The Swannells: A century on Court Street

December 16, 2017 GMT

Growing up in London, England, in the 1840s, brothers William and Frederick Swannell likely had no idea their family name would some day be strongly identified with a place called Kankakee, Ill. (Kankakee, in fact, didn’t even exist at that time: the city and the county were not established until 1853.)

Nonetheless, from the late 1850s to the late 1960s, the Swannell name was prominently visible on storefronts along Court Street in downtown Kankakee. The two brothers and their descendants operated businesses as varied as a drugstore, a dry goods (clothing and household furnishings) store and a “hardware department store” (the forerunner of today’s home improvement retailers).

The brothers first settled in Momence (then a town in Will County) in 1848, and tried their hand at farming. After several years, they decided agriculture was not their “cup of tea,” and decided to become shopkeepers. Frederick opened a drugstore, and William established a dry goods business.

Within a few years after the new town of Kankakee was chosen over Momence as the county seat, William decided to relocate there. In 1855, he erected a small building on the north side of Court Street. Although he had operated a dry goods store in Momence, he opened a drugstore in Kankakee because there already was a dry goods store in the adjoining building. (His brother, Frederick, who had owned a drugstore in Momence, opened a dry goods store when he later relocated to Kankakee.)

William’s business prospered, and three years later, he built a substantial three-story brick structure on the southeast corner of Court Street and East Avenue. Called the “Empire Block,” the building’s ground floor housed William’s drugstore, Frederick’s dry goods emporium, the Durham book and stationery store and the office of physician Dr. C.W. Knott. The upper floors were devoted to apartments and offices, including the Kankakee Gazette newspaper and the Kankakee Masonic Lodge.

William Swannell later diversified into a number of other businesses, including building construction and management, banking, railroad development and a large paper mill. Frederick remained in the dry goods business until his death in 1882.

In 1868, the Swannell dry goods store moved one block to the east, occupying most of the ground-floor space of a brick building on the southeast corner of Court Street and Schuyler Avenue. Frederick’s son, Charles, joined the business, which was renamed “F. Swannell and Son.” Later, Charles’ brother, Arthur, became active in the firm, which became “C.E. and A. Swannell.”

The Swannell store remained one of Kankakee’s most successful and prominent retail businesses well into the new century. In 1909, a third generation – Frederick W. Swannell, son of Arthur and grandson of Frederick – joined the firm.

Four years later, the Swannell name temporarily disappeared from Court Street when the business was sold to the Gelino Brothers. Frederick W. Swannell partnered with Arthur E. Gray for several years, selling REO automobiles.

The lure of retail business proved too strong, and by 1916, the name Swannell was once again seen on a Court Street storefront. Frederick W. Swannell purchased the Haak and Trieschel hardware store on the southwest corner of Dearborn Avenue and Court Street. He promptly renamed it Swannell Hardware, the name it would be known by for the next half-century. (For a number of years, it was called Baird and Swannell, and manufactured heating furnaces under that name, in addition to its hardware operation.) In 1940, Frederick W. Swannell’s son, Frederick Jr., became the fourth generation to be involved in the family business.

The 1960s brought sweeping changes to Kankakee as the downtown area was redeveloped. A key component of the downtown plan was Dearborn Square, which included a large office/bank building and other structures that would close off the Court Street end of Dearborn Avenue. In 1966, the Swannells sold the building that had been their hardware store for a half-century. The name remained on the vacant building for three more years, until demolition began on Dec. 19, 1969. Within a week, all traces of the building were gone, with only a gaping hole where it once stood.