By Oren B. Taft

In 1853 where Paxton is now located there was no sign of civilization except the Danville and Ottawa wagon road, which crossed where Ottawa Street is now located. In 1854 the Illinois Central Railroad built through at this point and as far as Champaign.
That year William Goodrich came with his wife and three sons, Theodore, William and Nicholas, driving from Danville in a wagon. He built the first house in what is now Paxton. It was on the South side of Ottawa road, West of the railroad, and nearly, or directly, opposite the South end of what is now Market Street. It was a two-story frame building, in one room of which for a short time he kept a general store. It must be remembered that this Ottawa road had been for several years used to reach Danville from the Northwest; as near as possible it followed the streams and timber. At this time there were a number of pioneers who had their homes along it. Of these were Samuel Swinford and his son William, Obadiah Campbell and James P. Button who lived six or seven miles southeast in the timber. Near here the road left the timber and ran West across the prairie for ten miles, striking the timber again in the grove, to which, because of the distance, was given the name "Ten Mile Grove."
There William Trickle lived and there also was a postofflce. Daniel C. Stoner was living at this time on his farm not far to the north; I am not sure but Henry Barnhouse and David Patton and perhaps some other early settlers already had their homes upon this road, but R. R. Murdock, who passed over it in 1853, says there was at this time no house of any kind on this line of road nearer than Oliver's Grove, twenty miles north of Mr. Stoner's.
In 1855 Leander Britt and Ransom R. Murdock coming from Orleans County, New York, bought 240 acres, and in 1856 had it surveyed and laid out as the original town site of what is now Paxton. For a short time, and before it acquired any official recognition, it was called Prairie City.
In the Spring of 1856 Benjamin Stites with his wife and four children, Margaret, William, Samuel and Susan, came. He built east of the railroad on the south side of Ottawa road; this house is now the only one remaining in town which was built as early as 1856. It is occupied by the son William; one room is almost unchanged, even the old door fixtures being the same. In this room, in the Winter of 1856-7 was the first school and afterward the first Methodist services were held.
Just east of this Thomas Daniels built about the same time. He had two children. There were one or two other families, one I think by the name of Spencer, living on the north side of this road. All were Spiritualists, but Mr. Stites withdrew from the society in a short time. They held their meetings in a peculiar sextagonal building near by.
That year Abram Martin built the first house in Paxton proper, at the northeast corner of Railroad Ave. and Orleans street, and opened a general store on the lower floor, living on the one above. In this house my mother, sister and I spent our first night in Paxton. Leander Britt, my uncle, built the second house in Paxton proper, on the southwest corner of Center and Vermilion, where a Church now stands. It was to this house that my mother, sister and myself came on a cold December day in 1856, having left the railroad train at Loda, the nearest station. Mr. Britt, a bachelor and brother of my mother, Mrs. Jane B. Taft (a widow), having built it as a home for us all. When I include R. R. Murdock, who boarded with us, I have named all who in the year 1856 were living in Paxton, and on the Ottawa Road, which afterward became a part of Paxton. In these notes I am aware I shall write matter either too personal or seemingly immaterial to be of general interest. I only wish I could recall more of the early incidents, if but to live them over again myself.
As far as the eye could reach in any direction, except for the half dozen houses just mentioned, there was one wide stretch of open prairie. As a boy of ten, looking back as I write, picture after picture comes to me that tempts me to forget that others are to read this, but they nevertheless are of a time when boy and town were in their youth.
I remember that first Winter my sled made out of boards and covered with cotton cloth drawn over barrel hoops to make it look like a prairie schooner; with my sister inside, it was drawn over long trails into an imaginary pioneer West, which called for a close watch for imaginary Indians. What an event it was when we were invited to the last day of school in that school-room in the Stites home, with a treat of cake, candy and popcorn. There could not have been a dozen scholars.
In the cold winter nights we could hear the distant howl of the wolves. With that following Spring of 1857 came a soft south wind, to a barefoot boy, such as there has never been to him since, and a beauty of color in the flowers in every direction that must have been wonderful to leave such a memory. It was the time for the children to gather sorrel for pies, and for the boy to look for the lost cow "over the hill and far away."
Trapping prairie chickens on Pells street and seeing my first deer not far south of the Goodrich place were some of the new experiences, but none were like the long sea voyages I took upon what we called "Lake Britt," a pond which covered nearly the whole block bounded by Vermilion, Union, Orleans and Center streets. Then later after the old grass had been burned off, with a strong wind from the South, we would start large round tumble weeds from where the school house now is, and watch them race as far as the eye could reach toward Loda, without an obstruction so far as anything man had put there; but like all child's play, this did not last — the newcomers in the Spring and Summer of 1857 ended it.
