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Lambert: The Tale of the Lost Town of East Plainfield

Yes, there once was a village named "East Plainfield" but few remnants of its existence remain today.

The Inquiry

Did a place called East Plainfield ever exist? If so, what happened to it?  

The Facts

Histories written as long ago as 1875 are chock-full of misinformation about East Plainfield and its founder, James Mathers (usually identified as Matthews), so allow us to set the record straight.

The story begins with James and Sarah Mathers and their three children who started in Ohio and migrated first to Michigan and then to Elkhart, Ind.  Possessing a strong work ethic and firm religious convictions, the family had successfully established several businesses and Presbyterian churches by 1830, when they started making plans to move again. 

In spring 1831, joined by their nephew, James M. Turner, they began the trek east and decided sometime between late 1831 and early 1832 to settle in a spot somewhere between Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago), Walkers’ Grove (present-day ) and Barber’s Corner (present-day Bolingbrook). 

After staking land claims in 1832 near Walkers’ Grove, James Mathers secured two tracts of government land in November 1834.   

Simultaneously, Turner received three land tracts, including one that would become the site of East Plainfield.

By then, Mathers and Turner were planning a new town spreading between the DuPage River and the well-travelled Chicago-Ottawa Road (now Illinois Route 126).  

Between 1832 and 1834, Mathers and Turner became acquainted with Arthur Bronson, a New York lawyer and Chicago land speculator.

Bronson, one of the wealthiest men in America at the time, provided additional capital towards the realization of Mathers’ vision for a new town.

In the summer of 1834, Mathers and Turner began to erect a home so large that not did it provide shelter for the Mathers and Turner families, but it provided housing for the many the workers who were building and operating the mills and millrace envisioned by the two men.  

Ambitious, optimistic and heavily financed, the pair also constructed a gristmill and sawmill.

Mathers and his wife were one of four couples who established the local Congregational church in 1834. Alas, land claim disputes disrupted the spiritual harmony of its pioneer members and the church disbanded just a year later.

Finally, in August 1835, the town of East Plainfield was platted—upstream from the 1830 Walker Sawmill and just northeast of .

Unlike Ingersoll's orderly town blocks, Mathers’ town was laid out in response to the route of the Chicago-Ottawa Trail and the course of the DuPage River. In addition to the large mills, the new town apparently was to intended as the site of a new Presbyterian college as well.    

By 1836, several lots had been sold and the new town was taking shape.  Turner, however, chose that time to sell his interests to Mathers.

At about the same time, the former Congregational church was being re-gathered under the Presbyterian form of polity, likely at the urging of James and Sarah Mathers. It's probable Mathers intended to erect a building for the congregation in East Plainfield.

All of Mathers' dreams for East Plainfield, however, were derailed by the financial panic of 1837, which devastated his investments. Bronson began calling the loans he made to pioneer developers surrounding Chicago, including Mathers. In August 1840, a lawsuit was brought against Mathers by Jonathan Hagar, a pillar of the local Presbyterian Church; Hagar prevailed in August 1841.

The nearly broke and frustrated Mathers family left Plainfield in early 1842, settling briefly at St. Louis. Following their departure, the local Presbyterian congregation returned to the Congregational fold.

After a three-year engagement with the Presbyterian Mission to the Pawnee in Nebraska Territory, the Mathers family returned to Missouri upon the tragic death of their youngest son.

The Mathers family returned to Plainfield just once, in April 1846, to visit their daughter and her husband and to see their eldest son married. Within a month of that visit, the extended Mathers clan set out for the California Territory, where they would ultimately prosper.

Meanwhile, back in Plainfield, Turner died in 1847.

James and Sarah Mathers helped establish the Independent Presbyterian Church at San Jose, California in 1849. In 1869, Sarah Mathers died in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in 1869, and her husband—the last surviving founder of Plainfield—died a year later. 

Mathers’ East Plainfield sawmill disappeared during the 1860s. Three decades later, his gristmill was razed and the timbers salvaged for the construction of another local building. By the close of the 19th century, the Mathers family was largely forgotten by area residents.

Today, East Plainfield—as imagined by Mathers and Turner—is nearly indistinguishable. 

Water Street is, now, Naperville-Plainfield Road. Mill Street and College Avenue recall long-forgotten dreams. Michigan and Huron avenues honored the two Great Lakes with which Mathers was familiar; however, Huron Avenue was vacated during the 1970s. 

Although most of the early buildings of East Plainfield have disappeared, although a large section of the massive 1834-36 Mathers Home still stands, prominently, along Naperville-Plainfield Road at Mill Street.

Do you have a column idea or a question you'd like to see answered by Michael Lambert? Send them to karen@patch.com.

Olddeegee December 03, 2011 at 05:01 PM
Where was Huron Street?
Michael Lambert December 07, 2011 at 11:33 PM
Huron Avenue ran roughly parallel to Michigan Avenue between Plainfield-Naperville Road and Main Street. Today, it is a private drive between the towering, former grain elevator, Plainfield Signs and the Main Street Museum of the Plainfield Historical Society.

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