods and people in early America. Forests, prairies, mountains, and mud were all impediments to the movement of goods and people. But such free movement also brought new ideas, new cultures, new challenges to those in charge and who may prefer the status quo.

But towns and their people want to grow. Merchants want to prosper. Farmers want to be able to sell their excess and to buy what they cannot grow or make. Galesburg ultimately sought the railroads. Railroads brought prosperity, goods, more people, with new cultures and new ideas, and new religions. The New England Puritanical ways were confronted with Irish Catholics who came to build and maintain the railroads. Germans, Swedes, Afro-Americans, Mexicans, all came to Galesburg. Some of their culture was lost, but some was assimilated. Galesburg became part of the melting pot, despite being an island in the prairie. Galesburg lost its isolation.

Cheap land and isolation drew them. The rich soil kept them. The railroad expanded them. Manufacturing and transportation jobs paid them. Puritanical dreams were replaced with saloons on the square. Somewhere along the way, Knox became a liberal college and Galesburg became a hot bed for abolitionists. Worldly views crept in. There was even room for Lombard College and Universalists' views. People from Galesburg traveled throughout Europe, bringing back new ideas, eroding the sense and the reality of isolation. Galesburg couldn't hide from the world.

The railroads made the difference. Galesburg got them, Knoxville didn't. Oquawka was sure it would be the site for the railroad. It was wrong. Burlington won out. The railroads were many and consolidation was necessary. Consolidation occurred. But now the unthinkable was not only thought but was implemented. Merger upon merger, consolidation after consolidation has occurred. Galesburg now only has one railroad and it wants to become even bigger.

The Civil War undoubtedly also played a major role in opening up Galesburg to new ideas. Galesburg was clearly an abolitionist town. A Quincy newspaper once called it a ''nigger-stealing town.'' When the Civil War came, Galesburg responded, along with its neighboring towns and villages, sending sons and fathers off to the war. Many never came back, or came back with parts missing. Others came back whole, but with a different view of mankind and a wider vision of America. Men and boys who had never left Knox County were marching through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, fighting fellow Americans and burning cities and towns to the ground. They saw southern plantations and a culture dependent on slavery as alien to Illinois farm life as if they had traveled to South America. When the war was over, these Galesburg men and boys came back as men, changed forever. Those changes would affect the future of Galesburg in countless obscure ways that collectively would move Galesburg in new directions.

Technology also played a role. The 1800's version of the Internet, i.e. the telegraph, allowed the rapid transfer of information. With information, came knowledge, ideas, and change. Galesburg's Lincoln and Douglas Debate in 1858 was transcribed by newspaper reporters in shorthand and then rushed out by telegraph to all parts of America, to appear in print. Similarly, national events rushed into Galesburg.

Galesburg became worldly with the arrival of so many Swedes. It became the hometown of a Swedish speaking newspaper that published information about the ''homeland'', for which the paper was named. The Swedes, the Irish, the Germans, the Mexicans, all brought bits of their culture and threw it into the melting pot. Christmas found its way into Galesburg, despite the best efforts of the founding fathers. It may have been the Swedes, it may have been the Germans, but it was a holiday too good for the children of the little prairie island not to enjoy. The Swedes settled in one part of Galesburg (coined as ''Monkey Town'') and the Germans, another, but their culture leaked out. Working side by side, languages, and food, and culture were shared with all profiting from the new knowledge. Swedish pancakes found their way onto non-Swedish tables.

Galesburg flourished in the 1800s. Farming, manufacturing, shipping, all worked hand in hand to make Galesburg grow and prosper. Galesburg was blessed with the railroads, with large employers, with abundant agricultural commodities, with abundant nearby lumber and coal reserves, and with educational institutions to train the sons and daughters of the newly created Galesburg upper class. Clubs and organizations blossomed; churches tried to keep the folks in line, and entertainment was created for the those who were confronted with the new concept of leisure time. Lake George was constructed and offered a park, a lake steamer, a club and other recreation for the Galesburg elite.

Some could argue that Galesburg grew and became an early success despite the founding fathers' best efforts. Much of the early success must be given to the successful recruitment of the railroads by Galesburg. The railroads brought much more than employment and a payroll. It brought new people, new cultures, new ideas, new products, and a way to ship Galesburg's bountiful produce- both agricultural and manufactured out.

Perhaps old Dr. Blanchard best reflected the founding fathers failure to stop progress and Galesburg's success, when he was unable to personally stop the running of the trains through Galesburg on Sunday. As reported by Calkins in They Broke the Prairie, the old steam engine was full of coal, fire, water and making a good head of steam when a stern Dr. Blanchard stepped forward, separating himself from the crowd. He told the engineer to return the engine to the roundhouse. The engineer was reported to have inquired who and on what authority was this order being made. Dr. Blanchard responded, ''I am President Blanchard of Knox College, and again I order you to take the engine to the roundhouse and not run this train on Sunday.'' To which, the engineer responded ''Well, President Blanchard of Knox College, you can go to hell and mind your own business, and I'll take my train out as ordered.''

The train left the station, and Galesburg continued to loosen the grip of the conservative founding fathers. Galesburg is no longer an Island in the Prairie. With changes that could not be denied, Galesburg must now determine if it can become the Flower in the Prairie.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 8, 2000

Back to The Zephyr