Washington County, Illinois
The Wood Tavern, shown here, was Nashville's most famous land mark,
until it was razed in 1952, 130 years after it was built.3
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS LANDMARK NOW ONLY A MEMORY
By Grover Brinkman
Very few people remember the old Wood Tavern, long a historic landmark in southern Illinois, torn down in 1952 in Nashville. It rang with business and importance a century ago as a "halfway house" on the Shawneetown-St. Louis trail. The great and near-great used it for overnight stops, and it was the passing of the stagecoach and the pony express.
Abe Lincoln, oldtimers persist, was among the political figures to grace its doors. Whether this is legend or fact is problematical, for early records of Washington County were lost in the fire that destroyed the courthouse in 1883, if indeed such records ever existed.
One of the few "early" histories of the county, still in existence today, makes no mention at all of the old Wood Tavern: At this time (1878) there should have been mention of this important trail stop, but there was not.
Built in 1822, the old building started falling into decay a century later. Its last uses were a barn and a storehouse. Then it got the axe, with no thought of restoration. Its builder, Major John D. Wood, one of the keenest and most enterprising men in the county at that early date, lies buried about a hundred feet west of where the old building once stood.
The building was without doubt the oldest public building in the county, if not the entire area of southern Illinois. Now, with Lincoln's birthday fast coming up, it seems a good time to briefly focus attention on an old landmark in which he figured as a guest. Surely the old building should have enjoyed a better fate than it did.
In the period of 1820-30, the Shawneetown Road that ran past this old building was the main east-west artery across the new state of Illinois. The trail's exact location in Nashville is lost. Several oldtimers believe it was somewhere north of the courthouse square. This would account for the old building in the northwest part of town.
John D. Wood came to Washington county in 1821, at the age of 21. In common with most pioneers of that day he "squatted" on a piece of government land, built a house, and lived there for 11 years to "prove up" his claim. In the meantime this "half-way house" was opened to the public as a trailside stopover.
During this time, the house was the rendezvous and meeting place of various politicians and lawyers, including Lincoln. It was also the stopping place of circuit-riding preachers and riders of the famed Pony Express. Court was even held within its walls, legend says.
The popularity of the house lasted until surveyors laid out the city of Nashville, totally disregarding the original Shawneetown road. The courthouse was placed at the top of the hill, and the Wood Tavern was soon a forgotten pioneer landmark.
The picture and story of the building called the old Wood Tavern in your issue of January 7 must have interested many of your readers as it did me. Surely more than a few people remember it, as it vanished from the scene only about 12 years ago. For many years it was a conspicuous sight to local residents as well as travelers by railroad or highway.
Probably every boy who grew up in the western part of Nashville inspected it thoroughly at one time or another, even climbing the rotten stairs to the haymow, which once had been bed rooms. It was a perfect image of a haunted house. Whether it actually was haunted, I do not know but it might well have been because of the proximity of the neglected family burying plot, marked by fallen gravestones among the tree roots.
Your article errs in stating that the building started falling into decay a century after it was built, namely 1922. It had extensively disintegrated as early as 1900 or before.
So far as I know, there was no tradition at that time that the house had once been a tavern, although there were people then living who knew the Wood family, including my grandfather, who had been Mayor (sic) Wood's attorney and executor. I question whether it ever was a tavern. The fact that the 1879 the (sic) story of Washington County did not mention such use, as you pointed out, supports my doubt, for that is a fairly good history despite some limitations. It tells of other early taverns and hotels and also gives many interesting facts about the Wood family.
The Major indeed was a prominent citizen in the early days, as your article states. He got his military title in the Black Hawk War by advancing from orderly sergeant to major. As military promotion was by rank-and-file vote at that time he must have been a good politician, indicated also by his service as a State senator from 1836 to 1842. He had a store, the second to be established in Nashville, probably somewhere near The News office, for that part of the town is officially described as John D. Wood's subdivision.
The first marriage in Nashville (1835) was in the Wood's home, the bride being Susan Wood, probably the Majo's sister. The Wood's son, Joseph, born in 1834, was the second native of the town.
Major Wood died some time before the 1879 history, but his widow was prominently mentioned in the book, being named as one of four people then living who were residents of Nashville in 1833. One of the others was Judge Amos Watts the progenitor of many useful citizens of Nashville to this day, but the Wood family, so far as I know is extinct.
Concerning Mrs. Wood the 1879 history states:
Mrs. John D. Wood came to Washington county in 1821. Was also one of the first settlers of Nashville. She is still living hale and hearty. Her memory is vivid with the recollections of the scenes of early life in the settlement of the county. She has a distinct recollection of the leading men of those times -- lawyers, judges and politicians -- Reynolds, Kinney, Shields, Breese and others.
The home of Major Wood was headquarters for politicians in those days. The Major and his wife took a lively interest and the Major an active part in the politics of the day.
From the above it will be noted that Mrs. Wood presumably said nothing about a tavern, nor did she mention Abraham Lincoln a (Whig) (sic) among the lawyers and Democratic politicians whom she knew. If Lincoln ever was in Nashville, as I doubt, there certainly would be better proof of his visit than a tradition.
