Tag Archives: stagecoach

Stagecoach taverns spurred Kendall County’s growth

While Kendall County was home to several small motels during the 20th Century, the construction of larger facilities like Holiday and Hampton inns didn’t start until the last population surge in the 1990s.

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Oswego’s stately National Hotel (with pillars above) was the village’s premier hotel during its time as the Kendall County Seat. The National was destroyed by fire in February 1867. (Little White School Museum collection)

Time was, of course, every village in the county had at least one hotel, and sometimes more. Oswego, during the years it was the Kendall County Seat, had three hotels, the National Hotel, the Smith House, and the Kendall House.

Hotels and taverns were once vital to Kendall County’s growth—and by “tavern” I’m using the old definition of the word synonymous with inn. Today, a tavern is a place that sells alcoholic beverages, but in Kendall County of the 1820s and 1830s, taverns were places where weary travelers could rest for the evening, buy a meal while on the road, or both. In addition, taverns sometimes played the role of courthouse, church, and community meeting hall—not to mention polling place.

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The National wasn’t just a hotel; it was also a community meeting place. And when the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845, the first term of the circuit court was held there. (Little White School Museum collection)

Typical stagecoach-era tavern fare for supper included bread, butter, potatoes and fried pork washed down by strong coffee, cider, wine, rum, brandy or whiskey. Breakfast was good old American bacon and eggs with corn bread and more coffee. Sleeping accommodations were generally in one large room—privacy was one of the casualties of travel in the 1830s—usually with more than one traveler per bed.

Lodging in the area west of Chicago often cost 12-1/2 cents a night, with 25 cents charged for combined supper and breakfast. Dinner—served at noon—was often 50 cents.

The county’s first inn was established on a road that was both old and new. In 1831, the High Prairie Trail from Chicago to Ottawa was laid out by state officials as both northern Illinois’ newest official road and one of its most established Indian trails. The road started at the shore of Lake Michigan near the muddy banks of the Chicago River and extended almost due west to the ford across the Des Plaines River—no bridges in those days, either—at modern Riverside. From there, the road headed west to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement at the DuPage River ford (now Naperville) before turning southwest towards Walker’s Grove—modern Plainfield. Leaving Plainfield, the trail passed into modern Kendall County, crossing the prairie to the tiny cluster of cabins at the southern-most point of a grove of towering black walnut trees before continuing on to Ottawa.

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John Short built and then operated the Bristol House for many years as both innkeeper and postmaster of the village of Bristol–now the north side of Yorkville. It was a typical example of a larger village stagecoach inn. (Engraving from an Ambrotype on Lyman Bennett’s 1859 map of Kendall County)

In 1826, Robert Beresford, his wife, and his two sons made a small, lonely claim on the verge of that walnut grove just east of the Fox River. It was the only farm on the 60 miles of prairie between Ottawa and Chicago. Within a year or so, three more families settled near the Beresfords. In 1828, Beresford sold his claim to John Dougherty and moved south to Ottawa—and civilization—but the area the county’s first pioneer settled remained known as “Beresford’s” for some years thereafter.

Abraham Holderman arrived in Kendall County about 1831, and quickly realized the possibilities offered by the grove Beresford had claimed. In succeeding years, he bought out most of the earliest settlers in an around the grove, which became forever after known as Holderman’s Grove. In addition, Holderman opened a small tavern to serve travelers on the Ottawa road.

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Daniel Platt replaced his first log tavern in 1842 with this substantial inn built with native limestone. (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1833, Daniel Platt and his wife arrived from New York State (his ancestors had founded Plattsburg), and quickly determined the road from Chicago to Ottawa offered commercial possibilities. The Platts purchased the claim of the Rev. William See, a Methodist minister who had staked out a claim at was called the Aux Sable Springs between Walker’s and Holderman’s groves. The artesian springs provided a ready source of pure water, and the Platts soon had a tavern up and running to serve travelers on Dr. John Temple’s new stagecoach line from Chicago to Ottawa.

That same year, the Hills brothers, Eben and Levi, and their families arrived and settled near Holderman’s claim. In 1835, Levi Hills rented Holderman’s tavern and 100 acres of land. He then re-let the land to another farmer and proceeded to use log rollers and yokes of oxen to move the log tavern up the road towards Platt’s tavern onto what was then bare prairie (another tavern-keeper began a new establishment at Holderman’s Grove). Today, the site Hills picked for the new location of his tavern is the village of Lisbon.

