Stillgess Legacy and One of the few African American Underground Railroad Operators in the area
Numerous African American men and women from Urbana can be counted among the community’s entrepreneurs. Although the career opportunities were narrow for many of Urbana’s black residents throughout the 19th century, some in the community started to break through with an increase in black owned businesses after 1900. Arthur Stillgess was one such example who operated a restaurant in the heart of the Guinea District along East Market Street in Urbana.
Arthur was the grandson of Joseph Stillgess. Joseph Stillgess himself is an interesting story who was a fair skinned Mulatto man with blue eyes and abandoned at birth in Ross County, Ohio. Joseph Stillgess took the name of his adopted African American family of “Stillgess”. Joseph eventually settled in Champaign County prior to the Civil War in the south of end of Urbana known as “Gooseville” where he was one of the few African American Underground Railroad operators in the area assisting escaped slaves from the South on their way north to freedom.
Joseph’s grandson, Arthur Stillgess, was born in Urbana in 1874 and would have known his grandfather during his lifetime. By 1900, Arthur was employed as a cook in a hotel in Cleveland. Like many African Americans at the time, he may have been drawn to the larger city to find better employment other than what would have been available to him locally. A few years later, Arthur was married to his first wife, Mary Cooper, in Beaver County, Pennsylvania in 1904. She was a widow from Lima, Ohio and was employed as a cook as well. By 1915, Arthur Stillgess was on his second marriage to Mabel Milton of which his first child was born. By 1919, Arthur and Mabel had returned to Urbana and opened the Home Restaurant at 224 East Market Street for a brief couple of years. In 1920, the couple’s second child was stillborn. Arthur had given up his restaurant by 1921.
By 1930, the family was residing in Springfield where Arthur was working as a cook in a local hotel. In 1934, Arthur was admitted to a Columbus hospital for an illness, and passed away on June 24, 1934 at the age of 60. He is buried in Oak Dale Cemetery in Urbana. The building that housed the Home Restaurant during the proprietorship of Arthur Stillgess was demolished in the early part of the 2000s. It is now the site of the Champaign County Community Gardens on East Market Street opposite Barbara Howell Park.