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


CHAPTER XVI
History of Petersburg Sixty Years Ago

Page 170

In 1840 we moved to Petersburg, and were the first to leave Salem. In that year more than one-half of the residents of Salem moved to Petersburg, where the county seat has been located. John Taylor had secured possession of the land, and the price of a lot now would have purchased then the best eighty acres in Menard county. My father bought two lots in the branch on the east of Bale's carding machine. The branch ran through the center of the lots, taking at least one-third of the ground. Petersburg was then the only town between Havana and Springfield. The first point of interest as you entered the town from the sough was the steam mill, which was built somewhere in the "thirties." The engine was a large one, and was taken from the steamer, Talisman. Its cough could be heard for a mile. It operated a sawmill and two pair of buhrs. The first saw was an up and down pattern. If a man wanted to build in the spring he would have to get his logs to the mill the winter before. A couple of yoke of oxen and a bob-sled was the means of hauling them. By spring several hundred logs would cover the ground in the vicinity of the mill. The miller kept several yoke of oxen to draw the logs up where they could be loaded on the carriage. He also kept a large cart to haul logs with when there was no snow on the ground. I think the wheels were ten feet in diameter. The cart would straddle over a log, the log swung under the cart near the middle, so that it would not bear much on the ground. The logs would be sawed by spring and lumber hauled out by the owner and stacked up to dry. It would be nearly a year after the tree was cut before the lumber was ready for the carpenter. It cost three times as much then to build a house as now, where all the material you use is ready to be put together. The corner posts of a house in early times was 8x8s, and it would take a carpenter a day to make one.

The grist mill was in an ell south of the sawmill. It would now be considered a rough affair. For flour there was a pair of French buhrs, with a rude bolting machine. The flour came out in a long box, 10 or 12 feet long, and when the grist was ground the miller, with his paddle, would cut off one-third. This was fine flour, the next third coarse and the last was the shorts, which was used to make pancakes. If we had been good children through the week, we would have biscuits for Sunday, with some peach preserve; or if company came at any time during the week we might have some biscuits, but the corn bread dispensation had not then expired. When I mention corn bread I mean corn dodgers, and as I told you in a former article what corn dodgers were I will not repeat it.

The mill stood one hundred yards south of the elevator, and there were no houses south of the mill. We will now skip over to Main Street, and commence with Chester Moon, who lived on top of the hill on the west side of the street. Moon was a saloonkeeper and a great hunter. Many a large, fat buck graced his table. I recollect we once played a joke on Moon. Some the boys had a jumper-sled one winter that had a seat dressed with deer skin, with a large pair of horns. South of his house was a large hazel thicket; we located the dummy dear there so that its head and neck showed plainly. Moon got up the next morning and soon discovered the deer; he ran for his rifle and shot once, twice and thrice without scaring the deer; he then made a closer examination and found that he had been fooled.

A little farther north was where Chas. Brooks lived; he was a tailor. He had a large family. Brooks died some thirty years ago, while Mrs. Brooks lived many years after.

Across the street one the east lived A. D. Wright. He was a man of some prominence. He had been a merchant, but at the time I write he was county judge. He was a very popular and affable man. He always went by the name of A. D., though I never knew what A. D. stood for. His wife was a daughter of John Cabanis, of Springfield. Old man Cabanis was a strong Whig, while Wright and Hiccox, his son-in-laws, were Democrats. Somebody asked him why it was that he, being a Whig, had such strong Democrats for son-in-laws? Cabanis replied that God Almighty gave him his daughters, but the devil gave him his son-in-laws.

The next house north of Wright's was Hurd's. He was a Fuller by trade, and had come to Petersburg to work for Hardin Bale. No sooner had he moved in town that I, who was a Whig politician, interviewed his son, Jewett, as to his political proclivities. He was non-committal. Not knowing my sentiments he remarked that "Our family don't take sides."

