Annuals of Knox County, Illinois

typed by Ann Maxwell the whole book for publishing here at American History & Genealogy Project

 

ONTARIO TOWNSHIP
By Hugh Greig

While it is true that no well defined Indian trail crossed, in any direction, this township, yet there is indisputable evidence that the Redman was a frequent visitor, The large number of arrow points found in the vicinity of Pilot Knob prove this. The point named is one of the few decided elevations in what is not Knox County and must have been used in times innumerable by the Indians to watch the coming or going of a friend, or to detect the stealthy approach of a dusky enemy.

The area in timber was much too limited to furnish an ideal hunting round, and no living spring now known could have supplied water for any large number of people. Therefore, Pilot Knob, despite its sightlines, lacked many qualifications which could induce the wanderer to make of it an abiding place.

That there were large numbers of magnificent trees nearby and in every direction, far as the eye could reach, a waving ocean of tallest grasses, proving the unsurpassed richness of the soil was to the Indian a matter of little or no importance.

It is quite probable that more than a century before the white man, as a settler, looked on this rich, rolling prairie land, the explorer on his way from the Illinois to the Mississippi or vice versa, had traversed this region and unquestionably the hunter of a much later date had stood on Pilot and in ever more than fancy “was monarch of all he surveyed.”

However, though explorers and hunters have a place in history, a place which bold, venturesome men only can fill, still it is of a truth he and she who are possessors of or possessed by the ideas of the settler, the settler who squats on a definite spot of earth, in some legal form obtains the squatters right to stay and stays. Such is the germ from which in due time Ontario township, Knox County, Illinois, the nation is made.

And if we are to judge the Ontario of today and of all the succeeding tomorrows by the all around make up of the early settlers we may well be thankful and take courage, for were they not all or nearly all the not distant descendants of those who made homes, built schools and churches, fought Indians and brought a thousand smiles to the flinty face of sterile New England, and some in the morning of their manhood assisted in Central New York by arduous labor in transforming a forest into a farm; and though here they found the unbroken prairie a new problem, its solution was simple in comparison; it is true the implements needed were different, the skill to produce them was not yet acquired, but here was the soil, stubborn indeed, but not more so than the settler. With a plow largely of timber, much prairie was brought under cultivation; corn was planted, not with a planter and check-rower, but with an axe, in due time this gave place to the hoe and as evolution seems to be a universal law the two-horse planer came and stays.

Besides the corn, all the grains suitable to our soil and climate were sown and rich were the rewards of the husbandman. One crop now never seen in this township was to a limited extent grown, viz., flax, and not only grown, but by skilled and willing hands became by much patient labor a part of the clothing of almost moneyless early settlers, and in even this year of grace and carnage this writer was shown a considerable sample of linen fabric, the flax from which it had been made grew on Section 31, Ontario Township, the home for more than sixty years of G.W. Melton, Mrs. Melton and family, and we have reason to believe that the aforesaid Mrs. Melton with her own hands heckeled, spun and wove the linen cloth to the writer shown.

In the same year but previous to Mr. Melton’s arrival, an Alexander Williams had fenced and plowed some twenty acres on the northwest quarter of Section 30 and therefore, so far as known, was the first settler in the township, who evidently intended to remain. However, in 1836 he sold his holdings to I.M. Wetmore. The latter became one of the large landholders in the neighborhood and in all his after years was a most prominent and successful farmer. And though the name, Wetmore is less common than in the early days it is still wit us and with a goodly number of others interesting and pleasant way links the present with the past.

As stated. A goodly number of names familiar in the early days are still here, yet it is very true that a large and increasing percentage of our land owners and tenant farmers can and do speak an alien tongue, but we all know by evidence that cannot be gainsaid that alien speech is no indication of alien sentiment. When we bear in mind that perhaps even a majority of our voters are of foreign birth or are the children of those who hail from the land of Thor, and also recognize the fact that when the R.C., the Y.M.C.A., the K. of C. or other similar agencies let it be known that funds are needed in there ceaseless works of mercy, Ontario has unhesitatingly gone over the top.

