Saturday, May 6, 2023

Sturm und Drang: The Story of Jakob Baumgartner and the Great 1879 Saloon Debacle

   A family’s peace can have profound consequences for a community. Luckily for we Mokenians, as a whole we tend to be an amiable lot, keeping to our own affairs as we live and let live. However, many have been the times in our town’s history that disputes between husbands and wives or parents and children have spilled out into the public arena, shocking all within hearing range. Happening in yesteryear, these incidents were only amplified by the smallness of our then-rural village, a place where everyone knew everyone else. Looking back over the span of ages, one incident from the far-off year of 1879 stands out as the perfect example. What had started out as a family drama, eventually engulfed not only Mokena, but our sister town of Frankfort to such a stark degree that the media in the county seat paid close attention. It all swirled around one man, a farmer named Jakob Baumgartner. 

   Bearing the immense honor of being one of our earliest pioneers, Jakob Baumgartner’s life is worth a close look. He came to us by way of an idyllic Swiss village called Rapperswil, where he was born on September 2nd, 1828 to Jakob Baumgartner Sr. and Anna Maria Bart. Baumgartner spent his formulative years in this charming sliver of Europe, a community whose history can be traced to the age of the Roman Empire. All in all, this resolute clan came to America and carved out a place of their own in the freshly formed Frankfort Township in 1851, the family unit at that time being made up of Jakob, his parents, two of his brothers and four of his sisters. At least one account mentions that Jakob’s older brother Johannes was already stateside at this time, seeking his fortune in the gold fields of California. Regardless of who was in our environs when, looking back over the stretch of more than a century and a half, we can call every member of this family a founding mother and father of our community. 

 

   The elder Jakob Baumgartner began amassing land holdings between today’s Mokena and Frankfort, and before his death in 1855, had come to own several hundred acres, that would by and by pass to his sons Jakob and Johannes, after the latter had returned from the west. The lion’s share of Jakob Jr.’s acreage was centered around contemporary Route 45 and St. Francis Road, where his homestead stood on the northeast side of the country intersection.  In the spring of 1853, young Jakob Baumgartner took Philippina Maue as his wife, at a time when Mokena was a hatchling of a town, barely being a year old. Philippina was six years her husband’s junior, and the daughter of a pioneering German family who lived a tad north of where our village was sprouting up. Together, the couple would raise ten children of their own, all of whom were born in Frankfort Township. 



The homestead of Jakob Baumgartner in Frankfort Township as it appeared in 1873.

 

   Being possessed of the immoveable faith that characterized our Teutonic residents, Jakob and Philippina Baumgartner were founding parishioners of the German United Evangelical St. John’s Church in Mokena, having been with the flock since they first worshipped together in our one-room schoolhouse in 1858. In proving his dedication to his beliefs and congregation, Jakob made a gift to them that year of eight dollars, or roughly 280 dollars in today’s funds.  By 1860, nine years after his arrival, the American dream had come to favor Jakob Baumgartner; his farm at the time being composed of 80 acres of improved land, with seven horses and twelve milch cows. Over the previous year, he had produced 100 bushels of wheat, and 2,000 bushels of Indian corn. The estate only expanded to the east as time went on, engulfing acreage previously owned by Baumgartner’s younger brother Benedicht. In his day, Jakob Baumgartner was a well-respected man in both Mokena and Frankfort, and by the 1870s, he was prospering, even going to establish a cheese factory in 1875 with brother Johannes, father-in-law Franz Maue, neighbor George Geuther and another man. A proud local landmark, it stood on the northern banks of Hickory Creek until it was moved to a spot east of Frankfort in 1991.

 

   Jakob Baumgartner was no stranger to intrigue. A particularly ugly incident in the summer of 1868 ended with his being shot in the face by one Rudolph Gefeller, in what appeared to be a dispute over money. The wound was a serious one, but the farmer was able to pull through. In the prime of his life, America was a place where many societal problems could be blamed on alcoholism, a plague on our land. The glut of saloons in Mokena and Frankfort didn’t help either. So it was, that Jakob Baumgartner had fallen under the vile curse of drink. Everything came to a head in what one contemporary called a “most fiendish and hell-deserving outrage” shortly after the passing of his father-in-law, Franz Maue. As the funeral cortege of nearly 100 horse-drawn carriages was making its way to St. John’s Cemetery on rainy March 5th, 1879, the mourners passed a large, homemade sign outside Mokena reading “Jacob Baumgartner, a habitual drunkard and son-in-law of the deceased.” The sight was unexpected and a shock to all who saw it that day, with one Frankforter even opining 

 

“Did anyone ever suppose humanity would become so debased as to offer such an open insult to a funeral procession? Alas, alas, what are we coming to?”

 

   Whether it was the imbroglio with the sign or some other long forgotten impasse, the proverbial straw had broken the camel’s back. 33-year-old Frank Baumgartner, son of Jakob, had reached a point of no return. He set the saloon keepers of Mokena and Frankfort, whom he faulted for his father’s condition, in his crosshairs. The younger Baumgartner swore out a complaint to the grand jury, and a total of eight saloonists from both towns were indicted on charges of “selling to a person in the habit of getting intoxicated.” Many accusations were made against the farmer, and from our standpoint in the 21st century, it must be remembered that Jakob Baumgartner was the victim of a terrible disease, one that had little prospects for cure in his day, and we shouldn’t view him with the harsh judgement that some of his contemporaries did. It bears remembering that none of us were there, and that we have to rely on period accounts to tell the story. The truth is somewhere between the clouds. As the Baumgartner case gained traction, it was noticed by the Joliet papers. The Signal was a steadfast defender of his, and refuted every point that been made about him, stating that he was “a man whose word is as good as gold” and that “he always manages his business successfully.” The Weekly Sunsaid that his “life has been a blameless one”, although both publications admitted there was at least a kernel of truth to the claims, with the former sheet writing “he would occasionally take a glass of beer and once in a while, perhaps, exhibit the exhilarating effects of so doing in a small degree” and the latter “at times he gets too much to drink, which (is) a great source of grief to his family.”

 

   The case came to trial in the county seat in early 1879, and ran for two days. The defendants were watering hole owners Ferdinand and John Schiek, and John Zahn of Mokena, along with Charles Baumann, F. Kramer and Martin Muff of Frankfort. Two Mokena barkeeps, Nicholas Schuberth and Phillip Stellwagen were also initially indicted, but managed to have their charges dropped. The accused combined their resources to put up a mutual defense, but even this act of solidarity was a rocky road – one saloonist who was not party to the charges was encouraged to contribute to the fund, but would have nothing to do with it. Outraged, the others tried to blackmail him on charges of serving minors unless he chipped in, but upon reminding them that they did nothing for him when he sat in jail for a couple months previously, he made his point. Fifty witnesses were subpoenaed, leading citizens of Mokena and Frankfort both. At the end of the proceedings, each defendant was fined $20 and costs. Feeling morally justified, on reporting the verdict the Joliet Daily News preached that it would teach the saloon keepers to “look out for these old suckers”, referencing Jakob Baumgartner and those like him. 



