Illinois During the Gilded Age
Memoir of Frank Gordon Colton.
I was born, so the records and the statement of the older members of the family say, on the 22nd day of November in the year 1897. Being the youngest of seven children many of the things I am setting down here are from the memories of places and events told me by the older members of the family and by my parents. The farm house where our Father was born as well as all seven of us was about two mile west of Waterman Illinois in DeKalb County. This farm was originally taken up from the Goverment by our Grand Father Colton. We have in our family a large genealogy book which tells us that we are all descendants of Quartermaster George Colton in England, and in this book is a picture of the coat of arms of the Colton Family. I have been told but it is not recorded in this book, that still further back we are of Welch ancestry. Aside from the genealogy book I have mentioned which is at my Sisters home in Rockford, I have in my possession many of the records of the Colton family. These records show us that George Colton emigrating to this country from England , first settled at Windsor, State of Connecticut, later becoming one of the first settlers of Long Meadow Mass. where many of the early Coltons are buried.
Our Grandfather, William Colton and his Wife Lucinda Emery were both born in New York State, and were married at Dryden New York in 1837. In 1846 they came from New York state to Illinois and lived at Sugar Grove for three years they came to Clinton township in 1849 when the farm was taken up from the Goverment.
My Father was also the youngest in his family, there being nine children. Of this family one little girl died when she was six years old and one of the boys died when he was 16 or 17 and Uncle Frank whom I was named after, passed away shortly before I was born. The other six I got to see and know well.
My Mother was Helen Burr the daughter of an Adventist minister, and was born at Torringford Connecticut in 1856.
Grand Father Burr while most of his preaching was in the east, served charges in Chicago and at the Afton Center Church which is near DeKalb and it was here that they got acquainted with the Colton family. Our Mother as a small girl was living in Chicago when the great fire occurred in 1871, and remembered about it, although they lived on the west side and were not in the burnt out area. I have been out to that area but the old buildings have long since been tore down. It is in the neighborhood of Randolph and Ashland Blvd. near Union Park.
Our parents evidently conducted their courtship mostly by mail as the Burrs had moved back east. Our Mother came from Portland Maine and met her husband to be in Chicago where they married, October 3rd 1881. Among the records I have is the account of a birthday party they were having for Grandpa Colton whose birthday was October 4th and in the middle of the party the newly weds arrived from Chicago. According to some things Mother told me of the early days, there were many lonesome times and the flat prairies of Illinois seemed very desolate after living among the hills of the east. In common with all of the farm people of those times, living was pretty hard especially in the long and cold winters.
2The many conveniences that today we take as a matter of course were in those days either not invented or not available to farm dwellers. These old farm homes were heated only by wood burning stoves, whose heat did not extend beyond the room they were in, water was obtained from an outside well which froze over night and had to be thawed out with hot water before any water could be pumped for the house. I remember Mother telling how when she went upstairs to make the beds where the older ones slept that she had to bundle up just like going outdoors.
I was five years old when we left this farm but I can remember many things yet from those years. It was during that time that one fall in October that the friends and neighbors came in and made an all day celebration of Grand Fathers birthday and the folks anniversary and gave them several pieces of furniture. It was during this time too that were when the reports of the new invention, the horseless carriage came out and one day we were very thrilled to see one go down the road. This must have been about 1902. The house and farm buildings were set back from the road in what seemed to me to be a great distance but when I passed there years later in my own horseless carriage the lane seemed a lot shorter. I can remember too in those years that there had been a little cemetery at the back end of the farm and it was decided to move the remains of the few that had been buried there in the early days, to the regular cemetery several miles south. I was so small that very likely the folks thought I would not know what it was all about so I played around there while Dad and another man dug up the remains, which were of course nothing but skeletons. I was not old enough to attend the nearby country school which was nearby but all of the others did. I do remember one day after much begging, Mother let me go to the school to visit, but no sooner did I get there and sat down than I got scared at the unfamiliar surroundings and started to cry so Luman had to take me home much to his disgust. It was during this time that Carrie and Grace graduated from the high school at Waterman, which only had a three year course at that time and one man taught the eighth grade and all three years of high school. Sister Carrie was teaching a country school east of Waterman and Grace I believe was going to DeKalb Normal. The Spring Valley branch of the North Western ran about a mile west of the old farm and at that time it would stop at the road crossing if there was any one to get off or on.
