Monthly Archives: August 2012

Steamboating on the Mighty Fox…

The Fox River of Illinois is a beautiful stream. It rises in southern Wisconsin northwest of Milwaukee and then flows generally south for 202 miles to its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa. The Fox River’s watershed drains some of the richest agricultural land in the world, and that made it a prime area for the pioneers who moved west in the 1830s looking for land to farm.

But the Fox was never known as a reliably navigable stream. While it drained lots of prairie wetlands, in most summers, even during the colonial era in Illinois, the Fox was so low as to prohibit its navigation, even by canoes.

In a letter back to headquarters in Canada on Jan. 2, 1699, Catholic missionary Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme described part of his journey from Quebec to the Mississippi River to establish a mission to the Illinois Indians in which the party he was with had hoped to use the Fox—then known by it’s Algonquian name Pestekouy, meaning buffalo—as a shortcut to the Illinois:

On the eleventh of October we started early in the morning from the fort of Milouakik, and at an early hour we reached Kipikaoui, about eight leagues farther. Here we separated from Monsieur de Vincenne’s party, which continued on its route to the Miamis. Some savages had led us to hope that we could ascend this river [the Root River] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [Fox River], which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river [Root] which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either, and that instead of shortening our journey we should have been obliged to go over forty leagues of portage roads; this compelled us to take the route by way of Chikagou which is distant about twenty leagues.

Not that the Root-Fox portage was never used, however. It is prominent on maps drawn of the southern Lake Michigan region in the early 1800s, suggesting that it was used, at least during periods of high water. But any suggestion that the Fox was a regular route for either Native American canoes or those of the fur trade voyageurs is not substantiated by the historical record. Had the route been at all viable, it would have been much more favorable than the Chicago portage, which could be as long as 60 miles, depending on waterflow conditions.

The settlers, instead of using the Fox as a transportation route, made use of its fall in order to grind their grain and saw the wood they needed for homes, farm buildings, stores, and other purposes. As a result, dams dotted the river early on to create the waterpower the new settlements needed. So even if our pioneer ancestors had wished to use the Fox as a transportation route, they’d have been disappointed. And except for one example, the navigation of the Fox from its upper waters to the Illinois River never came to pass. But, as happens quite often, there’s that one remarkable exception.

By 1840, the Fox had been dammed at many locations, but that didn’t stop an adventurer living in the riverfront community of St. Charles, Ill. from dreaming of taking a steamboat trip down it. And so we come to the story of the steamer St. Charles Experiment and its builder and captain, Joseph Keiser. Here, I’m going to let the editor of the Illinois Free Trader at Ottawa take up the story, as told in the paper’s Oct. 2, 1840 edition:

Fox River Navigation — Arrival
of the Bark “St. Charles Experiment.”

On Tuesday evening last Mr. Joseph P. Keiser and lady arrived at our steamboat landing in a beautiful bark, six tons burthen, from St. Charles, Kane county, Illinois. Mr. K. left St. Charles on the 18th inst.. amid the smiling countenances of a large collection of citizens of that place who had assembled to witness his departure on this hazardous and novel enterprise. He descended Fox River without much trouble, notwithstanding the low stage of the water at present and the dam at Green’s mill, &c, might be considered by some as presenting insurmountable barriers.

The “Experiment,” we believe, is the first craft that has ever descended this beautiful stream this distance, save, perhaps, the frail bark of the Indian in days gone by. The distance from St. Charles to this place is about eighty miles by water, passing through a section of country which, in point of fertility, is not surpassed by any tract of country in the Union, and to the enterprise and exertions of Mr. Keiser belongs the honor of first undertaking and accomplishing the navigation of Fox River, which winds its meandering course through it.

The object of Mr. K’s enterprise is somewhat of a novelty. His design is to travel by water to the river St. Lawrence, in Lower Canada, by the following route: From St. Charles down Fox River to its mouth at Ottawa; thence down the Illinois to its mouth; thence down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Ohio; thence up the Ohio river to Beaver, Pa.; thence by way of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Canal to Akron, O.; thence on the Ohio Canal to Cleveland; thence on lake Erie to Buffalo, N.Y.; thence on the Welland Canal to Lake Ontario; and thence to the river St. Lawrence.

