The Race Mansion
The House that Once Haunted Downtown Decatur

The 400 block of North Water Street in downtown Decatur, which I have often referred to as the "most haunted block in the city", is today the location of the famous Avon Theater, which will be featured in a later chapter. However, this block was empty until 1870, save for a small pioneer graveyard, which has since been lost to history. In 1870, John R. Race purchased the land here and set about turning it into his family estate, which would rest on the edge of Decatur's prosperous business district until the mansion at the corner of North and Water Streets was torn down in 1915.

John Race is almost forgotten today, but during some of the most important years in the growth of Decatur, he was one of the city's leading citizens. He acquired a considerable fortune in the clothing business and was known in town as "Judge", even though he was never on any bench. Apparently, the nickname came about when he was chosen as a judge for the Macon County Fair. After that, he remained Judge Race for the rest of his life. Race was known as a "huge man, picturesque, blunt in his language, thoroughly honest and a good citizen". He was also well-liked and owned a large amount of property in town. His home, which consisted of 25 rooms, was the largest in the city at the time.

Race also had the distinction of being the man who made the first uniform worn by General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. At the beginning of the war, Grant was in Decatur and spent some time waiting for trains on his way to Springfield. He was camped at the old fairgrounds, assembling various companies of volunteer soldiers from the surrounding towns. Race, who was already in business at that time, introduced himself to Grant and offered to measure him for a uniform. The tailors at Race's store were able to hurriedly make it in less than a week, which was quite an achievement at that time. Thanks to Race, Decatur still has the honor of furnishing Grant's first military uniform.

John Race had arrived in Decatur with the railroads. It was a time of great change and an era that would create the city that we know today. Race was born in Franklin County, Ohio on December 6, 1828. He grew up on a small farm near Groveport, a town on the old Ohio & Erie Canal. He attended school there and got his first taste of business working in a store as a young boy. He soon took a regular position and was given an annual salary of $100 per year, plus room and board. When the store changed owners, his salary was increased another $50 and when the new owner saw what a hard worker the young man was, he gave him another $50 raise. He was later advanced to $300 per year (an extravagant salary at the time) and he used some of his earnings to invest in farming. Although his first crop was a failure, he soon turned to crop speculation and horse sales. Once he had saved about $1,500, he decided to moved west to Illinois.

He came by horse and buggy in the fall of 1854. He arrived in Central Illinois during an early snowstorm with the intention of traveling to Springfield and then on to Peoria, where other Franklin County, Ohio folks had already settled. Following the old state road from Terre Haute, he made it as far as Lovington before the snow proved too much for travel. He booked a room at the Black Horse Tavern, where he met some local men who convinced him to spend an extra day and attend the sale of a store that might be perfect for his plans.

Race declined to purchase the store and set off again for Springfield, only to be caught in another two inches of snow. About two miles outside of Lovington, he met a farmer and stock buyer named Edward Maddox. The farmer told Race that the snow had obliterated the road to the west and as there would be no shelter for him, he invited the traveler to have supper with him and spend the night in his home. Race agreed and Maddox told him that he would accompany him the following day to a few miles from the town of Decatur.

The two men set out the next morning and Maddox rode alongside Race's buggy to a point near Mt. Gilead Cemetery, which was south of Decatur. From here, Race would travel due west on the old state road to Springfield but Maddox had another suggestion for him. He painted a glowing picture of the booming town that was Decatur and urged him to take a look at the place before continuing on. Race decided to take the farmer's advice and he spent the night at the Revere House, one of the best hotels in the city at that time. After spending a day or so in the city, he decided that Decatur was the right place for him.

Race decided to look for work in one of the stores in town, but he first used some of his savings to purchase some land near Maroa. As it happened, a portion of this stretch was purchased a short time later by the Illinois Central Railroad and it was used to provide access into Decatur. The rest of the land was used for farming. Race's first job in Decatur was as a clerk in the store owned by Hugh Taylor, proprietor of the Revere House. Soon however, Taylor sold out to his brother-in-law, who brought in his own clerks. Race suddenly found himself without a job, much to Taylor's dismay. To make it up to Race, he offered to sell him the hat and clothing department of the store and helped him to find a small shop on what would be Merchant Street. He did well with the stock and the next spring, he traveled to New York and Boston and bought more. Soon, his little store was overflowing and he sought quarters in another location.

