Buckle on the corn belt:

Galesburg wins 1957 All America City Award


by Mike Kroll

the Zephyr, Galesburg


We're singing G  A  L  E  S, We're glad to B  U  R  G  Yes!

We're singing Gee, We're glad to be the buckle on the corn belt!

We're in the heart of the US, the perfect part for happiness,

We're singing Gee, we're glad to be the city All-American!

We're a college town with Old Siwash,

We're a railroad town where the railroads cross,

Mister Lincoln spoke, Mister Sandburg wrote, in Galesburg Illinois!


Fifty years ago Galesburg music store owner Charles Gamble wrote the words and music to the Galesburg Buckle Song and while it never made it to the pop charts (for obvious reasons) it was indeed popular on Galesburg area radio stations and available as a 45rpm vinyl record at Gamble's, Lindstrom's and other area music stores. The song was published in January 1958 “in celebration of the National Municipal League and Look magazine award of the “All American City” designation to Galesburg publicly announced January 8, 1958.

The public announcement was made Wednesday, January 8, 1958 by Galesburg Mayor William Small who was privately given advance notice of the award by officials of the two award sponsors. Galesburg was one of ten cities honored that year with an award that was initiated in 1949. The designation was actually earned for the year 1957 and the various local accomplishments or projects commenced or committed to that year by city officials and other local entities. On November 18, 1957 a small committee representing Galesburg made a short presentation in support of the award before a committee of judges selected by the National Municipal League.

Galesburg was nominated for this award by the Galesburg Register-Mail and the Galesburg Council of Churches. Not surprisingly, the Register-Mail gave the award significant coverage that continued well past the initial announcement. In an non-bylined front page article announcing the award the paper wrote: “Announcement of this award will bring Galesburg the greatest spread of favorable publicity, nationally and even outside the nation's borders, that we have ever received on any occasion.”

Mayor Small was quoted as saying at the time of the announcement, “There is a $13 million story behind Galesburg's qualification for this award.” He was referring to the long list of civic and community improvements and projects that were hailed as evidence justifying Galesburg's award. Some of the examples were the beginning of the $5 million project to construct a water pipeline to Oquawka,  the school district's commitment in 1957 to build four new middle schools at a cost of $5 million, a $1 million commitment from area churches to expand and renovate their facilities, a community fund raising project that netted $785,000 toward improvements at both Galesburg hospitals, a $400,000 fund drive to expand and renovate the Knox College Library, $125,000 to make improvements at the then downtown YMCA, relocation of the Galesburg airport from what is not the northwest corner of Henderson and Fremont streets to its current location on West Main Street, and creation of off-street downtown parking lots. That same year the city council committed to conducting a comprehensive plan that was completed a few years later and officially began economic development efforts with an initial commitment of $75,000.

This was really big money back in 1958. Adjusted for inflation according to the Consumer Price Index that compares the buying power of money at different points in time, one million dollars in 1958 had the buying power of $7,272,560 in 2007. Translated to Mayor Small's reported civic improvement projects that means that Galesburg spent or committed to spend the equivalent of $94.543 million in 2007 dollars. This is a scale that would be unthinkable in today's Galesburg where our city council is struggling to fund and support a $20+ million renovation of that water pipeline and treatment facilities that had fallen into disrepair over the past half century. Even more interesting is that these projects not only enjoyed wide-spread public support conceptually, many citizens willingly contributed time and dollars above and beyond their tax bills in support of the various tasks.

Time and personal commitment are just as telling as the magnitude of the dollars involved. At the time of this All American City designation a much broader cross-section of the local residents participated in the local community. Serving on a wide array of local committees and boards as well as running for public office. In fact, the entire character of elected officials has changed. Back then the city council and the county board was composed of local professionals and successful business owners, the people with the most stake in the success of the community ran for public office and served. That can hardly be said today.

One notable “accomplishment” that no doubt played a major role in Galesburg's winning the All American City award was the then recent transition from a strong-mayor/aldermanic form of government to the council-manager form. The National Municipal League, now known as the National Civic League, was an early and strong advocate of the council-manager form of government. The League was founded in 1894 by political progressives of that time such as Theodore Roosevelt, Marshall Field, Frederick Law Olmsted and Louis Brandeis as “an advocacy organization vigorously promoting the principles of collaborative problem-solving and consensus-based decision making in local community building.” This was a direct reaction to the then wide-spread corruption and management incompetence of many city governments across America and spurred a nationwide municipal reform movement.

