The Strange Plight of One Heart of Illinois County

by Pj Little

An old legend claims the Illinois River Valley is magic. Take a leisurely drive down Old Rome Road in Peoria late at night when the summer weather is warm, the moon is full, and the birds are silent… then one might find it.

A thousand years before the Europeans discovered it, this valley was 95 miles of unfettered beauty, alive with native wildlife and waterfowl; abundant fruits, nuts and herbs; and undisturbed forest lands. It was inhabited by Native American peoples who had lived in the Great Lakes and Mississippi River region for many years. Ultimately, it was this natural beauty and abundant bounty that inspired our ancestors to stay and carve out a life.

And so, from the northern borders of Marshall and Stark counties to the southwestern border of Mason County, the region known today as the Illinois River Valley was formed. But who or what actually defined this valley? Was it the native peoples encountered by Father Jacques Marquette, or perhaps it was Monsieur Du Sable? Likewise, who declared Peoria the “Heart of Illinois?” Was it the fledgling, low-power radio and television stations? Perhaps newspaper advertising dollars?

These are curious questions that may seem trivial to some. But their answers have had a significant impact on the opportunities for growth and development for one county in particular, which at times seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Rich and Resourceful
Mason County, the southwestern-most county in the Illinois River Valley, is a farming county. Exports include grains, corn, soybeans, livestock and other products, yet it has few residents (less than 15,000). Its small communities are spread throughout the county, separated by acres of corn and soybeans and groves of ancient trees that crisscross the county like silent sentinels. Most are designated by the U.S. Census Bureau as “populated places,” which are neither cities, nor towns, nor villages—nor are they listed by name and population in the national census report.

Mason has an interesting history dating to before the time of Julius Caesar. Between 100BC and 200CE, the “mound builders” inhabited the region, constructing mounds and villages in Mason and Fulton counties, including Rockwell Mound, which stands nearly 14 feet high and covers nearly two acres. In 1894, the Stephen A. Forbes Biological Station was built; today, it is located in the Frank C. Bellrose Waterfowl Research Center at Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge and is the oldest inland field station in North America. Located outside of Havana, Chautauqua consists of over 6,000 acres of reclaimed natural habitat of upland forest areas and native grasses, where once-plentiful waterfowl and wildlife are again returning to rest, feed and nest before leaving on their annual trek south. Both Chautauqua and the nearby Emiquon Refuge in Fulton County are part of the Illinois River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, their combined habitat a national treasure.

Havana, the seat of Mason County government, is nestled on the banks of the Illinois River. It is historically known as a place where Lincoln and Douglas rested and spoke on several occasions, though they did not debate there. Lesser known is its circa-1900 designation as “Tourist Capital of Illinois” for its natural beauty and abundant wildlife.

The early 1900s brought Prohibition, Art Deco, the Lindy Hop and Al Capone to Mason County. Some say Capone had 30 gambling boats on the river and was determined to turn Havana into a "Little Reno" with girls, cards and bootleg whiskey. It ended, appropriately enough, one Halloween night, when all of Capone's enterprises in Mason County were shut down at the same "bewitching" hour in a well-timed raid by federal, state, county and city police. (Who said cops don't have a sly sense of humor?)

Mason County Today
Today, Mason County is a mix of past and present, with brick-lined roads and old-fashioned street lights, beautiful Victorian homes and exquisite, 19th-century brick buildings. It also features a modern hospital with emergency air transport capabilities; a business park near U.S. 136; an industrial park with water, rail and land access; and a beautiful riverfront.

Mason is a partner in TransPORT, the six-county Heart of Illinois Regional Port District, with the capability to manage commercial tonnage via water, rail, air and land. It offers transit to eight state and federal routes, with easy access to an international airport. Its products range from local wines at Willett's Winery, to hand-thrown pottery at Lost Creek Pottery, to seasonal fruits and vegetables at Hodgson Produce & Greenhouses.

