A Brief History of Shelbyville
By Miriam Herron
Below the south edge of the Shelbyville Moraine, where a ridge was deposited across the state by the Wisconsin Glacier, lies our home town of Shelbyville, Queen City of central Illinois.
The history of Shelbyville, naturally, is interwoven with the history of Shelby County. The county was established by an act of the Illinois legislature in 1827, and section 9 of that act named the as yet unlocated county seat as Shelbyville. The name Shelby honored the Revolutionary War hero, Col. Isaac Shelby, later destined to be first governor of Kentucky.
The site of the county seat was chosen by commissioners Easton Whiton, William L.D. Ewing and John Hopton on April 5, 1827. At the top of a bluff overlong the Kaskaskia River, The three men drove down a hickory stake between three red oak trees to indicate Shelbyville’s public square. A nearby spring of cold water further recommended the site. James Duncan, Robert K. McLaughlin and James T.B. Stapp donated twenty acres of land for public buildings, the land surrounding the present court house.
Barnett Bone, who had come from Tennessee in 1825, built a log cabin on the river south of Shelbyville, His home became the site of the first election and was used as a court house until the log court house was built on the east side of the public square in 1828. At the time the county and city were formed, Joseph Oliver came up fro Vandalia, the state capitol. He became the combined county and circuit clerk, recorder of deeds and judge of probate. He conducted the county business in his cabin, which has been built by Josiah Daniels in 1825, until the log court house was built. Oliver taught school in the court house which was used by Postmaster Oliver as the first post office. Joseph was also a merchant and carried on a lively trade with the Indians. They were of the Kickapoo tribe and for the most part, friendly. Oliver’s daughter, Mary Jane, was the first white child born in Shelbyville.
Jacob Cutler and son John came to Shelbyville in the fall of 1827 and opened a small store in the west part of town. The “Cutler Stand” was one of the stagecoach stops later on.
Since it divided the county diagonally, the Kaskaskia River has played a large part in the history of the county from the time Barnett Bone transported travelers across the river in his canoe to the present era of the four-lane bridge. A little later than Bone’s Canoe, Elias Miller ran a rope ferry across the river. Elias was the first person to be given a license for a tippling shop or tavern. Lodging for one night was 6 ½ cents, dinner cost 25 cents, breakfast and supper the same. For keeping a horse overnight, the traveler paid 25 cents. A half a pint of whisky was 12 ½ cents.
There was a wooden bridge built over the Kaskaskia south of the present bridge in 1832-34. This was a covered bridge which was said to have been used during the Civil War for gatherings of the Knights of the Golden Circle, who were southern sympathizers. Two iron bridges have preceded the present bridge.
Shelbyville was on a post road from Vandalia to Springfield and also on a stage route east to Terre Haute. The Vandalia Trace angles southwest from Shelbyville crossing the county line near Herrick. Strips of that old road are still in use. Stagecoaches provided transportation for mail and travelers until the coming of the railroads. The Indianapolis and St. Louis was finished in 1858 and the Chicago and Eastern Illinois Railroad in 1891.
Shelby County has had three courthouses. The first one already mentioned was a log house on the square. The second courthouse was of brick and stood in the center of the square where the monument to the heroes stands. It had two stories and was built in 1832. Two outside staircases gave access to the second floor and a cupola was added in 1837. In this building many famous circuit riding lawyers, including Abraham Lincoln and his friend, David Davis, held court. The lawyers often stayed at the Tallman Hotel just east of the court house. In the first floor court room, in 1856, Lincoln and Judge Anthony Thornton held their famous debate on political issues of the day. A painting of that debate, made by local artist, Robert Root, hangs in the present court house on the north side of the square, built in 1879-81.
Many of the early settlers of this area came from the cultured areas of the east and south. They were interested in providing the best education for their children. Beginning with Joseph Oliver’s school in the log court house, subscription schools were available all over the county. Our representative, Samuel M. Moulton drafted a bill for free public schools in Illinois. Then most of the private schools closed and Shelbyville built old Main Street School in 1871. It was a three-story building of red brick with a clock tower on top and was built by the Conn Brothers.
During the Civil War a small brick school building was constructed on South First Street. It was called the Free School. Later in 1872 it was used for black children. Five years later the negro children were integrated into Main Street School, much to the disgust of some parents who withdrew their children and hired a teacher of their own. The brick school became a private home and is so used at the present time.
