Uniquely qualified to perform the duties of his most illustrious office, Gamm took center stage and demanded the attention of political elites who were inclined to look down on his home of western Illinois. Governor Neal Gamm’s humble beginnings in America’s most mismanaged prairie may not have hinted at his future ascendancy nor his natural political acumen, but they did prepare him for the quite literal rough roads ahead.
By Nathan Woodside
McDonough County Voice
Dec. 28, 2010 5:44 am
A smooth-talking WIU theater student is recruited by small-town economists to start a revolution. Secede from the Union, declare war and surrender — all a part of a political satire designed to draw desperately needed attention to a section of small-town America. It becomes something bigger than anyone could have imagined and before their white flag can be waved, Forgottonia’s story is a nationwide hit. That theater student finds himself playing the part of a voice representing a downtrodden demographic in the post-Vietnam era.
So was the life of Table Grove resident Neal Gamm in 1971 as the governor of Forgottonia.
“I was pretty good at throwing smoke like a real, old-time politician,” Gamm says today. “We didn’t ever figure it would take off like it did, but it threw us all in.” He’s recently retired after a full life of work in the Montana Park Service, a mining business and maintenance man. He recently moved back to Illinois after a 30-year absence. “I grew up here,” said the 1965 graduate of VIT High School. “This is home.” As the sparkle-and-fade form of celebrity that Gamm experienced nearly 40 years has blended into wacky Illinois trivia, the legend of Forgottonia is twitching with new life. Gamm will be featured on an upcoming episode of the History Channel documentary “How the States Got Their Shapes.”
As Gamm tells it, the “scheme” was conjured mainly by Jack Horn, son of civically-minded Coca Cola bottler Frank “Pappy” Horn and Macomb Chamber of Commerce Board Member John Armstrong.
Frustration among the citizens and officials of western Illinois was mounting behind a perceived lack of support for transportation projects in the area. Federal funding for a highway from Chicago to Kansas City by way of western Illinois was passed on by Congress, passenger rail service from Macomb to Chicago was dropped, and Carthage College packed up and moved to Kenosha, Wis.
The area felt ignored and the stunt was a way to draw attention to the plight of the forgotten prairie.
“The idea is that we would secede from the Union, immediately declare war, surrender, then apply for foreign aid. This was the scheme they cooked up to bring attention to Macomb and the western Illinois area,” Gamm said. And he was pegged as the front man.
Fandon, a speck of a town south of Colchester, was the capital. The state flag was all white to signal surrender. An empty storefront in town was declared the capital building. The new nation would include the counties of Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Cass, Fulton, Hancock, Henderson, Knox, McDonough, Morgan, Pike, Schuyler, Scott and Warren. Press releases went out, and the media responded. The Sacramento Bee
, the Philadelphia Inquirer
and the New York Times
all ran features on Gamm’s stunt. Western Illinois got its attention. Soon, Gamm was leading parades of reporters with cameras down the streets of Fandon, chest puffed, blowing his smoke.
“It was just supposed to be a local kind of deal and it ended up going national,” Gamm said. “We got coverage from coast-to-coast — radio, TV, you name it. It was weird, because they were covering it fairly straight. They were covering it like this was the real deal. It was great stuff. If you read some of the articles, you’d swear this was the real deal. Some papers, I think, really thought this was serious.” Then, slowly, as people saw the truth in the satire, the stunt morphed into something more. “People were really desperate and they were grasping at straws and I happened to be the most viable one at the time,” Gamm said. “People were frustrated. They needed someone to speak for them and they thought I was it. In a way, I was. At least I got their opinions out there. People just didn’t have any voice.”
Behind the scenes, things began to become stressful for Gamm. He was not a politician. He didn’t know the issues. Sure, he was able to talk his way through them, but he felt the people who were relying on someone to deliver their message on a national level deserved better than what he could provide. He was invited to speak at national summits and serve on expert panels. Politicians against his message began to fear him. Organizations on his side solicited his help. None of them knew that he really knew nothing. “I was just in it to be funny and then I saw that people had legit concerns and they had nobody to talk to about it.” Gamm said. “It really got to be kind of a responsibility. That was kind of what kept it going. There were people who were plum serious and not able to get their message out there and I can at least do that for them. I was glad to, but it was then that I really had to start doing my homework and know what I was talking about. I didn’t know diddley about it, but I was sent there to be an expert. I was in over my head at times.”
