Memories of the prairie

Here’s a letter written by L. Walter Schumacher recounting memories of his family (the John Schumacher family), taming the prairie, scaring prairie chickens, the trials of acquiring an education, railroad workers constructing the C. & E. I. Railroad, and when Altamont was first illuminated with electric lights. It was printed in the 1971 Altamont Centennial book.

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Prairie grass at Ballard Nature Center, west of Altamont.

“The Schumacher family were pioneers of this community, coming as immigrants from Germany in 1850, fleeing from the military power of the Kaiser. The family settled first in Cook County and then moved to the prairies of Southern Illinois.

In 1876, John married Miss Bertha Klitzing, who also was born in Germany. They bought a quarter section of land, 160 acres, for $4,000 in 1884. Forrest Schumacher now is the owner. They broke the prairie grass sod and built a home and raised seven children, Arthur, Charles, Benjamin, Walter, Harry, Mary (Stullken) and Ruth (Milleville).

Dairy farming soon became father’s main interest as he was one of the first to have a registered thoroughbred Holstein herd. Many were the times he told us of the hard work it was breaking the prairie grass sod, the number of years it took to rid the soil of its roots and to make the land tillable. I remember the fires on the untilled lands of prairie grass sod many times threatening the homes and livestock.

Prairie chickens, quail, birds of all kind were very numerous. As a boy I was intrigued by the booming noise of the prairie chickens at courtship time in the spring. It was impossible to see this ceremony close by as they were very alert and shy.

One morning, early, as I started out to the pasture to fetch the cows in for milking, I heard them. I crawled on my belly a long distance on the opposite side of a picket fence grown thick with grass until I was within fifty feet of them. The performance I saw made an indelible imprint on my memory.

The cock in his colorful plumage with his long crest feathers raised erect, tail spread, wings dragging by his side, the orange red push on each side of his head inflated to the size of a large egg, was strutting and dancing and leaping around the hen he was wooing and during this time boom-boom-booming loudly. His intended was colorless, seemingly unconcerned, yet coy. There was a large flock and many similar ceremonies were going on at the same time.

Spellbound I lay there for quite some time. I finally realized the cows had to be driven in for milking. All during my long lifetime I have never seen a more beautiful chick, the tiny colorful downy prairie chicken. Even today, wildlife is my greatest interest and I am concerned about what pollution has done and will do to it.

Father and Mother Schumacher had little or no formal education. However, they were insistent that we children were in school regularly. We attended the Blue Mound one room country school. Mr. H.H. Bailey was my teacher when I first started to school in 1895 (sic). I was with my father when we met Mr. Bailey at the Postoffice in Altamont on a Saturday morning. I proudly pointed him out to my father, who, after a friendly greeting, spoke to him in this manner, “I got four boys going to school to you and I VANT you to learn em’ something.”

In order to provide a high school education for all of his children, father bought one acre of land across the road from a neighbor for $100 and moved our house on it as this would put us in the Altamont High School district. It took several days to move the house on wooden rollers with a horse drawn rope windlass. We slept one night in the middle of the road. Thus we all received a high school education. No petitions, boundary disputes, elections —just plain pioneer initiative.

When the C. & E. I. Railroad was built, I remember the many horses and mules and scrappers that were used to make the road bed. Almost an army of foreign laborers, Italians, Poles, and others were encamped on the Fred Milleville farm wast of Altamont. They were there many weeks for the progress was slow. The railroads brought many worries to farmers adjacent to there right-of-ways, killing wandering livestock with the railroads often refusing to pay damages.

There was a flowing spring on our farm and in extreme droughts, neighbors from miles around came for water for stock and home use.

Father was of a group of men called the “Big Three,” Mr. William Goers, Mr. John Milleville and John Schumacher, who promoted in their quiet way many worthwhile projects in the community such as: the first Altamont Fair and the Pure Milk as: the first Altamont Fair and the Pure Milk Association. My father would not work in the fields when his Lutheran neighbors went to church on their extra Easter holy days.