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Moses Inscho built this fine three-story brick stagecoach tavern on the Chicago to Galena Road in the Kendall County hamlet of Little Rock. It became known as the Buck Tavern after its best-known innkeeper, Ephraim Buck. (Author’s photo)

Other, less-busy, routes were also fodder for the tavern trade. In what would one day become Seward Township, Alanson Milks started a tavern about 1836 where the road between Joliet and Lisbon crossed Au Sable Creek. In 1839, Jacob Patrick arrived in Seward Township and purchased Milks’ tavern, renaming it the Patrick Stand. Shortly thereafter, John Case Stevens bought the business, and renamed it the Wolf Tavern, using a stuffed prairie wolf as his tavern sign to the bemusement of travelers.

In 1838, 20 year-old Decolia Towle arrived in Oswego and established a tavern on the bluff overlooking Waubonsie Creek about where the Oswego Public Library is located today. Towle and his first wife, Elizabeth, operated the tavern until her death in June 1842. Towle continued as an innkeeper until his own death in 1847.

Kendall County’s early taverns were sometimes the precursors to settlements that grew up around them—Platt’s and Hills’ taverns are good examples—and they provided the offices for the county’s first mail service. The county’s first post office, in fact, was established in Holderman’s tavern at Holderman’s Grove in April 1834.

The tavern business continued strong in Kendall County until the advent of railroads and the disappearance of stagecoaches started its decline in the early 1850s.

These days, we’ve seen history make one of its periodic circles as the importance of highway travel has once more made new hotels attractive business opportunities in Kendall County.

 

 

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Filed under Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

Main Street isn’t always a main street…

As I suggested in my last post, Oswego’s downtown business district is located on Main Street, a pretty American sort of thing for a town. But there are a surprising number of towns, large and small, where the main business district is not located on Main Street—supposing they have a Main Street at all.

Main Street–now East Galena Boulevard–in downtown Aurora about 1940.

Main Street–now East Galena Boulevard–in downtown Aurora about 1940.

Take Aurora for instance, Illinois’ second city with a population of about 200,000. Downtown Aurora’s main business district—although a shadow of its former self—stretches along Broadway, not Main Street. In fact, Aurora has no Main Street any more. It used to have a Main Street many years ago, a commercial street that crossed Broadway at one of the city’s busiest intersections, but the name was changed to East Galena Boulevard a long time ago. Not so long that my mother, who was born and raised mostly in the East Side’s “Dutchtown” German ethnic neighborhood, didn’t often forget and call it Main Street fairly often before her death in the late 1980s. Today, about the only reminder the city used to have a Main Street is the old Main Street Baptist Church, located on East Galena.

Just to our north is Montgomery, tucked between Aurora and Oswego along the banks of the Fox River. Montgomery indeed has a Main Street, but it’s not really a main street, if you get my drift. Instead, Montgomery’s real main street is actually two streets, River and Webster. Montgomery, even more than Oswego, suffered from its close proximity to Aurora, which discouraged the development of a true retail business district. Instead, stores were sort of strung out along River and Webster streets—and not many of them at that. Main Street, meanwhile, runs perpendicular to Webster Street. On its south end, it’s a mostly residential street. North of Webster, Main Street is dominated by the Lyon Metal Products, Inc. factory and some other quasi-industrial properties before it reverts back to a residential area.

Plano's Main Street, laid out from the beginning with stores facing the railroad tracks, is still its main downtown retail street.

Plano’s Main Street, laid out from the beginning with stores facing the railroad tracks, is still its main downtown retail street.

Among Kendall County’s other municipalities, Plano can be considered one with a real main Main Street, and that’s despite the city growing up as a railroad town. Classic railroad towns have their business district stores facing the tracks. Often, there are streets on either side of the tracks, each with blocks of stores facing the tracks—as long as they were designed from the ground up as railroad towns, as Plano definitely was. Lewis Steward had promised the promoters of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad that if they extended their tracks through the extensive land he owned that he’d create a city. Which he did. Plano’s Main Street is laid out north of and parallel to the CB&Q’s main line, with blocks of storefronts laid out on the north side of the street facing the tracks so rail travelers could clearly see them.

With its stores facing the railroad tracks, Plano’s design theory was much like Oswego’s, although when Oswego was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold in 1835, the major mode of transportation was the stagecoach. Therefore the stores were laid out facing Main Street, which was part of the western branch of the well-traveled Chicago to Ottawa Trail, running west southwest from Chicago through Naperville to Oswego and then southwest to Ottawa.

Newark, in far southwest Kendall County, was located on the same mail stage route as Oswego. As a result, Newark’s Main Street, laid out along the Chicago to Ottawa Trail, was also the heart of the village’s retail district. Like Oswego’s, Newark’s stores faced Main Street in an effort to appeal to stage travelers.

