Edith E. Back

The story of Wheaton began in Pomfret, Connecticut, the birthplace of Erastus, Jude, Orinda and Charles Gary, and the Wheaton brothers, Warren and Jesse. It was due largely to the generosity of these New England settlers, who gave of their land, funds and time that Wheaton became the leading city it is today.

By 1837 the early pioneers and their families had claimed large stretches of land in the area. DuPage County was organized in 1839, the year that Jesse Wheaton and Orinda Gary were married. The settlers built their homes of lumber cut to size at Gary’s Mill on the West Branch of the DuPage River.

In 1848 the tracks of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad were laid on the three mile right-of-way donated by Jesse and Warren Wheaton and Erastus Gary, who now owned adjacent land. In 1849 the first train left Wheaton for Turner Junction, now West Chicago. Fast rail connections with the markets in Chicago replaced the tiresome journey by wagon or on foot over dirt roads.

In 1850 Milton Township was organized in the home of Jesse Wheaton, with Warren L. Wheaton as supervisor and Erastus Gary as justice of the peace. The village of Wheaton, surveyed in 1853 by Jonathan Vallette and platted by the Wheaton brothers, included a number of businesses clustered around its depot. A public school was built for the growing families with children.

The Jesse Wheaton Home. From the 1874 Atlas & History of DuPage County, Illinois.

In 1853 the Wesleyan Methodists opened the doors of the Illinois Institute in a hilltop building that later became the central portion of Blanchard Hall, Wheaton College. A good portion of the land and funds were contributions from the Wheaton and Gary families. The first principal, the Rev. John Cross, served on the site committee with Jesse Wheaton, who also hauled the stones for the building from a Batavia quarry. The same year the DuPage County Agricultural and Mechanical Society was formed, and the first call in Wheaton for a new Republican Party occurred. In 1857 Jesse Wheaton donated land for the first fairgrounds and also for the first church building for the Wesleyan Methodist congregation, organized earlier in 1843. In 1859 Wheaton was incorporated as a village comprising about twelve square blocks, now the downtown business district.

From the 1874 Atlas & History of DuPage County, Illinois.

The 1860s brought Jonathan Blanchard, former head of Knox College in Galesburg, to be president of the newly-founded Wheaton College, successor to the Illinois Institute. He was a New Englander, born in Vermont, an Abolitionist, a temperance supporter, and an opponent of secret societies. Many young men in the community served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The Northern Illinoisan, a newspaper started in 1861 by Henry Clay Childs, kept the people of Wheaton informed of events in the war zones and in the state capitol. When the war ended in 1865, Wheaton College had survived, partly because of the Ladies’ School and the preparatory school. Free tuition was offered to returning veterans.

In 1867 Warren Wheaton successfully led the fight in the state legislature to move the county seat from Naperville to the more centrally-located Wheaton. The first courthouse, built on a barren block of land donated by the Wheatons, was soon surrounded by newly planted trees. In 1869 the village was organized as a town.

As the county seat of a prosperous farming community, with a college, a railroad, churches, schools and a business district at its center, Wheaton entered the 1870s with the second generation of the pioneers taking on leadership. The Northern Illinoisan became the Wheaton Illinoisan in 1870. Ownership changed from time to time in the years that followed. That same year the Wheaton branch of the National Bank of Chicago was established.

In the dry fall of 1871, a fire nearly wiped out the business block on Front Street. After the Chicago Fire that same autumn, many families moved to the suburbs, including Wheaton. The Gary-Wheaton Bank was founded on October 1, 1874, with the resources of Jesse Wheaton, Erastus and Elbert Gary providing the capital. Central School, later Longfellow School, was built in 1874. In 1876 John Quincy Adams, a distant relative of the Adams Presidents, came to Wheaton with his son and daughter, and built a large home on the square block which is now Adams Park.

The town of Wheaton progressed slowly but steadily in the 1880s as a residential, commuter community. The “Wheaton Look” in homes – Victorian, Italianate, New England Federal, Farmhouse, Queen Anne, and occasionally Colonial or combined styles — included many large, ornate, comfortable residences on extensive grounds. Smaller, more utilitarian houses were sprinkled in between. Many of the homes are still in use today.

Rufus Blanchard, a mapmaker and historian, published a History of DuPage County in 1882. The same year Dr. Charles Blanchard (no relation to Rufus) succeeded his father, Jonathan Blanchard, as the second president of Wheaton College, serving until 1925. Also in that year, telephone lines were extended from Chicago through Wheaton to Aurora and beyond. Three years later, when a fire proved too much for the bucket brigade of the Volunteer Fire Department fighters, a phone call to Chicago brought equipment on the next crack train to put out the fire after twenty homes and businesses had been destroyed. The need for a central water system was apparent. In 1887 alcoholic and intoxicating beverages were banned through the influence of Warren Wheaton, who had been a member of the first temperance society in Massachusetts in 1826.

