Announcing The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods

I am very excited to announce that The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods is now available for purchase at Amazon! It is also available on Kindle and Kobo now, and soon will be available for Barnes and Noble and iBook.


Here’s the link: Buy at Amazon

Here’s the description:

 A legendary water beast, mysterious wolves,

and an unsolved murder echo through two centuries.

Wawetseka, a Potawatomi woman, is shocked when a body washes up near her village, but events soon turn worse: her only son is arrested for murder. To free him she must track down the real killer. Her investigation takes her through the wilderness of 1817 northern Illinois and to Fort Dearborn as she races desperately, fighting the harsh terrain and the realities of vigilante justice.

Two centuries later, Wawetseka’s descendent, Nick Pokagon, a charismatic young scientist, partners with Cora Tozzi, Cisco, and Frannie to publish Wawetseka’s adventures. But then Cora and her friends are attacked. What does Wawetseka’s story have to do with the present? How can the mysterious assailant be stopped?

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods tells two related stories with unexpected parallels. It is both a fast-paced adventure and a mystery that paints a picture of the little-known earliest days of what is now Lemont, Illinois. Readers who enjoy amateur sleuths and adventure will find it hard to put down.

As you see, for those of you who enjoyed The Mystery at Sag Bridge, Cora, Cisco, and Frannie are back with new adventures. Almost two years of research went into Illinois’ pre-statehood period, a fascinating time period. My husband would ask if I was bragging or complaining about that—the truth is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you will too!

I am busy planning events at which you will be able to meet me and get signed copies of the new book, and will let you know as each is confirmed. The first event is at A River Thru History, The Des Plaines Valley Rendezvous September 10 and 11 at Columbia Woods Forest Preserve near 75th and Willow Springs Road. How fitting, since this event takes place in the same time period and location as the historic part of The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods.

There will also be a formal signing at The Inn at Smokey Row on Stephen Street in downtown Lemont on October 1. I will send more details soon.

If you can’t wait, please order from Amazon and bring your copy for me to sign at one of the upcoming events. I’d love to see you, hear your comments, and as always, written reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are very much appreciated!

Regular historical blog posts will resume shortly!

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Northern Illinois – Travel back to 1817

I took this picture at Keepataw Preserve in April 2016. It is likely that a Potawatomi village once existed near this location, and if you ignore the modern construction, the geography would have looked very much like this, with the Des Plaines River cutting through the valley and the flood plains in the foreground. Today the end of the bridge on the right is the 127th Street exit of I-355 in Lemont, and the photo is taken from the north side of the Des Plaines Valley.

I took this picture at Keepataw Preserve in April 2016. It is likely that a Potawatomi village once existed near this location. If you ignore the modern construction, the geography would have looked very much like this, with the Des Plaines River cutting through the valley and the flood plains in the foreground. Today the end of the bridge on the right is the 127th Street exit of I-355 in Lemont, and the photo is taken from the north side of the Des Plaines Valley.

As The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods nears completion, I’d like to tell you some of the interesting history of the time period of that story—Northern Illinois, 1817. In the story, Cora, an amateur historian, and Nick, a scientist of Potawatomi Indian heritage, collaborate to publish the story of his ancestor. The book they have written appears in its entirety in The Mystery of Black Partridge Woods. Nick begins the book with an Author’s Note explaining what the time period was like in his own words. Today’s post is an excerpt from that note.

“As the Illinois Territory awaited imminent statehood, each man, whatever his origin, was convinced the land was rightfully his. Their reasons were as varied as were their origins.

The Indian’s belief in his right to Illinois land was rooted in semi-migratory culture and seasonal moves. We farmed in the summer and hunted in the winter. We established lodging patterns traditional to our tribes and sacred areas to bury our dead. We did not live in a single place but habitually returned to the same places.

Indian farms in the Illinois Territory were extensive and well laid out, capable of producing crops for sale or trade. When we left our summer villages unoccupied to travel to winter hunting grounds, we expected to return to our fields, much as “snow birders” do today when they move from northern states to warm climates in the winter. We defended these home grounds from tribes that attempted to steal them and eventually from white men who thought our land was unoccupied.

