Monthly Archives: March 2012

Light blogging…

Not that I’m a heavy blogger, of course, but blogging will be light as I work on the heritage association newsletter and the presentation I’m going to give on the history of downtown Oswego April 19.

But just for fun, as the weather continues to warm up and iced tea lovers begin craving their favorite drink, here’s a fun fact from the Aug. 15, 1872 Kendall County Record. It’s aimed at all of you who think iced tea is some sort of modern idea:

Iced tea is now in season. It is very nice and appropriate served at evening croquet parties, and it will also be found refreshing and gently invigorating at the dinner hour. Those in the habit of using it assert that no drowsiness follows its use in hot weather, and it is therefore invaluable to people of sedentary occupation and habits.

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Random thought…

It occurs to me that Dean Baker is, if not the best, at least one of the best economics bloggers on the Web.

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Now THAT was a real winter!

Our magnolia tree on March 24, blooming a month ahead of schedule.

The remarkable winter of 2011-12 is officially over. Not, of course, that it ever actually got a good start. But now the spring flowers are bursting with blooms, and flowering trees are doing their colorful best to make a good impression.

Our 40 year-old magnolia tree is really out-doing itself this year. Not only is it blooming about a month early, but it’s covered with blossoms.

I was doing some research the other day and couldn’t help but compare this past winter to the winter of 1872-73. Where this past winter was warm and relatively free of snow, our ancestors 139 years ago were trying to deal with severe cold, dry conditions, and railroad monopolies that made the coal necessary for heating homes and businesses expensive.

That winter got its start early and on Nov. 21, 1872, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Monday morning last the mercury indicated 8 degrees above zero. Pretty cold for the 18th of November.”

Meanwhile, the coal problem was getting worse, with the area’s usual supply being diverted to other, presumably more lucrative areas. Record Publisher John R. Marshall wrote the same week Rank complained about the cold weather: “Large quantities of Morris coal are still hauled to this and other markets on the river as it gives better satisfaction generally than the Vermillion coal and it costs but a dollar more a ton in Yorkville. The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, residents were having problems getting sufficient water for drinking and cooking. On Dec. 5, Marshall noted that: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

No rain came, but plenty of cold weather did. Rank reported the temperature in downtown Oswego on Dec. 25 was -25° F.

It got so cold later that winter, in fact, that it destroyed houseplants and vegetables stored in root cellars. Rank complained that his newsy Oswego columns were shorter because of the time he had to spend thawing ink and warming his fingers enough to write. It was later found that even the county’s honey bee population had been severely afflicted by the cold, with one farmer reporting that only one of 11 hives had survived.

And the coal shortage continued. The Record’s Millington correspondent observed on Jan. 9 that: “Now if my memory is not at fault, the OO&FRVRR [Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road] was to be competing with low freights and cheap coal, but how has it turned out freights as high as ever and no coal half the time at any price. But we have the road and that is better than some sections have faired.”

As Marshall described the winter: “The winter of 1872 and thus far of 1873 may be put down in the diary as ‘severely cold, dry, and blustering.’ Certainly it has been a trying season.”

As late as May 15, he observed that: “This is good weather for wood and coal dealers. It is necessary to keep a fire all the time, and has been since last October to keep a room in decent temperature.”

I suppose I ought to be counting my blessings given our warm and getting warmer weather. But there’s something that’s just not right about what’s happening, and I suspect the prices we’ll pay in the future are still to be realized.

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Random thought…

We were talking about spring vacations today and I recalled our last trip to D.C. It was great, despite the solemn occasion–we’d gone for the funeral of my wife’s first cousin at Arlington National Cemetery. After the ceremony we spent a few days seeing the sights, again. The Smithsonian Castle was great; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History was absolutely fantastic.

The one thing that bugged me, and it bugged me a LOT, was that every time we drove into D.C. from Virginia, we had to travel on the Jefferson Davis Parkway. It drove me up the wall. Next time, I think we’ll try to figure out how we can visit the nation’s capital without being subjected to dozens of signs celebrating one of the nation’s greatest traitors.

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Going to hell in a handbasket…

We are, we are told quite often, living in a moral swamp, a veritable morass of iniquity. Most recently, it’s been access to contraception that’s gotten the blame. Without The Pill, things would be just peachy, like they were back in those great days of…..well, the preachers in question don’t say exactly when, and that’s probably due to one thing: Ignorance.

