Monthly Archives: February 2013

By the light of the Full Snow Moon…

Sitting up here in my nice, warm office and looking out the window, it’s difficult to see very far. Heavy snow is falling, being blown around by a stiff 20 mph wind out of the east-northeast.

Weather’s not fit for man nor beast, as W.C. Fields would put it. And looking at today’s weather, it’s easy to understand why some Native Americans named the February full moon–which made its appearance last night–the Full Snow Moon. Thinking about the lives they lived, it’s also pretty clear why others of the continent’s first inhabitants called it the Full Hunger Moon.

As the last glaciers retreated and the climate warmed to temperature ranges more familiar to us modern Fox Valley residents, the result was a relatively rapid cultural evolution that turned Ice Age hunter-gatherers into the village-dwellers of the Hopewell and Mississippian cultural traditions. By the time the first Europeans arrived in north central Illinois, those cultural traditions, too, had been eclipsed by much looser tribal structures based around clans and families.

By the Colonial era, agriculture still provided a major percentage of the diet of the native people living in the Fox Valley. Corn, beans, and squash were grown and then dried for use during the winter months. Also dried were fish and meat from deer and other game animals. Fortunately, northern Illinois was favorable for farming because those who lived here before Europeans arrived needed all the help they could get to make it through one of our winters.

The harvest was vital for Native Americans, just as it is for modern farmers. Corn was picked, husked, and stored on the cob in large baskets to dry for later use. Shelled corn was soaked in lye made from wood ashes to make hominy. Or it was ground for unleavened cornbread, or boiled with water and dried berries or fruit to make an Indian pudding. Beans were dried, as was squash, which could be served boiled with dried fish or meat.

In late autumn, Native Americans in northern Illinois broke up their permanent villages and moved to family winter camps. Seeing the bare lodge frames after inhabitants left for the winter, many white settlers figured Native American residents had abandoned their homes. They hadn't.

In late autumn, Native Americans in northern Illinois broke up their permanent villages and moved to family winter camps. Seeing the bare lodge frames after inhabitants left for the winter, many white settlers figured Native American residents had abandoned their homes. They hadn’t.

Every fall, local tribes left their permanent villages to hunt buffalo on the prairies—sometimes as distant as across the Mississippi River. Buffalo killed during the hunt were butchered where they fell. Hides and meat were taken back to the temporary hunting camps where both were dried for transport back to permanent villages. Not only did drying preserve the meat for future use (as long as it was kept dry), but by removing the water, its weight was significantly reduced making it much easier to transport in those days before Europeans introduced horses.

Once back at their permanent villages, Native Americans pounded thoroughly dried buffalo meat, elk, or venison into powder in stone mortars. Bison tallow or bone marrow (or, farther north, bear fat) was added to the dried meat powder in a 50/50 ratio, along with dried fruit to make pemmican. It could be stored in tightly woven baskets or bark or pottery containers for long periods, providing an ideal energy food with its mix of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and Vitamin C.

Native American lodges in northern Illinois consisted of a frame of bent saplings covered with mats made of either elm bark or woven mats. Besides loaf-shaped lodges, local Native People also built lodges with peaked roofs.

Native American lodges in northern Illinois consisted of a frame of bent saplings covered with mats made of either elm bark or woven mats. Besides loaf-shaped lodges, local Native People also built lodges with peaked roofs.

Just before winter hit, tribal groups broke up into smaller family groups and moved to small hunting camps, a tradition that continued right up until American settlers arrived. For instance, most of the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal groups here in the Fox Valley broke up into family groups that wintered along Aux Sable Creek and the Illinois River. By scattering, the groups were less likely to hunt out the areas they camped in than a much larger group would.

As winter really got under way, the dried meat and vegetables were supplemented with game hunted by the menfolk as the women literally kept the home fires burning. In addition, fur-bearing animals were trapped during the winter; their thick winter pelts prized for their additional warmth. After the fur trade era began, trapping became a survival activity of another kind. Without furs to trade, Indian families couldn’t purchase the brass kettles, wool blankets, glass beads, iron axes and hatchets they had come to rely upon.

