Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

Watching television when I was a youngster was always a treat, especially when “The Cisco Kid” or one of the other westerns was on Sunday afternoons.

But often just as entertaining were the commercials. CET, a Chicago retailer, sold televisions featuring a very deep-voiced fellow singing to the beat of a tom-tom about CET and television, always ending with the phone number, “MOhawk four, four one hundred.”

Rug cleaning companies also advertised a lot back in those days before ScotchGuard and other stain resistant carpeting systems. Magikist was a prominent television advertiser, as was Boushelle. Boushelle also had a catchy jingle (not as catchy as CET’s Mohawk Indian tom-tom, but close) sung by another very deep-voiced fellow that ended with him singing the company’s phone number, “HUdson three two-seven-hundred.”

I checked on-line the other day, and Magikist went out of business in 2001, although some of its signature signs with huge Magikist lips, soldiered on (I remember a big one on the Kennedy Expressway) for a few more years before being dismantled.

Boushelle, however, is still very much a going concern—with the same phone number no less, although you have to dial a 773 area code first. (All you kids out there can listen to a 1970s era Boushelle commercial on YouTube.)

Back in the day, companies like Boushelle would come right to your home, roll up the area rug, and take it off to a large factory-type building, where it would be cleaned. Gradually, though, wall-to-wall carpeting came into favor as prices dropped far enough so that just about everyone could afford it. And with the disappearance of area rugs went some of the earliest area rug cleaning companies.

Rugs and carpeting—and keeping them clean—have been major preoccupations here in the Fox Valley almost from the time the pioneers arrived. Especially at this time of year, spring cleaning was a major thing, as was fall house cleaning after the summer season had ended.

Log Cabin

Some of the earliest log cabins built by the pioneers had packed earthen floors, later replaced by puncheon floors.

The earliest pioneer cabins, at least some of them anyway, didn’t even have floors, much less carpeting. Often, a pioneer family’s first cabin was built with a dirt floor inside. The soil was compacted into a hard surface that the wife swept daily. Sometimes pioneer women who missed their carpets and rugs back East drew designs on the packed earthen the floor and used crushed chalk to create colorful designs.

Not until the family got settled were logs split in half and planed smooth to create puncheons that were laid on the packed earth, flat sides up, to create wooden floors.

As soon as the first pioneer millwrights arrived, their sawmills began turning out sawn lumber for floors. And remarkably soon after that, Chicago became a giant lumber clearinghouse for pine, fur, and other timber cut up in Wisconsin and Michigan and shipped down the lake to the fast-growing city. Wooden floors—and frame houses—quickly became cheap enough for everyone.

Rug technology for the masses stayed pretty simple throughout the 19th century. Rag rugs were very popular with newly settled areas because they were relatively simple to make and were inexpensive because their main ingredient was recycled cloth. During the winter, women would sit (sometimes in groups to provide a social respite from the daily grind) and tear rags into 1″ wide strips, sew them together end-to-end, and roll the strips into large balls. When enough of the right colors were stockpiled, they were taken to the local rug weaver.

Rug looms were simple, but rugged affairs. They only needed to be two-harness looms, the most simple kind, which used mechanical means to separate the strings that formed the warp so that the shuttle carrying the end of a rag strip could be fed through. After each pass of the shuttle, the beater was pulled back smartly packing the cloth strip tightly against the previous strip. The tighter the weaver made the rug, the longer it lasted. But this created a dilemma for the rug maker. A rug not packed as tightly was easier and quicker to make; but customers might not return if the resulting rug didn’t hold up well.

rug loom in use

A rug weaver using a loom very similar to the one my great-great-grandfather built for my great-great-grandmother and which is still a family keepsake.

My great-great-grandmother made rugs on a homemade loom in her home here on North Adams Street to supplement her family’s income. The loom, which we have today in our son’s basement, is of 3” thick oak timbers and is of a very old design—old even in the 1870s when this one was likely built by my great- great-grandfather. We saw one exactly like it in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum. That loom was said to have been more than 200 years old. Looms of roughly the same design date back many hundreds of years.

Rag rugs were generally woven in varying lengths and were usually about 30 inches in width. The great advantage of rag rugs was their flexibility—they could be woven in virtually any length and in any color. In those days, they weren’t only used for hall runners or throw rugs, either. To create room-sized rugs, several 30-inch wide rag rugs of the correct length were sewn together to create a single carpet wide enough for a full room.

rag rugs

Traditional rag rugs are still pretty useful things; we’ve got several in our house. The trick is finding ones that have been woven tightly enough that they will last.

Padding for those early carpets was, on the farm at least, often a layer of straw under the rug. Fresh straw was laid down in the fall under the rug to help insulate against the cold and offer a bit of cushion. Then in the spring, the rug was taken apart into its component strips and hauled outside to be cleaned. Cleaning was generally accomplished by beating the straw dust and other dirt out of the rug using a wooden-handled rug beater.

Gradually other kinds of carpeting became available. Oriental rugs were always available for the rich, but the Industrial Revolution made other kinds of carpeting available, too. Dark red “ingrain” carpeting was the first non-rag rug carpeting to become popular. We found threads from such a kind of carpeting wound around tiny carpet tacks driven into the original floor of the Little White School Museum when we were restoring the building. The carpeting was apparently used on the building’s two aisles when it was the Oswego Methodist Episcopal Church from 1850 to 1912.

Nowadays, we’ve got synthetic yarn carpeting in all kinds of shades and colors with many styles to choose from. And on television, the ads of industrial carpet cleaning companyes have been replaced by those of carpet sellers and the makers of home carpet cleaning machines. But, while Empire Today’s commercials do tend to stick in one’s mind, no one has commercials quite as memorable as Boushelle; at least I can’t remember a modern phone number as easily as Boushelle’s HUdson 3-2700.

 

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A look inside the Fox River’s mills from Montgomery to Yorkville

On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills once served local residents.

Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and a sawmill and furniture factory—exist and are probably familiar to lots of this blog’s readers. One of those photographs, in fact, is on the heading of this blog page.

But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. What kind of tools and equipment were required to turn grain into flour at the three gristmills? What kind of tools did workers at that furniture factory use? Fortunately, there was a way to find out.

1891 Oswego Cooperative Creamery

The Oswego Cooperative Creamery at South Adams and Tyler streets as illustrated on the 1891 Oswego Fire Insurance Company map shows the detail available about commercial structures. The building’s yellow color means it was a frame structure. (Little White School Museum collection)

For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. The maps included accurate building footprints, color-coded to record building materials for not only the building itself, but also any additions, including porches. Each building is accurately depicted how it sits on the lot or parcel of land where it’s located. In addition, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents are also listed so insurance adjusters could determine the amount of loss in case of fire. All four mills on my stretch of river had been recorded by Sanborn.

Starting as soon as the region’s pioneer millwrights arrived, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. Upon arrival, the miller weighed the grain and then shunted it by bins and chutes into the smut room to prepare it for milling.

In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove bad grains.

1838 Gorton's mill and dam

The mill and dam built by the Gorton Brothers on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township. The Gortons sold the dam and mill to Nathaniel Rising in 1840. Rising added a sawmill on the east bank of the river in 1848 and then sold the mills and dam to William Parker in 1852. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, turned, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’

Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. When the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour produced was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins, and from there to the bolter.

1900 abt Parker Mills

William Parker & Son’s sawmill and furniture factory in the foreground (the downstream addition perpendicular to the river is the furniture factory) and gristmill across the river to the left. High water has nearly submerged the dam in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a grain of wheat or corn. The bolter was octagonal reel, usually 16 feet long and mounted at a gentle incline. The reel was covered with a series of open weave cloth of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water power slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, middlings towards the middle of the reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.

A middling purifier was also part of the Parker mill’s equipment. The machine was used to separate the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter separated in the middle of the bolting process.

In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ grain from the stalks.

Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain in trade, whichever the farmer preferred.

1900 abt Parker Mill & Furniture Factory crop

Parker and Son’s sawmill and furniture factory on the east bank of the Fox River. The sawmill is parallel to the river; the millrace ran beneath and powered a turbine water wheel. The furniture factory is the addition perpendicular to the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located opposite the gristmill at the east end of the Fox River dam. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite his gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.

By 1885, the sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.

The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand will be on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum when their core exhibit is finished in mid-March.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, built this gristmill of native limestone in 1853. Gray built the original bridge across the Fox just downstream from its current location where the original stagecoach trail crossed the river on Jefferson Street, and connected to Montgomery Road. The first covered bridge was moved to Montgomery from Aurora in 1868. This photo was probably taken around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—ran just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of modern metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.

Down in today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.

By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining both the mills and the dams they required. Both dams and mills were frequently damaged or completely destroyed by floods and the spring ice break-up, while low water levels could cause the mills to shut down for long periods while they waited for rain to raise the water level.

2018 8-8 Parker Sawmill foundation

The flagstone foundation of the Parker & Son Sawmill is still in existence today, offering an inviting spot for anglers and nature lovers. (photo by Roger Matile, 2018)

The region’s water-powered mills were replaced by steam-powered grain elevators that popped up along area railroad lines. Elevators not only could process grain, but they could also store it so farmers could wait to sell until prices were right. And local furniture factories like Parker’s, were replaced by giant far-off factories that could undersell locally produced furniture.

But though they’ve been gone for many decades, some evidence of the era when the Fox River powered mills at dams along it’s entire length are still around if you look closely enough.

 

 

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Winter travel in Illinois was always a challenge, but at least it was bug-free

Let’s say you’re a French colonial fur trader, and a resident of the Illinois Country in the late 1600s. In order to get here, you had to paddle a birch bark canoe loaded with several hundred pounds of trade goods all the way from Montreal.

Now it’s winter, and the snow has drifted deep outside your snug cabin at your fur trade post. The temperatures have dropped well below zero, much colder than it ever got in your native Provence. So what do you do now, during the short January days?

Road trip!

It turns out the winter months, not known as the most temperate or comfortable time of year in the Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, was a favored traveling time for the Europeans who began arriving in these parts more than 300 years ago.

Given that Gor-Tex and down parkas from L.L. Bean wouldn’t be invented for another three centuries, why was January and February the prime colonial travel season in Illinois?

The answer is a simple four-letter word: bugs. Illinois during most of the year was afflicted with a dismayingly large collection of biting insects including flies, mosquitoes, wasps and hornets, and a huge collections of others that made life on the Illinois prairie miserable between the last frost of spring and the first frost of late autumn. About the only way to make sure the critters wouldn’t suck every last drop of blood out of man or beast was to wait until everything froze solid.

Even given the primitive state of cold weather gear of the era, it was far preferable to deal with frostbite rather than hordes of biting insects.

1680 LaSalle on snowshoes

During the late winter of 1680, Robert Cavelier de La Salle and a couple companions hiked from Peoria to Canada, as imagined by artist George Catlin in this painting. While LaSalle was prompted to take his winter walk due to financial problems, it was also easier to travel thanks to the lack of biting flies and mosquitoes.

The early settlers divided Illinois prairies into two classes, dry and wet. Wet prairies were your basic marshes—a marsh being a swamp without trees—which were prime breeding grounds for not only mosquitoes but also the biting flies that made such an impression on so many early travelers.

According to John Madson in Where the Sky Began, there can be up to ten million insects to each acre of the kind of tallgrass prairie that covered Kendall County 300 years ago, and continued to cover it until the first pioneer farmers began planting fields of corn in the late 1820s.

A dismayingly large number of insect species are native to Illinois, but the ones that most tormented early travelers and settlers were the biting and stinging flies that swarmed over and around the area’s wet prairies and the various species of mosquitoes. A fairly large percentage of Kendall County was considered wet prairie, especially in Bristol Township and in the marshy areas along Morgan, Rob Roy, and AuxSable creeks.

