Two wars’ major effects on Kendall County history…

I hadn’t really thought about the structure of Kendall County’s history–and that of Oswego, too–until we started working on developing the new core exhibit down at the Little White School Museum.

Back in 2017, the Oswegoland Heritage Association Board decided we needed to do a complete makeover of the permanent exhibit in the museum room. So we hired museum consultant Lance Tawzer to come in and help us figure out what to do. The first thing we learned is that our museum room was not a museum room, it was our museum gallery, which was cool. We also learned our permanent exhibit was not a permanent exhibit, but rather our museum’s core exhibit. “Permanent,” Lance explained, makes the statement that it’s never going to change while “core” establishes the idea that what is on exhibit there is really the basis for your whole interpretation of local history.

2019 Museum Gallery

The Little White School Museum’s new core exhibit opened March 24, 2019.

And, we also learned that what museums do is exhibit artifacts, photos, and documents, they don’t display them. An exhibit includes interpretation of whatever is being shown to the public—its history, who owned it, and why it’s important to whatever the museum is trying to explain to visitors. Antique shops have displays, museums shouldn’t—but unfortunately, all too many do.

Anyway, when we got to discussing how we wanted to organize the story of Oswego‘s history for the new core exhibit, it suddenly occurred to me that two of the nation’s major wars—the Civil War and World War II—not only had major effects on the entire community (not to mention the whole nation), but that they really divided local history into three convenient eras. Those would be the area’s prehistory and the settlement era to 1861 and the start of the Civil War; the post-Civil War era up to 1941 and the start of World War II; and, finally, the post-World War II era that drastically changed Oswego from a small, sleepy farm town into one of the fastest growing communities in the nation.

Since we’re observing Veterans’ Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the major impacts those two wars had on Kendall County as a whole, with the Oswego area seeing so much change.

White pioneers settled Kendall County starting in the late 1820s. By the late 1830s, the nine townships that would one day become Kendall County were split between Kane County (Oswego, Bristol, Little Rock) and LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Seward, Lisbon). In 1840 there was sufficient support to create a new county out of those nine townships that petitions were entertained by the Illinois General Assembly to do just that. Kendall County was established by an act of the General Assembly in February 1841.

The new county, already growing quickly, experienced even faster growth. By 1860, its population had reached 13,074, up 69 percent from its 1850 population of 7,730. By 1860, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line had been running through the northern part of the county for just seven years, but it had already resulted in the creation of a fast-growing town, Plano, in Little Rock Township. Plano, in fact, was quickly becoming an industrial center as the Hollister brothers and others tinkered with machines like grain harvesters with a view towards manufacturing them, making use of the CB&Q’s rails to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods.

Blake, John

John Blake enlisted as a substitute for wealthy Kendall County farmer Sheldon Wheeler, and was paid more than $400 to take Wheeler’s place. Blake was one of more than 1,200 Kendall County men who served in the Civil War. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out, and men and boys from all over Kendall County rushed to join the Union Army to fight against the South’s treason in defense of slavery. By the end of the war, 1,251 county residents, nearly 10 percent of the county’s total 1860 population, had served in the fight, first to preserve the Union against Southern treason and then to eliminate slavery. Of those who served, 247—20 percent—died. Of the one in five men and boys who marched off to war and who never came home, 70 were killed in action, seven died as Confederate prisoners of war, and the rest succumbed to disease and wounds.

The war may have ended in 1865, but it continued to have profound effects on those who served, the communities they came from, and the county as a whole. The overwhelmingly young group of men—some as young as 13—who marched bravely off to war were changed in ways they never expected and which those who were left at home had problems understanding. Some, who had been given great responsibilities leading large numbers of men as commissioned and non-commissioned officers found it difficult to return to menial jobs and to the back-breaking work that farming was in 1865. After spending up to four years of continuous travel sometimes punctuated by vicious combat, many found their horizons had shifted.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered an outlet for these restless souls as did new opportunities available in the Reconstruction South.

The result was a sharp decline in Kendall County’s population. By 1870, the county’s population had dropped to 12,399, and it continued to steadily decline thereafter as whole families packed up and headed west or south. Oswego Township’s population followed the same trend. It didn’t exceed its 1860 population until 1950.

The completion of the Fox River Branch of the CB&Q in 1870, linking the railroad’s mainline with Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Ottawa, offered not only a way for people to get to Kendall County towns, but also a way for families to leave, drawn by cheap land in the West and the restlessness of so many former soldiers. Throughout those years, the families leaving the county for what they saw were greener pastures elsewhere were chronicled in the local press.

1880 abt Depot

Oswego’s CB&Q Depot was built at Jackson and South Adams Street in 1870, along with three side tracks. (Little White School Museum collection)

On Nov. 9, 1871, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a [rail] car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

Most headed west, but some headed south. The Record reported from Oswego on June 26, 1873: “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”

As the years passed, larger groups were established to head west in company. On March 8, 1883, the Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported: “Clarence Shumway and Alfred Linegar left for Nebraska with their goods and stock–in carloads–last Wednesday. Mrs. Shumway and children followed some days afterwards. Today, Alfred Wormley will start for the same destination; August Schmidt for Dakota; and James Gannon to Iowa with the effects and others are getting ready for going west.”

The correspondent added, somewhat plaintively, “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

By 1890, the county’s population had decreased to 12,106 and continued to drop until it hit its low point of 10,074 in 1920. Not until 1930 did the number finally begin inching up.

It was just in time for the major impact that World War II had on Kendall County. By 1940, the county’s population had risen to 11,105. Farming—the county’s main industry—was beginning to recover from its long depression that began as World War I ended. Meanwhile, county retail and other businesses were slowly digging their way out of the Great Depression that began in 1929.

1944 Young, Dwight Los Alamos, NM

Among those Oswegoans serving during World War II was Dwight Young, who became a nuclear physicist working on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atom bomb. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the outbreak of war on Dec. 7, 1941, Kendall’s young men (and this time young women) again flocked to the colors, enlisting and being drafted to serve in the military. Meanwhile, thousands of Kendall women joined the homefront workforce to labor in munitions and other manufacturing plants, take over the businesses their husbands had been running until they were drafted, and volunteer in local Red Cross and other support roles. A good example of the effect the war had on family-owned businesses is the story of Everett and Evelyn McKeown. The McKeowns bought Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home in 1938. When war broke out, Everett was drafted to serve as an Army medic. Evelyn, meanwhile, determined to continue running the funeral home on her own, but there was a problem—she had no mortician’s license. Luckily, Leonard Larson, who owned the Yorkville funeral home, stepped in and agreed to act as the business’s licenced mortician. Everett was wounded during the invasion of Normandy, evacuated to England, recovered, and was sent back to what was considered an area unlikely to see combat, only to end up smack dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He was mustered out, went back to Oswego, and took over running the funeral home business. And he and his wife adopted a daughter, which fit right in with what so many other male and female vets were doing as they all started new families.

The war was easily the greatest government program in the nation’s history, removing millions of men and women in prime working ages from the private workforce, resulting in increased wages for those remaining, providing new markets for farm products, and generally ending the financial pain of the Depression.

