There were other white and black pioneers connected with the early sawmill along the Des Plaines River in what’s now River Forest, but after a brief sojourn they all moved along further west. In the 1830s, Ashbel Steele (1794-1861) was the first permanent white settler.
Kindly, generous Renaissance man Steele and his wife, Harriet Dawley, arrived at “the beautiful woodland skirting the shores of the river of the plains” with their two sons and seven daughters while there were still Potowatomi living in the forest. Hailing from Connecticut, Steele had purchased a 117-acre tract of land, some located in what’s now Maywood on the west side of the Des Plaines River, but the bulk of which would become prime River Forest. Steele never plowed or grazed any of it.
A mason and builder by trade, he built their first brick home on the present site of Marshall Field’s in downtown Chicago before moving his family to River Forest. When they finally relocated out to River Forest they built a home in a clearing about where the Metra tracks are today, just west of Thatcher Avenue. Their house was furnished with mahogany pieces brought from the East aboard ship, including the first piano in the region. Most of their land is now part of the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
In the 1840s, as Lake Street (a former Indian trail) became a heavily used plank road connecting Elgin to Chicago, Steele built a combination home and inn on Lake Street between Thatcher and Keystone avenues.
Named Montezuma Hall (after an Ottawa Indian chief), the busy one-stop shopping enterprise offered a general store, a tavern, a post office and a stagecoach stop. Settlers came from 10 miles around to receive their mail from Steele after it was delivered by the Lake Street stagecoaches. The stagecoaches of the era held 10 passengers: nine inside and one up top with the driver. Steele had a huge painted sign of Gen. Winfield Scott, an officer during the Black Hawk “uprising,” on a white charger hanging outside his establishment.
The inn was a perfect rest stop, a day’s ride along the plank road (Lake Street) halfway between the Fox River Valley hinterland and Chicago. Overnight guests were charged 12 cents for a bed; breakfast cost 25 cents. Montezuma Hall was one of the only inns in the region where a guest didn’t have to share his bed with a stranger. Steele also sold rum, wine, gin and whiskey.
Steele was a businessman, craftsman, builder, law-enforcement officer and postmaster. He even served as both coroner and sheriff of Cook County. In 1859 he built the brick Harlem School, which still faces Lake Street at Park Avenue. This was the largest school building of its time between Chicago and Elgin. Today it houses the administrative offices for River Forest Dist. 90.
In 1995, the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest raised over $4,000 to replace the obelisk on Steele’s grave that had crumbled beyond repair in Forest Home Cemetery. There are many Steele descendents in the area.