Monthly Archives: March 2013

Barns the losers in farming evolution…

We enjoyed our spring break trip to Iowa last week. We stayed with my sister near Tipton, visited with my nephews, did a little family research at the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, had a typically great lunch (with rhubarb pie!) at Amana, and then headed south to Ottumwa for more family history research.

On the way, we stopped at Kolona, known for its Amish farming community, and did a little shopping. We finally settled on a nicely framed print of Billy Jacobs’ “Spring Cleaning,” that depicts a farmstead during that season of the year.

There were lots of other prints by Jacobs and other artists to choose from, many depicting farm buildings in various stages of disrepair and deterioration, which struck me as depressing. Realistic, but depressing nonetheless..

During our trip we saw lots of barns in sad shape, something I remarked on in the post below. While it saddens us old farm kids to see these once-imposing buildings in their death throes, it’s really an indication that life is moving on. Some would say progressing.

Most of the vintage barns still standing sported lifetime asbestos cement shingle or metal roofs. The ones with asphalt and wood shingle roofs were in serious states of disrepair, many about ready to collapse—when the roof of a building fails, the rest of it will surely be close behind.

The problem is that keeping these large buildings in good repair is an expensive proposition. And now it’s an expensive proposition that will lead to no profitable use—the usefulness of the vast majority of barns in rural areas is long past.

The old barns we see dotting the landscape today are the end products of centuries of development. They weren’t built in isolation; rather they were parts of what amounted to very large, static machines designed to produce grain and livestock—farms.

In the United States, barns became the central focus of farming, a place they held until diversified farming was abandoned during the past 40 years or so in favor of concentrating on either grain or livestock farming.

This gambrell-roofed barn, which has lost its farmstead and is now surrounded by a sea of standing corn, has been repurposed for grain storage from its original use. Many vintage barns, like this one, are gradually deteriorating due to changes in modern farming methods.

This gambrel roofed barn, which has lost its farmstead and is now surrounded by a sea of standing corn, has been repurposed for grain storage from its original use. Many vintage barns, like this one, are gradually deteriorating due to changes in modern farming methods.

Diversified farms produced both livestock and grain, and so needed a variety of facilities unique to each task. Along with barns, those necessities included corn cribs for the storage of grain including oats and corn; tool sheds for farm equipment storage; specialized livestock facilities including chicken houses and hog houses; feed storage facilities; milk processing facilities; and others, including farmhouses.

It was the barn that was central to the whole farming operation, however. It provided storage area for forage crops for livestock from horses to cattle, offered shelter for those animals as well, provided a place to store and make use of tack—equipment needed to harness and saddle horses; and offered indoor space for other livestock related tasks such as milking cows.

Some barns were modified for specialized purposes, either to maintain the horses that were central to providing power for farming until the invention of motorized farm equipment, or to house milking operations. Others were specialized for the storage of forage crops, including hay and straw, and the feeding of livestock such as cattle and pigs.

Many barns still dotting the countryside today were originally built with a combination of uses in mind, including housing draft horses, milking a few cows, and providing shelter for feeder cattle while they were being fattened for market.

There are also dairy barns that were built specifically for the milking business. With their concrete floors and built-in feed bunks and waste removal systems, plus the milking equipment itself, they were usually unsuitable for modification into other more diversified uses without a lot of work and expense.

Other farm buildings were generally clustered fairly close to the barn because of the way diversified farms were run. The corn crib, for instance, was usually fairly close because the grain stored there was used not only to send on to market but also to feed the livestock—horses, cattle, and pigs—raised on the farm. Chicken houses were generally closer to the farmhouse because they were often the domains of farm wives who traded eggs and dressed chickens for groceries.

Hog houses were close to the barn but farther away from the house, due somewhat to the smell.

Other buildings clustered in old-time farmyards included a milk house, often attached to the barn, where milk was cooled and milk cans (and later milking machines) were cleaned and stored; well houses to protect the farm water well and pump; and sometimes a spring house where natural running spring water kept groceries cold while also providing a source of drinking water for both the farm family and their livestock.

