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Archaeology of Fermilab

FermiNews article on the Pioneer Cemetery (PDF format, see page 8)


Before Weston

Before there was ever a national laboratory or a town called Weston, the area nestled between modern day DuPage and Kane counties was the domain of Illinois' Native Americans. The last area of the state to be settled, the land that extended from the southern tip of Lake Michigan west to the Mississippi was allotted to the Potawatomi, Sac, Fox and Winnebago tribes in an 1816 treaty. By 1832 the treaties and promises that had preserved the land for these Native Americans were broken and the result was the bloody Blackhawk War (1831-1832). The battle over the land culminated in Chicago in September of 1833. A council of local Indian tribes was called, and at its outset a white official announced that President Martin Van Buren had heard that these tribes wished to sell their land. Although the response from one Native American spokesman was "The Great White Father must have seen a bad bird which told him a lie. Far from wishing to sell our land, we wish to keep it," a treaty was signed at the end of the month which transferred the immense parcel of land to the government. Six years later, about one-twentieth of this land would become DuPage County.

The Native Americans began a slow exodus from the area that would soon be flooded with settlers. However, their legend was not lost. Statues of the passionate Indian "protest leader," Blackhawk, were erected. Despite his fiery dedication to the Native American cause, Blackhawk was eventually captured, and with President Andrew Jackson as his teacher, he learned the ways of his white conquerors.

The first whites to traverse the newly open land were French traders. These pioneers depended on a good relationship with the natives - for both protection and aid in hunting. The Frenchmen traded their powder, flint and shot, along with calico and other multicolored knick-knacks for the fur pelts of the Native Americans.

The next colorful character to emerge in the area was a French trader named DuPage. He tracked the Marquette-Joliet trail with a pack of French-Canadian trappers and settled at a river that would later bare his name. Tanned and smiling, the trader could speak the tongue of area Indians, and he celebrated with powwows, dancing and feasts. Though he is an obscure figure in history, DuPage's legend in Illinois was so well remembered that a county and a river were named for him.

The DuPage-Kane County area's early settlers have made an indelible mark on the land. The first white settlers resided near the Fermilab site. In 1832, Jude and Erustus Gary ventured to the area, and in 1837 their siblings, Rev. Charles and Orinda Gary joined their brothers. The family established a Methodist class near the junction of present day Gary's Mill Road and Illinois Rt. 59. The settlement of Winfield Township in 1850 foreshadowed future attempts to start towns in the area, but when the railroad bypassed the town, it failed. Erustus Gary's son, Elbert, attended Gary's Mill School, a one-room schoolhouse. Later he became a judge and official of the United States Steel Corporation, and the town of Gary, Indiana is named for Elbert. John Warne Gates was also a graduate of the school. Known as "Bet-a-Million," Gates' daring business ventures in barbed wire, steel, and oil brought him from poverty to riches. His grandfather, John Warne, also contributed to the area. "The Big Woods Pioneer" was a prominent member of the Big Woods Protection Society, a group that prevented the "jump-in and hoppin'" of claims. He also planned county roads and served as Postmaster of the Big Woods.

Christopher Columbus Payne was Kane county's first settler, and he also lived near the Big Woods that now border the Fermilab site. An adventurer, he brought his wife, six children and some potato seeds to his new home. Later, he built the first dam across the DuPage River for the Naper Brothers' Sawmill.

Early politicians included Col. Julius Warren. He was the founder of the Big Woods Claim Protection Society and as an elected representative from the county to the legislature, he helped improve the area. In addition, Warren founded the city of Warrenville.

After the early pioneers came and settled in DuPage and Kane Counties, the area welcomed settlers who ranged in origin from German, Irish, English, and Dutch to Luxemburgers and Swedish. Even with its array of nationalities, the farm country created a close knit community that shared fall festivals, holiday celebrations and square dances. The farmers worked hard and lived simple lives.

The area's history resurfaced in the early 1900s. Augie Mier was on a hunting trip when he located a gravestone reading "General Thompson Mead" purely by accident. The General had fought in the War of 1812 and later settled in the Kane County area with his son. Now, Fermilab is preserving the cemetery.

Residents lived in the area where Weston was founded right up until the decision was made to build the new accelerator there. Many of the people whose families had settled the land left it knowing that a new breed of pioneer would inhabit the land.

Weston: the little village that couldn't

Though the pioneer past of the Weston area is long and varied, the story of the town itself did not begin until after World War II. The prosperity of post-war America brought an exodus from city to new suburbs, and the rush of construction created new towns all over the country.

West Field, Weston's predecessor, was a one-hundred-home subdivision built in the 1960s. When the developer's money ran out, West Field's money ran out. Though the government took control of the town, the people stayed. They purchased their homes from the government and fought for status as the town of Weston. Ultimately, the small community hoped to gain independence from the county.

A new developer's grandiose plan to transform Weston into a self-contained city of 50,000 hurried the move for zoning changes and annexation of the land. However, nearby communities worried about the new plan. They objected to the mobile home site that was to be erected, feared that the school system would be overburdened by the influx of people, and seriously doubted that the developer had the money to back his scheme. DuPage county officials were also squeamish about the arrangement, and they tried to halt it through the legal system.

After five court case postponements, the plan for the new city was withdrawn. However, the village put officials in place and elected a President, Arthur Theriault. Eventually, the town was incorporated.

It would seem that the people of Weston had finally gotten what they wanted all along, but it would not last for long. The state's attorney immediately contested the ruling on a technicality, and the lower court's decision was overturned.

Meanwhile, the resilient residents of Weston refused to give up the fight for incorporation, and the village officials operated without a budget or wages. Theriault and attorney Sam LaSusa went to the Supreme Court to fight for incorporation.

Theriault was also hoping to encourage village growth. After talking to Northern Illinois Gas Company and Argonne National Laboratory, Theriault contacted the United States Atomic Energy Commission. From the AEC, he got criteria books for the search for the site of a new accelerator laboratory. Theriault immediately sent a letter with statistics on the land around Weston to the commission.

Illinois officials also wanted Weston to be the site of the laboratory. Unbeknownst to the villagers a group of members of the National Academy of Sciences made an inspection of the site. The next inspection was made with the knowledge of the village, although the village president was the only person to greet this group. On April 8, 1966, the AEC arrived to look over the area again, but this time a fanfare of color guards, fire trucks and a band welcomed them.

The AEC eventually narrowed its site selection list to eighty-five and then to six. Miraculously, the town of Weston was still on this final list. Back in the town, trouble was brewing. While villagers were filled with excited enthusiasm that the laboratory might come to their town, farmers were protesting that the village had not spoken for their interests.

On December 16, 1966, the AEC announced that Weston would be the site of the National Accelerator Laboratory.

The delight of the victory was short. After the Supreme Court granted incorporation to Weston, the boundaries of the site ignited a new controversy. Weston had planned to reside right outside of the new laboratory, but the AEC plans had Weston as part of the site. In order to preserve the town, the villagers would have to move their homes across railroad tracks, but they would have to fight the county again.

Caught once more in a web of technicalities, the village was prohibited from moving. The residents were forced to sell their homes and land to the state, and the village sighed its last breath. In the end, many people were angered by the situation, while others took a hopeful approach.

Theriault recalled, "Those were formidable years. No matter how many times people tried to wipe us out, when the village finally died it made way for something so big and so important no one can say it wasn't worth it."