History of Coles County, Illinois

By Charles Edward Wilson

© 1905
©2003 Transcribed by Judy Anderson for Illinois Genealogy Trails

Chapter V
Material Progress


The first tracks across the county were made by Indians, and these "traces" of the aborigines existed in several parts of the county. One of the longest and plainest ones, easily followed by the growth of blue grass along its course, started near the head of Indian Creek, which was a famous camping ground for the red men, and extended in a generally northwest direction, following the highest ground, until it ran into the Okaw timber.

The earliest "white man's" road in the county was the old "Kaskaskia and Detroit Trace," which ran southwest from Detroit through the present location of Danville, Ill.; thence, coming southwest, it entered Coles County just above Oakland, continued to near the present site of Charleston, then extending south and west, emerged from the county nearly due south of Lerna, thence leading southwesterly to Kaskaskia. This was the overland route for the early French explorers and travelers, between Detroit and Kaskaskia and vicinity.

The National Road.--When Coles County was first organized and, for some years before, the main artery of travel from the East was over the Cumberland Road, sometimes called the "Great National Pike," and generally referred to as the "National Road." It passed through what is now Cumberland County, Ill., (then part of Coles County), and from that circumstance the new county received its name. That road, extending west from Fort Cumberland, and constructed under Federal supervision, did for the Central West, in the early years, what the construction of the Pacific Railroads did for the region west of the Missouri River in the seventies and later. It was begun in 1806 and completed as far as Vandalia about 1840; and, for many years, those who lived near the road were entertained by the constantly unrolling panorama of covered wagons drawn by horses or oxen, of men and women on horseback and on foot, with droves of cattle and flocks of sheep, and, at rarer intervals, the old swaying and rocking stage-coach drawn by four or six horses, going by at breakneck speed, bearing passengers with their horsehide trunks lashed on behind, and conveying the United States mails. Occasionally travelers would be seen facing eastward, but a great endless procession was moving ever, ever westward.

George B. BALCH, son of the pioneer Alfred M. BALCH, the bard of Pleasant Grove Township, in one of his poems entitled "The Pioneers," pictured it in this wise:

"Then looking eastward o'er the plain,
I saw a slowly moving train
Of objects coming far away,
Like schooners floating on the bay.

"Their whitened sails were neatly spread,
And slowly on their course they sped,
As, westward still they kept their way,
Toward the setting orb of day.

"Hundreds of miles behind them lay
Their native land--so far away--
Their childhood's home, their place of birth,
Their father's and their mother's hearth.

"Before them stretched the boundless West,
In all its native grandeur dressed;
Where, fresh from the Almighty's hand,
There lay a second Promised Land."

The quotation is not remarkable for poetic thought, but gives a vivid glimpse of the surging tide of migration westward in the years before the railroads came.

As most of the early emigrants to Coles County came from southern localities--Kentucky, Tennessee and other Southern States--they usually crossed the Ohio River near Louisville and journeyed north through Indians, crossing the Wabash River at Vincennes, Palestine, York, Darwin or Terre Haute. Some of them, however, came up the Wabash by boat and landed at the point most convenient to reach their destinations.

Early Roads and Road Laws.--The first permanent road within the present limits of the county, was the one located under special act of the Legislature, approved January 28, 1831. John FLEMMING, Thomas SCONCE and Thomas RHOADES were made Commissioners to survey and locate a road from Shelbyville through Charleston to Paris. The act provided that, "when said road shall be located, it shall be, to all intents and purposes, a State road, four poles wide, and shall be opened and kept in repair as other roads are in this State."

The Commissioners discharged their duties promptly and staked out the road during that year. It is the only early road in the county which still retains its identity, and is known simply as the "State Road." Early settlers east of Charleston usually called it the "Paris and Shelbyville Road," while those living in the west part of the county referred to it as the "Charleston and Shelbyville Road." It was for many years the main line of travel east and west through the county, and the one over which the principal stage line ran.

Another early road was called the "Springfield Trace." It came from Edgar County into the northeast corner of Coles, through the village of Oakland, and thence through the southern part of what is now Douglas County, west to Springfield. Another started in the 'thirties was the "Archer road," which came up from Marshall, Ill., to Charleston, extending thence west, passed just south of the Dead Man's Grove and on to Dodge Grove; thence, proceeding west of north, crossed the Okaw River about where the Iron Bridge is, near the northwest corner of Section 20-13-7, and continued on through Old Nelson, in Moultrie County, to Springfield. The road was the project of Hon. William B. Archer, a pioneer resident of Clark County, a member of the Legislature, and one of the most prominent men in this section of Illinois. This was the same Mr. Archer, who, as a member of the Legislature, rendered such valuable assistance in the passage of the act for the organization of Coles County.

