(Wildfires, excessive heat, drought, and an almost Biblical plague are in the midst of afflicting the nation. The West Coast’s wildfires are so severe that their smoke is settling as far east as the Atlantic Coast, causing hazy skies and irritating anyone with breathing problems. It all seems pretty bad, but it really doesn’t hold a candle to the problems the nation was dealing with in 1934. Given all our current environmental and medical problems, I thought I’d dredge this 2016 blog entry up from the archives to offer a little perspective and to remind everyone that things can always get worse—and that they often have in the past.)
In terms of numbers of people affected economically, 1933 was the worst year in Kendall County history. But 1934 didn’t provide much, if any, relief for county residents dealing with the profound effects of the Great Depression. In fact, bad just kept getting worse.
Not only was the nation dealing with the horrendous financial effects of the Great Depression, but severe drought was destroying farms and farmers all over the country. The drought, driven by hot, dry weather over a period of several months, resulted in the formation of severe dust storms that blew up out of the high, dry western plains and then surged east all the way to Washington, D.C., where a bewildered government was attempting to deal with the effects of dual nationwide financial and ecological disasters.
The Depression had begun with the stock market crash of October 1929, and from then on conditions got progressively and steadily worse over the next four years. Even so, the feeling of much of the country was that things would get better soon if only everyone would buck up and have a little confidence in the country’s future. That was the course President Herbert Hoover had urged in the face of near-total economic collapse before everyone had enough and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
On Dec. 27, 1933, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall was still urging his readers to make 1934 a better year by the power of positive thinking:
“Few of us want to start 1934 with anything but a firm belief that the new year holds better things for us. We shouldn’t start the new year with a feeling that things will be worse. To do this will insure a bad year…Success is a result of your own efforts so if 1934 proves a disappointment, look to your own efforts before blaming anyone else for your bad luck.”
Members of the Pure Milk Association dump milk before it could get to a non-member dairy in Harvard, Illinois sometime in the 1930s. The successful “Milk Strike” led to organizing farmers to get higher prices for their milk.
Positive thinking in place, the hits unfortunately just kept on coming. Farm commodity prices got so bad that notoriously independent farmers were finally starting to band together (as their urban worker countrymen already had) to demand more. Dairy farmers, for instance, who had formed the Pure Milk Association were conducting a milk strike, stopping trucks hauling milk from non-PMA members to Chicago dairies.
The Record reported on Jan, 10, 1934:
“As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [today’s U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch… After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.”
While farmers were in dire straits, so were their city cousins. In order to create paying jobs for some of the working men thrown out of work by the Depression, the Roosevelt Administration’s new Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration were financing projects throughout the nation including right here in Kendall County, including bridge and road work. In February, even the Record’s editor, a firm Republican, had to grudgingly admit the government help seemed to be working:
Often derided as “make-work,” Works Progress Administration projects were sometimes literal lifesavers for the families of unemployed workers hired for them. In 1934, Oswego’s Little White School, now the Little White School Museum, was jacked up and a basement dug beneath it to provide more space as a WPA project, one of many throughout Kendall County.
“We drove on the East River road [modern Ill. Route 25] out of Aurora the other night and hardly knew the road. The work of the men on the CWA has made a real highway out of it. Some bad curves have been made safer by leveling off the banks on the side of the road. Good work, men.”
Meanwhile, the area’s farmers were hoping against hope that both luck and the weather would change in their favor. On April 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent commented: “The farmers have begun working in the fields with renewed hope that this year’s crops will at least afford them a living and cash for taxes and interest on their debts.”
Amazingly, overcoming their aversion to government meddling in their business (and indicating just how serious the financial situation had become), virtually all of the county’s 1,080 farmers agreed to participate in the Agriculture Adjustment Administration’s corn and hog program. The AAA was another of Roosevelt’s “alphabet agencies” formed to fight the depression.
But extremely dry conditions persisted throughout Kendall County and the rest of northern Illinois. In April the Record reported:
This dust storm, pictured west of the Mississippi, roared all the way from the Great Plains to the Eastern seaboard on May 11, 1934. An even more destructive storm had hit the central United States the previous month. Dust from the plains blew through Kendall County, where some of it precipitated out of the air and sifted across the landscape, filling ditches and infiltrating into homes.
“Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the winter time. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”
Those conditions not only hindered crop growth, but also contributed to the ongoing plague of chinch bugs. According to the Record:
“The estimate of W.P. Flint, state entomologist, that chinch bugs would be five times as plentiful this spring as a year ago has come true. Damage to wheat fields and even oats by dry weather and chinch bugs is causing many farmers to plan re-seeding some of their grain fields to soybeans.”
The weather proved not only dry, but also extremely erratic. Excessive heat and drought not apparently being enough for Mother Nature, newly sprouted farm crops as well as gardens were devastated by destructive late May frosts, the Record reporting that:
“Two hard frosts last week worked havoc with the fruit and gardens. The corn, just nicely started, turned brown in many places and potatoes froze to the ground. Many farmers are planting over.”
Dry, hot conditions during the early 1930s led to an explosion in the chinch bug population. Tens of millions of the insects destroyed thousands of acres of crops in Illinois including in Kendall County in the days before effective pesticides were developed.
Then following the frosts the week before, new heat records were set May 31 and June 1 and on June 4 another dust storm hit.
Meanwhile, “Thousands of miles of [chinch bug] barriers have been built as a result of demonstrations staged by county farm advisers, the extension service of the college of agriculture and the Illinois State Natural History Survey,” the Record reported.
My dad had emigrated to Illinois from Kansas in 1919 and was all too familiar with chinch bugs. By 1934 he and my mother had been married for four years and were renting a farm near Yorkville. He was both dismayed and angry when the chinch bug plague began. “I thought I’d left those damned things behind in Kansas,” he disgustedly told me one time. But at least he was able to help his Illinois neighbors when the chinch bug infestation arrived to harass them.
Also in June, the federal government began to come to the rescue, announcing a drought relief program. To be eligible farmers had to certify they were in need of feed and seed to maintain their families, and also had to swear they were unable to supply sufficient feed and seed for himself. County officials estimated that while things weren’t good, few farmers fit that description, but it turned out, astonishingly enough, more than 20 percent of the county’s farmers applied for and really did qualify for emergency federal drought relief.
The Kendall County Farm Bureau and the federal government provided chinch bug eradication supplies, and county farmers kept battling whatever Mother Nature and the financial industry could throw at them. But it wasn’t until several years passed that they and their city brothers were able to get their heads above water again, thanks to their own collective actions and an often grudgingly accepted hand up from Uncle Sam.
My dad, while watching someone with a lot of energy, would often remark, “He’s really feeling his oats today.”
It’s an expression you don’t hear much, if at all, these days, but back when the U.S. was a mainly agricultural nation the phrase really meant something, especially to those who had lived during the era when horses provided much of the motive power that grew the nation.
Granted, horses can eat hay and graze on pasture grass, but it turned out that oats are a sort of superfood for horses.
As Horse Canada magazine explained, “Of all the cereal grains (e.g. corn, barley, wheat, etc.) oats have the most appropriate nutritional profile for horses. They are an excellent source of calories, and have a better protein and amino acid profile than many other grains. They are higher in fat and fibre (thanks to the hull) and are, therefore, lower in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) than most other grains. They are well digested within the horse’s small intestine, even with little processing (as long a horse has good teeth!) and, therefore, pose a lower risk of sugars reaching the large intestine and contributing to colic or laminitis. Also, because of their lower NSC content, they are not considered a ‘hot’ feed.”
These days, horses have been mostly relegated to the status of expensive hobbies and oats are considered for their value as health food. What were the mechanics of that change over time?
By now, even casual readers of this blog have realized I have a keen interest in how farming has evolved during the past couple centuries or so. And, especially as this time of year rolls around, few things illustrate the profound changes in farming and farm culture than virtual disappearance of small grains in the local agriculture cycle.
Small grains are ancient in origin and were (and in some areas of the world still are) vital parts of the farming process. But not here, and not now.
Defined as cereal grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—small grains are, like their cousin, corn, the seeds of genetically modified grasses that humans have relied upon for food for thousands of years. Some, like oats and wheat, still somewhat resemble their ancient genetic ancestors. Other grains, like corn, no more resemble their most ancient ancestor than a Chihuahua resembles a timber wolf.
You can still drive around the countryside this time of year and see a few small fields of small grains turning a beautiful golden color in the summer sun. But today’s occasional fields of oats and even more rare stands of wheat are pale shadows of what farmers planted and grew here a century and more ago.
These days, instead of those once extensive fields of ripening small grains, you’ll mostly see extensive fields of tall corn swaying in summer prairie breeze, interspersed with huge fields of soybeans, a crop that was as rare here in the 1920s as wheat is today.
