Old Courthouse Museum
103 West Cherry Street
Watseka, IL 60970-1524
Chapter 3 -- Russell Palmer's writings, Section 2
Click to see a larger copy of this drawing.
On January 9, 1864, Allan Pinkerton purchased from the Illinois Central Railroad, 254.22 acres of virgin prairie land, just north of the Village of Onarga, Illinois, for which he paid $4,067.52. Onarga is 85 miles south of Chicago on the main line of the Illinois Central Railroad. This property was intersected from its north to south boundary lines by this railroad.
No valid reason or accurate record has been found as to why he chose this particular location for his agrarian venture; but his intimate, friendly relations with officials of the Illinois Central may have been a determining factor.
An inherent characteristic of most every young Scotsman of the working class is the desire to acquire a property and develop it into an income producer. Allan Pinkerton never outgrew his early ambition to develop a producer.
During his cooper apprenticeship he had learned that the Larch trees of Scotland were very dense and had no superior when used as railroad ties. True to his Scottish heritage, he began to develop his newly acquired property by chartering a freighter and importing 85,000 small larch trees from Scotland. These young trees were planted six rows deep around the boundary lines of the entire acreage which he later christened "Larch Farm." His objective in planting these trees was that they should grow to a size suitable for railroad ties and thus provide the landowner a source of profitable income, a dream dear to the heart of every Scot. However, his expectations of an affluent income therefrom never became a reality because he failed to take into consideration the slow growth of the larch.
His failure as a producer of railroad ties never thwarted his ambition to make Larch Farm a retreat worthy of its owner and developer. In 1869, because of ill health, Allan Pinkerton was forced to turn over the field operations of the Detective Agency to his two sons, William and Robert. The phenomenal success of the Pinkerton Detective Agency had made Allan Pinkerton a wealthy man, no longer intent upon making Larch Farm an income producer.
In 1873, he began the development of the property into what in later years became a noted show place. The main drive runs due east and west from the County highways that form the east and west boundaries of the property. There is also a seldom used drive from the main drive to the south boundary line. This road lies between the railroad and the east boundary highway. Eventually some 18 buildings, large and small were erected, each for a separate and distinct purpose. The largest of the buildings were two barns, Jumbo No. 1 and Jumbo No. 2. No. 1 was erected first and when No. 2 was built, the two barns were connected by a roofed shed, with an attic open on two sides, one facing the north and one the east. When Jumbo No. 1 was built, it housed the farm's work horses and cows. Later it was also the stable for Shetland ponies. The stalls in No. 2 were used to care for the overflow from No. 1 and the lofts of each provided storage space for various items.
Farms with barns larger than the main house is an American development. A superb example of such a barn is upon the Wheeler farm, situated across the road from the western boundary line of Larch Farm. This Wheeler farm barn has been outstanding in the farming community adjacent to Onarga for over 90 years.
The next in size was the main house or, "The Villa," as it was affectionately called by Mr. Pinkerton. The Villa is reputed to be a replica of a Gentleman's mansion Mr. Pinkerton had seen and greatly admired as a boy in his native Scotland. That may be true but the manner in which the various buildings were grouped and designed was never the duplicate of any large or small estate in Scotland.
I lived for over twenty years in England, and based upon my intimate knowledge of estates in England and Scotland, I am positive that Larch Farm, as developed, was not the duplicate of any property that Allan Pinkerton had been and admired in his native Scotland but was his own creation. He knew what he wanted and proceeded to accomplish it in his own way without any interference, and to his own personal satisfaction.
The Villa was a comfortable but not elaborate home of the period. It was furnished in the good taste that is usually found in a Scotchman's home. It was a single story, square, frame house, with a verandah on four sides, surmounted by a windowed cupola and topped by a flagstaff from which the flag of the U. S. was flown when the owner was in residence. The house was evenly divided by a 50-foot hallway, seven feet wide, with four rooms on each side. One of the rooms was lined with brick, evidently to make it sound proof.
About fifty feet north of the Villa was a low building called the "Snuggery." It consisted of one large room with a low sloping roof and was designed primarily for drinking purposes and to provide a half underground wine cellar for the owner's supply of rare old Scotch whisky, vintage French wines, and cordials. It was connected with the Villa by an underground passage.
