Photo Flood 107: Edwardsville

photo by Leana Miller

Edwardsville is a quietly significant historic city in the metro-east region of St. Louis, that has grown increasingly over recent years as a center for education and the arts in Southern Illinois.

photo by Jason Gray

photo by Ann Aurbach

 

photo by Ryan Stanley

 

photo by Irene Griggs

In the early 19th century, a regime change among white settlers was occurring in what was then considered the Northwest Territory. The land now comprising most of the metro-east of St. Louis, originally settled by French Jesuits and fur traders, was increasingly becoming sold or otherwise claimed by Americans–who technically had governance over the Territory following the American Revolution (though the British maintained a conflicting role in the region until the War of 1812). It was into this climate that the founders of Edwardsville came.

The city’s first settler is credited as Thomas Kirkpatrick, whose 100-acres property (now a part of the city center) consisted of rolling, wooded hills adjoining Cahokia Creek in 1805. By 1809, the Illinois Territory was established from the original Northwest Territory, paving its way toward statehood. Kaskaskia was selected as the seat of governance, though the Territory’s first governor (and eventually, the State of Illinois’ third), Ninian Edwards, eventually built his home in the burgeoning village that would later bear his name (Edwardsville was not incorporated until 1818). Edwards is and was a polarizing figure. Though responsible for guiding Illinois into statehood and noted for expanding participatory government in the state, his racist ideologies as a slave holder (in an area where slavery was illegal, which he accomplished by employing regional provisions for “indentured servants”) and as a key proponent for the forced removal of Native Americans made him controversial, both in his era and now. Interestingly, Illinois’ second Governor, Edward Coles, also had an Edwardsville connection, but much different ideas about slavery.

Coles was appointed Register of Lands for the Illinois Territory by President James Monroe, and was provided with a center of operations in Edwardsville. Coles, who had inherited land and slaves in Virginia, already had his sights set on Illinois because of the Territory’s abolishment of slavery; his plan, following his inheritance, was to manumit those slaves and to provide them with land and a way of life. He accomplished this in the Edwardsville area, and purchased considerable acreage for each head of house among the 16 slaves he brought with him from back east. In 1824, while Governor of Illinois, Edward Coles was convicted of illegally freeing his slaves, as well as forced to defend himself in various other lawsuits stemming from this. He was ultimately exonerated. In each those emanicipation documents for his former slaves he included this statement, “Not believing that man can have of right a property in his fellow man, but on the contrary, that all mankind were endowed by nature with equal rights, I do therefore by these presents restore to [name] that inalienable liberty of which he has been deprived.”

A progressive, Coles was instrumental in blocking a powerful faction’s attempts to amend the constitution of Illinois against preventing slavery, this faction included those in the circle of Ninian Edwards. Coles’ legacy is today commemorated in a plaque on the campus of the former Lincoln School for Negroes, Edwardsville’s first Black school dating from 1857.

photo by Ann Aurbach

 

photo by Cathy Ray

 

photo by RJ Wilner

 

photo by Chuck Parr

With so much of Illinois’ early politics being represented in Edwardsville, it is unsurprising that the community would grow quickly through its first decades. In fact, by mid-century, the community had already constructed its third courthouse (though not its final). By this time, a variety of industries had emerged, including hospitality, coal mining, brick production and milling. Many of the same rail lines that helped usher Belleville and East St. Louis into regional manufacturing centers also came through Edwardsville. This infrastructure served to expand industry here as well.

In the 1890’s, N.O. Nelson established his manufacturing operations in Edwardsville, and constructed a model village for his workers nearby. Founded upon the concepts of Ethical Humanism, this community was named Leclaire (after Edme-Jean Leclaire, a French pioneer of profit sharing). Today, Leclaire is on the National Register of Historic Places, and was absorbed by the City of Edwardsville in the 1930’s. Edwardsville has several registered historic places or districts, including Saint Louis Street–one of the most elegant and complete representations of residential architectural styles from the late 1800’s in the entire region.

Between 1850 and 1900, Edwardsville’s population grew by over 600%. It would double again over the next fifty years, but after 1950, grew only incrementally until the 1990’s, when it increased by nearly 50% in a single decade. Partially, this was due to the city expanding its physical boundaries in the mid-90’s, but the expansion of education, including student housing, has been at least an equal factor.

photo by Joe Harrison

 

photo by Bailey Elizabeth Rogers

 

photo by RJ Wilner

 

photo by Cathy Ray

Edwardsville’s early political significance waned as the seat of Illinois power moved from Kaskaskia to Vandalia, and then finally to Springfield. Nonetheless, these influences imparted opportunities for the cultural and economic growth of the community, and provided for longterm stability.

In the 1950’s, faced with a lack of post-secondary and higher education in its vicinity, the city funded a proposal to establish a satellite of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, in Edwardsville (today, SIUE is the larger of the two). In the 1970’s, the University campus was host to the Mississippi River Music Festival. The Festival’s sound engineer, Bob Heil, developed a unique effects unit, called the Heil Talk Box, that was notably featured in recordings by Peter Frampton and adopted into the touring systems for many bands of the time (a version of the device is still in production).

The influx of a younger population to and the presence of higher learning in Edwardsville has served to reinvigorate the community with new opportunities for shopping, dining, entertainment and the arts. The Downtown Historic District is the best example of this growth, with block upon block full of independent businesses mixed in with government facilities for both the city and county.

photo by Bailey Elizabeth Rogers

 

photo by Chuck Parr

 

photo by Leana Miller

Amongst the breweries, art galleries, shops and restaurants in downtown Edwardsville, there are plenty of businesses one could point to as an example of the city’s grown popularity as a regional center to call home or just to visit, though perhaps the most appropriate would be the restored Wildey Theatre. In 1999, the city purchased the ninety year old former opera house with the intention of seeing it resurrected as a movie theater and live performance venue. The community rallied to invest over $750,000 into the effort, as well as innumerable volunteer hours, and the result is a true crown jewel for its downtown area. This sort of dedication, investment and re-investment into the community by residents and city leaders alike is visible in flourishes all around town, and a principal reason for Edwardsville’s incredible growth during a time of nearby St. Louis’ continued decline. As both cities look toward their futures, there is perhaps something for venerable, ole St. Louis to learn here.

photo by Ryan Stanley

 

photo by Jen Smith

 

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by Joe Harrison

Photo Flood 107 marks our first post Flood meetup since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Our endpoint for the Flood was Recess Brewing, a small, craft brewery along Edwardsville’s Main Street with satisfying assortment of drink options (I recommend their Hazy IPA). On our visit, the brewery was hosting a live performance, which combined with the gentle summer breeze through the open windows, offered the perfect environment to unwind following our tour of the town.

photo by Jason Gray

 

photo by Jen Smith

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