1912 History of Southern Illinois

No other county in Southern Illinois has a more interesting history than Edwards. It is one among the smallest in both area and population 238 square miles and a population of 10,049. It was created by the territorial legislature in 1814, November 28th. It included all that part of the state east of the third principal meridian and north of the present counties of White and Hamilton. It was named in honor of Ninian Edwards who was the territorial governor of Illinois.
The present limits of the county are Wabash county on the east, White on the south, Wayne on the west, and Richland on the north. There were many settlements in other counties that were eventually made out of the original Edwards, before there were any in the present Edwards.
The story of the settlement of the “English Prairie" is so fascinating that there is difficulty in abridging it. The town of Albion was settled in the summer of 1817, but there were many cabins in the county before the coming of Morris Birkbeck. Mr. Birkbeck, an Englishman of culture and means, together with Mr. George Flower, reached what is known as English prairie in early summer, 1817. They had come from the Atlantic coast together by way of the National Road over the mountains to Pittsburg. From here on horseback a party of ten or twelve came to New Harmony, Indiana. At Princeton, Indiana, the families were left, and following the direction of Mr. Thomas Sloo, who at that time was connected with the land office at Shawneetown, the two pioneers, George Flower and Morris Birkbeck, reached English Prairie. At that time there quite a few settlers on Burke's Prairie a mile or so west of the English Prairie. Also on Boltinghouse Prairie there were settlers. After looking out a place for their future home they returned to Princeton.
Arrangements were now made for Birkbeck to come on to English Prairie and Flower to return to England. All the money that could be spared was put into land. Before Mr. Flower returned to England in the summer of 1817, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson to see if a grant of several thousand acres of land could be obtained from congress upon which an English settlement might be established. Jefferson and Flower were good friends. Mr. Jefferson replied that such grants had been made, but that it was against the government's policy. Mr. Birkbeck also wrote Mr. Nathaniel Pope relative to the same matter, but Pope's reply was not very encouraging.
Sometime in July, 1817, Mr. Birkbeck began his settlement at Albion. His own residence was built some two miles west. This place he called Wanborough from his old home in England. The group of houses which eventually became Albion were probably scattered about over the prairie without order, for Elias Pym Fordham, a civil engineer who had learned his trade under the tutorage of George Stephenson in England, wrote from the English Prairie October 30, 1818, and says: "I am laying off a new town to be called Albion. It will contain eight streets and a public square. Most likely it will be the county town, and if so there will be a court house and a gaol."
Mr. George Flower built his home, "Park House," just south of the town site of Albion. English people began coming to the locality and by 1820 there were scores of settlers about the edges of the prairies.
In 1823 to 1824 a fierce struggle was going on in Illinois over the change in the constitution to admit slavery. Morris Birkbeck and the Flowers took an active part in the defeat of the slavery movement. Birkbeck wrote letters signed "Jonathan Freeman," which were published in the papers of that day. In 1825 Gov. Coles appointed Birkbeck secretary of state but a pro-slavery senate refused to ratify the appointment and Mr. Birkbeck gave up the office after serving three months. In the fall of 1825 Mr. Birkbeck was drowned in the Bon Pas river and following this event his family dispersed and none of them was left in the English settlement.
Another very interesting person in connection with the story of Edwards county was Judge Walter L. Mayo, the son of a Virginia planter, who arrived in Edwards county in the year 1828 and took up his abode in the family of County Commissioner Jones, a few miles southwest of Albion. He was employed to teach school, and between times obligingly assisted Mr. Jones in making some perplexing calculations for the county. Mayo's skill as a mathematician and man of business soon became generally known, and when a vacancy occurred in the office of county clerk he was elected to that office. Upon the outbreak of the Black Hawk war in 1831 the young clerk quit his office and went to the front where as quartermaster his abilities as a man of business were quickly recognized. When the disturbance was quelled he returned to his duties as county clerk. He so satisfactorily straightened out the tangled affairs of the county that the appreciative voters kept him continuously in office thirty-eight years. He also during that period filled the office of circuit clerk and county judge simultaneously. Moreover, he acted as legal adviser for the people of the entire county, rendering his service gratuitously, and thus as a rule was able to settle disputes without litigation. In his latter years, while still a citizen of the county, he was elected a member of the state legislature. In the year 1878, while a member of the law-making body, his family removed to Leavenworth, Kansas, where a son-in-law, Major Hopkins, was warden of the federal penitentiary. Upon the completion of his term of office Mr. Mayo joined his family in Leavenworth, yet he continued to regard himself as only a sojourner in Kansas and spoke only of Albion as home. Having by judicious management and habits of economy amassed a competence, largely invested in the First National Bank of Olney, of which institution he was a director, he felt that he was in position to take his well-earned ease and to provide liberally for his family. On the 17th day of January, 1878, Walter L. Mayo left Leavenworth for Olney, Illinois, whither he intended going to attend a meeting of bank directors. This ends the last known event in the life of Walter L. Mayo, the man who in so great a measure made Edwards county what it is. He was known to have gone as far as St. Louis and entered a coach for Olney on the O. & M. railroad. His valise and cane went on through to Cincinnati, but what became of their owner has continued until this day an unsolved mystery. His brother-in-law, General John M. Palmer, at one time believed Mayo had gone to some foreign country; but this theory was long ago abandoned. His heart-broken wife spent the family fortune vainly endeavoring to solve the mystery. Only enough was learned to make it reasonably sure that Walter L. Mayo was either murdered in cold blood and the body destroyed or that he was kidnapped and forever spirited away. A great crime was committed and some of the guilty ones, now dead, are known. His disappearance was the occasion of general gloom and mourning in Edwards county which found expression in the holding of mass meetings at which resolutions of a highly eulogistic nature were adopted.
