The draining of Beaver Lake in northwest Indiana, brought about by Jennie's father, changed the area from marshland wilderness to agricultural land in less than 50 years.
Taken from “The Saga of Jennie M. Conrad,” written by Gerald Born in memory of his father and mother, John and Sarah Gay (Nichols) Born, who first met at Conrad school. From The Morocco Sesquicentennial Historical Collection, 2002.
No history of this area would be complete without telling the story of Jennie M. Conrad, for she and her father were responsible for altering the whole character of the region. The draining of Beaver Lake changed the country from marshland wilderness to agricultural land in less than 50 years.
Few people ever become legends in their own lifetime, but Jennie M. Conrad assumed a larger-than-life persona while living. Jennie M., as she became known, was a woman of sharp contrasts; sophisticated, urbane and well traveled on one hand, but fiercely possessive, aggressive and competitive in business and a tough and vengeful opponent, on the other. Whether dressed in the latest Paris fashion or attired in men’s clothing riding a buckboard around the borders of her property with shotgun in hand she appeared equally at home in the city or on the rough American frontier.
At the height of her influence Jennie M. Conrad shipped thousands of hogs and cattle to market in Chicago, establishing herself as one of the major livestock producers in northern Indiana. As the largest breeder of Spotted Poland-China hogs in the nation, her reputation became international. Conrad was the center of her operation.
Jennie M.’s father, Lemuel Milk, known as the “Prairie King,” by shrewd dealings had carved from the marshes and prairies of northern Illinois and Indiana an empire of 40,000 acres. He became one of the richest men in the region. He even equipped a regiment for Lincoln during the Civil War. Jennie M. attempted to follow in his footsteps, but had two strikes against her. First, she was a woman in an era when women were not expected to be proficient in business. Secondly, she could not abide most common people, often provoking them into hostile and destructive actions.
Jennie Minerva Milk was born June 5, 1855, at Milk’s Grove, Iroquois County, Illinois. Having the advantages of wealthy parents, Lemuel and Jane Ann (Platt) Milk, Jennie M received her early education at a French convent school at St. Mary’s (now Beaverville, Illinois), where she became fluent in French, and her business education at the Dearborn Business School in Chicago. Part of her training must have been frequent trips to her father’s farms as she was well acquainted with animal husbandry and land management.
Jennie M. credited her fortune, however, to her mother’s family -- the Platts -- and ignored any part her father might have played in contributing to her own wealth. Her maternal ancestor, Richard Platt, when he died in 1685 owned half of the real estate of Milford, Connecticut. She and her father, however, were so much alike in temperament and philosophy and shared so much of the same vision that the life of one cannot be understood without some comprehension of the life of the other. Both were people of vision and held tenaciously to their belief in the land and had a fierce determination to make it work to their advantage. In marked contrast, however, Lemuel Milk could compromise when necessary, while Jennie M. would not budge an inch. It was her uncompromising attitude that was the source of much of her inability to keep the hired help necessary to manage her farms and live at peace with her neighbors.
Recognizing that there were thousands of acres submerged under the shallow waters of Beaver Lake, Lemuel Milk purchased (with his wife’s money) the lake bottom when it was meandered and formulated plans to drain the great lake and the surrounding swamp land. Attempts to drain Beaver Lake, which was seven miles long, five miles wide, and ten feet deep, had been made as early as 1852 by the state, but it had only caused the shoreline to recede 10 feet.
The “Big Ditch” was dug in 1873, a deep channel connecting the northwest extreme of Beaver Lake to the Kankakee River, a distance of some four and a half miles. Jennie M. describes it in her own words, “Prior to the year 1873, my estate, now named Oak Dene Farms, was a part of Beaver Lake, Newton County, Indiana, and mostly covered with water, in some places 10 feet or more deep, and all of a swampy character. During that year, what is called the Big Ditch was completed, and the restraining dam opened, in the presence of a great assemblage, thereby releasing the water of Beaver Lake, which rushed into the Kankakee River, and this well known lake, home of myriads of wild fowl, with island harboring horse thieves and fugitives from justice, was completely wiped off the map, an epoch in the history of Indiana.”
The abundance of wildlife in Beaver Lake prior to the “Big Ditch” was mind-boggling. Waterfowl came to Beaver Lake by the millions. They were so numerous that early settlers reported at daybreak each morning an eerie “boom” filled the air, a unique sound unlike any other sound or reverberation in nature or civilization. This continuous “boom” kept up for an hour or more until the sun was up and the whole region was awake and vibrating with life.
