To The
O'NEAL INN
Stage Coach Stop

Researched and Contributed by Alice Horner



The O’Neal House was located along the main road between Mt. Carroll and Savanna, at southern edge of Section 10, Mt. Carroll Township , Carroll County , Illinois. This unpaved dirt road was where Highway 52/64 now is. John O’Neal’s inn was a stage coach stop and apparently many travelers stayed there. The property was just to the east from what is now the Quarry Road . According to Chapter 10 of Samuel Preston's History of Carroll County

"John O'Neal after having been driven from the claim that he had made in Salem Township by Hopkins, bought of Heman Downing a portion of his claim, on Section 10 and put up a cabin and lived there until he built the large brick two-story house in 1850 now owned by his daughter, Harriett. The house was built for a hotel and used as such for many years."

John O’Neal was born in 1799 in New York and died March 14, 1880 in Mt. Carroll Township. He was said to have been born at Ellis Island, while the shipload of Irish immigrants was being detained there. However it couldn’t have been Ellis Island since its history indicates it wasn’t used as an immigration center until 1892. But he could have been born at some other entry point for Irish immigrants to New York. His grandfather, George McCann, brought in Irish immigrants to settle on the Livingston estates in upstate New York. John O’Neal married Mary Ann McGee in 1822 in Green County, New York. She was the daughter of Hugh and Bridget (McCann) McGee, and was born October 7, 1807 in New York, New York. She died August 20, 1876 in Mt. Carroll Township . Both are buried in the Hickory Grove Cemetery. The family came to Carroll County in 1839. (Refer to the end of this article for an interesting account of John O’Neal’s attempted first settlement in Carroll County.)

The O’Neal family had 10 children:

Felix O’Neal, born July 5, 1824 in Green County, New York and died September 23, 1904 in Aurelia, Cherokee County, Iowa.

Robert O’Neal, who was born August 11, 1826 in New York and died October 9, 1901 in Tehama County , California . He married Almira Davidson, the daughter of other very early Carroll County settlers, Vance Lusk and Harriet (Pierce) Davidson. She was born in 1839 and died after 1920.

Dudley O’Neal, who was born March 9, 1829 in Hunter, Green County, New York and died March 15, 1900. He married Ann Lambert.

Louis O’Neal, who was born June 21, 1831 in New York and died on June 8, 1853 in Preston Prairie, Mt. Carroll Township.

Isabel O’Neal, who was born March 4, 1834 in New York and died March 11, 1927 in La Grange, Cook County, Illinois. She married Caleb Walters on December 27, 1853 in Carroll County.

Julia Harriet O’Neal, who was born September 17, 1836 in New York and died February 20, 1927. She went by the name Harriet and probably never married.

John Sanford O’Neal, who was born July 27, 1841 in Mt. Carroll. He married Sarah J. Mills on February 27, 1868 in Whiteside County , Illinois .

Edgar O’Neal, who was born December 1, 1843 in Mt. Carroll and died in 1867.

Reuben O’Neal, who was born in 1847 in Mt. Carroll .

James O’Neal, who was born about March 1850 in Mt. Carroll and died January 4, 1881.

Ellen Eliza (Preston) Downing, daughter of Samuel Preston, was born very close by in 1846: “The Preston Prairie settlement at that time consisted mostly of large families. There were more people within a radius of two miles in 1850 than have ever lived there since. In that year, the commodious brick house of Mr. John O’Neal was built.” There were “many emigrant wagons on that road, each propelled by two or more yokes of oxen, accompanied by herds of cattle, coops of chickens on backs of wagons, men, boys, and dogs walking, driving the oxen and herds. The wagons held the families and their household goods. One day a large wagon train went by with much fine looking stock, including a little Shetland pony ridden by a little boy. These people appeared to have wealth. Their covered wagons were drawn by horses.”

