In January of 1850 John Cole wrote a letter from Bluffville back to Vermont relating his feelings and experiences concerning his trip to Illinois the year before.
He told of stops he’d made, the ticket fare from place to place, an interesting addition. (It had cost him $22.24 to come.) He was but seventeen years old, probably the first time he’d been away from home, it was January and was he a little bit lonely, depressed and restless? Things, apparently, weren’t the adventure he’d expected ...
The letter in part went like this: “But in the first place I would not come unless I wanted a farm. You can get good wages part of the season Heman Edgerly will give $12 a month for carrying brick off his brickyard next summer. That is slight recompense for spending $30 coming here unless you get a farm and they are scarce at government prices—land is $5 an acre. That is the best you get it for and that is prairie unless you go back to rolling prairie where land is not good. I would not advise anyone to come out here who wants to work by the month or has any kind of trade. The people here are a mean lot; lie, cheat and steal. I think I shall come back there next fall if I live, have good luck and my health. Tell the folks to take care of that dog of mine as I want to see a decent dog before the world is burnt. Tell Diane I don’t advise her to come out here in the spring for it will be money spent for nothing. She won’t like it as well as she expects. I am not homesick (!) but I think I would rather be in old Vermont than here. It is pretty thickly settled here now. George is hired out to Norman French at $11 a month for the winter. The trouble is collecting your pay. There is a post office at French’s called Bluffville. Direct your letter there, Carroll County, Illinois.” — John Cole.
Cole did return to old Vermont in 1851 but by that time he’d apparently worked out his negativity. He returned to Illinois, bought a farm and lived at Bluffville the remainder of his life taking part in all local affairs including being a tax assessor and a benefit to the community. Funny, how perspective can change. In his possessions at his death it was found he’d, too, paid $5 an acre for his land which at his passing was valued at $150 and $160 an acre. Yes, times change.
The Heman Edgerly, Cole mentioned had come in 1840 and because of hard work and ingenuity become a substantial citizen, too. One of his investments was a brickyard at the southeast edge of Point of Bluff, Johnson Creek, it was noted. There was a clay deposit there from which to make bricks. He did not, however, make his own house of brick in 1852 when constructing a residence. He built of grout. It still stands, a landmark, a tribute to the permanency homesteaders wished to have. One hundred sixty years ago, it still rests firmly at the intersection of Scenic Bluff Road and West Ideal, a mile east of Thomson, then north a little way. A sign points to “French Bluff” area, a newish addition to the region.
Grout, while not a common material with which to build a house, is/was familiar. There are a few mentions in county history and another grand example over in Elkhorn Grove but it has been razed in recent years. It was a bungalow style and had many unique features, too.
Grout used the local limestone plus sand, mortar and water with a binding material such as straw. A trough or dug pit was the container in which it was mixed by having some local oxen trod it all into a slush that was poured into wooden forms constructed on a foundation. The grout was poured only so high, let dry then more added till the requisite height was achieved, each layer being dried with doors and windows allowed for. It was a cement-like wall and mostly permanent as the York house is today there beneath the brow of the bluff. Several curious features were built within the house such as the “French Steps” that are but a half step wide alternating left right, left right to the next level. No one is certain if French describes the fact they are used in Gay Paree or if Norman French perfected them!!! Ascending the steps would be OK but coming down, tricky.
Half of the second floor was one vast space, it is said for a ballroom or dance hall. More to the point is the fact that the house was a stagecoach inn used by travelers who could toss down a blanket or two, rent a cot or mattress and catch forty winks ... All slept together then, room or bed. You could say you’d never met a stranger ... Women were usually given a drape or sheet to shield them from prying eyes. When a fiddle and dance caller was on the agenda, the cots and blankets were merely piled in the corner and a good time was had by all.
The brick house across the road was, however, made of brick from the nearby brickyard though the brick maker used grout. The brick house is also believed to have taken in travelers because the road winding at the base of the bluff was a busy one as was the Military Trail closer to the Mississippi. Inns were necessary.
A geological review of Carroll County’s landscape will tell us that where Johnson Creek breaks into the Mississippi, clay beds developed which they do. Judge Jems Shaw in 1877 wrote a learned summary of the county landscape including that warm seas had once, millions of years ago, covered what are now the bluffs and so marine life developed and can be found fossilized in the stone of which the bluffs are made ... Such as shells, snails, other creatures like ferny fossils, etc. And can be found in such things as grout walls with the crushed stones. As the glaciers melted they rolled rocks with minerals uncommon to our region for later searchers to find a couple million years later ... There’s copper, lead, onyx, etc. A lot of history went on before we got here. The break in the bluff east of Thomson is one.
At Bluffville the “business district” apparently was scattered but there was thought to have been a general store, a blacksmith, a wagon maker and a sawmill. A grist mill was constructed by Israel Petit in 1860 at the base of the bluff’s southeast “corner.” It was a useful trade and worked for over twenty years when in the 1880’s a flood destroyed the dam, washing it all away and the mill was not rebuilt. (A stone from it can be seen at the Thomson school.)
By the 1880’s local mills were on their way out. Large, corporate mills had taken their place never to return. Railroads were bringing in barrels and sacks of flour, cheaper and more finely milled. That’s what the railroad did.
One by one the merchants and tradesmen of Bluffville had answered the blatant call of the railroad whistle when the tracks had penetrated the farmlands in Wisconsin and Illinois just settling up in the early 1860’s. Thomson in 1865 grew apace with businessmen for all over the neighborhood.
Bluffville, then Argo faded with the years but retained their traditions to live, if not in actuality, then in memory.
Schools and churches had been built in the 1840’s to replace the “home school” and a variety of teachers. Cemeteries developed that are now called Upper York and Lower York to define their place. Once they were called the “Bailey” and “Dunshee” cemeteries.
Fortunately Bluffville is marked by informative signs—on the highway east of Thomson and then at the site formerly known as Bluffville with the French family cooperation and so forth. See illustrations.
A drive up Scenic Bluff Road will expand your appreciation of Carroll County and when you get to Three Mile Road go up and over the bluff where the road winds through thickly timbered woods. On a hot summer’s day it appears almost foreboding but folks live there and wildlife abound. Wildflowers, in spring especially, decorate the ridge as they do along the Bluff Road down below which you can easily see from your car.
The bluff, however, has gone through changes. It was barren of trees and undergrowth at the turn of the century according to the late Jennie French, who came then. But now there is “second growth,” the timber not being used as fuel as it once was. Bluffs change too except for the French lands since the early 1830’s.
Thomson schools were early in the initiation of environmental friendliness. They had eighty acres early on which was used as ECO-Center and supported outdoor education studies. As early as 1994 the Thomson school board was approached by the National Land Institute, the IDOC and the Bluffland Alliance, the latter covering four states beside the Mississippi to preserve mostly unexploited bluff land so future generations could understand and be grateful for the kind of landscapes their forefathers utilized with their ingenuity and hard work. Where, at one time large springs gushed forth from the base of the bluff to provide water, and the fertile bottomland were the talk of the homesteaders seeking farms. York Township is an unusual part of the Northwest. And there’s a lot more to know about it.