Joe Biden has just taken the oath of office, finally assuring the peaceful transfer of power to the 46th President of the United States.
Usually, this is a time for celebration; in 2021, it’s a time for considerable relief. Since the election in November, the former occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, refused to admit he’d lost. Further, he continually inflamed his supporters, assisted by those who have enabled his extraordinarily bad administration, to the point that they attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, in an attempt to overturn the election and detain and execute members of Congress and the Vice President of the United States.
Trump leaves the White House already judged the worst President by virtually all presidential historians. In addition, history is unlikely to be kind to him as a person, much less as a politician. About the only good thing, historically speaking, about the Trump years will be that it will provide historians with years of work trying to determine exactly what happened and why. That won’t be as easy as it should since Trump was as contemptuous about obeying the Presidential Records Act of 1978 as he was the rest of the nation’s laws he had solemnly sworn to uphold.
At this point, it’s hard to determine exactly how destructive to the nation Trump’s Presidency has been; that will take some study and perspective and months, if not years, of investigation. But it’s not to early to judge his administration as a failure on its own terms. Here’s a great rundown of how Trump failed to meet his own stated goals–whether he ever meant to is obviously a topic for another time:
Three imperatives drove the pioneers as they moved ever westward from the Atlantic Coast: Obtaining food, shelter, and clothing.
The earliest pioneers who crossed the Appalachian Mountains lived a subsistence-level existence, making and growing virtually everything they needed for their own survival. In fact, they didn’t live that much differently from the Native People they were steadily displacing.
They farmed and hunted for food for themselves and their livestock, built their homes and outbuildings from the timber growing in the dense forests of the east and southeast, and made their own clothing from flax and wool they raised on their small farms, as well as from the hides of animals they raised and hunted.
By the time settlement began accelerating here in the Fox River Valley and the rest of northern Illinois, the old frontier lifestyle had begun phasing out. The settlers who arrived here starting in the early 1830s were a different breed from the hard-bitten Daniel Boone types that had settled the timbered regions. For the most part, these settlers on the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and spread westerly all the way across the Mississippi River were experienced farmers, used to selling the livestock and crops their farms produced for profit.
They arrived at a propitious moment in history. By 1834, U.S. Army engineers had finally pushed a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating a true stormproof harbor at Chicago. That meant ships could arrive and take time to safely offload cargo, seek repairs, resupply their crews, and the other things found in Great Lakes ports. Chicago’s harbor, coupled with New York’s Erie Canal opened Illinois’ prairie farming market to the rest of the nation. In 1833, only four ships had called at Chicago. In 1834, with the development of its harbor, 176 vessels arrived, with the numbers exponentially increasing after that.
For the most part, the Fox Valley’s early settlers didn’t lack for shelter as log cabins quickly gave way to homes built of sawmill produced lumber. By the mid-1840s, lumber for prairie farm homes was being shipped into Chicago from forests in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Likewise, food was relatively abundant, produced locally and imported.
But what about clothing? Ready-made clothing wasn’t available for a decade or two after the settlers began arriving in large numbers here along the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines rivers. So where did the pioneers’ clothes come from?
Our picture of early settlers, colored by Hollywood movies, has settlers dressed in fringed buckskin, but that era was long gone by the time settlers began arriving on the tallgrass prairie. It turns out buckskin just isn’t very comfortable to wear; it gets positively slimy when wet and dries hard. Native People switched to cloth clothing as soon as traders began offering fabric and blankets as fur trade items.
And in any case, by the time of settlement deer had become increasingly rare in northern Illinois due to the trade in hides and furs.
Some of the earliest settlers made their own fabric from their farms’ patches of flax and from the wool produced by their own sheep. But making linen from flax plants is an extremely labor-intensive task that requires growing the plants and then laboriously processing the stalks before the fibers can be spun into thread. Manufacturing cloth from wool grown on the farm is far less difficult, but still time consuming.
And by the time settlement was really accelerating in the early 1840s, that harbor at Chicago was one of the busiest in the whole nation, bringing every sort of thing people needed, including tons of cloth manufactured in the woolen and cotton mills of New England. So it quickly became a lot cheaper in terms of time spent to buy cloth for clothing than to make it at home.
But cloth still had to be turned into clothing. Most of that was, of course done at home. Needlework was a major home craft of wives and daughters of the era. But they didn’t make all of the clothing of the era and that left niches for men’s tailors and women’s dressmakers.
James Sheldon Barber came west to Oswego with a wagon train of his neighbors from Smyrna, New York in late 1843. As a single man, he had neither the time nor the skills to make his own clothing, although he indicated he was able to make repairs. Clothing was not cheap. In February 1844, just a couple months after he arrived, he wrote back to his mother in Smyrna: “I have not bought any clothes yet but the prices of making is a trifle higher here than there. There coat $4 to $8, pants 1 to $2. Vest 1 to $2. Shirts like these you make for me 3 shillings; Socks 2 shillings to 3 shillings.”
As the area expanded, the number of single men who needed clothes as well as families who didn’t have the time to make their own clothes grew as well. By 1850, nine tailors were doing business in Oswego—then the Kendall County Seat.
But just 20 years later, according to the 1870 U.S. Census of Oswego, only one tailor and two dressmakers were doing business in Oswego. What happened?
One major impact seems to have been the development of the first practical sewing machines for home use. Isaac Singer had patented his first machine in 1851, something he continued to improve in conjunction with other inventors and sewing machine company owners. Singer was a typical robber baron of the era, once remarking, “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I’m after.” But his invention did, indeed, revolutionize how people obtained their clothing.
Locally, tailors bent with the times. Some began selling what amounted to clothing kits. In the June 20, 1867 Kendall County Record, editor J.R. Marshall noted that a tailor in Plano was offering a new service: “Many of our readers wish to buy cloth by the yard for their clothing, have it cut by a tailor, and made at home. They can be accommodated in this way by Mr. Morley, who has a large stock of cloths on hand, which he sells in any quantity desired and cut it into garments in the most fashionable manner. He asked but a small profit on his cloths. Clothing made to order.”
In the late 1860s, when Mr. Morley was making a buck by selling shirt, pants, and coat kits, only about 25 percent of people’s clothing in the U.S. was readymade. With the growing national economy and improvements in transportation, however, by 1890, 60 percent of the nation’s clothing was readymade and sold in stores, and by 1951, almost all—right around 90 percent—of the nation’s clothing was factory-made and store bought.
