Page 292Transcribed by: Jeanie Lowe
Petersburg, the metropolis of Menard County, is beautifully situated on the west bank of the Sangamon River, at the crossing of the Chicago & Alton and the Springfield & North-Western Railroads, twenty-one miles from Springfield and twenty-seven miles from Jacksonville. It extends back from the river on to the bluffs, where are located many elegant residences. The streets are broad and lined with rows of trees, thus presenting an inviting appearance in the sultry months of summer. The public square is a well-shaded spot, nicely set in grass, and containing many fine trees, in the midst of which stands that immense pile of architectural beauty and magnificence - the Court House. The principal portion of the business, as in the majority of Illinois towns, is done around the square, and the business houses, as a class, are superior to those usually found in towns of this size.
Peter Lukins and George Warburton were the original owners of 160 acres of land, on which Petersburg now stands. This tract of land was embraced in Section 14 of Town 18, and Range 7 west. They laid out the town about 1832-33, surveying and dividing the entire 160 acres into blocks of town lots, which performance being ended; they quietly sat down and waited for the place to grow. It was a rather extensive foundation for a town forty or fifty year ago, and it was probably these ponderous proportions that retarded its growth for the first few years of its existence, as we learn that city real estate commanded but limited figures in either the home or in foreign markets. Finally, becoming discouraged or disgusted because a town did not rise as if by magic, they sold out to Hezekiah King and John Taylor. These gentlemen employed Abraham Lincoln, then Deputy Surveyor of Sangamon County, to resurvey and plat it, which plat was admitted to record February 22, 1836. The town was named for Peter Lukins, one of the original proprietors of the land. The accident, or incident, which led t the name of Petersburg, instead of that of Georgetown, occurred in this wise: Peter Lukins and George Warburton, who laid out the original town as already stated, were each desirous of being immortalized in history by bestowing his name upon the incipient city, and became involved in a dispute as to whether it should be called Georgetown (for Warburton) or Petersburg (for Lukins). They finally agreed to play a game of "old sledge," or "seven-up" then the national game (instead of base ball), and allow the winner to name the place. Lukins won the game, and, rising from the costly Turkish chair (an empty nail-keg) on which he sat, solemnly pronounced the name Petersburg.
From the most authentic information to be obtained at the present day, it is probably that the first shanty erected on the present site of Petersburg was by Elijah Estep, mentioned of which has been made in the precinct history. As the settlements there noticed include both town and precinct, we will not recapitulate the settlement of the town under this head. There was also a building, which people, out of respect, called a mill, erected by Estep, which is supposed to have been put up about 1826. It was what was called, in those early times, a "gear horse-mill," and, we believe, used for sawing only. If any of our readers are curious to know what a "gear horse-mill" is, they will have to consult some of the old settlers, for we cannot enlighten them. The first store was opened by John Taylor, in 1833. Not long after Taylor commenced business as a merchant here, the Davidson Brothers opened a store, which is said to have been the second in the place. Taylor sold his store to John Bennett, who is still living, and is a highly respected citizen of the town. He was for a number of years one of the leading merchants and businessmen. Jordan Morris was the first blacksmith, and Peter Lukins looked after the soles of the early settlers, otherwise, the first shoemaker. A post office was established about 1833-34, with James Taylor as Postmaster. It was a very small affair, and could have been easily carried in a man's hat, but has grown to considerable proportions, and its emoluments are more eagerly sought after at the present day than when established nearly fifty years ago. The present Postmaster is A.N. Curry, and, instead of a weekly mail, four mails are now received daily. The first practicing lawyer was David M. Rutledge, a brother to Miss Anna Rutledge, once the finance of Mr. Lincoln, and whose premature death alone prevented her becoming his wife. Dr. R.E. Bennett was the first located physician. The first tavern was kept by Peter Lukins, and stood in the south end of the town. It was a small and unpretentious affair, but accommodated, in its time, and the limited demand made upon an establishment of that kind. At present, there are four hotels in the city, and several restaurants. The two principal hotels are the Menard House on the southeast corner, and the brick hotel on the northeast corner of the public square.
From this small business, beginning back nearly a half-century ago, Petersburg has grown to be a stirring and energetic little city, of nearly three thousand inhabitants, commanding as large a trade as any town of its size, perhaps, in the State. The little store of Taylor has given place to twelve or fifteen large establishments, handling dry goods, groceries and clothing. Morris, the "village blacksmith," is now represented by six shops, the smallest of which is far more pretentious than his, and some half a dozen disciples of St. Crispin supply the place of Lukins. The successors of Squire Rutledge in the legal profession comprise a dozen or more attorneys who rank at the head of the bar, and six physicians represent Dr. Bennett, the first of his kind in the town. All other branches of business have correspondingly increased, and hardware stores, agricultural, harness, drugs, furniture, meat and millinery stores, and lumberyards flourish, and are well patronized and maintained. There are also two banks included in the business of the town.
The next mill after the small affair already mentioned, was a saw and gristmill, built by one Dorrell. It was operated for a number of years, when a man named Sanford erected a very fine mill, at a cost of $18,000, which he sold, in 1853, to A.D. Wright. After operating it for several years, his sons, J.D. and E.D. Wright, took charge of it. In a few years, the latter withdrew from the firm and the former failed, necessitating the sale of the property. The mill was purchased, in 1878, by D. Fischer and E.L. Gault, who are now running it with good success. They make a fine article of flour, as evidenced in the fact that it took first premium at the State Fair, last year, at Freeport.
The Eagle Mills were built in 1867, by Nance, Brother & Co., at a cost of $24,000, and were operated by them for about fifteen months, when they sold out to Philip Rainey. He operated them for a time, in connection with Thomas Barfield, but, at the present time, is alone in the ownership of these excellent mills. He has recently added what is termed a "New Process," a process, by the way, of which we are ignorant, but, as some of our readers may be better informed upon the subject, we give them the benefit of the information. "The Process," whatever it is, the customers say, greatly improves the quality of the flour. While on the subject of mills, we should not omit to mention the fact that in early times the Sangamon River was supposed to be susceptible of navigation, as noticed in the general history, and that about the year 1836, a little steamboat, in paddling up (or down) the crooked stream, became stranded on the beach in this vicinity. The machinery was purchased by John Taylor, who placed it in a sawmill, and afterward added a gristmill to the establishment. The machinery proved more valuable here than in the navigation of the Sangamon River, and performed good service until the mill was destroyed by fire.
The grain trade of Petersburg, though quite an extensive branch of business, scarcely equals many other towns of this size. The principal dealers here at present are Phil Rainey, of the Eagle Mills, Fischer, Gault & Conover, of the Charter Oak Mills, and Laning & Co., all of who have done a large business the present year. Fischer, Gault & Conover have an excellent grain elevator in connection with their mills, which is the only grain elevator in the town. This struck us a little strange - that in a section of country as rich as this, where corn and wheat are the main staples, to find no extensive grain elevators looming up along the railroad tracks. But much of the wheat is shipped as soon as threshed, the corn cribbed by the railroads, where it is shelled and loaded into the cars; hence, elevators are but little needed.