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Bicentennial Commission Moving Forward with 2018 Celebration

Elaine Evans
/ Categories: General News

Bicentennial Commission Moving Forward with 2018 Celebration

“Born, Built and Grown in Illinois”

This year marks the bicentennial of the state of Illinois.  Illinois became the 21st state on December 3, 1818 when President James Monroe signed the legislation admitting us to the Union. In honor of this occasion, Governor Bruce Rauner in 2016 issued Executive Order 2016-11, which created the state’s Bicentennial Commission. The commission consists of a diverse group of Illinois residents who have a passion and love for this state. David Scott serves as the ISHS representative on the commission. The purpose of the commission is to develop and implement a statewide program to celebrate the bicentennial. The slogan of the commission is "Born, Built, and Grown in Illinois." Using almost entirely private money (with the exception of staff support) and working with partners and generous donors, the commission is moving forward with statewide bicentennial celebration plans.

Past milestone birthdays were year-long affairs and the bicentennial is no exception. The bicentennial celebration officially began on December 3, 2017, with bicentennial flag-raising ceremonies held at McCormick Place in Chicago and at government buildings throughout the state. However, the celebrating began even before then. Over the summer of 2017, the commission selected a micro-brewery to craft a state beer. Hand of Fate Brewing Company from Petersburg won the honor and will soon be releasing cans of its bicentennial beer, named, appropriately enough, 1818. The commission also conducted an Illinois history video contest for students, with 100 student videos selected to be aired on the commission’s website.

In 1868, when Illinois turned 50, most of the commemorations appear to have been at the state level. There were two large projects that remain with us today. The first was the construction of the new state capitol building. The official cornerstone ceremony was held on October 5, 1868, the 50th anniversary of the first meeting of the Illinois legislature. This beautiful building, still in use today, officially opened in 1877 and wasn’t completed until 1888. In 1868 Illinois also revised the state seal for the third and, to date, final time. To this day, the state seal contains the dates 1818 and 1868, in commemoration of statehood and of its 50th anniversary.

Illinois celebrated its 100th birthday in 1918 as the nation was involved in World War I. Along with being the largest foreign war this nation had fought to date, it also was very controversial on the home front. And, although a Centennial Commission was created in 1913, a full five years before the centennial, it did not fully organize until January 1916 due to a scandal elsewhere in state government. Jessie Palmer Weber, the head librarian for the Illinois State Historical Library and the daughter of a former governor, was selected to serve as secretary of the 15 member commission. The commission’s major role was to help promote and coordinate celebrations throughout the state. It also assisted in several “official” projects. For example, the commission oversaw the preparation and publication of a five volume history of Illinois, entitled The Centennial Memorial History of the State. Each volume had a different historian or historians serve as editors and the books, although 100 years old, are still used today. 

In 1918 the commission and others were into lasting monuments. The state legislature appropriated money for the construction of a state office building on the capitol grounds in Springfield that was originally known as the Centennial Building. If there is a historical blemish on the construction of this building, it is that to build it the state had to tear down the Ninian Edwards house. Although somewhat dilapidated, this was the house where Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary Todd died. In other words, to honor history also cost us some history, although the commission charged with building the Centennial Building said the house had changed a lot from Lincoln’s day and was not worth saving. Today the Centennial Building is known as the Michael J. Howlett Building. Also in 1918, statues of Lincoln and Douglas were dedicated on the capitol grounds. Today the Douglas statue is behind the Lincoln statue, in testament to his being overshadowed by Lincoln, but originally it was on the capitol grounds north of the Lincoln statue.

The state Centennial Commission requested that each county form a centennial commission of its own to assist in local celebrations. More than 1,000 centennial celebrations were held throughout the state. Local units of government, businesses, private organizations and individuals spearheaded these efforts. There were parades, speeches, festivals, church services, tree plantings and plenty of fireworks, all dedicated to the centennial. In Chester, near the first state capital of Kaskaskia, 15,000 people attended a pageant and ceremonies. Former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke at a Springfield celebration. Schools from kindergarten to the university level had events and increased their emphasis on the study of Illinois history. A centennial hymn was composed and a centennial flag and poster created. The federal government printed an Illinois centennial half dollar. There were many plays, called pageants, written about the history of Illinois and performed in front of some very large crowds. Six small plays for children were written and performed in hundreds of schools across the state.

