One of our handiest research aids down at the Little White School Museum is our set of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, downloaded from the Library of Congress web site.
The maps are so valuable because the Sanborn company actually sent their contractors out to just about every community in the nation of any size at all to plot the building outlines—footprints—of every structure in and around their business districts. The maps, originally published in full color, included codes for the building material of each structure (stone, brick, frame), any additions or porches, accessory buildings, street and alley rights-of-way, and information on municipal water supplies or any other information related to fire safety.
On the original color maps, stone structures were colored blue, frame buildings yellow, and brick buildings red. A dwelling colored blue on the map has its frame porch—if it had one—drawn in and colored yellow. Stone buildings colored blue have their decorative brick fronts colored red.
The maps, published in yearly editions are valuable for anyone looking to see what the footprint of their house or other building looked like over the years, or where businesses, churches, schools or other buildings of the past might have been located.
One major limitation of the maps is that they only depict certain areas of every town. For Oswego, that means basically the downtown business district and a few blocks surrounding it. Larger and important nearby businesses, however, are included in map insets. So, for example, the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses are carefully drawn in, occupying their own small box on the Oswego maps. And so are the Parker mills, the gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River and the sawmill and furniture factory on the east bank.
Another limitation is that the maps were only updated during a few years. For Oswego, Sanborn maps are only available for the years 1885, 1891, 1898, 1902, and 1931. Even so, that gives an interesting time span to examine the houses and other buildings to determine what changes in the structures included on the maps occurred during those years.
Black and white copies of the maps have been kicking around for many years, and so have black and white microfilm copies of the maps. Also, the Oswego Public Library has had PDF versions of the maps available for download on their web site for several years now. The PDF versions are extremely clear and are fine for tracing building footprint changes over the years, as well as using the maps as historical resources. For instance, the map portions of the Parker mills include lists of exactly what kinds of equipment are inside them, including all the various woodworking machines for the furniture factory and the grain processing equipment in the gristmill.
But the big limitation of the black and white maps is the inability to tell what each structure is built out of, since the colors don’t show up.
That situation has changed in recent years as the Library of Congress began scanning the color versions of the Sanborn maps, and posting copies on their web site. As soon as we found out they were available, we started downloading them, and printed out copies to be used in the museum archives area for researchers. Most recently, the 1902 maps became available and we’re waiting anxiously for the 1931 maps, which in their three pages include a bit more of the village than the two-page maps of the previous year editions.
I’ve found that looking at the maps is a good way to spend a couple hours that absolutely fly by—they’re a positive danger to getting anything productive done, like all that boring paperwork with which museum directors are plagued.
But when I help someone with research using the maps, it’s hard not be drawn into everything that’s going on in them. On the 1885 map, for instance, I see that the Union Block of brick storefronts on the east side of Main Street, built in 1867 after the disastrous February fire gutted the entire block, are actually stone buildings clad with brick. The six storefronts in 1885 were occupied by (going from south to north—Washington Street towards Jackson Street) a drygoods store; a hardware store with a singing school above; a drygoods and grocery store combo; a furniture store with storage and a dwelling above; a grocery and hardware store with the Oswego Masonic Lodge above; and a drug store (the future site of Shuler’s Drugs for all you Oswego natives) with the Odd Fellows Lodge on the second floor.
Down by Waubonsie Creek, along the north bank between North Adams Street and the railroad right-of-way was, in 1885, David Height’s gristmill. By the time I was a kid, that building was a private house where Clare Smith lived, but in 1885 it was a gristmill and the Sanborn company reports it included a corn sheller, one run of grindstones, a fanning mill, and a grinder, all powered by a small steam engine.
About a half mile north along North Adams, was the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory where they were turning out all kinds of walnut furniture—an example of which (a walnut washstand) is on exhibit in the Little White School Museum’s gallery. The factory was water powered, with equipment including a planer; a sticker (a machine that made thin sticks used to separate layers of stacked lumber); two rip, three cut-off, one scroll, and one band saws; a mortiser; a tennoning machine; a drill press; a lathe; a pony planer (a small, single-sided planer); an emery wheel and two grind stones to sharpen tools; a shaper; and one dovetail machine.
And since the Sanborn company sold their maps to fire insurance companies, the furniture factory’s fire-fighting equipment was also carefully noted: “No watchman. Water barrels& buckets.” Very straightforward.
But then I note, in another inset on the map, is the Fox River Butter Company’s factory, located midway between downtown Oswego and the Parker furniture factory on North Adams. By the time I was a youngster this building was long gone. Originally built between modern Ill. Route 25 and the railroad right-of-way in 1870 as a brewery, it was turned into a butter and cheese factory in October 1876 by W.H. McConnell & Company. By 1885, its equipment was listed on the Sanborn map as two butter churns, three cheese vats, and three separators, all run by a 20 horsepower steam engine.
And then the firefighting equipment was listed: One rotary pump and 100 feet of one-inch rubber hose. Also noted was “Man sleeps in building,” which would be a definite plus in case the place caught on fire after everyone left for the day. But then the final note: “hand grenades.”
Which has made me wonder for years why a business would have hand grenades on hand. Was this for the protection of the guy sleeping in the building at night? Why were hand grenades included in the section that included firefighting equipment?
Well, I found out this week after my friend, Ted Clauser, conducted one of the museum’s historical walking tours of downtown Oswego. Ted mentioned that the butter factory a quarter of a mile or so north of downtown kept hand grenades, possibly for the protection of the man sleeping there. No, said one of the participants. Those hand grenades were really fire grenades.
A fire grenade was a blown glass sphere or other shaped bottle filled with, at first, salt water. The idea was to throw the grenade into a blaze, the glass would break, and the salt water would act to put out the fire. The grenades were often sold in sets of three. Later on, the salt water was replaced with carbon tetrachloride, which was a more effective fire retardant, but had a host of other problems. The stuff gives off dangerous fumes, and is believed to be a carcinogen. That’s bad, but even worse is what happens when you heat it. Like, for instance, when you throw it into a fire. That generates phosgene gas, a really nasty substance the Germans used as a poison gas during World War I.
So after all these years of wondering why Oswego’s butter factory was stocking hand grenades back in 1885, I find they were actually the 19th Century firefighting equivalent of water balloons. Which is, I have to admit, a relief. I had problems getting my head around some sleepy guy pitching hand grenades at burglars in the middle of the night and the damage that might have done to the guy and the burglars—not to mention the cheese factory.
So another Oswego historical mystery solved—which always makes my day a little brighter.
As settlers pushed west from Ohio into western Indiana, they encountered what geographers and geologists call the Prairie Peninsula.
The peninsula was a gigantic expanse of grassland that thrust eastward across the Mississippi into western Indiana, covering most of northern and central Illinois. The expanse notable for its scarcity of timber, at least compared with the densely wooded areas the pioneers had become used to as they moved west of the Appalachians.
Unlike the shortgrass prairies found west of the Mississippi, the Prairie Peninsula was a tallgrass prairie, abounding in wild grasses and forbs (non-woody, broadleaf plants) such as Big Bluestem and Compass Plant that towered as high as eight feet above the prairie sod.
Environmental scientists still argue about exactly how and why the Prairie Peninsula came to be. But however it was formed, in the thousands of years following the retreat of the last glacier that scoured northern Illinois, a diverse and complicated ecology grew up in the Prairie Peninsula. The landscape was dominated by prairie plants, particularly grasses and sedges (which have triangular-shaped, sharp-edged stems: “Sedges have edges,” which is a handy way to differentiate them from grasses).
Grasses such as Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem predominated in the tallgrass prairie, but in the spring and the fall, before and after the grasses’ and sedges’ growing season, forbs predominated, creating the brightly colored carpets of wildflowers so many of the early settlers commented on.
The settlers didn’t spend a lot of time pondering questions on how the landscape came to be, but mostly wondered how they were to survive in seemingly endless grassland with few patches of timber.
The problem was that early 19th Century settlement technology was timber-intensive, requiring lots of trees from which to manufacture split rail fences, log cabins and outbuildings, and the firewood needed to heat homes during Illinois’ fierce winters.
As the settlers pushed west out of the Ohio and Indiana timber into the prairie, they found that, in general, wooded areas followed along the banks of streams and were growing in groves in other areas of wet prairie. They quickly realized woods proved thickest on the east side of streams.
Scientists generally agree now that the prairie fires that swept across the Prairie Peninsula on a regular basis, driven by the prevailing westerly winds, were slowed or stopped by streams, which allowed more and thicker timber to thrive on streams’ east bank.
Many native prairie grasses and forbs require periodic fires to thrive, while non-native species tend to be killed by fire. In addition to high resistance to fire, most native plant species are also highly drought resistant. Prairie plants and native tree species tend to have deep root systems and leaf systems that maximize water retention. Each year, about 37 inches of rain falls here in Kendall County. Significantly, that’s almost exactly the amount of rainfall absorbed by an acre of native prairie or oak savanna.
Not only the quantity of timber was changed due to location, but the type was too. In general, fire-resistant trees such as white oak were more likely to be found along the west banks of streams, while less fire-resistant species, such as black walnut, basswood, and maples, found life easier along the streams’ west banks.
