EARLVILLE — Rich Goodbred stands on Ottawa Street and points to where the grocery store was, the parking lot that took the place of the theater and many other stores, shops, pool halls and saloons that once brought people to town twice a week for shopping and entertainment.
“Wednesday night and Saturday night, they’d come to town and stand on the sidewalk and talk,” remembers Dale Stockley. “The kids, if you’ve got the nickel, you’d go to the theater. Nemer Kaleel, he started his dry goods store with a horse and wagon and then he opened a store here. I loved old Nemer, he was quite a character.”
The City of Earlville no longer has a bustling downtown, but the spirit of civic pride remains alive and well as residents anticipate the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding.
Early Earlville settler
Earlville’s first settler, Charles H. Sutphen, first rode out to the Indian Creek area in 1834 after traveling from Boston to Chicago. Sutphen staked a claim on land that eventually became the city of Earlville. According to 19th century accounts, Sutphen named the city after his nephew, Earl.
Sutphen returned to Boston to bring his family back to Illinois where he built a double log house on the prairie and began farming in his section of La Salle County that extended all the way to the Wisconsin state line at that time.
“Through the historical society, they said after he had laid claim to his property, there were claim jumpers,” Goodbred said. “He had to hire a lawyer and the lawyer was Abraham Lincoln.”
Sutphen was greeted by a few settlers in the area of Indian Creek and eventually more traveled west and also settled in what was known then as Indian Precinct, a 12-mile square section of the county. Eventually the precinct was sectioned off into townships and by 1849, Earlville was located in Earl Township.
Sutphen built a double log house for his family, similar to others in the area. Eventually, Sutphen built a larger, brick house on what is now South Ottawa Street, just north of U.S. 34 in 1853.
“The white brick house is the one he built there,” Goodbred said. “He had a little cabin down by the creek but he kept getting ambushed by the Indians so he come up on top of the hill and built a brick house with thick walls where he could see them coming.”
The house still stands but was heavily damaged by fire a few years ago. Goodbred said he’s not sure whether the house will ever be restored following the fire.
Railroad delivers change
Sutphen’s house wasn’t the only relocation in the new city during the 1850s, Stockley said.
“Of course, when the railroad came through, the city was really located more to the south and they moved and built along the railroad, in fact I think they even moved a building,” he said.
Goodbred said, “The post office, of course it’s burnt now, but it was down by Mr. Sutphen and then they moved it up along the railroad track.”
As the city grew, so did retail business to meet the needs of the area farmers and families living and working in Earlville. Dave Waldron, Goodbred and Stockley look over old photographs of the drug stores, grocery stores, clothing stores and other businesses that once started on South Ottawa Street before turning west on Railroad Street. Many of the businesses remained operational for decades including the hardware store that only recently went out of business.
The original hardware store now serves as the 150th celebration headquarters after the National Bank of Earlville donated the use of the building. The old wood floor has a fresh coat of varnish on it and the original wood ladder and track rests along the north side of the store. The ladder was once used to access supplies stored on shelves that lined the walls to the high, molded tin ceiling.
Goodbred, Stockley and Waldron, all members of the 150th committee, plan to fill the space with old photos from Earlville’s early days along with other memorabilia that has been collected over the years. Some of the photos, documents and other items owned by the Earlville Historical Society are currently stored at the Earlville Public Library in a room off the children’s section downstairs. The room is kept locked, but anyone interested in viewing the collection can ask a staff member for access.
As the committee gets closer to the anniversary celebration in June, they hope to have the headquarters open to the public.
The celebration kicks off June 27 and runs through June 30 with a variety of events for families including pageants, dances, a flea market and craft show, car show and a grand parade. Organizers hope to have plenty of activities in the park either free or for a very low cost. Waldron said many parade units now charge and then there will be rental fees and other fees associated with the celebration, so fundraising until the event is in full swing.
Several events were successful and another night with the “Dueling Pianos,” a trivia night and other activities are planned as they lead up to the celebration.
Tamara Abbey can be reached at (815) 539-5200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.