When the first electric lights were installed in Altamont, they penetrated the darkness as far out as our farm. The party telephone line at the turn of the century was something. Our ring was one long and three shorts on a line of nine. What fun eaves-dropping…automobiles, radio, tv, airplanes and outer space explorations. What an era to have enjoyed during my lifetime…Isn’t it strange that with all of man’s progress in scientific research and his ingenuity, he has yet to learn to live in peace with his neighbor and master the pollution in his environment. Never the less my zest for living has not lessened at 83 years. May our freedoms last as long as the granite in the government geographic marker on top of the “Blue Mound” on the former John Ehlers farm…”

The triangle through the years

Communities are usually centered around a town square. Altamont has a triangle. Most people who grew up in Altamont have vivid memories of the triangle. From weekend band concerts to centennial celebrations and Halloween parades, the triangle has been at the center of our community since the town was platted in 1871. Here are pictures of the triangle throughout the years.

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1871 plat of Altamont

The origin of Altamont’s triangle

The original plat of Altamont included the triangle in the bottom right corner. Railroad Street (the wide road pictured above) was Altamont’s main business district until a 1905 fire ravaged the area. Businesses migrated a few blocks south transforming the area surrounding the triangle.

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The building on the triangle. Early 1900’s.

The building on the triangle

Pictured above are two ladies standing in front of Nicholas Reiss and Jake Hinger’s meat market located on the triangle. This building was torn down in 1916 to clear a spot for community events.

Notice the Immanuel Lutheran Church steeple standing above the surrounding buildings. (Also, check out the massive hats.)

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Downtown Altamont early 1920’s.
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Downtown Altamont with paved streets. 1925

Change in the 1920’s

Imagine sitting in your car. Your wheels are spinning furiously. But your car is stuck in a foot of mud on Main Street.

Main Street wasn’t paved until the early 1920’s, and downpours made Altamont’s streets impassable for horses and early automobiles. (Early automobiles had thin tires.)

Sidewalks were also rare. Wood boards were used as impromptu sidewalks throughout town.

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The triangle’s bandstand. Late 1930’s

Weekend concerts on the triangle

For decades, the triangle drew large crowds. The triangle hosted concerts from community bands on weekends. Farmers drove their families into town, kids would get ice cream, the stores stayed open late, businesses had raffle prizes, and older generations had conversations in German. During World War II, the triangle’s concerts boosted morale.

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The triangle in 1946.
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A Lions Club Fundraiser on the triangle. Late 1940’s or Early 1950’s.
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Downtown Altamont 1960’s
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The triangle on a snowy day. Early 1970’s.
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A sack race during the 1971 Altamont Centennial.
Tallest woman over 8 feet tall, pants factory made her a dress.
Sandy Allen on the triangle in 1976.

The tallest woman in America vists Altamont

The tallest woman in America, Sandy Allen (7’7″) visited Altamont in 1976. The local garment factory made her a dress.

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The triangle and downtown. 1990’s

The triangle today

The triangle stopped hosting weekend concerts years ago, and fundraisers and other events on the triangle seem to be fewer and fewer.

In today’s world, our iPhones and other electronics are like new appendages, and we have become socially isolated because our eyes are glued to our 4.7″ screens.

Maybe, we should look to the past and use the triangle as an example. The triangle strengthened the bond of our community. It hosted family friendly events enjoyed by multiple generations. People had fun without smartphones. People were connected.

 

 

8 Old Altamont Homes

Since the founding of Altamont, our residents have built gorgeous homes. From Victorians to Greek Revivals, here are some of Altamont’s old homes.

Since the founding of Altamont, our residents have built gorgeous homes. From Victorians to Greek Revivals, here are some of Altamont’s oldest houses.

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A 38-starred American Flag adorning the Dr. Charles M. Wright House. 1971

The Dr. Charles M. Wright House.

Altamont’s most famous house. It’s one of two Effingham County buildings on the National Register of Historic places. Dr. Charles M. Wright, a traveling doctor and bank owner, had this Italianate-inspired mansion built in 1889. The house is furnished with replicas of Ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman artifacts along with antique furniture used by three generations of the Wright family.

Dedicated volunteers maintain the house as a museum. (It’s the only house on this list that isn’t a private residence) Tours are held on Sundays from April to October.

Visit the museum’s website for a virtual tour.

