Coal Mining in Illinois

South Wilmington

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100 Years of History

By Ebe Jerbi
Reprinted from the Gardner Centennial Booklet, 1954, with the permission of Novi Jerbi

The sinking of Mine No. 1 on December 10, 1899, was the beginning of the village of South Wilmington, Illinois. The actual town site was at that time owned and farmed by Mr. McConnell. Eighty acreas in the southwest corner of Section 11 was purchased from McConnell for the purpose of building a town.

The first settlers came mostly from Braidwood and had gained experience working the coal mines of that town. Their nationalities were: Italian, Irish, English, Scottish, Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak and Croatian. The first family to settle on the town site was Mr. and Mrs. Gideon Simpson. Their home was moved from Braidwood. The second family was Patrick Corrigan, who came to take charge of the first hotel which was put up by the Chicago, Wilmington and Vermilion Coal Company.

Other families were William Purdy, Michael Finn, George Littlejack, William Pelton, William English, Hugh Young, Frank Bottino, Dominic Bottino, and Walter Ferguson. Many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of these families still reside in South Wilmington.

On August 23, 1899, South Wilmington was incorporated as a village, and the first election was held September 19, 1899.

The following town officers were elected: Robert McNulty, president; William Purdy, Martin Ferraro, Patrick Corrigan, Hugh Young, and John Hammer, trustees; Michael Finn, clerk; Walter Ferguson, treasurer; Charles McLean, constable; William Walker, street commissioner; and Levi Simms, police magistrate.

Among the first business and professional men were: Dr. C.D. Allison, physician; Arthur G. Perry, president of the Bank of South Wilmington; Harry May, meat market; Sam William, meats and groceries; Henry Bull, meat market; C. Bottino & Sons, groceries; and Dave Abram, undertaker.

Mr. Robert McNulty was the first postmaster, the mail was brought into town before the establishment of a post office by Thomes Kalderm of Gardner. Passengers from the trains arriving at Gardner were brought to South Wilmington by Mr. Doud of Gardner, who was a familiar sight with his wagon and white horses.

The coal mining industry was at its peak around the turn of the century. Business-wise the town was prosperous. There were five grocery stores, an auto business, a barbershop operated by the village mayor, a gift shop, two service stations, a bowling alley and seven taverns.

The postmaster who operated a third-class post office with mail delivered by truck from nearby Gardner, was on the job the past 13 years. Then costs began to rise, and the last mine, No. 3, was abandoned in 1926, although it was acknowledged one of the richest veins in the state. More than 350 South Wilmington men were out of work when the mines closed.

Many people moved to the fields of southern Illinois, other industrial centers of Chicago, Joliet, Detroit and other parts of the country. Even the townspeople predicted a quick "death" for the village. It was a trying period for the villagers. Employment was scarce, the depression eating into their life savings; it was difficult to make ends meet.

The population of the town dwindled down to a very small number. But the villagers stuck it out, and today South Wilmington has a population of about 750 and is still growing.

In 1951, South Wilmington organized its first volunteer Fire Department crew with Albert Vota, the fire chielf of a 25-man organization, which had a 500-gallon capacity pump fire truck and an inhalator.

Located in Greenfield Township, Grundy County, it is one of the prosperous location in the region. The village has great pride in their new town today. They have every right to do so with their many new and improved homes, new school building, remodeled churches and church halls, modern fire equipment and improved streets. It is felt that if the town founders were able to see the village today, that they would say "well done," and we would answer, "Amen."