Friday, May 17, 2024

A Timeless Landmark: The Tale of 10931 Front Street

    There stands on Front Street a building that blends so well into the streetscape that one who didn’t already know its face would easily miss it. Tucked into a street where 19th century edifices aren’t out of place, this is one that retains the same honor, although it is not readily identifiable as a historic structure. An untrained eye would miss that this house belongs to a type of construction from a bygone age, a type of building that saw widespread use in our neck of the woods in the days before 1900. All the hallmarks of antiquity have been erased from 10931 Front Street by aggressive renovations over the years. A small, one-story wing on the west side is still visible, as is another substantial two-story extension on the eastern side, in what at some point was a considerable addition or possibly a house moved from some other long forgotten place. Be that as it may, this is a locale veritably steeped in local flair, even if the overall narrative is hazy at times. 


10931 Front Street as it appears today.


   Our story starts in the far-off mid 19th century with Swiss born Benedicht Baumgartner, the youngest son in a family of time-honored Frankfort Township pioneers. Originally hailing from the small rural village of Rapperswil in the northwestern slice of their homeland, the Baumgartner clan settled in our midst in 1851 when Benedicht was a fresh-faced lad of 18 years old. Their arrival was sandwiched between two fortuitous events: the 1850 establishment of Frankfort Township, and the 1852 arrival of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and the subsequent birth of Mokena. While his brothers carved out farms of their own from their father’s acreage between our village and Frankfort Station, as it was called in their time, and two of his sisters comfortably married into the Geuther and Marti familes, Benedicht Baumgartner took Charlotte Maue as his wife in 1857 and made a go of it in Mokena.


   In the spring of 1858, the Baumgartners spent fifty dollars on a vacant lot on Front Street, which had heretofore been the property of Cyrus P. and Abigail Cross. Living in little more than a small railroad hamlet at this time, Baumgartner became one of our first businessmen, and was prosperous enough that by 1859, an early Will County directory called him a purveyor of dry goods. At the end of the day, he wasn’t long for this spot, as he divested of it to fellow Mokenian Philip Reitz shortly after Christmas 1860. The Baumgartners came out of the transaction over a thousand dollars richer, with the legal paperwork of the dealing stating that the sale including the building on the lot, as well as the goods in the store therein. As the value of the property had dramatically increased in those two years since its last sale, it is likely that Baumgartner had constructed the building that stood there. Whether this is the house that currently stands at 10931 Front Street, or maybe even part of it, is indeed possible, but nevertheless impossible to say through the mists of time. As for Benedicht Baumgartner, he eventually went to our sister village of Frankfort Station and became a successful capitalist there.  


   As the Front Street property transferred to him at the end of 1860, Philip Reitz was about 30 years old, having made his way to us via the German grand duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt sometime in the previous decade. He was a married man and a father, but nevertheless, history hasn’t blessed us with an abundance of detail on his life and what he did in Mokena. His life was not without tragedy, as he lost his infant son Friedrich shortly before he came into possession of the property in question. The 2-year-old’s small, cracked, German language gravestone is still visible in Wolf Road’s Pioneer Cemetery. Like his predecessor in this spot, Philip Reitz was a storekeeper, in 1873 carrying such items as boots, shoes, hats and caps, as well as dry goods and ready-made clothing. The Reitz family ultimately moved to the Garden City with his family by 1880, where patriarch Philip became an insurance agent. 


An advertisement of Philip Reitz's that appeared in an 1873 directory of Will County.


   Upon Philip Reitz’s departure from our gates, the domicile came into the hands of perennial Mokenian Martin Krapp, who had given a mortgage on the place to Reitz sometime before the spring of 1877. A butcher and livestock shipper, it’s not clear what exactly Krapp did with the place; in any case he decided to unload it, and took out a For Sale ad in the summer of 1879 in the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, the foremost German language newspaper in the American Midwest, describing it in his mother tongue as “a nicely done-up country store along with living space, stabling, etc, a nicely situated place in Mokena.” The property was on the market for a while, but two takers on the offer were brothers Christian and Daniel Knapp, who ultimately opened their wallets to the tune of $1,700 for the premises.


   While lately in the store business in neighboring Spencer, the twosome’s heritage was among us in Frankfort Township, with the Bavarian Knapp family being early members of the German United Evangelical St. John’s Church in Mokena. Our property in question would remain in the ownership of this family for well over forty years, although details of that timeframe remain murky. Decades later, it would be remembered that Christian Knapp kept a paint shop here, and sometimes painted wagons. On August 29th, 1908, a particularly nasty fire broke out, and had it not been for the bucket brigade that quickly sprung up, the results would’ve been calamitous. Some tall weeds along the Rock Island right of way immediately south of the building had caught fire, possibly from an ember spat out of a passing locomotive’s funnel, and before long, the flames found their way into the building proper through a crack in its siding. Bill Semmler, Mokena’s correspondent to the Joliet Weekly News described the place as being “dry as tinder”, and within minutes, a “fierce fire was raging between the walls.” As all of this was happening, Carl Knapp, Christian’s 90-year-old father, was helplessly bedridden in the house, and was carried to a neighbor’s across the street by rescuers. Eventually the flames were tamped down, while not before “the building was damaged to quite an extent.”


   All in all, the old place was fixed back up, and during the years of the First World War, a new era of history was ushered in when Louis and Minnie Wishnick began renting the property. History has not been kind to the memory of the Wishnicks, with precious few details about them having survived the ravages of time. What is known, is that they were Russians of Jewish faith, and that they had at least one son, Robert Isador. The Wishnicks sold odds and ends like rugs, felt boots, raincoats, sheepskin coats, mackinaws and fleece-lined wool underwear. Mr. Wishnick shipped in carloads of potatoes and apples over the Rock Island, and was also known to buy hides and pelts from trappers, as well as scrap iron during the war years. Aside from this, he also ventured into the country in a horse-drawn covered wagon selling knickknacks. They ultimately closed up shop shortly after New Year 1919. 


     In the bright years after the First World War, a new set of long-time residents came into our midst via the county seat, bringing in not only a new business, but a new wage of prosperity. Enter the Muehler years. The story starts with Martin Bruno Muehler, who was 36 years old when he came to Mokena in the spring of 1923. Born in the German kingdom of Saxony, Muehler received schooling in his homeland and later spent time working on a farm there and as a coal miner before doing a two-year stint in the German army. He and his wife Emilie made their way to American pastures in 1911 and came to Joliet where Martin worked for an industrial baker. So it was that destiny brought them to us in Mokena, where they opened a meat market in the old building in question. Reachable under the phone number W6, the shop not only boasted a stamped tin ceiling and sawdust on the floor, the very image of an old-time meat purveyor’s, but was also highly regarded, a contemporary remarking that Martin Muehler “handles high grade merchandise exclusively and has an excellent trade.” 


The Muehler Meat Market complete with a 1939 Ford. (Image courtesy of Pam Schonwise)


   Martin and Emilie Muehler were the parents of six children, namely Max, Richard, Hertha, Walter, Bill and Bernice, all of whom will be remembered by Mokenians of a certain age.  Tragically, Emilie Muehler passed away in 1925, and five years later, Martin took fellow German native Wilhelmina Mueller as his wife. Wilhelmina was the mother of three children from her first marriage, to wit Gretel, (called Cray in Mokena), Hans and Ludwig, who everyone knew as Schatz, or German for “sweetheart.” So it was, that for a time in the 20th century, Mokena teemed with Muehlers and Muellers, and is still host to their kin to this day. 


