Tales of the People and Places of the Olde Kankakee River

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As their operations grew other natural harbors of security were made use of, notably in the neighborhood of Terre Haute, in the Eel River country of Indiana, on the Wabash, and "Bogus Island," situated in the marsh country of Indiana some fifteen miles east of the frontier settlement of Momence. In the course of the years certain members of the squatter and trapper element, easy of conscience and wholly bank- rupt as to morals, formed a connection with these island outlaws and served as "spotters," "tip-off men" and purveyors of news gener- ally.

A few there were who developed to a point where they could "make a sight" as the location of a desirable horse was termed in outlaw parlance, and also lend valuable aid "in raising the sight," if need be. This squatter "secret service" grew in efficiency as the years went on until its ramifications, penetrating to every quarter, enmeshed the surrounding country until it seemed all but hopeless to pre- vent a theft, and next to impossible to recover property thus stolen.

Naturally, force was the dominant note in the affairs of men in the days of the old frontier in and about Momence. Such has been the case in all lands and in all places be- fore society crystallized sufficiently to estab- lish law and order. When these men who knew no law let down in the strenuous life, as was often the case, and sought the socia- bility of the border grog shops and gambling dens of the little river town of Momence on AND ALONG THE KANKAKEE the Kankakee, it may well be surmised that "the lid," as we say in this day, was not mere- ly tilted to a comfortable angle, but removed entirely — thrown in the river.

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Ah, but those were wild and tumultuous days and nights in the old town 'round about and for many years thereafter! Coureurs de bois, voyageurs, Indians, trappers, hunters, gamblers, thieves, spotters — all the riff-raff of the wide, wide wilderness mingled indiscrim- inately in the public houses, all more or less sodden with whiskey. These men of the bord- er who endured much and worked hard, also played hard once the notion struck them. There were men who, after having spent days in these Bacchanlian orgies, shouldered their packs and hit the up-river trails to some lone cabin set in a bayou, were never heard from again.

There were feuds in the old days and the penalty of a wrong was death! The answer to many a disappearance would have been the echo of a rifle shot — a dull splash in the river. The woods never babble of the secrets they hold and the river, undisturbed, flows on and croons of lighter things than death.

According to the recollection of some of the older citizens Sunday was not observed at all. The saw-mill ran as usual ; men went about their vocations while horse races, box- ing bouts, foot-races and fights were common Sunday amusements. So absorbed in their own affairs and sports did this border populace become, that they actually lost track of the days of the week and were only reminded of Sunday when the up-river men, who got out timber for Momence's only industry, the saw mill, came down to town in force to spend one big, glad, riotous day in seven.

All classes previously mentioned in this heterogeneous mixture of frontier types, regarded the pic- turesque log-roller with feelings of genuine awe and respect at such times as he invaded their precincts and disported in riotous abandon. Ample leeway at the bar was left for him ; the movable articles about the house which would have proved formidable in case of a rough and tumble, were shunted into the clear; the poker game retired to less conspic- uous quarters on the appearance of the first installment of visiting "lumber-jacks. The frontiersmen tacitly admitted by these acts of precaution that here was a case where an irresistible force was more than like- ly to come in contact with an immovable body and, to avoid the dire consequences of such a clash, they quietly ebbed to the open spaces of the great out of doors and looked on while the up-river boys took over the place and pro- ceeded to drink themselves "stone-blind.

The riverman, cocky and smiling, flaunted his challenge in the face and eyes of all comers. His very presence in town was an invitation to fight. And, when he fought, he was a human wild-cat who observed no law or rule, but considered any means fair that enab- led him to vanquish his opponent. The town boys recalled only too bitterly that their champion came out of the last set- to with a thumb "chawed off," or nearly so, and with one ear elongated and drooping for all the world like that of a "pot-lickin' hound. Decidedly they were a bad lot and not to be trusted. For years the question of supremacy was an open one with the odds laying notice- ably in the direction of "up-river.

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They were gainers in one respect, how- ever. While the ancient Chaldeans reckon- ed their time from the stars, these old-town people reckoned theirs from the day the riv- ermen "got through raisin' hell! Do you wonder that Momence had a bad name? Time, no less than nature, works his won- ders. The softening influence of time is eas- ily discerned in the old town of today. There is a noticeable polish, an air of dignity, an unmistakable refinement, an all-pervading prosperousness that conveys a charming sense of poise, serenity and general well being.

De- cidedly the passing years have not been un- kind. But, at mention of her wild and woolly days, methinks she stirs uneasily and lifts a hand deprecatingly as if to say: "Now, for Heaven's sake, do be careful! The past is gone ; the past is dead-— why trouble to dig it up? Only that sometimes one travels far from the beaten paths of home to sense the atmosphere of old days; to glimpse the red-blood spirit of the frontier before the iron had been leached from it; to hob-knob with the shades of those erstwhile giants who, standing on the threshold of civ- ilization, acknowledged God yet feared no man.

Momence, then, had all the elements that went to make a border town. The fact that it was tough is not a pleasing recom- mendation altogether. It should not be gath- ered from these remarks that we would glor- ify the fact unduly. No, indeed! We are con- tent to follow in the wake of others who have served mankind by immortalizing the bold deeds of the border in song, and verse, and story. Therefore, to this end, the shades of old-time traditions, once rich and colorful that still lurk, phantom-like, on the borderland of memory — faded, shadowy, indistinct in the deepening twilight of oblivion, have been be- sought to tell their story — just this once.

