Way out in the far reaches of Forgottonia where the Mississippi River flows, lies the most forgotten little town of all. Tucked away in the wooded hills and hollows of extreme western Illinois, Warsaw, population 1,800, exists barely visible in the mist, like fading memories in an aging mind.
As the morning sun burned the fog away, I began to reminisce. I clearly remembered Warsaw's lively Main Street in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. Every store was busy then. Strolling down that long stretch of historic buildings, I become sentimental about days gone by.
Warsaw's history can be traced to 1812 (when Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory prior to becoming a state in 1818), with the relatively recent discovery of the remnants of Fort Johnson. According to Joe Bartholomew of the Warsaw Historical Society and Museum, during the brief existence of the fort it was attacked by the Sauk chief Black Hawk and several of his braves, along with some British soldiers who were allies of the Sauks during the War of 1812. The American defenders survived, but because of the fort's isolated location it would have been difficult to resupply and reinforce should another attack occur, so it was abandoned. In 1814, Fort Edwards, a more elaborate and strategically located structure, was built on a bluff just south of the mouth of the Des Moines River where it flows into the Mississippi River by Keokuk, Iowa. It was commanded by Zachary Taylor, the future U.S. president, when he was a military officer.
Because of its strategic location, Fort Edwards eventually served as a lookout to keep an eye on the movement of Sauk and Fox Indians who were presumably positioning themselves near the confluence of the two rivers in preparation for the Black Hawk Wars in 1832. After the militant Chief Black Hawk was captured in 1833 and confined to a prison in Washington, D.C., by President Andrew Jackson, the war ended, and the more passive Keokuk became chief of the Sauks. Fort Edwards then became a flourishing fur trading post where white trappers, settlers and Native Americans met to exchange their wares in relative peace. Today there is a towering white obelisk on a bluff called the "Point" marking the former site of the fort. Following World War II, the nation celebrated peace and prosperity, but in the process, commerce and industry shifted from small towns to bigger cities and sprawling suburbs. America was moving fast on superhighways and jet airliners, and rural communities like Warsaw couldn't keep up with the changing times. Many of the businesses on Main Street went under or moved on to greener pastures, like the Burgemeister Brewery did in 1972. However, its old castle-like building down by the river remains, and has since been converted into a popular restaurant and bar by Warsaw diehards Jay and Pam Melvin. Their son, Randy, is now the sole owner.
Despite the painful loss of the brewery, which employed many, the town has managed to survive with memories of its glorious past and its most famous sons, John Hay and Amos Worthen. Worthen learned the science of geology while exploring the fossil-rich ravines in the area. His reputation as one of the foremost geologists in the scientific community of his time preceded him to Springfield, where in 1878 he became the first curator of the Illinois State Historical Library and the Natural History Museum, as well as Illinois' first official geologist.
The most famous of all Warsaw sons was John Hay, former personal secretary and confidante to President Abraham Lincoln, and later the secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. While serving in these positions, Hay was instrumental in getting the controversial Panama Canal built.
Warsaw had a difficult relationship with the Mormons, who came to nearby Nauvoo around 1840. Their practice of polygamy was unacceptable to the residents of Hancock County. Anti-Mormonism spread across the county like a prairie fire touched off by the inflammatory pen of Thomas Sharp's editorials in the Warsaw Signal newspaper. In 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith, leaders of the Mormon church, were jailed in Carthage accused of treason. An enraged mob stormed the jail and the brothers were slain. Open warfare followed, as mobs descended on Nauvoo and attacked the Mormon settlement. Their beloved temple was burned to the ground. After the smoke cleared, most of the Mormons left Illinois and resettled near a great salt lake in Utah, with Brigham Young as their new leader. Some returned, to build a magnificent new temple in 1999, on a hill above the flats where the original had stood.
Warsaw's future may very well depend on its past. It would be wise for the town to tap into resources which are immediately available, like its history, scenic beauty, architectural wealth and its proximity to other popular historic sites, like Nauvoo.
The state's Historic Preservation Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources marvels at the town's historic wealth and beauty. They write: "It far surpasses that of the average Illinois town. The ensemble of Main Street alone boasts 16 structures included in the Historic American Buildings Survey, and many other pre-Civil War buildings on Main and throughout the district, lend a quality of discovery to the streetscape rarely encountered in the state."
But how much longer will these old buildings on Main Street last? Some have collapsed, others are on the verge of it, while most are abandoned. Warsaw needs help. Perhaps it will come in the form of grants and other types of financial assistance from the state of Illinois, or from a generous philanthropist or two. Time will tell, as the clock keeps ticking on this historic town's future.
Mike Shepherd of New Berlin is a native of Warsaw, where his parents and grandparents were also born. He is a freelance writer and the author of Like Another Lifetime in Another World and Days of Rage – historical fictions that examine the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement in Carbondale in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He witnessed both, first as a military reporter in Vietnam, and later as a student at Southern Illinois University.