Madson again: “I’ve suffered sorely enough from mosquitoes in the Everglades and Louisiana swamps, but never so sorely as on the wet prairies of southern Minnesota.”

Madison’s southern Minnesota prairies are almost identical to the kind that predominated here in the Fox Valley until the last half of the 19th Century. Starting soon after settlement and extending into the first quarter of the 20th Century, virtually all of them were drained.

In 1722, Jean Francois Nicolas Becquet, newly arrived at Fort de Chartres in modern southern Illinois, sent a letter to his mother back in France relating the hardships of the his journey up river from New Orleans, including being afflicted with biting insects: “The trip up the Mississippi was the worse journey I have ever known. I am convinced that the rain, the waters of the Mississippi, and the endless biting and stinging insects that abound there, could provide a more accurate image of hell than any fire.”

Almost a century later, things hadn’t improved much at all. One Illinois settler who sent greetings back to his family in Vermont in 1821 reported: “I became acquainted this year with the prairie flies about which I had heard so much in Vermont. The smallest kind are a beautiful green about twice the size of a common housefly. Another kind is about twice as large as these, of a slate color. These, this season, in riding on the prairies, would entirely cover a horse and when fastened they remain until killed by smoke or by being skinned off by a knife, and then the horse will be covered with blood. The only way of riding a horse by day is by covering a horse completely.”

The flies were so vicious they even had major impacts on Illinois’ native wildlife. According to M.J. Morgan in Land of Big Rivers: French and Indian Illinois, 1699-1778, the flies, during their most prolific season, forced even buffalo to leave their normal stomping grounds and seek relief elsewhere. “On account of the green-headed flies,” Morgan said one observer reported, buffalo left the Wabash valley to range west and north of the Illinois River during the summer months.

In the summer of 1683, while on the way from Canada to the Illinois Country, Louis-Henri de Baugy, a political and business rival of LaSalle’s, wrote a letter to his brother in France in which he noted, rather matter-of-factly, that it was likely the Iroquois would attack the French post at La Rocher—Starved Rock—the next year and he might well be killed. That, he wrote, did not trouble him so much, however. What did trouble him was looking forward to further travel by canoe, during which the flies “tormented a person so cruelly that one did not know what to do.”

Thomas Hulme, an Englishman who traveled through east central Illinois in 1818, noted the biting flies were a danger to travelers’ horses. “Our horses were very much tormented with flies, some as large as the English horse-fly and some as large as the wasp; these flies infest the prairies that are unimproved about three months oin the year, but go away altogether as soon as cultivation begins.

Illinois historian William Pooley observed in 1905 that the dense swarms of biting flies also had an impact on the pace of settlement of Illinois. “Excessively warm weather and numerous flies sometimes so worried immigrants that they resorted to night traveling, being unable to make progress during the day.”

Horses with fly nets

Biting flies remained a problem right through the era of horse-drawn farm equipment. One strategy to fight flies was to use fly netting that provided some protection.

As Clarence W. Alford, speaking of the state’s early settlers, put it in The Centennial History of Illinois, “His livestock was viciously attacked by several kinds of horse-flies, black flies, or buffalo gnats, and cattle flies, while his own peace of mind and his health were endangered by mosquitoes, three varieties being carriers of the malaria germ.

Illinois’ mosquitoes and flies—the green-headed fly (probably today’s green-eyed horsefly) was remarked on by most travelers who left accounts—were not only vicious in their own right, but to add to the torment also carried diseases. In particular, mosquitoes transmitted malaria, which the pioneers called the ague (pronounced A’gue). The ague was so common that the settlers divided it into several varieties: Dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and others. Common symptoms began with yawning, followed by a feeling of lassitude, fingernails turning blue, and then feeling cold until the victim’s teeth chattered noisily. After an hour or so, body warmth returned, increasing until fever raged with terrible head and back aches. The spells came to an end with an extremely heavy sweat.

The disease returned on a regular basis although it became less and less strong throughout a person’s life and wasn’t usually fatal, although it could be. Juliette Kinzie who wrote such a charming memoir of pioneer Illinois, died in 1870 when her New York druggist accidentally gave her morphine instead of quinine, probably for an ague attack, at the age of 64.

Tales of explorers, missionaries, and settlers traveling the Illinois prairies during the area’s fierce winters are rife. They didn’t do it because they wanted to, but it was either that or look forward to scraping the flies off your horse—and probably yourself, too—with a sharp knife.

Today, we still travel a lot during our Illinois winters, but it’s not because the insects are making us do it. And travel nowadays is usually by comfortable automobile or high-flying airplane with our destinations being somewhere in the sunny southland.

But sometimes, like when we’re stopped in traffic or hustling to make a connecting flight, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where and how far we’ve come—and why—as we look forward to where we’re headed.

 

 

 

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My generation and how we came to view the Civil War…

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read semi-regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece back in the summer of 2017 entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his strange views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I, for that matter—were getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays for all to see. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which was not well.

But recently I got to thinking about that again as I did research on how the Civil War affected Kendall County in general and Oswego in particular. The war had a huge impact locally. For instance, it was probably responsible, at least in part, for Kendall County’s long-term population decline. Kendall did not reach its 1860 population again until the 1920 census was taken.

And those thoughts, in turn, got me to thinking about that article I’d read back in 2017 and how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best and outright racist at worst.

1859 john brown

John Brown, who attempted to start a rebellion against the U.S. Government, could reasonably be declared a terrorist. He was executed after his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Abraham Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

1859 underground railroad

Some of the local stations on the Underground Railroad just before the Civil War. From the 1914 history of Kendall County.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

lee, robert e

Robert E. Lee, while he was still a loyal U.S. Army officer.

Then there was Robert Lee, who seems to have neither been an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

1864 grant at cold harbor

Gen. Hiram Ulysses Grant photographed at Cold Harbor, 1864. Grant later said Cold Harbor was the one battle during the war he’d rather never to have done.

