History of Mercer County, Illinois

Part 6: Mercer County - 1880 to 1900

Return to Mercer Home Page
Part 5 - 1866-1880
Surnames Page

Here are some interesting statistics from an AARP Newsletter. The date is close enough to our limit for the site of 1900 to be an interesting picture of life in that time frame, compared to today.

The year is 1906. One hundred years ago
The average life expectancy was 47 years *
Only 14 percent of the homes had a bathtub
Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone
There were 8000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads
The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph
The average wage was 22 cents per hour
The average worker made between $200 and $400 per year
More than 95 percent of all births took place at HOME
Sugar cost four cents per pound
Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen
Coffee was fifteen cents a pound
Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used borax or egg yolks for shampoo

Five leading causes of death were:
1. Penumonia and influenza
2. Tuberculosis
3. Diarrhea
4. Heart disease
5. Stroke

The American flag had 45 stars
The population of Las Vegas, Nevada was only 30
Two out of every 10 adults couldn’t read or write
Six percent of all Americans were high school graduates
Marijuana, heroin and morphine were all available over the counter at the local drugstores. Back then pharmacists said: “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health.”
Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic help
There were about 230 reported murders in the ENTIRE USA

*Your Web Master cannot resist a comment about the statistic of a life expectancy of 47 years as it is so misunderstood. This statistic was compiled including all persons, and it was infant mortality that made the number so low. Plenty of people lived into their 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s in that time period. If young men survived accidents and war they lived long and productive lives. If young women survived childbirth they too lived long and productive lives. Our life expectancy now is not that different - it is just upgraded because of the great strides in conquering childhood diseases, repairing injuries, and making childbirth safe.

Another interesting item - though slightly later than our time period is a One Room Schoolhouse Project which includes an "Examination for Common-School Diplomas" for Rural Schools in 1918. Your Web Master, with a master's degree didn't feel she could have passed it!

With the 1890 census not having survived it is difficult to get a feel for the composition of the population of New Boston and Eliza Townships. The History of Mercer County 1882 contains biographies of some of the most prominent citizens and excerpts from those are included in individual family histories for the townships. We are repeating the summary of the 1880 census from the Part 5 History below and when time permits will summarize the 1900 census for comparison.

New Boston Township

The History of Mercer County 1882 tells us that in June 1868 an election was held to vote for a township subscription of $18,000 to aid in the construction of the American Central Railway Company. Their were 184 votes for and 3 against. The bonds were to run 10 years. In June 1879 the unpaid bonds were refunded at a lower rate of interest and but $5500 of indebtedness remained “a mere trifle when her magnificent resources are taken into consideration.” The village of New Boston had voted bonds for the amount of $30,000 to run for twenty years for the same purpose. All the bonds were voted with the understanding that the road was to be extended to Ft. Wayne thus making connection with eastern seaboard lines and westward to Council Bluffs. The company was finally compelled to sell the road to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company. Had the road been completed as originally projected, “there is hardly a doubt that New Boston would today [1882] have been one of the most thriving cities in the west.” In 1882 a new road was surveyed from Rock Island southward, crossing the Mississippi at or near New Boston and making connections through to Kansas City. This apparently did not come to fruition either.

At the 1880 census, according to the History, 517 school children were surveyed in New Boston township. The religious sentiment of the people was quite diversified, a large number being in opposition to the orthodox church. Of the church organizations, only one, the Methodist, supported a resident pastor, a Rev. G. B. Snedecker. The Baptist Society was still there but had had no resident pastor since 1851. The Presbyterian Society still barely existed but no meetings were held.

There were a few fraternal organizations: the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, with the associated Rebecca Degree for the wives; and the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons .

In 1882 the township was described as: The eastern part undulating and containing a depth and richness of soil unexcelled in the county; the western part level, containing a narrow strip of sandy soil, and in some places destitute of vegetation. The eastern part was extremely fertile and produced heavy crops. The swamp lands so common elsewhere were almost totally missing in New Boston township. The Edwards River flowed through the township and in the western part were several small lakes. The township was well supplied with timber: oak, maple, walnut, sycamore, and similar deciduous trees. A branch of the Galva and Keithsburg branch of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy RR entered the township on section 24 and took a diagonal course to the town of New Boston, a branch running to Keithsburg.

Eliza Township

The History of Mercer County, 1882 tells us that in 1882 the soil of Eliza Township was admirably adapted to agricultural purposes. The land southeast of Eliza Creek was mostly prairie and composed of rich black loam which produces heavy crops of corn and other agricultural staples. The land north of the creek was undulating and near the bluff, quite hilly. It was mostly covered by timber and used for pasture as it supplied a fine growth of blue grass.

The land nearest the river was of fine quality but owing to overflow from the river and the damp nature of the soil was not suitable for planting. It did however make fine pasture for cattle. In years when the river did not flood it did produce some of the finest corn crops in the country. It was risky business however as it was not possible to predict river overflow. Even livestock was often lost.

Schools in Mercer County

See our Schools page for some development of schools in 1880 and 1890 and a link to a class of 1891.

Summary of the 1880 and 1900 censuses for New Boston and Eliza Township


From the 1880 census we did a brief survey of occupations and population in New Boston and Eliza Townships. New Boston Township had a population of 1,539 by 1880; 644 of those lived in the town of New Boston. The township remained predominantly a farm community. The town had one small hotel, three restaurants, six grocery stores, 2 dry goods stores, and a drug store. The railroad had a slight effect: there was one railroad brakeman, a switchman, a bridge man, a station agent, a telegraph operator and two section hands. There was a ferry operator, a raftsman, a steamboat engineer, eight fishermen and a fish peddler, reflecting the effect of the river frontage. The trend toward manufacturing bypassed the area. Any type of “manufacturing” was small and individualized. There were two brickyard workers and five masons; there were six wagon makers; there were five shoe makers, 1 tin smith, eight blacksmiths; there were three lumber dealers and two sawyers; there were three milliners and two dress makers; there was a cabinet maker.

Other occupations in New Boston were primarily providing services: three well diggers, a trapper, a grain buyer, a mill engineer, three school teachers, a butcher, a cook, five painters, two physicians, two ministers; and nine who worked in the stores. There was a police magistrate, a constable, an attorney, and a postmaster.

The Township of Eliza was even more firmly rooted in farming. The population was 317 with 30 of those living in the town of Eliza. The only nonfarming occupations were 1 general merchant, 1 blacksmith, 1 physician, a carpenter, and one worker in the blacksmith shop.


To come. We do know that by 1900 there was a button manufacturing establishment in New Boston that employed several people; probably making buttons from Mississippi River shells.

Mercer County 1914

Past and Present of Mercer County 1914 (S. J. Clark, Publishers) Kevin Martin owns a copy of this book and has offerred to do lookups. Go to the index to see if your family is there and then email Web Master Nadine Holder (email on the About Us page) and she will forward your request to Kevin.