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.
By Jared Olar
The bicentennial year of Illinois’ admission as the 21st state in the Union commences on Dec. 3, 2017, inaugurating a year of state and local celebrations that will culminate on Dec. 3, 2018, the 200th anniversary of President James Monroe’s signing of the bill granting Illinois statehood.
Celebrations and events commemorating Illinois history are planned for the coming year not only in Springfield, but also in local communities. At the state level, the Illinois Bicentennial Kickoff will take place Dec. 3 at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, and the same day Winter Wonderfest in Springfield will host an Illinois Bicentennial Day. A schedule of events is available online at the official website of the Illinois Bicentennial, www.illinois200.com.
The Illinois State Historical Society is sponsoring a program to plant a “Johnny Appleseed” apple tree in each Illinois county to commemorate the bicentennial. Tazewell County Museum President Christal Dagit has purchased one of the trees for Tazewell County and donated it in the museum’s name to the Fon du Lac Farm Park in East Peoria
In Tazewell County, an official Illinois Bicentennial Committee chaired by Dagit has been meeting monthly since this summer to help coordinate local activities to commemorate the bicentennial.
Tazewell County’s celebration of the state’s bicentennial will open next month with a cannon blast in Delavan on Dec. 3, 2017 and the county will also close the bicentennial year in the same way on Dec. 3, 2018. An Illinois Bicentennial Flag Raising Ceremony will take place at 11:45 a.m. Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, on the Tazewell County Courthouse lawn, including a brief program and the raising of the bicentennial flag at noon.
Various activities to mark the bicentennial of Illinois statehood are in the planning stages in various Tazewell County communities. Among the events will be a Bicentennial Tea sponsored by the Tazewell County Museum and Pekin Woman’s Club, set for May 12, 2018, at the Mineral Springs Park Pavilion in Pekin.
To assist area schools in teaching students about the early history of our state and our county, Tazewell County’s Illinois Bicentennial Committee also will offer a historical timeline for teachers and students. The timeline, on a double-sided sheet of paper, traces Illinois’ history from the days of the Illiniwek Confederation and the French explorers down to the founding of Pekin in 1830. Copies of the timeline will be available at the Tazewell County Museum, at 15 S. Capitol St. in the old Arcade Building in downtown Pekin, and at the Pekin Public Library. (For more information about the timeline, call the library at 347-7111, ext. 2, or the county museum at 347-1215.)
Also, the Pekin Public Library is commemorating the bicentennial all year long with an Illinois Bicentennial Movie Series that will run January to December 2018. On the first Friday of each month at 11 a.m., the library will show a historical video dealing with an aspect of the history of Illinois, Tazewell County, or Pekin. The movies will be shown in the Community Room on the second floor of the library, and admission is free.
The movie series commences on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018, with the showing of a 1 hour 40 minute documentary, “History of Pekin,” that was produced many years ago by the Video Pekin Project. The movie tells of the history of Pekin high school, the old Pekin Theatre, Pekin Hospital, and the Old Post Office.
This weekly column, “From the History Room,” also will highlight the people and events of early Illinois and Tazewell County starting next month and continuing through the end of Nov. 2018.
By Jared Olar
One of the landmarks of arts and entertainment during Pekin’s bygone days was a military-style orchestra called “Gehrig’s 7th Regimental Band.” Gehrig’s Band is important in Pekin’s history because it was the first community band ever to be formed in Pekin, having a history that begins around the time the Civil War ended. The band’s founder, Edward Gehrig, was himself a veteran of the Civil War.
Here is the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial’s summary of the history of Gehrig’s Band, from page 156 of that volume:
“The first Pekin band was organized in 1865 by Edward Gehrig, Sr., a Civil War veteran and a reknowned (sic) cigar maker. Before moving to Pekin, Gehrig had organized and directed Spencer’s Military Band in Peoria, which was often hired to play at dances and other Pekin functions since there was no orchestra in the city. Finally, Pekin lured Gehrig away from Peoria in 1865 to establish his cigar factory and, incidentally or not, a community band. In 1880 this band assumed the title of Gehrig’s 7th Regimental Band. At the death of leader Gehrig in 1901, his son Charles assumed the role of conductor, serving for the next 20 years.”
