Lee County Illinois
Part of American History and Genealogy Project

Willow Creek Township, Lee County, Illinois

This township is closely associated to this very day with Wyoming its neighbor on the south, and all the old traditions are treasured here because many of them applied originally to Willow Creek.

The name, Willow Creek, was taken from the creek of that name, and it in turn was so named from the great numbers of willows which grew originally along its banks.

This creek takes its source in section 5 of Wyoming township, crosses the line into section 32 of Willow Creek Township, flows northerly through sections 29, 20, 21, 17, where it deflects north-westerly into 7 and then westerly it empties into Inlet swamp, in section 16, of Viola township.

This is a beautiful township of land. Quite unusual, it possesses unrivaled scenic beauty and lands of unsurpassed fertility at the same time. Today it ranks as one of the richest towns in Illinois. So too it may boast with honest pride that there dwells within its limits one of the very first persons who came there in its trying pioneer days. His name is David Smith, and a nobler man and gentleman than David Smith is not to be found today. I am under many obligations to him. In all my researches, I have troubled many people with my inquiries. Some have been gentle and generous; others have been too mean and slovenly to answer gentlemanly letters and on personal requests have been found still worse. But Mr. Smith has gone out of his way to assist me in my Lee county inquiries and his information proved to be of inestimable value. He settled for me the much mooted Job Alcott question, and that of itself is of great importance to me.

Mr. Smith came to Willow Creek as a lad in 1837, and with his parents settled at one of the four beautiful groves of this township, from whom it derived its name, Smith's Grove. Smith's Grove, located on sections 34 and 35, was the largest perhaps, of the four. John Smith, from Argyleshire, Scotland, educated for the ministry, reached Willow Creek in August, 1837, and bought from James Armour a claim in section 35. Armour had bought it from one Cameron, who squatted on it originally. A few logs had been cut and that was the extent of the improvements done on the claim when it came into the possession of Mr. John Smith. This claim included all of Dry Grove, a few scattering trees, so called because no creek ran near them.

John Smith was not the first settler of the township, but he was the first settler of that locality. The house, erected immediately, was the second built in the township. It was thatched with mowed grass and the house of David Smith stands today almost on that identical spot.

In December following, the family suffered a fearful calamity. Their house burned down and consumed all their clothing, bedding, money, and a very valuable library, the only private library of consequence in the State of Illinois. The fire caught in the roof. It was the first dwelling in the township to be consumed by fire.

With indomitable pluck and energy, characteristic of the pioneer, especially the Scotch pioneer, another log house was erected a few rods east of the first.

Fortune dealt unkindly with this worthy family at the first; just as it did with so many other families away from old home ties; surrounded by Indians; lonesome. About three weeks after settlement, John Smith, the second son died and he was laid to rest in the family burying ground. That was the first death and burial in the township. Robert and David, other sons lived and remained and grew to manhood on the old place. There John Smith died in 1860, and there David lives today. Robert moved to Dixon and there died.

When John Smith came to Lee County he brought with him the old all-iron plow, in the firm conviction that nothing but the Scotch plow could turn a furrow of virgin soil. But as against the wooden beam steel plow of Illinois, Mr. Smith concluded he would not care to compete and so he threw it away along with his mattress of thistles, which he thought was the only bed in which mortal man could find sound slumber.

How lovingly the Scotch regard the home! John Colvill, later of Paw Paw, came with the family from Scotland, and lived with them for some years at first.

The other groves beside Smith's Grove are Allen's Grove and Twin Groves. Allen's is located on sections 35 and 36, Twin Groves on section 17.

In the autumn of 1836, one Peter Gonzolas, from Dutchess County, New York, said to have been a Frenchman, came and made a claim at Allen's Grove. Peter (Pierre) is a French name; but Gonzolas, never. He may have been a Frenchman and probably was, but in tossing his name down the ages, it has become badly disfigured. He remained two or three years and then left; some say with the Indians. Before leaving, he sold his claim to Richard M. Allen, and that was the first farm in the township to receive improvements.

The grove took its name from Allen and if the speech of people and the written records are to be taken at par value, then that grove by any other name would smell much sweeter.