Why the change, why the evolution? Because times change as does the use to which crops are put. Back in the early 1800s when pioneer farm families settled Kendall County, small grains were absolutely necessary for survival. Wheat was harvested and ground into flour either on the farm or at one of the new gristmills that were rapidly popping up along every county stream whose bed had enough fall to power a waterwheel.
Oats, on the other hand, were the fuel that powered the horses and mules that were the backbone of energy on the farm and in the transportation industry of the era. Granted, oats, too, could be ground into flour or they could be otherwise processed for use as oatmeal and for other human foods, but their primary use was to feed the millions of horses the nation relied on for everything from pulling stagecoaches to delivering beer.
Barley and rye were also used for human consumption by being ground into flour, but they were also popular grains for processing into the beer so beloved by so many in that era when drinking water was mistrusted, often for good reason. The germ theory of disease was still considered a radical hypothesis, so wells and outhouses were often adjacent leading to outbreaks of typhoid fever and other waterborne illnesses from which even the wealthy were not immune. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died of complications of typhoid fever contracted in their London palace, probably from tainted water.
But back to farming. It didn’t take too long after settlement for farmers to realize northern Illinois really wasn’t good wheat country. Wheat likes warm, relatively dry growing conditions, and while we all know Illinois does not lack for summer heat, dry conditions (except during drought years) are not what you find around these humid parts.
As the frontier kept moving ever farther west, those ideal wheat conditions were found west of the tallgrass prairies out on the Great Plains in a huge swath from Texas north to the Dakotas. Improved transportation systems added to the climate soon meant that bread could be baked in regional cities and shipped to small farming towns cheaper than rural folks could produce it on their own.
But that didn’t apply to oats. In 1912, which was close to the high-water mark for oat production, Kendall County farmers harvested 53,000 acres of the grain, producing well over 2.5 million bushels to feed their own horses and mules, but mostly for market. But by 2007, so few acres of oats were harvested in Kendall County that the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t even report them.
Why so many bushels of oats then and so few later on? When oat production was at its height, farmers relied on horses to plant and harvest crops and then haul them to market. Today, farmers use gasoline and diesel oil to fuel those activities, which have become entirely mechanized. And in towns and cities, where horses once hauled everything from streetcar passengers to mail delivery buggies to the milkman’s delivery wagon, hydrocarbon-fueled machines have replaced the millions of horses that once did those tasks.
By 1900, the nation’s total horse population reached an estimated 24.1 million, with just under three million being kept in cities. In cities with more than 100,000 population there was roughly one horse for every 15 people, varying from one horse for every 7.4 people in Kansas City to one for every 26.4 in New York City. And those horses required millions of bushels of oats for food. The nation’s horse population peaked about 1915, and from then on thanks to the advent of dependable, economical automobiles, the horse population declined by about a half a million animals a year. Along with that decline, the need for oats similarly decreased.
Not that folks back then were sad to see horses go, of course. In Chicago in 1900, the city’s 82,000 horses deposited between 1.2 and 2.4 million pounds of manure and 20,500 gallons of urine in stables and on city streets every day. In addition, one contemporary expert estimated in 1900 that three billion flies—each a tiny airborne disease factory—hatched in horse manure every day in U.S. cities. It was little wonder automobiles and trucks were welcomed by public health experts of the era.
So the realization that wheat grew better farther west, the disappearance of the horse, and the evolution of Midwestern farming to specialization in either raising grain or livestock led to the annual harvest of small grains and all that it meant to our farmer forebears, both socially and economically. But gradually it became mostly a thing of the past here in the Fox Valley. The change accelerated as the nation transitioned from a largely rural to an overwhelmingly urbanized nation.
And so today, you can drive around Kendall County and still see small stands of cereal grains here and there. But the “amber waves of grain” that once carpeted our landscape have been almost entirely replaced by corn and soybeans–and subdivisions. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly a big change.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets in the news, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. as reported to the FBI is actually down significantly from what it was 20 years ago. The caveat is, of course, that the murder rate during the Covid pandemic has gone up in certain areas, but overall violent crime has been on a steady decline.
According to the latest statistics compiled and released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 1991, there were an average of 758.2 violent crimes committed for every 100,000 people in the U.S. In 2019, the last year for which statistics have been compiles, there were an average of 366.7 violent crimes committed in the U.S. for every 100,000 residents.
The reasons for the steady decrease in violent crime seem to be many and controversial. One of the most interesting is the theory that lead levels in the atmosphere all over the country due to lead in gasoline was responsible for the crime increase to begin with. The decline in crime began a few years after leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S.
The folks over at Wikipedia have a good, concise entry on the theory, the nut of the piece being: “Individuals exposed to lead at young ages are more vulnerable to learning disabilities, decreased I.Q., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and problems with impulse control, all of which may be negatively impacting decision making and leading to the commission of more crimes as these children reach adulthood, especially violent crimes. No safe level of lead in the human bloodstream exists given that any amount can contribute to deleterious health issues.”
Not that leaded gasoline was responsible for all the nation’s past crimes, of course. One of the worst crime waves to strike the country took place in the 1920s and 1930s as well-armed gangs used the new mobility conferred by a combination of fast, dependable automobiles and ever-better roads robbed banks, businesses, and even individuals all over the country.
Here in Kendall County, for instance, back in November 1933, Oswego dentist Dr. Sheldon Bell and his wife were motoring along what is today U.S. Route 30 between Plainfield and Aurora when a pair of road agents held them up. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 8: “Dr. Sheldon F. Bell was one of the victims of the bandits during the 10 holdups in Kane and Kendall counties on Wednesday evening, Nov. 1. He was robbed of about seventeen dollars on Route 22 near Normantown. Dr. Bell was accompanied by his wife, who was not molested. All the robbers wanted was money, rejecting the bill fold and the papers it contained.”
Previously, Kendall County had suffered a plague of bank robberies, thefts, and bootlegging that was all reported in the local press, a situation that would continue until World War II calmed things down considerably. The Dillinger and Ma Barker gangs frequented the area and Al Capone’s illegal bootlegging operations favored our mostly rural county, even after Prohibition ended. One of John Dillinger’s gang, killed in a shootout in Minnesota, was even secretly buried by the gang just outside Oswego.
During that era, local law enforcement, especially in rural areas, was spotty to nonexistent. The Illinois State Police had been established in 1922 with eight officers using World War I surplus motorcycles to enforce state traffic laws, but even 10 years later, confronting organized, well-armed gangs was mostly beyond their capabilities. In October 1929, for instance, a criminal gang cut the telephone wires into and then blocked the roads into and out of the small Kendall County hamlet of Millbrook while they blew the safe in the Millbrook Bank, getting away with several hundred dollars. The situation was so bad that the Illinois Bankers Association established their own corps of bank guards.
While that and a lot of other truly fascinating local historical crime stories came out of that era, one of the most interesting really didn’t come to light until the dawn of the 21st Century, several decades after it occurred. Interestingly enough, the incident happened the same year Dr. Bell and his wife were held up.
It started this way: During the night of April 19, 1933, someone broke into the Illinois National Guard Armory in the tiny unincorporated Kendall County community of Plattville. Local, state, and national law enforcement and military officials were alarmed because taken was a virtual armory of four Browning Automatic Rifles (nicknamed with its initials, the BAR), along with 11 Colt M1911 .45 cal. automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.
The semi-automatic pistols, the standard .45 cal. U.S. Army sidearm, featured a 9-round box magazine, were heavy, rugged, and extremely dependable. The BARs were powerful, fully automatic weapons that served the U.S. Army as well as the National Guard as their standard squad automatic weapon. Each eight-man squad was generally equipped with one BAR to augment the firepower of the rest of the squad’s Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifles that were standard equipment during those pre-World War II days. Both the BAR and the Springfield rifles were chambered for the powerful .30-06 cartridge.
Plattville was the smallest community in the nation to boast its own National Guard Armory, the base for Company E of the 129th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The armory had been the brainchild of Kendall County resident Charles G. “Timmy” Howell, who commanded it, holding the rank of captain.
The armory was built with community donations and labor and through the pay it provided, Company E provided badly needed cash for more than 100 young men, mostly farm boys, during the dark years of the Great Depression. It also provided valuable training for those young men, most of whom would go on to fight their way through the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific during World War II.
But given its location in a sleepy farming community, the security provided for Company E’s arms and ammunition was simply not up to the task of fending off the new breed of mobile criminals that had lately blossomed.
As soon as the theft was reported law enforcement and military officials alike, began worrying about who, exactly, had taken the guns and why.