Steady improvements in transportation bought the products of the world to Kendall County so that it was soon much cheaper—at least in terms of labor—to buy first cloth and then clothing in local stores than it was to make it. And the revolution in mechanization in the form of sewing machines that made it cheaper for companies to manufacture off-the-rack clothing as well as for clothing to be made at home, had a huge effect on how people obtained their clothing. Another game-changer was the development of mail order firms like Sears and Montgomery Ward, that allowed clothing to be ordered at home and thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, shipped right to consumers’ mail boxes.
It was a trend that’s continued right up through the present day when spinning, weaving, and making clothing at home has turned into a leisure-time craft.
Winter snows have dusted—and often buried—Kendall County’s present landscape since glaciers shaped it some tens of thousands of years ago.
The area’s first inhabitants were Stone Age hunters who gradually moved north as the huge ice sheet, which once covered our area here in northern Illinois to a depth of several thousand feet, retreated. The glacial melt and the climate change it caused not only created the Fox Valley’s landforms, but also produced the area’s rich soil.
During the summer, those ancient wandering hunters had a relatively easy life–game of all sizes was abundant along the ice edge and there were plenty of native plants to add to their diet. During that era, northern Illinois’ landscape strongly resembled that seen in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and was dominated by spruce forests.
In winter, living for the hunter-gatherer groups got more difficult. In the truly harsh winters of that era it is likely they ate dried wild fruits, nuts, and berries along with dried meat and fish. But food storage technology was not much advanced during that era, making it difficult for the Native People to preserve food for the long winters they had to endure.
The struggle for survival by these groups is illustrated today by the remains of ancient campsites found in Kendall County, especially in the Morgan Creek area of Oswego Township. The creek valley is actually the remains of a prehistoric glacial lake, around whose rim many ancient campsites have been discovered. In addition, characteristic projectile points from this prehistoric period have been discovered on the ridges around the old glacial lake and at several other Kendall County sites.
As the years passed, those glacial lakes disappeared, filling in with silt, while the Fox River continued to cut its way down through layers of limestone, slowly decreasing in volume as the glaciers that originally fed it with their melt water retreated far to the north and eventually disappeared.
During the next several centuries, successive Indian groups moved in and through the Fox Valley, only to be dispossessed by other groups seeking to control the rich hunting grounds. Pothole lakes gouged by the glaciers silted in and became marshes and sloughs that supported huge numbers of game animals.
The Fox River’s bottomlands, enriched by the silt deposits washed off the prairies, were heavily farmed by highly organized Indian groups of the Mississippian Cultural Tradition.
The Mississippians had invaded Illinois about 800 A.D. from the south, pushing out or absorbing the resident Hopewell people. Large numbers of Mississippians probably lived in Kendall County, extensively farming the river bottom, especially in the area of today’s Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area. Large amounts of Mississippian pottery shards were uncovered when the new Five Mile Bridge across the Fox was built near Silver Springs State Park several decades ago.
Because the Mississippian culture relied heavily on farming for subsistence, winter fell much less heavily on them than it had on the area’s ancient hunters. During the winter months, Mississippians probably hunted when the weather permitted as they whiled away the cold weather repairing fishing nets, making tools, and eating the preserved corn, beans and squash they’d harvested.
By the time the first Europeans arrived in Illinois, the Mississippian people had vanished, their civilization possibly destroyed by the same climate changes that destroyed Native Peoples’ cultural traditions in the West and Southwest. It appears the Mississippians broke up into tribal groups that eventually became the Illinois Confederacy and related tribes Europeans found living here when they explored the region in the 1600s. Starting in the 1680s, Europeans and Americans of European descent slowly pushed northern Illinois’ Native People west of the Mississippi River, finally in the 1830s completing a pattern begun thousands of years before.
Permanent American settlers arrived in Kendall County in the late 1820s, building their log cabins and barns and rail fences in the southern part of the county. Like the Native People they’d soon displace, the settlers farmed in summer to store up enough food to last through the area’s severe winters. In order to create more tillable land, the farmers cut down the county’s groves, straightened the creeks, and drained the glacier-created wetlands, all of which had negative effects on periodic flooding and erosion.
The descendants of those first settlers also managed to use the Fox Valley’s harsh winter weather as a money-maker. Every town along the Fox River boasted a mill and dam. Since mechanical refrigeration was unknown, huge quantities of ice were required to preserve food in homes and businesses and to cool meat shipped East from Chicago’s sprawling stockyards. Companies were established to organize ice harvesting at the area’s dam sites. Each winter, tons of ice were cut and stored in icehouses to await shipment later in the year.
According to an article in the Jan. 25, 1883 Kendall County Record, the Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Company harvested 1,000 tons of ice a day from the pond behind the dam at Parker’s Mills, just north of Oswego’s downtown, storing it in huge ice houses, the largest of which measured 150 feet by 180 feet. The company owned a similar operation at Yorkville.
In most of 19th Century Kendall County, though, the pace of life slowed in winter. Farmers fed their livestock, cut firewood, split fence rails, and repaired equipment while the rest of the area’s residents kept warm and attended numerous dinners, speeches, and church services. They also enjoyed getting their sleighs out, harnessing up the family driving horse and went “dashing through the snow.” As the Record reported in December 1886, “The roads are now in splendid condition for a light fall of snow to make good sleighing–in fact, you will find a cutter [one-horse open sleigh] runs very nicely now on most roads.
Today, with all-weather roads and modern autos, life in winter is not much different than life in summer, and in fact becomes more hectic during the holiday season, even this one that has been so seriously affected by the pandemic. In fact, global climate change is resulting in more and more mild winters here on the northern Illinois prairies.
But as we drive on slushy roads and look towards a cold and wintry New Years, it may be well to remember it was not always thus. In a simpler, less populated, chillier time, during the snowy winter of 1887 with no motorized traffic on area roads and streets, the Record’s Oswego correspondent could admiringly write: “Tobogganing was the rage during the last week; there was a good natural slide down Benton Street from John Young’s, and crowds of young and old enjoyed themselves.”
I noticed the first Christmas decorations popping up around the Fox Valley in October well before Halloween. Then the Hallmark Channels started their Christmas made-for-TV movie blitzkrieg, a seemingly never-ending bombardment of saccharine mono-plotted programming that became annoying for its monotony and the Canadian accents of its actors after the first week.
But now, the retail ball is really getting rolling, as well, even in the midst of the depressing Covid-19 pandemic. Communities have been trying to drum up holiday spirit for their generally dispirited populace with a variety of socially-distanced and masked events. It seems to have worked, at least a bit, although the general lack of snow has so far put a bit of a damper on the season as have the effects of sheltering in place. Some have decided not to do any home decorating for the holidays, while others have gone ahead in an effort to brighten up the end of a particularly dismal year.