There was a feature I should not omit. Saturday was evidently a holiday with some of the old settlers. The men only, young and old, gathered at some agreed place and had a "good time" which consisted of wrestling, foot races and horse races, consuming ample supplies of what was known as "sore eye", and with usually at least one satisfactory fight. This Summer of 1857 these gatherings were near the corner of Orleans and Vermilion streets and the races were upon the Ottawa road up on the hill which was not so likely to be muddy. My chief amusement in this affair, as I remember, was to watch from a distance men get on their horses without help, and ride without ever falling off, too far gone to stand alone, and with no more backbone than a jellyfish. Civilization was too much for these gatherings in Paxton after that year.
The year 1857 was a year of preparation, as it might be called. Britt and Murdock, the resident partners as town proprietors, were very busy in interesting prospective buyers, and watching closely the citizens of Loda in the coming contest over the new county which was to be formed and its county seat. It was already quite certain that Vermilion county would vote its consent, but Loda was determined that Iroquois County should allow the township in which Loda was located to also become a part of the new county, in which case it felt certain it would be the county seat. The result, had this occurred, can best be seen in the relative advantage Paxton now has.
A station was obtained with difficulty, as the Railroad had adopted a policy of locating towns and building depots about every ten miles, and had already built at Loda and Pera (now Ludlow). Naturally neither of these towns sat up nights helping Paxton to get a station; however, the obstacles were overcome and in the Fall Mr. R. R. Murdock was appointed the first Station Agent here. As I came in December, 1856, I am able to correct with certainty the mistake which has been made in saying the Railroad Station was opened for business in December, 1856; it was just one year later. The Post Office also was moved here in November, 1857, not 1856.
About this time, but before there was a railroad switch, the firm of Blain and Hanly, who came from Xenia, Ohio, opened a lumber yard. An entire train sent from Chicago on purpose brought this lumber in on Sunday; in those days there were no regular Sunday trains, and this one stood on the main track until it was all unloaded, every man for miles around helping. Soon after Mr. Murdock and myself built the first depot in Paxton near the crossing at State street. It was completed in one day and was built of bunches of pickets or palings borrowed from the lumber yard and made in the form of a block house, with heavy plank for the roof, and an opening for a door, which it may be added remained open. It was much appreciated when waiting for overdue trains stopping only on signal.
In November, 1857, the Postoffice was moved from Ten Mile Grove and given the name of Prospect City; Leander Britt was the first postmaster. At Ten Mile Grove the office had been in a little log store owned by William Trickle, at the forks of the Ottawa road where one branch went west to Saybrook and Bloomington, and the other northwest to Ottawa. This log store I remember well, just as a boy would, for it was typical of the backwoods then as was "Bill" Trickle himself, whom many can still remember; sturdy and reliable in character, he could play the fiddle or shoot a deer equally well, and was the whole orchestra at the first dance in Paxton in Cloyes Brothers' store before they moved in. Although a boy I was there and can still hear Bill Trickle call out: "Jim Mix swing yer partner clean around."
Carriages were as scarce as sidewalks in those days, and most of the town folks walked to this dance. In the deep and sticky mud my uncle had one of his shoes pulled off, getting in the wagon track instead of keeping on the sod, but a muddy shoe lost no one a good partner in the days when a calico dress was the "latest thing."
At the close of 1857, the front room of our home on the southwest corner of Center and Vermilion streets, for the lack of any other place, became the railroad office, the postoffice, Blain and Hanly's lumber office, Pells, Britt and Murdock's land office, open house for all strangers, and our own living room. An old colonial bookcase with writing desk and pigeon holes, which served for all these offices, I now have in my home in Chicago, a most valued souvenir of those days.
Jesse B. Straight, the first carpenter, and William Bowman, the first plasterer, came with their families, and John P. Day with his, also his brother Samuel. Mr. Day built on Orleans street, on the south side on the corner or near Railroad avenue. Wheeler Bently with his family came in 1857. There may have been one or two others that I do not recall. It would be a mistake, even if I could, to try to give the chronological arrival of the newcomers.
For some unexplained reason the town proprietors had expected the business center would be at Orleans and Vermilion streets and south on Vermilion. Apparently they had overlooked the fact that the depot and switch when located would have to be where there was neither a grade or high embankment, and therefore considerably north of this intended center; this will explain the change to the west side which came later, and for the beginning of the new town altogether on the east side and toward the southeast.
The first school house was a one-story 16x24 frame building very close to or directly on the southwest corner of Franklin and Union streets. The first teacher was Jonathan Covolt; the second teacher was Miss Jane Lyon, who afterward became the wife of Samuel Day.
