Hello and welcome!

Hello and welcome to our visitors! In the summer of 2015 the Pekin Public Library debuted this new weblog spotlighting our Local History Room collection. The weekly “From the Local History Room” column that is published in the Saturday Pekin Daily Times will be posted here. We welcome your comments and questions and research queries.

Looking back at Pekin’s police department history

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in March 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

Looking back at Pekin’s police department history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the Pekin Public Library’s Local History room collection is a copy of Pekin Police Chief William Grant Jr.’s annual police department report for the year ending Dec. 31, 1941, submitted to Pekin Mayor J. Norman Shade and the Pekin City Council in January of 1942.

This was the police department’s second annual report. What makes the 1942 report of special interest is that it includes a 12-page year-by-year history of the city’s police department – apparently the first time anyone had attempted to draw up a resume of the department’s history. The records on which the history was based were compiled by Charles Schermer, officer in charge of the department’s records and identification bureau. Following are a few highlights from Schermer’s history:

“It is almost impossible to give much information about the early Law Enforcement officers of the city. It seems that the first record of a Police officer came the year the citizens of ‘Town Site’ voted to change ‘Town Site’ to an incorporated city. That was in 1849, and they elected the first Mayor and Aldermen. Bernard Bailey was elected Mayor, and he appointed Thomas Cloudas as the City Marshall, also the street Commissioner. According to the records the duties of the first Marshall was to catch and impound all the hogs and cattle running the streets, as they had been declared a nuisance. The first calaboose was built in this year, and cost the sum of $49.00. This calaboose stood till the summer of 1868 when it was destroyed by fire. So, Thomas Cloudas is the first mentioned Police officer of this city.”

In those days, Pekin had very much the character of a rough frontier town, and the city marshall had much more to do besides rounding up stray hogs and cattle. Perhaps most of the criminal offenses in Pekin from the 1850s through the 1870s involved alcohol-fueled violence. One such incident was Pekin’s first riot on July 4, 1851, when a steamboat’s drunken deck hands ran wild throughout the city. Cloudas rapidly collected a force of Pekin citizens who engaged in a battle with the deck hands in the city streets and finally, after a hard fight, managed to subdue and arrest the offenders.

The office of city marshall was filled annually by mayoral appointment. In 1850, the city marshall was Benjamin S. Prettyman, a prominent figure in Pekin’s early history whose life story was featured a few months ago in this column. Then in 1851, William Snider was appointed third city marshall, “and he was authorized by the Council to put all the prisoners in custody at the time to working on the streets to pay out their fines. They were fitted out with a ball and chain and put to work on the streets and alleys,” Schermer wrote.

Snider resigned in March of that year and Cloudas returned to his former post. Cloudas was reappointed as city marshall in 1852, in which year a new and larger calaboose was built at a cost of $7,000. According to Schermer, the city council that year decided the marshall would not be paid a salary, but would instead receive “all the fees that are established by Law as pertaining to his office.”

This photograph shows Richard William “Uncle Bill” Tinney, who served as Pekin city marshall from 1854 to 1855. Tinney was a Mexican War veteran and later served as Tazewell County Sheriff and operated hotels in Pekin.

On April 30, 1854, the mayor appointed the Mexican War hero Richard William Tinney as city marshall, a position he would retain until March 5, 1855, when Tinney was relieved of his duties. As we have previously noted in this column, the ever colorful “Uncle Bill” Tinney later served as Tazewell County Sheriff, and afterwards owned and operated a hotel near the Pekin riverfront.

In 1854, the city had elected Charles Turner as its first Police Magistrate. “During this year the first Night police were named by Mayor M.C. Young, they being Thomas Shapard and N. C. Flood, their salaries being $45.00 per month.” So, for many years the city had both an elected police magistrate and an appointed city marshall. The marshall and the city police force were subject to annual reappointment by the mayor and city council.

Turner served a four-year term as police magistrate and then was re-elected in 1858. However, on Nov. 17, 1858, Turner was also appointed to the newly created post of “Chief of Police.” In succeeding years, however, the city police force would be headed by the city marshall.

