Happy birthday, Illinois — warts and all.
It's the home of the U.S. president credited with ending black slavery and the nation's first black president, as well as a litany of imprisoned governors and other politicians. And until just months ago, it had the nation's longest state budget impasse since at least the Great Depression.
On Sunday, its 199th birthday, a yearlong celebration culminating with its bicentennial begins.
Daylong events are scheduled at Navy Pier in Chicago and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield . A simultaneous raising of the Illinois state and Bicentennial flags follows in locations across the state on Monday in what thus far has been a muted lead-up to the festivities, in what one local historian calls a "missed opportunity."
Its recorded history began in 1673 when missionary Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Jolliet became the first Europeans to lay eyes on it. The signature of President James Monroe made it the 21st state on Dec. 3, 1818. Its first capital was Kaskaskia, and its largely southern Illinois population numbered 34,620 — about the size of present-day Glendale Heights in suburban Chicago or Pekin near Peoria.
Since then, Gov. Bruce Rauner said in a statement prepared for The Associated Press, "Our history is rich."
Illinois has been the home of four presidents — Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership through the Civil War saved the Union; Ulysses Grant; Ronald Reagan and the first black executive, Barack Obama, the Republican governor noted. He pointed out that Illinois was the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery; "taught the world how to rebuild a city" after the Great Chicago Fire; invented such wide-ranging items as the McCormick reaper and the Twinkie; and ushered in the atomic age.
"When we look back, I hope that we will use this lofty vantage point to look ahead as well," Rauner said. "We enjoy unparalleled opportunities for growth. We are the nation's most important distribution and logistics center. We are literally America's transportation hub. We produce 10 percent of the nation's computer scientists."
"On this birthday, we want to look at what has been born, built and grown in our state, and what we learn to invent and build and grown more."
State Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican and member of the Bicentennial Commission, has a deeply personal connection to the celebration. Lewis Barker, an ancestor on his mother's side, was Pope County's first state senator, elected to the 1st General Assembly in 1818. Now, as a member of the 100th General Assembly, Butler calls the bicentennial "a tremendously reflective time" for the history of his family and the state.
Butler is awed by Illinois' role in producing giants in politics, the arts, Nobel laureates, entertainment, science and industry. Such a tale transcends a sordid history of public corruption, notably the imprisonment of two governors in a row since 2003, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, Butler said.
The real story, however, is in the state's contributions to industry, business, entertainment, the arts and more, he said.
"It's incumbent on us as Illinoisans to help foster a sense of renewed pride in our state," Butler said. "The last quarter-century, we've had a tough time in our state, especially when it comes to public corruption and our image around the country, coupled with an economic situation that we need to improve. Those of us proud Illinoisans need to tell that (entire) story and lead the charge in renewing who we are and telling that story to the world."
Other states have produced flashy legacy projects, such as the $90 million Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opening next Saturday for that state's bicentennial. Illinois' include a restoration of the 19th Century Executive Mansion, led by Rauner and his wife, Diana; and a "Bicentennial Plaza" on downtown Springfield land owned by Illinois Realtors.
Tony Leone, a former clerk for the Illinois House of Representatives and owner of the historic Pasfield House Inn bed and breakfast just a block from the Capitol, said he and other historians had grander plans a decade ago, but politics and a change of administrations at a critical time — Rauner took over from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2015 — conspired to scuttle grand plans.
Leone continues to lobby to make a bicentennial building out of the former state armory, just north of the Capitol, vacant for nearly a decade. It should house the state historic library, which was moved to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library from its former home in the Old State Capitol, he said.
The budget mess that engulfed state government and produced billions of dollars in debt since Rauner took office makes such a huge investment unlikely in the near future. But Leone pointed out that the monolithic armory is not going anywhere and razing it would be just as cost-prohibitive.
It would be the perfect bookend, Leone said, because just south of the Capitol is what was originally known as the Centennial Building, the legacy project for the state's first 100 years.
"They didn't put a shovel in the ground for the Centennial Building until December 1918," Leone said. "It's not too late."