What is the history of Powell’s Mill along the Lincoln Highway?
Opening around 1925, Powell’s Mill was a longtime landmark along the famed Lincoln Highway. The stood on the west bank of Lake Renwick, about one mile south of the village limits.
However, Powell’s Mill was not the first business operated at by the family of John Powell.
From Coal Fields to Plainfield
The Powell family’s story arises out of the coalfields of Illinois, where the hard-working immigrant family pursued a better life in America.
In 1864, as a new water well was being dug on a farm south of Wilmington, a rich vein of black coal was discovered. Soon, a string of new mining towns sprung up in southwestern Will County and neighboring Grundy County. These boom towns included Braidwood, Coal City, Eileen, Diamond, Godley and Carbon Hill.
The eruption of mining towns—many shaped by powerful industrialists—attracted immigrant workers from all over the world. Among those who came to the Illinois coal mines were John and Ann Powell and their five children.
Emigrating from Wales to Illinois in 1866, the Powell family settled in the village of Gardner in Grundy County. Within months, John Powell Sr. was employed as a pit boss in the strip mines in nearby Braceville. Soon, three more children were born into the Powell family, including John Jr. in 1872.
In the 1870s, Braceville was a thriving village of 3,500 residents, patronizing six general stores, two banks, a hotel, two restaurants and many other businesses. The townsfolk’s prosperity lay in the coal mines, where the three eldest Powell sons labored as miners. Like many of the immigrant families, the Powell family became comfortably wealthy.
Shunning the hardships of the mines, John Powell Jr. capitalized on the residents’ prosperity. Powell opened a saloon at Braceville around 1895, the year he married Mable Huston.
Saloons were popular gathering spots for tired miners—many of whom were bachelors. A late 19th century Braceville coal miner described the appeal of the saloons where men had “a newspaper to read, another fellow to argue with, and (a place to) put (their) feet on the table and eat all the free lunch (they wanted)” while listening to “a good fiddler.”
Beyond their patrons, however, taverns were looked upon as morally corrupt places prone to lewdness and brawls.
Tiring of the Braceville miners, John Powell and his wife moved—with two young sons—to the more genteel village of Plainfield. Here, along the south side of Lockport Street, John Powell established Powell’s Saloon in January 1910.
Powell’s timing proved fortuitous because a workers’ strike at the Braceville mines that summer resulted in the company shutting down operations permanently, reducing the once-booming mining center to a ghost town virtually overnight.
Powell’s Plainfield Saloon and Prohibition
As early as the 1840s, efforts to prohibit the manufacture, distribution, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors were promoted by evangelical Protestant churches, particularly Congregationalists, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in 1874 and—by 1900—a local chapter at Plainfield was quite active. The WCTU and the Prohibition Party sought to dismantle the political corruption associated with saloons; destroy the political power of the German-based brewing industry; and diminish domestic violence in American homes.
It was in the looming shadow of Prohibition that John and Mable Powell managed their Plainfield saloon. It was popular among the laborers employed by the Aurora, Plainfield & Joliet streetcar line as well as the male visitors of Electric Park, where alcohol consumption was prohibited.
By the outbreak of World War I, the Anti-Saloon League stepped up efforts to ban alcohol nationwide. In October 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which led to the passage of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 16, 1920. Prohibition became the law of the land.
With the passage of the Volstead Act, Powell’s Saloon was out of business. John Powell moved his family to Joliet, where he managed a hotel for several years.
A Return to Plainfield
Raymond, the eldest son of John and Mable Powell, was a well-liked dentist who maintained a Plainfield office in the Opera House Block throughout the 1920s. Perhaps because of the dentist’s affinity with the townspeople, John and Mabel Powell returned and, around 1925, leased land at the southwest corner of Lake Renwick.
There, John Powell erected a whimsical diner and gas station along the Lincoln Highway. The shingle-sided structure featured a large windmill at the south end. The windmill's first floor provided a canopy where pumps dispensed gasoline to travelers. It also served as the entrance to the diner, which was known for its barbeque lunches.
The upper floors of the windmill provided an apartment for John and Mable Powell and their bachelor son, Robert, who operated the gas pumps.
The Demise of Powell’s Mill
Bootlegging and the Great Depression led to the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933.
But, in spite of reviving his saloon business, John Powell Jr. closed the diner and gas station around 1935 due to the lingering economic depression. The family returned to Joliet, where John managed the Elks Club Lounge until his death in 1939 at age 67. Mable Powell lived until 1957, dying at age 82.
Shortly after the Powells left Plainfield, the diner was leased to James Lyon, who removed the gas pumps and enclosed the canopy bay to provide a larger saloon and waiting room. Operating as The Palomar and, later, The Mill, the business continued until the mid-1950s. By then, restaurant and tavern sewage had polluted Lake Renwick, the source of water for the business.
Although the distinctive windmill was demolished, the former dining room of the abandoned diner was moved to the south side of Renwick Road by Tom Collins. He remodeled the building and for nearly 50 years, it housed numerous businesses, including an antique shop owned by Plainfield resident Richard Schleeter.
One of the last businesses in the remnants of the Powell’s Mill building was a beauty shop, the scene of a senseless and tragic murder in January 2004. The abandoned buildings were demolished a few years later to make way for a new business complex which never materialized.
Next Week: Good Eats Along the Lincolnway: McElroy’s Drive-In and Keeley’s Bakery
Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patchfirstname.lastname@example.org.