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

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