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.

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.

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.”

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.


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).


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”


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.


Altamont Area Centennial Book. 1971

Altamont Diamond Jubilee Book. 1946

PJ Ryan

Various Newspaper Archives from the Decatur Herald and Decatur Daily Review accessed from

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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