The Story of a Midwest Town


The history of a community is a history of a family seeking a new farm, a site for a business, a way to make a living or a fortune; it is the privations of travel over a tree spotted prairie unmarked by roads, rutted and bottomless in the spring rains. It is the story of a community living with a hope that their community would become large and prosperous.


A history of its first years would tell of the individual families, a noting of the time when various stores, churches, schools, mills, hotels, and blacksmith shops were first opened to the public.


The history of Litchfield is that of a typical central Illinois town: it began with the movement of men westward to new farm lands, the development of a railroad, and the formation of a land speculation group. There is nothing unusual about this; it is the story of a thousand communities in this country, repeated many times before and many times after the founding of Litchfield. It is merely a phase marking the growth of our County, Illinois, then to Montgomery County, and here in 1849 was a need for communities to be formed along the right of way to provide revenue for the railroads; land companies took up this responsibility.


Before the time that Litchfield was actually thought of, there were settlements made within the corporate bounds of the present city. Early histories note that one Isaac Weaver had built a cabin on the present site of the library square; that is true, but he was not the first to settle there. John Norman, who lived in the Shoal Creek bottoms, had built a cabin on about the same spot before 1840 and had tried to farm the land. Unsuccessful in his new location he went back to the bottom land.


Alfred Blackwelder came from North Carolina to Union County, Illinois, then to Montgomery County, and here in 1849 took out 240 acres of land in the northeast part of the present town. The location of these settlers, of course, means that their land was the site where the town would later be laid out.


George B. Yenowine in 1853 owned land south of the present Big Four Railroad and west of State Street; this he sold in 1857 to Philander C. Huggins. John S. Hayward, a land speculator from Boston, moved to Hillsboro and became the owner of much land within and around the present city during 1849 and the following years. Jefferson Brown came from Virginia and bought land before 1850 in the west part of the city south of the Big Four Railroad; this he sold in 1854 to Jacob Beeler. John Waldroop from Kentucky owned land in the southeast part of the city in 1853.


Ralph Scherer with his brother moved to this area from the Hillsboro neighborhood; Ralph had a cabin in the north part, Jacob lived just west of his brother. Ezra Tyler, Ahart Pierce, and Caleb W. Sapp settled on land in 1849 which became the nucleus of the town.


Caleb W. Sapp became the owner of the part which extended from the present Wabash Railroad half a mile east along the Big Four Railroad with a width of half a mile. Ezra Tyler had the east half of this tract; in May, 1861, this passed to J. Y. McManus who also bought the west half which belonged to Sapp.


In April, 1850, Nelson Cline, who came from North Carolina, bought the east forty acres of the Sapp purchase, and a year later he sold the west six acres to Younger S. Etter who also purchased the forty acres lying immediately west of them. In the same year George F. Pretlow bought out Etter and when the initial survey of Huntsville was made in the fall of 1853 it covered only Pretlow's fortysix acres and the thirty-four acres which had been purchased by Cline.


Others who lived within the city limits before 1853 were O. M. Roach, James W. Andrews from Kentucky, Josiah Kessinger from Kentucky, and Benjamin H. Hartgrove.


Talk was heard of a new railroad being built in the county which would extend westward from Hillsboro. This railroad was the ancestor of the "Big Four," namely the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad; it was incorporated in 1851 and plans were made to extend the railroad from Hillsboro westward making a wide curve and entering Alton. It was only a rumor that people heard until the day the syndicate representatives talked to Pretlow and Cline. Simeon Ryder, Robert Smith of Alton, Joseph Gillespie of Edwardsville, Philander C. Huggins of Bunker Hill, Josiah Hunt, Chief Engineer of the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad, and John B. Kirkham had formed a syndicate to purchase the sites of prospective stations along the line of the road then in process of construction.


On August 2nd, 1853, John B. Kirkham, acting as trustee for the syndicate, paid $240 to George F. Pretlow of Hardinsburg for land described as the southwest quarter of the southwest quarter of section thirty-three, and also the six acres off of the west side of the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section thirty-three. In this conveyance the syndicate stated it would lay out on the land conveyed village lots, and for a consideration of six dollars, reconvey to Pretlow "every alternate lot which may be formed out of land conveyed."


The syndicate on August 4, 1853, paid to Nelson Cline and his wife Lydia, the sum of $408 for the southeast quarter of the southwest quarter of section thirty-three. Thus did the syndicate acquire eighty acres of land from Pretlow and Cline and after reserving the land needed for streets, public squares, and railroad uses, reconveyed to Pretlow one half the lots and blocks on his original fortysix acres.


Mr. Kirkham, who was made agent for the syndicate, was soon replaced by P. C. Huggins, who retained his position through successful purchases of additional land to be laid out in village lots. When E. B. Litchfield became the sole owner of the company's interest in the city, Huggins was himself replaced.


