The History of Joliet – Chapter 3

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

Joliet’s first taste of politics turns out to be a circus

“Almost from the very beginning, there was a rivalry between the East and West sides of Juliet. First, there was a communication problem. There was great difficulty in just getting across the Des Plaines River.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

The village of Juliet was born in 1834. James B. CAMPBELL named the new town after his daughter.

CAMPBELL, who lived in Ottawa, was a public official with the Board of Canal Commissioners. He laid claim to the new city’s East Side acres by buying the land grant float the Legislature had given to Rachel HALL.

At about the same time, James MCKEE made claim of the West Side acres. He had bought the land grant float the state had awarded to Sylvia HALL.

The HALL sisters were given their land grant floats for any vacant land in the state, after they suffered an ordeal as prisoners of an Indian war party in 1832.

CAMPBELL staked out the lots of his new town, but he didn’t stay to sell them. Giving that power to an agent, a public auction was held in June 1834, and several lots were sold at prices varying from $19 to $108.

Across the river on the West Side, MCKEE was laying the foundation for what he hoped to call McKeetown in the spring of 1834. But the name West Juliet stuck to the West Side.

Juliet was growing quickly. There were about a dozen families on the East Side and 15 more on the West Side during the winter of 1834-35. That following summer another four dozen families arrived, bought lots and built homes.

MCKEE started building a dam and a mill that summer.

George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian and one of these first settlers, wrote, “To watch the daily progress of the mill, eat Mrs. MCKEE‘s hot biscuits, drink her coffee and explore the suburb were the only resources for driving off the blues.”

But before the mill was completed, MCKEE sold his remaining West Side acres to Martin DEMMOND, who had opened a store in Juliet. His trade goods were hauled to the store by prairie schooners from Chicago.

DEMMOND continued developing the West Side of Juliet.

East, West rivalry

Almost from the very beginning, there was a rivalry between the East and West sides of Juliet. First, there was a communication problem. There was great difficulty in just getting across the Des Plaines River.

In those days, to get from one side to the other, the residents used rafts and dug-out canoes. Sometimes they had to swim on their horses. Eventually, a man built a ferry and charged fees for the trip across the river.

The rivalry was so bad that when a stranger came to Juliet looking for land, one side of the village called the other side “over there in Canada.”

County government

But on the East Side, CAMPBELL had been smart when he stacked out his lots in Juliet. He had set aside a spot as a public square. So when Will County was created in 1836, Juliet was designated as the county seat with a courthouse destined for that public square.

When the new county was created, county officials were elected, including WOODRUFF, the historian, as county recorder.

“The principal tactics we used (in the election) was to keep out of sight, which we think was sagacious,” WOODRUFF wrote.

The new county commissioners met in Hotel Juliet on March 14, 1836, and did such things as fix prices that could be charged in a tavern. The price of a room was set at 12 1/2 cents, with a meal for a quarter. A drink of whiskey went for 6 1/2 cents.

Because of these prices, WOODRUFF called this “the golden age of Juliet.”

Fight for trustee

The rivalry between the two sides of the city continued to grow after Juliet was incorporated in 1837. When it came time to elect the first village trustees, it was decided that only landowners could vote. Five trustees were to be elected, two from each side of Juliet.

That fifth trustee could come from either side of the city and would control the majority vote. The West Side voters were figuring on an easy victory because there were more property owners on the West Side.

But the East Side minority pulled a shrewd trick that might have been hatched in modern-day politics. There was a circus with 36 employees visiting the East Side.

A vacant lot, which hadn’t yet been sold, was deeded over to the 36 men in the circus, who then became property owners in Juliet. And they all voted in that first city election, which gave the 3-2 majority vote to the East Side trustees.

“It was a piece of strategy which has not been surpassed even in modern times, ” WOODRUFF wrote. “The west side had no lots to throw away and no circus handy and was defeated.”

One of the first actions by the new trustees was to build a bridge across the river. A bridge that was paid for with scrip. Scrip that had to be redeemed by placing new taxes upon the residents. The village went into debt to build that bridge.

Before the debt was paid off, the wooden bridge washed away in the spring flood of 1838. That just about finished having a formal city government in Juliet.

“After playing city two or three years longer, the people concluded that taxes were no great luxury after all, at least, we ceased to hanker after them,” WOODRUFF wrote. “The corporation was dissolved by act of the legislature. The era of hard times had come on, and we were willing to dispense with luxuries.”

By the time the city was ready to incorporate again in 1852, President Martin VAN BUREN had toured the area and had seen Mound Joliet. He suggested a name for the infant city.

Call the city Joliet, the president suggested.

Published April 14, 2001