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Down by the old (saw)mill stream ...

January 27, 2018 GMT

In the days before steam engines were available, the power of moving water was harnessed to grind grain into flour and saw tree trunks into usable lumber. For the early settlers of this area, the obvious sources of water power were the creeks flowing into the Kankakee River (and the river itself).

Probably the first water-powered mill in what is now Kankakee County was built in 1837 or 1838 on Davis Creek, northwest of Bourbonnais, by William “Uncle Billy” Rantz. He built a dam across the creek at a point where the water had worn a gorge some 20 feet deep and sited his mill at the east end of the dam.

The mill was “operated by a large water wheel on which a score of buckets were attached,” wrote Kankakee historian Harold Simmons in a 1960 “Up ’til Now” newspaper column. “The water coming through the opening at the top of the dam would pour into the buckets; and as the wheel revolved, the machinery of the mill would be put into operation. It was a slow and somewhat-primitive operation but quite efficient.”

In addition to building and operating the sawmill, Rantz was a blacksmith and a manufacturer of plows used to “break” the tough prairie sod so that crops could be planted. His plows had an iron plowshare that cut through the sod and a wooden moldboard that turned over the soil. He fashioned the moldboards from maple logs cut in nearby woods and processed in his sawmill.

The Rantz family owned and operated the sawmill for forty years. Uncle Billy died in 1871; seven years later, his son John Rantz sold the mill to Adolph Yost, who would operate it well into the 20th century. Yost and his wife had moved to Kankakee County following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. They began acquiring farmland in the Davis Creek area, and by 1878 owned 140 acres (including the sawmill).

Through the years, the mill had undergone a number of changes. The original waterwheel was replaced by a turbine located at the base of a tubular silo-like structure some two feet in diameter. Water was channeled into the tube and rotated the turbine to provide power. Originally, the tube was made of wood; later it was formed from concrete.

Although the mill’s power source was later changed from moving water to a steam engine and still later to a gasoline engine, the dam remained. Local fishermen recalled that the area around the mill dam was an excellent fishing spot, especially for bass.

The Yosts were still operating the mill around 1910 or 1911, remembered Irene Kunde (later Mrs. Arthur Ahrens), who grew up on a nearby farm and attended the one-room Burchem school. In a 1981 interview, she recalled, “We used to play out in the schoolyard, and when the wind was just right...on a good quiet day, we could hear that sawmill.”

She also remembered Mrs. Yost, who wore a distinctive apron: “I will never forget — a great big sugar sack for an apron. Across here, it said ‘Sugar,’ and that struck me so funny. She had it tied with binder twine.”

The mill shut down, probably in the late 1920s, and stood vacant for a number of years. There are differing versions of what happened to the buildings and the dam. Mrs. Ahrens told her interviewer, “I think they dynamited it — the whole mill and all because I think it got too dangerous.” Harold Simmons, in his 1960 newspaper column, wrote that “Many years ago, after the old mill had disappeared, the old dam gave way during high water; and the stones can be seen several hundred feet downstream.”

Today, the area just to the west of the old mill site is the Davis Creek Campgrounds, a group camping spot that is part of the Kankakee River State Park.