As the tallgrass 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 immigrant 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 in 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.
Afterward, Kieser, 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 before the town would finally settle upon the name Mt. Olive.
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 southern 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 residents.
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 Illinois 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 strikebreakers from the south. This, of course, provoked an immediate reaction among the union activists.
On October 12, 1898, the feared violence began at Virden, Illinois a small town some 40 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 loose 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 St. Louis, Missouri 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.
The 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 1920s, 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 a communications technician and upon his return home, he began repairing radios and televisions at the station. In the 1950s, 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.
In the late 1950s, Interstate 55 plowed through Illinois, supplanting most of the Route 66 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 Route 66 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 Route 66 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 in 1999. Today, the current owner and the Soulsby Station Society have restored the building to its original historic appearance, providing a classic example of early Route 66 for generations of Mother Road Travelers to come.
Today, Mt. Olive’s coals mines are gone, the traces of old Route 66 are fading, and the village has become primarily a sleepy residential community.
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.