Illinois was admitted as a state into the Union on December 3, 1818. At the time the state was organized, the area around Pontiac was 40 to 50% swamp, and thus was very sparsely populated. A description of the land in the central part of the new state was provided by English traveler, Elias Pym Fordham who passed through the area just prior to statehood:
"The climate of the Illinois is more agreeable than that of England. The sky is brighter, the air more transparent, but at present, less healthy. The country is intersected with innumerable streams whose overflowings produce swamps, which partially dry up in the summer, filling the air with mosquitoes and noxious effluvia."
The first wave of settlers arrived in about 1829. When Martin Darnall first settled with his family in this area in the fall of 1830, there was a band of Kickapoo Indians located near Selma, in neighboring McLean County. During the year, the tribe came over into what would soon become Livingston County, and pitched their tents south of Chatsworth (30 miles SE of Pontiac). They numbered 630 men, women and children. Their intercourse with the early settlers was friendly, and there is no record of any white man having been killed by them within the limits of the county. The Indians raised some corn, beans, potatoes and tobacco. They were great traders, ready to swap at any time, and quick to see when they obtained the best of a bargain.
The earliest settlers faced one of the worst winters on record. During the winter of 1830-31, the area received four feet of snow in only a few hours, followed by freezing rain, and then sleet. To make things worse, that was all followed by days and nights of sub-zero temperatures. With an icy crust on top of 4 feet of snow, the natives, the settlers, and both domestic and wild animals suffered severely from the intense cold and scarcity of food.
In the spring of 1832, the Blackhawk War erupted when Indians crossed into Illinois from the Iowa Indian Territory. Although the Blackhawk War was a brief conflict, our area was close to the front lines. The early settlers were advised to either build a stockade to protect their families and livestock, or move back east temporarily while the fighting continued. Most of the early settlers, finding a stockade impractical, abandoned their homesteads, and went back east until the war ended. In September of 1832, the government forced the relocation of the entire Kickapoo tribe and other native groups to government lands located west of the Mississippi River. The settlers then returned to their homes.
In 1837, Livingston County was officially established by an act of the Illinois congress. One of the provisions of the act establishing the county decreed that a commission be created to find a suitable location for the county seat. The commission met and selected a site on land owned by three of the early settlers: Henry Weed, Lucius W. Young, and Seth M. Young.
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.
In the first few years of the town's existence, the population rose and fell several times. The extensive spring flooding typical of the region often resulted in virulent outbreaks of cholera and other diseases. Faced with such serious health issues and the prospect of death, many of the town's new immigrants got discouraged and either left Pontiac to return back to the eastern United States, or moved to healthier locales. By the year 1842 there were still only two families living within the city limits. In 1849, the worst outbreak of cholera hit the pioneer village of Pontiac and the nearby farms, resulting in the deaths of 14 persons in less than two weeks. In those early years, Pontiac's total population would rarely exceed 30 people. Most of the early settlers were small farmers of meager means who lived outside of city limits. These pioneers dug drainage and irrigation ditches to manage runoff and reclaim swampland, cleared the prairie grasses, and then planted acres of wheat, corn, and other staple crops. 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 fenced, plowed, and planted in crops.
According to the History of Livingston County, published in 1909, while a few of Pontiac's earliest settlers were good people with traditional family values, "the majority were of the drinking, gambling class, and horse racing and fighting were frequently indulged in and the Sabbath day was almost lost sight of." It is important to remember that in the 1840s this part of Illinois was the nation's frontier - the wild West of its day. The men who came here, with or without families, were adventurers, risk-takers, and typically, extremely self-confident men. The rowdiness that accompanied these early pioneers was part of their personalities. However, with the coming of the railroad in the mid-1850s, and an influx of new settlers, including a few religious leaders, the character of the population changed for the better.
