Monthly Archives: June 2012

Historical restoration: It’s no job for wimps

Had I known how long the project would take, I’m not sure I would have ever gotten involved back in 1976 when a group of interested Oswego residents asked me to join a group dedicated to restoring the badly deteriorated Little White School. They were forming the Oswegoland Heritage Association and wanted me to be on the board of directors.

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church about 1901. The Oswego Grade School District bought the building in 1915 and eventually it became known to generations of students as the Little White School

Then deeply involved in helping Kendall County celebrate the nation’s Bicentennial, I told the Oswego folks that I was interested but that any real involvement would have to wait until we’d finished the county history we were working on, got the historic plaques were placing around the county installed, and wrapped up the planned Bicentennial historical blowout planned for July 4, 1976.

But get involved I eventually did, and in the end I’m glad I did. Today, the Little White School Museum is not only a treasured community resource, but it’s a thriving local landmark.


By 1970 when this photo was taken, the Little White School was looking much the worse for wear. Restoration began seven years later, thanks to a grassroots effort to save the historic old structure.

The Little White School was completed on its site at Jackson and Polk streets in Oswego in 1850. The congregation disbanded in 1913 and in 1915 the Oswego Grade School District bought the building for use as classroom space for primary students. It housed students until 1964 when it was turned into school district storage space and allowed to deteriorate. By 1976, the roof was a wreck, pools of water collecting inside after every rain and plaster was coming down off the walls.

When I give my presentation on the museum’s restoration, I make sure folks realize how much work goes into a project like this one, especially one relying mostly on volunteer labor. We started in 1977 by stabilizing the stately Greek Revival building, getting a new roof on it, and painting it. That stopped the major bleeding, but the interior was still a wreck, and we wanted to finish restoring the exterior as well. We’d already removed the wooden shingle siding installed in the 1930s before we painted it, but we wanted to restore the original wooden front porch and get the bell tower back up on the roof.

Stan, Glenn, and Don Young built the bell tower on the front lawn of the building. A crane donated by Garbe Iron Works put it up on the roof where it belonged.

That work was completed between 1978 and 1983, along with gutting and renovating the third classroom on the rear of the building into a community museum. We had the official ribbon cutting opening the museum in 1983 just in time for Oswego Township’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Then we started on the interior. After a lot of spirited and often heated discussion, it was decided to restore the main room to it’s original geometry, with its full 17-foot ceilings, small vestibule, and pulpit platform. That was the way it had looked from 1850 until a wall was built in the summer of 1930 dividing it into two classrooms. We started by removing the drop ceiling, the center dividing wall, and the front vestibule area added in 1936 to accommodate stairwells to the basement (which itself had been added in 1934). The room back to its original 34×50 foot size, we got to work on the restoration. Along the way we insulated the walls, completely replaced the electrical and plumbing system, restored the horsehair plaster, added a handicap accessible restroom and small janitor’s closet in the 1936 back hallway, and restored all the window trim (about half is original; the rest was created using original pieces for models).

Once all the interior partitions and the drop ceiling were removed restoration could finally begin.

Restoring the windows themselves was a long and complicated process. We had two pieces of the patterned glass that had been installed during an extensive renovation of the structure in 1901. It took a couple years before we figured out how to recreate the glass panes using a process called glue-chipping. It took roughly 12 hours to recreate each of the 36 panes, glaze them into the frame, and paint them, all with volunteer labor, mostly working only on Saturday mornings.

We’d found the building’s hanging lamp system still somewhat intact in the attic, so we knew where the lamps went. Counterweights up there were weighed to determine how large the lamps should be. Given the congregation’s continual financial problems, and a total lack of interior photos of the building as a church, we settled on standard kerosene store fixtures. We gradually collected antique nickel-plated brass fonts (some of which we had to have replated) and then had a tinsmith hobbyist create the shades, electrified burners, and harps for the lamps. We hung them using ¼” black gas pipe and standard hanging lamp hooks. The original lamps hung relatively close to the floor so we opted to hang them higher to accommodate taller people and brighter modern lights.

Today, the Main Room is public meeting space for several community groups, as well as the annual PrairieFest Quilt Show.

The last restoration project was the pulpit platform, which my son, Nathaniel, a master carpenter and cabinetmaker, completed in 2002. I like, in my presentation, to juxtapose the photo of Nathaniel finishing the platform with another of him at age 5 helping out as restoration got a good start. It’s a sobering contrast for folks who somehow have the idea that historic preservation is neither difficult nor time-consuming.

Over the years we received lots of financial and in-kind support from the Oswegoland Park District, and in fact, there’s no way we could have completed the project without them. Just about every community organization also participated, either with financial donations or volunteer labor. The whole project was largely overseen by my best friend, Glenn Young, a long time member of the heritage association board and a true fanatic when it comes to Greek Revival buildings.