Left to right: Hans Mueller, Wilhelmina Muehler and Martin Muehler of Mokena. (Image courtesy of Pam Schonwise)


   Along in 1926, Martin Muehler bought the old Wishnick place where he kept his meat market, and the property passed into his ownership. He made various improvements to the place, such as putting on a new roof and inserting a new foundation under the building, which by this time was already a historic landmark in town. Thirteen years later, the Muehlers clad the structure in asbestos shingle siding, a practice not uncommon in its day. 


   The Muehler meat market weathered the dark years of the Great Depression, only for the business to sink during the trying days of the Second World War. Rationing of everyday items was in full swing, and meat didn’t escape the net. Martin Muehler couldn’t get a big enough supply to keep the shop afloat, and he closed his doors for the last time in the spring of 1943. After this setback, the Muehler family stayed in Mokena, and their patriarch became a driver for a Tinley Park bakery. The Muehlers retained ownership of their property in town until Martin and Wilhelmina perished in a tragic car accident in the county seat in 1948. Shortly thereafter, their household and Mr. Muehler’s tools of the trade were auctioned off, such as a meat block, a Toledo scale, and meat saws, cleavers and knives. 


   In the aftermath of the Muehler years, a new enterprise called this historic location home. In the summer of 1955, Willard Munch came onto the scene and opened a business here that embodied the prosperous era in which it was born. Bearing the address of 221 Front Street in those days, the new concern handled washing machines, driers, ranges, refrigerators, TVs, simply any kind of appliance that a modern household would need in the postwar age. Munch was an electrician by trade, and christening the new business Mokena Electric, he also carried all sorts of supplies such as wires, cables, sockets and fuses. Mr. Munch also had a position of leadership in our village, serving as a village trustee from 1955 to 1963. While the business has long since left Mokena, it still exists to this day as Munch Supply, a major nationwide player in the heating and cooling industry. 


  With the passage of time, the place was converted into a residential property, and so it remains to this day, still a fixture on Front Street after more than a century and a half. Countless Mokenians have passed through this historic building over the decades, many of whom have played an integral role in our community’s narrative. This old structure has seen many changes over the years, and with any luck, it will keep doing so for another 150 years. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Come All Ye Faithful: The Early Days of St. Mary's German Catholic Church

    Along in the distant, far-off days of the First World War, a Joliet reporter called Mokena “the village of churches.” It was a fitting moniker, as at that time our community featured four houses of worship to nourish the souls of around 400 residents. Immanuel Lutheran, St. John’s and St. Mary’s, they’re all still here with the exception of our venerable Methodist church, with recently consolidated with our neighbors in the New Lenox congregation. These churches are landmarks in town, with the English gothic eminence of St. John’s as the jewel of Second Street, and Immanuel Lutheran’s modern edifice being unmissable on LaPorte Road. The contemporary style of St. Mary’s is prominent on 115th Avenue, but what sets this house of worship apart from its spiritual companions in Mokena is that its original sanctuary is still here, and not only that, but is still in use as a place of prayer, meditation, and devotion. So it has stood, nestled in a historic cemetery on a narrow tree-lined lane since the days of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Its past is worthy of our close attention. 

   In the era leading up to the life-changing arrival of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad in 1852, our neck of the woods was strongly settled by German stock, most of whom were evangelical Lutheran, the robust group who would go on to the found the German United Evangelical St. John’s Church in 1862. Their neighbors, mostly Americans from the east, were more or less divided up into Methodist and Baptist assemblies, and would establish their own congregations before the decade was out. So it was that a Catholic minority remained in the newborn hamlet of Mokena, a mere eight years after its founding. A great step forward was made in the name of their faith on February 20th, 1860, when the father and mother of the parish, Prussian farmers Matthias and Margaret Enders, donated one acre of their property, a little ways north of Mokena, to the bishop of the Roman Catholic Church of Chicago. Almost exactly three years later, this original parcel would be supplemented by an additional acre donated to the bishop by the Enders’ neighbors, Johann and Anna Schmitt.


St. Mary's German Catholic Church has stood in this idyllic setting for over a century and a half. 

   The small group of the faithful had the land to secure the future of their young parish, but still needed a foundation upon which to build, and for this they needed to bring in funds. The ways in which the money came into their coffers is somewhat hazy after the passage of more than a century and a half, but at least one ball was given to drum up cash, such as that held at Young’s Hall in Joilet in April, when Mokenians John Mahoney and Lawrence McMahan acted as managers. That night a ticket cost a dollar, (or about $25 in today’s money) and the music was supplied by Millspaugh’s Quadrille Band. By and by the congregation to-be had gathered enough money, and Bernhard Folman was engaged to build their house of worship. Folman, a Luxembourger and a Catholic, was a master carpenter whose hands built some of the earliest structures in Mokena. The lumber used in this modest structure was sourced from local timber, with the heavy window sills being made from the black walnut of our forests. 


St. Mary’s German Catholic Church was completed in 1864 at the cost of $1,400, boasting of three long, narrow windows on its eastern and western sides, along with a tall, thin steeple showcasing flame-shaped pinnacles at its base, a piece of flair not often seen in simple country churches in those days. Such pioneers were those of this parish, that at is birth, St. Mary’s of Mokena was the only Catholic church between the county seat and southern Cook County. The first worship services were held in the new sanctuary under the guidance of Father Peter Fassbender, who gathered his flock once a month due to the fact that he had to travel to town in order to celebrate mass. 


   The original Catholic parish of Mokena was composed of a mere nine families, to which number almost certainly counted the Bavarian families of Andreas and Margaret Schuberth along with Johann and Regina Fleisner, in addition to the Prussian Enderses and Schmitts, not to mention the young Irish clan of Thomas Lewellyn. When St. Mary’s first saw the light of day, it was a divisive and painful time in our history, one that we can’t even begin to imagine in our complacent 21st century existences. The national bloodbath of the Civil War was in full swing and untold carnage was by then a regular occurrence, with the Battle of Chickamauga being less than a year past, where the lives of four Mokenians were offered up for the Union. That the church was founded in this specific period is inseparable with its history, and poses the question if the parish was born in these dark years as a direct result of the gloom in which our ancestors lived. At least two members of the tiny congregation bore arms in the service of the North, namely Henry Folman and George Schmitt, who later anglicized his surname to Smith. Decades later both would find eternal rest in the churchyard.


   As is the case with every newborn religious body, there was a roll call of firsts. The inaugural baptism was that of Emilia Margaret Iten on February 23rd, 1864, likely before the church was even completed, while the first nuptials were that of the John Wachters that April. The quaint churchyard cemetery was consecrated the following year, when the ground was broken to receive the earthly remains of Johann Schmidt in September 1865, a figure in our history about whom comparatively little is known, other than that he almost certainly belonged to the founding Schmitt family. In those days, Matthias Enders served as the burial ground’s first sexton, maintaining a small graveyard that as of this writing has grown to contain more than 800 graves. An early incident at the cemetery drew considerable attention. On August 28th, 1879, a cortege bore the earthly remains of Joseph Kaiser to the cemetery, where he was to be laid to rest beside his departed wife. Painting an all too vivid picture of the proceedings, Mokena’s correspondent to the Joliet Weekly Sun described that “the grave had already been dug, (and) the remains placed on the timbers over the yawning little narrow house” when the somber occasion promptly went downhill. So it was that Kaiser, a farmer who lived east of town, had refused to take the sacrament of the Lord’s supper from the congregation’s priest, and going even further back, had renounced Catholicism. At this point the unnamed priest materialized, interrupted the funeral, and in no uncertain terms, banned Kaiser’s body from the cemetery. A “fierce contest” broke out between the priest on one side and the mourners on the other, and at the end of the day, Joseph Kaiser was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Green Garden, a little over seven miles away. The whole incident didn’t go over well in Mokena at large, with our correspondent not mincing any words when he penned that “had the writer been interested, someone would have got hurt before leaving there.”