Gradually, however, the uses for which barns were built disappeared on most farms. Many farmers kept a cow or two to provide fresh milk, cream, and butter for the family and as another feed source for chickens and pigs, but starting in the early 1950s, better roads to get to town and cheaper prices at stores made small-scale milking too labor-intensive. The general introduction of affordable gasoline and diesel powered tractors starting in the 1920s quickly eliminated draft horses from the farm scene, and barns lost another reason for their existence. Raising livestock, too, gradually disappeared from most farms, as some farmers and corporate farming companies established large-scale operations dedicated to raising either cattle, pigs, or chickens.

By the 1970s, virtually everything for which barns had been designed was no longer part of farming practice. The very size of barns made it expensive to maintain them—a new roof costs thousands of dollars, and painting is also expensive.

And so they were allowed, for the most part, to start falling into ruin. Today, most farms make do with a large machine shed for equipment storage, and a series of huge metal or fiberglass bins to store grain while waiting for the right market conditions.

It’s the efficient, sensible way to do things, but it’s still sad to see our barns disappear.

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Notes on the rural landscape…

We’re taking a short trip through eastern Iowa to visit relatives and do a little genealogy. It’s been a fun trip, although the weather reminds a person more of December than the last week of March.

Driving from the Tipton area first west to the Amana Colonies, where great German food and rhubarb pie are the main attractions, down through the Amish area around Kolona and then west to Ottumwa, the impact of modern technology on farming is stark. Small towns that were once mercantile hubs for a wide rural area now feature largely abandoned commercial districts, with rows of storefronts replaced by a Casey’s General Store. The only going concern in most of them is a grain elevator.

Many of the farmsteads look forlorn this time of year with decaying barns and other outbuildings. Most of the farmhouses are dilapidated. On the other hand, some farmsteads look prosperous with well-kept buildings, modern farm equipment in evidence, and well-fed livestock in the pastures and cattle yards.

Stan Richards' evocative "Dual Barns near Brush Creek" illustrates the evolution of Iowa's rural landscape. The two barns are obsolete and are being allowed to slowly deteriorate because they're no longer relevant to modern American agriculture. See more of Richards' work at http://www.nightskyevents.com/iowa_landscape_purchase_print.htm

Stan Richards’ evocative “Dual Barns near Brush Creek” illustrates the evolution of Iowa’s rural landscape. The two barns are obsolete and are being allowed to slowly deteriorate because they’re no longer relevant to modern American agriculture. See more of Richards’ work at http://www.nightskyevents.com/iowa_landscape_purchase_print.htm

So what’s going on? What’s happening is that farming technology has so reduced the number of farmers needed to work an acre of ground that it’s had a noticeable and continuing impact on the communities in which the farmers live. Ever so gradually, the technology that allows a single farmer to handle thousands of acres of land led to the death of the communities in which they lived. Farmers could farm more land, so fewer farmers were needed, not to mention fewer farms. Thus those dilapidated farmsteads, many of them abandoned because small farms are continuing to be amalgamated into fewer much larger farms.

Fewer farmers mean a reduced population in general, and that means the small, independently owned businesses in rural hamlets gradually ran out of customers. The economic death of those little towns was slow, but sure. With no one to patronize businesses there was little need for young people to hang around after graduation from high school to raise their own families.

The cycle started out in those rural areas, but then it spread to Iowa’s cities. Ottumwa, for instance. The city relied on the railroad and on industries anchored by the John Morrell & Company meatpacking plant. Nowadays, instead of cattle being shipped into Ottumwa for slaughter and packing from distant points on the railroad and from a myriad of small farms in Ottumwa’s hinterland, the industry has moved to be closer to the giant feedlots that have replaced the old small supplier network. With changes in the railroad industry, the meat industry, and industry in general, Ottumwa finds itself 10,000 people smaller than it was a few decades ago.

So what’s the answer? Is there an answer? Should there be one? Even if someone wanted to turn the clock back, it’s now impossible. The toothpaste has left the tube and it’s not going back in. So gradually, those small towns will continue to evaporate, farmsteads will continue to be abandoned and deteriorate. Because that’s the way things happen. Here in Kendall County, entire communities have disappeared (Pavilion, Penfield), farms have been abandoned, and so has everything else from post offices (NaAuSay, Kendall) to schools (all 120 or so one-room schools in the county).

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Commemorating a national disaster…

Ten years ago this year, the nation was, for the most part, raring to go to war with Iraq, thanks to the Cheney-Bush Administration’s cooking the evidence that Iraq had somehow or other amassed a store of “weapons of mass destruction.” Frightening scenarios were sketched by administration officials of what was certainly going to happen if we didn’t invade Iraq. The scenarios, however, were so obviously screwy and manufactured out of whole cloth that it was difficult for those of us who had not been infected with the psychosis of fear after a bunch of primitive terrorists flew jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to believe them.

