First wedding (1820)

The first marriage ever performed in Sangamon County took place in a log cabin near Cantrall on Nov. 2, 1820. In a pioneer community, the event required some improvisation, including a legless piano and a fake wedding cake.

The happy couple was Philo Beers (1793-1858), a state legislator from Carlyle, and Martha Stillman (1800-45), who had recently moved to Sangamon County with her family. The Rev. Stephen England (1773-1823) performed the ceremony.

The wedding story was handed down in the Beers/Stillman family, and the couple’s grandson, Judge Charles Kane (1850-1918), described the celebration to the Illinois State Historical Society in 1906. His version was reprinted by the Illinois State Journal in 1931. Here is Kane’s account.

The Sangamo Country had not yet been severed from Madison county, and it became necessary to apply at Edwardsville, the old county seat, for the marriage license. A minister for the occasion was discovered in the person of the Rev. Stephen England, who resided near the present site of the village of Cantrall.

Mr. England had proved the hardness of frontier life, and at his setting out to render the service … was shod with a pair of Indian moccasins, evidently much the worse for wear and tear. Passing his brother-in-law, Evans Brittin, plowing in the field, he prevailed upon his complacent relative to exchange a pair of leather shoes for the moccasins till his return and so the minister went happily on to the wedding.

At the conclusion of the ceremony the proud groom swept a gold eagle from his pocket and offered it to Mr. England as a marriage fee. The good man was amazed and insisted that, though he did not object to reasonable compensation for such a service, his conscience would not permit him to accept so large a sum. After much persuasion he consented to take half the amount tendered and declared he was more than satisfied.

The parlor in which the ceremony was performed (if a room in a log cabin may be so designated) should receive a word of special notice. Over the puncheon floor, spread with a soft matting of straw, had been neatly laid an ingrain carpet, a bright pattern of interwoven red and green. On one side of the room stood a small piano of primitive design and construction, which, upon the exodus from Canandaigua, N.Y., had been bereft of its legs for convenience of transportation. The deficiency was supplied by brother Stephen, who cut a sapling of suitable size into proper lengths, peeled off the bark and stained the glistening wood to resemble the body of the instrument, and our piano stood once more upon a proper footing. …

In the middle of the apartment was placed a center-table of oak having a curious foot, deftly carved in imitation of a huge pineapple. Those, with other less conspicuous articles of furniture, were reminders of the eastern home abandoned the year before.

The bride, as all brides are, was altogether interesting. A petite young lady of twenty summers, who weighed but a hundred pounds and could stand-erect under her husband’s outstretched arm. Her shapely head was adorned with a heavy suit of dark brown hair that fell when loosened in luxuriant tresses below her waist. Eyes clear gray, complexion fair and features indicating sane mental poise and strength of character.

The gowns of the bride’s trousseau were limited to two. The wedding dress … was of fine white jaconet, cut low in the neck, with puffed sleeves of but a finger’s length, trimmed with a dainty ruffle, waist no longer than the sleeves, gathered into a belt from which a gored skirt fell to the floor. … The other gown, intended to be what was then called a “second day dress,” was made of lilac silk, fashioned as a traveling suit and ornamented with two rows of silk-covered buttons running down the front and extending over the shoulders.

The materials were brought from the east along with the piano and center-table. The dresses were cut, fashioned and finished by the nimble fingers and deft needles of sisters Mary and Caroline, wisely and efficiently aided doubtless by good mother Stillman. The wedding dress was long preserved and years afterwards was presented by Mr. Beers to her daughter, Mrs. Caroline M. Kane.

The feast spread for the delectation of the guests had both its sumptuous features and of necessity its shortcomings. The hosts were almost wholly dependent for the viands they offered upon the bounty of nature. Of such there was a generous supply. But having arrived on the ground only a few months prior to the events we describe, there was neither time nor opportunity, in this new, wild region, to provide by purchase or cultivation the delicacies usually employed to tempt the palate at wedding breakfasts under more recent and more favorable conditions. …

(A) serious predicament arose from a scarcity of wheat flour, and what to do for white bread, cakes and pastries was the perplexing question confronting the ladies responsible for the entertainment. The few scattered settlers who had found lodgement in the vicinity relied altogether upon ground maize for bread; the nearest mill and flour market was at Edwardsville eighty or ninety miles distant.

James Stewart, who had married in New York Roxana, the eldest daughter of the Stillman family and who had preceded them to Illinois and located nearby, had brought with him from Shawneetown two barrels of flour, one of which was so damaged in transit as to be unfit for use, and the other was almost consumed. What was left, not enough to be sure, but what was left Mr. Stewart donated for the good of the cause.

Two loaf cakes of moderate dimensions were made by the ladies and beautifully coated with white sugar icing. These were thought not imposing enough adequately to grace and adorn the banquet board, and for this purpose a resort was had to the following expedient: A large loaf of cornbread was baked in the shape of an immense cake and this in turn skillfully coated with an icing of dazzling whiteness. Grandly it appeared to perform its important function in the center of the board.

The ladies craftily conspired to invent some excuse for not cutting this exquisite work of art, and to remain silent regarding the secret of its construction, but the insistent guests demanded a slice and would not be denied. Then its secret came out and the laugh went around, in which entertainers and entertained heartily joined.

“And they all did eat and were filled” is the well authenticated tradition handed down to the lineal descendants of the said Philo and Martha Beers.

There was romance in the marriage. After the death of his parents, Beers had been sent to live with an older brother, according to John Carroll Power’s Early Settlers of Sangamon County (1876).

“They could not agree,” Powers wrote, “and he ran away, and was gone twelve or thirteen years, without his relatives hearing from him. During his ramblings he become acquainted with Doctor Joseph Bennett Stillman, who introduced him to his mother and sisters at Morganfield, Ky.

“Mr. Beers always said that he made up his mind, on their first acquaintance, to have Miss Martha Stillman for a wife.”

The newlyweds lived in Carlyle, but later moved back to Sangamon County. Their three children included Caroline Beers Kane (1827-1912), who, according to her obituary, “delighted to talk of playing a game of marbles with Abraham Lincoln.”

The Beers’ home at Fifth and Madison streets, built about 1830, was one of the first brick houses in the city. Philo and Martha Beers are buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

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