While agriculture, as the method of securing means of support for the pioneer and his family, was necessarily the first industry receiving attention of the early settlers of Schuyler County, yet in the decade beginning with 1830, we find that many small merchantile industries flourished in Rushville, and it will be interesting to review the history of the most important ones.
A. La Croix established a hat factory on what is now known as the B. C. Gilliam property, in the early ‘thirties, and for many years, maintained a flourishing business.
William Sneider’s chair factory, established about the same time, was located near where H. B. Roach’s residence now stands. There was a good demand for household furnishings at that time, as the pioneers were prospering, and they had brought little if any furniture with them to the settlement. The Sneider chairs were of the split-bottom, hickory kind, but were substantially made, and there are a few of them to be found in Rushville today, and, perchance, bedecked with white enamel and a velvet cushion, and occupying a place of honor in the front parlor.
There were cabinet-makers in those early days who also turned out furniture that now, after a lapse of seventy-five years, is brought out from the garrets and refurnished anew. Of these cabinet-makers, E. H. O. Seeley is the most widely known. He established his business in 1831, on the site of the present brick store building owned by his heirs, and it is interesting, in this connection, to state that he paid for the two corner lots on the public square by making a dresser and a set of pigeon-hole postoffice boxes for Hart Fellows.
Dr. James Blackburn established the first tannery in the county in Rushville, in 1830, near where G. H. Scripps’ residence now stands, and operated it until 1836, when he sold the property to George Baker and removed to Brooklyn to engage in the practice of his profession.
The tannery business appears to have been a profitable one in the early days of the county, and there were eight or ten establishments in Rushville in the later ‘thirties and early ‘forties. George Baker, George H. Scripps, John Scripps, Mr. Kirkham, and Mr. Orendorf are remembered by the older citizens as proprietors of tanneries. In later days, Philip, William and August Peter continued the tanning business on an extensive scale, but it was finally abandoned as unprofitable by August and William Peter, about 1880.
Geer Brothers operated a small shop, near the old Peter Fox property, in the early days, for the manufacture of horn-combs, but their business was a limited one, and was soon abandoned.
John Hodge established the first carding mill in Rushville, and he brought his machinery here from Kentucky. His first mill was located on the present site of the Electric Light building. The mill was at first operated as a horse treadmill, and it had a capacity of from 90 to 100 pounds per day. When first established, the standard price for carding wool was a picayune (6 1/4 cts.) a pound, but in war times the price was advanced to ten cents a pound.
Mr. Hodge also installed a flaxseed crusher, and engaged in the manufacture of linseed oil, but the business did not prove profitable, as local dealers bid up on the seed and imported the manufactured product from St. Louis.
John Whorley became owner of the carding mill business in the early ‘fifties, and he installed the first steam engine used for motive power in the county in 1854. This engine and boiler was afterwards in use at McCabe’s brick yard, and has only lately been put out of commission.
William H. Hodge learned the carding trade under his father, and engaged in business for many years. He dismantled the plant and retired from the business in 1878.
The financial depression following the panic of 1837 had a wide-spreading effect on industrial conditions in Illinois, and it was not until ten years later that we observe any marked improvement in conditions in Rushville. In that year John and Joseph Knowles established their wagon-shop in Rushville, and it thrived and prospered for nearly fifty years. The business was started on a small scale, but grew steadily, and, at one time, a force of twenty to twenty-five men was employed, and machinery was installed to manufacture all parts of the wagons in the local shops. Then came the era of the machine-made wagon, and this firm closed out its business in 1894 to Corbridge & Glossop, who continued the manufacture of hand-made wagons, and later the business was merged into a corporation known as “The Rushville Wagon and Machine Company.”
In this same year what is known as the Ramsey flouring mill was built by Little & Ray, and William Hardy was put in charge as superintendent. Samuel Ramsey afterwards operated the mill for many years, and it finally passed to the ownership of Kerr Brothers, and was owned by them when it was destroyed by fire.
