History of Avoca Township, Illinois 1830 - 1878

This township is situated in the southern part of the county, or south of the ridge of the center, and is bounded on the north by Owego, on the east by Pleasant Ridge, on the south by Indian Grove and on the west Eppard’s Point Township.  About three-fourths is prairie to one-forth of timber  land, while the surface is gently undulating and better adapted to agricultural pursuits than many other portions of the county. It is drained by the Vermilion River; the confluence of the north and south branches is near the center of the township, and their margins and bottoms afford an abundance of excellent timber for all farm and building purposes.  Avoca is known as Township 27north, Range 6 East and of the Third Principal Meridian.

The first settlement was made in Avoca Township in 1830.  In December of that year, Isaac Jordan made a claim here, upon which he settled, but a few days before the commencement of the deep snow.  He came from Brown County, Illinois, but whether that was his native place or not we were unable to learn.  His wife was the first white woman in this township.  William Popejoy, John Hannaman and their families settled in this neighborhood on Christmas Day of the same year, and but a week or two after Jourdan.  These latter were from Ohio, and became permanent citizens.  This constituted the settlements in this section up to 1832, when William McDowell came to the county and made a claim upon which the settled in May, which was the spring of the Black hawk war.  He left his old home in Ohio in 1828, and stopped at Fayette, Ind., on account of school facilities, as Illinois (or this portion of it) was then beyond the confines of civilization.  He remained there four years, when he came to Livingston County and settled in what is now Avoca Township, as noted above, in the spring of the Black hawk war.  His family consisted of five sons -  John, Woodford G., James, Hiram and Joseph B. McDowell, and one daughter, who married a Mr. Tucker.  They, together with John McDowell, still live in Avoca; Woodford G. and James live in Fairbury, Hiram is in Kansas and Joseph is Register of the Land Office at Lincoln, Nebraska.

Soon after the settlement of the McDowell’s, vague rumors began to circulate throughout the sparsely settled community in regard to the Black Hawk war, which was raging north of their settlement.  But there was no mail nearer than Bloomington, no railroad or telegraph lines, and new facilities were restricted within the narrowest limits.  In illustration of the disadvantages under which they lived regarding the reception of news, several weeks after the McDowell’ s had settled in their new home, a man named Phillips, living but a mile or two distant, in what is now Indian Grove Township, was out hunting some hogs that had strayed away from him, when he came suddenly upon the McDowell encampment, and the astonishment he displayed in having neighbors of whose proximity he was ignorant was almost equal to that exhibited by Robinson Crusoe when he discovered the footprints on his lonely island.  Rumors becoming more rife of the Indians and Indian outrages, Mr. McDowell and some of his neighbors went to the Kickapoo town, on Sunday, to church, (a missionary had established a church in the Indian town) where there were several hundred Indians, and their suspicions were aroused at the absence of all warriors from the Indian camp.  The Kickapoos informed them that the Sacs had threatened to come and kill them if they did not join them in the war, and advised the whites, with whom they were on the most friendly terms, to return to the settlements further east.  This so alarmed the little colony that, after considering the matter, they decided to return to the Wabash, and on the 29th of May 1832, they commenced their retreat toward the rising sun.  Though this retreat never became so famed in history as that of Bonaparte from Moscow, yet an event occurred upon the route worthy of record in these pages.  The first night after their departure, Mrs. Jordan, who was in a delicate condition, was taken sick, and notwithstanding their haste and fright, the party agreed to stop a day or two on her account.  But the next morning, their alarm was much heightened by discovering a couple of Indians ride up and take a survey of their camp from a distant elevation.  Believing that an attack would be made, and notwithstanding their arms consisted of but two old fowling pieces, they nobly resolved to stand by the Jordans.  Mrs. Jordan, however, with a courage and resolution worthy of a Spartan mother, who had a large “old Pennsylvania wagon-bed” surrendered it to the ladies, and they converted it into a kind of hospital for Mrs. Jourdan, and all through the long day that heroic woman bore her suffering and pain without a murmur.  The next morning, and the second after starting for the east, she was delivered of a daughter, which her be it said, grows up and made a most estimable lady.  Without further incident worthy of note, they arrived at the Indiana settlement in safety. 

