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Reflections: Stagecoach taverns contributed to Kendall County’s growth

After post offices and the stagecoach companies that serviced them, the next most important part of northern Illinois’ transportation network of the 1830s was the region’s network of stagecoach inns. The inns were established at regular intervals to serve stagecoach crews and passengers, along with the horses that pulled them across the prairies west of Chicago.

Those stagecoach hotels and taverns once were vital to Kendall County’s growth – and by “tavern” I’m using the old definition of the word that’s synonymous with inn. Today, a tavern is a place that sells alcoholic beverages, but in Kendall County from the 1820s through the 1850s, taverns were places where weary travelers could rest for the evening, get a hot meal while on the road, or both, as well as enjoy some liquid refreshment.

In addition, taverns sometimes played the roles of courthouse, church, and community meeting hall, not to mention polling place and post office.

But it was the rest for both man and animal and the food they served that the era’s stagecoach taverns were known for. Typical tavern fare for supper, according to accounts left by travelers, included bread, butter, potatoes and fried pork, washed down by strong coffee, cider (sweet in the early fall, hard from then on), wine, rum, brandy or whiskey. Breakfast was good old American bacon and eggs with corn bread and more coffee.

Accommodations generally were in one large room – lack of privacy seems to have been one of the less glamorous aspects of travel in the 1830s. Sleeping two or three adults to a bed was common.

Lodging often cost 12½ cents a night, with 25 cents for combined supper and breakfast. Dinner – the most substantial meal of the day and served at noon – often was 50 cents.

The county’s first inn was established on a road that was both old and new. In 1831, the High Prairie Trail from Chicago to Ottawa was both northern Illinois’ newest official road and one of its most established Indian trails. The road started at the lakeshore near the muddy banks of the Chicago River and extended almost due west to the Des Plaines River ford at modern Riverside. From there, the road headed to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement on the DuPage River ford before turning southwest toward Walker’s Grove, modern Plainfield. Leaving Plainfield, the trail passed into Kendall County, crossing the prairie to the tiny cluster of cabins at the southernmost tip of a grove of towering black walnut trees before continuing to Ottawa.

In 1826, Robert Beresford, his wife and his two sons settled their small, lonely claim on the verge of that walnut grove just east of the Fox River. It was the only farm on the 60 miles of prairie between Ottawa and Chicago. Within a year or so, however, three more families settled near the Beresfords. In 1828, Beresford sold his claim to John Dougherty and moved south to Ottawa, and civilization, but the county’s first pioneer settlement remained “Beresford’s” for several years.

Abraham Holderman arrived in Kendall County about 1831, and quickly realized the possibilities offered by the grove Beresford had claimed. In succeeding years, he bought out most of the earliest settlers in an around the grove, which became forever after known as Holderman’s Grove. In addition, Holderman opened a tavern to serve travelers on the Ottawa road.

Daniel Platt and his wife arrived in Illinois from New York state in 1833, and quickly determined the road from Chicago to Ottawa offered commercial possibilities. The Platts purchased the claim of a Rev. Mr. See, who had staked out a claim at the Aux Sable Springs between Walker’s and Holderman’s groves. The artesian springs provided a ready source of water, and the Platts soon had a log tavern up and running to serve travelers on Dr. John Temple’s new stagecoach line.

That same year, the Hills brothers, Eben and Levi, and their families arrived and settled near Holderman’s claim. In 1835, Levi Hills rented Holderman’s tavern and 100 acres of land. He then re-let the land to another farmer and proceeded to move the log tavern out onto what was then bare prairie (another tavern keeper began a new establishment at Holderman’s Grove). Today, the site Hills picked for the new location of his tavern is the village of Lisbon.

In Montgomery about 1834, Elijah Pearce, one of the ubiquitous pioneer Pearces that also settled Oswego, operated an inn on the banks of the Fox River that was little more than a one-room log shanty. Sometimes, recalled his son-in-law four decades later, it housed up to 40 tired travelers who slept on the floor.

Other, less-busy, routes also were fodder for the tavern trade. In what would one day become Seward Township, Alanson Milks started a tavern about 1836, where the road between Joliet and Lisbon crossed Au Sable Creek. In 1839, Jacob Patrick arrived in Seward Township and purchased Milks’ tavern, renaming it the Patrick Stand. Shortly thereafter, John Case Stevens bought the business and renamed it the Wolf Tavern, using a stuffed prairie wolf as his tavern sign to the bemusement of travelers.

In 1838, 20-year-old Decolia Towle arrived in Oswego and established a tavern on the bluff overlooking Waubonsie Creek about where the Oswego Public Library is. Towle and his wife, Elizabeth, operated the tavern until her death in 1842. Towle continued as an innkeeper until his death in 1847.

Kendall County’s early taverns sometimes were the precursors to settlements that grew up around them, and they provided the offices for the county’s first mail service (the county’s first post office was established at Holderman’s Grove in April 1834). The tavern business continued strong until the advent of railroads started its decline in the early 1850s.

Today, we’re seeing history make one of its periodic circles, as the importance of highway travel once more makes new hotels attractive business opportunities throughout the county.

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