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History of the City of Kewanee

Source: "Portrait and Biographical Album of Henry County Illinois," published by The Biographical Publishing Company of Chicago, 1885

Copied by Linda Lang; Transcribed by Susie Martin-Rott


This is the most important commercial point between Galesburg and Princeton, and ranks high among the smaller cities of Central Illinois. It contains a population of over 4,000 inhabitants. It is surrounded by magnificent farming country, has several important manufactories and is a good trading point. Abundance of an excellent quality of coal is found here and extensive mining interests are carried on. Kewanee is on the main line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, and 132 miles from Chicago.

As late as 1853, where the busy and thrifty city now is, was the quiet of farm life prevailing unbroken. The house of Harry Thompson was then a quiet farm house. This building is still standing, and in good repair for its age, near the center of the present town. Nearly adjoining this were the farms of M.B. and J. P. Potter on the west. This farm house of Harry Thompson's must have been rather a pretentious venture in the day of its erection. It is a two-story frame, standing just back of what was once known as the Phillips Block, a large two-story frame business house. We have the information from William Wolf, who owns the old Thompson house that it yet rents for $10 a month. It is framed of those solid heavy logs that were once supposed to be so essential to the erection of a frame house.

The work of building the old Military Tract Railroad, now the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, decided the birth and location of the town. Strenuous efforts were made by the citizens of Wethersfield, one mile south, to secure the passage of the railroad through their town. Owing to heavy grades and the crossing of a stream, involving a large extra expense, this was not acceded to by the company, and grading was commenced on the proposed route. Enterprising citizens of that day saw the result, and quickly took advantage of the location to secure a town on the railroad.

The company had at first decided to place the depot on the northeast quarter of section 32, but a defective title compelled a relocation, and it was changed to the northwest quarter of section 33. Matthew B. and J.P. Potter and Col. Blish owned the site. The former, after selling five acres of their quarter section to Geo. A. Morse and Silas Willard, traded the balance to Dwight Needham for his beautiful farm a little farther south. Mr Needham at once sold to Capt. Sullivan Howard, Ralph A Tenney--better known as "Ralph"--and Henry G. Little; and these gentlemen sold a quarter interest to Nelson Lay. Willard and Morse's tract lay on either side of the railroad, on Main Street, and here they built a store and warehouse in 1853. This was known as the "Pioneer" store, and did a lucrative business for nearly twelve months without opposition. The building stood on the lot now occupied by the residence of Mr. Joseph O'Brien, and was, in 1863, destroyed by fire.

Kewanee was laid out on May 1, 1854, by Sullivan Howard, Nelson Lay, H.G. Little, R.A. Tenney, Geo. A. Morse and Sylvester Blish. Wethersfield, which was then quite a thriving village, suffered in a very short time a loss of nearly all her business houses, which were one by one put on wheels and moved to Kewanee. The survey was made by C.C. Blish. The streets run at right angles, and are generally four rods wide, though Main Street is 100 feet in width. The first house erected on the town sight was the Kewanee Hotel. It was kept for some time by Tenney & Hutchins. In February, 1856, Mr. E.V. Bronson purchased the property of R.A. Tenney, and for twenty-two years has successfully supplied the gastronomical needs of the public. It is now run by Mr. Warner.

It was probably the intention of the founders of the town that Main Street should be the street; and in fact it was for some time. "Phillips' Block,", the first store in the town proper, was built thereon by Nelson Lay; J. D. Schriver erected the old "Philadelphia Store" there; Davenport & Robinson their grocery (now Miles & Minnick's); Dr. Finney had his drug store where now stands the Free-will Baptist church, and the corner next south was the dry-goods establishment of Aaron Cooper. A few buildings only were erected on Tremont Street, which was in wet weather very little short of a canal as far as navigation was concerned. Yet the hotel and the depot slowly and surely drew the trade center westward. C. N. Cutter erected, very early, the building occupied by Bennison Bros., and which for many years was known as "Cutter's Hall," and considered quite palatial in those days. It was moved to the lot north and a fine brick put in its place. Residences sprang up rapidly in all parts of the town, grain warehouses were built, and in eighteen months the town boasted a population of 1,500, including Wethersfield.

The following were among the leading pioneer merchants: Fitch and Skinner, druggists, occupied the site of the present T.H. Phillips' brick house; Joseph Montgomery, boot, shoe and clothing dealer; Mr. James S. Howard kept the first furniture store and a hardware store, which was built by Fred. Wild.

When the town was laid out , the proprietors gave it the name of Berrien, in compliment of Col. Berrien, chief engineer of the railroad. He rather objected to this, however, and being asked to name the town he suggested "Kewanee", an Indian name supposed to signify "prairie-hen." This cognomen was readily accepted by the proprietors, and on Feb. 14, 1855, was legalized by a special act of the Legislature. The postoffice was established in 1854, and given the name of Kewanee. Col. Blish was appointed as incumbent of the office, and occupied a portion of the store of Otis & Pinney for the discharge of his duties. It will be remembered this building occupied the site of the Free-will Baptist church. In the fall of 1855, Col. Blish died, and Mr. R. A. Tenney, who among other enterprising acts erected the first brick residence in town, occupied by Dr. G. W. Fellows, succeeded him. Different administrations caused many changes to be made in this office. It is now held by N. H. Pratt, who has been in charge a long time. His assistant is his daughter Anna.

In 1884 the census was carefully taken, showing a population of 3,700 souls. It was incorporated as a village by the session of the Legislature of 1866-7, and is modestly content to forego the more pretentious airs and expenses of becoming a city, although possessed of many more inhabitants than many other places that have long since put on the trappings of cities.

