Tag Archives: University of Illinois

Harvesting the History of Corn

CBR_Logo2Midwest Maize:
How Corn Shaped the U.S. Heartland
by Cynthia Clampitt

As we approach Harvest Moon this weekend, it seems a fitting time to look at one of the country’s biggest crops: corn. Local author and food historian Cynthia Clampitt has done just that in her remarkable new book, Midwest Maize.

Those of us who live here—and anyone who has ever driven south of I-80—will know how prevalent corn is in Illinois and across the Midwest. But chances are that few of us have thought much about corn as we pass row after row after row, aside from, perhaps, entertaining the cliché “knee high by the 4th of July.” Clampitt, however, has delved much deeper in this thoroughly researched history of the crop that all but turned the Midwest into America’s Heartland.

midwest maize 9780252080579An exhaustive history, Midwest Maize traces the origins of the crop, the only indigenous cereal grain in North America. From its ancient uses among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to its role among early settlers in the original colonies to its role in shaping the United States, Clampitt leaves no kernel unturned as she explores corn and all its varieties, from field corn to sweet corn to popcorn and beyond. She digs into the sowing, hoeing, and harvesting of corn, shedding light into the history of husking bees that brought neighbors together and built communities. She looks into preserving and preparing corn (the book even includes recipes), and she examines the various products that come from corn, from whiskey to corn starch to myriad breakfast cereals to ethanol and biodiesel. And, she examines the inventions surrounding corn that helped build the Midwest, including John Deere’s tractors, which today are used around the world.

Clampitt demonstrates that corn and all its derivatives shaped the Midwest and the United States not only by providing a crop that today we likely could not live without but by prompting developments sparked by corn. She argues that corn has direct ties to the development of Chicago, where farmers would bring their harvests, first on roads, then via the I&M canal, then via railroads. She explains that Chicago’s Union Stockyards grew in large part to the readily available crops of feed corn that led to massive growth in the population of cattle and hogs. Although other crops might possibly have filled the void had corn not been so prevalent, one is left to wonder whether Chicago would be what it is today had not corn led to such expansive growth.

Midwest Maize is a truly remarkable history, illustrating an ongoing domino effect produced by a crop that many of us think little about. It’s a fascinating look at something that most of us rarely consider beyond whether we’ll grill or boil corn on the cob for summer cookouts or whether we’ll use canned corn or frozen corn in that Thanksgiving casserole. Corn, though, as Clampitt ably demonstrates, has tremendous reach, a crop that today has become all but indispensable.

Beyond the history of corn and how it shaped the heartland, Clampitt also touches on some of the more controversial aspects surrounding the subject, including traditional vs organic vs sustainable farming as well as the problem of food waste, concerns surrounding using feed corn to fatten up livestock, and the diminishing numbers of farmers at a time when food scarcity and food security are such important issues around the world.

Packed with interesting details, Midwest Maize is an informative read, and one that might well be of interest to fans of Mark Kurlansky’s books Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Fascinating overall, the tale at times gets bogged down in minutiae, but Clampitt’s research and reportage sustains the book, providing readers with a unique look at an adaptable plant that does so much for so many, providing not only food but myriad other resources that most of us take for granted.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, University of Illinois Press
History/Food History
$19.95, paperback, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-08057-9

“And pray what more can a reasonable man desire,
in peaceful times, than a sufficient number of ears of
green sweet corn boiled, with the addition of salt?”
—Henry David Thoreau

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Read more about the book.


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A Guide to the Architectural Gems of ‘the Most Beautiful Great City’

CBR_Logo2AIA Guide to Chicago
Third Edition
by American Institute of Architects;
Alice Sinkevitch and Laurie McGovern Petersen, Editors

Funny, isn’t it, how transplants often know a city’s landmarks better than the locals. It’s so easy as a local of a major metropolis to push aside going to its museums, historic sites, or other attractions—the excuses are as numerous as they are flimsy: they’re too touristy, there’s not enough time, they’re too expensive, they’re too inconvenient, etc., etc.

AIA Guide Chicago 9780252079849Locals and tourists alike no longer have any good reason to miss seeing Chicago’s many architectural gems, thanks to the publication of AIA Guide to Chicago. This third edition, released just this summer, is packed with hundreds of visit-worthy architectural sites across the city, from lakeshore to West Side, from north to south.

Last updated in 2004, this new edition adds a decade’s worth of progress—beautiful, stark, or controversial—including Aqua, Millennium Park, and Trump Tower. This edition features three dozen maps, charts, and tables as well as more than 450 black-and-white photographs and illustrations. The guide also features a new preface from WTTW’s Geoffrey Baer, whose popular PBS specials hit a number of the architectural highlights in the book.

Arranged by neighborhood, the guide is divided into four main sections comprised of twenty chapters that take readers building by building and street by street through the neighborhoods of the Loop and the South Loop, the North and Northwest Sides, the West Side and suburban Oak Park, and the South and Southwest Sides. Each section gets a minihistory of the area, noting how it first developed and, in many cases, fell into decay before becoming gentrified (or not). Detailed maps serve as fodder for self-guided tours, although the guide does not advise whether readers should walk or drive through certain areas (or, for that matter, whether it is wise to even get out of your car in some neighborhoods). Some of the maps might have readers walking around in circles every now and again, but even those circuitous routes would be worthwhile since they highlight some of the city’s wonderful architectural gems.

