OWANECO — Over the past 150 years, the village of Owaneco has changed in many ways. It has seen prosperity and recession, a population growth and then a study decline of inhabitants. Today there around 290 residents and very few businesses in Owaneco, and yet it remains as a part of Christian County's past and future.
The village, originally located one and one-half miles south of its present location, was established in 1857. According to the "The Sesquicentennial Edition of Christian County History," published in 1968, the town was the first in Locust Township to have a post office. The little gathering spot was a natural location for a post office. An old grocery store and saloon were already positioned along the road, midway between Taylorville and Pana, in the village's first location.
No one has ever really been able to give an accurate translation of the Native American word "Owaneco." The locals have their own story (which can't be printed here) on what the word means. According to the history book, the town was named by Judge Vandeveer.
The village's first postmaster was J.M. Weaver. Situated inside a little frame building, near the residence of Joseph P. Durbin, the office also kept on hand a few dry goods and groceries.
In 1866, B.C. Cochran was elected at the first supervisor of Locust Township. John W. Hunter and Philip Baker were elected as justices of the peace; and Daniel Orr and David Jarvis were named constables. The village of Owaneco was a main stop for the stage coach that ran through the county. The village also had a station for the O&M Railroad.
The village, as it stands now, was laid out and surveyed Oct. 1, 1869, for J.C. Helmick and John Foggitt, the town's first proprietors. The town, even then was made up mainly of agriculture and farmers.
Businesses that were registered in the village in 1880 included: Dr. J.S. Cussins, physician and druggist; John Ward, flouring mill; Alexander Montgomery, saddle and Harness shop; Dr. R. McShea, physician and grocer; J.C. Hunter, dry goods, groceries and post-master; Price and Wilkinson, grain dealers; R. Turgeon, notions and groceries; John C. Handel, blacksmith and wagon-maker.
Locust Lodge, A.F. & A.M., No. 623, was chartered in 1869. The shrine had 12 members listed at that time. A.B. Leaper was the first Worthy Master. The lodge is still in existence to this day. It's meetings are held in the Owaneco Masonic Temple, located off Main Street.
Some of Owaneco's earliest families included the families of Z.F. Bates, Dr. J.S. C. Cussins, and J.C. Hunter, to name a few.
In 1862, the Owaneco Methodist Church was organized. The church boasted membership of 250, with Sunday School enrollment of 277 in 1918. In 1968 the services were conducted by Rev. Dewey Hermes, who also provided services to provided pastoral care to Millersville and Buckeye churches.
The village, at one time, had its own newspaper. The Owaneco News was established in 1905. Records show the newspaper still in publication in 1908. No clear records exist showing the paper's demise. The Owaneco News Printing Company's editor was Wilt Kelly. A one-year subscriptions to the bi-weekly publication cost $1. The paper provide practical news to residents. It's front page gave an accounting of activities throughout the county and the comings and goings of residents.
An article in the Aug. 1906 publication gave a report on the current market prices: Market Prices - (all per bushel) wheat 67¢, white corn 47¢, mixed corn 46¢, mixed oats 27¢, white oats 27¢, hay $8.50 to $9.50 (per bale); Produce - creamery butter 21¢, country butter 12 1/2¢, eggs 13¢, lard 8¢, old chickens 9 1/2¢.
The village also had its own concert band. A 1904 photograph of the group shows them entertaining in the popular Chautauqua Days around the county.
The Owaneco school was built in 1907. The four room wooden structure originally educated students through high school. A few years later, around 1913, a two-story brick school building was built for the village. In later years, high school students traveled to Taylorville to receive instruction.
In 1927 the gymnasium was built for the students. The large structure was remodeled with money from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The building was remodeled and the interior was decorated with the money.
The school's 1931 and 1932 basketball teams were very successful in the county. Each of these two years, the team reigned at the Christian County Champions.
The village's school was closed in the late 1960s after consolidating with Taylorville. In 1973, the building was razed. A monument, with the bell from the school house, was erected on the grounds. The school yard is now a public park, complete with a tennis court.
Present day village officials are embarking on a plan to update and remodel the area. Local groups are working together with the village trustees to help keep the park in good shape. The Owaneco Indian Maidens 4-H group recently donated picnic benches for the park, and a donation was made to the village by the Locust Lodge Masonic Temple for the purchase of new equipment.
