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The Best of Illinois History 2019 awards presented at ISHS Annual Meeting in Petersburg

The Best of Illinois History 2019 awards presented at ISHS Annual Meeting in Petersburg
Elaine Evans
/ Categories: General News

The Best of Illinois History 2019 awards presented at ISHS Annual Meeting in Petersburg

On Friday, April 26, the Illinois State Historical Society’s “Best of Illinois History” awards were presented to a packed house at Roots Banquet Hall in Petersburg, the county seat of Menard County.  More than 30 individuals, museums, publishers and authors, and regional historical societies were honored for their efforts during the state’s bicentennial year to showcase Illinois history to their respective communities and to the world.

The awards banquet was held in Petersburg to highlight the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the restoration of New Salem, the historic village on the Sangamon River where 21-year-old Abraham Lincoln first settled and followed a path that would lead to his presidency. 

Guests dined on parmesan encrusted grilled chicken breast, meat loaf, and vegetable stir fry, with side dishes of roasted redskin potatoes, green beans and garden salad, catered by Hamiltons Catering of Jacksonville. Beautiful rose carnation table decorations were provided by Roseview Flowers of Petersburg, a 2019 Centennial Business in Menard County. Best of Illinois History Award recipients were invited to take home a centerspread.

The ISHS awarded special distinction to several individuals who were nominated by the selection committee for their outstanding achievements.

The Society’s “Lifetime Achievement” award went to Russell Lewis of Chicago, who as Executive Vice President and Chief Historian of the Chicago History Museum, helped shape the mission and direction of that museum for 36 years. Lewis’s service to the ISHS (he held every elected office in his tenure and served on the membership, assets management, symposium, and executive committees) was exemplary, and his recent passing from pancreatic cancer has left a void in the Society that will be felt for years to come.

Charlotte K. Renehan of Grayslake also received the ISHS’s “Lifetime Achievement” award for her four decades of advocacy for local history in her community. Renehan served as archivist, curator, interpreter, and docent at the Grayslake Historical Society and the Grayslake Municipal Historical Museum. She wrote three award-winning books on local history, and served on the ISHS board of directors or advisory board for 20 years.  During a recent historic 100-year flood in Grayslake, when historical records were threatened or lost to flooding, Renehan rallied support from across northern Illinois to save the collection from total destruction, earning her the respect and admiration of her peers around the state.

The Society’s Olive Foster Teacher of the Year Award went to Tammy Greene of Kings, Illinois; and the ISHS’s Verna Ross Orndorff Student Scholarship was given to the following students:
1st Place: Benjamin Gorashchenko, Vernon Hills
Honorable Mention: Jacob Brown, Peoria
Honorable Mention: Natalie Laky, Highland Park

Other ISHS awards presented at the Best of Illinois History awards banquet were:

Volunteer of the Year: John McClarey
In a volunteer organization such as the Illinois State Historical Society, a dedicated core of volunteers is at the heart of every successful operation. The Illinois Bicentennial celebration gave the ISHS an unusual opportunity to participate in a statewide effort to place a framed portrait of Abraham Lincoln in every Illinois county courthouse. That effort was achieved through the support of the Illinois Association of Judges and the Illinois State Bar Association and their respective foundations,

But the task of delivering the portraits to all 102 counties fell to the staff and volunteers of the ISHS. While many hands made the work (and the travel) manageable, one volunteer’s efforts to help meet our commitment in several counties, not only by delivering the Hesler Lincoln portrait but by standing in for the Society and speaking on its behalf, was commendable.

In recognition of that commitment and for helping build new relationships with the respective judges, lawyers, and circuit clerks around the state, the ISHS takes great pleasure recognizing John McClarey as ISHS 2019 Volunteer of the Year.