Sandwich's main business district street is Railroad Street, with its stores and hotel facing the tracks. Meanwhile, Main Street in Sandwich runs perpendicular to the tracks and has not been an important retail area since the railroad arrived in the 1850s.

Sandwich’s main business district street is Railroad Street, with its stores and hotel facing the tracks. Meanwhile, Main Street in Sandwich runs perpendicular to the tracks and has not been an important retail area since the railroad arrived in the 1850s.

Sandwich, located just across the Kendall County border in DeKalb County, is an interesting example of a town that predated the arrival of the railroad, but which, nonetheless, ended up looking like a traditional railroad town–except for the fact that Sandwich’s Main Street runs perpendicular to the CB&Q rail line. When the rails arrived in the 1850s, the village’s fathers simply changed the emphasis of its business district from Main Street to the aptly named Railroad Street. Main Street still exists as a connector without much commercial impact.

Then there’s Yorkville, the Kendall County seat, which has two Main Streets, neither of which are mercantile hubs. Yorkville started out as two adjoining villages, Bristol and Yorkville. Each of the towns were platted with their own Main Streets, Bristol’s running east-west, and Yorkville’s running north-south, each hoping to be the center of the retail trade in their towns. Instead, however, the bulk of retail businesses quickly located along Bridge Street, which ran north-south across the Fox River bridge.

Bridge Street in Yorkville became the home of business districts on both north and south sides of the Fox River thanks to the bridge crossing the Fox River. That left Yorkville with two Main Streets, one on each side of the river, one running north-south, the other east-west.

Bridge Street in Yorkville became the home of business districts on both north and south sides of the Fox River thanks to the bridge crossing the Fox River. That left Yorkville with two Main Streets, one on each side of the river, one running north-south, the other east-west.

On the south side of the river in Yorkville, Bridge Street provided access up to Courthouse Hill, where the county courthouse was built in 1864.  South of the river, in Bristol, Bridge Street ran past the city square park donated by Lyman Bristol and past several businesses located there to tap the trade on its way across the river.

The two Main Streets were eventually relegated to use as residential areas. In the 1957, the two villages merged into the United City of Yorkville, and the two Main Streets remained as historical artifacts, creating the interesting, and possibly unique, situation of Yorkville residents now enjoying North, South, East, and West Main Streets.

Which really does go to show that Main Street isn’t always a main street.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Were Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe from Illinois?

The late 1950s were the heyday of television westerns, and one of the most popular during that era was “Bonanza,” the tale of fictional Ponderosa Ranch owned by the Cartwright family—father Ben (a widower) and sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.

Was the Cartwright family of "Bonanza" fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be...

Was the Cartwright family of “Bonanza” fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be…

Their spread was located in the mountains near Nevada’s Lake Tahoe, where the family earned their living logging, raising cattle and selling supplies to the miners working on the huge silver strike called the Comstock Lode.

Lots of people enjoyed the interaction between the three brothers and their father, and the rest of the cast of characters, from the Chinese cook Hop Sing to Virginia City Sheriff Roy Coffee. So many, in fact, that “Bonanza” was number one in the ratings for four years running. It’s still playing in syndication.

What has interested me for years now is whether or not the saga of the Cartwrights might not have been, in part at least, based on a real-life family from Illinois that emigrated west in the 1840s. The patriarch of that family would have been well known to Kendall County’s pioneer settlers—by reputation if nothing else.

When the son of William and Katherine (Devers) Winters was born in 1794 in Pennsylvania, they named him John Devers Winters, his middle name honoring his mother’s family. Little is known of his early life, but he eventually arrived in Illinois, probably from the South. Former U.S. Secretary of State Elihu B. Washburne writing 30 years after the fact, said he believed Winters came “from either Kentucky or Tennessee,” before settling in northern Illinois with his wife, Elizabeth. Winters’ first son, Theodore, was born in Illinois in 1823. Before Elizabeth’s death, the couple had three sons, Theodore, John D. Junior, and Joseph (Little Joe?), along with two daughters, Amanda and Harriet.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

John D. Winters engaged in the boisterous stagecoaching business in Illinois starting in the 1830s. Eventually, the Frink & Walker combine drove him out of the state to California. The arrival of the mail stage in Illinois’ small towns was a notable event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

Winters probably settled first in southern or central Illinois, possibly around Peoria. In 1827, Winters moved north to what would eventually become Jo Daviess County with James and John Flack. Shortly thereafter, Winters and Capt. Clack Stone (whose first name is, understandably enough, often incorrectly spelled “Clark”), established a village they named Elizabeth after Winters’ wife (Elizabeth is located on modern U.S. Route 20 a few miles southeast of Galena).

Winters apparently got into the freight, mail, and stagecoach business almost as soon as he arrived in Illinois. From his new base in Elizabeth, he began running coaches from Galena south to Peoria and St. Louis.

Dr. John Taylor Temple initiated stage service from Chicago to Ottawa, and from there to Peoria, in January 1834, using his political connections to obtain the mail contract, a must for any successful stage operator. Winters bought Temple out in the spring of 1837 but then lost the Chicago mail contracts to John Frink and his partners later that year.

Winters subsequently abandoned Chicago for greener pastures elsewhere in the state, concentrating on the Peoria to Galena and other lines in western and northwestern Illinois. Sharp increases in passenger and mail business between Chicago and Galena and other points in Illinois in the early 1840s led to Winters and Frink locking horns one more time. Frink’s coaches sported a wheel brake, a sensible safety device, but Winters denounced it as a “Damn Yankee contrivance,” and said he didn’t want anything holding his horses back. Frink fired back that Winters used old broken down horses. Winters then made a tactical error in advertising that passengers in his coaches traveled “leisurely over the prairies.” Frink replied his stages were pulled by lively horses and that due to their speed, space “was almost annihilated.” In the end, Winters braced Frink in the American House hotel in Galena and the two fought it out.

But Frink and his partner, Martin O. Walker, prevailed. In 1848, Winters gave up, sold out, and moved his family west to California. It turned out to be the first of a couple very fortuitous turns of events. Shortly after arriving in California, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Winters and his sons, all skilled teamsters, made their first fortune hauling supplies to the gold fields.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

Then when gold was discovered in Nevada, the Winters clan started hauling supplies from Placerville, Calif. to the Carson Valley in Nevada. It was about that time that old J.D. decided to take a chance in the mining game and he bought an 18th share in a new mine called the Ophir. It was a fateful decision because the Ophir was one of the mines burrowing into what became known as the Comstock Lode, a silver deposit so huge that it was almost incomprehensible. Wrote Sam Clemmens (who eventually became known as the writer Mark Twain) to his brother from Esmeralda, Nev. in July 1862, “An eighteenth of the Ophir was a fortune to John D. Winters.”

J.D. ended his life as a prominent rancher and businessman. Young J.D. Junior was elected a member of Nevada’s first territorial legislature and even ran for governor. Theodore, born all those years ago in Illinois, went on to found the town of Theodore, Calif., and was a rich man in his own right.

Although forced out of the stage and freight business in Illinois, the Winters family headed west where they were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to make their fortune in transportation, land, and mining. Just like the Cartwrights (whose name, possibly not so coincidentally, means “wagonmaker”), except the Winters’ story started right here in northern Illinois.

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Filed under Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Transportation

After 180 years, the roads from Chicago to Ottawa still drive growth

Just 180 years ago this week, transportation history was made when the first stagecoach drove west out of Chicago on its way to Ottawa, the sometimes head of navigation on the Illinois River.

From its earliest days, Chicago owed its wealth—in fact, its very existence—to transportation. The Lake Michigan water highway, plunging deep into the interior of North America, brought the earliest French explorers to the Chicago portage. Throughout the colonial and pioneer era, the lake acted as a north-south superhighway for traders, soldiers, and settlers.

But while Lake Michigan penetrated deeply into what would one day become the Midwest, there was no direct link from the lake to the vital Mississippi-Ohio river system. The sluggish Chicago River emptied into the lake amid marshes and sand dunes, but it did not, except during floods, connect with any of the south-flowing rivers in the area. Instead, the earliest travelers paddled their canoes up the Chicago River to the overland portage to the Des Plaines River. From there, the route flowed south to the confluence with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River forms and then down to the Mississippi.

While that route was passable—for most of the year—for canoes and small boats, it was totally unsuitable unusable for steamboats. Instead, the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River during periods of high water was Ottawa. During the rest of the year when the river was shallower, Peru was as far as the steamboats of the 1820s and 1830s could get.

Because of this gap in water transportation from the lake to the Illinois, the road from Chicago to Ottawa was a major economic engine driving development, both in Chicago and its hinterland throughout northern Illinois.

The branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail known as the High Prairie Trail was probably first used by the region’s Native American inhabitants. While the Indians’ permanent villages were located along the Fox River and other area streams, winter family hunting camps were scattered along the banks of the Illinois River. It’s likely the trail from the lakeshore at Chicago to Ottawa was forged by these groups as they made their fall trips to the Illinois and spring journeys back to the Fox, DuPage, and DesPlaines rivers.

