Although Edgar County has long been a rural area with an agriculture-related economy, its history has a place in the larger history of the state and nation. Abraham Lincoln practiced law in the county. Edgar County has been home to a Nobel Prize winner, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner, a comedy film series star, the nation’s first female brigadier general, and a country music star. Paris was at one time the headquarters of a nationally known manufacturer of advertising specialty items and the largest broom factory in the United States.
A timeline of events for Paris, Illinois and Edgar County:
1823 Edgar County was formed and named for John Edgar, one of its first judges. Paris is the county seat. A first plat of the Paris square was surveyed by Amos Williams.
1826 The first school district in the county was organized.
1841 Rev. Henry Venable organized Edgar Academy on six acres where St. Mary’s Church now stands.
1842 Built in 1842, Milton K. Alexander home is one of the few buildings still standing that Abraham Lincoln visited while practicing law on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Now home to the Link Art Gallery.
1858 Abraham Lincoln came to Paris to speak in Col. Alexander’s grove on September 7.
1860 Paris Union School District organized.
1861 On April 18, Company E, 12th Illinois Volunteers organized. 1544th Transportation Company of the Illinois National Guard is an outgrowth of the militia group.
1869 Paris was chartered as a city. Paris is one of eight communities named Paris in the United States. It was settled on land donated by Samuel Vance for a county seat and received its charter as a city in 1869.
The exact origin of the name Paris is uncertain. Early settlers from Kentucky believed that the town was named for Paris, Kentucky. Others thought that the town was named this because the word ‘Paris’ was carved on a tree in the center of the donated land. This tree was the center point for the first survey of Paris.
1869-1873 James W. Binford and Eli Lilly ran the Binford-Lilly Drugstore at 128 N. Main. Lilly left the business in 1873 to begin manufacturing pharmaceuticals in Indianapolis.
1871 Mark Twain’s lecture tour brought him to Paris, Illinois in late December. While staying at the Paris House hotel, he met a young boy who most likely was the inspiration for Twain’s “Sociable Jimmy.”
1874 L.A.G. Shoaff established the first Shoaff Opera House in Paris on the third floor of the Mullens-Parrish building on the southeast corner of Central Ave. and Court St.
1879 Merkle Broom Company was established by John Merkle, Sr. and his son Oscar T. Merkle. The brick factory was built at the corner of West End Avenue and Broom Street in 1890. Also known as Merkle-Wiley Broom Co. The business was known as the largest broom manufacturer in the world during the early 20th century. At one time, it produced 6,000 brooms per day. Its “Blu-J” line of brooms was manufactured into the 1960s. The company merged with France Broom Co. in 1964, but the factory produced its last broom in Paris on April 30, 1964. In 1985, a furniture manufacturer acquired the location. The original building survived a fire in 1996, but Northern Harvest demolished it in 1999 to make way for a newer facility.
Source: Paris Beacon-News, March 18, 1982; March 3, 1999
1890 E.O. (Elmer) Laughlin published a novel, Johnnie. Laughlin was a doctor, city councilman, and member of first library board, who practiced medicine in Paris for 49 years. He later published a 1937 volume of poetry, Of Yesterday and Tomorrow.
1892 U.O. Colson Company was founded by Usher Orlando Colson and his wife Adalaide Gordon Colson in 1892. Originally a printing company, it grew into a manufacturer of advertising items sold nationwide. Its calendars and paper fans can often be found on ebay. A large two-story brick building built on North Main Street in 1926 served as the company’s home. Colson’s had 18 district sales offices and 250 salespersons across the country in 1955. The Colson family sold the business in 1967; it went through several ownership changes until it ceased operation in the early 1990s. Also known as OKT/Colson, The Colson Company.
Sources include Prairie Progress: a History of Edgar County 1880-1975 (book)
1893 General contractor Hibbert Brothers of Newark, Ohio completed the Edgar County Courthouse in November 1893 at a cost of $109,007.71, after two years of construction. The exterior was blue Amhurst limestone; the interior featured marble floors and stairs. Now on the National Register of Historic Buildings, the courthouse has been remodeled over the years to keep pace with telecommunication, energy efficiency, and accessibility needs. The brass star that marked the original location of the “Paris” tree is still in the center of the building, but now travels up and down on the floor of the elevator.
Source: Paris Beacon-News, Nov. 20, 1993.
The Shakespeare Club organized Feb. 16, 1893 in Chrisman to study the works of Shakespeare. As of 2012, it was the oldest club in Edgar County, still meeting six months of the year.