January’s Full Wolf Moon rose to the howls of prairie wolves as families gathered around the fires in their lodges and exchanged stories and legends, giving way to February’s Full Snow Moon, so named because February is often the month with the deepest snowfall. But by the end of February, accumulated stocks of dried food were often running short, accounting for the alternative name for the February full moon, the Full Hunger Moon.

As March began, winter’s end was in sight, as was the coming of true spring, marking the end of yet another annual cycle with the Great Wheel ready to go round again.

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Filed under Farming, Fox River, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Kendall County

Wanna trade sandwiches? Didn’t think so…

I had a traumatic problem growing up, which I am sure had some sort of negative impact on my life: No one ever wanted to trade sandwiches with me at lunch during my years in school.

Now you could fairly say that was because my sandwiches were seen as somewhat odd. Some folks even found them disgusting for some reason. But just because a person really likes sardine sandwiches with mustard, a really good liver sausage sandwich, or some succulent pickled heart or tongue shouldn’t lead to being rebuffed for 12 straight years–no kindergarten when I was five, or I am sure the humiliation would have begun earlier.

My grandfather's father stirs the kettle while my grandmother gets ready to add a succulent hog's head to a simmering batch of homemade head cheese about 1915. I bet it tasted good, too.

My grandfather’s father stirs the kettle while my grandmother gets ready to add a succulent hog’s head to a simmering batch of homemade head cheese about 1915. I bet it tasted good, too.

I blame my family for introducing me to such wonderful things as head cheese. My grandparents were both of German descent, my grandmother from Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors and my grandfather from Germany, where both of his parents were born. My grandmother was a farm girl, but she married a city guy and they lived in Aurora for the first several years of their married life. But in those days, city homes were a lot like miniature farms. They usually had a carriage house/stable for a driving horse and/or the cow, a small smokehouse, and even a few chickens. And the foods city folks ate weren’t a whole lot different than the kinds of food country folks ate.

Head cheese, for instance, was something my grandparents (and great-grandparents, for that matter) made and ate in both town and country. It was, after all, the original homemade lunch meat. And the best of it–the homemade kind–is truly delicious. Honest.

But so are the other foods I was introduced to as a youngster. Pickled tong and pickled heart, for instance, make great sandwiches. Almost everyone will disagree with that, but, really, it seems to be more the idea of eating tongue and hear than the taste. As a female friend once explained to me: “I’m not going to make it and I’m not going to eat it if the first sentence of the recipe says you’re supposed to skin a beef tongue,” This from a woman who loved liver and onions.

What with my feelings toward such delicacies, it wasn’t much of a stretch to enjoy haggis when we traveled to Scotland back in the 1990s. Our Scottish hosts figured the pansy Americans would quail at the sight, much less enjoy a heaping plate of haggis, neeps, and tatties, but we ate and enjoyed. And the beer was to die for, too.

Anyway, here I sit an ancient person whose get up and go, as Pete Seeger put it, has got up and went, but who still likes a pickled heart or tongue sandwich, or maybe one of homemade head cheese, or how about a nice Oscar Meyer liver sausage and pepperjack sandwich with some fresh dill slices? Those kids who refused to trade their mundane bologna and cheese or PBJ sandwiches for a taste of heaven knew not what they were missing.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Nostalgia, People in History

The best fish sandwich in the area…

Updated Feb. 27…

So having nothing better to do, I’ve decided to try the fish sandwiches at every place in the area that offers them, and then report my findings. Which are not at all scientific, but still, I feel this is my bounden duty.

So far, we’ve tried the sandwiches at Burger King, McDonald’s (naturally), Culver’s, Elmer’s in Montgomery, White Castle, and the seasonal sandwiches at Wendy’s and Arby’s.

Best fish sandwich tested so far is Culver's. You can't lose with either their regular cod sandwich or their excellent seasonal walleye sandwich. Eat up!

Best fish sandwich tested so far is Culver’s. You can’t lose with either their regular cod sandwich or their excellent seasonal walleye sandwich. Eat up!