This route will doubtless prove arduous to our friend, but he is in fine spirits and considers his worst difficulties ended by having successfully descended Fox River at the present stage of the water. He has our best wishes for a safe and pleasant journey, hoping that he may be able to inform us of his safe arrival at his distant destination.

So down the Fox went Mr. and Mrs. Keiseer, somehow getting the Experiment across the low dams, probably close to a dozen, eventually getting to Ottawa with their “bark.” Of course, in this case the Experiment was not your usual bark—a three-masted sailing vessel with square sails on the fore and main masts and fore-and-aft sails on the mizzen. In this case, “bark” was used in more the generic sense of a vessel of any type, and which was in fairly common usage in the 19th Century.

But technical discussions aside, it sure would be interesting to find out whatever happened to Mr. and Mrs. Keiser on their proposed trip to the St. Lawrence River from St. Charles, Illinois. Did they make it? Did they quit part way through? And what did the Experiment look like, anyway?

So far, I’ve not had the opportunity to check out any of the newspapers farther along the Experiment’s route on the Illinois, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to scratch this historical itch. In the meantime, could all you history-obsessed folks out in Internet Land keep an eye out for the St. Charles Experiment for me?


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Filed under Fox River, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff

Whistling past the historical graveyard…

From the Oct. 31, 1934 Kendall County Record, published at Yorkville, Ill.:

Farm and homeowners in Kendall county need have little fear that their elm trees are in any immediate danger of being killed by the Dutch elm disease in spite of apparently prevalent reports to the contrary, says Farm Adviser W.P. Miller.

At present the tree disease is confined entirely to an area about 25 or 30 miles wide around the port of New York with the greatest concentration of infected elms in the vicinity of East Orange, N.J.

The only known means of control is the destruction of the diseased trees, it is explained.

Ah yes, no need for fear about Dutch Elm Disease.

From the June 22, 1961 Oswego Ledger:

The dead and dying elm trees in the Village of Oswego number in the hundreds at the present time. It is conceivable that in another few years there will be no elms at all growing in the area.

It is hoped that all residents who presently have dead or dying elms are planning on planting some new trees to take the place of those that must be removed.

Yep, no need for fear about Dutch Elm Disease. Sort of reminds a person of global warming in a way, doesn’t it?

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Filed under Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

It’s a good old house…

Houses don’t have to be 200 years old to have some historical value. In fact, it’s interesting to look at and appreciate many of the architectural styles that were popular during a variety of historical periods here in the good old U.S. of A.

Sure, the Federal Style houses out East are interesting, but so are the Federal Style buildings that the early settlers built here in the Midwest. The two versions aren’t exactly the same, since certain modifications had to be made when building so far from what passed for civilization in those days. A little Later, Greek Revival Style homes and other buildings succeeded the older Federal Style buildings, followed by Italianate, Second Empire, and other styles.

By the late years of the 19th Century, the Queen Anne Style had become extremely popular. From the sprawling summer “cottages” of the Robber Barons built up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, to smaller one- and two-storey cottages, the style included a variety of elements that our Edwardian ancestors found pleasing. I’m lucky enough to live in a fine example of late Queen Anne architecture that celebrated its 100th birthday in 2008.

The Lantz House as it looked in the spring of 2009, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

In 1907, deciding to retire from their Wheatland Township farm, John Peter and Amelia (Minnich) Lantz retained Amelia’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build a new home for them on a parcel located along what is today North Adams Street, between the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy tracks and the Fox River, in Oswego.

Haines was a skilled contractor who, either alone or in concert with his sometime-partners Lou C. Young and Ed Inman, built several Oswego homes, including the stately Clinton House, now the McKeown-Dunn Funeral Home on Madison Street, as well as farm buildings and many homes in other nearby communities.

