The History of Prairie Grove
by Frank R. Snook, a resident
Over one hundred and fifty years ago the first settlers began to build their homes in the area that we now call Prairie Grove. 'What was at the heart of these early days? Things like the taste of bread right out of the oven when you were good and hungry. The smell of newly plowed earth. A horse munching oats and bending its head to be rubbed. The way the late, flat sun sent long slants of light across the prairie grass. Memory has made it too simple. It is easy to forget the aching muscles, all the work and sweat and monotony." It is the work and sweat of these settlers that has made Prairie Grove.
The first white man to settle in the area was George Stickney. He built the first house in the township in December, 1835. It was a log building and contained no iron of any description in its construction, wooden pins being made to take the place of nails. The first death in what is now Nunda Township occurred when George Stickney's little son died. His remains were the first placed in the Holcombville Cemetery. At his funeral, the first religious services were held.
In 1836, Benjamin McOmber arrived in the township. Miss A. McOmber was the first teacher. She taught in a log school house which was built in 1839. She was paid $1.25 per week to teach school to five students. The seats in this building were placed near the wall and ran in a single row clear around the room. The children were compelled to sit facing the wall.
Samuel Terwilliger settled in 1836. His son, Jerome, was the first white child born in the township. Jerome made the township his home till 1876, when he died on the same spot of ground he was born.
Among the next settlers were William and Cameron Goff who settled here in October, 1837. The Goffs were responsible for naming the township Brooklyn. In 1840, however, it was learned that there was already a post office named Brooklyn in the state. The people of the township called a private meeting, unknown to William and Cameron Goff, and by a vote changed the name of the township to Nunda. The name Nunda came from the New York State birthplace of another first settler, Col. William Huffman.
William and Lavilla Huffman arrived in Crystal Lake in the autumn of 1838 and settled on a tract 1/2 mile south of that Village. Remaining there one year and not being satisfied with the soil, Col. Huffman abandoned his claim and purchased another in Nunda. He purchased this property from Dewitt Brady at a cost of $1,000. He lived here until his death December 15, 1857.
P.M. Huffman, the son of Colonel and Lavilla Huffman, was born March 5, 1821. For twenty years he ran a threshing machine for the neighboring farmers and attended to his own farm of 255 acres and fourteen cows. His farming was interrupted by the Civil War. A biography of P.M. Huffman gives the following account of his Civil War experiences:
"On a retreat after the battle of Guntown, his regiment was three days without rations. Pursued by an overwhelming force, tired and almost exhausted from continued fighting and loss of sleep, the boys were almost ready to give up in despair. None exerted a greater influence in encouraging and keeping up their enthusiasm than Lieutenant Huffman, and to him belongs great credit. After the defeat at Guntown had become complete and the men were flying in all directions, the Lieutenant came upon a soldier and a darky who were wrangling over the possession of a mule. The shoulder straps of the Lieutenant gave him prominence in settling the dispute and to equalize their circulation he said, 'Boys, I'll take care of the mule.' Hastily mounting the long eared "Bucephalus" he gave order for them to 'cast anchor.' By this time the enemy were close upon them, and the balls were whistling in air entirely too familiar for comfort. Realizing that it was a time for the execution of some rapid movements he drove his heels into the donkey's flanks and with a shout that would have done credit to a chief, dashed away upon what proved to be a 'bucking expedition. ' His ride was lively, but brief, as the form of a Lieutenant was seen flying through the air and alighting hurriedly about ten paces in advance of the mule. The scene was ridiculous even to the foe who were spectators of the catastrophe, and he was allowed to make his escape. When the campaign closed and his term of service had expired, Lieutenant Huffman with the other members of his regiment was given an honorable discharge, which event occurred at Springfield, Ill. Aug. 16, 1865."
After Lieutenant Huffman's discharge, he returned to his home and resumed the occupation of farming. During the year that he was fighting, it should be pointed out that Mrs. Huffman assumed the entire charge of the farm. It was reported that she managed her husband's affairs at home with "profit and skill."
