It is generally agreed that the Town of St. John had its beginning when John Hack, a German immigrant farmer and his family arrived in 1837, in the area then known as Western prairie or Prairie West. To fully appreciate that this man and his family came to a wilderness area to start a new life, one must go back a few years prior to this date. The Indiana Territory was organized in 1800 and was admitted to the Union as a state in December of 1816. At that time, the entire Northwestern part of the state was a true American Wilderness, and the area that was to be Lake County was a part of this vast wilderness. It was in 1832, after the peace treaty with the Indians, when the United States purchased this northwestern part of Indiana from the Indians. The first government surveyors arrived in 1834 to survey the area into sections and townships. The population at that time was mostly Indians, although the majority of them were located on the banks of the Kankakee River and the Calumet River. A handful of settlers had come into the area that is now Crown Point, and a few others had settled at the mouth of the Calumet River in the Brunswick area. In the area of St. John and St. John Township there were no settlers, only a few roving Indians.
It was to this beautiful, lonely wilderness that John Hack, a newcomer to this country, and his family came, just five years after the Indian peace treaty, and here he built his home in the new land. One likes to speculate why Hack and others, who followed him from Germany, chose this area to settle. The logical conclusion is that after the area was surveyed, the government opened it up to settlers at a very low cost. Hack, and those who followed, were farmers and owned no land in Germany. They worked for the large landowners in their Fatherland. They didn’t earn much, nor did they spend much, so they were able to save much of the meager pay they received. Here was the opportunity to own their own land and build their own homes, beholden to no one other than their ability to sacrifice and make it on their own. They were a hardy group of people.
Solid facts and details about pioneer life in St. John seem to be somewhat difficult to come by. The hard working early settlers, attempting to make a life for themselves in a new and different land, had scant time or inclination to set down their thoughts, feelings and experiences for the benefit of posterity. Thus the historian must gain what glimpses of that life that he can from surviving materials. The paucity of materials, however, has created a situation where most local history books relating the growth and development of Lake County and its community’s shed little light on St. John’s past.
Reputedly a man of far-sighted vision and considerable leadership ability, Hack welcomed other immigrants from his native land who settled nearby shortly after his arrival and foresaw the establishment of a flourishing and prosperous community here. Tall, dignified and patriarchal in manner, Hack was born in 1787 in a Rhine province that some time before has passed from French to Prussian control. Upon his arrival locally, accompanied by his wife, Hannah, and a large family, he immediately settled on a forty acre piece of land located approximately one half mile east of present Route 41 and south of Joliet Street. The land was purchased from the Department of the Interior, and the deed, which still exists, bore the signature of President John Tyler. John Hack’s name was carried on the deed as “John Hawk,” a misspelling that was later corrected when he made his second land purchase in 1844. This second purchase was bounded roughly by 93rd Street, Olcott Avenue, Forrest Street and U.S. Route 41. In 1842, Hack constructed a peach brandy distillery. It had to be, if not the first, one of the earliest businesses established in the community.
On March 21,1843, John Hack deeded a portion of his original homestead to the Bishop of Vincennes. This deed consisted of the land that the original church was built on and the family cemetery with the church. On October 3, 1868, however, the Bishop of Fort Wayne deeded a 2-acre parcel back to the heirs of John Hack to be used exclusively by them as a family burial site. The family cemetery can easily be seen when you drive east on Joliet Street, on the south side of the street after you cross the first set of railroad tracks.
THE EARLY SETTLERS
In 1838, the year following the arrival of the Hack family, a second group of German settlers arrived in the area that would become St. John. Four families made up the second group, Joseph Schmal, Peter Orte, Michael Adler and Mathias Reeder. These four families intended to travel along with the Hack family, but for some reason that will probably never be known, they decided to delay their departure from Germany for one year. All four families settled in the same general vicinity of the Hack property. The descendants of these good immigrants, became, in less than two generations, good, solid Americans.
Joseph Schmal selected a homesite east of Route 41 and on the north side of what is now 93rd Street. A stone marker located at the bend of 93rd Street, at the southwest corner of the Lake Hills golf course, marks the site of the Schmal homesite. When the road was established past the Schmal homestead it was called
Schmal Street. Sometime in the 1960’s, the Lake County Commissioners changed the name to 93rd Street.
Schmal had quite a large family of sons and daughters. He was not a young man and never did become a full American. One of Schmal’s sons, Adam, became prominent in political life in Lake County, and held the position of County Treasurer for two terms. Another son, bearing his father’s name, Joseph, became a
prominent farmer in Brunswick. One of his daughters married a son of John Hack. Mrs. Angelina Hack Schmal was active for many years in Crown Point, and was a much respected woman in the social affairs of that community.
