Jacksonville is a lovely town, in every sense. I had never heard of Jacksonville or Illinois College when my wife, Elizabeth Tobin, was invited to visit as a candidate to be Dean of the College. Since I’ve been here in the Midwest, I have met many other people who have never heard of either, even in Chicago. Those who have heard of Jacksonville need geographical orientation to place it on their mental map: it’s west of Springfield. Lovely, but insignificant.
So it surprised me to read this sentence: “The chief centers of philosophic discourse in the Midwest in the second half of the nineteenth century were St. Louis and Jacksonville . . .” That’s how Paul Russell Anderson began an article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1941.
But it didn’t surprise me much. Jacksonville in the 19th century really was “the Athens of the Midwest”. In 1834, it was the largest city in Illinois. Jacksonville developed a treasure of institutions. Before the Civil War, when just a handful of women’s colleges had been founded in the US, Jacksonville had two. Leading educators of the deaf and the blind made these two state institutions in Jacksonville national models of progressive and well-run schools.
Jacksonville constructed a treasure of architectural history. The remarkably preserved homes in Jacksonville’s Historic District have been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places. There are hundreds of beautiful examples of over 30 architectural styles. Our city’s collective decision to invest in the historical recovery of the downtown demonstrated an understanding of the special value of our buildings.
Jacksonville encouraged a treasure of social organizations promoting knowledge, education and social justice. The Ladies Education Society began supporting college education for poor women in 1833, and it is now the oldest women’s organization in United States. In the same year that a pioneering women’s club was founded in New York, 1868, Jacksonville women founded the similarly named Sorosis, where thoughtful women still give papers every month. Men’s and women’s literary societies in town and at the colleges proliferated and survived until today.
When William Jennings Bryan ran for President in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and said he had been educated at Illinois College in Jacksonville, it was no surprise. Our local reputation has largely been forgotten. Jacksonville reached the peak of its renown around 1900. Business was still good in and around Jacksonville. Splendid homes were built, radiating out from the downtown square, which attracted customers from the surrounding counties. Jacksonville retained its regional magnetism for trade and industry through the world wars. But our population has been declining for over a century. The colleges and state institutions lost their national influence. Jacksonville gradually tumbled into lovely obscurity.
Jacksonville will never recover its national significance. But we can do a better job of remembering and celebrating our glorious past. It’s time to celebrate our local heritage and tell the world of our remarkable history. As my contribution to the recovery of Jacksonville’s illustrious history, I offer a few hundred local characters. “Jacksonville Characters” is an online list of short biographies of people who lived in Jacksonville. This list is as accurate as I could manage. The descriptions of each person’s life are based on a serious effort to find reliable information. Many names appear on this list because they or their families were mentioned in oral history interviews, stored in the Khalaf Al Habtoor Archives at Illinois College, a trove of personal stories and Jacksonville history.
Then one name led to another. Occasionally I would burrow into some part of Jacksonville’s past and come up with names and accomplishments that have been forgotten. This list is not an equal representation of Jacksonville. As much as I tried to unearth the biographies of some lesser known names, every source of information in media, in archives, and on the internet favors the prominent, the wealthy, and the educated.
You can see this list by going to the Illinois College website: http://www.ic.edu/RelId/635649/ISvars/default/Jacksonville_Characters.htm
Check out the achievements of Professor Hiram K. Jones and Dr. Anne McFarland Sharpe. Look up ice cream shops like Merrigan’s and industrial families like the Capps. Search for the family who began the Ayers Bank and those who were involved in its collapse in 1932. Find the pioneering educators who taught young women science and languages at the Jacksonville Female Academy beginning in 1830.
Nearly every day I use this list and add to it. Every few months, the version on our website will be refreshed with additional names. I welcome new or corrected information about anyone here or suggestions about any other Jacksonville character. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Seeking information about one Jacksonville person after another has demonstrated to me their many accomplishments and personal strengths – I call them characters with respect. I believe this list also demonstrates the character of Jacksonville, an incubator of greatness since its founding in 1825. It’s time that everyone heard of us.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 12, 2015