On Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at a little after 3pm, the temperature was 72 degrees and rising, the sky was fair, and wind gusted south-southwest up to 32 mph. Humidity was low. By all accounts, it was a beautiful spring day, and Eastern Illinois University’s Spring Semester was quickly coming to a close. Students crammed for final exams, which would begin the following Monday.
I don’t remember what I was doing on campus (probably hanging out in the food court), but as I walked toward the north quad, I noticed a crowd gathering. At 3:14 pm, someone had called 911 from inside Blair Hall, an ivy-covered Gothic Revival building directly southeast of Old Main. Smoke billowed from the third floor windows.
Blair Hall is the third oldest building on campus. It was constructed in 1913 and originally called the Model School, then renamed after football coach Francis G. Blair in 1958. It completed the triad of buildings that made up the old campus, including Old Main and the fabled Pemberton Hall. Blair Hall was home to the anthropology and sociology departments, so I only ever took a handful of elective classes there.
A majestic monument marks the scene of the opening salvo in the Black Hawk War.
The Battle of Stillman’s Run (or Battle of Old Man’s Creek) was fought on May 14, 1832 between 275 Illinois militia and Sauk leader Black Hawk and approximately 40-50 warriors from his mixed-nation group of American Indians called the “British Band”. The engagement was a humiliating loss for the militia. It was the first battle in the Black Hawk War, which would ultimately end in Black Hawk’s defeat.
In April 1832, Black Hawk moved his British Band to Illinois, believing he would find friendly tribal allies. The Illinois militia was organized to confront him, and 275 militia under the command of Majors Isaiah Stillman and David Bailey camped near Old Man’s Creek, about three miles east of the Rock River. Black Hawk’s pleas for assistance were rebuked at every turn, so he sent emissaries and scouts to negotiate a truce.
Seeing the Indian scouts, Stillman and his militia thought they were under attack and opened fire (there are allegations some of his men were drunk). They pursued the retreating scouts back to Black Hawk’s camp, where they were ambushed and fled in terror. A dozen militiamen under Captain John Giles Adams fought a nighttime rearguard action on a hill south of their camp, while the others escaped to Dixon’s Ferry. All twelve were killed. Black Hawk estimated he lost three to five men.
There isn’t much to see in the little town of Gays in Moultrie County, Illinois, population 274. Its claim to fame is a two-story outhouse, probably unique to Illinois but one of several in the United States. Built in 1872, it was formerly connected to a general store with apartments on the second floor. The outhouse was two stories tall so apartment residents didn’t have to go downstairs to “conduct business”. Unfortunately, the old brick building had to be torn down in 1984, but the town carefully preserved its lone tourist attraction.
An unexplained nineteenth-century weather event froze livestock in their tracks and drove some pioneers to take extreme measures to escape a similar fate.
An obscure historical weather event blew through central Illinois in the 1830s known as the “Sudden Freeze.” It appeared without warning on December 20, 1836. The weather had been relatively warm in the proceeding days, and a light rain turned the snow to slush. In the early afternoon, a dark cloud traveling about 25-30 mph descended from the northwest “accompanied by a roaring noise.”
What happened next was described by William H. Perrin in his History of Coles County, Illinois (1879):
As it passed over the country, everything was frozen in its track almost instantly. Water that was running in little gullies or in the streams was suddenly arrested in its career, blown into eddies and small waves by the wind, and frozen before it could subside. Cattle, horses, hogs and wild animals exposed to its fury were soon chilled through and many frozen in their tracks. Where a few moments before they walked in mud and slush, was now frozen, and unless moving about they were frozen fast.
In some instances where individuals were exposed to the fury of this wave and unable to reach shelter, their lives were lost. One man was found afterward standing frozen in the mud, dead, and still holding the rein of his horse in his hand. He had apparently become bewildered and chilled, and freezing fast in the mud and slush, remained standing.
History of Coles County, Illinois, pages 339-340.
There are several stories of pioneers who were unfortunately caught outside and instantly froze to death. According to History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Illinois
(1876) by John C. Power, in the western part of Douglas County near the
border of Piatt and Moultrie counties, “two brothers by the name of
Deeds had gone out to cut a bee tree, and were overtaken by the cold and
frozen to death. Their bodies were found ten days later, about three
miles from home.”
In January 1981, motorists parked their cars along a narrow rural road in frigid temperatures to catch a glimpse of a scantily-clad phantom.
It was a few weeks before Christmas, 1980. Kim Anderson turned down Kennedy Hill Road and headed for home after attending church early Sunday morning. Snow drifted across the country road and ice glistened on the barren fields. Without warning, she noticed a young woman, around the same age as she, walking down the road toward her driveway. The woman had long, blonde hair, and strangely, wore a pair of light colored shorts.
Kim pulled her car into her driveway and ran into the house. She threw open the curtains on the front room window to see if the woman was going to come up the driveway. She didn’t. Instead, she continued walking toward Byron. Kim didn’t think much of the encounter after that, until she began to hear the rumors.
Between mid-December and early January, dozens of people reported seeing a young woman in various stages of dress walking down Kennedy Hill Road. By January 20, 1981, the sightings had reached a fevered pitch. Wild reports circulated around Ogle County, and motorists parked their cars in the frigid temperatures along the narrow rural road to catch a glimpse of what became known as “The Phantom Lady of Kennedy Hill Road.” Newspaper reports reached as far away as Chicago, and the Rockford Register Star ran five consecutive articles on the sightings.