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War.

What about the idea that Grant was a clumsy butcher who only won because he was indifferent to the numbers of Union casualties he caused? Modern research suggests that’s simply not true. Using actual casualty figures, historians have now concluded that the term “butcher” might better fit Lee. In Grant’s major federal campaigns, he suffered just a bit more than 94,000 killed and wounded. Meanwhile, in Lee’s major campaigns, he suffered more than 121,000 killed and wounded. Lee continually dismissed the strategic fact that he couldn’t afford casualties at all; he was badly outnumbered by the American military.

murdock, a.x pooley

Oswegoans Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were two of the young men who died during the Civil War, killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church in 1864. More than 200 Kendall County soldiers died during the war.

Immediately after the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. Immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Record editor John R. Marshall commented about the recent conflict and the Southerners who conducted it: “The great and final act of the accursed slaveholders’ rebellion has culminated in this one outrageous, dastardly, and hellborn murder.”

There was even more general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to terrorize freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights as American citizens. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

Unfortunately, those tools were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights.

But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

When I think back on it, the casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too.

Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. His Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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The Black Hawk War: A conflict of deadly folly and miscalculation

Got a question after last week’s post about place names here in Kendall County, particularly one that a reader heard involved an Indian attack. As it turned out, there was such a thing and the reader’s question was about the Black Hawk War of 1832.

I’ve frequently written about the war over the years in my newspaper columns, but, as a quick search surprisingly showed, I’ve never done one about the war here at History on the Fox. Which is a bit odd, since the Black Hawk War was a truly pivotal event here in northern Illinois, one that ended up introducing the region–especially the Fox River Valley–to hundreds of people who eventually decided to join the rush to settle the prairies round hereabouts.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk, though not a chief of the Sauk Tribe, was a respected military leader who had successfully fought U.S. troops during the War of 1812.

If World War I was “The War to End All Wars,” then the Black Hawk War of 1832, the last war fought inside the bounds of Illinois, could fairly be characterized as “The Miscalculation Conflict.” Black Hawk, an elderly warrior of the Sauk Tribe, miscalculated when he thought he could lead more than 1,000 men, women, and children of his tribe across the Mississippi to live peacefully once again in Illinois. U.S. Army Gen. Henry Atkinson miscalculated his ability to control the impetuous Illinois governor, John Reynolds. Reynolds miscalculated when he thought he could stage a major coup by quickly attacking Black Hawk and ending the war to his own political advantage. And Illinois Militia Major Isaiah Stillman gravely miscalculated the military ability of his poorly organized and undisciplined troops to overawe, much less subdue, even a small group of armed Indians who knew what they were about.

The most immediate result of these miscalculations was the short, bloody Battle of Stillman’s Run on May 14, 1832 on what was then named Old Man’s Creek in western Illinois. After being attacked despite attempting to parlay under a flag of truce, about two dozen Sauk and Fox warriors under Black Hawk routed Stillman’s 240-man mounted militia battalion, killing 11 and sending the rest fleeing the battlefield in total panic. Maj. Stillman fled faster than most of his men, and the routed force spread panic all over frontier Illinois. In coming years, the name of Old Man’s Creek would be changed to Stillman’s Run in an ironic tip of the hat to Stillman’s tactics that day.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Waubonsee, chief of the Prairie Potawatomi in the Fox and Illinois River valleys, refused to join the war against American settlers prompted by Black Hawk’s move back into Illinois from Iowa.

While the battle had a bit of comic opera flavor, the aftermath did not. Following the battle, the U.S. Army and the state militia decided they faced all-out war. Meanwhile, Black Hawk and the other head men of his band decided that retreat back to the west bank of the Mississippi was the only sensible course open to them. Their supposed Indian allies—local Winnebago, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal bands—and the British in Canada all made it plain they would not participate in a war against the might of the U.S. Government and the State of Illinois. Chief Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Potawatomi in northern Illinois flatly told Black Hawk that his people would not fight the whites no matter what.

Even so, Black Hawk’s stunning defeat of Stillman’s militia force did embolden some local Indians who used the confusion to settle personal scores. Waubonsee and Chief Shabbona both realized the dangers the situation created. Shabbona, an experienced military leader who had been a chief aide of the great Chief Tecumseh, decided he had to warn as many local settlers as he could to flee to somewhere safe. The old chief and his young nephew spread the alarm to the isolated settlements and homesteads that had begun springing up and down the Fox Valley.

Settlers during that era in what is now Kendall County (it was then part of LaSalle County) were not the hard-bitten frontiersmen normally associated with pioneer life. U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for widespread armed violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines wrote after doing a personal assessment. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

In fact, the settlers’ best mode of defense was to run away, which they did as quickly as possible. Settlers in the northern part of Kendall County fled to Walker’s Grove (now Plainfield), while those farther south got to Ottawa as quickly as possible.

Late in his life, Ansel Reed, who in 1832 was a young hired hand of Big Grove Township pioneer Moses Booth, recalled the fear and confusion the outbreak of war caused:

“In going to work in the afternoon I met two Frenchmen, halfbreeds, riding each a mare with a colt following. They said they lived in Kankakee and were going north for seed corn….They talked a little while longer, and passed on toward Newark….Mr. Booth came out and had made two or three turns to furrowing [plowing] out the potato land when the Frenchmen returned in a great fright and told Mr. Booth what they had seen. He sent them on to alarm Anthony Litsey and beckoned to me to hurry, saying as I came near, ‘I don’t know but we shall all be killed.'”

The Booth family joined with several others after arriving at the Rev. Stephen Beggs’ home, where they tore down some buildings and quickly threw up a rickety fortification they dubbed Fort Beggs. Some 125 thoroughly frightened settlers crowded into the improvised fort. Rev. Beggs later confirmed Gen. Gaines’ estimate of the pioneers’ defensive capabilities when wrote that the settlers had only four firearms among them and that “some of them” didn’t work.The settlers huddled in Fort Beggs eventually were escorted to Chicago by militia troops.

