2 Settling In
IN 1839, an Irish bachelor named O’Brien finally decided to settle on land that had been passed over by a number of other pioneers. He built a log cabin near what is now 4920 Qakton Street. Unfortunately, most of the details of Skokie’s first settler are lost. O’Brien did not remain in the area for long, and little else is known about him, not even his first name. But the cabin he built was still standing at the turn of the 20th century on property owned by Peter Blameuser, III, and his wife Clara.
Another pioneer couple who settled in the area was Nicholas and Elizabeth Meyer. Nicholas had emigrated from Switzerland and settled in Illinois in 1835. A dozen or so years later, he built a log cabin just northwest of the intersection of Lincoln Avenue and Gross Point Road, near the current western border of the village of Skokie. Until his death in 1857, Meyer earned his living by hunting and farming the land around his cabin and by cutting wooden wagon wheel spokes which were sold in Chicago.
The cabin believed to be the one built by Meyer during the 1840s has been preserved. Constructed of large, hand-hewn logs, the cabin stood at its original location for more than a century, although at some point the original logs were hidden under a layer of wooden siding. Mr. and Mrs. William Ross became the owners of the cabin in 1940 and, for a time, used it as a garage. William Ross, whose ancestors had settled in Morton Grove in 1850, was interested enough in local history to restore the structure to its original appearance when he removed the added siding in the 1950s. Deeded to the village of Skokie in 1974 by Paul A. Jones, the historic cabin was moved to 8031 Floral Avenue in 1981, where it was further restored by T. Hatzold and Associates. The village’s oldest structure still stands, appropriately enough, behind the building housing the Skokie Historical Society.
Benjamin Emerson, it is said, can be credited as Chicago’s first professional milkman, a man who later made a mark of sorts as a prospector in the famous California Gold Rush of 1849. The versatile Emerson moved to an within the present boundries of Skokie in 1842.He had planned on settling in Evanston, but decided that the area would never amount to anything. So he traveled one-half mile west and settled near the present intersection of Church Street and East Prairie Road.
Born in New York in 1810, Emerson traveled west on canal and on foot, reaching Chicago in 1835. Although he is said to have regarded the fledgling city as little more than a mudhole, he immediately entered the milk business there. He also witnessed the city’s first execution, in which a man named John Stone was hanged for killing a woman.
When California gold fever struck in 1849, Emerson spent four months traveling overland to the west coast. After two years of prospecting, he accumulated the handsome sum of $4,000 in earnings, which he hid under a tree stump. When he decided to return to Illinois, he found that the money had been stolen. As a result, he chose to remain another two years in the hope of regaining his lost fortune. He finally headed back east four years after his original departure.
Back in the environs of Skokie, he laid out one of the major streets of the area, known to this day as Emerson Street.
When the village of Niles Centre was incorporated in 1888, Benjamin Emerson was the oldest living citizen of Niles Township, although at the time his property was outside the boundries of the newly incorporated village and would not annexed until the 1920’s. He continued to reside there until his death in 1897 at the age of 87.
Samuel Meyer, son of pioneers Nicholas and Elizabeth Meyer, recorded his early observations and passed them along by word of mouth. They were eventually paraphrased in the mid-1900s by Bertha M. Rosche, a village librarian. She researched and wrote a series of articles for the Villager newspaper under the title Setting Down the Record which was later excerpted in a number of local newspapers:
He described the beautiful hardwood forests and how pigs roamed at large in them fattening on acorns. (The rendered lard sold for three cents a pound!) As many as fifteen deer hung at one time from the rafters of the barn. He told, also, of his closest early neighbors: Samuel E. Ferris, the first permanent settler in Morton Grove who came in 1839; toward Gross Point, Lyman Butterfield; and two miles or so east, Schneider and Huffmeyer, the first two men on East Prairie.
