‘Old Ketch’: a Colorful Character in Glen Ellyn History
Take corn husking for example. Sounds pretty tedious. But if you were a young man among a group of teenagers at a Saturday afternoon corn husking bee, and if you happened to come across a red ear of corn, tedium became titillation. The rule was: “he who finds a red ear gets to kiss the girl of his choosing.” According to the recollections of one old timer, red ears were quite rare. But after the first one was discovered, others (or possibly the same ear) seemed to pop up pretty frequently until all the girls had been kissed and it was time to move from the chilly barn to the warm confines of the farmhouse for a glass of cider and gingerbread cookies or pumpkin pie.
Another favorite pastime was ice skating. But it wasn’t on Lake Ellyn in those days, because that lake didn’t exist until 1889 when a creek was dammed to create it. The creek that later fed Lake Ellyn actually ran through the downtown area (it still does, but it’s buried in storm sewer pipes now), through what is now Lake Ellyn, and on to the East Branch of the DuPage River. Youngsters would strap on their skates in downtown Danby and then glide all the way to Lisle and back on the DuPage River.
This, of course, was after they had done their “chores” at home, and sometimes before heading to a barn dance for the evening. Census data from the 1800s didn’t include anything about average height and weight, but it’s a fair guess that teen obesity wasn’t much of an issue in those days.
If you can pause for a minute between rushing the kids to soccer games and cheerleader practice, you may enjoy a brief look at how our youngsters expended energy in Glen Ellyn’s early days, when it was basically a small farming community.
The village was called Danby during much of that period (1851 to 1874). The town itself had only a few hundred residents, and many of its businesses served the farmers whose lands surrounded the town. Life was simpler, but probably not slower. There were too many things that needed to be done–and for teenagers, too many fun things begging to be done.
Those Rowdy Boys From Danby
Unfortunately, these sidewalks weren’t always kept in the best repair by the village. In 1893, a man from another town came to Glen Ellyn to transact some business. He fell through the sidewalk, broke his leg and sued the village for $500. He won, and village officials were forced to pay, which was quite the joke at the time because they were notorious for being cautious in money matters. It was reported that after this incident, the sidewalks were kept in better repair.
Clarence Curtis, grandson of Amos Churchill (one of the original settlers here), told the following story involving these high sidewalks: “One Sunday we were out for a ride when a heavy rain came up. Grandpa Churchill had a lumber business on Crescent just west of Main Street. We stopped in his barn, waiting for the rain to stop. Northeast of the barn was the William Wagner store facing on Main. The wooden sidewalk in front of the store was level with the entrance and was set on posts several feet high.
“My dad noticed some boys going under the walk in front of the store, so he sent for Uncle Joe Clark [the town constable]. Dad knew there had been thefts from the store. Mr. Wagner and Uncle Joe and my dad went into the store. They found one boy hiding under a counter. Mother and I saw another boy come out and run away. I knew who he was, and when he was caught he confessed. There were quite a few boys involved. They had a cave in Honeysuckle Hill, where they were taking their loot and having a good time.”
Today, the building that housed the William Wagner Grocery Store on Main is long gone, while Glenbard West High School sits atop Honeysuckle Hill. Concrete sidewalks replaced the wooden ones in 1906.
Local historian Ada Douglas Harmon once described the early wooden sidewalks in Glen Ellyn as a “…first-class rendezvous for snakes. When we walked along at night, the snakes would stick their heads up through the cracks and wiggle under our feet.”
The wooden sidewalks along Main Street in the downtown area were much higher than elsewhere in town–as much as three to four feet above the street level–allowing shoppers to step directly to them from their horse-drawn carriages and high-wheeled buggies.
The summer of 1891 in Glen Ellyn was especially hot and dry. The drought persisted into the autumn. Old timers likened it to the weather 20 years earlier that had preceded the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned for two days and consumed everything in a path nearly a mile wide and four miles long.
John Elick, a local baker, had the job of lighting the kerosene street lamps along Main Street in Glen Ellyn. On the evening of November 6, 1891, as Elick lit the lamp in front of his bakery, it slipped from his grasp and crashed in flames on the wooden sidewalk. Within seconds the blaze was beyond what could be smothered with overcoats or a nearby bucket of water, and it quickly spread to Elick’s own building, a wood-frame store front.