Allen lived in a log house and kept tavern. His grove was thickly grown up to hazel bushes and chaparral, making a safe retreat for the horse thieves and counterfeiters who were said to have rendezvoused there during his brief sojourn. Allen left. When he left is not known, because in all human probability he did not leave upon the order of his going but left at once and was succeeded by a man named Price. Allen, however, in 1839, was still here.

In 1844 Israel Shoudy came and bought Price's claim, and lived upon it for the most of his lifetime.

In 1839 Horatio G. Howlett, who had been living in Dixon for a couple of years, settled at Allen's Grove and he remained here the remainder of his life.

Howlett was just the man for the nascent little settlements. He, like Town, of Paw Paw, feared nothing. He was elected constable when Town was elected a justice of the peace, with the understanding that never would either take fees for services in civil cases.

One day Justice Town sent Constable Howlett a warrant to serve on a man named Lovelin (or Loveland), charged with horse-stealing. As the most likely place to find a horse thief, he went to Allen's and was told the party wanted was plowing out in the field.

The stolen horse, in the stable, was tied and a companion was placed in charge of it, with instructions to take certain aim at Lovelin and fire, should he, Howlett, give the order. It was Howlett's expectation that he and Lovelin would return to the stable together.

Howlett read the warrant and demanded that Lovelin go with him to Paw Paw. Lovelin refused Undisturbed, Howlett then said he presumed Lovelin was armed while he was not; that Lovelin might do as he pleased about submitting; but he, Howlett, proposed to take the horse and restore it to its owner. Lovelin fell into the trap and went to the stable to prevent the return of the horse, stating that only over his dead body could that horse pass. The instant the two men reached the stable, the guard darted into sight and drew a bead on Lovelin's heart. Howlett demanded a surrender and again instructed the guard to shoot when ordered.

Lovelin surrendered, Allen gave bail and the man was released. A bowie knife and two pistols were taken from him. Soon thereafter he requited Allen's kindness in harboring him, by running away with the wife and a horse of his friend, Allen. With Allen's assistance he was caught; lodged in the Sycamore jail; he escaped; lay in a stream of water until nearly dead; was retaken, and sent to the Galena jail.

One day while confined there, when the jailer's little son brought him his meal, he caught the boy in his arms, escaped, ran to the brow of a hill or cliff nearby, and when the sheriff made for him, he held the child aloft between them and threatened to dash him to death below if not permitted to escape. Without a word of remonstrance he was permitted to go his way in peace. Later the fellow was lodged in jail in St. Louis, charged with horse stealing.

Judges Caton and Drummond, who traveled the trail through Allen's Grove from Ottawa to the hunting grounds of Wisconsin, told Mr. Howlett of the Galena incident.

This was the first arrest made in Lee County for horse stealing.

Speaking of this trail. a state road was laid subsequently, along that trail from Ottawa to Rockford, and for southeastern travel it was used very largely. It has been said that many times twenty and thirty teams in procession passed Allen's Grove.

Twin Groves were named first, Moore's from William Moore, the earliest settler there, who began his improvements in 1837 at the more southerly grove.

James Thompson and Levi Lathrop came together as early as 1842, and together they bought Moore's claim, on which the latter had thirty acres of plowing. For the timber claim, Moore was paid $50, the northwest quarter of southeast quarter of section 17. A short while afterwards Thompson bought out Lathrop's interest, and there Mr. Thompson remained the remainder of his days.

Robert Blair, brother-in-law to Mrs. Thompson, came at the same time from Melugin's Grove and bought a claim north of the grove, but he never took title from the Government. About 1850 he returned to Melugin's Grove. In 1881, he died at the house of Mrs. Thompson. The first birth at Twin Groves was that of a son to Mr. Blair, named Robert. This was in 1846.

Mr. Thompson's first house was no more nor less than a pen built with rails and covered with straw. A log cabin, not much better than the pen, followed.

For quite a while after this there was a lull in the advent of settlers. George Wise and Isaac Gardner, brothers-in-law, started improvements at the north grove, but very soon sold to Mark R. Averill, and left the country; Wise went to California and Gardner to Florida. Neither did Averill remain long. In the winter of 1853-54, he moved to Paw Paw, after selling his land to Jacob B. Fisher in the fall of 1853.

About 1846 Cummings Noe came to Twin Groves and settled. His first residence, like Thompson's, was a pen. He, Mr. Thompson and James Smith entered from the Government all of the south grove when it came into market.