In 1888, the office of city marshall was renamed “Superintendent of Police.” The same year, the city council proposed cooperating with the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors to construct to new and larger jail that would house prisoners for both the city and county, but Schermer notes, “No further mention is made as to whatever became of the idea.” Instead, the council decided to replace the old city calaboose with a new city jail on the east side of city hall.

The head of Pekin’s police continued to be known as the “Superintendent of Police” until the early 1900s. In 1903, Anthony Larkin was appointed police superintendent. There is a gap in police department records from 1905 to 1908, but by the latter year the head of the police department had become known as the “Chief of Police.” On May 4, 1908, Pekin Mayor Henry Schnellbacher appointed Charles Charlton to the post of police chief, while John Beetlet was named assistant chief. From then on, the Pekin Police Department’s head has been known as “Chief of Police.”

On this point, two errors should be noted in the summary of police department history found on pages 150-151 of “Pekin: A Pictorial History.” That account mistakenly says the title of superintendent of police was changed to chief of police in 1905, and that Charles “Charleton” was appointed in that year. Those mistakes appear to derive from misreadings of Schermer’s history of the Pekin Police Department.

#benjamin-prettyman, #charles-charlton, #pekin-history, #pekin-police-history, #preblog-columns, #thoms-cloudas, #uncle-bill-tinney

Teepees along the railroad tracks?

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2011 before the launch of this blog . . .

Teepees along the railroad tracks?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we’ll revisit a few recent “From the Local History Room” columns as we see what we can learn from a copy of a vintage Pekin photograph on file in the library’s Local History Room. The photo is remarkable because it shows a long row of teepees or wigwams between some railroad tracks.

The copy of this photo, a halftone image, was clipped from a newspaper or magazine, and is accompanied by a caption that informs us that the photographer was none other than Pekin’s own Henry Hobart Cole, whose life we have reviewed in this column previously.

In this vintage photograph taken by Henry H. Cole (1833-1925), a row of wigwams stretches northward between the railroad tracks in an area of northwest Pekin just to the west of Second Street.

The caption does not say when Cole took the photograph, but several clues both in the photo and the caption help us to narrow down the period when it was taken. These clues also show where the photo was taken, and suggest who placed the wigwams in that unlikely location – or rather, who didn’t place them there.

The caption says, “The long row of wigwams, as you look northward along the tracks of the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway, east of Pekin Lake, represents the site of the largest village of Pottowattamie Indians in this region at the advent of the white settler . . .”

By consulting some of the library’s old maps of Pekin and tracing the rail lines, we can see that the foreground of the photo shows the area where Second Street and Market Street used to intersect – today that stretch of Market Street is a bicycle path. The row of wigwams appears to start around the area of Catherine and State streets.

Obviously the wigwams were not actual Native American dwellings — no one can live in the dangerous plot of ground between two lines of rail. Also, as mentioned in previous columns, Pekin’s Indian population was deported to Kansas in the mid- to late 1830s, while the railroad did not come to Pekin until 1859. These wigwams, rather, indicated the area of Pekin where an Indian village formerly was located. Perhaps they were a display for a community fair or celebration.

The caption provides two more clues as to when Cole took the photo. It says the village was “fully one-half mile in length” and “on the high ground leading along Main street from the present gas works southward.” Similarly, W.H. Bates’ 1902 essay, “Historic Pekin!,” says the village was “on the high ground just east of the Gas Company’s coal sheds, on what is today First Street.”

Gas lights were installed on Pekin’s streets in 1866, so the gas works were constructed by that year, which means the photo can be no older than 1866. Similarly, the caption’s reference to “the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway” suggests a date no earlier than 1880, the year that railroad company was incorporated.

An 1877 aerial “View of Pekin Ill.” in the Local History Room collection depicts the area shown in this photo, including the frame house on the right and the large brick structure on the left. Both the 1877 aerial view and the photo show an overall absence of houses and industrial or business structures in that part of Pekin. Cole went into semi-retirement in 1911, but we would expect to see more buildings in the photo if it was taken that late in his career.

