Red light pause leads to thoughts of pioneer William Dunton

Posted10/21/2014 4:01 PM

Waiting for the light to change at Northwest Highway and Arlington Heights Road recently, I was bemused, making conversation with William Dunton who stands at that corner, rain or shine, waiting for my visits. Well, in a sense.

What I knew was that, as a boy, William Dunton had stood at that very spot, surveying the gorgeous prairie grasses waving, as visitors before him had said, like the waves in the sea, but altogether more redolent with the perfume and beauty of multitudinous flowering plants.


Because I'd read in the Daily Herald only that week that bison were being reintroduced to Illinois prairies, I would have asked Mr. Dunton (if I were really talking with him) if there were bison when his family first came to the area in 1836.

He would have told me that, no, there were no bison on the first prairies he knew. Bison were all gone from Illinois by 1830. Père Marquette had seen them when he came exploring in 1673, but by 1830 they were a memory.

William Dunton could have told me more. He could have described the Oswego, New York, of his childhood; how his family had moved to Illinois looking for soil more verdant and less stony than the worked-over soil of his birthplace; how they settled, like everyone who came West, in a grove of trees. In the case of the Duntons, it was Deer Grove. From there his father scouted out high ground for his claim and found three plots of 160 acres each, one for him, one for William, and one for his son James.

For those who follow the story of Arlington Heights' beginnings, the saga of the Duntons securing their claims, moving to Lemont, Illinois, to cut stone and William coming back to his claim alone when he was 25, is overly familiar.

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What is new to me is my astonishment -- -- it had hit me for the first time -- at how young William Dunton was when he returned to his claim. He was totally alone. No neighbors. No houses. No churches, No stores. No pets. Not even any bison.

He soon married Almeda Wood of Plum Grove and built her a house of dressed lumber. Now there were two alone on the prairie. But not for long. This 25-year-old had flair, imagination and drive. William Dunton did not look at lush prairie soil and think, "cucumbers."

A man of his time, he thought "railroad" and of platting out a village, and having neighbors and stores and churches and schools. For a young man, he had an amazing vision of what could grow on the old Indian trail (now Arlington Heights Road) that ran through his property.

If the stoplight at Arlington Heights Road were always green, I'd probably zoom through unthinkingly, without even a "Hi, Bill." A red light gave me a chance to give William Dunton a high-five, which he richly deserved.