Monday, April 19, 2010

19th Century Neighbor

Here’s a shot I took myself of a pretty cool gravestone in Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery. Sometimes also called Hickory Cemetery, the place is between Mokena and Frankfort and rests on the south side of St. Francis Road, just west of the intersection with 88th Avenue. Most people might not know this old graveyard right off the bat, which is understandable seeing how it’s sort of set back off the road. Its oldest burials probably date back to the 1850s, around the time the original Immanuel Lutheran Church was built at this site.

Here we see the grave of Mrs. Katharina Volck, wife of Heinrich Volck. (Heinrich’s dad owned a huge farm on what is today 191st Street) Just looking at the monument tells us a lot about Katharina and the era in which she lived. Notice how young Mrs. Volck was when she died; she was only 21. It makes me wonder if she died in childbirth or maybe in some nasty epidemic that was making its rounds in the area.
The fact that her gravestone is in German (as are most of the oldest stones in the cemetery) tells us that her Germanic heritage played an important part in her and her families’ lives. This was probably the language she spoke in her everyday life. Maybe she was an immigrant herself?
There is actually an interesting amount of symbolism in the gravestone, too. The open book and the clasped hands were two common motifs seen in 19th century cemeteries. The book usually represented perfect knowledge or the Bible, and the two hands, which if you look closely, you’ll see have a male and a female sleeve, represent holy matrimony.

Kind of poignant, isn’t it? You can definitely tell that Katharina Volck was a very loved lady.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Another Gem

In the entire life of Front Street, its appearance has changed quite a lot. Our image of it now would be practically unrecognizable to Mokena's pioneers who started developing the street 158 years ago. While relatively few photos of Front Street exist from the 19th Century, the early 20th Century in this part of town was fairly well documented.

This early, hand-tinted postcard dating from around 1910 (part of the Horras Collection) shows the new Mokena State Bank and the Exchange Hotel. Founded by local businessmen and built in 1909, the bank has survived the test of time to become a well-known Mokena institution. The large building that housed the Exchange Hotel was one of the oldest in the entire town, and was possibly built around 1860. For several decades in the latter part of the 1800s Conrad Stoll ran a successful dry goods store here, sometime after which the Exchange Hotel moved into the building. The hotel seems like it was a pretty short lived venture, as Dave Kolber began his hardware store here shortly before the start of World War One.

Unfortunately, both of these historic structures were torn down in the 1960s, a decade which lends parts of Front Street its current appearance.

These two buildings stood on the site of Mokena State Bank's Front Street parking lot.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Front Street, 100 Years Ago

Coming from the Horras collection, this shot gives an excellent taste of what Front Street used to look like. Here the viewer is looking westward with Mokena Street behind him and Wolf Road in the distance. This image was used in a postcard that dated probably from around 1910, when most Mokenians still called the road Main Street.

Back then it would've been the main drag through town, a place that was unavoidable in the everyday lives of our forefathers. Aside from regular homes, there would've been the post office, some general stores, a few saloons, a butcher, at least one blacksmith, a hall for meeting purposes, and probably a hardware store and a pharmacy.

Looks a little different 100 years later, doesn't it? (I'm just glad I don't have to traverse that road in the rain) This isn't a true color photo, the colors were added by hand at some later date. The oldest color images of Front Street I've ever seen are from the early 1950s, so I wonder if the color of the buildings accurately reflects how they looked back then. Hmm, makes you think!

Interestingly enough, of all the buildings in this photo, only two of them are still standing.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

It was 137 years ago today...

Driving down Front Street nowadays, most Mokenians probably don't pay too much attention to the business they pass. They're simply part of the landscape, and their existence could easily be taken for granted. However, if one would mention C & J Silkscreening, Little Al's, or FD Printing, most people would probably be able to place these longtime Mokena businesses immediately.

However, in 2010, would anyone have a clue who Valentine Scheer or John Schuberth were? Or even why they'd be mentioned in the same breath as Front Street?

Pause a minute, turn back the clock to the late 19th century, and repeat these names to these first passerby you encounter here. In their time, everyone in Mokena would've known these two men, their goods, what the inside of their shops looked like, you even would've known if the two men trusted you on credit.

Valentine Scheer, a feed dealer and harness maker, and John Schuberth, a hardware merchant, were both immigrants from Bavaria whose families were among the first Germanic settlers of what would later become Frankfort Township. Lore has it that Mr. Schuberth built the house seen here in 1862, although it's been difficult to tack down when Mr. Scheer's shop was constructed. In any case, it was probably right around the same time or maybe even a few years later.

The Schuberth place burned to the ground in a mysterious fire in the 1920s. Today, Dina's Barber Shop stands at the same location. Years ago, a family member of Valentine Scheer's stated that the building in the image here is the same one that still exists today as the Baker building. (A few doors east from the intersection of Front and Mokena Street) What happened to the lower portion of the building we see on the right side of the image? Did Scheer have it torn down at some point, or did he separate it, and move it somewhere else? I'm sure there's a cool story behind that.

These two images came from an 1873 plat map of Will County that just about every rural landowner in this neighborhood had in his home. In what was then a fairly common practice, well-to-do business owners payed a fee to the plat's publisher to have a likeness of their shop included in the pages of the volume. A few quick sketches would've been done by the artist on the street, and later after some honing, he would've converted them into the lithographs you see here.

