Saturday, July 28, 2018

Captain John Stevens, Naperville Illinois' first professional builder.

Thousands of fine homes in modern Naperville have been built in a ring of subdivisions that developed around the small farm village that was first settled in the early 1830s, when northern Illinois was still an undeveloped frontier.

The first building boom started with the completion of a dam and sawmill on the DuPage River, which supplied the materials needed for homes and barns. The Naper Sawmill began operating in 1832; most homes at the time were stick-built or lumber hand sawn from native trees. Many of these early homes were constructed by Naperville's first professional builder, John Stevens.

John Stevens, born in Rindge, New Hampshire on September 2, 1785. While quite young, his family moved to Hartland, Vermont. Once married to Miss Polly Taylor, a native of Hartland, they moved to Enosburg, Vermont where he operated a farm and tavern. He was also a millwright, a builder, the captain of a sailing vessel on Lake Champlain, and a good friend of Joseph Naper, whose stories of the rich new land in Illinois, soon to be opened for settlement by the government, prompted Stevens to leave Vermont in June, 1832, and head for Illinois.

Joseph Naper is credited with founding Naperville along the DuPage River in 1831. The town became the county seat when DuPage County was established in 1839. Naper drew the first plat in 1842 and was elected the president of the board when the village of Naperville was incorporated in 1857.

Stevens' first job in what was later to become Naperville was to help the Napers construct their sawmill. His talents were readily apparent, leading to several requests to build homes for the growing number of settlers. With his future assured, Stevens instructed his wife, Polly, to sell their properties in Vermont and to join him in Illinois.

Polly arrived with their two sons, six daughters, and three sons-in-law. Three of the Stevens' daughters were pregnant; daughter Lucetta soon gave birth to William Laird, the first known Caucasian child born in DuPage County.

The family settled on Stevens' claim, which extended from the present-day West Street in Naperville, 80 acres east of the river and 80 acres west of the river. The family planted corn while Stevens began his career as a builder.

Naperville became an important stop at the crossroads of two main stage routes that ran from Chicago to Galena and to Ottawa.

The first house, the "Century House," was built in 1833 by Captain John Stevens who is believed to have sailed here with Joseph Naper, the Founder of Naperville. The building was for George Martin, which stood on the south side of the DuPage River on the current site of Rotary Hill Park, across from Naperville High School. It was the first frame building constructed in DuPage County. The beams, flooring, and siding were cut out from large walnut trees on the Martin Property, milled into lumber at the Naper sawmill. The joists, studs, and rafters were sawn from Martin's oak trees. The sturdy foundation was fashioned with limestone blocks from the quarry that is now Naperville's Centennial Park. This well-crafted, landmark house was continuously occupied for 117 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1958.

While John Stevens was the first Naperville builder, his son-in-law, George Laird, was the first Naperville builder to go broke. Laird had begun constructing an inn and tavern in downtown Naperville, on the north bank of the DuPage River. He ran out of money before completing the structure, so Stevens stepped in to finish what became one of the most famous buildings in DuPage County history: The Pre-Emption House.
The Pre-Emption House was the first hotel in DuPage County. John Stevens' son-in-law, George Laird, began construction on the hotel and Stevens finished it in time for the 1836 4th of July celebration.
The Pre-Emption House was the first hotel in DuPage County and Stevens its first proprietor. To celebrate the occasion, he hosted a gala grand opening party on the 4th of July, 1836. The patriotic ceremonies featured a Grand March of civic organizations and dignitaries, which paraded from the Pre-Emption House to a nearby church. The assembled crowd listened to a reading of the Declaration of Independence and heard Captain Naper's announcement of his plans to run for the state legislature. Stevens took the floor and invited everyone to an outdoor dinner served under an arbor next to the Inn.
June 10, 1931: The original Pre-Emption House at Main Street and Chicago Avenue in Naperville. Built in 1831, it was one of President Lincoln's favorite stops and one of the oldest taverns in the United States.
The Pre-Emption House quickly became the focal point of the community as well as an important travel stop on the new Southwest plank road to Chicago. Its guests included many notables of the day, including Abraham Lincoln, who spoke to an admiring crowd from the porch roof. 

Eight Naperville businesses contributed to the development of the Southwest Plank Road, which was completed in 1851 and connected Chicago, Naperville, and Oswego. The new plank road was constructed using wooden planks, 3 inches thick and 8 feet wide. These were nailed to log stringers at the outer edges. To cover the cost of constructing and maintaining the road, the owners charged toll fees: 37¢ for a four-horse vehicle, 25¢ for a single team of horses, 12¢ for a horse with rider, 4¢ for a head of cattle, etc.
Hay wagon on the Southwest Plank Road, circa 1852.
In the 1870’s, maps described the road simply as “North Boulevard," however, in 1877, the entire length of road was re-named Ogden Avenue after the first mayor of Chicago, William B. Ogden. By 1874, the plank road disappeared and eventually became just another gravel road. But, when Daniel Burnham published his master plan for Chicago in 1909, Ogden Avenue was proposed as one of the key arterial streets for handling the expected growth in motorcar travel.

These businessmen then opposed a Naperville right-of-way for the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad when its representatives came prospecting that same year. The Galena line went through Wheaton instead. But the town got a second chance when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad ran its line through Naperville in 1864.

This historic event was portrayed by the late Naperville artist Lester Schrader and is today exhibited at the Naperville Heritage Society Museum. The Pre-Emption House served the community from 1834 to 1946 and had several proprietors. The final operators were Frank and Gertrude Wehrli, who raised 13 children in the historic building. The old hotel was dismantled in 1946 but its impact on the community continued to grow over the years. Public interest moved the Naperville Heritage Society to rebuild an exact replica of the Pre-Emption House near the historic Naper Settlement in downtown Naperville.

John Stevens sold the pre-Emption House in 1857, soon after the flood of that year. He built another hotel several blocks away on higher ground, where he lived with his large family until his death. The early years on the frontier were full of hardship. The Stevens' family lost one married son, one married daughter, and three sons-in-law. John and Polly Stevens raised 14 of their grandchildren and some great-grandchildren in their 21-room inn, while continuing to operate their farm on the west side of town.

In 1834, Stevens had built a home for himself that was closer to his farmland. This home, located at 27 N. West Street in Naperville, has been occupied by descendants of John Stevens ever since.
The Wilson-Drendel-Fessler family homestead was built by John Stevens in 1834 and has been continuously occupied for 170 years.
The current residents are George and Judy Fessler. It is the oldest surviving home in Naperville, and each succeeding generation of the Stevens' descendants has maintained the home like a family treasure. It stands today as a living part of Naperville's heritage and a tribute to John Stevens, the first professional builder of Naperville.

Captain John Stevens died on May 3, 1862 and is buried at the Naperville Cemetery.


The Oldest House in Naperville, Illinois - September 12, 2014.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

1 comment:

  1. I see that this video was made in 2014 so, since it's now 2018, I don't know what eventually happened to this historic house. I hope Naperville's Historical Society was able to buy the home & move it to Naper Settlement. History is being destroyed left and right. We need to keep as much as we can.

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