Chief Shabbona’s ghost still searching for justice 170 years after his land was stolen

For those of us interested in local history, it’s always fascinating when a bit of it pops up out of the time stream to intrude on modern life.

That’s what’s going on now as our friends west of the Fox Valley in DeKalb County find they’re having to deal with a bit of mid 19th Century chicanery that led to the illegal theft of land from one of the region’s most revered Native American leaders.

Ask someone to name a local Indian chief, and you’re likely to hear the names of either Waubonsee or Shabbona. Both men were influential leaders of their tribal groups and historically important, but it was Shabbona who was dubbed “Friend of the White Man” by the American settlers that flooded into northern Illinois after 1832. It wasn’t, however, necessarily a compliment from the viewpoint of Native Americans.

Ambrotype was made of “Chief Shaubonee” on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field. Little White School Museum collection.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington. The son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother, he grew to be just under 6 feet in height, and was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely with its pronunciation. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name variously spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena. There were undoubtedly many more.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac conceived of and then conducted 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River. The effort failed due to the disinterest of the French in getting reinvolved in a war with the British and the effective military response of British military officers.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, taking advantage of the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from their current homes in Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois where they settled along the Kankakee, Illinois, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

Waubonsee was the principal war chief of the Potawatomi tribal bands in northern Illinois. Little White School Museum collection.

The three tribal groups mixed and intermarried freely. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potowatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an ethnic Ottawa, was elevated to chief of that Potawatomi band upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires remained mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British, and it’s likely individual members of the confederacy may have participated on the British side.

After the Revolution, and despite the British crown ceding the region to the new United States, British military and trading forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military and political leader Blue Jacket.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won that battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict, suggesting he had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Despite that setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American defiance of U.S. government and economic control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the area northwest of the Ohio River—the Northwest Territory. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, when he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s political vision, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin lending his local prestige to recruit more members of the Wabash Confederacy.

The Native American nationalist leader Tecumseh was killed in action during the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812. Granger Collection, New York.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with local chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, like Wayne before him, Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

But just a year later, war again broke out again, this time between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its major theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs allied with the British and participated in the battle and subsequent Fort Dearborn massacre at Chicago. After the battle, Shabbona and Waubonsee both used their influence to save lives of several captured Americans.

Then they led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois to think things over. After much deliberation, he concluded further military opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1827, when the Winnebagoes decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities.

Shabbona’s reserve granted in the Treaty of 1829 was located in Section 23 and the west half of Section 26 and the east half of Section 25 of Somonauk Township, DeKalb County, Illinois. In this original U.S. Township Survey Plat, Shabbona Grove is outlined in green.

At least partly in return for his efforts to stop a shooting war, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove, and where the chief maintained his village. When the land was finally surveyed, it was legally described as Section 23 plus the east half of Section 26 and the west half of Section 25 of modern DeKalb County’s Shabbona Township.

Then Black Hawk’s band of Sauk and Foxes crossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois in the spring of 1832. This time, thanks largely to Illinois Gov. John Ford’s incompetent military and political leadership, an actual shooting war broke out, with both state militia and U.S. Army troops marching against Black Hawk’s group of roughly 1,200 men, women, and children.

Just as in 1827, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands officially out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful trying to keep individuals out of the war. Realizing the dangers angry individual members of the Three Fires posed when fighting broke out along Old Man’s Creek, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to either Ottawa or Chicago.

One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potawatomis in revenge for Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that in accord with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, all Native People were to be removed from Illinois, and in 1836, most were moved west of the Mississippi under threat of military force.

Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, although he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted for the benefit of himself and the Three Fires band he led. He returned to Illinois in 1837 and lived on his land at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been illegally sold at public auction. And the money from the sale, instead of being held in trust for him, apparently reverted to the government.

This 1871 plat book view of Shabbona Grove shows no evidence the chief used to own most of the grove. But it does show the numerous woodlots the grove has been subdivided into by settlers needing timber for firewood and building materials.

It’s never been adequately explained just how the theft of Shabbona’s land happened, either. After all, other reserves granted by various treaties—including two here in Kendall County—were owned until legally sold by their Native American owners, who were fairly paid for them. It’s also interesting, that official maps of Kendall County still sometimes show the outlines of those reserves, unlike Shabbona’s reserve in DeKalb, which was almost immediately erased from the region’s maps—almost like DeKalb’s leaders wanted to erase all evidence of the old chief’s ownership.

