On the Banks of the Okaw
In the mid 1800s, among the tall grasses of the Illinois prairie, a group of pioneers, looking for a place to settle, stopped along the banks of the Okaw River.
There, these pioneers established a settlement and named it Bagdad. They constructed the necessary buildings such as a brickyard, mill, blacksmith shop and a general store. Little did these settlers know that they were laying the foundation for one of the most historically-rich towns in central Illinois.
The Railroad Arrives
The 1850s brought the announcement of the construction of a railroad that would connect the cities of Chicago and Centralia and run just to the east of Bagdad.
In 1855, the Illinois Central Railroad surveyed and plotted a tract of land along both sides of the newly completed railroad in order to build a city. The new community was called Okaw, after the river located a few miles west.
After applying for a post office, railroad officials were surprised to hear that the state of Illinois already had a town named Okaw, so a new name had to be found.
Okaw Becomes Arcola
After asking for suggestions for the new name of the town, James Kearney, a local citizen, proposed that the new city be called Arcola, and so the railroad town of Okaw became the town today known as Arcola.
Business boomed in Arcola, and in the winter of 1856 the residents of Bagdad loaded the entire town, buildings and all, on wooden sleds and moved the whole settlement of Bagdad to Arcola.
Building Boom in Arcola
In 1860, the Presbyterians built the first church in Arcola, a single-story wooden structure located on the same lot as the current church.
Five years later in 1865, The Arcola Herald, Arcola’s first newspaper, was established by John Gruelle.
Broom Corn Thrives in Arcola
At about the same time, a local gentleman named Col. Cofer experimented by planting 20 acres of broomcorn on his land.
The crop did so well that the popularity of broomcorn took off. Soon after, nearly half of the broomcorn grown in the United States came from the Arcola area. And so began the storied history of broomcorn in Arcola.
While broomcorn was becoming big business in Arcola, another man was sowing the seeds of another Arcola legacy.
Raggedy Ann and Andy are Created in Arcola
Johnny Gruelle, born in Arcola in 1882, loved to write and draw cartoons almost as much as his young daughter Marcella loved to hear his stories. Her favorite character from her father’s tales was Raggedy Ann.
But when Marcella died as the result of a vaccination shot, Johnny had a hard time coping with the loss. He found that the best way to overcome Marcella’s death was to write the stories he created for her. From these humble beginnings came the stories of Raggedy Ann, whose popularity has made Johnny Gruelle, as well as Arcola, famous around the world.
Six years ago, a museum named after Johnny Gruelle was opened on Main Street. The driving forces behind the museum’s creation were Joni Gruelle Wannamaker, the granddaughter of Johnny Gruelle, and her husband, Tom.
Broomcorn Helped Put Arcola On Map
One of the key elements of Arcola’s past is heavily intertwined with its present.
In the 1880s, the harvesting of broomcorn, then a major crop, gave rise to several companies.
One such company was the Thomas Monahan Company, which was founded in Arcola in 1922.
Since then, the Monahan Company has grown to become the world’s largest manufacturer of handles for brooms and mops. Through all of the growth, the Monahan Company has been able to remain a family-owned business for a remarkable four generations.
Even though it seems that Arcola has always been associated with broomcorn, it has not always been a smooth road.
During the 1950s, cheaper brooms imported from other countries almost snuffed out broom production in America.
Pat Monahan, vice president of the Monahan Company, says that the survival of the broom industry in the United States is directly linked to Arcola.
In the late 1950s, Arcola resident P.A. Lindenmeyer convinced U.S. Senator Dirksen of the need for tariffs on imported brooms. The Senate responded by placing a huge 32 percent tariff on foreign-made brooms, thus saving the American broom industry.
According to Monahan, Arcola residents are interested in the history of broomcorn and are proud of the title, “Broomcorn Capital of the World.”
“People are curious about it (broomcorn industry) and like to understand it. Almost everybody over 50 knows somebody who used to harvest broomcorn,” said Monahan.
Monahan also said that one of the keys to the success of many businesses in Arcola is the quality of labor available.
“Arcola has always been a great place to be because we have the best work force in the world. We get extremely reliable, hard-working workers and managers in all the plants that were actually born and raised here and they do a great job for us,” said Monahan.
The Tradition Of Arcola Sports — Success On Gridiron Well-Documented Over Years
One of the phrases consistently used to describe Arcola is that it has “a unique spirit.” A great contributor to this spirit is the winning tradition of Arcola sports.
According to local sports historian and recently-retired Arcola High School Principal Randy Rothrock, the first AHS football team was formed in 1894 and played games on a field located near the current location of Libman’s and Prairie Lake.
