A brief history of Jacksonville and Morgan County, Illinois
On January 6, 1825, John Howard, Abraham Pickett and John C. Lusk were appointed to locate a permanent seat for Morgan County. On March 10, 1825, Johnson Shelton, the county surveyor, laid out a five acre public square in a 160 acre tract, in what is now Jacksonville’s Central Park. Churches were built, railways were planned, and before long, stores and taverns were flourishing. The courthouse was built on the square, and 11 lawyers and 10 physicians were in practice by 1834.
John Millot Ellis came west from New England to begin Presbyterian churches. He soon became even more interested in establishing institutions of higher learning, and when Rev. Ellis and Thomas Lippincott came upon Jacksonville, they thought that the hilltop was perfect. Additionally, the surroundings were beautiful, and the settlers were eager to proceed. The construction of the first building for Illinois College (1829) was started. As luck would have it, seven soon-to-be graduates of Yale read about the endeavor and saw it as the answer to their own indecision about where to begin their life work, and they have become known as The Yale Band. They came, they stayed and their lives have become intertwined with the early history of Illinois College and the town of Jacksonville.
At almost the same time as Rev. Ellis was establishing Presbyterian churches and colleges, a Methodist preacher was also traveling Illinois and establishing Methodist churches. Peter Cartwright lived in Pleasant Plains, and he was known for his extemporaneous preaching and his ability to convert people through emotional revivals. Peter Akers was supportive of the Illinois Conference Female Academy, agreeing to be president of the Board of Trustees from 1847-1854. This is now the co-ed MacMurray College.
Three major state institutions were eventually founded. The first was the School for the Deaf, which had 13 pupils by 1846. The second, the Central Hospital for the Insane, was desperately needed, but the State was overextended financially, and the people of Jacksonville had little ready cash to undertake another school. It took the extra push from one of the interested citizens, J.O. King, who convinced Dorothea Dix (already famous for her work securing better living conditions for those with special needs) that an immediate visit to Illinois was imperative. After touring and working with the legislature, the Dix-Constable Bill passed. In 1847 the State Legislature of Illinois authorized what became known locally as the State Hospital and then the Developmental Center in Jacksonville for the benefit of the mentally ill. The first patients were admitted in 1852.
Before the Central Hospital for the Insane was a sure thing, progress was being made to acquire a school for the blind. Joseph Bacon, a blind teacher, was invited to open a private school for the blind. It opened in 1848 with six students, and was supported by fees and private donations. This small, private beginning was all that was needed to convince the state legislature that Jacksonville should also secure the State School for the Blind, since the embryo for such a school was already in existence.
Peter Cartwright and Peter Akers, renowned fire-brand circuit riders, organized the first Methodist station in Illinois in Jacksonville in 1821. The Centenary Methodist Church traces its history to these beginnings. The Methodists began “classes” in 1822. The honor of being the first church in the area usually goes to the Diamond Grove Baptist Church in 1823. The Presbyterians organized in 1827, the Christian Church began in 1831, the first Episcopal Church in the state organized as Trinity in 1832, the Congregationalists began in 1833, the Ebenezer Methodist Church and school began in 1835, and the African American Mt. Emory Baptist Church was established in 1837.
The fertile land, the booming railroads (the first railroad in Illinois, The Northern Cross, ran from Meredosia to Jacksonville in 1839), and Jacksonville’s central location made a successful partnership in the 1850s. Wheat, pork, and a highly profitable cattle trade, led by Jacob Strawn and John Alexander, filled the railcars heading out of town, and the profits they made filled the incoming railcars with the necessities and luxuries of life. Around these agricultural products grew related businesses. A slaughterhouse and a tannery were logical additions to the booming cattle industry. The Capps Woolen Mills made a sensible addition to the sheep industry. Specialty stores began replacing general stores, and cash began to replace bartering and buying on credit. Jacksonville also became known for its cigar rolling companies that started in 1843 and reached a peak in the early 1900s.
A young dry goods clerk named John Lathrop made it a personal mission to plant the first trees in the center of town. Around 1840 he convinced a local farmer to let him transplant a few elm and hard maple trees from his property to the center of the city. Others first pooh-poohed the notion but the idea caught on and soon people were lining the streets of the city with trees, especially elms. The trees grew and matured, becoming a very attractive aspect of Jacksonville. In fact, so majestic did the trees become that, in the early 20th century, Jacksonville became known as “The Elm City”. A University of Illinois survey in 1956 counted 12,000 elms on Jacksonville streets. Almost all the trees succumbed to Dutch Elm disease in the 1950s and 1960s.
On November 10, 1849, or within a few days of that date, 280 Portuguese refugees from the island of Madeira arrived in Jacksonville, where they would settle and become an integral part of the community. They were Protestants who had fled Madeira due to religious persecution, lived for a while in Trinidad, then New York City and finally both Jacksonville and Springfield Illinois. Instrumental in bringing them to Jacksonville were Augustus French, Governor of Illinois at the time; Rev. Julian Sturtevant, President of Illinois College; and the two Protestant churches in Jacksonville.
Abraham Lincoln, practicing law and politics in Springfield only 35 miles away, was no stranger to Jacksonville. He tried several cases in Morgan County, made a number of political visits to town, and even gave a lecture for Illinois College in 1859. Many of the leading citizens of Jacksonville were friends and allies of Abraham Lincoln. His primary Illinois political opponent, Stephen Douglas, also spent time working in Jacksonville early in his career.
Jacksonville was to be the home of three Illinois Governors – Joseph Duncan 1834-8, Richard Yates, Sr. 1860- 1864, and Richard Yates Jr. 1900-1904. It was also the early home of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time candidate for U.S. President. Two famous Civil War officers spent at least some time living in Jacksonville -- General Benjamin Grierson and General John McClernand.
Quality medical care was available in Jacksonville for many years in the form of small private hospitals. One of these was Dr. Alonzo Kenniebrew’s New Home Sanitarium, the first American private surgical hospital owned by an African American. Two larger hospitals, Our Saviour and Passavant, merged into Passavant Hospital in 1968.
The 20th century brought a slew of manufacturing companies to Morgan County to add to the state institutions and the agricultural economy. This included Eli Bridge Company, Bound to Stay Bound Books, IL-MO, NESCO, Capitol Records, National Starch, Hertzberg New Method Bindery, Carnation, and Kraft Foods, among others.
Jacksonville was more than once referred to as “The Athens of the West” due to the large number of institutions of higher learning that were established here. Jacksonville, Illinois is a lovely community with a rich heritage and diverse culture. Both urban and rural in nature, Jacksonville is an excellent place to visit, or to work and live and raise a family.