Livingston County, Illinois
Belle Prairie is known as Township 25 north, Range 6 east of the 3d Principal Meridian, and is fractional, containing only about half the amount of territory embraced in a regular Congressional Township. It lies in the extreme southern part of the county, bounded on the south and west by Ford and McLean Counties ; on the east by Fayette Township ; on the north by Indian Grove, and is all prairie land, except a small body, comprising but a section or so, adjoining the latter township. The land is rolling, or gently undulating, affording good drainage, and the soil is rich and very productive. It is entirely devoted to farming and stock-raising, and contains no cities or villages, nor even a post office or store. However, the people are not deprived of these accompaniments of civilization. There are plenty of them within easy reach, and several situated on the territorial limits, are liberally patronized and supported by the citizens of Belle Prairie.
This township is noted for being the scene of the first permanent settlement in Livingston County. In the Fall of 1830, a single emigrant wagon drew up at the head of the grove of timber, afterward named by the whites Indian Grove, and the owner of the wagon, or "prairie schooner," as the big "covered wagons" of the emigrants were sometimes called, proceeded to pitch his tent on the banks of Indian Creek, which has its source in this vicinity.
This early pioneer was Valentine Martin Darnall, recognized as the first actual settler of the county. He was born in Virginia, and, when a mere child, his parents removed to Kentucky, and settled in Boone County, one and a quarter miles from Boonesboro, the site of the first settlement made in the '' Dark and Bloody Ground " by the " pale face," and where Daniel Boone, the pioneer, built a fort more than a century ago. His parents died there while he was yet quite young, and some years after attaining his manhood, and having taken to himself a life partner, he came to Illinois, arriving in the settlement above Pleasant Hill, on the Mackinaw River, in October, 1830.
He had three brothers-in-law living at that place, and he left his wagon and family with them while he came over to Indian Grove on a prospecting tour. After deciding upon his location, he borrowed a wagon from a brother-in-law to avoid unloading, and again loading his own, and having procured some grain, went over on the Sangamon River, eight miles from Springfield, to mill, (the mill was owned by a man named Archie) as he could not live, he says, even in a wilderness, without something to eat. He was gone fourteen days, as the miller couldn't or wouldn't grind for him sooner, nor hire him the mill to grind it for himself. On the 26th of October, he got back to the settlement, and on the 27th came over to the spot destined to be his home for many years.
The first thing after pitching his tent, and getting " a bite to eat," was to cut down a " board tree" and " chop off a cut "—he had no saw—which he cut eight feet long and quartered, in order that he might " rive " boards by firelight. He informed us that he would cut house logs during the day and make boards at night, and that on the 1st day of November he raised his first cabin. His help came from the settlement at Mackinaw, a distance of ten or twelve miles, raised the house, covered it, and a portion of them went home the same day. There were no nails in this country then, and where they were needed wooden pins were used. This ancient relic, perhaps the first cabin built in Livingston County, has long ago crumbled into ruins, but a "smoke house" built the next Spring by Mr. Darnall is still standing and in a good state of preservation. It is built of red elm logs, and the original door, which is a model of architectural genius, is still, to it and doing duty as such. It was made without a nail, and the frame is a small forked sapling, one prong being straight, the other standing out at an angle of about forty. five degrees, with a cross piece "let in " at the top of the straight one, and to these unique " battens " heavy slabs are fastened with wooden pins. This style of door was quite fashionable in this section of the country forty odd years ago.
The Winter of the deep snow was the first after his settlement here. The snow commenced falling in the latter part of December and continued until it was four feet deep on the level. He had gone to Mackinaw with a wagon and two horses, for his Winter's pork, which he had bought in that settlement. And there the great snow storm caught him. Finding it impossible to get back with his team, he left his wagon and one horse at the settlement, and, wrapping himself up securely to keep from freezing, mounted the other horse, and, with half a hog before him to live on while the snow might last, started for home. His route lay across the open prairie, and without compass or any mark for a guide, save the direction the snow was drifted by the wind, he struggled against the storm. The wind was blowing and the air filled with snow, so that at times he could see but a few yards distant. With sad forebodings of what might be the fate of his wife and little children through the short wintry day that seemed to him very long, he toiled on through the snow, which, he informed us, on an average, came to his knees, as his noble beast waded through it. As the shades of evening began to gather around him, and when almost ready to give up as lost on the prairie, the sun, just before setting, burst from the clouds that had shrouded his face all day, and, as his last lingering rays reflected across the great fields of snow, they tinged with gold the tops of the trees which he knew surrounded his cabin. He says that his feelings just then may be imagined, but not easily described. But his own precarious situation had caused little of his uneasiness. He had been absent four days, and for the first time in his married life, had failed to reach home at the time he had promised his wife that he would return, and he knew not but that he would find them frozen to death. Anxious as he was, however, to learn their fate, yet knowing that if the snow remained on the ground all Winter, they could not (if his family was alive) get along without something to eat, he went out of his way, after discovering the grove of timber, to see four wild hogs that he had been trying some time to tame. They "were so hungry that they followed him as far as the creek without trouble.
