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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a very small single‑story clapboarded wooden house, with a porch, supported by three columns, over the front door. It is the Edgar Lee Masters House in Petersburg, Illinois.]

Edgar Lee Masters House, Petersburg, Built 1870's.

 p115  A Poet's Boyhood Home

Illinois has numerous old dwellings which have become literary landmarks because of their association with noted writers. Not least of these is the boyhood home of the poet, Edgar Lee Masters, at Petersburg, an old town on the banks of the Sangamon River. A modest cottage, with little architectural appeal, this house is frequently visited by devotees of Masters' widely read Spoon River Anthology, as well as by literary scholars in general.

In her article, "The Spoon River Country," Josephine Craven Chandler (now Mrs. Robert C. Horner) says that "It was here [in Petersburg] that Masters spent most of those early years before he moved to Lewistown; here he came to know personally, and through the infinite resources of anecdote and familiar allusion, that group of characters which are among the most benign and ennobling of the collection [in the Spoon River Anthology]; and here he came beneath the spell of those two men who were to prove, immediate family influences aside, the most constant sources of inspiration in his life and art — his grandfather, Mr. Squire D. Masters, and Abraham Lincoln."

 p116  It was not that Edgar Lee Masters knew Lincoln personally, for the Civil War President was dead four years before the poet was born. What Mrs. Horner means is that Masters grew up in the Lincoln country, in a town surveyed by Lincoln and among people who knew Lincoln, and that as a result the impressionable young boy was early imbued with the Lincoln tradition. As a child, Masters remembered seeing, in the Petersburg courthouse square, such men as Mentor Graham, William H. Herndon, and others who had been associates of the martyred President.

When the Masters family moved into its little white house in Petersburg some time in the early 1870's, the poet was a lad of about three years old. At that time his father, Hardin Wallace Masters, had but recently been elected state's attorney of the county in which they lived, Menard. The house came to the new state's attorney as a gift from his father, Squire Masters, who was a well-to‑do farmer living some miles outside Petersburg.

Although Illinois was the state of his ancestors and the state in which he was reared and to which he devoted most of his writings, Edgar Lee Masters was not born in the Prairie State. His birth occurred at Garnett, Kansas, on August 23, 1869, where his parents had moved from Illinois a year or two earlier. A young lawyer, Hardin Masters had gone to Kansas in search of opportunities. Not finding them, he returned to Petersburg with his family.

After an attempt at farming near the village of Atterberry, Hardin Masters was prevailed on to become a candidate for state's attorney. He accepted, was elected, and moved into the Petersburg house. Here his family lived until 1880. In that year they moved to Lewistown, in Fulton County near the Spoon River. When this move was made Edgar Lee Masters was eleven years old. It was at Lewistown he grew to maturity and studied law in his father's office. He afterward went to Chicago, engaged in the practice of law, wrote his renowned Spoon River Anthology, and became one of America's foremost poets.

A goodly portion of his boyhood days in the Petersburg house is described by Masters in his autobiography, Across Spoon River. "This was a small house and common enough; but there was a large yard and trees and a barn," he writes. "Later my father built an addition to the house; but it had neither water save from a well nor heat save from stoves. And in winter it was cold as the arctic."

That house, whose exact address is 528 Monroe Street, is still in good condition. Standing next to a school on the slope of a hill above Petersburg, it is not greatly different from hundreds other old frame dwellings of this Sangamon River town.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 07