That the two sections of timber were extremely valuable to DeKalb County’s earliest settlers goes without saying. The county was almost entirely prairie with only a few groves, the largest of which was Shabbona’s grove. After its sale, early maps show that its new owners lost no time in subdividing the grove into dozens of valuable woodlots the settlers needed for building materials and firewood.

A few years later, a group of area citizens who remembered the contributions the old chief had made to the region bought him a small 20-acre farm near Seneca, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In an interesting historical sidelight, in 1858 he attended the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa where he reportedly greeted his old Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln, and where he was seated on the dais with the rest of the dignitaries.

Chief Shabbona’s granite marker purchased and emplaced by his former neighbors long after his death and the later plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1983.

Shabbona died on his farm July 17, 1859, and was buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery. For many years, his grave was unmarked, but then his old neighbors took up a collection to place a huge boulder on his grave with the simple inscription: SHABBONA 1775-1859. Finally, in September 1983, a bronze plaque, donated by the Illinois State Organization of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, was placed in front of the boulder with the inscription, “CHIEF SHABBONA – Born in 1775, this gentle man of peace, friend of white settlers, died July 17, 1859, near Morris, Grundy Co., Illinois.”

In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior, after years of study, finally decided that, yes, the old chief’s land was stolen from him all those years ago. They have been in talks with the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi, the logical heirs of Shabbona, as well as the current owners of the land stolen from the chief as well as the local governments involved ever since, to see how that wrong done so many years ago might be at least partially righted.

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History, Semi-Current Events

One of agriculture’s once-busiest seasons has virtually disappeared from northern Illinois’ farm calendar…

Time was this time of year, farmers had mostly wrapped up the harvest of their small grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—and were looking towards threshing it. Because back then, those were two different, extremely labor-intensive processes.

Nowadays, of course, grain farmers use giant combines to harvest, thresh, and winnow small grain—if they’ve grown any of it, of course.

Farming’s changed considerably during the last 70 years. Back in 1950, almost all farming operations were diversified, meaning farms produced both grain and livestock, from cattle and hogs to sheep and poultry. These days, farms specialize in either grain or livestock. And for grain farmers—the vast majority of today’s farmers—the types of grain grown here in northern Illinois have changed considerably. While you can still spot a few fields of traditional small grains here and there, for the most part farmers around these parts today grow corn and soybeans. Oats, wheat, rye, and barley have mostly disappeared from the area’s agricultural landscape. But for a century after the settlement era, Kendall County produced a LOT of small grains, both for market and for use on the farm. Oats, in particular, were valuable, both as a cash crop and on the farm itself to feed the horses and mules to power the farm equipment of the era.

There was a huge settlement rush into northern Illinois in 1833. Known as “The Year of the Early Spring,” the weather warmed earlier than usual drying out what roads and trails there were and greening up the prairie grass providing ample forage for the teams of horses and yokes of oxen pulling the settlers’ wagons.

The crops those pioneer farmers planted were largely the same as the ones they’d grown back east. Corn was a staple, and so was wheat as well as oats, rye, and barley along with flax for making linen thread.

And while experiments had been ongoing for a long time on mechanizing parts of the farming process, about the only thing that could be called a machine they used was a plow. And the ones of that era were nothing to write home about, either. While their iron plowshares and wooden moldboards worked in the thin stony soils found back east, they proved inadequate when working in Illinois’ deep, rich loam. John Deere eventually solved the plow problem, which was a definite help, but that only put a shallow scratch in the problem of easing farmers’ backbreaking labor.

Harvesting grain with scythe and cradle.

Those small grains needed for survival on the prairie—wheat for flour, oats for food for both man and beast, rye for flour and whiskey, and barley for food as well as beer and whiskey—were terribly labor intensive to grow and harvest.

Grain seed was broadcast by hand and then worked into plowed ground with harrows after which it was a chore to keep birds and other critters from eating all of it. Then weeds had to be hoed out as the crop matured. When it did, the real work began. First the grain stalks had to be cut and gathered into bundles. That task was done with large sickles called scythes with contraptions consisting of flimsy wooden fingers called a cradle attached. An experienced farmer could cut the grain, gather the stalks on the fingers of the cradle, and lay them in a neat row behind him as he worked through an entire field. A good man with a scythe and cradle could cut up to two acres of grain a day.

Shocking oats. (Wisconsin Historical Society collection)

After it was cut, the grain had to be gathered into bundles, each tied with a stalk of grain in a backbreaking process of stoop labor. The bundles were then neatly piled in small stacks called shocks, with roofs created by skillful placing of other bundles to shed most of any rain to allow the grain in the shock to dry. And that wrapped up harvesting.

