Amos Kendall: Newspapering, the post office and the telegraph

My last post got me to thinking a little bit more closely about the post office and the role it’s played in the nation’s history, not to mention the history of Illinois in general and the Fox River Valley region in particular.

The postal service used to be a purely governmental service, considered so important to the nation that it is just about the only one enumerated in the Constitution. It is also just about the only U.S. Governmental service that was in operation before the nation was established.

On-going political efforts to cripple it have been going on for decades as the privatizing mania swept the nation. Back in the 1970s, the post office was changed from a purely governmental service to a separate money-making operation. Or that was supposed to be the plan, anyway. It was a plan destined for varying amounts of failure since post office workers continued to be employed by the U.S. Government and the post office remained under the control of Congress and thus subject to its political whims and pressure.

But despite the best efforts of its ideological opponents, the postal service just keeps soldiering on, delivering the mail six days a week everywhere in the country for the cost of a postage stamp.

Amos Kendall in an engraving showing what he looked like when serving as Postmaster General under Andrew Jackson, about 1835.

Interestingly enough, Kendall County has a direct, concrete tie to the post office: When it was established by an act of the Illinois General Assembly in February of 1841 from portions of Kane and LaSalle counties it was named after Amos Kendall, former Postmaster General and one of President Andrew Jackson’s most influential advisors.

Kendall County was first proposed to be named Orange County after the area in New York where many of the first settlers came from. But during the establishment process, the name was changed to Kendall County by the General Assembly’s house of representatives.

One of those voting in favor of the name change was Ill. Rep. Abraham Lincoln of Springfield. Since Lincoln was a Whig and Amos Kendall was a Democrat, Kendall must have had some extraordinary qualities.

Which he certainly did.

Amos Kendall was born in 1789, the same year the nation’s first President, George Washington, took office. His parents were farmers living near Dunstable in Middlesex County, Mass.

Kendall was plagued with ill health as a youngster, but nonetheless showed a studious disposition. The other members of the Kendall family, in fact, described him as the scholar of the family.

Amos Kendall graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Kendall attended public school near Dunstable, and then went on to college at Dartmouth. He apparently maintained a studious disposition and the standoffishness many sickly youngsters demonstrate. One classmate described Kendall as a “reserved, priggish boy” during his years at Dartmouth.

Kendall graduated from Dartmouth in 1811, and the young 22 year-old moved to Groton, Conn., where he took a job teaching in the community’s academy, the era’s name for a private high school. While working as a teacher, Kendall also read law with the aim of becoming an attorney.

But he apparently realized that a man without connections in New England, even with a college education, probably would not make a fortune. So he looked West, where there were definitely fortunes to be made.

Kendall decided to head west to Lexington, Ky. He certainly made the right connection when he arrived—he managed to befriend a young law student who turned out to be the great Henry Clay’s brother. This happy accident gave Kendall an entry into one of the most powerful political families in Kentucky.

Richard M. Johnson, military hero and later Vice President under Martin Van Buren.

Possibly through the Clays, Kendall met Col. Richard Johnson, the man credited with killing the great Indian military leader Tecumseh during the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812. Which was another—admittedly somewhat tenuous—connection with what eventually became Kendall County, because two of Tecumseh’s close advisors were Native American residents of the Fox Valley, chiefs Shabbona and Waubonsee. One of Waubonsee’s favorite village sites was at Oswego along the creek that still carries his name.

But back to Amos Kendall. With Johnson’s sponsorship, Kendall established a newspaper, the Argus of Western America, at Frankfort, Ky. Through Kendall’s writing skill and his good business sense, the Argus quickly became one of the most successful and influential newspapers in the West of that era.

In the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kendall “plunged into Kentucky journalism with celerity, quickly adapting himself to its rugged ways.”

Those “rugged ways” included the necessity of Kendall carrying a large knife and a pistol for personal protection. For an entertaining tale of frontier journalism of that era, read Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee,” told with Twain’s characteristic dryly outrageous humor. And possibly a touch of exaggeration.

In the real world of the 1820s West, Kendall’s editorial stances aligned him with Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, and in 1828, when the nation’s voters sent “Old Hickory” to Washington, D.C. as President, Kendall went along as part of Jackson’s staff.

Andrew Jackson tapped Amos Kendall to serve as Postmaster General.

He received an appointment as a Treasury Department auditor, quickly discovering his predecessor—happily a Jackson foe—had embezzled $280,000 in government funds. Kendall’s discovery proved to be an accomplishment that marked him for more important jobs in the future.

In fact he hit it off so well with Jackson, that he was soon included as part of the President’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” He also became one of Jackson’s favorite speech writers.

In 1833, Jackson engineered his appointment as Postmaster General. In that job, he reorganized the department’s finances, improved coverage and letter delivery speed, and put the post office on a paying basis for the first time in U.S. history.

Kendall used the profits he’d created to improve and expand postal service throughout the country, including instituting an express mail service that predated the famed, privately operated Pony Express by decades.

Kendall’s Express Mail service carried regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the main New York to New Orleans Great Southern Mail route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to quickly spread the news.

During that era, newspapers and the news they carried concerning local, state, and national government were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing that news spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today’s attitudes towards both government and the press.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, a second express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a tributary of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off at Dayton, Ohio and running to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

The daily express mail sped up mail delivery considerably. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois. Thanks to the Express Mail, that delivery time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours a couple years later. Kendall’s Express Mail was phased out starting in 1838 thanks to advances in transportation technology—particular the advent of the nation’s first railroads, and more funding for better roads and bridges.

Kendall also proved to be a political innovator. With post offices spread all over the country, Kendall quickly realized that the position of postmaster in a community could offer the Jackson administration with its own network of loyal people perfectly positioned to report the pulses of the communities they served. To that end, the position of postmaster was made a political job, with the old corps of postmasters loyal to former President John Quincy Adams’ National Republican Party swept out and Jacksonian Democrats swept in. And the concept of a national patronage army was established.

Amos Kendall, about 1845.

Kendall also had his dark side, as did so many political figures of that era, particularly his support for slavery. As Postmaster General, Kendall was personally involved in the refusal to allow the Charleston, S.C. post office to deliver abolitionist pamphlets, as outlined in my last post.

While an organizational genius and a good writer, Kendall was also a bit of an eccentric. He was, while still in his 30s, described as bent, prematurely white- haired, badly dressed, near-sighted, and of sallow complexion with a hacking asthmatic cough. He affected heavy broadcloth coats, even during Washington’s hot summers, and often wore a bandage around his head to ward off headaches.

One observer noted: “Poor wretch; as he rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, he looked like Death on a pale horse.”

Kendall left government service about 1840 (Kendall County was named after him in February 1841), and in 1845 joined Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph firm as business manager. Morse was an inventive genius, but as a businessman, he left quite a bit to be desired. Kendall quickly put Morse’s business to rights, using the organizational genius that had led to the post office department showing a profit.

Donald B. Cole’s 2010 biography, “A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy” finally tells the story of Kendall’s fascinating life.

By the time he retired as a rich man in 1860, Kendall had helped build the company into the nation’s most successful long-distance communications company, the ancestor of today’s AT&T. Kendall had been interested in the education of deaf people for many years, and was one of the founders of and donated the initial land for Gallaudet University. He was also an active Baptist and financed construction of church buildings.

Kendall died Nov. 12, 1869, the last living member of the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations’ cabinets.

It is unfortunate that we had to wait until 2010 for a Kendall biography to be published, but A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy by Donald B. Cole was worth the wait, and does Kendall the justice he deserves.

A newspaper editor, member of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” an innovative and efficient Postmaster General, a philanthropist, and a successful and farsighted businessman who saw the value of a new, though untried, communications technology, Kendall led a life many of us would envy.

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The post office was at center of major 19th century social issue disputes

We often seem to think our own times are the most turbulent, and when it comes to social issues it’s fair to say that now is certainly more than a little unsettled.

But U.S. history is studded with eras when controversy over social issues has driven the nation’s political dialog. The 19th century was particularly unsettled, and in its first half, none other than the U.S. Post Office found itself embroiled in two of the hottest of hot button issues of the day: abolitionism and a growing religious evangelical movement.

The postal service didn’t seek out these issues, of course. Instead, the issues were thrust upon the service by social and political forces far outside its control. In the end, uneasy compromises were struck that left many far from satisfied.

These days, there are a lot of issues plaguing the postal service, many inflicted on it by Congress and even more of them by the current postmaster general, Louis DeJoy. While DeJoy is seeming to weaken the postal service in what appears to be an effort to boost privatization of mail deliveries, at least we don’t have to worry about postal officials opening and censoring our mail. At least as far as we know.

Not so back in the 1830s, when pro-slavery postal officials as well as private citizens were engaged in efforts to stop abolitionist tracts from being mailed to residents of southern states.

On July 29, 1835 a pro-slavery mob broke into the Charleston, SC post office, stole anti-slavery tracts from the mail and burned them the next night.

For instance, on the night of July 29, 1835, a small group of men broke into the Charleston, S.C. post office and stole a huge pile of anti-slavery tracts, a mass mailing sent by the American Anti-Slavery Society to persuade Southerners to renounce slavery. The next night, the tracts were burned.

It was the opening move in an increasingly bitter, and ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to make sure the idea of slavery would not see any opposing viewpoints in the South and so threaten the region’s dependence on slave labor. Actually, the mailing was probably the first use of junk mail, made possible by the combination of new, more efficient papermaking techniques and the perfection of the steam-powered printing press along with the era’s remarkably efficient postal service, efficiencies ironically created by Southerners.

It was already illegal in slave-owning states to circulate abolitionist literature, no matter what that pesky First Amendment to the Constitution said. The gang that stole those anti-slavery tracts in Charleston were convinced they were upholding state’s rights.

