Greenville was founded by George Davidson in 1815 in what was then the Illinois Territory, when he purchased 160 acres (65 ha) along the bluff overlooking Little Shoal Creek, in what was then still part of Madison County. Davidson built a tavern near the present-day intersection of Main and Sixth streets, and by 1816 he was selling individual lots. The federal government established its first federal post office in Greenville in 1819. It was incorporated as a town in 1855 and as a city in 1872. At one time, it had neighborhoods called New Jerusalem, Piety Hill, Cobtown, and Buzzard Roost. A few possible reasons have been put forth for the naming of the town. Some think the town was named after Greenville, North Carolina, which had been named after Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene. Others say that Greenville was named by early settler Thomas White because it was "so green and nice". A third possibility is that Greenville was named after Green P. Rice, the town's first merchant.
Greenville became the county seat of Bond County in 1821. The earlier seat of Perryville was annexed into Fayette County when it was formed from part of Bond County, requiring the naming of a new seat. Davidson offered to give the county government land around the present-day town square. His offer was accepted, and a courthouse was built in 1821 on the site of the current courthouse.
During the 1840s, some Bond County residents conducted slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Slaves were often spirited from Missouri, sometimes through Carlyle to Bond County. Rev. John Leeper was able to disguise his Underground Railroad activities due to his milling business. Dr. Henry Perrine practiced medicine near Greenville and helped with the secret railroad activities. Rev. George Denny's house was found in the 1930s to conceal a secret chamber that had been used in the Railroad.
Greenville College was founded as Almira College, a women's college, in 1855. Former GC history professor Donald Jordahl has written that Almira College was "one of the earliest extensions westward of an eastern idea favorable toward female education, an early step in the women's suffrage and liberation movement." In 1941, college president H.J. Long "declared the founding of Almira and Greenville ran parallel, for both were founded on prayer." Women in Bond County could vote for the first time in 1914.
When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas gave speeches in Greenville in 1858 during a campaign for the United States Senate, Douglas said: "Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great and supreme gratification and pleasure to see this vast concourse of people assembled to hear me upon this my first visit to Old Bond." The Illinois State Register reported of the occasion: "I've seen many gatherings in Old Bond county but I never saw anything equal to this and I never expect to."
On November 21, 1915, the Liberty Bell passed through Greenville on its nationwide tour returning to Pennsylvania from the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. After that trip, the Liberty Bell returned to Pennsylvania and will not be moved again.
The Greenville Public Library was established as a Carnegie library and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Hogue Hall at Greenville College also appeared on the National Register (it was demolished in 2008).
On April 18, 1934, during the Great Depression, a group of 500 protesters marched to the Illinois Emergency Relief Commission to lodge complaints about the delivery of emergency supplies from the state and federal governments.
Illinois native Ronald Reagan visited Greenville on the campaign trail in 1980 and gave a speech on the street in front of the courthouse; his visit is commemorated by a plaque. Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois elected as President in November 2008, visited Greenville while campaigning for his Senate seat in 2004, in a visit hosted by the Bond County Democrats.
While Greenville once hosted three newspapers, The Item, The Sun, and The Advocate, it now has only the twice-weekly Greenville Advocate. The Advocate is the oldest business in Bond County and one of the oldest newspapers in Illinois. Original Advocate owner Jediah Alexander was friends with Abraham Lincoln and instrumental in bringing Lincoln to Greenville for a visit.
Historic Greenville businesses also include the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company, which later became the Pet Milk Company. The condensing plant, built in 1899, was the oldest in the world for many years until it was torn down in the early 1990s. Pet also maintained its research and testing center in Greenville. Many products. including Instant Pet, Pet-Ritz pies, Sego diet foods, and Old El Paso products were developed there, along with the first use of food irradiation to increase the Vitamin D content of milk. The remaining research buildings and warehouses were sold to Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals in the 1990s, which continues to operate there today.
Other historic businesses in Greenville included shoe manufacturer Mayer and Bannister, cigar manufacturers Thomas D. Scheske and H.H. Wirz, and a glove factory, the Greenville Glove Manufacturing Co. In the early 1900s, Greenville had its own power company, Greenville Electric Gas and Power Company, which later was bought by Illinois Power and Light Service.
The Watson family operated a pharmacy in Greenville for over 125 years, since 1881; it was sold in 2006, but still maintains the name Watson's Drug Store. Greenville once had a silent movie theatre, the Lyric, and now has a first-run movie theatre, the Globe.
Greenville is located near the center of Bond County at 38°53′N 89°24′W (38.8895, -89.4036). U.S. Route 40 and Interstate 70 pass to the south of downtown, both highways leading west 49 miles (79 km) to St. Louis and east 19 miles (31 km) to Vandalia.
