GOLCONDA — Over the years, thousands of at-risk youth, most from Chicago, have come and gone through the Golconda Job Corps program in deep Southern Illinois. They have contributed to upkeep of the Shawnee National Forest, assisted with community projects around the region and responded to natural disasters far and wide while earning a high school equivalency diploma and/or technical job training.
Employees are hoping the center in rural Pope County hasn’t reached the end of the line.
Though the Department of Labor has proposed shuttering the Golconda Job Corps and recently transitioned the remaining students to other centers, the leader of the union representing site staff said employees are “continuing on as if we’re going to receive students” in the near future.
Brooks Hayden, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1840, which represents workers at four Job Corps sites, including the one in Golconda, said the 40 remaining Forest Service employees — a mix of teachers, trade instructors, counselors, residential and office staff — are hopeful that the DOL will have a change of heart.
While there is still uncertainty about the future of the decades-old program in Pope County, employees are continuing on as if the department will restart enrolling students here any day, he said.
“We’re going to work it like we’re going to open up tomorrow, whether we do or not,” he said. Hayden said the center is taking advantage of the time without students to improve its programs and policies.
In a letter this summer, DOL’s Office of Job Corps director outlined student behavioral issues, management concerns and low graduation rates in explaining the agency’s decision to temporarily close the center and transfer students.
Shortly after that, DOL proposed permanently closing the center, which prompted a public comment period on the Federal Register. About 150 people wrote to the department in September and October, most of them pleading with the government to keep the center open.
Hayden said DOL has unfairly portrayed the Golconda site as unsafe and unsuccessful at graduating students, through either a miscommunication of data from site staff to DOL, or intentional manipulation of it to justify the department’s closure decision.
He said it’s frustrating that the department has not been more forthright about the reasons it has chosen to close the Golconda site. DOL spokesman Egan Reich, after providing the above referenced letter to the newspaper discussing concerns with the Golconda center, declined to answer additional questions about how the site’s issues cited by DOL stacked up against others, and what DOL’s long-term plans are for Job Corps centers nationwide.
The DOL Office of Inspector General, in reports in 2015 and 2017, and the Government Accountability Office, in a 2017 report, raised serious concerns about the safety and learning environments for students enrolled in these programs. The reviews took a nationwide look at serious behavioral incidents; none made special mention of any incidents at the Golconda center.
If it is the DOL’s intention to downsize Job Corps, particularly those managed by the Forest Service, Hayden said DOL needs to be honest about that — not just close the Golconda site and blame it on poor management when employees have given so much to make improvements over the years.
Hayden said incidents at Golconda’s site are not nearly as severe as some that have been documented elsewhere. Incidents have occurred there, he conceded, but said that’s the nature of a program that aims to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have struggled in school or to find their way in early adulthood turn their lives around.
“The Golconda Job Corps staff have, on a daily basis, made a difference in the lives of those students whom come from varied backgrounds and are in need of opportunity,” Hayden said. “The staff care for these young people as their own and work with them to instill good habits, social skills, trade skills and educate them to become productive members of our society. These young people become tax payers and go on to live wonderful meaningful lives.
“The Golconda Civilian Conservation Center and its staff take great pride in the work they have performed over many years and look forward to continuing completing local projects as well as being first responders in fire-related incidents as well as other disasters.”
For the surrounding area, the loss of jobs resulting from the center’s closure also is a major concern.
Alene Carr, executive director of the Southerneastern Illinois Regional Planning and Development Commission, which covers the counties of Pope, Hardin, Gallatin, Saline and Hamilton, said that both Pope County, where the center is located, and neighboring Hardin County, “are extremely desperate to keep the jobs that they have.”
“To lose another facility like that is another devastating blow to the economy down here,” she said.
In late 2015, Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration shuttered the nearby Hardin County Work Camp and numerous mineral extraction companies have closed or downsized over the years. Closures almost always have a domino effect, she said. For instance, the Hardin County General Hospital in Rosiclare served the medical needs of the Job Corps students in Golconda, so the hospital also takes a financial hit from the center’s closure, she said.