Football was the only sport in Arcola until 1919 when AHS fielded for the first time a boys’ basketball team.
Even though the football team was started in 1894, the nickname “Purple Riders” did not come along until nearly 30 years later.
In the mid 1930s, the football team was in the midst of a 33-game winning streak, at the time the longest in the nation, when a reporter for the News-Gazette in Champaign wrote an article with the headline, “The Purple and White Rides Again,” giving the team the nickname “Purple Riders.”
Since the first Arcola football team took the field in 1894, Arcola has become the third winningest high school program in state history, as well as one of the most recognized programs in the state.
The team has also reeled in three state championships (1978,1985 and 1988) and finished runner-up three times (1977, 1991 and 1995).
Arcola’s excellence in sports is not limited just to the gridiron.
In 1973, Nancy Stiff began one of the first girls’ basketball teams in the area. Shortly after, she guided two teams to the “Sweet Sixteen” and established one of the premier girls basketball programs in the state.
In 2004-05, Stiff completed her 32nd season as the only coach the high school program has ever known. She is approaching 550 career victories, which is believed to be among the top five among girls’ hoops coaches in the history of the sport.
Aside from high school sports, some believe that the idea of recruiting for professional teams began in Arcola
According to Rothrock, in 1919, a team of employees from the Staley Manufacturing Company in Decatur came to Arcola to play against the local team, the Independents. The Staley’s won that game 41-0.
A group of Arcola businessmen, humiliated by the loss, arranged for a rematch. These businessmen decided to recruit the best players available, and pay them to play against the Staley’s.
A local railroad conductor was designated as the “recruiter” and enlisted the help of several college football players from Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame and Illinois.
The Staley’s heard about the team Arcola had assembled and never arrived for the game.
The following year, A.E. Staley employed George Halas to organize a team after the one Arcola had created for that game. Later, these Decatur Staley’s became known as what is now the National Football League’s Chicago Bears.
According to Rothrock, the reason for Arcola’s athletic success goes well beyond the playing field.
“Part of the success comes from tradition, and part of it is we’ve had a lot of good families in town that have supplied not only a lot of good athletes, but a lot of good kids,” said Rothrock.
For Rothrock, an Arcola High School graduate, some of his most special memories come from his days as a coach on the football team.
“The thing that stands out most to me was making the state championship in 1977 and winning it in 1978 because you look back and we’d only won six or seven games in five years, and so it was such a turn-around. We’d never thought about winning the state championship and all of a sudden it happened,” said Rothrock.
With the consolidation of school districts becoming more and more of a financial option, Rothrock remains optimistic for the future of Arcola High School sports.
“The future of Arcola sports is going to depend on consolidation. Maybe 50 years from now it will still be just Arcola, but everybody else may be a lot bigger,” said Rothrock.
Arcolans Have Faith
Another important aspect of Arcola’s culture has been the activity of the religious community.
Ever since the construction of the first church in Arcola in 1860, and with over 10 different religious denominations currently holding services in Arcola, the town has always been influenced by the faith of local residents.
According to Rev. Don Winch, longtime pastor of the Arcola Presbyterian Church, faith plays a big role in Arcola even though it might not be evident.
“When we come together to the aid of someone or farmers get together to help an ailing farmer, you’re seeing faith in action, and I think in a small community like Arcola there’s more of a feeling that we can count on one another — kind of a ‘we’re in this together’ feeling,” said Winch.
Winch also said one of the biggest changes he has seen in Arcola’s religious community has been the accessibility of the churches to all people.
According to Winch, nearly all of Arcola’s churches now have wheelchair access, and others offer different types of assistance that did not exist in the past.
The United Methodist Church offers an American Sign Language interpreter during Sunday services and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church offers a Sunday Mass in Spanish once per month for the large Spanish-speaking population of Arcola.
Winch noted that another important change was the arrival of Arcola’s first female pastor, Pat Jones, of the Arcola Christian Church.
Even with the passing of time and changes in society, “churches remain a focal point in Arcola,” said Winch.
With Time Came More Positive Changes
For many Arcola residents, the sesquicentennial celebration offers an opportunity to reflect upon the changes that have taken place in Arcola throughout the years.
Jack Chaney, former Arcola mayor, city councilman, and banker, said that the greatest change and one of the things that makes him most proud of Arcola is the establishment of the Arcola Foundation.
“The Arcola Foundation has been by far one of the greatest things to happen. We’ve been able to send so many kids to college that otherwise could not have gone,” said Chaney.
Monahan also believes that the Arcola Foundation has been instrumental in the growth of the community, citing monetary contributions from the foundation to the library, the school, downtown businesses, and the purchase of the land for the Industrial Park on the east side of town.
