A play tells the story of pioneers at Clayville
Prairie Dreams: The History of Clayville and Its People. Dates and times: July 4, 6 p.m., July 5, 7 p.m. July 6, 3 p.m. Admission: Adults (13 and over) $13.50. Seniors and veterans $11.50. Youth (12 and under) $8.50. Tickets: Clayville Trading Post, Tues-Sat, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m., 217-572-4984. Sangamon Auditorium, 217-206-6160. Visit www.clayville.org for more information. On July 4, Clayville Historic Site hosts an Old-Fashioned Fourth of July with games, music and concessions.
Just imagine living in central Illinois during the 1820s, arriving fresh from the East as an American settler moving into this wilderness area. What would you eat? How did you dress? Why in the world did you decide to leave your home and move to an unknown land? What dreams lay before you and what dreams were left behind?
In 2010, historian and writer Tara McClellan McAndrew, at the request of Dan Usherwood, president of the Pleasant Plains Historical Society, took these questions and imagined the answers as a theater piece. To write her play, titled Prairie Dreams, she used members of the Moses Broadwell clan who settled near Richland Creek on what is now known as the Clayville Historic Site. They were the historical family in the play, The Story of Clayville and Its People. First presented on the Clayville grounds in September of 2012, the two-act play returns to the historic site July 4, 5 and 6. Clayville is 10 miles west of Springfield on State Route 125 near Pleasant Plains.
The story of how the play came about is as inspiring as the history of the settlers. The few acres now known as Clayville – a former tavern, inn and stagecoach stop on the Beardstown road – plays host to both stories. John Broadwell, his wife, Betsy, and their infant child arrived in December of 1819 to begin the pioneer part of the tale. His father, Moses, and mother, Jane, along with several siblings, arrived the following spring. From there the family came to purchase land, start businesses and, most importantly to our story, construct a brick, two-story building known as the Broadwell Tavern.
The building still stands, refurbished, repaired, air-conditioned and decorated with period pieces of furniture and household items. Other outbuildings, sheds, barns and cabins dot the Clayville landscape, but without the survival of the Broadwells’ main edifice, it’s unlikely the historic site would exist. After a storied history of preservation and use, the grounds and building fell into disrepair throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s. A concerted group effort by volunteers forming the Pleasant Plains Historical Society revived the site in 2009. After assuring the survival of the location, current society president Dan Usherwood turned to revitalizing more artistic sides of what happened at Clayville during its heyday in the mid-1900s, as an attraction to the community.
As Usherwood put it, he mused to Bette Franke, a longtime supporter of Clayville and a mover and shaker in her own right, about his dream and desire to bring some form of theater back to Clayville. Soon after, during a Clayville fundraiser, Bette had Dan seated next to Tara and the conversation leading to the creation of Prairie Dreams quickly took place. McAndrew, an already experienced playwright on local history with her recent The Lighter Side of Springfield History, seemed a natural fit to tell the story of Clayville. Mark McDonald, the host and producer of Illinois Stories on WSEC-TV and Clayville supporter, also had input from the get go and agreed to be the play’s narrator. McDonald composed a heartfelt song called The Middle of Nowhere including the lines,
“Hard work is our measure, life is our treasure, our dreams are our sustenance here.
“They all may come true but we’ll settle for a few,
“And we’ll do what we must to tame the frontier.”
Using documented papers of the Broadwell family and other sources of early Sangamon County life, along with research written by area archaeologists and historians, McAndrew weaved a story of what actually happened with what most likely did. Producing a play on the same grounds where many of the actual incidents occurred created a unique perspective of a place and the people settled there. While most theater companies spend a great deal of time and effort designing the props and sets for a production, the Clayville tale already had a built-in set where the story actually took place nearly two centuries before and props on location from a collection of tools and period items.
McAndrew also incorporated into the script famous local historical celebrities associated with the Broadwells, including a young, aspiring transplant named Abraham Lincoln who lived not far away in New Salem, and the Reverend Peter Cartwright, a fiery, provocative preacher from Kentucky who settled near today’s Pleasant Plains. Also front and center in the theatrical treatment is our own tale of two cities – the rise of Springfield and the fall of Sangamo Town.
