How European hat fashions of the past nearly wiped out dozens of animal species

The February edition of BBC History Magazine had an interesting piece on how the use of feathers and bird skins and body parts in women’s hat fashions during the late 1800s and early 1900s drove some bird species to the brink of extinction—and sometimes over it.

Fashionable women’s headgear of the era was often custom manufactured by local milliners in small towns and big cities alike. When the big catalog companies and their accompanying department stores were developed, women in even the smallest hamlets or in isolated farms and ranches could buy the most fashionable and elaborate befeathered hats.

Elaborate women’s hats of the Victorian era were decorated with feathers and other parts of bird bodies, from wings to whole skins.

But while women’s hat fashions were indeed responsible for depredations on the world’s bird species, we shouldn’t forget that men’s hat fashions also drove some animal species—this time fur-bearing animals— to near or total extinction hundreds of years earlier.

Using wool to manufacture felt was common from Roman times on, but it wasn’t until the 13th Century or so that it was found that superior felt could be made from the fur of beavers. Each individual beaver fur hair, it turns out, has microscopic barbs on it that allow it to tightly cling to its fellows.

The Russians were the first to really capitalize on beaver fur for felting, fortuitously just at the time that elaborate men’s felt hats were becoming all the rage in Europe. It didn’t take long for the idea of using beaver fur felt to manufacture the finest hats to spread all over the continent. And that spelled doom for the beaver populations in Europe as well as in western Russia.

It was just at this hat mania was accelerating that it was found that beavers were plentiful in the North American colonial possessions of France, England, and the Netherlands—not to mention all sorts of other furbearing animals as well as deer and other ruminants whose skins were valuable for manufacturing everything from riding britches to wealthy people’s gloves.

The broad-brimmed floppy hats worn by Swedish soldiers during the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) set the fashion for the next century and a half. And all those hats required a lot of beaver skins to manufacture the felt to satisfy the need.

Beginning in the 1600s, the competition for control of the fur trade led to conflict among the European colonial powers in their North American possessions, as well as with and between the continent’s Native People.

From 1652 to 1674, the British and Dutch fought a series of maritime conflicts that resulted in the loss of New Netherlands to the British, and its renaming as New York. The British and Spanish, too, fought with each other over their North American colonies, the two major ones being the War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739 to 1748, was largely inconclusive although it led to a Spanish invasion of Georgia that was repulsed.

The unique qualities of beaver fur made it ideal to manufacture felt for 18th and early 19th Century men’s hats. The wild popularity of beaver felt hats and the resulting trade in beaver furs prompted everything from international wars to the destruction of Native American cultures.

However, the major wars over North American colonial possessions—and control of the fur trade—were fought between the French and the British as sidelights to larger European (and even worldwide) wars. King William’s War (1688–1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713), King George’s War (1744–1748), and the final conflict in the series, the French and Indian War (1754-1763) eventually resulted in the expulsion of France from most of its former North American possessions.

During all of these conflicts, North America’s Native People were involved in a series of changing alliances between tribes as well as with the colonial powers. Due to a major error on the part of French explorer, governor and military leader Samuel de Champlain, the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, which controlled the area lying between the Atlantic Coast and the rich fur-producing areas of the Great Lakes generally allied itself with British interests, while the Algonquian-speaking people of the Great Lakes area generally allied with the British and Dutch.

Furs, particularly those of the beaver, were so eagerly sought early in the colonial era that beavers were soon driven to near extinction in Atlantic coastal areas, requiring traders to range farther and farther inland.

The Iroquois Confederacy was an unusual (and innovative) political alliance of five tribes based in what is now upper New York State that all spoke related Iroquoian languages, the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca. By 1600, the original five-member confederacy had been formed, committing all members to an organized system of choosing leaders and defending the confederacy against other tribes, particularly neighboring Alqonquian-speaking people. In 1722, the Tuscaroras joined the confederacy, which then became known as “The Six Nations.”

The Iroquois quickly grasped the importance of their location to control of the fur trade, and they determined to control access to the western Great Lakes where the richest supplies of fur-bearing animals was to be found. In order to cement their control, the Iroquois apparently independently developed the concept of total war to either subjugate or totally destroy other tribes. Historians call the succession of conflicts waged over fur trade control the Beaver Wars. At least one large tribe, known as the Neutrals, was completely eradicated while the powerful Hurons were forced ever farther west. The conflicts even struck here in Illinois as a series of Iroquois military strikes from the 1650s to the 1680s temporarily drove the populous Illinois Confederacy west of the Mississippi River and ended up forcing the Illinois to rely on French protection for survival.

The Iroquois closed the western Great Lakes to French trade for many years, but by the 1680s, the French were building settlements all over the region including here in Illinois, first at Fort St. Louis atop Starved Rock and then at Peoria and along the Mississippi River at Cahokia, Kaskaskia, and the imposing Fort de Chartres. Throughout the late 17th Century and through the mid-18th Century, the French extracted millions of furs and hides from everything from beavers, martens, and mink to deer and buffalo for shipment either north and east to Montreal on the Great Lakes’ “Voyageurs’ Highway,” or down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

By the early 1800s, both the American and British the fur trade in the lower Great Lakes relied in Mackinac boats rather than birch bark freight canoes.

With the French defeated in the last of the great North American fur trade wars in 1763, the British occupied the interior of the continent and their traders enjoyed a monopoly in the trade in furs. But not for long. The British North American colonies revolted in 1776, throwing the interior back into almost constant warfare with tribes of Native People mostly supporting the British. American military forays into what was by then known as The Illinois Country, as well as the western Great Lakes secured the area to the south of the lakes’ shores for the new United States.

John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company to take over the former British fur trade infrastructure—a plan that was set back by the War of 1812 as the British and their Native American allies who pushed Americans out of the richest areas before the Treaty of Ghent formalized the border between the U.S. and Canada.

Fort Mackinac at the strait between lakes Huron and Michigan was the western hub of the fur trade where brigades of birch bark canoes and Mackinac boats were sent to the interior each spring to collect furs trapped during the previous winter.

Native People traded furs and hides—the thick prime winter beaver pelt was the standard by which the trades were made—that had driven beavers extinct in the East soon did the same in the Western Great Lakes, and the trade gradually moved on to the Great West and the Rocky Mountains, conducted by the famed Mountain Men.

In recent decades, furbearing animals driven to near-extinction by the fur trade have made a dramatic comeback in the lower Great Lakes.

Astor sold the American Fur Company operations in 1834. By that time, furbearers had largely disappeared from northern Illinois and in any case, the U.S. Government was ready to forcibly remove the region’s Native People west of the Mississippi. While the fur trade continued for several more years in Canada and the Rocky Mountain west, it was only a shadow of it’s former extent.

When the first American settlers began arriving here in northern Illinois in the late 1820s, the area had been largely stripped of animals whose furs and hides could be sold. It wasn’t until the passage of environmental laws in the 1970s that the region’s furbearers and other animals valued for their hides such as white-tailed deer began showing up in larger numbers.

The same sensitivity to the environment has also led to the recovery of many of the bird species that were so hard-hit during the Victorian women’s mania for befeathered hats.

Looking back at those bits of history, it is interesting, not to mention appalling, to contemplate that entire species of birds and mammals were nearly driven to extinction by human fashions in, of all things, hats as we celebrate another Earth Day.

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The Union won the Civil War but lost the peace

Today marks the 156th anniversary of the surrender of the rebellious “Army of Northern Virginia,” under the command of a renegade U.S. Army colonel, Robert E. Lee, to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the U.S. armies fighting to preserve the Union and end slavery.

It had been a long, bloody conflict, by far the deadliest in U.S. history, but with Lee’s surrender, the few remaining rebellious Southern forces likewise surrendered and the war was over.

But while the military phase of the war was over, the political phase was far from finished. Indeed, the previously rebellious Southern states immediately began organizing against the reconstruction plans of the victorious North.

U.S. Grant, 1868 GOP candidate for President

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Southerners just days after the end of the war, and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, took over the reins of government. Johnson proved an ineffective replacement for Lincoln. In the election of 1868, Johnson didn’t succeed in gaining the Democratic nomination. Instead, it went to Horatio Seymour, former Democratic governor of New York. The Republican nomination went, by acclamation, to Ulysses Grant, the victor of the Civil War.

The Democrats based their campaign on outright racism, and violence across the South was widespread and vicious. By the summer of 1868, in fact, Union veterans were beginning to wonder if the war, despite all of the death and privation, had ended too soon. While the South’s armies had been vanquished, Southern citizenry had not and the rise of armed White racist terrorists was creating chaos across the region.

