It could have been Cortez or DeSoto; perhaps, Magellan or Cook. Maybe Columbus. But instead of any of those early day explorers, Zenas Aplington’s choice to name the town was Polo, for Marco Polo.
Why Aplington chose Polo is not known but maybe as a reader he admired the attitude of the Venetian traveler, an unusual choice out here on the prairie of Northwest Illinois.
Aplington who died at age forty-eight, much too young to have reached his full potential, arrived in the Buffalo Grove area in 1837 where he worked in the sawmill of Oliver Kellogg who truly was an early settler. His antics with those of Isaac Chambers is a long story to be told at another time but the site they chose for a stage stop/settlement became a thriving spot on the Peoria/Galena trail, the most important path to and from the lead mines in the late 1820’s through the ‘40’s and ‘50’s.
It was named Buffalo Grove because there was a vast pasturage covered with buffalo bones from their starvation years before. It was believed the Winter of 1776-77 was known to have been cold beyond the norm and for a long period of time. The buffalo had apparently herded up to be snowed in and starved in their tight knit group.
The Indians called the place “Nanusha,” or buffalo.
The neighborhood became a meeting point for not only the stage route but for trade. Col. J.D. Stevenson came in about 1834 bringing with him a wagon load of merchandise to begin a store, the first in all of Ogle County. From that time other stores were added until by 1852 there were six mercantile plus a sawmill and a distillery that was closed in 1856, the same year as the Woman’s Raid on the Whiskey Barrels as told here last week. It is estimated that as many as one thousand residents occupied the community of Buffalo Grove by the 1850’s. There was school, churches, the amenities expected for a bustling community, a tailor and a glove factory. There was every reason to believe that Buffalo Grove would continue to grow and prosper from that nucleus of population but at that time, too, there were forces that knocked the foundation from beneath the village.
Just as today it’s the automobile and the Wally World’s that have crushed the life from the small towns, back then it was the railroad that caused the villages, even towns to dwindle or disappear as well as their founding.
As early as 1836 the Chicago / Galena Union Railroad was being imagined and would build its way across the top part of the state, joining the two cities of its title. But it took time.
At that time, too, the Illinois Central was being conceived to come up the center of the state to join the Mississippi River at its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo to Lake Michigan at the south end of the Illinois-Michigan Canal at LaSalle. But railroads were expensive. As money was being solicited to fund the construction, the Panic of ‘37 occurred, a nationwide, deep depression, one of those cyclical situations that occur about every twenty years or so in the U.S. There was no money to be got! Even the Eastern “capitalists” who normally invested in such schemes didn’t bite. Only a short branch line, the Northern Cross from Meredosia to Springfield was completed.
Even though the “Panic” did stimulate a vast exodus from the East to the Midwest thus spurring a population increase to our state, there was little to show for the Internal Improvements legislation that was to show our growth and betterment.
Not until 1845 was there again interest shown in the Chicago-Galena Union. It’s rights and franchises were bought up by other parties and a go-ahead was given. But not until 1852 was there enough interest and money to flag the company into construction. Tracks were laid that year from Chicago to Rockford, not Ogle County as had been hoped and planned in the original scheme. The road eventually passed to the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad Co.
As early as 1832 a plan was hatched to build a railroad the length of the state, as before mentioned, but no activity came about. Not until four years later, ‘36 did the State’s General Assembly grant a charter for the prospective Illinois Central but the “Panic of ‘37” came to be, delaying again the plan. Naturally the scheme lay uncommitted until 1850 when Senator Stephen Douglas obtained a grant from the U.S. Congress to make alternate sections of land available to the railroad the length of the state to stimulate development. If land six miles back from the line was not vacant alternate sections fifteen miles distant, east and west, of the rails, was a substitute.
The charter exempted the company building the railroad from taxation but required that it pay the state treasury seven percent of its gross earnings annually. By 1904 that amounted to over $22,000,000.00.
By that time Buffalo Grove was secure in its longevity and certainly near the route the railroad was taking and was assuming that the IC could make it one of its stations. The stage stop would become a railroad depot. Did anyone of the Buffalo Grove’s recruit or campaign for that assignment?
Even though Buffalo Township had been settled by a bunch o’ gents above the norm in energy and smarts, no one apparently stepped up. Except the guy who had a farm directly east of Buffalo Grove and directly in the past of the IC’s route, Zenas Aplington. He was an example of the Everyman that neighborhoods turn to ... He became a blacksmith, carpenter, farmer, gave land for churches both Protestant and Catholic, was a director of nearly every committee and stood out in the crowd of excellent characters.
He might have sensed that something was hovering in the atmosphere when in 1849 he moved a frame building from Buffalo Grove to his farmland to serve as store and home.
It happened to be about a block from the IC when it was built through in January of 1853 by which time the place was called Polo, a mile east of Buffalo Grove.
The house, repaired and remodeled, is still in use, bought by volunteer fund raising locally who beginning in May of 1978 created a memorial to Aplington and other pioneers who built the foundations on which we stand today. They initially raised $18,000.00 to buy the house and since have preserved it for later generations to discover a glimmer of the hard work and sacrifice and shrewd decisions made by those gone before. It is at the corner of Franklin and Locust, the east end of the business district. Coming north on the railroad in August of 1856, Abraham Lincoln stopped at Polo and stayed overnight at Zenas Aplington’s home and is thought to have spent the next day seeing the sights of the new railroad town. A nice fact to recall about the homestead also.
Reference gives that after the town was platted and money changed hands for building lots, there was a vast exodus from Buffalo Grove to “New Town” to the modern day.
It depleted the energies of the Old Town until in the area today there are but a few dozen homes, no schools or churches as there once were. But there is yet the original cemetery where lies the first burial from 1837 and in the neatly kept grounds there is the grave of Rufus Perkins, one of the few Revolutionary War veterans buried in northern Illinois.
Becoming aware of the demise of their village, the Buffalo Groveites were very protective of their post office carrying their name. If it moved they’d have no identity. How close they watched over the post office isn’t known but it must have been guarded with some dedication to security because not until two years later did the postmaster, George Reed, grow impatient with hauling the mail which now came by train, not stage, the mile to the somewhat flimsy building called the post office.
Under cover of darkness in January of 1855 the building was surreptitiously carried over to Polo, “New Town,” where it was permanently fastened down to stay ever after. Perhaps it was such a Midnight Move that inspired the Woman’s Raid on the Whiskey Barrels the next year in the darkness of another night to carry out their scheme. What with human “bean” of strong character, you just never know what history will be made in any given year.