One very important aspect of historical research is taking down the memories of old timers. I am always searching for family stories, general information and pictures of the old Kankakee River.
Apparently, this is nothing new because in the course of researching old newspapers I found that on Sept. 6, 1934, a group from Valparaiso held a gathering of old river veterans for the purpose of taking down their stories before they pass on. The gathering was organized by editor of the Vidette-Messenger Englebert Zimmerman, reporter A.J. Bowser and former Valparaiso Mayor Perry Sission and was held at the Jesse Smith pavilion at Baum’s Bridge.
The pavilion was where Baum's Bridge Inn is now located. Seven-hundred people attended the event. Zimmerman described the scene as "a unique gathering on the banks of the old river bed, with boughs and greenery against the walls surrounding the spacious dance floor that gave a rustic touch that struck a pioneer note."
It was such a success that "automobiles packed every nook in cranny of the parking space of the Smith resort. ... Every section of the county was represented at the party. Politicians, county and city officials, farm bureau leaders, businessmen and others made up the throng."
I cannot imagine how 700 people squeezed in at Baum's Bridge.
Bowser "informed the audience that the purpose of the meeting was to gather unrecorded data and living memories of the Kankakee River as it was and is for future generations."
A large portion of my Baum's Bridge research material is the direct result of this gathering and much of my future River Bits columns will be derived from material taken down at this event.
This must have been an amazing event. Along with the story-telling there was other entertainment. The "party was opened with the singing of 'America,' with music provided by August Bucci’s River Tooters Band of Valparaiso" and then Mrs. William Morehouse "read a poem on the Kankakee written by Porter Childers. ... Dancing was later enjoyed to music furnished by the Kouts Orchestra."
News to me that Kouts had an orchestra in 1934.
Of course, the main event was stories of the old Kankakee River. John G. Benkie, Kouts druggist, told some old-time fishing and hunting stories that had the crowd agog and that the killing of four ducks or geese with one shot was only a minor happening. The Benkie story will be one of my future columns. He emigrated from Germany and in the 1890s built up his drug store business in Kouts. It was in the same building that the Koffee Kup restaurant is now located. Benkie owned the Collier Lodge site in 1900 and all of the bayou property south of the lodge. It is my belief that Benkie was working to develop a community on the bayou land at Baum's Bridge.
Many of the speakers talked of river islands and marshes that are long gone because of the ditching of the Kankakee in 1918. A "1900 Kankakee River" map and "Kankakee Marsh Historic Place Names" doc can be found at our KVHS website. Please, contact me if you have any material to contribute about the old Kankakee River.