The Rolling Mill Years 1870-1875

August 16, 2018

Today it is hard to imagine Jasper Street as the eastern edge of Decatur. But when the Cleveland Rolling Mill company executives Andros B Stone, Henry Chisholm, and a Mr. Walters came to visit in September 1869 to look for a location for an iron rolling mill plant, the undeveloped land near the Toledo, Wabash & Western railway between East Eldorado and East Sangamon street was ideal for industrial use. The Decatur Republican newspaper noted the rapid interest in expanding Decatur eastward:

 

"Many more of the gigantic trees which grew up to the town on the east side were leveled to the ground to give place to the houses of newcomers." -January 20, 1870

 

The formal presentation was given to Mayor Franklin Priest and City Council in May 1870 to build mill in 9 months to manufacture 50-60 tons railroad iron. The city would donate 10 acres and provide sufficient water for the mill operation which would include blast furnace and Bessemer steel rail. The foundation of a 211 foot by 175 foot mill building was laid in July. The construction of the new mill included old bricks from Macon County's second courthouse, then being torn down. On December 1, 1870, the city council voted to lay pipe from a well at East Wood Street and Broadway (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) to the Illinois Central Depot and then eastward to the rolling mill location. The well was owned by Gilbert Howell and had been dug in the summer of 1870: 10 feet square and 30 to 40 feet deep. It was known as Howell's Hollow. 

Left to Right: Henry Chisholm, Andrus B. Stone & Stillman Witt, Executives of the Decatur Rolling Mill Company. 

  

The city soon found the Howell well and several area wells insufficient for the operating needs of the plant. But at the same December 1870 meeting, the city council voted to build a waterworks plant at the Sangamon river. The Priest distillery property was purchased on May 28, 1871 to provide ground for a pumping station. Meanwhile, ongoing negotiations with the Illinois Central railroad to provide water when needed for the plant failed. The completion of the waterworks plant required the hiring of a city plumber. The first city plumber was Hieronymus Mueller.

 

Construction of the Decatur Rolling Mill Company plant was completed by the fall of 1870. Mabel Richmond in the Centennial History of Decatur and Macon County describes the rise of the notorious "Levee" district:

 

Those were the days when the "levee", the district in the neighborhood of East Eldorado, Front and Cerro Gordo streets, was born, and when it saw its most hilarious moments.  Front street then was lined with saloons.  Folks who lived in Decatur in the time of the rolling mill never forgot the impression it made upon them.

 

The demand for housing near the new plant led to the development of several new additions to the city, each one named Rolling Mill. Eventually four "Rolling Mill Additions" were surveyed and platted, and Decatur's newest streets were named Stone, after Andros Stone, Witt, after Stillman Witt, and Chisholm, after Henry Chisholm. Only Stone and Witt remain today. It is unknown at this time why Chisholm was later renamed East Avenue.

 

A few of Clokey Park's oldest homes still stand along East William and East North streets, built as workingman cottages during the Rolling Mill era.

 

The job requirements for mill workers were physically demanding, requiring as Mabel Richmond described, men of great physical strength.  They were men of brawn, but while they were hard workers they were also hard drinkers and hard fighters.  Rough and tumble fights were frequent, especially on Sundays and holidays.  The men drew good pay and they spent much for drink.  They were proud of their ability to fight and were not only ready but anxious to have it out with the other fellow.

 

In March 1871, the Decatur Republican reported:

 

A portion of the workmen at the Rolling Mill have been enjoying the luxury of a 'strike' for the past week. They are 'heaters' and helpers' and their refusal to work throws many others out of employment. They demand $2.50 per day.

 

In these days prior to work protections and rules, accidents happened at the plant. And the operations of furnaces and grinding machinery round the clock provided illumination and a thrilling spectacle to a city still only consistently lit by street gaslight in the central business district and by candle or oil lamp in residences. At its peak, 400 men worked at the Decatur Rolling Mill Company, making it Decatur's largest employer at the time. 

 

Company management did look after more than profit and loss. The Harris Family, consisting of Colonel W. H. Harris and Ira T. Harris, then Vice-President of the rolling mill, arrived in Decatur, purchased a lot and erected a Baptist "mission Sunday school" chapel along Jasper Street and East Eldorado in 1871. This chapel was the first religious building in the Clokey Park neighborhood. It was later sold to the Episcopal church following decline after the departure of the mill in 1875.

 

But iron rail for railroads was rapidly being replaced by steel. Despite plans to also build steel rail at the plant, the Decatur Rolling Mill Company never produced a single steel rail.  Market opportunities for iron rail production were available in Kansas, and with competition from the establishment of a rolling mill in Springfield, the Decatur Rolling Mill Company moved its machinery and buildings to Rosedale, a suburb of Kansas City, in 1875. Company legal and economic troubles in 1883 led to its closure.

 

Little was left of the plant by the fall of 1875, and many of the residential properties entered into public sale in 1876, being the first of several economic downturns Decatur experienced when business or industry close or relocate. The mill site later developed as the entrance shaft for the Decatur Coal Company.

 

Only Stone Street & Witt Street remain as permanent reminders of this east-end story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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