John Redman Marshall was born in 1837 at Skipton, Maryland. He enlisted in the Sturgess Rifles at Chicago in 1861 and fought in many of the major battles in the Eastern Theatre before he was mustered out in 1863. In 1864, he established the Kendall County Record, at Yorkville, Illinois, publishing the first issue on May 1. Marshall died 18 April 1927 in Yorkville, Kendall, Illinois. (Little White School Museum collection)

It is with that backdrop that John Redmon Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record, decided to write an editorial wondering whether more organized violence against the South might be warranted. A Civil War veteran himself, Marshall was alarmed at the viciously racist attitude of Southerners and their growing reliance on violence as the campaign continued. In the Record’s Aug. 13, 1868 edition, Marshall laid out his thinking to his readers—including his former comrades-in-arms—here our little corner of northern Illinois:

“Many Union men assert that the war of the rebellion ended two years too soon. That the rebels were overpowered but not conquered. It is becoming public opinion that the assertion is true and that the aim of the Democratic party is to revolutionize the country if it gets into power. The South threatens to appeal to the bayonet at any rate, whether it is successful at the polls or not

“The Democratic platform is revolutionary. The leaders of the party desire the success of the South to overthrow the reconstructed States, and they are revolutionary. Shall we have another war? Do the people of this Country wish to engage in another deadly strife? If not, let them give no countenance to the Copperheads or to their plans. Harper’s Weekly says: ‘The Democratic party proposes to reverse all the national legislation of three last years, to subvert the reconstruction which the country has approved, to disperse organized State governments by the bayonet; by the same means to reinstate those who, for the highest crime against the Commonwealth, have been temporarily disfranchised; to deprive hundreds of thousands of new citizens of the ballot, and thrust them back into a semi-enslaved condition—a project which can not be accomplished but by the most sanguinary measures. Proclaiming a wholly arbitrary test of citizenship in color—a test involving caste and inconceivable injustice, which embraces the entire disaffected class, and excludes a large body of the loyal people—it announces that if its claim is disregarded, it will appeal to physical force,’ and pass its candidate in the White House at the point of a bayonet.

“‘It will not be forgotten that the party which thus enters into a political campaign with a loud threat of civil war is the one that has previously made the same threat and fulfilled it to the letter. In 1860 the Democratic orators said that ‘the South could not be expected to submit to the election of Mr. Lincoln.’ In 1856, Mr. Filmore, absurdly called Conservative, had said the same thing in view of the election of Mr. Freemont. It was not bravado merely. Whatever the Northern portion of the party may have thought or intended, the Southern portion was sincere and resolved; and it was that portion which had entirely controlled the party and dictated its policy, because it was the positive element.’

“Mr. John Forsythe, of the Mobile Register, thus candidly states the propose of the South, and gives a fair warning to the Northern people:

“’If by any species of chicanery or fraud the legitimate voices of the majority of the whole people of the United States are condemned, and the Radical candidates are pronounced elected by the Radical Congress, the Democracy of the country will not submit to it, and will take arms to sustain the decrees of the ballot box.

Horatio Seymour, the Democratic candidate for President in 1868.

Now, if civil war comes out of this conflict of political forces, the white men of the South cannot be worsted; for war and its terrors, in their deadliest form, are not comparable to the evils they will have to endure under a perpetuation of scalawag and carpet-bag rule. And here we may as well say that the people of the South do not intend to submit to that permanent rule, result as the Presidential election may. And they have only submitted to its indignities and insults so far because they have been waiting for the good sense and justice of the American people to relieve them from it, and restore them to their civil rights in the November elections.’

“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.

“Then defeat Seymour and Blair, the devil and his angel, and let the South, backed by the Copperheads of the North, endeavor to revolutionize the country. But they will not do it. They dare not do it. Southern braggadocio and copperhead threats are too well know by the loyal millions to frighten them.”

Given the violence of last year’s Presidential election, as well as the violence of the post-election period that was instigated and encouraged by the former President, it may be useful to contemplate that there were misgivings about the end of the Civil War at the time. That the racist attitudes of that era are coming to the fore once again suggests that Marshall and the “Union men” he referenced were not being overly alarmist.

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Farmers’ annual ritual of moving from farm to farm a thing of the past

By this time in the farming calendar of Fox Valley residents from the early 1900s through the later years of the 20th Century, tenant farmers were settled on the land they planned to work for the coming year. The moves from former rental farms to their new homes had been accomplished in February and March so that by early April families were pretty much settled in and ready to go to work.

But speaking of the second month of the year, if you’ve lived in Illinois for any time at all, you know that February is not the nicest month around these parts. Despite all the love expressed on Valentine’s Day, the fact is, Illinois weather in February is just about the worst the region can offer. Cold, snow, sometimes rain and mud, followed by ice and frozen mud are all things February throws at us every year—sometimes all at once.

Which is why it might puzzle you a bit that February was the month my parents chose to get married.

Until she was 10 years-old, my mom’s family lived on the East Side of Aurora in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of the majority population of Germans that lived there. My grandfather worked in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops downtown while my grandmother kept house. But in 1920, my grandmother—a country girl—persuaded my grandfather to move out of town to a farm. She promised to actually do all the farming to start, including milking cows, if they’d only move out of the city (and away from fractious in-laws) and back to her beloved country.

My grandparents moved from the east side of Aurora to this decrepit farmhouse in Wheatland Township in June 1920, where they joined the rural community.

So out to Wheatland Township they went, moving from their nice big Queen Anne two-story home on Hinman Street into a dumpy little one-story house on one of the Lewis McLaren farms. The farm they rented was less than a half-mile from the Tamarack School, but that was about place’s only positive attribute.

My grandfather continued in his job in Aurora for a couple years, walking the mile and a half down what’s today 127th Street to the interurban line where he caught a trolley into town, worked his 10 hours, and commuted home again. Meanwhile my grandmother milked cows to sell the butter, milk, and cream; raised chickens; tended a huge garden and large orchard; took care of the kids; and kept house.

It was about the same time my father, figuring the frequent drifts of dust blocking the back door of his family’s Kansas farmhouse were bad omens, decided to go with his buddy and a cousin to California to join the Navy. They stayed overnight at another cousin’s place in western Kansas, who talked them out of joining the peace-time Navy. The cousin added he heard there were jobs to be had in Illinois, so the trio turned their Model-T Ford around and headed back east, winding up in Ottawa. There they worked as steeplejacks at the glass factories for a couple years before my dad decided he wanted to get back into farming. He took the interurban trolley from Ottawa to Joliet and from there to downtown Aurora, making sure to arrive on a Saturday night when farm families came to town for their weekly shopping.

My dad (back row in black hat and white shirt and tie) poses with his parents and siblings(and little niece and nephew) as he says good-bye to Kansas.

He walked down Broadway, asking the first person he saw that looked like a farmer if he was hiring. No, the man said, but he knew who was. And so, with a few detours, my father found himself working for Jim and Bess McMicken out in the same Scots neighborhood my mother’s parents had moved to. My grandfather and my dad met during a volunteer project at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church. Grandpa was impressed by how hard a worker my dad was, and so invited him home for a meal. Where he met my mom, and where, nature taking its course, after their marriage in February 1930, my two older sisters and I eventually showed up.

But why did they pick February for their wedding date? Well back then, many if not most farmers rented and did not own their own land. Farms were rented every spring, generally at the end of February or the first of March. And so if you were a young couple looking to rent a farm, it was smart to get chores—like your marriage, for instance—out of the way so you’d be ready to jump on the first available farm that came up for rent.

Throughout the region, families moved from farm to farm, leaving old neighborhoods, churches, and one-room schools behind to take up another farm elsewhere. Keeping everyone abreast of the area’s moves, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Feb. 28, 1930: “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kuhns have moved to the L.D. Judd farm near Sugar Grove. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Meyer and family have moved into the place vacated by the Kuhns.”

My folks, dating the year before they got married.

In 1939, so many farm families were moving that the correspondent ran a special story on it each week during the spring season. “’The time has come, the Walrus said’ for many farmers to pack up their household and farm equipment and move to another farm,” she wrote on March 1, before listing several family moves, and adding, “Other moves in this annual checker game will be given next week.”

In 1930, my newly married parents found a farm over on what’s now Ill. Route 126 between Plainfield and Yorkville. An old house even then, it needed fixing up, which my grandfather, who by then had left the Burlington shops and was farming and doing carpenter work on the side, did. Establishing a precedent, he went into town and bought whatever wallpaper was the cheapest and everyone pitched in to paper the walls and paint the woodwork.

From there, my folks moved to another one of the McLaren farms. With the farm came old Mrs. McLaren, who my mother was expected to care for and who was then well into dementia, her paranoia dictating that she never turned her back on my father, even when climbing the stairs to go to bed, which she did by walking backwards. Mr. McLaren (who was an engineer and inventor) and his wife came to stay on the farm on a regular basis, but his penchant for year round nude bathing in the farm stock tank persuaded my parents (especially my outraged mother) it was perhaps not the best environment to raise their two small daughters.

The Butcher Place, where my parents’ farming career ended and where I lived until I was eight years old.

From the McLaren Place, they moved to Minkler Road and the infamous Gates’ Place. The Gates’ Place forever after was the low point by which all other rented farmhouses were gauged. It was the place where snow drifted through the closed bedroom windows and the teakettle froze on the back burner of the cookstove at night.

But then as the 1930s were drawing to a close, a farm with relatively new house and buildings came up for rent. From the McLaren Place they’d previously rented, the new farm was a short trip down 127th Street to Tamarack Corners and then a couple miles north to the Butcher Place for the final farm my folks rented. It’s where I spent my first eight years. In December 1954, my parents and my sisters and I moved to town and left the farm rental lottery for good.

Today, that once-common late winter-early spring ritual of families moving from farm to farm is almost entirely a thing of the past—as is farming itself in much of the Fox Valley. But at one time, there was a whole lot of movin’ going on around these parts early in every year.

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The Fox: River of not enough respect?

