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Pioneer Struggles: Housing

Why would 1830s Ohio and Pennsylvania families leave the comfort of towns, clap-board houses, general stores, schools and churches? Not to mention the livery stables, doctors and dentists. The answer is, not all folks were living in comfort. They were on lower rung of communities as tenant farmers, lower-paid employees and young people with little future. Some farmers went west from the stony fields of New England, and Southern families went west from the crowded lands of Virginia and the Carolinas. Some suffering from bad luck, bad management or bad judgement with the law. Families were large, and only one child could inherit the family home. To European immigrants the American frontier offered political freedom and economic opportunity. As a group, they saw 160 acres of land offered in the Military Tract of 1812, Illinois Territory, north boundary as a way out. This specific area was 3.5 million acres between Muscatine, Iowa, and Hennepin, Ill., surveyed into 207 6-mile squares called townships.

Such is the story of George and Sarah Bowen. They lived in Derbyshire, England, and were encouraged by William and Ann Studley to come to Neponset Township. In 1836, the Studleys also left Derbyshire and are considered the first white settlers in area. Ten years later, the Bowens said their forever goodbyes and left for Neponset, Ill., USA. Accompanying them were five children ages, 14, 10, 8, 5 and 2. The Atlantic crossing took seven weeks and three days and finally landed in New Orleans. The family remembers the 2 year old learned to walk on the ship’s rolling deck. A river steamer took them up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to the Hennepin landing. The men left their families and walked northwest on the only trail visible. After 40 miles, they arrived at the Studley cabin and confirmed their new 160-acre purchase. They hiked back to Hennepin to fetch the families and household goods. Their new life began with building a cabin.

Barren Grove is a heavily timbered, rolling area about 8-miles wide and 20-miles long extending from Kewanee to Buda and north from Johnson’s Park to Sheffield. The Bowen homestead was ideally located on the south edge where the timber met the prairie. Building the 16-by-20-foot cabin was aided by a few trees just to the south on unclaimed property. They were able to “borrow” some of those logs for their cabin. However, most of the walnut and oak logs came from the Barren Grove timber.

Here the pioneers’ essential tool was the ax. Notched logs formed the cabin walls. A ridgepole at the peak supported lighter roof poles, and hand-cut shakes made the roof complete. About 1900, the original floor was replaced with concrete. The original floor may have been logs split into flat-faced planks. Most early cabins had dirt floors. Two windows and two doors were sawed out with patient labor. In many cabins, the first doorway covering was an old quilt weighted with a log; later a board door would be hung on leather hinges.

To the right is the fireplace hearth. Neponset clay and water from a natural spring, mixed with dried grass, was formed into crude bricks, which hardened in the sun. Laid against the cabin wall, the bricks and sticks formed a chimney. The fire that burned there gave heat for cooking, light and warmth for the now eight people living there. A few acres of wheat were harvested the first year and taken to Chicago for sale. The trip back brought necessary supplies, maybe even a steel plow.

Mark Bowen is the sixth generation to own this farm and cabin. After 163 years of serving as a home and later as the family blacksmith shop, a complete restoration was earned. In 2009, Trillium Dell Timberworks from Galesburg was hired to dismantle the cabin and complete the restoration. (They also restored the 1836 Little Cabin, Wethersfield eight years later). Ratliff Brothers assisted with both. The biggest problem was that the huge sill logs had sunken 18-inches and were thoroughly rotted. Mark looked no farther than his own Barren Grove timber. He selected four huge oak trees for 10-by-14-feet sill logs. Only a few other logs were needed to be replaced and were harvested locally, too. All were taken to a sawmill in Lacon, Ill., to be shaped and kiln dried. Final fitting was in Galesburg before assembly on site. Concrete footings were poured this time as an important upgrade. Windows were constructed using wavey glass from the old 1850 farmhouse. It proudly stands on the property as Mark and Sue’s children’s present home. Mark talks about the farmhouse with the same excitement as he has for the cabin. For seven generations the Bowen family lived through struggles of droughts, insects, poor crop prices, depressions, sickness and all of our country’s wars. In addition to being the president of the Neponset Historical Society, Mark Bowen is the sexton for the Neponset cemetery. His family pride also extends to his relative’s military service who served in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam. Neponset history will continue with the dedication and commitment with folks like Mark Bowen. There are many!

Many people comment on how eight people lived in the 1846 Bowen cabin (400-square-feet) or 16 folks in the 1837 Little cabin (300-square-feet). But in 2020, there are people promoting small houses. In fact, there is a group called American Tiny House Association and a popular cable TV show called “Tiny House Nation.” Houses larger than 400-feet need not apply. They seem to suggest it’s a stampede to dump your average 1,800-square-foot home and join the rebellion against American excess. There’s only so much clutter you can accumulate. They want to promote a more sustainable lifestyle. These micro-houses are energy efficient because they require much less energy consumption overall by heating, cooling and lighting a small space. If you install solar panels you can really have a micro carbon footprint. Dusting, vacuuming and sweeping will take a fraction of the time. Repairs will also be on a reduced scale. Repairing a “petite” roof is much less of a trouble than its larger counterpart. Because many of these homeowners also live debt-free without a mortgage, they’re less tied down to the traditional neighborhood and can relocate anytime. I joke, however, it’s like living in one big Rubik’s cube of hassle.

The Bureau County and Henry County pioneers wanted to leave their tiny house lifestyle forever. George and Sarah Bowen built a frame house four years after the 1846 log cabin. And since 1850, seven generations lived in the farm house … happily ever after.

Lt. Col. Dick Wells (retired) has a master’s degree in history and is a property owner on the Neponset Township, Great Sauk Trail. His great-great-great-grandparents came to Annawan Township in 1842. He has always been interested in pre-Civil War pioneer history and has been reading a number of first-person accounts. Dave Gugerty, Bureau County Historical Society curator, has also been a resource. This is article four of a 10-part series. His next focus will be on transportation, underground railroad and the Great Sauk Trail.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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