Woodford County

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When Metamora Was the “Center of the Universe”  1906

Former Benson Man Killed in Hold-Up  1930

Recluse Leaves $10,000 Fortune Buried in Jars 1942

A Rainy Sunday in Woodford County  2007


The Metamora Herald October 19, 1906 Vol. 54 – No. 6


When Metamora Was the “Center of the Universe”

Old Settler’s Story

Rev. C. W. Whorrall Writes Some Remembrances, Telling of His First Trip To Metamora

Every native born resident of Woodford County remembers their first trip to Metamora and the awe which inspired them at the first sight of the old court house building. The following letter from C.W. Whorrall (Rev. Charles W. Whorrall) and J. C. Irving relates the incidents in the early days and is guaranteed to drive away the blues.

Dear old friend Cass:

In the Peoria Daily Star I notice a communication from your city copied from the Bloomington Bulletin in reference to old Metamora, and noting some interesting relics you have in your keeping.

Many things in that article took me back to the “good old days” and started a train of remembrances that prompts me to inflict this epistle upon my old friend Cass. Those were great days amidst a great people. We may have fallen upon degenerate times – have evolved senators and representatives that “represent” the “interests” and “misrepresent the people”. But in those good old days of Lincoln, Davis, Lovejoy, Yates (not little Jacksonville whippersnipe) but “honest old Dick”, with all his grievous faults and lapses of morale. These were the giants sent of Abraham’s God to lead a people in the perilous hours of their history. Strange isn’t it that so many of their activities should revolve about an old historic temple of justice in dear old Metamora?

Cass, I cannot write of these things and hold down the echoes that involuntarily kick out of the past and come on bidden trooping before me. It all rises before me as a dream. I remember just where you stood the first time I ever saw you – long time ago? I fear the Bulletin correspondent romances on your age, he says “56”. I am inclined to believe he slanders you. I shall be 51 the 13th day of next month. I don’t seem possible, Cass? But figures don’t lie, notwithstanding liars do sometimes figure. I feel just as young as I did when I used to take the train at Metamora of a bright September morning and hike me away to Bloomington to college. But when I recall that I have been “grand pa” for these two years and more, I know it’s not a dream, but one of the stern facts of life. Going back to the time I first saw you – you were standing in the door of an old store building on the west side of the public square, kept I believe by a Mr. Roman, or Robman. You were then a chunk of a boy, perhaps 15 years of age. As I recall, you clerked at that store for several years. Then I think of you over at the old court house.

There were many incidents in our associations while you clerked at Robman’s that imprinted themselves indelibly on my mind. You were in my childish imagination a “hero”. While I wrestled with the plow, followed the old Kirby self rake, binding by hand for six long seeks at a stretch, hustled up the hay with old fashioned ”Armstrong” hay derrick, or entering into the poetic dream that Riley so beautifully frames when he rants: “O the husky, rusty rustle of the tassels of the corn, and the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn,” and a whole lot more kind of “rot” that is music to my ear today, but which would have been sufficient provocation to have caused me to have assisted in mobbing him at the time – I say in those days, while I disported myself thus in the field, out on the splendid quarter section of the S.E. ¼ of Sec. 12. Metamora Tp., there came to my mind’s eye times many and oft the picture of a fat, sleek, well groomed, black eyed boy behind Robman’s counter, shoveling sugar out of a barrel, and raveling off philosophy by the yard. Cass, you were the boy and you were every inch a hero. I dreamed of the time when I should be by the sugar barrel, and have my “philosophic reel” as well lubricated and geared on ball bearings so as to “astound” the country jokes.