I’ve lived along or on the banks of the Fox River for most of the years since I was eight years old. And one of the things those of us who grew up on the river know is that it can quickly become dangerous, and therefore demands respect—especially during this time of year.

Far too many of those who live in the Fox River Valley and nearby areas take the Fox for granted. It’s “only the Fox,” I hear far too often. And while it is generally a fairly placid, shallow, well-behaved stream, it can quickly and often unexpectedly become a danger to the unwary.

When the settlers arrived, they knew the river posed its greatest danger during the spring ice breakup when heavy rains and melting ice created a raging torrent that bore no resemblance to what it was like the rest of the year. And they also knew that sudden storms at any time of the year could also turn the Fox into a dangerous antagonist.

The valley’s early residents called those floods “freshets.” Major 19th Century freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868. It was the consensus of the old-timers that the 1857 event was by far the worst. Oswego resident J.H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the February 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind: “When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

Downtown Aurora during the Freshet of 1857 saw all sorts of things floating down the Fox River, including entire buildings, not to mention the town’s bridge.

Twenty years after the flood, the Rev. E.W. Hicks’ account of the flood in his 1877 history of Kendall County still rang with the fear the flood caused among the Fox Valley’s residents: “The spring of 1857 opened with the most destructive freshet ever known on Fox river, caused by a heavy rain on February 6th, which melted the snow and broke up the ice and set the entire winter’s crop free. All the bridges from Batavia to Ottawa were swept away, and the river was covered with boards, boxes, furniture, chickens, and debris of all kinds. At Oswego, Parker’s saw mill was taken at a loss of three thousand dollars, and Rowley & English’s lumber yard suffered a loss of one thousand dollars. At Millington half the village was flooded; water was waist deep on Vine street, in front of Watters’ store, two blocks from the river. The freshet extended throughout the country, and in other places many lives were lost. Houses were undermined and carried away while the inmates were still asleep, and they knew nothing of their danger until the hungry waters swallowed them up. Such another freshet has not been known in this country; yet each winter the materials for such another accumulates, and it is a striking exemplification of the goodness of the providence of God that these materials are dispersed gradually, and rarely allowed to go out with the terrible and fatal rush of 1857.”

Dwight Young snapped this photo in March 1913 from the west bank of the Fox River looking east towards Oswego as the river’s thick ice broke up. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Freshet of 1868, Fox Valley residents agreed, was close to, but did not surpass, the 1857 flood. Nevertheless, it did considerable damage here in Kendall County. According to the Kendall County Record’s March 12, 1868 edition: “The ‘breaking up’ of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks…Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.”

The river’s freshets were destructive, but most people knew enough to stay out of the river while they were happening. At least most did. Sometimes, however, people just didn’t pay attention and were in danger of paying with their lives. A good example of daring the river to do its worst—and luckily surviving—was recounted by silent film star William S. Hart.

Parker’s Gristmill at the west end of the dam just above downtown Oswego, with the miller’s house where William S. Hart’s family lived when his father worked at the mill about 1870. (Photo by Irvin Haines. Little White School Museum collection)

As Hart put it in the first two sentences of his 1926 autobiography, My Life East and West, “I was born in Newburgh, New York. My first recollection is of Oswego, Illinois.”

Hart’s father was the miller at the Parker & Sons gristmill on the west bank of the Fox just above Oswego. In the spring of 1870, the ice was just going out of the Fox River, with huge, thick floes of ice rushing down the stream and across Parker’s dam. At the sawmill across the river at the east end of the dam, the sawyers needed supplies from the Hart family at the gristmill. The supplies were loaded aboard a rickety rowboat and Nicholas, William’s father prepared to set off to deliver the supplies. Like kids anywhere, six year-old William and his sister begged to go along for the boat ride. Astonishingly, their parents agreed.

Popular silent cowboy movie start–and one-time Oswego resident–William S. Hart was featured on the cover of the June 1917 issue of Motion Picture Magazine.

Off the party went, the plan being for Hart’s father to row upstream along the west bank to Bullhead Bend—opposite today’s Violet Patch Park—before turning across the current to land at the sawmill on the east side of the river. As Nicholas battled the current and the ice floes battered the flimsy rowboat, the family dog—Ring—suddenly decided to swim out and join the fun. They managed to get dog hauled aboard, but by that time the boat was dangerously close to the dam. Had it gone over, the roller wave at the base of the dam would certainly have drowned all three Harts. But through a truly Herculean effort, Nicholas somehow managed to make the east bank, and get everyone ashore, although the boat was badly damaged in the process by the ice floes.

Then there was the March 1879 adventure of teenagers Etta McKinney and Hattie Mullen who went down to the flooded river by the Oswego bridge with friends and found a rowboat tied up along the bank. The two thought it would be great fun to float downstream, Etta promising she “knew how to make the boat go.” But once underway, Etta found she couldn’t control the boat in the flooded river and couldn’t get back to shore, either. Meanwhile their friends ran for help shouting the two girls had probably drowned by then. Etta managed to get close enough to shore that Hattie sensibly jumped out and waded ashore. But Etta couldn’t gather the courage to jump, and instead continued downstream, “industriously singing Sunday school hymns,” to keep up her courage, according to the newspaper account. Eventually adult help arrived, got the boat to shore, and rescued Etta. When she was finally safely ashore, and despite her lusty hymn singing, Eta (who was apparently what my dad used to call “a real pistol”) maintained she hadn’t been frightened a bit and that “it was the best boat ride she ever had.”

Not everyone was so lucky, though. A month later, young Ed Moore was swept over the Yorkville dam, bounced around badly on the river bottom in the roller wave and nearly drowned. In January 1880, George Wormley, a relative of the Wormleys who lived on the west side of the river, and his friend George Pollard were rowing their boat across the river just above Oswego when they struck a sandbar just below the Oswego dam, overturning the boat and drowning Wormley.

In February 1965, a rapid breakup on the Fox created an ice dam at the Oswego bridge that backed water up all the way to Montgomery and left these giant chunks of ice littering the bank along Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill. (Photo by Bev Skaggs. Little White School Museum collection)

In April 1896, ten year-old Willie Stein fell in the flooded river at Montgomery while fishing and drowned, and in June 1908 Israel Blume and Louis Spink drowned at Yorkville when their rowboat went over the dam and they were caught in the roller wave at the dam’s base.

In most of the cases of people drowning in the river, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and right up to the present century, the deaths can be attributed to people being unacquainted with the river and not taking the stream, especially when flooded, seriously. After all, it’s only the familiar old Fox.

Those of us who grew up on the river know some of its secrets: Where the occasional deep holes are, places where the currents can play havoc with boats and canoes, and where dangerous rocks and bars endanger those using the river. But for the occasional canoeist, kayaker, or angler the Fox can present problems that can sometimes turn dangerous—or even fatal.

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It’s my ninth blogiversery and I’m still finding local history to write about…

On the afternoon of March 10, 2012 I sat down at my Mac Mini and set up my own page on the WordPress blogging site. I’d been retired as the editor of the Ledger-Sentinel here in Oswego for a few years and had largely finished my project to transcribe the “Oswego” news columns from each week’s Kendall County Record from the 1860s to the 1970s. So I was looking for another history project to occupy my time—when I wasn’t volunteering down at the Little White School Museum.

My good friend John Etheredge, who took over the editorship of the Ledger-Sentinel when I left, asked me shortly before I retired whether I’d ever considered blogging. I had, from time to time, but not seriously. But by March 2012—four years after I had hung up my editor’s blue pencil—I was apparently ready to start making more local history accessible to a wider audience.

So with my blogging home established, I wrote my very first post here at History on the Fox. It was a short piece on the coming change to Daylight Savings Time, the point being people had been grousing about time changes for a long, long time, bolstered with a couple of 1930s quotes from the Kendall County Record. I posted that entry at 4:28 p.m.

Then, I apparently figured maybe I ought to explain what I hoped to accomplish here, and so just before 8 p.m., I posted another piece titled “Blogging in the 21st Century with a 19th Century mind…” to do just that.

I started blogging in my upstairs office across the street from where I’m writing this post in the house my great-grandparents built for their retirement from farming.

The original History Central office featured my trusty Royal upright typewriter, with inspiration provided by the Pennsylvania rifle I’d built and my Brown Bess musket hanging on the wall and my trusty guitar close at hand.

That office was the descendant of the original History Central that I’d set up when we were working on county histories for the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission back in 1974. The first History Central was located out on an enclosed porch at the first house we ever owned, which was a true relic. My great-great-grandparents moved there shortly after the Civil War. My great-great-grandmother wove rag rugs on her giant loom there as well as renting out sleeping rooms to railroad and ice harvesting company workers. Her son built the porch onto the house in the 1920s so his tubercular daughter could sleep in the fresh air. We remodeled it into office space a few years before we moved next door to my great-grandparents house. Then in 2018 we moved across the street to the house my sister built on the east bank of the Fox River. So three moves since 1968, all in a radius of about 1,500 feet.

It’s now been nine years—that’s a long time in blogging years, by the way—and I’m still plugging away on my Mac Mini here at the newest History Central, trying to post at least once a week, mostly on the history of the Fox Valley and topics related to it.

Since March 10, 2012, I’ve written 284 unique posts, some of which I’ve re-posted from time to time. My weekly posting schedule has gotten corrupted from time to time as real life intruded, including a heart valve replacement and most recently an emergency pacemaker install.

