History of New Lenox Township, Will County Illinois
From: History of Will County, Illinois
By: August Maue
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis 1928

New Lenox Township. The name New Lenox was taken from Lenox, New York. The first supervisor under township organization was J. Van Dusen, and came from Lenox, New York, and when asked to name his township by the county commissioners, gave to it the name of his native town. Previous to that it was known as Van Home's Point, from a point of timber near the center of the town, and at a still earlier date it went by the name of Hickory Creek Settlement. Maple Street is a road running through the north part of the town from east and west, and was so named because the first settlers planted maple trees along the road.

In New Lenox Township was embraced the larger portion of what, in the early times, was termed the Hickory Creek Settlement a neighborhood celebrated for its hospitality.

New Lenox is known as Township 35 north, Range 11 east of the Third Principal Meridian and is well drained and watered by Hickory Creek and its North Fork. These streams, at the time of early settlement, were lined with fine forests, much of the timber of which has since been cut away. Perhaps one fourth of the town was timbered, while the remainder is prairie, much of it rolling, while some of it is so uneven as to be termed knolly. It is intersected by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, and the Joliet Cut-off of the Michigan Central, the history of which is given in another department of this work. The township is devoted almost entirely to farming and stock raising.. Corn and oats are the principal crops and are grown in abundance, while much attention is devoted to raising and feeding stock, of which large quantities are shipped from this section annually. Taken altogether, New Lenox is one of the wealthy towns of Will County. Its population, in 1870, was about 1,120 inhabitants.

The first whites to erect cabins in the Hickory Creek timber, were, probably, two men named, respectively, Joseph Brown and Aaron Friend, but of them very little is known. They were here as early as 1829, and Friend was a kind of Indian trader. He always had a rather rough set of French half breeds and Indians around him, and when the latter moved West to grow up with the country, he followed them. Chicagoans used to come down, and they would get up a ball at Friend's; and once upon a time, some young fellows from Chicago had their horses' tails shaved there. He went to Iowa after the retreating Indians, and died there, when his wife came back to Illinois, and went to live with her daughter, on what was then called Horse Creek. Of Brown, still less is known beyond the fact that he died here in the Fall of 1830. In 1830, the summer and fall preceding the deep snow, several newcomers settled on Hickory Creek. Of these, perhaps the Rices were the first, and came early in 1830. They were from Indiana, and consisted of William Rice, Sr., his son William, and their families. They laid claim to the place where William Gougar afterward settled. They built a log cabin on this place and had broken five acres of prairie, when John Gougar came on in the fall of 1830 and bought them out. After selling out to Gougar, they made a claim where the village of New Lenox now stands, put up a shanty, and, after a few years, moved out somewhere in the vicinity of the Town of Crete. In September, 1830, John Gougar came from Indiana and, as stated above, bought Rice's claim. A man named Grover had been hired by the elder Gougar to come out with his son and assist in preparing quarters for the family, who moved out the next June. William Gougar, Jr., another son lived within a mile of the village of New Lenox. He went to California during the gold fever of 1849-50, and remained about three years and a half, during which time he did reasonably well in the land of gold.

Lewis Kercheval came from Ohio and settled in this township, arriving on the 19th day of October, 1830. His wagon was the second that crossed the prairies south of this section of the country. In his trip to the new country, in which he designed making his future home, he had no way marks across the trackless prairies but his own natural judgment as to the direction of this promised land. The compass, then unknown, except to a favored few, he did not have, and thus was forced much of the time to travel by guess. Upon his arrival here, he erected a tent in which to shelter his family until he could build a house, or cabin, as the habitations of the early settlers were usually called. This tent was simply four posts driven in the ground, with slabs or puncheons laid across for a covering, and quilts hung around the sides. He cut logs in a short time, and raised a cabin when his wife and daughters, who were anxious for a more substantial house than the tent, "pitched in" and assisted the husband and father to "chink and daub" this primitive palace. Perhaps it did not deserve the name of palace, but it was their home in the wilderness, and as such, a palace to them. In two weeks from the time of their arrival, their house was ready and they moved into it. His first winter in the settlement was that of the "deep snow," the epoch from which the few survivors who remember it, date all important events. During the time this great fall of snow remained on the ground, and which was four feet deep on a level, he used to cut down trees, that his horses and cows might "browse" upon the tender twigs. With little else to feed his stock, from sleek, fat animals in the fall of the year, they came forth in the spring those that survived the winter nothing but "skin and bones." But it used to exhaust his wits to provide food for his family at all times during that first winter. Once they ran out of meal, and though he had sent to Chicago for a barrel of flour (the mode of communication with Chicago not then being equal to what it is at the present day), it was long in coming; and before its arrival the larder had got down to a few biscuits, laid aside for the smallest children. A daughter said her father declared if the flour did not come he would take as many of his children as he could carry on his back, and attempt to make the settlements, but good luck or Providence was on his side, and the barrel of flour came before they were reduced to this extremity.