Cass, I remember the first time I ever “made the memorable journey” to Metamora “alone”. My older brother, William H., now living bear Marshalltown, Iowa, got a little stubborn and my mother’s Scotch-Irish temper was stirred a bit, I was placed on “old Queen”, an old sorrel mare of blessed memory, and started to “town”. I would not have exchanged places that morning with the czars of all the Russias and Uncle Sam thrown in. I was quite certain that I would be able to “find the place’ but after traveling what seemed at that time a greater distance than it now seems to Chicago, I saw looming up athwart my path, gleaming in the morning sun, the gilded, golden colored ball of the flag staff of the court house. When I reined up front of that temple of justice, right south of Portman’s store. I put that building into my list of the “world’s greatest buildings”. I can see that gold colored ball gleam yet. One thing that comes to my mind in connection with your clerking at Robman’s – one day I was waiting while you dug the toothsome sugar out of the barrel – now if there was in those days any article that seemed to appeal to my taste more strongly than another, it was brown sugar, of the kind and grade you dug out of that old barrel. Well, as I was remarking, you finished “digging” and then stepped out at the back door for some article, and right there “the tempter”, the devil, an evil spirit, my fallen spirit or some depraved cuss – although mother usually insisted on calling him, or it “Charlie” bobbed up and the first thing I knew I had transferred a very fine toothsome lump of sugar into my side pocket. You finished my order and I “vamoosed” as quickly as possible. Just after I turned at Garmon Gish’s corner, I noticed someone approaching from behind, moneyed on a sorrel horse, riding Jehu like. The accusing spirit within “smote” me sore, and putting whip to old Queen, I covered the ground to Herin’s corner in about ten minutes, there I decided t leap on east and avoid my pursuer if possible. That took me half a mile out of my way, but the fiend kept right on after me. As I approached the residence of old Asa Capron, the horseman was so near that I listened to the “cautioning voice within”, and as a precautionary measure, I slipped that toothsome lump of sugar from my pocket and threw it into the weeds at the side of the road. Within twenty rods of that spot, my old “Queen” exhausted from the pace I kept, the avenging nemesis passed me, and I recognized, not an officer of the law, but our old “butcher” on an innocent mission of hustling “canners” for the slaughter pen. Cass, the only thing about that diabolical affair that I regretted for years and the loss of which stays with me even to this day, was the way I beat myself out of that lump of sugar.

But I’ll tire you with this nonsense. How I recall the places, names and faces of the grand old men mentioned in the article before me. I have satisfied the inner man time sundry and oft at the table of Grand Ma Spears. The last time I made the trip across country, I believe it was the spring of ’98. I took dinner at the “Spears hotel”. I used to see the old walnut bedstead in their parlor. I recall sitting by it and glaring at its old posts, the morning that I was “21” and submitting to the ordeal of allowing “Gray the Peoria dentist” to pull two ulcerated teeth.

But the names of those old “heroes”, Cass – when we call the roll, how few their responses. Old Jim Whitmire and his brother, Zac, your venerable father, old Father Rouse, the Pages, Painters, Martins, Wilsons, Morses, Parminer, Ranney Tanton. Boys – what a tribe of illustrious pioneers? A new generation has come that perhaps “knows not Joseph,” but how I would enjoy attending one your old settlers’ reunions and having the privilege of speaking to the second generation of “old settlers.” You and I would be rated amongst them, Cass.

Think of it Cass? You, the black eyed, sleek, well fed boy by the sugar barrel, and the “honorable mayor of the city”, and I am a humble Presbyterian preacher in Kansas loving sugar as dearly as ever, and incidentally pining over that lost lump yet.

[For more information on J. C. "Cass" Irving, click here.}


Transcribed and donated by Pat Whorrall-Ellis                                                                                    Back to Index


(Untitled newspaper clipping hand dated Dec 25, 1930)

Former Benson Man is Killed in Hold-Up

Jacob Al Johnson Turns Bandit and Pays With his Life in Gun Fight

Works With Gang in Indiana

Body Brought to Minonk Monday and Services and Burial Were Held Here Today (Wednesday)


The wages of sin are always death. Sometimes, in a pessimistic mood, one feels that the wrongdoers get by the best. But it is not so. There is no easy, absolute road to happiness, or wealth. The straight and narrow path, sometimes extremely lonesome, invariably pays.

These thoughts follow the experience of a Benson young man. Honest, apparently, a good man at home, highly regarded by his friends, he went to Chicago to enter the garage business. There he ran into that company of gangsters which for a number of years have ruled supreme. When this young man came to Benson a week ago Sunday, he displayed $6,000 in currency, it is said! For the first time his friends doubted him. Then on Sunday the following story flashed over the wires from Etna Green, Ind.:

Four desperados who created a wave of terror in Kosciusko county by breaking into one bank, robbing another and kidnapping an elderly mailman, ended their crime jaunt here today in a revolver and shotgun battle with vigilantes. The toll of the fight was:

Al Johnson, 27 years old, of Chicago, bandit, shot in the stomach and probably fatally wounded.

Robert Knepper, vigilante, shot in the left knee.

Ralph Mason, vigilante, slightly wounded.

Garland Ives, 26 years old, and his brother, Russell, 28, of South Bend, Ind., and another man known only as John, said to be from Chicago, all robbers, were captured.

The four outlaws were rushed to Warsaw, the county seat. The Ives brothers and John were held in jail while Johnson was taken to the McDonald hospital.

Shortly before dawn this morning two men, members of the gang, broke into the Etna bank and tried to open the safe with acetylene torches. They failed, however, and departed, carrying a rifle with them as the only loot. As they were leaving they were sighted by Calvin Pressnal, 79, a mail carrier who operated between here and Warsaw, eight miles east. Pressnal was roughly bundled into the crime car, and driven 15 miles away, near Rochester, and trussed to a post. He liberated himself shortly afterward, and notified authorities.

