History of Pawnee


Settled in 1854, Pawnee quickly became a bustling community. Home of the largest coal mine in the world (Peabody #10) and forming its own Railroad Line, the Village established itself as a thriving community. The closing of the coal mine in the mid 1990’s didn’t deter families from moving to Pawnee. With Illinois’ state capitol, Springfield only 14 miles away, residents enjoy the best of both urban and rural life.

Today, Pawnee is a thriving village of approximately 2,700 people. Surrounding farmlands grace its peaceful setting. The school system is excellent and boasts a six-lane all weather track serving 900 students in the district. There are currently two new subdivisions and housing is moderately priced.

Pawnee’s latest claim to fame is its new 5,000 sq. ft. library, which recently received the Library of the Year award for 2004 from the Rolling Prairie Library System. “Living in Pawnee and Loving it” has long been the town’s motto. Stop by and visit, have dinner, or a stroll in the park…you may not want to leave.

Early Pawnee Churches

In 1849, a Catholic missionary church, St. Bernard’s, was built on the north side of the property where St. Bernard’s Cemetery is now located – about three miles west and one mile north of Pawnee. In 1865 this church was sold to a parish family. It was moved to a different location to make room for a newer, larger church. In 1866, the new church was constructed on the original site.

Since they had no church of their own, early Catholic settlers in the Pawnee area attended St. Bernard’s and buried their dead in St. Bernard’s Cemetery – adjoining the church. The contract for St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Pawnee was let on September 10, 1901. The first mass was celebrated in the church on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1902. The original structure is still used for services.

The Pawnee Methodist Church was established here in 1864, the result of a revival conducted by Rev. J. N. Reed of Chatham, Illinois – with Peter Cartwright as the presiding Elder. The first church building was erected on the southwest corner of 1 st and Jefferson Streets.

The one room church, with a small bell tower, was dedicated Christmas Day, 1865. It was later replaced by another church in 1902 at the southeast corner of 6th and Washington Streets. The current brick structure dedicated on December 10, 1978 replaced the 1902 structure.


The first library in Pawnee began in 1922 when the Modern Martha Class of the Pawnee Methodist Church decided that a library was needed. They started one at the church with Mrs. Irene Adams as the first librarian. With permission of the church board, they used the pastor’s study and his bookcases. Some of the Class members also volunteered their help and the library was open several days a week. Most of the books were from the State Historical Library. Pawnee residents donated some books. This library functioned for a number of years before it was discontinued.

The Pawnee Presbyterian Church then had a small library in the vestibule of the church for a few years. The late Mrs. Mack Young was in charge.

During the 1930’s a library was operated under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It was located at the 1962 – 2003 library location (then the Village Hall). The late Elmer (Doc) Hudgins, who was mayor at the time, gave permission for the library to be located there. Much work had to be done to get the building in shape. Several men in the community cleaned, painted and installed the shelves.

The late Mrs. Cora Sandidge and Mrs. Nellie Larson were librarians for the WPA. Written book reports were required in those days – but Mrs. Sandidge and Mrs. Larson managed quite well. When the government abolished the WPA, the library ceased to exist. There was an interim between then and the time another library was started.

In 1951, a group of the civic-minded Pawnee public met with Mrs. John Holman to discuss ways and means of forming another library in Pawnee. The Village Hall was secured as the site; the Pawnee Lumber Company donated material for the shelving; and LaRue Havenar painted the area. A library dance and supper netted some $360 and provided the funds to begin operation. The library was opened in 1952 and was sponsored by the Pawnee Parent Teachers Association (PTA).

The Illinois State Library donated 1200 books – and, by May of 1952, the Pawnee Library was operating two nights a week and Saturday afternoons. In addition to Mrs. Holman, Mrs. Eugene Brady, Mrs. Earl Estill, Mrs. Dorothy Havenar, and Mrs. Meade Mc Williams staffed it. Benefactors included the William Bold, Morris Smith, and Myron Lemen families.

For a time, the library continued to operate in the brick Village Hall at the corner of 7th and Carroll Streets. Then it was forced to move, as the Village needed the space. Dr. John Holman had recently moved the site of his medical practice (the one time location of the practice of the late Dr. Paul Bain and his predecessor, Dr. Mertz) into another building on the northwest corner of the square – just south of the 1962 – 2003 library. He offered his previous rooms to the library free of charge with the provision it keep up the property insurance payments, and thus it then did operate in the old Holman offices in the 500 block of Douglas, becoming tax supported in 1957. The trustees then began looking for more permanent quarters.

