Hard-won environmental gains owe a big debt to a local environmentalist

When I was a youngster, the old-timers used to regale us with stories about how clear and pure the Fox River was when they were young. Like many really good stories of days gone by, they weren’t true.

The Native People who arrived along the banks of the Fox River some 10,000 years ago were the first to modify the stream. The weirs and other structures they used to harvest the river’s fish gradually attracted river debris, filled in, and created or enlarged islands and otherwise changing the valley’s topography.

But it was the white settlers who emigrated to the Fox Valley beginning in the late 1820s who really modified the river in major ways. And quickly, too. Those pioneer farms began the erosion of the Fox Valley’s topsoil, and wetland drainage to create more cropland had a major impact on the river’s water levels.

The biggest changes to the river, however, were the numerous dams that began dotting the stream from its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa north all the way above the Wisconsin state line. The Fox Valley’s millwrights built low dams to power sawmills and gristmills to serve the valley’s growing population. The dams, built without floodgates that would have maintained an undercurrent to scour the river bottom, created still ponds that allowed the silt eroded from all those farms that rain washed into the stream to gradually settle out.

The machinery at the Parker Gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River just above Oswego was powered by one of the river’s many dams. This photo was probably taken around the turn of the 20th Century by local photographer Irvin Haines. (Little White School Museum collection)

The dams also barred fish from ascending the river to spawn, as well as ruining some prime spawning areas by covering them with silt. The dams, in effect, created short stretches of river habitat that had a serious impact on the river’s original vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

From the mid-19th Century on, the Fox River had become an economic engine for the entire valley. First, the mills provided economic boosts for their surrounding communities. Then, after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad was built linking Ottawa at the river’s mouth with towns as far north as Geneva, the river’s water itself, in the form of ice, could be marketed. Large ice harvesting operations were begun above every dam on the river. The ice warehoused during the annual winter harvests was shipped out for use in homes to keep food fresh in ice boxes and commercially to cool the beef and pork being shipped east from Chicago’s slaughterhouses in newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.

Clamshells recovered near the old Rehbehn Brothers Button Factory in Yorkville with button blanks drilled out. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fish were commercially harvested from the river, as were the freshwater mussels and clams that covered the riverbed. Harvested clam shells were sold to button factories—one was located in Yorkville for a few years—where special drills punched out mother-of-pearl button blanks in various sizes that were turned into finished buttons by further processing. In amongst the millions of clams harvested an occasional pearl of great price was discovered.

Then as the years passed and industrialization in the Fox Valley increased, the river came under new, additional stresses. City storm sewer systems directed stormwater directly into the river, along with significant debris (including manure from the era’s thousands of urban horses), leading to drastic swings in the river’s water quality and levels. Municipal sewer systems, which were admirable from a public health standpoint, piped sewage directly into the river. The industries up and down the river did the same, sending their waste downstream—out of sight out of mind, the policy seemed to be.

Some of that industrial waste was even more harmful to humans as well as the fish and other animals who lived in the river than the growing volume of human and animal waste flowing into the stream.

By the 1880s, some people began realizing that some of the river’s uses were, to say the least, incompatible with its ecological health—all those dams, for instance. The low dams in the river that allowed silt build-up behind them were also blockades to spawning fish. Remedies were possible, of course, at least to the migration of fish. Those were called fishways, structures added to dams that would (at least theoretically) allow fish to bypass the dams during annual spawning runs.

Irvin Haines sits atop what might be the wreckage of the fishway in the Parker Dam just above Oswego around 1903. Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice storage houses loom in the background. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dam owners, of course, didn’t want to spend the money on fishways. That led the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation requiring them.

In November 1882, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville: “Notice has been served on the owners of all dams on Fox river asking them to put in fishways, and the owners refuse. The State Fish Commissioners will begin suits in the courts, which the mill men will contest to test the constitutionality of the law. The dam-owners have formed a league and employed Hopkins & Aldrich as their attorneys.”

In January 1883, the Aurora Beacon noted: “We have neglected to mention that in the suit commenced by the Fish Commissioners against Messrs. Hord, Broadhead & Co., owners of the Montgomery Dam, the case was regularly placed before justice Baldwin, when the defendants allowed a judgment to be taken. From this they appealed to the Circuit Court–and from thence they say they will pursue it through the higher courts. A prominent point they propose to make is the indefiniteness of the law, which makes no provision as to what shall constitute a fishway, or how it shall be constructed.”

The dam owners did indeed continue to protest, fighting the law in the courts, but consistently lost and fishways were gradually installed in all the dams, though in practice they proved of little value.

But even if fishways were provided, the polluted character of the river militated against the Fox’s wildlife. On Sept. 18, 1890 the Record noted: “The fish of Fox and other small rivers must soon be exterminated if factories and cities continue to use the streams for sewers. The glucose factories up the river are poisoning the fish by wholesale, and the fish in Vermillion river at Streator are killed by the water pumped from coal mines and refuse from paper mills.”

Conditions only worsened with the dawn of the 20th Century. The Feb. 9, 1916 Record reported: “The [Illinois Rivers and Lakes] commission has surveyed the Fox river and discovered it to be ‘a dirty, evil smelling waterway’ from which the fish have been killed off. The reason is that its flow is not sufficient in the summer months to purify the sewage dumped in it.”

Jim Phillips speaks during a program presented during Jolliet-Marquette II Expedition 1973. The group reenacted Father Jacques Marquette and geographer Louis Jolliet’s 1673 expedition from the Straits of Mackinac to the Arkansas River and back. (Little White School Museum collection)

More laws were passed, but enforcement was either lax or nonexistent. And so that day in the late 1960s when Kendall County resident Jim Phillips was taking a walk and found dead baby ducks in a small stream near his house made him decide to do something to try to change the status quo. He assumed the alter ego of “The Fox” and using a combination of audacity and humor he began plaguing polluters in a series of guerilla raids designed to shine the harsh light of publicity and ridicule on them.

His efforts, small at first, snowballed. Pollution became big news. His efforts were helped by what he termed his “Kindred Spirits,” and copycats around the nation began to wage their own campaigns against air and water pollution.

Sympathetic officials at the national, state, and local levels listened and, amazingly, acted. It was an era when “conservative” and “conservation” were not enemies, and both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. acted in a bipartisan ecological campaign to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as similar agencies at the state and local levels all designed to not just stop pollution, but to reverse it and save the nation’s air and water.

The result? Today, the Fox, that “dirty, evil smelling waterway” of a century ago, is now a destination for anglers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers, and folks who just like enjoying nature. Gamefish and freshwater mussels and clams are again plentiful and the Fox is once again an economic engine for the towns dotting its banks.

Private citizens funded this permanent memorial to Jim “The Fox” Phillips overlooking the Fox River at Violet Patch Park, Ill. Route 25, Oswego. Informational signs explain how the environmental crusader helped save the Fox River. The graphic on the rock is how Phillips signed his anti-pollution exploits. (Little White School Museum collection)

In a time when national environmental policy is cause for great concern, it’s worth thinking about how far we’ve come and why it’s so important we continue to insist on clean air and water.

And as part of that process, you might want to stop by the Little White School Museum at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego and visit their latest special exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” which will be open now through August. The exhibit was mounted by undergraduate students in the Exhibit Design class of Aurora University’s Museum Studies Program. Museum hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but like all local history museums, they welcome donations. For more information on the exhibit, call the museum at 630-554-2999, or visit their website, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

For more information on Jim Phillips, check out the new book by Pauline Marie Gambill, The Fox Feats and Shark Tales of Pollution Fighter James F. Phillips and Animal Rights Warrior Steven O. Hindi, just published last year and available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Preserving some local history out on the Wheatland prairie…

So I went back to the old neighborhood last Saturday to help celebrate the new name of Tamarack Settlement Park.