A general alarm was sounded, but there was little the townspeople could do. In those days, Glen Ellyn had no fire company of its own. A rider was dispatched to Wheaton two miles away, and the Wheaton Hook and Ladder Company responded as promptly as horses could pull the equipment. By the time they arrived, the fire was completely out of control. Furthermore, Glen Ellyn had no municipal water system to supply water for fighting the fire.
The fire started on the west side of Main Street, one building north of Crescent Boulevard. As was the case with the Great Chicago Fire, strong southerly winds pushed the fire north–toward Pennsylvania Avenue. Boyd Brothers Hardware Store was the next victim, followed by the office building of George M.H. Wagner, the drugstore of W.S. Ryder, the grocery store of John Mertz, and the W.H. Myers Meat Market. The fire burned all night until it had consumed every building on the west side of Main except for one just south of where the fire started.
Practically everyone in town turned out to help, but their efforts were limited to removing merchandise and fixtures from the buildings in the path of the blaze and dousing sparks carried by the wind to businesses across the street. While the buildings on the east side of Main were spared destruction, several suffered blistered paint and charred wood.
The Glen Ellyn fire of 1891 didn’t make headlines around the country the way the Chicago fire had 20 years earlier, but proportionally it destroyed as large a portion of this community as the Chicago fire did for Chicago. And, like Chicago, Glen Ellyn immediately set about to replace the wood buildings in its central business district with masonry structures, many of which still stand today.
Baker Sets Village Ablaze in Great Fire of 1891
The two diminutive white-haired women sat side by side in their rocking chairs, wearing black lace caps and silk ‘kerchiefs draped around their necks. The date was February 15, 1893, their 91st birthday. They were dressed in their finery to chat with a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. At the time, they were thought to be the oldest twins in the world.
Born in upstate New York in 1802, Christiana Churchill Christian and Lurania Churchill Ackerman uprooted to Illinois in the 1830s, along with their parents Winslow and Mercy Dodge Churchill and a large clan of siblings, nieces, nephews and children. The Churchills were the first family to settle in the area that would later become Glen Ellyn.
“I sat in this rocking chair, up in the wagon, all those long and tedious weeks,” said Lurania of the arduous journey, patting the straight-back rush-bottom rocker on which she sat. Lurania was accompanied on the trip by her husband John D. Ackerman and their three children. Christiana, whose first husband had passed away 11 months after their marriage, came to Illinois with her son Erastus Ketchum. [See “‘Old Ketch’: a Colorful Character in Glen Ellyn History,” on page 6.]
The two women, memories still intact, talked about some of the hardships of growing up in the early 1800s. Christiana recalled how she walked to school barefoot as an 8-year-old child, with just stockings to cover her feet, because the traveling shoemaker had yet to pay a visit to town. “We had very little schooling, the schools being poor, and the nearest one two miles away,” she said. Soon after arriving here, Lurania and her husband allowed school classes to be conducted in their home while the first log schoolhouse was being built.
After coming to Illinois, the twin sisters lived on adjoining farms near the East Branch of the DuPage River for 50 years. However, they were described as “unalike in disposition” and “opposites in the matter of dress.” One fashion trend Christiana particularly despised was the hoop skirt. “Hoops!” she said with contempt. “Yes, I wore them–I was such a fool. I’ve been reading in the papers about the legislature passing a law against the wearing of them, and I’m glad of it.”
Although frail in appearance, the ladies displayed a spirited sense of humor throughout the interview, as they shared their wry observations about life in the 1800s. When asked to reflect on the boys of that period, Christiana commented: “O, I guess boys were about the same then as now–they liked to be where the girls were.” Lurania was equally succinct in summing up the people of “present day” (1893) Glen Ellyn: “I think folks are smart and like to dress, and they have a little of everything.”