Word got around via the neighborhood telegraph while officials did their best to downplay the theft. They did such a good job minimizing it, in fact, that 60 years later, no one had an inkling such a thing had ever happened. As an example, in an oddly naive, but apparently serious, comment, the editor of the Kendall County Record remarked in the paper’s May 3 edition: “Hope the person who stole the four [BARs] from the armory is honest; we’d hate to face these guns in the hands of a crook.”
We can only hope he was prepared to be disappointed, because after a spectacular July 20 shootout between the notorious Barrow Gang—the Bonnie and Clyde and associates made so famous in subsequent movies—and law enforcement officers just outside Kansas City, Mo., some of the BARs and pistols were recovered from the motel rooms the gang had occupied.
The Barrow Gang, made famous to a new generation in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” was one of the most violent of the criminal groups afflicting the Midwest during the lawless 1920s and 1930s.
Clyde Barrow was the leader of the gang, with his girlfriend Bonnie Parker (Parker was married to another man who was in jail at the time). Besides Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s brother, Melvin “Buck” Parker, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, along with C.W. Jones comprised the most consistent members of the gang. They were occasionally joined by Henry Methvin, Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, and Ralph Fults.
Although the gang garnered a lot of attention thanks to Bonnie and Clyde’s knack for publicizing themselves, they were mostly notable for the short period of time during which they were active, a period that only ran from 1932 to 1934, not to mention their extreme violence.
Early on, the gang primarily engaged in small business hold-ups, but then decided to add bank robbery to their repertoire. The Barrow Gang was notorious among law enforcement for its ferocious counter-attacks whenever confronted by authorities. The BAR was Clyde Barrow’s weapon of choice, something that easily out-gunned the revolvers and shotguns of most lawmen of the era. Although limited to 20-round detachable magazines, the BAR on full automatic could fire more than 500 rounds a minute. John Browning invented the weapon for U.S. troops during World War I, where it proved extremely effective, with its relatively light weight, mobility, high rate of fire, and long range—the BAR was accurate up to 1,500 yards and had a maximum range of nearly three miles. It could also be loaded with armor-piercing rounds, something else Barrow favored.
The automatic weapon with which most law enforcement agencies of the era were armed was the Thompson Submachine Gun—the famed Tommy Gun. The Thompson, however, while having a faster rate of fire than the BAR, fired the same cartridge as the .45 cal. pistol, and had an effective range of only 170 yards or so.
On April 13, 1933, when police officers raided the apartment in Joplin, Mo., where Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and W.D. Jones were hiding out after a four-month crime spree, they thought they were raiding a bootlegging operation, which is what suspicious neighbors had reported. But when they confronted the gang, the police were caught by surprise as the Barrow gang opened up with a vicious barrage of automatic weapons fire, killing Constable John Harryman and police officer Harry McGinnis. Although the gang escaped, they were forced by the gunfight to leave most of their belongings and weapons behind.
Six days later, the Platteville National Guard Armory was raided and the four BARs, 11 Colt .45 automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were stolen. A week or so later, the gang hit a bank in Indiana.
During the next two and a half months, the Barrow Gang continued its wide-ranging campaign of lawlessness in Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri as they sped from crime scene to crime scene using the Ford V-8 autos Clyde favored.
In 1934, in fact, Clyde (who had worked as a mechanic before taking up outlawry) wrote to Henry Ford congratulating him on his Ford autos and their V-8 engines: “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8.”
On July 20, 1933, the gang decided to find someplace to lay low, choosing the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte County, Mo., just outside Kansas City. But their suspicious behavior caused people in the neighborhood to call the authorities.
This time the police showed up in force armed with submachine guns, a car that had been armored, plus a mobile plate steel bulletproof shield. The armored sedan pulled up to block the garage door behind which the gang’s car was parked, and Sheriff Holt Coffee rapped on the door of one of the two tourist cabins the gang occupied, demanding they come out. No dummy, he immediately ducked behind the steel shield.
Clyde, Buck, and Jones instantly replied with a withering fusillade of BAR fire, literally driving Coffee’s heavy steel shield backwards, although it proved proof against Clyde’s armor-piercing ammunition. The gang also shot up the armored car, this time their armor-piercing .30-06 rounds perforating the car’s light armor, and wounding the driver who backed up to get out of the line of fire, allowing the gang to escape. But both Buck and Blanche Barrow were seriously wounded. Amazingly, none of the dozens of spectators who had gathered to watch, nor any of the police officers were badly injured in the furious gun battle.
It took a while for the Feds to identify and trace all the weapons and other materials they found in the gang’s motel rooms, but on Oct. 19, 1933, FBI Agent J.J. Keating of the bureau’s Chicago office wrote to his superiors: “Will consult commander of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard, with respect to the loss of the Colt 45 pistols, and Browning automatic rifles mentioned in report of Special Agent Dwight Brantley, 9/1/33, Washington, D.C., and inform him that said firearms were taken from the Barrow gang and are in possession of the Kansas City office of this division.”
Presumably, the weapons were later returned to Company E and, hopefully, better secured from being pilfered by passing bandits. And there the matter largely rested until 2003 when Winston Ramsey, editor-in-chief of a World War II history magazine based in England, traveled to the U.S. while researching his book, On the Trail of Bonnie and Clyde Then and Now chronicling the days of Bonnie and Clyde, visiting places the notorious couple frequented during their crime spree.
Ramsey contacted reporter Tony Scott at the Kendall County Record concerning reports he had obtained that the Plattville Armory had been robbed of weapons and ammunition by Bonnie and Clyde, something that no one in the community recalled—or at least would admit to recalling. But then in 2011, Agent Keating’s letter became public, and Tony revisited the story in a couple articles. And by then I’d been working on transcribing the Record’s “Oswego” news columns, along with other news items that sounded interesting. One of those was the Record’s editor writing about the theft of weapons from the Plattville Armory in the paper’s April 26 edition and a follow-up the next week, May 3, 1933.
Granted, there’s no physical evidence the Barrow Gang were responsible for stealing the weapons from the Plattville Armory. And the question of how the gang would have known about the Plattville Armory still raises a few doubts.
But in the book Blanche Barrow wrote about her harrowing adventures with the gang, she said that Clyde and W.D. Jones robbed the Plattville Armory. At least three other books on the gang repeat the same story. And it is a fact that the FBI recovered many of the stolen weapons after the Red Crown shoot-out in Missouri, so the gang certainly had them in their possession.
Would the theft have made sense in terms of opportunity? The gang was in the Joplin, Mo. shootout on April 13, where they lost a lot of their arms and ammunition. They then attempted a bank robbery at the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana on May 12. The Plattville robbery took place the night of April 19-20, and Plattville is sort of right in between Joplin and that Indiana bank. Given Clyde’s love of long-distance high-speed driving taking random zigzag routes, it’s certainly possible—maybe even probable—Clyde and W.D. Jones really were the ones who stole all those weapons in the middle of his gang’s crime spree. Which leaves the question of how the gang knew about the Plattville Armory in the tiny rural community unanswered.
In any case, Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal spree came to a violent end a year later. On May 23, 1934, lawmen, taking no chances with the pair’s habit of replying with overwhelming firepower, set up an ambush in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and riddled Clyde’s car with more than 130 rounds of shotgun, rifle, and pistol fire, killing both of the outlaws. Federal authorities said the pair and their gang was responsible for at least 13 murders and robberies and burglaries too numerous to count.
In retrospect, local officials did a pretty good job consigning the Barrow Gang’s Plattville Armory robbery to the memory hole. But like most history, it eventually floated to the surface once again, assuring at least a footnote in the story of one of the most violent crime sprees the Midwest has ever seen.
Back when I was a youngster, a guy by the name of Hal Boyle wrote a column that was syndicated by the Associated Press and which was carried in the Beacon-News up in Aurora. I liked Boyle’s column and read it regularly. Later, I found out he was an award-winning World War II correspondent who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, yes, I wasn’t the only one who liked Boyle’s stuff.
Every once in a while, Boyle would write a sort of trivia column with odd facts and short stories. And while I liked his regular columns, I loved those trivia pieces. I liked them so much, in fact, that when I started writing my own column, I stole the idea from him, stealing ideas being journalism’s highest form of flattery.
Back in those pre-computerized layout newspaper days, pages were physically pasted up. A few companies decided they could make a little money by supplying bits of miscellaneous information called fillers, from recipes to ads to trivia clips printed on heavy paper, ready to be clipped and waxed down on the paste-up sheet to fill in the occasional void on the page paste-up. The material was supplied free to everyone, from small weeklies to dailies, with the costs paid for by the companies whose advertising materials (which ranged from feature stories to short squibs featuring their brands) appeared in each week’s issue.
