“My dad used to say, every time some girl had a baby, some guy left town,” McCue says. But that’s not why he left town.
After graduating from high school, McCue joined the Marines and served in combat during Vietnam. Then he spent 35 years as a sheet-metal worker before retiring three years ago.
Now he spends his time as a walking encyclopedia of local lore and has been known to regale total strangers at the drop of a hint. Few others could point out the trackside shamble that was once the Crowhurst Siding, a special rail-passenger landing constructed so that industrialist George Pullman could visit his lady friend Jessie Dean Gillett, daughter of cattle baron John Dean Gillett. The landing permitted Pullman to travel from Chicago to her home without getting mud on his boots.
Before Elkhart appeared on a map, McCue explains, the settlement was known as Elkhart Grove. Some maps show it as Latham’s Settlement. James Latham and his son, Richard, came to the area in 1819 and planted their first corn crops in 1821. A field on Elkhart’s north side has been in grain production ever since, according to McCue. The Lathams built a cabin on the hill, near what was already known as Edwards Trace. Dating back to prehistoric times, the trace was a visible dip in the land, a trail from Cahokia past Springfield and Elkhart and ending in Peoria, worn down by early animals moving from shelter to shelter, water source to water source. Indians traveled the same way, following the wild game. “John Latham built some rental cabins, trying to get more people to move in. Richard built Kentucky House, the first inn in Logan County. In the field in front of that, he built a four-horse grain mill,” McCue says. Horses turned the millstone. “At the time, to get to a water mill, farmers had to travel down to Cahokia. The water mill at New Salem had not yet been built.” Descendants of the Lathams are buried in the Latham family cemetery, not far from the site of John Latham’s original cabin and some distance from Elkhart Cemetery.
In 1848, John Shockey arrived and built a house on the hill. “The story goes that Shockey looked down from the hill on this area below and determined this would be a great place for a town,” McCue says. “When plans for the railroad came through, that cinched it.” John and Catharine Shockey formalized the settlement as a village in 1855. “He and Mrs. Shockey had 17 children in 23 years. I tell people that his greatest contribution was populating the area,” he says with a wink. There are still Shockey relatives living in the Elkhart area. For many years John and Catharine were buried at the summit, but they were reinterred after Elkhart Cemetery was established farther down the slope. The original grave markers, which replaced the cedar stumps believed to have been the first markers of the graves, remain silent sentinels at the top of Elkhart Hill. The village’s most prominent resident, John Dean Gillett, arrived from Pennsylvania in 1850 and began amassing 20,000 acres. Gillett is credited with introducing shorthorn cattle to Illinois and is said to have been the first American to export livestock back to Europe, McCue says. Much of Gillett’s land was used for grain. “Gillett hired farmers to mind the grain and bought it back to feed his cattle. When they had surplus grain, they sold it on the open market, and profits were shared with those who worked the land. One year, winter came early with lots of rain, which thoroughly soaked the corn before it could be harvested. His tenant farmers could expect no income from tons of grain about to rot. Gillette told his farmers to bring the grain in anyway. That same year, Hiram Walker, producers of fine whiskey, began in Peoria. They didn’t care if the corn was wet.” Today the Old Gillett Farm remains a private residence, but tours are available by appointment.
Three-time Illinois Gov. Richard J. Oglesby married Gillett’s oldest daughter, Emma, and retired to a palatial mansion on the hill, but the home was demolished some years ago after it was determined that the cost of restoration was prohibitively high. The Oglesbys are buried in the Oglesby Mausoleum at Elkhart Cemetery.
Capt. Bogardus, McCue’s great-great-grandfather, was born in Berne, N.Y., in 1833. “When he was 22 years old, he moved to a cabin on the Sangamon River by Petersburg. He was a carpenter by trade, but he hunted, and he became a market hunter.” A market hunter harvests wild game for mass consumption in large cities. “When the railroad came through Elkhart, he moved here in 1857 so he could ship birds in ice and oats and they could be to the market in Chicago and St. Louis on the same day. He hunted the hills, including where the cemetery is now,” McCue notes with obvious pride.
