For archaeologist Robert Mazrim, director of the Sangamo Archaeological Center in Elkhart, last weekend's dig in downtown Springfield was simply another revelation of Illinois' all-but-forgotten prairie past. But for city historians Curtis Mann and Linda Garvert, every turn of the trowel was nothing less than a miracle.
The site was Second and Jefferson streets, the southeast corner, where in 1821 a young entrepreneur named Elijah Iles built a 16' x 20' log-framed store, the first commercial building in Springfield. As late as 1890 the structure still occupied the corner, a landmark to a generation and an era fading quickly from public memory. Then sections of the stone foundation were covered over and forgotten--until last Friday.
"The stars came together for this dig," says Mann, who's made the city's early history his passion and career for more than a decade at Lincoln Library's Sangamon Valley Collection. "Fortuitously, I made a trip over to Elkhart to see Mazrim's museum last month, and in the course of a two-hour conversation mentioned to him that the Iles' storefront site was being developed. We both commented on what an opportunity it presented."
Until recently the corner had been occupied by the four-story Sasco Auto Parts warehouse, leveled last year to make way for a new car sales lot. The site currently is owned by the Isringhausen family. The problem, says Mann, was there was no city or private money readily available to fund an excavation. And the window of opportunity would be open only briefly.
Mazrim, who last year opened his Sangamo Archaeological Center, a privately funded museum dedicated to the early settlement history of central Illinois, knew of the site and its significance in Springfield history. He also realized that if he didn't commit to excavating the site soon it would be bulldozed and any artifacts buried there would be lost.
He contacted the Isringhausen family for permission to dig on the site, and made arrangements with Construx of Illinois, the site contractor, to have access to the corner lot over the weekend.
Using only a shovel and hand tools, Mazrim and his crew were able to establish the foundation of Iles' original store, including an outbuilding to the south. They also located the west wall of the basement, which was constructed from sandstone hauled from the bottom of the Sangamon River.
On Saturday, Mann joined Mazrim and crew at the site to help move fill. On Sunday, Linda Garvert and local historians Dick Hart and Elaine Birtch also lent a hand, sifting soil for artifacts.
What did they learn?
"We found out a lot about the structure of the storehouse, where the cellars were and how Iles stored his goods," Mann says. "He had a great supply of valuable wares, including liquor and imported goods, which all had to be stored securely."
Among the artifacts uncovered were pieces of porcelain, medicinal bottles, pottery, a portion of a clay pipe, and a hawk bell, which Mazrim says confirms that Iles traded with Native Americans who traversed the Sangamon River Valley.
According to Iles' autobiography, Early Life and Times (first published in Springfield in 1893 and reprinted in 1995), he transported several tons of goods to Springfield from St. Louis in 1821, shipping them up the Illinois River via keelboat to the present-day site of Beardstown, then paid to have the goods hauled overland to Springfield. "The [store] was to be of hewn logs, covered with boards, with heavy poles laid on to keep the boards from blowing off," Iles wrote. He noted that when he arrived with his goods the structure "was not quite ready, for the want of nails; and you may believe it was a rough concern." Iles wrote that for "some time my sales were about as much to Indians as to the whites," that for two years he had no competition, and that his customer base covered 14 counties.
Iles stayed in the store business long enough to be successful as a land speculator; then in 1830 he rented the store to his clerk, John Williams, who later founded the First National Bank in Springfield.
The storefront was converted to a private residence in 1836. It was owned by John Hay, grandfather of Abraham Lincoln's private secretary, who also reportedly lived in the house for a brief time.