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Savanna is Born

Old Mill
The mill was built in 1835 near Plum River falls which is the present site of Old Mill Park.

After the end of the Blackhawk War in 1833, the settlers returned from Galena and Vance Davidson and Aaron Piece each built two-story log houses, with cellars and a porch looking over the river. The new structures each had  a fireplace, a stairway, with one room upstairs and one below.

The former log cabins were used for kitchens and sleeping rooms as pioneers begin arriving on horseback, on foot and by steamboat. The settlement was the only stopping place between Rock Island and Galena, and many travelers spent the night.

One of those pioneers that arrived was Luther Bowen, a young man from New York who had accompanied a party of surveyors who were reworking on resolving a disputed boundary between Illinois and Wisconsin. He remained in Galena and was employed as a bookkeeper.

In exploring around the country looking for a good location, he finally recached this frontier settlement and determined it an excellent location for the founding of a city on the Mississippi River. He then negotiated with the settlers for their claim interests and returned to Galena with the intention of returning later and laying out the town.

The first marriage took place on June 11, 1835, as Harriet Pierce, the 16-year-old daughter of Aaron Pierce, and Vance Davidson exchanged vows. The ceremony was performed by Hooper Crews, an elder of the Methodist Church and the first circuit rider in this section of Illinois. The couple lived in Savanna until 1849 when Vance Davidson headed west for the California Gold rush. He returned in 1854 to get his wife and six kids. They had a total of 12 children and lived out their lives in California.

In 1835, Luther Bowen returned to the settlement and the began to develop the land he had purchased from the original pioneers. With a man named Murray, the two laid out the town and called it Savanna, which means, treeless grassy plain referring to the land south of town.

So the 36 acres of cornfield became streets and building lots. In laying out Main Street they took the east side, the line of field fences which had been built following the line of driftwood indicating some previous high water mark. Commerce Street was laid out one block west of Main Street along the bank of the river. This street and the part of Main Street lying south of which is now Chicago Avenue was vacated by an act of Legislation.

The work of founding a city in the wilderness began and all the settlers, old and new, were busy building and getting active in business. Luther Bowen and his brother John, built a saw mill on the Plum River at the site of the current Old Mill Park, and was soon doing a booming business supplying lumber for many buildings being erected.

A powder mill was also constructed by Porter Sergeant on the same site on the banks of the Plum River and the powder was mostly hauled to Galena and sold for use in the mines.

Aaron Pierce began construction of a hotel on the ground near where the old log cabins stood. Young David Bowen was hired to get out the timbers for the frame work and spent the winter on the island across from town cutting the large oak trees.

The hotel was first named the Frontier House but was afterwards called The El Dorado House and moved to south to the corner of Jefferson and Main. Fred Chambers, who managed the powder mill, purchased the hotel and renamed it the Chambers House. It burnt down in December of 1882.

Chambers arrived in the settlement in 1840 and stopped overnight at the Piece House. The next morning he saw Mrs. Pierce chopping wood to prepare breakfast and volunteered his services. He accidentally almost cut off his entire foot and was disabled from continuing his journey for three months. He never left. He embarked in business as a merchant and grain buyer and also ran the powder mill. During his time at the powder mill, it blew up three times and his escape was narrow. He then bought the Chamber’s House but his luck never changed as it burnt down in  1882.

Vance Davidson built a store and warehouse on the river bank near the log cabins at the north end of town near the steamboat landing. He went to New York to buy his good and had them shipped down the Ohio and up the Mississippi. In an old ledger kept by Davidson, it contained the record of his investment of goods amounting to $1,900. He also sold hard wood for $3.50 a cord to the steamboats including Lucie May, Alhambra, Metropolis, Vixen, Ben Bolt, Greek Slave, Henry Clay, Clipper and the Skipper.

Luther Bowen built a motel, The Mississippi” on Main Street at the present location of the Radke House. It became known as the Woodruff House and was eventually torn down to make room for the Radke House. Luther Bowen also started a general store, established a post office in 1836, and became the town’s first postmaster. He went to New York to buy goods for his store, and when he returned he brought with him a bride. They lived in the log cabin the Blundells had built and then constructed the first frame house at the corner of Third Street and Chicago Avenue.

Another early settler was John Orr, who came to Savanna in October of 1836. He started one of the first general stores in town and sold boots.

Dr. Elias Woodruff has just graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia and after settling in Joliet for a year, came to Savanna in 1837. He doctored the sick, taught school and for many years ran the town’s drug store.  

By 1838, John Smith had arrived in Savanna with his wife and eight children started the first brick yard on Fifth Street near Walnut Street. All of the first brick buildings were built from the native bricks and Savanna’s first brick home was built for Mrs. Harford and her daughter on the 200 block of Main Street, a two-story structure.

At this time there were very few trails through northwest Illinois and the residents of the settlement were finding it quite inconvenient to make the trip to Galena for all legal  business as the settlement was part of Jo Davies County. They petitioned the Legislature to be set apart from Jo Davies and be made a separate county organization.

The act was approved on February  22, of 1839 and an election was held to determine the site of the county seat. With only three precincts voting, Savanna, Plum River and Elkhorn Grove, Savanna received the majority of the votes and the became the county seat. That was short-lived as it was determined that the roads to Savanna were in bad condition and many settlements had been made in the eastern part of the county. An election was held in August of 1843 and Mount Carroll was selected as the new county seat. The offices were moved in September of 1844 but this setback seemed to have little effect on the growth of Savanna.