In 1891 John Q. Adams built the Adams Memorial Library, across the street from his home, in memory of his wife, Manila Phipps Adams. His daughter, Katherine Adams Wells, was deeply involved in library affairs until her death.

The Chicago Golf Club, the first eighteen hole course in the United States, was located in Wheaton in 1893 in the south part of town, where the Chadwicks and Hadleys had settled in the early 1840s. The club was soon surrounded by summer homes of the elite from Chicago; Robert Todd Lincoln served as an early president.

Paved streets, sidewalks, a water system and sewers followed in 1894. Forty phones were in use by 1895, and a new courthouse was erected the next year. By the last year of the century, the police department had been organized, and an electric light plant had been built.

The DuPage County Courthouse.

Growth continued as the twentieth century began. Front Street was paved with bricks, and sidewalks were made of brick or gravel. The Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin electric railroad made transportation easier and more comfortable, with its diners and even a funeral car, when service began in 1902. J. S. Peironnet owned the first auto, a Pierce-Arrow, in 1903. Mercury vapor street lights were installed. A new railroad station was built in 1911 and used until 1973, when it was renovated for commercial use. In the same year the city government was moved to more permanent headquarters on Wesley Street, continuing in this location until 1966.

As early as 1904/05 basketball was being played at Wheaton High School. Formal football was offered in 1912. When the United States entered World War I, the Woman’s Department Club was formed, and its members became active in Red Cross work. William A. Gamon was elected mayor, with the help of women voters. City government changed from alderman/mayor to commission/mayor in 1917. That year there were 1,336 school age children, six to twenty-one years of age.

The end of World War I was followed by the disastrous world-wide flu epidemic. Undaunted, the community sponsored the YMCA, and the newly organized park district purchased the “Gary Block,” the former residence of Judge Elbert Gary, for a memorial park dedicated to the men who had served in the war. Harold (Red) Grange entered high school in 1919; he became a renowned football player in high school, at the University of Illinois, and with the Chicago Bears. His father served on the city’s police force.

A spurt in growth occurred in the next decade, before the Great Depression set in. Adams Library was taken over by the city. Dr. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr, became the third president of Wheaton College in 1926. Home construction increased; 135 homes were built north of Harrison and west of President. A new YMCA structure was built on Roosevelt Road.

A new post office was built in 1933. Culli­gan’s water softening plant opened in 1937. Despite the slow progress in these Depression years, a low-key celebration in 1939 marked the one hundred years that DuPage had been organized.

At the beginning of the 1940s, Wheaton Chamber of Commerce replaced the earlier Wheaton Business Men’s Association, and Dr. V. Raymond Edman became the fourth president of Wheaton College. When war was declared at the end of 1941, many male students left to serve their country; coeds predominated at the college as they had during the Civil War and World War I. Billy Graham and his future wife Ruth Bell, graduated from the college in 1943. William Gamon retired from banking to become mayor for the second time. When the war ended, there was a community celebration in the Gary Memorial Church.

The post-war years were marked by the population explosion and resulting growth of the city. By 1950 there were 11,638 residents, and seven miles of streets, including one mile of business frontage. The bandshell was built in Memorial Park in 1952 for summer concerts by the Wheaton Municipal Band. Radio personality Everett Mitchell moved to Beautiful Day Farm in 1954.

Wheaton celebrated the centennial year of its incorporation as a village in 1959 with a historical pageant and a parade. A Billy Graham Crusade followed in 1960.

Following a study by the League of Women Voters, the citizens approved a council/manager form of government in 1961 aimed at greater efficiency. Serious renewal of the business area began in 1963 under the leadership of Rosemary Ziska, executive director of the Greater Wheaton Chamber of Commerce. The establishment of Central DuPage Hospital in 1964 was sparked by the Wheaton Kiwanis Club.

An Olympic-size pool was opened in 1965 in Northside Park. That same year the Friends of the Library backed a bond issue to replace the Adams Library facilities with a new building, with space for 80,000 volumes. The vacated building was then purchased and given to the DuPage Historical Society by Edwin F. Deicke, a local insurance executive. This same benefactor made available his colonial style building on West Wesley Street for an ex­panded city hall in 1966.