At the time Nicholas Meyer built his cabin, the only real settlement in the immediate area was Dutchman’s Point to the west. To the south, of course, was Chicago, which by now had more than a thousand residents. But the 15-mile journey to the fledgling city was an arduous one, made difficult by streams to be forded, fallen timbers, tangled prairie grass and sometimes impenetrable swamps. Even the two principal routes to Chicago, which eventually became Lincoln and Milwaukee Avenues, were often made nearly impassable by rain or snow. The natural barriers kept traffic and trade between Chicago and the Skokie area to a minimum.
Little is known about the people who may have settled within the original boundaries of Niles Centre, as it was first known, between the years 1840, the approximate time of Meyer’s arrival, and 1854, when Henry Harms moved to the area. And of what has been preserved, much is vague.
In the description of Niles Centre in History of Cook County, Illinois, published in 1884 by Alfred Andreas, for example, the author notes that a blacksmith shop was opened in the settlement in 1857. Andreas continues an intriguing but unexpanded statement that “this was not the first blacksmith shop in the vicinity, as one was started some years earlier in a village attempted to be started one-half mile north of the present village, by Samuel E. Ferris.” Prominent in the history of Niles Township and the village of Morton Grove, Ferris apparently played a significant role in the earliest history of the village of Skokie as well.
The 1851 Niles Township tax assessment records (the township had been incorporated the year before), made available to local libraries on microfilm for the first time in the mid-1980s, also show that ownership of all but 47 ½ of the 640 acres included in Section 21 of the Township was accounted for, even in 1851. After Samuel Ferris, the largest landowner in the section, owning 185 acres, was William Butler, who owned 105 acres. Nicholas Meyer had 60. Nine others, including John Ross, John West, William Butler, Thomas George and Jacob Wingert, had holdings between 27 ½ and 55 acres.
19th century bed warmer, on display at the Skokie Historical Society
Skokie’s famous log cabin, believed to have been first built in the 1840s, now stands behind the Historical Society
Margaret Harrer Meyer and her husband Jacob, youngest son of Elizabeth and Nicholas Meyer. They built and lived inthe famous log cabin in the mid-1800s.
The German Migration
Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the nations of Austria and Prussia fought sporadically for control of the independent German states around them. By 1844, almost all of these states were aligned with Prussia although many of the local citizens were opposed to Prussian authority.
Perhaps fueled in part by the French Revolution of 1848, which inspired widespread hope for political and economic power among commoners on the European continent, a series of rebellions took place in a number of German states. Adding to the political and military turmoil in Germany was the failure in 1849 of the entire potato crop, leading to widespread famine. And so, beginning in the early l850s, large numbers of Germans began to emigrate, many coming to America and the migration continued for decades.
For German immigrants, especially farmers, the land north of Chicago held a number of attractions. Sparsely settled, land was cheap and fertile. Rich soil deposited and flattened by the Wisconsin Glacier made farming, even on previously untilled land, relatively easy. The Illinois and Michigan Canal, first suggested by Louis Jolliet around 1673, proposed by the U.S. Congress in 1810 and begun in 1836, was finally completed in the spring of 1848. For Chicago area farmers, it meant that vast new markets in the Mississippi Valley could now be reached with inexpensive transportation by barge. Transportation to the east was already assured by the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. Chicago quickly became one of the nation’s great centers of agricultural production and transportation. Massive new grain elevators along the Chicago River formed much of the city’s early skyline.
The combination of political and economic events in Germany, as well as the emergence of Chicago as an increasingly important agricultural trade area, brought a number of the village’s most significant early residents to the area during the 1850s and 1860s.
One of the earliest Prussian immigrants to Niles Township was Dr. Theodore Hoffman, who arrived in the area in 1850. For nearly two decades, Doctor Hoffman made house calls on horseback, ending the practice in 1868 when he moved to Chicago. Three years later, when the Chicago fire destroyed his office and the four homes he owned, Doctor Hoffman returned to Niles Township.
The names of three other immigrants, all originally from Prussia, are among the most noteworthy in all of Skokie history. They include Henry Harms, widely regarded as Skokie’s founder; George C. Klehm, a Cook County commissioner and town clerk; and Peter Blameuser, Jr., who subdivided much of Niles Centre into lots and was an early merchant.