The grave of Jakob Baumgartner in St. John's Cemetery. (Image courtesy of Michael Philip Lyons)

 

   The actions of Frank Baumgartner in bringing charges against the saloon keepers led to an unexpected financial fallout for him. Maintaining the family cheese factory on Hickory Creek, he ran into problems in the aftermath of the debacle when Mokena and Frankfort’s German farmers refused to sell him their dairy products. In the words of the Joliet Republican, “the watch-word with them appears to be ‘no lager, no milk.’” With the passage of time, it is unknown how Jakob Baumgartner’s disease played out or if he ultimately recovered. In any case, he eventually retired and moved to Englewood, where he departed on March 16th, 1892 of cancer. The German United Evangelical St. John’s Church of Mokena buried him in their graveyard south of town, where a weathered obelisk stands over his dust, its gothic lettering still readable when the sun hits it just right. An acrimonious ruckus was raised in 1879, but all these years later we should remember that Jakob Baumgartner was a founding pioneer of our community and a pillar in St. John’s Church, which continues to do the same great work in our town that it did in his day. Although the path upon which he walked was sometimes rough, he deserves to be remembered and honored. 

Sunday, April 9, 2023

A Century of History: The Story of Front Street's Kolber Building

   It was one of the stateliest buildings to ever grace Mokena. Its 19th century eminence exuded grace, money and commerce, and within its walls built by the sturdy hands of our pioneers, over a century of our village’s history played out. Having formerly stood on the northwest corner of Front and Mokena Streets, this vanished landmark, long since faded into the background of history, was host to a cross section of some of the most unique personages in our collective story. As succeeding generations grew older and new Mokenians came into the scene, the monikers for the place also changed – our forefathers in the aftermath of the Civil War knew the locale as Conrad Stoll’s general store, while early in the 20th century villagers would’ve known it as David Kolber’s hardware emporium, and later local youth called the place Gus Braun’s ice cream shop. Turning back the curtain of the ages at this corner reveals no small amount of local lore attached to this spot.  


A vibrant scene of Front Street looking east towards Mokena Street, circa 1920. The edifice at the heart of this story stands at second from left, and was at this time the home of David Kolber’s hardware store. 

 

   The old structure occupied a prime location in town, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of our community’s business life. Based on its immense size and the way it was constructed, whoever it was that built this place, had to have first envisioned it as a hotel, as the Mokena of its day was a rapidly blooming, up-and-coming spot on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. Who this early entrepreneur was, or if any travelers ever took a room there, is long since lost to the unforgiving tides of time. Also erased from the ages of memory is the exact date this grand edifice was built. Its walls were raised in a vernacular version of the Greek Revival style, its long, broad front being a stark hallmark of this feature. Due to the fact that this style of architecture saw widespread use in the American Midwest during the years leading up to the Civil War, it can be deduced that this building made its appearance sometime in those halcyon days after the Rock Island was first built and Mokena was born in 1852.

 

   Looking back, the first name that can confidently be tied to this property is that of Swiss-born carpenter Sebastian Lagger, who with his wife Magdalena sold this lot and the one directly north in March of 1861. While having previously lived in our midst, at the time of the sale the Laggers had moved to the county seat, and in an interesting footnote, their son Sebastian Jr., who was born in a log cabin in Mokena in 1856, would serve as mayor of the former place from 1897 to 1900.  When the Laggers sold their Mokena property, the legal paperwork turned it over to Ludwig Stoll for $450, quite a substantial sum in those days. At the time of the sale, a building was already situated on the parcel, in which Stoll operated a flour and feed store. 

 

   The new owner was a man of sterling quality, being a native of the miniscule Teutonic duchy of Nassau in the southwest of today’s Germany. Having lived in the shadow of the Taunus mountain range, Ludwig Stoll was considered an “expert miller and mechanical engineer” in his homeland. Seeking greener pastures, he left Europe with his family in tow in 1846, being fortunate enough to just miss the revolutionary upheaval that swept the continent two years later. The Stolls sailed the blue Atlantic via Holland, and landed in New York City on August 12th, after a mercifully calm voyage of 56 days. The patriarch followed his profession in the Empire State until 1855, when the twists and turns of destiny took the family to us in Illinois. Ludwig ultimately didn’t hold onto his property in young Mokena for long, as he turned around and sold it to his 42-year-old son Conrad Leopold Stoll on May 1st, 1861, mere weeks after the beginning of the Civil War. Seven months later, on December 12th, the head of the family departed from some long-forgotten ailment. 

 

   New owner Conrad Stoll would come to open a general merchandise store in the Front Street building. After first braving the transatlantic voyage reaching our shore with the rest of his family in the summer of 1846, he went to Pennsylvania to seek his fortune, only to turn up empty handed, before bouncing back to his kin in New York, and ultimately joining his father in our neck of the woods in 1859. At the time of his arrival in the village, he was on his second wife, young Franziska, and the father of seven children, of which four more would join them after their midwestern arrival. The Stolls would be inseparable with the early building up of Mokena. Aside from the new store, which would only grow in economic stature over time, Conrad along with his brothers Charles, Henry and William would build a steam-powered grist mill here in 1858. Located in the vicinity of today’s Walnut Lane, the whole concern prospered until it went up in smoke in a calamitous fire in 1860, and ultimately cost Henry Stoll $10,700. After the fire came the Civil War, the cataclysmic event of their generation, when Conrad Stoll’s 16-year-old son William fudged his age and threw his hat in with the Union Army, and was lucky enough to come back to Mokena when the guns fell silent. 

 

   In the wave of economic prosperity that swept the North after the war’s end, Conrad Stoll’s emporium became the premier store in the village, with nearly anything a resident could want being available. A prominent spread printed in an 1873 Will County directory boasted of “staple and dry goods” on hand, as well as “choice family groceries, confectionery, notions, crockery and glassware” not to mention “paints, oils, cigars and tobacco.” Often times in studying businesses conducted in rural 19th century communities, it is the male proprietor whose name stands prominently upon the record of the years. This is not so in the case of Stoll & Company, as Franziska Stoll was just as much an entrepreneur as her husband. In her time, she was Mokena ladies’ go-to connection for hats, or millinery, to use the parlance of the day. An advertisement of hers that appeared in Joliet showcased her hats and bonnets, with flowers, feathers, ornaments, (trimmed and untrimmed) being available, as well as “veils, nets, crepes, silks, velvets and laces” for sale, along with “ribbons in all shades”, as well as the very peak of class, ostrich plumes. 

 

   Conrad Stoll of Mokena was known as a genial man, as is demonstrated by his New Year 1874 gift to the Joliet Republican of a half-gallon jug of wine. The folks at the paper were thrilled by the gift, writing in their pages that 

 

“the wine is as good as “oldest inhabitant” ever saw or tasted, and while it is appreciated for its richness of flavor, it is thrice valuable coming from a friend to a friend. May the donor live to welcome many New Years and may he ever be as happy as when we last saw him.”

 

   Stoll was also a man who stood by his opinions, as is shown by the letters he wrote in his native tongue to the German-language Illinois Staats-Zeitung in the 1870s. An 1873 missive details his satisfaction with a recent election in Chicago, where a tough-on-crime element won a round of local polling, Stoll backing them up with the words “The rogues and loafers must get the highest punishment and Chicago must become a safe place to shop.” Another communique from four years later, in which the publication lauded him as one of the foremost German residents of the state, lamented a particularly bad season of potato bugs and advocated hefty applications of Paris Green, a highly toxic pesticide in use in those days.  