The year 1858 was a busy one; all felt very confident that Vermilion County would vote to allow a new county to be made out of what was called the Pan-Handle, and which was to become Ford County, and while it needed the Act of the Legislature, which would convene the coming Winter, the new town was going ahead as if this had already been done.
Benjamin Stites built the first hotel; it was on the east side of Vermilion street between Patton and Franklin, and was quite a pretentious two-story building costing some $5000.00. It was afterward moved to the corner of Railroad avenue and State street, a new story built under it, and again used as a hotel.
The first blacksmith shop was on Vermilion near Patton street, owned by a Mr. Wallace (if I remember correctly). This shop was blown away in a cyclone which passed through the town in 1860, not a single board of it could ever be traced. Some of the houses were completely wrecked, and with two or three exceptions all were moved off their foundations, but there were no serious personal injuries. There were some remarkable incidents showing the terrific force of the wind; perhaps as good an evidence as any was one in which a 2x4 scantling from the lumber yard was driven through a half barrel of fish that was standing on the railroad platform, leaving a hole the exact shape of the scantling, and the half barrel apparently otherwise undisturbed. We have heard of it being possible to shoot a candle through a board — this was something similar to it.
Mr. Wallace built a new shop on Pells street. I mention this because in this new shop, late one night, a poker party was in progress, getting most of its light from a bright forge fire which shone very distinctly through cracks in the wall and door. The unusual hour led to an alarm of fire and the neighbors responded with filled water pails. This was the first fire alarm, but not the first poker party.
Henry Barnhouse, who had a small store out near Ten Mile Grove, moved into the new town and built on the southeast corner of Orleans and Vermilion, and opened the first floor with a large stock of goods. The family lived on the second floor.
John Heckler, a bachelor, built the first shoe shop on the northeast corner opposite.
It may have been in 1858, but I think it was in 1859, the first Fourth of July celebration was held in Paxton. The flag pole and grand stand were on Pells street, near Vermilion. The program, of course, included the reading of the Declaration of Independence, and an address by the "most prominent" citizen, but who I do not remember. Certainly not adding glory to the occasion, but what must have been amusing, to say the least, I sang a solo, "The Red, White and Blue." In the evening there were fireworks consisting of balls of candle wick which had been thoroughly soaked in turpentine, and when lighted were thrown repeatedly in the air, an immense bonfire and plenty of gun firing.
In the spring of 1859 the new county of Ford was organized. David Patton was elected County Judge, John P. Day, Treasurer, and Samuel L. Day, Recorder. The first deed was recorded in June, 1859, in the house of John P. Day, where for a short time the Recorder had his office.
As soon that year as possible William H. Pells built what was at once called "Pells' Block", a one-story building on the northwest corner of Orleans and Vermilion facing on Orleans. It had a room for each of the County offices, and one on the corner occupied by Morse and Briggs, who were the first lawyers. Next west was a vacant lot, but this by no means made it unimportant; business in the County offices was not rushing, and the game of quoits on that lot sometimes held the "center of the stage", business or no business.
Next west either Blain and Hanly or David Patton built a two-story building, with stores below and above what was known as Patton's Hall. In one Charles Wyman had the first tin shop and hardware store, and Wheeler Bently a grocery store in the other.
The Circuit Court held its sessions in Patton's Hall until the Court House was built on the west side. Church services and other public gatherings were held here but the one that recalls many a pleasant memory were the meetings of the Good Templars. Of course their purpose was to reform the inebriate, and they had at least one to their credit. These meetings, with the Methodist revivals, led by good old Mr. McVay, covered the "social" features.
The first newspaper, the name or Editor of which I do not remember, was in a building on the southwest corner of Orleans and Vermilion. This was in 1859. N. E. Stevens afterward bought this paper and at once began publishing the Paxton Record, but the Record was not the first paper, as has been sometimes stated.
When Orleans and Vermilion streets had business houses on each of its four corners, and a real sidewalk running from one corner to the end of the Patton block, we began to feel like putting on airs. But the inevitable soon came; this was not to be the business center. The first intimation of the certainty was the bridge now built over the Railroad at the high embankment on Orleans street. In the fall, I think it was, of 1859, Cloyes Bros. built the first store west of the railroad at the southwest corner of Market and Pells streets. Soon after I. W. Shilling built the hotel in the block north.
It is not necessary to go further with these notes. The purpose of them all has been, at the request of others, to preserve, before too late, what may be matters of interest relating to persons and landmarks, which even now have passed away, and especially to give a picture of the development of Paxton during the years 1856-1857-1858-1859.

Extracted 12 Oct 2016 by Norma Hass from "Early History of Paxton, Illinois" as published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Volume 12.Chicago, October, 1918.

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