Formerly carrying the anodyne name Northwest Community Park, the 30.4 acre site is located just down the road from my grandparents’ farm and a couple miles south of the farm my folks worked until I was eight years old.

Tina Beaird wears a big smile as her dream of commemorating the old Tamarack settlement created by 19th Century Scots immigrants in the mid-19th Century came true with the dedication of the park’s new name on April 23.

Thanks to the activism of my friend Tina Beaird, the Plainfield Park District agreed to rename the park to commemorate the Scots settlers who arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s to settle the (literally) treeless prairie between Plainfield and Oswego. According to W.W. Stevens writing about the 36 square mile Wheatland Township in Past and Present of Will County, Illinois (1907), “It is wholly prairie, there never having been to exceed five acres of timber in the whole township.”

Stephen Findlay and family arrived in the area in 1844 and put down deep roots—his family still lives in the area. Other Scots including the Clow, McMicken, Gilmour, King, McLaren, and Stewart families soon joined them. Then in 1852, Thomas Burnett also arrived after a circuitous journey from his native Scotland.

Born in 1811 the son of a weaver, Burnett too took up the weaving trade until 1834 when he decided to try his luck across the Atlantic in the United States. According to his biography, he first stopped in Saratoga County, N.Y., then tried his luck west in Michigan before returning east to Connecticut and then New York again. But in 1852, he decided to try his luck prairie farming in Illinois, settling in the Findlays’ Scots settlement in which eventually became Will County’s Wheatland Township.

This 1873 plat map illustrates the heavy population of Scots settlers living around the old Tamarack Post Office. Modern Heggs Road runs due north and south past the post office, while modern 127th Street (Simons Road in Kendall County) runs east and west.

Sometime during his travels, Burnett had apparently become fond of tamarack trees. Although appearing to be evergreens, tamaracks lose their needles during the winter and regrow them each spring. They favor wetlands with plenty of sunshine—which really doesn’t describe Wheatland Township, but Burnett brought some along with him anyway and planted them near the intersection of modern 127th Street and Heggs Road. And thus the intersection soon became known as Tamarack Corners and the surrounding area as the Tamarack neighborhood.

The area got it’s own post office soon after Burnett arrived with his tamarack trees. The Tamarack Post Office opened on Dec. 8, 1858 in a private residence at the northwest corner of the 127th Street-Heggs Road intersection.

Then a couple years later, the Tamarack School was built at the southeast corner of the intersection on a small parcel owned by Scots farmer John Brown. The small frame building housed grades 1-8, and served an area a couple miles in diameter. The goal of rural school districts was to make sure students didn’t have to walk more than around a mile and a half to class. Generations of students went through Tamarack School for their first eight grades—and for most of them those were all the grades they finished.

Tamarack School as it looked in 1940

Eventually, blacksmith William Narin opened a shop a short distance east of the intersection on 127th Street, next to the house of ditch digger James Narin.

Postmaster Hugh Allen not only managed the post office, but also maintained a small store as well, a common practice for the thousands of rural postmasters across the nation. And, in fact, Allen’s small store was the only store within the bounds of Wheatland Township for several years.

In May 1848, a group of Scots Presbyterians met at Stephen Findlay’s home and established the Wheatland Presbyterian Church. Their first church building was erected a mile north of Tamarack Corners at the intersection of Heggs and Scotch Church roads in 1856. The original church building was replaced by a much larger structure in 1906 that still stands, and which, as the Wheatland United “Scotch” Presbyterian Church, is still attended by some of the descendants of the congregation’s original founders.

The old neighborhood in its modern guise, with subdivisions popping up all around it.

While some small rural crossroads hamlets grew into legitimate villages, many, including Tamarack, did not. It’s possible that the decision to locate the Scotch Church a mile north of Tamarack inhibited its growth. Certainly, the advent of the U.S. Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery in 1896 led to a major change in rural lifestyles as many small country post offices closed. The Tamarack Post Office closed its doors on April 15, 1901. And without the post office revenue, Allen’s tiny store could not succeed. Instead, the store’s business moved a few miles away to Normantown on the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway’s line running from Plainfield to Aurora. While Normantown’s post office (1893-1903) was also a casualty of Rural Free Delivery, the small hamlet’s grain elevator proved a big enough draw to lure customers to the store there, which later also added gasoline to their product line to serve the growing number of automobiles. When the U.S. Route 30—the Lincoln Highway—was finally rerouted and paved from Plainfield to Aurora following the railroad right-of-way, the store became a forerunner of what we’d call a mini-mart these days.

Tamarack School also eventually closed in the late 1940s, consolidating with Church School a mile north just across Scotch Church Road from the Scotch Church.

By the time I was growing up a mile north of the Scotch Church in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only two private homes marked the former Tamarack intersection hamlet. All that remained of Tamarack School was the hand pump on the old well. The post office and blacksmith shop had disappeared without a trace.

Strangely enough, my grandparents’ small farmhouse about a quarter mile west of Tamarack Corners still stands, though surrounded by the Wheatland Plains Subdivision.

Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time in that neighborhood, staying with my grandparents just up the road a bit and visiting with the Bowers, who had remodeled one of the two remaining houses at the intersection. Their son, Bob, was three years older than I, but we still had a good time playing together, and would often walk down the road to where it crossed a small creek to play in the running water as I imagine boys had been doing since those first Scots settlers arrived.

“Weren’t your parents worried about the traffic as you walked down there?” my wife wondered as she watched cars and trucks whizzing by on now-paved 127th Street. And I had to explain that other than the mail carrier, Ralton Sillers making his daily rounds, there wasn’t any traffic to speak of back in those days.

And that spot where we played so many years ago is now a naturalized wetland and part of Tamarack Settlement Park. It is kind of nice to know that as all the former farms that once surrounded Tamarack Corners develop and become covered with new homes that at least a piece of the old landscape will be preserved, even including some of the very native prairie plants the Findlays and Burnetts and those other families saw when they arrived all those many years ago.

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Spring and the start of the fur trade’s seasonal cycle likely didn’t include our Fox River

It would have been a grand sight, seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River here in what’s now northern Illinois as the winter fur-trapping season ended. The water sparkling as it dripped off their red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water, and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?

If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.

But the truth is, the Fox River has always been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy at best during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.

Every spring for well over a century, brigades of huge 35 to 40-foot freight canoes—called canots du maître (master canoes) or Montreal canoes—set off from Montreal and Quebec, each canoe laden with some three tons of goods destined for fur trading posts all over the Great Lakes region—and beyond. The route started just above the Lachine Rapids at Montreal on the Ottawa River. Paddling upstream via a number of often dangerous and usually difficult portages on the Ottawa, the arduous route then ran up the small Mattawa River, where paddling upstream ended at its source on Trout Lake and crossed the height of land where streams began flowing into Lake Huron. From there it was down into Lake Nipissing and then into the French River for 70 miles of easy paddling downstream into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for the sometimes stormy paddle to the fur trade depot of Michilimackinac at the straits between lakes Huron and Michigan.

Reenactors portray voyageurs paddling a 35-foot Montreal birch bark canoe as it would have appeared during the period the British dominated the fur trade following the French and Indian War beginning in the 1760s.