“I think it’s (Arcola Foundation) been just a great thing for the community. It’s a community asset that does a world of good,” said Monahan.
Arcola Famous For Its Coffee Breaks
Another Arcola resident, Bob Arrol, former pharmacist and creator of the the “Coffee Club,” recalls the town’s centennial celebration in 1955.
“It was very elaborate with a pageant that ran for several nights during the week, and all of the merchants had booths set up out on the grounds where the old school building was. It was a get-together, something new for Arcola,” said Arrol.
Arrol’s “Coffee Club,” which met in his pharmacy, was one of Arcola’s most popular traditions that at one time attracted national media attention.
To gain membership in the Coffee Club, one had to drink 100 cups of coffee to be eligible, then wait for a spot to open up.
Once becoming a member, then a mug was reserved with the member’s name on it and stored in its own spot on a shelf on the wall of the pharmacy.
According to Arrol, the idea originated from when barbers would keep shaving mugs with each customer’s name on it for when they came to get a shave.
Arrol said the Coffee Club began with nine members and expanded to as many as 162. All the mugs from the Coffee Club are now on display in the Arcola Depot on North Oak Street, which houses the office of the Arcola Chamber of Commerce.
Arrol has also been impressed with the way Arcola’s downtown has progressed since he opened his pharmacy in 1948.
“Now it’s (downtown) considerably more dressed up and nicer than it was before, and more active and organized than it was before,” said Arrol.
Arrol also said one thing Arcola residents can be proud of as the town celebrates its sesquicentennial is the progress the town has made and all the wonderful people who live here
“For me, the thing I am most proud of is the background of Arcola and what has been accomplished and what we still look forward to,” said Arrol.
This Little Town Could — And Did, As Ridenour’s Book Notes
In connection with the sesquicentennial celebration, Eva Ridenour, writer and former Arcola resident, will be releasing her book titled Arcola: The Little Town That Could — And Did, after almost four years of research.
The book chronicles the history of Arcola along with detailed personal narratives from former residents as well as pictures from the past and present.
Ridenour’s motivation for writing the book came from an experience during Arcola’s centennial celebration.
Ridenour, then an 11-year-old girl, recalled the pageant performed during the celebration that told the story of the first 100 years of Arcola’s history. That pageant inspired her to learn even more of the town’s past.
Ridenour considers the sesquicentennial celebration to be just as important of an event as the centennial that she attended.
“Every time a town reaches a milestone, especially in an active town like Arcola, it’s important to mark that milestone. It just helps to bring the community together and gives people a reason for the pride,” said Ridenour.
“I think the thing to be most proud of is the fact that Arcola has always capitalized on what it’s had. Residents have fought to keep historical buildings like the depot, which could have been bulldozed, but Arcola has managed to grow and keep the old with the new,” said Ridenour.
Arcola’s Mayor Offers Future Perspective
As Arcola approached its 150th birthday, Mayor Larry Ferguson, who was elected to his first full term in April, was eagerly optimistic of Arcola’s future, as well as its present.
According to Ferguson, one of the main reasons for his excitement is the recovery of business in Arcola, especially the recent developments in downtown as well as those along Illinois 133, the state highway running from east to west through town.
Mayor Ferguson hopes this current growth will spur growth in Arcola throughout the future.
One of Ferguson’s goals for the future is to see the construction of more housing in Arcola. Ferguson said that in order to grow and push the economy, more housing will be needed in the future.
While Ferguson expects growth in the long-term future of Arcola, he hopes it does not come at the expense of losing the “down-home charm.”
“I hope it can stay as it is, to a degree. Growth is great, but I hope it can stay the same small-town atmosphere,” said Ferguson.
Monahan — a community leader who currently serves on the city’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Board — agrees with the mayor in that Arcola has great potential for growth in the next 50 years.
With one of the “very best school systems around, and plenty of room for growth,” Monahan predicts a very bright future looking toward Arcola’s bicentennial celebration in 2055.
Arrol also sees the next 50 years in Arcola to be full of promise, saying that what Arcola is capable of in the future is “beyond comprehension.”
And so as the town celebrates 150 years of existence this coming weekend, residents think back on the beginnings of their town, and with such potential for future growth can only imagine what the next 50 years holds for “Amazing Arcola.”
Note (July 7, 2005): The above history was written by Aaron Madson, a University of Mississippi journalism student who recently spent about two weeks conducting interviews and compiling information on the history of Arcola. It seemed appropriate that Aaron write this 150th birthday tribute to Arcola and its people. He is a 1998 graduate of Arcola High School.
Reprinted with permission from the Arcola Record-Herald. For comprehensive information about Arcola’s history visit http://genealogytrails.com/ill/douglas/arcolatwp.html.