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If indeed a town can be said to have a mother, then Litchfield's mother surely was the Terre Haute, Alton and St. Louis Railroad. It was the arrival of that railroad here that insured the future of Litchfield.
Some two miles to the southwest, a group of people founded Hardinsburg, which never reached a population of more than 50 persons, expecting that the railroad would "boom" the town. The railroad, instead, came through Litchfield and doomed Hardinsburg.
The Hardinsburg natives hedged their bet, however, and built their buildings on runners. When they realized the inevitable, they hitched teams of oxen and hauled the buildings over the slick prairie grass into Litchfield.
It was in the late fall of 1853 that Thomas Gray, the County Surveyor, laid out the town of Litchfield in a cornfield purchased by the Litchfield Town Company, converting it into 236 lots. The 80 acres, thus converted, became Litchfield.
In January of 1854, J. M. McWilliams moved from Hardinsburg, bringing with him a small store as well as his house, becoming the first inhabitant of the City. The first person to reside within the city limits was Isaac Weaver, who had a farm at or near the entrance of Library Park near the location of the First National Bank.
The railroad reached Litchfield in the fall of 1854, and it was then "that there began a career of rapid growth and improvement, which has not abated since" says an early history published in 1865, some 13 years after the town's founding.
An attempt to incorporate the village in the summer of 1855 failed by a vote of three to one, but was successful the following spring on Friday, April 4, 1856. The vote stood at 54 for incorporation and 13 against.
Elected trustees were James Cummings, Jacob Beeler, E.C. Dix, Tillman Shore, while Joseph Eddings and John W. Kellar tied with 35 votes each. The two cast lots and Eddings won. The Board of Trustees then elected E.C. Dix as President. At subsequent meetings James Cummings was named treasurer, Seath M. Davis, Constable and Street Commissioner, and J.M. McWilliams, Justice of the Peace and Police Magistrate. And so Litchfield was launched.
When the Civil War came, Litchfield was the first in the State to respond to the President's call for men. One company from Litchfield was used to help form the Seventh Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first in the State of Illinois.
As the years progressed, Litchfield was blessed with six railroads: The Wabash, now Norfolk Southern; Illinois Central; Chicago; Burlington and Quincy; The Interurban; Litchfield and Madison and the C.C.C. and St. Louis, known as the Big Four. Two remain- the C.B. and Q. And the Norfolk Southern.
The discovery of oil and gas here boomed the exploration for both and two coal mines were sunk in the areas in 1880s.
Three nuns from the Order of St. Francis established the first hospital here in 1875, which has since grown into a 138 bed facility dedicated in 1971.
The Chautauqua movement came to Litchfield in 1905 and continued to enjoy great popularity until the 1930s, bringing such well known speakers here as William Jennings Bryan, three time candidate for President of the United States; Carrie Nation, prohibitionist; and Billy Sunday, noted evangelist.
Among the factors that contributed to Litchfield's continued growth was the building of U.S. Route 66, the main highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, along its western edge. Part of the original highway remains intact and brings tourists from all over the world here.
Litchfield has become the shopping and manufacturing center for the area. Nineteen manufacturers, sales and distribution centers are housed in the City's two industrial parks.
The 1865 history of the City concludes with these words, still true today: "It is needless to follow further the career of our City. It is sufficient to say that through the hard times that began in the fall of 1857, and through the derangement of currency and financial depression that were ushered in at the commencement of the war, and have since, in a measured accompanied it, Litchfield has continued to increase in population, wealth and public and private improvements. Municipal legislation has done much, private enterprise has accomplished more; and the unceasing stream of emigration, the rapid and continued rise in the value of real estate and constant demand of dwelling houses, stores, workshops and offices, prove that the natural and acquired advantages of the place are patent to the seekers of a home and place of business, and appreciated by them."
History Books On Sale Now!
Litchfield History Books now available at the Litchfield City Hall, Tourism Office. If you did not order a History Book and would like to purchase one, please contact us at (217)324-5253 or stop by City Hall. Limited supply available. $65.00. Support the Litchfield Sesquicentennial!