Thanks to the park district, the museum is open seven days a week. Heritage association volunteers are responsible for maintaining and updated museum content and for operating the historical archives and research area where family historians, professional historians, community planners, and others regularly visit and take advantage of the collections, which now number more than 16,000 separate three-dimensional items, photographs, and archival papers and maps.

Regular hours are noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. The archives and research area is open Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to noon. Admission’s always free, but we eagerly accept donations to help the cause of protecting, preserving, and interpreting Oswego area history.

For more museum info, visit the museum web site at

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



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

The mysterious saga of Crazy Mary…

One of the mysteries of Oswego and Kendall County history is just who the heck Crazy Mary was.

Alcohol consumption was a problem in the early 1870s, something that eventually led to the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But as that decade began, there was no formal anti-alcohol organization for women. The Sons of Temperance had, at various times, lodges in Kendall County towns, and male-dominated temperance groups were by far the norm.

On April 5, 1866, the Kendall County Record had reported from Yorkville that: “In the early part of January, a few of our citizens seeing that intemperance was gaining too strong a hold upon those determined to break loose from its fatal business and they formed Camp No. 1, Independent Order of Temperance.”

It wasn’t until December 1873 that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed in Hillsboro, Ohio. In February of 1874, the Record reported: “An effort may soon be made here to inaugurate the Ohio temperance movement, which the newspapers style ‘the woman’s crusade against the saloons.’”

But before that, alcoholism was really running rampant in the community. And it wasn’t prevalent among men only. A woman and apparently an habitual drunkard with the first name of Mary was frequenting local saloons. On Sept. 20, 1870, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “A loud argument against whiskey was furnished last night by Crazy Mary. She made the night hideous by her drunken shouts; went to the calaboose, or rather was dragged there. Troll was called up after midnight to assist.” Troll would be Oswego saloon owner George Troll. The authorities apparently figures since Troll sold her the liquor, he could turn out in the middle of the night and help coral her.

Who was Crazy Mary? We have no idea who she was nor do we know where she lived. She makes just two brief appearances in the Oswego columns of the Record in 1870 and 1871, but they were fairly memorable appearances at that.

On April 20, 1871 Crazy Mary got two mentions by Rank in his “Oswego” column:  “Crazy Mary was in town on a day last week and soon appeared in a very demoralized condition, lying around loose,” he wrote. “People should not give or sell her more liquor than she is able to stand under, none at all would be better. Parents should also try to teach their boys to leave her alone. Such cases ought to excite pity instead of furnishing sport for boys.”

The second mention of Crazy Mary in that issue wondered, “Who is ‘Crazy Mary?’ The Aurora people are troubled by her and they say she belongs in Kendall County.”

And that’s the last we hear of her, as she slips out of Oswego and Kendall County history. A person can’t help but wonder about her, though, one of Kendall County’s many history mysteries.

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, Oswego, People in History

The greatest generation?

Tom Brokaw, in celebrating the generation that won World War II, named the young men and women who went off to fight “The Greatest Generation.” His reasoning was that these city and country kids laid down their normal lives and for four years they served their country in one of the toughest wars ever fought. Then they came back home and created the economic miracle that was the U.S. economy during the 1950s and 1960s.

And that’s true…as far as it goes. Most of the kids who marched off to war during the 1940s were drafted, but they went and did their duty in places as tough as the Arctic and the Sahara Desert. About 50 Kendall County men lost their lives while serving their country.

The vast majority of those who enlisted or who were drafted then returned home to an overjoyed populace and then were integrated back into the nation’s workforce, helped by a lavish series of G.I. Bills that provided free college educations and nearly interest-free home loans.

In comparison, the youths who fought in the Civil War suffered far greater causalities and received little in the way of rewards when they returned home. And the Civil War soldiers who left to fight the trators who formed the Confederacy suffered far more than their grandchildren who fought the Axis powers in the 1940s.

Here in Kendall County, 247 of the roughly 1,500 men and boys who served died while in service. That’s an astonishing 16 percent casualties. And that doesn’t include those who died after being either invalided out of the service or whose wounds—mental and physical—killed them long after their service.

For instance, Capt. William Fowler of Oswego, a justice of the peace and a former Sheriff of Kendall County, died in 1872 after being confined to the Elgin State Mental Hospital. Capt. Fowler recruited one of the companies of the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry at Oswego but was invalided out, Capt. William S. Bunn finishing out the war in command of the company. Fowler’s derangement was likely caused by what we would today call post traumatic stress. Wright Murphy, who enlisted in the 127th with his son, Robinson B. Murphy, came home from the war total exhausted, and died shortly after returning, broken in health. And Capt. William Hobbs of Yorkville, while being treated in the 1870s for a rifle bullet lodged in his leg, died much to the distress of his family and his community.

The 247 who died during their service caused a blight on Kendall County that lasted for years. To take so many young, vigorous men out of the equation was an irreparable loss for our county, our state, and the nation.

So while the World War II men and women may form a great generation, I’m leaning towards the Civil War generation being given the honorary title of “The Greatest Generation.” They more than earned it in blood.

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


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


When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.
Mark Twain

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