When we were kids, we were told by adults, in serious tones, that Christmas was all about giving. Which was silly. We knew that Christmas was all about getting Christmas gifts. Besides, we didn’t have money to buy gifts for anybody anyway.
In preparation for Christmas pageants at school and at church, we began cramming our lines along about the first of December. At school, especially during my early elementary years, the approach of Christmas meant a daily practice at Church School out in Wheatland Township, singing with Mrs. Eleanor Stewart at the piano helping our teacher, Mrs. Comerford, out. It also meant on-stage practices down in the basement of the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Not only was the church basement the biggest space in the neighborhood, but it was right across the road from the school. Conveniently, Mrs. Stewart also provided the piano accompaniment for our Sunday School Christmas program so we were all comfortable with each other during those seemingly endless practices.
It wasn’t until we moved to town, though, that the true and full force of Christmas hit me. Of course, I was a bit older then and able to grasp the full import of things like television commercials for the latest Mattel six-shooter, a replica Winchester lever action rifle, or Schwinn bike. For years, my greatest ambition was to visit Amling’s Flowerland, drawn to it because of the wonderful commercials on “Elmer the Elephant,”“Uncle Johnny Coons,” and other similarly culturally uplifting children’s television programs. There on the small screen were kids that looked just like me flying real gasoline powered model airplanes and wearing neat looking military uniforms—with helmets!—all available at Amlings.
The nearest big department stores to little Oswego were in downtown Aurora, but kids couldn’t get there on their own. So for most of the year we had to make do with the tiny toy departments at Shuler’s Drug Store and at Carr’s Department Store in downtown Oswego. Granted, Shuler’s had a pretty good comic book selection that was updated regularly, but their toy section left a lot to be desired.
But once a year after Thanksgiving, Shuler’s would offer a special and commodious toy selection in the old meeting hall above their drug store, staffed by the folks from Carr’s Department Store. On the way home from school, bundled up in our scratchy woolen coats with those silly attached half-belts that were always coming unhooked in front, hats with earflaps, and five-buckle rubber boots we’d trudge up the stairs off Main Street and enter a different world. Games from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley were stacked along with six-guns from Marx (cheap) and Mattel (much better), trucks by Tootsie Toy and Tonka, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, dolls and a wide selection of accessories, and even an occasional Gilbert Chemistry Set. We all looked longingly at the chemistry sets with the happy kid on the front of the box mixing wonderful looking chemicals in a test tube while a retort on a Bunsen burner bubbled in the background.
We all knew that extraordinary explosives could be created with a chemistry set because we had all heard the rumor about the kid that blew up his garage by “accidentally” mixing chemicals “the wrong way.” But when one of us finally actually got a genuine Gilbert Chemistry Set—the big one with the steel case that folded out in four sections—we found that instead of truly cool stuff like the makings for gunpowder or nitroglycerine, the case was full of little glass tubes and bottles containing substances labeled “Xylan” and “Diatomaceous Earth” that didn’t explode worth a darn. In fact, it slowly dawned on us budding mad scientists that ingredients of chemistry sets are designed so they won’t explode no matter how they are mixed, and in fact are designed to be so maddingly safe that one of them would probably stop a nuclear chain reaction in its tracks if it was close enough.
So we spent lots of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas looking longingly at toys both live and on TV, and then, every once in a while, our parents would have to go to downtown Aurora to replenish supplies of things that grownups figured they needed. That gave us a chance to visit the stores that had the neatest toys, mainly Fagerholm’s Toy Store on South Broadway, The Book Shop over on Stolp Avenue, and May Electric where you could go upstairs and see the latest Lionel train equipment. The Book Shop, was the “educational” toy store in downtown Aurora, and had wonderful things in its window, educational or not, things like shiny miniature steam engines that actually worked to drive working toy machines, and plastic planetariums that were guaranteed to project the heavens on your bedroom ceiling as long as the lights were turned off. Fagerholm’s had the marvelous British-made Dinky Toys and the best selection of model plane and car kits in Aurora, while the Lionel equipment at May Electric was first-rate.
Actually, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized that it really is better to give than receive at Christmas. The looks on the faces of our kids when they found some wished-for treasure under the tree Christmas morning brought home the fact like no amount of preaching did years before.
Actually, I’ve found, the season seems to be mostly about joy, and the satisfaction derived by doing good things for other people. This Christmas, little kids won’t remember a thing about the recent election or whether traffic signals have been installed down the street, although they might retain some memories of this crazy pandemic year. For sure, however, they definitely will remember the warm feelings the holidays bring them long after they have children and grandchildren of their own.
With the introduction of Covid vaccines, science is getting a bit of a shot in the arm after four years of insistence that opinions—no matter how nuts—are every bit as valid as actual facts. I won’t go into all the strangeness that’s resulted in so much modern science and fact denial here, but I will note that innovation and invention was once a national mania that filtered right down to the local level.
Like many rural areas, Kendall County was a hotbed of invention and innovation in the 19th Century. In fact, Oswego boasted it’s own mini-Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison’s famed invention and innovation lab, operated by the Richards brothers in their hardware store.
One of those popular innovations that became extremely popular throughout the Midwest was lightning rods, popularity driven because of the constant threat of fire posed by the region’s frequent thunderstorms to buildings both in town and out on the farm, particularly the large barns of the era. Most small towns had little or no firefighting capability, and farms had none at all. As a result, a lightning strike could mean ruin for a building owner.
Ben Franklin is generally given credit for inventing the first practical lightning rod system. In 1752, Franklin developed the first lightning rod as part of his famous experiments with electricity. As developed, the Franklin Rod—as it was called—consisted of a metal rod mounted on the highest point of a building’s roof that was then, by running a wire from the rod down to the ground, grounded. The energy of a lightning bolt striking the rod was harmlessly diverted into the ground instead of causing the building to burst into flame.
On the largely treeless prairies of Illinois lightning strikes were a constant threat. As the June 8, 1871 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “In the storm of Sunday afternoon the barn of William Ladd was struck by lightning and consumed with pretty much all its contents, including two new wagons, reaper, mower, planter, harnesses and nearly everything required on a farm; also upwards of 300 bushels of grain, a part of which and also one of the wagons belonged to Abe Emmons, who upon his removal in the spring to Amboy left it there in store. Of the other contents a large share belonged to N.T. Ferris, who is working the farm. The entire loss will exceed $3,000.”
So lightning rods became a fairly big business starting in the mid-19th Century. Herman Melville’s short story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” published in the August 1854 edition of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, recounts the fictional interaction between the story’s narrator and an inventive and ambitious lightning rod salesman. A humorous tale filled with plenty of Melville allegory, it’s interesting for its treatment of a trade long gone from the American scene: the traveling lightening rod salesman.
