Lizzie Magie’s legacy lives on

Macomb pays homage to Monopoly creator

“Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.”  It’s a familiar phrase for the many generations who have enjoyed the Parker Brothers board game Monopoly. Little did the people of Macomb, Ill., know, — until recent years, that is — that the original game maker was once also a resident. Now, 75 years following her death, her hometown is paying homage with the world’s largest Monopoly game — played through an app on the downtown square.

Lizzie Magie, born May 9, 1866, in Macomb, didn’t receive credit for creating the game until after her death. Jock Hedblade, executive director of the Macomb Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the truth only became known to the world after the release of “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” written by New York Times reporter Mary Pilon and published in 2016.

In the book, the author reveals why Magie was not rightfully acknowledged during her lifetime; ironically, the story demonstrates the dark side of the capitalism the game (in its current form) celebrates. As it turned out, she had invented and patented a nearly identical version called The Landlord’s Game decades prior — but someone else made a fortune selling it to Parker Brothers.

At the time the news broke, Hedblade was working as a national television producer in Chicago and often visited his hometown of Macomb. “Folks [here] learned [about] it like everybody else did. We didn’t know this story,” he says, recalling that on a past visit his brother commented, “Isn’t it uncanny how the downtown square looks like a Monopoly board?” Hedblade adds that later, while researching, they discovered that the town jail originally resided in one of the corners of the square, just like the game.

His career path shifted sometime later, leading Hedblade to his current position back home. “I threw my hat in the ring, and lo and behold, I got the job,” he says. “We didn’t have any 365-day-a-year attractions … we had our festivals. They’re still fantastic … but [not] unique to any other communities.” To remedy that, the team began planning projects that would set Macomb apart.

“We got a mural started [and] became an Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area. … The thought [was], we’ve got to work toward our connection to Monopoly … it would be wholly unique to this town,” Hedblade says. After six years, the idea has become a reality.

Those first two projects were crucial to getting the trust and buy-in necessary from the community to embrace the all-encompassing idea of creating an integrated, life-size version of the game. During that time, the committee reached out to Hasbro, the game’s current maker, but was unable to connect with anyone there. Because of that, certain adjustments had to be made.

According to Hedblade, the new game, dubbed Macombopoly, is based on Magie’s original version, The Landlord’s Game. “We are putting up large game pieces on each corner of the square … you’ll see the actual evolution of the game itself,” he adds. “On the corners of the square [on the sidewalks], you’ll have your go, you’ll have your jail, you’ll have your free parking, your go to jail.”

The game “board” on the square is just the beginning. The accompanying app, developed by eAtlas in Chicago, utilizes artificial intelligence to enable representations of Abraham Lincoln and Lizzie Magie to speak to players and allow historic photos to come to life, sharing the town’s history back to the mid-1800s in a dynamic virtual experience.

“This was just a process that we worked through. We got a grant from the state of Illinois for $40,000 and raised the matching part of that grant,” says Hedblade. “The Illinois Tourism Office coming through with the grant not only helped us financially but really legitimized the project for both us and the rest of the state.”

It was a group effort that brought the game to fruition. “We have a small but strong committee,” he adds. “But I have to say the community itself has been extremely supportive of this. We’ve got all kinds of businesses involved in this, and individuals from the community have donated money to make this project happen, so it’s been a full community effort to get this thing going.

“Without all of that, we would have never been able to get to this point,” says Hedblade. He believes the team’s early successes with previous tourism projects laid the groundwork. “People knew we were going to bring this thing in on time and under budget and bring something that they could all be proud of. We appreciate that trust.”

Local businesses currently can participate in the game free of charge, with coupons and promotions that players can use when they choose. In the app, players are asked trivia questions and given video, photo and text clues. Answering correctly earns them Monopoly money, and occasionally, those coupons.

“The whole goal of this was to not only bring people to town, but to drive them into the businesses. … We’ve asked [local businesses] to incentivize people to walk in,” Hedblade says. Currently, more than 20 are participating, but Hedblade guesses more will want to be involved once people see how it works.

Getting the word out beyond the town limits was another aspect of the project. In addition to billboards, the committee relied heavily on partnerships with The JKO Agency, a public relations firm in California, and Wayward Travel, which specializes in itineraries and day trips and handles social media for the attraction.

Hedblade emphasizes that this is only phase one of the plan. “We’re just in the testing phase of the game right now, and we’re already talking about a 2.0,” he says. “[That] gives us another opportunity … to promote it and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a whole new, improved version of Macombopoly.”

Version 1.0 launched May 9 — Lizzie Magie’s birthday. The game is a yearlong, permanent attraction. “It will be up for as long as the city and the townspeople wish to have it,” says Hedblade.

Also in the works, which he hopes will increase interest in the game, is an upcoming Monopoly movie starring Margot Robbie as Magie. “There’s no better person … because [Lizzie] was an empowered woman,” he says. “The story about her keeps hanging on out there, and people are super interested in it.”

Images courtesy of Visit Unforgettable Forgottonia