Once a rich prairie teeming with wildlife, Naperville has become one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. Its growth began with the migration of settlers from the East. As timber was used up and farmland claimed, landless sons and daughters of earlier pioneers, as well as immigrants, came into the heart of the Illinois prairie to seek a better life.
Naperville is the oldest town in the county, founded by Captain Joseph Naper in 1831. Although Captain Naper was the founder of the village, then known as Naper Settlement, he was not the first settler in the area.
Stephen J. Scott and his son Willard, while on a hunting trip in 1830, discovered the DuPage River south of present-day Naperville and built a cabin at the fork of the east and west branches of the river in Will County. Other families soon settled in the vicinity, living peacefully with the Indians.
The first white settler on county soil was Bailey Hobson, who established a permanent home along the DuPage River near today’s Pioneer Park. He came from Indiana with his wife, Clarissa, and five children. Within a few years he built a grist mill and a home, which served as an inn for many of the farmers who came great distances to grind their grain and often had to stay overnight while waiting for their turn. Legend says that farmers who came to the mill took delight in seeing the many peacocks who would feed upon the spilled grain around the mill. The Hobson home still stands on Hobson Road, east of Washington.
Captain Joseph Naper of Ashtabula County, Ohio, arrived in Chicago via the vessel Telegraph along with his brother, John, their families, and those of John Murray, Lyman Butterfield, Harry Wilson, and Ira Carpenter about fifty people in all. After delivery of the ship to its new owner, they proceeded west to their new land. Captain Naper had met Stephen Scott on his first trip to the region a few months earlier and engaged him to break ten acres of prairie land in the spring. Owing to the lateness of the season, however, the Napers could only plant buckwheat and rutabagas, while other provisions had to be purchased from established farms along the Wabash.
The winter was unusually severe. Despite this, after building a log cabin for his family, Captain Naper and brother John, also erected a sawmill during the first year. They used iron work which they had brought from Ohio. Christopher Paine, whom they employed, built a dam laying logs and stones across the river and then building up the dam with mud and buckwheat straw. By the spring of 1832, the mill was in running order for sawing boards to build some of the first frame homes in the county. The mill stood at the foot of what is now Mill Street.
Upon completion of the sawmill, a crude grist mill was built. Christopher Paine had made the grinding stones from boulders, and each settler ground his own grain using his team of oxen for “horsepower.” In the first year of settlement the Napers also established a trading post where they carried on a trade with both settlers and the friendly Potawatomi Indians.
Despite the hardships of daily life in the fledgling community, the settlers did not lose sight of the need for education. Along with several other families in and around Naper Settlement, the members of the community drew up a contract on September 14, 1831, establishing a school. Twenty-two scholars attended school in this first school house, which was a fourteen-foot square log cabin erected at the present intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Ewing Street. Lester Peet was hired as the teacher, he was paid $12 per month.
In the spring of 1832, the prospering community was threatened by the Black Hawk War. Half Day, a friendly chief of the Potawatomi, sent a messenger to Bailey Hobson advising the settlers to go to Fort Dearborn as rapidly as possible. He said that people were being massacred south of the settlement. Filled with fear and excitement, families quickly located one another in the vast prairie and packed their clothing and provisions for the journey to Fort Dearborn in Chicago. Crossing the prairie was slow and escape difficult. Roads were no more than muddy ruts. Wheels became embedded in marshy soil and fresh water was not readily available. The Hobson family’s reminiscences speak of traveling thirty-six hours without food. Mrs. Hobson is said to have frequently used her shoe to dip water from the pools by the roadside in order to get a drink.
Joseph Naper was chosen as the captain of the first military organization in DuPage County to serve in defense against Black Hawk in northern Illinois. About the middle of June, General Atkinson detailed Captain Morgan L. Paine of Joliet and fifty volunteers from Danville to build a fort in Naperville. Fort Payne was a stockade about 100 feet square, surrounded by pickets set in the ground on two diagonal corners, which were blockhouses pierced with openings for a view of the prairies from all directions. While the fort was being built, there was one casualty — a soldier, William Brown, who was ambushed and killed while gathering wood for the fort in Sweet’s Grove (near Ogden Avenue). No battles took place in the fort, for General Winfield Scott made a treaty with the Sauks at Rock Island, thereby ending the Black Hawk War. The settlers once more resumed the task of subduing the wilderness.
