Shabbona’s life a microcosm of 19th Century white – Indian relations…

We took a drive up to Aurora with some friends this past week to both visit a Fox River art exhibit at Aurora University and to listen to a speaker at AU’s Schingoethe Center. It was a very satisfying evening.

The exhibit, open through Dec. 14, is “Joel Sheesley: A Fox River Testimony,” featuring 73 landscapes painted during a two-year period, in all seasons of the year, from West Dundee in the north to Ottawa in the south. A number of scenes Sheesley chose for subjects were familiar, but his vision of those familiar spots makes them look fresh and new, and gave me, at least, a new appreciation of the beauty of our river valley. I highly recommend this exhibit. If you can’t make it, though, don’t worry because it sounds like it may also be coming to the Little White School Museum next spring.

After enjoying view of the valley, we wandered over to the Tapper Recital Hall in the same building to hear “The Power of Place: The Indigenous Peoples of Northeastern Illinois and the Fox River Valley” by Dr. John N. Low of the Ohio State University at Newark, OH.

Low’s an interesting guy. Himself an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, he’s earned a juris doctorate as well as a Ph.D in American Culture and is currently on the OSU faculty.

Leopold Pokagon

Chief Leopold Pokagon

My rule of thumb is that it’s a poor day when I don’t learn something new, and Low certainly taught me something new the other evening, namely that all of the members of the Three Fires Confederacy were not forced west by the U.S. Government in 1836. A separate band of 280 individuals, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi named after the chief, Leopold Pokagon, was allowed to stay in southern Michigan and northern Indiana after the Treaty of 1833 extinguished the claims of the rest of the Three Fires’ land in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.

Between 1836 and 1838, the rest of the Three Fires were rounded up and forced west, including two well-known local chiefs, Waubonsie and Shabbona.

Although Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted in 1829. He returned to Illinois in 1837 despite the official removal then going on and lived at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been seized and sold at public auction. This high-handed act has resulted in more than a little legal action over the years, which, as I understand it, isn’t settled yet.

1858 abt Shabbona

Chief Shabbona, about 1858

The citizens of Ottawa, however, seeing that the old chief’s land had been stolen from him, pooled their resources and bought him a small farm near Seneca in LaSalle County.

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

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely, as it was spelled phonetically. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena.

1765 Pontiac

Pontiac, about 1765. As no portraits of the Ottawa chief are known to exist, this is an artist’s conception.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac planned, organized, and carried out 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, which was designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River.

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

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

The Three Fires were mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British. After the Revolution, British forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military leader Blue Jacket.

1812 Tecumseh

Tecumseh, about 1812, in a British Army uniform.

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

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

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

1840 abt Waubonsee

Chief Waubonsee, about 1840

In 1812, war again broke out between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois, and after much deliberation, he concluded further opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1825, when the Winnebagos decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities. In return, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove in modern DeKalb County, and where the chief moved his village.

When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful. On the war’s outbreak, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to Chicago. One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potowatomis angered by Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that all Indians were to be removed from Illinois, and most were, with the exception of the Pokagon Band. And, as we saw above, Shabbona.

To give credit where it’s due, though, Shabbona’s friends in LaSalle County showed their appreciation for his efforts to maintain peace, and then to reduce human losses when the Black Hawk War broke out not only by helping him financially after his land had been stolen, but also by treating him as one of the community’s honored citizens.

1857 Shabbona ambrotype in case

Ambrotype of Chief Shabbona taken about 1857.

Which brings me to another interesting fact about the folks who lived in the Fox and Illinois River valleys in the 19th Century. The very first Lincoln and Douglas Debate, held during the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois was held at Ottawa. Both Lincoln, representing the new Republican Party, and Douglas, the old-line Democrat, were well known politicians, Lincoln also famed because of his extremely successful legal career. So the crowd on hand to listen to the debate was a big one. The stage set up on the grounds of the LaSalle County Courthouse on the square in Ottawa provided room for the two speakers, plus chairs for local dignitaries. And among those invited luminaries was elderly Chief Shabbona, who by all accounts was warmly greeted by his Black Hawk War comrade, Abe Lincoln, who had served in the Illinois militia during the conflict.

Shabbona lived on his small farm near Seneca until the end of his life on July 17, 1859

What interests me is that just two decades after the Indians had been forcibly removed from Illinois, and less than 25 years after the Black Hawk War itself, Shabbona found himself treated as an honored citizen and local dignitary. That’s something that somehow doesn’t quite fit in with our usual view of how whites treated Indians during that era.

Shabbona is buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery under a marker paid for by donations from his admiring friends and neighbors.

Meanwhile, the Pokagon Band of Potawtomi Indians was not treated as a legitimate part of the Potawatomi Nation or the Three Fires Confederacy because, like Shabbona, they ultimately chose to stay. But following 160 years of struggle, they were finally granted official tribal status in 1994.

These two stories represent just some of the unknown stories about how Native People were treated differently by a disinterested and borderline hostile government and sympathetic local residents. Most, but not all of the Three Fires were forced west on what they came to call the Trail of Death. And most, but not all those forced west never returned. But there were exceptions and those exceptions make for great local history.

 

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

World War I soldiers deserve our President’s recognition and respect…

So last week, Donald Trump flew over to France to represent the U.S. as the rest of the world, especially the European powers, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

During its brief participation in the conflict, the U.S. suffered 53,402 combat deaths and a grand total of 116,708 deaths from all causes. Another 204,002 soldiers, sailors, and marines were wounded. As things go, that wasn’t an overwhelming total of fatalities—more than 600,000 died during the four years of the Civil War and the nation would suffer 407,300 total deaths during the upcoming Second World War, along with another 672,000 wounded.

But the U.S. only participated in World War I for 19 months, and suffered about the same casualties as in the war in Vietnam, which lasted 18 years, 10 months and 23 days between the first death on April 8, 1956 and the final two men killed in action on April 29, 1975.

