Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The History of Carmi, Illinois.

The story of Carmi, Illinois, reveals itself to anyone standing on the steps of the 1883 White County Courthouse. To the east is the Little Wabash River, which first attracted settlers from Kentucky or Tennessee via Shawneetown mostly from 1809 through 1814. 

Carmi is 15 miles west of New Harmony, Indiana. It is about 40 miles north of (Old) Shawneetown Illinois' first settlement on the Ohio River. This town was largely abandoned after the 1937 Flood, but its 1840 bank building, badly in need of restoration, impresses travelers crossing the Illinois Route 13 bridge. 

The oldest house in town, originally a double-pen log cabin built in 1814, sits just beyond the city park. It was used as a courthouse when White County was founded in 1815, and Carmi was chartered in 1816. 
Double-pen log cabin built in 1814.
U.S. Senator James Robinson and his family lived in the home until the 1870s, when the Italianate home of descendant Frank Hay was finished across the street. After the collapse of Hay's bank in the Panic of 1893, the family's fortunes declined and the Senator's granddaughter Mary Jane Stewart moved back into the sided cabin after 1901. Upon her death in 1966, she willed the home and its contents to the White County Historical Society which maintains it as a museum.

James Ratcliff, known as "Old Beaver" served in many county offices from 1818 to 1848. Abraham Lincoln stayed at the Ratcliff Inn on September 1, 1840 and spoke for the Whig Party at a rally at the western edge of Carmi. 
Ratcliff Inn, Carmi, Illinois.
A member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Lincoln was 31 years old when he hit the campaign trail for William Henry Harrison in the "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" campaign song. Lincoln, although six years older in this photograph, still looked like he did when he visited Carmi in 1840.
Abraham Lincoln photograph 1846.
Directly across from the Courthouse is "the Castle," an 1896 mixture of Richardsonian Romanesque, Eastlake Victorian, and fantasy architecture dominated by three turreted towers and strong limestone arches over brick.

The home was built by Rep. James Robert ("Dollar Bob") Williams, who oversaw the construction of the Courthouse while serving as County Judge from 1882-1886. Williams served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and spoke for his friend William Jennings Bryan in his presidential campaigns. 
"The Castle" built in 1896.
William Jennings Bryan (in 1896) and Harry Truman (in 1948) both made whistle-stop visits to Carmi during their presidential campaigns. Williams owned a house designed by Knoxville Tennessee architect George Franklin Barber, who sold plans by mail . Barber sold pre-cut woodwork and shipped it to wealthy homeowners in Washington, California and Texas. The home was almost destroyed in the 1980's, but local preservationists had the home placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and helped find buyers for the property.

To the east of the Castle is the James Robert Ready building, a small office building built in 1940 to the design of the Ready family storefront of 1840. The new building was needed to allow the Williams family to manage its oil interests, which was discovered in White County in 1939. 

Carmi's population grew from 2,700 to 5,500 in a matter of years during the Illinois Basin oil boom, and is now about 5,100 (in 2014). Many of these residents came to Illinois from Oklahoma and Texas, where the oil business was already established. West of the city park are the 1828 Ratcliff Inn and the 1896 L. Haas Store, both maintained as museums. 
L. Haas' Store (with banner) is next to the Schoemann's store in 1910.
Erwin Haas' cast-iron storefront reminds us that the early merchants of Carmi included several Jewish families who fled turmoil in German in the 1860s. These structures, as well as the Robinson-Stewart house are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Robinson-Stewart House, Carmi, Illinois.
The Webb-Hay house in Carmi, Illinois looking towards the Old Graveyard. Across the street is the Robinson-Stewart House. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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