Salem was founded in 1823 by Rufus RICKER and Mark TULLY. It was founded as the County Seat of the newly formed Marion County (See #1 and #2 of the Salem Historical Drive). It was situated halfwy between the Indiana and Missouri borders on what was then the Vincennes-St. Louis Road, now U.S. Highway 50, which goes from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco). Today U.S. 50 is crossed by State Hwy 37 and Interstate 57, both running north and south.
The land where Salem was founded was donated by the family of James ROBERTS. ROBERTS had the land beginning in 1819. The first permanent settler of Marion County was Captain Samuel YOUNG in 1811, which was near Salem. He settled near a group of friendly Native Americans.
In the 1820's, a severe drought hit northern and central Illinois, which contributed to the wagon loads of people traveling to southern Illinois to obtain food and grain for themselves and their livestock. As this was compared to the biblical story of Israel going to Egypt to purchase grain, southern Illinois became known as "Egypt" and also "Little Egypt." Salem became the "Gateway of Littlle Egypt."
In 1826, there were five families within the borders of Salem. They were the families of Rufus RICKER, Mark TULLY, James CHANCE, James PYLES, and Martin HILL.
Salem is proud of its contribution to the nation. One of our greatest sons is William Jennings BRYAN, the "Silver Tongued Orator" (See #1, #4, #12, #13, and #17 of the Salem Historical Drive).
Other prominent people from Salem include:Major General Wesley B. MERRITT, commander of the United States Armies; Colonel Warren E. McMACKIN, second in command to General Grant; General James S. MARTIN of the Civil War, also a United States Congressman; Dr. S. D. MERCER, millioinaire of Omaha; Rev. J. G. LEMEN, founder of the children's home in Council Bluffs, Iowa; Mrs. Millie JACKSON, the postmistress of the Illinois House of Representatives; General Isham N. HAYNIE, Adjutant General of Illinois, who was present at the death of President Abraham LINCOLN; Dan ALLMON, who was a renowned entertainer and "black-faced" minstrel with the ALLMON sisters; Governor Henry Clay WARMOTH of Louisiana was also from Salem.
Also among Salem's notable citizens was Count John SOBIESKI, Prince Royal, heir to the throne of Poland. Colonel SOBIESKI, as he prefered to be called, married the daughter of Rev. B. F. LEMEN, a friend of Abraham LINCOLN, and his wife, Mary RAND LEMEN, a prominent educator (See #7 of the Salem Historical Drive).
One of Salem's famous women was Florida WOLFE. She was a black woman, daughter of David and Nancy WOLFE. The family was known as "genteel blacks" and were very highly respected in Salem. Florida became the wife of Deloval, Lord BERESFORD, brother of the Lord High Admiral of the British Navy. She and her husband lived in Mexico. After his death, she moved to El Paso, Texas, where she was affectionaly called "Lady Flo" by the citizens of El Paso. She was well educated and spoke fluent Spanish. (Note: The term "genteel blacks" sounds like a condescending term to us today, but at the time was meant as one of respect.)
Another one of Salem's prominent people was Congressman Charles W. VURSELL, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1942 to 1958. Previous to that, VURSELL was editor and publisher of the Salem Republican. In 1910, he was elected Marion County Sheriff. He also served in the Illinois State lesgislature. VURSELL died in 1974 at the age of 93. His wife was Bessie BRASEL. Their last place of residence was at 825 West Boone in Salem. They are buried in East Lawn Cemetery.
Salem is an oil town and has one of the largest oilfields in the country. It continues to produce much oil to this day.
Salem is also an important railroad town. The C&EI (Chicago & Eastern Illinois) Railroad had a round house here in Salem. It is now the Union Pacific Railroad and still has offices and many employees living in Salem today. The B&O (Baltimore & Ohio) Railroad also went through Salem. Both of these railroads had depots in Salem and at one time served many passengers. Today they do not serve any passengers, but both depots still exist. The C&EI Depot is privately owned now by Doug FONTANA and his wife Pam SEE. (See #27 of the Salem Historical Drive)
Salem is the birthplace of the G.I. Bill of Rights ( See #23 following).
We are proud of our town, its history and its people. We welcome all who would like to visit to see and hear about our past, and all who would like to stay and make history for the future.