The three settlers laid out a town site and agreed to contribute $3,000 for the erection of public buildings. They further agreed to donate land for a public square and a jail, and another parcel of land for a pen to hold stray domestic animals. Finally, the three men promised to build a bridge across the Vermilion River. The name of Pontiac was suggested by landowner Jesse Fell, who admired the great Indian chief.
Most of the early settlers were small farmers of meager means. These farmers fenced in their fields to protect them from the herds of wild deer that roamed the woods and prairies. Later, large herds of cattle were brought into the area to graze on the unclaimed prairie land. A fence law, passed in 1867, required the cattle owner to fence his livestock to prevent damage to crops. Soon the remaining open prairie spaces were plowed and planted in crops.
The city of Pontiac owes a great measure of its success to its location on the Vermillion River. Of course, before the settlers came to this area, the river was important to the Native-Americans who lived or hunted in this part of the prairie. The river provided both food and transportation for those early indigenous cultures.
In 1837, when Livingston County and the town of Pontiac were officially created, the river posed both a major problem and provided some important benefits to the early European settlers. The problem surrounded the requirement that a bridge be built over the Vermillion River. Building that bridge was a major technological challenge in those early days, but a sturdy, wooden bridge was indeed built. One of the important benefits that was key to Pontiac's success was the river’s flowing current which provided ample power that was put to use in five mills which were built along the river in Pontiac. The first mill to be constructed was, appropriately, a saw mill built in 1838 by C.H. Perry and James McKee. Trees were felled in a wooded section of land east of Pontiac, dumped into the river, and floated to the mill that was located near the intersection of Mill and Water Streets. With the dimensional lumber produced by the mill, the early homes and businesses of Pontiac were built. When the Chicago & Alton Railroad came through Pontiac, it selected Pontiac as a “watering and wooding” station. The Perry and McKee saw mill ran two band saws 24 hours a day at peak times, just to keep up with the demand for construction lumber as well as the wood that was loaded aboard the trains and used to stoke the firebox of the locomotives. Water from the river was pumped into a holding tower, and then into the railroad engines to produce steam.
Pontiac’s second mill, built in 1850, was a grist mill located about 2 miles northwest of the new village’s center. James W. Remick built that mill and it ground corn into cornmeal, and wheat into flour for many years before it was destroyed by fire.
In 1857, Thomas Williams purchased the saw mill located by the Mill Street bridge in Pontiac from Perry and Mckee. Williams added a small, detached grist mill that was also powered by the river. The grist mill soon became more profitable than the saw mill, and the small grist mill was eventually replaced by a grain mill with greater capacity. In 1881, Williams replaced the log dam that was used to divert water to the mill with a stronger stone dam. In 1891 a fire destroyed the William’s mill. He rebuilt the mill, larger and with more modern technology. By 1918, the mill was completely electric, no longer relying on the river as its source of power. In 1955, a fire destroyed the interior of the mill, and a couple of years later, the damaged building was torn down.
The year 1867 saw the arrival in Pontiac of two brothers from New York. The Barnard brothers opened a woolen mill in Pontiac. Although not much is known about the location of this mill, it too used the river as its motive force and so was likely located close to the riverbanks. Finally, in 1883, Proctor Taylor bought an earlier Pontiac grist mill and rebuilt it with an advanced roller system as opposed to the traditional mill stones. Taylor’s mill was capable of grinding 25,000 lbs of grain per day. Even with the latest in technology, Taylor’s mill was just barely able to keep up with orders.
Railroads Spur Growth
Until the 1850s and the coming of the railroad to Pontiac, the city remained a quiet community, home to about 25 settlers. With the completion of the Chicago & Alton Railroad, the city and the county experienced a population explosion. Only 6 years after the railway was completed, the city had grown to 733 people and the county had expanded from 1,500 citizens in 1850 to over 11,500, according to the 1860 census. The 10,000 new settlers were a combination of new immigrants and former citizens of northeastern portions of the United States. Most started farms in the area, although some were merchants or professionals (lawyers, doctors, church leaders, etc.).
State Boys Reformatory School
In 1871, the City of Pontiac was selected as the home for the new Illinois State Boys Reformatory School. Now known as the Pontiac Correctional Center, the penal institution has played a major role in Pontiac's history as it is the city's largest employer and brings millions of dollars into the local economy. You can learn more about the Boys Reformatory by visiting the History Page.
The first county courthouse was completed in 1842. It was a two-story frame building, painted white, and located in the center of a public square. This courthouse, which measured 30 feet by 22 feet, served until a new structure was built in 1856.
A Rich Cultural Heritage
The Folks Opera House, built in the 100 block of East Water Street, was completed in the early 1890s. It served as the cultural center of the town with touring artists playing there as they traveled the theatrical circuit from Chicago to St. Louis. Shows at the Folks Opera House represented a broad variety of styles, including: vaudeville, melodrama, magic shows, operettas, burlesque, minstrel shows, as well as full dramatic productions. The Folks Opera House was destroyed by fire on March 24, 1923.
The Pontiac Chautauqua Assemblies played a major role in bringing a diverse range of cultural activities to the city. For more information on the Chautauquas, visit the Chautauqua history page.
Through time there have been local groups focusing on the visual arts (the Amityville Painters, for example), the performing arts (Vermillion Players, the Municipal Band, the Dancenter), and hundreds of individual artists, some of who belong to the more recently formed, Pontiac Art Center. The Walldogs visit in 2009, with the resulting 23 large, colorful, outdoor murals, has sparked a new period of artistic experimentation here. The more recent opening of the Dongbai International Art School has created even more interest in Pontiac's thriving art scene.