THEBES HISTORY

Alexander County/Illinois Genealogy Trails

Photo contributed by Harriet Ellene Kuehne.  It is the entrance side of the courthouse.  For more pictures of the old courthouse, click here.

Thebes was established in the early 1800s by two Sparhawk brothers traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. They were attracted to the land along the river and a bluff overlooking it. It was first known as Sparhawk Landing. The settlement was patented to Franklin G. Hughes and Joseph Chandler October 15, 1835. It was platted March 2, 1846. Since 1832 this region of Southern Illinois was known as "Little Egypt." A crop failure in central Illinois prompted farmers to come to "Little Egypt" for grain. Just like in the Bible. Some of the early settlers included: Dr. H. C. Barkhausen, William Bracken, Martha Bracken, Martin Brown, William Brown, Thomas Brown, A. Corzine, O. G. Ford, Dr. J.A.M. Gibbs, Levi L. Lightner, Jacob Light and many others.

Thebes was the county seat of Alexander County from 1846-1859. In 1848 a two-story sandstone courthouse was built at a cost of $4,400. It sits atop a bluff, commanding a sweeping view of the Mississippi River. The architect was H. A. Barkhausen. Abraham Lincoln visited the courthouse when he was a frontier lawyer. Fugitive slave Dred Scott reportedly was imprisoned in the courthouse dungeon. Judge L. L. Lightner was the first judge to officiate in the courthouse. In pre-Civil War days, lawyer John Logan, regularly argued cases in the courthouse. He later become a Civil War hero, U. S. Congressman, senator and vice-presidential nominee. This historical courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.

--Source: HISTORY OF ALEXANDER, UNION AND PULASKI COUNTIES, ILLINOIS, edited by William Henry Perrin, ©1883, Chicago: O. L. Baskin & Co., Historical Publisher, 183 Lake St.

The first store in Thebes was opened by J. H. Oberley, who had for a partner afterward, John Hodges, the father of the present Sheriff of the county (1883). The first baby born in Thebes was Adaline Barkhausen, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Barkhausen and now wife of Henry A. Planer (1883). The first marriage was Judge Lightner, the first county judge, and Mrs. Susan E. Wilkerson.

Thebes was founded in 1846.  It was named after Thebes, Egypt.  It is located in the South half of Section 3, Township 15 South, Range 3 West.  Coordinates:  37º13'9"N 89º27'25"W.  Thebes was built along the Mississippi River.  The Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad came in 1899.  The Missouri Pacific Railroad went through Thebes in 1902 and the Cotton Belt Railroad came later.  The Cairo & Thebes Railroad began acquiring property for a road to connect the two towns in 1906.  Thebes was the original site of a riverboat landing called Sparhawk's Landing.  It was the county seat of Alexander County from 1845 to 1860.  The courthouse still stands in Thebes as a museum.  John H. Oberley opened the first store there.  A steam-powered flouring mill was opened in 1875 by Martin and William Brown and William Slosson started a sawmill nearby.  The town still exists.  
--Researched by Danielle Carthell 
for the Illinois History Class of Egyptian High School, 2013; submitted by History teacher, Darrel Dexter.

Old Courthouses

Transcribed and submitted by Darrel Dexter 

(Jonesboro Gazette, Jonesboro, Illinois, May 1904)

    There are perhaps very few of the rising generation in Cairo who know that there was ever any county seat of Alexander county other than Cairo, says the Cairo Bulletin.  Visitors to Thebes may have noticed standing on a hill near the roadside an old building which is occupied as a boarding or tenement house.  This building has occupied this same spot for the past fifty years or more and until the year 1859 was used as a court house for the county of Alexander.  It stands on a hill overlooking the Mississippi river and for a number of years the residents of Cairo were compelled to go to Thebes, a distance of twenty-six miles, to attend court.  After its abandonment as a temple of justice, it was altered and used as a Baptist church.  Since that time it has again been sold and is now doing service as a boarding house.
    Thebes is not the only town, however, that can boast of having once been the county seat of Alexander County.  In 1833 Unity was made the county seat and court was held there until the removal to Thebes.  Previous to the removal of the court house from Unity, the territory now comprising Alexander and Pulaski counties was one county and was known as Alexander County.  The first county seat of this territory was America, where a brick court house and jail were built in 1820.
    Several pictures have been taken of the old Thebes court house as it now stands and many older Cairo residents will remember when they went there to attend court, with Judge M.C.Crawford of Jonesboro presiding.


