Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Gilster inducted into The Randolph Society

Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Robinson Gilster

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Robinson Gilster, preservationists who were dedicated to keeping the history of Randolph County alive, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.

Irvin Peithmann was born in Washington County, Illinois, in 1904. From an early age, he was fascinated with the Native American stories told by his father, who had worked with the Dawes Commission. Irvin left high school before graduating, marrying Leona Hendricks and working as a farmer as they raised two young sons. During the Great Depression, he found himself out of work. He was hired to work on the farm at Southern Illinois University, a job that gave him a chance to use his farming knowledge and the opportunity to hone his amateur archaeology skills. He became one of the most recognizable archaeological figures in Southern Illinois, working with museum curator John W. Allen on a variety of excavations.

After being named curator of SIU’s archaeological collections in 1949, Irvin made one of his most important discoveries: the Modoc Rock Shelter. The rural Randolph County site contained evidence of prehistoric human habitation during the archaic period, around 9,000 years ago. The rock shelter was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1961. Irvin wrote extensively about indigenous peoples, both prehistoric and contemporary. He produced several works of Native American history, including an account of life with the Seminole tribe. While researching the book, he lived among the Seminole people in Florida. Irvin’s innovative and accessible approach to history made him popular as a lecturer, especially with local history groups.

One of the most prominent local historians who worked with Irvin was Ruth Robinson Gilster. Born in 1915 in Franklin County, Illinois, she came to Chester in the 1930s after her father was named deputy warden at Menard Penitentiary. She married John Sprigg Gilster, the son of several prominent local families, and raised four children in Chester. She immersed herself into Illinois’s historical preservation community, serving on numerous boards and committees, including terms as president of the Randolph County Historical Society and vice-president of the Illinois State Historical Society. Her work was recognized nationally in 1976 with an appointment to the Presidential Bicentennial Commission. In the 1970s she also became the first woman to be elected to the Randolph County Board of Commissioners, twice serving as the board’s chairperson.

Ruth and Irvin shared a common interest in reclaiming historical sites that had been lost to time. Ruth’s obituary notes that “she walked almost every field in Randolph County … often working with Native American expert Irv Peithmann. A collection of the Native American artifacts they found was donated to state museums.” In a 1971 interview, Irvin told the Southern Illinoisan that he credited “the support, assistance and knowledge of Mrs. Ruth Gilster of Chester for much of his success.” Their interests especially converged in Prairie du Rocher, where both were fascinated by the history of Fort de Chartres. Irvin discovered several important archaeological sites near the fort, and Ruth worked with the historical society to preserve local landmarks like the restored fort and the Creole House. Both strongly believed that Randolph County’s colonial sites were special treasures. “No one understands the importance of this area down here,” Irvin said in 1978. “If we don’t make this area the Williamsburg of the West, we ought to have our heads examined.”

After his retirement from SIU in the 1970s, Irvin and Leona bought the former Alice Cole home in Chester, while Ruth lived out the rest of her life nearby in the Gilster home on Buena Vista Street. After suffering from a lengthy illness, Irvin died in Chester in May 1981, while Ruth lived almost three decades longer, passing away in Chester in December 2008. Today, both Irvin and Ruth are remembered fondly for the work they did to keep the historical memories of Randolph County alive. Ruth paved the way for numerous women who have won elected offices in Randolph County, and her work with the local historical society still forms a cornerstone for efforts continuing today. Irvin’s legacy continues to influence local archaeologists and historians as well. His personal artifact collection and his papers are both now held at SIU, giving scholars today a unique opportunity to analyze and build upon the research he started more than half a century ago. Ruth and Irvin, both larger-than-life figures who left deep footprints in the soil of Randolph County, have handed present-day citizens of the area both a gift and a challenge, encouraging us to continue to shine a light on the past as a way to better understand the present.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Gilster.

Thomas Mather inducted into The Randolph Society

Thomas Mather

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Thomas Mather, a celebrated business owner and statesman with a keen sense of social responsibility, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.

