The Friendly Town of Rushville
An archetypal Downstate small town
July 1, 1977
A drive-by tourism piece about what was then (and probably still is) an actually pleasant town across the Illinois River from my birthplace in Beardstown. It was an early feature article for the paper, written in the style we then used for such excursions. I wouldn't write it that way today.
It’s a place where, according to the Chamber of Commerce, "the quiet friendly atmosphere of a small community can still be enjoyed," and that, for once, is true. The place is Rushville, county seat of Schuyler County, home to 3,300 people, market center for a prosperous farming district and, as any hot dog connoisseur knows, the place where they make Korn-Top weiners.
Rushville owes much of its quiet, friendly atmosphere to its relative isolation. Nestled in the high ground above the Illinois River Valley, the town is sixty miles from Springfield, seventy-five from Peoria and sixty from Quincy. Not that that’s hurt the town any. There’s good land in the neighborhood, and the square bustles with farmers who, driving station wagons instead of the horse wagons of an earlier day, no longer limit their shopping forays to Saturdays.
Rushville is a fairly old town by central Illinois standards. It was settled by a dozen families in 1825 and was named for Dr. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia surgeon who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It has figured in the history of the state in a small way—principally, it seems, when people stop there on their way to someplace else. In 1844, for example, Illinois governor Thomas Ford camped on the village square with a troop of militia on his way to quell an anti-Mormon uprising at Nauvoo.
According to the 1939 Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, this is what happened:
Possibly suffering from insomnia, Ford decided to amuse himself with pistol practice . . . [James] Little, furious at having his sleep so disturbed, . . swore out a warrant and had Governor Ford arrested. Ford, nearly bursting with rage, paid a fine and left for Nauvoo, plotting a suitable revenge. On his return to Springfield, he passed through Rushville in the middle of the night and ordered his men to set up their brass howitzers in the village square . . . and gave the command to fire.
You can imagine the rest. The countryside "echoed and trembled at the terrific cannonading," and by the time the townspeople had worked up the nerve to investigate, "the gleeful governor and his troops were leaving the village."
Recreation in Rushville today is, thankfully, more sedate. There is a surprisingly wide variety of ways to amuse oneself in a town so modestly sized. As one drives toward Rushville from Beardstown along U.S. Route 67, for example, one is alerted by a road sign to the presence nearby of Schuy-Rush Park. Located two miles southeast of town, this brand-new park consists of a 225-acre man-made lake nestled among another 150 acres of parkland. To the natural attractions of the lake site have been added such human touches as picnic tables, playground equipment, camping sites, and, courtesy of the state Department of Conservation, a lighted public boat launching ramp, finished just last summer.
Schuy-Rush Lake itself (the name, by the way, is pronounced "shy-rush") was formed when, as one Rushvillian put it, they "dammed up a big holler out there" and is fed by runoff from the surrounding ground. There’s plenty of timber through which the pedestrian can hike on nature trails, and fishermen can angle for a few of the bass, catfish, walleye, and pike stocked in the lake.
Closer to town there’s a park of a more citified sort. lt’s called Scripps Park and it’s located southwest of town at the intersections of Routes 67 and 24. It was originally the eighty-acre farm of Rushville’s most famous hometown boy, Edward Wyllis Scripps, the founder of the giant Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. The land was donated to the town in 1922 by Scripps and his two sisters. One of these sisters, Ellen Browning Scripps, also chipped in $100,000 to put up a community building, "The Virginia," on the spot where brother E. W. first saw the light of day.
Scripps Park is alluringly outfitted with playgrounds, a lighted baseball diamond, tennis courts, picnic areas, a nine-hole golf course, and a swimming pool. In fact, until the people of Beardstown, fourteen miles away on the other side of the river, built their own, they came all the way to Rushville to swim and golf. Some Beardstonians insist that the city fathers refused to build a pool because the city made more money on bridge tolls—it cost 25 cents for a round trip—than it would have on a pool.
Those who swear there’s nothing to do in small towns haven’t been to Rushville lately. On a recent Thursday, for example, Rushville heard James Allen, a doctoral candidate from the University of Chicago, talk about the "Treasures of Tutankhamen" in a program sponsored by the Spoon River College Community Event and Cultural Service—the 1970s version of the old Chautauqua, only instead of gathering under a tent the curious gathered in the high school cafeteria. Earlier that week there was harness racing at the county fairgrounds sponsored by the Rotary. On June 20 an "old-fashioned summer night in Rushville" on the square featured food, music, and, afterwards, bargains at a Moonlight Madness Sale. Then in the first week of July there’s the Schuyler County Fair and Livestock Show ("the show where friendliness predominates") with animal judging, rides, food, tractor pulls, horse racing, cooking, and handicraft contests and, as they say, much, much more. This is topped off on July 31 with the Southwest Central Illinois CB Club’s 11th Annual Jamboree at Schuy-Rush Park, the main event of which is a fish fry that will likely leave any celebrants still standing pining for the calmer and less fattening days of autumn.
