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History of Thomas, IL

Source: (submitted by Bob Johnson)The following is a paper that Andrea Blackert, of Thomas, wrote for a class that she is taking at Monmouth college. There are a few discrepancies in it, but on the whole, I think she did a very good job and went to a lot of work looking things up. When you get done reading it, I think you will see that she is one of those "good old country girls, from Thomas, IL." -Bob Johnson

She turned the paper in on December 10, 1996



The little community of Thomas is a far cry from a booming metropolis. There are no factories of businesses that provide employment or promote the growth of the comunity. Whereas an average town or city has post offices, banks, schools, grocery stores, and malls, Thomas still manages to exist today. In many towns, it is the business district or school spirit at athletic events that binds the community together. Because it lacks the tying binds of a nornal town, Thomas relies on two characteristics in order to maintain a sense of unity. Through its history and uniqueness, the little farming community of Thomas is provided with its identity that still makes it a community today.

Situated in Bureau County, Thomas, Illinois is about an hour and twenty minutes northeast of Monmouth, exactly three miles east of highway 78 in Fairfield Township. Even with precise directions, one might mistakenly drive through Thomas and not even realize it. There are no huge and glamourous signs that say "Welcome to Thomas" or any distinguishing buildings that would allure someone's attention. Thomas is basically a clump of nine houses, out in the middle of the country, that make up a farming  community. The population is thirty-five, but the population sign does not even say that. It just says, "Thomas: Population _." It is almost humorous because the sign has been like that for years now, and will continue to stay that way . Some of the people have been residents as far back as I can remember, while some families move in and then leave after only a few months. Through the years, the population, on an average, has remained stable.

Less than a mile down the road from Thomas, is where my house is situated. It lies directly west of the community. My dad farms a lot of land in and near this area. Although I am not technically a part of Thomas, I still associate myself as a resident of the community. My family and I know the people of the community and they know us. Like all other Thomas residents, I have a Thomas phone number, a rural route Tampico address, and I am located in the Manlius School District.

Since Thomas has no businesses of its own, the people of the community have to look to other communities for employment and necessities. The nearest towns are annawan, Tampico and Manlius. they are respectively ten, eight, and thirteen miles away from Thomas, each of these communities are small, with none of them having a population over a thousand. Each town does however, have its own bank, grocery store,and post office, which all help to accommodate the needs of the Thomas people. When these little towns cannot meet the needs of the people, Thomasfolk are forced to travel even farther to bigger towns and cities. These cities are Sterling, Princeton, and the Quad Cities. Each city has a population over ten thousand and are all about forty-five to fifty minutes away. Because of their sites, these towns provide many of the jobs for the Thomas people, who do not farm.

Although the towns and cities accommodate the needs of the little country community, the location of Thomas has its disadvantages and distance to and from other towns. Because it seems that Thomas is situated in the middle of nowhere, it takes far more time to travel to other communities. This could be especially dangerous in the colder months. as a result of the roads being small township roads, snowplows do not frequently clear the way. Because of this, the roads become icy and snow covered, making the journey not only more difficult but dangerous. Since the snowplows priorities are to clear the major township, the Thomas roads are neglected until the other roads are clear. While this affects the farmers, it more importantly affects the people who work in the bigger towns and cities. Children that have to travel to school on the bus are influenced by the colder months. Because of the harsh weather, roads become snow coverd and icy. Another reason the distance is problematic is in the case of an emergency. If a farmer gets hurt out in the field or a child gets hurt while playing, the nearest hospital is over twenty-five miles away. This distance may be life-threatening in certain instances.

One of the advantages of living in such a small community is that it is quiet and peaceful. It lacks the noise and pollution that bigger towns and cities contain. Some people of the area consider the distance from neighboring towns to be an advantage. This distance provides a sense of privacy to the residents of the area. Some residents move to Thomas in order to escape the craziness that exists in towns and cities. This craziness is often a result of crime. Thomas is a community that boasts freedom from crime. Parents will let their children ride their bikes to other children's houses in the area because they  know that their children will be safe. I frequently run on the roads through Thomas and have never once doubted my safety. This freedom of safety is a luxury that Thomas has that cannot be found in a lot of bigger towns and cities today.

