It was great being a kid at Christmastime in the 1950s

‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.

We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.

Taken back during the winter of 2021 out of my office window, ducks and geese congregate on the Fox River. Totally absent in the 1950s, the birds are common sights these days.

The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.

Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.

But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.

These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.

Snapped a shot of this guy last winter sitting in a tree on the far side of the island right off our stretch of riverbank.

After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.

My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.

And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.

When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.

The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.

My grandparents’ small farmhouse. The three windows on the left were in the long, narrow dining room.

My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.

After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.

These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.

The author on the blue Schwinn he bought for $5, ready for a 1950s Oswego Memorial Day Parade. Flags were the main decorations that year. We all got coupons for a free root beer at the Kopper Kettle restaurant.

It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.

I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.

These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.

While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.

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Disappearance of wheat fields marked a major change in northern Illinois’ prairie farming

This year’s grain harvest has largely wrapped up here in the Fox River Valley, following roughly the same schedule it has been on for the last 1,200 years.

Illinois’ Native People began cultivating corn sometime between 900 and 1000 AD. It joined the beans and squash they’d been propagating to create the basis for their subsistence crops they called “The Three Sisters.”

Interestingly enough, modern farmers still grow versions of the Native People’s “Three Sisters,” although these days soybeans have taken the place of native edible beans and pumpkins have largely replaced other squash. But still, it’s sort of comforting that a 1,200 year-old harvest tradition continues into the 21st Century.

The member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy had moved into the area west and south of Lake Michigan in the 1740s, displacing the member tribal groups of the Illinois Confederacy. The Three Fires relied on growing “The Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) for a large proportion of their died. Like the region’s modern farmers, the Native People completed their harvest in late fall.

By the time the first permanent White settlers began arriving along the banks of the Fox River, the resident Native People were inter-related members of the Three Fires Confederacy comprised of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. These people, too, relied on growing The Three Sisters for a large percentage of their diet. Over the centuries since its introduction, corn had been crossbred and otherwise genetically modified by its Native American growers.

European immigrants had quickly adopted growing what they called “Indian corn” to differentiate it from the “corn’ they called wheat back in that day. It grew okay in the thin, rocky soils of New England, but crops kept getting better the farther west White settlement moved because soils were better, too. When the frontier finally moved out of the Eastern woodlands onto the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula in the 1820s, corn found its ideal habitat.

But those White settlers did not live on corn alone. They needed wheat for bread and other foods, along with oats to feed their livestock, and rye and barley for foodstuffs as well as to manufacture the alcoholic beverages that seemed to power so much of frontier society.

So the crops grown on those first Fox Valley pioneer farms were quite diversified, right along with those of their neighbors all the way west to the Mississippi. Wheat was considered a vital crop, both for consumption on the farm, and after pioneer town developers arrived, for sale in town. Corn was fed to the farm’s livestock, which could then walk the 40 miles east to market in Chicago. Rye and barley were both used on the farm, but were also good sale crops and which could also be turned into extremely valuable—and easily transported—whiskey.

Grain, too, could be hauled to the Chicago market, although the 80 mile round trip in wagon-and-team days was time-consuming, keeping the farmer away from taking care of his other responsibilities such as feeding and otherwise caring for his livestock, not to mention taking care of his family on their often isolated farmsteads.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

So when the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened following the course of the Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois River system from Lake Michigan to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru, it created a nearby, easily reached incentive to begin growing more grain of all kinds than could be consumed on the farm.

For one thing, it meant the meat being produced from Chicago’s stockyards could move south to the St. Louis–New Orleans market as easily as east to the New York market.

Even more importantly, its existence meant that grain from the rich region west and south of Chicago could finally be shipped north as well as south. Previously grain taken to the Illinois River system went downstream to the St. Louis market. But with canal boats hauling it, grain moved north as easily as south. Chicago’s grain elevators were ready to handle the huge influx of grain, too, readying it for shipment east to the New York market.

Thus began cash grain farming in earnest. And within a year or so, the first railroad, whose right-of-way followed the course of the canal, opened. That offered a year round grain and livestock shipping opportunity for area farmers, something the canal, which had to close during the winter months, could not.

It was during this period of the late 1840s and early 1850s, that northern Illinois’ wheat crops experienced a number of failures. And since it was a major crop during those years, it led to severe financial problems. In response, farmers tried everything they could to try to make the area a viable wheat-producer, including introducing dozens of new wheat varieties and tinkering with planting schedules.

The preferred wheat for market was hard winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, germinated and greened up, went dormant over the winter, and then resumed growing in the spring to be harvested in late summer. But northern Illinois’ climate and its very soil warred against producing good winter wheat crops. The region’s numerous freeze-thaw cycles during an average winter tended to kill the vulnerable wheat seedlings. Then if it did begin growing it was often attacked by a variety of diseases including rust and blight along with insect pests such as the Hessian fly and chinch bugs. And, oddly enough, the soils on northern Illinois tallgrass prairies seemed to be too rich to support good wheat crops. Farmer Edmund Flagg decided in the mid-1830s from his own observations that the worst soils of the Prairie Peninsula were best-adapted to growing wheat.

Before the advent of mechanical reapers, harvesting “small grains” (wheat, oats, barley, rye) was both labor-intensive and subject to weather-related problems. Those problems were so severe and prevalent on the Illinois prairies that farmers, a group normally reluctant to adopt new methods, were eager early adopters of mechanical harvesting equipment. McCormick Reapers were manufactured under license south of Oswego at AuSable Grove in 1847.

And then there was the problem that growing and harvesting wheat is extremely labor-intensive and very dependent on just the right weather conditions during the harvest cycle. Wheat had to be cut, bound into bundles, stacked to dry, and then threshed. Excessive moisture in the form of rain at any time after the grain was cut could lead to it developing rust or other fungus, or even sprouting spoiling the crop.

This need for speed during the wheat harvest spurred by the upper Midwest’s damp climate during the peak harvest season led to early and intense interest in mechanical harvesters that allowed far more acreage to be cut, bundled, and shocked than the old manual methods. Area farmers not only imported early harvesters made by Cyrus McCormick and others, but they also licensed them for manufacture here. Out in AuSable Grove south of Oswego Daniel Townsend secured a McCormick license and produced harvesters in the 1840s. Eventually, of course, the folks in Plano here in Kendall County became one of the premiere harvester manufacturers in the nation.

Corn, in comparison, was pretty hardy stuff. It could even be left standing in the field all winter if necessary, to be successfully picked and husked in the early spring with no visible impact on its value as a human or animal food.

Northern Illinois farmers gradually switched to trying to grow spring wheat and met with more success. But the spring varieties were softer and less attractive for milling into bread flour than the hard winter varieties. So, wheat growing began to disappear from Fox Valley farms in favor of corn and oats, which found a ready market in area cities during the era when horses provided the main motive power.

Not so in central and southern Illinois, where wheat farming was part of the Southern farming culture that had arrived with those regions’ pioneers. The southern part of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Virginia and the Carolinas who came west through Kentucky and Tennessee, and then up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. They were also some of central Illinois’ first pioneers.

Southern farming culture was far more subsistence-based than that of the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians who settled northern Illinois. The soils and climate of the southern half of the state favored wheat farming, which fit in with the culture Southern farmers brought with them. That culture not only included the kinds of crops they grew, but also extended to their farmsteads.

Probably built around 1847, the barn south of Oswego on the Daniel Townsend farm was used both as a traditional barn, but also may have housed Townsend’s manufacturing operation to produce McCormick reapers. The barn was built on the traditional stone Pennsylvania plan with slit ventilating windows.

Barns, for instance, were common sights on the northern Illinois landscape but not so farther south. According to Richard Bardolph, writing in the December 1948 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the editor of Moore’s Rural New Yorker visited Illinois in the 1850s and reported to his readers, that “barns are scarcely to be seen on the prairies, and they seem to be considered more of a luxury than a necessity.”

In contrast, here in the Fox Valley barns were among the first structures pioneer farmers built. They were multi-purpose buildings farmers relied upon for everything from grain and hay storage to protecting livestock from the region’s bitter winters to storing farm equipment. Storing farm equipment under roof seems to have been another Southern farmer cultural trait they didn’t share with their Northern counterparts.

As late as the 1940s, one of my Kansas cousins came east to learn Midwestern farming practices from my father and uncles. One of the things he took back with him was the importance of storing farm equipment out of the weather to lengthen the equipment’s lifespan and to assure it worked when needed. That was a new concept for many Kansas farmers of the era whose roots extended east through Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.

During the Great Depression here in northern Illinois, wheat farming nearly disappeared. The 1935 Census of Agriculture for Kendall County reported only four farms grew wheat, amounting to a bit over 400 bushels. We now know that 1934 was probably the worst year for northern Illinois farmers during those awful years. Drought, chinch bug invasions, crop diseases, dust storms, and just about any other disaster you can think of afflicted the region’s farmers. The price of corn had collapsed in 1933, bringing only 14-cents a bushel, down sharply from $1.14 in 1925. That made it cheaper for many farmers to burn it as fuel in their stoves and furnaces than coal. Sears Roebuck, in fact, marketed special stove grates in those years designed for corn, which burned hotter than coal or wood.