In the matter of the various bond selling campaigns, over the top is simply considered the normal thing. This, however, is usually looked on as a fairly good investment; yet take it all in all, the profit, the real profit, that which never tarnishes, is that derived from that giving where nothing is returned in kind. But to speak of the cold facts of history it is a pleasure to mention that while settlers were few, money almost unbelievably scarce, yet the matter of education was not forgotten, for in 1839, a school house was built on the northwest quarter of Section 32. Just in what manner the project was financed we do not know, we only know that the free school system or anything much resembling it had at times an uncomfortable amount of fresh air; as has been hinted the course of study was somewhat brief, but as was proved on many subsequent occasions, the pupils graduated having, in the words of John Hay, “a middling tight grip on the handful of things they knew.”

The first teacher was Sally Ann Belden. The school house for several years was used for religious services, and as denominational lines were not strictly drawn, the preacher of the occasion was not questioned very closely as to his beliefs or unbelief’s on doctrinal matters.

There are now in the township eight rural schools, and while all of them have been to some extent remodeled and greatly improved in general appearance externally and internally, the course of study has become practically uniform; the teacher in a knowledge of teaching methods and in scholarly equipment far surpass those of the so-called good old days of long ago. The Oneida district, officially known as No. 27, is what is known as a graded school. Four teachers are employed and all pupils who successfully pass the eighth grade are eligible to enter the high school. The latter which is conducted in the same building, employs four teachers, each of whom we are glad to say is a graduate of a State University or College in good standing, and pupils honorably finishing the four year course are, provided they have made the best of their opportunities, able to enter any college in our state.

Every girl or boy in this township is in some high school district or in non-high school territory which amounts to the same thing. And yet, sad to say, very many of our young people never pass the eighth grand and some never reach it.

It was a number of years after the establishment of the first school when the township became a political unit; the first Supervisor was Edward Crane; clerk, W.J. Savage; Assessor, J. Burt; Collector, E.C. Brott; Overseer of the Poor, T.F.P. Wetmore. They also had constables and highway commissioners. It is not all likely that the latter gentlemen were at any time urged to use their influence in favor of hard roads, and if their successors ever have been the good advice given them appears to have been wasted. The justices of the peace were E. Chapman and T.E. Mosher.

The names of the supervisors, who until the present time have succeeded Mr. Crane, are as follows: J. Hammond, W.B. LeBaron, J. Hammond, W.B. LeBaron, A.S. Curtis, O. Beadle, E. Crane, A.S. Curtis, G.L. Stephenson, O.L. Fay, G.E. Fredericks, Hugh Grieg, and J.J. Clearwater. There is in the township but one village, Oneida. It was platted in the autumn of 1854 by C.F. Camp, B.T. West and S.V.R. Holmes. It is said that there was not intention on the part of railroad officials to have a station at that point but there were more convincing inducements presented at that time to the needy company chief of which at this date are the R.R. Station, two grain elevators, various other buildings, and last and greatest is the beauty spot of the village, the little park which is the admiration of all, and as the years come and go the home one and the passing traveler notes the deep green sward, the clumps of shrubbery each in its season blossom tinted, the spreading branches of the elms, maples, chestnuts giving promise of the future forest shade where all can realize it, if they will that our pagan ancestors were not far amiss when they, in the shady woodland’s “dim religious light” saw a temple in which they did and we might worship God.

The writer calls Oneida a village, and, as he thinks rightly, so as more befitting our small and sadly diminishing numbers, still it has a city charter, a special charter by the way. However, it is quite doubtful if the makers thereof could today recognize their handiwork. It will interest some to know that Oneida’s first school was built in 1855, and its first teacher was Mary Allen West, who later became County Superintendent of Schools, and in such position and in others subsequently filled, she not only raised the standard of scholarship among the teachers but raised the standard of civic righteousness in every community that knew her presence.

The village, as has been noted, has two grain elevators, two banks, the First National and the Anderson State Bank; we have had and now have a weekly paper, the Oneida News, a Masonic lodge with a large membership, a Modern Woodmen Camp, a Mystic Workers Insurance Company, two Woman’s Clubs, which are decidedly helpful in a social and literary way. There is also an organization known as the Oneida-Atona Branch of the Knox County Free Kindergarten and out of this has grown what may be called an auxiliary. The latter is wholly composed of farm wives and daughters, and has its centre in that intangible, but yet very real, something known as Ontario. The meetings are no doubt beneficial in a social way, but is the sentiment of the heart materialized by the hands that on many, very many occasions brings cheer to the little homeless ones in the Galesburg Kindergarten.

The Church in Ontario Township

In 1840 the Presbyterians planned and in a measure effected an organization, which so far as now known in a short time as such disappeared. The same denomination again in 1863, probably as a result of the seed sown in 1840, took the necessary steps to found a church in Oneida, and in 1865 one was erected. The building was completely destroyed by a windstorm in 1868. A new church was immediately erected and has been added to, the interior remodeled, the congregation is out of debt, has a resident pastor, but the membership is slowly but constantly diminishing.

In that part of Ontario Township which is known as Ontario, parenthetically it may be said, that this section has a social centre of its own; it is really a community within a community, although not nearly so much so as in the days that are gone; yet it still exists, resembling some of the European States, however small. The Ontarioans are staunch believers in autonomy, and this being so the settlers who favored the congregational system of church management came together in 1848 and discussed the feasibility of organizing a church of this denomination, and in 1842 the church which is still in existence, was erected; there has been no resident pastor for a number of years and though preaching services are occasionally held it would seem to an unbiased onlooker that the end of the Ontario Congregational church is near at hand.

About the same time in the same community a certain number, who, from the old eastern home, had brought certain inherited theological ideas which to them seemed essential, decided to build a Baptist church. Such was built; also a parsonage, and for many years preaching services were regularly held. However, for a considerable time no services were held, the church building was demolished, the parsonage sold, the society disbanded, and the place which knew it, and knew it for its good, will in all probability know it no more.

In 1852, in the neighborhood of what is now Oneida, a Congregational Society was formed. In 1855 the church building which is still the property of the society, was built, has had an eventful and most useful existence. Bit the church is pastor less, with slight signs of rejuvenation. There are still members of the church and of the society who hope and look forward to a new life for their beloved church, and for them and for the community as a whole such a consummation is to be wished.

The Oneida Methodist church was built in 1863. It was a live organization to begin with, all its past history proves that it has not lost its pristine enthusiasm, and in keeping with its inner life its material progress is well shown in the new brick edifice which occupies and graces the site of the old wooden structure, and at this writing a new, handsome brick veneered parsonage is nearing completion.

Sometime between 1850 and 1860 a Baptist and a Universalist church was built in Oneida. The latter was destroyed by fire; was rebuilt, but was wrecked by a windstorm. The Baptist church was demolished at the same time and neither was ever rebuilt. There was also a Lutheran organization which at no time had more than thirty members; its existence was brief as its list of members. The Seven Day Adventists had a place of worship for a short time. Church and church goers have disappeared.

There is also on Section 1 a Christian church. It has always been numerically weak and in common with all, or nearly all Ontario churches, it is not only weak, but constantly becoming weaker.

It would appear from the foregoing that at some time there have been in Ontario Township ten religious societies; at least eight have had places of worship. At present there are but two congregations having resident pastors—Methodist and Presbyterian. For this condition there may be many reasons given. It is true that there are a less number of inhabitants in the township, and a smaller percentage of the lesser number are churches goers, and again there is a Swedish Lutheran Church in Altona, where a large number of the older people of our township regularly attend public worship. On such occasion they meet with friends of kindred speech and from the pulpit hear the words to memory dear and sing the songs they first heard in their old home, “over there.” There is also a church of the same denomination in Wataga and though not so largely attended as that in Altona still quite a number of families from the southern side of Ontario are attendants and members. The same may be said of the extreme north of the township, the people here going to Woodhull.

However, it will have to be admitted that the chief cause of the decadence and disappearance of churches is the fact that a large and increasing number of people never go. Neither class mentioned can be depended on as a liberal giver to any department of church work, and churches need friends.

However, in the not distant future all three societies, Altona, Wataga, Woodhull, in all their meetings will use and use only the English tongue. In that case will the present average church attendance prevail, or will decadence and, in many instances, disintegration take place?

Yet even if the church as the embodiment of Christianity should largely or wholly pass, would not that something in it which is greater than itself continue to live, ever, ever marching on.

 

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