From what we’ve seen, it seems most likely that Cole took the photo during the 1880s or perhaps the 1890s. Pekin’s first street fair opened on Oct. 12, 1898, and a second street fair ran from Oct. 11-14, 1899. Could these wigwams have been an attraction at one of those fairs?

#henry-hobart-cole, #pekin-history, #pekin-street-fairs, #peoria-pekin-union-railway, #pottawatomi-in-pekin, #preblog-columns, #teepees, #wigwams

The Old City Cemetery

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last month we recalled the old pioneer burying ground formerly located at the corner of Broadway and 11th in Pekin. This week we’ll take a look at another of Pekin’s “lost” cemeteries — the Old City Cemetery that once stood in the industrial part of town at the foot of Koch Street.

The cemetery indexes in the Local History Room (most of them publications of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society) provide the following description and brief historical note of the Old City Cemetery:

“Cemetery moved from Quaker Oats Company ground on South Second Street, to the NE corner of Lakeview Cemetery in 1924. Now referred to as ‘Paupers Row.’ Stones are set so they are buried, many broken and parts missing.”

On another page the index says, “The so called city cemetery was situated in Sections three (3) four (4) nine (9) and ten (10) in township twenty four (24) north range five (5) west of the third principal meridian. (This is Cincinnati Addition to the City of Pekin).”

This detail from an 1872 plat map of Pekin shows the location of the Old City Cemetery, which existed from 1831 to 1924. The cemetery is marked by a gravestone, cross, skull, and cross bones at the bottom of the map.

Like the Tharp Burial Ground, the Old City Cemetery began in the very earliest years of Pekin’s existence. The earliest known interment there was of an infant of the Kohrell family who was born Feb. 9, 1831, and died two days later. That was not much more than a year after Pekin was formally platted and named. The cemetery would official remain in existence for another 93 years, but as time went on the industrial activities around the cemetery made it an undesirable place to bury loved ones, such that it became a paupers cemetery.

According to the cemetery index, on Jan. 29, 1924, the Pekin Daily Times published this legal notice:

“The city council passed an ordinance declaring the city cemetery a nuisance and provision for the removal of the bodies contained therein was also passed. The growth of the city has encroached on this burying ground until it is now entirely surrounded by manufacturing plants and is very hard of access. Persons who have relatives buried in this cemetery are given 60 days in which to remove the bodies of their dead. Provisions for the removal of bodies to the cemetery north of the city have been made.”

A follow-up notice at the Tazewell County Recorder’s Office, dated June 7, 1924, calls for the Association of Commerce to remove the rest of the bodies from the cemetery and transfer them to “some other suitable burying place.” A Sept. 14, 1925 deed at the Recorder’s Office conveyed the lots to Pekin Memorial Park Cemetery (now Lakeview Cemetery) for the transfer and maintenance of the former Old City Cemetery burials and grave markers.

As was later found in the case of the Tharp Burial Ground, it is likely that not all of the burials were found when the cemetery was dissolved and the bodies moved to Lakeview Cemetery. One of the main problems is that in many cases there was no longer any living next of kin in or near Pekin who could move the remains of their ancestors and kin to the new cemetery space.

In fact, the cemetery index opines, “It is doubtful that graves were ever moved, only markers, which now are fallen, broken and in total disarray.”

#lakeview-cemetery, #old-city-cemetery, #pekin-history, #pekin-memorial-park-cemetery, #pekins-lost-cemeteries, #tharp-burial-ground

MacKinnon of Dunakin’s ‘Scottish Highlanders’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

While the majority of the books in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection deal with the history of Pekin, Tazewell County, and Illinois, the collection also includes volumes that don’t address “local history” at all, but are of a more general genealogical interest. One of them was featured in this column three months ago: “Burke’s Presidential Families,” which presents biographies and genealogies of the American presidents up to the 1990s.

