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article number 108
article date 02-28-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
"Good Ol’ Summer Time in Camargo, Illinois" - Finding History in My Own Back Yard
by Jackie Wells Jamison

After visiting a local bed and breakfast open house, which you’ll read more about in a couple of weeks, I received a fascinating lesson on local history. What bothered me is how (after living within 10 miles of Patterson Springs most of my life) did I not already know this stuff?? I mean Booker T. Washington spoke here almost 100 years ago and I am just now finding out. He was a speaker at the annual Patterson Springs Chautauqua …

President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is "the most American thing in America."

If that was the case there was nothing more American than Patterson Springs Camargo IL in the early 1900s. The Chautauqua was an annual event in Patterson Springs starting in 1906 with the last one in 1916.

You might be asking yourself (as I did) “What is a Chautauqua?” Wikipedia states---Chautauqua (shə-TAW-kwə) was an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s.


Simply before T.V. I-pods, video games and yes even paved roads families left the farm (and the city) for a few days to be stimulated and entertained by evangelist, political speakers, orchestras, food, and fellowship …

Springs behind Robert Patterson’s home.

… and at this location just off what is now scenic US 36 there was even a little more of an attraction, where Robert Patterson built his home, the springs which ran behind his home. Robert Patterson called these springs “living waters”. Many folks drank from the same cup to get a sip of that natural spring water.

I want to share with you some of the interesting facts I discovered about a place I have been to many many times, but now through recent conversations, old newspaper articles and pictures I have a discovered a much different Patterson Springs than the one I know today. I can now see a place that my grandparents, old friends, and the generations before us knew and enjoyed …

The Patterson home, Camargo Illinois.

In 1875 (some newspaper articles report 1882) Robert Patterson built this beautiful home with bricks made on the property from his brick factory. The home cost around $5000 to build, a pretty penny back then. His love of the springs and surrounding woods on the banks of the Embarrass River is what compelled him to build his home in Camargo, IL.

Thornton Long purchased the property after the passing of Robert and Minerva (Colvin) Patterson. During the Chautauqua era Mr. Long lived in the home, although the grounds and springs were open to the public the house was not.


How did they park all of those cars back then? Well you can see from the above photo the main mode of transportation was not the automobile. I can just taste the dust stirred up by all those horse and buggies on a hot August day.

Smile kids you’re at the Chautauqua!

The first Chautauqua was held in 1906 from Aug 1 to Aug 10. In the early years of the Chautauqua the speakers and performers entertained under a pavilion and in big tents. As with any new venture there was confusion and a few hitches along the way.


The first year weather kept the crowds down. The Tuscola Journal (Aug 10, 1972) “An amusing incident interrupted Miss Margaret Stahl’s speech in 1906. Miss Stahl, an elocutionist, was reading “Enoch Arden” when a heavy windstorm came up. The clouds in the west looked somber, black, ugly and foreboding. The wind swept through the pavilion and tent with increasing velocity. Suddenly a guide rope broke, the big tent swerved to the southeast. Miss Stahl gave one shrill, piercing cry and bound from the platform. The crowd followed and it was everyone for himself. No one tried to stop the disorder. Chairs were overturned and when the tent was about emptied, it looked like a cyclone hit it. Four or five women fainted.”

Can’t you just see the ladies in their long dresses, bonnets, and their ankle boots trying to move quickly to safety while the men tried to hold on to their hats?

Even with a loss of $1000 to $1200 the first Chautauqua was considered a success.

Many famous people of the time such as William Jennings Bryan, Booker T Washington, Cole Younger, William Howard Taft , and Billy Sunday spoke at the Chautauquas. Show in photo: William Jennings Bryan, William Howard Taft, Billy Sunday, Booker T Washington.

In 1907 William Jennings Bryan an American Politician who was a dominant force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, standing three times as its candidate for President of the United States (1896, 1900 and 1908), spoke drawing a crowd of 8000 people. Way more than the tent could hold. I share with you some of the names of the speakers and entertainers so you can understand the magnitude of this event. I was stunned to find out the number of famous people that passed through the little town of Camargo, IL.

Other famous speakers included:
- Booker T Washington, an American educator, author, orator, and political leader.
- Cole Younger, an American Confederate guerrilla during the American Civil War and later an outlaw with the Jesse James-Younger gang.
- Former President William Howard Taft
- Billy Sunday a former baseball player and current evangelist.

New auditorium.

As the event grew and people hungered for more entertainment an auditorium was built. The seating capacity was 5500.

The back of this picture says ”Ladies boating on the Embarrass River”. Sure makes me appreciate the women’s movement even more when I look at this picture….boating in dresses, and long dresses at that?

Entertainments went far beyond speakers. There was boating, swimming. There were jugglers, bands and other entertainers. There were even dog shows.


Folks poured in from all over central Illinois. It was reported in 1907 43,000 folks attended the 2 week event…holy cow that is a lot of people passing through Camargo, IL.

More train stops were scheduled at the Camargo Train Depot to accommodate the huge crowds.

I love this picture of the ladies picnicking…notice the watermelon, no seedless watermelons back then…I can only image this was their camping spot with the tent behind them. If you look closely you can see their tin cups they drank out of.

If you didn’t want to pack your food like these ladies you could buy a “big” hamburger for a dime add another nickel and you could enjoy a soda too.

This photo was copied from a postcard mailed at Camargo, IL Aug 20, 1909. The card was to Miss Mary Strum, Fairland, IL and was from her sister Carrie. She wrote “This is almost like an institute on different. The program is fine.” This was special to me as I am from Fairland IL. It amuses me that someone in Fairland would receive a postcard about Camargo only a stone’s throw away.

The annual event died out by 1917 due to the high cost of entertainment. Also with more and more folks having an automobile and paved roads travel was getting much easier. People were not limited to train routes.

I do want to share with you that several years back I cleaned house for a dear lady and her husband, Glen and Loie (Marie) Smith. many days, while I cleaned, Loie would share stories of her youth and growing up in the Villa Grove area. Always in a hurry to finish up and get home to bed (I worked the deep night shift at my full time job) I did not take the time to really listen. She once shared how her family used to go weekends to Patterson Springs and picnic. I am older now and hopefully a little wiser and realize the greatest link to our past are the generations that have went before us. Once they are gone many stories of yesterdays gone by will go with them. I encourage you to collect stories from you friends and family, write them down, and tell their stories.

Most of my information came from newspaper articles from the Aug 10, 1972 Tuscola Journal and the Villa Grove News March 15, 2007 issues. All of the photographs are from the Camargo Township District Library, and there are several more photographs available to look through.

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