Early Merchants of Vermilion County, Il
From: History of Vermilion County, Illinois
By: Lottie E. Jones
Pioneer Publishing Company
Chicago 1911


The first mercantile ventures made in Vermilion County were those with the Indians. It is impossible to get the exact date of the first trading with the Indians, since there is no record of such transactions, and the memory of any living man is of little worth, because there is no man alive today who could possibly know of this time. All such transactions antedate the experience of the grandfathers of the man of active life in Vermilion County now.

There is no known fact by which this date can be estimated. The vague statements of early writers give the assurance of these traders but put no time of their trading at this point. The tales told to Col. Vance and Gurdon Hubbard by the Indians in the 'twenties were of the white men who bought their furs, but they did not make an effort to locate the time of the trade, or if they did, no record was kept of it.

These traders came on their own account long before the American Fur Company saw the wealth in fur along the waters of the Little Vermilion. At least it is reasonable to assume such to be the case. And it is a matter of record that the American Fur Company whose headquarters were at Macanaw, had agents in this region as early as the first years of the last quarter of the 18th century, and probably at an earlier date than that. True, there were no storehouses in the territory now Vermilion. County, but a white man's instinct to get that which was of value to his red skinned brother, would show him a way to keep the skins of the desired animal when he found them as abundant as they were in this locality. The timber along the Vermilion was productive of a variety of fur bearing animals, even after the coming of the first settlers, and the hunters through the wilderness of eastern Illinois and western Indiana finding this wealth, if not exactly trading themselves, directed the disposition of the furs to the nearest or most accessible trading post.

The American Fur Company early established a trade through the Illinois country with stations or posts in the eastern part along the Iroquois, the Embarass and the Little Wabash. Their agents made a business of following the Indians in their hunting grounds, and in this way learned their habits, and their characteristics while they secured their trade. Gurdon S. Hubbard was agent for the American Fur Company, succeeding Antonin Des Champs in this territory in 1824. Antonin Des Champs had had charge of the interests of the company in the trade of the company for about forty years in the territory between the Illinois and Wabash rivers. This takes the record of trade in this section back to about 1785, or thirty five years before the coming of the white settler to the location of Vermilion County. Des Champs was in charge of the territory until five years after small settlements had been made at the salt works, at Brook's Point, at Butler's Point and along the Little Vermilion.

When Mr. Hubbard took charge of this territory, he abandoned the posts on the Illinois, and no longer carried the trade by water, but introduced pack borses. The trail from Chicago to the salt works which he established was called Hubbard "Trace," and was followed for many years as the most direct road from Chicago to Vincennes, Indiana. This Hubbard Trace was the foundation of one of the most direct railroads in the state connecting Chicago and the Ohio river.

In 1827 Gurdon S. Hubbard abandoned the posts on the Embarass and Little Wabash, and put up the first frame building ever constructed in Vermilion County for a storehouse, which became the headquarters for the Indian fur trade in this part of the country. This trade was extensive and demanded the employment of several clerks. He brought three Frenchmen with him, two of whom married daughters of prominent early settlers. These men were Noel Vassar, Nicholas Boilvin and Toussaint Bleau. Nicholas Boilvin married a daughter of D. Woods, and Toussaint Bleau married a daughter of Dr. A. R. Palmer. Samuel Russell and William Bandy were both clerks at this trading house.

During the five years this trading house was in operation, the Indians would file into town on their ponies in large numbers with their furs, which they exchanged for white flour, meat and other luxuries, as well as the trinkets they loved so well. They brought their squaws and papooses with them, and would camp on the bluff near the foot of Walnut street or a little further east on the same bluff, where they would feast and enjoy themselves for several days before again taking up their march whence they came.

