Illinois is the poster child of the American Midwest, and Chicago, its cosmopolitan capital, is the crown jewel. However, before westward expansion in the mid-19th century, Illinois (then called the Northwest Territory) was the frontier. But as the lands to the west were settled, it was fitting to call Illinois and its neighbors “The Heartland.” And more than geography was at work here, for the farms and small towns dotting the fertile prairies embodied the ethos of hard work, family and friendliness that is still valued. More than 72,000 farms remain today, representing a remarkable 75% of the state’s land.
Equal with the storied bucolic and village life of Illinois is its history as an industrial dynamo. With the shore of Lake Michigan at its northeast border and access to waterways to the east, Illinois soon became a trade corridor to the Mississippi River and beyond. The excellent harbor on the lake guaranteed the development of a major metropolis like Chicago. One of Illinois' most illustrious sons, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg, in his poem “Chicago,” called it the “city of the big shoulders.”
Yet without a doubt, the state’s most famous son is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States and the man who led the nation through the Civil War, preserving the Union and abolishing slavery. Lincoln moved from Indiana to Illinois when he was 21 and lived in the state until elected President in 1861. While a resident of Illinois, Lincoln served his state as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847 to 1849 and was a four-term member of the Illinois state legislature from 1834 to 1841. Today, tourists can visit Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois, where it is maintained as a National Historic Site.
With its massive railway freight terminals, stockyards and meat-packing plants, Chicago was originally known as the “slaughterhouse to the world.” Yet it also gave birth to a new urban architecture - one strangely at odds with the expansive prairies surrounding it. In the 1880s, a group of innovative Illinois architects abandoned traditional masonry construction in favor of steel and glass curtain walls and, in effect, invented what is sometimes called vertical real estate. And, of course, no mention of Illinois architecture can be made without including the famous (and infamous) Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived and worked in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and whose home and studio, along with numerous houses he designed, are a major Illinois tourist attraction.
The Illinois gross state product in 2015 was $766 billion, putting it 5th in the U.S. The top five industries contributing the biggest dollar amounts to the state’s enormous economy are service industries (everything from hotels to advertising to finance), manufacturing (primarily machinery, processed foods and chemicals), exports (including machinery, computers and transportation equipment), agriculture (such as corn, soybeans, wheat and pork) and mining (including coal, petroleum and minerals).
Illinois also ranks 5th in the country for population, with over 12.8 million residents as of 2015. Yet its population growth lags far behind other highly populated states at only 0.39% between 2010 and 2014, placing it 45th in the nation. The diverse ancestry of Illinois residents can be seen as a microcosm of the nation. Major ethnicities represented include German (13%), Irish (7%) and Polish (5%). As for racial makeup, the state is 72% white, 14% black and 16% Hispanic.
Illinois is home to a large number of well-respected colleges and universities, with the best known being the University of Chicago (ranked #4 in the country for 2016 by U.S. News and World Report) and Northwestern University (ranked #12 by the same publication). One important reason for this is the high regard for education held by many Illinois religious and ethnic groups. Approximately 30% of Illinois residents hold a bachelor’s degree (12th in the nation), while 11% have a graduate degree (10th in the nation).
More than 70% of the state’s population is concentrated in the Chicago metro area, the third largest in the country with over 9.5 million residents. But despite this large urban population, the state ranked only 18th in median household income in 2014 at $53,234, with relatively affordable real estate prices when compared to other populous states. As of 2015, the median home value statewide was $187,252 – just $5,000 more than the U.S. national average – and the median rental price was $1,031.