Voices From the Past: Opal Chumbley-Billy Sunday, Halley’s Comet, and the Great Fire of Rantoul
Written by Tavion Brooks and edited by Connor Monson
Voices From the Past is a series devoted to telling the stories of individuals recorded as part of the Champaign County History Museum’s Oral History collection. With nearly 70 interviews in the last five decades, the work of making this collection more accessible is ongoing. But as each recording is transcribed and researched we plan to add another entry to this series. With the hope that it will help keep their stories alive. Where possible we have retained the original spelling and grammar.
Miss Opal Chumbley was born in 1900 in Rantoul, Illinois, a village located just sixteen miles north of Champaign. Chumbley’s interview took place on September 29th, 1975, making her seventy-five at the time. When she was one year old, in 1901, the city of Rantoul caught fire due to sparks from a nearby train heading south from Chicago. Rantoul historian Katy B. Podagrosi noted, “Everything in this part of the county was dry as powder due to a prevailing drought condition and higher than usual August temperatures”1. The Rantoul fire fit within a broad pattern in the late 19th and early 20th century of Champaign County communities experiencing devastating fires. Several circumstances contributed to the situation: limited resources available to early firefighters, largely wooden structures packed more densely together, industrialization, and the poor quality of early fireproofing efforts.
The fire grew to such a size that it burned down a substantial portion of the village, including Chumbley’s father’s harness shop. In her interview, Chumbley says, “My father had a harness shop. My grandfather and my father and my uncle owned a harness shop in the town and it was burned as well as all the businesses.” In the book Rantoul Tales and Photos, an anthology of local history articles for regional historians and community members, Glenn E. Hansen notes that the fire had “completely destroyed downtown Rantoul” including the offices of the Rantoul Press 2.
Chumbley also notes that the disaster was significant enough that all the grocery stores were destroyed by the fire, resulting in surrounding communities such as Champaign having to bring emergency food aid for the citizens of Rantoul. Residents from neighboring communities worked with the residents of Rantoul to try to extinguish the fire, however little could be done in time. Most of the city was gone within a few short hours. However, the citizens of Rantoul, according to Chumbley, kept their spirits up and worked to rebuild their devastated village. Chumbley said in her recording, “Many businesses were set up on the parkings in temporary quarters along the mainstreet. There were such wide parkings up there. Some were tents and some were just make-believes, but business was conducted from those various, temporary quarters. All the debris was hauled away and the town started rebuilding. Not every business did go- did rebuild but my parents rebuilt the harness shop and there was the meat market and there was grocery stores, a jewelry store, clothing store and all those places were rebuilt.” Despite the ongoing struggle to rebuild, Chumbley’s mother became the talk of the town, a local celebrity because of her baking skills. She explained, “The day of the fire my mother had baked bread, the fire occurred at noon, the bread was all baked so she was a very popular lady at that time. Uh, they.. Uh, they shared their bread as much as they could,” Her generosity provided much needed support to those who had lost everything. The rebuilding of the city would take years to complete, and the lingering impact of the fire on the memories of those who lived through it would persist for decades.
Rantoul Horse Show 1910. CCHM Photographic Archives
During her interview Chumbley also reminisces about her time in elementary school and her memories of the teachers who worked there. She started first grade in 1906 and had to walk to school alone because there were no automobiles around and her family did not own a horse and buggy. She would carry her lunchbox with her. According to Chumbley, many popular games of the time for children were Ring- Around-The-Rosey, London Bridge, Drop the Handkerchief, Blind Man’s Bluff, Musical Chairs, Button-Button-Who’s Got the Button. Chumbley also played Run Chief Run, Hide and Seek, jacks, croquet, dominoes, checkers and jump rope.
Chumbley also discussed what she believed to be the most memorable event that happened in Rantoul during her early life: the passage of Halley’s Comet. Chumbley says, “It was in the early evening, I remember there was so many trees on our block that people congregated at the corner of the intersection, to watch it. It went over, it was frightening, people screamed, it was- seemed like it was a ball of fire right at us but course it was much higher than it seemed to be, it was something I will never forget.” She also mentioned how clear the sky was that night. A May 13th, 1910 article from the Daily Illini shows the commotion that surrounded the passing of the comet in Champaign County. They wrote “In order to make it easier for observers in the two towns to see the comet, the mayor of Urbana has arranged to have all lights out at 2:30.” 3. Chumbley’s viewing of the comet is noteworthy due to both the rarity of Halley’s Comet making appearances and the recent problem of light pollution in Champaign County. Halley’s comet would not return again until 1986. 2061 is the predicted date for its next appearance.
