Monthly Archives: July 2012

Thinking of dams…and mills

The old Fox River is really low this year, lower than I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve lived here along its banks since Christmas 1953.

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This photo by Irvin Haines gives a good overview of the mills at Troy just north of Oswego. the sawmill and furniture factory are in the foreground, with the gristmill on the far bank of the river. For another view of the Parker Sawmill and Furniture factory, take a look above at the photo at the top of the page.  (Little White School Museum collection)

The low water is stressing the fish and the invertebrates that live in the river, but it’s creating a literal feast for the shore birds, Great Blue Herons, herring gulls, raccoons, and other animals that depend on the river for food since fish and clams alike are so much easier to catch in low water.

Walked down to the river this morning because I’ve decided I’d like to figure out what kind of timber was used to build the dam across the Fox here in the old Village of Troy. There was a gristmill on the west bank of the river here, and a sawmill, and later a furniture factory, here on the east bank where I live. The two mills were connected by the dam which provided the waterpower to run both the mills and the furniture factory.

The dam was destroyed by high water and ice early in the 20th Century and never rebuilt. It gradually deteriorated to become little more than a rapids on the river with the ruins of the two mills at either end. Today, it’s a popular spot for anglers trying to land the fat smallmouth bass that frequent this stretch of river.

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This Irvin Haines photo gives a good idea of what the old dam and the Parker Gristmill looked like. Note the sloping timbers on the downstream side. (Little White School Museum photo)

Dams like the one here at the old Village of Troy were constructed by first building a series of open timber-frames called cribs on land. They were then pulled into the river by oxen or teams of horses and staked to the bottom of the river with hand-forged iron stakes about 2″ square and three or so feet long. The Little White School Museum here in Oswego has one of the dam stakes in its collection. The timber cribs were then filled with rocks and rubble to create the dam. The downstream side of dams of that era were generally sloped and covered with thick timbers. There were no floodgates, just a timber and rock rubble wall across the river. The millraces here at the dams built by Nathaniel Rising and later significantly improved by the Parkers, ran through the basements of the two mills. Instead of the familiar overshot mill wheels, these dams used turbines, which lay horizontal instead of vertical. Turbines proved much more efficient than overshot wheels.

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One of the turbines from Gray’s Mill at Montgomery has been saved as a monument to milling on the Fox River. Note the horizontal turbine and the vertical shaft that provided power to milling machinery. (John Etheredge photo)

Gradually, the mills here at Oswego, as well as the others on the Fox River fell into disrepair. The Parker Sawmill burned to the ground. The gristmill on the west bank of the river was dismantled and it’s timbers used to expand and enhance the old Seely barn when it was turned into the Turtle Rock Inn and tearoom by the Curry family in the 1920s. When the dams were destroyed by high water or ice jams they were not repaired that that, along with the extreme pollution of the river caused by Western United Gas and Electric’s coal gassification plant in Aurora, also killed the ice harvesting industry on the river.

Today, all the remains of the dam here at Oswego is the rubble that once filled it. But at times of low water, some of the old timbers from the cribs show themselves, and that’s the case this year. With the extreme low water, they’re clearly visible here on the east bank. Now if I can just figure out how to identify what kind of trees they came from, that might make another good story…

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Oswego

A memory of twins…

I’ve lived all my life with the memory of twin boys I never knew.

Tom and John Kelly lived with my great-grandparents for about 10 years, starting when they were six years old. My grandmother told me their story when I was a child and it has stuck with me all these years.

My great-grandparents, John Peter and Amelia Minnich Lantz, were married in 1869 and had their first child, Isaac Lafayette, on March 8, 1871. Working a farm in the 19th Century on the Illinois prairie was hard work for both men and women, but my great-grandparents kept striving.

In October of the year their first child was born, the Great Chicago Fire broke out, incinerating a sizeable chunk of the city and killing hundreds. Many children were orphaned, according to the newspapers of the day.

Listening to those stories, Amelia decided maybe one of those orphan girls could be obtained to come out to the Wheatland Township prairie to live and grow up, helping with Uncle Isaac and the rest of the work a farm wife of the era did. That included cooking and caring for the family as well as the hired men, keeping the house clean, doing the laundry (in the era when water had to be pumped by hand in the farmyard, carried inside and heated on a wood-burning stove), planting and tilling the garden, harvesting and preserving the garden and orchard produce, and raising chickens for their eggs (which could be traded for staples at the grocery store) and meat.

So off to Chicago my great-grandfather John Peter went with orders to bring home an orphan girl. Always a soft touch for someone else’s problems, instead of the anticipated sturdy orphan girl to help with Amelia’s work, John Peter came home with six year-old orphan boys, John and Tom Kelly.

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The three Kelly brothers, Tom, the unknown brother, and Tom’s twin, John Kelly. The Kellys were Chicago orphans brought to live on my great-grandparents’ farm in 1872, the year after the Great Chicago Fire.