Thomas Mather, a descendant of the famed New England family of ministers and scholars, was born in Connecticut in 1795. As a young man he moved to New York to embark on a mercantile career, partnering with a Manhattan-based merchant who had property interests in Illinois. Inspired, Thomas moved to Kaskaskia in 1818. The new state capital had a robust and growing economy, as well as a prized location with easy river access for shipping goods. For a young merchant like Thomas, the territory offered exceptional promise. He joined a mercantile community that already included William Morrison’s bustling dry goods firm and Pierre Menard’s fur trading enterprise. With three fellow eastern transplants, Stacy Opdyke, Edmund Roberts, and James Lea Lamb, Thomas established a new mercantile business, Mather, Lamb, & Co. The firm not only supplied goods locally but also sent merchandise as far as New Orleans.

Thomas was also drawn to another prominent aspect of life in Kaskaskia: politics. In 1820, he was elected to represent Randolph County in the Illinois General Assembly. He would go on to serve multiple terms as both a state representative and state senator, including a term as speaker of the house. In 1822, pro-slavery advocates attempted to call a constitutional convention, planning to fully legalize slavery in Illinois. Thomas was firmly allied with Governor Coles and the abolitionist faction that opposed a convention. He supported anti-slavery publications like the Edwardsville Spectator both publicly and financially, and he was a key leader for his cause in the General Assembly. In 1824, Illinois voters rejected a call for a constitutional convention, ultimately paving the way for the end of both slavery and indentured servitude in the state.

In 1825, Thomas resigned his seat in the state legislature to take on a new challenge. He was appointed by the Adams administration as one of three commissioners tasked with making an official survey of the Santa Fe Trail, a trading route that stretched across the western United States to Mexico. The commission journeyed through Missouri and Kansas, platting and surveying the road itself as well as making treaties with native tribes, like the Osage and the Kansas, whose lands were crossed by the trail. Thomas kept a detailed journal during the mission; the entries are full of wonder at the natural world he saw, including animals like bison, wild horses, prairie dogs, and wolves, tall grasses and sand hills, beautiful rivers and springs, and violent prairie thunderstorms.

After the survey was complete, Thomas returned home to Kaskaskia, where he married Hannah Gibson Lamb, the sister of one of his business partners. The mercantile firm thrived, opening a store in the new settlement of Steeleville and expanding to a river landing south of Kaskaskia. Thomas and his partners joined with Samuel Smith to purchase land along the Mississippi riverfront. Eventually Smith’s wife, Jane, named the new settlement after her English hometown: Chester. Along with a new store, Thomas’s firm constructed a warehouse at the corner of Wall and Water Streets. The building, which has since been expanded, now houses the St. Nicholas Landmark. Chester was important to Thomas throughout his life. In 1839, he donated land for the construction of a local school, and in the 1850s, he was part of the group that helped support the building of a new court house.

In 1835, Thomas and Hannah decided to leave Randolph County, moving to the up-and-coming city of Springfield. There, he diversified his business interests. He was named president of the newly-established State Bank of Illinois and invested in railroads. He also became a trustee of Illinois College. The Mathers’ circle of friends grew to include Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln; they worshiped alongside the future president and first lady at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield. Their home also became a social center, hosting dignitaries like social reformer Dorothea Dix amid the busy group of nieces and nephews that lived in the house.

Thomas died in 1853 during a business trip to Philadelphia. He was remembered for his impressive accomplishments in the field of business, his benefactions to his church and educational institutions, his love for his family, his strong abolitionist convictions, and his service to his government. After his death, the Mather property in Springfield was sold, initially as a possible burial site for President Lincoln. The land that had belonged to Thomas Mather, who spent years of his life working on behalf of the people of Illinois in their state government, ultimately became that government’s permanent home: the site of the sixth and current Illinois State Capitol Building.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Thomas Mather.

Marie Rouensa inducted into The Randolph Society


The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Marie Rouensa, the Godmother of Kaskaskia, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.

Marie was born around the year 1677, likely in the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia in present-day LaSalle County. She was the daughter of Rouensa, the chief of the Kaskaskia. Marie’s early life coincided with a period of considerable change and upheaval for the Kaskaskia people and the larger Illini Confederation. The Kaskaskia were regularly threatened with violence by other tribes, including the Iroquois, whose warriors attacked the Kaskaskians’ village when Marie was around three years old. She also grew up during the first period of contact between the Kaskaskia and European settlers and explorers. Father Jacques Marquette established a mission in the village in 1675, and French priests, soldiers, and traders became regular fixtures in the area during her childhood.