In 1857, Race opened a store on Water Street and his new and permanent location quickly began to prosper. Later that year, he also married Margaret Ann Wolgamot of Springfield. The new location could be found in a place called Marble Hall, a stone building that was described as one of the "most pretentious" structures in the city. Race's store occupied the building with a post office and a saloon, which was located in the basement.

With his business growing, Race went into partnership with his brother, James W. Race and Caspar Elwood, a merchant tailor from Sycamore, Illinois. After that, the firm was known as J.R. Race & Co. and it remained unchanged for the next 32 years. In 1889, when John Race retired, it was incorporated as the Race Clothing Manufacturing Co. and was managed by James Race. The new company expanded into wholesale dry goods and started a factory for children's clothes, overalls and wrappers. The company wanted to introduce many levels of products to the line.

The company grew and prospered along with the city of Decatur. They not only enjoyed a brisk retail trade, but they were also large buyers of wool and cotton as well. Race made many friends and became acquainted with men like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. He was a staunch Republican, although he never became actively involved with politics. He also continued to invest in real estate and owned two buildings on Water Street, one of which was occupied for many years by Folrath Shoe Store.

In 1904, a disastrous fire ended the active participation of James Race with the retail store. The building was badly damaged but after it was repaired, it was re-opened as Elwood & Handlin. A month later, Race Manufacturing Co. resumed operations but under the direction of younger members of the Race family. The factory continued to produce goods until another fire destroyed it for good in August 1909.

In 1870, John Race made his greatest contribution to Decatur architecture. He purchased a lot that fronted the 400 block of North Water Street and constructed a large mansion on it. It was an open area on the edge of downtown and the only thing previously located on the lot was the small settler's cemetery. According to records, Race did not disturb it. His home was built on the opposite corner of the property and a large carriage house was erected to the north of the house, directly where the Avon Theater is currently located.

The house was quite large and Race would reside here for almost 40 years, until his death in 1910. The mansion was constructed from stone in an Italianate design. It stood two stories high, with an attic and a cupola that was ringed by a wooden rail. This "widow's walk" allowed the family to look out over the sprawling downtown district of Decatur and this was said to be one of Race's favorite places in the house. From this vantage point, he could easily see his store and factory a few blocks away and after his retirement, he could often be found here on warm afternoons.

According to the 1880 census, Race lived in the home with his wife, Margaret, his son, Arthur and his daughters, Flora, Ella and Edith. His daughter Edith would later relocate to Los Angeles and his wife, Margaret, died in 1906. He re-married to Virginia Wolgamot (Margaret's sister) in 1908. The house was also staffed by two servants, Bridget Naly and Wilson Baker, a poor nephew of the family who worked as a domestic.

In November 1910, Race was suddenly taken ill with what doctors called a "hemorrhage of the stomach". Within a week, he was dead. He passed away on Tuesday, November 29, 1910. The funeral was held in his home on Water Street the following Sunday afternoon. It was delayed so that Edith could return from California. Rev. George Hoster of St. John's Episcopal Church conducted the services and the house was reportedly filled with mourners. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery and interred wearing a suit that had been handmade by the tailors at Elwood & Handlin.
Death had finally come for John R. Race ---- or had it?

Over the course of the next several years, the Race Mansion stood empty. Race's second wife, Virginia, returned to live with her family and by this time, the Race children had homes of their own. James Race continued to reside at his own mansion at 414 West Main Street and there was much discussion as to what would become of the family home.

At this same time, the downtown business district continued to grow and North Water Street was beginning to become known as the entertainment district for the city. Several small nickelodeon theaters had already opened by this time and in 1911, construction was started on the Empress Theater across the street from the Race Mansion. The land on the north side of downtown was rapidly being consumed by new businesses that were trying to meet the demands of the growing city. The land where the mansion stood became a highly coveted piece of property.