 

   Being a successful business and property owner in Mokena also came with its share of headaches, such as the time in the fall of 1894 when Conrad Stoll alerted the village board to the fact that surface water on Front Street was leaking into his cellar, which in his view was caused by insufficient drainage on the street. When exactly the well-respected doors of Stoll & Company closed for the last time has been lost from recorded history, but the concern’s founder passed in March 1897 of pneumonia at the age of 78, his mortal remains being borne to St. John’s Cemetery south of town. 

 

   As Conrad Stoll’s memory was being honored by his family and neighbors, his wife Franziska kept ownership of the Front Street property. Be that as it may, there is nevertheless a blank spot on the history of this place in these years. It is known, however, that Mokenian John A. Hatch kept his general store here for a period in the last decade of the 19th century until 1901, when he moved the business to the structure that formerly held his hall, which in that year had been moved south of the Rock Island tracks onto Mokena Street. In the first years of the new century, a succession of short-lived enterprises was housed in the old Stoll building. There were at least five saloons, one of which derisively referred to as a “grog dispensary”, while another concern, that of E.F. Niemeier of Chicago, boasted an impressive array: namely a hotel, restaurant, taproom, billiard room and bowling alley, not to mention the barber shops, a feed business, and an itinerant photographer that also took up residence there in this era. 

 


Seen here on the right around 1910, the Stoll building witnessed a century of Mokena’s history. (Image courtesy of Richard Quinn)

 

   Around Thanksgiving 1909, the Stoll estate sold the property to Frank Liess, member of a prominent local family, and cashier of the newly founded Mokena State Bank.  While the Joliet press was touting the place as an old village landmark, a ghost from the past reared its uninvited head. As the paperwork of this transaction was being shuffled in the county seat, several of the now adult Stoll children challenged a tangled legal situation, in which they contended that due to intricacies in the property’s title, their mother had no lawful right to sell it, but only to will it to them. A partition suit was filed in the circuit court of Will County, but whatever its outcome may have been, is long since lost to the winds of time. 

 

   As Frank Liess took ownership, a regimen of major remodeling was carried out, with one of the most drastic changes being the removal of an old wooden porch that ran the entire southern length of the building. Liess ultimately only owned the property for less than a year, before flipping it for $2,700 to fellow village resident David Kolber in September 1910. Like Conrad and Franziska Stoll before him, Kolber was not a native born American, having immigrated to this country in 1888 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. An interesting and often overlooked figure in our village’s narrative, David Kolber was a native of the Austro-Hungarian empire and of Jewish faith, and he and his family may have been the first followers of this religion to live in Mokena. The Kolbers located here in the spring of 1903, when David opened a hardware store and tin shop in town, which he moved into his new property on the corner in March of 1911. Even though his move was only a few doors away, the normal stress that comes with relocation was probably compounded by the fact that the pipes in the vacant Stoll building had frozen and burst two months before, with over 200 barrels of water flooding the place and streaming out of the doors and windows. 

 

   David Kolber was a man well respected by his fellow Mokenians. Years down the line, village resident Clinton Kraus would look back at the hardware man and his wife Anna, and remember their small town ways:

 

“These folks were sure good to all of us in many ways…He sure trusted us when money was scarce. He was one businessman who had credit, and if you promised to make payments on certain dates he believed you. If you fooled him for no reason at all, he said cash sales only in the future.”

 

   David Kolber earned his place in Mokena’s history when he foiled a late-night break-in at the Mokena State Bank, even if he hadn’t meant to. At about 2:30am on the morning of May 12th, 1911, he rose from his slumbers and went to his kitchen to fetch a glass of water. At one point, he raised the blind on a window that faced the bank building, which was his neighbor immediately to the west. In doing so, he made a minor ruckus, which caused a man in a black coat and stiff hat who had been fiddling with a back window on the bank to flee past him and off toward the Rock Island tracks across the street. Rightfully so, Kolber found this very suspicious, and bleary eyed, made his way to the home of village marshal Conrad Schenkel to wake him and report what he had seen. The two turned Mokena upside down trying to find the man, but came up empty handed. Upon closer inspection, it was found that the window in question had been pried open a few inches. In the coming days, it was generally surmised that the would-be yegg had been casing the bank on behalf of a bigger gang of robbers. While a reward of $100 was posted for him, no one ever figured out who he was.

 

  David Kolber might not have come to America on the Mayflower, but he was just as patriotic a citizen as the best of them. On Lincoln’s Birthday 1922, editor William Semmler of Mokena’s News-Bulletin noted that Kolber was the only businessman in town to fly the Stars and Stripes for Honest Abe’s day, a fact for which “Mr. Kolber is to be highly complimented.” Following an appendicitis operation in the autumn of 1931, David Kolber passed at the relatively young age of 61 years. Such was his position in the social strata of Mokena, that every business in town closed at the hour of his funeral.

 

   As far as the oldest minds in the village can remember, Willard Martie and his uncle Gus Braun moved into this old place in the early 1930s, during the hardest years of the Great Depression. The two had already been in the confectionary business together one door to the east, and after planting their stakes in the Stoll building, Braun took over the concern. An unmarried man who had spent much of his life to that point as an area farmer, Gus Braun would become a Front Street fixture, his shop a place where many a Mokena youth went to get a Coke and an ice cream. Those in the know still remember Braun’s unique way of scooping the cold treat; doing so in a way that left it not as a solid ball, but rather with a hollow middle. What had likely started as a Depression era and later wartime effort to make his product go farther, would become a habit. While Gus Braun’s demeanor occasionally had a sense of ruggedness that some would describe as grouchy, his local establishment provided a place for young people to while away their time in small farm town where there weren’t nearly as many distractions available as there are to today’s generation. Aside from his confectionary, Braun also kept a pool hall in the northeastern wing of the building that was parallel to Mokena Street. This was a very manly place, not one where many women or children ventured. At least one village youngster would always try sneak a peek inside the Mokena Street entrance whenever he passed, eternally curious about what happened in this part of the structure. Gus Braun was also an avid bowler, and on league nights, would leave his shop in the hands of Art Benson, his trusty young soda jerk.  

 


Two wooden benches in front of Gus Braun’s ice cream shop were a popular gathering spot for Mokenians. Pictured here around 1940 from left to right are Arthur Hurley, brothers Ralph and Earl Schoeneck, Hans Mueller and Gus Braun standing in the doorway. (Image courtesy of Richard Quinn)

 

    After Gus Braun’s passing in 1951, there were a few confectionaries housed on the premises afterward, the first operated by Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hilgendorf of Frankfort, but none of them were on the scene for long. As the years of the 1950s moved on, local businessman Milton Geuther purchased the century old building, and converted the property into apartments, providing many Mokenians with a place to call home. In the fall of 1960, the board of directors of the neighboring Mokena State Bank sealed a deal with Geuther for the historic place, and not too long thereafter, it was razed to make way for the bank’s parking lot. The time-honored walls of this spot were steeped in local history, and witnessed generations of community flavor. They saw the village grow from a young railroad stop to a post-Second World War midwestern metropolis, and even though all physical vestiges of the Stoll building are gone, those whose stories are attached to this land live on in the pantheon of Mokena’s story. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

800 Pounds of Treasure: The 1937 Heist of the Mokena Post Office

   Mokena’s story is a long and winding one, stretching back nearly two centuries, containing countless moments of mirth and buoyancy. When we look back, these are the times that first come to mind, and rightfully so, as they are what make our village feel like home. However, a close look upon the record of the years will also review nefarious bits as well. These are things we aren’t proud of, but that nevertheless, any locale as old as ours will have. From the bone-crushing riots of the 19th century detailed elsewhere in these pages, to the infamous robbery of Mokena State Bank that is still talked about to this day, nearly a 100 years later, we have some high-octane events on our collective timeline. One case ranks up with the rest of them, one that is remembered by increasingly few; the 1937 heist at the Mokena post office has all but slipped into the cracks of history. 