It is home to a busy, seasonal marina and a waterfront park that includes walking trails, a boat launch, a playground and campsites. It offers waypoint access to the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway and brings people together for a range of unique events, from comedy at Mason City Limits Comedy Club to racing at the Central Illinois Dragway to the World's Largest Fish Fry in the Village of Bath. Oktoberfest and the Bass Pro fishing tournament, which brings a traveling aquarium filled with native fish to Havana, are also perennial favorites.

County in Limbo
In spite of these amenities, I believe that Mason County has potential that’s never been explored. Why is that?

The answer is complicated. Mason County’s population is small and spread out. One-third of the county is closer to Tazewell and Peoria, while another third is closer to Sangamon County and Springfield. The final third is in the middle and not near much of anything—except what is available locally. There is no real consensus as to where the majority shop, work and dine; it is more a matter of distance than of convenience.

Mason County residents visit and shop both Peoria and Springfield, read Peoria and Springfield newspapers, and watch Peoria radio and television stations. Yet Mason is not included in the Springfield MSA, nor in the Peoria MSA. Five of the six TransPORT counties are included in the “Peoria area,” but Mason is not. Where did Mason County disappear?

It appears that because Mason County lacks the required concentration of residents to meet some obscure federal standard, it stands alone, so to speak, and does not belong to a larger MSA. The result is that Mason is in limbo. It receives no resident services from Tazewell County or Logan County, and services from Springfield or Peoria are very limited. Further, it has a bare minimum of state and federal resources, despite a federal highway and two state routes that pass through the county.

Charting the Potential
And yet change comes, albeit slowly. Traffic through Mason County continues to rise since I-39 opened. For the first time, Havana and Mason County are mentioned in weather reports from one Peoria television station and in NOAA weather alerts from the Lincoln office in Logan County. The face of business is changing, too, with several new and expanding businesses and a new recycling plant. Havana also has some exciting plans for future expansion, including a hotel, small convention center, and waterpark—plans which had previously been scuttled by the poor economy.

Mason County has much to offer: a slower pace, solid county services, excellent medical care, and land with access roads set aside for business development and industrial expansion. Yet there is room to grow and bring in new ideas—and new business.

I can envision a future in which Mason County has public transit and a rotating medical group to bring in additional supportive services, such as otolaryngology and hospice. I can also envision a low-cost service for small appliance and home repair, computer repair and repurposed electronics, expanded senior services, a small used furniture shop, a teen center, even a hands-on program for aspiring Master Gardeners. All would have practical applications.

This past year, Mason joined forces with Woodford, Peoria and Tazewell counties to form an economic strategy group that ultimately became the Regional Strategy Policy Steering Committee. It is adopting the best practices successfully employed in other areas across the nation, including a framework for economic development that begins with regional collaboration and leads to a cohesive regional brand that promotes and sustains this region’s competitive advantages.

Mason County may be involved in this strategy group simply for its inclusion in this region’s little-known, federally-designated Economic Development District, which is charged with overseeing the regional Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, another federal designation. In any case, I feel very strongly that Mason’s participation in these efforts will foster future economic growth in a small county that has been stuck, so to speak, in a no man’s land of designation—or lack thereof.

Why Mason Is Important
Not only is Mason County a great place to raise a family and grow a business, equally important are its wealth of natural resources. From the underappreciated Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge to nearby Emiquon, Mason lies at the heart of the Mississippi Flyway and the National Wildlife Refuge System, its lands designated “Wetlands of International Importance” by the Ramsar Convention.

Mason County features the oldest field station in Illinois, the largest fish hatchery in the state, and the Henry Allen Gleason Nature Preserve, which lies in Sand Ridge State Forest, the largest state forest in Illinois. All of these are incredibly important to maintaining the natural ecosystem and a delicate balance between man and nature.

No matter how we define this beautiful Illinois River Valley, we are all part of a greater picture that includes its continuing economic development, while protecting its abundant natural assets. We are unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno—“one for all, all for one.” iBi

Pj Little lives in Mason County and has a keen interest in the economic development and natural resources of the Illinois River Valley. Pj can be reached at little.pj@aol.com.

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