Oregon, Illinois 1948
The year was 1948, three years after World War II. It was a heady time for many: the men were home from war, jobs were plentiful (not only was the fighting over but so was the Great Depression) and the Baby Boom was on.
For most of the country, a certain restlessness was in the air. Blacks were allowed to play major league baseball for the first time, thus stirring a desire for other, long overdue civil rights; many women had gotten their first real tast of working outside the home and found they liked it; and servicemen, who had seen the world, suddenly found they weren't content with the old homestead anymore. It was a time of change, when the old wasn't good enough, and many wanted something more than what they had. This newborne sentiment, however, was not shared by everyone, especially in small Midwestern towns like Oregon, Illinois, where the past was good enough so why tamper with it?
In some respects, 1948 was still a bit of an untamed time in Oregon. In a town with as much lemonade as afternoon picnics, as well as adultry and bar fights that sometimes only ended when someone reached for a gun. With only two policemen in town and three in the whole county, none with any real professional training and some who were in on the local goings-on, there was much that went unsaid and crimes that weren't always solved. Or could be solved, which really shouldn't be too much of a surprise considering Oregon's past.
To the casual observer, Oregon is a quiet, little town in Northern Illinois, approximately 100 miles west of the hectic pace of Chicago and 35 miles south of the Wisconsin state line - God's Country. An antiquated collage of cracking, old reddish brick buildings, modern homes and down town parking meters that cost a penny, Oregon is a town where everyone knows everyone else's business and seemingly nothing much ever happens, but don't be fooled...
Surrounded by history and three beautiful state parks, the town of 3,500 is as rich in Illinois heritage as it is prime farmland. Since John Phelps built the town's first log cabin in 1833, Oregon has always been a strange mix of old and new, of art and agriculture, of vice and small town values, of "Old West" lawlessness and those who devoted their lives to keeping the law. It's a place where Native Americans and future presidents have both tread, as well as some infamous gangsters.
A dozen miles north of town is the site of the first battle of the Blackhawk War, the only war fought almost entirely in Illinois. A similar distance to the south is the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States. Along the banks of the Rock River, which flows between the two historic places, is the site where John Deere developed his first tractor, thus revolutionizing the ag-industry.
There are also the secret hiding places where Al Capone and his cronies reputedly buried bodies and liquor during Prohibition.
The latter is one of several local legends that, for obvious reasons, can't be confirmed or denied. Another such legend is that Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - who led the North and the South in the civil War - first met in the Oregon area as young men serving in the Blackhawk War of 1832, Lincoln as a young volunteer and Davis as his company's commanding officer.
Lincoln later visited Oregon in much more peaceful times, giving a campaign speech for a fellow Republican. According to one who was there, Lincoln's speech was so enthralling it made local men "forget all about their girls".
A simple, engraved stone on a front lawn on the north side of town marks the spot where Lincoln spoke that hot August afternoon in 1856.
A much larger and more prominent stone marks the namesake of the Blackhawk War. Nestled among the area's noted pine trees on a bluff in Camp Lowden State Park, just outside Oregon, stands the forty-eight-foot Blackhawk Statue. Arms folded over his powerful chest, the stoic Indian chief looks high above the Rock River, as if standing guard over his beloved valley. (The statue is also, unintentionally, a grim reminder of whose land this once was.)
The statue was created by sculptor Loredo Taft. Taft, who created several other works of art throughout the country in Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington D.C., was responsible for starting the Eagles Nest Art Colony which was held near his prominent statue. Among the writers and painters who gathered there every summer to enjoy nature and create endearing works of art were novelist Garland Hamlin and the feminist author Margaret Fuller.
Since the art colony disbanded many years later, the Loredo taft Campus has been used by Northern Illinois University for its outdoor education program. Besides science, school children throughout the state study the natural beauty of the area.
And what a lovely area it is. One visitor once described the nearby Rock River, which flows through the east end of Oregon, as "the Hudson of the West". Besides the river and the state parks, the immediate area contains a miniature dam, an outside zoo known as Deer Park, a renowned Christmas tree farm, a ranch for children, a castle (bulit by a former publisher of the Chicago Tribune as a weekend retreat for his family), and two family campgrounds. For many years one of the campgrounds hosted a summer reunion of Vietnam veterans, including the radio disc jockey, Adrian Cronauer, featured in the Robin Williams' movie, "Good Morning Vietnam".
Another annual event that took place in Oregon for many summers was harness racing, which was held at the old county fairgrounds on the north end of town, a few blocks past Lincoln's marker. Many famous trainers and horses circled the dusty track, including Judge James Cartwright who started a very successful horse stable in the early part of the 20th century. So attached did the the judge become to his animals that he insisted he be buried next to his most successful horse. Since such an arrangement is against the law, the judge decreed he be buried at the very outskirt of the town's most prominent cemetery, which is located on a hill outside the fairgrounds. A few feet away from the judge, just outside the legal barrier of the cemetery is the final resting place of the judge's favorite steed. Simply the judge's way of abiding by the law and yet getting his way at the same time, a strangely characteristic Oregon trait.
In its time, the Oregon racetrack drew a wide range of visitors throughout the country, both as spectators and contestants, including some you may have heard of. From Missouri came two well-known brothers - Jesse and Frank James. The outlaws, along with the Dalton Gang, stopped by the fairground one summer day to try their horse racing skills en route to a bank job in Northfield, Minnesota. Despite the fears of some, and the relief of many more, it was later ascertained the James brothers never mixed business with pleasure so the local bank was safe. (Sadly, there's no record of how the brothers did that day - at least at the race, that is.)
The James brothers and Judge Cartwright weren't the only characters to cross Oregon's border - on either side of the law. Oregon was once the home of a western outlaw named Black Bart. It was also the home of the youngest associate judge in the history of the United States, as well as the former residence of two Illinois governors. One of those governors, Thomas Ford, wrote the definitive early history of the state. A judge before he took office in the state capital, Ford presided over one of the more infamous court cases in local history, which fully illustrates the kind of justice there was in Oregon in those days.
Before the town became the seat of Ogle County, a group of bandits known as the "Prairie Pirates" rooted in Oregon. Unhindered by law enforcement, which was virtually non-existent, the Pirates terrorized the entire Midwest, ranging as far south as Texas, looting and killing.
The mayhem continued until local citizens had finally had enough. Forming their own group, which they called "The Regulators", these vigilantes decided to take matters into their own hands and left the culprits hanging in the wind, so to speak. Taken to trial, in what one reporter referred to as a "kangaroo court", the Regulators were all found not guilty when no one would come forward to accuse them.
A hundred years later, that same courthouse marked the first time in U.S. history that a sheriff shot and killed a state's attorney. The local state's attorney had gone on a shooting rampage, killing his own wife and son as well as wounding a sheriff's deputy. A list found later on the state's attorney's body made it clear he intended to kill a number of local judges and attorneys he felt had conspired against him in his unsuccessful attempt to be appointed a judgeship. Trapped in the local jail next to the courthouse, the sheriff ended the rampage with a single, well-placed bullet.
A few blocks away sits an inconspicuous pizza restaurant with arguably the best Italian food in town. The restaurant, reputed to be fortified with bullet-proof glass, was part of the so-called Pizza Connection in which the Mafia channeled cocaine throughout the country via small town pizza restaurants. The owner of the restaurant, a well-respected, local family man, was gunned down in the streets of New York city on his way to testify at the federal court house. Somehow surviving the shooting, the man later fled the country to avoid prosecution on child abuse charges.
Another chapter in Oregon's long, colorful history where you can't always tell good guys from the bad.