When U.S. Government surveyors arrived in northern Illinois in the late 1830s to complete the survey mandated by the Northwest Ordinance before land could be sold to pioneer settlers, they documented the types and extent of timber up and down the Fox Valley. Looking at those original survey maps and reading the surveyors’ notes, it becomes clear how important location was when it came to the kinds and amounts of the area’s timber resources.
In fact, timber-free land was settled last. Will County’s Wheatland Township, which neighbors Oswego Township to the east, was virtually treeless so when my Pennsylvania German ancestors arrived there in 1852, they were still able to buy unclaimed government land. It’s important to note that the land there, and elsewhere on treeless prairies where timber was far removed, wasn’t ignored at first because it wasn’t fertile, because it was. It was avoided for several years because vital timber was too far away.
When the earliest settlers reached the Fox Valley in the 1820s and early 1830s, they found timber edging both banks of the Fox River, although the belt along the east bank of the river was generally thicker with a more diverse species of hardwoods. In some areas, like in most of Aurora Township, just to the north of Oswego Township, there was scarcely any timber along the west bank of the river at all.
Some of these woods were, in part, densely timbered and had a hazel brush understory. But other parts of it were relatively open, what is called today an oak savanna that was fairly park-like.
In the spring and the fall, after native prairie grasses and other plants had dried out, thunderstorm lightning naturally started many swift-moving prairie fires. But in addition, in a practice that had been noted by the region’s first French explorers, the local Native American population also started fires, both intentionally and unintentionally. Unintentional fires happened when cooking fires escaped into the dry prairie. Intentional fires were much more common and were started to prepare fields for cultivation, combat insects, kill trees that were encroaching onto the prairies from the groves, and for hunting purposes. To hunt with fires, Native People would start a ring of fire sometimes a mile in diameter, and leave an unburned exit, through which game animals would be forced by the flames.
The fires also swept through the hardwood savanna areas, killing off brush and keeping the understory clear, while encouraging the growth of fire-tolerating trees and plants. Fires did a good job of creating lots of wooded edges that encouraged the deer and other animal populations.
The periodic burning, both natural and caused by man, largely created the prairie landscape found by the pioneers when they arrived. Over thousands of years, the plants and trees that grew on the prairies had come to not only tolerate, but to rely on fire. White oaks, for instance, are very fire resistant because of their thick bark and their high resistance to rotting after being scared by fire. In addition, they quickly grow after fires—fire actually helps some oak seedbeds sprout. On the other hand, many other species—maples, for instance—are very susceptible to fire damage.
While hardwood groves dotted the prairie, one extensive stretch of timber in particular caught the eye of many early mid-Fox Valley settlers.
From the location of today’s city of Batavia, all the way south to Waubonsie Creek in Oswego, a thick belt of maple, linden, oak, ash, and hickory provided an excellent source of timber, as well as protection from the prairie winds. In typical prosaic pioneer fashion, the settlers gave this huge stretch of woodland a simple and descriptive name. They called this big woods, the, well, “Big Woods.”
Not only did the settlers find welcome shelter among the hardwoods of the Big Woods, but so did the Native People who lived there before them. Chief Waubonsie, the principal war leader of the Prairie Potowatomi, located his permanent village in the western verge of the Big Woods, moving it often enough so that virtually every modern town up and down the Fox Valley from Oswego to Batavia can accurately claim to have been the site of the chief’s village at one time or another.
When the pioneers got here, they settled along the verge of the timber, locating their homes next to the woods and plowing fields in the nearby prairie. The Big Woods wasn’t regular in shape; it had many lobes that extended into the surrounding prairie, providing many protected areas where pioneers quickly established fields by plowing the native prairie with special “breaking plows,” designed to turn over the thick sod for the first time.
According to the original survey maps, the Big Woods stretched some miles east of the Fox River, almost to Naperville at the ford across the DuPage River. It then extended south all the way to Waubonsie Creek, where its southernmost lobe ended. As surveyor James Reed wrote in his notebook back on Aug. 8, 1838: “Mouth of Wabansia Creek 30 links [20 feet; a link was 7.92 inches] wide. North of creek land is timbered with white and Black oak. South of creek land is prairie and slopes gently to the river. The village of Oswego is located just below the mouth of the creek.”
The first thing the pioneers did when they arrived was start cutting down the Big Woods, along with most of the other stands of timber in the area. That initial wave of settlers was a timber-intensive bunch, requiring logs—and lots of them—to manufacture all those rail fences, build log homes and outbuildings, and supply firewood. According to James Sheldon Barber, an Oswego settler, writing back to his parents in New York State in 1843, a pioneer farm family needed 10 acres of timber to make a go of it on the Illinois frontier.
For early arrivals, that was no problem, but they quickly claimed the timberland for their own use. Some, however, bought timber stands with the intention of dividing it into smaller parcels to sell to later arrivals. That’s why you see some wooded areas on early plat maps divided into many small chunks.
The settlers used didn’t always require cutting trees down, of course. Maple sugaring in the spring was a popular and profitable activity that even left its name behind in the name of one of our area towns—Sugar Grove. Further, the breeds of hogs the settlers brought along were hardy, ornery animals that got along just fine browsing in the oak savannas that were relatively common during those early years, especially eating all the acorns produced by native oaks.
Eventually, the only remaining woods were in wetlands and other areas not farmed for one reason or another. And, in fact, remnants still remain today, including a nice stand at Cook’s Savannah in Oswego’s Old Post Park and such areas such as Briarcliff Woods Park and the Arbor Ridge Subdivision in Montgomery and in several other areas up and down the Fox Valley. Each of those oak savanna remnants is a reminder of the landscape the pioneers encountered when they decided to settle along the banks of the Fox River.
Okay, things got sort of discombobulated here at History Central early this year. What with COVID, my spouse’s knee replacement, and my own emergency pacemaker install, some important local history milestones got past me without notice or comment.
One of those milestones was the 100th birthday of the Kendall County Farm Bureau that rolled past in December 2019, with the group’s operational existence dated to early 1920.
Farm families once comprised the vast majority of Kendall County residents and agriculture was the county’s most successful business. While those days are past, the county’s land area is still mostly rural. Residents living, as I do, in the county’s three northernmost townships might not realize how rural our area of the state is. But all you have to do is drive a few minutes west on I-88 or U.S. Route 30, or southwest on Ill. Route 71 and you’ll be deep in corn and soybean fields that run all the way to the horizon no matter which direction you look.
But while there’s still a lot of farmland in Kendall County, its value as a percentage of the county’s total real estate valuations keeps declining as more and more land is turned to growing houses and businesses instead of crops. As late at 1988, farmland comprised more than 10 percent of the county’s property valuation. It now stands at less than one percent.
Nevertheless, farming is still a valuable industry in the county’s economy.
Back in the settlement era, of course, farming was the county’s primary industry, a situation that continued well into the 20th Century. And in order for farmers to succeed they required the efforts of not only themselves and their own families, but also those living in their neighborhoods.
The first informal farmer groups helped each other with barn and cabin raisings as pioneer families arrived. A settler could cut his own logs and get them to the building sites using his own teams of horses or oxen, but he needed assistance with the heavy work of raising beams and logs into place—something not easily be done by a single family.
Also at the beginning of Kendall County’s settlement, farmers had to band together for their very safety. The Black Hawk War of 1832 forced the county’s farmers and their families to flee to Ottawa or Walker’s Grove (Plainfield) as unfriendly Indians roamed the area. The militia companies that were subsequently recruited and serving until the end of the war were yet another, although more formal, example of pioneer farmer organizations.
Following the war, normal pioneer life resumed with the addition of another type of local organization: vigilantes. With the near-total lack of effective law enforcement on the frontier, citizen groups were required to protect individual farmers against stock thieves and highwaymen. The protective associations established during the settlement era—particularly the ones aimed at rustlers—continued their activities well into the late 19th Century.
Another common frontier farmer organization popped up when the vast majority of Kendall County’s U.S. Government land was up for sale in 1842. The settlers who arrived before that could not buy the land they squatted on. By treaties between the government at the Fox Valley’s Native People, the land couldn’t be sold until it was surveyed, the treaties reserving for the tribes’ use until the sales were held. The Indians, however, were removed from the Fox Valley by 1837, negating government promises that they would be able to hunt and fish on the land until it was sold.
While the Native People were gone by the time land sales took place, a far more dangerous species—the land speculator—was not. With the willing collusion of government officials, speculators would often buy the land that settlers had already improved and fenced and then sell it back to them for a profit.
A couple of governmental practices made the speculators‘ lot easy. While the land was inexpensive, going for only $1.25 an acre (even cheap in 1842), payment had to be made in gold, a very scarce commodity on the frontier of that era. Also, land sales were held at central federal land offices, and neither travel nor obtaining information on where and when sales would be held was easy in early Illinois.
So, in their own defense, farmers formed claim associations. A delegation of honest men was elected to buy the land, while another picked group, usually armed, intercepted and detained any speculators seen in the area. The resulting land was then divided up between those who were members of the association. According to early county histories, it was an effective tactic for Fox Valley settlers. And it’s why here in Oswego Township, Walter Loucks is listed as the first private seller of most of the township’s land following the government land sale. Loucks served as the designated buyer for much of the township, later transferring to those who were actually living on the claims.
