Oral and written history asserts that the family of Allen Peyton Nance settled in about 1845 in the area that is now west cental Marshall County and established the community known as Oak Level.
Lemon’s Handbook of Marshall County, published in 1895, describes the community, then about 50 years old, as “a good country business point, surrounded by a clever, hard-working, honest character of people.”
It had, according to Lemon’s, “two churches, a Christian and a Methodist, one school house, one general store, one drug store, two blacksmith and wagon shops, one steam mill, one minister, and two physicians.”
One of its more distinguished citizens was T.F. Harrison, who moved to the area with his family in 1845 from North Carolina. Harrison obtained a certificate as a school teacher and combined farming and teaching for many years. He later added duties as county surveyor and minister, and also conducted Confederate Veterans reunions at the Soldier Creek Association.
The community’s name is a bit of a mystery. Oak Level had, and still does have, oak trees. But one thing it never did have is flat land that could be confused with the tabletop-like terrain of, for example, much of central Illinois.
“There’s not much ‘level’ to it,” says native Bob Gatlin. There’s a flat spot, but you have to go up a hill to get to it.”
Nor does it retain much of the prosperity of the 1895 description. While it has added a Baptist church, it no longer has the services of any of the general stores, grocery stores and shops that once served the community.
The last of the retail establishments, Oak Hill Market, closed down years ago, although the building still stands and a sign still hangs from a pole.
Gatlin, at 87, is much younger than the 169-year-old community. But he has seen much of the decline, from the time when his father was running one of those stores.
“When I was small, stores like that was kind of a gathering place,” he said. “They sold everything, not just groceries.”
At one time, he said, there were three stores, a post office, a mill and a blacksmith shop.
“One of the stores, Robbins’, had a broom factory in the back,” he said.
The Methodist church now occupies the site, at the intersection with Arant Road, where the broom factory was.
Nelle Riley, another long-time resident, remembers when stores owned by Franklin Swift and Raymond Houser served the community’s residents.
“Oak Level School is still there,” she said. It has been converted into a residence.
Mrs. Riley remembers playing with children in the community.
“Most everybody was a farmer,” she said. “I went to Benton to the movies, and there were always different things going on in church.”
There was an old-fashioned telephone switchboard, with operators such as Mrs. Ida Carper and a man called “Uncle Duck.”
“I don’t know what his last name was,” Gatlin said.
Gatlin attended Oak Level School in the elementary grades.
He went one year to Brewers High School, and then graduated from Benton High School.
“I left here when I got out of high school,” he said. “Went in the service.”
Later, he worked in Peoria, Ill.; Detroit; and Louisville, before returning to Marshall County in 1967.
He went to work at the PennSalt plant in Calvert City in 1967, and after retiring from that company, he raised cattle on his land in Oak Level.
He sold the cattle about seven years ago.
He remarked on the change he has seen, from his childhood days and even since 1967, when he returned.
“It just ain’t Oak Level any more,” he said.
“But it’s still a nice place to live.”