At the end of the war, all those young people came home to a country that was drastically changing as new, expanding businesses tried to keep pace with the demand for goods and services. Millions of young men and women married after the war, finding jobs in the factories springing up to supply goods for the pent-up demand created by the Depression and then four years of war and rationing. All those new families needed places to live, cars to drive, furniture and appliances for their new homes, and then schools for their children to attend.

1959 BH sign 2

The first family moved into their home at Boulder Hill in 1956. By 1958, there were 100 homes on “The Hill.” The subdivision’s population eventually reached more than 9,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County, located at the periphery of the Chicago Metro region began to grow as the war decade of the 1940s turned into the decade of growth in the 1950s. U.S. highways Route 30, Route 34, and Route 52 provided interstate and inter-region routes into the county as did state highways Routes 25, 71, 47, and 126. Decent transportation, land available for development, and nearby jobs began drawing thousands of residents to new housing developments epitomized by Don L. Dise’s sprawling Boulder Hill Subdivision in northern Oswego Township. Between 1950 and 1970, the county’s population doubled. It took it another 30 years to double again, reaching 54,550 by 2000, but just 10 years to more than double again to 114,736 in 2010.

Along the way, Oswego ceased being that sleepy little farm town and became a full-fledged suburb, growing from a little over 1,200 people in 1950 to 3,000 in 1980 before literally exploding to more than 35,000 today.

The negative impact of the Civil War on Kendall County is long past, but World War II’s effects continue. Aspects of that growth are seen as both negative and positive, sometimes both at the same time, by longtime and new residents alike. But while the effects of the two wars can be debated, it seems pretty clear they both had profound consequences that, in so many ways, are still being felt today.

And as we ponder those consequences this Veterans’ Day week, you’re invited to the annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, honoring those who’ve served, from the Civil War to the present day. Admission’s free; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit will be available until Dec. 2, so you’ve got plenty of time to stop by.

 

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Filed under Business, Civil War, Farming, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

During this harvest season, images capture a bygone farming era…

By the late 1930s, as they slowly climbed out of nearly two decades of agricultural depression, U.S. farmers were slowly changing over from horsepower to tractor power as soon as their finances permitted.

During that pre-World War II era, horses were still ubiquitous on farms and mechanization had yet to completely replace a lot of the hand labor on farms. Producing small grains—oats, wheat, barley, and rye—was the most mechanized of the crop cycles of that time. Machines planted, cultivated, cut, bundled, and threshed the grain, although admittedly a substantial amount of physical labor still went into the production process.

Husking hook

Husking hook or peg. By the 1930s the hook was usually metal with leather finger loops. Earlier models had wood hooks.

With corn, however, while the planting and cultivating cycle had been largely mechanized, the harvest portion of the crop cycle was still labor-intensive. Although mechanical corn huskers had begun to be introduced, until after the war most corn here in Kendall County and the rest of Illinois was still picked by hand. The farmer walked the long rows of standing corn, twisting off each ear and smoothly removing the dried husk with a small device variously called a husking hook, husking peg, or husking mitten before pitching the ear up and into the wagon pulled by a team of horses that matched his pace down the row.

My father told me that a skilled hand husker could keep one husked ear of corn in the air and one ear bouncing off the tall bang-board on the opposite side of the wagon all the way down the row, an astonishing feat when you stop to think about it.

Farmers were justifiably proud of their husking skills, which required a combination of endurance, timing, and manual dexterity. On Nov. 20, 1935, a news note in the Kendall County Record reported: “In the Lisbon items, Mrs. Jones tells us that five brothers husked an average of 156 bushels of corn each one day. The ‘boys’ are all over six feet tall. They issue a challenge to any other five-brother team in the vicinity to a husking match.”

Photo by Amanda Hummel Hafenrichter

The 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match was held in late September on the Hafenrichter farm in Wheatland Township, Will County. The last Wheatland Plowing Match was held in 1976. (Little White School Museum collection)

Husking matches were just one of the contests, formal and informal, farmers engaged in to test and advertise their skill at various parts of the agricultural process. Probably the most famous of the formal contests were the plowing matches that were established by Scots and English settlers starting in the late 1800s. The matches tested how skillful farmers were at plowing straight furrows at specific depths as a measure of proficiency.

Husking matches weren’t so much aimed at testing farmers’ scientific proficiency as they were aimed at demonstrating the dexterity prized by their peers and providing a good time for all concerned, with a bit of prize money at the end for the lucky winner.

Husking matches began in Kendall County in the 1920s, with the Kendall County Farm Bureau sponsoring the first match in 1925. The winner of the Kendall County match, August Wollenweber Jr., went on to the state competition. After that, while Kendall farmers often attended the state matches, another formal husking contest wasn’t held until the fall of 1936, possibly encouraged by Mrs. Jones’ tale of five brothers husking challenge in 1935.

The Kendall County Farm Bureau was again the sponsoring organization for the contest, held on Nov. 2 on the Bert Kellogg farm in NaAuSay Township—his descendants still farm in that area, by the way. Ed Olson won the 1936 contest.

The 1937 contest was again held on the Kellogg farm, and this time Roy Johnson was the county winner who went on to the state contest.

There was apparently no contest in 1938, but in 1939 the Farm Bureau again hosted a contest, this time at the Thomas Fletcher farm at Lisbon Center. And luckily for us, either the Farm Bureau or the Fletcher family decided to document the year’s contest with a nice batch of professionally produced photographs. Today, a couple of Tom Fletchers still farm down on Lisbon Center Road, the grandson and great-grandson of the 1939 Tom Fletcher. Today’s elder Tom recently allowed the Little White School Museum in Oswego to scan in a batch of photos from the 1939 contest. For those keeping track, the winner in 1939 was the same Ed Olson who won in 1936.

Since this year’s corn harvest is now on-going, and this marks the 80th anniversary of the 1939 Kendall County Hand Husking Contest, I thought it would be of some interest to post some of the photos of the contest. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do…

1 1939 Thomas Fletcher Farm aerial

Aerial shot of the Tom Fletcher farm at Liston Center in 1939.

2 1939 Cars parked at husking contest

Hand husking contests were popular throughout Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s. Farmers from all over Kendall County drove to the Fletcher Farm for the 1939 contest.

3 1939 Husking contest field

Contestants’ wagons lined up ready to start. The goal was to see how much ear corn, by weight, could be husked during the contest’s time limit. Points were subtracted if too much husk was left on the ear when it was pitched into the wagon.

4 1939 Husking contest start gun

Farm owner Tom Fletcher started the day’s contest with a round from his shotgun.

5 1939 Husking contest contestant husking

As judges look on, a contestant twists an ear of corn off the stalk and strips the husk off with his husking hook.

6 1939 Husking contest contestant working

The small whitish blur is an ear of corn headed up to bounce off the bang board into the wagon as this contestant reaches for another ear to twist off and husk. A good husker could keep one ear in the air all the way down a long row of corn.

7 1939 Husking contest weighing loads

Before the contest began, each wagon was weighed on the farm’s Fairbanks-Morse scale (platform at far right) and then weighed again when full to determine the weight of corn husked.

8 1939 Husking contest tallying results

Running results were kept on the leader board nailed above the corn crib door and updated as each load came in and was weighed.