In the late 1820s when white settlement began in earnest in northern Illinois, the overland route from Chicago on the lake to Ottawa became economically significant. Goods were sent by steamboat up the Illinois and offloaded at either Peru or Ottawa for overland shipment to Chicago. In return, the growing variety of goods, ranging from timber cut and milled in Wisconsin and Michigan forests to grain and livestock grown by farmers in Chicago’s outlying area was shipped back south to be transported down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chicago-Ottawa trails

The two branches of the road from Chicago to Ottawa were the High Prairie Trail that passed through Plainfield, Plattville, and Lisbon and the road’s western branch that linked Naperville, Oswego and Newark as the road headed southwest.

As it evolved, the trail from Chicago to Ottawa consisted of three main branches, the eastern, central, and western. Two of the three—the western and central branches—passed through Kendall County. The eastern branch followed the course of the DesPlaines-Illinois River, looping about 10 miles east of Kendall County’s borders.

The central branch, called the High Prairie Trail, was the most heavily traveled. The northern stretch of the High Prairie Trail was established in 1831 by the Cook County Board during the county’s first year of existence. Cook originally included all of today’s Cook and DuPage counties, plus most of Will. The county road paralleled and sometimes directly followed today’s Odgen Avenue (U.S. Route 34) from downtown Chicago to Bernard Lawton’s inn and tavern at the DesPlaines River ford (at today’s Riverside), and from there in an almost direct route southwest to Walker’s Grove (today’s Plainfield) at the DuPage River ford. From there, the road followed a series of moraine ridges across the prairie into LaSalle County (then including all of LaSalle, Kendall, and Grundy counties, plus all the land north of there to the Wisconsin border) where it ran southwesterly through what would one day be Plattville and Lisbon to the tiny Holderman’s Grove settlement and then on to Ottawa.

For the first two years of the official route’s existence, there was only the occasional traveler on the road to stop at Abraham Holderman’s tiny inn at the southern tip of Big Grove. But in 1833, things began to pick up. That year, Dr. John Taylor Temple was granted the U.S. Post Office’s contract to carry mail from Chicago on the High Prairie Trail via Plainfield and Holderman’s to Ottawa, where it would be sent by steamboat to St. Louis. Meanwhile, mail that had come north by riverboat would be carried northeast up to the port of Chicago.

Temple’s first coach clattered out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, with an ambitious young lawyer, John Dean Caton, at the reins.

Moving buildings from houses to taverns was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

Moving buildings,from houses to taverns, was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

News that Temple’s new stage line would start carrying mail and passengers spread quickly. Traveling the new road from Chicago southwest in 1833, Daniel Platt of New York (his family had established Plattsburg) arrived in what would one day become Kendall County and established an inn at Plattville, while Levi Hills and family, more New Yorkers, arrived and bought Holderman’s inn. A year later, Hills hitched up several yokes of oxen and using logs as rollers moved the log tavern out of its grove out onto the prairie to the site of what soon became the village of Lisbon, apparently to better serve stagecoach travelers.

The western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail used the same route as the High Prairie Trail until it crossed the Des Plaines at Lawton’s. From there, it headed to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement (modern Naperville) on the DuPage. From there, the road crossed the prairie to Oswego, where it turned south and followed the Fox River to Yorkville. From Yorkville, the road turned southwest down the Fox River to the hamlet of Pavilion and then to the Hollenbacks’ settlement at Newark before joining the High Prairie Trail just north of Ottawa.

Today, the western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail is still an economic engine for Kendall County. The U.S. Route 34 corridor—which follows almost the exact course of the historic old road—has spurred the growth of towns along its route due to its direct connection to Naperville and the rest of the collar counties.

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The visionary life of John Dean Caton

It was late in 1833, and Dr. John Taylor Temple was looking for somebody to drive his brand new stagecoach on its first trip down the new mail route from Chicago to Ottawa.

 Temple had a brand new Concord Coach shipped east west from Buffalo by Great Lakes steamer, and it was ready to go for its first run down the High Prairie Trail from Chicago on Lake Michigan to Ottawa on the Illinois River.

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

John Dean Caton, an ambitious young man who had only recently been admitted to the Illinois bar—and thus becoming the first lawyer in Chicago—volunteered to take the reins. Born to a Quaker family in Monroe County, N.Y. on March 19, 1812, Caton’s early life was difficult. At the age of 3 he lost his father, after which his mother then moved the family to her brother’s farm near Utica, N.Y. There he worked hard and apparently studied just as hard at school. When he was 16, money was somehow found to send him to the Utica Academy (academies were the era’s high schools), where he excelled, his teachers telling him a year later he was qualified to teach in the area’s one-room schools. Caton taught for a year and continued his studies (something that proved a life-long habit), this time concentrating on the law. The next year, he was accepted to read law at a Utica firm, and after two years decided he was ready to set out on his own, and looking towards the western frontier—Illinois.

