Jacob Tharp’s memoir of Pekin’s founding

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The founding of Pekin was due to the influx of settlers of central Illinois during the 1820s, in the decade following Illinois statehood. This area’s newcomers in that wave of settlement were first attracted to Fort Clark (Peoria), but before long pioneers were establishing homesteads up and down the Illinois River valley in Peoria’ vicinity.

Pekin, as it well known, began with Jonathan Tharp’s homestead of 1824 on a ridge above the Illinois River, at what is now the foot of Broadway near downtown Pekin. Within a year, Tharp had been joined by several other settlers, including his own father Jacob Tharp (1773-1871) and brother Northcott Tharp, and his friend Jesse Eggman, all of whom arrived in 1825 and built cabins near Jonathan’s.

Most of what we know of Pekin’s “pre-history” during the 1820s comes from three sources: the 1860 diary of Jacob Tharp, William H. Bates’ 1870 account of Pekin’s history that he first published in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, and Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

The 1860 diary of Pekin pioneer Jacob Tharp (1773-1871), shown here, is one of the most important primary sources for the history of Pekin’s founding.

Jacob Tharp’s diary contains the earliest surviving reference to Pekin as “the Celestial City,” referring to the old pioneer tradition that Pekin had been named after Peking (Beijing), China. A transcript of Tharp’s diary was itself published on pages 565-562 of Chapman’s history, and Tharp’s account was substantially reproduced in the 1949 Pekin Centenary and the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial volumes. Following are excerpts from Tharp’s diary, drawn from Chapman’s county history:

“. . . After a streak of bad luck, in 1825, [I] left Ohio, where I then resided, and traveled through Indiana with one ox-team, a span of horses, and a family of twelve persons, reaching the site of Pekin just before Christmas.

“Jonathan Tharp, my son, built the first house ever erected in the city of Pekin, in 1824, on the spot now occupied by Joshua Wagenseller’s residence. Jonathan’s farm embraced the land now covered by our heaviest business houses.

“At the time of my arrival, Jonathan was the only occupant. Their neighbors were Major Nathan Cromwell, living on the Hawley farm; Gideon Hawley, living on the Mackinaw side of Sand Prairie; Seth Wilson, living on John Young’s farm; John and Geo. Clines, between that place and Tremont; the Woodrows and John Summers, living in the Woodrow settlement; the Dillon family, after whom that township was named; the Hodgsons, friends and relatives of the Dillons; old Benj. Briggs, afterwards Sheriff; James Scott, who with Wilson, acted as constable in those days; and Wm. Eads, who was the first miller in this section of the State. He ran a ‘horse-mill,’ and ground only corn. On New Year’s day, 1827, I went to Fort Clark, now Peoria, where I found a few cabins occupied by John Hamlin, James Dixon, and others. Hamlin had a little store, and I bought groceries, coffee selling at 37 ½ cents per pound. On my way home I contracted for mast-fed pork at $2.50 per hundred. I soon built my cabin, placing it about half way between Joshua Wagenseller’s house and the present landing at the river.

“In the summer of 1827, the first consignment of goods was sent to Pekin, by one [Mordecai] Mobley, the land auctioneer. I received them, and so won the honor of being the first commission merchant. Most of the goods, however, went on to Mackinaw, which was the first shire-town. Pekin at this early day, was reported to be the best commercial point on the Illinois river. All goods came up from St. Louis, which was the great basis of supplies for the settlers.

“The Government surveys were made previous to 1828. This year we were cheered by a close neighbor, a Mr. Hinkle, who came to put up a trading house for Absalom Dillon. The goods came before the house was finished, and so my smoke-house was used for the first store. This season the Methodists established a mission, and their first service was held in Hawley’s house, on Sand Prairie. In the fall of 1828, Absalom and Joseph Dillon moved to Pekin, and ‘camped out’ for a while. Major Cromwell came in 1829, and bought out Dillon’s stock in trade, when those gentleman returned to the country. In the same year, Hawley and William Haines built cabins in our town. The inhabitants then consisted of Cromwell, Hawley, Haines, Dr. John Warner, the two Hiatts, Jonathan Tharp and myself. Mr. Clark made a raft of hewed puncheons, and started the ferry, placing a stake just below the present ferry landing to mark his claim.

“When the land sales were held at Springfield, there were several claimants for the Pekin town-site. On the first day of the sale the bidding ran high, and the land was knocked down to William Haines at $20.00 dollars an acre; but he did not comply with the regulations of the sale, and on the second day the same tract was sold for one hundred dollars per acre. The buyer again failed to comply, and the tract was once more offered on the third day. A man in Springfield, named Harrington, had in the meantime a deadly quarrel with Major [Isaac] Perkins, one of the principal claimants, growing out of some delicate question. Those were chivalrous days, and he determined on revenge. So he placed himself near the auctioneer, armed to the eyebrows, and when the coveted tract was put up, he bid one dollar and twenty-five cents an acre, and swore he would blow out any man’s brains who offered a higher bid. Major Perkins was stalking around the room, armed for battle and hunting blood. There was immense excitement, and death was felt in the atmosphere, but the tract was knocked down to Harrington. He complied with the regulations and walked out feeling sublime, but the Major and his friends captured the usurper, conveyed him to a room and persuaded him to make out deeds for the prize. From these papers the original title is derived.”

“In the spring of 1830, the proprietors surveyed and laid out the town, Perkins, Hawley, Haines and Cromwell being the active agents. Cromwell did the surveying. About this time Perkins sold out to Thomas Snell, from Cincinnati, Ohio. The gentlemen were much exercised about the way in which to lay off the celestial city. The elder Hiatt had a claim upon the Lake shore, but when the land sales occurred he forgot to bid, and Carpenter bought his tract, also buying eighty acres on the east side of said tract. The proprietors of the future city included these two tracts in the town-site. Mr. Hiatt was appeased with a pony purse of seventy-five or eighty dollars.

“After some property sales, the foreign owners were bought out and the entire city owned, body and soul, by five persons, namely: William Haines, Thomas Snell, Nathan Cromwell, William Brown, and David Bailey. The surveys were finally completed, and it was found that the lots had cost just twenty-eight cents apiece. The advertisement for the gale of lots was immediately made, to take place in April, 1830. The deed of partition was drawn up before the sale, and is the one now on record.”

Many additional details on Pekin’s founding were recorded in four pages of the original handwritten minutes of the stockholder meetings of the company that founded Pekin. From these minutes we learn that on Dec. 28, 1829, Cromwell was appointed to survey and stake out the proposed town, and Cromwell reported on Jan. 18, 1830, that “the survey of Said Town, is Compleeted (sic) and the Stakeing (sic) nearly done.”

On Jan. 19, 1830, according to the minutes, the company’s commissioners met again to decide on the name of the new town and to arrange the sale of lots to be announced in several newspapers throughout the Midwest. Isaac Perkins made the motion to vote on the town’s name, and three names were proposed: Pekin, Port Folio, and Portugal. According to old pioneer tradition, Nathan Cromwell’s wife Ann Eliza had proposed the name of “Pekin,” and that name garnered the most votes – and thus Pekin was born.

#absalom-dillon, #ann-eliza-cromwell, #david-bailey, #gideon-hawley, #harrington-land-sale-dispute, #illinois-bicentennial, #isaac-perkins, #jacob-tharp, #jesse-eggman, #jonathan-tharp, #nathan-cromwell, #pekin-founding, #peking, #port-folio, #portugall, #thomas-snell, #william-brown, #william-haines

Pekin’s theater tradition is long and varied

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

Pekin’s theater tradition is long and varied

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Showplace 14 out on Edgewater Drive, built on the former site of the Starlite Drive-in, is now the place to catch a motion picture on the big screen in Pekin – but older residents of Pekin still fondly recall a time when downtown was the place for movies.

A visit to the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room will reveal that downtown Pekin was once the home of seven theaters, some of which hosted live acts, plays and music before the dawn of the motion picture. One of them, the Vaudette, was located in a room of the Pekin Daily Times building that later served as the office of Times publisher F.F. MacNaughton (now demolished and used as a Tazewell County parking lot). The other six were the Dreamland at 302 Court, the Empire at 325 Court, the Unique in the Arcade building, the Idylhour at 405 Court, the Court at 439 Court, and – the best remembered of Pekin’s downtown theaters and the one that outlived the others – the Pekin Theater at the corner of Capitol and Elizabeth (now the front lawn of the Tazewell County Justice Center).

The Pekin Theater was not the first theater to exist at that location. Going back to 1879, we had the Turner Opera House, later known as the Standard Theater, the Celestial Theater and finally the Capitol Theater. When the Pekin Theater was built in 1928, one of the walls of the Capitol Theater became the south wall of the new structure.

This vintage photograph, printed in late 1928 or early 1929 in the Peoria Star, shows the newly-opened Pekin Theater. The marquee displays the title of the comedy romance, "Moran of the Marines," starring Richard Dix, Ruth Elder, and Roscoe Karns, a silent film that came out in 1928.

This vintage photograph, printed in late 1928 or early 1929 in the Peoria Star, shows the newly-opened Pekin Theater. The marquee displays the title of the comedy romance, “Moran of the Marines,” starring Richard Dix, Ruth Elder, and Roscoe Karns, a silent film that came out in 1928.

The Pekin Theater opened Nov. 27, 1928, with a dedication ceremony and a show featuring a jazz orchestra, vaudeville acts, and a feature film, “The Show Girl,” starring Alice White. Designed by Chicago architect Elmer F. Behrns, who specialized in palatial themed theaters, the Pekin Theater was built in a grand vaudeville style by Mrs. Anna B. Fluegel. However, it was toward the end of the vaudeville era and early in the golden age of cinema, so Mrs. Fluegel’s theater made most of its money showing movies. Making the most of Pekin’s fanciful association with Beijing (Peking), China, the theater was elaborately decorated inside and out like a Chinese pagoda and prominently displayed a Buddha statue.

With the passage of years, however, eventually the Pekin Theater fell victim to the poor economy of the 1970s, and the theater’s last manager, Harold Williams, closed its doors in the early summer of 1975. Owner Robert Monge, who had bought it from the Fluegels in 1971, attempted to reopen it in December 1975 as the Pekin Dinner Playhouse, but that plan fell through, as did Monge’s 1980 proposal to reuse it as a medical office building. Utilities were disconnected in 1981, and the building began to deteriorate.

There were several more attempts to save and repurpose the theater during the 1980s. It was added to the National Registry of Historical Places in August 1983, and Monge considered giving it to the Committee for the Historic Preservation of Pekin in 1983 and 1984. When those ideas went nowhere, in 1985 he offered it to the Pekin Civic Center Authority Board – but the state rejected the board’s plans to turn the old theater into a civic center.

By 1986, Monge regretfully announced it would cost too much to save the old theater. Furnishings were auctioned off in December 1986 and January 1987, and the last of Pekin’s downtown theaters fell to the wrecking ball in March 1987.

#moran-of-the-marines, #pekin-history, #pekin-theater, #pekin-theaters, #peking, #robert-monge, #the-show-girl

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.

#ann-eliza-cromwell, #beijing, #celestial-city, #china, #fred-soady, #pekin, #pekin-history, #pekin-ohio, #peking