So I had Hal Boyle’s idea, and a free, regular source of trivia and other basically useless information that I could use to fill a column once or so a month. Not that I didn’t like writing about local, regional, and state history, of course. But at the time besides writing my column, I was covering the local school board and other breaking news stories, editing the big pile of news releases that arrived every week, taking photos, and writing up to three editorials each week. So a trivia column gave me a bit of breathing room.
Since the trivia arrived along with all the rest of the junk mail at the newspaper, I decided to characterize the columns I wrote using that stuff as interesting bits of junk mail I’d mined out of the stack that was on my desk every week. And fortunately, the idea proved popular among the paper’s readers.
I still do one occasionally, although far less frequently since my column has been cut to twice monthly instead of weekly. But the things are fun, and I sort of miss doing them, so I thought to myself, why not do one for “History on the Fox” just for fun? And with no further ado, here’s my first junk mail blog post, which kicks off right at the start of the dog days of summer.
What, you may be wondering, are the dog days? Glad you asked. We used to joke they were they days during an Illinois summer when it was too hot for the dog to go outside. But really, the dog days are generally considered to last from about July 3 to Aug. 11 or so, and the name goes back in time to the ancients.
In the summer, Sirius, called the Dog Star, rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is closest in motion with the sun, so the ancients, not having a concept of how far away other stars are from our own, believed that Sirius’s heat added to the heat of the sun. That, they believed, created a stretch of hot and sultry weather, which they named the “dog days” after Sirius, the Dog Star.
But July isn’t only famous as the start of the dog days. Lots of other stuff, as I’m sure you know, happened in July. For instance, on July 8 in 1777 Vermont abolished slavery. The temperature hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. The first man landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—was established on July 29, 1958. And also in space-related news, the Telstar communications satellite relayed the first publicly-transmitted, live trans-Atlantic television program (featuring Walter Cronkite). In something that may or may not be related, this year’s full July moon will float across the heavens on July 23 as well. And don’t forget that during the Civil War, the U.S. Army won both the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, Vicksburg on July 4 and and Gettysburg on July 3. President Lincoln had a very good July in 1863. And let’s not forget the U.S. Post Office was established on July 26, 1775.
Where would we all be, after all, had Congress not established the U.S. Post Office? While Republicans in Congress keep trying to kill it off and replace it with expensive private contractors, the rest of us like it just fine. Because the point is that we get a lot of mail. Every day except Sunday. And some of it is actually mail we want to get. Here at History Central, I pretty much like all the mail I get, even the junk mail, because even there are a few nuggets of knowledge. In fact, here are bunch of things I never would have found out if I hadn’t opened all our mail (each and every day the mail carrier showed up out in front at our mailbox):
There are 40 spaces around the perimeter of the Monopoly board, and 22 of them are properties.
Before he left the boxing ring for his acting career, Tony Danza’s record as a middleweight fighter was 12 wins and three losses.
In 1964, golfer Norman Manley achieved consecutive holes-in-one on a golf course in Saugus, Calif. Both were par 4 holes, which probably means something to the golfers reading this.
On Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals football team celebrated Thanksgiving Day by scoring all 40 points (six touchdowns and 4 points-after) in the Cards’ 40-6 win at old Comiskey Park.
A shark’s skeleton has no bones. It is made entirely of cartilage.
The first—and so far the only—President to be married in the White House was Grover Cleveland. During his second year in office, he married Frances Folsom, a young lady 27 years the President’s junior.
The Electoral College system of electing U.S. Presidents has enabled five candidates to become President whose opponents won the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.
The Great Pyramids in Egypt are the only surviving sites considered to be among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Barnacles have three stages of life. In the first, they swim, have six legs, and one eye. In the second stage, they have 12 legs and two more eyes (total three). In the third stage, they have 24 legs but lose all their eyes.
Making sense of the heat index: When the air temperature is 85 degrees, it feels like 78 when the humidity is at zero percent; 88 when the humidity is 50 percent; and 108 when the humidity is at 100 percent.
Of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, only one, New York’s One World Trade Center, is in the U.S. Of the rest, 5 are in China and one each are in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan. The world’s tallest building, measuring more than a half-mile in height at 2,717 feet, is Burj Khalifa (named after the country’s ruler) in Dubai.
Monaco has the shortest coastline—2.38 miles—of any sovereign nation that’s not landlocked.
The busiest ship canal in the world is the Kiel Canal linking the North Sea with the Baltic Sea in Germany.
The Alaska pipeline carries 2.1 million barrels of oil a day—when it’s not springing leaks—to the Valdez Oil Terminal.
A normal adult pulse rate is 70 to 78 beats per minute at rest for men and 78 to 85 for women.
The earliest known zoo was created by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt about 1500 B.C.E. About 500 years later, the Chinese Emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, a huge zoo covering 1,500 acres.
The Tarantella is a popular folk dance that gets its name from the city of Taranto, Italy. The people there used to dance the Tarantella as a supposed cure for tarantula bites. Today, of course, we know the correct dance for curing tarantula bites is the Locomotion.
During the 1828 presidential election, the opponents of Andrew Jackson had insultingly called him a jackass, and Jackson decided to turn the tables on those opponents. Instead of opposing the characterization, Jackson used the symbol in his campaign materials, agreeing at least in part with his opponents that he was “stubborn.” On Jan. 15, 1870, the first recorded use of a donkey cartoon to represent the Democratic Party appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon was drawn by political illustrator Thomas Nast, and was titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.”
President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower National monument in northeastern Wyoming as the nation’s first national monument. Devils Tower is a volcanic tower standing 865 feet above its base, which is 415 feet high.
Almost all large metropolitan newspapers—the ones still publishing—now publish in the morning. As late as 1996, there were 846 afternoon dailies and 686 morning papers. There now about 1,260 dailies in the U.S.
Until Henry VIII passed an act separating the professions, barbers were also surgeons. After that, the only surgical operations barbers could legally perform were bloodletting and tooth-pulling. On the other hand, surgeons were no longer allowed to give anyone a shave and a haircut—even for two bits.
Finally, Jefferson Davis, the traitorous president of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War, was U.S. Secretary of War in 1853. While in office, he improved infantry tactics and brought in new and better weapons that were eventually used against him and the Confederate cause. Although briefly imprisoned, Davis never had to account for his treason that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 U.S. and Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines.
Folks out on the Left Coast are sweltering this summer, with record high temps being set all the way up into Canada where triple-digit is—until recently at least—unheard of. And the problems is, of course, that most folks out and up that way have never bothered with installing air conditioning, because they’ve never really needed it.
Here in the Midwest, though, hot, humid summers with sultry nights are the rule rather than the exception, something that literally makes the tall corn grow around these parts.
Going way, way back into Kendall County’s prehistory, keeping cool was easy—the last Ice Age cooled everything off for several thousand years, burying History Central where I’m writing this under around 2,000 feet of ice. The main problem faced by what few area residents there were back then, in fact (besides fending off the passing saber-toothed tiger or the occasional dire wolf), was keeping warm, even in summer.
But the climate did warm up during thousands of years and those skillful Native American hunters dealt with the dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, gradually added more gathering to their lifestyles, and eventually created tribal societies.
Later Kendall Countians, like the Pottawatomi Indians, kept cool in summer by removing clothing to maintain their comfort levels. Many American Indians wore nothing but their moccasins in summer, thoroughly offending the first Europeans who arrived who, because of existing morals and fashions, were wrapped, chin to toe, in woolens and linens year around.
Permanent settlement by White Americans didn’t start here in northern Illinois until the late 1820s. And as soon as those settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, sometimes dropping snow measured in feet, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.
That meant housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.
So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed summer heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent the hot air that collected up near the ceiling level.
The wide roof overhangs popular with long-ago architects were not stylistic affectations, either. They were both functional as well as decorative, keeping hot sun off the sides and gables of the houses, reducing solar gain in the summer.
The sun’s heat was also reduced in those homes by the sizeable porches favored by Victorians. Those porches also provided additional living area for the family in summer. The house my father grew up in just south of Emporia, Kansas, had a porch that wrapped completely around the structure, assuring that every room on the first floor was shaded from the sun’s rays.
When it got really hot, however, people in the 1800s did what we do today to cool off. Noted the Oswego correspondent of the Kendall County Record in the paper’s July 9, 1874 edition: “If those boys swimming under the bridge on Tuesday afternoon have no common decency, their parents should incorporate a little to them by the means of a switch. They took special pains when a lady and young girl were crossing the bridge to swim out and by various contortions indecently expose themselves.”
Back then, folks used all kinds of heat-beating measures. In church, the rhythmic movement of dozens of cardboard fans (usually advertising the local funeral home) in the congregants’ hands put many a youngster sound asleep on hot Sunday mornings.