There, the goods were broken down into smaller cargoes for smaller 20 to 25-foot north canoes that were handier on the inland trade routes to the actual post of traders, such as the one at Chicago and posts on the Illinois River. The main route to get to the Illinois Country was via the Chicago portage—which, depending on how full or empty the Des Plaines River was could be up to 60 miles long—or the St. Joseph River east of Chicago.

To get to the Chicago portage, the brigades had to paddle right past the mouth of the Root River just south of today’s Milwaukee in modern Wisconsin, a short portage from which led to the headwaters of our Fox River—which is not to be confused with the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. So the Root-Fox route would have cut off some distance to reach the Illinois River, but the Fox usually wasn’t deep enough. Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player indeed.

In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a  shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher—Starved Rock—ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to their destination in central Illinois deciding to go on to Chicago instead of chancing finding deep enough water in the Fox.

Map probably drawn by Rene Paul of St. Louis in 1815 and subsequently copied by Lt. James Kearney, U.S. Army. Paul was St. Louis City Engineer and also worked as a surveyor. (Source: Plate XL, Indian Villages of the Illinois Country, Vol. 2, Part 1, Atlas, Sarah Jones Tucker, Illinois State Museum, 1942)

The route they investigated went up the Root River and then over a nine-mile portage to Muskego Lake in what is today southeastern Waukesha County, Wis., which empties into the upper reaches of our Fox River.

Traveling in 1699, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Seminary priest on his way to the Mississippi River, reported that “some savages had led us to hope we could ascend [the Root River in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [our Fox River] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either.”

Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root–Muskego Lake–Fox route was apparently used by at least some hardy and adventuresome travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.

The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by Native People. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s also likely villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.

During the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which, in turn, moved to their favored winter hunting grounds so as to spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times of the cold and snowy months.

The Fox River is picked out in green on this map of Native American villages in the Fox and Illinois River valleys as of about 1830. (Source: Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, Helen Hornbeck Tanner, University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)

Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.

Press for compressing cured hides into 90 pound pièces for the fur trade. Note the wrapped bundles of hides atop the press and to the right of the press mechanism. I took this photo many years ago at the Snake River Fur Post, a reconstruction operated by the Minnesota Historical Society at Pine City, MN.

The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and, later, British traders starting in the early 18th Century. In the late spring, canoe brigades arrived from Montreal and Quebec to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried, and packed into 90 lb. bundles, called pièces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season–which had been carefully packed in the same dimension 90 lb. pièces as the furs would be–and reloaded the big freight canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the Ottawa River.

By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birch bark freight canoes and were using Mackinaw boats, sturdy double-ended craft that could be either rowed or sailed and could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems and fragility inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, when settlement began in earnest here in the Fox Valley, the fur trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The furbearers had been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur pelt suppliers were being forced west of the Mississippi by government removal policies, and northern Illinois was rapidly being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.

Even though the Fox River may not been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.

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“Wind Talkers” of World War II weren’t all Navajos

The feature film “Wind Talkers” was probably the first time most people heard that Native Americans, members of the Navajo Tribe in the movie’s plot, were pressed into service during World War II to create secure communications. The Native People, speaking their own language, foiled efforts by both the Germans and Japanese to listen in.

But the Navajos were far from the only tribespeople involved in the project, and World War II wasn’t the first time Native Americans were pressed into service to provide secure voice communications during wartime.

Choctaw “code talkers” of World War I. (Texas Military Force Museum)

During World War I, the men of the 142nd Infantry Regiment, comprised of National Guardsmen from Texas and Oklahoma, had only just arrived in France when they were suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into combat when a portion of the French line collapsed and Germans poured into rear areas.

During the confusion, an officer of the 142nd overheard some of his men talking back and forth in a strange language, which turned out to be Choctaw. The army was suffering because its communications were being intercepted by the Germans who were tapping their landline phones, and the officer’s bright idea was to put Choctaws at both ends of the unit’s telephone lines to translate from English to Choctaw at one end and back into English at the other. The idea proved a rousing success.

It was so successful that according to the U.S. Army, after the war, Germany sent some scholars to the U.S. to covertly study Native American languages in case another war broke out, but the government discovered their aim and sent them back home.

The reason the code talkers were so effective was that of all the Indian languages, only the Cherokees had a written language, famously developed by Sequoia. As a result, the only way to learn any of their languages was to live with the tribes, which pretty much limited the opportunities to missionaries and government officials.

Ironically, the U.S. government had done its level best in a shameful effort to eradicate the languages and cultures of Native People, going so far as to punish students at government-run Indian schools who were caught speaking their own languages.

By the time World War II broke out, their best efforts to stamp out the Indians’ languages had—fortunately—failed and the idea of ‘code talkers’ was quickly revived. The Navajos who served with the U.S. Marines are the best known code talkers, but both the Marines and the Army also made use of servicemen from the Comanche, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Choctaw, Creek, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Seminole, Oneida, Pawnee, Sac and Fox, and both Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes as well as many others. In all, some 33 tribes and tribal subgroups served during World War II as code talkers.

168th Infantry in Tunisia. (America in World War II Magazine)

The Sac and Fox Tribe lived in Illinois and Wisconsin before tribal land was seized by the government and they were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi in the 1830s. Even so, with war on the horizon, Native American men began flocking to the colors to volunteer their services. Early in 1941, on the eve of World War II, a group of young men from the Fox and Sac homeland at Tama, Iowa enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. They were assigned to the 168th Infantry Regiment, a component of the 34th Infantry Division.

Eight of the men were assigned to the communication section of Company H in the 168th’s 2nd Battalion. The Fox and Sac code talkers included Dewey Roberts, Edward Benson, Melvin Twin, and Dewey Youngbear, and two sets of brothers, Frank and Willard Sanache and Judy Wayne Wabaunasee and Mike Wayne Wabaunasee (whose surname ought to ring a bell with Fox Valley residents).

Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Tribe. (Little White School Museum collection)

I haven’t been able to track down the origin of the Wabaunasee boys’ surname, but it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility they might have some distant relationship to our Chief Waubonsee, even if he was a Potawatomi and they weren’t. “Our” Chief Waubonsee was the primary war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi Band and a confidant of the famed Native American leader Tecumseh and was at the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812 where Tecumseh was killed in action. Waubonsee and his friend Shabbona returned to the Fox Valley where they both lived until the region’s Native People were forcibly removed west of the Mississippi in 1836 and 1837.

In our area, a creek, a high school, and a junior college all honor Chief Waubonsee.

After training in Louisiana, the men of the 34th Division were loaded aboard transports and sailed to Northern Ireland where they received more training, before being assigned to the invasion of North Africa.

The 34th Division went ashore at Algiers and then moved on into Tunisia where they collided with Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in some of the U.S. Army’s first heavy land warfare of World War II. In fact, the Fox and Sac boys from Tama became the first code talkers to find themselves in combat.

And it didn’t go well. At the battles of Faid and Kasserine passes in February 1943 the inexperience and sometimes downright incompetence of the U.S. Army’s commanders became all too apparent, as the Germans and Italians chewed up both the 1st Armored Division’s unwieldy Grant tanks and the badly deployed men in the 168th Infantry.

And given their positions as communications scouts, three of the Sac and Fox code talkers were captured, Frank Sanache by the Italians, and Dewey Youngbear and Judy Wayne Wabaunasee by the Germans. All three spent the rest of the war in German prisoner of war camps, only liberated at the end of the conflict. Youngbear, though, escaped several times during his captivity, only to be recaptured.

Seminole Code Talker Edmund Harjo wasn’t honored for his World War II service until 2013.

