The Illinois Indians were no doubt the first inhabitants
of Elba Township, but were gradually driven further South by the Kickapoos.
These were industrious, intelligent and cleanly in comparison with most of
their kind, and made this township only their temporary home, on the way to
and from other hunting grounds. So the white men never had to dispute
possession of this land with the Indians, nor were they ever molested by the
Red Men, so far as history shows.
The first white man to locate in the township was John King, of Ohio, who, in
1835, came and took up 80 acres on Section 2, then returned to Ohio to bring
out his family. The next spring he again started west, leaving his family to
follow later, but arriving at Peoria, he was taken sick and died before
reaching Knox County. As soon as they could leave their old home, but which
was not until 1837, his widow and nine children, the youngest less than 2
years old, made the long westward journey in wagons drawn by oxen, stopping
with her brother in Peoria County until their new home could be built.
Very soon thereafter came Darius Miller and his brother; then Felix Thurman
settled on Section 27 and James H. Nicholson on Section 25. Josiah Nelson,
John Thurman, John and William West, Vachel Metcalf, J.H. and W.H. Baird and
Samuel Tucker were also early settlers.
The first marriage was Moses Smith to Tabitha George in 1840, by Jacob
Kightlinger, the first Justice of the Peace, who’s Commission, was dated
August, 1839. The first birth was Tabitha Smith, on Section 35.
The first house in the township was the one built by Thomas King for his
widowed mother and sisters and brothers. It was on the north side of Section
2, on the Knoxville and Peoria stage road, and was a one room log building,
with a loft above.
The population increased steadily as the township was built up, many of the
early settlers having large families—the majority of these were from Ohio,
Pennsylvania and New York, while several others came from England.
The first school house in the township was built by Jacob Kightlinger in
1842, on Section 27, but before this Mr. Kightlinger had employed a private
governess, named Antoinette Walker, to teach his children, eleven in number.
Vachel Metcalf had also taught school in a private house, in 1840. As the
township became more settled, other school houses were built until now there
are eight in the township, all being substantial frame buildings of one room
The early settlers did not meet with such hardships as were endured by many
pioneers. Their homes were usually in or near the timber, which furnished
material for their buildings as well as fuel and shelter for their livestock
until they could build barns and sheds. There was plenty of game and fish for
good and good grazing for stock out on the prairie. Only the cultivated land
was fenced and cattle, horses and hogs roamed at will over the prairies, and
as they often failed to come home at night, much time was spent hunting for
them. Money was not plentiful and prices were very low, corn selling for 20
cents per bushel; potatoes, 18-3/4 cents per bushel; pork, 2 cents per pound;
lard, 4 cents per pound; butter, 6 cents per pound; flour, $4.50 per barrel;
wheat, 60 cents per bushel; oats, 30 cents per bushel, etc., but the wants of
these people were not many and were easily satisfied.
Travel at first was mostly on foot, on horseback or in wagons drawn by oxen
or horses, while the fortunate owners of the first buggies and carriages were
frequently called to loan them to their poorer of less provident neighbors.
During busy seasons, while horses were working in the fields, some thrifty
housewives would occasionally take a basket of eggs and butter on either arm
and walk three or four miles to market, bringing home groceries in exchange
for their produce. At the present time travel is mostly by buggy and
automobile, very few farmers feeling themselves too poor to afford the
In the early days Farmington in Fulton County, Charleston (now Brimfield) in
Peoria County and Knoxville were the nearest trading points. Later there were
stores at Newburg in Peoria County and Glenwood in Salem Township. There was
a store at Eugene in Elba Township. When Elmwood and Yates City were started
they secured most of the trade of this township, which they now share with
Williamsfield and Douglas. Also the early settlers hauled much of their wheat
to Peoria, and it was not uncommon to haul a load to Chicago, bringing back
lumber or something not obtainable at nearby towns.
The first store in the township was at Eugene, on Section 2. It was a general
store kept by E.A. Ellsworth, in a small building near his residence, and was
started prior to 1850. There was also a post office here, the mail being
brought by stage from Knoxville and Peoria. Later, (in 1860), Miss Mary King
moved both store and post office to her home, just east of her brother, James
King’s house; sometime after her marriage to John Wilson in 1862, they were
across the road in Truro Township.
The first post office in Elba, however, was at the home of Jacob Kightlinger,
and in 1870 one was established on Section 15, called Spoon River, but the
following year the name was changed to Elba Centre. There was also a store
here, Miss Rebecca Boyes, and aunt of County Superintendent of Schools, W.W.
