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Meet The Man Who's Traveled To All 102 Illinois Counties

David Alan Badger via Facebook
David Alan Badger in his High Street Studio in Havana, Ill.

David Alan Badger says he's made the state of Illinois "the adventure of his life."

The 71-year-old Havana resident's adventure now spans more than 50 publications and over 13,000 illustrations of Illinois historic architecture. He recently spoke with WCBU correspondent Steve Tarter about his journeys.


Steve Tarter: David Alan Badger. How would you describe yourself, David?

David Alan Badger: I've been thinking about that question. And in the back of my mind, I have this this notion of Bohemia, the bohemian lifestyle. And I don't really know what that means, but that's pretty much my life. 

ST: Right here in downtown, on the river. Havana, Illinois.

DAB: Yeah. So I'm definitely involved. I went so far as to look it up to see what it meant. And the first thing it said was an artistic lifestyle. And that pretty much describes [me]. 

ST: You need to tell the listeners here someting. That's how many publications have you done?

DAB: I kind of lost track a little bit. I used to be real proud of the fact that I would have 50. But then I started thinking I was bragging too much. So I kind of backed off. But I have over 50 different titles of communities and areas that I've worked in. What I mean by areas, for instance, a designation like Route 66. So I started in Chicago, and I did 101 drawings from Chicago, all the way down to the Chain of Rocks Bridge going over into St. Louis. So all these 101 sites, I thought that was a nice thing to start out. 101 sites to see if you travel on Route 66. 

ST: Did you do those drawings? So you take a picture and then work off that?

DAB: Yeah. Basically, I would just photograph the sites that I wanted to do and then come back to my studio, do the drawings, do the research. A lot of the research you can do online, but mostly I just wanted to identify them and do maybe 250-word description on some of them of what people were saying. And true to the my nature, I wanted to go and do things that aren't always mentioned in the brochures that you pick up and everything. 

ST: You've done so many different things. I mean, I'm looking at your studio, and I see Sterling, Danville, Jerseyville, all up and down. Monmouth, Galesburg. You cover the state. Is there any place you haven't been in Illinois?

DAB: Well, regrettably, I've not worked well down in Southern Illinois. I know there's a great history, and that's really where the birth of the state came from. But I've not done a lot of work. But I have traveled to every county, and I published a book of drawings a number of years ago on every county courthouse in the state. And that was that took me to every county. It was quite interesting.

I had some experiences along the way that I still remember today. Small, small little towns, small courthouses. Some are kind of not in real good shape. And at the time, they were tearing, tearing down a lot of the county jails and building some new ones. But there was one county I went to - I think it was Pope County - but they had a really a rundown sheriff's office and a rundown jail. And I was photographing the courthouse. And knowing they were going to be tearing them down, I decided to photograph, as a side venture, all the county jails, just for the fun of it, that were of old style. And I photographed the jail.

And I ran out of film. That was back in the film days, [I] went back to my car to put a new cassette in, and up come walking a guy in a red flannel shirt. And he had a gun and a badge. And he walked up to me and he said, 'What are you taking a picture of my courthouse for?' 

You know, like that? And I looked at the badge and the gun, and I looked at the jail. And I thought oh, this is not a time to say anything smart. I just like I was thinking, 'Well, if I was on the street, I can photograph whatever I want.' Which I didn't. I decided not to say that. And what I decided to tell him exactly what I was doing. And he said 'Oh, okay,' and walked away. It was pretty scary. I wasn't afraid of the gun so much as I was afraid of spending time in that jail. You know, the condition of that. 

ST: And you've lived in Havana for over 40 years, you and your wife, now. Would tell us about Havana? You told me on the phone that it's gone through a renovation, or the downtown has been sort of upgraded.

DAB: Yeah. I've been here over 40 years. And over that period of time, there's been several such things happen. But they go to one point, and that it never expands from there. But this time, it seems to be a little different.

And there's a couple of reasons. One is there was a lady who came back to Havana. She went to California, and lived, and she came back and she bought the family home. Her mother had died. And she bought the family home. And she bought a building downtown. 

Now that's the first time anybody has ever done something like that in Havana, where they go out and seek their fortune, and do well, and then come back to their town. I've seen that happen [elsewhere]. And I always lamented the fact that it never happened in Havana. 

But this lady came back, and she bought a building downtown that needed a complete remodeling. And she spent a big amount of money, a nice amount of money doing this, and turning it into a class business.And it's called Gisela's Haus. It was named after her mother. And the house is German. She's been in business a year now. That will be the sole place that I sell my publication through. 

ST: Let's talk about your publication. That's a history of Havana. You haven't done that yet?