From the earlies days of pioneer settlement, coopering was one of the industries of Schuyler County, and it was a productive source of wealth for many of those who engaged in it extensively. There was abundance of fine native timber, and, as the wooded tracts were settled first, coopering came to be regarded as the main industry of the settlement.
Perry Tolle was one of these old pioneer coopers, and we are indebted to him for the facts here presented. He says the halcyon days of the cooper were from 1844 to 1852, and places the number of men engaged in the business in Schuyler County during that period, at about 1500. He says there were 500 cooper shops in the county, and they would easily average three men to the shop.
Good wages were earned by expert coopers, as they were paid by the piece. A whiskey barrel that sold for $1.25 netted the cooper 62 1/2 cents, and a good man could make four or five in a day, and some could turn out six. Fifteen cents was paid for flour barrels, and an average day’s work was ten barrels. Then there was what was called “nest work,” a half barrel, a quarter barrel, and a keg, one inside the other.
Ham barrels, with a capacity of fifty gallons, netted the cooper 37 1/2 cents each, and slack hogsheads were made for 75 and 80 cents each.
White oak timber was used exclusively for pork and whisky barrels, and red or black oak for the other barrels.
Broom making was another industry of the early day that flourished in Schuyler County, and broom corn was looked upon as a staple crop. With the advancement in agriculture, however, farmers found other crops more profitable, and it is now wholly eliminated as a product of the county.
Industrial disaster, rather than industrial development, would more fitly describe the history of the woolen mill business in Rushville, which was carried on at intervals between 1850 and 1887. The private fortunes of several well-known Rushville citizens were depleted by their connection with this business, which held out alluring prospects of success, but always ended in financial disaster.
The pioneers in the woolen mill business in Rushville were George Wheelhouse, George Weber and John Korstain, who established a small plant about 1850. They did spinning and weaving for the local trade, and put in the first fulling and shearing machines brought to this county. The business was continued for a number of years and successfully managed on a small scale.
In 1867 a local stock company was organized to engage in the business on a large scale, and the large three-story brick factory building was erected that year. The equipment was modern, and the prospects looked bright for the new commerical industry. Joseph Duncan came from the East to act as superintendent, but he was incompetent, and within two years the mill shut down.
In 1880 Dr. N. G. Slack and Albert L. Gavitt formed a partnership and refitted the woolen mill. They, too, operated for about two years, and found the venture a financial burden.
Again in 1884 the mill was reopened, this time by a local stock company, and Lester Gordon was placed in charge as superintendent. At this time a specialty was made of the manufacture of shawls, but the business failed to prove a financial success, and it was closed out in 1887 and the mill dismantled, thus ending for all time the effort to establish a woolen mill in Rushville.
John Foote came to Rushville in 1876 and started a knitting factory, and the business thus established is continued by his sons, G. H. and Walter Foote. For many years this factory had a large output of hoisery, but in late years it has been a spinning factory exclusively, and operated in connection with a factory owned by Charles Foote of Ipave, Ill.
John McCabe, a pioneer in the brick-making business in Rushville, first opened his yard here in 1866, and he continued the business until 1905, when he retired.
The manufacture of cigars is a local industry of considerable importance in Rushville, and there are now three factories in operation. They are owned by Keeling & Schnur, Guy Grubb and Joseph McKee.
COAL MINING is one of undeveloped industries of Schuyler county, and there are vast coal fields adjacent to Rushville that will one day furnish employment to hundreds of men. Just now coal is mined for the local market alone, and at this the total output will aggregate some $40,000 to $50,000 annually. Round about Rushville and Pleasantview, the coal vein is four to five feet thick, and at Littleton a thirty-six inch vein is being mined. But with this wealth of coal deposits, closely adjacent to a line of railroad, there will soon come a time when it will be fully developed, and made a source of profit to the owners.