Much of what we know about Marie’s life, and the lives of the Kaskaskia during this time, comes from the letters and journals of Catholic missionaries. She was one of a large number of Kaskaskian women and girls who enthusiastically converted to Catholicism, taking the French name “Marie” after her baptism. Historians believe that Kaskaskian women were drawn to the new religion in part because it offered them more agency and autonomy than their own social structures. Kaskaskian society was patriarchal and polygamous, and women had virtually no power in choosing their spouses.

Marie developed a close friendship with Father Jacques Gravier, one of the Catholic missionaries. In his letters, he describes her as a gifted and intelligent young woman with sharp communication skills and an excellent memory. She absorbed the lessons he taught her and skillfully shared them with other members of her community. Though she was young, Gravier wrote in 1694 that Marie’s “discretion and virtue [gave] her marvelous authority” within her village, “especially over those to whom she speaks of prayer.”

When Rouensa, Marie’s father, arranged a marriage for her in 1693 with a French voyageur, Michel Aco, Marie staunchly refused. She argued that she had dedicated herself to God and did not want to share her heart with anyone else. When Gravier refused to order Marie to marry Aco, conflict developed between the tribe and the mission. Rouensa ordered his people not to go to mass, and attendance dwindled. After much self-reflection, Marie made the decision to marry Aco, not because she wished to obey her father, but because she wanted him to lift his prohibition on worship. As part of the bargain, Marie’s parents also agreed to convert to Catholicism, an act that led many more Kaskaskia to seek out baptism as well. Marie’s decision had far-reaching and unintended consequences, ultimately leading to the end of the tribe’s traditional cultural and social norms – not through decimation by disease or war, but through integration into French colonial society.

The Kaskaskia moved from their village near the Illinois River in 1700, settling first near the Mississippi in present-day St. Louis, and then three years later relocating to the banks of the Kaskaskia River in Randolph County. Marie and Aco had two sons, and after his death, she remarried and had six more children, some of whom have descendants living today. She also acted as godmother to many other French and Kaskaskian children born in the village, which took the name “Kaskaskia” from the tribe who helped to settle it. When she died in 1725, the parish priest at Kaskaskia honored Marie with burial beneath her pew in the church, a rare tribute to her religious commitment.

Without Marie’s conversion, and her commitment to the conversion of others, it’s possible that the Catholic mission would never have been able to sustain a presence within the Kaskaskia tribe. While we no longer look upon the colonial project of the Jesuits and their conversions of the Kaskaskia as unquestionably positive acts, we must acknowledge Marie’s pivotal role in establishing the community that became one of the most important settlements in early Randolph County history. Marie’s character – her keen intelligence, her strength of conviction, and her insistence on her own agency within a society that refused autonomy to women – paved the way for the development of a new community that was both French and Kaskaskian. Marie Rouensa was not only the godmother to many children in her parish but also the Godmother of Kaskaskia.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Marie Rouensa.

Percy Clerc inducted into The Randolph Society

Percy Clerc

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Percy Clerc, the bard of historic Prairie du Rocher, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.

Percy Clerc, who descended from some of the earliest French settlers of Randolph County, was born in Prairie du Rocher in June 1902. He was the eldest of five sons born to Charles and Germania Clerc. From the start, he was integrated into the agricultural, religious, and social communities of Prairie du Rocher. Baptized and confirmed at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, he became a devoted life-long member of the parish. After finishing the eighth grade, he left school to help his father work on the family farm, a job that became even more important after the death of his mother in 1918.

From an early age, Percy learned the stories and songs of old Prairie du Rocher from his grandmother, Sarah Louvier Albert. He composed some of his own lyrics to these folk melodies, learning French to help him better represent and understand the town’s colonial past. He published two books of songs and poems inspired by her stories: “La Chansonnier de Prairie du Rocher” and “Echoes of Old Prairie du Rocher.”