Pontiac's Mines and Mills
As noted in the Pre-History section of this website, the Livingston County and Pontiac area sits on deposits of coal formed earlier in the region's geologic history. In 1865, a group of Pontiac's citizens formed the Pontiac Coal Company. The first coal vein was struck on January 12, 1866. The "top vein" of the coal was reached at a depth of 180 feet. This vein was about 4 to 5 feet thick. An additional vein of coal was found at the 280 foot depth and was about three feet thick. A second shaft was sunk in 1867. The buildings surrounding the shaft for the Pontiac Coal Company were lost to fire several times, and mismanagement of the operation hampered its success. The coal mine was sold several times, changed its name as often, and finally went out of business around the turn of the 20th century, with the stockholders losing their entire investment.
In 1837, when Livingston County and the town of Pontiac were officially created, the river posed 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 what was thought to be a sturdy, wooden bridge was indeed built at a cost of $450 by Philip Rollins and the other original settlers. However, that bridge was soon washed away by high water and a second, more substantial wooden bridge was then constructed. In 1874-75 that wooden bridge was replaced with an iron truss bridge that would allow for heavier loads.
One of the important benefits of the river that was key to Pontiac's success was the flowing current which provided ample power that was put to use in 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. Prior to the creation of Pontiac's first grain mill, local farmers traveled up to 50 miles to get their harvest ground into cornmeal or flour. Having a local mill to grind corn and wheat was an important boon to local farmers. With a local mill, they reduced the costs of processing and transportation. James W. Remick built that first grain mill and it was powered by the wind. The Pontiac Cereal Mill was profitable 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. Williams took down the saw mill and the small grist mill, and replaced them both with a large grain mill with greater capacity. In 1881, Williams replaced the old log dam that was used to divert water to the mill with a stronger, more efficient 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 three brothers from New York. The Barnard brothers opened a woolen mill in Pontiac. The Pontiac Woolen Mill had a capacity of about 800 yards of woolen fabric per day, besides the yarn it spun. The building and machinery cost about $35,000 (the equivalent of $536,000 in 2015 dollars), and when it closed down twenty-five workers were employed at good wages. For the short time of its existence, the woolen mill proved to be a valuable asset to the community. Most farmers kept sheep and the mill made the task of processing raw wool much easier and faster. The woolen mill closed in 1870. Some years later the building was used as a flouring mill and soon afterwards was destroyed by fire.
Finally, in 1883, Proctor Taylor bought an earlier Pontiac grist mill and rebuilt it with an advanced roller system powered by steam as opposed to the traditional mill stones powered by wind or the river's current. Taylor’s new mill was capable of grinding 25,000 lbs of grain per day. Renamed the Pontiac Steam Mill, this operation was one of the earliest to convert to electricity, having switched over completely by 1900. Even with the latest in technology, Taylor’s mill was just barely able to keep up with orders from the local farmers.
In the Pontiac area, early in our history, it was quite possible to get lost. With no roads, or houses in sight, a traveler could easily lose his way going from one settlement to another. When the prairie grass was high, settlers would drag a harrow behind their wagon to pull down the grass and make a trail that would last for several days. Each settler would go in as direct a line across the prairie as the nature of the terrain allowed. It was nearly 20 miles to the east from Pontiac before a dwelling was found. It was nearly 8 miles to the south. Eventually, the use of the same track by multiple travelers began to make a permanent trail.
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.). Eventually, Pontiac would be served by three railroads: the C & A, the Illinois Central, and the Wabash line.
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.
Owen Lovejoy, noted abolitionist, friend of Lincoln, a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and a U.S. Congressman, came to Pontiac to speak in support of Lincoln during the 1858 Senatorial campaign. Lovejoy's brother, Elijah, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Alton, Illinois in 1837, leading Owen Lovejoy to take a more active role in politics and the anti-slavery movement.
"Shortly after he left the White House, Grant returned to his old home in Galena. The citizens of Springfield sent him an invitation to visit the state capital, the home and burial place of Abraham Lincoln, and partake of its hospitality for a few days. He accepted the invitation, and announced that he would visit his son, Colonel Fred Grant in Chicago, and then go down the Chicago and Alton road to the capital. On the publication of this news, Arnold Thornton, H.H. McDowell and a few citizens decided to invite the General and party to stop over in Pontiac on the way and take dinner here. On Saturday, May 1, a dispatch was received from Colonel Grant saying that his father had accepted the invitation, and would take breakfast in Pontiac on Tuesday morning."