THEBES
Sketches of an Illinois River Town

By Lowell A. Dearinger
Excerpts from an article in OUTDOOR ILLINOIS Magazine, January 1972, pgs 8-18.

    Early in the 1800's George Sparhawk shipped yellow poplar (Tulip tree) from the site of Thebes to New Orleans.  The demand for this wood was good, yellow poplar being termite-proof.  A few families from New Orleans settled at the steamboat landing, the men being employed by George Sparhawk.  This small community became known as Sparhawk's Landing.  
    In 1843, Sparhawk's Landing was renamed Thebes.  And in 1844, Thebes townsite was laid out.  In February or March, 1845--sources differ--the county board decided to move the county seat to Thebes.  Land for financing the building of the courthouse had been donated by George and Martha Sparhawk.  
    According to his descendants, Henry Barkhausen was the King's Architect in his native Prussia.  He came to America in 1835.  A year or two later he settled on a farm near Thebes.  He operated a woodyard and a ferry across the Mississippi to Missouri.
    In 1845 Henry Ernst Barkhausen is supposed to have been awarded the contract for designing and supervising the erection of the Thebes court house.  The builder's contract dated December 17, was with Ernst Barkhausen.  Construction consideration was $4,400.
    Local materials were used extensively in the construction.  The stone was taken from the "public square."  Stucco was applied over the stone.  Local trees were felled and were hand-hewn and whipsawed by local labor.  Mortar and plaster were made locally.  Construction was completed in 1848.
    The court house is located on the bluff above the town.  The court room is on the upper level, as is a porch which commands a view of the Mississippi rarely equalled along the river.  Offices and dungeon-like cells are on the first floor.  When new, the gables, the porch, the supporting columns and the stuccoed walls all were painted white.  This neo-Grecian temple of justice must have been an impressive sight from passing steamboats, standing out in contrast as it did to the endless forest border along the Mississippi.  
    After the county seat was moved to Cairo in 1860, the court house was for a time used as a public hall.  It then was sold to the Baptists.  It now is owned by the Thebes Historical Society, which maintains there a public library, a historical museum, and a gift shop.
    An important event in Thebes' history was the building of the Missouri Pacific railroad bridge across the Mississippi.  Ground was broken July 8, 1902.  the first train passed over the bridge April 18, 1905.  The bridge is of steel, double track, with five spans.  The cantilever (channel) span is 671 feet long.  Each of the other spans is 521 feet in length.  The total length of the bridge, including the concrete approach arches, is 3,910 feet.
    Nine hundred and forty-five thousand cubic feet of concrete were used in the construction of the bridge.  Of steel, 27 million pounds were used.  To haul this in one delivery would require two trains, each consisting of 135 fifty-ton cars.  It is the only railroad bridge across the Mississippi between St. Louis and Memphis, a distance of some 400 miles.
    During construction of the bridge Thebes experienced a vicious race riot.  One man was hung by a mob, others were thrown into the river.  In one melee, 1,000 shots were fired.  Thebes had eight saloons at the time.  During the latter years of prohibition there was much to do in Thebes over the drinking question.  Some of the women declared that the town needed cleaning up, claiming 16 speak-easies.  Holly C. Marchildon, mayor at the time, claimed there were none.
Mrs. Roy Gammon, wife of the Kleagle of the local Ku-Klux Klan, ran for mayor.  Three sister citizens ran for the town board. It was a hotly contested election.  A cross was burned at the Marchildon home.  The women won.  By the time for the next election the town treasury was empty.  The voters became disillusioned with the female administration, claiming mis-management.  The women ran again, but the opposition decided that they literally should return to their kitchens, and otherwise tend to their knitting.  And so ended that Women's Lib movement in Thebes.
    Maps of Alexander County show five areas of early land grants.  There is evidence that these could have been Spanish grants.  Behind these grants is a story of international intrigue, plots, county-plots, and obvious treasonable actions against the United States by men high in the public esteem.  Spain seems to have been the chief instigator.  During this hectic period, according to a family source, an American, Daniel Flannery, served as a spy for the Spanish Government.  He was paid in cash for his work.  In addition, the Spaniards granted Flannery the right "to locate a quantity of land equal to an area four leagues in length, and a third of a league in width, anywhere in the Spanish possessions not within one mile of Fort Massac.  There is no record of any claim made by Daniel Flannery, but there are claims of 400 acres each made by Thomas, Joshua, and Abraham Flannery, who may have been heirs to the Daniel Flannery grant.
    The 1,200 acres of the Flannery grant are located in Alexander County, in the Thebes-Fayville area.  Title to this land was contested, but "By means of certified records in addition to oral statements a perfect title to this land was established in the heirs at law."
    In the same area claims of 400 acres each were allowed to John McElmurry, Jr., and Joseph Standlee.  These grants supposedly were Spanish.  The first settlement in the land grant area was known as McElmurry's Station.  Later it became Santa Fe.  The present name is Fayville.  
--This article was donated by Joy Varner.