“In a book published about his life, he mentioned that he enjoyed hunting the fields of John Gillett. Some of them ran seven miles ‘at the through,’ and they were divided by hedgerows of Osage orange, which provided good cover for the birds. When he moved here, he became Elkhart’s first roads commissioner. As a carpenter, he built our first wood sidewalks. “Bogardus fascinated the locals when he came to Elkhart,” McCue says, “because he hunted with hunting dogs like they did out East. He introduced hunting dogs to this area. They also couldn’t understand why he had six or eight guns when nobody around here had more than two. The reason why was that he hunted a lot.”
Bogardus was one of the first in the new nation to recognize the need for game conservation. He spoke out against the practice of driving birds into large nets and then picking them off. The danger of killing all game in an area was as obvious then as it is today. Other hunters devised a large weapon called a transom gun. Mounted on the transom of a boat, it fired a lot of lead shot at a time. “Hunters would place it, camouflaged, on a pond where flocks of bird were likely to land” he says. “One blast could kill the entire flock.”
Early shooting tournaments were also a concern. “At some of these events, they would shoot up to 300 birds. To discourage that kind of game consumption, Bogardus refined the mechanical target-launching gear invented in Cincinnati years before and invented a glass ball filled with bird feathers — early versions of today’s clay pigeons. It was obvious at any range when they were hit.”
Bogardus went to the Civil War twice. “Logan County never had a draft during that war,” McCue says. “Every time they were given a quota of men, it was filled or exceeded by volunteers. Bogardus had a livelihood as a market hunter to maintain, so he agreed to take a consignment of men but not as an enlisted member of the military. It was understood that he could return to Logan County in the spring, when the geese came north, and in the fall, when they went south. He served two 90-day consignments, the first as a lieutenant and the second as a captain. Part of his job, according to family history, was training sharpshooters — what we call snipers today.
“People did a lot of their marketing in Peoria. Some of his friends met an exhibition shooter who was challenging everyone. They arranged a bet that Bogardus could outshoot the exhibition performer with the provision that if their compatriot carpenter would not be a part of it, they would forfeit the money they put up. “Bogardus was not too sold on the idea, but he didn’t want them to lose their money, so he shot and he won — and he shot and won a few more times. He started getting good press, making money. A few years later, he and his four sons joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring Wild West show,” McCue says. “His youngest son, Eddie, 8 years old, would shoot a 3-inch glass ball out of his father’s mouth with a rifle.”
The show-business career was short-lived, however. Bogardus and Cody rented a riverboat together and planned to put on month-long show in New Orleans during a major celebration there. The riverboat sank after being involved in a collision, and so the show had to be staged on land. The terrible weather during the contracted month there had catastrophic effects on attendance and Cody’s finances, and he and the Bogarduses came to an unhappy parting of the ways. Bogardus appeared briefly with the Annie Oakley show before returning to Lincoln, just up the road a piece from Elkhart. There he set up a shooting gallery and gave shooting instruction. McCue says that Bogardus returned to the open road years later. In 1903, Oakley sued several small newspapers for publishing a story about a prostitute who had claimed to be the sharpshooter and defiled her reputation. To help her raise money for her legal action, Bogardus traveled with Oakley’s Wild West show. He amazed crowds with his marksmanship at age 70, shooting from a rocking chair. Bogardus said that it was not hard and that much of his market hunting was done seated. He died in Lincoln, in 1913, and was buried at Elkhart Cemetery.
Unlike many rural “celebrations,” Elkhart’s Spring Festival is a one-day do. “We aim this whole thing at family,” says Andrea Niehaus, founder of the Elkhart Festival Association and chairwoman of this year’s event. “We’ll have a flea and craft market and an archaeology expert on hand to tell you about artifacts you may have collected,” she says. Niehaus considers McCue one of the village’s treasured artifacts, thanks to his convivial sharing of local history and his devotion to the community.
Everyone, she says, looks forward to his guided tours of the cemetery. “You’ll find I’m pretty windy when I get rolling about the history here,” McCue says. Visitors to Elkhart’s Spring Festival will probably appreciate the breeze.
For more information about Elkhart, go to www.elkhartillinois.com.
Job Conger is a Springfield journalist and poet.