Pierce Downer was the founder and namesake of the Village of Downers Grove and Downers Grove Township. He was the first person chosen as Founder of the Year when the program was launched in 2014.
Pierce Downer was born in Vermont Territory in 1872. He moved to New York where he met and married his wife, Lucy, and settled down to farm and raise a family. One of his eldest children, Stephen, had already left home (around 1830) to seek his fortune and was living at Fort Dearborn in the new village of Chicago. At that time, Chicago was a frontier town of about 30-50 stalwart pioneers. Stephen encouraged his father to come west to investigate opportunities to claim rich Illinois farm land under the Pre-emption Law of 1830. In 1832 at the age of 50, Pierce traveled to Fort Dearborn Chicago to see his son, leaving his wife and younger children in New York to wait for news. Traveling west from Chicago on horseback through the virgin prairie, he came to the junction of two Indian trails in a grove of Oaks and there made his camp. The placing of his claim for that land was the beginning of “Downer’s” Grove.
In 1834, their 22-year-old daughter Adeline came from New York to keep house for her father. Pierce’s wife, Lucy, had stayed back East to tend to their children, then joined her husband in 1836 bringing their youngest child still at home (Elon) with her.
The Downer’s farmed their land and paved the way for more pioneers to settle in the area. Pierce and his steadily arriving new neighbors did the hard work of carving out a community, building new roads, and setting up the early infrastructure of the village.
“Pierce Downer was a leader among the hardy pioneers, not only because he was the first to arrive in this small settlement but also because of his exceptional qualities. He was an agriculturist of an advanced type and a man of broad education and liberal principles. It is said that his library was the largest in this area. He was posted on all public questions but refused to be a candidate for public office. ‘Because of his reputation for honesty and fairness, he was often made arbiter of disputes arising from early settlers when courts of law were not accessible.’ As an acknowledged leader, his name had been given to both the township and to the village which grew around the grove.”
On the 25th day of March in 1863 at the age of 79, Lucy Downer died. The following day, Pierce Downer passed away at the age of 80. Due to heavy rains causing the swollen St. Joseph Creek to block their way to the Main Street Cemetery, they were laid to rest on the farm.
This Downer Burial Ground still exists and can be visited at 4520 Linscott Avenue, Downers Grove. The Pierce Downer House at 4437 Seeley is a landmarked house and the original site of the Downer water well can be found across the street in front of 4448 Seeley Avenue.
Contributed by Liz Chalberg