Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Alto Township, Lee County Illinois

Traveling northward from Willow creek, along the east county line, Alto is reached. The origin of its name does not seem to have been preserved. At all events the oldest settlers can give me no information upon the point and the so-called histories written years before overlooked that important feature.

At a meeting of the citizens of Alto Township, held in the schoolhouse of district 3, April 3, 1860, Hiram C. Holcomb was appointed chairman, Charles R. Hall was made moderator, and James Tyler, clerk. Justice H. C. Holcomb administered the oath and the polls were declared opened at 9 o'clock.

At this meeting, it was ordered that the township be divided into four road districts and that a tax levy of 40 cents on the hundred dollars be levied for road purposes. A motion was also carried to raise a tax of 2 mills on the dollar for town purposes. The long period of herding cattle had become so much of a nuisance to the increasing settlements that drastic measures were taken to compel cattle owners to fence their cattle. A motion was carried to the effect that all cattle should be kept up at night and if damage followed from leaving them at large, the owner was to pay for all damage done for the first offense and for the second offense the owner was to pay double the damage done. And to enforce the rule summarily, every man was made his own pound master.

Forty-seven votes were polled. C. R. Hall was elected the first supervisor; James Tyler, the first town clerk; Josiah Carpenter, the first collector; James Tyler, the first assessor; Daniel Carey and H. C. Holcomb, the first justices of the peace; Josiah Carpenter and John Dorson, the first constable; Jedediah Loneridge, the first overseer of the poor; and James A. Smith, Roan McClure and M, Mills, the first highway commissioners.

The first settlers of Alto were Mr. and Mrs. John Grimes who came to Alto in 1843 and settled near Plum Thicket, the only grove in the township. The house of Mr. Grimes, the first one built in the township, was built, we are told, in 1847, four years after he settled in the township. The second settler came in 1845 and his name was J. Wood, a Baptist preacher. He remained two or three years and then removed to Earlville. About 1852, Jedediah Loneridge came next. He remained about twenty years and. removed to Nebraska. Following Loneridge, ''the basket maker,'' came the families of James Holcomb and his father, Hubbell Williams, Mason Herrick, the Mills family, James Tyler, C. R. Hall, the Kirbys, the Stewards, the McDonalds (or McDonnels, as spelled sometimes), and the Carpenters, William F. Carpenter came to Alto in 1857.

Alto Township is a prairie township and like other prairie town-ships, did not settle rapidly. In fact it may be said of Alto that its population was sparse until the late sixties. And it excited little attention until the railroad came through.

But since that date, Alto has given an excellent account of itself. It is a wonderfully rich township and until little Scarboro was created. Steward was the only village or city, for that matter, in Northern Illinois to market over a million bushels of grain year after year. Even now, with Scarboro feeding on its old territory. Steward has marketed 800,000 bushels of grain. In the years 1869 and 1870, when every community in Northern Illinois was agitated by the prospects (on paper) of having a railroad or two, Alto experienced those same thrills. It was said that Francis E. Hinckley desired to build a railroad from Forreston to Chicago, to run through Alto Township. The rumor created great excitement of course and when it was proposed to bond the township for $32,000, payable when cars were running over the rails, the proposition provoked the usual antagonism. Patriotism was appealed to on the one hand; the fellow, who thought he was paying taxes enough, opposed the venture. A meeting was had and a vote was taken which was carried favorably to the bonds by a vote of ninety-three for, to fifty against. Grading was commenced on Monday, Sept- 26, 1870, and on Dec. 31, 1870, the road was finished to Rochelle and trains moved regularly to that point. After that date trains ran rather irregularly until April, 1871, and only one per day until 1872. The Chicago fire and the financial distress prevailing over the country interfered with the plans of the company considerably, but eventually the Chicago and Iowa railroad came to its own and enjoyed a prosperous business.

Naturally there was a fight over the question of the bonds, but this question was compromised by the issuance and acceptance of a $25,000 issue, and at a less rate of interest.

For a time the railroad offices and the warehouse or freight house were located in the bam of Wesley Steward.

Now, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Company controlling the road, runs some of the most beautiful trains in the country over this line of railway. All its northwestern business is carried via that route. This service includes two beautiful through trains each way, each day. The freight traffic over it now is enormous.

In 1904, the importance of Steward was recognized by the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Company. That corporation enjoyed a joint occupancy of the strip of road running southerly out of Rockford, and when the latter company desired to reach further south into the coal fields, Steward was selected as the junction point from which to bear off to the southwest. Immediately this new road established two new stations in Lee County, Scarboro in Willow Creek Township, and Roxbury in Wyoming Township. With the up-building of Steward, the township of Alto took on an unusual degree of activity. Projects of improvement in every direction were formulated, not the least of which was the extensive system of drainage more particularly mentioned in other parts of this work. But here in Alto they were agitated first and here in Alto they began to materialize under the dredge and the spade, and an Alto man, Wesley Steward, was made a member of the first drainage board of Lee County to begin those operations which since have been made so stupendous.

