History of Litchfield Illinois

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Union Avenue Litchfield Illinois
Union Avenue Litchfield Illinois


This period in the history of Litchfield is marked by the Civil War; it was a period of bitterness as the community was settled by families whose views differed according to their background and origin. There were slaves in the county; there were free Negroes in the county. The Knights of the Golden Circle, an anti-war group, was strong in this area, yet they were opposed through the newspapers by the Union League Council Number 60, the patriotic home guard during these difficult days. Many companies found Litchfield men enrolled during the war between the states; perhaps the best known was the group organized here by Delos VanDeusen which went into the Sixth Missouri Infantry as Company H. In 1860 the city council established a graded school system; in 1861 a grammar school was built on Jackson Street; in 1864 plans for a two-story brick building were laid, but it was not completed until 1867. St. Mary's B. V. M. Church was built in 1860. Private schools still were in existence for in the year 1861 George C. Mack opened a select school; Miss Palmer moved her school into the lower floor of the Grammar School; Andrew Waters also opened a school in the Grammar School during the summer in which he taught Common English Branches for $5.00. Miss Gilham opened a private school in the Cummings Building. In 1862 H. A. Wells continued his teaching and had "a private school in the Empire Hall" which was "well patronized." Also teaching private schools this year were Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson, Miss Berry, Miss Jackson, Miss Julia Palmer, Miss Georgiana Skillman, and Miss Carrie Clark. During the month of May, a month when most of the schools were in session, Mr. Wells' school had 70 pupils, Mrs. Stevenson's school about 60 pupils, and Miss Skillman's not less than 30. The other schools had fewer scholars. In 1861 the first publication of the Campaigner, the Union, and the Litchfield Monitor came off the presses, but the first two did not have a very long life. Also in 1861 Haskell, Davis and Company formed a new bank, which in the years to come passed through the successive partnerships of Haskell, Seymour & Company, Brewer, Seymour & Company, Brewer & Grubbs, and S. M. Grubbs & Company to become the First National Bank in 1889. In 1864 Wesley Best and David R. Sparks built what was considered the best mill in the area, a four-story brick mill located between Railroad and Edwards Streets. In 1865 a two-story brick building to be called the City Hall was constructed at a cost of about $5,000. In this year the congregation of the Christian Church took steps to erect a new building opposite the Library Park on the north side of the street. The population had increased to 4,300.


Industry began to boom once more as a result of the war; Wiegreffe's sash, door and blind factory was organized (1867); coal mining became a vital part of our industries. This year of 1867 saw the first coal shaft sunk on Rocky Branch. The Litchfield Mining Company was organized and on February 27, 1869 first struck coal. The main vein worked was over five feet in thickness and about 527 feet below the surface. The period of 1867-1873 is marked by a number of fires which created financial problems for many. In April, 1867, a fire in the rear of the hardware store near the southwest corner of the public square burned three stores. In 1870 the old McPherson mill burned. In the fall of 1871 five more buildings in the business district were destroyed by fire. In 1873 the car works had a serious fire, and the Boxberger mill erected in 1868 was burned this year. The new school was completely burned on April 1, 1872. In 1866 Elmwood cemetery was "laid out"; in 1868 the New York Store opened its doors for business. In the same year Peter Boxberger built a large flouring mill east of State Street and D. O. Settlemire erected the OK Mill. The Litchfield Fair Association first met in 1868. In the same year Nathan Kenyon opened a private bank which was later bought out by Beach, Davis and Company, and this bank passed through the partnerships of Beach, Martin & Company, M. M. Martin & Company, and was incorporated in 1902 as The Litchfield Bank & Trust Company. The Wabash railroad ran its lines through Litchfield in 1870.


