By Tony Hooker
For two centuries, I stood lonely watch.
I was there when roving bands of Kickapoo and Potawatomi used the Embarras River as a source of navigation through the area.
I saw the waters of the river, teeming with fish, serve as an incredible resource for some of the first settlers in Douglas County. The tree lined bank served as a beacon for folks traveling across the Grand Prairie of the west, as early French settlers called the central Illinois countryside.
I was there when moose, bears and buffalo still made Central Illinois their home. I saw them slowly disappear from the land as more and more settlers moved in.
After the civil war, I heard rumblings, just to the south of my location, as the Chicago and Eastern Illinois railroad was laid from Danville to Tuscola. Suddenly, a town sprung up across the river nearby, where the “Villa in the Grove” stood. In 1887, a Danville attorney suggested that the town be named Hensonville, in honor of the family whose land the railroad passed through. The family, however, countered by suggesting that the name be based on the barrister’s nickname for their home, the aforementioned villa in the Grove.
I was there in 1890 as lots were sold and the neighborhood now referred to as the old town began to take shape. From my vantage point west of the river, I could see the developments clearly.
In 1902, I watched with some concern as Frisco, who had just purchased the C&EI line, decided to make Villa Grove a division point, since it was roughly halfway between Chicago and St. Louis. Here trains would change crews and repairs would be made in the round house that now lies abandoned to my south. The Frisco then purchased 260 acres surrounding me to build houses for the workers who would soon be coming to town to work in the rail yards. I watched as homes sprung up to the south, slowly working their way north until I had several pop up on all sides of me. And still I stood tall and watched silently.
Families came and went in the houses around me. One of my favorite things was listening to the peel of children’s laughter as they played near me. Although I had no way of letting them know, I was filled with joy. About 20 years ago, I too got to participate in some of the games, as I served as a catcher for many a pitched baseball or softball, but like everything, that time too has drawn to a close.
As with all living things, my life has come to an end. I saw a small town come to life where nothing once stood. I stood silent watch and provided shelter to generations of critters, birds and people. I lived a dignified life until the end, when the ravages of time got the best of me, and my limbs began to crack and fall, and I became a danger to others. I have sprung from the earth, and to the earth I have returned. I was Jane’s Sweet Gum Tree. And I had a good life.