John G Benkie was a Kankakee River veteran. Benkie was originally spelled Behnke. He was born in Prussia in 1857 and immigrated to the U. S. in 1867. In 1879 John married Rosetta Whitney. They had two daughters, Etta and Mae, and lived in Wanatah.
Rosetta passed away in 1890 and Benkie soon married Mollie Dalke. They had Raymond and Louise and moved to Kouts in 1890. Benkie bought the Kouts Drug Store the same year. Like many immigrants, Benkie was hard working and industrious. The Kouts Drug Store was in the present day Koffee Kup Restaurant.
I would guess that by this time you're wondering what all this has to do with the Kankakee River.
Being an ambitious man Benkie invested his profits in many local ventures. In addition to being an active businessman he was interested in the Kankakee River, especially the Baum's Bridge area. Benkie was a founding member of the Kouts Fishing Club at Baum's Bridge amongst other river involvements.
Benkie even owned the Collier Lodge site in 1900 along with another 150 or so acres south and east of the lodge. In 1928 it appears that he was planning to subdivide the bayou property southeast of the lodge. I believe the Great Depression of 1929 ended that venture.
Benkie was one of the guest speakers at the 1934 "old timers" gathering at Baum's Bridge. Fishing appears to be his favorite Kankakee River pastime. Benkie's nephew told the story how he and John Benkie went to White Oak Grove for dogfish. "Armed only with clubs we got a bag full in hardly no time, and it was all we could do to carry them home. Uncle knocked the fish out and I pulled them out of the water with a strong willow pole."
Benkie was authorized by the state to "have in his possession spears for the purpose of taking carp from the Kankakee River and its tributaries, together with assistants as he may designate." John stated that he was the only person to have this right in Indiana.
Here's how this right came about: "There were at this time two poor boys who lived on the Jasper County side of the river. The boys were out one day on the marsh and were caught spearing dogfish by a game warden. This officer arrested them and brought them before Justice Homer Porter in Kouts. The boys were found guilty and fined $28.50, which they could not pay."
Benkie posted bond for the boys because he did not feel that they "should be punished for taking dogfish from the marsh." The Commissioner of Fisheries and Game "wrote Justice Porter and instructed him to release the boys, and dismiss the case against them."
Benkie's spearfishing authorization document came about out of appreciation for his compassion and stand for justice. After the charges were dropped the commissioner fired the game warden who made the arrest.
Benkie was often heard to say, "I have spent many pleasant hours on the river, and down in my cottage at Point Comfort on the banks of the Kankakee near here."
John Benkie's life is the American Dream story. A poor immigrant who came to America and through ingenuity and hard work was successful and highly respected in his new homeland. Benkie passed away on July 7, 1939.
John P. Hodson is founder and president of Kankakee Valley Historical Society, Inc. Visit www.kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org. This column solely represents the writer's opinion.