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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.

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[image ALT: A photograph of a very large, cubical two‑story house of brick with stone trim. It has a three‑story tower over the main door, which is shaded by a porch supported on slender columns and is reached by a flight of eight steps. It is the Millikin House in Decatur, Illinois.]

James Millikin House, Decatur, Built 1876.

 p121  Decatur Art Institute

Few communities in Illinois are more closely associated with the name of one man than is Decatur, that energetic city of railroad shops, university buildings, and farmers' banks on the bluffs above the Sangamon River. Although Abraham Lincoln's name was early identified with this city, the Civil War President having lived a few miles west of it when he was young, any mention of Decatur today usually brings up the name of James Millikin and the institution he founded, James Millikin University.

This university, with its stately buildings on an attractive, rolling campus, stands as a great memorial to its founder. Several other memorials to this distinguished Illinoisan also survive and among these may be mentioned the Millikin National Bank, whose seven-story building is one of the sights of downtown Decatur. But of much greater interest than any of these as a reminder of the life of James Millikin is the house in which he lived — a house that has become almost as well known throughout Illinois as the university founded by its master.

This imposing old residence houses an art museum that is the equal of any in Illinois outside of Chicago. Several years ago, title to the mansion and park-like grounds on which it stands was transferred to the board of managers of James Millikin University. The board appointed a committee, headed by W. R. McGaughey, president of the Millikin National Bank, to maintain the old landmark and continue operating it as an art museum. It is known as the Decatur Art Institute.

As much of an exhibit as anything it shelters is the dwelling itself. If one were searching for a typical mansion of the 1870's none better could be found than the Millikin home. Two and a half stories high and built of round brick, this house has such characteristics of a late Victorian residence as tall, narrow windows with white stone-caps; tall, spacious verandas with fanciful wood trim; wide stone steps; a low-pitched mansard roof, and, that most distinguishing characteristic of all, the mansarded cupola dominating the façade and decorated with bull's-eye windows and an ornate cast-iron cresting.

These features are plainly visible during the winter months, but in summer the ancient mansion is almost hidden by the leaves of great old elms, oaks, lindens, and other trees which shade a well-kept lawn. The house stands in the center of a block-square plot of ground at the northeast corner of Main and Pine streets, or halfway between the Decatur business district and James Millikin University.

 p122  From a historical book published by the Millikin National Bank, we learn that the Millikin residence was built in 1876. At that time James Millikin was the leading citizen of Decatur. He had acquired the land on which his mansion was built some fifteen years earlier from Captain David Allen, paying $2,200 for it. The residence originally cost $18,000 to build, but later improvements in the interior cost an additional $18,000. When completed it was considered one of the most impressive residences in its part of the state.

Here James Millikin reigned as the wealthiest citizen of Decatur. When he first came to Illinois, however, Millikin was not rich. He was born of Scotch Presbyterian parents at Clarkstown (now Ten Mile), Pennsylvania, on August 2, 1827. His father was a farmer. It is recorded  p123 that in young manhood James Millikin and a neighbor boy drove a herd of steers to New York City, winding up their trip by driving their animals down Broadway. He subsequently entered Washington College (now Washington and Jefferson College) at Washington, Pennsylvania.

"It was while attending Washington College," says the bank's history, "that his sympathies were aroused by the struggles of boys to secure funds enough to meet expenses and to over the inadequacy of their preparation for the classes they entered. Then and there, only twenty years of age, he made a vow that if ever he amassed a fortune he would found an institution of learning in which all classes of youth could secure an education fitting them for any occupation they might desire to enter. This was finally fulfilled in 1901 in the James Millikin University."

After completing his studies at Washington College, young Millikin again took up the business of being a drover, but this time his steps were turned toward the western prairies. He felt that great opportunities lay in that direction. So in 1849 he and his father drove a flock of sheep into Indiana, selling it at a good profit and returning to their Pennsylvania home. The following year young Millikin drove another flock westward, selling it this time at Danville, Illinois.

He continued in this business at Danville, making more and more profits, and then enlarged his activities to include cattle. "His large flocks and herds," says the bank's historical work, "gave him great prominence as a breeder of fine stock. He won six silver medal spoons which bear the stamp of the 'Illinois State Fair of 1857.' He has been called the 'first cattle king of the Prairie State.' . . . He at one time had 10,000 sheep, which grazed over a radius of twenty miles."

All during this time Millikin had been buying tracts of land in Illinois. The present city of Bement stands on land he originally owned. He later sold much of his land with profit, came to Decatur in 1856, entered the real-estate business, and then sold his livestock holdings. He was then one of the wealthiest men in Decatur. He decided to enter the banking field and established his bank in 1860.

Sixteen years later he built his residence at Main and Pine streets. And that house, with its many lofty, walnut-paneled rooms and ornate marble fireplaces, is still standing as an eloquent, if old-fashioned, reminder of the man who gave back to the city of Decatur almost as much money as he made in it. Here he was living at the time of his death in 1909. His widow, Mrs. Anna B. Millikin, occupied the residence until her own death in 1913. In her will she provided for use of the mansion as a museum of art.

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Page updated: 1 Dec 12