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How Corn Changed Itself and Then Changed Everything Else

A Road Scholar Program by Cynthia Clampitt

About 10,000 years ago, a weedy grass growing in Mexico that possessed a strange trait known as a “jumping gene” transformed itself into a larger and more useful plant: the cereal grass that we would come to know as maize and then as corn. Although many American history textbooks mention corn only in the context of rescuing a few early European settlers, it sustained the colonies and then the early United States. It then virtually created the created the Midwest, a region settled faster than any other in history – thanks to corn.

In the early 1900s, students in Illinois were required to memorize a speech given by Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby in 1892 in Chicago, in which he extolled “The royal corn…The corn triumphant! That with the aid of man hath made victorious procession across the tufted plain and laid foundations for the social excellence that is and is to be.” Everyone knew that Illinois was built on corn, and it continues to be sustained by it.

At present, Illinois is the second-place corn-growing state in the nation. McLean County, Illinois, is the first-place corn-growing county in the nation. People moved to Illinois with the purpose of growing corn. They moved here with such speed that Chicago, a small bit of swampy land on the edge of Lake Michigan purchased from Potawatomi Indians in 1833, could only sixty years later host one of the greatest World’s Fairs of all time. Illinois history is corn history – yet, today, many Illinoisans have little direct experience with the sources of their food and the people who produce it. Even for those who know corn well, there is much to learn about its historic impact and why it is so vital today.

This event is Free and Open to the public. For more information, please contact Sherry Sparks at sparks3@adams.net.