A visit from Pekin’s Ghost of Christmas Past . . .

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Dec. 2011 before the launch of this weblog.

A visit from Pekin’s Ghost of Christmas Past . . .

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

If you’ve ever wondered what Christmas celebrations were like in Pekin way back when, an old handbill from 1879 in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room Collection can be a way to summon a visit from Pekin’s Ghost of Christmas Past.

In large, bold letters, the handbill announces a “holiday concert” to be presented Friday evening, Dec. 26, 1879, at Empire Hall, one of Pekin’s earliest theaters or concert halls. Empire Hall was on the second floor of a building in the 200 block of Court Street – so that should give you an idea of just how long Pekin has been celebrating Christmas downtown.

This 1879 handbill, donated to the Pekin Public Library by late local historian Fred W. Soady Jr. and now displayed in the library’s Local History Room, opens a window on Pekin’s Christmas traditions of long ago.

The holiday concert was a three-scene Christmas cantata entitled, “Santa Claus!” which was performed “by the members of the Baptist Sunday School, assisted by LEADING SINGERS OF THE CITY,” as the handbill states. Directing the cantata were Mrs. and Mrs. W. F. Henry, while Miss Josie Goodheart directed two silent tableaux vivants that were presented at the end of the first scene and at the conclusion of the cantata. The price of admission was 25 cents for adults and teens, and 10 cents for children under 12.

Lining both sides of the handbill are advertisements by the local merchants who sponsored the cantata, offering “the greatest bargains in holiday goods in the city,” “Christmas candies, nuts and fruits,” “holiday goods, toys, notions, etc.” In that respect, Christmas in 1879 wasn’t any different from Christmas today.

Also advertised are “1000 cans of oysters for Christmas!” and “oysters in every style.” Though they a part of a traditional Christmas dinner – for Christians used to abstain from meat during the penitential season of Advent, and so Christmas Eve dinners would feature seafood – oysters are probably not as popular these days as ham or turkey.

Much about the cantata also would be familiar to us today, but other things would be a little strange. The cantata tells the story of six children waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, but the handbill says nothing of Santa’s reindeer, who made their first appearance in Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Also absent from the cantata were Santa’s elves and the toy workshop at the North Pole, which are later developments of the Santa Claus story.

Instead, the audience was treated to a character called the Frost King, as well as three Christmas fairies and Santa’s two attendants, dwarfs named Drako and Krako. Also prominent in the cantata were six goddesses, representing Dreams, Mirth, Joy, Peace, Love and Hope. It was the task of the Goddess of Dreams, played by Mrs. James Sholl, to sing a lullaby, “Now the tiny lids must close,” to ensure the six children were fast asleep before Santa’s arrival.

It wasn’t long before the 19th century’s reimagining of the Catholic St. Nicholas as the “jolly old elf” Santa Claus would take on a life of its own, more secular than religious, all but divorced from its Christian origins. This 1879 cantata, however, bears an unmistakably Christian stamp: the very first solo, sung by Miss Fannie Miller, is, “Where the Shepherds Watched by Night,” and the cantata concludes with the chorus, “Our kind and loving Father, / A glad and joyful throng / We lift our hearts and voices / To Thee in grateful song.”

A final bit of local history trivia: playing one of the children in the cantata was Fred W. Soady Sr., born Sept. 5, 1867, whose biography appears in the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties,” page 696. Some past “From the Local History Room” columns have featured quotes from a 1960 paper of Pekin’s early history written by Fred W. Soady Jr., grandson of the child actor of 1879.

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Illinois in the Civil War

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Not even two whole generations had elapsed since Illinois’ admission as the 18th state in the Union when America split apart, divided between the industrialized and increasingly anti-slavery northern states of the Union and the agrarian, pro-slavery southern states of the Confederacy.

Leading up to the dreadful conflict was the collapse of the compromises and constitutional balances that had appeased the concerns of the pro-slavery and abolitionist elements. Thus, as we have previously noted, where an earlier generation had crafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820, by the 1850s that compromise had been scrapped, supplanted by the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was preceded by the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which sought to counter the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad by obliging citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and imposing stiff penalties on those who assisted runaways. While the act itself was a compromise between Southern slave-owners and Northern free-soilers, abolitionists found the law intolerable. Even more outrageous to the abolitionists was the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention in the controversy with its infamous pro-slavery Dred Scott decision of 1857 – but rather than settle the question, Dred Scott only fanned the embers that soon erupted in the flame of war.