The Sesquicentennial goes on to explain that during the 1920s Gehrig’s Band and Bauer’s Military Band used to play Tuesday and Thursday nights in the bandstand that once stood in front of the Tazewell County Courthouse. Other community bands from that era included the Roehrs & Dietrich Union Band, the Pekin Opera House Band, Peobel’s Band, and the Hal Jones Band.
All of those bands consolidated to form the old Pekin Municipal Band in 1925 “as a result of Illinois legislation allowing municipal bands to levy a tax for concerts.” The Pekin Municipal Band in turn is the predecessor of the Pekin Park Concert Band.
The Nov. 2017 issue of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly is devoted to local veterans, and features reproductions of portraits of the 24 members of Gehrig’s Band that were taken on or around Jan. 1, 1902, including a portrait of the band’s director and manager, Charles F. Gehrig, who also played the cornet in the band.
By Jared Olar
On the east side of the Pekin National Bank, on the wall facing N. Capitol Street at the Corner of Court Street, is an informative plaque telling of an important event in Pekin’s history – the founding of the Union League during the Civil War.
This column on Feb. 4, 2012, briefly told of the founding of the Union League. In addition, an article in the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times that lacked a byline but was accompanied by two photographs not only told the story of the Union League but also related the history of Pekin’s historical plaques that have commemorated the Union League.
First, here’s the story of the Union League as reported in the Aug. 16, 1975 Pekin Daily Times:
“It was June, 1862, and the early summer weather in Pekin had taken a back seat to the bad news coming from such places as Shiloh, the valley of the Shenandoah and communities in Indiana and other northern states which had been hit by Confederate raiders.
“There were reports of sabotage by southern subversive groups like the Golden Circle and the Sons of Liberty, and these, plus inflation and the draft, were beginning to shake the faith in President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War policies.
“It had become clear to a handful of Pekin leaders that something should be done to firm up the North’s support for the war and to strengthen their resolve to abolish slavery in the South.
“Then came the one bright spot: the capture of Ft. Donelson by Gen. U. S. Grant and the freeing of Tennessee, much of which had remained fiercely pro-union despite harsh Confederate measures to crush Union sympathizers.
“As a result, those Tennesseeans (sic) remaining true to the north had met secretly to encourage each other to oppose the Confederate government. These groups called themselves Leagues of Union men or Union Leagues. . . .
“The concept was brought to Pekin by the Rev. J. W. N. Vernon, the new minister of Pekin’s First Methodist church, who had just come to this community from Tennessee.
“And so it was that on June 25, 1862, Rev. Vernon and ten other Pekin men gathered secretly on the third floor of the old brick building at Court and Capitol known for many years as the Smith Bank building.
“From that meeting came the Union League, an organization which became one of the most influential and fast-growing movements in the nation’s history.
“Within a year of the original meeting, the League had 606 councils and 75,000 members in Illinois alone and eventually may have had 2 million members in councils in nearly every local township and village in the North.
“It was the basis, in fact, of the Union party which elected Lincoln and Johnson in 1864. At the close of the Civil War, the military councils of the League were to become the Grand Army of the Republic.”
As this column recounted over five years ago, in the initial stages of the Civil War pro-Confederacy and pro-slavery sentiment remained prominent even as far north as Peoria and Pekin (both communities having been founded by slave-owning families). Consequently, prior to the formation of the Union League “those who believed in the Union spoke often in whispers in Pekin streets and were wary and often afraid,” says the 1949 Pekin Centenary.
Besides, Rev. Vernon, the founding members of the Union League were Richard Northcroft Cullom, former Illinois state senator; Dr. Daniel A. Cheever, abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor; Charles Turner, Tazewell County state’s attorney; Henry Pratt, Delavan Township supervisor; Alexander Small, Deer Creek Township supervisor; George H. Harlow, Tazewell County circuit clerk; Jonathan Merriam, stock farmer who became a colonel in the Union army; Hart Montgomery, Pekin postmaster; John W. Glassgow, justice of the peace; and Levi F. Garrett, Pekin grocery store owner and baker.