Greenville is also located on Illinois Route 127, which is a major north-south route connecting Southern Illinois to Springfield.
The National Road passes through Greenville. East of Greenville it follows Illinois Route 140, and west it follows U.S. Route 40. Its route west of town was the source of a historic controversy. Original plans were to connect Greenville to St. Louis. However, the Illinois General Assembly preferred a route to Alton in order to favor an Illinois city directly on the Mississippi River. When federal money for the road ran out in 1840 at Vandalia, 19 miles east of Greenville, the State Legislature refused to fund it further. Residents of Greenville, Highland, Troy, and Collinsville paid to complete the road to East St. Louis. The "State Policy" of favoring Alton over St. Louis remained a major political issue in Illinois until the Civil War.
According to the 2010 census, Greenville has a total area of 6.19 square miles (16.03 km2), all land.
As of the census of 2000, there were 6,955 people, 2,019 households, and 1,280 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,337.0 people per square mile (516.4/km²). There were 2,171 housing units at an average density of 417.3 per square mile (161.2/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 82.40 percent White, 15.44 percent African American, 0.62 percent Native American, 0.47 percent Asian, 0.37 percent from other races, and 0.69 percent from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.46 percent of the population.
There were 2,019 households, out of which 30.0 percent had children under the age of 18 living with them, 50.7 percent were married couples living together, 10.0 percent had a female householder with no husband present, and 36.6 percent were non-families. 33.4 percent of all households were made up of individuals and 17.7 percent had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.28 and the average family size was 2.90.
In the city, the population was spread out with 15.9 percent under the age of 18, 18.1 percent from 18 to 24, 32.7 percent from 25 to 44, 18.7 percent from 45 to 64, and 14.6 percent who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 34 years. For every 100 females, there were 143.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 152.5 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $35,650, and the median income for a family was $45,557. Males had a median income of $26,105 versus $20,889 for females. The per capita income for the city was $17,326. About 8.8 percent of families and 11.8 percent of the population were below the poverty line, including 14.0 percent of those under age 18 and 9.9 percent of those age 65 or over.
The first mayor of Greenville, James Bradford, was elected in 1873. He was the owner of Bradford and Son bank, which is still in existence today as Bradford National Bank. Bradford later went on to serve in the Illinois Legislature.
During the first half of the 20th century, the Anti-Saloon Party was a player in local politics, with aldermen and mayors being elected from the ticket in 1911, 1913, 1917, and 1953. After the 1953 election, a "city manager" style of government was voted in, which provided for non-partisan city council members.
Greenville has had a mayor and city council form of government since 1957. Fire services are provided by the Greenville Fire Protection District.
Government officials in Greenville include Mayor Alan Gaffner and City Manager Dave Willey.
In 1992, private Free Methodist college Greenville College celebrated its 100th anniversary and was featured on NBC's Today Show. In 2006, the college was again featured prominently in a Today Show story about the rapid growth of Christian colleges and universities. In 2007, GC had a record enrollment of an estimated 1,100 traditional students. The college was the first campus in America to go completely wireless with its Internet.
Enrollment topped 1,000 students for the first time in the college's history in 2006. The current student body at Greenville College contains over 1,500 students; most are from various Christian denominations. The college currently offers undergraduate degrees in over 50 different programs of study and graduate degrees in education.
Greenville also hosts a satellite center for Kaskaskia College, a community college headquartered in Centralia, Illinois.
In addition to its colleges, Greenville is home to Bond County Community Unit #2 High School (usually known as Greenville High School), home of the Comets. Since 2007, the Comets football team has appeared in the Final Four in the IHSA Class 3A state football playoffs five out of seven years: in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013. In 2007 they lost to Columbia, in 2011 they lost to Mount Carmel, and in both 2009 and 2012 they lost to Tolono Unity. The Comets' 2010 playoff run set many state records.
Students from the neighboring towns of Pocahontas and Sorento are part of Bond County School District #2 with Greenville students and attend high school in Greenville. One of these notable students was country singer Gretchen Wilson, who attended GHS but did not graduate.
Greenville Junior High, home of the Bluejays, and Greenville Elementary School, home of the Rockets, round out Greenville's local schools. Although it is referred to as a junior high, Greenville Junior High is now a middle school, with sixth through eighth grades. During the 2006 school year, Greenville Elementary was one of only 25 schools selected nationwide as a NASA Explorer school, a three-year partnership with NASA to promote math, science and space exploration. The 2010 Bluejays baseball team won second place in the Class 3A State Baseball championship, finishing the season with a 24-3 record.