Mr. Archer was appointed one of the first Commissioners of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, and that was the means of giving his name to Archer Avenue, one of the principal streets of Chicago.

The Archer Road was marked by mile posts, and was, for years, the line of travel from Clark County and vicinity to Springfield. The old "Atlas of Coles County," published in 1869 by Warner & Higgins, of Philadelphia, shows a remnant of another road that ran straight as an arrow from Charleston southwest through Hutton Township, and through Martinsville to York of the Wabash River.

Another early road was called the Palestine and Shelbyville Road, which ran from Palestine, in Crawford County, northwestward through the extreme southwestern part of the county, passing through the village of Paradise to Shelbyville.

These early roads were all located along the easiest routes to travel, avoiding steep hills and seeking the most available fording places on streams, and keeping to the high ground on the prairies without regard to section lines. The settlement of the county, and the consequent fencing in of farms, has destroyed all trace of those early lines of travel, except the State Road. Some work was done by the early settlers on bad places in the roads, such as constructing side-ditches to drain off the water, grading by plowing up and piling dirt in the middle of the roads, etc. The primitive wooden scrapers were used for this purpose, but the methods were desultory and the results merely temporary in character.

The act passed by the Legislature in 1831, requiring able-bodied men between twenty-one and fifty years of age to perform three days' labor on the highways, was the beginning of systematic attempts to benefit the roads; but that labor was often wasted by ill-advised methods, owing to the ignorance and indifference of those having such matters in charge. The same may be said of the expenditure of the poll-tax. There is no doubt that enough labor and money have been thrown away on makeshift methods of road building in Illinois, without any definite plan looking to permanency in results, to have made good, permanent hard-roads, upon every section line.

A Plank Road Enterprise.--About 1868-69 the wide-awake business men of Charleston discussed the road question thoroughly, and cast about for some method to benefit their business, and also to help the farmers move their produce to market in the seasons of rain and mud. Out of that agitation grew an organization to construct a plank road from Charleston north to the Douglas County line. The "Charleston and Hickory plank Road Company" was incorporated with an authorized capital of $25,000. Certificate number one in that company was issued to W. E. McCrory for two shares of the stock, of $50 each, dated April 4, 1870, and signed A. H. Prevo, President, and Charles Clary, Secretary, and the other stock was taken by business men and farmers. The road was constructed, beginning at the north side of the Big Four Railroad right of way, on Fifth Street, and extended north on that road about seven or eight miles.

The manner of making the road was by laying heavy wooden stringers lengthwise of the road, sunk in the ground sufficiently to bring their top surfaces flush with the general level, so that the plank would lie upon and not be elevated above the road bed. Very thick planks, ten or twelve feet long, were laid crosswise on the stringers and spiked down. When it was new, and before the seasons of floods and snows came, it was considered quite a luxury to ride out on this novel road, and the farmers along its line were jubilant for awhile. Of course, when teams met, the lightest vehicle had to get off the plank on to the dirt, and let the other fellow pass. That was all right when the roads were dry, but there came a time when, if two loaded teams met, it was a hardship for somebody to get off in the mud and try to get back again.

After a year of so parts of the road began to sink in the ooze during a wet time. This trouble increased from year to year and in some places one side would sink, while the other side would rise. Then, after while, a plank here and there would become loosened and disappear. When that disintegration began it became easier for the other planks to vanish from view, and ere long the whole road was but a memory.

Railway Progress.--The history of railroads in Illinois begins with the Internal Improvement Act of 1836-37, and out of that act grew much financial grief for the people of the state. The north and south line (Illinois Central) and the east and west line (then called the Terre Haute & Alton) began to be built about the same time. The Illinois Central was a "land grant" railroad, and that grant of land induced the following eastern capitalists to take hold of the enterprise; Franklin HAVEN, Robert RANTOUL, JR. and David A. NEAL, of Boston; and Robert SCHUYLER, George GRISWOLD, Governor MORRIS, Jonathan STURGIS, Thomas W. LUDLOW, John F. SANFORD, Henry GRINNELL, Joseph W. ALSOP and Leroy M. WILEY, of New York. These men began and finished the work. The Act of Incorporation was passed in 1851. Roswell B. MASON, of Bridgeport, Conn., was made Engineer-in-Chief. L. W. ACKLEY was made Division Engineer of the line from Rantoul to Mattoon, and C. Floyd JONES from Mattoon to the junction with the main line.

