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Our Kankakee Adventure----

Porter County Herald

July 7, 1949

By Joseph A. Singler

Smith, Jos Singler, Van Horn-sitting next to tree.jpg (82551 bytes)

l-r Charles Smith, Joseph Singler, Harry Van Horn


Ed. Note: Following is a story written by a man who know the Kankakee River and all its beauty before it was drained.  Mr. Singler formerly lived in Chicago, but is now a resident of Alhambra, California.

  It was in September 1891 (Gosh, how far away that seems now!) that four of us had our first real outing, and one that meant so much to us in later years.

  Four high school boys just starting out in life, each one getting his first earned vacation after a year’s hard work, and eager for an adventure on the famous Kankakee River and marshes, some 65 miles south of downtown Chicago.  We had heard fabulous stories about the grand hunting and fishing in this region and were raring to go and try our luck.

  We four: Charles Coventry, Charles Smith, Harry Van Horn and myself met almost nightly in my fathers greenhouse in Morgan Park, then a suburb of Chicago, and 13 miles from downtown.  My father was a wholesale florist and we had our meetings in our greenhouse shop to plan our outing. 

  In those days, over half a century ago, conditions were rather primitive and it meant careful preparation.  Of course there were no autos to get any needed supplies, and so we had to plan carefully. 

  My father seemed worried.  Said we were “babes in the woods” and would starve down there and were in danger of wild animals.  We scoffed at this.  As a matter of fact when we retuned from the outing I was about six pounds heavier and the other boys also gained their share.  As for wild animals, there may have been a few lone wolves in the deep woods and marshes at that time, but I’m not sure.

  And so, on the morning of September 19, 1891 (I never forget the date) after weeks of careful planning and preparation, we boarded a Panhandle (Penna. R. R.) train at Washington Heights for Kouts, Indiana, and arrived there about two hours later.

  Only three of us made the trip, as Harry Van Horn found it impossible to get away but would take a train late in the afternoon.  We went to the only livery in Kouts, a small county hamlet of a few hundred inhabitants at that time. An old friend of ours, who hunted on the Kankakee quite often, had engaged a team for us, and so we set out for the river, about four miles away.

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l-r George Wilcox, Kate Wilcox, Harry Van Horn, Charles Smith in wagon

  The country road was deep in sand and it was a tough haul for the two horses.  Finally, about noon, we reached Baum’s Bridge and our first glimpse of the famous Kankakee the river discovered and explored some centuries ago by the intrepid La Salle and his faithful followers in quest of gold and new dominions for their sovereign king.  The name of the gallant La Salle will be forever associated with the Kankakee. 

  Centuries later this beautiful Kankakee region, famous all over the United States as a wild life paradise was destroyed for the same material gain.  The vanishing river is a sad example of misplaced ambition and human greed.  The march of progress (?) had to be satisfied but was anything really gained? The purchase by the State of Indiana of thousands of acres of marshland along the old riverbed and restoring them to their original state to bring back the wild life is a partial answer to this. 

  The Kankakee flowed through a mystic land peopled with the phantom shadows of a departed race.  Only a short half-century before we first saw the river the Kankakee country was the home of the Miami and the Pottowotamie Indians.  And as we rounded bend after bend of the picturesque river on the wings of fancy we could see the Indians in their wigwams, hunting game in the woods, or fishing perhaps, when they needed food.  The romance of the past was present in the murmuring waters and the silent woods.  

  With sweeps and bends the river wound out on open fertile plains and into dense virgin forests, doubling to and fro in its course and moving on to vast labyrinths of rushes, lily pads and brush tangles.  The main channel often lost itself in the side currents and bayous.  All this we learned in the days that followed, days rich in anticipation and enjoyment.

  As we reached the bridge we noticed Collier’s General Store on the east bank; we bought a few supplies here while we were camping out.  Baum’s Bridge was an old wooden structure, erected before the Civil War, and which had replaced a ferry that was used by white travelers and Indian’s.

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l-r Charles Smith, Harry Van Horn, Charles Coventry, Jim Collier

  Our driver said he knew a fine camping spot on the west bank not far from the bridge, and drove his team to it.  It really was a lovely spot, well protected by large oaks and maples and elms.  WE unloaded our tent and baggage and got busy with making camp.

