Monthly Archives: January 2013

When they used to warehouse winter and sell it in the summer

Keeping food from spoiling by keeping it cool has a long and storied history. But it wasn’t until home ice boxes became available that regular folks could afford refrigeration technology.

Those original ice boxes were pieces of furniture. Made, generally, of oak, they had a top compartment, lined with zinc, in which a block of ice would be placed. The cold was directed down into the cooling area by vents. As the ice melted, the cold water was likewise directed downwards to a collection tray at the bottom.

Ice was delivered to private homes and businesses by companies formed for the specific purpose.

But even before home ice boxes became all the rage, ice was being used to cool refrigerator cars hauling sides of beef and pork from the Armour and Swift packing plants in Chicago east to the markets in New York and other big cities.

By the 1870s, Gustavus Swift was doing very well in the meat business. Growing up on a New England farm, he started selling beef door to door on Cape Cod before opening his own string of butcher shops.

Looking for ways to expand his business, Swift carefully studied how beef got from the west, where it was raised, to the Eastern market. He found that virtually every steer destined for the East Coast market was shipped through Chicago. There, cattle were off-loaded so they could be fed and watered before completing their journey.

Swift figured the logical thing to do was to establish a meat packing facility in Chicago with the dressed beef shipped east. But there was a big problem with the plan in the 1870s: There was no reliable way to get dressed carcasses to the eastern market unspoiled year round. Granted, George Hammond, a Detroit meat packer and the namesake of Hammond, Ind., developed a crude ice-cooled railcar to ship his dressed pork east, but the design was inefficient and unreliable.

It's possible to get an idea of the size of the huge structures in which ice was stored looking at this photo taken of Esch Brothers & Rabe's ice houses in Oswego. Note the huge piles of sawdust ready to be used for insulation between layers of ice.

It’s possible to get an idea of the size of the huge structures in which ice was stored looking at this photo taken of Esch Brothers & Rabe’s ice houses in Oswego. Note the huge piles of sawdust ready to be used for insulation between layers of ice.

Swift, however, was convinced he could make money packing and shipping beef from Chicago.

He started by shipping his first consignments of dressed beef by rail during the winter, with the railcar doors left open to allow cold air to circulate among the sides of beef. But ever looking ahead, at the same time he commissioned engineer Andrew Chase to design the first successful refrigerated railcar.

Chase designed his new car with a compartment at either end to hold 500 pounds of ice and 100 pounds of salt each. Vents directed the air flow through the ice compartments and into the insulated interior as the train moved, using a series of vents. Roof vents released warmer air, which was forced to the ceiling by the colder, denser air below.

Using innovative loading of the dressed beef, the cold air could circulate, but the sides were unable to shift as the train traveled east. In addition, Swift established icing stations on the rail route so that the cars’ cooling apparatus could be kept fueled with ice.

An it took a LOT of ice. Swift & Company estimated that each carload of beef consumed 700 pounds of salt an as much ice by weight as beef shipped per carload.

During the 1880s, Swift’s company was using nearly a half-million tons of ice annually to ship his meat east—and he wasn’t the only meat packer using the technique by then.

So, along with the booming popularity of home ice boxes, the meat packers and other industries were also using lots of ice every year. Originally, ice was harvested close to where it was consumed by small local companies or, in the case of the packing industry, by the companies themselves. But that changed with the shear scale of the amounts needed. It wasn’t long before the thick ice behind every nearly every mill dam in the country was being harvested during the winter, packed between layers of sawdust in giant ice houses, and then doled out the rest of the year.

When the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road was finished in 1870, entrepreneurs saw an opportunity with the combination of rail transportation and the availability of ice behind several mill dams on the Fox River.

The first company to take advantage of the combination of available ice and the rail line was Chicago’s Caledonia Ice Company. Robert Hutchinson, the company’s owner, began work on a major ice storage facility in Yorkville in the fall of 1873. Hutchinson situated the new facility on land along the south bank of the Fox leased from the owners of the Paris Paper, Grist & Saw Mills, just upstream from the dam. Workers finished four interconnected ice houses, 20 feet high measuring a total of 100×100 feet, in time for the winter ice harvest.

Esch Brothers & Rabe's steam ice elevator at their Oswego ice houses was used to raise the ice cakes, weighing between 200 and 400 pounds, from the level of the river up into the ice houses.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s steam ice elevator at their Oswego ice houses was used to raise the ice cakes, weighing between 200 and 400 pounds, from the level of the river up into the ice houses.

