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History of Hartford, Illinois

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser

 

Hartford - 1861

 The area that would become Hartford was rich farmland in the American Bottoms in Wood River Township, with little population other than Zephaniah B. Job, Seth T. Sawyer, and William Shore. Zephaniah B. Job, one of the few land owners of the area, cleared land in 1850, and constructed a warehouse and dock along the Mississippi. In 1861, the Madison Coal Company used the landing to ship their coal by boat. When railroads were constructed, the area became known as Edwardsville Crossing, where the tracks led further south or east to Edwardsville. By 1873, a road had been constructed which led from East Alton south through Chouteau Township. When the city of Wood River was incorporated in 1908, Edwardsville Crossing (Hartford) earned the nickname, “South Wood River.”



The Hartford Castle - Lakeview
In 1897, Benjamin Biszant, a Frenchman, built a large “castle-like” estate in Chouteau Township, near the future Hartford. The estate was a gift for his English bride. It contained 14 rooms, with floor to ceiling mirrors and elegant chandeliers. Much on the materials in the home came from France. The floors and hand-carved columns which supported the ceiling were made of imported cypress wood. Benjamin Biszant's hobby included making figures out of concrete, and on the grounds were several concrete dog figures, cannons, and a bridge which led to the island in the middle of a small lake.

Workers with teams of horses dug a moat, which encircled a small island. Dirt from the moat provided the hill on which the home was built.Lakeview Castle in Hartford, Illinois Biszant and his wife enjoyed throwing lavish parties, and area residents often heard music drifting down from the castle on summer evenings. Guests at Lakeview used the estate’s lakes for boating, fishing and swimming. The Biszants received so many guests who arrived by rail that railroad maps of the 1890s listed "Station of Lakeview." Biszant even had a decorative station built by the railroad tracks to accommodate Lakeview’s many visitors.

In the early years of the twentieth century Biszant’s wife died. According to the Edwardsville Intelligencer, Biszant fell into the clutches of spiritualists, and lost a good part of his fortune. They led Biszant to believe he could get into communication with the spirit of his wife, and soon after, his old home became known as "Spook House." Sometime after attending to her burial in England, he sold Lakeview and moved to California. The Hartford Castle then began its slow, inevitable decline.

The home passed on to the ownership of J. J. Biszant. By 1913 the home became plagued with vandalism. One fellow named Mark Podner broke into the home, and after his arrest, claimed he became lost in the maze of mirrors and could not get out of the house. He told of hidden passageways, a musty dungeon, terrifying moans, high pitched shrieks and cries of pain from various parts of the building. Podner attempted to hang himself while in jail.

J. J. Biszant reportedly sold it to Lake View Military Academy, but in 1919 it was Biszant again who sold the home to two St. Louis doctors who planned a sanitarium there. It was also going to be sold to James Marquis of Alton to be used as a roadhouse, but Marquis' death broke up the plans. A newspaper article stated "Lakeview changed ownership frequently and became, among other things, a boys’ military school, a home for unwed mothers and even a speakeasy during the Prohibition era. The castle was sold in 1923 to a Wood River couple who occupied it until 1964. During the ensuing years, Lakeview was alternatively rented out or left vacant.

In March of 1973 the Hartford landmark was destroyed by fire. Owners Dr. and Mrs. S. S. Nemec (who had moved out), said vandals had previously reduced the home to a shell. Curiosity seekers still try to glimpse a few remnants of the old castle, or a ghost who is said to wander aimlessly. However, current property owners have a “no trespassing” sign, to discourage any visitors so no one gets hurt.

The International Shoe Company
In 1916, the International Shoe Company opened two large tanneries (they owned a total of eight tanning factories) in the future Hartford. The $8,000,000 plant would be the largest industry in the area, employing over 1,200 men and women. The tanneries supplied leather to 48 shoe factories, the vast majority of which were located in rural Missouri and Illinois. Popular brands included Star, Diamond, Vitality, and Dolly Dodd brands, as well as the famous Red Goose Shoes. Approximately 27,500 cattle hide from the National Stock Yards were processed each week into shoe leather – a 110-step process that lasted 37 days. The tannery closed in 1964.

Hartford Incorporated
Hartford was incorporated as a village in 1920. Local residents had a prolonged debate over the name to bestow upon the community – some insisting on “Tannery City” after the International Shoe Company. However, the name Hartford was chosen, and Kirby Turpin was named the first mayor.
Norman Eugene "Clint" Walker
A Star is Born
On May 30, 1927, twins were born in Hartford to Paul Arnold and Gladys Huldah Walker. The boy was named Norman Eugene “Clint” Walker, and the girl was named Lucy Walker. After leaving school to work at a factory and then a riverboat, Clint joined the U.S. Merchant Marines during the last months of World War II. He then worked at odd jobs in Texas, California, and Nevada. His good looks and imposing physique (he stood at 6 feet, 6 inches tall) helped him land an audition where he won the lead role in the TV series, “Cheyenne.” He was cast as Cheyenne Bodie, a roaming cowboy hero in the post-American Civil War era. Clint frequently returned to the Hartford and Alton area to visit his sister. He would work out at the Alton Y.M.C.A., attracting huge crowds. Clint Walker died May 21, 2018 in California, nine days before his 91st birthday.

 

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