9 1939 Huskinc contest contestants

The contestants in the 1939 contest with Tom Fletcher center rear and winner Ed Olson in the center.

10 1939 Husking contest winnr Ed Olson

Champion corn husker Ed Olson, looking a bit like one of the subjects in a Grant Wood painting.

 

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Technology, Uncategorized

How Don L. Dise changed Oswego, Montgomery, and Kendall County forever

It is unlikely that no one person or any single event, at least since the huge influx of new settlers during the “Year of the Early Spring” of 1830-1831, changed Kendall County more than did Don L. Dise.

Dise, 77 at the time, died 20 years ago this month at his home on Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean.

1876 Kendall County B

Kendall County was overwhelmingly rural until the post-World War II building boom changed its character. The development of Boulder Hill Subdivision in the nortwest corner of Oswego Township starting in 1956 arguably forever after changed the county’s character. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Like Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, who laid out Oswego, Kendall County’s first town, Dise was a visionary who aimed to create a town with single-family homes, apartments, schools, churches, and stores along the banks of the Fox River—and to make his fortune while doing it. But unlike Oswego’s two 19th Century town builders, Dise built his urban vision starting in the mid-1950s.

Kendall County was first settled by American pioneers in the late 1820s, but it took nearly a decade for the first town to be platted. Immediately after Judson and Arnold mapped out their new town on the east bank of the Fox River in 1835, other villages were laid out throughout Kendall County. Yorkville, Newark, Bristol, Millington, Plattville, Pavilion, and Little Rock followed Oswego, and in the 1850s, the county’s newest town, Plano, was laid out along the new right-of-way of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad west of the Fox River.

1918 BH Stock Farm Percheron sale ad

A 1919 advertisement for some of John H. Bereman’s prize Percherons raised on his Boulder Hill Stock Farm. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Over the succeeding years, towns came and went. Bristol Station was established at a stop on the railroad a couple miles north of today’s Yorkville on the CB&Q’s main line. Millbrook was also laid out along the rail line. Oswego Station was established a few miles west of Oswego, but a town never grew up around it like one did at Bristol Station. Pavilion, once one of the county’s fastest growing towns, withered after the railroad bypassed it and it eventually completely disappeared. Busy Little Rock, on the heavily-traveled Chicago to Galena Road, never grew, also because of its distance from the rail line, the same fate that befell the stagecoach trail hamlet of Plattville.

After the 1850s, no new towns were founded in Kendall County—until Don L. Dise decided to follow the lead of post-World War II homebuilders in New York and Pennsylvania who developed the concept of entirely new urban communities plunked down in formerly rural areas. The Levittown concept was developed by William Levitt, who created Levittown, Pennsylvania and Levittown, New York. Created to satisfy the desire for new housing by returning American military personnel following World War II, the Levittowns were self-contained with their own paved, winding streets; affordable homes, churches, schools, and stores.

1898 Aurora Golf Club at Boulder Hill

The Aurora Golf Club, located at what is today’s Boulder Hill Subdivision. The top photo was taken on what became the A.C. Hyde House on Bereman Road. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s entirely likely that Dise, a Pennsylvania native, was well aware what Levitt was creating and so decided to try his luck doing the same thing out here on the Illinois prairie.

He found a likely spot on the 716 acres then remaining of the old Bereman family farm they’d named Boulder Hill Stock Farm, located along Ill. Route 25 just south of Montgomery. J.H. Bereman had made his millions selling freckle bleaching cream to Victorian ladies, and used some of the money he earned to buy more than 1,000 acres of Oswego Township farmland in the early years of the century. Bereman raised crops, but he was better-known for the blooded Percheron draft horses he bred and raised.

In 1901, investors tried to establish the area’s first golf course on about 50 acres of the property, using one of the farm homes as the clubhouse. It wasn’t a bad idea since Riverview Park, an amusement park that drew people from all over the area via the interurban trolley line that ran along the park’s border, was located just across the river. But the course’s location proved too far south of Aurora’s population in the days before reliable, cheap autos, and that course was abandoned in 1907, the investors moving the course north, where it eventually became the Aurora Country Club.

1956 22 Briarcliff Road

Bev and Ruth Skaggs bought the first house in Boulder Hill at 22 Bereman Road. They moved in in the fall of 1956. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In the early 1950s, Dise learned Caterpillar, Inc. was planning to build a large manufacturing plant in Oswego Township across the river from the Bereman farm, and also that Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T, was planning to open their new Montgomery Works in a former munitions plant and wallpaper factory on the west bank of the Fox directly opposite the Bereman farm.

In addition to the obvious need for housing for thousands of new workers at the two huge new factories, the young veterans of World War II were hungry for housing, and the biggest government aid projects in history outside of the war itself—the various GI Bills—were supplying a flood of cash to send the vets to college and help buy them new tract homes.

1957 BH Aerial 1957

By 1957, as this aerial view looking west towards the Fox River illustrates, Boulder Hill’s outlines were beginning to become visible. Paved streets with curbs, gutters, and sidewalks were creating an urban profile on the Illinois prairie. (Little White School Museum Collection)

So Dise took the plunge. Assembling a group of investors, they bought the Bereman farm in 1955. His sales director, A.C. Hyde decided to live in one of the Bereman farm homes—the former golf course clubhouse as it turned out—which still stands today on Bereman Road in Boulder Hill. Meanwhile, Dise and his family occupied the sprawling Bereman mansion on the bluff overlooking the Fox River just to the north of his new housing development.

Construction crews broke ground in the spring of 1956, and the first of the model homes were begun. The first home in the new development was sold to Bev and Ruth Skaggs in May of that same year. Bev worked at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery and the new subdivision would be a perfect location for his family, he later recalled. The model homes were opened to the public in September of 1956 and by the end of the year 11 families were living in the new development—including the Hyde and Dise families.

1958 BH Playhouse

Dise created a unique ammenity by converting one of the Boulder Hill Stock Farm’s huge barns into the Boulder Hill Playhouse, a community stock theatre with a unique revolving stage. Opening in 1958, it was destroyed by arson in 1967. (Little White School Museum Collection)

From there, construction accelerated. By 1958, 100 homes were occupied in Boulder Hill, and the planned development was well on its way to becoming the largest community in Kendall County until booming Oswego surpassed it in 1997. As proposed by the planning firm of Carl Gardner & Associates, Boulder Hill was to have homes, apartments, churches, schools, parks, and businesses. And, eventually, it did.

Early on, Boulder Hill residents continued the World War II-era tradition of joining social groups to create a vigorous civic atmosphere. The Boulder Hill Sports and Social Club, the Boulder Hill Antique Study Group, the Hilltop Garden Club, and the Boulder Hill Civic Association were all established by the subdivision’s early residents to maintain civic pride and grow community spirit. Although he never really said so, Dise probably figured the largely self-contained subdivision would eventually incorporate and become a real town, but that never happened. That has remained one of Boulder Hill’s biggest problems. Without a municipal government, its services are badly fragmented. Municipal water is supplied by Montgomery, police protection comes via the Kendall County Sheriff’s Department in Yorkville, schools from the Oswego School District, parks from the Oswegoland Park District, street maintenance from Oswego Township, sanitary service from the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District, and building and zoning enforcement from Kendall County government in Yorkville. Mailing addresses are Montgomery, with that village’s 60538 ZIP Code.

