Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Return to Illiopolis History Index

Illiopolis Business Association 

The History of Illiopolis

The  following history was written by local resident and retired school teacher Gene Hall in 1984.  Several of the things mentioned in this history are "out of date", but they are being included because they tell us how much things can change in even 15 years.  The Illiopolis Business Association wishes to thank Gene for his contribution.

 

 

MORE THAN YOU PROBABLY WANT TO KNOW ABOUT ILLIOPOLIS ILLINOIS  

  Written in 1984 By Gene Hall 

    Illiopolis supposedly meant “City of Illinois” when someone in the early days tried to have the state capital moved to this spot on the prairie because it is the geographical center. Over at Indianapolis, Indiana, someone had a similar idea and it worked out, but here it did not. The only things that remain of the original scheme are the name and the exact center point of the state, which is said to be about a mile south of town near the westbound exit from Interstate 72. The first log buildings were there until a prairie fire erased everything, after which the wild tall grassland remained untouched for nearly twenty more years until the railroad was built across it in 1853-54. That railroad came twenty-five miles east from Springfield, which had grown rapidly after the capital was moved there instead of here, and it went on fifteen more miles to Decatur, which was the seat of Macon County.

      At about that same time, two more improvements in technology began to make it possible for farmers to raise good crops in the flat black prairie soil.  John Deere had moved out of his blacksmith shop one hundred fifty miles north of here and into a factory on the Mississippi River where he was producing lots of his polished steel plows which were the only ones that worked in the sticky black dirt that Illiopolis sits on.  In the 1850's also an English landlord named Mr. Scully bought eleven thousand acres of flat wet prairie, some of it about ten mile west of here and began making field tiles to drain it. He paid from $1.50to about $5.00 an acre for the land and people thought he was crazy for spending so much money for ground that they thought would grow only grass. Soon others were laying tile lines under the ground and plowing it, and growing the greatest corn crops in the world where the tall grass had been. Now Illiopolis sits in the midst of very rich lands which produce huge crops of soy beans besides crops of corn.  This land now costs as much as $4,000 and acre, and the Mr. Scully who lives ten miles down the road near Buffalo owns the same eleven thousand acres that were his grandfather’s and is a very rich man. Illiopolis in 1900 was a country village straddling the railroad and strung beside it, one-half mile long and two to four blocks wide. It centered around the railroad depot, grain elevators, stockyard, post office, general stores, a hardware store and mortuary combination, a lumber yard, blacksmith shops, livery stables, two small hotels, three churches, and a school, with a tile yard just outside of town.  A “calaboose, kept half hidden like a bad secret, was also considered necessity.  Even after the concrete highway (US 36) was built through it in the 1920’s bringing filling stations and two automobile dealerships, the village only stretched longer but remained little changed until 1942.

      Three months after the United States suddenly found itself at war with Japan and Germany, as the whole country plunged into all out war effort, Illiopolis was deluged by an economic and social upheaval that brought quick changes and reshaped the community.  About twenty-thousand acres of farmland, an area four miles wide and about eight miles long which touched the west end of the village, suddenly became US government land on which the Sangamon Ordnance Plant was built to load explosive charges into ammunition.  Without any warning, all people living on that land, most of whom were farmers, were given the months of March and April to move everything they owned off it while construction crew over-ran everything.  By October, the “war plant” was operating and Illiopolis was a boomtown where every spot to park a trailer on a lawn or lot was filled, garages had become bedrooms, and every spare bedroom was rented, sometimes in shifts.  There were really two ordnance plants, employing many hundreds of civilians, and each was managed by a staff of army people.  Two “staff areas”, with twenty identical houses in each, were built for them about a mile on each side of the village.

      After the war, the dismantling of “the plant” was also quite an operation as all of that land and everything on it was sold back either to original owners or to war veterans.  Most “war plant people” departed, but new businesses and more new people arrived.  The government had built a huge water supply and the many war plant buildings left attracted chemical companies and the DeKalb Agricultural Association with its large seed corn and chicken businesses.

      Illiopolis has had a water system in the village since the WPA laid mains in 1936, but the only water came from a single well nearby.  The ordnance plant dug several large wells to tap the unlimited water of the sand aquifer that underlies the Sangamon River Valley.  Not even the extremely hot dry summer of 1983 caused any concern here about having enough water for everyone but farmers. However the cost of water was raised in 1982 to pay for the sanitary sewer system and disposal plant that was built in the two years before it.  The well with its hand pump and the little privy house by the alley were seen in almost every backyard in town in 1936.  Now there is not one.

