Chenoa, Lexington & Towanda - More Small
continue to travel southwest, you’ll soon pass through the small town
Illinois. Getting its start in 1856, the town was the perfect spot as the Peoria
& Oquawka Railroad and the Chicago and Alton Railroad
intersected here. In addition to the railroads,
and U.S. 24 also intersected here, bringing many travelers through the
small town. Today this sleepy village of about 1,800 souls sits
quietly off of I-55, bypassed by speeding cars whose passengers are
seemingly unaware of its existence.
The town was founded in 1854 by
Mathew T. Scott to provide a retail and trade center and as a grain
shipping facility for area farmers. After the Chicago and Alton trains
had been running through the small settlement for almost two years, an
official townsite was laid out by Matthew Scott in May, 1856. At that
time the Peoria &
Oquawka Railroad was making plans to also come through town. Scott,
who was an
experienced land developer from Kentucky began buying
thousands of acres of land in this area. The word,
"Chenoka" or "Chenoa", is one of many Native American names for the
Kentucky River, for which Scott named the town.
This mural in
was painted by a high school student,
September, 2004, Kathy Weiser.
In the beginning, the settlement was actually two rival towns - Chenoa
and East Chenoa with the railroad tracks dividing the two communities.
The first advertisement for the town of Chenoa appeared on May 15,
1856, stating: "The only crossing of railroads likely to be made
within McLean County within four or five years, and persons can easily
ascertain that the connection of the two roads will be effected by the
first of November or December." He went on to explain that, while
there was no large body of timber nearby, coal would be furnished at
twelve cents a bushel and cheep lumber, poplar, walnut, and oak would
also be brought in by the railroad.
Scott further enticed customers who agreed
to build a home that was worth $400 to $500 within six months of
buying a lot, that their terms would include two years of interest
free payments. He also agreed to take a quarter interest in a steam
saw mill and would donate sites for churches, schools and a cemetery.
To keep the town "upstanding", Scott marketed that anyone who sold
liquor in his town would forfeit the title to their property.
The first structures in the city were two small half-sod and
half-board dugouts which served as a depot, freight house, and shelter
for railroad section hands. A year before the town was laid out a
Pennsylvania man named J. B. Lenney put up a frame building called The
Farmer's Store in 1855. Lenney took an active part in the development of the town
and often referred to as the "Father of Chenoa." In 1856 the National
Hotel was built. In 1864 Chenoa and East Chenoa were merged into one
In 1891 the first electric lights were installed and before long, a
union station was built so both railroads could share passenger
facilities. Three years later, in July, 1894, the entire business
district east of the railroad burned down. More than 20 years later,
in November, 1918, the Union Station burned down. A new depot was
built, but, over the years, as train traffic diminished, it fell into
disrepair. It was razed in 2009.
In 1926, when Route 66 was built, it
barreled right through Chenoa, and the town responded with new
businesses to service the travelers.
Two currently active businesses here are
notable due to their longevity. They are Schuirman's Drug Store (now
Chenoa Pharmacy) and Union Roofing.
The town school system closed at the end
of the 2004 school year, consolidating with the nearby Prairie Central
Other points of interest include the Matthew T. Scott
House, a 19th Century restored home, Steve's Cafe building, and the
vintage Chenoa Pharmacy, which is a member of the Route 66 Hall of
Just about ten miles further down the road finds you in one
of Illinois’ oldest towns –
Lexington, founded in 1928. Named after the Massachusetts
battleground, the town was bustling during its Route 66
heydays, with nine gas stations and numerous eateries and motels.
Unfortunately in June, 1970 a fire destroyed or damaged many of its businesses
Though settled down now to a quiet small town, it continues to celebrate
its heritage of the
Mother Road with murals on its buildings and a
walking trail called "Memory Lane.” This one mile stretch of
pavement is an original section of
that has been preserved as a park, complete with billboards,
signs, and more.
While in Lexington, be sure to check out
the historic Patton Cabin, built in June, 1829. Unusual to the
westward settlement of America, the cabin was built with the help of the Kickapoo and Delaware
by the area's first settler John Patton. This historic building,
listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is located on north
Cherry Street in P.J. Keller Park.
As you drive
through Lexington you’ll catch glimpses
former glory at the Filling Station Café built in the 1940's and at the
edge of town, an old abandoned Oasis Drive In, now in ruins.
Remnants of old station in
Illinois, September, 2004,
Another nine miles down this old stretch of road you come to the small
Towanda, home to less than 500 residents.
Long before settlers came to
the area that would one day become the village of Towanda, it was called
home by the Kickapoo and Pottawatomie. They forfeited much of their land
in a "peace treaty" in 1919. In 1830, those who had not already left the
area were vacated with the Indian Removal Act.
The first settlers to the area
arrived from points east in 1822 finding vast stretches of prairie
interspersed with swamps and ponds and only small tracts of timber. Though
some moved onward and others returned to the east, a few hardy families
stayed, draining the swamps, breaking the sod, and tilling the soil.
Before long more settlers arrived and began building roads and
John Trimmer and family were
the first settlers of what would become the Towanda area, making their way
coming in 1826, following along an Indian trail from the Wabash country
and settling at a grove that would later be named Smith's Grove. By 1828,
Trimmer operated a blacksmith shop at the head of Money Creek. Frederick
Rook came soon afterward, but later moved to Livingston County. In 1830,
David Smith settled at the grove, for which is named for him, and began
homesteading. The first preacher was John Dunham at Smith's Grove in 1832.