In addition, corn could also be fed to animals on the farm, producing livestock the farm family itself could consume. Many a farm family of those years helped feed their city cousins. In general, it took about seven bushels of corn to produce a pound of beef and 6.5 pounds to produce a bushel of pork, Many farmers favored raising hogs because pork could be turned into a variety of meats from roasts and chops to sausage and with smoking, hams and bacon. And corn could also be used as human food as well, ground into corn flour to make cornbread, fried mush, and other dishes. This diversity of use apparently made growing corn a more sensible course for the region’s farmers.

Also in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension Service began promoting soybeans as a new cash crop for Illinois farmers struggling through the Great Depression. And so starting here in Kendall County in the dismal year of 1933 a variety of beans far different than those grown by the region’s Native American farmers began to sprout on the Illinois prairies, just as the need for so much oat acreage was disappearing as the horses who used so many bushels of oats for food were replaced by motor vehicles.

Today, Illinois still produces a fair amount of wheat, but the vast majority of it is grown in central and southern Illinois where the climate, growing seasons, and soils favor it. Here in northern Illinois, occasional fields of wheat can be spotted by the alert motorist, along with a few acres of oats here and there. But for a crop that was once a vital staple of pioneer farms, the disappearance of wheat fields marked one of the many profound changes in prairie farming.

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Before the colors fade: A young Oswego “daredevil” jumped into Pacific Theatre combat

My friend Stan Young died on Nov. 9.

He was my best friend’s dad, so I literally grew up with him. He was a sort of building genius here in town, and in my adult years I had him do a number of projects at our house. He was absolutely top-notch in maintaining our house’s Queen Anne architectural elements, making additions or improvements look like they’d always been there.

Stan Young (left at top of ladder) and his son, Glenn installed the finial Stan made for the top of the Little White School Museum’s bell tower in 1983 the day before the museum gallery opened for the first time. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in 1977, when we started restoring the Little White School Museum, Stan volunteered to take on a number of projects, mostly donating his labor for free. Those projects included stabilizing and replacing the building’s timber front sill that had been badly rotted out over the years and replacing floor joists in the building’s entry, recreating the building’s wooden front porch, and then recreating and installing its iconic bell tower. His last big project was recreating the finial atop the bell tower, something he and his son, Glenn, installed the day before the museum in the building opened in 1983.

A lifelong resident of Oswego, Stan joined the Army when he was drafted on Jan. 12, 1943. He volunteered for the paratroopers and fought in several engagements in the Philippines, making four combat parachute drops. Serving in the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division as a mortar gunner, Young eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant by the end of the war.

Several years ago, he retired from both contracting and owning, with his wife Lydia, Scotty’s Restaurant in Oswego and moved to Mena, Arkansas. And after battling some increasingly serious health issues, that’s where he died at age 99 after a long and very eventful life.

Stanley Young’s Oswego High School senior class photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in August 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VJ Day marking the victory over the Japanese in World War II, I interviewed Stan for the Ledger-Sentinel and finally got him to talk a bit about his years in the military, something he never really spoke of—other than to note one time that one of the guys in his company was always going around writing stuff and eventually became involved with television. That literary former paratrooper turned out to have been Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame.

Born and raised in Oswego to a family that had been in the area since the 1830s, Stan was popular in the community as a youngster. At Oswego High School, he was involved in just about every activity that was offered, from sports to helping produce the yearbook, to his election as senior class president. He graduated with the Class of 1941 and attended teacher’s college in Winona, Minnesota before being drafted.

Although he wanted to be a paratrooper, he was nearly talked out of it before he left for the service. As he related the story to me back in 1985:

“It’s a funny story and it’s kind of a sad story as well. I had always thought I’d like to jump out of a plane with a parachute. 1 Just was kind of a little daredevil in those days, and I thought it would be fun. The last day when I was leaving, my mother said, ‘You’re not going to get into paratroops, are you?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t think they’d accept me anyway.’

“So, riding in on the train, my best buddy that I had gone through school with from first grade was Stuart Parkhurst. And he said, ‘Let’s get into paratroops.’ And 1 said ‘No, I told my mother I probably wouldn’t.’ He said, ‘Aw, come on. You get better pay, nicer uniforms; you get your own special camps. It would be neat!’ And I said, ‘Well, it probably wouldn’t hurt me.’

“So, I volunteered that I wanted to be in the paratroops, and the first thing they said to me was, ‘I don’t think you want to be in the paratroops.’ And I said that I really did, and they had me sign some other papers and take some more physicals. At noon 1 got out of all that, and I said, ‘Stu! I made it! I made it! How’d you do?’ And he said, ‘They told me they didn’t think I wanted to be in it and I decided not to.’

“He subsequently went into an infantry outfit and was killed over in Europe. So, I made it and came through alright, and he didn’t and he was in what he thought was a safer outfit. If they got your number, they got your number.

“Initially, we went to Tacoa, Ga., where the unit was formed and then to Camp McCall, N.C. where we took parachute jump training. By then the division (l1th Airborne) had solidified and was preparing for duty in the South Pacific. We trained additionally at Camp Polk, La., and shipped out in April of ’44 for New Guinea. There we trained additionally. We made a few more parachute jumps and did some more jungle training, preparatory to going to the Philippines.

11th Airborne Division Paratrooper Stan Young, 1943. (Little White School Museum collection)

“In November of that year, they put us on a ship and we arrived at Leyte [an island in the Philippine Group]. When we got there, they had concluded that the war was about over there, as far as Leyte was concerned, and we were to go into a mop-up operation. But when we arrived, new troops arrived from Japan on the opposite side of the islan—and also paratroops and ships and airplanes attacked, and we had a full-scale war instead of a mop-up operation.

“We were in combat there for about 30 days in the jungles and mountains of Leyte, and the mountain where we were was subsequently named Starvation Ridge. We didn’t eat for five days from the time the last C-ration was gone, and we were on one-third of a C-ration at THAT time. Every time they air-dropped something, the Japs got to it before we did because of the heavy fog and mist, because they kind of had us surrounded there.

“We finally got back to the beach about Christmas. About mid-January we got on some little landing craft and sailed across the Philippine Sea to Mindoro Island, not knowing where we were going at the time. There we enplaned and made a combat parachute drop about 37 miles south of Manila. We marched a shuttle march, the entire 511th Parachute Regiment, with us walking and being shuttled forward by the three trucks we had, to a little village. And here all hell broke loose. We arrived just before dark and they gave us the option of digging in. The ground was like sandstone. About that time, the artillery started hitting and we decided it was about time to start digging in. We took several casualties before we did dig m and they were lobbing mortar rounds and artillery right into our position.

“We were there until June, in that area, from February until June. At one time I figured it was 102 days that I didn’t lay down to sleep, that we slept in the ground sitting up in our foxholes. We were in some pretty intense combat.

Troopers from the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment get ready to enplane for the Raid on Los Baños to free the roughly 2,000 prisoners the Japanese housed there. (History Net photo)

“Along with it, we freed one of the Japanese prison camps where they held a bunch of Catholic nuns and priests. There were some showgirls and prostitutes and dancers; some businessmen; some Americans; some Spanish and other nationalities. They were holding them at Los Baños near Santa Rosa.

“It was about that time there was a lull in Southern Luzon. We went, at one point, into this little town of Santa Rosa and they said they had a festival. What it was was several Japanese collaborators had been captured and they were going to punish them. We saw them execute three men by slow degrees–torture. It was horrifying. For the grand finale, they had a woman. They tied her to a post in the square, put rice straw all around it, threw gasoline on it, and set it on fire. I’ll tell you, it’s quite a shock. We were told we were not to interfere with the Philippine guerillas in any way.

“We eventually took Luzon Province. On June 23, we were enplaned and flew to the very tip of Luzon Island and engaged in a parachute jump there, but there was no combat. All the Japs pulled back.

There I sustained a serious shoulder injury and was taken to the hospital. I was released on July 20, and we entered into a training program, and the word was out we were to make a jump on Japan proper. But then the scuttlebutt had it that a big bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and subsequently another one was dropped [on Nagasaki].

“When they said the Japs had given up, there about the middle of August, 1 have never seen so much jubilation in my entire life. I think that was the happiest moment of my life, when they said the Japanese had surrendered, because I figured there was new life. Regardless of any joys I have ever had over anything in the whole world, ever, that was the happiest single moment. And I would imagine any of the guys who were there would agree with me. Guys were running up and down the company street, running in and out of tents, you never saw such running and jubilation! You can’t imagine the jubilance!

“Some people say, ‘I bet it was thrilling;’ and others say, ‘I bet you miss your old buddies and I bet that was exciting.’”

“Hey—none of the above. It was horrible. 1 can look back and say 1 was there and it was interesting, but it was a horrible thing. And to hear it happened again in Korea and Vietnam, you wonder why aren’t people smarter? They learn to build huge buildings and marvelous communications systems and yet two people can’t even sit side by side in a bar and keep from arguing and then they carry that right on to country to country.

“If there’s one thing 1 brought back with me, it’s a total aversion to violence of any kind. I can’t even stand to watch it on television. If it comes on, 1 just get up and turn it off. I had enough of the real thing.”

After the end of the war was announced, Stan was among those on one of the first, if not THE first, Allied planes to land Allied military forces in Japan to take that country’s surrender. Given how ferocious the Japanese military had been during combat I asked him if he and his buddies were worried about what kind of reception they’d get when they touched down at that Japanese military base. He replied that, yes, there was worry, but it turned out once the emperor told the military to surrender, they did it virtually without incident.

