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Champaign County, Illinois

History of Rantoul Township

This rich and thrifty part of the county, is bounded on the north by Ludlow and Harwood, on the east by Compromise, on the south by Stanton and Somer, and on the west by Condit.

The only natural timber in the township is half of a grove of about 80 acres, consisting chiefly of black walnut, hackberry, thorn-apple, crab-apple, elm, locust and mulberry. The other half of the grove is in Ludlow. The Indians called this grove "Neipswah" which it was said was their term for a locality where minks were plentiful. Hence the first white settlers christened it Mink Grove. This name also included a wide scope of the surrounding country, the entire neighborhood being known as Mink Grove until 1855, when the Illinois Central railroad company named their station (which at first fixed four miles southeast of its present site) Rantoul, in honor of Robert Rantoul, Jr., one of the original stockholders and charter members of the corporation, and who in 1851 filled a part of the unexpired term of Daniel Webster in the United States senate.

In 1857 his name was given to the voting precinct and later to the township, but the charming little oasis---if such a metaphor is admissible in describing a small forest springing up in almost tropical luxuriance in the midst of a vast and monotonous prairie---is still called Mink Grove.

Rantoul township includes the whole of town 21 range nine; two tiers of sections from the west side of town 21, range 2, the south-east quarter of section 34, and the south-west quarter of section 35, town 22, range 9, making an area of 481/2 square miles.

Leaving off the half section from town 2, retained for the convenience by Rantoul village, the township is a rectangle eight miles from east to west, of six from north to south.

The soil is dark, colored, deep and exceedingly fertile, adapted to the growth of corn, oats, rye, broom-corn, barley, buckwheat, flax, timothy, clover, blue-grass, millet, potatoes, a great variety of garden vegetables, and the forest and fruit trees common to Northern and Central Illinois.

Spring and winter wheat are cultivated to some extent, but are regarded as uncertain crops.

It was in Mink Grove that the first permanent white settlement in the township was made, and to Mr. Archie Campbell, now agent of the Illinois Central at Kensington, Ill., belongs the honor of being the first white settler. A native of Steuben county, N. Y., where he was born in May, 1816, he came to Champaign county in 1835, but it was not until the fall of 1848 that he settled at Mink Grove.

THE FIRST HOUSE

The main part of Mr. Campbell's first house was but 14 feet square, one story, and built of split logs. It was roofed with rough, sawed boards twelve or fourteen feet long, which projected beyond the walls so as to leave a covered space several feet wide under the eaves on each side. One of these projections was converted into a cook-room, and the other into a dormitory. This primitive structure stood on the rise of ground, some twenty rods south of the grove. A well walled with stone still marks the exact place.

Mr. Campbell's nearest neighbors, at that time, were Franklin Dobson, on the Sangamon river, nine miles west, and Lewis Adkins, at the north end of Big Grove, eight miles south.

Mr. Campbell wrote a letter in 1870, which contains the following statements of his pioneer life: "My farming operations consisted mainly in providing food for my stock, of which I had considerable. So confident was I that I should never be troubled with neighbors, that I entered but forty acres, expecting to cultivate the domain of 'Uncle Sam' to any extent I might desire."

Game was abundant. There were wild fowl of nearly every kind to be found in the west; minks, muskrats, deer and wolves.

Some time about the spring of 1855, Mr. Campbell and his brother John, (the latter of whom, though not a resident of the township, was joint owner of the estate at the grove) sold their land to Guy B. Chandler, an uncle on the mother's side of the Penfields.

Up to this time but few additional settlers came to cast in their lot with those named. Several indeed had come, tarried for a brief season, and then gone in search of more congenial places of abode elsewhere. But after the completion of the I. C. R. R., the Chicago branch of which passes through the township in a north-easterly and south-westerly direction, quite a tide of immigration was turned in the direction of Rantoul.

It was the solicitation of the Campbells and their liberal offer of suitable grounds that induced the railroad company to abandon the site first selected for their station for the one it now occupies.