Back in those days before we, as a nation, managed to destroy our own economy, kill untold tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, remove the main geopolitical counterweight to Iran, kill thousands of our own young men and women and maim tens of thousands more, and start the nation down its current road of evaporating civil liberties, I wrote a brief editorial in the Ledger-Sentinel that marveled that the nation had apparently lost its collective mind. Fear will do that to people, especially when those at the top of government stoke those fears instead of fighting against them. Instead of FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we got George W. Bush’s panic-stricken flight around the country on 9/11 in Air Force One and his constant efforts to, in his own words, “catapult the propaganda” to keep the nation wallowing in fear of a two-bit Mideast dictator.

As we commemorate the tenth anniversary of the worst foreign policy disaster in modern U.S. history, I thought I’d reprint that edit, just for old time’s sake:

Just what’s with our foreign policy?

After watching the news unfold during the past several weeks, we have to wonder whether officials in Washington minding the nation’s foreign policy have lost their collective minds.

The Bush Administration, having settled on a foreign policy consisting of bullying Third World nations, apparently tried to bully one too many, and found itself being bullied right back. North Korea, not the most stable of nations, is now threatening some sort of holocaust—although this week they are denying they admitted last October having an operational nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the build-up of thousands of U.S. forces against Saddam Hussein continues to accelerate although there is as yet no evidence Iraq has any nuclear weapons, ostensibly the reason we’re getting ready to invade in the first place. The administration suggests the failure of United Nations weapons inspectors to find evidence of nuclear weapons is proof they exist but are apparently too well hidden to be found. In the meantime, we wonder what happened to Osama bin laden.

All of this makes about as much sense as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disney World. When, do you suppose, we can expect the adults to take charge?

Those U.N. arms inspectors kept looking right up until they were told to leave Iraq by the U.S. so they wouldn’t be vaporized during our “shock and awe” campaign, and they never found anything because, of course, there was never anything to find. As subsequent investigation teams confirmed. And Osama bin Laden remained at large and in charge until a Democratic President gave the orders to prioritize tracking him down and kill him.

We’re supposed to study history to learn what not to do in the future. “Lessons learned” the military calls it. But during the past 10 years, we seem to have decisively turned our backs on history, and appear to revel in ignoring the lessons it tries to teach us. Lessons learned in Vietnam? Lessons learned in the Great Depression? These days, it’s forget lessons learned and wallow in fear of the most preposterous things that are promoted daily by right wing and plutocratic fear mongers who happily spend their time “catapulting the propaganda.”

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

It’s maple sugaring time…

Some 20 years ago, my son the Eagle Scout enjoyed helping some local folks demonstrate how maple syrup is made. He volunteered to help keep the fires burning and the sap boiling, he carried sap buckets, and he led tours and explained the process to visitors during annual weekend sugaring events.

On one of those nice spring days, he had just explained how it took about 50 gallons of sap to produce a single gallon of maple syrup when a mom leading a small gaggle of kids raised her hand to ask, “When do you add the maple flavoring?”

To which my totally nonplussed son had no clever riposte.

We take all sorts of things for granted, not the least of which is the set of basic facts people have at their disposal. The origin of maple syrup and maple sugar candy is one of those things that apparently not just anybody knows about. Which is a shame because that knowledge is a direct connection to our historical past. Those living history demonstrations that show how maple sap is turned into that wonderful sweet product that tastes so good on French toast help us connect to that history, and a rich one it is.

After European traders arrived on the scene and began providing iron kettles maple sugar and syrup production became a little easier. On the other hand, the effect of the European fur trade led to the destruction of Native Peoples' culture, so it wasn't all good.

After European traders arrived on the scene and began providing iron kettles maple sugar and syrup production became a little easier. On the other hand, the effect of the European fur trade led to the destruction of Native Peoples’ culture, so it wasn’t all good.

Maple sugar and syrup was a valuable food and trade item long before European settlers arrived. Native people in North America tapped maple trees, and collected and boiled maple sap into that wonderful food item using bark buckets to fill hollow log tubs, which they kept boiling by dumping in a succession of red hot stones.