Nineteenth Century Kendall County was one many hotbeds of invention, with all sorts of ingenious tinkering going on. And for whatever reason, Oswego seems to have been a center of lightning rod invention, manufacture, and sales. A number of firms annually sent out teams of lightning rod salesmen like Melville’s protagonist that ranged all over the Midwest and that provided employment for a number of local residents.
According to one county history, lightning rods were first introduced in Kendall County by Oswego storekeeper Garret H. Teller in 1844. Although Teller didn’t manufacture his own rods but was a wholesaler, he continued to sell lightning rods for the rest of his life, while taking on a number of partners during the years.
As the 1870s began, lightning rods were a growing business. According to the business directory in the 1870 atlas and plat book of Kendall County, along with Henry W. Farley (the only manufacturer listed), Oswegoans Teller, William Hoze, and Thomas P. Mullenix were all engaged in selling lightning rods.
Farley was the community’s premier lightning rod manufacturer, although others apparently dabbled in the business. Farley was a former railroad official who worked as a construction engineer on a number of Eastern rail lines. A native of Massachusetts, after his service in the Civil War in Missouri, Farley moved his family north, settling in Oswego.
In the pre-war period, Farley had patented a number of mechanisms, mostly centered around railroad locomotives. But after moving to Oswego sometime before 1869, he put his mind to inventing a variety of items, from an innovative conveyor of people and freight to an improved lightning rod. Farley’s lighting rod proved to be cheaper than the pure copper rods that were the most efficient conductors of lightning bolts, and more effective than the cheaper iron rods economy-minded building owners often favored.
Farley’s big lightning rod innovation was to manufacture an iron rod with a star-shaped cross-section that was then twisted into a spiral shape. The sturdy rods were manufactured with screw threads at top and bottom, allowing them to be connected with a threaded collar creating whatever length of rod was desired.
Farley’s major improvement was to wrap copper wires or strips up the spiral grooves to provide a much better lightning conductor. The spiral grooved iron rod proved much stronger than a similar, soft copper rod. As he noted in his patent application, the star-shaped spiral rod “combines the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight, and also giving great area of surface.” He was finally granted a patent for the idea in 1869.
By that time, he was already installing them around Oswego and the rest of Kendall County. As early as 1868, the Record reported from Oswego that several residents had contracted with Farley for his new, improved lightning rods. On April 15 of that year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Farley has commenced active operation in the lightning rod business. Several houses in the town were rodded last week, among which are Snook’s, Bunn’s, and Wollenweber’s.”
The great thing about manufacturing and marketing lighting rods was that Mother Nature, in the form of frequent thunderstorms, kept reminding everyone why it was such a good idea to buy and install them—sometimes spectacularly so. On June 28, 1877, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “During Wednesday evening’s storm the barn of Phillip Boessenecker, a large and almost new one, was struck by lightning, causing its consumption by fire with a large lot of hay, farming utensils, and a very good colt. The prominent location of the barn made the fire conspicuous in town and a number went out to it. There had been no rod on it, hence our lightning rodders point now to it as proof of the stupidity of men that don’t have their buildings rodded.”
Even with frequent help from the weather, it was clear that all those lightning rod dealers couldn’t make a living selling just to Kendall County residents. So Farley and the other major lightning rod wholesalers in Oswego began sending teams of salesmen out to hawk their wares to a wide strip of the upper Midwest.
It was a fortunate time to be recruiting young men for traveling sales jobs because of the number of Civil War veterans looking for decent jobs with travel and a little adventure thrown in.
Generally, the sales teams loaded up brightly painted horsedrawn wagons with their goods and headed out to their territories in mid to late April and then headed to their assigned territories.
As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on April 14, 1870: “The lightning rod establishments are now very busy in getting up and sending out teams. Oliver [Hebert] has got up some very nice looking wagons for them.”
Hebert was Oswego’s premier carriage, road cart, and wagon maker during that era, suggesting the firms weren’t stinting on the quality of their equipment.
Territories for individual companies extended as far north as Minnesota and as far south as southern Illinois and as far west as Iowa. During the sales year, the crews came home to visit their families on summer and early fall holidays, as the July 6, 1871 Record reported from Oswego: “A number of the lightning rod boys came home to spend the Fourth.”
And sometimes they just came home for a visit after a couple months on the road. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 13, 1871: “The lightning rod folks who are and have been home on a visit to their families and friends may be mentioned [include] Boss G.H. Teller; C.L. Murdock, and C.L. Judson.”
Of course, given that the sales forces were mostly comprised of young Civil War veterans, activities weren’t strictly confined to business. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on Oct. 17, 1872: “Charles E. Hubbard went last spring in the Teller company to Wisconsin lightning rodding; it appears however that he did not wholly confine his attention to that business, for he came home one day last week with a wife.”
The sales season generally wrapped up in September as the season for lightning-producing thunderstorms ended.
The county’s era as a center of the Midwest’s lightning rod business was largely over by the 1880s as bigger firms were able to undersell and out-produce smaller companies like Farley’s. But while it lasted, lightning rodding was a business that put Oswego and Kendall County on the region’s business map.
After rereading the Thanksgiving post I dredged up from the History on the Fox archives last week, I got to wondering just how “traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations were here in Illinois. We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln declaring an official day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the Civil War. But where did Lincoln get the idea? Why the last Thursday in November? Is turkey really a traditional Thanksgiving treat?
So I started digging into it.
Celebrations to mark the end of the harvest date to ancient times in England. When the colonists calling themselves Pilgrims arrived in the New World in 1620, they brought that tradition with them. And in 1621, the survivors of the first harrowing year on the Massachusetts coast had real reason to offer their thanks to God, their own labors, and to the Native People who’d been key in helping them survive.
When those New Englanders began pioneering the western frontier—Illinois—in the 1830s, they took their traditions, including the end-of-harvest Thanksgiving, with them. Those earliest celebrations, mostly held in late November after the vital corn harvest was largely finished, were family affairs. It wasn’t until 1842 that Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford, in the midst of the harrowing effects of the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, proclaimed Thursday, Dec. 29, as a statewide day of Thanksgiving.
It’s more than likely the pioneers from Vermont, Massachusetts, and other New England and Middle Atlantic states brought Thanksgiving celebrations west with them to Kendall County. So local residents were receptive to Gov. Ford’s proclamation.