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The Elhers House on East Jackson. Unknown Date

Altamont’s Oldest House

This brick house is the oldest built within Altamont’s city limits. Earlier homes existed but were demolished or destroyed by fire.

The house was constructed by Mrs. Elizabeth Ehlers before Altamont was platted in 1871. Mrs. Ehlers owned acres of farmland making up most of northern Altamont and the land occupied by Immanuel Lutheran Church. She sold most of it to assist Altamont’s expansion.

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12 South Third. 1920’s

12 South Third

The railroads built Altamont, and railroad companies employed many early Altamont residents.

This house, located on the northwest corner of Third and Lincoln, was built by C.O. Faught in 1897. C.O. Faught was a railroad engineer. He worked at railroad construction sites throughout the Midwest, including projects in Altamont.

While working in Altamont, Faught became infuatuated with the community and moved into town. He was involved with multiple community positions. He served as mayor from 1905-1906, and was a founding member of the Altamont Agricultural Fair Association.

Faught’s house with its narrow tower is one of Altamont’s most unique homes.

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102 South Third. 1920’s

102 South Third

Jaspar Orrel was also a railroad man. Starting in 1877, Orrel worked as a station agent for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altamont. He built the gorgeous, Victorian house, pictured above, in 1895.

Later, Dr. D.G. Huelskoetter, who purchased the home in 1965, built an indoor swimming pool in the backyard. It was the only indoor pool in the area. Huelskoetter demolished the pool in the 1990’s, and the pool enclosure was moved to the high school.

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101 South Fourth. 1900’s. Notice 102 South Third in the background.

101 South Fourth

G.W. Gwin was one of Altamont’s most influential citizens. In 1871, he arrived in Altamont and became one of Altamont’s earliest residents. Gwin was a plasterer. But he later opened a furniture store and a farm implement store. He served as President of Altamont in 1885, and he helped create the Altamont Agricultural Fair Association. He also served as Fair president. Gwin built 101 South Fourth in 1902.

Today, the house looks different from the picture above. Later residents lowered the ceilings and removed the chimneys. Bill Wendling, the current owner, put a widow’s walk on top of the roof.

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Dr. Charles M. Wright’s first home in Altamont, at its current location on North Main. Date Unknown.

The Older Wright House

It’s difficult to see behind the trees, but this four-columned mansion is one of the most elegant homes in Effingham County.

Dr. Charles M. Wright lived in this house from 1872 to 1888. It was built on the current site of the brick Wright House and was later moved across Main Street where it was transformed into the Greek Revival home pictured above.

Other Houses

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The Dr. S. J. Lesemann home on North Main. Lesemann was Altamont’s first dentist.  (Picture taken in the 1960’s)
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The residence of former Mayor J. E. Rhodes on South Edwards. Early 1920’s.

 

What is your favorite old house in Altamont? 

 


Sources:

1926 Altamont Business Review

1971 Altamont Centennial Book

 

 

Altamont During WWII

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, like many Americans, my grandfather Bill Wendling was sitting in the living room listening to the radio when the broadcast was interrupted. The radio broadcaster announced that a navy post in Hawaii called Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. My grandfather went to find his parents, and they sat together and listened as more details followed. The next day, the U.S. entered World War II, the most destructive war in history.

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War-ravaged Berlin. 1945. Soldiers from Altamont witnessed similar scenes throughout Europe.

 

The Draft

Before Pearl Harbor, most Americans knew they would eventually enter the war. On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which established the first peacetime draft in U.S. history. All men between the ages of 21 and 35 were required to register with a local draft board. In 1940, 2640 Effingham County men registered. In October, Kenneth Ray Dugan and Maurice Rickelman were the first Effingham County residents to be drafted. William Edwin Fischer was the first person drafted from Altamont.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, (which some Effingham County residents witnessed first hand) patriotism swept across America. Thousands of men enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted. Many Americans preferred the enlistment process because it gave them a wider choice of branches to serve. By 1942, the government made men between 18 and 45 eligible for the draft.

War Rations

During the war, a rationing system was established to preserve goods for the war effort. Life during this time was dictated by the rationing system. Each family in America was issued a war ration book and tokens, which controlled the number of goods a family could purchase. The purchase of items including meat, sugar, milk, butter, silk, nylon, shoes, and more was limited by local ration boards. Cigarettes were a commodity, with 30 percent of cigarette production dedicated to military production. Alcohol production had similar limits.

