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

Old Salem Under the Hill

Page 155

It was once a bustling town. It was the place where all trade centered. I well remember when it was in its glory. It was over a half mile long. The main street ran from the mill west to Miller's blacksmith shop on the right hand with Onstot's cooper shop on the left, with Dr. Allen's field of twenty acres at the west end of town, and a little farther on was Menter Graham's brick house with forty acres cleared out of the barrens. There was only one street running east and west, except where the Springfield road turned south from the log hotel. The Hill's and Bale's carding machine and Hill's store, with Lincoln's and Green's and McNamar's and Offit's stores, formed a nucleus around which trade centered, while Waddle's hatter shop, Miller's blacksmith shop, Onstot's cooper shop, Johnson's wheelright shop, and Alex Ferguson's shoe shop, made a nice little humming town.

It was the only town, till Petersburg began to grow, between Havana and Springfield, with Sangamontown eight miles north of Springfield and Athens about the same distance on the east side of the river. The transformation of the name of New Salem to Old Salem may not be understood by all. The original name of the town site was New Salem. In the course of time there was a Salem in Mason county, and a postoffice by the name of New Salem, and when the Chautauqua began to arouse importance there was a danger of getting names mixed, so it was wisdom to call the oldest Salem, Old Salem, and so the historic spot where old Abe spent the formation part of his life goes by the name of Old Salem.

The mill was built by Cameron and Rutledge as far back as 1825. It was a lively place, though now in these days of rollers and patent flour it would be out of date. In those days people went to the mill on horseback; if a farmer wanted to send four sacks to mill he sent four boys with a two bushel sack on each horse, and it was sometimes said that he would fill grain in one end and a rock in the other end to balance. It might have been the case when it was a jug in one end. Fancy, if you please, forty horses hitched up the sides of a steep hill with their heads forty-five degrees higher than their hams, and forty boys fishing or in swimming, or playing fox and geese on the bottom of the "Miller's Half Bushel," and you will have a good idea how the boys spent their time when they went to mill.

My uncle Sampson would come to mill in his wagon. He had old Rock and Slider for the wheel horses. He did not use check lines. He rode Rock for a saddle horse and then he had Yona, a black mare, he brought from Virginia, hitched to the end of the tongue, that was ten feet longer than the wheel horse, and with a single line he would start to mill with one of his boys and a week's provisions and never go home till he got his grist ground.

The mill ran all the year. Jacob Bale was the owner as far back as I can recollect, and his boys, Hardin, Henry and William run the mill. There were bushels of corn ground to one of wheat. People used corn bread six days a week, and on Sunday morning, if we children had been good all week, then we had biscuit and preserves. The meal was used principally for corn dodgers. Two quarts of meal were mixed with cold water, with a little salt added, and the cook would grease the skillet and make three pones that fit in the skillet, and as the finishing touch would give it a pat and leave the print of her hand on the bread, and then with a shovel of coals on the skillet lid, would bake it so hard that you could knock a Texas steer down with a chunk of it, or split an end board forty yards offhand. Milk and mush or milk with corn bread crumbled in, was the diet the kids were raised on.

The destruction of the mill and dam has been complete. I suppose the dam was fixed for all time and that after the mill had been burned that the dam would stand for a thousand years, and that the water would spurt through the rocks till Gabriel should sound his trumpet.

The dam was built of stone in cribs made of timber, and more than 1,000 loads of stone were filled in them. Where all the stone has gone is a mystery, and now, like Jerusalem, not one stone is left on another.

In 1832, a steamboat, the Utility, came up the Sangamon as far as the mill and laid there a week. Hundreds of people came from miles around to see the boat, and though now it would be considered a very slim pattern for a boat, it attracted great attention. It was a stern wheeler and not over 100 feet long. Salem was then the first town after leaving Beardstown and many air castles were built, and Salem was to be a great river port. This incident gave a boom to Salem and most of the building in the town was the result of the visit of this boat. In a year or so the Talisman, a large boat, a side wheel boat, came up and went up above the dam as high as Springfield and came back. About this time Petersburg was laid out and John Taylor, who was the proprietor of Petersburg, bought the boat and dismantled it. The engine and boiler were used in the first steam mill at Petersburg. It was old style and its "cough" could be heard for miles around. A large business was done at the mill for ten years, till the boiler was burned out. John Webb run it last. It was both a saw and grist mill.

And so Salem began from Rutledge and Cameron's mill to grow into a town of considerable importance. It had a large share of the trade north of Rock Creek, around west to Clary's Grove, Little Grove around north, Concord and the Sandridge on the east, Indian Point, New Market and Athens, and those that came from these localities were the Tibbs, Wisemans, Hohimers, Hornbuckles, Purkapiles, Mattlings, Goldbys, Wynns, Cogdalls from the south; from the west was the Berrys, Bones, Greens, Potters, Armstrongs, Clarks, Summers, Grahams, Watkins, Gums, Spears, Conovers, Whites, Jones; in the north, Pantiers, Clarys, Armstrongs, Wagoners; on the east were Smoots, Godbys, Riggins, Watkins, Whites, Wilcoxs, Clarks, Straders, Baxters, and a host of others. Most of these have passed in their checks, but their children still occupy the farms. In Mason county, if a farm is for sale, some German is sure to grab it up, while in Menard it is kept for generations in families. The men I have named were visitors at Salem from the deep snow till 1836, when Petersburg began to compete for their trade, and the mill and carding machine still held their custom. The inhabitants were all from Kentucky and Virginian and laid a good foundation for future generations.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



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Illinois Ancestors