Olmstead Family


Perhaps “old times” reading the signs of the times and the face of the sky, had predicted one of the hardest winters yet encountered in America. Some long-bearded sage, shaking his head ominously, may have said, “The feathers on the geese are twice as thick as they were in ” and it was so cold then that water boiling on the stove used to freeze in the kettle”. Or some rough and ready hunter and explorer may have told of evenings when the flames of his camp fire froze solid and he had to break them off and bury them at night to prevent them from starting a fire when they thawed out. But of this we have no record. All that has come down to us is that it was, in many ways, one of the worst winters that the United States ever saw. And that was the winter of 1776, the crisis of the American Revolution, when George Washington and the patriot army cramps out in the open at Valley Forge, scantily fed and more scantily clothed, while the English armies held both Philadelphia and New York and lived in a little better than solid comfort. The outlook was as black as it well could be yet the soldiers endured the suffering without flinching and in the spring those of them that had not frozen to death or died of pneumonia came out to renew the fight for independence with more courage than ever.

Among those who perished in that terrible winter we find the name of Olmstead, grandfather of those Olmsteads who played such an important part in the settlement of southern DeKalb County. With the same spirit of courage, devotion to duty, perhaps adventure, that characterized the later pioneers, he willingly went to war and laid down his life for his country.

This is the first mention of the Olmsteads that we find in history. For three generations after this, the family resided in New York State and were among the respected and well-to-do farmers of that state. The son of the Revolutionary War he ro, David Olmstead, lived on a farm in Fairfield County, Connecticut. He had four sons, Matthew, Nathan, Isaac and Coleman, all of whom were brought up on their father1’s farm, educated in the common schools and started out in life as the other children of the community. Matthew and Coleman learned the blacksmith’s trade and followed it in their native state, the former in Chemung County and the latter in Tioga County. In 1836 the great westward movement swept the four Olmstead brothers along with it; and the news that the most fertile land on this side of China had been opened for settlement by the Black Hawk Wars and subsequent one and all, a desire to look into the matter. The following year (1837) found then all on their way west. They all settled down in LaSalle County, except Nathan who, thinking perhaps that he might as well make a complete job of pioneering while he was at it, moved up into what is now DeKalb County. The only white men he found here were John Sebree at Squaw Grove, Oliver P. Johnson at Johnson’s Grove (Clinton Township) and Edmund Towne at Shabbona Grove. Picking out the latter place as the one best suited to his desire and fancy, Nathan decided to settle down there. The next problem was to find or build a dwelling house. The expulsion of the Indians three years before had left many of their bark shanties unoccupied, so the Olmstead family merely moved into one of them and lived there until they could build a log house.

Whether Nathan wrote to his brothers and gave them such a glowing and alluring description of his new home that they could not resist the temptation to follow or whether they followed him merely because they wanted to be long, or because LaSalle County was too close to civilization, is not told.

Whatever the reason, in the next year (1838) Matthew, William and Isaac Lewis followed their brother to Shabbona Grove, and in 1841 Coleman also came. The early history of Shabbona Grove centers for the most part, around the Olmstead brothers.

When the Olmsteads had become well settled in their new home, they turned their thoughts to provisions for their spiritual welfare. From the first they had had little devotional meetings among themselves, where they would perhaps sing a hymn or two and offer a prayer. At Somonauk there was living a traveling Methodist minister, Rev. Frederick Witherspoon, who had at some time or other preached to most of the settlements of this vicinity. He was asked to come up to Shabbona Grove and hold a service; and so, at the home of Nathan Olmstead, the first religious service in DeKalb County was conducted (1838). From then on services were held irregularly by Rev. Witherspoon and others at the various farm homes until 1841, when a regular Pastor Rev. Morris, was engaged. He preached at the house of Coleman Olmstead during the winter and when summer came on moved his scene of activities to the barn on the same farm – perhaps because it was cooler, more convenient, and more roomy, although not quite as artistically furnished.

Coleman Olmstead seems to have been a leader in the religious and moral life and that of the settlement. When a year or two later, he built the first frame barn in the community, he committed an almost unpardonable social sin- he failed to furnish whisky for the crowd that gathered to celebrate the event. Coming from all parts of the settlement to witness the raising of the first “civilized” barn they had seen since they left the East, the neighbors were rudely shocked when they found out that he had failed to provide refreshments. It had been a widespread custom at a barn raising for all the neighbors to gather and be treated to whiskey to their hearts content, to have a real celebration, and to leave feeling “a heap better” than when they came. Murmurs of “another good man gone wrong” and “he may be a teetotaler, but this is stretching a good thing a little bit too far,” mingled with some of the mutterings concerning a degree of stinginess hitherto unknown in these parts, rippled thru the crowd. But those who said there were no refreshments had spoken a little too soon. For the Olmsteads had prepared a steaming hot meal for their guests, with coffee and all the delicious dishes that a farm kitchen could offer. With such a treat the lack of whiskey was soon forgotten; in fact, the people liked it so well that the warm meal, instead of the whiskey, became the custom thereafter.

Meanwhile the kids were growing up, and they must have a school; they could not be permitted to grow up like savages. So, in the winter of 1842-3, the settlers got their heads together, and organized a school, and hired a teacher. The newly built home of William Olmstead served as a school house for the first few years. It was easy to keep track of the names (surnames, at least), for the Olmsteads furnished nearly all of the children. The first teacher, William Curtis, received the magnificent wage of $12.50 per month –yes, it had to serve as more than cigarette money, for he boarded himself.