“It was, perhaps, the darkest time in the history of our State, and in many a household the pinching of poverty was extreme,” noted Kendall County’s earliest historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks. “The prayers offered up were heard, for times began to be better, and two years thereafter emigration began to pour in as of old, and money, the life blood of the community, began to circulate through the channels of trade.”
In 1847, Hicks reported, Illinois’ official Thanksgiving Day was set for Thursday, Dec. 16, just in time for people to be thankful a smallpox epidemic at Newark had ended.
And the tradition continued. The Kendall County Courier reported from Oswego in their Nov. 21, 1855 edition: “In acknowledgement of the bounteous blessings bestowed upon us the past year from the hand of the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the Governor of our State has appointed and recommended the 29th day of the present month to be observed as one of thanksgiving and prayer.”
So by the time Lincoln made his 1863 proclamation, he was used to his home state’s Thanksgiving celebrations that had, by then, been observed for some two decades.
After the war, and after Lincoln’s assassination, celebrating the nation continued to celebrate the holiday, though not always at the end of November. Some years, the event was moved to the first week or so of December. In the Nov. 30, 1865 Kendall County Record, editor John R. Marshall wrote: “Next Thursday is the day set apart for national thanksgiving. The war is among the things that were, and our armies are nearly disbanded. Peace and prosperity assume their reign. Give God the praise.”
Those local celebrations, early on, had two main elements: solemn thanks given for whatever blessings people acknowledged, and turkey dinners. Whether it was a carryover from those Pilgrim days or for some other reason, the turkey dinner seems to have been a key Thanksgiving element for all who could afford one.
Marshall even joked about it in that same Nov. 30 issue of the Record. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he suggested: “Turkies [sic] for Thanksgiving festivities will be received at this office at all hours of the day till the 7th prox. If any are belated, they will be taken after the 7th, and will answer for future dinners. No hint is meant by the foregoing,” he added with a wink.
In 1866, Thanksgiving was again observed on the last Thursday in November, and its observance was linked to veneration of Lincoln. Wrote Marshall in the Nov. 22, 1866 Record, “Next Thursday is the day set aside by the President and by our Governor as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for his many blessings conferred upon the nation and upon this state. This is a relic of the New England fathers, which, under the honored Lincoln, became National property.”
Another tradition that arose, and continued for more than a century, was “union” church services in most communities in Kendall County. The services were generally shared around among each church in town from year to year, as were the sermons. On Nov. 25, 1869, the Record reported that in Oswego, “Thanksgiving was observed in the usual manner by eating a turkey or chicken-pie dinner, religious services were observed in the Presbyterian church, the Methodist minister preached the sermon,” and adding, “Business was not generally suspended.”
So while people attended church and enjoyed family dinners, Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a business holiday. Gradually, however, as the years passed, businesses at least closed during the community church services, an eventually closed for the entire day making it more of what we recognize as a true holiday.
The union Thanksgiving church service was a tradition that continued for well over a century. Here in my hometown of Oswego, the high school glee club always sang at those Thanksgiving services through the 1960s. It was one reason the district’s music director wasn’t fond of Catholics. During that era Catholic kids weren’t allowed to engage in other denominations’ services and so were prohibited from the union services, robbing the choir of some of its voices.
By 1872, a third leg had been added to the annual Thanksgiving celebration. As the Record’s Oswego corresponded reported on Dec. 5 of the holiday’s activities: “The turkey shoot was a spirited affair; a number of crack marksmen from abroad were present but the shooting was poor, the cause of which was laid to the wind. It blowed quite hard.”
Eventually, the local sportsmen added pigeons to the day’s shoot as well.
In 1874, a final diversion had been added, even as the severe economic Panic of 1873 began in earnest. Known as “The Long Depression,” the downturn’s effects would extend over two decades. Even so, small towns like Oswego celebrated the holiday, the Record’s Oswego correspondent writing on Nov. 26, 1874 that: “Thanksgiving day is to be celebrated by divine worship in the forenoon, by eating turkey at noon by those who can afford it, and by dancing in the evening of those both old and young who know how and delight in that diversion.”
For several years, the Thanksgiving holiday consisted of those elements: religious services, turkey dinners, a turkey and/or a pigeon shoot, and a dance in the evening. Eventually parts of the celebration began falling away until by the 20th Century it had been whittled down to religious services and a traditional turkey dinner.
Most recently, those joint community church services have gradually disappeared as well. Instead, Thanksgiving has come to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. And, in fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November in order to provide more shopping days until Christmas to boost the retail industry. The move proved unpopular, however, and the celebration has remained on the fourth Thursday since.
So, yes, Thanksgiving as we know it, especially those turkey dinners, really is a tradition that dates back into the nation’s history—here in Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the observances since 1842. And, I think it’s fair to say, doing something for 178 years can legitimately be dubbed a true tradition.
With all the turmoil driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the nation’s political situation, let’s get our minds off today’s troubles by taking a microhistorical dive into Oswego’s past life as a quarrying and mining center.
Quarrying? Mining? Those who give our small corner of the Fox Valley’s geology any thought at all probably figure the gently rolling landscape left after the last glaciers retreated has always been primarily used by farmers, first Native People and then the White settlers that displaced them.
But while it hasn’t gotten as much attention as farming, mining has been a local pursuit since prehistoric times.
A few hundred million years ago, Oswego was at the bottom of a shallow sea. Over the eons, tiny marine creatures died and drifted to the bottom where their shells built up into substantial layers of limestone.
The Native People who arrived following the retreating glaciers found they could mine the limestone bluffs along Waubonsie Creek behind the modern Oswego Public Library for nodules of chert that could be easily fashioned into razor-sharp knives, scrapers, drills, and points for arrows and spears. And, in fact, back in the 1980s when we were permitted to do a little rescue archaeology, we found a chert-knapping workshop on the bluff overlooking the creek not far upstream from those chert veins. We retrieved somewhere around 50 pounds of chips (a tiny fraction of the total) those ancient workmen left behind as they fashioned their tools and weapons—and those chips were still razor-sharp.
When White settlers arrived in the 1830s, they soon discovered the limestone that underlays the Oswego area was relatively easy to access, especially along the creek where those ancient people had mined chert. And they didn’t waste much time in mining that limestone for a number of purposes.
Local quarries were established in several areas, including along the banks of the creek behind what is now the Oswego Public Library where those chert mines had been located. Unlike the Native Americans who mined chert veins layering the limestone, the settlers quarried the limestone itself for building materials. Evidence of these early quarrying operations is still visible today if you look hard enough.
The Hopkins brothers established a limestone quarry along the creek early in the village’s history. Then in 1871, another quarry was opened a bit farther upstream. As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 5 of that year, “Ed. Richards and Chas. Mann have opened a quarry up the Wauponsie [sic] on the land of Mr. Loucks from which they are taking very nice building stone.”