   This institution is almost as old as the village itself, tracing its founding to February 10th, 1853, when our town was less than a year old. The same day, the honor of calling himself our first postmaster was bestowed upon Warren Knapp, Esq., who a little over a year before, founded the first business in what would become Mokena, at a time before the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad was fully completed. A 26-year-old man of New York birth, Knapp married into the McGovney family in 1850, when he took Nancy as his wife, the younger sister of future first mayor Ozias. Where exactly Warren Knapp’s post office stood in the newborn village cannot be reconstructed from the historic record, although it’s reasonable to think it could have been in his combined general store and residence, a small stone building that stood on the site of today’s 11124 Front Street. 

 

   That Mokena was a railroad town since its birth, gave us excellent postal connections to the world. From the outset, it was the job of the Rock Island agent and his helper to bring sacks of mail from the post office to the depot, but a 1921 ruling passed by Uncle Sam changed this, from then on this would be the domain of a new hire. A blurb under the headline “Do You Want a Job?” that appeared in the November 2nd, 1921 edition of Mokena’s News-Bulletin looked for bidders for the position, it stating that applicants had to be at least 16, and that “whoever takes the job will be paid monthly”, not to mention that “six mails a day will have to be handled, in addition to hanging mail pouches on mail cranes twice daily”, the final part of the sentence referencing the wooden arms that allowed mail bags to be grabbed via hook from fast-moving trains.

 

   Today we take it for granted that nearly anyone is a text message away, but in the days before this rapid, instantaneous communication, the arrival of a fresh load of mail over the rails was a much-anticipated event. Some sardonic pointers passed on by the postmaster of neighboring Tinley Park in 1924 give life to this fact:

 

NOTICE.

Advice to Patrons.

 

Positively no letters will be delivered until received.

If you do not get your letter the day you expect it, have the Postmaster look through all the boxes and in the cellar, also, it ought to be there somewhere and he likes to look for it just to please you.

If your friends don’t write, curse the Postmaster, he is to blame.

If he tells you there is no mail for you, put on a grieved expression and say there ought to be some, he is probably hiding your mail for the pleasure of having you call for it six or seven times a day, and after every freight or hand car.

ASK HIM TO LOOK AGAIN.

 

   From its first days until the lean years of the Great Depression, the Mokena post office counted 20 postmasters and postmistresses, and was housed in a head-spinning number of different locations in the village. On June 18th, 1934, Miss Margaret M. Maue received her commission as postmistress, at a time when the community counted around 350 residents. The 28-year-old local native oversaw an office counting three employees; namely herself, her clerk and one rural mail carrier, at which time her charge was located in a small wing of an old building that stood on the northwest corner of Front and Division Streets. Less than three years into her stewardship, an event transpired that would stay with Margaret Maue for the rest of her days. 

 


This idyllic circa 1925 view looking west from the corner of Front and Division Streets shows the Mokena Hardware Company at right, and within the red circle, the Mokena Post Office. (Image courtesy of Richard Quinn)

 

   In the pitch black of Tuesday morning, March 2nd, 1937, Front Street stood quiet and still, not a soul stirred. At about four o’clock, a truck piloted by unknown yeggs cut through the pre-dawn darkness and ambled into town. The conveyance was backed up to the post office, and the nameless miscreants went on to cut a hole in the front door’s glass, whereupon one snaked his arm in and opened the catch lock. A team of men went inside, maybe four or five of them, and beelined for the office’s safe, an 800-pound colossus. Using lots of elbow grease and oomph, they lugged it from the back of the post office and through the lobby, leaving gouges on the floor, then outside and into the truck. Before they disappeared, one of the crooks tore open a package addressed to Ben Tewes, but open rifling through its contents, was not impressed with them and threw the box aside. 

 

   The whole thing was just as easy as that. The thieves made their hasty escape, leaving tire tread marks on the ground in front of the post office. The entire time they were busy, they never had to worry about being interrupted in their deed, as neighbors would later report having heard a truck idling in those early hours, but thought nothing of it. 

 

   Flashing forward to 5:30 that morning, 70-year-old Front Street resident and local mail messenger Julius Grothendick turned up at the post office to get started on the day’s work. To his horror, he found the office’s door ajar and the safe missing. Starting a chain of frenzied communication, Grothendick, Mokena’s sole veteran of the Spanish-American war, alerted Postmistress Maue, who in turn notified federal postal officials in Chicago. In no time flat, two inspectors showed up in town, who sealed off the premises, allowing no one to come or go. The whole post office was dusted for finger prints, and photos were extensively taken both inside and out of the small wing of the building that held the office. In the meantime, Mokena lawman George Bennett posted himself in the doorway and handed out the mail to any villager who came for it.

   Miss Maue tallied up her losses. The biggest were the $1,300 in government saving bonds (worth around $27,000 in today’s money) and the $400 in stamps that disappeared. Along with them were cashed money orders representing $82, then $198 in cash, $60 in checks and two books of blank money orders. To add insult to injury, all of the post office’s record books were in the $50 safe, and none of it was insured. 

 

                                                                                    

         Seen here around 1930, Margaret M. Maue was postmistress of the local post office at the time of the robbery.

 

   The next chapter in the saga played out six days after the heist. On the morning of Wednesday, March 10th, a traveling attorney spotted what was described as a “pile of junk” along the old Monee road, four miles southwest of Chicago Heights. Whatever it was, it was “battered beyond repair”, and upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a safe, or at least what was left of one. Nearby, a set of railroad tools was found cast aside, consisting of a pick, two sledge hammers, and others. It was deduced that these had been used to smash it open. 

Rightfully finding all of this fishy, the lawyer notified the police. Sure enough, with the help of postal authorities, the wrecked safe was traced back to Mokena. Interestingly, most of the contents of the safe from the post office were found along with it, only the $400 in stamps and $198 in cash were missing. Postmistress Maue was able to get the rest of the documents back to town, but the historic record is unclear as to what she did with the broken safe. Curiously, that same morning, yet another wrecked safe complete with railroad tools was found abandoned two miles east of Frankfort. Determined to belong to a grocery store in the county seat, it was surmised that this was the handiwork of the same gang that attacked the Mokena post office. 

 

   Life kept going in Mokena, the Second World War came and went, the baby boom started, and the village enjoyed a period of prosperity. In June 1952, there was yet another robbery of the post office, in which a large number of money orders were looted. In any case, the whole event wasn’t as high profile as the case 15 years earlier, and the whole thing has been forgotten by history, much as the 1937 heist has. Postmistress Margaret Maue, one of the most intrepid young women in our community’s history, took Francis O’Brien as her husband in 1941, and held her office in Mokena until 1968. Her 34 years running our post office is, as far as anyone can tell, a village record that still stands to this day. Perhaps the crowning moment in Margaret O’Brien’s career was the dedication of the new post office in 1960, a building which still stands at 11134 Front Street. The Mokena post office is a community institution that goes back almost to the day our village was born. As the great robbery of 1937 proves, its history isn’t all sorting letters and stamping cards. 