As a sort of sidelight, both of Stan’s brothers also fought through the Pacific. John, an Army Air Corps pilot, eventually flew 50 missions in A-20 Havoc bombers, also in McArthur’s campaign through New Guinea and the Philippines. Brother Dick, a Marine, was wounded three times on Iwo Jima in the Navy’s island-hopping campaign. Stan and John were even able to meet once in January 1945. As reported back home in the Kendall County Record: “Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Young have three sons in the service for two years. Two of the boys met in the Philippines on Jan 25. Lt. John S., a pilot, landed on an island and heard that his brother, Corporal Stanley, was on the same island. Obtaining a jeep he drove 20 miles, found his brother, who was more surprised than words can tell. The two had a fine time for about two hours when the party had to break up. John reports Stanley as looking fine and strong. Lt. John has 13 missions.”

And the boys’ father, Dwight, was involved in the Pacific Theatre as well, although not in direct combat. Instead, he was a self-taught physicist who was working on something called The Manhattan Project in New Mexico. That “big bomb” Stan heard about through the paratroopers’ scuttlebutt was partly his dad’s handiwork.

After the war was finally over, all three of the Young boys found they’d survived and came home to resume their lives, and they made good ones, too. Stan was the last of the three, surviving to 99 years despite not playing it safe in 1943 like his best friend. Stu Parkhurst.

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Before the colors fade: Local heroes who hid in plain sight…

During my 1950s childhood, we all envied friends whose dads were World War II veterans because so many of them had such cool war souvenirs. From web belts and canteens to equipment pouches, first aid kits, and even U.S. Army leather holsters, that stuff enlivened our hours playing “War.”

But little did we know that several of those dads—and even a few moms—had done far more than their part during the war, only to be determined to come back home to our little corner of northern Illinois and get back into “real life.” In fact, about the only time we saw any evidence of those folks’ service was during the annual Memorial Day Parade when they marched with our local American Legion Post to the cemetery to honor the nation’s war dead.

But from the director of the local funeral home to the carpenter down the street, many of them had stories of pivotal events they’d participated in that they simply didn’t want to discuss with anyone who hadn’t also participated in the same kinds of things they’d seen and done. So they kept their peace in public, lived productive lives by contributing to their communities, and have now passed on leaving others to piece together tales of the sacrifices they made to save their country during the momentous events of the war years.

Two men who spent almost their entire lives in our then-little town are excellent examples of those who served. Their service took them to opposite sides of the globe from each other, but after the war and returning home, they became related by marriage.

When it came to winning World War II, the combat arms of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Corps have justifiably gotten most of the attention. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who also fought and died to win the war, from the merchant mariners manning the Liberty Ships carrying vital Lend-Lease supplies across the oceans, to truckers who kept the supplies going to front line troops.

In September, Oswego’s Little White School Museum received two donations from long-time Oswegoland Heritage Association member and frequent donor Barbara Wolf Wood that added to our knowledge of how some of those unheralded participants in the war not only did their duty for their country, but helped win it.

The materials donated came from the estates of Oswegoans Ray Leifheit and Merrill Wolf. Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineering Battalion in the European Theatre of operations while Wolf served in the Seabees in the Pacific Theatre.

Merrill Wolf

The Merrill Wolf donation included his Seabee footlocker, two complete uniforms—his blues and his whites—a 1940s hard hat, and a pair of khaki shorts of the kind Seabees wore during their hard work maintaining the pipeline of supplies to Marine and Navy fighters as well as building the ports and airfields on once unknown Pacific islands to allow the bombing raids on Japan that eventually led to its surrender.

The Seabees were the construction experts for the Navy and Marines. The name stems from the initials for Construction Battalion. The force was created by Rear Admiral Ben Moreell just weeks after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. The original authorization was for a naval construction regiment consisting of three naval construction battalions to be comprised of construction tradesmen. Adm. Moreell realized that using civilian construction crews for the ports and airfields the Navy would need as they leapfrogged across the Pacific simply wouldn’t work. As the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command put it: “Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.”

Wolf, an electrician, enlisted in the Seabees in June 1943 at the age of 32.

He subsequently served throughout the Pacific Theatre, aboard LST-244, working as an Electrical Mechanic First Class. LST-244, was a large ship designed to land tanks and other heavy equipment directly ashore. Ironically, LST-244 was built not far from Wolf’s home in Oswego at Evansville, Indiana. Launched on Aug. 13, 1943, the ship sailed down the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From there it was down to Panama and through the canal to the Pacific. Reaching the Pacific Theatre of Operations, the ship and crew participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign in November and December, 1943; the invasion of Kwajalein and Majuro atolls in February 1944; the capture and occupation of Guam, July and August 1944; and the bloody assault and occupation of Okinawa, April 1945.

Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) under construction at the Evansville, Indiana shipyard on the Ohio River. The ships were launched sideways into the river. From there, they sailed to the Mississippi River, and down to New Orleans. The shipyard employed 19,000 workers at its height. Today, one of the LSTs like those built there is on exhibit as a fully-operational museum ship. (Courtesy of Evansville Museum/Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library)

After Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Wolf continued to serve on Okinawa for a few more months. When his discharge number came up, he was shipped directly from there back to the U.S. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 13, 1945: “Merrill Wolf, who had the rank of Electrical Mechanic 1-C, received his honorable discharge at Great Lakes on Nov. 10 and came home to his wife and two little daughters. The younger, June Anne, 17 months, he had never seen. He had been in the Pacific for two years, coming home directly from Okinawa to Seattle and thence to Great Lakes.”

A future brother-in-law already in the Army Engineers

By the time Merrill Wolf enlisted, his future brother-in-law, Ray Leifheit, had been serving in the U.S. Army for almost two years. A carpenter by trade living in the Yorkville area, before the war Leifheit had volunteered for three years to serve in Company E, a unit of the Illinois National Guard’s 129th Infantry Regiment based here in Kendall County at tiny Plattville.

Raymond Leifheit

After induction into the U.S. Army, Leifheit was eventually assigned to Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, an engineering unit attached to the 9th Armored Division.

He was shipped overseas to England in August 1944, where the 9th Armored Division and the 9th Engineers underwent additional training before being sent to France in October 1944 to aid in the defeat of Germany. The engineers assisted the division in its move across France, first seeing action in northern Luxembourg. The battalion was in the Ardennes Forest area in December 1944 when the Germans launched their surprise offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Leifheit and the rest of his Company C mates found themselves desperately fighting to slow down the German armored spearhead. As U.S. forces retreated, C Company engineering troops worked hard continually creating new defensive positions, blocking roads and destroying bridges, and even fighting as infantry as they withdrew, finally reaching the strategic crossroads of Bastogne on Dec. 19. The engineers then returned to their engineering skills and from Dec. 20-27 blocked six roads south and east of Bastogne to check German assaults from those directions.

It was during the furious fighting to block those roads on Dec. 26 that Leifheit was seriously wounded and captured by the German Army. He was initially listed as missing in action, but in April his parents in Yorkville finally got the good news that he was indeed alive.

A U.S. Army engineer prepares to drop a tree onto a road near Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Oswego’s Ray Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion during the battle. (Courtesy To Those Who Served website)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 11, 1945: “Mr. and Mrs. R.W. Leifheit received the glad tidings in the form of a telegram on April 7 from the War Department stating that their son, T-5 Raymond Leifheit, who was reported as missing in action Dec. 26, in Belgium, was a prisoner of war of the German government. Many friends and relatives rejoice with them at this word and hope he will soon be released to return home.”

He had been treated in German military hospitals for two months after being wounded before he was liberated by Allied forces, and then spent more time in U.S. Military Hospitals before being finally sent home.

It took some time before he was completely healed. But he eventually did, getting back to his old carpentry profession.

Then on Jan. 3, 1948, he married Mary Wolf, sister of former Seabee Merrill Wolf.

Thanks to those recent donations from Wolf family descendants, the stories of these two World War II veterans will be preserved in the collections of the Little White School Museum, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have gone off to serve their nation in both war and peace, and whose memories the museum is committed to preserving.

As part of their mission to preserve the achievements of the hundreds of men and women from Oswego who have served their country for the last 190 years, the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street, Oswego, will host their “Remembering Our Veterans” special exhibit starting Thursday, Nov. 10 and running through Sunday, Nov. 27. Regular museum hours are Thursday and Friday, 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Monday, 4-9 p.m. The museum, located just two blocks east of Oswego’s historic downtown business district, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but donations are always gratefully accepted. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, check the museum web site, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org, or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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The era when the Fox River Valley’s Native People and settlers lived along side each other

Starting in 1835, under terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Fox Valley’s Native Americans were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River.

But that meant the region’s white settlers lived alongside their Native American neighbors for roughly a decade. How were relations between the two groups? An honest appraisal would have to say those relations were mixed.

By the time whites began settling the region between Chicago and the Fox River Valley, the area was mostly populated by bands of the Three Fires Confederacy. About 1745, reports that the interrelated tribes of the Illinois Confederacy had become so weakened they could no longer claim control of that area prompted the Three Fires member tribal bands to move south from their current homelands in Michigan and Wisconsin to fill the vacuum created by the Illinois’ difficulties.

