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Mercer County towns starting to grow once again

By Pam Berenger, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

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Norm Baggett was the last to operate the Oakville-New Boston ferry, before it ceased service in July 1973. Without the ferry, motorists have to use bridges at Muscatine or Burlington.
After years of being part of various territories and other counties, Mercer County's official history began on the first Monday in April 1835.

Between two polling places, one at the home of Eli Reynolds in New Boston and the other at the home of George Miller in Sugar Grove, the men of the county elected three county commissioners, a sheriff and a coroner. The election would complete the process started Jan. 31 when Illinois legislators passed an act authorizing its organization.

New Boston served as the county seat for two years. In 1837 Millersburg became the county seat. Later Aledo would be given that honor.

Mercer County's history began long before that day in 1835 and before 1827 when the first white settlers, William Denison, his son John and their families came to Mercer County.

This area of land along the river near New Boston was called Oquawkiek, which means Yellow Banks, by the Native Americans who lived along the river. The Denison and other early settlers lived peacefully among the among the Native Americans to the extent that William was offered 30 ponies for his daughter Julie.

Peace between the whites and Native Americans did not last. In early 1832 a joint council was held in New Boston. Black Hawk and Keokuk, along with 3,000 followers debated war. Black Hawk wanted to drive the settlers from Rock Island where his ancestors were buried and where he too wanted to rest. Keokuk wanted to maintain peace.

In the end, war came and Black Hawk was banished from the area.

More settlers came, attracted by the river trade and rich farm ground.

In 1834 John Denison sold two-thirds of his claim to two men. One of the men's agent owned a promissory note owed by a young Springfield attorney. The attorney, Abraham Lincoln, arrived in the area by steamboat and had the town surveyed in two days.

New Boston was not the only area in Mercer County experiencing growth in the mid-1830s. Hopkins Boone, a relative of Daniel Boone, arrived in Preemption Township in 1835. By 1837 a post office was established and a community was taking root.

Similar events were happening all over the county. Towns like New Windsor, Matherville, Viola, Sherrard, Keithsburg, Seaton remain communities today. Others like Shale City, Millersburg, Mannon, Eliza, Boden, Cable, Swedona and Sunbeam contain only a few homes, remnants of what once was.

While the river attracted people to Keithsburg and New Boston, rich farmland, lumber and coal drew people to other areas of the county. So did its rock and clay.

The Shale City Brick Yard was opened shortly after the turn of the century and supplied brick used to build Wrigley Field and the Empire State Building.

It was a time of growth. The railroads developed quickly and were called the "miracle of growth and improvement," by early authors. By 1880 the railroad in Mercer and surrounding counties had grown from 13 miles to more than 3,500 miles.

The nucleus was Aurora. Railroads were expanded and consolidated from 1850 to 1880, eventually passing through every community.

Stores opened, churches were built, banks established and schools were organized. Civilization had come to Mercer County.

Times changed, however.

The invention of the internal combustion engine that made tractors and automobile possible brought changes many did not anticipate. Automobiles gave residents greater mobility. Tractors and other farm equipment took the place of farm hands.

Larger, cheaper barges created competition for railroads. The distance between points got shorter. A 100 years ago a trip to Rock Island from Mercer County was a two-day trip, Jim Barnes, Mercer County Economic Development Committee chair, said.

The makeup of small towns changed. Banks closed and consolidated, store fronts emptied and people moved closer to their "town jobs."

There may be a convenient store where residents can buy milk, bread and gasoline. However, many don't have full grocery stores.

People no longer go to town early on Saturday nights just to get a parking spot.

"In my opinion people weren't restricted to being employed locally," Mr. Barnes, said. "People who live in Viola, New Boston, Keithsburg drive to the Quad-Cities or other larger towns now. They buy their gas and groceries in town now."

Agriculture continues to play a major role in the economic structure of the county, Mr. Barnes said. Farm equipment dealerships and fertilizer and crop chemical companies continue to be a major employer throughout the county.

The exodus of the 1970 and 1980s is reversing. People are moving out of the cities.

Housing developments are being planned. Store fronts in the villages are beginning to fill up with specialty shops. Over the past dozen years several factories, including Hide-a-way Plastics in Viola and General Tool and Grind in Aledo have seen tremendous growth. Cannon Bronze in Keithsburg is also experiencing changes.

Mr. Barnes said he and other members of the newly formed committee are just beginning to formulate plans that will help that trend continue.

"It's a world economy and a world environment," Mr. Barnes said. "Everything has been made so much closer by technology. We have to think along those lines to attract new business. We're going to find out what attracts people to a community, come up with an explanatory map telling why people should come to Mercer County. Competition always makes better business."

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.