The History of Fairfield
By Wasson Lawrence 

We have talked about a good many things that happen in Wayne County but we have never discussed the actual founding of the City of Fairfield. There is not too much information available, and we do not have any definite dates. And we have only a few of the names of the people who decided to make the site of Fairfield a town.  We only know that individual isolation is unnatural and inhuman. The disposition to gather into towns and cities, is both natural and  human.

The pioneers understood this and both for protection and for social enjoyment and for humanity's sake, and perhaps other reasons, they laid out towns and built up villages. Something of this character gave birth of Fairfield just about one hundred thirty five years ago a period when there was doubtless, not two hundred people in what now forms Wayne County. e can suppose that the father of the enterprise, (of making a town) had an eye for the glorious and beautiful, neither were they utterly devoid of romance. They displayed their exquisite taste in the selection of a site for a town, and as the old timers used to say back in 1880a site that is not excelled by that of any town in the State.  Fairfield was built on a slight elevation in I he middle of a broad beautiful and level plain, and their romance cropped out when they called it Fairfield. According to an old history, no "fairer field" could be found in Southern Illinois than the plain surrounding.

We are not sure that that is the way Fairfield got it's name, But it will have to do for we have no other explanation.  With buildings covering the site and the woods gone, we can't quite picture the slight elevation on the beautiful broad plain that the old history tells about,

Laid Out in 1819

Fairfield was laid out as a town in the year 1819. The first  sale of lots took place November
8th, 1819. The plat was surveyed by John Johnston, probably the first County Surveyor, under the direction of George W. Ferris, Thomas P. Fletcher, and Alexander Clark the county commissioners. However this original plat was not recorded until September 4th, 1825. We don't know why.

The original town covered just a small area-about
where most of the business section is today. The surveyor divided the blocks into four lots, most of which are 112 1/2 feet by 111 l/2 feet an odd size to make a lot, and a peculiar way to divide a block into lots. The streets were made sixty feet wide, and the alleys eight feet wide.  He made Water Street only forty feet wide. Today these streets are considered much too narrow, and that original surveyor has much of the responsibility of our traffic difficulties. An eight foot alley is almost useless now.

But this was the original plat of Fairfield, and to the town as laid out emigration was invited. These early founders paid what they considered, infinite attention to details, so it could not be expected that the matter of settlement had been overlooked.  Hence many people flocked into the new town as soon as it was laid out and surveyed, and the place quickly became a scene of bustling act unity. That statement is according to an early historian.

The First House
It is said that the first house in Fairfield was built by the Barnhills. They had entered the land from the Government, upon which the town was laid out, and had lived there for some time before, and thus may be termed the first settlers of the town. This first house stood somewhere in the block north of the court house. Some of our listeners will have to tell us exactly where it stood, for it was torn down long ago and another house built on the spot. That second house also disappeared long ago,

The second house was also built  by John BarnhilI just after  his marriage, which took place about the time of the laying out of the town. The Barnhills
came from down around Shawneetown and at one time they were rather numerous prominent in business and local affairs, But now there are not too many of them left -- if they are at all the same family.   In 1880 history says that they were all gone with no lineal d descendants surviving them nearer than the grandson of the Widow Barnhill, Jeff Barnhill he was called. But even he, in 1880 was growing old -- bent with age and infirmity.

There is much in the history of the Barnhills that recalls a type of the day. They had trained themselves for their place in life, and in security and contentment had lived out their span of life adding their bit to the history of Fairifeld.

The third house was built on the site that later became the cemetery just south west of the city park.  It was built by a man whose name is now forgotten, but it is said that he was some relation to the Barnhills.

The First Well

It is interesting to note that the first well ever dug in Fairfield was dug by the Barnhill's on the lot where Mr. T. G. Jenkins now lives, and it was dug for the  general use of the public.  Before that we suspect that the people carried water from Johnson Creek -- the creek that meanders through the north east part of town toward the city park.

