Village of Inlet

The first stage stop on the Galena to Chicago Trail after Dixon's Ferry in the early 1830's was at Inlet, about 1 1/2 miles southeast of the present village of Lee Center. Almost in the center of the vast swampland that once covered over 10,000 acres of central Lee County, Inlet was situated on a high grassy knoll and boasted of two inns being located there at the same time.

Inlet, because of its location in the swampland, became a sort of unofficial headquarters for the lawless element of that early day. Often referred to as the "banditti," these gangs of outlaws ranged from the eastern part of Lee County in the Paw Paw Grove vicinity to what has now become known as Lee Center. Stage coach robbery, murder and high-jacking of travelers were the main concern of these gangs and they often took refuge in Inlet where the innkeepers were either intimidated by them or were part of their lawless operations.

Travelers were advised, at the time, not to consider themselves safe while staying in Inlet, according to books written on the subject of the "banditti." Since Inlet had become the mecca for the early-day gangs of the county, it naturally became a challenge to the law abiding members of that early-day society. However, attempts to deputize citizens into lawmen to cope with the criminal elements regularly failed. Only the bandits knew the hidden trails through the swampland and for several years they held the area in a virtual state of seige with their hit and run and hide tactics.

Of course, all the early inhabitants of Inlet were not of this lawless nature as the small village had attracted many persons who had migrated from the East and who had brought with them natural New England culture and sensibility. They soon became appalled at the various happenings in and around their chosen home and, having had no luck themselves or having seen no determination on the part of others in the county, they decided to move away from the bad influences of Inlet. This they did and, in so doing, established the village of Lee Center less than 1 1/2 miles to the southeast. Inlet is no more now than a memory; Lee Center thrived from the start and with the end of the stage runs from the lead mine country of the northwest to bustling Chicago, the port city, even the inns that once had prospered in the village disappeared.

The Inlet Swamp

The Inlet Swamp in central Lee County has always been a topic of conversation in this area due mainly to the difficulty many have today of imagining almost 10,000 acres of land visible from U. S. Route 30 to the east being under water and good for nothing but non-productive uses. The State of Illinois first took possession of the land by an act of Congress titled "Act to Enable the States to Reclaim the Swamp Lands within their Limits." This was approved in 1850 and two years later the Dixon Land District of Illinois received the property by an "Act to Dispose of the Swamp and Overflowed Lands and Pay the Expense of Selecting and Surveying the Same."

During 1856, Lee County sold 480 acres of swamp land for $627 or $1.30 per acre. By 1870 over 30,000 acres of swamp land was distributed over parts of the townships of Alton, Viola, Willow Creek, Reynolds, Bradford and Lee Center. Of this land, 10,000 acres comprised the swamp commonly referred to as the "Inlet Swamp." In 1887 the Inlet Swamp Drainage District was organized with Wesley Steward, E. C. Parsons and John Nelles being appointed special commissioners to propose a plan of ditches for draining. Their plan, when completed, called for an estimated $165,800 cost to build the needed drainage system.

The actual drainage was one of the most stupendous undertakings in the history of Northern Illinois and, of course, was not without controversy over the idea that the swamp should be drained at all.

Valentine Hicks, who had built a house on a ridge surrounding Inlet Swamp, called his homestead Rising Sun Farm. He planned to convert the swamp into a large park or game refuge. The farm would be a resort for people from other parts of the country and a vacation spot for eastern people. In the '70's when talk started about draining the swamp, Hicks organized opposition to the plans, but finally had to give in to the practical agriculture plan and thus the actual draining of Inlet Swamp began. With the draining of the water-covered area, many interesting and enjoyable scenes and memories were destroyed.

In place of a wasteless marshland with Indian rice and other worthless vegetation growing that the millions of geese, ducks, swans, wild turkeys, pheasants, grouse and other feathered creatures fed upon, there came into being, gradually, a coarse grass and untold varieties of weeds. The swampland would be covered with water in the spring and by summer would be dried up enough to support a horse and wagon. By fall, the frost would have killed the grass and weeds and large prairie fires prevailed until the first snowfalls of winter. The flames of these fires 'lighted up the sky for miles around; sometimes being visible for 100 miles or more.

In the winter, the swamp waters froze and especially good ice skating was enjoyed. Also, during the freezing season, the eastern part of Viola Township was the headquarters for a large herding area where thousands of horses and cattle were kept by troops of men. The cattle were herded for $1 per head and horses for $2. After a time, the swamp became dry around the edges, thus the grass became a better quality. After harvest was completed, farmers would cut the swamp grass and store it as hay. In a few years, the value of this grass had risen to nearly $10 per ton. Finally, in 1901, the last drainage work was completed Inlet Swamp, then, was converted from nearly 30,000 acres of valueless waste land into some of the choicest farming lands in Lee County.

From Historical Reminiscences by George Lamb