The Anti-Slavery Society had targeted its mass mailing carefully to the 200,000 most distinguished movers and shakers in the South, figuring—incorrectly as it turned out—that mail to important men would at least be delivered. What actually happened was that pro-slavery forces were energized even more than before.

Mail schedule: This notice listing the mail schedule for Oswego and other Fox Valley area communities was published in the Illinois Free Trader, an Ottawa newspaper, in 1840—a full 21 years before the start of the Civil War. (Courtesy of the Little White School Museum)

And it didn’t take long after that for Southern postmasters to simply start interdicting the mail on their own, with no gang of thieves necessary to encourage the process, and with the full cooperation and assistance of the Post Office Department itself. Abolitionist tracts, newspapers, and magazines were simply turned over to local officials for destruction, with First Amendment rights considered inferior to the right of whites to own black slaves and not be criticized for it.

The issue’s importance to the South did not wane as years passed either. In 1849, George H. Legg, the postmaster in Spartanburg, S.C., was jailed by local officials for his refusal to turn over a letter for inspection by local pro-slavery groups.

The resulting abridgment of First Amendment rights that prohibited mailing anti-slavery literature to the South was only lifted following the Civil War after the issue of slavery itself was settled by force of arms.

The case of the Sabbatarians was also a national issue on which the post office found itself on the wrong side thanks to its insistence on delivering the mail as quickly and efficiently as possible to everyone everywhere in the nation.

In order to make sure the mails reached post offices as quickly as possible in those days of mail carried in horsedrawn stagecoaches, the system operated seven days a week. The arrival of the stagecoach carrying the mail was a major social and economic event, especially for those living in the small towns like the ones that were springing up here in northern Illinois on what was then the western frontier.

A Stanley M. Arthurs (1877-1950) painting of an 1830s stagecoach arriving in a village, with the driver blowing his tin horn to announce the arrival. Illustration from Scribner’s Magazine, November 1908.

When the coaches neared a settlement with a post office, the drivers blew their long tin or sheet iron horns to herald the mail’s arrival. The sound of the horn was the signal for anyone who could to get to the post office to see if any letters for them had arrived, and to listen to others read aloud the latest political and social news from the newspapers and magazines the coaches carried.

Mary Simmerson Cunningham Logan, wife of famed Civil War General John A. Logan, recalled the thrill of hearing the stage driver’s horn when she was a young girl living in southern Illinois in the 1840s. Her father had enlisted to fight in the war with Mexico and the family was starved for news.

“I can to this day in imagination hear the sound of the long horn the stage-driver used to blow as he entered our town at the midnight hour twice a week,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I was then but twelve years of age, and yet at the first sound of the horn, in moonlight or darkness, I would rush out and never stop running till I reached the post-office.”

1830s sheet iron stage driver’s horn in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 65-3/8” long.

On most days, this rush to the post office—which in the 1830s and 1840s was often located in a community’s general store or local inn—was eagerly looked forward to by all residents. However, when the coach arrived on a Sunday, ministers saw the male halves of their congregations evaporate at the sound of the coach driver’s horn as they hurried down to the post office to hear the latest news.

The discontent caused for the more religious members of communities by the disruptions created by the Sunday arrival of the mails resulted in the Sabbatarian movement, which aimed at halting Sunday mail delivery.

In April 1810, Congress had decreed that postmasters were required to deliver every item they’d received in the mail on every day of the week, including Sunday—the Sabbath—and to open their offices every day the mail arrived. Including Sunday.

The opposition to the new law grew swiftly and the loosely organized opposition’s members became known as Sabbatarians.

Not only did the Sabbatarians want the mandate to open post offices every day of the week eliminated, but they also opposed the mails even moving on Sundays. And that threatened to have an economic impact on not only the businesses that relied on frequent, fast mail deliveries, but also the private contractors who carried the mails via stagecoaches and wagons.

The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office—no matter what day of the week it was—to hear the latest state, regional, and national news it carried.

The Sabbatarian campaign grew for the next 20 years, with petition after petition (many at the instigation of the Presbyterian General Assembly) being dispatched to the post office department demanding cessation of Sunday delivery.

But by the late 1820s, the anti-Sabbatarian movement, one of whose leaders was a Wall Street merchant with the marvelous name of Preserved Fish, had begun to grow as well. Fish and his allies organized their own petition drives, even helped by some religious groups, such as the Alabama Baptist Association, that treated Saturday as the Sabbath.

Also joining the fray was travel book author Anne Royall, whose books hinted darkly at a conspiracy by Sabbatarian Presbyterian postmasters to destroy the separation of church and state.

Finally in 1841 the Sabbatarians were able to get the post office to curtail Sunday service on some routes. The invention of the telegraph also helped the Sabbatarian cause as merchants soon found electronic communication of vital economic news faster, though more expensive, than the mails.

Amazingly enough, it wasn’t until 1912—a little over a century after the Sabbatarians’ campaign started—that the post office finally agreed to halt mail delivery and order the closure of all post offices on Sunday.

Today, the postal service is still struggling to survive, although it no longer has to worry about the combined assaults of pro-slavery forces and the Sabbatarians. Which, I suppose, might be mistaken for progress by some. The main threat to the postal service today is its own top management and Congressional privatizers, who all seem determined to sabotage efficient mail delivery in an apparent effort to entice private companies to take over delivering the mail.

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End of another era, this time in Kendall newspapering…

Eras have been ending right and left during the past few years of political upheaval and the on-going worldwide pandemic.

The most recent era to end is the recent closing of the last physical newspaper office in Kendall County. For the first time since 1852, there’s no place to go to drop off news items, give news tips, and generally kibitz with the staff. Instead, the entire KendalCountyNOW staff that publishes the Shaw Media subgroup’s four local weeklies is now working wherever they can find a WiFi connection instead of in a newsroom.

This is not an entirely surprising development. After Shaw bought the Kendall County Record, Inc. group, they closed both the Ledger-Sentinel office on Main Street in downtown Oswego and the venerable Kendall County Record office on Bridge Street in downtown Yorkville. The two offices were combined and moved to a second floor office suite in a Yorkville bank, a location that did not invite casual visitation. Now the withdrawal from the communities the group’s papers report on is complete.

You’d think that having a visible presence in towns located in the fastest growing county in Illinois, and one of the fastest growing in the nation, would be a good move to advertise the brand, but apparently modern bean-counters are more in tune with today’s economic and marketing realities than old retired editors like me.

Time was, of course, there were newspaper offices in virtually every community in the county. It took a while after Kendall County’s establishment in 1841 for its first newspaper to open, but in 1852 Hector Seymour Humphrey began publishing the weekly Kendall County Courier in Oswego, then the county seat. Then, as now, local government legal advertisements were the lifeblood of local papers, and locating in the county seat made it easy to pick up those public notices from property tax assessment lists to new county ordinances.

Humphrey was born in Tompkins County, N.Y. Jan. 29, 1828. Early in his life he got into the newspaper business at the Ithaca Chronicle and News where he learned the trade. He headed west to Chicago in 1848, where he worked as a journeyman printer on the old Chicago Journal.

H.S. Humphrey’s Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego’s first newspaper.

Then Humphrey moved west to Naperville where he worked in the newspaper business and got married. And in 1852, he and his wife packed up their press and type and moved farther west to Oswego where he started the Chronicle. It advertised itself as neutral in politics, and was apparently just barely successful. Humphrey ran the paper himself as both editor and publisher until the fall of 1854 when he sold it to Abraham Sellers. Humphrey agreed to stay on as the editor. That arrangement lasted until the summer of 1855 when Humphrey bought the paper back from Sellers.

Then during the winter of 1855-56, Humphrey sold the Chronicle to the cantankerous and combative William P. Boyd. Boyd, a pro-slavery native Kentuckian, writing under the pen name of Niblo, made the mistake of changing the Chronicle from a neutral paper to a Democratic sheet.

That didn’t go down very well in Oswego or the rest of Kendall County, which had been fairly strong Whig country before the Republican Party was established. After the Republicans organized, Kendall County, driven by its heavy population of New Englanders and New Yorkers, leaned heavily towards the new party.

As Humphrey recalled the era in a 1903 letter to Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall: “In the spring of 1856, the Republicans desiring an organ, called a meeting of the leading men of the county, decided to establish a paper, and requested me to take charge of it. Subscriptions were made for the paper, for advertising and job work, for which money was advanced for about two-thirds of the cost of material, which was purchased at once and ‘the Kendall County Free Press’ was out soon after for the campaign of 1856.”

At the behest of local Republicans, H.S. Humphrey established the Kendall County Free Press in the years immediately prior to and during the Civil War.

You may remember that the campaign of 1856 was famed in Illinois for the series of debates the Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senator held throughout the state. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates introduced Abraham Lincoln to a statewide audience for the first time. While Lincoln was unsuccessful in that campaign, he was able to parlay his name recognition—and his considerable political skills—into winning the Presidency in 1860.

The Republican hold on Kendall County only grew more pronounced following the 1856 campaign. Boyd’s Chronicle was soon out of business, his printing outfit sold to an Iowa newspaper. A cutthroat businessman, land agent, and lawyer known for his pugnaciousness, Boyd was murdered on Nov. 24, 1859. His assailant was never identified.

Humphrey’s Free Press was successful, and he continued publishing it through the Civil War years until the county seat was moved back to Yorkville in 1864. At that point, Humphrey decided to move on to Vandalia.

In May 1864, John Redmond Marshal, a young Chicago newspaper man and Civil War veteran of the Sturgis Rifles, decided to start a new county seat paper in Kendall County. Naming it the Kendall County Record, Marshal located his office and printing press in space above a store in downtown Yorkville, moving it to a new one-story brick building on busy Bridge Street in November 1867—where it stayed until the paper was sold to Shaw in 2015.