  Charles Coventry and Smitty decided to stay and get things in order for a week’s stay, while I returned with the team to meet Harry in Kouts, and hike back with him and help carry his luggage.  The train arrived near dusk and we started to trudge the sandy road, taking turns carrying Harry’s luggage. 

  I remember well that hike.  It was long and dusty, but we enjoyed the novelty immensely.  The crickets and katydids kept up a lively chorus as we trudged along.  The stars cam out, one by one, and shed their pale brilliance on the two city lads, not a little bit weary, walking through the deep sand on the way to the river.  

  At last we reached the bridge and saw the welcome sight of our flickering campfire.  Boy, were we glad!  And then four ravenous lads sat down to their first outdoor meal.  I can’t remember what it was, but I know we cleaned it up. 

  We were new at this game, and because the trappers on the river had a reputation of being rather hard characters we decided to take turns watching while the others slept.  I took the first watch and wasn’t sorry!

  The other boys were soon asleep for we were all dog tired.  I sat in front of the tent, musing on the events of a busy day.  And then, slowly, majestically, the autumn moon rose through the trees, casting its silvery, shimmering radiance on the shadowy forest.  I sat entranced.  And then, faintly and sweetly, came the strains of a fiddle through the soft night air.

  And now came another sound, shouts of laughter, the shuffling of feet, and then, quite clearly, came the calls for the various square dance figures, swing your partner, alla-man left, and so on. 

  I longed to wake the boys and have us all go and join the fun, but they were tired out and sleeping so soundly that I didn’t have the heart.  So I just sat and listened to rustic swains and lassies at their moonlight revelry.

  Time slipped by.  The moon rose higher.  It cast its mystic light on an unreal world, for to a city lad it was like a page from a fairy tale book.

  And now the soft murmur of the cool waters gliding by, the chirp of the crickets and the little voices of night life in the woods made me drowsy.  The hoot of an owl startled me, and then, down the dark stretches of water, came the plaintive notes of “Home Sweet Home.”  Slowly, but too quickly, the laughter and shouting faded on the air.  The barn dance was over. 

  I turned in, not even bothering to waken any of the boys to take the next watch, and knowing they would bawl me out unmercifully in the morning when I told them about the barn dance.  And they did.  In fact for many many years after that, if the subject of our trip came up and the barn dance was mentioned they rubbed it in, hard.  And I don’t blame them very much.

  We were awake with the larks, eager for the first day’s adventure.  While getting ready for out first breakfast, one of the boys, I think it was Harry, baited his hook with worms and started fishing in front of our camp, as the river was only about 50 feet away.  He had a nibble, a strike, and landed a nice fat sunfish in the almost no time. There must have been a school of them for in a short time we had a half a dozen nice ones and they certainly added zest to our breakfast.   We were a cheerful lot.   

  A large flat stump of a former monarch of the forest, on the edge of the riverbank served as a table for our meals.  It was an ideal spot for eating, where we could enjoy the cool murmuring waters of the river.

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l-r unknown, Harry Van Horn, Charles Smith, Charles Coventry (?)

  In the middle of the stream, and not over 100 feet away, was a nice sandbar.  And because this sandbar was so handy and the weather real warm, we went bathing a number of times during our stay, sans bathing suits, regular September morns on a September day.  To be entirely frank, we had no bathing suits, and did not know what they looked like.  Our feathered friends were the only ones around to witness out gamboling in the river. 

  Before starting out to the things we met George Wilcox, who owned a farm near the river and who was custodian of Gen. Lew Wallace’s houseboat, and arranged with him for our daily supply of milk and bread.  He informed us that Gen. Wallace spent all his summer vacations on the river, traveling up and down in his houseboat and devoting a good deal of his time to his writings.   Almost all of “Ben Hur” was written on these river trips. 

  In later years I had the pleasure and the privilege of meeting Gen. Wallace a number of times and he informed me he was very fond of the wild, picturesque Kankakee and spent all of his spare time here.  I was told he started visiting the river in the seventies.  After leaving George Wilcox we started to see and explore the river, as we had heard much about its wild beauty.  Our anticipation ran high, and we were not disappointed.