The village of Steward stands upon the corners of four sections, 16, 17, 20 and 21, and Main and Dewey streets form the dividing lines. The town site was selected by Wesley Steward, on his lands, and he platted the village in 1870. William McMahan, the then county surveyor, made the survey of the plat, and S. O. Barnett, still a resident of Steward, assisted him in the performance of that job, as chainman.

The first house on the new town site was built by Patrick Carey, from the first a section foreman for the Burlington Company. This was in 1874; it was built on John Street, where it stands today, and was used as Mr. Carey's residence.

The first place of business was erected in 1871, by William Guthrie who used it for a restaurant.

The second business house was built by Henry A. Robinson in 1871, and he used it for a store of general merchandise.

In 1875 P. A, Billion & Co. opened the first hardware store. They sold it to G. A. Ruckman, who conducts it today on the same spot and in the same building.

In 1877, Edward O 'Neil erected a building on Main street and opened therein a general store. Doctor Gardner opened the first drug store, but finding a drug store would not pay, he moved the stock upstairs and rented the store room to Yetter and Healy, who put in a stock of general merchandise.

In 1859 the first schoolhouse was built in Alto, and Miss Carrie Whitcomb was the first teacher. Miss Carrie Norton succeeded her. The last named lady married Mr. Merritt Miller, who was a teacher, and afterwards Mr. Miller taught during the winter months and Mrs. Miller during the summer months. In the old schoolhouse, Misses Thurber, Holmes and others, followed. This same old building stands today on Main street and is used for a store building.

In 1881, at a cost of $7,000, a new school building was built. On Feb. 8, 1903, this building was destroyed by fire and for the rest of the school year school was conducted in the rooms over a Mr. Foster's store. During the summer of 1903, the present beautiful building was erected, and by November 1st the schools were opened with Miss Ida Van Patten as principal. Miss Nona Floyd, teacher of the intermediate department, and Miss Valeria Whetston (Mrs. F. J. Beardsley) as primary teacher. Among those who have taught in the Steward schools are Delos W. Baxter, of Rochelle, and Messrs. Sensor, Fillmore and Miller as principals; Miss Ella Wilcox, now Mrs. Robinson of Iowa, Mrs. Nellie Bowles, Doctor Fauser; Henry H. Hagen, principal; Miss Nora O'Neil, primary, and Miss Dora Ackland, intermediate.

The post office was established in Steward in 1871 and Mrs. Merritt Miller became the first postmistress. Through the intrigue of cheap enmity to the founder of the town, the name of the post-office was made ''Heaton,'' professedly in honor of Judge William W. Heaton of Dixon. But this inconsistency and troublesome feature was short-lived. The department changed it to the name of the plat and the railway station, ''Steward,'' just as it should have been called from the first. The first post office was in the old depot, the scene of other interesting beginnings. After about a year, Mrs. Miller gave up the office and H. A. Robinson was appointed. Those who succeeded to the office have been William Preston, G. A. Ruckman, and John P. Yetter, the present postmaster, although on Cleveland's second election, Ruckman was returned and then in turn, Yetter was returned. In 1904 two rural deliveries were established from this office, both of which continue to this day. The two first carriers were S. H. Diller and Patrick O'Neal.

In view of the enormous quantities of grain produced at this point, Mr. Steward erected in 1872-73 an elevator to handle it and he engaged in the grain business. A coal and lumber business was connected with the grain business.

In 1880, C. Jorgens & Co. erected another elevator. These people sold out to Miller and Emmitt and they in turn, in the year 1894, sold to Titus Brothers. In 1904 this old elevator was torn down and rebuilt, much enlarged, on a new site furnished by the new Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul company.

On April 13, 1913, the tillage of Steward was incorporated and officers as follows were elected:

President, U. S. Shearer; trustees, J. M. Durin, J. P. Yetter, John Taylor, F. P. Barnett, L. E. Birdsall and Thomas F. Kirby; clerk, Edward T. Corwin; treasurer, Zeno Wise; police magistrate, S. J. Whetston; marshal, Jay Stiles.

One will find in Steward a peculiar situation in the business field. The grain dealers have always done a banking business and to this day Shearer Brothers receive deposits and write exchange to a very large amount in the course of the year.

