A Pencil Sketch of the Past and Present

Our Business, Business Houses and Business Men

Originally published in the Decatur Republican, on 20 Jan 1870


To give a complete history of our subject would take months of arduous labor, as well as many successive numbers of the Republican to contain it. Were we transcribing the events of the past simply, our task would be much lightened; but in this gigantic period of the nineteenth century, when every day and every week adds a new chapter in the great volume, and every hour a new line, it behooves us to preserve events that have passed before they are eternally swallowed in oblivion, whose billows sweep across our memories once in every decade - we must preserve the glories of to-day before they become the vague recollections of tradition.

In order to write understandingly of the town, it will be necessary to give our attention for a few moments to the surrounding country.

The country traversed by the Sangamon river and its tributaries is a region seldom equaled for its fertility of soil. It is generally high and undulating, well watered with creeks and springs, and is beautifully interspersed with timber and prairie, the former of which consists of those descriptions which only grow and thrive in the richest of soil, being pricipally hickory, black walnut, oak, maple, etc. The timber grows along the banks of the river principally, but the prairies often contain fine groves. These are generally elevated above the surrounding prairies, and were very assiduously sought after by the early settlers; especially by those who had been raised in the timbered portions of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Indeed, the broad, fertile prairies which now produce the finest crops of all kinds of grain, without which this fair State of Illinois would lose its vaunted commercial and agricultural name, were overlooked almost entirely by the earlier settlers. This was the greatest objection urged against settling of Illinois by inhabitants of the New England and Eastern States. They had always raised their scanty crops among hills and rocks and stumps, and thought it almost impossible to open farms without these obstacles.

The country skirting the Sangamon was settled with such rapidity that it contained five thousand inhabitants before a single section had been sold. Long before Macon county had an existence, white men were numerous throughout this section of country; some attracted, perhaps, by that wild love of adventure which invariably characterizes the pioneer; some by the abundance of game, and others by the unrivalled richness of soil, which so abundantly repaid the husbandman for his labor. Time, prairie and water in abundance, profuse herbage, plentiful game, pleasant temperature - these were attractions, all of which many other portions of the State could not boast - attractions that would tempt any one from the pale of civilization. Before the public sale of lands, many farms of a considerable size - even of a hundred acres each - had been made. The beautiful valley of the Sangamon soon became peopled by thousands who were seeking homes for themselves and their children. Before the year 1837 this country had been divided into several counties, containing a population of about 40,000 people. The first white inhabitant settled here in 1810, about the time the terrirory was admitted as a State. The first public sale of lands was in November, 1823, when most of our older inhabitants availed themselves of the low prices of land, and dotted the extensive timber lands and fertile prairies all over with cultivated spots, which were their all - their homes. Above all countries this was, at this time, the land of flowers. In their season, every prairie was an immense flower garden. In the earlier stages of spring would rise a generation of flowers whose prevalent tint was peach-blow. The next was a deeper red, and the next was orange, and to the latest period of autumn the prairies exhibited a brilliant golden hue.

This fair country was truly a noble heritage to the Red Man. Here he had hunted noble game and worshiped the Great Spirit in his untutored way from time immemorial. Here he had fought fierce battles, won decisive victories and performed his invariable war-dance. Here the young brave wooed his dusky mistress. If noble to the Indian in his untutored way, how grand should it appear to the thousands who have entered in and possessed it, accompanied by all the arts and sciences of this gingantic age!

We would here remark that our information, or portions of it, was selected from fragmentary and incomplete reports and records, to give proper credit to which would in many instances be quite impossible. Our facts and dates we have noted down as they fell from the lips of old settlers who speak from personal knowledge, and who have resided at of near Decatur for over two score years.

Before treating Decatur, let us dwell for a short time on a few facts in regard to


When the State was admitted to the Union it was divided into seventy counties, after which a number of other counties were cut from the larger ones. Macon county was formed from territory which originally formed a part of Shelby county. It formerly took into its limits all of the counties of Dewitt, Moultrie and Piatt, and was created by the State Legislature in session at Vandalia, January 19, 1829.

The first County Commissioners' Court consisted of Benjamin Wilson, Elisha Freeman and James Miller. Their first court was held at the house of James Ward, about four miles south of town on the 19th day of May, 1829, when John Fleming, Jesse Rhoads and Easton Whitton were appointed commissioners to locate the county seat of Macon county, which, when located, should be called Decatur. At the next meeting of this court, held at the same place on the first day of June, 1829, the following order was passed: "Ordered, That B.R. Austin, County Surveyor for Macon county, be and he is hereby required to lay out the town of Decatur in said county, after the form of Shelbyville, etc." At this session of court, the commissioners who had been appointed to "select a place for the permanent seat of justice in said county," made their report. The selection made was in the northeast quarter and east half of section fifteen, township sixteen, range two, east.