In the fall of 1832, after the storms of war had passed by, and the sun of Black hawk had forever set on the plains of Illinois, the little colony returned to their claims on the Vermilion River, where they made permanent settlements.  The mode of making a claim in those days was by “blazing” it out in the timber or staking it off on the prairie.  The land was not surveyed until 1833, and every man squatted where it suited his inclination, providing no one else had preceded him. 

Of these few early pioneers, who came here before the Black hawk war and who sought safety in flight, we would say, before passing to other and subsequent scenes, that Jourdan remained in the settlement for several years, then sold out his claim and returned to the southern part of the state, from whence he came.  Popejoy and Hannaman both died in the neighborhood, the latter soon after his return in the fall of 1832, and was the first death in the new settlement.  Mr. McDowell, the old patriarch of all the McDowell’s, died there in 1834.  His widow remained on the homestead; filled the place of both father and mother toward her children, and died in 1858 at an advanced age.

Before the close of the year 1832, the little settlement was increased by the arrival of Charles Brooks, John Wright and his sister, Mary Ann Wright, who came from Indiana.  Brooks was related to Popejoy and Hannaman, and came out perhaps through their influence.

M.B. Miller, from Cazenovia, N.Y. came in the spring of 1833, and bought the claim of Charles Brooks, upon which he remained for a few years, when he sold out and removed to Ottawa. 

In the fall of the same year, Platt Thorn, from Western New York, settled in this section, but he, too, after a time, sold out and went to Ottawa.  About the same time, Isaac Burgit came from New York to this settlement and like the other New Yorkers, finally sold out and likewise removed to Ottawa.

A young man named Richard L. Ball, very worthy and highly respected, came out with Burgit.  After remaining in the settlement some ten or twelve years, he returned to his home in New York, where he committed suicide, from what cause was never known.

David Terbune and a man named Dean came from New York in 1834.  Terbune bought a claim from Hanneman, upon which he settled, while Dean settled near by.

Elijah Thompson came from Indiana, in 1833, and made a claim in this section.  Perhaps no man who had settled here received so warm and hearty a welcome as did Thompson; and all on account of his having in his family three very accomplished and buxom daughters who were the first marriageable young ladies in the settlement, and of course great belles.  One of them is noticed elsewhere as the first marriage in Avoca Township.  Thompson settled on what, after the lands were surveyed, turned out to be the school section, and after the survey was made, sold out his improvements and removed  “over on Kankakee” where, so far as we know, he still lives.

Harrison Flesher came from the Mackinaw settlement, in 1834, and made a claim in this township.

Thomas G. McDowell, a younger brother of Wm. McDowell, came to Illinois in 1848.  He settled out on the prairie, about half a mile from the timber, and was the first actual settlement made outside of the timber.  It was spoken of in considerable wonderment, and the people used to say that “uncle Tommy McDowell had settled away out on the prairie,” which was looked upon then as equivalent to being “out of creation” He states that when he came to Avoca there were but three settlements between the Wabash country and this place.  The people did their milling at Green's mill, on the Fox River, and their  store trading at Ottawa.  His first trip to mill was to the on the above-mentioned and he was four days in making it.  He contracted to take twenty-five bushels of grain to  the mill and have it ground for a man in the neighborhood, for which he was to receive fifty bushels of corn, worth then the enormous sum of ten cents per bushel.

Nathan Popejoy, James Blake and Col. George Johnson came from Ohio.  Popejoy first settled in Pontiac Township, where he remained but a short time, when re removed to this section and made a permanent settlement.  Blake settled here in the spring of 1836, and in 1852 moved to Iowa.  Col. Johnson settled in Avoca in 1835, and died in 1859.  He had served in the War of 1812, though not as Colonel, which title was more honorary than otherwise.  He took quite an interest in fighting his battles over again, and imitating  noble war in drilling the militia, and thus obtained the military title.