The Illinois Prairie Path for bicycling, hiking and horseback riding was extended in 1967 through Wheaton, with branches to Aurora and Elgin on the right-of-way of the defunct CA&E. The B. R Ryall YMCA facility was built at the Wheaton-Glen Ellyn border, to serve both communities. Margaret Hamilton became the first woman mayor in 1969.

Rapid growth in the 1960s culminated in the selection of Wheaton as an All-American City in 1968 by Look magazine and the National Conference on Governments. The award was based on citizen initiative, leadership, and support of programs designed to improve city living. Plans of the city for future development, large scale beautification, and passage of a fair housing ordinance in July 1967 were specific criteria.

During Mayor Ralph Barger’s administration (1971-82), the Wheaton Center complex, with its twin high-rise towers, low-rise apartments and new depot, was completed The Senior Citizens Center in the Memorial Park building was developed under Mary Lubko and the V. I. P. Council.

Two new county buildings were occupied in 1973 on the western edge of Wheaton — the DuPage Center/Administration Building and Health Department. The Convalescent Center across County Farm Road was enlarged and renovated.

In November 1973 the Sister City connection was announced with Karlskoga, Sweden, a town comparable to Wheaton in size and political makeup, with similar problems and projects. Communication and visits were designed to bring international understanding and friendship between the two communities. A one block street south of the Memorial Park bandshell was renamed Karlskoga. Over 400 Wheaton residents at the time were of Swedish descent,

In 1974 the Cosley Animal Farm and Museum was established on Gary Avenue. One half of Wheaton’s second railroad station, built in 1856 and used during the Civil War, had been moved to this location in 1887 as a residence. The oldest barn in the Wheaton area, as well as a variety of wild and domestic animals, are on display for visitors of all ages.

The DuPage Heritage Gallery was begun in 1975, honoring national celebrities from the county. In 1979 the Wheaton Historic Preservation Council was organized to preserve the heritage and landmarks of Wheaton. By midsummer of 1982 eleven homes and three public buildings had been designated as historic landmarks. The oldest buildings selected were the Tower of Blanchard Hall, Doenges Stationery Store (formerly Kampp’s Furniture Store and Funeral Home), and the Bricker Apparel Store on Front Street (formerly the CNW depot).

The Billy Graham Center was opened in Wheaton in 1980 on land given by Wheaton College, opposite Blanchard Hall. The initial cost of $13,500,000 was a gift from the Billy Graham Evangelism Association to the college. The five-story building contains archives, a library and displays on evangelism, mission and revivalism. It also houses the Billy Graham School of Communications, and the major part of the correspondence and memorabilia of the Billy Graham Crusades.

Topping of the Billy Graham Center, via helicopter, 1980. Courtesy Wheaton College.

Wheaton is world famous as a center of other religious activity, with more than fifty Christian organizations headquartered in the community and in neighboring Carol Stream.

The growing population of Wheaton, which in 1980 exceeded 44,000, has necessitated an increase in public services. Wheaton-Warrenville Unit School District 200 is composed of two high schools, three middle schools, and thirteen elementary schools (two of which are in Warrenville). Private schools include Wheaton Christian Grammar School, St, Michael’s (Roman Catholic) and St. John’s (Lutheran) elementary schools, and St. Francis High School ( Roman Catholic). The Youth Outreach Program, supported by churches and individuals, serves troubled teenagers with counseling and lodging in two homes.

Cultural interests are served by a Wheaton College Artist Series, a municipal band, Youth and DuPage Symphonies, Wheaton Drama Club, Wheaton Art League, and one hundred forty other clubs and organizations.

Beautification of Adams Park by horticulturalist Yvonne Burt, and the cultivation of the garden plot, called the Liberty Square Garden, south of the depot by Green Gardeners of the Woman’s Department Club are typical of paid and volunteer efforts.

Challenges for the future include development of outlying areas, such as the Wheaton Park Manor on the southwest, and the Rice Estate property, near Naperville and Butter­field Roads. Improvement of the water supply, expansion of light industry to broaden the tax base, and resolution of the controversy growing out of school closings and reorganization are other issues or concerns.

This quote comes from Dick Noble’s speech in favor of granting All American City status to Wheaton in 1967: “We accept and meet the challenge of changing times. But the character of the town has not been lost. It retains the influence of the founding fathers who sought responsible and responsive local government, educational excellence and moral order. Wheaton is still church-going, conservative and dry — a good place to bring up a family. But most important, Wheaton is people who care.”

The Author

Edith E. Back is active in the local branch of the American Association of University Women, and did research for that organization’s bicentennial project.

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