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History of Wood River and Benbow City

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser

 

In 1906, Standard Oil engineers from Whiting, Indiana searched the fertile farmland along the Mississippi River to select a site for their newStandard Oil Refinery, Wood River, Illinois refinery. The site selected was part of the Fred Penning farm in Wood River Township, just west of the Big Four and the Chicago, Peoria, and St. Louis Railroad lines. Construction began on the refinery in 1907. The founding of the refinery meant workers would need a place to live. In May 1907, Fred Penning platted his farmland, which included land between Ferguson and Madison from Fourth Street, past the intersection at First Street. On August 12, 1907, he added another subdivision, and on September 10, 1907, the Riverview Subdivision was recorded. The following March 1908, Penning completed the subdivision to Fourth Street, and on March 4, the first Dulany’s subdivision was recorded. A petition for incorporation of Wood River into a village was filed July 3, 1908 and was approved by Judge Hillskotter. The election was held October 6, 1908. P. E. Ashlock was elected Village President; M. W. Taylor, Village Clerk; and James T. Ashlock was elected police magistrate.
                                      
Even with this rapid development, as soon as a house was built, a family moved in. Water, sewers, and electricity were not yet available. Madison Avenue, constructed by the Standard Oil Company, was covered with rock and was the only good road in town. All other roads were loose sand, in which horses had a terrible time pulling wagons through.

The eastern portion of the area was growing also. Augustine Head owned a farm bounded on the east by Thirteenth Street, the west by Sixth Street, the south by Tydeman in Roxana, and on the north by Madison. The Head farmhouse stood on the corner of Ninth and Whittier. Head began to sell some of his farmland to the Standard Oil Company for workers who needed homes. This eastern portion and the original western portion of Wood River soon became rivals. During 1909, it was decided to incorporate, and a petition was presented to incorporate the eastern section under the name of East Wood River. The incorporation was approved, and election of officers was held. It was rumored that Wood River would annex East Wood River, however it turned out that East Wood River annexed Wood River in 1910, and then changed their name to Wood River. In 1917, Benbow City was annexed to Wood River.

As the refinery grew, the population of the area increased. Standard Oil purchased for their workers more than two dozen Sears catalog kit homes in 1919. The close relationship between the refinery and the city was evidenced by the fact that the sports teams for the Wood River schools were named the Oilers, in honor of the industry that gave birth to their community.

In 1926, Standard Oil donated what was then the nation’s largest outdoor swimming pool, along with a community center known as the Roundhouse, and a wooden band shell. A Standard Oil official was the first person to enter the pool, located on Whitelaw Avenue.


Early Wood River Schools
Education began in the future site of Wood River with the construction of Gillham’s Pasture School on the northeast corner of what is now 13th Street and Edwardsville Road in Wood River.
Brushy Grove School, 1949
In the early 1860s the Brushy Grove School was erected where the Gillham Pasture School stood. Brushy Grove was originally in the Roxana School District. The first schoolhouse was destroyed by fire and was replaced. A third structure was erected when state laws regulated systems of ventilation and sanitation, which the second building lacked. This schoolhouse was sold to Joseph Havelka, Wood River Township Road Supervisor, for $425. The fourth Brushy Grove School was completed November 1929, and was a modern, four-classroom building. The fourth schoolhouse was torn down in 1971. Today, a marker stands at the U. S. Bank (formerly the Wood River Savings and Loan) where the Brushy Grove church and school were located. This marker was dedicated in November 1984. The cornerstone of the fourth schoolhouse and the stone nameplate were incorporated into the marker.

In 1911, Standard Oil erected the first school in the city of Wood River. It was located on North Old St. Louis Road, just north of West Ferguson Avenue.


BENBOW CITY
Benbow City in Wood River Township was founded in December 1907 by Amos Benbow, a 60-year-old former school teacher and realtor, who inherited land near the future Standard Oil Refinery in Wood River Township. He was the son of Richard M. Benbow, and was born in Wood River Township on February 20, 1850.


                          Benbow City
Benbow City was located north and south of present-day Hwy. 143 in Wood River, just east of the railroad tracks near Rt. 3. The property had previously been farmland. Just to the west of Benbow City was an area called Little Italy, which was occupied by mostly foreigners. Benbow City was developed for refinery workers, who turned it into a lawless town with mostly saloons and prostitution. It had a peak population of about 300 people, with one saloon for each thirteen people. In addition to the twenty-three saloons, there were seven brewery agencies, and each dram shop and agency paid $500 a year for a license.

After founding Benbow City, Amos Benbow was elected mayor. As head of that town, he made his famous fight against the encroachment of the city of Wood River, insisting his place was Benbow City, not part of Wood River. Several destructive fires led to the downfall of Benbow City. Several years later Benbow disposed of some of his land to the Standard Oil Company, and in 1917 Benbow City ceased to exist and was annexed into Wood River.

Other public offices Benbow held included two terms as mayor of Upper Alton, constable, justice of the peace, assessor, collector and deputy sheriff. He represented his district in the Forty-fourth Illinois General Assembly. During President Cleveland's first administration, he was Deputy United States Marshal, for the Southern Illinois district, which included 69 counties.

William O’Hearn, a former St. Louis policeman, was a councilman at Benbow City. He also tended bar at the Marsh Saloon there. He became ill while tending bar in August 1913, and was taken by John Brady and Jerome Ford, Benbow City marshals, to the village hall, where Dr. E. D. Gottshalk attended him. He died August 27, 1913. O’Hearn was known as the “handy man” of Benbow City. When the Mayor was absent, O’Hearn filled in. At various times he served as marshal, village clerk, election judge, and fire department volunteer.

Mrs. Katie Waggoner was the first woman to live in Benbow City. She settled in a box car (where a lot of the foreigners lived before housing was available) and did cooking for the foreigners who worked at the nearby refinery. In her spare time, she served as translator, as she was fluent in five tongues – Polish, Slavish, Hungarian, German, and English. She was highly regarded, described as pretty, and dressed neatly. She later moved into a tent, and then married Michael Waggoner, a foreigner working at the refinery. They bought a house together. In June 1912, Katie died at her home of Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys), and is buried in the Greenwood (St. Patrick’s) Cemetery in Godfrey.

 

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