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Wednesday, March 18, 2009 06:27 am

The view from Elkhart Hill

A town of enduring character at the crossroads of history

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Once the bank, this building in Elkhart's small downtown business district is home to an antique shop and a cafe, both owned by businesswoman Andrea Niehaus, who has restored the bank's marble floor, foyer and vaults.

Rearing up nearly 800 feet above sea level, above the flat land all around, Elkhart Hill stands guardian over a place where geography, nature and human history converge.

It was here, on her wooded slopes, that an early white settler stood on the lawn of the house he’d built and had a vision of a town laid out before him below.

According to local history, John Shockey journeyed from Pennsylvania to central Illinois in 1848 to buy cattle. He fell so in love with Elkhart Hill’s beauty that he relocated with his wife and their then-15 children (two more were born here) in 1850, eventually buying up nearly 5,000 acres of land that included The Hill (as the locals casually refer to it today).

Shockey had the land surveyed and platted and his dream was fulfilled on April 11, 1855, the day Elkhart City was founded. Later “City” was dropped by village board decree. His attorney for much of his business? Abraham Lincoln of nearby Springfield.

Tragically, a devastating crop failure in 1856 wiped out much of his fortune and Shockey would die three years later at age 53. Financially ruined by the land he loved so well, Shockey nonetheless left in his will property to be used for churches, schools, businesses and homes.

A sign marks the entrance to Old Gillett Farm, a seventh-generation family farm still owned by descendents of John Dean Gillett, once known as "Cattle King of the World."

Elkhart Hill itself is ancient, observed Elkhart history buff Gillette Ransom, a descendent of another early Elkhart resident, John Dean Gillett. The Hill’s birth dates back hundreds of thousands of years to an age when glaciers marched then retreated, again and again over the span of eons, grinding down the terrain of the future state of Illinois. During one of these periods of geologic upheaval, the massive chunk of earth was left behind. As the tallest of natural formations between St. Louis and Chicago, Elkhart Hill covers almost 700 acres. To travelers on I-55, 20 miles north of Springfield, it stands out.

“The Hill is something special,” Ransom contends. “To have a village nestled at the bottom of a hill is very picturesque, very New England-y, especially in an area as flat as Illinois.”

Heart of the elk

Elkhart Hill bristles with old-growth hardwood timber like the quills on a fat porcupine. The state’s conservation department recognizes Elkhart Hill for its broad selection of prairie woodland flora and fauna. Several endangered species of plants thrive here and, in the spring, the slopes of Elkhart Hill are a breathtaking splash of color painted by prairie wildflowers.

The Elkhart Historical Society purchased the home of Robert and Carrie Hunter at 116 N. Latham St., and plans to restore it when funds become available.

The Hill was first home to Kickapoo Indians around 1763, and to the white men who came after. Although the American Indians are gone, they left behind the remains of a village, with its artifacts and burial mounds — as well as a name for The Hill.

Tradition has it that during an annual hunting trip, an Indian chief’s daughter, White Blossom, was forced to choose between two competing suitors. White Blossom decided that the warrior whose arrow could pierce the heart of an elk that happened to be passing by would win her hand. The suitor from White Blossom’s own tribe, the Illinois, and his rival from the Ohio Shawnee, both took aim at the elk, and the Illini’s arrow hit its mark in the animal’s heart. From that day forward, the warrior and his young wife took the elk heart as their totem and The Hill was forever known as Elkhart Hill.

Village residents found downtown on a recent afternoon include business owners Peter Neihaus, Bill and Kathy Cosby (standing); artist Renee Sisk, business owner Andrea Neihaus, historian Gillette Ransom, and Linda Gleason (seated).

Today, The Hill easily dwarfs the three church spires, towering grain elevators, homes and businesses of the tiny farming community at its feet. Still the center of a solid, successful farming region, Elkhart’s population remained steady at 400 to 500 people for most of the 20th and into the 21st centuries.

Elkhart Hill not only looms large in the area’s geography, it also plays a big part in the heritage of the village residents, according to the town’s librarian, Teri McGee.

Before the state closed Elkhart’s grade school about two years ago, the big annual project for the grade-schoolers was to create an Elkhart history book.

Before Elkhart's school district was considated with Mt. Pulaski's, children at the grade school were required to study local history. They created these books about Elkhart as a class project.

“The teachers took the kids up the hill, told them the stories, told them about the animals that used to live up there, and the ones that do today. Then the kids came back and made these books,” McGee said, thumbing through the colorfully hand-drawn pictures on sheets of paper bound together. “How cool is that? That mindset, it radiates throughout the whole town. The people are proud of who they are and where they come from and what they have.”

McGee, who relocated to Elkhart from Peoria several years ago, said she’ll never move. She’s even convinced her fiancé to relocate to the village. “I don’t think I could live in a big city ever again after living here. I’d have to close my heavy storm windows and lock them so I can go to the grocery store. That’s not an environment I want to live in. You can go out and sit on the patio or the porch and it’s like living in the country. You don’t hear loud cars, you don’t hear loud music, you never hear sirens. It’s as peaceful and quiet as you can get.”

Andrea Niehaus and her husband Peter restored Elkhart's former bank and now operate two businesses in the building — an antique shop called Horsefeathers, and the Wild Hare Cafe.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

Another Elkhart “transplant” is Andrea Niehaus, a Michigan native and businesswoman most recently of South Africa, who searched long and hard for just the right place to open Horsefeathers, an eclectic gift shop, and the Wild Hare Café. She found that place in a dilapidated building that had originally housed a bank that opened in 1892 and was used later as an American Legion hall. Niehaus and her husband have restored as much of the original features of the old bank as possible, including the grand marble floor, foyer and vaults. Besides Niehaus’ two businesses, a post office and a small veterans park share the town’s center with The Blue Stem Bake Shop and two taverns, The Blue Moon and Talk of the Town.

“A lot of Illinois history converges in Elkhart, it’s like a crossroads,” Niehaus said. “There is such a strong, very positive energy in Elkhart. There is a tremendous sense of community within the village itself — very active churches, everybody does their recycling, they hold fundraisers and have potlucks and do a ton of stuff for the seniors.

“It’s one of the few villages still alive and moving forward. Some just die out. But that wasn’t allowed to happen here.”

“The village is a special place,” agreed Ransom. “It’s pretty much like a big family. We have spats, but for the most part people care about each other. People work together. That makes it the kind of place you want to be. This place has charm you can’t find in Wal-Mart. There are many layers; it’s not thin like plastic.”

Bridge of time

Crossing a section of Elkhart Hill is an ancient path, a trail, or trace, used for thousands of years by herds of migrating bison, and other animals, including wild game. From Kaskaskia in the south, the trace meanders through Cahokia and the Edwardsville area, to Springfield then Elkhart Hill and up north to the Illinois River.

Behind the animals came prehistoric peoples, who over millennia used the trail for hunting, seasonal migrations, trading and waging war.

Eventually, the path would be named Edwards Trace, after future Illinois governor Ninian Edwards, who during the War of 1812 led a group of nearly 400 men up the trail to Fort Clark, the site of present-day Peoria, to fight Illinois Indians.

The trace was a main pioneer trail and a stagecoach route. Parts of future hard roads and highways follow Edwards Trace, including sections that lie beneath Route 66 and Route 121 (now I-155).

The first white man to settle Elkhart Hill was James Latham, and his son, Richard, who arrived from Kentucky in 1819 to build a double cabin to accommodate each of their large, growing families. The pair also built a four-horse mill.

According to Ransom, James Latham didn’t live on The Hill very long. Being a well-respected individual, he was named a judge and within five years appointed by President John Quincy Adams as the first Indian Agent to the state of Illinois. Moving to Fort Clark, Latham unfortunately contracted an illness and died in 1826. He was brought back for burial on Elkhart Hill in what became Latham Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in Logan County.

Son Richard Latham stayed on and built a stagecoach stop along the trace on Elkhart Hill called the Kentucky House, a two-story frame building with a two-story porch on the front. Kentucky House did a thriving business, attracting circuit-riding lawyers like Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas and David Davis. In 1853, about the time the railroad first came to Elkhart, Richard Latham sold the hotel and the family land on Elkhart Hill to John Shockey.

The youngest Latham, Robert — along with John Gillett and Lincoln — became one of the key players convincing the railroad to come through Elkhart. The railroad would be an important factor to the success of Ransom’s great-great grandfather, John Dean Gillett.