Samuel Russell came from the Nutmeg State among the very early settlers, and bought land of Gurdon S. Hubbard, of Chicago. He settled in this township and lived here for a number of years. Judge John I. Davidson came out in the fall of 1830, and bought Friend's claim. He was originally from New Jersey, but had lived some time in Indiana, and after purchasing the claim of Friend, returned to Indiana, and removed his family to the settlement in the spring of 1831. He had two daughters, one of whom married a Mr. Thompson, who resided in the township until his death. The other married a Mr. H. N. Higginbotham, of Field & Leiter's, Chicago, who was the leader in the World's Fair of 1893, and a millionaire merchant. His son now resides on the old homestead (1928). Joseph Normal was from Indiana, and settled here in 1830, before John Gougar came to the settlement. He eventually returned to Indiana and died there many years ago. A man named Emmett was here during the winter of 1830-31, but where he came from, we do not know. He went off with the Mormon Prophets and Elders, and perhaps became one of their number. A man of the name of Buck also spent that winter here, and he, too, turned Mormon, and followed the elect to Nauvoo. The winter that Buck spent in this settlement, which was that of the deep snow, he had nothing in the way of bread during the entire winter except that made from two bushels of meal, and yet he had a wife and three children. He had two cows, one of which he killed for beef, hung her to the limb of a tree, and when he wanted meat, would take an ax and chop off a piece of the frozen cow. John Gougar gave him half a bushel of corn, which with his two bushels of meal and cow, was all that he is known to have had to keep his family during the winter. Gougar once found him during the spring in the woods gathering what he called "greens," and asked him if he was not afraid of being poisoned. He replied that one would act as an antidote to another. John Stitt was another Indianian, and settled here in 1831 or 1832. He moved to Missouri, where he died a few years ago, Colonel Sayre settled here probably about 1829, as he was here when John Gougar came, in 1830. He lived alone, and as he had few associations, living a kind of hermit life, little was known about him. He built a sawmill near where the Red Mills now stands in Joliet Township, though he lived in New Lenox Township. Mansfield Wheeler, who settled on Hickory Creek in 1833, went into partnership with him in this mill. This mill fell into disuse in 1890.

James C. Kercheval was a son of Lewis Kercheval, mentioned in an earlier part of this chapter. Though but a boy, he took part in the Black Hawk war until the settlers were forced to flee to the older settlements for safety. He died in 1873.

The Francis family, so closely associated with the early history of New Lenox, were of English stock which migrated to Ireland in 1690 and intermarried with Scotch people who had come into northern Ireland. In 1815, William Francis came to Ohio, Brown County, where he resided with his family until 1831. In that year Abraham Francis married and moved to New Lenox Township. Taking up land in sections 9 and 16, much of which is still owned by the descendants, grandsons and granddaughters of Abraham Francis.

Four sons, Allen, John, Charles, and George L., resided on one road with farms joining. Here they reared their families. Only one, George L. Francis, remains at this writing (1928). He is a leader in his community, a farmer who uses latest and best methods. He resides on the farm which he has owned for so many years.

Henry Watkins, father of the pioneer school teacher, came from New York and settled in New Lenox Township in the fall of 1831, where he lived until his death, about fifteen years ago. Of others who settled on Hickory Creek at a very early period, we may mention Michael and Jared Runyon, Isaac and Samuel Pence, Joseph, Alfred and James Johnson, and Henry Higginbotham. Higginbotham bought out Colonel Sayre in 1834, and the sawmill firm before alluded to became Wheeler & Higginbotham. The Johnsons settled near the line of Yankee Settlement, on Spring Creek. The Pences and Runyons were among the very early settlers. The Fences were in the settlement before the Sac war, but the exact date of their coming is not remembered.

