Ira Wesley Steward: One of Plano's Pioneers
By Kristy Lawrie Gravlin
Ira "Wesley" Steward was born on March 10, 1831 in New London, CT, the seventh child of the 10 born to Marcus and Ursula (Hollister) Steward. His parents were both from Connecticut but had married in Hollisterville, Wayne County, Pennsylvania, in 1821. By 1837, it was decided that the wilderness of northern Illinois was calling.
Marcus had enough funds to make a sound start. In about 1838, he bought a 3000-acre tract of land in Alto Township, Lee County. Perhaps he did not see the land before his purchase. He kept quiet about this land for some time as it was found to be a very wet and swamp-like area and he feared the ridicule of his neighbors for such a purchase.
The family moved by wagon-and-teams caravan to Little Rock Township in Kendall County. There Marcus bought the claim of John and Benjamin Evans for $1,200. The cabin there was 300 feet northwest of the Scandinavian Lutheran Church on the corner of Lee and Lew Streets. The Stewards lived there until 1842 and the claim eventually became a portion of Plano. The family moved nearer the Big Rock Creek at this point, eventually bringing Plano into being.
In 1855, when Wesley was 24, he was sent by his father to take up residence and farm the 3,000 acres that had been waiting in Lee County. Apparently Marcus knew his son well for Wesley was able to be very successful with his task. The town of Steward (originally Steward Station) was named after Wesley. Six years after his arrival Wesley married Julia Short on Dec. 3, 1861. He built the first farm house in the Steward area, a large two-story frame home, to house his new bride and it still stands there.
Following in the successful footsteps of his father, Wesley managed to convince the Chicago and Iowa Railroad (later the Burlington Northern) into the area to support the local farm production. He also built an elevator, run by the stream at the east end of the Main Street. His own barn was used for the offices of the railroad and as a warehouse until the first depot was built in 1871.
Wesley Steward felt strongly that a successful community needed a church and, by September of 1874, a large and impressive building was dedicated. It began as an interdenominational congregation but it was eventually decided that it would unite with the Methodist Church. A year-long celebration of the centennial of the congregation was celebrated in 1974. The township cemetery, located at Steward, was another gift to the community from Wesley.
The "Inlet Swamp" that covered so much of the local area was drained and made tillable with the leadership of Mr. Steward. By 1905 there were thousands of acres changed from worthless swamp to rich land worth $125 per acre. That land, more than 30,000 acres, is now worth more than $2,000 an acre.
Wesley died on Oct. 14, 1911. The park in the center of Steward has a memorial in honor of the founding father, Wesley Steward.
Originally published May 6, 2004 in the Plano Record, Plano, Illinois.
Permission to use granted by Kathy Farren, Editor.
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