Our neighbor Sally Stevens presented me with a “history mystery” recently and I jumped at the challenge. It seems a friend of hers, retired Sycamore School District 427 librarian Mary Lou Reeve, has an engraved cane handed down from her great-grandfather and wanted to find out what it was all about.
The cane’s top is gold plated and has engraved on it: “Presented to H. Mackey by Farmers Picnic Assn of Mayfield Ills. Sept. 1st, 1886.”
I headed first to the Joiner History Room, which has a trove of historical data in its files, and sure enough, there were newspaper articles about the DeKalb County Farmers Picnic Association from the Sycamore True Republican. Next I perused my copy of the Past & Present of DeKalb County and found that Harrison Mackey came to Mayfield Township in 1839, buying land from Uncle Sam, and was a successful financier and farmer with more than 500 acres. An obituary in the True Republican stated Mackey died of dropsy – an old-time medical term for swelling caused by fluid retention – Aug. 22, 1890, at age 77.
Next was the search for the reason this special cane was given to him. I learned that the Farmers Picnic Association held an annual gathering at the end of summer along the banks of the Kishwaukee River between Sycamore and Genoa near the site of the mill built there by William Miller (who also built the log cabin near Genoa in 1835 that exists today) that was later called Combs Mill.
The newspaper reported 5,000 people attended in 1885, with 1,150 teams of horses pulling wagons and surreys full of people from around northern Illinois. Mackey was the longtime treasurer of the group and most likely was presented the parting gift when he retired from that office in 1886, even though it was not mentioned in the newspaper account.
I could not find the minutes of their meetings, but they may exist somewhere. Mackey also was the founding postmaster of Mayfield when they tried to establish a postal station there, but after a year it was discontinued. He was also a charter member of the Mayfield Grange and held several township offices during his lifetime.
In looking over the annual picnic stories, I found several other pioneer names from DeKalb County, including H.L. Boies, William Townsend, Gen. Daniel Dustin, E.S. Persons, John Taylor, Henry Wood, Henry Whitmore, Warren and A.G. Weeden, plus A.J. Hopkins.
Newspaper accounts were often flowery and details not found in today’s reporting were included. I liked the sentence that read: “Thousands of yellow-legged chickens were sacrificed on the altar of that farmers picnic, and the stores of cakes, pies, pickles, cold ham, sandwiches, watermelons and coffee were spread upon the white tablecloths that contrasted so prettily with the green sward, were enough to provision an army.”
Now let’s hope Mary Lou Reeve will consider donating this family heirloom or displaying it at the Sycamore and Genoa museums for today’s generations to enjoy.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL. 60115. His column appears every other Tuesday.