Although the code talkers served with distinction, and were vital parts of the war effort, their service was considered a military secret until the 1960s and so they never received the recognition they so richly deserved. Not until 2001 were the Navajo code talkers honored by President George H.W. Bush, but even then they received non-military Congressional Gold Medals.

Former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, learning that Iowa had also produced code talkers, got the ball rolling to honor all the code talkers. But government being what it is these days, they weren’t all finally recognized for their service until 2013, long after most had died. Youngbear, for instance, died in 1948 of tuberculosis contracted as a result of his captivity.

As Edmond Harjo, 96, an Oklahoma Seminole code talker and one of the few who lived to be honored, noted, the honor was a long time—too long a time—coming.

 “If I was young, I would enjoy it,” he mused.

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Everyone thought these local landmarks would be around forever, but they’ve completely disappeared…

One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.

That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.

For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.

Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.

The Parker Mills about 1900 in a photo taken by Irvin Haines. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the foreground on the east bank of the Fox River. The gristmill is on the west bank with the miller’s house behind it and to the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.

Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.

Turbines like this one on display in Montgomery ran most of the mills on the Fox River.

The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.

Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.

Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.

A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice houses above the Parker Mill dam at Oswego. The operation produced hundreds of rail cars of ice annually. (Little White School Museum collection)

What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.

Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.

There is, however, a trace of another once-thriving business, and that’s the depot, sidings, and other facilities once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Fox River Branch Line at Oswego.

The Oswego Stockyards. The Waubonsie Creek bridge on Adams Street is visible upper center, and the old feed mill, later a home on the north side of the creek is visible just to the right–upstream–from the bridge. (Little White School Museum collection)

The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.

Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.

Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.

The Fox River Butter Company’s creamery located on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society photo)

The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”

McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.

Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.

The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.

A southbound interurban trolley crosses the 300-foot trestle taking it over the CB&Q tracks in Oswego around 1910. (Little White School Museum collection)

The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.

The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.

Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.

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Heading west to Illinois in the 1830s: A little perspective on modern traffic problems

The earliest American settlers came to Kendall County starting in the late 1820s on foot, and by wagon, flatboat, and steamship on Lake Michigan via Chicago.

Oswego’s first settlers, William and Rebecca Wilson and their children, along with their extended family, the Daniel, John, and Walter Pearces, traveled here to the Illinois prairie by wagon to settle permanently in the summer of 1833. The four men had walked west the summer before prospecting for good land and decided the area at and near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River would be a good spot to settle. They brought their families the next year.

Oswego in 1838 showing Daniel Pearce’s claim circled in red and the southernmost lobe of the Big Woods on the east side of the Fox River shaded in light green. (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1834, John and William Wormley walked all the way to Oswego Township. According to Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian, they walked from New York State with nothing but their rifles and a change of clothing. The Wormleys said they averaged 36 miles per day on the trip. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty good going. U.S. Cavalry standards usually called for a march by horse units of 20 miles per day.

When they got to the mid-Fox Valley, they decided this was the area in which they wanted to settle, so they walked all the way back and brought their families out by horse and wagon the next year. Like the Pearces, descendants of the Wormleys still live in the Oswego area.

Those who travelled by wagon had a longer trip, but they could also carry a good deal more equipment and household items with them. Plows and scythes were the main farming implements packed, while the women packed spinning wheels, quilts, candle molds, and seed for the first year’s crop. Sometimes treasured furniture was brought along to make the prairie cabin more comfortable and as a reminder of their former homes and lives.

An immigrant wagon in an 1833 illustration.

Pioneers who came by wagon sometimes brought livestock along with them, from chickens and cattle to milk cows. Cows not only could provide fresh milk and cream on the trip, as well as butter. Butter could be made after a fashion while traveling by putting cream in a covered bucket and hanging it from the rear axle of the wagon. The constant jolting and bumping and jouncing of the wagon over the prairie eventually churned the cream into butter.

Settlers who came by wagon from the settled East were in for a shock as they encountered what passed for roads farther west. Roads that were laid through wooded areas still had tree stumps left m the roadway in the 1830s and early 1840s. The stumps were generally cut within two feet of the road surface so that wagons could clear them.

Although the roads did exist, the western residents of the era didn’t seem to be real clear on the concept of government-owned roads. For instance, a traveler on the National Road from Wheeling, West Virginia to Vandalia reported during a journey to Illinois in the 1840’s that “On passing a house newly built we had to avoid a deep hole dug right in the middle of the road (this was the State Road be it remembered), from which the clay for daubing the chimney had evidently been taken. To be sure, the road was a mere track, but there was a good deal of passage on it, and it was the route of a stage carrying the mail.”

Settlers who wished to travel by flatboat first journeyed to Wheeling, Pittsburgh, or some other town on the Ohio River, where their wagon and team were exchanged in trade for a flatboat and usually some cash. The journey down the Ohio brought settlers to Shawneetown in southern Illinois where their flatboat would be traded, along with some cash, for another team and wagon for the trip to the prairies of northern Illinois. Flatboats had value because they were made of sawn lumber, something that was not overly common and so was of some value on the Illinois frontier.

Ten year-old Della Agusta Southworth and her family traveled on the Great Lakes to Chicago in 1838 aboard the schooner Detroit. Ironically, they sailed from Oswego, New York, and after arriving at Chicago, settled in the new village of Oswego, Illinois–named after the New York city. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes – Bowling Green State University)

For settlers with enough money, and who didn’t want to bring a lot of personal possessions or livestock with them, the quickest way to get to Illinois from Eastern states was via the Great Lakes. Steamboat travel was finally becoming commonplace in the 1840’s as a method of traversing the lakes, but sailing ships still predominated. Settlers usually got to Albany as best they could and then took the Erie Canal to Buffalo on Lake Erie. From there, they would board a steamboat for a quick passage (which was also expensive), or would take a lake schooner for a less expensive, though more leisurely (depending on the weather), sailing voyage to Chicago.

Della Agusta Southworth—later Mrs. Lyell Aldrich—an early settler in Kendall County, left an interesting record of such a sailing voyage. Mrs. Aldrich’s family came west to Illinois in 1838 when she was a 10 year-old girl.

“We took passage on the schooner ‘Detroit’ at Oswego, N.Y., on July 6, 1838, and five weeks later arrived in Chicago on Aug. 12. The Welland Canal with its 25 locks, almost one to a mile, was than not constructed to admit easy passage for so large a vessel as ours. So frequent delays occurred from running around and getting stuck in the locks. The keel had been taken off the schooner to save space, which caused her to drift in all directions.

“At Mackinac Island head winds delayed us for more than a week giving us time to visit the places of interest. When we finally reached Chicago, we sailed up the river toward the west, landing on the bank opposite the old log fort.”

It never gets old for me to compare 19th Century travel to travel today. These days, it is about a day’s drive from here to Niagara Falls via four-lane highways—no more waiting a week up at the Straits for the wind to change or the entire trip taking more than a month.

I always think it’s valuable to keep such facts in mind to offer a bit of perspective as we complain about today’s heavy traffic, gasoline prices, or road construction delays.

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Filed under History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

‘Maggie’ Shepard Edwards: A local success story for Women’s History Month

Too often, local history is told from the viewpoint of the men who dominated local government and business. For all of its early history, after all, men were the only ones who could vote or hold local public office.

But even during pioneer times, while it wasn’t easy, women owned Kendall County businesses, farmed, and were property owners.

Life for women without husbands was not easy during the 19th Century, nor for most of the 20th century, for that matter. But some women, through shear ability, intelligence, and fortitude managed not only to survive but to thrive.