World War I really ushered the U.S. onto the world scene, and while our nation’s part of the conflict was relatively brief, it also involved brutal, fierce combat. In Europe, the war resulted in an entire generation of young men being killed, maimed, and mentally injured. For them, it was a horrific, seemingly never-ending series of battles that gained no ground and resulted in no resolution. Not until the fresh troops supplied by the U.S. arrived at the front did the Germans and their allies finally come to the conclusion they could not win the war. And so at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the Germans capitulated, finally ending the horrific bloodshed.

For our current European allies—and even our foes during that long-ago war—this centenary commemoration was a major event. Which made it doubly disappointing that our current President found it inconvenient to attend solemn ceremonies honoring all the war’s dead, including those tens of thousands of young men and women from the U.S. who served. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he likewise found it inconvenient to attend ceremonies here in the U.S. marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Which made it seem an awful lot like he simply didn’t care about those who paid the ultimate price in defense of their nation—including the three men from Kendall County who were killed in action.

burson marker

Plano resident Leon Burson was the second Kendall County resident killed in action during World War I.

World War I, it seems, is no more familiar to most Americans—including, it seems, the current President—than the Civil War. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember elderly World War I vets riding to the cemetery on Memorial Day—still called Decoration Day by our grandparents—escorted by the color guard of young World War II and Korean Conflict vets, much like those World War II and Korean Conflict vets are escorted today by honor guards of Vietnam War and Desert Storm vets. Armistice Day—today’s Veterans Day—was an even more somber celebration, originally commemorating the service of those who went “over there” to fight the Kaiser.

It was hoped World War I would be the “War to End All Wars.” Several Kendall County residents lost their lives during the conflict, most dying from disease including the devastating worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. But many others were killed in action during the conflict, including three county residents, one each from Plattville, Oswego, and Plano.

After the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Fred P. Thompson, a 34 year-old Plattville blacksmith, was determined to do his part. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Aurora on May 28, and was assigned to the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of four regiments comprising the 1st Expeditionary Division, later renamed the 1st Infantry Division.

Thompson, in fact, was among the first U.S. troops to land in France. Though virtually untrained, they were enthusiastically welcomed by the French people, who were exhausted after years of seemingly unending war. On Independence Day, July 4, 1917 the 16th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion paraded through Paris, where one of General John J. Pershing’s staff is said to have announced, in a reference to France’s assistance during the Revolutionary War, “Lafayette, we are here!”

On Oct. 21, the 1st Division was assigned to the Allied line in the Luneville sector near Nancy. Two days later, Corporal Robert Bralet of the Sixth Artillery fired a 75 millimeter artillery round at the German lines, the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in the war.

It was while the 16th Regiment was in the Luneville sector trenches on Jan. 22, 1918 that Thompson was killed in action, among the first to fight, and the first Kendall County soldier killed in action during the war.

burson post american legion

Plano’s American Legion post is named in Leon Burson’s honor.

Leon Burson, 26, a lifelong Plano resident, was drafted in 1917. He left from Plano in September for Camp Dodge, Ia., then on to Camp Logan at Houston, Tex. to join the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Infantry Regiment. The 1st Illinois had served in the Spanish American War and later had helped U.S. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing chase Pancho Villa along the Mexican border for three months in 1916. With the declaration of war, the 1st Illinois was federalized. Redesignated the 131st Infantry at Camp Logan, they were assigned to the 33rd “Prairie” Division.

At Camp Logan, Burson was assigned to the Medical Corps. In early May 1918 after finishing rigorous training, the regiment traveled to New Jersey, boarded the ocean liner SS Leviathan, and sailed for France on May 22. Arriving at Brest on May 30, the regiment entrained for Oisemont, where they underwent combat training under experienced British officers before joining the 3rd Corps, 4th British Army.

The 131st helped capture Hamel on the Fourth of July then helped reduce the Amiens salient. There, on Aug. 9, the regiment lost nearly 1,000 men at Chipilly Ridge and Gressaire Wood before advancing to help take the Etinchem Spur on Aug. 13.

Burson, behind the lines, was stocking an ambulance for the front a day later when he was killed by an artillery shell, the second Kendall County man killed in action in the Great War.

“It is my sad duty to write you of your son Leon’s death, the evening of August 14, 1918 due to the explosion of a shell,” Lt. Herbert Pease wrote to Burson’s parents. “Death no doubt was instant. He was on duty, having talked to me only two or three minutes before. He was buried today at Vayux, France under the direction of our Chaplain, Lieut. Egerton, in the American cemetery.” Years after the war, Plano’s American Legion Post would be named for Leon Burson.

Archie Lake grew up in Oswego but the young man and his family traveled to find work, eventually winding up in Hinsdale. When the U.S. entered the war, Lake, then 22, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was assigned to the 97th Company, 3rd Battalion, in the newly formed 6th Marine Regiment.

Lake, Archie KIA 97th 6th retouch

An Oswego native, the U.S. Marines’ Pvt. Archie Lake was killed in action on July 19, 1918.

In France, the 6th Marines, the 5th Marines, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion were formed into the 4th Brigade of the U.S. 2nd Division. Nicknamed the “Marine. Brigade,” the unit was assigned to the Toulon Sector near Verdun in March 1918. There, the 6th Marines lost 33 men, most killed when the 74th Company bivouac was attacked with poison gas on April 13.

In late May 1918, the Marine Brigade was ordered to help shore up crumbling French lines near Château-Thierry. On June 6, southwest of Belleau Wood, the 6th Marines were ordered to seize the town of Bouresches and to clear the southern half of Belleau Wood itself. The push started a bloody 40-day struggle in which the 6th lost 2,143 Marines. For their effort, the Marine units were all awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. And the French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

Lake, Archie marker Osw Cem

Pvt. Archie Lake, U.S. Marine Corps,  is buried in France where he was killed in action, but his family placed this marker in the Oswego Township Cemetery in his memory.