Friendly Indians remained in the area for many years after the war. In subsequent years some of the much-used Indian trails formed the first roads used by the white man. In Naperville, Chicago Avenue was the Buffalo Trail and Ogden Avenue, the Ottawa Trail.
Fort Payne deteriorated after several years, but today a smaller reconstruction of the fort can be seen at Naper Settlement, Naperville’s museum complex. The fort’s original location was on North Central College’s Fort Hill Campus, at Chicago Avenue and Ellsworth Street.
As Naper Settlement developed, it became a stagecoach stop for two important highways that formed a junction here. One ran south through Oswego, Yorkville, and Newark to Ottawa. The other was the southern stage route from Chicago to Galena laid out by Captain Joseph Naper. To accommodate the travelers, the Pre-Emption House was built. It was known far and wide for its hospitality. George Laird erected the Greek Revival building, said to have been the oldest tavern in constant operation west of the Allegheny Mountains. Considered to be the largest inn anywhere in the vicinity, it was the scene of social gatherings, and a center for horsetraders and traveling merchants. It was also used for important town meetings, such as those of the DuPage County Society for Mutual Protection.
Before government surveys were done, land claims lay in a variety of shapes and did not comply with the quarter sections designated by the government. The protection societies settled many land disputes through their arbitration boards. Land feuds and violence accompanied the early efforts of the pioneers, besieged by squatters and land sharks. Well known early settlers whose names appear among the records as officers of protection societies were Stephen K. Scott, Henry Goodrich, Nathan Allen, Lewis Ellsworth, James Hatch, Pierce Downer, George Martin, William Strong, Morris Sleight, and Isaac Clark.
As the decade of the 1830s progressed, the town became a mixture of Easterners and Hoosiers, both bringing their own flavor to the community. Recalling early days, Judge Robert Murray, son of John Murray, states:
… we were a sort of free people; we believed in doing just about as we pleased. The good brethren of the East Branch Settlement used to come here with their iron bedstead and try to fit us to it, but they found it useless and gave up the people of Naper Settlement as children of the Devil for whom there was no hope.
Despite this description, Naperville’s strong religious character was established in the ensuing years. The first church was organized in 1833 by members of the East Branch Settlement. Although Presbyterian when founded, the members changed their affiliation to Congregational one year later. The Evangelical Church, established in 1837, held services in private homes until a church was built later that year. The Baptist Church was organized in 1843. By 1846 Sts. Peter & Paul Parish was started as a mission.
On March 1, 1836, a post office was established at the settlement with Alexander Howard as its first postmaster. It was also a stagecoach stop for the Templeton Line which went to Galena. Named the Pawpaw Post Office, after a grove of paw paw trees nearby, the original building has been restored and today stands in Naperville’s museum complex.
DuPage was established as a county in 1839, and Naperville was selected as the county seat. Five thousand dollars were allocated for the erection of a court house, originally located near today’s Central Park. Captain Joseph Naper, along with Abraham Lincoln, served in the state legislature during this period.
Naper Settlement doubled its population during the 1840s to approximately 1,300. Land was cheap and, due to the 1841 Land Act, 160 acres of land could be purchased by any head of a family. This brought many new settlers whose descendants still live in Naperville.
In the 1850s Naperville was officially chartered as a village by the State of Illinois. Its first council consisted of Joseph Naper as president, George Martin, Michael Hines, Xavier Egermann, and Hiram Cody as trustees, and Cheney Castle as clerk. Naper took office on February 7, 1857. He swore to perform faithfully the duties of office and not to accept challenges to fight duels during his term of office.
A period of business growth began. Two banks, two nurseries, the Stenger Brewery, and the Martin & King Brick and Tile Works were founded in this decade. In spite of the town’s growing importance, villages in the northern section of DuPage County began demanding the removal of the county seat from Naperville. The proposition failed, but the controversy persisted.
As the town grew, a need for more schools resulted in the building of Naper Academy. It opened in 1852, first as a private school, and later as a public school, operating until 1928.
