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Stapp helped build Vandalia, Decatur

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By Linda Hanabarger

James Thomas Burbridge Stapp cut quite a swath through the political life of early Illinois.


The youngest son of James and Sarah Burbridge Stapp, James was born on April 13, 1804, in Fayette County, Ky. (now Woodford County). When he was 12 years old, his family moved to Kaskaskia, the territorial capital of Illinois.
When the capital moved to Vandalia, so did J.T.B. Stapp. His sister, Mildred, was the wife of the Hon. Elijah Conway Berry, the Illinois territorial auditor. When Illinois attained statehood, Elijah Berry became state auditor of public accounts, and moved his family to Vandalia.  
Stapp's younger sister, Malinda, also moved to Vandalia with her husband, Robert Blackwell, the public printer.
In 1831, Gov. Reynolds appointed Stapp, still in his teens, to succeed Elijah Berry as state auditor. It was a job he held for five years before resigning in 1836 to take the job of cashier of the State Bank of Illinois.
During the intervening years, Stapp studied law and medicine, although he was never a practicing physician. He also married in 1841 to Mary Connor, but she did not live long.
In 1832, he served as aide-de-camp to Gov. Reynolds during the Black Hawk War, and also was adjutant of the Third Illinois Infantry during the Mexican War of 1848. On his return to Vandalia, he received an appointment as registrar at the United States land office at Vandalia, resigning in 1855.
One of the swaths Stapp cut through Vandalia took place in 1836, when he, along with “Levi Davis and Alexander Pope Field erected the third capitol building without any authority, on their own responsibility and out of their own private funds.”
Stapp called Vandalia home until 1855,  when he moved to Decatur. Vandalia historians lost sight of Stapp after he made the move to Decatur, and recently I discovered that the "Centennial  History of Decatur and Macon County, 1829-1929" picked up where we left off.
Stapp had commented that when he first saw Decatur he did not like it, and said so. He was asked, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go somewhere else?”
“I can do better than that,” replied Stapp. “I can stay here and help make Decatur better.” That is just what he did.  
In 1855, with $20,000 cash in hand, Stapp moved to Decatur.
“Bringing such a sum of money to a country that was almost dollarless, Stapp was received as a man of importance.
“One night, Stapp and J.R. Gorin, another Vandalia native, left a billiard game to go to a revival meeting held by the Rev. Levi C. Pitner, pastor of the First Methodist Church. Stapp, who was converted at that revival meeting, afterward gave $5,000 toward the erection of a new building for the Franklin Street Methodist Church. The gift was made on the condition that J.J. Peddicord gave half as much.
“The new chapel was built at Eldorado and Franklin streets, on the northeast corner, and in honor of the generous donation was called Stapp’s Chapel for many years.”
Along with E.O. Smith, Stapp built a block of five store buildings known as "Stapp’s Row" on South Park Street. They were three stories tall and were the best and most handsome business buildings in Decatur up to that time.
In the centennial book, Stapp is referred to as an "aristocrat" and Decatur’s "first real capitalist."
Until his death in 1882, Stapp continued to use his influence and money to make Decatur better, a goal he set for himself nearly 30 years before.