IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST
By Jack Taylor

(This is a reprint of an article Jack wrote for a newspaper
called the Regional on March 8, 1996)
 

A church, a school, and a general store were considered the beginning foundation of a rural community in days gone by. And today, those landmarks can still be found nestled together in a wooded backdrop in Kennekuk Cove County Park near Danville—Vermilion Chapel, Red Oak School and the Neff General Store.

While the three historical buildings weren’t found together during their prime, the efforts of many groups and individuals in Vermilion County has kept a part of history alive by bringing these structures to their final common home.
Vermilion Chapel, built in 1886 on what is now park property, was reopened in 1976 after having its roofing, siding and flooring restored. The chapel’s final service was held in 1973, and the Altrusa Club of Danville elected to restore the church as the club’s 1976 Bicentennial project. With the cooperation of the Vermilion County Conservation District, the chapel has been restored to look as it might have in 1900.

The chapel has two front doors—one for men and one for women and children---and a center aisle that separates seating for the men from that of the women and children. The chapel was later changed to allow families to sit together during services, but the Altrusa Club wanted to recapture the past and replaced the double doors with the two single doors featured in the original.

The kerosene lamps hanging from the side walls provided light for the evening services before electricity came to the area in the 1940’s. The Altrusa Club located the chapel’s original podium, the church bell and the pot-bellied stove, and with the addition of a reed organ and oak pews, the interior slowly returned to the 1900 era.

Vermilion Chapel now offers special church services, is a popular setting for weddings and attracts many history- loving tourists. The Altrusa Club also provides volunteer guides for the Sunday open house tours held during the summer months.
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VERMILION CHAPEL                                           RED OAK SCHOOL

Red Oak School, built in 1884 southeast of Collison, IL, burned to the ground in 1914. When the new one-room school was built to replace it that same year, the new building was built a half mile from the original and was also called Red Oak.
Many rural Collison and Newtown area residents attended primary school at Red Oak, but in 1949 the school was consolidated into the Newtown District, and in 1956 it’s doors were closed for the last time.
 

The property was bought and sold several times after the school closed, and it’s final owner donated the building to the Vermilion County Conservation District in 1986, with the stipulation it be moved to district land for preservation. The school was moved to Kennekuk Park in 1989. 

Red Oak school was dedicated on it’s new site in September of 1991, and a reunion of former students was part of the dedication ceremony. Many of it’s former students donated books, report cards and other memorabilia to help furnish the interior of the one-room school, which now contains 25 student desks—complete with their built-in inkwells, a teachers desk, a blackboard and a pot-bellied stove. The nations flag stands in a corner of the room, and outside are an old-time well pump and a vintage merry-go-round. The two-door outhouse—one for the boys, the other for girls--- also sits in it’s traditional place behind the school. 

Volunteers help to keep the school open to the public on Sundays during the summer. The building is also open to area teachers who want their students to experience a day of education in a one-room school house of the past. 

Danville resident Mildred Hickman remembers Red Oak School as part of her primary school years in the late 1920’s and the early 30’s. 

“We might have had the first hot lunch program,” she recalled, “Our teacher would bring a pot of bean soup to school and put it on the stove, and we all had soup for lunch.” 

“I remember the old pull-down maps that hung on the wall and the box socials that were held at the school in the evenings when the families would get together,” she said. “My mother also attended both Red Oak schools, and she had eight brothers and sisters who went to Red Oak, and many, many cousins went there.” 

Hickman attended the 1991 dedication and donated an old drawing book of her mother’s to the school. Once in a while, she said she drives out to the park on a quiet day and sits, reading and watching the deer as they walk up and peek through the school windows.
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What is now Neff’s Grocery Store had its beginning in 1912 and had several owners until 1939, when Len Neff and his wife, Lee, bought it from his mother. Neff ran the Newtown, Illinois store until Jan. 1 of 1983, and the property was purchased by Dick and Diana Jameson in 1986. But the idle store soon became an eyesore for the small community. A group called Friends of the Newtown Store was formed and it’s members soon began planning how to move the store to Kennekuk Park. 


CLASS IN SESSION AT RED OAK SCHOOL

The Jamesons granted their permission to move the building, and the funds were soon raised to allow Neff’s General Store to take its rightful place in local history and join the church and school at the park. 

In April of 1992 the move was made and the people involved decided to restore the building and its interior to reflect the 1950’s, a time when the store was one of the closer places to purchase gasoline. A large red gas pump now sits in front of the store, and a sign announces that Red Crown gasoline is selling for 16 cents a gallon. 

How old the pump is isn’t noted, but it was patented in 1915. While acquiring authentic stock items for the stores interior continues as an ongoing project, the store is now open to the public, along with the school and church. 

Bill Turner of Covington, Indiana remembers Neff’s Grocery Store as a gathering spot for farmers coming into Newtown. “If you needed a stove pipe, or hardware, or kerosene for lamps, along with the standard grocery items, you could find it at Neff’s, “ he said. “It was the only place to go if you couldn’t get into Danville.” 

“Len Neff was always good with children,” Turner said, “If you were the only kid in the store, he would probably slip you a piece of candy.” 

Turner remembered the five cent bottles of soda, the Eskimo pies, and the penny candy. One thing Turner said he would always remember was that Len Neff allowed him, as a teen-ager, to have a charge account so he could buy gas for his car. 

“It was the first charge account I ever had, and with the price around 35 cents a gallon, it was nice to be able to charge a couple of gallons of gas,” he said. 

Turner grew up on a farm about halfway between Neff’s Grocery Store and Red Oak School. And yes, he also received his primary education at Red Oak School, as did his mother, and his three brothers, and his sister. 

And yes, Mildred Hickman and Turner are first cousins. And the author of this article is also a first cousin to Turner. And Mildred Hickman is my older sister and that was my mother she spoke of also, and my aunts and uncles and first cousins who were part of the Red Oak School history. 

Future plans for the Bunker Hill Historic Area in Kennekuk Cove County Park include an old railroad depot, a town hall, a print shop, a barber shop, along with others to eventually be added. A Civil War re-enactment takes place every summer at the park, an event that has drawn visitors from near and far. 

Kennekuk Cove is located on Henning Road eight miles northwest of Danville, Illinois. The 3,000 acre park contains a 170 acre lake and offers swimming, picnicking, hiking, and historical sites. For additional information call the Visitor Center at (217)442-1691.
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A footnote for our Jarvis Family members is the location of our annual reunion. It is
 situated in a scenic private picnic area a short walk away from the Historic site.