Pioneer Life Around Henry 

The following letters were written by G.M. Locke  to the Henry News Republican in 1921 concerning his father, Silas Locke's journey and early life in Marshall County.

As a preliminary I will say the writer was born in Knox county, Illinois, April 20, 1841.  My father, Silas Locke came from Massachusetts.  There he learned the carpenter's trade.  In 1838 he came west to visit a sister, Mrs. G. Reynolds at Victoria, Ill., and another at Trivoli. These sisters had moved west during the three years previous. Communication with friends and relatives in the east was kept up by letters for which the recipient paid a postage charge of 25 cents.  All letters were written on large sheets of foolscap paper, sealed with sealing wax and some kind of stamp pressed on the hot wax.

On April 10, 1843, father wrote a letter from Victoria to his brother in New York City, which contains these interesting statement:  "We have 760 acres of land and two farms under improvement.  Oats are worth 18 3/4 to 25 cents, wheat from 25 to 37 1/2 cents per bushel.  Potatoes are selling from 20 to 25 cents. Pork $1.00 to $1.35.  Times are very hard."

In the autumn of 1844 three wagons were loaded with household goods and a start made from a point one mile north of Victoria, with Lake Senachwine as the expected destination.  Toulon was the first stopping place and then Dorrence Mill, a crossing or ford near Wyoming, then but a small post office town; thence across country to Boyd's Grove.  Settlers were very few and the road, simply wheel tracks in the grass, were soon left behind.  The compass was then used for determining directions.

Sometime after leaving Boyd's Grove the important question how to descend the bluffs to the sand prairie arose.  In time wagon tracks leading to a road that was known for many as the Sampson Rowe hill road, were found. Once, down the hill all were happy, the descent had been dreaded.  There were no brakes on the wagons and the harness in those days were not constructed for holding back.

The next obstacle to be overcome was the crossing of Crow Creek, which was known to be out of its banks at many seasons and there were no bridges.  But we found the crossing had been prepared.  Approaches had been dug on either side and willows and tree tops cut and laid crosswise to prevent teams for miring. In crossing the water came up to the wagon box.  Leaving the creek we headed for the Lake.  Frequently wolves were seen.

Reaching the outskirts on the timber at the foot of the bluffs, we enjoyed a meal at the home of Ed Sparling.  Along the entire route wild geese, ducks, crows, blackbirds and other birds were exceedingly numerous, they filled the treetops and the air.  On reaching our destination we found a one room log cabin, with a fire place in the east end.  We expected to find it vacant but instead found two families using it.  As two of the teams had to return to Victoria, the household goods were stacked and covered with wild grass.

Two families in a one room log cabin and a third wanting to get in.  The third had to climb a ladder on the outside of the east wall, crawl through a small hole to the loft and there make beds for four adults and two small children.  Washing in those days was a difficult problem.  Clothes were taken down the hill to a spring by the side of the lake and washed in a large copper kettle.  As there were no matches coals were carried down from the fireplace.

After a short period of this kind of existence Grandfather Ephriam Hoyt of Henry took us in.  Henry was then a town of only four or five unplastered houses.  Grandfather had built on the east side of School street.  That winter was very cold.  Quilts and blankets were hung around the only stove, a small cooking range and the women and children huddled inside to keep from freezing.

In the spring the high water came near taking some of Grandfather's hay stacks.  They were near the end of the present dike.  There were no trees over that part of the bottom land at that time and none for about three quarters of a mile down the river. Father, with Grandfather went over with a little skiff leaving little Silas, the dog Watch and the writer.  We cried, the dog hawled and I told Mother they had gone over the big slough and would be drowned.  The stacks were washed down the river.

In those days there were no buggies, very few wagons and what few there were were hand made with wooden axles.  The wheels were held on with rings and leech pins.  This was also true of the first buggies.  The screech of these rings could be heard a mile or so.

In the spring of 1845 father had to help hew and draw oak timbers for a new house.  This was known for many years as the Planter's House and later was named the Paskell House. A year or so later a large barn was erected.  During the winter a line of stages known as the Fink and Walker operated between La Salle and Peoria.  They made connections with another line to St. Louis.  A change of drivers and horses was made a father's hotel and barn.

The stages were high backed affairs with trunks and grips lashed on overhead.  Tired, nearly frozen passengers, balky horses, cross and sometimes drunken drivers and frightened passengers were common scenes. But the passengers had much to interest them.  Wild game was immense, prairie chickens, quail, wolves, foxes, dar and now and then a wildcat were seen.

Soon after building his hotel father started a peach and plum orchard on the east side of Edward street.  He paid about five dollars for the lot.  The lot included a part of the ground on which Duke's store now stands and the site of the new hotel.  Town boys and girls had many a good peach from those trees and town hogs cracked the pitts all night.  A Mr. Weir, on the east side of the river sold a wagon-loead one fall for a dollar.

The first public school was conducted in a cabin, heated by a fireplace.  It was owned by a Mr. Hooper Warren, an editor living in LaSalle.  The seats were oak slabs sawed with a circular saw.  Wooden pins called "legs" supported them.  They were about as rough as could be made.  Later a school was erected on School street.  This building had four windows and a door. It was also used for Sunday school and church services.

A few years later the packets began to make their summer trips and homeseekers came in large numbers.  Strife arose between Henry and Lacon as to population.  Both claimed more than they really had.  Then news came that the Rock Island railroad was coming to Henry.  The road made a halt for some time at Bureau.  One of my teachers, a Miss Booth helped the architect draw the plans for the bridge over the Misissippi at Rock Island.  She did her arithmetic work on a shingle with charcoal and washed the figures off.  Her light was a fireplace at night.