Mr. E. JENNINGS, of Mattoon, was a civil engineer employed on the line in 1853, but resigned his position and, in partnership with Hiram TREMBLE, took the contract to make the "bank" and bridges for the rails from the north line of the county into and through Mattoon. This work they began June 25, 1853, and finished November 29th of that year, and then they sold their scrappers and other tools and outfit to James M. and Edmund W. TRUE, who had the contract for the same kind of work on the Terre Haute & Alton Railroad, from Charleston to Mattoon.

The TRUES finished their contract sometime in the following year, and the roads having been made ready for the rails by 1855, the rail-laying through Coles County was done in that year by the Illinois Central, and, as far as Mattoon, by the Terre Haute & Alton. As the law provided that, in the construction of a railroad, the line which laid its rails last over a crossing should, thereafter, be required to maintain the crossing in repair, there was a strong rivalry between the two sets of track-layers as to which should reach the crossing first at Mattoon. The Terre Haute & Alton people got there first and were followed soon after by those of the Illinois Central. Mattoon was the western terminus for the Terre Haute & Alton tracks for about a year before the company began to lay rails west of that point. The Chicago branch of the Illinois Central Railroad was completed ready for traffic from Chicago to the junction with the main line near Centralia, on September 26, 1856, and soon thereafter regular trains began running from Chicago to Cairo.

Michael MALONEY, of Mattoon, who worked under Mr. Harrison MESSER, foreman of a gang for the contractors of the Terre Haute & Alton (Messrs. PHELPS, MATTOON & BARNES), says that they had one steam shovel for deep cuts, but no other machinery. Everything else was done by means of hand-stools. There were three regular locomotive engineers on the line, at the time it was completed to Mattoon, and Mr. Messer got one of them to test the first bridge over the Ambraw by running his engine across and back. At the conclusion of the test Mr. Messer handed the engineer $10.00.

Coles County in the fall of 1855, being in touch by rail with Chicago and the far Eastern States, was at the beginning of a new era. The pulses of her people beat faster; their steps quickened; their horizon was enlarged; their hopes expanded, and the building of cities and of factories of various sorts, within its borders began to take form in the thoughts and plans of its citizens. New faces were seen more often on the streets of our villages. Inquiries from the East and elsewhere, as to the sort of field for business here afforded, reached the people more frequently. Very soon the "Yankee School Marm"--that civilizing and polishing influence from "way down East"--began to take hold of the sons and daughters of our Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee-born pioneers, and turn their faces about, so that they might catch new views of life.

Change in Transportation Methods.--It took some time, however, for the people to adjust themselves to the new order of things. They had before this hauled their corn and other produce to the markets of Chicago, Terre Haute, St. Louis or elsewhere by wagon. They had driven their hogs and cattle to market, taking many days for the journey. This was now to be changed, but not all at once. Some continued to follow the old way for several years, and the new railroads, at the start, were not over-burdened with freight out of Coles County.

The city people of the old-settled Eastern States enjoyed then--as they do now--the taste of venison and other game, and it became profitable to kill game for the market. This was a new industry for a short time. In the winter of 1855-56 very many car-loads of deer, turkey, prairie chickens, ducks, quails and rabbits went east from Coles County, and the following winter the shipments averaged a car-load a day for awhile from the station of Mattoon alone. The sad result, as to the larger game, could have been foreseen. Within a year or so, only an occasional deer or wild turkey could be found within the borders of the county.

In writing upon the subject of these two railroads, it may be told that David A.NEAL and some others, connected with the construction of the Illinois Central, formed a company and obtained the southwest quarter of Section 31-13-8, about 1853-54. They platted some of this land, adjoining the Illinois Central right of way, into lots, and named their prospective town "Arno." They planned the construction of a switch-track and other conveniences of a station, and there the matter ended. No lots were sold or houses built, and some time later the land was sold and again became farm land, but the plat was not formally vacated until 1861. The proprietors advertised their "paper" town to the extent that, on maps of the State published in 1855 and 1856, the name "Arno" was printed in as large type as that of any other city or village in that section.