During the past nine years, nearly 34,000 visitors have clicked into History on the Fox to read about local, Illinois, and Midwestern history, not to mention the occasional off-topic posts that go up from time to time.

Things started pretty slowly. For the entire year of 2012, I had a total of 58 individual visitors. Even then, the places those visitors lived was sort of mind-boggling and included not just the U.S., but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Macau, Mexico, Japan, and France.

The 2021 version of History Central is still a bit of a work in progress but the window out onto the Fox River offers plenty of inspiration.

Since then, however, the blog—and its number visitors—has continued to grow. In 2020, a total of 11,230 folks stopped by History on the Fox from a mind-blowing 84 countries around the world. Not surprisingly (since they’re our close neighbors to the north and French Canadians were some of the first non-Native American residents in our area), most of my foreign visitors last year—610—came from Canada, followed by 363 from the United Kingdom, 177 from Australia, and 115 from France, none of which seem too odd. But I always wonder what the 22 visitors from Thailand, 18 from South Korea, and 8 from Ghana got out of “History on the Fox’s” content.

When it comes to the all-time popularity of individual blog posts, “Those marvelous Ojibwa birch bark canoes” is the clear winner, with 1,529 individual readers since I posted it Nov. 4, 2013. Seldom a day goes by that the post doesn’t get at least one hit.

The canoe post is followed in all-time popularity by “The days when the Rawleigh man came to call” with 1,325 readers since I posted it in September 2013, and “The week they killed the Illinois River” with 1,305 readers since October 2015.

Writing about local history is a satisfying endeavor, one that occasionally pays dividends when other on-line folks use History on the Fox posts in their own blogs and for other research purposes.

Back in 1977 when I started writing a weekly column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, the editor and publisher, my grade school buddy Dave Dreier, wondered whether there would be enough local history available to fill a weekly column. I assured him there was. And 44 years later, here we are, with the descendant of that column, today’s Reflections column, appearing twice monthly in Shaw Media papers, and more takes on the topic here at History on the Fox.

So, as long as I can keep digging up new stories about the people and events that made the Fox Valley what it is today, I’ll keep typing away here at the newest History Central.

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Celebrating the hardy, determined women who made their own way on the Illinois frontier

Women’s History Month has rolled around once again, which gives me an excuse to emphasize once again the important roles women played in early local, as well as national and world, history.

While women certainly haven’t had an easy time of it during the past several millennia, they’ve at least had many more chances to make a go of it on their own here in the U.S. than in virtually any other nation on earth.

We tend to view the role of women during the nation’s frontier era as similar to that of the poor women who must suffer under modern religious fundamentalists such as radical Islamists and so many others. It’s really not unfair to consider the western frontier of the early 19th Century—which included Illinois—an era, in many respects, that was a time of female oppression. Nevertheless, the U.S. during frontier times was also a place where single women could, if not always thrive, at least make their own way. Determination, courage, and luck, in fact, resulted in a surprising number of women surviving and prospering on the Illinois frontier. Women were key ingredients in the settlement of the frontier as it moved west from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean all the way west to the Pacific shore.

Tom Lincoln’s Indiana cabin where Abraham Lincoln grew up. After his mother died, Lincoln’s father remarried Sarah Bush Johnston and brought her to the family cabin to help raise his children.

During that pioneer era of the 18th and 19th centuries, women were a basic requirement for successful settlement. Wives were vital partners for the farmers of that era. It’s not coincidental that when Abraham Lincoln‘s birth mother died from disease, his father almost immediately sought out and married another wife. On the Kentucky and Indiana frontier of Lincoln’s youth, it really did take two to create success. Husbands were expected to do the farming and other heavy manual labor, while wives were expected to take care of the household work—and it was substantial (as well as labor-intensive), ranging from raising the kids to doing the wash (which in those days was no picnic) to preserving and preparing food to making the family’s clothes.

It’s sometimes said that women couldn’t own property during the frontier era, but that’s not true. Here in Kendall County, for instance, between 1836 and 1849, 22 women by my count successfully obtained land patents for 30 parcels of government land in their own names. Granted, some of these women were purchasing land on behalf of their husbands, but not all of them. How much control those female landowners exercised over the land they owned was partly, if not largely, governed by whether or not they were married. Married women actually had fewer property rights than unmarried or widowed women, until laws were passed starting in the 1860s that allowed married women to own and control (control being the key) their own land.

Decolia Towle, Oswego’s first innkeeper, died in 1847, leaving his wife, Emeline with two children to raise. She first bought land in Fox Township, but then married Roland McCloud and moved out of the area.

For instance, Emeline Towle purchased 80 acres in Fox Township in 1848, and it was for her own use. Her husband, Decolia Towle, had died in December of 1847, leaving her with two children to raise. Emeline apparently decided to get out of Oswego where Decolia had been a businessman, landowner, and innkeeper. Just a year later, Emeline married Roland McCloud, and moved away from Kendall County, eventually winding up on Mackinac Island, Michigan where Emeline ran a small hotel and Roland was a lumberman.

On the other hand, it seems likely 60 year-old Hannah Sweet purchased 39 acres of Seward Township land in June of 1849 as an investment.

Several married women likely purchased land either in conjunction with or on behalf of their husbands. Laura A. Sherrill Caton, for instance, likely purchased land in conjunction with her husband, lawyer John Dean Caton. The Catons eventually put together one of the largest tracts of land in Kendall County, immortalized even today by the name of Caton Farm Road down in the southern third of the county.

Women were able to take over after their husbands’ deaths as the frontier era ended, and apparently became successful farmers and business owners. The 1850 Census of Kendall County, the county’s first after its formation in 1841, recorded a number of widows who were carrying on for their late husbands as heads of households.

After Oswego co-founder Levi F. Arnold died in 1844, his wife became a successful farm owner.

For instance, 38 year-old Maria Arnold took over for her husband, Levi, after he died in 1844. Arnold, with Lewis B. Judson, had been one of the founders of Oswego, operating the first store in the village and appointed its first postmaster. After his death, Maria successfully took over the family’s farming operation just outside Oswego’s village limits. By 1850, her Oswego Township land and holdings were worth $6,000, a considerable sum for the era.

Meanwhile, widow Emeline Gaylord, 48, was overseeing her family’s farming operation worth $2,400 in Lisbon Township while raising her four children.

Over in Bristol Township, Ruth Kennedy was making the most of the 168 acres she purchased from the federal government for $1.25 an acre in 1843. By 1850, the 60 year-old Kennedy and her three grown sons were running a farming operation worth $6,000, with Mrs. Kennedy heading up the business. Today, Kennedy Road is a reminder of the contributions she and her family made to Kendall County and its history.

Not that it was easy being a woman during that era, of course. Many traditional occupations were closed to women, and women weren’t allowed to vote until the second decade of the 20th Century. Oddly enough, however, even before women won the constitutional right to vote, they could hold elective office. That’s why one of my shirt-tail relatives, Emma Inman, was able to be elected to the Oswego School Board and serve as the board’s president even before passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote throughout the U.S. Illinois school board elections were the one area where women could make their governmental presence known.

Clarissa Hobson managed to save her family from freezing to death during the brutal Winter of the Deep Snow–but just barely.

But that was later. We’re talking frontier life here, and it wasn’t easy. Disease and disaster were always lurking in the background waiting to ensnare the unlucky or unwary. During the horrible winter of 1830-31, for instance, Baily Hobson’s wife and his children nearly died. Hobson was forced to leave his family alone at their cabin in Hollenback’s Grove near Kendall County’s modern Newark while he traveled east to Indiana to find food for them. The series of storms that hit while he was gone nearly did the family in. Called afterwards “The Winter of the Early Snow,” early blizzards that winter were followed by rainstorms, which were followed by frigid temperatures and then more blizzards. The family had stockpiled enough firewood to last but the weather covered it with thick ice. To keep her children from freezing, Clarissa Hobson was reduced to chopping firewood out of the icy snow after rain, frigid temperatures, and a subsequent blizzard froze the landscape solid.

The Hobsons’ plight was not all that unusual during the era and they were lucky they survived until Baily Hobson returned with food to save them from starving and freezing to death.

Just walk through any pioneer cemetery in the region and you’ll find evidence of tragic tales of disease and death that struck entire families. From smallpox to diphtheria to typhoid to recurrent malaria, women and their families were always at risk.

It is to their credit, then, that so many of them survived and prospered despite the danger and hardships that so many of them took in such graceful stride. And we owe it to them not to forget or minimize what they accomplished and contributed to the region’s rich history and heritage.

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Filed under family, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History

Time to recognize African Americans’ long history in Kendall County

In the history of Kendall County written in 1914, one of the writers spoke with pride about the breadth of the county’s ethnic heritage.

The patriarchs of the extended Hemm, Burkhart, and Shoger families that settled in Oswego Township pose for a family picture in the early years of the 20th Century. German represented a large percantage of immigrants to Kendall County in the mid-19th Century. (Little White School Museum collection)

From the perspective and mindset of someone writing in 1914, the county’s ethnic make-up probably did seem pretty broad. He mentioned, in particular, those of English, Scottish, German, and Welsh descent, plus some Irish and Scandinavians as well as those who could trace their families back to the French Canadians frontiersmen who once lived here and other areas throughout northern Illinois.