In 1962, when the library board became aware the Village Hall was up for sale, they contacted the Village board. Richard Barnes was the mayor at the time. He, and the Village Board decided to sell the Village Hall to the Library Board for $1.00 with the stipulation that it revert back to the village if the library ever ceased to exist or moved to a new facility. Verna Minder was the librarian at that time.

After Verna’s resignation, Marilyn Landrey, Mary Lee, Ann Rutherford, Mr. And Mrs. Al Drone, Verda Eichen, Jennnifer Thoele, and Elizabeth Payne staffed the library. Al Drone and the late Elva Dozier were the Presidents of the Library Board for many years. Other long-term board members were Addie Minder, Juanita Willenborg, Mary Lee, Alvora Sandidge, Christine Fowler, Robert Fontana, Leland Landrey, Bill Springer and Mary Turvey.

On May 10, 1967, the library joined the Rolling Prarie Library System of Decatur, Illinois. It was open on a daily basis to “go back centuries, stop at yesterday, or venture into tomorrow.” In the fall of 1968, Ed Day was hired to remodel the old “jail” as a “center room.” Leland Landrey had previously renovated the “old village hall” as the “north room.” In November of 1984 an additional room was added to the south end of the “center room.” (This room was built where a garage once stood which housed the Pawnee fire engine – painted white. The garage later burned down.)

By the summer of 2001, the Pawnee Public Library had been operating for 40 years out of the tiny building at the corner of Seventh and Carroll. It had come to resemble a maze out of a horror novel.

The Village of Pawnee, as part of a continuing push for square renewal, offered to donate $225,000, which would hopefully be matched with a Secretary of State New Construction Grant, toward the erection of a new library in the old Clark IGA building property on the north side of the square.

Perilously late in the grant application period, Sue Massie of Springfield, who had written the grand for Schultz Park, was contacted about writing one for the library and consented. John Shafer of Springfield, who worked often with Massie, agreed to become the project architect.

The grant was submitted to the Secretary of State’s office one day before deadline in October, and those involved had to wait and worry for another month and a half until the highly competitive statewide grant presentation meeting to be held at the Illinois State Library at the end of November. Attending the grant meeting were Bennett Bess, Kathy Aumiller, Terri Ladage, Joette Manning, Skip Minder, Jerry Rhodes, Massie and Shafer.

Pawnee was awarded that day, and did receive the matching $225,000 from the State of Illinois (the New Construction Grant Program was ironically and permanently dissolved before a year would pass) and the Village of Pawnee would eventually contribute another $70,000 to the project. With Otto Baum, Inc. of Decatur the low bidder and general contractor, construction began in the summer of 2002 on the four-times-larger facility.

In the spring of 2002, library trustees proposed and the citizenry passed a village library tax rate increase referendum. Strikingly, it passed by some 60 to 40 percent in an era when almost no library referenda ever passed – and permanently tripled the operating budget which had existed for years at an inconceivably low level.

On May 1 of 2003, the New Pawnee Public Library opened its doors to patrons; only a few steps escaped from the old jail, but in a new century. One year later, Rolling Prairie Library System (a cooperative with 271 institutions) named Pawnee Public its Library of the Year.

Any mention of the previous (‘62-’03) library building would be incomplete without saying more about its “center room,” which, at one time, was the town jail. [On July 1, 1895, the Village Board voted to build the first calaboose (jail). It was a 16-foot by 24-foot brick building located at the south end of the alley behind the present village offices. It had one jail cage that was purchased from the Springfield Iron & Bridge Company for $125.] On December 1, 1902, a petition was presented at the Village Board meeting to construct a new calaboose and village building on village property at the southeast corner of Seventh and Carroll Streets – as soon as practicable. On motion, it was ordered that a committee of three be appointed to get estimates on the cost of the building – “18 ft. by 50 ft. – with a 13 inch thick brick wall.” The construction was complete in 1903.

The jail building had entrances on both its north and south walls. The north wall entrance was into the Village Hall/Justice of Peace offices. To reach the heavy wooden outside door, one had to walk down a passageway between the jail and the old fire truck garage. Inside the calaboose building was a jail cage constructed of 1½-inch metal bars. Attached to one of the cage’s inside walls were two metal bunks, supported at each end by iron straps, where prisoners could sleep. The cage door was also constructed of metal bars and could be pad-locked. One bare light bulb hung from the ceiling. In the early days, only 15 cents per prisoner meal money was allotted. Hammond’s or the Dozier Bros. Restaurants furnished the meals.