The All-America City award has been award more than 500 times since 1949 with ten annual recipients and an honor roll of 28 cities that have won the award three or more times. Three cities have been so honored five times including Cleveland, Ohio; six cities including Des Moines, Iowa have won four times and 19 others including Peoria have been three-time winners. The award recognizes communities “whose citizens work together to identify and tackle community-wide challenges and achieve uncommon results. ...For a community to be named an All-America City, it must be able to demonstrate successful resolution of community issues through collaborative effort. Award winning criteria include the following: active citizen involvement, effective and efficient government performance, maximized local philanthropic and volunteer resources, a strong capacity for cooperation and consensus building, community vision and pride, intergroup relations, community information sharing, and intercommunity cooperation.”

From the very beginning the award has been sponsored by  Cowles Publications who published Look magazine until 1971. During the 1980s USA Today sponsored the awards and began the tradition of recognizing the winners at a White House ceremony each December. For many years pollster George Gallup served as chair of the jury that selected the winning cities. In 1953 Gallup wrote an article for National Municipal Review, the magazine of the National Municipal League, in which he described a near Utopian viewpoint of local government that nevertheless is valuable to consider today.

Two of the chief problems Gallup saw plaguing American cities were “how to improve the structure and administration of local and state governments and how to arouse citizens to greater activity in governmental affairs. These problems, like sin, are are ways with us. We have made great progress but it is my impression, as I look back over the 60 years of the League's existence, that we have achieved greater success in the first area than in the second. We have been more resourceful, more inventive in dealing with the structure of government, than we have in creating greater interest in government on the part of our citizens.” Gallup bemoaned the small number of citizens who actively participate in their communities and that number has actually declined in the 55 years since the Gallup article. “We cannot expect people to keep their interest high if their only chance to play their part in good government is in casting a vote at election time. We must develop ways by which more citizens can help with local and state problems. …If we are to arouse citizens to greater activity, then, we must find ways of recognizing and rewarding their efforts.”

The Register-Mail reported the day of the 1958 announcement, “In the promotion of these and other worthy community causes more that 1,200 individual participated on the major committees and they labored so energetically and effectively that Galesburg pulled itself up from its bootstraps – a $13 million lift for 1957.” Written in an editorial that day the Register-Mail said: “Today the entire city of Galesburg has the extraordinary privilege of knowing that experts regard this community as a model of civic progress. ...the only way to capitalize on past achievement is to prepare for building on it with continued improvements.” That message echoed statements by Mayor Small: “We do not claim to be a model city, but we are proud to compete with the best of them. Everyone realizes that there will always be things to be done and that our gains must be guarded vigilantly.”

The level of civic commitment that accompanied the civic pride of the late 1950's Galesburg needs to be resurrected today if this community is to successfully tackle the many challenges now facing us. The issue is one of self-control and unselfishness. Few of us have lots of extra time or money but if we are to insure the survival and resurgence of this community we as citizens need to find ways to give more of both back to our community. Winning awards like the All American City designation are nice but what is more important is creating a community commitment toward participation and progress. While we don't want to squander resources such as time and tax dollars we nevertheless must increase our investment of both in the future of Galesburg.






All American City Award Criteria

(National Civic League)


Š     Participation of the public, private and nonprofit sectors and key constituencies to the maximum extent possible;

Š     Recognition and involvement of diverse segments and perspectives (ethnic, racial, socio-economic, age, etc.) in community decision-making;

Š     Creative use and leveraging of community resources;

Š     Significant and specific community achievements;

Š     Projects that address the community’s most important needs;

Š     Cooperation across jurisdictional boundaries;

Š     Clear demonstration of project results and impacts (dollars raised or lives impacted);

Š     Projects which have impacted the community significantly within the last three years, and have potential to continue improving the quality of life; and

Š     At least one project should document ways in which the lives of children and youth have been tangibly improved.