Sprinkled among the historical facts told through the story of the Broadwell family are imagined characters that surely existed, such as blacksmiths and hired hands, stagecoach passengers and schoolteachers, soldiers and townspeople. And in these created characters the pioneer period comes alive, showing how different our ancestors lived and worked, and how human nature remains the same.
“I wanted to create a realistic depiction of the Broadwells’ experiences here,” McAndrew says in the Playwright Notes in the program of the first production. “While we’ve tried to make it as factual as possible, it isn’t a completely accurate retelling of what they did.”
Indeed the great challenge McAndrew faced was filling in the blanks of what came in between the stated, factual dates of births and deaths, marriages and land purchases. In those spaces she did what a playwright does – make up conversations and actions at actual scenes, in this case, weddings, barn raisings and land auctions. Real-life items such as Moses Broadwell’s will (she read his handwritten copy on file in Sangamon County records) gave clues to the personalities of his children. To David, the ne’er-do-well of the bunch, Moses had his inheritance doled out in small payments. To John, the faithful son who followed most closely in the patriarch’s footsteps, the old man left the majority of his holdings. Through this simple legal document of a family bequest, McAndrew imagined what these young men would be like in social situations and family interactions, creating a believable world of early life in Sangamon County based on interpretation of human nature combined with documented facts.
“Because there are so many things we don’t know about the Broadwells, at times we had to make assumptions about them and their activities,” she writes. “We based those assumptions on what we know about the family, the frontier period, other area settlers and common sense about human nature.”
Even though there were many gaps in the day-to-day knowledge of the workings of the Broadwell family, much information is available thanks to extensive work done by researchers at Sangamon State University, the forerunner of University of Illinois Springfield. Published in 1981 by the Clayville Rural Life Center and Museum and called “The Broadwells of Clayville and their Roots In Four Parts” with Part 1 named “The Family and Its Activities in Illinois,” the report is credited to Melinda F. Kwedar and Kay MacLean, with Edward L. Hawes as editor.
The painstakingly researched paper, all typed by hand and double-spaced, (let’s hope they used carbon paper too) is available online as a downloadable PDF file, in case you can’t make the play and would rather read up on the Broadwells’ history in a much drier context. In the introduction to the scholarly journal, Kwedar and MacLean talk about the various sources used, including the Federal Population Census from 1820 to 1860, Sangamon County cemetery records, Commissioners’ Records from Menard and Sangamon Counties, marriage and probate records and the Sangamo Journal newspaper as primary sources. Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois by John C. Power and published in 1876, was cited as a useful secondary source. For a fascinating aside, consider that this book was published in the 19th century and the Broadwell report was written in the 20th century, and now both are available online in 2014. According to information on the online page, the 1876 book was digitized by Google from the New York Public Library and uploaded to the Internet Archive by user tpb and filmed from the holdings of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
In other methods the Sangamon State researchers went through years of the Sangamo Journal, an early newspaper in the area and forerunner of the Illinois State Journal, now part of the State Journal-Register. The report states many facts about the Broadwells, including important family dates, land dealings, and all the litigious behavior that occurred after the death of the family patriarch Moses Broadwell. Yes, the Broadwell descendents sued each other so much that there is an entire chapter in the report to hold all the records. A young attorney named Abraham Lincoln represented several of the Broadwells in dealing with family members and other cases.
Speaking of Old Abe, the young and recently transplanted Hoosier pops up enough in the history of Clayville to have his own character in the play. Lincoln gets attention for being a jokester, storyteller, hero and hard worker and makes one of his first political speeches in Prairie Dreams. The speech, as written by McAndrew, was culled from a book called Abraham Lincoln’s Speeches edited by J.B. McClare and published in 1891. Central Illinois archaeologist Robert Mazrim excavated many sites in this area including Pappsville, a long-gone village a few miles east of Clayville, where Lincoln gave this, his first stump speech. Abe stops by in 1832 to gather recruits for the Black Hawk War and, according to several sources, was chosen captain and drilled his new troops about a mile and half east of the Broadwells’ property, with the infamous Clary Grove boys on hand. This was one of those instances where it was likely that the incident happened near the property, so McAndrew presents the scene in the play and states “the Broadwells might have seen them drilling from the inn’s balcony.”