Traditionally, the town square is a symbol, for city-dwellers especially, for all that’s good about life in the Midwestern small town, a place of slow, leisurely hello’s, picnics and band concerts, Fourth-of-July fireworks, benches under a tree on hot summer afternoons. This dewy-eyed view of the small town may not be entirely accurate, but it is true that life in small towns still revolves around the square.
Rushville is no exception. Route 24 runs right beside the square on its way through town. Most of the town`s shops are clustered around this one square block—the original shopping center that the plastic-and-plate glass suburban centers try so expensively to duplicate. There's Jane’s Clip and Curl beauty salon, the Before & After Shop (purveyor of maternity and infants’ clothing), the Odd Fellows Lodge, Brown’s Shoes (where you can also buy rare coins and silver belt buckles; diversification is a lesson not lost on Mr. Brown), the Western Auto store, Wheelhorse TV, the banks, Ball Variety, and, in the old Bank of Rushville building, Peacock Home Improvement. Here and there around the square are benches for the footsore shopper. Two are labeled "Compliments of Women of the Moose, Rushville Chapter 501," while two more, in front of Ball Variety store, tempt passersby to "Take it easy" and "Rest a spell." (ln Rushville even the park benches are friendly.)
Also on the square is John’s Cafe, which, along with Ping’s Pantry next to the Shell station ("homemade pies and light rolls made daily") and the Kozy Korner (known more simply as "Kozy") at the Route 67 and 24 junction, is among Rushville’s most popular eating spots.
The square differs slightly from those in neighboring county seats like Petersburg or Virginia in that it doesn’t have a courthouse on it. The Schuyler County courthouse sits instead across the street from the square at the corner of Lafayette and Congress—"courthouse corner," to the locals. It’s a striking two-story brick structure capped by a square clock tower, built in 1881 to replace a plainer brick building that then stood on the square itself.
The centerpiece of the square today is a gazebo-like bandstand. The grounds around it have been landscaped with brick walkways, benches, flower beds, and shrubs. Next to the bandstand, partially obscured by a too-healthy shrub, is a marker stone bearing a bronze plaque. It reads: "From this spot Abraham Lincoln addressed the people of Rushville/ October 20th, 1858/ He also practiced law in the courthouse which formerly stood on this spot." Lincoln did other things in Rushville—he once lost a wrestling match in two falls with one Dow Thompson while camped near town during the Black Hawk War—but none of them earned him a plaque.
A block south of the square at Congress and Madison streets is the Schuyler County Jail Museum and Genealogical Center. The museum is housed in a two-story brick jail built by the county in the late 1850s. Inside there is on display a wide-ranging collection of artifacts pertaining to the history of the county—a twenty-inch copper ball that once graced the top of the old 1829 courthouse, 19th-century wedding gowns, early farm implements, assorted mementos of the Scripps family, even two carved wooden children's caskets crafted by a man from Brooklyn, Illinois. An addition to the old jail has been added and named the Heritage Room; it houses the museum’s genealogical collection.
A final note: Visitors returning to the Springfield area via Beardstown and Route 125 might consider taking the Frederick road, a picturesque route first laid out by the builders of a turnpike between Rushville and that river hamlet in 1843. The turnpike was replaced in time by a two-lane concrete highway which was itself replaced by the newer, wider Route 67 when the new river bridge was built after World War II.
The concrete is weedy in places and the road carries mostly local traffic these days. A few miles outside Rushville the road begins its climb down out of the river valley bluffs. The land is broken, much of it unplowable, and cow pasture and woodland offers a surprising contrast to the corn and bean fields common in the flatter country on the east side of the Illinois. At one point the horizon suddenly opens up, and the motorist, perched in his car on the shoulders of these high bluffs, is treated to a spectacular view. From here it is possible to see for miles, eastward across the flood plain, across the bright green cornfields and yellow wheat, across the sloughs and islands of the river itself into Cass County.
From the high bluffs the road snakes downward until it reaches Frederick. They used to load grain into river barges here, but the terminal—like the town—is closed. At Frederick the old road joins Illinois Route 100, which in turns leads back to U.S. 67 and the bridge back over the Illinois at Beardstown. ●