The railroad was completed no farther than Bunker Hill from the western end when Thomas A. Gray, county surveyor, in October, 1953, laid out the original plat of the town in "the cornfield then recently the property of Younger Smith Etter, but at that time belonging to the 'Litchfield Town Company.' “The cornfield was converted into 236 lots and this tract of 80 acres was the beginning of Huntsville, today called Litchfield.”

About this same time Gillespie was also surveyed. A group of men who wished to invest in new lands drew straws to decide whether to move to Gillespie or to the proposed town of Litchfield; Litchfield won. This group of men who came from Ridgely, Madison County, were Richard W. O'Bannon, W. T. Elliott, Henry E. Appleton, James W. Jefferis, John P. Bayless, and Winfield Scott Palmer.


In January, 1854, Mr. O'Bannon bought the east half of the block facing on State Street and lying between Ryder and Kirkham Streets for $120. He at once began building a store on the southeast corner of his purchase (the present site of the Litchfield Bank and Trust Company); this was completed and occupied before April of that year. Mr. Jefferis made the second purchase and Appleton and Palmer secured lots soon after this. Appleton and Jefferis built a blacksmith shop on the southeast corner of the intersection of State and Ryder Streets and a wagon shop on east Ryder. Mr. Palmer built his store on the site of Austin and Shrader's store. Mr. Elliott erected his store in the same block as the O'Bannon store, brought his house from Ridgely and had it ready for his family by May 5, 1854. The fourth building was a rude blacksmith shop, the next was another store. A grain elevator was built by Ezra Tyler. In the same year Miss Sue Ellsberry and Charles M. Davis came to Litchfield.


A description of the village as seen by an unknown writer who came here April 1, 1854 will locate the first settlers. "


There was no railroad, no indication of laid-out streets; the road, as it crossed the prairie, from southwest to northeast, left what is now the business part of the city considerably to the right. The embankment, thrown up for the expected railroad, bisected a lake which stood where the L. and St. L. depots and the car shops now stand. Mr. O'Bannon's new store stood where the Beach, Davis & Company Bank now stands. The ground was a cornfield and by special effort the corn was gathered from the site of the proposed building to permit of its erection.


"From this point could be seen and counted all the houses within the present corporate limits of the city of Litchfield. Looking north and a little west was the farm house of Ahart Pierce. A little further, northwest was the Lutheran church with the cemetery in the rear . . . Further north and east and just within the present corporation line was the farmhouse of Ralph Scherer, then just erected. It is now at the north end of State Street. A half mile or more west of that was the farmhouse of Jacob Scherer.


"Changing the direction to northeast, there was a log cabin then occupied by Major Cline, afterward by Louis D. Palmer. . . . Southeast loomed the farmhouse of Ezra Tyler, now the dwelling of E. C. Thorpe; southwest, where the I. and St. L. and the Jacksonville railroads now intersect was a small building and a smaller store building, the latter owned and occupied by John M. McWilliams. These nine buildings, with the attendant stables, were, with the possible exception of one or two log cabins, the only ones on that first day of April, 1854 to be seen within what is now the city of Litchfield."


While a trickle of families was moving into the new village another village was being moved. More than a mile southwest of Litchfield lay Hardinsburg, a community founded about 1850 which by 1854 had grown to a population of about fifty persons. It had a postoffice and a public house run by James Cummings, a village store owned by J. M. McWilliams, a wagonmaker and carpenter in the person of Robert H. Peall, a physician, Dr. H. H. Hood; Jabez Blackburn was the blacksmith; a widow, Mrs. Ogle, and her son lived there. Also living in the community were three farmers, namely, Horatio Nelson, James Eddings, and William Millian and families. This was the only town and postoffice within an area bounded by Hillsboro, Walshville, Staunton, and Zanesville.


When the proposed railroad failed to connect with Hardinsburg, the villagers for the most part moved to the new site. Within two years of the coming of the railroad to Litchfield the community of Hardinsburg went out of existence forever.


J. M. McWilliams moved a small storehouse from Hardinsburg to Litchfield in January, 1854; Dr. H. H. Hood moved his office to Litchfield in August of 1855. Mr. Appleton built a wagon shop just in the rear of Jefferis' blacksmith shop during the fall and used the rear portion as his home. Mr. Palmer and Mr. May put in a stock of merchandise in the store built by the former, and the east end was his residence. John P. Bayless brought here on rollers one half of what had been the blacksmith shop at Hardinsburg. It had no door (only an opening), no window, no floor. He placed it on one of the corners and made it do for a home for several years. He became the village's first railroad and express agent; he was also the first appointed postmaster.


