Carmi History Page

Carmi's History

The story of Carmi reveals itself to anyone standing on the steps of the 1883 White County Courthouse.

To the east is the Little Wabash River, which first attracted settlers from Kentucky or Tennessee via Shawneetown in the period 1809-1814. Carmi is 15 miles west of New Harmony, Indiana, which was home to an group of Utopians, and is still a center for the arts. It is about 40 miles north of (Old) Shawneetown, Illinois' first settlement on the Ohio River. This town was largely abandoned after the 1937 Flood, but its 1840 bank building, badly in need of restoration, impresses travelers crossing the Illinois Route 13 bridge.

The oldest house in town, originally a double-pen log cabin built in 1814, sets just beyond the city park. It was used as a courthouse when White County was founded in 1815, and Carmi was chartered in 1816. U.S. Senator James Robinson and his family lived in the home until the 1870s, when the Italianate home (the sketch below, used to honor the home in the fall of 1995) of descendant Frank Hay was finished across the street. After the collapse of Hay's bank in the panic of 1893, the family's fortunes declined and the Senator's granddaughter Mary Jane Stewart moved back into the sided cabin after 1901. On her death in 1966 she willed the home and its contents to the White County Historical Society, which maintains it as a house museum.

Directly across from the Courthouse is "the Castle", an 1896 mixture of Richardsonian Romanesque, Eastlake Victorian, and fantasy architecture dominated by three turreted towers and strong limestone arches over brick. The home was built by Rep. James Robert ("Dollar Bob") Williams, who oversaw the construction of the Courthouse while serving as County Judge from 1882-1886. He served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and spoke for his friend William Jennings Bryan in his presidential campaigns. Bryan and Harry Truman both made whistle-stop visits to Carmi during their presidential campaigns, in 1896 and 1948, respectively. Williams had the house designed by Knoxville, Tennessee architect George Franklin Barber, who sold plans by mail and had pre-cut woodwork shipped to wealthy homeowners in Washington, California and Texas. The home was almost destroyed in the 1980's, but local preservationists had the home placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and helped find buyers for the property. That's the Castle above.

To the east of the Castle is the James Robert Ready building, a small office building built in 1940 to the design of the Ready family storefront of 1840. The new building was needed to allow the Williams family to manage its oil interests, which was discovered in White County in 1939. Carmi's population grew from 2,700 to 5,500 in a matter of years during the Illinois Basin oil boom, and is now about 6,500. Many of these residents came to Illinois from Oklahoma and Texas, where the oil business was already established.

[KENT.GIF] West of the city park are the 1828 Ratcliff Inn and the 1896 L. Haas Store, both maintained as museums. Abraham Lincoln stayed at "Old Beaver's" Ratcliff Inn in 1840 and spoke for the Whig Party at a rally at Carmi's western edge. Erwin Haas' cast-iron storefront reminds us that the early merchants of Carmi included several Jewish families who fled turmoil in German principalities in the 1860s. These structures, as well as the Robinson-Stewart home are on the National Register. The buildings are usually open sometimes in the spring and fall and for Corn Day. Tours are always available by appointment.

Carmi Today

[carmie2.gif]Major industries in Carmi include auto parts manufacturing at the three plants of Trelleborg, Inc., commonly knonw as Carmi Molded Rubber Products. Martin & Bayley, Inc. services its Huck's Convenience Stores and Circus Video Stores from his headquarters and warehouses west of town. The Baptist Children's Home provides a home-like place to live for troubled children throughout the state. There are still many oilfield related employers, although few new wells are being drilled. Many people commute to Evansville or Mt. Vernon, Indiana, or Mt. Carmel or Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Frankly, unemployment is a problem, and many efforts have been made to attract a prison or large manufacturing plant to the area. Web sites are maintained by several local and regional companies which have local offices in Carmi.

White County Medical Center, built in 1949, is a 22 bed facility, and offers an attached skilled-nursing facility. It was sold to a company named Cornerstone, which is committed to operating the facility for several years. I have been told Cornerstone has sold the facility to another company. Wabash Christian Retirement Center, Inc. recently opened an apartment complex to go along with its nursing home and duplexes. As our population includes a large number of older citizens, our physicians and medical support personnel are an asset to our community. Each year White County welcomes a number of successful retirees back home, after careers have taken them to Chicago, Detroit, or other cities.

Retailers include Wal Mart, Mr. Kent's Flowers and Gifts, as well as an assortment of downtown merchants and fast-food places. A large portion of the city has been designated an Enterprise Zone, which offers incentives to new and expanding businesses. A new public library opened in January, 1998, with lots of room for genealogy materials. Top-notch area accomodations are found at Grayville and New Harmony, Indiana.