Niles Township was incorporated in 1850 with a population of 408, most outside the present boundaries of Skokie. At a public meeting held on April 2, Samuel Ferris was elected the first township supervisor.
The reason early settlers chose the name Niles for the township is somewhat of a mystery, but the August 25, 1929 edition of the Chicago Tribune offered this speculation: “Where the name came from is a matter of conjecture. There was no family by that name among its settlers. But the city of Niles in Michigan, one of eight spots in the country with the name, was christened in 1829, and its namesake was the Niles Register, a newspaper of widespread political influence at that time, published in Washington, D.C.
“A fact that makes it seem likely the Illinois town had the same source” the Tribune story continued, “is that William Ogden Niles was connected with the Register as late as 1840, and Ogden is a name with a Chicago hook-up.”
Henry Harms, Founder of Skokie
No one played a more important role in the founding of the village than Henry Harms, who was born Heinrich Harms in Mecklenburg-Schwerin (Prussia) in 1832. He immigrated to the United States in 1851 and for several years owned a farm near Chicago. Harms purchased a farm within the present boundaries of Skokie in 1854, and built his cabin on the present site of the Skokie Village Hall. The wooden plank structure stood until the early 1900s, and a photograph of the cabin taken in 1907 still exists.
The following year, 1855, Henry Harms married Louisa Nicholas of Mecklenburg. The couple had 11 children, all born before the town he essentially founded was incorporated in 1888. Harms began operating as the first merchant in the area that later became Skokie when he opened a general store in 1858, at the southeast corner of the intersection of present-day Lincoln and Oakton. The building, which contained a tavern and boarding house and was known for a time as the Niles Centre Hotel, remained standing until 1911 or 1912 when it burned down.
In 1860, he built a new house directly across Lincoln from his original building. For some years during the latter half of the 19th century, Oakton Street was known as Harms Avenue. In 1862 he began operating a general store in front of that home, which, on February 10, 1863, became the area’s earliest post office, Harms himself serving as the premier postmaster. He maintained that position until 1874 when his brother-in-law, George C. Klehm, succeeded him.
The store, which continued as a post office until 1912, also housed a saloon and, on the second floor, a dance hall. A picnic grove was located outside. Sometime later, Harms sold the house and the store to George C. Klehm. In 1869, Harms built his third and final home. The large brick residence still stands at 5319 Oakton Street.
Much of the land west, south and east of the intersection of Lincoln and Oakton was once part of the Harms homestead. His total real estate holdings in Cook County at one time amounted to as much as 1,800 acres, on some of which he built cabins that he rented out to newly arrived immigrants.
It is basically Henry Harms’ achievements in public service, however, that etched his name so indelibly in the early history of the township. At various times, he served as township constable, supervisor and commissioner of highways (until the Cook County Board was organized in 1871) and Cook County Drainage Commissioner. In that latter capacity, he supervised the drainage of some of the swamplands in the Skokie Valley, thus opening up for settlement new areas within the present boundaries of the village.
The building of nearly all the early roads in the township, which numbered about 11, was completed under the supervision of Henry Harms. He also developed the Lincoln Avenue toll road to Chicago, which, for a portion of time between 1866 and 1880, was a wooden plank road with several Harms-owned tollgates between Galitz Avenue (a block south of present-day Oakton) and Halsted Street in Chicago.
In addition, Harms also founded three school districts in Niles Township. An often reported story is that he ran for Cook County treasurer in 1871 and may well have won the election, but the ballots were destroyed by the great Chicago fire of the same year.
Harms was awarded a contract in 1875 to build the basement of the new Chicago Court House. Work was completed the following year, but a change in plans for the job increased construction costs above the level specified in the agreement. When Harms submitted his bill, the commission overseeing construction rejected it. Harms sued and the seven-year legal battle eventually ended in his favor when he won a ruling for payment in full in 1883.
