Located in the heart of Illinois, Bloomington is a bustling city with a rich and interesting history that spans hundreds of years. Read on to learn about the fascinating history of Bloomington and discover more about the people who once lived here.
Native American History
The land that’s currently part of Bloomington was once the edge of a large grove occupied by the Kickapoo people. The name comes from the tribe’s word “Kiwigapawa,” which means “he stands here and there.” This likely refers to the tribe’s migratory patterns. Since the tribe often moved around, their lifestyle changed with each new location.
While the Kickapoo lived in a variety of shelters, the wigwam was the most common. Their diet consisted of the natural resources available to them in the different areas where they lived. Those who lived near Bloomington likely ate fish, small game, maize, beans, squash, and pumpkin.
European Settlers and Original Founding
In the 1820s, the first European-American settlers arrived in the area. The settlement had several names before eventually becoming Bloomington. In its early years, it was named Keg Grove. Legend says the settlement got this name because trappers used to hide kegs of liquor in the groves around the area. However, the Kickapoo people would find these kegs and drink them. Trappers then started calling these stands of trees Keg Grove.
When the first settlers began building their homes and businesses on the land, they changed the settlement’s name to Blooming Grove because of the many flowers that grew in the groves. When McLean County was incorporated on December 25, 1830, county promoter James Allen offered to donate 60 acres of his own land for a new town. Officials accepted his offer, and the settlement that started as Keg Grove and Blooming Grove officially became Bloomington.
Officials divided the land into lots for a rowdy and well-attended auction held on July 4, 1831. Even though the area had few roads at that time, farmers quickly bought up the lots to take advantage of the rich soils. Soon after the auction, downtown Bloomington started to grow as people throughout the area came to trade and do business.
The Lincoln Connection
One famous person doing business in downtown Bloomington during those early years was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln made his first visit to Bloomington in 1837 when he was a lawyer on the eighth judicial circuit. It was then that Lincoln met Jesse Fell, a Bloomington resident who would become one of Lincoln’s closest friends and an important political backer.
The two first met when Fell saw Lincoln coming out of the McLean County Courthouse. Fell invited Lincoln to a meeting in his brother’s law office. It was at that meeting that Fell told Lincoln he should run for president and encouraged him to write a biography so people could get to know him better. While Lincoln initially doubted Fell, he handed in his biography a year later and went on to win the presidential election.
Today, the city of Bloomington makes it possible for you to walk in the footsteps of Lincoln with its Looking for Lincoln tour. You’ll see places where Lincoln worked and visited during his time in the area. You can also stop by the McLean County Museum of History to purchase a CD for the audio tour. As you drive the route of the tour, you’ll learn more about the history of Lincoln and how the city of Bloomington played a role in his life. The McLean County Museum of History can also put a stamp in your National Park Service Passport.
The Great Fire of 1900
While Bloomington is a historic city, not everything you see today is an original building. That’s because a massive fire swept through the city in 1900 and destroyed much of it. On June 19, patrolman John Brennan noticed flames coming out of a second-story window of Model Laundry. Brennan immediately sounded the alarm, but the fire quickly spread to Benoni S. Green’s saddlery and harness business.
Steady wind, low water pressure, and old equipment prevented Bloomington firefighters from taming the fire. Within an hour, flames had engulfed almost an entire city block. As the fire spread, it gained more and more heat. At that point, even large brick structures like the five-story Griesheim Building couldn’t withstand the flames.
At 2:30 a.m., the fire was so out of control that Bloomington Mayor Lewis B. Thomas asked the fire departments in Springfield and Peoria for help. Thanks to firefighters from these cities and local residents dumping buckets of water on rooftops, the last of the fire was extinguished shortly before 8 a.m. When it was all over, 45 buildings covering several blocks were completely destroyed. Additionally, it’s believed losses totaled more than $2 million, which is approximately $50 million in today’s dollars.
Even though so much of the city was destroyed in the fire, citizens were able to quickly rebuild and get back to business thanks to designs from local architects Paul O. Moratz and George Miller.
The Construction of Route 66
In 1926, the famous Route 66 came through Bloomington, bringing even more business and growth to the area as people made the trip from the Midwest to the West Coast. Although officials removed Route 66 from the highway system in 1985, historic portions still remain as designated National Scenic Byways, including a portion that runs through Bloomington.
To learn more about some of the major attractions along Route 66 in Bloomington, you can take part in the Historical Route 66 Driving Tour. Some of the tour stops in Bloomington include Gene’s Dairy Delight, Cruisin’ With Lincoln on 66 Visitors Center, and Lucca Grill, which opened in 1936 and served the first pizza in Central Illinois.
Bloomington is a welcoming city with a truly fascinating past. Did you learn something new about the city? Do you have your own unique memories of Bloomington you’d like to share? If so, please contact us at Hustedt Jewelers and let us know!
The Rich History of Bloomington
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