A View of Clinton

August 22, 1890
Clinton Public
Clinton, Illinois

A "Highway and byway" Letter with Some Facts and Some Fancies

Last week one of the traveling editors of the Chicago Tribune was in Clinton, and as the result of his visit was the following gossipy letter in last Saturday's issue. In the main Mr. Brooks grouped a good many facts, but in some points the letter is a little incorrect in minor details.

A Plain, Everyday Sort of Town.

Clinton, Ill., Aug. 15—Col. Tom SNELL, Col. WALLACE, Mayor HARRIS, Editor BUTLER, Ald. Jim CONKLIN, and a man who had never been in Clinton before sat before the big brick hotel building in the evening. When the question about the early history and pedigree of the town was turned on, one of the gentlemen named said:

"There are no Indian traditions or anything of that sort on our escutcheon. There has been no time for dreaming in this town. It isn't the prettiest town in Illinois, and it isn't the ugliest. It hasn't any of the picturesque about it and it hasn't any of the deformity which you will find in some sections. It gave Chicago Leonard SWETT, and Abner TAYLOR, and it has given the United States a Judge of the Court of Claims—Lawrence WELDON—and there still lives in our midst Mr. C. H. MOORE, who was the real estate partner of David DAVIS. Gov. FIFER earned some of his reputation in this old town. He used to be Prosecuting Attorney of McLean county and won his spurs in convicting a man who murdered a prominent citizen of Bloomington. The case was tried on a change of venue in this town. I have sat on this corner and seen Abe LINCOLN ride up, hitch his horse, and go up to the court-house. I've seen Steve DOUGLAS around town, but Steve was never a man of the people like Lincoln. Abe would hold a levee around a goods box, but Douglas was more starchy, and the people had to go to his room.

"And you might say that Clinton is in the middle of the biggest cornfield of the west. And the four pisions of the Illinois Central railroad come together here. We are a happy community. We never expected to be anything more than the county seat. We had to fight for that. We had to fight to keep it. Well, that's settled and the town is beginning to look up. Since Harris was elected Mayor, or re-elected, I should say, the town has got a burr under its ear and has struck a new gait. We old fellows who planted the town and who made our money here concluded to give the boys a chance. About eight or nine years ago Harris came up here from Kentucky to practice law. He had a good deal of go in him and we elected him mayor. And when his time was out we elected him again. Under his administration we've had the electric light system put in, and the lights run all night, rain or shine. We've got a good water system, and our fire department can hitch a hose on that plug over yonder and throw a stream clear over the spire of the Methodist Church, and that's the highest thing in town."

Room for Improvement.

Where this talk would have ended if there had been no interruption, no one can guess. But one leg of the chair on which the speaker was seated became entangled in an auger hole in the plank walk and his efforts to extricate himself pided the time. Another man, for instance, said that he wouldn't vote for Harris again for anything unless he had some brick sidewalks laid, at least around the public square. He said the time had come for brick sidewalks.

Another prefixed his remarks with a word which is often represented by a ____ in the newspapers, and proceeded to say that he was against sidewalking the town because the one he had in front of his place has cost him $125.

But the consensus of opinion then and there was that the rotten sidewalks of the town had to go.

An old-timer—in a city he would be called a back number—was appealed to. He said he guessed the time was at hand for improvement, and there was no use of kicking. "About three years ago," he said, "three shingles were blown from the roof of the court house during a storm, and the County Judge asked me only the other day if I thought the people of DeWitt county would make much noise if the Commissioners appropriated enough to repair the roof. So you see the improvement fever is on us, and we old men who used to buy sugar of Ab Taylor when he kept his store on the corner, and who used to stand around and hear Leonard Swett talk, have got to get out of the way. Harris will have a spike-tail coat on the town the first thing we know."

Still There Was a Beginning.

