THE EARLY PIONEERS AND PIONEER EVENTS
OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS

by Harvey Lee Ross

 

CHAPTER XVI.

Pages 62-66

APPEARANCE OF THE COUNTRY WHEN EARLY SETTLERS ARRIVED.--EXTENSIVE AND BEAUTIFUL PRAIRIES-MY EXPERIENCE IN HAULING HAY.--DISCOVERY OF COAL BY MR. GARDINER.--FIRST BANKING ESTABLISHMENT IN FULTON COUNTY.

 

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I have been asked by some of my old friends in Fulton county to tell something about how the country looked when the first settlers arrived in it, about the groves, the prairies, the watercourses and the kinds of wild animals found in the country. So I will endeavor to answer some of these questions.

The face of the country has undergone a wonderful change in appearance, aside from the great improvements that have been made. The beautiful groves of timber then standing unmarred by the woodman’s ax have been cleared away; and the handsome prairies, that were then covered with high grass and beautiful flowers, have been broken up, so it is hard to tell which was timber and which was prairie land. There is one thing that has altered the looks of the country very much since it was first settled, and that is the extensive growth of young timber and brush, unknown in pioneer times. Before the county was settled by white people, prairie fires were permitted to sweep through the country every year, and they destroyed what is now called "barrens" and underbrush. The smooth prairies came square up to the distinct groves of large timber. In those days a man traveling through Table Grove, and many of the other groves in the county, could see a deer 500 or 600 yards away in the prairie; but twenty-five or thirty years later a deer could not be seen a distance of fifty yards because of the growth of the brush and young timber. There was no such land in the county as that now

 

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called "barrens." The groves were very beautiful before any of the timber had been cut, and before there was any undergrowth. Table Grove was one of the great landmarks of the country. It could be seen from the bluffs of the Illinois river on the east, and from Macomb on the west, and from the north for twenty-five or thirty miles. Travelers across the unbroken and almost pathless prairie were guided in their course by Table Grove and other perspicuous groves.

Many of the streams of water, such as Big Creek, Sugar, Otter, Copperas, Cedar and Buckheart Creek, would run grist and lumber mills about two-thirds of the year. These streams and their valleys, covered by a thick growth of timber and full of wild game, were beautiful beyond words.

The prairies were generally named after the men that first settled upon them. The prairie where Canton stands was called "Barnes’ Prairie," for David W. Barnes, who was the first settler there. The prairie west of Cuba was called "Totten’s Prairie," in honor of William Totten, who was the first settler. The prairie in Pleasant township was named "Rowland’s Prairie," for William and Riley Rowland, the first settlers. The prairie on the Illinois bottom south of Spoon river was called "Gardiner’s Prairie." An old Scotch Presbyterian settled there in 1823. He had two sons and three daughters. He was the father of James and Charles Gardiner, whose names are frequently mentioned in Chapman’s History of Fulton County. But no allusion has been made to the old father. He was one of the most exemplary Christian men, as well as most enterprising, among early pioneers. He never failed of holding family worship morning and evening, and would always ask a blessing at the table, and after the meal was through no one was allowed to leave the table until he had returned thanks. Such devotion was remarkable among the early pioneers. He moved from Springfield, and brought with him nursery stock for the famous orchard that for a long time was known all over the country as "Gardiner’s Orchard." Gardiner’s Prairie extended south from Spoon river about three miles, and from the bluffs to a fringe of timber within half a mile of the Illinois river, also three miles. The land was very rich, but part of it was too

 