As a child, Percy began participating in one of the most unique Prairie du Rocher traditions: the annual singing of La Guiannee. A group of costumed singers and musicians gathers in the small town every New Year’s Eve and travels from house to house, serenading local residents. The song, always sung in French, extends wishes for a happy new year and then asks the residents for refreshments. After partaking, the group heads to the next home to sing again for both good wishes and good food and drink. Percy’s father, Charles, had been singing the Guiannee since he was a child in the 1870s, and he introduced his sons to the tradition.

Percy felt a keen sense of responsibility to help keep traditions like La Guiannee alive. After his father retired as one of the group’s leaders, Percy took over the task, leading the singing and keeping time with the tapping of his cane. His unique corn husk costume made him instantly recognizable. During his time with the group, their singing was preserved on a recording, now held in the Library of Congress. Percy and the Guiannee singers often performed at folk festivals, and on one occasion, they even entertained a government representative from France. His influence was felt throughout the community as he also helped revive traditions like the annual Twelfth Night Ball. Percy was a key part of keeping the history of the community alive. One of his nieces believes that “had it not been for his dedication to save [La Guiannee], it likely would have ended.”

Percy continued to lead the singing of La Guiannee for the rest of his life. In December 1980, he performed for the final time with the group. On January 12, 1981, Percy was at home in his small house on the Clerc family farm when the building caught fire. Seventy-eight-year-old Percy perished in the blaze. Though there’s no way to know exactly what transpired that afternoon, the Clerc family strongly believes that Percy initially made it out of the house, but decided to go back inside to try to save his papers, which included his own poetry and songs as well as historical documents about Prairie du Rocher. Fragments of some of these papers were later discovered in the ashes of his home. His death was felt by many to represent a sort of end of an era for the community. Gerry Franklin, who helps carry on the Guiannee tradition in Prairie du Rocher today, noted that “when Percy died, it was almost like we turned a page here in town.” For the community, Percy was “a stepping stone to the past.”

Though nearly four decades have passed since Percy’s death, his influence is still felt throughout Prairie du Rocher. His contributions to the community continue to be remembered and celebrated today. Percy “felt a duty to his fellow man,” Franklin explains, “and to the world in general. That’s how Percy lived.” Percy seemed to innately understand a major truth about local traditions and history: they’re nothing without the people who work to maintain and cherish them. Historical buildings and artifacts are important, but they need people to breathe life into them and give them meaning. Percy breathed life into the history of Prairie du Rocher for decades. He learned the stories and songs of the past and – most importantly – he shared them with his neighbors and friends. The musical heritage of the community, perhaps one of the most unique and enduring historical traditions in all of Randolph County, lives on, thanks to the efforts of devoted citizens like Percy Clerc.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Percy Clerc.

William Hayes inducted into The Randolph Society

William Hayes

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that William Hayes, who risked his reputation, his property, and even his life to help men and women escape from slavery, will be inducted into the 2020 class of honorees.

William Hayes, a descendant of early settlers of New England, was born in New York in 1795. Raised as a devout Reformed Presbyterian, he was a part of the anti-slavery Covenanter movement from childhood. In 1819, William married Anna Johnston, a woman who was equally devoted to his faith, and the couple began raising a family on a farm in their hometown of Galway. In 1833, the family decided to head west, buying land near present-day Peoria. When Anna contracted malaria, however, they relocated once more, settling near friends who had moved to Flat Prairie near Eden in Randolph County, Illinois.

In Randolph County, the Hayes family became part of the growing Covenanter community of Sparta and Eden, centered around Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church. The growing faith community was full of abolitionists who were passionate about ending the institution of slavery in America. In Illinois, that also meant putting an end to the legal system of indentured servitude, which was essentially slavery in all but name. Many prominent members of the church were deeply involved in the secret network known as the Underground Railroad, and William Hayes joined in their work. He and Anna sheltered, fed, and clothed freedom seekers, even sometimes transporting men, women, and children on their journey north. The work was perilous, and the Hayes family risked their reputations, their livelihoods, their own freedom, and even their lives with their involvement. None of these dangers outweighed the moral responsibility they felt toward their fellow human beings.