In the presidential election of 1860, the Democrat Party broke apart into pro- and anti-slavery factions, a circumstance that helped make possible the election of the Republican Party’s candidate, a former Illinois Congressman of abolitionist principles named Abraham Lincoln.

Frustrated at their inability to elect a favorable candidate, and expecting Lincoln to curtail slavery, most of the slave-holding states of the South broke away from the Union, starting with South Carolina on Dec. 20, 1860. The states that seceded organized themselves as a separate country, the Confederate States of America, on Feb. 8, 1861, and elected their own president, former Mississippi Congressman and Secretary of War Jefferson F. Davis.

Lincoln was inaugurated as president the following month. Rejecting the legitimacy of the Confederacy, Lincoln insisted that the Union had to be preserved and declared the Confederate states to be in rebellion against the recognized federal government. Hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when the Confederacy, having demanded that the U.S. withdraw all troops and surrender all military posts, attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

So began four long years of bloodshed and sorrow in which Lincoln strove to bring the breakaway southern states back into subjection to the federal government. Usually known as the American Civil War, the conflict has also been called the War Between the States or the War of the Rebellion, while in the South it has been called the War of Northern Aggression. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” includes an account of the Civil War, which Chapman called “the War for the Union.”

A lone Union soldier stands and watches over the graves of his fallen comrades at Pekin’s Civil War Memorial in Lakeside Cemetery. PHOTO COURTESY OF CANDY REED

The different names indicate the cultural and political disputes over what the war was about. For the Confederacy, it was their Revolutionary War or a failed War of Independence, but Lincoln and Northern leaders at least initially said it was a fight to preserve the Union. As the war dragged on, however, Northerners began to see it as a holy crusade to end slavery in the United States. In his Tazewell County history, Chapman commented, “The house was indeed divided against itself, but [that] it should not fall, nor should it long continue divided, was the hearty, determined response of every loyal heart in the nation. The accursed institution of human slavery was the primary cause for this dissolution of the American Union. Doubtless other agencies served to intensify the hostile feelings which existed between the Northern and Southern portions of our country, but their remote origin could be traced to this great national evil.”

Two days after the Confederacy’s firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln requested the remaining Union states to provide 75,000 men organized in six regiments. Over the next few months, the president requested additional volunteers and the organization of more regiments, until in July 1861 he made his first request for 500,000 troops. From May to July, a total of 17 infantry regiments and five cavalry regiments were raised, with Illinois alone providing 13 infantry regiments and three cavalry regiments in July.

At the close of 1861 Illinois had sent to the field nearly 50,000 men, and had 17,000 in camp awaiting marching orders, thus exceeding her full quota by 15,000,” Chapman said. With Illinois having exceeded its quota, many of our state’s young men volunteered with Missouri’s regiments, so eager were they to fight for their country.

The following summer, Lincoln called for the states to provide 600,000 men, of which Illinois’ quota was 52,296. As war casualties increased, the president continued to call for troops. “On the 21st of December, 1864, the last call for troops was made. It was for 300,000 . . . . Illinois put into her one hundred and eight regiments 256,000 men, and into the United States army, through other states, enough to swell the number to 290,000,” Chapman said.

By the time Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, a total of about 620,000 American soldiers had died in combat or from war-related disease. The casualty numbers for the Civil War are vastly greater than any other U.S. war. Illinois alone lost 31,000 men, two-thirds of them from disease. According to the 1949 Pekin Centenary, Pekin alone had sent about 3,000 men off to fight for the Union.

The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection includes a great number of resources on the Civil War and Illinois’ part in it. To name just a few, Chapman’s account of the “War for the Union” is found on pages 125-141 and 336-383 of his Tazewell County history, with rolls of Tazewell County’s Civil War volunteers on pages 351-383. In addition, the Local History Room has three volumes of Illinois regimental and unit histories drawn from the Illinois Adjutant General’s Report. Our Tazewell County cemetery indexes also include a compiled list of all of the Civil War soldiers (whether casualties or veterans) who are buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Pekin’s Civil War heroes are listed by name on the Tazewell County War Memorial erected on the lawn of the Tazewell County Courthouse. Like vast numbers of cities and towns, Pekin also has a Civil War Memorial. In the years following the end of the Civil War, a monument of a standing Union soldier was erected in Lakeside Cemetery “IN MEMORY OF OUR SOLDIERS OF PEKIN ILL.,” like monuments of the Civil War fallen that may be found throughout the country.

