Florence and farming, a lifelong partnership

Sandy Vasko

    Florence Township, just to the east of Wilmington, was considered the best in the whole county in at least one respect - her deep prairie soil and convenient sources of water made her ideal for farming.
    However, the first settlers rejected that idea. Today we look at the history of Florence Township.
    In George Woodruff's “History of Will County” published in 1878, he explains the above statement. “The queerest part of the story, perhaps, is that much of the best land in the township was not occupied until long after the little strips of timber along the streams though of a greatly inferior character of soil was occupied and improved.
    “The reason for this becomes apparent, when it is considered that the first inhabitants of this country were all from the heavily wooded states, that it was then apparent that the little bits of timber here and there must answer for both fuel and building purposes, until artificial forests could be grown.
    “Now, however, inhabitants of the prairie experience but little inconvenience from the lack of this former essential, the "depths" producing an unlimited amount of fuel (coal), and the railroads supplying from other sections building material of a better character than ever was produced here.
    “The whole township is devoted to farming in connection with stock-raising and dairying. Immense crops of corn, oats and rye are produced; considerable pork is raised, and within the past few years, a good deal of attention has been devoted to butter and cheese making.”
    Woodruff goes on to say that Florence also had stone quarries, which were used very early on for foundations and exported to Wilmington to build places like the Methodist church, which is now the public library. Lime kilns were also set up near those quarries to produce quick lime, used to make mortar and brick.
    Names of settlers arriving before 1836, the date of Will County's birth, are Linebarger, Potts, Lewis, Althouse, Kahler, Martin, Starr and Moore.
    In 1841 Florence citizens petitioned to be admitted into the Wilmington school district. It was approved. During the winter of 1842-43 six children attended a term of 35 days in total at a school named Florence Academy, or Starr's Grove Institute.
    Sarah Fisher was the first teacher and received $11.50 for her services. (about $300 today). The school met in various students houses.
    The enrollment quickly rose to 24, and finally in 1849 a man named Selah Morey built the first school house for $250 ($7,325). When Woodruff wrote in history in 1878 the number of schools had increased to eight and the number of students to 243, though 439 were eligible.
    At that time students up to the age of 21 could attend, but attendance was not mandatory.
    During the Civil War, Florence lost more than her share. Walter Van der Bogart, Charles Morey, Henry Ohlhues, Daniel Linebarger, Norman Kahler, Thomas Martin, Charles Jackson, Thomas Stewart, William and John Shoemaker, Almon Merrill and Albert Wilkins all lost their lives in service to their country.
    After the war Florence residents turned their whole attention to farming. In 1873 we read in the Wilmington Advocate, “Joseph Shirk, Esq., of Florence, recently shipped from this city a fine lot of live pork. One car contained 40 hogs, the aggregate weight of which was 21, 986 lbs. Just think of putting 40 hogs-heads of live pork in a car!”
    And in 1874, “Selah Morey, Esq., of Florence sold on last Tuesday to Munroe & Weeks, of Joliet, a load of very choice turkeys for the handsome price of 13.5 cents per pound.”
    Of course, no history of Florence cannot fail to mention the proud town of Symerton. Created by the Wabash Railroad, it soon became a bustling shipping stop.
    Farms all over the township benefited as well. We read on Feb. 2, 1883, “Two carloads of posts arrived at Symerton on last Saturday, one load of which was for Thomas Baskerville, who intends to use them in building some new fence on his farm.”
    The depot was the first 24-hour business to open in Symerton, or at least for a while. We read on June 8, 1894 in the “Joliet Daily News”, “The night office at the Wabash depot is closed for the time being. This is something unusual for Symerton, as this station is considered by trainmen as one of the best for trains to pass each other.
    “Miss Martha Singleton, the night clerk, will now have a vacation and she expects to improve the time by visiting friends at Manhattan.”
    This same depot can now be seen resurrected at the Heritage Village in Lockport. It has recently received a new coat of paint, inside and out, and a historical piece of track seems to bring her history alive.
    You can tour this building and other preserved pieces of Will County architecture during Canal Days, June 18 and 19. The Village is located at 249 W. 2nd Street and will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.