MACON COUNTY IN 1855
A LOOK INTO THE PAST
Originally published in the Illinois State Chronicle, on 13 December 1855
To the Editor of the Alton Carrier:
Decatur, Ill., Nov. 30, 1855
Macon was originally a very large county, but encroachment after encroachment has been made upon its territory in the fomation of new counties, and it has been thus reduced in size, until it is now one of the smalles counties in our State. It was organized in the year 1829, and increased very slowly in population and wealth until within the last five years; its present population is between eight and nine thousand.
The face of the country is rolling, but not hilly; rather more than half the country is prairie, and the prairie soil is more productive than that in the timber. In this respect it differs from the country farther South, where the soil in the timber is generally the best. There is no uncultivated land in they county, except a very little along the line of the Sangamon river, and a few other smaller streams. The average value of unimproved land in the county is about $20 per acre, varying accordingly to quality and location. A gentleman from Maryland, yesterday, bought a half section unbroken prairie, six miles from Decatur, for seven dollars an acre; this is a better bargain than can usually be obtained.
A large proportion of the citizens of Macon county are native Illinisans; there are some Kentuckians, Pennsylvanians, &., with a few Irish, Germans, and other foreigners.
Decatur was laid off into a town in the year 1829, by Charles Prentice, Easton Whitten and Pernerius Smallwood. It grew very slowly, but about 1837-8 had a number of small stores and other business houses. When the money crisis of that period came, it "broke" the town of Decatur "flat" and in 1840 there was not a store of any kind in that place; not a yard of calico nor a pound of coffee could be bought in Decatur. During the succeeding ten years, although there was some progress made, Decatur remained a town in little else but the name. Not until it was known that the Great Western Railroad would cross the Illinois Central at this point, did this town take the rapid start for improvement which has made such a great alteration in so brief a space of time.
Decatur occupies a very pretty site, three quarters of a mile from the Sangamon river, which winds around on the north and east. The location is broken, without being hilly, and is in the edge of the timber, which surrounds it on all sides except the north-east, where a beautiful prairie stretches out. In 1840 the population of the town was 250; in 1850 it had reached 450, since which it has swelled to 2300. This increase is the consequence of a natural healthy growth, and it must continue to increase with compound interest. I find no supernumeraries here, and the population is by no means of a floating character. The citizens, old and new, are practical business men, all of whom are doing well for themselves and the place. No business seems to be overrun, unless it is the professions; I am not sure but some of the lawyers and doctors could be spared without serious injury to the place or its prospects.
Being in the center of a very fertile section of country, by far the largest business carried on herre is the shipping of grain, which is done by railroad, of course. There are five houses engaged in this business, one of which, as I am informed, shipped over 100,000 bushels last year; this year's shipments will doubtless be much larger.
The business houses in this city are twelve dry goods and variety stores, six clothing stores, six family groceries, three harware stores, four drug stores, three hardware stores, six family groceries, two jewelry stores, one fancy and variety stores, and two merchant tailors' establishments.
This place has not yet acquired much celebrity as a manufacturing town, as it undoubtedly will in the course of time. It has now in operation two large steam flouring mills, with saws attached; one large carriage and wagon manufactory, three wagon shops, six blacksmith shops, two plow factories, two saddleries, three shoe shops, three tin and sheet iron manufactories, one cabinet shop, one wool carding machine, one steam barrel manufactory, and two copper shops; three paint shops, one chair factory, two bakeries, and one cigar manufactory. One daguerrean artist is permanently located here, and another temporarily. A gunsmith and an upholsterer are, also, carrying on their respective trades, and there is a large marble yard, from which they turn out some very fine work.
Of religious denominations, there are here Old School Presbyterians, Missionary Baptists, and Episcopal Methodists, each of whom have a brick church edifice which cost about ten thousand dollars; the Universalists, and the Campbelites have brick churches, which cost about four thousand dollars apiece; the Catholics have a small church, but the Episcopalians, and church of God, although they are organized here and have regular service, have no church building. The most of these churches have been built within the last eighteen months, and all has been done by voluntary subscriptions on the part of the citizens; for the building of the Presbyterian church, three gentlemen subscribed five hundred dollars apiece. These facts evince the existence of a public spirit which will ensure prosperity to any place. Although the people here are not deservedly famous for their peity, they are moral, and manifest, a great deal of respect for religion.
There has not been time, since Decatur began to improve, for the establishment of such institutions of learning as the place now requires; but the educational facilities are as good as can be expected in a new town. There are two high schools, three common schools, and three female music teachers.
There are two lodges of Odd Fellows, one of them having been organized only this fall; and there is also a lodge of Free Masons, and a Temple of Honor, to which is attached the Social, or Ladies Degree. The last two named orders own the halls in which they meet. The Odd Fellows have a permanent lease of a room which they have fitted up recently in a style not only tasteful but magnificent.
There is here a bank of issue called the Railroad Bank, and there is one private banking house.
The hotels here are better than in any town of its size I ever visited; there are four of them - all very good - and two of them are decidedly "first class."
As is nearly always the case with new towns, or towns that are emphatically overrun with professional men; there are here twelve physicians, two dentists, and eleven lawyers. Half this number could supply the place fully in either of the professions.
There are two newspapers published here weekly. They are both large sheets, are handsomely printed, and very well got up generally. As is nearly always the case, they are rather ahead of other improvements of the place. The Gazette was established here about the time the place began to improve, and much of that improvement was brought about by the course it pursued, and the energy with which it was conducted. It was founded, and is still conducted by Mr. James Shoaff, one of the best practical printers in the west, and a very energetic, public spirited man. he has done much for Decatur, and I am pleased to be able to say that Decatur is doing well for him, in yielding him and his paper a very liberal support. The other paper, the Chronicle, is a new paper, having been started during this past summer. Its proprietor, Wm. J. Usery, Esq., is a practical printer, and is conducting his paper with a spirit and activity that will ensure its success. Each of these offices turns out a large amount of job work.
In the central part of town the streets are closely built up, and the place has a very city-like appearance. Some of the stores are three stories high, and appear very well. I took a look through one just finished, and now occupied as a stove, hardware and furniture store, by Messrs. Gorin & Prather. There are but few handsomer or more convenient houses of the kind in the State. The streets are all the time full of wagons and drays, and the hotel omnibuses, and everything indicates that Decatur is rapidly changing from a town to a city. A city charter was granted it by the last Legislature.
There are a number of very handsome buildings in town, and the style of architecture which prevails is very neat and tasteful. There is hardly a shabby building in town, except the Court House, and it looks as though it is approaching the last stages of decomposition. It is as nasty, shabby, dirty looking a "hall of justice" as I ever saw, and all the citizens whom I have conversed with seem thoroughly ashamed of it. They are hoping that it will give way altogether, some time soon, and tumble down with all the lawyers in town in it.
Vacant lots suitable for dwellings, sell for from $100 to $250 each; ground, in the business part of the city, brings $40 per foot, front, running back 120 feet. They tell me it is a very healthy place; and, as everybody I see looks well, I take it for granted that such is a fact. I know that it is a pretty place, and one of the most active business places I have as yet visited.
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