Normal and Bloomington - Heart of Illinois
Bloomington, you will first travel through
though over the years the two cities have virtually merged. As
you’ll have to watch carefully to observe where
Normal ends and
1854 the town of North
Bloomington was platted in an
area that was commonly known as "The Junction,” at the intersection of
Illinois Central and the
Chicago & Alton railroads.
This parcel of land belonged to Joseph Parkinson, after whom Parkinson
Street was named. Though platted, the town was not developed
until three years later when Jesse Fell began to build in an area that
lay northeast of the original plat. Fell is referred to as the
"founding father" of
as he soon became a central figure in the town’s development. Early industries in the town included nurseries, horse breeders, and
Governor William Bissell signed a bill to create a "normal” school,
which was the term used for schools established as teachers’ colleges. Jesse Fell took up the campaign for
obtained financial backing for the school. Abraham Lincoln, in
his capacity as an attorney, drew up the bond guaranteeing that
would fulfill their financial commitments. The University first held
Bloomington while the
campus was being built north of the town.
Old Main, the
all-purpose building for the University, was completed in 1861 and the
state’s first college was established. Four years later, in
1865, the town was officially incorporated utilizing the name of
Normal. It was
in this same year that legislation was passed to establish the Civil
War Orphans Home in
Two years later, the Civil War Orphans' Home, later known as the
Illinois Soldiers' and
Sailors' Children's School, was opened.
The first successful
canning business was started in the 1870's and the town became a
shipping center for berries, small fruits, and vegetables in the next
On August 4th, 1890 a grocery store caught
fire, causing the destruction of several downtown businesses. As a
result, much of the downtown area was rebuilt in two-story brick
buildings that are still in use today. This fire, along with another
in 1896, led to the purchase of a fire extinguishing equipment and the
establishment of a volunteer fire department.
In the 1920's buses began to replace the streetcar lines in
Bloomington and when
was designated, the area began to sprout up all types of new businesses to
accommodate the many travelers of the road. Gus and Edith Belt attached a
dining room to the side of their Shell Gas Station and called it Shell's
Chicken. However, Gus soon realized that central
Illinois had plenty of chicken
restaurants and wanted to do something different. With a little help from
his friends, Gus began to sell a unique product to the many travelers of
the Mother Road - the steak burger. In February, 1934 the first Steak 'n'
Shake was opened in
City of Normal
The first Steak n Shake in
Steak n Shake
Bloomington, a city
founded decades before the town of
Normal was born. In its early years, the settlement was formed near a large grove of
trees utilized by the Kickapoo
Indians before white settlers began to arrive in the early 1820's. Before a settlement was established here, several trappers hid a keg
of liquor in the grove. However, when the
Indians found it, they drank it and the stand of trees took on the
name Keg Grove. However, when the first settlers began to
build upon the land, they changed the name to Blooming Grove due to
the many flowers in the area.
When the County of McLean was incorporated
on December 25, 1830, a man named James Allen donated 60 acres for a
new town to hold the county seat. The place that was once
referred to as Keg Grove and Blooming Grove became
Bloomington. The town was laid out and on July 4, 1831, lots
were sold at a festive event. Before long, the rich soil of the
county attracted farmers and
Bloomington's downtown district was born.
It was during these early
years that Abraham Lincoln often rode the circuit to Bloomington, conducting business from the now restored
Miller-Davis building at 101 N Main Street. Here, Lincoln met
many lawyers and prominent businessmen, including Jesse Fell, who
first encouraged Lincoln to run for president.
The McLean County
Museum of History is housed in the historic 1903 courthouse, photo
courtesy City of Bloomington.
resulted in Lincoln writing his autobiography that Fell distributed to the
Eastern press, introducing Lincoln to the national political scene.
Another man who was instrumental in Lincoln’s win of the 1860
presidential nomination, was Judge David Davis of
1872, Davis and his wife Sarah built an elegant Victorian Mansion at 1000
E. Monroe Drive, which continues to stand today, furnished with opulent
European fixtures and serving as a museum.
At the turn of the
century, a disastrous fire claimed a great portion of
area; however, agriculture, highways, railroads, and insurance continued
to influence the city’s growth. When
came through in 1926 along the
Alton Railroad corridor, numerous businesses sprouted up along the route
and in the heart of
Route 66, it bypassed
Bloomington and its
historic businesses began a quick decline.
Today, this city of some
65,000 people has made a dedicated effort to restore its historic downtown
area, which continues to display much of its nineteenth century charm in
its restaurants, shops, and galleries.
Bloomington, don’t miss
the McLean County Museum of History, housed in the historic 1903
courthouse at 200 N. Main Street. Listed on the National Register of
Historic Sites, the museum displays items from early settlers, Abraham
Lincoln, and a glimpse into the lives of
residents. For a view of the
era, Cotton's Village Inn continues to stand at 410 N. Main in
Continue your journey down old
Route 66 to
Grove and more vintage era sites at
of America, updated April, 2017.