August Koehle, who once operated the popular summer resort known as Spring Hill Grove, was also a native of Germany, where he was born on October 3, 1853. Koehle’s hotel and saloon was located on Thielen Street and was appropriately called the “Depot Hotel” as it was within walking distance of the railroad depot. Arriving in the United States in 1871, he first found employment with a brewer in Chicago. Five years later, he left the Windy City to attend the nation’s Centennial celebration in Philadelphia and did not return to Chicago. Instead, he settled in Crown Point and went to work for the Crown Brewing Company. His ability brought advancement, and he eventually became foreman of the plant. Koehle had a good business mind, and had a flair for the fancy things.
In 1880 he left the Crown Brewing Company and opened his own saloon in Crown Point. However, the venture lasted only six months before he decided to move to St. John, where he erected a building and opened the Depot Hotel and Saloon. He later sold this business to Peter Portz and established Spring Hill Grove summer resort. The resort was located where St. John VFW Post 717 is now located on 93rd Street. The resort, consisting of a large picnic grove and a dance pavilion, became a popular place to visit by people from Lake County, as well as residents of Chicago who would travel here by way of the Monon Railroad which stopped in St. John.
In the mid 1960’s the old hotel, which had been abandoned for many years after being used as a private home and also an apartment building, caught fire one summer night and burned to the ground. It had become so run down and was such an eyesore in the neighborhood, many people in the town suspected some well-meaning resident of the neighborhood had deliberately put the torch to the building. It was a spectacular fire and the flames were visible throughout the town.
FRANCIS P. KEILMAN
Francis P. Keilman a pioneer St John Merchant, was born in Hess, Darmstadt, Germany, on November 25, 1831 and came to America with is parents in 1840. His father, Henry, first settled in Portage County, Ohio, but in 1844, came to Lake County where he established a farm in St. John Township; and continued to live there until his death at age 85.
Keilman’s mother died at the early age 38 while the family still lived in Ohio. One of the seven children, Francis left Ohio when he was eleven years old to live with his older brother, Henry, in Chicago. Here he attended school until his parents moved to St. John Township, and he rejoined them there. Two years later, however, in 1846, he returned to Chicago and clerked in a store where he first gained a grounding in shopkeeping. In 1859 he came back to St. John and clerked in a general merchandise store which his brother, Henry, had established. Some time later the brothers became partners in the business which then operated under the name of Henry and F.P. Keilman.
Named postmaster in 1856, he continued to hold this post until 1885. Married to Margaret Schaefer, also a native of Germany, in 1857, the couple in subsequent years had nine children. They were Susan, Francis B., John, William F., Elizabeth, Margaret, George, Lena and Peter. After the Civil War in 1865, Keilman bought out his brother’s interest in the store and formed a partnership with George F. Gerlach. This continued until 1885 when the partnership was dissolved. Gerlach withdrew to found his own store, and Keilman continued to operate the business alone. A contemporary described the store as having a fine general stock valued at ten thousand dollars. At one time Kielmann had the reputation of being the longest established merchant in Lake County. A local historian once wrote of him:
“He and the family, of which he is a member of, have been identified with Lake County and St. John since pioneer times, and their enterprises and personal influence have always been reckoned as important factors in the various affairs of the county.”
Andrew Kammer, like Francis P. Keilman, a native of Germany, was born in the same town, Hesse-Darmstadt. Kammer, however, was eight years younger than Keilman, having been born on September 2, 1838. Coincidentally, both men were once schoolteachers in St. John Township, but while Keilman decided upon a mercantile career, Kammer pursued a more varied one. He arrived in Baltimore with his parents in 1846 and remained there until 1860. During this time he finished his schooling and learned the tailor’s trade. For the eight years subsequent to 1860, he engaged in his trade at Cumberland, Maryland, and then returned to Baltimore where he remained for one year.
After his arrival in St. John in 1869, he taught school in the winter for the next six years. He spent ten years as a representative for a Baltimore publication, the Catholic Volkseitung, and eight years as a salesman for a liquor firm. In 1887, at the age of 49, he was appointed St. John postmaster and remained in that position for more than 17 years. In 1860, he married Katherine Wagner, who had also emigrated from Germany as a youngster, and seven children resulted from the marriage. They were Elizabeth, Mary, Nicholas, Michael, Theodore, Andrew and Catherine. He established Kammer’s Post Office and Saloon in 1895 while he was still the Postmaster. The building is still standing, located across the street from the town hall at the northeast corner of Thiel and 93rd Streets. In 2000, a private resident began remodeling the home.
