Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Palmyra Township, Lee County, Illinois

The proximity of this township to Dixon and the warm social and political friendships always existing for Dixon makes the township almost a common community with Dixon, and to speak of Dixon one seems in duty bound to include this large and wealthy and patriotic township of Palmyra. To this day Dixon contains more sons and daughters of Palmyra than she holds of her own children. The home loving tendency always has been strong with the old settler there and with his children. Few of the old settlers ever moved westward. They set their stakes in Palmyra and there nine-tenths of them remained until loving friends followed them to their final resting place in the beautiful cemetery nearby.

The drainage towards Rock River, which is Palmyra's south boundary, could not be ordered better. Its numerous park-like groves furnished timber in abundance to the early settler. Its first settlers were sturdy homeseekers, able and more than willing to meet the struggle with frontier hardships. Sugar Grove, covering over two thousand acres, in the northwest part of the township, was the largest of the groves. In partial compensation, those settlers found fish in the river, and game in the timber and on the prairies in abundance. Maple sugar was easily supplied; nuts for the winter, berries for the summer and for winter preserves were supplied lavishly; and in the roar of crackling winter fires, in the glow of great fireplaces, the pioneer of Palmyra enjoyed all the creature comforts man could honestly crave. And who shall say the showier civilization of today affords a greater enjoyment?

Like the sister settlements of Inlet and Melugin's Grove, those of Palmyra began in 1834. Members of the Morgan family, John and Harvey, the father, and Benjamin Stewart, with them, came first.

The Winnebago Indians from the Freeport and Prophetstown villages were numerous, but friendly. On the south side of Sugar Grove, the Morgans and Stewart settled. In November of 1834 John H. Page and wife and Stephen Fellows; in the spring of 1835 a large number of settlers came along and took up claims in Palmyra. The number included Smith Gilbraith, Wright, Tomlin, Capt. Oliver Hubbard, James Power and sons, Thomas and Jephtha; Michael Fellows, Absalom Fender with his large family, William W. Bethea, Daniel Obrist, Anson Thummel, Jefferson Harris, Keplinger, Nathan Morehouse, Sales, Thomas and his sons, Enoch and Noah; Sandy (William T.) Bush, Elkanah B. Bush, Martin Richardson, William W. Tilton. Other early settlers were: Hiram P. Parks, William Miller, 1841; Walter L. Rogers, 1839; Oliver A. Hubbard, 1836; Franklin Wilson, 1856; Simeon T. Martin, 1837; Harvey E. Johnson, 1845; Charles Lawton, 1854; Charles A. Guyot, 1852; David A. Holly, settled in Chinatown in 1835 and in Palmyra, 1845; Eben H. Johnson, 1838; Charles A. Martin, 1836; Amos Goodwin, 1852; Jacob Martin, 1836; Matthias Schick, 1842; John L. Lord, 1838 in Dixon, and 1841, Palmyra; Charles A. Becker, 1839 in Dixon, then in Palmyra in '40s; William Myers, 1836; George L. Klosterman, 1845; John Tharp Lawrence and cousin, Alexander Campbell, Aug. 9, 1839; Charles B, Thummel, 1845; Anson E. Thummel, 1841; Alfred A. Beede, 1836; Anton Harms, 1848; Ralph E. Johnson, 1847, born there; Henry Miller, 1838; Becker Miller, 1838; Winthrop Seavey, 1839; T. A. Butler, 1839; John Morse, 1838; Daniel Beardsley, 1835; John C. Oliver; Abijah Powers; Henry Cob, 1836; Walter Rogers; Reuben Eastwood; Timothy Butler; Hugh Graham; John Lawrence; Abner Moon; John, father of John L. Lord; Jarvin N. Holly; James, Jacob and Tyler Martin; Capt. Jonas M. Johnson; William Y. and Morris Johnson; Joshua Seavey and sons, Jesse and Winthrop; Joshua Marden and son, William; Albert and John Jenness; Harvey E. Johnson; Charles and Dana Columbia; Levi Briggs and father; Thomas Monk; William and John Benjamin; Truxton and Lemuel Sweeney; John and Joseph Thompson; John Norris; William and Lockwood Harris; William Burger; William Stackpole; Rev. William Gates; James Gates; William and Thomas Ay res; L. and E. Deyo; Col. Leman Mason and' sons, Sterne, Volney and Rodney; Moses Warner and sons, Henry, Moses and George; Major Sterling; Henry and Gustavus Sartorius; Nehemiah, William, Fletcher and Morris 5utton; Abram Obrist; Martin Blair; Wesley Atkinson; Thomas and Moses Scallion; John Carley; Hardin; Beach; Benjamin Gates; Charles A. Becker; Becker Miller; Curtis; Martin and William Brauer and William Miller.

It was W. W. Bethea who remarked that he was attracted to these parts because John Dixon was reputed to be the only man who had any money and who always gave employment to him who asked for it. The first dollar earned in Lee County by Mr. Bethea was his wage from Mr. Dixon.

Mrs. Hubbard did the first teaching in Palmyra in her own house. A private school taught at the Fender place by William Y. Johnson in 1841, was next. At Prairieville in the upper room of a house Levi Gaston taught a private school. A rough building half way between Gap Grove and the old Fender homestead was used during winter months for two winters for school purposes. William W. Bethea was the teacher. But if I am correctly informed the true historic building was the old log schoolhouse standing on the southwest corner of John H. Page's field: it was near the forks of the road and was surrounded by a locust grove. This old school in 1845 numbered fifty pupils. Among the teachers were William Y. Johnson in 1844, subsequently an Episcopal clergyman; John Norris; Emeline Dodd, subsequently his wife; Abigail Norris, a sister, who married Noah Thomas; Sarah Badger, a sister of the Amboy Badgers, and Calista Mason, daughter of Col. Leman Mason, and subsequently wife of Morris Johnson.

Afterwards, a frame school building was built at Gap Grove, across the road from Mrs. Hutton's house. The Sugar Grove frame building was built about 1847, near the site of the later church and school building. Following is a description of it: "It was severely plain, unpainted, unfenced and destitute of shade. Simplicity also reigned within. The high-backed benches, with their ungainly desks, separated by aisles, were elevated from one to two feet or more above the floor, sloping down an inclined plane, and were marvels of ugliness. Not a map adorned the walls, nor was any apparatus furnished, with the exception of a blackboard. There was not even a bell to summon the pupils from their play, the teacher having to rap on a window with a book or ferrule. In the year 1857-58, a brick church, with basement for school purposes was built near the old site.''

A phonetic school was taught at Gap Grove in early days by Rev. A. B. Pickard, a Methodist minister from Mount Morris. His son taught the same system at the same time in the little log school-house standing near John Lord's residence.

Another school was taught by the Judd brothers in the old town hall at Gap Grove. Advanced students only were taught; many from a distance attended.

Not to be lacking in variety, Gap and Sugar Groves each had a singing school taught by a party named Durgeon. Spelling schools, too, were a source of winter pleasures and profit. These contests excited township wide interest. Families were expected to furnish tallow dips, which were arranged in sockets at intervals upon the walls, and many times their drippings would drop below on the head of some unlucky speller. In 1857 illuminating lamps for school use at Sugar Grove, first appeared. Camphene was the fluid used in them.

Annual Sunday school celebrations were held, generally on July 4th, and at the Gap. Sometimes the Palmyra people united with the Buffalo Grove people and to the latter place they went in a grand procession; many times with banners and flying streamers.

Travel through Palmyra Township was almost continuous during the early days, and hand in hand with blacksmith shops the taverns for men and women and stables for horses were a necessity. Consequently along the big highway, taverns were scattered.

In Palmyra Captain Fellows kept one and John C. Oliver kept another.

Farmers generally found it necessary to make three or four trips to Chicago yearly. Provisions were taken along many times for man to eat, and horse feed, always. Tripp ^s tavern at Inlet was a favorite stopping place. It was the first stop.

Corduroy roads over swampy grounds many times were worse than the swamps they were presumed to bridge.

After loading for the return voyage, it was found generally that there were waiting many horseless people in Chicago, wanting to come out into Lee County, and never was there a load so great or so heavy but that a trunk and a passenger or two could be accommodated.

The first church in Palmyra was built jointly by the Methodists and Congregationalists and occupied by them on alternate Sundays. It was located on the present site of the Gap Grove school-house. Its dimensions were 24x36; painted white without and within. A wood stove heated it; tall-backed benches provided seating capacity; tin sockets for candles were arranged on the walls, with reflectors on the back. Congregational singing was the vogue and John H. Page and his tuning fork provided the momentum. Rev. Barton Cartwright preached at times for the Methodists and Reverend Copelin for the Congregationalists.

The first church services were held in the home of Capt. Stephen Fellows and later at a little log schoolhouse standing near the present Horace Gilbert home at Gap Grove. In 1839, Mrs. Martha Parks and her husband attended church there and at their first service listened to Rev. Arrion Gaston. This Mrs. Parks was the last survivor of the old Dixon and Buffalo Grove Baptist church.

While speaking of Mrs. Parks, I should state that her daughter, Mrs. Thomas Ayres, was named by "Mother" Dixon after herself, Rebecca Dixon Parks, and for a name present gave the child a deed for a lot in Dixon. Mr. Parks never thought it would amount to anything and never got the deed recorded. The lot today is covered by the building of the E. N. Howell Hardware Company.

E. B. Bush was first postmaster. After county organization, William W. Bethea and Levi Gaston became the first justices of the peace.

On Nov. 18, 1838, Mr. and Mrs. Eben H. Johnson wrote letters back to York state. Therein Mr. Johnson says, "wheat is worth $1.25 per bushel and corn 50 cents.''

Six years later he wrote and stated that Chicago and St. Louis, with sometimes the Galena mines were their markets. St. Louis was reached by Rock and the Mississippi Rivers. Wheat then was 75 cents to $1 per bushel, 80 cents at Galena; corn, 25 cents; oats, 20 and 25 cents; butter, 12 to 18 cents; cheese, 6 to 8 cents; dressed pork, $3 to $4; horses, $100 to $150 a span; cows, $8 to $12; sheep, $1.50 to $2; wool, 31 cents; timber land, $10 to $12 per acre; prairie land, one mile and further from timber, $1.25 per acre. Wooden axle wagons were sold from $60 to $70 each. In the same letter Mr. Johnson declares money was plenty. Mr. Johnson when he wrote the letter was a good Palmyra booster.

Rev. Stephen N. Fellows, son of Stephen Fellows, in a lengthy letter has done much for preserving Palmyra history to us, by writing it down for "Recollections of the Pioneers." His father, with his family, settled in Sugar Grove, in November, 1834; they moved into a 14x14 log cabin in the Grove, just west of the Myers place, and fourteen people made it their home. In the spring of 1835, he built a log house on the "old place,'' later Peck farm. In 1836 an addition of two stories was built, with a room between. The upper story was used for a school room and for church purposes. Until 1837, it was the only place used for meetings. Sometimes quarterly meetings were held here. In 1839 Stephen Fellows, William Martin and Ambrose Hubbard united and with such help as could be got, they built the old Gap Grove church, 24x36. Stephen Fellows died Feb: 8, 1840, and was the first to be buried from that church. Mr. Fellows thinks his sister Margaret and his brother Samuel were the first teachers in the township. Samuel taught in the house in the winter of 1835-36. The first Sunday school was held in the first schoolhouse mentioned, and William Martin was superintendent and only teacher.

Death claimed many in the early day. Dan Beardsley, 1839; W. W. Bethea's wife and three children; Capt. Stephen Fellows' two daughters, Margaret and Mrs. Allen, who died in 1836; a Mr. McGee.

Private cemeteries prevailed here as in all new settlements. There were two graves on the Powers place at Gap Grove, the second one being that of a stranger who came from Kentucky and his malady was supposed to be asiatic cholera. He died on the night of his arrival.

The first public burying ground was upon the Capt. Stephen Fellows place, on the north side of the road, on the hill east of the bam. But when in 1840 the Gap Grove cemetery was located, most of the scattered bodies were re-interred in it. The first burial in the new cemetery was that of Captain Fellows, Feb. 8, 1840.

In a community exclusively rural, one would expect to find no manufacturing or mechanical industries. No early day contrariety worked so boldly as this exception right here in Palmyra. Beginning with the trapper and hunter, Sales, of Sales' Spring, the milling industry of Lee County made its appearance. He landed there with nothing but a collection of mouths, stretched wide open, like young robins. But he was not afraid to work. If he would split one hundred rails, his wage was one bushel of com. The com he carried home bored a hole down the center of a log, over which he fastened a slender pole with an iron wedge inserted in its end. Working this pole up and down, he pulverized the corn; then sifting it, he used the finer particles for meal; the coarser for hominy. With fish and water and wood fowl and berries and sugar from the maples, the family of good appetite reveled in good living.

In the early days Wilson's mills had a reputation for turning out fine flour which spread all over northern Illinois, and he was a Palmyra man. It saved the northwestern part of the state future hardships of trips to Chicago.

Joseph Wilson, an old Brandywine miller, and a Quaker, settled on Elkhorn creek, operated his mill on that creek excepting at those times when the creek was dry, then Aurora on Pox River was their milling town. This mill was constructed by the neighbors who turned out in a body and built it, a rough log affair. Winter wheat generally was ground.

After the death by drowning in Elkhorn creek, of Daniel Obrist, while seining, his brother, Abram, built a very much needed saw-mill on Elkhorn creek and here flooring, timbers, door and window frames and siding were sawed out, thus saving the farmers tremendous labor. . The first siding from this mill was used to build the first frame barn in the township, on the Ben Stewart place. Barn raisings were very common in those days. The entire neighborhood turned out invariably; plenty to eat was provided by the women; plenty of Fred Butcher's com whiskey was provided by the men; and when completed, the barn was "baptized'' by breaking another bottle over the plate either by Reuben Eastwood or Abner Moon, whose vigorous lung power had provided them with voices to echo the proper speech.