After the grain bundles in the shocks dried they had to be hauled up to the barn where the threshing process began. Barns of the era had threshing floors where the boards were tightly fitted to allow no grain to escape. The bundles were laid in a single layer on the floor and then beat with a flail to separate the wheat, oat, or other grain from the stalks and hulls. Stalks of the straw had to be removed by hand and stacked for later use as livestock bedding, with the grain swept up and put into bins or barrels.

But the grain was still intermixed with a lot of dust and hulls, so it had to be winnowed. Using large, flat baskets or trays, the grain was tossed into the air on a windy day allowing the breeze to blow the lighter chaff away from the heavier grain. Then the clean grain was stored in bins for use on the farm or put directly into sacks to be hauled to whatever market might have existed.

As settlement moved west, pioneer farmers left the dense woods of the east and entered the Prairie Peninsula. The huge tallgrass prairie region was a rough triangle stretching from northwestern Indiana northwest through Illinois, Iowa, and western Minnesota to extreme eastern North Dakota, then straight south to the Kansas-Oklahoma border and then east and north back to northwestern Indiana.

McCormick’s patented reaper. Daniel J. Townsend manufactured McCormick reapers under license in rural NaAuSay Township in 1847

The region was underlain with rich, deep soils created by the last glacier and, as its name implies, thickly covered with prairie grasses and other plants sometimes seven and more feet tall. It was a revelation to eastern farmers who’d had to wrestle every acre out of dense forests, an area conducive to much larger farms. But there were problems.

First, labor was in short supply on the Illinois frontier. Second, as noted above, grain farming was extremely labor intensive. In 1830, it took around 300 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat and around 90 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn, with the whole family pitching in to help. Big farm families were a definite help, but it took a while for kids to get to an age when they were more help than hindrance.

So western farmers naturally started looking for ways to ease the labor needed to produce those crops. Which is where American ingenuity came in. The first area addressed was the initial harvest with scythe and cradle. Harvesters pulled by horses that cut grain stalks allowing a person riding on the machine to rake the stalks so they fell in rows behind the machine were first developed in the 1830s, with Cyrus McCormick’s machine gradually becoming dominant over its competitors.

Here in Kendall County, Royal Bullard of Millbrook bought one of the first McCormick Reapers in 1844. Three years later, Cyrus McCormick traveled out from Chicago and contracted with Daniel J. Townsend of NaAuSay Township to build and sell reapers for the 1847 crop. Townsend’s steam-powered factory was located in AuSable Grove, miles from any town and only operated for a few years.

A brand new 1881 Plano Harvester outside the firm’s Kendall County plant.

By the late 1840s, however, reapers were being replaced by harvesters, machines that allowed workers riding the machine to bundle the grain by hand after it was cut, dropping the bundles on the ground. The Plano Harvester Works here in Kendall County manufactured hundreds of the machines each year until they, too, were replaced by the grain binder. Those machines cut and automatically bundled the grain, allowing one man to do the work it previously took three to do. The Plano factory manufactured 2,000 Gordon patent binders in 1877 and early 1878 for the 1878 harvest. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, 10 improvements patented for the Gordon machines were developed by Kendall County residents.

In addition, the first practical mechanical threshing machines were beginning to appear on the Illinois prairies in the 1840s and 1850s. John Avery and Hiram Abial Pitts had patented a successful machine in 1837 that not only threshed the grain, but also mechanized the winnowing process. Their machines were animal-powered using simple devices that allowed horses hitched to horizontal arms to walk around a circle while gears powered a pulley. A belt from the pulley powered the machine. By the 1870s, steam engines were being used to power threshing machines, a novelty reported by the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Aug. 21, 1879: “A steam thresher is the latest enterprise added to the business institutions of this town; the proprietor of it is Wm. E. Smith. It was set to work Saturday out at Wm. Pearce’s and being the first thing of the kind in this vicinity a large number went there to see its operation and all expressed themselves highly pleased with it except a few of whose running horse-power machines, who of course saw disadvantages in it and predicted trouble.”

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the move from one member’s farm to another sometime around 1900. The ring was comprised of members living in the Harvey and Wolf’s Crossing roads area. (Dale Updike collection)

Threshing machines continued to improve, as did the steam engines that almost exclusively came to power them. But a threshing outfit was far too expensive for average farmers. So they combined into neighborhood cooperatives to buy the equipment. Each cooperative had its own rules and regulations and during the harvest, each member was entitled to have the equipment used on their farm, with all the members and their families contributing to the labor. The threshing outfit moved from farm to farm around the neighborhood, and so the cooperatives began to be called “rings.” Threshing rings operated in Kendall County up until the advent of affordable combines farmers could buy on their own. Combines were originally called combined harvesters because they mechanically combined harvesting and threshing in one piece of equipment.

