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Champaign County, Illinois

Rowlettes of Rantoul Township

Submitted by Philip A. Walker

I was reading the history of Rantoul today, as I had a relative who lived there early. I enjoyed what was there and I may be able to contribute a bit about another early settler; in particular, there apparently was an article published 1 April 1929 in the Claiborne County (Tennessee) Progress newspaper about Zachary Taylor Rowlette, who, among other things, said his father, Morris Preston Rowlette, was the first blacksmith there. Apparently, they moved to Rantoul in 1858. Here’s my transcription of the original transcription; unfortunately, I have not seen the original and do not know whether it is extant. Although the article deals far more with the Chicago fire than Rantoul, I thought you might find it useful. My own comments, in square brackets, are more for family history purposes than anything. Mary Clarkston, his wife, was actually my relative, and I know little more about Rowlettes.

Zachary Taylor Rowlette from the Claiborne County (Tennessee) Progress, 1 April 1929

The great fire that sent Chicago back for a new start in 1871, the Civil War, and even the immediate aftermath of the war with Mexico are some of the highlights that glow through the reminiscences of Zachary Taylor Rowlette, who lives in the house he build fifty-seven years ago not far from the Illinois Central right-of-way in Rantoul, Ill.

Mr. Rowlette celebrated his eighty-second birthday February 23, this year, and his is proud of the fact that he has been a resident of Rantoul seventy-one years, a record that has been surpassed or equaled by no other citizen of that town or community.

As he strides with firm steps, upright, soldierly bearing about the streets of his town or as he sits in his straight-backed rocking chair before the cheerful coal fire in his snug cottage, the Rantoul veteran seems to typify an age that has already passed into romantic history for the present generation. His beard of the style affected in the days of the Civil War, his tricks of expression that survive boyhood spent within the shadow of Cumberland Gap, the long past affairs of which he loves to gossip as though they were almost current events, mark his as a survivor of the pioneer current that flowed westward in the days of the covered wagon.

Mr. Rowlette is one of the four surviving members of Seaver Post No. 253, Grand Army of the Republic, which at one time mustered eighty-eight members in Rantoul and returned to that town immediately following his discharge from service. Except for his two years of soldiering and his eleven years of boyhood in Tennessee, he has spent all his life in Rantoul. It has been a life eventful with participation in the great development that has taken place in the Central West during the last three generations.

The Rowlette family according to the recollections of the Rantoul veteran, made its first appearance in America in Virginia in early colonial days, and the descendents moved westward with the pioneers. Zachary T. Rowlette was born near Tazewell, Tenn, a short distance from Cumberland Gap, through which the first westbound settlers made way from the Atlantic seaboard. He was born on the day of the battle of Buena Vista, one of the decisive struggles of the Mexican War. His father, Morris Preson [sic] Rowlette, was a soldier in that battle.

[Side note: General, later President, Zachary Taylor did, in fact, defeat Santa Anna at Buena Vista 23 February 1847. That loss, coupled with a loss in April to General Winfield Scott, ended the Mexican War. Curiously, the news likely took several days if not longer to reach Claiborne County (probably now the portion in Hancock County); whether his parents, or, more to the point, his mother, chose his name several days after birth or simply because Taylor had already gained major fame after the Battle of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma is unknown. Taylor was elected president in 1848.]

"Polk ran for president on the promise that Texas would be annexed to the United States," Mr. Rowlette explains, "and when he was elected, father joined the troops that were raised to make good that promise. Father was a member of Company F, First Tennessee Calvary, and he fought all through the Mexican War. [War was declared 13 May 1846 and officially ended 2 February 1848.] He returned home to Tennessee, and we stayed until I was eleven years of age, when father decided to go west 'to grow up with the country.' We located in Rantoul, Ill. He put up the first blacksmith shop that settlement ever had, and he was the only smith for several years.

