THE EARLY MENNONITES
JO DAVIESS COUNTY
By Hazel N. Hassan
Published in the Mennonite Heritage, March 1977
Submitted By Alayne Hammer
During the late 1840’s
a few Mennonite families from Germany immigrated to Jo Daviess County in northwestern Illinois. They settled in
the hilly timbered country near Wisconsin. Most of the farms were located in the southeastern part of Guilford
Township, about four miles south of Scales Mound and 12 miles east of Galena. Eventually some families moved into
the adjacent township of Thompson.
The land was uncleared and settlers were few and far between when the Mennonites arrived, but at Galena there was a mining rush produced by the discovery of lead. Galena was the nearest city of any size and soon grew larger than Chicago. The region was known as the “Fever River” area; according to legend, the Galena River had received this name before the days of the first settlers when a numerous Indians living there contacted smallpox from the white settlers living further east.
Land was inexpensive. There was a strip of land 15 to 20 miles wide owned by the railroad which sold in the late 1840’s and the Mennonites were among the first buyers. Courthouse records show that Christian Heer bought 80 acres in section 11 on February 5, 1848 for $100, or $1.225 an acre. He later bought 160 acres more in section 14 on April 24, 1850 for $800, or $5 and acre.
Some of the first members of the little congregation that was organized were John Duerstein or Durrstein , Jacob Heer, Peter Neuenschwander or Neuschwanger.(1) They were joined a few years later by John Rudolph Hammer. Johannes Baer served as minister. In the Hammer Cemetery where their burials took place is a headstone with this inscription: "John Bahr, born in Germany Aug. 28, 1790, died July 21, 1863, aged 72y. 10m. & 23d.” There were said to be eight families eventually,(2) but there may not have been any surnames different from the ones above. However, a surname in addition to these may have been Albrecht, for when member David Heer died in 1923, his sisters were listed in the settlement papers as Barbara and Rosina Albrecht.
At first, they met for worship services in homes. A little German school; was also conducted in the homes three times a week. Then a log schoolhouse was built for use as an English public school and both the worship services and the schooling of the Mennonite children were transferred there. The worship services were conducted perhaps only twice a month.(3)
The school was located across Mill Creek on land owned by John Rudolph Hammer and is still known as “Hammer’s Bottom.” The building was set on the hillside south of the cemetery and, until recent years, a depression in the ground was visible showing where it had been.(4) The site is on what was Hammer’s highest bluff of land and to reach it from Mill Creek Road, one must first enter private meadow-land, ford Mill Creek, then walk up the long grassy slope along the old road that led to the top. Ruts left by the wagons are still clearly visible. The cemetery cannot be seen from the road below, but three tall pine trees mark its location. The first burial was that of a Mennonite child:
A little Musselman girl and her brother had started to Galena on a two-wheeled cart one winter day. On the way they had to drive through a stream, where the ice had been broken open for that purpose. In crossing, the little girl was thrown off, and the current swept her under the ice. Her body was not recovered until the next spring.(5)
This cemetery was used
as a community burial place and many of the people buried there were non-Mennonite. There is no maintenance of
the cemetery today. While the underbrush makes reaching some of the stones difficult, the mat of foot-high lilies
provides even more difficulty in locating the broken and fallen stones. A Nature Preserves Committee Bill (Public
Act 79-766, Senate Bill 322) became effective October 1, 1975 in Illinois, providing for maintenance of abandoned
cemeteries by the state of Illinois when the original prairie vegetation is intact. The provision that no burials
should have taken place for 75 years excludes the Hammer Cemetery. The last burial was 1943.
Attendance grew that the log school house and the accommodations became too small. It was also dangerous to cross the creek and for those two reasons, the services were changed to another school built directly west of there in section 11. It was built of native stone and was close to the road, whereas a log school became known as the “Rock Schoolhouse” or the “Schoenhard School on the Ridge,” the latter name coming from people by that name in the area. The Rock School is still standing and is located about four miles south of Scales Mound on the east side of the Scales Mound-Elizabeth Road. It was in use until recent years, but now stands with its windows boarded over.
There was a Presbyterian seminary in Dubuque, Iowa and the students came to help with the services. There was some discontent with the Mennonite leadership at this time. There were no religious activities. There were few young people and if one of them married outside the Mennonite faith, he was promptly excommunicated. Because of the discontent and because this second schoolhouse had also grown too small, a number of the people left with the help of the seminary students, organized a Presbyterian congregation southwest of the area at Schapville. A third reason reason for leaving was that the distance to the Rock Schoolhouse by ox team was considerable for those living in the area near the hamlet of Schapville. The Presbyterian congregation was organized in 1854 and the log church built at Schapville in 1856.(6)
The last Mennonite minister was Michael Musselman. He was born in Bavaria July 25, 1829; landed in New York City, May 1, 1846: lived two years in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, then moved to Jo Daviess County in 1848 and farmed 190 acres in Thompson Township. His father’s name was Christian. Michael married Elizabeth Durrstein and had nine living children at the time his biography was written in a county history in 1878.(7) He was interested in the education and served for nine years as a school director and one term as trustee.
The last Mennonite baptism occurred about 1878, and the church did not exist much longer. In the 1878 county history, three Thompson Township residents list themselves as Mennonites: Gustave Durrstein, Louis Durrstein, and Michael Musselman.
After worship services ceased in the Rock schoolhouse the few remaining members attempted to worship with the other area Mennonites as will be seen in the following accounts.