Isaac Wilson and James Demoss were from Indiana. Wilson settled in this section in 1837 where he resided until 1853, when he removed into Pleasant Ridge Township.  He was one of the first lot of Justice of the Peace elected after the formation of the county, and has served as such ten years, altogether.  He is still living in Pleasant Ridge.  Demoss was originally from Ohio, but had lived for some years in Indiana before settling in Avoca Township.  He dame to the town in 1844, which date scarcely admits of his being termed an “old settler” in this neighborhood, where settlements extend back to 1830, but his numerous descendants, who number some of the very best families in this section, it seems meet that they should receive notice in these pages.  The old gentleman himself is dead, but has left behind him a number of honorable sons, whose honesty and integrity are above reproach.

James Glennin came from Ireland, in 1845, and like the last mentioned, hardly ranks as an old settler. He was said to have been a man of sterling integrity, and his word, in all cases was his bond.  His family, too, were as conscientious as himself.

The first white child born in what is no Avoca township was Charles A. Brooks, a son of Charles Brooks, one of the early settlers of the place and was born on the 1st  day of July, 1833.  But for the fright occasioned by the Black Hawk war, which drove the few pioneers from this section back to the Indiana settlements, Master Brooks would have been preceded some thirteen months by the little Miss Jourdan, who made her first appearance on the way back to civilization, as already noticed, and which event prevented her being born in the township.

The first marriage was that of Harvey Rounsaville and Miss Ann Thompson, who were married in September, 1833.

Will you trust me, Anna dear?
Walk beside me, without fear.
May I carry, if I will,
All your burdens up the hill?
And she answered, with a laugh,
No, but you may carry half.

They were married by William McDowell, a Justice of the Peace, who had been elected but a few weeks before, and this was his first official act in tying matrimonial knots.  Judge McDowell informed us that his father was very much troubled about a form of ceremony to use on the momentous occasion, and did not know what to do about it.  But his wife came to his rescue.  She was an ardent Methodist, and of course, possessed a Discipline, which she presented to her husband.  From this book he committed to memory the entire marriage ceremony of the Methodist Episcopal Church and used it to unite these two loving hearts.

John Hannaman died in the fall of 1832, just after the return of the settlers from Indiana, where they had gone to escape the perils of the Indian war.  This is one of the first deaths in the county, as well as the first that occurred in this township.  His coffin was made of lumber, split out of a walnut tree, and hewed was smooth as possible with an axe.  Some say that a tree was cut down, a split open and the halves dug out like a trough, in which he was put as a coffin.  There was no such thing then in this section of the country as sawed lumber.

The first sermon preached in Avoca Township was at the house of  Squire McDowell, and was preached by Rev. James Eckels in the spring of 1833.  The first religious society was organized at his house in the following fall by Father Royle as he was called, and one of the pioneer Methodist preachers of Illinois.  It was a kind of mission, and was embraced in the old preacher’s circuit, which extended from the Illinois River to the state line and from Ottawa to the Mackinaw River.  When the weather was favorable, he would make his round in four weeks; but in bad weather was delayed, sometimes, in reaching his appointments on time.  McDowell’s was the only preaching place in the settlement until the era of schoolhouses.  Judge McDowell informed us that, although his mother was blind for twenty years previous to their death, yet in all that time she never failed to have her house put in order for church.  Indeed, from all accounts to be had, Mrs. McDowell seems to have been an extraordinary woman.  Her husband died in 1834, and left her in an almost unbroken wilderness, with a family on her hands.  But she never shrank from her trust, or sunk down in despondency.  She kept her family together until all were settled in life, and her work finished.  The first church in the township owes its erection principally to her and her family.  It was built in 1857 and as it was the first church in this part of the country, it was named by Mrs. McDowell the “ Pioneer Methodist Church” a name it bears to this day.  The edifice is 32x50 feet, sixteen feet of the ceiling a good frame, and cost two thousand dollars.  It has quite an interesting history. After it was framed and put up, and two sides “ weather-boarded” in, the winds blew and the floods came and beat upon that house, and it fell. Literally speaking, we presume it was not founded upon a rock, but upon the sand or soil.  Anyway it was blown down, and not one stone or stick was left upon another.  They went to work, however, with renewed vigor.  A subscription of several hundred dollars had been made, and after the disaster, Judge McDowell was appointed Superintendent of the work, and directed to push it forward to completion.  He had but little of the money that had been subscribed, and but little of his own, as he informed us, yet it so happened that never was there a bill presented to him, for work or material for the church, but he had money enough on hand at the time to pay it.  When the building was finished and dedicated, they owed not a dollar, except to him, and to him their indebtedness was $1,400, on which they agreed to pay him interest until the debt was discharged.  The financial crisis followed, and the amount, principal and interest, finally reached $1,900.  The Trustees concluded they must have a deed for the property, and came to McDowell, who now lived in Fairbury, to know what sum he would take and give them a deed.  He told them to go back and collect all the money they could, and then come and see him again.  They did so, and finally returned and told him that $200 was all they could raise.  He took the amount and gave them a deed to the church, leaving the amount of his subscription to the edifice, including interest, about $1,700.  The first preacher in charge of the church after it was completed was Rev. James Watson.  It was dedicated by Rev. Z. Hall, of Woodford County, another of the old pioneer Methodist preachers of Central Illinois.  The present Pastor of the Church is Rev. Mr. Underhill, and, all things considered, it is in quite a flourishing condition.  It being the oldest church in this part of the country, man others have been formed, which drew on its membership, and thus its numbers are not so large as when it was the only house of worship for miles around.  This church is the final result of the little mission established at McDowell in 1833, by Father Royle, as already noted.