Paul Loose, a noted Scottish artist of the period, was brought to America solely to paint the native scenes that Mr. Pinkerton wanted in the hallway of the main house and in the Snuggery. It took two years for the artist to complete his work. The paintings on the walls in the house were to be pastoral views alternating with Scots warriors in Court dress. Never having been in said hallway, I am unable to state what paintings were actually hung there. Only rustic pastoral scenes were painted on the walls of the Snuggery, but the canvasses that hung from the sloping ceilings were life sized Scot heroes.
About one hundred feet east of the Villa and the same distance north of Jumbo No. 1 was a small artificial lake with a rustic bridge. This lake has been referred to as a "fish pond" and also as a "swimming pool." North of the Snuggery was a large green house, a root cellar, an ice house, and numerous small buildings for various purposes.
There were three entrances to the property. One on the west boundary line, another on the east boundary line, and one on the south boundary line, east of the railroad. All were identical. A beautifully proportioned semi-circle of wood, upon which was painted in bold lettering, "Larch Farm," was hung over double gates that were kept closed except on Sunday when they were opened to the public. On Sundays, Negro guards in resplendent blue uniforms were stationed at all three entrance gates and they were protected from inclement weather by a small guard's house. They would caution all drivers who wanted to inspect Larch Farm to walk their horses so as not to stir up dust that would settle on the flowers.
Anthony Meredith was the guard stationed at the west entrance; his brother, Robert, at the east entrance; and old man Kimball at the south entrance. Each of them had an outstanding physique and they were highly respected citizens of Onarga. All three guards were well known to me personally.
During the lifetime of Allan Pinkerton his estate was always called "Larch Farm." Evidently "The Larches" is a recent adaptation. I never knew the property to be so called until I read the articles herein referred to as having been sent me by Major Davis.
The main road of the property, including the driveway to the Villa, and certain sidewalks were all bordered by flowers and shrubbery of great value. The Illinois Central never ran a railroad spur on the estate and no special roadway was ever built from the Villa to the above rail site because such rail siding on the property never existed. The statement, "On many a summer weekend, private parlor cars of the Pinkerton's would line the rail siding on the property," is pure fiction.
Several years after the Iroquois County Fair was moved from Onarga, Illinois to Watseka, Illinois, County seat of Iroquois County, Allan Pinkerton purchased the former Fair Grounds. All buildings having been previously removed or demolished, the purchase was only for the bare site. Why he made this purchase remains an unsolved mystery. It was never used by him or his heirs except for the pasturage of livestock and he never developed it except to plant a number of catalpa trees.
The site included a half-mile race track but it was never used by Mr. Pinkerton either for the amusement of himself or his guests. He never had a stable of pedigreed race horses. This property was bounded on the west by a public highway; on the north by Larch Farm; on the east by the Illinois Central Railroad; and on the south by the property of Johnathan Owen and others.
Larch Farm proper never had a private race track and the "bridle paths that circled and interwove throughout the farm" never existed and its barns never "held western horses that performed in amateur rodeos."
Except during the cold winter months, Allan Pinkerton was a frequent visitor to Larch Farm. He would come from Chicago on what was then known in Onarga as the "noon train." Upon its arrival at the Onarga depot of the Illinois Central Railroad, he would be met and driven to Larch Farm, where he would have dinner and after a tour of inspection would be driven back to Onarga in time to take the "afternoon four o'clock train" back to Chicago. Occasionally he would spend a weekend instead of only one day; but he always came from and returned to Chicago on these trains.
In making these trips to and from Larch Farm, the shorter route was invariably taken and in going this way he would always pass our home. I can recall no time that he ever passed it without my being in our yard and waving to him. The only vehicle that I have ever seen used to transport him was a special form of a two-seated spring wagon that was always drawn by a team of ponies.
Mr. Pinkerton was very fond of dogs. Scotch terriers were his favorite breed, and the Larch Farm was the home for several. Between the main drive and the north side of Jumbo No. 2, he had a cemetery for them. It was a small plot, surrounded by a charming rustic fence and in it were 8 or 10 rounded head boards on which were stenciled the name, date of birth and death of each departed one. On rare Sunday afternoons, when he was in residence, I have seen him sitting in an armchair next to this plot of ground, dear to the memory of his departed dogs.
He was also a great admirer of ponies and among those at Larch Farm was the most beautiful and perfect Shetland pony that I have ever seen, "Dandy," a coal black stallion. His stall was the first one on the left side of the north entrance to Jumbo No. 1.
