Reg Ankrom has been on the job two months as executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. Each day he learns something new.
Ankrom works part-time at the site of the 12th and State mansion formerly owned by John Wood, Quincy's founder.
Like nearly every other longtime Quincy resident, Ankrom has always known Wood to be a monumental figure in local history.
It was Wood, for instance, who built the city's first home at what is now the intersection of Front and Delaware. He moved into the 18- by 20-foot log cabin in December 1822. It was also Wood who became a renowned leader involved in many aspects of Quincy's development. Wood even became an Illinois governor.
While Ankrom already knew a lot about Wood, he wasn't as familiar with another person instrumental in Quincy's founding -- Willard Keyes, whose name kept popping up as Ankrom poked around the historical society's archives.
"We hear a lot about John Wood. But who was Willard Keyes?" Ankrom said.
He decided to find out.
Ankrom is an avid historian known for his expertise on Stephen A. Douglas -- the former congressman, senator and presidential candidate who once lived in Quincy and debated Abraham Lincoln. Ankrom has already written one book about Douglas and plans two more. But he opted to switch gears recently and focus his research energy on Keyes.
He made some interesting discoveries.
For example, while looking through Keyes' journal, Ankrom learned the Vermont native worked a couple of years in Prairie du Chien, Wis., as a teacher of French and Indian children. Then one day in April 1819, about 30 canoes full of warring Sac and Sioux Indians pulled into Prairie du Chien. Keyes, 27, decided it was a good time to leave.
"So the next day the guy jumps on a raft and starts down the Mississippi," Ankrom said. "He spent almost a year traveling down the river."
Keyes passed many notable sites during his voyage, including historic forts and fledgling villages. But one place stood out for him -- an undeveloped site near a bluff rising high above the Mississippi. It featured a welcoming backwater area.
Some years later, Ankrom said, Keyes amended that page of his journal to include the following note: "Pass the site of Quincy May 10, 1819."
Quincy, of course, didn't exist on that date. "But he liked what he saw," Ankrom said.
Keyes continued downstream, arriving in St. Louis. Then in early 1820 he went to Edwardsville, Ill., to hang out at a federal land office where veterans of the war of 1812 recorded bounty land they'd been awarded for their military service.
Each veteran was given 160 acres in the so-called "military tract" of Illinois. But many of the veterans, "particularly those back East, weren't at all interested in moving to the wilderness. So they were trying to unload these properties, and Edwardsville had a list of them," Ankrom said.
Armed with $200 from the sale of the wood from his raft and some savings from his teaching work, Keyes became a land speculator. It was in Edwardsville that Keyes met another young speculator, John Wood, a New York native. The two decided to team up and acquire some bounty land properties in Western Illinois.
"Keyes told Wood about this spot he had seen," Ankrom said, referring to the future site of Quincy.
As it turned out, Wood later got an opportunity to buy two 160-acre parcels at that very location. After Keyes and Wood squatted for a time on some land about 30 miles to the south in Pike County, Wood finally visited the two properties in 1822. Ankrom said he "admired the advantages of beauty of the surroundings and resolved to reside there."
The rest is history. Wood built a cabin and became Quincy's founder. Keyes later joined him. Both men went on to become wealthy and influential business leaders.
"Wood became the great public figure," Ankrom said. "But Keyes was instrumental in getting him up here."