The Hacks, natives of Prussia, settled in the lonely forested wilderness just five years after the United States government signed a peace treaty with the Native American tribes who inhabited the area and bought the land from the Pottawatomie tribe. Indiana had been a state for only 21 years.
The family immediately settled on 40 acres about a half mile east of the present-day U.S. 41 on the south side of what is now Joliet Street.
They bought land for pennies an acre from the General Land Office of the Treasury, which eventually became the Department of the Interior.
The original land deed still exists and bears the signature of President John Tyler.
That purchase has long been considered the founding of the town of St. John, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this weekend.
The Hack legacy
John Hack put his stamp on St. John Township and the future town, according to the book “History of St. John 1837-2001” compiled by the St. John Historical Society.
“Reputedly a man of farsighted vision and considerable leadership ability, he welcomed other immigrants from his native land who settled nearby shortly after his arrival,” the opening article in the book states.
“(He) foresaw the establishment of a flourishing and prosperous community here,” the introduction states. “The result was that St. John Township was very rapidly settled by a hardy and industrious group of people.”
These pioneers cleared and plowed the land with oxen. Sometimes those plows were huge limbs of trees they felled.
Those same oxen pulled wagons filled with their wheat to markets in Chicago.
Hack was very much a businessman. In 1842, he built a peach brandy distillery that was one of the earliest businesses in the community.
He was also a religious man and arranged for a priest from Chicago to come to the settlement twice a month to celebrate Mass in his home.
The area’s first Roman Catholic church in Lake County — St. John the Evangelist — was erected on Hack’s property between 1839 and 1842, according to historical records.
Materials for that original frame building were donated by the Right Rev. Jacques-Maurice De Saint Palais, bishop of Vincennes, and laboriously hauled in by teams of oxen from Chicago.
In 1846, Bishop De Saint Palais officiated at the first confirmation ceremony in Lake County in that frame church building. As the congregation grew, a larger log church was constructed out of some materials from the original building. Today, that log church stands on church property near St. John the Evangelist School along U.S. 41.
That property was part of John Hack’s farm, which he donated to the church. One stipulation was that a space be reserved for a cemetery.
St. John the Evangelist School also traces its history back to 1846, when the first school in the township was built there. Sister Frances from Notre Dame taught 109 students.
The residents of this growing settlement named their town after Hack in 1846, calling it St. Johns. The U.S. government located a post office there after townspeople petitioned for one.
Hack was the first “keeper," what the postmaster was called then, a post he held until 1854. He was succeeded by Frances P. Keilman, who held that position for the next 27 years.
St. Johns remained the town’s name even when the town was laid out in 1881, but was dropped at its 1911 incorporation.
Railroad spurs growth
The arrival of the Monon railroad in 1881 spurred tremendous economic development.
Although the earliest businesses were agricultural and sold only in the community, the railroad created an outlet for milk and dairy products for the many dairy farmers in the area. Milk was shipped to Chicago in the baggage cars of trains.
“It has been said that passengers frequently complained about being delayed in St. John while the milk containers were loaded,” the history book states. “Return trips were the same as empty containers were unloaded.”
Bernard Scheidt’s Hotel and Sample Room at the northeast corner of what is now U.S. 41 and 93rd Avenue served as a stage stop for people going from Crown Point to the northwest portion of the county and to Chicago.
Other businesses grew up along U.S. 41, including John Thiel’s blacksmith shop across the street from the tavern and hotel. The Joseph Gerlach family owned a sawmill at 9445 Joliet St. where local farmers brought timber for custom sawing.
Entrepreneurs, the Gerlach brothers also had a slaughterhouse at the junction of Thielen and Hack streets, adjacent to the railroad. That made it convenient for shipping livestock and slaughtered beef.
One of the area’s largest creameries stood on the south side of 93rd Avenue near Keilman Street.
On Dec. 17, 1881, Peter Thielen, a son-in-law of John Hack, recorded the official plat of the town. That plat shows the area divided into 33 lots of various sizes. Four streets were included — Orth (now Joliet), Schmal (93rd), Hack and Thielen streets.
In 1927, the U.S. government began construction of U.S. 41 through St. John. That spurred additional economic development.
Most businesses from that era are now gone. Only Schilling Bros. Design Center and Lumber Yard still operates in St. John.*