One of those successful women was Margaret “Maggie” Shepard Edwards, an Oswego property owner and successful entrepreneur. By the time she died in February 1929, Maggie Edwards was a respected and beloved member of the community.

Margaret Ruth Shepard was born March 8, 1846 in Kendall Township, Kendall County, Illinois, the daughter of a prosperous farmer and his wife, David and Susanna Mary (LeStourgeon) Shepard. Mary died in 1856, and in February 1857, David remarried Elizabeth H. Ewing.

Margaret, called Maggie by her family and friends, taught in one-room schools in NaAuSay Township here in Kendall County before moving on to Centralia to teach school, probably to make more money than local one-room school districts were willing to pay.

Margaret Ruth Shepard Edwards (Little White School Museum collection)

She arrived back in Kendall County in July 1874, apparently determined to go into business for herself.

After moving into Oswego from the family farm in 1875, then 29 years old, she went into millinery, the manufacture and sale of ladies’ hats and fashion accessories. A year later, she opened her own milliner shop in the old Smith Building at the northwest corner of Main and Washington. In the summer of 1878, she moved the business to the second floor of the Shaver Building on the east side of Main Street between Washington and Jackson. Five years after that, she moved the business yet again into a former private residence in downtown Oswego.

By that time she was a financial success, and she bought the home in which her business was located a few months later. Only a month after that, she moved the business again, this time to a home on Washington Street.

Maggie Shepard wasn’t just an active businesswoman, she was also active in local politics, even though women didn’t have the right to vote. An enthusiastic Republican, she was a strong supporter of Gen. James A. Garfield during his run for the presidency in 1880. Noted the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Oct. 28, 1880: “The Republican meeting Tuesday evening partook of the usual form, the street parade and music preceding the speaking; the youth’s Garfield guards (same might be called the Maggie Shepard company, as she is the funder of it) elicited much attention while on duty in forming the rear of the parade.”

During that era, political parties erected tall wooden victory poles from which they flew political flags and other decorations advertising their candidates. For the 1880 election, the Republicans raised their Garfield pole while local democrats raised their pole to honor their candidate, Winfield Scott Hancock. Wags would sometimes poke their political rivals by sabotaging each other’s victory poles. It appears Maggie Shepard was audacious enough to give Oswego’s Democrats a tweak after Garfield narrowly beat Hancock by less than 2,000 votes.

The week after the election, on Nov. 11, 1880, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “During one night of last week a black streamer was raised on the Hancock pole, and of course the presumption is that it was done by some one or more of the opposite party, and there are some that think it was Miss Maggie Shepard that did it, which, however, is not very likely to be the case. Maggie was extra zealous in the campaign, and she may have exhibited undue partisan spirit, but I don’t believe she hoisted that flag; no, I won’t believe it.”

In 1885 at the age of 39, probably fearing she would never find a husband, Maggie adopted a five year-old girl, Stella, from the Chicago Orphan Asylum. It is unclear how common it was for single women to adopt children in the 1880s—I suspect it was pretty uncommon—but it’s probably fair to suggest it was also uncommon for a single woman of that era to own her own business and house, not to mention adopt a child.

Then in March 1888, Maggie moved her millinery business one last time, renting the home formerly occupied, and owned, by Oswego pioneer Marcius C. Richards. As a business location, it was a good one, right on one of Oswego’s main thoroughfares.

Maggie (second from left) and Tom Edwards and Maggie’s daughter, Stella (with bicycle) pose outside their newly remodeled home in Oswego about 1891. The home, on Washington Street opposite the Church of the Good Shepherd, still stands as a local landmark to pioneer women business owners. (Little White School Museum photo)

The house was—and still is—situated on Washington Street across from the Church of the Good Shepherd, adjoining the alley paralleling Main Street from Washington to Jackson Street behind the Main Street brick block. On Jan. 23, 1889, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Maggie R. Shepard, Oswego’s successful and popular milliner, has bought the M.C. Richards’ place, of which she was the tenant, and by the way that sagacious new clever correspondent for the Herald has thrown out the hint that Maggie may take in a partner; she is now well fixed for such a step.”

Maggie based her success on hard work and on making sure she always had the latest in women’s fashions available for her customers. Reported the Record from Oswego on Sept. 18, 1889: “Maggie Shepard went Monday to Chicago and will spend several days there selecting goods for the fall stock.”

Proving that love doesn’t come only to the young, Maggie, then 44, married Thomas C. Edwards, a native of Wales and an Oswego hardware merchant, in July 1890. The couple lived in Maggie’s house and milliner shop on Washington Street where she continued to carry on her business. Shortly after the marriage, they remodeled and enlarged the home, including adding a new, fashionable, bay window.

In the fall of 1897, Maggie decided to retire. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent put it: “Mrs. Maggie Edwards, after carrying on most successfully the millinery business here for 20 years, proposes now to sell out and retire. It is the only establishment of the kind in town and hence a good opening for some one to get into a profitable business.”

Maggie’s adopted daughter, meanwhile, grew up in Oswego and kept the name Shepard until her marriage. As the Record reported on June 26, 1901: “One of the prettiest weddings of the season occurred Wednesday evening June 19 at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Edwards when their daughter, Miss Stella Shepard, became the wife of Mr. Albert L. Woolley, oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. George Woolley. A beautiful new house is being erected about a mile east of town where Mr. and Mrs. Woolley will be at home to their friends after Aug. 1.”

Tom Edwards died Dec. 23, 1911. On Jan. 3, 1912, the Record’s “Tamarack and Wheatland” correspondent remembered Edwards: “A number from here attended the funeral of Thomas Edwards in Oswego. Deceased formerly owned property about a mile and a half west of Tamarack and at one time lived here and had many friends who were shocked to hear of his death.”

With Tom’s death, Maggie continued to live in Oswego where she traveled and enjoyed her daughter and her Woolley grandchildren. She died at 82 years of age on Feb. 17, 1929 in Oswego.

As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Mrs. Edwards will be remembered as a woman of an especially bright and sunny disposition, which she maintained to the last. She had been failing in health and strength for the last few years and this winter made her home with her daughter, Stella. Gradually, she grew weaker and while not confined to her bed, fell asleep Saturday night to awaken on the other shore.”

Maggie was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, bringing to a close a successful, eventful, and well-lived life.

It wasn’t easy for single women to be successful business owners in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it was possible given sufficient drive and talent. Which, come to think of it, still pretty much holds true today.

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

Nathan Hughes: “A quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits”

Back in April, 2012, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield caused quite a splash when they announced the acquisition of a photograph of a black Civil War veteran from Illinois. It was of such great interest because identified photographs of any of Illinois’ black Civil War veterans are so vanishingly rare.

In fact, the formal portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes of NaAuSay Township here in Kendall County acquired by the Lincoln Library is the only identified example we know of.

For local residents it was, of course, of great interest to know that such a historic photograph is an image of a Kendall County resident. For those of us who volunteer at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, though, it was of even more interesting since the museum has had an identical original print of the portrait in its collections for several years.

This 1893 portrait of Nathan and Jane (Lucas) Hughes is the only identified photo of a member is the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment known. Original prints of the photo are in the collections of the Little White School Museum, Oswego; and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. (Little White School Museum collection)

And a fine portrait it is, too, taken by Sigmund Benesohn in his Yorkville studio. Neither the Lincoln Library’s nor the Little White School’s prints are dated, but we figured it was probably taken in 1893 to observe the Hughes’ 10th anniversary. Nathan and Jane Lucas Hughes were married in Kendall County on Oct. 17, 1883.

