Lee County Illinois
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Inlet Swamp, Lee County Illinois

The drainage of Inlet Swamp, comprising about 30,000 acres of land in the townships of Alto, Willow Creek, Reynolds, Viola, Bradford and Lee Center, in Lee County, Illinois, is one of the most stupendous undertakings in the history of northern Illinois, not alone from the magnitude of the work itself, but from the great difficulties that had to be overcome. The dam of solid rock half a mile thick, at Inlet, presented a barrier that had been looked upon as insurmountable.

Action for reclaiming these lands had been taken as far back as the early 70s. The writer has been on at least three drainage assessment juries since 1870; but all attempts proved futile and brought no good results from the fact that there was no sufficient outlet. The ditches cut at various times at several thousand dollars' expense, through land that is practically a dead level, served as channels in which the water could accumulate during the sum-mer and fall, when the land was not overflowed; but they provided no current, and aided but little in removing the water. The ledge of rock at Inlet had to be cut through and a deep channel made as the first move in any successful system of drainage. It took time and costly experiment to convince the majority of swamp-land owners of this.

To Ira Brewer, one of the earliest settlers of Bradford Township belongs the credit and the honor of being the pioneer in reclaiming the swamp lands of Inlet. He first recognized the prospective value of the lands and was always active in protecting public interest in them. The old Dewey dam, eight feet high, set the water back about twelve miles and overflowed about fifteen thousand acres of land. All these lands were given to the comity by the state, which received them from the Government. A move was made in the early days to have the 15,000 acres of over-flowed lands given to the mill owners for a perpetual mill-pond. The action was well meant, and at that time appeared to be a wise and judicious action; and but for the personal efforts of Ira Brewer it would have been consummated. He stood at first almost alone in his opposition to it on the county board, and was the only member that was determined in his opposition to it. The scheme was finally defeated by a majority of one.

Following this action came the removal of the Dewey dam at Inlet and the lowering of the water level all over the tract of 30,000 acres. In place of the waste of water in which grew gigantic rushes, Indian rice and other worthless vegetation, the home of millions of geese, ducks, swan, brant, pheasant, grouse, wild turkey and other wild game, there came in gradually a growth of coarse slough grasses, some short and mingled with weeds in great variety, other kinds rank and tall, growing to a height of ten or twelve feet. The land was overflowed during the spring and early summer, but later unless the season was wet, the water drained off and the sod, which was of the very toughest nature, would bear up a team and loaded wagon. During the fall of the year, after the grass had been killed by frosts, magnificent prairie fires prevailed until snow came; the flames at night, when there were high winds, lighting up the sky with surpassing grandeur, enabling a person to read by the light miles away, and being visible for a distance of nearly one hundred miles. These magnificent scenes of thirty years and more ago remain indelibly impressed upon the memories of those who witnessed them. During the winter months there were unlimited skating facilities. It continued to be the home and nesting place of wild fowl, and of deer, wolf, and other game, and was a paradise for hunters. During the grazing season the eastern part of Viola Township was headquarters for an immense herding ground extending throughout the entire eastern part of the swamp, where thousands of cattle and horses were herded by a troop of herders, cattle for one dollar a head and horses for two dollars a head during the season. Robert M. Peile of Reynolds Township handled the herding many years, and a man by the name of Collins also had a large herd there. Enclosed pastures were almost unknown in those years, and almost every farmer in the eastern part of the county, and many from a greater distance, had cattle in the herd during the summer season; and notwithstanding the swarms of ''green-heads'' and other annoying insects, stock came out in good condition the first of October.

The swamp, especially about the edges, began to be dryer; the quality of the grasses became better and better. Attempts were made to raise crops on lands that a few years before were under water; the wild grass improved in quality, and dry seasons after harvest hundreds of farmers from miles around could be found on the ''swamps'' cutting ''sprangle-top" hay. At first it cost nothing but the labor of cutting, curing, and hauling; but in a few years its value became known to the land-owners and it sold for from fifty cents to one dollar and fifty cents an acre standing. During the extremely dry summer of 1887 the marsh was nearly all out for hay, farmers and liverymen coming from Polo, Oregon, and even farther, buying the standing hay for from one dollar to one dollar and fifty cents an acre. "Pond hay" sold the following winter as high as eight dollars to ten dollars a ton.

About this stage in the transformation of the marsh lands, the project of forming a hunting park was agitated by Mr. Valentine Hicks of Bradford, who owned what was formerly the Stephen Clink farm, now owned by W. S. Frost, Jr. He is a native of Long Island, a practical hunter with much experience in such matters, having organized the first hunters' club of New York City and was the founder of a hunting park at Currituck Sound, North Carolina. After several years of agitation the ''Rising Sun Park Association" was organized and incorporated with a capital stock of $50,000, comprising 500 shares of $100 each, with the principal office at Ashton, Lee county, Illinois, the duration of the corporation to be ninety-nine years. The object was to preserve the lands, inclosing a tract about seven miles square, for game and fish, for hunting and pleasure for members of the association. The Rising Sun Park Association was incorporated Dec. 24, 1887, and papers issued, Henry D. Dement being Secretary of State. The incorporators were Samuel Dysart, John Nelles, Samuel F. Mills, U. Grant Dysart, Valentine Hicks, William A. Hunt, Dr. Nicholas Rowe. A constitution and by-laws were adopted and books for subscription to the capital stock were opened.

There were eight directors: Samuel Dysart, Franklin Grove; Samuel F. Mills, Ashton; John Nelles, West Brooklyn; Valentine Hicks, Bradford; Dr. N. Rowe, 343 State street, Chicago; Dwight Townsend, 187 Broadway, New York; Mr. H. S. Bergen, Bay Ridge, L. I.; Mr. M. C. Clark, Washington, D. C. The officers were: President, Samuel Dysart; vice-president, Valentine Hicks;. Treasurer, N. A. Petrie, Ashton; secretary, U. Grant Dysart, Franklin Grove. A part of the stock was subscribed and a lively interest was taken in the enterprise by gentlemen in Chicago, New York and other places. There arose a contest for supremacy between those favoring a park and those favoring reclaiming the land for agricultural purposes. It is still thought by some that a game preserve would have been a good thing, and fully as profitable in the long run as to dry up the great source of water supply in that section. The advantages of a game park and preserve as contemplated by Mr. Hicks and others were never understood by the landowners and the public. We are too practical and would turn everything to profit, regardless of pleasure and other considerations^ A game preserve, as contemplated, comprising about fifty square miles, would have been a source of profit to farmers in that section, in the greatly enhanced value of land which would follow the attractions of a park owned and beautified by wealthy men of the cities. Hard roads, telegraph and telephone lines, fine club-houses, distinguished visitors with money to spend with a post office and other features most desirable and advantageous would have followed in time.

In this connection it is proper to call attention to the game park now in process of establishment in Bureau County, comprising about twenty thousand acres of what is known as St. Peter's marsh, a tract of land very similar to the Inlet marsh lands. It would not be difficult to drain these lands; but a park association has been organized, wealthy men have been interested in the project, and $200,000 will be used in the purchase of the tract and as much more for attractive club houses and for beautifying and making necessary improvements. The association will be organized and take possession this season, 1901.

While these marsh lands were well adapted to the purposes of a game park, the idea of reclaiming them for agricultural purposes had gained such a hold upon the minds of the landowners, that it prevailed, and the game park project failed. It had the effect, however, of forcing the friends of drainage to act more promptly and decidedly. The game park movement is an incident in the history of the swamp lands that is worthy of this notice. Had the movement been launched ten or twenty years earlier, the prospect of success would have been good. Only those who lived in the vicinity of the swamps in the early days, before and just after the Dewey dam was removed, would believe the marvelous facts that could be narrated of the millions of geese, duck, brant, swan, and other water fowl that during the spring and fall covered the swamps, rising in immense flocks that literally spotted the sky like flying clouds and filled the air with a noisy quack and cackle, flying low in the air within easy range of a shot-gun - with prairie chicken, quail, pheasant, sand-hill crane, and other game, all in such vast number as to become a nuisance in grain fields. Wild game was more common on the table than domestic fowl during the spring and fall; and a wild goose, a pair of ducks or a brace of chickens could often be had for the asking.

