As you continue to travel southwest, you’ll soon pass through the small town of Chenoa, 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, Route 66 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.
In the beginning, the settlement was actually two rival towns – Chenoa and East Chenoa with the railroad tracks dividing the two communities.
Matthew Scott, in the first advertisement for the town of Chenoa appearing on May 15, 1856, stated:
“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 affected by the first of November or December.”
He explained that, while there was no large body of timber nearby, coal would be furnished at twelve cents a bushel and cheap 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 sawmill 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 town’s development and was 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 town.
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 school district.
Other points of interest include the Matthew T. Scott House; a 19th Century restored home, Steve’s Cafe building, and the vintage Chenoa Pharmacy, a member of the Route 66 Hall of Fame.
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 and buildings.
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 Route 66 that has been preserved as a park, complete with billboards, Burma-Shave 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 Indians 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 of Route 66’s former glory at the Filling Station Café built in the 1940s and at the edge of town, an old abandoned Oasis Drive-In, now in ruins.
Another nine miles down this old stretch of road you come to the small town of 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 establishing businesses.
John Trimmer and family were the first settlers of 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 mail.
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 “burial ground”.
A survey was soon taken and the men began to sell lots to businesses and individuals. The railroad came through in 1854 and became 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 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 boomtown, 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 the 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 the 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 schoolhouse 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 volunteers.
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 events 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, a group of local women took exception to the amount of money their menfolk were spending on whiskey. Having met by prior secret arrangement at a hardware store in Towanda, the women 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.
Afterward, 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 been privately purchased and is undergoing a beautiful restoration. Sitting on a hill just south of 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 a village.
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 the 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 income.
When you first enter the town you’ll see the remnants of Eddie’s Pure Oil Truck Stop that opened in the late 1940s, but died when the Interstate bypassed this small town.
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.
As you are leaving Towanda, keep your eyes open for an old vintage bridge alongside the road before traveling on down Route 66 to Normal and Bloomington, Illinois.
Village of Towanda
103 S Jefferson St
PO Box 213
Towanda, IL 61776
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2022.