He found his family as comfortably situated as could be expected under the circumstances. The snow, where the wind had whirled it around his cabin, was in places eight feet deep. When he left home, he had three young calves in a rail pen in the yard, and, after the snow came, his wife succeeded in getting them out of the pen, and into their cabin by the fire to prevent their freezing. She had dressed herself in a pair of her husband's trousers, to the better enable her to get through the snow, and had cleared it away from the calf and sheep pens. Mr. Darnall, the next day after his return home, went back and succeeded in getting his wild hogs home, two of which found their way into his scanty larder during the Winter.
Through the period that the snow remained, he cut timber enough to make 3,000 rails. He would cut down a tree, then tramp a road to it through the snow, so that his cattle and sheep could get to it and " browse " off the branches. It was thus, together with a very small allowance of dry corn, that he wintered nine head of cattle and fifteen sheep without losing a single one. There was a plum thicket near his cabin, where the snow had drifted up eight or ten feet deep, and after a crust had formed on it, the sheep would go up and browse off the tops of the bushes. When the snow melted away, the tops of the plum trees were sticking full of wool plucked from the sheep during the Winter.
Of four horses he had when he settled here, three of them died the first year with the milk sickness, and he was forced to use oxen for sometime afterward. It was two months, lacking three days, from the time he had left the settlement on the Mackinaw, before he saw a human beings except his own family, and his friends there were wholly ignorant and powerless to learn whether he had reached home or perished in the snow. When, at the expiration of the time mentioned (two months), his brother-in-law came over to learn the fate of him and his family, he was rejoiced to find them all well and enjoying life to the utmost.
As already stated, this is pronounced the first permanent settlement in Livingston County, as well as the first in Belle Prairie Township. And we would mention, in this connection, that Mr. Darnall is still living, a hearty and vigorous old man, considering that he has borne the sunshine and storms of eighty years. But his good wife, the companion of his early toils and privations, left him in September, 1872, for a home up beyond the blue skies, where the weary find rest.
The next settlement was made in this township by William Spence, (Williamson Spence, though usually called William) in 1831. He was a son of Malachi Spence, one of the early settlers of Indian Grove Township. He came from Indiana to this settlement, but was originally from Kentucky, where all the Spences and Darnalls came from.
In 1834, Jeremiah Travis, James Cooper and Hugh Steers made claims in the settlement, upon which they located. The two former were from Tennessee, and the latter from Kentucky. Travis was the first white man to strike a fire on the west side of Indian Grove timber, a fact of which he was always quite proud. He died upon his original settlement, in 1844. James Cooper remained in the settlement, a good citizen, until 1865, when he died. Steers died in a few years after coming to the country.
Spencer Kates, Benjamin Hieronymous and Decatur Veach are from Kentucky. Kates settled here in 1835-6, where he remained until about the year 1864, when he sold out and removed to Oregon. Hieronymous came to the settlement in 1838, and made a claim, on which he still lives, a highly-respected citizen. He informed us that he had hauled grain to Chicago when they had to go around by Naperville ; that he had hauled peaches and other fruits there — had teamed it to that city, in fact, almost constantly for twenty-five years, before the day of railroads. Veach is among the early settlers of this township, and is said to have been the first Abolitionist in Livingston County.
Charles Jones and his son, Thomas Jones, and Orin Phelps came from New Jersey and settled, first, in what comprises at the present day Forrest Township, in the history of which further mention is made of them. Thomas Jones settled in Belle Prairie at an early day, having remained in Forrest but a few years. After farming successfully for a number of years, he rented out his farm, which is one of the finest in Belle Prairie, and removed to Fairbury, where he engaged extensively in the grain business, but has recently quit it, and is at present superintending his farm.
The foregoing names comprise all the early settlers in this township of whom we have been able to obtain any definite information, and these settled in and around the small body of timber at the head of Indian Grove ; and it was a number of years before a settlement was made out on the prairie. Mr. Darnall says that, when he settled in the country, he entertained not the remotest idea of ever living to see a settlement made on the prairie. Benjamin Walton was the first to venture out beyond the shelter of the timber. He was the first permanent settler on the prairie in this township, and was generally pronounced a lunatic for building a house away out on what was termed a "barren waste."
