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Putnam County

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The story of the rise and fall of civilizations often takes two volumes to tell—sometimes three. But I can handle the rise and fall of Putnam County, Illinois, in just under two and one-half minutes. It's a simple story. Putnam County was generous to a fault.

The story begins in 1825. Although Illinois had already become a state in 1818, much of northern Illinois, between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers—almost 2/3 of the state—was still wilderness. In 1825, fewer than a thousand settlers were living here among the Winnebago, Pottawatomie, and Sauk Indians.

That year, however, the Illinois legislature divided northern Illinois into twelve counties. One of these was Putnam by far the largest county in all of Illinois. Its boundaries extended from Illinois River over to Indiana and up to Wisconsin—11,000 square miles.

Since there were just over six hundred settlers in the county, Putnam could afford to be generous. In 1828, the county commissioners agreed to donate some of its land to create LaSalle and Cook counties. It didn't seem like terribly valuable land. Cook County had only one miserable, small collection of huts named Chicago.

And besides, Putnam was still left with 1,584 square miles—as large as some states. The county commissioners chose a site for a county seat along the banks of the Illinois River, and named it Hennepin.

But alas. Putnam County could not get out of the habit of giving land away: land which formed Bureau County in the winter of 1836, then Marshall County in January of 1839, and Stark County that same March. Today, with 166 square miles left of the original 11,000 and 5,730 residents, Putnam is the smallest county in Illinois in both population and size. The large surrounding counties, the beneficiaries of its generosity, pay it little attention.

How far has Putnam County fallen? I almost hesitate to tell you the price the generous county paid. Not only is it small, but Putnam County is also the only county in Illinois without a single stop light, and, what is worse, without a single fast-food restaurant.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.