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As a volunteer interpreter at the Vandalia Statehouse, it is my job to relate the story of Vandalia during the years it served as Illinois’ capital, 1819-1839, and of Vandalia's current capitol building, built in 1836.
Many of those who visit come because of the connection the site has to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas.
To begin a tour, I generally start with the carpeted office of the Supreme Court. In addition to pointing out that goose and turkey quills and ink, in those days from the octopus, were used to record the documents, the visitor learns basic information about the workings of the Supreme Court.
Four pieces that are original to the current building are on display, and include two Franklin model stoves – a "Liberty" stove with an eagle medallion, of which 12 reproductions were made for the building, and a "Sally Ann" model with a bake oven.
Upstairs in the House of Representatives, visitors are shown a desk with a slanted top and five drawers that was originally used in that chamber. Five representatives were seated at each desk. All of the desks in that room are reproductions from this original.
The fourth original piece is the desk of Gov. John Reynolds, who served as governor of Illinois from 1830-1834. Fashioned from cherry, with mahogany veneer, this magnificent piece was donated to the state by the former governor’s family in 1913.
John Reynolds came with his parents to the Illinois Territory from Montgomery County, Pa., in 1800 when he was 11 years old. The family settled near the village of Kaskaskia, and his father built up a farm, on which John labored. While doing this necessary work, he had yearnings for something more.
In 1808, at the invitation of his uncle, John Reynolds, in Knox County, Tenn., he moved in with his uncle and aunt and attended college in Knoxville for two years before beginning the study of law. He started his practice in 1812.
That same year, war was declared against Britain, and John signed up as a Ranger, serving as a scout in campaigns against the Indians.
In 1818, Reynolds became an associate justice of the first Supreme Court in the newly formed state, which he mentions in his book, “My Own Times: Embracing Also the History of My Life,” published in 1856.
“The first court I held was in the spring of 1819, in Covington, Washington County, and it was to me a strange and novel business. I commenced my official duties among my old comrades, with whom I had been raised, ranged in the war with them, and lived with them in great intimacy and equality.
“So it was a difficult situation to assume a different relationship than I had previously occupied with them. Both the sheriff and clerk of the court were rangers in the same company with myself. The sheriff, Bowling Green, opened the court in a very familiar manner.
“When he was sitting astride on a bench in the courthouse [he] proclaimed, without rising, that the court is now opened, John is on the bench.”
Retiring from the bench in 1825, Reynolds served two terms in the Illinois Legislature and was elected governor in 1830. Two years later, when Indian trouble in Northern Illinois grew, Gov. Reynolds called out the state militia, mounted his horse and led the militia against Black Hawk and his warriors.
In 1834, following the death of Sen. Charles Slade of Carlyle, who had died on his way home from Washington, Reynolds was appointed to fill his seat. Reynolds spent nearly 50 years in public service as attorney, "Ranger," judge, representative, legislator and governor.
As Gov. Reynolds aged, he knew he was the right person to record the early history of Illinois. After all, he had lived it, and knew those who had settled in the territory before he did. Reynolds was a witness to our history, and his two volumes are a wonderful reference for those interested in Illinois history.
The first publication of “My Own Times” was described as coming from a “common hand press, and the typography was a miracle of wretchedness. About 400 copies were issued … but the book remained unknown.”
In the autumn of 1855, D.B. Cooke, then Chicago’s leading bookseller and publisher, while standing at the entrance to his establishment, noticed a dray laden with shoe-boxes backed up against the curbing.
Perched upon the load was a tall, gaunt, odd-looking individual who immediately alighted, strode into the store, and with considerable profanity, asked for the proprietor. Making himself known, he was informed in strong language that his visitor was no less than Gov. Reynolds, and in still stronger language, that he had written a book. The book would not sell. The book must sell. He had boxed up every copy and brought them along.
Cooke bought nearly 350 copies, and most of them were still in his publishing house when Chicago suffered a catastrophic fire on Oct. 19, 1857. Cooke’s was destroyed, and with it nearly every existing copy of Gov. Reynold’s work. What the 1857 fire didn’t destroy was taken care of during the Chicago fire of 1871.
Fortunately Cooke's store did manage to sell a few copies of “My Own Times,” and one of these was presented to the Chicago Historical Society in 1876, from which they were able to reprint the work the same year.
Imagine! The "Old Ranger," seated at his cherry desk while he wrote the story of his life, and in doing so recording the history of Illinois. If you haven’t had the opportunity to see the governor’s desk, come visit the Statehouse. We would be most happy to show it to you.