In the summer of 1842, the Hayes family gave refuge to two women and three children who were indentured to Andrew Borders, a prosperous but brutal Randolph County mill owner. Borders was known to physically assault his indentured servants, and he kept them in line with threats to sell them to slaveholders in southern states. Hannah, Susan, and Susan’s three sons, Jarrot, Anderson, and Harrison, turned to William and Anna for help in escaping the cruel treatment they had received in the Borders household. William personally conveyed the five of them north to central Illinois, where he had many contacts in Peoria and Galesburg. While in Knox County, however, the five were apprehended. Though the abolitionist community tried valiantly to free all of them, Borders managed to assert his right to the contracts of all three boys, one of whom later died in his mill. Both Susan and Hannah, however, were eventually emancipated and lived free lives in Illinois and New York.

Borders sought revenge on William for his part in aiding the freedom seekers’ flight. In 1843, he sued William in civil court, seeking $2500 in damages – an amount that would have financially ruined the Hayes family. Although William’s lawyers managed to have the case moved to Perry County, which had a much less pro-slavery population, the jury decided in Borders’s favor, reducing the damages awarded to several hundred dollars. William’s lawyers appealed the decision to the state supreme court, who confirmed the previous verdict. The case was financially damaging to the Hayes family, but perhaps more importantly, it also revealed William’s secret work with the Underground Railroad to the larger community.

Even so, William continued to help enslaved men and women seeking freedom. Until his death in 1849, he remained a vital part of the Underground Railroad in Randolph County. Decades later, he was named in a major history of the railroad as an important conductor in the Sparta area. We’ll never know how many men, women, and children he aided in their quest for freedom, but we can be sure that his bravery helped countless people start new lives. William’s descendants have treasured his legacy for generations, saving valuable correspondence from his time living in Eden. One letter, written to him by a fellow abolitionist, includes a bold reminder of the importance of their work: “My brother, our cause is a holy one.” The citizens of Randolph County can look to William as an example of a man of principle who was willing to risk his life in service to the moral good. His cause, indeed, was a holy one.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of William Hayes.

Dorothy Rabe Ivanuck inducted into The Randolph Society

Dorothy Rabe Ivanuck and Senator Paul Simon

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that the Dorothy Rabe Ivanuck, a World War II veteran who devoted her life to waging a war on poverty in our local communities, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Dorothy Ruth Rabe, born into a German-American family in Steeleville in 1923, was the daughter of Charles Henry Rabe and Emma Castens Rabe. With her elder brother, Charles, she spent her childhood attending Steeleville schools and worshiping at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. After graduating from Sparta High School in the early 1940s, she headed to St. Louis to attend business college. In the midst of World War II, she decided to abandon her studies in favor of serving her country, enlisting in the navy and becoming one of the country’s first female members of the Marine Corps.

During her time in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, Dorothy was one of the many women who took on professional jobs in the branch, working in various procurement centers and serving as a clerk for her commanding officer at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. By the end of the war, she had been promoted to the rank of corporal. At St. Mark’s in the autumn of 1950, she married a fellow military officer: Captain Marion A. Ivanuck, who was serving in the Army Dental Corps. After Marion finished his military service, the family settled down in Dorothy’s native Steeleville, where they raised two daughters, Suzanne and Leslie.

Along with his dental practice, Marion served as Steeleville’s mayor for more than a decade. Both he and Dorothy were dedicated to public service. When a new antipoverty agency, the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council, was formed in the 1960s, Dorothy was appointed as its first executive director. She focused the skills she had honed in the Marine Corps on a new war, this time on poverty in Randolph, Monroe, and Perry counties. The new agency administered a variety of programs, including Head Start, Operation Mainstream, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and the Senior Nutrition Sites, all designed to enhance the quality of life of local citizens. Dorothy worked for decades to secure a diverse portfolio of grants and funding sources for the organization, ensuring that, even if one source of funding dried up, the agency would be able to continue providing services to the people who needed them most.

During her tenure, Western Egyptian established numerous programs to improve the lives of the people of Randolph County, including weatherization programs, food pantries and emergency voucher programs, legal clinics energy bill relief assistance programs, home rehabilitation services, specialized volunteer tax training, scholarships for college students, and even collection drives to provide local children with toys for Christmas. In 1993, as one of the worst floods in history ravaged Randolph and Monroe counties, Western Egyptian secured grant money to meet both immediate, live-saving needs and long-term recovery requirements for those who had lost everything to the rising river. All told, Dorothy raised millions of dollars over her four decades with Western Egyptian, providing the people of our area with crucial opportunities to improve themselves and their communities.