HISTORY OF THEBES, ILL. TO 1937

(This little history of Thebes, Illinois was compiled by the teacher of the Elementary Civics class in the Thebes Township High School during the second semester of the school year of 1936-1937 as a result of the students who were assigned as term perfect in civics to gather material for a local history.  The students who gathered and contributed information for this history were as follows:  Maisie Anne Creech, Winnifred Hopkins, Homer Stamp, Franklin Shaver, Robert Foster, Leland Shafer, Juanita Dyer, Amy Coplin, Charles Dalton, Lester McIntyre, and Marvin Martin.  R. E. Ford is Superintendent of Schools.)

I.  EARLY HISTORY:
    
The exact date of the founding of Thebes is not definitely known but it had its beginning early in the nineteenth century.  It was first surveyed by two brothers named Sparrowhawk, who came down the Mississippi River looking for a location for a town.  They wanted to find a narrow place on the river that did not have high bluffs on either side.  One of the brothers went to the Missouri side and the other to the Illinois side and begin surveying a site for a town.  The brother who stopped on the Illinois side started at once to cut the great poplar trees which grew on the flat on the river bank.  The poplar logs were floated down the creek to the river to be used as ship gunnels for the keel boats.  When the owners and manufactures of keelboats at New Orleans saw the poplar timber they sent a crew of men up to Thebes to cut the logs and they brought their wives and children, which was the beginning of a settlement here it is supposed.  Some of the men now thought if boats would come up the river they could use this poplar wood as fuel for boats.  Poplar trees were cut into lengths of about three feet.  The poplar wood did not make good fuel so they started cutting hardwood and stacking it along the river bank.  For a number of years Thebes was known as Sparrow Hawk Landing.  Later after Alexander County was organized, the name changed to Thebes.  Thebes never had but a few settlers until about 1846.

II.  EARLY SETTLERS:
      Some of the early settlers of Thebes were:  Dr. H. C. Barkhausen, William Lranchen, Martha Brachon, Martin Brown, William Brown, A Carzin, O. G. Ford, Dr. J. H. Gibbs, Levi L. Lightner, Jacob Light, John Millers, S. A. Marchildon, James Miller, William Pettit, I. G. Rowling, John R. Wallace, Henry Weiman, and Cpt. John White and others.