One tradition connected with the old house, I believe, has some foundation: At one time during the Civil War there was much strife in Nashville between the supporters of the Union and those of the Confederacy. It became so notorious that a troop of cavalry was sent out from St. Louis to deal with the situation. The troopers, reached the Wood place in the daytime, so it is said, and paused there before going on in the darkness. When morning dawned they were encamped in the courthouse yard busy rounding up some of the southern sympathizers, one of whom attempted to flee disguised as a woman. Nothing much came of the expedition, as some of the moderate citizens persuaded the cavalrymen to return to St. Louis and let the local people deal with the problem, probably just by living with it.
Returning to the old house -- it must have been a gay place, whether as a tavern or, as I prefer to believe, as the homestead of a prosperous and hospitable pioneer family and a scene of stimulating social activity. Since it long ago was beyond hope of restoration before people were interested in preserving old landmarks, you have done well to keep its memory alive. Perhaps some more of your readers can contribute some facts to bolster the traditions.
Very truly yours,
Another letter on this same subject was forwarded to us by Grover Brinkman sent to him from Mattoon, by Mrs. Amanda Rohlfing, 86, who has resided in the I.O.O.F. Home there since October, 1958. She wrote that her birthplace was 2-1/2 miles west of Nashville, later known as the House farm.
"How well I remember our parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Meyer, talked about the Wood's home," she wrote, "where all the brass of those days made their stops. This home was known for its hospitality and good eats."
"Gen. John Wood, who lies buried near the home, was an ancestor of the Fulton family, also west of Nashville. I know of but one descendent of the Wood family still living. She is Celeste (Mrs. Otis) Hendricks; her husband is employed by the M-I railroad in Nashville. Her great-great uncle, John Wood, was a veteran of the Mexican War.
"One of the Wood homes still stands in Nashville, the second place west of the former First Methodist church on West Lebanon street."
"I have a brother, Daniel Sherman Meyer, aged 92, living at 1004 Jefferson, Pekin, Ill., and my only sister, Rose, Mrs. Oscar Rinne, lives at Nashville; we are all interested in history. Our mother's brother, Marcellus J. Newman, received a high citation for Civil War service and his memory was honored publicly two years (sic) at Salem, where he enlisted.
"I also love to keep in touch with Irvin Peithman (cousin), who writes history. It is quite natural for all our family."
Mrs. Rohlfing's letter also contained the statement that she had been told that one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates was staged in the Wood place.
Wood Tavern at Nashville Was 1822 Hostelry
Without doubt many of the early records of Washington County were lost in the fire that destroyed the courthouse in 1883, if indeed such records ever existed. For instance, the only reliable history of Washington County extant, published before that time, makes no mention at all of the old "Half-Way House," later known as the Wood Tavern, located on the old Shawneetown-St. Louis trace back when the city of Nashville was only a figment of the imagination in the minds of a bevy of terribly-agitated county commissioners. Yet the old tavern stood in the northwestern part of Nashville until 1952, when it was razed.
Nor does this same history volume mention -- except in a fragmentary way -- the owner and builder of the tavern, Major John D. Wood, one of the keenest, most enterprising bueinessmen in the county at that time. Today, Wood's tombstone lies neglected about one hundred feet west of where the old building stood.
The old Wood Tavern, until it was torn down 15 years ago, was believed to be one of the oldest public buildings in the county, if indeed not the oldest along the entire Shawneetown-St. Louis trace. It seserved a better fate than it got.
In the 1820's, and for about ten years afterward, the Shawneetown-St. Louis trace was the main east-west artery across the new state of Illinois. Its exact location in Nashville apparently is lost.
Suffice it is to say it was somewhere north of the Courthouse square, to eliminate the hill on which the business part of the city stands. This accounts for the location of the tavern, about two blocks north of Route 460.
During that time it was the rendezvous and meeting place of politicians of every shade and leaning, of every party, for Wood was too keen a businessman to dip into the affairs of his guests.
It was said, but cannot be verified, that on one or two occasions during those four agonizing years without a courthouse, court was held within the walls of the tavern. It was the stopping place of circuit-riding lawyers and preachers, and of the riders of the pony express.
Dramatists have tried to weave into the story a bit of fiction that Abe Lincoln was a guest at the old tavern one night. However, as far as this researcher can ascertain, there is little truth to the belief.
John D. Wood came to Washington County in 1821, in his twenty-first year. In common with most settlers of that period he "squatted" on a piece of government land, built his habitation, took his own sweet time about "proving up" on his holdings. According to available records he did not establish title until eleven years had passed.
In the meanwhile the inference is that the home he built was a half-way house, probably in 1822 or 1823. He opened it up for business as soon as the roof was on. For a year or so he farmed as a sideline but gradually worked up a real estate business.
The next ten years were the golden age for the tavern. But when the surveyors laid out the city of Nashville, they evidently disregarded the old Shawneetown trace's meanderings, placed the courthouse square at the top of the hill and thus relegated the tavern to an ignominious end.
1 Nashville News, Nashville, Illinois, January 7, 1965 (Article submitted by Jo House)
2 Nashville News, Nashville, Illinois, January 28, 1965, page 1 (Article submitted by Jo House)
3 This is Washington County 1818 - 1968
Published by the Sesquicentennial Committe of the Historical Society of Washington County, Illinois
Return to : Washington County