The entrepreneur of the coal fields, Wm. Odell

Sandy Vasko

    Anyone who has driven south on Interstate 55 will see a sign for the town of Odell. Some of us have even been there. It was named after a guy named Odell we guess.
    William Odell not only had a town named after him, but he left his name in the history books of every small and large town in this area. Today we look at the entrepreneur of the coal field.
    I am still in the dark as to the beginning of the life of William Odell. I do know he was born in 1840.
    The first hint I have of him as an adult is in Gardner. We know that he worked for the railroad at one time and had a town named after him, Odell Station, later changed to just Odell.
    In Gardner in 1864 William H. Odell decided to be a coal baron.
    We read on Dec. 21, 1864 in the Wilmington Independent, “In the afternoon we visited the new coal mine, owned and operated by W. H. Odell, Esq. Enveloping our self in a huge oil cloth cloak, we stepped upon the “dummy” with our friend Odell, and were soon lowered 166 feet “into the bowels of the earth.” The shaft is the largest in the State.
    “It was made 8 by 16 feet, and filled in with timber, making it 7 by 15 feet in the clear. The distance from the surface to the bottom of the shaft is 200 feet - 18 or 20 of which is below the coal vein, and is intended as reservoir for the water constantly dripping from the sides of the shaft, and escaping from those portions of the mine which are being worked.”
    The following year we read, “Messrs. Wm H. Odell and W. A. Steel have secured the title to the immense coal mine at Braceville and Gardner, and are preparing to work them more extensively than heretofore.
    “They are already taking out 100 tons a day, and when their additional machinery arrives will raise at least 300 tons per day. The coal taken from these mines is superior to the Morris or La Salle coal and is already used extensively in this city, Bloomington, Wilmington, and Chicago. For sale by Mr. H. Hurlbut in this city.”
    Remember, this is before Braidwood was even thought about. But it seemed that Odell did not see himself as a coal man and sold out just about the time Braidwood started to blossom. We next find him in Wilmington where he built a large mansion on Kankakee Street, opposite the Methodist Church.
    Odell returned in part to his roots, the railroad. But not working for the railroad, but using it to ship the above ground wealth of grain produced in the region. In 1875 he turned his eye on Braidwood. It already had the needed railroad with many tracks to haul coal, why not corn. We read in November of 1875, “W. H. Odell, Esq., is building a large corn crib capable of holding 7,000 bushels of corn, which goes to show that he intends to buy a little this winter.”
    And in October of 1876, “W. H. Odell, the corn king, has commenced shelling corn in earnest.” He went on to add a feed mill. But then in April 1879 disaster struck. A devastating fire swept downtown Braidwood. It took out two hotels, numerous dwellings, wagon shop and all of Odell's holdings.
    His losses were estimated in the Morris Herald, “W. H. Odell, Esp., has lost all his cribs - excepting three which contain about 10,000 bushels of grain - his warehouse, feed mill, office and contents.  His loss is estimated in the neighborhood of $15,000. ($392,000 today) Insurance in the Springfield, of Mass., to the amount of $5,000. ($130,600)
    He was interviewed on his loss. “Mine is only a flesh wound,” says Mr. Odell, concerning his heavy loss in Tuesday's fire. With characteristic pluck he will immediately rebuild his elevator and feed mills.”
    He was an upright kind of a guy. Some of the grain lost, was not his, but belonged to local farmers. We read about that situation in the Wilmington Advocate, “And what sort of “honest farmers” were they who demanded and accepted Mr. Odell's money for burnt corn that he was in no wise legally or morally holden for? The grain was not his, either to control or sell; he has not even heretofore exacted storage, yet when burnt up they presumed to hold Mr. Odell liable for the full value of several thousands of bushels of grain. With the highest regard for honor Mr. Odell could have evaded paying one cent for such grain.” But he did.
    He went on to purchase all the grain elevators in Essex, and by 1885 he owned the elevator next to the depot in Wilmington. He went on to purchase a failing hardware store in Braidwood and soon made it pay. Another sideline of Odell's was banking. He became Cashier of the Miners Bank in Braidwood, then moved it to Wilmington to become the Commercial Bank, now the Corner Tap.
    To William Odell is due much of the prosperity of the entire coal field. He died in Wilmington in 1907, still heading up the bank and still working for the prosperity of his community.