Indian Creek monument

The Indian Creek Massacre monument in Shabbona County Park near the Kendall-LaSalle County line, marks the deaths of 15 men, women, and children at the hands of Native Americans during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

On May 19, a group of men, among whom was Kendall County resident Daniel Kellogg, wrote from Ottawa to General Atkinson seeking immediate help: “To the commander in chief at Rock River we the undersigned having been Eye Witness to burning of houses destruction of property but as yet there has been no lives taken that we know, but there is some missing but where they are we don’t know. Therefore we wish to send to our relief two or Three Hundred men as soon as possible to Rendevous at Ottawa the mouth of Fox River Rapids Illinois Ottaway. “P.S. The above destruction of property and depredations were committed by the Indians but to what tribe they belong is uncertain. There has also been some men fired on and Chaced for Miles.”

South of the present boundary of Kendall County in LaSalle County, on Big Indian Creek, events of late May of 1832 moved towards the kind of bloody climax Kellogg and his frightened neighbors and friends predicted.

In 1830, William Davis and his family had moved to Illinois from West Virginia. With him had come his wife and six children. Davis settled on the north-northeast bank of Big Indian Creek in the southwest quarter of Section 2, Freedom Township (Township 35 north, Range 3 east), of LaSalle County. Davis and his family were among the first, if not actually the first, whites to settle on Big Indian Creek. Davis, a blacksmith, arrived on the creek in the spring of 1830, and built a cabin and a blacksmith shop. By 1832, he had completed a dam across the creek and a sawmill to service the settlers who were moving into the area along the Fox River.

A Potawatomi village was located about six miles upstream from Davis’s new dam and sawmill. The Indians living there depended on netting fish from the creek for a large proportion of their diet. Davis’s new dam cut off the upper portion of the creek from the fish in the Fox River, therefore damaging the spawning cycle of the fish, and cutting off a large portion of the Indians’ food supply.

When the Indians complained to Davis of this problem, they were contemptuously dismissed. Then in early May 1832, Davis caught Keewassee, a leading warrior from the Potawatomi village, trying to dismantle the dam. Davis severely beat the Indian, and Keewassee began plotting revenge against the white settlers.

As soon as word got around, about Stillman’s defeat, many private quarrels between Indians and whites violently broke into the open, including that between Keewassee and William Davis.

Several people, feeling there was safety in numbers, had gathered at the Davis claim for mutual defense. There was Davis, his wife, and his six children; Mr. and Mrs. William Hall and their six children; Mr. and Mrs. William Pettygrew and their two children; John H. Henderson; William Norris; and Henry George. Despite being strongly urged to take refuge at Ottawa where a fort was being constructed, the group fatally elected to stay at the Davis claim until the Indian trouble cleared up.

Late in the afternoon of May 21, most of the settlers were in or around the Davis cabin. Henderson and a number of the older boys, on the other hand, were working in the fields, while Norris was working in Davis’s blacksmith shop. At about 4:30 p.m., the settlers were shocked to see 20 Indians, painted for war and heavily armed, vault the fence about 10 yards from the house and run to attack the frightened whites.

Wrote 17 year old Rachel Hall:

“Mr. Pettygrew made an effort to shut the door of the house but was shot down in the act of doing so, and indiscriminate murder of all the persons in the house consisting of one man, to wit, Mr. Pettygrew, four women Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Pettygrew, Mrs. Hall (my mother) and Miss Davis about fifteen years of age and six children, four girls and two boys, and four men killed out of the house, Viz, Mr. Davis, Mr. Hall, William Norris and Henry George, in all fifteen persons, the whole scene transpired within ten minutes as I think.”

John Henderson, three Hall boys, and two Davis boys working in the field escaped. Rachel Hall and her sister Sylvia, 19, were taken captive by the war party.

While Henderson and the Hall boys made a panic-stricken run overland to Ottawa, the Indians took the two girls to Black Hawk’s band, despite the fact that only three of the raiding party were Sauks, the rest being Potawatomis.

Gaines, Gen. Edmund P

General Edmund P. Gaines commanded the Western Military Department–which included Illinois–during the Black Hawk War. Gaines was generally sympathetic to Native Americans and opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Gaines expressed surprise at how unprepared the Illinois settlers of the 1830s were to defend themselves when war broke out.

As soon as word about the attack reached the authorities, action was taken to secure the return of the girls, including dispatching Chief Waubonsee on a mission to gain their release. His mission came to naught, however, as the girls had already been ransomed by the Winnebagos, who were trying their best to stay on the good side of the Americans in the midst of the war.

In an fascinating sidelight, shortly after the end of the Black Hawk war, warrants were issued at the courthouse in Ottawa for the arrest of Keewassee and two other Potowatomi warriors, Ta-qua- wee and Comee, for the murder of the settlers at the Davis cabin. Interestingly enough, charges were dropped against all three in 1834 because Sylvia and Rachel Hall could not positively identify the members of the war party.

Marauding groups of Indians prowled the valley. At Georgetown (now Newark), they looted and burned George Hollenback’s trading post. Robert Beresford (considered the county’s first permanent settler) and one of his sons were killed by Indians near Ottawa.

But all was not so grim—the war didn’t prove to be the sort of brutal, scorched earth Indian war we have heard so much about in American history. For instance, when William and Emily Harris left their Fox Township cabin to escape, Emily’s elderly father, Mr. Combs, helpless with rheumatism, requested he be left behind, saying he would only slow the rest of the family down. Since, he said, he had lived a full life, if he was to die, he was content to do so. But when the Indians discovered him in the Harris cabin ready to face his fate, he was carried, in his bed, out of the cabin, which was then burned. Other tribesmen made sure he was supplied with food and water before they left.