With the play completed and ready to be staged, the next task was to find a director, cast and support group. In 2012, Carly Shank, an area veteran of the stage as a director and actor, brought the play to life. For the 2014 version, Jane Brownback, also a lifelong participant in theater, takes the reins to direct. The 2012 narrator was Mark McDonald. For the upcoming performance, Tom Irwin, local singer-songwriter and Illinois Times contributor (that’s me!) has the opportunity to play this interesting piece in the play and, like McDonald, also composed a song for the production. Many area actors and non-actors, in the scenes and behind the scenes, donated a great deal of time and effort to make the productions happen. Several people returned to reprise roles and others took different positions to fill out the cast.
Another star of the show, a most unusual one, makes his triumphant return to the stage for a second appearance in Prairie Dreams. The horse called Glory, most famously ridden by Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, is in the play as a busy doctor’s lowly transportation, rode hard from Beardstown and beyond, to be exchanged for a fresh mount in the morning. Many of the human actors double as other characters to economize on the cast, and Glory is no exception – she also doubles as Peter Cartwright’s faithful steed. The other horses in the production are film stars as well, but not as famous as old Glory.
All the equestrian cast members were supplied by KEL Equine Productions, located in Riverton and owned and operated by Karl Luthin, DVM. Luthin started the company in 1979, and since then has supplied countless film productions with props and wardrobes (one of the tops in the film industry for pre-WWII sets), horses (teams and individual), and wranglers (animal handlers). A story in itself, Luthin began as a Civil War cavalry reenactor. Then, while working in a film, he caught the eye of movie business types. From there KEL continued to supply many productions big and small, including The Last of the Mohicans, Glory, Rambo III, John Adams, The Alamo and many more.
While working with the cast and script of Prairie Dreams, I learned a great deal about the history of the Broadwells and Clayville, but also about the entire Sangamon Valley area. As with any historical work of fiction, spoiler alerts are unnecessary. We all know watching the film Titanic or The Battle of Midway or The Alamo how the story ends. But the real trick is in the telling of the tale. McAndrew expands on several interesting parts of local history, exposing how our community grew from decisions that still affect us today.
One short scene explains how Springfield founding fathers Elijah Iles and Pascal Enos contrived a plan to lead state commissioners astray when scouting out the possibility of choosing Sangamo Town as the county seat, a village imagined, plotted and sold by Moses Broadwell. That action directly led to Sangamo Town becoming a lost dream buried beneath fields of corn on a bluff of the Sangamon River and Springfield developing into a thriving metropolis on the prairie and eventually gaining the crown of state capital. Another scene deals with a little known historical fact. The Illinois Whig Party, a forerunner of the Republicans that faded from the political landscape before the Civil War, held their first state convention, fundraiser, party and get-together on the grounds on July 4, 1842. Several hundred people marched from Springfield to the Broadwell property for the occasion. Around this time the area, formerly known as Broadwell’s Tavern or Inn, was christened Claysville (later the “s” was dropped) by the family in honor of the great American statesman Henry Clay, who was much admired by the young Whig, Abraham LIncoln and the Broadwells, known as staunch Whig supporters.
History, of course, is all around us. We live and breathe the past we create. On this upcoming Independence Day weekend, Prairie Dreams offers a special look at our local history and how it relates to the world around us. Director Jane Brownback’s words to the cast on the first night of rehearsal speak to this.
“This play is really a ‘love letter’ to the prairie and those who come here. The Broadwell family, this place, their trials and joys, were so full of possibilities and powerful learning experiences. It is our shared responsibility to recreate this time and these people.”
Playwright McAndrew, a lifelong Springfield resident with family ties to the early settlers, expanded on the notion of history in our lives.
“What we do now will affect our descendants and the Springfield of next year, and the next century,” she says. “That sounds heavy and pretentious and I don’t mean it to, but looking back at history constantly reminds me of the responsibility we have toward future generations. Plus, it’s just fun and interesting!”
Contact Tom Irwin at email@example.com.