Yerkes Observatory, University of Chicago. Image Courtesy of the DPLA (4)
Chumbley participated in a religious service by one of the most famous evangelists of the early 20th century; Billy Sunday. According to the South Bend Tribune’s biography of Sunday he had been a professional baseball player for what was then the Chicago White Stockings (now the White Sox) and the Philadelphia Phillies before becoming a minister 5. His sermons were massive community wide events when Sunday visited, attracting supporters and detractors. He became a controversial figure in his own time. In 1905 Sunday visited Rantoul, making a significant impression on community members within the course of a week. Chumbley remembered, “The music was just beautiful. Over five hundred people were saved during those services and all six saloons in the town were closed permanently.” However, a March 15th 1909 article from the Urbana Daily Courier was less glowing in its reviews of Sunday when an editor commented “It is often stated that the spirit that Billy Sunday injects into a community is only temporary” 6. The early 20th Century in the Midwest was full of religious revivals like those of Sunday’s.
Bellows, George, 1882-1925. Billy Sunday. 1915-1923. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, (7)
Rantoul did not have paved roads until 1912, and electricity in homes was extremely rare. The first automobile driven through Rantoul was owned by Dr. T.J McKinney and the first automobile owned was a Rantoul resident (according to Chumbley) belonged to J.B Menely. Chumbley remembered when Meneely drove his vehicle, “I can just see him coming along the street, ever so often, having to get out, run around in the front, crank the car and start again.”
Chumbley vividly remembered when Chanute Field was built in 1917. Before the building of the airbase, the population was around fifteen-hundred but it would soon triple in size. Chumbley found it exciting to see the boys go to the airbase and for the town to have a base there. She remembers seeing nine parachutists jump from the planes and much more. She said “I remember these boys getting off the train, coming with their packs on their backs, young boys going- walking by down to Chanute field. Several of our boys in our senior class quit school so they could join the air corps to fly planes.” Chanute Field trained pilots for both the first and second World Wars. The acclaimed Tuskegee airmen trained at Chanute before they were so known, as part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Chumbley lived in Rantoul during a period of deep political and social changes. In her lifetime she saw Rantoul change from a small frontier community to the site of one of the largest military bases on U.S. soil. Chumbley’s voice is a connection to a world that was already radically different from her youth and very different from our own. Her oral history is a valuable historical resource for those interested in the changes of the early twentieth century in Champaign County.
Tavion Brooks is an undergraduate history student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He interned at CCHM in the fall of 2022. Tavion is currently working as a shelver at the Champaign Public Library. This is his first published work. Portions of this article were co-written by museum manager Connor Monson. History Students are invited to research and write local history articles for potential inclusion in the CCHM blog.
Podagrosi, Katy B. Neipswah. Rantoul, Illinois: The Rantoul Press.
Butler, Geil E. n.d. Rantoul Tales and Photos. Rantoul, Illinois: Rantoul Historical Society.42
Unknown. (1910, May 13). HALLEY'S COMET IS NOW AT ITS BRIGHTEST. Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. Retrieved February 18, 2023, from https://idnc.library.illinois.edu/?a=d&d=DIL19100513.2.16&srpos=1&e=-------en-20--1--img-txIN-Halley%27s%2BComet--------Champaign-
Halley's Comet, June 6, 1910, Yerkes Observatory. 1910-06-10. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/dudleyo/id/1683. (Accessed February 8, 2023.)
Staff Reports. (2016, April 18). A Look Back: Billy Sunday was one of the nation's best-known preachers. South Bend Tribune. https://www.southbendtribune.com/story/news/local/2016/04/18/a-look-back-billy-sunday-was-one-of-the-nations-best-known-preachers/46423491/
Unknown. (1909, March 15). Urbana Daily Courier, 15 March 1909. Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. Retrieved February 18, 2023, from https://idnc.library.illinois.edu
Bellows, George, 1882-1925. Billy Sunday. 1915-1923. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/7d279v43r. (Accessed February 18, 2023.)