After a few other brief but violent incidents, the settlers slowly returned to their Fox Valley homes, spurred on by a cholera outbreak in Chicago. The U.S. Army had dispatched troops west to help fight the war, but along the way they’d contracted the deadly cholera. By the time they arrived at Chicago, the war’s action had moved west and north into modern Wisconsin, so the settlers remaining at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn decided that while Indians might kill them, cholera certainly would. Most quickly left to head back to their homes.

The Black Hawk War itself eventually ended when the bedraggled and starving Indians were trapped and most were massacred as they tried to cross the Mississippi during the Battle of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin. Ironically, the war would have ended much sooner had the army had interpreters with them—Black Hawk’s tribesmen attempted to surrender several times but none of the whites in the army could understand them.

While the war was a terrible tragedy for the Indians involved and for the small number of whites killed, it did give many militia volunteers a chance to see the rich lands in the Fox Valley, spurring a flood of settlement to northern Illinois in 1833. It also marked the beginning of the end of Indian occupation of the Fox Valley, and by 1836, virtually all the region’s Native Americans had been forcibly removed west of the Mississippi River.

 

 

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How places in Kendall County got their names…

Last fall, the University of Illinois Press had a truly can’t miss sale on electronic books. For $5 you would download any ebook in their entire catalog, which gave me the push I needed to read some good Illinois history.

I chose three books on subjects that looked interesting to me: Illinois History: A Reader; edited by Mark Hubbard; Illinois in the War of 1812 by Gillum Ferguson; and Place Names of Illinois by Edward Callary.

Illinois HistoryI picked the Illinois history reader mostly because it had a piece by my good friend Ray Hauser, formerly on the history faculty at Waubonsee Community College. Ray is THE expert on the Illinois Confederacy, and is a good and entertaining writer to boot. I’d been interested when Ferguson’s volume came out back in 2012, and had actually corresponded with her, promising I’d buy a copy—better late than never, I guess. I was finally prompted to buy the book because last fall I’d bought a copy of The War of 1812 in Wisconsin: The Battle for Prairie du Chien by Mary Elise Antoine while we were visiting the fascinating Apostle Islands Booksellers up in Bayfield, and was interested to see how the stories in the two books meshed. Because, after all, during the War of 1812, Illinois Territory included all of what became the state of Wisconsin, so I figured it would be hard to separate the two stories.

I’ve been reading all three as the mood strikes me. Lately I’ve been concentrating on Place Names of Illinois, which is a fascinating read. And that prompted me to take another look at the place names right here in Kendall County. Given the explosive population growth during the past several years, lots of county residents probably have no idea why Oswego, Yorkville, or even Kendall County have the names they do. There is, of course, a story behind each one of them.

Almost everyone, I suppose, at one time or another, has looked at a map or a road sign and wondered, “Where did that name come from?” Kendall County has more than its own share of places with names that probably sound obscure to those newer residents noted above. I’ve no doubt some may even be puzzling to those who’ve lived here their entire lives.

Judson, Lewis B

Lewis B. Judson and his partner Levi F. Arnold, laid Oswego out early enough in 1835 that it is the oldest town in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

So let’s take a look at some of those names, starting right here at my home. Oswego Township and the village of Oswego both carry the Mohawk Indian name that literally means, “place of the flowing out,” or more familiarly, “the mouth of the stream.” The village was first named Hudson by the two men who laid it out back in 1835, Levi F. Arnold and Lewis B. Judson. Both were native New Yorkers, and picked a familiar name for their new town. When the village was awarded a post office in 1837, however, the government decided to call the post office Lodi. Two names for on the same town was clearly confusing, so later that same year, the four or five property owning male residents of the tiny village gathered and voted (no women allowed to vote back then, whether they owned property or not) on a permanent name, deciding on yet another familiar New York name, Oswego, by a margin of a single vote. When the Illinois General Assembly established townships in 1850, residents sensibly decided to name the township after the village.

Little Rock Township and the village of Little Rock are named after the creek over that direction. The City of Plano was laid out by early settler and businessman Lewis Steward, who told the CB&Q Railroad he’d establish a town if they’d run their line through his property. Which they did, and which he did. John Hollister, one of Stewrd’s associates gave the new town the Spanish word for plain, because, the town’s founders decided, it accurately described the new community’s site.

Bristol Township and the current village of Bristol are both named after early settler Lyman Bristol. In terms of area, Bristol is the smallest among Kendall County’s nine townships.

The modern village of Bristol was originally called Bristol Station because of the depot the CB&Q established there in the early 1850s when the railroad’s main line extended west of the Fox River. During that era, modern Yorkville was separated into two villages, Yorkville south of the Fox River and Bristol north of the river. The two communities finally merged into a single city in the late 1950s, and the “station” was finally dropped from today’s Bristol’s name.

1844 Amos Kendall

Andrew Jackson’s political fixer and postmaster general, Amos Kendall, in an image created n 1844, just three years after Kendall County was established by the Illinois General Assembly.

Kendall Township, and the county as well, are named after Amos Kendall, journalist and political crony of Andrew Jackson. Kendall was Jackson’s primary political hatchetman and as Postmaster General, handled passing out thousands of postmaster patronage jobs throughout the nation. Jackson basically invented the spoils system, and made sure the postmaster in every town was his personal representative. We might cringe a bit at that today, but at least it gave the White House a direct line into every community, large and small, in the entire country.

Yorkville was named after the village in New York from which some of the early residents came. The north side of modern Yorkville, as noted above, was first known as Bristol and was a separate village until 1957 when Bristol and Yorkville merged.

Boulder Hill, the huge unincorporated subdivision between Oswego and Montgomery east of the Fox River, was named after the Boulder Hill Stock Farm owned by the Bereman Family. The Beremans were famed for their thoroughbred Percheron draft horses and prize cattle. Developer Don L. Dise bought the stock farm, which covered more than 700 acres, in the early 1950s to develop his new community. Bereman once owned more than 1,000 acres of land in Oswego Township. Bereman’s sprawling farm was merely a hobby; he made his fortune manufacturing and selling freckle cream, which was advertised to eliminate skin blemishes and give women smooth, white skin so prized during the Victorian era.

