River Bits

'Pioneer Hunters of the Kankakee' traces marsh's history

2014-01-10T00:00:00Z 'Pioneer Hunters of the Kankakee' traces marsh's historyJohn Hodson Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
January 10, 2014 12:00 am  • 

"Pioneer Hunters of the Kankakee" by J. Lorenzo Werich is considered by many as a must-read book about the Kankakee Marsh.

Werich was born in 1860 near Hebron, a scant few miles from the marsh. He writes mostly about his life along the Kankakee River, hunting and trapping, people he met, river legends and many entertaining anecdotes. He and his brother, Harry, were legendary in their own right.

Werich began trapping at the age of 8. The family cabin was near a runway between two muskrat ponds.

Werich wrote: "Father gave me two or three old steel traps which had weak springs and which I could set without breaking my fingers ... I set the traps along the creek where the rats would stop to feed on roots and such vegetation as muskrats usually feed upon. I caught fifteen rats that fall."

A central story in Werich's book is about Indian Island, 40 acres about two miles west of Baum's Bridge. By early accounts, Mike Haskins is the first white man to make his home on the island.

Haskins was with Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe and reportedly fired the first warning shot of the battle. In the 1850s, the Brody brothers owned the island and built cabins on it. At that time it was heavily timbered.

Werich wrote: "In 1866 a company was organized and known as the Indian Island Sawmill Company ... they bought the island from the Broadys' paying them five thousand dollars in cash for it ... and in the winter of 1866, when the marsh was frozen up, they put the sawmill on the island."

Werich's father, John, was a two-fifths owner of the sawmill. In 1868, John Bissell and Ira Cornell were the largest stockholders of the sawmill. They built a steamboat named the White Star.

The steamboat was used to transport lumber from the sawmill to points along the Kankakee, which was always a shallow tributary. A canal needed to be dug from the river proper to a loading dock on the island  to load the lumber onto the White Star.

In his book, Werich wrote that the canal was known as the Bissell-Cornell Steamboat Canal. In 1871, Werich's father bought the Bissell stock. It was at this time that Lorenzo began his life on the Kankakee River.

Lorenzo had fond memories of his father and his early years. John Werich farmed, worked on the dredges, trapped and hunted the marsh.

Werich wrote of his father: "He would dress the skins at night. I helped getting the bow-stretchers ready and stringing the dry hides."

Werich dedicates one chapter to his thoughts of the draining of the Kankakee Marsh. He notes that in his youth, many considered a swamp "uninhabited and desolate, a country always associated with tales of suffering and death, of unfriendly savages and wild animals."

It is easily understood why many thought that draining the marsh was a positive effort. But for Werich and other pioneer hunters, it was the end of their whole way of life.

A digital copy of Werich's book can be found at our Kankakee Valley Historical Society website.

 

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.

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