Russell P. Strange Book of the Year Award

Creating the Land of Lincoln: The History and Constitutions of Illinois, 1778-1870, by Frank Cicero Jr.
Creating the Land of Lincoln
provides an excellent overview of Illinois’s state constitutional history from Territorial Days to the ratification of the 1870 Constitution, and it will be appreciated by both professional and amateur historians. “Cicero takes us through the men and history of the development of Illinois from its pre-territorial days after the Civil War. He does excellent work exploring the planting of slavery along both sides of the Mississippi, noting that the four nineteenth-century constitutional conventions were “white men’s conventions.” “I was really impressed with his analysis of the 1870 Constitution, which governed the state for 100 years.” This is the definitive book on Illinois Constitutional history for the next 5 years, and no student can write or study about early Illinois without consulting this book. The award is named for the late Russell P. Strange, Col., USAF, history instructor at Eastern Illinois University, and vice president of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Annual Awards

Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago, by Roger Biles.
The author, who is extremely knowledgeable about Washington and his times, does a good job explaining the overall impact of this reformist mayor on Chicago and also in trying to tie current racial problems (police brutality especially) to the efforts Washington exerted to end racial problems in the city. For readers interested in a one-volume biography of Washington, this book more than adequately fills that purpose. Scholarly and well researched, it gives us a portrait of one Illinois’s most influential and beloved political figures. Accepting the award was Roger Biles.

“Last Call for Alcohol! The History of Joliet’s Breweries,” Joliet Area Historical Society Heather Bigeck, curator, and John Bitterman, consultant.
This professionally executed exhibit is spot on with breweries making a popular social comeback. The early history of the industry in Joliet, which started back in the 1830s, is both fascinating and colorful. The exhibit included gallery talks and concerts, which provided entertainment and education to draw visitors. Most fascinating is how the smaller breweries adapted to the anti-saloon movement, Prohibition, and the rise of the mega-breweries to compete and stay in business. Although those early breweries were driven out of business, the rise of new microbreweries in the 21st century speaks to the resilience of the new brewers and the appetites of their customers. Accepting the award for the Joliet Area History Museum was John Bittermann.

Sixteenth President in Waiting: Abraham Lincoln and the Springfield Dispatches of Henry Villard, 1860-1861, Edited by Michael Burlingame.
Michael Burlingame has performed a service for students of Lincoln and Illinois history with this valuable collection of dispatches written by newspaper columnist Henry Villard between Lincoln’s election to the presidency and his departure from Springfield. In addition, the editor gives us 43 pages of endnotes, a thorough index, and a fascinating introduction, which serves up the context that put these two unlikely characters together in American history. For anyone who wants to know how Lincoln spent his time between the election and his inaugural train trip to Washington, Villard’s dispatches are illuminating, and Burlingame sets the stage perfectly.

Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago, by Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz.
This book provides a new look at an old story. An engaging, well-researched and informative dual biography of Al Capone and Eliot Ness that may be the best book of this genre to come along in this century. Collins and Schwartz tell a story all Illinoisans know in fragments but few know in its entirety. It is the story of the coming of age of Capone when the most disrespected law of the land—Prohibition—is enacted, told in tandem with the story of Ness, and introspective, timid lawman with a passion for justice. For those who grew up with the Hollywood myths of gangster films, and “The Untouchables” TV series, this will be the book you remember, and the footnotes will steer the next generation to a treasure trove of resources.

Bulls Markets: Chicago’s Basketball Business and the New Inequality, by Sean Dinces.
Sean Dinces addresses a vital though usually overlooked question in our sports-obsessed nation: To what extent do publically funded sports stadiums actually help local economies and taxpayers? Using both traditional and statistical analysis sources, Dinces demonstrates that in the case of Chicago, the results failed to match the promises. This book is an important contribution to Illinois history and the debate over publically financed sporting venues nationally. As Dinces notes, [T]he financing and tax rebate structures enabling construction of the United Center “Should be of profound concern, not just to Chicagoans, but to America at large.”

“This exceptionally well researched and challenging book was a candidate for ISHS “book of the year,” and it certainly deserves the attention of every serious fan of professional sports.”