Other Railroad Enterprises.--As the other railroads which came into the county afterward will be touched upon somewhat definitely in the history of the various townships through which they run, I will only allude briefly to them here. Away back in the 'sixties agitation for a road southeast from Mattoon, and another northwest from the same place, developed into definite plans for their construction. The one projected toward the southeast was called the Grayville & Mattoon, and the other the Decatur, Sullivan & Mattoon. After various starts and delays, and much agitation all along the proposed lines, and the granting of bonds and other aid by towns through which they were to pass, they were built. The Decatur, Sullivan & Mattoon Road was built to Hervey City, near Decatur, by the year 1873. It passed into a receiver's hands in 1874, and the name was changed to Decatur, Mattoon & Southern.

The Grayville & Mattoon Road was not fully completed until July 4, 1878, and, on that date, a grand excursion was organized and, under the care of J. D. HERKIMER, the receiver of the line, it was carried out amid rejoicing all along the line.

The two roads were later consolidated (about 1879-80) under the name of the Peoria, Decatur and & Evansville, and, after several years of management under that name, the Illinois Central purchased control of the line and it became a part of that great corporation. The Illinois Central took control of the north end (from Mattoon to Peoria) in August, 1902, and of the south end (from Mattoon to Evansville) in September of the same year.

This history of the road known as the "Clover Leaf" is given in detail in the history of the town of Charleston, and the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Road, which runs through Oakland, will be treated of in the history of that town.

The extreme southeast corner of Ashmore is entered by the Cincinnati, Indianapolis & Western, which may be mentioned in connection with the history of that locality.

The advent of the trolley line came in 1902. On June 3d of that year a franchise was granted by the Council of Mattoon to the "Mattoon City Railway Company," and, later, the same parties who were behind the Mattoon enterprise, obtained a franchise for a street-railway in Charleston. The work of building the road between the two cities over right of way purchased from the farmers along the line, was pushed rapidly forward and, on June 5, 1904, the first passengers were carried on this first Inter-Urban Electric line in Coles County. Cars were also placed in operation within the city of Mattoon between its eastern and western limits, on Broadway and Prairie Avenue, within a few days thereafter. The capital stock of the company is $500,000 and the President and General Manager is E. A. POTTER. It is believed that this line will eventually be extended both east and west, and lines are also projected to run northward from both Mattoon and Charleston.

Telegraph Lines.--The building of the telegraph lines along the two railroads referred to, did not keep full pace with the laying of rails, but they followed almost immediately thereafter. The first telegraph lines in Illinois were strung along the wagon roads. One of these was a line constructed along the State Road, which ran from Terre Haute westward prior to the building of the railroads. Just as these railroads were coming into Coles County, other railroads were making alliances with the telegraph lines to the mutual advantage. The first contract in Illinois consummating such an alliance was made in 1856 by the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, with the Telegraph Company of which Judge CATON, Chief Justice of Illinois, was the leading spirit, by the terms of which the railroad gave the right of way for stringing wires, and the Telegraph Company was to assist in the movement of trains. R. B. MASON, Chief Engineer of the Illinois Central, pronounced the dictum, that he "infinitely preferred a single track with a telegraph, to a double track without it." Railroads thenceforward arranged with existing telegraph companies, or built and equipped their own lines for the better management of their trains.

Transportation was now getting to be a matter of hours or days, where it used to be of days or weeks. Communication was becoming a matter of moments, where it had formerly been of days or months. Coles County was no longer isolated. The world was growing rapidly smaller, and the strangers of yesterday were becoming our neighbors and friends.

That other marvelous invention for rapid communication--the telephone--will be touched upon in the sketches of the several townships.

Drainage.--The settlers had learned by experience that the prairie soil was richer and more easily cultivated than the timber land, and it became a pressing question as to the best and cheapest means of removing the surplus water which covered so much of the land during the crop season. Hasty and temporizing methods had been used by many farmers, from their first coming, to drain their fields, but with poor results.