As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 24, 1873: “The [ice] cakes are cut 22 inches square…the ice will be cut by ice plows, of which five will be used, each drawn by a horse. About 30 men will be employed through the winter and our to five in the summer. The company expects to ship three carloads, or 30 tons, to Chicago every night during the summer in cars fitted for the purpose.”

Sensing an opportunity, the Chicago firm of Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first icehouse at the old Village of Troy above the Parker mill dam north of Oswego in November 1874. The 60×102 foot icehouse was quickly filled with 15″ thick ice from the millpond. Ice harvested during the winter was then shipped on the rail line to markets near and far.

The venture was so successful that 13 more houses were quickly added and the railroad built a siding to make it easier to load carloads of ice. The company also built an elevator to hoist the large cakes of ice from the river up a multi-story scaffold. The cakes, weighing 200-400 pounds each, were skidded down the scaffolding to fill each house, layer by layer, each insulated with sawdust from the adjacent Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory. The company quickly became Oswego’s largest employer. In January 1879, 75 men worked on the ice harvest and in 1880, 584 railcar loads of ice were shipped from Oswego.

It was an industry, however, doomed by technology. First, increasing pollution of the Midwest’s rivers led to ice unfit for human consumption. Second, several bad years of ice harvests made the industry a chancy investment. Third, the ice houses, filled as they were with dried sawdust, were fire hazards. Two separate fires destroyed all of the Oswego ice houses; they were never rebuilt. Yorkville’s ice houses also burned, were rebuilt, and then burned again. And fourth, mechanical ice production proved more efficient and sanitary than harvesting it from lakes and streams.

Today, there is virtually no evidence remaining of the ice industry, which at one time made use of gigantic ice houses, steam powered elevators, and rail sidings and employed gangs of workers.




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Filed under Food, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Transportation

Adventures in central heating…

My wife was a subdivision kid who mostly grew up in a series of new and newer homes. Until she married me. Then she got an education in old house living that led her to admit, after we’d been married for several years, that one of her favorite sounds was the click-whoosh of a furnace automatically kicking into action on a cold winter morning.

My folks were farmers who rented land; my dad preferred cash rent to farming on shares, because everyone knew where they stood, but he did rent on shares (paying a percentage of income) from time to time.

March was the traditional time farmers either contracted for the next year on the same farm or moved to a new place. The local news columns of the era’s newspapers have lists of the farmers moving on and the going-away parties their neighbors were throwing for them. That process regulated a variety of other activities as well. My folks got married in February, for instance, so that they’d be ready to rent a farm and move to it in March.

One of their first farms was the notorious Gates Place. It was an old farmhouse, the despair of my mother. In the winter, it was so drafty that snow actually sifted into my parents’ bedroom and collected on the top quilt on their bed. The teakettle was known to freeze on the back burner of the big cookstove in the kitchen, even with the fire banked in front. All other farms they rented in later years were measured against the Gates Place.

By the time I came along, my parents and my two sisters were renting the Butcher Place. Although it was a relatively new house (at least compared to the Gates Place), it wasn’t a particularly well-built one. The front door, for instance, was so poorly made that every fall my sisters packed its cracks with rags to slow down the wind as it whistled through. But it had a nice set of buildings and it was only a mile from the one-room school we all went to.

We had a coal-fired hot air furnace there that my dad had to stoke every morning. And like The Old Man in “A Christmas Story,” he did battle with the clinkers. My dad installed an interesting attachment that consisted of a small electric motor that automatically opened and closed the furnace damper when the thermostat upstairs called for either more or less heat. We did, however, have indoor plumbing. Although the house was built without a bathroom, my parents had my grandfather add one in a corner of the basement. The hot water for the tub was supplied by a corncob-fired heater, and after I got to be six or so years old, it was my job to stoke it, a vital job on Saturday early evenings when my sisters were preparing for dates. Stoking the heater taught be an interesting lesson in physics and chemistry, when I used a pair of one of my sisters’ nylon panties as a hotpad to open the water heater’s firebox lid. I watched in amazement as the panties melted around the spiral metal of the handle. The owner of the panties was not amused. And for some reason my father seemed to have developed a sudden coughing fit that almost sounded like a guffaw as he inspected the wreckage.

