The Kickapoo Indians were the first
to live in this area. "The Kickapoo Chief's daughter, White Blossom, had
two lovers. One, a warrior from the Shawnee tribe from Ohio
and the other a warrior of her own tribe, the Illini. During
one of their annual hunting trips, they insisted White Blossom
declare which one would become her husband. An elk passed by
and White Blossom said, "the one who can pierce the heart
of the elk will be my husband." the Illini arrow pierced
the heart of the elk. They were married and took the elks heart
as their family badge. Thus the name Elkhart (AKA Elkheart)
has stayed with the hill."
The first settler was James
Latham. In 1824 he was appointed by President John Quincy
Adams to the position of Indian Agent at Fort Clark (now Peoria).
He moved the family there and in two years took ill and died.
They brought him back to the hill and buried him in Latham
Cemetery (not far from where his first cabin was built) which
has the distinction of being the oldest cemetery in Logan
John Dean Gillett moved into this area, buying
a lot of land, becoming very prosperous and a very prominent
figure in the area.
For many years in the late 1800's the town
of Elkhart was one of the largest shipping points on the C&A (Chicago & Alton)
Railroad, due to the large stock raising farms of John Dean Gillett.
Noted for importing Durham cattle from Scotland and developing
the Shorthorn cattle breed, Gillett shipped over 2,000 head of
cattle and 1,000 head of hogs to Europe annually. The London
Gazette dubbed him “The
Cattle King of the World”. Gillett and
his grandson Hiram Keays won numerous awards at the Chicago livestock
Together with his friend, Abraham Lincoln, Gillett
laid out the town of Lincoln, Illinois . Both men courted Lemira
Parke who later became Gillett's wife. They built their house
on Elkhart Hill in 1870. In 1871 the home was destroyed by fire
and rebuilt by 1873. Here they raised eight children. The Gilletts
traveled extensively in Europe and their daughter Nina lived
for over 20 years in Paris. One of their grand daughters, Felicite
Oglesby, married Count Alessandro Cenci from Rome . The couple
divided their time between Elkhart and a home in Venice, Italy.
Many of their Parisian and Venetian pieces are now located in
the Big House at the farm.
The Gillett's youngest daughter, Charlotte married Dr. William
Barnes. Dr. Barnes amassed the largest collection of butterflies
and moths in North America . This remarkable collection is on
display at the Smithsonian Museum .
J. Oglesby, 3 term governor of Illinois and a close
friend of Abraham Lincoln, married the Gillett's oldest daughter,
Emma. They built their home across the hill from the Gillett
house. Known as Oglehurst,
the 46 room mansion had a pipe
organ in the Great Hall, a fourth floor school room
where the children were tutored and a music room with a musical
score detailed in the gesso work around the ceiling. The Oglesby's
are buried in a tomb on Elkhart Hill.
After John Dean Gillett's death, his grandson Hiram Keay's continued
raising cattle and expanded the agricultural operations. He and
his wife Lucy added a 22 room addition to the original farm house.
German wood carvers and stone masons began work in 1906, using
walnut from timber on the farm for the interior paneling and
staircase. A stone
water tower was constructed at the some time.
By 1908, the Big House as it exists today was completed. Hiram
Keays was known for his dedication to land stewardship, promotion
of educational opportunities and commitment to family. Property
from the farm was donated to the town of Elkhart for the grade
school and he paid college tuitions for his tenant farmers children.
Extensive orchards and gardens were planted. The working farm
raised all its own produce as well as dairy cattle, chickens,
hogs and beef cattle.
Hiram's oldest daughter, Elizabeth,
married William Drake of
the Drake Hotel family in Chicago. Elizabeth and William lived
at the Drake Hotel for several years until the family lost the
hotel during the Great Depression. Returning to the farm, the
couple raised two children. Elizabeth was an avid collector of
antiques and worked as an interior decorator for friends and
family. Her creative touch is evident in both the lovely interior
of the Big House and its terraced courtyard gardens.
The Drakes daughter, Susan, married Gordon Bent and raised two
children in Lake Forest, Illinois. Summers and holidays were
enjoyed at the farm.
The Bent family is well known in the western states for the
two brothers William and Charles Bent. The brothers built Bent's
Fort in Colorado , which was used as a supply post for pioneers.
Sympathetic to the plight of the American Indians, the brothers
worked with the government to establish Indian rights. One of
the brothers married an Indian woman; the other went on to become
the first governor of the Territory of New Mexico. Both Bents'
Fort and the governor's house in Taos, New Mexico are popular
Another relative was Arthur
Cleveland Bent, one of the great
ornithologists of America . He was president of the American
Ornithologists Union, the recipient of its William Brewster Award
and an Associate in Ornithology at Harvard. He held the Asher
Chair of Biology at the Smithsonian Institute. In 1910 be began
work on his Volumes of Life Histories of North American Birds.
These books are still considered by bird-lovers to be the most
thorough authority available.
Gordon Bent's two daughters, Elizabeth
and Catherine own and operate the family farms
today. Historic preservation, environmental protection and continuing
the legacy of Old Gillett Farm are commitments they share with
their children as they pass on the responsibility to the seventh