Often called Farmer Harms during his day and now sometimes referred to as Father Harms for his work in helping to found the village that became Skokie, Henry Harms lived a long and richly productive life, finally passing away in 1914 at the age of 82. Harms Road and Harms Woods are named after him.
Henry Harms (1832-1914), Skokie’s founding father
A Decade of Growth
After Henry Harms bought his farm in 1854, the area that was first known as Niles Centre and later Skokie began to develop more rapidly. Gustave Schraeder, like Henry Harms an immigrant from Mecklenburg, bought a 54-acre farm within the present boundaries of the village during the same year.
The future village began a decade-long building boom three years later. In 1857 Peter Bergmann, who became an early Niles Centre merchant, constructed a log cabin within the 1888 boundaries of the village. Amos J. Snell, who later made a fortune in timber and toll road collections and was the victim of an infamous and unsolved murder in 1888, built a log house near the southwest border of the original Niles Centre boundary at about the same time. George Kay put up a 24-foot square two-story brick house within those same boundaries that same year.
Soon afterward, area children began attending their own little red schoolhouse. Known as the Fairview School and, at times, the South Niles Centre School, the one-story red brick building was constructed in 1858 at the present intersection of Howard Street and Niles Center Road, the same year that Henry Harms opened the settlement’s first store. Sometime later, the original structure was elevated and converted to a second floor above a new ground- level addition.
Area students who attended the little school during the winter season were warmed by a potbellied stove. During the harsh winter months on the prairie, snowdrifts often piled up along the white picket fence surrounding the building. Older students recalled having to pull the younger children out of the drifts. In 1860, Niles Township teachers’ salaries were reported as $51 a month for the head teacher, Mrs. Hinman, and $25 a month for her assistant, Mrs. Langdon. The Fairview School was also used for a time for church and Sunday school services, and continued as a schoolhouse until about 1940.
Development in the region did not stop during the years of the Civil War, although an 1864 draft called for the conscription of 22 men from the Niles District. Earlier during the war years, in 1862, Henry Harms opened his second store and, for the first time, faced serious competition. Peter Bergmann opened a general provisions store that same year, operating it from his log cabin. Later he moved it to a building near the corner of present-day Lincoln and Oakton, which also served as his new home.
Like the store operated by Harms, Bergmann’s new establishment sold not only dry goods but wet refreshments as well. The two “saloon-stores,” on opposite corners of the same intersection were, more than a century ago, the core of the area that is still the heart of downtown Skokie. Despite the competition from Bergmann’s establishment, traffic in Harms’ store was probably helped when the settlement’s first post office was opened in it in 1863.
The year 1864 saw the arrival of another of the settlement’s most prominent early inhabitants, George Conrad Klehm, who would become a well-known merchant and public official.
A native of Prussia, Klehm immigrated to America at the age of 12 with a brother and his widowed mother. By the time the Klehm family reached Buffalo, New York, their savings had dwindled to seven dollars. Although they probably had planned to settle further west, economic necessity forced them to farm in the Buffalo area. Two years later, George began working as a bricklayer, a trade he had learned in Prussia.
In 1855, George C. Klehm moved to Jefferson Park (later annexed to Chicago) where he earned a teaching certificate in 1860. He taught a single term in Northfield and then moved on to the little Fairview schoolhouse in the future village of Niles Centre, becoming one of the school’s earliest teachers.
Klehm moved to the immediate area of Skokie in 1864 and soon married Louise Harms, the sister of Henry Harms. Although Louise died prematurely, the Harms-Klehm union was indisputably the most significant marriage in the early history of Skokie and resulted in six children. One daughter, Amelia Louise, became the town’s first woman doctor and one of the earliest female doctors in America, and another, Alma Elizabeth, was an early teacher and a social leader throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century. One of the sons, George H., was an important merchant, a village trustee and clerk, and a long-time mayor of Niles Centre. His brother, Edwin T., became his partner in managing the family store and served as village postmaster for 23 years, among other local offices.
