Railroad, barbed wire are DeKalb’s fame

By M. Michelle Byrne

Picture a dirt road, a running stream and lots of prairie. Believe it or not, this is the way DeKalb looked in 1830.

It was not until 1834 that the first permanent settlers, John S. Sabree and his family, came to DeKalb County. The county was named after German baron John DeKalb, a Revolutionary War hero. Sabree and his family lived in a log cabin near what is today the town of Hinckley. Before that time, the Pottawatomie Indians lived in the nearby towns of Cortland, Kingston and Shabbona.

The Pottawatomies left the county in 1832 after the Blackhawk War, said Steve Bigolin, president of the DeKalb County Historical Society. Part of the peace treaty stated the Indians would leave northern Illinois and move past the Mississippi River, Bigolin said.

A few years later, Russell Huntley, DeKalb City’s founder and first settler, arrived. In 1837, Huntley built a log cabin at the corner of what is now Lincoln Hwy. and First Street. The cabin served as the hotel and stage-stop for DeKalb, then known as Buena Vista. Huntley was also DeKalb’s first postmaster.

In 1850 Buena Vista became DeKalb Township, and in 1877 DeKalb became a city.

The railroad was the first item that put DeKalb on the map. In 1853 the Chicago Northwestern Rail Road went through DeKalb. Before the railroad, DeKalb’s population was 29. A year after its arrival, the population rose to 555, Bigolin said.

The invention of barbed wire gave DeKalb its second “shot in the arm,” Bigolin said. In 1873, Joseph Glidden invented barbed wire and was granted a U.S. patent in 1874. Isaac Ellwood bought half the interest of the invention. Ellwood and Glidden then went into business together and formed the Barb Fence Company.

Glidden sold the patent to the Washburne and Moen Manufacturing Company in 1876 for $60,000 and a royalty of 25 cents per 100 pounds of wire sold. He sold it mainly because another DeKalb man, Jacob Haish, also claimed to be the inventor of barbed wire, and legal cases ensued. Haish invented the “s” barbed wire and patented it in 1874.

Ellwood and Washburne formed Ellwood Manufacturing Company, one of the largest in DeKalb. In 1898, Ellwood sold the company to American Steel and Wire Co., now part of U.S. Steel. Ellwood Manufacturing Company gave DeKalb more than 100 jobs. American Steel and Wire Co. used the same mill for many years after that, Bigolin said, before moving to newer factories in Joliet and Waukegan.

Northern Illinois State Normal School, now NIU, was opened Sept. 12, 1899 with the help of Ellwood, Haish and Glidden. It was a teacher’s preparation school when it opened, with 146 women and 27 men enrolled.

DeKalb County will celebrate its 150th birthday July 3, Bigolin said.