To modern sensibilities, though, that doesn’t sound like much of an ethnic mix at all.

Ku Klux Klan in its modern, second incarnation wasn’t strong yet—it would be another year before it would be officially reconstituted by William J. Simmons in 1915 atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain and begin sowing hatred of anyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon protestant. In addition, the Red Scares of the years after World War I had yet to get their start, fueled to a fair extent by the Klan’s racial and religious bigotry.

Bigotry towards ethnic groups, in fact, was common and growing, especially as the county’s white European, Canadian, and other settlers began enjoying their second, and sometimes third, generations in the U.S.

Two other ethnic groups—African Americans and Hispanics—weren’t even mentioned in that 1914 county history. During that era, there weren’t many of either group in Kendall County—but there were some—and those who were here kept a low profile, as did others across the nation.

But Kendall County did have an African American population in 1914, and, in fact, had had one since the early 1830s.

The first Blacks who emigrated to Kendall County had no say in whether they wanted come or not. In the summer of 1833, a group of three families emigrated to Kendall County from Camden, S.C. and settled on the north side of Hollenback’s Grove in today’s Big Grove Township. When they left North Carolina, the families of R.W. Carns, J.S. Murray, and E. Dyal decided to take two ‘former’ slaves with them. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, notes that the Carns family brought a Black woman named Dinah, and the Murray family brought a woman named Silvie with them from South Carolina.

Noted Hicks, “They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

Whether, as Hicks reports, they were former slaves is debatable, even doubtful. It’s also extremely unlikely they had any choice about whether to become pioneers on the Illinois frontier.

Kendall County’s first courthouse, where the county’s first and only slave auction was held, was this frame building. This photo was probably taken in 1894 shortly before it was torn down to make way for a private residence. The 1864 courthouse cupola is visible to the left rear. (Little White School Museum collection)

Blacks were rare enough to create interest—and sometimes consternation among some—in the years leading up to the Civil War. By that time, Illinois had passed some of the strictest anti-Black laws—called the Black Codes—of any state in the union. In 1844, another former Carolinian, M.O. Throckmorton and his father-in-law, William Boyd, seized an African American who was riding on a sleigh-load of dressed pork being hauled to Chicago by a resident of Bureau County named McLaughlin. Insisting the fellow was an escaped slave, Throckmorton and Boyd hauled the Black man to Yorkville where he was turned over to Sheriff James. S. Cornell. Cornell, without much choice in the matter due to existing state and federal law, reluctantly put the unfortunate Black man up for sale at auction at the courthouse in Yorkville. But no bids were forthcoming, probably because most of the crowd were grim-faced members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society. Eventually, one of the society members made the winning bid of $1, and the former prisoner was sent on his way to Chicago, and presumably on to Canada and freedom.

From the 1830s to the 1860s, a tiny number of Blacks made Kendall County their home. But in the years after the Civil War, a substantial influx of African American farmers arrived from the former Southern slave states and settled in the county, mostly in an area a few miles south of Oswego.

One of the Black men who arrived in the county after the war was Anthony “Tony” Burnett, who had been liberated by the 4th Illinois Cavalry during the war. Burnett joined the regiment’s Company C as a cook and later returned to Oswego with Lt. Robert Jolly where he enjoyed a close relationship with the family. Burnett is buried in the Jolly family plot at the Oswego Township Cemetery with a U.S. Government-issued tombstone that reads, “Cook, 4th Illinois Cavalry, Co. C.”

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes posed for this formal portrait by Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benensohn on the occasion of their wedding (anniversary in July 1893 (Little White School Museum collection)

Nathan Hughes, a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, which had been recruited in Illinois, and Robert Ridley Smith, who served in the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, both moved to the Oswego area after the war. Hughes worked a small farm south of Oswego on Minkler Road. He also joined the Yorkville Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the only Black county resident to do so, and where he served in various offices.

A number of other Black farming families also settled in the Minkler Road area where they worked small acreages. Their children were educated in the same one-room country school their White neighbors attended, without comment, suggesting the Jim Crow bigotry that was raging in the South had yet to reach this far north. Not that it wasn’t on the way.

In the 1920s, there were formal Klan organizations in Kendall County and the surrounding area. On June 7, 1922, the Kendall County Record reported: “The Ku Klux Klan initiated 2,000 candidates near Plainfield Saturday night. It is said some 25,000 members from Chicago and adjoining cities were present. The KKK is making a big stir in politics.”

In February 1923, the Record noted that a 75-member Klan organization had been established in Sandwich, and then on June 4, 1924 reported from Yorkville that “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town Friday. It was a perfect day for the outing and several thousand visitors took advantage of the day to visit Yorkville, the beauty spot of the Fox, and take part in the events of the organization.”

But that was all in the future. In the late years of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, Black families were considered part of the community. Robert Ridley Smith raised his family in Oswego, and they became well-known and respected members of the town. Smith was for many years the janitor at Oswego’s large school building, and, a combat veteran of the Civil War, he didn’t seem at all shy of occasionally reminding area residents that Black Americans had a history worth acknowledging.

Robert Ridley Smith was the long-time janitor at Oswego’s community school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His children all graduated from the school, the first Black high school graduates in Kendall County.

For instance, in the Record’s April 17, 1907 edition, the paper’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Bob Smith, the colored janitor of the schoolhouse, had some grave humor out of the school Monday. He raised the flag on the schoolhouse at half mast; all wanted to know what it meant, but he told them they must guess it. Finally the principal came along and he too wanted to know what Bob meant by it, and then Bob replied that the day was the anniversary of the death of Lincoln and that it was appropriate for a negro to show his mournfulness.”

Smith’s son, Ferdinand, was a racial pioneer. The June 17, 1903 Record reported: “Ferdinand Smith holds the distinction of being the first black person to be graduated from High School in Kendall County. He was one of the graduates of the [Oswego High School] Class of fifteen who graduated on June 1, 1903.” Smith’s graduation address was titled “Power to Meet Our Wants.”

The next year, the Record reported Ferdinand’s sister Mary’s graduation, and in 1906 noted their sister Frances was among the graduates: “To Miss [Frances] Smith fell the task [of representing the community’s African Americans] on this occasion and she did the duty assigned her in a dignified and ladylike manner, showing no symptoms of embarrassment whatever. Her paper was on ‘Afro-American Progress.’”

Robert Smith, sone of Robert Ridley Smith, played varsity baseball for Oswego High School in the first quarter of the 20th Century. His older brothers and sisters were the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County.

The Smith family was athletically inclined as well. A photo of the 1907 Oswego High School baseball team shows yet another Smith sibling, Robert, standing proudly with the rest of the team, fielder’s glove in hand.

The picture is startling for the casual refusal of Oswego’s public high school to participate in a shameful era of U.S. sports history. At the time Robert was happily playing high school ball in Oswego against other area schools, his fellow African-Americans were banned from playing in the Major Leagues.

Today, Kendall County is more ethnically diverse than at any time in its history, with people from all over the world living, working, shopping, and sending their kids to school here. But it is worthwhile to understand, especially during Black History Month, that it is the extent, not the diversity itself, that is new.

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Filed under Black history, Civil War, Education, family, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet as…Old Spice?

So I was getting ready to go this morning and noticed Old Spice has put a slogan on their stick deodorant: “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t be here.”

My grandparents’ wedding photo. Old Spice had no effect on subsequent events.

Which seemed to me to be somewhere between a bit odd and borderline creepy. Should I really care which deodorant gave off an odor that moved my grandmother to sexual desire? Is wondering about my grandparents engaging in sexual ecstasy back in the autumn of 1909—or at any other time—really something I want to be thinking about in the first place? And, frankly, I’m not sure my grandfather even wore deodorant back in those days.

Shulton, Inc. didn’t start selling Old Spice until 1937, so, no, I’d still be here without Grandpa using it since Old Spice was 28 years in the future when my mother was conceived following a night of presumably lusty German-American love.

Not that there wasn’t deodorant around in 1909. The first commercial deodorant designed to disguise body odor, Mum, was trademarked in 1888. While it suffered from limited effectiveness, it did get better. You can apparently still buy Mum, and if you use Ban roll-on deodorant, you’re using the great-great grandchild of Mum.

Mum was the first true deodorant, but it wasn’t an antiperspirant.

But covering up odor isn’t the same as preventing it in the first place. The first effective antiperspirant—a product that actually inhibits sweat production as well as odor—wasn’t developed until 1903, not too long before my grandfather would have been trying to entice my grandmother to procreate my mother. It, too, had major drawbacks in that the aluminum chloride that was its active ingredient tended to literally eat clothing by dissolving it, not to mention it tended to severely irritate the sensitive skin under users’ arms.

But then in 1910, the father of Cincinnati high schooler Edna Murphey developed a better product, and the young lady decided to turn entrepreneur and go into business producing and marketing the deodorant her father invented. Naming her new product Odorono (“Odor? O, no!”), Edna decided the 1912 Atlantic City exposition would be the perfect place to get recognition and market share for her new toiletry. But results were disappointing at first, until the extremely hot, humid summer of 1912 wore on during which word got around about Odorono’s usefulness.

