Roadside History of Illinois, by Stan Banash, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, Mont., 2013, $20
OK, so Illinois is not in the West as we now know it, but this book (illustrated with 120 black-and-white photos) is loaded with information about the Prairie State’s historical places. And, of course, not all Westerners were actually born in the West. For instance, Ronald Reagan, star of such pictures as Cattle Queen of Montana and Santa Fe Trail and onetime host of the TV program Death Valley Days, was an Illinois native (not to mention the only U.S. president born in that state; Abraham Lincoln, who had a monumental influence on the state, was born in Kentucky). Also born in Illinois were two of the Wild West’s most famous lawmen. James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was born on May 27, 1837, in Troy Grove. “The community survives today as a tiny village of about 300 people,” writes author Banash. “A granite monument in the middle of a state park identifies Hickok’s birthplace.…The house itself was torn down in 1929, and the monument was erected later that year. A new bronze bust was installed at the well-maintained site in 2009.” Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848, in an 1841 frame house in Monmouth now operated as the Wyatt Earp Birthplace (open by appointment)—perhaps the best known of “Monmouth’s historical treasures,” says the author.
Banash himself, though born in Chicago, goes by “Tex,” lives in an Old West home and was the editor of Best of Dee Brown’s West: An Anthology (1997). Brown, author of the classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and an Illinois resident for a quarter century, read the original draft of Banash’s Roadside History and wrote a special introduction. “Among the most important events that originated here but proceeded across the American West was the Lewis and Clark expedition,” writes Brown, who died in 2002. “Below present-day Alton, on Wood River near Bellefontaine, the expedition was planned, recruited, outfitted and organized. With all the care that modern astronauts used for the first journey to the moon, Lewis and Clark built a keelboat, trained their young soldiers and began their incomparable journey.” Banash clearly took to the road often to produce this well-researched book, which like others in the series is organized along roadways. Other Western titles in the series include three by Wild West contributor Candy Moulton—Roadside History of Wyoming, Roadside History of Nebraska and Roadside History of Colorado. But even die-hard Westerners should enjoy this roadside visit to the state that produced Hickok, Earp and “Tex” Banash.