Across the street was Bale's carding machine, which was the busiest place in town. It was a large two-story building and I think it fronted on Main street 150 feet. Every person kept sheep. Store clothes had not then come into fashion. The sheep would be sheared by the first of June, and the wool taken to the carding machine. Bale would take toll out of the wool, or they would pay cash for carding. The wool would be brought tied up in sheets or blankets, with a gallon of grease for every ten pounds of wool. I ran Bale's picker for a year or so. The bicker took out the dirt and burrs. Bale kept adding on machinery till he had quite a factory. He carded the wool, spun, wove it, filled it and colored it; then run it through his shearer and took the knap off of it; by that time a good article of broadcloth was made. In the meantime, Bale's factory had grown to such dimensions that a steam engine was added and a pair of French buhrs, and Samuel Hill also became a partner. A large business was done, but misfortune came to Hardin Bale. His large factory was consumed by fire with not much insurance. He then moved up to the mouth of the branch, near the old South Valley coal shaft. Not prospering here as he did at first he started for Pike's Peak, with machinery to work for gold, but before he got there he met hundreds of teams returning. He turned back and as he was crossing the river at Beardstown his machinery was sunk in the river.

West of Bale's place on the side of the hill lived John Bennett. He was one of Petersburg's early merchants. He had come from Virginia, and was one of the F. P. V. John Bennett once represented Menard county in the legislature and also filled other offices. He invited the legislature once to his house. I helped to make the ice cream for that honorable body. John Bennett was a good citizen and neighbor. He had three boys, Tom, Dick and Harry. They were my schoolmates and were good boys. Dick was trampled to death by a horse. Tom died 20 years ago. Harry kept a drug store in Easton, but died many years ago; so the family of John Bennett are all gone.

Just west of John Bennett lived James Carter. He was a good cabinetmaker. In those days there was plenty of good timber in the county, such as the finest walnut trees, lynn, birch, birdseye maple and cherry, large enough for table leaves. I have seen cherry planks three feet wide, and white walnut was a very fine finishing lumber.

In the south part of town on the street leading towards the river in the early "thirties," lived James Taylor, a son of John Taylor. I don't think he followed any particular business; he appeared to be a gentleman of means. He lived there several years, and then moved back to Springfield. He was a lover of fine horses, and generally kept a number of fine rigs. He could be seen when the sleighing was good with a load of school children taking them to school or bringing them home. James Taylor lived in style and was a gentleman of leisure. He also extended his courtesies to married women by taking them driving, a custom which we think has gone out of date.

Among the early inhabitants of the south end of town were two brothers, George and Isam Davidson. George died in Mason city a few years ago, while Isam moved to Lewistown in 1841. They kept store in Petersburg in 1840. Isam had two sons who made their ark in the newspaper world in after years. James Davidson, the eldest, was, I think, the homliest mortal I ever saw. His mouth was on the side of his face and he was "real-footed" in both feet.* He was droll in his manners, but a splendid writer and an able editor. After spending a quarter of a century in Lewistown, he moved to Carthage and published the Carthage Republican till the day of his death. William Davidson still lives in Lewistown and is proprietor of the Fulton Democrat, a fearless and independent Democratic newspaper.

The Colby Brothers, wagonmakers, lived over the branch, just west of the C. P. & St. L. railroad. They came in an early day. Near by was the blacksmith shop of Marin Morris, one of the bet smiths who ever hammered iron. He was a fine worker on edge tools. After he quit the shop Robert Bishop used it for a gunsmith shop. Bishop made rifles form the raw material and stocked them.

On the branch lived Henry Onstot, whose dwelling was on the south side of the branch, and whose shop was on the north side. He often worked as may as four men and the surplus work of his shop was hauled to Springfield or Beardstown.

John Taylor had a packing house in Petersburg for several years, and used many barrels for lard and hogsheads for shipping bacon.

Now we come to the business block of the town. Just north of Joseph Pillsbury's and fronting on Main Street is where all the stores of the village were located. For a number of years all the stories in town were in this block. On the south corner was the store of John Taylor, which was the largest in town. The main salesman in this store for many years was his nephew, James Taylor, and cousin to James Taylor, spoken of in the first part of this article. He was a tall, good-looking man, who was afterwards elected sheriff of Menard county, but did not live long. Taylor's store was well stocked with the kind of goods used in those times. Taylor would go to St. Louis twice a year, in the fall and spring. After he had been a week a number of horse and ox wagons would load up at Petersburg with bacon, lard, butter, beeswax and whatever produce has been taken in and go to Beardstown, where is would be sipped to St. Louis. By that time the goods would arrive at Beardstown and would be brought back to Petersburg. It would take our days to make the trip. This was before the days of railroads and the present generation has but little idea of the difficulties their fathers and to endure. Taylor's store was heated by a large fireplace that would take in four feet of wood. They would buy hickory wood, ten feet long, and James Taylor would spend his spare time in cutting it. I think Taylor had the largest trade in the town.

