Champaign neighborhood celebrates decades of history

Champaign neighborhood celebrates decades of history

CHAMPAIGN – The roots of rivalry run more than 150 years deep between the cities of Urbana and Champaign – or rather, as Champaign was known back then, West Urbana.

The background of that dissonance will be made apparent when members of the Sesquicentennial Neighborhood Association on Saturday erect two signs marking historic locations near downtown Champaign.

One of those signs in a parking lot at Hill and Randolph streets will mark the location of Champaign's first public school, where West Urbana residents gathered in 1857 to essentially secede from Urbana.

The other, in the parking lot at Neil and Hill streets, will tag the former location of the Neil House as "The Birthplace of Champaign," where residents voted in 1860 to incorporate as a city.

The raising of the signs coincides with the city's yearlong sesquicentennial celebration, which observes that 1860 vote and the 1861 charter.

But the background of how those events came to be, which the signs explain to readers, may be even more interesting. The Champaign-Urbana area developed around the rail depot, but the borders – or maybe the battle lines – were drawn after much argument, backstabbing and skulduggery between boosters in the two cities, said Michael Markstahler, the historian for the neighborhood association. And don't forget the egg pelting.

That is exactly what happened after Champaign County politicians quarreled over the location of a new courthouse in 1858 – a year after Urbana rushed to incorporate itself as a city and West Urbana voted in a schoolhouse at Hill and Randolph to exclude themselves from that incorporation, Markstahler said.

"It's like how people talk about Chicago politics now," Markstahler said.

Samuel Dean, a West Urbana politician, recruited a man from what is now Mahomet named Fielding Scott to run for office as West Urbana's "stealth candidate." Dean rounded up enough votes for Scott under the assumption that Scott would rally to have the new courthouse built in West Urbana.

Scott was elected as a county representative. But he voted for the courthouse to be built in Urbana.

"The people in West Urbana at the time were just nuts. They hated Fielding Scott," Markstahler said.

Consequently, Dean rounded up the West Urbana boosters to pelt Scott with eggs as he came into town on Bloomington Road (which, back then, was a primitive dirt strip – Urbana politicians disallowed the construction of a number of roads into West Urbana to hamper its growth and eventual outpacing of Urbana, Markstahler said).

Scott sued Dean, and the altercation moved to a courthouse, where Dean had some "special words" for Scott, Markstahler said. Scott, who apparently had the presence of mind to prepare for court with his bull whip, began lashing Dean. The judge fined the two men for their behavior.

That is just one story in the rich history of the city of Champaign, Markstahler said, and the neighborhood association hopes to erect 30 or more signs to develop a walking history tour of the city.

The group has been working with grants from the Preservation and Conservation Association and money from a successful guided history tour.

Markstahler said he spends a lot of time researching and digging up this kind of information, but it is a hobby about which he is passionate.

"I don't know how you can live your life if you don't know the cultural context of what's going on today, he said.

Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey , the president of the neighborhood association, hopes these kinds of stories can take significance for residents.

"I really wanted to work to promote the kind of interesting and complex history of the first residential neighborhood," she said.

The two signs to be erected Saturday will join seven others that have already been raised. Those detail the stories like that of Champaign's oldest complete neighborhood in the 200 block of Vine Street, the death of Champaign's first police officer to be killed on duty and a home where Abraham Lincoln spent the night.

"We'd like to encourage a pride of place," Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said. "We want people to feel the places that made Champaign what it is."

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