As the 1840s progressed, the era of ad hoc farmer organizations began to be replaced by an era of more formal groups. In 1841, just one year before Kendall County’s land went on sale, The Prairie Farmernewspaper was established in Chicago. Published especially for the Prairie State’s farmers, the paper helped encourage them organize, for the first time, on a statewide basis.
Still, farmers proved an independent lot not much given to joining groups, even those that worked in farmers’ own best interests. But then came a severe financial crunch, the Panic of 1873, nicknamed The Long Depression. Farmers were primed to swing into action due to the nation’s railroads’ collusion on freight rates for grain and livestock, and high prices caused by industrial monopolies. As a result, farmers’ organizations such as the National Farmers Alliance and the Farmer’s Mutual Benefit Association popped up all over the nation.
Here in Kendall County, a Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Club was established in Millbrook in February 1873 to “work for the overthrow of monopolies in general and railroad monopolies in particular.” It is interesting to note that farmers were so upset that they were willing to work together with “mechanics,” the 19th Century term for factory and other non-farm workers to try to break the power of Big Business.
That led to establishing a Farmers’ Association of Kendall County in April 1873, and a “mass convention” May 23 in Yorkville. The immediate aim was to elect a farmers’ party circuit court judge, due to the courts obvious favoritism towards business interests. Much to the surprise of local Republicans, the farmers’ party’s candidate beat the party candidate.
Then in July, a formal political convention at Yorkville nominated an entire slate of local candidates—including the first woman candidate in county history—for the upcoming fall election. That prompted the local Republican Party to close ranks around their own candidates to defeat these proto-progressives. The 1873 convention proved the local group’s high water mark, but it also laid the groundwork for more organizing by farmers by emphasizing the importance of organizing to fight for their own interests.
One of the major results of this feeling of community among pioneer farmers was creation of one the first real farm organizations, the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange. There were Granges in Bristol, Na-Au-Say, Oswego, and Seward Townships in Kendall County. The organization became so popular that “granger” became synonymous with “farmer” for several years.
It might seem counterintuitive, but continual progress in farm mechanization encouraged the creation of farmer cooperative organizations. The harvest of small grains—wheat, oats, barley, and rye—was backbreaking and extremely labor intensive. It therefore became the target for inventors who created labor-saving machines to help with the tasks. The earliest harvesters cut the grain so farmers could bundle it by hand and then stack it to dry before threshing it by hand using flails to separate the grain from the stalks. Soon after, mechanical threshers were invented and by the 1870s, these machines—also called separators because they separated grain from hulls and stalks—were being powered by steam engines. Such threshing outfits, including a threshing machine, a steam traction engine, mobile water tank and coal wagon, were too expensive for most farmers to buy on their own. So farmers formed cooperatives to buy the equipment. The outfits would then travel around the neighborhood from farm to farm of stockholders in the cooperative to thresh their grain. Which was the origin of the name of these cooperatives: threshing rings.
By the early years of the 20th Century, however, big business and the growing influence of government in farmers’ lives again pointed to the need for real political influence on the part of farmers. In December 1913, the Illinois Agricultural Association was established to represent farmers in Springfield, but some had already begun calling the group the Farm Bureau.
Meanwhile here in Kendall County, local farmers were organizing their own local clubs to socialize and to encourage good farming practices. In April 1919, the Kendall County Record reported that “A meeting of the farmers of the neighborhood of Oswego was held at the home of Nate L. Pearce Thursday and an organization formed known as the Oswego Farmers Improvement and Social Club. The group, later renamed the East Oswego Progressive Farmers Club, was one of many established throughout the county.
And while the betterment of individual farmers was a laudable goal, there was also the sense that there was a growing need for an organization with actual political clout. In a July 23, 1919 letter to the editor of the Record, farmer W.F. Osborn complained that an effort by farmers to politically eliminate Daylight Savings Time had failed in Washington, D.C., and wondered whether it might not be time to start some sort of national farmers’ organization to represent farm interests.
As it turned out, such an organization was already in the works. In December 1913, the Illinois Agricultural Association was established to represent farmers’ interests before the General Assembly in Springfield. Shortly thereafter, some in Illinois had already begun calling the group the Farm Bureau. In November 1919, the name of the group—now affiliated nationally—became the American Farm Bureau Federation.
It was at that same time that interest in creating a farmers’ organization peaked in Kendall County. The Nov. 26, 1919 Record reported that: “The Kendall County Farm Bureau perfected a temporary organization last Wednesday and are preparing a drive for membership during December.”
On Dec. 10, the Record noted that a membership drive was about to begin, and encouraged all county farmers to join, explaining: “It is for mutual assistance among the men of the country in getting their rights.”
The organizing effort proved remarkably successful, probably driven by the farm depression then already gripping the nation. The Record reported on Dec. 24 that the formation of a Kendall County Farm Bureau was already assured: “The farmers of Kendall county made a move in the right direction last week when they organized into a permanent farm bureau for mutual benefit. The spirit with which the organization is made is commendable. There is no radical element in the local association whereby the benefits of the organization would be lost in an effort to revolutionize. Better market facilities, the demand for a superior grade of seed, the improvement in farm finances, and best of all, a farm adviser are some of the leading features for consideration.”
The organization began with 961 farmer members and quickly reached and then exceeded the one thousand mark. While encouraging membership, the Record was quick to note—possibly with the on-going Red Scare in mind—that the Farm Bureau was not some sort of radical organization: “It is not in the way of a labor union–it is not antagonistic to present day principles–it is for the good of the farmer,” Record Editor Hugh Marshall contended.
The organization elected its first slate of officers as well as an executive committee consisting of one member from each of the county’s nine townships.
There had been some pressure for Kendall to join with Kane County in a joint Farm Bureau, but the members at Kendall’s organizational meeting made it crystal clear they wanted no outsiders telling them what to do.
“The group also passed a resolution stating their unanimous opinion that Kendall County was able to protect her own integrity and would have nothing to do with the proposed merger with Kane County. This was passed with a whoop that showed that the feeling was unanimous,” the Record reported.
The new organization didn’t have to wait long before an important issue dropped in their laps. Railroads, long the bane of farmers, were again slowing the shipment of grain, something that had negative effects on both farmers and agribusinesses. The Jan. 7 Record reported on a critical shortage of rail cars for grain shipments: “Where the trouble is cannot be told. Mr. Hines of the railroads says that everything is in excellent condition but this condition contradicts any such statement. There’s a problem offered right here for the new Kendall County Farm Bureau and its larger associates. If the farmer wants to go to the bottom of the affair he will probably loosen up the grain cars, be able to ship his grain at a good price and taken an awful crack at the high cost of living all in one fell swoop.”
In March, the Kendall County Farm Bureau passed a major milestone when it hired its first professional farm advisor. Earl Price, the farm advisor in Saline County, agreed to move north to Kendall County to take the brand new job. Price, then 37, was born in Clearspring, Indiana and who was a graduate of Purdue University, took up residence in his new office in the Kendall County Courthouse.
Price’s first job was to conduct a livestock census of county farms on behalf of the state Farm Bureau with the aim of using statewide livestock figures to begin stabilizing prices for pork, beef, and poultry. In September Price helped organize a collective buying plan. The Kendall County Cooperative Buying Agency began with the cooperation of virtually all the grain elevator concerns and cooperatives in the county.
Under Price’s leadership, the Farm Bureau also worked to introduce the concept of fertilizing fields with phosphates and surveying farm labor costs. “A survey of the cost of labor in Kendall County for last year being made by the Farm Bureau indicates an average of about $63 for single men and $75 for married men per month,” the Record reported on Jan. 12, 1921.
As the “Roaring ‘20s” proceeded, the nation’s farm economy was in danger of collapse. The post-World War I farm depression was in full swing by 1924, when the Farm Bureau called a meeting in Chicago attended by representatives from 88 of the state’s local bureaus.
“The result was that the farm bureau men unanimously endorsed and approved the McNary-Haugen bill for the relief of agriculture and demanded that Illinois members of Congress earnestly and actively support this measure,” the Record reported on March 14, 1924. The McNary–Haugen Farm Relief Act was a plan to subsidize American agriculture by raising domestic farm product prices. Co-authored by Charles L. McNary (R-Oregon) and Gilbert N. Haugen (R-Iowa), the bill called for the U.S. Government to buy wheat and store it or export it at a loss to prop up prices. Despite strong opposition from business, the bill passed Congress twice, but was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge.
Despite low prices caused by over-production, Coolidge, and later Herbert Hoover, championed modernizing farming by encouraging more mechanization and rural electrification—which would have created even more surpluses, further depressing prices. Not until Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 were farmers made the beneficiaries of effective government assistance by reducing surpluses and increasing the market.
Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the Farm Bureau championed a number of political issues of importance to farmers, including eliminating farm owners’ responsibility to maintain township and county roads in favor of gasoline taxes.
In 1926, Price resigned as farm advisor to go into the poultry business in Yorkville and was replaced by young M.H. Watson in January 1927. Watson lost no time throwing the Farm Bureau’s support behind the plan to pave Ill. Route 47 from Yorkville south to Morris. The state had already begun paving the section of the road from Dwight to Morris, and completing it from Morris north to Yorkville would be of great benefit to everyone living along the route local residents contended.