Carr said that even if DOL does go through with its closure plans, she hopes that another purpose can be found for the campus. According to Reich, the property is owned by the Forest Service. Attempts to reach spokespeople for the USDA or Forest Service on this topic have been unsuccessful.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth addressed this economic concern related to the Job Corps closure in a letter to DOL Secretary Alexander Acosta dated Nov. 7. She urged the agency to “commit to providing additional resources to Illinois in light of DOL’s proposal to close the Golconda Job Corps Civilian conservation Center.
“I agree the incidents that occurred at the center are serious and must be addressed,” she wrote in the letter. “At the same time, I am deeply concerned about the economic impact that closing Golconda will have on the community in Pope County, which is already struggling to attract economic development opportunities.
“Since 1965, Job Corps’ presence in the region has helped to boost economic activity and the center has formed significant partnerships throughout the community. I urge DOL to provide support by extending additional job training and workforce development programs to Illinois’ southern region.”
No exploration of the 200 years of Illinois history would be complete without a look at what preceded those two centuries.
While Illinois became a state in 1818, its story began nearly 150 years before that, in 1673, when Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette explored the Mississippi River in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean.
When the two explorers’ travels led them near hostile Spanish territories, they turned back and traveled along the Illinois River, finding safety among the Kaskaskia Indian tribe. Marquette founded the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, but left the mission in the hands of Father Pierre-Gabriel Marest due to Marquette’s poor health.
The mission had to be moved several times due to conflicts between the Kaskaskia, Illini Confederation and the Iroquois.
Eventually, the mission planted roots at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Michigamea River, which is now known as the Kaskaskia River.
The village of Kaskaskia was established in 1703, and was mainly inhabited by French traders and their wives.
The village’s fertile ground in the American Bottoms, along with its positioning at the confluence of two rivers, led it to be a hub of agriculture and trading. It also became a focal point for warring British and French during the French and Indian War.
In 1756, fearing attack, the townspeople built Fort Kaskaskia on a hill overlooking the town. The fort was then destroyed by the townspeople who feared it would fall into British control after the French lost the war.
Those who did not want to live under the impending British rule moved to St. Louis or Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. The town fell to the British and was kept under control of the crown until July 4, 1778, when George Rogers Clark led an expedition of American troops into the village to liberate it. After a two-month journey over 1,000 miles, Clark and his 175 men arrived in Kaskaskia to take the area. Many of the British had been withdrawn from the area, and Clark captured the settlement without a shot being fired.
With Clark in town, residents rang the Liberty Bell of the West, which got its name that day. The bell was originally given to the Catholic Church of the Illinois Country by King Louis XV of France. The bell was cast in France in 1741, making it 11 years older than the Liberty Bell that sits in Philadelphia.
An inscription on the side of the bell reads “Pour Leglise des Illinois par les Soins du Roi D’outre,” which translates to “for the Church of the Illinois, by gift of the King across the water.”
One side of the bell is ornamented with the royal lilies of France. The other side bears a cross and pedestal, with the top and arms of the cross terminating in grouped fleur de lis.
Taking Kaskaskia was the first step in Clark’s plan to capture the western headquarters of the British at Detroit.
The bell is now a tourist attraction, much like the Immaculate Conception Church that sits next door.
Illinois turns 200 on Dec. 3, 2018, and over the course of the next year The Southern is helping to commemorate the event.
The Southern and dozens of publications throughout Illinois will print a weekly series of articles featuring key moments, figures, industries and events that help to make Illinois unique. Some of the first articles include the Underground Railroad, coal mining, the dueling Peoria territory and top Illinois athletes through the years.
Other topics include Illinois’ role in the Civil War, World War I and World War II; transportation, from the railroads to the interstates to aerospace; and the arts, including jazz and the blues.
Newspapers contributing articles in this series include the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, the Belleville News-Democrat, the Pantagraph of Bloomington, The Southern Illinoisan of Carbondale, the News-Gazette of Champaign, the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Decatur Herald & Review, The Paper from Dwight, the Galesburg Register-Mail, the Hancock Journal Pilot, the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, the Lebanon Advertiser, the County Journal of Percy, the Journal Star of Peoria, the Dispatch Argus of Rock Island, the Rock River Times, the Rockford Register Star, the State Journal-Register of Springfield and Sauk Valley Media of Sterling/Dixon.