But bloodier fighting loomed when the Marine Brigade was ordered to counterattack near Soissons in mid July. The 6th Regiment was held in reserve during the initial July 18 assault, but on July 19, they advanced alone through heavy artillery and machinegun fire from Vierzy toward Tigny suffering catastrophic 50-70 percent casualties in most units. First Lt. Clifton Cates (a future Marine Corps commandant) reported only about two dozen of more than 400 men survived: “… There is no one on my left, and only a few on my right. I will hold” he reported to his superior office at headquarters.

One of the Marines lying dead on that battlefield was Archie Lake, the last Kendall County man to die in combat in World War I.

World War I and its heroes have largely faded from modern consciousness. But brave men and women did great things in our country’s name in the muddy, bloody trenches of France. It’s a shame–bordering on a national disgrace–that, on this 100th anniversary of the end of that devastating conflict, our nation’s elected leader decided to disregard his duty to honor of all those who perished during the conflict—including three young Kendall County men,.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

The story of an Illinois cavalryman’s surprising World War II service

The annual Remembering Our Veterans exhibit down at the Little White School Museum opened Saturday morning for an eight-day run. This year, we’re doing a bit more commemorating World War I, since this month marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the conflict.

As usual, my buddy, Bob Stekl, the museum’s assistant director, has done a great job mounting the exhibit—which completely fills the museum’s main room—with the help of a great group of volunteers (including Stephanie Just and Sarah Kimes) that operate like a fine-tuned watch, setting the exhibit up during a single day.

Also this year, like every year, we have a few new and upgraded exhibits featuring recent donations to the museum’s collections. This past year, my high school buddy Jim Yuvan and his brother Jerry donated some photos, battlefield souvenirs, and other materials that tell the World War II story of their dad, Louis Yuvan.

1941 12 Yuvan, Louis J

Pvt. Louis Yuvan, fresh from basic training as a cavalryman in December 1941, in a snapshot taken at his home in DePue, Ill. (Little White School Museum collection)

Louis J. Yuvan was born February 12, 1915 in DePue, Bureau County, Illinois. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was drafted and entered service with the U.S. Army five months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He arrived at Camp Grant, Rockford, on June 30, 1941 where he was officially inducted into the Army.

From Camp Grant, he was immediately sent to the U.S. Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he received his basic training. Although World War II is usually considered a mechanized war, at the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. Army still employed horse cavalry, and Pvt. Yuvan was trained to be a trooper in the U.S. Cavalry.

After graduating from basic training, he was assigned to the Machine Gun Troop of the 112th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, one of the last two horse cavalry regiments to serve with the U.S. Army.

The regiment was stationed at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas and in February 1941 was sent to Fort Clark at Bracketville, to relieve the 5th United States Cavalry on patrol duty along the Mexican border and to receive further training.

Louie on horse 1

Pvt. Louis Yuvan at Ft. Riley, Kansas in 1941 during basic cavalry training. (Little White School Museum collection)

The regiment shipped out for the South Pacific from California in August 1942. Originally equipped with Australian Waler horses, they were ordered to New Caledonia to serve as a horse mounted security force.

Walers were developed in the Australian state of New South Wales and were a very hardy breed that had proven their merit in the Boer Wars in South Africa as well as during World War I. Given their hardiness—they were sometimes nicknamed Water Horses—it was hoped the breed could cope with jungle conditions on New Guinea and New Britain. But it was found horses of any kind were not suited to the physical conditions of jungle warfare, and so the regiment’s horses were withdrawn and they served the rest of the war as light infantry.

1942 Yuvan on outpost duty

Pvt. Yuvan at the trigger of his .30 cal. water-cooled machine gun while on Mexico border overwatch with the 112th U.S. Cavalry Regiment in 1942 as his sergeant supervises. (Little White School Museum collection)

In an interesting side note, after the regiment’s horses were withdrawn, the troopers of the 112th had no need for their sabers, either. At that same time, the Marines who were desperately fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Guadalcanal. The 1st Marine Division’s Gen. Alexander Vandegrift made an urgent request for machetes so his Marines could cut their way through the impenetrable jungle. The campaign’s overall commander, U.S. Army Gen. Alexander Patch, hearing of the sudden supply of cavalry sabers, ordered them cut them down for the Marines’ use as machetes and sent to Guadalcanal.

After extensive amphibious warfare training the 112th the former cavalrymen made their first landing as part of Operation Chronicle on June 30, 1943, establishing a defensible perimeter to protect Seabees building an airstrip on Woodlark Island. In their second amphibious operation, the regiment went ashore at Arawe, New Britain. After linking up with the 1st Marine Division, the Regiment was sent to Aitape, New Guinea, and attached to the 32nd Infantry Division, where it fought in heavy combat along the Driniumor River. The regiment suffered 61 percent casualties during the Battle of the Driniumor River, one of which was Corporal Louis Yuvan, who was seriously wounded on July 10, 1944, ending his career as a combat cavalryman.

1944 Corp Yuvan at base hospital

Corporal Louis Yuvan hams it up just a little while recuperating at a base hospital after being wounded on Sept. 3, 1944. While he was done as a combat soldier, he served with the U.S. Army through the end of the war. (Little White School Museum collection)

After being hospitalization for three months he was transferred to the 127th Quartermaster Bakery Company, a mobile unit that followed the troops when they departed New Guinea for the invasion to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation.

Corporal Yuvan’s unit came ashore hard on the heels of the Allies’ invasion of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf, where they supported the invading troops. From there, it was on to the invasion of Luzon, where the 127th supported troops fighting Japanese occupiers. The war finally ended in the Philippines on Sept. 3, 1945—two weeks after Japan itself surrendered—when General Yamashita Tomoyuki and Admiral Denshichi Okochi formally surrendered all Japanese forces in the islands to allied forces.