As Record Editor Marshall pointed out on May 11, 1927, “It is not Kendall county alone to be benefited by the Route 47 connection; it is the entire farming belt which extends from Champaign county to the Wisconsin line. Twenty-one state highways are intersected by Route 47, and we are for it.”
Ironically, the Crash of 1929 that initiated the Great Depression really didn’t have much of an impact on farmers, since the farm depression had been going on with no relief for a decade. But as the 1930s ground on, conditions continued to worsen for the county’s agricultural community. Drought; infestations by voracious chinch bugs, grasshoppers, and armyworms; and the continuing economic calamity had a continuing and increasing impact. By 1933, conditions had grown so desperate with so many farms and businesses being lost due to unpaid taxes and mortgages that residents were banding together to protect each other.
In early February, the Record reported that “Pledge cards are being circulated throughout Kendall county reading as follows: ‘As a citizen of the United States and a believer in justice to all alike, I pledge that I will give my moral and physical support that no person in financial distress shall be unreasonably troubled.’ it is reported that over 700 such cards have already been signed by farmers in this county and that more are being signed every day.”
The Record went on to predict that more than 2,000 farmers and other residents would take the pledge to help protect property from being seized due to tax and other debts during the drive organized by a group calling itself the Kendall County Farmers’ and Business Men’s Protective Association.
Later that month in a letter to the Record’s editor, Illinois Governor Henry Horner noted: “Many of our citizens are face to face with the prospect of losing their farms and their homes and suffering a still further decrease in their earning capacity… I therefore appeal, in this emergency, to all holders of mortgages on Illinois real estate and personal property, whether residents of Illinois or elsewhere, whether corporations or individuals, to use the utmost forbearance in foreclosing on mortgages upon farms, homes, and chattels when the farm or home owner is in such desperate financial circumstances that he is actually unable to pay.”
It seems Horner’s plea had little impact locally. Banks continued to foreclose and the properties were sold at sheriff’s sales, often with insurance and other companies buying them for less than the debts against them, leaving farmers and business owners with no means to pay off the balance owed on the loans. Locally, the situation came to a head in late February 1933 when a sheriff’s sale of a farm was scheduled.
“The courthouse in Yorkville appeared to be in a state of siege Thursday morning when farmers of this county gathered to prevent the sale of the August Wollenweber farm south of town on such terms as would allow for the entering of a deficiency judgment,” the Record reported in its March 1 edition. More than 750 farmers had gathered to make sure Wollenweber, a well-liked and prominent farmer, would be treated fairly—an astonishing occurrence in normally staid and law abiding Kendall County. Seeing the crowd and gauging its mood, the lone bidder, the Life and Casualty Agency of Chicago, met with officers of the Farmers’ and Business Men’s Protective Association (most of whom were also members of the Kendall County Farm Bureau) immediately before bidding began. When Kendall County Sheriff Martin N. Hextell called for bids, Life and Casualty’s representative, Chicago attorney J. Edgar Kelly, made the only offer—at the agreed price to satisfy the entire outstanding loan against the farm. Wollenweber was given 15 months to arrange refinancing. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that violence had been averted, and Kelly was relieved to get out of Yorkville with his skin intact because the gathered farmers left no question about whether they were ready to use force to stop the sale if necessary.
Even as the county’s assessed value of farmland continued to plummet due to the Depression—it decreased by 10 percent in 1932 alone—the Farm Bureau continued to assist farmers with everything from combating chicken thieves to trying to keep chinch bug infestations from destroying crops. It also continued to be a leader as the nation’s floundering economy struck hard in Kendall County. In May 1933, the Record reported that: “Farmers, bankers, and business men of Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office Friday evening and elected a county conciliation committee to help debtors and creditors settle farm debt problems.”
As if the chaos caused by the Great Depression wasn’t bad enough, the nationwide drought had spurred an infestation of voracious chinch bugs that, in those pre-insecticide days, could devastate a grain field in a day. As the plague grew, the Farm Bureau stepped up its efforts to teach farmers how to protect fields from the bugs’ attack. The method involved plowing a deep furrow around a field of grain and then dragging a wooden fence post through the furrow to loosen dirt on its sides. Then deep postholes were dug every rod (16 feet) or so in the furrow. The bugs, as long as they hadn’t developed into their flying stage yet, would fall into the furrow. The loose dirt would keep them from climbing back out, so they’d turn and walk one way or the other along the furrow until falling into one of the postholes. When the postholes were nearly filled, farmers would pour fuel oil or kerosene in and light them off incinerating the bugs.
Those who lived through that era said they’d never forget the stench of burning chinch bugs that filled the air all over northern Illinois.
The June 14, 1933 Record reported: “According to Farm Advisor Miller chinch bugs are plentiful in most parts of Kendall county. At present they are most abundant in barley and the young brood is just beginning to hatch. The old bugs are now dying and it is the young ones that will go into the corn when the small grain is cut. Farmers should be on their guard at harvest time so as to protect their cornfields by making barriers. Further information may be secured at the Farm Bureau office.”
The federal government provided considerable fuel oil to incinerate chinch bugs, but by July, that had run out. To fill the gap, the State of Illinois began providing free creosote to farmers to burn the bugs. The Record reported a rail car a day was arriving in Yorkville daily with free creosote, with distribution organized by the Farm Bureau.
Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau was also working on concert with federal, state, and local officials to combat the effect of debt on town and country alike. The Record reported in May 1933: “Farmers, bankers, and business men of Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office Friday evening and elected a county conciliation committee to help debtors and creditors settle farm debt problems. This committee is in accordance with the suggestion of Gov. Horner.
And we can’t forget the dust storms caused by the on-going drought. They didn’t just afflict Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. They also swept through the Midwest eroding soils and causing untold damage. The Nov. 15, 1933 Record reported on a particularly nasty dust storm that had struck the Fox Valley the previous weekend: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”
If all that wasn’t bad enough, June 1937, a plague of grasshoppers and armyworms struck the Midwest. In Kendall County, the Farm Bureau arranged the distribution of government-supplied and developed poison good for combating both destructive pests.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course. In amongst all the natural and economic devastation, the Farm Bureau found time to champion growing soybeans as a new cash crop and persuading farmers to switch from open pollinated corn to hybrids. By the time the Farm Bureau held their 1939 meeting, Farm Advisor Miller could report that Kendall County farmers had nearly all switched to planting hybrid corn.
Shortly before then, it had become clear the Kendall County Farm Bureau had out-grown its courthouse office space and badly needed its own building to house its growing number of programs. In July 1937, word spread that the organization was interested in property on Van Emmon Street in Yorkville as the site of a permanent building.
“The building will consist of a basement and two stories. The basement will house the cold storage locker plant,” the Record reported on July 21. “The main floor will be devoted to the offices of the organization, while the second floor will be a meeting room.”
In those days before home freezers were common, locker plants were popular in small towns all over the country. Farmer members of the Farm Bureau could rent locker space where they could store their own frozen meat and vegetables instead of canning them. As the Record helpfully explained: “The meat is brought to the cold storage locker plant immediately after it is butchered, where it is stored in the chill room at a temperature of 35 degrees for a few days until it is thoroughly chilled. It is then cut in pieces of suitable size for table use, wrapped in a specially prepared paper, and stamped with the number of the locker and the cut of meat. It is then placed in the freezer at a temperature of zero or below where it is immediately frozen and then placed in the locker rented by the individual, where it is kept at a temperature of 15 above zero.”
I remember going to the locker plant with my parents when I was around five years old—before my grandparents bought each of their children huge chest-type International Harvester deep freezes—and watching them wrap beef and pork from our own cattle and hogs in some of that special paper. It always impressed me as a wonderful place to live, especially when we went there on hot summer days to get a week’s worth of meat to take back to our farm.
With their own building, which opened in the early spring of 1938, the Farm Bureau could offer even more programs to educate farmers and their families. 4-H clubs got their start there, as did the county’s Home Bureau, an educational program to teach farm women how to safely harvest, preserve, and cook food, along with many other skills.
My mother was an avid Home Bureau member who came away from those courses with two bedrock convictions: Pressure cookers will blow up and kill you, and mayonnaise will quickly spoil and kill you. So I grew up with water bath canners and the presumably less lethal Miracle Whip—that my mother always called salad dressing.
Today, Farm Bureau membership is a shadow of its old self—mostly because farming in Kendall County is a shadow of its old self—although it continues to effectively serve the county’s farming community. 4-H is still as popular as ever, and the Farm Bureau continues to advocate for farmers and farm issues at the local, state, and national levels. The Home Bureau, which got its start back in 1938, is still functioning just fine as the Association for Home and Community Education.
The Farm Bureau’s building, brand new in 1938, on Van Emmon Street in Yorkville is vacant now awaiting repurposing as these modern times have demanded a leaner organization to serve the farm community’s modern issues, right along with some of the same ones they’ve been dealing with since the group was established back in December 1919. The Kendall County Farm Bureau itself has now changed, merging with the Grundy County Farm Bureau in 2019 to form a new combined organization. The new Kendall-Grundy Farm Bureau is headquartered in Morris.
Even with all the modern changes, the Farm Bureau remains an organization whose local ties go right back to those cabin and barn raising groups, the stock protective associations, and the claim associations that protected and promoted farmers’ interests so long ago.
