Hail to the Litvak, the Pole, the Italian

Who’d have thought that boring, North Central Illinois could be so interesting? I sure didn’t.

I was working on my Master’s thesis at ISU back in 2004, and when it came time decide on a topic, out of convenience, I decided to research two counties for which I associated myself, Bureau and LaSalle. Commuting to work or school, unappreciative of the flat, boring landscape, I kept passing random slag piles made from coal miners in the late 1800s. It was incongruous, these pyramids in the middle of the corn fields. As I analyzed the 1900 U.S. Census of the these two counties, the neighborhoods of these inauspicious villages became alive for me. Swedish, Norwegians, Germans, and Irish had settled the region in the 1830s and 40s.  By 1890, the second wave of immigrants migrated through the area. Polish, Lithuanian Russians, Italians—these primary groups arrived and worked as miners. By the 1920s, the coal mining industry headed south.  Those who remained did so because of their ethnicity. That is, villages which began as coal mining towns, either flourished, declined, or died depending upon the families who remained. Their ethnicity established the small towns like Seatonville, Spring Valley, Cherry, and Ladd, to name a few. How so? Each ethnic group had their own Catholic church. Each group had their own saloon. Each group held on to their traditions and leaned on each other for support. That was 1900.

I’ll go ahead and say it: one’s ethnicity doesn’t matter much at all in 2012. This is both good and bad.  What do you think?