Spotlight on Illinois: Ethanol History Book

EPM's Spotlight on Illinois digs into the details of the state's past and present ethanol industry, including efforts to write a book about the history of the ethanol industry as a whole. The author is a professor at an Illinois university.
By Holly Jessen | February 11, 2015

For the next couple of years, Jeff Manuel, an assistant professor in the Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, department of historical studies, will be researching the history of U.S. alcohol-based fuels in preparation to publish a book. In 2014, he spent one semester focusing on the project after he was selected by the National Corn-to-Ethanol Center for a faculty fellowship program, which is sponsored by the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. He’ll be reading official documents on national and state energy policies as well as accepting personal histories from people with stories to tell about the history of the ethanol industry. Here’s what he had to say about the project:

RETROSPECTIVE:  Alcohol fuels have a history that goes way back. The plant typically considered the first major fuel ethanol plant in the United States was in Atchison, Kansas. It was run by the Chemical Foundation during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The Carter administration was a crucial era for U. S. energy policy and ethanol, or gasohol as it was known in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1970s energy crisis caused Americans to reevaluate their energy use and spurred development of many alternative energy sources, including ethanol. Ethanol was not central to Carter’s energy policies at first. It was only at the end of the 1970s that Carter embraced ethanol, mainly due to grassroots pressure from Midwestern farmers who made their problems known through protests such as the Washington, D.C., tractorcades of 1978 and 1979. Influential members of Congress from the farm belt also ensured that gasohol was included in Carter’s policies for alternative energy.

PRAIRIE STATE:  Illinois has a long history with ethanol. One story that stands out to me is Beshers Plan for Bringing Back Better Times. This was a grassroots movement of farmers in 1933—the depth of the Great Depression—to require that all petroleum sold in the United States be blended with 10 percent ethyl alcohol made from U. S.-grown grains. It originated with a man named Paul Beshers around Peoria and quickly spread across the Midwest. Although Beshers’ plan was never adopted by the federal government, it spurred a lot of interest in converting surplus crops into fuel.

ICE BREAKER:  Once it’s published, I hope my book will contribute to the national conversation about ethanol and energy in several ways. I’m always surprised how few people in the general public realize that ethanol fuel dates back over a century. Much of the national discussion over ethanol has ignored this important historical angle. Second, ethanol is a wonderful case study for examining how politics, technology, and even popular culture shaped U. S. energy policies over the past century. I think we can learn a great deal about the present and future of our national energy system by looking at ethanol’s past.

Read more about the Illinois ethanol industry and work at the National-Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center