Before Main Street School was ready for occupancy, the public school took over the building of the Shelbyville Seminary which stood where the Free Public Library is located. The Seminary was the forerunner of higher education in the county. It was used from 1854 until 1871 and was under the auspices of the Methodist Church.
Shelbyville had other institutions of higher learning. There was the Okaw Seminary (Presbyterian) which occupied the brick house off North Morgan Street, later known as the Craig home. Brief mention has been found in an old newspaper of a Shelby College founded in 1872 by a Rev. Myers, but no more is known about it. In more modern times, we have been fortunate to have the Sparks Business College founded in 1908 by H.D. Sparks and continued by his son, Roger.
Vine Street Elementary School was built in 1900, and a separate high school was built on North First Street in 1911. A new Main Street School was dedicated in 1925. It was then that the town clock was place on top of the courthouse. The present high school was finished in 1950 and was followed by Moulton School named for Judge Moulton, the “Father of free public education” in Illinois.
Another evidence of culture in our community was the fact that in a period covering 1891 to 1926, the community enjoyed two Chautauqua's. The first was the Lithia Springs Chautauqua in a wooded area five miles northeast of Shelbyville. It was founded by Rev. Jasper Douthit of the Unitarian Church who was its guiding light until 1912. Its rival, the Shelbyville Chautauqua, was held from 1901 to 1926 in Forest Park where a unique circular auditorium was built to house the crowds eager to hear the fine speakers and musicians provided by the Chautauqua management for a minimal price to the public. With the coming of automobiles, the radio and television, Chautauqua's have faded from the scene.
In 1902, the Women’s Club of Shelbyville circulated a petition to raise funds for a library. A library board composed of public spirited citizens under T.F. Dove sought the help of Andrew Carnegie to build a public library. The Board of Education sold the site of the Seminary to the city for $10. Carnegie donated $10,000 and the city issued bonds for $14,00 and voted a library tax. The Free Public Library opened May 3, 1905 with Miss Grace Westervelt as librarian.
A citizen whose public spirit and wealth did a great deal to develop the pioneer village of Shelbyville was General William Fitzhugh Thornton who was commissioned by President John Quincy Adams in 1820. General Thornton and family moved to Shelbyville in 1834 from Kentucky bringing with them the first piano seen in these parts. General Thornton’s second house still stands at the corner of Morgan and North Second Streets and is known as the Veteran’s Center. W.F. Thornton represented Shelby County in the state legislature from 1838 to 1839. He was president of the Board of the Illinois and Michigan Canal and was sent to England where he successfully sold bonds to complete the canal. He was also interested in the building of the Illinois Central Railroad. Thornton as his son Tome established the first bank in the county in 1859. This was the forerunner of the Shelby County State Bank.
Though Shelby County has many southern sympathizers, when war was declared between the North and South, Shelby always filled its enlistment quota. Of the many war heroes, the one most mentioned was Cyrus Hall. He was captain of the 14th company of the Illinois infantry and rose to be Brigadier General. After the war he was appointed postmaster of Shelbyville. The Cyrus Hall Post of the G.A.R. was named for him.
The earliest record of church services in Shelby County was in 1827 when Methodist circuit riders from Shoal Creek Circuit preached in homes of believers. In 1828, a Methodist class was organized and services held in the home of Barnett Bone. Later services were held in the home of Nelson Jones and in the log court house. Elder John Storm was a pioneer organizer of the Christian church in Shelby County. Rev. Bushrod W. Henry had a part in organizing both Baptist and Christian churches in Shelbyville. Rev. Joseph Platt and Rev. J.S. Reasoner organized the first Presbyterian church in the old courthouse on July 31, 1843. Other denominations followed until a present Shelbyville has fifteen churches.
The cholera epidemic in 1855 almost wiped out the little town. Among the heroes of the cholera year was Lewis Stamps, a veteran of the War with Mexico. Captain Stamps, as he was called, lost his only son to the dread disease. He escaped the plague and devoted all his time to caring for the sick and burying the dead. When he died, an old man in 1893, he was buried in Glenwood Cemetery where the grateful citizens put up a marker in tribute to his kindness and heroism.
It was not until 1916 that Shelbyville residents had a place where those seriously ill could be cared for. In that year a campaign was launched under the chairmanship of Senator George D. Chaffee to build a Shelby County Hospital. Work on the hospital was started in 1917 after many residents and organizations had contributed to the hospital fund. The new building was dedicated on July 4, 1918. It took over the land formerly an old Lutheran cemetery, on South Cedar Street. When it started the hospital had only seventeen beds.