During his World War II service Corporal Yuvan earned a number of decorations including the Good Conduct Medal, the Purple Heart Medal, the American Defense Ribbon, the American Theater Ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon with five Bronze Battle Stars, the Philippine Liberation Ribbon, the Bronze Service Arrowhead and, ironically given his cavalry training, the Infantry Combat Badge.

Corporal Yuvan was discharged on Aug. 22, 1945 at Fort Sheridan. Illinois.

Yuvan WWII decorations & ribbons retouched

Louis Yuvan’s World War II decorations include, ironically for a cavalryman, the Infantry Combat Badge at top center. (Little White School Museum collection)

Returning to his hometown, DePue, Illinois, he started a family after marrying Dorothea Deihl. The couple and their two young sons, James and Jerry, moved to Boulder Hill, Illinois in 1961, where Dorothea taught elementary school, Louis worked as the head of the maintenance department for the Oswego School District and his sons went to school with me. Their oldest, Jim, graduated from Oswego High School with me in 1964. And that’s where I got to know Louis Yuvan, with his distinctive smile and trademark cigar. But I got to know him as my buddy Jim’s dad; I had no idea he had served in World War II, much less that he’d been a cavalryman who morphed into an amphibious warfare specialist.

Louis Yuvan died March 13, 1981 in Aurora, Illinois, after serving his country, his family, and his community far better than so many of his neighbors and friends ever realized.

So stop by the Little White School Museum this week and take in Remembering Our Veterans as we remember all the men and women who’ve served their country so well over more than two centuries. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The exhibit closes Sunday, Nov. 11.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Tiptoeing perilously close to self-praise…

Self-praise, my mother used to say, stinks. Earthy, but descriptive, and it’s something that’s stuck with me all my life. So it’s probably not an accident that I view the current occupant of the White House with more than a little disdain.

And then, as if my mother’s stern injunction wasn’t enough, I married someone who has a lot of Quaker in her background, and who is so opposed to blowing her own horn that she’s still never even read two local history booklets the two of us wrote back in 1975.

All that said, I now intend to blow my own horn a little, although I’m not ready to go so far as to call it self-praise because, you know, that’s bad.

Here it goes: I earned a first place in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s 2018 Newspaper Contest for the best local column in the non-daily paper classification. The awards were announced Oct. 18 at NINA’s annual awards dinner at Northern Illinois University.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

One of the columns that proved to be NINA award-winners concerned discovering the exact date of this photo of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. An original copy of the photo is in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield and Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

My “Reflections” column has been appearing weekly in Oswego’s weekly paper, the Ledger-Sentinel (corporate changed the name back to the Oswego Ledger a while ago, but I like the old name), since July 1980 when Jeff and Kathy Farren talked me into becoming the editor of the newly combined Oswego Ledger and Fox Valley Sentinel. Although I retired as the editor (and also a beat reporter—weekly newspaper folks do everything from photography to writing obits) of the Ledger-Sentinel back in 2008—I agreed to continue doing my weekly local history column, because it’s fun and I always enjoy a chance to talk history, even if I’m only talking to myself. It now also appears in several other Shaw Media newspapers on an irregular basis as well as the four papers they own here in Kendall County.

For the annual NINA contest, several columns have to be submitted written during the contest year, and this year, my editor, John Etheredge, sent in four of them including the Feb. 1 one on George Washington’s slave wedding gift and a similar one affecting a local family; the Jan. 29 piece on the Great Millbrook Bank Robbery; my May 25 update on the Nathan Hughes photo (he was a black Civil War veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment); and my Sept. 14 piece on how standardized testing in in public schools is virtually eliminating the study and appreciation of local history.

The contest is judged (mostly) by the profs in the journalism department at Northern Illinois University, which gives it a nice academic aura. The person who judged the non-daily column entries had this to say about “Reflections”: “Writing about history is one thing, and writing about now is another, but tying history to the present in a compelling way is a tall order, and Roger Matile does this very well.”

Which made me feel pretty good, because that’s what I try to do just about every week. It’s good to know that a disinterested third party thinks what I think I’m doing seems to be working. And I also get a spiffy framed certificate to hang on my brag wall here at History Central.

Hope you didn’t get too upset, mom…

4 Comments

Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History

When it comes to school districts, the name’s the thing…

So we had a big hoohah going on here in my once little town of Oswego a few years ago. This post is going to be super-local, so if you’re not interested in really, really local history and want to go somewhere else today, I completely understand.

Hoohahs come and go, of course, and there are lots of them in any community. But here I’m specifically talking here about a former school superintendent’s brainstorm that changing the school district’s name by leaving “Oswego,” “school,” and “district” out of it would be a boffo idea.

Of course, the district’s official, legal name—Oswego Community Unit School District 308—did not change. So what the superintendent was really talking about was a school district nickname. What that meant in practice was changing the name atop school district stationery, on school buses, on the district’s web site, and the like. Things that cost money to change.

The preferred new nickname? SD308.

One school board member, a newcomer to the community like most all board members in recent years, announced at back then that Oswego had never been part of the district’s name and that “‘Oswego’ got interjected somewhere in there.”

Well, no, that was definitely not the case. Let’s get into the Way Back Machine and figure out what actually happened, shall we?

Back in May 1961, voters living inside the boundaries of Oswego Community High School District 300 voted to consolidate with Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8, creating a community unit school district educating children from first through 12th grades. That fall, kindergarten would be added, but at the time of the referendum, it was just first through 12th.

According to the June 22 Oswego Ledger:

“An election will be held Saturday, June 24, to select seven members for the board of education of the newly formed Oswego Community District No. 308. Four of the members of the new board must be from Oswego Township and three members must be from the other townships–Wheatland, Bristol, and NaAuSay.”

