Preservationists who were dedicated to keeping the history of Randolph County alive, Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Gilster worked together to shine a light on the artifacts and stories of the past.
Irvin Milton Peithmann was born in Washington County, Illinois, on October 11, 1904. He was the eldest child of Edward Peithmann, the son of German immigrants, and Sadie Smith Peithmann. As a young man, Edward had left Washington County, heading west to work for the Dawes Commission, the congressional survey of lands of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole tribes. The commission divided up the tribal lands into individual lots, which were assigned to tribe members registered on the Dawes Rolls. Surplus territory was sold to white settlers. Though he didn’t play a direct role in the stripping of communal tribe lands – Edward was employed as a teamster, responsible for caring for the mules as the commission traveled by wagon – he reflected later on both the kindness shown to him by the native people and on the true purpose of the commission he witnessed: “The whole business there was so the white man could get a hold of [the land].” Indeed, after the commission had completed its work, the tribal territories were denied the right to separate statehood and were incorporated into the new state of Oklahoma.
After Edward’s return to Southern Illinois and his marriage to Sadie, the couple settled on a farm near the small town of Hoyleton, where they raised Irvin and his siblings, Helen, Luella, Roscoe, Wilbur, Elwood, and Virginia. Edward shared the stories of the indigenous people he had met with his children, and Irvin in particular became fascinated with native culture, a passion that would last for the rest of his life. He spent his childhood out of doors, rambling across his father’s farm and learning to search for artifacts left behind by the indigenous peoples who used to live and hunt on the same land. As a teenager, Irvin left school early, never completing his high school diploma, and followed in his father’s farming footsteps. In 1926, he married Leona Hendricks, another Washington County native. By 1930, as the economic crush of the Great Depression closed in, Irvin and Leona were living on a farm in Irvington with their young sons, Albert and Russell.
Soon, like so many Americans, Irvin found himself without a way to support his family financially. He headed south to Carbondale, arriving at Southern Illinois University in 1931. The school hired him to manage the university farm, a position he held for the next eighteen years. The job gave him a chance to use the farming skills he had learned from his father, but even more importantly, it offered him the opportunity to hone his amateur archaeology skills. Soon, he discovered that he had a natural talent for seeking and finding hidden objects from the past. Childhood hunting expeditions for arrowheads on his father’s farm now gave way to more sophisticated historical surveys. In March 1938, the Nashville Journal reported that Irvin was “head of a group of amateur archaeologists … doing extensive work in Southern Illinois,” making finds that included a “prehistoric skeleton from Chalk Bluff Rock Shelter southwest of Murphysboro.” Irvin and John W. Allen, director of the university’s museum, partnered on numerous excavations. In 1944, they unearthed the bones of a prehistoric mastodon in the bed of the Little Muddy River in Jackson County. Five years later, the Williamson County sheriff’s office called the duo to examine numerous human skeletons found in a large grave near Stonefort, which they identified as a Shawnee burial site.
In 1949, John Allen officially recognized Irvin’s contributions to his field, naming him curator of SIU’s archaeological collections. Though he had neither a high school diploma nor a college degree, his experience and his natural aptitude for the field led him to major success. Two years after his promotion, Irvin made one of his greatest and most significant archaeological discoveries. In 1951, while examining the Mississippi bluffs in western Randolph County, he stumbled upon a rock cliff near the tiny town of Modoc. The site, better known as the Modoc Rock Shelter, contained evidence of human habitation during the archaic period, around 9,000 years ago. After Irvin discovered the site, archaeologists from many institutions, including SIU, the Illinois State Museum, and the University of Chicago, excavated the site. Ashes from ancient campfires were discovered, and carbon dating of the particles allowed scientists to determine when the site had been occupied by prehistoric people. The site was purchased by the state of Illinois and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1961.