In June 1833, Caton and his brother, William, arrived in Chicago, then a boisterous, muddy, disease-ridden hamlet growing by leaps and bounds along the banks of the Chicago River at the foot of Lake Michigan. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Caton made the long trek south to Pekin, where Judge Stephen T. Logan examined him and licensed the young man to practice law in Illinois.

Caton wasted no time, renting a one-room office in Dr. Temple’s two-story frame building on Lake Street. He prosecuted Chicago’s first robbery case in July. On Dec. 4, 1833 he was elected Chicago village attorney.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

That same year, Temple, who apparently used his political connections to snag the all-important contract to deliver mail between Ottawa and Chicago, established John T. Temple & Company, the city’s first stagecoach company. To carry the company’s mail and passengers, ordered a new state-of-the-art stagecoach from the Abbott-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and by Jan. 1, 1834 Temple’s line was ready to roll.

Climbing up onto the driver’s seat, Caton, who learned to drive teams on his uncle’s farm, urged the horses on across the frozen Nine Mile Swamp and along the Barry Point Trail to Barney Laughton’s tavern at the DesPlaines River ford—and into history.

If his career had stalled at that point, he would still have been remembered by history. But Caton was only beginning a public life that would span decades of Illinois history. As Chicago boomed during the frenetic 1830s, Caton prospered. In 1835, he traveled back east to New Hartford, N.Y. where he married Laura A. Sherrill. The couple then headed back west to growing Chicago where they quickly had three children. In addition, Caton served a term as a Chicago’s alderman.

By 1838, Caton was exhausted, his heath had begun to suffer, and the devastating Panic of 1837 (we call them depressions these days) had seriously damaged his finances. Deciding on a change of scene and occupation, he and his wife purchased a few hundred acres of land in what would, in a few years, become Kendall County, adjacent to thousands of acres owned by her brother, Henry Sherrill, and by his brother and cousins. Caton farmed for a few years, and acquired more land, before reentering the law and deciding to join the state’s judiciary.

In 1842, Caton was appointed judge for the circuit that included Kendall County, and in that capacity presided over the county’s first murder trial in 1844 and at the first session of the circuit court after the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845. Along with his work on the regular circuit, Caton also served on the Illinois Supreme Court starting in 1842. In 1848, he left the circuit and concentrated on his Supreme Court duties, including a number of terms as chief justice.

Then in 1849, he found something even more interesting than the law. Friends in Ottawa, where he had moved, asked him to help Henry O’ Riley of Rochester N.Y., who had contracted with those holding Samuel F.W. Morse‘s patents to extend telegraph lines from St. Louis into Illinois. So Caton helped establish the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, becoming one of its first directors.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton's Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton’s Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

Fascinated with the new technology but knowing little about it, Caton spent much of the next three years studying it and becoming a skilled telegrapher. And thanks to his legal acumen, the company weathered some rough financial patches. Applying his ingenuity to the new communications technology, he helped overcome a number of technical problems. For instance, he insisted the company use cedar poles that, while initially more expensive, were far more durable, sharply cutting maintenance costs.

His Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop in Ottawa, under the management of Robert Henning, became a technological leader in both telegraph instrument design and manufacture and in teaching telegraphy. In 1867, Caton sold all of his telegraphy interests to Western Union. His innovative instrument shop eventually became an ancestor of Western Electric, later Lucent Technologies.

Caton's 1881 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

Caton’s 1877 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

A wealthy man by the late 1860s, Caton pivoted once again, plunging into the study of natural history while traveling the world, publishing several authoritative papers and books. Between 1868 and 1877, Caton frequently corresponded with Charles Darwin on observations on sexual behavior and characteristics of elk, deer, bison, and the habits of wild and domestic turkeys. Caton sent Darwin copies of papers he wrote on North American wildlife and Darwin reciprocated with his own work and comments. When Darwin’s sons visited the United States in 1871, he sent a letter of introduction with them to Caton. Caton sent Darwin a copy of his book The Antelope and Deer of America (1877), which Darwin warmly received.

In his busy retirement, Caton published books and papers on Hawaii, Norway, and on Illinois history before his death in Chicago on July 30, 1895. He never really forgot his local roots, either, and today Caton Farm Road in Kendall County and Caton Street in Ottawa are reminders of the life of this fascinating, visionary attorney, farmer, judge, businessman, historian, author, and scientist.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

So what’s cooking in YOUR fireplace?