The last member of the church, David Heer, died November 17, 1923. After the discontinuation of the local Mennonite services, he affiliated himself with the Freeport Mennonite Church some 40 miles away. His attendance there was limited and he worshipped with the Schapville Presbyterians; he was a debtor to the latter church in the sum of $10.00 for burial ground.
In a list of old settlers, we find: “David H. Heer, Germany, May 3, 1834. Arrived August 8, 1842.”(8) Whether the date of arrival refers to landing in the United States or to arrival to Jo Daviess County is unclear. Heer left no widow or children, but a brother, Chris Heer, a sister Barbara Albrecht, and children of his deceased sister, Rosina Albrecht. He left a 242 acre farm and extensive personal possessions which ranged from 100 jars of preserves to a 4-cylinder Buick car. When the court was petitioned to permit $265 to be spent for his monument, it replied “that said sum is a very modest expenditure for a monument for said deceased in view of his property and the condition of his estate.” (9) He held “Gold Mortgage Bonds” of the Mennonite Publishing House in Elkhart, Indiana in the sum of $3800.
John Neuschwanger came to America in 1847 and to Galena in 1848.(10) He married Barbara Baer of Bavaria in 1849. In 1870, he and his family moved to Carroll County, approximately 30 miles away from the Jo Daviess County Mennonites, too far to worship with them often. So they then drove by horse and buggy to the Morrison congregation, roughly 16 miles away. When the writer’s father was a young boy, he remembers “old man Neuschwanger” coming to church. The writer’s uncle, Adam Deter, moved away from Morrison in 1892 but remembers that someone named Neuschwanger used to attend the Mennonite church prior to that date. Neuschwanger was a carpenter and a farmer. He died on April 30, 1912, at the age of 83 in Mt. Carroll and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. There is an obituary in the Herald of Truth for Chistiana Neuschwanger who died November 9, 1869 in Mt. Carroll, Il.(11) She was born December 9, 1812, and may have been his mother.
The Mennonite immigrants seem to have come principally from two neighboring kingdoms in Germany of Bavaria (Bayern) and Saxony (Sachen.) The Musselman family and the Bahrs came from Bavaria; the Hammers and the Neuschwangers came from Saxony.
John Rudolph and Anna Christina Hammer lived in the providence of Zeitfeld in Saxony according to an obituary of their son, Jacob Bernard. The writer has tried variant spellings in an effort to locate “Zeitfeld,” but thus far has been unsuccessful. They came to America in 1852 with their children, Christina, 8, Jacob Bernhard, 5, and Rosanna, 1. They settled in Guilford Township. The son was was referred to throughout his lifetime as “Benhardt,” “Bennett,” or “Ben.” In 1860 U.S. census he is called “Vinhard.” Six years after they came to America the young father died and his grave in Hammer Cemetery is marked by a simple stone: “R. Hammer, geboren Jan. 2, 1822; gestorben Dec. 18, 1858.” After the discontinuation of the Mennonite services, Christina had affiliated herself with the Presbyterian group. Her obituary states she had been “a faithful member since young womanhood.”(12)
A genealogy of the Bahr family states that Heinrich and his wife Lavina, and their first two children migrated to northwestern Illinois from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.(13) The date given is 1847, but a descendant of the family believes 1849 to be the correct date. The place of Heinrich is given as Bavaria in the U.S. census returns. He was married first to Lavina Keener, second to Veronica Moseman, and third to Margaretta Winters. He had a total of 16 children.
Other clues to the European background of the immigrants may be these: Jacob Bernhard Hammer’s wife, Catharine, was born in Massbach (Mosbach), Germany. Conrad Winter, relative of the Bahr’s, was born in Wurttemberg, as was also other local resident, Michael Thuirer. Settlement papers for Christiana Neuschwanger (referred to elsewhere on this page,) may be found in Jo Daviess County show that a grand-daughter, Magdalena Bahr, acknowledged receipt of her inheritance from “Oberworkheim in Landgeschift, Schweinfurt, Bavaria.” The latter’s father, Christian Bahr, had died in Munich, Bavaria.(14)
The community has had pleasant publicity since 1974 when Archie Leiberman’s Farm Boy was published.(15) For twenty years, Mr. Leiberman made periodic trips to the Willis Hammer farm to visit and take pictures of everyday farm life. The book chronicles the story of a boy, Willis Hammer, Jr., growing to manhood until the time he was married and had a son. His great-great grandfather was John Rudolph Hammer. Mennonite immigrant from Saxony. Pages 104-105 (unnumbered) are a double spread photo showing the Hammer Cemetery. A copy of the book will be added to the IMHGS Library this spring and HERITAGE readers are encouraged to become acquainted with it.
4) Interview with Cletus Hammer of Scales Mound, Great-grandson of J. Rudolph Hammer.
5) Weber, p.94.
6) Centennial Committee, One Hundredth Anniversary, Schapville Zion Presbyterian Church, 1854-1954 (n.p. 1954) pp. 5-6
7) The History of Jo Daviess County, Illinois (Chicago: H. F. Kett 1878) p.793
8) Ibid., p.372
9) Galena, Ill., Circuit Court. David Heer, File No. 196
10) The History of Carroll County, Illinois (Chicago: H. F. Kett 1878). P.410
11) Herald of Truth, VI (1869), 191
12) Galena Weekly Gazette (April 19, 1900) p.8
13) Louise M. Bahr, The Family Tree of Heinrich Bahr (Scales Mound, Ill., 1962)
14) Galena, Ill., Circuit Court. Christiana Neuschwanger, File No. 104.
15) Archie Leiberman, Farm Boy (New York: H. N.
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