By Christopher Hawley Martin, Coordinator of Economic Development and President of the Community Foundation of Randolph County
Twelve years ago, as the newly hired coordinator of economic development for Randolph County, I was standing atop the bluff at Fort Kaskaskia State Historic Site. Marveling, I could see the Mississippi River, Kaskaskia, the first capital of Illinois, and Pierre Menard’s home just down the hill. Menard was the first Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. His dwelling bordered the Kaskaskia River until 1882.
Then it didn’t.
No one moved the home, mind you, the Mississippi just changed course. The river had flowed around the western side of the Kaskaskia bottom until an ice jam during the flood of 1882 rerouted the Father of Waters eastward into the Kaskaskia River channel. That event isolated Kaskaskia as an island on the Missouri side of the Mighty Miss. Looking upriver from the bluff, you can see where the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers converge today. The Jerry F. Costello Lock & Dam is there, a major component of the Kaskaskia River Project and managed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“You know, Lewis and Clark stood here,” said Robert Myerscough, my boss, tour guide for the day and president of the Randolph County Progress Committee.
“You can’t be serious,” I replied. The names Lewis and Clark took me back to Foster Kolb’s sixth grade class at Linlawn Elementary, Wabash County, Indiana.
“Yes, and they also recruited people from Kaskaskia to join them on their expedition.”
“I’m standing where Lewis and Clark stood,” I muttered to myself.
The French in Randolph County
French History in America began in Randolph County, Illinois more than 320 years ago along an animal path later called the Kaskaskia Cahokia Trail. Before the Louisiana Purchase, the Prairie du Rocher French Colonial Historic District and Fort de Chartres served as the western boundary of the United States.
The Illiniwek, descendants of the Mississippian Mounds people, together with the early French villagers, grew food crops together. They evolved a work ethic and determination that remain even now in the people of Prairie du Rocher. The bottom along the rivers accommodated the first agriculture in Illinois. Manufacturing followed with grinding the grains into food staples for French colonies up and down the Mississippi. That was the beginning of Illinois agribusiness. Today, more than 220,000 acres of those grains grow yearly in Randolph County.
What does this have to do with community and economic development? As a career marketer, I know it is paramount to know your product. In community and economic development, a geographic region, be it city, county, state, or reservation, is the product.
Agribusiness, one of the true wealth generators in economic development, is a major asset. Manufacturing is another, and a third is mining. Randolph County is blessed with all three. Coal and scrubber stone for electrical generation, and a diverse manufacturing base that produces esoteric ophthalmological surgical instruments, specialty crankshafts, complex lines for steel processing, and unique, beverage can maneuvering systems. These goods and others, including private label food staples, are shipped worldwide. Grapes are grown here and fermented into world-class wine that is made here, along with many craft beers.
Some of these products transit through the Kaskaskia Regional Port District (KRPD), one of the top inland ports in America, and soon to be designated the M3 Marine Highway. Water transport is the most economical shipping system, a major benefit to Randolph County companies.
You Want to Do What?
Speaking of water transport, KRPD’s #2 Dock is home to an agricultural products provider. The company had distributed dry chemicals for years and wanted to expand into wet fertilizer. However, there was a problem, not enough water volume at #2. The solution involved installing a waterline from the Baldwin terminus, miles away, under the Kaskaskia River, and out to #2. Problem number two was financing that process. A novel idea was needed. Why not ally one federal agency, two state entities, KRPD, the Randolph County Progress Committee, the Village of Baldwin, and the Randolph County Commissioners to complete the line at virtually no cost to local partners? Some of the participants were intrigued because a combine like that had not been considered before. A first-of-its-kind alliance, and multiple new jobs were added at KRPD #2. An adjunct benefit was increased water revenue for the Village of Baldwin and the City of Sparta.
Illinois is also the epicenter of the nation’s railroad network. Randolph County offers several options, including the Illinois Central, Canadian Northern and Union Pacific. The nation’s Interstate System is minutes away and the Southwest Illinois Connector Rural Expressway is under construction.
Having grown up on a farm, every day is hard work, or the farm doesn’t prosper. The success that results from that dedication bonds to your DNA. Randolph County’s job integrity, skill level, and adaptability are born of those farmers who settled here 320 years ago. When technology mandates, we engage resources like the Dunn-Richmond Center at Southern Illinois University, the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center, and Southwestern Illinois Community College. We keep up.
Rule Two is… enhance your product. As a child toddling down the neighborhood grocery isle, I remember that colorful orange, blue and yellow box of Tide laundry detergent. If that paperboard container is still available, it’s concealed now by more than a dozen varieties of Tide in plastic containers, pods, bags and stain sticks. Tide remains the top selling laundry detergent after seven decades. They routinely enhance the product.