The town of Clinton had a beginning nevertheless. It was a town before there was any DeWitt county. In 1836 James ALLEN and Jesse W. FELL came here from New York. Allen had been a pupil of old DeWitt Clinton and thought him the chief figurehead of the United States. Allen mapped out the town and called it Clinton. The county was then Marion. Fearful that coming generations would not know that Clinton was named for the New York Governor, Allen succeeded in having a new county laid out which was called DeWitt. Having thus done his duty by his ideal statesman, Allen retired to private life and passed away without any fear.

The first house was built by John COPPENBARGER. His children are living here. One of the oldest citizens of the town, William Garrison WRIGHT, died only a few weeks ago from the effects of an accident.

The town of Clinton became the county seat in 1839 and reached that point of greatness by a trade made with Sangamon county. In consideration of the Sangamon legislators doing certain things, or agreeing to do them, a strip of the county was ceded to Sangamon. That threw Clinton near the center of the county and it was made the seat of government of DeWitt county.

The first court-house was built in 1840 and is yet standing, but is now occupied by Mrs. LOWRY, one of the old settlers. The stranger is informed with some distinctness that the court-house built in 1840 is not the one that stands in the middle of the square, from the roof of which three shingles were blown three years ago. This court-house, as we shall see further on, is not to be charged to any lack of enterprise on the part of Clinton.

David Davis's Partner.

It is the duty of every stranger who visits Clinton to call upon Mr. C. H. Moore. Not because he was an associate of David Davis, but because Mr. Moore is a remarkable man, and one of that school of a generation that has gone and left behind much for this generation to study and admire. His face reminds the beholder of that of Justice MILLER of the Supreme bench. There is a repose in the countenance which leaves the impression that its master has made his peace with God and is on good terms with his fellow men. Here is a man who is done with the worry and bustle of the world. One who has had his days of labor and nights of care. He came here in 1841 a young man, and bought acres and acres for $1 an acre, and people wondered if he was right in his head. Mr. Moore and Judge Davis went into partnership. They speculated here and in Iowa and in Missouri and it did seem as if every acre they bought blossomed under their purchase and yielded more than had been its wont. Mr. Moore was elected a member of Constitutional Convention of Illinois.

Mr. Moore's private library consists of 6,000 volumes—the largest private collection in the State. There isn't a book publishing house in the world that hasn't his name on its books. So you see, young man, that while this man was chasing the almighty dollar, and making a fortune and toiling, he had time for something else as well, and even now is not resting. Seven days in the week he is at his law office. You can find him there before his partner comes down, and you can find him there after his partner has gone home. The same thing can be said of many men in Chicago. But this man is not absorbed wholly in his own interests. He has given to his town and his county out of his own earnings, and because he is at his post early and late is no reason for the conclusion which usually follows such cases.

More About the Court House.

The ambitious citizen of Clinton is anxious to be set right about the building in the center of the square—the one that was put up for a court-house. "You see it was this way," he says. "It has only been within a few years that the county seat question was squelched for good. Waynesville, a town on the west, was expecting to be the county seat. And Farmer City on the east had like expectations. Farmer City used to be known as Mount Pleasant. Between the wrangling of these two towns the grass grew in our streets and the bullfrog croaked his melancholy what-do-you-call-it about the very corners. We had to have a court-house, though, and they put up that thing over there. It looks as if it cost about $400 and came high at that. But the people said, 'What's the use of building a fine one when you don't know how long you will need it?' Well, that sort of logic got its eyes sot and there's the result. Then D. A. NEAL, President of the Land Association, came along and bought a tract of land in Wapella and the Illinois Central railroad put up some shops over there, and it looked for awhile as if the Illinois Central was going to build a town, and again Clinton was asked 'What do you want with a court-house?'

"Now, then, all of the uncertainties have passed away. Waynesville and Farmer City have their own business and the spirit of discontent has vanished, and the car shops of the four pisions of the Illinois Central are here, and as soon as we pay our railroad debt we shall have a new court-house, and then the farmers will come to town and have a fine building in which to bring lawsuits. Please go light on the court-house."

