From The Pantagraph Monday
What we’re famous for…..
The answer? They are all part of the intriguing history of Lexington, Illinois.
In 1829, John Patton and his family came to the Lexington area and stumbled on an abandoned American Indian village. The Patton’s helped themselves to the best wigwams they could locate and moved right in. When the Kickapoos returned they got rid of the trespassers by helping them build a log cabin. A settlement grew up around Patton’s cabin and became known as Pleasant Hill. The Patton Cabin, over time, fell into disrepair. In 1969, it was dismantled and reconstructed in a city park on the north edge of Lexington. Thought to be one of the 12 oldest structures in Illinois, Patton Cabin is open for tours on special occasions.
Around the same time Patton was cabin-building, General Joseph Bartholomew came to Money Creek Township and was instrumental in setting up another settlement in the area – Clarksville. Shortly after Bartholomew’s arrival, the Black Hawk War broke out. Bartholomew urged settlers to protect themselves by constructing blockhouses or fortifying their cabins, even though the Indians had promised no harm and kept their word. In an 1840 Pantagraph article, one of the oldest residents of Clarksville gave her account of this town, saying it was “full of gamblers and horse racers.” It was here that the Freelands owned and raced Old Clear The Kitchen, “supposed to be the fastest quarter nag that ever was in this country,” she said.
The article went on to say that townspeople were convinced that evil lawbreakers were living among them. Prayer meetings were held “for the express purpose for praying for the death of the ringleaders.” What the prayer meetings didn’t accomplish in terms of clearing out Clarksville, the railroad did. Historical records indicate the 1850 census taker was “a bit of a boozer” but by all accounts, however muddled, another town in the area was up and growing. This one was called Lexington, most likely after its namesake in Kentucky. A full-scale rivalry broke out among Clarksville, Pleasant Hill, and Lexington over who would get the railroad.
By 1854, the battle was over and the Chicago and Alton Railroad was laying tracks through Lexington. Clarksville died instantly. Its more than 300 residents moved away, most to Lexington. Pleasant Hill, which had been the second largest town in McLean County in 1847, managed to hang on until 1879.
James Van Dolah came to Lexington area in 1835. He was widely known as a successful livestock breeder. His son David Van Dolah took over the business, traveling the country buying Percheron and Norman horses and attending sales. Eventually, the younger Van Dolah acquired more than 2,000 acres in Lexington and Money Creek townships. His wife Britannia, or so the story goes, had an expensive taste in houses. She wanted to live in Chicago, so to keep her in Central Illinois, David Van Dolah built a reproduction of something like a Scottish castle on the west side of Lexington at a cost of $35,000. It was 1898, and the best craftsmen around were called in to help. Van Dolah lived only four years after he moved into the house. His wife lived there for another 25 years. An invalid in later life, Britannia used the home’s full-sized weights and pulleys elevator to get from one floor to another
As is often the way with castles, the Van Dolah estate fell into grave despair. Luckily, in 1986 it passed into the hands of Mary and Charles Wright Sr. They have been striping, sanding, dismantling, painting, and restoring ever since. Today, the 17-room “Lexington Castle” is in fine shape. Most remarkable is a floating staircase that rises for three stories like a curl of smoke. Wedge-shaped steps spiral from the first floor to the ballroom, with little visible support. For Mary Wright, the biggest surprises were the many walls and ceiling paintings that they uncovered as the treasure-hunt remodeling proceeded. With the help of Lexington artist Janet Oliver, the original freehand oil paintings, stenciled designs, and frescos have been restored to their nascent brilliance.
From small beginnings, the three-day Taste of Country Fair grew into an event that attracted as many as 30,000 people. The Taste of Country Fair began as a way for Lexington craftsmen to showcase and sell their wares. It mushroomed into an event that drew vendors from Chicago and Wisconsin to join the local weavers, wood carvers, knitters and other artisans. It was an all-town effort. An estimated 1,000 of Lexington’s 1,800 residents volunteer for the fair. The night before the event kicked off, hundreds of volunteers literally hand-sweep the streets.
This is not surprising for a town as community-minded as Lexington.