One of the oldest, if not the oldest, Universalist communities in Illinois was that at the little village of Dayton in La Salle County. Founded about one hundred years ago by Pioneers from Licking County, Ohio, most of whom were of the Universalist faith, it became a landmark for northern Illinois. While it never outgrew its status as a village, yet at one time its mills and factories were full of industry and its manufactured products were well known throughout the state.
As a member of the Green family, one of the early pioneers, I am able to contribute a few reminiscences of the early days of Universalism in that section of the state. Among the early Universalist preachers whom I remember were the following:
The Rev. Erasmus Manford of Chicago, who occasionally came down to our little village and preached some interesting sermons. My father, a lifelong Universalist, was a regular subscriber for many years of Manfred’s Magazine, a very fine family periodical. All of our copies of the magazine were saved and stored away in an upstairs closet, and afterward were put into shape and bound in volumes by some members of our family when the weather was too cold for outdoor pleasures. The magazines were not filled with advertisements as are the magazines of today, but contained excellent reading matter both for old and young. How we miss such magazines in this enlightened age! When I was young we considered them very interesting reading.
I believe Mr. Manfred’s wife was also associated with him in his magazine work in Chicago.
Another popular Universalist minister whom I remember was the Rev. Jacob Straub, who was located at Marseilles, a few miles east of our village, and who preached for us also in Dayton. Mr. Straub was a very fine man and gave us some interesting and instructive sermons. He had a brother, S. W. Straub, in Chicago, who was a fine musician, and a music publisher and composer of gospel songs.
The Rev. A. H. Laing preached at Earlville, fifteen or twenty miles northwest of Dayton, and later on was pastor at Marseilles and at Joliet. He was a comparatively young man when he first preached at Dayton. He was well liked and preached some good sermons full of interest and gospel teachings. He used to come down from Earlville in the spring on fishing trips. Dayton at that time was a fine fishing place, and people used to come there from many miles around, camping out for a few days or a week along the banks of the Fox River. I have seen at least 200 people there at one time. The state maintained a dam across the river about a half mile above the village, and in the spring of the year when the game fish were running up stream to spawn they were very hungry and voracious and were anxious to get hold of the fisherman’s bait. On account of the dam across the river the fish could not go up stream any farther, thus making good sport for the many anglers. So our Izaak Walton lover, the Rev. A. H. Laing, soon learned where the good fishing grounds were, and came down from Earlville quite frequently to indulge in the sport, and incidentally to preach us a good sermon.
The Rev. Mr. Gibbs and wife both preached at Dayton and vicinity for a short time. Mr. Gibbs moved to another pastorate. Mrs. Gibbs preached for us for some time. Both were well liked and held many successful meetings.
The Rev. J. M. Day of Marseilles preached often in Dayton, and he and his excellent family were often entertained at our house. Later on he was elected county superintendent of schools of La Salle County.
An attempt was made about this time to establish a Universalist church in Ottawa, four miles from Dayton, and the county seat. Funds were raised in Dayton and among those of the liberal faith in Ottawa to fit up an old building, and a minister was called, but as he peoved to be of the Unitarian belief he failed to get the support of his Universalist members, and the church finally closed its doors.
There was no church building in Dayton, so the services were held in the schoolhouse, men sitting on one side of the school room and the women on the other, old-fashioned style.
Most of the early settlers of Dayton and vicinity came from Licking County, Ohio, and were of the Universalist faith. They supported liberally the church services, church papers and magazines, schools and colleges. When Lombard University needed financial assistance at any time, her representatives were always well received by our people and generous contributions made. Scholarships were purchased and some of our Dayton young people attended Lombard and received a portion of their education there.
An annual grove or outdoor meeting was held by the Universalist people of this vicinity at Debolt’s Springs, across the river a few miles. All of the families in the neighborhood would take their picnic lunches, and after a good sermon by the local or visiting minister, under the beautiful trees in the grove near the Sulphur springs, a general visiting time would take place around the well-filled tables or on the ground. Young and old certainly enjoyed the day, and looked forward to it each year with lively anticipation.
At that time the Universalist faith was looked upon by members of other denominations as being almost atheistic, and if a union of churches had been talked of, as at present, Orthodox church members would have held up their hands in horror. But while all sorts of church scandals would develop in other denominations, our good Universalists would live model lives, contribute to every worthy cause, and impress upon the community the fact that their religious belief was a matter of deeds and not words.
At one time the Greens, who owned the water power at Dayton, were approached by a wealthy firm who proposed to construct a large distillery in Dayton for the manufacture of intoxicating liquor. It was a proposition which would have enriched the Green family and built up their little town of Dayton, but after thoroughly considering the proposition and realizing the misery and evils brought on by strong drink, they rejected it as being opposed to their life record as Universalists and teetotalers. No liquor was allowed to be sold in Dayton, and no sideboards were maintained by any of the old residents there. Such is the record of one of the oldest Universalist communities in northern Illinois. Last year  the 100th anniversary of the founding of this little village was duly celebrated, and was attended by 1,500 descendants of the early pioneers, many of whom were good Universalists.