Photographs of the town from this era of Mokena's history are really, really hard to come by. Not many are even known to exist. They're holy grails of our village's history. What you're seeing here are some of the very earliest visual depictions of the Mokena in any form. Just think, all this 8 years after the Civil War ended!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

So, about sources and citing

Even though all my work and time on Mokena's history is just for fun, I still think it's my responsibility to tell you where my info is coming from. (I don't want you to think I'm just copy-and-pasting or making this stuff up) With that in mind, I've been thinking of a way to do citations in these posts, but haven't been able to come up with anything that doesn't ruin the flow.

So let's keep it simple: If you're doing your own research, whether for genealogy, a project, or even just because it's fun stuff, let me know if you want to know where I got something. I'd be more than happy to tell you my sources. I'm 100% confident in everything I post here, that meaning that there's no information I've pieced together with no basis in fact.

Believe it or not, there has been a decent amount written on Mokena's history. A few huge, authoritative county histories have been written over the years that have had some really cool stuff in them. A Mokena historian wrote the last really major one in the 1920s, and needless to say, he completely ripped off George Woodruff, who was the Will County historian back in the 19th century. I'm talking near word-for-word lifting here.

I won't mention the Mokena guy's name here, simply because I'm pretty sure he still has relatives around. Although angry e-mails could make interesting posts.... ;-)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ever find one of these?

If you're like me, you've seen your fair share of wildlife around Mokena. There's not nearly as much around as there was when the town was still a rural farming community, but it's not uncommon to happen across deer, giant raccoons,(don't pet them) and if you know where to look, even foxes.

Would you believe it if I said that a type of wild horse used to be common in this area?

It's true. They roamed the future site of Mokena somewhere from ten thousand to one million years ago during the last Ice Age. The proof is in the pudding: An 11 year-old rock enthusiast named Peter Best discovered a giant leg bone sometime in late 1966. The Arbury Hills youth didn't recognize the bone, nor did he have a clue how old it could have been.He showed it to his science teacher at Willowcrest, who in turn sent it to a curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The expert determined it as belonging to an "Equua", a direct ancestor of the modern horse. (Just imagine how excited Peter must have been about his find!) Millions of them must have found sustenance on the Great Plains, exactly where our houses now sit.

The whole story was documented in the Mokena News-Bulletin, our local newspaper in town that existed for around 50 or so years. (The above photo coming from the Thursday, January 5th, 1967 issue) Nick Gombash, an old buddy of mine from high school asked me about the article the other day. (If you're interested in genealogy, check out Nick's blog at It's really cool reading)

Does anyone know if Mr. Best still lives in the area? I wonder what ever happened to the bone, or even where exactly in Mokena he found the ancient bone.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Cappel Family of Mokena

One of the things that makes Mokena's history so great is that it's our story; the history of normal people. We can read about different presidents, generals, all this stuff, but it's easy to lose track of "normal history" and forget that people just like you and me have been living in Mokena for centuries.

I can't think of a better example than the family of John Cappel.

This is an old family photo that was given to me a few years ago by a local guy named Joe Srsnick. I'd guess the photo was taken around 1893 or so, maybe on a trip to Joliet to take care of errands. (As far as anyone can tell, no professional photo studios existed here in that era)

When I look at John Cappel surrounded by his family, I see the face of a guy who has really seen a lot. His early life would've been that of a pioneer, with difficulties and hardship that would make our head spin today in 2010. John was born on on May 26th, 1846, at a time in which neither Mokena nor Frankfort even existed yet. What would later become Frankfort Township was dotted with log cabins, prairie and forest.

Just where John was born is something of a mystery. (Something that comes up in this research way too often) Some sources say that he was born here, others say that it was in a Bavarian village called Steinwenden. (It still exists today, a little over 1,000 people live there) His family seems to have come from there. His father, a man by the name of Friedrich Cappel, was one of this area's first German settlers and allegedly named Frankfort Township.

On February 19th, 1871 John married Elisabeth Werner in Mokena at the old St. John German Lutheran Church. (That's her on the right in the photo) The Cappels lived on a farm that John inherited from his father, this having stood near the western corner of what is today 191st St. and 88th Avenue. (About where the Dunkin Donuts distribution center is) Later on, probably as John became a successful and well known butcher and livestock dealer, they relocated to a farm that stood closer to Mokena on the north side of LaPorte Road. (This one having stood just east of the railroad crossing. There are town homes on the site today)

Unfortunately, neither of the two farms are still standing.

All in all, John and Elisabeth Cappel had fourteen kids in their marriage, (how often do we see this today? ;-) although six seemed to have died young. Medical technology not being what it is today, John himself wound up passing away in 1897 at the age of 51. What got him? Pneumonia. To be fair, I should at least let you know that Elisabeth died in 1929 at 80.

Each of the couple's children went on to leave their mark. In 1926, Fred and Albert Cappel formed a partnership as grain dealers in Mokena, doing business out of the historic grain elevator that stands a few yards south of Front Street. If you've ever gotten off a train here, you've seen it. :-)

To this day, there are many residents of Mokena who still know the Cappel name, and even a few who can claim John and Elisabeth Cappel as their ancestors. Nowadays we look back at these pioneers and might find it hard to see them as human, as someone tangible. Don't forget, they were all someone's neighbors, someone's friends, and were people who laughed and smiled just like we do.