Monthly Archives: May 2012

U.S. History was a cooperative venture…

According to the modern right wing, those self-described ‘conservatives,’ America was made great by rugged individuals unimpeded by government and acting entirely on their own.

That, of course, is untrue, but revising history to a more palatable version of how things happened in the past is a growth industry among the modern right wing. Led by ‘historian’ David Barton, the movement to lie about great swaths of U.S. history has been gaining steam over the past several years. Barton, a self-described expert in historical and constitutional issues, is, of course, nothing of the kind. His academic degree is in Christian education from Oral Roberts University, which probably would not qualify him as an educator, much less a historian.

In reality, the history of the U.S. is the history of cooperative ventures on the part of individuals who banded together for various reasons, and heavy reliance on government services and protection.

Here in Illinois, early settlers relied on government guarantees to provide military protection, lay out roads, establish post offices, and administer the law. The settlers themselves created cooperative organizations starting almost as soon as they arrived in order to protect their livestock and their real estate. The government was responsible for purchasing land in the Fox Valley from the native people who lived here, and then became responsible for surveying it and selling it to settlers.

But because settlers arrive before the land was surveyed, they relied on extra-legal land claims. Because they had improved the land by plowing, fencing, and building structures on it, it was actually worth considerably more than the government land office sale price of $1.25 per acre when it was eventually put up for sale by the government. That opened the door to land speculators who would attempt to purchase land previously claimed and improved. They would then either attempt to sell it back to the family already occupying it or to another purchaser for many times what they’d paid the land office.

The Fox River Creamery, started by William McConnell and later owned by C.S. Kilbourne was located between modern Ill. Route 25 and the Illinois Railnet tracks just north of North Street. In 1891, a farmers’ cooperative creamery was established near downtown Oswego to compete with it.

Enter the claim societies and associations, cooperative organizations of settlers who would deputize particularly trustworthy settlers to travel to the land office in Chicago and purchase the land. Then it would be divided among the claim society members so that the pioneers who had already improved it would get the profit from their work. As the deputized representatives purchased the land, a sturdy group of claim society members stood watch outside the land office door making sure no speculators could get inside to spoil the sale. The process is why when studying Kendall County’s old land records you find such a flurry of land transactions in 1842. That year, land in many of the county’s townships north of the Indian Boundary Line was put up for sale. After the land buys were completed the authorized purchasers came back to Kendall County where the land was officially and legally divided up among it’s actual purchasers, and all the transactions recorded at the courthouse in Yorkville.

Cooperatives weren’t just for pioneers, of course. A variety of cooperative organizations were established for other purposes. With the national economic collapse called the Panic of 1873 (nicknamed the Long Depression) farmers joined together to fight monopolies created by the Gilded Age robber barons so beloved by the modern right wing. Lodges of the Patrons of Husbandry—nicknamed the Grange—popped up all over Kendall County with the aim of cooperatively fighting big business. Farmers also joined cooperatively to establish their own businesses in direct competition with private businesses.

Farmer-owned creameries were established in Oswego and in NaAuSay Township to compete with private creameries that farmers felt were gouging them. In Oswego, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association bought the old Danforth cooper shop in 1891 and turned it into the Alliance Creamery to compete with C.S. Kilbourne’s Fox River Butter Company.

And in 1924 when the Fox & Illinois Union Electric Railway went bankrupt, a farmers’ cooperative was formed to purchase the line and keep it running for several more years in order to service the string of grain elevators and lumber and coal yards along it from Yorkville to Morris.

Right winters gave Hillary Clinton a lot of grief some years ago when she quoted the old African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. But when we were kids, the village really did help raise us–and I don’t think you could find a more conservative small-town populace than that of Kendall County in the 1950s. One of the reasons we had fewer problems with delinquent youth back in that time was because everybody in town knew everybody else, and adults were not shy of not only speaking sternly to misbehaving youth, but of calling their parents to report whatever activity was frowned upon.

It’s this modern disdain of social cooperation while constantly pushing the story that the nation’s success due to fictional rugged individualism is what separates the modern right wing from true conservatives. “Christian educator” Barton and his ilk are working hard to rewrite the nation’s history in favor of a new version that celebrates the “YoYo,” or “You’re On Your Own,” version of U.S. history. That’s not only a misinterpretation of the nation’s history, but in Barton’s case at least, it’s a lie.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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Filed under Fox River, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

On vacation…

My high school buddy Paul and I are up north fishing, so no blogging for a while.