George C. Klehm bought Henry Harms’ combination store and tavern located at the southwest corner of present-day Lincoln and Oakton, which he continued operating until it was sold in 1881. (In later years, his sons George and Edwin bought back the establishment, and the Klehm brothers’ store was one of the village’s most popular watering holes around the turn of the century.) At various times during a period of about forty years, George C. Klehm served as village street commissioner, postmaster, clerk and, for 40 years, Niles Township Treasurer.
He was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1881 and served as chairman for several years.
Peter Blameuser, Jr., another Prussian immigrant in the early history of the village, arrived in Chicago in 1852. Traveling west around Colorado and Montana, he joined a vigilante group that, according to early village historian E.P. Beaudette, hanged 33 men for their assorted crimes. Despite his busy schedule, Blameuser managed to accumulate a fortune of around $10,000 from the gold rush.
In 1865 Peter Blameuser was back in the Chicago area, buying 185 acres in Niles Township from Peter Bergmann, which constituted the heart of today’s downtown Skokie. The Blameuser Building, between 1907 and 1912, served as the earliest home of the Niles Centre State Bank, progenitor of the First National Bank of Skokie. The entire building was moved about 60 feet west around 1920, and was later demolished.
Like many of the other early residents, it was Blameuser’s civic accomplishments that assured him an important place in local history.
Blameuser laid out large areas of the original town into private lots, many of which remain unchanged today, and built and sold a number of houses himself. He also sold the land for St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, built in 1867, for $50; and he donated the land for St. Peter’s Catholic Church, constructed the following year.
The fact that two churches, one Catholic and the other Protestant, were built in the village and named after Saint Peter is explained, at least in part, quite simply. Peter Blameuser, a Roman Catholic, insisted in the deed that the Protestant church use the name of his patron saint, St. Peter, in perpetuity. The denomination, however, was not given binding legal status, and it eventually changed to St. Peter’s United Church of Christ.
The heavily Germanic nature of the community in those days is evidenced by the language spoken in both of the early churches. Not until more than five years later, in 1873, was Niles Township’s first English-speaking congregation church founded by Methodists.
Both of the original church buildings have been replaced by more recent structures. The Protestant church was rebuilt in 1903 using a similar design and some of the bricks and other materials of the original church. The present St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was built by Chicago architect Henry Schlacks in 1894.
The settlement that would become Skokie begins to take shape
The Blameuser Building, on the northwest corner of Lincoln and Oakton, was built in the late 1800s.
A scribe used to mark cutting lines on wood, found in the Skokie area.
Peter Blameuser family, 1885
Peter Blameuser, Jr., circa 1855
The Old Plank Roads
Despite the rapid growth of the Skokie area between 1857 and 1867, transportation to Chicago was little improved since the days when J.J. Ruland and the Ebingers often found their ox cart mired in the mud around Dutchman’s Point. Wooden roads, now completely gone and all but forgotten, were for a few decades, however, marvels of transportation that kept the wagons of aging pioneers out of the mud.
The idea of plank roads seems to have originated in Russia and came to the United States by way of Canada. During the mid-1800s, a number of major plank roads were built in the Chicago area, most consisting of three-inch thick timbers laid like floorboards across two parallel wooden rails. When in good repair, the roads made travel in carts and wagons smooth for passengers and produce alike and virtually effortless for the teams of animals pulling them. But the wooden roads were subject to rot and decay, and the price of building and maintaining them was formidable. All, therefore, were toll roads, and the cost of driving wagons on them was often monumental, at least for the time, averaging as much as $10 per ton for each 20 miles.
One of the earliest wooden roads in northern Illinois was completed just before 1850 between Naperville and Ogden Avenue in Chicago. At about the same time, a plank road was built through the southwest corner of Niles Township, extending both north and south of the township lines along the present-day route of Milwaukee Avenue. Known as the Northwest Plank Road at the time, it was the first of the mud and dirt trails in the area to be improved as a plank road. A company headed by a man named Mitchell resurfaced a portion of the road with three-inch planks. Soon afterward, a settler named Gould completed the resurfacing from Dutchman’s Point southward past Division Street, at the time Chicago’s northern boundary. He also erected toll gates at Elston, Irving Park and Western Avenues.
Despite its attractions, the Northwest Plank Road was too far west to be convenient for people traveling between Niles Centre and Chicago. In 1867, Henry Harms began directing the planking of Lincoln Avenue from Niles Centre to Chicago’s northern border at Division Street, financing the huge project himself from his extensive land holdings. He set up one toll gate near the settlement, which for a time he manned himself, and another nearer Chicago.
Well into the 20th century, Alma Klehm could still recall the simple toll gate, made up of a long log, weighted at the short end, which pivoted on a vertical pole. She recalled how children enjoyed spending a few hours after school or on holidays swinging the log out of the way for teamsters who had paid their tolls.
One old report indicates that the tolls on the Harms-built plank road were only a dime, but this amount is inconsistent with the much larger fees, at least for loaded wagons, charged on other plank roads leading to Chicago. At any rate, it is known that Henry Harms made a number of different arrangements for payment. In lieu of cash, he would allow area farmers to pay their tolls by working periodically on the road itself, or, in later years, by hauling gravel to improve the roadbed.
For a brief time, the various plank roads leading into Chicago offered the most modern and convenient transportation available to farmers and merchants. But the cost of maintaining the roads, coupled with the arrival of the railroad, made the phenomenon relatively short-lived. In fact, by the time Harms built his plank road, others had already been dismantled or allowed to decay beyond repair, the disillusioned owners finally realizing that the cost of upkeep was prohibitive.
The Railroad Comes to Niles Township
The growth of the railroad industry in northern Illinois was phenomenal. In 1847, there was not a mile of track in the Chicago area. Ten years later, more than 4,000 miles of track had been laid, most leading into the city that was quickly becoming a railroad mecca. But despite the boom in track construction, the first rail line did not come to Niles Township until about 15 years later.
Although competition from the railroads soon destroyed whatever incentives the plank roads offered, it was not without controversy. A tavern operator in Marengo once stated that “railroads are undemocratic, aristocratic institutions that would ride roughshod over the people and grind them into powder. The only roads the people want are good, common or plank roads, upon which everyone can travel.”
In 1872, a year after the disastrous Chicago fire, workers laying the trunk line of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (later the Milwaukee Road) reached Niles Township. The first station was built in Morton Grove, within about a mile of the settlement soon to be called Niles Centre. Although the railroad suffered from a relatively late start, an inadequate terminal in Chicago and a lack of large towns between Chicago and Milwaukee to increase traffic, it still managed to change the pace of life throughout most of Niles Township. Despite the walk to the Morton Grove station, the railroad offered by far the quickest and most convenient transportation to Chicago. A number of residents soon fell into the pattern of walking to the station, often carrying a lantern for the return trip that evening.
With the railroad came a voracious appetite for area wood, to be used both as fuel for the steam locomotives and as construction lumber for the city of Chicago, both rebuilding and expanding at the same time. “Through the forest resounded constantly the ring of the wood-cutters ax,” the German-language newspaper, Der Western reported years later. “Everyone threw himself upon the ax handle, and endless trains of firewood were daily forwarded to Chicago.”
Whole forests were cleared for the valuable lumber and firewood, and the clearings made room for new farms in the township, capitalized by the sale of timber. Amos J. Snell acquired hundreds of acres of woodlands, most of it now on Chicago’s north side around Addison and Irving Park. He hired others to clear the land and built a large lumberyard and numerous farmhouses on the land he cleared, renting them out to farmers. Some of the houses were still standing in the second half of the 20th century.
Map of Niles Centre
Samuel Meyer, the son of Niles Centre’s first permanent settlers and one of the first persons born in the unincorporated settlement, was interviewed in 1924 at the age of 75 by a reporter for Chicago’s now-defunct Herald and Examiner newspaper.
“We never used to worry much about the high cost of living,” Meyer told the reporter about the early days. “What with letting the hogs run in the oak woods, where they fattened on acorns, and what with the venison father killed, we had plenty to eat There weren’t any luxuries, and the necessities were grown in the clear spaces in the forests.