Chicago had a week-long celebration for the centennial, which it held from Monday, October 8 to Sunday, October 13. The week was chosen in recognition of the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, which began on October 8, 1871. Patriotic mass meetings were conducted for two of the nights and a historical pageant was presented on three nights. The week culminated with the formal dedication of the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square. Earlier in 1918, on May 11, the Statue of the Republic by famed sculptor Daniel C. French was unveiled in Jackson Park.

All types of organizations participated in the centennial celebrations, from the usual suspects such as the State Historical Society, the DAR, the GAR and other veterans’ groups to women’s clubs, the Illinois Press Association, the State Banker’s Association, the State Bar Association, the State Medical Society, the State Hardware Dealer’s Association, and the State Shoe Dealers Association. At the end of the year-long celebration, the state published a 489 page book compiled by Secretary Weber and entitled Report of the Illinois Centennial Commission. The report listed all of the activities that had occurred as part of the celebration. The report also contained transcripts of speeches, pictures and copies of the state poster and centennial flag.

For the 1968 sesquicentennial, the state created another commission. This commission, like its 1918 predecessor, both pursued ways for state government to celebrate the anniversary and also served to coordinate and publicize the activities of organizations that wished to be involved. As in 1918, it also created a special flag for the celebration.
For the third consecutive 50 year celebration (1868, 1918 and now 1968) the state did a building construction project as part of its commitment to the anniversary. In 1868 construction began on the capitol and in 1918 the Centennial Building began. In 1968 for the sesquicentennial the state completely restored the Old State Capitol, taking it apart brick by brick and then reconstructing and reinforcing it to make it one of the premier historic sites and tourist attractions in Illinois. Unlike the previous two anniversaries, this time the project was completed in time for the celebration and not just begun as part of the celebration.

As impressive as the Old State Capitol restoration was (and still is, for that matter), it was at the grassroots level that the sesquicentennial really shone. The list of ways that the sesquicentennial was celebrated is impressive and serves as a reminder of the creativity of the Illinois people. Below are just a few examples:
  • The Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade took as its theme: Illinois and the Irish.
  • Mount Prospect dedicated the Shadrach Bond School. (Bond was our first governor)
  • The Art Museum in Chicago had a special exhibit on Art in Illinois. Ravinia held special sesquicentennial programs.
  • Both the Chicago Black Hawks and the Chicago Bulls wore a sesquicentennial patch on their uniforms and the Bears flew the sesquicentennial flag at their home games.
  • The Chicago Philatelic Society dedicated its annual banquet to the sesquicentennial, which was appropriate because there was a commemorative postage stamp.
  • CBS out of Chicago produced and aired a TV show called “I Remember Illinois,” featuring famous Illinoisans and a documentary about Illinois entitled “Tomorrow is a Day” was released featuring narration by Illinois native Charlton Heston.
  • At least two versions of the state song were released, including a jazz version. Earl Oyler released the song “One Hundred and Fifty Years-Our Illinois,” which was used as the theme song for the state fair. Another song, a ballad entitled “Illinois People” was released, as was the opera “Young Lincoln.”
  • There was a cook book entitled “100 years of Creative Illinois Cooking.” If that seems 50 years short for a sesquicentennial it is ok because Chicago’s Field Museum issued a brochure entitled “Half a Billion Years of Illinois History.”
  • A book on Illinois Architecture was issued. Not to be out done, Michael J. Howlett, the state’s 24th state auditor, released the publication “The History of 23 Illinois State Auditors of Public Accounts,” a publication that somehow did not make it to the New York Times best seller list.
  • Meister Brau Beer came out with a commemorative Draft Beer label and Jim Beam came out with a sesquicentennial decanter.
  • Local governments and businesses came out with brochures, newsletters, and the like dedicated to or mentioning some aspect of the event.
  • Buttons, decals, flags, cufflinks, hats, stickers, maps, calendars, fine china and matchbooks were issued. 
  • The covers of the phone directories that year featured the sesquicentennial.
  • There was a children’s essay entitled “If I were the Governor.”
  • Universities had all kinds of musical recitals and performances, including Northwestern’s “A Program of Music Commemorating the Sesquicentennial of the Statehood of Illinois.”
For the bicentennial, the state, often working with partners, is pursing similar activities to what it did in 1918 and 1968. As in the past, the Bicentennial Commission has created a logo and flag. The commission is supporting local and grass roots projects by publicizing them and endorsing bicentennial projects and events. There is a bicentennial sports patch available that sports teams, including and especially school sports teams, may use on their uniforms. In early March the post office released an Illinois bicentennial stamp. There will be a bicentennial float for parades. As noted above, there will be a bicentennial beer but El Nacimiento Tequila is also creating bicentennial tequila. Pepsi is producing commemorative bicentennial cans for its soda and Ravinia is planning a special musical program.

