Town - Big Opportunities
Located in the heart of southeasternIllinois, Olney is only a few hours' drive from the Midwest's major metropolitan areas. Even so, the city maintains a friendly, small-town atmosphere that attracts potential residents and prompts them to choose Olney as a desirable place to live and work. It is a community that welcomes business and industry and is complemented by a ready and willing work force. The low tax rates are matched only by the richness of the consumer markets and the desirability of the commercial and residential real estate opportunities. With Olney's prime location comes fertile farmland and its positioning for shipping, both of which represent industrial staples of the area.
In 1841, the Illinois legislature established present-day Richland County from parts of Lawrence and Clay counties. In considering a town to serve as the county seat, the members of the legislature proposed several possible sites, one of which was the seed of present-day Olney.
Judge Aaron Shaw, whose opinion and support were crucial to the establishment of Richland County, proposed the Olney site and suggested it be named after his good friend Nathan Olney, of nearby Lawrenceville. He lobbied tirelessly, using the advantages of the location as a key point; this hard work paid off when his site and chosen name were approved by the voters. Olney was designated as the county seat and was officially incorporated in 1867. The original plot of Olney's area shows Main, Butler, York and Toledo streets -all but the last still exist within the city.
Olney grew quickly. Its first business was established in 1841, with many more to follow. One of the founders of a local bank, Mr. Henry Spring of England, built one of the finest homes in the region on North Boone Street; that house is now one of the oldest homes in Olney.
The community's growth was phenomenal in its early days, but its most important addition was yet to come. The Ohio and Mississippi Railroad completed a track through town and ran the first train through Olney on July 4, 1855. With the railroad came a new responsibility for the community as an industrial and transport hub. Its central location and aggressive merchants soon cemented Olney's position as the center of trade in southeastern Illinois -a position that Olney has now held for nearly 150 years.
Olney's first newspaper was the Olney News, established in 1847. The Olney Daily Mail was founded in 1898 and, with a circulation of more than 5,000, is today one of the leading daily newspapers in southeastern Illinois. Expanding its service, the Olney Daily Mail offers Web access, keeping readers everywhere connected to Olney.
Olney grew as an agricultural center, with much land in the region being cleared and cultivated. Olney was the site for the Illinois State Fair in both 1887 and in 1888, which drew great crowds to the area.
In 1902, Olney's most famous residents made their first appearance in the area. There are two legends about the people who discovered the albino gray squirrel. William Yates Stroup caught albinos near his farmhouse, four miles southeast of Olney. The squirrels were brought to Olney and displayed in the window of Jasper Banks' saloon on Main Street. Later the squirrels were taken to a wooded area near Douglas and Silver Streets. George W. Ridgeley also captured albinos on his farm six miles southeast of Sumner, IL. People from near and far came to see them. These squirrels, and possibly others from local farms, became the ancestors of Olney's white squirrel population, thus cementing Olney's fame as the Home of the White Squirrels.
The current population of white squirrels hovers around 120, and the animals are protected both by city ordinances and state laws. The Olney Police and Fire Departments have adopted the symbol of the white squirrel for their uniform patches. The annual squirrel count has been held in October for over 25 years. Visitors come from all over the country to catch a glimpse of a white squirrel in the Olney City Park.
Another of Olney's famous residents, noted naturalist Dr. Robert Ridgway, lived in the area around the turn of the century, first coming to Olney to visit while he was curator of birds at the Smithsonian Institute. He later retired to live in Olney and to develop Bird Haven, an area of diverse flora and fauna where he planted many species of plants; most were native to Illinois, but some were from foreign soils. Dr. Ridgway was buried on a knoll in Bird Haven, but his legacy lives on -naturalists from all over the country visit the area to this day.
Olney became a medical center in southern Illinois with the opening of the Olney Sanitarium in 1898, which was owned and operated by George T. Weber and several associates, including many Weber family members. People traveled from everywhere to be treated by the physicians at the state-of-the-art facility. The Olney Sanitarium provided medical services until Richland Memorial Hospital was built in 1953; the Sanitarium's patients were transferred to the new hospital, and the building was torn down. Weber Medical Clinic was first located at this site, years later moving to its current facility on East Street. Richland Memorial Hospital and Weber Medical Clinic both still provide the area with outstanding health care, continuing the tradition of excellence set in place over 100 years ago. In the latter half of the century, Olney has grown even more, establishing one of the greatest educational environments in southern Illinois. The East Richland School District developed from the one-room schoolhouses of the 1820s to be the multi-facility powerhouse it is today. Higher education thrives here as well: Olney Central College was founded in 1963.
In today's modern world, Olney stands strong as a community that proudly celebrates its history as it looks eagerly to its future.