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  SIX THINGS YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT: ILLINOIS.  
   
   
 

One feels obliged to point this out whenever someone is discussing the glorious state of Illinois, but it bears repeating anyway: Illinois is not just Chicago. That is not to say that it's not mostly Chicago; Illinois is the fifth most populous state in the union despite only being 25th in land mass. This would imply that the state is densely populated; it is not. It is a big cluster up top and nothing but cornfields and chubby cows underneath. If Chicago seceded, Illinois would be Kansas. Which to many people, both from the Chicago area and from the "other" parts, would

 
 

be just fine.

 

#1. We're Not Really A Blue State.

In the 2000 elections, Illinois was an easy victory for Sen. John Kerry. (You may remember him: long face, narcolyzing voice, decaying disposition.) Neither candidate campaigned much in the state, and Kerry cruised to a 55 percent to 45 percent victory. Even more, Sen. Barack Obama, everybody's new favorite black man, was elected with a whopping 70 percent of the vote. A progressive state, right? Well, if you think the state is just Chicago. Of Illinois' 101 counties, President Bush won 87 of them. (Obama lost 13 counties; imagine how many he would have lost if he hadn't been facing another black guy. Or, better yet, not a completely insane one.) Of those 14 counties that Kerry won, guess how many were either in Chicago or the surrounding areas? Yep: All of 'em. People from downstate think Chicago doesn't represent the whole of Illinois, which is probably true, and probably a good thing. A friend -- originally from downstate, like us -- once noted that he was proud Illinois was going for Kerry; his home county finished 57-42, Bush. Moral of the story: Chicagoans and Illinoisans are two completely different beasts, pretty much across the board.

 

#2. A Famous Republican President Was Born Here...
...But Not The One You Think.

If you happen to be driving west on Route 24 toward Peoria, you'll pass a sign that says, "Welcome to Eureka: Home of 40th United States President Ronald Reagan." You might have thought he was from California, but no, that's just where he went to co-star with monkeys and suck face with future Falcon Crest stars. He was born and went to college in Eureka, whose second-most famous alumnus is, well, they're still looking for him/her. President Lincoln, whose post-White House career has consisted mainly of pointing out the best deals on used cars and stereo equipment every February, was born in Kentucky and didn't move to the Land of Lincoln (then known as "Land of YOUR NAME HERE") until "he came of age," which, in Illinois, could mean 14. (OK, he was 21, which meant by then he had already suspected he might be gay.) He then took part in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and, upon entering Washington, D.C., derailed the career of a promising young actor named J.W. Booth. Promising might be the wrong word, but, hey, he had to have been a better actor than Reagan.

 

#3. We're The Reason Prom Isn't The Only Time You Have To Dress Up In High School.

In 1910, two male University of Illinois cheerleaders -- unfortunate enough not to grow up to be the President of the United States -- decided that the local gridiron lads weren't getting quite enough support and that alumni weren't visiting the campus enough. So they put together the first Homecoming football game on October 15, 1910, and the Illini beat the University of Chicago 3-0. Since then, of course, Homecoming has become an excuse for goateed former frat boys to convince starry-eyed coeds that, you know, out there in the working world, it's a whole different ballgame, particularly when Steve tells you your suspenders don't have enough flair for a night as important as Thursday 99-cent wings. Oh, and hey, we can buy beer, Joany.

 

#4. Here's To The 18th (And, Sigh, The 21st) Amendments!

In 1853, a group of women in Evanston were starting to get a little annoyed by all the drunken louts trying to separate them from their corsets. So they founded the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Their sympathies were perfectly situated to their town; Evanston had passed a law in 1853 banning the sale of all alcohol within four miles of Northwestern University. This resulted in Evanston remaining a completely dry town until the mid-70s, which probably explains why no one ever wants to go there to play sports. To this day, "bars" do not exist in Evanston; a place of business must serve food to even be considered for a liquor license. Some experts suspect this has caused significant damage to the town's spring break tourism industry.

 

#5. That Whole "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow Thing"? Bullshit. (So To Speak.)

The Great Chicago Fire Of 1871 -- a Fire so Great that you have to Capitalize it -- burned for 36 hours, killed 300 people, left 90,000 homeless and caused more than $200 million in damage. (Translated to today's numbers, that's about $4 billion and three dead guys named Hal. Don't check our math.) For more than a century, this disaster has been blamed on a poor woman named Catherine O'Leary, who, as legend has it, was milking a cow in her barn and sat idly by while the bovine bastard kicked over a lamp and set the entire city on fire. But according to the book The Great Chicago Fire and The Myth of Mrs. O'Leary's Cow -- they'll publish anything these days, really; it's like Library Caligula out there -- Mrs. O'Leary was sleeping next to her husband when the fire was likely started by a couple drunken dudes smoking pipes (neither of which, historians say, were related Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams). But because of this false glare of history, to this day, women named Cathy are not allowed to milk cows in their downtown Chicago barns.

 

#6. Sorry, We're Still Not Over This Downstate Thing.

Not to harp on this whole Downstate vs. Chicago schism, but hey: Chicago gets enough attention anyway. (OK, here's the real difference: In Chicago, Steve Bartman is a pariah who receives death threats. Downstate, he'd have woken up with his truck sitting on cinderblocks and his trees covered with toilet paper. Everyone would have had a good laugh, and then it all would have been done and over with.) Downstate, you have towns like Arcola, which hosts The Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum; Metropolis, which, as the only city named Metropolis in the United States, legitimately boasts it is in fact the home of Superman (he's got a statue in the town square); and, of course, Mattoon, the town officially known as the Bagel Capital of the World, despite a Jewish population of somewhere just below 0 percent. (There are rumors of a Jewish family that visited the area around 1870, but locals swear they were Italian. We may never know.) Chicago might have the only real working airport(s), but the rest of Illinois is an endless stream of Wal-Marts surrounded by cornfields. That's Norman Rockwell Americana.

 

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Will Leitch is the managing editor of The Black Table. His first novel, Catch, takes place in the Bagel Capital of the World and is available for pre-order at Amazon.com.