The Early History of Argyle Lake

Welcome to yet another rebirth of the Archives Blog!

My name is Robert Kett and I have been a graduate assistant up in the penthouse suite since August. In that time, I’ve helped to arrange a number of different collections chronicling life on Western’s campus, life in Macomb and in McDonough County. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of it but the most interesting task that I have been delegated has been to digitize the oral histories, program presentations and more that the archive currently has on cassette tape.

Among the dozens of cassettes that I have digitized so far was a talk on the history of Argyle Lake State Park. Since I’ve been in Macomb, I’ve been told by many that Argyle Lake is a place that must be visited by all who have a great appreciation for nature. I felt that a brief discussion of the early history of Argyle Lake State Park would be a great way to reactivate the blog.

I decided to go through the archive’s vertical files in order to see what I could come up with.

The most striking fact that I discovered is that the lake itself did not exist seventy years ago. It was only in July 1947 that the Argyle Lake Project was given final approval by Governor Dwight Green. According to the August 28, 1947 edition of the McDonough County Times,


The Department of Conservation called upon the Illinois Federation of Sportsmen’s clubs to present to the State Department lake sight possibilities throughout the state. The clubs sent in six hundred possible sights… The engineers of the conservation department checked all sites and centered upon nine with the greatest possibilities. [The] Argyle Valley project was selected as No. 1 after a very careful testing to be sure if the site had all qualifications necessary.

About a year after the project was given its final approval, the final land was purchased for the area and within days, Governor Green released nearly half a million dollars to further the Department of Conservation’s artificial lake program.

There had been conjecture over what the new state park would be named. As an article from the September 23, 1948 edition of the Adair Weekly Beacon stated:

Most persons around Colchester that have expressed an opinion favor the name Argyle State Park, first because it is unique since there are no other parks by that name in the United States and second, because a part of the acreage set aside for the park has always been known locally as Argyle Hollow.

Work progressed to transform Argyle Hollow into Argyle Lake, with the largest cost coming from construction of the massive dam that created the man-made lake. Over one thousand acres were transformed from rough ground into public park space.

A fire that broke out in the timber and pasture on the lake-park project spread over around two hundred acres, destroying young trees and threatening one old house in the area in November 1949. This did little to stop the progress, thankfully, and the lake would be completed in the spring of 1950 and opened to the public on June 15 with its dedication following on July 4.

Shortly thereafter, Leonard Schwartz, state director of conservation, stated that the Argyle lake area was to primarily serve as a boating and fishing development and that there were no plans for full development of the area as a state park. The Illinois Federation of Sportsmen adopted “Argyle Conservation Area” as the official name for the interim.

By 1960, enough improvements were made to the area for it to officially earn state park status.

There’s an approximation of the early history of Argyle Lake through utilizing local McDonough County newspapers. I’m definitely going to check Argyle Lake State Park out in the spring. To any and all that have yet to, I hope that you’ll consider doing the same.

Inside the Archives Presents: The Willey Farm Fires

In this Harvest edition of the Archives blog we will be taking a look a case of “Paranormal Activity”, a tale of Atomic Age Terror. Events that to this day remain enshrouded in a mystery so vexing that an urban legend about this story serving as the basis for a novel by famed horror novelist, Stephen King developed.

The Willey Farm, located 12 miles South of Macomb (Mysterious Fire and Lights by Vincent H. Gaddis), played host to a set of events that continue to defy explanation. The farm’s owner Charles and his wife decided to take in their recently divorced brother in law Arthur McNeil and his two children Arthur Jr. and Wonet (early reports called her Juanita) ages 8 and 13 respectively. August 7, 1948 heralded the end of their bucolic life. Small brown spots, 2-3 inches in diameter, began to appear on the walls. When the heat in these spots, reportedly, reached temperatures of 450 degrees they burst into pale blue flames. (“Some Person Set Fires, Says Chicago Expert” Macomb Daily Journal August 23, 1948 p.2,7) The spontaneous, phantom blazes soon escalated becoming a daily occurrence. This turn attracted the attention of the Willey’s neighbors who volunteered to assist with the vexing vigil.