But wait…what was the deal with that “Consolidated” word in the elementary school district’s name? Did the 1961 election consolidate a consolidation? Why, yes, yes it did.

1880 abt Old Stone School

Oswego’s Old Stone School at Tyler and Monroe streets was built about 1855, probably with some of the first real estate tax money levied for education purposes in the community. The building was gutted by fire in 1885. (from a stereopticon view in the Little White School Museum collection)

To explain that, we’ve got to delve into the Illinois public education historical weeds.

School consolidation in Illinois has a long history, and Kendall County’s communities and myriad school district’s followed the statewide activities in that regard.

The earliest schools were formed by subscription during the pioneer era of the 1830s and 1840s. Groups of farm neighbors or village residents would take subscriptions to build and otherwise maintain a school building and hire a teacher. In 1855, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing levying property taxes to finance the cost of operating public schools.

Small rural school districts proliferated, each supporting a single, one-room school that educated students in first through eighth grades. In general, taxpayers’ farm homes were located no farther away from these rural schools than about a mile and a half (which sort of puts the lie to great-granddad’s claim that he walked 10 miles to school, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways).

In towns, elementary (or common) schools were often combined with “academies,” which were the name for high schools of the day. Academies were also the junior colleges of the era. About the only students who went on from elementary school to the upper grades were those who were planning to teach or the vanishingly small number of students who planned to actually attend college.

1894 Grove School

One of my all-time favorite school photos is this 1894 image of Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, with the kids dressed for a Mother Goose play. (Little White School Museum collection)

But times changed, and gradually it was realized that more education was a better, not to mention increasingly necessary, thing for all concerned. High schools replaced academies in the 1880s, and very gradually the numbers of students going on beyond eighth grade began to climb.

None of my grandparents, for instance, attended high school, and only two even graduated from eighth grade. My father graduated from eighth grade, but my mother graduated high school. Both my sisters graduated high school and went on to attend nurse’s training and became registered nurses, and both of my children graduated college—they’re all sort of a microcosm of how education has evolved since the early years of the 20th Century.

But back to consolidation. Here in Kendall County, Yorkville was the first area to consolidate some of its schools, and that in 1919. Consolidation bubbled under for several years, inhibited by the Great Depression. But after World War II, with the county’s population rising in some areas and the need for better education prompted by the new Cold War, nuclear weapons, and (literally) rocket science, consolidation began in earnest.

1925 abt Walker School

Walker School, at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego, was consolidated with the nearby Marysville and Gaylord schools in 1941, the first consolidation in the Oswego School District. The building, converted into a private home, still stands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first consolidations of the 1940s involved one-room school districts. Many districts only enrolled a handful of students each year, sometimes less than a half-dozen. That made hiring a teacher and maintaining a building expensive for local taxpayers, as did complying with new rules and regulations concerning such things as state-mandated courses of study and facilities requirements.

In 1941, the voters living in the contiguous Gaylord, Walker, and Wilcox one-room school districts voted to consolidate into a single district, to be called Consolidated District 5, with all the students moved to the Walker School. The other two buildings were closed and sold. The Gaylord building was moved into Oswego and remodeled into a private home, while the Wilcox School was moved a few miles away to Wolf’s Crossing Road and also turned into a private residence.

Then in the summer of 1948, a further consolidation took place in the region inside the Oswego High School District, a 68 square mile region extending from the Kane-Kendall line north of Oswego south all the way to Caton Farm Road. As the Kendall County Record reported:

“Voters yesterday in the Oswego-NaAuSay area approved the establishment of a community consolidated grade school district consisting of all of Oswego township, about two-thirds of NaAuSay, and four sections of Kendall township. There were 270 votes for and 178 against the proposition. The voters in the Village of Oswego approved the proposition 94 to 16, and those outside the village 176 to 162.

“The new district combines the Oswego, Squires, Wormley, Willow Hill, Walker, Harvey, Russell, Cutter, McCauley, Grove, Union, and Marysville districts. The assessed valuation will be $12 million and the grade school enrollment is 343. Board members for the new district will be elected July 17.”

1958 East View School cropped

The first new building constructed by Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 after the district’s creation in 1948 was East View School, opened in Oswego in the fall of 1957, originally housing students in grades 4, 5, and 6. Eventually, the building was enlarged to house some 1,400 kindergarten through fifth grade students. (Little White School Museum collection)

Eventually, a few more parcels were added to the elementary district from Bristol Township, which borders Oswego Township to the west, Aurora Township in Kane County, which borders Oswego Township to the north, and Wheatland Township in Will County, which borders Oswego Township to the east, creating the entire “consolidated” elementary district, mirroring the bounds of the high school district.

The Oswego districts, of course, were far from the only ones consolidating during the 1940s and 1950s. Starting in the 1920s, a series of state laws and regulation changes began forcing one-room school districts to merge to create larger tax bases to permit better facilities and more advanced curricula.

First was the “Standard School” drive of the 1930s. According to the Oct. 8, 1930 Record:

“A standard school is one which meets the requirements for a good school with the sanitation requirements met and with the right kind of a [school] house, the right kind of furnishings and equipment, the right kind of teaching, and the right kind of behavior and work by the pupils. A superior school is one which has gone farther in its efforts to offer something better to the community.”

The Record noted that only six county schools had been awarded the “Standard” ranking that year: the Squires, Millbrook, Kendall, McCauley, Fourth Ward, and Jones schools, adding that:

“Several other schools are very close to meeting the requirements. Among them are the Wormley, Boomer, Needham, Union, Bronk, Weeks, Scofield, Naden, Keck, Stephens, Pletcher, Plattville, Cassem, Brown, Wynne, Bell, Fox, Cutter, Walker, Willow Hill, Bethel, and Lisbon Center. Some of these schools lack only a well or some equipment, which will be secured this year.”