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wet for cultivation. The prairie that joined Thompson’s lake, north of Spoon river, was about two miles square, and with the lake was named for Nathan Thompson. He and his son-in-law, Stephen Meeker, were the first settlers on the prairie. The prairie two miles east of Lewistown was about three miles long and from one to two miles wide, and it was called "Smith’s Prairie" after Jeremiah Smith, who first settled there on a place that was afterwards owned by Col. Reuben Simms. It was one of the most beautiful prairies mortal eyes ever beheld. It was covered with what was called blue-stemmed grass, a most excellent grass for hay. It grew from three to four feet high, and afforded hay enough for all the people of Lewistown and the settlers for many miles in all directions. All the people had to do was to cut the hay and haul it home. At that time hay was cut with a scythe and raked together with a wooden hand-rake and pitchfork. Among my recollections was of riding a horse to haul hay on Smith’s Prairie. I was a little codger of seven or eight years. We had to haul the hay together for stacking on what was called a brush sled. A small, bushy tree would be cut down and some of the limbs cut off so as to make a sort of flat surface; and the hay would then be piled on top; a horse would be hitched to the contrivance by a chain or rope, and so the hay would be hauled to the place where it was to be stacked. And that was what we called a "brush sled." Many a hot summer day I have rode the old horse to haul hay on the Smith Prairie, where the Rices, W. W. Smith, Samuel Campbell, J. Wertman, W. C. Harrison, the Lawses, Rileys and Chapins now live.

One time the green-head flies attached my old horse so bad that he ran away. My strength was not sufficient to hold him; after he had run about half a mile I jumped off but did not jump far enough to miss the brush top that he was dragging, so I was caught under the brush sled, and was so badly bruised that I was laid up for repairs for several days. The old horse never stopped running until he got home.

Smith’s Prairie was celebrated for the numerous plum and crabapple orchards that grew round its borders. The large red and yellow plums grew there in such abundance that people

 

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would come from long distances and haul them away by the wagon-loads, and would preserve them with honey or maple sugar, which were the only sweetening we had in pioneer times. This fruit made a good substitute for domestic fruit. Fulton county was blessed above other sections of the state in its great abundance of sugar-tree groves, which enabled people to make their own sugar.

There is one other thing that will appear very remarkable. When the first settlers came to the county there was no one that appeared to have the remotest idea that there was such a thing as bituminous coal all about them in the earth, or that it had any use. The only people who had lived there were the Indians, and they never used it, and the people would as soon have thought of looking for gold or silver as looking for coal. It was about two years after the first settlement was made that coal was discovered. Meantime blacksmithing was one of the first things needed in the settlement, and a coal pit was built and charcoal burned and used until stone coal was discovered. The first coal found in the county was discovered by old Mr. Gardiner, whom I have referred to as having settled about ten miles south of Lewistown. He was out one day to look for stone to build a fireplace in his log house which he had just erected, and in digging for stone he found the coal bank which was situated at the foot of the bluff east of what is now known as Isabel church. Mr. Gardiner took a load of the coal to Lewistown, and the people were highly delighted to learn that stone coal had been found in the county. The next coal bank that was discovered was on Big Creek about where the Narrow Gauge crosses it three miles north of Lewistown. Another bank was discovered three miles southwest of Lewistown. But the Gardiner bank supplied all the people south of Spoon river and at Havana with all the coal they wanted free of charge. All they had to do was to go and dig then haul it home. I remember that when I was living in Havana of going with Mr. Eastman Call to the Gardiner bank to dig coal. Mr. Call had just opened a blacksmith shop at Havana, which was before he opened a shop at Lewistown. It took but a short time to fill our wagon with coal. So I could have it to tell

 

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that I had dug coal out of the first coal bank that was ever opened in Fulton county.

May I also be permitted modestly to recall the fact that I opened the first banking establishment in Fulton county. It was a branch of a Jacksonville state bank, and was located in the town of Vermont in 1859, and was called the "Fulton Bank." The bank bills were issued and printed at Jacksonville, Illinois. I was appointed agent, and had the entire supervision and control of it. I can say that no depositor or patron of that bank ever lost a dollar through his dealing with it. So I have had the honor of digging coal out of the first bank ever discovered in Fulton county, and also of operating the first bank ever opened in Fulton county, and one occupation was as honorable as the other.

 

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