To help travel between other towns and Litchfield a road from Hillsboro to Bunker Hill was made; a similar road to connect Edwardsville, Staunton, and Taylorville entered Litchfield at the southwest corner and ran diagonally across the village. These roads consisted of striking a furrow on one side for several miles and then returning with a furrow on the other side. The road lay between these shallow ditches and marked the way well enough for the few people who used them. Help in maintaining the early roads were secured by assigning men in the county to work on them. By October, 1955, the railroad was opened as far east as Clyde (Hornsby). In January, 1856, the Pretlow estate of lots was sold by his executor; this sale was held in the store of W. T. Elliott and history relates that this day was remembered for the heavy rain that fell. The embankment for the railroad had formed a dike across State Street and had interrupted its drainage. A lake had formed and it was the policy of the parties owning land just west of the town to have the dike maintained in order to force the location of the passenger station to their vicinity. The dike was cut and the lake was drained, thus averting the location of the station a quarter-mile further on west.


The site of Litchfield had been bought in the summer of 1853 for eight to ten dollars per acre; then after the town was laid out lots sold for $30 per sixty-six feet front. In May of 1854 the price was increased to $50 and by 1857 the lots sold as high as $200, but also as low as $17.


In the spring of 1855 at least four of Elisha Litchfield's sons came to the new site, namely: Egbert S., Electus Bachus*, Elisha Cleveland, and Edward Everett. With them from central and western New York came the three Dix brothers and C. F. How. About the same time Elisha W. Litchfield took up his residence here; he served as the city's second mayor. The Litchfield family bought much land here and elsewhere; E. C. Litchfield, who was a director in the Michigan and Southern Railroad, brought out William Enos Bacon to the new village to become his business manager. Mr. Bacon also joined in partnership with a group to deal in lumber and in operating a planing mill.


The railroad was looking for a location for its shops and a terminal and had selected land at the present site of Hornsby, but Doctor Hornsby of Bunker Hill was not willing to donate land to the road. E. C. Litchfield was willing to donate much land and thus convinced the road that the shops should be located and erected here. By November the town was named for him. 24, 1855, the railroad was opened to Litchfield and sale of lots again increased. James Cummings removed his store from Hardinsburg to the village; James Eddings, who also moved his house from Hardinsburg, established a hotel here.

The coming of the railroad and the breaking of ground for the shops brought in more business firms and the year 1856 saw Litchfield begin an era of industry to supplement its farming element. The passenger station was completed, a roundhouse with thirteen stalls was enclosed, and the foundations for the machine shops were laid. Tilman Shore built the first two-story brick store. Hood and Brothers and Dr. Grinstead had drug stores. Four "hotels" found catering to visitors were "The Montgomery House" (built by Thomas Daniels), "The Litchfield House" (built by Andrew Johnson), the "Central Hotel" (opened by James Eddings), and the "Palace Hotel" (built by Jeremiah Tindell). The Brewer and Grubb Bank was now open for business. John McGinnis sold clothing and groceries. There was no lawyer and no resident preacher, but there was one schoolmaster. The Odd Fellows Lodge Number 202 was created. General stories dealing principally with food were now operated by Bagby and Corrington, O'Bannon and Elliott, Palmer and Jefferis, Henderson, Hull, Hawkins, James Cummings, and B. C. Beardsley. There was also one saloon, open part of the time.


In May of 1857 H. H. Beach, a young and skilled mechanic, came to Litchfield from Wisconsin; he brought engines and equipment for a machine shop and foundry. Within two months a barn-like structure was erected and his furnaces were in full blast. This was the only shop of its kind between Alton and Terre Haute. Here 150 to 200 skilled mechanics were employed. In the same year H. A. Coolidge came from Cazenovia, New York, and started the first issue of the Journal, Litchfield's first newspaper.


The people who settled here had not forgotten their churches and by 1856 there were several established. Prior to the laying out of Litchfield, the Lutherans had a small wooden church building and a burying ground on what is now Scherer's addition. Until 1855 this was the only place of public worship in Litchfield, but in that year the Hardinsburg Methodist chapel was removed to this town. A year thereafter it was purchased by the Christian church group and removed to the southeast corner of Third and Madison Streets. About the same time the old Lutheran church and cemetery grounds were sold to Ralph Scherer; the building was removed by him to the north side of Ryder Street where it was used as a grocery store and drug store. The graves were removed to the new Lutheran cemetery in 1859. The old Lutheran church had also served as a school; it was a small frame building, furnished with trestles across which rough sawed oak planks were laid as seats and over these trestles the worshippers stepped or clambered as they passed to or from their seats.

The First Baptist and the Presbyterian congregations organized churches in 1856. St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church was organized in 1857. On July 31, 1856, the members of the Christian Church organized and began services in a frame structure located on the corner of Madison and Third Streets.


The population had now increased to a place where some of the citizens asked for the right to incorporate the village, but the measure was defeated in 1855 by a vote of 3 to 1. In 1856 the effort was successful by a vote of 54 for and 13 votes against. A board of trustees was elected on April 11, namely: James Cummings, Tilman Shore, Jacob Beeler, Joseph A. Eddings,* and Edwin C. Dix, who was chosen president of the board.