Notable Women of Illinois History, by Tom Emery.
This collection of brief biographical essays about notable women in Illinois history is based on a series of articles compiled by Mr. Emery over several years. Nominated as a scholarly work, Notable Women is based primarily on secondary sources, and though it has a good bibliography, it is more informative than substantive. That said, it is useful took for students looking for themes and topics relating to women in Illinois. Mr. Emery should be commended for consistently finding new ways to encourage the study of Illinois history, and for giving readers a broader understanding of the movers and shakers in Prairie State history.

Becoming Lincoln, by William W. Freehling.
Although his thesis is not new, William Freehling’s Becoming Lincoln explores the territory much more deeply. Written by a national scholar, it is one long interpretive commentary concerning Lincoln’s repeated failures at all levels and how quickly he learned from his setbacks until he rises to his next level of failure in his personal, professional, and especially political life. His review of internal improvements, Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois political system of the time, and the growth of railroads, population, and the Illinois economy make this a book that Illinoisans can and should learn from.

Chicago Heights: Little Joe College, The Outfit, and the Fall of Sam Giancana, by Charles Hager and David T. Miller.
A well-written, easy-to-read memoir by Charles Hager, a.k.a. Little Joe College, a self-described member of the Chicago criminal organization known as “The Outfit.” Though not an autobiography or true historical narrative, Chicago Heights tells the coming-of-age story of a transplanted West Virginia gangster who found the streets of Chicago his playground during the 1960s and ’70s. The scrappy narrator is soon heavily involved in an underworld of stolen cars, extortion, prostitution, and eventually murder, including the still unsolved murder of mafia chief Sam Giancana, who was brutally gunned down I his Chicago home in 1975. Chicago Heights is a “simply fascinating contribution to the growing library of American organized crime biographies.” “A distinctly personal memoir of mob life as it played out for Charles Hager…an up-close statement about gangster life on the fringe.”

Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: Historic Houses of Lincoln’s Illinois, by Erika Holtz.
This book, part of a series published by SIU Press and spearheaded by the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition, is the perfect companion for Illinois visitors who want to know and see historic architecture that Lincoln would have visited or stayed in. Erika Holtz is an excellent guide and a fine writer who takes readers to 22 historic homes. She presents each site’s history and ties Lincoln to the location, providing context and cultural history. The photographs are outstanding and the index is useful and informative. The editors provide maps of related sites and the bibliography is first-rate. A superb resource for tourists and scholars visiting the Land of Lincoln. Accepting the award was Heather Wickens for the Looking for Lincoln Coalition.

Lincoln and the Abolitionists, by Stanley Harrold.
This scholarly examination of the important relationship between Lincoln and the abolition movement—or absence of a relationship—underscores the pressure and criticism that prompted Lincoln to embrace emancipation as clear goal of his administration. Harrold explores many resources, including multiple Southern newspapers, to show Lincoln’s progress as a gradual advocate of emancipation, and explains how the President worked to sway public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic to his side of the argument. A fascinating read. Accepting the award for SIU Press was Linda Buhman.

Young Lincoln, by Jan Jacobi.
Historical fiction has rarely, if ever, been the purview of the ISHS Awards Committee, but Jan Jacobi’s Young Lincoln is the perfect book to re-evaluate that prejudice. Jacobi’s book is for young readers, 6th to 8th grade, children just beginning to develop their appreciation for local history. Told in first person, Young Lincoln is an engaging, thoughtful and historically accurate narrative, and Jacobi uses current scholarship to avoid the pitfalls of Lincoln legend and lore. The result is an excellent rendering of the life of young Lincoln, presented to an audience of hungry young students of literature. It is a fine achievement, written by an author who really knows his audience. Accepting the award was Jan Jacobi.