Another book of that sort in the Local History Room collection addresses a historical subject that is about 3,785 miles from “local.” It’s a book entitled, “The Scottish Highlanders,” written in 1984 by Charles MacKinnon of Dunakin, a Scottish laird and official historian of his clan, the MacKinnons. The cover jacket identifies the author as owner of Dunakin Castle on the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Hebrides, and “33rd in unbroken male line of descent from Findanus, the fourth MacKinnon chief.” (“Findanus” is a Latinized form of “Fingaine,” and the surname “MacKinnon” comes from the Gaelic clan designation Mic Fingaine, the letters “f” and “g” being silent in Gaelic pronunciation.)

Shown is the cover jacket of Charles MacKinnon’s “Scottish Highlanders,” featuring a painting of the Chief of Clan Macnab by Sir Henry Reaburn (1756-1823).

Beginning in the 1600s, Scottish people from both the Lowlands and Highlands as well as the Ulster Plantations in Ireland began to settle in the English colonies of North America. Many Americans today belong to clan societies or take part in clan gatherings. Inevitably, then, many people in Tazewell County today are of Scottish descent, and so MacKinnon’s book is available in the Local History Room for those of them who may wish to learn more of the history of Scotland and the Scottish Highland clans.

MacKinnon’s book is 272 pages in length and is divided into two parts, along with three appendices. In the first part, extending to page 124, he gives an overview of Scottish history with a focus on the Scottish Highlands, explaining the origin and social development of the Highland Scots and how they came to be grouped into “clans” (tribes or groups of related families). In the second part, MacKinnon provides summary histories of 56 Highland clans, going in alphabetical order from Clan Buchanan on the east shore of Loch Lomond to Clan Urquhart from the Black Isle. Illustrating each clan history is a drawing of the clan’s official badge, which includes the clan’s motto in Latin, Scots English, or French.

One fact to keep in mind is the distinction between Gaelic Highland “clans” and Lowland Scottish “families.” Some people may think that every Scottish family is a “clan,” but in fact the clan system – featuring a tribe with a hereditary chief – was and is an aspect of the Scottish Gaelic Highland culture. Lowlanders didn’t belong to clans – though in time, branches of Highland clans sometimes established themselves in the Lowlands, losing their “clannishness,” while some Lowland families moved north to the Highlands and assimilated into the Gaelic culture there, becoming clans (perhaps the best known example being the Stewarts of Appin).

In the Author’s Foreword, MacKinnon briefly sketches the enduring “romantic” conceptions of Scottish Highlanders, explaining how authors such as Sir Walter Scott helped popularize “the misconceptions, the fallacious picture of the noble savage in tartan and silver finery, proud, pure, loyal to the death to his ‘rightful kings.’” He concludes his Foreward with the hope that “when the curtains of romantic balderdash have been slightly parted, the clansman of today will find something of real and lasting interest to him about his Highland ancestors.” It should be kept in mind, however, that the summary clan histories in MacKinnon’s own book sometimes incorporate some of the older genealogical traditions that modern historians have found to be “romantic balderdash.” Nevertheless, MacKinnon’s book overall serves as a helpful and handy guide to Highland clan history.

#charles-mackinnon-of-dunakin, #local-history-room, #scottish-highlanders

Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in March 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

Bernard Bailey, Pekin’s first mayor

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Previously this column reviewed the story of how Pekin became an incorporated city in 1849. When the residents of Pekin formally adopted a city charter on Aug. 20, 1849, Pekin opted for a mayor/alderman form of government.

The earliest published history of Pekin is found in the Sellers & Bates 1870 Pekin City Directory. On page 28 of that volume, we read, “The election for city officers occurred on the 24th of September, 1849, and resulted in the election of the following named officers: Mayor – Bernard Bailey. First Ward – John Atkinson. Second Ward – David P. Kenyon. Third Ward – Wm. S. Maus. Fourth Ward – Jacob Riblet.”

The Bailey name is an old one in Pekin – part of Pekin is known as Bailey Addition, and Lake Arlann (Meyers Lake) formerly was called Bailey’s Lake. However, Bernard Bailey does not appear to have been a member of that Bailey family. The 1880 “History of Peoria County” says he was born in Maryland on March 26, 1812, the son of Vincent and Susanna (Bernard) Bailey. He first came to Tazewell County, Illinois, around 1830, where he worked as a school teacher and worked at his father’s ox mill. Settling in Pekin, he went into the grocery business and did some wagon making, saving enough money to become a lawyer.