Benensohn bought Charles Sabin’s Yorkville photo studio in April 1893. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall reported on May 17: “Our new Yorkville photographer, Mr. Benensohn, is doing very fine work. He is an expert in his line, having learned the best points of artistic photography in Europe.”

And thanks to the marvels of newspaper advertising, we know exactly when that exceedingly rare photo of Nathan Hughes and his wife was taken. On July 19, 1893, Marshall plugged Benesohn’s new business again, fortunately adding a critical detail: “Artist Benensohn is making some extra fine pictures of Fox river scenery with his new view camera—an instrument that cost nearly $150. His river and street views are wonderfully fine and make us more proud than ever of our picturesque village. Take a look at his show-case in front of the Hobbs block. His portraits of Comrade and Mrs. Nathan Hughes are true to the life, and shows how excellent is Benensohn’s work in every line of photography.”

The resulting portrait does indeed show Nathan Hughes sitting comfortably with Jane standing at his left, arm resting on his shoulder. Nathan is wearing a formal frock coat with a boutonniere and, most interestingly, a Grand Army of the Republic membership pin on his left lapel, thus Marshall’s “Comrade” formulation.

The GAR was the Civil War veterans’ organization, the American Legion and the VFW of its day rolled into one. Membership pins were bronze, symbolically cast from melted-down barrels of rebel cannons. In Kendall County, GAR posts were established at Plano and Yorkville. Hughes—as well as Marshall—was a member of the Yorkville post, where he sometimes served as an officer, a tribute to his war service. In fact, Hughes was the only Black GAR member in Kendall County.

He deserved the organization’s tribute because he really had to work to serve. The first time he fought for his own freedom was as a young man who had a wife and three children, all living as slaves in Scott County, Kentucky. Hughes managed to escape from his owner, though he had to leave his family behind as he made his way north. He eventually ended up in northern Illinois.

Unfortunately, no one interviewed Hughes during his lifetime, so we don’t know what his feelings were when the South attacked the U.S. Army’s Fort Sumpter starting the Civil War, but it’s likely he was eager to do his part. At that time, blacks were not allowed to serve in the military, other than as support personnel such as teamsters and cooks. But the times were gradually changing and with the positive examples of such all-black military units as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the idea that black Americans could be good soldiers began to be accepted.

It was an idea partly driven by practical need as the war dragged on and the pool of eligible recruits dwindled. So it was almost inevitable when, on May 22, 1863, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops.

Illinois Gov. Richard Yates began recruiting a Black regiment—eventually designated the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment—late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to factors including lower pay for black soldiers and the brutal treatment black prisoners of war received at the hands of the rebels. But gradually the regiment’s companies were filled out with volunteers from all over the state. It was formally mustered into U.S. service at Quincy on April 24, 1864. Eventually, some 1,400 Prairie State Black soldiers would serve against the South in the 29th and other units.

Hughes was among those enlisting in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, where he was assigned to the regiment’s Company B. At the time, Hughes was no youngster. His military records state he was 33 years old; family tradition, however, says he was born in 1824, which would have made him 40 at the time of his enlistment. It’s possible he shaved seven years off his age in order to assure the army would take him.

The Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, VA during the seige of Richmond near the end of the Civil War capped an attempt to breach rebel entrenchments. Thousands of U.S. casualties resulted, including Nathan Hughes.

After some brief training, the 29th traveled east by rail, where they marched down 14th Avenue in Washington, D.C. on their way to the front in Virginia. As it happened, the regiment marched right past President Abraham Lincoln who was also riding down 14th Street that day.

The 29th had an eventful war, participating in Grant’s (unsuccessful) attempt to trap Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia before it reached the fortifications around Richmond, then in the disastrous Battle of the Crater in the Richmond fortifications at Petersburg, Va., as well as battles at Boydton Plank Road and Hatcher’s Run. As Victor Hicken observed in Illinois and the Civil War: “This was hard soldiering.”

Hughes was badly wounded during the Battle of the Crater, shot in the left leg near his hip. He must have been a tough guy, because unlike so many of his wounded comrades, he recovered from both his wound and being treated in one of the military hospitals of the era. He was released from the hospital just in time to march and fight (and be wounded again, this time in the hand) with the 29th all the way to Appomattox Courthouse where he was on hand for Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865.

But there were areas of the country yet to liberate even after Lee’s surrender. On May 9, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then sail along the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.

By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston, Texas with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Granger intended to make a point with the soldiers he brought. Units that reportedly went ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 were all comprised of Black soldiers and included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.

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

On June 19th—a day that would be celebrated by Black Americans for ever after as Juneteenth—Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. Granger’s order read:

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

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

So Nathan Hughes was not only on hand for the rebel army’s surrender at Appomattox, but was also on hand to witness the first Juneteenth that celebrates the final legal liberation of slaves in the United States.

After his regiment was mustered out of U.S. service, Hughes went to Kentucky and brought his three children north to Kendall County. His wife decided to stay in Kentucky, apparently unwilling to travel north to live in unfamiliar country in Illinois.

Hughes and his children settled on a small farm along Minkler Road south of Oswego. He outlived his first two wives, Mary Lightfoot and Analinda Odell before marrying Jane Lucas, became a respected member of the Minkler Road farming community, and lived to see his grandchildren become the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County. As the Kendall County Record put it in Hughes’ 1910 obituary: “It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits…A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the ‘boys in blue.’”

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The food’s the thing, no matter what season it is

The phenomenon of working mothers seems considered by many to be a relatively new one, but anyone who grew up on a farm lived with a working mother, whether she left the farm to work part- or full-time in an office or factory or whether she raised chickens to sell eggs, gardened, and did the other things farm wives and mothers do.

My wife and I are, I understand from stories that pop up from time to time, unusual in that both of us grew up in 1950s households where our mothers held full-time jobs outside the home—both working as small business bookkeepers.

I got to thinking about the subject because of food. My wife suggests this is the usual motivation for my thought process on virtually any subject. Take Delaware: crab boil. The Chesapeake Bay area: crab cakes. Columbus, Ohio: Schmidt’s German Restaurant. Missouri: barbecue. Kansas City: Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue (Bryant’s is to barbecue as Tiffany is to diamond watches—only more so). Iowa: Maid-Rites; Ottumwa, IA: Canteens (which are to Maid-Rites as Bryant’s BBQ is to a McRib). California: don’t go there; they can’t even make decent pizza.

Our farm out in Wheatland Township a few years before we moved.

So anyway, I was thinking about food. My wife, during her working years as an elementary school learning center director, perfected cooking supper in no more than 20 minutes, and even better, making things we both really liked.

After my family moved off the farm to town back in 1954, my mother, on the other hand, prepared food that was virtually identical to the things we ate when we lived on the farm, despite working a full 40-hour week. No one ever accused my wife of being a sluggard, but my mother was a sort of human dynamo who took her housework duties very seriously indeed and who loved cooking, eating and get this—washing dishes!

Somehow, every morning before I left for school, she cooked a full breakfast: cereal, eggs, bacon, toast, juice…the works. That, of course, was left over from our days on the farm. Back in those days, my folks got up early, dad off to feeding livestock and milking our cow (when we had one) and my mom down to the kitchen where she baked a pie and started preparing breakfast for my dad, my two sisters and me, so that my sisters could catch the bus for school. By the time my dad came in to eat, he’d already been up for a couple hours doing hard work, and he was hungry. A full breakfast always included pie for dessert. Because we always had dessert.