There stands the court-house with two old-fashioned gable ends with a doorway in the end. The courts have deserted it and are held in a hired hall. The boys of the town pass by the old building and pelt it with shot in summer and snow-ball it in winter. The farmer's boy cuts his name in the brick of the walls and all day long in the summer days the Katy-did rasps the air about. Even as an antiquity it has had its day. A ruin is a good thing for a city to have as a money-making scheme, but in this progressive age the country town has no need of anything of the sort.

"Hic Jacet" Edwin Gideon.

A citizen said to the writer: "I wish you had time to go out to the cemetery. It is the prettiest and the peacefulest city of the dead that I know of in the whole West. I want to tell you a story about it. When the war broke out this ground was a part of the farm of George GIDEON. He had a boy who enlisted in the army. His name was Edwin. He was one of those boys that everybody liked, and the day he went away with a gun on his shoulder was a sorrowful one for all of us who had known him. The morning he left home he said to his father: `If I get killed in the war and my body is sent back, I want to be buried over yonder on that knoll.'

"Well, one day— one of those long days of suspense that used to come over the country when we had heard there had been a battle— we were waiting for news, and it came. Among the dead was Edwin GIDEON. We didn't have any right to suppose that he was any better than some other boys or that he would be spared. But when we heard he was dead we couldn't believe it, at first, and then we wondered why it couldn't have been some other boy...They brought his body home, and it was buried out there on the knoll as he had wished, and the town turned out. Well, when we had buried him we got to thinking about other boys who were in the army, and we thought it would be a good idea to bury them, if they died in the war, 'long side Edwin Gideon. And so we made that wish known to Edwin's father and we got the land. And there about one hundred of our boys are at rest; right along side of each other, sleeping, just as they were along side of each other fighting."

The Men at the Wheel.

"I think," said a conservative citizen, "that we come as near being a cooperative town as any I have ever heard of. When the town wants to do anything it just passes the hat and everybody chips in. I hold that the clerk who gives fifty cents out of his stipend to assist the town and does it cheerfully is as much entitled to be called a wheeler as a man who gives $100. And more than a man who is rich and won't give anything. I have never seen the time when I couldn't raise any reasonable sum of money by making one trip around town. When the Catholics wanted to build a church here, I knew they hadn't enough people to do it. Our people agitated the matter awhile and the town and the Protestant churches chipped in and helped build the Catholic church edifice. That is the spirit of Clinton as a town."

"While it is true," said another, "I think there are a few men in town who ought to be mentioned. Mr. Butler, editor of the Public, has been at the head of every movement that has benefited Clinton. It is easy for an editor to suggest things, but Butler followed up his suggestions by laying out his cash for whatever he advocated. He deserves more credit for the reason that he has not done these things in any offensive manner. A few years ago he built his printing office. We concluded it ought to have a corner-stone, and it was done. Everybody turned out to the ceremony. It was a holiday. And the Clinton band played day and night, and it wasn't a nuisance, for it is a good band. You see when the band was being organized, Butler advocated it and put money into it, and the band will be his champion as long as he lives."

"Another man who has done much for Clinton is Mayor Harris. It is too often the case that the Mayor of a town like this falls back on his dignity, or his laziness, and thinks he shouldn't do anything except have the grass cut. Harris isn't that sort of man. The mayor of a large city is not more restless and active than Harris. He is at the head as an official and as a citizen, and while I know that he has enemies, as all men have, you can't find a man in town whose opinion is worth a farthing but who will tell you that Harris has done more for this town than any official it ever had. Some of our folks said if Harris had gone to Washington early in the game Clinton might have had the Columbian Exposition. I don't go that far, but we might have got a complimentary vote.

The Latch String.

There is no society in Clinton in the conventional meaning of the word. A few have receptions. But when they do, "everybody in Clinton" is invited. Everybody speaks to everybody on the streets of Clinton. There are no feuds; if there are they cover them up when the stranger begins to prowl around.

