Chasing a Mystery in Downstate Illinois

Champaign County, Illinois (Wikimedia Commons)

Champaign County, Illinois (Wikimedia Commons)

This week in Chicago, I could not resist a side trip downstate to Champaign County, Illinois.  The place has nagged at me as one of the mysteries of the world capital competition. It appeared on a list that the United Nations published in November 1945, but left no paper trail in the UN Archives to follow. What led this contender into the race to become the Capital of the World?

It turns out, this was also a mystery for the people of Champaign County in 1945. When news of the UN’s list reached Champaign-Urbana through the news media, it took some digging by local reporters to discover how their community had achieved such a distinction.  There were only twenty-two invitations on the list at that point in time, and so it seemed that Champaign County had taken quite a leap onto the world stage. Reporters for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette solved the mystery, and so they also solved mine.

Scrolling through the microfilm of the News-Gazette at the Champaign Public Library, I could feel the idea taking shape in the autumn of 1945. In October, the newspaper declared Champaign-Urbana to be the “Air Capital of the Midwest” by virtue of the new University of Illinois airport. An official of the Civil Aeronautics Administration offered his opinion that the airport would make “world instead of local citizens.”  A further sign of Champaign-Urbana’s connections to the world appeared on the same page of the newspaper: “Fighting Illini Come Home From All over World; 54,572 at Game.” (In the first peacetime homecoming since 1941, Illinois lost to Michigan, 19-0.)

Meanwhile, the News-Gazette carried wire service stories about the United Nations Preparatory Commission, then meeting in London, and reports that Chicago and the state of Indiana were seeking the honor of becoming the UN’s permanent home.  Little wonder, then, that someone in Champaign County also would consider a hometown invitation worth a try.  By the last week of November, apparently with little notice or consultation, local attorney John Appleman sent such an invitation directly to UN officials in London.

Appleman made his case on the basis of Champaign County’s central location (“more centrally located that Indiana”), its rural location with good accessibility to Chicago, its impressive new airport, its railroad and highway connections, the University of Illinois library, the beauty of Champaign-Urbana, recreation and entertainment facilities, and healthy climate. Like so many other world capital contenders mobilizing in late 1945, he could find ways to describe his own community in terms that mirrored many of the qualities desired by the United Nations. Once his identity was unveiled by the News-Gazette, Appleman recruited the mayors of Champaign and Urbana, the chairman of the Champaign County Board of Supervisors, and the president of the University of Illinois to join him in a telegram inviting UN site searchers to visit.

Like all midwestern hopefuls, Champaign County lost its chance — which it never really had — as the United Nations turned to the East Coast for a headquarters location. But it is clear that by the end of World War II, downstate Illinois was forging a future connected to the world.

Coverage of Champaign County’s UN invitation appeared in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette on November 29 and December 5, 1945. Microfilm of the newspaper is available at the Champaign Public Library.