The year 1871 was marked by the removal of the railroad shops to Mattoon, a serious loss of revenue for the city. A local company was organized and successfully operated a railroad and machine shop. The first class was graduated from the high school. The Ursuline Sisters established a convent in Litchfield in 1871 and in connection with it maintained a day and boarding school for young ladies and a parochial school for smaller children of both sexes. On March 7, 1872, the Free Public Library Law was enacted by the Illinois legislature and within a month a small library was planned by Litchfield. A new industry, brick making, was introduced in 1872; in the same year the Union Avenue Baptist Church was organized. In 1872 in compliance with a petition presented them, the city council purchased a hook and ladder apparatus for $1,000. A volunteer company was formed to use it. In the early days of the volunteer firemen here the members were exempt from jury service, street labor, and the highway poll tax. The panic of 1873 nearly paralyzed industry in the country and for the next five years Litchfield, as well as the nation, had difficulty in keeping its industries and businesses going. Yet men in those years of heavy taxes—men of vision—continued to invest capital in new projects. Public demand finally resulted in the construction in the year 1874 of a dam across Long Branch. Here a lake was formed and thus the city found itself with a new water system. In the same year the postoffice was removed to Number 48 North State Street; in September, 1875, it was moved to the rear of Beach, Davis and Company. It was the custom in this and an earlier day to run a notice in the papers asking people to call at the postoffice for letters which had not been picked up. In April, 1875, the "Ladies Park Improvement Society" acquired a fund of about a hundred dollars to be used for public improvement, but they seemed to have lost their enthusiasm for a few years as it was not until August, 1880, that they erected a fountain in the center of the city park. The fountain had a circular iron railing and four street lamps around it; at one time two baby alligators were kept in the pool. In 1881 the society raised funds for a pagoda for the use of bands and speakers and this was erected also in the park. On November 13, 1875, three nuns of the Order of St. Francis came to Litchfield; their work was to do nursing in the homes of the people until funds could be raised to build a hospital. Their first hospital soon came into existence and they moved into a frame building at the corner of Columbia and Jackson Streets.


In 1876-77 the Litchfield Car and Machine Company was formed. This company was a reorganization of the Litchfield Car Manufacturing Company and the machine shops and foundry of the H. H. Beach and Company which had consolidated in 1875. The new organization manufactured coaches, cars, locomotives, and steam engines of all kinds. Six freight cars were made in a day. It was especially noted for its engines used in mines, flouring mills, and sawmills. In 1878 a second coal shaft was sunk. At the foot of the shaft a boring rod was put down to a depth of one hundred fifty feet and oil rose and covered the floor of the mine. This led to a mild flurry in staking out claims in all the surrounding vicinity. In a very short while the Van Veck Brothers of Buffalo, New York, secured control of the oil regions and sank several wells. The output was large and sold for five dollars a barrel. During operations in the area east of Litchfield gas was found in the wells (1885) and the Van Vecks laid their gas mains into the city and for two years Litchfield had natural gas. As pressure fell the use of natural gas was discontinued. In 1876 the Holy Cross cemetery was located just east of the Elmwood cemetery; this replaced an older cemetery which was located about a mile to the southeast. In 1879 the Free Methodist Church congregation was able to organize as a result of a successful tent-meeting conducted in 1878. At the same time (1879) the African Methodist Church members erected a frame building. On Memorial Day in 1880 (May 30) the Soldier's Monument was dedicated at the Elmwood cemetery. This year John Eagon, the carriage maker, employed nine men and made and disposed of fifty-six buggies and spring wagons.


The new Planet Mill with a capacity of six hundred barrels of flour a day was opened in 1881; by the spring of 1883 the mill was changed to the roller system and the capacity jumped to two thousand barrels a day. With this production it claimed to be the largest and best equipped steam mill in the world. In 1893 a terrific explosion occurred which broke windows all over town and fire completely destroyed the mill. A third railroad, the "Jacksonville Railroad" (C. B. & Q.), was extended to Litchfield in 1881. By this time the population had risen to about five thousand. In 1883 St. Aloysius Church was established. The Oil City Building and Loan Association was organized the same year; the name was gained from the oil wells which were in production at the edge of town. The second ward school of four rooms was erected in 1884.

1886: The Daily News established. Zion Lutheran Church organized and the new St. Mary's Church completed.

1887: Present Methodist Church completed. Electric lights introduced to the town.

1888: Litchfield Marble and Granite Company organized. The Opera House built by Thomas Rhodes made it possible for the people of Litchfield to have a new type of entertainment. Citizens voted to erect a school at Madison Park.

1889: In June the cornerstone of the Presbyterian Church was put in place; in July the cornerstone of the Zion English Evangelical Lutheran Church was laid. First National Bank organized.

1890: Brick street laid. Litchfield Homestead and Loan Association incorporated (changed to Cooperative Savings and Loan Company in 1913). Plans for the construction of the Litchfield Hotel made in April. A newspaper notice for the month of August stated that Hauser and Tolle, located at Edwards and Monroe Streets, operated a soda water and vinegar factory and manufactured cider, ginger ale and apple butter. Population: 5,811.

1891: Cigar industry opened in the community specializing in "Zuber's Favorite" and the "Blue Bonnet." The first wing of the present hospital was erected; it could now accommodate twenty patients at one time.

1892: The Daily Herald was established; name changed in 1913 to News-Herald. Dominican Sisters from Springfield took charge of the parochial school.

1893: Planet Mill exploded.

1896: North Litchfield Township High School organized.

1898: April 26—Spanish American War started. Company K left for Springfield.

1899: Colt School opened.

1900: Population: 5,918.

1902: Litchfield Bank and Trust Company incorporated.

