This Week in Illinois History

This Week in Illinois History provides a 90-second snapshot of an event significant to Illinois history.

Join Host Clint Cargile as he covers big events while also exposing little-known pieces of Illinois history. Topics range from pivotal moments to obscure oddities that listeners will find informative, engaging, possibly disturbing, and sometimes amusing.

Airing Mondays in 2021 on WNIJ at 12:31 p.m. (during Here and Now) and 6:18 p.m. (during All Things Considered).

Theme music by Southern Belle.

This Week in Illinois History is made possible by Ken Spears Construction

Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03942)

On May 17, 1955, the Illinois General Assembly approved the official state slogan: Land of Lincoln. Before that, Illinois was known as the Prairie State. But Illinois had an older, unofficial slogan that dates back to the state’s earliest days: the Sucker State.

During the 1800s, Illinoisans were known far and wide as “suckers.” But this term predates the derogatory usage of “sucker” as someone who is easily deceived.

Library of Congress (LC-DIG-nclc-01345)

On May 15, 1903, Illinois established the nation’s first eight-hour workday … for children. The new law also established that children could not work more than 48 hours a week.

Before this, factories worked children 12 to 14 hours a day and used them to crawl into hazardous machinery because of their small size. Labor unions, progressive politicians, school officials, the press, even some business leaders tried to change the laws to protect children, but they were up against wealthy, powerful business leaders and politicians who profited off child labor.

The story of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 actually begins 20 years earlier. After the Civil War, Chicago’s labor unions had been pushing for an eight-hour workday instead of the usual 12 to 14. In response, Illinois passed an eight-hour law, but it had loopholes that allowed employers to ignore it. So on Saturday, May 1, 1867, unions called for a city-wide strike to protest the flawed law. Six thousand workers flooded into the streets, and the protest spread from there.

On April 28, 1941, Illinois Congressman Arthur Mitchell argued to the Supreme Court that African Americans were entitled to railroad accommodations equal to white passengers.

Google Maps

On April 22, 1856, crowds cheered and bands played in Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, as a train chugged across the very first bridge to span the Mississippi River. The bridge connected the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad in Illinois and the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad in Iowa.

Flickr user Don Graham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Almost everyone is familiar with the tragedy of the Donner Party, but few remember that their ill-fated journey began in Springfield, Illinois.

It was April 15, 1846, when brothers George and Jacob Donner, wealthy farmers who lived east of Springfield, departed that city with their families and other immigrants to seek a new life in California. George took his wife, Tamsen, their three daughters, and two daughters from a previous marriage. Jacob took his wife Elizabeth and their seven children.

The Twinkie, America’s model junk food, got its start in Illinois. Twinkies were invented on April 6, 1930 at the Continental Baking Company in River Forest. Manager James Dewar noticed that the equipment used to make the company’s small, baked strawberry shortcakes sat idle when strawberries were out of season. He came up with the idea to inject the spongy yellow cakes with a fluffy, white cream filling, and the Twinkie was born.

No Foolin’: on April 1, 2007, the Illinois General Assembly passed Senate Resolution 255, designating every April 1st in Illinois as "Cheap Trick Day."

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.2009.36

On March 25, 1931, Illinois, and the nation, mourned the loss of suffragist and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. But before she became a crusader for women’s rights, Wells came to national attention as a crusader against lynchings of African Americans in the South.

National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain

March 17, 1937. Illinois’ Attorney General John E. Cassidy declared that all pinball machines were to be outlawed as gambling devices. He called them “pernicious and dangerous to the public welfare.” Law enforcement officers around the state pledged their support, ready to seize the pinball machines just as they would any slot machine.

On March 12, 1966, just five minutes into the third period against the New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawk Bobby Hull scored his 50th goal of the season. The Chicago Stadium crowd roared as their hometown hero tied a league record that he already shared with two others. The Blackhawks’ winger, known as “The Golden Jet” for his speed, skill and dashing blond hair, was one of the most popular players in the National Hockey League.

Internet Archive

Before coal, before oil, even before corn, the biggest and busiest industry in Illinois was salt.  

This once-booming enterprise was located just southeast of Equality, in southern Illinois’ Gallatin County. The heavily brined water was pulled from springs, boiled down and the salt laid out to dry. Native Americans did this for generations, then they taught the process to the French. In 1763, after the French and Indian War, control of the salt springs went to the British.

Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

William H. Bissell was Illinois’ 11th governor, elected in 1856 and endorsed by Abraham Lincoln. He is known for many Illinois firsts: first Catholic governor, first Republican governor  -- the party was only two years old at the time of his election -- and first governor to die in office.

Wikipedia user Jscott (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Great Blizzard of 1978 was one of the worst storms in Illinois’ history. One-hundred-mile-an-hour winds whipped up snow drifts as high as 12 feet. Wind chills were so low they caused railroad tracks to buckle and break. Northern Illinois, especially Chicago, ground to a halt. And a couple of snowed-in computer nerds created a major technological achievement.

Flickr User Joseph Gage (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Illinoisans have bet on horseracing since 1927, purchased Lottery tickets since 1974 and gambled for non-profit charities since 1986.

But on Feb. 7, 1990, Gov. James Thompson signed the Riverboat Gambling Act, laying odds on economic development and tourism.

One hundred and eighty-eight years ago, Illinois’s nascent anti-slavery movement began to pick up steam. On Feb. 1, 1833, eleven men who shared a fierce loathing of America’s peculiar institution banded together and established the Putnam County Anti-Slavery Society, the first anti-slavery society in Illinois, and one of the first in the western United States.

Library of Congress (LC-DIG-fsa-8a13112)

They call it black gold. Texas tea. But Texas wasn’t the only state to dominate America’s oil industry. Illinois was once one of the highest oil-producing states in the country, and, for a time, the world.

Oil speculators looked to Illinois as early as the 1860s and found some success in the early 1900s. But the real boom began Jan. 27, 1937, when the Adams Oil and Gas company struck oil on Glenn Merryman’s farm in Marion County, setting off a southern Illinois oil boom that lasted half a century.

Library of Congress (88715937)

One hundred and one years ago, America’s non-drinkers really hornswoggled everyone who loved their booze. Prohibition began at midnight, January 17, 1920, a Saturday. Americans had one last Friday to imbibe or sock away their sauce.

In a state known for bootleggers and violence, the transition actually happened without much fanfare.

Winston1085, via Wikimedia Commons

When we think of Illinois, we think of Abraham Lincoln, flat farmland and Chicago. But maybe someday our state will be associated with… sandwiches?

It was this week 37 years ago that the first Jimmy John's opened in Charleston, Illinois. Its founder, Jimmy John Liautaud, had just turned nineteen.

Before they trotted the globe or dropped in on Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, the Harlem Globetrotters made their traveling debut in the small farming village of Hinckley, Illinois.

It was January 7, 1927. The all-Black basketball team from Chicago’s south side traveled 60 miles west into the cornfields to challenge the Hinckley Merchants.