First to arrive, in the mid-1600s, explorers and priests came and established missions. Fur traders set up trade posts at approximately the same time. Missionaries taught religion to the native population, but they also taught white culture, including language and reading. Women and children attended mission schools, but our men were more interested in trade. They brought furs to the posts and bargained for items available only from white people. Native people initially welcomed them, anticipating trade for things we desired but did not have, items such as cloth, kettles, metal tools and weapons.

“Americans” of the newly formed United States did not understand the migratory nature of the Indian and thought unoccupied land was just that, available.

Nor did Americans understand our communities and personal customs; they thought one Indian tribe represented all Indians, and negotiated land purchase with any tribe willing to deal. A tribe may have known the land in question was occupied by others, but thought they were being presented with gifts. As a result, Americans thought they had bought our land, another tribe thought they were recipients of good fortune, and we who had resided on the land for generations returned to find our traditional homeland forbidden to us.

By 1817, the area of Northern Illinois that presently includes the cities of Chicago, Peoria, and Rock Island was sparsely populated but widely traveled by a startling variety of people. This is contrary to the prevalent idea that prior to the Indian removal period, which began after the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, only Indians lived in Northern Illinois. Here are some people Wawetseka would have encountered, and why they claimed a right to these lands:

French priests followed a mission to educate and convert natives to what they believed was a better way of life. They thought of everyone as God’s people, and they lived in God’s land.

French traders and voyageurs had lived in the country since the sixteenth century and saw no reason to cease fur trade operations. Brides were sent over from France, and families gathered into hamlets. Some men lived with the Indians and intermarried. Both parties benefited from this “kinship” arrangement.

English trading companies established trade routes and had won the right to do so in the French and Indian War. The Northwest Territories were part of the United States by 1817, but the English didn’t all agree to abandon their successful private trade interests and relationships with the Indians.

American traders disagreed with English and French traders and attempted to license those who could trade legally. The territory belonged to America. Only Americans had rights there, and others should leave. They had fought and won a war to make it so.

Frontiersmen had already developed paths and small settlements as they pushed westward. These men had unique appetites: they craved adventure, were wanderers and explorers. They wanted to be the first to experience a new land and perhaps stay.

Soon to follow frontiersmen were the earliest settlers, mainly from eastern states and immigrants from Europe. Why did these people leave the comfortable eastern seaboard for the hardships they would encounter in Illinois? In the early 1800s eastern cities were already centers of industry, commerce, and finance, with factories, universities, and cultural activities—desirable places to live. But opportunity favored the wealthy. In cities, no jobs were to be had for common people who lived in crowded conditions. In rural areas the rich lived in mansions, while small farmers made small profits. Property went to the oldest son, leaving nothing for other family members. The young country was outgrowing itself. But land—and opportunity—awaited those willing to work for it in the west. Invaders fanned out like rivers and disappeared into the wilderness of the west.

Men who fought in the War of 1812 discovered the open lands of Illinois and found them attractive. After the war, they returned with their families for a chance at a better life than they had in the east.

Still others sought to lose themselves in the sparsely populated land. Some had miserable lives, were misfits, or unlucky at love. Some were lazy and deluded into thinking life would be easier. The poor and the well-to-do alike came, bringing all their possessions with them. Land would soon be available for purchase. Surveyors were already mapping out a new canal. The area was about to become prosperous. They wanted to be the first to stake claim to the best piece of the pie. Craftsmen and tradesmen followed the settlers, knowing their goods would be needed and their fortunes would soon be made.

Criminals, speculators, con artists, and opportunists, knowing the newcomers were carrying all they owned and were vulnerable, looked for easy pickings in a land with little if any law enforcement. Military and rangers were sent to build blockhouses and forts to protect and attempt to keep peace between the varied groups. Volunteer militias were raised among the frontiersmen, and agents were appointed to represent and trade with Indians. Judges rode circuits, sheriffs covered vast areas, alone but for men in positions of authority at trade posts or settlers they could recruit. Vigilantes enforced their own interpretation of justice.

And we Indians—invaded, bewildered—struggled to survive.”