   By 1878, around thirty families from Mokena and the outlying area worshipped at St. Mary’s altar under the leadership of Father Franz Sixt, who at the beginning of the decade had fought overseas in the Franco-Prussian War. Few are the details that we are left with on these early days of the parish, however one bizarre incident has survived the ravages of time, in which one James Gulpin burglarized the church in the summer of 1884. His eventual loot, reasons for the act, and even his eventual punishment are all long since forgotten. As the dawn of the twentieth century was on the horizon, the Mokena parish had prospered enough to have its first communion class, when Anna and Mary Aschenbrenner, Rosalie Kohl, Paul Rinke and Charles Schmidt took the sacrament together in the summer of 1897. 

St. Mary's German Catholic Church as it appeared around 1910.


   Fifty families from the village and surrounding environs were at home in the parish in 1907, at which time the Sunday school was re-organized by Father Theodore Gross. One had previously existed in the early days, but at the end of the 1870s it was described as “having a kind of recess.” In 1914, as the Great War erupted in Europe, the Franciscan order took over the parish; in the half century from its founding to that point it had been in the hands of the Diocesans, Redemptorists and Benedictines. By the following year, Cecelia Walsh was serving St. Mary’s as its organist and choir director, with her singers practicing in her nearby home on Third Street when winter cold kept them out of the church. Mrs. Walsh’s tenure in these positions is significant in the annals of Mokena, as she was at the helm for over three and half decades. 


   After the First World War, the church entered a time of time of improvement. Subsequent remodels of the old sanctuary were carried out in 1924, 1927 and 1939; somewhere in that era a sacristy was built onto the church, and new pews came in 1942. Not all was peaceful, however. In the dark hours of Wednesday morning, September 21st, 1921, a particularly nasty wind storm struck Mokena, which our News-Bulletin described as a “veritable gale” of “cyclonic proportions.” Trees were blown down, small outbuildings splintered to kindling wood, crops were damaged, and St. Mary’s was shifted about six inches off its foundation, with all the westerly windows being blown in. Not even two years later, lightning struck the building. The charge traveled down a lightning rod, but it wasn’t grounded and thus the bolt tore out a window frame and also ripped out a piece of plaster from the interior. 


   Boosting came in 1921 when the Catholic Women’s Club was formed, to which the ladies paid twenty-five cents a month in dues. These monies along with various raffles helped pay for carpeting in the church, as well as coal and electricity bills. Down the line in the years of the Second World War, they rechristened themselves the Sacred Heart League. In the mid 1920s, the congregation attempted to buy the old St. John’s German Evangelical Church with the aim of converting it into a hall, but their offer was shot down. Under the leadership of Father Theodore Wemhoff, a new building fronting on Wolf Road was built for this purpose just west of the cemetery in 1926. A substantial one-story structure, it measured in at thirty by seventy feet. The first play staged there was a four-part drama called “Molly Bawn”, put on by the DeSoto Players of Joliet. The News-Bulletin noted that “there was plenty of laughter and also a few tears.” Another early community event at the hall was a minstrel show that was staged that January by “a bevy of 26 pretty girls from St. Viator’s Church in Chicago.” As usual, the News-Bulletin gave a step-by-step review, noting that “the songs were right up to the minute and full of pep” and that the “Frisco and Charleston dances were cleverly executed.” However, in contrast to the first, this entertainment rubbed a few the wrong way, as the News-Bulletin frowned “the girlies were a little hard on poor Mokena when they cracked jokes about its sleepiness.” Over the years, St. Mary’s Hall echoed with levity and joy at countless card parties, bunco games, and movies, all of which raised funds for the church. 


   In the fall of 1928 confirmation was held for the first time, although the actual ceremonies took place in the county seat until 1954. In this era, the men of the cloth who tended to the parish didn’t actually live in Mokena, but traveled over the Rock Island from Joliet, or going even farther back, from Blue Island to celebrate mass in town. One of them, Father Roman, boarded with the Walsh family on Third Street when he came to town. A place had been made for him to stay overnight in the church, but he felt skittish about sleeping while surrounded by a cemetery.


   An inseparable figure with the history of St. Mary’s is Mokenian George Marti, who sat on the church council. A devout convert to Catholicism, he took his seat in 1913, and kept it well into the 1950s. He was the parish’s jack of all trades, among other duties that became his was serving as janitor of the church, who started the fires before services. (This led to a startling incident in 1932 when he found an owl nesting in the coal-burning stove) Marti was also the cemetery’s groundskeeper, as well as managing the important task of ringing the church’s bell, along with tolling it when a congregant died. The bell would peal once for every year the decedent lived, working as a kind of announcement system to the village at large. 


   A big change came to St. Mary’s in 1948, when under the guidance of Father Benedict Pfeiffer OFM the hall was made over into two classrooms for the first Catholic school in Mokena history. It was truly a grassroots undertaking, as four men of the parish did much of the hard work themselves, those being the ever-present George Marti, along with Harold Miller, Elmer Schneider and William Weber Sr. September 6th, 1949 was opening day, when 27 students showed up for class. The Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart were the first teachers, handling grades one through six in one swoop. Sister Charlotte Goetze not only taught fourth through sixth grades, but was also the school’s principal, while Sister Constance Faulstich managed the three younger grades. A year later in 1950, two more grades were added during the tenure of Father Juniper Freitag OFM.


   The 1950s were probably the most significant era in the history of the church aside from the days of the Enders family during the Civil War. Not only was a house directly north of the hall-turned-school bought from the Bennett family to be made into a convent for the sisters, (prior to this a tiny two-room apartment in the school was used) but also Father Cecil Koop OFM was on the scene right after New Year’s 1954. A new era was ushered in. When Father Cecil took the helm, the nearly century old church was bursting at the seams. The parish had shown great growth since the end of the Second World War, as the existence of a flourishing Catholic church in our small town was a draw for those looking to move to our community. In those days, St. Mary’s was regarded as the mother church to St. Anthony’s in Frankfort and St. Jude’s in New Lenox. In order to alleviate growing pains, more classrooms were built in the school, this time in the basement that had been added under the structure, and mass was moved from the 19th century church to be celebrated here on the Sabbath.


   A colossal fundraising drive began, and a parcel of land was purchased on the southeast corner of 195thStreet and 115th Avenue, then a sparsely settled neighborhood on the fringes of Mokena. There ground was broken on January 6th, 1955, to build a new church and school, exactly a year after Father Cecil came to the parish. The first mass in the new church was celebrated at midnight on Christmas 1955, and ultimately the new church and school were dedicated on May 6th, 1956. 