 


Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Nectar that Jupiter Sips: The Story of Mokena Mineral Springs

   Whether it be a hard workout, an arduous hike, or a long day doing housework, a cold glass of water always hits the spot. While the sparkling goodness that flows from Mokena’s faucets now comes from Lake Michigan, generations of villagers were raised on our well water, which some (present company included) maintain tasted better. There was a time when Mokena water was so desired, that it was shipped to Chicago and Joliet markets where eager customers couldn’t get enough of it. Some even touted its supposed healing powers. In the first years of the 20th century, the Mokena Mineral Springs flourished as a local industry, being no small affair that put our fair village on the map for the first time. 

   At the turn of the century, Mokena was slowly emerging from a rough patch. The end of the 19th century was a time rife with economic turbulence and uncertainty, which led no small number of village residents to pack up and seek their fortunes elsewhere, with the town’s population plummeting to an all-time low in 1900, when a federal census taker counted a mere 281 souls living in town. The air was primed for a shift. The story begins with the poetically named Darlington T. Jones, a middle-aged native of Ohio and father of two who arrived in our environs in the last years of the 1890s. In a legal transaction completed in his wife Hattie’s name, the Joneses bought a small farm immediately south of town from the Mergenthaler family for $2,600 dollars in the spring of 1898, which they came to call “Breezy Hill.” To lay out the boundaries of the farm in today’s dimensions, the northern border was Denny Ave, the southern boundary stretching to contemporary LaPorte Road and the west and east boundaries laying on Center Street and at the edge of a farm in the hands of the McGovney family, today known as McGovney-Yunker farm. This little estate was quite an old one, tracing its history back to 1856 when Mokena’s founding father Allen Denny first sold it to Elisha P. Wilcox of LaSalle County, when our community was a mere hamlet along the new Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.  

 

   As Mokena historian Florence Pitman would recall decades later, Darlington Jones had a well drilled on his new property soon after taking possession, and something about the water he struck was different; somehow out of the ordinary. The twists and turns of time have left us few details as to the exact sequence of events, but eventually the water landed in the laboratory of a city chemist, who declared it to be an exceptionally healthy sort that even had medicinal qualities. The analyst found silica, ferrous bicarbonate, calcium sulphate, and traces of potassium chloride, not to mention various other features. Darlington Jones saw dollar signs, declared his Mokena water to be “superior to almost all water on the continent.” Before long, he had a windmill set up to pump the water from its source, and was supplying it to parties in Chicago. 

 


The backyard of the former Cooper residence on Mokena Street was the site of the original well on Breezy Hill. 

 

   By the summer of 1899, modest shipments of 200 to 400 gallons of the water were being made daily, with the brunt of it going to Chicago. By that fall, the total number was upped to 300 to 500 gallon lots going over the rails three or four times a week. That the Rock Island issued a special ticket for the shipment of the water, was in the words of the Will County Advertiser a “good indicator of business.” That first year, Jones was using over a thousand metal cans to transport the water, but once things really took off, specially built tank cars capable of holding a whopping 4,000 gallons were eventually used to bring the water over the railroad to market. In time, the water would be bottled in a plant near the Rock Island station in Englewood. Jones had grandiose visions of turning Breezy Hill into a health retreat, and even thought about having a hotel and sanitarium built on his property, but alas, for reasons unknown these plans never came to fruition. 

 

   At this early date, a correspondent known simply as Carl penned a piece titled “A Health Seeker Gives His Opinion of Mokena” that was carried by the Advertiser. He sang the praises of our village, writing that “the eye here commands a large scope of country and the view presented is wonderfully beautiful”, going on to say “the well-tilled farms with their growing crops, and the shocks of gathered grain, lend enchantment” before rating Mokena businesses as being “represented by industrious, progressive and energetic persons.” However, he heaped the best praise on the mineral springs. 

 

“With all of these things there is a still greater thing to boast of, and which in a year or two, will make Mokena a world-renowned town. You have a cool, pure and health-producing water.”

 

   He went on to reference the famous Sprudel water of Carlsbad, the renown spa town in today’s Czech Republic, and with no small amount of pride, boasted that “the chemical analysis of Jones’ spring shows it to be better, aye, 21 points its superior.” Carl saw the village’s new-found spring as a wave to ride, and ended his piece by proclaiming “there is a bright and prosperous future before Mokena.”

 

   At Christmastime 1901, Darlington and Hattie Jones took their profits and ran, unloading the operation to Frank E. Chamberlain and Albert P. Stevens of Joliet on December 15th. The Joneses had built up a nice little nest egg, ultimately selling the farm and spring for a tidy $20,000, vastly more than what they paid for it. The Jolietans hired Martin Brinckerhoff to be their manager, who lived on site. 

 

   Things went swimmingly into the first years of the 20th century, which were marked as a busy time for the new concern. In the spring of 1902, when “unusually large” shipments were going via the Rock Island to Chicago and Joliet, the stuff was whimsically referred to by the county press as “the nectar that Jupiter sips.” At this time, the first specific claims regarding the medicinal power of the water began to surface, with a report from April of 1900 lauding its magic at healing rheumatic and kidney troubles. It was also known to be a laxative, which in a moment of levity, Mokena historian Florence Pitman would later remark that it was “certainly more palatable than castor oil”, which was in widespread use at the time. A year later, an itinerant tea seller ran against village authorities for violating an ordinance, and while in custody made a claim that a legless man “had the member restored by a liberal use of the water.” All outrageous claims considered, Mokena was looked upon to be the picture of health in these years, due in no small part to our water. A November 1903 report in the Lockport Phoenix-Advertiser credited the stuff with giving villagers longevity, noting that “in the immediate vicinity there are 30 people upward of 70 years of age, and at least six are over 80, with 2 or 3 getting well up to the four score and ten mark.” All this in a time when the average life expectancy for an American male was 49 years. 

 

   Business sallied forth at Mineral Springs, and by April 1908, the company was shipping out about 2 railroad cars of water a week. Nevertheless, the concern garnered some bad press in the autumn of 1908 through owner Frank Chamberlain. The premier publication of the county seat, the Joliet Weekly News, shouted from the headlines of its September 17th, 1908 issue, “Waterman’s Wife Seeks Divorce”, and laid out a laundry list of smears against him. Chamberlain’s wife Virginia was seeking a separation on the grounds of “extreme cruelty”, going on to allege that the three servants in their home were ordered to pay no attention to her, and that “her husband spends much of his time sitting around the kitchen with the hired man, reading novels and cheap literature,” not to mention the fact that he was “affected by the excessive use of tobacco.” Maybe as a result of the divorce, Frank E. Chamberlain and Albert P. Stevens sold the Mokena water operation to Kate Knox, a well-to-do Chicago woman of some means. The two sellers took a hit, receiving only $10,000, less than half of what they paid for the spring and farm on top of it. However, when the transaction was completed in the first days of 1909, the red tape of the back-and-forth between the parties stipulated that Mrs. Knox was to hand over $5,000 worth of mineral water to Chamberlain. 