Boyes, being postmistress and store-keeper
Felix Thurman put up the first sawmill in the township, on French Creek. It
was a small mill, run by water power. There was at one time a tile factory on
the farm of George W. Smith, on Section 24; E.A. Ellsworth also owned one on
Section 1, and there were brick kilns on Section 13 and 14, but these
industries have long since passed away.
In early days Samuel Tucker kept a tavern at his home, a double log house on
Coal was discovered in 1847, on Section 15, by Jacob Kightlinger.
Elba Township was organized in April, 1853, as Liberty Township, but the same
year its name was changed to Elba. N.S. Barber was named Moderator and J.W.
Himes, Clerk. Forty-nine votes were cast, resulting in the choice of James H.
Nicholson for Supervisor; H.L. Bailey, assessor; Henry Smith, Collector; J.W.
Himes, Clerk; H. Oberholtzer, John West and K. Himes, Commissioners of
Highways; John West and B.F. Johnson, Justices of the Peace; William Searles,
Overseer of the Poor; Henry Smith, Constable.
The present officers are: H.W. Oberholtzer, Supervisor; J.P. Cecil, Assessor;
Thomas Stroub, Highway Commissioner; Ralph Baird, Clerk; William Fuller,
Justice of the Peace.
Rev. S.S. Miles, a Presbyterian minister, preached the first sermon in the
township at the home of Mr. Lambert, in 1839. Preachers would come through
the country and services would be held at different homes, on any day. After
the school houses were built, services were held in them. The Rev. Cross, who
figures prominently in Underground Railroad affairs, lived in this township
and preached at various places, In October 1854, he lectured to a fair-sized
crowd in the newly-built Pleasant Hill school house, the first meeting held
in the building. For years quarterly meetings were held in groves through the
township and “protracted” meetings in the various school houses. Sunday
school was held in the school houses, also.
The first church was built by the Methodists, in 1874, on Section 17, and was
dedicated in June of that year, by President Evans of Hedding College. No
regular services have been held in this church for some time now. In 1875 the
Presbyterians built a church on Section 10, but as many of the members soon
after died or left the township, the building was sold and moved. In 1876 the
Methodists erected a church on Section 13, which is called Bethel. No
Services have been held here for some months. In early days the Bible and
religion were the principal subjects for discussion whenever thinking men got
together, taking the place now filled by politics and events of the day.
At one time there was a strong leaning toward temperance in the community and
a Good Templar Lodge was organized in 1867, and a hall built on Section 16,
but gradually interest died out, and the members dropped out one by one. In
1876 the building was sold and turned into a dwelling.
The first farms received very little cultivation; indeed it was not needed to
raise a good crop. When the hazel-brush was cleared off the land, the soil
was very productive, and it is said that on this newly cleared land, after
the seed had been scattered by hand, it was sometimes brushed into the soil
drawing the bough of a tree over it. On prairie land the sod was sometimes
cut with a spade and the seed dropped into the cut. Usually however, new land
was broken with a breaking plow drawn by several yoke of oxen. With these
plows, brush eight or ten feet tall was turned under. A free Negro, named
Solomon Bradley, did considerable breaking for Elba farmers.
When ready to harvest the grain was cut with a cradle and threshed out on the
barn floor either with flails or trampled by horses. Corn when harvested and
even wheat was often piled up on the ground outside, with no protection but a
rail pen around it, but little spoilage resulting.
At first the amount of livestock raised was comparatively small, as there was
not a very good market for it. Hogs had to be killed and dressed on the farm,
then hauled from 10 to 40 miles or even farther, to market. After the
railroad from Peoria to Galesburg was built, and it became possible to ship
livestock to market, more cattle and hogs were raised on the farms, until at
the present day it is no uncommon thing to see a drove of from 100 to 200 on
There are many good herds of cattle found on the farms of Elba, some being
purebred, while others are high grade. The first purebred Shorthorn cattle
were brought into the township by G.W. Kennedy in 1866, and at one time he
had a herd of 125 head. Some years ago there was a strong inclination toward
the raising of dairy cattle, but of late, owing to the inability of the
farmers to secure competent help, and to the high price of dairy fees, more
dual-purpose and beef cattle are being kept.
At first there were very few sheep kept, because the wolves and dogs were so
destructive to them, but about the time of the Civil War, when wool became so
scarce and high-priced, many farmers bought flocks or added to those they
already had. Within the last few years, also, there has been considerable
increase in sheep-raising, caused by the high prices of wool and mutton. The
first sheep were the coarse-wool kind, but were soon succeeded by the Merino
variety. Today the medium wool is about the only kinds that are raised here.
Many farmers of the township are also interested in raising purebred horses.