Shown are the federal letters patent signed by President Andrew Jackson confirming the purchase of land in Tazewell County on April 15, 1833, by Bernard Bailey of Pekin, who later was elected Pekin’s first mayor on Sept. 24, 1849. IMAGE FROM U.S. GENERAL LAND OFFICE ARCHIVES VIA ANCESTRY.COM

Bailey then left Pekin, moving to Mercer County, Illinois, and then south to Louisiana, the native state of his wife Arabella Gilmore. In East Baton Rouge Parish, he tried his hand at sugar and cotton planting, until in 1848 he returned to Pekin, being elected mayor the following year.

Originally Pekin’s mayor and aldermen were elected to serve one-year terms, with elections taking place in the spring. Because the first mayor and city council were elected in the autumn, however, they could only serve about seven months before the next election. The 1870 City Directory says the second city election was on April 15, 1850, and Mayor Bailey and three of the four aldermen were reelected (Atkinson losing his reelection bid to Peter Weyhrich).

Before Pekin could vote to incorporate as a city, a hasty enumeration of the town’s inhabitants had to be conducted to verify that Pekin had at least 1,500 residents. However, immigration and prosperity was fueling a population boom during Mayor Bailey’s two terms. The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says, “Only a year later, Pekin’s population had increased by more than 20% to 1,840, many of the new arrivals being German immigrants. Bailey was re-elected Mayor (the terms then being one year) and all seemed to be going well.”

“That did not last long, however,” the Sesquicentennial continues.

It was at this point that the fledgling city government experienced its first “hiccup.” The 1887 Pekin City Directory, page 30, briefly explains:

“On the 9th of October, 1850, it was resolved by the Council that the Mayor be requested to resign his office, that the city may elect a Mayor who will attend to the duties of his office. On the 25th of October, Mayor Bailey sent in his written resignation which, on motion, was accepted.”

It should be noted that the 1870 City Directory mistakenly switched the calendar dates of the council resolution and Bailey’s resignation. That error was corrected in the 1887 edition, but the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial repeats the 1870 City Directory’s mistake.

The standard reference works on Pekin’s early history do not tell us why Mayor Bailey was not “attending to the duties of his office,” but Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 723, includes a brief reference to Bernard Bailey that may or may not shed some light on that question:

“In the month of October, 1848, the Tazewell Mirror was purchased from John S. Lawrence by John Smith, now of Princeton, Ill. In 1850 Smith sold to Bernard Bailey, but repurchased the Mirror in 1851 in company with Adam Henderson.”

Could Mayor Bailey have been distracted from his civic duties in 1850 by his struggle to operate a newspaper? Whatever the answer to that question, after Bailey’s resignation, a special election was held on Nov. 25, 1850, and Abram Woolston (mistakenly called Woolstein in the 1879 “History of Tazewell County”) was elected to serve the remainder of Bailey’s term.

After owning the Mirror for six months, Bailey sold out and moved to Peoria. There he bought an interest in the Peoria Republican newspaper, later going into the boot and shoe business. In 1856 he was elected Justice of the Peace. He and his wife had 11 children. Pekin’s first mayor lived to the age of 91, dying at Peoria Hospital on Aug. 22, 1903. He was buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria.

#baileys-lake, #bernard-bailey, #city-of-pekin, #pekin-becomes-a-city, #pekin-history, #pekins-first-mayor, #preblog-columns

The old Tharp burial ground

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Two months ago we recalled the history of one of Pekin’s early industrial businesses, the A. & J. Haines Harvester Factory that operated at the corner of Broadway and Ninth from 1849 to 1890. As a busy and noisy mid-19th century factory, the Haines manufacturing outfit was located in the midst of the sparsely populated fields and meadows of what was then Pekin’s outskirts so as not to disturb the city’s residents.