      Illiopolis today involves many more people than the 1100 on the road sign.  The corporation limits have expanded to include new housing areas so that the village is now one and one half miles long, but still four blocks wide.  However the nearby staff areas (still called that) now contain about thirty houses each, but are unincorporated.  As in other country towns, some people commute to cities to work, but probably as many people drive from cities and towns to near Illiopolis.  An unusually large percent of the local population is employed close to home.  The Permastarch plant, home of the first nationally known product made here, was eventually swallowed by Borden Chemical Co. whose big plant can be seen for many miles across the flat land.  Borden makes formulas that may be bases for products, put out by other factories, and whatever they ship from here is in bulk.  One nationally known item that has left here in large tanks to be packaged elsewhere is Elmer’s Glue.

      The railroad line through here extends from Toledo to Kansas City, acting as a bypass around Chicago for at lot of coast-to-coast freight.  For a long time it was the Wabash line, and we still have Wabash Park where trains used to stop, but the Norfolk and Western took over in the 1960’s.  It tore down the depot, closed half the street crossings, is interested mainly in the fast noisy freight trains it sends screaming through here, sometimes only fifteen minutes apart.  Many of the autos and trucks make in Michigan come rocking through Illiopolis, stacked high, on their way to California and other western states.  Lately it seems that nearly as many autos come from the west going eastward.  Farm machinery goes mostly westward but heavy machinery goes both ways, as there is a Caterpillar factory in Decatur and a Fiat-Allis factory in Springfield.  And there are covered hopper cars of grain, a few of which get loaded in Illiopolis, though much local grain is trucked to Decatur, which with its big Staley and A.D.M. plants calls itself the “soybean capital of the world”.  Chemical tank cars for the Borden plant and cars of fertilizer for two dealers down the road are about the only other railroad businesses here now.  An electric interurban line, which gave good passenger and mail service for fifty years had disappeared and this village which once depended heavily upon the railroad now wishes that it was somewhere else, and the railroad wishes the same about Illiopolis.

      The blacksmith shops, livery stables, and stockyards are but memories now, fading fast or nearly gone.  Most farms have no livestock and few fences.  A pond marks the site of the tile yard.  The coal yard is a busy car wash.  Few know where the calaboose stood.  A new post office replaced one hotel and the other recently reopened as a refurbished antique hotel and is getting a surprising amount of business. The old post office under the Legion Hall houses an auto parts store.

      The lumber-yard remains, along with two old hardware stores, but the funeral home has long been a separate business.  The bank’s new drive up branch shares a building with a busy Laundromat.  Two large stores (one uptown and one on the old highway) furnish groceries, clothing, varieties, and a pharmacy.  An old drugstore burned, taking the lodge hall with it, and now the rebuilt Masonic Hall only occupies what was once the heart of the business district.  Some old store buildings and the movie theater of the 1950’s, all remodeled, stand mostly empty nearby, presently containing only a doctor’s office, a law office (both open intermittently), a TV repair shop, and the township hall.

      Saloons and taverns have come and gone many times in the life of Illiopolis and were limited after 1933 to three licensed establishments, which were usually uptown.  One is the packaged liquor department in a store, one is the bar in the old bowling alley, one a place striving for respectability through live country music, but really the oldest roadhouse dating back to the bootleg days of the Prohibition Era, and the fourth is a nicely furnished restaurant which in 1983 at last provided the community with a place where it is pleasant to take guests and enjoy conversation over good food.  For those who wish to get out of town and away from it all, Smitty’s Pub and the Red Dog can be found three miles down the blacktop road in the corner of a cornfield.

      The town also offers one ice cream and hamburger drive-in during warm weather, and a small motel which may not admit strangers on Saturday nights because the lady who runs it thinks that people who come there then are probably not respectable.

      The three original churches remain, with the ninety year old Catholic spire the tallest thing in town, still higher by a few feet than the two lighted loading legs of the tall round concrete grain bins.  The Christian Church was one hundred years old in 1966.  In 1970 the Methodists moved into a very modern new church.  The turn-of the century Methodist building was used by and Apostolic group for a few years and then sold to private owners who only preserved it until the latest owners have recently reopened the building to house a bustling aerobics dance business.  If “cleanliness is next to Godliness”, then physical fitness under stately stained glass windows and great Gothic beams should follow the same philosophy.

      Physical fitness was manifested here first by the local joggers who started the annual Clover Classic race as part of the annual Summer Celebration, which grew out of the nation’s Bicentennial of 1976.  Unlike Springfield where some people got so fed up, that one wag suggested in print that all they needed was one more bunch of “horsemen in funny clothes galloping out of town shouting, “ The Bicentennial is over!”, Illiopolis enjoyed their celebration so much that they have repeated it each June since ’76.  Whether they realize it or not, they are carrying on the tradition established here by the Modern Woodsmen in the 19th century with the combination of carnival spirit, feasting, reunion, racing, home talent show, housing visitors, and fund raising.  It is an exercise in community fitness.

