The Legend of Bourbon Spring

General Winfield Scott, Daniel Webster and one heck of a party. Are stories about Riverside's legendary gathering spot true?

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Riverside's Bourbon Spring. Is it fact, or is it fable? There does exist a monument to it, a hundred yards or so west of the sledding hill at Swan Pond. It rests down at the base of the bluff, along the intersection of Scottswood and Barrypoint roads. To get to it, you can take the long route from Burling Road, and go down the hill to Swan Pond, and walk over westerly to the bending of the bluff.

If you want to go the historic route, you can walk down the WPA-built 20-step stairway, that leads off the east side of Barrypoint Road. Then, at the bottom, stay left, along the low stone wall, and there it is, set in place by the Riverside Garden Club in 1935.

To look at the Bourbon Spring monument, today, you wouldn't think much of it. Its limestone base is 3 feet, 7 inches-by-3 feet, 7 inches. A chunk of its northeast corner has been smashed off by vandals. Vandals have also chipped off the words "Bourbon Spring," once inscribed on the front of the base. The five cracks in the base have been filled in, but could probably use a little tuckpointing.

If you examine the monument's screwed-on brass plaque, you will notice some of the raised letters of the inscription are worn and chipped away. The bluff is slowly swallowing up the rear portion of the monument. But is it more of a monument to vandalism than to a spring?

Let's examine the wording on the plaque. There are three separate inscriptions. The top one reads: "July 1832. General Winfield Scott camped near this spring on way to Blackhawk War." Fairly brief.

The story is that General Winfield Scott and his "staff and four companies of [army] men" arrived by steamer boats in Chicago on July 10, 1832, on their way to fight the Black Hawk Indians. The day before, cholera had broken out among the men, and the disease spread rapidly. When the steamers docked, the disease spread to the citizens of Chicago.

Scott was unable to leave immediately to fight the Black Hawks. After the disease lessened in intensity, by the final days of that July, he gathered up his remaining men and headed for the war zone. Alas, he arrived too late to do any actual fighting, but was present for the treaty signing on Aug. 3 at the Bad Axe River in southwest Wisconsin.

Now, how does Scott and his men, camping at Bourbon Spring, figure into all this? According to the authors of the 1936-published book "Riverside Then and Now," "After ten days, General Scott moved his soldiers, such as were able, to the present site of Riverside, where they remained ten days ... [and] camped in the neighborhood of Scottswood Common." Other than this source, nothing is known to exist that verifies this statement.

The middle inscription on the monument's plaque concerns the story of the naming of Bourbon Spring, which revolves around the date of June 7, 1834. The first known mention of this story appears to be have been published 47 years after the fact, in 1881, in the book, "Chicago Antiquities" by Henry H. Hurlbut.

In early 1834, "the military commandant of the State of Illinois gave orders that the militia of Cook County should be duly organized and officers elected."

There were those soldiers who wanted to train and those who didn't. Mr. John B. (Jean Baptiste) Beaubien was a favorite of the former. The election for the post of colonel was set to be held at the Laughton Tavern, in what would later be Riverside, at the crossing site of the Des Plaines River on Saturday, June 7, 1834.

We are told that "a large share of that part of the population of Chicago, subject to military duty, turned out en masse, it is said, on that occasion. It has also been reported that they took with them, as an important part of their outfit, one keg of brandy, four packages of loaf sugar, and sixteen dozen lemons."

At the tavern Mr. Beaubien was subsequently elected colonel of the 60th Regiment of the Illinois Militia. Celebrating the occasion was a tradition, so "at the base of the bluff, near the house [tavern], was a fine spring. A dam was made across the outlet, and the brandy, lemons, and loaf sugar were all emptied into the basin so formed, and the mixture duly and properly stirred up. We have been assured, that of drink and drinkers, much and many were found at the novel punch bowl."

This story has been told and retold ever since, sometimes with changes to it. One retelling said the entire population of Chicago, not just those eligible for military duty, showed up for the election. Most accounts written after Hurlbut's fail to mention the part about damming the spring, and still others add that a barrel was put into the basin. One solitary version reduces the number of lemons from sixteen dozen to one dozen.

It was the mention of the lemons that made me question the story's authenticity. Where did they get lemons from, in June? There were no trains to deliver them. How did they get them from warmer regions? But I discovered the answer to this in a book, "Over the Counter and on the Shelf-Country Storekeeping in America" by Laurence A. Johnson. It states that "the first commercial shipment of oranges came into this country, via the port of New York, from Sicily, in 1832. Lemons followed immediately."