In 1903 Dad sold the old farm, which was only eighty acres and bought a larger one 36 miles north in McHenry County, as he had the four boys growing up. He moved his stock and machinery up there and rented the farm on shares for two years while he lived two years in the town of Waterman, so we could have the benefit of the town schools. It was during these two years that Belle graduated from high school and I started in the first grade. Those two years were happy ones for me as I was too young to know the problems and worries that are the lot of all grown ups. The house we lived in was only a short distance from the business section which was all on one street, Waterman only had a population of 250 or 300 and I used to like to go down to the corner and watch the trains go thru.
3On the way to the corner one had to cross an alley which went to the back doors of all the stores. Fronting on our street was a supposedly empty store which had once been a saloon but the village had voted dry so it was not in operation but it was owned by the same people that operated the hotel and there was a well beaten path from the back door of the hotel to the back door of the saloon, and once I remember in muddy weather there was a load of crushed stone spread over this path so the Customers? Would not have to get in the mud. I remember the trains that went thru in those days, three car locals and the daily milk train. There was the half past eight, the half past ten, the noon train, the half past six the half past seven which was a train with pullmans that came local all the way from St. Paul. Then there was the midnight that came thru from Chicago. In those days there was quite a grade west of town and some times there was a helper engine there to push the freights over the hill. That hill was later cut down. Two miles west was the Spring Valley crossing and there was a tower there with a tower man on duty at all times. I remember many times of riding with Dad with the team and buggy to the little town of Carlton or McGirr as it was later named, to meet people coming from Dekalb or Wisconsin. Uncle Luther lived on two or three different farms in this area and the two families were back and fourth a great deal. I well remember Uncle Luther with his reddish whiskers and Aunt Nancy with her curls, and how kind they always were to me. In those two years that we lived in Waterman I remember several times that Dad had business in Shabbona and would go over on the evening train and could get another back in about an hour and he used to take me as I could ride free at that age. Mother was always so good to see that I got in on little pleasures, but was always very careful that I played with the right sort of children. Down the street was a Danish family by the name of Larson, the man was the town drayman and at that time they had four boys, that were the town bad boys. Many days in the warm weather when the doors and windows were open we could see him stand in the middle of the room with his horse whip and start the boys running around the room and whip them when they went past. Harry the oldest one was about my age and gave me some bad moments. Years later when I was working on the express run going thru there this same Harry was the helper at the depot when we went east in the evening. I recognized him but he didn't me and I rode him unmercifully for a week or two. He died some years ago and his widow lived next door to me for several years before she married again. While we lived in the village Belle graduated from the high school and also one of those years Dad came down with typhoid fever and Mother and several of the others were sick and we had a nurse for several days. I was not one of the sick ones myself. Ellis was the night operator at the telephone office, they closed the board around nine o'clock but he slept there in case there were any emergency call came thru in the night. Many evenings after supper three of us and some of the other boys used to gather in the telephone office, probably to the detriment of the service. The Baptist Church was next door and their church sheds came
4up next to the barn, in fact Dad kept his buggy and wagon in the two end sheds. When Halloween came we knew that the buggy and wagon would very likely be pulled away so the boys wired the wheels and fixed some boards over head piled with rocks so was moved the rocks would all fall in the wagon and make a lot of noise. Sure enough late in the evening we heard the crash of rocks and running feet, but they evidently returned for the next morning the wagon was at the other end of town. However when they were getting ours the twins were out getting some one else's I was too young to go out my self and it was long before "trick or treat" came into style. While we were living in Waterman, our Grand parents and Aunt Vine lived on the next street and many times I was over there. Grandpa was in his nineties and was quite feeble but some times he would take a notion to come over with his two canes and Dad would take him home with the horse and buggy. One hot day he did that and Mother was real worried and Dad was in the country with the horses and would not be back for several hours so we boys and some of the neighbor boys got him in the single buggy and some pulling and some pushing took him home, a matter of about three blocks as I remember. After we had lived for about two years Dad moved to his farm in McHenry County. On account of the renter getting a farm of his own we had to make the move the first of February, and it was about one of the coldest winters they have ever had. We had an unofficial report that one morning it was forty below zero. As this was