The first white man that settled in the county permanently was one Wm. Downing, who was a veturesome person, attracted here by that wild love of adventure that is so often the pioneer that opens the roads to civilization. He located on the south side of the Sangamon river, in the year 1820. Soon after Mr. Downing's advent to the county, Leonard Stevens came with his family, and settled about three miles northwest of town, on what is now known as Stevens creek, named, perhaps, from its pioneer settler.

Macon county has the finest and most desirable diversity of country in the State. The face of it is nearly level, excepting the country skirting the Sangamon river and its tributaries. We are free to say that it is the most beautiful country we have ever seen. The land is extremely rich, and is sufficiently watered by beautiful streams, whose pebbly bottoms are the homes of many varieties of fishes. The Sangamon river passes directly through the county from the northeast to the southwest, and is skirted on either side by a belt of timber from one to three miles in width. Along the banks of this stream, as would be suppsed, the country is somewhat broken and hilly, but the bottom lands are of the very richest, and form meadow and pasture lands that cannot be excelled. Back from the river on either side the country is nearly level, being just rolling enough to make drainage good. Is it asked, "What is produced?" We answer; all the cereals, corn, oats, rye, barley, wheat, broom corn, etc., do well. There is not a better grain growing country (for all kinds, we mean) upon the broad surface of the earth. Aside from its grain producing capacity the stock interests are by no means inconsiderable. It is true that the large ranges where cattle could once have grazed are now cut up into farms, still the county is a fine stock producing one, and sends many hundred car loads to the eastern and southern markets.

Now, reader, we have used as much time and space as was allotted for this part of our sketch, and we will turn our attention to


As will be seen by the record, the town of Decatur was located for the county seat by commissioners appointed by the State Legislature. The present location was chosen; and that is the manner in which Decatur came into existence, and the reason it received its most elegible situation. It continuted a town only in name for a number of years.

The act of the commissioners' court ordering the location of the county seat, also ordered that if the location selected should be on land formerly entered, the owner thereof should donate twenty acres to the county on which to locate the county seat. The selection happened to be on government land. After the selection was made, and before the commissioners made their report, Mr. P. Smallwood, a Mr. Whitney, and a Mr. Prentiss entered the lot on which the location was made and very willingly donated the twenty acres specified.

From such information as we can gather it seems that James Renshaw had the honor of being the first resident of the town. - His residence was very primitive in its simplicity, being nothing more than a log shanty. In this cabin he and his family resided for some time, forming a nucleus around which other pioneers gathered, until, as the years passed rapdily by, quite a village had been formed. The other early settlers here were Philip Williams, Sen., James Johnson, Joseph Stevens, Thomas Cowan, David L. Allen, Thomas H. Read, Jno. D. Wright, William Cantrill, and Gen. I.C. Pugh. These were all residents of Decatur previous to the autumn of 1832. Some of them have gone to their last resting place, having finished their pioneer life and the work of civilization. They are held in kind remembrance by scores of dear friends who are finishing the work they begun over forty years ago.


took place on July 10, 1829 - over forty years ago - but the growth of the town for many years was comparatively slow. The first business building was a log structure erected by James Renshaw in 1830, on North Main street, on the lot now occupied by Mr. Albert's grocery store. This building was used for a double purpose; besides being a merchant, Mr. Renshaw had the title of landlord attached to his name. The front part of his building was used for a store room, while the back part and the second half story were used for a hotel, or tavern, as public houses were then called. Some queer recollections of scenes in that "store" are still extant, embracing quaint humor and thrilling episodes, but time and space will not permit us to relate them. - Soon after this another log cabin was erected on the spot now covered by the north end of Central Block, and in it Gen. Pugh sold goods for a short time. During the year 1832, Mr. William Glasscock sold goods in the same building, but whether he bought out Gen. Pugh or not we are unable to learn. Mr. Glasscock afterward moved his stock to a log building that had been erected for its reception, where Stafford's grocery now stands. Mr. G. did business here for a number of years. During the summer of 1832, Messrs. Bell & Tinsley sent a stock of goods here from Springfield. This firm used the store room formerly occupied by Mr. Renshaw. A young man by the name of Hawley was sent here with this stock as clerk, but he soon tired of the backwoods life and returned to Springfield. Mr. William Cantrill, who is one of our present citizens, came here to clerk for the same firm in 1833. Mr. Cantrill remained here, and has been an honored citizen of Decatur ever since. He has held high offices of trust, both in the city and county. The above constituted the business of Decatur up to 1834. Soon after the laying out of the town, a court house was erected by the county, which served as a church and school house as well for many years. It was also built of hewn logs and cost the county about one hundred and fifty dollars. It was located where Dr. Curtis' business house now stands. Simple and unpretentious as was this primitive temple of justice, its walls frequently echoed with the eloquence of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and others whose fame afterwards spread far beyond the narrow precincts of their own homes. But notwithstanding the associations that cluster around the old court house, it now does duty as a stable, on the farm of J.N. Strong, a short distance east of the city. "To what base uses!"