The series will also be featured on the website 200Illinois.com.
SPRINGFIELD — Happy birthday, Illinois — warts and all.
It's the home of the U.S. president credited with ending black slavery and the nation's first black president, as well as a litany of imprisoned governors and other politicians. And until just months ago, it had the nation's longest state budget impasse since at least the Great Depression.
On Sunday, its 199th birthday, a yearlong celebration culminating with its bicentennial begins.
Daylong events are scheduled at Navy Pier in Chicago and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield . A simultaneous raising of the Illinois state and Bicentennial flags follows in locations across the state on Monday in what thus far has been a muted lead-up to the festivities, in what one local historian calls a "missed opportunity."
Its recorded history began in 1673 when missionary Jacques Marquette and fur trader Louis Jolliet became the first Europeans to lay eyes on it. The signature of President James Monroe made it the 21st state on Dec. 3, 1818. Its first capital was Kaskaskia, and its largely southern Illinois population numbered 34,620 — about the size of present-day Glendale Heights in suburban Chicago or Pekin near Peoria.
Since then, Gov. Bruce Rauner said in a statement prepared for The Associated Press, "Our history is rich."
Illinois has been the home of four presidents — Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership through the Civil War saved the Union; Ulysses Grant; Ronald Reagan and the first black executive, Barack Obama, the Republican governor noted. He pointed out that Illinois was the first state to ratify the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery; "taught the world how to rebuild a city" after the Great Chicago Fire ; invented such wide-ranging items as the McCormick reaper and the Twinkie ; and ushered in the atomic age .
"When we look back, I hope that we will use this lofty vantage point to look ahead as well," Rauner said. "We enjoy unparalleled opportunities for growth. We are the nation's most important distribution and logistics center. We are literally America's transportation hub. We produce 10 percent of the nation's computer scientists."
"On this birthday, we want to look at what has been born, built and grown in our state, and what we learn to invent and build and grown more."
State Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican and member of the Bicentennial Commission, has a deeply personal connection to the celebration. Lewis Barker, an ancestor on his mother's side, was Pope County's first state senator, elected to the 1st General Assembly in 1818. Now, as a member of the 100th General Assembly, Butler calls the bicentennial "a tremendously reflective time" for the history of his family and the state.
Butler is awed by Illinois' role in producing giants in politics, the arts, Nobel laureates, entertainment, science and industry. Such a tale transcends a sordid history of public corruption, notably the imprisonment of two governors in a row since 2003, Republican George Ryan and Democrat Rod Blagojevich, Butler said.
The real story, however, is in the state's contributions to industry, business, entertainment, the arts and more, he said.
"It's incumbent on us as Illinoisans to help foster a sense of renewed pride in our state," Butler said. "The last quarter-century, we've had a tough time in our state, especially when it comes to public corruption and our image around the country, coupled with an economic situation that we need to improve. Those of us proud Illinoisans need to tell that (entire) story and lead the charge in renewing who we are and telling that story to the world."
Other states have produced flashy legacy projects, such as the $90 million Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opening next Saturday for that state's bicentennial. Illinois' include a restoration of the 19th Century Executive Mansion, led by Rauner and his wife, Diana; and a "Bicentennial Plaza" on downtown Springfield land owned by Illinois Realtors.
Tony Leone, a former clerk for the Illinois House of Representatives and owner of the historic Pasfield House Inn bed and breakfast just a block from the Capitol, said he and other historians had grander plans a decade ago, but politics and a change of administrations at a critical time — Rauner took over from Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in 2015 — conspired to scuttle grand plans.
Leone continues to lobby to make a bicentennial building out of the former state armory, just north of the Capitol, vacant for nearly a decade. It should house the state historic library, which was moved to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library from its former home in the Old State Capitol, he said.
The budget mess that engulfed state government and produced billions of dollars in debt since Rauner took office makes such a huge investment unlikely in the near future. But Leone pointed out that the monolithic armory is not going anywhere and razing it would be just as cost-prohibitive.
It would be the perfect bookend, Leone said, because just south of the Capitol is what was originally known as the Centennial Building, the legacy project for the state's first 100 years.
"They didn't put a shovel in the ground for the Centennial Building until December 1918," Leone said. "It's not too late."