After the Civil War, the Union League became a Republican Party social club, but would carry on its abolitionist legacy through support of civil rights for African Americans.
But here in Pekin, the founding of the Union League was commemorated by a plaque placed on the side of the old Smith Bank building in 1920. Later the building housed Marty Perlman’s business, the Perlman Furniture Co., which was destroyed by a fire in Oct. 1968. But, the Daily Times reported, “Perlman pried the charred plaque off the east wall after the flames had been extinguished, had it reconditioned and saw that it was kept safely until it could be remounted in an appropriate place at a significant time.”
That time and place came on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1975, when the old 1920 plaque was remounted in the lobby of Pekin National Bank (built on the site of the Smith Bank/Perlman Furniture Co. building) on the occasion of President Gerald R. Ford’s visit to Pekin to dedicate the Pekin Public Library and Everett M. Dirksen Center.
But a few days before that, the outside plaque on the east wall of the Pekin National Bank had already been mounted. That plaque, donated by the Union League of America and the Illinois State Historical Society, was formally dedicated at the same time as the remounting of the 1920 plaque.
By Jared Olar
Last month we learned the name of the riverboat whose deckhands went on a drunken spree through the streets of Pekin on July 4, 1851 – the Lucy Bertram. This week we’ll take a closer look at the history of the Lucy Bertram, which plied the waters of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers during the heyday of the American steamboat.
As a matter of fact, there were two steamboats christened with the name “Lucy Bertram.” It was the first Lucy Bertram whose deckhands entered Pekin’s history. According to William J. Petersen’s “Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi” (1968), page 320, the Lucy Bertram was a 268-ton sidewheeler that was launched at St. Louis, Mo., in 1847.
The Lucy Bertram was one of the first three packet steamers of the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company, whose owners were apparently great fans of the famed Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. The Lucy Bertram was named for one of the characters in Scott’s novel “Guy Mannering.” (Incidentally, Scott’s novels seemed to be popular not only with steamboat sailor but with trans-Atlantic seamen also, as there was an English trans-Atlantic ship named the “S.S. Guy Mannering” that brought English immigrants to the U.S. about this same period of time.) The St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company’s first steamboat, launched in 1842, was the 211-ton Die Vernon, named for a character in Scott’s “Rob Roy.” The Lucy Bertram’s two companions were the Rob Roy, title character of Scott’s novel, and the Jeannie Deans, a character of Scott’s “The Heart of Midlothian.”
Retired steamboat Capt. F. A. Whitney of Centerville, Iowa, later shared some of his memories of steamboating during these years in a series of articles in “The Saturday Evening Post.” In his first installment, Whitney wrote (emphasis added):
“During the Civil War in the sixties, there was a packet line of steamers running between St. Louis and Keokuk. These were named the Hannibal City, Warsaw, Rob Roy, Lucy Bertram, Die Vernon, Hardy Johnson, and Andy Johnson. These were all splendid side wheel steamers. The crews were noted for their skill and popularity, their stewards and chefs were the best money could hire. Many a passenger made the trip on one of these boats to enjoy the accommodation, music and meals, for traveling at that time was indeed a pleasure. These boats being larger and drawing too much water could not go above the lower rapids at Keokuk, so there was another line of boats called the Northern Packet Company which ran its boats between St. Louis and St. Paul . . . .
“As these boats carried colored deck hands, some of them were always ready to entertain the passengers when at leisure by dancing, singing, diving in a pan of water for nickels, etc., and when the boat left the wharf at St. Louis for its up river trip at 4 p. m. the deck hands would sing as they hauled in the head line, ‘I roistered on the Rob Roy, I roistered on the Lee, I roistered on the Belle La Cross, she got away with me. The Libby is a good boat, and so am the Lee, but the Old Diamond Jo, she’s too much for me. Get on board, get on board, we’s goin’ up the river, get on board . . .,’ making up the words to fit the song as they hauled in the lines. Oh, those were the happy days.”
Pekin old-timer Emil Schilling said the deckhands of the boat we now know was the Lucy Bertram who were involved in the 1851 riot in Pekin were African-American, as was common on steamboats during this era.