During the 80’s and 90’s, the city had a great period of growth. One of the largest flouring mills in the state was the Davis and Woodward mill at South First and Morgan. The woolen factory on Wood Street was estimated to be worth $35,000. Before it was destroyed by fire, the Harwood Hay Press shipped three thousand tons of hay annually. Coal mines east of town, now under the lake, were a prominent industry. The Opera House was on the third floor of the building east of the alley on the north side of Main Street and was the scene of many theatrical productions, both professional and amateur. High school commencements were also held there. The first water works were opened as a private company in 1886. Later a room was added to the water plant and the first electric light plant was installed.
Shelbyville, it seemed, always had a town band. In 1853, W.A. Trower, the first mayor of Shelbyville, organized a band. Since it was one of the few in Central Illinois, it played for many historic occasions including the opening of the Shelbyville Seminary, a Democratic rally in Charleston, and for both Lincoln and Douglas when they visited Decatur. One interesting experience of the band was the trip they made to Sullivan on a hayrack, the way being lighted by the blazing trail of the big comet of 1858.
Shelbyville celebrated its centennial on October 12, 1927 with a gala holiday beginning with a parade from the court house to Forest Park, featuring floats and many school children on foot. In the auditorium a pageant recalled the century past. Winifred Douthit supervised a large collection of mementoes of county history in the Ragan Building on Main Street. Among the museum items was a phaeton built for General Cyrus Hall, the original platt of Shelbyville, loaned by the county clerk, and a doll bureau made i n 1828 by William Ewing, one of the commissioners who chose the site for Shelbyville. There was a style show modeled by young ladies featuring dresses from 1827 to 1927. All in all it was a very memorable occasion.
We will close our brief history of Shelbyville on this centennial note realizing that many persons and historic occasions have been omitted for lack of space. Nevertheless, brief mention must be made of Attorney General Howland J. Hamlin, artist, Charles Heinz, Judge F.R. Dove, J.M. Donaldson, once U.S. Postmaster General and Augusta Cottlow, concert pianist. May some future historian complete the record!
A History of Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society
The organization was established as a historical society in 1962 and then was incorporated in 1968 under the ILLINOIS Not for Profit Corporation Act as the Shelby County Historical Society for the purpose to discover and collect any material to help establish or illustrate the history of the area, to preserve and make accessible this material to all who wish to examine or study it, to cooperated with the state (Archives, Historical Library) and State Historical Society as is felt significant state-wide. The Charter was amended in 1970 to change to the Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society.
Facilities to carry out these purposes were first provided by the Shelbyville Public Library until December of 1977 when Dick and Sue Hankins made the old W.O. Finks home at 303 North Morgan available to the Society if the Society paid the taxes for rent. Due to this, the next ten years the Society has grown by leaps and bounds until the facility has reached its limits. In October 1987, the County Correctional Service moved to a new county jail and the next month the Society moved into the old jail. Items of historical value have been donated by Shelby County families for younger generations to view.
The Society maintains a membership of over 300 including nationwide individual memberships exchange or paid membership with national libraries (Latter Day Saints, American Genealogical Lending Library, Library of Congress and National DAR Library), State (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kentucky) libraries, and counties surrounding Shelby County that provide the same type of information as we do and Shelby County Public and School Libraries.
The Society’s library serves many public organizations and individuals free of charge (donations are accepted) besides the paid membership, who received our Shelby County Ancestors quarterly. Organizations with whom we work are the Shelby County Courthouse officials (Society stores county tax records), Corps of Engineers, Chamber of Commerce, churches, schools, businesses, banks, Cub and Boy Scouts groups, DAR and CAR.
Individuals are usually researching family history and genealogy. Many college students prepare thesis’s and term papers, high school students do state history projects, elementary students prepare for essays sponsored by patriotic such as DAR, American Legion, etc.
Our main facility then is an operational library for storing materials. Also included are twenty-five file cabinet drawers for news clippings, family history files, etc. and smaller 5 x 8 file drawers which contain obituary files. The library facilities requirement to dispense this material are to have tables, microfilm reader, a copy machine, microfiche reader and other office equipments
The Society has operational expenses for housing utilities, some repairs to the building, yard and indoor care, equipment (purchase, repairs and rentals), insurance, etc. which are mainly taken care of by memberships and donations. Additional expenses are incurred as we publish new publications. Publications are done in the way of reprinting of old histories, atlases, indexes, researching and publishing Courthouse records such as marriage and probate records for State Libraries and State Archives, and for sale at our office. We usually finance these projects through donations and by selling of the publications.