The flag from John R. Marshall’s Kendall County Record, which started publishing as Kendall County’s newspaper of record in 1864.

While the Courier was Oswego’s first paper, it was hardly the last. In fact, Oswego has seen far more than its share of newspaper start-ups. Besides the Courier and The Free Press, papers published in Oswego included the Bald Hornet, 1855; Oswego Vidette, 1873; Oswego Daily Times, 1877; Oswego Reporter, 1892; Kendall County Press, 1884; Oswego Herald, 1904; Oswego News, 1948; Oswego Ledger, 1949-1980; Fox Valley Sentinel, 1974-1980; Ledger-Sentinel, 1980 to 2015; and now the Oswego Ledger again after the name was shortened, supposedly for marketing purposes, a few years ago.

As I noted above, virtually every other town in Kendall County has had its own newspaper, no matter how briefly, over the years.

Yorkville, of course, had—and still has—it’s Kendall County Record as well as in the mid-20th Century the free distribution Fox Valley Shopper, the 19th Century Kendall County Clarion, and in 1872, the Yorkville News. That paper eventually moved to Plano and became the Plano News in 1876, changing its name again in 1881 to the Kendall County News. Plano was also served by the Kendall County Journal, the Plano Pivot and the Plano Standard. Two religious newspapers were published in 19th Century Plano, The True Latter Day Saints Herald and Zion’s Hope, both by Joseph Smith Jr.’s Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints.

The Ledger-Sentinel was formed by the merger of the Fox Valley Sentinel and the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. The name was shortened back to Oswego Ledger by it’s current owners, Shaw Media, Inc. It’s still Oswego’s award-winning weekly newspaper.

The stagecoach hamlet of Little Rock in extreme northwestern Kendall County was briefly served in the 19th Century by The Little Rock Press, and Millington by The Millington Enterprise. The Newark Clipper was organized in 1872, and The Lisbon Comet was published early in the 20th Century.

It’s also worth noting that back in the late 20th Century, the daily Aurora Beacon-News had a bureau in Kendall County.

Nowadays, though, the whole idea of newspapers, even local weeklies, not maintaining a visible presence in the communities they serve has become the norm, especially with papers owned by large chains thet really seem more interested in profits than in community service and keeping their fingers on the pulse of the communities they serve. Most independently-owned weeklies still think that’s not only important to the places they cover, but also figure it’s good business—Cheryl Wormley’s successful Woodstock Independent up in the northern suburbs immediately comes to mind.

When I was the Ledger-Sentinel‘s editor, we had a lot of news stories just walk in—or past—the door of our Main Street office. For instance, there was the day a sheep galloped past the window, followed by another, followed by one of our former sports writers. Turned out he was working for a local farmer whose load of sheep got loose when they stopped at the gas station just up the street. Or the day a nicely-dressed white-haired woman walked in up to our counter, held her hand out to me and said, “Hello, I’m Jean Simon. What’s happening in Oswego we ought to know about?” Turned out she was Sen. Paul Simon’s wife, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Or the day Sen. Chuck Percy stopped in to chat about the I&M Canal Corridor legislation he was co-sponsoring. We had a nice chat, but I don’t think he ever figured out we were some miles outside the corridor he was so enthused about.

But while there will no longer be a physical newspaper office presence here in Kendall any more, that doesn’t mean the KendallCountyNOW staff won’t be getting and printing as much local news as they can.

Because, really, when it comes to finding a source for local news you need and can actually use—where your property tax dollars are being spent, what various local governmental boards are really up to, and what’s happening in local schools—weekly newspapers are the only serious game in town.

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Modern Millerites are not swayed by facts, either

Anne Applebaum’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “The MyPillow Guy Really Could Destroy Democracy,” lays out, at least partially, the argument that predicting the second coming of Donald Trump seems to have replaced millennialism among right wing true believers.

And when discussions of millennialism get underway, the historian’s mind almost naturally moves right to the Millerites of 19th Century America.

Cultism is, in fact, about as American as you can get. And that, of course, includes the present day. One of the most modern enduring cults is that of the runaway inflation predictors. Nowadays, they’re led by economist Larry Summers, but their dire, never fulfilled predictions, date back quite a ways.

Back in 2014, for instance, economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote on his blog that voices, mostly on the right of the political spectrum, who kept wrongly predicting runaway inflation because of this or that government policy mostly resembled end-of-the-world religious cults.

And every once in a while, members of such religious cults do pop up in the news in this day and age. Besides the political cult of the Trump worshipers, one of the most recent religious cults (I’m leaving QAnon out of the religious equation here, although maybe I shouldn’t) that popped up predicting the end of the world as we know it, and which got a lot of coverage was when religious broadcaster Harold Camping decided that Jesus Christ would return to Earth on Saturday, May 21, 2011. The day came and went with nothing unusual, such as the end of the world, happening. That fazed Camping but it didn’t seriously deter him. In fact, Camping went back to his calculator. Or maybe it was his abacus. After all, he had already been unsuccessful in predicting the end of the world in 1994, but but previous failures didn’t seem to deter his followers much.

Harold Camping was convinced the world was going to end on May 21, 2011. It didn’t, nor did it end on Oct. 21, 2011. And it seems to still be going strong today.

And, in fact, Camping himself wasn’t much deterred, either. He regrouped, refigured, and announced the real day Jesus Christ would return and the world—plus the rest of the universe—would end was Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. The day came and went without much end-of-the-world stuff happening, or anything else either—except for the usual, ongoing run-of-the-mill global mayhem. In fact, Oct. 21, 2011 was remarkable for exactly how little happened that day.

After that, Camping’s ministry announced that he’d finally decided nobody could determine when the end of the world would arrive, which seemed sensible from his own point of view, because that’s exactly what the Bible reports Jesus warned his followers not to do.

As noted, Camping was far from unique. End-of-the-worlders are a historical tradition that extends back all the way to Biblical times when whoever it was who wrote the Book of Revelation recounted, with ill-disguised relish and in painful detail, what would happen to non-believers—defined as anyone who did not believe whatever the author believed—on Judgment Day.

By the 19th Century, predicting the end of the world was becoming almost a cottage industry, especially here in the United States, and so when our own, homegrown end-of-the-worlder, William Miller, predicted that 1843 was the year and April was the month the world would end, a lot of people took notice.

Miller was a Massachusetts man who volunteered to fight in the War of 1812, serving as a captain in the U.S. Army. A near-death experience in combat led to Miller’s fascination with death and the afterlife, not to mention his conversion from deism to evangelical Christianity.

Joining the Baptist Church, he closely studied the Bible, developing his own interpretations of the book. He eventually decided there were hidden facts to be excavated from the text.

In September 1822, he formally and publicly announced his findings: “I believe that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near, even at the door, even within twenty-one years,—on or before 1843.”

William Miller, about 1844

The deadlines Miller and his followers set for the end of the world, March and April of 1843, came and went, and were followed by what became known as “The Great Disappointment,” as thousands of his followers left their beliefs behind and tried to get back to their regular lives.

In Kendall County, there seem to have been quite a few Millerites, but they apparently mostly kept to themselves and were apparently not nearly as obnoxious as modern end-of-the-worlders seem to be.

The Rev. E.W. Hicks, one of Miller’s fellow Baptists, was not impressed by the Millerite craze. In his 1877 history of Kendall County, Hicks wrote: “During the early part of 1843 the Miller excitement in regard to the end of the world was at its height. William Miller had fixed on April, 1843, as the time of the end, and there were many believers in his arithmetic in this county. It is no doubt a fact that some of them had their white robes ready made for the occasion, from a wrong interpretation of Rev. 7:9. The clothing of heaven is holiness, spiritual in texture, and not cloth from the Georgia cotton fields. Christ is coming again, ‘in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven;’ but he, himself, was careful to teach us that ‘of that day and hour knoweth no man, no not the angels of heaven.’ And if still we are curious to know, we have his rebuke, that ‘it is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power.’ ‘Watch, for ye know not when the Master cometh.’”

Millerites came in for more than their share of kidding after the world failed to end in 1843 or 1844. Miller’s movement resulted, however, in the formation of two new, uniquely American Christian sects.

George M. Hollenback, who was one of the first two White children born in Kendall County (his twin sister was the other) and so was a young eyewitness to the Millerite craze, wrote in the 1914 history of Kendall County that: “During the winter of 1843, the Millerites created excitement over the whole country and had much influence among the weak and superstitious and even extended far among the apparently well informed people. There was a good deal of anxiety until the time set for the great catastrophe of the end of the world had come and had happily passed. A few of the neighbors procured their ‘ascension robes’ in expectation of the day when the heavens were to open ‘and melt with fervent heat.’ As the weather was cold, the material from which the robes were constructed was white flannel. It is said of one woman that she gave out publicly that she would not believe in the Bible if the Savior did not appear. He did not appear, so the ascension robes of herself and husband were not used for the purpose for which they were constructed.”

Miller died in 1849, still eagerly looking towards Christ’s second coming. His legacy includes the Advent Christian Church with 61,000 members, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church with over 19 million members, both denominations having a direct historical connection to the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844.

The craze William Miller started passed, but his ideas were not forgotten. Through the years, others have attempted to predict the end of the world, some based on supposed truths hidden in the Bible, others based on other ideas up to and including UFOs, with no notable success thus far. Some of these folks were true believers, like Harold Camping, who seemed genuinely perplexed why the world didn’t end when he was sure it was going to. And we can’t forget the Heaven’s Gate cult, 39 of whose members committed suicide in 1997 as they awaited the UFO that was supposed to carry them away. Others have proven to be pure charlatans, some who proved to be much worse than grifters aiming to separate the gullible believers from their cash.