When we moved into town to my great-grandparents’ house, we enjoyed a modern electric hot water heater and hot water central heating, but it was still coal-fired. In the fall, the rusty brown truck from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora (motto: “Our name is Brown, our coal is black, we treat you white”) showed up to fill the coal bin downstairs. The guys who delivered the coal were black, and in later years I wondered what they thought about the company motto.

Within a few years, my folks had a fuel oil burner installed in the furnace. No more dirty coal! No more stuffing rags into all the cracks in the coal bin walls and door to keep out the greasy black coal dust on delivery day. The big fuel oil tank was wrestled downstairs and installed in the coal bin. And then, just a year later, the gas company ran natural gas lines down our street and the furnace was switched over.

When my wife and I married, we first lived in an old two-flat apartment in DeKalb while we were going to school. It had steam heat, which, frankly, scared me to death. A hot water system can’t blow up; a steam system certainly can.

Then we moved to Oswego into a post-World War II house that had a modern hot air furnace.

It was when we bought our first home that our adventures in winter living really began. The house was next to my parents, and had been owned by my great-great grandparents. It had no central heat, instead relying on a gas heating stove in the living room. A grate above the kitchen sink could be opened to provide heat to one of the upstairs bedrooms. The others were heated by simply opening the door on the staircase to the second storey.

A younger cousin of the Matile Manse's venerable Weil-McLain boiler that that reliably goes "whump" when it kicks on these cold winter mornings.

A younger cousin of the Matile Manse’s venerable Weil-McLain boiler that reliably goes “whump” when it kicks on these cold winter mornings.

We nearly froze to death for the first couple years we lived there until I finally bought a natural gas Sears wall furnace. That, at least, knocked more of the chill off the place. And a tiny wall furnace installed in the laundry room (mostly) kept the pipes from freezing. It was after installing the wall furnace that my wife became to enamored with the “whump” sound it made turning on.

We eventually bought my folks house, thereby keeping it in the family since my great-grandparents built it in 1908. And we’ve been enjoying hot water heat from the Weil-McLain boiler my dad installed back in 1964 ever since. That puppy’s 100 percent cast iron and porcelain clad steel and ought to last forever provided the circulation pump gets a few drops of oil every year. Which it does.

Central heating really is a wonderful thing. It’s something you really can’t fully appreciate until you don’t have it. Which is why, when you get it back, that “whump” the burner makes when the furnace or boiler turns on sounds so positively inviting.


Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History

When we used to skate the river…

Headed down to The Village Grind this morning for my Wednesday coffee and giant cookie and noted there was a bit of skim ice on the river. It’s to be expected, what with the temps getting down in the lower teens at night lately. But if this year holds true to recent form, we’ll see no freezing over of the river’s channel.

Global warming? Well, yes, a little. But mostly it’s because the character of the river’s changed a lot over the last 50 years, driven mostly by the explosive development we’ve experienced out here in our formerly rural corner of northern Illinois.

Dwight Young snapped this photo of ice on the Fox River about 1911. The view is looking east from the west side of the river towards Oswego, and shows the usual, for that time, ice-choked main channel just as the annual spring freshet began.

Dwight Young snapped this photo of ice on the Fox River about 1911. The view is looking east from the west side of the river towards Oswego, and shows the usual, for that time, ice-choked main channel just as the annual spring freshet began to break the thick ice into large floating cakes.

When I was growing up along the river in the late 1950s and early 1960s, winters were cold and snowy. Temperatures of -20° F. were not uncommon and they lasted for several days at a time. If we were lucky, the autumn had been dry, and with low water in the river and those even lower temperatures, the main channel froze over regularly.

That meant ice skating heaven for us youngsters. On frigid, crisp mornings as the sun was just coming up, we’d lace on our skates and glide downstream to the U.S. Route 34 bridge across the river, a half-mile trip. It sometimes took awhile, due to rough ice and even missing ice in areas where springs welled up from the bottom of the river, or flowed into the stream from the bank. Some of those spring-fed areas were deep, as well, much deeper than the riverbed immediately surrounding them.

Or if a trip south wasn’t in the cards, we’d head north, skating from smooth patch to smooth patch, watching out for open water, and listening to the ice cracking like rifle shots as it contracted in the cold.

Even though it was -20°, a hooded sweatshirt was plenty of clothing to wear, because skating on the river was hard work and we were plenty warm, although thick gloves or mittens were a must. I preferred wearing my shooting mittens because I could open the finger flap to tie my skates or make any adjustments. And besides, mittens are a lot warmer than gloves.

