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Bishop Hill Colony

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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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a small two‑story L‑shaped wooden clapboard house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 30° and one chimney. The front door hides under a primitive porch with a sloping roof supported by two square wooden posts. It is the Lorado Taft House in Elmwood, Illinois.]

Illinois Writers' Project

Lorado Taft House, Elmwood, Built 1850's.

 p135  Birthplace of a Sculptor

Almost within sight of "The Pioneers," that impressive bronze statue which has brought considerable fame to the little Illinois city of Elmwood, some twenty miles west of Peoria, stands a small, white-painted old house that is as much revered by both townspeople and Illinoisans in general as the statue itself. This is because the two are linked. For it was in this unpretentious frame dwelling that the man who designed the statue was born and spent his boyhood days. That man was the late Lorado Taft.

There are two events now observed annually in Elmwood. One is the Fall Festival, a three-day affair which attracts farmers from all parts of Peoria County. The other is the yearly celebration of the birthday anniversary of Elmwood's most illustrious son, Lorado Taft. And on the day of this latter-named event, the Taft birthplace becomes a center of attention, visited by school children, art lovers, and just plain Elmwood folks proud of the man who, as one of them once said, "put our city on the map."

Local residents are interested in the house for other reasons, too. For one thing, it was the home of Taft's father, an esteemed pioneer teacher of Peoria County who helped bring culture into a raw, rough-and‑tumble frontier settlement. Another reason is that it attracts  p136 architectural students as a good example of the Greek Revival style in early American house design.

The day set aside in Elmwood for the annual Taft birthday observance is April 29. It was on that day, in the year 1860, that Lorado Taft was born in the modest little house a short distance from the public square. At that time Elmwood was but a cluster of dwellings and was not incorporated as a village until seven years later. Today, it is a thriving coal-mining center with more than a thousand population.

In the years before the Civil War, the sculptor's father, Professor Don Carlos Taft, taught school in Elmwood township. "A few scattered district schools were established earlier in the history of the township," says an old Peoria County history, "but the founding of the Elmwood Academy, in 1855, marked the beginning of a literary and educational prestige which has never abated. Professor Don Carlos Taft and Miss Anna M. Somers were the tutors in its early years, and the school acquired a renown and enjoyed a patronage extending over a wide scope of country."

As a boy in the small L‑shaped Elmwood house, a plain but tastefully designed home that contained comfortable rooms lined with books, Lorado Taft was tutored by his parents and given a sound foundation for his future career. The family lived here during the Civil War years and then, when Lorado was twelve, moved to Urbana where the elder Taft became a professor of geology in the University of Illinois.

After studying at the University of Illinois, and later at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, Lorado Taft returned to his native state, established a studio in Chicago, and began the career that brought him national fame. In addition to "The Pioneers," some of his other principal works are the "Fountain of Time" and the "Fountain of the Great Lakes" in Chicago, the "Black Hawk" statue at Oregon, Illinois, and the Lincoln statue at Urbana.

A proud moment in Lorado Taft's life was the day in 1928 when he was present at the unveiling of "The Pioneers" in Elmwood and at a reception in his boyhood home afterward. The ten‑foot bronze statuary group, conceived as a tribute to his father and mother and other Illinois pioneers, was unveiled by his daughter, Emily, now the wife of Illinois' Senator-elect Paul H. Douglas of Chicago. The principal speaker was Taft's brother-in‑law, Hamlin Garland, the Midwest author. Lorado Taft died in 1936 and his ashes were scattered over a plot of ground in Elmwood Cemetery — a spot now marked by one of his most effective sculptural pieces, "Memory."

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Page updated: 10 Dec 07