Transportation was also limited. Most residents were restricted to three to five gallons of gasoline each week, so residents often hitchhiked to preserve their rations. Tire sales were restricted, so customers had to get their tires capped. Drivers were often told to drive under 35mph. Meanwhile, new auto purchases were banned after 1942, because car manufacturers were focused on producing military vehicles.

Farmers had a higher gasoline allowance. But farm machinery was rationed, and farmers were forced to use worn-out equipment.

Altamont residents lived a self-sufficient lifestyle. My great-grandparents, who lived on the corner of Division and Fourth Street, had a victory garden. (A victory garden was a garden planted to supplement the limited food supply during the war.) They raised chickens and ducks in the backyard, and sometimes my grandfather shot pigeons, rabbits, and squirrels for meat. When short on supplies, they traded vegetables and other goods with the neighbors. Local residents planted peach trees. My great-great grandfather produced his own wine using five, 50-gallon barrels and shared with neighbors in the Blue Point area. Home beer brewing operations were also popular. Clothing materials were rationed, so clothing choices were limited or expensive. Farmers sometimes cut holes in feed sacks for their children to wear as pants, and shoes were often patched up.

According to an angry letter published in the Sunday, June 4, 1944, Decatur Herald, Altamont during the war, resembled a farm. “My work takes me around a lot. Noticed quite an unpleasant smell in Altamont. Soon located its source. A hog lot with 50 or 75 hogs therein, and this within three blocks from the main part of town.” The author also described town lots with dozens of victory gardens and cow pastures.

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Downtown Altamont. Early 1940’s.

 

Assisting the war effort

Residents saved tin cans, used paper, food, and more for the war effort. While some residents took down their iron fences for scrap metal. The Triangle had a wire crate for aluminum collections later sent to factories for raw material. Blood drives, with people waiting in line for hours, were prevalent. Locals went to the First National Bank on the southwest corner of Second and Washington Street to purchase war bonds. Local schools had War Stamp pie suppers. Churches had special prayer services for the soldiers fighting overseas. Congregations wrote letters to members fighting overseas, and neighbors comforted the families of soldiers.

Eight million women in America joined the workforce. Many of them, including women from Altamont, worked in ammunition or military vehicle factories in cities like St. Louis and Chicago. Women also made up the majority of workers at the Pant and Glove factory located on the corner of Division and Third Street. Other local women joined the Women’s Army Corps.

Farms also had labor shortages. Farmers and farm hands went off to war, while elderly men, wives, and children were responsible for running the farms. Later, some men of draft age were able to receive farm-related draft deferments.

After Pearl Harbor, Altamont created a defense council headed by Mayor Klitzing, which made defense preparations in case of an invasion. The defense council duties included blackout tests. Altamont’s first blackout test occurred in February of 1942. (Blackouts were a tactic used to prevent the enemy from bombing cities at night. This was achieved by shutting off all lights so the bombers couldn’t see the city below.) According to the February 13, 1942, Decatur Herald, The blackout test was enforced by air raid wardens with the help of the local boy scout troop, while drivers were stopped and told to shut off their headlights. “The fire alarm siren sounded the alert at 7:37 PM and the all clear at 8:13 PM.”

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The Main Theater. Locals flocked here to see news footage from the war.

 

News from the War

Every week, the people of Altamont flocked to the Main Theater located at the present site of Kull’s Funeral Home. Newsreels played before the feature films, showing our troops fighting in the Pacific and European theaters.

Altamont residents also sat around the radio to hear updates about the war, while families waited patiently for letters from their grandsons, sons, or brothers.

