The Story of Carmi reveals itself to anyone standing on the steps of the 1883 White County Courthouse.
To the east of the steps is the Little Wabash River, which first attracted settlers from Kentucky or Tennessee via Shawneetown in the period 1809-1814. Carmi is 15 miles west of New Harmony, Indiana, which was home to a group of Utopians and is still a center for the arts. It is about 40 miles north of (Old) Shawneetown, Illinois' first settlement on the Ohio River.
The oldest house in town, originally a double-pen log cabin built in 1814, sets just beyond the city park. It was used as a courthouse when White County was founded in 1815, and Carmi was chartered in 1816. U.S. Senator James Robinson and his family lived in the home until the 1870s, when the Italianate of descendant Frank Hay was finished across the street. After the collapse of Hay's bank in the panic of 1893, the family's fortunes declined and the Senator's granddaughter Mary Jane Stewart moved back into the sided cabin after 1901. On her death in 1966 she willed the home and its contents to the White County Historical Society, which maintains it as a house museum. All of the home's furnishings, many of which date to the 1830s, were also given to the society, including a desk originally used in the Ratcliff at which Lincoln might have worked during his stay at the Inn and a silver drinking cup which Lincoln used as he accompanied little Patty Webb of Carmi to Mt. Carmel on the stage coach trip north.
Directly across from the Courthouse is "the Castle," an 1896 mixture of Richardsonian Romanesque, Eastlake Victorian, and fantasy architecture dominated by three turreted towers and strong limestone arches over brick. The home was built by Rep. James Robert ("Dollar Bob") Williams, who oversaw the construction of the Courthouse while serving as County Judge from 1882-1886. He served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and spoke for his friend William Jennings Bryan in his presidential campaigns. Bryan and Harry Truman both made whistle-stop visits to Carmi during their presidential campaigns, in 1896 and 1948, respectively. Williams had the house designed by Knoxville, Tennessee architect George Franklin Barber, who sold plans by mail and had pre-cut woodwork shipped to wealthy homeowners in Washington, California and Texas. The home was almost destroyed in the 1980's, but local preservationists had the home placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and helped find buyers for the property.
JAMES ROBERT READY BUILDING
To the east of the Castle is the James Robert Ready building, a small office building built in 1940 to the design of the Ready family storefront of 1840. The new building was needed to allow the Williams family to manage its oil interests, which was discovered in White County in 1939. Carmi's population grew from 2,700 to 5,500 in a matter of years during the Illinois Basin oil boom, and is now about 6,500. Many of these residents came to Illinois from Oklahoma and Texas, where the oil business was already established.
The White County Historical Society was founded in 1957 and established its first museum in Carmi when the Ratcliff Inn was saved from destruction in 1960. Abraham Lincoln stayed in the Inn in 1840, and its original owner served in many county offices from 1818 to 1848. The first floor of the museum contains one room with the parlor furniture of Mose and Carrie Day, donated by their daughter Vivian. James Ratcliff's bookcase sets off the front hallway, which has a number of plaques and pictures relating to the museum. The other downstairs room is being used for meetings and events. Upstairs the museum has many artifacts from the past, including Senator James Robinson's cloak, glassware from the Damrom House, firearms, quilts, fans, and a bedroom with rope bed.
L. HAAS STORE
The L. Haas Store museum, built in 1896 was purchased in 1992 to house the Society's growing collection of artifacts. It contains everything from native american artifacts (on loan from the Rebstock family) to a circa 1918 mail rig to hundreds of tools, photographs and vintage clothing. One highlight is the set of hanging tools of Hawthorne township farmer Phil Hanna, "the humane hangman," who ended the life of Southern Illinois' most famous or infamous outlaw, Charlie Birger. Hanna presided over many early 20th century executions. Erwin Haas' cast-iron storefront reminds us that the early merchants of Carmi included several Jewish families who fled turmoil in German principalities in the 1860s.
History written by Cindy Birk Conley, http://home.midwest.net/~cbconly/carmi.htm