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 Dedicated to the Pioneers of Will County


This township has long been noted as one of the best water power locations in the state. It is certainly upon one of the finest streams, with a large fall inside the township, and at an early date there was an abundance of water. This was seen by the early pioneer and some advantage taken of it. The bed of the river is solid limestone, furnishing the very best foundations for dams and mills, as well as for building purposes, and one of the first acts of the early settler was to build a mill and take advantage of this magnificent water power. In early times, before the advent of the white man to this part of Illinois, the river at Wilmington was a famous hunting and fishing ground for the natives, one of the principal of the Indian trails of the county crossed the river at that point, and on the island and other places in that vicinity were found by the early settlers, many evidences of the occupation of the place by the red men. Upon the banks of the river were found stone axes, spear and arrow heads, pieces of rude pottery, and other articles used by them, and which were usually lost or scattered around their camping places. Some of the early explorers of the Illinois country certainly passed up and down the river, for one of the favorite portages into Lake Michigan, was from the head waters of the Kankakee over into the St. Joseph, and thence down that river to the lake.

In 1836, Thomas Cox came to what is now Wilmington, and made a claim to all the land now occupied by the city, and laid it out into town lots. He also built a house and erected the first saw mill. He called his town Winchester, and that was the name of the place until it was learned that there was another town of that name in the state, and it was then changed to Wilmington. But the first town lots sold described them as located in the “Village of Winchester.” After erecting his saw mill, he made an addition to it of a corn cracker, and soon after of a grist mill, and a carding machine. These improvements gave the town a wide reputation. The pioneer came long distances to have his corn cracked, wool carded or wheat ground, and so great was the patronage at times that he would have to wait two or three days before he would be ready to return home. His grist mill had no provision for bolting the flour after it was ground, and so a bolt or sifter was put up to be turned by hand, and the customer could have the use of it, if he so desired, by turning it himself.

Peter Stewart was a native of Scotland, and when he arrived in this country, the Erie Canal was under construction. He had gained some knowledge of civil engineering in the old country, and he soon found ready employment on the canal in the capacity of civil engineer, and at good wages. After the completion of the canal, he readily obtained large contracts on works of various kinds. In 1835 he came west to prospect for work on the Illinois & Michigan canal, and also to select land for a future home in Illinois. He made his selection of land in Wilmington, then returned to New York for his family, and bringing them to the township, they settled on the land he had selected, and that was their future home. He died at his home in Wilmington, August 23, 1868.

James L. Young came to the township in 1837. He first settled down the river, near its junction with the Des Plaines, but soon after removed to the village. He was a blacksmith by trade, and it is said was a very good one. The year following he was elected a Justice of the Peace for that precinct, an office he held with hardly an interruption from that time until his death.

Archibald McIntyre was the first merchant in the village, having come here in 1837. He built his store on the north side of the creek in Stewart’s Addition. He was a business man of the village for many years.

Dr. A. W. Bowen, came to the village from Joliet, where he had located in 1834, but firmly believing that Wilmington was destined to be one of the great cities of the west, he went there four years later and purchased a half interest of Cox in the village site, and Mr. Cox, a short time before his departure for the west, sold the balance of his interest in the site to James E. Alden, a native of Maine, who had quite recently come to the village. Dr. Bowen did not go to Wilmington to reside until 1849, and that place was from that time his home until his death, November 21, 1881.

Andrew Whitten arrived in the village in 1840. He was a successful business man, and accumulated a large fortune. He died there, October 29, 1891.

Franklin Mitchel was a native of Vermont. He came west to Chicago in the spring of 1836, but having no faith in the future of that place, he came down to Joliet, where he lived four years, then losing all confidence in the prospects for a village there, he removed to Wilmington, and that became his future home. The only hotel then in the village was the Eagle, and he took charge of it. That he managed for three years, when he commenced the erection of the “Exchange,” which he completed and occupied the year following. Mr. Mitchell was a great success as a landlord. He occupied his hotel twenty-one years, and the “Old Exchange” had acquired the reputation among travelers of being one of the best hotels in the state. He died at his home in Wilmington, March 28, 1894. Another hotel was erected by Peter Stewart in 1854, and named the “Stewart House,” and a few years later, the Exchange was converted into a business block.

John D. Henderson, a native of New York, came to Wilmington in 1848, and he, in company with Dr. Bowen, opened a store there. The venture was a good one for both proprietors were popular men, and it prospered for nine years, when the doctor sold his interest to George T. Stewart, and the firm thenceforward was Henderson & Stewart. The act of the legislature in 1849, changing the system of governing counties from County Commissioners to a Board of Supervisors in those counties that should vote to adopt the change, and Will county was one of the very first counties to vote in favor of its adoption. Commissioners were appointed to divide the county into townships, and the present townships of Wesley, Florence and Wilmington, were constituted one township. The first election was held April 2, 1850, when John Frazier was elected supervisor; John R. Bickerton, town clerk; Daniel Stewart, assessor; F. D. S. Stewart, collector; Elias Freer, William Vander Bogart and William P. Hewett, commissioners of highways; David Willard and Archibald McIntyre, justices of the peace; F. D. S. Stewart and Daniel Ferris, constables, and Adam White, overseer of the poor. At the election, 210 votes were cast, nearly all of which were voters of Wilmington. The year following, Florence and Wesley were separated from Wilmington, and each became a separate township. After the separation, Franklin Mitchel was elected the first supervisor of Wilmington.

