Thomasboro celebrates 150 years

Thomasboro celebrates 150 years

THOMASBORO — A president visited, and an Olympic hero grew up here. There's an amazing old fire truck and a long-ago string of arsons.

The northern Champaign County village is celebrating its sesquicentennial, 150 years of history closely related to the railroad that splits it in half, and the grain elevator next to it.

And then there's the entertainment factor, which includes a tradition of street dances and a mobile comedy club, hosted by two older residents.

"Why can't a bicycle stand up on its own?" asked longtime resident Don Cler, 86. "Because it's two-tired!"

There's Eastern Illinois League baseball in its past, and Olympian Mark Arie, a trapshooter who won two gold medals in the 1920 Olympics.

As for the president, it was Gerald Ford, who visited the county for the 1976 Bicentennial.

"He drove by on the highway and waved at us," Cler joked.

According to the former president's diary, which is online, Ford "motored from Centennial High School to the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Lyle Grace, Route 1, Thomasboro." He was accompanied by Sen. Charles Percy and U.S. Rep. Ed Madigan, as well as Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who later put his foot in his mouth.

After a lunch buffet, "Mrs. Grace presented the president with some canned preserves for the First Lady."

Harold Kirby, also 86, says that Thomasboro has everything he's needed in the 40-some years he has lived there.

"This is it," says Kirby, who survived a tornado in Mattoon and was in the path of Gifford's last year.

"I like it. I have lots of good friends here," he continued. "We have something here that needs to be preserved."

Thomasboro has just about anything residents want, but Kirby has one thing on his wish list: a full-service eatery.

There's Central Tavern for any Budweiser needs. For coffee, friends meet up at Arnold's shed and swap stories. That gathering is called "The Table of Knowledge," Cler says.

"But what we need is a restaurant. A town needs a restaurant for a center," Kirby says.

That used to be the railroad. Pioneers, many of them from England or Ireland, founded Thomasboro in 1864 along the Illinois Central tracks, according to a centennial history.

The town is named for John Thomas, an English gentleman who owned a lot of land here.

The Flats, which included Thomasboro and Gifford, was a big swamp that defied agriculture. But you could hunt "geese, ducks, snipes, prairie chickens, plovers and wild pigeons (a breed now believed extinct)," that history continued.

Thus good shooters became a tradition. Besides its Olympian in the past, the town still has a gunsmith and a large employer that makes gun grips, said Jay Arnold, the public works director and assistant fire chief.

At Altamont Company's three-acre plant, local workers have made grips for the biggest arms makers, including the genuine ivory grips for Colt's John Wayne series.

Some things used to be here: a high school, a restaurant, a motel and a bar that in its last years did not add much to the town's reputation.

"There's enough here for us," says 86-year-old Harold Kirby. "We still have our own post office, a good grocery market, a gas station and even a dry cleaner."

And a museum, which few towns of about 1,200 can boast. It's the Thomasboro Fire Museum,, on the site of the first fire station, with the coolest fire engine you can find anywhere.

And it still runs, though Arnold couldn't get it to start Wednesday, when he was relaxing and reminiscing about old Thomasboro with Kirby and Cler.

The fire engine was purchased about 1924 — the license plates give it away — and almost immediately upgraded from a four-cylinder engine to a six-engine. The first one didn't scoot much, Arnold says.

With a stack of buckets on its running board for when the pump failed, the engine remains all-purpose — it was used until about 1960, Arnold says,

The most famous test of the fire department came in 1941.

An arsonist started five house fires; only one house survived. According to a News-Gazette article from the time, Amy Hahn confessed to setting the fires, twice in her own home.

"That was really something," Cler says.

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