In 1944, word reached Altamont that local man, Sgt. James Greene had been rescued from the Japanese. In 1942, after the U.S. surrendered to the Japanese forces in the Philippines, Sgt. Greene was taken prisoner. He was forced to join the Bataan Death March, a 65-mile prisoner march between two P.O.W. camps. 75,000 Filipino and American P.O.W.s including Greene were forced to take the arduous journey. Soldiers starved and often had to eat live snakes that crawled across the road. Fatigued soldiers were bayoneted or ran over by Japanese trucks. Later, when the Americans invaded the Philippines, the Japanese transported the P.O.W.s out of the Philippines. In 1944, Sgt. Greene’s transport ship was sunk by an American submarine. He was rescued and taken to Australia. On December 4, 1944, by the request of the Secretary of War, Altamont welcomed Greene home with a celebration.

 

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Sgt. Greene’s welcome home ceremony.

 

Unfortunately, news from the war wasn’t always positive. A year earlier in 1943, the parents of Sgt. Paul L. Fischer were told their son was killed in the Pacific theater. Sgt. Fischer was the first Altamont resident to die in World War II. (Altamont’s American Legion Post is named after Fischer and Frank Grobengieser, who was the only Altamont resident to die in World War I).

Aftermath

Altamont residents, deployed around the globe, fought bravely against the Axis Powers. Many of them were awarded medals for their bravery, and some of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. 17 Altamont residents were killed in the war: Sgt. Paul L. Fischer, William Tappendorf, Stevenson Jenkins, Merle Gieseking, Sherborne Austin, Reuben Wade, Forrest Morr, Arnold Mueller, Cecil Dammerman, Walter Schwerdtfeger, Rudolph Siebert, Owen Cox, Harold Oliver, Seth McCoy, Hugo Voelker, Glenn Loar, and Granville H. Walling. Other Altamont soldiers, like my grandfather, returned home with injuries.

The soldiers’ return from war led to a period of economic prosperity in America. After years of warfare and rationing, people were ready to spend money, settle down, and raise families. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill gave thousands of Americans the opportunity to attend college.

The war dictated almost every aspect of life in America. But without the sacrifices made on the battlefield and the homefront, our country would be a very different place today.

Sources:

http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/money_03.html

https://www.pbs.org/thewar/at_home_war_production.htm

http://www.ameshistory.org/exhibits/events/rationing3.htm

February 13, 1942, Decatur Herald

Sunday, June 4, 1944, Decatur Herald

Altamont Diamond Jubilee Book

Effingham County Past and Present 1968

Various Personal Interviews.

Bizarre Altamont Stories

Reading through old newspaper articles, many news stories can be classified as bizarre or folksy (especially by present-day standards). With today being April Fools, many of these stories are fitting. However, unlike most April Fools stories, these are real.

The Mysterious Grave.

In August 1906, rumors spread throughout Altamont that a group of gypsies, located on the outskirts of town, had fled after burying a human corpse near their camp.

The city marshal called for his assistants to help find and dig up the body. The frightened search party, expecting to find the grisly body of a murder victim, approached the grave with their shovels, spades, and other digging tools. They soon discovered the fresh, mound of dirt covering the grave, and began digging. The men’s tools hit what felt like a body. In a state of panic, they overturned the remaining dirt and discovered the body of a diseased horse.

The Mattoon Daily Journal ended the article with “The laugh was on the city marshal and his assistants, and they tried to keep the story secret, but it leaked out and now there is very little rest for them in Altamont.”

Source: Mattoon Daily Journal August 27, 1902

The Bird Mishap.

The Daily Review from Decatur, Illinois Mar 23, 1895

In March 1895, a trainmaster from the Wabash Railroad named Jenkins, and a local man named Frank Dorwin, had a quarrel. A Shanghai rooster without feet was delivered to Dorwin. Dorwin blamed Jenkins, saying Jenkins bought the rooster because he thought it was a parrot. But when Jenkins couldn’t get the rooster to swear, he changed the address on the tag and sent it to Dorwin.

However, Jenkins had a different story. Jenkins said Dorwin answered an advertisement for a mockingbird and was fleeced. Too embarrassed to admit he received a rooster instead of a mockingbird, Dorwin publicly blamed Jenkins.

Which man do you believe?

Source: The Daily Review from Decatur, Illinois. Mar 23, 1895

The 91-year-old, Corn-Shucking, Machine.