Wilmington took a very active part in the war of the Rebellion, but as the history of that war will appear in a separate chapter, we will not now dwell upon that.

The first school in Wilmington was a private one, and was started in 1838, but three years later a public school was established, and soon after a small school building was erected. The first school taught in it was by George Bristol, and fifty-three scholars attended it. October 20, 1841, authority was conferred by the county commissioners on Thomas Cox, Daniel McIntosh and Peter Stewart, as trustees, to organize a school district within the township, and they met at Cox’s house, and formed the whole township into one school district, and appointed John G. Putnam, Samuel C. Thompson and Abner Wright, school directors, and Jonathan Barnett, treasurer. At the next meeting of the trustees, the treasurer reported that he had taken a census of the school children in the district, and found there were 117 who were entitled to public school privileges. He also reported that he had received from the school commissioner $22.22 with which to sustain the school the coming year. At that meeting of the trustees, the Township of Florence asked to be attached to the district for school purposes, and the request was granted. The district then consisted of two full townships. The township originally consisted of nearly one-half of timber land. That along the river was quite large and heavy, but back from the river and up Forked creek, it consisted mostly of scrub oak of but little value, except for fuel. The timber land was generally poor, yet much of it was cleared and used for agricultural purposes. No coal has ever been found in the township, but in the adjoining township of Reed, large fields were discovered, but the coal went on the market as Wilmington coal, and people at a distance took it for granted that it was mined in Wilmington. The township is well watered. The Kankakee river, before alluded to, flows through it from southeast to northwest, dividing the township into two very nearly equal parts. Forked creek flows in from the adjoining township of Florence, and unites with the Kankakee just below the railroad bridge in the city. Prairie creek enters the township from the east, and empties into the river three miles further down the stream. Wilmington has a population, according to the last census of 2,065, and cast a vote that year of 533.


The village of Wilmington or Winchester as it was first called, was laid out and platted in 1836, and from that date forward, the village included nearly, if not all, there was of the settled portion of the township. It was located in the extreme southeastern part of the township, on sections 25 and 36 and, although it lies mostly upon the east bank of the river, yet it included, in the original plat, the large island in the river. The place was undoubtedly intended by the owners for a large manufacturing town and certainly so far as location and natural advantages were concerned the idea was an excellent one. Transportation was the first great draw-back to the enterprise and lack of capital another impediment to its growth and improvement. Its growth was slow—very slow. In 1854, when the first election was held to form a village, but sixty-three votes were cast, and that too at an election when every voter must have felt a deep interest. That was a period of eighteen years, and the gain was less than four votes a year. That was the time that the village was incorporated, and hence there was every incentive to get out every voter possible. The first trustees of the village were: J. D. Henderson, D. W. Smead, Samuel C. Thompson, J. A. Seebor and James F. Alden. James L. Young was elected clerk; Anthony Riker, street commissioner, and Fred Walrath, constable.

The trustees elected D. W. Smead as president.

The village struggled along for a period of eleven years, when application was made to the legislature for a charter and on February 15, 1865, the charter was granted, “constituting the inhabitants of said town, a body corporate by the name and style of City of Wilmington.” On the third Tuesday of March of that year, the first election was held and the following officers of the new city declared elected: John H. Daniels, mayor; Edward Alden, Richard P. Morgan, Jr., William H. Vaughn, M. F. Bliss, V. Banyard and John B. Johnson, aldermen.

As in other early settlements in the county, the pioneers of the village were active in the worship of God, and one of the first religions societies formed in the village was the Presbyterian. That was in 1838, and Rev. Jonathan G. Porter was the first minister to preach to them. They held religious services wherever they could. It was at times in Peter Stewart’s barn, at others in the little school house and in cold and inclement weather, in the private house of some of the members. In 1840, a church building was erected at a cost of $1,400. Mr. Porter served the church as pastor with the greatest zeal and fidelity for a period of twelve years. A Methodist society was formed there at about the same time and soon after a small church building was erected which was used by the society for religious services, until 1868, when a fine large stone structure was erected at a cost of $15,000. The society has ever been the largest and most prosperous, it having at present a membership of nearly two hundred.

The Episcopalians met and formed a church in 1857, and soon after a church building was erected and Rev. Charles B. Stout placed in charge. Ten years later, a very neat and tasty church was erected at a cost of $7,000. It was in 1855 that the first Catholic Society was organized, and though small at first, it has prospered, until now it is the largest religious organization in the city. They have an elegant place of worship, capable of seating some five or six hundred people.

