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More to Shelbyville than namesake lake

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 12:00 p.m. CDT
In this Nov. 7, 2013 photo, Boarman's Roxy Theatre is seen in the downtown area in Shelbyville. The theater was closed for 37 years since 1966 and then resurrected in 2003 via a monetary donation. It's just one part of the charm of the small Central Illinois town that offers much more than the lake that bears its name. (AP Photo/Journal Gazette, Kevin Kilhoffer)

SHELBYVILLE (AP) — Beyond the shores of the lake that sports this town's name is a community rich in history, with neighbors helping neighbors and a personality all its own.

"If you look at the people of Shelbyville, they're all helpful and they want to pitch in," says Mayor Jeff Johnson as he explains what makes his town tick. "I think a lot of it is the people."

Freddie Fry, executive director of the Shelby County Office of Tourism, tries to encapsulate Shelbyville's personality in mere words, too.

"We still have that small-town charm," she says. "We're still able to do things in small towns that they can't do in the cities. Our kids can still ride their bikes . be familiar with neighbors.

"You live with people and you work with them and your kids play," Fry adds. "We're lucky that way because in so many city areas they lose some of that interaction and sense of community."

Of course, this town is primarily known for Lake Shelbyville. Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and completed in 1970, Lake Shelbyville draws thousands of visitors each year for boating, fishing, camping and other recreation along its extensive shoreline and on its 11,000 acres of water.

Fry moved to the area from southern Wisconsin and is accustomed to living in a lakeside community.

"The lake . that's just another big plus to the quality of life here in Shelbyville," she says, noting that Lake Shelbyville is man made, not natural, so it's "new" in the scope of things.

"We're kind of a baby so we still have the best of both," Fry says, explaining that with a newer lake, area residents appreciate what a lake can add to a community perhaps more keenly than those who reside along the shores of a natural body of water.

In recent years, improvements by the Corps have enhanced the lake's amenities. A new visitor center includes interpretive stories and a viewing deck overlooking the dam at the southern portion of the lake.

But there's more to Shelbyville than that.


"You look at some of the history we have," Johnson says in explaining the uniqueness of his hometown.

According to information from the Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society, the town of Shelbyville was founded in 1827 and is named after Col. Isaac Shelby, a Revolutionary War hero who later became the first governor of Kentucky.

It's the county seat. It also has ties to the 16th president.

"Shelbyville was on the eighth judicial circuit, so Lincoln would have practiced here," Fry notes.

Shelbyville is on the Looking for Lincoln trail. The Shelby County Courthouse, built in 1879, includes newer Abraham Lincoln and local attorney Anthony Thornton statues out front beside a Looking for Lincoln wayside exhibit. The depictions are of the 1855 Lincoln-Thornton Debate over pertinent issues of those days.

Most of Central Illinois is rich in Lincoln history. Shelbyville other historical distinctions all its own.

"The dishwasher was invented here," notes Fry. "Her patent actually became part of Kitchen-Aid."

As a granite monument on Broadway Avenue just south of Main Street explains, Josephine Garis Cochran "invented one of the first mechanical dishwashers ever built" in Shelbyville. Cochran's dishwasher was patented in 1884 and invented in a woodshed located at the rear of what is now 148 South Broadway Ave.

Another resident in town, Horace Tallman, invented the first mechanical pickup hay baler. Recognition of his work led to one of Shelbyville's structures on the National Register of Historic Places: the Horace Tallman House, in use today as part of the Shelby Historic House and Inn.

Shelbyville also is home to the Pam and Bob Boarman Chevy BelAir Museum and French Renaissance style Shelbyville Public Library, dedicated in 1905.

The business scene in this town has just as much variety as its history.


"For generations it was the business hub of our county," Frye says of Shelbyville.

Today, the relaxed atmosphere helps draw shoppers, she adds.

"We have a lot of crafts and antiques," Frye says. "It's just really fun for them to do lunch and walk and stroll and just enjoy."