The results so far: Culver’s still rules, both with their regular cod sandwich and their seasonal walleye sandwich. Both are cooked perfectly, and are served hot and with plenty of the all-important Culver’s proprietary tartar sauce.

Second place is now Burger King, which is strange because I’ve had some bad BK experiences over the years, the top one being when my daughter ordered a Caesar salad and was asked what kind of dressing she wanted on it. Anyway, the BK fish is a winner. The fillet was nice-sized and tasted good. It was no Whaler–the really great fish BK served back in the day–but it was good, complete with enough tarter sauce, not too much lettuce, and pickles. Quibble: The bun was none too fresh, but was acceptable.

Third place is now the fish slider from White Castle. The little fillets were perfectly cooked, the buns fresh, and the onion ring side pretty darned good. Also really liked the Zesty Zing sauce. Tartar sauce would be a big plus, but the Zesty Zing is a great substitute.

Fourth is Arby’s seasonal sandwich, which was surprisingly good. I am not a big Arby’s fan, but I was pleasantly surprised by their fish sandwich. The onion rings, for fast food rings, weren’t bad, either. Points off for seasonal availability, though, letting White Castle nose ahead.

Fourth is the old standby, McD’s Filet-o-Fish. The quality is generally good, the sandwiches are served relatively hot and crispy, and you can’t beat McD’s fries. Unfortunately, the fillets seem small, and are sometimes overwhelmed by the cheese slice.

The Elmer’s sandwich consists of two cornmeal breaded fillets on a bun. It wasn’t too hot. Literally.

The Wendy’s sandwich was a real disappointment, coming in last. Wendy’s food is generally pretty good, but I’d advise against trying their seasonal fish sandwich.

Gotta sort of watch my fried food intake, but I’ll be updating this as we make the local rounds. Because I believe this is my civic duty. Really.

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Hope you’ve got a warm winter coat. Or three.

We were eating out tonight and were watching folks sprint from their autos to the restaurant so they could get out of the cold and wind as quickly as possible. A good number of those folks were wearing coats and jackets more suited for autumn or spring, not northern Illinois during the dead of winter.

Granted, this year’s been no great shakes when it comes to winter. I have yet to reset the indoor-outdoor wireless thermometer in my shower room from a few weeks ago. It shows a temperature differential from a low of 0° F. to a high of 63° F., and that happened over a four-day period. So northern Illinois is no place for winter wimps.

Pat Tighe was a genuine hermit who lived just down the street from the Matile Manse back in the early 1900s. Here he is equipped for winter with a nice warm hat and blanket coat while standing outside his home. He lived in the basement and from the looks of things, it was sort of drafty down there.

Pat Tighe was a genuine hermit who lived just down the street from the Matile Manse back in the early 1900s. Here he is equipped for winter with a nice warm hat, mittens (no girly gloves for Pat), and blanket coat while standing outside his home. He lived in the basement and from the looks of things, it was sort of drafty down there.

And it has been ever thus, although more so. Back in 1872-73–just a 140 years ago this winter–the weather was truly brutal, with a long cold spell. Back in those days, there was no central heating to keep houses warm. It was all coal and wood stoves and hoping for the best. On Dec. 26, 1873, the Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that:

The thermometer this morning, Dec. 24, 25 degrees below zero.

Which, no doubt about it was cold. How cold? Reported the Record:

The CB&Q have put another thickness of siding on their water tank at Yorkville to keep the water from freezing.

It didn’t get much better as the new year of 1873 dawned. In the Jan. 3 Record, Editor John R. Marshall reported that:

Scores of our people are mourning the loss of cherished house plants by frost during the past week, while a great number have their cellars lumbered with vegetables rendered worthless in like manner.

If it’s cold enough to freeze your house plants in the house, that’s cold. If it’s cold enough to freeze the vegetables you’ve laid by in the root cellar, that’s really cold.