The brass and iron pots French, Dutch, and English traders supplied in return for prime winter beaver pelts helped increase production to the extent that one eight-person group in 1764 spent a month in a sugar bush, tapping 700 trees, gathering over 13,700 gallons of sap and producing nearly a ton of maple sugar and 36 gallons of maple syrup.

When American settlers arrived starting in the late 1820s, they emulated the Native People’s production of maple products, tapping trees, gathering sap, and boiling it down into sugar and syrup. By that time, it was a tradition the pioneers brought with them when they left their homes in New England and the Middle Colonies and headed west to settle the Illinois prairies.

When they arrived they found numerous groves of hardwoods. On the west side of the region’s watercourses, those groves were largely comprised of burr and white Oaks and other fire-resistant species, because the spring and autumn fires that roared across the prairies were pushed towards the east by the prevailing westerly winds. On the more protected east sides of watercourses, such as the Fox River, the groves were of more mixed hardwoods, with some oaks, but also of walnuts, and most importantly sugar maples.

In those early pioneer days, maple sugar was about the only sugar available. Honey was rare until honeybees—which were not native—built up their populations. Sugar itself was extremely expensive, when it was available at all.

The surveyors who mapped the region in the late 1830 noted the prevalence of sugar maples, identifying them simply as “sugar trees.” Kendall County settlers quickly made good use of the dense stands of maples in Big Grove, Long Grove, AuSable Grove, and Specie Grove. The spring trip to sugar camps—called sugar bushes—was an almost instant tradition.

Fires were maintained under the kettles and pans 24 hours a day as the amber syrup was produced.

This painting by American artist Jonathan Eastman Johnson, titled "The Maple Sugar Camp Turning Off," illustrates the social aspect of maple sugaring in the 1870s.

This painting by American artist Jonathan Eastman Johnson, titled “The Maple Sugar Camp Turning Off,” illustrates the social aspect of maple sugaring in the 1870s.

On April 3, 1873, Kendall County Record Editor John R. Marshall wrote that: “The nice, new maple syrup left at the editor’s house last Thursday by Mr. David Kennedy was a great treat. It was clear and thick.”

County residents who had sugar bush access knew how to curry Marshall’s favor. On March 23, 1882, he observed that: “The Record boys indulged in some nice maple sugar Monday morning, direct from Deacon Sleezer’s sap-bush in Big Grove. If the ‘Boys’ have a failing for anything, it’s maple sugar.”

Long Grove was one of the closest sugar bushes to Yorkville where Marshall published the Record and kindly maple grove owners kept him in the good stuff. As he noted in the Record’s March 29, 1893 edition: “Pure maple syrup from the old Long Grove sugar camp is not bad eating with a good warm biscuit or cakes.”

By the late 1890s, manufactured sugar had become common in Kendall County households, and even maple syrup and sugar was being manufactured in huge quantities elsewhere and shipped to grocery stores here. That meant sugaring was becoming less common, although there were still some fairly big operations here.

AuSable and Specie groves are actually a single grove bisected by Morgan Creek. In March 1898, the Record’s Specie Grove correspondent waxed nostalgic concerning the maple sugaring tradition in the two neighboring groves: “It’s a pretty sight to see sugar making in the ‘bush’ at night, with several fires brightly burning among the leafless trees and the weird forms of the sugar makers as they go about their work, and the surrounding darkness all combine to make the scene strangely peculiar and one to be remembered. We have often wondered if people are happier in our advanced and pampered and more genteel way of living than they were in the olden times when they lived nearer to nature and in a more simple and primitive way. We have often heard our parents and old people tell of the various kind of ‘bees’ they used to have for haying and harvesting, logging and husking, quilting and apple paring, and at sugar time and the great bake ovens and fire places that they had in York State and the East and when we see a couple of men doing all the work now on a large farm we wonder if there is much improvement as far as real happiness is concerned. Usually the most simple things contribute the greatest to our enjoyment.”

Once a common sight in Kendall County's groves, tapping sugar maples is now seen mostly during living history demonstrations.

Once a common sight in Kendall County’s groves, tapping sugar maples is now seen mostly during living history demonstrations.

