The Tazewell Club was the gentleman’s club of 1893

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Sept. 2011 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The Tazewell Club was the gentleman’s club of 1893

By Linda Mace and Jared Olar
Library assistants

What comes to your mind when you think of a “gentlemen’s club”? Words acquire new meanings or different connotations as time goes on, and what “gentlemen’s club” might mean to some today isn’t what it meant over a hundred years ago.

Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies, but hearing the words “gentlemen’s club,” I think of New York City, of elegantly appointed, hushed rooms with men dressed in their finery, a cigar in one hand and a beverage of some type in the other hand.

Established in 1893, Pekin had the Tazewell Club, and while it may not have been touted as a gentlemen’s club, for all practical purposes that seems to be what it was.

The 2004 book “Pekin: A Pictorial History” tells us that it was once the hub of social life in Pekin.

“The club promoted local business interests and offered hours of wholesome recreation for the businessman, the professional and the clerk. The building had bowling alleys in the basement, meeting rooms, a card room and billiard room on the main floor, and a ballroom on the third.”

The Tazewell Club, established in 1893, met at this building that used to stand at the corner of Fourth and St. Mary streets.

Over 200 men were members of this club, with them “allowing” the Pekin Woman’s Club and the Litta Society the use of their facility for the ladies’ afternoon meetings.

But time marches on and membership eventually declined. In 1959 the club house was sold to the Herget National Bank and was demolished in 1960 for a parking lot.

Originally located on the corner of South 4th and St. Mary streets, the Tazewell Club was a grand building, worthy of the many social events that took place there.

Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” page 927-937, provides a detailed account of the founding and early history of the Tazewell Club, written by Fred H. Robbins. The account includes a quote from the club’s constitution and by-laws explaining its purpose: “The primary object of this Club shall be to promote the business interests of the City of Pekin, and the social enjoyments of the members of the corporation.

According to Robbins, the club was founded Sept. 14, 1893, at a meeting of local businessmen and leading men of the city in Holland’s Hall in Pekin, presided over by E. F. Unland, with O. F. Weber as secretary. The interim officers were Judge George C. Rider, president, and Weber again as secretary, with an organizing committee made of up Carl G. Herget (builder of the Herget Mansion), W. L. Prettyman, Fred W. Velde, W. A. Holt, and Dr. W. H. Allen.

Once the club was organized, the members elected Unland as president, Prettyman as vice-president, Weber as secretary, James M. James (in whose honor James Field is named) as treasurer, and Holt, Henry G. Herget, D. D. Velde, F. P. Maus, and Henry Birkenbusch as members of the club’s board of managers.

Though the club house is long gone and the Tazewell Club is a thing of the past, there is another community organization that was founded around the same time that is still very much living and active, and is soon to celebrate an important anniversary – the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce.

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The first railroads of Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Sept. 7, at 11 a.m., in the Pekin Public Library Community Room, the library will have a showing of a video about Pekin trains, featuring footage of the old Chicago & Illinois Midland Railroad. The video, which is about 30 minutes in length, is a part of the library’s Illinois Bicentennial Series.

During the first few decades following Illinois’ admission to the Union in 1818, the new state’s growth in population and wealth was in large part driven by steam power. Initially, as indicated in last week’s From the History Room column, men and goods were transported along the waterways and canals of Illinois using riverboats, whether steamers or packet boats.

But steam-powered rail (invented in Britain in 1804, three years before Robert Fulton’s first steamboat) would soon challenge and then eclipse steamboats as the preferred means of long-distance transportation of good and people. While Illinois’ steamboats were restricted to rivers, railroad tracks could be laid across long stretches of country, crossing rivers and streams and even climbing through mountain passes.

The early rail lines of Tazewell County are highlighted in yellow on this county map from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.”