EARLY SETTLERS

In 1852 came Lewis L. Hicks, then of Vermillion county, Indiana, where he was born in 1826, and entered a section of land two miles north-east of Mink Grove. In the following spring, accompanied by his brother-in-law and sister, Gilbert Martin and wife, he moved to this large farm and began fitting it up into a comfortable home.

He hauled lumber from near Danville and built a rough board shanty 12x24, in which they lived till fall, when a frame house 16x32 was built which then became their dwelling. They went to Urbana, nearly 16 miles distant, to get their plows sharpened. Mr. Hicks thinks he has seen as many as three hundred deer in a herd. Prairie hens and wolves were plenty.

In October, 1855, Mr. John W. Dodge, who had resided for many years in Ohio, but who was a native of New York, visited this section of country for the purpose of pre-empting lands for the "Ohio Colony." By the 9th of November he had erected eighteen cheap houses or shanties, on as many quarter sections lying northwest, and within a radius of six or seven miles of the grove. On his return to Ohio he employed John Campbell, of Champaign, and A. J. Galloway, of Chicago, who purchased for the colony, at a land sale at Danville, 3,295 acres, situated north-west of the grove, at a cost to the colony, including commissions and other expenses, $3.09 per acre.

At this time Joseph Fitzpatrick and family were the sole inhabitants of what is now Rantoul township. They were renters of the Campbell brothers. With the exception of E. N. Genung, who was improving a farm one mile north, now in Ludlow township, and the Hicks and Martin family, there were no other actual settlers within eight miles of Rantoul.

Guy B. Chandler was a native of Vermont, who had lived in New York, Ohio and Mississippi, and who, in 1849, settled in Chicago. The tract of land purchased by him at Rantoul comprised 960 acres, 560 of which, including the grove, constituted the Campbell estate, as it was then. Nearly three fourths of the present corporate town of Rantoul was formerly a part of this broad farm. At Mr. Chandler's death, by drowning, in Michigan, the property passed into the possession of his nephews, John and Guy D. Penfield, who are brothers.

John was born in Vermont in 1824. In 1826 he moved with his parents to New York state, where he lived till 1846, thence he moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., whence in '56, with wife and two children, he moved to Rantoul. In 1872, he was elected from the 30th senatorial district to the lower house of the General Assembly.

Guy D. Penfield was born in Essex county, New York. He came to Rantoul early in the year 1856. He came from Kalamazoo accompanied by a squad of carpenters. On their arrival the carpenters began the construction of the first building in the village of Rantoul. It was 14x16, and stood a little west of the I. C. track, in what is now Ohio Avenue, near its intersection with Sangamon. The next building erected in regular succession, after the shanty, was the I. C. R. R. tank. The shanty served first as a lodging for the carpenters while they were building the Penfield brother's warehouse, a frame 24x40. This was occupied by the Penfields as a temporary residence. About this time an intelligent blacksmith, John Roughton, built a shop on the lot now occupied by the residence of Aaron Darnell, where he followed his trade for several years. "He is a lucid reasoner, a ready speaker, and a writer of much force and eloquence."

Now returned J. W. Dodge from Ohio, with his son, O. B. Dodge, to make a home in the wilderness. On the next day arrived J. T. Herrick and family, from Ohio. Mr. Herrick was a brother-in-law of Dodge.

In 1856 quite a large community settled near the eastern boundary of the township. It has for many years been known as the "Kentucky Settlement," most of the early settlers being from that state.

Among the first to locate there were, John B. Perry, James Smithers, Joseph Fitzpatrick, Columbus Carnes, Frank Eads, Anderson Brown and Benjamin Bradley, all heads of families. Only James Smithers remains in Rantoul. In the fall of this year the I. C. erected a station house.

Guy D. Penfield was temporarily agent for the company, and hence to him belongs the honor of being the first agent. Mr. James J. Bois, a native of New York, succeeded him, and still occupies the place.