  First we noted the outdoor dance platform close to the Louisville Clubhouse, and a little over a quarter mile from our camp.  Here I got another not too gentle poke in the ribs.  It was unseasonably hot for late September, in the nineties, but it was quite cool on the river as we started the down trip.  A swift current and overhanging trees whenever the river narrowed spelled for this comfortable condition on the hot day.

  Each river bend, and there were many, brought new vistas to admire.  Magnificent trees, lily pads, autumn flowers blooming freely on the banks and in river vegetation.  We found many cool retreats, with overhanging trees, near the riverbanks.  During our weeks stay on the river we spent some pleasant hours in these cool spots, anchored neat a big tree, still fishing or an effort at casting or dreaming the hours away.

  In those far-off days the pastime of angling was not as highly developed as it is now, and the art of casting was in its infancy.  And we boys knew very little about it, as our outfits were not of the expensive variety that now prevails.

  Artificial bait plugs were unknown, at least as far as we were concerned, and we use the old-fashioned lures-worms and minnows.  And I recall that we caught many nice big pan fish, all we wanted, and some bass and pickerel, for the river was teeming with game fish.

  Later in the day, when we rowed upstream, we found many beautiful stretches of river, some with wild ivy creepers covering big trees on the waters edge almost to the top.  We saw many turtles sunning themselves on logs and fallen trees, heron stalking solemnly around in nearby bayous, and some wild ducks feeding in small rice fields.  And during the week we found that the river woods were alive with fathered songsters with owls and many crows.

  Ever eat a squirrel pot pie while on a camping or hunting trip?  Try it, for it’s hard to beat.  The river woods were full of the frisky little devils and so on the second morning we went gunning for them and in no time had four or five. That evening we had pot pie and it sure hit the spot. 

  It was rather early in the season for ducks but some were on the river so we decided to try our luck.  So the next morning we got up at dawn and in our two rowboats rowed quietly down the river to some good hideout a short distance away.  I remember there was a very heavy mist hanging over the river and we had some difficulty picking out the spots we had located the day before.  We stationed ourselves a few hundred feet apart, so we would have ample coverage.

  In my location there seemed to be quite a few birds moving around and guess they were mud hens.  I could see no ducks.  At last I saw a duck a short distance away and blazed away.  It thrashed around and then was still.  I kept my eye on the spot, you may be sure.

  Apparently none of the boys had any luck for I heard no shots and when they rowed up to my station sometime later, when the sun came up and dispelled the mist, we picked up my dead duck.  That’s all we could show for our morning work.

  On the way back we met one of the trappers in his narrow sneakboat and showed him my duck.  He snickered and said, “That isn’t a duck, it’s a hell diver.”  We were novices at the game of duck hunting, and when one of us innocently inquired if the hell diver was good eating the trapper grinned and said, “Yes, if you care to chew leather.”  When we got back to camp we discovered that someone had been there, for all of Harry’s 10-guage shells were gone.  Nothing else was taken.

  Fortunately, I had shells to spare and so was able to let Harry have a supply.  We reasoned that one of the tough looking trappers had helped himself.  So we took precautions after that. 

  These trappers, “river rats” made a good living trapping muskrats and beaver, also hunting game in season (and out of season, too).  They were picturesque figures, longhaired and much bewhiskered, standing in their narrow pushboats, which they propelled with long push poles or paddles.  I can’t recall of any of them using oars.  Their devoted dogs generally trained retrievers, often occupied the bows of the little boars.  They live in rude shacks in the river woods or on the edges of a swamp.

  The river woods were full of noisy crows, and so one afternoon late in the week we decided to have a crow hunt.  We thought there would be no trouble to bag two or three of the black pirates in a hurry.  And because of our inexperience we approached the adventure in a spirit of easy gayety.  A little too much so, perhaps, for we were going to take those sassy ruffians for a ride.  And did we get a jolt that afternoon.  Well, sir, you maybe sure we did every one of us!