Over the coming days, the rate of incidences increased. Macomb Fire Chief Fred Wilson and Deputy State Fire Marshal John Burgard, were called in and conceded that they could not identify the cause of the fires. In order to combat the fires the Willey Family stripped the wallpaper from their home. The family began to station water strategically throughout the house.  Fires continued to develop.

Making the case more confounding is the fact the house featured little in the way of modern amenities.

“The house does not have electricity which eliminates defective wiring as a possible cause. Some of the fires have been in parts of the house so far away from stoves that they cannot be suspected.”  (“’Mystery Fire’ Burns Willey Farm House Macomb Daily Journal p.2 August 13, 1948”)

During the two week period in the middle of August, more than 100 blazes of varying size appeared throughout the Willey Farm. Things quickly devolved from there,

“Repeated outbreaks of small blue flames in the walls of the Willey home caused the Willey’s to move out of the house a few days after the Aug 8th fire.

On the following Friday the house burned to the ground. On the following Monday the first barn burned, on Wednesday fires occurred in the milk house and chicken house and the next day, Thursday, the second barn burned down,” (“Suspect Arson in Farm Fires; Plan Hearing” Macomb Daily Journal August 23, 1948 p.2).

After the loss of their home, the Willeys moved into a tent on their property. Occurring at the start of the Cold War,  it was floated that these fires could be caused by secret weapons tests. This theory was later refuted.

“‘Suppose you has some material that could be ignited by radio and you wanted to test it for possible sabotage value,’ said [Lewis C.]Gust [A technician from Wright Field] ‘Would you pick a city?’

‘No. You’d pick some out-of-the -way place, like the Willey farm.'”

(“Second Willey Barn Burns; Sabotage Test by Foreign Power Suspected by Expert” Macomb Daily Journal August 20, 1948 p.2)

As they continued to lose structures on their property a neighbor allowed them to rent their vacant farm house.

“Mr. and Mrs. Willey today rented the Jim Thompson farm house about a mile and one half north of the Willey farm and moved their household goods there.” (“Willeys Worried By Fires but ‘Not Afraid’” Macomb Daily Journal August 20, 1948).

By September the story finally reached its finale, Wonet “confessed” to the fires. The confession arrived not long after small fires began to occur in the rented Thompson house. The confession was printed in full in the Macomb Daily Journal (Available in the Western Illinois Archives for viewing “Wonet’s Confession” Macomb Daily Journal August 31, 1948).

It is not outside the realm of speculation that Wonet set the fires. She had the means and motive (matches and a desire to live with her mother). However, given the age of the subject and the increasingly hectic nature of the publicity the family was receiving, hundreds of visitors and reporters questioning the family and gawking attempting to get a glimpse of their bizarre tragedy, Wonet could also have been coached to confess. The push to confess either came from a family seeking to put a dark chapter in their history to rest, or from beleaguered authorities hoping to put to rest a particularly difficult case.

Wonet would be ordered to move in with her maternal grandparents, John and Daisy Johnson, whom she had lived with previously. The Willeys would eventually move into Macomb and sell off their stock. Thus came to a close the Willey Family Saga. No definitive conclusions were ever uncovered as to the source of the pale blue flames, raising this story from oddity to local lore.

“Free” Frank and New Philadelphia: The First Black Town

Founded in 1836, predating such historical black towns as Rosewood, Florida and Greenwood, Oklahoma, New Philadelphia, Illinois in Pike County occupies an important spot in both Illinois and national history. New Philadelphia is an American tale. It is full of all the contradictions that make our nation’s history so complex, traversing a spectrum that ranges from maddening to joyful.

Bust of “Free” Frank McWorter   Source:

To tell the story of New Philadelphia it is important to know its founder, “Free Frank” McWorter. Born in 1777 during the early days of the American Revolution, to a slave woman named Juno and her owner George McWhorter. Around the time Frank was 18 his owner/father was sent to the Kentucky Frontier. George McWhorter then expanded his land holdings in Kentucky and left Frank to manage the land. It was during his Kentucky years that he met and married Lucy, a slave from a neighboring plantation in 1799. They had 4 children while enslaved: Sallie, Judy, Frank Jr. and Solomon. In 1817, two years after the death of George McWhorter, Frank purchased the freedom of his wife and their fifth unborn child. It cost 800 dollars ($11,669 today). Two years later Frank bought his freedom from the McWhorter family for the same price. While free they had three children: Squire, Commodore, and Lucy Ann.

