Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

South Dixon Township, Lee County, Illinois

In the treatment of the township of Dixon, manifestly, little can be said of the olden day because for most of its history, the township was included within the township of Dixon, and most of the old time history pertained to Dixon and has been told already. However, this chapter cannot be dismissed with any such explanation as that. Since its separation from the present township of Dixon, much has happened in South Dixon which deserves close attention from the historian.

If no more than the old red brick schoolhouse were to be treated, that historian would have his hands full for a considerable period of time. Nine-tenths of the boys and girls of Dixon who have amounted to anything in the world have taught school in the old red brick. The old debates there have attracted the very best there was in all the countryside and in Dixon to thresh out a decision. The flights of eloquence which have battered those sacred old walls would have annihilated any built less formidable.

Who is there of half a century ago who does not remember the bursts of rhetoric supplied by Ephraim H. Groh t Who that ever has seen and heard him can forget Abram Brown, one of the most delightful gentleman that ever entered the borders of Lee County? To possess those two gentlemen and to honor them will lend to South Dixon a history worth while.

The old red brick stands today as modestly as it stood the day it was built; I wish I could find out just when it was built. Modestly I say, yet valiantly, when Mr. Brown wrote his brief historical sketch of this township, he very modestly omitted the schoolhouse and its debating society. This debating society was organized in the year 1858, under the title, The Edsonville Literary and Debating Society. Its first meeting was in this old brick school-house, so that it was standing then. The ''corners'' were called Edsonville. Mr. Brown who was a member of it from its birth until his death, was its first honored president.

Never was there a political campaign during the old days but the red brick was used week after week, and from the little rostrum, Elihu B. Washburne, Horatio C. Burchard, Tom Turner, James L. Camp, Col. John Dement, and Shelby M. Cullom have spoken.

Today those same comers are called St. James and a church opposite the old red brick has been built, taking the name perhaps from the name of the church, ''St. James Lutheran.'' At one time the attendance at this school was 120, more than at any other school in the county outside the cities of Amboy and Dixon.

Joseph Cortright was the first permanent settler. In 1839 he died and after that, the widow and her son, Richard removed to Dixon to live. Before that date, however, a young man whose name has not been left behind settled in 1836. He staked out a claim near the three mile branch on the Chicago road. Shortly afterwards Peter McKenney and his good wife, Aunty Rhoda came along and through some misunderstanding, they jumped the young man's claim. Uncle Peter was about as hard headed as most men and when his head ''was sot'' as he termed it himself, he was as immovable as the rocks of Gibraltar. When told that he had jumped the young man's claim he refused to yield to the demands of the ''Claim Jumper's Society," and that body proceeded at once to make him move. When a delegation reached the place Uncle Peter was smoking his pipe peacefully in the shade of his shack while Aunt Rhoda was getting dinner. Two of the delegation took Uncle Peter by the arm and without much resistance; he was led over the boundary of the claim. But with implicit faith in his better half, he sent back the rallying cry, ''Keep possession, Rhody; keep possession. They can't get us out if you keep possession." But in spite of Uncle Peter's faith in Aunt Rhoda's ability to keep possession. Uncle Peter's cabin was loaded on a big wagon and wheeled away and the McKennyes tried no more to secure the claim.

The second permanent settler was Charles Edson, who came with his family, of wife and sons and daughters, in 1839, from Pennsylvania. That family increased to five sons and three daughters.

These people were remarkably intelligent. They were just as benevolent and cheerful; just the people for pioneers and to this very day the Edsons are remembered for their many virtues, Mr. Brown tells a very amusing story about Mrs. Edson after she had her teeth drawn. Her chin, like Mother Hubbard's turned upward toward the nose and upon meeting her one day; Mr. Brown said jocularly, ''Your nose and chin will have a meeting some day.'' ''Indeed,'' she answered quickly, ''I'm not certain but they will; many words have passed between them already."

I feel it my duty to repeat Mr. Brown's words concerning this delightful family, not because they are relatives of my family's relatives, but because they so truly and so nobly represented the pioneer spirit.

''Mrs. Edson was of that cheerful, mirthful disposition that attracted the grave as well as the gay, while her lovely character bound in the ties of a warm esteem, all who were thus attracted.

''Mrs. Edson was left a widow before her children were fully grown, but their training was begun right and it was her pride to say in her old age that ''not one of them ever caused her a moment's pain or shame by any wrong-doing.' They were all worthy men and women, noble in nature, honored by their fellow citizens and beloved by those who knew them best. To the day of her death in advanced age they showed the tenderest solicitude for their mother, and this slight tribute to her inestimable worth will find an echo in their hearts as well as in many others.

''The oldest daughter, Harriet, married Otis Eddy, but was soon bereft of her husband and infant daughter. She became a very tower of strength to all the family thereafter, and is to this day an ideal woman, practical, unostentatious, but noble in every sense. She went with her brothers across the plains to California when the gold fever broke out. Returning, after a few years, she again accompanied them to Pike's Peak on a summer trip, made in the same way. When a younger brother lay at the point of death in a southern hospital during the war, it was Harriet who went to him, cared for him, and brought him home.

