Romeo & Juliet on Route 66, or: Don’t blame the Bard


That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

Brush up your Shakespeare, and they’ll all kowtow. – Kiss Me Kate, Act II, by Cole Porter

Happy Shakespeare Week!  It was Will Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) 450th birthday on Wednesday, April 23rd (also known as the Feast of St. George or St. George’s Day, after the patron saint of England).  That birthday’s a biggie.  So now you’re wondering if there’s any connection between our favorite highway and the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon.  Oho, but there is!

As the playwright asked:  What’s in a name?  Almost everything, apparently – if you’re talking about a town.  Some names just don’t fit or encourage development as much as others.  Take Romeoville and Joliet, two municipalities on Route 66 that are not so far apart in metro Chicago.  One was favored with a better location than the other, even though their beginnings as settlements happened at about the same time, for the same reasons (they sprang up as canal towns from land surveyed for the canal commissioners of the Illinois & Michigan Canal); and yet, they developed so differently.  Moreover, both ended up changing their names before they saw any real progress.  Perhaps that was a cosmic hint.

Louis Jolliet statue, Joliet (IL) Public Library  (copyright 2014 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

Louis Jolliet statue, Joliet (IL) Public Library (copyright 2014 by K. Yearman; all rights reserved)

French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, of course, paddled up the Des Plaines River and past the sites of these two future settlements way back in 1673 on their way to finding the Chicago portage.  Two of the voyageurs on that Mississippi Valley expedition returned a few years later and named the hill that sat in what is now the SW section of Joliet Mont Joliet, after the civilian leader of that trip.  Then nobody lived there for another two hundred years, although many natives, traders and trappers passed through the area.  When English speakers got there, they called the hill Joliet Mound or Mound Joliet.  Not a fortuitous-sounding name.

The moment that the buzz about building the I&M Canal began (sometime during the late 1820s), potential settlers and land speculators got very interested in both Chicago and Joliet.  The earliest settlers in the Joliet area – W.R. and William Rice and Millar Ainsley – arrived in 1829.  They settled on the east bank of the Des Plaines River, about two miles north of where Hickory Creek flows into the Des Plaines.  By 1832, there were about 35 households there, mostly Yankees from out east.  That was the year that a Col. Moore of the Vermilion County militia and the young trapper/trader Gurdon S. Hubbard together directed the erection of Fort Joliet at the mound. [The mound is no more, however; it was excavated as a quarry many decades ago.]

Meanwhile, in 1830, surveyor James Thompson began platting the land around the two prospective ends of the future canal, Chicago and Ottawa, and laying out those towns (that’s how Chicago got its street grid – and thank heavens for that).  The potential towns in between would be platted later.  By 1834, the state had created a Board of Canal Commissioners to oversee construction of the I&M Canal, and canal land beyond Chicago began to be sold.  That very year, developer James B. Campbell – who, by the way, was treasurer for the canal commission!  See?  The fix was in already – purchased the first property in the area of Joliet Mound, 80 acres on the east bank of the Des Plaines River in what is now the East Side Historic District (he was the first person for whom a tract of land was platted in the Joliet area).

And here’s the beginning of the connection:  Campbell named his tract Juliet for his daughter, and it was platted as the Town of Juliet, although incorporation (very contentious) would come later.  The name stuck for a while.  At about the same time, developers and canal commissioners who had begun platting the land between Juliet and Chicago figured that they would try to create a little economic competition between the two planned towns – so they got cute and decided to name the potential town upriver Romeo.  Too cute, in fact:  it eventually backfired.  The course of true love never did run smooth.

Now if they’d named the two towns that they wanted to nudge into rivalry Montague and Capulet instead, their silly strategy might have worked.  Those two families were constantly at each other’s throats in the story, and that’s partly why the play ended so badly.  But those crazy kids Romeo and Juliet were always trying for unification, not competition.  Sigh … didn’t any of those bozos read the play?  In any case, Romeo the town would be at a disadvantage for decades, because it was built high up on the bluff of the west bank of the river, whereas Lockport (the I&M Canal’s official headquarters) and Juliet were launched on the flat plain of the east bank, which would later be advantageous not only for settlement but for development, railroads, access to the river, and so on.  None of which poor Romeo had.  And without the river and rail connections, the residents up on the bluff would be forced to rely heavily on farming, running dairies and quarrying for their livelihoods during the 19th and early 20th centuries, whereas Joliet developed a broader range of industries and businesses.

Not that Juliet didn’t have its problems.  Despite being platted as a town, it incorporated as a village in 1837, only to beg the state to rescind that in 1841 (at the villagers’ request) over tax issues.  Finally, to add insult to injury, at the suggestion of then U.S. President Martin Van Buren, Juliet was renamed Joliet for the explorer (again) – but it took passing a bill in the state legislature to accomplish that in January 1845.  Perhaps in a fit of pique at the implied slight, Romeo then renamed itself Romeoville (there was no point any longer to keeping the name of Shakespeare’s protagonist).  So much for that.  But as Bardologist and Yale humanities professor Harold Bloom has often observed, all of Shakespeare’s great heroines had to settle for lesser men.  And so it was with this Romeo and Juliet:  they didn’t end up a happy couple, though at least the towns weren’t defunct before their time.  With adaptation in the face of difficulty, they’re still around, though somewhat badgered by rust-belt realities and more recent economic trends.

Shakespeare's engraved portrait by Martin Droeshaut on his First Folio, 1613

Shakespeare’s engraved portrait by Martin Droeshaut on his First Folio, 1613

Which brings us to the musical version of another Shakespeare play: Kiss Me Kate (1948), taken from The Taming of the Shrew with music and lyrics by Cole Porter.  In the second act, when two hoodlums find themselves in changed circumstances and in need of reinvention, they aim for the highbrow and advise the lovelorn protagonist to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”  The sight of these two mugs mangling the names of several of the playwright’s characters while putting on a song and dance is a stitch.  I wondered for a while which of many great performances to provide you here.  There’s a very good video on YouTube from the 2001 Broadway revival, but in the end, I settled on the classic scene from the 1953 film version, with veteran actors James Whitmore and Keenan Wynn hamming it up before a despondent, depressed Howard Keel.  The 2001 stage version is wonderful, but it lacks the context and the hilarious dancing you get with the film clip.

So here goes – consider this your Route 66 Song Of The Week for the Bard’s birthday.  And no ranting that this isn’t road music (musicals do too go on the road; methinks thou dost protest too much).


Until next time, friends, roadies and countrymen!
Your own Bardologist, DJ SweetMarie



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