Unfortunately, the stuff still had the problems inherent in the process of suspending aluminum chloride in an acid base—it was hard on clothes and irritated users’ skin. And since it was colored red, it was really dangerous to use under the white cotton and linen summer dresses and shirts popular during the era.

But Edna and company eventually got the bugs ironed out, which you can see if you walk down the deodorant aisle at Walgreens; there are a ton of different brands and styles, including my current Old Spice, that have mimicked Edna’s product—which is also still for sale, by the way.

But even if it hadn’t taken until 1910 for someone to invent a usable antiperspirant deodorant, I have a feeling my grandfather wouldn’t have used it. Back in those days, my grandfather was working in the sprawling Burlington Shops in downtown Aurora. A carpenter, he worked his way up to supervise a crew of a half-dozen other carpenters building boxcars and cabooses. Enjoying the CB&Q’s 40-hour work week, the crew worked 10 hours a day four days a week and had three days off. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m not sure deodorant was anywhere on his event horizon. My grandmother had grown up on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and so probably wasn’t used to sweet-smelling men anyway.

While they didn’t use deodorant, men of that era did attempt to cover up body odor on the days between their usual Saturday night bath, especially when courting.

The whole idea of making oneself smell better wasn’t new during that era, of course, but went back hundreds of years. When the Three Wise Men sought out the Christ Child, according to that brief New Testament account, along with gold they brought myrrh and frankincense as gifts, both expensive ingredients of perfumes of that distant era. And who knows, maybe Joseph and Mary, ensconced as they were in a stable, were happy to get them.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Car Shops at Aurora, where my grandfather worked. The paint shop, coach shop, car shop, and blacksmith shop, located north of the roadhouse and locomotive shops, are shown above. Library of Congress collection.

In 1709, an Italian, Giovanni Maria Farina, developed the first commercially viable men’s scent in Cologne, Germany. Giovanni named it in honor of his adopted hometown, and the name soon came to be applied to all men’s scent products. Interestingly enough, his family still manufactures the stuff there.

By the early 20th Century, men were using a variety of products to improve their body scent, including a variety of aftershave products that were particularly popular in the barbershops of the era. And that included talcum powder, which was used to finish off a shave and a haircut—which really did cost two-bits.

When I was a youngster, the barber always ended the haircut ritual by shaking some sweet-smelling talc on a soft, long bristled brush and brushing down my neck. I can still smell that powder to this day, when I stop to think about it.

I’m sure my grandfather went a barbershop from time to time over there in the area of the East Side of Aurora nicknamed Dutchtown because of all its German-speaking residents. But being a frugal German, he would mostly have shaved himself. If he paged through the Sears catalog, he might even have decided to splurge by investing in their Gentlemen’s Shaving and Toilet Outfit for just $1.79—$51 in today’s dollars.

The outfit didn’t include a razor; that, Sears apparently figured, you already owned. The outfit’s top advertised item was a bottle of Violet Witch Hazel, a violet-scented after-shave. “It removes the irritation caused by shaving, cools and makes antiseptic the thousands of pores on the face, prevents chapping, and leaves that exquisite lasting odor of violets about the person,” the Sears copywriter promised. So, Grandpa may have smelled like violets, which isn’t a bad way to go, I guess.

Also included was an entire pound of Williams Genuine World Renowned Shaving Soap; a styptic pencil for those annoying razor nicks; a bottle of Belezaire Genuine Brilliantine “for perfuming the moustache or hair;” one stick of Williams Genuine French Cosmetique “for fixing and giving gloss to the moustache and whiskers;” a jar of Crystal Shampoo Jelly (“It removes dandruff!”); a bottle of Eastman’s Genuine Eau de Cologne (“It is very refreshing and of great value in the sick room, where it can be used as a disinfectant for destroying bad odors and rendering the air in the room fresh and pleasant.”); a fine bleach sponge for removing the soap and lather after shaving; one Genuine Faultless Beauty Brush “for coaxing the dirt out of its hiding places” and for “producing a healthy glow;” and, finally, two bottles of “well-known Wood Violet Talcum made by the well known Hilbert Perfumers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

So he would have gotten a pretty good deal on stuff to make himself smell better and even a bottle of cologne he could have used during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to freshen up the sick room, assuming he had any left. But nowhere in Sears’ 1909 catalog do they list any deodorants or antiperspirants for sale.

But the real problem, I suppose, is that when Old Spice talks about their customers’ grandfathers, they’re not talking about MY grandfather, or even my father. These days, they’re talking about ME. Even though when I was a young man dating my wife-to-be Old Spice was old news—it was the deodorant and aftershave and men’s cologne my father used. So, no, it wasn’t Old Spice that might have lured my wife, it was English Leather aftershave and soap on a rope (remember that?). But now the kids produced by the English Leather generation are back to using Old Spice again, while some of us are kidded until we try something new that’s not new at all—Old Spice.

Nevertheless, being a member of the Baby Boom generation and growing up when nearly the nation’s entire economy was aimed at trying to satisfy us, it is a bit mind-bending to remember we’re no longer in the prime demographic that advertisements are aimed at.

Instead, I keep trying to imagine my grandfather not only as a young man, but also as a guy just trying his best to smell better as he tried to impress his young wife, my grandmother, and it’s rough going.

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Feeding the Illinois & Michigan Canal was both an engineering and economic feat

The Erie Canal, championed and promoted by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton opened in 1826 and immediately became a huge economic engine, not only for New York but also for the newly settled states and territories of the Old Northwest.

The canal, 363 miles long, linked the head of navigation on the Hudson River at Albany with Buffalo on the shore of Lake Erie. Commerce on and along the canal absolutely boomed as soon as it opened, making a hero of Clinton (admiring New Yorkers heading west gave his name to counties and towns all the way west to the Pacific) and creating huge markets for Midwestern grain and livestock, not to mention providing an efficient transportation route for many of those westbound settlers.

Jesuit linguist Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet canoed up the Illinois River in 1673, and suggested it wouldn’t be difficult to build a canal linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

The Erie Canal’s success also prompted a frenzy of canal-building elsewhere, especially in Ohio. And it also spurred reexamination of plans to build a canal in Illinois linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. The idea for such a canal had been first broached in 1673 when Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago rivers on their way back to Lake Michigan from a trip of discovery down the Mississippi. Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, predicted it wouldn’t take much effort or money to dig a canal from the headwaters of the Chicago River on Mud Lake to the upper Des Plaines allowing boats to quickly pass from the lake to the river and then down the Des Plaines to its junction with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River is formed.

And, in fact, sometimes Mother Nature provided the means to traverse from the Chicago to the Des Plaines River with no portage at all. During spring floods and after heavy rains at other times of the year, the two rivers basically merged. In July 1826, thanks to heavy rains, a crew of 13 voyageurs paddled Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and his secretary, Robert Forsythe, on a desperate 16-day, 1,600-mile journey to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was on the verge of going to war with the U.S.

The crew started their journey at Butte des Morts on the Fox River of Wisconsin upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), and then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi. From there they paddled down to Jefferson Barracks, the U.S. Army post at St. Louis, spreading the word along the way. Gen. Henry Atkinson lost no time loading soldiers aboard a steamboat and heading upstream to Winnebago territory—Cass, Forsythe, their voyageur crew, and their canoe was also loaded aboard. When vessel reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass, Forsythe, and their crew left Atkinson and headed up the Illinois to warn as many settlers as they could. When they reached the forks of the Illinois where the Kankakee and the Des Plaines join, they were happy to see there was plenty of water in the Des Plaines—the river was notorious for being virtually dry during the summer months. But those July rainstorms had filled it nicely, so they set their course upstream, paddling as fast as they could. They reached the Mud Lake portage as night fell and laid over for fear of wrecking their canoe, but pushed on as soon as the sun rose. As it turned out, they paddled directly from Mud Lake into the Chicago River and got to the American Fur Company’s post at Chicago at breakfast time. After a day’s rest and reprovisioning, they left Chicago and headed back up the Lake Michigan shoreline, setting a canoeing record that will likely never be eclipsed.

But Cass and Forsythe knew they were lucky to make it over the height of land from the Des Plaines to Mud Lake. Most summers and autumns, the Chicago portage was some 60 miles all the way down the Des Plaines to the Kankakee, with canoes and cargoes often hauled aboard two-wheeled ox carts.

So the idea of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Illinois River and the immense Mississippi River watershed was attractive and had been for more than 200 years.

In fact, at the Treaty of St. Louis, signed on Aug. 24, 1816, Fox and Sauk tribes ceded a 20-mile wide corridor to the U.S. Government as part of the treaty terms. The cession ran southwesterly from the shore of Lake Michigan down the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois rivers to the Fox River at modern Ottawa. During the winter of 1818-19, John C. Sullivan and his assistant, James M. Duncan, did the initial survey of the corridor’s boundary lines. The accuracy left a bit to be desired—surveying in northern Illinois in the winter is generally contraindicated due to the ferocious weather.

So while the outlines were drawn, it wasn’t until 1821 that the land between the boundary lines was surveyed in anticipation of a canal being constructed. Already owned by the government thanks to treaties with the local tribes, as soon as the land was surveyed, it was opened to the preemption and homestead claims of settlers and speculators.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan.