Downtown includes Boarman's Roxy Theatre, closed for 37 years since 1966 and then resurrected in 2003 via a monetary donation by Bob Boarman and family, building donation by the Dove family and an effort that stretched community-wide.

The unique Sta-Rite manufacturing, known for its bobby pins and hair pins, makes its home in Shelbyville.

Efforts are underway to keep downtown even more of a draw for visitors and shoppers. A mini park is among the things that greet people along Main Street in the heart of Shelbyville.

"We're going to be redoing Main Street," says Johnson, adding that the work is slated for 2014. He points out the existing draw of unique architecture and various shops.

"People can go in and enjoy. We want to make the downtown an attractive area," he adds.

Johnson points out the amenities — Shelby Memorial Hospital, Shelby County Airport, Forest Park — in town, and credits the creation and maintenance of things like new baseball diamonds, the newer city aquatic center and more to Shelbyville's citizens.

"You look at all the projects we have going on ... It's all people," Johnson says. "It's just kind of come together. They have an interest. They raise funds.

"It's just different people that cared about something," he adds. "For a town our size, you look at everything we have and it is something special."

Art and festivals

The Festival of Lights, formerly located at Eagle Creek, now brightens Shelbyville's Forest Park during the holiday season. The Touchstone Energy Balloon Fest fills the skies the weekend of Columbus Day; Scarecrow Daze arrives each fall; and the annual Spores 'N' More festival celebrates the springtime ritual of morel mushroom hunting.

Recent years have brought new murals to various walls downtown and appreciation of other artwork, including a 1941 piece in the town's post office.

"A lot of people had never really noticed it," Fry says with the nearly wide-eyed wonder of someone relatively new in town.

Shelbyville also claims prominent artist Robert Root, known for his Lincoln work, including a painting of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate that hangs in the Illinois State Capitol Building.


Shelbyville is becoming known more and more for its extensive General Dacey Trail, which meanders from the city's Forest Park to the shores of Lake Shelbyville and stretches out from the both ends of the dam.

"That's very, very popular," Frye says.

The multipurpose trail is designed for walkers, runners and bicyclists. Alongside it at one point is a 15-station outdoor fitness area, located near the lake's dam. Several trailheads offer access, and annual events include the Tom Short 5k Trail run and candlelight walks in January and February.

"The usage increases every day," Johnson says. "People enjoy getting out there and walking."

Plans are in the works for the trail to be expanded in yet another phase in coming months.

A major link to Shelbyville's recreational past — and, leaders hope, to its future — is the historic Chautauqua Auditorium, located in Forest Park. It's a second Shelbyville building recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 110-year-old Chautauqua has been the site of many an Illinois Old Time Fiddlers contest and music concerts with stars ranging from Dolly Parton to REO Speedwagon.

Fry and Johnson are among those who hope Shelbyville can someday offer recreation again via the Chautauqua building.

"It could present an opportunity," Fry says. "Small communities generally don't have a large venue to entertain certain opportunities."

Johnson adds, "In the future we hope to be able to have shows and entertainment."

Engineers most recently looked at the Chautauqua on Nov. 21, Johnson says, and hopes are to raise the significant amount of money to save the building and its unique architecture. "Save Our Chautauqua" signs dot front yards across the town.

A place to return

Johnson grew up in Shelbyville. After working about a decade away from the area, he came back to settle for good.

"It's because of the people, to start out with. Shelbyville's like any other town . but overall it's a great place," Johnson says. "There are a lot of fun things to do.

"Just the entire quality of life," he cites as Shelbyville's draw. "Shelbyville still has that small-town feel. We have a lot of the amenities of a large town."

And yes, even with all the other attractions, the lake for which this town is known truly is its crown jewel.

"Early of a morning, the wildlife that you can see around the lake . there's just all kinds of wildlife that makes it pretty unique, makes it pretty nice," Johnson explains. "Just having the lake and the habitat here, it's good for the whole area."

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