   Small improvements came to the older, historic church over the years. In its centennial year of 1964 the cemetery was fenced in with chain link, and some of the old headstones were straightened up, while the church was given a new coat of paint. The windows and altar were also spruced up, but nothing of a substantially permanent nature was done. The old hall and school was torn down in the 1960s, and thus came the question – what of the old church? It didn’t see much use in the last half of the 1950s as well as throughout the 1960s and 1970s. 


   A touching postscript unfolded in the latter decade. As the historic church wasn’t getting any younger, the Joliet diocese planned to have the timeless structure knocked down. Many were those in Mokena who were incensed at these plans, and one villager, Ethel Cooper, narrowly saved the old house of worship an ignominious end at the wrecking ball. The widow of former mayor Everett Cooper, she met personally with the bishop to dissuade him, which proved to be an uphill battle. “They couldn’t understand why we would want to restore the church when we could build one for about the same price,” Mrs. Cooper remarked. Carrying on in an inspirational way, she said “We probably could’ve used the money for something else, but the point was to preserve the old and restore it if we could.” Bids for the planned work were taken, and the parish’s preservationists were reckoning with a $60,000 price tag. Nevertheless, inflation and other unforeseen happenings wound up pushing the final bill for the work up to $160,000. (Equal to over $870,000 today) Of this sum, a hefty amount was spent replacing the original foundation, along with siding and millwork, as well as rebuilding the church’s floor. Mokena piano man Ron Guendling also revived an ancient pump organ. A grant from the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration and various contributions from parishioners made the whole project possible. The newly restored St. Mary’s was dedicated in 1978, and through the ardor of Mrs. Cooper and that of other Mokenians, this priceless historic landmark is still with us. Still gracing its interior is the original Civil War era altar, along with the stations of the cross, which likely date from the same period. 

St. Mary's during its much-needed restoration, circa 1976.


   St. Mary’s current edifice on 115th Street was built in 1987, and is still in use to this day. However, the doors of the original, time-honored church still welcome the faithful, and when the atmosphere is just right, the days of yore are palpable, where 160 years of history hang in the air. In our prayers we remember the Enders family, along with the Fleisners, the Schuberths, the Schmitts, and all the other mothers and fathers of the parish, and give thanks to our forefathers who weathered the rocky seas of the last century and a half.  

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Our Founding Father: The Story of Allen Denny

   Every story has its beginning. Be it the first chapter of a well-loved book, the first episode of a long series, or even looking back to the founding fathers of our nation, everything has its root. On the illustrious record of our nation’s years, the names of Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson appear, just a few of the number of great minds who are all rightly entitled to their places in our country’s hall of fame. Looking back to those optimistic days before the Civil War, there are many in our own community who can be called our framers, although there is one who stands out in earnest, well above the rest. While time has passed him by, and Mokenians of the 21st century don’t often think of him, Allen Denny was made of the same stuff as a Franklin or a Jefferson, a man of truly sterling qualities. To study the life of this man, the founder of our village, is to see a reflection of the early history of our nation.  

   Allen Denny made his grand appearance in our world the day after Christmas 1790, a little over a year and a half into the first term of George Washington’s presidency. His first breaths were drawn in Albany County, New York. The son of Charles Denny and Lucinda Allen, the boy had an impressive pedigree; his father being a veteran of the American Revolution, and his mother, for whom he was named, was said to be a cousin of Ethan Allen, the famed revolutionary patriot and founder of Vermont. Allen Denny would stand at the head of a list of ten siblings, the first of which, Alvina, made her appearance when Allen was not quite two years old, while the youngest, Coridore Philander, was 28 years his junior, young enough to be his own child. Throughout his childhood, the Denny family called various locales in the Empire State home, until 1811, when as a 21-year-old young man, Allen made his home in a place that would later be called Sheridan in the freshly formed Chautauqua County, the westernmost county in New York on the southern banks of Lake Erie. Here he soon got to work opening a small country store that sold a little of everything. 


   In what would become the defining event of his generation, the War of 1812 erupted in the summer of that ill-fated year. A stirring yet unfortunately mostly forgotten chapter of American history, the conflict was rooted in grievances with Great Britain that were left unresolved after the Revolution and friction with native tribes on the frontier. The fray also has the grim designation as being the only time our capital city was occupied and sacked by an enemy force. Young Allen Denny put his life on the line when just shy of his 22nd birthday, he volunteered for duty in the Chautauqua County militia, serving at least two terms as a non-commissioned officer in the companies of Captain Jehiel Moore and Captain Morton Tubbs, where he ultimately bore arms against the British until 1814. At least one of the stints was as a substitute for his father Charles, who was home on a furlough sick. Our humble New Yorker would’ve served yet a third time in the course of the war, if his younger brother Lysander wouldn’t have went in his stead in 1814. Upon his entering the service, Allen Denny was described as being around five feet four or five inches tall, with light hair and blue eyes, cutting a picture of a typical American man in his time. Denny’s military service was no trifling matter, as he fought at the Battle of Black Rock on December 30th, 1813. Taking place near Buffalo on the Niagara River, this fight was a particularly brutal engagement, even as far as warfare goes, and a terrible defeat for the New Yorkers who were there. Allen Denny was part of the retreat, (which an early Will County historian would deem a “stampede”) and witnessed firsthand the subsequent burning of Buffalo by British forces, and would recall both for the rest of his days, never sparing a detail. 

Erected by the Mokena Women’s Club in historic Pioneer Cemetery Cemetery in 1997, this monument details the life of Allen Denny. While commonly mistaken for a grave marker, Denny’s remains are buried in New York State. (Image courtesy of Mike Lyons)


   As the guns fell silent and the war ended in early 1815, life slowly returned to normal for the young Denny. Somewhere in this timeframe, as was a common source of entertainment and further education in his time, the merchant went to a public speech. The speaker was a gent from the New York State Temperance Society, a representative lecturing on the moral righteousness of the total avoidance of alcoholic beverages. Many were the adherents of the temperance movement in the America of yore, who blamed ardent spirits for every societal woe in the country, and those who believed in it placed its merits next to Godliness. Allen Denny heard the man’s talk and liked the cut of his gib, and thus was won over to the movement and became a lifelong devotee to teetotalism. So strong were his thoughts on the matter, that he immediately stopped carrying whiskey in his store, and with five others in tow, formed his own temperance society. 


   While Allen Denny took Connecticut lass Lucy Herrick as his wife at some long-forgotten date, history has not been kind, and has left us with no details as to her life, background, passions, or overall identity. Details on the children that graced their union have also become clouded with the passage of time. What can be pieced together, is that they had at least three; Herrick, a boy who died young, Alonzo, another son who was born around 1822 and survived well into the twentieth century, who in his middle age was a businessman in Mokena before eventually heading back to the east coast, and a daughter named Eunice, who may have been their oldest. She seems to have born around 1818 or thereabouts, and always stayed close to home, be it in New York or Illinois. Confusingly, Eunice was not enumerated with her father in the 1850 Census of Frankfort Township, where instead a 28-year-old daughter named Emma is listed. This begs the question, did the census taker simply mishear Eunice’s name and adjust her age? Or maybe she was just living elsewhere at the time, and Emma is a “lost” family member? In any case, this is the only instance in recorded history where an Emma Denny is shown as the daughter of Allen. After spending many years in Mokena, Eunice went back to Chautauqua County to live with her brother Alonzo, and disappeared into the mists of time in the 1880s.