1903: Carnegie Public Library: The need for a larger library was met in 1903 by a gift of $15,000 from Andrew Carnegie; the city council passed an ordinance granting permission to build in the city park; the library was completed in 1904.

1904: The Christian Church moved from the north side of square to its present location. The American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation came to Litchfield and in February, 1905 began producing cast iron heating radiators.

1905: The first Litchfield Chautauqua was held at the old reservoir park. When the electric interurban connected Litchfield and Hillsboro, residents of both communities selected a wooded tract of land halfway between the towns for a combined Litchfield-Hillsboro Chautauqua. Here families built as many as sixty cottages where they vacationed in the summer. Speakers such as William Jennings Bryan, concert artists, magicians, musicians, jugglers, bands, etc., appeared on the programs. Church and Sunday school services were held regularly during the sessions. The Litchfield Grocer Company (wholesale) incorporated.

1907: Articles of incorporation for the Decatur- Taylorville-Litchfield Traction Company, to parallel the Wabash tracks talked of. Litchfield National Bank incorporated as a state bank and later changed to a national institution. Interurban train lines built into Litchfield.

1910: Street Gate Company began operations. Litchfield Grocer Company moved to present site on West Ryder Street. Cornerstone of new postoffice laid. Population: 5,971.

1912: Litchfield Creamery opened in an old blacksmith shop located south of Bartling's store; in 1913 it was incorporated, in 1915 it moved to the present site.

1914: Masonic organization purchased the old opera house building at the corner of Madison and Ryder Streets.

1916: Brown Shoe Company established here. On October 7 "Dairy Day" was held; on the streets appeared so many people and cars that the pageant and other ceremonies were maneuvered with difficulty.

1917: Creamery enlarged to include manufacture of evaporated and condensed milk.

1919: Litchfield Community High School District, Number 150, first established.

1920: Population: 6,215.

1922: The high school opened the fall session in rooms of the Masonic building and in three rooms of the Litchfield Hotel; the domestic science classes were held in the Russell school; Carroll and Sons donated space for dressing rooms for boys taking part in athletics. On October 31 fire destroyed the Masonic building which housed the lodge rooms of that organization, the offices of the American Express Company, and the greater part of the high school. The fire was disastrous to the high school further in that desks and seats, a cabinet of trophies of the old Philo and Plato societies, accumulated rewards such as cups for athletics and speaking, the extensive library of Dr. J. D. Colt, and the new football suits were all lost. In addition to these losses the schoolbooks of the students were also burned.

1923: The new Elks building was opened to the public; it was furnished with a swimming pool, bowling alleys, a public dining room, and club rooms for members.

1924: New Masonic Temple erected. The new high school was completed, and the city bought new fire-fighting equipment. Sunshine Magazine established.

1925: Dedication of new Union Avenue Christian Church. An addition to the hospital was begun; this included a chapel, a girls' home, a convent, and a central heating plant. Modern impounding reservoir and filtration plant constructed.

1926: Junior High School constructed. Master Manufacturing & Equipment Company moved to Litchfield, specialized in the making of oil dispensers.

1927: Walton Park swimming pool with its bathhouse, sand pool, tower, and playgrounds opened to the public.

1928: Merger of Daily Union with the News-Herald. New church built by congregation of St. Aloysius Church. Assembly of God Church established.

1929: Schutt Manufacturing Company, maker of basketball and other athletic equipment and metallic specialties began operations. Litchfield Floral Gardens established. Plans were made for another addition to St. Francis Hospital.

1930: Population: 6,612.

1934: Litchfield Creamery built a $30,000 annex.

1935: Creamery built a new warehouse. State Street paved with concrete.

1936: Sihler School built. Sewage disposal plant opened.

1938: Chautauqua Association dissolved and the grounds sold.

1940: The House of Sunshine erected.

1941: Cornerstone laid for new Zion Lutheran Church.

1944: American Radiator Company converted to magnesium castings.

1946: F. W. Means & Company, industrial & commercial laundry moved into the Reese Laundry.

1948: New Zion Lutheran parochial school dedicated.

1949: Owen Manufacturing Company established, turned out small precision parts.

1950: Hoffman Forge Company organized. New drive-in theatre opened in June.

1951: Citizens brought to town the Roll-Away Skate Factory. Wikomi Manufacturing Company made different types of seeders and farm elevators.

1952: New addition to high school included gymnasium, shop rooms, rooms for homemaking classes, band instruction, and agricultural classes. Fall classes opened in the new Madison Park School.

Taken from: Litchfield Centennial Book 1853-1953

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Jeff Dunn

Vice President

Historical Society of

Montgomery County

Advisory Board

Illinois State

Historical Society