— Looking for Lincoln —
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Lincoln's good friend Jesse Fell had more to do with shaping early events in Livingston County and Pontiac than any other man. He named the county and, in 1837, was instrumental in having the county seat located here. He named the town "Pontiac," in honor of the distinguished Indian Chief, when asked by the town's first settler and proprietor to draft a petition for a post office. City Park was donated to Pontiac by Fell in his first addition to Pontiac. It later was renamed Fell Park in his honor. It is thought Fell named the street on the park's east side "Court," thinking the courthouse might eventually be moved to the park site.
Eastern land speculators were among the first white
settlers in the newly formed state of Illinois in 1818. The Federal Government was selling land for fifty cents to one dollar per acre. The prairie lands of Illinois, which included the Livingston County region, were among the last to be settled by the pioneers, who avoided the prairie because of the mucky soil and the danger of prairie fires in the dry season. In 1831, a twenty-three-year-old Quaker named Jesse W. Fell walked from Chester County, Pa., to central Illinois. He became Bloomington's first lawyer and edited the city's first newspaper, but he abandoned the pursuits to engage in agriculture and to oversee the vast acreage of farmland he had acquired in the state's early years. He also owned a large part of Pontiac and surrounding farmland, and he laid out two large additions to the city. Having been tutored in botany, he planted trees here, and some of which still provide shade in his additions, as well as in Fell Park. Towering trees along Vermillion Street leading to the Pontiac Correctional Center are a living memorial to this far-sighted man who improved the prairies by planting trees.
Many small communities
sprang up on the prairies of Central Illinois but were abandoned. It was the railroad that dictated which settlements would survive, and it was Fell who brought the railroad through Pontiac. Fell also assisted Pontiac in securing the State Reform School in 1869. He donated the sixty-four acres on which the first buildings were erected. First constructed was a five-story brick administration building, which included the warden's residence. It opened in 1871 for boys from six to sixteen. Inmates could complete their education and learn trades. Townspeople came to hear concerts performed by inmates. Baseball teams came from across the country to play Pontiac inmates. Today it is a maximum security prison.