Nowadays, the river never completely freezes over, although sometimes it makes a valiant try. When the channel narrows to an ice-bordered riffle, the Canada geese leave, which is fine with me. When I was a kid the only geese we saw were migrating in spring or fall. Today, there are some 60,000 of the critters living in the Fox Valley, and they’re pests who stain the ice with their droppings and create the most remarkable racket. It’s enough to create a soft spot in a person’s heart for the foxes and coyotes who are expanding their populations here.

Why doesn’t the river freeze over completely? Well, our winters are getting warmer, but that’s not really the reason.

The real reason is because the water temperature has been warmed before it ever entered the river. A half-century ago when I was skating up and down the river, its major tributaries were other streams and the springs that pepper its banks. But by the early 1970s, development in the Fox Valley was having a major impact on the amount of fresh water in the river. By 1973, only about 25 percent of the water in the river was fresh, coming from tributaries, by the time it got to Kendall County. That meant that by the time it got here, three-quarters of every gallon in the river had already been used at least once by folks upstream. The numerous municipal wastewater treatment plants, along with private and industrial wastewater outflows had replaced natural streams and wetland seepage as the river’s primary tributaries. And every use of the river’s water warmed it up just a bit until by the time it reached its middle course, the water was too warm to solidly freeze.

The good news, I suppose, is that with infrequent freezing, the river has also ceased turning into an unruly stream with ice dams and jams that flood low-lying areas. In the 1800s, spring freshets were common, caused when the ice suddenly gave way during spring rains or a particularly fast warm-up. When that happened, such as the great Freshet of 1857, bridges and dams were attacked by the fast-flowing water and the thick ice it carried downstream. In 1857, virtually every bridge and dam from Elgin south to Ottawa was either destroyed outright or badly damaged.

Not today. Today, we wish mightily for cold enough weather to persuade the Canada geese to move to another place or at least a nice deep covering of snow or ice that makes it hard for them to find enough food to give them a helping hand out of the area. But lately, that’s mostly a forlorn hope. And certainly skating down to the Oswego bridge or north all the way to Boulder Hill are similar forlorn hopes.

In some ways, these modern times are definitely not all they’re cracked up to be.


Filed under Fox River, Frustration, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

The lost world of diversified farming…

Came across an interesting snapshot the other day. There we all are, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, sisters, ready for a winter hayride out on the farm.

A winter country hayride about 1950 at the Matile farm in Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois. The author is the well-bundled little guy standing at far left between my Aunt Marie and my cousin Wilma.

A winter country hayride about 1950 at the Matile farm in Wheatland Township, Will County, Illinois. The author is the well-bundled little guy standing at far left between my Aunt Marie and my cousin Wilma.

Every winter, my dad put the hayrack on the bobsled running gear so he could use it to haul feed to the cattle. But it worked just as well to haul a bunch of merrymakers who were just itching for an old-fashioned hayride.

By the time I came along, my dad was ready to sell his last working team, replacing them with a Case and an Allis-Chalmers WD tractor. So during those snowy winters of the early 1950s, the invitations would go out and on the appointed day, a crowd would show up to enjoy the ride. Off we’d go, riding “around the block” for four miles, with the older kids having a riot riding on sleds attached to the rear of the bob with ropes.

Afterwards, we’d enjoy hot chocolate and the adults would sip steaming coffee while we all warmed up before everyone left to go home.

I think about those days a lot. It was a time that is now gone forever, except in a very few communities, such as in Amish neighborhoods. Today, farmers specialize; they either grow grain or livestock. Grain farmers manage thousands of acres these days, and livestock farmers raise huge numbers of pigs, chickens, and cattle.

But back in the days when we enjoyed those bobsled rides, my dad made a fairly decent living on 80 acres of good ground. He often rented another 80 or so from one of the elderly neighborhood widows. He easily handled growing the rotating the crops himself.

For equipment, as noted above, he had two tractors, both used. He had a three-bottom plow, a disc, and a steel drag (called a harrow in some parts of the country) to work up the ground in the spring; a mowing machine to cut the hay fields; a side-delivery rake to start processing the hay (no hay baler; we hired that done); a four-row cultivator that was an attachment for the Allis-Chalmers; a John Deere corn planter; an Allis-Chalmers combine to harvest the small grains (oats, soybeans); and an Allis-Chalmers corn husker attachment for the tractor.