Although Whitney mentions the Lucy Bertram in his recollections, that wasn’t the same steamboat as was involved in the Pekin riot. That was in fact the second Lucy Bertram, which according to Petersen (page 320) was a 698-ton steamboat built in 1863 for the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company which cruised up and down the Mississippi River until 1878. It was the second Lucy Bertram who plied the Mississippi’s waters during the Civil War, and in fact Petersen on pages 188 and 320 says she even assisted with troop transport for the Union Army:
“By 1864 the movement of steamboats was again in full swing up and downstream. On April 18 th more than one hundred soldiers from the Keokuk hospitals left on the steamboat Lucy Bertram to rejoin their regiments. Nine days later the Die Vernon took the Fifteenth Iowa to the front; and a month later the Lucy Bertram took the Forty-fifth Iowa Regiment downstream. . . .”
In her book, “Seeing the Elephant: The Many Voices of the Oregon Trail” (2003), pages 198-199, Joyce Badgley Hunsaker includes passages from a diary or memoir of Fincelius Gray Burnett (Finn Burnett of Wyoming, frontiersman, 1844-1934) in which Finn Burnett says his uncle David was a captain of the second Lucy Bertram. Hunsaker reports Burnett as saying:
“Uncle David’s second clerk, Sam Clemens, used to count the sacks as the deck hands loaded them onto the boat. Then he’d count the barrels of lard as they’d come aboard. That’s right, Samuel Clemens. Mr. Mark Twain, himself. Of course, that’s before he was famous. I remember him being a rather spare-made man, quick-motioned, and spry. And in those days he was young. History made him out a river pilot, but I never knew him as such. To me, he was just Uncle David’s clerk.”
However, Hunsaker’s book includes both actual historical sources as well as fictionalized or imagined diary entries, and it’s not clear whether the Finn Burnett diary/memoir is real or imagined. In Hunsaker’s book, Burnett speculates that Twain’s character Huckleberry Finn may have been inspired by Burnett’s own childhood experiences growing up on the Mississippi River and traveling with his Uncle David on the Lucy Bertram.
By Jared Olar
On the last page of the very first Pekin City Directory, published by Omi E. Root of Peoria in 1861, is an entry for an “independent company of volunteer militia” called the “Pekin Zouaves.” This is how Root’s Directory describes this militia company:
“Organized May 16th, 1861. Number of members, 60. Annual days of parade, 22d February, 10th May, 4th July, 10th September, and 8th January. The following commissioned officers were elected, May 28th, 1861, for six years: G. W. Baker, Captain; H. P. Finigan, First Lieutenant ; L. B. Greenleaf, Second Lieutenant ; W. M. Olmsted, Third Lieutenant. C. R. Cummings, Orderly Sergeant ; appointed by the captain for one year.”
The reason this militia company was formed was one of the most important events in U.S. history – the Confederate States of America’s attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, which sparked the U.S. Civil War. Soon after, militia companies were established throughout the remaining United States to prepare to aid in the Union’s war efforts against the Confederacy, and the Pekin Zouaves were one of those companies.
But why was this company called “Zouaves”? The original Zouaves were a French army light infantry corps organized in 1830 – at first the French Zouaves were all Algerians from North Africa, and consequently their uniforms were Middle Eastern or Turkish in style. Romantically imitating the French Zouaves, other nations also established their own companies of soldiers wearing Zouave-style uniforms, including militia companies in Illinois and Missouri during the early months of the Civil War.
At the website www.infantry8thmo.org/HTMhistory.html is a “Brief History: 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (US) – The ‘Fighting American Zouaves.’” Following are excerpts from the “Brief History” (emphasis added):
“As a result of a direct order from President Lincoln to alleviate the prejudice against the Irish, the 8th Missouri Infantry was organized in St. Louis from June 12 to August 14, 1861. Over 600 Irish boatmen & deck hands left the St. Louis riverfront to fight under the command of Captain Morgan L. Smith. Originally from New York, he and his brother, Captain Giles A. Smith, also recruited troops from Bloomington, Illinois. The 8th MO uniform was that of the American Zouaves.