Thomas's identity exists as it is today because of its history. In the mid 1800's, Thomas was first named Sodtown because hunters from all around would come to hunt in the Green River swamps near the area. The hunters erected booths and huts and covered them with sod roofs. These huts served as homes to the hunters until they traveled on. A lot of the hunters were attracted to this area because of the abundance of prairie chickens, deer, ducks and rabbits inhabiting the swamp-covered land.

Not only were hunters familiar with this area, but indian tribes as well. The two indian tribes that were located in the area were the Winnebago and Pottawatmus. They had a camp in the Cain Grove, about one mile south of Thomas. Not much is  known of the tribes, only that the Pottawatmus were known to the settlers to be beggars and thieves.

The first settlers to the area came in 1846. Some settlers were form England and some where just American settlers. All looking to settle and farm the vacant land that the Fairfield Township had to offer. The township was divided into thirty-six sections. A lot of the new settlers were claiming land around or near section 28, which was the Thomas area. One couple, originally from England and both of Irish decent, settled near Thomas in section 29, and built the first frame house in the area. By 1867, a lot of settlers in this area began to travel on the first hard road that was built in Fairfield Township. It went from Thomas to the Greenville township line, about eight miles. It was called Green River Road. During this time, the only place of business in Thomas was a small, one-room building that was used as a store.(editor's note: see photo of store in Thomas Photo Album on this site). The owner of the store was from the nearby village of Tampico, named William Stilson.

As the area began to populate, the future of the area childeren was taken into consideration. It was decided among the people that a schol should be built. After the land was donated, a one-room schoolhouse was built. There was only one teacher in the school, and she earned twenty-five dollars a month. The school provided children from the ages six to twelve the basic fundamentals of learning. By 1864, there were exactly fifty-six students attending the Thomas school. It was not until 1948 that a new room to the school was added to accommodate the growing number of students. There were also two teachers now instead of one. During this time, when children reached seventh grade, they were then bussed to the nearby town of Manlius, District #305. This continued the middle and high school levels of education because Thomas school only taught students until the sixth grade level.

(Editor's note: Notes attached to, but not included in this report: "The Thomas School started as District #2 in Fairfield Township. Yorktown was District #1. The school was built in 1860 on land donated by Henry Thackaberry. It was 28' X 40'. . . The last class at Thomas Grade School was in 1963")

In 1872, a man by the name of Washington Thomas moved into the Sodtown, originally from Yorkville in Kendall County. A lifelong buinessman, Mr. Thomas was engaged in the butchering business. He furnished meat to the employees of the C.B.&Q. Railroad, and also made large shipments to Chicao, Boston, and markets. Mr. Thomas purchased the only place of business in Thomas, which was Mr. Stilson's one-room store. He bought up Mr. Stilson, enlarged the store, and filled it with  more supplies. He then appointed his son, William, to be in charge.

At this time, Mr. Thomas was in the process of constructing a house. Since it was not completely built, he would travel back to his native town in Yorkvlle. To get there, it was necessary to travel by rail to Annawan, and from that point, by horseback, and sometimes the greater part of the journey by boat. While living in Thomas, Mr. Thomas dealt in livestock in the surrounding towns. He also invested extensively in real estate and at one time, owned five farms in the state of Iowa. From time to time, he added to his purchases by buying swamp land from the commissioners, which he transformed into a highly productive tract. He then began to sell these tracts to local settlers.

