Palestine, IL (population 1,366) sits along the Wabash River, a river that was critical to the early development of the state. The town was incorporated in 1811, making it the oldest continuously incorporated town in the entire state. Fort Lamotte, on the outskirts of town, served as the site of The Battle of Africa Point, in the War of 1812, one of the few battles to take place in the Illinois Territory.
Palestine has a wonderful history and is fortunate to have a small group of committed citizens who are volunteering to help preserve it.
Steve McGahey, my tour guide prior to my talk in Palestine told me, “The Palestine Preservation Projects Society (PPPS) got started about 20 years ago in preserving our history. They tried to buy an old church but it collapsed before they could get that accomplished. Then they tried to buy an old schoolhouse that was built by Governor French, one of the first governors of Illinois who lived two miles south of town. But it burned down before that deal could get done.”
Most groups would have thrown their hands up by now, thinking that this just isn’t meant to be. But PPPS was not led by such people. They pushed on.
Steve explained to me, “They bought the old Fife Opera House which was built in 1899 and featured operas here until 1912. The opera house was on the second floor and the first floor was a series of retail businesses like a fertilizer retailer, a hardware store, funeral home, furniture store and carpet retailer. When they lit the lights in the building for the first time, the local power plant shut down because it was more load than it could take.”
The scenery from the early 1900s is still well preserved and PPPS hopes to have the opera house back in operation by the 200th year centennial of the town in 2011. The first floor serves as a wonderful community center.
PPPS has also helped to restore and maintain the Judge John Harper House, dating from 1830, which is the oldest remaining house in Palestine.
Greg Parrott and a group of 15 are rebuilding old Fort Lamotte, which they hope to use as a tourist draw. One of their goals is to rent out the fort for groups that want to spend the night sleeping in a recreated old fort. Parrott told me, “Joseph Lamotte was a French trader who first settled here in the mid 1700s. We’ve got a group that is doing archeological digs and think that they have found his old trading post.”
His group has created an 1812 shooting range for muskets but his real goal is to “build a cannon range. There are still some of the old cannons around and they are a real crowd pleaser.”
PPPS has restored one of the old downtown buildings into an artist gallery. The local school is redoing the 3 apartments above it into wonderful apartments and the town has developed their own artist relocation program to add to the dozen plus artists who make Palestine home.