 

   As the era of Kate Knox’s ownership dawned, the idea was born to pipe the water directly north from the spring to the Rock Island railroad in the village. It was a notion that came about in fits and starts, almost as soon as it started the thought was ditched, then it came about again in October 1909, but a new bump in the road surfaced in the form of Mokena liveryman Henry Stellwagen. In order to get to where a standpipe was being built east of W.H. Bechstein’s grain elevator, the pipeline had to traverse Stellwagen’s land along today’s Mokena Street (just south of McGovney Street) a road which did not exist at the time. Stellwagen was finessed, and a little before Thanksgiving, ultimately gave his permission for the pipeline to be built. To make the whole thing work, a three-horsepower engine was installed in the spring house at Breezy Hill. 



Still standing on today's Mokena Street, this home was built during Kate Knox's ownership of the mineral springs.

 

  Alas, all good things must come to an end, and in time, the Mokena Mineral Springs became part of history, which begs the question of when exactly this occurred. The date the last drops of water were pumped is long since lost to the winds of time. As late as 1912, the village’ crack baseball team was still being called the “Mineral Water Boys”, and the last reference to a shipment of product from the spring comes in a March 1915 news piece. It is reasonable to surmise that the water business in Mokena ceased operations in the years before America’s entry into the first world war. 

 

   During her tenure on the property, Kate Knox greatly improved the farm and turned it into a first-rate poultry operation, having built a big chicken house in the spring of 1911, raising untold number of birds. She moved back to the Windy City in the summer of 1921, and sold Breezy Hill to a Mr. Patterson of the same place for $18,000. When the sale was first reported by Mokena’s News-Bulletin, the place was still called Mineral Springs, despite the fact that it appears no water had been lifted from there in quite some time. A disastrous fire less than a year later in March 1922 decimated the historic, decades-old house on the estate. Nevertheless, the burned house wasn’t the only residence at Breezy Hill, its sister, the larger domicile built during the Knox years still stands on today’s Mokena Street, it being later the home of mayor Charles Swanberg. 

 

   In the aftermath of the fire, Mr. Patterson of Chicago wasn’t long for the place, he having no interest in rebuilding the lost house. In turn, he sold the acreage to John and Jessie Gilmore, who had been working there the past ten years. Local historian Florence Pitman estimated that millions of gallons of water were sold during the existence of Mokena Mineral Springs, one of the most unique businesses our community has ever seen. The operation would come to lend its name to Mokena’s first modern subdivision, built immediately after the end of the Second World War on the grounds of the old farm. Next time your thirst needs quenching, and you are enjoying that refreshing goodness from far off, distant Lake Michigan, just don’t forget the “nectar of Jupiter” that is right beneath our own feet. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

A Troubled Property: The Story of Front Street's Stellwagen Buildings

   This is the tale of a pair of Front Street buildings, both long since lost to the ravages of time. The separate, neighboring structures were in the hands of one family for most of their existence, the Stellwagens; as such their narrative has melded into one story in the grander chronicle of Mokena. The piece of land where they once stood became for many years an idyllic and shady garden kept by Mrs. Evanis Dina, and is now a desolate, barren plot. While a passerby today would barely give a second thought to the property, decades of stories are attached to the land, some bearing joy, others heartache and woe. 

   To have stood in front of them, the building on the left, or west, would’ve fit perfectly in a John Wayne western. It stood two stories, tall and narrow, with a false front typical of its 19th century construction. Slabs of limestone made up its foundation, and it boasted big front windows that let in streams of natural light in the days before electricity. The easterly of the two structures was the older of the two, having been built in the earliest days of Mokena’s existence. It was fashioned in the Greek Revival school, popular in these parts in the days leading up to the Civil War. It sported a row of five windows overlooking Front Street in its second story, with three flanking its two front doors, one of which led to the living space in the house, for which the building was likely primarily built, while the other lead to a small space that once held a shoe making workshop. In its prime, it was one of the premier houses in town, a place that had been built not only for comfort, but also as something to be proud of. In later years, a bulletin board hung on its fa├žade that was adorned with old wanted posters. 

   Time was not kind to these places. After decades of mistreatment, they drastically deteriorated and came to be called “the Shacks”, and alternately by Mokena’s youth, “the Haunted Houses.” This is a different kind of history, one of consternation, headache and vexation. 

 


The westerly of the two Stellwagen buildings, as rendered by Mokena artist Jane Lorenz

 

   While the story of these properties didn’t start with Phillip Stellwagen, they would forever be associated with his family name. The first into his fold in January 1878, two years before Mokena was incorporated, when Stellwagen bought the westerly edifice for $750, and two years later, he expanded to the east and bought the house next door in the fall of 1880 for $680. The Stellwagen name is one intimately associated with the earliest days of Frankfort Township, having hailed from Pennsylvania by way of the grand duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt in today’s Germany, and set upon the western trail in 1844. According to a legend passed down in the family, the Stellwagens broke a wagon wheel traversing the wilderness of today’s Frankfort Township while on their way to Wisconsin, and were so taken with the neighborhood that they decided to stay, establishing a homestead complete with log cabin on contemporary St. Francis Road. 

 

   Phillip Stellwagen, the focus of this part of our story, was born in November 1842 while the clan still lived in the Keystone State. (Years later, some sources would place his birth year as late as 1843 or 1844) He took Mary Bauer as his wife in 1867, and together they raised a princely family of eleven children, of whom seven survived to adulthood. After the Phillip Stellwagens took possession of the Front Street buildings, they moved into the large house on the east side of the clump and the family patriarch opened a saloon in the commercial structure on the west. At least one account of those years refers to him being an inn keeper, indicating that he rented rooms to travelers as well. While the date when Phillip first opened the doors of his watering hole remains nebulous, as does the day he closed for the last time, the Stellwagen saloon was firmly a part of 1880s life in Mokena, joining six others that quenched the thirst of our primarily German-American townfolk in those days. That Phillip Stellwagen was a well-liked man, is bolstered by two reports written in 1880 and 1883, the first stating that “Phillip Stellwagen keeps a cool and shady retreat, where his genial good humor draws many customers”, while the other said that “Stellwagen, everybody knows Stellwagen. His pool table is a favorite resort and he has a good word for everyone.”

 


The easterly Stellwagen house, seen here around 1910.

 

   The Stellwagens still lived in our environs at the turn of the 20th century, by which point Phillip had given up the saloon and worked for a spell at harness making. When the 1900 census taker found him, he was recorded as still living with his family at the Front Street property and working as a teamster. In those first few years of the new century, at least part of the large Stellwagen family relocated to a farm near Blue Island; what it was that caused them to move to that neck of the woods, so far from Mokena, has been erased from the pages of history. What is clear, however, is that they retained ownership over their pair of Front Street buildings, even coming to owe money in back taxes on them. 

 

   In early 1907, two of Phillip Stellwagen’s adult sons, Edward and William, aged 24 and 35 years respectively, were inhabiting the property, while their parents and siblings continued to live in Cook County. Both single men, William (just called Dicky by Mokenians) was known for his talent at charming snakes, a contemporary saying in spring 1903 that he hypnotized the first snake of the season and “wore it as a necktie”. In the words of the Joliet News, the brothers were “a peculiar lot”, the two “seldom, if ever, allowing anyone to cross their threshold.” They were known to keep a fair number of horses on the place, and in the first week of March, one of the equines collapsed, unable to stay on its feet any longer. Some were of the opinion that the Stellwagens had been starving the beast. In the words of the same paper, “the poor horse was too poor to get its own living any longer.” Something also was amiss in the cellar of one of the buildings, with rumors making the rounds that it was full of dogs who had never seen the light of day.