Lurania passed away a month after the birthday celebration, but Christiana lived to the age of 97 (dying in 1899) and was still active at 94. The average life expectancy of people born in the United States in 1850 was 39, according to the earliest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Oldest Twins Dish About Boys and Hoop Skirts
On the other side of the ledger, Erastus was married to the same woman for 50 years and was one of the founders of the Free Methodist Church in town, a church that actively supported the abolitionist (anti-slavery) movement in the pre-Civil War days. He also sang in the church choir and is said to have had a beautiful tenor voice that soared above the rest of the congregation. Erastus died in his home at Stacy’s Corners in 1905 at the age of 79.
Erastus was a farmer and an excellent carpenter, but his greatest exploits were in hunting and trapping wild animals for food and fur. His territory ranged east to the Des Plaines River and beyond. His skills were legendary, even among the remaining groups of Native Americans with whom he became friends. Supposedly, a group of Indians once saved his life.
Erastus made his home his armory, where he kept an extensive array of guns and traps. Historian Ada Douglas Harmon described it as a “veritable arsenal.” He also maintained a cider mill in one of his outbuildings. Farmers would bring wagonloads of apples every fall, which he would crush into cider for them, hard cider being a favorite beverage in that era.
The Village’s early years were populated with a number of people who could be called “characters.” Near the top of this list would be Erastus Ketchum Jr., who, in 1834 at the age of eight, was a member of the first family to settle what would later become Glen Ellyn. His mother was Christiana Churchill Ketchum, one of the four daughters and five sons of Winslow and Mercy Dodge Churchill. Christiana lived to the ripe old age of 97, passing away only six years before her son Erastus. [See “Oldest Twins Dish About Boys and Hoop Skirts"]
When Corn Husking Led to Teen Romance
They had learned not only how to fight, but also how to drink, dance and chase women. While not exactly admirable skills, they certainly were portable, and the young men traveled back home to Danby ready to show off their new abilities.
Before the war, Danby had been a sleepy farm town, a little shabby even. After the war, the reputation went from sleepy to rowdy. Barn dances in surrounding communities would be visited by the boys from Danby, who were known for drinking and flirting with girls. Soon they would be clearing the dance floor with their fists when boyfriends objected. During this period, deservedly or not, Danby became known for its saloons and houses of ill repute.
In his Reminiscences, Mr. Lawrence C. Cooper, a lawyer and town historian who commuted into Chicago on the train, tells the story of riding home one evening when he saw the conductor confront a very inebriated passenger. In an effort to collect the right fare, the conductor repeatedly asked the passenger where he was headed. The drunk finally replied, “I’m going to hell.” To which the conductor replied, “Then I’ll put you off at Danby. That’s about as close as we come.”
In an apparent effort to improve the image of the town, the village changed its post office designation to Prospect Park in 1874, and formally incorporated under that name in 1882. The town’s reputation began to improve after that, but it may not have had as much to do with the name change as with the aging of those rowdy boys from Danby.
The First World War had a profound effect on British society, upsetting strict class distinctions and turning Victorian England on its ear. Curiously, the Civil War (1861–1865) had a similar effect on the little village of Glen Ellyn, which then was known as Danby.
Danby sent 70 of its young men (more than 20 percent of its total population) off to fight in the Civil War. Most of them joined the 8th Illinois Cavalry, a regiment that saw action in several major Civil War battles. For many of them it would have been the first time they had traveled more than 25 miles from home. They went off to war as boys; those who survived returned to Danby as men, wiser about the ways of the world.
Wooden Sidewalks Hide Snaky Secrets
In 1849, when he was 23, he married his cousin Mary Jane Churchill, a not uncommon practice in the days when the population around Stacy’s Corners was still pretty sparse and choices for spouses could be slim. They lived for more than 50 years in a house that Erastus built at the southeast corner of St. Charles Road and Main. It was held together with handmade nails and had beautiful hand-crafted doors. The house stood at this location until 1970, when it was demolished to make room for a gas station.
Erastus was one of the 13 grandchildren who made the arduous trek from upstate New York to homestead the area along today’s St. Charles Road, east of Main Street, soon to become known as Stacy’s Corners.
Carpenter, trapper, gun lover and choir boy … all of these labels applied to “Old Ketch,” one of Glen Ellyn’s original citizens.
Glen Ellyn Historical Society © 2013