Band concerts in the evening and picnics in the county’s cool groves and along the river got families out of their hot houses at other times. And there were those occasional dips in the river—with or without swimming costume.
And then as now, a frosty dish of cold ice cream could hold off the heat for awhile. Noted editor John R. Marshall in the July 22, 1875 Record: “Holland makes splendid chocolate ice cream, and if you want a real nice dish to cool you off, just drop into his [Yorkville] restaurant.”
Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th Century.
On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th Century, keeping food cool through the use of home iceboxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest. Large ice harvesting operations were located at almost every Fox River dam and on many area creeks as well, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed pork and beef carcasses from Midwest meat packing plants to eastern markets.
Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th Century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically-produced product ‘artificial ice.’ But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using ‘natural’ ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.
Polluted water sources and warm winters combined to make Fox Valley ice harvesting chancy through the first two decades of the 20th Century. And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”
Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”
Restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”
Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration. When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Ill. Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “The still was of 23-gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloonkeeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol.”
Apparently seeing the error of his ways, Schickler got out of the bootlegging business and instead he and his son went into the dairy business, bottling milk in the same basement of his home where he’d previously been bottling bootleg whiskey.
Once refrigeration technology was understood, it wasn’t all that big a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.
Some of those first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. The early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate—provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.
While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”
Here in Oswego, barber Roy Roalson installed a heat-exchanger air conditioning system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barbershop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.
By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.
These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon. And it’s starting to look like our neighbors along the Pacific Coast may be looking at dealing with the same kinds of muggy, uncomfortable summers—at least some of the time—that we here in the Midwest have grown up with.
It’s not often that a Kendall County resident is present during a momentous historical event, but that was the case when the first Juneteenth took place at Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. When he issued his General Order Number 3, Union Major General Gordon Granger formally—and forcefully—notified the State of Texas that slavery was irrevocably eliminated.
And last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the United States’ newest national holiday as a symbolic celebration of the end of slavery throughout the nation.
From the time of its settlement as a part of Mexico that welcomed U.S. colonists, Texas had enthusiastically embraced slavery. Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829 was, in fact, one cause of Texas’ 1836 war of independence. The Mexican government had encouraged Stephen A. Austin to recruit settlers for Texas. He mostly recruited in the southern U.S., encouraging slave owners to emigrate by allowing them to purchase an extra 50 acres of land for every slave they brought with them. Both before and after it was admitted to the Union in 1845, East Texas and the state’s Gulf Coast became major cotton growing regions relying extensively on slavery.
So when the Southern states seceded, Texas went right along with them, citing Northern efforts to end slavery as the main reason they were leaving the Union. In their Declaration of Causes approved by the Texas legislature on Feb. 2, 1861, the state’s leaders contended:
“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”
Legally, slavery had been abolished by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 immediately after the bloody Union victory at Antietam. Lincoln’s executive order did not free all the nation’s slaves. Instead, it was aimed at the South as an economic weapon and therefore freed the slaves only in areas of the Confederate states not under the control of the Union Army. And that meant Texas. But the state’s slave owners, like those in the rest of the Confederacy, paid no attention to Lincoln’s proclamation.
On May 9, Gen. Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then move to the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.
By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Units that reportedly came ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.
The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment had been recruited in Illinois and was mustered in in April 1864. It had served well, including at the brutal Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.
Serving in Company B of the 29th was Nathan Hughes, who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war, fled north into Illinois and briefly lived in Kendall County before he enlisted to fight for his own freedom. By the time the 29th came ashore at Galveston, Hughes had been wounded twice—once at the Battle of the Crater—and was a seasoned veteran.
It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their town. Especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.
On April 19th, Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. According to Granger’s order:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.
In addition, Texans tended to believe that while perhaps slaves had been freed elsewhere, certainly their enslaved people wouldn’t be freed. As William Lee Richter wrote in The Army In Texas during Reconstruction, 1865-1870. “Planters vainly hoped that they would be compensated for the loss of their slaves or that the Supreme Court or the election of 1866 would overturn the Republicans’ majority in Congress. In addition, there was a cotton crop to bring in that fall. For these reasons, the planters forced their ex-bondsmen to stay on the plantation as slaves in fact, if not in name. To achieve this end, the farmers liberally employed whipping and murder.”
Southerners began resisting extending basic rights, including the right to vote and to peacefully assemble, as soon as the war ended. The U.S. Army and the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to combat the racist violence with which the South responded to the end of the Civil War, but those efforts proved ineffective. The violence grew to such an extent that during the Presidential election campaign of 1868, John R. Marshall, publisher of the Kendall County Record in Yorkville—himself a veteran of the Civil War who served in the Sturges Rifles—was far from alone when he wondered whether the war had ended two years too soon:
“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.”
That, however, was in the future, a bleak future at that, in which it would take nearly a century from the time Gen. Granger issued General Order Number 3 until acts enshrining civil and voting rights in U.S. law. From the time Granger impressed upon Texans that slavery was over once and for all, Black Americans began quietly observing June 19 as their own private day of independence from being enslaved and finally gaining their freedom.
After showing the U.S. Flag in Galveston, the 29th marched to the Rio Grande River where it was part of the Army of Observation tasked with reminding Maximilian and his French supporters that the United States was not pleased with their intervention in Mexico. The 29th was mustered out of U.S. service on Nov. 6, and its troops left for their homes.
Nathan Hughes came back to Kendall County and settled on a small farm on Minkler Road, went down to Kentucky and found his children, and brought them back to Illinois. His wife, however, decided to stay in familiar Kentucky and not move north. He eventually remarried. His grandchildren became the first black high school graduates in Kendall County, and THEIR grandchildren and great-grandchildren became teachers and professors, and lawyers and other professionals.
The family, now scattered across the nation, continues to pay forward the momentous results of that first Juneteenth Nathan Hughes had been part of in 1865.
So how are YOU celebrating National Dairy Month in June?
Down at the Little White School Museum, we’re doing a special exhibit and I’ll be giving a short program on the community’s dairy history—which turns out to have been fairly extensive.
Here in northern Illinois, the counties up north and communities like Harvard have been known for their dairy farms for generations. But little Kendall County had a surprisingly robust dairy industry right up until World War II, and even for a few years thereafter.
In late April 1875. H.N. Wheeler, editor and publisher of the St. Charles Leader up in Kane County, tweaked Oswego about its dairy business: “Oswego claims to send a good deal of milk to Chicago. Well how much? It’s the first time we knew that the milk business, to any extent, had got that far south.” To which Kendall County Record publisher John R. Marshall shot back: “Come down the river some day, Wheeler, and we’ll show you. Yorkville ships a dozen, or 10 cans a day, also. You haven’t all the milk (or the coconut) up the river.”
Milk cows arrived in the Fox Valley with the earliest settlers in the 1830s, and by the 1850s, dairy farms in Kendall County were producing quite a bit of milk. The problem was what to do with it. Milk spoils easily and in 1850, it would be three more years until a rail line extended through Kendall County that could handle shipping easily spoiled products like milk. The roads of that era were little more than tracks across the prairie, nearly impassable after the spring thaw or at any other time of the year after heavy rains.
The solution was to turn milk into products such as butter and cheese that were less prone to spoilage and that would stand being shipped overland.
In 1850, less than a decade after Kendall County was established, the U.S. Farm Census reported there were 3,160 dairy cows in Kendall County. Further, the county had reported producing 180,000 pounds of butter and 27,000 pounds of cheese that year. Most of those products were produced on individual farms or in homes in town for sale locally, but a fair amount was shipped east to the nearest railhead where it could reach the Chicago market.
It wasn’t until 1867, that Oswego’s first commercial dairy operation opened. As reported in the Record on July 25 that year: “Oswego is still making improvements and among them is a new cheese factory on the west side of the river. The old stone machine shop has been fitted up by Messrs Roe & Seely into a neat and thorough factory for the manufacture of cheese. These gentlemen are both from that renowned dairy district, Orange County, N.Y. Mr. Roe has been 12 years in the milk and cheese business and understand it in all its branches. On Tuesday we called on him and he showed the operations of the factory and gave us much general information in regard to dairies, etc. The factory commenced operation on the 6th day of May last and has been constantly at work since. They use 1,500 quarts of milk a day from about 175 cows. They do not work on shares as some factories do, but buy the milk for cash.”
That “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge is still standing as a private residence, and is known today as Turtle Rock.
By 1860, the number of milk cows in the county had more than doubled to just over 7,000 and the amount of butter produced had skyrocketed to 602,000 lbs., while the amount of cheese manufactured on farms and in homes had not quite doubled to 46,000 lbs.