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Early Days, Potawatomi, and Archer Avenue

Scharf Map, drawn around 1900, representing pre-settlement time overlaid with roads from 1900. Box in center is area discussed below. The triangular icon in its center represents the location of a Potawatomi village. The Des Plaines River runs diagonally toward the upper right and Chicago, the other valley directly east to Lake Michigan. The diagonal road in the same direction as the river is Archer Avenue.

Scharf Map, drawn around 1900, representing pre-settlement time overlaid with roads from 1900. Box in center is area discussed below. The triangular icon in its center represents the location of a Potawatomi village. The Des Plaines River runs diagonally toward the upper right and Chicago, the other valley directly east to Lake Michigan. The diagonal road in the same direction as the river is Archer Avenue.

Did you ever wonder what it was like here before Lemont was settled, before Illinois was a state?

Start by imagining you are walking one of the trails in our beautiful forest preserves, but look at what surrounds the trail and imagine the trail is not there. How would you go from place to place through this wilderness? Where would you be going, and for what reason?

The most convenient way to travel before developed roads was on waterways, rivers and streams that ran through the area. Most American Indian villages were located near water because food was abundant there and travel easier. However, some times of the year water routes were not passable and it was not easy to transport bulky possessions by canoe, so land routes were also needed.

Many people think that Native Americans followed trails that were originally animal trails, specifically deer trails. This is not the case. Deer graze and wander, and their trails are meandering and come to dead ends, as any hunter will tell you. Deer did not develop trails over distances, nor did they have a specific place to go; they only followed the food. So we must assume that trails were developed by Indians who wanted to go from one specific place to another. It may have been to connect seasonal camps, to visit neighboring villages, or even to wage war against an enemy.

One such trail followed what is now Archer Avenue. Let’s see why.

Developed trails would have connected places people wanted to go, and would have followed as close to the familiar waterways as possible, providing a route that was free of such obstacles as swamps that often lined the rivers. Therefore, where cliffs and valleys occurred, such as in the Lemont area, the easiest routes would be on the valley’s ridges.

People coming to northern Illinois from the south would follow the Mississippi River to the Illinois River into the Des Plaines River. From the east they would come through the Great Lakes to where there was a harbor and later Fort Dearborn was built. They also came from Indiana via the Saint Joseph River and Fort Wayne to Lake Michigan, or from downstate following the Wabash River northward. Fort Wayne was the “command post” for the Northwest Territories.

Following the Des Plaines River from the Illinois River, passing Joliet and continuing through the Des Plaines River Valley, just past what is now Lemont, the valley branches to continue northeast to Mud Lake and the Chicago River to present-day downtown Chicago. The other branch went directly east to Lake Michigan via the Calumet River.

At the place where the valleys merge is a forested area on high ground called Mount Forest Island. Today this is the intersection of Rt. 83, Archer Avenue, and 107th Streets. St. James at Sag Bridge and the Cook County Forest Preserves occupy this area, but in the earliest days Indian Villages lined these routes and trails developed between them. The ancient Indian trail that became Archer Avenue connected here to other trails, such as the Vincennes, Sag, and Sauk Trails, going to the south end of Lake Michigan and to the rivers in Indiana.

Across the Des Plaines Valley from this vantage point was an area called Signal Hill. From that place, high on the north bluff of the river, signals could be sent and seen down three branches of the valleys for many miles to the west, east, and northwest. Signal Hill is now part of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Ultimately, explorers, soldiers, surveyors, opportunists, merchants, tradesmen, squatters, and finally settlers followed the same routes. When construction started on the I&M Canal, a road was needed, and the old Indian trail between Joliet and the Chicago Portage (near 47th and Harlem Avenue) was followed to create Archer Avenue.

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“Newfie” Newfoundland Dog Stories – Gentle Giants

Seaman, the Newfoundland that accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition

Seaman, the Newfoundland that accompanied Lewis and Clark on the Voyage of Discovery

Maine Coon Cats were the subject of my last blog so today’s post will give equal time to dog lovers and feature the Newfoundland breed. Both a Maine Coon Cat and a Newfoundland Dog appear in my next book, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, which will be released soon!

Sorry, this post is a little long, but once started I couldn’t stop sharing. So if you’re busy, pick and choose the parts that interest you most – better yet, come back when you have time to be entertained!

A little basic info before I get into stories:

Newfoundlands are in the “giant” dog breed category. Their average weight is 100 to 150 pounds, but they have been known to weight over 200 pounds, with the record being 260 pounds!

People think of newfies as large, black, thick-furred dogs with huge heads and floppy ears. Black and white is another common color, and they can also be brown or grey. They live longer than most large breeds, an average of 12-14 years. They get along well with other dogs, preferring companions their own size. They shed and drool in abundance.

Known as “gentle giants”, they are sweet-tempered. They do not need much exercise and are very people-oriented. They follow their owners and like to lean against them. They are especially fold of children, and at one time were used as “nannies”. Nana, from Peter Pan, was Luath, a Newfoundland, writer J. M. Barrie’s much-loved pet.

They are also known for courage, endurance, and loyalty. Webbed feet make them natural swimmers and they have a natural instinct for rescue. Stories of people saved from drowning or dug from snowdrifts are numerous.

Newfies are remarkably intelligent. An example is Chloe, a Newfoundland owned and trained by Hazel Carter. Hazel has taught Chloe to help with household chores that include loading the washing machine, transferring clean clothes from washing machine to dryer, taking out trash, carrying shopping bags and putting groceries away,  collecting groceries from the pantry, and pulling weeds.

The following web sites have interesting pictures and videos. You will have to scroll and click through:
Click here for video about Chloe:
Click here to see pics and video clips with newfie and giggling baby and a newfies jumping from a helicopter for water rescue:

The history of the breed goes as far back as the Vikings, and it is said that in 1775 Newfoundland Island was named for the dog, not the other way around. This is debatable.

Newfoundlands often accompanied U.S. explorers and voyageurs as early as the 17th Century. They would lope along on land, following canoes down the rivers, hunting their own food along the way, available to pull burdens, perform rescues, and for companionship.

The pictures before and after this post are of Seaman, a Newfoundland who was owned by Merriweather Lewis and accompanied Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, probably selected because he was smart, strong, and a good swimmer. Lewis wrote in his journal that Seaman was skilled at catching and killing squirrels, which Lewis found excellent to eat once “fryed.”

The Shawnees were much attracted by the dog, but Lewis refused to trade for him. Seaman would wander and explore on his own, but each morning would return to accompany the group on the next leg of the trip. One night a buffalo bull charged into the camp, which was saved from destruction when Seaman chased it off.

Timothy Alden, in his book of inscriptions and epitaphs of the day, wrote the only known account of Seaman following the expedition. Lewis had suffered from depression for many years and met an untimely and suspicious death in 1809. Alden writes of Seaman the following: “The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable. After the melancholy exit of Gov. Lewis, his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains; and when they were deposited in the earth no gentle means could draw him from the spot of interment. He refused to take every kind of food, which was offered him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master’s grave.”

To end this post, I conclude with “Epitaph to a Dog”, written by the poet Lord Byron, thought by some historians to be one of the most moving tributes ever written. The poem is inscribed on the tombstone of Boatswain, a Newfoundland owned by Lord Byron. Boatswain’s grave and marker are larger than Byron’s own.

Epitaph to a Dog
by Lord Byron
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.

Statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland owned by Merriweather Lewis, outside custom house in Cairo, Illinois

Statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland owned by Merriweather Lewis, outside custom house in Cairo, Illinois

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Maine Coon Cats and Marie Antoinette

Maine Coon Cat and Rottweiler. Note the relative size!

Maine Coon Cat and Rottweiler. Note the relative size!

The Maine Coon Cat is the only show cat breed that originated in the United States. What does that have to do with Marie Antoinette?

The origin of the breed is speculative, but one legend has it that prior to her execution in 1793, Captain Clough was part of an unsuccessful rescue attempt to help Marie Antoinette escape from France. For one reason or another, the Queen never got on the ship, but it was already loaded with her possessions, which included six of her prized Turkish Angora cats. The ship sailed without her, but with the cats. Her pets reached Wiscasset, Maine, where they left the ship, interbred and developed into the Maine Coon Cat.