before the age of trucks our household goods had to be moved by horse and wagon 36 miles across country in that extreme cold. As I remember Dad and the three older boys went with the loads and after every thing was loaded up Uncle Luther took Mother, Belle and I with the canary bird in its cage to his home for over night. The next morning he took us to the station at Elva where we took the train as far as Sycamore, where we spent that day and night at the Jim Finnigan home and the next morning left there and took the train to Belvidere and to Marengo where Dad met us and then there was a four mile drive to the farm. In the extreme cold the folks settled the house just enough so we could live in it and it was not until warm weather that we got fully settled. The next week I started to the one room country school that was a mile away. I attended this school for nearly seven years, was in the eighth grade when we left that area. This farm was referred to as the old Pen Griffith farm and had 245 acres. In this farm was about every sort of land good land swamps clay hills and a large stretch of timber of oak trees. We had our own wood and Father sold many trees to neighbors. Right east of the farm buildings were three ponds that were connected with each other in high water and seldom disconnected excepting in very dry years. The lands around these ponds was all in pasture and as it got further back from the road to where the timber started, there was a fence separating the main body of timber from this pasture. Our cattle were driven out in the timber in the warm weather and it used to be my job to go and get them up to the barn every afternoon for milking and to drive them back in the morning. Over night they stayed up around the ponds, which we called the night pasture. We also kept the horses that were not working in that pasture. The dry cows and the young ones growing up were left in the timber all summer as there were many small ponds and a creek that flowed thru there for water
5We lived on this Marengo farm for about seven years or from 1905 to 1911 or 1912. Looking back to the time we lived the two years in Watermen it was during those years that Grandpa Burr whom I had never seen passed away in Somerville Mass. and also the Iroquois Theater fire with its tremendous loss of life during the Christmas holidays, and resulted in many of the safety features in the modern theaters. Years later when my work took me to Chicago I talked to old men who were there at the time of the fire and told of the long rows of bodies laid along the sidewalk. During the seven years that we lived at Marengo the earth quake and fire that destroyed San Francisco occurred. As this was at the time that telegraph was the only method of transmitting news, we knew nothing of it until the rural mail carrier left the mail in the middle of the forenoon and it was in the Chicago paper. For some reason I had not gone to school that morning but did go at noon so I carried the news of the earth quake to the teacher and the school. When we first lived on this community Carrie and Grace were teaching in Genoa and the week ends that they wished to come home, it meant a drive of ten miles over and ten miles back with horse and buggy with between four and, I should say three and four hours on the road and the same to take them back on a Sunday or early Monday morning. I have in more recent years made this ten mile trip in ten minutes. After a year or two they both took teaching positions in Marengo which was much closer and Luman at that time was driving back and forth to high school and he could get and take them.
During these years I attended the country school which as I mentioned before was a mile away by road but much of the year I could cut across fields and make it much shorter. We always had a good sized school as it was quite a large district and there were several large German families in it. Some of these big German boys gave us little fellows a hard time, but I remember that every year when Easter came around, every German family took Good Friday off and went to Church. I remember some of these German families, two families of Eickstadts, the Albrechts, and Kueckers who were our next door neighbors, or next farm neighbors, and a poor but hard working family named Koplein whose boys always looked like they did not have enough to eat. We all took our lunches in tin pails to school and I remember most of German kids had their sandwiches spread with lard. Most of them too raised Sorgum cane as there was a press at the town and this sorgum was something like molasses and I used to trade some times to get a sorgum sandwich. Others in the school were the Anthonys two families, the men were Brothers, the Brotzman, the Hatch family. The two Anthonys and Dad were the school board, John Anthony stuttered very badly and when he would call up dad as he did occasionally and when he tried to start to talk it sounded over the phone exactly like a phonograph record with a scratching needle. After we had been out of that country for several years. Clarence Anthony and Ralph Hatch were killed at Woodstock when a train hit the auto they were in. Marsha Hatch, Ralphs sister died from consumption. Horace Brotzman during the first world war lost his life down east some where. There was also a family by the name of Thrall that rented a farm in the district.
6one winter, but I do not remember if they worked the land as I think they just lived there in the winter. They were not gypsies but were horse traders and went around the country buying and trading horses. One of the boys is a very successful contractor in Aurora today and has built and remodeled many buildings here.