A Documentary Record of the First Woman Hanged in Illinois, and a Play: The Saga of Elizabeth Reed, John King, Dann Norton, John Clark, and members of the Lawrence County Historical Society.
This is definitely one of the more unusual pairings of projects, but certainly a worthwhile effort. The first part of the project--the collecting and transcribing of courtroom records pertaining to the capture, trial, and execution of Elizabeth Reed—make for fascinating reading about early Illinois history. The appearances of Usher Lynden and Augustus French as lawyers for the defense make this true courtroom drama even more fascinating. Having the original documents from the trial reprinted and transcribed—the depositions, warrants, and courtroom statements, as well as the order of execution—tell an incredible story of frontier justice, just the sort of thing for the stage.  Accepting the award were John King, Dann Norton, and John Clark for the Lawrence County Historical Society.

“Dunseth Doll Collection, the Dolls We Love,” Exhibit created by the Lawrence County Historical Society.
A professionally organized exhibit planned for the Illinois Bicentennial celebration, maximizing attendance over the holiday celebrations. Best of all, the historical society made excellent use of donated “treasures” from their collection. This exhibit featured folklore, social studies, geography, and local history, and “conveyed one woman’s passion for collecting objects to bring education and happiness to a small rural community.” The Lawrence County Historical Society is to be commended for finding new ways to celebrate local culture and history, and discovering new ways for building an audience for local, state, national, and international visitors.” Accepting the Award were Donna Burton and members of the Lawrence County Historical Society.

“Three Bicentennial Articles Published in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin,” by Ann Lousin.
Ann Lousin’s “Law and Public Issues” columns for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, offered readers a well-written overview of the entangled political, social, and economic issues involving Illinois statehood. Although the author broke no new ground in her research, she was able to make a potentially dry subject entertaining and of subject of interest to readers likely unfamiliar with this key chapter in the story of Illinois. Careful to emphasize the larger issues involved in statehood—slavery and the questions of territorial boundaries as they related to Lake Michigan--Lousin gave us a most welcome series or articles tied to the Bicentennial.

Adjudicating Illinois: Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court, by John Lupton.
More than just a recitation of names a dates of service of the 117 Supreme Court Justices who have served Illinois, this book places the justices in their historical context, explains the societal issues at the time of some their decisions, and manages to make them all come to life in a few shorty pages per justice. The reader learns about the families and career paths along with life anecdotes for a fascinating window into the Supreme Court. It is an easy entertaining read and will be a welcome addition to the libraries of both lawyers and laymen. Accepting the award was John Lupton.

Held in the Highest Esteem by All: The Civil War Letters of William B. Chilvers, 95th Illinois Infantry, by Tom Pressly, III and Gary D. Joiner.
This very readable collection of Civil War letters is perfect for students interested in the war’s impact on soldiers and their families, during and between battles, as well as for political views on slavery, conscriptions, officers, and the President. The content of the letters is backed up with some 90 pages of impressive historical research, notes, maps, and illustrations. It is an excellent contribution to our understanding of the Civil War. Accepting the award were Tom Pressly III and Gary D. Joiner.

“Hall of Presidents,” North Mac Intermediate School, Dawn McFarland, Courtney Klaus.
This program, stated several years ago by Caren Payne in Virden, Illinois, has engaged fifth-grade students in Macoupin and Sangamon counties in the study of American history by giving them the opportunity to portray historical characters in first person. Students pick an American President or first lady and research their history, presenting their character to other students and to the community. Students and their parents find or create the costumes and write their own scripts with help from teachers and librarians. From a humanities perspective, this program encourages students to explore history, theater, civics and political discourse, and to engage with an audience of peers and the general public. It is a marvelous educational exercise for students and the community. Accepting the award were Dawn McFarland and Courtney Klaus for North Mac Intermediate School.

Black Public History in Chicago: Civil Rights Activism from World War II into the Cold War, by Ian Rocksborough-Smith.
Black Public History in Chicago speaks to an unappreciated and unknown aspect of Illinois history (Public History Studies) and argues that promoting Black History in Chicago was an important tool in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black left movement. It is well argued and well researched community study in the main current of social history, viewing local issues through a larger lens focused on persistent national issues. This is a valuable contribution to understanding the complexity of our state and its people as well as the ongoing struggle to achieve fairness and equality.