Also in 1893, Shoaff Opera House opened in a new location at 128 W. Court St., with a large stage, orchestra pit, and 585 seats. For many years, it hosted traveling performances, ballet recitals, boxing and wrestling matches, local fashion shows, and high school graduations. The building was demolished in September 2001.
1895 Paris was one of several cities lobbying to become the site of a new normal school in eastern Illinois. The other cities were Charleston, Danville, Effingham, Kansas, Lawrenceville, Mattoon, Oakland, Olney, Palestine, Shelbyville, and Tuscola. Charleston ultimately won and is the home of Eastern Illinois University.
1898 Concerned citizens of Edgar County organized and chartered the Children’s Home on February 9, 1898. A special tax was approved to construct a building. James A. and Clara M. Eads donated 10 acres of land to the Home in 1899. By January 1900, the original portion of the present building was completed and occupied. Throughout the years, more than 3000 children were served by the home. Services expanded to include In Home Services and Tiger Tots Day Care. In the early 2000s, the Children’s Home merged with Huddleson Home/Kids Hope United; eventually the Paris facility was closed. Paris Union School District 95 purchased the building and grounds in 2006 to serve as its administrative offices and preschool center.
1899 Bridgman Cigar Company was founded in Paris. Its twenty employees made 2500 cigars a day in the mid-1940s.
1902 By 1902, Chicago-based McGuire-Cummings had established operations in Paris, manufacturing streetcars, interurban and railway cars.
1903 Paris-Terre Haute Interurban line opened. It last ran on Jan. 25, 1932.
1904 Paris Carnegie Public Library opened in June.
1905 Merkle Broom Company employed 200 people.
1907 In November, street-cars began running each day from the south part of Paris to Reservoir Park (Twin Lakes).
1909 In early February, nine teachers and 250 students moved into the new high school building in the 300 block of South Main. The new school contained about 25 classrooms with laboratories for chemistry and physics, biology, and domestic science.
1913 Paris, Danville, and Effingham were the first sites for extension courses from Eastern Illinois Normal School (now EIU).
1916 In September, Paris Hospital moved from its location on South Central to a new “modern, up-to-date” facility on the corner of Crawford and Shaw. The hospital remained at this location until the current hospital opened on November 9, 1970.
1920 Paris Hospital’s nurses training school held its first graduation. The nursing school closed in 1954.
1921 Sylvian Park, home of the city’s water tower, was created with a donation from Mr. and Mrs. Maurice Sholem and named for their son.
1924 Lincoln Theater, a 700-seat movie house, opened. It closed in 1967 but re-opened four years later as Paris Theatre.
Hotel France was completed in July 1924 on the site of the Paris House that was destroyed by fire. Probably as a result of that fire, Hotel France was constructed as a “fireproof” hotel. Designed by architect Johnson Miller, it had 75 rooms, a barber shop, a beauty shop, and a spacious dining room. Many community meetings and events took place in the hotel over the years. One of the most memorable occurred in front of the hotel on December 20, 1933; a stakeout to arrest Edward Shouse of Dillinger’s gang resulted in a shooting and the death of Indiana state trooper Eugene Teague. In 1988, the hotel was converted to senior citizen apartments and renamed the Kensington. The building was most recently the home of the Human Resources Center.
Sources: Paris Beacon-News, Dec. 20, 1933; The Architectural Forum, Feb. 1926.
1926 Goding Shoe Company was established by Charles A. Goding in 1926 with 35 employees. At the height of its production, the “shoe factory” employed almost 200. After World War II, the company started manufacturing western boots and later became nationally known for its specialty boots. In November 1959, one of its customers was “Gunsmoke” actor James Arness, who ordered a pair of boots. The business closed in 1969; the building is now home to Paris Health & Rehab Center.
Sources include 1926 Paris city directory.
1927 The first May Fete was held on May 12, 1927; the first May Fete queen was Betty Lou Hunter. May Fete is a traditional Paris High School event honoring the girls of the senior class. Held annually on the first Friday in May, it features the presentation of the senior girls followed by dance routines and gymnastics by members of the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes. A court of seven senior girls is chosen by their female classmates; from this group, a queen is chosen by the entire school.
1928 Street cars were destroyed in a January fire and ceased to run in Paris. The local Exchange Club contracted with sign painter John Owens to create a sign with 15-foot yellow letters identifying Paris from the air. This sign was placed on the roof of the Colson building.