After the death of Mr. Pinkerton and while Robert Malcomb was still the superintendent, he would often allow me to ride Dandy to Onarga and return for his exercise. The days in which this privilege was granted to me were memorable events in my youth and in my 94th year, they are as vivid to me as if they occurred yesterday. No other boy in Onarga was ever so honored. "Part of the grounds were used by local church groups for Sunday services in the summer months" is another mis-statement of facts. Never during the lifetime of Allan Pinkerton was any kind of Sunday service ever held on any part of the grounds by local church groups.
Some years after his death, I know of only two such services. One was a Sunday service held by the Onarga Colored Baptist Church in the old fair grounds. In memory, I can hear them singing the hymns.
The only religious gathering that I ever knew to he held on the grounds of Larch Farm was on one Sunday afternoon, many years after the death of Mr. Pinkerton. At three o'clock, when Wesley Newall, a student of Grand Prairie Seminary and a brother of Prof. A. J. Newall, a member of the Seminary faculty, was immersed in the artificial lake or pond at Larch Farm. The officiating Clergyman was Rev. Charles W. Ayling, Pastor of the Onarga Methodist Church. As they approached the lake from Jumbo No. 1 those assembled for the service sang the Sunday School song, "We're Marching to Zion, Beautiful City of God." Mr. Newall had been converted the previous winter at a revival held in Onarga by Rev. Ayling and chose baptism by immersion rather than baptism by sprinkling. I was present at this service, therefore, the above statements are made from my personal observations and not from hearsay.
Larch Farm never planted strawberries by the 100 acres as has been claimed. The largest patch of strawberries ever planted on the property, covered a comparatively small acreage south of the main drive to the southern boundary line and west from the two large barns to the larch trees on the western boundary line. My remembrance of this strawberry patch is very keen as I was one of many pickers, and one day I picked 50 quarts and thereby earned my first one dollar my manual labor.
In one of the aforesaid articles sent me by Major Davis, an Onargan with a lively but inaccurate recollection of the days when the Pinkerton estate, "The Larches," was known far and wide as a showplace, was interviewed by the author of the article. The interview was published as follows and I quote:
"I remember his visits well," said Mr. Furby recently. "He used to come down from Chicago nearly every weekend in a private car with a company of friends. It was the big event of the town, and we all used to troop down to the station to see the gay crowd of men and women that got off the train. Pinkerton's carriage with four horses and a coachman and footman in livery would be on hand, and everything shined up. There would be high jinx at the Larches that weekend, you could bet."
Mr. Pinkerton never came to Onarga in a private car, alone or with a company of friends. Neither his arrival nor his departure was ever of vital interest to the citizens of Onarga. I have never witnessed his arrival but I have been to the depot many times when he departed and I have never seen the station platform crowded for this event. He was never met by a carriage with four horses, a coachman, and a footman in livery. The only employees at Larch Farm to wear uniforms or livery of any kind were the three Negro guards. He never had western ponies or horses brought to Larch Farm to be broken just for the sport of watching them, and no Onarga kids were ever permitted to ride any of the Shetland ponies except myself, and I was never thrown by Dandy, the only Shetland pony belonging to Larch Farm, that I ever rode. "One of his favorite stunts was to take his noted guests fishing on the pond, and then to upset the boat," is just one more statement that is not a true statement of fact.
The only carriage that I ever saw at Larch Farm was a one-seated vehicle with a very high driver's seat. The only time that I ever saw it in use was long after the death of Mr. Pinkerton. When William T. Durham, younger brother of Benjamin Durham, married Josie Ward, it was used to convey the bridal party from the home of Miss Ward to the Illinois Central depot in Onarga, a distance of about 3 blocks. The carriage was borrowed from Larch Farm, the team of horses was hired from the livery stable of James Robinson, and the driver was Holly Whitney. I was at the depot to watch the bride and groom depart upon the afternoon four o'clock train and the above statements are the result of my personal observations.
Allan Pinkerton was short and stocky, with a full beard, no mustache, slightly tinged with gray. In size and demeanor he closely resembled Andrew Carnegie. During the latter years of his life, he was lame, suffering the ill effects of paralysis. Few men were quite so active as he, despite the limp. He was very reserved. I never knew him to associate with or even be friendly with any resident of Onarga. He was a man of great dignity, personal charm, and had a keen sense of humor. In his latter years when he walked with a slight limp and was forced to carry a cane, he still had the bearing of the truly great man that he was.
After a strenuous and active life in tracking down criminals, he was content to rest on his laurels when his health began to fail. He enjoyed spending money and Larch Farm became the most important plaything that gave him pleasure, and he gratified it with a lavish hand. He was proud of his development of Larch Farm and only an extremely wealthy man could have maintained it at the height of its splendor.
It is true that he never used the Villa as a family home for to him it was a personal hobby and a retreat. He developed the entire property not as a place for high jinx or for social prestige but rather as a living monument to his accomplishments. He was a reserved Scot, devoid of social ambition. Knowing Larch Farm as I did in my boyhood, I am loath to believe as has been attributed that high carnival was held when he went there with his cronies for days of relaxation. No guest or guests at Larch Farm ever transgressed the high ideals of personal conduct that Allan Pinkerton, their host, maintained and followed throughout his entire life.
According to my personal observations, Allan Pinkerton entertained but few guests at Larch Farm, and at no time have I ever seen any women there as guests. I have seen his son, William, a few times when he would accompany his father on one of his trips to Onarga, but I have never seen his other son, Robert.
If "leaders in sports, the stage, writers of note, and painters of national reputation" did gather at Larch Farm as his guests, who were some of the notables in attendance, what did they do for their amusement, and how did they arrive?
It was Mr. Pinkerton's wish that Larch Farm should not perish with him. He wanted the place preserved through the ages, a contemporary monument, one of living beauty to offset the unchanging stone that would mark his final resting place in the Pinkerton Burial Lot in a Chicago Cemetery. Provisions were made in is last Will that Larch Farm be maintained in its same splendor. His sons, William and Robert, were expressly charged with carrying out this wish, but both sons had other interests and their tastes lacked that peculiar flavor of agricultural showman-ship. Corn and hogs were more important from their viewpoint. Naturally the beauty of Larch Farm disappeared and after a few years, during which Robert Malcomb was the superintendent, their interest in maintaining Larch Farm as a show place ceased.
For several years it was rented to the Onarga Canning Company; and during February of 1911, it was purchased from the Pinkertons by Benjamin Durham, an Onarga Banker, for $42,500.00. At his death, his niece, Polly Venum Van Cleave, inherited the property; and in the spring of 1967, the Bork Nursery of Onarga purchased the property from the Van Cleave heirs for $700.00 per acre.
During the ownership of Mr. Durham, the agrarian use of the fields was emphasized even more than under the younger Pinkertons, and while in the hands of his niece, it reflected none of the glory of the original owner.
Sometime during the year of about 1886, a public sale was held at Larch Farm. It consisted of furnishings from the Villa and various other items. At this sale, my father purchased the glass from a discarded green house which he used in making a glass covered runway for his chickens. He also purchased a very fine pier glass mirror that hung at one end of the Villa's hallway and a hanging clock. These two articles are still in the possession of members of our family and are highly regarded by their owners.
The case of this clock is a superb example of Biedermier style of furniture, popular in Germany of the period between 1815-45. The name was derived from a comic figure of the period, "Papa B," (Biedermier) is a symbol of homely, substantial comfort and well being. Gottlieb Biedermier was representative of the naive, simple-hearted Philistine who had little imagination and bought only comfortable things of life. The furniture was essentially the Paris "Empire meubles deluxe" of the grander houses.
The Biedermier style somewhat resembled the French Empire, though it was simpler and had very little decoration. It is an interesting example of the process of copying and adapting a foreign style in toto.
At this sale, my father also purchased a barrel of red powder paint. When mixed with linseed oil it was ready for use. Jumbo No. 1 and No. 2 were painted with it. During the summer following the above sale, I painted our barn with the same mixture; therefore our barn and the barns at Larch Farm were painted from the same lot of red powder paint.
The greater part of this sale was held in the covered shed that connected Jumbo No. 1 and No. 2. During a part of the sale, many boys, including myself, gathered in the shed's attic and were unseen fictitious bidders for many items, to the annoyance of the auctioneer.
The auctioneer of the sale was Alonza T. Freeman, commonly called "Buckshot." He was a hunch-back with reddish hair and whiskers and for many years Onarga's only auctioneer. The clerk was E. L. Wheeler, who, at that time, was head bookkeeper at the Onarga Bank of Durham Brothers.
The Villa, the original house built at Larch Farm, is still standing although badly in need of repair. With such a colorful history and Pinkerton background, it is one of the important historical buildings in Illinois. The citizens of Onarga and Iroquois County may well take pride in this, and should join with Major Edward L. Davis, Ret., in his hopes and plans to get the Pinkerton House (the Villa) restored to its original state, and taken over by the Illinois State Historical Society.
End of Russell Palmer's manuscript.
For more information
RETURN TO HOME PAGE