As Gamm crammed for political test after test, supporters sent in money for the cause. The funds went for gas and food to take Gamm, Armstrong and Horn to various events. A dime was never taken that didn’t go straight into the cause. Billboards were erected along highways at Forgottonia’s borders politely requesting that visitors have their Visa cards ready. Gamm’s newfound fame even reunited him with an old girlfriend. She just happened to be the secretary for three state representatives. Her connections were valuable to the cause. They were married within months. “She was the first lady,” Gamm chuckled. “She got a big kick out of that.”
Gamm had his antagonists. Some locals felt he was doing more harm than good, poking fun at the area for being so rural. Quincy Mayor Don Nicholson chided Gamm and the idea of Forgottonia, saying the stunt was making the area look bad. At the time, Quincy’s population had peaked at an all-time high of 45,000 and the town was bustling economically. None of that bothered Gamm. He knew that Forgottonia was real and the people who lived there deserved to be heard, no matter what it took to gain attention. “You can malign, humiliate and scream at your politicians and it won’t bother them a bit, but you laugh at them, and they can’t stand it,” Gamm quipped. “That’s what we were doing, and we were really good at it.”
In the summer of 1972, one year after it started, national interest in the Forgottonia movement waned and slowly died. “It just kind of petered out,” Gamm said. “We took it for all it was worth. I think we did some good. I think we brought some focus to down-state.” Train service was restored in 1972 as Amtrak was born. The Illinois Department of Transportation funded passenger transportation to the area.
Although the former Carthage College had been taken over by a smaller business institution, Robert Morris College, it closed campus in 1989 and remains vacant. Highway relief wasn’t obtained in the Forgottonia boundaries until the U.S. Route 336 four-lane bypass around Colchester and Carthage was finished in 2008.
Some signs of Forgottonia remain. A barn near Avon still proudly supports a “Forgottonia, USA” monicker. An internet blog still posts news from Forgottonia, faceciously building up small-town stories into big news. “Plans proceed for traffic light to replace four-way stop” was a recent headline under breaking news in Carthage. Politicians have sporadically used the Forgottonia term, and to this day, everyone knows exactly what they’re referring to.
As for Fandon, it remains as sleepy and forgotten as ever. “It’s changed since the time we (were) there,” Gamm said. “Some of the old buildings that we used as official buildings are gone. There’s a road sign there. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have known where I was.” Another movement? “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me it’s time to do it again,” he said.
As times of economic hardship fall on western Illinois again, there’s more talk of the area being re-forgotten. Gamm said a new movement would focus more on job creation instead of transportation.
“Just like back then, I know there’s still a lot of people not getting their fair shake from the government and are kind of overlooked by the state, Gamm said. Would he reclaim his seat as the Governor of Forgottonia? “I’ve thought about it,” Gamm said. “I’d like for someone to do it again, but I’m too old, too tired. It’s a lot of work.”
Gamm said he believes another spark of humor in government is sorely needed in a time where extreme partisanship is the rule. “I feel like we need it now more than ever,” Gamm said. “Politics has become obstruction. We’re not getting anything done because they’re just trying to keep the other guy from getting anything done. That’s not the way to do it. I don’t know what the answer is. I wish I did, but it’s really frustrating. More and more I think that we ought to do it (Forgottonia) again.”
Gamm said he isn’t sure when his episode of “How the States Got Their Shapes
” would air, but predicted it would be sometime in the spring. For the episodes, Gamm takes viewers on a tongue-in-cheek tour of Forgottonia’s capital of Fandon. “I was really surprised they were that interested in doing something on it,” he said. “It was a spoof. “It was a good interview and they (the History Channel crew) had fun doing it,” he said. “The guy that did the interview was outstanding. He really got into it. It was a goof to them, but it was fun. If you get a ham like me, it was right up my alley.” One last time, Gamm was playing his part.