(this information from Centurama Celebrating The First 100 Years of Ford County, Illinois 1859-1959)
There is more than one reason for Ford being the baby county of the state--the baby by a margin of 18 years. Politically, this boot-shaped area was a no-man's-land because it was not incorporated into any county government, as an entity. But for decades previous it had been viewed with less desire than surrounding areas, by Indian tribes and immigrant settlers alike. The most southern parts of Illinois had been sites of action in the Revolutionary war. The Mississippi Valley had been explored and settled in spots by early French settlers.
But as Illinois historian T.C. Pease in The Frontier State points out: "...Although the population had by 1830 grown to over 157,000, it was confined to the south and central portions of the state along the wooded rivers and streams. The prairie country was still almost superstitiously avoided...The whole of the north country was a trackless wilderness except to the fur trader and the Indian; even to them much of it was unknown."
But even our neighboring counties of Champaign and Iroquois were organized by 1833. Why was this area so late in being settled? It is now typically rich Corn-Belt farmland with cities, villages and farms like its neighbors. What was different in 1850?
Area Divides Rivers
The answer amy be found in the geography, the topography and more specifically the hydrography or water structure of the land in this region. A study of the map of Ford County shows that it is the dividing line between the wares which flow in to the Illinois River toward the northwest, and those flowing into the Wabash to the southeast. The Vermilion, which its source in the Panhandle, flows up past Pontiac toward LaSalle. Near Sibley in Sullicant township, the Mackinaw has its source. Continuing south, the tow townships which are furthest west in the southern base of the county drain into and help form the Sangamon River. two townships forming the eastern part of the base of Ford flow into the Vermilion River which flows southeasterly to the Wabash River. Central townships of Peach Orchard, Lyman and Wall see the origins of the Middle Fork of this Vermilion River. (These two rivers of the same name are not joined at any place, and are not distinguished by any difference in spelling.)
When we recall that early immigrants usually followed water streams, and sought woodlands because they had proved the fertility of the soil, this bit of local geography tells the main reason why Ford County was the last part of the state to be settled enough to be organized.
When the Illinois Central Railroad was surveyed from Chicago to Cairo, it was found that the highest point in its survey lay in Patton Township; also that from Lake Michigan to the Ohio river on another line the highest place is said to be near Sibley.
Indian Lore of the Area
The most common relics of Indian days found, some yet today, are Indian arrowhead of stone. At a spot northwest of Perdueville, along the North Fork of the Little Vermilion, collectors Tom and Nellie O'Hare have found numerous arrows, tomahawks, spears, ad bits of broke pottery, indicating there had been Indian homesites, but of a temporary nature, not tribal settlements. It seems that generally the Illinois tribes were found to the west of the water divide in our county, while the Pottawattomies were dominant to the east. At the Treaty of Greenville of 1795, this tribe notified the Miami tribe that they "intended to settle upon the Wabash." They supposedly gave as reason that they were tired of eating fish and wanted meat. They settled on the north and west banks of the Wabash where the various streams flowed into the Wabash above where the Vermilion joins it. Thus their country was mostly east of present Ford County. Later came the Kickapoo tribes, driven southward by the Sioux tribes. These Indians and the Pottawattomies are reported to have almost annihilated the Kaskaskias, a band of the Illinois, at Battle Ground Creek. The principal towns of the Kickapoos were on the left bank of the Illinois near Peoria, and on the Vermilion of the Wabash. That area of which Ford County was formed must have been hunting grounds of the Kickapoos after removal of the Illinois tribes.
In the 1890's, the name Kickapoo was well advertised in Ford county. Kickapoo Indian Remedies were sold by a company which always had a group of Indians with them at medicine shows to entertain the people. They would also at times be on hand for Fourth of July gatherings, where they would exhibit their skill at archery and foot races. After the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drug laws, these medicine shows ceased.
Early white settlers in this county sometimes were visited by occasional Indians, but there seems to have been no serious trouble. This is undoubtedly one result of the later date when the county came into existence. By Congressional enactment in 1830, all Indian tribes east of the Mississippi had been compelled to vacate their lands and homes and resettle west of the Mississippi. By 1840 most of this so-called Indian removal had been completed.
Perhaps unique in the state, this county took no Indian names for its new villages, townships, and cities. There is no evidence of Indian burial mounds of early tribes closer than the Peoria area.
A Prairie Fire Described
Instead, this area was in the center of a large strip of grassland with only minor wooded areas, shown on older maps as the Grand Prairie. To the earliest settlers, this prairie grass seemed to go on forever. An account by John R. Lewis of a prairie fire originating in the Panhandle pictures this expanse:
"On or about September first 1856 a prairie fire started in the south part of what is now Ford County and the wind being from the south drove the fire over the country at a frightful speed, burning all the prairie lying west of the Illinois Central to what was known as Indian Timber and as far north as the Kankakee River...the low sloughs continued to burn for fully three months." Some flat grassland sloughs became lakes and ponds, and much timber in Oliver's Grove was destroyed. "In some places the fire burned holes fully three feet deep, and these spots were barren for several years. Also before the fire herds of deer could be seen grazing quietly on the prairies but these beautiful animal were now driven to other localities and consequently deer meat was scarce."