Throughout the 1820s, Illinois’ Congressional delegation pushed the Federal Government to appropriate funds and grant lands to finance canal construction. In the meantime, a number of issues concerning canal construction had been discovered. When more thorough surveys were done and elevations measured, it was found that the original idea of a simple ditch from Lake Michigan to LaSalle on the Illinois River simply wasn’t possible. The height of land where drainage divided, flowing either to Lake Michigan or to the Illinois River was found to be comprised of extremely hard limestone, creating a barrier that would be costly to burrow through. So engineers came up with a plan for a canal with several locks to get cargo boats up from Lake Michigan across the height of land, and then down 141 feet of fall between Chicago and LaSalle.

The final plan called for a canal 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The Erie Canal had been built 40 feet wide and only four feet deep, a size found inadequate almost immediately after opening, so the I&M Canal’s engineers determined to build it big enough to start. They planed to use 15 locks to get down the 141 feet of fall to LaSalle. Because no water would be flowing into the canal from Lake Michigan, three feeder canals were required (Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox), along with one grade-level crossing and feeder combination of the DuPage River. Feeders were a common solution to maintaining canal water levels. The Erie Canal, for instance, had dozens of feeders to regulate its depth.

Lock 14 on the I&M Canal near the Little Vermilion River aqueduct has been restored.

Another engineering problem was how to get the canal across two other rivers (the Fox and the Little Vermilion) and two creeks (AuSable and Nettle) and their respective valleys. Again, the Erie Canal’s engineers had solved a similar problem by building 18 aqueducts to cross streams and valleys along the canal’s course. For the much shorter I&M, just four aqueducts were built, along with one at-grade crossing of the DuPage River.

Construction finally began with great fanfare on July 4, 1836. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837, a severe national financial depression created by President Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies, brought construction to a halt and essentially bankrupted the State of Illinois. It took several more years for the finances of the nation and Illinois to recover to the point that construction could be finished. The I&M didn’t open to traffic until 1848.

A lot of water was needed to maintain the I&M’s depth as boats and barges locked up and down the canal. As noted above, three smaller canals and one grade-level river crossing were constructed to maintain the I&M’s depth. Feeder canals were dug from the Fox River at Dayton to Ottawa; from the Kankakee River to the canal at Dresden, and from the Saganashkee Slough, the “Sag,” and the Calumet River to the canal near its northern end. The DuPage River was crossed at grade near Channahon.

The Kankakee Feeder was one of three 40-foot wide canals dug to supply the I&M Canal with sufficient water. (Map by the Kankakee Daily Journal, 2018)

Commercial traffic on the canal utilized nine canal basins; 12 widewaters for canal boat storage; sundry backwaters; the three feeders, also called lateral canals; and two hydraulic basins. Eleven towns developed along the I&M Canal, six of them founded by the canal commissioners, including: Ottawa, Chicago, LaSalle, Lockport, Channahon, and Morris.

In general it took between 22 and 26 hours to traverse the entire canal. The quickest recorded passage was 17 hours and 35 minutes. Canal boats traveled about 4 miles per hour.

While the canal itself had a huge economic impact on northern Illinois, the three feeder canals also had major economic effects on the areas surrounding them.

The Calumet Feeder Canal ran from the huge Saganashkee Slough at Blue Island, where the Little Calumet made a hairpin turn toward Lake Michigan, to meet the canal northeast of Lemont at the village of Sag Bridge.

The Kankakee Feeder ran northwest from a dam on the Kankakee River six miles north of Wilmington to the Des Plaines River. There, the feeder canal crossed the river on an aqueduct, to feed the canal just upstream from where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers join to form the Illinois River.

At Channahon, there was no feeder as such. Instead, the I&M crossed the DuPage River, creating a grade-level feeder for the canal. The Canal Commission built a dam across the DuPage just below where the canal crossed, creating a pool that was on the same level as the canal, allowing canal boats to cross the river with locks providing additional water for the canal as needed.

The Fox River Feeder for the I&M Canal ran south down the west bank of the Fox River to intersect the canal in Ottawa. From the canal, the feeder ran farther south before making a 90-degree turn to reenter the Fox River. (Click here to enlarge)

The final I&M feeder canal was the 40-foot wide Fox River Feeder. It began above the dam in Dayton and extended for nearly five miles south along the west bank of the Fox River to Ottawa where it crossed the I&M. From there, it extended seven blocks due south where it made a 90-degree turn to the east, where it abruptly narrowed to half its width to create more hydraulic power before emptying back into the Fox River. As wide as the original Erie Canal, the Fox River Feeder had its own towpath and could handle canal boats.

A number of businesses located along the Fox River Feeder in Ottawa to use the water power the feeder provided. Just south of the I&M, the I&M Canal Commission itself maintained a boat yard just a short distance from the canal itself. The 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of downtown Ottawa shows that the H.C. King Box Factory, Pump and Cooper Shop’s machinery was powered by the feeder’s flow, as was the J.A. Koeppen Machine Shop, William Colwell’s plow works, the Grove and Hess Feed Mill and Cider Press, and the D. Sanderson Refrigerator Factory. And those were just the ones located immediately south of the I&M. From there, the feeder—also called the lateral canal—flowed due south to two blocks north of the Illinois River where it made a 90-degree turn to the east to enter the Fox River again. Along its length were located dozens of businesses from grain elevators to lumber yards to warehouses to factories of various kinds.

The Fox River Feeder’s course from Dayton through Ottawa on its way to empty back into the Fox River. (Click to enlarge)

The problem with the feeder canals is that the region’s floods—called freshets at the time—regularly damaged the dams that fed them. And when that happened, it wasn’t only the I&M that sustained losses but so did the businesses that had located along the feeders.

In March 1873, for instance, the ice went out of the Fox River suddenly after a cold winter. The thick ice rampaged down the river demolishing bridges and dams, including the dam at Dayton that fed the Fox River Feeder. The March 27, 1873 Kendall County Record reprinted the account of the effects the disaster had on Ottawa:


The ice that went out of Fox River recently gave the manufacturing interests of Ottawa a serious blow, two dams being damaged to such an extent as to stop many establishments for a short time. The [Ottawa] Republican of the 20th says:

The dam across the Fox River at Dayton, owned by the State, is to all appearances a total wreck. Some ten days ago a part of the comb of this dam on the east end, about a third the length of the dam and apparently about two feet in depth, went off. The damage seemed to be trifling but on Friday last a field of ice came down with such force that it racked the whole structure downstream and as the ice moved off leaving the water clear, there seemed to but little left of the old Dayton dam. The river fell almost instantly, and the water of the feeder [canal] turned in its course and ran back into the Fox river, leaving the Dayton mills and factory without propelling power.

This dam was built some years before the opening of the canal, which took place in 1848. John Green had constructed a dam at the same place to create a water power, with which he ran a flouring and saw mill. The State having established that point as the place from which to take water from the Fox river to feed the canal, made an arrangement with Green by which he was secured in the perpetual use of water power much greater than has ever yet been used. This dam was built of timber crib work, just above the old one, and in the filling up, both the old and new were consolidated making it a very strong structure. It has stood many shocks in the years that have intervened, with slight repairs and little care. It will of course be rebuilt as soon as the stage of water will permit, as canal navigation can hardly be carried on without the use of this feeder. In the meantime, serious inconvenience and loss will be suffered by the numerous manufacturers of Ottawa whose mills are propelled by water from the “side cut” and hydraulic basin, which are supplied by this feeder.

The Fox River Feeder was maintained as long as the I&M needed it. But after the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, there was no longer a need for the I&M or its network of feeders and aqueducts. Businesses that once looked to the feeders for flowing water to power them had long since started relying on steam and then electrical power.

By 1931, the Fox River Feeder had become an unsightly, dangerous, economic liability through Ottawa’s downtown. The city hired workers unemployed by the accelerating Great Depression to fill in the feeder, thus ending a lively era of northern Illinois transportation history and one of the city’s links to the region’s canal age.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Local History, Native Americans, Technology, Transportation, Uncategorized

Watching Fox Valley history unreel a week at a time in the local press…

Back in the early 1980s, in preparation for writing a community history to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Oswego Township’s settlement, Ford Lippold started stopping by the Oswego Public Library to transcribe interesting tidbits from microfilm of the Kendall County Record’s weekly “Oswego” column.

Ford was an interesting guy. He championed youth activities in the Oswego area and was instrumental in establishing the Oswegoland Park District, becoming the district’s first executive director. He and contemporary Dick Young advocated for and spearheaded establishing the Kendall County Forest Preserve District. And in 1949, he established Oswego’s weekly newspaper, the Oswego Ledger which he owned, edited, and published until 1965.

But back to the Record, which was established in May 1864 in anticipation of the county seat moving from Oswego to Yorkville. Voters had approved removing the county seat from Oswego in an 1859 referendum. With the disruption caused by the Civil War, it wasn’t until June 1864 that the new Italianate-style courthouse, with its towering cupola, was ready for occupancy. On June 2, the Record reported that county officials had begun to move from Oswego to Yorkville and on June 16 a headline informed readers “The Records Have Come!”

The flag from the front page of Volume 1, Number 1 of the Kendall County Record

It took Record editor and publisher John R. Marshall a couple years to get his vision of a county weekly newspaper fully implemented. Marshall’s plan was to have regular correspondents in each community send a weekly “letter” reporting their area’s news. Gradually, each village in the county, along with some rural neighborhoods—Specie Grove, Tamarack and Wheatland, NaAuSay—joined the Record’s staff of stringers.