1959 First church in winter

The Boulder Hill Neighborhood Church of the Brethren first met in this modified home at 5 South Bereman Road. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Incorporated or not, Dise’s development had a huge impact on the Oswego-Montgomery area, especially the Oswego School District. In the fall of 1955, 775 students in grades 1-12 were enrolled in Oswego’s schools—there was no kindergarten at that time. Five years later, the district’s enrollment had nearly doubled to 1,399 on the first day of classes and classrooms were bulging. By 1970, the enrollment had more than doubled to 3,441.

But Dise did help by eventually providing two new school sites in his development. Boulder Hill Elementary School opened in the fall of 1961 and Long Beach School in 1968. He also contributed $100 for each home built in the subdivision to help the school district out, the first such developer contribution in Kendall County’s history.

An active member of the Church of the Brethren, Dise offered first a private home for the new Boulder Hill Neighborhood Church of the Brethren to meet in and then a large site adjacent to Boulder Hill School for a large community church. The Boulder Hill Market was designed to serve the community’s grocery and retail needs.

1961 7-4 SuzanJohn Park II

SuzanJohn Park on Hampton Road in Boulder Hill was the first park the Oswegoland Park District owned. Donated by Dise, it was dedicated on Aug. 18, 1960. (Little White School Museum Collection)

Also in 1960, Dise donated the one-acre Suzan-John Park on Hampton Road to the Oswegoland Park District. The neighborhood park was the first real estate owned by the park district, which now owns and maintains 995 acres of parks, trails, natural areas, and buildings. The small neighborhood park was named after Suzanne Dise, Dise’s daughter, and John Hyde, son of Boulder Hill Realtor A.C. Hyde. Both Suzanne and John had died in childhood.

When he started construction on Boulder Hill 64 years ago, it’s unlikely Don L. Dise realized he was beginning as profound a change in Kendall County’s character as was experienced during the period of settlement and town building of the 1830s. Boulder Hill was only the start of the urbanization of our once almost entirely rural county, a trend that continues today, and after the downturn in the late 2000s is beginning once again to accelerate.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Farming, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

A different world: Growing up on an Illinois farm in the early 1950s

I sometimes get the feeling that I grew up in a kind of time warp.

1952 Musselman house Aurora

The house on Douglas Avenue on the southeast side of Aurora where my wife lived when she was six years old.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa (Radar O’Reilly’s hometown) and then moved around as her father was transferred with his job for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. As a result, she grew up in a series of subdivisions in Aurora here in Illinois, in St. Louis, and finally back to Illinois and Boulder Hill here in Kendall County where she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms and bedrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio.

For me, on the other hand, things were different. Very different.

When I was born, my folks took me home to the farm they were renting from Clarence and Elsie Butcher in Wheatland Township, just across the Will County line from Kendall County. The farm we lived on was considered relatively new, the buildings having only been built in the early l930s. But while the house might have been considered almost new when they moved in, it seemed to have been built in considerable haste.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm in Wheatland Township my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in the living room of that house, looking at the front door, and seeing it festooned with clean rags that had been carefully and tightly packed into its numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie wind that was barely slowed by the poor-quality storm door. While the door looked impressive, all those cracks and gaps meant it did little to keep those breezes out. That house was just plain COLD.

The bathroom in that farmhouse was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners. The cistern was a large open-topped concrete tank built into one corner of the basement where all the rain water from the gutters on the roof was directed. The collected rainwater, being ‘soft,’ was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds since the water from the well was loaded with minerals and therefore ‘hard.’

1947 Dad, Roger, Boots

My father looks on as I view Boots, the family Border Collie, with suspicion. Boots and I went on to become fast friends.

The bathroom had been added to the house as an afterthought in the basement corner next to the cistern a few years before I was born. My sisters, aged 9 and 12 when my parents brought me home from Copley Hospital in 1946, loved the indoor plumbing, no matter how primitive it might seem to modern sensibilities. Because anything was better than braving rain, sleet, and snow to make it to the outhouse. Even so, it took real courage for my childhood self to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, let me tell you.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water had to be produced via a hand-fired water heater that was fueled with corncobs. After I got old enough—six—it was my duty of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my date-bound sisters could take hot baths and otherwise get ready in time for their dates.

1947 Roger in wash tub

Nothing like a cool swim on a hot day. The family Buick is in the background. Bought used, the car was roundly hated by my father who always referred to it as “The Lemon.” For years, my sisters thought that was the brand name.

One particularly disastrous instance that has stuck in my mind all these years occurred when I had the fire going nicely, and then attempted to check its progress, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal lid handle. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a piece of cloth with which to pad my hand. There were plenty of random pieces of cloth lying around the basement, especially around the old wringer-type washing machine. Unfortunately, the piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself right onto the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. My father, who came down to the rescue, thought it was pretty funny. My sisters were less amused.

We didn’t get our first TV set until that year I was six years old. I’d seen TVs before that, of course, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, but my major electronic entertainment came from the big console radio in the living room. I remember the first TV was a black and gold table-model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s store in Plainfield.

Prior to the delivery of the TV, as noted above, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case that sat off the floor on four turned wooden legs. I remember enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

The Ranger & Sgt. Preston

“The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” shows were two of my favorites on radio. Both got ported over to TV and became hits there, too.

My mother and sisters (when they were home from school during the summer) listened to soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which seemed to feature excessive numbers of screen doors slamming shut), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of five or six. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters,” “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon,” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another really big favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the very first time. I ran right out to the barn to tell my father about the amazing occurrence! Superman could REALLY FLY! I’d just seen it happen on the television set with my own eyes! Which resulted in a gentle lecture about special effects that might have been the start of the skepticism that led me to a career in journalism.

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber McGee and Molly” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to enjoy a similar arrangement, at least according to my mother. “The Great Gildersleeve” was another favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I know “Amos and Andy” is not politically correct these days, but I really liked it a lot when I was a kid, and always figured the black guys who delivered the coal for our furnace from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora were probably very funny guys when they weren’t busy shoveling coal into our basement. On coal delivery day, I always waited patiently outside for them to tell a joke or two, but never with any success. Nowadays I wonder how they were able to restrain themselves from painting over the company’s motto lettered on the sides of the brown dump trucks they drove: “Our Name is Brown, Our Coal is Black, We Treat You White.”

1952-53 Grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School during the 1952-53 school year.  The author is sitting in the lower left corner. His wardrobe–jeans and flannel shirt–has not changed appreciably since.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. When I started, there were six grades and nearly 30 students in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. But at least I had classmates; five to start out with. My oldest sister went through eight years in two different rural one-room schools and was the only student in her class for all eight years.

By the time I started school, the seventh and eighth graders had already been moved into town, thanks to activism by my mother and other farm wives. The junior high in Oswego had much better facilities—a science lab, for instance—and there was no danger any student would have to go through their first eight grades as the only person in their class again.