Dorothy received numerous honors and accolades during her long working life, which ended shortly before she died in 2004 in Chester. Her greatest tribute, however, is surely the continued existence of the Western Egyptian Economic Opportunity Council itself, which is still working to benefit the people of our area more than 50 years after it was originally founded.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Dorothy Rabe Ivanuck.

Harry L. Hamilton inducted into The Randolph Society

Harry L. Hamilton

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Harry L. Hamilton, a talented novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Harry Lacy Hamilton was born in Chester in 1896. His father, Harry Hamilton Sr., was a second-generation commercial fisherman who worked on the Mississippi, and his mother, Margaret Greenwalt, was descended from several established Chester families. The eldest of six children, Harry briefly moved with his family to Arkansas as a teenager, where his grandparents purchased a farm near the Missouri border. However, his father’s job working on the river ultimately kept the family in Randolph County, where Harry graduated from Chester High School in 1916. The same year, he was recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission for the bravery he demonstrated when he helped save a friend from drowning in the Mississippi.

After serving in the army in World War I, Harry used his Carnegie prize money to enroll at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. A natural born storyteller, Harry studied drama in the College of Fine Arts, writing more than a dozen plays that were performed by his fellow students, including his roommate, the future film star and director Norman Foster. When Harry graduated in 1924, one local newspaper heralded him as the most “outstanding student-playwright produced by the institute during its history.”

Degree in hand, Harry moved south to Alabama, where he took a teaching job. He also became the director of the Little Theater in Montgomery, a role that allowed him to continue to write and produce his own plays. A collaboration with Norman Foster soon vaunted him to a new level of creative success. Their original play, Savage Rhythm, premiered on Broadway in 1932. Harry left Montgomery, establishing himself first in New York and then in California, where he continued to write plays and short stories. In 1936, he published his first novel, Banjo on My Knee, which was inspired by his childhood living along the Mississippi. Twentieth Century Fox soon purchased the film rights to the novel, adapting it as a movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, and Walter Brennan.

While working as a screenwriter for Paramount, MGM, and Republic Pictures, Harry also continued to write novels. He produced four more books during the course of his career: All Their Children Were Acrobats (1936), the story of a circus family; Watch Us Grow (1940), the tale of an Arkansas town along the Mississippi; River Song (1945), a sequel to Banjo on My Knee; and Thunder in the Wilderness (1949), a historical romance set in eighteenth-century Kaskaskia. Harry traveled the world during his writing career, but his success selling short stories and serials also enabled him to put down roots in the seaside city of Long Beach, where numerous members of his family eventually joined him. Following a Thanksgiving meal with friends and family at the home of a niece in 1975, he passed away at his home at the age of 79.

Just before his death, Harry was planning a trip to return to Chester to celebrate the bicentennial. He considered his childhood in Randolph County to have been one of the most formative experiences of his life: “I’ve always been glad I grew up in a small town like Chester. Kids in big cities miss many of the basics and associations which form your character.” Chester hasn’t forgotten Harry, either, celebrating his life in tributes and keeping a collection of all of his novels in the town’s public library so that local citizens can be inspired by the writer who dreamed his way from the Mississippi to Broadway and Hollywood.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Harry L. Hamilton.

Nance Legins Costley inducted into The Randolph Society

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Nance Legins Costley, whose bravery and persistence in securing her freedom set precedent in Illinois law, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Nance Legins, the daughter of African-American indentured servants who had been brought to Illinois from Louisiana, was born in Kaskaskia in late 1813. Nance’s parents were indentured to Thomas Cox, an ambitious local businessman and politician whose home in Kaskaskia also served as the headquarters of Illinois’s territorial government. Although she was born in a territory where slavery was nominally illegal, Nance was subject to Illinois’s complicated system of indentured servitude. Because her parents were bound to serve Thomas Cox, Nance was also legally considered his property.

