Officially started in 1999, Jacksonville Main Street is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to preserving and revitalizing downtown Jacksonville. We are an alliance of merchants, residents, property owners, and local government working to make downtown Jacksonville better. We understand that the vitality of downtown Jacksonville is a direct benefit to all citizens and businesses of Jacksonville, therefore we are the only charitable organization that reinvests all of it's profits back into the downtown.


As one of over 40 Main Street communities in Illinois, the local program follows the National Main Street Center’s Four Point Approach, incorporating a comprehensive revitalization strategy to encourage economic development within the context of historic preservation through the work of four active committees in the areas of design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring. Since 1980, Main Street has emerged nationally as a major force in downtown revitalization with proven principles and strategies.


With local funding as its sole source of revenue, Jacksonville Main Street receives no money from any state or National Main Street programs, nor any other statewide and national partners (like the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and Landmarks Illinois) to provide support to business and property owners that ultimately benefits the economic health of the entire region. Jacksonville Main Street is a public/private partnership that occasionally receives foundation or government grant funds for specific projects, but not for the general operation of the program or for all projects. Project grants typically make up less than 10% of the annual budget and can only be used on the projects for which they were sought. The organization receives less than a quarter of its annual budget from the City, about one third from tax deductible donations from residents and area businesses through the annual Partnership Drive, and the rest from events and fundraisers. 


Now viewed as a vital part of our community, downtown Jacksonville has begun to flourish, with several new businesses and expansions, increased public and private partnerships, numerous rehabilitation projects, and enhanced promotional events that contribute to its continued growth and development. 


Jacksonville Main Street’s renewal does not happen overnight or all by itself: It is an ongoing and gradual process that began with small steps and small projects. As the program and local support continues to grow, larger more complex challenges have been and will continue to be met. It takes constant nurturing to maintain and preserve a healthy, vibrant downtown area. Therefore, Jacksonville Main Street is not a project with a beginning and an end, but an organization with continual goals and objectives. To learn about our journey thus far, watch our video here.


On March 10, 1825, nearly 2 years after Jacksonville had been chosen as the newly created Morgan County Seat, county surveyor Johnston Shelton began the public square lay out over 5 acres in the center of the new town. Unlike the simple block style of other courthouse squares throughout the country, Jacksonville’s public square layout was more complex, combining features found elsewhere. Using the “Four-Block Square” layout, Jacksonville streets ran along all four sides of the square with two other streets, State and Main, centered between both north-south and east-west directions. These 60-foot wide streets were used as base lines with the town laid into square blocks of 180’-9” on each side, divided into 3 equal lots with other 40-foot wide streets and 20-foot wide alleys running at right angles to each other throughout. When the town site was selected in the mid-1820’s, the only building in the area was a log cabin owned by Alexander Cox, located near the present Trinity Episcopal Church. Thomas Carson bought the cabin for use as the town’s first tavern/inn, later relocating to the northeast corner of the square, then to the southeast corner of the square near the later site of the Congregational Church, where it also served as the town’s first jail. Thomas’ wife was Mother Carson, a successful midwife credited with over 3,000 births of early residents. Jacksonville’s first merchants in 1825 were Joseph Fairchild and George Hackett, with George Rearick following. 


The first courthouse, a frame building set on log blocks built in 1826 in the square’s northwest quadrant for about $450, burned on December 6, 1827, to be replaced with a $4,000 brick building in 1829 in the southwest quadrant of the square. The first buildings on the square’s west side were a row of small frame houses. At that time there were no large shops on the public square, but several small, log stores. In time, these buildings gave way to frame structures, which also quickly became too small and insecure and were replaced by more substantial brick structures. John Wilkinson, a local developer, constructed the first in 1828 on the square’s southeast corner, where the present Hoffman Building now stands. Cornelius Hook built a brick building on the south and one on the north side of the square. The M. V. Ayers & Co. bank building was erected on the north half of the square’s west side in 1831-2, (now The Farmers State Bank and Trust Co. site.) In surrounding residential areas, a more refined community began to evolve with better dwellings, accurately defined streets and permanent walkways in lieu of mud sidewalks. From the start, Jacksonville attracted church leaders and educators, including William Jennings Bryan and Rev. William Henry Milburn. In 1829, the “Yale Band” founded Illinois College west of downtown and, just east of the business district, the Illinois Conference Female Academy, later MacMurray College, was created in 1846. Methodists began religious training in 1822, followed by Baptists from the south in 1823, Presbyterians in 1827, the Christian Church in 1831, the state’s first Episcopal church in 1832, and Congregationalists in 1833 with Lutherans and Catholics soon after. At one time, 4 different denominations occupied churches on the intersecting corners of Church and State Streets, creating worldwide notoriety for the anomaly. 


In 1834, with a population of 1,800, Jacksonville was one of the state’s largest towns. By 1840, predominantly 1 and 1½-story frame buildings bordered the square, housing a variety of businesses, including T. D. Eames’ dry goods store, Philip Price’s jewelry store and R. Hockenhull’s building. Two or three long 1-story frame structures occupied the Strawn Opera House site and the only brick building was part of Metal’s and Fell’s Dry Goods Store.


Starting in 1843, cigar making became a major industry in Jacksonville, growing to 13 factories, 130 employees and 200,000 cigars produced weekly by 1905. Capps Woolen Mills, a custom carding mill established in 1839, became another big industry, expanding into spinning, weaving and finished cloth, evolving into Indian blanket production (later supplying Buffalo Bill Cody) and then men’s clothing, including Civil War and World War I uniforms. 


