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Out on the Prairie
By W. B. Elliott
During a week of September in 1919, the Swedish Methodist Church of Center Prairie of this county celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of its edifice. The Celebration was very well attended at each meeting and a fine time was enjoyed by all. The former ministers who were present during and services were Rev. Bendex of Chicago, Rev. H. W. Willing of Cleveland, Ohio, Rev. N.W. Bard of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Rev. A. J. Strandell of Donovan, Mr. and Mrs. John P. Miller of Chicago.
One of the features was the following interesting historical address by W. B. Elliott.
When the first people came to Center Prairie, the land was densely covered with prairie grass and blue stem, which grew in many places as high almost as a man’s head when on a horse. This had been going on for ages so that the soil was covered and filled with vegetable matter and there were no ditches and small water courses to carry off the water as now and the land was very wet and un-tillable, there being many large ponds which are still remembered by people now living. The result was that Center Prairie was not the first part of Victoria Township to be settled up. The first settlers who came settled in the timber surrounding the prairie. They did this for many reasons. They had generally come from the hilly regions of New England states and New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio and had been used to timber as windbreaks. In fact, on the prairie where the sweep of the wind was unhindered with the buildings that they were able to put up in those days, man and beast would surely have frozen to death. The writer of this article in his youth had the experience when sleeping in the loft of a log house of awakening in the morning with a thick covering of snow upon the bed covers and which had come in between the logs where the chinks had fallen out under the clapboards. They did not know they could dig wells here in those days, and so the first settlers settled near springs. Neither did they know that the land was under laid with coal and so they burned wood and had to be near it, for the fireplaces with which they used to heat their homes and cook their simple food, took lots of fuel. All their building material must be near at hand in growing timber. It was the only material they had to fence with also.
It was very dangerous to live on the prairie on account of the frequent prairie fires. I very well remember hearing my father tell how, when he was a small boy, his father, Thomas Elliott, tried to plow around the house and stable and also burn the grass for a distance about the building, which was known as back firing. When he had seen a fire in the distance he told how the onrush of the wall of flame was so great that it made all his efforts unavailing and jumped to the house and stable so that grandfather had difficulty in saving even his family and beasts. Being burned out in those days was no funny experience, with nothing to rebuild with except growing trees, and with no neighbors for miles around and winter coming on, for these terrible fires always came near winter when the grass had died and was dry. On this occasion, my grandfather cut poles and built two pens, one inside the other while grandmother gathered leaves and filled the space between them and in this; they lived until they could erect a log cabin.
Were Hardy Pioneers
The early settlers who thus settled in the timber around Center Prairie and who later themselves or their descendants helped to make Center Prairie what it is were hardy pioneers who came overland with their families in wagons from the older states. I shall only attempt to enumerate a few.
Thomas Elliott first settled in Persifer Township in 1837, where the writer’s father, Burgess Elliott, was born. He moved later to Victoria Township near the present home of James Cook and it was while he was living here that he undertook and got out and delivered on the ground the long hewn timbers for the Methodist Church which was built in Victoria in 1854. It was here he lived when he had a contract to deliver railroad ties between Altona and Galva for the C. B. and Q Railroad.
The Wilbur’s settled just west of Delbert Patty’s place in the thirty’s and a daughter, Phoebe, married Peter Sornberger and they were the first couple married in Victoria Township in 18338, on Easter Sunday.
Luther Rice settle in the timber about two miles south from the Center Prairie church, about 1842, and was the progenitor of a numerous family, among whom was Foster Rice, who built a log house where Charley Larson now lives about 1857, and Cyrus Rice, who built the Robert Young house in 1857, where J.L. Huber now lives, which was another of the first frame houses on Center Prairie. Alvin Rice still owns a part of his grandfather’s land. Perhaps the earliest settler on Center Prairie proper was Thomas G. Stuart, who patented the N.E. Quarter of Section 27 in 1838, which old patent the writer recently, saw at the Exchange Bank at Victoria.