Mine & Mine War

Beginning in the early 1900’s, Peabody Coal Company invested heavily in coal mines in Sangamon and Christian counties. Peabody identified their mines by numbers. This series of five coal mines and mining towns became known as the Midland Tract. Peabody purchased the Pawnee mine from the Victor Fuel Company – later the Victor Coal Company. (The mine was initially known as the Horse Creek Coal Company) At first these mines were all hand-loading operations requiring the employment of approximately 3,800 men to operate. By the late 1920’s, Peabody Coal Company began introducing machines to gain efficiency and remain competitive. These machines rightfully represented the enemy to the miners – mostly Italian, Irish, British, Slovak, Russian, and Lithuanian immigrants – or sons of immigrants – as the machines would eventually replace over half of them.

These ethnic groups lived in Peabody Coal Company owned houses in the various mining communities. In Pawnee these houses were mainly located at the west end of town between Washington Street and Route 104 (Carroll Street). This area of small, square, one-story houses was known as the “Patch.” Pawnee’s mine, Peabody Coal Company Mine # 5, was located on the south side of Route 104 near the curve on the west side of town. It closed in 1925. Most Pawnee miners then transferred to Peabody Mine # 8, located at Tovey, Illinois.

In 1932, many miners decided to strike against Peabody Coal Company, withdraw from the United Mine Workers Union (UMW), and establish their own union – the Progressive Miners of America (PMA). This action initiated one of the most violent union movements in modem history. Many mines were closed for several years – as the union rivalry continued with the UMW controlling some mines and the PMA controlling others. By the mid – 1930’s, Peabody had most of its mines operational and under the control of the UMW. The PMA lost most of its members along the way and, by 1939, it was finished as a union.

Peabody Mine # 8 was eventually replaced by Peabody Mine # 10 which was located about three miles east of Pawnee. Many Pawnee miners then transferred to the new mine. At that time # 10 was declared the largest coal mine in the world. It closed in 1994 and signaled the end of the Peabody era.

(We all owe a debt of gratitude to the immigrants who came to this land, foreign to them, in hopes of providing a better life for their children. Their efforts contributed to the building of America, as we know it. One such immigrant, whom I knew personally, was August “Boosty” Groh. He was interviewed for the book, “Divided Kingdom.” His interview appears on page 38 of that book He emigrated from Austria – Hungary with his parents at the age of five years. As a grown man, he and his family lived on West Lincoln Street. He was successful in fulfilling his ambition of a better life for his children. One of his children, a son, Robert Groh, was the architect for the present Pawnee High School building.)


The Horse Creek Settlement was founded in 1854 and was an agricultural center. Local farmers and businessmen were starting to think of a railroad as a means of transporting their products to and from Springfield, Illinois and from there to other market outlets.

Prior to 1888, the railroad running north and south was built several miles to the west of Pawnee. This railroad was called the St. Louis and Chicago Railroad. In the year of 1888 Pawnee farmers and businessmen talked and planned a large railroad of their own. But, with limited funds, they decided to build a railroad from Pawnee and link it with the St. Louis and Chicago Railroad. The only other possibility would be to go over seventeen miles to the east and connect with the Springfield and Pana Railroad (built in 1870, this railroad was the forerunner of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad). The eastward route would have been expensive, as several trestles would be needed to bridge the streams.

On or about September 25, 1888, the Pawnee Railroad received its charter to build, and work was started on the right of way between Pawnee and the junction with the St. Louis and Chicago Railroad. This junction came to be known as the Pawnee Junction.

The first time table for the Pawnee Railroad was issued for use on Sunday, July 28, 1889. It traveled all the way to Springfield, Illinois via the Pawnee Junction and Glenarm, Illinois. Its first official run was on Sunday, August 8, 1889, to Glenarm.

In the year of 1891, work was begun on the next leg of the Pawnee Railroad – from the Pawnee Junction west to Auburn, Illinois – along with a 160 foot trestle over Sugar Creek – about six miles east of Auburn. Waverly Street in Auburn was the point of connection between the Pawnee Railroad and the Chicago and Alton Railroad – which ran north and south through Auburn.

By 1903, the Illinois Midland Coal Company bought into the Pawnee Railroad and put up monies to make much needed improvements to the roadbed and the equipment. In 1904, the Illinois Midland Coal Company forced the Pawnee Railroad into bankruptcy. It was then sold for $49,878.25 in 1905.

The name was changed to the Chicago & Illinois Midland Railroad on January 25, 1906. This railroad expanded east to Taylorville, Illinois, during 1906 and is still in use today.