He came from the old Quaker State, though stoutly denies being a Pennsylvania Dutchman, and settled here in 1854, buying a claim from a man named De Board, who had made a little opening on the prairie, but soon got disgusted and left it. The whole broad prairies in this section were then unbroken save by the beaten paths of wild beasts, or the neighbors' stock which grazed upon them uninterruptedly.
Mr. Walton was one of the first men in the country to advocate a stock law, and resolutions on the subject, offered by him at the county fair at Pontiac, went the rounds of the press and circulated extensively over the Western States. He argued the question on all occasions, and the debates of him and Rev. John Darnall, who lived in Indian Grove Township and took ground against the proposed measure, are quite voluminous, and, if printed, would make a rather interesting volume. Another enterprise of his was the putting up of stone corners to each section of land in the township. He made the move, and, after encountering considerable opposition, succeeded in carrying; the point, and, to-day, every section of land in Belle Prairie Township has stones, weighing not less than two hundred pounds, at each corner. Walton is a zealous temperance man, and has published a pamphlet in the interests of the cause, in which his views are ably given. Some years ago, he removed to Fairbury, where he still lives, an enterprising business man.
R. B. Harrington came from New York, and is another of the early settlers on the prairie. While not fully ranking as an old settler, he was a man of much prominence, and deserves special mention. He was the second Supervisor of the township, and through his popularity and good business qualities was elected County Clerk in 1861 on the Republican ticket. In 1865, he was re-elected to the office, and served another four years. During his services as County Clerk, he is said to have been one of the most popular leaders of the party it has ever had in the county. He at present lives in Nebraska, where he holds some important office in the government.
Other settlers soon located on the prairie lands, and at the present time it is the most valuable and productive in the county.
As already stated. Belle Prairie had originally but a very small body of native timber. Since the commencement of settlements on the prairie, tree planting has been extensively engaged in by the farmers, and with considerable success. Walnut is the favorite timber thus cultivated, and many fine groves are found throughout the township. The nuts are planted in rows, and though a rather slow growth, the walnut is hardy and well adapted to this climate.
The first white child born in the settlement is supposed to have been William Steers, a son of Hugh Steers, and was born in 1834. The first wedding was that of William Spence and Miss Mary Darnall, and the license authorizing the solemnization of their nuptials was the first issued from the Clerk's office of Livingston County after its formation. They were married by Rev. John Darnall, in 1837. Benjamin Hieronymous and a Miss Darnall, sister to the bride just mentioned, were married soon after, and were probably the second marriage in the township. Apropos of weddings ; when a son of Mr. Hieronymous was married, some years ago, to a Miss Post, of Pontiac, a local poet thus rhapsodized the event:
" Hieronymous stood by his Post —
The brave young Dick Hieronymus :
Said he, my dear, I feel almost
As if I was some blessed ghost.
Said she, I feel synonymous."
Who was the first to enter the dark valley of the shadow of death in this township we were unable learn. But few settlements were made until a very late day. and of the few early settlers, none now living can tell who was the first to pass away.
The first Justice of the Peace in Belle Prairie Township was Spencer Kates, and was commissioned as such about the year 1840, while this town was yet a part of Indian Grove Precinct. Jeremiah Travis was the first blacksmith, and plied his vocation from his first settlement. so far as the few scattering settlements required his services. He was also a chair maker, and many of his make are still to be found in this and surrounding neighborhoods. Who the first practicing physician was is a question involved in some doubt, but was perhaps. Dr. Ostrander mentioned elsewhere as one of the first physicians in this part of the county, and who practiced his profession in early times, all through this entire section.
The first church and the only one that has ever been built in this settlement is the Methodist Episcopal Church, in the southern part of the township. It is a good frame building, and was erected in 1865. at a cost of $1,500. and was dedicated on its completion by Rev. Mr. Rhodes, then Presiding Elder of the district. Rev. Mr. Sanders is the present Pastor : his church is in a flourishing condition. and has a large membership. A good Sunday school is in successful operation, with a large attendance every Sunday, and Rev. Mr. Sanders is the Superintendent. A comfortable parsonage is attached to the church, which is a very pleasant arrangement. A handsome and well-kept little cemetery has been laid off near the church, where many of its former worshipers sleep in peace.
Mrs. Hanna was among the first buried in it if not the first. Be that as it may, however, it is agreed that her monument was the first put up in the little graveyard.
Although this church was not built until 1865, and the first settlement was made here thirty-five years before, it does not follow that the people were without religious instruction. The sound of the Gospel was heard here almost from the coming of white men : and their cabins and the groves served as sanctuaries of worship, until the building of school houses. Rev. John Darnall, Rev. David Sharpless and Rev. John Miller, mentioned in other parts of this work, were among the early preachers of the time.