Somehow, somebody got my mom to stop for a moment for this photo taken at my folks’ 25th anniversary celebration after we moved into town. Those are my two sisters and my dad, with me in the middle looking for some cake.

At noon, there was no lunch on the farm—dinner was at noon. After we moved to town, I was surprised to find that city folks called their evening meal dinner. It was supposed to be called supper, of course. Dinner was at noon. After all, “Dinner Bell Time,” the popular farm radio show on WLS radio out of Chicago, wasn’t called “Lunch Bell Time,” was it? And the “Suppertime Frolic” that my sisters listened to on WJJD every evening as they were doing dishes was at night and it certainly wasn’t called “Dinnertime Frolic.”

Supper was often left-overs from dinner. A lunch was something you had after school or before you went to bed to stave off starvation until it was time to get up and start doing chores again.

After we moved to town, mom still cooked those full breakfasts, so I went to school well filled with good food like all the experts say you’re supposed to. When I left the house every morning, all the dishes were done, and the kitchen nicely tidied up as mom left for her office job and dad headed off to sell livestock feed to farmers. Mother cooked dinner at night after we moved to town, although the number of full course meals was cut down. But she liked to eat, as did my father, although he lived with serious health problems most of his life. With all the pain and discomfort, eating was one thing he could still enjoy without reservation.

We moved off the farm into this house, built in 1908 by my great-grandparents.

So in the late 1950s, those non-working mothers on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” were not what I experienced. Instead, my mother worked outside the home, and then came home to work much the same way she had on the farm. She still canned fruit and vegetables in summer, cleaned house, washed the family’s clothes, and cooked, all at top speed.

Modern moms work hard too, and have even more going on because there is so much more for their kids to be involved in. Just go to the grocery store on a Friday night and watch the working moms trudge in and out, leaning forward as if struggling against a stiff wind, slowed by a week’s worth of hard work and the prospect of a weekend trying to catch up.

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The long search for one town’s clean drinking water

Among the things we tend to take for granted these days—until its supply gets interrupted anyway—is water available when we turn on the taps in our homes. The safe water that comes out of the faucets in our homes and businesses has become so common a thing, in fact, that any interruption in the supply is big news.

But there was a time, of course, when there was no running water available in homes and businesses. And the assurance of safe, clean drinking water is an even newer development.

I got to thinking about the topic the other day while I was taking my morning post-exercise shower. Having hot and cold running water in our homes has become so common we really don’t think much about it any more. But as recently as my early childhood, automatic water heaters weren’t enjoyed by everyone, and some homes in our little corner of northern Illinois still relied on outhouses—privies—in place of in-house bathrooms.

The story of the quest for reliable fresh water supplies is one of those topics that seems so mundane as to not matter much at all. But at one time, the lack of safe drinking water was a literal matter of life or death from waterborne diseases such at typhoid fever. And the hazard didn’t depend on whether people were rich or poor, either. The husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861.

Even during pioneer days, using Waubonsie Creek’s water for drinking or cooking was problematical; you never knew who or what was using it upstream. (Little White School Museum collection)

When my hometown of Oswego was settled in the early 1830s, most of the surface water in the area was relatively safe to drink. The pioneers selected their new village’s site because it was situated at a good, hard-bottomed ford across the Fox River. Waubonsie Creek, that flowed through the community, as well as the smaller Bartlett’s Run provided fresh running water, as did the numerous springs that dotted the bluffs along the creek and river.

Those were adequate sources for the earliest arrivals, but as settlement continued area wetlands were drained and farming tended to create harmful runoff from silt to animal waste into streams and springs alike. The reaction was to hand-dig wells, but given Oswego’s underlayment with a thick layer of hard limestone that was often unsuccessful, making those earliest wells if not rare at least sparse throughout the community.

Margaret Phillips Young, who arrived as a youngster with her parents in 1839, remembered it was her job as a child to carry water for the family’s cooking and drinking needs.

“In ’41 Mr. Towle rented the tavern and built a home, which is now the Hinchman house,” she recalled in 1906. “There I met Mrs. Towle. I loved to look at her as at a beautiful picture, and often wondered if she knew my scrutiny was admiration or thought it impertinence. I saw her every day the first summer we lived here, for I had to carry the water for housekeeping from that place to the west side of Main street, where we lived and as I was allowed only a five quart tin bucket I made many trips.”

When it came to washing clothes, drinking water was too precious to use for that purpose, so families used Waubonsie Creek.

Margaret Phillips Young again: “I must not forget to mention the sawmill on Waubonsie creek, built by the Hopkins brothers…And there being no cisterns in the place and not many wells the women had a place to wash under the trees at the creek. If there came a shower they would seek shelter in the mill.”

During dry spells, even hand-dug wells, much less the springs in the area, could either dry up completely or become extremely reduced in flow. Wrote the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Jan. 30, 1869: “The thermometer on Tuesday morning at seven o’clock showed 16 below zero—it was still; no wind stirring. There is prospect of a dry month in February. Water is very scarce, most of our citizens are hauling ice from the river to get water for washing, etc.”

And on Dec. 5, 1872, the Record reported from Yorkville: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

Oswego Postmaster and Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank watched Oswego history unfold from this frame building in the midst of the community’s downtown. He built the post office in 1874 and lived in its second floor apartment. After his death, he willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it became the community’s first library. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next week, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, addressed the same issue, noting that the reduction in well water levels and the disappearance of springs had become noticeable and that possibly it was time to consider a municipal water supply: “Items this week are not very plenty with me and in the order of making my communication of the usual length, I undertook to fill up with the water question, but in trying to show the necessity of a public water supply in this town, to explain why by digging wells we cannot reach water a readily as heretofore, why springs are drying up, why there is so much less rain than formerly, and why water is getting continually scarcer, I got into water so deep that I had to back out for this time.”

Drought wasn’t the only problem with the town’s hand-dug wells, either. In 1835, Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold had laid out the original village of Oswego, consisting of 20 blocks, each block bisected by two perpendicular allies and containing eight lots, each measuring 66 x 132 feet. With lots that small it was difficult to assure that the hand-dug wells of the era were a safe distance away from the household privy. And that meant that waterborne diseases such as typhoid were distressingly common.

It would take a while for the connection between tainted drinking water and disease to be made, but when it was, attempts began to try to supply municipal residents with clean drinking water supplies.

While village officials and residents were looking at safe drinking water options, typhoid was a regular visitor to the community. For instance, the Record reported from Oswego on Nov. 13, 1873 that: “Nov. 13: James Shumway is quite sick with the typhoid fever; one of his daughters is also sick. Mrs. S. has been on a visit to the New England States and was expected home yesterday.”

Actually, in Oswego, the efforts to provide sufficient drinking water for horses in the downtown area were initially considered to be of more importance to residents than a safe municipal supply for humans. In October 1875, the village financed construction of a windmill, holding tank, and stock tank at street level at what is today 60 Main Street, then the vacant site of the old National Hotel that had burned in 1867.

Rank reported from Oswego on Oct. 21 that “The water trough by the post office will soon be a reality; Kuchl is doing the excavating work. Theron Richards and Bis Hunt are constructing the tower and the Marshall Wind Engine Co. will put up the wind mill; the National well is used for the supply of the water,” adding on Dec. 2 that “The town authorities caused the erection of a building over the supply water tank, the casing, sawdust interlining and covering of the trough, the painting of the whole, including the windmill tower, the laying of the flagstones around the trough, and the putting down of tile for the drainage of that part of the street.”