“The Peoria Zouave Cadets were organized in Peoria, Illinois 3/23/1861. They recruited up to war strength and left for St. Louis on 6/19/1861 but, upon their arrival, there was a disagreement and about half returned to Illinois to join the 17th Illinois. An under-strength company calling themselves the Pekin Zouaves from Pekin, Illinois, sent about 30 recruits from Peoria to St. Louis, and filled up the company. They mustered in as Company H. Neither company provided the ‘Zouave influence’ for the company since they were already being referred to as the ‘American Zouave Regiment.’ Company L sharpshooters were recruited in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
“The 8th MO served the duration of the Civil War and fought decisive battles under Generals Grant and Sherman. They became well known for their tenacity, displaying Zouave fighting techniques on the battlefield. Generals Grant and Sherman write about the 8th Missouri in their Memoirs. General Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant, writes in ‘At the Front With Dad’ about slipping into the Battle of Vicksburg at age 13 with the 8th Missouri. Eleven soldiers in 8th MO were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during the Siege of Vicksburg.”
As this column has noted previously, one of the members of the Pekin Zouaves was none other than Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates (1840-1930). Of the five original officers of the Pekin Zouaves, Capt. G. W. Baker is listed on page 13 of the 1861 Pekin City Directory as “BAKER, GEORGE W. F., ambrotype and photographic gallery, cor. Court and Second ; bds. Tazewell House.” Thus, Baker was, like Henry Hobart Cole, one of Pekin’s early photographers.
First Lieut. H. P. Finigan was Henry P. Finigan, a Catholic Ulster-born Pekin attorney, land and real estate agent, and grain merchant. Finigan with his wife Margaret and Margaret’s parents together escaped the Irish Potato Famine and settled in Pekin. Henry’s date of birth is uncertain, because when he registered for the draft in June 1863, his age was written down as 31, but the 1870 U.S. Census says he was 34 at that time (that census also mistakenly gives his middle initial as “B.” rather than “P.”).
Second Lieut. L. B. Greenleaf was Luther Berge Greenleaf, born in Connecticut in 1834 or 1836, died August 1902 in Onarga, Ill. The 1861 Pekin City Directory says he was then a law student. His Onarga newspaper obituary says although he studied law, he instead became a journalist in Peoria, later moving to Kansas for a while, then finally settling down in Onarga.
Third Lieut. W. M. Olmsted was William M. Olmsted (1802-1872), who in 1861 was a clerk at Stephen Roney’s Hardware, 33 Court St., at the corner of Court and Second. Olmsted later was promoted to the rank of captain during the civil war. His grave in Lakeside Cemetery is one of the old Oak Grove Cemetery burials.
Lastly, Orderly Sgt. C. R. Cummings was none other than Columbus R. Cummings (1834-1897), a prominent Pekin businessman and land owner who subsequently served as Pekin’s 20th mayor (1875-1876), later moving to Chicago, where he became a Gilded Age railroad tycoon and banker. It was the heirs of C. R. Cummings’ great estate who in 1916 gave the Pekin public schools an athletic field with the stipulation that it should be named after the estate manager James M. James (1849-1918).
Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in June 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .
City shuts down for pioneer’s funeral
By Jared Olar
Readers of the Pekin Daily Times in the spring of 1918 found a remarkable and attention-grabbing change in the layout of the front page of the Wednesday, May 8, edition.
A large portion of the top half of that day’s front was taken up by a man’s portrait framed within two large square boxes. Within the frame were the man’s name and the dates of his birth and death, along with an inscription in his honor: “James Morris James; Living, He Earned Respect; Dead, We Do Him Honor; February 14, 1849; May 5, 1918.”
The prominently displayed portrait of James Morris James accompanied a very lengthy story about his funeral. The story, which included the complete text of the remarks and eulogy given by Rev. E. C. Hawkins of First Methodist Episcopal Church, had three headlines: “ALL PEKIN PAUSES TO HONOR PIONEER,” “City Stops Activities this Afternoon for J. M. James funeral,” and “ENTIRE COMMUNITY FEELS BEREAVEMENT.”
But just who was James Morris James, and what was it about him that his death at the age of 69 from heart trouble brought the city of Pekin to shut down for a few hours in the middle of the week?
