Cortland, Illinois: The Small Town That Claims To Be Big

Small towns all over America attempt to find novel ways to market themselves to outsiders. You see these efforts, some of them logical, some boastful, others ridiculous, on signs all over the country. America’s friendliest town! A Great Place to Live! Boyhood Home of Rutherford B. Hayes! Home of the Little League World Series Quarterfinalists, The Screaming Owls!

The most common tactics for small towns are attaching themselves to sports teams or famous people, touting obscure awards or distinctions the town received from organizations no one has ever heard of, or simply making a claim that no one can argue with, i.e., we’re nice. I’ve long been enamored of these claims, but the oddest town boast I’ve ever seen is in the small town of Cortland, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago.

Cortland is a small town with lots of farms and just a few businesses on its main street, including a laundromat, a gas station, an upholstery business, a dollar store and a diner. My wife grew up there and her family still lives in the town. The first time I went to visit them, back in 1998, I was puzzled after coming across a sign, placed on a street with nothing but cornfields advertising the place as “The Third Largest Town in Illinois.”

At the time, the town’s population was about 1,500 (it has since grown to more than 4,000 thanks to some recently built subdivisions) so I was puzzled. Of all the different ways this small community could market itself, it had decided to say to the world, “We’re big.”

When I arrived at my wife’s family home, we sat out in her backyard, which at that time featured a pleasing view of nothing but farmland as far as the eye could see.

“So I saw the sign about this being the third largest town,” I said. “How could that be?”

“Well, it’s kind of a technicality,” my wife said, laughing knowingly as she eyed her mom and sister. “There aren’t very many towns in Illinois.”

As it turns out, nearly every community in Illinois is incorporated as either a village or a city so the only incorporated “towns” in the state that are larger than Cortland are Normal and Cicero. The “third largest town” claim to fame is the town’s brand – check out the town website and you’ll see the slogan emblazoned right underneath the town name. So there you have it: Cortland, the small town that claims to be quite large, if only on a technicality.