The first post office was established in 1840, and was called Avoca.  Nicholas Hefner was the first Postmaster. The petition for his post office was written by Abraham Beard, a schoolmaster of the neighborhood, and when sent on to headquarters, was found to be addressed to the Speaker of the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Illinois, instead of to the Postmaster General of the United States.  Educating was not so thorough in those days as now, and many had signed the petition without reading it, while many others had signed it with X who could not have read it if they would.  The office was where the village of Avoca was afterward located, and was on the mail route between Danville and Ottawa.  It continued in active operation until1864, when, there being others more conveniently situated, the office at Avoca was suspended.

The first store in the town was kept by W.G. and James McDowell, and was opened in 1854.

The first physician who practiced in this section was Dr. John Davis, of Pontiac, and noticed elsewhere as the first physician in the county.  Dr. C. B. Ostrander was the first local physician, and still resides on his farm near Lodemia station.  In early times, when his practice extended over a circuit of many miles, he never suffered any trivial excuse to keep him from the bedside of his patients.  We were informed by a reliable party, who had the story from the Doctor’s own lips, that he was going to see a patient one day, who had sent for him in a great hurry, and crossing Indian Creek, stopped a moment for his horse to take a few sips of water, when one end of the fore axle of his buggy dropped to the ground.  Looking to see the cause, he found that one fore wheel was gone and he had driven so fast the axle hadn’t  time to drop down until he stopped.  On going back to find the missing wheel, he met his dog, who always followed him, coming on, dragging the wheel in his mouth.  He has a fine orchard and devotes a good deal of attention to the cultivation of fruits.  It is said that he has shipped gooseberries to Chicago by the carload, and boasts of having raised as much 800 bushels of cherries in a single season.

Harrison Flesher was the first blacksmith in the town, and opened a shop on his claim late in the winter of 1834.

In 1854, Judge McDowell and his brothers built a steam sawmill in Avoca Township to which was attached on run of stones for grinding corn, but the main business of the mill was sawing.  In 1869, he moved the mill to Nebraska, where it was chiefly instrumental in locating the county seat of Jefferson County, at the village of Fairbury, names by the Judge for the town in which he lives. He succeeded in getting a post office and blacksmith shop at the place, then moved his mill there, and after interesting the County commissioners, they located the county seat at his village.  This was the first and only mill ever in this town, except perhaps occasionally a portable sawmill.  In the early times, most of the people of this section did their milling at Green’s Mill, on Fox River, near Ottawa.  This was the principal mill until one was built at Wilmington. Judge McDowell informed us that he once went on horseback to Blue’s horse mill down on Rock Creek, and on his return the Vermilion was too high to cross, and he put his “turn of meal” on a raft and ferried it over, and swam his horse by the side of it.  At another time, he and his brother in law, Hefner, went to Green’s Mill, and both of their horses died with the milk sickness before they could get back home.

