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"George Wilcox"

Diary depicts life way back when


by Beverly Overmyer
December 21, 2003

The man sporting an elegant white mustache, decked out in wool fisherman's cap and suspenders, looks like he might have spent all his time riding around with his wife and friends in his "Tin Lizzie."

This vintage photo appears on the cover of a book published this summer by the Kankakee Valley Historical Society titled "The Diary of a Kankakee River Guide--George Wilcox." Never idle, the man on the book cover, George Wilcox was a river guide for the rich and famous who hunted, trapped, and fished the Kankakee Marsh in the early 1900s. Wilcox also managed a hunting lodge, tended to famous Hoosier author Lew Wallace's tugboat and houseboat on the Kankakee River and farmed in Kouts.

For 18 months in 1916 and 1917, Wilcox recorded in a bold script his daily activities around town and farm. His entries tell of days planting peach trees, cutting ice on the marsh, and timber in the woods, making hay, planting fields, churning, husking, building fences--and for fun, making ice cream for his wife Kate's birthday.

Only two days in a year-and-a-half did Wilcox not work. Four days in July 1916 Wilcox wrote, "Too hot to do anything."

"After a full day's work behind him, Wilcox sat at his desk each evening journaling a brief description of the events of the day and the people he encountered," said Mary Hodson, secretary of the Society.

The diary was given to Society President John Hodson by life-long Kouts resident Sarah Miller who owns the house where Wilcox lived until his death in 1924.

When the Society board members decided to publish the diary as a fund-raiser, Hodson combed local libraries for newspaper articles written at the time about the people and events mentioned in Wilcox's diary. He also searched for vintage pictures showing the activities, landmarks, and people active on the Kankakee River at the beginning of the 1900s.

Also included in the book are stories from early editions of the "Porter County Vidette" and the Kouts Centennial book as well as family histories written by descendants of the pioneer Kouts families.

An early picture of the Collier Lodge, the lodge that the Kankakee Valley Historical Society is raising money to restore, will guide the restoration.

"We've had people call to get books for their relatives that have moved away," Hodson said. "People are buying them for Christmas presents, too."

The diary is the basis for a play to be presented at the Memorial Opera House in Valparaiso on April 4, 2004. The play titled "Yesteryears' Kankakee--pastimes and pleasures of the Kankakee through stories, songs and dance."

Many diary entries will be narrated by an actor seated at Wilcox's desk giving a picture of life along the Kankakee during an era of more simple, yet ever-changing times. The play opens with the geological history of the area and ends with the great tornado that hit the area and includes Native American culture, the French influence in the area and ends with WWI.

All proceeds from the sale of the book and the play will be used by the Society to continue its mission, "To promote an interest in the rich diverse history and cultures of the Kankakee Valley area through educational programs, speakers, displays of memorabilia, artifacts, ongoing research and restoration."

The 44-page book is available for $20 at the Kouts town hall or by contacting Hodson at (219) 766-2302. The price of the diary for Kankakee Valley Historical Society members is $15.