If you ask a man who is the leader in society he says, "our wives," meaning those of other men as well as his own. Ask a young man who is the belle of the city and he makes you a beautiful reply, "my mother."

A Chicago Man's Faith in Clinton.

The big hotel building is owned by Henry RENNICK. He is a commercial traveler out of the house of Merriam, Collins & Co., in Chicago. The Clintonian throws out this card in every deal. A commercial traveler from Chicago is a man who knows the world. He knows when he sees a good thing. Rennick is a Chicago commercial traveler, but was at one time the leading grocer in Clinton, at which he made some money. He saw this hotel building, ergo— . You finish the sentence. The people and Magills and Butler built this house.

What Makes the Town?

"Any industries in Clinton?" asks the stranger.

"No. It is just a town on its own merits. It has its business, and there are enough people in the county and the town to keep it going. It doesn't have to resort to any claptrap to thrive. We started a corset factory here once. We put in a good deal of money, but it died. For awhile we thought it would be a home for women who had to support themselves. We thought it would be a sort of `Palace of Delight,' such as Walter Besant pictures in that impossible novel of his, `All Sorts and Conditions of Men.' But nobody connected with the enterprise knew nothing about a corset, and the enterprise went to pieces."

Some Town Gossip.

Jacob ZIEGLER, who came here with $300 and is now worth $40,000, is in politics for a legislative salary. They used to call him Jake Ziegler. Now he is Jacob.

"The coming man" is Col. Pash Warner. He is Judge Advocate-General. And he was on the staff of Oglesby and of Hamilton, and is now with Gov. Fifer. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He is the son of Dr. Warner, the banker. "He is the man who will represent this district some day in Congress." (So you hear on the corners.) He went into the army from Clinton when he was a boy.

His father, Col. John, is the richest man in town. By that is meant that he could put his business and property into available assets quicker than any man of means in town.

Col. Tom Snell, the man-about-town, the man on the corner, the highway and byway man of Clinton, was a candidate for Lieutenant-Governor on the Breckinridge ticket before the war, because he wanted to save the State for Lincoln, who was his friend. Snell argued that he could take enough votes from the Douglas ticket to make the State a dead sure thing for Lincoln. Col. Snell was a partner of Col. Ab Taylor, but a lawsuit has pided them. Snell was Colonel of a regiment that went out from Clinton. It reached Louisville one morning and the Colonel led the line through the streets while the boys sang "John Brown." The result was that the Colonel was picked up and thrown into the bastile [Bastille], and it took the influence of Leonard Swett and Lawrence Weldon to get him out. And the Colonel served his country in another but as good way as if he had been on the field. The home of the Colonel is out a short distance from here. It is a sort of old castle and used to be full of books, and pictures, and statuary, and things interesting. It has a wine-cellar under it. But the Colonel lives in town. A woman and her blind boy live in the castle and care for it and keep it in order, although they say that the Colonel will never live in it again.

The commercial spirit of Clinton points to the fact that but two failures have occurred here in eighteen years, and that all merchants in the town discount their bills.

There are not more than fifty farm mortgages on record in this county that were not given for the purchase of land. The farmers only borrow money when they want to buy a farm.

Sixty thousand dollars has been spent in a few years for church edifices.

The Republican leaders are R. A. LEMON, Judge INGHAM, Pash Warner, Richard Butler, Frank DAVIDSON, W. O. ROGERS. The Democrat leader is William FULLER. It is claimed that he has a string tied to the party. The postmaster is Cy CARLE. He was a traveling man, and Mr. Cleveland had him made postmaster here. He is serving out his commission, which expires next spring. His successor has been named, but this is a secret. The HUGHES brothers, editors of the Register, furnish the Democratic pabulum for that side of the house. They have helped to make the county very close, but the city is overwhelming Republican.

Population of Clinton, Ill., 3000.

Submitted by Judy Simpson