These photographs were made between 1969 and 1973 when I was a photographer in the Air Force at Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois living in nearby Belleville. Shiloh Valley is a gentle depression east of Belleville near Shiloh and Mascoutah where the base is located. It contains rich farmland in the state's oldest county, St. Clair, established in 1790 by Arthur St. Clair who was the Governor of the Northwest Territory and liked the idea of naming the county after himself which, at the time, was an area a third of what Illinois is today.
European settlement of the area came in three phases. The first was French missionaries who arrived in 1699 from Quebec and built a mission at Cahokia. The second phase came after 1763 when the French ceded the Illinois country to Great Britain who established military outposts at Cahokia and Kaskaskia. The American general George Rogers Clark of Virginia led an expedition against those forts during the Revolutionary War, capturing them and taking back control of southern Illinois from the British. His army was composed of volunteers who had been promised land grants of 300 acres each in the area if the British were dispossessed, a strong motivator at a time when American soldiers weren't otherwise paid.
The third phase was German settlers who were drawn to this part of the Mississippi region in the early decades of the 19th century and gave the county its distinct identity. They were primarily from the south of Germany and represented most classes of its society. Some had been living in dire poverty in what was essentially a feudal system. They were fleeing famine, political persecution, and generations of horrific conflicts that had made their homeland a killing field. They had no interest in heading for the frontier, plow in one hand, rifle in the other. They wanted to build prosperous farms in a peaceful setting and live in freedom. They purchased farms of 40, 80, and 160 acres not for speculation but to create a stable, permanently rooted community where families could work the same piece of land for generations. They applied the soil and forest conservation measures perfected on the tiny plots they used to eke out an existence in their homeland but now on tracts larger than most German estates.
Others were educated people of means—doctors, lawyers, musicians, and prosperous businessmen—who chose this untamed frontier over established European cities and villages. Not only had the Napoleonic wars led to economic depression in Germany, these individuals were part of an effort that had sought to create a more democratic government but had suffered severe repression as a result, including imprisonment and execution. They were seeking an atmosphere of intellectual and political freedom, a place they could create the distinctly German society they desired. Initially, they were called Latin Farmers because they could speak Latin but couldn't plow a straight furrow. Over time, they learned to do so.
Germans became the majority population of St. Clair County by 1844, and by the 1880s Germans and their progeny constituted at least three-fourths of all county residents.
While off duty, I befriended several third, fourth and fifth generation descendants of these immigrants. They allowed me to follow them around their farms and explore their operations at will. They seemed to enjoy someone interested in them, watching what they did, and listening to what they had to say.
Over time, they forgot about my camera, and I was able to catch them in reflective moments as you’ll see in this gallery.
As I wandered about, I was struck by the care and attention they devoted to their land. One who I particularly enjoyed talked to me for hours as he weeded his fields, all 160 acres of them. He did it by hand, not with barrels of chemicals, in a three year cycle. Was that profitable? During the winter he and his wife spent the coldest months in Florida.
Eighteen months after I arrived at Scott, an Air Force assignment took me to a base in Stuttgart. On a day off, I drove south about 60 kilometers, walked through a small village and had lunch there. Much to my surprise, every time someone spoke I heard the same accent I'd grown accustomed to in Belleville, a gentle lilt, a unique way of speaking unlike Appalachian or Midwestern accents heard elsewhere. On my return, the locals told me that many of their families had emigrated from that region of Germany and that early in the 20th century Swabian was the primary language in much of Illinois.
These photographs were made with Nikons and 35mm film, usually Tri-X. Over time, I got better at eliminating the inherent graininess of Tri-X by using one-time solutions of attenuated developer and long development times. When it came to printing, however, I constantly struggled in the darkroom to get the prints to where I wanted them. Years later, I took my negatives to a professional printer, someone who taught photography at George Washington University, but she too could only take them so far. Then in 2016 I started learning Lightroom and Photoshop from Dimitrios Matsoulis, and I finally found the effect I was seeking. What can be done in one hour with these tools would take two weeks or more in a darkroom. That is why there is nearly a 50-year gap between the time these photographs were first taken and brought to where they are today. George Holzer has made prints of each of the images displayed in this gallery, further refining them.
Spending four years in Shiloh Valley, I came away with an impression of people at one with the land, quietly religious, successfully dealing with forces beyond their control.
The river scenes were from the nearby Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, the rest are in St. Clair County.