#135: Tracing Kankakee’s Immigration Story with the Kankakee County Museum

Join Jake LaMore on a journey through the immigrant history of Kankakee County with Jack Klasey and Jorie Walters from the Kankakee County Museum. In this episode, the trio unravels the unique and vibrant stories of various ethnic groups that have shaped the rich tapestry of Kankakee’s cultural landscape.

The Roots of Kankakee: From Potawatomi to French Canadians

Our journey begins with the Potawatomi Native Americans, the first immigrants to the area in the late 1700s. Unlike other tribes, the Potawatomi established solid villages, engaging in both farming and hunting, and creating a foundation for future settlements along the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers. The largest of these was Rock Village, located near present-day Kankakee State Park.

As we move forward in time, the early settlers after the Potawatomi were primarily former fur traders, with French Canadians making a significant mark. Notable figures like Noel Levasseur and Gurdon Hubbard played pivotal roles in the area’s development, with Hubbard’s name still gracing Chicago’s streets and the historic Hubbard Trail.

The Birth of Communities and Churches

The French Canadian influence led to the establishment of Bourbon Grove, a settlement that became a beacon for immigration from Canada in the 1830s. The Roman Catholic faith was central to this community, with the construction of the oldest church building in Kankakee County, the Church of the Maternity, a testament to their dedication.

The Railroad Era: A Conduit for Diversity

The arrival of the railroad in 1853 marked a new chapter, bringing a wave of Irish and German laborers. These immigrants were recruited directly from the piers of New York, lured by the promise of good wages and the opportunity to own land. Many of these workers eventually settled along the railroad, contributing to the county’s growth and diversity.

A Mosaic of Faiths and Cultures

As we discussed the various churches and ethnic groups, it became clear that Kankakee County’s history is a patchwork of cultures. German Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, and even Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish communities have left their mark. The influence of immigration is evident in the transformation of church buildings and the establishment of new congregations, such as those founded by French-Canadian priest Charles Sinicki.

The Agricultural Heartland and Festivals

The Dutch settlers in the Whitchurch area brought their farming expertise, and the annual Gladiolus festival became a highlight of the county’s cultural calendar. Similarly, African American settlers in Pembroke transitioned from city life to farming, adding another layer to our agricultural heritage.

The Modern Fabric of Kankakee County

In recent times, we’ve seen the historical presence of Italian stonemasons and coal miners, as well as a small but significant Greek population. The changing demographics of our churches reflect the ongoing story of immigration and settlement, with the Nazarene denomination and a diverse church population representing the current landscape.

A Journey

This episode is a journey through time, celebrating the people and places that make Kankakee County what it is today. So, if you’re as curious as I am about the stories that have shaped our community, tune in to the Kankakee Podcast. Let’s uncover the past together and maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a piece of ourselves along the way.

Remember, history isn’t just about dates and documents; it’s about the human experience. And I love getting to share these experiences with you!

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