   Complaints had reached Mayor Ozias E. McGovney and the village board, who after mulling over the matter, turned to Levi Doty of Frankfort, a man who spent most of his life championing the rights of animals, while at the same time using the fullest letter of the law to pinion those who would harm them unnecessarily. Gathering the facts of the case, Doty set the Stellwagen brothers in his crosshairs. On Friday, March 8th, he came to Mokena and after investigating the premises, was unable to gain access to the barn on the property where the afflicted horse lay. After coming back with village constable Oscar Klose, the two finally got into the barn, where Doty could do nothing more for the animal, ultimately “putting the animal out of his misery by shooting him.” Before he was on his way back to Frankfort, Levi Doty asked Officer Klose to keep his eye on the Stellwagens, and to pay especially close attention to what they did with the carcass.

   The next day the deceased horse was still there, and Officer Klose served notice on the brothers to remove the carcass for sanitary reasons. Edward and William Stellwagen responded by severely beating the law man; during the tussle, Klose’s star was torn from his shirt and his clothes nearly ripped from his body. Always prone to understatement, the Joliet News wrote that the brothers were “real ungentlemanly in manner.” In the meantime, the rumor mill had it that the Stellwagens were saving the horse carcass to feed to the dogs in their basement, and that Monday, Officer Klose came back with reinforcements (or a “small posse” in the words of the News) and arrested Edward and William, trooping them before Justice of the Peace Owen, who leveled a fine of $56 on them “for their fun.” To top things off, the village’s board of health also inspected the premises, and cited the Stellwagen brothers for having a “manure heap, uncleanly pens, coops and yard.” On March 15th, they were officially notified to abate and remove these nuisances within 30 days. 

 

   Phillip Stellwagen, the family patriarch, crossed the great beyond in the fall of 1909, and was buried in an evangelical Lutheran cemetery in Alsip, nineteen miles from Mokena. As his passing was reported by William Semmler, our village correspondent to the Joliet News, it was noted that he “suffered for some time with a complication of diseases.” By this time, all of the now grown-up Stellwagen children and their mother Mary had moved from town and were living in Thornton Township, becoming absentee owners to the Front Street buildings. The structures were starting to present a sorry appearance, and were quickly going to seed. In the summer of 1910, the village board ordered the family to fix up the property, thus began a process that would go on for decades. Part of the old saloon’s porch had caved in, as did some of the limestone foundation on one of the buildings. The Stellwagen land was overgrown with a jungle of weeds, their barn was leaning precariously to the east, and there was a deep hole near their sidewalk. Within a week, word came back from the Stellwagens that they’d fix everything. Nevertheless, they were slow in getting to it; in the August 18th, 1910 edition of the Joliet News, correspondent Semmler called the Stellwagen places “dilapidated…dangerous firetraps” and referenced yards that were a “solid mass of dry grass,” with “weeds six feet high.” A little over a month later, Edward and William Stellwagen came to town to finally work on the buildings as a result of the threat from the village board. 

 

   Whatever it was that they did, it wasn’t good enough. Six months later, the whole thing flared up again. The village board went so far as to condemn the properties, and even hired a lawyer to help draw up the required ordinance. A major sticking point became the insurance rates on the surrounding Front Street real estate, which were skyrocketing due to the Stellwagen buildings’ reputations as dangerous tinderboxes. William Semmler again referred to them as a “detriment” to Mokena. Once more, Dicky Stellwagen had been seen in town making repairs here and there, and in April 1911, local powers received a note from the family stating their intent to clean up and get rid of any dangerous edifices on their lots. It became common for the Stellwagens to make band-aid fixes on the buildings, that were just enough to get the village dads off their backs, only for the issues to come back up further down the road. 

 

   In these years leading up to the First World War, it began to look as if a new leaf was overturned for the places, as they were home to several short-lived business. Around Halloween 1908, a railroad worker named E.N. Mickel set up a watch-repair shop in one of the buildings, and also began to carry some jewelry. In the end, he wasn’t long for Mokena, as he moved to western Illinois shortly thereafter. In April 1911, the old saloon had been spruced up enough for Edward and Dicky Stellwagen to announce that they were going to open a bakery in it, and would hire a baker to oversee it for them. A portable oven and all the tools of the trade were installed in the building, and after a year’s worth of work, the Mokena Home Bakery debuted to the village on March 5th, 1912, when J.P. Caulfield of Harvey and Edward Stellwagen threw open their doors for the first time. Caulfield was called a “master of his trade”, and planned on offering a delivery wagon to customers on the farms outside town. In later years, Stellwagen sister Alma bore the Caulfield surname, and so it would appear that the baker or someone from his family married her, but at this late date it remains unclear as to when exactly this happened. Alas, the bakery also didn’t last, and by 1916 an out of towner named Charles Mantilla had opened a shoe shop here.

 

   Readers of these pages will be familiar with the seminal fire that destroyed Martin Hall just west of the old Stellwagen saloon in the summer of 1912; and while the fire didn’t start in the watering hole turned bakery, the place nevertheless was a casualty of the blaze. The flames toasted the building, which also took heavy water damage, and many citizens of Mokena took pity on Edward Stellwagen, not least of all, because he had courageously fought the fire and had prevented it from spreading. As Stellwagen had no insurance on the building, Mayor Ona McGovney started a fund to help him get back on his feet, one that was “subscribed to liberally” by many Mokenians. As we will see, the perils of fire would come to be an uncommonly frequent thread in the history of this dual property. The next time it reared its head was on a Friday night the following summer, when tenant Joe Sandrock nearly burned down the easterly house when he fell asleep cooking on a gasoline stove. Luckily both he and the building come through the incident unharmed. 

 

   A little before Christmas 1914, word reached town that Dicky Stellwagen had died at a hospital in Englewood at the age of 42. His passing was not a pleasant one; he had stepped on a nail which then caused him to develop lockjaw. With his demise, there was one less member of the family to tend to the Mokena property. As was becoming all too familiar, calamity struck the old saloon on March 5th, 1916.  That afternoon, Charles Mantilla, the proprietor of the shoe shop housed in the building, left town on a Rock Island accommodation bound for the city, and upon his return that night, he found the interior of the store in ashes. The fire was discovered at about 10 o’clock that evening by Elmer Sippel, whose mother owned a general store two doors to the west, and incidentally, Oscar Klose Jr, the son of the town constable who was so savagely beaten by the Stellwagen brothers nine years previously. Luckily the blaze had only been confined to the one building, but nevertheless, it was a bad one - all of Mr. Mantilla’s possessions were ravaged, and he even lost two parrots to the flames. (A dog and a monkey escaped) A report from the aftermath of the fire described that “only the shell of the building was left standing.” No one ever figured out what caused the conflagration, but Mantilla was adamant that that he had closed the dampers on his coal stove before he left for Chicago that day. A month afterward, he packed up and left town. The story didn’t end there. After the fire, the burnt-out hulk of the old Stellwagen saloon was left to stand, decrepit and forlorn. Nearly two months later, the village sent Edward Stellwagen a letter requesting that he put the building “in a safe condition.” Nevertheless, nothing happened, and the board of trustees lodged a complaint with the state fire marshal. Only after he became involved in the matter, did the family repair the building to a satisfactory degree that summer. 