As Applebaum noted in her piece in The Atlantic, “The apocalypse has been variously predicted for the year 500, based on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark; the year 1033, on the 1,000th anniversary of Jesus’s birth; and the year 1600, by Martin Luther no less; as well as variously by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Nostradamus, and Aum Shinrikyo, among many others. When nothing happened—the world did not end; the messiah did not arrive—did any of them throw in the towel and stop believing? Of course not.”

Like their religious cousins, the political and economic end-of-the-worlders aren’t fazed by facts proving their views wrong. Although unsuccessfully (but enthusiastically) predicting runaway inflation and devaluation of the dollar since 2008, they continue to do so, despite the actual data proving them to be in error. As Krugman continues to note, their continued popularity and hold on positions of authority is one of the mysteries of the 21st Century.

And likewise the My Pillow Guy and his accomplices continue to confidently predict Donald Trump’s second coming as President despite its legal and political impossibility—there’s simply no constitutional provision for a Presidential election do-over. That so many either believe or say they believe (which I suspect includes many complicit Republican Senators and House members) it will happen, though, illustrates that fervent wishes, no matter how outlandish and crazed, exert as powerful an effect on modern people as they did nearly 180 years ago. In fact, with crackpot ideas now being reinforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week by complicit, ubiquitous electronic media, the effects of those ideas on society as a whole may well be far more serious.

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Filed under Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, religion, Semi-Current Events

Those “Amber waves of grain” are mostly a thing of the past in Kendall County

My dad, while watching someone with a lot of energy, would often remark, “He’s really feeling his oats today.”

It’s an expression you don’t hear much, if at all, these days, but back when the U.S. was a mainly agricultural nation the phrase really meant something, especially to those who had lived during the era when horses provided much of the motive power that grew the nation.

Granted, horses can eat hay and graze on pasture grass, but it turned out that oats are a sort of superfood for horses.

As Horse Canada magazine explained, “Of all the cereal grains (e.g. corn, barley, wheat, etc.) oats have the most appropriate nutritional profile for horses. They are an excellent source of calories, and have a better protein and amino acid profile than many other grains. They are higher in fat and fibre (thanks to the hull) and are, therefore, lower in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) than most other grains. They are well digested within the horse’s small intestine, even with little processing (as long a horse has good teeth!) and, therefore, pose a lower risk of sugars reaching the large intestine and contributing to colic or laminitis. Also, because of their lower NSC content, they are not considered a ‘hot’ feed.”

When Katharine Lee Bates wrote about “amber waves of grain” in “America the Beautiful,” she was talking about cereal grain fields like this stand of oats.

These days, horses have been mostly relegated to the status of expensive hobbies and oats are considered for their value as health food. What were the mechanics of that change over time?

By now, even casual readers of this blog have realized I have a keen interest in how farming has evolved during the past couple centuries or so. And, especially as this time of year rolls around, few things illustrate the profound changes in farming and farm culture than virtual disappearance of small grains in the local agriculture cycle.

Small grains are ancient in origin and were (and in some areas of the world still are) vital parts of the farming process. But not here, and not now.

Defined as cereal grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—small grains are, like their cousin, corn, the seeds of genetically modified grasses that humans have relied upon for food for thousands of years. Some, like oats and wheat, still somewhat resemble their ancient genetic ancestors. Other grains, like corn, no more resemble their most ancient ancestor than a Chihuahua resembles a timber wolf.

You can still drive around the countryside this time of year and see a few small fields of small grains turning a beautiful golden color in the summer sun. But today’s occasional fields of oats and even more rare stands of wheat are pale shadows of what farmers planted and grew here a century and more ago.

A century ago, the annual harvest of cereal grains like oats, wheat, barley, and rye were just getting a good start this time of year. Above, the East Oswego Threshing Ring’s steam engine and threshing machine works on the 1911 harvest in eastern Oswego Township. From the Aug. 3, 1910 Kendall County Record: “Farmers are very busy threshing wheat and oats.” (Little White School Museum collection)

These days, instead of those once extensive fields of ripening small grains, you’ll mostly see extensive fields of tall corn swaying in summer prairie breeze, interspersed with huge fields of soybeans, a crop that was as rare here in the 1920s as wheat is today.

Why the change, why the evolution? Because times change as does the use to which crops are put. Back in the early 1800s when pioneer farm families settled Kendall County, small grains were absolutely necessary for survival. Wheat was harvested and ground into flour either on the farm or at one of the new gristmills that were rapidly popping up along every county stream whose bed had enough fall to power a waterwheel.

Oats, on the other hand, were the fuel that powered the horses and mules that were the backbone of energy on the farm and in the transportation industry of the era. Granted, oats, too, could be ground into flour or they could be otherwise processed for use as oatmeal and for other human foods, but their primary use was to feed the millions of horses the nation relied on for everything from pulling stagecoaches to delivering beer.

A stand of ripe oats in the field. The grain once fueled the horses that everyone from farmers to handsome cab drivers relied on.

Barley and rye were also used for human consumption by being ground into flour, but they were also popular grains for processing into the beer so beloved by so many in that era when drinking water was mistrusted, often for good reason. The germ theory of disease was still considered a radical hypothesis, so wells and outhouses were often adjacent leading to outbreaks of typhoid fever and other waterborne illnesses from which even the wealthy were not immune. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died of complications of typhoid fever contracted in their London palace, probably from tainted water.

But back to farming. It didn’t take too long after settlement for farmers to realize northern Illinois really wasn’t good wheat country. Wheat likes warm, relatively dry growing conditions, and while we all know Illinois does not lack for summer heat, dry conditions (except during drought years) are not what you find around these humid parts.

As the frontier kept moving ever farther west, those ideal wheat conditions were found west of the tallgrass prairies out on the Great Plains in a huge swath from Texas north to the Dakotas. Improved transportation systems added to the climate soon meant that bread could be baked in regional cities and shipped to small farming towns cheaper than rural folks could produce it on their own.

Horses and mules were raised in the barns at the old Judson Farm on South Madison Street at Wilson Place, on the south end of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

But that didn’t apply to oats. In 1912, which was close to the high-water mark for oat production, Kendall County farmers harvested 53,000 acres of the grain, producing well over 2.5 million bushels to feed their own horses and mules, but mostly for market. But by 2007, so few acres of oats were harvested in Kendall County that the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t even report them.

Why so many bushels of oats then and so few later on? When oat production was at its height, farmers relied on horses to plant and harvest crops and then haul them to market. Today, farmers use gasoline and diesel oil to fuel those activities, which have become entirely mechanized. And in towns and cities, where horses once hauled everything from streetcar passengers to mail delivery buggies to the milkman’s delivery wagon, hydrocarbon-fueled machines have replaced the millions of horses that once did those tasks.

By 1900, the nation’s total horse population reached an estimated 24.1 million, with just under three million being kept in cities. In cities with more than 100,000 population there was roughly one horse for every 15 people, varying from one horse for every 7.4 people in Kansas City to one for every 26.4 in New York City. And those horses required millions of bushels of oats for food. The nation’s horse population peaked about 1915, and from then on thanks to the advent of dependable, economical automobiles, the horse population declined by about a half a million animals a year. Along with that decline, the need for oats similarly decreased.

By 1912, the transition from horse powered vehicles to vehicles with horsepower was well underway as this winter scene on Washington Street in downtown Oswego suggests. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that folks back then were sad to see horses go, of course. In Chicago in 1900, the city’s 82,000 horses deposited between 1.2 and 2.4 million pounds of manure and 20,500 gallons of urine in stables and on city streets every day. In addition, one contemporary expert estimated in 1900 that three billion flies—each a tiny airborne disease factory—hatched in horse manure every day in U.S. cities. It was little wonder automobiles and trucks were welcomed by public health experts of the era.

So the realization that wheat grew better farther west, the disappearance of the horse, and the evolution of Midwestern farming to specialization in either raising grain or livestock led to the annual harvest of small grains and all that it meant to our farmer forebears, both socially and economically. But gradually it became mostly a thing of the past here in the Fox Valley. The change accelerated as the nation transitioned from a largely rural to an overwhelmingly urbanized nation.

And so today, you can drive around Kendall County and still see small stands of cereal grains here and there. But the “amber waves of grain” that once carpeted our landscape have been almost entirely replaced by corn and soybeans–and subdivisions. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly a big change.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Bonnie and Clyde and the big 1933 Plattville Armory heist

Although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets in the news, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. as reported to the FBI is actually down significantly from what it was 20 years ago. The caveat is, of course, that the murder rate during the Covid pandemic has gone up in certain areas, but overall violent crime has been on a steady decline.

According to the latest statistics compiled and released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 1991, there were an average of 758.2 violent crimes committed for every 100,000 people in the U.S. In 2019, the last year for which statistics have been compiles, there were an average of 366.7 violent crimes committed in the U.S. for every 100,000 residents.

The reasons for the steady decrease in violent crime seem to be many and controversial. One of the most interesting is the theory that lead levels in the atmosphere all over the country due to lead in gasoline was responsible for the crime increase to begin with. The decline in crime began a few years after leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S.

The folks over at Wikipedia have a good, concise entry on the theory, the nut of the piece being: “Individuals exposed to lead at young ages are more vulnerable to learning disabilities, decreased I.Q., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and problems with impulse control, all of which may be negatively impacting decision making and leading to the commission of more crimes as these children reach adulthood, especially violent crimes. No safe level of lead in the human bloodstream exists given that any amount can contribute to deleterious health issues.”

Not that leaded gasoline was responsible for all the nation’s past crimes, of course. One of the worst crime waves to strike the country took place in the 1920s and 1930s as well-armed gangs used the new mobility conferred by a combination of fast, dependable automobiles and ever-better roads robbed banks, businesses, and even individuals all over the country.

John Dillinger and his gang were not unfamiliar with Kendall County. One of his henchmen was secretly buried just outside Oswego after he was shot during a Minnesota robbery attempt.