My Dad’s farm produced corn, soybeans, oats, and hay crops including alfalfa and clover. Those crops were rotated annually so as to not exhaust the soil. In those days, little fertilizer was used, other than manure cleaned out of the cattle yard and the chicken house.

My Dad not only sold the corn and oats he grew, but he also used them for livestock food. Corn and oats ground into coarse flour at the elevator could be fed directly or mixed with raw milk from our cow to create the famed “slop” that the hogs seemed to love so much. After the corn crop was harvested in the fall, Dad would turn his feeder cattle out into the fields to feed on the corn the mechanical picker didn’t get. And after the oats were harvested, the straw was baled and stored for livestock bedding.

Some of the grain we grew went to fatten a steer and a pig every year, which were butchered, cut up, and frozen down in the huge International Harvester deepfreeze.

Household scraps helped feed my Mom’s chickens and their eggs were traded for groceries in town. And the chickens themselves provided some pretty good Sunday dinners.

It all fit neatly together, one thing leading to another, with the goal of reducing waste and maximizing productivity and making money. And it’s as obsolete as the Model T or a steam-powered threshing machine.

Even so, those were good and prosperous years for the nation’s farmers. And when you look at how those diversified farms actually worked, it was a time when farming was lighter on the land without today’s heavy reliance on chemicals, when the fences that kept livestock in grain fields harbored pheasants and grouse, and when those belts of trees planted during the soil conservation projects of the Great Depression to break the prairie winds were maturing. The era provided the armature on which today’s agribusiness grew. And like so much of modern life, it’s arguable whether newer and bigger is really better.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Stagecoaching’s star vehicle…

An honest look at the Concord Coaches that were the mainstay of stagecoach service in Illinois and the rest of the Old Northwest from the 1830s through the 1850s, would make it difficult to envision a more impractical vehicle to negotiate the region’s primitive roads.

Although advertised as the epitome of the coachbuilder’s art, Concord Coaches were top-heavy, narrow, and by most accounts of those who rode in them, some of the most uncomfortable traveling vehicles ever devised. Despite these seemingly fatal disadvantages, the coaches soldiered on for some 75 years after their development, basically unchanged in appearance.

I’ve always figured their remarkable longevity was due to their sturdy construction that enabled them to withstand years of abuse. Also, while their high ground clearance resulted in a tendency to overturn over with dismaying frequency, it also allowed them to ford shallow streams without soaking their passengers and clear the obstacles that dotted the nation’s primitive road system in the 1830s and 1840s.

Concord Coaches were built by the Abbot-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and weighed about 2,000 lbs. each. While other coachbuilders—including those located in and around Troy, New York—soon copied Abbot-Downing’s design, Concord Coaches remained stagecoaching’s top-of-the-line vehicles until the era finally ended.

Lewis Downing got his start in the transportation business as a wheelwright. An advertisement in the New Hampshire Patriot on Aug. 3, 1813, announced that: “Lewis Downing respectfully informs the inhabitants of Concord and its vicinity that he has commenced the wheelwright business in Concord where he flatters himself that by strict and constant attention to business and the correct and faithful manner in which his work will be executed to merit the patronage of the public. N.B. Carriages of all kinds repaired on the shortest notice.”

By 1816, Downing’s business had turned into one of Concord’s major businesses, one that kept on growing along with the region’s network of roads. Thanks to that confluence, by 1825, Concord had become a passenger transport center for New England.

Like the businessman he was, Downing observed there was a need for an improved coach to carry passengers on the routes that were expanding throughout the area. In conversation with his father-in-law, Jonathan Wheelock, who was a stage driver on the Concord–Boston route, Downing’s ideas on coach design began to take shape. With a concept in hand, he turned to wagonwright J. Stephen Abbot, who apparently became intrigued with Downing’s plans. The two quickly decided to build three coaches to test the market. The first advertisement announcing their new Concord Coach appeared in June of 1827.

The project proved an almost immediate success, spurring Abbot to permanently relocate to New Hampshire. The two started their formal partnership Jan. 1, 1828, calling the new firm Abbot and Downing. For the next two decades the partners built Concord Coaches until the pair split, apparently amicably, in 1848. Downing retired in 1865, leaving his son, Lewis Downing Jr., in charge of the firm. The younger Downing merged his company with the J.S. and E.A. Abbot Company to form the Abbot-Downing Company, and the new firm soon became the most powerful in the industry. Coaches, wagons, and carriages were built under the company’s nameplate until 1919.

