By Dick Schmal
Jennie M. Conrad was one of the few persons to become a legend in her own lifetime, her family being responsible for changing the whole character of Newton County by draining Beaver Lake.
Our story in May about Conrad and her community was read with interest by Gerald Born, a Newton County historian who now lives in Hammond. In 1988 he wrote "The Saga of Jennie Conrad," a story serialized in an area newspaper. A copy was sent to 'the Old Timer' with permission to quote from it. This month's story expands our story from last month, detailing more of the adventures of Jennie Conrad, her family and her town.
Jennie Minerva Conrad was born June 5, 1855, at Milk's Grove, Iroquois County, Ill., and her parents were Lemuel and Jane Ann (Platt) Milk. Before his marriage, Lemuel Milk had acquired a great deal of property, while Jane Platt Milk was a woman of wealth in her own right.
A quote from Gerald Born's story: "By crediting her fortune to [the] Platt family, Jennie M. ignores any part that her father might have played in contributing to her own wealth. It is worth noting that when she named the streets in her town for close family members, the name of her father is conspicuously absent, as were those of her step-mother and half-sister. She and her father, however, were so much alike in temperment and philosophy and shared so much of the same vision [that] the life of one cannot be understood without some comprehension of the life of the other." Born also explained that while Lemuel could compromise in his business dealings, Jennie had an uncompromising attitude that was the source of much of her inability to keep the hired help necessary to manage the farm.
Lemuel Milk started his operation in 1850 by buying a half interest in the holdings of Col. William Howard of Owasco, Cayuga County, New York. Rutledge Enos ran the operation for a time, when it was called Enos Grove. Upon the dearh of Howard in 1853, Milk bought out the interests of Howard's sons and widow, an estate totaling 1,320 acres. At that time the name was changed to Milk's Grove, its present moniker. His agricultural pursuits and his financial investments were all paying good dividends when the Civil War began in the 1860's, and Milk was in a position to realize high prices caused by wartime shortages.
George Ade, noted Hoosier humorist and playwright, noted that Lemuel Milk, being a good friend of President Lincoln, equipped a complete mounted regiment at his own expense. Jennie Conrad was 10 when the war ended and must have heard many of the stories about the fighting.
Milk decided to drain the Beaver Lake area, and in 1873 the digging was begun for a deep channel to the Kankakee River, four-and-one-half miles away.
Jennie wrote the following: "Prior to the year 1873, my estate, now named Oak Dene was a part of Beaver Lake, Newton County, Ind., and mostly covered with water, in some places 10 feet or more deep, and all of a swampy character. During that year, what was called the 'Big Ditch' was completed and the restraining dam opened in the presence of a great assemblage, thereby releasing the water of Beaver Lake, which rushed into the Kankakee River, and this well-known lake, home of myriads of wild fowl, with island harboring horse thieves and fugitives from justice, was completely wiped off the map, an epoch in the history of Indiana."
Born wrote that the old Beaver Lake area was a great hunting and fishing area, and sportsmen came from miles away to partake of the excitement of the hunt. For that reason, the draining of the lake was not welcomed by all.
Austin Dexter, a man who spent most of his life in the marshes, said, "They murdered this land while they were at it, and did a good job of it." Many lamented the pillage, and a crusade went on for years to have some of the area returned to its natural state before the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area finally became a reality.
By draining the lake, Lemuel Milk acquired 12,000 more acres of land, enlarging his empire to almost 40,000 acres.
Jennie married George Conrad when she was 23 in 1878, and their son, Platt Conrad, was born in 1880. The family moved to Indiana from Chicago in 1891. George died suddenly on Aug. 11, 1896, at the age of 58, leaving Jennie a widow at age 41, when her son was 16 years old.
She evidently decided that the practical thing to do was to make do with what she had, and she was determined to succeed.
