When Conkey asked young Bill Pate to look after his store in Conkeytown for a few hours, the youth readily agreed. It was the social center of the community and also an official U.S. Post office.
It was quite a responsibility for a young man, but Pate was up to the task. He noted Conkey wanted him to man the store while he watched a horse race at the track near the village. Pate’s given name was William, but he was known as Bill all his 81 years. He was born in 1845.
The village was named for the Conkey family. It was a small mill settlement on the Salt Fork River nearly half way between Danville and Urbana. In the late 1850s, when Pate spent a few hours clerking there, Conkeytown was a bustling place just south of what is now Lincoln Trail Road. It was the dirt state road back then and it connected Danville and Urbana.
The mill that spawned Conkeytown was on the south side of the river and the village was on the bluff on the north side of the stream. A crude log bridge spanned the Salt Fork. It would be replaced by a picturesque covered bridge in the next decade. But even a log bridge spanning a river was a rare thing in Vermilion County in the 1850s.
Jesse Fithian’s family were residents of the Conkeytown community. She recalled her grandfather George Fellows was the village schoolmaster and his brother, William, was the doctor.
Jesse remembered there was a trail along the Salt Fork leading to the mill dam and pond. It was a picnic spot for the young people during the summer and an ice skating place during the winter.
Young Pate’s father was a farmer, but he and his son were also market hunters. The Illinois prairie was still populated with vast numbers of prairie chickens and other game in the mid-nineteenth century. The iron plow had been invented, but had not yet conquered the vast sea of grass.
Where Interstate 74 crosses Vermilion County today there were numerous water filled prairie sinks providing excellent habitat for water fowl. It would be decades before tile factories would spring up to furnish clay tile for agricultural drainage. The clear, flowing streams were protected from flood silt by the grasses that filtered the water and were well-stocked with numerous fish.
Pate noted he hunted the huge red-crowned Sandhill Cranes that existed in great numbers in the 1850s. They were shipped to markets in the cities. The Pates did the same with prairie hens, ducks and venison. The furs they harvested in the winter months were sold to Conkey.
Conkeytown was a well known place by the time the Civil War split the nation in 1861. A soldier mailed his letters home with the simple address, “Conkey Store,Ver. Co. Ill.” and they arrived at their destination. The little mill village thrived until the IB&W railroad was built a few miles north in the latter half of the 1860s.
The mill continued for a few years after the railroad was built, but Conkeytown soon became a village of the past. As late as the early 1900s, local newspapers still carried news under the heading Conkeytown, even though there was no longer a village.
But on a summer day in the late 1850s, William Pate tended store there for a few hours. It was a memorable day for the young man who recalled, “He had all the candy he could eat while at the store.”
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.