“The first industry here when the animals gave out,” he continued, “was cutting the forest for fuel for the wood-burning locomotives on the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. The first plank road built through Niles Centre brought more trade. The wood cutters drove through in caravans of twelve or fifteen to Evanston and Jefferson. The stump land was sold at $25 an acre, cleared and used for truck farming.”
A Village Emerges
The little settlement that eventually became Skokie continued to grow through the 1870s and 1880s, although it did not become a railroad boom town as some villages closer to major rail lines had. The railroad brought, however, a cultural diversity to the otherwise intensely Germanic township.
The first English-speaking church in Niles Township was founded at the Fairview School by Methodists in 1873. That same year, John W. Brown, a future Niles Centre mayor and merchant, came to the area and began teaching school at Fairview. A frame building for a Catholic school, since replaced, was erected near St. Peter’s Catholic Church at about the same time.
The following year, 1874, a greenhouse was built by a Prussian immigrant named Fred Stielow and a man remembered only as Kusky. According to Cook County historian Alfred Andreas, Kusky accidentally shot himself in 1880 and his widow continued operating the business, eventually buying out Stielow’s interest. With a new partner, Stielow then opened a second greenhouse. A third was opened in 1883 by A.J. Harms. But it was Fred Stielow’s four sons - Fred, Walter, Arthur and William - who eventually operated one of the largest greenhouses in the area. Along with many others, Stielow Florists flourished for some time, and the entire area gained a wide reputation for flower and vegetable growing.
August Siegel, a musician and early cigar maker, came to Niles Centre in 1874, the same year that Michael Harrer, an immigrant from Bavaria and uncle of Adam Harrer, Niles Centre’s first mayor, opened a meat market on Main Street (later Lincoln Avenue). Another Bavarian Harrer, Henry, opened a store and saloon in 1878. Henry Harrer held a number of local offices, including a position on the school board for 15 years and justice of the peace for 19 years.
In 1879 a great flood occurred on the North Branch, which demolished all the bridges crossing it except at Church Street. Just three years later the river flooded again, wiping out all the rebuilt bridges in the township. George C. Klehm was one of the men who rebuilt the flooded-out bridges, although it is not entirely clear which of the two floods prompted his work. In a letter sent to the Greater Niles Centre News in 1926 when he was 87 years old, Klehm wrote the following:
“In 1881 a cloudburst in the upper Skokie Valley caused a great flood in the river (and) wrecked all the river bridges except the old Beckwith Bridge on Church Street. This old man and his colleagues devoted almost their entire time during that year to building new bridges. Their salary was $1.50 per day for specified actual services.”
The Niles Centre Volunteer Fire Company was organized on May 6,1881, the direct result of a fire that destroyed an area home. The first president was George C. Klehm. Meeting in the club room of the store that Klehm had purchased from Henry Harms, the fire company was both a social club and a valuable service organization of the growing community. The Niles Centre Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 was officially incorporated a few years later, on October 21, 1884. Among its 38 members were practically all of the leading citizens in the area, including Peter Blameuser, Jr., George C. Klehm, Samuel Meyer and several members of the Harms and Harrer families.
Ice cream was first sold in the village in 1882 by peddlers in wagons who, for a fee of a penny, scooped the frozen delicacy into dishes supplied by the purchasers. Medard M. Gabel opened a hardware store at 8122 Lincoln the following year.
At about the same time, a census reported that 1,520 children attended school in Niles Township, an increase of 1,516 over the total in 1838, just 45 years earlier. Despite the growth, not a single village in the township had been formally incorporated, but this was now about to change.
The original East Prairie school behind several wagonloads of parents and children
The six children of George C. and Eliza Harms Klehm (left to right:Lydia, George H., Alma, Emma,Edwin, Louise)
Built in 1874 as Michael Harrer’s Meat Market, the Haben house was restored by the Haben family, and is the only structure in the village recorded in the National Register of Historic Places.