The late 1820s and early 1830s were a period of rapid and profound change in the Fox Valley as the area’s major roads and towns were laid out. Some of those towns grew up around the stagecoach taverns that popped up along the new roads that stretched west from Chicago like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The taverns of that era provided places for travelers to sleep as well as to partake of food and drink.

The fare available in those early inns was virtually identical to the food pioneer families ate. Pork was popular among the settlers because the hogs of the period were hardy animals, not much different from the wild boars from which they were descended. As a result of the diet they ate while rooting through the area’s groves, which included acorns, hazelnuts, and other edible items, the pork of 1830 was much leaner than than available today, and the meat was much darker than “The Other White Meat” touted in those pork industry commercials.

The taverns at Wolf Point where the north and south branches of the Chicago River merged were typical of inns of the 1830s. The Wolf Tavern, with sign, is at left, while Miller's Tavern sits on the riverbank at right.

The taverns at Wolf Point where the north and south branches of the Chicago River merged were typical of inns of the 1830s. The Wolf Tavern, with sign, is at left, while Miller’s Tavern sits on the riverbank at right.

Beef was also enjoyed by pioneers, but it was in shorter supply than pork because cattle were more difficult and expensive to raise. They weren’t nearly as good as hogs at foraging and were relatively limited in the kinds of food they could eat.

Poultry was a favorite meat, but chickens were unable to fend for themselves and so had to be protected from the hawks, prairie wolves, coyotes, and foxes that populated the Fox Valley in fair numbers.

When it came to vegetables, the pioneers favored root crops such as potatoes, turnips, and carrots because they “kept” well in root cellars. Corn could be soaked in lye to make hominy, but it was also ground into that all-purpose food item, cornmeal, which was used in so many different ways by pioneer cooks, from cornbread to mush (both as a hot cereal and when cooled, sliced, and fried as a main meal item) to Indian pudding.

Wheat farming was never all that popular in northern Illinois—the climate didn’t favor it—but early in the pioneer era enough was grown locally to provide the makings for bread.

So sufficient food was available, but how was it prepared in the days before cook stoves? Fireplace cooking was an art as well as a skill that required quite a bit of pre-planning, organization, and proficiency. It was a skill that came second nature to the women of the period because it was what they grew up with. Most cooking was done with only one or two pots or pans, generally a long-handled cast iron skillet and a cast iron pot. Sometimes, a family had an iron Dutch oven for baking or roasting, but most baking was done in brick ovens built either as part of the fireplace installation, were free-standing outdoors, or located in a kitchen addition.

Fireplaces in the early inns on the Illinois frontier were large because they were used for both cooking and heating.

Fireplaces in the early inns on the Illinois frontier were large because they were used for both cooking and heating.

Given a couple of cast iron pans and a big fireplace, how were entire meals cooked for hungry travelers in Kendall County’s pioneer taverns? Travelers’ accounts vary, but there is a particularly good one left by a woman who stopped at dawn for breakfast at a Carlinville tavern on her way by stagecoach from St. Louis to Springfield.

The young female cook, who was admired by the travelers for her efficiency, first put a long-handled frying pan on the fire, balancing the long handle on a chair. She placed coffee beans in the pan and parched or roasted them. She then removed the beans, washed out the frying pan, and then mixed corn bread right in the pan before putting it back on the fire to bake. Meanwhile, she ground the roasted coffee beans and put the grounds in an iron pot with water, swung it over the fire and started it boiling. When the cornbread was done, she turned it out of the pan. Then she cut a chunk of bacon off a side hanging in the kitchen, sliced it, and fried it in the pan that had so far roasted the coffee beans and baked the cornbread. When the bacon was crisp, eggs were fried to order and the newly arrived guests along with those who had stayed the night all sat down to enjoy the meal.

A long-handled frying pan (second from right) and a few pots were all that were necessary for a skilled cook to quickly prepare a hearty meal for a stagecoach load of passengers during the 1830s in northern Illinois.

A long-handled frying pan (second from right) and a few pots were all that were necessary for a skilled cook to quickly prepare a hearty meal for a stagecoach load of passengers during the 1830s in northern Illinois.

Tavern fare, of course, varied by location. One traveler who passed through southern Michigan in 1830 reported that supper (dinner in this era referred to the noon meal) consisted of biscuits, and fried pork and venison, washed down with buttermilk. Breakfast was the same except for having cornmeal griddlecakes in place of the biscuits and a glass of cider. The entire bill for both meals—including the buttermilk and cider—was 21 cents.

Which sounds cheap, but when land was selling at $1.25 an acre, 21 cents was relatively pricey.

Here in Illinois, the deer population had been almost entirely eliminated by the Native Americans who killed them for food and for hides to trade for food, so venison was found on few menus. Prairie chickens and rabbits, however, were commonly found on the bills of fare at Illinois taverns.