The Carmi-White County Unit District is one of three school systems serving White County, and Southeastern Illinois College has a satellite campus in Carmi. There are over 20 churches in town. Both old and new sections of Carmi include beautiful homes, many of which have been designated Heritage Houses by the White County Historical Society. Additional Heritage Houses are located in Grayville, Burnt Prairie, Enfield, and Crossville, and in rural areas around Carmi and Norris City.

Carmi's motto is "Where Southern Hospitality Meets Northern Vigor." The slower pace of life with easy access to culture and commerce has made Carmi popular with urban immigrants and retirees. We are a few miles south of Interstate 64, near US 45, and at the intersection of Illinois Routes 1 and 14. Next time you are taking a real tour rather than a virtual one come see us. The White County Fair is held the first week of August in Carmi, and Carmi's Kiwanis Corn Day is the second Saturday in October. Other county towns have fall festivals on the following September-October schedule: Grayville Days is held over Labor Day weekend, Ridgway's (Gallatin County) National Popcorn Day is the second weekend of September, Crossville's Fall Festival is the third Saturday, Norris City celebrates Dairy Days on the fourth weekend, and Enfield's Mule Days (founded in 1921) are held the first weekend of October.

Check out the new page for the local school district Carmi White County High School The City has its page at www.cityofcarmi.com. This started slowly but is growing, and has a wonderful e-mail directory.

Check out the Carmi history on the Key Ingredients website, for the historical society's 2005 Smithsonian Exhibit.

See my separate page on Enfield Mule Day.


Another area site is Historic New Harmony, a town linked to White County by the Wabash River, and an early settlement of Utopians.  Another site for the primary industry of New Harmony is Red Geranium Enterprises, which owns the hotel and two wonderful restaurants.

Be sure to visit McLeansboro Home Page, a virtual community center for the county seat of Hamilton County, located to our west. It also contains some nice history and tourism links, including Jon's Southern Illinois History Page, which has a section on the Old Slave House.

Are you interested in history, prose, poetry, and the arts, with Southern Illinois as a touchstone? If so, contact Gary DeNeal of The Springhouse magazine, published in Herod, Illinois. Recent issues have been mostly on the Old Slave House, the reverse Underground Railroad, and various studies on the dark side of Illinois History. It publishes six times a year, and a subscription is only $25 or so. They also publish a number of Southern Illinois books and maps.

I was impressed with the history resources on line from Infobahn Outfitters, a local access provider from the Monmouth and Galesburg area with history, Civil War, and genealogy links. Many of the projects they started in 1995 and 1996 have been taken over by Rootsweb.

A state page of interest: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the wonderful people who helped save the Castle and are fighting for properties all over the state, which should lead you to information on the State Bank of Shawneetown Historic Site,  the Second Bank of Illinois, built in 1840. Unfortunately, this building seems to be caught between competing goals: Keep Old Shawneetown empty to avoid future flood losses, vs. protecting an amazing structure. It would make a wonderful welcome center for those entering Illinois from Kentucky, and interpret not only Shawneetown but all towns that once flourished but found themselves in the way of the Ohio or Mississippi River, such as Kaskaskia, south of St. Louis, which was Illinois' first capital city but is now only accessible from Missouri.

Study the life of Illinois' first U.S. President: U.S. Grant Online My husband claimed some family ties to the Grants and Glover Cleveland's people, who were from New York.

For More Information

Carmi Chamber of Commerce Paula Pierson, Director 225 East Main Carmi, IL 62821 618-382-7606

White County Economic Development Group a  web site for the county business group White County Economic Development Office Windsor Oak Inn Grayville, IL 62844

White County Historical Society c/o Marge Fechtig, President P.O. Box 121 Carmi, IL 62821 618-382-8425

The Carmi Times , White County's only daily newspaper. Carmi Times. P.O. Box 190 Carmi, IL 62821 618-382-4176. This should be their new old email address.

Carmi Public Library. West Main and Slocumb Streets, Carmi, IL 62821 618-382-5277 (Please do not send genealogy emails to the library, although they will answer or forward genealogy letters sent to them. There are some very nice resources at the library.)

Carmi Broadcasting WROY 1460 AM, WRUL 97.3 FM P.O. Box 400 Carmi, IL 62821 618-382-4161

Windsor Oaks Inn & Teletrack I-64 and Illinois Route 1 Grayville, IL 62844 618-375-7930

Last updated 9/12/2005. Please send corrections and comments to cbconly@midwest.net. Your help will be appreciated.