As the community began to populate, Mr. Thomas saw the need to establish a postal office in the area. The nearest one was located seven miles from Thomas in Yorktown. The mailing route ran from Thomas to New Bedford. A route that originally was an indian trail. Thomas was in definite need of a post office, because people generally  had to go to Yorktown on horseback to retrieve their mail. It was a long and trying trip confronting the swampy conditions that existed during that time. Mr. Thomas circulated a petition among the settlers to secrue the locality of the establishment. After almost unanimous agreement, a post office was established in 1888. It was then that Mr. Thomas had to submit a name for the settlement to the post office department at Washington to clarify its existence. Mr. Thomas suggested the name of "Land's End," but this did not prove satisfactory to the settlers, as they deserved something more simple. He then suggested "Granger," but for reasons best known in Washington, this was also rejected. It was then decided by the post office department to name it "Thomas," in honor of Washington Thomas himself.

There was never a church in Thomas, but there was a swedish Baptist church built about two miles east of Thomas in 1881. However, it was not until 1910 that Thomas could claim it as its own. It was reorganized by Olof Johnson, Nels Pierson, and Mrs. John Crosell and then renamed the Thomas Baptist Church. Near the church was the Thomas cemetery where over twenty-five people are buried today. The church  only functioned for thirty-one years, until it was last used for a funeral service in 1941.The church had to close its doors because it did not have enough people to support its existence.

(Editor's note: Notes attached to, but not included in this report: "...the last time the church was used was for the funeral of Alex Soderberg in 1941")

Another addition to Thomas was the telephone company that was established in 1904. It was called the Hoopole, Thomas, Yorktown Telephone company. It served not only Thomas, but also a five-mile area range from Thomas. The telephone switchboard was located in the home of  the switchboard operator, which varied over the years. By 1938, the telephone company incorporated and just became the Thomas Telephone Company.

(Editor's note: Notes attached to, but not included in this report: "The first telephone company . . .There was a 24 hour service, but it had better be an emergency after 9 p.m. . . .)

The small town was beginning to flourish. Besides the post office and telephone company, Thomas had other places of businesses as well. There were two general stores, a hardware store, a car sales and garage, barber shop, blacksmith, creamery, town hall, and pool hall. For entertainment on the weekends, people usually went to the town hall, which was also the dance hall. People from all around use to come to socialize and dance. My grandparents remember being in their teens and looking forward to going to the dance hall on Saturday nights. Not only did the dance hall provide entertainment, but the pool hall that was run by Barney Hogeboom seemed to always have a competitve game of pool going on inside. Even the "old timers" in the area had their own form of recreation. Besides hunting and fishing, they took part in "shooting matches," which was a competition among the men to see who could shoot the most round glass balls, instead of "blue rocks" or "skeets" as they are called today.

Just when it seemed that Thoomas was really progressinig, it did just the opposite. Between the 1930's and 1940's, people began to move toward the bigger towns and cities. Farming was changing, and people in the area could not afford to keep up with its changes. Also, Thomas did not have any major roads, rivers, or railroads running through it, so it was hard for people to adjust to the inconvenience that Thomas offered. As people  began to leave, the hopes of a flourishing community vanished. All the busnesses had to close their doors with an absence of people and incomve. They could no longer operate. Most of the buildings were left vacant. Some were torn down and some were refurnished and used as houses for the people that conctinued to live there. The post office was discontinued. Because of this, peolple's addresses changed from Thomas to rural route of Tampico. Even the Thomas Telephone company was forced to close. It was bought by the Illinois State Telephone company in 1963, and was the last place in the United States to switch from a crank phone to a dial phone.

Today, Thomas has a population of about thirty-five people. Besides the houses that contain the families, the only other building that exists today is the building that contains the telephone dial equipment for the Contel Telephone company. There is no business that is conducted in the building. Its sole purpose is to store and protect the phone dial equipment. Even though Thomas continues to lack all the characteristics of a town or city, its identity remains strong because of the peoples uniqueness.