In 1870, the number of milk cows in the county had decreased a bit, just like the county’s population, but the amount of butter produced had again increased. And also that year, Oswego, Yorkville, and several other towns up and down the Fox River finally got a direct rail connection. That meant dairy products—including raw milk—could be more easily shipped to distant markets. But the rapaciousness of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and its monopoly on rail transport meant shipping dairy products to market was an expensive proposition. Oswego general store owner David M. Haight went so far as to propose shipping milk and other dairy products by road to the Chicago market, but the condition of those roads remained terrible.
Instead, businessmen and farmers’ cooperatives decided the best course was to open local creameries where farmers could sell their milk that could then be processed into butter and cheese. By the late 1800s, most communities in Kendall County could boast their own creamery. Oswego, for several years, had two creameries, the first a commercial operation in an abandoned brewery along modern Ill. Route 25, and the other a farmers’ cooperative located in the area of the Oswego grain elevator.
The March 1, 1877 Record reported that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped in a measure the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”
Those creameries produced huge volumes of dairy products. By 1878 McConnell’s Oswego creamery alone was processing 14,000 lbs. (almost 1,630 gallons) of milk a day. On May 16 that year, the Record reported: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”
Local dairy production was not limited to farms during that era, either. Most houses in town boasted a small barn on their property where the family kept a few chickens, the family cow, and a driving horse, with a buggy and, for the winter months, a sleigh. The problem, of course, is that town lots don’t have any space to pasture a cow. So for much of the 19th Century, cows in small towns like Oswego and Yorkville were allowed to roam at large. As you might guess, this caused frequent problems.
On March 21, 1867, Marshall complained in the Record that: “Farmers coming into Yorkville to trade are annoyed beyond patience by the cows running in the street, that make their way to a wagon as soon as it is left by the owner, and forage the hay, straw, apples, potatoes, or whatever there is eatable therein. Nothing is save from their ravages and at the coming town meeting something should be done to abate the nuisance.”
Towns soon passed laws forbidding cows to roaming at large. But that didn’t go down well with some residents. On May 20, 1869, under the headline “The Great Cow Rebellion,” Lawrence Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “The great sensation of Oswego last week was the cow rebellion. It happened this way: The corporation powers that be [the village board] ordained that all cattle should be prohibited from running at large in the village streets. A lot of cows soon were in the pound. Cow owners were filled with indignation, denouncing it as a piece of highhanded legislation, a crushing down of the poor, etc. The government backed down. The cows are now enjoying the liberty of the streets. As for myself in that struggle, I was on the side of the cow; am too much of a calf, that is, like milk too well to go back on her.”
Eventually, because of the destruction they kept causing, Oswego’s cows, like those in Yorkville, were ordered restrained from running at large, no matter how indignant their owners became.
How many cows were in town? I couldn’t find any figures from the 19th Century, but in 1910, the U.S. Farm Census reported how many cattle were being kept on farms as well as in town. It turned out there were half again as many cattle as people in Kendall County on farms that year. Plus there were 230 head of cattle—likely all or most being milk cows—kept in town, a fairly sizable number for a small county with a population of just over 10,000.
In 1890, Kendall County hit its peak dairy cow population, with 9,500 cows in the county. That year, at least a dozen creameries were operating in Kendall County, most of them farmer cooperatives.
The production of dairy products was high during that era, too. In 1885, the Illinois Agriculture Department had reported that during the previous year, Kendall County farms and businesses reported selling huge amounts of dairy products. According to the state, Kendall County farms sold 433,599 gallons of milk; 18,241 gallons of cream; 282,495 pounds of butter; and 24,500 pounds of cheese during 1884.
From that high point, however, dairy production in Kendall County began to decline. The shear work dairy farming entails, along with the steady consolidation into ever-larger dairy farming operations and increasing health regulations began squeezing out, not only smaller dairy farm operations but also the small local creameries that processed their production. By the end of World War I, all the local creameries were gone.
By 1959, the number of dairy cows in the county had dropped below the count in 1850, and it, along with the number of dairy farms, declined even more sharply after that.
As late as 1950, 694 farms in Kendall County reported having at least one milk cow on the place and the number of dairy cattle was reported at 4,569. By 1964, the number of farms with a dairy cow on the place had dropped to just 133, and the number of dairy cows in the county had decreased to 1,751. In 1997, just nine dairy farms reported having only 246 head of dairy cattle and by 2002, there were only two dairy farms left in the county, the number of cows so low it wasn’t recorded by the farm census.
While the dairy farming and dairy products businesses were consolidating, so were the companies that provided milk to consumers. Very early on, farmers would actually go door-to-door in towns and sell milk to householders and businesses by the bucket. George Henry Lester patented the first glass milk container, the ungainly Lester Milk Jar, in 1878. He started selling milk in his jars in 1879, but it wasn’t until 1884 that really practical milk bottles hit the scene. The invention of practical milk bottles, along with the home icebox allowed small dairies to pop up all over the country—and not just in towns.
Here in Oswego, the community was served by two farm-based dairies. The Roberts Dairy was based on Charles Roberts’ farm south of the Oswego Bridge on modern U.S. Route 34, while the Schickler Dairy was located on the Clarence Schickler farm on modern Route 31 north of the bridge. They served the community during the 1920s and 1930s.
After World War II, larger dairies in Aurora were able to undercut the prices of the smaller local farm-based operations. Oswego was served mostly by Aurora’s Oatman’s Dairy in the 1950s. Oatman’s provided both home delivery by milkman Les Weis and also provided milk to Oswego’s schools for those government-subsidized daily milk breaks. At first school milk was served in small half-pint glass bottles, but those were soon replaced by waxed cardboard half-pint cartons.
Milkmen, in turn, were displaced in the home milk supply business in the 1960s when gas station owners discovered milk was a great customer draw. Grocery stores had by then begun selling more milk as well, but the hours of stores of that era were far more limited than gas stations. Gas station owners found the investment in a glass-doored milk cooler attracted many more customers than their old, limited product line. And thus was invented, after a few years of evolution, the mini mart that dominates so much of today’s retail landscape.
On Saturday afternoon, starting at 1:30 p.m. at the Little White School Museum, I’ll be recounting these stories along with a few others (such as the one about how Clarence Schickler’s father operated a huge illegal bootleg still out of the same space as his milk bottling operation occupied) during a program that’s part of our salute to National Dairy Month. We’re also assembling some fun exhibits of dairy-related materials from our museum collections—glass Schickler and Oatman’s milk bottles, a hand butter churn, milk and cream cans, and a lot more. Admission to the program at 1:30 is $5, with proceeds benefiting the museum. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.
The destruction of the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been much in the news recently, and for good reason. This year, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction of the community by a White mob and the murder of more than 300 Black Greenwood residents, all with the collusion of local governmental officials.
It was a horrific event, one that none of us ever heard about in school. I’d never heard of such a thing until I started doing research several years ago into the effect of organized racism and anti-immigrant activities that led to the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s for a column I was working on concerning the Klan’s popularity here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley.
That’s when I stumbled across the East St. Louis race riot of 1917, and then when I looked further into things I came across the Tulsa riot—and many, many more such outrages.
We tend to think of riots concerning race and racial issues as relatively recent things. The ones that stick in most minds were those that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the late 1960s, during which large portions of many of our major cities were destroyed.
Race riots are nearly as old as the nation, but instead of mostly involving Black rioters attacking Whites, the opposite is by far most common in the nation’s history.
In fact, Wikipedia has a handy page where you can check out the dismayingly long list of violent racial clashes across the nation’s history beginning in the early 19th Century.
The map at left I found on-line is a good reference tool, too, although it only includes a relatively small number instances of major U.S. racial violence. But it does illustrate one eye-opening fact—at least for me. And that is that while Louisiana seems to be the champion state for hosting racial riots targeting Black residents, Illinois comes in a distressing second.
Which, I suppose, shouldn’t really be all that much of a surprise. Illinois was initially settled by Southerners. In fact, it was originally governed as a county of the State of Virginia during and after the Revolutionary War. After the war, most of Illinois’ settlers came from Southern states, west through Kentucky and Tennessee and up into southern Illinois.
In accord with the Northwest Ordinance, Illinois was admitted as a free, non-slave state in 1818. But the state was never a friendly place for Black residents. A few years after statehood, in fact, agitation by pro-slavery politicians nearly rewrote the state’s constitution to legally permit slavery. That move was thwarted, narrowly.