Burned to Death
He died about 1845 and left his estate by will to his wife, Catherine. In 1850, Catherine burned a brush pile near the house to prepare ground to sow tobacco seed and the house caught fire and Mrs. Stuart was burned until she died trying to save money in the house and was buried just west of the creek on the S.E. Quarter of the old homestead. She was the mother of four boys: Tom, who kept the homestead; married Eliza Gladfelter, was crippled in the war, died at the old home and was buried in Thomas’ graveyard, now the Center Prairie Cemetery. Elija, Peter, William and one girl, Katie, who married Van Winkle and was the mother of Henry Van Winkle, who lived for many years north of Four Corners.
Perhaps the next settler in line who settled on Center Prairie was Josiah Patty and Beka Patty his wife, who built a log house on the southeast quarter of Section 27, where Phillip Gibbs now lives, he having purchased the land from Richard J. Barret in 1839. Mr. Gibbs still has the old patent. Their children were James, William, Sarah, Nancy, Robert, George and Josiah.
John Arnold, a blacksmith, first came in Knox County and Victoria Township in 1836, but did not buy the old Arnold place where Gust Swanson now lives until 1840. He did blacksmithing there until 1853, when he moved to Victoria. John Arnold and his wife had ten children. In fact, in those days the hardy pioneer family that did not consist of ten was the exception and not the rule. Thomas Elliott and his wife were the parents of fourteen children.
Perhaps the first family who settle on the flat prairie to the north was that of Thomas Durand, for whom Jonas Hedstrom, the tailor and preacher, made a wedding suit, who owned the Conley place where Martin Gibbs afterwards settled in 1850, and the two eighty-acre pieces that now belong to Alex Ingles and William England. This land he bought in 1841 and as there was no timber near, he fenced the half section with a sod fence, the remains of which may still be seen after a lapse of nearly eighty years. He was the grandfather of John McNaught and Mrs. Cornelius Stephenson of later times. These were the N.W. Quarter Section 13 and the S.E. Quarter Section 12.
Arrival of Swedes
From this time on settlers came in increasing numbers. Especially about 1850 the Swedes began to arrive in large numbers. Among the early settlers were J.L. Jarnagin, 1845; Dalgren, 1846; Adolphus Anderson, 1847 and John Saline, 1854. Then came in 1855 Peter Anderson, Lars Ostrom, John Chalman, Sam Coleman; in 1857, Peter Skoglund, step-father to Mrs. Catherine Larson, who is still with us, and Sievert Larson, to be quickly followed by Noah Swickard, Lars Johnson, William Hammerlund, John P. Anderson, father of Frank Anderson, who still lives on the old homestead, and who shipped the first car load of frozen beef to Chicago and the man who invented the refrigerator cars that makes it possible to ship fresh meat almost all over the world, as also Eli and Shid Johnson, Theodore Hammond, Joseph Cain, James Thomas, Jonas Olson and many others.
These were a hardy race who willingly bore the hardships of a pioneer life and bravely withstood the rigorous winters of the bleak and open prairies for the sake of founding their new homes and establishing their families in a new country. They early felt the need of education, as most of them had had very limited opportunities for securing and education, so that almost with their coming they set up log schoolhouses, covered with clapboards and floored with puncheon, which was poles split and the split side hewn and laid up as a floor. There was a fireplace in one end of the room and seats around the wall, made of slabs or split logs with four sticks in for legs upon which the children sat with their feet dangling from the floor as they studied the old Webster’s spelling book, before the time of the far-famed McGuffey’s speller. It was in such an institution of learning that Burgess Elliott, who was born in Knox County in 1837, as well as others of that time, secured the rudiments of an education. Not long after the first settlers came here, Old Salem, which was started in 1836, became too crowded and the settlers were so far away that they built a small square house on the corner near Tom Stuart’s.
William Robinson, a cousin of John K. Robinson, was one of the early teachers here. This schoolhouse soon became too small and it was proposed to build a new and there was great rivalry as to where it should be built, but as this was near where Salem school now is, and most of the patrons lived east on the prairie, it was finally determined to put it where it now stands, and so the schoolhouse was built here in 1856. The sawed timber was hauled overland from Rock Island and Peoria and the framing timber was got out by John Saline and Charles Appell. John Saline did the building of it. There was much discussion as to what it should be called. Some wanted to call it Stuart’s Prairie and others Anderson’s Prairie, but a compromise was made and it was named Center Prairie and Center Prairie it still is. The first teacher was one John Fleeharty, from Galesburg, who taught in 1856. The next winter, John Van Buren, a brother of George Van Buren, who still lives in Victoria, taught, and ‘tis said of him to this day that he was one of the best teachers Center Prairie ever had. The next year, 1858, Miss Mary Garrett, a daughter of Old Captain Garrett, who later became Mrs. McIlravy, and still lives in Victoria, taught the school, as she did for several terms thereafter. She, like all teachers of that day, boarded at Thomas Elliott’s, and with other families who had children.
The Big Storm
She was staying a week at Moody Robinson’s when they had the big storm, May 14, 1858, about five o’clock in the afternoon. It came from the north and blew Robinson’s new frame house off the foundation and lodged it against the well. It lifted the roof off of Foster Rice’s house and blew a log out over the door so that Mrs. Rice had to put a blanket over Foster, who was holding the door to keep him from drowning. It blew the windows out of Peter Anderson’s house; in fact, the double log house of Thomas Elliott, made of the logs of Old Salem schoolhouse, was the only one in all this region that withstood the storm and all the neighbors stayed that night at Thomas Elliot’s as it was the only dry place in the neighborhood. They lay about two deep all over the floor and ‘tis said that none who were old enough to remember ever forgot that storm. Mrs. Robinson’s geese were blown away till she never found them. Wagons were picked up and carried to the creek and washed away. Noah Swickard’s new frame house, where Alvira Johnson now lives, was blown off the foundation, and at Rochester a house was blown in the river and carried away. The young men of the neighborhood went the next day to Walnut Creek and swam around in the tops of the trees among the limbs which were twenty or thirty feet from the ground when the waters receded.
To these schools came the boys and girls that were to make this wilderness a teeming land of plenty. Such men as young Arnold, son of John Arnold, who afterwards became a notable lawyer of Peoria, and Jonas Olson, the crippled orphan boy who afterwards became Galva’s most famous attorney and member of the Illinois Legislature and above all a lifelong friend of all who knew him. “Tis said that although he had to walk two miles to school with a crutch, he was one of the most happy pupils, as well as one of the most industrious. It is handed down in the school lore that he was a mischievous boy and while studying the old M.C. Guffey’s spelling book one day he ran onto what he thought was a bad word and spelled it in a loud whisper so that the whole school could hear, d-a-m dam, n-a na, t-i-o-n shun, damnation, and he still asserts that what the teacher, Mary Garrett gave him, fitted the word. At these schoolhouses were held many famous exhibitions, singing schools and spelling schools. Thomas Stuart who was said to be a very poor reader was the most famous speller of all this region, always standing up till all the teachers even were spelled down.
Center of Patriotism
So it was at this schoolhouse that the patriots of ’61 met to encourage the boys to enlist in their country’s cause. One of the most famous songs and one that always aroused the boys to the highest pitch of enthusiasm and which fitted the great leader, Abraham Lincoln, was We Are Coming, Father Abraham, Fifty Thousand Strong.
Center Prairie and the immediate neighborhood did not lack any in patriotism, as evidenced by the list of boys who wore the blue. Among them were August Carlson, Robert Young, Tom Stuart, Oliver Willy, Bill Larson, George Elliott, George Newberg, Adolphus Anderson, John P. Anderson, Nehemiah Coleman, Aaron Bothwell, Sam Cain, Jimmy Topp, Jonas Empstrom, Lee Shannon, Bill Thomas, Jonas Johnson, John Case James Alderman, John Labar, Noah Swickard, James Jarnigan, Spencer Jarnagin, John P. Peterson, Ward Todd, William Linday and Nat White. Of these famous sons of Center Prairie and surrounding territory who fought in the army blue, only three, George Newberg, August Carlton and George Elliott are now living.