Source: Paris Beacon-News, July 5, 1928
1934 Illinois Cereal Mills, Inc. was incorporated. Its roots were in the old “Kidder Mill” founded about 1898; ICM was purchased by Cargill in 1994.
1935 Paris native Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer (1927-1959) began appearing in the “Our Gang” comedies.
1941 On December 7, George Francis Clark became Paris’s first World War II casualty when he was killed while serving on the U.S.S. Arizona. Construction of a new high school gym, built by WPA workers, began
1941-1945 Nearly 8% (over 1900 young men and a few women) of Edgar County’s population served in the armed forces during World War II. Edgar County lost 64 veterans in service – listed as dead or missing in action.
From A Social and Economic Study of Edgar County, June 1946)
1943 Paris High School basketball team won the state championship. On Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1943, the “new” gym opened to host its first basketball game. Paris won.
1944 A former gravel pit became Sunrise Park, known for its beautiful trees.
1945 The Edgar County Honor Roll was dedicated in a public ceremony on Oct. 7, 1945. Located on the east side of the Court House square, it was designed by local architect John C. Riedell. At that time, 3300 names of Edgar County veterans who served in World Wars I and II were listed on the memorial. Since then, names from later wars and conflicts have been added, overflowing to two freestanding walls on either side of the original structure.
Source: Paris Beacon-News, March 30, 2005.
1946 Fifteen industries and more than 700 retail businesses were located in Edgar County, including
- 77 Gasoline & oil stations
- 79 Grocery stores
- 32 Restaurants
- 11 Hardware stores
- 10 Dry goods & clothing stores, 5 dress shops
- 8 Furniture stores
- 12 Appliance & radio stores
- 7 Shoe repair stores and 3 shoe stores
- 13 Blacksmith shops
- 38 Garages & auto sales
- 8 Drug stores
- 11 Pool rooms
- 4 Meat shops
- 9 Taverns
- 1 Bookstore
- 12 Lumber yards
- 2 Department stores
- 8 Print shops
In addition, Edgar County had 8 four-year high schools, 1 two-year high school, 15 elementary schools of two rooms or more, and 84 one-room schools.
Source: Social and Economic Study of Edgar County, June 1946.
1947 Paris High School basketball team won the state championship for the second time.
1950 Paris Lakers, a minor league baseball team, played at Laker Stadium in Twin Lakes Park until the team folded in 1960. See Paris teams’ history and Paris Lakers, written by a local student in Illinois History magazine.
1951 George W. Bristow was elected to the Supreme Court of Illinois from the Third District. He died in November 1961.
1953 A photo from the broom factory was included in a December National Geographic magazine article about Illinois.
1956 The International Thanksgiving Fellowship program, founded by Gertrude Trodgon, began when 143 students from 35 countries spent Thanksgiving weekend with Paris area families. Sir Harold Evans wrote about his experience as a 1956 guest in the September 2007 issue of Conde Nast Traveler.
1958 Newly constructed Memorial Elementary School was dedicated on April 27. The school was named to honor of all teachers with 20 years or more in District 95 and individuals who had served as board members; a plaque near the office displays those names. Twenty-four of those original 51 teachers honored were present at the ceremony. Additional names were to be added as they became eligible, through 1968, to represent 100 years of District 95. (Beacon, Apr. 28, 1958)
1959 Plans were announced to demolish the Iron Lantern Hotel on North Main to build a service station. The hotel was originally built as the town’s first hospital in the 1890s.
A two-day sidewalk sales event around the square on a June weekend started a fifty-plus year tradition that includes the annual Shrine barbecue and parade.
1960 Zenith begins manufacturing in Paris, first in a temporary location on West Court Street and then at the factory on Grandview Street.
1961 The old six-stall roundhouse, built in 1911, at Midland Freight Yards is torn down in June. In September, Windbreaker-Danville opened a plant on West Court St. in the old Bibo garage building vacated by Zenith.
1964 On March 12, Paris High School principal John P. Allen and two cheerleaders, Marnie Lutz and Paulette Brooks, were killed in a head-on collision returning from the final basketball game of the season. Three more cheerleaders were seriously injured. A memorial erected by the Class of 1964 stands at the northwest corner of Eveland Gym.
1965-1969 Paris native Barbara Stuart (Barbara McNeese) had a recurring role as “Bunny” in the television series Gomer Pyle, USMC.
