The World Of Harlem: Roots of Harlem Township, Illinois

December 9, 2013

WEB_TownHall-520x323The very first settlement in Harlem Township was on the east side of the Rock River on what was called “Big Bottom.” In 1835, a man named Hiram Wattles staked out his farm into streets and lots, and called his town Scipio. But its classic name didn’t entice the hoped-for buyers, and he couldn’t even give the lots away. His was the only house ever built there.

The name Harlem comes from Harlem in New York, which, in turn, was named for Haarlem in The Netherlands. The first Dutch settlers on Manhattan Island chose the name to remind them of their home, and later generations, moving to Illinois, named Harlem Village for the same reason.

The original location of Harlem Village was not where it stands today. About 1859, it was moved to that spot when the Kenosha Rockford Railroad line was built. Until then, Harlem Village was situated along what is now North Alpine, north of Harlem Road.

In the 1840s, “Old Harlem” was a thriving little settlement with a school house that doubled as a church, a post office, and a stagecoach stop on the route between Rockford and Janesville. Trappers had built a few cabins in this area, but the first real “settlers” moved in about 1835. In 1836, Asa Taylor arrived, and the journal he kept gives us some details about the area. He traveled from Harlem, New York to Chicago by steamboat, then from Chicago to Harlem in a horse-drawn cart. The land he bought had sold for $1 an acre in 1834; for $2 an acre in 1835; and in 1836, when Asa bought it, the price had jumped to $4 an acre. In 1845, 12 citizens of Harlem formed a Sunday “class” that met in the school house. Later, Asa Taylor donated an acre of his property on which to build a church, and the acre next to it for a cemetery. Taylor was a sturdy pioneer, but one day he was mortally injured in a corn-crib accident, and his failure to seek medical attention resulted in his untimely death. He was buried in the cemetery he had donated.

Lewis Andrew Fabrique, whose family emigrated to America from France around 1700, came to Harlem in 1838 and settled on what is now Machesney Airport, where he raised a flock of 400 sheep. His son was the first (and only) agent for the Harlem Station on the Kenosha line, which ran between Rockford and Harvard, with 12 trains a day serving the community with mail, freight and passenger service. A spur line, on which little open cars hauled stone, ran to the quarry at Rock Cut.

The first settlers in Argyle were John Greenlee and his family, in 1837. With all the problems they encountered, they needed all the fortitude they could muster. Just as they were about to embark from Scotland, John was apprehended by an unscrupulous land steward on a trumped-up charge and hauled back to Campbeltown, while his frightened family went on alone. But with the help of some townspeople who were willing to defy the authorities, he escaped and, disguised under a woman’s cloak, left the town. After he spent a few more days hiding near the coast, two more sympathizers rowed the fleeing man 30 miles to the coast of Ireland, with the revenue boat in hot pursuit. But just as they were about to overtake him, a dense fog arose, hiding the boat until John was safe ashore.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Greenlee and the children had sailed from Liverpool. During the voyage, they were desperately worried about what might happen when they reached the other side. But fortune finally smiled on them when they were met by husband and father John.

In March 1837, the family reached their destination and moved into a log cabin that had been built by John Greenlee’s nephews, the Armour brothers, who lived in Ottawa. It was a very primitive structure, built only to lay claim to the land. There was no door, and only a wool blanket hung across the opening for protection from wolves, weather and possible intruders.

It was spring of 1838 before Hugh Reid and his wife emigrated from Scotland to become their neighbors. The Greenlees’ daughter, Ellen, was the first girl born in the settlement, and the Reids’ son, William, was the first boy. In spring of 1841, logs were cut and hauled to a site near John Greenlee’s quarry and, in 1842, the log school house, also used as the church, was built. In 1848, the village decided to build an actual church, and to pay for it, the seats were sold at auction to the highest bidder. The first seat was sold to John Andrew for $30. Those who purchased seats had the sole right to them for themselves and their heirs, as long as the yearly assessment was paid.

The first school in Argyle was taught by Miss Janet Giffen in her father’s home. In 1842, the log school house was built, and Mr. Lovesee became the teacher. The Harlem Village School was about a block from the well, the town’s only source of water. Each day, two youngsters were sent to fill a bucket, which they would take to school so everyone could get a drink, using a dipper. Harlem Consolidated School was the second consolidated school in Illinois. The building was equipped for instruction in manual training, domestic science and agriculture. It was considered an ideal community center. A barn was provided at the east edge of the property for students who rode horses to school. For others, there was a special 5-cent fare on the trolley.

School was not all work and no play. There were festivals in the spring, community fairs in the fall, spelling and declamatory contests, historical contests, parent-teachers’ associations, and the Winnebago County School League.

The Rock River has sometimes been described as “the Hudson of the West.” Plans to “develop” Rock River for navigation all the way from its mouth to the mouth of the Pecatonica failed dismally. But the old paddle-wheel pleasure boats still plied back and forth from Rockford almost to Roscoe. People would invite a group of friends for a cruise up the river on the old Illinois, have a picnic in Illinois Park, and dance on the deck by moonlight on the trip back.

Most of the travel by land in those days was by stagecoach, wagon or carriage. In the 1850s, the railroads came in, changing many things. Some towns grew, while others died out; some people became millionaires, and others became paupers. Some industries began to thrive, while others disappeared. The Kenosha Rockford line, between Rockford and Harvard, was the reason for Harlem Village being where it is today. When the villagers in “Old Harlem” learned where the line would run, they pulled up stakes and moved the whole town over to the right-of-way, where they built a store with a post office at one end, a blacksmith shop, a depot and grain elevator, stockyards, a school house and the town hall.

During the Civil War and World War I, bodies were left at the Harlem depot for family members to claim. The railroad had to cut through limestone for the train to pass through; this site is where Pierce Lake is now located.

Harlem Village, one of the oldest towns in Winnebago County, was incorporated into Loves Park in the 1980s. Harlem Road was formerly called Church Street, and Forest Hills was called Bluff. The railroad between Rockford and Caledonia was abandoned in 1937, the same year the Harlem train depot was torn down. Two years later, the Patterson grain elevator was torn down. The K-D line later became the Chicago Northwestern Railroad. The railroad camp between Harlem and Argyle was called Dog Town because the Irish had too many dogs.

Three of the oldest buildings were demolished early this year by Woodward Governor. Landis was saddened by this turn of events, and is working with the company to try to erect a historic marker at the corner of Harlem and Forest Hills roads.


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