We have already alluded to the little school building, erected in 1838. In 1849 a much larger building was provided by erecting, in the center of the village, a handsome two-story brick structure. That answered the purpose for the accommodation of the youth until 1869. when finding the building was altogether too small for the city, the city council appropriated $30,000 for the erection of a school building that would accommodate at least 700 pupils. At the time, it was certainly the finest and most convenient school building in the county. It was not for several years that even Joliet could boast of anything as good. Though in use now for many years, it is still a handsome and imposing structure and a credit to the city.

The Masonic fraternity in Wilmington has been among the most active and enterprising of any in the county. The brethren there petitioned the Grand Lodge in October, 1856, for a charter and on the 7th of that month, the charter was granted and a lodge constituted as Wilmington Lodge, No. 208, A. F. & A. M. The charter members were: Joseph Shirk, Cyrus Stowe, Hezekiah Warner, Franklin Mitchel, George E. Cavenaugh, William C. Cutshaw and William A. Tinsler. The first of which were Worshipful Master, Senior and Junior Wardens respectively.

The present officers of the lodge are: Andrew Robson, W. M.; L. B. Cassingham, S. W.; W. H. Mitchel, J. W.; I. Cracraft, treasurer; A. S. Hadsell, secretary; S. H. Kahler, S. D.; Henry Allott, J. D.; J. B. Pierce, chaplain; George Markert, S. S.; James W. Robson, J. S.; Fred Yonker, Tyler.

In 1870 the fraternity obtained from the Grand Chapter, a charter for a Chapter there, the date of the charter being October 7th, and it was constituted as Wilmington Chapter No. 142, and the following officers installed: William H. Odell, High Priest; Franklin Mitchel, King and Alexander McIntosh, Scribe. The rest of the original members were: H. Jones, L. A. Baker, F. R. Quigley, C. J. Jukes and S. D. Blines. The following are the present officers of the Chapter: C. H. Kahler, H. P.; J. W. Polson, King; W. H. Wheaton, scribe; I. Cracraft, treasurer; W. S. Hadsell, secretary; E. W. Steinhart, C. H.; G. D. Webb, P. S.; James A. Robson, R. A. C; T. J. Gunning, M. 3d Y.; A. Robson, M. 2d Y.; E. G. Powers, M. 1st V.; Rev. N. O. Freeman, chaplain; J. H. Ferguson, sentinel.

The officers of Wilmington Chapter, No. 176, O. E. S., are: Alice Kahler, W. M.; John Atkinson, W. P.; Anna Gould, S. M.; Jennie Atkinson, treasurer; Anna Johnson, secretary; Elizabeth Felton, Adah; Addie Barnhart, Ruth; Henrietta Gurney, Esther; Dora Corliss, Martha; Emma Van Der Bogart, Electa; Hattie Freeman, chaplain; Eva Cassingham, organist; Kittie P. Hadsell, warder; A. Hadsell, sentinel.

A flourishing lodge of Odd Fellows was instituted March 26, 1872. The members were: H. H. Wise, Wm. Harbottle, F. Vitenhoff, L. I. Gildersleeve and L. Larch.

The completing of the Chicago & Alton railroad through the village, in 1854, gave an impetus to business in Wilmington, and numerous works were projected, and some of them put in operation, but they were nearly all short-lived, and the most of them proved to be poor investments. The only establishment, that has survived the “wreck of time” is the straw board mill, which is doing a good business.

The history of the press in the city is a voluminous one, for more papers have been started there than in any other town in the county, and it would not he far out of the way to say that there are more of them than in all the rest of the county combined. It would he a waste of time and space to attempt to enumerate them all, so we will only speak of the one lively home paper, now published there, The Advocate. It is published by Quinn & Odell, Mr. Quinn being the general manager, and Mr. Odell, the editor. Politically, the paper is independent.

M. F. Hennebry is the only member of the bar in the city, and he has a large and lucrative practice. Mr. Hennebry was elected to the legislature in 1898, and served his constituents with much ability.

John B. Johnson, one of the old time business men of Wilmington, is a native of Erie county, Pennsylvania, and came to Wilmington in 1851. He was for many years, one of the most active of the business men of the city. He was a contractor and builder, and did a very successful business. He is now retired.

Schools in Township and City:

Number of pupils enrolled in 1906, 520 Number of school districts, 6 Number of teachers, 15 Number of graded schools, 1 Number of ungraded schools, 5 Number of pupils enrolled in 1876, 806 Loss in thirty years, 286.

In 2015 Wilmington was 177 years old. Originally called Winchester, shortly after its founding, the name was changed to Wilmington when it was learned there was another Winchester in Illinois. Wilmington is often called the Island City. There is a large island, in the Kankakee River, within city limits. It is divided by Highway 53 into North Island Park and South Island Park. Strip mining of coal was a major industry in the early days of Wilmington. That has ended. Agriculture has always been a major factor in the wealth of the community.