The gym is now owned by the village. In the past five years, the board of trustees have undertaken a major renovation project on the structure. The building re-roofed and new siding and windows were installed. In the past year, the interior ceiling was replaced and the floor refinished.
The gym is open for public use one evening a week during the winter months. The facility is also rented out for private use. One of the most regular groups to utilize the facility is the Lifeline Christian Center, a religious group lead by Rev. Maurice Walker. Harold and Eva Friend are the custodians of the building and have been for more than 30 years.
WPA also provided money to the village for the installation of 10 brick sidewalks to be constructed. Twenty blocks of street grading and drainage improvement was also done.
Businesses located in Owaneco in 1909 included: a harness shop, Eureka Drug Store, Dr. H.B. Milhon, the post office, Dr. George Tankersly's office, Robertson Meat Market, Jones' Restaurant, Clyde Maquire's Clothing Store, a roller skating rink and Cole's Barber Shop. Mont Danford's Grocery, located in the northwest corner of Masonic and Main streets came along some time later.
In 1910 residents and local farmers enjoyed a gathering held to celebrate Cultivator Day. The event was held at Barrett Brothers Grain. Judging by the photos of the event, it drew quite a crowd.
The village was home to a hay, lumber and coal store for many years. Originally opened by George Ritscher, Ritscher Grain, Hay, Lumber and Coal was later sold to John and Chartley Honefenger. Ownership of the lumber business passed hand to Hollis Honefenger, who also was the village's mayor for many years. A large majority of the homes that stand in Owaneco were built from the lumber purchased at this store.
In 1942, the village's Fire Protection District was formed. The fire department was then and is now comprised of volunteers. The original firehouse is located on Masonic Street. The fire department now shares half of the village hall building for their headquarters.
The village's population has seen a decline since the 1930 census counts. In that year, there were 334 residents recorded to be living in the village. Following census reports: 1940 - 366; 1950 - 343; 1960 - 290; 1970 - 255. The population has remained in the range of 280 since the 1980 census.
Between 1930 and 1970 many of the village's businesses closed, and some new ones opened, however, the two did not equal out. Fisher's Packing Plant and Restaurant was opened sometime during the mid 1900s. Jess Fisher, the original proprietor, began the packing business from a shed behind his home. He later purchased the block building that stands on the southwest corner of Main and Masonic streets.
The business has continued under the direction of his son Lee and daughter-in-law Catherine Fisher. The packing plant is one of few family-owned meat businesses left in this area. The business sells meat, that is killed and processed on the premises, to the public. A recent sale of the business has left Kenny Eggimann as the sole proprietor. Eggimann continues in the same manner, adding some dairy products to his line.
Fisher's Restaurant is still owned and operated by Catherine and Lee Fisher, who also provide catering services. The restaurant is open for coffee in the mornings and serves lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. The atmosphere and home cooked meals served during the week are a legend to the area.
In 1970, the village contracted with Taylorville to provide city water to all of its residents. The project, which included an 8 inch water line running from Owaneco connecting to Taylorville's water supply, cost the village $310,000.
Surveys of the village indicated a total of 95 homes in Owaneco in 1960. By 1970, the count had raised to 86. Today, there are 102 homes in the village's incorporated district who are served by the water line.
Alvin Mizeur is the village's president today. He has served in that capacity since the early 1980s. Prior to his election, Luzader Payne was the village president. Keith E. Davis served many years in this role. Hollis Honefenger, owner of Honefenger Lumber, served more than 20 years as the village's mayor.
In 1984, the village saw a long awaited addition to the community. Illini Bank built a branch office on the corner of Douglas and Lincoln streets. The branch was the first bank located in the village in more than 50 years. In 1999 Illini Bank opted to close the Owaneco branch office. The village is again without financial services.
Today, there are very few businesses operating in Owaneco. Excluding a listing of all the farmers, the commercial industry includes: Owaneco Motorcycle Shop (originally a gas station), Assumption Elevator's Owaneco grain elevator, Longden's RV Service, Fisher's Restaurant, Fisher's Packing Plant, and the Owaneco Post Office.
The village's trustees recently embarked on a project to research the feasibility of provided public sewage to its residents. They are also working on bringing a gas/convenience style business to the village. Although there are no more than a handful of businesses operating in Owaneco, it has continued to progress as a self governed entity.
In conducting research for this article, information for certain periods of time were overwhelming. There were also time spaces where no information was available. Some families or businesses are sure to have been left out of this accounting. Any omission was not intentional.