Once the rural playground for Chicago’s captains of commerce and Al Capone’s gangland lieutenants, the Illinois River town of Havana is dreaming big once again.
Mayor Brenda Stadsholt, a former high school guidance counselor, wants this rural hamlet of 3,200 to become a sister city with the legendary beach-and-nightlife mecca of Havana, Cuba.
Pie in the sky for a town dominated by grain elevators and surrounded by fields of green beans, watermelons and cabbages? Stadsholt thinks not.
The town, 55 miles southwest of Peoria, paid the $175 necessary to join Sister Cities International and is making initial inquiries.
“Realistically, I think we can do it,” said Stadsholt, whose love of Cuba stems from the literature of its adopted son, Ernest Hemingway, and from friendships with some Cuban-Americans. “I haven’t talked with President (Barack) Obama yet, but maybe I will.”
In the first half of the 20th century, Chicago’s elite and infamous would frequent hunting and fishing lodges in wooded areas along the river and spend their nights in gambling clubs, which were legal at the time, said town historian Nancy Glick. For many years, the town was also a center for cigar making.
“It was a wide-open gambling river town atmosphere. … We had ladies of the evening, the Capone bunch coming down,” she said. The natural connections to Cuba’s capital, she added, are not so far-fetched.
“Both are water-related and a little seedy,” said Glick, director of the Havana Public Library District. “There is that reputation — and it’s not always savory.”
As for the name of the town, there are theories. One points to the town’s proximity to what was once called “Cuba Island,” a river island thought to be shaped like the Caribbean isle. Before it was named Havana, the town was known as Ross’ Ferry, named after a military major, Ossian Ross, who ferried people across the river in a dugout canoe.
The likeliest explanation for the town’s current name, said Glick, is that it stems from a fad in the mid-1800s when a growing number of central Illinois towns took the names of exotic, faraway places. “There is Versailles, now pronounced ‘ver-sales,’ ” she said, with a laugh. “There’s Cairo, known as ‘kay-ro,’ Creve Coeur and Teheran, now pronounced ‘t-heron.’ ”