Refer to Log Cabin Days

Why did John O’Neal go into the Inn business in 1850? One possibility is that he needed to build the large house for his huge family and knew its location would be attractive to travelers. Ellen Eliza (Preston) Downing speaks to a previous hotel in the area. “For some years previous to 1850, the large frame residence of Mr. Lewis Bliss and Mr. Benjamin Church had been a hotel. A hotel sign was in front, as well as a trough for the travelers’ horses.” This property was less than a mile east of the O'Neal Property, along the same north side of the same road. Jonathan Cummings, who arrived about 1840, was a carpenter, joiner, and machinist, and he built this hotel as a large two-story wood frame house. He may have bought the land from Samuel Preston. (It’s possible he only built the house, and Samuel Preston continued to own the land.) It was just northeast of where Samuel Preston’s pond is. In any case, Lewis Bliss bought the house and land in about 1844 and ran the hotel until at least 1850. Elsewhere in her writing Ellen Eliza (Preston) Downing states, “About 1852 he sold his farm to Elijah Stearns.” The building was sold to George V. Bickelhaupt much later, and was used as a house until 1967, when it was severely damaged in a tornado and torn down.

It appears that Elijah Stearns did not continue to use the house as a hotel. So all of the hotel business would have gone to John O’Neal. Because the O’Neal house was both the home of a large family and a hotel, it was a hub of activity for many years. In 1853, the Asiatic Cholera arrived in Carroll County, and was the most violent in the cities along the western rivers and on the emigrant boats on the Mississippi River. The O’Neal Inn was only about 7 miles east of Savanna and the Mississippi River. In early June 1853, three men landed at Savanna and started to walk to Ogle County. When they were about two miles west of O’Neal’s, one of them was taken suddenly ill. Another came on to Mr. O’Neal’s, wanting him to go and bring the sick man to the house. Mr. O’Neal said “He probably has the cholera, but I will risk bringing him.”

It proved to be a genuine case of cholera, said Dr. B. P. Miller, who attended him, and the man died the next day. John O’Neal’s son Louis died of it June 8, 1853, as did Hugh McGee, Mrs. O’Neal’s brother. They all died within a week, and were buried on the farm, behind the house. Calvin Gray preached the funeral sermons. Neighbors went and watched with the sick and attended the funerals, which were well attended. Fortunately there was no spread of the disease beyond those who had lived in the O’Neal house.

Various families living in the immediate area apparently buried their dead in this private cemetery, probably both before and after the 1853 cholera epidemic. This cemetery was closed before 1880, and the graves moved. Some were moved to Hickory Grove Cemetery, and perhaps some also to Oak Hill Cemetery in Mt. Carroll. The area where the cemetery was located has been under continual cultivation ever since and no trace of the cemetery location remains.

The road between Mt. Carroll and Savanna continued to be a major road for people traveling west. But by the 1860s, the railroads also carried many travelers. Two major railroad lines ran about a mile away. Both Mt. Carroll and Savanna had become small towns with hotels and livery stables. All of these factors may have reduced the need for accommodation in the countryside. Jonathan Cummings, Lewis Bliss, and John O’Neal all appear on the 1860 US Federal Census for Mt. Carroll Township, and judging by their proximity to one another on the census pages, seem to be close neighbors. But all give their occupations as farmers. Which they had all always been; inn keeping was just a sideline for all of them.

After John O’Neal and his wife died, the property was owned by his daughter, Harriet. The 1893 Carroll County Plat Book shows her as Julia H. O’Neal, owning 125 acres. (The original property may have been larger.) By 1908, when the next plat book came out, the property had been divided and the 85 acres closest to Highway 52, which included the inn, by then used as a house, was owned by John Frederick Higlin. The 40 acres further north were owned by H. Legel. John Frederick Higlin was born about 1864 in Illinois and he married Anna Donaldson about 1886. They had three children: Pearl , who was born on August 8, 1891; Floyd, who was born about 1898 in Illinois and Grace, who was born about 1902 in Illinois . John Frederick Higlin died in Mt. Carroll on August 8, 1918.


