Like many young people, Joseph Singler planned an adventure after graduation and before the demands of adulthood. He took this adventure to the mysterious Kankakee River and was eager to experience this fabulous land.
Singler was born in 1872 in Chicago, Ill. In September of 1891 he and his chums Charles Coventry, Charles Smith and Harry Van Horn boarded the Panhandle (Pennsylvania R.R.) at Washington Heights, Ill., for Kouts. After arriving two hours later, the merry band engaged a team and set out for the Kankakee River.
"The country road was deep in sand and it was a tough haul for the two horses. Finally, about noon, we reached Baum’s Bridge and our first glimpse of the famous Kankakee, the river discovered and explored some centuries ago by the intrepid La Salle. The name of the gallant La Salle will be forever associated with the Kankakee," writes Singler in later life.
"As we reached the bridge we noticed Collier’s General Store on the east bank; we bought a few supplies here while we were camping out. Baum’s Bridge was an old wooden structure, erected before the Civil War, and which had replaced a ferry that was used by white travelers and Indians," Singler wrote in 1949.
The Kankakee Valley Historical Society's historic Collier Lodge located at Baum's Bridge was built in 1898. The exact location of the original Collier's Store is unknown, but it must had been close to where the later store is located.
They camped out on the west bank not far from the bridge for their one-week stay. That first evening they listened to the sounds of laughter, strains of a fiddle, shuffling feet and calls for the various square dance figures at a dancehall near Baum's Bridge.
"Before starting out our exploration we met George Wilcox, who owned a farm near the river and who was custodian of Gen. Lew Wallace’s houseboat, and arranged with him for our daily supply of milk and bread. He informed us that Gen. Wallace spent all his summer vacations on the river, traveling up and down in his houseboat and devoting a good deal of his time to his writings. Almost all of 'Ben Hur' was written on these river trips. In later years I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting Gen. Wallace a number of times and he informed me he was very fond of the wild, picturesque Kankakee and spent all of his spare time here. I was told he started visiting the river in the seventies," wrote Singler.
During their adventure of 1891 they came to know the trappers of the Kankakee River. "These trappers, 'river rats' made a good living trapping muskrats and beaver. They were picturesque figures, standing in their narrow pushboats, which they propelled with long push poles or paddles. I can’t recall of any of them using oars. Their devoted dogs generally trained retrievers, often occupied the bows of the little boars. They live in crude shacks in the river woods or on the edges of a swamp."
Every year after that, for quite a few years, Singler made the trip to Baum's Bridge and the historic Collier Lodge.
Joseph Singler passed away at Los Angeles on June 7, 1960.
John P. Hodson is founder, president of Kankakee Valley Historical Society, Inc. Visit www.kankakeevalleyhistoricalsociety.org. This column solely represents the writer's opinion.