Gillett originally settled in nearby Cornland, where he began raising cattle. In need of a good attorney, he found a young Springfield man who met his legal needs, thus beginning a partnership between him and Lincoln. They first became business associates, and together laid out the town of nearby Lincoln, according to Ransom.

The two men became close friends, even at one time courting the same woman, Lemira Parke, who would later marry Gillett. Eventually moving to Elkhart, the couple built a house and barns on Elkhart Hill in 1870, but fire destroyed the home one year later. They rebuilt in 1873.

Gillett was noted for importing Durham cattle from Scotland and developing the Shorthorn breed. He shipped more than 2,000 head of cattle and 1,000 head of hogs to Europe annually. The London Gazette dubbed him “Cattle King of the World.” Elkhart for many years was one of the largest shipping points on the Chicago and Alton Railroad, thanks to Gillett’s success.

Today, Gillett’s dwellings are part ofThe Old Gillett Farm, a historic seventh generation family farm still owned by his descendants. The farm encompasses 700 acres of lawns, gardens, woodlands and open fields. In addition to the main house, a three-bedroom guesthouse and chapel in Elkhart Hill’s other cemetery are available for private bookings. Overnight accommodations, special events, weddings and tours can be arranged but because it is still a private family residence and a working farm, arrangements must be made on an individual basis prior to any visits. For more information, log on to www.oldgillettfarm.org.

The Lincoln connection

Yet another Lincoln-Gillett-Elkhart connection concerns Richard J. Oglesby, Illinois’ Civil War hero, renowned orator and only non-consecutive three-time governor. Late in life, Oglesby married the Gilletts’ oldest daughter, Emma.

“Oglesby was a close personal friend of Lincoln. He suggested the ‘railsplitter’ name for the 1860 presidential campaign. He had the last business appointment with Lincoln on the day that the president was killed,” Ransom said. “He was invited to go along to Ford’s Theater but declined and was called to Lincoln’s deathbed. Oglesby appears in the famous painting of the dying Lincoln. And he was the man who helped start raising the funds for Lincoln’s tomb. He gave the keynote address at the tomb dedication, as a matter of fact.

“There is just a tremendous amount of interlocking history here,” Ransom points out. “The village is loaded with more history per capita than any other place its size. For a very small town we have some tremendous connections to history.”

The Elkhart Historical Society, of which Ransom is a member, recently purchased Hunter House with plans to eventually renovate it. The society sponsors spring wildflower walks on Elkhart Hill and candlelight Christmas services in Elkhart Cemetery’s John Dean Gillett Memorial Chapel, built by Lemira Gillett in memory of her husband. (The chapel is the only privately owned, self-supporting church in the state.)

“We’re small. We’re doing the best we can,” said Ransom. “We don’t have a lot of money and only have so many worker bees. Something will happen I’m sure. We will find the right combination to keep a good feeling about Elkhart going.”

The arched bridge

Another historic Elkhart structure that is part of Gillett family history is the walking arched bridge that crosses the Elkhart-Mt. Pulaski road as a shortcut to the Elkhart Cemetery. It was built by Emma Gillett Oglesby in memory of her brother, John Parke Gillett.

Ransom said “the word was that the bridge allowed Emma to go to the chapel without getting her petticoats wet.” At one point the county wanted to demolish the bridge. “I went ballistic,” she said, then laughed. The back door to Elkhart just wouldn’t be the same if the arched bridge were destroyed, and something special would have disappeared.

“Especially in the summer, coming from Mt. Pulaski, crossing the hot cornfields with the sun beating down on you. When you get to the base of the hill, when the road starts to rise, and the trees start to arch together overhead and the temperature immediately drops in the shade and you climb the hill, reaching its crest and you go under the bridge, why, it’s like you are arriving in a kingdom of some sort,” she said. “It’s magic.”

Rick Wade is a freelance writer whose new passion is Illinois history. He is a Decatur native who’s worked for both religious and secular newspapers in Illinois and Colorado for almost 30 years. A graduate of Sangamon State University (UIS) in Springfield, Wade lives in Pekin with his wife and their two no-kill shelter graduate dogs.

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