Located at the northeast corner of 11th Street and Broadway, the Maple Grove tourist camp, filling station and restaurant were new when this photograph was taken in the 1930s.

Monmouth’s newest park was site of early tourist camp

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Monmouth’s newest park, at 11th Street and Broadway — developed through the generosity of the Pattee Foundation, the Monmouth Rotary Club and Kiwanis Club — is one of the city’s points of pride. While citizens have praised it both for its recreational features and because it replaced the eyesore of a long-vacant grocery store and asphalt parking lot, most are unaware that an earlier park had occupied the site nearly 90 years ago.

That story begins with one of the town’s first settlers, Chancy Hardin, who arrived in Monmouth from Otsego County, New York, in 1840, before settling on a farm in Tompkins Township. In 1860, he returned to Monmouth to open a hardware store on the Public Square. In need of a new residence, he turned to a master carpenter who had also come from Otsego County.

It’s uncertain exactly what year William Hilton Webster immigrated to Monmouth, but it was prior to 1855, the year his future wife, Emeline Beach, arrived by train from Ohio on the brand new railroad. Two years later, she accompanied the young carpenter on a train visit to his relatives in New York. Aboard the Michigan Central’s Lightning Express, the couple impetuously decided to elope, and they telegraphed ahead for a minister. On the first stop after the Michigan state line, the minister came on board and the couple was married — one of the first marriages to occur on a passenger train.

Webster, who was 40 in 1860, supervised the building of an Italianate country house for Chancy Hardin, who owned hundreds of acres of land just east of the Monmouth city limits. The house, which stood at 1335 East Broadway, would later serve as the first clubhouse for the Monmouth Country Club. In 1949, Hardin’s great grandson, Fred H. Pattee, would erect a modern ranch house on the property.

Early property records are sketchy, but it appears that William Webster built an elegant home for his new bride in the 1850s on Hardin land at 1204 East Broadway — the site of the recent west addition to Pattee Park. Although the land wasn’t officially transferred to the Websters until 1871, the Greek Revival style of the home, with unusual coffered panels incorporated into the siding, places it squarely in the 1850s. Perhaps an informal arrangement with Chancy Hardin allowed Webster to purchase the land over time.

According to the 1860 census, the Websters shared the home with an apprentice carpenter from Ireland named George Kennedy. Also living there was their baby son, Jay, born in 1859, and Emeline’s younger sisters, Carrrie and Kate Beech, both students at the newly founded Monmouth College. Emeline would soon give birth to a son, Dan Quincy Weber, and a daughter, Hattie.

Tragedy struck in November 1880, when 60-year-old William died in a freak accident. Helping to dig a well that would be incorporated into a nearby existing well, he was lowered into the old well to shore up the tiling. As he began nailing a board, the well’s tiling collapsed, striking him in the head and burying him 18 feet underground.

Jay Webster moved west to a ranch in Montana and Hattie married a draftsman for Weir Plow Co., leaving Emeline and Dan sharing the house. The house would again spring to life when Dan married and had a daughter, Bernyce, in 1905.

Dan worked a succession of jobs, from managing a cooperative fuel company to selling cement silos to managing a coal and grain company. After the death of his mother in 1914 and a divorce in 1919, he and Bernyce lived alone in the family homestead.

During the 1920s, Dan became a deputy sheriff for Warren County and rented out the family home. It was also during that decade that a new national fad would emerge and influence Dan Q. Webster’s future career.

As automobiles became increasingly commonplace during the 1920s, families began taking to the open road and exploring America, despite its primitive road system. Hotels were considered the domain of traveling salesmen and were expensive, so touring families preferred to stop by the roadside to cook meals over campfires and sleep in tents. Many cities offered free municipal campgrounds to lure tourists to their downtowns. To reduce sanitation problems, campsites often included toilets, electricity and showers.

In the summer of 1923, the Monmouth Chamber of Commerce commissioned the painting of 1,000 road signs, advertising Monmouth as a motoring destination. The signs were placed at one-mile intervals along all highways within a 70-mile radius of the city. Monmouth Park was offered as a scenic spot for campers to gather.

To defray rising expenses and keep out tramps, some towns began charging for accommodations, and some gave their blessings to private entrepreneurs to develop overnight facilities. Between 1925 and 1928 there was a shift toward private camps. Municipal camps became daytime destinations, while local entrepreneurs took over overnight camping with the blessing of town officials.

To attract a higher class of patronage, some camps began providing lodging in the form of permanent cabins. Known as cabin camps, they would be the predominant tourist accommodation until after World War II. When hard times hit, cabin camps began draining the hotel trade. The AAA estimated that with their easy access to highways, free parking and privacy, the camps cut hotel occupancy from 75 percent in 1929 to 60 percent in 1936.

Dan Webster, whose former home was situated on six acres just blocks from U.S. 34, decided to cash in on the trend. In 1930, he decided to tear down the house and replace it with a campground equipped with eight octagon-shaped wooden cabins. To the north on 11th Street, he constructed a building containing a restaurant, filling station and living quarters.

Just as Webster was razing the east wing of the house, a family friend named Rose Eckley (mother of the late Monmouth historian Ralph Eckley) stepped in and urged Webster to not let the remainder of his father’s sturdily built residence be reduced to rubble. Instead, Webster sold the house to J.W. Rankin, who had it moved to 201 South Ninth St., where it still stands today.

The Maple Grove Camp became a popular stopover during the Depression, and Dan Webster formed various business partnerships over the years, such as in October 1933, when it was advertised that the Maple Grove Inn, featuring home-cooked foods, sandwiches, salads and tasty platters, had reopened under new management.

Nationwide, the World War II ban on passenger car production and the rationing of gasoline and tires ended the motor camp craze, but Webster managed to keep the gas station open, selling Phillips 66 products. By the early 1950s, the previously undeveloped North 11th Street began to hum with new businesses that included a drive-in restaurant, auto body shop, diner, supermarket, roller rink, furniture store, bowling alley and dry cleaner.

In 1953, the Rock Island Argus published a feature story on Dan Webster, who was then 88 years old and was being honored as Monmouth’s oldest living Mason. The story noted that he was “busy every day at his filling station,” but had sold off all but three of his tourist cabins. “Just too much work to keep them up,” he said. He was, however, in his 20th year as a justice of the peace, though he had never performed a marriage ceremony. “I don’t want to wish anybody any trouble,” he explained.

Webster also said that lots of people wanted to buy his six-acre property on the busy street, but that it wasn’t for sale — he was saving it for his daughter, Bernyce, who was then the wife of a dentist in Wewoka, Okla.

At the age of 90, Webster’s health began to fail and in 1955 the acreage was finally sold to the Benner Tea Company, which erected a supermarket on the property. The next summer, Webster went to live with Bernyce in Oklahoma, where he died 10 weeks later.

The business’s main office building was moved to 207 S. 11th St. and remodeled into a home. One of the last remaining cabins was used as a storage building for the 11th Street bowling alley until a few years ago.

Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.

Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu