O'Fallon history is a rich tapestry of local firsts and historically significant sites. Thanks to a partnership between Main Street businesses and the O'Fallon Historical Society, visitors and residents can learn a great deal about O’Fallon and get some exercise at the same time. A series of plaques installed at historic locations in the downtown area offers a walking tour through O’Fallon history and architecture. Brian Keller, president of the O’Fallon Historical Society, says some of the oldest buildings along the walking tour were built within 40 years of O’Fallon’s official birthday. According to Keller, those landmarks were crucial in helping the city evolve from humble beginnings.
“O’Fallon came into play when the railroad came through. We mark our birthday on May 13, 1854, and basically that was the day they sold lots in public auction around the train depot. Back then it was called O’Fallon Depot or O’Fallon Station. We were (just) a railroad depot and a water tank.”
“Plaque tour” landmarks begin at 101 W. State Street. This building, completed in 1904, was home to the First National Bank until 1960. Keller says the site is also home to an O’Fallon icon. “It has one of those old 1920s four-sided bank clocks on the side. In some ways that's become the symbol of O'Fallon--the clock on the side of the old bank building. A lot of people give directions by the clock.”
The second floor at 101 W. State became the first home of the O’Fallon Public Library in 1930, eventually moving downstairs after being vacated by the First National Bank. Today, it is the O’Fallon Historical Museum. Right next door is the oldest intact building in downtown O’Fallon. In 1863, 102 W. State was built, the site of O’Fallon’s very first theater, which opened in 1877.
Another site along the tour route is the historic Opera House at 220 E. State. Originally a cultural center when it opened in 1909, the Opera House hosted live performances, events and films, but also had many other uses. “It was originally designed as a theater, but also there were businesses, plus a restaurant there.” Keller said. “The theater itself closed in 1940. It became the Opera House Mall later, keeping with the tradition of the building having a variety of businesses there.”
Keller said 2008 is an important milestone for the site. “The Opera House will be 100 years old at the end of this year. It was built in 1908, relatively late compared to the rest of O’Fallon.”
There is a great deal of history to see on State Street, First Street and Lincoln Avenue, but those who take the tour early in the year will learn even more in later months. Four additional sites are designated to receive plaques including 123 E. First Street—the home of O’Fallon’s first self-service store, First Street Market (later known as Keck’s Tom-Boy). The building was erected in 1907 and has been used for retail since it first opened as Samuel E. McGeehon's Grocery & Hardware.
One landmark not found on the walking tour is of interest to both Lincoln-era history buffs and fans of healthy eating. Paulo’s At The Mansion, located in a serene setting within O’Fallon, is an important piece of local history. Built in 1857, this two-story Italianate-style brick home was once a private residence with a ‘secret’ history. Today it thrives as a steakhouse offering a menu complete with heart-healthy options.
“We have vegetarian items; we have a fresh seafood program.” said co-owner David Kappert. “Twice a week our fish is flown in from Honolulu. It allows us to offer some unique choices from the seafood array, stuff you don't see on menus every day.” The lighter fare is tempting, but the history behind Paulo’s is even more so. According to local tradition, when the building was a residence it was an overnight stop for the man who would eventually lead the nation through the Civil War. “A lot of the locals have told us that President Abraham Lincoln slept here during his time as a lawyer—it is likely that’s true,” said Kappert.
That bit of trivia isn’t all, thanks to a discovery in part of the mansion now open to the public. “We have found two different ‘secret rooms,’ so to speak.” Kappert says these secret places could have been used as part of the Underground Railroad. “I speculate they were used to hide slaves."
Research into this unique discovery is ongoing. “It’s something that will never stop. Unfortunately, access to one of them is through the ‘widow’s peak’ on the third floor and at this point in time is not open to the public.”
Kappert would like to make at least one of the rooms available for viewing once the area is renovated and can be safely accessed.
From the Underground Railroad to the oldest intact building in O’Fallon, there is much to learn. Those who get an appetite for local history from the walking tour or an evening at Paulo’s should explore the O’Fallon Historical Society museum at 101 W. State Street, open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 1:00-4:00 p.m., or by appointment.