Probably the only Indian town of importance that ever existed in Edwards county was Piankashawtown, located as shown by the government survey of 1809 on section 16, town one south, range ten east, about five miles northwest of the present city of Albion. It was located immediately on the old transcontinental buffalo trail, that historic highway passing through and connecting Vincennes, Kaskaskia and St. Louis. We have the testimony of the earliest settlers that Piankashawtown was a village of considerable importance as late as 1815, about which time the Piankashaw Indians were removed thirty or forty miles to the north. Many implements, guns and weapons have been plowed up by the farmers; and even now one can trace for considerable distance the old deep-cut trail where buffalo, Indian, explorer, priest, trader and soldier tramped for successive generations.
In the year 1823 Joseph Applegath and wife arrived at the English settlement in Edwards county. Mr. Applegath came from London where he was widely known as a bookseller. He was also a successful inventor, being the senior member of the firm of Applegath & Cowper, inventors and manufacturers of a printing press in use for many years in the office of the London Times. Mr. Applegath was a gentleman of splendid education for one of his time and was especially proficient in the sciences. His greatest delight was in doing good to others. It was his practice to gather the young people of the community together at Albion and by means of illustrated lectures to instruct them in natural history, philosophy, chemistry, and kindred subjects, charging nothing for his services. Mrs. Applegath, who an artist of no mean skill, provided many beautiful and artistic paintings, drawings and sketches which were exhibited and explained for the benefit of the classes. She was particularly skilled in the painting of birds, animals and flowers. Some of these lectures were given on Sundays; and it is possibly only the truth to say that they were the first Sunday-schools ever held in Illinois, or at least in the English-speaking communities.
It was in no small measure due to the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Applegath that the people of Albion and Edwards county came to be ranked high in the scale of intelligence and high moral qualities.
In his latter days when the infirmities of old age crept upon him Mr. Applegath expended much time and labor in the impossible attempt to construct a perpetual motion, and died leaving a room full of ingenious models.
It may be a fact worth noting that when Elias Pym Fordham began his survey for Morris Birkbeck of the lands around old Wanborough in the English prairies he used a grape vine instead of a regulation chain. This grape vine survey has withstood the test of time, and it is doubted not that Fordham's grape vine corners will never be successfully challenged. There is no known evidence to show that this early English settlement civil engineer even obtained a metal chain before beginning his survey and plat of the present city of Albion. After his return to England, Fordham became one of the most famous engineers of the British Isles, and he was by favor of royalty intrusted with some of the most gigantic engineering works of that time.
There are found in the hills round about Albion and elsewhere in Edwards county some of the most valuable shale beds known in this country; valuable not only because of their perfect adaptability to the manufacture of paving and building brick, sewer pipe, drain tile, roofing tile and terra cotta, but more especially because of their perfect accessibility and freedom from worthless over-lying strata. The manufacture of shale products at Albion, begun in 1903, has grown to respectable proportions. The Albion Vitrified Brick Company now has an annual output of about 7,000,000 ten-pound blocks which meet with a ready sale at the highest price, in all the surrounding territory. A new organization, the Albion Shale Brick Company, with a capital of $200,000, is erecting a new plant to be fully equipped with all modern and labor-saving appliances for a daily output of 100,000 ten-pound paving blocks. The Illinois Tile Company, also located at Albion, is a new company whose plant is equipped with machinery capable of producing 25,000 drain tile a day. At West Salem, the second city of importance in Edwards county, the Hollow Brick and Tile Company is building a $50,000 plant for the manufacture of hollow building brick and drain tile. These, together with flouring mills, saw mills, and creameries constitute the chief manufacturing industries of Edwards county.
Many interesting things might be said about the life of the Edwards county people, Morris Birkbeck, George Flower and others of the early people were university men. George Flower was an artist of no mean ability and Park House which was the finest house west of the Alleghanies at that time was a place of great culture and hospitality. It is indeed a great loss that such a homestead could not have been preserved to the present and future generations.
The circuit court seldom is in session more than three or four days, and a recent report shows no representative in the penitentiary from that county. Schools and churches flourish and sobriety and industry are the characteristics of the people.
In the Graceland cemetery in Albion a lot has been set aside for the erection of a monument to the memory of the soldiers and sailors of Edwards county. On this lot has been placed a five ton cannon beside a pyramid of one hundred pound cannon balls. A like testimonial has been erected in the public square in West Salem.
The public spirited people of the county are now even thinking of and laying plans for the centennial celebration of the settlement of Edwards county.

Extracted 10 Apr 2017 by Norma Hass from A History of Southern Illinois, published in 1912, Volume 1, pages 453-457.

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