Naperville was still dependent on railroads located in nearby towns. All efforts to obtain one in Naperville failed. A need for better roads was filled, however, when a plank road was built. In 1851 the Southwestern Plank Road from Chicago to Riverside was extended to Naperville where it was linked with one under construction to Oswego. The roads were owned by private corporations which built sections. The Naperville section was owned by Naper, Skinner, Lyman & Co., W. Scott & Co., A Howard & Co., A. Keith, H. L. Peaslee & Co., and George Martin. The road consisted of a single track eight feet wide, made by laying two stringers and covering them with three-inch planks embedded in the earth. The toll charges were: 37 cents for a four-horse vehicle, 25 cents for a single team, and 25 cents for a horse and rider. Within a very few years the road deteriorated from heavy loads and decay.
The decade of the 1860s was one of expansion, invention and unrest in the country. When the Civil War broke out, a number of Naperville’s young men volunteered to go to the front; some enlisted in the 7th, 9th and 13th regiments. In 1861 the 8th Cavalry was formed, claiming more. The name of Charles Beckman stood at the head of the muster roll of Company K, 13th Infantry, the first organization that entered service for DuPage County.
Agitation over the location of the county seat reached fever pitch when an 1867 referendum authorized the change. In 1868 forty daring citizens of neighboring Wheaton appropriated the county records under the cover of darkness, thereby completing the transfer of the DuPage County Seat from Naperville to Wheaton.
The 1870s brought great and lasting improvements to the city. Northwestern College, now called North Central College, was dedicated on October 4, 1870, after its move from Plainfield. Naperville citizens had raised $25,000 and had donated eight acres of land to attract the college to Naperville. The college had a great deal of influence on the cultural and educational life of the town. It is still a growing and active institution. The city also purchased its first fire engine, the Joe Naper Pumper. Naperville’s first private telephone, a mechanical type, linked the Beckman Harness Shop and the Beckman residence, over a span of three blocks.
Industrial growth throughout the country characterized the 1880s. Naperville’s Lounge Factory was started as Fred Long’s Furniture Shop and continued to grow in subsequent decades until it became the Kroehler Manufacturing Company. By 1915 Kroehler’s was the country’s largest manufacturer of upholstered furniture, and it continued to be the city’s major employer for many years. Naperville’s quarries brought a wave of German immigrants whose passage was provided because they were skilled in the use of dynamite and cutting limestone. As wealth came with industrialization, elegant homes were built in large cities and small towns alike. Some impressive examples in Naperville are the Martin Mitchell mansion, the Nichols home, and those in Naperville’s Historic District.
Naperville’s musical tradition continues even today, as community band concerts capture the flavor of small-town America on summer evenings in Central Park. Friends and neighbors came closer together in the 1880s as the first public telephone and switchboard were put into use. A new city hall was built in this decade. The fire department had to purchase additional fire equipment, such as the “Enterprise” steam engine, to take care of the town’s growing needs.
Naperville was organized as a city in 1890. Although agrarian in flavor, the town saw the First National Bank organized in 1891, and the Reuss Bank in 1897. The Von Oven Nurseries shipped plant material nation-wide, the Nichols’s Company became known for publishing many business-related books, and the town’s breweries thrived.
Thanks to a $10,000 bequest from Professor James Nichols and an appropriation from the city, Nichols Library was dedicated in 1898. By 1900 the population of the city was 2,600. Only ten years later it had reached 3,400.
The first car on the streets of Naperville appeared in 1900, marking a new era in accelerated growth. Within ten years the Naperville Clarion published an admonition that “speed maniacs” on newly paved streets of the town would not be tolerated. Two mail carriers were able to handle the city’s needs.
The Edward Sanatorium opened on January 15, 1907, under the direction of Dr. Theodore Sachs. This institution of fourteen beds was one of the first hospitals in the Great Lakes region to offer tuberculosis treatment. The Edward Sanatorium served as a model institution for that purpose until the early 1950s when need for a tuberculosis sanatorium diminished. It was converted into a general hospital in 1955. Currently the 163-bed hospital is staffed by 620 employees and offers a complete range of health care.
