Written by Emma Wilson Edwards 1927
[From the Sterling Gazette July 1, 1976]
I shall enjoy reviewing with you this afternoon the early days of our beloved city; some things are of my personal reminiscences and some events have been furnished me by my seniors. In 1834 Mr. Hezkiah Brink, our first settler, selected his home. His nearest neighbor was Mr. McClure who lived 18 miles away, just out of Prophetstown, which had been an old Indian village. Three years later there were six families in the town above the rapids, including the Bush family, the Worthingtons, the Grewer family and the Albertsons.
The river was considered a navigable stream in those early days. The first steamboat to ascend the river was "The Pioneer." Captain Harris brought goods from St. Louis. His boat had to be helped across the rapids by oxen. The townspeople were so delighted and Captain Harris took suan an interest in the town that it was named Harrisburg.
Notwithstanding the need of oxen, Congress had declared he stream navigable and the state furnished the funds for its improvement. Thomas McCade's and William Pollock's names appear in this connection. Mr. Pollock spent some time during these years in planning and working out the navigability project at government expense. The trouble in the finances of the state at this time interfered much with the development of the work.
In 1851 a railroad came to Rockford, and not long afterward to Freeport. A change was taking place. Chatham, the little settlement below the rapids, did not keep pace with the other pioneer towns, Dixon, Albany and Fulton all surpassed it in growth, but the citizens had an abiding faith in their superior water power. In the spring of 1835 William Kirkpatrick built the first frame house below the rapids. He brought the lumber from his saw mill up near Wilson's mill, forty miles distant.
The original settlers of Chatham wer Nelson Mason, John D. Burnwett, D.C. Cuchman, D.F. Batcheller, John Enderton, Andy McTore, Robert ANdrews, John Mason and Hugh Wallace. Wayatt Cantrall soon after built a mill at the foot of Walnut St., halfway between the two settlements, which served the public in grinding the wheat and corn for ten years. Mason and Barnwett soon bought outKirkpatrick and established a store. The Indians who had not yet left the country graded their with the whites on friendly terms.
These two little towns, Chatham and Harrisburg, were separated by a mile or more of unplanted land and were naturally a bit antagonistic for a time because of their ambitions, for those early settlers wer self-reliant, energetic pioneers. The county seat question was for a few years the vital issue. The two towns must agree befoe they could get the prize and they agreed. The direct route from Peoria to Galena was through Lyndon where the river was crossed and here the courts convened.
It was a royal battle to succeed in moving the county seat from Lyndon but it was done after a few years of faithful co-operation and good work by our early settlers. The two towns compromised and agreed upon a place between them on what is now Broadway. The side of the street was to be decided upon by chance. Mr. Brink and Mr. worthington represented Harrisburg in the coin flipping contest, and Mr. Mason and Mr. Wallace represented Chatham. Mr. Mason's penny won, and the site was chosen on the West side of Broadway. The name, Sterling, was bestowed by a man from Stirling, Scotland, and was quite satisfactory to Mr. Mason who was himself a Scotchman. This man was living on the farm owned afterwards by our old true friend Elizabth Rosenfield who later married Fred Schuler whose farm was the next one west of them.
The name Sterling was dear to our family because Stirling, Scotland was near their old Scotish home. Our family like many others of the time left Scotland because of the religious difficulties of the time and were for a short time in north Ireland, before coming to America. The family belonged to the strict sect known as Seceders in Scotland. It seems to have been a branch of the Presbyterian Church of the time. We must remember that this was not so long after Oliver Cromwell's time when they were set folks, strong in custom as well as in faith. My grandfather preferred to defy precedent and marry the girl of his choice even though she was not the eldest unmarried daughter of the family. It was agreed upon that after the marriage the young people were to leave Scotland for America. This marriage was a violation of custom. They fled the consequences. For tha reason perhaps we knew little of the ancestors across the ocean.
In the days of his law practice in Springfield, Mr. Lincoln didn't own a horse and so when they went out electioneering he frequently borrowed my mothers. My mothers' family had come from the blue grass region of Kentucky and their pride was in their riding horses, and horseback was almost their only means of travel. My mother used to tell with considerable pride how when Mr. Lincoln and my father were campaigning for the state legislature, she gave Mr.Lincoln her own riding horse to use in his electioneering travels and what a queer figure the tall man made astride a lady's riding horse.
