For most people throughout the country, the mention of Illinois produces a very polarizing contrast of Chicago and rural towns. As a generalization, Chicago typically brings forth images of a corrupt government, high crime, but also a thriving arts community, great pizza, unfortunate sports teams, and all other lore good and bad that the windy city produces. One of the next ideas of Illinois involves a generic view of varying fields of crops dotting the landscape with small possibly backwards towns trying desperately to show that Chicago is only a small portion of the state, and in no way represents state as a whole.
In the late 1960’s west central Illinois residents grew increasingly frustrated that government projects seemed to be blind to a 14 county region of the state including Adams County. A lack of major highways and a mere 5 Mississippi River bridge crossings south of Peoria seemed to further isolate a number of once booming rivertowns that saw a mass exodus of Industry leaving various shells of towns decaying from their once glorious past. 1971 saw a shift from traditional passenger train transportation to a new system of routes as the Amtrak service began. Passenger train service that once flourished on the Chicago to Quincy route was left out in the cold in the initial Amtrak plan serving to further isolate the region from not only large highway access but now passenger train access.
McDonough County residents grew tired of this continuing trend and with tongue firmly planted in cheek, began a campaign for the 14 country region making up the western bulge of Illinois to succeed from the state. This new fictional state would be called Forgottonia setting up shop in the small town of Fandon, Illinois, even proclaiming an acting governor in Neil Gamm, a Western Illinois University Theater major. Gamm was diligent in getting the word out on this mock succession movement. This campaign to shed a national spotlight on the seemingly forgotten area of Illinois was handled much like a political campaign…some would consider it much better constructed then most political campaigns. 25 year old Gamm was a media darling, often sporting an elegant suit and bow tie quick to give out nuggets of insight about the real world issues that this somewhat farcical movement represented.
The media attention of the Forgottonia movement as well as other entities helped focus statewide project funding for west central Illinois. In 1971 the Illinois Service Innitiative with partial funding form the Illinois Department of Transportation created a Quincy to Chicago Amtrak line Cutting through the heart Forgottonia. In the 1980’s and even recently, large statewide highway projects have been focussed on the west central illinois area. In 1974 the spotlight on Neil Gamm and the Forgottonia movement quickly faded leaving few traces of this social movement to increase accessibility throughout the 14 county region that made up Forgottonia.
Cut to 2010
A friend messaged me a blurb about Forgottonia, which I had previously never heard of. The more I found out about it, the more I knew I had to make my way to nearby Fandon, to see for myself the once capitol of this farcical succession movement. Fandon lies about 10 minutes south of Macomb. Recently, a friend and I headed north to discover for ourselves what secrets if any the small town of Fandon, Illinois held. Ironically, we set off on the recently completed highway towards Macomb utilizing my iPhone’s GPS capabilites to navigate our way. No exit sign indicates you are growing close Fandon Illinois, somewhat of a slap in the face considering the Forgottonian movement’s goals. If you blink you will miss it only a simple paved road exits from the highway which if followed will lead you winding down a simple winding road until you find in yourself in the middle of a small town without as much as a sign displaying it’s name. It wasn’t until we noticed the small town’s church and saw in small type the name Fandon did we know were there. Few if any businesses could be seen, some buildings showing their fair share of decay. Contrarily, most of the homes were in great shape, some even undergoing improvements. It struck me as odd that this small community did not have some kind of sign declaring it’s namesake. Did some resident’s of Fandon recall the Forgottonian movement, the days where an eccentric 25 year old Neil Gamm walked the streets media close behind. I couldn’t help but wonder how this movement was received by the lifelong residents of Fandon, Illinois. Perhaps they felt singled out when the town was named as a mock capitol in a movement wanting to show how disconnected and left behind an area could be. I am curious how many people grew irritated with Gamm’s antics and continued poking fun of their small town. Obviously the movement’s goals would benefit Fandon, however to some residents this was home, this strange movement may have seemed to envelop the town against their will. Was the lack of a sign indicating the town’s name intentional? Was this an attempt to make people passing through just keep on going? Were the residents tired of people like us driving through their town hoping to catch a glimpse of the movement that was once Forgottonia?
I think it’s a shame that there isn’t some kind of reminder about what happened in this sleepy town more than 20 years ago. A farcical movement with real goals helped re-connect an area of the state with the Quincy to Chicago amtrak line, as well as helping send government funded highway projects that improved the roads and accessibility of the area. Then again, perhaps the Forgottonian movement is best remembered and shared through random stories passed on, each time serving as a near forgotten gem of how a group of people can evoke positive change…the kind of fuzzy detailed story that becomes a legend as it makes its way down the the roads of time.
Below are some images taken from Our expedition to Fandon Illinois. Photo credits to Thomas Cane.