Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

A Kankakee River Story -- 1884

(from the July 30, 1996, Lowell Tribune)

The Kankakee River is very unique in that it has an ancient Indian portage on one end and an atomic age power plant at the other! Early explorers jokingly said that it was "as wide as it is long."

At a meeting before the semi-centennial celebration for the arrival of the first pioneers, the Old Settler's Association recommended that several early residents should write articles about local history.

The following story about the famous river, in the news again last week after nearby rains forced it to rise and threaten the low lying homes along its banks in Shelby and Sumava Resorts, was written for the 1884 Lake County History, "The Pioneer Semi-Centennial," by John Brown, who at the time was auditor of Lake County.

"To myself was assigned the subject: The Kankakee River -- Its peculiarities -- Its Marsh Lands and Islands -- Swamping -- The source of the Kankakee River is in St. Joseph County, this state, and from its source to where it crosses the state line at the southwest corner of our county, is about seventy-five miles [shorter now since it was straightened].

"It is a slow, sluggish stream with a fall of from one to one and a half feet to the mile in this state. It being very crooked, and the land on either side being low and marshy, the water moves off very slowly, and these low lands, forming what is familiarly known as the Kankakee Marsh, are for quite a period of time each year covered with from one to three feet of water.

"About six sections of this marsh land in the southeast corner of our county are covered with timber, composed mostly of ash and elm with some sycamore and gum trees. The balance of these wet lands, running west to the state line, is open marsh, covered with a luxuriant growth of wild grasses, wild rice and flags [flags are of the iris family]. It is the home of the water fowl and the muskrat, and a paradise for hunters.

"The number of acres of this wet land in Lake County is about sixty thousand, with six hundred thousand in seven counties in the state.

"Various projects have been proposed for draining this vast body of rich land, but up to this time very little has been accomplished."

As Pioneer Brown wrote, two other early pioneers, Cass and Singleton, had two large stream dredges at work in the marsh, and good results were expected from their work.

"It is only a question of time when these lands will all be drained, as the Kankakee Valley has a main elevation of ninety feet above Lake Michigan and one hundred and sixty feet above the waters of the Wabash River, and lying as they do at the very doors of Chicago, the greatest stock and grain market in the world., it would be strange if they long remain in their present, almost worthless, condition.

"Some portions of these lands are high dry ground, like an island in the ocean, and as they are often entirely surrounded with water, they are called islands. The most prominent of these in Lake County are Beach Ridge, Red Oak, Warner, Fuller, Ridge, Brownell, Lalley, Curve, Skunk, Long White Oak, Round White Oak, South Island, Wheeler Island, and many smaller ones. These islands have all once been covered with a nearby growth of timber, but the farmers living on the prairies north of the marsh have stripped most of them of all that is desirable.

"This hauling timber from these islands and from the ash swamp further east, a few years ago was the farmer's winter harvest and was called "Swamping." I think the lives of some of our early settlers were shortened by exposure and overwork in some of the bitter cold winters on these marshes. Many of the islands where timber was cut are now excellent grazing land and nearly all of the larger islands have one or more families living on them, and some good farms are already under cultivation.

"Many old landmarks go to show that these lands bordering on the river were, before the white man came, the favorite stomping grounds of Indians. Many of the islands have mounds and burying grounds, and on some are plats of ground which still hold the names of the Indians' gardens. I have never seen larger or finer grapes grown anywhere than some which I gathered on these islands and which were planted by the Indians.

Brown told about an area on Curve Island which was called "The Old Indian Battle Ground." The entrenchments, or breastworks, there covered a space of from 3 to 4 acres and are almost a perfect circle, with many deep holes inside. All this could be plainly seen in 1884, but when it was made or who did the work, none of the early settlers had a clue. Many artifacts were found nearby in a high sand mound.

Brown continues: "Could all these old mound and relics of the past speak, they could no doubt tell a story well worth hearing. Fifty years from now, when the citizens of Lake County meet to celebrate the centennial, these old landmarks will be obliterated, and the Red Man who once was the only human here will be forgotten, except in history. And we too, who meet here today to celebrate our semi-centennial, will then have left the shores touched by that mysterious sea that never yet has borne on any wave the image of a returning sail."

Charles Bartlett, in his book, "Tales of Kankakee Land" had this to say of the Kankakee River: "More than a million acres of swaying reeds, fluttering flags, clumps of wild rice, thick growing lily pads, soft beds of cool green mosses, shimmering ponds, black mire and trembling bogs -- such is Kankakee Land. The wonderful marshes with their silence, their vastness, their misty haze and their miry depths make them the very realm of forgetfulness and oblivion."

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Just in time to add to this river story, the Old Timer received an interesting packet of historical items from Dick Hayden, a former Lowell resident. One of the items was a note written by Millard Hall, Sr., of Shelby, a dredge operator in the early days of this century, and also an avid trapper. Millard wrote: "Frank and I caught 40,000 muskrats in 1912. In the spring of 1913, during the last 14 nights of the season, we caught 4,500 muskrats and sold them for 52 cents each [$2,340]. During the fall of 1913, we caught over 7,000 and sold them for 25 cents in Chicago.

"We sent an order to Chicago for 126 dozen traps, and it was the largest order they had ever received."

There was a write-up in the Chicago newspaper about Millard and Frank Hall living in a 12-by-16-foot tent on the Kankakee River. "We cooked, slept and stretched our fur in the tent. We hired a man to help us stretch furs. He slept on a cot -- Frank and I had a bed." Signed Millard F. Hall, Sr., Shelby, Ind.

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In another river story told by pioneer George Cole, there was an item about a skunk hunt: "One year a man worked for me, and on a bad, stormy day, he went out and speared muskrats, and he speared 107 that one day. He couldn't carry them all home, so he carried what he could handle and the next day we went back and got them. He got 7 cents apiece for the skins.

"Flannigan and I dug out 28 skunks one day on a knoll. They would drown out in the marsh, and would come up to the knolls. We got $42 for the hides and $4 a gallon for the skunk oil."

We wonder if their families let them come in the house, however, after those adventures.

Last updated on April 22, 2004.

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