Q: What is the history behind Illinois being called the “Land of Lincoln” instead of “The Prairie State,” which seems to have been the official designation since time immemorial? I don’t think Lincoln would feel he is being properly represented. And since he was actually from Kentucky, via Indiana, it seems a false representation. Was this the scheme of a political party plan to align with him or was there an actual vote?
Joe Turner, of O’Fallon
A: Sounds like you’ll be surprised (and perhaps disappointed) to learn that thanks to Fred J. Hart, it’s the law of the land (of Lincoln).
In 1955, Hart, of Streator, was in the midst of his 24-year career as a state senator from the 39th district when a light bulb went off: make “Land of Lincoln” the official state slogan of Illinois.
Personally, I think it was brilliant. Sure, Illinois had been known as “The Prairie State” since at least 1842, but can you think of a blander, more ho-hum, dull-as-dishwater nickname? Is that what you want nonresidents envisioning when they think of Illinois: 57,914 square miles of grass? Besides, it hardly differentiates us from a host of other nearby states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas.
Hart hit upon the idea of linking the state with arguably its most famous non-native son and one of the nation’s greatest and most beloved presidents. I would argue that it is perfectly justified. Ask yourself: What had Lincoln done to distinguished himself in his first 21 years before his family, fearing a breakout of milk sickness, moved in March 1830 from Indiana to 10 miles west of Decatur? Nothing that you can think of, right? It was only in 1831, when Lincoln struck out on his own, that he began to make a name for himself — and it all happened in Illinois.
Here are a few highlights. In 1832, Lincoln and a partner bought a general store in New Salem. His personality and his 6-foot-4 stature already were gaining popularity and he soon ran for the Illinois General Assembly (although he finished eighth of 13 candidates in an election in which the top four candidates won). Fortunately, he didn’t let the loss discourage him. While studying to be a lawyer, he ran for state representative in 1835 and won.
The 26-year-old was on his way. In addition to serving four terms in the Illinois state house, he also represented the state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847-1849 before winning the 1860 and 1864 presidential races. When he died, a train brought his body 1,654 miles through 300 cities back to the state he had called home for 35 years and all of his adult life. So if we can’t say this is the Land of Lincoln, who can? I think he’d be proud, considering it was Illinois that served as his springboard to greatness.
You might be, however, somewhat relieved to know that Hart wrestled with the same question you bring up. According to his late son Bruce, Hart originally proposed “Home of Lincoln” until a friend pointed out it might falsely imply to some that Lincoln was born here.
“After my dad thought about it, he decided it maybe should be ‘Land of Lincoln’ instead,” Bruce Hart told the Ottawa Daily Times in 2005.
Hart introduced the idea to his Senate colleagues, and on May 17, 1955, Gov. William Stratton signed the measure into law. It didn’t stop there. Just months later, U.S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, of Illinois, pushed a bill through the U.S. Congress that granted copyright status to the Illinois state government for exclusive use of the slogan. The new slogan quickly wound up on leftover 1954 license plates.
“I’m proud of what my dad accomplished,” Bruce said. “If somebody would’ve told him 50 years ago that ‘Land of Lincoln’ would be so commonplace, he wouldn’t have believed it. But as it turned out, it was something that really caught on.”
But Illinois still pays homage to its prairies. According to the Illinois Compiled Statutes, the state has designated the third full week of September as Illinois Prairie Week, “... to be observed throughout the state as a week for holding appropriate events and observances in the public schools and elsewhere to demonstrate the value of preserving and re-establishing native Illinois prairies.”
You also might be interested to learn that Illinois has at least three other unofficial nicknames. Two are logical and fit into the “prairie state” vein: “The Corn State” and “The Garden of the West” (or just plain “Garden State.”) However, “The Sucker State” requires some explanation, of which there are several. One links the fish to the many miners going to and from the Galena lead mines in the 1820s.
“An old miner said to them, ‘Ye put me in the mind of suckers,’” according to Malcolm Townsend in his 1890 book, “U.S.: An Index to the United States of America.” “They do go up the river in the spring spawn, and all return down ag’in in the fall.”
Others point to the prairies being filled with crawfish holes, allowing thirsty travelers to suck cool, pure water from them using long, hollow reeds. Whenever a traveler would happen upon such a hole, he would cry, “A sucker! A sucker!” according to Townsend.
But Thomas Ford, the state’s eighth governor, had a less charitable story. He said “suckers” referred to poor settlers who moved to Illinois to escape the harsh conditions of the tobacco plantations of the South. These settlers were seen as a burden on the wealthy much like tobacco roots suck nutrients from the ground while returning nothing.
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Answer to Sunday’s trivia: When Wayne Allwine was looking around for his fourth wife, he settled on a really mousy woman — and apparently found his soul mate. In 1977, the 30-year-old Allwine had been picked as the new voice of Mickey Mouse for the Walt Disney Co. So in 1991, after three failed marriages, he proposed to Russi Taylor, who had been voicing Minnie Mouse — Mickey’s girlfriend — since 1986. The marriage “squeaked by” until his death from acute diabetes in 2009 at age 62. In 2008, both Allwine and Taylor were named Disney Legends.