In 1832 Mr. Hubbard found that the Indian trade had declined to such proportions that it would be advisable to convert his stock into one that would better suit the increased white population. The fur bearing animals had become scarce, and the Indian himself had been dispersed to such an extent, although it was not until six years later that the Pottawotomies were officially moved to beyond the Missisippi river. Hubbard had N. D. Palmer as his partner in his store, and the prospect for trade was good. He, however, became desirous of developing the swamp lands in which he had invested near Lake Michigan, and the same year that he made the change in his stock, he sold the store to Dr. Fithian. The building, which itself was worth a place in the history of Vermilion County because it was the first frame house built in the county, was on the south side of the public square on the east corner and remained standing many years. A less pretentious mercantile venture than that of Hubbard's was made by Dan Beckwith in 1821 near Denmark. He, with his brother George, came to the salt springs in 1809, and two years later is known to have had a few goods suitable for Indian barter, which he kept in a place partly excavated in the side of a hill at Denmark. A little later he moved to Danville and built a log cabin on the brow of the hill on Main street near Logan avenue. His later storeroom was located at the west end of the original Main street of Danville at the point where there is a turn in the street. He had as a partner one James Clyman who is described as a typical frontiersman in buckskin leggins, hunting shirt and coonskin cap. Restless, as all of his kind were, he went on to the west as soon as the white man came here to make settlements.

Benjamin Canaday was the first merchant in the southern part of the county. He, with his father and three brothers, came to the Little Vermilion to settle in the fall of 1821. He was a tinner by trade, and during the winter of the deep snow, made up a stock of tinware and took it to Louisville, where he traded it for goods. This stock of general merchandise he brought back with him and sold to the neighbors. In 1831 he went to Georgetown, and with the Haworths began the mencantile interests of that place. He became the man of largest mercantile interests in that prosperous village. This was in 1830. Mr. Canaday remained in business with Mr. Haworth for a time when he sold out and formed a partnership with Mr. Abraham Frazier. After a time, however, he sold the store to Dr. Gillaspie, who came from Tennessee, and Mr. Canaday remained in the store. He continued in the mercantile interests for a long time until he amassed a fortune. He was the leading merchant of Georgetown for many years. Mr. Canaday was a public spirited man and was always found in all the enterprises tending to advance Georgetown. He built the brick store that was such a pride to the community and in which his successors in business were to be found during their term of mercantile life. Dr. Gillaspie continued in business for some time, but at last went west.

Abraham Frazier was the one of that name who began the career of the family in the mercantile life in Georgetown. He was a tanner by trade, but went into the mercantile line and kept to that the rest of his life. His brother Abner came from Tennessee and began to farm, but gave it up to clerk in his brother's store. After a while he married, however, and went back to the farm. His sons were interested in mercantile matters and took the store continuing the name of Frazier in the interests of trade in Georgetown, and handing it down to yet another generation. Georgetown without a Frazier's store would be a strange place.

James Shannon was a merchant at an early clay, but met a most distressing death from accident which ended his efforts in mercantile lines. Among the other men who were merchants in Georgetown at an early time, the names of Elam Henderson, Jacob Yapp, Joseph Bailey, Mr. G. W. Holloway, Richie and the Cowans are conspicuous. The merchants of Georgetown have had first attention since that was the chief interest of the section in the early days. Before Danville was of any worth as a trading point, Georgetown was a flourishing village, and the mercantile interest was better cared for in that place than in any other in the county. During those days trade was dependent upon the best means of transportation, and that was, of course, waterways. Produce went down the Vermilion, the Wabash and Ohio rivers to the Mississippi river, and needed articles came either back that way or came from Cincinnati down the Ohio and up the Wabash to Perrysville, Indiana, whence it was hauled in wagons. A regular line of steamboats were going from Cincinnati to Perrysville in the 'thirties. Perrysville was the distributing point for the entire section of Illinois to the north and to the west. Later the Wabash Railroad was finished as far west as State Line, and goods were hauled from that point. Sometimes these goods came to Covington by way of the canal and were hauled thence to Danville or Georgetown, but by this time trade in Danville was improving.