A final curiosity regarding Illinois in the Civil War: the August 2018 issue of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s Monthly, page 2269, reprints notes from a talk by late local historian Fred Soady, in which Soady observed that “The closest the war came to Tazewell County was the Battle of Lake Peoria, April 16, 1862.” Further information on this obscure and apparently minor battle would be appreciated.

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How did Pekin get its name?

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

How did Pekin get its name?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The question of how Pekin got its name is shrouded in a haze of mystery and legend, but the resources of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room can help bring the question into better focus.

All the standard reference works on the history of Pekin and Tazewell County affirm that Pekin was named in 1830 by Ann Eliza Cromwell, wife of Major Nathan Cromwell, one of Pekin’s earliest settlers. However, early accounts disagree about the year she gave Pekin its name.

Local historian Fred W. Soady’s 1960 paper, “In These Waste Places,” says, “After the completion of the plat of the new town in 1830, Mrs. Nathan Cromwell, for reasons still obscure, gave the city the name of PEKIN, and thus it has remained to the present,” adding in a footnote, “It is speculated, and a common legend in Pekin, that the city was so named by Mrs. Cromwell on the belief that the site was exactly opposite the site of Peking, capital of China.”

The first known published sketch of Pekin’s history is found in the 1870 Pekin City Directory of W.W. Sellers & W.H. Bates, which says: “In 1829 a survey of ‘Town Site’ was made by William Hodge of Blooming Grove, then County Surveyor . . . The survey made, and the town laid out, Mrs. Cromwell being called upon, exercised her share of women’s rights in that early day by christening the embryo city of the new Celestials, PEKIN. Why she thus named it the legendary history of the days gone by fail to record, and we can only surmise that in the plenitude of her imagination she looked forward to the time when it would equal in size that other Pekin – the Chinese City of the Sun.”

During the 1800s, “Pekin” was the standard English-language spelling of the Chinese capital, Peking or Beijing.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” substantially repeats the same account, though he dates Hodge’s survey to 1827 (apparently a printer’s error for 1829). “Doubtless with a prophetic eye [Mrs. Cromwell] could see a brilliant future for their town in the not far distant time, and, therefore, gave to it the name of Pekin, we suppose after the celestial city of that name,” Chapman comments.

The story that Pekin was named after Peking (Beijing) appears to be an authentic tradition handed down by Pekin’s original settlers. Chapman quotes from the 1860 diary of Jacob Tharp, who came to Pekin in 1825. In his diary, Tharp gives an account of how the town’s proprietors (including Major Cromwell) surveyed and laid out the original town in 1830, and comments, “The gentlemen were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city.” His comment seems to be the earliest allusion to the story that Pekin was named for China’s Celestial City Beijing. “The Celestial City” has long been one of our city’s appellatives.

However, these old accounts do not mention the “common legend” to which Soady refers, that Mrs. Cromwell believed Pekin was on the opposite side of the earth from Peking. Perhaps that legend is only a later embellishment of the original tradition. It is worth noting, however, that Pekin, Ill., and Beijing are at about the same latitude on the globe – about 40 degrees for Pekin, about 39 degrees for Beijing.

Our city is not the only U.S. community with that name, nor was it the first. For example, Pekin in Washington County, Indiana, got its name around the same time as Pekin, Ill. There is also a small eastern Ohio community called Pekin, located near Minerva in Brown Township, Carroll County. Ohio’s Pekin may have received its name prior to 1815, judging from a statement in the 1921 “History of Carroll and Harrison Counties, Ohio.” Is it just a coincidence that Pekin, Ohio, is also at about the same latitude (39 or 40 degrees) as Pekin, Ill., and Beijing, China?

Several of our city’s first settlers came from or through Ohio – but did any of them know about Ohio’s Pekin? Could that have been what suggested the name to Ann Eliza Cromwell? It might be a worthwhile project for a contemporary researcher of our local history to investigate that question.

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Early historical accounts indicate that Pekin, Ill., was named for the capital of China, Beijing or Peking. During the 1800s, a common English-language spelling of China’s capital was “Pekin,” as shown in this detail of a map from an 1874 grade school geography textbook, “Monteith’s Independent Course — Elementary Geography,” by James Monteith, page 62.

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