Square dancing and snacking on popcorn
There are a lot of things that make Illinois unique.
Throughout history state leaders have sought to showcase some of the distinctive
elements of Illinois by granting them official status as a state symbol.
Certain symbols are necessary for the functions of
government, like the state seal for official documents. Others are so common
that it is hard to imagine not having one, such as our state flag. Some
of our most well-known state symbols came to receive official recognition in
20th century thanks to the work of citizens groups who, for
example, helped designate our state tree and state bird.
In the past half century or so, Illinois has dedicated more
state symbols, mostly in an effort to showcase items that are exclusive to
Illinois (like our state
fossil) or products which are strongly identified with our state.
One of these is fluorite, which in 1965 was designated
Illinois’ official state mineral. Illinois led the nation in the production of
fluorite, which consists of calcium and fluorine. It is a key part of the
smelting process for production of steel, and can also be used in making glass,
aluminum, portland cement and much more. Fluorite is especially useful for
microscope lenses due to its better optics. Hydrofluoric acid is an important
part of the process for making fuel for everything from rockets to nuclear
reactors. Though it is colorless in its purest form, fluorite can also appear
purple, orange, green or blue.
occurs naturally throughout the world, but its largest known deposit in the
United States is in the lower Ohio Valley, including southernmost Illinois and
points to the south. It has been mined in Illinois for almost as long as
Illinois has been a state. Crystals of freshly-mined fluorite are known as
In 1942 Illinois surpassed Kentucky as the nation’s leading
producer of fluorite, at one point producing more than half the entire nation’s
supply. Since then, however, more foreign sources of the mineral were used
until the nation’s last fluorspar mine, in Illinois, was closed in 1995.
Hardin and Pope counties were the most productive sources of
fluorite in Illinois. The Ohio River town of Rosiclare, the “fluorspar capital
of the world,” is the home of the American
Fluorite Museum and every fall it hosts the Fluorspar
While the Fluorspar Festival is a joyful event, it is not
known how often the celebration has featured square dancing, which in 1990 was
designated as Illinois’ official state folk dance. In so doing, Illinois joined
more than 20 other states in officially choosing a state dance, including
Connecticut, Arkansas and Idaho who also celebrate the square dance.
Writer Betty Casey summarizes the appeal of the square dance
in The Complete Book of Square Dancing.
“The square dance is uniquely American….The format, many of
the folk dance’s movements, and the terminology incorporated into the square
dance were brought by early emigrants from other countries to the United
States. Borrowed bits from foreign dances such as French quadrilles, Irish
jigs, English reels and Spanish fandangos have blended with American folkways
and customs into the square dance.”
For a state with a frontier heritage like Illinois, the
square dance was a natural fit. Brought west by pioneers in the 19th
century, the square dance is easy to pick up and mostly involves following the
instructions of the caller while minding one’s footwork. So popular was the
dance that the General Assembly passed legislation enshrining it as Illinois’
official American Folk Dance. The bill was signed in 1990 by Governor Jim
Those who need a quick breather from square dancing might
take a moment to sit down and enjoy a snack. In Illinois that person might
choose to munch on some popcorn, which in 2003 became Illinois’ official state
The popcorn designation was the result of a real-life civics
lesson by a teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Joliet. Fran Hollister’s
second and third grade students came up with the idea of naming popcorn as the
official snack food of Illinois.
When Senator Lawrence Walsh
visited their school, the Cunningham students prepared a presentation in
support of their idea. They researched actions taken in other states to declare
local products as their official state food, and then suggested to the senator
that Illinois should follow suit. Walsh drafted and introduced the
bill on their behalf.
At the time, according to the Illinois State Museum, more
than 300 farms in Illinois grew popcorn on 47,000 acres of land, which placed
Illinois as the nation’s third largest popcorn producer. The southeastern
Illinois town of Ridgway is known as the popcorn capital of the world and holds
Day celebration each fall.
The students had the opportunity to learn about state
government and the legislative process first-hand, watching as their bill moved
through each step, including a class trip to Springfield to see the bill
debated and voted on in the Senate. After a predictable amount of banter
between legislators, it passed unanimously in the Senate and by a wide margin
in the House. The House sponsor, Rep. Jack McGuire, reminded his colleagues
that “some of us survived on popcorn on these long nights on the House floor.”
Popcorn became Illinois’ state snack food on January 1,
Kids had always been involved in the selection of Illinois’
official state symbols. Back in 1908 the question of what the state’s official
tree and official flower should be was put up for a vote of schoolchildren who
chose the oak (later the white oak) and the violet. A group of third graders in
Decatur brought forward the proposal for designating the monarch butterfly as
Illinois’ state insect in 1975. In 2001 members of the Future Farmers of
America from Monticello and Chicago successfully pushed for the designation of
drummer silty clay loam as Illinois’ state soil.
But something about the Joliet students’ advocacy and
lobbying campaign caught the imagination of students and teachers in Illinois,
and soon more proposals were coming to the General Assembly in the early part
of the 21st century.
Just months after popcorn won official recognition,
Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo conducted on online poll to find out Illinoisans’
favorite reptile or amphibian. The winners in the contest were both native to
Illinois: Chrysemys picta, or the painted
turtle, with 16,742 votes and Ambystoma tigrinum, the eastern
tiger salamander, with 19,217 votes. The Chicago Herpetological Society
encouraged teachers to include the contest in their curriculum. Soon they were
advocating for an official recognition from the state, as reptile and amphibian
were the only two classes of vertebrates not then recognized with official state
symbols (the other three, fish, bird and mammal having already been recognized).
The following year legislation
was introduced in the House to ratify the choices as official state symbols.
Illinois would join the 17 other states which had state reptiles and the eight
others which had officially picked state amphibians. The House sponsor of the
bill, Rep. Bob Biggins, saluted the students in their efforts.
“This is something that was initiated from the ground up,
literally in the sense because citizens did it. Students involved in schools
throughout the state participated in the contest and the results are before
Once again the vote in the General Assembly was nearly
unanimous and both animals became official state symbols of Illinois on January
1, 2006. In including the two animals on the list of state symbols, the
Secretary of State would note that the eastern tiger salamander is “the largest
Illinois terrestrial salamander” and the painted turtle “is among the world’s
most colorful aquatic turtles.”
In the years that followed, two different groups of fourth
graders successfully promoted and passed legislation designating the goldrush
apple as Illinois’ state fruit and sweet corn as the state vegetable.
Two more additions were made to the list in 2017, with the
designation of milkweed as the state wildflower and shelter dogs and shelter
cats as the state pet. The following year lawmakers recognized corn as the
state grain, the pirogue as the state artifact and cycling as the state
exercise. Just this spring the General Assembly voted unanimously in favor of
recognizing Penicillum rubens as the state
Find the full list of Illinois State Symbols here.