FISHERIES–The fisheries of Schuyler County in the Illinois River and its tributaries are extensive and profitable, but exact statistics as to the business is difficult to obtain. All along the river, from Bluff City in Hickory Township to Crooked Creek, which forms the southwestern boundary line of the county, there are men engaged in fishing for a livelihood. During the fishing season there are probably two hundred men thus engaged, and the value of their catches runs into thousands of dollars. The fact that Beardstown and Havana are competing fish markets, with Browning for the catch in this county, makes it difficult to obtain accurate statistics. Browning, however, is one of the important fish markets on the Illinois River, and in some years more than 1,000,000 pounds of fish are marketed there.
MUSSEL FISHING–A rapidly growing industry on the Illinois River is mussel fishing, which in the past few years, has attracted hundreds of men to the work. All along the eastern boundary of Schuyler County there are found extensive beds of mussels in the Illinois River and, to a lesser extent, in Crooked Creek. These mussel beds are said to be from eight to ten feet deep, and since an economic use has been found for the shells in the manufacture of buttons, the mussel fishing industry has developed a hitherto neglected source of wealth.
Clam fishing in the Illinois River was first begun some four or five years ago, but not until the summer of 1907 was it pushed vigorously. With the finding of a number of valuable pearls by the mussel fishermen, a new impetus was given this industry, and now some 300 or 400 men are at work fishing for mussels between Browning and the mouth of Crooked Creek.
The price of mussel shells range from $4 to $12 a ton, and fabulous prices are paid for pearls which are oftentimes found by the fishermen. The method of fishing for clams is simple, cheap and effective. A flat boat, with scow-bow and end, is generally used and on the gunwale are placed standards from three to four feet high. The utensils consist of an iron bar to which is attached a succession of lines and hooks, the latter being made of bent wire without barbs. The bar is thrown overboard and drawn along the bed of the river and, at the touch of the hooks the clams close their shells and hold on, and the bar is drawn to the surface and rested on the gunwale standards while the mussels are detached. After the shells are unloaded they are put into a large galvanized iron vessel, and boiled or steamed until the shells open and the flesh can be removed. In removing the flesh from the shell a sharp watch is kept for pearls, and they are easily detached by the men who become expert in the work.
Dr. W. S. Strode, of Lewistown, has made a special study of the mussels in the Illinois River, and we quote as follows from an article written by him for the History of Fulton County:
“The Unionidae, or Pearly Fresh Water Mussels, are the most important of shell-bearing species of the county or state. Our rivers and lakes are densely occupied with them and they are destined, at no distant day, to become of some commercial importance, as well as of scientific interest. In many localities on the Mississippi River, where the demand by pearl button factories has made a market for the shells, the supply has been nearly exhaused, and as it takes about four years for a new crop to be produced, new fields are being sought where the shells are more plentiful. All our fresh water mussels are harmless. They are the scavengers of our water courses, and do much good in purifying the streams. They furnish much of the food of many fishes and water fowls and should not be wantonly destroyed.
“Some of the mussels are very clannish in their habits, associating only with their kind and remaining in certain localities or beds during their lifetime. Others are great travelers and wander far and near in search of food and their kind, plowing little furrows in the sand or mud as they go. The different species vary greatly in size, as well as in configuation or architecture of shell. Some are so small, as the donaciformis, that scores of them could be put into a pint measure, while the heras, the giant of the family, attains a weight of two or three pounds and a length of shell from eight to ten inches. As a article of food they do not appeal to the tastes of an epicurean, but in case of emergency they would keep off starvation. Some of the peasants of the old world do not distain them as an article of food.
“About twelve hundred species of mussel are found in the world. Of these six hundred are found in North America and about one hundred in Illinois and, up to date, over sixty of these are accredited to Fulton County. In time, with a more thorough research of the waters of the Illinois and Spoon Rivers, the full hundred or more will be found in the county.”
Excerpted from Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and History of Schuyler County, 1908, edited by Howard F. Dyson.
Transcribed by Robin Petersen for Schuyler County ILGenWeb