1860 lithographs by L. Gast Bros., St. Louis, show most buildings on the south half of the west side having side gable roofs, common prior to the Civil War, especially in the Eastern US. The prints also illustrate a thriving central business district with several residential structures plus 2 and 3-story buildings, many of brick, around the square’s perimeter housing diverse merchants: Rosenhaupt’s New York Store; Henry Rice’s Temple of Fashion; Sam Hamilton’s Bakery and Confections; Myers and Knollenberg Cigars & Tobacco; Hockenhull, King & Elliott Bank; Campbell’s Photographic Gallery; Stege Iron & Hardware; Union Hall (old Congregational Church); St. Louis Branch Wholesale 

Liquor; the recently built Strawn’s Opera House; D. H. Hamilton Boots & Shoes; Johnson & Richard Stoves; First National Bank; Hatch Drugs; Philadelphia Dry Goods; Stevenson & Tomphins Stoves and Hardware; Ayers Banking House; J. W. Gallneth Tin Shop; Hamilton’s Bakery; King & Dewey Dry Goods; Dovyons & Co. Boots and Shoes; Catlin Books; The Jacksonville Store; a hotel; F. G. Farrell’s Bank; F. T. Gilett Queensware and a clothing store. 


By 1885, more impressive commercial buildings were going up around the square, where most town business was concentrated. On the north side, Messrs. Dayton & Adams and Hatfield, Price & Chambers each built substantial 3-story brick structures that towered over humbler neighbors. The square’s west side boasted a block of 3-story brick structures housing 7 different businesses. A fine brick building owned and occupied by Well & Bros. overlooked surrounding stores. A handsome brick commercial block, the era’s finest on the square, was nearing completion near Strawn’s Opera House. Many buildings were of Italianate commercial design, with arched windows, bracketed cornices and flat, built up roofs. Similarly styled brick structures also began to appear on streets off the square. Other important early buildings included the eclectic 2½-story YMCA on West Morgan (1880), the Dunlap House on West State (1856, later replaced by the Dunlap Hotel) and the Gothic Revival Centenary Methodist Church to the east. Several 1 and 2-story Greek Revival, Italianate and, in the late 19th century, houses were being completed in the area. The Street Railway Company, incorporated in 1867, began running electric trolley cars in 1891, operating the public transportation system until improved automobiles later made trolleys obsolete. 


By the 1903 publication of Fred H. Thomas’ Jacksonville, the Beautiful City, the town’s population had grown to 15,000 and significant development around the square and beyond had occurred. That book featured photographs of each side of the square, of which many depicted buildings survive today in varying degrees of originality. 


Several National Register Listed structures lie within the Jacksonville Main Street District, enhancing the central business district’s character. The Second Empire style Courthouse, completed in 1868 for $204,000, remains largely unchanged today. The Jacksonville Public Library, a Neoclassical 2½-story structure of Cleveland sandstone, was completed in 1903 with a $40,000 Andrew Carnegie grant. The Jacksonville Labor Temple, built by volunteer union labor in 1904, is the oldest building of its kind in the country. The Farmers State Bank and Trust Co. in the former Ayers National Bank building, an 8-story Neoclassical style structure modeled after “modern” skyscrapers of the day and completed in 1912 for $250,000, was Jacksonville’s first steel-frame construction and believed to be oldest site continuously affiliated with banking in Illinois. 


The medical field also thrived in early Jacksonville. Dr. Greene Vardman Black, the father of modern dentistry, practiced at 341 E. State from 1864-96, developing the belt driven drill and innovations for silver fillings. Dr. Alonzo H. Kennibrew, a black surgeon began his practice in 1909 at 323 West Morgan with 1 assistant; By 1930, he had a 33-room facility with laboratories, 2 operating rooms, 7 nurses, 3 surgeons and 8 associates. 


As time passed, and new technologies and lifestyles emerged, people began to depart downtown (not only in Jacksonville but a trend that occured nationwide. See History of Main Street) Automobiles became more commonplace and people more willing to drive longer distances for goods, services, and entertainment. The advent of interstate highway travel, coupled with the development of "Big Box Stores" and shopping malls, led to a decline in downtown patronage, property values, and maintenance. By the early 1970s, downtown Jacksonville change and embarked on a plan put forth by the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department that was supposed to breathe new life into old town centers.


In 1974, Urban Renewal brought the most significant changes in over a century to downtown Jacksonville, creating a walking mall that blocked 75% of vehicular traffic. Over 60 historic buildings were demolished to allow for the plan that included constructing 4 modern, 1-story "quadrant" buildings of little architectural style in former right-of-ways of the blocked east-west streets. Direct north-south access was eliminated as parking relocated behind remaining perimeter structures, which also had city-owned steel and brick canopies attached to the façades in an attempt to modernize and unify the appearance. These covered walkways actually damaged the buildings just as the overall plan desimated the downtown economy, with state highway rerouting and limited downtown access driving many retailers to other locations. 


- Excerpts reprinted from Chas. Kirchner’s “Jacksonville Main Street District Intensive Architectural & Historical Survey,” 2002


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P. O. Box 152, Jacksonville IL 62651-0152


© 2017 Jacksonville Main Street