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WGLT's series that helps Bloomington-Normal's newest residents learn about the community as it exists, and empowers them to make it the home they want it to be.

Welcome Home: Understanding history shapes newcomers' image of Twin City community

Governor, U.N. Ambassador, and two-time Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II hailed from Bloomington
Emily Bollinger
Adlai Stevenson II, Illinois governor, U.N. ambassador, and two-time presidential candidate, hailed from Bloomington.

History connects people through time. And learning how the past links to the present is basic to understanding the human condition. In our series on transplants to the Twin Cities, WGLT has found history matters to several people who have moved to central Illinois.

"There are places I'll remember all my life, though some have changed, some forever not for better. Some have gone and some remain. All these places had their moments," goes the Beatles song, "In My Life."

History helps us understand why societies are the way they are and what they value. Bloomington-Normal society of today was not created on the spur of the moment.

“After all, everything has a story. What we see today ... comes from somewhere,” said transplant Kenny Haggard.

Haggard grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He went to Eastern Illinois University, where he met his wife. Haggard works for State Farm. He said the context of where you live is a good place to start learning how you can become involved in creating a beloved community.

For instance, Haggard and his family lived overseas for seven years, in Albania. He said knowing Albania was a closed country for most of the 20th century under an autocratic regime let him understand why a simple thing like a bread shop is the way it is.

“The bakeries pretty much all look the same. Even today, they all look the same. And it's the history of communism. You didn't have a choice in a communist country. This is what a bakery looked like. This is what it was. And so business owners still today have that kind of remnant left. There's just an expectation of what a bread shop should look like,” said Haggard.

Cultural norms can be sticky. Haggard also said the style of bread is still uniform in Albania. And the ethos of customer service, the attitude of give the people variety or they'll go down the street to someone else, is missing in Albania. The bread is what it is.

Haggard said he's fascinated by the relationships and interplay among various peoples. He spent time in the McLean County Museum of History looking at population growth and the movement of groups in and out: Germans, Irish Swedes,. and now Latinx. Haggard's family moved to the South Hill neighborhood in Bloomington when they came to town. Nearby, there is a historic plaque.

“And they talked about how the church that's right by our home was founded by German immigrants. Today, we know there's a strong Latino-Hispanic population that attend the church in the afternoon. Some of the people in the church will set up a little stand with some fruit when things that go on and it's great,” said Haggard.

"A graveyard is an old agreement made between the living and the living who have died that said we keep their names and dates alive. This bridge connects our daily lives to theirs and makes them once our neighbors, our neighbors once again." - poet Thomas Lynch
Emily Bollinger
"A graveyard is an old agreement made between the living and the living who have died that said we keep their names and dates alive. This bridge connects our daily lives to theirs and makes them once our neighbors, our neighbors once again." - poet Thomas Lynch

Haggard finds the dynamic of the neighborhood change fascinating.

Aaron Levin, also a State Farm employee and Illinois Wesleyan University assistant basketball coach, said knowing the history of a place helps him feel connected. Sometimes, even the most basic Bloomington-Normal things are a mystery.

“People ask me, well, you live in Normal, Illinois. How did it get its name? I don't have a response for them, but it's something that I'd like to learn,” said Levin.

In point of fact, the town of Normal used to be called North Bloomington. As public schools started to form in the state, there was a need for teachers to staff them. Back when town founder Jesse Fell schemed and finagled to bring what became Illinois State University to the area, it was to be a "Normal school," part of a broad effort to create the profession of teaching. The Normal school movement originated in Massachusetts in 1839 and spread nationwide. Legislation to create Illinois State Normal University was signed in 1857. The town changed its name from North Bloomington to Normal in 1865.

“It makes a ton of sense when people say, 'Oh, it's a great school for education.' I think that is the fabric of the town,” said Levin.

Normal had only a couple dozen houses back then. Further in the past, there was a much bigger town in McLean County. In the 1700s, the Grand Village of the Kickapoo had up to 1,000 Native American people living near Ellsworth. Between the French and British fur trade, proxy wars fought with tribal allies, disease, and then westward settlement in the U.S., the village was much reduced by the time a U.S. Army force under the command of future president Zachary Taylor burned it in 1813.

“We forget that we weren't the first ones here. Knowing that almost gives a further and deeper appreciation for where we are now,” said Levin.

Levin grew up in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. He said more recent political history matters to him. Bloomington-Normal has contributed a couple of governors to the state, Joe Fifer and Adlai Stevenson II, a U.S. vice president, Adlai Stevenson I, several national leaders of the women's suffrage movement, the first woman state senator in Illinois, Florence Fifer Bohrer, and on and on.

It was a regular stop for a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln and was a founding area for the Republican Party. Bloomington-Normal has sent a Democrat to Congress only a few times since statehood. All that political history helps Levin make sense of the current climate.

“Looking at the state of Illinois and seeing the map of all that blue in the northeast corner of the state and then seeing the red sprawl here. It's just eye opening,” said Levin.

And then there's that tiny little Bloomington insurance company of the 1920, which is not so tiny anymore. Levin said the State Farm Museum at corporate headquarters taught him the roots of the company were in policies for farmers and as a mutual instead of a traded stock company. He said that helps explain company culture.

“The fabric of it now, and how it's different types of insurance all into one. And seeing to me how Bloomington-Normal is composed of different pockets all stitched together in one company in one community is pretty fascinating,” said Levin.

Not every transplant finds interest in the socio-political history of Bloomington Normal.

Karyn Regner works in parks and rec in Normal. She, too, was a Chicago suburban kid. She's interested in the history of the land made fertile as the glaciers dropped rich soil during their retreat from the last ice age. For Regner, natural assets matter like Clinton Lake, the Funks Grove Nature Center, the Parklands Foundation, Comlara Park, Moraine View State Park, and the Mackinaw River — or they would be key if transplants knew about them.

“I'll be totally honest. I really only know of like Comlara Park and obviously Constitution Trail. Some of the other areas like Funks Grove I had never even heard of before,” said Regner.

She said the community could do a better job assembling a central list of recreational opportunities in the region.

Regner is a people person. She said natural areas affect her sense of community as people meet while walking, hiking, biking or boating.

“It's almost like nature brings this sense of, I don't know if positivity is the right word, but it gives us a sense of, 'Hey, I'm out here enjoying nature, just like you are, just kind of having that friendly, kind of chat for a minute,'” said Regner.

The land helps create identity, she said, whether it's the Colorado mountains where she once lived, or central Illinois cornfields and Route 66.

“I think for me, it's not necessarily a mental road map. It's more just exploring somewhere that I haven't been before. Maybe I'll take a new trail or a new route,” said Regner.

And for Kenny Haggard, Aaron Levin and Karyn Regner, the facts of history in Bloomington-Normal, in central Illinois, are not dry academic things. They breathe life into and inform the way people live now because people themselves are living histories.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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