The American House - an early Hillsboro hostelry

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

American House located at the south east corner of Wood and Main.
American House located at the south east corner of Wood and Main.

For nearly sixty years the old American House that stood on the southeast corner of Main and Wood streets was a widely known and well patronized tavern, furnishing food and lodging for many travelers, including Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.

1886 Map of downtown Hillsboro Illinois showing the location of the American House.
1886 Map of downtown Hillsboro Illinois showing the location of the American House.

The tavern served as a rendezvous for attorneys who came to court in the county seat and was a gathering place for the county commissioners who governed Hillsboro until it became an incorporated village in 1855. Politicians met there in "smoke filled rooms" to choose candidates and horse lovers flocked to the tavern to bet on their favorite pacers and trotters when harness racing was held at the old Fairgrounds, now Beckemeyer school campus.

Built in 1829 by John Tilson and David Jackson, pioneer Hillsboro businessmen and promoters, the American House served as a hostelry until 1887 when it became a part of the past. The two-story wooden structure was then replaced by the brick Hillsboro Opera House, now known as the Odd Fellows building.

Mr. Tilson, Hillsboro's first merchant, postmaster and land agent, was a man of means and Mr. Jackson was one of the first tavern keepers licensed to do business here. Records list Joseph Miller and Richard Bradley as early Hillsboro tavern proprietors, followed by David Jackson, James Rutledge and C. B. Blockburger. Mr. Jackson used a plain sign, as shown in the picture to identify his place of business, while Mr. Rutledge used an old-fashioned English style tavern sign, embodying a large tiger on a white background, surrounded by his name and occupation, at his place of business.

The American house was not as large as shown in the beginning, for two additions had been added to the structure, one to the South on Main Street and the other to the east on wood Street before the above picture was taken. It is seen as it looked after ice cream became popular, for sign above the second story windows, on the left side of the building, reads, "Arctic Ice Cream Parlor."

Rountree house in background

Hiram Rountree Home Hillsboro Illinois was torn down to build the Telfer Medical Clinic.

In the background, to the left, of the American House photo, can be seen the old Hiram Rountree brick house, which was built in 1831, two years after the American house opened for business. The Rountree house was razed several years ago to make way for the Telfer Medical Clinic, but the American house wasn’t raised to make way for the Opera House. It was moved in three sections and, if I am correct, one was moved to 428 Rountree street, a short distance South of the Rountree house. Another section was moved the full length of Main Street up and over Major hill, to the South side of 1st Street in what is now Hillcrest. It was converted into a residence which was occupied for a number of years by Mrs. Mattie Rush and her son Earl. Research has not revealed what happened to the third section of the old American house, perhaps someone will still be living in it today.

Mr. Jackson, the first to operate the American house, built a second building on Main Street, or Coffey Street as it was named, that became known as the Lyceum building. Built for a public meeting space where dances, debates, entertainments and public gatherings were held, it was erected in the mid 1830's and stood on the site of the present as Heselov’s style shop building. Stephen A Douglas once played the fiddle and danced with every woman present at a political rally held in the building. The building, in which a lending library was operated at one time and later the Hillsboro Journal, was torn down in 1907.

Several persons operated the old American house, including Colonel Paul Walter and the reverend Walter Williamson, during the years it served the public, and it would be interesting to know the names of those who stayed there.

Opera House built in 1887

Opera House / Odd Fellow Hall - Hillsboro Illinois
Opera House / Odd Fellow Hall - Hillsboro Illinois - Photo from early 1950's

The Opera House company formed by several stockholders purchased the hotel property in 1887 and built the present building as a commercial venture. The first floors have been rented by various business firms since then and for several years the post office was located in the building.

The second floor was used as an Opera House where musicals, plays, and other entertainment were presented and where commencement exercises, revivals and public meetings were held. Ed Fellis and Ted Hill opened one of the first nickelodeons on the second floor of the building where early movies and vaudeville shows were presented for admission fees of five cents and ten cents.

Twenty years after the Opera House was erected a 20-foot addition was built on the East end of the building to enable the stage to be enlarged and provide extra rental space. The Hillsboro Journal was located in the basement and on the first floor of the addition for a number of years after leaving the Lyceum building.

By 1919 the building was owned by J. J. Frey, Amos Miller and C. A. Ramsey who sold it to the odd fellows for $15,000.00 The lodge spend an additional $2,000.00 rearranging the upper floor into offices and lodge rooms. The lodge paid off the $17,000.00 in eight years and on October 1, 1927 held a bond and note burning ceremony. The old Opera House now 90 years old is still owned by the odd fellows and the present tenants being Dunn's Insurance and Real Estate, where Seymour’s Drug Store was located for many years, Ken Meade Studios, H & R Block and Jerry’s Barber shop.

Part Of Our Past

By Tom Bliss / The Hillsboro & Montgomery County News - 1977

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