Kane County History: An Aurora Valentine's Story For The Ages

Kane County History: An Aurora Valentine’s Story For The Ages

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

“I once knew you, but men change in the west …”

This was probably not the reply 25-year-old William Tanner, newly settled in the Aurora area, was hoping for when he wrote, around 1839 or 1840, to propose marriage to a woman back home in New York.

After all, he was a likely-enough suitor. He had found plenty of work as a surveyor, managed to acquire as many as 350 acres of land, build a log house, move his parents and seven siblings to Illinois and set them up with their own farm, acquire cattle, and bring in several crops of wheat, oats, corn and potatoes.

He had weathered some bad luck, true, including having his 1838 crop burn up entirely in a prairie fire, and going into debt to help his large family. But he was a hard worker who had made a decent start as a landowner and farmer on the rich prairie of what was called, at the time, the far West.

And he was very interested in marriage as the next step toward a happy life.

But consider that Anna Plum Makepeace (born 1810), a 29-year-old schoolteacher in Pamelia Township, NY, very likely had known little or none of this and was probably blindsided by his letter. Her reaction certainly sounds as if she hadn’t heard from him since he left, and this proposal of marriage came out of the blue.

But, as we shall see, she was entirely up to the challenge it presented her.

She responded, “I once knew you but men change in the west in five years. You will have to get five or six men’s names to this paper I send you that are Responsible men and I will consider the matter.“

They had both grown up in the area of Watertown in upstate New York, but historical records do not tell how the two knew each other, or the nuances of their relationship. Nor do we know what was written on *this paper*, although William later wrote that he felt Anna’s reply “meant business” and “such a one would do to tie to.”

Business, indeed, not a whiff of romance. But those were the times, and William was unfazed. He got the signatures.

“The answer came,” he wrote later in life, and it must have been yes, because at 8 a.m. on July 9, 1840, the two 20-somethings were saying “I do” at the Makepeace farm and at noon boarding a Lake Ontario sailing schooner that would take them through the Great Lakes to Illinois and a new life together.

Portraits of Love


Today we picture them primarily as septuagenarians because of their 50th-anniversary photo portraits, which hang in the parlor of the Tanner House Museum.

We know them as the prosperous parents of 10 children and grandparents of many more, as owners of one of the finest houses in Victorian Aurora, and as the modest, hardworking, church-going owners of Tanner Hardware. But first, they were newlyweds, taking a chance on each other and the future.

Picture Anna aboard that schooner, heading deeper and deeper into the heartland, and farther and farther from everything she had ever known. Anna had “doubts and fears,” one of her sisters later wrote, and why not?

She had just promised lifelong devotion to a man she did not know well, and was on her way with him to a place she had never seen. She had given up her home, her family and her occupation to become a farm wife in a log house in Illinois, where she would know no one but her in-laws.

No matter how prudently she had examined this offer from William, she still needed courage to marry him.

And just maybe a taste for adventure.

We’ll never know, but perhaps as the sails of that ship billowed with the wind, Anna’s heart lifted, too, with the thrill of possibilities and new beginnings. It was just a year later that she once again showed a willingness to head west for a new life.

A loan she had made in her single days had gone sour, and, strapped for cash, Anna and William contemplated picking up stakes and looking for surer opportunities in Texas. A less-adventuresome brother wrote to her from New York, expressing concern and saying, “I think you are far enough from home now.” Anna was not just far from home, but also had a newborn child, Thomas Eugene, the first of their 10 children.

To Anna’s courage and taste for adventure we must now add strength and self-confidence.

The couple stayed in Aurora, and it wasn’t long before things turned around for them. Later in life, Anna wrote that she had soon invested her “little savings” into 109 acres of land and furnished their house “comfortably.”

Seventeen years later, when their youngest child was 3 years old, Anna was furnishing another house, and this time much more than comfortably.

Their big, impressive city house, now the Tanner House Museum, commanded the corner of Cedar Street and Oak Avenue in a pleasant neighborhood of Aurora, and from it Anna and William oversaw the growth into adulthood of their nine surviving children, as well as the establishment of Tanner Hardware, destined to become Aurora’s longest-running business. It closed in 1979 after 124 years.

The story that began with a cautious response to an unexpected marriage proposal turned out well.

Anna outlived William by eight years, dying in the house in 1900 at the age of 89. In 1936 two of her daughters, the twins Martha and Mary, donated the house to the Aurora Historical Society.

Today the Tanner House Museum is open free of charge to the public during the summer months. In 2019, the house will be open Wednesday and Sunday afternoons from June 2 to Sept. 29 and again for the holiday season from Dec. 8 to Dec. 29. Donations are appreciated.

There is more information at http://www.aurorahistory.net, on Facebook at aurorahistory, and on Instagram at aurorahistory.

Read The Kane County History Series!