Former MacMurray college professor Phil Decker once explained to me that towns everywhere and particularly in the Midwest were created out of necessity, not ambiance. He said, “If you’ll notice, most towns around here are located a day’s horseback ride from one another. You rode your horse for a day and you needed a place to stop.” He then added that transportation and industry were the two other major factors. Chapin was there because of its railroad, Meredosia due to the river, even Springfield because of its location on the Sangamon.
So it’s no surprise to learn that Arenzville is planted where it is because of a grain mill located on nearby Indian Creek. Legend has it that the first mill was indeed constructed and operated by Native Americans living on the edge the Illinois River bottom, and the first records of any settlement there date to 1821. Perrin’s History of Cass County, states that a man named James Smart was the first white settler to operate the mill and the previous residents lived in an ancient Indian town and burial place three miles northeast of the present village.
Smart bought the mill from the Indians and Francis Arenz, the town’s namesake, joined in the venture, running two mills…one for wood and one for corn. There was no wheat grown in the area at the time. In fact, it was said to be the only mill within 100 miles. Contrary to what one might think, a mill’s most dreaded enemies are not floods, but rather muskrats. The entire enterprise was twice destroyed by the little dam breakers.
Francis Arenz was born at Blackenberg in the province of Rhein, Prussia on October 31st of 1800. We tend to look back at our founding fathers and mothers as people who lived a lifetime of success, forgetting for the moment that Columbus wasn’t actually out to discover America. Arenz came to the U.S. via Kentucky, Galena, then and Beardstown, constantly trying to make it as a merchant. His first attempt at running a newspaper in Beardstown came to failure, and he proposed digging a canal to connect the Illinois and Sangamon Rivers at Miller’s ferry but the project was abandoned. Finally in 1832 he gave up the hopes of making a fortune and moved to a spot near the Morgan County line and today we call the place Arenzville.
Arenz was not the first man to enter government service because he’d not been a success in the world of business. An ardent Whig, he was elected to the Fourteenth General Assembly and later became a diplomat under President Fillmore as a bearer of dispatches to foreign countries, most notably his native Prussia. He helped found the State Agricultural Society in 1853. Much like today, important men in those days often knew each other and one of Francis Arenz’s greatest friendships was with Thomas Beard, the founder of Beardstown. Both men established churches as one of the first acts in their respective towns, and Thomas Beard named his son Francis Arenz Beard. In fact, it was Francis Arenz who spoke at Beard’s funeral. J.N. Gridley, writing of the event, said, “When we arrived at the grave a circle was formed, and with the uncovered brow the honorable Francis Arenz stepped forward, himself an exile and a pioneer from another land to do the last act of courtesy.” Arenz spoke of how the two men led similar lives, both far away from their native lands, and both finding friendship in the other. Gridley says that Arenz called Beard, “’…one of Nature’s noblemen.’ Saying this the speaker (Francis Arenz) broke down in a paroxysm of grief and tears.”
It’s ironic to note that today Arenzville is home to many members of the Beard family but no one names Arenz lives in Arenzville. The Arenz family moved to Beardstown.
One of the least noble of Abraham Lincoln’s early traits was his habit of writing letters to editors under assumed names. Author Michael Burlingame’s “Abraham Lincoln: A Life,” tells the story of Arenz and Lincoln’s confederation when Lincoln bought stock in the Sangamon Canal Company, of which Arenz was president. Arenz was editor of the Sangamo Journal, which had run a slashing editorial against Peter Cartwright, a prominent Methodist minister and Jacksonian politico. The editorial was signed, “Sam Hill.” Actually, Arenz agreed to run it as a paid advertisement. The real Sam Hill detested Cartwright and Lincoln had no fondness for him. The editorial called the Methodist politician “a most abandoned hypocrite” and said that it was hard to tell whether he was “a great fool or knave,” and that “he has few rivals in either capacity.” Lincoln quit the ugly practice of ghost writing in 1842 when one of his offended targets challenged him to a duel.
There’s not much evidence today of Francis Arenz’s mill, his muskrats, or his famous friendships, but his name still stand firmly affixed to the signs entering the town. We think he’d be satisfied with that.