Jack LeShien and Mollie McKenzie, Co-chairs of the Gustave Koerner House Restoration Committee in Belleville, Illinois, will present a program for the Madison County Historical Society’s Speaker Series on April 14 at 2 p.m. The subject is “Lincoln and Koerner at the Crossroads of History.” MCHS Speaker Series events are free and open to the public. These events are held at the Main Street Community Center at 1003 N. Main Street in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Gustave Koerner may be one of Southwestern Illinois’ least known, yet most influential Illinoisians from his era. Born in Germany in 1809. He was a college educated man who in his youth was an activist. Regarded as a freedom fighter by modern historians, in Germany, in his time, he was considered a dangerous anti-government revolutionary. He fled his native country to avoid imprisonment.
In America, Koerner continued his activism, working with his friend, Abraham Lincoln, to stop the expansion of slavery in America. He helped form the Republican Party and in 1856 became chair of the Illinois Republican Party. Two years later he was president of the Convention that nominated his friend, Abraham Lincoln, to the Senate. He travelled the state, politicking for Lincoln and against the expansion of slavery, lecturing in both German and English, depending on the audience. One author called him a “confessed enemy of slavery.” That description relates to Koerner’s words when he said, “Do right and fear no one.”
When he came to America, Koerner eventually settled in Belleville, Illinois, where his accomplishments were extraordinary. He was an attorney who was better educated than most due to his university education in Germany. When his law partner, James Shields, retired as Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Koerner was chosen to replace him. He met Abraham Lincoln through his legal career and sometimes was co-counsel in railroad cases. He was a politician who was a party loyalist, but not afraid to change parties when it failed to support issues he felt strongly about. Koerner also served as a Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, as a Colonel in the Civil War, and, as U. S. Ambassador to Spain.
Le Chien and McKenzie are responsible for the renovation of Koerner’s 1854 two-story Greek Revival home in Belleville. Both are completely immersed in the history of Gustave Koerner and they tell a good story about both the man and his influences on this area and the country. They will also discuss the restoration of Koerner’s nearly 200-year-old house. Le Chien was news director at WIBV radio, Belleville, for 17 years and in that job learned an appreciation of the history of southwest Illinois. Since 1995 he has been involved in historic preservation in Belleville and in 2001 became co-chair with Molly McKenzie of the Gustave Koerner House Committee.
In 2010, McKenzie retired from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency after a 32-year career spent in Southwestern Illinois. She has received many awards over the years for both professional and volunteer projects promoting preservation as well as projects that educate the public about the diverse historical record of this area.
The Madison County Historical Society owns and operates the MCHS History Museum and Archival Library at 801 N. Main Street in Edwardsville, Illinois. The museum is currently closed for renovation, but library Hours are Wed.-Fri. 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Sun. 1-4 p.m. The library is also open Mon.-Tues. by appointment only. MCHS is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that receives no public funding. For more information on this program or to learn more about Madison County history, visit the Society’s website https://madcohistory.org/, or call 618-656-6579.