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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.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Richard Hovey
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a small two‑story flat-roofed wood frame house. The front door of the house is protected by a narrow pediment-type roof supported on two wooden uprights; it is flanked by a window on either side, and the upper story has three windows. It is the Jesse Fell House in Normal, Illinois.]

Jesse Fell House, Normal, Built 1856.

 p54  Home of a City Founder

At the entrance to the campus of Illinois State Normal University — oldest teachers' college in the state, ninth oldest in the country — there stands an attractive memorial gate bearing the inscription: "To the founder of Normal, Jesse W. Fell, friend of education, lover and planter of trees, philanthropist of mighty vision, this gate is dedicated by The Women's Improvement League and his many friends." (Punctuation added.) This legend gives some information as to Jesse Fell's status in Illinois history, but it by no means tells the whole story.

Not only was he the founder of the town of Normal, but he is of much greater interest as one of the three men who made Abraham Lincoln a candidate for President of the United States. He was also a leader in the development of central Illinois, having founded, in addition to Normal, such cities of today as Pontiac, Clinton, and Lexington, and he was also a railroad promoter, an outstanding lawyer and abolitionist, and at one time was the owner of a large part of the land on which Chicago was built.

Given a man of such character and accomplishments, it is but natural that interest in the house in which he lived should be high. Fortunately, the Fell abode still stands and is now one of the most revered historic shrines of the Bloomington-Normal section. It is located at 502 South Fell Avenue, on a bluff overlooking the tree-shaded streets of Normal and the lawns of the university campus. But this is not its original location for it was moved some years ago from the site where it was built in 1856 in the center of an eighteen-acre, wooded and landscaped estate called Fell Park.

In the years following, this house became a gathering place of many noted men of the state and nation. Best known of the visitors was Lincoln, whom Jesse Fell met when he was practicing law in the early 1830's at Vandalia, then the state capital. The two lawyers became close friends and this friendship lasted until Lincoln's death. It was Jesse Fell, together with two other Bloomington leaders, Judge David Davis and Leonard Swett, who were largely responsible for bringing about the nomination of Lincoln for President on the Republican ticket at the convention held in Chicago in 1860.

Both Judge Davis and Leonard Swett were frequent visitors to the Fell house, and here, too, often came Owen Lovejoy, abolitionist and brother of Elijah Lovejoy was slain in the abolitionist cause. Others who shared the Fell hospitality were John and Cyrus Bryant,  p55 brothers of the poet, William Cullen Bryant. John Bryant was a poet himself, as well as a close friend of Lincoln's and one of the founders of the Republican Party. The Bryant brothers were early settlers of Princeton, Illinois.

A native of Chester County, Pennsylvania, where he was born to a Quaker family in 1808, Jesse Fell developed North Bloomington and helped to establish Illinois State Normal University there, after which this section of the city was called Normal. Because of the many trees he planted there, Normal is now a town of shady avenues and park-like vistas. Mr. Fell also started a newspaper, the Observer and McLean County Advocate, in 1837, and this was the forerunner of the present Bloomington Pantagraph.

In addition to having been moved from its original site, the Fell house has undergone several other changes. When originally built it contained an ornate cupola and verandas on three sides. The cupola has since disappeared, as have the porches. Evidence of the Greek Revival style used in the design of the house is seen in the classic pilasters at the corners. Still intact is a fine walnut staircase in the central hall of the residence.

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Page updated: 7 Dec 07