Frank secured the funds for purchasing his families through the proceeds made from his saltpeter mine (saltpeter, a component of gunpowder). One of Frank’s clients? The United States Military. Frank gained his freedom and remained in Pulaski County, Kentucky for another 20 years, working to secure the freedom of his other still enslaved children.In 1829, Frank purchased his son Frank Jr., traded his saltpeter operation for 160 acres of land (sight unseen) in Pike County, Illinois and set out.

New Philadelphia Circa 2005                                                                                                             Source:

Given the tendency for Free Blacks to be re-enslaved and their papers burned, the McWorters would likely not have used major roads, thus making a longer trip. Frank and his family arrived in Illinois during the Winter of Deep Snow (which will be another entry). The weather forced an unexpected layover in Greene County. In the Spring of 1831, they arrived in Hadley Township, as its first settlers.

New Philadelphia represents the vision of Free Frank and the strength of his conviction, as the “earliest known town platted, founded, and registered” by a black man (New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland by Paul A. Shackel). It was founded in 1836. At its height (around 1860) the town included a grocery, two schools, more than 150 residents (both Black and White), a doctor, a blacksmith, several merchants, a carpenter, shoemakers, and a preacher along with prospects of a rail line coming to town. New Philadelphia was a growing and prosperous town.


The decline of the town of New Philadelphia was gradual. In 1840, business interests in Pike County conspired to route a major road away from the settlement. This had the effect of reducing the economic viability of the town. In 1869, the railroad that could have run through or near the town lay miles away. The land selected was much less suitable than New Philadelphia (New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland by Paul A. Shackel). New Philadelphia, impaired by a lack of political power, population migration to cities and western land, and the re-routing of major infrastructure developments continued to decline until it was no more.

Today, New Philadelphia is a National Historic Landmark and archeological dig site. On January 16, 2009 following an almost five year campaign, the New Philadelphia site is gained landmark status. Excavation has been ongoing at the site since 2003.

New Philadelphia: An Archaeology of Race in the Heartland (2011) by Paul A. Shackel
Time Team America: New Philadelphia, IL (2009)
“Free Frank” McWorter and the “Ghost Town” of New Philadelphia Pike County, Illinois (1964) By Pike County Historical Society.

The Tale of Charley and the West Central Illinois Underground Railroad

By Joshua Jefferson


Have you heard of Charley?

I don’t mean this Charlie…


The Charley in question was a husband and father of two, owned by a man living near Hannibal, Mo., a slave ; Charley was educated, and afforded a certain level of autonomy by his master. Under these conditions, while he was aware of his status he had not thought it through critically. That is until Charley attended a gathering with his master were the discussion of the recent number of slave escapes came up. He would later recall,

“The thought suddenly flashed through my mind, What am I? Am I, or I am I not, a human being, with power to feel, and think, and act? Have I a soul, or am I a machine to be set in motion and act in accordance with the will of one made in the same manner as I am, save of different color?” (History of McDonough County, Illinois by S.J. Clarke)

Using his autonomy Charley pretends to be going into Hannibal to a dance, and instead uses the opportunity to escape, using an old skiff he finds to escape across the Mississippi River to Quincy. It is there he makes his first contact with the Underground Railroad (UGRR) and make it first to Round Prairie near Plymouth, IL crossing into McDonough County to the Station run by Mr. Blazer. From this point it is understood that he made it along the rest of the route to Canada.

The Underground Railroad



Not content to remain in Canaan (aka Canada) Charley, returned back down the UGRR, a few months later, to Mr. Blazer with one goal in mind, to free his wife and two children. Charley initially tries to bargain for his families release through intermediaries, but when the negotiations fail because the owner’s refusal to stop raising his asking price, Charley takes action and what follows is an epic.

