Taking Down Colonel Rogers's place---gently|
The first clapboard house built in Illinois north of the Sangamon River needs a new home.
The Illinois Times
October 21-27, 1977
By Alan Anderson Jr.
On October 9, on a brisk fall Saturday when most people were home getting the yard ready for winter or watching football games on TV, a dozen members of the industrious town of Athens were out back of Bo Hackman's farmhouse tearing down a dilapidated shed and piling its weathered boards onto a large haywagon. All of the demolitionists were volunteers, and before they tore down the building they had carefully labeled every stud, joist and plank with a numbered card. The building was so old that there was no problem bringing it down; one wall fell of its own accord. As the work went on through the blustery day, a small crowd came and went, including TV and press reporters and visitors from as far away as Missouri and Ohio.
It was not, of course, just another farmer's shed, there on the prairie a mile north of Athens. What the workers were doing was disassembling rather than demolishing it in hope of resurrecting the building somewhere in Athens. Four or five sites are being considered, but Athenians still lack the funds to buy one. The home had belonged to Col. Matthew Rogers, and when it was built in 1828 it was the first clapboard house in Illinois north of the Sangamon River. Clapboard was an important technological advance in those days, and the house was admired and quickly imitated. Colonel Rogers had also built the first frame barn north of the Sangamon, in 1826 or 1827, and the first frame house north of the river in 1828. In 1831 he built a two-story frame store in Athens which two years ago became known as the Long Nine Museum. The name comes from the nine legislators of the area who, as a group, were unusually tall, and whose ranks included young Abraham Lincoln.
One of the prime movers behind the creation of the Long Nine Museum was a bustling Springfield businessman named Phil Wagner, who had devoted much of his energy and time in recent years to "putting Athens back on the map," both historically and commercially. Wagner, Athenian Dan Cedusky and, at one time or another, virtually every citizen in town have devoted extraordinary effort to resisting the slow death that awaits many small towns on the prairie, especially those without a large grain elevator or coal mine or Interstate truck stop. The town of just over 1000 people is struggling through sheer stubbornness to keep itself afloat, and one of the ways it has tried to do this is through capitalizing on its historic ties with Lincoln. Aside from building a large town park with swimming pool, baseball field, community building and parking lot, Athens volunteers have done extensive remodeling of the Long Nine Museum, including the small post office inside, where New Salem postmaster Abe Lincoln once picked up mail; rebuilt the town library; surveyed and laid out the twenty-three-mile Lincoln Post Road, which Lincoln once traveled from his home in New Salem to Springfield; sought and won a federal grant to update its sewage system and organized a Bicentennial wagon train to Valley Forge, a big Post Road celebration, a surveyors' breakfast, Octoberfests and other festivals. The town has also infected numerous outsiders with its enthusiasm, including Lincoln historian Wayne Temple, the 28th Reactivated Calvary, and high-level politicians who regularly participate in the festivals. It has encouraged the establishment and updating of a small mall on main street, a craft gallery, riverboat museum, the "Spirit of '76" building and the "wild west" Saddle Tramp Gap just outside of town, where the state chili cooking championship is scheduled each fall.
The family of Bo Hackman (his real name, Alwin, was shortened because he could not pronounce it; the closest he could come was "boy," which he pronounced "bo") has owned the Colonel Roger's home since Bo's father Julius bought it from the Rogers family in 1902. Standing in front of the newer, 1920-built house amid the 140 acres he farms, he recalls the events leading to the demolition. "Phil Wagner came out here about four years ago when they were starting with the Long Nine up there. He had me get the abstract out and make sure it was the right building. Then he came by with a check for $100, but I never did cash the check; I told him I'd give it to him. Then he didn't realize how much it'd cost to move it. I think some people wanted $10,000 or $20,000."
"Then about a month ago I decided I'd have to tear it down because I need a storage shed for the lawnmower and tiller and so on. Dan Cedusky here and Phil talked with several people about money and got negative reactions, so we decided we'd have to tear it down ourselves. It was just a matter of a year or more and it'd've fallen down by itself. Can't do much with it the way it is. I keep a little chicken feed in it, a few things. My mother used it for a washhouse. We had a cream separator out there in the south end, and my Dad smoked meat out there and kept tools and such. 'Course years ago, when I was a kid, we'd have what you call a summer kitchen in there-we'd cook there and eat there when it was too hot in the house."