In 1922, G.W. Higgs, against the advice of everyone, challenged his son-in-law, W.N. Dowds to a corn-shucking contest. Higgs was 91 years old, which was a miracle in those days. (The average lifespan for men in the 1920’s was 50 years old). Higgs beat his son-in-law, shucking a total of 33 bushels of corn. The next morning he challenged Dowds to a rematch, but Dowds refused.

Source: The Decatur Herald, Nov. 17, 1922.

Local Postcards

Here are postcard images of Altamont and other area communities. How many of these places do you recognize?

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Altamont Agricultural Fair. The pre-cursor to the Effingham County Fair
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Brown’s National Inn on Adams Street near the depot.
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Hogan’s Store and Opera House. This building is located on the corner of Second and Washington Street.
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Union Cemetery’s original gate.
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The Altamont Flour Mill
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Altamont Campgrounds. Now, the site of Town and Country Subdivision south of town.
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One of Altamont’s first schools. Location unkown.

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The first St. Anthony’s Hospital pre-fire.
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The old Immanuel Lutheran Church.
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Immanuel Lutheran School. Now A.L.I.S.

 

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Ace-Hi Motel, now the Altamont Motel.
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Aloha Motel, now the Super 8 Motel.
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The Pecan Shoppe. Now a combination Subway/gas station.

 

The Fire on Railroad Street.

On the night of January 14, 1905, Railroad Street (Adams Street) was quiet. The street, lined with taverns, grocery stores, and restaurants wore a coat of snow. Railroad Street, located close to the depot, was the busiest street in town.

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Railroad Street before the fire.

In the early morning, an overheated stove started a fire at Joe Hielegenstein’s Bottling Works. By 3:30 AM, the townspeople woke up to the sound of the roaring inferno. Shop owners rushed into their stores to save their valuables before the cramped, wooden buildings lining Railroad Street ignited. The volunteer Altamont Fire Department and the local townspeople rushed to help. However, the volunteers didn’t have the manpower and equipment to extinguish the fire, which they could only attempt to tame.

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An old Altamont Fire Department pump. Possibly used during the Railroad Street fire. Firefighters used this to manually pump water into the hoses.

Mayor Laatsch, a man familiar with crises (he dealt with a deadly smallpox epidemic just years before), guided the firefighters and townspeople. He sent firefighters to the western edge of the block to halt the fire’s advances towards Altamont’s train depot, which was Altamont’s economic hub. However, Laatsch realized the efforts of the townspeople and firefighters weren’t enough. The snow halted the progression of the fire, and the wide alley south of the buildings prevented the fire from spreading. But, Laatsch knew eventually, without assistance, the flames would spread and swallow most of Altamont.

A telegram was sent to Effingham, with whom Altamont had a toxic relationship. (In 1902, an editorial in the Effingham Republic said Altamont’s filthy living conditions were the reason Altamont suffered from a Smallpox epidemic. This accusation didn’t sit well with the people of Altamont.) Effingham understood the severity of the telegram and sent a train with firefighters and supplies. Meanwhile, Laatsch ordered multiple buildings torn down, to give the Effingham Fire Department space to work.

When the train arrived, the townspeople cheered. The Effingham firefighters unloaded their fire pumps and hoses and extinguished the menacing inferno. According to the Altamont News, the train reached Altamont from Effingham in 13 minutes, which even with modern technology would be a miraculous feat. (Trains in the early 1900’s usually reached 30-45 mph.)

With the flames extinguished, the morning sun illuminated Railroad Street. According to the January 15th, 1905 Decatur Herald, Railroad Street was “a mass of ruins.” The casualties included Joe Heiligenstein’s Bottle Works, C.W. Zanhow’s Meat Market, Linebaugh’s Restaurant, Mrs. L. J. Hutchinson’s Millinery Store, and Highland Brewing Co. Most of the businesses rented the buildings from landlords. The majority of these landlords lost their main source of income because they never purchased insurance, which was expensive in those days. But some shop-owners were able to save their goods.

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Railroad Street after the fire.

Laatsch later thanked Effingham and the citizens of Altamont in an Altamont Newspaper letter for coming together and saving the town. After the fire, most businesses moved to Main Street, Washington, and Third Street. With the decline of the railroad in the 1960’s, Railroad Street lost much of its importance. Today, only a few old buildings survive on Railroad Street (Adams), including Luke’s Bar & Grill’s building, which was rebuilt after the fire. (A similar building is seen in pre-1905 photos of Railroad Street.) Other old Railroad Street buildings include Kull Furniture’s warehouse and the R & H building.

