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Columns

Reflections: Groves provided earliest areas for settlement here

Roger Matile
Roger Matile

It should have been ‘Little House in the Grove’

At first, many of the pioneers who were taking the old wagon roads west out of northeastern Indiana’s woods had a hard time comprehending what they were seeing.

Starting on the western side of the Hoosier State, the forests pioneer farmers were familiar with suddenly gave way to limitless stretches of tall prairie grasses rippling in the prevailing winds sweeping out of the west. For those used to dealing with the heavily wooded areas settled in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and eastern Indiana, this was a perplexing development.

The very first pioneers, most of whom pushed north from southern Illinois, figured these open prairies were useless things. These Southern frontiersmen knew only wooded land and, in turn, were familiar with the labor-intensive methods of settling it. Prairies, with trees only growing on the verges and in isolated groves that dotted them, were suspect in terms of crop fertility.

But it didn’t take long for settlers to began arriving from the northeastern states, many of whom had experienced some layovers in Ohio. These were, for the most part, farmers and not frontiersmen, and they quickly realized what they were looking at was not some treeless desert, but rather some of the finest agricultural land in the world.

Not, of course, that there weren’t problems with settling it. The prairies were lonely, desolate places, but pioneers pretty much took that into account. The real problem was that it was a labor-intensive task to haul enough timber out onto the prairie to build the necessary houses and farm buildings, not to mention the miles of rail fences that had to be split out of thousands of feet of timber.

So the margins of the groves were settled first, followed by the prairies. And there was a lot of prairie. Technically, the Fox Valley lies in the northern reaches of the Grand Prairie—also called the Prairie Peninsula—that stretches in a rough triangular shape from western Indiana northwesterly into southern Wisconsin and Minnesota and southwesterly across the Mississippi. The Grand Prairies in this area was broken into pieces by timber along watercourses, with only three actually named locally: the Oswego Prairie, the Rob Roy Prairie, and the Somonauk Prairie. The Oswego Prairie stretched east from the eastern edge of the southern-most lobe of the Big Woods at Oswego almost all the way to the DuPage River. The Somonauk Prairie extended from Shabbona’s Grove in DeKalb County east into Kendall County. The Rob Roy Prairie was a lobe of the Somonauk Prairie that extended into Bristol Township.

Compare the three named prairies with the 11 named groves in Kendall County, including Long Grove, Specie Grove; Aux Sable Grove; Holderman’s Grove; Big Grove; Hollenback’s Grove; Kellogg’s Grove; Apakesha Grove; Duck Grove (later renamed Collins Grove); Papoose Grove, and Lone Tree Grove.

It’s not that the Indians didn’t appreciate the importance of the groves, of course. According to the Rev. E.W. Hicks, writing in his 1877 history of Kendall County, “An Indian encampment was a novel...sight....Wherever they encamped for a season, blue grass sprung up the season following, and those patches became both field and pasture for them. The squaws planted corn there, and the ponies pawing away the winter snow, nibbled there. Such places were always in the shelter of the groves.”

And the groves, Hicks explained, were far from the dense woods we see in the area today. Instead, “There was very little underbrush or second-growth timber in the groves, as there is to-day,” he wrote in 1877. “The prairie fires kept it down. The old black oaks on the uplands were often useless to the settlers, so gnarled and tough were they from the constant fires of their younger days. As a consequence, groves were so open one could see through them, and see the Indians as they filed over the prairies beyond them. When the fires ceased, the groves began to spread, so that there is more timber in the country to-day than there was fifty years ago.”

The rest of the county’s groves were either named for their appearance or for one of the earliest settlers that set up housekeeping in or around the grove. Specie Grove, which was located in Kendall and a small portion of Oswego townships was the only grove named for one of the county’s French-Canadian residents. Specie, whose real name was Peter Lamsette, got his nickname because, the legend went, he only accepted hard cash—“specie” in the lingo of the time—for work he did for the settlers. And he did very important work, from selling the Minkler family the seedlings from which the famed Minkler apple was eventually bred to breaking prairie for newly arrived pioneer families.

The grove with the most interesting history was Lone Tree Grove in Section 19 of NaAuSay Township. Far from the large stand of hardwoods that comprises most groves, Lone Tree Grove boasted just three basswood trees. Explained Hicks as he was writing about the year 1834: “Hartley Cleveland settled in the town of Bristol, and ran a [prairie] breaking team. After three years he made the claim on which he still lives, in the town of Na-au-say. There were on it three basswood trees, which could be seen for miles in all directions, and were called the Lone Tree Grove. It had long been a landmark for the Indians, for their trail passed it, and Mr. Cleveland built his cabin over the trail. One tree of the original three still survives [in 1877], and if it had a tongue in its head it would be a wonderfully interesting historian, for it had a wide field of observation before orchards and shade trees obstructed the view.”

Today, most of the grand old groves are gone, although remnants of most still remain. And with the growth in housing throughout the county, some of those remnant groves are growing again since the land around them is no longer being used for farming. We can only guess at what the pioneers would have made of this surprising development.

Looking for more local history?

Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com/

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