Mr. F. A. ALLISON says that he saw pioneer James T. CUNNINGHAM, one hot day in the summer of 1835 or '36, out in his corn field wearing nothing but his shirt, and diligently directing an old horse attached to a shovel plow, trying to cut furrows deep enough to drain the water from his corn. Later there was sometimes more concerted action, and several adjoining farmers would come together and agree upon a plan for an open ditch, and proceed, by their joint labor, to construct it. The results of this plan were more satisfactory, but all neighbors could not agree upon a plan and a time for such work; besides, the weeds and the rains partially filled these ditches in a short time, and the work had to done over again. So the objection to open ditches, on the ground that they "were expensive, not permanent, occupied too much land and obstructed good husbandry," became constantly more pronounced, and the question as to the best manner of underground drainage became paramount.

Many experiments were tried. Mole ditches were put in, made with a "gopher plow," worked by a capstan or pulled by oxen. These were partially successful when the land to be drained lay with a regular slope towards the outlet. But sometimes they became obstructed by caving, or by the work of the numerous gophers and ground squirrels. Then, if the surface of the ground was uneven and "ridgy," the drain would follow the surface irregularities. So it became necessary to find a drain that could be laid in the bottom of a properly constructed trench.

Various expedients were tried in Coles County, as well as elsewhere in Illinois. Ditches were made and filled with brush; small stones were placed in the bottom of trenches through which water might percolate after the dirt was put in above them.

One method tried by several farmers here was to cut short pieces of poles, or boards, of regular length, and place them side by side closely in the ditch, one end resting of the bottom as one side of the ditch and the other end leaning against the opposite side, and then filling the ditch above them with dirt.

All such plans were unsatisfactory. Earthenware or clay-tile was invented and, in the later 'sixties and early seventies, many were shipped in and used. They were at first expensive, easily broken and made in various shapes to suit the notion of each manufacturer of a tile machine. Some were octagonal; some horse-shoe shaped; some had a wide flat bottom; some were oval, etc. It was a long time before everybody was ready to concede that the cylindrical tile was the best form for all purposes. Besides these experimental stages in their manufacture, they had to be experimented with by the farmer.

As an illustration of an early experiment, Michael MALONEY, of Mattoon, a noted digger of ditches, tells that Mr. Samuel SMITH shipped into Mattoon, from Indianapolis, the first full consignment of tile on a large enough scale to drain a farm; That the Mr. CUNNINGHAM previously alluded to, bought a supply to drain a large field, and as he had been told that these tile would "draw," or attract, water to them from surrounding soil, he thought, in order to do a good job of "drawing," they should be laid near the surface, as the water which interfered with his growing corn seemed to him to be that which was on top of the ground. Se he laid the tile on an average of three to six inches below the surface. The following spring his men went out to plow, and when Mr. CUNNINGHAM looked at his field the next day the tile were scattered far and wide among the clods.

But the people learned; and, when the manufacture of the drain-tile began here at home, they soon under laid thousands of acres, and the effect, year by year, became more noticeable in the elimination of those great "sloughs," the gradual reduction in the number of ponds, the earlier date in spring when the ground could be plowed and planted without "mudding" in the crops and the effectiveness of its cultivation.

When tile factories started here, they came, so to speak, "all at once." About 1876 G. V. MILLAR started his tile factory in the Dead Man's Grove. J. W. HOGUE began in 1877 at the corner of Eleventh and La Fayette Streets in Mattoon, and after running there about ten years, removed to his present location just west of the water-works pumping station.

The factory at Charleston, now owned by S. H. RECORD, started about 1877; about 1878 factories were started by John D. FARIS east of Lerna, by BAKER & RENNELS in Hutton, by Joseph CARTER southeast of Ashmore, and the one at Oakland. A little later one was located at Cook's Mills and others elsewhere in the county. The factory now run by Theodore JOUTE, in Mattoon, was started about 1883.

There were thousands of acres, however, in the county so situated that there was no adequate outlet for the water. Tile may be laid, but to be permanently effective, it must lead to a point within some reasonable distance, where it can find a stream or ditch of sufficient size to form an outlet and carry off the water all the year around. These outlets are easy of access from land lying along the regular water-courses, but back upon the prairies, at the very beginnings of these creeks, something had to be done to make artificial outlets. Growing out of this necessity, at the general election held in 1878, an amendment of the State Constitution was adopted authorizing the organization of drainage districts and empowering the Legislature to impose a tax upon lands to be benefited by the construction of a proposed ditch; and, in 1885, a law was enacted by the Legislature carrying these constitutional provisions into effect. In the operation of all new taxing laws there must first be a contest and the court of last resort must say whether the law is valid. The first District organized under this act in Coles County, was "Union Drainage District No. One, of the Towns of Seven Hickory and Humbolt." It was organized in 1886.