Herscher’s Lost Churches, by Jim Ridings.
This well-researched book on the history of the First Presbyterian Church and the Norwegian Lutheran Church of Herscher is fascinating and rewarding on multiple levels. Detailed, well organized, and populated with some incredible photographs, it is most admirable given that none of the original congregants remain. Although the book has no index, it is still a goldmine for genealogists in the Herscher area. The anecdotal histories, reprinted newspaper articles, and family narratives make Hersher’s Lost Churches a fascinating read and a model for community historians who seek to preserve their “lost” history.

Fluorspar Mining: Photos from Illinois and Kentucky, 1905-1955, by Herbert K. Russell.
“As an engineer involved with reclamation of mineral mines, including Fluorspar, I approached this publication with a critical view. I became more impressed after further research indicating the amount of relevant resources is relatively small and decreasing with time. This publication serves to portray an important part of Illinois history in an interesting manner that all can enjoy.”

Fluorspar is now a forgotten industry in Illinois. Although not a full history but rather a picture book, it still serves a very important purpose. The photos are well chosen and the book is attractively produced, and includes a useful bibliography and a fine introduction. Accepting the award was Herbert K. Russell.

A Bicentennial Commemorative of the Prairie State: Readings from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, by David W. Scott.
This is an excellent and thoughtful collection of the best scholarship from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Culled from more than 100 years of peer- reviewed scholarship about the Prairie State, this book gives readers a broad historical perspective of what it means to be from Illinois, focusing on key issues and events that have shaped the political, cultural, and social history of the state. Mr. Scott’s introduction also includes a thorough, detailed history of the ISHS and how it has evolved since it was founded in 1899.  Accepting the award was David W. Scott.

“Lincoln Day in Stark County,” Stark County Genealogical Society.
The Stark County Genealogical Society should be congratulated for restaging an exemplary event celebrating the October 27, 1858, speech by Abraham Lincoln in Toulon. This was surely one of the better organized events held during the Illinois Bicentennial. The event included a grand parade, an Illinois State Historical Society historical marker unveiling, and  keynote addresses from Fritz Klein as Abraham Lincoln and Kelley Clausing from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. For a county with only 6,000 residents, to bring more than 500 folks together for a day celebrating local history is a remarkable accomplishment. One of the most exciting aspects of the event was getting area residents of all ages and generations to participate in telling the story of the past and how it relates to the present. This is exactly the kind of public programming the ISHS needs to support and recognize! “An outstanding historical effort” with superb documentation topped off with a handsome commemorative booklet for all the participants. Accepting the Award were Don Schmidt, Floyd Ham, and Sharon Perkins.

Lincoln and the Natural Environment, by James Tackach
The author introduces the topic by explaining that Lincoln’s presidency most likely witnessed the greatest environmental damage in the nation’s history (the Civil War being a total disaster for the South) and, as a Whig in his early political career endorsed a public policy that would favor deforestation, damming of rivers, and promoting the homesteading of untouched lands. That said, Lincoln as president supported initiatives to protect natural landscapes, encourage more environmentally sustainable agriculture practices, and empower scientists to use their discipline to solve national problems. This is a very readable and well-researched book, illustrating Lincoln’s evolving political advocacy for sustainable land use and environmental preservation. Accepting the award for SIU Press was Linda Buhman.

“Waukegan’s Top 50 History Events,” Waukegan Historical Society. 
Finding new and original ways to engage audiences for exploring local history is a challenge for all historical societies and museums. The Waukegan Historical Society’s “Waukegan’s Top 50 History Events” was a brilliant and successful way of making local history part of the city’s daily conversation, and it gave the museum an opportunity to rank the events and people that established the city’s cultural identity. The goal was to get friends of the WHS around the world involved in local celebration (the 50th anniversary of the Society), and to create a tournament whereby the nominees could be ranked. Schools were engaged, social media was used, and an exhibit was created. Best of all, the project planners brought it all in under budget and engaged new audiences with Waukegan history. Bravo! Accepting the award for the Waukegan Historical Society was Ty Rohrer.

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