NaAuSay Township was given a made-up name that some of the earliest township residents insisted meant “headwaters of the AuSable.” If it means what they thought it meant, it’s a fitting name since at least one branch of AuSable Creek starts in the township before flowing to its mouth on the Illinois River. AuSable Creek carries a French name generally said to mean “Sandy Creek.” It was a major landmark from colonial times until the 19th Century and is mentioned in many 19th Century Indian treaties.

Big Grove Township was named after the large grove of trees in Sections 9, 10, 15, and 16 of that township when settlers arrived in the 1830s. Newark was first called Georgetown after its founder, George Hollenback when Hollenback laid it out in 1835. Because of a conflict with another Georgetown elsewhere in Illinois, the General Assembly approved renaming it Newark on Feb. 16, 1843, after Newark, Ohio, which had been named after Newark, New Jersey.

Platt_s Tavern

Daniel Platt built his second stagecoach in at Plattville from limestone he quarried himself a few miles away. It replaced his first log tavern (Little White School Museum collection)

Lisbon Township and the Village of Lisbon both carry the name of the city in Portugal. According to early histories, settlers wanted to give their new home a different name from any of the county’s other towns. Plattville was named after its founder, Daniel Platt. Platt hailed from Plattsburg, N.Y., which his ancestors also founded.

Waubonsie Creek is named for the well-known Pottawatomie war chief who lived in the area. Waubonsee also gave his name to Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove and Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora. Note the different spellings—since the chief could neither read nor write English, feel free to spell it however you like. Waubonsie was also the name of a large reed marsh extending over some 350 acres near the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego and Montgomery. The marsh was drained in the early 1900s, but still reappears after heavy rains.

Morgan Creek is named for Ebenezer Morgan, an early Oswego Township settler and millwright. Hollenback Creek is named for the Hollenback family, early settlers and business leaders, noted above.

Bartlett Creek, also called Bartlett’s Run, which snakes through Oswego and crosses Main Street in downtown Oswego a block south of the old village hall, is named after the Bartlett family, early Oswego settlers. The small house on the west side of Main Street where it crosses the creek was built by the Bartletts when they came from New York in 1837, and may be the oldest house in Oswego.

Seward Township is named after New York Gov. William H. Seward, later U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The township was originally named Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, but the name had to be changed after it was discovered another Illinois township already carried that name.

Fox Township is, of course, named after the Fox River. Millbrook is named for the mill that used to be there back in the 19th Century.

1838 Waish & moah close

The Mo-Ah-Way Reserve in the far southwest corner of Oswego Township and the Waish-Kee-Shaw Reserve in the far southwest corner of Oswego Township and extreme northwest corner of NaAuSay Township as drawn on the original plat map of Oswego Township published in 1842 from a survey taken in 1838. (Little White School Museum collection)

In the Treaty of 1829 signed at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin, the U.S. Government granted reserves of land to two Indians then living in Kendall County. The larger Waish Kee Shaw Reserve went to the Indian wife of fur trader and businessman David Laughton and to her son, Joseph. The other reserve was granted to an individual named Mo-Ah-Way, of whom little else is known. Reservation Road bisects the two reserves, thus the road’s name. And the Oswegoland Park District’s Waa Kee Sha Park was named after Waish Kee Shaw. There is no evidence either Waish Kee Shaw or Mo-Ah-Way ever lived on their reserves.

Montgomery, which now extends well into Kendall County, was originally named Graytown after its founder, Daniel Gray. But again, a name conflict required a change, so it was renamed Montgomery after the county in New York many settlers came from.

The names of roads, towns, and streams can be a sort of guide to the history of an area. In our own area, Indian, French, and early pioneer influences are all evident. Knowing the origin of local place names is one way to make local history come alive.

One of these days, I’ll take a look at the names of the rural post offices that used to dot the landscape until the U.S. Postal Service initiated Rural Free Delivery, because that’s another fascinating look at a time so far in the past nobody remembers it any more.

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Filed under Business, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History

When Kendall County Guardsmen policed the southern Illinois mine wars

Taylorville, in south-central Illinois, was in the news this past week after it got hit by a powerful tornado. And hearing about Taylorville on the news reminded me about the town’s old connection with Kendall County.

That relationship, memorable though brief, goes back to the 1930s, when there were problems—big problems—in the Illinois coalfields that surround Taylorville in Christian County.

The nation’s economic conditions, and it slipped into the Great Depression just kept getting worse. And then, in the midst of all the economic turmoil on July 9, 1932, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), under the leadership of the pugnacious John L. Lewis, made a deal with the owners of coal mines around Taylorville and other nearby towns. Negotiations on a new four-year contract championed by Lewis had been dragging on since the spring, and the miners were anxious to get back to work. But when the union and the companies finally settled and the miners found out the details of the agreement, they were outraged.

Lewis had agreed to a cut in the basic daily wage from $6.10 a day to just $5. Lewis insisted it was the best deal the miners could get considering the economic shape the country was in. His argument was that the companies were in danger of going broke altogether. Not surprisingly, however, the members’ vote on the new contract went down by more than 2-1.

But Lewis was determined to force the contract through, and he ordered UMWA District 12 President John H. Walker to sell the new contract to his angry members, while Lewis traveled through safer areas of the state to lobby for acceptance of the pact. When Walker spoke to miners at Gillespie, physical violence nearly broke out.

A second vote on the contract was held Aug. 6, and Lewis and his union officers announced it had passed. But before the vote could be certified, the tally sheets were said to have been stolen. A couple days later, Lewis ordered District 12 miners to accept the new contract. But rebellion was in the air.