Another Civil war veteran from Nunda Township was George W. Ames. He fought in the battles of Black Snake Gap, Resaca, and the Atlanta Campaign. George came to McHenry County as a boy of twelve--one of five children of Henry and Mary Cooper Ames. Henry Ames died in 1857 and George was sent to live with Daniel Kingsley, a farmer in Lake County. He then came to this county where he found employment on the Darius C. Reynolds farm, Terra Cotta, Nunda Township and stayed there several years.
During the first year of the Civil War, George enlisted on September 11, 1861, at age 17, at Geneva, Kane County. After seeing considerable action, George was imprisoned in Georgia. As a little girl of 8, Vera McMillan was horrified and at the same time fascinated by his description of prisoners grabbing a white dog and eating it. At the time of his honorable discharge from the army on April 22, 1865, he had wasted away to 84 pounds.
After the war, George returned to McHenry County to once again work on the Darius Reynold's farm. In 1870, he married Eliza, whose parents, Sam and Jane McMillan had purchased the Reynold's Farm. George and Eliza had four children: William , born August 14, 1871; Thomas, born December 17, 1872; Mary, born January 10, 1875; and Lizzie, born May 3, 1879. After their parents passed on, the four children stayed on the farm for many years. Eliza died in 1915 and Thomas in 1931. When Thomas died in 1931, he left an inheritance of more than a million dollars to the Crystal Lake Public Library.
Eliza McMillan Ames was the daughter of Samuel McMillan who was born in Princeton, New York, November 7, 1815. About 1837, at the age of 22 years, he came to Plainfield, Will County, Illinois but two years later located in McHenry County. Here, on November 28, 1843, in Nunda Township, he was married to Jane Ann Wilson, who was born in Princeton, New York, July 19, 1823, the daughter of Andrew and Ann Jane (Fall) Wilson. After his marriage, in the spring of 1844, he settled on a tract of 80 acres of Government land to which he made additions until he was the owner of 200 acres .
In addition to farming, Samuel McMillan and his brother James built the first saw mill in Nunda Township. It served as a saw mill until 1863 when it was converted to a grist mill.
A reminder of the McMillan family remains with the James McMillan house on the West side of Route 31 opposite Terra Cotta Industries. The home is of interest architecturally because of the mason-architect who constructed it--Andrew Jackson "Jack" Simon who introduced cobblestone architecture to this area. In this house, he used a cobblestone foundation. The house is a brick Greek Revival and the name James McMillan and the date 1851 appear over the door.
Traveling further north on Route 31 are other evidences of the McMillan family. On the east side, on Edgewood Road is a private residence with a sign District 44 above the door. Terra Cotta School was one of over 134 one room schools that provided the major source of education for children in the county. The McMillan family donated the land for this school and served as directors. When most of the other one room schools were incorporated into city school districts, this little school remained unto itself until the late 1950'5.
Two of the teachers employed by the District 44 School were Florence and Mabel Knox. Their grandfather was John Knox who was born in Ireland in 1819. He came to the United States as a young man and settled in McHenry County, where he became a farmer. He was married to Mary Noonan. John Knox and his wife had the following children: Ella Bolger, Anna Doherty, Elizabeth Conway, Mary, Alice, John, Michael, Thomas and Edward. He farmed his 160 acres of land until his death in 1887.
Another child of John and Mary Knox, Robert, was described as follows:
"He was a jovial Irishman who lived on top of the hill and owned the only threshing machine in the area. He moved his machine with a Fordson tractor from farm to farm along Elgin (Barreville) Rd. He would start threshing at the north end of Irish Prairie one year and work south until all the farmers had their grain harvested and the following year he would start at the south end and work his way north. I remember well the sound of the steel wheels rolling over the hard gravel road. This was a sound of joy to all the children, for threshing time was a happy time. The operation itself was fascinating, but more than that, Robert Knox was the spirit of fun arid laughter and he loved everyone, especially the children. And to add more joy to all this, as each farmer finished his harvest he would provide beer for the men, and pop for the kids. This was a luxury during those depression years that was a highlight of our summer school vacation."
