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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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History

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