The next room on the north was kept by a number of persons. The first persons whom I recollect were the Davidson Bros., George and Isam, though they vacated it in 1840. George was very careless in his dress and manners, while I. G., as Isam was familiarly called, was the opposite. I. G. kept his boots so black and slick that a fly couldn't light on them and stay there. One day his son, James, had been into some mischief, and his father got after him with a whip, and the lad ran, jumped out into a mudpuddle in front of the store, where he dared his father to come after him. His father did not venture into the mud.

The next building on the north was occupied by Septimus Levering, when first built as a store room. He moved to Springfield about the time the county seat was located at Petersburg, and the building was then used for a court house for several years and became a historic character. The old settlers of Menard will recollect the legal battles that were fought under its roof. There were Abraham Lincoln, John T. Stewart, Ben Edwards, E. D. Baker, Murray McConnell, Stephen A. Douglas, and a number of other intellectual giants who attended court in those early days - men who had won their spurs in many a legal encounter. We asked Robert T. Lincoln in his office a few years ago why such able lawyers did not practice in the circuit courts now, and he said the reason was that corporations and railroads retained all the able lawyers for their own use. Bob at that time was attorney for the Wabash railroad at a salary of $20,000 a year. The house was small - about 20x40, with a railing that cut off the west end for the judge and the lawyers, leaving the east part of the house for the audience. This house served the county till the court house was ready in 1844. Court would open up Monday afternoon, after the lawyers would get in from Springfield, and would be ready to adjourn by Friday. The old court house was used for religious meetings. Revs. J. M. Berry, John G. White, George Barrett and numerous other ministers preached there. Political meetings were also held in the building. It was the only place in town to hold public gatherings until the little Presbyterian Church was built, which still stands north of Rule's livery barn. Yes, the old court house has a history.

The next building north of the court house was occupied by Miles & McCoy. Miles moved to Petersburg at an early day. His family occupied the house in the south part of the town, afterwards occupied by Hardin Bale. He only had three children. James, Elizabeth and Ann, who became the wife of William Herendon. Lincoln's law partner, McCoy, was a brother of Miles' wife. They came from near Springfield and kept a good stock of goods and had an excellent trade. I went to school with Miles' children. After going out of the merchandise business, Miles lived in Petersburg till his death. McCoy went back to where he came from.

One door north was a saloon kept by a man named Adams, which did not have a very good reputation. Many scenes of disorder and lawlessness were enacted there. For a good while this was the only saloon in town, and as liquor was sold in most of the stores at twenty-five cents a gallon and was carried home and drank there, people did not like to pay ten cents a drink for it, yet on public days the saloon was liberally patronized. Men would get drunk and raise a fuss under the slightest pretext, and fight and bawl wit their neighbors.

In the north corner of the block James and William Hoey, two Irishmen from the ould sod of Ireland, for years kept store. They were both bachelors, and kept their stock of goods in the front part of the house. The two were as different as brothers could be. William was a get-up and dust fellow, and was the business man of the firm. He was rather rough in his manner, while his brother, James, was a refined gentleman. James was the "best man" at the wedding of Tarleton Lloyd and Catherine Keltner at Salem, spoken of in a former letter. The Hoeys had for a housekeeper a large, fat Irish maid, who went by the name of Becky Hoey. She done their cooking, washing and other work.

Across the street opposite Hoeys lived Dr. Richard Bennett, a brother of John Bennett. The Bennetts had come from Virginia before 1840. Dr. Bennett kept a hotel for many years, and practiced medicine in the early days. He raised quite a family. Is eldest son was named Sandy. He died in the early days, while Theodore still survives and has held the office of circuit clerk for the past twenty-four years. Dr. Bennett occupied a prominent place in the community for twenty years.

In the same block was a two-story house, where Chester Moon kept a saloon, and Rial Clary succeeded him.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson

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