This highly detailed model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach includes all the major details, including the vehicles' top-heavy tendencies when loaded with passengers and their luggage.

This highly detailed model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach includes all the major details, including the vehicles’ top-heavy tendencies when loaded with passengers and their luggage.

As originally designed by Downing, the flat-topped oval-shaped coach bodies rested on strong three inch thick, six inch wide rawhide straps called thorough-braces in lieu of springs. The double braces created a loose hammock-like suspension system easy on horses but hard on passengers.

In his humor classic Roughing It, Mark Twain described the Concord Coach as “a cradle on wheels,” rocking on its thorough braces instead of bouncing on steel springs. Others were far less forgiving about the quality of the ride.

Coach wheels were made of well-seasoned white oak. Coach bodies were heavily and solidly built of hardwood strengthened with iron bands—which also tended to accentuate the vehicles’ awkward top-heaviness.

The coach body had one door on each side featuring a glass window. The doors were each flanked by two open windows. Adjustable leather or canvas curtains on the windows slightly impeded the passage of, but did not keep out, the dust and wind, let alone snow or rain. When the passengers closed the curtains, they made the interior pitch-dark and airless. When open, the wind, Illinois’ numerous insects, and other indignities annoyed the passengers.

Undercarriages were typically painted bright yellow, but coach body colors were the purchaser’s choice. Typical colors were scarlet red and green. Reportedly, those were the colors the largest Midwestern stage company, Frink, Walker & Company, chose for their coaches.

Each coach body included a triangle-shaped leather boot at the rear that covered a small cargo space on the exterior plus another cargo area on the flat coach roof. The driver’s seat was unprotected and only about eight inches lower than the roof.

Coach interiors typically measured slightly over four feet in width and about four and a half feet in height. The three seats—front and rear facing bench seats and a center backless bench seat—were upholstered and could seat nine to 12 passengers, depending on size and weight. An additional passenger could sit beside the driver. Unlike coaches seen in Western films, Illinois coaches did not carry armed guards; the driver was the only company employee aboard.

Baggage and the all-important mail portmanteau, which could weigh up to 200 lbs. all by itself, were loaded into the boot and strapped to the top of the coach, creating a further imbalance.

Coach horses were of medium weight, probably averaging about 1,200 lbs. According to several sources, local farmers made a fair profit selling horses to the stage lines. Frink & Walker apparently raised their own horses on the land they owned all across their network of stage lines, including here in Kendall County.

Sitting as high off the ground as they did, Concord Coaches were well-suited for traveling over the stumps and large rocks that dotted Illinois’ early roads. Generally, large trees were cut to about 14 inches above the ground, so vehicles had to have plenty of clearance to negotiate the region’s roads.

But the combination of a high center of gravity caused by its tall aspect and heavy construction, aggravated by the addition of up to a dozen passengers (some usually adding to the instability by sitting atop the coach), their belongings, a few hundred pounds of mail, assorted freight, and the driver, made stagecoaches prone to overturning. No one was immune from the experience, from Indian chiefs to famed politicians.

After the Black Hawk War of 1832, the U.S. Government sent the Sauk warrior Black Hawk on a tour of eastern cities to impress upon him how large, powerful, and full of people the United States were. Black Hawk’s coach overturned. As the old warrior recalled the incident in his memoirs: “We had traveled but a short distance [from Wheeling, West Virginia] before our carriage turned over, from which I received a slight injury, and the soldier had one arm broken. I was sorry for this accident, as the young man had behaved well.”

Similarly, the great Henry Clay was involved in a stagecoach accident, also in Pennsylvania, near Uniontown. The coach turned over, the driver was thrown clear, but broke his nose when he landed. Clay climbed from the coach, brushed himself off, and quipped that due to the accident, the Clay of Kentucky had been mixed with the limestone of Pennsylvania.

So, imperfect as they were, Concord Coaches became the most recognizable form of mass transit in the years before rail lines snaked west of Chicago. And, in fact, the coaches continued to provide faithful, if uncomfortable, service, west of the Mississippi right up to the 20th Century. It was an enviable record in anyone’s book.

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Filed under Illinois History, People in History, Transportation

Still kicking…

This, as the poet said, has been my winter of discontent.

First, I’m minding my own business trying to recover from heart valve replacement surgery and somehow 1.6 liters of fluid finds its way into my right lung. So the docs run a tap in and drain it. Overheard during the procedure: “I think we need another bottle.” Who knew one flabby little lung could hold almost two liters of anything?