Thomas's identity would vanish today if it was not for the unieness of its people. One thing that is extremely unique about the people of Thomas is that some of the residents are Amish. The amish have been a part of the Thomas community since 1940. As long as they have been here, there have never been any signs of prejudice or hostility from other members of the community. The Thomas people think and treat them as if they were regular people. Even though they have become more modernized throughout the years, their lifestyle and traditions are intriguing because they are different from our own. I know I would not be as familiar with them today if it was not for the presence of them in the Thomas community. I find it simply amazing that these people can survive just by living a simple life without the luxuries that society takes advantage of. My mother jokes about becoming amish, since we have been around them for many years. We know thier rules and customs.

It has been through farming that the people of  the community have become familiar with the amish culture. Farming is the amish's sole income. There is a unity between them and the other farmers in the community. Both parties lend and borrow different pieces of machinery throughout the year. For example, if my dad needed his field of hay bailed, the amish would be willing to bail it. In return, my dad will mow their hay since they do not have a tractor mower. Some of the farming technique that the amish use today are more modernized than what they use to be. People unfamiliar to their culture do not realize that the days of "horse and buggy" are long gone. In some ways they still maintian their simple lifestyle, yet at  the same time they manage to keep up with the technological advancements of today. For example, some of the amish farmers in my area have compuers and high-advance equipment to help run their farming businesses.

Even if the amish did not farm, the relationships between them and the other people of the comunity would still be strong. They are very friendly, and like the rest of the community, are always willing to lend a helping hand. They have provided uniqueness to the little community and serve as reliable, dependant neighbors to other members of the Thomas area.

Another uniqueness that exists in the Thomas community that differs from other communities is the people's willingness to help others. Since the community is so small and distant from other towns, the relationships among the people are close-knit. People of bigger towns and cities remain independent because they have the necessities of the town or city at the tip of their fingers. That is not the case in Thomas. The people of the community rely on their neighbors as the necessities of towns and cities. For example, one time I was baking cookies and realized I was missing an ingredient. Since my mom could not take me all the way to the grocery store, I just rode my bike up to Thomas and borrowed the needed ingredient from one of the families in Thomas. It's little things like this that provide and promote the unity in the community. People are unselfish, thoughtful, and are willing to help anybody in the area. The members of Thomas know that if they do not continue to maintain the unity  of the community, what little that is left of the community will vanish.

It is through annual reunions that Thomas continues to be a community today. For nine years now, Thomas has held an annual Thomas Town Reunion. These reunions are not only history in the making,  but also become quite nostalgic. No other towns or communites in the area hold such events. If it was not for the history of Thomas, these reunions could not exist.  Old and new members of the community come to participate in the social gathering. People  come from as far as France, Florida, North Carolina, California, and Arizona to attend this once a year event. The attendance of one of these reunions was exactly 255 people. At the reunion, people enjoy a day of home-cooked meals and reminiscing about the past. The children play games among the open lots of grass, and the adults sit under the shade tree and relish in the memories of "what use to be."

A man who is always present at these reunions is Bob Johnson. He is the founder of the Thomas Town Reunion. His reasoning behind the reunion is to continue the unity among the residents and nonresidents of the community. Bob was born and raised in Thomas and lived there until until his quest for a career took him elsewhere. After living and working in the city, he missed the sereneness that Thomas offers. His love drove him to Thomas to retire there with his family. His dream is for Thomas to one day expand a mile west, east, and north, beyond the current borders and to populate once again. He knows that his dreams remain far from reality. But by the reunion gatherings, he hopes Thomas's population will grow again.

As can now be seen, Thomas is in fact a small farming community. It does not have any businesses or factories that make it a booming, successful community like that of other towns and cities. That is what makes Thomas so different from other communities. Its identity is not focused around  the economical and physical characteristics, but the historical and social. Its history and people make the community what it is today. If it was not for the history of Thomas, that help promote the Thomas Town Reunions, the community would not exist today and this paper could have never been written. Another aspect of Thomas that keeps its identity alive is its people. Because the uniqueness and helpfulness of the people in the community, Thomas continues to establish a sense of unity among the people. Thomas may never be the booming community it once was, but it will continue to maintain its identity through the efforts of the people that live in the area today.


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