Daniel McCall occupied the first seat as Circuit Clerk, adn held at the same time the offices of County Clerk and Postmaster. Judge Lockwood was the first Judge of the Circuit Court. William Warnick was the first Sheriff of the county, and the Board of Commissioners comprised Benj. Wilson, Elisha Freeman and James Miller.

About the time the Court House was erected a jail was also built. This structure was about sixteen feet square, and was contructed of logs. It stood on the corner of Water and Prairie streets. This jail was considered secure in those days, we suppose, but it would not contain rogues of our day. They have grown wiser in forty years experience in jail breaking.

In the spring of 1834 Decatur contained eleven buildings, which comprised seven dwelling houses, two store buildings, the court house and jail, all of them being constructed of logs, most of them as they were cut from the trees, but those which were meant to be of a better style of architecture were constructed of hewn logs with floors of puncheons or hewn plank.

In 1835, as will be seen, there was a town here, but we could call it merely a settlement or hamlet - the town existed only in name. There were natural attractions here for a town, it is true, and great expectations were expressed by all its inhabitants. There mere fact that a Board of Commissioners appointed by the State had selected this point as the permanent location of the seat of justice for Macon county was, of itself, a great inducement for people to settle here. True, there were no milling privileges. The settlers in and about the embryo city were compelled to go long distances for flour, and the little grain grown found its nearest market on the Illinois or Mississippi rivers. But it was a fine and healthy location and was to be the county seat. With a firm belief in the proud destiny of the place many were induced to locate here. The idea that Decatur would at some future time become a city of ten thousand inhabitants never entered the heads of our pioneer predecessors. Yet many had lofty aspirations, believing that at no distant day the scream of the locomotive would be heard approaching the town from the east, the west, the north and the south, and that just as soon as that was accomplished, Decatur would grow and become one of the finest inland cities in the west. In 1836 these great expectations as regards railroads came near being realized, and in fact were at a later date. The legislature chartered a railroad company and appropirated $3,500,000 to its construction. The road was to start from the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and run by way of Vandalia, Shelbyville, Decatur and Bloomington, crossing the Illinois river and or near the terminus of the Illinois and Michigan canal, and from thence to Galena in the north part of the State. This road, with some changes in the route, and which afterwards received princely donations of lands from Congress, was called the Illinois Central, but was not completed utnil nearly twenty years later. Another charter was granted for what was then known as the "Northen Cross," starting from Quincy on the Mississippi, crossing the Illinois river at Meredosia, and running through Jacksonville, Springfield, Decatur, Sidney, Danville, and from thence to the State line in the direction of Lafayette, Indiana, and thus form a communication with the great railroad system of Indiana and the Eastern States. An appropriation of $1,850,000 was made for this road. This road was afterwards known as the "Great Western" and was not completed until about the same time as the "Central" made its way through the State. The early completion of these roads was looked forward to with great interest by the people of that day, which had the tendency to bring other settlers to the town. Had any one hinted that these roads would not reach Decatur for a score of years he would have been scouted at as an insane person. They already, in their imagination, had heard the welcome scream of the locomotive resounding along the long line of smoke rising majestically above a long train of cars laden with all the attendants of civilization and progress which were the forerunners of the "good time coming." Many who had waited long and patiently for the time to come when a week would not be consumed in going to and returning from market, who had grown weary of waiting and become almost discouraged, becamae jubilant and sounded high the praise of what Decatur would be in years to come.

In 1835 the old Methodist church was built, and in 1836 the Christians erected their first church edifice. The latter building is now used for a stable by Mr. Barnwell. Previous to this time a water mill had been erected on the Sangamon, near where Maffit's old mill now stands. Another farther up river was erected in 1838, and this one being much larger and more extensive than any thing of the kind that had yet made its appearance in the interior of the State, was considered an earnest of what was yet to come.

By an act of the general assembly the town was incorporated some time in the year 1836, the exact date we could not ascertain. An election was held for a President and seven trustees, which resulted in the choice of Richard Oglesby for President and Wm. T. Crissey, G.R. White, Wm. Webb, Thomas Cowan, H.M. Gorin, Henry Butler and Landy Harrell as Trustees. Their first meeting was held on the fifth day of November of the same year.

