There was no part of Will county that was better known in early times than “Twelve Mile Grove” and that was what now constitutes the township of Wilton. True there was prairie all around the grove, but that was not thought of. It was at Twelve Mile Grove where everybody in that section lived, and it was there that all went, who went in that direction. It was a famous locality in many respects. It was a large one, covering some square miles in its original state, and furnished lumber and fuel for all who wanted it. In the early days of the grove, it was one of the finest tracts of timber in all northern Illinois, rivaling the famed Hickory Creek timber, in the beauty and size of its black walnuts, oaks and hickories, and they furnished the early settler with all the timber and fuel needed for many a year. Then it was a famous hunting ground for deer and wild turkeys, while the prairies abounded in chickens and other small game. It was an Indian reservation and the trail from the Des Plaines timber to the Kankakee river led directly through it, and thus it was the great highway of the natives in their journeys to the south or east, the grove furnishing to them an excellent camping place, in which to erect their tepees and replenish their stock of provisions. A branch of Forked creek runs through the grove, dividing it into nearly equal parts, and no better camping place could anywhere be found than on the smooth banks of that stream. The grove was the home of the Indian for many a year, until they sold their reservation to the white settler, and the government removed them to the west of the Father of Waters.
The reservations were known as the Ce-nag-e-wine, and Laughton reservations, and were reserved to the Indians for their exclusive hunting grounds. Joseph Laughton was a half breed, and James M. McKibben bought from him and the tribe of the Chief Ce-nag-e-wine, their interest in the grove. William T. Nelson and A. M. Wyley, were also interested in the purchase, and shared in the profits of the sale to the settlers afterward. A considerable portion of the land of the township outside the reservations belonged to the Illinois Central railroad, and after 1853, the time when the company acquired its title from the government, settlers purchased of the company.
One Samuel Hocum has the credit of being the first settler at the grove. He built his cabin on the east side of the grove. There he lived several years, but obtained his living by hunting and trading with the Indians. When they went west in the summer of 1835, he went with them, and that was the last ever heard of him. Soon after the exodus of Hocum and the Indians, Abram Huyck came into the township and settled on section 36, where there was a small grove, which has since been known as “Huyck’s Grove.” This family was the only inhabitants of the township for two years, when in 1837 three families came from Canada and settled in the grove, one family occupying the deserted Hocum cabin. These families were those of Franklin Chamberlin and Oliver, his son, and James Adams. The Chamberlins built the first frame house in the township. The timbers were procured in the grove, and the boards brought from Wilmington, where there was a saw mill in operation.
When the first white settlers came to the grove, there were many traces of the former occupation by the red men. There were the places where their tepees or wigwams had stood, with the bones of animals taken in the chase, and the places of burial of some of those who had taken their departure for the happy hunting grounds. But they did not always bury their dead. In several instances their bodies were left above ground to slow decay. Among the instances in which that was done was where three small tombs had been built up of sticks of wood cut to a suitable length, and placed one above another, making a rude pen some four feet in height. In these pens were placed the bodies sitting upright, and then the pens were covered with large sticks and heavy stones placed on them so that the wild animals could not get to the bodies. There they remained until by slow decay they wasted away. Another way they had of disposing of the bodies of small children that had died, was to build a sort of nest of sticks up in the crotch of some large tree, some distance from the ground, and there place the body. It was then covered and the covering fastened on with strips of bark. When the first settlers came to the country those “nests” were often seen in the trees, looking much like large squirrel nests of the present day. One of the very first acts of the legislature of the state, after its formation in 1818, was to place a bounty of one dollar upon every wolf’s scalp taken or killed in the state. The ravages of these animals upon the poultry, sheep and pigs of the settlers was quite a loss each year, and the bounty was given as an incentive to the hunter to kill all wolves that came within reach of his rifle. When the Act was before the legislature, an orator from the southern part of the state where the ravages from these animals was most frequent, arose and said, “Mr. Speaker, when the denizen of the prairie is locked, in the arms of Morpheus, and the shades of night have settled around his abode, and all nature and the rest of the world is at rest, then the noisome wolf rises from his lair, and rooming up and down the land, seeking whom he may devour, seizes the inoffensive pig, and the innocent little lamb, devouring them to the great detriment of said denizen.” And thus the law protecting domestic animals from the ravages of the “said wolf” was passed, and it proved to be a source of considerable income to the settler in some localities. For a number of years after the passage of the act, a good share of the state taxes were paid in wolf scalps, in the newly settled counties. The younger Chamberlin was a skillful hunter, especially for wolfs scalps, and would kill from twenty-five to fifty each fall and winter. For these he would receive his dollar bounty and fifty cents for the pelt, and that paid him pretty well.
