Transcribed by: Ellen Booth.Page 340
In that classic land which holds the most conspicuous place in the pages of early history, a land abounding in fine natural objects and picturesque scenery ---alternate mountain peaks and ravines, hills and valleys, wooded headlands and shaded torrent streams, sat--- “Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of arts And eloquence, native to famous wits.” While, under the all-conquering hand of Rome, she saw every trace of her political importance vanish, she rose to an empire scarcely less flattering, to which Rome itself was compelled to bow, and she became to her conqueror the teacher and arbiter of taste, philosophy and science. It is not our purpose to trace the history of the far-famed city, but of one of far more humble pretensions, and which, though bearing the same name, is different in every other respect. The village of Athens is situated in the southeastern part of the county, and, next to extinct. Salem and Petersburg, is the oldest town in Menard. The village site is an eligible one, the country adjacent being finely adapted to agricultural and horticultural pursuits. Woodland, comprising as fine oak timber as can be found in any section of Illinois, adjoins the place, and coal of a superior quality abounds in almost inexhaustible quantities at a depth of less than one hundred feet beneath the surface upon which the town is founded. It was surveyed and platted in 1831, by James Stevenson, County Surveyor, for Rev. John Overstreet. The original plat contained about forty acres, to which some four additions have subsequently been made. Two cabins, one for a residence, and the other for a blacksmith shop, had been erected by Orimal Clark, who had laid a claim here a year or two previous to the laying-out of the town, and from whom Overstreet purchased the original town site. A small band-mill, operated by horse-power, was also here at the date of the laying-out of the village. About the year 1832 or 1833, Col. Matthew Rogers became a citizen of the town, and made the first permanent improvements, the large and commodious building now occupied by L. Salzenstein as a store being one of the results of his enterprise. John Overstreet was the first merchant of the village, having purchased the remnant of a stock of goods which had been kept by Harry Riggin, at his farm residence; he made some additional purchases, and opened out a small stock soon after the laying-out of the village. Jonathan Dunn was the second merchant in the field, but remained in the mercantile business but a short time.
In the latter part of 1832, or the beginning of 1833, Harry Riggin and Amberry A. Rankin opened a store, and, after two years, sold their stock to Martin M. Morgan. During the year, James D, Allen and Simeon Clark became merchants of the village as did Abner and Elisha Hall. In 1836, Sebastian Stone became a partner with Allen, and that firm remained in business a number of years. The early merchants received their goods from St. Louis, a distance of 120 miles, by ox team, a master means of transportation at that day. The arrival of a new supply of goods for the merchants created almost as much excitement among the villagers as the pageantry of Barnum’s one and only show on earth does in our cities at the present day. The hustle and hum that was seen and heard upon her streets at one time, betokened for her a bright and glorious future. But alas for human hopes and prophecies! The tidal wave of adversity set in hard against her in the spring of 1839. She entered the list for county seat honors, and, though she played her hand skillfully, Petersburg over-reached her and left her to weep over blasted hopes and blighted prospects. The failure to secure railroad communication with the outside world, until quite recently; the establishment of the county seat at Petersburg, and the capital at Springfield all contributed to check the growth of Athens and to give to her, as early as 1841, the appearance of a finished town. But to return to her early history. As early as 1826, Elijah Estep had erected a small band-mill on the present site of Petersburg. Owing to the high rates charged for grinding, and the difficulty oftentimes experienced in reaching the mill, those living in the immediate vicinity of the present village of Athens, in the fall of 1829, joined in the purchase and removal of the mill to this point. After the mill was brought and put in running order, John Overstreet took charge of it, taking toll from each and every one using it, the same as if he had been the individual owner. He was to keep up the necessary repairs and superintend the “mammoth concern” for the term of four years, at the expiration of which time the property was to pass into his hands. Two classes of individual interests were represented in the mill, viz., money-signers and work-signers. There were rules and regulations governing the rights of each, and so strictly were they observed that but few difficulties ever occurred. The moneyed aristocracy in those days, as well as at the present, belonged to the privileged class. If A had contributed $5 in work toward securing the mill, and B had contributed fifty cents in cash, it was B’s privilege, whenever he came to the mill, though A might be using it at the time, to take full possession as soon as the hopper was empty, and grind out his grist. If, in the mean time, no other money-signers came, A could resume operations, but not otherwise. It thus happened that sometimes a work-signer would go early and remain all day, returning home at night without having had the privilege of cracking a grain of his grist. While this worked a hardship to may, yet none knew better how to observe both the spirit and letter of the law than did the early pioneers. About the year 1834, Overstreet ground a flat-boat load of flour on this mill, and, in company with Jesse G. and David Hurt, took it to the New Orleans market. Some two or three months were consumed in manufacturing the load, the bolting being done by hand. From that trip, Overstreet and David Hurt never returned. Both were stricken with disease and died in the Crescent City. Jonathan Dunn built a steam grist-mill here in an early day, and, after operating it a year or two, sold out to Strawbridge & Croft, who attached a distillery and ran the two conjointly for some time. This enterprise, however, has long since become a thing of the past. In 1856, John Overstreet, a relative of the pioneer, and Alexander Hale, built a brick steam grist-mill, at a cost of $11,000, and began operating it in 1857. It has a run of two buhrs and is capable of grinding fifteen bushels per hour. It is at present in successful operation. Charles P. Smith opened a blacksmith shop in 1832 and soon afterwards Thomas Tabor and William Brown followed in this business. Smith was the first on the ground after the laying-out of the village. After a short residence, he moved to Texas, and later, started for the gold regions of California. Like many others, he failed to reach what he no doubt deemed the land of promise, and his bones were left to bleach on the sandy plains with those of others of his unfortunate companions. A pottery was established here in quite an early day by John Pierson, and for a time did quite a paying business. Goble & Sackett and likewise Ramsey followed in a like enterprise at a later date. Tradition informs us that a cotton-gin was once operated here, and, if so, it must have been not later than 1827-28, as this article of merchandise was not cultivated in this section subsequent to the winter of the “deep snow.”