June 5, 1844, a most destructive wind and rainstorm visited Elba Township as
well as the rest of the county. Houses and barns were unroofed or destroyed
and other damage done. It is likely that this is the storm which took the
roof off the Widow King’s home, destroying much of her personal property.
In May, 1858, another severe storm visited this township. Mrs. James King
recalls that all the windows on the west side of their house, both upstairs
and down were broken by the hail, and the rain poured in in such volume that,
the upstairs floors being tight, it ran down the stairway, like a river. In
the northwest part of the township a Mrs. Farster was killed by the storm,
and on the farm of J.H. Nicholson a large new barn was blown off its
In August, 1907, a storm of wind, rain and hail passed through the township
breaking windows, uprooting trees and destroying crops. Hail stones, having
the circumference of baseballs, but with uneven, jagged edges, were picked up
in the path of the storm.
There have been several notably severe snow storms, the worst ones in January
and February, 1885, and December, 1917 and January, 1918. In both of these a
great amount of snow fell, accompanied by high winds which cause it to drift
badly, completely filling and blockading roads, making travel impossible for
several days. Even railroad trains were caught in snowdrifts and unable to
get through for a couple of days. As the temperature was well below zero,
much suffering was caused both to people and animals.
In the fall of 1869 or 1870, in the northeast part of the township, a little
Cowley child wandered away and was lost. The mother was attending a quilting
at the home of a neighbor. She supposed the child, a little boy of some two
or three years, was playing with the others, but when she was ready to go
home he was not to be found. Search about the place failed to reveal him, and
soon the entire neighborhood was aroused. The little fellow thinly clad and
without wraps, was found the next morning, face downward on the frozen ground
by his distracted grandfather, William King. He had died of exposure.
In pioneer days the homes were very simple and scantily furnished. Because of
the great distance the early settlers had to come to reach their new homes,
and the difficulty of transportation, only such articles were brought along
as were deemed necessary. A few dishes and cooking utensils, some chairs, a
table, a bed or two, and their bedding would comprise their household
furnishings. Often beds would be built into the side or corner of the home.
Thus simplifying matters. Many families also owned spinning wheels and looms,
and the mother spun yarn and wove cloth for her family’s garments. Later rag
carpets were woven on these looms and the homes were thus made more
At first fireplaces served both for heating and cooking; these gradually gave
place to cook stoves and heating stoves, which today are replaced in many
homes by the kitchen range and furnace. Later rag carpets were woven on these
looms, and the homes were thus made more comfortable.
At first the tallow dip, or candle furnished light, but was superseded by the
kerosene lamp, and this in many homes by electric lights or acetylene gas.
The heavy stone-china or pewter dishes have been replaced by china, glass and
silver, and the iron pots and skillets by those of aluminum and enameled
The washing and sewing machines, the power churn, vacuum cleaner and
bread-mixer have been brought into many homes to make easier the farm woman’s
Where fifty years ago the organ in an Elba home was a novelty, today there
are very few homes without an organ, piano, phonograph or musical instrument
of some sort.
As the pioneers became prosperous and conditions easier, the old log cabin
was found insufficient and new and more commodious home of frame or brick
were built. Many of these houses, built fifty or sixty years ago, are still
in use and, so thorough the workmanship employed in their construction that
today they compare favorably with houses built many years later. Of these
homes, probably none is much if any older than the brick house built by J.H.
Nicholson on Section 25 in 1848, which is at present the home of his
Life was by no means all work and no play for the early settlers. There were
house-raisings and barn-raisings to call the men together and quite needless
to say there was always much pleasure to be had at such a time. At butchering
time also several neighbors would be called in to help. The women had their
quiltings and apple-parings, while the young people took especial delight in
singing and spelling school and dances. Visiting played an important part in
the lives of these hardworking people and helped to keep alive in the
community a spirit of neighborliness and good-fellowship.
On the whole, the residents of Elba are very prosperous; most of the farms
are attractive located, well cultivated and improved and the houses generally
comfortable and commodious buildings, some have al the conveniences of city
Elba has always done her part in whatever way she was called upon. During the
Civil War she sent her share of soldiers to the front, and fine young men
they were, too, some of whom did not live to come back to their homes, but
found graves in Southern battlefields. During the recent World War she sent
her quota of noble manhood, regardless of the fact that they could ill be
spared, and gave generously of money to help the Red Cross and other war
This is the only township in the county without a railroad. Neither is there
a post office or business house of any kind within its limits. About
three-fourths of the township is fine, rolling prairie, with a rich, black,
loamy soil, especially suited to the production of cereals, being one of the
best townships in the county for that purpose. A yield of 52 bushels of wheat
per acre and 75 bushels of oats has been known.
The population in 1910 was 619.