Founding of Illinois towns

This publication, “Selling Location: Illinois Town Advertisements, 1835-1837,” by William D. Walters, Jr. (found here), explains several aspects of how towns were established in Illinois. While the town of Lane was platted in 1853, later than the towns discussed in this article, I’m assuming (until I learn otherwise) that much of what’s said of these early towns also applied to Lane/Rochelle.

After reading the notes below, I’ve started thinking that the founding of Lane was less a locally driven effort by civic-minded landowners, and more of a money-making scheme initiated by a out-of-town investor. Not that such a beginning is illegitimate by any means, but it may not have been any more high-minded than the establishment of any contemporary housing development.

Some notes follow:

• “The creating and selling of new towns was a curious process. Usually the seller was offering nothing more than empty ground and the buyer was being asked to pay substantially more than he would for land of identical quality a few miles away. The simple truth is that the person offering the site was really offering little more than a set of arguments about future geography. These arguments were the seller’s attempt to prove that this particular location was destined to be unlike its neighbors. In turn, the buyer was not just buying a place to erect a house or store, as these could be found in existing places; he or she was purchasing a chance to rapidly multiply money by altering future geography. Buying and selling were both forms of speculation.” (PDF page 4)

• “The forces behind the boom of 1836 were as much psychological as economic.
Heady economic times create a quick rises in property values. This rapid
increase in land values feeds the forces that created it and increasingly alters the
way people view real estate. The wave of town founding that swept over Illinois
was a direct result of a perception that the best way to make money was to invest
in land, and quickest–if the riskiest–way to make money in land was to divide
open land into city lots.” (PDF page 5)

• “In Illinois the legal requirements [to create a new town] were specific, but
neither complicated nor locationally restrictive. Simply put, anyone could create a town anywhere he or she owned land. The law called the owner of the land a
proprietor. It was the same term contemporaries used for anyone who owned a
store, mill, or factory. Once a proprietor, or group of proprietors, had gained title
to the land their first step in was to secure the services of a surveyor. Fortunately
there was an abundance of such men. During the previous two decades, the
federal government had divided most of southern and central Illinois into
townships and ranges, and then had subdivided these into square mile sections.
This process of land division had required training dozens of young men in the
use of the compass, transit, level, and chain. When the work for national
government was over, many tucked away their surveyor’s tools and held them
ready for future employment. Any person with such tools and skills could be
called on to lay out a town. However, the person most commonly employed was
the county surveyor or his official deputy.” (PDF page 6)

• “The surveyor began the process of town founding by placing a stone or a stake
at a carefully measured location. If the new town was to have a public square,
the stone would usually be placed at one corner of the square. If there was to be
no square, then the stone would often be placed at the corner of the “in-lots” of
the town or at some other prominent place. From this stone, lots, streets, alleys,
and would be measured off and marked with stakes. Clusters of such stakes,
with no visible buildings, were often the subject of frontier humor. The town plan would then be transferred onto a diagram of the new town, which was called a plat. By the mid 1830s the whole process had come to be called “town platting” and the verb “to plat,” meaning to establish, was in common use. On the plat, numbers were assigned to each lot and block. These numbers are still in use today in the legal identification of land. Town plats had much in common, but were not identical. A few continued the old New England tradition of designing a town with small “in-lots” and larger “out-lots” was rapidly going out of style [sic]. Most of the new Illinois towns were subdivided only into a single size lot, usually a rectangle about fifty by two hundred feet. In addition to lots, which were usually intended for private sale, the surveyor would often create a public square, and perhaps other tracts of land to be held in common. Streets would be named and dedicated to public use.” (PDF page 7; numbered page 4)

• “How much did it cost to lay out a town? State law permitted surveyors to charge twenty-five cents a lot and to add an additional four cents a lot for recording the plat. Therefore, a two hundred-lot town could be surveyed for about sixty dollars, roughly what a fit man with a good job could expect to earn for two months of labor. If lots sold, additions could be quickly added. Certainly the expense of surveying the town must have usually been less than the cost of attracting settlers to the town.” (PDF page 7; numbered page 4)

•  “Each town had to be given a name. A great deal of silliness has been written
about town naming. Sometimes proprietors did indeed select the names of
former home towns and sometimes they used their own last names.” (PDF page 7; numbered page 4) This latter use of the proprietor’s name seems to have been the case for Lane, established by Robert P. Lane of Rockford.