Undated photo of the O'Neal Inn after it was remodeled into the Francis Gillespie home.
Photo from the Collection of Leroy Getz

I'm not sure how long the Higlin family owned it. (Notes from my mother, Florence L. Downing Horner, who grew up very close by, indicates it was sold to Charles Gillespie sometime between 1912 – 1922.) Charles Gillespie was born about 1862 in Illinois , probably Carroll County ; his parents were Hugh and Jane (Carothers) Gillespie. He married Carrie Haven on June 28, 1893 in Carroll County . They had one child, Francis Gillespie, who was born April 19, 1894 in Savanna; he married Helen Fulrath on September 22, 1915. They had three children. In that era, the farm was called Maple Grove Farm.

Florence L. Downing Horner wrote. “Beulah Ritenour was raised by the Gillespies. I remember Beulah invited us to her house one summer afternoon, and we sat out on the lawn in a circle and played the game of Lotto. Bluebells were blooming in front of that low stone wall. Mrs. Gillespie’s white iron rabbit door stop was at the front door.”

Charles Gillespie appears as the owner on the 1917 Prairie Farmer’s Reliable Directory for Carroll County, but Francis had bought it by January 1920, when the 1920 US Federal Census was taken. (Charles and his wife were also living there.)

Sometime between 1918 – 1922, during the time Francis Gillespie owned this house, it was destroyed by fire. Quoting from parts of an undated newspaper account I have, “A disastrous fire occurred at the Francis Gillespie home on Preston Prairie early this morning, when his home was totally destroyed. About three o’clock Mrs. Gillespie awoke and smelled smoke. She looked out the window and saw fire in the summer kitchen adjoining the residence on the north. She awoke her husband and he ran down stairs into the shed and found the northwest corner on fire. He seized a piece of carpet, ran to the blaze to smother it, but tripped and fell headlong into the fire, burning his face severely around the chin and neck.

Neighbors were called by phone and they responded from all quarters and managed to remove all of the household goods except that contained in one room, then called fire marshal, James McCray of Mount Carroll and came after him and the chemical truck, but by this time the fire was beyond all control…The building, main part was of brick and one of the oldest buildings in the county, the timbers, sills, rafters, joists being of hewn oak and they burned like tinder. The front part of the house was remodeled by Mr. Gillespie but a few years ago at a cost of about three thousand dollars and the loss he sustained will amount to about forty-five hundred.

How the fire started is not known. There had been no fire in the shed or kitchen since last Monday. There were pumpkins on the stove and milk cans and a separator, a new one in the room. There was no rubbish of any kind that could have caused spontaneous combustion, and the cause is a mystery. While Mr. Gillespie’s burns are not considered serious, they are painful. His chin is blistered and his face, all over more or less scorched.”

A new wood frame house was built to replace this house. Judging by its appearance it may have been a Sears Roebuck house, which would mean it was probably built after 1926.


New Francis Gillespie home, built after the fire. This photo is dated Labor Day, September 7. 1925.
The people in front of the porch are Helen and Francis Gillespie and their three children, Lyle, Richard, and Ruth (the baby).
Photo from the Collection of Leroy Getz

Refer to my Rootsweb.com family tree The Downing, Bickelhaupt And Preston Families of Carroll County, Illinois for more information on the families named in this report.

The beginning of this story talks of John O’Neal’s earlier claim in Salem Township. Here is the full story. In the year 1839, John O’Neal, in advance of his family, came from New York State. He and George W. Stewart laid claim to a part of Section 17 in Salem Township, Carroll County, Illinois where the telegraph later crossed Johnson Creek, and put up the outer structure of a cabin. (This area is slightly southeast of where Mount Carroll is today.) But they got notice that Hank Hopkins of Savanna claimed that land and was coming the next day to tear the cabin down. They each armed themselves with a gun and went inside the cabin to await the onset.

“Hank” came with half a dozen pals from Cherry Grove and Stewart related the scene as follows: “They climbed up on the cabin even though our guns were pointed toward them and rolled the logs down over our heads.” “Did you have your guns cocked?” Stewart was asked. “No, I was afraid it would go off.” However, this incident was enough to drive John O’Neal from that claim. The next year Hank Hopkins sold the claim to George Swaggart, who lived there the rest of his days. Predictably, it was thereafter referred to as “the old Swaggart place.”

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