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Henry County prospers from land

By Lisa Hammer, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Click here for larger view.
The contract for the current Henry County Courthouse in Cambridge was let in March 1878 to Julian Hinkley of Indianapolis for $77,147.08.
In 1825 the Illinois legislature created the framework for the establishment of nine new counties including Henry County once enough people had arrived. The people came.

By 1837 there were enough people to form a county. By the 1870 census, 35,506 people -- 70 percent of today's population of 51,159 -- had arrived. The biggest 10-year growth occurred in the huge immigrant wave between 1850 to 1860, when the population jumped from 3,807 to 20,660.

Henry County was organized where two stagecoach lines came together: the east-west Rock Island, Dixon and Chicago and the north-south Knoxville-Galena. Carpenter George Brandenburg built his inn at the junction of the lines, and the first county commissioners later met at his home in Dayton. Brandenburg's inn was the site of first county election, the first county court and the first post office.

Maj. James M. Allan, then 22, was instrumental in the formation of Henry County, and is credited with the idea of connecting the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers with the Hennepin Canal.

It was Allan who was sent to Vandalia, then the state capital, to guide the act creating Henry County government through the legislature in 1837. He played an early role in the founding of Geneseo and was elected the first leader, or "major," of the Henry County militia in August of 1837.

Maj. Allan named the first county seat halfway between Cambridge and Geneseo "Richmond." It's not known if he named it for the black slave then still on his father's farm in Alabama, but when his father died in 1848, Major Allan set the 10 or 12 slaves free and Richmond, as a free man, was the only one to stay on with the Allan family in Geneseo.

The town never had more than three buildings and a barn. When the buildings burned in May of 1839, the majority of the county officers relocated to Geneseo. Circuit Judge Thomas Ford, later to be elected Illinois governor, stayed and held court in the barn for a session or two before following the others.

Geneseo and Morristown then entered a bidding war to have the county seat. Morristown, three miles north and one mile west of Osco, won when one of its trustees offered 160 acres and $1,000 cash, but a majority of county residents petitioned to switch to a more central location.

The county seat was moved to land owned by the Rev. Ithamar Pillsbury, land agent for both Cambridge and Andover. Faced with the need for their third courthouse in nearly as many years, citizens opted to move the Morristown courthouse 12 miles to College Square in Cambridge with 70 oxen in a two-day trip.

The contract for today's courthouse was awarded to Julian Hinkley of Indianapolis, Ind., on March 29, 1878 for $77,147.08.

Andover was the first area to be settled as a town and with the county's first mill built in 1836-37, it became a hub of wagon trails. The first road surveyed was between Andover and Geneseo.

The early Henry County residents were proud of their new towns.

Andover's first citizens wrote in such expressive terms about their town and its mill that later immigrants who reached Chicago, then 2,000 population, are reported to have concluded "if this is Chicago, imagine what Andover must look like!" By other accounts, it was Henry County settlers themselves who said, "Wait until you see Andover!" when escorting new arrivals through Chicago.

Colonies formed for educational reasons were Andover, Geneseo, Wethersfield, Morristown and LaGrange (later Orion). Bishop Hill was founded as a religious community.

The first people to arrive farmed the woodland which gave them trees for cabins and fuel but had poor clay soil. The next arrivals chose the highest ground, which had the second-best soil. The last here farmed the best ground, the lowland alluvial soil rich with minerals from glacial deposits, runoff from higher land and prairie legumes.

Towns sprang up to meet the needs of farmers, and many of the towns sprouted coal mines.

Early father-son mining operations led to the largest commercial mine in the northern part of the county, the strip mine between Atkinson and Annawan opened in 1929 by Midland Electric Coal Company. The largest in Kewanee was Lathrop Coal Mining which opened in 1869 and eventually employed 200. More than half the county's coal production in 1889 came from mines in Galva.

In addition to corn and coal, early settlers began pulling stone, sand and gravel from the ground. The Colona stone quarry was located about one mile north of Colona near the Rock River and provided stone for the Rock Island Arsenal and a private mansion built by W. W. Warner at Warner's Station near Orion, as well as rock for home foundations. C.E. Oberlander opened a sand pit in 1914. One mile west of Cleveland, Gilbert Larson opened a gravel pit in 1927.

Kewanee and Galva fought for top honors as the center of manufacturing in the county in the 19th century. Guthrie's Foundry and Machine Shop was built in 1857 on the site of the Jones Road Machinery plant. Galva became famous for Hayes' Pump and Planter which employed 250 at its peak. Kewanee's Boss Manufacturing can be traced to H.H. Perkins Manufacturing in 1890. Kewanee Boiler was established in 1892 when Western Tube stopped making heating boilers. As of 1990, 14.8 percent of the labor force worked in manufacturing.

Railroads were key in the days before hard roads or highways. Most towns near the railroad lines lifted up their bustles and set them down again right along the tracks.

Bishop Hill was different.

Fearing outside contact, the men and women of Bishop Hill asked not to be on the Peoria-Rock Island line but helped build tracks through a new little town to the southeast. In exchange for their labor, they were permitted to name the town: Gefle or Galva after the birthplace of the Bishop Hill colony trustee who worked as a liaison with the new town.

Editor's note: Material for this article was found in "Corn, Commerce and Country Living, Historic Henry County" by George Swank, "Kett's History of Henry County," "History of Henry County" by Henry Kiner and "This is Henry County" by John Drury.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.