• “After having surveyed the site and selected a name, the next step was to take
the plat to the county seat and have it copied into the official book, called Deed
Record. At this time streets, alleys, and squares were officially dedicated to
common use; and the plat was officially recorded. The fact that the platting date
was usually different from the recording date and both of these were always very
different from a much later date when the town might be been incorporated has
sometimes led to confusion about the date a town was created. The surveyor
also made additional copies of the plat, which were given to the proprietor. Plats
are frequently mentioned in town advertisements. Copies were often nailed up in
public places, especially courthouses and hotels. At least one plat would have to
be available at the townsite on the day of the sale.” (PDF page 9, numbered 6)

•  “Fines were imposed for platting a town in other than the prescribed manner, but were no restrictions on the number, size, or shape of lots. Yet, there is a striking similarity in the general features of town design. Where they were not restricted by topography, the plats usually established an orthogonal grid of streets usually arranged around one or more central squares. These squares were sometimes given fanciful names, but most were simply labeled “Public Square.” In a pre-railroad age, squares were important because they defined the town center and therefore identified the highest value lots, By the 1850s the railroad station replaced the square as town center, and fewer towns were designed around squares (Walters 1980, Walters 2001, Price 1968).” (PDF page 9, numbered 6) The plat of Lane has no town square but it does record the location of the Galena and Chicago Union railroad surveyed and being constructed at the time the plat was filed, 30 July 1853 (see 1878 History of Ogle, page 513).

• “After the original platting, there was no limit to the number of additions that could be made to the towns. Proprietors frequently retained land beyond the town boundaries and this could be quickly subdivided. If a town appeared to be
successful, additions were often made within months of the original survey. It is
important to understand that, because there were no restrictions on town
spacing, a rival town might at any time be platted within few hundred yards from
any new place. There are a number of examples where this was done. Such
paired towns seem most often to have been created by separate groups of
speculators trying to take advantage of a common perceived advantage. Almost
never did both places survive. To understand which towns survived, it is critical to keep in mind that it was not enough for a new town to have a good location; the town had to have a better location than its competitors and it had to be more
successfully promoted.” (PDF page 10, numbered page 7).

• “It must also be remembered that land was abundant, and town lots comprised
only a fraction of total real estate sales. In 1836 any buyer with cash in hand
could take the conservative approach and ride to the nearest federal Land Office.
By paying a dollar twenty-five cents per acre the buyer could purchase a section
of Illinois farm land that was already acknowledged to be among the best in the
world. Many writers advised this approach. Letters from the 1830s suggest to
friends that they avoid the risk of town lots and invest in agricultural land. By
opting to purchase town lots, customers knew they were taking the bigger risk.
Many sellers were open about the risk of town lots. Several advertisements invite
speculators to attend their auctions. Town lot buying was always a gamble, but it
was not usually an uncalculated toss of the dice.” (PDF page 14, numbered page 11).

• “Many town site advertisers requested that that their notices be copied in eastern papers. This practice of reprinting advertisements bred a form of local humor, discussed later, in which the canny Sucker State native journeys to the East where he unloads large numbers of valueless Illinois lots on unsuspecting
citizens of Philadelphia or New York. Like the stories of men armed with sticks
being stationed at the limits of East Coast cities to beat back the hoards of
settlers who were trying to leave for the Midwest, humor was more important
than truth. However, substantial numbers of Illinois town lots were put up for sale in out-of-state cities. Lots in Illinois could be purchased in many cities in other states. For example, visitors to Gowdey Coffee House in Nashville, Tennessee, could see maps of lots for sale in Peoria, Rome, or Charleston, Illinois (National Banner and Nashville Whig, 27 January 1837, p. 3).” (PDF 14, #11)