Although Grant's train was nearly two hours late, it was met by a select group of men who accompanied Grant to a local hotel for brief speeches and a meal.
William Jennings Bryan, candidate for President of the United States in 1896, and again in 1900 and 1908, paid his first visit to Pontiac on Tuesday, October 27, 1896. Mr. Bryan was given an enthusiastic welcome by his many admirers in Pontiac and Livingston County. He addressed the people from the stand in the city park and talked for one-half hour on the political situation of the day, his address being well received. Mr. Bryan visited Pontiac on three other occasions as part of the Chautauqua program.
On June 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt came to Pontiac to dedicate the Civil War Memorial that stands on the Courthouse grounds.
William Ashley "Billy" Sunday, former major league baseball star turned preacher, spent a month in Pontiac - November 5, 1904 to December 5, 1904. Often called "the nation's most famous evangelist," the number of conversions here in Pontiac resulting from his dramatic style of religious declamation was recorded by the Pontiac Daily Leader as 1,054 people.
The very first manufacturer to call Pontiac home was directly related to agriculture and getting the most out of the fertile soil. With the crude implements used by the pioneer farmers of Livingston County, the cultivation of the rich black soil was an exhaustive and discouraging occupation. The polished steel moldboard plow had not yet been invented, and the disc, so generally used now, had not yet been dreamed of. The plows used prior to 1847 had steel or cast iron shares and wooden moldboards, and the man behind the plow had to carry a paddle and every few minutes was compelled to stop his team and dig the dirt from the share and moldboard before the plow would enter the soil. Every farmer knows what it means to undertake to plow a field with a plow that will not scour. In the spring of 1847 there was not a plow in Livingston County that would scour in the black prairie soil of this state. At that time Henry Jones, a pioneer, a blacksmith and plow maker, living two miles east of Pontiac, in a conversation with Philip Rollins, a pioneer farmer, declared that he could make a plow that would scour in any field in the state. Rollins assured Jones that if he could do so it would double the value of every acre of land susceptible of cultivation in Livingston County. Jones went to Ottawa, procured the steel and made two plows. After cutting and shaping the shares and moldboards, and grinding them down on a grindstone as smooth as possible, the different parts were put together, and as a finishing touch the plows were run for a half day in a hard beaten strip of road northwest of the Rollins' homestead, two miles east of Pontiac. The hard clay soil put a fine polish on the steel share and moldboard, and when tried in the black soil of the field the plows scoured and proved a great success.
In January, 1848, Jones went 100 miles north to Chicago with five sled loads of dressed hogs - about 10,000 pounds. After leaving the Rollins farm, the party took a northeasterly course across the prairie. The snow was six to eight inches deep, with just enough crust to keep it from drifting. For the greater part of the way there was not the sign of a road. They encountered no fences or settlements until they reached the Kankakee river, which was crossed on the ice. The next farms and fences to obstruct their way were encountered east of Joliet. From that on into Chicago the party had a well beaten road to follow. Arriving in Chicago the pork was soon disposed of and the proceeds invested principally in material for making steel moldboard plows. In February, 1848, Jones began the manufacture of plows guaranteed to scour in any soil in Livingston County, and continued making them until the spring of 1849, when he quit the business to lead a party of gold-seekers west to the newly discovered California gold fields.
A Rich Cultural Heritage
Samuel C. Ladd, a native of Connecticut, arrived in Pontiac in the year 1842. An educated man, Ladd started the first school in Pontiac. Lacking an official school building, Mr. Ladd and his students met in the original Livingston County Courthouse until a dedicated school house could be built. Ladd was later honored by having a street and one of Pontiac's grade schools named after him.
Pontiac's city leaders have always put great emphasis on education, and our children enjoy excellent facilities, programs, and teachers. There are currently both public and private grade schools, public junior and senior high schools, and a satellite campus for Heartland Community College in town. For a few years, (1966-1971), Pontiac was home to Winston Churchill College, a 2-year degree institution.
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.