Indianola was the center of an attempt at establishing trade in 1837. Mr. Atkinson built a store; that is, he built a log house with a frame addition, and kept some goods for sale. This was not a good time to make any business venture and his failure was to be expected. Mr. Atkinson, too, was not fitted to carry on trade as was the custom at that time. Twelve months' time was the rule with merchants, and no one expected any less. There was no crop which would bring money until about Christmas. Some would carry their produce to Chicago for sale, but it was to exchange for some goods needed in the family, and no money exchanged hands. No one bought cattle or hogs until fall, and it was usually not until mid winter that any one had any money to spend in paying bills at the store or the shop before that time. John Williams kept a general store for a while and Mr. O'Bryant added a stock of harness, saddlery and clothing. John Gilgis came here in 1842 and began selling goods. Samuel Sconce came here about this time and really was the first to work up a large mercantile trade. He had been in this part of the country since 1831 and came to Indianola at this time from the farm which had become his son James'. Mr. Sconce had Mr. Joseph Bailey as his partner and also Mr. Gilgis. Mr. Bailey retired in 1857. During the business transactions of Bailey, Sconce & Co., it was no uncommon day's work to sell $500 worth of goods. Having noted the condition of trade in the southern part of the county in the days when yet Danville had no greater, and indeed not so great, facilities for the profitable exchange of products of the soil for articles needed for the house, it is well to take a look at the town northwest, on the north fork of the Big Vermilion, whose prospects were more flattering than even these more southern villages, in the first years of county life.

Denmark was the coming town at the time of the location of the county seat, and it was a hopeful competitor to the town at the mouth of the North Fork, that at this time never had been. Denmark could boast a mill, while yet Danville was going to Paris, or seeking grist at her doors. Seymour Treat built this mill in 1829 or 1830. Even before this, Dan Beckwith had a trader's handful of goods under the bluff at Denmark, and trade had begun long before he had offered the land to the commissioners, who were locating a county seat. After the mill was started, a considerable settlement followed, and soon two dry goods stores were opened. One belonged to Alexander Bailey, and the other belonged to Stebbins Jennings. The former was the first started in business. Mr. Bailey became a man of influence, attaining much prominence. Mr. Jennings was a good business man as well, and perhaps of a more practical turn. He took a leading position in Denmark, and was freely entrusted with matters of responsibility.

James Skinner was another early merchant of Denmark. Together with William McMillan, he bought the Treat mill. It is said by some that he opened the first inn. However that might have been, he was comparatively among the later corners to Denmark, and was by no means the earliest merchant in this early settled village. Mr. McMillan came about the latter part of 1832. Others had made the venture in mercantile work long before this time. John Williams kept a general store and also John Hunt. Returning to Danville, to note further the early mercantile interests. The storeroom built by George Haworth in 1827 was on the corner now covered by the Daniel building. This is the northwest corner of the plaza and has always been a favorite site for buildings and keeping store. This store was built by George Haworth and was made of huge logs nicely hewn, and was two stories high, and took all the men in the country around to raise it. It was also provided with defensive portholes above and below. It was in the eastern end of this formidable barracks that Gurdon Hubbard had his stock of goods for trade with the Indians. This building stood for twenty years, when Adams & Co. put up a two story frame building on the site of this, but it soon burned. Mr. Bateman was a merchant in a portion of this building when it burned, and he soon after bought the lot and put up the one story brick building in 1855. This building stood until the present handsome Daniel building was put up on the lot. This was the first corner occupied for mercantile purposes in Danvile, and has always been a popular corner.

The first store in Myersville, that once important village, was built and the store opened by William and Andrew Zeigler, of Attica, Indiana. This firm sold the first goods north of Danville, excepting in Denmark. Dyersville was well located for trade, particularly after the Wabash Railroad made State Line city its western terminus. This firm was succeeded by William Biggs, and he in turn was bought out by Green & Gundy (Joseph Gundy) in the spring of 1852. Early in 1854 Andrew Gundy took charge of the business previously carried on under the firm name of Green & Gundy, and thereafter conducted it in his own name. In the year 1857 he did a business of $36,000, retailing these goods from the store. He carried on his private business of buying and selling wool and the feeding of cattle and hogs, but this was not included in the amount named for the sales of the store. People came here from the distance of seventy miles to trade and have their milling done.

Bismark had a store before it became a town. Robert Kerr built the room and began to sell goods, but was succeeded by John Leonard and then by Asa Bushnell. Mr. Bushnell bought out Mr. Leonard, and then went into partnership with Francis Gundy. They put up a nice building, and for a long time kept a general store. Green & Phillips kept a grocery and provision store for two years and were succeeded by Phillips Bros.

Rossville, Hoopeston, even Collison and Ridge Farm, as well as other towns and cities in the county which could be mentioned, were not without their mercantile interests, but their first efforts came so late in the years of the life of Vermilion County that they would be out of place in this resume of the first mercantile interests in the county.

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