III.  EARLY BUSINESS HOUSES:
       These included:  I D. Hollinshead cooperage, a stave mill, M. Brown flour mill, started in 1885, and employed several men.  In about 1900 the Sawders Bros. started a brick yard.  The first store was opened by J. H. Oberley in 1854.  A little later Thomas McClure came to Thebes and went into business.  In 1859 Mr. Marchildon started a store.  H. C. now operates the same store.  B. F. Brown started  a store here in 1860 which still operates under the name of Brown Bros.  J. G. Rowling purchased the store of McClure and Oberley out later.  The bank of Thebes was organized about 1900 and closed March 1933 by the Bank Holiday and was not reopened.  W. R. Clutts was cashier of the bank for a number of years prior to its closing in 1933.  At one time Thebes had a bakery located here which went out of business some few years ago.  Thomas Williams was editor of three different newspapers here around 1895-1900.  A clothing store was operated by Louis Erlich for a time arund 1900.  Arund the year 1900 Thebes had eight saloons.  Some of these saloons were named  as "Glad Hand," "First and Last Chance," etc.  Henry Brown opened a store in 1905.  In 1907 the store was operated by U. S. Brown and next by U. S. and Son.  Later U. S. Brown's sons, known as Brown Bros. with Harry and Ray Brown as proprietors.  W. G. Jordan operated a store for a number of years in Thebes and just recently sold his stock of goods.  Mr. Moore operated a grocery store part of the years 1936-37.


IV.  PRESENT BUSINESS HOUSES IN THEBES:

       The present business houses in Thebes include:  H. C. Marchildon General Merchandise and Undertaking, T. A. Brown & Son Drug Store, Richard Brown Grocery, Brown Bros. Store, J. E. Rimer General Merchandise, King's Cafe, Thebes Hotel, Clutts' Garage, Patterson Barber Shop, J. A. Van Sickle Lumber Yard, Chas. Yates Cobbler Shop, A. T. Smith Ice & Coal, two oil filling stations, one operated by Earl King and one operated by James Brinkley, two insurance agencies, one owned by Mr. Rowling and one owned by W. R. Clutts, a telephone exchance, operated by M. C. Walker and family.


V.  EARLY COURT HOUSE:

      Thebes was the County Seat of Justice for a number of years  At first, court was held under the shade trees in the summer time and people's houses during the winter.  H. A. Barkhausen built the Court House which still stands.  It was completed in 1848.  This court house is prized  as a relic by citizens of Thebes and is now owned by the city as a city hall.  W. P. A. (Works Progress Administration) funds have been secured to help perserve it.  The masonary in the court house is in almost perfect condition.  In this court house J. Logan and Douglas debated and Lincoln made a speech.  Levi Lightner was the first judge of Alexander County and was a native of Thebes.  Louis Gibbs of Thebes was the first County Superintendent of Public Schools.


VI.  INCORPORATION AS A VILLAGE:

        Thebes was incorporated as a village in November 1899.  It was controlled by Cairo until the mayor and officers were elected.  The first mayor was Dr. C. P. Spann; C. C. Miller was one of the first trustees.  Some of the men who have been mayor of Thebes were:  J. C. Rothrock, Arthur Brown, H. C. Marchildon, W. G. Jordan, Rev. William King, Nora Gamon, and G. W. Cartner.

         Some of the village marshals have been:  Roy Waddell, Jeff Neff, Champ Bailey, Nathen Kelley, George Gilbert and Oscar Garret.  The present mayor is L. C. Marchildon.  The present marshal is Jim Stump.  City Clerk is Kenneth Petitt.  Board members are:  Nick Gregory, J. E. Rimer, Howard Williams, Jake Weibking, James Binkley, and Robert Hiller.  Police Magistrate:  Hiram Petitt.

VII.  THEBES SCHOOL:

         Thebes has one of the best equipped township high schools and consolidated grade schools in Southern Illinois for the size of the town.  The high school is fully accredited both by the State Department of Schools and by the University of Illinois.  The high school employs six teachers and offers about 23 units of high school work.  The school has a fine music department, commercial department, Home Economics department, and foreign language department besides the regular academic courses.  The grade school employs nine regular teachers including a full time music teacher.  This year (1937-38) the Thebes grade school was the first elementary school to be approved under the  now ridged state requirements in Alexander County.  The present building housing the  grades and high school was erected in 1912 and 1913 at a cost of &50,000.  The gymnasium was erected in 1926 at a cost (including equipment) of about $26,000.

