Text from prairiecentral.org
Fairbury is a part of Livingston County, which was founded on February 27, 1837. It was formed
from parts of McLean, LaSalle, and Iroquois counties, and named after Edward Livingston, a
prominent politician. He was the mayor of New York City, represented New York in the House of
Representatives, then represented Louisiana in both houses of Congress. He was Andrew
Jackson's Secretary of State, and the United States Minister to France. Although he had no
connections to Illinois, the General Assembly found him accomplished enough to name a county
after him. Fairbury is found in the Indian Grove Township. It was originally called the Worth
Township, but the name was changed on May 11, 1858.
Fairbury was founded 20 years after Livingston county in 1857 by civil engineer Octave Chanute,
and originally settled by Caleb Patton. Chanute, a French native, managed the construction of the
New Peoria and Oquawka Railroad, which is currently named the Toledo, Peoria, and Warsaw
Railroad. He was famed for publishing Progress in Flying Machines, which helped pioneer
aviation. The Wright brothers even mentioned Chanute as a mentor to them. Chanute built the
railroad that made Fairbury possible, but did so against the will of Patton, Fairbury's first citizen.
Octave Chanute, founder of Fairbury
It is Caleb Patton who should really be credited for the creation of Fairbury. It was he who owned
the land that the original town was built on. And it was he who advertised lots for sale and
attracted other people to live there. Today, the original town's area starts at the corner of Maple
Street and First Street, and stretches to the corner of Oak Street and Seventh Street. When
Patton heard that Chanute was wanting to build a railroad in his general direction, he saw it as an
opportunity to make use of his otherwise deserted land and struck a deal. If Chanute built his
railroad through Fairbury, then Patton would give Chanute half of the town's property.
Patton and Chanute had reached an agreement, and Chanute kept up his end of the deal. Patton
gave a small chunk of the land to the Baptist Church, and set aside an area for the railroad and a
depot. However, when Chanute reached Fairbury, he was met by a group of armed citizens. The
town had passed an ordinance that no railroad would pass through Fairbury, and they advised
Chanute to simply build around the town (preferably where the golf course is currently). They had
even received an injunction from Pontiac forbidding Chanute from building a railroad through
the town. Alma Lewis-James, author of Account and Tales of Early Fairbury best describes what
Chanute did next,
...Chanute was clever. He did not use force, but quietly laid his rails to the eastern edge of town,
skipped Fairbury, began again at the western edge, and worked straight on until Saturday night.
In the darkness and secretly, he moved his crews back; and the next morning, at first dawn; and
reinforced by armed guards of his own, he was ready for business. To the consternation of the
dumbfounded and helpless villagers, he rushed the track straight through the town and the
courthouse was closed. By Monday morning he was well on his way to Peoria.
Once when a train was passing through Fairbury on a dry summer afternoon, a gust of wind blew
sparks into the business district, and it was set ablaze almost instantly. When the engineer got to
Forrest, he looked back at the pile of black smoke rising above Fairbury, and said that he has
"set the whole damn town on fire." The businesses on the east side of Fairbury were completely
ruined, as were a number of houses. Lawsuits against the railroad were in court for six years
after the incident.
In 1859 John Marsh bought 80 acres of land to the west of Patton's. He donated a section of his
property to the town, and it was named Marsh Park. He named another part of his addition to the
town Livingston Square. It was to be used for businesses and markets. He built the Arcade Block
in another section, which were a series of brick buildings connected to each other. Inside this
block were two saddle and harness stores, a gun and sporting goods store, a poultry house, a
drug store, Fairbury Marbel Works (they made tomb stones for the cemetery), and a bedspring
factory. Many more businesses were located here later on. In 1866, the Livingston Hotel was
built. It was renowned for being the only hotel in Illinois with running water.
Marsh did not like the east side of Fairbury, and developed his west side vigorously. His addition
to the town caused it to split; the east side versus the west side. Each side wanted to have the
better houses, the better buildings, the better parks, the better everything. However, no one
really knows how this feud started, but the town was clearly divided. After that devastating fire,
many of the people on the east side went to work in Marsh's west side because of all of the work
opportunities over there. A new railroad was being considered, and Marsh used his power to see
that it only pass through the west side of Fairbury, and not through the east.
Patton sold his real estate in Fairbury years prior to this, and Wallace Amsbary was now the most
prominent citizen in the east. When the railroad came to the west end of Fairbury, the tracks
were laid. Marsh and his friends celebrated that Saturday evening. During the celebration,
Amsbary and his friends built the railroad through the east side of Fairbury and then started it
southbound towards Strawn. A train passed over the tracks the next day, and they stayed there.
Amsbary celebrated his victory by building the Fairbury House, and advertised it as the "Poorest
Hotel in Illinois."
Downtown Fairbury circa 1873.
After the fire caused by the train, three more subsequent fires succeeded in destroying many
parts of the town. All of them were around the railroad, and together they destroyed more than
twenty buildings and houses. Additionally, every few nights someone would try to start a fire in a
residential area, and sometimes succeeded. Fairbury had somehow managed to become a prime
location for pyromaniacs.
Whenever a fire would erupt, the town's fire bell rang. Currently, the bell can be found in front of
the fire station on Locust Street. A fire was more of a festival than a tragedy because it seemed
like whenever the bell rang, the whole town would show up to watch the fire. Fairbury wasn't
necessarily large at the time, so finding the fires were not too difficult. Soon, Fairbury became
known as the most flammable town in the Midwest.
The fire era of Fairbury came to an end after the Livingston Hotel burned. Marsh blamed Amsbary
for the fire, and Amsbary blamed Marsh. Both of the men filed suits against each other for arson,
and then for slander. Marsh was indicted, but was found not guilty. The power that the two men
held in the town quickly died down, as did the feud between the east and west sides of Fairbury.
The town ceased its civil quarrel, and agreed to work with each other instead of against each
other. With that, Fairbury was to become just another small town along the Toledo, Peoria, and