The campaign on the riding pony resulted in the election of both men to the legislature at Vandalia and with seven other men from Sangamon County they were appointed on the committee to consider the removal of the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. Abraham Lincoln stood in height at the head of the "Long Nine," as the committee was called in early Illinois history. Father, I think, came next. An official United States document of the war, which is before me, gives his height as 6 ft. 4in. Col. Baker, who enter the military service during the Civil War from Oregon, (the State) and who was killed at Balls Bluff so early in the conflict, came next. Herndon and Fletcher were the Senators on the committee, Lincoln, Edwards, Dawson, McCormick, Elkins, Baker and Wilson were of the lower house. These composed the "long Nine," whose totalheight was reputed to have been 54 feet.
The outdoor life of that time and preceding times made that generaton a tall and well built group of men. To my father was given the custody of the books connected with the work of the committee. The records of those days show that the task of locating the capital of Springfield was no simple matter. Half a dozen other towns were eager for the prize. The "Long nine" figured quite conspiciously in some of the large deals connected with Internal improvements and other issues of the day, but they finally accomplished their purpose.
It was the spring of 1840 that my father Robert Laing WIlson, came to that part of the early settlement known as Harrisburg. A boy who saw him dismount from hishorse told me how deeply he was impressed by the stature of the man. That boy was George Brewer, always a most loyal friend and highly honored citizen. The hotel at which he stopped was called the Richardson House. We had been appointed by Judge Robbins, I think, while he was practicing law in Springfield to organize and conduct the court of the newly established county of Whiteside. The county seat question had been already settled and the court hosue was being erected on Broadway, although it was not finished until 1843. Sterling was now hishome, and the family came the following spring. He boarded with Mrs. Wallace, I think. That washis home at least until his family came and this established a lifelong friendship.
At the expiration of the time of his appointment, he was elected to office five successive times for periods of four years each and then refused to run again. His last office was that of Recorder of Deeds and Clerk of the Circuit Court. He always ran independent of party lines. Those liberal minded Clay Whigs found it hard to adjust themselves to the party lines of that day. There was going on, in fact, a re-organization of parties. It was at about this time that the Republican Party was born. Policies were entirely different from our present conditions.
The first home of the Wilsons in America was in york County, PA. My father was born in Washington County. When he was five years of age the home was changed again to Somerset, Perry County Ohio, which became the permanent residence of the family. At five years of age he made this trip on a poiny. We had visits from a number of his Ohio relatives and some of themc ame to IL and IA later as settlers. When father was 17 years of age , his father died and he started out to secure for himself an education, leaving the farm in care of his numerous brothers. He studied and taught school by turns till he finally received his diploma from Franklin College, New Athens, Ohio in 1831. This queer handed document states that he had studied at that College for about four years. Enumerating the subjects pursued and then adds some very complimentary remarks on his character and ability. This diploma is a household treasure and is before me now as I write. I recall that just after fathers' death an invitation came for him to deliver an address at the college.
After he finished college he went to Kentucky to teach. In 1833 he married one of his pupils, Elize Jeannot Kincaid and they came with Uncle Kennedy to IL to locate. They took up government land north of Springfield on Indian Creek. Grandfather came from Kentucky on horseback the next year and bought a farm adjoining father's. He brought his slaves with him, freeing them and they lived on his land till their death, devoted friends to all of us. The Kincaid family was a large one and they soon followed and took farms for a few miles along and near Indian Creek and are now engaged in keeping alive the memories of long ago by celebrating with the Johnsons with whom they intermarried, the Centennial and succeding anniversaries. This celebrationis a yearly custom and it has become a distuinguished group as well as a large one. Father practiced law in Springfield after having sold his farm to Andy Young. His office in Springfield was in the samebuilding with the office of Abraham Lincoln who became his lifelong friend.
Father was a pronounced Clay Whig. At about this time Lincoln was elected to Congress as a Clay Whig, I think the only one in Congress, surely the only one from IL. He and father brought the spirit of Clay with them from the South. Mr. Sackett taught his firt school in Sterling and he did it well. I was a pupil of his and him in high regard. Charles Smith was a great teacher too. I've always counted him the best all round teacher we ever had. He was my teacher for three years before my college days. His school was in the basement of the old Presbyterian Church which was on Fourth Street, near where the present high school stands. In our class were Ellen Golder, Bell Kilgour, Anne Wilson, my sister, Lon Golder, Amos Miller, James wallace and myself. Walter Stager was one of the little boys. Joe Milelr was there too. That Church basement had been redeemed from a sheep correl and converted into a school house. The second story was not yet finished. My next schooling was in Galesburg, Knox College. I returned from college in December 1860, just before the war.