During these years while I always had certain choir (chores) that were mine to do, yet on account of having Dad and the three older boys, I did not have to get into the heavier work of the farm until I was older than most farm boys. The twins only went one year to high school, but Luman went thru and graduated with honors. Ellis went one year to University of Illinois, taking and agriculture corse (course). During these years it seemed most of the time that we were never all together as the older ones were teaching or going to summer school but we were together at Christmas time and some in the summer. As is probably common in large families there were always young people coming out from town and there were many things on the old farm to attract them, such as hunting, picnics in the timber, boating, we had a flat bottom boat on the ponds, skating on these same ponds in the winter time, besides many parties. Dad attended the Riley Church which was a couple miles west of us but the rest of us went into town to the Methodist church, so our family was represented in both churches. Every year in the country school we would give some money raising entertainment, usually a box social, for which we spent many weeks preparing recitations, songs and dialogues, after which the program was given on the big night after which the baskets were auctioned off by one of the men or some times a professional auctioneer. At Thanksgiving and Christmas time we always prepared programs to which some time some Mothers came and some times not. Between the school and the church the Christmas time meant a lot of social activity, and also a vacation from school. The old country school was like the others, a one room affair heated by a stove and in the cold weather those that had the back seats would have to sit near the front until the room warmed up which might be about noon.
It was while we lived on this farm that Will McCoy and Carrie were married and lived in Missouri. The next summer after school let out Belle and I went down there for a couple weeks visit, and that was a big thrill for me as I had never had a long ride on the train, only just short trips on our local trains, so to travel to another state and to see the Mississippi river, was really out of this world. I remember Belle and I took the Interurban from Marengo to Elgin then the electric to Aurora, where we were to catch the train on the Burlington to Missouri. This train got into Aurora at eleven at night so we had quite a wait and I was very much thrilled at the activity in the old depot they were using at that time. I did not sleep on that night train as I did not want to miss any thing. This train ran local all the way to Kansas City and it was day light after we left Galesburg. When we got to Quincy it was raining, but I was all eyes to see the big river, which fulfilled my expectations of it as we crossed on the high bridge into Missouri. After about 25 or 30 miles we got off at Monroe City and took a horse drawn bus across the town to a white painted depot on the MK&T, railroad where after a couple hours wait we rode the last 15 miles of our trip.
7getting into Stoutsville about noon where Carrie and Will were waiting for us. This town was a lot different than I had been used to as it was all hills, in fact where they lived the first floor at the font door was even with the street and at the back end of the house it was the second story. There was quite a large stream near the town called the Salt river and they had so much rain that it had overflowed and I had my first sight of washed out fields in the bottom lands, a sight I was to see so many times years later along the Mississippi. While we were on that two weeks visit, I had several trips out thru the country with Will where he went to repair his telephone lines, and one day a whole wagon load of us spent all day out in the woods picking wild blackberries, which were very thick in the timber down there. On this same trip we went to the little inland town of Florida where Mark Twain was born. That night I did not sleep much as I had picked up many chiggers in the timber. They are not like our mosquitoes that bite and fly away, but are original dive bombers as they bury themselves in your flesh.
While we were on that visit we heard from the folks at home that the large barn on the farm next to the school house had been struck by lightning and burnt down. I felt I had been cheating in not being there to see it burnt down, but I have seen plenty of big fires in the years since then. The people in this town were friendly, but they had the Missouri dialect which was quite a lot different than ours. When we started back we took the same Katy train to Monroe City where we had to wait between four and five hours for our Burlington train back. Monroe was a lot bigger than Stoutsville but there was not much to do there only walk around until it got dark and then we sat in the depot.
The train we got back was the Missouri Limited, now the American Royal Zephyr and we had a much finer car than we had going down and I was very interested in leaning out the window and watching the long train go around the curves and over the river into Quincy with all the colored lights on the bridge and on the water. I came thru that same country in 1953 on my way back from California, only in the day time. Getting into Aurora in the morning we went out to Sugar Grove and visited Todd and Alta and the Dugans, then a day or so later as I remember I went on back to Marengo, Belle did not go with me as I remember but Mary Brookings who was at Altas did. Carrie came home to visit while we still lived at Marengo. The first summer that we lived at Marengo, Grandpa Colton passed away in August at the age of 93. He had stepped on a rusty nail and gangrene set in. I was down to the funeral with the folks. Grandma and Aunt Vine continued to live in the house and then the following winter Grandma slept away. Aunt Vine lived on there for some years alone until she got so feeble that it was not best for her to live alone so the place was sold and she lived at Cousin Ellas at Sandwich until her passing in the 1930s. Thru out the later years of our living at Marengo, Luman had finished high school and was home, so the twins worked out for other farmers a lot especially in the fall when they husked corn down in DeKalb County where they were later to live. Finally it worked out that Dad sold the farm to Dr. Harnard a Rockford Dentist, who built a rustic cottage in the edge of the timber, for a vacation and summer home.