The East Oswego Threshing ring in a photo taken by Malcom Rance during the 1911 season. The East Oswego Ring also included some farmers from Wheatland Township, Will County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Advances in harvesting and threshing technology, coupled with improvements in plows and other crop preparation equipment plus progress in new varieties of wheat had huge effects on farm production. While it took around 300 work hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat in 1830, by 1890 it was only taking about 30 hours.

Ironically, by that time, wheat was no longer a major crop in northern Illinois, it being discovered wheat grew much better farther west where the climate was dryer. In 1860 Wisconsin and Illinois were the nation’s chief wheat states. By 1910 North Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota were the chief wheat states as the Midwest’s eastern states began concentrating more and more on growing corn as well as oats and the other small grains.

The remaining small grains were also on the way out. Kendall County’s oat harvest reached its height in the early 20th Century. The county produced 2.1 million bushels of oats in 1910 that went to feed horses used on the farm as well as in town. But with horses being rapidly replaced as the prime movers both on the farm and in town, oats were no longer so much in demand. In 1940, the oat harvest in Kendall County was down to 1.8 million bushels and down further to 1.6 million bushels by 1958. From there, the bottom literally dropped out and by 2007 so few bushels were grown that the U.S. Census of Agriculture for Kendall County didn’t even report them.

The modern oat harvest–what there is of it in the Fox Valley these days–is now on.

In the 1930s, realizing that the days of Illinois’ production of small grains was numbered, the Farm Bureau partnered with the University of Illinois Extension Service to begin pushing soybean production. With a few inexpensive modifications, the same equipment farmers already owned could be used to plant and harvest beans. By the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture took the 2017 farm census, Kendall County farmers were producing 3.1 million bushels of soybeans annually.

If you drive around the countryside this time of year, you’ll still see a few acres of oats and wheat ripening in area fields. You might also get a chance to see a farmer using his combine to harvest those rare fields of small grains. While farming is still hard work and the hours during planting and harvesting seasons are long, today’s powerful, comfortable, computer-assisted equipment is a far cry from the days of cradling, bundling, and shocking grain by hand and threshing it with a flail on the barn floor.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Technology

Will your Fourth of July be another noisy old-time Independence Day?

So what are you planning for this year’s Independence Day observance?

Around the Fox Valley, there is no lack of festivals, from old-time traditional ones like Yorkville’s, to slightly slicker ones like Aurora’s.

Independence Day has been a festive occasion ever since the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Not that those signing the document thought it, in and of itself, was such a big deal.

The actual legal separation of the 13 American colonies from Great Britain took place July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress formally voted to approve a resolution of independence. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to adopting the Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their momentous decision. The Declaration was written by a committee, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the Declaration, finally approving it for publication on July 4.

The Continental Congress voted on independence from Britain on July 2, but didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence until July 4. Either could have been termed Independence Day, but the people chose July 4 as the day to celebrate.

John Adams, then serving in the Continental Congress, wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3 that he believed July 2 would go down in the nation’s history as a day of thanksgiving and celebration for generations to come. Predicted Adams: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Well, he was close, but didn’t win the celebration prediction cigar. Instead of the vote to separate from Great Britain, the nation chose to celebrate the date Jefferson’s elegant prose comprising the Declaration was approved. But to give Adams his due, ever since, it really has been “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”

Our ancestors had a great time every July 4, both with formal celebrations, and until they were banned as too dangerous, by firing off “illuminations” in every back yard, often to the annoyance of the neighbors.

It wasn’t as if our ancestors were a staid and stolid bunch, as you quickly find out as you read accounts in the local papers. As in modern times, celebrations sometimes got out of hand, propelled and lubricated by alcohol.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in July 1869 that “Probably owing to the approach of the 4th, a good deal of hilarity, stimulated by whiskey and lager, has been manifested among a certain class during the week; on one occasion, a young man got his countenance disfigured, caused by bringing it in contact with another’s fist or boot. Some boys more patriotic than honest broke during last night a light out of Coffin’s store window, and stole some fire crackers. A large flag is suspended across the street from the Drug store to Coffin’s and the cannon is fired on the old National [hotel] lot.”

Which suggests that in 1869, Oswego had its very own cannon. Unfortunately, by the time I came along it was long gone, probably snapped up in a scrap metal drive or maybe sent up-river to Aurora to quell some civil disturbance and never returned.