Charley made 2 unsuccessful attempts to free his family. Each time coming closer, Charley returned to Quincy. He secured a skiff through the local branch of the UGRR, and spent days trying to find an opportunity to get his family. While he was not successful he did manage to guide a few other local slaves on to the Underground Railroad. Failing to secure his family, Charley left and returned again a few months later to make another attempt. Failing again he made a third attempt. It is this third attempt when things got real.

Given the number of failed attempts to save his family, Charley’s former owner had gotten wise to him. Figuring he would return at some point to make another attempt, Charley’s family was held in a room inside the house, above the Master Bedroom, that could only be accessed through the Master’s bedroom. Undeterred, Charley snuck into the house by removing clapboards from the roof and extracted his family (The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen W. Muelder). The family made for the river, but could not make it to their crossing point that same night so they hid in the woods until the next night. Once they made it to their launch point, they boarded skiff and began to cross the river, as they approached a small island near the main shore, two men armed with guns stepped out.

Charley was ordered to surrender. He drew his revolver instead. It was a standoff. Charley began to argue with the men, even as he consulted his wife on their next move. At her urging he dived into the river,

“She urged him to save himself, stating it would be death or worse for him to be captured, but as to her, they would do nothing save placing a more strict watch over her person,” (History of McDonough County, Illinois by S.J. Clarke)

Shoots rang out as Charley swam for shore, but he made it back onto the Underground Railroad. Charley is captured at some point following the events described above. He was sent to the Tennessee to work on a hemp plantation, which during that time was second only to being sent to make indigo in Florida. On the scale of terrible fates that could befall a captured slave these were solidly at the top of the list. Death was expected within five years. (The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen W. Muelder). Little did they know that Charley was on a mission; A few months after his arrival, Charley escapes.

From here Charley’s timeline becomes complicated, though not necessarily irreconcilable.



Scenario A: Charley again traveled to Western Illinois in search of his family. Investigating their whereabouts he learned they had been taken to St. Louis. He proceeded to travel to St. Louis, recover his family and return with them to Canada (History of McDonough County, Illinois by S.J. Clarke).

Scenario B:  Charley escapes captivity crosses the Ohio River links up with the regional Underground Railroad and returns to Canada. He then remains in Canada, reuniting with his family following emancipation (The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois by Owen W. Muelder). I speculate that the reality is actually a combination of the two scenarios with Charley waiting awhile to return back to the Western Illinois region and then eventually succeeding in the recovery of his family.

Either way this account ends on a positive note which is not always the case with this time period.

Inside the Archives Presents: “Western’s Singing Hundred”

By Joshua Jefferson


On a crisp autumn day, a group of young men dressed smartly in hats and suits hoisted their suitcases and trunks on top of their faithful bus. There was tinge of electricity in the air, as onlookers and loved ones bide the young men a fond farewell as they embarked on their journey. They were off to perform in yet another exhibition, their talent in high demand. The Western Illinois State Teacher’s College Men’s Glee Club, now having swelled its ranks to more than 100 voices, was a far cry now from its humble start.

Also featuring an early photobomb

Taken from the 1923 Sequel Yearbook

In 1923, with only a handful of members, under the direction of Music Department Head Theresa Wild, Western’s Men’s Glee Club was founded. The small club held a few on campus performances and was generally well received. The following year, however, they gained a new director, Clel T. Silvey, and with him they found new energy. Silvey’s arrival heralded a golden age for the Men’s Glee Club. The club’s ambitions increased, they began to tour aggressively and to perform regularly on the radio. Under the tutelage of Clel T. Silvey the Glee Club became “Western’s Singing Hundred”, acting as ambassadors of the college. The club travelled regionally, to places like Pike and Adams County, as well as the Quad Cities, Peoria and Springfield. They also traveled through the Northern and Southern reaches of Illinois, even visiting Iowa. The Northern tour in particular culminated in Chicago for a multi-day engagement that was recorded and broadcast on radio stations including: WGN, WLS and WENR. They were even invited to perform abroad on a European Tour, although the financial constraints of the time ultimately prevented this from happening.