But I started school almost at the end of the one-room country school in northern Illinois. Consolidation was being vigorously pursued by state education officials. When I started second grade, the fifth and sixth graders had been moved into town, and by third grade, the fourth graders followed. We moved off the farm in the middle of that third grade year and when I went to my first day of classes at my new school, there were more kids in my third grade classroom than there had been in our entire school out in the country.

And as part of the first real year of the Baby Boom, there was certainly no worry about me being the only student in my class. By the time we graduated from high school, we were the first class in school history to have more than 100 class members.

Farm technology was on the same cusp as electronic entertainment media at that time. Most farmers ran diversified farms, and my parents were no different. My dad took care of the livestock—cattle and hogs—out in the barn, and planted, tended, and harvested the fields that produced grain and forage crops. My mother’s realm was the garden, orchard, and chicken house as well as the farmhouse where she did the cooking, washing, and cleaning.

Diversified farms, as the name implies produced both grain and livestock, and my dad made a pretty good living on 120 acres of land. He often rented some more acreage from non-farming neighbors, but I don’t think he ever farmed more than 180 acres. My mom canned about everything that came out of the garden and the orchard, from fruits to vegetables. The chickens produced eggs that were, along with the dressed chickens themselves, traded in town for groceries. Meanwhile, my dad milked the family cow—a dappled golden brown and white Guernsey named Daisy by the time I came along—that provided milk and cream for the family with enough milk left over to have a family friend turn into cottage cheese. My grandmother churned the cream into butter and my father relished the buttermilk left over from the process. I never could stand the stuff straight, but it certainly made great pancakes.

Then I became a town kid when my father had to retire from farming. I hated leaving the farm, but it probably saved my life since I was violently allergic to just about everything on it from the hay and straw in the barn to the feathers on the chickens out in the chicken house. And by moving into town, I got to know and become intimately familiar with the Fox River in all its moods. It’s something I still enjoy since our house is located on the riverbank right across to the street from the house my parents moved to all those years ago.

It seems curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries in Montgomery and taking extra cream and milk to the creamery in Yorkville that other kids my age were living in modern ranch homes on paved streets with sidewalks, and who never got a case of goosebumps in their lives from an episode of “Inner Sanctum.”

But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up in my small corner of northern Illinois. And even though I have a hard time trying to fit my mind around it, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood days.

 

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Stagecoaching west of Chicago in the 1830s and 1840s was not for the faint of heart

John Taylor Temple was a young professional man on the make. And he happened to be in the right place for someone with the initiative—not to mention the connections and cash—necessary to make his ideas become reality.

To take advantage of the new roads being pushed west and south from Chicago, the travelers anxious to use them and, even more importantly, the new U.S. Mail contracts being awarded by Congress, Temple established a stagecoach company at Chicago in 1833.

Stagecoaches were so called because they completed their routes in stages, traveling from stop to stop on regular schedules, exchanging tired horses for fresh ones, and giving passengers a chance to rest, eat, and sometimes sleep. Although called stagecoach companies, the firms did not always operate what are commonly considered stagecoaches. Often, especially early in the region’s history, stages were usually little more than light wagons sporting (reportedly uncomfortable) seats and canvass covers.

Image result for John Taylor TempleFollowing the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, a succession of postmasters general headed the office until John McLean was appointed in 1823. McLean, it turned out, was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system and developed the system whereby the post office department controlled the mails in individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mails from office to office. By 1828, McLean’s system of private stage contractors was in place and working very well. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract was required to sell its stock and other assets to the successful bidder.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from Detroit. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon was placed in service between the two towns followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

With mail (and its related passenger) service set to be extended southwest of Chicago to Ottawa that same year, Temple saw an opportunity.

John Taylor Temple was born in Virginia and married in 1822. He graduated from Middlebury College in Casleton, Vermont on Dec. 29, 1830, and apparently arrived in Chicago a year or two later.

He quickly became involved in local politics, and probably had inside knowledge that the road the Cook County Board had laid out along the High Prairie Trail to Ottawa would soon become a mail route.

Thanks to a likely combination of hard work, foresight, sufficient funds, and help from his political friends, in 1833 Temple was awarded the contract to carry the mail between Chicago and Peoria via Ottawa.

Stagecoach model

Stagecoaches like this model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, were the favored vehicles until the stagecoach era ended.

Whether he had inside knowledge about the route’s immanent establishment or not, Temple was somehow able to plan far enough ahead to order what the Chicago American described as an “elegant, thorough-brace post carriage” from the East. He had the coach shipped to Chicago via the Great Lakes from Buffalo before ice closed navigation on the lakes for the winter of 1833-34 in time for it to be used to deliver mail starting in January of 1834.

Temple had most likely seen the newly-developed Concord Coaches making their runs while he lived and went to school in Vermont, and undoubtedly figured these most modern of conveyances would be perfect for his new Illinois venture.

According to most early Illinois historians, the first coach on Temple’s new stage line left Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834 with John D. Caton, a rising young lawyer, at the reins of the four horse team.

Word quickly spread concerning the new stage line. The Sangamo Journal in Springfield reported on Feb. 1, 1834, just a month after Temple’s coach made its first run: “We understand that there is now a line of stages running regularly once a week between Peoria and Chicago.”

But shortly after the establishment of Temple’s line, it appears he was already being challenged by more experienced operators, even though he held the all-important mail contract.

John D. Winters had been engaged in staging in Illinois for almost a decade by the time Temple began his line from Chicago to Ottawa. Winters first ran stages on the leg of the St. Louis to Galena route from Peoria north starting in the 1820s.

1840s-stage-road-map

John D. Caton drove the first stagecoach west of Chicago in January 1834, when he piloted a coach on the first leg of the trip to Ottawa.

In 1834, Winters, by then an experienced stage operator, established a stage company at Chicago, apparently to directly compete with Temple though without the vital mail contract. Given his personality, Winters may well have felt young Dr. Temple was out of his depth trying to run a stage company. According to a notice in the Feb. 18, 1834 Chicago Democrat, passengers were invited to try “The New Line of splendid four horse Post Coaches in Illinois—From Ottawa by way of Holderman’s Grove [in Kendall County], Walker’s Grove [Plainfield] and Laughtons [Riverside] to Chicago, once a week, 80 miles, through one and one half days, fare $5.”

Various histories of the region also state that John S. Trowbridge, who apparently established a competing line about 1835, also challenged Temple.

Trowbridge got his first experience with mail contracting when he submitted the low bid to carry mail on horseback on the Chicago Road between Niles, Michigan and Chicago.

Both the competing Temple and Trowbridge stages stopped at Elijah Wentworth’s tavern in Western Springs.

As late as Aug. 6, 1836, the Chicago American was reporting that “John T. Temple & Co. are proprietors of a stage line from Chicago to Peoria.” The paper noted that “the through trip is made in two days—to Ottawa the first day.” The newspaper reported the company’s stages left Chicago at 4 a.m. and arrived at Joliet in two hours on the southern route. Tickets were sold at Markle’s Exchange Coffee House in Chicago for passage.

1845-frink-walker-offices

John Frink and Martin O. Walker’s stagecoach office in downtown Chicago.

Then in 1837, the stagecoach game in northern Illinois changed forever when John Frink arrived on the scene. Frink wasted no time in getting into the thick of the Chicago-area stagecoach competition.

