Welcome to Historic Knoxville, Illinois!
Knoxville began as Henderson Town in 1828 when the first families arrived from Kentucky. When the territory was designated as Knox County on June 10, 1830, Henderson Town was named the county seat. On January 15, 1831, the legislature authorized the commission of the town; the first log courthouse was built, and the inhabitants undertook to establish law and order in their new community. As the center of county government, the town began to flourish. In 1833, the town became known as Knoxville by decree of the legislature.
Knoxville boasts the original John G. Sanburn log cabin store pictured above. In 1832, John G. Sanburn moved here with his bride and his stock of merchandise, and he opened the first general store here in this cabin. Completely restored as an addition to the Knox County Museum, it is open to the public each Sunday afternoon from May first through September. It is the only surviving evidence of the "log era" in Knoxville. The store counter and shelves have been faithfully constructed to simulate the original, and in as much as Sanburn was also the first postmaster in Knoxville, a replica of the "pigeon hole" cabinet used by Abraham Lincoln at New Salem is on
The Old Knox County Courthouse & Museum
The need for a larger and more imposing building was evident within a few years after the first county government was organized, and plans were requested late in 1836 for a courthouse "to be forty feet wide and fifty feet long with a portico in front supported by Doric stone pillars." This classic structure, now known as the "Old Courthouse," was completed late in 1839 and was first used in 1840.
The location of the courtroom on the second floor is fairly well authenticated, but unfortunately no remnant of any original courtroom furniture is known to exist.
The bricks used in the construction of the building were made locally, near Knoxville, and the restoration has been meticulous in using only brick of this age and type for any external work. The portico columns are brick, the fluting on the exterior is, and was, plaster. Most of the interior woodwork is original, and a number of the original window panes will reward the investigator who may easily identify the natural imperfection of old blown glass.
Heating was by fireplace and probably stoves were added, since this was a time of transition from the open fireplace to some more effective heating system. The two fireplaces and mantles in the lower east room, known in the restoration as the General Henry Knox Room, are original.
As the requirement for space increased, it was decided to provide a separate building for the county and court clerks plus the natural accumulation of records. This building, the Hall of Records, was provided in 1854. The next and final expansion was the addition of the twin iron stairways within the portico, which provided a main entrance and exit to the second story courtroom and offices, thus releasing the original north vestibule to provide additional office space. This last change occurred in the early 1870s shortly before the removal of the county seat to Galesburg.
The building enjoys the classic dignity of Greek revival architecture. The portico, with its fluted Doric columns, blends harmoniously with the lacy charm of the twin iron stairways
leading to a center balcony which was, no doubt, very dear to the hearts of the oratorically minded politicos of that day. At that time, the highway did not pass in front of the building.
When the courthouse was complete in 1840, the population of the state was less than half a million-and of the nation, seventeen million. The village of Chicago had been incorporated but three years, and the largest city in Illinois was Nauvoo, boasting twenty thousand people-mostly of the Mormon faith.
In that eventful decade, a plow that would "break the prairies" had been hammered out of a saw blade; the reaper and the threshing machine had been invented; there were but 2,800 miles of railroad in the nation (none in Knox County); a steam locomotive could barely exceed 60 miles per our, and had no cab; steam navigation across the Atlantic had just become a fact; the Morse telegraph had yet to be invented; and Whittier, Longfellow, Holmes, Poe, Hawthorne and Emerson graced the literary world. This, in short, was the life into which the Old Courthouse was born and of which it was a part.
The Knox County Museum
Today, the second floor is a museum where old court records, farm machinery, clothing, housewares and other memorabilia of the period are displayed. Among these effects is a top hat purported to have been worn by Stephen A. Douglas when he was circuit judge and held court here.
It is the purpose of the many friends of the restoration to preserve these early symbols of the American Midwest which were dedicated by our forefathers and used by them in the establishment of a society within a government of free people.
The restoration of this building, as well as the Sanburn Cabin and the Jail, has been a cooperative endeavor on the part of Knox County Historical Sites, Inc., the City of Knoxville and Knox County.
Knox County was named for General Henry Knox, Chief of Artillery in the Revolutionary Army, and later Secretary of War in George Washington's first cabinet.
