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.

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…”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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


What is your favorite old house in Altamont? 



1926 Altamont Business Review

1971 Altamont Centennial Book



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?

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


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


Ace-Hi Motel, now the Altamont Motel.
Aloha Motel, now the Super 8 Motel.
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.

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.

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.

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.


Altamont Centennial Book. 1971.

Altamont News January 14, 1905.

Altamont Quasquicentennial Book. 1996

Decatur Herald. January 15, 1905.

The Origins of Altamont.

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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