• “New Illinois towns had much in common. Visually they were simply clusters of
small buildings with minimum foundations and little public infrastructure. Most
structures were small, made of unpainted wood, and devoid of non-essentials.
Houses were often indistinguishable from commercial buildings. Advertisers
offered buildings that might serve as houses or “tavern stands.” The towns bore
little resemblance to the Lincoln Log recreations, so beloved of grade school
teachers and Depression-era re-creators. There were many log structures.
Cleveland, on the Rock River in Henry County, was laid out in April of 1836 and
the first buildings were erected in the following summer. One was described as a
double log house, or “dog-trott,” with one half used for a dwelling and the other
for a store (History of Henry County 1877, p. 531). However, sawmills were being
built in large numbers and sawn-boards were quickly available. As soon as
possible, shivering citizens nailed planks onto the sides of their log cabins. After
a few years un-sided urban log structures were uncommon. One of the leading
authorities on log construction once told me that he had rarely examined a log
building that had not been covered with boards soon after it was built and that
logs of many such structures generally showed few signs of long exposure. Log
structures were mixed with other modes of hasty construction. The first house in
Andover, Henry County, was built in 1837 and described as a “cottonwood board
shanty” (History of Henry County 1877, p. 139). From the earliest dates, frame
houses were very common. Such houses are specifically mentioned in the
advertisements for Brussels and Valasco. The advertisement for the town of
Monroe noted that the proprietors were also seeking buyers for both frame and
log houses. Sometimes proprietors would try to attract residents by offering to
construct houses at the new townsite. At Virginia, in what would later become
Cass County, proprietors told buyers that some houses would be built and sold
with the lots on which they stood. The first structure actually built in Virginia was a story and a half frame building (Perrin, p. 80). Although brickyards were
occasionally mentioned in town advertisements, and stone was used in selected
area, these materials were too labor intensive to be common for anything other
than important public buildings.” (PDF 15, #12).

• “Boom years like 1836 were dangerous for both those who bought and those who sold. The risk to buyers was obvious and many soon quickly realized that some auctions were little more than playgrounds for the morally challenged. Sellers were also badly hurt. Good sellers were quick to sense that the time to boom land had come. They could focus attention on the potential of a place. They often excelled at stoking speculative flame. Yet, only the most astute could properly predict the time when the bubble was going to burst. We know that they
frequently worked with borrowed money. It took money to buy land, to lay out
towns, to attract buyers, and to promote the new places. This money was at risk.
When Illinois liberalized its bankruptcy law in 1841, many who had once been
financial leaders were forced to take advantages of the provisions. As always,
the problem with booms lies not so much in knowing when to follow the crowd,
but in knowing when to make the lonely decision to abandon the frenzy.” (PDF 20, #17).

• “The towns of 1836 had interesting post-boom histories. One of three things could happen to a new town: rapid abandonment, survival followed by later removal to a new location, or lasting success. A rough rule of thumb is that one third of platted towns were abandoned without ever having been occupied, one third were briefly occupied and later abandoned, and the remaining third have
survived. The odds of survival were greater when only one town was established
in a given area, especially when that town was an early and undisputed county
seat. Towns with many near neighbors were more likely to fail. In many places
proprietors quickly gave up and asked that the plat be vacated. In theory,
vacating the plat legally ended the history of the town and was a valuable tool
because it removed the administrative and financial confusion created by
surveyed but unoccupied towns. In the simplest sense the verb “to vacate”
means to abolish something that that had been legally established. Most often
vacation was done by an act of the state legislature. The usual procedure was for
the town’s owner to sign a statement certifying that he was still owner of all of thetown’s lots and that he wished the town to be vacated. If lots had been sold, the plat could be vacated provided any additional owners also signed the document. The act of vacation was then recorded in the appropriate county. In the years following 1837, legislative acts vacating large numbers of towns were common. Often, the rapid vacation of a town plat is evidence that it was what
contemporaries called a “paper town,” one with never had occupants, and often
one where no lots had ever been sold. However, this is not always the case.
Other town-founders and lot owners did not bother with vacation. They simply
walked away from their property and left local authorities to deal with the
consequences. The legacy of thousands of lots left over from the boom took many years to resolve. Such problems were compounded by large numbers of bankruptcies during the late 1830s and early 1840s. The collective solution to these problems was the tax sale. A large number of town lots, even those in thriving places, were eventually sold for taxes.” (PDF 21, #18)

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