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Champaign County's First Historian: Joseph Oscar Cunningham

Joseph Oscar Cunningham was born on December 12, 1830, in Lancaster, New York. In his life, he was a very accomplished academic whose passions fed into literature, history, and practicing law. Before arriving in Central Illinois, he grew up on the farms of Huron County, Ohio, until age 18. Once a full adult, he enrolled at Oberlin College and later obtained his Bachelor of Law degree from the Union Law School in Cleveland in 1850. Three years later, he married his loving and devoted wife Mary in 1853. With his law education completed and Mrs. Cunningham by his side, Joseph and Mary moved to Urbana immediately after their marriage, living in the very first brick house built in the county.

For the first six years of their time in Urbana, Joseph Cunningham was a part of the Cunningham & Flynn law firm as well as publishers of the Urbana Union newspaper. In 1859, Joseph Cunningham started his first law office in Urbana, later making a partnership with his friend Judge Joseph W. Sim. He remained working as a lawyer for forty years until his retirement in 1905, having a very successful career and becoming a prominent figure in the law industry. In his career, he was appointed as county court judge in 1861 and a Supreme Court judge in 1880. Additionally, Cunningham was on the first Board of Trustees of Illinois Industrial University (later the University of Illinois) from 1867 to 1873. During this time, he was actively involved in the movement to secure Champaign County as the location of the state's land grant university.

Furthermore, Judge Cunningham contributed significantly to journalism in Urbana. He collected valuable historical documents, assisted with many newspapers and journalism societies, and wrote in-depth about the life and character of his personal friend, Abraham Lincoln. Judge Cunningham and Lincoln were close friends, and he was an avid supporter of the president. It is also recorded that Cunningham was present at the Bloomington convention in which Lincoln delivered the famous “lost speech”.

Outside of his professional life, J.O Cunningham was also heavily involved in philanthropy. Both Joseph and Mary Cunningham founded the Cunningham Orphanage and a piece of land that was used as the basis for Crystal Lake Park.

In his own interests, Joseph Cunningham held an extensive library collection that he often referred to as his “friends”, alluding to the books and authors that were housed in it. He was also very interested in the writing of history in addition to studying it and wrote the first comprehensive history of Champaign County. Before he died on April 30th, 1917, J.O Cunningham donated his entire library collection as his final act of philanthropy to the city library in Urbana.

In the photo provided, J.O Cunningham is seen wearing a top hat standing next to his wife Mary Cunningham. The top hat that belonged to Judge Cunningham is in the Champaign County History Museum’s possession and is on display!

Even over 100 years after the death of Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham, their lives are still celebrated today in Champaign County. The naming of areas within the county that allows him to be a household name can be easily justified when understanding judge Cunningham's impact on Illinois history. Cunningham's legacy lives on through his detailed History of Champaign County and perhaps the most recognizable monument, Cunningham Avenue, which runs past their former home, today's Cunningham Children's Home.

J.O Cunningham’s top hat is displayed in the second-floor Community Room at the Champaign County History Museum.


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