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2/22/2011 1:32:00 PM
The lost history of Wilmington
BULLOCK'S RESTAURANT is one of several local historic landmarks that have been lost to the wrecking ball.
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BULLOCK'S RESTAURANT is one of several local historic landmarks that have been lost to the wrecking ball.

Sandy Vasko

This year is a banner year for history. It is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the 175th anniversary of the creation of Will County and the 70th anniversary of WWII. Wilmington has been here for all of that. But I fear that succeeding generations will not be able to see that history as more and more buildings succumb to the wrecking ball. Today we will look at what we have already lost and what I fear we are about to lose.

Let's start with the creation of Will County in 1836. The only surviving building from that time period is a portion of the Eagle Hotel, the northernmost two-story brick section. This was built by Thomas Cox almost as soon as he platted out the town. It is one of the few Underground Railroad sites still left standing in Illinois.

Franklin Mitchell, a known abolitionist, was its first manager and folks like Joel Matteson, Gurdon Hubbard and other early pioneers found it a haven on the prairie. Mitchell soon went on to build the Exchange Hotel, now demolished, on the corner of Water and Baltimore Street - now a park.

That building still has fond memories even for those alive today. It was where Lincoln stayed in 1854 when he was stumping the state for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Later a variety of stores occupied that spot including the notorious Be Gay Shop and Bullock's Restaurant.

The First National Bank of Wilmington, holding the second bank charter issued in Illinois, was on the south-east corner of Water and Baltimore. Its architecture included gothic columns and was the pride of the community. Not only was it the first bank in town, but also housed the first public library. It was demolished to make way for trucks turning east onto Route 53.

The Underground Railroad was active in Wilmington, and the Stewart House hotel on Water Street and Peter Stewart's home where the Water Treatment Plant is now were both sites where slaves were welcomed and cared for until they could move on. There is no trace left of either of these buildings.

Illinois Central Sch Buss

Also prominent in the Underground Railroad was the McIntyre family. Their magnificent mansion near Forked Creek, later to be called the Leonard mansion, was not only an Underground Railroad stop, but also the most elaborate mansion ever built in Wilmington. It was torn down to make way for Personal Products, now Dow chemical.

Where will the wrecking ball strike next? Will it be the old C & A Depot on Kankakee Street? That depot was vital in the life of every person who lived in Wilmington. Not only did famous people like President Garfield, then a soldier, disembark there, but it also shipped out every commodity that Wilmington produced, from prairie chickens to milk and butter.

Or will it be the old City Hall, the first government structure to be built in Wilmington as well as the first official fire station? We read in 1879, "The construction of the new city hall, located just north of Gurner's barn, on Main Street, is well under way. It will be of stone, two stories high of nine feet each, and cover an area of 26 x 80 feet. A basement will also be had, divided into dungeon cells, and reception rooms for tramps and other notables." If any building saw the ups and downs, fights and squabbles of the political history of Wilmington, it was that small limestone structure.

Or will it be Booth Central, named after an honored Wilmington educator? That site was the Wilmington public square in its early days and was the site of political rallies, parades and parties. Later Wilmington's first graded school was built there - a three story job that served for decades. The brick structure now there was the effort of the entire community to upgrade the educational system and provide a larger place of learning for Wilmington's growing population.

Perhaps the Wilmington library will be the next to go. That 1857 structure was a church and so much more. The first school was started there, Civil War rallies were held there. Will the Library Board decide to abandon it for a new more modern building? Will it become empty, and eventually be torn down?

As a historian I know that sometimes there is no choice but to tear down some old buildings, but I fear that tearing down buildings, not repairing and restoring, has become a way of life in our little town. I urge all of my readers and all those who are in charge to stop and consider what we are doing. Please let generations to come not only hear the stories, but actually touch the bricks and stone that made us what we are.

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Article comment by: RM

My great-grandfather Thomas Overton owned a butcher shop in S. Wilmington and they lived on Lake St.

Do you know if there are any pictures or newspaper pieces about the family. His wife's name was Tena Eide.


Posted: Friday, October 12, 2012
Article comment by: DF

my dad was born there in wilmington in 1920 down on north water st. down were the old paper mill was it's gone too and he live by the river by the old coal wash and so did i and it's gone too i rember the old hotel on water st. i live by it in 1964 and it make me mad wen i see people getting there name on thing wen they never live there hole live my was born there he played semi pro baseball in 1946 and was the co.founder for the old timer's baseball and the commander for the legion in the 60's and in 1975 to 1976 wen he die there he even had a chance too play for the white sox's after he came out of ww2 and there are a lot of people that dont get recognize not just my dad and people there now think they know the history .

Posted: Friday, July 15, 2011
Article comment by: VINCENT CRICCHIO

Vincent Video filmed Wilmington as part of the American Travels Route 66 TV series due out early next year. The structures and the stories of this town were well documented and the tourists the show will generate will seek out these landmarks.
Leaders beware. The towns that maintain these historical sights will get the tourists into their towns. Shortsighted leaders making decisions to remove these historical sights will not get the tourists.

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