When she was still a baby, Cox sold Nance, her parents, and her elder brother, Reuben, to another prominent Kaskaskian, William Morrison, who ran a mercantile empire that shipped goods up and down the Mississippi Valley. Shortly afterward, though, the Legins family was returned to the ownership of Cox, who ran a hotel in Kaskaskia. When Illinois became a state in 1818, Kaskaskia was its first capital, and Cox was elected to serve in the state legislature. When the capital moved to Vandalia the following year, Nance and her sister, Dice, moved with the Cox family to settle there. Because Cox was involved in politics, Nance was surrounded by conversations about legal matters of the day, including the question of slavery in the state.

The Cox family, along with Nance and Dice, settled in Springfield in the 1820s, where Cox secured a prominent position in the local land registry office. But Cox, who was an alcoholic, mishandled the office’s funds, as well as his personal finances, and to satisfy his creditors, his property was auctioned. That property included both Nance and Dice. In the only known public slave auction ever held in the state of Illinois, Nance and Dice were sold in Springfield in July 1827. When her new owner, Nathan Cromwell, asked if she would go live in his household, Nance, still in chains from the auction, defiantly told him that she would not.

Nance’s public refusal to accept her sale kicked off a series of legal challenges that eventually led to the Illinois State Supreme Court. In 1828, the court denied her claim, deciding that she was legally Cromwell’s property. After Cromwell sold her in Tazewell County in 1836, this time to an abolitionist, Nance resisted once more. Her new “owner,” David Bailey, refused to pay for her, arguing that she was a free person and could not be sold. When the case came before the state supreme court once more, Bailey’s friend, Abraham Lincoln, served as his attorney. Lincoln successfully argued that no one had been able to prove that Nance was legally owned by anyone. In July 1841, Judge Sidney Breese declared that Nance was free, stating decisively that “the sale of a free person is illegal.”

Nance married a free man of color, Benjamin Costley, in Pekin, and the couple had eight children, all of whom were free citizens. Near the end of her life, a Pekin city directory recognized Nance’s resilience: “She came here a chattel, with ‘no rights that a white man was bound to respect’ … and now, in her still vigorous old age, she sees her race disenthralled; the chains that bound them forever broken, their equality before the law everywhere recognized, and her children enjoying the elective franchise.” In her valiant struggle to realize her own freedom, Nance set important precedents that helped others become free, too – and helped inspire a future president as he developed his understanding of the need for emancipation for all.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Nance Legins Costley.

Roger Wolff inducted into The Randolph Society

Roger Wolff in uniform with the Philadelphia Athletics

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Roger Wolff, the major league baseball pitcher whose knuckleball carried him to a twenty-win season with the Washington Senators, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Roger, the second son of Leo and Eleanor Wolff, was born in Evansville in 1911. The Wolff family moved in 1922 to Chester, where Leo established Wolff’s Market, selling meat and groceries to the community. Roger and his elder brother, Omer, worked for their father at the store, and on their breaks they played catch outside the market.

As a teenager, Roger’s love for baseball grew into a passion. He discovered a talent for pitching, and after he added a knuckleball to his arsenal, he decided to pursue baseball as a career. He began playing in Red Bud with the St. Moran League, but he was quickly noticed by Cardinals business manager Branch Rickey and given a minor league contract. From 1930 until 1941, he played for numerous minor league teams all over the country, including the Davenport Blue Sox, the Denver Grizzlies, the Dayton Ducks, the Oklahoma City Indians, and the Cedar Rapids Raiders.

Roger returned to Chester each winter to work at the family store. In November 1939, he married Mary Rose Montroy in their hometown. That December, he signed a contract with the Williamsport Grays, a minor league affiliate of the Philadelphia Athletics. Mentorship by the Grays’ manager, Spencer Abbott, helped Roger develop his skills, and in September 1941, he finally got the call from the big leagues. He made his major league debut on September 20, 1941, starting for the Athletics in a game against the Washington Senators. A week later, he had a brush with history, when he nearly derailed Red Sox slugger Ted Williams in his quest to finish the season with a .400 batting average.

For the next two seasons, Roger was a reliable part of the Athletics rotation. In 1943, as many major leaguers went to war, Roger – who was classified 4-F by his local draft board – finished with a 10-15 record. He was traded in the off-season to the Washington Senators, who were building an entire rotation of knuckleballers in their quest to capture the American League pennant.

