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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Have you ever heard of Aylmer Keith?


Not many residents of Naperville have ever heard of Aylmer Keith who lived from 1802 to 1855.

Born Feb. 16, 1802, in Rome, Oneida County, New York, Aylmer was the son of the Reverend William Keith, a Methodist Minister, and Sally Tibbets.

Aylmer was a patriotic American and served in the 8th Regiment Artillery of Oneida County in 1821.

He and Eliza Dennison Wylie were married on September 25, 1822 in Oneida County, established their home there and set about raising a family.

Aylmer operated a grocery store in Rome, New York, and served as a member of Fire Company No. 2 in the mid 1820’s. He later moved to Mount Morris, New York, and operated an insurance business and served as the Treasurer of Mount Morris in 1835.

The recession ending in 1838 and the beginning of the depression that began in 1839 were the likely impetus for Aylmer to move west to escape the financial problems the country was experiencing. Land was being sold for $1.25 an acre and he recognized the opportunity to be able to support his family by moving west.

Arriving in Naperville in 1839 with his wife Eliza and their three children (Charles Wylie, Sarah Maria and Aylmer Dennison), Aylmer opened a pharmacy and dry goods store on what was then Water Street, now Chicago Avenue, just east of Main Street. The building was located next to what is now the Empire, Burgers and Brew.

In no time, Aylmer became involved with the DuPage County Bible Society and was appointed as Secretary of their Executive Committee in early 1841. He was also instrumental in forming the Methodist Society in DuPage County.

He was appointed Clerk of the DuPage County Society for Mutual Protection in 1841, a group that was formed to protect land owners from claim jumpers.                                                                                                                                             

Tragedy struck in 1841. On April 29, 1841, his baby daughter, Eliza Dixon died. His wife Eliza passed away four weeks later on May 26, 1841, and both his daughter and wife were buried in the original cemetery located at the northeast corner of Washington Street and Benton Avenue.

Aylmer married Janette Maria Wight on September 28, 1841, and they became the parents of five children—William Henry, Julia Maria, Edwin Wight, Franklin Botts and Mary Wight.

Aylmer and other prominent members of the community decided that the cemetery should be moved; preferably to a location on the outskirts of town. George Martin donated the land at the South West corner of Washington Street and Hillside Avenue and those interred in the original cemetery were moved to the new location. Aylmer drew up the plot layout for the cemetery and then served as the first Secretary/Clerk, from March of 1842 until his death.

Aylmer also began an insurance brokerage and bank in the late 1840’s along with his pharmacy and dry goods operation.

He served as a delegate to the Chicago River and Harbor Convention, July 5-7, 1847, which met to discuss keeping the Chicago Harbor open so that Chicago would remain the main point for goods to be shipped from the East to the West.

In 1848, the Mexican War ended and the Anti-Masonic Party in the East had disintegrated. Aylmer and other prominent members of the community, who were Freemasons, founded the Masonic Lodge, Euclid Lodge No. 65, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. The Lodge received their Charter on October 2, 1849, and the first officers were: Aylmer Keith, Master, Joseph Naper, Senior Warden; Nathan Allen, Junior Warden; Lewis Ellsworth, Treasurer; and Dr. Calvin C. Barnes, Secretary. On October 3, 1851, Euclid Chapter No. 13, Royal Arch Masons received their Charter and Aylmer served as its first presiding officer.

Aylmer was a partner with Joseph Naper and other investors in the Plank Road in 1850. When the Plank Road failed, he and Joseph Naper were also part of a partnership in the Chicago, Sterling and Mississippi Railroad Corporation in 1853. He served as the Secretary for both of these organizations.     

His experience and good reputation as a banker led to The Merchants and Mechanics Bank of Chicago appointing Aylmer as a director in 1851.

Aylmer was appointed the Postmaster of Naperville on February 2, 1852, and served in that position for one year.       

He died November 15, 1855, in Naperville, DuPage County, Illinois and was buried in the Naperville Cemetery. Two hundred Masons from Chicago and the surrounding towns were present at his funeral. The Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Illinois performed the Masonic Funeral service.

Aylmer’s original grave marker was made from limestone from the local quarry and by 1950 it was no longer decipherable due to the ravages of time and weather.

In February, 2017, the Naperville Masonic Temple Association made the arrangements and paid for a new marker for Aylmer and his first wife Eliza and had it erected on their grave site so that there would be a permanent monument for a man who gave so much to our community in its earliest history.

—First in a series by Tim Ory, Historian, Euclid Lodge No. 65, Naperville, Illinois.

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Tim Ory
Tim Ory
Tim Ory is a fifth-generation Naperville native, descended from Francois Sebastien Ory, who immigrated to America from Alsace Lorraine, France, in 1844. Signing off as "Tim Ory, Historian, Euclid Lodge No. 65 Ancient Free & Accepted Masons," Tim adds that he continues to research the History of the Masonic Lodge and Naperville every day. Contact him at tjory@sbcglobal.net.