Sources:

Altamont Centennial Book. 1971.

Altamont News January 14, 1905.

Altamont Quasquicentennial Book. 1996

Decatur Herald. January 15, 1905.

Black Gold: The Loudon Oil Field Story

The Loudon oil field is an area located in eastern Fayette County and parts of western Effingham County. The discovery of its oil stockpile in the late 1930’s, transformed Altamont, St. Elmo, and other surrounding communities.

By the 1940’s, according to some accounts, the Loudon oil field was the second largest oil producer after Texas. This is the story of the Loudon oil Field.

Early Oil Drilling.

Before the oil boom, multiple people hoping to strike it rich tried to drill for oil in the area. 

In 1924, Stock Holders Oil & Gas set up a drill, a mile and a half southwest of Altamont. During construction, the company ran out of money and planned an audacious effort to raise enough money to continue construction. The firm threw a fundraiser, which included a carnival, rodeo, and wedding. According to legend, the bride’s name was Laveta Jelly, and the during the shenanigans, the rodeo cowboys lost the horses they borrowed from Altamont locals George Duckwitz and Fred Tappendorf. The drill never found oil.

In the 1930’s, a drill hit oil on the Henry Lilly Farm, north of Wright’s Corner in Fayette County. The drilling process used on the Lilly Farm was inefficient and expensive, meaning the well failed to produce a significant amount of oil. (“Hen” Lilly later became famous for refusing to sell his land to big oil companies).

However, news of the discovery reached Carter Oil Company. Carter Oil built a test well on the property of Mary Miller in northeast Fayette County and installed a new, more efficient drill. The rotary drilling rig, powered by two diesel engines reduced the average drilling time from three weeks to four days. Crowds of bewildered locals gathered to watch the transportation and installation of the massive rotary drill. 

In September 1937, the Mary Miller test well No. 1, hit oil at 1600 feet. The oil boom had begun.

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Stock Holders Oil & Gas Company Derrick. Southwest of Altamont. 1920’s.

Boom Towns.

The oil boom attracted hordes of workers from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas, and the largest oil companies in America like Shell, Texas Co. (Texaco), and Standard Oil set up operations in the area. 

By 1940, St. Elmo’s population increased to 3,000 and Altamont’s grew to 2,100. The influx of workers created a housing crisis. With a lack of vacant living space, workers rented rooms in family homes, and some workers slept on the floor in barns next to the horses.

Altamont, during this period, had a quiet, residential feel, which attracted office workers and oil workers with families. Oil workers stayed in the Altamont Hotel at the end of Adams Street, near the present-day government housing. They also lodged with Altamont residents including my Great-Grandfather, Louis Wendling who rented out two rooms of his house to workers.

In 1938, Carter Oil Company built Carter Camp, a group of houses in the northeast part of Altamont for Carter Oil Company employees and families. (Some of the Carterville houses are still standing.) 

The boom, which happened during the latter part of the Great Depression, brought employment opportunities to Altamont during a time when they were desperately needed. Some companies moved their business to Altamont, including Halliburton, which for a brief time rented a garage for cement production. The oil fields also hired local high schoolers including my grandfather, Bill Wendling. He hitchhiked from Altamont during the summers, to repair oil pumps near St. Elmo, in sweltering 90-degree weather until he was drafted into World War II in 1945.

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A Carter Camp home in northeast Altamont.

While Altamont was affected by the oil boom, St. Elmo was the epicenter of the blast. St. Elmo’s population reached 3,000 around 1939. The once quiet streets of St. Elmo were flooded with people, movie theaters were built, restaurants had long lines, and multiple taverns were built. Wooden oil derricks sprung up around the town, engulfing the once starlit nights with artificial light. The St. Elmo airport runway, where Charles Lindbergh once landed his Spirit of St. Louis plane, was congested with oil company airplanes. St. Elmo even had a football team, a rarity for most small towns in the area.