"There were only seven registered voters in Rantoul when we arrived. I can still remember the election days of my boyhood. Issues were sharp, and there was much more excitement than there is nowadays. They didn't have the Australian ballot. The voters assembled and the judges asked each one of them to announce high and clear who was the favorite candidate. There was no secrecy about it, and I doubt the voters of that day wanted any secrecy. A man was either for or against, and all the world knew which.

"Like all early settlers, we had our ups and downs, " Mr. Rowlette continues. "From blacksmith, father more or less gradually changed into the hardware business. When I grew toward manhood, he took me in with him under the firm name of M. P. Rowlette and Son. Our place of business was located at the place now occupied by O. E. Williams, hardware dealer. It was because of some business that I had to transact in Chicago for our hardware stored that I was an eyewitness of the fire that wiped the growing city of Chicago off the map."


"I was in Chicago the three days that the fire was at its height. I left Rantoul the morning of October the [word missing] 1871, for Chicago, where I expected to pay some bills and buy some goods for the store. The Rev. Mr. Thorn, an Episcopal clergyman with whom I was acquainted was on the same train. We road to Chicago together. [Rantoul is south and slightly west of Chicago, near Urbana, a trip of about 120 miles via the interstate, and quite a few hours on trains of the era. The first started about 9PM on 8 October 1871, a Saturday; rain beginning about midnight on Monday night helped put out the last of the flames. The missing date is probably "9" and probably exists in the original newspaper.]

"After a while, we commenced to hear reports, as our train stopped at the station, that Chicago was burning up. The closer we came to that city, the more detailed the stories became. Then we commenced to see refugees, and, by the time we arrived at Kensington, then a considerable distance from the outskirts of Chicago [about 15 miles from downtown], we could see the clouds of smoke and flame. The nearest we could get to the railway station was Twenty-Second Street, where the train stopped. We had to walk from there into the city.

"My companion, the Rev. Mr. Osborn [earlier called "Thorn"], was well along in years, and it was a difficult task for him to walk that far, especially through streets that were jammed with all kinds of vehicles carrying household goods and merchandise saved from the flames, and people who had been driven from their homes. We saw many strange things. Shortly after we left Twenty-Second Street, my companion and I sat down on the stone foundation of a fence in front of a big residence to rest. While we were sitting there, a dray standing in front of the house was being hastily [loaded] with furniture. When the dray could hold no more, the driver and the owner of the furniture mounted to the seat. The driver then turned to the proprietor of the furniture and said that he must have five hundred dollars or he would not haul the stuff away. The [owner] looked at him for a moment, then calmly drew a huge revolver from his pocket and put it to the driver's head. The dray moved off. [A dray was a low, heavy horse cart used for hauling; it had no sides.]

"I had some special luck in finding a place to stay. W. K. Swallow, formerly of Rantoul and a personal friend of mine, was running the Barnes House, a hotel on the corner of Randolph and Canal Streets, and he made room for me. [The intersection still exists; the house does not, although it is listed as having historically existing in the U. S. Geological Survey database. It was built in 1866 and was near the lake.] The first night, I watched the fire from the roof of the hotel. It is impossible to describe the horror and fascination of it. The entire sky to the north and east of us was full of flame and smoke. General Sheridan and the troops were in charge of the efforts to stop the fire. Time after time, they cleared out big areas by exploding kegs of black powder. The fire leaped the gap every time, however, and continued on its work of destruction."


"I well remember hearing some one say that at least one building would resist the flames because it was fire-proof. They referred to the Chicago Tribune building. I doubt, however, if any living soul ever saw it when it went down. The last I saw of the building was in the midst of a sea of fire.

"Thieves were at work everywhere, in spite of the heroic efforts of the police and soldiers, and many men were drunk and making nuisances of themselves. On one occasion, I noticed a crowd gathered around the ruins of a building down town. Some men were attempting to open a safe which they explained belonged to them. No one in the crowd saw anything objectionable because the men were very well-dressed. All wore silk hats and appeared big business men. Suddenly, a squad of police fell upon them, and, after a stiff battle, captured every one of them. They were a gang of thieves boldly plying their trade.