Here in Oswego, Lorenzo Rank, a tailor by trade and postmaster by occupation, joined the Record staff as a regular stringer in November 1868. So by 1980 when Ford began his transcription project, a lot of local history was available. Taking his portable typewriter—no word processors then—down to the library, he eventually came up with about 30 pages of historical news that struck his interest.

We used those transcriptions when Ford, Paul Shoger, and I, plus a corps of other volunteers, wrote the community’s sesquicentennial history, 150 Years Along the Fox: The History of Oswego Township, Illinois.

And by that time, I’d been hornswoggled into becoming the editor of Oswego’s Ledger-Sentinel. In June 1980, Jeff and Kathy Farren, owners of the Kendall County Record, and Dave Dreier, owner of the Fox Valley Sentinel, had decided to merge the two papers into the Ledger-Sentinel, with Dave selling his interest to the Farrens. We quickly hired John Etheredge, a new graduate of Northern Illinois University’s journalism school, as the paper’s full-time reporter (John’s still working and writing for the paper, now as managing editor).

He and I both thought continuing the Record’s regular column looking back to previous years would be popular with readers, and so we started the Ledger-Sentinel’s “Yesteryear” monthly column, using Ford’s 30-pages of transcriptions as a basis. But Ford’s transcriptions were pretty thin on the ground for some months, so I began adding to them, taking my trusty little TRS-80 laptop down to the library once a month and gradually fleshing out what Ford had started.

When we got our first Macs at the newspaper office, I started transcribing all those typewritten pages into a Microsoft Word file, which had grown considerably by the time I retired from the newspaper in 2008. By that time, I was not only using those transcriptions for the “Yesteryear” column, but found they were invaluable research aids in writing my weekly “Reflections” column as well as for researchers down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

After retiring and basking in the realization I didn’t have to cover evening meetings any more—by that point, I’d been covering local government for more than 30 years—I started looking for something to occupy my time. And that’s when I decided a more complete transcription of all those years of “Oswego” columns would be of quite a bit of use to historians, genealogists, and others researching Oswego history. And I also figured I could expand the transcriptions to cover the years when Ford Lippold’s Oswego Ledger started covering the local news.

By that time, the Little White School Museum, where I was serving as the volunteer director, had acquired the Record on microfilm through 1980 as well as microfilm of other area papers that had Kendall County and Oswego news in them from the 1840s and 1850s. So I started out with the early years and started working my way forward in history, transcribing news about the Oswegoland area, but also about news that affected the entire region and sometimes the nation. I also began transcribing Oswego Ledger news as well as news from the Fox Valley Sentinel until the papers’ merger.

The original file soon became too large to be manageable, so I broke it up into roughly 20-year increments, 1849-1869, 1870-1889, 1890-1909, 1930-1949, 1950-1969, and 1970-1989. When the Oswegoland Park District got the museum its own web site, we started posting the transcriptions, as individual PDF files from 1849 to 1969, so that researchers could download and then search them for names and dates. I figured I could work on the years from 1970 to 1989 later.

By November 2010, I’d expanded Ford’s original 30 typewritten pages into 2,300 pages of transcriptions, and from there I just kept going. By June 2014, I had pretty much finished filling out those years through1969—or so I thought. By that time, the files had grown to a total of 4,725 pages and contained a treasure trove of Oswego and Kendall County history.

Oswego’s Little White School Museum

But as we used the files for research at the museum and as I used them for research for my “Reflections” column (which I continue to write up to the present), I kept finding holes in the transcriptions. Sometimes I’d managed to miss an entire week; once I found I’d missed an entire month. Other times I’d find I’d missed an important event or obituary because it hadn’t been printed in the usual places in the papers.

So those transcriptions have been an on-going project as I find and try to correct deficiencies.

Which brings me to late last year when I found, while doing some research on post-Civil War Kendall County, that the transcriptions for the years 1865 through 1868 were missing tons of content. Granted, Rank hadn’t begun his “Oswego” column until mid-1868, but there was still a lot of Oswego and Oswego-related news in the Record before he began writing.

So I started filling in the missing information whenever I got a chance. And along the way, I found some fascinating stuff, some of it even relevant to present-day politics. And it involved one of the three major historical inflection points that have affected Oswegoland’s history.

The area in late 1865 and 1866 was just beginning to recover from the effects of the Civil War. News of the whereabouts of Illinois regiments, especially those with soldiers from Kendall County filled the pages. Many of those regiments were sent down to the border with Mexico due to the on-going civil war and revolution in that country. The conflict had been caused by the French government’s installation of Austrian Archduke Fernando Maximiliano José María de Habsburgo-Lorena as the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1864. The U.S. hadn’t been in a position to do much during the Civil War, but after the South’s rebellion had been put down, the government turned its attention to the border.

So Union Army units were sent there to remind the French the U.S. didn’t not appreciate their presence. Some with local residents were actually mustered out down there, such as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, comprised mostly of Black Illinois soldiers. Others were sent there then sent back north, some to be mustered out in Springfield, and others in other places.  The Record carried numerous stories about county towns holding welcome back picnics and dances for the returning soldiers.

The Record carried the story of the pursuit and capture of Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt.

In addition, the paper reported on other news of modern interest including the hunt for the Lincoln assassination conspirators and their trials, as well as the efforts to capture major Confederate political figures. In light of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, numerous stories criticized President Andrew Johnson’s friendliness towards former Confederate officers and officials, especially their immediate reentry into the South’s political life.

“The great desire of the rebellious states at the present is to be reconstructed on a basis that will give them representation in Congress equal to their entire population,” Marshall wrote on Jan. 11, 1866. “Before the war they were satisfied by having a three-fifth representation in their slaves, but now they wish every man to count one, be he black or white, but white [men] propose to do the voting for both colors.”

And on Feb. 11, 1866, Marshall warned of Johnson, “The South has ruled nearly all the Presidents the country has had, until the days of Lincoln, the martyr to freedom, and since his death it bids fair to resume its sway. The people elected a Southern man as Vice President, who now fills the executive chair. He was elected as an exponent of freedom and equal rights–but he is fast changing, like a weathercock, from his northern supporters to the more congenial fellowship of reconstructed rebels. His boasted ‘hangings for treason,’ and his harsh dealings with rebels is fast vanishing…He is drifting in the Southern current.”

It’s also interesting realizing that during those years, great change was taking place in Kendall County that was only dimly realized at the time. The region—and the nation—was on the cusp of substantial economic and technological changes that were only sinking in a bit at a time.

In 1866, plans were afoot to make the Fox River navigable from its mouth at Ottawa, possibly all the way to Oswego.

For instance, the Fox River was recognized as an economic engine that had yet to be fully utilized, with stories in the paper concerning possible uses for both its waterpower and its transportation possibilities. And, in fact, local political pressure was applied to the area’s member of congress to get the U.S Army to do a survey of the river valley with an eye towards making the stream navigable. The initial plan called for dams and locks to create a commercial waterway from the river’s mouth at Ottawa upstream past the dam at Dayton to modern Millington—then called Milford—with later plans to extend its navigability all the way upstream to Yorkville or Oswego. Not only was the river as a freight canal envisioned, but also its use to power a vast array of manufacturing machinery.

“Make the Fox River navigable by this means and at every dam there will be a factory or factories of some kind and villages and towns will spring up in profusion,” the Record predicted. “Farmers will have a market for their grain, which will compete with New York direct, and the days of railroad monopoly in this section will be past.”

But at the same time, there was also growing agitation to build a railroad linking the developing coalfields around modern Streator with the towns up and down the Fox Valley. The line was envisioned by most of its backers as direct competition with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, which ruthlessly used its monopoly west of Chicago to set high freight rates on coal and other necessary supplies as well as the grain and livestock county residents needed to ship to the Chicago market. Individuals and local governments up and down the Fox Valley enthusiastically subscribed to buy bonds to finance the new railroad.

Bond issued to finance construction of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1869.

The result was the Ottawa, Oswego, & Fox River Valley Rail Road that opened to most Fox Valley towns in 1870. And almost immediately, the CB&Q wrested control of the railroad away from its independent owners, thanks to less than competent legal safeguards and what appeared to be bribes being applied in the right places. The legal fight whether the bondholders were liable for the costs of the railroad’s construction went on for decades afterwards.

The railroad was, of course, one more indication that the Fox River’s vaunted capacity to nurture water-powered industries was soon to be completely eclipsed by the development of steam engines in virtually every size suitable for powering any sort of business wherever the owner wanted to locate it. Granted, once a dam was built, waterpower was basically free, but it really wasn’t. Dams require constant maintenance and the region’s annual spring floods—called freshets in that day and age—could completely wash them away. The mills and factories that relied on waterpower also required constant maintenance of the waterpower machinery. And during times of low water or extreme cold, they often had to shut down altogether.

Working my way through all those issues of the Kendall County Record from late 1865 through 1866 and 1867, it was interesting for me, who knew what was going to happen next, to watch those long-ago business owners and farmers and local governmental officials try to make decisions based on what they knew at the time on issues that would have effects on our communities right up to the present day.

If you’re interested in downloading these interesting Oswego history files, just visit the Little White School Museum web site. Here’s a direct link to the transcription page:


Filed under Black history, Business, Civil War, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation