An Illinois town of 900 gets 300 volunteers for their community restoration project

As the coordinator of Colfax’s first-ever Town Improvement Day, resident Michael Rigsby believes the citywide volunteer effort did more for the town that just make it look nicer.

You can see it in people’s faces,” he said. “It did a lot of good for a lot of people.

A bit of local history.

Colfax is a village in McLean County, Illinois. It was founded in 1880. In 1886 a company was formed to open the first of two coal mines at Colfax.

The east shaft encountered great difficulties with water and with layers of quicksand. After many delays and extensive pumping, coal was found in 1895, but trouble with financing delayed production for two years. The 200 miners who flooded into Colfax encountered an acute shortage of housing, which was not solved until a large number of small miner’s cottages could be built: a few of these may still be found in Colfax.

Colfax High School. Built in 1903; razed in 1973. Photo date and author unknown.

Financial troubles quickly mounted. In May 1892, the east shaft had to be sold at auction. In 1901 and 1902 almost 60,000 tons of coal were being taken out of the mines, but increased difficulty with finances soon reduced production.

Once the mines were opened, unions were organized and strikes followed. Mining at Colfax proved to be a deadly business; between 1889 and 1902 eleven miners died, most of them crushed by falling rock. The west shaft produced most of the coal, but was closed in 1904. Eventually the abandoned shaft was repurposed as a landfill, eventually being filled and covered over.

Once established, Colfax grew rapidly. In 1892 a tile factory was built in the northeast corner of town; as was often the case in central Illinois, the former tile factory grounds eventually became a small park. A cigar factory was built. About the same time, a small factory for the manufacture of tin cans started production. By 1888 Colfax had a newspaper, the Colfax Leader. Electric lights came in 1895.

Recreation area. Photo credit: Town of Colfax

After the mines closed, Colfax settled into a quieter life as the commercial hub of a prosperous grain-growing area.

However, eastern McLean County has been an area of little population growth, and the population of Colfax, which peaked in 1900, had dropped fourteen percent by 2000.

Fast-forward to today.

The Colfax Restoration Project, an official not-for-profit organization, was formed over the summer to lay the groundwork, he said.

Former Colonial Theater in Colfax.

On September 23, 2017, over 200 volunteers blanketed the city. “We had about 100 kids from the school participate on Friday (Sept. 22) and I believe that when you add in the 200 on Saturday (Sept. 23), this would be the largest volunteer gathering in the history of Colfax,” he said. “We’re a town of about 900 people, so that is pretty amazing.

The projects included refacing some of the downtown buildings, landscaping lawns of elderly residents, painting handrails and benches around town, putting up new basketball rims, backboards and nets at the city park, clearing some drainage culverts in the park and cleaning up trash around the city.

It was mighty nice,” said Colfax Mayor Lonnie Meiner. “It demonstrated that people are interested in their small, little town here. It was great to see so many young people helping out and everybody was just thrilled with what was done.

All photos are by Hajee via FlickRiver unless otherwise credited.

See article by Kevin Barlow in the Pantagraph.

See Town of Colfax website and featured photo credit.

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