         It is one of the best gymnasiums in Southern Illinois.  The school building is three full stories including the basement and is equipped with modern talking picture projector loud speakers, microphones, amplifier, electric phonograph turn table, and radio.  The old school building which stood on the present site and was a frame structure was destroyed by fire in 1912.  The Thebes Township High School was organized in 1912.  The Consolidated Grade School was organized in 1929.  The two schools provides free transportation (three big busses) since 1929.  The present bus drivers are:  Herman Cotner, Carson Simpkins and John Brown.  Free text books are furnished for the grades and high school.  They were voted in 1936.  The school grounds are well-provided with concrete walks, playground equipment, tennis courts, and ball diamonds for soft ball.  The grounds are well terraced and have beautiful shade trees around them.  A Superintendent's home is supplied by the high school district on one corner of the campus.  The school is known as High School District No. 50 and Grade School District No. 26.

        Superintendents of school have been:  Elbert Waller, Harry Wilson, Mr Norix, Mr. Austin, A. L. Lynch, A. K. Patrick, Nat Boomer, Mr. Houston, G. M. Peer and C. O. D'Bois.  The present superintendent is R. E. Ford.  The present board of education for the high school district No. 50 is as follows:  J. E. Rimer, President, G. W. Cartner, secretary, H. C. Marchildon, D. G. Youart and J. C. Rothrock.  The present board of education for grade school No. 26 is composed of:  Nick Gregory, Gerald C. Clutts, Secretary; Lester Brown Roy Waddell, Dewey Workman, Ira Light and L. C. Marchildon.  H. C. Marchildon has been a member of the board of education for 25 years.  W. R. Clutts is treasurer.

VIII.  RAILROADS:

          Thebes has three railroads running through town.  They are the C. & E. I., which came into Thebes in 1901.  The Missouri Pacific in abut 1902 and the Cotton Belt in 1904.  These railroads have meant a great deal to the citizens of Thebes in supplying work for the men and in paying taxes for the support of the schools and  town.  All three railroads have stations located here.  The I. C. formerly ran a train into Thebes.

IX.  THEBES BRIDGE:

        The bridge was started in 1900 and dedicated in May 1905.  It was designed by the famous architect Ralph Mojeski, a son of a famous Opera Singer.  At the time it was erected , newspapers all over the United States carried stories in them about the bridge because it was the first great bridge of its type to be erected across such a great body of water.  Wile it was being erected twenty-six men lost their lives working on it.  The cost of the bridge was $4,000,000.00.  The first review train crossed over the bridge on March 27, 1905.  The test of the strength of the bridge was made by coupling 25 of the largest locomotives together and running these engines to the middle of the bridge and stopping them suddenly in the shortest distance possible with all the force of impact possible under the pressure of the air brakes.  At the time the bridge was constructed it was considered to be the longest cantilever span in the world.  It was so perfectly constructed that even the effect of temperature on contraction and expansion of the structural steel used had been calculated on the most minor detail even to a 100th of an inch.  On the day of dedication famous men from all over the United States attended the dedication ceremonies.  During the World War soldiers were stationed to guard the bridge.

X.  INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS:

      Thebes has a modern water works system consisting of a water plant, pumping station, and pie and reservoir.  The water is taken from the Mississippi River at a point above the village.  The water works were installed in 1928.  At the present time the  fire department was completed.  The C.I.P.S. extended their electric lines into Thebes in 1925.  Concrete sidewalks were constructed about 1905.  The town board purchased in 1936 a new cemetery site north of the village and has improved same.  The hill down to the river was paved by the State
Highway department in 1935.  The Thebes Y Park was constructed in 1935 and 1936 by the State Highway department and W. P. A.  It is the largest Y Park in Illinois and is a scenic spot for tourists.  Highway No. 3, formerly State Highway No. 150 comes into Thebes from East St. Louis and goes to Cairo.  The concrete steps which lead down the hill are a scenic spot.  There are nearly 100 steps in the tiers with iron railings on each side.

XI.  THEBES FERRY:
        The Holliday Ferry renders service between Illinois and Missouri.  The ferry gives 24 hour sercie daily.  Mr. E. L. Holliday owns the ferry.  Before Mr. Holliday started his ferry another ferry was operated for a number of years.  At one time two ferries were operated for a time.

