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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.