The Randolph County Progress Committee (RCPC) was incorporated in 1989. The RCPC works in lockstep with the Community Foundation of Randolph County, the Regional Leadership Committee, the Small Business Development Center, federal agencies, state, county, city and village governments, chambers of commerce, and many other groups and individuals. They help companies expand, assist new small businesses, and work to attract industry to Randolph County. The RCPC also labors to enhance the Randolph County community in several ways.
Give Me Shelter
A shelter was built in the early 1940s at the aforementioned Kaskaskia State Historic Site. It was like many of the WPA/CCC projects excellently constructed in post-depression America and through the years, the shelter hosted thousands of picnics, weddings, family reunions and celebrations. People from around the world have visited the shelter in its 80-plus years. and many sojourned back for the magnificent view, to renew wedding vows, remember lost loved ones, and… the times of their lives.
Until Halloween night, 2012.
An accidental fire destroyed the structure. Only the four native limestone corner supports remained. The Progress Committee and the Community Foundation, together with the Randolph County Historical Society, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division, and dozens of generous donors helped rebuild the shelter. On October 24, 2018, the shelter was rededicated. Hundreds attended from several states. The following year, the Community Foundation raised the money to refurbish the knee walls that surround the shelter.
The Village of Prairie du Rocher in Randolph County is one of the oldest extant French villages in America. Many residents trace their lineage to the original settlers of 300 years ago. The Melliere family built a home there in 1735, and the dwelling is owned and maintained by the Melliere family to this day.
Prairie du Rocher is protected from Mississippi River flooding by a levee system. While the village survived the Great Flood of 1993 and several floods-of-record since, the levee is deteriorating.
Not a surprise locally, but unbeknownst to most Americans, every levee in the United States is in comparable shape. Many of them are 80 years old, or older. I should make clear that all Mississippi River levees south of its confluence with the Ohio River are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The levees from Cairo, Illinois north, are maintained by local levee commissions.
Over the years, the Progress Committee has helped facilitate area levee commissions’ efforts to convince state and federal emergency management agencies that the commissions need assistance to mitigate the deteriorating levees. Like $50 million dollars or more to repair just the Prairie du Rocher levee and another $1 million a year to maintain it.
What to do?
A task group formed and authored a master plan. One component was the idea of promoting the Prairie du Rocher French Colonial Historic District to the National Park System. In that consideration, the NPS is conducting a reconnaissance survey expected to finish in Spring, 2022, the 300th anniversary of Prairie du Rocher’s founding. A National Park or National Monument could expedite levee repair efforts and commensurately, add millions in regional tourism revenue each year.
Speaking of Tourism
The RCPC and partners also promote tourism. The World Shooting and Recreation Complex, home of the Grand American, the largest shooting event in the world, is here. Thousands make the pilgrimage to the Grand each year, as they do to Fort de Chartres for the annual Rendezvous.
The cartoon character, Popeye, was born in Chester and throngs come for the annual Popeye Festival and to tour the Popeye Character Trail. Several riverboats stop at the Port of Chester each Summer. The Liberty Bell of the West and one of the oldest churches in Illinois are on Kaskaskia Island. The Roscoe Misselhorn Museum is in Sparta. You could spend months in Randolph County, just studying French history. Abraham Lincoln practiced law in Randolph County. His portrait, exposed from the original glass, hangs on the judicial floor of the Randolph County Courthouse. And … you can stand where Lewis and Clark stood.
Quality of Life
The park-like topography of Randolph County provides an amazing quality of life. There are forests, lakes, wildlife, and waterways all around. The air is pristine and the climate ideal. There are community sports and nature. Birders can watch multiple species from hummingbirds to the American Bald Eagle.
Major League Baseball and the St. Louis Symphony are an hour away. The Southwestern Illinois Community College Campus is in Red Bud. Southern Illinois University is minutes away. The schools in Randolph County are among the best in Illinois. Small classes mean more individual attention. Our children and future generations are top priority.
The Southwest Illinois Connector rural expressway is under construction. The State of Illinois and Randolph County are leading the nation with a sweeping and comprehensive measure designed to move the State of Illinois to 100 percent clean energy and to support a responsible transition away from carbon-intense power generation. Vistra’s Baldwin Station will generate 68 MW of solar, utility-scale power, with 9 MW of battery energy storage. More green energy projects are pending.
Work. Family. Education. Quality of Life. The Future.
It’s here now.
Welcome to Randolph County… Where Illinois Business Began.