A scattering of cabins among islands of tree groves on a sea of prairie grass greeted the Dunton family in 1837. The water table was high, the soil was rich and a Potawatomi Indian trail worn with deep wagon ruts connected to the Military Road down to Chicago.
Asa Dunton's son, William, laid out a town grid and, in 1852, persuaded the Illinois and Wisconsin Railroad to lay a track diagonally through his vision of "downtown."
By 1854, the town named West Wheeling had a freight shed and Dr. Frederick T. Minor opened a general store where a wolf pelt could get you a sack of seed corn. The little wide space on the railroad track was ready for business.
Answering a desperate need, Stephen Briggs opened the Wheeling House Saloon in 1855 at Evergreen and Campbell streets, providing the working man a tasty beverage at day's end and accommodations for seed and farm implement "drummers" who plied the region's farms.
The lots along Campbell Street formed a triangle parallel to the railroad and became the Union Hotel, Saloon and stable, a man cave haven for transients and locals looking to pass some time with the pasteboards. By the time of the Civil War in 1860, storefronts lined the dirt streets and wagon parking was a problem.
Though steam traction engines showed up on the farms, horses still hauled people and property. Downtown streets had to be wide enough to turn a wagon with a span of mules or horses and businesses had to provide hitching rails for private transportation.
Blacksmith shops were a town fixture, and as the internal combustion engine had "Bessie" traded in for a Ford, some turned to auto repair. As the town grew, businesses worked with the village to stay abreast of new demands and technology.
To spare customers the grim trudge through muck and manure -- Dunton Street was called "Canal Street" for years -- wood sidewalks were raised four feet. A fire in 1874 destroyed four frame stores on the west side of Dunton Street north of Campbell Street. A surplus of bricks from the Northbrook kilns made for the Great Chicago Fire damage of 1871, was shipped to Dunton and the "brick block" of shops was created.
By 1898 the streets were graded and layered with gravel for better drainage, and from 1902 to 1904 a new storm sewer preceded the first sanitary sewer in 1912, doing away with outdoor privies and building new homes, shops and boardinghouses in town with indoor plumbing.
Businesses thrived as the telephone exchange arrived between 1909 and 1929. Imagine having the phone number "12." Keeping customers coming downtown was challenged by mail order catalogs. There was considerable relief when shopping hours in the dark winter holiday months were extended by the installation of gas lamps blazing up and down the streets.
With the growth of business and services came the explosion of new homes, churches, schools, banks and the infrastructure that held it all together.
After 125 years, Arlington Heights is still in business.