As we rolled northwest through central Illinois toward Iowa, we kept looking for historic sites, old railroad depots and whatever else caught our eye to photograph…
The first stop was in Cass County Illinois.
This classic building in Virginia Illinois is not listed in the National Register of Historic Places…but I liked its solid Romanesque look! There is no doubt in my mind that it was a bank for many years. Its imposing façade demonstrates confidence and strength. It appears that someone may be working on preserving this building…something like what I’d do if I won the Mega Millions or Power Ball lottery!
One local attraction for nature lovers is the Rexroat Prairie, a 5 acre section of land that has been restored, complete with its ‘original’ prairie growth. These plants include everything from alum root to prairie willow and aster to wood sorel. As occurred naturally in the olden days, the prairie is burned off each year…revitalizing the soil and keeping out invasive plants. If you are into plants or prairie restoration, you can check out the list at http://media.wix.com/ugd/3a3ecd_71ac58c1478f411e9382da83abf42168.pdf. FYI, Rexroat Prairie is also home to a couple of very old log cabins, one from Arkansas (ca. 1860) and the other from Kentucky (ca. 1950).
Here’s what I had listed to find as we passed through Virginia Illinois. This is the former Baltimore and Ohio combination freight and passenger depot in Virginia. I wasn’t sure that this was the right building until I noted the telegrapher’s bay and ticket office protruding from the back of the structure. I couldn’t find anything to help me determine when the depot was built.
I’ll bet that you can’t guess what this restaurant is named… How about “The Depot”! Check it out at http://visitthedepot.com/. Unfortunately, at least from a railroad fan’s viewpoint, the exterior of the building was redone and remodeled due to a fire.
Virginia is the county seat for Cass County Illinois. The town had an estimated population of 1,551 in 2014 but unlike many small towns across America, Virginia’s population has been relatively constant over the years. In 1880 there were 1,420 residents and in 1980 there were 1,825. Cass County itself was named for Lewis Cass. Cass was a general in the War of 1812, Governor of the Michigan Territory, and United States Secretary of State in 1860. He was serving as Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War when the County was named.
Our next stop was in Beardstown Illinois. Beardstown is situated on the Illinois River in Cass County. Major employers include 2 grain terminals that utilize barges on the river to move their product as well as a major pork slaughterhouse.
I took this photo of this sign just because I liked it! The Seeger family must have been prominent in Beardstown. I found references to Seeger’s Hall and the Seeger block in a history of the county at https://archive.org/stream/historyofcasscou00perr/historyofcasscou00perr_djvu.txt.
FYI…In 1882 the Quaker Mill Company launched a national advertising campaign for Quaker Oats. In 1885, Quaker Oats introduced the cereal box, making it possible for consumers to buy in quantities other than bulk.
· William Henry Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's Springfield law partner, claimed that Lincoln contracted syphilis from a prostitute in Beardstown.
· The town is also the site of a famous Lincoln/Douglas debate at the Beardstown Courthouse.
· William "Duff" Armstrong, the accused murderer of James Preston Metzker, was tried in Beardstown and successfully defended by Abraham Lincoln.
· The “Beardstown Ladies” was a group of 16 elderly women who formed a ‘club’ that invested in stocks and reportedly outperformed the Dow averages. They received world-wide publicity and sold many videos and books on their adventure. Check out the story at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beardstown_Ladies.
The Beardstown Opera House was built in 1872. As it neared completion the opera house was almost completely destroyed by a tornado. With the help of the owners and volunteer townsfolk, it was rebuilt. The first troupe to play the theater was General Tom Thumb of P.T. Barnum fame. In 2004, the opera house was purchased by the Heritage Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization created for the purpose of owning and revitalizing the Opera House.
FYI…Tom Thumb was a dwarf, born of normal sized parents, who grew to a height of 3 ft. 4 in. and weighed 71 lbs. He was adopted by P.T. Barnum who was a distant relative. Barnum taught Tom (Charles Sherwood Stratton) to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people. Tom Thumb became quite wealthy and he actually bailed out Barnum later in life when Barnum was in financial difficulties. You can learn more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Tom_Thumb.
Regular live theater productions are presented in the Beardstown Opera House. Two productions have already taken place this year. In late July, there will be a 3-day run of “Once Upon a Mattress” and in October the production will be “Duck, Duck, Shoot”.
From Beardstown we rolled on north on US Hwy. 67, making a slight detour on US Hwy 24 into the town of Rushville Illinois. Rushville is the county seat for Schuyler County. This is the building that we were looking for…the Phoenix Opera House Block.
The Phoenix Opera House Block was built in 1882. It housed commercial businesses on the first floor and an opera house on the second floor. The opera house hosted traveling performers and theater companies as well as local social events. The opera house closed in 1910, as churches began to host the town's social functions and the local movie theater provided entertainment. For over 30 years beginning in 1924, the opera house served as a Masonic lodge. The building is one of the few surviving examples of a combined opera house and commercial building.
This is the Schuyler County Courthouse in Rushville. The clock tower states that the courthouse was built in 1881. For some reason though, even though the courthouse is about 135 years old, this striking building isn’t listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I’m guessing that too many structural modifications have been made over the years.
· Edward W. Scripps, newspaper publisher and founder of The E. W. Scripps Company, was born on a farm in Rushville. Ellen Browning Scripps, Edward’s half-sister also lived there. Ellen went on to found or to be inextricably involved in the development of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Scripps College in Claremont, California. She financed the Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve and she was an early contributor to the San Diego Zoo. Ellen helped to found the Scripps Memorial Hospital and funded the Scripps Research Clinic which eventually became The Scripps Research Institute. After her death her home was transformed into the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla California. Some small town girl!
Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…
Thanks for stopping by for a short trip through local Illinois history!
Take Care, Big Daddy Dave