The first public road through Avoca Township was the state road from Danville to Ottawa, and extending on to the Rock River country.  The mail  was carried along this route on horseback, and was Uncle Sam’s first trip through here, except when his armed legions pursued the fugitive Black Hawk and his warriors.  The road from Lafayette to Hennepin was also an early highway of travel through this country. 

The first ferry we have any account of within the neighborhood was at the crossing of these roads over the Vermilion River, and consisted of a raft of red elm logs, which, when seasoned, are extremely light.  When the river was too high to ford, they would put the wagons and freight on the raft and take it across, while the horses were forced to swim themselves over.  One day in the winter or early spring a man came along in a wagon drawn by two horses and was very anxious to get over.  The river had been frozen for some time and was just breaking up.  The man concluded to try to cross on the ice, and taking out his horses let them on to a large cake of ice which broke in two after he had gotten them on it, leaving their forefeet on one piece and their hind feet on the other.  With the greatest of care he finally managed to get them on one piece and paddled them over in safety.  He then recrossed and got his wagon on another ice cake and ferried it over without accident, hitched up his team and went on his way.

The McDowell’s and some of the neighbors had a canoe in partnership, which was used for neighborhood convenience.   Finally, some of the stockholders in this enterprise got at loggerheads and to end the strife and hard feelings, Judge McDowell and his brother James went down one day and measured off their own part of the canoe, and sawed it in tow, and carried their half away, and left the other half floating in the river, cabled to the bank.

When the McDowell’s came to Avoca, they brought with them some young cattle belonging to a friend in Indiana, and which they proposed to “break to work” for him.  After they had become well “broke”, Woodford G. and John McDowell took them back to Indiana, and returned them to the owner; and as a kind of coincidence, Judge McDowell related to us an anecdote on the 26th of June, precisely forty-six years after he and his brother started with the young cattle for Indiana.  There was not a house, at the time for forty-five miles after leaving the settlement.  For the purpose of riding, and as a protection against the rays of a June sun, they had built them a sled, to which they had added a top, and with a good stock of provisions, they started for the classic land of Hoosier.  The trail of emigrant wagons had made two tracks, with a kind of unbroken middle.  While moving on, one day, the discovered, settled on a wild crab-apple bush between these tracks a swarm of bees.  In passing each side of them, the oxen struck their legs against the mass, knocking them off and when the young men discovered them, they were rising around their team in an angry cloud.  The whipped up their cattle and ran out from amongst them without serious results.  Some distance beyond, they found a man plowing corn, to whom they related the occurrence.  He went back and “ hived” them, and on their return told them that their bees were “working” well.

The first bridge in Avoca was built over the south branch of the Vermilion, in 1844 Isaac Burgit, Road Supervisor on the west side of the river, and Judge McDowell on the east side, called out the road labor and built the bridge.  It was all hewed out of the neighboring forest, and was a substantial structure

The village of Avoca was laid out in 1854, by Judge W.G. McDowell, who owned the land on which it was located.  It was surveyed by Amos Edwards, then county surveyor.

The first store in it was opened just before it was laid out as a village, by the McDowell’s, as noticed in the preceding pages, and for several years it was a flourishing business place.  But on the laying out of Fairbury, the sun of Avoca began to decline.  Many of the houses were removed to the latter place, and the Judge at last got it vacated and discontinued by a special act of the legislature.

Avoca Cemetery, across the creek from the village, was laid off by the elder McDowell.  He and those of his family who have departed this life are buried there.  Susan Philips was the first one to occupy the place, and was buried in it in August, 1833.

Moore Cemetery is a private burying ground on the west side of the Grove.  Jonathan Moore was the first buried in it, and was interred there in 1839. 

Nothing now remains to show where once stood a thriving village but the “Pioneer Methodist Church, “ which has already been noticed.

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