In addition to long-running Greenville newspaper The Advocate, , Greenville's radio station WGEL covers local and county news. The station is a country music station with the tagline "The Best Country in the Country."
For 37 years, Greenville has been the site of the annual multi-day Agape Music Festival, or AgapeFest, a Christian music festival put on by Greenville College students - the only Christian music festival in the country run by students. The festival has hosted many of the most famous Christian bands, along with more mainstream acts like Owl City in 2013. The college announced its intention to move the festival to the Family Arena in St. Charles, Missouri for a one-day event in 2014 for the stated reason of appealing to new audiences, but the relocated event was instead cancelled due to low ticket sales the week before it was held. The Agape organizers announced that their intention for future years is to return the festival to its traditional home at the Bond County Fairgrounds.
In the past, Greenville has served as the annual host to the World Powered Parachute Championships as the "Chute-Out on the Prairie" at Greenville Airport. The first championship ever held was held in Greenville, which is home to some notable participants of the sport.
Greenville conducts the Bond County Fair every August. In 2008, the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Traveling Wall visited Greenville to coincide with the fair activities.
The Greenville Graffiti Car Show has been held downtown for the past three years and features a large car show with appearances by a nostalgic celebrity downtown. In 2013, Donna Douglas, who played Elly Mae Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies, was the celebrity, and in 2014 Greenville hosted actor James Best, who played Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.
Because of its central location in the country, and its position directly on Interstate 70, Greenville sees many visitors undertaking cross-country walks and bike rides. It serves as a time station for the Race Across America cross-country bike ride.
Greenville Municipal Airport is located 3 mi south of downtown at 38° 50′ 10″ N, 89° 22′ 42″ W. It has one of the closest skydiving centers to St. Louis, the Gateway Skydiving Center.
Governor Bond Lake, a 775-acre man-made lake named after the first governor of Illinois, Shadrach Bond, is near Greenville. It was built in the late 1960s to supply water to the city and is now also used for fishing, boating, camping and other recreational purposes. Greenville is 17 miles from the largest man-made lake in Illinois, Carlyle Lake, which is one of the most popular recreational areas in southern Illinois.
Greenville has an old-fashioned downtown, with murals and antique shops. The city is has been conducting a restoration project on the downtown murals.
A large stone and plaque placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution marks the location where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas gave speeches while running for the United States Senate in 1858. The city unsuccessfully applied for a grant from the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission to buy the property on South Fifth Street where Lincoln spoke and to create a small Lincoln park. A statue dedicated to county veterans of the Civil War was dedicated on the courthouse lawn in 1903; the courthouse lawn has a Veterans' Memorial in honor of all county veterans.
Many Sears Catalog Homes- houses made from kits bought from the Sears and Roebuck catalog- are dotted around the town.
Greenville College is home to the only museum dedicated to the sculptures of Richard Bock, who was an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright and designed many of the sculptures for Wright-designed homes.
Greenville also hosts the American Farm Heritage Museum and Hills Fort, a museum which aims to preserve agricultural history. The museum features exhibits of tractors and other farm-related memorabilia and holds multiple festivals a year. It held its third annual Heritage Days and was the largest Oliver Corp. equipment show in America in 2007, as the national Oliver show was held outside the US. In 2006, 500 tractors were on display for the event, and 5,000 people were in attendance. In 2008, the show was the site of the Cockshutt international equipment show. The AFHM also has a 15-inch-gage train going around it with approximately one mile of track.
In 2011, the St. Louis Armed Forces Museum, which had long been located in Alton, Illinois, relocated to the American Farm Heritage Museum, due to the Greenville museum's tourist traffic and visible location on Interstate 70.Ernest L. Boyer, former U.S. Commissioner of Education
Robert Briner, Emmy Award-winning television producer
Job Adams Cooper, sixth governor of Colorado
Gerald Greider, Wisconsin legislator
Phyllis Holmes, former basketball coach for Greenville College and the U.S. Olympics Team
Alfred Harrison Joy, astronomer
Enoch A. Holtwick, temperance activist and the Prohibition Party candidate for President in 1956
Edwin G. Krebs, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist
Herbert Lyle Mayfield, hybrid folk instrument designer and builder. Inventor of the guitalin. Also a writer, newspaper columnist, and Journeyman printer.
Tom Merritt, executive editor on the TWIT network
Henry Perrine, noted horticulturalist
Robert E. "Ish" Smith, president of the IBAF and the United States Baseball Federation, former president of Greenville College
Ron Stephens, formerly of the Illinois House of Representatives
Manuel Velazquez, anti-boxing activist
Frank Watson, longtime Republican Minority Leader of the Illinois Senate
Howard Zahniser, environmental activist, wrote the Wilderness Act of 1964