Wilmington Township. - The Kankakee River at Wilmington is one of the finest streams in the State or in the
whole West. The water, pure and clear, flows over a solid limestone bed, and this, with a rapid descent, tends
to purify the stream and the air, and render the surrounding country healthy in an eminent degree. Even the Indians,
who preceded the white people, realized fully the advantages of this neighborhood, and the relics of these original
owners of the soil are found here in abundance. Arrow and spear heads, stone axes, rude pottery and other articles
found upon the banks of the Kankakee, in this township, attest that this must have been a favorite dwelling place
as well as hunting ground. Not only so, but the fortifications, constructed of earth, on which now grow trees more
than two hundred years old, and of which the later race of Indians have not a tradition, points to an earlier race
of human beings, who not only made this their home, but defended it with all the skill and power at their command.
Doubt: less, prior to 1836, white men lived in the township of Wilmington. Even before the Black Hawk war, some
hunters may have made the banks of the Kankakee their headquarters. If such there were, their stay was but temporary,
those inhabiting the section before 1832 retiring, on the rising of Black Hawk and his allies, to safer localities,
and those coming in immediately after peace was restored making their stay so short as not to entitle them to the
credit of permanent settlers.
To Thomas Cox is justly due the honor of being the first permanent settler of this vicinity. In 1836, he laid claim
to all of the land on which the city of Wilmington now stands, laid out the town, calling it Winchester, erect
the first sawmill, built a house and disposed of a few town lots. He followed these improvements soon after with
the addition of a corn cracker to his saw mill, and still later by the erection at the upper end of the race, near
where Whitten's flour mill stands, of a grist mill and carding machine. These improvements gave the town a wide
reputation, and Cox's mills were patronized by many who lived more than fifty miles distant. The old pioneers of
Kankakee, Grundy, Livingston and other counties are wont to tell how they took their corn and wheat to the mill
at Wilmington, consuming, often, nearly a week in the trip. Having such a long distance to go, it became necessary
to wait for the grinding of the grain before their return; and, as the mill was frequently crowded, they were often
necessarily detained several days. The first mill was built without any bolting machinery; but, after a time, a
bolt, made to turn by hand, was constructed, and through this the patrons of the mill were allowed to sift their
own flour. Prior to the erection of the mill, tradition says there was an oak stump that stood near the site of
Stewart & Henderson's store, which was slightly hollowed out in the top. A spring pole was fixed in a suitable
position, and to the end of the pole was tied a bar, into the end of which was fastened an iron wedge, constituting
a heavy pestile. The stump was the mortar, into which was cast a small quantity of corn to be pounded and cracked
for bread and mush. While undergoing the pounding process, hot water was sometimes poured on, and while this prevented
the mashing of the grains, it facilitated the removal of the husk or bran, and a good article. of hominy was thereby
provided. This primitive machine is said to have been well patronized, and furnished food for the early pioneers.
Peter Stewart was a native of Scotland. When but a boy he left his home to seek employment and an independence
in a distant portion of the country. Without education, and with scarcely sufficient knowledge of the English language
to make his wants known, he went to England and succeeded in obtaining work in Lord Anglesea's garden, as a common
laborer. He was, however, under the superintendence of a scientific gardener, who was at the same time a practical
civil engineer, and from him he acquired a thorough knowledge of both branches by hard study after the day's work
was over. He, at the same time, became greatly interested in the study of botany, and finally became thoroughly
versed in the science. By industry and economy he saved sufficient to pay his passage to America. At the time of
his arrival in this country, the Erie Canal was being constructed, and this proved to be a favorable opening. His
knowledge of engineering soon gave him a paying position on these works, and when the excavation of his part of
the canal was done, he built the very first lock on the whole canal. He afterward obtained a number of large contracts
for building public works of various kinds, among which were the grading of the Schenectady & Utica Railroad
and the building of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During this time he was not unmindful of his less fortunate relatives,
whom he had left in the old country; and when he had accumulated means sufficient to warrant, went back and brought
over to the United States the balance of his father's family.
In 1835, partially to prospect in the interest of the Michigan & Illinois Canal enterprise, which was then
receiving attention from both the State and General Government, and partially to look at the land in its proposed
vicinity, he came to this neighborhood, selected a piece of land and returned to Amsterdam, N. Y., which had been
his home, and the next Spring emigrated to this place. Already he had performed the work of an ordinary life time,
but he was still a young man and his activity continued till his death; and to name all of the enterprises both
benevolent and business in which he had been engaged, would be to consume more space than the design of this work
will permit. One of his first works, after coming, was that of inspector of masonry of the Michigan & Illinois
Canal. He was a stanch Presbyterian, and contributed his means and influence to building up the society here, without
James L. Young, familiarly called the "Senator," came to the township in 1837, and settled near the junction
of the Kankakee and Des Planes Rivers, but subsequently removed to the village. He was a blacksmith, and swung
the sledge until, like Cincinnatus, he was called by his fellow citizens to take a more responsible position.