There is no spot in all eastern Illinois more redolent of memories of frontier days than that spot known as the "Metcalf Farm," situated one mile east of the present city of Momence on the Kankakee River. Here the first white settlement in Eastern Illinois took place as far back as ninety years ago, all be- cause a well defined Indian trail dipped down the north bank to the river and emerged again on the south bank, indicating to the solitary trapper with his pack or the lone pioneer traveler with his ox team that here was a safe and convenient ford.

Scarcely a mile away to the southwest on the river where the city of Momence of today is located, were two other fords thirty rods apart where the lime- stone "hog-back" of the river bed lifted suffi- ciently to make transportation easy and safe.

Nature truly was prodigal with her favors in this as well as other respects. A convenient river ford in the old wilderness days was quite as important an adjunct to a locality as the rail- road afterwards became. All lines of travel north and south of the river converged to- wards this segment of the Kankakee with its three fords. Chicago was the objective of the frontiersman from the Danville country, from the region of Vincennes, Indiana, and the Wabash country of central Indiana. Dur- ing the thirties, the forties and the early fif- ties the stream of travel to and from the grow- ing metropolis of Chicago grew in volume.

Mainly these travelers used the ford nearest the Indiana state-line and called it the "Up- per Crossing," thus distinguishing it from the two farther west at Momence. In March of , when Cook county was organized, its southern boundary was the Kankakee River and its eastern boundary the Indiana state-line. In the year Chicago voted to incorporate as a village, and in the fall of that same year the settlement at "Up- per Crossing" was inaugurated. It was a log house and was situated east of the present orchard. It was built by William Lacy.

Grand Village of the Illinois

The quartering of a large number of sol- diers in Chicago incident to the Black Hawk war, made provisions scarce and dear at that point and this induced VanKirk and Lacy to brave the privations and dangers of an over- land trip through the almost unknown coun- try. Both VanKirk and Lacy were deeply im- pressed with the beauty and natural advan- tages of this site on the Kankakee and, on their return, they stopped.

As related, Lacy built the cabin on the Metcalf place and staid there during the winter. VanKirk started a cabin on the head of the island nearby and carried up the walls almost to the roof when he departed. He expected to return the fol- lowing year and perfect his claim but, for some reason did not do so.

Lacy sold his claim a year or two later and thus failed to become a permanent resident of the settlement of which he was the founder. David Lynds was given the postoffice, as "Lorain. By some it is contended that there was scarcely anything there besides the tavern, while others are equally positive that there were twelve to fif- teen houses on the two sides of the river. There were several stores in the early days.

Elon Curtis clerked in one of them, a place kept by a man by the name of Glover. Allen Rakestraw, widely known as "Old Dime," from his closeness in financial matters, kept a dram shop. There was also a blacksmith shop. The father of Dr.

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Green was al- so the gunsmith. Louis Buffington kept a tailor shop. Joseph VanKirk kept a hotel on the north side of the river for a while. The place had a bridge, built in which lasted until Another was built which went out in the spring of In Asher Sargeant built the first habitation, a double log cabin at the island ford a mile to the southwest of the "Upper Crossing" and thus unconsciously acquired fame as the original settler of the present day municipality of Momence.

He was the first store keeper at this point for, in one-half of the cabin, he established a small grocery whose principal articles of trade were whiskey and tobacco. As Newell Beebe expressed it, "they were the cheap products of the country. These three, then, were the original first settlers at Mo- mence, within the present city limits. The double log house erected by Asher Sargeant, as nearly as can be ascertained at this late day, stood somewhere between the old Worcester and Lane hall and the residence of P.

Cleary, probably where the alley now te between Range and Pine streets, just north of the river.

The Grand Kankakee Marsh

There seems to have been a question in the minds of the old- er settlers as to the year Asher Sargeant built his cabin on the Kankakee. John Smith, of Sherburnville, says that he came to this region with his parents in October, , cross- ing the river at the present site of Momence.

They stopped with Asher Sargeant who was living in the house at that time. He thinks is the probable date of its erection.

Asher Sargeant also built a saw-mill near- by. Some think the saw-mill was the first building put up.

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It is quite certain, however, that the saw-mill was not built until or Smith says the saw-mill was not there at the time of his arrival. William Par- ish says that the Sargeant house had "pun- cheon" or hewed floors, which would not have been the case had Sargeant built the mill first. Parish had a lively recollection of attending a dance at the Sargeant home and of getting splinters in his bare feet from the floor while dancing.

The cotillion was halted while William sat down and extracted them. About , Asher Sargeant erected as a matter of fact, the first mill for grinding corn in this part of the country.

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This mill was built on the farm now owned by John H. Nichols, one and a half miles northeast of Momence, on Trim Creek. The site was about a half mile east of Hubbard's trail, and a mile north of Hill's Tavern and the location of the first postoffice, Lorain. A dam was built across the creek to hold water for power, and a canal was dug about 80 rods from a bend in the creek to the mill.


This canal is plainly to be seen today. Also some of the timbers of the old dam such as mud-sills are embedded in the bottom of the creek and are in a good state of preservation. The mill was abandoned about the time the mill was erected in Mo- mence in , on account of lack of power. The grinding buhrs were cast aside and laid near the road for years, finally being sold and taken to Lowell, Indiana, where they were used in a mill for years.

The second house to be built in Momence was also a log structure but the name of the builder is lost to us.