The spirit of daring and the love of adventure, in combination with a remarkable zeal for the spread of their religion, brought, during the period of exploration in America, a greater territory under the dominion of France than either England or Spain were able to claim. From the days of Marquette and Joliet the great Northwest was the scene of remarkable activity on the part of the French, and in particular were the Jesuit priests zealous in converting the Indians and establishing little centers of civilization throughout this great stretch of country. It, therefore, seems especially fitting that when Joseph Picquet decided to establish a Catholic settlement, he should have chosen a site in this territory. It is a rare thing now when a town can point to a man and say. “He is our founder,” but this is so in the case of Saint Marie and Joseph Picquet. When he first rode through this country on horseback there was not a house between Newton and Olney. With the spirit of the old French explorers burning within him, the young pioneer established the little Catholic colony, and then proceeded to build it up into a town. He built a sawmill, a flour mill, founded a general merchandise business, secured a postoffice, and later persuaded the railroad to run its line through the rapidly growing town. Therefore he was not only the founder, but the builder of Saint Marie, and the thriving city owes everything to the courage and energy, wisdom and foresight of this wonderful man.
Joseph Picquet was born in Hagineau, Alsace-Lorraine, on the 17th of March, 1816, the province being at that time a part of France. He was the son of James Picquet, also a native of Haginean, his birth having occurred in 1791. He was a merchant in the little French city but the wave of immigration that swept the province in the early thirties caused him to turn his eyes toward America. He came to this country and reached Saint Marie, The mother of Joseph Picquet was Cleophe Schifferstine, and she was married to James Picquet in 1812. Twelve children were born to this couple, of whom Joseph was the second child.
It might be of interest to quote from an old history a few words in regard to the Picquet family:
“The American Revolution, followed by that in France, the Napoleonic regime, the Bourbon return and the establishment of the first Republic served to direct the attention of the French people to America, The feeling was strong in Alsace and many from the province immigrated to America. Among others who shared this feeling was James Picquet, Sr., and brothers Schifferstine and Huff man. The families were well to do, but, desiring a freer air, determined to send some one to spy out the land. Joseph Picquet, then a lad of nineteen, was chosen. In September, 1835, he landed in New York. Ignorant of the language, he worked nine months in a Philadelphia business house to gain this preliminary education, In the early part of the following year he set out on horseback in quest of the promised land. In 1836 he returned to France and in July, 1837, came back with a colony of four families and twelve young people, about twenty-five persons in all. Mr. Picquet started the first store in 1838. In 1839 he erected a sawmill and later a grist mill was added. This being the only one in the section it had a patronage from a radius of forty miles. The settlement was known as the 'Colonie des Fre'res,' or the Colony of Brothers.”
Joseph Picquet received a good education in his native land. He first studied in the public schools of France and was then sent to the Jesuit College, at Fribourg, Switzerland, where he remained from 1828 until 1833. As has been told above, he came to America in 1835, and his trip out into the wilds of the west was taken the following year. On this first trip he was in the little town on the shores of Lake Michigan
which has since grown into the great commercial center of the country, Chicago. From there he rode on horseback all alone through the great wilderness until he had located the spot that he thought most favorable for his colony. The original land grant that he entered was in the name of his brothers and called for eleven thousand acres of land. When the little colony of French people first gazed upon the place that was to be their future home, on that hot summer day, they were filled with mingled joy and fear. The beauty and richness of the virgin country won from them extravagant expressions of delight; but, the strangeness, the vastness, the loneliness of it smote them with an unreasonable terror. The young Picquet had a difficult task before him but his enthusiasm and courage in the face of all difficulties carried the day, and they were soon as ardent in their devotion to the new country as he was. The first thing was to build homes, so Joseph Picquet's first building was a lumber mill, then the flour mill was erected, and this mill was in operation until 1860. Just as his grist mill .was the social center for miles around, so his store was the center of the life of the colony, and when in 1838, he was successful in having a postoffice established every weighty matter was first taken up in conclave held around the fire in the combined postoffice and store. Here it was that it was decided to change the name of the settlement from Colonie des Fre'res to Picquetteville, and here also the plans were laid for an interesting event that took place on the 28th of October, 1837, when Mr. Picquet and several others took their “guns in hand” and going to a little knoll near the home of Mr. Picquet dedicated the place to the Virgin Mary and since that time the town has been known as Saint Marie.
Mr. Picquet is a devout Catholic and he was instrumental in establishing the Catholic faith in all this section. The first masses were said in his house, and in 1841, the first church was built. This was a small frame structure, known as the Church of the Assumption. Now the parish consists of one hundred and thirty-five families, and in addition to their beautiful church have a fine school, under the charge of the Ursuline Sisters of Alton. The priest, Father Virnich, in the many good works that he has been able to accomplish has always looked upon Mr. Picquet as his main dependence, and even now goes to him for advice and assistance in straightening out the affairs of his people.
Probably no man had a better knowledge of the Southern Illinois country in its primitive days than had Mr. Picquet, for he was continually making trips through the wilds to interest the people in one project or another. On one of his journeys he carried a money-belt containing thirty thousand dollars, but with a good horse under him and a gun over his shoulder he felt equal to defying any one. Many a long ride did he take in his endeavor to interest the people of the section in the proposed railway. The task required all of his native French eloquence and enthusiasm and many a night did he spend with a stubborn farmer, trying to show him the tremendous advantage that would accrue to the country if a railroad should be put through. At last he saw his desire fulfilled and the rails were laid for the Danville, Olney and Ohio River Railway, which has since become the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton.
In 1860, after giving up the milling business, he still kept up a flourishing business in real estate and mortgages, and the responsibilities of the fortune that had come to him through the years took up much of his time. It was natural that after the days he had spent in behalf of the railroad he should have become one of its first directors. He retired from active business two years ago, but he is still, having reached the remarkable age of ninety-seven many times stronger and more active
than men twenty years his junior. He is a Democrat in his political affiliations, but has never held any political offices, except that of postmaster. He was the first postmaster, when Saint Marie was a little village, his first year of official service being 1838.
In April of 1844 Mr. Picquet was married to Rosine Mueller, of Boersch, Alsace, but his young bride only lived five months after her marriage. On the 20th of August, 1850, Mr. Picquet was married for the second time, his wife being Caroline Mueller, a sister of his first wife, who was likewise born in Boersch, Alsace, when it was a part of France. Eight children, two of whom are living, were born to Mr. and Mrs. Picquet. Louise is now Mrs. Reitz, of Evansville, Indiana, and Marie, who is unmarried. The death of Mrs. Picquet occurred on the 22d of February, 1900.
This is the story of a most unusual life, even though its subject lived in the times when men had to be heroes through force of circumstances. One must remember that Mr. Picquet was little more than a lad when he first brought his friends to this new country, yet they all looked up to him and leaned on his strong arm, both figuratively and literally. As the village grew he saw what should be the next step that ought to be taken in the direction of progress. When hard times came, he was ever ready with a smile and a cheery bit of optimism. Is it any wonder that the people who gathered about him almost worshipped him. What an opportunity he had to become rich at the expense of others, but' such a thought never crept into his mind. His great ambition was to see the town he had founded become prosperous, and to see his beloved Mother Church increase in strength and numbers. As it was in the days when his home was a little log shanty, so now when he lives in the most beautiful residence in the city, where every luxury of our highly developed modern civilization is at hand, he is still the center of the life of the community. All of the citizens of Saint Marie know that here they are welcome, and young and old, rich and poor, they come to seek the sympathy and counsel of the “Father of Saint Marie,” who is now in his ninety-seventh year.