   With the War of 1812 in the distant past, another great turning point in the life of Allen Denny came in 1834, at which point as a 44-year-old he moved home and hearth to what would become Mokena, in the heart of the untamed West. His reasons for moving have disappeared into the past like a mirage in the fog, but it is known that his trek was made in tandem with the Asher Holmes family, who would come to figure prominently in the history of New Lenox Township. At this time, the Black Hawk War, which had had so stirred our neighborhood, was freshly over, with hostilities having ceased two years previously. In the days in which the Dennys arrived in these environs, it is vital to understand that there was no Mokena, no Frankfort Township, not even a Will County, as we were still part of southern Cook County in that era. No railroads existed to quickly transport people and goods. Chicago and Joliet were mere hamlets in 1834. If any Mokenians of the 21st century would be transported back in time to those days, we’d be totally out of place in an unrecognizable, alien world. The thoroughfare we now know as Wolf Road existed, but was known as Theak-a-Kee Ty-Yan-Ac-Kee (or “The Trail of the Wolf through the Wonderful Land”) in the local Potawatomi tongue, who in their abundance had to traverse the path single file due to its narrowness. Allen Denny and his exceedingly few neighbors broke the prairie soil without the aid of a steel plow, which had only just been invented the year before by John Lane of the Yankee Settlement, in the neighborhood of today’s Homer Glen. All water came from the rushing streams of Hickory Creek, timber for the rough-hewn logs for the pioneer’s cabin homestead was supplied by the lush forests on its banks, and wild game was plentiful. With Denny’s 1834 arrival, something as simple as a trip to the post office required a journey to Billy Gougar’s, six miles to the east, until another post office was established at Chelsea, near today’s Frankfort in 1837. All of the lands encompassing the future site of Mokena were owned by the federal government, and upon choosing a claim, an early settler would later have the right to buy it when it would come up on the market. 


   When Allen Denny first set foot on our terra firma, he could only count the tiniest number of near neighbors in his midst. The Atkinses of Vermont got here the same year, while Tilford Duncan and the family of Francis and Keziah Owen arrived from Kentucky around the same time. The John and Nancy McGovneys, probably the Dennys’ closest neighbors, got here first in the fall of 1831, and as they were residents of three years standing, were the longest ones for the neighborhood, however they had fled to the safety of Indiana during the Black Hawk War. Matthew Van Horne, who was affectionately called a “Mohawk Dutchman”, lived a trifle closer to where Frankfort is now, along with Foster Kane, who purportedly stayed in the Hickory Creek timber during the war, but within a generation, eyebrows would be raised at this claim. 


   The Dennys were by no means alone in our neck of the woods, as some of their kin soon came to join them here. Lysander Denny, a brother to Allen eight years his junior, relocated here in the same decade. A millwright by trade, he built one on Hickory Creek, which at that time flowed with enough gusto to power the mill’s saw. Brother Alanson Denny was also an early citizen and came into possession of a tract of land near the future site of Mokena, however the details of his life have been scattered by the winds. Sister and brother-in-law Hepsibah and Samuel Haven made their way as well, Samuel having been a charter member of Allen’s temperance society back in New York. The Havens are a family whose name is writ large in the history of our neighbors in New Lenox, and were the owners of a house later known as the “Old Brick Tavern”, which graced the Lincoln Highway for a century and a half, until an unscrupulous developer destroyed it in the 1990s, in what amounted to a colossal waste of a priceless historic landmark. 


  The members of this hardy pioneer clan were also joined by their patriarch and matriarch Charles and Lucinda Denny in 1838, who in the sunset of their lives, wanted to be closer to their children. Both passed in the summer of the following year, when Allen broke ground to inter them on a peaceful rise on his corner of the prairie. As time went on, other relations came to follow them in what became our first cemetery. 


   A mere six years after his arrival in what came informally to be called the Hickory Creek Settlement, Allen Denny found himself intimately involved with one of the most electrifying occurrences in the early history of eastern Will County. Early on a summer morning in 1840, he happened across the corpse of a man in a millpond near where New Lenox now stands, it being clothed only in a brown cotton shirt and displaying signs of a “high state of putrification.” Freshly cut lengths of rope and clumps of hair were found, along with suspicious wheelbarrow tracks. Denny alerted his neighbors, and before long the whole affair blew up into what would be remembered for decades as the Van Horne murder case, in which an early resident attempted to frame a member of the aforementioned family for the deed. Allen Denny’s testimony was key at the forthcoming inquest, which contain some of the earliest written records painting a picture of his life in our region. 


   Denny’s decision to stay in Will County was cemented when he began formally purchasing the land upon which he was living and farming. On May 20th, 1841, he purchased two eighty-acre tracts of land, for which the paperwork was deposited in the general land office at Chicago. By and by the documents were forwarded to the then-called Washington City where they were signed by President John Tyler. The lands encompassed in his purchase were pure, unbroken prairie; one of the wide expanses began at what is today the northeast corner of Wolf and LaPorte Roads and stretched a ways to the north, while the other, situated a tad further to the north, centered on what we now know as the northwest corner of Wolf Road and 187th Street, continuing past the route of modern day Interstate 80. These acquisitions were a harbinger of the future, for it was upon this first tract that our village would later be borne by Allen Denny’s hands. 


   As the days passed and the 1840s continued, tragedy struck the Denny household when Lucy Denny passed away in the frigid January of 1844. As it was exceedingly hard to live as a single man in the unforgiving pioneer’s life our forefathers knew, Allen Denny took local widow Polly Marshall as his second wife in August of that year. Herself a fellow New Yorker, Denny did well to marry her, as Polly’s former in-laws were prominent residents and also early settlers to our area, living on the border of the future Frankfort and New Lenox Townships. 


   With Allen Denny comfortable as an established resident of the Hickory Creek Settlement, America was being rent apart by the issue of slavery. He became active in the newly formed Liberty Party, a short-lived political group dedicated to eradicating the institution, and was high-profile enough to be nominated on this ticket as their candidate for Will County Sheriff in 1844. (Alas, he didn’t win the election) Denny was also a long-time subscriber and ardent supporter of the Western Citizen, a paper published in Chicago that was the premier abolitionist publication in what we now call the American Midwest. He also spent time and great effort raising money for the cause, such as at the end of the year 1851 when he was collecting pledges in our area for the Illinois Anti-Slavery Society. Many are those who foster beliefs, will stand behind them and speak up for them till the cows come home, but Allen Denny put his money where his mouth was, and became a man of action. He would be remembered as a man who was “zealous” in his mindset. Pioneering Will County historian George H. Woodruff quoted the sentiments of Denny and those like him, in that “to help a man who was fleeing from bondage was a duty – that to aid in his capture was a crime against God and man.” 

     In time, Denny would come to operate the only documented station in today’s Frankfort Township of the famed Underground Railroad, likely working in tandem with his brother-in-law, Samuel Haven, who ran a station on his own homestead two miles distant. Whether Denny shuffled three escaped slaves on their way to Canada or three hundred, he got caught. While Illinois was indeed a free state, the Fugitive Slave Act was on the books in the north, which forbade giving assistance to refugee slaves. Once again, the exact details of these legal proceedings, and what exactly his punishment was, have disappeared into the pages of posterity. 