The lives of pioneer travelers were not particularly comfortable, what with the danger of their stagecoach overturning at the drop of a hat, not to mention the dust, dirt, mud, summer heat, and winter cold, but the innkeepers of the period did what they could to make things easier. And while food preparation technology was crude, skillful cooks could turn out excellent meals in a remarkably short times using one or two pans and plenty of ingenuity.

Today, we take modern food prep techniques and equipment, from refrigerators to running water to efficient gas and electric ranges for granted. But it wasn’t always that way, and that it is today ought to be cause for at least a little celebration.

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Spreading the news…

I’ve said before that Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee” is my favorite short story. It’s a tall tale that revolves around how Twain—himself originally a newspaper man—saw weekly journalism being practiced down in the Volunteer State.

A major theme of the book revolves around what Twain offhandedly refers to as “exchanges.” It’s a term that’s pretty much ceased to be used in this day and age, but from the late 1700s through the early 20th Century, exchanges were how news was spread from community to community.

Very early in the nation’s life, newspapers were sent from town to town on the stagecoaches that carried the mail. But most of those papers were carried “outside the mail,” that is, a publisher would pay the stage crew in barter or with a minimal amount of cash to carry his paper on down the mail route in a sack or other container that was not the official portmanteau. Mail, by definition, was carried in the official portmanteau, a large, locked valise. Postmasters had the special key for the lock on the portmanteau, and were the only ones who could open it on its journey up and down a mail route.

The newspaper office of Fredrick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. looked pretty much like thousands of small newspaper offices all over the U.S. in the 19th Century. (Courtesy of the Rochester Public Library)

The newspaper office of Fredrick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y. looked pretty much like thousands of small newspaper offices all over the U.S. in the 19th Century. (Courtesy of the Rochester Public Library)

If and when the paper got to its destination—since it was outside the mail, it’s delivery wasn’t guaranteed—the local publisher would copy pertinent articles into his own paper for publication the next week, and, in exchange, send a copy of his paper back to the first publisher. He’d also send exchange copies of his paper to other publishers.

By this method, news traveled remarkably fast from settled eastern areas west along the mail routes of the era.

But with the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress recognized the importance of spreading the news as quickly as possible by mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.

Even more important, exchanges were allowed to be mailed for free, so papers and the news in them spread quickly. Most weeklies in the 19th Century had a column often headed “From Our Exchanges” that reported non-local news. Non-local news was also spread this way, including national news, political news, and economic news.

The intent of the Federal Government was that the free circulation of news of all kinds was essential to the success of a democracy. In 1788, President George Washington wrote in a letter to Matthew Carey and published in the Columbian Magazine:

I entertain an high idea of the utility of periodical Publications: insomuch that I could heartily desire, copies of . . . Magazines, as well as common Gazettes, might spread through every city, town and village in America. I consider such easy vehicles of knowledge, more happily calculated than any other, to preserve the liberty, stimulate the industry and meliorate the morals of an enlightened and free People.

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Dissemination of news was considered so essential to the new nation, in fact, that it was enshrined as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. In order to get freedom of the press and the free flow of information into law, legislation had to be passed. The Act of 1792 was the first time such a sweeping right was given for the free flow of information. In effect, it created the first version of today’s Internet.

Later, Congress mandated that county weeklies could be mailed within their counties of origin free of charge. That was a huge boost to newspapers. While printing costs far outpaced the costs of news gathering in that early era, postage costs were high. For instance, in 1843, James Sheldon Barber mailed letters to his parents from Oswego here in Illinois back to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. at a cost of 25-cents for a single sheet. This at a time when good prairie land was selling for $1.25 per acre.

So letting weeklies send exchanges and papers in-county to their subscribers free was wonderful way to keep people informed, encourage a vigorous local newspaper industry, and advance the causes of democracy. It also gave Mark Twain some pretty good fodder for short stories.

Things changed in 1970 when the United States Post Office Department was privatized and changed into the United States Postal Service. Like most privatization schemes, it hasn’t worked out very well, although the service gamely soldiers on despite the best intent of Congress to kill it off like the Passenger Pigeon.

One of the consequences of the 1970 act was steadily increasing postal rates for local newspapers. Far from being seen as essential to good government, periodicals were more and more viewed as impediments to mechanized mail delivery. Today, the hoops weekly newspaper publishers have to jump through, over, and around to maintain their Second Class mailing permits are absolutely mind-boggling. It’s almost enough to make a person wonder whether it might not be a good idea to start bartering with mail carriers again like the good old days of 1791.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation