Idealistic thoughts

Remembering Springfield’s “greatest citizen after Lincoln”

Idealistic thoughts
Willis J. Spaulding
In 1922 a reporter from the Illinois State Journal dropped by the City Hall offices of Willis J. Spaulding at Seventh and Monroe. Spaulding was then the city’s Commissioner of Public Property. Citing Joshua Reynolds’ insight that a room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts (it was a very long time ago), the reporter inventoried for his readers the pictures hung by the mayor and his city council colleagues in their offices.

On Spaulding’s walls he found that “idealistic thoughts crowd pictorially and artistically” – portraits of famed municipal reformers of the time, anti-slavery crusaders from the 1800s, of John Peter Altgeld, an ink drawing of the Chicago social worker known as the Angel of the Stockyards and framed quotations from the likes of Goethe and Robert Louis Stevenson. “A stranger who had never known Willis Spaulding . . . would take one look at those walls and know the type of man he is – reader, thinker, student of single tax, fighter for economic freedom.”

In City Hall?

In his good (but hard to find) youthful history of the State Journal-Register, Always My Friend, county board president Andy Van Meter praised Spaulding as “the archetypical progressive” with “an unmatchable record of dedication to the community.” Most people know his name – the dam that created Lake Springfield was named for him. Fewer any more know much about the man. He was a progressive of the original type. Among his confederates was socialist Duncan McDonald (see “Radical fellows,” Sept. 5, 2013), poet Vachel Lindsay and his mentor, teacher Susan Wilcox. Each was dedicated in his or her way to making Springfield a better place. People, in short, you cheer on but whom you would never invite to a party.  

A “clean water, clean government” mayor elected in 1909 named Spaulding the superintendent of the Springfield waterworks. The city’s famous thirst for booze owed in no small part to the awfulness of its water, which then came from river wells. Patronage and under-investment had left the city’s waterworks operation a shambles, and Spaulding fixed it.

Corruption and indifference had left pretty much the whole of municipal government in similar shape. Spaulding was among the crusaders who persuaded voters to boot the aldermen out of City Hall and run the city with five commissioners instead. Spaulding himself ran for public works commissioner in the first election under the new nonpartisan system in 1911. What was remarkable was not that he won; Springfield occasionally suffers these fits of reform which, like malaria, recur in an otherwise healthy body. What was remarkable was that Spaulding managed to keep winning even after the fever had passed. He was elected  for a further seven terms.

Public service, and public services, were his mania. He took on the private gas and electricity companies that then served the city over rates and franchise terms. He was instrumental in persuading voters to pass the 1930 referendum that paid for the building of Lake Springfield. (Spaulding knew how to put over a sale; before he took up public service he had been doing very well as a salesman.) For that reason alone, Nelson Howarth, a Spaulding-esque mayor who served three terms between 1955 and 1971, remembered him as the city’s greatest citizen after Lincoln. He was feted in 1949 at a citywide testimonial dinner which Illinois’ then governor and U.S senator attended and which was broadcast live on radio; the four city high schools closed for the occasion.

Certainly we could use a Spaulding or two. Or four or five. The battle is on again between public and private provision of essential services, just as it was a hundred years ago. Spaulding also would likely apply a more sophisticated understanding of the issues to City Water, Light and Power’s alternative energy policies. But could a Willis Spaulding even be elected today? In 1911, it took a crisis – blatant corruption, race riots, polluted tap water – to persuade voters to elect people like Spaulding. Today city government suffers most from complacency, a sort of slow-motion crisis that few voters even notice.

The times also are against a new Spaulding. The original Spaulding was popular mainly for his competence and his honesty. Sadly, technocrats of his sort today suffer from the Trumpish disdain for expertise. The fight for economic freedom in Spaulding’s day meant Henry George’s we’re-all-in-this-togther single tax on land. In ours, it means Ayn Rand-style everyone-for-herself libertarianism. As for honesty, in an era in which self-dealing, long damned as corrupting, is praised as “smart,” the Spaulding family ideals are quaint; brother Charles H. Spaulding was a nationally noted inventor of water treatment technologies who refused to demand money for his patents. (Younger readers will have to take my word that such things once were possible.)

More to the point, perhaps, would it matter if he was elected? His voice would be lost as an alderman, and as mayor he would be hobbled by the ball and chain that is today’s city council. So Spaulding is not a hero for the present, but his time might come again. While we wait we should make certain that his example is not forgotten. Naming the Lake Springfield dam for Spaulding was apt but insufficient. Instead of the anodyne “Municipal Center,” the City of Springfield should call its headquarters the Spaulding Center.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].

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