Pioneer Days in Eastern Will County Illinois
From: History of Will County, Illinois
By: August Maue
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis 1928

"Pioneer Days in Eastern Will County." - By E. P. Farrell.

Born in one of the pioneer farm houses near the big timber one mile west of Crete, my earliest recollections bring to mind big snows, howling wolves, long winters, and delightful summers. This was about three score and ten years ago. At that time the great fertile sheet of untouched prairie land lying between the Indiana state line and the Illinois Central right of way, bounded on the north by Cook County and the timber line, and on the south by the Kankakee River, was a sight once seen, never to be forgotten.

Here upon the prairie and in the bordering timber were wolves, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and now and then a stray deer, wildcat or bear, the latter generally a rambler from the Michigan woods. Nor would I forget the beautiful striped "kitty" who nightly sought the hen roosts and made his presence known by a strong pungent odor on the night air. These animals were either trapped or shot, some for food but the greater number for their pelts.

On the prairie was the home and feeding ground of tens of thousands of wild geese, ducks, brants, cranes, plovers, quail, and prairie chicken. For a number of years early settlers lived well on wild game. One could stand by his cabin door and shoot to his heart's delight. Not only did the ducks and geese furnish food in abundance but every settler gloried in huge feather beds and fluffy pillows filled with the choicest of feathers. Mother had six of these beds, all from wild feathers.

The prairie rattlesnake was found in many places and was to be feared. He was no respector of either man or animal. His bite was quickly followed by copious doses from some neighborly whiskey jug. If the victim survived the drink he got well; if not, he died of the snake bite.

The section referred to above was practically unsettled. As far as the eye could see there was naught but great billows of waving prairie grass as the soft winds swept over the bosom of this virgin region. Here and there could be seen beautiful patches of prairie flowers sentineled by an imposing array of tall gumweeds. These gum stalks were as provident to us children in that day as the Wrigley building is today to those who are members of the worlds great gum chewing brigade. In early fall we trooped across the prairie snapping the tops of the stalks that the sap might ooze out, and in about ten days return to pick, masticate and pack our winter's supply of chewing gum. This was generally packed in empty wooden pill boxes.

As to industries in the home, everything was hand made at home. Mother had her spinning wheel and her loom spinning, weaving and tailoring was a home industry. Once a year cheese was made in the old washboiler, and how the children of that day looked forward to eating some of the thick curd caused by the cooking process. For lights the candle moulds were gotten out in early fall and dozens and dozens of candles were made that we might have lights during the long winter hours.

The winters in the early sixties were very severe and the snow falls heavy. Coal and patent heating plants were unknown. It was go to the woods and bring home your fuel. So severe was one winter that stock was known to freeze while in their stalls. Men went out and brought in whole coveys of quail and prairie chickens frozen stiff. Women went about their house work with heavy woolen shawls tightly drawn over their shoulders while men sucked away with a vengeance at their corn cob pipes trying to keep ice from forming on the end of their noses. By the way, tobacco came packed in barrels, and was not made of cabbage leaves and beet tops.

Modern labor saving implements had not appeared. It was cradle your grain and scythe your grass. The old water jug always went along with the scythe, and how refreshing the water was. To take a drink one inserted his two first fingers of the left hand in the handle of the jug, swung the jug on to the elbow, raised it skyward, and no sweeter music was ever heard than the gurgle of that water as it went out of the jug and down a parched throat. The old fashioned flail is now a rare curiosity. Right well do I remember a terrific whack I received on my head while trying to handle this crude threshing machine. Farmers were up before daylight and often labored long into the night.

After the close of the civil war, shanties began to appear here and there, and during the seventies the last open section of land was occupied and worked. This section was in the central southern part of Will Township and was owned by Conrad Tatge, once county clerk. Before the sections were closed stock had the choicest of grazing and the farmer had his pick of the richest grass for winter feed. In that early day a queer custom developed. Any settler could go out into the open spaces in early summer, select and cut around the grass he desired for later use. There was an unwritten law kept sacred among early settlers that the grass chosen belonged to the one making the mark around it. That law was never violated and can be held up today in strong contrast with the laws written and never kept. As grain was hard to market and the price low, farmers took to stock raising. As the grazing ground disappeared the herder appeared. His business was to round up early in the spring, all the young stock into one great herd, drive it down into the big swamp lands near Momence and there let them graze until frost demanded that they be driven home. The total cost per head for the entire season was one dollar and twenty five cents. The cattle came home in good condition, were grain fed for about two months and then shipped to Chicago to market. East of Peotone in 1871, some of the best prairie farm land in Illinois could be bought at sixteen dollars per acre. Within the last few years some of this land has sold under the auctioneer's hammer at two hundred and fifty dollars per acre.

Referring back to the early days, the prairie was dotted with numerous ponds and sloughs, the home of millions of mosquitoes. Malaria and ague combined made life for many scarcely worth the living. However, soon there came a wonderful remedy in the shape of tile draining. Under it the ponds disappeared, sloughs became rich farm land and ague and its attendant evils were destroyed. Upland prairie hay, that choice food for stock, is known in Northern Illinois no more. Yet, at one time a companion and myself standing on a small elevation East of Peotone counted over two hundred large stacks of this choice hay, all cut from land that had never known a plow.

Eastern Will County was first settled by the pioneering Yankees. A little later came English, German, and Irish settlers, the Germans finally outnumbering all other nationalities, and today their descendants are there, wealthy, law abiding, staunch American citizens. Crete was where the first torch of civilization flared forth in Eastern Will County. Here came the hardy Easterner after a long tedious journey by ox and covered wagon, and here he and his posterity remained and are known to this day.

In 1869, Peotone was a little one street station. Its chief attraction was saloons, beer kegs, flies, and mosquitoes. A grain market was established and the farmer began hauling his products to town. Soon however, he discovered that when the grain was delivered the driver oftimes proceeded to get gloriously drunk. This fact soon changed a lot of the marketing to other points. Then, all at once like a flash of lightning from a clear sky, came a temperance wave into Peotone. City election followed close, and upon count of the ballots cast a majority of one was found in favor of temperance. That ballot was the magic wand that brought forth a new Era. During the seven following years, filth, degradation, and pauperism disappeared. The people became inspired with a new and higher idea. Their great aim was to make a model city out of their home town. This was accomplished, for today there is not a city in Illinois of like population that ranks higher in schools, churches, fine buildings, and staunch and worthy citizens. Who has not heard of Peotone, the spotless town? To be a resident of Peotone gives one a high class rating throughout the length and breadth of Illinois.

Another early attraction, long since torn down, was the tall towers erected at the time Illinois was being surveyed. One stood south of Monee, another in Washington Township, one in Green Garden Township, and a fourth near Manteno. The old Dutch wind mills, one in Monee, one near Washington, one in Bremen, and one in Peotone, were visible for miles around. The one in Peotone, minus its long arms, is still grinding away but under a new power. These mills were of Holland type and their giant wings revolving in the sky seemed to be living factors beckoning civilization to the rich prairie lands of Eastern Will County. The towers, the grist mills, and the early settlers are no more, but some of the progeny of those hardy pioneers still live, an honor to their parentage and the county in which they live.

Although much is left unwritten, yet I would not close this article without paying tribute to the "boys in blue" who rushed to the defense of our flag in '61. Every cemetery in Eastern Will County contains honored graves where sleep these valiant ones. Others died amid the horrors of Andersonville, and other southern prisons. Those that came home helped to develop the country ere they too laid aside life's burden. The once strong G. A. It Post at Peotone is no more. In all reverence let us uncover as the flag rests at half mast.


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