  I spotted a noisy one on the limb of a nearby tree and slowly crept up on him.  Taking careful aim I pulled the trigger of the 10-gauge shotgun.  Click, but no report.  I pulled the other trigger, no report!  A decisive haw-haw greeted my ears as I turned around, and there was Harry, giving me the merry laugh.  The rascal had abstracted my shells before we started out!  A big noisy crow should have been dead, but was very much alive as it slowly flew away.  Its harsh, mocking caw-caw floating down to us on the September breeze.  Drat the luck. 

  We pushed deeper into the woods after the pesky crows, but they were scared and kept out of range.  Our plan was to work north and emerge from the woods at one of the river bends and then follow the stream back to camp.  We often paused to admire the magnificent specimens of oak, maple and elm that filled the forest.

  It was very warm in the nineties, and little or no breeze in the dense timber and we commenced to tire.  And we also commenced to worry, for there was no sign of an opening showing a river bend, nothing but deep, gloomy forest. Had we been experienced woodsmen, this should not have bothered us, but we were just young greenhorns from a big city.  Ever get panicky?  It isn’t a pleasant feeling. 

  A couple of talkative crows offered a nice target, but we were no longer concerned about the darned pirates.  All we wanted was a glimpse of a river bend!  We trudged a little farther and then there seemed to be a rift in the forest gloom. Yes, it was decidedly lighter now and suddenly we saw an opening in the heavy timber ahead of us.  We hastened our steps and came out, not at a river bend, but at the sandy country road leading to Baum’s Bridge!  We had made a complete circle in the river woods!

  Our outing was about over.  On Saturday noon the liveryman came with his team and soon we were on the way back to the big city, and the long years that lay ahead.  To us it was a most unusual and enjoyable vacation, and one we never forgot.

  Every year after this, for quite a few years, I made the trip alone spending two full days at Wilcox’s and always in September on or about the 19th.  The weather generally was ideal and it was a grand spot to relax and hunt and fish, or to dream a few house away in some quiet nook on the picturesque Kankakee, a place to fish and dream, a mirror for clouds and shadows, and thoughts.

  It was on those trips I met Gen Lew Wallace a number of times, a most unforgettable character.  And the boys lost out on this.

  I’ll never quite forget my last visit with Gen. Wallace.  It was late September, and after enjoying mild, balmy weather for a few days.  It turned very chilly, and we sat around the warm stove in George Wilcox’s home.  The General was in failing health and had a shawl around his shoulders for some extra warmth.

  He was distinguished looking, courtly in baring, and thoughtful and considerate of others in his conversation.  After discussing the fishing and hunting on the river, out talk drifted around to a new historical romance the General was writing at the time.  So finally I turned to General Wallace an asked, “ General, what is the title of your new work?”  With quizzical smile he replied, “Young man, they don’t name a baby until it is born.”  I never forgot this remark, as he died a short time later and the book is still unpublished. 

  A fine old warrior, a grand character, had gone to his reward.

  Then my pals joined me and we had some grand outings on the river and always in September.  When the auto came into general use we mad two trips each year.  In May and September, even after the river vanished.  We always stopped at Wilcox’s or at Collier’s.  The meals were so good and substantial that we always looked forward to them and our appetite was always with us. 

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l-r Harry Van Horn, George Wilcox, unknown, unknown, Charles Smith

  About thirty years ago they started dredging a new channel, draining away the old riverbed and the surrounding marshes.  It spelled finis to the hunting and fishing in the Indiana region and also was the end of the fine river woods.

  Old faces are gone, familiar landmarks have disappeared, favorite spots of ours on the river and in the river woods are no longer there, for the drainage channel was their death knell.  However, the lure of the old river was strong and so we kept on making out periodical visits.  But the romance of the early days is no longer there; the Kankakee country of Northern Indiana is but an empty shell.

  I wonder what Gen. Lew Wallace would say if he could see his beloved Kankakee now, after a lapse of more than forty years.  Yes, I wonder.

  Alas, no longer the old river flows;

Long years have passed us by:

And when the evening twilight glows;

Old echoes wail and die

  Some day perhaps, the Kankakee and the adjacent swamps will be restored, in part, at least, so that future generations may enjoy the wild beauty of this region just as their ancestors and the four lads from Chicago did so many years ago. Some day------