I was going through some family stuff the other day and came across a small pocket notebook. Perforated Memo-Pad said the cover. When I opened it, I recognized my maternal grandmother’s handwriting right away.
It turned out to be a short travel log my grandmother kept during a trip to a family reunion in Abilene, Kansas in August 1934.
The date alone carries a lot of historical baggage. At that time, my grandparents were farming out on what’s now called 127th Street in Will County’s Wheatland Township. They’d moved to the farm they rented from Louis and Margaret McLaren in 1920, leaving behind town life to give my grandmother—a farm girl born and bred—peace of mind away from quarreling in-laws. My grandfather, a city kid, agreed to take up a rural lifestyle to make my grandmother happy and to get away from his own quarreling relations.
They made a go of it, with my grandfather not only farming but also working as the steam engineer for the local threshing ring and working at his craft of carpentry building and repairing farm buildings.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the nation began suffering through years of severe drought. After the Civil War, railroad companies, with the added lure of the Homestead Act of 1862, had drawn thousands of farmers to move to the vast shortgrass prairies of the Dakotas, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas with promises of cheap—even free—land. And in the 1870s and 1880s the region received sufficient rain to produce good crops. But then came the post-war farm depression, drought, insect infestations, and then to top it all off, the Great Depression.
By 1934, the nation had about hit rock bottom in economic and ecological terms. Corn was selling so cheaply that farmers were burning it in their cookstoves and furnaces rather than pay to haul it to market. And that was here in the normally productive land east of the Mississippi. The farmers who had been lured to the western prairies had put millions of acres under cultivation that, with the loss of the natural prairie grass cover, turned into a dried up wasteland thanks to extreme drought and nonexistent land management. The resulting dust storms ravaged not only that region, but also extended east of the Mississippi right into northern Illinois.
As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 15, 1933: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”
As bad as conditions were, however, my Pennsylvania German family managed to keep going. The farm relatives our extended family all pitched in to help each other, and also helped out relatives that lived in town. My mother said that while no one seemed to have any cash money, none of our relatives ever went hungry.
And right through the worst years of the Great Depression our extended family continued to hold their annual family reunion. The sixth annual reunion was held on Sunday, Sept. 10, 1933 at the Isaac Lantz farm in Wheatland Township with 85 family members attending. During the reunion’s business meeting, Reuben Stark, a cousin visiting from Kansas, was prevailed upon to give a few remarks.
Back in the 1880s when the railroads were trying so hard to lure farmers to those shortgrass prairies west of the Mississippi, four of my great-grandfather’s adult siblings decided to take them up on it and head west. During a period of a couple years brothers Isaac, a widower and Jacob Lantz and his wife Belle; and sisters Betsy and her husband Christian Schaal and Sarah and her husband Isrial Stark and most of their children headed west to farm on the Kansas plains.
It may have been those remarks from Isrial Stark’s son, Reuben, at the 1933 family reunion that gave my grandparents the idea to head west to attend the family reunion the Kansas Lantzes were planning to hold in late August 1934. Not that it would have taken much to persuade them to take a road trip. Both my grandparents loved seeing what was over the next hill. And with the threshing done for the season, my grandfather was free until the corn harvest began. Whatever the reason, they packed their car, loaded up food for the trip, and headed over to Plainfield to pick up U.S. Route 66.
By the mid-1930s, Route 66, stretching from Chicago west through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending in Santa Monica, California, had become known as both “The Mother Road” and “The Main Street of America.” Especially from Oklahoma and Kansas west, the road by the ‘30s was full of emigrants fleeing drought, dust storms, and grasshopper and chinch bug infestations.
It was also the easiest road for the first leg of the route from my grandparents’ farm just west of Plainfield, Illinois to Abilene, Kansas where the Kansas branch of the Lantz family’s reunion was to be held.
My grandmother didn’t drive, so that chore was up to my grandfather. My grandmother reported they got on the road promptly at 7 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 24, 1934 and drove the first four-hour leg to Bloomington, Illinois. Getting there at 11:15, they stopped for gas and decided to invest 10-cents in a watermelon for lunch instead of wasting time stopping to cook anything. Then it was back on the road until another stop at Sherman, just north of the state capital at Springfield, Illinois, for ice cream cones to cope with the August heat.
At St. Louis, they left The Mother Road and headed more west of south making for the road to Lawrence, Kansas, the college town just west of Kansas City. These days, it’s an easy three-hour drive from St. Louis to Lawrence on Interstate-70. Not so in 1934. They finally stopped for the night at Mexico, Missouri and rented a cabin in a motor court.
They hit the road at 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, aiming for my grandmother’s cousins’ home at Lawrence, Kansas. Adam Schaal was my grandmother’s first cousin, the son of my great-grandfather’s sister, Elizabeth Ann “Betsy” Lantz Schaal. Even though two-thirds of my great-great grandparents’ adult children had left for Kansas in the 1880s, the two branches maintained relatively close contact. The plan was for my grandparents to stay whenever possible at relatives’ homes—usually my grandmother’s first cousins—to keep those family ties strong. It was a full day’s drive to Lawrence; they didn’t arrive until 5:30 p.m. “Stayed all night. Good visit,” my grandmother reported.
On Sunday morning everyone got up early and had a good breakfast before my grandparents hit the road again at 7 a.m. for the drive to Abilene.
I don’t know if she saw the poem somewhere at Adam Schaal’s or whether she made it up herself, but on the next page is a short verse that pretty much described my grandmother’s outlook on life all the years I knew her:
Not anything should I destroy,
Which others may for good enjoy;
Not even tread beneath my feet
A crumb some little bird might eat.
On modern Interstate 70, it’s about an hour and forty minute drive from Lawrence to Abilene. No such luck back in 1934. My grandfather made the drive from Lawrence to the park in Abilene where the reunion was to be held by noon and in time for the fine potluck dinner. They sat with and visited with another of grandmother’s Kansas cousins, Willard “Will” Stark. Will was the son of Isrial and Sarah Lantz Stark. Sarah was my great-grandfather’s sister and another aunt of my grandmother.
After the reunion they were invited out in the country to Reuben “Rube” Stark’s farm to stay the night, Rube being Will’s brother.
On Monday they apparently slept in because they didn’t get on the road until 9 a.m. that morning. They drove into Abilene for a visit and dinner with Wallace “Wall” Stark and his daughter, Nellie. Wall’s wife, Anna, had died in 1921 and Nellie was keeping house for her dad. Then it was back out in the country to the farm of yet another cousin, Richard and his wife, Jennie, Stark, to stay the evening before starting on the meandering road home.
Since my grandmother was determined to visit as many cousins as possible, my grandfather set his course to the southeast from Abilene to Herington, Kansas, where they had dinner (always the noon meal in those days and in those places) with Grandma’s first cousin, Pearl Stark Taylor and her husband, George. Then it was back on the road southeast to Emporia, where, just south of town, they arrived at William Matile’s farm. He was my father’s father and was still farming what they all called The Home Place just south of town. Two years later, he’d lease a Santa Fe boxcar, load all of his farm machinery, his draft horse teams, his daughter and her children, and John and Henry, his two sons, aboard and move to northern Illinois where his son, my father, was farming. But for now, he welcomed his son’s in-laws to stay the night.
As my grandmother put it, “Arrived at Matile’s at 5 o’clock…ate supper, had a good night’s sleep, ate breakfast, and left for Chanute at 9:30 a.m.”
On the way to Chanute, they were driving along U.S. Route 75 somewhere between Gridley and Yates Center when they had a blowout—a not infrequent hazard of travel in those days before tubeless radial tires. But Grandpa fixed it quickly and they got back on the road, stopping at a one-room school just outside Yate’s Center for a picnic lunch. The rural schools of the era, when not in session, were perfect picnic locations since they always had outhouses, a well with a hand pump, and some handy shade trees to sit under out of the sun.
They got to the house of Peter Schaal—another of Christian and Betsy Lantz Schaal’s sons—in Chanute in time for a nice visit and supper. Then it was out to the farm of 26 year-old Ora Cheney to stay the night. Ora’s mother, Margaret, was another of Grandmother’s cousins through the Schaal family.
The next morning after breakfast, Grandpa and Grandma said their good-byes and hit the road back to northern Illinois. Leaving at 9:30 a.m., they drove to Mountain Grove, Missouri, where they rented a cabin in a tourist court for the night. The next day, they put 290 more miles on the odometer driving to Carbondale in southern Illinois where they stayed in another tourist court cabin. From there, it was a long drive north through Illinois, and it was pretty clear Grandma had about had it with auto travel on 1930s roads in a 1930s automobile. “Rode all day with an awful back ache,” she commented in her travel diary.
They pulled into their driveway at 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening, Sept. 8, 1934 after a 383-mile drive up virtually the entire length of Illinois. Through the years that have passed since that September evening in 1934, I can almost hear my grandmother say, with her ghost of a Pennsylvania Dutch accent, “Ya, it was a nice trip, but I was glad to get back home and sleep in my own bed.”