The groundwork for the railroad’s eclipse of riverboat transportation in Illinois was laid at a time when river transportation was preeminent. In Tazewell County, interest in laying down a rail line had already arisen by the mid-1830s, but the first attempts to build a railroad in our county were abortive. Here how those efforts are described on page 732 of Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County”:

“Among the very first charters granted to railroads, perhaps the second one, by the State of Illinois, was the one granted to the Pekin & Tremont Railroad. This company was incorporated by the Legislature, Jan. 13, 1835. Madison Allen, Harlan Hatch, J. L. James, John H. Harris, George W. Brodrick and Aronet Richmond were constituted a body corporate, with capital stock of $50,000, for the purpose of building said road. It ran, according to the charter, from Pekin to Tremont, in this county. The company was given the power ‘to erect and maintain toll houses along the line.’ The road bed was graded and track partially laid, but the hard times of 1837 and the failure of the grand internal improvement scheme of the State put a stop to further progress on the P. & T. road. About a year after the P. & T. road was chartered a grander scheme was undertaken, and the Legislature incorporated the Pekin, Bloomington & Wabash Railroad, Feb. 16, 1836. This was a continuation eastward of the P. & T. road. Considerable enthusiasm was at first manifested in regard to the matter, but, like many other railroad schemes, it was never carried out.”

Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates told of continued efforts to get a railroad line to Pekin in his narrative of Pekin’s early history that was included in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. The following excerpts from Bates’ narrative demonstrate that Pekin’s city officials were willing to commit great sums of public funds to railroad projects, which were necessarily massive and expensive undertakings.

“On the 3d of June, 1853, the City Council ‘engaged to use its means and credit to the amount of one hundred thousand dollars to co-operate with the city of Canton, Fulton county, to secure the construction of the Mississippi and Wabash Railroad,’ provided said road was located so as to pass through the city of Pekin.” (Bates, page 32)

“On the 8th of September [1856], the Council ‘Resolved, That the city of Pekin, as a stockholder in the Mississippi Railroad Company, give their consent to the consolidation of the Mississippi and Wabash Railroad Company with the Pekin and Bloomington Railroad Company.’ . . . On the 23d of October the city decided by a vote of three hundred and one votes for and five against, to subscribe one hundred thousand dollars to the capital stock of the Illinois River Railroad.” (Bates, page 36)

For all that trouble, it wasn’t until 1859 – less than two years before the Civil War – that Pekin finally saw rails being laid. The city’s leaders thought that was worth celebrating, so Pekin’s Fourth of July celebrations that year included a joyous – and hopeful – inaugural ceremony of the driving of the first spike, as Bates tells:

“On the 4th day of July, 1859, the first rail was laid and the first spike driven on the prospective Illinois River Railroad. This was a gala day, full of momentous events for the future, and the birth-day of unnumbered hopes and anticipations yet to be realized. The leading citizens participated in celebrating the new enterprise on such an auspicious day as the Fourth of July.

“The road was never really completed until it passed into the hands of the present company, when the name was changed, and it is now the flourishing and well-managed Peoria, Pekin and Jacksonville Railroad.” (Bates, page 38)

Not only because it cost so much to build and operate a railroad, but also due to the interruption of the Civil War, most of Tazewell County’s railroad companies did not become fully operational until the latter 1860s. What had begun as the abortive Pekin & Tremont Railroad Company in Jan. 1835 later was taken up as a part of the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway in Aug. 1869, a road that stretched 202 miles from Indianapolis to Pekin (later being extended to Peoria).

Similarly, the Illinois River Railroad Company, whose first spike in Pekin was driven on July 4, 1859, eventually became the Peoria, Pekin & Jacksonville Railroad Company. Chapman’s Tazewell County history includes historical accounts of that company as well as the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway and five other railroad companies that had lines through Tazewell County: the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway, the Toledo, Peoria & Warsaw Railroad, the Illinois Midland, and the Chicago, Pekin & Southwestern Railroad.

The investors, directors, and employees of these railroad companies were among the preeminent men of Tazewell County and central Illinois – such as Benjamin S. Prettyman, Teis Smith, John B. Cohrs, James M. James, Gordis R. Cobleigh, or Columbus R. Cummings. A review of the names on the boards of directors of the early railroad companies will, not surprisingly, show many of the same names showing up on the lists of city mayors, aldermen, and successful businessmen and local attorneys.

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City shuts down for pioneer’s funeral

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
Library assistant

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?

This portrait of James M. James was published in B.C. Allensworth’s “History of Tazewell County.”

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.

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