By the late 1940s, the costs of operating one-room schools with tiny enrollments led to the closure of many with their students transferred to adjoining districts. As the Record explained on Sept. 11, 1946:

“Thirty-three Kendall county one- and two-room schools opened their fall terms last Tuesday. Teachers have been provided for all pupils only by closing the doors of 17 buildings and transferring the children from these districts to neighboring schools. As a result, school enrollments are much larger. Schools which formerly had only enough pupils for a game of marbles will now be able to choose up sides for a ball game. One school, in district No. 5 south of Oswego, has 28 enrolled and half of the schools operating have 16 or more pupils. Three schools have but eight, the smallest number this year.”

1957 Church School exterior

Church School, where the author attended grades 1-3, was the last one-room rural school to close in the Oswego School District. It closed in the spring of 1958.

In 1947, the Kendall County School Survey Committee recommended that the county’s 54 existing school districts be consolidated into just four unit districts based around the county’s four high school districts that would educate children from elementary through high school.

In June 1948, building on the county survey committee’s recommendations, 11 rural districts, plus the district in Oswego announced plans to ask voters to consolidate, as noted above. As the Record pointed out:

“Present limitations in taxes would require tax rate elections in some of the present districts before they could operate another year.”

Voters throughout the county were engaged in similar consolidation elections in Yorkville, Lisbon, Newark, and other communities.

The era of the one-room school was dealt a further blow with new requirements mandated by the Illinois School Code requiring that after June 30, 1949 public schools have at least 10 pupils in average daily attendance; after June 20, 1951, at least 12 pupils, and after June 30, 1953 at least 15 pupils.

By the late 1950s, the era of the one-room school in Kendall County was over. The last one-room building in the Oswego Elementary School District closed in 1957.

1961 Sept BH School

Boulder Hill Elementary School, whose construction was partially financed by Boulder Hill Subdivision developer Don L. Dise, was the first school built under the direction of brand new Oswego Community Consolidated Unit District 308. The new school opened in the fall of 1961.

And then in 1961, voters approved consolidating Oswego’s already-consolidated elementary district and its high school district, to create Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

So what was the deal with changing the district’s name? Well, according to those new school board members and the new (at the time) superintendent, it didn’t seem fair to have “Oswego” in the name when students from several other municipalities attend the district’s schools.

But that has always been the case. Starting with the high school district’s establishment in the 1930s, folks with Aurora, Plainfield, Yorkville, Oswego, Minooka, and Montgomery mailing addresses sent their kids north, south, east, and west to Oswego to school, depending on where their homes were located. It’s hard to see how much has changed today, even though now we’ve also got kids with Joliet addresses coming to Oswego to school.

After a relatively short time of anger simmering under the surface, a group of local residents, including a retired school superintendent and a retired varsity coach, got together to agitate for changing the district’s advertised name back to one with “Oswego” in it. And in that effort, they were recently successful. Adding “Oswego” back to the district’s identity has begun, and it’s gradually come to the point that now when you drive around the community and you pass a school bus, it will likely have “Oswego” in the name on the side.

The schools here have had a long and winding, but interesting, road from yesterday to today. If the district’s name does anything, it anchors the schools in a region of the Fox Valley, which provides a sense of identity that SD308 (two other Illinois school districts have the same numerical designation) did not.

For this long-time community resident and 1964 OHS grad, it’s good to see “Oswego” back on the district’s buses.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, Uncategorized

So what’s in YOUR pie?

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, asked what her friends’ favorite pie is. And because I’m a lifelong wiseacre, a replied, “hot or cold.”

Which reply I admit I stole from my dad, a pie lover from way back. The only kind of pie my dad really did not like was raisin pie, and I have to admit I am with him on that one as well, and have been since someone tried to foist a piece of the stuff off on me when I was just a lad.

I’m not sure where my dad got his pie craving, but he had one and had it bad. Maybe it was because my mom was such a good pie baker. Whatever its origin, when my parents were young farmers back during the Great Depression and right up through the 1940s my mom baked roughly one pie a day.

Defective apple pie

This defective apple pie is a good example why it’s unwise to buy apple pies in most bakeries or restaurants (Gruenke’s in Bayfield, Wisconsin is a prime exception to this rule). While the apples are sliced and not chunked, they are sliced WAY too thick, thus preventing proper cooking down. The wise pie aficionado is very cautious about his or her apple pie.

Back then, farm work started before dawn with livestock chores: feeding the pigs and cattle and milking the family cow. By the time breakfast rolled around, my dad was really hungry and so needed a large meal. The one he ate for most of his life—at least for the portion of it I was present for—was a glass of fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, two eggs over easy and two slices of bacon or sausage patties. It’s a breakfast he ate until a couple days before he died from the results of lung cancer and a list of ailments too long to record here.

Back in those farm days, he also had a large piece of pie for dessert at all three meals, breakfast, dinner, and supper. You’ll notice what I did there: the noon meal on the farm was dinner, not the evening meal. Town folks ate dinner at night; out in the country the evening meal was a much lighter one. The dinner bell rang at noon. In fact, the weekday farm report show on WLS radio was named “Dinner Bell Time” (not to be confused with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” or WJJD’s teenagers’ delight, “Suppertime Frolic).

Some of my earliest memories are being around the house and watching my mom, and when I was visiting down the road and around the corner, my grandmother, baking. My mom, as you might imagine after having all that practice, was a whiz at rolling out pie dough, which was the real stuff back then, with lard as a major ingredient. After making however many pies they planned that day, there was always a bit of piecrust left, so they’d both made what they called Poor Man’s Pie, usually in one or two small tart tins.

Poor Man's Pie

Found this image of Poor Man’s Pie somewhere on the Net. Not nearly enough cinnamon on top; the top should be dark brown all over with cinnamon.