So it was, indeed, possible for them to exist in Chicago, beginning to be picked and shipped in a not-quite-ripe state, in Sicily. Then, after being shipped across the Atlantic to New York, some would be sold, and others bought at fruit auctions, and sent up the Hudson River to Albany, to be dragged, by mules, at 4 mph along the Erie Canal to Buffalo, along Lake Erie. Here they'd be loaded on yet another ship that would go up Lake Huron, then down and into Lake Michigan, finally unloading at the Chicago docks.

Sure, it seems a roundabout way of doing things, but there were no reliable roads back then, and the fruit would have arrived in a thoroughly bumped condition. As it was, the lemons surely arrived somewhat overripe, but they were widely sought after, and bought in any condition. It made sense for them to be used as soon as possible.

I assume that the loaf sugar, which was formed into cones and wrapped, was not just "emptied into the basin." You had to break off pieces back then. If you wanted it granulated, you did it yourself. Granulated sugar became popular during the Civil War, and even then, it was coarse and brown in color.

So the question remains, is the story true? Not so fast. In Hurlbut's "Antiquities" there exists still another version of how Bourbon Spring came to be named: "Regarding the 'punch bowl,' this account says, it was a barrel set in the ground, which caught the water from the spring, and, when after the election, the company was about to leave, there was still unused a quantity of the brandy, sugar, and lemons.

"It was therefore decided that the surplus should be thrown into the barrel and stirred up with the dirt at the bottom, and that every man then present, should, with his old felt hat, his beaver, or wolf-skin chapeau, dip therefrom and drink, or else suffer the penalty of having his head ducked into the cauldron. We can believe, as was told, that their return to town was a furious ride, with yells 'hideous and howling over the heath.'"

So is this story more believable? Let's see. The part about the spring seems to be unchanged. Now there's the bit about the barrel, but it's set in the ground, and not in the spring basin. But what was dirt doing in the barrel? Doesn't say. I can well believe the "furious ride" back to Chicago. The only thing that really seems out of place is the statement that brandy was left over. I'd have thought that it would have been gone, first off.

It seems that parts of both stories have been told and retold, and that either, or parts of both could be true. There was a spring. Anne Forbes, a member of the family living in the Riverside area since the 1830s, headed a letter with "Bellfountain, illinois Aprile the 9th 1837." 'Belle fountain' is French for "beautiful spring."

In addition, the 1884-published book "History of Cook County" by A. T. Andreas contains both a "History of Riverside" and a "History of Lyons." In each, he mentions Riverside's "Bourbon Springs" as a place name. Was he using Hurlbut's book as a source? He doesn't say. Hurlbut, after all, fails to tell exactly where his own information is coming from. Written accounts about Chicago history back then were sometimes known to be romantic and fanciful.

To complicate matters, no one seems quite certain, even today, that the site of the limestone base and plaque is the correct location of the spring. It's appears to be a matter of documentation and lack of primary sources.

Perhaps there was a certain reluctance, back in Riverside's early years to even talk about the Bourbon Spring legend. After all, the village was voted "dry" and did not sell liquor. It might have been a little embarrassing to talk about the story. Anyway, it may be true, or it might not be true, or parts of it might, but until old maps and first-hand accounts turn up, who knows?

Funny thing, though. When I went out on Friday morning, Jan. 19, to photograph the monument, I found two crushed aluminum drink cans directly alongside it. On the right was a Busch's Light beer can, and on the left, a Nestea Cool lemon ice tea can. Lemons and alcohol? Sounds eerily familiar, somehow.

The third inscription on the monument's brass plaque reads: "1837. Daniel Webster, arriving from St. Louis, was met at this spring by Chicago delegation. Ceremony took place on this spot."

Did such a thing happen exactly at that time, on this spot? In the 1930s, Miss Josephine Sherman, then the president of the Riverside Garden Club, assured that she had gotten the information from her father, C.D. Sherman, an early resident of Riverside. The Sherman family were early residents of Chicago. Unanswered is the question of where her father learned of the story. So it may be true, or partly, or not. Once again, a physical primary source would be useful.

Is the Bourbon Spring monument the preservation of fable or of fact? That a spring was here, in that area, tends toward the factual. Was it ever "bourbonized"? Did General Scott rest his men here? Did the great orator, Daniel Webster, meet anyone here? No conclusive evidence seems to exist, other than that of memory and opinion, and that makes up the legend of Bourbon Spring.

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Derrick Mancini from Riverside  

Posted: August 10th, 2017 4:24 PM

Two other primary records exist, both diaries. Col. Beaubien describes the event, where he is made colonel, in his diary. Flavilla Forbes, daughter of Sheriff Forbes who called the meeting, describes it in retrospect in her memoir, from her childhood.

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