By Tom Emery
SPRINGFIELD — As if any more controversy was needed in Springfield, a Senate bill is seeking to drop all Illinois state symbols except the flag, seal, motto, and song. Though it’s unlikely the measure will pass, a myriad of unique and quirky symbols are in jeopardy.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Tom Rooney (R-Rolling Meadows), a high school teacher and ex-Rolling Meadows mayor who claims there are too many state symbols and “by overuse, the value of a state designation drops every time we add a new one.” Therefore, the erstwhile Rooney wants to “scrub them out,” which many Illinois residents, in turn, would like to do to their current state government.
Rooney’s talk is unlikely to please certain sectors of the state, where some of the symbols reflect economic strength, appreciation of nature, and civic pride. Many of the symbols were chosen by Illinois schoolchildren in a variety of elections over the past century.
If Rooney gets his way, the oldest of the state symbols to be eliminated are the state tree and state flower. In 1907, a Rochelle woman suggested that state schoolchildren cast votes for a state tree and flower, which became the native oak and violet, respectively, in laws the next year. In 1973, another vote of 900,000 students changed the state tree to the white oak, a recommendation signed into law that same year.
In 1928, Illinois schoolchildren were charged with the vote of a state bird, thanks to the efforts of the Macomb chapter of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. In a five-bird race, the cardinal was selected, and signed into law the next year.
A third-grade class in Decatur recommended another flying creature as a state symbol in 1974, helping the Monarch butterfly become the state insect, formally designated the following year. Six years later, Illinois schoolchildren chose the white-tailed deer as the state animal (made official in 1982), and picked the bluegill as the state fish in 1986.
Fourth-graders at Woodlawn Elementary School recommended the Goldrush apple, described as “sweet-tart,” as the state fruit. The designation became formal in 2007. If that fails to curb your appetite, second- and third-graders at Cunningham Elementary in Joliet successfully launched a class project in 2003 that helped popcorn become the official snack food of Illinois. That will tide you over until dinner, when a choice could be sweet corn, designated the state vegetable in 2015.
For those wanting holiday fare, pumpkin was picked as the state pie in 2015, a nod to Illinois’ stature as the top producer of processed pumpkins in the nation. Certainly, the residents of Morton, a Tazewell County town near Peoria that proudly holds the title of “Pumpkin Capital of the World,” would be less than thrilled to see their beloved pumpkin pies kicked to the curb.
A pair of online voting efforts in July 2005 chose two more symbols, including the state amphibian, an honor that went to the Eastern Tiger Salamander, the largest of the state’s terrestrial salamanders. That same contest chose the painted turtle, a colorful species found statewide, as the state reptile.
In 1965, fluorite was picked as the state mineral, based on Illinois’ continued position as the top producer of fluorite in the nation. Staying with a geologic theme, the Tully Monster, a soft-bodied marine creature that existed between 280-340 million years ago, became the state fossil in 1989. First discovered by an amateur archaeologist from Joliet in 1955, over 100 specimens of the monster have since been identified.
An Illinois Department of Conservation poll of students in 1989 earned the big bluestem the honor of state prairie grass. Twelve years later, Future Farmers of America students from Monticello High School and Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences successfully pushed for passage of a bill naming Drummer silty clay loam as the state soil.
For entertainment buffs, the square dance became the state dance in 1990, while historians will appreciate the pirogue, a sailing vessel used in the Lewis and Clark expedition that was named state artifact in 2016.
Those with ethnic bent will adhere to the Illinois Saint Andrew Society tartan, honored as the state tartan in 2012, while theatergoers have the Great American People Show, a now-defunct historically-themed outdoor theater at Lincoln’s New Salem near Petersburg, named the state theatre in 1995. Sadly, that theater group folded the following year.
Rooney will also seek to toss out English as the official state language, a designation first made in 1969.
Meanwhile, his Senate bill will keep what he deems the “important” symbols, including the state flag, which has undergone several incarnations, the most recent in 1970. Also protected will be the state seal, state slogan of “Land of Lincoln,” and state song (“Illinois,” which held the unofficial title before formal designation in 1925).
Rooney will have competition from the lower chamber, as two House members are pushing for more symbols. C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Jacksonville) wants to name corn as the official state grain, while Sara Wojcicki-Jimenez (R-Leland Grove) is sponsoring a bill to designate shelter dogs and cats as Illinois’ official pet.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.