I loved Poor Man’s Pie. It was a simple thing that only required milk, flour, and sugar for the filling, topped off with a pat of butter and sprinkled cinnamon on top.

Just about everyone out in the country had an orchard of one kind or another. Ours wasn’t very big, and included a towering pie cherry tree that produced quarts and quarts of the fruit. My grandparents’ orchard had number of plum trees, as well as a variety of apples and pears. Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries were all canned for use in pies during the winter. Apples, too, were stored fresh in the basement for later use.

Northern Illinois isn’t the best peach habitat, so while we had peach trees, they weren’t quite as prolific as apples, cherries, and pears. I remember relatives heading over to Michigan in a convoy to bring back peaches, which were divided up amongst the participants and then canned for winter table use and to bake pies.

Other than eating pickled herring when the clock struck 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve and somehow falling in love with oyster stew made with those awful canned oysters, my dad’s family really didn’t have many food habits or traditions. My mother’s German family—her mother was 100 percent Pennsylvania Dutch and her father was 100 percent East Prussian—however, loved their food, and that included dessert with every meal. Including breakfast. I remember my grandmother’s table always featured a pressed glass footed compote dish with jelly, so that even when there was no cake, pie, kuchen, or cookies (a rare occasion, indeed) there was always bread and jelly as a dessert fallback position.

wonderberry pie

To the uninitiated, wonderberries look like blueberries. But they’re a lot different and, in my estimation, make a superior pie. Unfortunately, hardly anybody grows them any more and it’s virtually impossible to find them at farmers’ markets, at least here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

Pie was always the queen of desserts in my family, with my grandmother, mother, and aunts using a wide variety of fillings from ground cherries, apples, peaches, rhubarb (“pie plant” to the Pennsylvania Dutch), cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, wonderberries (also called garden huckleberries)—you name it.

Pies have been a human food item for thousands of years. According to pie historians, the first pies were invented by the ancient Egyptians, who made dough from oats, wheat, rye, or barley, doubled it over and filled it with honey. After a few thousand years someone decided you could create a nice meal by using bread dough to enclose meat and other savory fillings. Meat pies were far more popular than fruit-filled concoctions for a long, long time. But gradually, the dessert aspects of pie could no longer be denied. When some brilliant cook invented what we call today piecrust, the place was set for pie to come into its own.

Classic pasty

A classic pasty with its built-in handle for easy eating is one of our favorites up in northern Wisconsin, especially served with a side of creamy cucumbers.

Over in Merry Olde England, meat pies reigned supreme, with all sorts of meat combined with veggies and then baked into whole-meal pies. In Cornwall, innovative cooks took a piecrust circle, put a big scoop of diced potatoes, turnips, and other veggies with finely chopped or even minced meat on half, doubled the other half over, and crimped the half-moon edge. Baked at home, these robust meat pies—called pasties—were just fine for taking down into the coal mines to be heated over a flame on a handy shovel and eaten for a miner’s lunch, the crimped half-circle crust offering a handy handle to hold the pie while eating. Here in the New World, Cornish immigrants brought their pasties with them, and today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is their Midwest natural habitat, with even most of the smallest cafes offering their own homemade varieties, as do delis in larger communities’ grocery stores.

Savory pies are all well and good—who doesn’t still enjoy a chicken or beef pot pie once in a while—but it’s the fruit variety that have tickled my fancy all these years. And thus my reply to my former high school classmate about my favorite variety. Baked fruit pies, single and double crust pies, cream pies (chocolate, custard, banana cream, coconut cream), pumpkin and sweet potato, and fresh fruit pies in season—who could possibly make a decision?

But here’s what I’m willing to do…I pledge to keep trying every kind of pie I can find (except raisin), until I finally settle on my favorite.

This could take quite a while, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under entertainment, family, Farming, Food, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Women's History

Generations growing up on Fox River…

Haven’t had much time to blog recently due to a family tragedy, but have had time during recent sleepless nights to think back over the years I’ve lived here along the banks of the Fox River, first with my parents, and then with my own wife and kids.

Two weeks ago, my funny, smart, talented, talkative daughter died of an apparent seizure, something we’re still trying to process as we deal with all the effects of that death.

I was eight when my parents moved off the farm to our riverside neighborhood; she was a year and a half old when my wife and I moved back here. We raised both her and her brother here and the river was always part of both of their childhood landscape.

Now I’m finally having a chance to sit here and watch the relatively fast-flowing current, brown with silt and other products of storm runoff, and I’m transported back to my own childhood growing up here in this riverside neighborhood.

We’ve had quite a bit of rain in this late summer of 2018. A lot of that rain fell, and continues to fall, up north along the northern reaches of the Fox, and the runoff has swelled the river virtually all summer. And that’s unusual. Generally, by this time of year, the river’s bones—gravel bars, boulders, old fallen tree snags—are clearly showing and it’s easy to walk across our narrow channel on stepping stones without getting the soles of our shoes wet. Not this year.

2018 Rising sawmill foundation stones

Tumbled and turned, the flagstones of the Rising sawmill’s foundation still mark the old mill’s location along the east bank of the Fox River at Troy Park in Oswego.

In those 1950s summers, we’d spend hours on the river in our scows, and we got to intimately know our stretch of river. We knew that it was almost impossible to pole up the channel along the west bank of the river because its bottom was smooth limestone. It could be done, sometimes, at low water, but never when there was much of a current. We could pole up over the middle of the old dam by expending a lot of effort. There were plenty of rocks and gravel on the bottom to give our poles good purchase. I didn’t know it then, but that gravel and those rocks were debris left over from the old mill dam that crossed the river there.