The next attack of the crime crew was at Burnet, Ind., 10 miles south of Warsaw. Four men walked into the Bank of Seward, leveled revolvers and shotguns at Mrs. Gaylord Doran, assistant cashier, and Mrs. Nancy Jones, 80, a patron, and escaped with $295. They fled in their car, and headed north toward Etna Green.

By this time, authorities of Kosciusko county were prepared, and vigilante groups sprung up in several communities. One group organized at Etna Green was comprised of Knepper, cashier of the Etna bank; Mason, his assistant, and Paul Hamlin, a merchant. They armed themselves with pistols and rifles and posted the main highway.

At Etna Green the gunmen passed the machine of the vigilante trio and proceeded onward with added speed. The chase ended abruptly when the outlaw automobile, unable to negotiate a sharp turn, glanced against a tree and rolled into a ditch. The four gunmen leaped out and commenced firing at their pursuers. Mason, Hamlin, and Knepper returned the fire, running after them on foot. One of the bandits dropped with a slug in his abdomen. Knepper collapsed also, his knee punctured by a shot. Mason suffered a slight flesh wound but continued with the fight. Two of the bandits sought to avoid arrest by pretending they were members of the tiny posse, but surrendered when their ruse failed.

Then on Monday from Warsaw, Ind., came pouring the follow-up story:

Jacob Al Johnson, 26, of Chicago, shot through the body by vigilantes at Etna Green yesterday while trying to escape with three companions after holding up the Bank of Seward at Burket, ten miles south of here, died early this morning.

Just before he died, he asked that his wife be summoned. She told authorities he had operated a garage on 31st street in Chicago and left home Tuesday to visit his parents in Benson, Ill. She says he never talked of a bank robbery and she believes the attempted robbery of the Etna Green bank Saturday morning, connected with the kidnapping of Calvin Pressnal, 79 year old mail man, and the holdup of the Burket bank Saturday afternoon, were his initial attempts at banditry.

Mrs. Johnson, 20 years old, is the mother of a 6 week old son. They were married last spring.

Johnson's three companions, Russell Ives of South Bend, Garland Ives of Wishawaka, and John Pfeffer of Chicago, are in jail here. In Garland Ives' car, found at the Russell Ives home, were found an acetylene torch and three tanks of acetylene gas.

The three captured bank robbers after pleading guilty were sentenced in the Kosciusko circuit court on Monday. Pfeiffer was sentenced to serve 20 years in state prison at Michigan City. He was considered the gang leader. Garland Ives was sentenced to serve 15 years and Russell Ives was sentenced to 10 years at the reformatory. Russell Ives drew a lighter sentence because it is believed he joined the bandit gang reluctantly.

Reports that Johnson had $35,000 deposited in Chicago banks have been denied.

Johnson's body arrived in Minonk on Monday at the Tallyn undertaking parlors, from which services were held this (Wednesday) morning at 11:30 o'clock conducted by the Roanoke pastor and burial was made in the Minonk cemetery.

Transcribed and donated by Amy Robbins-Tjaden                                                                                    Back to Index


The Evening Independent (St Petersburg, Florida) 3 October 1942

Recluse Leaves $10,000 Fortune Buried in Jars - Gives Directions for Finding Money in Scribbled Will

Eureka, Ill., Oct. 3 - AP - Henry W. Onnen, 65 year old wealthy recluse, often voiced his mistrust in banks; his scorn for courts, judges and lawyers.

Before his death last October he had written in his will that "no lawyer, no judge, no court is to have anything to do with my property."

The principal matter of litigation in the Woodford county circuit court this week was Onnen's buried fortune of $10,000 and his heirs and their counsel are disputing whether some of the money he had hoarded has disappeared.

Onnen's will, scribbled in pencil on the back of a 1937 calendar, was found by relatives after his death last Oct. 24. He also had written directions for finding his life's savings.

The will named three of his nephews to take spades and dig under a henhouse "all at once, so there will be no crooked work." They followed directions and found approximately $7,000 -- in eight fruit jars. In one jar was $6,400 in bills; each of the seven others contained 25 and 50 cent pieces, amounting to between $175 and $200 each.

The paper money was for eight nieces and nephews, children of his deceased brother John; the silver was for his two sisters. Another search was directed to an old trunk where about $3,000 was found and which was ordered divided between his sisters.

A suit for an accounting of Onnen's property was filed by his sister, Mrs Fannie A. Beckman, Bottineau, N.D., against her sister, Mrs Lena Upts, a farm wife near Minonk, Ill. Mrs Beckman asked that her sister be forced to give the accounting of their brother's property, claiming he had more money than has been disclosed. She also said among the assets allegedly missing was an old coin collection once appraised at $20,000.

Hearing in the case was continued by Judge Ed Robeson to allow time for depositions to be taken from Mrs Beckman.
Transcribed and donated by Amy Robbins-Tjaden                                                                                    Back to Index



A Rainy Sunday in Woodford County

Narrative by Bill, and Photos by Bill and Donna Wilson

August 5th, 2007


Finally, a chance to revisit Woodford County!  Since we launched the Woodford County web site last March, I have tried to schedule a tour when we visited my step father, Mac, in Farmington.  It didn't happen in April or June, but this time we had a free Sunday.  There were no parties scheduled, no family visitors arriving, it was too hot to work in the garden, and Mac was feeling well and ready to go.  So Sunday morning, August 5th, Mac, Donna and I, and our three dogs, piled into the car and off we went.

Since it was such a pretty morning we took the scenic route:  Route 78 north out of Farmington, through Elmwood, then east on Shissler Road--then a jog north to Brimfield, where we picked up Route 150. We followed Route 150 through Peoria, where it's known as War Memorial Drive, then across the McClugage street bridge, entering Tazewell County briefly, then we found ourselves in Woodford County.

We have a family joke, that Donna spends the first part of any trip, looking for refills for her iced tea, and the second part of the trip looking for bathrooms.  Today was no different, with the added incentive to stop--Chloe, our Scotty puppy also needs frequent relief calls.  So our trip was definitely of the stop and start variety.  But the day was pretty, and we enjoyed it.

I haven't spent much time in Woodford County since I moved to Texas.  Prior to that, when I was in High School, Metamora and Eureka were in our athletic conference.  As a result I was a frequent visitor for basketball games, track meets and music contests.  Truthfully at that time I had no appreciation for the landscape or history, and I didn't pay much attention to where we were, or how we got there.  Typical teen. But today was different, and a real treat.

Our first stop was Metamora, where we quickly found the old courthouse and the park across the street.  Disappointingly, the courthouse wasn't open, but we still got some pictures.  (As you go through this trip with us, you'll be able to tell my pictures from Donna's.  I like to explain the difference as I take snapshots, she takes photographs. Somehow she sees things differently than I do, and captures it with the camera.)

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger picture

The Old Courthouse


Businesses alongside the Courthouse, and the great old brick road

I don't know the name of this park, but it's right across from the courthouse, and pretty

As we drove around Metamora, we found St. Mary's to be very busy, as you would expect on a Sunday Morning.  Somehow if we could just move all the cars out of the way so we could take a better picture.......

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger picture

St. Mary's Catholic Church


Flowers along the wall at St. Mary's School 

Afraid I don't know a Pansy from a Crocus, but this is pretty

St. Mary's School, almost hidden by the cars

After the obligatory bathroom stops, we took off for Eureka.  Mac, who grew up on a Knox County farm, and has been around farming all his life, was astounded at the size of the fields along the way.  Farms in Fulton and Knox counties tend to be smaller, due mainly to the rougher terrain and the wooded areas.  But these fields seemed to stretch forever.

By the time we got to Eureka, the clouds were closing in.  And when we got to Eureka College we were being deluged.  The rain was so bad that the windshield wipers couldn't remove it fast enough.  So our College pictures were taken out the windows. The College is pretty--reminds me of my Alma Mater.

Suddenly the rain stopped just as we got back downtown, so Donna got out to get a picture of the Courthouse, then we were on our way to see more.

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger picture

Eureka College


Woodford County Courthouse


On the way to El Paso we took a small detour north to drive through Secor, but, given the size of it, that drive didn't take long. Soon we found ourselves in El Paso. Frankly I wasn't familiar with the town except through the work on the web site, and my first impression was "just another Interstate crossroad" town.  But after another bathroom break, I started to hunt for Front Street, which wasn't hard to find.  And my initial reaction to El Paso did a quick turn-around. All at once the history of El Paso which we put on the web site a month ago, came to life.  Front Street, although updated, looked little different than it did a hundred years ago. I would have given anything to have a copy of the web site pictures with me so I could match up the buildings.  But that has to wait until next time.

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger picture

Front Street Scenes

El Paso

Although we hadn't seen enough of the county, we decided it was time to head for home.  So we went back to Eureka, through Washington, and back to Farmington, the way we had come.  We all thoroughly enjoyed our brief tour, and I'm ready for the next time when I can spend time in the Courthouses, and begin to look up some of the cemeteries to take pictures.  And lest you think we were putting our dogs through an ordeal, here's a picture of how our puppy, Chloe, took to the whole thing.



Click on the thumbnails to see a larger picture

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