But then things began to change. The Erie Canal in New York opened and the rush of settlers from New England and the Middle States (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) began and soon the population of anti-slave Northerners in northern Illinois easily outpaced Southerners in southern Illinois. So, by the time the Civil War broke out, Illinois as a whole was firmly in the anti-slave column, although most of the southern part of the state was more or less pro-Confederate. In fact, the state had to station troops in towns including Quincy to guard against pro-Southern violence during the war. And a number of Illinois men fought on the Southern side during the war.
So the seeds of racist violence had long been planted here. And as the 20th Century dawned, the nation experienced a surge in racist and anti-immigrant violence fueled by social change. Blacks were leaving the Jim Crow South to make new lives in Northern manufacturing cities, while immigration from southern Europe—particularly Italy—was fueling anti-Catholic and anti-foreign tensions and violence, all whipped up by racist radio personalities and the reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.
By 1917, the 1908 Springfield riot was some years in the past and the Chicago violence was on the horizon. That July, one of the state’s most violent race riots broke out in East St. Louis. At least 50 persons were killed (the toll was undoubtedly higher) and 240 people were reported injured. Damage was set at $1,400,000—which would be $29 million in 2021 dollars.
The history of the riot and accompanying murders and destruction was not completely hidden, although it’s place in Illinois history has certainly been downplayed. In 1964, Elliott M. Rudwick, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, published an in-depth study of it, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917. And during the state’s 1968 sesquicentennial, Bob Sutton included Robert Asher’s “Documents of the Race Riot at East St. Louis,” previously published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, in his two-volume The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois. It was certainly not covered in any of our junior or senior high school history courses, nor was the general topic covered in my college U.S. History survey course at Northern Illinois University. As someone on History Twitter noted the other day, back then it was as if Black Americans completely disappeared between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the public aspects of the Civil Rights movement a century later.
Granted, the story’s there. But you have to dig to find it. Letters and personal accounts left by victims of the violence vividly describe the events of July 2, 1917, something that makes it all the more puzzling the East St. Louis violence, along with all the other outbreaks preceding it and following it during the next few years were virtually erased from the histories taught in Illinois schools.
Trouble had been brewing in East St. Louis for several months, fanned by the labor problems then existing in the area. On July 1, supposedly as a means to forestall violence, police and Illinois National Guard soldiers appeared at the homes of black families and demanded their weapons. Most of the families complied. But in spite of—or perhaps because of—the seizure of Black citizens’ arms, throughout the day, warnings that rioting would begin that evening spread through the Black community.
But according to the testimony of a White woman, the actual riot started about noon, when a colored man came to her house to deliver gasoline. Whites attacked the man, but the woman held the mob at bay with a revolver while the black tried to escape through the back door. The mob pursued him and killed him. Scott Clark, a black teamster, was next. He was stoned to death by women in the mob as he was dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck.
Most Black residents felt their only hope was to get to the Municipal Free Bridge across the Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri. Many made it, but many more did not, and were either hung, shot, or burned to death by the mob. Although the governor called out the Illinois National Guard, that seemed to have little or no effect on the destruction.
Among those who made it to safety was Daisy Westbrook. Westbrook, a young black woman at the time, was the director of music and drawing at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. She described her experiences in a letter written on July 19, just l7 days after the riot, recounting the terror of the black residents of East St. Louis in graphic detail.
“It started early in the afternoon. We kept receiving calls over the ‘phone to pack our trunks and leave, because it was going to be awful that night. We did not heed the calls, but sent grandma and the baby on to St. Louis and said we should ‘stick’ no matter what happened. At first when the fire started, we stood on Broadway and watched it. As they neared our house we went in and went to the basement. It was too late to run then. They shot and yelled some thing awful, finally they reached our house. At first, they did not bother us (we watched from the basement window), they remarked that ‘white people live in that house, that is not a nigger house.’ Later, someone must have tipped them that it was a ‘nigger’ house, because, after leaving us for about 20 min. they returned and started shooting in the house, throwing bricks and yelling like mad ‘kill the nigger, burn that house,’
“It seemed the whole house was falling in on us. Then some one said, ‘they must not be there; if they are they are certainly dead’. Then some one shouted ‘they are in the basement. Surround them and burn it down.’ Then they ran down our steps. Only prayer saved us, we were under tubs and any thing we could find praying and keeping as quite as possible, because if they had seen one face, we would have been shot or burned to death. Sister tipped to the door to see if the house was on fire. She saw the reflection of a soldier on the front door and pulled it open quickly and called for help. All of us ran out then and was taken to the city hall for the night. The next morning, we learned our house was not burned, so we tried to get protection to go out and get our clothes and have the rest of the things put in storage. We could not, but were sent on to St. Louis. Had to walk across the bridge with a line of soldiers on each side in the hot sun, no hats and scarcely no clothing.
“On Tuesday evening at 6 o’clock our house was burned with two soldiers on guard. So the papers stated. We were told that they looted the house before burning it.”
Things eventually calmed down in East St. Louis, only to flare up again in Chicago in 1919 and then in Tulsa in 1921. The riots could, I suppose, be seen as Jim Crow moving violently north in on-going efforts to stymie Black economic advancement. The riots and massacres destroyed millions in business and home equity that was thereby eliminated from being used to finance Black families’ generational advancement.
If that wasn’t bad enough, some years in the future when President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Alphabet Agencies” began fighting the Great Depression by pumping money into the economy, Black families were effectively barred from receiving any assistance. Black homeowners, farmers, and business owners were kept from participating, again denied the chance to build equity for the future. And yet again, after World War II with the passage of the G.I. Bills, rules created by Southern legislators effectively barred Black veterans from accessing federal housing and education loan and grant programs.
Not until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 did some equity begin making its way into the systemic racism that was baked into the nation’s governmental and social life. And as soon as that happened, racist Southern Democrats left the party in droves, to be warmly welcomed by cynical Republicans who figured they could keep the racism parts quiet while using the old Confederacy to cement their political power.
And so here we find ourselves in 2021, observing the centennial of the horrific Tulsa race massacre at a time when overt racism is again being promoted and encouraged by politicians as shameless as those who encouraged the racism and religious bigotry of the early 20th Century. Until the last five years, I’d assumed we’d come a lot farther along this particular road than we obviously have. It’s apparent the road’s a lot longer and more winding than I’d hoped or imagined.
There appears to be some discussion in online history circles these days about “hidden history.”
Hidden history refers to history that is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed or ignored, either by established scholars, politicians, or the general public. Casually study history of any time period for any length of time, and it’s a guarantee you’ll soon come across hidden history of one kind or another.
This current online controversy seems to revolve around the word “hidden.” Wrote one professional historian on Twitter, “Pals, I hate the term ‘hidden histories’ increasingly and would much prefer ‘stories we discriminate(d) against,” suggesting that not only do historians quibble about terminology, but they are daringly cavalier about grammatical rules.
Added another, “I have had so many rants about this. I’ve generally settled on ‘excluded’ rather than ‘hidden.’”
Said a third, “I really dislike it for lots of reasons, mostly because it lets people off the hook. If the history has been ‘hidden’ then people have an excuse for not having seen it.”
Well, yes, that would be an excellent reason for people not having seen it. The expectation here is that those who are not professional historians should carry some blame for not knowing which patches of history have been placed beyond their reach by people—historians—who should be in the business of bringing to light all facets of history, even the unpleasant and uncomfortable bits.
Because the awkward fact is, historians who knew better did hide and otherwise obscure vast portions of the nation’s history for a variety of reasons. Mostly, their motives seem to have been to comfort themselves by assuring average citizens wouldn’t become ‘confused,’ or at least that’s what they seemed to have told themselves. Because the conventional wisdom about the nation’s history was sometimes either the exact opposite of what we—the consumers of popular history including grade and high school students—were told and taught, or that there were a lot of gray areas that made black and white, good and evil comparisons difficult if not impossible.
For instance, slavery being the major cause of the Civil War was hidden for years as the South’s “Lost Cause” myth about states’ rights dominated history texts for decades. The myth was a cornerstone of the Jim Crow Laws that terrorized Southern blacks in the late 19th Century, preventing them from enjoying the most basic rights as Americans.
In fact, the racist myth continues to be actively supported while also being publicly hidden for political reasons by many today. But all it takes is reading the actual articles of secession passed by Southern legislatures when they rebelled against the U.S. Government in 1860 and 1861 to confirm that, yes, in the words of the leaders of the Southern states at the time, slavery was THE major and proximate cause of the Civil War.
More locally, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s was hidden when the rampant anti-immigrant and casual racism of the era moderated. This second iteration of the Klan (reestablished in 1920) was a popular and vigorous political movement here in the Midwest in general and throughout the Fox Valley in particular, bringing its opposition to and hate of immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and people of any color other than white right to our own doorsteps.