Dam building technology in the 19th Century called for building timber frames—cribs—out of squared-off oak and walnut trees, hauling them out into the stream, and then fastening the frames to the limestone bottom with hand-forged iron stakes. Those stakes were hefty things; we retrieved a couple over the years. They were about an inch and a half square and three or so feet long. After the cribbing was set firmly in place, it was gradually filled with gravel and rubble to create the dam. The structure was finished by being clad on the downstream side with thick wooden planks to encourage smooth water flow down the downstream side.

Well before we came along, the old dam had been damaged and virtually erased by floods—freshets, the old-timers called them—and spring ice floes. So all that was left was a low rubble mound from bank to bank that slowed but did not dam the river.

Along with a few of those giant stakes described above, there were also some of those old timber framing members still staked to the river bottom that would show up during periods of low water.

We learned to be careful around the remains of the old dam. The river was shallow on the crest of the destroyed dam, but on the downstream side, the action of water spilling over top of the dam for more than a half-century had eroded deep holes into the limestone riverbed. We learned where those holes were because while poling our scows in those areas, the bottom would sometimes seem to drop right out of the river and our longest poles couldn’t touch bottom.

If we had been inclined to wade in the river, that would have been even more vital information. But we were seldom lured into wading, and when we were, we always wore an old pair of tennis shoes because the river bottom was a virtual carpet of broken glass and scrap metal. And, of course, there was the water quality. In the 1950s, the river’s water was thick with heavy metals and other nasty pollutants that led to stunted, diseased fish and the extermination of most mollusks and crustaceans except for hardy crawfish. The major fish kills of the late 1950s, when a chemical factory upstream in North Aurora dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killed virtually everything in the river from Aurora to Yorkville. So, boating was in; wading was definitely out.

On either bank of the river at the ends of the old dam were the remains of the two mills, a gristmill on the west bank and a sawmill on the east bank. The only thing left of them when we started spending time of the river were the mills’ foundation stones, giant slabs of flagstone, probably mined just upstream on the west bank at the Wormley quarry.

“Stone! Stone!” an advertisement in the July 7, 1881 Kendall County Record and signed by George D. Wormley announced. At his quarry located one mile north of Oswego on the west side of the river, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”

1974 Melissa & Roger fishermen

Father and daughter on a 1974 fishing expedition. Fishing was good, catching not so much…

Those giant slabs of flagstone where Nathaniel Rising built his sawmill about 100 feet north of where I’m writing this, provided perfect fishing platforms and boat landings for us, not to mention wonderful backdrops for hours of make-believe play.

The low dams of our Midwestern rivers seldom provided enough head for the big overshot water wheels that powered mills in southern Illinois and in the East. Instead, tub wheels early on and then turbines, both of which were horizontal and not vertical affairs, were the most common around these parts. One of those old turbines has been preserved by the Fox Valley Park District up in the Montgomery riverside park, on the west bank immediately north of the bridge.

The mill ruins on the west bank of the river, which I can just barely make out through the trees today, were less spectacular. I suspect much of that mill’s foundational flagstone was reused by local residents for other purposes.

During the years, a couple small islands had formed atop the ruins of the old dam, one here on the east bank, and another, sort of small double island, almost to the west bank. The west bank island had a small inlet that was handy to dock a boat while we fished off its shore into the fast current rushing along the west bank. The little island on the east bank—everyone called it the Little Island—was our territory for all sorts of escapades.

When I bought my first shotgun (a three-shot bolt-action Mossberg 20-gauge) my neighbor John Morley and I built a duck blind on the Little Island and for two autumns in a row lay in wait for waterfowl that never came. In that day of polluted river water, we never saw a duck or goose for two solid years, other than ones migrating high overhead in the fall. None of them were dumb enough to land on the poisoned waters of the Fox River.

As fall segued into winter, we prayed for dry weather, the drier the better. Because with dry weather, the river level dropped and the current stilled so that when the first cold days came along, the surface froze. We watched it carefully, gingerly walking out onto the ice with a hatchet to chop a hole to test its thickness. When it reached three or four inches it was time to get the skates out of the basement, taken them up to Crosby Sporting Goods in Aurora to get them sharpened, and head out onto the ice.

The cold during those winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s was intense, and the Fox Valley’s creeks and springs (instead of municipal sewer plants) were still the river’s major tributaries. So the river often froze over completely, bank to bank. From here just below the old dam, we could skate south to the Oswego Bridge, or after carefully picking our way over the old dam’s remains, head north three miles to Boulder Hill. It was on one of those skating expeditions downriver to the Oswego Bridge that I discovered another one of those holes in the river bottom. A spring emptied into the river near a small island about a half mile south of our house and that, unbeknownst to me, kept the ice in that channel thin. Skating along, I heard the ice crack, and before I knew it, I was on the ice, one leg through the surface and in the water, the other still on top. What concerned me is that I couldn’t feel the bottom with my submerged skate, something wholly unexpected—not to mention a bit frightening. But I was able to lay flat, work my leg back through the hole in the ice, and crawl to firm ice. On the skate home through the bitter cold, the soaked leg of my jeans froze solid, making it a little challenging to keep going—but I made it and was even able to conceal the adventure from my parents, who surely would have forbade any further ice skating adventures on the river.

2018 Melissa Marie Matile crop

Melissa Marie Matile 1966-2018

My daughter and her neighborhood friends played up and down the river during their childhood, too, and were even able to skate once in a great while, although by the early 1970s, the river was already warming during the winter due to increased use of river water upstream. When my son came along, he, too, and his friends made the river their territory, although skating by them was almost totally out of the question.

So I sit and watch this familiar, but ever-changing scene of river and island and shoreline enjoyed by six generations of my family, with a seventh just starting the process as my grandtwins, my daughter’s beloved niece and nephew, start to take up their own residence here. It keeps those memories of my daughter all those years ago alive somehow as we try to process her sudden disappearance from our lives.

 

2 Comments

Filed under family, Fox River, Nostalgia