As speculative as is the origin of the Main Coon, so is the interbreeding. One legend is that they bred with bobcats, which explains the unusual size and tufted ears. Another version, due to the luxurious tail, is that they bred with raccoons. Doubtful as those theories are for genetic reasons, it is more likely they paired with long- or short-haired cats brought to the US in English ships; cats were kept on board to control rats and mice. One more story is that they may be descendants of cats off Viking ships in the 11th Century, as the breed shows much resemblance to the Norwegian Skogkatt, or Forest Cat.

Whatever the origin, the breed that developed has many unique qualities. The pictures above and below show their unusual size. They do not reach full size until three to four years, and have been known to approach 48 inches and near 30 pounds, which adds some plausibility to the bobcat theory, especially when one notes the tufted ears.

Unlike most cats, they are fascinated by and well adapted for water, with water-resistant coats and large well-furred paws, frequently with extra digits (called polydactyly, a fun word to impress friends). These features also make them well able to live in harsh weather, as the long and thick tail can be curled around themselves for protection and insulation, the wide heavily furred feet are like snowshoes, and the ears not only have tufts at the ear tips but inside to keep the ears warm.

As pets they are known as “gentle giants.” They are smart, affectionate, and playful clowns. They are also entertaining and known to be very vocal, making frequent yowling, chattering, chirping, and “talking back” vocalizations to their owners.

Why am I telling you about Maine Coon cats? It’s a way of introducing you to my next book, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, which is expected to be available in June. I have never personally owned a cat, but one of these charming pets is a minor character in the story, and when I was researching cat breeds to select one that could have been in the right time and place, I thought the breed was so interesting I wanted to share it with you. I hope you agree.

Maine Coon Cat—comfortable in harsh conditions. (Not to mention it’s also rather beautiful, don’t you think?)

Maine Coon Cat—comfortable in harsh conditions.
(Not to mention it’s also rather beautiful, don’t you think?)


Cover concept for my New Book due out in June is below. I’d love to hear your opinion of the cover design!

Email comments to:


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Exciting Announcements

Blog Posts will resume shortly, but I’ve been busy!
Below are three exciting announcements to explain why the March post is delayed!


The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods

The Lost Town of Sag Bridge lecture

The History & Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods

Soon to be released by Amika Press, hopefully by June 2016.

Cora, Cisco, and Frannie will be back, and this time they will partner with a young scientist, Nikan Pokagan. In this second book of the Cora Tozzi series, the characters investigate a mystery from 1817 to turn the adventures of Nick’s ancestor into a historical mystery novel.

The Lost Town of Sag Bridge

Lecture, 7 pm, Thursday, March 31
Lemont Area Historical Society
306 Lemont Street, Lemont

Although it no longer exists, Sag Bridge was a thriving 19th century canal town, its land now a part of present-day Lemont.  Pat Camalliere, author of the popular historical mystery novel, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, will talk about how the background of Sag Bridge was used in the story, describing the town as it once was, including turn of the century transportation and ghost stories.  The program will include short readings and take place at the Lemont Area Historical Society, where part of the novel takes place. Participants will tour the Old Stone Church. Light refreshments will be served.  Registration required. (Lemont Public Library website, part of Good Reads Program)

The History & Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois
6th Edition

This is not a new book, nor is it a book I wrote, but Kay Manning and I have dedicated our time as a gift to the people of Lemont, and have just finished revising and editing this fun collection of historical articles and stories about Lemont. The book was first made available in 1975 in a spiral-bound edition, written and compiled by members of the Lemont Historical Society. We have reorganized the book, added some new material, given it a new look, and made it available through Amazon. It will also be available in about a week at the Lemont Historical Society and soon other places in Lemont. Enjoy!

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Banking in the early days of Northern Illinois

Attempted robbery of Tedens Store on Stephens Street in Lemont, IL about 1930.  Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historical Society

Attempted robbery of Tedens Store on Stephens Street in Lemont, IL about 1930. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historical Society

Contrary to what one might expect, early settlers of Northern Illinois, beginning in the 1830s, were not all poor. Some left eastern states for expected greater opportunity in Illinois and arrived with sufficient means to purchase land. They brought food, clothing, furniture, wagons, and livestock with them. They built their homes, cleared the land, planted crops. At that time, barter was the only means of exchange, so they had no need for banks. But as they made profits on their crops and businesses sprang up around them, towns grew and so did the need for banking services.

At first all that was needed was a place to keep valuable papers, money or jewelry. There was nowhere to store valuables, police magistrate was a part time job, and in Lemont, Smokey Row with its disrespectable saloons and brothels was getting established!

Tedens Hardware Store at 106 Stephen Street in Lemont had a vault that rented boxes for that purpose. The vault was said to be so strong that three attempts to break into it failed. The most recent was in 1930. Despite what looks like a great deal of destruction in the photo above, the robbers were unable to get to the contents of the safe. Tedens vault is still in the back of the main floor of the old building today.

Other banking needs gradually developed: the need to store payroll money or to exchange currency; businesses wanted capital for further development; the occasional loan was needed, when crops failed or for funds to buy land or develop businesses.

It was not unusual for banks in those days to operate inside other businesses that housed large vaults, such as general merchandise stores or companies with large payrolls. One could enter an archway and select from a grocery, barbershop, restaurant, or—yes—a bank.

One of the reasons bank services were very different in the early years was because there was no standard currency until 1900 when the gold standard went into effect. Prior to that federal, state, and private banks all issued currency in the form of bank notes, the value of which varied from bank to bank. It was common for employers, such as quarry owners, to pay their workers with scrip, perhaps good only at the quarry owner’s company store. It was very confusing to say the least.

Adding to the uncertainty and poor reputation, early banks were prone to failure due to poor management or misuse of funds. An example of such a failure was the Lemont State Bank, started in 1891 with capital put up through the interests of notable Lemont business owners. Skeptical of the entire banking industry, the town was initially hesitant to trust this new bank. However, one person the town did trust was the bank’s president, Tom Huston, so people put their savings into the bank.

Tom Huston was the town’s Civil War hero, who, after surviving a number of battles, was wounded and sent to a Confederate prison. As the young man watched the horrors around him and the deaths of many prisoners, he asked God, “Why them and not me?” He became convinced he was meant to survive for a purpose and it became the guiding principle of his life.

After the war, he settled in Lemont and became well respected. He was elected to the village board, and then was made police magistrate, known for his honesty, courage, compassion and understanding. His task was not easy, as he held this position during some of Lemont’s most challenging years, dealing with such matters as large numbers of immigrants, labor disputes, early Smokey Row, and the Quarry Massacre of 1885. But he worked hard to develop his beloved Lemont: he helped build a subdivision, solicited manufacturers to locate in Lemont, helped start Pure Aluminum, organized the Lemont Electric Light and Power Company, and helped to form the Lemont State Bank.

At first the bank was a successful venture and helped the town. That is, until the owners started to speculate in the purchase of wheat, using bank capital to finance the investments. The bank failed, and some people lost all they had.

Huston was devastated, and burdened with guilt. The people would not have put their money into the bank, and lost it, if they had not believed in him. On February 12, 1897, he went to a hotel in Chicago and registered under a false name. On February 14, hotel management broke into his room and found him dead. On the mantle nearby was a flask of whiskey from which a single drink was gone, and an empty 3 ounce bottle of carbonic acid. The weight of the bank failure and his part in it was too much for his great character.

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Cops and Robbers – Lemont Style

Martin "Big Six" Sicks (left) and Michael Geary (right), convicted of robbery of Clearing State Bank, captured in Lemont, IL. Photo from Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1921.

Martin “Big Six” Sicks (left) and Michael Geary (right), convicted of robbery of Clearing State Bank, captured in Lemont, IL. Photo from Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1921.

Bank robberies are a serious business, but the robbery of the Clearing State Bank that took place on July 9, 1921, definitely had comic aspects ala Keystone Cops, although in this case Lemont cops got the upper hand in the end.

The gang of six was led by Martin “Big Six” Sicks, a notorious bank robber with a reputation for big heists, and Michael Geary, a convicted cop murderer and prison escapee. Geary had been serving two life sentences for killing Policeman John Rowe and civil war veteran H. J. Stevens in a holdup of a Lake Street ticket station. He had escaped in 1917 from the old penitentiary, was recaptured after two weeks, and escaped again in 1920 when he and eight other prisoners tunneled under the stockade from the honor farm at Lockport, IL.

