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Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

H.C. Latham came to the prairies of Illinois, and saw opportunity

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From the Guy Mathis Collection, the West Side Christian Church Sunday School Class gathered for a photo in 1904. H.C. Latham is seated front row, center.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library

Springfield's West Side Christian Church, home to a large and thriving community of faithful worshipers, has been located on Cider Mill Lane since 1996. The capacious multi-wing facility stands like a lone sentinel at its new address, surrounded by greensward and asphalt, without a close neighbor to call its own. That is a stark contrast from the site of the congregation's former place of worship, which we now know as Elizabeth Graham Elementary School, at the intersection of State and Edwards streets on the near west side. That site, where old houses sit cheek-by-jowl on the narrow brick street, was selected by visionary church members more than 100 years ago who rightly conjectured that Springfield's growth would be to the south and west.

The history of the Christian Church in Springfield is almost as old as the city itself. About 1832, a dozen people began meeting every other Sunday at Mr. Milton Hay's home, which stood at the southeast corner of Second and Jefferson streets. The first church building was built in 1834 on Madison Street between Fourth and Fifth. A new church was erected 20 years later on what is now the site of the Lincoln Presidential Museum. That building sufficed until 1882, when the third church was built at the corner of Fifth and Jackson, kitty-corner from the Executive Mansion. It prospered so greatly that the members, with a far-sighted nod to the future, purchased the lot at State and Edwards on April 9, 1901, for $2,500. Ground was broken for the new church on July 1 of that year, and cornerstone-laying ceremonies were held Sept. 2. And so the people pictured here today, a Sunday School class of 1904, were quite justly proud of their new church building.

At the center of the group is Mr. H.C. (Henry Clay) Latham, a prominent figure in Springfield history and a descendant of one of the oldest families in central Illinois. His grandfather, James Latham, was a native of Virginia who was a pioneer of Kentucky in the late 1700s. Like so many Kentuckians, he removed his family to Illinois in its early days of statehood. They settled near Elkhart Grove, when Logan and Sangamon counties were one. On May 27, 1821, Illinois' first governor, Shadrach Bond, appointed him Judge of the Probate Court. (The original document can be found in the Illinois State Historical Library's manuscript collection). He was subsequently appointed Indian Agent at Fort Clark (now Peoria).

Henry C. Latham was born at Elkhart Grove on April 11, 1837, and came to Springfield in 1853, where he became a dry-goods clerk. (In June of that year there appeared a protest in the local paper signed by him and others decrying the intention of local merchants to open for business on the Fourth of July (". . . because we believe that if the stores are once open they will remain open, and thereby entirely deprive us of the great and esteemed privilege of celebrating the day as we wish. . ."). Clearly, he wasn't cut out for retail. Not surprisingly, he quit that line later that year and went to Iowa for a year to learn the insurance business, after which time he returned to Springfield.

Latham didn't stay long in the insurance business. He worked in the banking house of N.H. Ridgely & Co., as a clerk for the House of Representatives and as a collector of internal revenue. He served State Auditor Sharon Tyndale as clerk for two years and entered the Abstract and Title business in 1874 with partner (and brother-in-law) George Souther under the name Latham and Souther. They also began lending money for mortgage loans and earned a high reputation for business success. In 1886 they organized a savings bank, the Sangamon Loan and Trust Co., with $100,000 in capital. Mr. Latham also founded the Abstract and Title Guaranty Company and was owner and treasurer of the Latham Coal Co. in Lincoln.

Latham, who never married, died Oct. 20, 1917, near Warm Springs, Calif. His obituary in the Illinois State Journal reads (in part):

"Mr. Latham saw the prairies of Illinois before they were crossed by railroads, telegraph lines or even wagon roads. He watched the progress of central Illinois from a wild waste of virgin land to the cultivated fields and cities of today, and saw Springfield, a small pioneer town, grow to its present size."

Cheryl Pence, Mary Michals and Jim Helm of the Illinois State Historical Library assist Bob Cavanagh in researching this column. Contact Cavanagh at bobrufus@hotmail.com

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