XII.  SCENIC THEBES:
         There are many places of scenic around Thebes.  These include the old Alexander County Court House, erected in 1848, where Abraham Lincoln spoke on one occasion and where Stephen Douglas and John R. Logan debated.  Another is the Thebes double rail track railroad bridge.  The long span of the concrete steps leading down the hill.  The Y Park is the largest in Southern Illinois.  The River Front Park and the beautiful Thebes Township High School and Grade School building on the hill.

XIII.  FLOODS:
          Thebes being located on the river is subject to floods in time of extreme high waters.  There have been two floods in which the water inundated the town up to the hill.  These floods were in 1844 and in 1927.

XIV.  AS A SHIPPING POINT:
          For a number of years Thebes was a shipping point for livestock and merchandise.  Livestock were driven here to the boad landing from near and far and shipped to East St. Louis.  Also a great amount of merchandise was unloaded here for merchants in the surrounding region.  The wharf would be covered after the boats unloaded their cargo here.  The river boats, "Golden Eagle" and "Cape Girardeau" stopped here on regular runs up and down the river.  Also boat travel was the most important mode of travel for several years.

XV.  DYNAMITE PLANT AT FAYVILE
        The Black Powder Plant was first started about one mile below the Dynamite Plant.  A little later the Dynamite Plant was started at Fayville.  It was started about 1907.  This plant manufactured dynamite, nitro-glycerin, acid and gun cotton.  It employed from one hundred to five hundred men.  It employed from seventy-five to one hundred men from Thebes and has meant much in the way of supplying employment for the citizens of Thebes for fifteen or twenty years.  The plant closed about 1930 and was never reopened.  Explosions occurred at this plant from time to time and in one explosion four or five men were killed.

XVI.  CHURCHES:
            At the present time there are two churhes in Thebes.  The Methodist church (a studio building with basement and kitchen) is located at the foot of the hill, and the Baptist church (brick) is located on the hill which also has a full basement and kitchen.  The old Baptist church was blown away by a tornado a few years ago and the present one erected on the site a few months later.  The present pastor of the Methodist church is Rev. H. M. Fish, and the Baptist pastor is Rev. Atherton.

 XVII.  PRESENT COUNTY OFFICERS FROM THEBES:
            Mr. L. E. Hinkle who lived in Thebes is now County Superintendent of Schools and Paul Clutts is County Clerk.

XVIII.  LEGENDS OF THEBES:
            1.  The setting of the movie picture called, "Showboat," and the book entitled the same was in Thebes and Cairo.  The Captain of the Showboat had a cottage in  Thebes and he stayed a part of the time before he married.  
            2.  Within the walls of the old courthouse has been created comedy, tragedy and romance.  A legend not generally known, but never the less true contained all these that had been its beginning more than seventy years ago.  Thomas Moore killed a man in self-defense in what is now known as the drainage district south of Beech Ridge.  He was awaiting trial in the county jail at Thebes.  There was an election in Thebes, the citizens were all agog with party politics, so this was the favorable time for Thomas to receive a home-baked cake.  Concealed within a blade of a hack saw was found.  While the citizens were celebrating the election, Tom sawed his way out of the jail and made good his escape.  He went to Kansas, settled there and made a good citizen, lived there for years and formed a intimate friendship with a Kansas man to whom later he confided his early secret.  After a few years this friend turned traitor to him and divulged the secret.  So Tom was arrested on the old charge and brought back to Alexander County.  The courthouse then was at Cairo.  The case never reopened because there was no witness left and no one to testify against him.
            3.  Shortly before the Civil War broke, a horse thief was caught after several shots had been fired into him.  He was brought to the courthouse and a male nurse was hired to take care of him.  The thief knew he would die so he told the nurse is secret, in a stream in Missouri he discovered gold and he even gave the nurse the map.  The man died before there was time to hunt the gold.
--This history was submitted by J. C. McNelly.

--In the 2000 Census the population of Thebes was 478.


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