Possibility and Purpose in Havana, Illinois
By Matt Meacham
Read Time 8 minutes
January 11, 2024
The forest itself, beginning at water’s edge with a billowy belt of pale green willows, is an untamed tract of primitive wilderness. Elms and pecans and sycamores tower overhead. The shallow lakes and swamps are glorious in their season with the American lotus and the white water lily. Waterfowl abound, and fish lie in the shallows, basking in the summer sun. —Stephen A. Forbes (1896)
Sounds like an ideal place to get away from the hustle and bustle, relax, and clear your mind, doesn’t it?
True, but that isn’t what Dr. Forbes meant to imply. To him, the setting that he described represented quite the opposite: the center of the action, teeming with possibilities for impactful, sometimes urgent, often intellectually challenging work.
Forbes intended for his description of the section of the Illinois River alongside Havana, a small town in west-central Illinois, to explain his rationale for selecting it as the site of “the first inland aquatic biological station in America equipped for continuous investigation and the first in the world to undertake the serious study of the biology of a river system,” according to Forbes Biological Station: The Past and the Promise by Stephen P. Havera and Katie E. Roat (2003).
Forbes, then director of the Illinois State Laboratory of Natural History, was originally from rural northwestern Illinois. Because of his family’s economic limitations and his service in the Civil War, he obtained his scientific education sporadically, relying largely on self-directed study. Nevertheless, he became known as a highly original thinker and an early advocate for analyzing relationships among living things within a particular environment—so much so that a National Academy of Sciences publication comments, “He may be said to have been the founder of the science of ecology in the United States.”
Many of the accomplishments that cemented Forbes’s legacy occurred at the University of Illinois-affiliated field research station that he founded in 1894 in Havana, which has grown and flourished ever since. In 1988, it initiated a major, federally supported, long-term fishery monitoring program, prompting it to multiply into two facilities: the Forbes Biological Station, which houses the Frank C. Bellrose Waterfowl Research Center (apropos of a community so closely associated with ducks that its school mascot is one), and the Illinois River Biological Station.
Both are among the most influential institutions of their kind anywhere. Scientists and students based there conduct research that contributes substantially to the understanding and management of riverine ecosystems and the wildlife that occupies them.
Just one current (in both senses of the word) example: the use of a state-of-the-art fishway, custom-built by Whooshh Innovations and situated adjacent to the water control structure at the nearby Emiquon Nature Preserve, that prevents invasive carp species from proceeding upstream to the Great Lakes while allowing other fish to pass unimpeded.
A community with two innovative biological field stations established by an innovative naturalist that produces innovative analytical methods and management strategies? If that isn’t a place of innovation, by golly, I don’t know what is!
Fitting, then, that the Havana Area Chamber of Commerce will host the newest Museum on Main Street exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution and Illinois Humanities, Spark: Places of Innovation, at the Havana City Center from January 13 to February 17. This traveling exhibition celebrates rural towns’ innovations, and Havana is now the sixth Illinois town in a series of seven to host it.
One of the main topics of the Chamber’s companion exhibition—curated by Kelvin Sampson, who recently retired from Dickson Mounds State Museum—will be the achievements of the field stations. One of the coordinators of Spark! and related activities in Havana, April Burgett, is both president of the Chamber and business manager of the Illinois River Biological Station. She’s eager to increase Havana residents’ awareness of the magnitude of the research that occurs in their own proverbial backyard.
“The reason I felt that it was something that needed to be a part of our companion exhibit is that it really is a little-known fact. It’s unique that a town the size of Havana, about 3,000 residents, would have two biological research facilities of the University of Illinois conducting this cutting-edge, world-class research of international significance,” she commented.
April will also be among the first to tell you that Havana is, in fact, an ideal place to get away from the hustle and bustle, relax, and clear your mind.
“We get a lot of visitors from St. Louis and the Chicago area, because it’s a short drive—three hours. You can leave either of those places in the morning, and at noon, you can walk into a different world that just embraces you,” she observed. “You just feel like you’re wrapped up in this quaint, cozy, beautiful downtown that has this amazing river and all these really friendly people, and we get a lot of return visitors.”
April and many of her fellow Havanans have been working to enhance the quaintness, coziness, and beauty of their historic downtown and make it conducive to relaxation.
Since 2016, the city government, the Chamber, and other local organizations have led successful initiatives to foster historic preservation, economic development, and cultural activity. Many of the buildings lining the brick streets that surround the Mason County courthouse and extend to Riverfront Park have been renovated and restored. Quite a few now house locally owned businesses, some of which host artistic events.
The companion exhibition will also explore Havana’s ongoing revitalization campaign, which seeks to attract visitors and newcomers not by diminishing or distorting the character of downtown familiar to longtime residents, but by augmenting and accentuating it.
“It really all has been about keeping as much of the history, which includes everything from stories, pictures, photographs, postcards, buildings, historic architecture. It’s all been about highlighting all of our important history as we move forward with this innovative repurposing of the buildings,” April emphasized.
Civic and cultural leader Kim Anderson, who has been working with April to plan for the arrival of Spark!, concurred: “What’s been moving Havana forward has really been focused on small business and entrepreneurship—that’s really been the driver—and having a respect for these older buildings and keeping them. I think that helps to retain that small-town feeling, that community feeling.”
Havana’s cultural rejuvenation and the opportunity to contribute to it were among the factors that drew Kim and her family to the community. Having lived in the Bloomington-Normal area for 18 years, they were interested in buying some land and raising their daughter in a more rural setting.
“We saw some of these rehabilitated buildings and that there was action here, that things were happening, that this town was moving forward,” Kim explained. “And then we went down to the river and saw Riverfront Park and the stage and thought, ‘Wow—if we move here, we should do concerts.’”
Indeed, they did move there in 2019, and they have presented concerts at the Riverfront Park amphitheater ever since. Kim and her husband—professional songwriter, singer, and instrumentalist Edward David Anderson—own Black Dirt Management. Black Dirt manages several Americana and indie rock musicians, operates a recording label, and produces musical events, including the annual Havana Songwriters Festival and Riverfront Concert Series.
“Children are getting to go for free to see concerts with their friends in a beautiful park environment. It inspires them and shows them that you can do this as a career,” Kim noted. “Our local community has this kind of cultural vibrancy boost, and our tourism is being boosted at the same time by bringing people who likely are coming to Havana for the first time and getting to experience what a quaint, special, unique little town we have.”
Edward David Anderson has derived inspiration for his own creative work from the Havana area’s scenes and stories. He’ll perform and discuss several of his place-based original compositions during a Spark!-related program on Thursday, January 25, at 5:30 PM at the City Center.
That’s just one of more than 20 public programs—wide-ranging in content and format and featuring many local individuals and organizations—that April, Kim, and friends have planned in conjunction with Spark! Places of Innovation.
In quantity and variety, they’re rivaled only by the waterfowl that abound along the riverbank and the fish in the shallows, basking in the summer sun, while elms, pecans, and sycamores tower overhead.
Plan your visit to Havana to view Spark! Places of Innovation on our website and be sure to check out the town’s lineup of related events for all ages—you may want to come back again!
It all kicks off January 13 and runs through February 17, 2024.
About Spark! Places of Innovation
Spark! Places of Innovation, the newest Museum on Main Street exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Illinois Humanities, will tour Illinois from June 17, 2023, to March 29, 2024. Organizations in seven communities statewide will host the exhibition and will produce companion exhibitions and public programs relating the subject matter of Spark! to their own local history and culture. Visit Spark! in a town near you!