    As an aside, many are the tall tales of Underground Railroad activity that have spread through Will County in the century and half since its existence. However, that of Denny and Haven’s is an authentic one, as verified by none other than historian Woodruff himself. Looking back from a safe distance thirteen years after the end of the Civil War, the Joliet pharmacist turned scribe wrote that he “knows of some who paid midnight visits to both stations. A midnight ride with one or two fugitives was an exciting thing in those days, not without danger of being prosecuted at least.” Going back even earlier than Woodruff’s account, is a piece that appeared in the Fredonia Censor in 1871, a paper from Allen Denny’s old stomping grounds in Chautauqua County, New York. Its writer interviewed Denny while he was visiting his son Alonzo, and stated that in his Illinois home he had “kept an acknowledged underground railroad station for the accommodation of sojourners in quest of inalienable rights.” 


   These hair-raising tales of the days before and during the Civil War beg the question, where in Mokena was Allen Denny’s station kept, this erstwhile beacon of freedom? A legal document from the later years of Denny’s life describes a 19-acre piece of land that was specifically named as his homestead, a place through the middle of which Scott Street would be built in the 1950s. As late as 1911, when queried, Mokenians of a certain age readily identified the spot as being very near where the Schacht family then lived; they being long-standing residents of the vicinity of today’s Grace Fellowship Church. In any case, after the passage of more than 160 years, it remains impossible to say with certainty. 


   As the intricacies and perplexities of Mokena’s history have long since swallowed up so many of the details of life in Allen Denny’s day, we also do not have a crystal-clear vision of what his house looked like. It can be surmised that his first homestead in our midst was of the rustic, yet determined type of domicile that matched the personalities of our forefathers, it likely being built out of hand-fallen Hickory Creek timber and lacking many conveniences. As time went on and success smiled on the Denny family, they probably upgraded into a somewhat more comfortable residence, as was often the pattern among our forebears. Maybe he incorporated the old structure into the new, repurposed it into an outbuilding or even reused the original building material into a new project. 


      In the 1850s, Allen Denny began the process of filing a claim for a pension from the federal government for his service in the War of 1812, as did so many of his former brothers in arms. A long process filled with hoops to be jumped through in proving one’s claim, it wasn’t without vexation for our old veteran. First, the muster rolls of the company in which he served went missing, then bureaucrats in Washington City had no written record of his discharge from the militia, and as Denny couldn’t remember the numeric designation of his regiments, he had to write back to an old war buddy in New York to help jog his memory. The man turned out to be of not much help, as his recollections was also foggy, but being a part of the same process, empathized with his former comrade by closing his letter with a cheer, noting “success to us and all who put shoulder to the wheel.” In trying to piece back together the events of four decades previous, Allen Denny looked back at the war and wrote that “it seems more like a dream than reality.” All in all, he got his pension, and by the time he was 81, was getting eight dollars a month from Uncle Sam, or around $200 in today’s money. Like many 1812 veterans, in addition to his monthly stipend, Denny also received at least one 80-acre parcel of undeveloped land in Iowa around the time Mokena bloomed for services rendered, but as the pioneer felt rooted to his home among us in eastern Will County, within a short time he sold the property to a third party. 


     So it was in this era that the great iron horse was expanding across America and opening doors that had previously never been imaginable. New railroads were sprouting up across the land, ferrying goods and passengers to points far and wide, something that in our neighborhood had only been possible with ox-drawn conveyances on days-long treks through the roughest of conditions. One of these wondrous new roads was the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. After much doing, the company was officially organized in 1851. As their right of way was being surveyed across the prairie from Chicago to Joliet, a long stretch was due to be built through the northern half of the newly formed Frankfort Township, and more specifically, straight through Allen Denny’s pasture. He and his wife Polly sold the Rock Island the strip of land needed for the right of way, with a clause in the legal paperwork stating that if the company were to go defunct within five years, the property would revert back to their ownership. 


   The company staked out a spot in a central point in his acreage where a depot would be built, with only one other in the works between Chicago and Joliet at Blue Island. Allen Denny could see which way the wind was blowing, saw that new people would be coming hither and thither, that tradesmen would want to be near a new railroad, and sensed money was to be made. Therefore, in a moment filled with meaning, he subdivided a plot of land around which the depot was to be built. Thus in the planting of this first seed, a great shift occurred in history and our village was born. Denny’s plat contained two principal streets running from west to east parallel to the railroad tracks, known today as Front and First Streets stretching from modern Wolf Road to Division Street, sandwiching therein 38 lots of various sizes. Jeddiah Woolley, chief surveyor of Will County, did the legwork and the plat was filed on May 26th, 1853. The new subdivision was named Mokena; but by whom, be it Allen Denny, the Rock Island, or someone else, remains a mystery. 

Allen Denny’s original plat of Mokena, as done by Jeddiah Woolley. 


   After some skepticism from area residents that a train would ever run over the rails, pressure was applied to the company and the first passage through Mokena was made on Sunday, October 10th, 1852, as a grandiose woodburning locomotive named The Rocket puffed over the prairie. At this time, the depot was less than half built, and otherwise our hamlet was composed of merely two buildings, with a third slated to go up within a month. Mokenians were so excited by the trains that spunky 18-year-old Julia Atkins published the times of their arrivals in her handwritten Mokena Star, our first journalistic endeavor. So revolutionary was the new railroad connection, that two decades later, historian Woodruff wrote that “now we could go from Joliet in the morning, buy half the city (if we had the dimes) and return at night.”


   Allen Denny came to gather a nest egg of no small means by selling off his lots to those who came to be near the new railroad and make their own fortune. Among these initial ventures was a store housed in a small, rustic stone building ran by Warren Knapp and a man remembered only as Smith, which sprouted up just before the subdivision was complete, as well as a nearby inn built by Carl Gall, who catered to the men who laid the iron rails. Blacksmith William McCoy followed by opening a workshop around the same time. Within a few years, the arrival of learned carpenter Bernard Folman of Luxembourg led to the construction of the first houses in Mokena. It’d be impossible to reconstruct exactly how much money Denny made by selling his lots, but what is sure, is that his name appears in graceful, swooping antebellum script on dozens if not hundreds of indentures filed in the Will County Recorder’s Office. 


   Soon after Allen Denny’s initial subdivision was laid out, neighbor John McGovney platted his own addition adjoining Denny’s to the east, with the new street running between the two being dubbed Division Street. As time went on, Denny tacked on more of his own additions, such as a large one in Christmastime 1853, which composed an area where a steam-powered mill would shortly thereafter be built east of the newly-named Mokena Street and south of the Rock Island tracks, as well as good sized parcels on the north side of First Street, as well as the areas along Second and Third Streets west of Division Street. Next came a second addition on the south side of the railroad, encompassing McGovney Street (known in Denny’s day as South Street) from today’s Wolf Road to Mokena Street, as well as a third addition in 1855 south of what came to called Denny Avenue. 


   One can view Allen Denny’s further sticking on of new additions to his town as an effort to maximize his profit in lot sales, but money wasn’t his sole goal, as is shown by his designation of a public square in 1855. A piece of ground surrounded on three sides by modern day Second Street, Union Street, and Third Street, legal papers from its release say it was “originally intended by the proprietor of Mokena as a plat for the erection of churches and other public buildings, required for the convenience of the inhabitants thereof, and the improvement of said village.” The document was signed by 25 male Mokenians and one lady resident, Abigail Gremmer. 

