Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
By Valeria Martinez
When thinking of remarkable places in Illinois, Chicago or Springfield comes to mind. Certainly small towns like Shelbyville do not. In fact, Shelbyville remains disguised to people who aren’t locals.
“Shelbyville is one of the best kept secrets in Illinois,” Bruce Steinke, broker/owner at Shelby Realty, said.
There’s little to see when simply passing through Shelbyville but a lot to discover when casually strolling through its historic downtown area
“Shelbyville is mostly a farming community, but there is also some industry involved,” Steinke said. “It’s a stable place to live — it has the best of both worlds.”
With the scorching sun outside and the occasional funky smell of livestock as cow trucks whip by, going into the pleasant, air conditioned shops seems like a good idea.
Upon entering a Hallmark store filled with trinkets one would usually find at their grandparent’s home, faces belonging to familiar strangers greet and mingle with customers. Employee Shelby Fultz smiles and walks over to the local couple to help them pick out a card.
“I know most of the customers here with the exception of tourists,” Fultz said.
Fultz, an employee of Hallmark for more than five years, carefully wraps up the merchandise bought by the couple and bids them goodbye with a “Take care!”
Later on, Fultz explained how she got the job through her grandparents who owned a candy shop a couple blocks away.
“It’s a really small town,” Fultz said.
After cooling off, it’s time to face the hot and sticky weather once again. After walking for a couple of minutes, concrete sidewalks turn into brick paths.
“They were actually the original streets of Shelbyville,” Freddie Fry, executive director of the Shelby County Tourism Office, said. “We wanted to maintain the charm of this small community through its historical significance.”
The occasional switching of brick paths was not the only evidence of history — traces are scattered all over the place.
There’s the classic Shelby County Courthouse where Abraham Lincoln would spend his days as an attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court; the Shelbyville Library funded by Andrew Carnegie after receiving a petition from the Shelbyville Women’s Club; the timeless Lake Shelbyville was recently named one of the most gorgeous in Illinois only second to Lake Michigan; and other modest monuments, according to Fry.
Bruce Steinke, broker/owner at Shelby Realty, conversed about the town’s history by explaining the archaic map hanging in the meeting room of their building. The outdated drawing of prairies, the houses, the abundant trees, the trains, and the hills rolling down towards the Kaskaskia River are all part of the first real estate development that helped create today’s Shelbyville.
“Originally, this place was a trading post,” Steinke said. “Then it evolved into Shelbyville.”
Later on while walking through the streets Lincoln roamed more than four score and seven years ago, vintage houses of different styles ranging from simplistic Prairie Tudor houses to intricate Queen Anne houses appear.
The plain, white house belonging to the inventor of the dishwashing machine, Josephine Cochran, stands quaintly on South Broadway Street along with the intricate, baby pink house of Dr. J.C. Westervelt.
Further up north while walking on Broadway Street, the grand Victorian-style Tackett house emerges with its vast property covered in windows, brass and copper light fixtures.
The subtle Prairie Tudor-style house known as the W.S. Middlesworth House appears nearby. The brown house with minimal decoration once lodged President William Howard Taft, according to local residents.
Surprisingly, residents of Shelbyville currently own these historic houses through family lineage or purchase.
“The furniture is often kept and preserved by them,” Steinke said.
With Shelbyville’s history and fairly priced houses, ex-residents like Ilene Binnion have expressed a desire to go back to Shelbyville.
“I like going to different places, but I like to go back home,” Binnion said. “Here, everybody knows everybody. It’s a nice town.”
Even current residents who considered moving thought of Shelbyville as the ideal place to live.
“We decided to stay in the community because of the familiarity,” Fry said.
Despite its beauty and potential, residents think Shelbyville has not gotten the recognition it deserves.
“You take these little towns and they’re gone,” local Helen Shult said. “It’s pitiful. With it’s lake, I thought that Shelbyville would’ve taken off.”
Fry, the executive director of Shelby County Tourism, mentioned that Shelbyville has been slowly improving and making more of an effort to bring in tourists and prospective buyers.
“We have a strong presence on social media and we’re putting a lot of effort into our marketing and selling; we’re visitor and family friendly,” Fry said.
Besides focusing on social media and marketing, Fry advertises other recreation activities such as the murals around town, the aquatic center, the beautiful gardens along the lengthy trail, and the dam.
“It’s a great place to live; it’s like having a recreation center in our own background,” Fry said.
After a short and busy day, it’s time to leave. After seeing the locals and the history, the tiny town left outsiders hungry for more. Astonishingly, only the surface of Shelbyville had been scratched. Imagine if one could stay here longer; no one would ever leave the beauty of Shelbyville.