Blacksmith shops were numerous the country over, especially along the Chicago road which passed through this township. A man named Smith opened the first shop. James Carley followed soon afterwards. The latter's shop stood a little west of Mrs. John Lawrence's house. A very talented but besotted man named Beach was his assistant. John Lord's shop, a little way out from the milk factory, was started in 1841. Twelve years later his son, John L. Lord, succeeded to the business and for years Lord's wagons were scattered all over northern Illinois. Matthias Schick's establishment followed in 1843, at Prairieville. On the north side of the grove Charles Columbia operated one in a log house just opposite Reuben Eastwood's home. This subsequently was moved across Sugar creek to the Columbia farm and was carried on by Dana Columbia, a brother, for many years. Four early shoe shops found their way into Palmyra.

Before passing the subject of manufacturing, I must copy a few words which tell of the man Beach who assisted James Carley: "This Beach belonged to a highly respectable family in the East, and had received an excellent business education. He kept Carley's books, which were models of neatness. He also blew the bellows and fetched the whiskey from Dixon. Old settlers will ever remember this mass of rags and pimples, his head crowned with a dilapidated old stovepipe, always filled with old greasy newspapers, which he greedily devoured when he had leisure."

The early manufacturing efforts made in Palmyra must not be dismissed without reverting to E. B. Bush's efforts. He was the most impractical man in the world. He built a saw mill. Had he paused there, all might have been well, but he proposed too much. He also built an oil mill for the manufacture of castor and linseed oil. To obtain grist for the latter he induced the farmers to raise large areas of castor-oil beans and flaxseed, promising a dollar a bushel for them. The crop was tremendous. There was not money enough in the county to pay for it. The then manner of threshing was not adapted for flax. When the horses were put on to trample the straw, the seed was crushed and spoiled and the straw invariably coiled itself into ropes and tethered the horses into a stationary position. Thus the flax and oil branch of the business failed utterly. When the bean crop came on, Bush had no money and the crop rotted. Thus early the manufacturing languished. Subsequently Bush sold a claim, invested his money in medical books; tried to become a doctor, killed most of his patients and disappeared.

Of the Palmyra boys, many reached fame and fortune. Of the number, the Page boys, sons of John H., undoubtedly lead. George H. Page was born May 16, 1836, in Palmyra Township. Soon after the outbreak of the war he obtained a clerkship in the War Department at Washington. Charles A. Page was born in Palmyra, May 22, 1838. He attained a clerkship in the Fifth Auditor's office. Later in the war he became the New York Tribune's war correspondent. In 1866, George H., Charles A and David S. Page went to Switzerland and established a condensed milk factory. They profited enormously. Later George H. returned to Dixon, bought the beautiful Governor Charters estate of Hazelwood, the Doctor Everett, Big Elm farm and the Woodruff farm up the river. Through his instrumentality a system of good roads was built. He built the immense Anglo-Swiss condensed milk factory, now the Borden's, and arranged all his affairs to live again in Dixon, where all the scenes of his childhood were enacted. But while in New York City he caught a bad cold; pneumonia set in and he died. Over in the old Palmyra cemetery beside the graves of father and mother and all his brothers, he was laid to rest close to those childhood scenes which he had hoped to enjoy so much. His plans for the future of Dixon were many. His death cut them off. Mrs. Page and son, Fred, still live, spending most of their time in Europe where they have large interests.

While not a Palmyra "boy,'' yet Charles H. Hughes came from Palmyra, and Charles H. Hughes was one of the biggest men ever produced in Lee County. While mayor of Dixon, the system of public improvements was commenced which are going forward to this day almost as he would have made them. He bought the Hazelwood estate and while it was his, he brought it to a very high degree of beauty. Later he was made a Representative in the Legislature; then a Senator, and that position he held at his death. He was a man of commanding ability. His plans for civic improvement were comprehensive and practical. He conceived big things; he accomplished big things, and he became the biggest man among men. After a day's work nothing refreshed him so much as to retire for the evening to his log cabin on beautiful Hazelwood and by the blazing knot fire plan out something more for Hazelwood and Dixon. Now he, too, is a neighbor of the Page boys in the same cemetery over in Palmyra.

Solomon Hicks Bethea, son of William W. Bethea, became a lawyer, a legislator in the Illinois General Assembly, a United States attorney and a judge of the United States District Court for Chicago.

Lee County Townships


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