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posted: 8/25/2012 10:08 AM

Stolp brought Aurora together on common ground

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  • An 1858 view of Aurora looking west across the island on Downer. The large building in front is Woolen Mills.

    An 1858 view of Aurora looking west across the island on Downer. The large building in front is Woolen Mills.
    Courtesy Aurora Historical Society

  • Joseph G. Stolp

    Joseph G. Stolp
    Courtesy Aurora Historical Society

  • This aerial view of Stolp Island was taken in 1950.

    This aerial view of Stolp Island was taken in 1950.
    Courtesy Aurora Historical Society

  • Joseph G. Stolp is buried at West Aurora Cemetery.

    Joseph G. Stolp is buried at West Aurora Cemetery.
    Courtesy Aurora Historical Society

By John Jaros
Aurora Historical Society

On May 17, 1837, Joseph G. Stolp set out from his home in Marcellus, N.Y., to seek his fortune in "the West" -- Illinois.

Relations already were living there and encouraged the move. Stolp, just short of 25 years old, had completed an apprenticeship, learning the wool manufacturing trade. He had invested in machinery and intended to start his own woolen mill operation.

Stolp was headed for a little village on the Fox River, west of Chicago, which recently had acquired the name "Aurora." It took 21 days to get to Chicago -- a thriving metropolis of 4,000 souls -- traveling first by boat on the Erie Canal to Buffalo, and from there on a sailing schooner through the Great Lakes to Chicago.

Being young and vigorous, Stolp decided to walk from Chicago to Aurora.

After two days, he arrived at the home of his brother, John, who lived in DuPage County, about four miles northwest of the village. The next day, June 12, 1837, Joseph Stolp first set foot in Aurora, a village of about 15 families.

His uncle previously had secured an island for him, and Stolp immediately went to live there. Later, when the government-owned lands went up for sale, the going rate was $1.25 an acre, and the price paid for the island was $12.72.

Within days of his arrival, Stolp was cutting timber for a woolen mill factory on the island, which went into operation that same year. In 1849, Stolp built a much more substantial brick factory, which was expanded in 1858.

At its peak operation, Joseph Stolp's Aurora Woolen Mills employed up to 150 people, mostly females, producing wool cloth and woolen goods. After mill operations there ceased in 1887, the building was leased to other businesses.

The old Woolen Mills no longer stands, destroyed by fire in 1906, but the Metropolitan Business College building (18-20 W. Downer) occupies its place. The old Woolen Mills Store on the southwest corner of Downer and Stolp still stands, as does the Dye House on the west edge of the island, south of Downer.

Stolp's Island took on greater importance when the towns of Aurora (east side) and West Aurora joined as the city of Aurora in 1857. Located in the center, it became the natural neutral ground, where most public buildings would be placed -- built on land donated by Stolp.

The post office, which had alternated between the east and west sides of the river, was moved to the island. The city hall (demolished in 1964) was opened there in 1866. That building for some time also housed the post office, a branch of the county court and the police department.

Just east of the city hall, the Grand Army of the Republic Memorial Hall was built in 1877-78. That building also housed the public library from 1882 to 1904.

Just west of city hall, on the southeast corner of Downer and Stolp, a grand post office building opened in 1896. Later, when both the library and post office moved into new structures, they remained on the island, just moving to the south.

A civic-minded businessman, Stolp truly was a town builder. He financed the 1866 construction of the three-story building that today houses galleries for the Aurora Historical Society and the Aurora Art Commission -- the David L. Pierce Art and History Center at 20 E. Downer.

In 1871, he donated land for Aurora's first YMCA, which stood two doors east of the Art and History Center.

He was a founder and major stockholder of the Aurora Silver Plate Manufacturing Company (the building stands on the northeast corner of Downer and Stolp). And he was a founder and officer of the First National Bank of Aurora.

Stolp retired from business and outlived all of the early pioneers of his generation. He died at his home on April 1, 1899, after a fall caused a ruptured blood vessel in the brain. He was four months shy of his 87th birthday. He is buried in West Aurora Cemetery.

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