Mattoon was the site of the "Mad Gasser" attacks of the 1940s.
One of the main factors determining the settlement of Mattoon and Coles County in general was the topography. Coles County straddled a timberline in the southern half and prairie in the north. The forested areas were primarily fed by two major rivers: the Embarras River in the east and the Kaskaskia in the west. The prairie, known as the “Grand Prairie,” was generally wet and swampy. An early historian described the geography:
“Away from the timber to the north, the face of the country is generally quite level, broken only by long undulations. It is almost entirely prairie land in this part, and was allowed to remain uncultivated until after the opening of the railroads. It was largely used for pasturage during this period, and often presented signs of great animation as the herds of cattle, under the care of their drovers, moved about over its grassy, slightly undulating surface.”
Groves could be found scattered throughout the area. Early settlers to the area started homesteads in the timberline, which provided building materials and fuel. Since the vast majority of early settlers came from wooded areas of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee (by way of the Ohio and Wabash River valleys), the forests also provided a sense of familiarity.
In 1826, Kentucky émigré Charles Sawyer became the first white man known to settle in the Mattoon area, just north of the timberline (known as the Wabash Point Timber) along the Little Wabash River. Levi Doty build Sawyer’s cabin while the latter returned to Kentucky to retrieve the rest of his family. Within a year, a few families very quickly settled around Sawyer in the area of Paradise Township, including Dr. John Epperson, the county’s first physician. Settlers built log cabins using pegs (no iron or nails). “The luxuries of life were generally not seen the first years of the settlement, but appeared as the residents could obtain them.”
Corn was planted and remained a staple crop. Gardens of potatoes and other vegetables were maintained. Hogs, which ran wild in the woods, provided pork, while “deer, bears, wild turkeys, and prairie chickens provided an abundant supply of wild meat.” Wolves proved troublesome to domesticated animals.
The first school was established in 1827-28 in the Paradise Township, taking place in a makeshift cabin and taught by James Waddill. The costs were $2.50-3.00 per student. School was maintained in this location until 1844-45, when the first real schoolhouse was built in what would become Mattoon. That year, the Illinois State Legislature passed its first school laws, making Mattoon a forerunner for early education in the state.
As the population grew, demand for a local government increased. On Christmas Day, 1830, Coles County was established. The county was named after Edward Coles, the second governor in Illinois who served in 1822. Settlers in the Mattoon area remained poor and humble, but their community remained close knit.
In 1836, "Old State Road," which runs along the southern end of town, became one of the first trails to be established in the Mattoon area. Another trail, the Kaskaskia Pass, traveled past what was known as “The Lone Elm Tree,” a natural landmark that helped guide visitors and newcomers. The tree was cut down on August 1, 1950, due to disease. A plaque at the corner of 32nd Street and Western Avenue marks the location of this important landmark.
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