The lost town of Circleville

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

The lost town of Circleville

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In a recent Local History Room column, we reviewed the history of Green Valley, which is the largest community in Sand Prairie Township. However, as noted in that column, prior to the founding of Green Valley, the title of largest community in the township belonged to Circleville.

Those who might wish to visit Circleville today will search for it in vain – the village is long gone, the land upon which once stood houses and businesses and streets ploughed under. The community was located a few miles southeast of South Pekin. Circleville Road, which used to be East Street in Circleville, is still there, but other than that all that remains of Circleville today is the Prettyman Burial Ground, the old cemetery that was located just south of town. If you’d like to pay your respects to those buried there, you can follow these directions, found at the Illinois Ancestors website:

“Starting from Pekin, at Koch and 14 street, travel south on 14th for about 6 miles, to Townline Road. Turn east (left) on Townline to Pfanz Rd. and travel 1/2 a mile. Travel south (right) on Pfanz Rd. for about  1/2 a mile. The cemetery will be on the left in the middle of a cornfield between Pfanz and Circleville Roads. Or you may take Route 29 south from Pekin to Townline Rd. Then east on Townline.”

If you do visit the Prettyman Burial Ground, don’t forget to wear your clod-stompers.

The previous column on Green Valley’s history quoted a passage about Circleville from page 13 of ”Green Valley, Illinois, Celebrates 125 Years! – 1872-1997.” Here again is what it says about Circleville, which was located in Section 1 of Sand Prairie Township, at the township’s northeast corner:

“This was the first town in the township. It was a stagecoach stop on the old stage line from Springfield to Pekin. As the inn was on rather high ground overlooking the Mackinaw bottom and surrounding prairie, when it came time for the stage to arrive the innkeeper would go upstairs, look out the window to see the coach, then rush downstairs to put potatoes on to boil for the meal. Another story was the open well where they used to cool the beer during the summer. One time someone placed the beer in a sack and when they went to draw it out of the well, the sack broke and the beer fell into the well.”

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 617,” has the following to say about the first settlers of Section 1 of the township, including the founding inhabitants of Circleville. We recently reviewed the life and death of one of those settlers, Major Isaac Perkins:

“Elisha and Major Isaac Perkins settled on sec. 1, about 1824. Both of these gentlemen were active, enterprising pioneers, and were prominent in the early history of the county. Major Perkins was killed in the famous battle of Stillman’s Run, during the Black Hawk war. Isaac [sic – Elisha] moved to Iowa about twenty-five years ago. They came here from near Shawneetown, Ill. Gideon Hawley came from the East and settled on the section with the Perkins’. He died on the farm where Jas. Hamson now lives . . . Jno. Sommers was from North Carolina; he erected his cabin on section 1 . . . John Vancil was among the first to come; he settled on section 9, and is the only one of the earliest pioneers of this township now living. He resides in the town of Circleville. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1798. When he was but two years of age, his parents moved to Kentucky. Here he remained until he was nineteen years old, when he was married to Miss Nancy Tuley, who was born in North Carolina, Jan. 20, 1800. Her parents also moved to Kentucky when she was a child. Shortly after their marriage they came to Illinois, and to Tazewell county.”

On page 620 of his history, Chapman in passing mentions the founding of Circleville:

“There are two towns in the township. One of them, Circleville, is located upon section 1. It was laid off Aug. 7, 1837, by Spencer Field and E. M. Perkins. It will be seen, therefore, that Circleville is one of the oldest towns in the county.”

Circleville is perhaps best remembered as the home of the Berry Gang, a group of horse thieves and cattle rustlers who committed numerous crimes in Tazewell County during the lawless and violent 1860s. The core of the gang were four brothers of the Berry family, William (“Bill”), Isaac (“Ike”), Emanuel (“Man”) and Simeon (“Sim”). The story of their crimes and how the law caught up with them, leading to Bill Berry’s lynching in Pekin on July 31, 1869, is told at length in the book “Lynch Law,” written by retired Pekin police officers Jim Conover and James Brecher. The book includes photographs taken around 1939 of two buildings of Circleville that were key locations in the story – McFarland’s Saloon, where the Berry gang plotted an ambush of the lawmen who were seeking to arrest then, and Ditmon’s Grocery and Tobacco across the street from the saloon. Both structures, which were on East Street (Circleville Road) are long gone, and even by 1939 had long been abandoned.

What happened to Circleville that caused it to die? It could be that the bad reputation and painful memories from the Berry Gang days made it the sort of place where people preferred not to live and businessmen preferred not to invest money. Be that as it may, this pioneer prairie community thrived while it was on the old stage coach line, but during the golden age of railroads, communities that hoped to prosper needed a railroad. Being bypassed by the rail lines, in time Circleville dwindled and faded away.

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The layout of the streets and lots of old Circleville are shown in this plat map. The Prettyman Burial Ground is indicated by the cross at the bottom.

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