Last year, Dan Hillis — a local attorney who is originally from Binghamton, N.Y. — purchased a home on South Douglas Avenue that he is now in the process of renovating. A curious metal plaque, prominently affixed to the house with screws, greets visitors with a whimsical, if false, statement: “On This Site in 1897, Nothing Happened.” In the true spirit of historic preservation, Hillis intends to keep the sign, though he doesn’t share the implicit apathy and indifference that its message conveys. He intends to bring the former John E. Melick residence, which has stood sentinel near the corner of Douglas and Governor streets since the 1800s, back to a semblance of its former glory. I had to laugh during a recent visit to Hillis’ house; whoever placed the sign evidently had me, and all other historical “snoopers,” in mind, as the objects of such a deadpan zinger. I came snooping — and got zinged.
The reason for my visit was this: Having grown up on Douglas Street, I was aware that the neighborhood was formerly Camp Yates, predecessor of Camp Butler and the staging area for Ulysses S. Grant’s entrance into the Civil War. Camp Butler was established in part because of the problems inherent in having a military base in such close proximity to the city limits. Local residents found that the soldiers at Camp Yates helped themselves freely to the fruits of their orchards, gardens, chicken coops, and livestock pens. Such problems, plus the camp’s distance from a railhead, led to the establishment of Camp Butler in 1861-1862.
Camp Yates — named for Illinois’ wartime governor, Richard Yates — encompassed the approximate area now bounded by Washington and Governor streets and Lincoln and Douglas avenues. I also knew that a stone marker had been placed at the corner of Douglas and Governor to commemorate the historical significance of the camp, and I came looking for it. A little microfilm sleuthing uncovered at least part of the story.
By reading old copies of the Springfield News from the summer of 1909, I discovered that the placement of the monument (in Melick’s backyard) was an impressive and dignified ceremony, held on the morning of Aug. 2, 1909. Both the mayor and the governor spoke, as did several clergy members and military commanders, including Col. Charles F. Mills, who was in charge of the day’s exercises. In introducing Gov. Charles Samuel Deneen, he spoke these words:
“This historic ground has been made memorable as the starting point of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. . . . It is fitting that the starting point of such an illustrious career as that of General Grant’s should be commemorated by a suitable marker. This site has been made memorable as one of the first recruiting stations for state troops in the Civil War and has a bright page in the patriotic history of Illinois that will ever associate Camp Yates with the illustrious services of Richard Yates, the great war governor of Illinois.”
Under the headline “Unveil Tablet at Camp Yates Site,” the News reported: “The tablet is of granite stone, 18 inches square, two and one-half feet high, the slab surmounted by a sundial and a large base. On the slab is the inscription ‘Camp Yates, 1861. Here General Ulysses S. Grant Began His Civil War Career.’ ”
And there the tablet stayed until 1952, when, through the joint efforts of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Chicago Civil War Round Table, and the Illinois State Historical Society, it was obtained from Melick. At that time, the tablet was in a severely degraded condition; the inscription was illegible, and so a replacement marker was positioned in the yard of Dubois School, where it remains. The sundial disappeared, leaving only the stone obelisk to ignominiously mark time in a forgotten corner of a residential yard. Its presence begs the question: Is half (or a third?) of a historical monument still a monument?
At some point the Melick property was subdivided, and the site of the marker is now the back yard of Graham and April Woerner, who have lived at the residence for just over two years and whose house now occupies the corner lot. They have been busy with interior improvements to the house and had no idea that the obelisk in an overgrown part of their otherwise well-tended back yard is a nearly 100-year-old historical marker and had only a vague idea that the area had some sort of important historical distinction. With that knowledge, they are considering seeking a small city or state grant to restore the marker to a state of dignity and remove it to a more prominent area in the center of the yard.
Graham Woerner says that he has discussed the monument with his wife, who is originally from Bristol, R.I., where historic preservation is taken seriously by city government. They agree that it is something that they would like to see given new life and say that they are flexible with regard to the privacy issue, within reason.
“It would be selfish to keep it strictly for ourselves, but we’d be glad to make it available to anyone with a real interest in it,” says Woerner.
Mayor Tim Davlin said that he had no knowledge of the marker but that he is a keen lover of history and is enthusiastic about preserving Springfield’s past. He says that he would like to see the monument, learn more about it, and perhaps discuss with the Woerners options for the ultimate disposition of the decidedly simple but (to a history lover) elegant and interesting piece of civic history. Perhaps together they can restore it to a state of grace.