The History Behind the Mansion on Frederick Hill

by Brian Schmidt – December 20, 2013

Recently, Edward Howard, the owner of the “Mansion” on top of the hill at Frederick, Illinois, passed away. Sullivan Auctioneers will auction off the estate on February 15, 2012. An open house was held Saturday, January 28, and the public was able to view and tour this mysterious house. Quite a few people made the journey and during the visit most heard stories of the house being haunted, or the claim that Abraham Lincoln stayed there, and still others told of secret passages underneath the house, which served as a station on the Underground Railroad. So which of these myths are true and what is the true story of the Mansion on the hill?

For starters, Abraham Lincoln never stayed in the house because it was built in 1867, which was two years after his assassination. David Alan Badger’s sketch of the mansion in Schuyler County of Illinois, and the December 4th, 1867, edition of the Rushville Times have verified this date. Secondly, the house itself could not have been used on the Underground Railroad, because slaves had already been freed when it was built. However, that is not to say that an older house on the same spot was not part of the Underground Railroad. Charles Farwell fit the description of someone who may have been involved in helping escaped slaves. He was a progressive “yankee,” who was a “Conscientious Whig” turned Republican, and his family had originated from Marblehead, Massachusetts, where Congregationalist religious beliefs dominated. Abolitionism had its roots with this religion, but this author has found no hard evidence to prove this claim. The tunnels were probably coal shafts. In 1999, Lori Crisman, a former student of the authors, interviewed Mr. Howard, and he stated that the tunnels were used for mining coal. As to the house being haunted, well that’s up to each individual’s imagination. Nevertheless, the history of the Mansion and the man who had it built is a fascinating story in the history of Schuyler County.i

The story begins with the founding of Frederick in 1836. Frederick Merchant and George Frederick Jonte, two Frenchman, who had settled in the area, saw the geographic advantages of a shipping port along the Illinois River in the NW ¼ of section 17 township 1N range 1E in what is today known as Frederick Township. Allen Persinger, who was the county surveyor, laid out and platted the town of Fredericksville on May 12 and 13, 1836. A landing was established and Fredericksville, later shortened by the Post Office to Frederick, became the gateway to Schuyler County. Samuel P. Vail, who had migrated to Schuyler County from Coshocton County, Ohio, established the first store in the town. Back in Ohio, Samuel’s daughter Grace Ann Vail had married Charles Farwell, whose father, Robert Farwell, had removed his family to Ohio from New Hampshire. In Ohio, Charles and his brother Maro, worked together as merchants. Soon afterward Charles and Grace, along with their first son, Pulaski, made the trip to Frederick.ii

In 1842, Charles Farwell came to Schuyler County. The story is that George Little, who ran a very successful merchandise, dry goods, and pork packing facility where the old JC Penney building stands in Rushville, met Charles Farwell during one of his annual visits to New York to acquire goods for his store in Rushville. Little was probably introduced by Charles’ father-in-law, Samuel Vail, whom he dealt with when transporting goods to Frederick. At the time, Little was in need of an organized merchant to facilitate the transportation of his goods via steamboat at Frederick. Nevertheless, Farwell came to Schuyler County and set up a wharf and warehouse at Frederick. Soon afterward, Frederick became an important shipping point on the Illinois River. Goods from western Illinois funneled through Rushville (including Little’s store) and onto the steamboats at Frederick. Farwell’s presence facilitated this operation. In 1844, he established Farwell & Co., and in 1848, Maro Farwell joined his brother to help run the company.iii

Farwell & Co. stimulated the local economy by giving farmers a place to sell their grain, produce, and livestock, and it also created a huge demand for barrels to ship goods. Barrel staves and hoop poles were used as money during this time and the people of the region responded. Thus, the productive days of coopering grew out of the demand created by Farwell and Little. In the 1908 History of Schuyler County, Perry P. Tolle, a former cooper, described this period:

The halcyon days of the cooper were from 1844 to 1852, and about 1500 men engaged in approximately 500 cooper shops in the county with an average of three men per shop. Good wages were earned by expert coopers, as they were paid by the piece. A whiskey barrel that sold for $1.25 netted the cooper 62 1/2 cents, and a good man could make four or five in a day, and some could turn out six. Fifteen cents was paid for flour barrels, and an average day’s work was ten barrels. Then there was what was called ‘nest work,’ a half barrel, a quarter barrel, and a keg, one inside the other. Ham barrels, with a capacity of fifty gallons, netted the cooper 37 1/2 cents each, and slack hogsheads were made for 75 and 80 cents each. White oak timber was used exclusively for pork and whisky barrels, and red or black oak for the other barrels.iv