I have no idea whether they were orphaned by the Chicago Fire, nor do I know a whole lot about them, either, other than they were born in 1866 and my great-grandparents took them in and raised them. In addition, they appear to have had a brother. In an old family photo album, there is a tintype of John and Tom flanking a young man with a clear familial resemblance. The names are written underneath in pencil in my grandmother’s handwriting: “Tom Kelly…Brother…John Kelly.”

The twins lived with my great-grandparents and helped on the farm until about 1883. On Sept. 21 of that year, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Dr. Putt has gone to Nebraska; also John and Tom Kelly.”

A further note in the Aug. 28, 1907 Record reported that: “Tom and John Kelly of Hastings, Nebr., who were boys of this vicinity years ago, are visiting here for a while. They were very prosperous and now have rented their farm to enjoy some traveling.”

John Kelly died on Jan. 13, 1918 and was buried in the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church Cemetery, located in Wheatland Township, Will County. Tom lived on for 11 more years, although by the time his brother died he’d been committed to the Elgin State Hospital for the Insane. He died Feb. 25, 1929 and was buried by the side of his brother in the Scotch Church Cemetery.

There they lay today, enigmatic brothers who drifted into and out of my family’s life 140 years ago.

I often wonder what they made of the whole situation. My great-grandparents must have cared for them. Not only are there tintypes taken of them as children in my family’s albums, but also some individual portraits of them as young men. And when they reached the age of 20 in 1886, my great-grandfather gave each of them $1,200 (a tidy sum then, equal to roughly $38,000, adjusted for inflation) and a “new suit of clothes.” This was three years after they’d apparently moved to Nebraska.

So questions arise. Why did my great-grandparents pick that year to give them their money? Who was their brother and what happened to him? Who, for that matter, were their parents? What were their lives like out in Nebraska? Was there a history of mental illness in their family? And after leaving Illinois, how did they happen to come back to die and be buried here?

I will keep looking because as long as I do, I figure those two orphan boys from Chicago will continue to live a little longer, even only as memories.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel. While you’re at it, why not subscribe? Give Trena a call at 630-554-8573 and she’ll be happy to set you up.

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July 8, 2012 · 7:21 pm

Our obsolete farmscape…

While we were driving up to Wisconsin a while ago, it was hard to miss the barns on farmsteads all over northern Illinois and all the way up into the North Woods of Wisconsin gradually fading away. Northern Illinois and Wisconsin were once heavily populated with small dairy farms and each of them had at least one dairy barn. Even farms that did not dairy had a good-sized horse barn.

Back in those days, barns were the center of farming activities, because back then, all farming was diversified. Unlike today’s modern farmers, back in the day farmers grew a variety of crops, rotating which crops were raised in which fields from year to year. Along with crops, diversified farms also produced livestock fed from the grainstock grown on them. Some farmers chose to dairy, but that was an even harder life than just plain farming. Cows have to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, all year. Cows don’t take vacations. Instead, other farmers raised cattle and hogs and chickens which turned some of the grain they raised into beef, pork, eggs, and chickens for frying and roasting.

The Ebinger Barn was one of my favorites. It stood on the Ebinger farm at the intersection of Wolf’s Crossing and Douglas roads. Like so many Oswego area barns, it was torn down as development intensified.

On diversified farms, the animal waste products–manure–that collected in the barn, in the hog houses, and chicken houses, was spread on fields to return some of the minerals and other nutrients leached out of the soil by the crops. It was a circular system that was relatively efficient.

And it relied on the barn as the center of it all. Hay and straw for animal food and bedding was stored in the barn’s haymow. Horses were stabled in the barn and their tack was stored there. Hogs that were farrowing were confined there. Generally, a lean-to cattle shed housed feeder cattle, who were confined in the cattle yard with convenient access to hay and bedding straw from the haymow. In the very early years, farm equipment was stored in the barn.

But that was then. Nowadays, virtually every large rural barn you see–outside the modern metal pole buildings–are obsolete reminders of a time when diversified farming ruled. Today, livestock are produced on factory farms. Most of the farms we pass as we drive around the countryside are grain farms specializing in corn or soybeans. Granted, small dairy farms still exist in Wisconsin, but their day, too, is fast disappearing.

Since most, if not quite all, barns aren’t making money any more, farmers tend to simply let them deteriorate since it’s expensive to tear them down, and even more expensive to repair them. The few well-tended barns you see are kept that way by farmers who have anough money to spend on the project mostly for old time’s sake. No more working horse teams, no more need to store tack, no more farrowing hogs or feeding cattle for market are to be seen on modern farms. The haymows are empty, as are the cattle yards.

The well-maintained barns you see nowadays are simply nostalgic reminders of times long gone by.

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 Farming, Food, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events