In about 1837 Elbert Dickason and John Pennell erected a sawmill on Money
Creek. William Halterman settled on the prairie in 1840. William Bishop
was appointed the first area postmaster on June 7, 1843. He would go once
a week, on horseback, to the post office at Fifer and return with the
Towanda got its start when
people in the area got word that the Chicago & Mississippi Railroad would
be coming through and several area men decided to plan a village. A man
named P.A. Bedeau donated 40 acres to establish a downtown area in 1853
and Jesse W. Fell, the founder of Illinois State University, donated
additional land adjacent to the townsite. It is believed that Towanda,
Pennsylvania was the inspiration for the name of the new town, since the
former had been the birthplace of Jesse Fell. Mr. Fell was evidently
unaware that the word "Towanda" is derived from an Indian word that means
A survey was soon taken and the
men began to sell lots to businesses and individuals. The railroad came
through in 1854 and
known as the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad. The first station was
built the same year, the first building on the new townsite. The
village was bisected diagonally by the railway with the business section
located on one side and grain elevators, implements, and lumber on the
other. For decades the railroad was central to the life of the residents
and local farmers.
Alex Warren built the first
house in town and James Alexander, the first warehouse, followed by Wesley
Bishop's grocery and Frank Henderson's dry goods store.
One of the largest buildings to
be erected on Main Street was the Roadnight Hall. Charles Roadnight, then
treasurer of the Chicago & Alton Railroad, owned a great deal of land on
each side of the railroad.
His building was large -- 50' x
100' with an ornate front, frame back and brick ends. The upper floor
housed a ballroom and was used as a community center. The lower floor was
used for business concerns.
Hoping for a boom town, the
building quickly became famous in its time for the elaborate expenditures
which Roadnight lavished upon it. It was also considered to be a very
modern and outstanding for its day and patronized by wealthy society of
Bloomington and other towns. But, Mr. Roadnight's dreams would not come to
fruition. Towanda would remain a small rural agricultural community up
until present time. His building was sold and utilized for various
purposes over the years until it burned in 1905.
On June 3, 1854 William D.
Moore was appointed postmaster and the post office was located in his home
just north of the Village on the H. V. Hilts farm. That same year Towanda
gained a one-room school house west of Jefferson St., on Monroe. The first
teacher was N. M. Jones. As late as 1863 the building was in use for a
meeting in connection with a call for Civil War
Mail was contracted to be
carried by train in 1855 and a post office building was established on
Main Street. A good flour mill was erected by Roadnight and Strothers, but
did not long continue in use. Henry Warner's mill met with a similar fate.
The first sawmill in Towanda Township was erected on Money Creek and
later, another within the corporate limits of Towanda and operated by
Frank Snodgrass on the corner of Adams and Taylor street for over 30
years. Much of the rough lumber for farm buildings in the surrounding area
was sawed at this mill.
Perhaps one of the most
exciting event in the town's history was the attack on the Buena Vista
Tavern in the late 1860s. Several years before Carry Nation gained her
fame, group of local women took exception to the amount of money
their menfolk were spending on whiskey. The women, having met by prior
secret arrangement at a hardware store in Towanda, secured hatchets and
marched to the Buena Vista, one of town's three saloons. They entered, the
four men playing cards fled, and as the bartender watched in stunned
silence as the women proceeded to wreck the place. Furniture was
destroyed, bottles broken and barrels and kegs stoved in, and items thrown
through the tavern windows. Each of the women was fined one dollar.
Duncan Manor, also called the Duncan Mansion or Towanda Meadows, was
built in about 1869 by William R. Duncan, a successful livestock
dealer who moved to the Towanda area from Kentucky in late 1863, during
the Civil War. In its prime the house was very elegant with its
chandeliers, porcelain door knobs, copper bath fixtures, six marble
fireplaces and a three-story winding walnut stairway. The first and second
floor rooms had eleven foot ceilings, while those on the third floor were
nine feet in height. The walls were about a foot thick and some of the
doors were ten feet high. Unfortunately for Mr. Duncan, he died of an
illness in the autumn of 1876.
Afterwards, the beautiful
building changed hands several times and was often occupied by renters or
tenant farmers. During these many years, the house was never modernized in
such a way that would change the basic structure of the building. At some
point the building sat vacant and was vandalized. However, it has now been
privately purchased and is undergoing a beautiful restoration. Sitting on
a hill just south to Towanda, the mansion on the hill has inspired much
interest from the public over the years.
In 1873-1874 wooden sidewalks
were being built and the following year the Towanda was incorporated into
Records show that Towanda had
its own newspaper at various times. One known as the Towanda Topic was
published weekly. Considered politically independent, it was circulated
between the years 1894-1897. Another, the Towanda News also listed as
Independent, was published weekly between 1900 and 1908. J. A. Murray was
owner and editor of the latter.
Around the turn of the century Towanda was fairing well, and had become
self contained, with doctors, cafes, groceries, blacksmiths, churches,
schools, a drugstore and a bank.
During the mid-20th century,
Route 66 passed through the village and was a major source of business and
When you first enter
the town you'll see the remnants of Eddie's Pure Oil Truck Stop that
opened in the late 1940's, but died when the Interstate bypassed this
Other sights to see in this vintage village the Kick's Route 66 Bar and
Grill housed in an old gas station and Schenks' Garage which features old
Route 66 memorabilia
you are leaving
Towanda, keep your eyes open for an old vintage bridge alongside the
road before traveling on down
Village of Towanda
PO Box 213
Towanda, IL 61776
of America, updated
Legends' General Store
66 Postcard Coloring Book - If you love
Route 66, enjoy
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66 Postcard Coloring Book contains 20 postcards of various places along
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