When the country entered World War I in 1917, Naperville claimed sixteen of the first ninety men to enlist. After the conflict citizens staged a four-day “Homecoming” celebration which they had been planning for two years.
During the decade of the Roaring Twenties, Naperville boasted approximately 5,000 residents. People dined, danced, and listened to the sounds of Orrin Tucker and other big bands at the Spanish Tearoom. Land was purchased for the Naperville Country Club. All this happy activity, however, was interspersed with several major fires, including those of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, North Central’s gymnasium, parts of the Grace Evangelical Church, and the grain elevator of Boecker Coal and Grain Ca The decade ended in despair as the stock market crashed in 1929.
The 1930s were difficult years, but with contributions solicited from townspeople, the Centennial Pageant was held and the Centennial Beach was formally dedicated. North Central College started the construction of Merner Fieldhouse, despite a decline in enrollment.
The 1940s saw Naperville with a population of 5,280, including 800 college students. There were twenty churches. Kroehler Manufacturing Company employed 900 residents. Many of the town’s young men distinguished themselves in the service of their country as they marched off to fight in the Second World War.
By the 1950s the corporate city limits included slightly over six square miles. Estimates at that time indicate that there were more than 120 organizations active, many of which benefited the city’s development with their fund raising and volunteer work. The oldest among them is the Masonic Order, chartered in 1849. The school population grew significantly. Central High School and Beebe Elementary School were products of this growth.
The year 1960 was to see the single largest geographical expansion in Naperville’s history. Over 1,500 acres were annexed. The two school districts had four grade schools, one junior high, and one high school. The Naperville Sun and the Naperville Clarion were the town’s two weekly newspapers. The post office, hospital, and college built additions; but perhaps the most significant mark of things to come in Naperville’s future was the construction of the Indian Hill Bell Laboratories. Soon, Northern Illinois Gas built a research center, and in 1967 Standard Oil-Indiana Research Center was welcomed to Naperville.
In 1968 the mayor and councilmen approved a “Fair Housing” ordinance. The Naperville Heritage Society was organized in 1969 to preserve the city tradition; this resulted in today’s Naper Settlement, a museum complex. A mayoral-council-managerial form of government was approved.
A setback for Naperville in the early seventies was the annexation of Fox Valley to Aurora instead of to Naperville. This resulted in a major loss in potential sales tax revenue. The downtown, however, began to be revitalized and a major office-research center near the tollway was being developed. Nalco, The Wall Street Journal midwest printing facility, and other prestigious businesses located in Naperville. Improvements to Central Park were made during the bicentennial year. The population reached 40,000, and the city’s outer boundaries now reached Warrenville, Lisle, Bolingbrook, and Aurora.
The year 1981, Naperville’s Sesquicentennial, was typical of the community’s activities, which indicate a respect for the past and a concern for the future. An historic pageant, a three-day recreation of Captain Joseph Naper’s and the first settlers’ trek to Naperville, a parade, concert, and other celebrations were held Hundreds of volunteers participated and helped in making it an event to remember. Outstanding financial support and volunteer labor were cheerfully provided to the Riverwalk Project, a lasting memorial given by Naperville’s citizens to their community. Today the Riverwalk is a show-place park along the banks of the DuPage River, enjoyed by citizens and tourists alike.
As of 1983, the population is 42,601. Almost 80% of employed people are white-collar workers in professional/managerial occupations. Forty-five percent of the city’s land is yet undeveloped, but the projected population figure of 97,800 by the year 2000 promises to utilize almost all existing residential space. City planners and the Naperville Park District took demographic studies into consideration in establishing fifty-nine parksites and Springbrook Golf Course. The police department has eighty-four employees, including civilians, and twenty-five police vehicles. The fire department has fifty-five full-time employees and two fire stations. Naperville has two school districts, Districts 203 and 204, comprising sixteen schools in three divisions — ten elementary, five junior high schools, and two senior high schools.
Naperville’s growth has traversed the period from enchanting prairies to that of expanding industrial and residential areas, with appreciation for its pioneer heritage deepening.
Helen Fraser is Associate Director of the Naper Settlement.