Despite the economic changes, Specie and AuSable groves remained a substantial maple sugaring area for the next several years. The March 22, 1899 Record reported from Specie Grove that “A new sap evaporator has been purchased by R.G. Leitch and put on the Hall farm for the purpose of converting sap into syrup and sugar. There is a large ‘sugar bush’ on this farm and it will be developed to its fullest capacity this year,” adding two weeks later that “Four hundred maple trees have been tapped on the Evergreen Hill farm. Somebody is going to have ‘lasses.”

With cheaper alternatives widely available, spring sugaring gradually disappeared from our region. At one time, it was such an important product, however, that the settlers named one area community—Sugar Grove—after that activity of “olden times.” Today, like so many of our ancestors’ activities, sugaring in the Fox Valley is mostly only visible in those living history demonstrations like the one my son participated in a couple decades ago and with a few hobbyists who like the maintain the tradition.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History

Computers enrich the study of local history…

Carte de visite of Nehemiah Mead, an Oswego druggist of the 1860s, was recently found on eBay. The story of discovering exactly who Mead was and how he fits into Oswego history shows the value of modern computerized historical research on the local level.

Carte de visite of Nehemiah Mead, an Oswego druggist of the 1860s, was recently found on eBay. The story of discovering exactly who Mead was and how he fits into Oswego history illustrates the value of modern computerized historical research on the local level.

I really, really don’t completely trust the things. Call it a case of familiarity breeding extreme suspicion. But I have to say that as a research tool, personal computers—now joined by laptops, smart phones, and tablets—have been one of the best things that ever happened to the ability to research local history.

When I started writing about local history more than 35 years ago, research meant buying books, making trips to area public libraries, looking for materials in university and college libraries and searching through bound volumes (and microfilms) of local newspapers. It was a tedious, although largely rewarding experience as I got to know the major sources by feeling, reading, and smelling them.

When my wife was working on her master’s degree in library science at Northern Illinois University, I was first introduced to the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC), an early on-line version of a computerized library of scholarly dissertations and other materials. It was, at that time, only available for access at NIU’s library, but the materials available for access were a revelation to me.

Then came the early days of the Internet and my first subscriptions to CompuServe and all the neat stuff available on the various sites there. Thanks to a lawn bowling forum on CompuServe, I was able to make connections in Scotland, Canada and Australia when I was researching the four chapters I was writing on antique ceramic carpet bowls for my buddy Paul Baumann’s fourth edition of Collecting Antique Marbles. Also thanks to CompuServe, I was able to discover the fate of one of our local boys shot down during World War II in Europe as I was working up a complete revamp of our museum’s military exhibit. The guys on CompuServe’s Military Forum got us all sorts of information, including copies of the after-action reports, that featured an eyewitness account of the shootdown over the Mediterranean.

Then along came the World Wide Web that gradually included mind-blowing resources from eBay and Ancestry.com to the free GenWeb site. Elmer Dickson, a Kendall County native who now lives in California, manages the Kendall County GenWeb site, and it’s a honey. If you can’t find out at least some information about somebody who once lived, worked, and died in Kendall County on Elmer’s site, it probably doesn’t exist.

Recently, we made heavy use of Ancestry’s wonderful resources to find out more concerning two acquisitions at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego. One was an anonymous donation, the other was a purchase on eBay.

Earlier this year, someone stopped by the museum and dropped off an old ledger book, saying they didn’t wish any recognition for donating it, and that they simply felt it belonged in the museum. I looked through the slim volume, which turned out to be an Oswego doctor’s account book, kept during 1848 and part of 1849.

Eventually, by closely reading the book, we came to the conclusion it was kept by Dr. Asa Shepherd. But none of us had ever heard of a Doctor Shepherd practicing in Oswego. The years during his practice are, unfortunately, not covered by the local press, because there was no local press at the time.

We checked the 1850 census and did find a Doctor Asa Shepherd practicing in Oswego, but he did not appear in the 1860 Census. The 1850 Census, however, gave us the name of his wife and suggested he lived on Main Street in Oswego. A quick trip to the Oswego Public Library’s Heritage Quest on-line database showed that Dr. Shepherd and family (two children, a boy and a girl, had appeared) were living near Freeport, Ill. in 1870. Another quick trip, this time to the Illinois Secretary of State’s databases, showed that Dr. Shepherd had served in a 100-day regiment during the Civil War, but that he had apparently not been married in Illinois. Or at least his name was not included in the SOS marriage database.

And I want to say the Illinois SOS database collection is one of the best in the nation. Their Civil War database, in particular, is the absolute best of its kind.

