Thursday, April 4, 2024

Spillertown, Illinois, Challenges, Coal Mining and the Spirit of a Small Town.

Spillertown in Williamson County, Illinois, the story begins long before its incorporation in 1900. Population 175 (2023). 

In 1812, a hardy pioneer named Richard Bankston settled in what was then the wild frontier of Southern Illinois. He cleared land and established a homestead via the preemption rights common in that era, where settlers earned land ownership through development.

Four Spiller brothers came to the County in 1816 in a wagon train with other families from Robertson County, Tennessee. They were Elijah the preacher, Benjamin, Warrenton K., and William Spiller. Benjamin P. and William Spiller married in that earlier home, Elizabeth and Winifred Benson, sisters of William Benson, the first settler in Poor Prairie who gave Williamson County the land for a County seat. Elijah N. Spiller was the son of Benjamin Spiller, and he came with his father and uncles to establish his own home.

The Spiller family scattered throughout the County until nearly every community benefited from their leadership. For example, the family's daughters lived at Moeller Crossroads and Schoharie Prairie. Another was a charter member of the Christian church organized in Stotlar School, and still another taught in that school until she became the bride of Hiram Stotlar.

Elijah N. Spiller bought the land that became Spillertown in 1817 from its first settler, Richard Bankston. Bankston came about in 1812, established ownership by occupation and by tomahawk right, and then made a land entry in 1817. This preemption right and Mr. Bankston's improvements were sold to Mr. Spiller, who received the land deed from the government. He became a prominent local figure, lending his name to the future town. Noah Payne, a dry goods merchant at Marion, surveyed the town plat.

A Girdled Tree.

A "tomahawk right" aka "tomahawk claim" or "cabin right," was an informal way for early white settlers to claim land ownership on the frontier in the 18th and early 19th centuries. It wasn't an official legal system, but more of a custom.

Here's how it worked:
  • A settler would find a piece of land they wanted.
  • They would then girdle some trees near a water source or other landmark. Girdling means cutting a ring around tree bark, which would eventually kill the tree.
  • They might also carve their initials or name on the bark of  trees.
This marked the land as theirs, according to the informal system. It wasn't foolproof, but it sometimes convinced others or even led to the settler getting payment if someone else wanted the land. It's important to note that this wasn't a legal right, and eventually, proper land ownership procedures were established.

The old Harmony road went north from Marion through Spillertown to Frankfort and on to Benton in the days of horse-drawn vehicles. This was the road the earliest settlers took to Garret's Tavern and then to Harmony, Indiana, where the nearest carding machines were. 

Carding machines were used to process raw fibers like cotton or wool, preparing them for spinning into yarn. 

Since the day a pioneer found coal near the village of Spillertown north of Marion, coal has shaped the economic landscape of Williamson County. The very name of Williamson County towns bespeak their mining history: Carterville, Herrin, Colp, Stiritz, and other towns were named for mines or the men who created them. Early blacksmiths performed some of the County's first mining, extracting fuel for their craft from small deposits near the surface of Hurricane Creek.

Williamson County, Illinois once held the title of Illinois' top coal-producing County. During the 80 years of coal mining (1879-1959), the region generated a total of one million, five hundred sixty-five thousand, three hundred forty-eight
 (1,565,348) tons of coal. Over 160 coal mines, both surface and underground operated between those years. J.B. Williford was the first to mine coal 1879-1886 and The Finks Coal Company, R.W. Marshall Coal Company, Stilley Construction and Coal Company, and Wenzel Coal Company all closed in 1959. The fact that several major coal companies closed in the same year  underscores the decline the industry faced around that time. This likely had a major impact on the County's economy.

Benjamin and Warrenton K. Spiller were instructed to work their "hands" or hired men in Herrin's Prairie Road district when the Franklin County commissioners' court met in June 1839. Warrenton K. Spiller was the judge of general elections in Crab Orchard precinct with polls at Bainbridge. He officiated at an election for County surveyor in 1838 and at the election on the question of a County division in 1839. Each time, he was paid $1 for his services. When the division was accomplished, Warrenton K. Spiller was employed to copy the land records of Franklin County so far as they concerned Williamson County lands. He was paid $46 ($1,535 in 2024) for that work.

The home of Elijah N. Spiller was the meeting place in 1841 for the devout group who organized the first church of the Christian denomination in the County. Mrs. Joab Goodall rode horseback to these meetings from her home southeast of Marion, where Goodall's bridge still crosses Crab Orchard. The younger Goodall children would take turns riding pillion behind their mother (a secondary seat behind the coachman bench) to these weekly meetings at the Spiller house. Churches of the denomination were organized throughout the County from that meager beginning, the church at Marion about 1843. The Spiller name recurs in almost every Christian church membership in the County. Family members aided Rev. Clark Braden in establishing the Southern Illinois College at Carbondale, conducted under the control of the Christian church after the Civil War and before Normal, Illinois, was established.

Spillertown School, district 54, bears the impression of the family. Their standards established their school as superior, and to teach there has always been an acknowledgment of excellent qualifications.

Matthew I. Wroton taught Spillertown School in 1865, and for eight months, he had as pupil Captain George W. Young, late of Company E, 30th Kentucky mounted infantry. Mr. Young attended law school, opened an office in Marion, and was the County judge and state's attorney. He returned to Spillertown for his bride, another daughter of Elijah N. Spiller.

Walter Williams of Herrin's Prairie taught his first class at the Spillertown school in 1881. 

A landmark at Spillertown, the old Elijah N. Spiller homestead, was burned to the ground in September 1887. At the time, the house was occupied by the pioneer's daughter and her husband, Bethany J. and William M. Reid. Their daughter became the wife of Wiley F. Slater, County judge for several terms.

On May 20, 1898, a post office opened in Spillertown, further solidifying its status as a recognized town. James F. Reid served as the inaugural postmaster. The post office was closed on February 15, 1914. While losing dedicated postal services would be a setback for most towns, Spillertown's proximity to larger Marion likely mitigates the impact.

In the late 1800s, Spillertown developed as a small but self-sufficient rural village.

Throughout the 19th Century, Spillertown's location on a vital wagon route running from Marion to Benton helped the community grow. This route, known as the old Harmony Road, was a critical link for trade and communication, winding northward to Harmony, Indiana.

On March 3, 1900, the town was officially incorporated. 

Benjamin P. Spiller opened the B.P. Spiller Mine in 1906. By 1907, 1,174 tons of coal was mined.

As with many small towns, the 20th Century brought changes to Spillertown. Improved roads and the rise of the automobile made travel faster and easier, potentially leading to some out-migration. Technological advancements also transformed how people lived and worked.

By August 2011, Spillertown faced difficulties maintaining essential services in an increasingly modernized world. Town residents initiated discussions with the larger city of Marion regarding a potential annexation to address these challenges.

Annexation can be a powerful tool for small towns, providing improved essential services like police and fire protection, trash collection, and water and sewer systems. It eases financial strain by merging tax bases with the larger city, potentially leading to lower taxes for residents. Small towns gain access to shared resources and more land for housing and development by joining larger economic hubs. Additionally, annexation offers greater influence over decision-making. It can even be a way to ensure sustained governance and services for dwindling towns rather than facing the challenges of remaining an independent municipality.

While the official status of Spillertown did not change through annexation, the stories of its pioneer beginnings, its growth as a small town, and the decisions its residents made to ensure a bright future all contribute to the rich tapestry of Southern Illinois history.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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