The portrait of General Knox on permanent display in the General Henry Knox Room, is an excellent copy of the original by Gilbert Stuart, and was presented to Historical Sites by the curator of the Knox home restoration in Thomaston, Maine. This is considered to be one of the more valuable exhibits in the county.
An excellent portrait of George Washington is also on display, and shows the General as of the time of the Battle of Princeton. Washington relied so confidently upon Knox, that Knox is often referred to as "Washington's General."
The Knox County Museum, presently occupies the entire second floor of the Old Courthouse, the Sanburn Log Cabin, and the Old Jail. Exhibits cover a wide range of subjects usually associated with pioneer life in the county.
The Old County Jail
The history of early jails in Knox County is replete with lore and unusual plans of construction.
The jail of the log era was a two story affair, entered by means of a stairway to the second floor. The prisoner's entrance to the first floor cell was via a trap door thru the second story floor. The first story had neither doors nor windows. After retiring to the unromantic role of a corn crib, this quaint structure rotted out its last days on a farm near Knoxville.
The Jail built in 1845 is distinguished particularly by the solitary confinement cells on the first floor of the cell block. If Illinois ever had a Bastille, this is it. The builder's ingenuity is artfully expressed in the cell door security arrangement, which provides for locking far from the most extended reach of the prisoner. The great size of each stone used to construct the cell block was an excessive load-one per wagon-and this may account in part for the four years required for completion of the building.
The second story of the cell block is comprised of two large rooms, or so called "bull pens" for the local
inebriates and tramps. One of these rooms houses reminders of the old railroad passenger station here in Knoxville.
Living quarters for the jailer or sheriff are joined to the cell block, and afford a sharp contrast in comfort.
A murderer was hanged in the jail yard during 1873, the only instance in the history of Knox County. The new jail in Galesburg came into use the following year and ownership of the "Old Jail" was transferred to the City of Knoxville, and is now a part of the Knox County Museum.
The photo shows the cell door to one of six solitary confinement cells for the more dangerous criminal. Note iron shelf on door for prisoners' food ration, and also door locking arrangement.
Hall of Records
A Hall of Records was completed to the west of the Courthouse in 1854 to handle the natural accumulation of records from the Courthouse. Distinguished by thick walls, extra steel doors and window closures, this building was constructed to be fireproof and insure maximum security. When the county seat was moved to neighboring Galesburg in 1873, the Hall of Records was no longer needed. It served as the Knoxville Public Library for over 100 years and now houses Knoxville City Hall.
Water Pump House
Constructed in 1897 at a cost of $798.79 to house the steam pumping machinery for the city's first well, the building's tower contained a block and tackle mechanism for pulling the pump for repairs. The tin roof has been replaced by asphalt shingles; the tower was modified in 1978 to allow modern machinery access to the pump inside. Both the well and this building are still in use today.
St. Mary's School
The Chapel and attached cloister are all that remain of a once flourishing school for girls that succumbed to changed educational preferences and the economic depression of the 1930s. The Chapel is a beautiful example of high Gothic architecture.
The window and roof proportions are reminiscent of the great 13th century masterpieces of Europe. Visitors who enter the Chapel are impressed by the stained glass windows-some of which are of European origin and some are from the finest American studios. Two of the American-made windows are comprised of European mouth-blown glass, the identical process used to produce the stained glass in the famed windows in Chartre Cathedral in France. The building of the Chapel commenced in 1881, survived the school fire of 1883, and was completed in 1888. The Chapel was restored by loyal alumnae in 1954.
The original school building was destroyed by fire in 1883, and it was a substantial beneficence left by the Hon. James Knox of Knoxville, that made possible the construction of a new building which housed both school and dormitory until the school closed its doors in 1932.
The cornerstone-which is all that remains of the school building-may be seen in the yard, west of the cloister. Memorabilia from St. Mary's School can be seen in the Knox County Museum.
After touring Knoxville's historic sites, relax in the gazebo in Central Park on the square. Or stroll around James Knox Park where you'll find a covered picnic area, playground equipment, a small lake, tennis court and skateboard park. Newman School is in the park and St. Mary's Chapel is just across the street.
If you're staying overnight, there are ample hotel and motel accommodations in Knox County, including the Super 8 Motel on the north edge of Knoxville. In addition there is camping at the Trav-L-Park east of Knoxville and at Allison Campground on the south bank of Lake Storey in Galesburg.