Then, my sister Eileen loses her epic battle with multiple myeloma and we go to the wonderful send-off planned by her daughters and most of us get sick with either flu or cold. Me, I get a cold AND pneumonia, so it’s off to the hospital for a day and a half getting pumped up with antibiotics and steroids and breathing treatments with stuff that made me feel like I could get up and jog home without benefit of auto. Which, just let me say, is not a normal feeling for me. I don’t jog. I don’t even think about jogging. That was some stuff, let me tell you.

So now I’m home, finally just finished with all the hands-full of pills I’ve been taking and I manage to crack a filling while eating popcorn during an afternoon showing of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

None of this has been fatal for me, which is good, I guess since I’ve got a lot to do this month here at home and down at the museum. Which leads me to my final conclusion that it’s always something…

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Mailing it in…

So I’m working up a presentation for the good folks down at the Chapel on the Green down in Yorkville, and got enmeshed once again in the era when the mails were carried by stagecoach.

Here in northern Illinois, that started on Jan. 1, 1834, when a young lawyer named John D. Caton drove the first Concord coach southwest from Chicago to Ottawa, following the old Indian trace called the High Prairie Trail.

The coach, and the mail contract that made its journey possible, were both owned by a young, politically-connected physician named John Taylor Temple. Temple used his political connections to obtain the contract to carry the mail from Chicago to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Ottawa. Of course at that season of the year, the mails were carried much farther overland south down the bank of the Illinois River to Peoria.

This is a classic example of an Abbott-Downing Concord Coach manufactured in Condord, N.H. This example, from the Owl's Head Transportation Museum, Maine, was photographed by Bob at the Linwood Street blog. It's typical of the coaches that served communities all over northern Illinois in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.

This is a classic example of an Abbott-Downing Concord Coach manufactured in Concord, N.H. This example, from the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, Maine, was photographed by Bob at the Linwood Street blog. It’s typical of the stagecoaches that served communities all over northern Illinois in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s.

Anyway, the concept of the mail itself is what has fascinated me for some time now. During that era, the mail was defined as matter carried inside the official portmanteau, which itself was a bulky carpet bag sort of thing with a lock that could only be opened by each postmaster’s special key. In fact, during that era, the key pretty much defined the postmaster himself—without the key, he wasn’t a postmaster.

That sounds sort of odd and iffy, but it actually kept the village of Montgomery from getting their own post office in the 1830s. Using subterfuge, officials in neighboring Aurora managed to somehow purloin the official key that was meant for Montgomery. With no key, the official portmanteau could not be opened, and as a result, Aurora got its post office in March of 1837. Montgomery wasn’t given a second chance at a post office until 1848.

In 1908, Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora.” One of the events at the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”

So the official mail was matter carried inside the portmanteau from post office to post office. When the mail coach arrived, the portmanteau was carried inside the post office, the mail inside was sorted, with local matter separated and other matter added, the lock secured, the portmanteau loaded aboard the coach, and the driver, whipping up the team, rushed out of town to the next stop.

In between arriving and leaving, passengers got to stretch their legs and maybe even have a bite to eat, horses were changed, and local folks exchanged news and gossip with the driver. And, of course, there was the thrill of hearing the actual news for the first time. Newspapers were carried free from town to town so that news was spread up and down the stage routes. Local papers of the day had special columns for news from exchange papers, spreading news of interest. This was considered a vital governmental service, and the government considered it vital as well. The feeling at the time was that an informed electorate was an absolute necessity for democracy to work.

One of the interesting things about the stagecoach era for me is how thoroughly integrated federal governmental financing was embedded in the process. Without a mail contract, stage companies literally couldn’t exist since somewhere upwards of 30 percent of their revenue was provided in that way. And in fact, in the early 1840s, when a stage company lost their mail contract to a competitor, they were required to sell their rolling stock and livestock to the successful contractor.

Eventually, a web of roads spread west of Chicago, heading southwest to Ottawa and Peru at the head of steamboat navigation on the Illinois River and northwest to busy, growing Galena on the Mississippi. It was a vibrant, although relatively brief. Rails began to be pushed west of Chicago in the late 1840s, and by the 1850s stages were only operating on short routes connecting post offices not on a handy rail line. But while the stages ran, it was an exciting time in northern Illinois.



Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Transportation