The first ferry for teams was established by Erastus Wright of Springfield.  Mr. Wright was a friend of Abraham Lincoln.  He owned a number of lots in town and gave one on which to build the Congregational church.

It seems strange to us that Henry has made such great changes.  From a wilderness where seventy-five years ago wild games, wolves and Indians abounded.  The older citizens have all passed away.  The second generation is mostly gone.  The third generation are riding in automobiles and flying machines.  What will the fourth generation be doing?  What?

G.M. Locke


The wagon roads of wheel tracks through the grass went from house to house, northwest from Henry and opposite to the east from the present farm residence of Mr. Ed Smith to a steamboat landing, called Webster. At the top of the hill were three or more log cabins. Perhaps some remnants of bricks used for chimneys can be found, or a few holes where they had outside cellars. It was always a mystery to me as to where they procured their bricks. Perhaps they brought them from St. Louis.

From Webster, the wagon tracks went to the next above settlers’ home and passed every cabin, wood pile, where an ax, beetle wedges and wooden glut were beside some large logs. To be in order, each cabin had a fire-place in one end, chimney outside and one door and one window. The door was hung on wooden hinges. The latch was wood. A string (leather) passed through the door to raise the latch from the outside and at nights they pulled the string in. No locks were required.

The early settlers would break small patches of government land for wheat or corn. Mills for grinding were located on Bureau Creek. The wheat was harvested with sickles or cradles for flour. Some filled sacks and took them to the water-power mills. Custom required each one to take his turn for grinding his grist. Often the farmer had to camp for three or four days for his turn. When a stranger and his family drove to one of these cabin homes, they were welcomed heartily, compared as to where they were from and all were friends. They were urged to come back and stay a week. A common saying was: “make us a good long visit.”

When “The Death Angel” came to one of these homes, neighbors for three or four miles distance would assemble to show their sympathy. There were two men who had carried carpenter tools, Mr. Silas Locke and Mr. George Sparling. For a casket they procured black walnut boards which were sawed by horse powder, dressed by their planes, oiled and varnished. The caskets were lined and had four handles. They sold for about one dollar a foot: For a child, four feet, four dollars; an adult, seven feet, seven dollars.  The bodies were conveyed to the burial places by some friends in a wagon with no charge. As the wolves were very numerous, burials were about seven feet deep. Neighbors would volunteer to dig the graves and no charges were made. Friends would linger until the grave was well rounded, neighbors taking turns in helping to fill.

In the fall of about the year 1844, Silas Locke and wife (Mrs. Hannah L. Hoyt Locke) with two boys moved from Victoria, Knox county, IL, to their cabin home on the top of the high bluffs, east of the E. Sparling late home, expecting to find it vacated. This cabin was located at the head of a long Indian trail, from a spring near Lake Senachwine. They found two families occupying it. Mr. Washington Cook and a brother, as they were unable to find a home elsewhere. Mr. Cook was later county clerk. He built a comfortable home near our Marshall County Court House and for many years located there.

The log cabin was some crowded, as Ephriam Hoyt, Sr., was building a new frame house, the St. Clair home, near our bridge. Mr. Hoyt took the family in. The winter was severely cold. There was no lath and plaster, as there were no masons to do such work. All the residents of the little new town of Henry suffered severely. People who had cabins covered them with shakes, riven out by hand, about four feet long, laid like shingles, and the logs chinked with riven sticks plastered with mud were the most comfortable.

Later, a mason appeared, among them, a Mr. John Morgan. Young men took trowel work and to say rough work for much of it would be mild words.

G.M. Locke

Taken From the Henry News Republican
November 17, 1921 and August 10, 1922 


Early Days of Marshall County, IL 

In chatting recently with an aged man his story ran about as follows: “About the year 1848 John and William worked their passage up the Illinois river on the steamer “Prairie City”. The captain's name was Price. Later Captain Price improved a farm in what was known here as “Ox-bow country”. These young men were fresh from Ireland.

When they landed at Henry they hadn't a cent in their pockets. They crossed the river, going in search of work. One found a farmer who gave him his board and eight dollars a month. The older brother went a few miles north and worked near Hennepin, Illinois. On their way through the timber, east of Henry they met four deer and a little later a large number of turkeys (wild). The turkeys looked at them and decided to move on, running and flying . (Probably the turkeys never say an Irishman before.)

The relation to the steamboats: There were two steamers that ran between LaSalle, Ill., and St. Louis, Mo., viz.: “The Prairie City” and the “Ocean Wave”. These steamboats carried mail and passengers and freight, there being no real roads and were often in sharp competition. Frequently we witnessed a race between boats as the first to land secured the most freight and passengers.

The firemen on the boats often threw in wood and lumber covered with tar and would work immensely to create steam. Looking down the river by the black smoke when they were part way between Henry and Lacon we know when there was a race on. The help on the boats was called “deck hands” and were mostly colored men (slaves). The “cat with nine tails” was often used to make them work faster when loading grain or unloading.

As the farm began to produce, more and more canal boats were used for grain and heavy freighting, going to Chicago by canal. The boats were towed for several years by horses from LaSalle north. In relation to the young men above described. By their industry and perseverance they made fine farms. The older one died a few years back, worth about forty thousand dollars. The brother now living is probably worth some sixty thousand dollars.”

Taken From the Henry News Republican
May 18, 1922

Back to Marshall County Illinois History and Genealogy