And as more people came to the north side of the district, stories began to be told about the now decaying mansion. According to those who walked past the empty house at night, it was not unusual to see lights glowing in some of the upper windows. A few of those who claimed to see the lights were friends of the Race family, who insisted that no one was living in the house. On two separate occasions, police officers were summoned to the mansion but they could find no sign of intruders.

Stranger still were the reports of the ghost of John Race himself. On several nights, witnesses claimed to see a large apparition standing on the "widow's walk" of the house, looking down the street to the south. Those who knew him in life stated that the ghost of the judge had returned to watch over the city. It was also said that his face was sometimes seen looking out the windows toward the street, perhaps interested in the construction of the new Empress Theater. But were these reports true, or merely stories passed along by curiosity-seekers? No one knows for sure, but the ghost of John Race was believed to haunt his former home for several years before the land was sold and the mansion torn down in 1915.

Could his spirit still roam the Avon Theater today? Although the theater will be discussed more in depth later in the book, this seems the perfect place to add some information about the strange occurrences that have taken place in the Avon Twins. The "Twins", as those connected to the theater refer to them, were two new screens that were added by Skip Huston, the Avon's owner, in the fall of 2004. They were constructed outside of the historic Avon and in the modern building just south of the theater. This is almost directly on top of the site once occupied by Judge Race's mansion.

While ghostly happenings are quite common at the Avon Theater , no one expected that anything out of the ordinary would occur in the new building. However, as construction on the two theaters began, workers and Avon staff members soon realized that something very weird was going on.

Through my own historical research, I had compiled information about the 400 block of North Water Street and had passed it on to Skip Huston. Thanks to this, he was aware of the Race Mansion, the judge's mysterious death and the fact that he was alleged to haunt his former home for some time after his death. When odd things began to take place in the new theaters, Skip wondered if the ghost of John Race might have anything to do with it. Could the Judge's ghost still be around?

He got the answer to this question one day while showing the partially completed theaters to some friends. Skip and his wife, Susan, as well as a small group of other people were sitting in one of the theaters one evening, talking about future plans and the upcoming completion date of the Twins. Somehow, the conversation turned to ghosts and the strange sounds, footsteps and disappearances that had been recently taking place. Skip recited what he could remember about the mansion and then someone asked him what the name of the owner had been.
"Judge John Race," Skip replied.

At that moment, the entire group experienced what they could best describe as a cold, electric shock. It seemed to move over them like a wave and there was no mistaking the sharp temperature drop that had occurred. One of the people present said that she could feel something move right through her body. The bizarre, chilling sensation lasted for just short of a minute and then it passed. This was not someone's imagination, they had all experienced it and it would not be the last strange incident to occur.

I experienced the next one for myself.

In the winter of 2005, I was preparing to move back to Decatur and was working for a time out of an office at the Avon. One evening, I stopped by the theater with a friend of mine and we stayed for a little while to visit with Skip. As my friend had never seen the Twins, we all three went next door to the other building for a look. The tour finally ended up in one of the theaters and while we were standing there, Skip began talking about the ghosts. My friend had an avid interest in the supernatural and was listening as Skip recited the incident that had taken place in the unfinished theater a few months before. He recalled the conversation and then explained how the eerie sensation had washed over them as soon as he mentioned John Race's name.
"It was really strange. It seemed to come just as I said 'Judge john Race'", Skip said.

And then all of the lights went out!

As soon as the words left Skip's lips, the house lights in the theater blinked out, leaving the three of us standing there in the dark. The only light in the room was coming through the door from out in the lobby. Needless to say, we were more than a little surprised and none of us stayed in the dark theater for very long. Out in the safety of the well-lit lobby though, we chuckled about what had happened and assumed that we could give someone grief for turning off the lights while we were in there.

That was our first thought, but it turned out to be wrong ---- there was no one else in the building at the time!

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Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.