Injuries and illness took a toll on Roger during the 1944 season, but in 1945, he had the season of a lifetime. He finished with a 20-10 record and an incredible 2.12 ERA. He tossed a total of 250 innings during the season, including 21 complete games, and faced 1000 batters. His stellar season was recognized with a seventh place finish in the voting for the league’s Most Valuable Player. His performance was so good that nearly helped the Senators secure a trip to the World Series, though they fell just behind Detroit in the final league standings.

In 1946, Roger didn’t get the chance to repeat the success of the previous season. He was sidelined with a major injury to his back, suffered during a game against the Yankees on the Fourth of July. Doctors advised him not to pitch again, though he made a few more appearances with Washington. The following year he played for the Indians and the Pirates before leaving baseball to return to a quieter life in Chester, where he worked at Menard Penitentiary and served as manager to the prison’s baseball team, the Menard Cubs. He also served as vice-president of Chester’s very first Little League Program.

Roger died in Chester in 1994. Late in his life, Roger reflected on his time in baseball: “I really believe, everything considered, that I had a real successful career and life.” His perseverance through injury and disappointment, and the magnificent triumph he reached as a result, is an inspiration to baseball fans in Randolph County and across the nation.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Roger Wolff.

Richmond Durfee and Samuel Crozier inducted into The Randolph Society

The Durfee & Crozier Store, ca. 1880s

The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Richmond Durfee and Samuel Crozier, two of the founders of the town of Red Bud, will be inducted into the 2019 class of honorees.

Richmond Durfee, the grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran, was born in 1815 in Fall River, Massachusetts. With his parents and seven sisters, he moved as a teenager to southern Monroe County, where his father established a farm near the border with Randolph County. As a young man, Richmond was appointed postmaster at Prairieville. He soon began buying land of his own in both counties, and by the 1840s, he had established the first store in an area near Prairieville that he called “Red Bud.” He named the fledgling settlement after the flowering trees that surrounded his dry goods store — the first permanent mercantile establishment in the town, located on the southeast corner of present-day Main and Market Streets.

In the 1850s, Richmond expanded his business by taking on a partner: Samuel Crozier, the son of settlers who had migrated from Abbeville, South Carolina, to Randolph County in the early nineteenth century. Samuel, who was born in 1822, was the eldest of a large family, all of whom were born in Randolph County. His father had settled near Horse Prairie shortly after Samuel’s birth. In the Crozier family, Richmond found not only a business partner but also a spouse. He married Samuel’s younger sister, Caroline Lavinda Crozier, in 1844. The couple built a house not far from Richmond’s store. A year later, Samuel married Nancy Ross, and the two families grew as the Durfee and Crozier retail business expanded.

By 1855, Richmond and Samuel were ready to put down more permanent commercial roots in Red Bud. They built a brick store in the Greek Revival style on the northeast corner of Main and Market Streets. The Durfee & Crozier Store still stands today in Red Bud and is likely the oldest surviving building in town. In the 1970s, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, along with the rest of the surrounding Red Bud Historic District. Business flourished right away, and the two men even began investing in a proposed railroad to help move goods directly to and from their store.

But in 1859, as their mercantile enterprise was thriving, Samuel died of consumption. Richmond carried on the business, first in Red Bud, and then in St. Louis, where he established a dry goods store near the construction site of the new Eads Bridge. Eventually, he settled his family in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he operated a store for a time with his eldest son, Eric, as his business partner. After Eric’s death in 1883, the family decided to seek out a warmer climate. Richmond built a spectacular Victorian farmhouse in Florence, California, in the Queen Anne style. It too is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it serves as an architectural and historical “resource of major local significance.”

Richmond Durfee died in California in 1897, but the commercial legacy that he and Samuel Crozier began in Red Bud continues to thrive today. Historians have noted that the partners, especially Richmond, have a very strong claim to be called founders of Red Bud. Their role in starting the town’s business community has been highlighted as “an interesting indicator of the town’s entire history: beginning as a store, Red Bud became and has remained the commercial center of the surrounding agricultural area.” Now a popular restaurant at the center of numerous thriving businesses, the Durfee & Crozier Store stands as a testament to the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of these early Red Bud citizens.

Click here to read a more detailed biography of Richmond Durfee and Samuel Crozier.