Here in Kendall County, for instance, back in November 1933, Oswego dentist Dr. Sheldon Bell and his wife were motoring along what is today U.S. Route 30 between Plainfield and Aurora when a pair of road agents held them up. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 8: “Dr. Sheldon F. Bell was one of the victims of the bandits during the 10 holdups in Kane and Kendall counties on Wednesday evening, Nov. 1. He was robbed of about seventeen dollars on Route 22 near Normantown. Dr. Bell was accompanied by his wife, who was not molested. All the robbers wanted was money, rejecting the bill fold and the papers it contained.”

Previously, Kendall County had suffered a plague of bank robberies, thefts, and bootlegging that was all reported in the local press, a situation that would continue until World War II calmed things down considerably. The Dillinger and Ma Barker gangs frequented the area and Al Capone’s illegal bootlegging operations favored our mostly rural county, even after Prohibition ended. One of John Dillinger’s gang, killed in a shootout in Minnesota, was even secretly buried by the gang just outside Oswego.

During that era, local law enforcement, especially in rural areas, was spotty to nonexistent. The Illinois State Police had been established in 1922 with eight officers using World War I surplus motorcycles to enforce state traffic laws, but even 10 years later, confronting organized, well-armed gangs was mostly beyond their capabilities. In October 1929, for instance, a criminal gang cut the telephone wires into and then blocked the roads into and out of the small Kendall County hamlet of Millbrook while they blew the safe in the Millbrook Bank, getting away with several hundred dollars. The situation was so bad that the Illinois Bankers Association established their own corps of bank guards.

While that and a lot of other truly fascinating local historical crime stories came out of that era, one of the most interesting really didn’t come to light until the dawn of the 21st Century, several decades after it occurred. Interestingly enough, the incident happened the same year Dr. Bell and his wife were held up.

It started this way: During the night of April 19, 1933, someone broke into the Illinois National Guard Armory in the tiny unincorporated Kendall County community of Plattville. Local, state, and national law enforcement and military officials were alarmed because taken was a virtual armory of four Browning Automatic Rifles (nicknamed with its initials, the BAR), along with 11 Colt M1911 .45 cal. automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.

Officers of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard based at Plattville in Kendall County. The photo was taken, about 1933 during summer drill at Camp Grant near Rockford. Capt. Charles G. “Timmie” Howell is second from left. (Little White School Museum collection)

The semi-automatic pistols, the standard .45 cal. U.S. Army sidearm, featured a 9-round box magazine, were heavy, rugged, and extremely dependable. The BARs were powerful, fully automatic weapons that served the U.S. Army as well as the National Guard as their standard squad automatic weapon. Each eight-man squad was generally equipped with one BAR to augment the firepower of the rest of the squad’s Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifles that were standard equipment during those pre-World War II days. Both the BAR and the Springfield rifles were chambered for the powerful .30-06 cartridge.

Plattville was the smallest community in the nation to boast its own National Guard Armory, the base for Company E of the 129th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The armory had been the brainchild of Kendall County resident Charles G. “Timmy” Howell, who commanded it, holding the rank of captain.

The armory was built with community donations and labor and through the pay it provided, Company E provided badly needed cash for more than 100 young men, mostly farm boys, during the dark years of the Great Depression. It also provided valuable training for those young men, most of whom would go on to fight their way through the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific during World War II.

But given its location in a sleepy farming community, the security provided for Company E’s arms and ammunition was simply not up to the task of fending off the new breed of mobile criminals that had lately blossomed.

As soon as the theft was reported law enforcement and military officials alike, began worrying about who, exactly, had taken the guns and why.

Word got around via the neighborhood telegraph while officials did their best to downplay the theft. They did such a good job minimizing it, in fact, that 60 years later, no one had an inkling such a thing had ever happened. As an example, in an oddly naive, but apparently serious, comment, the editor of the Kendall County Record remarked in the paper’s May 3 edition: “Hope the person who stole the four [BARs] from the armory is honest; we’d hate to face these guns in the hands of a crook.”

We can only hope he was prepared to be disappointed, because after a spectacular July 20 shootout between the notorious Barrow Gang—the Bonnie and Clyde and associates made so famous in subsequent movies—and law enforcement officers just outside Kansas City, Mo., some of the BARs and pistols were recovered from the motel rooms the gang had occupied.

The Barrow Gang, made famous to a new generation in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” was one of the most violent of the criminal groups afflicting the Midwest during the lawless 1920s and 1930s.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow pose with one of Clyde’s beloved V-8 Ford automobiles in this colorized photo of the pair.

Clyde Barrow was the leader of the gang, with his girlfriend Bonnie Parker (Parker was married to another man who was in jail at the time). Besides Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s brother, Melvin “Buck” Parker, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, along with C.W. Jones comprised the most consistent members of the gang. They were occasionally joined by Henry Methvin, Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, and Ralph Fults.

Although the gang garnered a lot of attention thanks to Bonnie and Clyde’s knack for publicizing themselves, they were mostly notable for the short period of time during which they were active, a period that only ran from 1932 to 1934, not to mention their extreme violence.

Early on, the gang primarily engaged in small business hold-ups, but then decided to add bank robbery to their repertoire. The Barrow Gang was notorious among law enforcement for its ferocious counter-attacks whenever confronted by authorities. The BAR was Clyde Barrow’s weapon of choice, something that easily out-gunned the revolvers and shotguns of most lawmen of the era. Although limited to 20-round detachable magazines, the BAR on full automatic could fire more than 500 rounds a minute. John Browning invented the weapon for U.S. troops during World War I, where it proved extremely effective, with its relatively light weight, mobility, high rate of fire, and long range—the BAR was accurate up to 1,500 yards and had a maximum range of nearly three miles. It could also be loaded with armor-piercing rounds, something else Barrow favored.

The automatic weapon with which most law enforcement agencies of the era were armed was the Thompson Submachine Gun—the famed Tommy Gun. The Thompson, however, while having a faster rate of fire than the BAR, fired the same cartridge as the .45 cal. pistol, and had an effective range of only 170 yards or so.

On April 13, 1933, when police officers raided the apartment in Joplin, Mo., where Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and W.D. Jones were hiding out after a four-month crime spree, they thought they were raiding a bootlegging operation, which is what suspicious neighbors had reported. But when they confronted the gang, the police were caught by surprise as the Barrow gang opened up with a vicious barrage of automatic weapons fire, killing Constable John Harryman and police officer Harry McGinnis. Although the gang escaped, they were forced by the gunfight to leave most of their belongings and weapons behind.

U.S. Army soldier displays his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) while serving in France in 1918. Gangster Clyde Barrow favored the BAR for its rate of fire and power.

Six days later, the Platteville National Guard Armory was raided and the four BARs, 11 Colt .45 automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were stolen. A week or so later, the gang hit a bank in Indiana.

During the next two and a half months, the Barrow Gang continued its wide-ranging campaign of lawlessness in Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri as they sped from crime scene to crime scene using the Ford V-8 autos Clyde favored.

In 1934, in fact, Clyde (who had worked as a mechanic before taking up outlawry) wrote to Henry Ford congratulating him on his Ford autos and their V-8 engines: “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8.”

On July 20, 1933, the gang decided to find someplace to lay low, choosing the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte County, Mo., just outside Kansas City. But their suspicious behavior caused people in the neighborhood to call the authorities.

Colt Arms’ .45 cal. semi-automatic pistol was the standard U.S. Army sidearm for most of the 20th Century. It was favored by gangsters because it was rugged, dependable, and fired a heavy round of ammunition.

This time the police showed up in force armed with submachine guns, a car that had been armored, plus a mobile plate steel bulletproof shield. The armored sedan pulled up to block the garage door behind which the gang’s car was parked, and Sheriff Holt Coffee rapped on the door of one of the two tourist cabins the gang occupied, demanding they come out. No dummy, he immediately ducked behind the steel shield.

Clyde, Buck, and Jones instantly replied with a withering fusillade of BAR fire, literally driving Coffee’s heavy steel shield backwards, although it proved proof against Clyde’s armor-piercing ammunition. The gang also shot up the armored car, this time their armor-piercing .30-06 rounds perforating the car’s light armor, and wounding the driver who backed up to get out of the line of fire, allowing the gang to escape. But both Buck and Blanche Barrow were seriously wounded. Amazingly, none of the dozens of spectators who had gathered to watch, nor any of the police officers were badly injured in the furious gun battle.

It took a while for the Feds to identify and trace all the weapons and other materials they found in the gang’s motel rooms, but on Oct. 19, 1933, FBI Agent J.J. Keating of the bureau’s Chicago office wrote to his superiors: “Will consult commander of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard, with respect to the loss of the Colt 45 pistols, and Browning automatic rifles mentioned in report of Special Agent Dwight Brantley, 9/1/33, Washington, D.C., and inform him that said firearms were taken from the Barrow gang and are in possession of the Kansas City office of this division.”

Presumably, the weapons were later returned to Company E and, hopefully, better secured from being pilfered by passing bandits. And there the matter largely rested until 2003 when Winston Ramsey, editor-in-chief of a World War II history magazine based in England, traveled to the U.S. while researching his book, On the Trail of Bonnie and Clyde Then and Now chronicling the days of Bonnie and Clyde, visiting places the notorious couple frequented during their crime spree.

Ramsey contacted reporter Tony Scott at the Kendall County Record concerning reports he had obtained that the Plattville Armory had been robbed of weapons and ammunition by Bonnie and Clyde, something that no one in the community recalled—or at least would admit to recalling. But then in 2011, Agent Keating’s letter became public, and Tony revisited the story in a couple articles. And by then I’d been working on transcribing the Record’s “Oswego” news columns, along with other news items that sounded interesting. One of those was the Record’s editor writing about the theft of weapons from the Plattville Armory in the paper’s April 26 edition and a follow-up the next week, May 3, 1933.