The trip was interesting both for what my grandparents did and when they did it. Driving through some parts of the country that were hardest hit by the Depression, as well as the natural disasters that were occurring, must have offered sobering sights and sounds for my grandparents. The members of the extended Lantz family that headed west in the 1880s were relatively prosperous farmers and it seems they were still managing despite the nation’s economic troubles, even in the disastrous year of 1934. It’s also interesting that my grandparents had enough money to make the trip in the midst of the Great Depression and to stay in tourist court cabins to boot.
For me, my grandmother’s tiny trip diary offers a glimpse at what my family was doing 86 years ago and what their lives were like.
Last week, women had a prominent role in the Democratic National Convention and it looks as if they will also have a substantial role in this week’s Republican National Convention.
While women are now playing an important role in today’s politics, it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t until August 1920—just a century ago this month—that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and women were finally granted the right to vote in all elections—local, state, and national. And so, women and women’s organizations across the nation are marking the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage in the United States.
What many probably do not realize is that here in Illinois, women had the right to vote, for at least some local and state offices, several years before the rest of the U.S. got up to speed.
It might seem strange to us today that half of the adult citizens of the U.S. and all of the talent they had to offer were once disenfranchised, but that was indeed the case until the 19th Amendment was finally passed.
In frontier areas, however, the idea of women being able to vote was apparently a little easier to swallow than in the settled East, where religious bigotry had long resulted in women’s political and economic subjugation. As the frontier moved west, first across the Appalachians into the old Northwest Territory, of which Illinois was once part, and then across the Mississippi, the importance of women continued to grow.
While they couldn’t vote, women could become property owners on the frontier, something that began to earn them political influence. Here in Kendall County, for instance, a number of single women and their families settled on the prairie. When Kendall County’s land was offered for sale by the federal government, 23 women purchased 29 parcels in the county. Abby Bulloch purchased the largest amount—400 acres in today’s Lisbon Township—in 1836.
Women’s land purchases in the county weren’t limited to the early settlement era, either. In 1854, Nancy Hogsett Elliott, a widow with four sons and two daughters, determined to move west from Indianapolis to a place with more opportunity. Elliott eventually settled here in the Fox River Valley where she raised her children and carved a living out of the rolling prairie that then made up Kendall County.
When their men had to be absent during that pioneer era, it was up to frontier women to look after things until they returned. When Capt. David Beebe decided to sail to California, joining the “Forty-Niners” looking for gold, his wife, Nancy Steward Beebe, stayed behind in North Ridge, Ohio where she ran the couple’s farm and looked after their children until David’s planned return from the gold fields. Unfortunately, he did not make it home, but died during his return trip and was buried at sea.
Mrs. Beebe was a determined woman who apparently never let her gender get in the way of her aims in life or doing what she considered was right. While the family lived in Ohio, she served as a postmaster and was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. After moving to Kendall County with her second husband to join her sons and her brother, Lewis Steward, she wrote poetry, was active in the Underground Railroad here helping escaped slaves get to freedom in Canada, and was an organizer of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
So maybe it was because of that strong streak Western women developed that the right to vote—in some elections, at least—came early in Illinois. The extreme financial problems of the 1870s prompted all kinds of activism, including that on behalf of women. Down in Springfield, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife had been working hard on women’s suffrage, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. The strange result was that while women couldn’t vote for themselves, for the first time they could be elected to local political office.
By that summer, the devastating Panic of 1873—also known as The Long Depression—was in full swing and feelings in rural and urban areas alike was running high against those blamed for the financial troubles. On July 4, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville that generated support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ political convention at Yorkville that approved a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests. “We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”
The convention was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third party, but the majority favoring it. The upshot was the nomination of an entire county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority. Taking into account the new law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.
Incumbent county school superintendent John R. Marshall, who was also the editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s paper of record, perceiving the winds of change might have begun blowing, gingerly congratulated Chittenden: “Miss Chittenden, I don’t know but she is an excellent lady—all ladies are excellent—and would doubtless would make an excellent Sueprintendress.”
He needn’t have worried, however, because she subsequently declined the nomination. Even so, Chittenden’s nomination established a new political first for Kendall County women.
Agitation for women’s suffrage continued and in 1891, Illinois women were given, for the first time, the right to vote for school board members or any other school official except the state superintendent of public instruction and the county superintendent of schools. Women were not allowed to vote for the state and county superintendents because those offices were specifically enumerated in the 1870 Illinois Constitution, which made no mention of allowing women to vote.
As a result of that legal ruling, while women could vote for school board members and other locally elected school officials whose offices were not mentioned in the constitution, they could not cast ballots on any educational propositions, such as tax rate referendums.
Locally, women wasted no time in taking up the franchise. At the election for Oswego Township School Trustees on April 9, 1892, Mrs. Mary Frances (Porter) Hunt, wife of Oswego businessman and politician John B. Hunt, may have become the first woman in Kendall County to vote for a school official.
That was only the beginning. When local school board elections were held a week later, women all over Kendall County not only voted, but helped elect two of their number to previously all-male boards. In balloting on April 16, voters in Oswego elected Florence K. Read to the Oswego School District 4 Board, while in Newark, the unmarried Martha Olson soundly beat Will Manchester for a school board seat, 26-16.
“Six ladies cast their first ballot and are pleased that a lady so worthy in every respect and well qualified for a position was elected school director by a good majority,” wrote Julia Hull, the Record’s Newark correspondent.
In 1894, the Illinois Suffragette Convention persuaded state officials to allow women to hold the kinds of school offices for which they could vote. That year, Lucy Flower, a well-known social worker of the time, became the first woman to hold statewide office here in the Prairie State when she was elected as a trustee of the University of Illinois.
Then in 1913, Illinois women were given the right to vote for any elected official whose office could be abolished by the General Assembly. The rationale was, again, that those offices were not mentioned in the state constitution and so were fair game for the female underclass.
Suffragists in New York State got behind an effort to pass a Constitutional amendment to allow women to vote in 1917 and then in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for women’s suffrage. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in early June 1919 and sent it to the states for their approval. And on June 10, 1919, Illinois won a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Michigan to be the first states to ratify the amendment, allowing women to vote for all state and national offices.
Just a few months before the General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment, long-time Kendall County Circuit Clerk Avery Beebe died following years of illness. The county board, with the enthusiastic support of Circuit Court Judge Mazzini Slusser—one of the great local historical names of all time—appointed Beebe’s popular assistant, 34 year-old Frances Lane, as clerk pro tempore. Lane’s grandparents settled in Kendall County in 1837. Her father, Charles E. Lane, was an itinerate journalist, and Frances was born in Kansas. Her father later returned to Illinois, where, among other jobs, he managed the Kendall County Record. Frances graduated from Yorkville High School in 1902 and taught school for several years before Beebe tapped her for his assistant clerk.
In March 1920, Lane announced her candidacy for clerk—permitted under the 1913 legislation—much to the chagrin of Earl Weeks, who had announced for the office in February. In a letter to the editor of the Record, Weeks suggested Lane was not permitted to run for clerk. In the March 31, 1920 Record, Aurora attorney John M. Raymond, himself a Kendall County native, and Lane herself made spirited rebuttals to Weeks’ charges.
As a Record columnist dryly observed that same week: “When the efficient little clerk pro tempore of the circuit court announced her candidacy for the office of clerk she surely started something upon which every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks he is eminently qualified to pass a judicial opinion.”
It was a short-lived controversy, however. Weeks dropped out and Lane, “the efficient little clerk pro tempore” won the uncontested GOP primary and with it the general election in rock-ribbed Republican Kendall County becoming the county’s first female elected county official.
With Lane’s example and the 19th Amendment on their side, Kendall County women didn’t waste much time running for other local offices. In the April 1922 primary election, Ella D. Hill won the Republican nomination for county treasurer over popular former sheriff Martin Hextell, 1,495 votes to 1,316. In those days, just like Lane’s election, the winner of the Republican primary was assured success in the general election.
Two years later, in 1924, Louetta B. Davis won the April Republican primary election for Circuit Court Clerk. She, also, went on to win election the following November.
Then in 1926, Laura Nichols handily won the GOP nomination for Kendall County Treasurer over male candidates Frank Crum and Frank Weber. Nichols polled 1,402 ballots to 1,006 for Crum and 464 for Weber.
While lots of women served as school board members and local officials, it took many more years before females were trusted enough to be elected to statewide office. In 1955, Mrs. Earle Benjamin Searcy of Springfield was appointed to fill the unexpired term of her late husband as State Supreme Court Clerk. Mrs. Searcy was subsequently elected to the post, the first women to serve in a statewide office in Illinois.
Other women, however, had been elected to other positions of power before that. For instance, Winifred Mason Huck of Chicago was elected Congressman-at-large in 1922 to replace her father, William E. Mason, who had died. Lottie Holman O’Neill of Downers Grove was the first elected female member of the General Assembly, with the voters sending her to the house in 1922. She served until 1964, with terms both in the Illinois House and Senate.
Today, with numerous female office-holders at the local, state and federal levels, we take women in politics so much for granted that it looks as if Kamala Harris has a good chance of becoming the first Vice-President of the United States. It is sobering to recall that within the lifespan of some Kendall County residents, women were forbidden to vote for those who were making decisions that affected their very lives.
When his secretary informed him the missionaries from the western frontier had arrived for their appointment during that summer of 1824, we can only guess what U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun expected.