The wisdom and foresight of Ira Brewer had become manifest, and the swamp lands came during all these years to have a value. The idea of draining the lands began to take shape, although but few believed they would ever become equal in value to the adjacent highlands. Schemes of private drainage and drainage under special acts of the Legislature were worked with little success and not much profit. The landowners were not satisfied until they had practically demonstrated that the lands could not be drained with a wide stone dam at the natural outlet only a few inches lower than the level of the swamp. The stone dam must be cut through and a system of ditches dug, at an expense estimated by Mr. Rutledge, the first engineer employed to make a full and careful estimate, of $185,000. This dismayed the landowners, being far more than the entire swamp was worth. The system was modified to reduce the expense to $67,000. That was the first outlay. The completed system has cost nearly the $385,000; and the price of the swamp lands now fully equals, and even exceeds the price of the adjacent uplands.

Sometime during 1885 or 1886 three men owning large tracts of land in the swamps, Ira Brewer of Bradford, John Nelles of Viola, and A. B. McFarland of Mendota, joined in an effort to organize a drainage district on a scale never before contemplated. It was to take in all the lands that would be benefited by drainage and open an outlet of sufficient depth and capacity through the rock at Inlet. This was the first movement that culminated in the organization of Inlet Swamp Drainage District. They met with opposition and faced difficulties that would have daunted men of less foresight, courage and perseverance. To them, especially to Mr. John Nelles, of Viola, belongs the credit of having not only originated the work, but of having cleared the way of preliminary difficulties, secured the good will of the majority of landowners toward the enterprise and put it on a sound basis. Those who now enjoy the benefits and advantages of the drain-age system have little idea of the time and money expended by Mr. Nelles in preparing the way, meeting the objections, and allaying the fears of landowners. Opposition to a scheme involving so enormous an outlay was natural, and it required the highest degree of patience, tact and perseverance to bring a majority of the landowners into acceptance of his views and secure their support for the enterprise.

This preliminary work, so efficiently performed and so essential to future success, was most ably seconded by the masterful executive ability and untiring energy of Mr. Wesley Steward, one of the first commissioners after the organization of the district. It is just and proper to make special mention of the invaluable services rendered by Commissioner Steward, the man of action and energy who bore the brunt of the work during the early years and devoted the most of his time to it. Those associated with him in the work bear witness to his superior activity and helpfulness, and join in giving to him the place of honor as the executive head of the commission.

The successful completion of the work is not the only remarkable feature of the enterprise. Seldom, if ever, has an under-taking of such magnitude, so far-reaching in its results, involving so many interests, and affecting the rights and property of so large a number of individuals, been carried out with so little litigation and so few mistakes. Every move has been well planned, carefully considered with reference to all interests involved, and skillfully and thoroughly executed. There has been no indecision nor delay, and few if any errors in judgment. The rights of individuals have been carefully considered with reference to the best interests of the district as a whole; and so much care and good judgment has been exercised in every detail of the work that the district has been involved in no litigation; something most remarkable, and which reflects the highest credit upon the wisdom, sagacity and sense of justice of the attorney for the district, the judge and the commissioners. No other drainage district, small or large, can show such a record, although the Inlet Swamp Drainage District encountered all the troubles and difficulties that have beset any other drainage district, and met and peacefully settled some difficulties of a serious nature, encountered by no other district yet organized.

Many precedents have been established for other districts to follow; and the proceedings as a whole will be found of great historic value as well as of historic interest. The work will remain a monument to the foresight, perseverance and good judgment of the men who organized it, and the men who have borne a part in planning, directing and executing it.

Review of Inlet Swamp

Lee County History


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