Granted, there’s no physical evidence the Barrow Gang were responsible for stealing the weapons from the Plattville Armory. And the question of how the gang would have known about the Plattville Armory still raises a few doubts.

But in the book Blanche Barrow wrote about her harrowing adventures with the gang, she said that Clyde and W.D. Jones robbed the Plattville Armory. At least three other books on the gang repeat the same story. And it is a fact that the FBI recovered many of the stolen weapons after the Red Crown shoot-out in Missouri, so the gang certainly had them in their possession.

The bullet-riddled Ford V-8 auto Clyde was driving when law enforcement officers ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in rural Louisiana is on exhibit in the casino at Whiskey Pete’s in Primm, Nevada.

Would the theft have made sense in terms of opportunity? The gang was in the Joplin, Mo. shootout on April 13, where they lost a lot of their arms and ammunition. They then attempted a bank robbery at the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana on May 12. The Plattville robbery took place the night of April 19-20, and Plattville is sort of right in between Joplin and that Indiana bank. Given Clyde’s love of long-distance high-speed driving taking random zigzag routes, it’s certainly possible—maybe even probable—Clyde and W.D. Jones really were the ones who stole all those weapons in the middle of his gang’s crime spree. Which leaves the question of how the gang knew about the Plattville Armory in the tiny rural community unanswered.

In any case, Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal spree came to a violent end a year later. On May 23, 1934, lawmen, taking no chances with the pair’s habit of replying with overwhelming firepower, set up an ambush in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and riddled Clyde’s car with more than 130 rounds of shotgun, rifle, and pistol fire, killing both of the outlaws. Federal authorities said the pair and their gang was responsible for at least 13 murders and robberies and burglaries too numerous to count.

In retrospect, local officials did a pretty good job consigning the Barrow Gang’s Plattville Armory robbery to the memory hole. But like most history, it eventually floated to the surface once again, assuring at least a footnote in the story of one of the most violent crime sprees the Midwest has ever seen.

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Filed under Crime, entertainment, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation, travel

Good old days: Going to the barber shop for an appendectomy

Back when I was a youngster, a guy by the name of Hal Boyle wrote a column that was syndicated by the Associated Press and which was carried in the Beacon-News up in Aurora. I liked Boyle’s column and read it regularly. Later, I found out he was an award-winning World War II correspondent who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, yes, I wasn’t the only one who liked Boyle’s stuff.

Every once in a while, Boyle would write a sort of trivia column with odd facts and short stories. And while I liked his regular columns, I loved those trivia pieces. I liked them so much, in fact, that when I started writing my own column, I stole the idea from him, stealing ideas being journalism’s highest form of flattery.

Back in those pre-computerized layout newspaper days, pages were physically pasted up. A few companies decided they could make a little money by supplying bits of miscellaneous information called fillers, from recipes to ads to trivia clips printed on heavy paper, ready to be clipped and waxed down on the paste-up sheet to fill in the occasional void on the page paste-up. The material was supplied free to everyone, from small weeklies to dailies, with the costs paid for by the companies whose advertising materials (which ranged from feature stories to short squibs featuring their brands) appeared in each week’s issue.

Hal Boyle’s idea of a trivia column combined with the availability of free fillers resulted in my junk mail columns—which proved popular among our paper’s readers.

So I had Hal Boyle’s idea, and a free, regular source of trivia and other basically useless information that I could use to fill a column once or so a month. Not that I didn’t like writing about local, regional, and state history, of course. But at the time besides writing my column, I was covering the local school board and other breaking news stories, editing the big pile of news releases that arrived every week, taking photos, and writing up to three editorials each week. So a trivia column gave me a bit of breathing room.

Since the trivia arrived along with all the rest of the junk mail at the newspaper, I decided to characterize the columns I wrote using that stuff as interesting bits of junk mail I’d mined out of the stack that was on my desk every week. And fortunately, the idea proved popular among the paper’s readers.

I still do one occasionally, although far less frequently since my column has been cut to twice monthly instead of weekly. But the things are fun, and I sort of miss doing them, so I thought to myself, why not do one for “History on the Fox” just for fun? And with no further ado, here’s my first junk mail blog post, which kicks off right at the start of the dog days of summer.

What, you may be wondering, are the dog days? Glad you asked. We used to joke they were they days during an Illinois summer when it was too hot for the dog to go outside. But really, the dog days are generally considered to last from about July 3 to Aug. 11 or so, and the name goes back in time to the ancients.

In the summer, Sirius, called the Dog Star, rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is closest in motion with the sun, so the ancients, not having a concept of how far away other stars are from our own, believed that Sirius’s heat added to the heat of the sun. That, they believed, created a stretch of hot and sultry weather, which they named the “dog days” after Sirius, the Dog Star.

But July isn’t only famous as the start of the dog days. Lots of other stuff, as I’m sure you know, happened in July. For instance, on July 8 in 1777 Vermont abolished slavery. The temperature hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. The first man landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—was established on July 29, 1958. And also in space-related news, the Telstar communications satellite relayed the first publicly-transmitted, live trans-Atlantic television program (featuring Walter Cronkite). In something that may or may not be related, this year’s full July moon will float across the heavens on July 23 as well. And don’t forget that during the Civil War, the U.S. Army won both the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, Vicksburg on July 4 and and Gettysburg on July 3. President Lincoln had a very good July in 1863. And let’s not forget the U.S. Post Office was established on July 26, 1775.

Where would we all be, after all, had Congress not established the U.S. Post Office? While Republicans in Congress keep trying to kill it off and replace it with expensive private contractors, the rest of us like it just fine. Because the point is that we get a lot of mail. Every day except Sunday. And some of it is actually mail we want to get. Here at History Central, I pretty much like all the mail I get, even the junk mail, because even there are a few nuggets of knowledge. In fact, here are bunch of things I never would have found out if I hadn’t opened all our mail (each and every day the mail carrier showed up out in front at our mailbox):

There are 40 spaces around a Monopoly game board, 22 of them properties. Hint: Always buy Marvin Gardens when you get the chance.

There are 40 spaces around the perimeter of the Monopoly board, and 22 of them are properties.

Before he left the boxing ring for his acting career, Tony Danza’s record as a middleweight fighter was 12 wins and three losses.

In 1964, golfer Norman Manley achieved consecutive holes-in-one on a golf course in Saugus, Calif. Both were par 4 holes, which probably means something to the golfers reading this.

On Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals football team celebrated Thanksgiving Day by scoring all 40 points (six touchdowns and 4 points-after) in the Cards’ 40-6 win at old Comiskey Park.

A shark’s skeleton has no bones. It is made entirely of cartilage.

The first—and so far the only—President to be married in the White House was Grover Cleveland. During his second year in office, he married Frances Folsom, a young lady 27 years the President’s junior.

The Electoral College system of electing U.S. Presidents has enabled five candidates to become President whose opponents won the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.

The Great Pyramids in Egypt are the only surviving sites considered to be among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Barnacles have three stages of life. In the first, they swim, have six legs, and one eye. In the second stage, they have 12 legs and two more eyes (total three). In the third stage, they have 24 legs but lose all their eyes.

Making sense of the heat index: When the air temperature is 85 degrees, it feels like 78 when the humidity is at zero percent; 88 when the humidity is 50 percent; and 108 when the humidity is at 100 percent.

Of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, only one, New York’s One World Trade Center, is in the U.S. Of the rest, 5 are in China and one each are in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan. The world’s tallest building, measuring more than a half-mile in height at 2,717 feet, is Burj Khalifa (named after the country’s ruler) in Dubai.

Monaco has the shortest coastline—2.38 miles—of any sovereign nation that’s not landlocked.

The busiest ship canal in the world is the Kiel Canal linking the North Sea with the Baltic Sea in Germany.

The Alaska pipeline carries 2.1 million barrels of oil a day—when it’s not springing leaks—to the Valdez Oil Terminal.

A normal adult pulse rate is 70 to 78 beats per minute at rest for men and 78 to 85 for women.

The earliest known zoo was created by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt about 1500 B.C.E. About 500 years later, the Chinese Emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, a huge zoo covering 1,500 acres.

The Tarantella is a popular folk dance that gets its name from the city of Taranto, Italy. The people there used to dance the Tarantella as a supposed cure for tarantula bites. Today, of course, we know the correct dance for curing tarantula bites is the Locomotion.

The first cartoon with Democrats portrayed as donkeys was published in Harper’s Weekly by pioneering cartoonist Thomas Nast on Jan. 15, 1870.

During the 1828 presidential election, the opponents of Andrew Jackson had insultingly called him a jackass, and Jackson decided to turn the tables on those opponents. Instead of opposing the characterization, Jackson used the symbol in his campaign materials, agreeing at least in part with his opponents that he was “stubborn.” On Jan. 15, 1870, the first recorded use of a donkey cartoon to represent the Democratic Party appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon was drawn by political illustrator Thomas Nast, and was titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.”

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower National monument in northeastern Wyoming as the nation’s first national monument. Devils Tower is a volcanic tower standing 865 feet above its base, which is 415 feet high.

Almost all large metropolitan newspapers—the ones still publishing—now publish in the morning. As late as 1996, there were 846 afternoon dailies and 686 morning papers. There now about 1,260 dailies in the U.S.

Until Henry VIII passed an act separating the professions, barbers were also surgeons. After that, the only surgical operations barbers could legally perform were bloodletting and tooth-pulling. On the other hand, surgeons were no longer allowed to give anyone a shave and a haircut—even for two bits.

Finally, Jefferson Davis, the traitorous president of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War, was U.S. Secretary of War in 1853. While in office, he improved infantry tactics and brought in new and better weapons that were eventually used against him and the Confederate cause. Although briefly imprisoned, Davis never had to account for his treason that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 U.S. and Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines.