If the Indians left us little history, there was an invaluable heritage in their crop of Indian corn. It has always been the chief grain raised in Ford County.
Need For A County Seen
By the late 1850's, it was no secret that a new county was needed to take in that land left over after the formation of Iroquois, Champaign, Livingston, and others, all some 20 to 30 years earlier. Residents of the area forming the Panhandle wanted a county seat closer than that at Danville. With the Illinois Central Railroad already building up new communities, and land being sold rapidly by the government, land speculators became interested.
There is no doubt that the railroad could make or break budding cities. Loda to the north, and Pera (now Ludlow) to the south of the open prairie were business centers for the scattered settlers of the late 40's and early 50's. Further, the railroad had a policy of not establishing stations closer than 10 miles apart. So it is obvious that Paxton did not just grow in 1859.
Could we today find a better account of the why of Ford County's birth than the words of the man who planned it? Allowing for his single view, and fully appreciating his occasional tongue-in-cheek explanations, it is a fascinatingly frank account. We quote from "Reminiscences by R. R. Murdock" as published in E. A. Gardner's 1908 History of Ford County:
"My first visit to the western--now the middle western--states was in the autumn of 1852. I came by canal packet boat to Buffalo, by rail to Cleveland, by steamer to Toledo (the railroad between the latter places was not in operation) and by Michigan Southern railroad to Chicago.
"From Chicago, a side trip was made to Milwaukee by steamer, returning by rail and stage (an open sleigh) via Madison, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois. This was not a "Homeseeker's trip, for at that time I had no thought of making a home in the west, but the microbe got in its work and in due time developed into a case of genuine western fever.
"In the spring of 1853 Mr. R. R> Fay and myself came west together and without much delay he decided to located in Ottawa, Illinois. He opened an office there and in due time became a leading banker of the place. This time I did not stay west long but came again the following spring prepared to make some investments.
"Three or four of us joined together and employed a surveyor (Major Hitt) and he and I made many selections from government lands in Livingston county but...it was claimed that other filings were ahead of ours. Returning from Danville via the Danville and Ottawa travel road, we evidently passed over the present site of Paxton, but there was nothing in sight, not even a railroad stake, as I believe, to fit the location in my memory, but I claim this was my first visit to Paxton.
"About 4 P.M. our road lead us near to D. C. Stoners; house, which he had built and moved his family into a short time before. Learning that there was no house of any kind on this line of road neared than Olvier's Grove, twenty miles or more away, we decided to remain with the Stoners over night. This was my first night in Ford County.
"My second trip through Ford county was in 1854---to Decatur via Illinois Central main line, thence to Danville by stage coach. Rain and mud interfered with further progress. finally, learning that the Illinois Central (Chicago branch) was laid as far south as Pera (now Ludlow) and that a mixed train left that point for Chicago at about two P.M. each day, we took it and we got into Chicago at about 1 A.M. next morning. We were the only passengers and we left the train at Hyde Park, then outside the city limits.
"This second passage over the present site of Paxton, like the first, left no special impression on my mind. It was only a part of the great grand prairie. The spring of 1855 found Leander Britt, a personal friend from my native town, and myself in Chicago, and fully decided to make the west our future home.
"The Illinois Central Railroad lands had just been put on the market and a few interviews with the officials and their promise of special inducements to early buyers, soon decided us to investigate along their lines, and with a horse and buggy shipped from New York and with railroad passes in our pockets to use if needed, we set out by ourselves on a prospecting tour southward.
"It was lovely spring weather, and fairly good roads, and, but for the poor board and poorer lodgings, it would have been in every way enjoyable. However at Loda we found things in this line quite satisfactory...We were favorably impressed with the country in the vicinity of Loda and southward, and after going as far south as Champaign, then the terminus of the railroad, returned to Loda and made a sort of headquarters there.
"About this time we visited Middleport, now Watseka, and in an interview with a former resident of our native county in New York and who was than a judge of Iroquois county, he stated that the county seat of a new county could be located on the Illinois Central Railroad where it crossed the proposed new county. Previous to this time, we had selected with the he view of purchase three and one-half sections eastward from the present town of Paxton, and with this new thought in mind, we added to our list the eighty acres covering the central position of this city and it stands today...
