This is the story of a dream Jennie M. and George Conrad had of building a business center south of the present town of Lake Village. But first, it is interesting to learn the story of her father, a midwestern cattleman and capitalist.
Lemuel Milk (1820-1893) came to the Kankakee, Ill., area as an early settler and soon became one of the largest land owners, for he saw clearly the right time to involve himself in an enterprise and the best time to sell.
The following is a quote from a Study of Illinois Agriculture: "Milk was extraordinary among cattlemen for his early, persistent campaign to intensify farming. He was not an opionated farmer; primarily he was an experimentor."
By 1870 much of his Illinois grazing land was divided into tenant farms, with the operators working under carefully prescribed leasing terms, balancing programs of livestock and grain production.
At each farm he planted a variiety of fruit trees and taught the tenants how to care for them. Remembering how his mother carried water from a stream to his boyhood cabin in New York state, Milk insisted on a deep well near the kitchen door of every farm. He was also a leader in a huge drainage program to enable better grain farming.
His other business ventures included a huge building in the village of Chebanse, a few miles south of the city of Kankakee. His two-story 1868 "combination store," with covered sidewalks, was a forerunner of today's shopping centers. There were nine stores in the building plus a bank, a newspaper office and a barbershop. The big frame building, destroyed by fire in 1904, was said to be the largest under one roof between Chicago and Danville.
Lemuel Milk also platted two large subdivisions in the village of Chebanse. But his attention soon shifted to the ciry of Kankakee, where he became known for his Waldron Ice Co., his largest business enterprise. For many years, 42,000 tons of ice were harvested "without flaw to mar its crystalline clarity and purity." Carloads were shipped all over the country. But in the late 1880's, river conditions along the 540 acres at Aroma Park (formerly called Waldron) were changing due to the cultivation of land up the river's edge, the drainage of swamps, and the establishment of industrial sewers and indoor plumbing.
Soon his competition was in the form of an artificial plant in the city. Lemuel Milk died a few years after he decided to get out of the ice business in 1893. His young second wife was able to keep the land, however.
Jennie Minerva Milk (1855-1939), first daughter of Lemuel Milk, has been described as eccentric, elegant, determined, and a competent livestock rancher. She also inherited a great business sense from her enterprising father.
Jennie, at age 23, married George Conrad, who was 40 and a Chicago bank cashier, during the month of September 1878. The ceremony was described by the local press as "the most elaborate and recherche ever held in Kankakee." Their reception at the Milk mansion was held for a select number of Chicago and Kankakee friends and was followed by a trip for the wedding party into Chicago aboard a special railway car.
In 1885 Jennie and George Conrad paid one dollar to her father for 4,400 acres of meadow, recovered by him fourteen years earlier when he took part in the draining of northwest Indiana's famous Beaver Lake. They set out to build their "empire" on this land, two miles south of Lake Village and lived at "Oak Dene," the big house on the ranch.
The building of the empire was interrupted in 1896 by the death of George Conrad, but the determined Jennie carried on, increasing the acreage to 7,000 by 1904. Her father taught her to keep buying land, using the original holdings as security for the expansion.
Her brightest dream was the village of Conrad, Ind. She conceived it, fought for it and sustained it with all her might, but when she died in 1939, there was little left.
In the village of Conrad there was a park, boarding house, church, school, depot, homes, a stock yard, a general store, and a concrete block plant. It was often thought that Jennie Conrad copied her village plan after the city of Indianapolis.
Thousands of animals were shipped each year from her livestock holding pens, whch influenced the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad to stop its passenger trains at Conrad, where she provided the depot.
She was quoted in an old Kankakee newspaper: "This is my town, and I will make it 'the' town around here." Jennie was jealous of Lake Village, two miles north of her land, and her aim was to make Conrad into a better place.
When mail was delivered by a rural carrier from Lake Village instead of through the new post office she provided, she changed her address to Morocco and sent a horseman there for the mail several times a week, a round trip of 36 miles.
It was said that after her husband's death, her own orders were not taken seriously by her employees, but after an incident or two when she appeared on the scene with a loaded shotgun, she was accepted as the boss.
Regardless of how hard she worked all day on the ranch or in the village, she was an elegant lady come nightfall, always dressing for dinner and surrounded by the best in furnishings and service. Her dinner invitations were regarded as a command.
She wanted her possessions to have a certain style, and chose a color called by the neighbors 'mustard yellow' or 'bright orange' for painting the houses all over the ranch, and public buildings as well. Even the spokes on the wagon wheels were that color.
Starting in the year 1885, several fateful events occurred in the city of Kankakee. Jennie had a stepmother 23 years younger than she, and a very young half sister, Mary Milk Barton. Her father died in 1893, leaving everything to the widow and his younger daughter. Jennie's only son, Platt Conrad, left to enter the insurance business in Chicago, Ill., and there were no grandchildren.
Jennie Conrad's 7,000 acres dwindled down to 1,600, all heavily mortgaged. She died in 1939, at the home of a relative at Rensselaer, and was buried beside her husband in the Mound Grove Cemetery at Kankakee.
Some of the buildings in the ghost town of Conrad were still standing in the 1930's, but now all that remains of Jennie M. Conrad's dream are a few broken foundations and some lonely narrow streets in an area covered with underbrush. Her career was legend even when she lived, and her story will carry on in history for years to come.
Information for this story was furnished by William J. Nichols, of Fuller Island, southeast of Lowell. His pioneer ancestors built their 1834 log house near the site of the present Lowell Post Office.
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