Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

The Watkins Family

Page 142

Away back in the "twenties," before I was born, the Watkins families settled in what is now Menard county. There were several families of them. Tom and Joe, brothers, deserve more than ordinary mention.

Tom Watkins settled west about half way between Salem and Petersburg. He owned a large tract of land between Mentor Graham's and the Pollard farm, on the north. He was tall and as straight as an Indian. He built a large brick house in a beautiful grove of trees, where he raised a large family. His eldest son, Joe, was a frequent visitor in Salem in the early days, but became dissipated and died while young. He was never married and went the way of Bill Berry and others of his time. During my first schooling at the old Baptist Church, near Felix Green's, Joe Watkins still came to school.

Henry Bale married Scynthia Watkins, John Ritter having married the eldest of the Watkins family. John Warefield married Sally, and Tom, who died this spring, married a Goldsby. I saw Tom every day at the Old Sale Chautauqua last fall, with his wife. He appeared to be proud of her, and one day he said to me: "Onstot, I'll give $10 in gold to any man on this ground that can show a prettier woman than my Mary, who has lived with me for 50 years," and nobody took Tom up.

McLain, who has been a cripple for sixty years, still resides near Petersburg, and Bent, the youngest, died several years ago. So Tom Watkins had quite a family.

One of his peculiar occupations was dealing in race horses. He had a breed of small horses that could run a quarter of a mile like a streak of lightning. He had a track west of his house, where he trained the horses, and a high spot about half way gave him a good view. On any fair day Watkins would have his horses on the track to run, while he watched their manoeuvres. I think he did all this for his own gratification, as I don't recollect of his running for money with other sporting men.

Tom Watkins always had money to loan at 10 per cent interest, the lawful interest of that day. The last time I was at his house was when the Chicago & Alton was in the course of building. He was much excited about them cutting the right-of-way through his timber. "Just ruining all my timber," said he, "cutting down all my young walnuts." He had enough timber to have supplied him 1,000 years and rails only $1 a hundred.

Joe Watkins, his brother, lived on the edge of Little Grove. There was no resemblance in their looks. While Tom was tall and slim, Joe was a very heavy man. He would weigh 300 pounds. You could always find him sitting on his porch in pleasant weather. He was king among the dwellers of Little Grove. He kept a race track known as "Old Joe's Track," and many a dollar has been lost and won on that track, and many a hard fought battle after the race was over. I recollect Bill Jones undertook to whip Gaines Green after a race, and come out second best.

Joe Watkins, while not so well off as his brother, Tom, was "well heeled." Joe had two boys, Bill and Beve. They married Elizabeth and Sarah Armstrong, daughters of Hugh Armstrong. These boys had the same chance as other boys to get a common school education, but neglected to improve the opportunity. I made out a check for Beve about thirty years ago. He had bought $1,000 worth of stock near Forest City, and asked me to write the check and sign his name. I was surprised, and asked him if he could not write. He said, "No, I never learned when I had a chance."

Joe Watkins, like his brother, Tom, raised a large family, and did his part in multiplying and replenishing the earth. They were good pioneers, and done much in developing the county. The future historian will give the Watkins family due credit.

Old Johnny Watkins who lived on the line between Clary's and Little Grove, was a forty-second cousin of the other Watkins families. I remember him as a jolly old man, and a great story teller. My father used to buy a dozen trees of him in the spring for stave timber, and then cut them and peal the tan bark and sell it for enough to pay for the trees.

I remember Uncle Johnny had a madstone, and could cure mad-dog bites. The stone was not much bigger than a dollar, and he kept it in milk to soak all the poison out. If a person had been bitten the stone would cling tight to the wound till it was full of poison and then drop off, when it was soaked in the milk again and this repeated until the poison was drawn out. The stone was given to Uncle Johnny by a friend in Pennsylvania when he started for Illinois, and kept getting smaller. It was also good for snake bites, though most people now use whisky instead, not realizing that whisky has bitten thousands to one it ever cured.

There was another Watkins family, cousins of Tom and Joe. We will speak of Sam as a representative man.

Sam lived the latter part of his life near Oakford. He has been dead for ten years. His personal appearance was striking, a well built man, rather heavy. He wore a slouch hat and a red flannel shirt with the front opened, disclosing a hairy bosom. He was given to running horses, too, as all the Watkins were. Sam was always on the lookout for victims, and had no trouble finding them. He would get possession of some fast horse, and turn the animal on pasture until the hair would lay forward and his mane and tail were full of cockleburs and Spanish needles. Having secured a horse of this kind that had a fast record, Sam went to Peoria to attend the races, and played the dudes out of a large sum of money. We are indebted to Sam Cornwell, of Havana, for the following account of "how Sam done it the first day of the races."

Sam stood around with his hands in his breeches' pockets, watching the horses and laying his plans. The second day he staggered up to the crowd and said, "I don't think you've any fast hosses here." The dudes thought they had caught a tartar. "Have you got anything, old hayseed, that can beat them?" said they. "I don't know," said Sam, "but what if I could find a hoss that could do it." "Bring him in, trot him out," said the crowd, "and to make it interesting back him up with $25." "That is a good deal of money," said Watkins, "but I know George Walker down in town, and I think I can get the money from him." "Oh, make it $50," said the crowd, who now thought they had a green one to deal with, and they kept on bantering until they got the state up to several hundred dollars. Sam's turn now come, and he led them up to $1,000. The race was to come off the next morning. When Sam appeared on the track with his horse a yell of delight arose from the crowd. "Old Cocklebur," cried they, "is that the horse you propose to run against our fine horses?" "That is my hoss," said Sam, "but I want to draw the race. My rider is as drunk as a devil, and you taking my money would be worse than stealing." "You don't get off that easy," said they, "the race must come off. Hurry up, old hayseed." Sam took his rider by the foot to help him on the horse, but the rider played drunk and fell to the ground. "No more fooling," said they, and once more the rider mounted the horse, not drunk this time, but erect and as fine a rider as ever rode a race, and Old Cocklebur went around the track ahead of the Peoria horses and won by 100 feet. Sam's backers, who had been stationed in the background, now appeared and demanded their money.

The crowd was dumbfounded. "Who are you, anyway?" they asked. "I am Old Sam Watkins, of Menard county; did you ever hear of him?" "Sold out by Cockleburs," they said, "sold, sold!"

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



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Illinois Ancestors