Eventually, Loucks took over the quarry’s operation, as the Feb. 10, 1876 Record reported: “Walter Loucks Esq., one of Oswego’s oldest citizens, has the well-known stone quarry on the Wauponsie [sic] creek open for business again, and parties in want of good stone for building purposes or good sharp sand for mortar or cement should call at the Wauponsie quarry. Mr. Loucks expects to be able to furnish cut stone for all purposes in a few months.”
By June that year, the Record reported Loucks’ quarry was in full operation: “When you want stone for foundation or cellar walls, for well or cistern, you can get a first class article at Walter Loucks’ stone quarry at Oswego.”
As the Record noted about the Loucks quarry, in addition to using limestone as a building material, early Oswego residents also baked the limestone in kilns to produce quicklime, which, in turn was mixed with sand to create lime mortar for stone and brick construction. There was once at least one lime kiln along the banks of Waubonsie Creek just upstream from the Ill. Route 25 bridge, probably operated by Loucks in conjunction with his cut limestone and sand quarrying operation.
Over on the west side of the Fox River a mile north of Oswego, the Wormley Quarry, operated by Civil War veteran George D. Wormley, produced both cut limestone and flagstone. The Wormleys used cut stone from their quarry to build two of their farmhouses adjacent to the quarry. In addition, large quantities of flagstone were mined from the Wormley quarry, some of it likely used as foundation stones for the grist and sawmills built by Nathaniel Rising at the Fox River dam just north of Oswego.
Flagstone’s name derives from Middle English flagge, meaning turf, or maybe from the Old Norse flaga meaning slab or chip—opinions appear to vary. Flagstone occurs in layers of varying thickness and is ideal for sidewalks and paving.
The Wormley quarry continued on for many years. In July 1881, the Kendall County Record ran an ad from George Wormley touting the quality of stone from his quarry: “Stone! Stone!” the advertisement announced. In the advertisement, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”
After its life as a stone quarry, the Wormley quarry property was sold to the YWCA for use as a summer camp and named Camp Quarryledge. Since those days, the parcel has had numerous owners but the old quarry, namesake of the camp, still exists, owned nowadays by the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints.
The Hopkins Quarry, operated by Oswego farmer Elijah Hopkins, was situated on Wolf’s Crossing Road, just west of Oswego. Hopkins and his family emigrated to Oswego from Ohio in 1857, settling just east of the village on what was sometimes called the Old Naperville Road, which we call today Wolf’s Crossing Road.
Hopkins found the topsoil on his land was only about two feet deep atop the underlying limestone, providing easy access by the Hopkins family quarrymen. Hopkins eventually opened quarries on both sides of the road. Like the Wormley and Loucks quarries, Hopkins’ quarries produced both good quality building limestone and flagstone. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 8, 1876, “Joseph Failing has laid down a very nice and substantial flagstone sidewalk in front of his residence. The stone came from the Hopkins quarry.”
Today, the former quarries are serene lakes and wildlife sanctuaryies amidst the area’s hustle and bustle where evidence of mining is still clearly visible on the quarry walls.
Those glaciers didn’t only uncover and leave behind limestone, either. Glacial till in the form of gravel deposits underlay much of the Fox River Valley, and that includes the Oswego area.
South of Oswego along the river the Cowdrey family farmed along with their neighbors, the Leighs and Parkhursts and Herrens. In the 1870s, the scenic wooded parcels of the Cowdrey farm became favored destinations of picnickers from Oswego and Yorkville. During the hot summers of the era, refugees from nearby cities came to the area to camp, some spending a month or more at Cowdrey’s Woods.
As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Aug. 7, 1889, “A number from the cities of this region are now encamped in the Cowdrey park down the river.”
During that era, the railroads in the U.S. were undergoing explosive growth and every mile of rails required tons of gravel for the roadbed, including fill for depressions along the right-of-way. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad knew there were extensive gravel beds underlaying Cowdrey’s farm (the railroad’s Fox River Branch was built right through the gravel beds), as well as the farms along the river all the way nearly to Oswego. And when the company’s other gravel beds began playing out, they started looking at the area along their Fox River Branch south of Oswego for a replacement.
In 1892, the CB&Q’s huge gravel mining operation at Montgomery had played out, and the company was ready to convert the property into a livestock yard to allow sheep being shipped to the Chicago market to rest and feed before being sent on to the Chicago Stockyards. As the Record reported on July 27, 1892: “These extensive gravel beds have been nearly exhausted and will not be worked any longer than another year at most. The big excavation made there will be leveled off, properly drained and converted into sheep yards. The engineering work has already been completed and work of building will commence at once. Sheep that are shipped over the Chicago Burlington & Quincy and the Chicago Burlington & Northern lines will be unloaded at Montgomery and there prepared for the market. They will then be shipped to Chicago in car load lots or several cars at a time as wanted.”
In April 1893, the Record reported that George Cowdrey was negotiation with “Chicago parties” on selling his property for a gravel mine. And by August, the deal was done. On Oct. 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted: “Operations in the gravel works down at Cowdrey’s have been commenced.”
The far south end of Cowdrey’s land didn’t appeal to the gravel interests as much, and that remained a popular area for campers. Bought by Chicago parties and named “The Elms,” the place drew city folks for years. And under it’s current name of “Hide-A-Way Lakes,” it still does.
The effects of the financial Panic of 1893 temporarily closed the gravel mines, but as the economy got moving once again, gravel mining south of Oswego accelerated, too. Companies under various names—the Fox River Gravel Company, the Conkey Gravel Company, Chicago Sand and Gravel, and the CB&Q itself—operated portions of the pits up into the 1950s leaving behind a landscape of narrow lakes on land adjacent to the Fox River.
The mining operation was huge, and included its own rail sidings and huge processing plants along with its own small railroad that, in those pre-diesel hauler days, carried the gravel from the huge steam shovels and draglines to the processing plant on the site. From there, the Burlington’s rail cars carried it to where the railroad needed it. The pits closed during the Great Depression, but reopened during World War II and then continued on until about 1950 when the operation closed for good.
The remaining lakes and spoil heaps from the old gravel mining operations remained, and provided some scenic areas for private homes and for organizations such as the Barber-Greene Hunting and Fishing Club. The State of Illinois bought a large parcel in the early 1950s when proposals were afoot to build a series of dams up and down the Fox River to make it navigable from the Chain of Lakes to Ottawa.