Oswego’s village fathers, with the health and comfort of downtown business customers’ teams in mind, were at first more interested in providing watering tanks for livestock than a municipal watering supply. (Little White School Museum collection)

The supply was not only used by horses of downtown residents and those visiting businesses there, but also by the residents themselves, a less than optimal situation. Rank’s suggestion that an actual municipal water supply might be a good idea continued to percolate through the community.

As it was, the village was finding out that providing even minimal water service involved regular maintenance. By 1881, the lack of maintenance and regular cleaning of the supply tank, as well as failure to maintain the windmill meant the whole system was failing badly. Wrote an exasperated Rank of its condition that September: “Our public watering tank is a nuisance. The thing is either dry or else it will contain some water slimy enough to make an alligator puke to drink it.”

In 1885, the village decided to have a well dug with the aim of supplying municipal water to the village’s downtown area. The well was apparently dug on the crest of the bluff in the area of Van Buren and Washington streets and was spring-fed. Its flow, when completed, was directed using a hydraulic ram downtown via 3” iron pipes buried in Van Buren and Main streets. As laid, the water main ran down Van Buren Street to a stable on the west side of the street, just north of South Adams Street. At Main Street, a “T” was installed along with a running fountain and watering tank. From there the water main ran up the street to the downtown business district. In front of the post office in the middle of the block between Washington and Jackson streets, the main crossed to the west side of the street until it got to Jackson Street, where it crossed back to the east side of the street before ending in a running fountain and watering tank in front of the livery stable at the corner of Main and Jackson.

Virtually all of the buildings downtown connected to the municipal water supply.

But the hydraulic ram system soon proved both unreliable and inadequate. On both the 1885 and 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps of downtown Oswego, the fire insurance company rated Oswego’s municipal water facilities as “Not Good.”

By 1894, it was clear the water system was simply not functioning well or safely, and the village board began looking into a better well, erecting a water tower, and installing larger water mains throughout the village. Plans slowly moved ahead before Chicago Bridge and Iron submitted the low bid on the new system’s elevated tank and other parts excepting the water mains themselves.

Not that everyone in town was in favor of spending the money to upgrade the system, of course. Many long-time residents, including Record correspondent Rank, weren’t convinced the new-fangled pressurized system would be worth the money it was costing the village government to install it.

The basswood tank on Oswego’s first water tower under construction in 1895. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on installing the system didn’t begin until April 1895. In the April 24 Record, Rank reported that “The building of the new waterworks was commenced Monday without being accompanied by any special ceremonies. It should have been delayed a few days longer; being it is a work of great importance, all risks should be avoided including that of commencing it on a waning moon. Three days later would have brought it in the new of the moon. The contract for the mason work was taken by Frank Swanson.”

The new system called for larger mains and servicing more of the village with municipal water. The old 3” mains, however, were to be maintained in the downtown business district.

On July 3, the Record reported the water tower had been finished, with iron legs holding up the huge basswood tank measuring 20 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall. A gasoline engine powered the pump to temporarily draw water from two wells, the old one dug several years before, and a new one on the site of the water tower, with the new permanent engine on order and expected to arrive soon.

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost,” Rank wrote. “They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has. The new well was walled up by Frank Swanson; in order to do the work a pump throwing an eight-inch stream of water was kept going constantly for three days and three nights; it pumped dry pretty much all the wells of the neighborhood. The well contains now ten feet of water. The engine is expected to be set up Tuesday. The job is nicely done, and the gang of men that did it are very clever fellows and got along with our folks splendidly.”

Oswego’s first firefighters with their new hose cart, purchased by the village, August 1895, Washington at Tyler Street, Oswego. The new water tower, completed earlier that year, is in the background. (Little White School Museum Collection)

With the village’s municipal water supply in operation, Oswego also decided to establish a permanent fire brigade. The village purchased a high-wheeled hose cart and canvas fire hose, all to be housed in the village hall on Washington Street. Eventually a fire bell was purchased and a tower for it and to hang wet hoses to dry was added to the building. A volunteer fire brigade was established consisting of 20 members to staff the new equipment.

Expanding the municipal system to more areas of the village began in early summer 1896. By late fall, 6” and 4” water mains had been laid with more installed the following summer, the job largely completed by July 1897.

The water system got it’s first test in an emergency in early fall 1897 when fires, just hours apart, broke out in the downtown business district on Sept. 8. Thanks to the village’s new hose cart, volunteer fire brigade, and pressurized water system, though, both blazes were quickly extinguished.

One of the fires was in the old Star Roller Skating Rink, which was next door to the Oswego Post Office. The post office building was owned by Record correspondent Rank, who was also the village postmaster. In addition, Rank lived in an apartment above the post office. So the fire brigade’s quick work dousing the second blaze that day was of special interest to him. It also caused him to change his mind about the usefulness of Oswego’s new municipal water system.

“So now, here it goes,” he wrote in his apology for opposing the water system in the Sept. 15 Record. “We are a miserable set of poltroons and nincompoops, a blight upon the earth which would revolve much easier if it wasn’t for us…May we soon be extinct and long may wave the enthusiasts of the water works.”

The Oswego water tower with the new 65,000 gallon steel tank that replaced the old wooden tank in 1906. (Little White School Museum collection)

While the new system was indeed working even better than village officials had hoped, there were still some problems, primarily the continual leakage of the wooden water tank atop the water tower. As a result, in the spring of 1906, the village board voted to replace the old tank with a new steel tank.

As Rank wrote in the March 14 Record, “About ten or 12 years ago the old basswood tank was erected on the street that leads to the Plainfield Road. The tank has seen its better day and for the last year has been in a decrepit condition Friday night at a special meeting of the [village] board, Mayor Cutter gaveled through a motion to erect a new one, which is sorely needed.”

Kottoe & Bro. of Aurora won the contract to dismantle the old tank and install the new one. As specified, the new tank was to be manufactured of 5/16” soft steel and measure  18 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. It was to be set on the old tower, which was judged to be sturdy enough to handle the new tank. Officials said the additional height and smaller diameter of the new tank was estimated to give about 10 more pounds of water pressure in the downtown business district.

With the new tank installed, the water tower would stand at a total height of 125 feet, with a capacity of 65,000 gallons of water. Another new innovation possible with the steel tank was a hatch in the tank’s side at the bottom to allow it to be regularly cleaned, something impossible with the old tank.

And as it turned out, the old tank really did need some cleaning.

The new water tower under construction in 1958 to replace the old 1895 tower. This tower, in turn, was replaced by a newer, larger water tower in 2005. (Little White School Museum collection)

Village residents were shocked at what they found when the old tank was demolished. As Rank reported on July 11, 1906: “We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”

That new steel tank atop its tower legs served the community well for nearly 50 years until a new, much larger, water tower was built to replace it in 1958. For those of us who grew up in Oswego, the old tank was a landmark, one that was especially prized in summers when the automatic shut-off on the pump failed. That caused the tank to overflow like a landlocked Niagara Falls, word of which quickly spread around town so that those of us with ready access to bicycles could ride through the refreshing—though admittedly vigorous—cascade.

In 1900, Oswego’s population stood at just 619. By 1950, it had doubled to 1,220. And with post-World War II growth just beginning, in 1960, the population had risen to 1,510. And from then on it never slowed down, doubling again by 1980 and again by 2000.

Today, Oswego’s population stands at right around 35,000 and its municipal water system of eight wells and five water towers sometimes struggles to keep up with demand, particularly during hot, dry summer months. Recently, the village board announced plans to join a consortium of other area municipal water users who will tap into Lake Michigan’s water to supply their customers, something that would have certainly astonished those village residents in 1895 suspicious about that newfangled water tower idea.

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