So then it was on to Ancestry.com where gradually the rest of Dr. Shepherd’s story came to light. How he practiced medicine in Oswego for six years before moving to western Illinois due to health problems. How he served as a regimental surgeon during a brief stint in the Civil War. How he and his family moved to Missouri, where he became a respected member of the community in and around Montgomery City, Mo. before his death in March 1895.

And then there’s the most recent case of Nehemiah Mead, an Oswego druggist in the early 1860s. A carte de visite photograph of Mead popped up on eBay a few weeks ago. On the front, someone had written in pencil “Uncle Nehemiah Mead,” and on the back was printed the name of the photographer, J.F. Gibbons of Oswego. We had heard of neither the photographer nor of Mr. Mead, so we decided to bid on the photograph, which we eventually won.

As it turns out, Nehemiah Mead is another of those personages who came and went so quickly they left little memory of them in their wake. We checked out our file of transcribed “Oswego” column news items published in local newspapers from the early 1850s and found that the Loyal Order of the Woodmen were meeting upstairs at “N. Mead’s store.” In the same issue of the Kendall County Free Press published at Oswego in 1863, we learned that “N. Mead” was a druggist. A check of our copy of the 1860 U.S. Census for Oswego Township showed an N. Mead, druggist, who was living with his brother, James. We checked our 1870 Kendall County Census index, but there was no Nehemiah Mead.

That led us to try a shot in the dark and check our transcribed copy of the Oswego Township Cemetery records, and by golly, we struck gold. It turned out that Nehemiah had a wife, Miranda Stoutemyer, who died in Oswego in 1864. Further, he had three children, Miranda, Rachael, and Allen, all of who died and who are buried in the Oswego Cemetery.

So then it was on to the trusty old Illinois SOS database again, and again we struck gold. Nehemiah married Miranda on Oct. 10, 1860. So between then and when the 1870 census was taken, Nehemiah had suffered the death of his wife and all three children, the last, a son Allen, dying in February 1870.

That may have been the last straw with living in Oswego because my buddy Glenn Young found that when the 1870 Census was taken in Chicago’s 4th Ward in July that year, Ancestry.com reported  that Nehemiah was living there, still practicing his trade as a druggist, but listing his marital status as single with no children.

From then on, Glenn was able to track Nehemiah as he remarried Elizabeth Dunham in Cook County in 1870 before moving west to Colorado, then east to Iowa, then back to the far west of Washington State where he owned a fruit farm in the 1900, and where he died in 1918.

It’s possible we could have tracked Asa Shepherd and Nehemiah Mead down using traditional methods, but the time involved would have been truly amazing. As it is, it took a few hours of research time, looking here and there, to get an idea of who these two people were, what their lives were like, and what ultimately happened to them.

The moral of the story is that it’s a lot less likely folks will slip through the historical cracks these days and that makes the goal of telling the story of local history–no matter how obscure–all that much more fun and informative, not to mention satisfying.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History

From Scotland to Illinois: Isabella Harkness’s account.

Well, here we are in March, also known as Women’s History Month. In honor of the month’s designation, I started looking back through our collection of manuscripts and diaries down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego and among other treasures came across the account Isabella Harkness left of her family’s early travels from her native Scotland to the Midwestern prairies in northern Illinois.

Isabella Harkness, the oldest of 10 children, was born 18 May 1825 in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scotland to Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness. When she was 15, the Harkness family immigrated from Scotland to New York State, settling near Lake Champlain. In 1846, the family moved to Crown Point, N.Y. on Lake Champlain.

Looking for a better life, Andrew Harkness moved his family west to Kendall County, Illinois between 1849 and 1850. Andrew and Janette and their living children all went in 1849 except daughters Isabella and Margaret, and one son, James, who stayed behind at Crown Point.

In 1850, the three adult siblings still living in New York moved west to Illinois to join the family.

Isabella Harkness in an undated portrait taken many years after her exciting trip from Crown Point, New York, to Kendall County, Illinois in 1850.

Isabella Harkness in an undated portrait taken many years after her exciting trip from Crown Point, New York, to Kendall County, Illinois in 1850.