The oil boom also brought rampant crime. St. Elmo’s taverns were filled with drunks hellbent on starting fights, which sometimes escalated. One story involved a WPA worker (A Works Progress Administration employee, part of FDR’s New Deal.) The drunk and rowdy man stumbled out of the tavern and was beat to death by a woman wielding a two-by-four. Illegal gambling rackets were also popular in St. Elmo taverns.

By the 1950’s, much of the crime had diminished. But the legacy still remains. (This crime wave is supposedly the reason why St. Elmo doesn’t have taverns anymore.)

Workplace safety was also an issue. A news clipping from a Nov. 20, 1938, Decatur Herald, recalls a story about a Beecher City man knocked unconscious by a machine on the oil well. He fell into the oil pit below and luckily was saved by his terrified co-workers. Not all workers were lucky. Some suffered severe burns, or were crushed to death by collapsing oil derricks. In 1941, Carter Oil Company began offering banquets to oil crews that could go six months without disabling accidents.

The flammable nature of oil also brought a separate type of calamity, explosions. In 1938, an oil refinery on the outskirts of St. Elmo exploded with flames reaching 400ft. into the air. An article from the Oct. 12, 1938, Decatur Daily Review states “residents piled belongings into cars and wagons, ready to evacuate the town, only a wind from the south kept the fire from sweeping into town…the worst blast occurred at 10:30 P.M. when streets two blocks away were so brilliantly illuminated, persons could recognize each other.”

Decline

Oil production in the Loudon oil field declined in the 1960’s. The Carter Oil Company, which became Exxon, sold its shares in the Loudon field in the 1990’s. 

Production in the area isn’t near the levels of the boom days. The wooden derricks, the explosions, packed movie theaters and bustling Main Street are now fading memories. But oil production still plays an important role in the area, with multiple oil facilities still in operation.

Sources:

Altamont Area Centennial Book. 1971

Altamont Diamond Jubilee Book. 1946

PJ Ryan http://www.bcity.efingham.k12.il.us/Community%20History/loudon_oil_field.htm

Various Newspaper Archives from the Decatur Herald and Decatur Daily Review accessed from newspapers.com

The Origins of Altamont.

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Prairie grass at Ballard Nature Center. Fields like these were widespread when Altamont became a town.

Before Altamont was platted in 1870, the area was a mixture of prairie and woodlands. In the late 1700s, Native Americans from the Kickapoo tribe settled in the area after being pushed out of Michigan and Ohio by white settlers. The Kickapoo lived off the land in dome-shaped houses called wickiups, growing corn and squash and hunting local game.

In 1814 or 1815, Griffin Tipsword, an eccentric from Virginia, became the first settler in the area. According to legend, he befriended the Kickapoo, learned their language, hunted with them, and later brought his family from the east to live with the tribe. He was allegedly a skilled witch doctor, able to heal diseases. Another legend states Tipsword stopped the Kickapoo from massacring white settlers that had started to settle in the area. He died around 1845 and was buried along the banks of Wolf Creek, north of Altamont. Many of his descendants still live in the area.

By the 1830’s, the National Trail reached Effingham County bringing even more white settlers to the area. One of these settlers was Riley Howard. In July 1830, after acquiring land east of Altamont, Howard became the first landowner in Mound Township.

With the National Trail extending into the area, multiple communities were created. Freemanton was founded in 1834, three miles east of Altamont near present-day Dexter Road. It had a reputation as a rough frontier town. Mountville was founded south of the National Road on the banks of Big Creek, near present-day Southmore Estates and Effingham Equity in Altamont. Mountville consisted of a store, tavern/inn, and a log house. Later, Bethlehem was founded as a small farming community in 1865, and it was planned around its Lutheran Church built in 1860. After the introduction of the railroad these towns, besides Bethlehem, diminished.

In 1870, J.W. Conlouge, superintendent of the Vandalia Railroad, chose an area of Mound Township as the location of a new town. Conlouge surveyed and platted the land, and on July 19, 1870, he named it Altamont after the Blue Mound west of town. The name Altamont came from the Latin words “Alta” meaning high and “Mont” meaning mound. The first lots were purchased by Abner Dutton and R.S. Cutter, who opened the first stores in town. Altamont officially became a town in 1871.

 

 

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