A cultural mixture of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa tribal bands, Three Fires villages soon dotted the banks of the Fox, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Illinois rivers. The member tribal groups had been hostile to the United States until the end of the War of 1812, after which they determined to live in peace with Americans.

Ottawa, located at the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River, was the jumping off spot for many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers. This 1845 map of the area west of Chicago was published in the Guide Through Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin & Iowa. Showing the Township lines of the United States Surveys by J. Calvin Smith. New York in the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Settlement in the Fox Valley region really didn’t begin until about 1826 when Robert Bearsford’s family moved up the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa and settled in modern Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. Bearsford’s claim was reportedly at the southernmost point of the grove of mixed hardwood trees.

By 1829, a couple other families had moved to the Big Grove area including former French Canadian fur trader Vetal Vermet’s family as well as American Frederick Countryman and his Potawatomi wife, En-do-ga.

In August of that year, whiskey provided a trigger for a relatively violent incident between the two cultures. Peter Lamsett, nicknamed Peter Specie by the settlers for his policy of only accepting coins—specie—in payment for the goods and services he sold, brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice Alexander Doyle at Chicago (then governed from Peoria County) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians.

Specie Grove in Oswego and Kendall townships of Kendall County was named after Peter Lamsett Specie, who was living there when the county’s first White settlers arrived. This clip from an 1876 map of the county in the Biographical Directory of the Voters and Tax-Payers of Kendall County, Illinois by George Fisher & Company.

Specie, a French Canadian who had engaged in the fur trade before concentrating on providing various services to new settlers, was on his way from Chicago with his ox cart to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Countryman and a half-barrel to Vermet at Big Grove when he said he was set upon near the DuPage River by the Potawatomi Chief Half Day and two warriors. He said the Indians took a quantity of alcohol, claiming one of them slashing him with a knife during the scuffle. Specie continued his delivery, but testified he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who, he said, stole more liquor. Specie told Justice Doyle he estimated about 10 gallons of whiskey had been taken. The resolution of Specie’s complaint is missing from the county court records, but the case and Specie’s testimony does suggest some significant tensions between Native Americans and the increasing number of White settlers—even those generally considered sympathetic to the tribes.

Sauk Warrior Black Hawk

The worst clash of the era between the area’s White settlers and Native People was 1832’s Black Hawk War. An influential Sauk warrior, Black Hawk determined to move his band of about 1,500 men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois in the spring of 1832 in violation of government orders. Black Hawk had a long history of opposing White settlement of western Illinois. During the War of 1812, Black Hawk, who had allied himself with the British, out-generaled Illinois militia troops who tried to attack the Sauk Tribe’s main settlement at Rock Island. After that war, Black Hawk still remained attached to British interests to such an extent that the tribal group he led was called the British Band by U.S. officials.

In 1832, the British Band’s return to Illinois caused conflict to break out across northern Illinois. Local tribes people seized on the opportunity to settle some scores. The most violent of these was the Indian Creek Massacre in LaSalle County, where 14 men, women and children at the William Davis claim were killed over Davis’s cruel and violent treatment of local Three Fires people.

A few miles north of Indian Creek, Hollenback’s store at modern Newark was looted and burned, as were the cabins of settlers who had been warned to flee by the Three Fires’ Chief Shabbona. At the William Harris cabin, panic reigned. The family’s horses had bolted meaning the couple, their seven children, and Mrs. Harris’s father, the aged and crippled John Coombs, had to flee on foot. Realizing he’d slow them down, Mr. Coombs told the family, “Leave me to my fate, and save yourselves; I am an old man and can live but a little while at best.” Which they tearfully did, thinking they’d never see him alive again. But when an Indian raiding party arrived at the Harris cabin and saw Mr. Coombs was an invalid, they left him be and passed on to other pickings, not exactly the picture of ruthlessness we expect to see during a war.

Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi

And as for the perpetrators of the Indian Creek Massacre, the suspects were arrested after the war and tried in Ottawa. But since the survivors of the attack, including Sylvia and Rachel Hall, teenage sisters seized and held for ransom, could not positively identify which warriors had attacked the cabin, the charges against the defendants were ruled unproven and they were released, which seems an interesting comment on the attitude towards justice, even on the frontier that was northern Illinois at that time.

After the war, until the Fox Valley’s Native People were removed, relations seemed to be good. Early settler and eventual orchardist Smith Minkler’s recollection of visiting the claim of William Wilson, Oswego’s first settler, in late 1833 as recounted in the Rev. E.W. Hicks’1877 history of the county might have been typical: “Mr. Minkler was down there [at Oswego] one day when Wilson’s boys were astride of an Indian pony, and the Indians with wild shouts of glee were pulling it along the trail. It seemed to be great fun for them.”

Ambrotype of “Chief Shaubonee” made on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field

Shabbona, who had warned the settlers to flee during Black Hawk’s war, was rewarded with a small reserve at the grove west of the Fox River in modern DeKalb County that had been named for him. But he, along with Waubonsee, and the other chiefs and families, were all ordered west anyway. The first group left Chicago in 1835 for a grueling trip first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas that rivaled in tragedy the famed “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes. Other groups left in 1836, but some of those who’d been removed hated where they’d been situated and filtered back to northern Illinois. It wasn’t until 1837 that the last of the Three Fires were finally, permanently removed.

Even after that, Shabbona returned for visits, living on his land off and on until it was simply sold out from underneath him, something that is still in litigation to this day. Virtually homeless, the old chief’s friends bought him a small house where he spent the last two years of his life. The highlight of that period was at Ottawa on Aug. 21, 1858 when he was invited to sit on the dais during the first Lincoln and Douglas Debate and when he was able to greet his former Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln.

Like most of history, the era when settlers and Native People lived together in Illinois’ Fox River Valley is complicated, an era when both sides had something to learn from and teach to each other. And that’s perhaps something worth thinking about throughout November as the nation celebrates this year’s Native American Heritage Month.

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“The Basics” of American life have significantly evolved

I was paging through an old photo album the other day and came upon a photo of my grandmother dated about 1915. There she was standing beside her father-in-law in back of her two-story Aurora home, smiling into the camera holding up the severed head of a pig.

In this day and age, someone hoisting a pig’s head up for the camera would be considered odd if not downright dangerous. But my gentle and kindly grandmother was obviously not a bloodthirsty woman. So what was going on?

Wilhelm Holzhueter and his daughter-in-law, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter, make headcheese at the Holzhueter Home on Hinman Street on Aurora, Illinois’ east side neighborhood nicknamed “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelming German population. Photo probably taken about 1915 by Fred Holzhueter.

What was going on was everyday life at that time.

The early years of this century were times not so far removed—in lifestyle if not in year—from the subsistence farming in which the pioneers engaged. Until relatively recently (we’re talking in historical terms here), people did not go down to the supermarket for their every food need. Sure, there were grocery stores, but they mostly stocked staples like flour, sugar, rice, and the like. Instead of buying everything they ate, our not-so-distant ancestors had big gardens, raised chickens, and they kept cows and sometimes pigs, often even in town.

One reason most women did not work outside the home back then is because there was so much work in their homes to do all that gardening and animal husbandry not to mention trying to keep up with normal household tasks like cooking. Back in that day, just doing the family wash was a day-long job that involved heavy lifting, not to mention often having to be a cross between an engineer and a water-carrier—as my grandmother came to realize after she and my grandfather moved to a farm in 1920.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering’s gasoline utility engines. My grandfather also used it to power his concrete mixer and for other farm chores in pre-rural electrification days.

Farmers, of course, always tried to grow as much of the food they needed as possible while also trying to grow enough extra to send to market to earn cash. But frontier farmers found that given the transportation technology of the day their farm produce was hard–if not downright impossible–to move to market. As a result, they tried to convert their produce into something that was easier to transport.

Corn, rye, and other grains raised west of the Appalachian Mountains could be fermented and then distilled into whiskey, which could be transported a lot easier than the tons of grain it took to make the spirits. One of the nation’s first tax crises, in fact, happened because the government insisted on taxing whiskey, a practice western farmers insisted was unfair, since grain sold by eastern farmers was not similarly taxed. The Whiskey Rebellion was brief, but the animosity of the western settlers towards the more settled east remained and simmered.

The concept of making it easier to get western agricultural products to eastern markets was one of the major forces driving development on the frontier. Such giant—for their times—public works projects as the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls), the all the other canal systems in the nation were attempts to open farm-to-market transport routes.

Meanwhile, farmers were trying to survive by producing enough for their families to eat. Virtually every farmstead featured a standardized set of buildings and agricultural features that were geared towards not only producing products for sale or barter but for the subsistence of the farm family as well. Early on, a barn to provide storage for fodder, protection for draft animals, and farm equipment storage (meaning a plow during pioneer days); a crop storage building that eventually evolved into what we now call a corn crib; and a chicken house were the minimum buildings, beside the farmhouse, that were included on most farmsteads. Gradually, the kinds of farm equipment farmers needed increased and so a separate machine shed was added to the farmstead.

About 1900, R.D. Gates proudly poses with the hogs he’s raising on his farm on Minkler Road south of Oswego as his hired man on the wagon full of freshly picked and husked corn looks on. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In terms of livestock, at least one cow was kept to provide milk and butter for the family. A few pigs were almost always kept because they were easy to raise and provided a lot of meat for the cost of feeding them. Cattle were usually kept, although they were more expensive to purchase and breed than pigs because they did not convert forage to meat as efficiently. And, of course, chickens were almost always on hand because of their utility as garbage disposals, egg layers, and ready sources of fresh meat.