Truth is, moral scolds have been enjoying themselves by castigating everyone else (but themselves) literally forever. Even right here in Kendall County, one of the parts of small-town and farming community America so beloved and so often described as “the real America,” things have never been what some would like to think they were.

For instance, a comment by John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record on Nov. 29, 1883:

By the number of divorce cases for the Chancery docket of the January term of the Kendall Circuit Court, it would seem our people are following the bad example of Chicago. Divorces are now about as common as marriages and the old promises to stay by one another “till death do us part” should be stricken from the marriage service.

Interesting, ain’t it.

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Looking for history on the Web…

So where do you go for your historical information on the Web? Since I’m mostly interested in Illinois and Fox Valley history, I favor sites that are central to those areas.

My favorites start with, of course, the Reflections page over at the Ledger-Sentinel web site where my columns for the past couple years are stored since I can never remember what the heck I wrote when. Then there’s Early Chicago, which is one of the coolest history sites ever. Just click on the Encyclopedia link at the top of the splash page and you can look up just about anything having to do with early northern Illinois history. Strictly local is Elmer Dickson’s Kendall County GenWeb site, which is probably the best and most comprehensive local genealogy site on the web. Third is, courtesy of your tax dollars, the Illinois Secretary of State’s database web site. It’s one of the best, if not the best, state historical database site on the Web. Finally, when I’m looking fo actual books to download, it’s over to the Internet Archive. I’ve probably downloaded 70 books on Illinois and Midwest regional history from the site, many extremely rare and only available in university and museum libraries. But many have been digitized and can be downloaded as searchable PDF files. Have to watch out, however, for the books digitized by Google because while they download just fine, I find they can’t be searched. The good news is that often the same book will have been digitized by Google as well as other individuals and organizations.

Those are my go-to sites. What are yours?

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Oswego’s heroic funeral director…

If you’re an old-time Oswegoan, you remember Everett McKeown and his personable wife, Evelyn, who was, for so many years, one of the secretaries in the office at Oswego High. Everett was a mild-mannered guy with never a bad word to say and everybody liked him. I remember him marching in the Memorial Day parades and doing other stuff as a member of the Oswego American Legion post. As it turns out, his World War II military experiences were remarkable.

The McKeowns bought the funeral home from the Thorsens in October 1938 and they moved to Oswego, living in the apartment above the funeral home. At that time, the funeral home was located in what we knew, as kids, as the Ken Bohn house at Van Buren and Madison. That historic old home was the living quarters part of the old Hebert wagon factory.

Anyway, the McKeowns operated a successful business, running both the funeral home and an ambulance service for the Oswego community. Then along came World War II and in June 1943, Everett was drafted and inducted into the U.S. Army. The question was what to do with the funeral home. They decided that Evelyn would continue to operate the funeral home while Everett went off to fight. As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent approvingly noted: “The decision is one that will face more and more wives as the war goes on and Mrs. McKeown is to be congratulated for ‘keeping the house in order’ while her husband is serving his country.”

Everett, with his experience in civilian life, became an Army medic, and got to Europe in time to participate in the invasion of Normandy. There, he was seriously wounded, his leg broken by the explosion of a mortar shell, and he was evacuated to a hospital in England to recover. Which he did, after which he was returned to duty–just in time to get caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. Thereby, he found himself involved in what were arguably two of the conflict’s two most pivotal battles.

Sergeant McKeown got his honorable discharge on Dec. 18, 1946 and headed back to his wife in Oswego. During his 23 months overseas, he earned four battle stars, an invasion arrowhead, a combat medic badge, and the purple heart. After arriving back home to join his wife after the war, they continued their successful business and contributed to the Baby Boom with their daughter, born in 1947. In September 1948, they bought the old Clinton mansion at Madison and Tyler streets and moved the funeral home business there, where its descendant doing business as McKeown-Dunn continues in business to this day.

Everett was a joiner and, like lots of those WWII vets, a doer. He was the first treasurer of the newly formed Oswego Community Unit District 308 when it was formed in 1962. He was active in the Lions Club and the Legion. He was Kendall County Coroner for many years and was one of the visionaries who served on the early Oswego Plan Commissions.

They were the kind of people we all too for granted when we were kids, but they were remarkable couple, Mr. and Mrs. McKeown…

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