The trustees fixed by ordinance the limits of the town:

"Beginning one half mile south from the south-east corner of State and Edwards streets, thence running one-half mile east ; thence one mile north; thence, one mile west; thence, one mile south, and thence one-half mile east, to the place of beginning."

In the workings of the first and second board of trustees the matter of incorporation was never completed; therefore, the board met on January 22, 1858, to wind up the affairs of the village. Bills presented amounted to $76.66 and the treasurer's account showed the sum of $51.85. On motion, each of the board was assessed the amount of five dollars which was collected, the bills ordered to be paid and the balance of nineteen cents held in reserve for future use!


The village charter was thus dissolved in the fall of 1857; again a petition was formed and a bill was put through the state legislature granting Litchfield a charter on February 16, 1859. On March 7 the first general election was held at which time William E. Bacon was elected as the city's first mayor.


Under the new government an entire new code of ordinances had to be framed and adopted, the public had to be educated to the knowledge of and obedience to municipal regulations. The council served with no compensation, but the city clerk received sixty dollars a year. All other officers accepted their fees in lieu of salaries. Plank sidewalks were laid for the first time. The council had plats of the original town and additions printed and distributed. The city council was declared "ex-officio trustees and directors of schools"; they wielded the power of selecting teachers, offered contracts a month at a time, and established three ungraded schools.


Public enterprise was shown with the organization of a society of ladies who raised sufficient funds in the winter of 1859-60 to enclose the public square with a plain board fence and set out shade trees.


A second indication of the desire to improve the community is shown in the great number of private schools found here in the period before 1859. One of the earliest "school buildings" was located on the lot north of the Universalist Church and just to the east; the other was located on the lot on north Jackson Street where Dr. Ira Maupin has his home or on the lot next to his home.


One of the first teachers was a Miss Charles whose sole reminder of her contribution to education here is the newspaper item that "the pupils of Miss Charles' School gave a pleasant entertainment to its patrons and a select number of guests last Wednesday" (July 8, 1857). The next school teacher to be noted was a Mr. H. A. Wells who opened "a fall and winter term of the Free School . . . Monday Next (September 7, 1857) at Cummins' Hall." Mr. Wells taught for a number of years in 22 the village. In April, 1858, Mr. Wells advertised that he was opening a summer term; in the same month Mrs. Edgar opened "a school in Whitaker's new building adjoining the Ambrotype Gallery." Parents were requested to send their children "without further notice" and those entrusting children to her charge were "warranted satisfaction."


The following notices were found concerning schools of the year 1859. "Mrs. Edgar's third quarter commences on Monday, January 31st at her residence on Kirkham Street, opposite the Presbyterian Church. Bills collected before the close of the term. Tuition $5.00."


Mr. Wells taught a fall term and held an exhibition which was "witnessed by an audience which filled every inch of the room, occupied the stairs of the Empire Hall, and stood on ladders looking through the windows. . . ." He also taught a summer term, beginning the school on April 11. In the year 1859 a most unusual advertisement concerning a girls' school was published.


"The undersigned has opened a high school for young ladies, occupying for the present, a pleasant room over Mr. Durr's dry goods store. Is prepared to receive additions to the present number of students. The school, until assistant teachers are employed, will be strictly limited to thirty pupils.


"Terms: Common and High English Branches, $5.00 per term. Juvenile Classes, $3.00.

“Drawing and Painting classes receive instruction Tuesdays and Thursdays of each week. . .

Drawing, twenty lessons $2.50. Water colors, $4.00. Oil painting, $8.00. Having had charge of this department in Jacksonville Seminary and since in other parts of the state, the principal hopes to give satisfaction both in the ornamental and thorough branches.


September 28, 1859.

Sarah Barton.

“Who were these people who came to a prairie village, supported by a struggling railroad? In many areas of the county the neighborhood was settled entirely by people from North Carolina, other areas were settled entirely by settlers from Kentucky and Tennessee. Here we do not find any one nationality, nor do we find them coming from any one state. Instead we find people born in North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, New York; we find people of English, Irish, and German birth; we find settlers poor in worldly goods and some with considerable wealth.


Many of these early settlers from the east had come from fine homes; when they came to the prairies they brought with them their books, their desire for culture and schools, their customs and manners. Many had attended schools on the college, academy, and university level. We find the first settlers interested in farming, then came the storekeepers, the blacksmiths, a doctor or two, a lawyer. With the railroad came the Irish laborer, with the railroad and machine shops came the skilled craftsmen and new laborers . . . these show a typical cross section of what we today call the American people; this is America!


Written by: Walter Sanders

Taken from: Litchfield Centennial Book 1852-1953