"Our purchase of the eighty acres and our scheme for a new county and county seat were carefully concealed at that time. Plans for a new county with Loda for a county seat were already talked of an symptoms of a boom for Loda were manifest. (Mr. Murdock returned to New York for a brief period after making further land purchases, both for city development and for resale of farmlands, then returned to Illinois to make his home.)
"A few days before my final departure from New York, I made known to W. H. Pells our plans and prospect for a new county. He then proposed to join us... Land was purchased and the firm Pells, Bitt & Murdock created...
"The new firm controlled three hundred and forty acres--all that was most desirable for town site purposes. After Mr. Britt's death, Mr. Pells arranged for the Britt undivided one-third interest. Having secured all the land we cared to purchase ourselves we then proposed to certain persons to purchase land adjoining our own and thus become interested in the scheme.
"Mr James Mix was one of these persons and he promptly acted on our suggestion. The purchase proved profitable to him and he was very useful to the enterprise. Until this time--midsummer 1856--our plan, even the fact of our owning any lands at this point, was carefully concealed. Paxton then consisted of three small houses, located near the south railroad crossing of the present town. There were no other improvements in sight, not even a stake to indicate that a town had ever been thought of. Meantime, Loda was booming in anticipation of its becoming the county seat of a new county.
(After describing their success in getting a railroad station and post office for the newly created Prospect City, Mr. Murdock continues:)
"Promptly on the convening of the 1857 session of the Illinois stat legislature, delegates from Loda appeared with their plan for a new county, of course so shaped that Loda must become the county seat.
"Our hope lay in postponing the issue two years. The law provided that the legislature may authorize a vote on the question of new counties, and when made up from tow or more counties, must have a majority vote of each and every county interested.
"We had reason to believe Iroquois county would not consent to separate any portion of its territory for any purpose whatever, but we felt obliged to make some sort of fight in the matter and to have a delegation in Springfield to care for our interested there. It was arranged that Mr. Britt and Mr. Mix should do this work and the duty was well performed.
"Such questions are practically settled in the committee room; the legislature simply sanctions by formal vote what the committee recommends. In the committee room much haggling and loud talk were indulged in. Many different plans were proposed. Several such session were held. Finally a new county bill was submitted, promptly passed and signed by the governor.
"The Loda delegates had asked for six miles off the west side of Iroquois county and that part of Vermilion county now in Ford county, but perhaps due to a confusion in the committee room, a mistake was made and the bill as passed called for twelve miles off of Iroquois county and six miles square our to the northwest corner of what is now Vermilion county. both counties voted against the new county as proposed. The Loda delegation never quite understood how this mistake occurred.
"Loda's plan for the new county necessarily involved a portion of Iroquois county. Our plan was Ford county as it now exists. There was no other town in it and our chance to become the county seat was thus assured. It was plain that Vermilion county would vote off that much and no more for a new county. This issue was with Iroquois County. Would the voters favor cutting off any part for the new county? Those favoring the Loda scheme declared they would.
"We declared they would not and furnished the committee a written declaration signed by a majority of the voters of the county to that effect. The fact that there was a large county debt, and that two-thirds of the voters of the county lived in the eastern half of the county were factors in our favor.
"But our competitors, too, provided a document signed by a majority of the voters of the county declaring in favor of the Loda scheme. This demanded a recanvass on our part and this again on their part, each new document demanding another, the fight growing hotter and more earnest at time went on.
"Finally, Mr. J. R. Lewis and Marston, representing the people of the north part of the Pan Handle, appeared before the committee and calling attention to the fact that the then county sear (Danville) was more than one hundred miles distant and demonstrating the inconvenience thereof, stated they had no interest in, or choice between plans, but begged the committee to adopt the one most certain to accepted--to take no chances on another defeat of a new county and reminding them that the Loda plan had been once rejected by the voters of Iroquois county.
"This plan talk from apparently disinterested parties evidently turned the scale in our favor, and a bill creating Ford county on our plan soon became a law, but subject to the approval of the voters of Vermilion county, the vote to be taken at the regular spring election, then only about three weeks distant.
"Both parties promptly lined up for the final grand fight, which had thus been suddenly transferred from Iroquois to Vermilion county. Our opponents spared not efforts to defeat us by a vote against the new county. I was delegated to watch their moved and to lay the plans for the great battle. I spent practically all the three weeks in Vermilion county.
"Every town but one gave large majorities--some of them almost unanimous votes for the new county. A few amusing election tricks and one or two fights were the sum total of special election events.
"Loda had lost and was sad. She had been out generated and her county seat boom was busted. Paxton had won the battle and was happy."
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So Ford county might have been bigger; there might never have been a Paxton; Iroquois county might have been smaller; Loda might have been a bustling county seat; Buckley, it larger neighbors to the north, might have been dwarfed, had it not been for the railroad going where it did, and the speculators, with a knowledge of politics, getting together when and where they did.
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