What Calhoun actually got when Jesse Walker strode into the room was a bluff, powerfully built man whose complexion had been weathered during a lifetime spent outdoors, both working at his trade as a tanner and hide dresser, as well as on horseback laboring at his vocation as one of the best-known itinerant frontier missionaries.
On a trip that spanned three months, Walker had ridden east on horseback from his post along the Mississippi River at St. Louis to the Methodist-Episcopal Church National Conference at Baltimore. On the journey, he’d been accompanied by another pioneer circuit rider, Thomas A. Morris, a delegate from the Kentucky Conference.
The man Calhoun greeted was plainly dressed in the manner of frontier missionaries of the era in plain, sturdy pants, coat and vest of wool with a white cravat at his neck, carrying his distinctive large light-colored beaver felt hat that was “nearly as large as a lady’s umbrella,” Morris recalled of his traveling companion.
Walker‘s proposition for Calhoun: If the government contributed part of the cost, the Methodists’ Illinois Conference would establish a school among the related members of the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes living along the Illinois and Fox rivers of Illinois. The mission would include a blacksmith shop and a corn mill to grind grain into flour. Not only would Indian children be taught the English language, as well as the Methodist gospel, Walker said, but also their parents would be instructed in the “civilized arts” of farming.
Calhoun probably figured it was good bargain. With it, the government would obtain professional services that had been promised in various treaties for the tribes at little expense. Meanwhile the Methodists would get funding to establish a mission with the aim of converting Native Americans to Christianity in general and Methodism in particular.
Satisfied, Walker returned to Illinois where he set to work to create a permanent Illinois River Valley mission. His first attempt was at the old French village of Peoria near Fort Clark on the Illinois River. Walker and his wife, Susannah Webly Walker, opened a mission school that attracted only six Native American youngsters. Walker soon realized the Peoria mission was located too far south of the main population of the tribes he was trying to serve.
So early in the spring of 1825, Walker, in the company of John Hamlin and six others, rowed their Mackinaw boat up the Illinois and then the DesPlaines River to Chicago to scout new mission locations. During the trip, Walker became the first Methodist to hold services at Chicago.
After returning, the Walkers and five other families traveled up the Illinois above Starved Rock to the mouth of the Fox River where they established a small settlement and mission school—the seed around which modern Ottawa would grow. Some 14 Native American students were soon attending classes at the new mission school. But that site, too, proved too distant from the bulk of the area’s Indian population which was living farther north. At that point, Chief Shabbona and a fur trader and interpreter of mixed Pottawatomie and French Canadian blood named George Forquier (also spelled Furkee), volunteered to help. Shabbona was born an Ottawa but had become an influential chief of the Potawatomi people living within the Three Fires Confederacy. The Confederacy was comprised of groups of Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi who shared both cultural and family ties.
Shabbona, Walker, and Forquier explored 20 miles up the east bank of the Fox River until they found a grove with a good spring. There, on the site of what soon became the Fox River Mission, Walker drove his claim stakes. It included all of Section 15 in Township 35, Range 5 of LaSalle County, later named Mission Township in honor of Walker’s activities.
That October in 1825, Walker reported about the proposed mission site: “The place is about one hundred miles above Fort Clark [at Peoria], about twenty miles north of the Illinois River, between it and Fox River. The soil is very good, timber plenty, and the spot well watered.”
The following year he reported to his superiors that work on the mission was proceeding: “I have built a house for the accommodation of the family, which consists of eighteen persons.” The large two-story log house measured 20 x 50 feet.
“A smith’s shop, a convenience that I could not dispense with, situated as I was, so remote from the settlements of the whites; a poultry house, springhouse, and other conveniences,” completed the mission, he reported. He said he had 40 acres in crops, seven in fenced pasture, and a one-acre garden.
“Hitherto everything has been attended with much hardship, hunger, cold and fatigue; and the distance which we have to transport everything has made it expensive; but with regard to the settlement, the greatest obstacles are overcome, and a few more years’ labour will furnish a comfortable home and plenty,” he told his Methodist superiors, adding, “The school consists of 15 Indian children, 7 males and 8 females, and two teachers. I am encouraged with the prospect of considerable acquisitions to the school this fall.”
In the missionary venture, Walker was assisted by his wife; his nephew who was also his son-in-law, James Walker, who brought along a horse-powered grain mill; James Walker’s wife, Jane, Jesse’s daughter, who became the teacher at the mission school, and all their children.
The missionaries’ spirits were more than willing, but the local Indians proved infertile ground for mission work—the idea of original sin was often a non-starter with Native People. And besides that, the promised government funding never arrived. Amid rumors the local tribes were to be removed west of the Mississippi, the Illinois Conference decided to close the mission down by 1829. Then to finish the venture off, all the buildings were burned by Indians in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.
Although its life was brief, the mission nevertheless was well-known among early Illinois settlers. When Galena businessman J.G. Stoddard decided to try shipping a ton and a half of lead overland to Chicago in 1829, the expedition aimed to cross the Fox River at Walker’s mission, probably hoping the blacksmith there could make any necessary repairs. Unfortunately, by the time Stoddard’s wagons got there, the mission had closed.
Then in 1831, John Kinzie and his wife, Juliette, traveled from Kinzie’s fur trade post at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin across Illinois to Chicago. Kinzie’s party also aimed to strike the Fox River near Walker’s mission, but they never made it due to poor navigation by their supposedly experienced guide. Instead, the encountered the Fox River just below modern Oswego, well north of the old mission.
After closing down the mission, James and Jane Walker established Walker’s Grove along the DuPage River (the nucleus around which Plainfield eventually formed) while Jesse Walker continued riding his circuit.
Walker’s wife, Susannah, died in 1832 and was buried at Plainfield. Mostly retired, Walker died in 1835 at his farm located where Grand Avenue crosses the DesPlaines River in modern River Grove.
In 1850, Walker’s remains were moved to the Plainfield Cemetery, where he was reburied in the same casket as Susannah. A fine monument that was dedicated there in 1911 gives a brief account of Walker’s fascinating career and hints at his importance in the settlement of northern Illinois.
At the order of Gov. J.B. Pritzger, Illinois remains somewhat hunkered down these days as the medical profession and biologists try to figure out how to handle the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2—shortened to COVID-19—pandemic sweeping the world.
Here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley, towns up and down the river issued shelter in place orders last spring, businesses (except for those deemed essential) were closed along with most governmental agencies including schools, park districts, museums, and libraries, and the only reason most people left home was to get groceries or visit the drug store. Things have begun to loosen up a bit, but as they’ve done so, cases have started on an upward trend line once again, making the area’s financial recovery problematical in the near future.
Serious disease outbreaks were fairly common around these parts back during the settlement era, a situation that lasted well into the 20th Century. In the early days, nobody knew what caused the periodic outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, or the ever-present ague—which we know today as malaria.
But when it came to actually killing our pioneer ancestors, the big three diseases were cholera, typhoid, and smallpox.
Illinois’ earliest cholera outbreak happened in 1832 as the U.S. Army responded to the Black Hawk War. Troops brought west on the Great Lakes had picked up the disease along the way, and were dying even as they arrived. When Gen. Winfield Scott arrived at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn with his infected soldiers, most settlers who had fled to the fort for protection quickly left for their homes, figuring while the Indians might kill them, the cholera surely would. Legend has it that as Scott’s small army marched northwest to the Rock River country in western Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and as additional soldiers died, they were buried along the route with a cannon ball used as a marker for each dead soldier, thus, supposedly, the origin of today’s Cannonball Trail.
But of the three, smallpox was the most feared, and most certain, killer during that era. Thought to be eradicated in the 1970s, smallpox made a comeback of sorts back in the early 2000s, with the spread of rumors it was being cultured for biological warfare.
Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. Oddly enough, given the current unpleasantness between ourselves and the Islamic countries, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.
From the 6th Century on, frequent European epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance to the disease that allowed the death rate to decline to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Even so, the disease remained deadly. During the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.
Even royalty suffered the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.
Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America, and they proved extra deadly to the New World’s Native People. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European settlers. When the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they found what later became Massachusetts strangely uninhabited, although the empty villages and fields of Native People were scattered all over the region, their residents having been killed during a recent smallpox epidemic, probably inadvertently spread by Portuguese fishermen.
Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived and were thereafter immune.
In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol first. Couldn’t be too careful, you know.
Although inoculation was known, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000-man force came down with the disease. In 1777, General George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox. Although Congress was opposed to the relatively new treatment (Washington’s home state of Virginia outlawed smallpox inoculations), Washington insisted—no anti-vaxxers allowed. As a result, Washington’s Continentals were spared the smallpox that was ravaging the 13 Colonies. When infection rates dropped from 20 percent to 1 percent, even Congress couldn’t ignore it. That led to one of the nation’s first public health laws legalizing smallpox vaccinations. Previously, some colonies (including Washington’s own Virginia) had prohibited vaccination under penalty of law.
British soldiers, most of whom had been exposed to the pox as children, suffered far less mortality than their American cousins during the war.
Then in 1796, English scientist and doctor Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects.
Even so, epidemics continued to strike, particularly hitting Native People the hardest. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the Missouri River, probably carried by fur traders, killed 15,000 Indians, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.
Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services during the disastrous outbreak that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”
Here in the Fox Valley, an 1845 epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27 of that year, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe.”
Barber finally got to Oswego to visit the friends with which he’d traveled from Smyrna to Oswego back in 1843 and was happy to find them all alive, if somewhat scarred: “I found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”
One of the last local smallpox scares was in January of 1891. According to the Kendall County Record, a woman traveling by rail to Chicago through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be smallpox. A community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine established, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed (does this sound familiar?). But within a day or so, it was found the woman had a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.
The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease.
Now, we’re dealing with a new disease that seems every bit as deadly as smallpox for those who contract it. The strange thing, though, is that today we know what a virus is, and even what the microscopic COVID-19 virus looks like. We just don’t know—at the present time—how to manufacture a vaccine to inoculate people against it.
In that respect, it’s at least a little bit like those days of long ago when diseases struck for no apparent reason, killed dozens, hundreds, or thousands, and then disappeared as quickly as they came. At least today, we have reason to believe help is on the way as the scientific community is working hard to come up with a vaccine for those not stricken and effective treatments for those who have contracted COVID-19.
I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”
It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.
The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.
Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.
Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.
But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.
Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.
Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.
In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.
All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.
Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.
On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”
Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”
Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.
By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.
In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.
But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.
By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”
In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”
It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.
The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.
The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.
The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”
By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.
In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.
They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.
These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.
Anyone who’s ever read this blog knows that I enjoy food. And one of the initially alarming things about this stupid pandemic we’re suffering through were rumors and reports about the disruptions in the chain of food deliveries from growers to grocery stores. Fortunately, those dark days seem to have gradually passed by, though it’s not out of the question that they might return.
When we lived out on the farm, the food chain was pretty short. That was in the early 1950s, so we had indoor running water and a flush toilet along with electricity and a party line telephone. But in many ways, we were still living as farmers had from the end of World War I through the Great Depression and World War II.
My dad’s job was to farm. He grew the crops, raised the livestock—pigs and feeder cattle—milked the cow (when we had one), repaired machinery and our car and truck, and cut my hair. My mom was responsible for the house, keeping it clean and tidy, cooking the meals, raising chickens (which, with the eggs they produced, were traded for groceries in town), and maintaining the garden and our small orchard.
Every Saturday, my mom, my two older sisters, and I would head to town, where we’d drop my sisters off at their piano lessons, while mom and I would drive down the street to the grocery store. There, mom would deliver one or two crates of eggs and sometimes freshly dressed chickens ready to be sold. They liked my mom’s eggs because they were always clean and fresh with no cracked shells. She’d get a receipt for them and then we’d shop for groceries, mostly staples, the bill for which was reduced by the amount she’d earned in credit for from the eggs and chickens.
Some of those groceries were for the school lunches for my sisters and me, like peanut butter, bologna, and liver sausage, and, depending on the season, fruit.
We were lucky growing up in the 1940s and 1950s because by then there was sufficient money for food. My mother recalled when she went to her rural neighborhood one-room school that some of the kids were so poor their school lunch sandwiches were bread and lard.
By the early 1950s when I started school, our lunches consisted of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, some kind of fruit, and dessert—my family was big on dessert. I don’t recall eating salty things like potato chips, but I suppose we might have.
Living on a farm during that era meant you got a lot of food choices that my town cousins and friends didn’t. Early on I developed a taste for sandwiches made with the pickled heart and pickled tongue my grandmother made after my family did their annual beef butchering. And then there was head cheese, a product whose creation I won’t go into detail about here, although I will note there’s a surprising amount of edible meat on a hog’s head. My grandmother had a frequent hankering for headcheese, as did her son-in-law, my father, although by the time I came along we ate the store-boughten stuff (as grandma put it), the days of using everything but the squeal on the butchered hog having passed on into history. Anyway, I still love the stuff.
Bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seemed to predominate at lunch time during those early school years, but I always favored an eclectic mix that didn’t much interest my classmates when sandwich trades were in the wind.
Liver sausage—also called liverwurst and Braunschweiger (technically, Braunschweiger is the smoked variety of liver sausage) by some of my German friends and relatives—was one of my favorites. My buddy Glenn’s dad used to frequently remark, “Of all the things I like the best, I like liver wurst.” But I really liked liver sausage from the time I was a little kid, along with pickled tongue and head cheese, any one of which gave most of my lunch mates a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.
While I hated liver as a child—and still do as an adult, for that matter—I’ve always liked liver sausage. Don’t ask me why, except that the two, as far as my taste buds are concerned, are not even in the same food universe. Early on, my father attempted to get me to like liver as much as he did—which was a LOT. But there was something about the taste and consistency of the stuff I couldn’t stand. It was difficult for my parents to cajole me into eating liver since my mother couldn’t stand it, either, which made the whole “encourage by example” thing moot. Luckily for my father, he found a kindred spirit after I married my wife, and the two of them enjoyed liver and onions to their hearts’ content.
I got a real taste for the Oscar Mayer brand of liver sausage around fifth grade, and carried it in my lunch for several years. Liver sausage, dill pickle slices, and mustard was my standard lunch, and when Fritos were introduced, they provided a perfect compliment.
Out on the farm, my mother made jelly and jam from the fruit she grew in our farm’s small orchard, and pickles—sweet and dill—from the cucumbers she grew in the garden. We had a small grape arbor, and so did my grandparents, both of which seemed to produce lots of grapes for jelly as well. So peanut butter and jelly were my go-to sandwiches, along with bologna and cheese, for the two and a half years I went to one-room school when we lived on the farm, along with an occasional pickled tongue, liver sausage, or pickled heart sandwich treat.
But pickled heart or pickled tongue or head cheese sandwiches just aren’t very marketable in the sandwich trading market that often goes on during school lunchtimes. Even in my one-room country school, it was vanishingly rare to find anyone who’d risk a trade. Which was fine with me because it was hard to beat any of those sandwich fillings anyway.
My grandparents retired from farming a year or so after my parents did, and moved into town. There, my grandmother still made the occasional batch of pickled tongue or pickled heart that made great sandwiches, though not ones anyone at school would have a thing to do with.
After my grandmother died, my sister Elaine continued the tradition and would make me an occasional batch of pickled tongue. I wrote a column several years ago about the joys of a good pickled tongue sandwich, lamenting my wife would have nothing to do with even the concept of pickled tongue. My editor and good friend, strongly agreed, stating she would definitely not have a thing to do with a recipe that began: “First peel the tongue.”
I did, however, manage to convince my son that unpopular foods might actually taste good. And that came in handy when we were traveling through West Virginia one time. We’d stopped at a local diner for breakfast, and he noticed something on the menu called “country sausage,” which was plainly differentiated from usual pork sausage. He asked the waitress what was in it, but she seemed a bit unsure what the difference might be. Turned out, it was a good pork sausage with a bit of a kick to it, and it was excellent.
Then there was our trip to Scotland. I was working on a book with my buddy Paul and it was also my 30th wedding anniversary, so I talked my wife into taking a celebratory trip to Scotland to do research for the book and generally have fun. It didn’t take much talking, either.
That was back in the CompuServe days and I was able to make connections with people in Scotland who could help me out, and who became reasonably close on-line friends. We even stayed with one couple and their sons for a few days and enjoyed the kinds of Scottish food and pub visits you are denied with packaged tours. Our host told us he was preparing a true Scottish treat: Haggis, neeps, and tatties. That turned out to be haggis, served with yellow Swedish turnips and mashed potatoes.
I admit to having had a dim view of haggis since my days reading Scrooge McDuck comics—he claimed haggis nearly did him in. And, of course, haggis has been a banned Scottish import to the U.S. since 1971 just because it’s got sheep lungs in it. I mean, come on! We export Twinkies, which I suspect are far more deadly than the occasional sheep lung.
Haggis itself consists of sheep’s pluck minced and mixed with spices, oatmeal (wouldn’t be Scottish without it!), and suet, and then it’s all traditionally packed into a sheep’s stomach (artificial casings are favored these days) and then boiled, as are the Swedish turnips and potatoes, both of which are served on the side, mashed with butter and salt.
So our friend Ian made the Haggis—the Scottish national dish, by the way—although his wife Sue would have nothing to do with it. He was fairly impressed when both my wife and I not only ate it, but really enjoyed it. I did, however, put my foot down at blood sausage as well as everything else the British insist on calling “sausage.” I don’t know what that stuff is, but it’s NOT sausage.
So my message today is that an outright refusal to try regional or national foods just because they’re a little off-putting (okay, haggis may be more than a little off-putting) is being short-sighted. Trying some adventurous food choices makes traveling—if this damned coronavirus ever allows us to get back to doing such a thing—a lot more interesting, and can even add a bit of a historical dimension as well. From colonial Williamsburg’s rabbit stew to Acadia National Park’s popovers to West Virginia’s country sausage to Lordsburg, New Mexico’s green salsa, there are tasty chances to be taken. Some of them might even make for a good school lunch.
Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.
For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.
The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.
It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.
The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.
While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.
Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.
While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.
Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.
Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.
And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.
The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.
Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.
The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.
From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.
In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.
It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.
The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.
Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.
By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.
Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.
Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”
Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.
The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.
It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.
When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.
For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).