CANTON, IL

Canton was founded in 1825 by Isaac Swan who believed his site was the antipode of Canton, China and thus the settlement received its name. The beautiful town square was gifted in 1830 by Swan’s brother-in-law, Nathan Jones, as a public amenity. It has remained the physical and community center of Canton for more than two hundred years.

Canton was a Union town in the Civil War and this is vividly attested in Canton’s historic Greenwood Cemetery, a beautiful mortuary landscape covering 122 acres. It was established in 1847. In the cemetery there is a towering Civil War monument (erected in 1888), surrounded by period grave markers. The monument is inscribed in detail on all sides, the most compelling multi-sided inscription being “By the uprising a great people” “And by the blood of fallen heroes” “Slavery Destroyed.” The names of the many Civil War battlefields are listed.

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Without question, Canton’s greatest contribution not just to its region and state but to the world was its role in plow agriculture. Across the Illinois and American prairie Canton’s plows enabled the creation of the most productive farmland in the world. It started in 1849 when William Parlin conceived of how to design and manufacture steel plows. In 1852 his brother-in-law, William Orendoff, joined the firm. This became P & O Plow. P & O had eleven factories by 1895. International Harvester purchased P & O in 1919. Indeed, Canton became virtually synonymous with IH. But IH closed in 1985 with a concomitant loss of 2,500 jobs. The city has shown resilience in trying to overcome this significant economic downturn. The small Canton Area Heritage Center has a room dedicated to the history of the plow industry. Obviously, farming was (and still is) an important component of the local economy.

Although not as long lived as Canton’s renowned plow industry, Canton did become the cigar capital of the Midwest between 1890 and 1920. The industry began in 1855. Tobacco was imported from Cuba (the island, not the nearby town) and shipped up the Mississippi River. Ten cigar manufacturers were established in Canton in addition to “mom and pop” manufacturing in various second and third stories of downtown buildings. Some twenty million hand-made cigars were produced in Canton annually, in addition to cigar boxes, made by Canton companies as well. One cigar box company made 1,500 boxes per day for the city’s cigar manufacturers. Many scholars argue that cigarettes brought about the end of the golden era of cigar manufacture in Canton and the area. The Canton Area Heritage Center has a small collection of cigar boxes, some still containing their cigars.

As many as two thousand people were employed in Canton’s cigar production. Of particular significance was the employment of women. They were strippers in addition to hand-rollings cigars (also done by men). Stripping involved removal of the large stem running up the tobacco leaf.

Canton is the capital of Fulton County and Fulton County had a thriving coal industry based on the rich coal deposit throughout the area. Starting in the 1880s, Canton became significant as a regional economic center for the regional coal industry, serving the surrounding smaller coal towns. A collection of brief recollections about the coal mining period was compiled by historian John E. Hallwas (The Legacy of the Mines. Memoirs of Coal Mining in Fulton County, Illinois), published in 1993 through Spoon River College. 

The downtown of Canton has preserved enough of its original urban design and architecture to attest to the prosperity enjoyed by the city through its industries. Many of the fine buildings painted in a tableau wall ensemble are still recognizable around the town square.

A dire gas explosion on November 16, 2016 destroyed a large swath of buildings on the east side of the town square, including the Opera House, while killing one employee and injuring many others. Plans are underway to fill in this gaping void with a design that refers to the iconic opera house that was lost (among the other buildings) and generates a 21st new use in keeping with the historic framework of the square.