1970 Paris Community Hospital moved from the corner of Crawford and Shaw Streets to a larger, modern facility on East Court.
1971 City hall moved to the remodeled W.S. Logan Lumber Co. building and police & fire station moved to a new building on Washington St. The old city site became Vance Park.
1972 Four downtown buildings on North Main, including Donk Elam’s pool room, the vacant three-story Kern Hotel, and two taverns, were severely damaged or destroyed in a fire on January 14. Firefighting efforts in the subzero temperatures left the buildings encrusted in layers of ice.
1973 Paris High School band marched in the inaugural parade in Washington, D.C.
1976 In April, Kmart opened in the former Grants store building on East Jasper St.
1977 Lena Arthur bequeathed her family home to Edgar County Historical Society. The museum was opened in 1978; ten years later, the annex that houses Edgar County Genealogy Library was built. The Arthur House, built in 1876 by Henry Clay Moss, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
On December 16, 1977, the Paris High School gym was re-dedicated as Ernie Eveland Gym.
1978 The “blizzard of the century” on January 25 brought 12 inches of snow, near zero temperatures, and winds of 50+ mph, closing schools, businesses, roads, and all but emergency services for the next two days.
1979 PEDCO formed after Zenith’s announcement that it was phasing out manufacturing at the Paris facility
1981 First Honeybee Festival
1982 The railroad switching center east of Midland Yard known as A tower closed after 80 years of operation.
Source: Beacon-News, Jan. 6, 1990
1984 Central Electronics (Zenith) closed its doors on June 28.
1986 A Twin Lakes Park landmark was sold at auction. The carousel, built around 1919 by Allen Herschell, had been a popular fixture in the park since the early 1930s.
1993 The state opened Ed Jenison Work Camp north of Paris. The correctional facility was closed by budget cuts in 2002. Ownership was transferred to the city in 2008.
1994 Retired physician Dr. Paul E. Fleener died on September 15. During his 40-year career in Paris, Dr. Fleener delivered 4,000 babies and taught anatomy and obstetrics at the Paris Nurses Training School. His office was on Washington St. behind First Christian Church.
2000 May R. Berenbaum’s book Buzzwords included a chapter about the 1997 Honeybee Festival and the festival’s origins.
2001 A bequest from Maude Schwartz provided the location of Schwartz Park, known for its gazebo and walking path.
2006 After a temporary stop on Washington Street, City Hall moved into the remodeled former First Bank building.
2008 On November 4, voters in Paris District 95 and Crestwood Unit 4 approved the creation of a cooperative high school, the first in the state of Illinois.
2009 Simonton Windows and Paris were featured in the Sept. 28 cover story of USA Today newspaper.
2010 The last full-service gas station in Paris was torn down in May to make room for a new CVS store. Ray’s Super Station sold gas from 1957 through 2009. On June 29, Chrisman’s Frostop, the last drive-in in the county, was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt by the end of the year.
Singer Brett Eldredge opened his first performance at the Grand Ole Opry with “Signs”, a song with references to his hometown of Paris, Illinois. The video for one of his later songs, “Illinois,” includes many scenes from Paris.
2011 AMC closed the Paris Theatre on Feb. 6, but the theater re-opened under new ownership in December.
2014 The Paris Lakers 14-year-olds team won the state Babe Ruth baseball championship in July. Also in July, the U.O. and Ada G. Colson Foundation ended 69 years of giving to the Paris area by making a final distribution to the new high school media center. Established in 1945 by the Colson family and run by Colson Company employees, the Foundation contributed to many local causes over the years.
2015 In August Paris Cooperative High School opened the school year in its new complex north of town. Paris Center of Fine Arts, a 500-seat community theater, is located on the school campus.
2017 Edgar County became an official member of Looking for Lincoln, an Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area. Displays are located at Paris Public Library, Edgar County Historical Museum Annex, Paris Bicentennial Art Center, and a storefront on the south side of the Paris square.
2018 Horace Link & Co. closed on Dec. 31, ending 116 years of business in the community. The building was demolished in 2021.
2019 Work began in November to convert the historic former high school building on Main St. into 42 affordable senior apartments; Tiger Senior Apartments opened in 2021. In December, the former Citizens National Bank building on the south side of the square was demolished.
2021 On July 7, Gladys Wright became Paris High School’s oldest graduate at age 102, completing her coursework through the District 95 Adult Education Center. In September, Tiger Senior Apartments received a 2021 Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award for Adaptive Reuse. More than half of its current residents are former Paris High School students.