Isabella’s short handwritten journal includes a brief account of the family’s move from Scotland to the United States, and a longer, day-by-day diary of the Harkness siblings’ 16-day trip from Crown Point up Lake Champlain by steamboat, on by rail to the Erie Canal, and then to Buffalo by canal boat. At Buffalo, they boarded a steam packet for Chicago. They then traveled west by horse and wagon, arriving at the Harkness farm in Kendall County on 21 May 1850.

Isabella worked as a domestic “hired girl” for two farm families during 1851, the account of which is found in her 1851 diary, a copy of which is also in the collections of the Little White School Museum at Oswego. On 4 March 1852 she married John Dunn, a native of England, born 18 May 1825 in Bowden, Roxburghshire. They bought what is now known as the Ament farm in 1854 where Isabella, despite getting a somewhat late start in life for her family, bore nine children.

John Dunn died on 21 December 1901, and Isabella followed on 11 April 1915. They are buried in Elmwood Cemetery, Yorkville, Illinois.

Here is Isabella’s story. I have only changed it by adding punctuation and capitalizing words at the beginning of sentences; otherwise, this is Isabella’s story just as she wrote it:

Introduction

I was born in 1825, May 18 about 45 miles south from Edinburgh in Scotland. There being a large family of us, I was the oldest, and Father thought that by removing to America he would be better able to provide for us, so on the 1st of April 1840, we embarked for America. On the 27th of the same month we landed at New York

We settled in the Northern part of the State of NY in the bosom of a wild American forest. It was but very thinly settled our house being 8 miles from any other house. We lived there 6 years. Then we moved to Crown point on Lake Champlain, and there we buried a brother aged 3 years and 7 months, and a Sister 5 years and 4 months. They both died in 1847. In 1849 the family all left Crown Point excepting a brother & Sister & myself to go to Illinois. From that time I lived in a respected family to do house work and sewing until May 1850 when I also started for the West.

I.H.

A journey from the State of NY to Ills

The time has now arrived that I must leave Crown Point and go to that far distant West. I have bid my acquaintances and associates farewell perhaps for ever. I have looked for the last time at the Brick Church that stands on the green, where I have sat and listened with deep interest to the good and solemn voice of our dear Minister Mr. Herrick.

I have been into the graveyard and looked at the two graves of our departed Brother and Sister and picked a few of the remaining rose leaves that grow by the side of their graves. There was nothing but silence there. I took the last lingering look hoping to meet them in a better and brighter worked above where we shall meet to part no more.

Monday May 6th 1850

I went down to the Lake accompanied by James and Margaret. It was about 10 o’clock. We waited until 2 and the boat did not come. We went to Mr. Hammonds. We was very tired.  After we eat some dinner we went and lay down and slept about 2 hours, and felt quite rested. We did not go to bed again that night. About 12 o’clock we called up Mr. H. and James. We made some tea and felt quite refreshed.

Tuesday 7th

We went down to the Lake about 1 o’clock in the morning and went on to the Burlington. The boat was very much crowded. We got to Whitehall about 7 in the morning and stopped a little while at the Phoenix Hotel. We went on to the [railroad] cars at half past 7 and had a very pleasant ride. The seats were cushioned and made very comfortable. We got to Schnectady [Schenectady] about 2 in the afternoon and went to Fowler’s Hotel and took dinner. We stayed their all day as the Canal Boat was not ready. Margaret & James went out a shopping and bought a few articles.

Wednesday 8th

A typical Erie Canal passenger packet boat of the 1850s. Packet canal and steamboats sailed on regular schedules. Regular cargo vessels of the era only sailed when they had full cargoes.

A typical Erie Canal passenger packet boat of the 1850s. Packet canal and steamboats sailed on regular schedules. Regular cargo vessels of the era only sailed when they had full cargoes.

We went on to the Canal Boat called William H. Edda, and took Breakfast. The boat started at 1 o’clock. It was very pleasant. I went up on deck and looked all around and saw a great many new places. We was very much [unreadable]. We got along very well. At night there was 18 berths put up for the Ladies. I believe they were all filled.

Thursday 9th

We are still on the Canal boat. It is very cold and rainy and the wind blows. It is very unpleasant.

Friday 11th

This morning when we got up we had got to Utica. We hurried off from the boat as they wanted to weigh it. It is still very cold. It snowed some. About 3 o’clock we got to Rome.

Saturday 11th

It is quite pleasant today. About noon we got to Syracuse and saw where they make salt.