It’s been nothing like that cold this winter, but still, you’ve got to be sensible about dressing properly for a northern Illinois winter. And that means having at least three winter coats. You need one winter coat that’s relatively light weight for those days when it gets into the 40s. You need a second, thicker, coat for days when it’s somewhere south of 40° but north of 0°, assuming there’s either no or little wind. And then for those days when it’s in the 20s and below with winds blowing at 20-30 miles an hour, you need a serious winter coat with a hood. Likewise, you need two or three pairs of gloves that go with the temperature swings, plus a serious pair of mittens, preferably shooting mittens where you can fold the mitten part back off the fingers when you have to work on machinery or mess with the snow blower.

I remember several years ago when my wife was still running the learning center at one of our local elementary schools, her aide for the year was nearly arrived from Georgia. The lady had only one light-medium weight winter jacket, which was sufficient down in the Peach State, but definitely not here on the northern prairie where the snow falls and the wind blows, especially since aides were required to oversee the playground during lunch hours and recesses. The poor lady, who was convinced spring was right around the corner in late January, nearly froze to death. By the time spring really did arrive in late April, she seemed convinced she and her husband had moved to Alaska, not Illinois.

So, please, all you folks bundle up when you go outside. Swear off flip-flops for the season, wear sensible gloves, and make sure you’ve got a coat that fits the weather outside. As my mother used to say, “Put on a heavier coat; I’m cold.”

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

The moonshine was bright in old Kendall County…

Got a call today from a journalist friend who’s working on a story about locally produced distilled liquor. Seems the latest trend, following the microbrewery trend of a short time ago, is developing microdistilleries.

As far as I know, we never had a legal distillery in Kendall County, although breweries did indeed do business here in the 19th Century. One was developed near Oswego’s downtown back in the mid-19th Century. On June 7, 1870, Lorenzo Rank, writing in the Kendall County Record noted that:

The old brewery where was made the first beer in Oswego, but which has been used lately by Charles Danforth as a stable, the owner of it has pulled it down.

Warner & Steiner built a new brewery in Oswego along what is now Ill. Route 25 in 1870 and it did business for a few years, eventually closing. It was later turned into the Fox River Butter Factory.

So brewing we had; distilling not so much. Legally, that is. It took the institution of Prohibition to open the distilling floodgates, and when they opened the amount of alcohol that gushed out of little Kendall County was quite amazing. One of the first of the big operations to be caught was operated by John Schickler at his farm along Ill. Route 31 just north of the Oswego Bridge. Here’s how the Kendall County Record reported the story in March 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whiskey. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product.

Not sure whether Ken Burns' question has been answered yet as we deal with efforts to ban more popular drugs. For more on Burns' series, go here.

Not sure whether Ken Burns’ question has been answered yet as we deal with efforts to ban more popular drugs, encouraging more criminal acts by normally law abiding folks. For more on Burns’ wonderful, eye-opening series, go here.

Schickler may have been the first, but he was hardly the last caught bootlegging. The last big raid on a still was made in 1936, years after Prohibition had ended. By then, bootleggers were trying to evade alcohol taxes, although they may have been making the stuff out of habit after all the years of Prohibition. It’s hard to say. But the Record reported in late April 1936:

Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…

According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the “Feds” on Thursday, April 9.

The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed “the finest plant of its type in this territory.” The plan was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.

The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this.

Ah, those were the days. Although we see a lot about bootlegging and moonshining on TV and in the movies, we usually don’t stop to think that a remarkable amount of that fun went on right in our own backyards. The prevalence of illicit alcohol-production facilities throughout small-town America illustrated the foolishness of Prohibition. Astonishingly, our grandparents had the sense to repeal it and collect the tax revenues legal alcohol produced. Now if only we had the sense to repeal our similarly destructive “War on Drugs,” we might be able to cut crime and gain a bunch of tax money all at the same time. After all, it’s been done before

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Filed under Food, Fox River, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

When Sunday mail delivery was just fine…

 

The U.S. Postal Service has fallen on hard times–as predicted by anyone who realizes that government ‘privatization’ usually means the privatized services soon simply don’t work. Today’s post office is not a government agency; it’s supposedly a private sort of non-governmental agency that nonetheless needs the blessings of Congress to operate. That, right there, is a recipe for disaster, given our dysfunctional national legislature these days. But with the post office department, it has led to Congress requiring the agency to fund pensions of people who don’t even work for it yet, along with a bunch of other nonsense the post office has been burdened with for reasons best known to the folks in Washington.

