Purchased by Judge Lawrence Weldon before the Civil War, what is now Weldon Springs State Park was opened to area residents and youth clubs for picnics for many years. In 1900, Judge Weldon leased the property to the Weldon Springs Company. 150 shares were sold to the public at $50 per share to raise the capital needed to establish an annual assembly known as a Chautauqua. Over the next 20 years, improvements included a dam, bridges, trails, a boathouse, a bathhouse, a diving tower, a pavilion, and an auditorium.
For 10 days each summer from 1901 to 1921, area residents gathered at the site to hear some of the best public speakers and entertainers of the day. Representing every field of interest, programs were presented for the entertainment, education, and "moral elevation" of the participants. At a price of $1.50 for a season ticket, as many as 325 families camped for the entire term, enjoying the opportunity to socialize with their neighbors. A contemporary account described the event as "forty acres of water, tents, and teams."
Each summer, farmers converged on the site with a 10-day supply of camping necessities - a rug made of old carpets, cots and folding beds, oil burners with ovens, an old dresser, folding chairs and rockers. An ironing board, included in the list of necessities, served its intended purpose and doubled as a table, buffet, and counter. Food items that required refrigeration were placed in water chests that were cooled by water from the springs. The temporary tent city also included a grocery, dining hall, popcorn wagon, police tent, post office, information center, telephone station, check room and physician's tent. The steam launch Columbia made trips on the lake.
The WCTU sponsored a kindergarten tent to allow parents the opportunity to attend lectures without their children at a cost of $.30 per day or $1.50 for the full ten days. Three sessions of programming were offered each day - morning, afternoon and evening.
Political speakers engaged in debates discussing a variety of issues from which party had caused the Panic of 1893 to whether the country should hold on to the Philippines. Those who attended heard the southern viewpoint on the Civil War and Reconstruction and the story of Count Alexander Lochwitzky's imprisonment and exile by the Russian czar. Former President William Howard Taft, House Speaker Champ Clark, Vice Presidents James S. Sherman and Adlai Stevenson I, senators, governors, and judges all made appearances.
Most popular were William Jennings Bryan and evangelist Sam Jones. Reverend Billy Sunday was also a regular guest. Female speakers included Helen Keller and Carrie Nation, both making return visits.
The rise of the automobile and the motion picture spelled the demise of the annual Chautauqua Assembly, but the site continued to enrich the lives of area residents. The Judge's son, Lincoln Weldon, bequeathed the original 40 acres along with an additional 10 acres to the City of Clinton to be known as Weldon Springs Park in 1936. The State of Illinois accepted ownership in 1948.
The history of the springs themselves was written long before settlers reached Illinois.
The source of the water which flows from the natural springs can be traced to an ancient river that flowed through DeWitt County millions of years ago. This river, known as the Teays River, was born in the Paleozoic Age when the land began to rise and drain the inland sea which once covered most of central North America.
This predecessor of the Ohio River reached a width of 15 miles in DeWitt County. The biggest river of interior America, the Teays was fed by the Ancient Mississippi River, the Ancient Iowa River, and the ancient Missouri River.
The destruction of this ancient master river began a little more than 2 million years ago when the Pleistocene Age ("Ice Age") spawned a series of glaciers. The Kansan glacier completely covered the Teays, and the Illinoisan and Wisconsin glaciers that followed deposited as much as 200 feet of glacial till over the Teays Valley, completely obliterating it.
The Teays stopped flowing as a surface stream, but groundwater, resting on an impervious layer of bedrock, flows easily through the till deposits under the influence of gravity, seeping out of the sand and gravel to form the springs.
Union School Interpretive Center
Built in 1865, Union School served the rural residents of Logan County, Illinois for more than 80 years. The historic building was moved to the prairie at Weldon Springs, restored, furnished, and equipped for use as both a visitor center and a temporary classroom for area school groups that wish to relocate for a day.
More than a museum, Union School is a "hands-on" learning center with a "please touch" philosophy. Both science and local history are emphasized.
A collection of taxidermist-mounted mammals which make their homes in the park encourages visitors to pet a squirrel's tail, feel a badger's claws, or examine a beaver's teeth. Discovery boxes are filled with natural treasures grouped around a central theme to stimulate students' curiosity about the natural world. Insect cards demonstrate many of the basic concepts of ecology with magnified specimens. Additional natural history exhibits examine the park's variety of habitats, the eastern bluebird nestbox trail, forestry, animal builders, and raptors.
Historic exhibits follow the park's development from railroad holding in the 1850's, through the Chautauqua Assemblies at the turn of the century, to its establishment as a state park. Old photos and other historic memorabilia share life in a one-room school, the Schoolhouse project, and a local timeline.
The Texas Township Community Building was moved to the prairie in 1995. The Town Hall houses collections of bird nests, rocks and minerals, mussels, animal tracks, grasses, galls, insects and butterflies.