The First National Bank was organized Jan. 1, 1903, with a capital stock of $25,000. Its first officers were: E. L. Titus, president; I. R. Titus, cashier; R. W. Hough, assistant cashier, and E. L. Titus, I. R. Titus, Wesley Steward, G. W. Thompson, J. M. Burin, R. W. Hough, A. B. Titus, George E. Stocking and G. W. Durin, directors.

The Neola Elevator Company operates the old Wesley Steward elevator. Alto Township contains one of the best herds of pure bred Hereford cattle in the State of Illinois, owned by W. E. Hemenway. The annual dispersion sales from this farm are events in Lee County history. For many years, Morris Cook, son-in-law of Mr. Hemenway, owned a rare herd of the same breed, but on account of his large landed interests, he dispersed them about four years ago.

Mr. Hemenway's farm is the old Plum Thicket and it has been named ''The Grove Farm.''

At the International Live Stock show held in Chicago in 1905, ''Masquerader" tied with another bull for sweepstakes honors, which tie had to be decided by casting lots. In this test, Mr. Hemenway lost and so was given second. At other live stock shows this herd has achieved great distinction with ''Right Lad'' and other noted animals.

Concerning the churches of Alto, their early history is much the same as the history of Malugin's Grove in Brooklyn and Willow Creek. All were in the same circuit and the same circuit riders visited each, although circuit riding had been abandoned practically when Alto began its church history.

The year 1874 seems to mark the beginning of church life in Steward as a distinctive feature. Of course there were other church services in Alto Township, but just where I have not been able to ascertain.

In April, 1874, a meeting was held in the railroad depot for the purpose of maturing plans to build a Methodist Church in Steward. J. C. Curry, H. A. Robinson, H. VanPatten, V. W. Wells, Jeremiah Tyler, James A. Smith, Merritt Miller, Robert M. Peile and John Yetter were elected a building committee. M. L. Barnett was made treasurer and J. C. Curry was made clerk. Perkins Richardson of Aurora draughted plans and to T. J. Labdell was given the contract for building the new church. By September it was finished and then the question arose as to who should be given control of it. It was voted to the Methodists. On Sept. 6, 1874, the church was dedicated by Prof. Miner Raymond of the Garrett Biblical Institute of Evanston.

Mr. Steward then was superintendent of the railroad and to secure a large attendance he caused free trains to run into Steward from Chicago and Mount Morris. The ladies furnished free dinners. At the meeting Messrs. Steward and Curry agreed to pay the deficit after all the subscriptions had been made by the volunteers.

Before this period Willow Creek furnished about the only church services to be found in that vicinity.

North and south through Alto Township the old Ottawa-Rockford trail ran. In 1856 a road was viewed and laid out from Paw Paw to Rochelle.

The lands in Alto average high in price and fertility.

The Plum Thicket run is the only natural stream running through Alto Township, and that is so unimportant that it is little known. Water is reached easily. Drive wells reach an easy flow of water at a depth of 100 to 200 feet.

The very large Norwegian Evangelical Church in the south-eastern comer of the township already has been noticed in the account of Willow Creek. It is known as the North West Church and is not far from Lee.

It is so close to Lee that it is regarded as a Lee institution. It was organized June 25, 1870. At the meeting Michael Knutson was made chairman and Rasmus O. Hill, secretary. After prayers, articles of faith were adopted and officers were elected. Peter O. Espe, Peter O. Hill and Elias O. Espe were elected trustees and Michael Knutson, Rasmus O. Hill and Ole O. Hill were made deacons.

Its size is 36x56, 16 feet high, and has a seating capacity for 400. It is surrounded by a large yard and ample shed room for many teams. The cost of construction was $2,300 and the society is free from debt. While the Fertile Valley Church is considered as a Steward Church, it is in reality an Inlet swamp church over in Reynolds Township and will be considered there.

The very best of citizenship is found in Alto. The church-going element predominates almost to the extent of taking in every family in the township.

Saloons are not permitted in Alto Township. It has been dry territory for many years.

The Norwegian settlement extends over into Alto considerably, and into its neighboring town to the east, Milan, in DeKalb County. Once in the lifetime of Wesley Steward, he owned considerable over two thousand acres of land in this township and his brother Lewis Steward, owned something like one thousand three hundred acres.

James Kirby, for many years supervisor, and one of the big men of Lee County before his death, owned in his home farm nearly a thousand acres of land, I am told.

Considerable useful information concerning Alto lands will be found in the chapter devoted to the Inlet drainage scheme, one of the biggest in the state.