      In 1965 the Illiopolis Public Library opened a new building that has been described as a “gem” among small town libraries.  It cost $60,000 that was raised in 1963 entirely from gifts and pledges within the community with no government help.

      The schools were gathered together in 1969 with the opening of new grade school building that was connected to all of the rest by a new gym.  The five hundred-fifty student enrollment of that year has declined to the four hundred ten figure last year, with a small increase this year.

      The building of the school and library say a lot about community spirit in Illiopolis, as also do the support given the volunteer fire department (started with “surplus” from the war plant), the community supported Illiopolis ambulance that is operated by EMT volunteers, and the arrival of a doctor with scheduled hours here.  This sense of community owes much to the Illiopolis Sentinel which has emerged from its basement printing shop every Thursday for as long as most citizens can remember, reporting local news as can be printed, charting and recording the course of events.

      Until 1942 history passed on by Illiopolis although this was the land of Lincoln even before the village’s name was contrived.  Tom Lincoln’s family spent the terrible winter of 1930-31 in a cabin on the Sangamon River about ten miles upstream form where it looped past the future site of the first Illiopolis.  As soon as the “Big Snow” melted, Abe paddled down the river with two men and entered Sangamon County for the first time just two miles southeast of here.  The built and loaded a flatboat near Springfield, then floated that craft on down the Sangamon, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers.  It was Lincoln’s second trip to New Orleans.  On the second day of that trip he got acquainted with New Salem, which was still in Sangamon Co., where he would return to live.

      Since Lincoln traveled around the middle of Illinois often in the following thirty years, he must have passed by and through Illiopolis many times, but there is no recorded history of his having stopped here.  However a big brick house still stands by the railroad five miles west of town, where he sometimes visited an old friend.  That point, Lanesville now, is exactly halfway between Decatur and Springfield and for eighty years, steam locomotives often stopped there to take on water.  It was a Lincoln could stop over for a good meal and discuss politics, religious philosophy, and farm news with his friend, Mr. Pickrell, who was a Whig-Republican, a religious agnostic, and a progressive livestock breeder.  Lincoln is not remembered for the places where he slept, but for the places where he ate and told stories.

      We do know that Lincoln passed through Illiopolis at 8:49 a.m. on February 11, 1861 on a special train that was chugging against a cold rainy east wind.  He was on his way to Washington, D.C. to become the President and probably people stood in the shelter of the old depot (which still stands in town as part of a house) to wave at him.  At 8:00 o’clock the train had pulled away from the Springfield depot leaving a crowd of friends with faces wet with tears and rain.  In a short, emotional speech, Lincoln had thanked them for the good years of his life there, had asked them to pray for him and the country, and had said, “I go now, not knowing when or whether ever, I may return”.  Lincoln’s train rolled through Illiopolis and disappeared into the driving mist as it rumbled over the wooden trestle across the slough and carried him out of Sangamon County for the last time.

        The name Sangamon is said to have been formed from an Indian term meaning “place with plenty to eat”, but there were very few of them around when the earliest settlers came to this river in 1819, and those few were peaceful, so we have no Indian lore in this county.  “Arrowhead” which are found along the river nearby were probably all spear points dating back thousands of years to time before any Americans had bows and arrows.  However and whenever they were used, they must have been made at least a hundred miles from here, for Indians could have found very few stones of any kind in this area, and none for making pints.

      The few stones naturally visible were mostly round pieces of very hard granite that have been dragged out of Canada or Lake Michigan by the great glaciers.  The last glacier stopped about ten miles before it got to Illiopolis, but the one before that covered much of Illinois, and the only hills we have around at all were formed by those glaciers.  The skeleton of a Mastodon that was found in a slough a mile from Illiopolis is a clue that the climate was once colder and that there were spruce forests here.  And of course the coal that is under the town means that there were tropical swamps here a very long time but never one here – yet.  Likewise there are several oil wells pumping within ten miles of town, but none nearby.

      Riverton, seventeen miles west of Illiopolis, had one the first deep (210 ft.) shaft mines in Illinois after someone in 1858 discovered coal under Springfield while trying to drill an artesian well for water.  Riverton had been named Jamestown after James Reed and adventurous merchant of Springfield, who had also built a sawmill and cabinet making business on the Sangamon River there.

       In 1846, Reed was joined by two farmers, George and Jacob Donner, who lived along the road to “Jimtown”, in getting their names into history books, but in a very tragic way.  The adventurous Reed sold all of his businesses and built probably the biggest (double decked) covered wagon that ever traveled the trail toward California.  Being one of the very early wagon trains to head that direction, they followed bad advice about the route and Reed abandoned his great wagon in the Salt Lake Desert in late summer.  Reed’s luck held and he did get to California with his family, but the Donner brothers left their name on Donner Pass high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where they starved to death with most of the wagon train in snow twenty feet deep.