In what is the oldest known photograph of Mokena, Allen Denny’s public square is seen around 1870. The first building to be erected on it was the village’s schoolhouse in 1855 at far left, followed by the German United Evangelical St. John’s Church in 1862 at far right, and the Methodist Church at center in 1867. St. Mary’s German Catholic Church, seen in the distance, was not part of the square. 


   Allen Denny was also one of the first businessmen in Mokena, running a dry goods and grocery business with one F.C. Herrick, possibly a relative of his first wife. All in all, fortune didn’t favor the partnership, and it fizzled out in the fall of 1854. Nevertheless, there are indications that Denny kept up the enterprise on his own at least into the Civil War days, but like most of the finer points of life in Mokena in his time, details of this concern are exceedingly hard to pin down. As Mokena was being born, our founder was still active in the temperance movement, a cause that had been near and dear to his heart for decades by this point. Serving as Vice President of the Mokena Temperance Society, Denny presided over a rollicking meeting held at the schoolhouse near John McGovney’s place on January 12th, 1854, where the new Maine Law was debated by two speakers. A pioneering piece of legislation that banned sales of alcohol in that state except for medicinal purposes, the society resolved that “the Maine Liquor Law is just, expedient and constitutional, and we pledge ourselves to use all honorable means to aid its enactment in Illinois.” Before the meeting wrapped up at 11 0’clock that night, 40 new members were added to the rolls of the society. 


   A man of no small stature in our young community, Allen Denny was often called on to wear many hats in Mokena, as was the case when his neighbor John Atkins passed away in 1864. As the LaPorte Road resident’s estate was being settled and the paperwork was being filed in the county seat, Denny was asked to help appraise certain pieces of the deceased’s property, first and foremost being a valuable set of bee hives. Within a year, the Civil War was over, and the dust settled in America. In 1871, Allen Denny went to New York and took up residence with his son Alonzo, where he stayed put. After more than a century and two score since his departure, his reason for reason for leaving Mokena is unclear. However, it does not appear that his wife Polly went with him; in fact, a legal document from the following summer stated that the two were “living separate and apart.” Were marital strains what drove him back to the Empire State? In any case, assigning any reasons to his move would only be speculation at this late date. So it came to pass that Allen Denny spent his final years back in Chautauqua County, where he passed away in his 85th year on October 29th, 1875. His demise was noted back in his Illinois home of Mokena, where our correspondent to the Joliet Republican sent in the news to the paper, hailing him as the “original founder of Mokena.” Denny’s bones rest in Chautauqua County, far from his adopted home in the Land of Lincoln and the community he built. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All the comforts, blessings and good fortune of our hometown are the legacy of Allen Denny. Our comfortable existence in one of Will County’s foremost communities we owe to his vision, this man who made the wilderness to blossom as the rose. He is the Father of Mokena, and may his memory reign supreme in our consciences.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Tillers of the Soil, Hearts of the Community: The Story of Lence and Lydia Kohl

    A wide, grey band, stretching through our midst, 191st Street is one of the main avenues traversing through Mokena. In the days when local roads were casually named after those who lived on them or where they led, it was known as Tinley Park Road. On its western side, 191st Street is primarily residential, with homes either fronting on it or subdivisions being directly in the neighborhood. As one comes upon Fire Station 2 and draws closer to Route 45, the mood becomes more business-like, with enterprises of various types abounding, sterling examples being Schillings and the expansive warehouse for Darvin Furniture. Nowadays, 191st Street bears the honorary name of Cpl. Robert Stanek, a Mokenian who lived on this road and made the ultimate sacrifice in 1968 as a Marine in the Vietnam War. 

    In the days of yesteryear, long before Robert Stanek and most of the rest of us, this road was a country farm lane that cut through the landscape like a ribbon through a cradle of agriculture. A prominent, recognizable remanent is now known as the Brandau Farmstand, but a century ago was the Henry and Ida Yunker farm, while directly to the southeast, where Import Exchange now stands, was the Louis and Elizabeth Lauffer estate, now obliterated from the landscape. Large dairy barns and tall silos once dotted the landscape here. Many faces play into the rich history of this road, and it would be impossible to recall the flavorful narrative of this one-time rural idyll without that of a sturdy and storied Mokena family, that of Lawrence and Lydia Kohl. 


   Our matriarch first saw the light of day as Lydia Emma Geuther on April 19th, 1896, born to this world here in Mokena. She came from good Frankfort Township stock; the Geuthers could proudly count themselves as among the first families of German heritage to settle in the yet-unnamed township in 1848, while her mother’s clan, the Bauchs, were also early arrivals. Jacob Bauch, a great uncle of Lydia’s, was a 19th century store keeper in Mokena.

   Lydia was born on the family farm along the Tinley Park Road, on the north side of today’s 191st Street just east of LaGrange Road, a corridor where her family had tilled the soil at least as far back as the Civil War, when her grandparents Johann Georg and Elisabeth Geuther planted and harvested crops there, all the while also running a small cheese factory. Lydia’s father, Charles Geuther, was also a farmer, and in his day came to be something of a prominent citizen in Mokena, where he held a seat on the local school board for many years. Lydia Geuther had an older sister, Mabel, who was three years her senior, and sister Olive came on her heels two years after her own birth. Two brothers came along later, Milton in 1902, while the baby, Harold, didn’t make his appearance until 1909. Among Lydia Geuther’s earliest memories was of seeing a newspaper on her kitchen table bearing the details of President William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901, while she also remembered many years later that Saturdays were bath nights on the farm, all done in a tub that was heated on the kitchen stove. Lydia was an exceptionally sharp girl, having learned her times tables up to twelve before she started school at the age of five, having learned from atop a stool as she watched her mother sew.


   The Geuthers were stalwart members of the German United Evangelical St. John’s Church, of which Pastor Carl Schaub would visit the farm a few times a year and be served wine from a pitcher. So it was, that when Lydia was not quite nine years old, her family decided to move to town, and when a sale was held at their farm, on a stormy day in February 1905, it was a huge success for the family, with some of the cows fetching as much as $55. When all was said and done, $1,500 had been netted. It helped that buyers and looky-loos had been drawn to the happenings by a big basket of donuts that was on hand for the taking. Charles Geuther had bought two five-acre tracts in the northeast part of Mokena by this time, and as the family moved from the farm outside town in this era, they had a commodious house and barn constructed in the village proper. The stone for the foundation was hauled to town by teams of horses from a Joliet quarry, ultimately being laid by J.G. Oswald, a local concrete man and stone mason, while town carpenter Adam Barenz raised the walls of the new house. A big cistern was built under the new kitchen for the Geuthers’ water use, while the family also had a cow, two horses and a barn stocked with hay. Charles Geuther secured wood for use at home from a local forest, had it chopped, which his family then sorted into an outbuilding on their property. Also on their acreage in town was a 40-foot-high windmill and a verdant garden, along with a plot upon which the Geuthers cultivated corn.