But this week we’ll turn our attention to the Haines factory’s much quieter next-door neighbors, who slept so soundly that no industrial cacophony could rouse them. These were the “residents” of the old Tharp Burial Ground, which was located at the corner of Broadway and 11th from the 1830s until the 1880s. The Tharp Burial Ground was one of the early cemeteries from Pekin’s pioneer days that is no more, the burials having been later moved to make way for the expansion and development of the city.

The Tharp Burial Ground is named for the Tharp family, who were among the earliest pioneers to settle in what was soon to become the “Town Site” that was formally named Pekin in Jan. 1830. In fact, Jonathan Tharp was the very first white settler here, erecting a log cabin in 1824 on a bluff above the Illinois River at a spot that is today at the foot of Broadway. Tharp’s cabin was not far from the wigwams of Shabbona, leader of the Pottawatomi who lived in a large village here. The following year, Jonathan’s father Jacob and other family members followed him from Ohio and built their own homesteads near his.

Later, the Tharps operated a farm in the area now occupied by St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and School, and a historical marker at the St. Joseph’s Parish Center tells visitors that the Tharp farm was once located there, on the street once called Tharp Place (now St. Joseph Place). If one were to extend the line of Tharp/St. Joseph Place straight eastward out to 11th Street, one would reach the southeast corner of the Tharp Burial Ground, which began as a family burying ground for the Tharps.

The detail from an old 1877 aerial view drawing of Pekin looking toward the south shows the former Tharp Burial Ground on the left edge of the map. The old Haines Harvester factory buildings are shown left of the center of this image. At the center is the plot of ground that is today known as James Field. The farmstead of the Tharp family (at a spot now occupied by the St. Joseph Parish Center) is shown at the right edge of the image.

The Tharp pioneer cemetery is marked with a Christian cross and the word “cemetery” on the 1864 M. H. Thompson wall plat map of Tazewell County. An 1872 map of Pekin in the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County” also identifies the cemetery as “Tharps Burial Ground.” However, by 1891 the Tazewell County atlas plat shows only the outline of where the cemetery had been.

This detail from an 1872 plat map of Pekin shows the location of the old Tharp Burial Ground at the corner of Broadway and Pearl (now 11th Street). The area is now occupied by the Schnucks grocery store building.

What became of the Tharp Burial Ground? The answer is found in the Local History Room’s index for Oak Grove Cemetery, which the index describes as follows (emphasis added):

“Oak Grove consists of six acres originally under the supervision of Sons of Temperance, instituted April 10, 1848, known as Temperance Cemetery. Warranted by William and Jerusha Stansberry for the sum of $150.00. It is now a part of Lakeside Cemetery Association, located on North side of Pekin, West side of Route 29. Some burials were on the East bluff at the Old Sons of Temperance Burial Ground. They were moved to Oak Grove to make way for the building of McKinley School. Also moved here was the Tharpe (sic) Burial Ground which was at the corner of Broadway and Eleventh Streets, to make way for the building of the Old Douglas School.

The Old Douglas School was built in 1881-2 and was originally called “the East Side School,” and thus on the 1891 plat map of Pekin we find the Tharp Burial Ground replaced by “the East Side School House.” That school building stood until the 1920s, when it was replaced by a larger Douglas School. That school in turn stood until 1988, when it was demolished to make way for a new shopping center, originally K’s Supersaver (now Schnucks).

Construction work at that site in 1988 led to the somewhat unsettling discovery that when the Tharp Burial Ground was closed down and the pioneer remains interred there were moved to Oak Grove Cemetery (now Lakeside Cemetery), a number of burials had been overlooked. In June 1988, anthropologist Alan Hern of Dixon Mounds Museum was called in to assist Tazewell County Coroner Bob Haller with the investigation and removal of the burials. Hern and Haller determined that the burials were probably victims of the cholera epidemic of July 1834 who had been buried in haste.

A video of Hern’s work at the site of the former Tharp Burial Ground was made by retired Pekin police officer and local historian Jim Conover. A DVD copy of Conover’s video is in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room Collection and is available for viewing at the library.