Until the 1960s, most farmers raised all of the above animals at once on their farms, sometimes for the consumption of their families and even more often as profit centers for their farming operations.

Outside on the farmstead, there was an orchard and a large garden plot. Orchards usually included apple, cherry, and pear trees, plus sometimes plums, apricots, and peach trees. Early on, fruit was dried or stored in cellars for use later in the year. Later on, the fruit was either canned or turned into jellies and preserves.

Preserving vegetables and other garden produce, fruit, and meat was one of farm wives’ major tasks. Vegetables were canned, while root crops were preserved in cellars. Some vegetables, like cabbage and cucumbers were preserved by pickling, including making sauerkraut out of cabbage. Fruit was, as mentioned above, either canned for later use in pies and salads, or made into preserves, jams, and jellies. Many farm tables featured a jelly dish at all three meals during the day.

My grandmother in 1978 enjoying a rest after a busy life in the house my grandfather built in town for their retirement.

Meat was preserved in a variety of ways, including canning, which was especially favored for beef. Pork was preserved by frying the pork chops and putting them down in layers in large crocks. Each layer was sealed from outside air–and spoilage–with a thick layer of pork grease. Bacon and hams were smoked for preservation. And some parts of the hog were preserved in other ways. “Headcheese” was created by boiling the hog’s head to remove and cook the meat and release the natural gelatin in the bones and connective tissue. Then the mixture was seasoned and poured into loaf pans to cool. This produced a spiced lunch meat loaf that was sliced for use in sandwiches and other recipes.

Which gets us back to what my sweet grandmother was doing displaying that hog’s head so proudly: She was getting ready to make up a fresh batch of headcheese for use in my grandfather’s lunches at the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops in Aurora—no trip to the packaged meat aisle of the grocery store needed.

As a commentary on American life, the photo leading off this post is just one more indication of how far our definition of “the basics” has moved from the time of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’.

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Water-powered mills, once a familiar sight,  have nearly disappeared from the landscape

By the turn of the 20th Century, most of Kendall County’s old water-powered grist and sawmills had either completely disappeared or had switched to steam power.

That might seem puzzling given that the water powering all those mills was free, while steam engines require fuel of one kind or another that has to be purchased. As it turns out, though, while the water that powered mills might have been free, actually turning water into hydraulic power was pretty costly. Couple that with the economics of improved transportation and the economies of scale industrialization created, and it gets a lot easier to see why water-powered mills disappeared from the landscape.

Starting with the era of settlement in the 1830s, enterprising millwrights built sawmills and gristmills on almost every sizable stream in Kendall County. The Fox River had its share of mills of various kinds, of course, but so did local creeks including Blackberry, Morgan, Big Rock, and Waubonsie.

Dams were comprised of timber cribs staked to the stream bottom, filled with rocks and rubble, and then faced with timber. Illustration from Mill by David Macaulay, 1989.

According to the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, by 1846, Kendall County’s population totaled 5,600 people and “Their sawing and grinding was done by fourteen saw and grist mills.”

To create the waterpower to run their mills, millwrights first had to build dams. During that era, they were simple walls built across streams with no floodgates. The technology of the day called for putting together triangular timber frames that were than hauled into the stream and secured to the bottom with forged iron stakes. The open frames were then filled with rocks and rubble. The vertical upstream side of the dam was faced with planks to hold the rubble in place, while the slanted downstream side was also covered with planks to make a smooth surface for the water running over the dam.

1906 view of the Parker dam and gristmill taken from the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory on the east bank of the Fox River looking west. Note the damn’s plank facing. By this time, the mill had been long out of business and the dam was gradually being washed away. (Little White School Museum collection)

Millraces were dug around one or sometimes both ends of the dam and were generally faced with flagstone easily mined along the banks of the county’s streams. These millraces could be either simple, powering one mill or longer and more elaborate powering multiple mills. The long Montgomery millrace powered two mills, while the millrace at Yorkville powered Black’s paper mill as well as Yorkville’s first grain elevator via an overhead wire cable and pulley system.

1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map showing the wire cable and pulley system that powered the Walter & VanEmon’s Grain Elevator at Yorkville.

Here in Oswego, the dam was sort of anchored into the bedrock exposed on the two riverbanks. The mills were then built in such a way that their millraces ran through their basements, where the waterwheels, and later the turbines, were located. That had the advantage of eliminating the need for longer races that could be maintenance headaches. The gristmill on the west bank was built first, followed by the sawmill on the east bank. A furniture factory was eventually added to the sawmill. A small chest of drawers manufactured there is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The Parker Gristmill (far bank of the Fox River) and the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory (right) were located at opposite ends of the Oswego dam. Both ends of the dam were securely anchored in the bedrock on the banks of the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

The fast millrace water powered the millwheels. Because of our generally flat topography, many of our early mills used horizontal tub wheels although vertical undershot wheels that we generally think millwheels ought to look like were not uncommon, either. One county mill used an undershot wheel, powering equipment using water flowing under and not over it. Huge at 24-feet in diameter, the sawmill it powered was located on the Fox River at Millbrook.

The 1838 Federal survey map of Fox Township illustrates Jackson’s Mill at modern Millington nearly on the border with LaSalle County. The mill boasted a 24-foot undershot water wheel that powered both sawmill and gristmill equipment.

As soon as possible, those early tub and undershot wheels were replaced by turbines imported from back East. A later turbine wheel from Gray’s Mill is on exhibit near the riverbank in the park just upstream from the Mill Street Bridge in Montgomery.

Early on, sawmills were as, if not more important, than gristmills. They used vertical steel sawblades to cut local timber into lumber for buildings and fences. In the county’s oldest buildings the evidence of their vertical saw cuts are still clearly visible, looking much different than the spiral saw marks made by later circular sawblades.

The era of local sawmilling ended surprisingly soon as cheaper lumber began to flow into Chicago aboard sailing ships from Michigan and Wisconsin. The fate of Jackson’s Millbrook sawmill mentioned above was typical, as Hicks reported in 1877: “But the gang saws of Michigan and Wisconsin at last outstripped it, and left the aged frame to bleach in the sun until a year ago, when the spring freshet bore it away on its bosom to rest in a watery grave.”

Brownell Wing’s huge three-story limestone Millhurst gristmill is the only former water-powered mill still standing in Kendall County. Built in 1870, the mill never opened after the new Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road bypassed it by a mile to the southeast. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hicks’ comment above also points out one of the other downsides of the county’s water-powered mills—the cost of maintaining them in the face of annual floods, called freshets back in those days. Dams were damaged every year by the annual spring floods, and were sometimes–along with their adjacent mills–entirely destroyed by rampaging ice floes and high water during breakup.

As a result the dams also required constant maintenance. Those timber frames submerged in water tended to rot away and the upstream and downstream plank coverings had to be monitored continually, making for a lot of labor needed to make use of that “free” water. Couple that with the vagaries of water flow at various times of the year, and it becomes clear water power may not be such a hot power source after all. As the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on Aug. 21, 1879: “The water in the river is so low that the paper mill had to shut down Tuesday.”

The viability of local mills remained certain through the 1870s. After that two things tended to lead to their disappearance. First was the advent of affordable steam engines. When a steam engine could be installed and run the establishment with no need to maintain a dam, complicated turbines, or worry about low water levels, it made economic sense to switch power sources.

Looking north into Kane County on the Fox River from Bereman’s Curve on the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) towards the covered Montgomery Bridge and Gray’s Mill. The venerable old local landmark is one of the few former water-powered mills still standing along the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, the old mills closed down to be replaced by steam-powered mills in more convenient locations, which, in turn, were then made obsolete by the extension of rail lines through the county that carried farmers’ crops and livestock away and brought back manufactured materials, from wheat flour to sawn lumber, at prices no small local sawmill or gristmill could beat or even meet.

Photo probably taken about 1927 by Irvin Haines of the Parker Grist Mill, probably taken as he dismantled the mill provide timbers and other materials to rebuild the old Seely stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge into Turtle Rock Inn for Mr. and Mrs. James Curry. The Currys moved into Turtle Rock in November 1928. (Little White School Museum collection)

While some of the old mill buildings remained—especially ones like Gray’s Mill just north of the Kendall County line in Montgomery or Wing’s Mill In Kendall County’s Fox Township at Millhurst built of native limestone—others were washed away by floods, burned down, or were dismantled and their timbers reused for other purposes. The dams that provided their waterpower were gradually erased by annual spring floods and the breakup of ice in the spring. A few of the dams were maintained by companies that harvested ice from their millponds but the increasing pollution of the Fox River and the development of ice manufacturing equipment eliminated that use as well by the first decade of the 20th Century.

At low water on the Fox River, those with sharp eyes can often see some of the remaining timber frame members of the old mill dams–direct and tangible links to the era of pioneer millwrights and millers. The ones above, still staked to the river bottom, are the remains of the old Parker Dam at Oswego I photographed back in 2018.

Today, while some of those old dam and mill sites have been totally erased from the landscape, here and there their remains can still be seen if a person knows what they’re looking at—I can see the remains of a dam and the mills that stood at either end from my office window here in Oswego, for instance. And the remains of Montgomery’s long millrace are still visible as a swale extending along the riverbank above the Montgomery Bridge.