   In an uncommon move for a young lady in her time and place, Lydia Geuther received a higher education, having attended one year of classes beginning in the 1912 school year at the teachers’ college in DeKalb, this institution now being known as Northern Illinois University. Upon the completion of her courses, the newly made educator came back to Mokena and took a teaching position at the now all but forgotten one-room Marti School on the northeast corner of today’s Wolf Road and 187th Street. A tiny, primitive building by our 21stcentury standards, Lydia’s 1916 class consisted of eleven students, all of whom lived on nearby farms. Lydia took a salary of $60 a month until she gave up the spot in 1919. 


The Geuthers of Mokena, seen here around 1916. Standing in rear row, left to right, are Mabel (Krapp), Milton, and Lydia (Kohl). Seated in first row, left to right, are Charles, Olive (Stellwagen), Harold and Sarah. (Image courtesy of Amy Donoho)


   It was a past time of Lydia’s in those years leading up to the First World War to watch baseball matches from a two-seat swing in a shady spot of the Geuther lawn, which provided a commanding view of Erickson Park across the road, on the sight of today’s First Court. These local games were no trifling, small-time affair; on the contrary, nothing that exists in today’s village can be compared to them. The Mokena team was composed of crack hometown athletes who drew crowds of hundreds, especially when they played their arch rivals, Frankfort. One of our players was a robust lad named Lawrence Frederick Kohl, who everyone called Lence. Eight years Lydia’s senior, he was born in the southern reaches of Orland Township on a farm in the vicinity of what is now called 104th Avenue. Like the Geuthers, the Kohls were agriculturists, and no fresh arrivals to our environs, having first set foot in Frankfort Township by way of Chicago and a village called Fliessen in the Austrian Empire during the antebellum years. 


   Along the way, Lydia and Lence got to know each other better, and two paths merged as one when they were married in February 1920. Theirs was a small, intimate ceremony held in the Geuther house in Mokena, officiated by Rev. William Kreis of St. John’s German Evangelical Church. After the wedding, the new Mr. and Mrs. Kohl left on an evening Rock Island train bound for Chicago, amid, as the village News-Bulletin put it, “a copious shower of rice.” The couple moved to the Mokena farm of Lence’s parents after they tied the knot, a sprawling place on the north side of today’s 191st Street at the intersection with Schoolhouse Road. The whole estate was nothing to sneeze at, as it took up 160 acres. Lence’s Dad and Mom, Anton and Elizabeth Kohl, acquired the place from the widow Helena Schiek in 1895, which contained a spacious two-story farmhouse built not too long after it came into the Kohls’ hands. At one point during the early years of the Kohls’ ownership, the construction of a southern extension of what we now know as 108th Avenue threatened to bisect the farm, and in order to thwart the dissection of their property, the family built a large dairy barn in the path of the projected road in 1908, and as draconian eminent domain statutes didn’t exist in those days, the matter was dropped. 


Newlyweds Lence and Lydia Kohl. (Image courtesy of Amy Donoho)


   Three children would come to grace the home of Lence and Lydia Kohl, namely Roy Everett, who was born July 15th, 1921, next came Marvin Lawrence on May 23rd, 1925, who Mokenians always knew as Miff, and rounding out the family was Dorothy Mae, who came into the world on May 23rd, 1932. When she was a baby, Lence Kohl would rock his daughter in her cradle via a string tied from the cradle to his leg, so as not to take him away from card games in the next room with his friends. Musical talent ran strong in the Kohl family; Lydia played an upright Bauer piano that, upon her marriage, was shipped to Mokena over the Rock Island from Chicago. All in all, it cost $600, which she financed with her salary from the days teaching at Marti School. Lence played the violin, and Roy Kohl became a masterful and moving singer in his time. Dorothy Kohl was nothing short of a musical prodigy, taking up the piano in her earliest childhood before going on to take lessons from a teacher who traveled to Mokena from the county seat once a week. She eventually added the organ to her repertoire, and was playing local weddings by the time she was 16. So in demand was her talent, that she generally played nuptials every Saturday, and some days even two. Sharing her natural gift with not just Mokena, Dorothy also became a paid organist at New Lenox and Tinley Park churches, and continued her musical tradition even after she moved away in later years. 


   At her 191st Street home, Lydia Kohl was a hardworking farm wife. She used a wood-burning stove, and in the words of her daughter Dorothy, she “baked homemade bread, pies, cakes and did the washing and ironing.” The Kohls didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity until May 1932, the midst of the Depression years. In these rough days, Robert Hohenstein worked for the family, a young nephew of Lence’s who had lost his mother at a young age. All vegetables in the household came from the Kohl garden, along with all fruit from the orchard, which would be made into jams and jellies. It was a true farm to table lifestyle, with all meat being butchered on site. 


   For the Kohls, Mokena wasn’t just a place to live, but a locale where they directed their hearts back into the community. Lence was one of the founders of the Will County Farm Bureau, and was especially active in local school matters, having served on the board of District 159 for many years. As the Second World War was ending and the recent closure of Mokena’s two-year high school was fresh on all minds, the idea began to be kicked around of forming a new high school district encompassing Mokena and Orland Park. Within a few years, this initial concept grew and transformed into a plan to combine Mokena, Frankfort, Lincoln Estates, New Lenox and Manhattan into a new district. Thus the seed was born for the creation of Lincoln-Way High School, of which Lence Kohl played an integral role, first taking a place on the survey committee, and then ultimately on the new school’s first board of education. As the groundwork was being laid, Dr. William Reavis of the University of Chicago’s School of Education came to our neck of the woods to give his advice, and after all was said and done, the doctor presented Lence with an august cane of hickory in honor of his work establishing the new high school district, which ensured the future of Mokena’s students. As he got on in years, Lence Kohl was honored by the Mokena Chamber of Commerce in 1963 for his service to the village, not only recognizing him for his work with our schools but also for his involvement with the Mokena Planning Commission, having a seat thereon since its inception in 1952.

    Lydia Kohl was also devoted to Mokena, having served not only on the 1963 historical committee that produced the lively booklet The Story of Mokena, but also gave much of her time to 4H matters. To this day, she is still lovingly looked back upon by the Mokenians that she mentored in their youth, remembered as a leader who was kind and caring, hardworking, and available to all who needed her.  


The farm of the Kohl family on 191st Street in the era following the Second World War. (Image courtesy of Amy Donoho)


    Lence Kohl crossed the great beyond in May 1976, in his 88th year. Another pall was cast when the stately dairy barn and silo on the Kohl farm were consumed by fire at Thanksgiving time 1978, Lydia being greatly saddened by their loss, lamenting that her home no longer looked like a farm without them. The incident was whispered in town to have been arson by an outside party; an eerie reminder of a similar fire that happened on a frigid February night in 1969 when unknown hands placed an ignited street flare against the wall of a corn crib. Luckily, in this first occurrence, passing motorists saw the flames, managed to awake Lence Kohl and together they put out the blaze before serious damage could be done. 


   As her Mokena slowly lost its rural atmosphere in the sunset of her years, Lydia Kohl continued to live in her idyllic home on 191st Street where she kept busy crafting braided and hooked rugs. She departed this world in Joliet a few weeks after New Year’s 1990, in which year she would have turned 94. The Kohl farmhouse disappeared from the landscape not long thereafter; an earthen mound at the northern head of Schoolhouse Road is all that remains of the family homestead. Lence and Lydia Kohl along with their children are now gone from our midst, but they all are fondly remembered by countless village folk. The Kohl legacy lives on in the Mokena that was greatly touched by their having been a part of it. May their memory live eternal in our community.