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Throwing off the surly bonds of a Midwestern summer’s heat

Folks out on the Left Coast are sweltering this summer, with record high temps being set all the way up into Canada where triple-digit is—until recently at least—unheard of. And the problems is, of course, that most folks out and up that way have never bothered with installing air conditioning, because they’ve never really needed it.

Here in the Midwest, though, hot, humid summers with sultry nights are the rule rather than the exception, something that literally makes the tall corn grow around these parts.

Going way, way back into Kendall County’s prehistory, keeping cool was easy—the last Ice Age cooled everything off for several thousand years, burying History Central where I’m writing this under around 2,000 feet of ice. The main problem faced by what few area residents there were back then, in fact (besides fending off the passing saber-toothed tiger or the occasional dire wolf), was keeping warm, even in summer.

Summer heat wasn’t a problem for Kendall County’s ancient people–keeping from freezing during that era’s long Ice Age winters was.

But the climate did warm up during thousands of years and those skillful Native American hunters dealt with the dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, gradually added more gathering to their lifestyles, and eventually created tribal societies.

Later Kendall Countians, like the Pottawatomi Indians, kept cool in summer by removing clothing to maintain their comfort levels. Many American Indians wore nothing but their moccasins in summer, thoroughly offending the first Europeans who arrived who, because of existing morals and fashions, were wrapped, chin to toe, in woolens and linens year around.

Permanent settlement by White Americans didn’t start here in northern Illinois until the late 1820s. And as soon as those settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, sometimes dropping snow measured in feet, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.

That meant housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.

So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed summer heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent the hot air that collected up near the ceiling level.

The wide roof overhangs popular with long-ago architects were not stylistic affectations, either. They were both functional as well as decorative, keeping hot sun off the sides and gables of the houses, reducing solar gain in the summer.

My father’s boyhood home just south of Emporia, Kansas featured a porch that wrapped around the whole house, cooling all four walls.

The sun’s heat was also reduced in those homes by the sizeable porches favored by Victorians. Those porches also provided additional living area for the family in summer. The house my father grew up in just south of Emporia, Kansas, had a porch that wrapped completely around the structure, assuring that every room on the first floor was shaded from the sun’s rays.

When it got really hot, however, people in the 1800s did what we do today to cool off. Noted the Oswego correspondent of the Kendall County Record in the paper’s July 9, 1874 edition: “If those boys swimming under the bridge on Tuesday afternoon have no common decency, their parents should incorporate a little to them by the means of a switch. They took special pains when a lady and young girl were crossing the bridge to swim out and by various contortions indecently expose themselves.”

Back then, folks used all kinds of heat-beating measures. In church, the rhythmic movement of dozens of cardboard fans (usually advertising the local funeral home) in the congregants’ hands put many a youngster sound asleep on hot Sunday mornings.

This photo of a quartette of young ladies swimming was taken by Irvin Haines on the Fox River just above the old Parker mills and dam around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Band concerts in the evening and picnics in the county’s cool groves and along the river got families out of their hot houses at other times. And there were those occasional dips in the river—with or without swimming costume.

And then as now, a frosty dish of cold ice cream could hold off the heat for awhile. Noted editor John R. Marshall in the July 22, 1875 Record: “Holland makes splendid chocolate ice cream, and if you want a real nice dish to cool you off, just drop into his [Yorkville] restaurant.”

Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th Century.

On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th Century, keeping food cool through the use of home iceboxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest. Large ice harvesting operations were located at almost every Fox River dam and on many area creeks as well, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed pork and beef carcasses from Midwest meat packing plants to eastern markets.

Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th Century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically-produced product ‘artificial ice.’ But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using ‘natural’ ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.

A huge ice harvesting operation was located just above the Oswego dam until the ice houses burned down in the 1890s. Similar businesses were located at dam sites up and down the Fox River Valley. (Little White School Museum collection)

Polluted water sources and warm winters combined to make Fox Valley ice harvesting chancy through the first two decades of the 20th Century. And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”

Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”

Restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”

Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration. When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Ill. Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “The still was of 23-gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloonkeeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol.”

Apparently seeing the error of his ways, Schickler got out of the bootlegging business and instead he and his son went into the dairy business, bottling milk in the same basement of his home where he’d previously been bottling bootleg whiskey.

Once refrigeration technology was understood, it wasn’t all that big a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.

Some of those first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. The early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate—provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.

Roy Roalson (left) gives a customer a trim in his barbershop on South Main Street in Oswego in 1936. They did both men’s and women’s hair in Roy’s shop. The shop’s Frididaire air conditioner is just out of the frame to the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”

Here in Oswego, barber Roy Roalson installed a heat-exchanger air conditioning system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barbershop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.

By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.

These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon. And it’s starting to look like our neighbors along the Pacific Coast may be looking at dealing with the same kinds of muggy, uncomfortable summers—at least some of the time—that we here in the Midwest have grown up with.

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A Kendall County witness to history: Nathan Hughes and the first Juneteenth

It’s not often that a Kendall County resident is present during a momentous historical event, but that was the case when the first Juneteenth took place at Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. When he issued his General Order Number 3, Union Major General Gordon Granger formally—and forcefully—notified the State of Texas that slavery was irrevocably eliminated.

And last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the United States’ newest national holiday as a symbolic celebration of the end of slavery throughout the nation.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger

From the time of its settlement as a part of Mexico that welcomed U.S. colonists, Texas had enthusiastically embraced slavery. Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829 was, in fact, one cause of Texas’ 1836 war of independence. The Mexican government had encouraged Stephen A. Austin to recruit settlers for Texas. He mostly recruited in the southern U.S., encouraging slave owners to emigrate by allowing them to purchase an extra 50 acres of land for every slave they brought with them. Both before and after it was admitted to the Union in 1845, East Texas and the state’s Gulf Coast became major cotton growing regions relying extensively on slavery.

So when the Southern states seceded, Texas went right along with them, citing Northern efforts to end slavery as the main reason they were leaving the Union. In their Declaration of Causes approved by the Texas legislature on Feb. 2, 1861, the state’s leaders contended:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”

Legally, slavery had been abolished by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 immediately after the bloody Union victory at Antietam. Lincoln’s executive order did not free all the nation’s slaves. Instead, it was aimed at the South as an economic weapon and therefore freed the slaves only in areas of the Confederate states not under the control of the Union Army. And that meant Texas. But the state’s slave owners, like those in the rest of the Confederacy, paid no attention to Lincoln’s proclamation.

But by the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was imploding. Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, and the rest of the South’s organized forces quickly followed suit.

On May 9, Gen. Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then move to the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.

Gen. Joseph A. Mower

By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Units that reportedly came ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment had been recruited in Illinois and was mustered in in April 1864. It had served well, including at the brutal Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

Serving in Company B of the 29th was Nathan Hughes, who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war, fled north into Illinois and briefly lived in Kendall County before he enlisted to fight for his own freedom. By the time the 29th came ashore at Galveston, Hughes had been wounded twice—once at the Battle of the Crater—and was a seasoned veteran.

It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their town. Especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.

On April 19th, Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. According to Granger’s order:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes, photographed in July 1893 on the occasion of their 10th wedding anniversary. Hughes, a witness to the first Juneteenth in 1865, is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic medal. He was the only Black member of the Kendall County G.A.R. (Little White School Museum collection)

In addition, Texans tended to believe that while perhaps slaves had been freed elsewhere, certainly their enslaved people wouldn’t be freed. As William Lee Richter wrote in The Army In Texas during Reconstruction, 1865-1870. “Planters vainly hoped that they would be compensated for the loss of their slaves or that the Supreme Court or the election of 1866 would overturn the Republicans’ majority in Congress. In addition, there was a cotton crop to bring in that fall. For these reasons, the planters forced their ex-bondsmen to stay on the plantation as slaves in fact, if not in name. To achieve this end, the farmers liberally employed whipping and murder.”

Southerners began resisting extending basic rights, including the right to vote and to peacefully assemble, as soon as the war ended. The U.S. Army and the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to combat the racist violence with which the South responded to the end of the Civil War, but those efforts proved ineffective. The violence grew to such an extent that during the Presidential election campaign of 1868, John R. Marshall, publisher of the Kendall County Record in Yorkville—himself a veteran of the Civil War who served in the Sturges Rifles—was far from alone when he wondered whether the war had ended two years too soon:

“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.”

That, however, was in the future, a bleak future at that, in which it would take nearly a century from the time Gen. Granger issued General Order Number 3 until acts enshrining civil and voting rights in U.S. law. From the time Granger impressed upon Texans that slavery was over once and for all, Black Americans began quietly observing June 19 as their own private day of independence from being enslaved and finally gaining their freedom.

After showing the U.S. Flag in Galveston, the 29th marched to the Rio Grande River where it was part of the Army of Observation tasked with reminding Maximilian and his French supporters that the United States was not pleased with their intervention in Mexico. The 29th was mustered out of U.S. service on Nov. 6, and its troops left for their homes.

Nathan Hughes came back to Kendall County and settled on a small farm on Minkler Road, went down to Kentucky and found his children, and brought them back to Illinois. His wife, however, decided to stay in familiar Kentucky and not move north. He eventually remarried. His grandchildren became the first black high school graduates in Kendall County, and THEIR grandchildren and great-grandchildren became teachers and professors, and lawyers and other professionals.

The family, now scattered across the nation, continues to pay forward the momentous results of that first Juneteenth Nathan Hughes had been part of in 1865.

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A little local dairy history to celebrate National Dairy Month

So how are YOU celebrating National Dairy Month in June?

Down at the Little White School Museum, we’re doing a special exhibit and I’ll be giving a short program on the community’s dairy history—which turns out to have been fairly extensive.

Here in northern Illinois, the counties up north and communities like Harvard have been known for their dairy farms for generations. But little Kendall County had a surprisingly robust dairy industry right up until World War II, and even for a few years thereafter.