In the World War
A history of the patriotic activities would be incomplete in this year of grace did it not include a list of the boys of the World War who wore the khaki of the army and the blue of the U.S. Navy. The honor roll that stands out in front of this church contains a list of men, who risked their lives that democracy might live. They are:
Glen Ostrom, Raymond Wall, Arthur Swanson, Roy Gibbs, Lew Gibbs, Charles Carlson, Sgt. Harold Elliott, Raymond Elliott, Charles Warrensford, Forest Cain, Machinist’s Mate 2nd, Edward Elliott, Paul Mustain, Clem Cravens, Ralph Mustain, George Todd, Ervin Moshier, Earnest Brown, Bertas Mackey, Clarence Spencer, Fred Steinman, Robert Kneer, Earl Brown.
The Religious Side
The early settlers were not satisfied to rest at mere physical and intellectual betterment, but above all, they were religious. At first they met at the homes to hold worship and as soon as schoolhouses were built, they took the place of churches until churches could be built, so that when Old Salem schoolhouse was built, they began to hold meetings there and camp meetings in the grove, just north, and later the Swedish people held camp meetings on the opposite side of the hollow from the American. Then when the Center Prairie schoolhouse was built, they used it for a meetinghouse, both Swedes and the English-speaking people. Louisa Anderson, now Mrs. William Seward, tells me that she was baptized at the schoolhouse. Many of the inhabitants of the prairie had helped to build both Methodist churches in Victoria, but were so far away and had only oxen to drive, that they early began to feel the need of a church on Center Prairie and when Peter Newberg and Exstrand started the movement to build a church on Center Prairie they found willing hearts and hands to help. “Exstrand was a very bright young man,” says Jonas Olson.” Perhaps I am partial to him because he was a cripple like myself. He walked with a crutch.” They were ably assisted by the English people and Swedes alike, one of the most earnest workers being Peter Skoglund. The land where the church now stands was purchased by Adolphus Anderson in 1855 and he broke it up. In 1857, he old it to Lars Johnson and he in turn sold it to William Hammerlund in 1858.
For a consideration of fifty dollars, Hammerlund sold a piece of land eight and one-half rods north and south and seven rods east and west to the Swedish Methodist Episcopal church of the United States to be for and under the control of the Swedish Methodist church in Victoria Township, Knox County, Illinois. The money to build it was contributed by popular subscription. Many volunteered to haul a load of lumber back from Galva when they went up with grain and produce. The mason work was done by Swenson from Knoxville and the carpenter work was done by Peterson Herdine, who lived in Galva for so many years. But the building of this church in 1869 was not without some opposition. Peter Chalman, who had formerly been presiding elder of the Swedish M.E. church of this district, assisted by John Wilson, a cabinet maker, and full of gab, as Andrew Hartman expresses it, and who came to be a real free shouting Methodist and who, wearing no suspenders in the heat of his discourse, is said to have shed his raiment, organized about three quarters of a mile south of the schoolhouse a Free Methodist church. The money was raised by popular subscription, but not enough was raised to pay the debt and so the trustees paid the debt and tore down the church after some fifteen or twenty years. In this church, the English Sunday school was held for many years. Thus, Center Prairie has been supplied, since a very early day with ample church facilities and I hope that future historians of the county will take cognizance of this fact in writing the early church history of Knox County.
One of the things neglected here, as in all newly settled districts, was the early setting apart of a plot of ground for a public cemetery. The early settlers buried on their own premises. The Tabors buried on what is now the John Saline place, the Stuarts on the Stuart place, the Arnolds on the Arnold place, the Clifford’s on the Dr. Craven’s place where old “Bobby” Armstrong’s first wife, who was a Clifford, is buried. It was not until about 1858, that the family of Jim Thomas who owned the farm where the Center Prairie cemetery is located, lost several children with diphtheria and buried them there and when he sold the place to Olof Bowman he reserved the present plot for a burial ground and later, at the suggestion of William Messmore, deeded it to Knox County for a public cemetery. Center Prairie owes a debt of gratitude to John Thomas for this generous gift and can best repay it by seeing that it is always properly kept up. The present neat appearance is due largely to the good work of William England, Charley Larson and Victor Larson, who were selected by their neighbors to solicit funds and have it taken care of.
