By Leigh Morris
Our Place in History
It was the Illinois, Sangamon and smaller rivers that attracted settlers to this land, but those rivers also filled many with fear – and with good reason.
Cass County’s old Hickory Precinct (originally called Bowen and then Husted) is a case in point. Don’t bother looking for it on a map, unless you happen to have one from the late 1800s or the early 20th century. Hickory Precinct was abolished in early 1924.
When it comes to Hickory Precinct, many writers have waxed eloquently in praise of its rich soil, valuable hardwood timber, streams, ponds and ample pasture as well as game or all types. The first who explored this area described the Sangamon Bottom as a sea of tall grasses and wild flowers. There many varieties of birds, mammals, reptiles and fish in what seemed to be limitless numbers. No wonder that some of those who passed this way called it a land of milk and honey.
However, the first who came to settle this land saw a much different side to this land. They quickly associated the the river bottom with deadly fevers, swarming insects and annual floods. Though its land could be acquired for $1.25 or less an acre, settlers usually opted for higher, dryer ground.
Still, there were those determined souls who recognized its worth and decided to cast their lot in the bottom. John Baker is said to be the first, making his home there in 1823.
Among the best known of the Hickory Precinct pioneers were the Carrs. John Carr and his five sons – Benjamin, David, Elish, Jeremiah, Peter and William – settled in 1824. Their farm was located in the vicinity of what is now the intersection of Chandlerville and Hickory roads.
Despite the richness of the land and the ample supply of game, early life was exceptionally difficult. Most lived in crude log cabins. They were plagued by deadly malaria and other diseases. The very young and the old were especially vulnerable.
When settlers needed provisions, they made the long and usually difficult journey to Jacksonville until Augustus Knapp and Thomas Pogne opened a store at Beardstown. They also went to Jacksonville to receive and send mail until Dec. 4, 1830, the date the first U.S. Post Office opened in Beardstown. By the way, that first post office was called Beard’s Ferry until the current name was adopted on Aug. 5, 1831. The original name came from the Ferry Thomas Beard operated across the Illinois River.
The summer and fall of 1830 has often been described as nearly perfect in every respect. In contrast, the winter that followed has since been referred to as the “Winter of the Big Snow.” Travel during much of that winter was impossible. Many families subsisted on a diet consisting of little more than cracked and boiled corn. On occasion, a half-starved deer might stumble its way into a settler’s yard in search of hay or an errant ear of corn. Such good fortune would mean a little venison for the family’s dinner table.
Despite the deprivations experienced by the pioneers, hardy men and women prevailed to carve out farms and settlements in the bottom.
Next: Education and the Little Giant.