But for the most part it’s one more once-important Fox Valley business era that’s almost totally disappeared from our collective memory.

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Columbus, genocide, and federal holidays: Trying to make sense of the Age of Exploration

Some historians like to bicker about whether the driving force in history is people or events, in other words, do individuals create historical events or do historical events create significant individuals through their reactions to those events?

Actually, when you get right down to it, history doesn’t seem to be much more than a series of accidents and mistakes that combine to form a historical context lurching from one catastrophe to another. If that might be a trend in history, then the history of North America has certainly seems to have followed it.

The New World’s accidental history began as soon as Christopher Columbus weighed anchor on the coast of Spain and headed west across the Atlantic. This week, we commemorated the results of that voyage, which proved catastrophic for millions of Indigenous people in North, Central, and South America while creating opportunities for downtrodden people elsewhere on earth for the next five centuries.

When Columbus finally sighted land at the end of his voyage 530 years ago this week, he was positive he had discovered either China or India. But as one historian noted, he hadn’t even discovered Indiana.

Much to their later chagrin, the Tainos people welcomed Christopher Columbus and his three ships loaded with European fortune hunters on Oct. 12, 1492. It didn’t take long for Columbus to set out on a program designed to enrich both his Spanish backers and him, personally. Outright theft, murder, rape, and genocide that wiped out most of the Indigenous People in the Caribbean followed.

Instead, Columbus landed on an island off the coast of what became known as the Americas but was so convinced he had reached the mysterious East that he named the inhabitants of his new discovery Indians, a name not a few of them have been trying to live down ever since.

It seems to have been, in fact, a fortunate thing that Columbus never actually found North, Central, or South America, given his murderous proclivities. The first people Columbus stumbled across were the Tainos, a peaceful bunch in which Columbus immediately saw possibilities. “They should be good servants,” he wrote in his journal. After which he instituted a brutal regime of torture, rape, and murder against them in order to steal whatever gold, silver, or other valuables that might have had.

After establishing a colony on the island of Hispaniola during his second voyage to the New World—and in direct violation of his orders from the Spanish monarchy—Columbus figured the numerous indigenous people living there would make fine slaves, and so he began shipping hundreds of them back to Spain, and enslaving thousands more on Hispaniola allowing Spaniards serving under him to rape, pillage, and murder.

As historian Samuel Elliott Morrison put it: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

Alarmed by the reports they were receiving about the brutality of Columbus towards not only the Native People, but also Hispaniola’s European colonists after Columbus’s fourth voyage, the Spanish crown ordered an investigation. That led to Columbus’s arrest and return in chains to Spain where the authorities stripped him of his titles.

Despite Spain’s initial decision to treat Native People with respect and kindness, when it apparently occurred to them they didn’t have to worry about reciprocal attacks from organized Indian or Chinese armies, the ethical gloves came completely off. And the Spanish quickly came to consider all the Indigenous People as surplus population. Five hundred years before the Germans perfected the method, the Spanish practiced the Final Solution on entire peoples living in North, Central, and South America.

Although Columbus thought he’d found India or China (he remained convinced until his death), it quickly became apparent to others that a) there seemed to be a major error in their calculations of the diameter of the earth and b) there further seemed to be a large mass of land taking up all that space between Europe and Asia. Due to those miscalculations of the Earth’s diameter, those early explorers thought that what turned out to be North, Central, and South America was a narrow island. Stories of rich nations and cities just beyond the horizon, some undoubtedly concocted by Native People eager to see murderous, greedy Europeans go elsewhere, became a staple of the colonization of the New World.

So, when the French landed in Canada and began exploring to the west, they were sure they would soon reach China. In fact, a series of rapids on the St. Lawrence River was named La Chine because early colonists were sure China was just up the river a few miles beyond the rapids. With that as a precedent, every time a French adventurer took possession of land as the boundaries of exploration were pushed ever farther westward, it was with one eye on the Chinese. For instance, when the French seized the Sault Ste. Marie rapids leading from Lake Superior just before 1620, the official doing the taking had brought along rich robes for the ceremony because he was sure a few Chinese potentates would show up for the festivities.

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, explored the Mississippi River in 1673, proving it didn’t empty into the Pacific Ocean.

The conviction that rich Asian markets lay just beyond next hill to the west drove two centuries’ worth of searches for the non-existent Northwest Passage. And unlike those homicidal Spanish conquistadors, the French generally tended to be more benign in their colonial treatment of Native People.

French geographer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, who were sent to discover whether the Mississippi River was a sort of Southwest Passage to the Pacific, both had high hopes of finding the long-sought route. Instead, they discovered the Mississippi didn’t flow southwest. Rather, they found, it headed pretty much directly south or slightly southeast to end up emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Gulf of California as had been hoped.

The Jolliet-Marquette expedition had began in 1673 when Jolliet was commissioned to find out exactly where the Mississippi went given Native People insisted it led to a huge body of water. He and a few companions left Montreal and paddled up the Ottawa River following the old trade route the Chippewa and Ottawa people had blazed and perfected centuries before.

The party crossed Rainy Lake and portaged into Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, eventually arriving at the French post of St. Ignace. There they picked up Father Marquette, who was added to the expedition for his linguistic skills.

The party then paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to the Fox River of Wisconsin that emptied into Green Bay. Paddling up the Fox, they portaged to the Wisconsin River at the site of today’s Portage, Wis., and then followed the Wisconsin down to its mouth on the Mississippi.

During their voyage down the Mississippi, Jolliet made navigational observations until, upon reaching the mouth of the Arkansas River, he realized the Mississippi had to flow into the Gulf of Mexico not the Gulf of California. In addition, at the mouth of the Arkansas, they were welcomed by an Indian village whose residents were using Spanish trade goods. That was alarming because Spain and France were quarreling at the time, creating a potentially unhealthy atmosphere for the French explorers.

So the expedition turned around and paddled back north. Reaching the mouth of the Illinois River, they were advised by some helpful Native People the smaller river was a shortcut to the Great Lakes, so they became the first Europeans to explore the Illinois River Valley. Both Jolliet and Marquette commented on the rich prairie land they saw during their voyage north, and both correctly predicted the territory would prove to be a productive farming region.

Father Marquette lived just one more year before dying on the lonely Lake Michigan coastline near modern Marquette, Mich.

Nineteenth Century artist George Catlin’s depiction of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s 1682 ceremony claiming the Mississippi River’s watershed for Louis XIV. LaSalle named the entire river basin La Louisiane in the Sun King’s honor. The thoughts of the resident Native People having their ancestral home renamed after a foreign monarch were not recorded.

Jolliet was within sight of Montreal when his canoe upset in some rapids and he lost all of the journals and maps he had made during the expedition. However, he reconstructed much of the information, and that eventually caught the attention of Robert René Cavalier, Seur de la Salle, who concocted a grand scheme for the settlement of the lands Jolliet and Marquette had first explored as well as lands along the south shore of Lake Michigan east of the Chicago River.

And so it came to pass that nearly 200 years after Columbus landed, LaSalle finally discovered Indiana.

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Oswego’s historic downtown business district honored with National Register recognition

A roughly two-block section of Oswego’s historic downtown business district called the Downtown Oswego Historic District by village officials has been added to the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The bounds of the new downtown Oswego historic district added to the National Register of Historic Places is outlined in red on this map. It includes some of the community’s most historic areas.

The area selected for recognition is that section of Main Street from the north side of Jackson to the south side of Washington Street, which is generally considered the heart of downtown. That stretch of Main Street includes the brick and limestone Union Block on the east side of the street built in 1867; the classic frame false-front Rank Building, built by Oswego Postmaster Lorenzo Rank in 1874; and the Burkhart Block on the south side of Washington Street. On the west side of Main at Washington Street, the Schickler and Knapp buildings erected by two of Oswego’s German immigrant businessmen in the late 1890s and early 1900s are included, as is the 1840s native limestone Parke Building at the northwest corner of Main and Jackson.

The first settlers on the site of what is considered the original village of Oswego were William and Rebecca (Pearce) Wilson, who arrived with the extended Pearce family in 1833. Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, settled on what’s now Fox Bend Golf Course, where the old Pearce farmhouse still stands just east of the Waubonsie Creek bridge on Route 34, while brothers John and Walter settled west of the river. The Smiths built their cabin at the busy modern “Five Corners” intersection of Routes 25 and 34, and Jefferson Street.

But the Pearces were farmers, not town builders. It took a couple enthusiastic entrepreneurs, Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. “Squire” Arnold, to see that the lay of the land on the bluff overlooking the Fox River’s narrowest point for miles in either direction would be a good spot to build a new town.

The 1838 survey plat of Oswego Township showed the small village of Oswego at the Fox River narrows. I’ve highlighted the roads that crossed at Oswego, making it an area transportation hub. Also important was the Fox River ford just upstream from Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the river.

The site also happened to be the intersection of four well-used Native American trails. One came across the prairie from the west, crossed the river, and headed east and a bit north to the ford across the DuPage River and on to Chicago, while another branched off that trail at Oswego and headed southeast across the prairie to Walker’s Grove, also on the DuPage, and then on to Chicago as well. From Oswego where those two branches merged, another trail headed southwest to Ottawa. A fourth trail came up the west side of the Fox River from Ottawa crossed the river on the Oswego ford, and ran north to the new settlement of LaFox—later renamed Geneva.

