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Wednesday, May 6, 2009 01:01 am

Pleasant Plains group wants to rescue Clayville

First step is to stabilize historic buildings damaged by vandals

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Pleasant Plains Mayor Jim Verkuilen inspects one of the vacant and vandalized buildings.
AMANDA ROBERT

Annie Rieken, a historic archaeologist from Carbondale, was flabbergasted by what she found on a recent trip to Clayville.

Vagrants or delinquent kids had broken into every building on the 13-acre site, located along Route 125 just east of Pleasant Plains, and destroyed dishes, furniture and other antiques that once set the scene for the interpretative historic center. Rieken found skunks and groundhogs in some structures, she says, but noticed that more troublesome occupants inhabited the Broadwell Tavern, built in 1834 and recognized by Landmarks Illinois as the oldest surviving brick structure in Sangamon County.

“Vagrants were living there to the point that the bed had been slept in and a book was lying opened, facedown, next to it,” Rieken says. “We were one matchstick away from losing the whole thing.”

Rieken has worked for the past 20 years to restore several historic sites, including the Henke-Buck Homestead, an 1840s farmstead in Waterloo that’s set to become the property of the Smithsonian Institution. She received an invitation from Pleasant Plains Mayor Jim Verkuilen to help rebuild Clayville and spent one entire Saturday, from 10 a.m. to dusk, investigating the property.

Rieken will share her findings, as well as cost-effective suggestions on how to stabilize the area, at the first meeting of the Pleasant Plains Historical Society at 7 p.m. May 7 at the village hall.

“What can we do now for free or virtually for free?” Rieken says. “A lot of it comes down to labor and common sense. I think we should be able to come up with that.”

Verkuilen and other village residents formed the historical society last month with the intent to purchase Clayville for $200,000 from Dave Bourland, the private owner of the property since 1992. Bourland, curator of the Executive Mansion, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

The historical society aims to first raise $700 to file the 501(c)3 papers that would establish the group as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Once they’re designated as a nonprofit, Verkuilen says, members hope to receive grants and donations to buy and restore Clayville.

Dr. Emmet Pearson bought the property in 1961 and offered it as a gathering area for Pleasant Plains residents. Verkuilen says farmers convened for breakfast at its restaurant, families held picnics and area auto buffs hosted car shows. Once Pearson set up the historic center, tourists traveled to Clayville to visit the Broadwell Tavern and to experience 1830s blacksmith, leather-making and knitting demonstrations.

Every building at Clayville has been broken into and wrecked.
AMANDA ROBERT

Pearson donated Clayville to Sangamon State University in January 1973. The school maintained the site until it was sold to Bourland in 1992. Verkuilen says the property has since “gone all to hell.”

The buildings’ concrete foundations are sound, Rieken says, but their shingled roofs are covered with debris. The group needs to act quickly to clear the roofs and repair any holes.

“This is a critical time,” she says. “If we can get on this right away, they’re going to save hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Once the group cleans up and secures the property, Rieken plans to donate logs and other materials to help restore its buildings. She has supervised construction projects and knows contractors who can step in to help when they’re needed.

The mayor wants to reintroduce Clayville as a tourist destination, similar to Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site. The site could also attract people to Pleasant Plains by again offering them a spot to hold special events, seasonal festivals, weddings, family reunions and business retreats.

“There had been some interest in tearing it down, starting all over and putting something there,” Verkuilen says. “But that defeats the purpose. The majority of people who are interested in it had good times when they were out there.”

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here,” Rieken adds, “we just need to clean it up. Hopefully that’s what we can accomplish with the meeting.”

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