Pictured in the inset is Director Clel T. Silvey

Taken from the 1931 Sequel Yearbook

Burning intensely before fading away, the Glee Club began to lose members over the course of the Depression Era. As the numbers dwindled the club reorganized and placed a greater focus on small group development, often breaking the overall group in half or into quartets. Over time the Glee Club began touring and broadcasting less. Silvey left as director in 1937, even as the Glee Clubs decline continued. The start of the Second World War was effectively the end of Western’s Men’s Glee Club as low male enrollment forced the end of the club and members became involved with the Mixed (Male and Female) Chorus which also was made up of members of the Women’s Glee Club (MacDowell Glee Club), which lasted for a number of years beyond the Men’s Club.

During its relatively brief time on campus the Western’s Men’s Glee Club had a profound impact on the campus life of its era but also on the history of Western Illinois University as a whole.

Haunted History

Some time last week a student came in to ask about the haunted hallways of Western’s campus.  After talking with other staff members in the archives, I learned that this time of year always comes with its fair share of interest in Western’s ghosts and the legends and lore of Macomb.  As a fan of classic horror films like Zombie and Halloween, weird fiction, and graphic novels like 30 Days of Night and the Walking Dead, this topic intrigued me greatly.  What better way to celebrate the season than to dive into some of our local spooky stories?


In the archives we have a range of material that explores the haunted history of Macomb, the Western campus, and nearby places in Illinois.  Our vertical file, writings by Dr. John Hallwas, and multiple other books contain some interesting pieces to satisfy one’s curiosity for ghosts, legends, and lore.


Two interesting categories in our vertical file, “McDonough County – Legends and Lore” and “McDonough County – Residents (Willey Family),” contain newspaper clippings of local lore.  The legends and lore folder has multiple clippings about the Gooseneck Ghost, an apparition that supposedly haunted a rural area just outside of Macomb in the early 1900s.  This collection also has some stories about the Lady in Black, the haunting of Simpkins Hall, and stories of a Madstone, which some believed could cleanse the bite of those bitten by a rabid dog.  The Willey Family clippings follow the development of what was initially thought to be a poltergeist encounter.  In early August of 1948 hundreds of little fires broke out in a farmhouse just south of Macomb in the area known as Gin Ridge.  After some two hundred fires broke out, the house eventually burned down on August 13, 1948.  While some initially attributed the fires to mysterious causes or a poltergeist, it was later determined that the thirteen year old daughter of Charles Willey, Wonet, had actually set the blazes.


In addition to our vertical file holdings, the archives also owns some interesting books that highlight local mysteries, hauntings, and scary stories.  Some popular titles include McDonough County Heritage by John Hallwas which has a few short chapters on local lore, Haunted Macomb by Garret Moffett, Haunted Peoria  by Stephanie E. McCarthy, Ghosts of the Mississippi River and Ghosts of Rock Island by Bruce Carlson, and Haunting the Prairie by Michael Kleen.  Although these books are not available to check out, we would be happy to pull them from the stacks for you to peruse in our reading room.  It’s the perfect time of year to curl up with a good book and scare yourself senseless!  Happy Halloween!
(By Lindsay Hiltunen)

Joane Cromwell Collection Available for Research Use

Photo of Joane Cromwell Collection materials.

Here is a sample of some of the photos from the Joane Cromwell collection. This collection is comprised of photos, papers, scrapbooks, and other interesting pieces about a well-known artist. This collection is now available for public use and research.

Last week I completed working on the Joane Cromwell Collection.  The items in this collection illuminate the personal and professional life of a native Illinois artist who went on to have a vibrant career that spanned many decades.


Cromwell was born Catherine Strode on November 22, 1895 in Bernadotte, Illinois.  Her parents were Dr. William Smith Strode and Julia Brown Strode.  She grew up in Lewistown, Illinois, and became fascinated by sketching, painting, and exploring nature at a young age.  She graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and went on to pursue art studies at the Chicago Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois.  After three years of artistic study, Strode graduated with honors and moved to Los Angeles, California where she first adopted the pseudonym Joane Cromwell.