In late April 1875. H.N. Wheeler, editor and publisher of the St. Charles Leader up in Kane County, tweaked Oswego about its dairy business: “Oswego claims to send a good deal of milk to Chicago. Well how much? It’s the first time we knew that the milk business, to any extent, had got that far south.” To which Kendall County Record publisher John R. Marshall shot back: “Come down the river some day, Wheeler, and we’ll show you. Yorkville ships a dozen, or 10 cans a day, also. You haven’t all the milk (or the coconut) up the river.”

Milk cows arrived in the Fox Valley with the earliest settlers in the 1830s, and by the 1850s, dairy farms in Kendall County were producing quite a bit of milk. The problem was what to do with it. Milk spoils easily and in 1850, it would be three more years until a rail line extended through Kendall County that could handle shipping easily spoiled products like milk. The roads of that era were little more than tracks across the prairie, nearly impassable after the spring thaw or at any other time of the year after heavy rains.

The solution was to turn milk into products such as butter and cheese that were less prone to spoilage and that would stand being shipped overland.

In 1850, less than a decade after Kendall County was established, the U.S. Farm Census reported there were 3,160 dairy cows in Kendall County. Further, the county had reported producing 180,000 pounds of butter and 27,000 pounds of cheese that year. Most of those products were produced on individual farms or in homes in town for sale locally, but a fair amount was shipped east to the nearest railhead where it could reach the Chicago market.

Seely’s “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge housed the village’s first creamery. (Little White School Museum collection)

It wasn’t until 1867, that Oswego’s first commercial dairy operation opened. As reported in the Record on July 25 that year: “Oswego is still making improvements and among them is a new cheese factory on the west side of the river. The old stone machine shop has been fitted up by Messrs Roe & Seely into a neat and thorough factory for the manufacture of cheese. These gentlemen are both from that renowned dairy district, Orange County, N.Y. Mr. Roe has been 12 years in the milk and cheese business and understand it in all its branches. On Tuesday we called on him and he showed the operations of the factory and gave us much general information in regard to dairies, etc. The factory commenced operation on the 6th day of May last and has been constantly at work since. They use 1,500 quarts of milk a day from about 175 cows. They do not work on shares as some factories do, but buy the milk for cash.”

That “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge is still standing as a private residence, and is known today as Turtle Rock.

By 1860, the number of milk cows in the county had more than doubled to just over 7,000 and the amount of butter produced had skyrocketed to 602,000 lbs., while the amount of cheese manufactured on farms and in homes had not quite doubled to 46,000 lbs.

In 1870, the number of milk cows in the county had decreased a bit, just like the county’s population, but the amount of butter produced had again increased. And also that year, Oswego, Yorkville, and several other towns up and down the Fox River finally got a direct rail connection. That meant dairy products—including raw milk—could be more easily shipped to distant markets. But the rapaciousness of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and its monopoly on rail transport meant shipping dairy products to market was an expensive proposition. Oswego general store owner David M. Haight went so far as to propose shipping milk and other dairy products by road to the Chicago market, but the condition of those roads remained terrible.

Instead, businessmen and farmers’ cooperatives decided the best course was to open local creameries where farmers could sell their milk that could then be processed into butter and cheese. By the late 1800s, most communities in Kendall County could boast their own creamery. Oswego, for several years, had two creameries, the first a commercial operation in an abandoned brewery along modern Ill. Route 25, and the other a farmers’ cooperative located in the area of the Oswego grain elevator.

McConnell’s Oswego Butter and Cheese Factory located in a former brewery on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society collection)

The March 1, 1877 Record reported that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped in a measure the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

Those creameries produced huge volumes of dairy products. By 1878 McConnell’s Oswego creamery alone was processing 14,000 lbs. (almost 1,630 gallons) of milk a day. On May 16 that year, the Record reported: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

Local dairy production was not limited to farms during that era, either. Most houses in town boasted a small barn on their property where the family kept a few chickens, the family cow, and a driving horse, with a buggy and, for the winter months, a sleigh. The problem, of course, is that town lots don’t have any space to pasture a cow. So for much of the 19th Century, cows in small towns like Oswego and Yorkville were allowed to roam at large. As you might guess, this caused frequent problems.

On March 21, 1867, Marshall complained in the Record that: “Farmers coming into Yorkville to trade are annoyed beyond patience by the cows running in the street, that make their way to a wagon as soon as it is left by the owner, and forage the hay, straw, apples, potatoes, or whatever there is eatable therein. Nothing is save from their ravages and at the coming town meeting something should be done to abate the nuisance.”

Oswego’s “Barn Alley” between Monroe and Madison streets had one of the village’s best collections of town barns. (Little White School Museum collection)

Towns soon passed laws forbidding cows to roaming at large. But that didn’t go down well with some residents. On May 20, 1869, under the headline “The Great Cow Rebellion,” Lawrence Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “The great sensation of Oswego last week was the cow rebellion. It happened this way: The corporation powers that be [the village board] ordained that all cattle should be prohibited from running at large in the village streets. A lot of cows soon were in the pound. Cow owners were filled with indignation, denouncing it as a piece of highhanded legislation, a crushing down of the poor, etc. The government backed down. The cows are now enjoying the liberty of the streets. As for myself in that struggle, I was on the side of the cow; am too much of a calf, that is, like milk too well to go back on her.”

Eventually, because of the destruction they kept causing, Oswego’s cows, like those in Yorkville, were ordered restrained from running at large, no matter how indignant their owners became.

How many cows were in town? I couldn’t find any figures from the 19th Century, but in 1910, the U.S. Farm Census reported how many cattle were being kept on farms as well as in town. It turned out there were half again as many cattle as people in Kendall County on farms that year. Plus there were 230 head of cattle—likely all or most being milk cows—kept in town, a fairly sizable number for a small county with a population of just over 10,000.

In 1890, Kendall County hit its peak dairy cow population, with 9,500 cows in the county. That year, at least a dozen creameries were operating in Kendall County, most of them farmer cooperatives.

The production of dairy products was high during that era, too. In 1885, the Illinois Agriculture Department had reported that during the previous year, Kendall County farms and businesses reported selling huge amounts of dairy products. According to the state, Kendall County farms sold 433,599 gallons of milk; 18,241 gallons of cream; 282,495 pounds of butter; and 24,500 pounds of cheese during 1884.

In the 1930s, Clarence Schickler operated a farm dairy from the basement of his large farm home along Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Ironically, his father had been arrested for operating large bootlegging operation out of the same space a decade before. (Little White School Museum collection)

From that high point, however, dairy production in Kendall County began to decline. The shear work dairy farming entails, along with the steady consolidation into ever-larger dairy farming operations and increasing health regulations began squeezing out, not only smaller dairy farm operations but also the small local creameries that processed their production. By the end of World War I, all the local creameries were gone.

By 1959, the number of dairy cows in the county had dropped below the count in 1850, and it, along with the number of dairy farms, declined even more sharply after that.

As late as 1950, 694 farms in Kendall County reported having at least one milk cow on the place and the number of dairy cattle was reported at 4,569. By 1964, the number of farms with a dairy cow on the place had dropped to just 133, and the number of dairy cows in the county had decreased to 1,751. In 1997, just nine dairy farms reported having only 246 head of dairy cattle and by 2002, there were only two dairy farms left in the county, the number of cows so low it wasn’t recorded by the farm census.

While the dairy farming and dairy products businesses were consolidating, so were the companies that provided milk to consumers. Very early on, farmers would actually go door-to-door in towns and sell milk to householders and businesses by the bucket. George Henry Lester patented the first glass milk container, the ungainly Lester Milk Jar, in 1878. He started selling milk in his jars in 1879, but it wasn’t until 1884 that really practical milk bottles hit the scene. The invention of practical milk bottles, along with the home icebox allowed small dairies to pop up all over the country—and not just in towns.

A milk and a cream bottle from Oswego’s Schickler Dairy will be among artifacts on exhibit during “Milk and More: Discovering Oswego’s Dairy Industry” at Oswego’s Little White School Museum on Saturday, June 12.

Here in Oswego, the community was served by two farm-based dairies. The Roberts Dairy was based on Charles Roberts’ farm south of the Oswego Bridge on modern U.S. Route 34, while the Schickler Dairy was located on the Clarence Schickler farm on modern Route 31 north of the bridge. They served the community during the 1920s and 1930s.

After World War II, larger dairies in Aurora were able to undercut the prices of the smaller local farm-based operations. Oswego was served mostly by Aurora’s Oatman’s Dairy in the 1950s. Oatman’s provided both home delivery by milkman Les Weis and also provided milk to Oswego’s schools for those government-subsidized daily milk breaks. At first school milk was served in small half-pint glass bottles, but those were soon replaced by waxed cardboard half-pint cartons.

Milkmen, in turn, were displaced in the home milk supply business in the 1960s when gas station owners discovered milk was a great customer draw. Grocery stores had by then begun selling more milk as well, but the hours of stores of that era were far more limited than gas stations. Gas station owners found the investment in a glass-doored milk cooler attracted many more customers than their old, limited product line. And thus was invented, after a few years of evolution, the mini mart that dominates so much of today’s retail landscape.

On Saturday afternoon, starting at 1:30 p.m. at the Little White School Museum, I’ll be recounting these stories along with a few others (such as the one about how Clarence Schickler’s father operated a huge illegal bootleg still out of the same space as his milk bottling operation occupied) during a program that’s part of our salute to National Dairy Month. We’re also assembling some fun exhibits of dairy-related materials from our museum collections—glass Schickler and Oatman’s milk bottles, a hand butter churn, milk and cream cans, and a lot more. Admission to the program at 1:30 is $5, with proceeds benefiting the museum. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

Hope to see you Saturday!

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