In about 1915 she wrote describing her farm: "Oak Dene Farms contain five thousand acres, and when sufficient laborers are available it is about three quarters under cultivation with wheat, rye, corn, oats, clover, alfalfa and timothy and the balance of the land is in blue grass pastures with some oak woodlands made hog-tight, permitting the gleaning of the acorn crop.
"In autumn it is customary to allow the hogs to live on blue grass and acorns for two months. Nearly all the pastures have running water. Early in my occupancy I began to fill the place with an improved class of livestock, with a view of feeding all farm products, a system still in existence."
She was especially proud of her hogs, and rightly so. Around the turn of the century, Jennie was running another profitable business, boarding horses for her friends in Chicago, many of them well known in financial and business circles in the city.
In his story, Born explains why it was practical for Jennie to plan the Town of Conrad. She needed a place nearby to ship her cattle, produce and manufactured items to the market. Before that time, her cattle were herded to Roselawn and shipped on the Monon Railroad.
Her little village included a church, post office, a school, the stock yards and cottages for the employees. Railroad sidings were built for the stock yard and for the cement block factory.
Jennie had donated four miles of right-of-way, 100 feet wide, to the Chicago, Indiana, and Southern Railroad (now New York Central), and she built the only stone station on the line, The stockyards had a capacity of 5,000 head of cattle, and thousands were sent to the city from this location, saving the long trek to Roselawn.
The block plant was located on Jane St., west of the railroad and south of the town. Blocks made there can still be found in buildings at Lake Village, Morocco and in cities throughout the country, including New York City. Another railroad spur was to go to a planned glass factory, but this did not come about.
One of Gerald Born's ancestors was the manager of the Conrad Hotel, which was located east of the depot on Brevoort St. It was a two-story frame building with 18 rooms, used by persons who had business to conduct in the area. The first floor contained an office, dining room, large kitchen, a small parlor and other rooms, with the sleeping rooms on the upper floor.
Born wrote this about the church: "Lots for the church, called the Mission of Conrad, were deeded on Aug. 14, 1908. The church was of Presbyterian origin, but for practical purposes the minister took a head count and directed his sermon to the denomination that had the greatest number in attendance. At a later date it had a Catholic priest who ministered to the needs of the congregation. So, in many years it was ecumenical."
The post office and the general store were located in a two-story cement block building, 75 feet by 45 feet. The post office was located in the south end of the building and contained about 30 boxes for the people to come on their horses or buggies and pick up their mail. The store carried a line of dry goods, but no fresh meat.
The first school, which originally stood on the Graves farm east of Conrad, was moved to the north part of town and used until a brick school was erected to the east of the hotel in 1927. There was also a blacksmith shop, run by Adam Press.
Jennie M. Conrad had arguments with most of her neighbors, and always there was trouble. One day she spied some boys with buckets of berries. Stopping her team, she quickly threw the berries on the ground and crushed them with her feet. She then ordered the boys from her property, but they hid until she was gone, then set fire to a 40-acre field of wheat which was ripe and ready to cut, a total loss.
Another time she locked up some of a neighbor's cows because they were in her corn. She was taken to court and was fined heavily for nearly causing the deaths of the animals. It was hard for the neighbors to give up their berry picking, knowing that no one person could use it all, but Jennie still regarded them as trespassers and dealt with them sternly.
She had cattle stolen from her and was in court many times, and it soon became a part of her routine to ride the boundaries of her property with a shotgun at her side to drive away anyone who should be foolish enough to trespass on her property.
Born wrote: "Whatever the world may think of Jennie M., we must credit her with being where the action was and for taking a large section of the state and transforming it to farmland and making it productive. And what of the town she built? It would not surprise me if someday soon, like the fabled village of Brigadoon, it may once again appear, complete with the sound of the church bell pealing and the laughter of the children playing in the school yard. One does not have to stretch the imagination very much to see that Conrad lies in the path of urbanization that is once again changing the faceof the landscape in its inevitable march."