Anyway, two years later the village cannon was still around because the Record reported from Oswego that “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The amount of the holiday’s hilarity continued to ebb and flow. The next year, 1872, the Record reported that “The quietest 4th ever experienced in the annals of Oswego was the one last week; the patriotic drunks were limited down to a very few.”

While some succeeding years featured ad hoc celebrations gotten together on the spur of the moment, other years were marked with elaborately planned events.

The Record reported on July 1, 1875 that Oswego residents were invited to participate in a community-wide celebration in Judson’s Grove, the area just north of the current Oswego Cemetery on the west side of South Main Street. Reported the Record: “On Saturday will be held the celebration of the Fourth of July in Judson’s Grove; the procession will form at 11 o’clock; the Rev. T.F. Jessup, of Kendall [Township], will be the principal orator, also Rev. Beans will make a short address. The proceedings will be enlivened at intervals by the band; and there will be singing; croquet playing will form part of the amusement, and there will be races. No popping of fireworks will be allowed on the grounds.”

But despite strictures like that, it was always the noise the holiday’s celebration generated that seemed to make people feel good on July 4. If it wasn’t firing cannons or firing off firecrackers, it was firing anvils.

The Record reported from Oswego on July 6, 1882, that “The glorious racket was commenced early this morning with thirteen anvils before sunrise; the weather was gloriously chilly; the Garfield pole was lowered yesterday, the rope adjusted and from it the glorious old flag is now waving.”

What, exactly, was firing an anvil? Well, it was a truly glorious way to make a heck of a racket without benefit of a canon that looked much like one of the experiments they used to conduct on The Discovery Channel’s old “Mythbusters” cable TV show.

Firing the anvil during a 19th Century July Fourth celebration.

Firing an anvil requires at least two large iron blacksmith anvils, one of which is placed upside down on the ground with its base facing up. The base, which is slightly concave, is filled level full or a bit higher, with black gunpowder, a fuse inserted, and the second anvil (called the flyer) is placed carefully, right side up, on the base. The fuse is lit and the resulting explosion can blow the flyer up to 250 feet into the air, depending on how much gunpowder can be loaded in the base anvil. Some guys, of course, thanks to the invention of electrical and duct tape have figured out how to double the gunpowder charge to get the flier’s altitude increased—because guys and blowing things up are just sort of natural companions.

This year’s Fourth of July will undoubtedly involve plenty of noisy and entertaining celebrations, not to mention the neighborhood explosions the local cops pledge to stop every year and which every year continue unabated.

But part of the annual fun of this particular holiday (as long as you don’t have to cope with pets who are terrified on the seemingly non-stop explosions) is realizing our great-great-grandparents could be just as whacky as we are today.

If you’d like to watch an actual anvil firing, go to this web address: and enjoy.

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Filed under entertainment, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego

A homegrown activist and advocate to remember during Gay Pride Month

Few people would consider our small village of Oswego to have been a hotbed of activism during the town’s history, but it turns out we’ve produced our share of advocates and inspired others throughout the years.

Velma Young Tate

We made the latest discovery of an Oswego-related activist down at the Little White School Museum just this month. Museum manager Anne Jordan was looking around for any local connections to the annual observance of Gay Pride Month. She admitted she didn’t have much hope given Oswego’s history as a small farming town before its late 20th Century  population explosion. But it turned out that Velma Young Tate, whose family was among our early settlers, was a local connection to the LGBTQ+ community, and an important connection at that.

The activism part of Tate’s gay rights advocacy was nothing unusual for the extended Young family. Phoebe Margaret Phillips Young, Tate’s great-grandmother, who had arrived in Oswego with her parents in the early 1840s, was an early and vocal temperance activist, who was also apparently active in the women’s suffrage movement.

A Phillips cousin, Jim Phillips, gained national attention in the 1960s and 1970s when he became exasperated at the lack of environmental regulations and the devastating effect that lack was having on the ecological health of the Fox River Valley where his family had lived for so long. Phillips assumed the identity of “The Fox,” an environmental crusader whose exploits to publicize egregious pollution all over northern Illinois soon gained national attention, including mentions in Time Magazine and National Geographic.

And then there was Richard “Dick” Young, a mild-mannered Oswego native and one Phoebe Margaret’s great-grandsons, who became another champion of the environment. He was instrumental in the formation of the Kendall County Forest Preserve District, the Oswegoland Park District, Kendall County’s zoning laws, and the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency. He’s the only Illinois resident with forest preserves named after him in two different counties.

