There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” was a common saying in days gone by. Meaning that there could be a variety of methods to be rid of an odious problem or solve some chore about which there is argument. Such a situation arose in Freeport in 1898 when it had come time for a new municipal building to be built to accommodate the modern day.
It was estimated that it could cost over $60,000, an enormous sum at the time. But Freeport had long been in a routine of keeping ahead of the familiar “Jones’.” It would do so in the years to come, too.
In 1913, for instance, it would organize to take politics out of city government elections ... No more Democrats or Republicans sponsoring a candidate although it’s hard not to know someone’s politics even in a small city like Freeport. The problem, however, was that no one wanted to run. Eleven prospects were approached but turned down the request. Finally, two agreed to head the tickets and the Democrat candidate won, as did eight of the fifteen aldermanic seats. So much for party politics.
Towns then voted themselves “wet or dry” and did so that year 1913. The town went wet by a margin of 2,611 to 908. One hundred years ago things were happening. Sunday movies were allowed, live theater and playing pool were permitted.
The wets didn’t celebrate for long. In 1914 women were able to vote for the first time (tho’ not in national elections) and at the election, the town went dry. That vote closed forty-six saloons and eliminated the healthy taxes saloons paid into the city treasury. The city council levied a road-bridge tax which resulted in a sum of $30,294 at year’s end, about four thousand more than the alcohol tax. The wets had one less argument for their side.
Freeport, from the first had been an “open city,” that is, not too conservative, ready to try new things. Although it was a deeply sentimental decision, it was time to retire the fire department’s two fire horses, “Dick,” aged twenty-five and “Cap,” about eighteen. They’d served twelve and ten years respectively, and were familiar to everyone. In 1913 also, the Adams Street fire station would also retire their fire horses, “Pat” and “Jerry,” a well as the Stephenson Street team. They’d be replaced by motorized fire engines, a huge change. The Lincoln Boulevard station didn’t become motorized until 1919.
The opening decades of the twentieth century witnessed many changes in city life, and national life. W.T. Rawleigh, the town’s manufacturing mogul, was elected mayor 1909-1911. There was an empty treasury but at the end of his tenure the bottom line was black—$22,029, a sizeable sum for the time. It was up and down through the years from the very beginning.
Around the year 1902 bids had been let to build a permanent post office, it having been from the beginning in postmaster’s homes, then in a series of larger buildings. Its prestige is still evident on the northeast corner of Chicago and Exchange. The bid to build was $51,000, completed in 150 days!
Urban mail delivery had begun in 1887, and in 1900 RFD, Rural Free Delivery put the agriculturists on a same step as town folk. Mail AT your own home.
Freeport had begun in December of 1835 when Benjamin Goddard settled on the north bank of the Pecatonica River. A couple days later, William “Tutty” Baker came up and began building a crude log cabin that would serve more or less as a trading post. A bigger log house followed.
The site was actually known as “Winneshiek’s Village” named for the chief of a small group of Winnebagoes and mixed native Americans of other tribes. It had been here a long while. Major Stephen Long, a noted military explorer, had come through in 1823 to find seven permanent bark lodges and three temporary. Likely, it had grown in size. The first native residents were mostly friendly and tolerant. Gradually they dispersed as white settlers came in more numerously.
Baker was universally called “Tutty,” a nick name given him by the Indians because he stuttered. He was small in stature, talkative and hospitable to the annoyance of his dominable wife, Elizabeth Phoebe, of whom reference gives she was as much to be credited as “Tutty” for the successful growth of the settlement. She was one of the few women to come north into the lead mines and live the hardships of the frontier. If there was some physical argument, “Tutty” could rely on her and his three large, muscular sons! It was she who named the camp because “Tutty” was always inviting acquaintances and strangers to come in and sit a spell. That included a sip or a bite for which Elizabeth was to provide. She called it a free-port and the name stuck. It was probably as much “Tutty’s” whimsical personality that drew people to the convenience of the ferry crossing as anything. A book could be filled with anecdotes of and about the founder of the free-port.
He had come north in 1827, ahead of Oliver Kellogg who forged the famous trail of his name. The Bakers went into Wisconsin for work but Baker returned to the Pecatonica camp every year to claim the site as the law said. It was thus eight years before he moved the family into Illinois to “make a town.” He didn’t want a farm, or homestead, as most did, but to live in a town. He’d make one, if needed.
Just four years after Goddard and Baker had claimed the site in 1840, the census counted 491 residents. After ten years, however, there was still no newspaper and only one church. And no municipal government ... Only a sheriff, a county commissioner and a precinct judge of elections as governmental officers.
By 1850, though, the census read 1,426, a thousand more than ten years earlier. Municipal agendas must be prepared. An election for the town’s first mayor and six alderman was set up in 1855. Thomas Turner, an extraordinarily able citizen who had arrived years earlier destitute and forlorn, was the first chosen mayor. Because there had been only casual leadership, there was no fire department to the grave concern of the Freeporters. In February of 1855 at 2:00 a.m. a fire broke out in a commercial building between Stephenson and State streets. The only way to fight the blaze was by bucket brigade, inadequate at best. To prevent the fire from spreading was to blow it up with powder. It wasn’t until December of ‘55 that $4,000 was obtained by loan to buy two fire engines that were delivered in September, 1856. They were named “Black Hawk” and “Winneshiek.” An engine house was constructed on the northeast corner of West Stephenson and Walnut in 1868. It was a fine brick structure for which an alarm bell was purchased a couple years later. Its housing can be seen in the picture here taken from the 1970 Stephenson County history. The picture of William Baker is seen there, too. We appreciate the excellent information and research done in that book. So comprehensive.
There were so many happenins’ throughout the history of the county seat of Stephenson County that it’s impossible to list them all. In 1882, for instance, there was organization of a water works system. It was private so the city rented the hydrants. The company had a thirty (30) year franchise. It would certainly assist the fire department of which the citizenry was so proud. Many a sentimental toast must have been made to their heroic deeds, going beyond the call of duty, when in 1882 a paid fire department became part of the city’s services.
About 1882 Freeport “lost its country airs,” it was said when an ordinance was passed prohibiting cows and other animals from wandering freely throughout the town instead of being fenced. Were cats a part of that order? the cat that was skinned somehow or other?