Sister Cities: Mount Olive, New Jersey, Meet Mount Olive, IllinoisApr 12, 2022 04:37PM ● By Steve Sears
Labor organizer Mary “Mother” Jones, who is buried in Mount Olive, Illinois Photos courtesy of Roger Kratochvil
There are a few distinct similarities between Mount Olive, Illinois and Mount Olive, New Jersey, and one with the Garden State itself.
Both communities have celebrated 150-year anniversaries and have a farming history. And, coincidently, the numbered highways that are relative to the Illinois location are mirrored in New Jersey. Route 55 runs through Cumberland and Gloucester counties, Route 66 is in Asbury Park and Neptune City, and 138 runs east to west from Wall to Spring Lake.
Mount Olive, Illinois, “The Little City With a Big Welcome,” is a small town of about 2,300 people located about 44 miles from Saint Louis, Missouri, and it is right off of Route 55.
Roger Kratochvil, whose family immigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1904, is the unofficial historian of Mount Olive, Illinois. He was born in neighboring White City and taught history and social studies at Mount Olive High School for 34 years. He also served for 10 years as the school’s Principal. Prior to his 1995 retirement and after it, he has sung the praises of the area he grew up in. “The town was founded in 1865, right at the end of the Civil War by the German community,” he says. “And for many years, the newspaper, it was in German. If you couldn't speak German, you couldn’t read the paper.” Zion Lutheran Church, where Kratochvil attends services, was the first church in town, and it was founded by John C. Niemann. “He was the first everything in town: the first postmaster, he had the first church, etc.,” says Kratochvil.
Mount Olive, Illinois was originally called “Oleburg.” “That was a German name that meant, ‘Mount of Olives,” says Kratochvil. “The town, although not extremely mountainous, is about 40’ higher than neighboring Litchfield and Staunton. “Then they shortened it to Mount Olive. We were also known at one time by Drummond Station because of the railroad. We had five railroads go through this town.”
Mount Olive, Illinois is very unique because it has two national historic sites. One is the Mary “Mother” Jones Monument in the Union Miner’s Cemetery, the eight ton, 22’ granite work of art dedicated to the community and labor organizer who lived to the age of 100. The other is Soulsby’s (Shell) Route 66 Gas Station, which was the first filling station on the famed highway which runs right through the heart of the town. “There's not a day that goes by in the year that there aren’t people from all over the world who’ve stopped here,” says Kratochvil.
There are distinct differences between Mount Olive, New Jersey and its midwestern “sister.” Mount Olive, New Jersey is a growing community of about 28,000 people, and it is over 31 square miles, while Mount Olive, Illinois, which is located in Macoupin County, is a little over one square mile. Route 138 and Old Route 66 run through the latter, while Routes 46, 80, and 206 cut through the Morris County township.
“The town is mostly a commuting town now,” Kratochvil says of his Mount Olive. “In the area, our businesses used to be number 60 to 70 businesses. Now we probably have 20 or 25.”
There is no lodging in Mount Olive, Illinois – vacationers or visitors just passing through will have to look in neighboring communities to rest after sightseeing - but there are a variety of nice spots to dine at. Kratochvil says, “We’ve got a bakery in this town – we’ve always had bakeries because these old German communities were bakers – and we’ve got a bakery, B & K Bakery, that is second to none. I guarantee you that their danishes are about 6” across. They’re like a coffee cake. We have Tilley’s Tavern, which is another nice place here in town, which is more of a sports bar for the young people, and we have a couple of other places in town that are small like Little Italy, which is a pizza place.” Another popular stop is Sam Holtz’s Route 138 Café, which is located right at the Route 66 and 138 intersections.
Mount Olive Illinois, which has a coal mining as well as farming history, is surrounded by farmland. Travelers no doubt will see a great share of rabbits and squirrels traversing the area as they drive through.
For more information about Mount Olive, Illinois and its history, visit the Macoupin County website at www.macoupincountyil.gov/mtolive.