There is definitely a 21st century take on the bicentennial. The commission is using social media to promote the numerous local events it has endorsed. It also is partnering with the State Journal Register newspaper in conducting an online voting contest for the Best of Illinois. Every two weeks a poll will be taken on the “Illinois Top 200” in a certain category. The first vote was on the number one movie made in or set in Illinois. The winner was the Blues Brothers. In all there will be twenty categories, including those for best Illinois business, actor, author, moment, and historic spot. For this celebration there is also an online bicentennial gift shop, where enthusiasts may purchase items such as t-shirts, cuff links, dishes, blankets, pins, flags and a whole bunch more. You can go to the commission’s website ( to learn more about state bicentennial events, to vote in the Illinois Top 200 contest or to see what items are available for purchase.

Education is an important part of the bicentennial celebration. The commission has collaborated with the Illinois State Board of Education and What on Earth Publishing to create and release Illinois Chronicles, a timeline book which charts the history of the state. The book presents more than 50 news articles and 100 historical moments on a 6-foot-long foldout timeline. It will serve as a K-12 educational resource and will be offered to schools all across the state. Partnering with the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) and using private funding, the commission is also creating a Bicentennial STEM Fusion program, which will be offered to students at 25 elementary and middle schools in under-served communities across Illinois. The three-year program, modeled after the highly successful IMSA Fusion program, presents a unique curriculum for middle school teachers to inspire 4th through 8th graders to study math and science and pursue careers in technology, medicine, education and business. More information about the program can be found at: Finally the commission has worked with the Illinois Humanities Council to create a Bicentennial Road Scholars Speakers Bureau, where experts on different facets of Illinois will give free presentations to organizations whose members want to learn more about this state. A list of speakers and topics for these programs can be found at the Illinois Humanities website:

Veterans will be honored throughout the celebration, including with a program known as Honor 200. This program, done in partnership with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and sponsored by Boeing, seeks to honor work of 200 veterans from across the state whose contributions are above and beyond the call of duty. The commission is currently accepting nominations from the public for this award. The nominees will be evaluated based on their achievements and on the extent to which their contributions have aided, benefited and provided inspiration to their community. More information on this program can be found on the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs website at:

Remembering that the state has done a building project as part of all of its 50 year statehood celebrations, the state, using private money only, is completely refurbishing the Governor’s Mansion. Built in the 1850s, the mansion is the third oldest official governor’s residence in the nation. As with the restoration of the Old State Capitol in 1968, the repair and restoration of the Governor’s Mansion will help return it to its historic glory and make it more of a tourist attraction. Its restoration is expected to be completed by this summer. Near the Governor’s mansion, the Illinois Realtors Association is partnering with the City of Springfield to build a bicentennial plaza. This will be a pedestrian walkway that connects Lincoln’s Home, the Illinois Governor’s Mansion and the State Capitol.  The plaza will be dedicated on August 26, which is known as Constitution Day because it is the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the state constitution.

Other events scheduled for Constitution Day include:

  • Conducting a bicentennial motorcycle ride along the path of Old Route 66 from Chicago to Edwardsville. Partners for this event include the Illinois Office of Tourism, Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway Association, and the several Convention & Visitors Bureaus.
  • Conducting a celebration and community event with Radio One at the Jackie Joyner Kersey Community Center in East St. Louis.
  • Staging an Illinois Bicentennial Community Rock Concert to be held in Edwardsville and sponsored by radio station KSHE95.
For the actual 200th anniversary of statehood, on December 3, 2018, the commission will celebrate with a gala party at the United Center in Chicago. The Bicentennial Birthday Gala will be the culmination of a yearlong celebration. Via video and live presentation, the commission plans to introduce famous and noteworthy Illinoisans at an event that will also feature musical entertainment by Illinois artists of different genres; jazz, blues, hip hop, rock, etc. 

There are many other events and programs the Bicentennial Commission is partnering on or promoting in its efforts to celebrate and commemorate our state's 200th birthday. For more information on the activities of the Illinois Bicentennial Commission, to see how to obtain a commission endorsement for a local bicentennial project, or to donate to the commission, please visit its website at:
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