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Prior to becoming the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln practiced law in central Illinois for over 20 years. During his travels on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, Lincoln made stops at Kelley’s Tavern, a hotel/tavern owned by Joseph Kelley and located just north of the current site of St. Joseph.

Kelley's Tavern (c. 1900)

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Joseph Kelley

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Prior to coming to Illinois, Joseph Kelley was born in his home state of Virginia in 1809. Later in life, Kelley made his way to Illinois in 1848 where he rented Strong's Inn from Cyrus Strong’s near this location. Cyrus Strong built the tavern as a mud-mortar log cabin in the 1830s. For decades, the tavern was a common stop among travelers making their way to and from Danville and Urbana. One year after Kelley began renting the tavern from Strong, Kelley purchased the inn himself in 1849 and the tavern then became known as Kelley's Tavern. Kelley turned the tavern into a great resource for the community where he operated the space as not only a bar and inn like most taverns, Kelley's Tavern also served the community as a place for groceries as well as a common meeting area for local citizens. In addition to owning and operating the tavern, Kelley was given the title of postmaster in 1851 and his post office was named "Saint Joseph."

One of the tavern's more well-known visitors included Abraham Lincoln. Spending many days a year travelling the Eighth Judicial Circuit trying court cases, Lincoln stayed at many inns in central Illinois including Kelley's Tavern. One of Lincoln's favorite hangouts in the tavern included an old rocking chair next to the fire where Judge David Davis would lay nearby on the floor and listen to Lincoln tell many entertaining stories. Davis said of Lincoln, "His presence on the circuit was watched for with interest and never failed to produce joy or hilarity.” Prior to becoming a US Supreme Court Justice, Davis was a judge on the Eighth Judicial Circuit, from 1848 to 1862, around the same time Lincoln tried court cases along the circuit. Davis also helped get Lincoln elected president as his campaign manager. In 1862, Lincoln nominated Davis for a seat on the Supreme Court. He would eventually be appointed later that year and would serve on the court until 1877.

Lincoln, Kelley, Davis, as well as many other travelers and locals enjoyed many memories at Kelley's Tavern before it would ultimately be torn down in 1914.

Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area, Homer Historical Society, & Looking for Lincoln, Lincoln at Kelley’s Tavern Wayside Sign, Homer Lake Rd & County Highway 14, St. Joseph, IL, 2009.

Museum of the Grand Prairie, Champaign County’s Lincoln, North Lombard St, Mahomet, IL, 2010.

Cunningham, Joseph Oscar, The History of Champaign County (Urbana: Publisher Unknown, 1905).

Mathews, Milton W. and Lewis A. McLean, Early History and Pioneers of Champaign County (Urbana: Champaign County Herald, 1886).

Smalling, Donna, St. Joseph, Illinois: Centennial (St. Joseph: Illinois History Survey at the University of Illinois, 1972).

Image Sources(Click to expand)

Champaign County Historical Archives

Early History and Pioneers of Champaign County by Milton W. Matthews & Lewis McLean, 1886