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Settlement of Galesburg, Illinois, Including Noble Phelps and Family

Commerce is Established with Colton's Store


The business life of Galesburg began with a real-estate transaction, the purchase of half a township of government land for a dollar and a quarter an acre and selling it for five dollars an acre. People in conjunction with land produce wealth. The direct means here was agriculture, but the farmers required some organ of distribution to dispose of what they raised, and give them supplies in return, and that was afforded by Chauncey Sill Colton. Trade and industry in this prairie village began with two men, the brothers Colton. Chauncey was a merchant, his brother Gad a mechanic. Retailing and manufacturing stemmed from these two. As a young man seeking opportunity Chauncey went to Illinois. He was not a subscriber to Gale's plan, but roaming about the state he heard of it, and visited Knox County. Before deciding on a location, he surveyed the scene of his venture with a shrewd and appraising eye.

He noted that there was already at Knoxville, the county seat and largest town, a flourishing and well-managed store conducted by Herman Knox sufficient for that neighborhood; that at Henderson, the next choice, was a settlement of Hoosiers who, while sufficiently industrious, made merry over the week-end and spent their Saturdays in outdoor sports, horse races, gander pullings and wrestling bouts—much like the New Salem of Abraham Lincoln's youth—who bet their money on such contests, took frequent pulls at the whisky jug, and on Sundays had little inclination for church; but that over at Log City was a diligent colony of settlers, who planned to establish a village on the prairie near by, who worked all the week preparing their farms for occupancy the coming spring, and spent their Sundays in divine worship, a serious people, who took life seriously; that while he himself was not a church member, or even a professing Christian, and had no pronounced views on temperance, he realized that it would be necessary for many years to do business on long credits, waiting for his money until crops were harvested, and taking his pay in produce, and that he might therefore trade more profitably with the sober, church-going Yankees than with the livelier, pleasure-loving Hoosiers.

He bought a lot on the public square in Galesburg, and return furnished water. As a temporary "construction camp" for building a city on an adjacent site, Log City is probably unique in the annals of pioneer settlement.

Here occurred many of the significant events of their lives, births, marriages, and deaths. Here their church was organized. During the one to two years the settlers became acquainted with each other, and lasting friendships were formed. The name had a sentimental interest for years. The children played together in the woods, and formed memories which lasted a lifetime. "There never was," said Sam Holyoke, son of the Cincinnati wheelwright, when eighty-six years old, who lived as a boy in Log City, "another company of people living together for one purpose who lived together so happily and worked with such mighty energy. . . . It will not be possible for those who have no experience with frontier life to realize and appreciate the amount of courage and energy such life demands."

A sketchy community life was set up, education and religion were provided for, and the Galesburg colony had a taste of pioneer life as it was lived by the Hoosiers around them. The cabins were small, generally one room, fourteen by fourteen feet and the families large, and more than one family was the average quota, and this phase of their experience is an interesting interlude to their progress, harsh in the actual experience, but pleasant and romantic in retrospect.

The log cabins, whether bought from the southern settlers or built by themselves, were constructed after the same fashion. From the forest close at hand, where each purchaser of land on the prairie had a timber lot, uniform logs were cut the proper length and pared down on opposite sides to a thickness of nine inches. Timber was also cut for shingles and clapboarding, and joists and spars to be laid across, and the material hauled to the site of the house.

At this point neighbors were called upon, for the "raising." The best axemen were stationed at the corners, as the notching or dovetailing was the more technical operation. The corner man built up the walls of the cabin by fitting the ends of the logs into the corresponding notches square and true. By thus saddling the logs, the walls are raised to a height of about seven feet; the logs are gradually shortened for the gables. After three or four courses, spars are sloped against the sides and the logs rolled up, first by hand, and then with forked sticks. The chinks left between the logs are filled with sticks and daubed with clay, which must be renewed each year.

Poles for the roof are laid from gable to gable and covered with shakes or "Hoosier clapboards," about four feet long, riven from short lengths of log. Weight poles are laid transversely over the shakes to hold them in place, spaced by short bits of timber called "runs." After the house is up and roofed, an opening is cut for a door, usually one on each side to afford air in hot weather, or if a window instead, it is covered with oiled paper. The door is made of spliced clapboards, hung on wooden hinges; the latch is also wood, manipulated by a strap attached, hanging outside through a hole, which is pulled in to lock the door. Sometimes the cabins are double, with a dog-trot between, a pleasant open-air kitchen.

A large perpendicular opening is cut in the gable for the fireplace; the chimney is built outside of sticks laid corncob fashion and heavily coated with clay. The cabin consists of one room, but often poles are laid for a second floor, reached by a ladder through a hole cut in the ceiling. The floor is made by laying sleepers on the ground, to be covered with planks when obtainable. Otherwise puncheons—that is, short lengths of logs split in half, laid flat side up. No nails or other metal are used, wooden pegs or tree nails being employed where necessary.

In this one room the immigrants installed such furniture as they were able to bring on their wagons, eked out by home-made articles improvised on the spot. The fireplace, wide enough to take the biggest log a man can lift, is flanked by a kettle, a longhandled frying pan, and if they were lucky, a Dutch oven—a sheetiron covered box which could be buried in the coals.

Above the fireplace on the mantel stood a tallow dip thrust into a bottle, or a saucer of lard with a strip of cotton cloth for a wick; on a bench a bucket of water with a gourd dipper. At each of the opposite corners would be a one-legged bed—a pole erected between the floor and ceiling, the width or length of the bed from the walls, with poles running from it to the walls the proper height from the floor. A leather thong or rope laced back and forth on these horizontal poles supported a tick filled with straw, husks, or in some cases feathers. Beneath were pushed the trundle beds on which the children slept.

Most of the shifts and devices employed were learned by the Galesburg colonists from their southern neighbors, who had been on the ground seven years, and who even in the states they came from knew no higher standard of living. The Hoosier housewives, though friendly and curious about their new neighbors, resented what they considered their "quirky" ways, and sniffed when the Yankee women vigorously scrubbed and cleaned the cabins taken over from them.

Tables were rude affairs, sometimes boxes or boards, with three-legged stools and benches; a rough cupboard hanging on the wall made proud display of whatever dishes they boasted. Privacy was insured by hanging muslin curtains around the beds; the attic was sometimes divided into guest rooms in this manner, for there were frequent lodgers, until new arrivals could find accommodations of their own. As the heavier household goods began to arrive by way of the Great Lakes or the Mississippi, the cabins took on a more comfortable and homelike appearance, and under the hands of the tidy housekeepers who had tended better homes in the East, acquired a certain domestic charm.


Extracted from They Broke the Prairie: being some account of the settlement of the Upper Mississippi Valley by religious and educational pioneers, told in terms of one city, Galesburg, and of one college, Knox. By Calkins, Earnest Elmo, 1868-1964. New York: Scribner's, © 1937.