The people who opposed the act, organized themselves into a body to fight it, and the feeling was so high that it looked, for a while, as though it would degenerate into a bloody feud. It was proposed to seek the indictment of the Commissioners by the Grand Jury. The case finally got into the Circuit Court; then into the Appellate, and then into the Supreme Court of the State. During the progress of the litigation, the opponents of the act allowed their lands to be sold for drainage taxes.

The action of the Commissioners on organization of the district was sustained by the courts, and the owners of the land sold for taxes redeemed the same. The ditch was cut out, deep and wide; and, today you can hardly find a man who will say he opposed the ditch, for the benefits have been far beyond the dream of its promoters. It has brought into cultivation hundreds of acres of land that could not be cultivated otherwise, and has improved thousands of acres of other lands. This practically ended the drainage litigation of the county and settled the law for the whole State on the questions involved.

There have been organized in the County of Coles the Following Drainage Districts:

Town of Seven Hickory.--There are five Drainage Districts in this township, comprising lands wholly within the township. All of them except Drainage District Number Five, were organized on the petition of the land-owners. Number Five was organized under the "User Act." (See the Drainage Act for the meaning of the term "User.")

There are three Union Drainage Districts, part of which lie in this township. They are respectively: Union Drainage District Number One, of the Towns of Seven Hickory and Humbolt; Union Drainage District Number Two, of the Towns of Seven Hickory and Humboldt; and Union Drainage District Number Three, of the Towns of Seven Hickory and Humboldt. The last named was organized under the User Act.

Town of Humboldt.--There are five Drainage Districts, comprising land wholly in Humboldt Township. Number Five is a User Drainage District. There are three Union Drainage Districts of which a part of the land is in Seven Hickory Township. There are two Drainage Districts in Humboldt, of which a part of the land is in North Okaw, being respectively Union Drainage Districts Number One and Number Two of North Okaw and Humboldt.

Town of North Okaw.--There are nine Drainage Districts which are wholly embraced in North Okaw. Drainage Districts Number Five, Six, Seven, Eight and Nine are User Drainage Districts. There are two Union Drainage Districts heretofore spoken of in connection with Humboldt Township, and one is in connection with Mattoon Township. The Union Special Drainage District of the Counties of Coles and Moultrie is partly in North Okaw Township, and partly in Moultrie County.

Town of Mattoon.--There have been organized in Mattoon two Drainage Districts under the Township Law, comprising land wholly situated in the Town of Mattoon. There is the Union Drainage District organized under the User Act, part of the land in which is in North Okaw. This district is known as Union Drainage District Number One, by user, of the Towns of North Okaw and Mattoon. There is a Union Drainage District, part of the land of which is in Lafayette. This is organized under the User Act and is Union drainage District Number One, by user, of the Towns of Mattoon and Lafayette. There are two Drainage Districts in Mattoon organized under the Levee Act in the County Court; one is the Little Wabash Drainage District, and the other is the Kickapoo Drainage District.

Town of Paradise.--There are tow Drainage Districts in Paradise. Drainage District Number One originally comprised land wholly in Paradise Township, but has since been enlarged to comprise some land in Neoga Township in the County of Cumberland. Drainage District Number Two is a Drainage District organized under the User Act.

Town of Ashmore.--A large District, organized in 1903 and called the "Pole Cat Drainage District," is now in litigation caused by the objection of the "Big Four" Railroad to having the ditch constructed across its right of way. The ditches made in these Drainage Districts were usually cut by a dredge boat, and were made wide and deep so that but for the large amount of dirt piled by the dredger on either side, they look like natural creeks.

I have thus carefully, but briefly, gone over the general history of drainage in the county, because to this system is due largely the wonderful progress and development of the county. The best land was that which originally had the most water on it; and a man who was familiar with the county thirty years ago, and who has been absent since, would, on going over it now, marvel at the change.

The system has cost our people a great deal of money. The thirty-five drainage ditches enumerated have, perhaps, cost an average of seven to eight thousand dollars each, and it would be impossible to estimate the cost to the individual land-owner of the several hundred miles of tiling of various sizes, which have been laid, and the cost to the various towns and cities, of the many more miles laid along highways for their improvement.