#alan-hern, #douglas-school, #haines-harvester, #jacob-tharp, #james-field, #jim-conover, #jonathan-haines, #jonathan-tharp, #ks-supersaver, #oak-grove-cemetery, #old-douglas-school, #pekin-history, #pekins-lost-cemeteries, #shabbona, #st-joseph-parish-center, #tazewell-county-coroner-robert-haller, #tharp-burial-ground

High school history and the “Old Brick”

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in July 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

High school history and the “Old Brick”

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Recently in this column, we reviewed the history of the buildings that were constructed for the purpose of high school education in Pekin. As we noted then, that history begins with the Fourth Ward School, which was built in 1867 at the site where Washington Junior High School exists today.

However, the history of high school education in Pekin starts several years earlier than that. Pekin’s first high school yearbook was prepared and published by the Class of 1908, and that yearbook commences with a “Brief History of Old ‘P. H. S.’” Here is the 1908 Pekinian’s account of Pekin’s early high school history leading up to the construction of the Fourth Ward School:

“The first building in Pekin in which high school studies were taught was on Ann Eliza Street. It was a tumble down brick building in 1859 when Mr. Blenkiron took charge of the work.

“The studies given were Algebra, Geometry, History – Ancient and Modern, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Etymology, and some Physics and Chemistry.

“Latin and German were not taught, for it seems the State Laws forbade the teaching of any foreign language in the public schools. The pupils who wanted languages were compelled to go to private schools, or, if the teacher was willing, he could teach such studies outside the school hours. (Mr. Blenkiron was one of the willing ones and so taught Latin after four o’clock.)

“If any experimental work was necessary the students and teacher were supposed to make their own apparatus, as none was furnished by the school.

“The pupils put up with all sorts of inconveniences, such as, a crowded and poorly heated room, and a nearly collapsable (sic) building. At last the ‘Old Brick’ became so dangerous that thoughts were directed to a new building.

“In 1865 the citizens were appealed to for support and enough money was collected to go ahead with a new structure. Some financial difficulty arose after the foundation was laid and further progress was stopped until 1867.

“Because of the long delay one of the teachers wrote a poem, two lines of which I will quote:

“‘The foundation stands in big bug town,

But the castle is in the air.’

“This poem caused much merriment at the time and will long be used in jest by the old citizens.”

Additional information can be gleaned from other sources in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room. For example, the 1949 Pekin Centenary has this to say about the “Old Brick”:

“Sometime, too, between 1840 and 1850, a two story brick building was erected on Margaret Street (sic), between Third and Capitol, by the ‘Sons of Temperance’, the upper floor being used for the lodge meetings and the lower occupied for many years as a ‘pay school’. After the adoption of the state free school system, the entire building was occupied by the free schools of Pekin. For many years older residents of the community referred affectionately to ‘the old Brick’.”

The 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial provides further details, correcting the Centenary’s error about the location of the “Old Brick”:

“Roots City Directory of 1861 listed six ‘free schools of the Pekin and Cincinnati Union School District.’ These included the ‘Brick School House,’ built in 1849 on Ann Eliza Street between Third and Capitol. The Superintendent of the district was W. Blenkiron, a noted Pekinite of the day, and the two-story structure was the first brick building erected for school purposes. The school occupied only the ground floor of the building, so the upper story was used for a time a meeting place for both the Masons and the Sons of Temperance. Eventually the property was sold to the T. & H. Smith Company.”

It’s unclear whether or not the “Old Brick” had been erected for school purposes, however.

William Blenkiron, who for many years served as Pekin’s superintendent of schools in the 1800s.

But who was Pekin’s first school superintendent, named simply “Mr. Blenkiron” in the 1908 Pekinian?

“Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004) tell us that he was William Blenkiron, “a Pekin resident for 60 years. He taught at Old Jubilee College and served as superintendent of Pekin schools. A prominent amateur athlete in his younger days, he pitched for Pekin’s first baseball team. In the area of philanthropy, he, along with his daughter, Anna, donated the land on which the Blenkiron Park for children or Tot Lot is located on Park Avenue.”

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