Today we’ll visit Macon, IL (pop. 1,204) for #SmallTownSaturday!
Located in central Illinois within Macon County, the city of Macon is nine miles south of the county seat Decatur. Situated in the famous corn belt of Illinois, Macon lies midway between Chicago and St. Louis. The low and level prairie was thought unfit for agriculture around its early settlement, but has since become a major producer of corn, along with hay and oats.
The foundations of Macon, and the county itself, are rooted in the development of the railroad in Illinois. In 1834, Governor Joseph Duncan proposed a train line to run through Decatur. Senator Stephen A. Douglas was also a major supporter of railroads to develop Illinois’ economy, and in 1850 Douglas submitted a bill to Congress calling for the government to make a land grant to support the Illinois Central Railroad in creating a north-south railroad through Illinois. The bill granted the company alternate sections, six to the mile, to be sold to the public. The railroad would then use the proceeds for construction. The first train came through Decatur in 1854, which was a major milestone of progress for Macon County and led to a rise in immigration, manufacturing, and city development. Amidst this population growth, Macon was founded. Macon served primarily as an outpost for nearby mid-sized cities and for Decatur, and the settlement of Macon was incorporated as a city itself in 1869.
Macon is perhaps best known for its 1971 high school baseball team, the Macon Ironmen, that defied odds to make it to the state final. In doing so, the little school with an enrollment of 250 became the smallest in Illinois history to make it to the championship game.
Regarded as a beloved underdog story, the team played in mismatched hand-me-down uniforms, had little equipment available, and warmed up to a tape of Jesus Christ Superstar. The coach, Lynn Sweet, was an English teacher with no coaching experience. Sweet had come to Macon in 1966 and stirred dissent among the school and parents with his progressive ideas. That all changed when Sweet became the high school baseball coach. In stark contrast to the disciplinary style of previous coaches, Sweet took a different approach – practices were optional, his players were encouraged to choose their own positions, and there were no punishments or drawn-out pregame speeches.
Under the coaching of Sweet’s unconventional methods, the Ironmen emerged from a pool of 370 teams to play in the finals and were triumphant in their game against Chicago’s Lane Tech team from a school of 5,200. The Macon Ironmen finished in second place against Waukegan High School in the Illinois High School Association Boys Baseball Championship Tournament, but they are still remembered for their unexpected success in the 1971 baseball season. Since then Macon High School has merged with Blue Mound to become Meridian High School.
In other sporting fame, Macon is also the site of Macon Speedway, a 1/5 mile dirt track that has been in continuous operation since 1946. In 2007, NASCAR drivers Tony Stewart, Ken Schrader, and Kenny Wallace became co-owners of Macon Speedway, which has since been remodeled and upgraded.
If you are interested in learning more about Macon or other towns in our #SmallTownSaturday series, stop by the IHLC!
Ballard, Chris. One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2012. Call number: 796.35 B212o
Guillory, Dan. Macon County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2007. Call number: 977.358 G946m
Past and present of the City of Decatur and Macon County, Illinois. Chicago, IL: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1903. Call number: 977.358 P268
Smith, John W. History of Macon County, Illinois, from its organization to 1876. Decatur, IL: Macon County Historical Society, 1969. Call number: 977.358 Sm51969
Baker, N. M. “The Pioneers of Macon County.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 14. No. 1/2 (1921). http://www.jstor.org/stable/40186831.
Ballard, Chris. “The Magical Season of the Macon Ironmen.” Sports Illustrated Vault. June 28, 2010. https://www.si.com/vault/2010/06/28/105954639/the-magical-season-of-the-macon-ironmen
Fallstrom, Bob. “New Attention Comes to 1971 ‘Mod Squad’ Macon High School Team.” Herald & Review. April 24, 2010. https://herald-review.com/news/local/new-attention-comes-to-mod-squad-macon-high-school-team/article_08126139-56bd-5f4b-b216-3d6bec952fcb.html
Rand McNally And Company, and Illinois Central Railroad Company. Map of Illinois Central R.R. Chicago, 1892. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/98688682/
“Stephen A. Douglas.” National Railroad Hall of Fame. http://www.nrrhof.org/stephen-a-douglas
“100 Reasons: The train history of Decatur.“ Herald & Review. September 22, 2017. https://herald-review.com/news/local/reasons-the-train-history-of-decatur/article_6ff140d8-ee76-5231-97d1-9147b1ef3997.html