Cities Journal

Top 13 Small Cities in Illinois

Photo credit: danxoneil / Flickr

From the Windy City skyline to Abraham Lincoln’s historic hometown, Illinois is an interesting, thriving state that has always been the true heart of the American Midwest. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Chicago makes up almost a quarter of the state’s entire population, and hundreds of suburbs crowd around this hub.

Six other cities have between 200,000 and 100,000 residents, but the majority of Illinois is composed of rolling plains, lush cornfields, and the suburbs, villages and rural communities tucked between and around them. The “small cities” on this list range from the downright tiny to the ever-growing and bustling, but most exude a quintessentially Midwestern mix of small-town hospitality and open-minded, urban sensibilities.

1. Elmhurst

Carl Sandburg is a Chicago poet who carved out a niche for the city in modern American literature.

However, much of Sandburg’s life was spent in the little cities; he was actually born and raised in Galesburg, and when he returned to Illinois as a young man, he did what thousands of Americans still do every year: he chose to raise his kids in Elmhurst.

According to the Elmhurst Historical Museum, which recently displayed the prodigious poet’s photos and archives in an exhibit, Sandburg moved his family here in the 1920’s. That was a period of huge growth for Elmhurst, when according to the City its population nearly tripled throughout the decade from a modest 5,000 to more than 14,000.

There’s little doubt that Sandburg absorbed some of the historical significance of this suburb’s quick transformation; he spent these years writing Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, the biography for which he’d ultimately win the first of three Pulitzer Prizes.

According to Margaret Franson Pruter’s account in Richard A. Thompson’s DuPage Roots, Elmhurst’s very first property owner was an enterprising lawyer named Thomas Barbour Bryan, who built a house that he called the Byrd’s Nest in Cottage Hill in the early 1850’s.

By the end of the decade, the area’s population had grown to 200 as wealthy artists, real estate moguls, and businessmen followed in Bryan’s footsteps and established their own estates throughout the York Township alcove. Today, Elmhurst still offers easy access to the city and an excellent public education system.

According to the public school’s own website, York Community High School has enough resources to offer extracurricular perks such as an award-winning drama department, an annual ski trip and a fitness center.

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