Decatur now sported the name of "town," and was thought to be one of the towns of the interior of Illinois by its sanguine citizens. Better buildings were now being erected, and the log huts were discarded; something was done by the citizens to secure teachers for schools that were being organized at that time. The town gave greater evidences of thrift than it had yet done, as it improved it the style of architecture and finish of its dwelling houses and business buildings.

During the year 1837 the good people of Macon county began to think they had sported a log court house long enough, and the erection of one of brick was agitated. The county had now a population of about 3,500 souls - a very decided increase in seventeen years, considering the modes of travel in those days. In view of this fact many were in favor of erecting a grand and imposing structure (similar to the one now standing on the Old Square); others, however, were afraid to spend so much money for such a purpose. They were like some men we have now-a-days - they could not bear to have the taxes increased, even if it was for the improvement and upbuilding of the town, or the improvement of county buildings. After several months of agitation of the subject, it was decided to erect the present court house. This building was commenced in the summer of 1837. The contract was awared to Leander Munsell, of Paris, Ill., who had become quite noted as a court house builder. He planned and erected the court house now standing in Shelbyville, the old one in Bloomington and the one at Paris, Edgar county. At any rate he was considered a first class architect, and perhaps his best job was done on out court house. He delivered it over to the county officials in June, 1838. This grand structure was another mile-stone in the onward march of civilization, being at the time of its erection the finest building in Macon county, and far ahead of nearly all the early court houses of the State; indeed, there are many county buildings yet that are inferior to our court house. The cost of this building was $10,000. One thousand dollars was paid over to the contractor in advance, and bonds of the county were given for the balance, payable in twenty years with eight percent interest. The interest on these bonds was paid regularly, and it has been but a few years since the bonds were liquidated. The building is a two story brick and has now a rather ancient appearance, as the style and architecture of buildings have improved somewhat in the past thirty-two years. The lower story is used for the offices of the county officials, while the second story comprises a large audience room, from which the passer-by is generally regaled with the oratory of learned attorneys as they argue in tones of thunder and cause of the right, or what they suppose to be the right. This is especially so when slander suits are in progress. This grand structure is overtopped by a weather beaten cupola with a rusty tin roof, which would better grace some back yard as an old-fashioned hen roost.

From 1828 to 1850 Decatur continued on the even tenor of its way, with not a ripple of excitement to destroy the placid waters of her quiet sea of existence. She continued to grow steadily but slowly, being compelled to this course by the slow progress of the surrounding country. Yet its growth was a healthy one. Everything it gained was retained, and all the inducements that could be brought to bear were held out for people to settle in town and country. From almost a wilderness had sprung a village of five hundred inhabitants, whose growth had been erected and business houses had been added. Additional families had settled here and Decatur had settled down to a sort of hum drum existence that was not broken until the railroad excitement broke in upon the spirit of its dreams. We would like to give here the city and its business establishments as it appeared at this period, but time and space will not permit. Suffice it to say that the town was now a village containing seventy-five or one hundred houses, about a dozen stores, all carrying general or conglomerated stocks, embracing all the staple goods that were needed by this then very sparsely settled country. The schools up to this time had been of a class that would now excite our disgust. There was a period before this of nearly twenty years when the children were growing up to men and women but very indifferent provision for them in an educational way. How blind "our fathers" were in this matter, and what a sense of pity takes possession of us when we hear older persons speak of the limited means of education they enjoyed. It seems almost impossible, and a shade of unbelief passes over our countenances when they tell us that "readin' and spellin' and cypherin'" were all the studies allowed in the early schools,and were all that were deemed necessary for children to study.

Prior to the days of railroads, throughout this and other western states, the largest and best towns were situated on the banks of the rivers and navigable waters. The navigable streams in those days made towns as our railroads make them now. Villages that were back on the prairies, and were connected with the great thoroughfares by means of stage coaches and wagons, did not offer very glowing attractions to energetic business men, who chose to invest their capital in more flourishing and available towns. The railroad system, however, worked a complete revolution. Minerva like towns sprung into existence throughout the great State, and as the magic tracks were laid they seemed the harbingers of the good time coming, their smooth surfaces representing the unbroken prosperity of the country, binding the different portions in one indissoluble union.

The locomotive was now to make resonant the bills and plains and woodlands of this our fair county with its shrill greetings, which should be the type of a "higher civilization" - "the emblem of a more rapid progress" which should in a few short years rank our State among the first of the glorious Union. Decatur could not rest amid the dust of years, while the muse of her destiny pointed onward and upward, no more than could the world awake to the great benefits conferred by the use of steam and remain in the old grooves cut by the constant wear of "old foygism." And so the arrival of the railroad at this point in 1854 was the occasion of great rejoicing by old and young. It was the realization of the hopes and ambitions of twenty years. It brought to us the commencement of a new era, and its benefits were appreciated by all.

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