The first schools taught in the township were in 1841 and ’42, and two daughters of James Adams, Lydia and Sally, taught them. About that time missionaries from the Mormons at Nauvoo came to the grove to teach the peculiar doctrines of their so-called prophet, Joseph Smith, and among the converts was the Adams family, and so they sold out and went to Nauvoo, and when the state authorities drove the Mormons from there, the Adams family went with them across the plains to Salt Lake Valley. Among those who perished in that terrible journey was Lydia Adams, but the sister lived to reach the valley, where she afterwards became one of the wives of a Mormon leader.
When the Adams and Chamberlins sold their claims at the grove, one Reuben Putnam was the purchaser. HP was generally known as “Old Put,” and he had the reputation of being a pretty hard character, for he was not only a horse, cattle and sheep thief, but a thief and robber of anything within his reach. It was claimed that he had an underground stable near his cabin where he kept his plunder, and where, too, he harbored or accommodated a gang of thieves who were his assistants in his robberies. His favorite mark for his stock was to cut off both ears and the tail, so as to destroy all previous marks upon the animal. He was prosecuted from time to time, but always managed to get clear, and then those that were foremost in prosecuting him were made to suffer the consequences of their rashness in attempting to molest him, for they would invariably lose, soon after, much of their stock. But forbearance at length ceased to be a virtue, and so one bright day in June, 1853, as “Old Put” was plowing in his cornfield, an Indian suddenly grappled his arms from behind and held him fast. Then another appeared upon the scene with a bucket of tar, and another with a bag of feathers. Soon he was stripped of his clothing, his hair sheared off, and then the tar was poured over his body, and the contents of the bag of feathers applied to the tar. Then he was rolled in the dirt until he had a new and complete suit of tar, feathers and dirt, from head to foot. That completed, he was given ninety days to settle up his affairs and leave the county. He tried hard to learn who his persecutors were, but it was too well planned and carried out to do that. However, before the ninety days expired, he was among the missing from that neighborhood, and has never been heard of since that time.
Hiram Harvey and sons came to the township from Canada in 1841. They stayed there three years, and then went to Five Mile Grove, but returned in 1848, and that was thereafter their home. Mr. Harvey senior died in 1895. Jabez Harvey, one of the sons, lived in the grove for many years, having a store at what was afterward called Wilton Center, but some ten years ago he removed west to Kansas.
Between the years 1841 and 1845, Alanson Williams, J. Taft, Dr. A. B. Mead, Amos Van Valtonburg, and Alfred Warner came to the grove. But none of them remained there long, not over four or five years. Dr. Mead and Williams went to Joliet, and the others elsewhere. Soon after their appearance there a post office was established at the grove, and Dr. Mead appointed postmaster. He was also the mail carrier from there to Wilmington, and for his services received all the proceeds of the office. After the completion of the canal in 1848, several Irish families settled in the township. They had been laborers on the canal and having saved a portion of their wages, concluded to be farmers, and so took up their residence there, and they have proved to be excellent citizens. Among them were John Brown, Rogers Waters, and Thomas McCormick.
