Nobody sets out purposefully to explore the region of west central Illinois known colloquially as Forgottonia. The place creeps up on you as gently as a childhood memory, and it is only later that you realize you have set foot in this unmarked republic of corn, dust and melancholy. As its name suggests, it is less a place than a feeling—a sense of having slipped away from the present moment into some other time stream, which has been dammed up by indifference and neglect and now registers only as a trickle.
The deeply rural parts of Forgottonia, which are everywhere, seem to exist as a refuge for the left-behind and the going-nowhere-slowly. To the traveler, they offer atmosphere without activity, and are conducive to nothing more strenuous than a meditative solitude. It is the atmosphere captured so poignantly by Forgottonia native Edgar Lee Masters in his elegiac “Spoon River Anthology.” The region has always felt embedded in a disappearing agrarian past.
Forgottonia did not achieve actual statehood, but it did briefly crystallize as a state of mind. In the early 1970s, residents of the fourteen counties that define the western rump of Illinois—more or less between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers—launched a satirical secession movement to protest the region’s stepchild status in Springfield.
Neil Gamm, a Vietnam vet and Western Illinois University theater major, named himself governor of the breakaway commonwealth and established its capital in an abandoned building in Fandon, a microscopic hamlet hidden in the woods of McDonough County. Wearing an elegant frock coat, bow tie, boutonniere and impish grin, Gamm became an instant media darling.
According to Western Illinois Magazine, his republic had all the accoutrements of state and even nationhood, including an official bird (the albatross) and flower (the forget-me-not), as well as ambitious plans for a military academy and missile base, apparently if things got ugly with Iowa. Inspired by Gamm’s goofy, street-theater charisma and their own sense of grievance, movement adherents would brandish the Forgottonian flag—a blank white sheet, naturally—at town parades and political events throughout the fourteen counties.
The intervening years note a modicum of progress on some of the issues raised by the Forgottonians. Transportation was the real hot button, and after decades of deferred promises, the area finally has a four-lane regional expressway of its own, the Quincy-to-Macomb Illinois Route 336. Rail service, which has suffered many a cutback and crisis over the years, has recently improved markedly, with twice-a-day Amtrak runs between Chicago and both Macomb and Quincy.
But in a place like Forgottonia, there are no easy or clear victories. The state route draws traffic away from the two-lanes and the small towns they serve, to the detriment of whatever local merchants remain. Progress as defined by a Walmart-saturated culture is not on the side of the farming communities of this fertile and comely region. Better roads mean quicker access to the area’s small cities, accelerating the emptying of town squares, the elimination of local jobs and the transformation of once-bustling villages into economic suburbs of nowhere.
Plymouth, Illinois—the town pictured in this essay—is such a place. Ensconced twenty miles southwest of the college town of Macomb in the rich farmland of Hancock County, this village of 500 or so souls can be seen as Ground Zero of Forgottonia, embodying both its depressing physical decay and enduring human connection.
Joyce Steiner has called Plymouth home since 1988. There she operates the Plymouth Rock Roost Bed and Breakfast, set in an opulent, many-gabled mansion built a century ago by resident banker Henry Grandville Metzger. A born collector with a good eye for the ceramic, Steiner also owns a substantial antiques business on the square, which serves as Plymouth’s major attraction.
She somehow manages to keep both enterprises going in a village that, like others in the region, is essentially an economic ghost town, hollowed out by the forces of modernity and corporate concentration. At one time, the town center housed three groceries, banks, a movie theater, a dry goods and hardware store, and cars would line up around the square on market days. Now the crumbling storefronts cannot be given away. Hancock County would seem to be too young for ruins, yet there are sections of Plymouth that feel like a downstate Pompeii.
Although Steiner grew up on a nearby farm, and her grandparents were married in neighboring Nauvoo in 1891, she and her late husband Ben were seen as outsiders when they purchased the stately old Metzger pile. In those days, they and a handful of other residents dreamed of reviving Plymouth’s fortunes by transforming it into a bedroom community for Macomb. It seemed a sensible plan for a town of spacious and handsome houses, in need of fixing up but available (now as then) for the price of a compact car.
“A few people can make a big difference in a small town—but Plymouth was very resistant to being saved,” notes Steiner ruefully. Put-upon communities, like people, have only their pride, which can take the form of denial and a stubborn fatalism; there was little constituency for change. And so Steiner has witnessed business consolidation, school consolidation and even religious consolidation, as the four Methodist churches in the area have combined into one. The population continues to age and dwindle.
“Is it still Forgottonia? Absolutely,” says Steiner, who was involved in the original Forgottonia movement and is in proud possession of the group’s original white-on-white flag. While well aware of the area’s realities, she is not without hope. “There’s lots of things going on, if we could just get anybody to pay attention,” she declares, voicing what could serve as the Forgottonian state motto. Steiner mentions such encouraging domestic improvements as a new sewer, as well as the village’s proximity to Nauvoo, the historic river town whose massive Mormon Temple opened in 2002 and serves as a major regional destination.
The best thing going on, however, are the people one meets in Forgottonia—like Dave Ellis, the young mayor of Plymouth who, as Steiner notes in her weekly newspaper column, stopped to help a driver with a flat tire, and was immediately joined by another local Samaritan. Or Dot Burdett, who just turned 90, and would be happy to show you sepia photos of herself as an acrobat, touring the Midwest after having left her Depression-era home at the age of 16 to marry and join the circus. The people seem immensely real and solid, because their roots are deeper than we are used to.
Forgottonia is a kind of negative image of urban America—which from the Forgottonian perspective presents itself as the indifferent republic of… well, let’s call it Oblivia for lack of a better term. Forgottonia is economically deprived, yet has a sense of place that is tangible and compelling, a product of thick neighborly ties and an intimate relationship to history and nature. Oblivia has (or had) a commercially driven dynamism, but too often at the expense of connection and belonging.
Oblivia’s aggressive culture long ago ran roughshod over Forgottonia and overwhelmed her modest self-sufficiency. But who, I wonder, really leads the less memorable existence: the fast-track, networking yuppie with 500 Facebook “friends” and neither kith nor kin, or the struggling and invisible Forgottonian, who at least is part of something that did not come into existence yesterday and will not dissolve tomorrow?
Joyce Steiner tells me that one Metzger descendant still lives in Plymouth—an aging recluse, the end of an illustrious line. Forgottonia seems a little like the last of the Metzgers: preferring to keep herself to herself and wary of strangers, probably for good reason. If you can maneuver past the reticence, she is worth getting to know. She has things to tell us of place and people that we forget at our own peril.