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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

John Easton Store, Half Day

John M. Easton (1810-1876). History of Lake County, Charles A. Partridge, 1902.

One of the most enlightening sources for what life was like in early Lake County is the Easton Store Ledger, dating from 1844-1846.

The ledger reveals the names of early farmers and the types of merchandise available.

John M. Easton (1810 - 1876) of Putnam, New York, came to Lake County in 1837, and opened a general store in Half Day the following year.

In addition to being a store proprietor, Easton was Half Day's postmaster from April 1841 to July 1845. It was common for the general store to double as the post office.

By the 1840s, Half Day was a bustling community on the stagecoach route on the Chicago and Milwaukee Road (present day Milwaukee Avenue/Route 21).
Map created of Half Day in 1847 by Al Westerman, using land records. The Easton Store property is highlighted in green.

The town of Half Day was named for Chief Aptakisic whose name translates to Half Day. Click here for my post on Aptakisic-Half Day.

Easton Store Ledger. Photo by Mark Widhalm. Dunn Museum 97.1.1

Like other store proprietors of the time, Easton kept a "day book" to track his customer's purchases and payments. The ledger is a who's who of area residents, including Jacob Mowers, Elijah Gridley, Thomas Payne, Mathias Mason, and most notably Captain Daniel Wright, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the county's first non-native settler.

From the ledger, we know that Easton's inventory included food staples such as sugar 10¢, molasses 63¢ gallon, apples 80¢ bushel, coffee 12 1/2¢, and Y.H. tea 88¢. Medicines included quinine 24 grams for 38¢, calomile 25¢ ounce, Peters pills 25¢, and mercurial ointment 13¢ box. Household items such as candles sold for 12 1/2¢, "glass lites" (panes of glass) 6¢ each, baking tins 12 1/2¢, calico for dresses and quilts 13¢ to 25¢ yard, white dinner plates 8¢ each, and wooden pails 38¢.

The store also carried farm supplies such as hoes, shovels, cotton knives and seeds; and lead, shot, powder, and percussion caps for guns.

A great number of items were available on order for customers, including furniture. One item not sold at the store was flour. This may seem curious, but flour was readily available at Kennicott's gristmill just south of the store along the Des Plaines River.

Shown here are purchases of Captain Wright for Monday, October 20, 1845. Included in his order are 3 yards Sheep's Gray (fabric), 3/4 " Drilling, 1 dozen buttons, 6 skeins thread, 1/2 # Y.H. tea, 1 dipper, 4 yards Hard Times, and 1 scoop shovel. Like many of Easton's customers, Wright charged his purchase. This record is the only known primary source document of Wright in Lake County.

Date written by John Easton in his store's day book.

In 1845, Easton married Minerva Baldwin (1808-1859), and together they had three children. In 1860, Easton was re-married to Jane "Jennie" Hibbard Carr, and had two children.

One of Easton's regular customers became his in-law, when Mathias Mason's son, Judson Mason, married John and Minerva's daughter, Frances on October 23, 1866.

Some time before 1870, John retired and closed the store. He passed away in 1876 and Jennie passed in 1897.

The ledger's "second life" began sometime after Jennie's death, as Charles C. Gerbert (1864-1931) purchased the Easton home.
Cover of the Easton Store day book. The original leather cover can barely be seen under the images pasted onto it. Dunn Museum 97.1.1

The Gerbert family found the ledger in the house, and re-used it as a scrapbook, pasting news clippings over John Easton's store accounts. The clippings date generally from circa 1898.

John Easton's writings are covered with newspaper clippings pasted by the Gerbert Family of Half Day, circa 1898.

In 1931, Nellie Gerbert (Mrs. Charles C.), brought the day book to the Half Day settlers' reunion, and C.J. Herschberger read an article pasted in the book about "The First White Settler" (Daniel Wright). Wright's grandson, William Whigham, attended the settlers' reunion.

As a historian, the re-use of the store ledger as a scrapbook is admittedly disappointing, but it is also fascinating. There has been some discussion of restoring the ledger to its original condition by removing the clippings, but I hesitate to give up that aspect of the ledger. The scrapbook pages give us a glimpse into the next generation of Half Day residents, what they valued, and how they conserved resources by finding a new use for an "old ledger."

Update: In 2020, the Signal Hill Chapter, NSDAR, funded the conservation of the Easton Store Ledger (97.1.1), including removal of scrapbook clippings from the first 70 pages of the 144-page ledger to reveal all ledger entries, preservation of the clippings as part of the ledger's history, and a purpose-built archival box for the ledger. 

My continued appreciation goes to Jill Martin (1940-2009), who diligently transcribed the Easton Store ledger, and researched some of its customers and their purchases. A full transcription of the ledger is available for research at the museum's Lake County History Archives.