In 1846 McKibben, Nelson and Wyley, the owners of the reservation, came there for the purpose of making some improvements, and of selling off the land, and there being no other timber near, and as coal had not then been discovered in the county, the people were greatly excited over the prospect of losing their only source of obtaining timber or fuel, and so it was divided up into small parcels, and the average price was one hundred dollars an acre, and the proprietors who had bought, the land of the Indians for but a trifle, suddenly became rich men. The William T. Nelson, who was one of the proprietors of the reservations, was a son of John Nelson, and W. T. had two other brothers, Samuel G. and David M. They all came from Indiana and were good substantial citizens. Mr. Nelson senior died two or three years after settling at the grove. Samuel G. Nelson was a soldier in the war of the rebellion, and rose to the rank of major. He died December 28, 1895. William T. Nelson died October 28, 1905, and David M. some ten years ago.
George and David Dancer came into the township in 1848, and settled north of the grove. David removed to Iowa some thirty years ago, and died there October 25, 1898. Samuel C. and Caleb Baker, came to the township in 1849. Samuel C. removing to Colorado many years ago, and Caleb went to Joliet to live, where he died in 1890. Joseph Cook was a blacksmith, and his shop for a time was under a large oak tree, without any covering but the branches.
The first goods sold was in 1856, at Wallingford, by J. Hopkins. He did not continue long in business, but sold out to S. G. Nelson. The first store at the Center was started in 1857, by Barrett & Hershberger, who ran it for about three months and then they sold out to Jabez Harvey, who occupied the stand for quite forty years, and then sold out and went west to live. A postoffice was established at the Center in 1856, and that now is the only one in the township.
The township as first organized in 1850 included Peotone, and at the first election that year, twenty-six votes were cast. William Dancer was elected supervisor, Horace Kelsey, town clerk; James M. Kibbin, assessor; Joel A. Norton, collector; Hugh Kennedy, overseer of the poor; George Dancer, Samuel Hall and Alfred Warner, commissioners of highways; Samuel Wilson and Patrick Boylan, justices of the peace; and Edward Graham and John McGovern, constables. In 1858, the township was divided and the eastern half formed into the township of Peotone, while the western half was formed into the township of Wilton.
The first school in the township to which we have already referred, was in a building erected for the purpose by Hiram Harvey, James Adams, and Franklin Chamberlin, and was a sort of partnership concern. It was built of basswood logs, split open and laid up with the flat surface inside, then with a floor made of the same material, slab seats, and a huge fire place at one end, a good roof on it, and the spaces between the logs nicely daubed with mud, the building was complete and ready for use. That school house was the only one in the township for several years, and the scholars came from all parts of the township for several years to attend the school. The first school building at the Center was erected in 1850, and Chauncey Steele was the first teacher in it. Soon after the sale of the grove in 1846, the north part that had been purchased by H. B. Godard, was sold by him to C. W. Keith, who subdivided it into lots and endeavored to start a village there, but there was never much there, except a few houses, one store and a school house. So the village proved a total failure. The village was christened by Keith as Wallingford.
In 1860 an attempt was made to start a village at the south end of the grove and call it Wilton Center, but the platting and subdividing into lots was about all that was ever accomplished. A church was erected there in 1866 by the Methodists which cost $6,000.00. It has a large membership and is in a very flourishing condition. A Baptist church was erected in 1868. It is a small building, but it readily accommodates all who attend services there.
Schools of Wilton Illinois
Number of pupils enrolled in 1906, 196 Number of school districts, 7 Number of teachers, 7 Number of ungraded schools, 7 Number of pupils enrolled in 1876, 356 Loss in thirty years, 190.
Source: Past and Present of Will County, Illinois, by W. W. Stevens President of the Will County Pioneers Association Assisted by an Advisory Board, consisting of Hon. James G. Elwood, James H. Ferriss, William Grinton, Mrs. Kate Henderson and A. C. Clement ILLUSTRATED Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company 1907.