S East St & E Grove St, Bloomington, IL 61701
502 S. Fell Ave, Normal
Evergreen Memorial Cemetery Bloomington, McLean County, Illinois, USA
Jesse W. Fell (November 10, 1808 – February 25, 1887) was a Bloomington, Illinois businessman and land owner instrumental in the establishment of communities throughout Central Illinois and for the founding of Illinois State University. A close friend of Abraham Lincoln it was Fell who urged him to challenge his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, to their famous series of debates.
After graduating from Yale in 1838, Alfred Dodd studied law and opened an office in St Louis, Missouri. He then moved to Bloomington, Illinois, where, about 1840-41, in his early 20s, he became a law partner of the bachelor Jess W. Fell, then in his early 30s. Fell boarded with James Allin on the corner of East and Grove Streets. He became Bloomington's first and for a short time, only lawyer. Truthfully, however, Fell never fully embraced the law profession. Raised in Pennsylvania in a liberal Quaker family, Fell was a founder of Normal, Illinois, and, later, a founder of the state normal university, as well as McLean County's first lawyer with diploma. Fell was also a tree and flower enthusiast, a temperance advocate, and a civic leader. In 1834, Fell had begun a friendship and a long political association with Abraham Lincoln. Later, in 1860, he worked hard to win Lincoln the Republican nomination for president. With Fell, Dodd entered Illinois political life. In June 1844, Dodd was about 26 and still a bachelor, when, returning from a meeting, his horse lost its footing in the swollen Mackinaw River; Dodd was drowned. Later that year Jesse Fell personally carried Dodd's private papers (including, apparently, his diary, where Dodd described his falling in love with men) to Dodd's father in the East. Dodd's sudden, unexpected death may well have saved his diary from destruction, the fate, no doubt of many other revealing private papers.
Fell was born in rural southeastern Chester County, Pennsylvania, at his father's farm in New Garden Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, to Quaker parents of modest means, Rebecca Roman (1781-1846) and Jesse Fell (1776-1854). He was a fourth generation Pennsylvanian, his great-grandfather having arrived from England in 1705. His father farmed and was a hat maker and his mother was a Hicksite preacher. The Fells moved to Downington, PA when Jesse was eight. The Fell children also attended a country subscription, or pay, school, which provided a basic education. He attended local Friends schools as well as a private boy's academy and briefly taught in local public schools before migrating to Ohio to study law in 1828. In 1831 Fell moved to Illinois, opening Bloomington's first law offices and beginning his career in real estate. Fell was especially active during the Illinois land boom in the late 1830s; with James Allin, Fell co-founded the town of Clinton, Illinois and worked to create DeWitt County arranging for his brother, Kersey H. Fell, to become the clerk responsible for organizing the new county. He established Livingston County, which he named, and backed the founders of Pontiac, Illinois, which he also named. Fell invested in lands in Bloomington, Chicago, Milwaukee, Danville, and other places in central and eastern Illinois. Fell also founded Bloomington's first newspaper, The Bloomington Observer and McLean County Advocate in 1837 and, after several years running a fruit orchard in Adams County, returned to McLean County and work as an agent for the former Alton & Springfield Railroad to secure the right of way through McLean County. He helped found the town of Towanda and with his brother founded the town of Dwight. and later defeated an effort to have the railroad bypass his extensive land holdings in Pontiac. In 1838 he married Hester Vernon Brown (1819–1906) and they had 8 children. He sold lots in Decatur, Lexington, Clinton, El Paso, Joliet, and LeRoy and in 1855 he purchased timber land and began operation a sawmill near Ullin in southern Illinois. In 1854 Fell arranged for the Chicago and Mississippi Railroad to cross the Illinois Central Railroad north of Bloomington where he had founded the town of North Bloomington. In 1860, Illinois State Normal University relocated there from a site in downtown Bloomington, resulting in the town being renamed Normal in 1865. Fell was an enthusiastic arborist who developed an extensive park around his home, and was known for planting trees in his real estate holdings.
Fell died at his home in Normal, Illinois on February 25, 1887. The Normal Town Council declared that through his "untiring and disinterested efforts" he had secured the crossing of the two railroads and they passed a resolution stating that, "Normal without Jesse Fell is comparatively like a family without a father."
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