In a photo taken about 1913, Velma Young and her younger sister, Rose Marie, appear to be a couple of happy children. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Velma Young Tate came by her activism naturally; it really was a family thing. She was born a few miles upriver from Oswego in Aurora, Illinois in 1913, the daughter of Marshall and Elsie (Collins) Young.

Both Marshall and Elsie came from solid Oswego stock. The Collins family were English immigrant farmers, memorialized to this day by Collins Road just outside Oswego. Meanwhile, Marshall was the son of Jay and Carrie (Hoag) Young. Jay and his brother Lou C., were well-known Oswego carpenters, while their father, John Abel Young, was a prominent Oswego wagonwright and blacksmith. John Abel had married Phoebe Margaret Phillips in 1853, cementing the Phillips and Young families.

Marshall Young moved around a fair amount, spending some years up in Elgin. And on June 10, 1930, Velma graduated from Elgin High School. In 1935 she earned a two-year scholarship to Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. While there, she became a member of the Socialist Party and began a lifelong pattern of advocacy for social issues.

Velma Young’s Elgin High School senior picture, taken in 1930.

After earning her two-year degree, she was qualified to teach in one-room rural schools. She taught one year in Plattville here in Kendall County, and then moved on to Mount Carol where she taught for one school year before her marriage. She and William Jerry Tate were married in Mt. Carol on May 10, 1939.

Subsequently, the couple moved and eventually ended up just east of Oswego at what was then called Tamarack Corners, the intersection of Heggs and Simons roads. Jerry was an electrician, though not very successful, while Velma got a job in Aurora working at Pictorial Paper Packaging Company as a switchboard operator.

She had apparently begun writing after having her three sons, including twins, in 1940 and 1942. On March 12, 1946, the Kendall County Record reported from Tamarack that: “Mrs. Velma Young Tate is one of the contributors in the March Household, the author of an article on the radio, written in a humorous vein. Mrs. Tate, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Young, is the mother of three lively young sons, but finds time to write both prose and poetry.”

“Whisper Their Love” was a 1957 lesbian pulp novel by Velma Young writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. Now collectible copies in good condition are price at nearly $130.

Things, however, were apparently not happy in the Tate household, made worse by her husband’s reported drinking problem and even worse when Velma discovered in the early 1950s that she was gay.

In 1953, she published her first novel, The Hired Girl, which earned her $500. She later said she took the money and “bought a pair of shoes, two dresses, and hired a divorce lawyer.”

That year, the couple divorced, and she took her three boys to live in “The Colony” in Chicago. From that time on, she became a successful novelist and poet, often writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. She also became a strong advocate for gay rights and was well known as a speaker and advocate for that and other causes.

Velma Young Tate made her living writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor.

In Chicago, she got a job, Ironically, as assistant editor at the conservative publishing house Henry Regnery & Sons, where she worked from 1956 to 1961.

After that she concentrated on social activism including feminism, elder rights, and like her cousins, environmentalism. She also accelerated her writing, churning out a number of novels and other works under a variety of pen names, most prominently Valerie Taylor.

According to her Wikipedia entry: “Due to her notoriety in the lesbian pulp fiction genre, as well as her public activism during her time in Chicago, she was dubbed one of the ‘Lesbian Grandmothers of America.’ Cornell University, which houses her literary estate, calls her novels ‘pulp fiction classics.’”

In 1978, after the death of her partner, attorney Pearl Heart, Velma moved from Chicago to Tucson, Arizona. The next year, she became a Quaker. In 1993, her health began to decline. She died Oct. 22, 1997 at her Tucson home.

After her death, her literary estate was donated to Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection and her name was added to the list of other members of the LGBTQ community at the Tucson Gay Museum.

That two of Oswego’s related pioneer families would generate two cousins who became nationally-known advocates and activists in two separate areas is one of those hidden connections that makes even the most local of history so fascinating.

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The history of getting hitched around these parts has ranged from fleeing in terror to public entertainment

On May 1, 1831, young Edward G. Ament and Emily Ann Harris were married by pioneer Methodist Missionary Rev. Isaac Scarritt, and thereby became the first couple to be wed within the bounds of what eventually became Kendall County.

From that time on, weddings multiplied as the frontier first caught up to the lands along the Fox River here in northern Illinois, and then moved on ever farther west until the nation’s boundaries reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Rev. Scarritt had arrived in Illinois from Connecticut in 1818—the year the state was officially established by an act of Congress—first setting in Edwardsville before being assigned to take over dissolving the Methodists’ Fox River Mission in 1828. The joint Methodist-U.S. Government mission had been established on the Fox River at the mouth of Mission Creek in modern LaSalle County just south of the current Kendall County line. After winding up the mission’s affairs, Scarritt moved with his family to what is today’s DuPage Township in Will County, building his cabin near the forks of the DuPage River.

