Mt. Olive, Illinois -
More Coal on Route 66
As the tall grass prairie begins its gradual
roll into the Ozarks, you will soon arrive in the small town of Mt. Olive. The land upon which the town now sits first belonged to a German emigrant
named John C. Niemann, who bought forty acres in 1846. After he was
established and had purchased even more land, he sent for his brothers,
Fred and Henry, who bought property adjoining John’s farm.
Soon more Germans came to the area and Niemann
built the first store to service the many settlers. Housed inside
the store was the post office and Neimann became postmaster, in what was
then known as Niemann’s Settlement. In 1868 a man by the name of Corbus J. Keiser purchased a half interest in the store, which was renamed
Niemann & Keiser.
along with a man named Mient Arkebauer, laid out a town plat on
Niemann’s original forty acres. The name given to the town was Oelburg, which means "Mount of Olives.” In 1870 when the
railroad came through, the settlement’s name changed once again to
Drummond Station. A few years later in 1874, Neimann sold his
interest in the store. It would be more than a decade that the town
would finally settle upon the name Mt. Olive.
proud of its
Route 66 heritage, September, 2004, Kathy Weiser
In the meantime, C.J. Keiser began to
build an empire, opening the first coal shaft in 1875, establishing a
milling business in 1876, and one of the first banks in 1882. Keiser was one of twelve original stockholders who owned the mine
works. Coal mining in the area began to attract immigrants by
the hundreds to work in the many mines.
While mining brought prosperity to
Illinois, it also brought violence, property damage, and grief
when turmoil began to rage between union activists and the mine
owners. After miners had worked for years under dangerous and harsh
conditions with very little pay, the first nationwide union, the
United Mine Workers of America, was formed in 1890, to fight unfair
wages and company stores. During this time, the mine companies
totally controlled their workers’ lives, as they owned the mining
towns and practically everything within them.
Miners lived in company houses and were
often paid with script or coupons that were redeemable only at company
stores, that charged higher prices than other retail businesses. In addition, workers were forced to buy their own tools, maintain
them, and even buy the oil for the lamps they used for underground
light. In the beginning, the union had little effect on company
owners because if union members went on strike, the company would just
take away their homes.
Though the next decade
would see mostly defeat in the efforts to organize against the mining
companies, activists continued to rally. Starting on July 15, 1892,
in Mt. Olive,
a bastion of union miners began to march south through one coal town after
another, calling miners out of the pits. Holding impromptu rallies, they
won much moral and material support from the communities and their
Though gaining the
support of the community members, they were not successful in recruiting
many miners into the union, due to low wages and fear on the part of the
miners. By the great strike of 1897, only about 400 out of 35,000
coal miners belonged to the United Mine Workers of America. However,
the dedication of a few began to make a difference and by early 1898 an
agreement was made between the union and management that workers would be
restricted to an eight hour day, receive a mutually agreed upon wage, and
company stores would be eliminated.
However, in the
fall of 1898, the
Chicago-Virden Coal Company, along with many
others, sought to be exempted from the agreement. Failing in that effort,
management proceeded to lock the union workers out of the mines and
imported black strike breakers from the south. This, of course, provoked
an immediate reaction among the union activists.
On October 12, 1898, the
feared violence began at Virden,
small town some forty miles north of Mt. Olive. When the train carrying 180 black strike-breakers and their families,
attempted to pass through a band of armed strikers, all hell broke lose as
gunshots between the laborers and the armed guards broke out. In the
melee, which became known as the Virden Massacre, seven miners and five
guards were dead. Forty other miners, four guards, and the train’s
engineer were wounded. The train was returned to
with its cargo still aboard.
Four of the miners killed
were from Mt. Olive and were originally buried in the town cemetery. However,
the owner of the land objected to the burials and the Lutheran cemetery
barred them from burial because the minister denounced the miners as
"murders.” In response, the local union purchased a one acre site and the
bodies were moved to the new Union Miners’ Cemetery in 1899. Over
the years, additional land was acquired and a monument was dedicated on
October 11, 1936.
cemetery is the final resting place of Mary Harris "Mother” Jones, a
fierce advocate for the rights of both miners and children. Before
her death at the age of 100 in 1930, Mary Jones requested to be buried
with "her boys” – the coal miners that she championed for decades. The cemetery, listed on the national Register of Historic Places, is on
the northwestern edge of town, just off I-55.
Long after the
tumultuous years surrounding the turn of the century, another coal
miner by the name of Henry Soulsby lived and worked in
Mt. Olive. However, due to an injury in the 1920's, he could no longer endure the
hard labor of the mines and began to look for a different trade. He soon invested his life savings into a couple of lots at the corner
of 1st Street and what would soon become
Route 66. In 1926, the Soulsby Shell Station opened. Henry’s high school
aged son, Russell, helped out when he could and joined his father full
time after his graduation. Later, Henry’s daughter’s Ola and Wilma
also helped at the station.
The original station
was just 13 by 20 feet wide with barely enough room for a desk,
battery charger, and a few supplies. In 1937, a 30 by 12 foot
extension was added to the back of the building. However, the
station was not enlarged to the degree that it had a garage. Instead, the Soulsbys utilized a drive up ramp outside the station for
oil changes and minor repairs. When Henry retired, Russell and Ola,
who both proved adept at pumping gas, checking oil, and checking the
engine for problems, took over the station.
During World War II,
Russell became communications technician and upon his return home, he
began repairing radios and televisions at the station. In the
1950's, he devoted the station’s north side room to this new business.
Though he made no structural changes to the building, he placed an
antenna on the roof to test his work.
Soulsby's Station in 1926
Soulsby's Station, September, 2004,
Kathy Weiser. This image available for
photographic prints and downloads
In the late 1950's,
Interstate 55 plowed through
supplanting most of the
traffic. Soulsby’s Station ended up a mile away from the new
thoroughfare. However, his new television venture kept him in
business. He and Ola continued to pump gas until 1991, when they
could no longer keep up with the new EPA regulations. After
pumping gas for 65 years to
travelers, the gasoline storage tanks were removed. However, for
the next two years, the station still stayed open checking oil,
selling soft drinks, and greeting an ever-growing group of new
travelers. Finally, the station closed its doors in 1993. In 1997, Ola
passed away and Russell sold the station at an auction, complete with
everything in it.
With the new owner’s encouragement;
however, he started greeting visitors again occasionally. Russell died
Today, the current owner and the Soulsby Station
Society have restored the building to its original historic
appearance, providing a the a classic example of early
for generations of
Travelers to come.
coals mines are gone, the traces of old
are fading, and the village has become primarily a sleepy residential
Continue your journey of the
Mother Road by booking on down to
Staunton and visiting
Henry's Rabbit Ranch. Along the way keep your eyes open for an
old vintage 66 era cocktail sign peeking up at the side of the highway.
of America, updated September, 2016.
Route 66 Photo Print Gallery
This old sign between
Illinois once invited
travelers to stop for a cocktail. However, today all that's left is the sign. September, 2004, Kathy Weiser.
Another vintage relic of better days in
Illinois, September, 2004, Kathy Weiser.
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