Once Upon a Time

Quincy has reinvented its economy over time

This illustration gives a birds-eye view of Quincy in 1859, the same year Gardner Denver opened in the city. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Sep. 2, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Sep. 2, 2018 12:18 am

One of the interesting statistics for Quincy and the surrounding area is that it has maintained about the same population over a long period of time.

In 1900, the population of Adams County was about 67,000. It was estimated to be roughly the same in the last census, indicating that Quincy has successfully reinvented its economy over time.

Key industries in Quincy in the 19th century included tobacco-related works, breweries, ice packers, and manufacturers of wagons, carriages, plows and stoves. Dick Brothers brewery was one of the largest in what was considered the west at that time and served markets as far west as Colorado and as far south as Texas.

Quincy also had the distinction of being the first place in the West to make stoves. Quincy industries served the domestic market, while industries such as Gardner's served a global market.

Quincy and cities like St. Louis developed at that time because of their location on inland waterways. In the 18th and 19th centuries, industries tended to locate where their transportation costs, including bringing raw materials to the place of production and the final product to market, were lowest. This was along the Eastern Seaboard in the 18th and 19th centuries and farther inland thereafter.

The developments of the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 and linked New York to the Great Lakes, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which opened in 1848 and linked Chicago to the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, made cities such as Chicago and Quincy important ports.

Before these developments, Quincy and Chicago were isolated. The population of Quincy was less than 1,000 in 1834 and only a few 100 in Chicago in 1833. The development of the railroads helped solidify Quincy's strategic advantage in the late 19th century resulting in Quincy becoming the second largest city in Illinois at that time.

Today's economic base includes some of the industries that had their start in early Quincy such as the Knapheide Manufacturing Co. (1848), Gardner Denver (1859) and Niemann Foods (1917). Although the river and railroads are still important to the economy, other factors have become more important over time such as favorable interstate highway connections, labor cost, taxes, education and amenities.

Quincy is slightly more specialized in manufacturing than Illinois overall. As is the case for the United States overall, manufacturing employment has declined significantly in Quincy. This is partly a result of improvements in technology that enable manufacturing plants to produce more with fewer workers, just as farmers produce more food today with less labor.

Whereas one out of four workers were in the manufacturing sector in Quincy in 1980, about one out of seven are today.

In the United States, about 10 percent of workers are in the manufacturing sector. This is down from one in three workers after World War II.

Similarly, the number of farmers in the United States has fallen from over 50 percent of the population in the 19th century to about 2 percent today.

Although employment is relatively high in the Quincy area, wages are 72 percent of the statewide average. One of the reasons for this is that education levels are below the statewide average in Quincy reducing productivity.

In Adams County about one in four adults has a college degree while about one in three workers in the state has graduated from a four-year college.

In Chicago, over one-third of the adult population has at least a bachelor's degree.

Since at least 1980, educational attainment has declined in Quincy compared to the state and its largest city, Chicago. This is one of Quincy's competitive disadvantages. This is an important issue because industry is increasingly attracted to areas with higher concentrations of college graduates.

One of the reasons that educational attainment is lower in Quincy is that college graduates on the average acquire more skills in metropolitan areas. For this reason, many young adults from rural areas and small cities who go away to college don't return home. They move to metropolitan areas where they can acquire more marketable skills that result in higher earnings. For example, last year college graduates earned as much as one-third more in Chicago than they earned in Quincy.

Although wages and income are lower in Quincy relative to statewide and national averages, the cost of living in Quincy is lower as well. For this reason, the standard of living is not particularly low in Quincy relative to other parts of Illinois.

Further, median household income has increased in Quincy relative to the state since 1979, although it has decreased relative to Chicago.

One of the big changes in Quincy's population over the long run has been the decline in foreign born. In 1850, over half of the population of Quincy were foreign-born. Quincy was similar to Chicago in that respect where two out of three were foreign born.

Today, only about 2 percent of Quincy's population is foreign born. This is up from about 1 percent in 1980. In Chicago, 21 percent are foreign born. Whereas the foreign born were mostly from Europe in the 19th century, today the foreign born are disproportionately Hispanic. In Illinois one of six residents is Hispanic.

This statistic is important because foreign in-migration has been the key driver of population growth in Illinois for many decades. Net domestic migration to Illinois has been negative for almost 100 years. That is, more domestic-born residents have been leaving Illinois than coming here for a long period of time.

It of interest to highlight in closing an on-going "cluster mapping" project at Harvard Business School that measures how well local economies are performing. The project was established by professor Michael Porter at Harvard to help regions develop economic strategies.

The project indicates that Quincy scores highly, in the upper 20 percent, on economic growth since 2001. Quincy's score is about average to slightly above average on several other measures including wage growth, gross domestic product per capita, employment growth, international export growth, and international exports as a percentage of gross domestic product.


William Sander grew up in Quincy. He graduated from the University of Illinois and received his Ph.D. from Cornell University. He is a professor of economics at De Paul University and a consultant for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.



Davila, Natalie, Mike Klemens and Robert Ross. "Who is Leaving Illinois and Why?" (KDM Consulting, 2016). taxpolicyissues.com/migration.htm

Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness. U.S. Cluster Mapping Project. (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard Business School). clustermapping.us

Landrum, Carl. "Historical Sketches of Quincy: The First 100 Years." Quincy: Carl Landrum. Meyer, Douglas K. Foreign Immigrants in Illinois 1850. (DeKalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Libraries, 1998.) lib.niu..edu/1998/ih519815.html.

"The History of Adams County Illinois." Chicago: Murray, Williamson and Phelps, 1879.