Born at Ashford, Connecticut in 1797, Frink reportedly “begun life as a stage driver” before becoming a successful stage line operator, establishing lines between Boston, Mass. and Albany, N.Y. as well as a line linking New York City and Montreal, Canada.

He was described as “A man of limited education and without cultivation, yet he was a man of strong mind, wonderful natural intelligence, indomitable will, great sagacity and a remarkable knowledge of human nature.”

Frink had his dark side, too, one that would eventually result in the dissolution of his successful partnerships and his estrangement from his family.

Railroads, when introduced into the areas Frink’s lines served, seriously undermined the stage business. As a result, Frink and his first wife, Martha R. Marcy Frink, decided to emigrate west to Chicago about 1836.

Meanwhile, a steadily growing number of competitors challenged Temple’s stage line. A medical doctor and an active politician, he was apparently better at dabbling in Chicago politics than making sure mail and passengers got delivered on time. As a result, few tears shed when he finally decided to give up the business and sell out to Winters. In the April 1, 1837 Chicago American, a news item headlined “South-Western Mail” reported that “It affords us much pleasure to be enabled to inform our readers that Dr. J.T. Temple has sold out his Stage line to the Illinois Stage Company. Our only regret is, that the arrangement was not sooner made. Success to the new line.”

But although Winters temporarily had the company, it was incumbent on him to obtain the all-important mail contract. And apparently that he was unable to do.

1840 Arrivals of the Mails

Late June 1840 mail routes from Ottawa carried in Frink, Walker & Company stagecoaches.

The post office sought new bids on all Illinois postal routes in 1837. And with Temple and his political connections out of the way, the way was open for someone else to step in. Frink was ready, willing, and able to successfully seek the mail contract what would allow him to build a new business in Illinois.

Frink, seemingly always looking for a knowledgeable partner, apparently decided the experienced Trowbridge fit the bill, and the two agreed to merge their operations. About the time Frink and Trowbridge joined forces, a man named Fowler then reportedly joined Frink and Trowbridge to form Frink, Fowler & Trowbridge.

It was about this time as well that Frink successfully acquired the mail contract he needed to move ahead with his stage line connecting Chicago and the head of navigation on the Illinois River.

Trowbridge and Fowler left the scene and Frink teamed with Charles K. Bingham to form Frink, Bingham & Company. The partners apparently ran stages over the old Temple routes, as well as establishing new lines to the northwest to serve Galena. After working with Bingham for a short time, the partner Frink had been looking for all along, one with seemingly deeper pockets and more business skills than any previous associate, was found. Martin O. Walker joined the partners either in late 1839 or early 1840, making the company a three-way venture.

Although the company was still known as Frink, Bingham & Company, Walker was apparently a full, although silent, partner in that firm as early as February of 1840.

The Fergus Directory of the City of Chicago for 1839 reported that Frink, Bingham & Company were doing business at 123 Lake Street. A concern called simply Frink & Walker was also in business at the same location, and Martin O. Walker was listed as one of the principals. In the directory, Walker’s occupation is listed as “mail contractor.”

1840 Frink & Walker formed

By early June 1840, Frink, Walker & Company had been established. It wou1d go on dominate the stagecoach business in the Midwest for many years.

Like all Frink’s earlier partners, Bingham soon left the scene. In a legal notice published in papers in the area dated June 1, 1840, it was announced that “The Co-partnership heretofore existing between John Frink, Charles K. Bingham and Martin O. Walker, under the firm of Frink, Bingham & Co, was dissolved on the 28th day of May, 1840. The business of the late firm will be settled by either of the subscribers.” John Frink and Martin O. Walker signed the notice.

A second notice followed the first stating: “The undersigned have formed a Co-partnership and will continue the Stageing [sic] business under the firm of Frink, Walker & Co., and hereafter no notes of hand or writing obligatory will be allowed other than signed by a member of the firm or an Agent duly authorized for that purpose.” The notice was signed by Frink, Walker, and Cunan Walker. Whether Bingham left the firm voluntarily or involuntarily is unknown.

It’s likely Walker provided sufficient cash and business acumen for the operation while Frink furnished the political and operational savvy to operate the company without the need for additional partners. Historian Milo M. Quaife (Chicago Highways Old and New, 1923) appeared to agree, at least in part, with this interpretation, reporting that Frink was the partner in the new stagecoach business responsible both for operations and for negotiating the vital mail contracts.

Whatever their relationship, Bingham and the rest of Frink’s former partners with the exception of Walker left the public scene after May of 1840. From then on, the company, although formally Frink, Walker & Company, was known throughout the Midwest as Frink & Walker.

In 1849, Walker once again apparently became a silent partner in the company, which by now included a number of business partners. That year, the firm became known simply as John Frink & Company, the name it operated under until Frink’s death in 1858.

1830s Arrival of the Stage

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Frink, as Quaife reported, appears to have had excellent political connections, and was able to procure the all-important mail contracts for the company. In June 1850, a St. Louis newspaper’s Washington, D.C. correspondent reported that Frink and Walker’s mail contracts in Illinois totaled $78,000 per year, a substantial sum for the time. In addition, the firm also had contracts to deliver mail in Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan that totaled another $50,000 per year. The company’s mail contracts often earned more than $150,000 annually.

As Quaife so aptly put it: “In a day when the spoils principle was accorded universal recognition in the realm of politics, it is evident that someone connected with the firm must have been possessed of no mean order of political talent to obtain, year after year, the extensive contracts of which the figures cited afford evidence.”

If Frink had the political and personal connections, Walker seemed to have the financial knowhow.

Martin Walker was born in Hubbardton, Rutland County, Vermont on June 9, 1809. As a youngster he worked in the dry goods business before moving to Albany, N.Y., where he worked in the stage line office of Baker & Walbridge. Upon Walbridge’s death, Walker bought his interest in the company before selling out to Baker in 1838 and moving to Chicago, where he almost at once joined Frink in the mail contracting business.

But in fact, their success may have come in spite of Frink’s partnership with Walker. Walker was reported to have had a personal dispute with Postmaster General Amos Kendall, after which Kendall supposedly ordered that Walker was to have no more mail contracts. That the firm did is either testament to Frink’s business acumen or Walker’s ability to keep his interests secret. Walker’s bad relations with the post office may also been one reason the firm’s name changed to John Frink & Company in 1849.

Martin Walker had varied interests in transportation companies in and around Chicago. In addition to stagecoach companies, Walker, according to the Proceedings of the City Council of Chicago, was, with Samuel B. Walker, his older brother, operating horse-drawn omnibuses in Chicago in 1855 and 1856. During that year, the bad condition of South Clark Street apparently damaged the pair’s omnibuses and injured some of the horses used to pull them, and they filed claims for damages with the city. The pair again applied for recompense the following year for more harm done to one of their horses due to “a defective plank on Clark St.” In 1867, the Proceedings reported Walker was a partner with Guy Cutting in the Chicago South Branch Dock Company, another transportation-related venture.

Samuel Walker arrived in Chicago two years after Martin, and proceeded to become involved in a variety of businesses, including the omnibus operation and livery stables. According to the 1850 Chicago Census, he lived relatively nearby Martin Walker’s household. In Gager’s 1857 Chicago city directory, both Martin and Samuel are listed as owning a livery stable at 54 Dearborn Street. Their brother Curran is listed as a bookkeeper who was living at 69 Randolph Street.