 

   The First World War came and went, and the issue of the Stellwagen buildings never really went away. When the village board convened on August 25th, 1920, the subject of “the old Stellwagen shacks” came up. This time the prickly matter was an old, unused well in the yard that was uncovered. Once again, a note was dashed off to the surviving family members in their Cook County home asking that the matter be remedied at once, “as there is danger of someone falling in the well and being drowned.”

   On an August evening in 1928, village fire marshal Herman Schweser was making his rounds down Front Street, and upon passing one of the buildings (it’s not clear which one), he observed “thin wreaths of smoke” coming from it. Upon closer inspection, he found it emanating from one of the cellars, which a group of local boys had been using as a dugout. Schweser found all sorts of flammable material there such as straw, papers, oil and gasoline, all of which the lads were using to start a small fire for themselves. Luckily the whole thing was nipped in the bud before a real problem flared up, and it was noted that the boys were “reprimanded and released.”

 

   In reflecting on the properties and the Stellwagens decades later, Mokena sage Clinton Kraus remembered that “(it) always seemed to us that they had so much junk laying around and they never seemed to do anything about it. In plain words, it was an eyesore to the town.” It is difficult to pin down who, if anyone, was living in these buildings during the interwar years. While the possibility remains open that the Stellwagens rented the properties, if they were inhabited, no one noted it down for posterity. By all appearances, the structures sat abandoned and crumbling in these years. Some Mokenians were even known to walk on the other side of Front Street so as to avoid passing directly in front of them. 

 

   As the frigid grip of early 1939 gave way to the warmer months, things came to a head. By this point, the doors and windows of the old buildings had been boarded up, yet in the words of the village’s News-Bulletin, they still remained a “bone of contention.” In a piece that appeared in the paper on May 26th of that year, the publication referenced the efforts made by the town powers to have the places torn down on grounds of being fire hazards, but went on to detail recent unknown miscreants, who were using the cover of night to lay waste to the properties. It went on to say that “the windows, doors, plastering, wall paper, etc. was ripped out and removed from the premises. This kept on until the two houses looked as though as cyclone had hit them.” 

   Once again, village government rung its hands and furrowed its brow. Putting their ducks in a row, the new Mokena Civic Association put together a committee to visit the Stellwagens at their farm near Harvey and bring them up to speed on what was happening. Now in his middle age, Edward Stellwagen wrote to his older sister Emma at her Chicago home, who worked in a trip to Mokena at the end of that month. She was incensed by what she saw. Getting inside the buildings, she discovered that various pieces of old furniture had been stolen. First things first, she made a vandalism report to the Will County Sheriff, then she went on record with the News-Bulletin. She’d be staying in the buildings, she wanted it known, and not mincing her words, said that she would be carrying a revolver and that anyone who “trespasses on this property at night or any other time will stand a chance of stopping a bullet.”

 

   The 1939 incident blew over without Emma Stellwagen having to fire a shot. In the first months after the Second World War the easterly house had been spruced up enough to be rented to Mrs. Florence Demkov, although a subsequent incident might have made her regret it. On Halloween evening 1945, some big pieces of wall board fell from where they were piled and pinned her to the ground. Her companion, Raymond Gunhouse, ran two doors to the west to the Cooper and Hostert Ford agency for help, and coming back with proprietor Barney Hostert as well as father and son Harold and Gordon Spiess, were able to free Mrs. Demkov and get an ambulance for her. Upon arrival at the hospital, it was ascertained that she had suffered a broken leg. 

 

  By the 1950s, sisters Mabel Stellwagen and Alma Caulfield had come to live in the easterly house, the same place that their father had bought for his family 70 years before. At this point in time, it looks like sister Emma Stellwagen was also living with them. They were quiet residents of Front Street, who never seemed to leave their house, and generally kept to themselves. Mokenians would occasionally see them peeking out of their front door or the house’s windows, but that was the extent to which most people saw the sisters. They were known not to welcome neighborhood kids on their property, and nearby parents warned their children to stay away. Somewhere along the way, the sisters lost running water inside their home, and their neighbors to the east, the family of barber Tony Dina, welcomed Alma to get water from their outside hose. Mabel Stellwagen died of a stroke in the summer of 1958 at the age of 67, and was joined not terribly long thereafter by Emma. So it was, that middle daughter Alma became the last family member to call the place home. 

 

   The early 1950s saw another fruitless attempt by the village board to have the old saloon building torn down, in one case citing a major fire hazard due to “reason of age, lack of repair, (and) lack of doors and windows.” Bids for the demolition were even taken in, but all were eventually shot down, the board saying they were too expensive. In August 1958, Alma Caulfield gave permission to have the old saloon building torn down, and thus a thorn was taken out of the village dads’ side that had been there for better part of half a century. 

 

   As the history books closed on the Stellwagen properties, the end of the timeline was marred by two more fires. Both of them were bad, and one them, disastrously so. Around 1:30 in the afternoon of October 4th, 1952, an old outbuilding on the north end of the lots went up in flames, which in no time measured 20 feet high, fueled undoubtedly by the dried weeds and undergrowth surrounding it. The fire eating the shed was so intense that the composition roof on the back garage of the Cooper & Hostert Ford agency, immediately to the west, started melting and running down the side of the building. The Mokena volunteer fire department turned out in quick fashion and were able to extinguish the blaze, but the speed with which it destroyed the outbuilding and effected its neighbors was alarming – the News-Bulletin proclaiming from its front page that it “threatened to wipe out the entire block.” 

   The next fire would leave an even more indelible mark. In the early afternoon of August 2nd, 1967, next door neighbor Dominick Dina discovered the old Stellwagen house ablaze, and ran to his workplace, the Cooper & Hostert agency, to give the alarm. Fire Chief Robert Rust, also in the employ of Cooper & Hostert, made haste to the fire station further down Front Street to the east and summoned his men, with Mokena’s volunteer department quickly turning out in full force. In the meantime, young Dina took it upon himself to rescue Alma Caulfield. Frantically knocking on her door, it was his first time setting foot on the house’s front porch, as his parents always were always serious about him and his siblings not disturbing the property. Mrs. Caulfield came to the door, and Dina explained the emergency, to which she replied something along the lines of “just let me get my purse”, to which the young man frantically explained there was no time and had to take her arms in hand and lead her away. Fire made short work of the building that had stood in Mokena for over a century. After the flames were finally put out, one of the attending fireman came out of the house with an old coffee can containing matchsticks and a dead mouse, and it was at first thought that the mouse’s chewing on the sticks could’ve begun the fire. Later on, Chief Rust would tell the press that he thought the fire started around an electrical ceiling fixture. Nevertheless, the remains of the old house were damaged beyond all help, and it was pulled down. 



The historic home of Alma Caulfield, in her family for over 80 years, burns in August 1967.

 

   After all those decades of memories, those of levity in the days when Phillip Stellwagen ran his saloon, those of agitation when the village was at loggerheads with his children, and those of caution when local parents urged their children to stay away, not a trace of the buildings are left in today’s community. Until recently, a sharp-eyed pedestrian could make out the remnants of one of the buildings’ stone cisterns, but all evidence that this branch of Stellwagen family ever existed in our town is gone, their old stomping grounds today a vacant, forlorn patch on our main street. Like it or not, their two buildings were part of the fabric of Front Street. Their history was not always glorious, but our story is not complete without them.