Irvin followed up on the discovery of the rock shelter with more explorations of indigenous culture. His first book, published in 1955, chronicled the history of native tribes who had lived in present-day Southern Illinois. Irvin’s approach to history won plaudits from critics; the reviewer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote, “One of the most pleasing things about this collection of historic facts and observations is the style in which it is written. Sharp and crisp in sentence structure, it assumes the reader not to be an expert, then does a good job in giving him a qualified background.” Irvin followed up with a second book on the Seminoles. He took a sabbatical from SIU and traveled to St. Petersburg, Florida, using the community as a research base as he made frequent visits to the tribe. He published The Unconquered Seminole Indians in December 1956. The book aimed to present a new viewpoint, attempting to look at American history through a Seminole lens, rather than the other way around. The work also reflects a turning point in Seminole history, as the tribe was becoming increasingly Americanized at the time. After finishing the project, Irvin donated a collection of more than a thousand Seminole photographs to Florida’s state archives. In 1964, he published two more works on Native American culture – a history of the Cherokee tribe and a larger history of indigenous people in America over the past four centuries – and even a book of poetry.
Though he was interested in native culture on a broad level, Irvin continued to return to Southern Illinois to search for more artifacts and evidence. In the fields and forests of Randolph County, Irvin became a familiar figure in dark-rimmed glasses. One 1950s-era profile describes him as “ambling along, pipe in mouth and two 35mm cameras draped over his neck.” He often dressed in Western-inspired clothing and even made his own bolo ties. Eccentric and deeply invested in his research projects, Irvin could have been remote or even overbearing. But his contemporaries described him as precisely the opposite. His accessible approach may have been one of the reasons that he was often invited to give talks and presentations to history groups. In 1966, he even taped an episode of the daytime edition of the classic game show To Tell The Truth.
In April 1954, Irvin traveled to Coulterville to make a special travelogue presentation to the annual meeting of the Randolph County Federated Women’s Clubs. One of the women who was deeply involved with Randolph County organizations would soon become a vital part of Irvin’s research in the area: Ruth Robinson Gilster. Born in Franklin County, Illinois, on September 30, 1915, Ruth was the eldest child of Browning Robinson and his wife, Sarah Harriss Robinson. As a young girl, she lived on the family’s farm with her younger brother, Harriss, and younger sister, Elaine. In 1930, Ruth’s father was elected sheriff of Franklin County, and her mother served as a deputy circuit clerk during his tenure in office. Their example of public service had a strong influence on Ruth, who would eventually follow in their footsteps.
Browning Robinson’s law enforcement jobs kept the family on the move. In 1935, after losing a primary election for state representative, he was tapped to serve as deputy warden of the state prison in Joliet. Ruth, who had attended high school in Benton, decided to stay near her family, enrolling in the College of St. Francis, an all-women’s school in Joliet. She later also studied at the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University. In the meantime, Browning Robinson was transferred to Chester, where he became deputy warden at Menard Penitentiary in February 1937. Ruth had just embarked on a design career in Chicago when she learned that her younger sister, Elaine, was seriously ill. Ruth hurried to Chester, but sadly, Elaine died there at the age of sixteen.
According to Ruth’s family, the year of mourning that she spent with her parents after Elaine’s death changed her life. While in Chester, she met her future husband, John Sprigg Gilster. John, an attorney who had graduated from law school at the University of Virginia, was descended from several prominent local families. His father, J. Fred Gilster, was a notable Chester lawyer who had served as a judge and an assistant attorney general for the state of Illinois, and John’s maternal grandfather and great-grandfather were also members of the legal profession. Though he was destined for a successful law career of his own, John had another passion: flight. He was part of an enthusiastic group of young pilots in Randolph County, led by the Hunter Brothers of Sparta. When John and Ruth decided to get married, they eloped in John’s airplane. They tied the knot in Dade County, Florida, on January 9, 1939.