In the 1844 Chicago city directory, Martin Walker was listed as living at his home on State Street in Chicago. His only affiliation in that directory was with Frink, Walker, & Company.

To compliment his Chicago business enterprises and his stagecoach partnership with Frink, Martin Walker acquired several hundred acres of land in Seward Township of Kendall County. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that Frink and Walker, on the Seward Township property in Walker’s name, “had stables there for their horses, and a number of houses and farms.”

Raising and resting horses weren’t the only things happening on the Frink and Walker property. Hicks also reported that in 1844, a subscription school operated for a short time in one of the houses on the company’s land.

Besides the Kendall County land, Walker also held title to four lots in blocks 8, 9, and 10 of the original City of Chicago totaling more than $3,000 in value in 1843, and his brother, Samuel B. Walker owned another lot in Block 1 of the city that was worth $2,320 in 1843.

In addition to the land owned outright by Walker, the firm of Frink & Walker owned at least 20 acres in unincorporated Cook County plus other properties.

Frink, Walker & Company, operated from their stage depot at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Clark streets in Chicago. In 1846, the company had applied to move the Illinois Exchange Building, which stood on the site, after which they built their new depot on the site.

The company’s stagecoach storage sheds, where repairs were also done on coaches and where veterinarians treated horses, were located at the northwest corner of Wabash and Randolph streets.

The combination of Frink’s expertise and energy and Walker’s money was a potent one. According to one account, “This became one of the most powerful business concerns in the Northwest, and its operations eventually extended [west] to Des Moines, Iowa and [north to] Fort Snelling, Minnesota.”

Stagecoaching, of course, was not the only sort of transportation John Frink and Martin Walker dabbled in. But it got them their start. In the future, we’ll look at other transportation technologies that were used to tie our corner of northern Illinois to the rest of the nation.

 

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The old trails, traces, and thoroughfares that helped build northern Illinois

It was the spring of 1837, and Robert Hill had a problem. It was his job to persuade his neighbors in his Cook County voting precinct to fulfill their responsibilities to work on the roads that passed through the area. One road was an almost purely local trail that ended—or began, depending on your perspective—at Hill’s claim. The other was a minor branch of the Chicago to Naperville Road, itself part of the system of main thoroughfares to Ottawa and Galena.

Chicago roads scan I

The web of trails, traces, and roads leading from Chicago on Lake Michigan to the prairie hinterland as settlement in northern Illinois began is evident from Albert Scharf’s 1900 map.

In those days before state and federal tax support of road construction and maintenance, local government required residents to work on the growing system of primitive roads that, like a spider web, spread westward from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The network of trails used by Native Americans in the area bounded by Lake Michigan and the Fox River Valley probably evolved from game trails. When Europeans arrived in the area, they continued to use the existing trail system, even though, as one historian suggested, the trails were often not the most direct routes from point to point. With their twists and turns, they were often hard to follow. Names like Vincennes Trace and Potawatomi Trace suggest the trails were little more than faint tracks through the prairies and groves that dotted northern Illinois. Even experienced guides frequently got lost.

But during the settlement era—the 1820s to the 1840s—overland routes were the only options for travelers between Lake Michigan and the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru and Ottawa. Not until the Illinois & Michigan Canal linked Chicago’s lakefront with the head of navigation on the Illinois River and rail lines began stretching west of Chicago in the late 1840s was overland transport by road eclipsed.

In addition, merchants and other business owners in and around the booming lead mining town of Galena in far northwest Illinois were interested in an overland link with Chicago that might offer an alternative to expensive, relatively slow river transport of food, equipment, and other supplies the growing area required. While river transport was satisfactory for bulk cargoes, the Mississippi River of those years was a sometimes fickle transportation route. Drought often closed off portions of the river to navigation. High water sometimes did the same as the primitive steamboats of the day struggled upstream against the raging current while trying to dodge a variety of hazards, from snags to shifting sandbars. And even the mighty Mississippi often froze over during the winter months.

1820 Chicago

Chicago, as seen in this view from Lake Michigan in 1820, boasted little more than Fort Dearborn and a few fur traders’ cabins scattered along the North and South Branches of the Chicago River. Two decades later, it would be an incorporated city, the largest in northern Illinois.

Beginning in the early 1830s, as settlement accelerated in the region around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, both the state and local governments in Illinois began to lay out an official system of roadways. In northern Illinois, the initial purpose of this fledgling road net was to connect the areas south and west of Lake Michigan with Chicago and its Great Lakes links with Eastern markets.

Shipping from the east via the Great Lakes to Chicago had slowly increased since the visit of the first steamboats carrying troops during the Black Hawk War in 1832. But a major problem existed; there was no harbor at Chicago. The Chicago River entered the lake at an acute angle, running parallel to the shoreline, with a sandbar blocking entrance of the river to ships on the lake. As a result, ships had to anchor offshore and transship their cargoes over the bar in small boats. It was, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and became downright dangerous to ships and crews when storms howled out of the north and west, threatening to drive unwary vessels ashore. As a result, while steamers first visited Chicago in 1832 to drop off their cargoes of U.S. Army troops, they left as soon as they were unloaded because there was no sheltered anchorage for them.

Realizing the settlement’s strategic advantages, the U.S. Government began the creation of a true port at Chicago in 1833 by cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. Construction started July 1, supervised by Maj. George Bender, 5th U.S. Infantry. Bender began with setting a series of piers through the sand bar that blocked the harbor mouth. The deceptively simple task of cutting a channel through the bar—and then making sure it stayed open—proved a lot more difficult than originally thought. It eventually took some six years, and a cost more than $100,000 (nearly $3 in today’s dollars) to get the job completely finished.

1830 Chicago Harbor improvements

The proposed improvement of a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. When it was finally completed, the channel helped fuel Chicago’s explosive growth.

But on Saturday, Feb. 15, 1834, with only a rudimentary channel carved through the sandbar, Mother Nature took a small hand in creating the Chicago Harbor. A heavy, two-day rainstorm caused the Chicago River to suddenly rise by three feet. The outflow of storm water found the channel Maj. Bender had begun and on which Lt. James Allen was then working, and cut a 30-foot wide, 12-foot deep channel through the bar. It’s likely the astonished engineers could hardly believe their good fortune.

On May 4, the Michigan, a sidewheel steamer with a fore-and-aft sail rig, took advantage of the new channel, and became the first steamboat to enter the Chicago River harbor, passing under the recently completed Dearborn Street drawbridge to anchor along the riverbank.

For the first time, with the channel finally cut through the bar, ships didn’t have to unload their cargoes immediately and flee to an area where there was some shelter. Instead, ships could be moored at docks along the river, safe from sudden storms, while cargo was unloaded.

3 Steamboat Michigan 1833

The Michigan was the first ship to make its way through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River and dock in the city.

Just a couple months after the Michigan arrived in Chicago’s new harbor, the aptly named Illinois became the first sailing ship to enter the Chicago River under full sail. On July 12, 1834, the Illinois forged through the newly opened channel with “her top-masts covered with flags and streamers,” sailing up-river through the open Dearborn Street drawbridge to dock at Newberry & Dole’s riverbank wharf.