Once in California, Cromwell settled down in Laguna Beach and enrolled at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.  During this time she was able to work with many notable artists, including Anna A. Hills, Loren Holmwood, George Demont Otis, Edgar Payne, Jack Wilkinson Smith, and Hanson Puthuff.  Throughout her formal art education and early in her career it was clear that Cromwell was establishing herself as a skilled painter of marine, landscape, and portraits.  Her work was characterized by a faithful use of color and an expressive style that was true to the subjects she painted.  In addition to being an acclaimed impressionist painter, Cromwell was an advocate for the arts and played a major role in the development and organization of the annual Laguna Beach Festival of Arts.  Over the years she maintained studios in various parts of southern California, including Glendale, Palm Springs, Hollywood, and Laguna Beach.  Cromwell was an active painter throughout most of her adult life and painted up until two months before her death in 1969.  Her work has been exhibited in fine galleries all across the United States, and examples of her work are known to be in private collections in North America, Europe, and Australia.  J. Edgar Hoover was an admirer of Cromwell’s work and he had one of her paintings hanging in his office at the FBI headquarters.  There are a few Christmas cards from Hoover included in this collection.


The Joane Cromwell Collection consists of various items that relate to the artist’s life and work.  The collection contains a wide range of materials, including photographs, photo albums, photo negatives, baby books, family letters, other correspondence, scrapbooks, journals, artist sales logs, newspaper articles, biographical notes, cards, artist show announcements, press releases, clippings, and other ephemera.  A few items of note include two signed and numbered prints from Hurlstone Fairchild, another landscape artist originally from Illinois.  This collection also contains a wooden studio sign from Joane Cromwell’s California art studio.  Now that this collection is processed and described we are pleased to offer it for public use.  Please stop by Archives and Special Collections to look into this marvelous collection.
(by Lindsay Hiltunen)

Here To Stay Book

Here to Stay is a broad and compelling look into the lives of past residents in a downstate Illinois community—presenting the most varied array of small-town folks since Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology appeared a century ago. But it is much more. The introduction on “Living with the Dead” is an engaging account of both the impact of death in a nineteenth-century town and the social purposes of cemeteries like Macomb’s beautiful Oakwood. The biographical sketches of the buried “Permanent Residents” reflect every generation in that corner of America since the first settlers came, in 1830, emphasizing such universal themes as self-realization, social commitment, and the struggle to belong. The four insightful essays in the “Theatre of Memory” section probe into and defend cemeteries as complex cultural sites, which deserve our reflective engagement, historical appreciation, and vigilant preservation. The many arresting photographs by Kathy Nichols demonstrate the aesthetic appeal—and suggest the hidden mysteries—of such an historic cemetery as well. But uniting all the components of Here to Stay are the spiritual insights of well-known Illinois author John Hallwas, who explicitly crusades “to allow the local dead to inhabit our conscious-ness”—and who readily convinces us that “to realize the temporal dimensions of our place is to let it shape, and connect, and deepen us.”


Here To Stay is available for $17.95 at New Copperfield’s Book Service in Macomb, at the McDonough County Voice office in Macomb, and on Amazon.

Voices of the Hennepin Canal

The third volume in the New Western Illinois Monograph Series, Voices of the Hennepin Canal: Promoters, Politicians, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, by Dr. Donald W. Griffin, is now available.


Voices is a 368-page historical account that begins in the 1830s with the start of surveys of canal-river routes to Lake Michigan and the East, the post war period of railroad expansion into the Midwest, the rise of farmer organizations, and the prolonged partisan debates in Congress on building the canal. Subsequently, the geographic focus is on surveys to determine the best route for the canal’s main line and feeder, and the 18-year period of construction. Finally, an indepth look at canal operations, including annual routine maintenance, repairs of the locks and dams, and the contsant patrolling of the canal and feeder to look for potential breaks in the prism banks, is provided. The text is complemented by ten maps, thirty-nine period photographs, and three appendixes.


The book retails for $35, and Illinois residents must add $2.71 in sales tax. To order the book send a check to: 


Archives and Special Collections
Malpass Library
1 University Circle
Macomb, IL 61455