In finding to the answer to that question, we can gather a few initial clues by noting the list of pall bearers at his funeral. One of pall bearers was none other the Pekin’s mayor, Charles Schaefer. Besides the eight actual pall bearers, 20 other men were named as honorary pall bearers. Together, the list of active and honorary pall bearers included most of Pekin’s community leaders.
An even clearer indication of James’ prominence in his community is found in the text of Mayor Schaefer’s proclamation, dated Tuesday, May 7, 1918, which said, “Out of respect to the memory of the late Col. James M. James, who for half a century was closely identified with the progress of our city and this community and who always showed a willingness to aid every cause or improvement which tended to the betterment of our city and its people, the business men of our city are requested to suspend business for one hour, between 2:30 and 3:30 Wednesday afternoon, the time of the funeral of our departed worthy citizen.”
Rev. Hawkins’ glowing tribute to James’ memory is one more indication of just how highly esteemed he was. So also was James’ obituary, which was published in the Monday, May 6, 1918, edition of the Pekin Daily Times. His obituary was unusually long and included a detailed biography, and nestled beside the obituary was a paid advertisement – an expression of appreciation from Farmers National Bank and an announcement that the bank would close at noon Wednesday for James’ funeral. As his obituary states, James joined the bank’s board of directors in 1884, became its vice president in 1905, and became the bank president in 1911.
The following passages from his obituary tell of James’ other activities in Pekin’s business life and economic development:
“Mr. James . . . . in November, 1861, began working at the printing business on a local paper, and later, for a short time, was employed on the old Illinois River Railroad (now Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Railroad.) In October, 1863, he secured employment as a clerk in the dry goods store of C. B. Cummings & Brother, remaining with them until 1870, when he became bookkeeper for Columbus R. Cummings, railway contractor and builder. His duties including the caring for the local affairs of his employer, and since 1879 he has had charge of both the bank and extensive farm interests of Mr. Columbus R. Cummings, after the removal of the latter to Chicago. Mr. James was a member of the Cummings Harvester Company and its president, while it was in business, from 1889. . . .
“He was also president of the Pekin Mutual Building & Loan Association, and was active in all improvements made at Lakeside cemetery of which association he has been treasurer since its organization.”
James also was directly involved and especially involved in the reclamation of the Lima Lake Drainage District. His obituary says, “About five years ago, in company with a friend, he saw the possibilities of reclaiming this large body of land on the Mississippi, near the city of Quincy, and making it a productive garden spot in place of a waste swamp. He interested Mr. David Mark Cummings in this project, and to show the confidence Mr. Cummings had in his agent, Mr. James purchased from time to time tracts of land aggregating about eight thousand acres, and at the time of his demises, plans for the reclamation of this and the adjoining district were just about to be perfected. . . . His interest was so intense in its success that he seemed to forget that he was unconsciously overtaxing his physical strength in the effort he was making to serve the interest of Mr. Cummings in the development of this drainage district. Even upon his deathbed he expressed an intense desire to live until this matter should have been brought to a successful termination.”
It is evident, then, that his prominent place in the community was chiefly due to his role as agent and custodian of the vast Cummings estate in Pekin and the surrounding areas. As this column has previously noted, Columbus R. Cummings was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Pekin, and served a single term as Pekin’s mayor. Stung by the failure of his bid for reelection, however, Cummings abruptly gave up the mayoral office, not even finishing out his term, and moved to Chicago, where he became a powerful railroad tycoon. After leaving Pekin, Cummings employed James to manage his estate.
Though James’ funeral had brought Pekin to a temporary standstill, today, 95 years after his death [NOTE: now 99 years], probably few Pekin residents remember him. Yet there is a lasting public memorial to his life: James Field, across Broadway from the former Pekin Community High School West Campus. David Mark Cummings and his wife Ruth were two of the four people who, on June 5, 1916, sold nine lots in Pekin’s old Colts Addition to Pekin School District of Tazewell County, the predecessor of Pekin Public School District 108. The land was sold to provide an athletic field and playground for the school children of Pekin, with the stipulation that it would be named for James. It was only a few years ago that the field was restored through the efforts of the Save James Field Committee. It is now supervised and maintained by the Pekin Park District.
Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in May 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .
Columbus R. Cummings, 20th Mayor of Pekin
By Jared Olar
After Pekin was incorporated as a city in 1849, for the first 25 years its history the city of Pekin was headed by mayors who served one-year terms. During that time, 18 men were elected mayor, several of them winning a second term. In 1874, however, the people of Pekin decided city government would operate more smoothly if city hall didn’t have a changing of the guard every year. That’s when Pekin began to elect mayors who would serve two-year terms.
Columbus R. Cummings (1834-1897), Pekin’s 20th mayor, was the first of our mayors to be elected to a two-year term, holding office during the years 1875 and 1876. The following biographical sketch of his life is drawn from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection, including the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties, Illinois,” the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial, “Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004), and Cummings’ obituary published in the New York Times.
Cummings was born in Canton, St. Lawrence County, New York, on Oct. 14, 1834, one of the 11 eleven children of James P. Cummings and Clarissa Wilson. His father was a well-known attorney. When he was 16, Cummings became a school teacher, later working as a store clerk in Ogdensburg, N.Y. Leaving that job, he moved to Chicago and worked in the store of Potter Palmer for a short time. In 1859, however, he got a better job working for the Illinois Harvesting Machine Company in Pekin. His brother Cornelius B. Cummings came to Pekin at the same time, and the brothers went into business together as dry goods merchants under the name of C.B. Cummings & Co.
Their partnership ended in 1861, but Columbus went on to other successful endeavors, becoming a prominent businessman and landowner. Through his wife Sarah Caroline Mark, Columbus became the heir of David Mark, whose real estate holdings were the largest in Tazewell County at the time of his death. “C.R.” was one of the owners of the Pekin Railway Construction Co. and later was president of the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway. He also was one of the founding trustees of the Pekin Agricultural and Mechanical Association.
The 1974 Sesquicentennial summarizes his political career in Pekin in this way:
“With due credit, during his administration Pekin paid off all bonds on the due date – a rare achievement in those days, as already indicated. However, when Cummings sought re-election, he was defeated by 33 votes in a hard-fought campaign against A. B. Sawyer. Cummings became embittered, never again appeared at city hall, did not preside over the vote canvass, and shortly thereafter left Pekin and moved to Chicago. An Englishman in a predominantly German community, Cummings may have had other reasons for his dissatisfaction.
“He became even wealthier after his move to Chicago, and both he and his descendants were quite philanthropic through the years, making sizeable endowments to many institutions. But nary a penny was given to Pekin, which paid handsomely for much of the land which later was purchased from the Cummings estate. Until quite recently, the Cummings estate, now known as the Adwell Corporation, still maintained an office in Pekin, but that has recently been moved to Jacksonville, Illinois.”
The words “became even wealthier” are an understatement. In fact, “C.R.” became one of the nation’s millionaire tycoons of the Gilded Age, and the New York Times obituary calls him “the Well-Known Chicago Capitalist.” He was president of Union National Bank and a large stockholder in First National Bank, and was a member of the syndicate that sold the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad to W.H. Vanderbilt. The town of Cummings, now a part of Chicago, was named after him in 1882. Originally called Irondale, the town was rechristened Cummings when a Nickel Plate Railroad station was established there, because Cummings was the first president of the Nickel Plate. He also was president of the Lake Erie & Western Railroad and of the Peoria & Evansville Railroad. He died at his Chicago home at 1641 Indiana Ave. on July 12, 1897.
Today, one visible remnant of the Cummings estate remains prominent in Pekin – James Field. Columbus’ son David Mark Cummings, born 1866, married Ruth Dexter in 1893, and had two daughters, Edith and Dorothy, and a son, Dexter. David and Ruth were two of the four people who, on June 5, 1916, sold nine lots in Pekin’s old Colts Addition to Pekin School District of Tazewell County, the predecessor of Pekin Public School District 108. The land was sold to provide an athletic field and playground for the school children of Pekin. A few years ago it was restored through the efforts of the Save James Field Committee, and is now supervised and maintained by the Pekin Park District.