John and Ruth returned to Chester after their marriage. John began practicing law, and Ruth gave birth to their first child, Peter. Three more children – Jeff, Caroline, and Thomas – followed over the next decade. After the outbreak of World War II, John trained pilots heading for combat. But a full career as a pilot was not to be. John’s father, Judge Gilster, died in 1945, and John and Ruth settled down with their children at 310 Buena Vista in Chester, a hundred-year-old house that had been built by John’s ancestors. There, John became Chester’s city attorney, and Ruth, perhaps inspired by her historic home, turned her attention to preserving the historical legacy of her adopted hometown.
Throughout her life, Ruth served on numerous boards and committees devoted to the history of Illinois. In the late 1950s, she served both as president of the Randolph County Historical Society and vice-president of the Illinois State Historical Society. She also taught classes at SIU Carbondale and assisted with research for several authors and historians. As she became more and more involved in the community of Chester, however, personal tragedy struck. Her husband, John, died suddenly in April 1959 at the age of forty-seven. While raising her four children as a single parent, Ruth continued to be involved with the state’s historical preservation community. In 1960, she was the sole woman appointed as a member of the Illinois Civil War Centennial Commission. While serving on the Chester Library Board, she was instrumental in the start of a rare books room. As president of the county historical society, Ruth took the lead on the restoration project of the Pierre Menard Home. She also became the first woman to be elected to the Randolph County Board of Commissioners, twice serving as the board’s chairperson. Her work was further recognized in 1976, when she was named to the Presidential Bicentennial Commission.
Ruth’s knowledge and expertise made her an ideal working partner for Irvin in his local history work. They 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 working partnership was a fruitful one. Irvin brought his archaeological experience to the table, while Ruth added her knowledge of the historical context of the county lands.
Irvin and Ruth’s interests especially converged in Prairie du Rocher, where both were fascinated by the history of Fort de Chartres. In 1967, Irvin and his son, Albert, located the site of a Michigamea village located near the original French fort. Two years later, he and another colleague, Herbert Meyer, found remnants of the first wooden fortification built by the French on the site. The Peithmann Museum on the grounds of the restored fort bears his name and holds numerous artifacts discovered by him in its collection. Ruth was a member of Les Compagnie des Amis de Fort de Chartres, an organization dedicated to raising funds to restore the historic French settlement. With the county historical society, Ruth also helped to preserve another of Prairie du Rocher’s treasures, the Creole House. She could often be seen in costume during the annual Rendezvous celebrations at the fort. Both Irvin and Ruth felt strongly that Randolph County’s colonial sites were special treasures. “No one understands the importance of this area down here,” Irvin told one newspaper in 1978. “If we don’t make this area the Williamsburg of the West, we ought to have our heads examined.”
Though he continued to engage in archaeological research, changes in his field led to Irvin’s retirement from SIU in 1973. He had spent four decades working for the university, but an increasing emphasis on the need for academic credentials prevented him from advancing traditionally in his field. His lack of a college education, though, didn’t outweigh the years of important work he performed while associated with the university. The Illinois General Assembly honored him with a formal resolution in 1974. The following year, SIU recognized him with the university’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award. After decades spent living in Carbondale, Irvin and Leona decided to move to Chester, purchasing the historic home at 246 Young Avenue in 1977. The home formerly belonged to Alice Cole, one of Chester’s great benefactors. After suffering from a lengthy illness, Irvin died in Chester in May 1981. Ruth, his partner in historic research, 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 since won elected offices in Randolph County, and her work with the local historical society still forms a cornerstone for efforts continuing today. Irvin’s own legacy, both in Randolph County and at Southern Illinois University, continues to influence local archaeologists and historians as well. In December 2019, Irvin’s granddaughter, Lynn Peithman Stock, donated his enormous collection of artifacts to SIU’s Center for Archaeological Investigations. The university also holds Peithmann’s papers, 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 have 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.
Irvin Peithmann and Ruth Gilster were inducted into The Randolph Society in 2020.