The earliest factual history of our property can be traced back to when settlers arrived in Illinois from
eastern parts of the United States. In our area, many of the first arrivals came from Pennsylvania.
Some staked claims to the land, then bought the land when the U.S. began selling it to private
individuals. The earliest records of what occurred on or near our house starts with three men who
decided to build a saw mill in the 1830's.
The Davis Mill
Our home is located in Rock Run Township in Stephenson County, Illinois. As fate would have it, we
happen to be very near one of the earliest settlements in the township. Although it probably wasn't
much of a settlement when constructed, the Davis Mill was one of the more important construction
projects of the late-1830s. When settlers arrived from the eastern U.S., most needed wood, and the
Davis Mill was the place to get it. The mill was constructed in 1837 by a business venture made up of
three men named Stackhouse, Carrier, and Albert Flower. This landmark shows up in several early
maps and surveys. According to The History of Stephenson County (M.H. Tilden, 1880), the first birth
to the white settlers of Rock Run Township was alleged to have been the child of Albert Flower, born
at the saw mill.
With the mill came the need for transportation, and we have seen several maps showing old roads
which follow the general path of the current Farm School Road. This road is the northern border of
our property, and would have passed by the Davis Mill at Rock Run Creek. If the mill existed today,
we could probably see it from our front porch. The roads back then were rough and rustic, based on
what we learned from Phillip Kiester's book Stephenson County Roads (1955). In excellent detail,
Kiester described how Stephenson County commissioners planned and laid out roads in the 1830s.
Most roads linked up the various trade routes, mills, and early settlements of that period. Some of
these early roads passed through, or very near, our property.
The Davis Mill was one of four on Rock Run Creek, each appearing on maps at about the same time.
With no railroads nearby, the mills were important to the early settlers as they began new lives in the
Northwestern Illinois wilderness. Therefore, the county commissioners focused on connecting roads
to the mills.
A full map of Stephenson County roads was compiled by Philip Kiester, based on various records
available from the 1830s. Below is an excerpt of that map in what is now Rock Run Township.
Using U.S. land transfer records, we know that Horatio Davis and his son, John Andrew Davis,
purchased land from the U.S. Government in the mid-1840s that now makes up our property. Most of
our 15 acres is located on a 40-acre tract purchased by Horatio Davis in 1846. A small portion of our
land was part of a 40-acre tract purchased by John Davis in 1847. Both men paid $1.25 per acre. The
U.S. Government documented the transfers of land with Land Patents. Using land patent records,
shown below is the ownership of Section 27 of Rock Run Township as it was around 1850. The year of
each owner's purchase from U.S. Government is noted.
Then and now, the 1850-ish ownership would have looked like this in Section 27:
In total, Horatio Davis bought 560 acres from the U.S. Government in 1847 and 1848, spread across
four sections of Rock Run Township. Another of Horatio's sons, Samuel Jefferson Davis, purchased 80
acres in 1849. Along with John’s 40 acres, by 1850 the Davis family owned 680 acres in Rock Run
Back then, land was surveyed into 640-acre square-mile sections, which were further divided into
160-acre quarter sections and 40-acre sixteenth-sections. These original surveyed parcels did not
take into account the geography of the land, such as waterways, hills or ridges. And since there were
very few roads in our area in the 1840s, the land parcels didn’t reflect roadways. Over time, however,
land owners would eventually divide their land into parcels that made more sense for the land’s
topography and roads.
For example, the Horatio Davis land where our house sits today would later be divided into a 74-acre
parcel with a northern boundary along the jog in Farm School Road. This boundary makes more
sense, given that Farm School Road would have cut the corner off the John Davis 40-acre square.
Road builders probably chose a diagonal path for Farm School Road to avoid a difficult crossing of
Rock Run Creek. It’s not evident in the satellite image, but the creek cuts deeply through the land
north of Farm School Road. Both the 1843 surveyor’s map and Phillip Kiester's map show the
existence of a road which appears to closely follow the present-day Farm School Road, so maybe the
township road builders chose to cross the creek at an already-established ford. Today’s engineers
might have stuck to section lines and built a high bridge over the creek, but in the 1800s the road’s
path took the easiest route across.
Davis Mill received its name from Horatio Gates
Davis, who purchased the mill shortly after he moved
here from Pennsylvania. The road linking Davis Mill
with Salisbury Mill to the south probably passed
through our property. The present-day Farm School
Road still maintains some of the shape of the old
east-west road through Davis Mill. As Philip Kiester
describes in his book, most of these old roads
disappeared after the railroads arrived, and after the
land was surveyed and divided into townships and
square-mile sections. However, certain parts of the
old roads were incorporated into today's roads.
When Horatio Davis purchased the saw mill in 1838,
he paid $4,000 for what was probably a somewhat
speculative investment in a developing part of the
Midwest. From 1836 to 1853, Stephenson County
welcomed 10,000 new residents. All of them needed
a place to live, and wood was the most common
building material. However, the mill was not
operational when Horatio made his investment, as
the dam had not yet been constructed. But once
completed, the mill became an important business in
the community. Enough traffic passed by the Davis
Mill that in 1841, it became the first regular post
office in the township.
|Above: Excerpt, Stephenson County Roads (Philip
Kiester). It's not clear in the book if all of these roads
were actually constructed. The author's research
appears to be based on records of meetings where
township commissioners were authorized to plan the
roads. In the book, he laments the fact that not all
roads were included in surveyor's illustrations of
townships and sections. We suspect that the easiest
path for horse-drawn wagons to descend down to
the Davis Mill and climb out of the Rock Creek valley
would be straight across our property.
The mill's prosperity, however, would end about 20 years after its construction. The first railroad
through Rock Run Township arrived in 1857, and with it came abundant supplies of more affordable
lumber. The railroad's path missed Davis Mill by about one mile, which spelled the end of the mill's
importance for both lumber and postal services.
By then, the land in Stephenson County had been surveyed into townships and sections. On August
19, 1843, surveyor of public lands Silas Reed signed off on the final survey of Rock Run Township. The
land was divided mostly into 36-square-mile townships, whose lines had already been surveyed in
1839. The townships were subdivided into square-mile sections in 1843.The original Rock Run
Township survey map illustrated many land features, such as ponds, roads, and fields, and it also
noted the few houses which dotted the countryside then. An excerpt of the 1843 survey of Rock Run
Township (below) shows Section 27 where we live today.
Although the mill is shown as "Davis Mill" on the survey map, an updated History of Stephenson
County (Addison L. Fulwider, 1910) would refer to the mill as "Rock Run Mill". The book indicates that
the mill doubled as a post office until 1847, when the post office was moved closer to Rock City. Ten
years later, the mill's useful life was effectively over.