Arnold and Judson realized that ford was another geographical plus for their potential town site. Located just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River, the ford featured shallow, slow-moving water running over a smooth limestone floor that extended all the way across the river. Native Americans had used it for thousands of years and the White pioneers made immediate use of it as soon as they arrived. It would remain the only way to cross the river until the first timber-frame bridge spanned the river at Oswego in 1848.

Arnold, an ambitious emigrant from New York, had some experience with town building, having been involved, along with Chester Ingersoll, with turning the Walker’s Grove settlement on the DuPage River into the village of Plainfield in 1834 and then serving as that new town’s first postmaster.

The original 20-block village laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold is colored pink in this clip from Warner & Beers’ 1870 plat book and atlas of Kendall County. The plat illustrates how each block was laid out bisected by alleys running perpendicular to each other. (Little White School Museum collection)

Judson, a wealthy frontier businessman, like Arnold originally from New York but most recently from Michigan, partnered with Arnold to lay out their village on a square plan aligned with the east bank of the Fox River. As platted in 1835 by the two (and making, by a couple months, Oswego Kendall County’s oldest municipality), the new village contained 18 blocks, each 280.5 feet (17 rods in surveyor’s terms) square and containing eight lots, each 66 feet wide and 132 feet deep. Two 16.5-foot alleys running perpendicular to each other bisected each block.

They named all of the streets but two after U.S. Presidents, including Harrison, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson, Washington, Van Buren, and Tyler. The two non-Presidential street names were Main and Benton, named after U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a political ally of President Andrew Jackson and strong supporter of westward expansion.

The two originally named their new town “Hudson,” after the river in New York with which they were both so familiar. Arnold opened the first store in the new village right in the middle of what would become the village’s business district. Both Judson and Arnold began pushing for Congress to grant their new town a post office, and those wishes were granted on Jan. 24, 1837, with Arnold named the first postmaster.

The only known photo of the east side of Main Street as it looked before the devastating February 1867 fire destroyed all the buildings pictured, including the stately National Hotel. Levi Arnold opened Oswego’s first store and post office in the building to the right of the National Hotel. (Little White School Museum collection)

But there was a fly in the town-builders’ ointment. For whatever reason, Congress named the new post office “Lodi.” Lodi wasn’t a bad name, of course, carrying the name of a town in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, but it apparently didn’t suit Arnold and Judson. Within some months, the few permanent male residents held a referendum to choose a new permanent name. When the few votes were counted, neither Hudson nor Lodi had more than one vote. Instead, “Oswego” won with two votes in its column.

Kendall County was established in February 1841. The General Assembly appointed a three-man commission to pick a site for a county seat and they chose the hamlet of Yorkville, six miles south of Oswego. But with all those roads leading to the new town, Oswego was growing faster than other areas of the new county. So Arnold, Judson and other Oswego boosters immediately began encouraging moving the county seat to Oswego. They engineered a referendum in 1845 that populous Oswego won over the more centrally located Yorkville.

This view, looking north from Washington Street and reminiscent of cow towns in the Old West, shows the west side of Oswego’s Main Street, around time time the 1867 fire destroyed the east side of the business district. The only building in this image still standing is the native limestone Parke Building on the right side of the photograph. The building now houses the American Male & Company’s clothing stores. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new courthouse was built just outside the downtown area on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Jefferson, and Monroe streets. With that, Oswego’s business community began to cater as much to the traveling trade of the circuit court’s judges and lawyers as to the surrounding agricultural area with three hotels and numerous blacksmith and wagonwright shops.

But Oswego’s location in the northeast corner of the county was proving inconvenient for residents needing to go to the county seat in those days of horse and buggy and horseback travel. So another referendum was held in 1859, and the voters approved moving the county seat back to Yorkville. With the Civil War intruding, it took a few years to get a new courthouse built, but in June 1864, the county’s records were hauled down to Yorkville, and Oswego returned to its status as a mercantile hub for the surrounding agricultural area.

From the time Judson and Arnold platted it 187 years ago, Oswego’s downtown catered to the residents of the community itself, as well as to the farmers working the land around it, as well as to those elected county officials and members of the legal community during its stint as the county seat. As such it boasted a wide variety of businesses from the aforementioned hotels, to retail merchants, to service providers like barbers, milliners, and others.

Postmaster Lorenzo Rank built this false-front Italianate commercial building to house the Oswego Post Office in 1874. He lived in the building’s second floor apartment. In 1912, the post office moved south to the brick Burkhart Block. Rank willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it was used for a variety of purposes, including the site of the private lending library operated by the village’s Nineteenth Century Women’s Club. When the tax-supported library was built in 1964, the building was sold. It has housed a number of businesses over the years, including hosting for many years the offices of the Oswego weekly Ledger-Sentinel. The building is still used for business purposes. (Little White School Museum collection)

When I looked at the way the district is drawn, it occurred to me that it includes the sites of five of Oswego’s earliest post offices. While the building that housed it is long gone, the village’s first post office opened by Arnold in conjunction with his store (the first in the village) in 1837 was located at what is now 68 Main Street. It moved across the street and north to the limestone Parke Building at Main and Jackson in the 1840s and then back across the street and south to Lorenzo Rank’s new building in 1874. When the brick Burkhart Block was finished at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1912, the post office moved there before moving for the last time back north at the northwest corner of Main and Washington into the Schickler Building. Its last move was out of downtown altogether to the northeast corner of Madison and Jackson in March 1969.

After all the storefronts on the east side of Main were destroyed by fire in February 1867, a consortium of businessmen built the brick and limestone Union Block. Druggist Levi Hall was the first to move into the new block, locating in the storefront at the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

As noted, the designated historic district includes a lot of Oswego’s business and economic history. The brick Union Block on the east side of Main at Washington opened late in 1867 following the devastating February 1867 fire that destroyed everything on that side of Main from Washington to Jackson except the limestone horse barn of the stately National Hotel. The first occupant of the new block was Levi Hall, who opened his new drug store on the site of Arnold’s first store in December 1867 with a special sale of Christmas toys and decorations, a tradition that would continue through several subsequent owners for the next century.

By 1885, the brick and limestone Union Block on east side of Oswego’s Main Street was joined by Lorenzo Rank’s post office building, W.J. Collins’ Star Roller Skating Rink (with flagpole), and at the far left of the photo, the Shoger Brothers livery stable at Main and Jackson, one day to become the home of Zentmyer Ford Sales. (Little White School Museum collection

Other buildings came and went downtown including the Star Roller Skating Rink that occupied the site of the old National Hotel on the east side of Main Street for several years.

The west side of the street didn’t experience the same urban renewal caused by a raging fire. Instead, the old frame buildings were gradually replaced by newer brick buildings, first the Oswego Saloon in 1897, the Knapp Building—site of today’s Masonic Hall and Oswego Family Restaurant—adjoining it to the south in 1898. Then in 1899, John Schickler built his block of brick stores next to the Knapp Building, filling the space from there all the way south to Washington Street.

Meanwhile north of all that brick construction, Henry Helle was maintaining his shoemaking establishment at the southwest corner of Main and Jackson.

Earl Zentmyer bought the Parke Building on Main at Jackson from Gus Shoger and opened a combination service station and Ford dealership in 1922. This snapshot was taken in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

Across Jackson Street to the south, O.A. Parke’s limestone former post office and general store had subsequently become home to a variety of stores and other businesses, including a bowling alley, jewelry store, farm implement business, tin smithing business, and blacksmith shop. In 1922, a young fellow from Aurora named Earl Zentmyer bought it from its owner, Gus Shoger, and turned it into a combination gas station and Ford dealership. Zentmyer eventually bought the old Shoger Brothers Livery Stable across Main Street from the stone building and operated it as a service station and Ford dealership until it burned in 1965.

The Burkhart Block at Main and Washington was built by Oliver and Clinton Burkhart to house the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront, the Burkhart & Shoger auto dealership to the left, and the Oswego Post Office and the switchboard for the Chicago Telephone Company in the two storefronts to the right of the bank. This photo was taken about 1913 by Dwight Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

Also included in the historic district is the brick Burkhart Block, completed at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1911 to mainly as the home for the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront. But also originally housed in the structure were the Burkhart and Shoger Studebaker dealership, the new Oswego Post Office, and the local switchboard of the Chicago (later Illinois Bell) Telephone Company.

Oswego’s streets were unpaved when this photo of an early auto northbound on Main Street through the heart of the business district about 1905. During that era, the hitching posts lining the street were not decorative; they were meant to be used. More than 100 years later, the downtown streetscape still looks familiar. (Little White School Museum collection)

Over the years the very transportation routes that allowed Oswego’s downtown to grow in the first place conspired to curb that growth. In 1870, the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road linked the coalfields lying between Ottawa and Streator with Geneva, running through Oswego and giving it a direct link with nearby Aurora. Regular passenger service meant the shopping opportunities of that much larger town were just a short train ride away, putting a brake on downtown Oswego’s expansion much beyond its three block base. Then in 1900, downtown Oswego was directly linked to downtown Aurora when the interurban trolley tracks of the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway were completed. For the next 22 years, shopping in downtown Aurora was a short, cheap trolley ride away, serving to keep the selection and size of downtown businesses small.

