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  • Dale C. Maley

Township had first settler

Belle Prairie Township, located south of Fairbury, has the distinction of having the first settler in Livingston County.

This early pioneer was Valentine Martin Darnall, recognized as the first actual settler of the county. He was born in Virginia. When he was a child, his parents moved to Kentucky and settled in Boone County. Their home was one and a quarter miles from Boonsboro, where the pioneer Daniel Boone built a fort more than a century ago.

Three of his brothers moved to Mackinaw. Valentine came from Kentucky and went to the home of his brothers first. He came from Mackinaw to Belle Prairie Township on a scouting trip to find his new home in 1830. Valentine knew his family would need something to eat in the wilderness. He bought some grain and drove his horse-drawn wagon to the Springfield grain mill. He had to wait for the miller to grind his grain, so the whole trip to the miller took fourteen days.

He took his family to their new home in Indian Grove, and they pitched a tent to live in while he built a log cabin. During the day, he would chop down trees. At night, by the light of a campfire, he would split the logs into boards using his only tool, an ax. No steel nails were available, so he built the cabin with wood pins.

There were also no steel hinges available for the cabin door. Instead, Valentine found two forked branches and used these for hinges. The cabin door would slide on the two forked pieces and close by the force of gravity.

The winter of 1830 was one of the worst on record. The snowdrifts reached eight feet deep. Valentine almost got lost in the blizzard but returned safely home. He was distraught that the three young calves he had left outside in their pens would be frozen. When he returned, he found that his wife had cleared a path in the deep snow to the pens and herded the three calves inside the heated cabin.

The next settlement was made in this township by William Spence in 1831. He was a son of Malachi Spence, one of the early settlers of Indian Grove Township. He came from Indiana to this settlement but was originally from Kentucky. The Spence and Darnall families all came from Kentucky.

Other early settlers were Jeremiah Travis, James Cooper, Hugh Steers, Spencer Kates, Benjamin Hieronymous, and Decatur Veatch. Benjamin Hieronymous recounted that before the railroads, he would haul his grain all the way to Chicago. He also transported peaches and other fruit to Chicago. He did this annually for 25 years before railroads were implemented. Decatur Veatch was among the early settlers of Belle Prairie Township and was said to have been one of the first Abolitionists in Livingston County.

Another early settler was Benjamin Walton. He was the older brother of Isaac and John Wesley Walton, founders of the Walton Bros. department store in Fairbury. One of Benjamin's initiatives was to mark the farmland by putting up stone corners in each section of land in the township. These stones weighed more than 200 pounds and were at each township corner.

The first white child born in the settlement is supposed to have been William Steers, a son of Hugh Steers, and was born in 1834. The first wedding was that of William Spence and Miss Mary Darnall. The license authorizing the solemnization of their nuptials was the first issued from the Clerk's Office of Livingston County after its formation. They were married by Reverend John Darnall in 1837. Benjamin Hieronymous and a Miss Darnall, sister to the bride just mentioned, were married soon after and were probably the second marriage in the township.

The first Justice of the Peace in Belle Prairie Township was Spencer Kates. He was commissioned as such about the year 1840, while this town was yet a part of Indian Grove Precinct. Jeremiah Travis was the first blacksmith and plied his vocation from his first settlement so far as the few scattering settlers required his services. He was also a chairmaker. Many of his chairs are still to be found in this and surrounding neighborhoods. Dr. Ostrander was the first medical doctor to service this township. Dr. C. B. Ostrander was widely known for his ability to tell tall tales.

The first and only church to be built in this settlement was the Methodist Episcopal Church in the southern part of the township. It is a good-frame building and was erected in 1865 for $1,500. This cost would be equivalent to $25,400 in today's dollars. The church was dedicated upon its completion by Reverend Rhodes, the presiding Elder of the district. Mrs. Hanna was the first person buried in the little cemetery just north of the church.

Initially, the church also had a parsonage building. At some point, the parsonage burned down. Community residents have lovingly preserved this little church. This old church offers an exciting glimpse into church life in the 1860s.

In 1858, the first temple of learning was built in Belle Prairie Township. A few of the neighbors resolved to have a schoolhouse. But, upon consultation with carpenters and builders, they found that it would cost more than they could afford. Benjamin Walton finally took the contract and proceeded immediately to put up the building. He hauled the material from Pontiac himself. Benjamin took what donations he could get. Eventually, Benjamin collected enough donations to cover the cost of the first school. Later, the country schools were built every two miles in the township. The rationale for the two miles was that students should only walk one mile to attend school.

There are only a couple of things from early life in Belle Prairie Township that still survive today. The Fairview Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1865, still stands and is an excellent example of early churches in the area. Although technically in Indian Grove Township, the small Spence Cemetery is where pioneer settlers Valentine Martin Darnall and Malachi Spence are buried.

(Dale Maley's local history article on Fairbury News each Monday is sponsored by Antiques & Uniques of Fairbury along with Dr. Charlene & Doug Aaron)

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