As we talked, and the wind blew, and the volunteers passed board after board out one window, on the wagon, various visitors arrived, filling Bo Hackman's yard with an unaccustomed variety of foreign cars and out-of-state license plates. A man and woman from Ohio arrived. The man was an osteopath named Paul Heyer, and the woman told me in earnest tones that she was Ann Rutledge and she just had to see the house before it was gone. That took me aback, but anything is possible; after all, Colonel Roger's daughter Arminda tutored both Ann Rutledge and Lincoln.
When a very tall man came in and introduced himself as William R. Rogers, the great-great-grandson of Colonel Rogers himself--son of Leroy T., grandson of William Henry, great-grandson of Henry C. --I was skeptical. But it turned out to be true. William R. works as a game warden in Eminence, Missouri; his wife, a friendly, black-haired woman, knew much of the family history by heart. Bo Hackman's sister, Lydia Hackman Robbins, was also there, visiting from her home in Milwaukee. When one of the walls of the house fell down, someone spotted the inscription "Walther Reed 1899" written in faded blue chalk on the inside, and this sparked a kind of family inter-reunion between the Rogerses and the Hackmans. It turned out that Walter Reed was renting the house from the Rogers family in 1902 when Julius Hackman, Bo and Lydia's father, wanted to buy it. The Reeds were reluctant to move, and they did their best to discourage the Hackmans from buying. They insisted, for example, that the house was haunted; that the ghost of Colonel Rogers came at night to get a drink from the well, and that you could hear the sound of the chain as he pulled up the bucket.
"Nonetheless," said Lydia Hackman Robbins, a stout and friendly woman equally well versed in her family's history, "Julius bought the house in 1920, and moved in with his bride, and ten months later I came along. I was fortunate enough to go to high school--I was in the first class here in Athens High School. There was quite a contest back then for the school; people up at Indian Point were trying to have it built there. If they had, I probably wouldn't have gone, they were still constructing it when the Armistice was announced in 1918. I remember they let school out and we all ran outdoors yelling and stepping over tools and boards. I went on to be a schoolteacher; Bo and my other brother, who was a basketball star, stayed on to farm. I'm seventy-three now, and Bo is sixty-five, and Henry is, well, eleven years younger, so that'd make him sixty-two. He farms right up the road."
Much of the reason for the interest in Colonel Roger's house, of course, derives from its association with Abraham Lincoln, to whom the colonel is thought to have lent many of the books that young Abe used to educate himself. The colonel probably had the best library in the region, and among the books available to Lincoln were Charles Davies' Elements of Surveying, David Patterson's Adams Latin Grammar, Paradise Lost, Don Quixote, The Holy Bible and Nicholas Machiavel's The Art of War. According to James T. Hickey, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Illinois State Historical Library, recent discoveries about the contents of the Rogers library indicate that these books had a good deal to do with Lincoln's education.
It was no accident that the Rogers library was a rich one. The family was an active and educated one, both in England (Protestant dissonant John Rogers was burned at the stake in 1555 for his preaching) and in the Northeast, where the family arrived in 1635, just fifteen years after the Mayflower. Matthew Rogers was born in Connecticut in 1770, where he was apprenticed to a ship's carpenter but later became a farmer and moved to New York. There he bought about 100 acres of land near Cooperstown. He married Susanna Morse, daughter of a judge and a second cousin of Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. He became a colonel when serving in the War of 1812.
After the war, in 1818, he and his family emigrated to Illinois by wagon, flatboat and wagon. The family lived for two years in Madison County, while the colonel went in 1819 to Sangamon County, where he built a log cabin, and in 1821 to what is now Menard County. A mile north of Athens, Rogers farmed and operated a tree nursery. When his clapboard home was completed, he used part of it to house the first post office in the area, serving the town of Rogers. When the post office moved south to the present Long Nine Museum in 1931, the name of the town was changed, in a small but eloquent gesture toward the democratic ideal, Athens. In an equally firm gesture toward independence, the name was-and is-pronounced A-thens.
A meeting of the clans: William R. Rogers, great-great-grandson of Colonel Rogers, poses before the old Rogers home with Alwin "Bo" Hackman, the present owner. Bo's father, Julius Hackman, bought the house from the Rogers family in 1902.
Lydia Hackman Robbins, Bo's sister, snapped this photo of Bo (right) and brother Henry in 1918, when Bo was seven and Henry four. The camera was Lydia's first, a Kodak she got for Christmas in 1917, and the tricycle was Bo's first. When the picture was taken the house was a mere hundred years old, with clapboarding firmly intact.
Submitted by: Mike Hackman