Part of the parcel was leased as a municipal dump for residents of Oswego and Oswego Township for several years. Then in the summer of 1963, the 160-acre parcel that included the dump was deeded over to the Oswego Park District (later renamed the Oswegoland Park District). Much to its future regret, the park district allowed dumping on the site to continue for a few years before closing the dump with the aim of turning the parcel into a natural area they named Saw Wee Kee Park.
Residents who lived on land adjacent to the park objected when the park district announced some modest development plans and a series of lawsuits was initiated against the park district alleging there was considerable contamination by hazardous materials on the old dump site. Years of litigation followed with the park district in the end forced to spend thousands of dollars to mitigate the contamination.
Today, Saw Wee Kee is one of the park district’s natural area gems, with a canoe launch on the river, hiking trails, and other facilities that mask the area’s one-time role as a vital cog in the expansion of the nation’s rail transportation network. It’s also a reminder of the era in which our little corner of the Fox River Valley not only produced agricultural products, but also turned out vital building materials that helped grow the community.
Much to, I suspect, the relief of just about everyone in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the entire world, we’ll be heading to the polls next week to elect a President, as well as a host of down-ballot state and local officials.
It’s probably understating the situation to say this has been one of the most unusual Presidential campaigns in the nation’s history. Similar to the 2016 presidential election, one of the nation’s two major political parties has found itself with a candidate that public opinion polls say much of the country intensely dislikes—and that includes a surprisingly large portion of his own party. This despite being an incumbent for the office.
In addition, the strangeness has been heightened by the campaign concluding right in the middle of an unprecedented surge during one of the worst worldwide pandemics to strike in more than a century. The Federal Government’s refusal to coordinate the response to the pandemic has led to general unease among voters, which, in turn, has also led to unprecedented numbers of voters casting their ballots by mail or during in-person early voting.
But despite all the drama surrounding the election, those who have cast their ballots early, or those who decide to go to the polls in person on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will find the usual set-up of voting booths arranged so we can fill out our ballots in private and then have them counted anonymously.
And, in fact, we take voting by secret ballot for granted, but that’s not the situation our great-great-great-grandfathers (our great-great-great grandmothers not being allowed to vote) found when they went to the polls. Not until 1891 were Illinois and Kendall County residents allowed to cast their ballots in secret, marking the end of a voting process that had begun millennia before.
Although we like to think that democratic tools like voting are relatively modern processes, voting using ballots has a long and honorable history in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of ballots as early as the 5th Century B.C., using ballots that ranged from kernels of grain to colored balls. Farther east, balloting was used in India before 300 B.C.
Later, balloting was used during the Roman Republic, but gradually disappeared as government became more and more autocratic, and voting virtually disappeared for hundreds of years.
Not until the 13th Century was balloting revived by some Italian city states. By the 16th and 17th centuries, balloting had crossed the English Channel to Great Britain.
The first use of voting by ballot in the New World was practiced by the General Court of Massachusetts, which used the process to select governors after 1634. Gradually, balloting became widespread. Its existence was assumed by the U.S. Constitution as well as state constitutions after the nation won its freedom in the Revolutionary War.
But voting during that era was a lot different from what it means to us today. At that time, ballots were often passed out throughout the community—no polls necessary—and at other times the ballots were pre-marked. When a vote was cast, it was done in the open, often orally—reading and writing skills were often absent among many in the general population during those early days—and there were usually separate ballot boxes for each political party. It was as if every general election was a partisan caucus.
It was a system open to coercion and, to modern sensibilities, almost unbelievable violence, especially in the nation’s cities. In the middle years of the 19th Century, 89 voters were killed during election violence in the United States.
In the 1870s and 1880s, a parade of financial crises called panics—we’d term them depressions these days—plagued the nation. A general public that was becoming more educated in the ways of critical thinking, thanks to the nation’s public schools, and more disenchanted with being told what to do by politicians who were little more than lapdogs of big business, clamored for change.
Australians had been voting by secret ballot since 1856. Great Britain had adopted the system of secret ballots in 1872, and by the late 19th Century here in the United States, the public was ready for a system that would allow every voter to cast their ballot without fearing for their life or being otherwise intimidated.
The U.S. Constitution grants the individual states the authority to organize and conduct elections, so any change had to take place at the state level. Agitation for safe, secure voting had two parts. First, ballots had to be provided by the government so that voters couldn’t be intercepted on their way to the polls and their ballots stolen. Second, voting had to be done in such a way that no one but the voter knew individual votes were cast. After some study, it was decided the Australian Ballot system was by far the most fair.
Under the new system, ballots were to be printed at public expense and would be distributed only at official polling places. When ballots were marked, voters would place them in locked ballot boxes to secure them until they were counted. The states of Kentucky and Massachusetts became the first to institute the Australian ballot, followed by New York and then the rest of the states. After approval by the Illinois General Assembly, the first election by secret ballot was held in Kendall County in the local elections of November 1891.
Not that everyone was looking forward to the new system, of course. The system was popular in the South because it discriminated against former slaves, immigrants, and others who could not read the names on the ballots. Others thought that voters should be sufficiently proud of the candidates they were voting for to announce it publicly.
In October of 1891, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, observed: “In a few weeks we shall be called upon to vote by a new system imported from Australia. No tariff will be was paid on it, perhaps having been admitted under reciprocity.”
During succeeding weeks, the Record included a number of articles explaining how the new voting system would work and instructing voters on the process. In addition, public meetings were held in communities throughout the county to explain the new procedures.
In the Record’s Nov. 4, 1891 edition, Rank wrote: “Today we do as the Australians do. As everyone will want to try the new style of voting, a good turnout may be expected.”
And, once again, remember: “everyone” in that era meant strictly men.
In Oswego, a Mr. John Pitt—who seems to have been somewhat of a character—had the honor of casting the first secret ballot under the new system, although not without a few problems that entertained bystanders. Rank wrote: “He [Pitt] is a very enthusiastic, quick, and nimble man. When starting for the booths, someone said, ‘Do you know how to fix the ticket, John?’ ‘Yis,’ said he; on entering, instead of lifting up the curtain or drawing it to one side, he dove right down under it, coming up on the inside under the shelf, with which his head came in collision, making the sheet-iron concern tremble and jingle from bow to stern, but no damage resulted to either it or John’s head.”
Presumably, Pitt’s exploit was the highlight of the day, although it was also apparently instructive because no more booth diving was reported.
Not everyone was happy with the new system, of course.
“There was but one man that balked when told that he must go into a booth to prepare his ballot and who declared that if it has become to such a point when an American citizen cannot mark his ticket wherever he pleased, he proposed not to vote at all,” Rank reported, adding, “Upon second thought, however, he concluded to go through the important forms.”