The Lantzes chose a one and a half storey Queen Anne design of about 1,300 square feet. It featured a full basement with poured concrete walls and ornamental concrete blocks (made on-site) atop the poured portion; a steeply pitched “lifetime” asbestos-cement shingle roof (to prevent fires from the steam locomotives of the era that passed less than 100 feet away); a bay window in the dining room with a leaded glass top panel that matched the one atop the picture window in the living room; an open front porch; and an enclosed south porch suitable for starting bedding plants in the spring.

In 1916, someone snapped this four generation photo in front of the Lantz house. Pictured are John Peter Lantz, who had the house built in 1908; his son, Isaac Lantz; Isaac’s granddaughter, Ila Eichelberger Dado; and Isaac’s granddaughter, Margaret Lantz Eichelberger. The exterior of the house hasn’t changed much since that date.

The design was a clever optical illusion. The wider clapboard siding on the first storey and narrower siding on the second, in combination with the steep gable roof, drew the eye up, making the house seem much larger than it actually was. Fluted corner columns, front gable brackets, and shingled roof peaks completed the major exterior design elements.

Haines must have liked the design, since he built at least two other identical homes, one in Montgomery, which still stands, and the other a farmhouse on Woolley Road that was demolished to make room for the new Oswego Fire Station.

Notable features inside included an open staircase and entry hall that could be closed off in winter; main floor rooms consisting of the kitchen, indoor bathroom, a back parlor, dining room, front parlor or living room. Upstairs, three bedrooms, all with closets, finished the design. Major interior features were yellow pine woodwork throughout, built-in cabinets in the dining room and back parlor, gas lights powered by an acetylene generator in the basement, plastered walls throughout, and a coal-fired hot water furnace.

Outside, the old house on the property was moved to the south to make way for the new home and turned into a town barn with stalls for the family cow and horse and a chicken house. The barn was joined by a small smokehouse, an outhouse, and a hand-dug well lined with native limestone.

The couple moved in on Oct. 2, 1908.

Fearing the house was simply too grand for them, the Lantzes refused to use the bathroom or the main floor kitchen, instead doing their cooking and eating in the basement and using the outhouse in lieu of the bathroom until their late 80s.

The Lantzes lived in the house until their deaths, his in 1942 and hers in 1943, after which ownership passed to their daughter and her husband, William and Mabel (Lantz) Holzhueter—my grandparents, and then to my parents, who bought it in 1954. My wife and I bought the house from my mother in 1976, the fourth generation to own it.

Over the years, the home’s exterior has remained largely unchanged. The Lantzes added a small back entry mostly for storage of garden tools soon after the house was built. The exterior color was changed in the from the tri-color popular when it was new to white, a color retained ever since. My uncle added one-car garage between the house and barn in 1943.

Inside, electricity was added in the 1930s using the old gas piping for wiring conduits. The yellow pine woodwork still gleams throughout, although my mother removed cornices above the doors, the plate rail in the dining room, the picture rails in the dining and living rooms and the old back parlor, and the top baseboard cap in 1954 to give the house a more modern look. The kitchen has been remodeled several times, but the built-in cabinets in the dining room and back parlor and the open staircase remain unchanged, as do the cast iron radiators in each room. And after 104 years, that “lifetime” roof is still soldering on.

Today, the house still remains a classic example of Oswego’s Queen Anne architecture and the architectural contributions of contractor Irvin Haines.

Update: It just occurred to me that if you check out the photo at the top of the blog’s home page, you’ll see my barn as it was when it was a house, a few years before Irvin Haines built my great-grandparents’ home. The house, later our barn, is at the far left in the lower foreground. Nowadays, the neighborhood’s look has changed considerably. The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory is long gone, replaced by today’s Troy Park, trees have replaced the denuded riverbanks, and homes now dot North Adams Street, which is no longer the meandering muddy track it was when Irvin Haines (yep; him again) took the photo about 1895.

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