The upshot is the postal service’s plan to stop Saturday mail deliveries in an effort, no matter how lame, to save money. When the plan goes into effect this coming August, it will be the second day removed from the mail delivery calendar. The post office, you see, used to deliver the mail on Sundays.

From the time the post office was established after the Revolutionary War, the system operated seven days a week. The arrival of the stagecoach carrying the mail was a major social and economic event, including those living in the small frontier towns like the ones that were springing up along the post roads in northern Illinois.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

When the coaches neared a post office, the drivers blew their long tin horns to herald the mail’s arrival. The sound of the horn was the signal for everyone to get to the post office to see if any letters for them had arrived, and to listen to others read the latest political and social news from the newspapers and magazines the coaches carried. On most days, this rush to the post office—which was often located in a community’s general store, inn, or tavern—was eagerly looked forward to by all residents. Problems arose, however, if the coach arrived on a Sunday. Then, ministers quickly saw the male halves of their congregations melt away as they rushed down to the post office to hear the latest news.

The discontent caused by the disruptions created by the arrival of the mails on Sundays resulted in the Sabbatarian movement.

In April 1810, Congress decreed that postmasters were required to deliver every item they’d received in the mail on every day of the week, including Sunday—the Sabbath—and to open their offices every day the mail arrived. Including Sunday.

The opposition to the new law grew swiftly and the members of that opposition became known as Sabbatarians. Not only did they want the mandate to open post offices every day of the week eliminated, but they also opposed the mails even moving on Sundays. That threatened to have an impact on the private contractors who carried the mails via stagecoaches and wagons. So, not surprisingly, the stagecoach companies were some of the most active in opposing the Sabbatarian movement.

Nonetheless, the Sabbatarian campaign grew for the next twenty years, with petition after petition, many created at the instigation of the Presbyterian General Assembly, being dispatched to the post office department in Washington, D.C. demanding cessation of Sunday delivery.

But by the late 1820s, the anti-Sabbatarian movement (one of whose leaders was a Wall Street merchant with the marvelous name of Preserved Fish) had begun to grow as well. Fish and his allies organized their own competing petition drives, helped even by some religious groups, such as the Alabama Baptist Association, that felt Saturday was the true Sabbath. Also joining the fray was travel book author Anne Royall, whose books hinted darkly at a conspiracy by Sabbatarian Presbyterian postmasters to destroy the separation of church and state.

Not until 1841 were Sabbatarians able to get the post office to curtail Sunday service on some routes. The invention of the telegraph also helped the Sabbatarian cause as merchants found electronic communication faster than the mails. It wasn’t until 1912—a little over a century after the campaign started—that the post office agreed to halt mail delivery and close all offices on Sunday.

Nowadays, the postal service is again planning to take a day out of their service week, but not for religious reasons. Unless you happen to think that modern determinations to destroy government agencies, one at a time, has something close to a religious intent behind it.

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Filed under Frustration, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Could it be climate change?

In case you needed a reminder that our climate really is changing, here’s a century-old news note from the Feb. 5, 1913 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column:

C.I. Smith, with a force of men, are filling the ice houses with 14-inch ice.

Smith’s ice houses were located along Waubonsie Creek where Pfund Court crosses the creek today near the Pearce Cemetery just off U.S. Route 34. One of the low dams on the creek that have been removed lately by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, or rather the wreckage of it, was the dam behind which Smith’s ice was harvested.

This winter, the Oswegoland Park District has been monitoring the ice thickness on Briarcliff Lake, waiting for it to be 6″ thick so that it could be safely used by ice skaters. So far, it has gotten close to 6″ but has not reached it. So a century ago, ice was 14″ thick on Waubonsie Creek, with an actual flow of water, while this winter it’s been impossible to get a 6″ thick ice cover on a lake with no current at all.

Climate change? You betcha.

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Filed under Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events