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Ebenezer Capps was one of the best known men to live in Vandalia during the capital years.
A native of London, England, Ebenezer first visited Vandalia about 1819, returning 10 years later with his mother and other family members to make it his home. He opened a mercantile that would be known all over the southern half of the state.
It is said of Capps that his market quotations ruled the price of commodities from Vandalia to New Orleans.
Capps expanded his mercantile activities by using flatboats to ship produce from this area to New Orleans. During the winter of 1841, Capps hired William H. Lee to build two flatboats on the banks of the Kaskaskia River.
As the spring thaw began, the boats were loaded with produce, and when the river level rose, Lee and a crew began the perilous trip to New Orleans.
Lee was the captain of one boat, with Alfred Mathias captain of the second. Upon arrival at their destination, they traded the cargo for cotton, molasses and coffee, which was then shipped to St. Louis by steamboat. They also sold the flatboat, lumber being a valuable commodity.
The next winter, Lee built two more flatboats and loaded them with pork, beef, corn and hoop poles. On a third such venture, with three flatboats this time, they carried 5,000 bushels of grain and 15 hogsheads of tobacco, all belonging to Capps. The balance of the load was made up of pork, beef and Yankee beans.
Among the crew on this voyage were John Albert, Joshua Ross, Duncan and Joseph Linn, Daniel M. McConnell, John Jones, Thaddeus Smith and Bryant Whitfield.
On this third trip, one of the boats developed a leak. Reaching the port of Baton Rouge and not wanting to lose his boat and contents, Captain Lee, with that shrewdness characteristic of the old settler, went to town to find a buyer.
Advising his men to pump out the water as fast as they could, he also told them to keep a lookout and should they see him returning with a prospective buyer, they were to cease pumping and stand idly by. This arrangement worked like a charm.
Lee returned with a cash buyer. And as soon as the money had changed hands, he and his crew boarded a southbound steamer to catch up with the other crew at New Orleans. Within two hours, the flatboat sank, which was unfortunate for the purchaser.
Following the day’s session, members of the legislature enjoyed adjourning to Capps Store, which stood on the southwest corner of Main and Fourth Streets, a short distance from the capitol.
It was said that one could find anything and everything at Ebenezer Capps’ store. Two legislators made a wager in which one said he could ask Capps for a certain item and he was willing to bet money that Capps would not have it.
The agreement was struck and the men called upon Capps at his store. As the legislator asked Capps for goose yokes, his smirk changed to incredulity when Capps replied that he had such an item upstairs. He had bought a gaggle of geese one time and saved the yokes.
Jabez Capps, brother to Ebenezer, was also of a mercantile mind. In 1836, Jabez built the first house in Mt. Pulaski, a two-story log structure, with a store below and residence above.
To his cabin came men such as Douglas, Stewart, Herndon, Judge Logan, David Davis and other famous sons of Illinois, including Lincoln, who made it his home, disliking "taverns."
At his 99th birthday celebration, Jabez exhibited a daguerreotype of Lincoln given to him by Lincoln in his circuit court days. Capps first met the "Great Emancipator" in New Salem, where Abe clerked in Denton Offut’s store.
Jabez was successful in his business ventures and owned several large parcels of land in Springfield, including most of what is now the downtown business district. He traded the site of the old state capitol for the first cook stove brought into the vicinity.
Another plot of land he owned became the burial ground where Lincoln was laid to rest following his assassination. Capps also owned the property where the new capitol was later erected, and this involved him in a lawsuit in which he was represented by attorney Abraham Lincoln.
Although the Capps name is no longer seen on the sign boards of Vandalia businesses, Ebenezer Capps’ contribution to the growth of the state of Illinois should be remembered.
His home on East Madison Street, built very early, is now the residence of Dr. Howard and Mary White.