Scarritt was appointed the first justice of the peace in the area and so was the closest legal authority to legally conduct the Ament-Harris marriage. The U.S. has always maintained a somewhat curious official attitude towards marriage. It has always been considered a binding legal contract between two people (and, by association, their families), and so unlike births and deaths records of them have always been carefully kept. A legal marriage conducted by a justice of the peace or other officer of the court does not need a religious blessing to be legal. Nor does a religious wedding conducted by a minister or briest need to be blessed by an officer of the government. But both are considered to be legal unions in the eyes of the law.

So with Edward and Emily Ann’s marriage conducted by Isaac Scarritt, who was both a Methodist minister of the gospel and a justice of the peace, their union was doubly safe.

Just a few days after the young couple was married, the Black Hawk War broke out, and all the White settlers in the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines valleys fled for their lives, those on the northern reaches of the streams heading first to the cabin of Stephen Beggs—another Methodist missionary making his home where Plainfield is located today—and those on the southern reaches of the rivers getting to Ottawa as quickly as possible.

In an interesting note on the living conditions of those early settlers on the Illinois prairie, Scarritt left his claim so quickly he didn’t have time to grab a pair of shoes, suggesting a lot of those settlers went barefoot in warmer weather to save expensive footwear. The tradition is that when he eventually got to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn and safety, he was asked to preach a Sunday sermon for which he had to borrow a pair of shoes to avoid the embarrassment of speaking to a crowd shoeless.

As for Edward and Emily Ann, early Kendall County historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks dryly reported “…they took their wedding trip two weeks afterward, when they fled from the Indians.”

And then there was the no less interesting wedding when early Montgomery settler William T. Elliott decided to marry the lovely Rebecca Pearce, daughter of Elijah Pearce, a member of the numerous extended Pearce family that also were the first settlers here in Oswego Township.

This plaque near the Dieterle Memorial Home in Montgomery marks Elliott Creek where William Elliott built the cabin he and Rebecca Pearce Elliott called home. (Montgomery Patch photo)

Seventeen year-old Rebecca was more than willing to marry Elliott, a 19 year-old go-getter. But her father, when asked, was not yet willing to let the young lady leave his household. At that time, 1834, neither Kane nor Kendall County had yet been established, and the nearest place to get legally married was Ottawa. So Elliott walked the roughly 40 miles where the county clerk told him that since Rebecca was only 17, the bans would have to be announced in a church for two weeks before a license could be issued.

With no churches yet established in the Fox Valley, Elliott despondently trudged back upriver to Montgomery. But shortly before he reached his cabin, he happened on the Rev. N.C. Clark, one of the region’s earliest Congregational ministers, known by one and all as “the kindly Father Clark.” After hearing Elliott’s story, Rev. Clark suggested that on Sunday Elliott come over to the Naperville cabin where Clark’s nascent congregation was meeting, and announce the bans. Rev. Clark said he’d take care of making sure the second announcement was made as well.

In the meantime, Elijah Pearce had heard that the bans had been announced over in Naperville, but was under the impression they’d only been announced once. Thinking he had an entire week to go over to Naperville to protest on the second reading—which had already taken place—Pearce headed into Chicago for supplies. Meanwhile Elliott had hustled back down to Ottawa, obtained, the marriage license from the LaSalle County Clerk, hustled back upriver to Montgomery where Rev. Clark happily married William and Rebecca.

Elijah was reportedly pretty upset when he got back from Chicago to find his daughter was now Mrs. Elliott, but after a night’s sleep decided maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to happen. And thereby on Aug. 3, 1835, William and Rebecca’s marriage became the first in what eventually became Aurora Township.

Tom (Charles Sherwood Stratton) Thumb’s wedding to bride Lavinia Warren on Feb. 10, 1863 at Grace Episcopal Church in New York City proved a wild financial success for showman P.T. Barnum, Stratton’s boss. Eventually, Stratton financially bailed Barnum out and the two became partners. (Costume Cocktail image)

Over the next several decades, weddings became quite a bit less exciting, with no Indian wars to cope with and a much shorter walk to the county seat to get a license. Church weddings gradually more popular, although marriages at home and in church parsonages seem to have been more the rule than the exception until after World War II when more elaborate marriages became the norm.