The Farwells grew quite wealthy during this time. In 1850, Charles Farwell’s value was estimated at $8,000 (about $200,000 today), and his brother, Maro Farwell, was valued at $5,000 (about $125,000 today). In addition to the warehouse, Farwell & Co. constructed a boat yard and built steamboats, tugboats, and did barge work. They also built a slaughterhouse and ran a pork packing industry, which employed about twenty-five men. Charles and Maro Farwell not only grew wealthy but were also respected by the community for their giving nature. Charles Farwell’s biographer claimed, “His slaughtering business used only the hams, shoulders, and sides of the hogs, the remainder being given freely to the needy.” The Farwell’s were respected for their philanthropy and families named children after the brothers. For example, Argyle Stephens, a cooper from Bainbridge Township, named one of his sons Maro Farwell Stephens. Most importantly, the Farwell’s employed clerks, salesmen, carpenters, blacksmiths, wagon makers, lumber dealers, boat builders, coopers, laborers, and gave farmers an outlet for their products. These businesses brought people to Frederick, and the town boasted a hotel, grocer, plasterer, broom maker, shoemaker, wagon shop, agricultural implements shop, baker, sawyer, hardware store, drug store, and two physicians. Furthermore, the business was forced to build an addition storehouse in the village proper to accommodate the influx of goods. Farwell’s business had created an economic and population boom in Frederick, which continued for the next twenty years.v

In 1854, the local economy received another boost when a plank road, which ran from Rushville to Frederick via Pleasant View (old Route 67), was completed. In the late fall, early winter, and spring, roads were usually impassable because of mud, and during these times, the Schuyler Citizen noted in December 1856, “A humane man will scarcely torture his beast by taking him out of his barn yard.” The Plank Road changed this situation. The Citizen continued, “This little item is suggested by seeing team after team passing our office window on their way to the River, with loading of wheat, pork, broom corn, and piled on without the slightest reference to mud or mire.” In the Combined History of Schuyler and Brown Counties, it was noted that as many as 150 wagons were loaded and unloaded at the warehouse during this period. In 1862, James Shaw, an itinerant traveling Methodist Minister, who was appointed to the Rushville Circuit by the Illinois Conference called Rushville the “great centre [sic] for the pork market and the cooper trade.” Trade between Little, Ray (William H. Ray joined Little’s company in 1844), and Farwell benefited the entire region. Shaw continued, “A few leading merchants in the town bought the principal produce of the adjoining counties, and shipped it to St. Louis and Chicago, and, in return, purchased dry good and groceries to sell to the farmer in the country; consequently some of these merchants became wealthy in the community by this double trade.” The trade was so lucrative that much of the pig was wasted. Shaw commented, “We have seen in meadows near the town cartloads of hogs’ feet and heads thrown out to rot, which in other countries are counted as luxuries.” Produce from Schuyler literally rolled in and out of Frederick in barrels which were loaded onto steamboats, which considered Frederick the best port between St. Louis and Peoria. Shaw continued, “Here were also several coopers’ shops, in which barrels and vessels of various sizes were made for home and foreign markets, the country being one of the best in the State for the growth of oak and hickory, the best materials for staves and hoops.” The economic boom created by the Farwell’s contributed to the end of the frontier period in Schuyler County. Families were now able to produce and make goods for profit rather than

On June 12, 1856, Farwell & Co. suffered a setback when their warehouse was destroyed by fire. The fire was caused from sparks that emitted from the steamship, Persia, which quickly consumed the buildings. Only the accounting books were saved and according to the Rushville Times, “at the imminent risk of life.” The Times explained: “While Mr. Farwell was engaged in their rescue, the flames so completely surrounded and hemmed him in, that he was forced to leap from the window, a distance of some 15 feet, to save his life. The leap was a dangerous one, but we are glad to hear, he escaped without injury.” Losses were estimated at more than $50,000 since the warehouse was filled with wheat, broom-corn, brooms, oats, corn, groceries, dry goods, hardware, etc., which were all awaiting shipment. Fortunately, the Farwells had two insurance policies on their buildings for approximately $8,000. Immediately after the fire, construction began on a new two-story warehouse with the bottom floor constructed of stone and the second story containing a fireproof roof. This project was estimated to cost $10,000.vii