Joseph Stark was an adventurer who took part in the Mexican War, prospected for gold in California and sailed around Cape Horn before finally settling down on a farm in St. John Township. Born in Baden-Baden, Germany in 1825, he originally was given the name Joseph Huber. While he was yet a boy, Stark’s mother died and his father remarried. He and his step-mother did not get along, however, so the boy went to live with an uncle, a baker, who promised to teach him the trade and ultimately leave him the business when the uncle died. The arrangement did not work out so Huber finally ran away and, after working as a miller to earn passage money, embarked from Bremerhaven for America.
The name change came about, however, after he arrived in Chicago in 1847 and decided to enlist in the army for the Mexican War. Although he made few acquaintances here at first, he had, however, managed to become friendly with a family named Stark. Fearing that he might not come back from the war, he asked the Starks to take care of his affairs should this happen. They readily agreed to do so. On his enlistment papers he named the Starks as his next of kin, and in addition assumed the name of Stark, instead of Huber. Later when veterans were offered homestead land as a reward for service, he had to file and prove the land under his army name. He never again used the name Huber. His Mexican War experience over, and discharged from the service, Stark heard about the 1849 California gold rush. Sensing a possibility of making a fortune, he formed a partnership with two other men and after buying a covered wagon, a team of horses and supplies, the trio headed west.
The trip was uneventful until they reached the desert in Utah. There the horses died, so Stark and the others packed all the supplies they could on their shoulders and started out on foot to find the nearest civilization. Time passed and they ran short of food. For three days they lived on a small amount of beans which they cooked and recooked several times until their water ran out. Resigned to their plight and expecting death, they were miraculously saved by the appearance of another wagon party who sold them food and water at an exorbitant price. Arriving finally in California, the partners staked out a promising claim and began working it. They found no gold and the partners eventually became discouraged. They decided to move on, leaving Stark to work the claim alone. Stark forgot to post proof of ownership at the site and shortly after his partners left when he was forced to make a short trip, the claim was jumped by five other men.
Undiscouraged, Stark found a new partner and together they staked a new claim. This time luck was with them, and when they decided to return east, they divided gold worth four thousand dollars between them. The return trip to New York was made by sailing vessel around Cape Horn. Fearful of being robbed, Stark carried his share of the gold in a money belt hidden beneath his clothing. Once again back in the Midwest, he took up a government homestead in St. John Township, where he cleared 160 acres of covering timber and planted crops. To this homestead he brought his new wife in 1850, the former Mary A. Merrick. Later, he sent his brother, Anton, and sister, Afra, money to pay their passage from Germany to this country, and once they were here, assisted them financially in getting settled and accustomed to live in a new land.
As the years passed, eleven children were born to the Starks. They were Afra, John, Mary, Joseph, Frank, George, Michael, Mathilda, Peter and Frances. Joseph Stark’s life, unfortunately, proved to be a relatively short one. He died in 1880 at the age of 55. His wife, however, lived to the age of 81 and died in 1913.
GEORGE F. GERLACH
One of seven children, Gerlach came to St. John with his family in 1857 from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. He had been born in Bavaria on January 24, 1841 and accompanied his father, Michael, and his mother, Agnes, to the United States in 1846. His father pursued his trade of carpenter in Harper’s Ferry for eleven years before moving to Indiana. Gerlach attended St. Vincent’s College in Pennsylvania prior to coming to St. John. Starting in 1858, at the tender age of 17, he taught school in St. John and Hanover Township for three months of each year, for the next ten years. During the other nine months of the year he began his career as a highly respected businessman by clerking in the store of Henry and F.P. Keilman which was located in St. John.
In 1865, Gerlach formed a partnership with his employer, F.P. Keilman and the two operated a general merchandise store for the next twenty years until Gerlach withdrew from the partnership to open his own store. Active in local affairs, Gerlach at one time was a Justice of the Peace in St. John. A shrewd investor, he owned an estimated 900 acres of land in various parts of the county. A contemporary on one occasion offered this estimate of him:
“He is and has been for some years an important factor in business circles of St. John Township, and is always found identified with the side of progress and general advancement in material, social and educational movements.”
Married in 1867 to Margaret Keilman, the couple had nine children. They were Katie, Frank, Joseph L, Maggie, Lizzie, George, Charles, Lena, and Clara. Upon reaching maturity, four of the boys were associated with their father in his business.