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So what’s the deal with all these school districts?

It’s hard to blame folks for being confused about which school district their kids should or do attend. Currently, the Oswego School District serves students who live in unincorporated Kendall, Kane, and Will counties, plus the municipalities of Oswego, Aurora, Montgomery, Yorkville, Plainfield, and Joliet. Most of the towns, of course, have their own school districts. So why do kids living in Joliet find themselves going to school in a school located inside Plainfield’s municipal limits that belongs to the Oswego School District?

For the answer, we need to go back to the 1930s, when it was decreed that high school districts should be formed to include every place in Illinois. Eventually, most–but not all–of those high school districts merged with elementary districts within their bounds to form unit school districts educating children from kindergarten through the senior year of high school. But for most districts, that was some decades in the future.

About 1929, Alex Harvey posed with the district’s only bus he drove to collect Oswego High School students in the rural areas served by the school. When the photo was snapped, his only passenger was his sister, Virginia. (Little White School Museum photo)

In this area, the educators and school boards of the 1930s knew it made a lot of fiscal sense to persuade as many farmers as possible to annex to their school districts. That’s because while a farm might cover hundreds of acres, generally there was just one family of children living on it. So property tax on farmland was a winner for the districts. Lots of revenue rolled in, but few students had to be educated.

It was the same with industrial and other commercial property, but back then there was relatively little of that in Kendall County outside Plano, which had been in industrial town since it’s inception as a stop on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

So school superintendents drove all over the countryside talking up the advantages of annexing to their school districts. In general, farmers picked a district to which their families had ties, either through shopping or where their relatives lived. That resulted in school districts large in area but, until the latter years of the 20th Century, quite small in enrollment, meaning school officials made pretty shrewd bets on protecting taxpayers.

But then enter the era of fast growth, and all that rich farmland was eyed by ambitious developers. The first of the major post-World War II developers was Don L. Dise, who, with a consortium of investors, bought the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family and turned it into one of the largest unincorporated subdivisions in Illinois. All those Baby Boomer kids living in new houses on what had previously been crop and pasture land were funneled into Oswego’s schools.

As growth accelerated through the end of the century and into the new 21st Century, those 60 year-old decisions to annex as much farmland as possible began looking more and more shortsighted. But to be fair to those long-ago officials, no one, even as late as the 1960s, ever expected the municipal boundaries of Plainfield and Aurora to touch, nor those of Plainfield and Oswego, or of Yorkville and Sugar Grove as they do today.

In fact, it’s still hard for many of us today to realize just how large our once-tiny farming communities have grown. At a school board meeting somewhere around 2000, Joel Murphy, then the Oswego School District’s business manager, suggested that when fully developed, an area requires about one elementary school per square mile. That means that the Oswego School District, with 68 square miles, can eventually expect to build and maintain more than 60 elementary schools along. Yorkville, with its 85 square miles, can eventually expect to have more than 80 elementary schools.

If only we could accurately predict the future, how much easier we could make life. However, all we can do is use the best evidence we have at the time decisions are to be made, and inform it with whatever wisdom we’ve been able to acquire over the years. Even then, many of the most momentous decisions must be approved by voters who often have little in-depth knowledge of what goes into making those decisions, and who can be easily swayed by those with their own personal axes to grind. It’s an often cumbersome and expensive system resulting in many expensive false starts as decisions have to be redone again and again as they are found to be faulty. And then done again as the lessons they should have taught are promptly forgotten. But it’s the system we have to work with, which is why it’s important to make absolutely sure the people we elect have the best interests of all at the forefront, not just the interests of themselves or this or that small pressure group.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

History repeating itself?

The on-going craziness of the Oswego School District Board brings back some bad memories of the district’s travails during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the board, in their infinite wisdom, bought out the contract of one superintendent, attempted to hire one of their own members to the position (but retreated under threat of being sued by the Kendall County State’s Attorney), and wasted years with a clearly unprepared superintendent who was also given the (justified this time) boot.

I keep thinking to myself, “I’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well.” But thanks, school district voters, for electing a bunch that seem to enjoy creating controversy more than creating good educational opportunities for students.

True more now than ever: Those of us who know our history really are condemned to watching others repeat it.

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Filed under Frustration, Kendall County, Oswego