As to Utensils
The early settlers had very few of the comforts of life as we view them now. There were few simple cooking utensils. The writer has an old kettle that his grandmother has baked many a corn pone in by placing coals under the kettle on the hearth of the fireplace and putting coals on top. All the clothes were made of wool or flax raised in the neighborhood and spun and woven into cloth. Much of the carpet woven in this locality by Aunt Margaret Larson, Adolphus Anderson’s first wife, was made on the old loom of Mrs. Thomas Elliott, that she used to weave the woolen and Lindsey-Woolsey out of which she made the clothes and blankets to keep her family warm. It is only within the last few years that this loom has been destroyed.
Practically all this whole prairie was broken up with oxen. Burgess Elliott, Lars Nostrum, Martin England and Adolphus Anderson did much of this work. For this work, they used a 28 or 32-inch breaking plow drawn by from four to six yoke of oxen. Some of the back furrows can still be seen on the Martin England farm where Mr. England now lives.
At first, the ground was very wet but within a few years a ditching machine which pressed a round hole about three feet under the ground and about the size of a six-inch tile was used. This took the place of tile which came later and did very well in an early day, but the hole was gradually enlarged by the water until the top caved in and started large ditches. Well does the writer remember when his folks moved south of the schoolhouse, crawling, as a boy, for rods in these blind ditches as they were called. As people in the present day go to tractor demonstrations, so in those days would the people come long distances to see new and improved machinery.
The sickle and scythe were not much used here to cut grain, but the cradle was although it was soon succeeded by the McCormick reaper on which one man sat and drove and another stood and raked the grain off in the sheaves for the binders to gather up and bind. The first self-raking reaper used here was owned by Adolphus Anderson and his nephew, Frank Anderson, tells of its first use. It was used a quarter of a mile north of where the church now is, about 1857, to cut wheat. They used oxen on the tongue and horses in the lead. Frank says he rode the horses. Among the men binding were J.K. Robinson and Manford Mosher. Frank says they had molasses, ginger and water in a pail and a long black bottle. Charles Clark and many others came to see the new reaper work. Robinson says Frank carried the water and bottle and took toll for carrying it to the others. Thus does the historian find himself in a maze of uncertainty as to the true facts.
In those early days all the corn ground had to be marked out both ways and planted by hand. The tools they used to tend it with were the hoe, single shovel, double shovel and bar share plow. It would look funny nowadays to see one plowing corn with oxen as Ben Nelson did about 1860 on the place where Fred Holstrum now lives.
Your historian has had much pleasure looking over the old conveyances of the Patty place, the Arnold, the Stuart, the Peter Anderson, Louis Ostrum, Eli Johnson and others. He has seen more patents by the government to land in the last week than in his whole lifetime before. Cliff Gibbs has the original patent to Tom Stuart from the government signed with the president’s name. That is what is known as a sheepskin. Besides a patent, which is in effect a government deed, there were issued to the soldiers of 1776 and 1812 land warrants. This was a privilege to locate a quarter-section of land in this military district, enter the land at the land office, surrender the warrant and get a deed in the form of a patent. Eric Ostrom has such a patent issued in 1817 to Cornelius Riorden, sergeant in Nelson’s company of infantry of the U.S. after he had deposited a land warrant in the land office that was issued on the soldier’s bounty land of the territory of Illinois in 1817. On the same day, Riorden deeded the land to Alexander Cooper and the deed is written on the back of the patent. It is sure a curious document. In those days land titles were not so carefully recorded and there was more or less counterfeiting of land transfers and the country was infested with swindlers known as land sharps. It is said that Peter Skoglund paid for his land two or three times rather than go to law about the title.
But we must not think that all the life of these ancestors of ours was bereft of enjoyment. They lived in a land of milk and honey and had much to be thankful for. One of these was a famous peach orchard owned by Tom Stuart. They were real peaches, says Jonas Olson, and I can readily believe him for you can always trust a boy to know where there’s a watermelon patch or a real peach orchard. With an ancestry such as this it behooves us, their descendants, to follow the advice of the poet who says:
“Let us then be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate,
Still achieving and pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.”