Mr. Wallace succeeded in having the dam located at a point near his farm, too low for the best power, and the station located just at the boundary of his farm, thus putting a part of his farm into the city. This changed the town entirely. Sterling, till this time a village, now became a city. Mr. Hapgood was the first mayr.. The court house had beenlocated to please both towns and the principal stores and business houses were on Third Street, east of Walnut. The offices, too, were near the Court House at first. The Pennsylvania House, our big hotel, was east of the street, where Mrs. Josie Ward's house stands. It was burned very many years ago. The location of the railroad station a mile or such a matter westward proved a detriment to the development of the place. Galt and Crawford's store was easat of Walnut Street in a fine brick building. Tow or three block west was Boynton's store soon afterwards, and opposite this came Osgood's and MRs. Beck's millinery store. The next step to the west was to the Keystone Block and then to the Mercantile Block. The Hapgood bank and Witner's and Hagey's stores and most of the business, however, was permanently located east of what was called Wallacetown.
Soon after the war began, father, at his own request, was sent to Springfield and the west. I was very much interested and went to Indian Point near Athens to teach in the North Sangamon Academy to be near father and the war. I taught there two years and one term, then back to Sterling. Life was avigorous in those days. I had twelve war correspondents, including my family and my cousins. I felt it a duty as well to see that the soldier got all the home news as well as general information. The morning after our return from Galesburg where I had graduated in December, 1860, Mr. Sackett, a school trustee and my old teacher, called on his way to business. We were all of us still at the breakfast table and were enjoying a happy reunion. He told me the primary department of the school just across the street had been reserved for me. All applicants had received the reply that the department was filled. He had remembered my love of school. After much friendly discussion I accepted and he left rejoicced as I surely was. He had won against all objections. I had some inborn ideals about schools, and my mind has not changed in the sixty-seven years that have elapsed sine I began the noble work.
I always recall that that school with wonderful pleasure. It was my first. Ella Richards and Carrie were there. Emma Hagey and Sally Cochran, Jake Manahan and Charlie Cruse and my brother Lee and scores of other dear ones. Walter Sackett was in the next room with Sadie Patterson as teacher. I have always felt very closely tied to some of my pupils by the bonds of friendship, and the Sterling ones are the very closest. Alter Sackett and his wife, Emma Hagey Sackett live in Glendale; Will Gets in Long Beach; Charlie Getz and his wife Emma Eisele Getz in East Los Angeles; Win Goltman is head gardener at the Hollywood high school where my daughter Anne teaches. My near neighbor here in Los Angeles is one of my later pupils, E.C. Tracy, Claytong and the close friend of his life time, Floyd Patterson, were very dear friends. He was twice in my school and he died many years ago while here in Pasadena. His pallbearers were his old Sterling friends. The Clifford Church is annother one of my good boys, I keep in touch with him though he lives in Duluth. Mr. Rohrer, who was at two different times my pupil, lives in Nebraska, though he too has been here, and Henry Utley was one of my boys of long ago. I must not continue my remembrances except to state that wile still in the little old frame building my room; while the new brick was being built, was next to the room of the Principal.
When Mr. Johnson was sick I had to take his room full of big boys for a time. Among them was Adam Leon Mohler; afterward President of the U.P. Railroad, whom I used to meet at his home in Omaha. He lived just opposite my son, Dr. Edwards. Henry Earl, our California friend, and the Martin boys, Dave and John, were in the same room at that time. After the war was over these of our boys were left returned home. They erected a Wigwam on Fourth and Locust Streets. When General Grant was the candidate for President they all dressed up in their uniforms and carrying torches gave us home folks a great thrill as they marched along the streets to the tune of fife and drum. It gave us a joy mingled with a deeper pang of grief, for no community mourned their soldiers more than did we. In a way, they all belonged to all of us. They were one in sentiment. All the good places belonged to the returned soldiers, nothing was too good for any of them. Captain Niles, gave our schools such wonderful talks and John Manahan no one could honor enough. Brooks Ward left such a bright record though he lived so short a time. John Bross and E.W. Kirk both became generals in the service, but neither one returned. And no record is complete without sincere tribute of praise to our kindly, distinguished philospher and traveler who served with equal power in the pulpit, in the press and on the teacher's platform, W.W. Davis.
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