The many gems found in these pages are both well known and little known, and it is this expansive scope that makes the AIA Guide to Chicago so enthralling. The editors and contributors have in these pages hit the major highlights—the Sears Tower (sorry: can’t call it “Willis” yet), the Hancock, the Monadnock, the Rookery—but they also have revealed countless lesser-known buildings peppered throughout the city. Readers, for instance, will find information about the William V. O’Brien House on Arlington Place, “one of the city’s most unusual for its era;” the Cardinal Meyer Center, originally “Soldiers’ Home,” on 35th Street, “a rare example of a surviving Civil War-era building in Chicago;” and the Warren McArthur and George W. Blossom houses on Kenwood, “the most important of the ‘bootlegged’ commissions done while [Frank Lloyd Wright] was working for Adler & Sullivan.”

Indeed, Wright, Adler, and Sullivan are just a few of the popular architects whose structures are featured in these pages. Readers also will find listings for buildings created by the likes of E. E. Roberts, George W. Maher, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frederick Schock. More recent entries include those by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Frank Gehry; and Mies van der Rohe. As might be expected, most of the structures and places covered in the book date to the early twentieth century during the post-Great Fire building boom, although this new edition features a number of buildings from recent years as well.

In addition to residences, office buildings, and government buildings, readers also will find information about parks and cemeteries and the structures and grounds therein. Even O’Hare Airport gets special attention, with a few pages dedicated to its terminals and outbuildings.

One could easily spend the better part of nearly every weekend for six months exploring the buildings and other sites detailed in these pages. For those who don’t wish to dedicate quite so much time exploring the city and its architectural treasures, it’s just as easy to pick one or two of the neighborhoods to explore using the detailed maps. Even those who prefer armchair adventure will find much to enjoy in this expansive guide, packed as it is with images and history.

AIA Guide to Chicago makes it difficult to come up with an excuse not to explore the city, whether in person or virtually through these pages. Architecture buffs, historians, Chicagophiles … whether tourist or local, there is something of interest to many a reader in this fact-filled guide.

Four-Star Review

June 2014, University of Illinois Press
$34.95, paperback, 550 pages
Architecture/Local History/Travel
ISBN: 978-0-252-07984-9

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the book.
Learn more about AIA Chicago.

Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.
—Frank Lloyd Wright

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Chicago: “Bridgetown”

CBR_Logo2Chicago River Bridges
by Patrick T. McBriarty

Chicago, “the city that works,” wouldn’t work nearly as well were it not for the scores of bridges that crisscross the Chicago River, linking the North Side and the South Side, connecting people and business and commerce and transportation and shipping and leisure. These many bridges also connect the city’s present to its past, revealing a history of Chicago from before this city on the marsh was technically even a city.

Patrick McBriarty has crafted a lovingly told and thoroughly researched history of the bridges that now span and once spanned the river in Chicago River Bridges, a large-format, fully illustrated guide that chronicles more than 175 bridges in 55 locations on the North Branch, South Branch, and Main Channel of the Chicago River. Packed with nearly 200 illustrations, maps, and photographs, the book is an exhaustive, detailed examination of the bridges and the city that grew up around them.

McBriartyF13From the first footbridge (built in 1832 by a tavern owner) to today’s modern marvels of engineering, McBriarty chronicles Chicago’s downtown bridges. Readers will find detailed information about the structures themselves, including architectural, mechanical, and technical details as well as information about the politics behind them, from debates about funding to discussions about ownership to arguments about placement. Engineering innovations are brought to life as McBriarty shares exacting details about materials and designs, explaining how the Chicago-style bascule bridge influenced bridge building worldwide.

For those readers whose eyes might glaze over with all the mechanical and technical information, which at times can feel microscopic, McBriarty colors these pages with lively descriptions of political and financial fights that helped or hindered bridges during the city’s history. Stories also abound of various bridge-related mishaps, from ships running aground and slamming into bridge pilings to horse-and-wagon accidents that tossed animals, humans, and cargo off bridges and into the river to the 2004 incident involving a Dave Matthews Band bus, the Kinzie Street bridge, a tourist boat, and a lot of sewage—to a sickening result. Floods and fires also populate these pages, serving as example after example of a city that perseveres.

McBriarty’s enthusiasm for Chicago and its bridges shines through on each and every page of Chicago River Bridges, as does his attention to detail. The book is literally packed with information, and punctuated with “historical highlights” and various sidebars, evidence of the effort the author put into researching and writing the book, which is something of a companion to his documentary film Chicago Drawbridges, coproduced with Stephen Hatch.

Architecture, design, engineering, history, human drama, politics—Chicago River Bridges has all of this and more. It is beautifully designed and well written, making for a lovely package for enthusiasts. Whether all readers will find each and every bridge—and each and every iteration of each and every bridge at each and every crossing of each and every branch of the river—entirely as fascinating as the author may be a question, but there’s certainly something for just about anyone in these pages.

Three-Star Review

October 2013, University of Illinois Press
Regional History
$44.95, hardcover, 329 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03786-3

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen


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