By Kathi Kresol
People may recognize the name Wheeler from road signs around the city of Belvidere. Fewer people know that the road was named after Walton Wheeler, a man who was murdered in 1934.
Walton Wheeler lived with his wife, Floretta and their eight children on a farm five miles north of Belvidere. Walton once owned 1,000 acres of land in Illinois and another 500 acres in Wisconsin and was considered one of the richest men in the county. It was said that some of that land was acquired when Walton loaned money to men and foreclosed on their property when they couldn’t pay him back.
Some men would have used that money to furnish their family with a fine home. But this, as with most of things concerning Walton, was contrary to the way he lived. The family resided in an old farmhouse that was described in the newspapers of the day as squalid. His children supposedly dressed in rags.
But his family loved him and forbade any ill talk of the man. People respected their wishes, in their presence, anyhow. There was much said about Walton Wheeler whenever folks gathered out of the family’s earshot, of course. Some of those stories have survived, even after all this time.
There is the story of how Walton almost got himself lynched one day. It happened when crews were working on Highway 76 which ran past the Wheeler home. The men had been around for weeks and had been silent witnesses to the Wheeler’s family life. They grew concerned for the safety of Floretta and the children. It must have concerned them quite a bit. This was during the time of the depression and prohibition. Most folks minded their own business and for these men to put that aside and act upon what they had seen was quite brave.
One day the workers had seen enough and they grabbed Walton and drug him to a large tree that stood in his front yard. They threw one end of the rope over a strong limb of the tree. The other end, fashioned into a noose was placed around Walton’s neck. It was fortunate for Walton that a supervisor arrived at that moment to check on the worker’s progress on the road. Whether the men meant this to scare Walton or were serious about hanging him, this story is remembered as well as the event that was to come.
A couple of months before he died, Walton seemed to become frightened. He was more cautious and spoke to Floretta about his feeling of being followed. There were unidentified noises out in the farmyard at night and strange whistles were heard. Walton insisted the whistles were men signalling each other. Floretta reported later that she just brushed these stories aside and didn’t take them seriously.
On April 11 at 7:30 p.m. Walton’s 15 year-old daughter Hazel was in the barn doing chores when she heard a strange low whistle. She was startled to hear a car in the driveway. Hazel crept to the doorway in time to see four men with scarves covering their lower faces.
The men yelled for her father. Walton came out of the house and walked down the stairs. The men rushed him and began to beat him. Hazel screamed and ran to her father’s aid only to be met by a shotgun. Floretta must have been watching from inside because she rushed from the house. The man who was holding a shotgun on Hazel then turned the gun on Floretta and insisted that both women go back inside. He forced them to the house at gunpoint.
As the door shut behind them, they heard Walton yell as he broke away from the other men. He made it to the steps before they opened fire. Four shots rang out. Two found their mark and it must have seemed like a miracle a moment later when Walton drug himself into the house. He died on the floor surrounded by his children. The four men jumped into their car and sped away.
Police searched for weeks and many motives were developed. Unfortunately, there were too many motives and too many suspects that wanted Walton dead. Some folks theorized the men that Walton had foreclosed on might have committed the deed, while others thought the mob had something to do with it. The police searched the house and found $6,000 hidden in coffee cans and other hiding places throughout the house. Walton had over $800 in his wallet at the time of his death. A new theory was developed that men had been sent to kidnap Walton for ransom.
There were other theories about Walton’s ties with the mob. Police knew that Walton had problems with another money lender in town. “‘Fifty Percent” Al Benham (so named because he promised a fifty percent return to investors) threatened Walton because people turned to Walton instead of him for loans.
The family was given police protection for a short time in case the men returned. But soon the guards left and the clues dried up. Though suspects were found and questioned throughout the years, nothing was even proven. Walton’s death remains unsolved after all these years.
Local author and historian, Kathi Kresol will be presenting some of these types of stories on Sunday, March 12 at 2 p.m. at the Midway Village Museum. Tickets information can be found at midwayvillage.com/midway-events.html.