This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in July 2014, before the launch of this weblog.
Silver pitchers, railroads and John B. Cohrs
By Jared Olar
Local History Specialist
In the early summer of 2014, the Pekin Daily Times featured an article by Springfield State-Journal Register writer Tobias Wall that told of the return to Illinois of a 150-year-old silver pitcher that has a connection to Pekin.
The pitcher had been presented by the city of Springfield to Illinois State Sen. John Benson Cohrs of Pekin in 1867 to thank him for leading the effort to ensure that Springfield would remain the state capital. (John B. Cohrs was born in 1838 in Charleston, S.C., and died June 5, 1898 in Los Angeles, California.)
Somewhere along the line, however, Cohrs’ silver trophy was lost and, as Wall’s article explains, it eventually was acquired in 1949 by the Bell family of Washington, D.C. A Bell descendant recently donated the pitcher to Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois so he could return it to Springfield, where it is now on display in a corridor outside the House chamber on the third floor of the Illinois Statehouse.
Wall’s article says that besides making sure Springfield remained Illinois’ capital, State Sen. Cohrs “did almost nothing else of note during his one term as state senator.” That term lasted from 1864 to 1868. The one other thing the article mentions was Cohrs’ public opposition to the Emancipation Proclamation, a stance he later renounced and apologized for. That stance is not surprising in light of the fact that Pekin and Peoria were hotbeds of pro-slavery and pro-Confederacy agitation during the Civil War, and that Cohrs himself was a native of Charleston, South Carolina.
While those are the two main things for which Cohrs is remembered – when he is remembered at all, that is – he also made a mark in Pekin, and therefore his name appears a few times in old publications about our local history in Tazewell County.
For example, the 1902 “Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Peoria County” refers to Cohrs in its biography of Pekin attorney and judge Sabin F. Puterbaugh. The biography says, “In January, 1857, [Puterbaugh] passed an examination before a committee of which Abraham Lincoln was a member, and was admitted to practice by the Supreme Court, at once becoming a partner of Hon. Samuel W. Fuller, then of Pekin, and State Senator from that District. Mr. Fuller having removed to Chicago in 1858, the firm of Fuller & Puterbaugh was dissolved, and, in 1860, Mr. Puterbaugh formed a partnership with John B. Cohrs, which lasted until the fall of 1861 . . . .”
Cohrs ran for the Illinois Senate in the election of 1864, his opponent being none other than the Rev. George Minier, founder of Minier. In Lawrence B. Stringer’s “History of Logan County, Illinois,” vol. I, page 286, we read, “John B. Cohrs was elected State Senator over George W. Minier, both of Tazewell, by the following vote: Cohrs, 7,623; Minier, 7,465.”
After his single term in the Illinois Senate, Cohrs appears prominently in efforts to develop railroads in and around Pekin. Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” page 860, notes that during the 1870s, “J. B. Cohrs” was the secretary of the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway Company. Then on the following page, Allensworth says, “John B. Cohrs, at that time one of Pekin’s most prominent attorneys, was the originator of the Peoria & Pekin Union [Company] and, owing to his legal skill and foresight, this road is one of the richest for its length in the United States.”
Allensworth does not provide a full biography of Cohrs, but on page 879 he lists him among the “attorneys who have practiced law and lived in Tazewell County, and are now dead,” and also notes on page 902 that he served as Pekin’s city attorney from 1861 to 1862.
The Cohrs name appears in one other important event in Pekin’s history – the founding of the Pekin Public Library. In this case, however, it’s not Cohrs himself, but rather his wife, who took part in this aspect of our local history.
The Pekin Public Library began as the Ladies’ Library Association of Pekin, which was formally organized on Nov. 24, 1866. The minutes of the meeting of that day list the 23 women who gathered to start the library association, and the very first name on the list is “Mrs. John B. Cohrs,” as we find on page 939 of Allensworth’s Tazewell County history. On the next page, Allensworth mentions that “Mrs. Cohrs” served as president of the Ladies’ Library Association in 1868.
“Mrs. Cohrs” was Anna Elizabeth (Rider) Cohrs, John’s first wife. She was born circa 1837 in Chatham, N.Y., a daughter of David Wilson and Anne (Varney) Rider, who were Quakers. Anna had two sisters and a brother. She studied at Troy Female Seminary 1849-1851 (today it’s the elite prep boarding school for women called The Emma Willard School). She and John B. Cohrs married in 1853 in New York State. Their children were named Sara Frederica, Florence McKenzie, Anna R., and Charles H. Mrs. Anna Cohrs died March 19, 1887, in Chicago, and was buried in Charleston, S.C. John afterwards married again, to Ida Taylor.