These first people furnished the influence under which the town began its existance, and started on its course of experiment. It is barely probable that, in  order to secure a town by legal right, the Commissione,'s spent no great amount of time canvassing the claims of the different locations as a site for a future county seat. The town of JeffersonvilIe, now known as Geff, was a formidable competitor for the seat of justice, and it stood those in hand,  interested in Fairfield, to decide the question without delay. The city of Geff almost won the fight in those early days.

After ten years of existance, history tells us that there were probably less than one hundred inliahitants in Fairfield.

Samuel Leech seems to have been the first merchant in Fairfield. He opened out a stock of goods in a house erected for the purpose near his residence. His store was finally burned, and he then engaged in politics. He held all the county offices at one time or another and was also postmaster.  Then caine McFadden's store, then a man by the name of Gold from Shawneetown, in 1829 Caleb Williams started a store in his residence and he continued in business for some twenty years.

"Marble Front"

Ahou t this time Wesley Staten constructed a building which was for many years was known as the "Marble Front".  He manufactured hats, and used the building as a store, warehouse, and factory.

The trade of hatter was as common and as popular a trade then as blacksmithing was severat yoars ago. The hatter bought all kinds of furs, and these he manufactured into hats at his leisure, or as the trade demanded. The back end of Staten's stole was used for storing furs, and was without a floor other than the ground.  In one corner of the room a well had been dug, which vas quite deep and without  curb or box.   It is said that one day, when a number of customers were in the store, a small child wandered into the back room and accidentally tumbled into the well.  As luck would have it, Staten saw the child fall in, mid without a moment's hesitation jumped in and rescued it.

The first bank ever in Fairfield-and the only bank of issue, was the Corn Exchange Bank, started in the year 1856.  It was owned by a Mr. W. S. Vandusen, and had a circulation of $750,000 secured by Illinois State Stock.  It was closed when the Civil War started.

The manufactor of castor oil was at one time an extensive business in Fairfield, Dr. William Turney first started into the manufacture of the oil in a small way, by what was known as the lever press.  He was followed by James Torrence and McClerkins.  They pressed the castor beans by screw power driven by horses. At one time the production of castor beans by the farmers of Wayne County was far ahead of another one grain. We never see them growing here any more.

It was some time before the hotel business came to Fairfield -- or taverns as they called them in those days.  Samuel Leerh who we mentioned before as the builder of the third house, can be called the first tavern keeper. There was no regular hotel or tavern in town for several years after it was laid out.  Leech was the first individual who entertained the "way fairing Man,"
 or as they said in those days,  "entertained man and beast," but he did not keep a regular tavern.  He kept travelers in his own home.  It was left to Charles Wood to open the first public house.  A building had been built for a tavern by a man by the name of Jackson, known as the Jackson House, but Jackson failed, and Wood became owner of the Jackson House. The Jackson House was just next door to what is now the Ford Garage.  It lasted until 1881, when it burrned to the ground.  It was in this hotel -- the Jackson House -- that General Lew Wallace wrote part of his famous novel, Ben Hur.

First School

The first school in Fairfield was taught in any building that might chance to be vacant and convenient for school purposes. The names of the first school teachers are now forgotten. The first actual school house was built on the east side of First Street just opposite the Methodist Church.  It was a large frame building, and served the purposes of education for a good many years. But like many other of our old land marks, it too finally burned.  The next school, a brick building, was erected in 1874, and stood where the present grade school is today.

Fairfield existed as a village from 1819 to 1856.  In  that year,  May the 26th the town was inrorporated.  Under this incorporation, the town was governed by a board of trustees. The first board members were Charles Wood, John D. Cope, Roley Jackson,  Thomas T. Bonharn was president of the board.

Since, that form of government has been changed also to our present board of aldermen and a mayor.
It is regretable that we have so little information oa the early history of our town -- so little of the story of the people who made Fairfield. There is no information on why the location was picked as a town, There vere no roads, no navigable stream. Most early towns were built on a stream of some sort, for the purpose of transportation; but not Fairfield.  We will just have to take the history.

Aug 1 2008
Copyright © Feb 1999 -Present.  D. Williams;
All rights reserved.
Last rev.
Tuesday, 24-May-2016 21:08:00 EDT