1932 abt Police vs Miners

Local police and the state police were often hostile to organized labor during the southern Illinois mine wars. The Taylorville confrontations were unusual in that the United Mine Workers were allied with coal company owners against the new Progressive Miners of America. (minewar.org image)

On Aug. 14 in the Macoupin County mining community of Benld, miners met and voted to go to neighboring Taylorville and close down the Peabody Coal Company mine there—Taylorville’s miners had voted in favor of the contract and had gone back to work. By Aug. 19, a convoy of some 1,500 miners left for Taylorville where they successfully shut down the mine—the Christian County miners refused to cross their picket line.

Farther south in Illinois, the protests were not successful, resulting in the so-called “Battle of Mulkeytown,” in which five miners were injured by sheriff’s deputies.

In early September disaffected miners met at Gillespie and established a new union, the Progressive Miners of America, in direct opposition to Lewis’ UMWA. Christian County—and Taylorville—became the battlefield between the two sides. While the “Proggies” managed to negotiate a slightly better contract, Peabody officials refused to hire any PMA workers. In fact, PMA membership became a ticket to being fired in most mines.

1932 PMA rally

The upstart Progressive Miners of America tried to foil the United Mineworkers’ John L. Lewis and the coal companies’ efforts to cut miners’ pay. The companies and the UMWA responded with violence. (minewars.org image)

With this as a backdrop, in 1933, open warfare finally broke out between the PMA on one side and the mine owners and the UMWA on the other. A headline in the Taylorville Breeze on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1933 reported: “4 Killed, 14 Shot in Mine Battle.” According to the news story, PMA opened fire on “scabs and special deputies” at Peabody’s Taylorville Mine No. 7. The report said the PMA miners opened up with rifles from “several homes,” and included machine gun fire from Freddie Bassana’s gas station (Bassana was subsequently charged with murder).

Clearly things were getting out of hand in Taylorville, so Gov. Henry Horner called out the Illinois National Guard. Initially, five infantry companies from Danville, Champagne, Springfield, and Salina were activated, along with a headquarters company from Sullivan to respond to Horner’s call.

1932 ING at Peabody Coal Company mine

The Illinois National Guard was dispatched to the Taylorville region in 1933 to maintain peace as the unions and companies fought each other over a new labor contract. (minewars.org image)

And ominously, on Jan. 7, 17 cases of explosives were reported stolen from a nearby mine.

Tensions went up further in February when National Guard cavalry from Chicago was stationed in Taylorville. The cavalrymen were generally well-to-do, and didn’t get along at all with the miners. By March 28, 10 miners had been killed and 100 wounded in the mine war. On April 3, a Baptist church in Taylorville was bombed, and a gun battle in Duquoin on April 7, left two Progressives dead. On April 13, perhaps thinking to cash in on the situation, Montgomery-Ward advertised a “Special Sale” on .22 cal. Rifles—just $3.41.

Then on May 13, the Breeze reported that the National Guard company from Kankakee that had been on duty at Taylorville was being replaced by Company E of the 129th Infantry, based in tiny Plattville, right here in Kendall County.

1935 abt Co E officers

Leadership of Company E, 129th Illinois National Guard Infantry, pictured about 1935 at Camp Grant, Illinois. Company commander Capt. Charles “Timmy” Howell is second from left; his son, Clyde, is on the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

The company had been established and accepted for service on July 16, 1923 with Capt. David Mewhirter, a World War I veteran, in command. In June 1928, Capt. Charles Howell succeeded Mewhirter. Howell was in command when the company was deployed to Taylorville.

On April 5, 1933, the Kendall County Record reported that “Capt. Charles Howell of Company E. Plattville, was in receipt Friday of orders for the men to be ready and fully equipped for service at Taylorville, the scene during many months of serious mine labor trouble and riots. When the orders for actual movement to the area will be received it cannot be foreseen, but farmers here are looking around for substitute hired men who can fill in during the Company’s absence Since the beginning of the disputes at Taylorville, national guard companies have been sent to the area in rotation for stated periods of time.”

1935 abt Stacked Springfields @ Camp Grant

Company E. Model 1903 Springfield rifles they carried while on duty at Taylorville, stacked outside the armory tent during their 1935 deployment to Camp Grant. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Daily Herald in nearby Morris reported on May 11 that: “A telephone message was received at midnight last night by Capt. Charles Howell in Plattville where the company quarters are located, to report for duty in Taylorville and the company of 60 men will leave for the trouble zone Saturday night by bus.”

According to the May 17, 1933 Kendall County Record, “Company E, 129th Infantry, left Yorkville Saturday night for Taylorville, where they will relieve the company from Kankakee and resume the guard of the mines. The company left in special buses. A truck carried the necessary equipment for the stay. The boys will return in two weeks. Their company is the last one in the district to be called. Capt. Charles F. Howell is in command. His lieutenants are Arthur Hubbard, first [lieutenant[; Irwin Knutson, second [lieutenant]; Rasmus Knutson, William Reed, Harvey Reed, Vernon Wright, Nels Nelson, Gordon Bertram, and Wilbert Henne, sergeants; and Harold Stein, mess sergeant.”

From both press reports and letters home, Company E did well. Years later, Clyde Howell, Capt. Howell’s son, recalled that “There were no problems when E Company was down there because they could read each other because everybody in E Company was a farmer. When you had somebody from Chicago, it wasn’t so good.”

On May 24, 1933, Capt. Howell wrote in a letter to the editor of the Record that “Taylorville is a very pretty town and the people treat us fine, but the small mining towns around are not so good. Fights are common afternoons and evenings.”

When Company E’s tour was up, the Guardsmen headed back to their homes, farms, and businesses in Kendall County. While it didn’t seem like much at the time, the experience they gained served several members of Company E in good stead some years later when World War II broke out. After it was nationalized, Company E and the rest of the 129th served in the Pacific Theatre throughout the war.

The boys from Kendall County made a good showing, both during their service during the mine war, and later on, during their actual combat against Japan. A pretty good showing for the farmers and small businessmen coming out of the nation’s smallest National Guard Armory. How tiny Plattville got a certified armory is a fascinating story in itself—but one for another time…

 

 

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