Hon. Archibald McIntyre was the first merchant in this vicinity. His store was located on the north side of the
creek, in Stewart's Addition. He was a most successful business man, and accumulated a large property. As indicated
by his title, he was a member of the Legislature, as representative from this district. He was a brother of the
McIntyre of the celebrated lottery firm of Yates & McIntyre, of Philadelphia. At the time of his death, he
was President of the First National Bank of this city. He was a native of New York, and came to this place in 1837.
Dr. A. W. Bowen, though not one of the very earliest inhabitants of this place, deserves mention here, as he
was interested here as early as 1838. The Doctor had been living in Joliet for four years when, at the date named,
he purchased of Cox a half interest in the site of Wilmington; and soon after, by a division of interests, became
sole proprietor of the north part of the original town.
Andrew Whitten came to this vicinity in 1840 from Canada, and engaged in the mercantile trade.
Franklin Mitchell was a native of Vermont, where he lived until 1836, when he came to Chicago. He stayed in Chicago
a few months, when he removed to Joliet and resided four years. In 1840, he came to Wilmington to take charge of
the Eagle Hotel, then the only one in the vilage. After remaining in charge of the house three years, he began
the erection of the "Exchange," which he completed and occupied the next year. Mitchell, as a landlord,
was a great success, and during his occupancy of the house, a space of twenty one years, the Exchange was counted
one of the best hotels in the state.
By the year 1846 - the closing of the first decade of the existence of the settlement, and which period may properly
be termed the pioneer period quite a number of persons had selected this township and village as a place of residence.
Among the number are remembered S. C. and J. C. Thompson, James Johnson, John L. Wilson, Henry and Robert Northam,
John R. Jones, Henry Bowen, John and Robert Lyon, John G. Putnam, Jonathan Barnatt and Peter McIntosh. The two
Thompsons were brothers, and were natives of Scotland. S. C. was a good blacksmith, and quite a successful man
in business. During the gold excitement which followed the acquisition by the United States of the Pacific Coast,
he went to California and stayed a couple of years. Soon after his return from the gold fields to this his adopted
home, he died.
City of Wilmington. - The village of Wilmington was laid out in 1836, and as this and its immediate vicinity was
the objective point toward which the early settlers naturally cast their eyes, the early history is necesasrily
embraced in that of the township. However, in 1854, having attained a population required by law, it was deemed
best by most of the leading citizens to organize the village as a separate corporation. It was argued that this
would give the village authority to build sidewalks, abate nuisances, control the liquor traffic, and perhaps,
obtain some revenue from the trade in the way of license, and numerous other advantages not enjoyed while merely
constituting a portion of the township. Therefore, a notice, signed by "Many Citizens," requesting the
residents and freeholders to meet at the schoolhouse on Saturday, the 24th day of June, to take into consideration
the incorporation of the town, was posted in various public places by S. W. Munn ten days before the date specified
in the notice. At the meeting, Peter Stewart was called to the chair, and James F. Alden was selected as clerk.
The advantages of incorporation were then argued pro and con (mostly pro), after which a vote was taken, resulting
in favor of organization 12 to 1. A day was then appointed for the election of a town board, and on the 3d day
of July the election took place. Of the election, Peter Stewart and James F. Allen occupied the position designated
at the primary meeting. Sixty three votes were cast, and D. W. Smead, J. D. Henderson, Samuel C. Thompson, J. A.
Seebor and James F. Alden were elected trustees; James L. Young was chosen clerk; Anthony Riker, street commissioner,
and Fred Wairath, constable. Thus was the incorporation of the village fully accomplished, and under this organization
it continued eleven years.
The early settlers of Wilmington, unlike the pioneers of most other localities, were religious people, and they
had but constructed a habitation, which barely sheltered them from the inclernencies of the weather, before they
began to take measures for the establishing of a house for the Lord. Like the ancient Israelites, they experienced
no trouble in worshiping God, even in the wilderness, and Peter Stewart's barn answered the purpose of a tabernacle.
In this barn, services were held, and, in 1838, two years after the first settler made his appearance in the vicinity,
in it was organized the Presbyterian Church.
At about the same date that the Presbyterian Church was organized, the Methodists began to hold religious services
here, and a class was formed, though the society was not organized as a separate charge until 1868. In 1840, a
small building, now used as a parsonage, was erected, and in this services were held until 1857, when their present
fine edifice was built. The building is a large, solid, stone structure, with basement, forty five feet in width
and ninety in length, and cost $15,000.