It would seem that we have now about reached the limit of the making of drainage ditches in Coles County. At least, it is time to pause and consider whether further burdens upon landowners in that direction might not exceed the probable advantages resulting. The problem now before the land-owners is that of keeping these ditches open and clean, and preventing the outlets of tiling from becoming obstructed in order that the drains may not become filled up, thereby necessitating large expense in cleaning and relaying, or otherwise repairing them.

Agricultural Associations and Fairs.--On May 24, 1841, an association called the "Coles County Agricultural Society" was organized at Charleston. It held fairs in the fall of 1841, '42 and '43. Its first officers were James HITE, President; B. F. JONES, H.J. ASHMORE and M. RUFFNER, Vice-President; J. F. WHITNER, Secretary; and Thomas A. MARSHALL, Treasurer. In 1842, Thomas MONSON was President; D. J. VANDEREN, Secretary; and L. R. HUTCHINSON, Treasurer. In 1843, James T. CUNNINGHAM was President, with the same Secretary and Treasurer as the previous year.

These first fairs were held in the northeast part of Charleston, in what was then "The Woods"--a space of ground being enclosed by stretching ropes from tree to tree.

After 1843, no more fairs were held until 1854 or 1855. Some old settlers say the first fair was held in 1854, and it is said that this first fair in the 'fifties was held in what used to be called "Ellington's pasture," a fine wooded piece of land in the southern part of Charleston. After that, the present location (adjoining Charleston on the west in Section 10) was obtained, which has been enlarged from time to tome. Since 1855 the Society has held fairs each fall, uninterruptedly to this time.

The first premium lists were very simple. A premium was offered for the best horse, best bull, best mule, etc. There was no classification of kinds and breeds. But for many years the Coles County Fair was an incentive to farmers to improve their stock, and its annual exhibitions were attended by everybody who could get away from home. There were not so many other attractions in the earlier years of our history, and these annual fairs were looked forward to, and preparations made to attend them, long in advance of their date.

An examination of the records of exhibitors would disclose the names of the best farmers and best stock-breeders who have lived in the county for the past fifty years.

An organization called the "Mattoon Union Agricultural Association" was formed at Mattoon in 1859. I have been unable to find its old records, but James T. CUNNINGHAM, S. D. DOLE & BROS., H. C. WORTHAM, J. L. and J. M. TRUE, R. H. MCFADDEN and other old-time citizens signed the call for the first meeting to organize the association. This meeting was held on February 19, 1859, and at that meeting it was decided that this should be not simply a County Fair, but a "Union" Fair, taking in all the counties contiguous to Coles.

The ground in the town of La Fayette, now subdivided as an addition to Mattoon, and known as "Grant Park Place," was obtained, and the first fair held there in the fall of 1859. Fairs were held there each fall, up to and including 1862, when the use of the grounds having been turned over to the Government as a camp of barracks for army recruits, the fairs were discontinued and never afterwards resumed.

The name "Grant Park" was given to this tract of land by its owner, who platted it, because the name "Camp Grant" had been given to it in May 1861. In that month U. S. Grant, as a Government officer, administered the oath of allegiance to the Twenty-first Infantry in camp there, and the following month took command of it, as its Colonel, by order of Governor Yates.

In 1880 books were opened for subscriptions to the stock of a company to be organized for the purpose of obtaining the land in the south part of Mattoon, to be used as a Fair Ground. The organization was effected and Mark KAHN was elected President; I. N. GIBBS, Vice-President; Harrison JOSEPH, Secretary, and W. B. DUNLAP, Treasurer. Fairs were held there a few times, but, not proving very successful financially, they were abandoned, and, in 1888, the Company was organized under the name of the "Mattoon Driving Park." Harrison JOSEPH Was made President; H. S. CLARK, Vice-President; H. E. HOLMES, Secretary, and James H. CUNNINGHAM, Superintendent of the new organization. Several racing meetings were held thereafter and gradually discontinued. Mr. JOSEPH bought out the other stockholders, and became the sole owner of the ground. The "Mattoon Free Street Fair" will be taken up in the history of Mattoon.

Return to the Main Index Page for Coles County

©2003, Transcribed by Judy Anderson for Illinois Genealogy Trails