In 1858, the first temple of learning was built in Belle Prairie Township. A few of the neighbors resolved to have a school house, and, upon consultation with carpenters and builders, found that it would cost more than they could well afford to pay. Finally, Ben Walton took the contract and proceeded at once to put up the building. He hauled the material from Pontiac, took what pay he could get and eventually succeeded in collecting a sufficient amount to bring down his own quota to a fair proportion with that of his neighbors. The town is well supplied with good, substantial school houses at convenient distances from each other, and within easy reach of all. The school records furnish no ?__? interest to these pages. From the last report of the Treasurer, David Crum, to the County Superintendent of Schools, we take the following:
No. of males in township under 21 years: 180
No. of females in township under 21 years: 176
No. of males in township between 6 and 21 years: 146
No. of females in township between 6 and 21 years: 134
No. of males attending school: 112
No. of females attending school: 106
No. of male teachers employed: 4
No. of female teachers employed: 10
Amount paid male teachers: $800.00
Amount paid female teachers: $1,360.00
Estimated value of school property: $4,000.00
Amount of tax levy for support of schools : $2,541.00
Principal of township fund" $5,772.00
Politically, Belle Prairie was very strongly Democratic, in the days of Whigs and Locofocos, but, at the present time, it is more evenly contested on the political issues of the day ; though still giving small Democratic majorities, when the party lines are closely drawn. While on this theme, a little episode which occurred at the village of Potosi, just over the border in McLean County. but with some of its suburban residences extending into Belle Prairie, may not be inappropriate. Just after the close of the war and while Hon. R. J. Oglesby was Governor of Illinois, the Democrats around Potosi, both in Livingston and McLean Counties, raised a pole at a political gathering in the village, and which some imprudent Democrat denominated a ** secesh ** pole. The Republicans swore that the pole should not stand, while the Democrats swore that it should, and in pure defiance had run up a string of butternuts on it. Excitement was at a white heat : the war had just ended, and the " bloody chasm " still yawned between the parties. Serious apprehensions were entertained by the more conservative of both sides that the affair would end in blood, when some "blessed peacemaker" proposed to telegraph the circumstances to Gov. Oglesby, a man whose loyalty none dared question. and abide his decision. It was agreed to by both parties ; the despatch [sic] was sent, and quick on the lightning's wing flashed back Oglesby's answer: "Let the Republicans go home and behave themselves, and let the Democrats take down their pole and save their nuts." This despatch [sic] created a laugh, and put the crowd in a good humor : all shook hands across the chasm, and went home in peace and quiet. It is said that the obnoxious butternuts were sent to Oglesby as a memento of his timely and successful interference in their little broil, and that he has them carefully laid away in his office ; that he frequently takes them out of their resting place, relates the story to his friends, and enjoys a hearty laugh at the recollection.
Belle Prairie was set off from Indian Grove at the time of township organization, and from that time until about the year 1871, embraced Fayette Township within its limits. When the county was organized into townships, the first Supervisor of Belle Prairie was V. M. Darnall, its first settler. Its present officers are as follows : Supervisor, P. 0. Abbey ; D. S. Crum and Wm. Younger, Magistrates ; Ira C. Pratt, Assessor ; Richard Smith, Collector, and J. R. Spence, Town Clerk.
The name Belle Prairie was given to the township by R. B. Harrington, mentioned in another page, who seems to have been imbued with a keen sense of the glorious and beautiful. The country to which he gave the poetical name is fine and magnificent almost beyond description, and the name is as beautiful as the sweet wild flowers of its own prairies. The name provoked quite a discussion among those who wanted one more practical and suggestive of every day life, but the other was finally adopted. There is not a village, post office or store in the township, but the majority of the inhabitants receive their mail at Potosi, just over the line in McLean County. Indeed, a part of the village is in Belle Prairie, but the store and post office are across the line.
The record of Belle Prairie was good during; the late war. Notwithstanding it was usually termed a Copperhead stronghold, but one draft occurred during the war, and it was for but a half-dozen men. Through the energy and enterprise of Ben Walton, then one of the leading spirits of the town, substitutes were procured in three days for those drafted, and at lower figures than any neighboring town had to pay for the same kind of material. While the township claims no Major Generals, or very noted or distinguished officers of any rank, it does feel proud of its brave boys who went in at the beginning and fought it out on that line.
[The History of Livingston County, Illinois - Wm. LeBaron, Jr. & Co. - 186 Dearborn Street, Chicago (1878)]