The final blow to any major expansion of the downtown was dealt by the advent of practical, economical automobiles, trucks, and buses coupled with the post-World War I state-financed drive to build all-weather hard roads. Initial concrete highways roughly followed some of those old 1830s routes through Oswego, again making it a transportation crossroads. In all, three state highways started in Oswego and one U.S. highway passed through following those old trails. And that made it even more convenient for residents to do much of their shopping elsewhere.

Oswego’s modern downtown, recently recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has not only managed to preserve a number of historic structures, but is still home to a mix of successful small retail and service businesses. (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, Oswego’s downtown and near-downtown maintained a mix of retail and service businesses that catered just fine to the surrounding agricultural area, from general merchandise and grocery stores to doctors and dentists to grain and livestock marketing firms.

The heart of any town is its downtown business district. Oswego’s village government and business community have been both lucky and skillful at keeping the downtown healthy, willing to spend both tax dollars and funds generated by the business community on public improvements over the years that have kept it an inviting place to visit, shop, and run a business.

And to top it all off, Oswego’s downtown is also one of the village’s—and Kendall County’s—most historic areas, anchoring the greater Oswego community since 1835.

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The end of two significant rural traditions reflected education, agriculture change in Illinois

We just opened a new seasonal exhibit down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, “Back to School.”

Museum manager Annie Jordan made a deep dive into our collections and retrieved a bunch of photos, documents, and three-dimensional artifacts, from 1950s letter sweaters to the kind of slates kids used to use in lieu of expensive paper to practice arithmetic and handwriting skills. The goal, which seems successful to me, was to put more flesh on the bones of the story of how public education has evolved over the decades as told in the museum gallery’s various core exhibit.

The Little White School Museum’s “Back to School” exhibit celebrates the start of another school year with artifacts, documents, and photographs from the museum’s collections normally not on exhibit. The museum is located at 72 Polk Street, Oswego. Admission is free.

Everyone’s invited to stop by and spend some quality time browsing the new exhibit as well as the exhibits in the gallery. Regular hours are Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday, 4 to 9 p.m.; and Thursdays and Fridays, 2 to 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.

When I was providing some research assistance to Annie and museum assistant Emily Dutton, who was working on the exhibit’s labels, it occurred to me that, being a member of the first of the Baby Boom generation as I am, I’d seen—and participated in—one of the most significant times of change in public education in Illinois history. That era of change also coincided with eras of massive change that began in other areas during my childhood and early adulthood. That included the biggest changes in agriculture in a century (or much more) and the introduction of and miniaturization of computers that had massive effects on every aspect of life.

Public education opportunities had been divided into two categories for a century by that time. Elementary school districts educated students from first through eighth grade. Until the early years of the 20th Century, it was felt by many that eight years of schooling was enough for most people. High schools were relatively rare, as were their students. In 1916, only 175 students from all the county’s rural school districts attended at least some high school.

Until the 20th Century dawned, high school graduates were considered qualified to teach in rural schools. Then qualifications began rising and two years of college began to be required.

Oswego High School’s first graduating class, the Class of 1887, left to right, back row, Addie Kimball (Curry), Mary Smith (Young.) Sitting, Bessie Armstrong (Long), Frank Lippold, Addie Wormley (Elliott). (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, a two-year high school course—sufficient for rural school teachers—was offered with the first graduates matriculating in 1886. Those who wanted a full, four-year degree had to travel to nearby Aurora to finish. It wasn’t until the fall of 1928 that Oswego finally offered a fully accredited, four-year high school course of study.

High schools were expensive propositions with students’ tuitions originally paid for by rural districts. Finally, the state allowed the formation of property tax-supported high school districts and in December 1936 Oswego and Yorkville area voters created the Oswego and Yorkville community high school districts. Oswego High School District Superintendent John Clayton immediately set out to increase the geographical size of the district without adding too many potential students. The strategy made sense—farmland didn’t generate many students, but it did generate tax revenue. That worked until the 68 square miles of the once overwhelmingly rural district began growing more housing developments than crops.

Church School, Wheatland Township, student body, grades 1-6, 1952. The author is in the left foreground.

I started school at the age of 6 years in the fall of 1952, joining four classmates in the first grade at Church School in Wheatland Township, Will County, here in Illinois. No kindergarten then—we dove right into Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot; metal lunch boxes with Thermos bottles whose glass lining broke if you looked at them wrong; recess; penmanship; and the rest with none of those half-day socialization preliminaries.

Officially considered a one-room rural school, Church School was a substantial brick building that actually boasted a large classroom, boys’ and girls’ indoor bathrooms, and a tiny library room, along with a high-ceilinged basement sufficient for indoor recess on rainy days. It was given its name because it was right across the road from the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church.

The church and school were established by the group of Scots immigrant families that arrived on the Wheatland prairie in the 1840s and 1850s, the descendants of which were, a century later, some of my schoolmates. In the fall of 1952, our teacher, Dorothy Comerford, drove out from Joliet every school day to instruct 23 students in six grades.

We didn’t know it—Mrs. Comerford probably did, and our parents surely did—but we were participating in the last years of one-room rural schools. Seventh and eighth graders who would normally have been attending classes at Church School had already been bused into town to attend school in Oswego and sixth graders would follow the next year.

The dedication of the new flagpole at Church School in 1944 during World War II, with the entire student body attending. My sister Eileen is fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

My mother, in fact, was one of the people making sure that junior high students would have the expanded educational opportunities available in town schools. That’s because my oldest sister, Eileen, 12 years my senior, had been the only student in her grade level during her eight pre-high school years attending a couple different one-room schools. She finished her last few years at Church School, which was about a mile down the road from our farm.

Eileen told me one time that during the era when she graduated from eighth grade, graduates from all over Will County, a huge county extending all the way to the Indiana border, assembled at Lockport High School to receive their diplomas. She said she had a slight panic attack seeing that many students her own age after having no classmates her own age for her recently-completed eight years of school.

That prompted my mother’s activism. She helped establish the Oswego Mother’s Club (it eventually became the Oswego Woman’s Civic Club) that began strongly lobbying local school districts to get junior high students out of one-room schools and into town schools so they’d have access to more educational opportunities. Her efforts dovetailed nicely with the accelerating pace of public school consolidation then taking place all across Illinois.

By the early 1950s, Illinois was strongly encouraging merging rural, single-school districts into larger consolidated elementary school districts. The consolidation movement had begun years before, touted as both a tax-saving measure as well as an improvement in educational opportunities. Moving kids into larger in-town schools saved money because rural schools often had such low enrollments, sometimes as few as five or six students, which made for a great, but expensive student:teacher ratio. Larger schools could also offer a far richer curriculum for junior high students, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) areas where chemistry, biology, and physics labs were the kinds of things that would have benefited my sister, who was determined to be a nurse.

A few attempts at consolidating one-room school districts were made early on. Yorkville began considering consolidation in 1919. But efforts stalled during the Great Depression. As economic condition began to ease, consolidation efforts began again, this time out in rural areas. In June 1941, for instance, residents of the one-room Wilcox, Gaylord, and Walker schools voted to consolidate into a single district, with all students attending the Walker School at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego.

The outbreak of World War II again stalled things, but after the war consolidation efforts, this time strongly encouraged by the State of Illinois, resumed. Teacher requirements were increased to require full four-year degrees, prompting dozens of Kendall County educators to go back to college if they wanted to keep teaching. Financial encouragement through the state aid to education formula also encouraged consolidation, not only of elementary districts with other elementary districts, but also the creation of unit districts that educated students from first grade through the senior year of high school.

Church School, Heggs at Ferguson Road, Wheatland Township, Will County, 1957. The Oswego School District’s last rural school, it closed at the end of the 1957-1958 school year. (Little White School Museum photo)

Here in the Oswego School District, it turned out that Church School, where I attended first through the first of half of third grade was one of the last three Oswego-affiliated one-room schools to operate. There had once been 11 one-room schools educating grade school students inside the bounds of the 68 square-mile area affiliated with Oswego through annexation to the high school district. Of the final three remaining schools, Willow Hill at the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and U.S. Route 34 and McCauley School on Caton Farm Road closed in the spring of 1957. Church School closed in the spring of 1958, ending the one-room country school era in the Oswego area.

(Fun fact: All three buildings are still standing, although poor Willow Hill gets more and more dilapidated every year. McCauley and Church schools have both been converted into single-family homes.)

Then in June 1961, voters in the Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 and Oswego Community Consolidated High School District 300 voted to create a new unit school district for students in first grade through high school, today’s Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

And that growth that was just getting a good start back in the late 1950s? Boy, did it keep going. One year old District 308 started the 1962-63 school year with 1,971 students. It started the current school year with just over 17,000.

So, I had the opportunity to attend a rural school very near the end of that era, and I have to say that for those first two and a half years, it provided me a very good, basic education, better than what I found when my parents moved into town. There were more students in my third grade classroom in town than had been in Church School in total, and I was in just one of three third grade classrooms, each with more than 30 students.

The thing was, the education you got in those one-room rural schools was hugely dependent on the skill of the teacher. A bad teacher could plague students through several years of school. But I, and my other Church School classmates were lucky; we had a great teacher.

Along with the end of the one-room school era, the end of diversified farming was also in sight when we moved off the farm in December 1954, soon to be replaced by specialization in grain, livestock, or dairy farming.

It was an interesting time, as two significant rural American eras came to an end.

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