~ CHAPTER 54 ~

by E.T. Coleman

Originally published in the Decatur Review, on 11 June 1929


There was at least one regular stage road running through Decatur, said Abraham C. Miller, that to Springfield, and there was a stage stand on the north side of the West Main street road about four miles west of Decatur. That stand was built by his grandfather, Christopher Miller. His uncle, Abraham Miller, drove the stage between Paris and Springfield.


Stage stands were as necessary to highway traffic in those days as filling stations are today and their functions were analogous to those of the filling stations, although the two were not precisely identical. The stage stand was more than a filling station. It was a tavern where creature comforts were to be had for man and beast, but it was more often a relay station, where stage horses were changed.

Today, if we choose to ignore the three perfectly good railroads to Springfield, it is a matter of an hours drive by highway from one city to the other. It was then perhaps a two days trip, or possibly longer. When roads were dry it could be made easily in a day by a stage with its relay of horses, but private vehicles could not take advantage of relays. These stage stands were scattered along all stage roads and private homes made shift to accommodate travelers in a pinch. There was another stake stand on that road at Mechanicsburg, one east of Decatur, one in this county on the old state road, and later another, the Four Mile House. The Miller stage stand was typical of others and it may be described in some detail.


This tavern, according to Abraham Miller, was built of logs, and broadside to the road. It had two ground floor rooms about sixteen by twenty feet square each, and between them was a double chimney with a fireplace in each room. Above these rooms was a loft reached by a ladder. The women occupied one of these rooms and the men the other and the overflow of guests was relegated to the loft. Through the clapboard roof over this loft the snow sifted and in case of a driving snow storm the guest might wake in the morning to find that he had been sleeping under a tidy snow drift.

The food was cooked in one or the other of these fireplaces, in which swung a crane from which were hung pots and kettles and on the broad hearth was the dutch oven, that kitchen utensil of all work. With hot coals beneath and hot coals heaped on top it could cook equally well corn pone, hot biscuits, light bread, cake and be turned to numerous other culinary uses. Other skillets were used upon the same hearth.


Fifty cents was the charge made by Grandpap Miller for supper, bed and breakfast. Stall and feed for horses were an additional charge. Later a large barn with twenty-two stalls was built. We have no information as to the number of guests that the two-room house and loft house would accommodate, but we can rest assured that it could not be measured by the capacity of any three hotel rooms today.

CAME IN 1829

Christopher Miller and his wife, Betsy, who spent the last forty years of her life in Iowa, totally blind and lived to the age of 110, came by ox-wagon from Grayson county, Ky., in 1829, bringing with them their sons, William and James, and others of their eleven children then born. James, the father of Abraham, was sixteen years old, when he came to this county. He married early, a sister of W.B. Hostetler of Decatur, and established a home for himself west of his fathers where they raised a large family. It was one of the treats of Abrahams boyhood to go over to grandpaps when the stage was due. What a hero to the children their uncle, who drove the stage, was. He told them the most wonderful stories. But best of all, was to go over to the stage stand on Christmas and hang up their stockings.


It was in the building of this twenty-two stall stage barn that young Abraham got his introduction to the whip-saw, the first sawmill of the settlers. It was a man power contrivance, simple and effective in its operation, but it took real power. A two-handled saw with the handles set at right angels to the blade of the saw was the prime requisite and the only part of it that was factory made. A stage six or seven feet high was erected to support the log that was to be sawed. Sometimes a pit was dug to serve the purpose of the stage. One man stood on top of the log and the other beneath to pull the saw up and down while it cut its slow way through the log. It meant nothing to pull it up, but to pull it down required the strongest muscles and more or less expertness.

Young Abe Miller, when he was old enough, rode into the harvest field with a jug of whiskey slung on one side of his horse, and on the other side a jug of water, so that the harvest hands could take their choice. This was the common practice at that time.


The stage was pulled by four horses and had seats for six people. The roads were not much more than trails. Abraham Miller remembered the day when there was no regular road from Decatur to Bloomington. There was only a trail which cornered along the ridges and knolls between the ponds which often made the country north of town practically impassable. Out where the Leader factory now is was a pond so deep that in the spring of the year a horse would have to swim to cross it.


Road maps were published in those days and they were not greatly dissimilar from the automobile trail maps published a few years ago. There was a little book known as Coltons Western Tourist and Emigrants Guide, published by J.H. Colton in 1851. C.Wells bought a copy of the book and it is now in possession of General Frank P. Wells, who treasures it. This book was got out for the information of eastern people who were going west either as settlers or tourists. In this book is a good map of the stage roads. They were then called Great Routes of Travel. The map was printed on good paper and the presswork was excellent. A reproduction of it is printed with this chapter.

It should be noticed that two bits of railroad were shown on this map of 1851, one of them extending from Naples to Springfield and the other connecting Aurora and Elgin with a stem extending to Chicago. But the interesting thing about this map is the fact that the Great Routes of Travel, the stage routes, were laid out upon lines that were followed substantially by the railroad lines subsequently built. These highways were laid out by good highway engineers, whether Indians or buffalo.


In 1858 Abraham Miller haled a wagon load of goods from Springfield to Decatur for the Stamper & Condell store. And I brought back a barrel of whiskey for Berry Cassell, he added. It was quite the common thing for well-to-do men to have a barrel of whiskey in their cellar and nearly all stores kept a barrel of whiskey on tap. That same year he recalled taking a two-bushel sack of corn to the little distillery at what was then called Yaller Gall Spring, bringing back a gallon of whiskey, which he got for his corn.


James Miller was one of the early road builders and helped lay out the north side road from Decatur to Springfield. In speaking of the roads of that time we must not forget the finger which pointed the way at road forks or intersections, much as the state markers on state highways do more elaborately today. They were called finger boards because the direction was indicted by a closed hand with the index finger extended in the direction that the traveler was to take.

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