Sunday 12th

It does not seem much like Sunday. Every thing is going on just as any other day. We have come through Clyde, Lyons, Newark. Margaret and myself and 2 or 3 others got off and walked about 2 miles and then we came to Palmyra. We closed the day in singing some hymns.

Sailing across the aqueduct over the Genesee River in Rochester, N.Y. was one of the more spectacular experiences of Erie Canal travelers. This photo of the aqueduct was taken about 1897. It was later converted into the Broad Street Bridge. (Rochester Public Library collection)

Sailing across the aqueduct over the Genesee River in Rochester, N.Y. was one of the more spectacular experiences of Erie Canal travelers. This photo of the aqueduct was taken about 1897. It was later converted into the Broad Street Bridge. (Rochester Public Library collection)

Monday 13th

It is very pleasant and warm to day. I have been up on deck most all day. We have come through Rochester. It is a very large and beautiful place. We crossed the Aqueduct over the Genesee river. In the after noon we came through Brockport. How pleasant it is to see the peach trees all in blossom.

Tuesday 14th

It is very pleasant again this morning. There was a little girl about 2 years old fell over-board. The Agent jumped over and got her out. She was not hurt but wet and frightened. We have come through Medina and Middleport and Rynels Basin. How pleasant it is to see the trees looking green and some of them white with the blossoms. About sun-down we got to Lockport where went through 5 locks all close together.

Wednesday 15th

This morning when we got up we had got to Buffalo. We went to the Merchants Hotel and took breakfast. It is a very large building. There is winding stairs goes clear up to the top of the house

The Empire, seen here in an 1850 illustration, was similar in design to the Key Stone State and other better quality steam packets that traveled between Buffalo and Chicago.

The Empire, seen here in an 1850 illustration, was similar in design to the Key Stone State and other better quality steam packets that traveled between Buffalo and Chicago.

I went out and walked up and down several streets until I blistered my feet. We went on to the Steam Boat in the morning. It was called the Key Stone State. It was the largest and most splendid boat I had seen in a great while. We had a cabin passage and every thing as comfortable as we could wish for.

Thursday 16th

It is very pleasant this morning. There is no wind and the boat goes very smooth.

Friday 17th

Last night we had a hard storm and several of the windows are broken. In the forenoon we was on the river St. Clair, in the afternoon we got on to Lake Huron,  The lake began to be very rough. A great many of the passengers were sea sick. James & Margaret were both sick. I did not feel sick at all.

Saturday 18th

This morning the lake is still rough. I feel a little sea sick to day. This after noon we came to Machinak [Mackinac] where they catch a great many fish.

Sunday 19th

we are now on lake Michigan. in the afternoon we got to Millwakie [Milwaukee] and all the families that came with us all the way left us here. But we have formed new acquaintances but still they are strangers to us. After they had all left the boat, it was so much lighter and the wind blew and tossed it up and down. The lake was very rough, so much so that the piano, and tables, and sofa, were moved out of there places. They had to fasten them to keep them from being broken to pieces. We was all sea-sick and glad to lie down on the carpet.

Chicago about 1850 in a panoramic view from Lake Michigan. Illustration from History of Chicago. From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. (3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1888) by Alfred T. Andreas.

Chicago about 1850 in a panoramic view from Lake Michigan. Illustration from History of Chicago. From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. (3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1888) by Alfred T. Andreas.

Monday 20th

We had got all most to Chicago. We could not eat much breakfast. The Lake was still rough. We are glad now the boat has got to Chicago. We soon got a man to carry us to Mr. Wrights. They had been expecting us, and received us very kindly. In the afternoon we went out and called on a few of our acquaintances that had left Crown Point a few years before.

Tuesday 21st

We are now about 50 miles from our new home. We had to travel the rest of the way in a wagon. The roads were very dusty. When we got to Naperville we stopped at the New York house and took dinner. The road seemed very long to us. When we came within a few miles of the place we saw some children that appeared to be coming from school. We asked them who was there teacher as we knew that Sarah was teaching. They said her name was Harkness and that she boarded at the next house. She did not know us at first but soon found out and got into the wagon and road home with us.

When we got in sight of the house we saw Betsy with a pail in her hand watering her flower beds. She threw the pail and ran to meet us. She was like to tears and all to pieces. Christina was also glad to see us, and little Mary said now the “dils have tum”  they all appeared to be happy and enjoying good health.

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