The men had planned carefully—so they thought. On a Saturday morning the bank would be full of cash from the Corn Products payroll and because it was a weekend there would be few bank employees. One man stayed behind the wheel of the getaway car, two guarded the street, and three entered the bank waving guns. They forced the customers and employees into the vault, grabbed all the cash and bonds in sight, ran from the bank, jumped into the getaway car, and headed southwest on Archer Avenue.

Laughing and congratulating themselves on the ease of the robbery, the men counted their take— $15,000. But the fun was just about to begin. Soon they heard sirens; it appeared that a bank teller had set off an alarm, and a police car was in hot pursuit. Traffic was heavy on Archer, as people came out to enjoy the fine day. Neither car made much headway as they dodged through and scattered cars right and left. When the robbers got to Main Street, they decided to turn toward Lemont in an attempt to elude the police car.

Instead they found the road full of people on foot, heading to their favorite fishing spots, picnic areas and swimming spots at the quarries on a lovely summer day. Can you picture it: hordes of children and adults watching the cars speeding toward them?

The frustrated robbers were blaming each other when one had a brilliant idea. He grabbed handfuls of bills and coins and threw them out the window of their car. Children and adults scrambled madly, crawling around to grab what they could. The following police car screeched to a halt to avoid the crowd and policemen tried to move the people from the road and recover the bank’s money. They soon realized the money was lost and made their way slowly through the scrambling crowd to resume their pursuit, having lost valuable time.

Meanwhile, the gang roared into town. Geary grabbed an armful of money, ran from the car into a private home. He threw money on the owner’s bed, and told her he would make her rich if she kept her mouth shut. Amazed, she ran from the house. Geary settled himself comfortably on the back porch and pretended to read a paper, thinking he could fool the police that way. The other robbers felt they would have a better chance to escape if they split up, so they deserted the car and ran off in different directions.

The police, led by Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes, cordoned off the area, but as word spread through the town crowds of people assembled, talking in groups in the streets, running around looking for crooks—and money—and further impeding the police.

Ultimately, Sicks and Geary were found hiding under a sidewalk, one man was said to have been found hiding in a coal bin in someone’s basement, and another was found hours later on the northwest side of town, hiding in the bushes and mumbling about bad luck and “this cursed town.” The fate and identity of the remaining robbers is lost to history.

While Michael Geary waited in county jail for transfer to Joliet, a loaded revolver and a number of saws were found in his cell. He died in Joliet penitentiary in 1935 of a heart attack.

In the end, $7000 of the stolen $15,000 was recovered. No Lemont resident turned in missing money.

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Happy Holidays – The Best Christmas Gift

The Best Christmas Gift

The Best Christmas Gift

The best Christmas present I ever received was a painting set. I was twelve years old that Christmas. Perhaps you remember how intensely a twelve-year-old can focus on a wanted item. It was all I could think of, yet I can’t begin to tell you now why I wanted it. I had no known talent for drawing, nor had I ever shown any interest in visual art, either appreciation or the desire to create it. Yet, for some reason, I wanted the tools that would open the world of creative art to me.

My parents were baffled, and resistant. “You’ll never use it!” my mother said. This was our second year in our own home, and we were not well-to-do, still struggling to furnish the house and make ends meet. Such an expensive request was not welcome.

When the family opened presents on Christmas Day, I was handed a large heavy box, and inside was the longed-for paint set. I stared at it without a word—I had been convinced I would never get it, and couldn’t believe what I held was for me. It was not just any old paint set but the king of all paint sets! Inside were about fifty tubes of oil paint, cakes of watercolors, an assortment of brushes, palette knives, charcoal sticks, linseed oil, a wooden palette, canvases, a professional-looking sketch pad, a collapsible easel, instruction books, color-mixing guides—all very adult and awe-inspiring.

