The History of Oconee High School
Oconee (population 202) is located in south-central Illinois in southwestern Shelby County. Oconee is about 30 miles southeast of Springfield and approximately 5 miles south of Pana. U.S. Route 51 is the main roadway to and from Oconee. County Highway 14 travels through Oconee from the east and west as well.
Our good friend Jamie Driskill forwarded this excellent article from the Shelbyville Daily Union newspaper. The history of Oconee and its former high school are available in the article. The article can be viewed on the Shelbyville Daily Union website at http://www.shelbyvilledailyunion.com/apstorysection/local_story_181195507.html
“The Name Oconee Means Beautiful Young Indian Maiden
FRANK MULHOLLAND – Daily Union Managing Editor
The name “Oconee” means beautiful Indian maiden or in another Indian language, the meaning is “hard or course water.”
Many years ago a small town in Oconee Township saw it’s demise because of a steep hill.
Dr. Ballard laid out the town of Luro in 1854 in Oconee Township about two miles south of where Oconee is located now. The Illinois Central Railroad was building a railroad from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico. By 1854 they had the line completed from Chicago to Cairo, IL. The railroad company refused to put a switch at Luro because of a steep hill.
The town of Luro died out and the store buildings were moved to Oconee. The railroad then put in a switch at Oconee and the town of Oconee came to be starting in 1855.
Located in the southwest corner of Shelby County, Oconee is a small sleepy village of approximately 200 people. Because of the way Shelby County was laid out, Oconee is much closer to the town of Pana than the county seat of Shelbyville.
This is another in the series of histories of the many small towns and villages in Shelby County. These stories are inspired by the project of Lowell Goleman placing flags representing these towns and villages around the Shelbyville Courthouse Square.
The history of Southern Shelby County including the area around Oconee is renown for good water from numerous creeks and streams and bountiful game. The soil in that part of the county is fairly productive and there was at one time considerable timber.
The first settlers of whom we have any authentic record were the Widow Matney and family about the year 1830. She came from Sangamon county accompanied by her four boys and four girls. The family settled on the east side of the Matney branch creek (slightly southwest of the Village of Oconee).
The village began to grow and thrive. The railroad had a major impact on the town and its people. They could now ship their livestock to market and receive supplies and mail on a regular basis. The railroad called the village the “Oconee Station.” They used this name until 1872 and then it became “Oconee.” The first post office was located in the train station.
Carl Rakers was born in Oconee in 1926. He grew up in the area and farmed and ran a feed business. He served as mayor of Oconee for 16 years. He and Iona have been married since 1951. He attended high school in Oconee.
“Just three years of high school in Oconee and then normally you would go to Pana for your last year,” said Carl Rakers.
At one time there was three different grade schools in the Oconee area. A country school, a city school and a parochial school at the Catholic Church.
Oconee even had its own newspaper, “The Enterprise.”
When Rakers was growing up in the 20s, he said the population of Oconee was around 400. There were many different businesses including 4 grocery stores. Raker’s father was the town barber.
He said as a kid they made their own fun.
“We would go swimming at the double arches,” Raker said. “The automobiles went under the tracks through one arch and the other arch was the water. That was two miles north of town.”
There was the occasional medicine show that traveled through town. In fact a family named Carlier, a father, mother and daughter that traveled around Central Illinois and Indiana putting on those kind of shows made their home in Oconee.
“They (Carlier Family) were sort of like that, a traveling medicine show,” said Iona Rakers. “Here they put on shows at the town hall.”
Oconee continued to grow and after the Civil War and there were six regular train stops daily. On the west side of the tracks there was a lumber yard and next to it a shoe repair, then a harness shop and creamery. South of those businesses was the Bass Grocery Store next to a hotel and at the end of the block was the water wagon kept for fighting fires.
The Rakers have a wonderful collection of old photographs. Some of those old photos show workers first putting in Highway 51. They also have many great photos of the Fourth of July parade, where the kids would decorate their bikes and ride in the parade.
Oconee like so many small towns in Shelby County was a wonderful place to grow up in. One of Rakers kids still lives in Oconee. Shelby County Sheriff Randy Sims and his wife, Annette are from that area and raised their family there.”
Oconee High School was a three-year high school. It is likely the school closed in the late 1940s. Oconee kids attend high school today in nearby Pana. The fate of the original Oconee High School building is being sought. It is possible that the school is still standing on the south side of town.