The Knox and McMillan properties are now owned by Terra Cotta Industries. In 1885 William D. Gates acquired the McMillan property. A part of the old mill was thoroughly refitted and remodeled and by means of slat floors and steam pipes furnished three fine drying floors, while the basement was used for a large tempering bin which also gave ample space for machinery. The part of the old mill containing the millstones was left intact to be used for grinding Terra Cotta flour for the use of fine arts and modeling. Adjoining this was a dry house of larger proportions which was also supplied with steam pipes for drying. Next to this were the kilns. Adjoining the main building was a new engine house with its massive steel boiler and engine ready for work whenever water power was insufficient or when there were extra demands .
At first only tile was manufactured, then brick was included and eventually ornamental material and finally the famous "Tecco" ceramics. Among these ceramics, is the Lincoln-Douglas Debate frieze. It was placed in Lincoln Hall at the University of Illinois in 1917, along with smaller plaques
showing other scenes in the life of Abraham Lincoln.
Mr. Gates built his home on a hill overlooking the factory. His home and a depot three quarters of a mile from the factory were made of Terra Cotta material. Mr. Gates died in 1935.
Terra Cotta Industries was not the only business to flourish in Nunda Township. In 1850, the County began to offer a bounty of $15 for each wolf's scalp that had been taken within the limits of the county. This was a bonanza for the hunters . Not only was the county scoured in search of valuable prey, but adjoining counties were robbed of wolves, which were brought alive across the line into this county where they were killed and the bounty claimed on the scalps. Nunda Township "distinguished" itself by one of its citizens building a wolf den and raising the cubs which he had captured until they became six months old. He then scalped them and claimed his reward under the law.
A small business district was established within Nunda Township which became known as the village of Barreville. The Village was never honored with a plat but was simply a collection of houses and businesses that grew around a store built by Thomas Combs.
A Barreville post office was begun in 1864. It was originally located in Bryant's Corners in 1854. Russell Stanton was the Postmaster. It was moved to Barreville in 1864.
Barreville grist mill was built in 1857 by Thomas Ferguson at a cost of about $4000. He ran the mill until his death in 1865. The property was then sold to the Patterson Brothers who ran it until 1873. Gus and Frank Patterson also owned a store. The store was described as being large and well stocked.
The Patterson home was sold to Charles Herrendeen of Chicago in 1903. This sale was described in a September 10, 1903 newspaper account as "one of the largest transactions in farm property ever to occur in Nunda Township." Mr. Herrendeen purchased the 316 acre farm to use as his country home. He also intended to raise horses and '"demonstrate that Kentucky is not the only state in which the runner can be developed."
Mr. Herrendeen must have taken an active part in the running of the farm as he "believed in getting right down next to the soil. His son and heir, a bright little chap of three is generally found around with his dad and both of them in their regimental overalls."
The Herrendeen Farm was the scene of a crime on January 20, 1921:
"One of the most daring holdups occurred in Crystal Lake when H. C. Herrendeen was accosted by a man right in the yard of her home and between $40 and $50 were taken from her purse. After a struggle, Mrs. Herrendeen's fur coat was torn and she received a blow on the back of her head."
The Herrendeens sold the farm to Royce Parker in the 1940s. The home was bought by Richard and Kit Davies in the 1960s. Both Kit and Richard Davies have been active in the Village since its incorporation in 1973. Kit has served on the School Board and Plan Commission and Richard Davies is currently a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals.
The history of Prairie Grove is probably not very different from the history of other midwestern towns. What makes Prairie Grove unique are names like Stickney, Huffman, Ames, McMillan, Knox, Patterson and Gates. I have enjoyed getting to know them and hope that they would approve of what we've done with the Prairie Grove that they began 150 years ago.
Critchfield, Richard, Those Days: An American Album, New York:
Dell Publishing Co., 1986.
The historical facts in this paper were obtained from interviews and from histories, biographies, and newspaper articles provided by the McHenry County Historical Society.