You’re probably thinking the present brought out a hidden talent that became an important part of my life; but no, my mother turned out to be right—I never used the paints. Here is what I did do: I valued them. I’d take them in secret to a quiet corner, open the box and pick up each tube, memorizing the names of the colors, opening the ones I was unfamiliar with to put the visual with the name, thumbing through the instruction books over and over, handling the knives, palette, and canvases, not wanting to get them “dirty” by using them, making a few swipes with charcoal on scrap paper. I’d assemble the easel, prop an empty canvas on it, and play-act painting for hours on end—then carefully pack it all away as it came, sparkling new and unused, hiding it until “next time.” It was so valuable I was afraid of using anything up.

What I don’t remember is what ultimately became of the set. I grew up, of course, got involved in teen activities, then married and moved on, leaving behind the things of my youth in the family home. My mother probably ran across it in the attic and threw it away, shaking her head and thinking it had been a wasted gift. But I never forgot it, nor the feelings it engendered in me. Sixty years later I can still picture it in detail, still feel the awe of owning such a thing.

Before she died, I told Mom how important that gift had been, the knowledge that she loved me enough to give me something useless (in her mind) just because her daughter wanted it so bad. Telling her made her smile, but she didn’t remember the occasion. It didn’t make any difference that she didn’t remember. That’s the way between mothers and daughters.

Happy Holidays to all!
It’s been a great year, with the birth of granddaughter Mia and the publication of The Mystery at Sag Bridge. Thank you for sharing it with me!


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History for Halloween – The Ghosts of Sag Bridge

Photo courtesy Richard Hoyt Lee

Photo courtesy Richard Hoyt Lee

The late 1890s seems to be when ghost activity peaked in the area of Sag Bridge, Illinois, now the northeast corner of Lemont. Many ghostly tales, some well documented, began here.

In late December, 1897, a rash of new sightings and hauntings was stirred up. Some said it was due to the discovery of the skeletons of nine Indians, well documented by scientists from Chicago. Professor Dosey determined the skeletons were several hundred years old, one being over seven feet tall. This was not the first time: skeletons had been turning up in and near Sag Bridge for years. But now villagers began reporting phantom Indians on horseback riding through the town at night, and other visions of roaming spirits. Some felt this was due to the fact that the skeletons had been disturbed, and demanded they be reburied. Some were reburied, but some were sent to the Field Museum in Chicago.

Not only Indians haunted the area. There were tales of a horse-drawn hearse traveling along Archer Avenue, pulling an infant’s casket, which was seen to glow through the viewing window. A county policeman reported chasing several figures in monk-like robes until they vanished before his eyes. A priest is rumored to have seen the ground rise and fall as if it were breathing.

Much of this activity seems to have been near St. James at Sag Bridge, a church in the middle of the forest, surrounded by a cemetery dating back to the early 1800s, years before the church was built. It is said that the site was originally an Indian village and an ancient Indian burial ground. Even in daytime, the property gives off an eerie atmosphere.

A story told about St. James at Sag Bridge also happened in 1897. Two musicians, Professor William Looney and John Kelly, had provided entertainment for a parish event, which went on until 1 a.m. Not wanting to travel back to their homes at this late hour, they opted to sleep overnight in a small building on the property. Looney was awakened during the night by the sound of galloping hoofs on the gravel road and looked out the window. He could see nothing to account for the sound, and gradually it faded.

Looney woke Kelly to tell him what had happened, and as they spoke, the sound returned. Both men looked out, and as the sounds again faded the form of a young woman appeared in the road. The sounds again approached, and this time horses and a carriage were seen coming part way up the drive. The woman danced in the road until she entered shadow, and the horses and carriage disappeared, only to start again a short time later. Each time they appeared, something new was added to the scene, and the woman began to call, “Come on!” as she disappeared.

The men reported the incident to local police the next morning, and it was verified that NO drinking had taken place to account for the tale. Since that time, similar sightings have continued to be reported by respectable residents. It is said the ghosts were the spirits of a young parish helper and housekeeper from the church, who fell in love and decided to elope. The man told his young lover to wait part way down the hill while he hitched the horses, but as he was coming for her, they startled, bolted, the wagon was overturned, and both were killed.

Today St. James at Sag Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and still operates as a Catholic Parish. If you attend Mass there on a Sunday morning, you will park on this very hill, and walk through the cemetery, and you will see ushers pull ropes to ring the church bells, and you will think you have been transported back in time.

Is it any wonder that I set my novel, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, in this very special place?

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