While work to improve the channel through the bar and keep it from refilling with sand would continue for several years, the arrival of those first Great Lakes freighters was an important start.

1834 Dearborn St drawbridge

The Dearborn Street drawbridge—the first of many that would be built in Chicago—raises to let a ship through to dock along the Chicago River in 1834.

The tonnage of goods shipped to and from Chicago skyrocketed almost immediately after the safe harbor was provided for arriving vessels. In 1833, the year work on the channel through the bar began, just four ships arrived at Chicago—two brigs and two schooners, but no steamboats. Just two years later, 250 ships arrived and a year after that, the number of arrivals had nearly doubled to 456 vessels, with the total including 49 steamships.

In addition to goods, people were also arriving at the new port, as more and more pioneer farmers used the Great Lakes route to travel west. After arriving, these pioneer families left Chicago’s swampy streets and settled on the Illinois prairies in the fast-developing city’s hinterland. Meanwhile, a growing volume of cargo awaited shipment east. Goods crowding the docks along the Chicago River included steadily increasing amounts of grain produced as the acreage of cultivated prairie rapidly expanded in northern Illinois.

In 1837, four years after the channel through the bar at the mouth of the Chicago River was begun, only 100 bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago via the Great Lakes. A decade later—and a year before the completion of the I&M Canal and commencement of construction of the first railroad west of the city—more than 2.2 million bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago. Each and every bushel of that grain arrived at Chicago thanks to the network of roads extending into the growing city’s hinterland.

That spider web of roads stretching northwest, north, and southwest of the city provided the means for the coming tsunami of growth that would propel the Chicago metropolitan region that was then supercharged by completion of the old-technology I&M Canal and the new-technology rail lines that followed the old traces and trails out of the city by the lake.

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When express riders carried the U.S. Mail at a gallop

The Pony Express became the stuff of American legend, mostly thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his world-famous Wild West shows.

Businessman William Russell established the Pony Express in April 1860 as a publicity stunt he hoped would help him win a contract to carry the U.S. Mail by stagecoach from Independence, Mo. to California. In reality, Russell’s ploy lasted only 18 months, and never carried the U.S. Mail. Rather Russell’s venture was a private express service. As one of his riders later put it, the Pony Express was a stunt, “a put-up job from start to finish.”

Image result for pony express

The Pony Express is one of the most enduring legends of the Old West. Unfortunately, most of the legend is historical bunk.

Despite the Pony Express’s short, ineffective run, thanks to Buffalo Bill (who as William Cody was one of the young men who rode for the company) and his entertaining wild west shows, the Pony Express has gone down in American history as a noble effort to provide speedy transcontinental communications. In fact, since 1907, it has been the subject of 15 movies, two made for TV movies, and a 1959 television series.

Although most of us seem to believe Russell’s effort was the first of its kind, people living at the time knew it was not. In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s. And unlike Russell’s PR stunt, it actually carried the U.S. Mail.

Designed primarily to carry financial news linking important, but far-distant cities in the West such as New Orleans and St. Louis with Eastern markets, the Express Mail had a couple branches. One of those Express Mail branches passed through our state of Illinois on the National Road (now U.S. Route 40), connecting Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill.

John McLean, postmaster general, 1823-1829

Express Mail differed from the regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who was required to make the best time possible. Unlike the contracts for carrying the regular mail by stagecoach and wagon, Express Mail carriers could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Actually, Express Mail service was sporadically established at many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders carried messages during the colonial period, then after the Revolution, most expresses were part of the military communications network.

The need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service became apparent in the spring of 1825. When a fast sailing ship arrived from England, New York cotton merchants, learned that cotton prices on the London market had skyrocketed. They then bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the news of the price jump. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news so they could buy all the cotton they could find at low prices. When they sold the cheap cotton at the high prices in London, they made hefty profits. The cotton merchants who weren’t let in on the deal were not happy.

Postmaster General John McLean, who served from 1823-1829, vowed such a thing would never happen again, and prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” meaning any messages carried by regular mail contractors, but not carried in the official portmanteau. During that era, the U.S. Mail was strictly defined as matter that was carried in the official portmanteaus, large canvas sacks with special locks. Mail contractors were threatened with loss of their contracts if they informally carried any messages that weren’t the mail. And that was a big deal, since without a mail contract, a stagecoach company simply couldn’t be profitable. In fact, at one time if a mail contractor lost his contract, he was obliged to sell his coaches, horses, and other equipment to the successful bidder.

In an effort to get the most important economic news delivered as quickly as possible, McLean decided to establish an Express Mail to travel what was called the Great Mail Line from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year. It would be up to one of his successors to create a true Express Mail service.

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Amos Kendall, postmaster general, 1835-1840

In 1835, Amos Kendall took over the job of Postmaster General for President Andrew Jackson following a scandal that erupted when Postmaster General William Barry, who was not only incompetent, but also allowed politics to enter the mail carriage contract system. Barry’s corrupt incompetence drove the previously financially healthy postal service into bankruptcy.

Enter Kendall—our county’s namesake. Kendall was a former Tennessee newspaper publisher and crony of Jackson who turned out to have a genius for organization. In taking over from the corrupt Barry, he instituted a wide range of reforms, which, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal revenue surpluses.

Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service carrying regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the New York to New Orleans route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news. During that era, newspapers were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing the news of governmental happenings was spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, another express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, express riders traveled from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to its terminus at Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie from Terre Haute to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis. Each stage of the trip was made daily by express riders.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. Thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major improvements to the nation’s road system, the regular mail had become nearly as fast as the express riders. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

While overland travel was quickly improving the speed of the mails, the nation was also on the cusp of a telecommunications revolution that would, in less than a decade, supersede all existing communications technology. Samuel F.B. Morse invented his electric telegraph in the 1830s, and had largely perfected by 1845. In March of that year Morse and his partner Alfred Vail hired none other than former Postmaster General Amos Kendall (who’d left government service in 1840) to manage their business. Kendall, no fool he, agreed to work for a ten percent stake in the new company, which he incorporated as the Magnetic Telegraph Company. The expansion of telegraph service throughout the nation soon meant that spreading vital economic information was no longer limited to the speed of a horse, but could instead speed along copper wires. It revolutionized communications—which it continues to do to this day.

And Kendall had a hand in that success. After leaving the post office, he tried journalism and went broke (not uncommon even today) and was nearly a subject for debtor’s prison when Samuel F.B. Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, decided to hire Kendall as their business manager to manage the business of promoting their new telegraph invention. It turned out to be a genius move as Kendall turned his organization skills to promoting the telegraph. And tt ended up making Kendall a multi-millionaire.

Kendall’s Express Mail, as a stopgap while the nation improved its transportation infrastructure and communications technology, was a success, keeping the nation tied together via the most sophisticated information technology the era offered. And it might be interesting to note that sending a one-page letter by Express Mail from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois in 1837 cost 75 cents—a time when land in Illinois was selling for $1.25 per acre. That certainly puts our seemingly endless modern postal rate increases into some historical perspective.

 

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