The Feb. 28, 1923 edition of our county newspaper, the Kendall County Record, reported that: “A Klan was organized in Sandwich last week when 75 of our neighboring townsmen allied themselves with the much criticized organization. The Sandwich Free Press prints the following creed of the Ku Klux Klan:
“The tenets of the Christian religion.
“Protection of our pure womanhood.
“Just laws and liberty.
“Closer relationship of pure Americanism.
“The upholding of the Constitution of these United States.
“The sovereignty of our State Rights.
“The separation of church and state.
“Freedom of speech and press.
“Closer relationship between capital and American labor.
“Preventing the cause of mob violence and lynchings.
“Preventing unwarranted strikes by foreign labor agitators.
“Prevention of fires and destruction of property by lawless elements.
“The limitation of foreign immigration.
“The much needed local reforms.
“Law and order.”
The language of these declarations is always fascinating to read. Here, that one that particularly stands out is the one concerning lynching. Which doesn’t advocate preventing lynching itself, but the ‘cause’ of lynnchings. In other words, if we lynch somebody, they made us do it—the classic excuse of spousal abusers the world over—so these people must stop making us kill them.
The extent of the Klan’s popularity is truly astonishing by our modern 21st Century sensibilities. On June 4, 1924, the Record reported: “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town [Yorkville] 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. During the day there was a steady influx of cars and people, basket dinner, viewing the scenery along the river, and attending the ball game. In the evening, the Yorkville band gave a concert for the visitors which was much enjoyed and the members of the Klan expressed their appreciation.
“As darkness fell a large fiery cross was displayed on a prominent hill south of the ball park and several speeches were made by Klan enthusiasts. The weird light of the cross, reflecting on the strange costumes of the members of the order made an impression on the visitors never to be forgotten and the words delivered from the speakers’ stand left an indelible impression.
“Later in the evening the members of the Klan exemplified the work of initiation on some 30 novitiates, showing the visible work of the degrees to the large concourse in attendance. It was wonderfully effective and interesting.
“The crowds who visited Yorkville during the picnic were an asset to the good name of the Ku Klux Klan. They were pleasant people to meet and the conduct of the picnic was such that made friends.”
The Klan’s local popularity and its ‘good name’ were both committed to the hidden history rolls by our parents and grandparents who simply didn’t want to talk about it.
In a more benign light, the formation of a fairly vigorous community of Black farming families just south of Oswego in the post-Civil War years was also hidden. Why these families, all comprised of former slaves, decided to settle in the Minkler-Reservation Road area after the war has unfortunately been lost to history. But settle they did, sending their children to the local one-room rural schools in the neighborhood and later into Oswego to high school, where they became the first Black graduates in Kendall County.
Numerous towns and geographical features in the Fox Valley are named after the region’s former Native American residents. The stories of what happened to those people is safely hidden behind the stories of the White settlers that arrived here in the 1820s and 1830s to pioneer the ‘empty’ prairies—which were anything but empty, peopled as they were by thousands of Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ottawa, Fox, Sauk, and Kickapoo people. The Federal Government, using the threat of military force, coerced the tribes to move west of the Mississippi starting in 1836, journeys that rivaled in misery and wretchedness the infamous “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes, a disaster that has been successfully obscured by the tales of those early White settlers.
With right wing politicians ascendant in states across the nation is unfortunately coming more and more forceful efforts not to bring the nation’s hidden history to light, but rather to hide even more of it, seemingly in the name of some misguided version of patriotism.
As these efforts at virtually falsifying what we know about the past gather steam, arguments about whether history is being hidden, excluded, marginalized, obscured, or whatever seem more than a bit like rearranging the Lusitania’s deck chairs.
Although most of the Fox Valley’s wetlands were drained long ago, the region’s fresh water springs still pop up, especially after heavy rains. While the water seeping from the ground along the county’s watercourses and hillsides looks clear, these days most of that water has been badly polluted by everything from farm and lawn fertilizer to private septic systems.
When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time on and around the Fox River. Most summers back in the 1950s, those days when small towns were safe places for kids to roam to their hearts’ content, we’d leave home in the morning and not get back until suppertime, except to grab some food at one time or another during the day. Food, we needed, but water to drink was pretty plentiful from the many springs along the riverbank.
There was a particularly good one that exited the riverbank under a tree and for which we cleared out a small, shallow rock-lined pool to drink from. That spring ran all year long. Last year, I took a walk along the riverbank there and found it’s still flowing, though not as strongly as when we were kids.
Just to the south of our house was a large spring that once provided cool water for, first, thirsty settlers, then Oswego’s first (and, for well over a century, it’s last) brewery, and later a creamery. The spring water had, at sometime in the past, been piped under what then passed for North Adams Street and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way in a large iron pipe tile through which the cold water gushed. It was a handy place to stop for a drink on the way home from school or from bicycling. Folks used to come from all over to fill milk cans and large jugs with the clear, cold water, and since it was right next to the railroad tracks, the section gangs that put-putted up and down the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch Line stopped there to fill their water jugs, too.
And, as it turns out, springs were major assets during Kendall County’s settlement era, and not just for drinking purposes, either.
There were at least two springs in the county famed for their medicinal value. The most famous were at Plattville, originally called The Springs by the first settlers. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, there were a dozen mineral springs at Plattville that not only fed a fairly large marsh rich in fish, but whose water was also prized for its medicinal value by the pioneers. Daniel Platt bought The Springs claim when he arrived in 1833 for $80. It proved to be an excellent investment, providing water, both for drinking and for medicinal purposes, for many years to come.
The water table is very close to the surface in the Plattville area. Hicks reported in 1877 that some settlers in that area were lucky enough to strike artesian wells from which water didn’t need to be pumped: “Obadiah Naden one mile south, and George Mason, six miles south-east, each have flowing wells. The latter was sinking a tubular well, and when fifty-five feet below the surface water was struck, which flowed over the top, and it has continued to flow ever since.”
Meanwhile over in House’s Grove, now the site of a Kendall County Forest Preserve in Seward Township, settler Chester House prized the large sulfur spring that flowed in the grove. Sulfur waters were prized as popular cures for various conditions, including skin maladies. A second spring in the grove, located closer to House’s cabin, ran clear and pure without the added smell of sulfur, and, Hicks noted, was considered of less value than the sulfur spring. The House claim was a lonely one out on the prairie, but it provided some welcome security for weary travelers. According to Hicks, “Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”
The county’s biggest freshwater spring was located in modern Oswego Township along what’s now Ill. Route 31 north of Oswego near the old Wormley School. Called simply “The Great Spring,” it was located close to the old Wormley homestead and was notable enough that when U.S. Government surveyors measured the township in 1838, they noted it. It subsequently appeared on the official government 1842 survey map of the township.
Down in Little Rock Township, there was the Griswold Spring and just a bit to the south over the line in Fox Township was the Greenfield Spring. The Griswold Spring was prominent enough to have a road named after it that still exists. The Native American village of Maramech on and around modern Maramech Hill near Plano was also supplied with water from a good spring.
And along the south bank of the Fox River in Fox Township, we can’t forget the Silver Springs that provide the name for Kendall County’s only Illinois State Fish and Wildlife area. The springs reportedly got their name from the way their water reflects sunlight, seeming to make their surface shine like silver. Those springs are still running strong to this day.
Down just outside of Millington, a 50-foot thick deposit of sparkling white St. Peter’s Sandstone was quarried for several years. At least two springs issued from the strata of the stone and ran west into the Fox River. Today, the old silica sand quarry is filled with water, marking the spot where so much sand was mined and sent down to Ottawa’s glass factories.
And the grounds of Riverview—later Fox River—Park just south of Montgomery featured an artesian spring that ran the year-around to refresh visitors at the amusement park, which was open from 1899-1925.
To the immediate south of Kendall County along the Illinois River, a major mineral spring, whose water was filtered through the St. Peter Sandstone that also underlays that entire area, was well known and valued by area pioneers.
When my great-grandparents moved into town in 1908, they dug a well 14 feet deep that was spring-fed. No matter how much water was pumped from it, a foot and a half of water remained in the well.
But that well, like all those crystal-clear springs along the Fox River near Oswego, was eventually polluted when subdivisions were built east of Route 25. Many of the houses in new unincorporated subdivisions had their own wells and septic systems, and the effluent from those systems found its way down to the bedrock that directs surface water towards the Fox River. The old brewery/creamery spring, my parent’s spring-fed well, and the springs along the river all now register as extremely close to raw sewage due to their heavy loads of coliform bacteria.
While water from streams was often suspect from a health perspective, the pioneers of 180 years ago knew they didn’t have to worry about whether the clear, cold water they drank from the Fox Valley’s many natural springs would sicken them. Unfortunately, these days we do.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.