The first white man's road marked out, though never surveyed, was staked out by Erastus Noe, from Twin Groves to Hickory Grove, and used many years. Hogs, running wild, estrays probably, were found in the timber before the settlers made their homes there.

James Smith and Nathan Koons reached there in 1847. Koons settled in the southwest comer, while Smith took up a 300-acre claim or more at Twin Groves. Joseph Barnhardt came in company with them.

In the month of June Shabbona and his Indians paid them a visit, which was enjoyed by the Indians, notwithstanding they nearly froze.

Smith carried to his new home a willow cane which, when starting, he had resolved to plant when he reached his new home. After cutting it into four pieces, he planted them and in time he had four trees from which other cuttings were taken by thousands, thus realizing a prophecy that he should realize from his cane thousands of dollars, and which prophecy, by the way, was ridiculed.

During the war a man from Galesburg, named Piatt, bought those trees growing in the region, and shipped cuttings in carload lots to all parts of the West, to be used in planting, for hedge fences.

It took over two years to clean up the trees which originated from Smith's cane.

Jesse Koons from Ohio and A. N. Dow settled here in 1847. Samuel Reese and James Stubbs came in this year or next. A married brother of Stubbs came too, but he died soon after and James moved to Mendota. About the same time Cyrus and John Goff came and tarried a few years.

Lewis H. Durin and Gilbert Durin, brothers, came from Vermont in 1849, and these two men have left an imprint for good on Willow Creek, which never can be effaced. The L. H. Durin and Jacob Fisher estates own the north grove to this day. Later, Gilbert Durin removed to Steward. The Durins always were doing good while living and it is the same today with their children. Miss Ida Durin of Scarboro, in this township, in the year 1913, built for the school district what is regarded as the only perfect school room and attributes in Lee County. The dedicatory exercises in the summer of 1913 attracted attention from all parts of the state.

Wesson Holton, from Vermont, located northwest of the groves in 1852 and he was another strong man intellectually and every way; one of the grand old kind.

William L. Smith arrived in 1853 and James A. Harp in 1854. In 1853 the Byrds, from Virginia, settled on the north side of the groves. Louis P. Braithwaite came in 1853 and Louis P. Smith in 1854. This brings Twin Groves down to recent years, comparatively.

About 1840 Doctor Basswood came to the southeast comer and remained four or five years. Nathaniel Allen and his family came in 1845. His sons were named Harrison, Nathaniel, Chandler, Ephraim and Alonzo. He had four daughters. Benjamin Nettle-ton came in about the same time. Isaac C. Ellsworth, from Vermont, settled here in 1846. The year previous his son, Benjamin, drove a herd of stock out from Ohio.

Christopher Vandeventer, from New York, came in 1848, with a two-horse team and a drove of sheep and cattle. He settled on the southeast quarter of section 24, and at that time there was not a house between his own and the notorious Brodie's Grove in Ogle County, seventeen miles northerly.

Between 1846 and 1855 there came to this part of the township Mathew, Perry and Amos Atkinson, McNabb, Richard R. Walker, Andrew Stubbs, Freeman Crocker, Daniel Maxwell, Sylvanus Staples, Prince Stevens, Hugh Wells, George Clark, Richard Clark, John Piatt and Alonzo Osborne. Jephtha Mittan, in 1850, settled in the southwest corner.

Along up the east line of the township, John B. Briggs came in 1851, and John H. Bacon and E. E. Bacon about 1854.

The Germans, as in Sublette and Bradford, were conspicuous in the early settlements of Willow Creek, although they were not among the very early settlers.

The first to come was Gottlieb Hochstrasser, in 1854. About the same time came Joseph Herrmann. In 1856, Frank Bates, Prank Herrmann, John Herrmann, and in 1857, a second Frank Bates and Erhart Hochstrasser. John Yetter came in 1859 and in 1860 George Erbes came.

Today, dotted all over Willow Creek, you will see farms owned by the descendants and relatives of these men, especially the Herrmanns. There are in Willow Creek, Joseph M., August, Henry, Edward, F. C, and F. X. Herrmann, all splendid farmers and all prosperous.

Enlistments from Willow Creek Township
Norwegians of Willow Creek Township
Willow Creek Township Tornado

Lee County Townships

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