      Back on the Sangamon River in 1861 in 1861 some Jacob Donner’s old farm became part of a Civil War army camp where many thousands of Illinois troops received their basic training and were loaded onto trains that carried many of them through Illinois to Indianapolis and then south to the Ohio River.  Today Camp Butler National Cemetery remains there, covering dead from all of our wars since 1862.  The first to buried there were about eight hundred Confederate prisoners of war who died of disease in that camp.

      Illiopolis had a local cultural history remembered nostalgically by generations now gone, people who grew up here in the 1870’s and the first World War.  It probably was a more interesting place for your people than some country towns were.  The Opera House attracted traveling entertainers and some early moving pictures, while the town had a tradition of home talent shows, which still persists.  There were ladies’ societies aplenty, church and lodge affairs, but the things best remembered were the community horse shows with races on the horse track south of town, and the annual Woodsmen’s Picnics each autumn in the park.  Crowds came from other towns.  There ere games and carnival rides and the a band concert and other entertainment in the evening.  The Merchants’ Band was a regular part of the community for many years.  A really good Woodsmen’s Picnic ended late at night with a brawl, perhaps a knifing (there was at least one genuine shooting), and with the calaboose full until the next day.

      Typically though, the big names in entertainment did not stop at Illiopolis, but were drawn to Mechanicsburg instead, ten miles away.  There for ten days in August “ the better families” of Illiopolis camped at the “Assembly Ground” which predated the Chautauqua many years, but in 1897, became a part of that circuit. People had cottages there or put up big tents to live in.  Families were drawn from the whole area between Springfield and Decatur, people hungry for culture and a chance to mingle with other people.  For many in Illiopolis and elsewhere, that was the high point of the year.  Illiopolis shared in the management of the event and sent its Merchants’ band, its baseball team, and sometimes its “cavalry troop” to escort popular politicos the tree miles from the train in Buffalo.  Since the Assembly was sponsored and overseen by the Methodists, there were no drunks and no fights.  Indeed, when Carrie Nation was the featured speaker there better not have been!  It was just as well that she didn’t get any closer to Illiopolis with her hatchet.

       Assembly speakers varied from prominent churchmen (including an occasional Catholic and one “converted Jewess”) and temperance leaders to important political figures, to “orators”, to humorists, chalk-talkers, and magicians.  There was a song leader and there were musical groups – white ones, black ones, Mexicans, even “South Sea Islanders”.  Nationally known personalities came to Mechanicsburg, such as Sam Jones, the reformed drunk from the southern Bible belt who today would surely have his own TV pulpit and would be a big noise in the allegedly “moral majority”.  He frowned loudly upon many things and was well received at Mechanicsburg, except by teenagers who dreaded his returns.  William Jennings Bryan spoke there three times.  “Fighting Bob” LaFollette of Wisconsin and several other governors and U.S. Senators each had their day at “the Burg” as did ex-Confederate Civil War Generals Fitzhugh Lee and John B. Gordon, along with Gen. Pickett’s widow. Along with all this live talent a new form of entertainment flicked onto the scene: even before the grounds were lighted electrically the Vitagraph and then the Edison Projecting Kinetoscope somehow brought moving pictures to Mechanicsburg and ladies were asked to remove their huge hats during performances. 

    On August 14, 1908, many blocks of houses of Negroes were burned in Springfield on the second day of the race riots (that precipitated the founding of the NAACP), and black families fled on foot as far as Buffalo where a sign warned them to keep going, but they found local black folks who helped them anyway.  (Illiopolis had some Blacks then, but not many.)  That day at Mechanicsburg, a Rev. Marsden spoke from between his flowing sideburns upon “The Philosophy of Happiness”, and a Rev. Clearwater then held forth on “Methods of Sunday-School Teaching”.  The Illiopolis Merchants’ Band gave a concert while the sun dipped into the woods, after which there was the clattering quiet of moving pictures under the trees, broken by bursts of laughter.

That was one of the last of the great years of the Assemblies from which folks returned to Illiopolis with souls uplifted, intellects revitalized, and things to talk about even after the Woodsmen’s Picnic.  Gasoline and electricity were changing the horse and buggy world and bringing other entertainments.

      Like the tornado of 1963 that lifted right over the village while damaging both ends of it and killing a farmer nearby, history has narrowly missed out town at times and has brought it neither great fame nor notoriety.  However we feel that we justify our place on the road map and in the Zip Code directory.  A quiet but ongoing objective of our grade school, along with other fundamentals, is to teach each child to exceed the national average of Americans in spelling Illiopolis.

 Return to Main Page