When Western Illinois Tried to Split From the Union
Some have described it as our 51st state. But others have called it a republic, which tried to secede from the Union in 1971. Whatever it was, state or republic, people knew it as Forgottonia.
Forgottonia was cooked up as a protest to bring attention to 14 neglected counties in western Illinois. The region had been ignored by government officials, both state and federal, and the 14 counties were feeling the effects. The federal government had defeated bills to build an expressway through the area, Carthage College in Hancock County had moved to Wisconsin, and people and industries were fleeing.
What could they possibly do to bring attention to their plight? Enter Western Illinois University theater student, Neil Gamm, the first governor of Forgottonia.
“The idea is that we would secede from the Union, immediately declare war, surrender, then apply for foreign aid,” Gamm recalled in an interview with the McDonough County Voice last December.
I live in Illinois, not too far from Forgottonia, but I had never heard of this curious secessionist movement until it was recently featured on the History Channel’s How the States Got Their Shapes. Forgottonia’s state flag was the white flag of surrender, and its capital was the tiny town of Fandon. Fittingly, its capitol building was an empty storefront. Billboards popped up along the borders of Forgottonia, reminding visitors to have their Visa cards ready to spend money in their fair land, and people from all over the country invited Gamm to speak on politics. Even The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer ran stories on Forgottonia.
Forgottonia never did secede, but the movement succeededâ€”in one sense. It drew attention to region’s plight. Amtrak brought trains back to the area in 1972 and highways have seen some improvement since Forgottonia put itself on the map. Still, the U.S. Census shows a dwindling population and increasing poverty in the region.
What’s left of Forgottonia? Not much. But if you pass a barn near Ellisville, Illinois, you can still see the words: “Forgottonia, U.S.A.” Just don’t blink or you might miss this unforgettable sight.
By Doug Peterson
Purchase Remembering Our 51st State: Forgottonia on Amazon