Historical records verify the first school was held in the loft of Justus Henkle’s log cabin in 1824. Henkle hired John Johnson as the first schoolmaster. Soon after this time a schoolhouse was erected – the materials being obtained through each parent contributing logs for the school in proportion to the number of their children who were of school age.

The log schoolhouse was built near the old stagecoach stand west of Pawnee kept by Flower Husband. It was located on the old route between Springfield and St. Louis. Samuel Williams was the first teacher at this school. There were slab seats with no backs, and the window was a hole in the log wall covered with grease paper. The fireplace was large enough to hold a quarter cord of wood – which some of the older boys had to furnish.

Construction began in 1911. However, construction was stopped on the building after only one story was completed. It was stopped by a court order obtained by an opposing faction who wanted the high school located in the center of Pawnee Township. The controversy went all the way to the Illinois Supreme Court which ordered another election.

Two school board members elected and they joined other incumbent board members thus comprised a majority of the persuasion to continue construction of the school within the village limits. Due to the delay the building was not completed for use until January of 1914.

This beautiful building, the pride of the community, was believed to be struck by lightning and totally destroyed by the subsequent fire July 8,1923. Another high school building was immediately built to replace it. The cornerstone for this building was laid in 1924.

But, alas! This 1924 building was also destroyed by fire on February 24, 1958. Pawnee citizens valiantly responded by financing yet another high school building. The current high school building, dedicated May 1, 1960, was built on the same location as the two previously destroyed buildings. Robert Groh, a graduate of Pawnee High School – Class of 1947, was the architect.

No history of the Pawnee schools would be complete without mention of the “country” schools located at various sites surrounding Pawnee. In the fall of 1947, twelve country schools districts and the Pawnee Grade School were combined into the Pawnee Consolidated Grade School District # 11. The schools were located in three counties: White Oak (Montgomery County); Butler, Fairview, and Pleasant Hill (Christian County); Beaver Dam, Colean, Dan Jones, Hopewell, Kentucky, Lynndorra, Oak Ridge, Sanders, and the Pawnee Grade School (Sangamon County).

A new school bus, a 1947 Ford, was purchased for the consolidated district to transport the country school children.

Our country schools were sold to private individuals in 1948 and were either torn down or converted into a residence – such as Beaver Dam School and Lynndorra School. They still stand today.

After consolidation, there were two boards of education for about six months. One school board for the grade school, and one school board for the high school. In December of 1948, Pawnee voters approved Pawnee Unit School District # 11 – which included both the grade school and high school under one Board of Education.

Time Capsule

“Residents of Pawnee may drive to the square in jet propelled autos or fly in family helicopters, and some may have been to the moon, even, when the time capsule, filled with Pawnee records and sunk in the square at 10:30 a. m. Thursday is opened 50 years from now” … Vern Dragoo at 1954 dedication of the time capsule. Some 120 persons were on hand to see the capsule, including such things as clothing and photographs of the town and its residents, lowered into the crypt. The capsule is believed to be the first of its kind in conjunction with a town’s centennial. Rev. A. H. Sonius, of the Pawnee Methodist Church opened the ceremony with words of thanksgiving for the community and its blessings. Vern Dragoo, master of ceremonies at the Pawnee Centennial on June 17 – 19, 1954, spoke briefly of the merits of the capsule:

“Fifty or a hundred years from now people will see how we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Pawnee,” he said. “The boys and girls here within the range of my voice are the men and women of tomorrow. You will be the ones to open this time capsule.” He thanked the group for their cooperation during the centennial celebration and on behalf of the group thanked Earl Bivin, local undertaker, and the Central Individual Mausoleum Co. of Springfield for donating and placing the vault.

Ross Cain, chairman of the 1954 Centennial Committee, had the idea for the time capsule. Included in the capsule was a letter from Cain to the future chairman of the celebration committee – when the time capsule is opened in 2004.

Mrs. Marie Wilson, secretary of the centennial committee, said other items in the capsule included complete records, pictures, and newspaper clippings of the centennial; the organization chart of the committee; advertising for the centennial rodeo event; the Pawnee Herald 1954 Centennial Edition; accounts of the Pawnee church activities and school activities; a 1954 calendar; a list of 1954 town officials; a 1954 Pawnee phone book; a 1954 Pawnee Post Office mailing list; and many other items – including coins – tossed in the capsule by the crowd.

The vault, weighing some 3,000 pounds, was sealed in cement and a plaque was affixed to the top with the title: “Record of Pawnee Centennial 1954”