''The family went to California and prospered. Their home lies at the foot of Mt. Shasta, and Mrs. Eddy was the first woman who ever ascended that beautiful peak. She made the ascent about the year 1854, and ten years later she repeated the feat with her youngest sister, Libbie.

''The other sister, Lucy, is well remembered as a talented musician. Though a sufferer from a fracture of the hip joint which made a crutch necessary from childhood, she was as ready and cheerful as any, and no more delightful evenings ever were spent by the young people than when they gathered at the Edsons.

''They built the house and barn now owned by the writer, one of the few of the original farm homes left on the prairies. They afterwards removed to the place near the Brick School House, which is often spoken of by their name. Their house is still standing though no longer used as a dwelling.

''Here Mr. Edson died, and here the sweet youngest daughter, Libbie was born. As soon as their first home was habitable, Mrs. Edson gave up her largest room for a school. This was the first in the vicinity. The teacher was a Miss Robinson, later a preceptress in Mt. Morris Seminary. She married Judge Fuller of Ogle County, and after his death. Bowman Bacon, a nephew of Mrs. Joseph Crawford.

''Among the scholars beside Mrs. Edson's children, were Mary Augusta Gardner, now Mrs. James A. Hawley; William W. DeWolf, the genial judge of later years; his brother Erastus; Wellington Davis and Hannah Casterline, later the wife of Mr. Davis.

''The superior schools in that district at a very early day were largely due to the influence of the Edson family, some of whom were its best teachers. Mr. Edson helped to build the first Methodist church of Dixon.' [Note: He also helped build the Brick School House and was its first teacher: Editor.]

The next family which came to South Dixon was that of James Campbell, with Mrs. Campbell, two daughters, Ophelia and Julia. The latter became one of the first teachers in the North Dixon primary schools and later married Eugene Pinckney.

Reuben Trowbridge settled near the present town or village of Eldena with his father and the family.

Hiram and Heman Mead came soon afterwards. Their brother, Alonzo settled a little further to the east in China Township. Later in life, all three moved into Dixon and there died at advanced ages.

Just another story from the pen of Mr. Brown about another South Dixon settler which is most interesting: ''Somewhat in contrast to these, was a man by the name of Hammill, who brought with his family from the poorhouse of Buffalo, N. Y., a little child. The child was so shamefully treated that N. G. H. Morrill, the county poor overseer or poor master, took her to his home in Dixon. Her pitiable condition excited the sympathy of the people at once. Her hair was dirty and matted, face unwashed and what do you think she was clothed in? It was an old coffee sack, with the comers cut off for arm holes, and a hole in the center of the bottom for her head; no underclothing, shoes, or stockings.

''Hammill prosecuted Mr. Morrill for kidnapping the child. When the case was called, he was ready with his lawyer, whom many old settlers remember; Mackay by name. When they adjourned for dinner they went to the old Western Hotel. Just as they were through dinner, some men stepped up to Hammill with a kettle of hot tar, which they poured over his head and shoulders, the streams running down over his whole body; another shook over him a bag of feathers, and then they rolled him in the sand of the street. I shall never forget how he looked, lying there with closed eyes. I thought he was dead. But in a moment he opened one eye, then the other, and seeing the men busy elsewhere, rolled over and springing to his feet, ran to some bushes nearby, then for home. He was a laughable sight. On the principle that the partaker is as bad as the thief, the men felt that his attorney deserved similar treatment and attempted to administer it, but the tar was too cold to run easily or to hold the feathers. He showed fight and came near killing one of the boys. The muzzle of his gun was knocked upward by a bystander just in time. The kidnapping suit ended there, and so I think, did the career of Mr. Mackay in Dixon.

I may as well add that when the war broke out, Mackay was a violent southern sympathizer and he made so many uncomplimentary remarks about the northern people and our soldiers, that a party waited upon him and ordered him to leave town or swing to a tree. He went South and never was heard of again except by rumors now and then.

Mr. Brown's account of the old prairie schooner freighters is interesting and it must be reproduced.

''In an early day, provisions, pork and flour, were mostly brought from St. Louis, Kentucky, Indiana and the southern part of the state in large wagons with broad tires, high wheels and very high, long boxes, often 20 or 22 feet long. They made a track over a half wider than our common wagons. Drawn by three or four teams of horses, to eight yoke of oxen, and carrying from sixty or eighty hundred pounds, they well deserved the name of Prairie schooners. They went in gangs of six or eight wagons, with several men on horseback to pilot them and help avoid the sloughs. They sold their bacon at from 25 to 35 cents per pound; flour from 25 to 35 dollars per barrel.

A few years later, while the men were working at the now abandoned track still discernible in places, of the Illinois Central railroad, some such traders would start from the southern part of the state, with large droves of hogs, carrying with them all the facilities for butchering, kettles for heating water, tubs for scalding, etc. When they came to a gang of men or to a village, they would sell, kill and prepare the meat for their customers. They carried their own corn, and gathered wood at the groves as they traveled; did their own cooking and were very independent. They lived chiefly on fried pork, coffee and hoe cake, made of corn meal, wet with water and baked on a board before the fire.

''It is said that when the prop for the board failed to do duty, they cast lots or played high, low, jack, to see who should lie on his back and prop the board with his feet.''

Speaking of the old Illinois Central of the thirties, just as one enters South Dixon Township, the old grade shows as plainly today as it did sixty years ago. The fill never has been plowed and the cut never has been plowed and in that cut there grows an immense Cottonwood tree. It is Lee County's best monument to the follies of the wild cat days of internal improvements. Jacob Groh came to this township in 1848. Among the other old settlers who moved in to South Dixon Township in the thirties and forties, were Uncle Jacob and Aunt Polly McKenney; Christon Stevens; Henry B. True; Caldwell Bishop; Henry Page; James Rogers; Matthew McKenney; W. A. Judd; Nathan Hill; possibly some of these men did not get here until the early fifties, but most of them came before that decade.

The Illinois Central railroad runs through this township and the village of Eldena is located on section 36.

The Lee County Home for the Poor is located on the southeast quarter of section 26, about half a mile from Eldena. Clyde Wicher at present is the superintendent of the home and Mrs. Wicher is matron.

When some years ago, 1906, the Northwestern railroad company desired to construct a line or road or cut-off to avoid the steep grades of the main line through the city of Dixon, it was built from Nachusa to Nelson, and passes through South Dixon with a considerable curve, and in a southwesterly direction entering section 12 and leaving the township through section 19.

South Dixon is settled by the very best of farmers. In this township Mr. I. B. Countryman's Oak Dale farm is located. Mr. Countryman is a wealthy retired merchant. He had been active so many years he could not be idle. He deeply loved a farm and so he purchased a farm in this township in the southeast quarter of section 8. When purchased, it was said to be the poorest farm in the township. For years it had been stripped. Nothing had been returned to the soil and Mr. Countryman's many friends enjoyed much amusement at his expense for engaging in agriculture with characteristic city propensities of the agriculturist instead of the farmer. Mr. Countryman enjoyed all this badinage and proceeded with his program. He built very handsome buildings on the place and purchased some purebred Holstein cattle. Then he began building up the soil. Now he is reaping handsome benefits and profits from his investment. During the season just past he took from a field of alfalfa of nine and a half acres, $100 per acre. Next year the field will contain twenty acres and the proceeds from it will be raised to $2,000. A twelve acre field of clover yielded forty tons of hay and five and a half bushels of clover seed. The hay at ten dollars per ton made $400 and the seed at ten dollars per bushel made $55.

From his herd of Holsteins he sold ten bulls for $1,250. Last season his cows averaged him $160 per head in cream. In all his efforts to raise the standard of productivity in farm lands, Mr. Countryman has kept accurate account of every cent which has gone into the place and all that has been taken from it and he finds that for every dollar of feed he put into his cows, he realized two dollars and sixty-three cents. His butter fat cost him twelve dollars and forty-four cents per hundred pounds and his milk cost.6643 to produce.

Every day his cattle are groomed. The milking is done by machine into air tight receptacles. Then the milk is placed in the milk house and cooled in the quickest possible time. After each milking, all tools are sterilized. Dirt is impossible. After each churning, a jet of steam is turned into each machine which sterilizes it.

Recently a representative from the State University from Champaign made a test of Mr. Countryman's cows. Four tests were made per day and samples were taken, one of them being at midnight. With the twenty-eighth milking the product was sealed and sent to the state laboratory at Champaign. The cow especially tested was a three-year-old, after delivering her second calf. This female ran sixty-four pounds in one day of milk and in seven days she ran 452 pounds.

Very recently Mr. Countryman added butter to his Oak Dale product. He puts his butter in beautiful receptacles made from spruce pulp, holding one, two or five pounds. These are shipped to a special line of customers at figures far above the regular price of butter.

Soil culture has been studied carefully by him. His land has been fertilized and charged with properties required to bring about the best results in grains and grasses and having reaped handsomely from his intelligent efforts Mr. Countryman claims that land at $1,000 per acre can be made to pay a profitable dividend.

Lee county may well feel proud of two enterprising citizens who more than almost any others have demonstrated what the farmer, the backbone of the country, may do if he will try putting intelligence into the ground along with fertilizers. These two are Mr. Countryman and Mr. Abram Advert, now of Dixon but for many years an honored resident of Marion township.

Mr. Ackert is president of the Lee County Farmer's Institute and has been for many years. By his untiring efforts in securing demonstrators and lecturers here he has aroused a concerted effort all over the county for soil mending and soil medicines. Mr. Ackert is the pioneer in Lee County. Although retired now, and enjoying the blessings of plenty, like Mr. Countryman, he is constantly and unselfishly devoting all his time and all his efforts to better the conditions of his old time friend the farmer. Latterly too in this same township of South Dixon, Mr. C. B. Swartz, has bought a farm. He has stocked it with Holstein cattle and Duroc Jersey Red Swine and by the most systematic and painstaking efforts, he is building up a farm which is doing wonderful work for him. Like Mr. Countryman, he weighs each ration for his cattle and at the end of each day and each week Mr. Swartz can tell how any one of his animals stands gauged by the standard of profit and loss.

Lee County Townships

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