DAB: There's a whole story about what I'm doing now. And it's it's not just a publication on a central idea. It has actually eight ideas. And I call it a magazine. Really it's a quarterly magazine. This is what happened. 

About March, April, May, I was really feeling down about the nature of what my business was going to be, because most of my business is tourism-0related. I had one client in January make make their usual January order. But I got nothing from that point on, and I thought 'what in the heck am I gonna do?' 

I tried to do the PPP, the government programs, and and I even went to the Bradley people with the Small Business Administration, and everything. Nothing was centered or nothing was geared for me. Here I am, a small business, one owner, one person - my wife works with me, also - but basically one person and there was nothing for me. And so therefore I was on my own. 

So that's what I had to do. I had to rethink of what I was doing, and I was in the dump. And a friend of mine kind of kicked me in the rear and said, 'David, you've been in this situation many times over your 40 years. Just think of something that you can do. And use your all of your experience that you've had over those years.' And I'm the kind of guy that, I don't want to retire. I want to go screaming and yelling into the good night. I want to do stuff as long as I can. And that's the bottom line. It was really nice. And I really credit him for kind of setting me on the right road. And so I started thinking, 'What can I do?' So I thought, okay, I can do my drawings, for sure. 

But then I started thinking back to [last] October, when this guy named John Carl, a native of Havana, called me up. He gave me the rights to his parents' photographs. His parents had been vintage Havana photograph collectors for a good period of time. And they would go around to different groups, and show slideshows and everything with their photos. I thought, okay, I can use that. Because John said he wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do. He didn't care what I did. He just thought he knew I do a good job. And he didn't want anything in return. He wanted to, in effect, give them back to the population.

So I thought, okay, that's something that I can do. And I can put that on my website. And I can start an e-magazine. Basically, just put it out there and let people see what Havana has to offer. After I did some of the photographs and got that gone. I started thinking, what else can I talk about? And then all of a sudden, the floodgates opened, of all the things that Havana has to offer.

And I don't know about other towns as well. Even though I've worked in a lot of towns, I don't know other towns as well as I know Havana.

So I started kind of making a list. Abraham Lincoln came to New Salem, which was about 27 miles away. And he had longtime friends when he was when he was elected into government, longtime friends in this area. And from over to Lewistown. And so I thought, okay, I can write about Abraham Lincoln, and kind of promote the town for Abraham Lincoln. 

And then I started thinking the most natural one was in the '30s. and '40s. Havana was a big [illegal] gambling area. Now, well, now it's legal. That's ironic, isn't it? So I thought, I can write about the gambling so I started interviewing people, older people, and I got some really great stories on what Havana was like, some of the things that happened in Havana. And and when I started doing research, I discovered something I didn't know which the whole state of Illinois, at one point had wide open gambling in every town. It wasn't just Havana. It was Lincoln, it was Peoria, it was Pekin. You know, it was just all these towns had gambling to different degrees. Wide open gambling. And then you started learning about the underworld a little bit. The Shelton Gang.

Scott Lucas is very prominent in local history, because he was just a few heartbeats away from being President of the United States. You know, he was the Majority Leader in the Senate during the Truman administration. So at one point he was even considering and looking into running for President of the United States.

They named the [Scott Lucas] Bridge after him. And that's the only thing. I always wondered why there wasn't other things named after Senator Scott Lucas. One old timer said, when I came to town to ask him that question, he said that Scott Lucas just didn't seem to do enough for the town to warrant anything named after him.

But but the bridge was named after him. There's even other reasons too. And when you get talking about the gambling era, it gets a little dicey in there. 

You start talking about the gambling area, and he fits into that, like a glove, because the funny thing was after he was beaten in the election, I think it was 1952. Then, the gentleman from Pekin, Dirksen -- Everett Dirksen -- beat him out, and and that's when all the gamblers in Havana lost their influence, because Lucas was no longer the influencer.

And then it just took a short period after that, that the big raid in Havana happened in 1953 which which took away gambling. And so the gambling story is great.

ST: Tell us now - when is the first edition out?

DAB: The first issue will be out on the 11th of November, and as I said, it'll be available at Gisela's Haus. And then I'll come out with is a seasonal quarterly. I'll come out with a spring issue. My first one, I decided to call it the winter issue. And spring, and then summer, autumn. 

ST: I was gonna ask, if somebody hears this and wants to get a copy. Can they do it by mail? Or can they do it online?

DAB: Yeah, they can email me.We don't have all of it set up yet, but we will have people go to Gisela's Haus website, and you can order. Through that would probably be the best way. Or you can come to Havana. 

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.