As stated in the beginning of this chapter, settlements were made on Hickory Creek as early as 1829, which were among the first made in Will County, perhaps Plainfield, or Walker's Grove having a little the precedence. As a natural consequence of this early settlement, births, deaths, and marriages occurred here at an early period. The death of Mr. Brown, mentioned as one of the first settlers on the creek, who died in the fall of 1830, was the first death in this township, and is supposed to be the first person who died in Will County. The first white child born in New Lenox Township, and perhaps in the county, was Elizabeth Norman, born in January, 1832, and Margaret Louisa Cooper, nee Francis, was the next child born in the township, and was born the 3d of January, 1834. The first practicing physician in the Hickory Creek Settlement was Dr. Bowen, now of Wilmington, and the first preacher was Father Beggs, or Rev. Mr. Prentiss, who located in Joliet in an early day. We are informed by A. Allen Francis who derived the information from the man himself that Joseph Shoemaker was the first settler in what now comprises Will County, probably arriving in the spring of 1828, in what is now known as Reed's Grove, in the township of Jackson. We have it from Mr Francis, also, thatt he first marriage in the county was that of Jedediah Woolley, Jr., of Troy Township, to Betsy Watkins, daughter of Henry Watkins, of New Lenox Township, January, 1832; and that Father Walker preached the first sermon, in 1832, in the fort or blockhouse, and Stephen Beggs, the second.

The first mill built by Joseph Norman, on Hickory Creek, about 1833 or 1834. Colonel Sayre's mill was built previously, but was just over in Joliet Township. The first bridge was built across Hickory Creek, near John Gougar's. It was built of logs, and was a rough affair.

The Village of New Lenox. This pretty little village is situated on the banks of Hickory Creek and on the Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, thirty three miles from Chicago, and about six miles from Joliet. It is surounded by a beautiful grove of timber, and grand old forest trees shade it in summer and protect it against the storms of winter. The village of New Lenox was laid out in 1858 by George Gaylord, of Lockport, and surveyed by A. J. Mathewson, county surveyor. The village is known on the original plat by the name of Tracy, and was given in honor of the general superintendent of the railroad at the time of the laying out of the village. But with a modesty rarely met with in the present day, he shrank from such notoriety, and at his urgent request, the name was changed to New Lenox, to correspond with the name of the township. A man of the name of Robinson built the first residence in the village, and Van Horne put up the next one. Both of these were built before the village was laid out.

The village of Spencer is situated on the Cut-off Division of the Michigan Central Railroad, about nine miles from Joliet, and is two miles from New Lenox village. It was surveyed by A. J. Mathewson, county surveyor, for Frank Goodspeed and Albert Mudge, who owned the land on which it is located. It was laid out in 1856, about the time the railroad was built through this section. The first storehouse erected in the place was the one occupied by Russel Kennedy in 1856, the same year the village was laid out. The postoffice was established in 1857, and James Holmes was appointed postmaster. The first grain elevator was built in 1857 by the railroad company, and, on its completion, was dedicated by a rousing ball, in which the boys and girls of the surrounding country participated to their entire satisfaction. In 1875, H. S. Carpenter built another large elevators, and this, likewise, was similarly dedicated.

New Lenox Township contains one village, New Lenox, which is almost in the exact center of the township. Three railroads intersect at this point, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, the Wabash Railroad, and the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railroad. This grouping of railroads would indicate that the village might have developed more rapidly than it did. It remained stationary up to 1923 when some indications of growth began. The facilities for getting in and out of Chicago over the Rock Island road induced many Chicago people to build homes there. This rapid growth continues at the present time and following the electrification of the Rock Island road commuters have become more common.

The following people operated general stores in the village: Archie Corp, Charles F. Garman, H. H. Sabin. Grocery stores are maintained by George Osmus, and George C. Peterson. William Moore and Son operate a garage. The Garman Brothers also operate an oil station which does a good business. The New Lenox State Bank was organized in 1927 and began business in that year in a commodious bank building. It has had a prosperous year. Hacker and Company established a lumber yard during the summer of 1928.

New Lenox was for many years the mecca of all Methodists in this part of the state because it maintained one of the best camp meetings in the state. The coming of good roads and automobiles together with the rapid spread of daily papers through rural delivery and then finally the coming of the radio made it difficult to secure attendance at the camp meetings. Four years ago the old fashioned camp meeting was abandoned. Since that time the Methodist organization has maintained the Epworth League Institute for young people. This institute is doing good work but does not have a large attendance.

New Lenox has always maintained good school facilities. A new building is just being completed which includes three class rooms and a commodious gymnasium. The people are united in their desire for good schools and support them heartily.

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