"There was a shortage of all kinds of supplies and much suffering. There were many pitiful sights along the lakefront. Families were separated. Frantic parents were seeking lost children; crying children could not find their fathers and mothers; husbands were looking for wives; wives could not find their husbands. There were thousands on the beach trying to escape. Many were scantily clad. i gave my last five dollar bill to a woman who was trying to keep her little flock of children together. She has lost her husband in the fire."


"On the third day when I had run out of money, I determined to return to Rantoul. I was obliged to obtain a pass from the military authorities and, to obtain that, I had to prove my identity. It was easy to get into the city, but very difficult to get out. When I got on the train, I didn't have any train fare. The conductor came to collect my fare. I explained that I had given the last cent to fire victims, but he declared that he could not permit me to ride free. A stranger sitting near me heard my story and paid my fare for me, or I might have been forced to walk back home. When I got back to Rantoul, my fellow townsmen were anxious to hear all about the Chicago disaster. I had managed to pick up a copy of the only newspaper issued in Chicago while I was there. It was about 12 inches square, but it gave a brief account of the fire. I showed some one the little sheet, and that was the last I ever saw of it. Rantoul did its share in helping the sufferers, sending many carloads of produce of all kinds to the stricken city."

The Chicago fire had a direct effect on the fortunes of every one in the Central West, Mr. Rowlette remembers. Rantoul and other towns that had formerly received merchandise from Chicago bought from Cincinnati and Saint Louis. There were shortages in everything and disturbed financial conditions. The market for most of Rantoul's products was a long time returning to normal conditions, and Rantoul suffered. In 1873, the Rowlette hardware store was forced into liquidation, and both father and son looked for other means of livelihood. Zachary obtained a job with the Illinois Central for a time piling wood in the yard that supplied the locomotives. Then he bought cattle and hogs from the farmers, shipping many carloads over the Illinois Central to the Chicago market. He ran a grocery store there for a time.

Nights and in his spare time, for several years, he had been reading law with B. J. Gifford, with whom he had become reacquainted when they were comrades in the army. For the last forty years, Mr. Rowlette has been a notary public. He has also done some real estate business.


Mr. Rowlette's army service began when he was but 16 years of age [ca. 1863]. He enlisted in Company B, 154th Illinois Volunteers, and saw service over a large part of the territory in conflict. As a guard to a paymaster, he visited every big group of troops of the Army of the West during the last two years of the war. Upon his return to Rantoul, he assisted in the organization of his G[rand] A[rmy of the] R[epublic] post, which was named after Captain [Charles A.] Seaver of Rantoul [killed Aug 3, 1864], who lost his life at Chickamauga. After Mr. Rowlette grew to full manhood, he returned to Tennessee where he had seen much of his war service and captured the heart of Mary Clarkston. Mary Clarkston lived with her parents near Knoxville. He took her back to Rantoul where they live to this day. His mother died in 1901 and his father in 1905, the latter at the age of 87 years.

Mr. and Mrs. Rowlette enjoy frequent visits from their children. They have two sons and two daughters and four grandchildren. The sons are H. M. Rowlette, vice-president of the Whiting Corporation of Harvey, Ill., and C. P. Rowlette, who is connected with the Jobst-Bethard Co., Peoria, Ill. The two daughters are Mrs. Martha Beck, Harvey, Ill., and Mrs. Eva Parris, Los Angeles, California.

Mr. Rowlette is a familiar figure to the Illinois Central trainmen running through Rantoul. He likes to watch the trains which have contributed so much to the development of his country, and he often goes to the station platform just to wave a greeting at the engineer and fireman or the baggageman and conductor. He enjoys waving a friendly hand at the passengers, also. No doubt many of them notice the soldierly figure and perhaps think a moment of the pathos of a race of heroes that is now all but gone. (Copied from Illinois Central Magazine)

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