The Republic of Forgottonia

The lore of “The Republic of Forgottonia” was created in the late 1960s in what is the very heart of the “Republic”; Macomb, IL.  A group of concerned citizens dubbed the area “Forgottonia” in protest of the lack of state and federal investment in highways and other infrastructure in a sixteen-county section of West Central Illinois. Variously described as a new U.S. state or an independent republic, Forgottonia eventually became a fictional political secession movement in 1971s. It did not achieve actual statehood, but it did briefly crystallize as a state of mind. Residents of the west-central Illinois region —more or less between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers—launched a satirical secession movement to protest the region’s stepchild status in Springfield. 

What started as a tongue-in-cheek name grew into a satirical movement. Conceived by McDonough County residents 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 lack of support for transportation and infrastructure projects in the area. The Horns & Armstrong  appointed a governor, selected a capital, and threatened secession so they could declare war, immediately surrender, and then petition for foreign aid.  They even had their own flag: the white flag of surrender.

Viet Nam war veteran and Western Illinois University student  Neal Gamm was named “Governor of Forgottonia,” and the breakaway commonwealth established its capital in an abandoned building in Fandon, a microscopic hamlet south of  Colchester, hidden in the woods of McDonough County was to be the republic’s Capital.  Wearing an elegant frock coat, bow tie, boutonniere and impish grin, Gamm became an instant media darling. The Sacramento Bee, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times all ran features on Gamm’s stunt. Suddenly the nation was taking notice of western Illinois plight.

According to a 2010 interview with the McDonough County Voice, Gamm recalled “The idea is that we would secede from the Union, immediately declare war, surrender, then apply for foreign aid.” What had started as a local joke soon became a news sensation as reporters and television producers from across the nation started contacting Gamm as wire services picked up the story.

The Western Illinois Magazine noted his republic had all the accoutrements of state and even nationhood, including an official bird (the albatross) and flower (the forget-me-not), as well as ambitious plans for a military academy and missile base, apparently if things got ugly with Iowa. Inspired by Gamm’s goofy, street-theater charisma and their own sense of grievance, movement adherents would brandish the Forgottonian flag—a blank white sheet, naturally—at town parades and political events throughout the fourteen counties.

Forgottonia never did secede, but thanks in part to these efforts the movement succeeded. It drew national attention to the region’s transportation and infrastructure plight. Amtrak brought trains service back to the area in 1972 and our region now enjoys Amtrak passenger train route to Chicago, and a much improved system of bridges and highways now allow for easier access to this little slice of Illinois.

The geographic region of “The Republic of Forgottonia” forms the distinctive western bulge of Illinois that is roughly equivalent to the Illinois portion of the Military Tract of 1812, along and west of the Fourth Principal Meridian.

In 2011, The History Channel series How the States Got Their Shapes focused its second episode of their first season, entitled The Great Plains, Trains, and Automobiles on the historic inequality given to this western Illinois region, as a result of Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. Host Brian Unger interviewed “Gov.” Gamm for the series as they toured The Republic of Forgottonia’s capital, Fandon, IL, which you can watch here:

Over the years, Forgottonia has come to stand for the deep connection the people of west-central Illinois feel to our region and the playful and irreverent refusal to let ourselves and our Unforgettable region be forgotten.

Neal Gamm passed away in Forgottonia on November 16, 2012, he was 65.

Forgottonia has been immortalized in craft beer which can be enjoyably quaffed at Macomb‘s Forgottonia Brewing.

Be sure to check out award-winning musician Chris Vallo’s concept LP Forgottonia.