Lands in Alto Township run up to two hundred and fifty and three hundred dollars, and I doubt if the latter figure could buy a single acre of the beautiful Morris Cook farm, just east of town. Mr. Cook is a splendid farmer and when he speaks of threshing a season's crop, it means anything from ten thousand bushels upward. Mr. Cook holds to the theory that one year with another, it pays to market one's grain from the mouth of the machine, and in his admirable system of keeping track of things, his figures prove the truth of his theory.

The village of Steward is only six miles from Rochelle and very naturally trade at Rochelle, the larger place, would gravitate that way, but Steward has some splendid stocks of general merchandise and the merchants enjoy a splendid trade, running as high as fifty-five thousand dollars in a single year, I have been told, with one of them, Mr. John P. Yetter, the postmaster.

Rev. F. A. Graham, pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church here and at Fertile Valley, has two very substantial congregations and his Sunday schools are very prosperous.

Steward Of Today

Steward, located in the midst of the best body of land on this earth almost, naturally reaps many advantages, one of which is that until Scarboro, just below it, was platted, one million bushels of grain and over were marketed every year there. Three large elevators take care of it and in one of them there are three dumps which may be operated at the same moment, so that one man may come to market black oats, another may market white oats and still another with wheat, barley or corn may be served without interference. This grain elevator of Shearer Brothers, on one occasion paid out in one day for grain, $22,000. I doubt if any place of ten times the size of Steward can make that boast. This is the concern, too, which does a large banking business as well as grain business and, too, they own one of the elevators at Scarboro.

What is true of the grain trade is true of the livestock trade. H. K. Sherlock, one of the buyers, spent $24,000 for six weeks' receipts. In two other months he paid out $22,000. Besides him, other dealers buy: Mr. G. W. Durin, Peter Daum, P. C. Wagner and Thomas Kelley.

Another elevator is owned by the Neola Company, the Armours, and the third is called the Farmers, I believe.

The First National Bank is owned largely in the Titus family, it has a capital of $25,000 and a surplus of over $5,000.

Besides owning the harness shop, E. T. Corwin runs the garage there and he tells me there are nearly one hundred automobiles tributary to Steward. Something like thirty were sold in the place last season.

The residences of Steward are of the very highest class. Besides that of Mr. Steward, the founder is one owned by A. A. Richardson, costing $12,000. Cement sidewalks are laid before every lot in Steward. This is one of the few places which has an independent electric light all night service, called the Steward Electric Light and Water Company, managed by L. D. Beitel. The town is lighted by fifteen 64-candlepower Tungsten lights, and never since Mr. Beitel has controlled the plant has the town been without light. Steward also has a splendid water service furnished by the electric light company at moderate figures. The pressure can be made seventy-five pounds to the square inch in an instant.

Hon. Wesley Steward, who founded the little place, died not long ago, leaving Mrs. Steward, his widow, and Miss Bertha, his daughter, two charming ladies, surviving him. Miss Steward is a member of the Rochelle chapter, D. A. R. She also is a member of the State Historical Society and is very much interested in historical subjects. Her father, before his death, kept a diary every day of his life after he came to Alto Township in 1855, and therein every transaction was recorded just as it occurred, and when it occurred. When he came there he bought up 2,100 acres of land and his brother, Lewis, owned 1,300 acres more. Mr. Steward broke the first furrow on the land on which he lived and on which the village of Steward is situated, and ever since 1855, he lived on that land. During all his long career he was one of the leading citizens of Illinois and in Lee County, no one occupied a greater share of public esteem. Since his death, Mrs. Steward and Miss Steward spend much of their time in travel, especially during the winter months.

The business men of the place may be set down as follows: E. T. Corwin, as stated already; John P. Yetter, general merchant and postmaster, and he runs one of the best equipped stores I ever have seen; William Cratty, blacksmith; William Stauffer, blacksmith; the electric light and power plant; First National bank; Shearer Bros., grain and banking; The Farmer's Elevator, A. Coon, manager; Neola elevator, F. F. Nelson, manager; M. M. Fell, life insurance agent; Dr. G. Kimball; Dr. J. M. Durin; F. P. Barnett, groceries; W. A. Foster, restaurant; Thomas F. Kirby, farm implements; The O 'Neil Estate, general merchandise, a very large store; C. O. Raymond, painter; G. A. Ruckman, hardware; Will Daum, plumber; W. W. Holton, barber; City Hotel, and the Telephone Exchange.

Among the most successful farmers are Morris Cook, Ole J. Prestegaard, the very wealthy family of Herrmann, some of whom live over in Willow Creek, Ira Cooper, Elmer Smith, and the Henning Brothers. Peter Daum is another.

Farm lands of Alto have gone out of sight in price, so that it is impossible for me to quote it.

Just now, two railroads pass through Steward, the old Kinckley road, now the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul running north and south.

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