Waterfowl were not the only creatures that sought the abundant food supply of the lake, for it was home to the gray wolf, the beaver, the white tailed deer, the Passenger Pigeon and the Bald Eagle. Hunting parties came from as far away as New York City and even England to enjoy the bountiful harvest of wildlife. The wintertime was the harvest time of the year, as the fur-bearing animals were eagerly sought for their pelts...
Lemuel Milk died at the age of 73 in 1893. His second wife, Mae and daughter, Mary, were beneficiaries of the will. Jennie M., 38, received $1. From that day on she seldom mentioned the name of her father, nor did she trust many men after that. (It is worth noting that when Jennie M. named the streets of her town for close family members the name of her father is conspicuously absent, as were those of her stepmother and half-sister.)
To add to Jennie M.’s grief, her husband, George E. Conrad, died in 1896 at the age of 58. She then was left a widow at the age of 41. Her support system had been practically wiped out in less than 20 years. She was left with the least desirable of her father’s properties and saw his empire being sold off piece by piece. She could easily have despaired, but such was not the case with Jennie M.
Her attitude about the farm was summarized in an article she wrote for Hoosier Farmer in 1922, and may reflect her assessment of her own situation in 1896. “Now a woman left widowed does not have to be planted among her relatives or take in sewing and washing. She can buy a cow or two, or a few pure bred pigs and go back to her farm and let nature do the rest. In pioneer days women were confined to the interior of the home and from dawn until dusk she toiled. Her work was never finished until the grave yawned.
“Now it is quite different. The country is giving women their place in the life of the nation, and no more is it considered out of the ordinary for women to engage in the livestock industry. The best asset for any woman of the farm is the hog. If she will stick to her job of breeding and selling the best she will not be worried about finances.
“Many women will stroke a cat or cuddle a dog, and shrink from a pig. Not every woman is mentally constructed to engage in the hog business or other livestock raising, but there are few who school themselves to earn compensation far in excess to that obtained in many other lines where women have succeeded. I have no hesitation in advising women to engage in the livestock industry. If she does take it up, she should stay on the job, for the eye of the master is what prevents loss in this day of undependability of labor. So go to it, girls!”
She named her farm Oak Dene after the abundant groves of white and black oak that covered the sandy ridges extending for two or three miles from the shore of Beaver Lake. Dene is a British word that means a bare tract of low sandy hills near the sea.
In 1905, at the age of 50, Jennie M. entered the plan of the town with county officials and thereby started a venture that created a great deal of activity in the rural Indiana countryside for the next 30 years.
The town of Conrad was planned for a very practical reason: Jennie M. needed a place nearby to ship her cattle, produce and manufactured goods to market. Prior to the building of the town, Jennie M. took her cattle to Roselawn and had them shipped on the Monon Line, the only nearby station at that time.
As part of the negotiations, the Chicago, Indiana and Southern Railroad consented to have passenger trains stop at Conrad, if Jennie M. agreed to build a depot. Much of the life of the town revolved around the depot, which was constructed of concrete blocks produced in her own factory. It had three rooms, a baggage room to the south, a waiting room to the north and a room for the station agent in between, where the telegraphy equipment was kept and the messages were sent along the line.
The hotel in Conrad was located directly east of the depot on Brevoort Street. It was a two-story frame structure and had 18 rooms. It was used by people who had business to conduct in the vicinity of Conrad. On the first floor were an office, dining room and a large kitchen across the rear, along with a small parlor and other rooms.
The post office and general store were located in a two-story cement block building seventy-five feet long and forty feet wide. The post office was located in the south end of the building and contained about thirty boxes for mail. People would come there on horseback and in their buggies to get the mail.
On the north side of Jane Street and east of the tracks was located the blacksmith’s shop. Here horses were shod and wagons repaired. Back of the smith’s shop stood several houses, where employees of Jennie M. lived.
Although the population never exceeded a hundred, it is difficult to imagine the bustle of the town now, as nothing remains but crumbling foundations. It is almost as if the town never existed.
Jennie M.’s final days were spent with a niece in Rensselaer. Jennie M. died at the Jasper County Hospital August 9, 1939. Her remains rest in the family crypt at Mound Grove Cemetery, Kankakee.