And, in fact, weddings eventually became the basis for some popular—if fairly unusual—community fundraisers in the early years of the 20th Century.

In the Feb. 25, 1914 Kendall County Record, the Oswego Parent-Teachers Club—ancestor of today’s PTAs and PTOs—announced plans to present a Tom Thumb Wedding fundraiser. Tom Thumb Weddings had been developed as comedic musical entertainment events with a community’s school children playing the parts of the groom and bride—based on the 1863 marriage of P.T. Barnum’s diminutive cast member, the wildly popular Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and his real life bride Lavinia Warren—as well as a large cast of other members of the wedding party and guests.

Photographer Dwight Young snapped this photo of the 1914 “Tom Thumb Wedding” performance in downtown Oswego’s Woodmen’s Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

Performances of Tom Thumb Wedding fundraisers began in the 1890s in Pennsylvania, but then gradually spread as their success began to become more widely known. As an indication of the productions’ rising popularity, Walter H. Baker & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts published “The Tom Thumb wedding” script in 1898. Concerning the cast according to the Baker script, “there should be a minister, bride and groom, maid of honor, groomsman, father and mother, bridesmaids, ushers, guests, and flower girls.”

A Tom Thumb Wedding script published in 1895 by Eldridge Entertainment House, Inc. of Franklin, Ohio and Denver, Colorado.

The Oswego performance was an apparent success, the next week’s Record reporting: “The Tom Thumb wedding at the Woodman Hall Tuesday evening was well attended and a pleasant affair. Clement Burkhart as groom and Gladys Parkhurst as the bride, with their attendants made an interesting bridal party. Too much credit cannot be given all those participating.”

Apparently adults couldn’t wait to get in on the mock wedding fun, and within a few years, “womanless weddings” became popular amateur fundraising events where prominent local business owners and other luminaries—all men—dressed in costume and participated in the all-male events. The events proved popular in the Midwest during the years of the Great Depression.

On Feb. 19, 1930, the Record announced that “The XIX Century club of Oswego have procured the services of the Sympson Levi Producing company of Bardstown, Ky. to stage “The Womanless Wedding,” which has been put on so successfully in our neighboring towns. The dates will be March 17 and 18.”

The all-male cast of the 1930 Oswego “Womanless Wedding” production performed twice on successive nights in March 1930 on stage in the Red Brick School gym. (Little White School Museum collection)

According one script, “As title indicates, no women are to be used in this play, unless desired. Special care should be exercised in the selection of the cast. Use prominent men. Men taking ladies’ parts should wear ladies’ shoes if possible.  A small groom and large bride will prove effective. Have costumes and stage effects as elaborate as possible. An altar draped in red, white and blue is appropriate.”

Unlike the Tom Thumb Weddings, a professional director came as part of the production and there was little music and much more dialog by the characters in Womanless Wedding scripts, including racist depiction in blackface by Black participants.

By all accounts, the community found the production highly entertaining, especially given the prominence of men portraying the cross-dressing “women” in the cast.

The cast of the 1930 “Womanless Wedding” presented on stage in the Red Brick School gym included about every prominent man and boy in Oswego, from schoolboys to bankers to doctors. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reported the March 26, 1930 Kendall County Record: “The Womanless Wedding” has passed into history. It was one of the most talked of and enjoyable events in Oswego for some time. Many were unable to obtain seats. The parts were very well taken.”

In fact, the community had such a good time, they decided to produce their own version of the production, although this time not a wedding spoof. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Jan. 27, 1937 that “The womanless play, “Ladies for a Night,” given at the high school gym last Thursday and Friday, netted nearly $100 and everyone a lot of fun.” It doesn’t sound like a lot to us today, but back during the late Depression years, $100 was pretty big money—roughly $2,000 in 2022 dollars.

These days, although some communities still do produce variations on Tom Thumb Weddings, the political struggle over LGTBQ rights have pretty much put paid to womanless wedding productions. And when it comes to actual marriages, “destination weddings” seem to be all the rage nowadays, with people dragging friends and relatives all over the country and even off to foreign climes to witness two people getting hitched for better or worse. The good news is at least most of those newly married couples won’t spend their honeymoons fleeing to the nearest fort.

If you’re interested in chatting about some more entertaining Oswego wedding history, don’t miss Little White School Museum Manager Anne Jordan’s next History Happy Hour at the Fox Valley Winery (in the old Main Street fire station), set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8. Residents of the Oswegoland Park District can register for $15 and non-residents for $25–registration includes one glass of wine to enjoy during the evening’s discussion about Oswego wedding history. Preregistration is required by calling the park district at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/.

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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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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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