THE HISTORY OF COFFEEN, ILLINOIS
Original History 1936 Senior Class Project
Second Edition 8th Grade Class Project-1968-69
And 8th Grade Class Project-1969-1970
The City of Coffeen takes its name from the surname of the very unique gentleman, G. F. Coffeen, originally of Watertown, New York. Mr. Coffeen, a tall, broad shouldered man about six feet tall and weighing 225 pounds, was an outstanding physical specimen, a man of intelligence, and a natural leader. He was a partisan Democrat and for many years represented this section of the state in the State Legislature.
Mr. Coffeen purchased his estate in Montgomery County – later to become the City of Coffeen – from the son of an Englishman by the name of Fountaine Whitledge, who built for his family the Main Street home now being remodeled by Mr. And Mrs. William E. Spivey. The original Whitledge farm was a very large one for the time. The horse barn was located where Keith Short’s Grocery is presently located, and the Coffeen National Bank stands over his old stock well. Before building this large homestead, the Whitledge family had been encamped a mile east of Coffeen where their baby died of whooping cough. The child was buried along the side of the road, thus the beginning of the Whitledge cemetery, or as it is now known, Olive Hill Cemetery. The second grave in this cemetery belongs to Mr. Whitledge who, for reasons unknown, committed suicide by hanging.
As we said, Mr. Coffeen purchased the above estate from John Whitledge; and in 1881, when the Toledo, St. Louis & Kansas City Railroad was being constructed. Mr. Coffeen was successful in having it built across this farm. Also, by his influence, the depot and siding were built where they now stand. The location of the Coffeen Coal & Copper Company, of which Mr. Coffeen owned a large part, was also due to his influence.
Coffeen was incorporated as a Village in 1889. G. F. Coffeen was the first Mayor and W. C. Woodard became City Clerk. Members of the Village Board were: Dr. W. H. Cook, C. F. Edwards, Thomas G. Laws, Peter Murphy, Joseph Harvey and Thomas Prater. Mr. Coffeen immediately went to work laying out a town site; a plat was made and recorded and the sale of lots began at once. At this same time he donated the land for a City Park and planted shade trees.
Twenty-one years later, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Billy Newsome, the Village of Coffeen was incorporated as a City with a grand population of 1500. Alfred Gordon, correspondent for a St. Louis newspaper, was quite taken with the 4’ 11”, 90 pound package of dynamite that was Billy Newsome and in 1910 wrote a few articles about Mayor Newsome and Coffeen. We quote: “On Monday, December 5, 1910, at 7:00 P.M., Coffeen became a city. Previous to this, Mr. Newsome had been acting as President of the Village of Coffeen and for kicks got out municipal letterheads and envelopes which featured his village as a real city. When the City of St. Louis invited the mayors of Illinois during the St. Louis Centennial and set aside a few days to entertain the ‘visiting mayors’, W. E. Newsome, President of the Village of Coffeen, was ‘among those present’, and was the only Village president among the official dignitaries. The St. Louis newspapers had a story about the Village of Coffeen each and every day – both morning and afternoon. When they did not run a picture with a title underneath, ‘The Mayor of Coffeen’, Billy Newsome would be up in the editorial rooms asking the reason ‘why not’?
Once when things were kind of dull in Coffeen, Mr. Newsome managed to get himself arrested on some trifling pretext and got himself featured in the Springfield papers.
Hearing of Billy’s exploits in his line, I visited Coffeen and met the little mayor face to face. He was bubbling over with excitement and trouble in regard to a special election he was going to pull off to decide whether or not the Village of Coffeen should blossom into a full-fledged city. He told me that Coffeen had twice before voted on the proposition and that twice the ‘city boosters’ had been defeated.
I remained three days in Coffeen and every minute of my time was spent in the company of the little Village President. We raised a fund for advertising the Village; we explored the coal mine; we smoked Union made miner’s cigars; we did a little press-agenting ourselves on the side after our day’s work was over, working into the small hours of the morning. There was precious little sleep in Coffeen – that is, I did not see much of it for bright and early each morning, Mr. Newsome was at my door to wake me up.
At one mass meeting of Coffeen citizens we held, Mr. Newsome coined the slogan, ‘Cough up for Coffeen’, which was contracted later into ‘Cough for Coffeen’. That is really what helped to make Coffeen and Billy Newsome famous for the big Chicago papers and the St. Louis papers also, in fact, almost every newspaper of consequence within 500 miles of Coffeen, quoted the little coal village as the greatest booster town in the United States.
Then came the special election on December 5th. Fate was to decide whether Coffeen would throw off its village clothes and become a city or no. It was snowing, but the snow melted soon as it touched the streets, which were warm from the hot-footing of Billy Newsome’s squad of city boosters. The dampness made more emphatic, the meaning of his famous slogan and before night, it sounded as if every man, woman and child were indeed ‘Coughing for Coffeen’. Yet, in spite of the weather, a record vote was brought out. The votes were counted; Coffeen had become a city by the narrow majority of two. Billy telegraphed the news to me and I immediately took the first train to Coffeen. I found the little village in an uproar of excitement, for the Mayor had just ‘coughed up’ a tremendous oath. He had sworn by all the mules in the Coffeen mine that he would annex Chicago to Coffeen before Teddy Roosevelt received the nomination for the presidency of the United States.
Everyone was discussing the chances of Billy Newsome’s falling down on this proposition. If he finally does fall down, it will be the first time he fell down on anything he ever undertook to do. Billy did not say much himself, but I noticed he carried in his hip pocket, a dozen copies of the Chicago Tribune of December 1st and December 2nd, which contained the two famous editorials entitled, “Greater Coffeen” and “Stopping the West-bound Limited at Coffeen”. If anyone approached him, Billy would pull a Tribune on him with the editorial page exposed and point to the heavily dactylled sentence which the Tribune had quoted direct from the Coffeen newspaper: “The handles on the coffin of a man who talked about a mule behind his back cost $4.10. If Coffeen is to come to the front, the knockers must go to the rear.” Unquote.
After a later visit to Coffeen, Alfred Gordon had this to say: “While I was in Coffeen, I was one of the Coffeeners. It is a mining town, pure and simple. The miners are money makers. They knock out from $50 to $75 a week ‘without batting an eye’. This is miners’ slang. Some of the miners are very highly educated. They all live high and are great on ‘giving for charity’.
Coffeeners see the humor of life and enjoy it to the fullest. The only things they take real seriously are their municipal improvement plans. These are sacred as well as serious. One of the improvements ‘on foot’ is a proposed cement walk to the cemetery’. Coffeen has made itself famous on this proposition alone. Several newspapers have alluded to it, some in jest. It is no jest to the Coffeeners. Right in the most conspicuous places in the Coffeen Post Office is a contribution box on which is written, ‘for the proposed walk to the cemetery’, and every time they feel like it, the Coffeeners ‘cough up’ a few coins and drop them into the box.”
The newly proposed concrete walk to the cemetery did indeed become a reality. The newly formed Coffeen Household Science Club with Mrs. James A. Greene as president began having soup suppers to raise money for the walk. The ladies were ambitious and the suppers became an almost weekly event. Mr. Greene was heard to say that every time he came home his wife was cutting up vegetables. On one occasion, Mrs. Greene and Mrs. Jessie Thompson transported two very large, very full and very hot lard cans full of soup to town in the back of the Greene car. The combination of bumpy road and hot soup created a small explosion and the car became one large container for vegetable soup. This setback did not deter the ladies, however, the soup suppers continued and the sidewalk was laid.