Mr. Bois was agent of the American Express Company until 1866, when he resigned. A telegraph office was established in 1863, and Dorley Berry was the first operator. Mr. E. J. Udell was made the operator in 1864, and still holds that position, and is also express agent.

In 1856 came Geo. W. Carter, from Kentucky, and Abraham Cross from Pennsylvania. John A. Benedict and wife came in November of the same year.

William C. Bissell settled north-west of the village in 1855, but afterwards moved away. In April 1857, J. W. Dodge, who the previous year had returned to Ohio, arrived with his entire family, consisting of his wife and mother-in-law, his son, O. B. Dodge, his two daughters, and his nephew, Sheridan B. Dodge. With him came Abdiel Stevens, who came with the intention of settling with the "Ohio Colony."

In the summer of 1856, what is known as the " original town of Rantoul," was platted by John and Guy D. Penfield. The survey was made by Judge J. D. Ludlow, in honor of whom the township and village of Ludlow were named. This original plot contained but eighty acres, but more than double this extent of territory has since been added, of which Penfield's and Smith's additions constitute the chief part.

For the great breadth of the streets and avenues, Guy D. Penfield deserves honor. He insisted upon this arrangement from the start. The avenues running east and west are one hundred feet, the streets crossing them at right angles eighty feet, and the alleys opening into them midway between the avenues, twenty feet in width. The lots are 50 by 190 feet, some however being only 150 in depth.

In the fall of 1856 there were but 17 dwellings, some of which were very small, within a circuit ten miles in diameter with the village as its centre.

Among the new-comers were Munns, West, C. F. Post, T. E. Frederick, Dr. D. M. Marshall, William R. Johnson, Zimri Reynolds, Dr. J. Sweatt, Isaiah Estep, Mrs. A. L. Leaver, and several others, whose names are not known.

The year 1857 was important as being the year in which the principal roads were laid out, viz: south to Urbana, west to Newcomb Ford, and north-west to Dobbin's Ford.

The first Sunday-school was organized in April or May of this year by two ladies, Miss Mary Penfield and Mrs. T. E. Frederick. It was held at the house of Mr. Penfield. The following named persons were elected officers: J. W. Dodge, Superintendent; Mary Penfield, Assistant Superintendent, and G. D. Penfield, Librarian. A collection amounting to $16 was taken up for the purchase of a library.

Rev. John W. Osborn preached the first sermon ever heard in Rantoul. The second preacher was Rev. Philip A. Johnson. He was an Episcopalian, as was also the first named.

In October, 1857, Rantoul precinct, embracing four congressional townships, was organized.

The first public school in the township was held in a frame building 18x20 feet, built by Archie Campbell, a few rods west of his log cabin, at the grove.

The first teacher was J. A. Benedict, who taught four months in the winter of 1857-8. In the fall of 1859 the first school-house was built. The first directors were John Penfield, John A. Benedict and John Roughton.

The schools of the township are now in good condition. There are eight districts and eleven teachers employed. All of the buildings are frame, but comfortable and commodious.

The first death in the township was that of Rosetta S. Herrick, the five year old daughter of James T. Herrick. She died in July, 1856.

Rantoul township, as a civil division of the county, came into existence in 1860. Its present boundaries and area have been given.

LIBRARY OF THE RANTOUL LITERARY SOCIETY

The officers, consisting of a president, secretary, treasurer, librarian, and an executive committee of three, who are elected by ballot quarterly. The association is on the joint stock plan, its capital being divided into shares of five dollars each, and each share entitles the owner to one vote.

The library consists of two thousand five hundred bound volumes, many of them standard works of history, fiction and science. In addition the society is well supplied with current literature, embracing some of the best publications of the United States and England.

In the way of a museum, cabinets have been commenced in geology, archeology and zoology. This useful institution is greatly indebted to the earnest labors, solicitations and able management of Mr. A. H. Bailey.


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