The new voting system proved both successful and popular, although there were still some lingering doubts about whether secret balloting would really catch on. “While the system was met with general favor, it will be apt to be too cumbersome when it comes to a general election with a full slate,” Rank predicted.
Rank’s prediction was not out of line. Those of us who voted back before ballots changed to the kind with computer-read blocks we fill in will remember the sheer size of the last full-sized paper ballots that made trying to fill one out in the confines of a voting booth an interesting exercise.
But in the end, of course, the Australian Ballot was officially and permanently adopted here in Illinois as well as nationwide, and its direct, computer recorded and tabulated descendant is still in use today in Kendall County, although sadly not enlivened by the entertainment value provided by Mr. Pitt.
After all these years, I finally find out that I am apparently a microhistorian.
Not that I’m that small, of course. Just like you, I could stand to lose a little weight. No, I’m talking microhistorian as a person engaging in a specifically narrow kind of history.
According to biographer Jill Lepore, microhistory can be defined as the history of “hitherto obscure people” that “concentrates on the intensive study of particular lives” to reveal “the fundamental experiences and mentalités of ordinary people.”
And what, I imagine you are wondering, is a mentalité? Well, according to Wiktionary, it’s a French word meaning “A person’s feelings about the wider society and world they live in, and their place within it; a worldview, outlook.”
From my point of view, microhistory is all about telling the stories of mostly unheralded people and how those people’s stories fit into the overall flow of the rest of history. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do on this here blog since my first post back in early March 2010—not to mention the local history column I started writing for the old Fox Valley Sentinel back in 1977, and continued after the creation of the Ledger-Sentinel in 1980.
Local history is replete with people who slogged their way through exciting times, made their contributions, and then faded from view after making their presence known, sometimes locally, sometimes statewide, and sometimes nationally. Those are the stories that fascinate me. And there are a lot of those stories to tell right here in our own Fox River Valley of Illinois.
There were, for instance, the African American farm families that moved to Kendall County after the Civil War, settling out in the Minkler-Reservation Road area south of Oswego. Almost all were former slaves who, for one reason or another, decided to settle amongst an entirely white neighborhood after the Civil War to farm and raise their families. The Lucas, Washington, Hughes, and a few other families eventually made their mark, not only on the Oswego area, but also on the nation as a whole.
One of those settlers, Nathan Hughes, not only escaped from slavery in Kentucky, but also volunteered to fight for his own freedom against the south during the Civil War, where he was wounded, recovered, and then went back to fight and be wounded again.
His son-in-law, Robert Ridley Smith, likewise escaped enslavement and then fought for the Union during the war before coming to Kendall County, where he married one of Hughes’ daughters. After the war, Hughes went back down to Kentucky to find his family and bring them north. He brought his children, although his wife decided to stay in a place that was familiar to her and not come north to the strangeness of the Illinois prairies.
Smith’s children became the first African Americans to graduate from high school in Kendall County, Ferdinand with the Oswego High School Class of 1903 and his sister, Mary, with the OHS Class of 1904. Their descendants went on to contribute to the nation as they carved out careers as public school educators, college professors, and, for at least one of them, as a federal judge who eventually served on the FISA Court.
Strong women made their marks in local history as well. Sarah Raymond began her educational career teaching in one-room Kendall County schools during the Civil War and ended it as the superintendent of schools down in the normal college town of Bloomington. She was the first female school district superintendent in the nation when she was appointed in 1874. After her retirement in 1896, she moved to Boston for several years where she married and hobnobbed with such luminaries as Jane Austin, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Emily Murdock lost her brother, Alfred, to a rebel bullet during the Civil War Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. She went on to become a mystery novelist, writing several bestsellers under the pen name of Lawrence L. Lynch, the name of her first husband. This was at a time when women simply didn’t write mysteries, so she adopted the subterfuge of writing using a male pen name.
Other local historical heroes include Alfred Browne, who came and went in Kendall County’s history, first as a young soldier in the Union Army. He was tapped as one of the honor guards for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral car at Springfield after the President was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After the war, Browne, a strong believer in emancipation and racial equality, joined the Freedman’s Bureau in Montgomery, Alabama during Reconstruction to help educate former slaves. He found the struggle against the violent racism and terrorism turned against the South’s former slaves too much to bear, and returned to Kendall County. Taking up agriculture on the family farm outside Newark, Browne taught himself Norwegian so as to better communicate with his numerous Norwegian immigrant neighbors.
Margaret “Maggie” Shepard started out teaching country school before moving to Oswego to open her own millinery business. It proved so successful she became a major property owner in the village as well as a businesswoman. She also bucked the odds to adopt a daughter while still an unmarried single woman, before later marrying Oswego hardware retailer Tom Edwards.
And we can’t forget Nancy “Nannie” Hill, a Yorkville girl who went into teaching Kendall County rural schools before moving to Aurora to eventually become principal of Oak Street School on the city’s West Side. While she and one of the school’s female teachers toured Europe in the summer of 1914, World War I broke out. That required Hill and her companion to display large helpings of both pluck and luck to make their way through war-torn Europe to England and then back to North America despite the dangers of armies clashing on land and the threat of German submarines on the sea voyage home.
In April 1892, Florence K. Read became the first woman office-holder in Kendall County when she was elected to the Oswego School Board, which was quite an achievement.
But she wasn’t the first Kendall County woman actually nominated by a political party for a countywide office. That honor goes to Nettie Chittenden. She was nominated by the New Party in 1873 as the nation was beginning to suffer from one of its longest financial depressions. Called the Long Depression and the Panic of 1873, economic conditions didn’t improve for a decade. Farmers and laborers, desperate for change and fair treatment from railroad and other monopolies, formed the New Party in 1873 to elect candidates sympathetic to their issues. Chittenden, 26, was nominated for the office of county superintendent of schools, running against the GOP’s popular candidate, John R. Marshall, publisher and editor of the Kendall County Record, the county’s newspaper of record. Although they managed to elect a local circuit court judge, the rest of the New Party’s candidates, including Chittenden, did not fare well in the November election. Even so, a few New Party candidates were elected to the Illinois General Assembly as well as to local offices elsewhere in Illinois.
So, yes, there’s plenty of microhistory around these parts. Sometimes, those whose stories I’ve told realized they were having an impact beyond their small community on the wider world. Most did not, as they just kept on living their lives as best they could given the circumstances in which they found themselves. Their stories, and how they fit into the great mosaic of the history of the region, state, nation, and world continue to offer plenty of interesting grist for a microhistorian’s mill.
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.