Matthew Zellner is an archival intern and a student at Northwestern University studying Radio/Television/Film. In honor of Evanston’s upcoming sesquicentennial, he’ll be publishing a series of articles on life in Evanston during its first incorporated year, 1863, as well as some other topics he thinks are particularly interesting. Ask questions and join the conversation by leaving comments below, and by tweeting at the History Center, @EvanstonHistory.
Officially, Thanksgiving has been a celebration in the United States since 1863, the same year that Evanston was officially incorporated as a town. In the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the final Thursday in November.
However, any kindergartener can tell you that the real first Thanksgiving is the one that occurred back in 1621 when friendly pilgrims with buckles on their hats met some friendly members of the Wampanoag Tribe in New England. Similarly, Evanston likely celebrated its first, more Puritan than Rockwellian Thanksgiving much earlier when the first pioneers came to the North Shore.
Perhaps the most famous of these, the William Bradford to Evanston’s Plymouth Plantation, was Major Edward H. Mulford, the “gentleman pioneer.”
After serving in the New York State Militia, Mulford moved to Chicago in 1835 to found the first jewelry store in the city. After some success with his shop, he took advantage of the opportunity to buy 160 acres of North Shore land near Grosse Pointe from the government at the reasonable price of $1.25 an acre. Mulford planned to sell off most of the land, but was required to build a house on the property to secure his claim.
Mulford moved up to the small (14 by 16 foot) cabin with his wife Rebecca and his children in 1837. His settlement (the precursor to Evanston) would soon be named Ridgeville, after the ridge above the swamp on which he built his home. Across the street he built Evanston’s first gathering place, the Ten Mile House tavern, on the land that would one day be occupied by St. Francis Hospital.
The Ten Mile House, so named for being ten miles from the Chicago Courthouse, is a likely location for Evanston’s first Thanksgiving celebration. Such a celebration would have featured travellers on the Green Bay Trail taking the place of the Native Americans, as the Potawatomi were all but gone from the area by the time the Mulfords arrived, the tribe forced to sign away the last of their lands in 1833.
Besides hosting Thanksgivings, the Ten Mile House served many purposes: not only was it a tavern, but also a courthouse, a post office, and even a medical center. Mulford hired a staff to run the tavern as he focused on other projects.
Mulford’s projects made him a many of many names. His most notable, the “gentleman pioneer,” came from his collection of books, which was remarkable for a man living in a “rude cabin ‘mongst the primeval forest trees.” Mulford was also known as Squire Mulford and Deacon Mulford, for his work with the courts and churches, but according to one Evanston historian, “he bore as his honors meekly, and notwithstanding this handicap became one of our prominent citizens.”
Much of this prominence came from his work to make Evanston livable for his fellow pioneers. Mulford not only founded the first church, the First Baptist Church, but also lead his neighbors in the creation of a long wooden box drain to carry water out of the space between the ridges and into the lake, changing the town from “a very wet town to a dry one.”
Mulford’s Ditch, or the Rubicon, as Northwestern students called it, allowed a “deep swamp” to become Downtown Evanston.
If you have time over your Thanksgiving holiday, stop by the site of Mulford’s second home, built in 1845 near Ridge and Harvard. The home was razed in 1963 to make room for Evanston’s first condominium, the Mulford House, however, a few timbers still exist today, converted into a nearby park bench.
Take a seat and thank the Major for his hard work.