Wheat and The Great Chatfield Hog War

Tom McDermott

In the early days of Hickory Grove (Rochelle), agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. Early settlers like Jeptha Noe and Willard Flagg found countless miles of prairie grass as far as the eye could see. The grasses on the prairie would range from four to eight foot tall. The land had to be cleared before farming could begin. Frequently fire was used to burn off the grasses.

By 1837, John Deere had just perfected the self-cleaning plow so a man with some oxen and a plow could break up a field much faster than would have been believed only a short time earlier. Jeptha is credited with bringing in the first wheat harvest in the area. In the 1830s corn and oats were not worth enough to take them to market. 

With wheat production at almost 40 bushel per acre, a landowner could raise enough for personal use as well as some to take to market. The trip to market was the stuff of legend. The nearest markets were Rockford, Peru and St. Charles. Ottawa had the nearest grist mill for refining wheat into flour. Generally the best-paying market was Chicago. The Chicago Grain Market would pay from .40 to $1.20 per bushel with the usual rate around 50 cents a bushel. So it was the norm to load 40 bushels of wheat onto the wagon hitch up the ox team and head off to the big city. 

There were few hotels on the way to Chicago so the traveler would pack enough bread, bacon and coffee to make the six-day trip. There were some stop overs of note: Huntley’s in DeKalb, Brodies Grove, Hubbard’s in Babbock’s Grove and Chatfield’s all received high praise. Once in Chicago, the Old American House and Lake Street Hotel were considered top drawer. 

The folks from Hickory Grove and the surrounding area were referred to as the “Rock River Boys” as transport drivers from around the Rock River would meet in Hickory Grove and join forces with our local drivers before heading toward Chicago. 

It was around 1847 that a group of the Rock River Boys stopped off for the night at Chatfield’s. During the evening meal a couple of the boys did a nose count and quickly surmised that there were more wagon drivers than rooms at the inn. John Collier, Willard Flagg and a couple others rushed through their meals and secured comfortable lodging. The rest of the crew were forced to sleep on their wagons. During the night the outside sleepers found themselves under attack. It seems that the hogs in Chatfield had become used to biting the corners off of wheat bags and feasting on the contents. The boys set up quite the ruckus. Mills Stewart was heard yelling, “Eat John Collier’s wheat will ya?” 

The boys protested to the owner of the inn who denied any knowledge of who owned the hogs. There was only one recourse, if the wheat was to be saved, the hogs must die. The nine Rock River Boys grabbed any weapon they could find and set after their porker foes. Mr. McCraken chased a hog into a house and followed it all the way to the bedroom. The swine was dragged from beneath the bed and was soon good only for bacon and ham. Mr. Reynolds noticed a 180-pound porker headed straight for him and decided his best option was to jump on the piggy and force it to the ground. The swift swine was still making good time with Mr. McCraken (legs around the pigs’ neck and facing south on a north bound hog) regretting his decision. It was Willard Flagg to the rescue. Ax in hand Willard dropped the swine at full speed without damaging the rider. Needless to say the boys cut a hasty leave from Chatfield, whose residents were no longer nearly as welcoming as they had been. 

When one calculates 40 bushels an acre at 50 cents a bushel, the average wagon load of wheat brought about $20. Plowing, planting, harvesting and transporting to Chicago for $20 in an average year to $48 in a very good year. 

It was in 1854 that the train line reached Hickory Grove. This changed the grain business overnight. Farmers from within 10 miles of Dekalb and Rockford would bring their crops to Rochelle.

Initially farmers bagged their grain and delivered it to the train depot. The grain was taken to Chicago and payment arrived with the returning train. Local investors erected several grain elevators and would pay the farmers upon delivery of the wheat. The elevator owner then would play the market hoping to make more than they paid. With the arrival of the Civil War, wheat prices skyrocketed. Profits were so good that Dr. McConaughy erected a stone elevator. Many questioned the expense until 1861 when an arsonist set fire to the grain elevators and all were destroyed except the stone elevator. Dr. McConaughy successfully cornered the local grain market. 

By the end of the Civil War so much wheat had been grown that the land lacked the nutrients needed to produce a decent crop. Wheat was no longer king and the crops of preference became corn and oats. 

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.