The Village Trustees are: J.H. Pierce, President; P.B. Keller, James Porter, John Moore, A. W. Errett, Samuel Jones. E. E. Baker, City Clerk; A. W. Wood, Police Magistrate; C.C. Wilson, Village Attorney.

The proprietors of the town of Kewanee were from the start keenly alive to the fact that factories and workshops were as essential to the prosperity of the place as were store-rooms, dwellings and other business houses. They were ready to offer inducements to institutions of this kind that came along looking for a place to locate. The result of this foresight is now plainly to be seen; it is the busiest and thriftiest town in the county to-day., and is growing apace, while the average towns of Northern Illinois have for the past few years stood still, or lost population. From Galesburg to Aurora, on the line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, it ranks as the best business point, giving the road the largest trade in imports and exports between these two points.

In 1856 there were three dry-goods stores---Lang, Hardy & Co., Willard and Moss, and S. A. Smith; and there were two grocery stores---Davenport & Robinson, and Penny Bros. Now there are 6 dry-goods, 5 hardware, 7 grocery, 3 jewelry, 3 bakeries, 2 news stands, 3 clothing, 5 boots and shoes, 4 harness shops, 3 furniture stores, 2 lumber yards, 5 meat markets, a grain elevator, 2 banks, 3 hotels, besides numerous shops, and small places of business and trade. Many of these business houses are alone on a scale with, and do a business much greater than was done by, all the houses in the town 25 years ago. The business men are of that class that have been quick to see the wants of the public about them, and have supplied them promptly and most efficiently.

The easy access to the fine quality of coal found here was another inducement for manufacturers that had its influence at an early day. As is mentioned elsewhere, a great deal of capital and employment to many miners is furnished by the coal mines. The Lathrop Coal & Mining Company, who's main office adjoins the First National Bank, when running full force, give employment to over 200 men. coal in this mine is reached at about 100 feet, and is loaded on the cars by a very ingenious contrivance, and they shop large quantities along the line of the railroad. This company was organized in 1869. Some years ago H.H. Perkins started the Kewanee Manufacturing establishment. The O'Brien Manufactory was started into operation in 1858. This was removed from Priceville, Peoria County, and commenced making wagons and carriages here.

The present manufactories are the Haxtun Steam Heater Co., organized in 1875. It is incorporated with a capital stock of $500,000. It has eight acres of ground, adjoining the railroad, and has nearly four acres under roof, and has 550 employees, the large majority of whom are skilled mechanics and command the highest wages. The original capital was $50, 000. The company succeeded the Anderson Steam Heating Company. The plant is located in the northeast part of town. When this company became the owners of this business, only two buildings. 30 x 80 and 40 x 60 feet respectively, were used, and only 20 men were employed. The pay-roll now is about $22,000 per month. There are twelve separate and distinct departments in this establishment, namely: the puddle mill, rolling mill, pipe mill, iron foundry, brass foundry, machine shop, radiator shop, steam-fitting shop, brass-finishing department, boiler shop, pattern shop, and the gas manufacturing department, where they manufacture their own gas for use in the pipe-manufacturing department. These works are immediately adjoining the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, from which they have side tracks, running not only into their grounds, but into the buildings as well, which greatly facilitates the handling of heavy goods.

Twelve engines, aggregating 1,300 horse-power, are required to propel the vast amount of machinery necessary for their business. Each and every department is supplied with special machinery, gotten up and adapted for some special purpose. In fact, the greater part of their machinery, as well as their engines, is manufactured by themselves, and is of no use other than for the particular purpose for which it was made.

With the exception of boiler iron, everything is brought in its crude shape--pig and scrap iron, copper and brass. They do their own puddling, rolling, mill work, etc. A ton of iron will start in at the puddling department, and after being manipulated to the proper consistency, is passed on to the rolling mill, where it is converted into strips or bars of the right width and thickness. it is then conveyed to the pipe department, where it is made into pipe of any desired size. The capacity in this department is forty tons per day.

The officers of this company are W. E. Haxtun, President; J. H. Pierce, Secretary; and E. E. Baker, Treasurer.

At E. K. Hays' factory there is a large force of men busy at work making a great variety of implements, but their specialty now is a recently patented pump, of which they are turning out great quantities. This institution commenced manufacturing plows and shoveling boards, and from this branched into nearly every implement the farmer wants, and have always done a large repairing business.

The Kewanee Wagon Company is another of the valuable and thriving institutions of the town. It manufactures all sorts of road wagons, carriages, buggies, etc., and is a successor to the O'Brien Manufacturing Company, which was organized in January, 1882, with a capital stock of $10,000. The incorporators, John Chisnall, Thomas F. Chisnall, Willaim Howland, C.G. Taylor and August Grief, were all the old employees of the O'Brien Manufacturing Company, and each one of them fills his place under the new organization, not only as stockholder and officer, but as a mechanic, and in charge of some particular department of the works.

John Chisnall, the President of the company, is business manager, book-keeper and head of the wood-working department; William Howland, Vice-President, conducts the iron work; C. G. Taylor, Secretary, wood-worker and in charge of the fine buggy and carriage department, while Thomas F. Chisnall, Treasurer, is superintendent of machinery. Each man has his wages paid him weekly, and the residue or net earning goes to the credit of the company. New machinery is being added from time to time, the capacity of the concern is being increased and the undertaking as a whole is an assured success. (See biographical sketches of John Chisnall, William Howland and C. G. Taylor, this volume.)

The Kewanee Manufacturing Company is another of the valuable additions to the town.

These many and large factories, with their tall chimneys filled with eager fires, the din of the great and small hammers pounding and forging the iron into artful shapes, have made Kewanee the Birmingham of Northern Illinois, and promise it a great and prosperous future.