Monthly Archives: June 2013

How about we give 30,000 kids hand grenades?

Ah, the times really have changed.

Back in the day, lots of us carried pocket knives to school and played spirited games of cowboys and rustlers, Flying Tigers, and Gene Autry vs. the Phantom Empire, not to mention fighting off the ChiComs, laying about us with pretend revolvers and machine guns. Nowadays, doing that can get kids suspended from school.

Today’s modern anti-violence sensibilities aren’t completely off-base, of course. It seems a week doesn’t go by without some sort of mass violence involving a nut with a gun. And the horrific school massacres, such as the one last year in Newtown, Connecticut, seem to be, if anything, increasing.

But there was a time when there was a more matter-of-fact attitude towards objects and ideas that would be ringing all sorts of loud alarm bells these days. For instance, back in 1919, the federal government decided it would be a wonderfully patriotic thing to give at least 30,000 school children hand grenades as a way to teach them thrift in the wake of World War I.

Here, from the June 25, 1919 Kendall County Record is how the whole thing was explained in the local press:

Soldiers with the U.S. Army's  83rd Infantry Division train with grenades before going into action during World War I. (Photo courtesy of the Doughboy Center at

Soldiers with the U.S. Army’s 83rd Infantry Division train with grenades before going into action during World War I. (Photo courtesy of the Doughboy Center at


This week, beginning last Monday, is being celebrated as “Thrift Week” throughout the United States as designated by the War Savings Organization of Illinois. The idea is to promote thrift in the country and to start the children on the right track as to saving.

In order to bring about the cooperation, the children are promised a real treat by the government. The treat resolves itself into the gift of a hand grenade, manufactured by the government for use abroad and made over to a saving bank for the school children. The proposition is explained in the following letter from the Chicago headquarters:

Real Hand Grenades and Savings Banks

Thirty thousand Illinois school children, probably more, will receive at the reconvening of school in the fall, a souvenir of the war that in later years will be highly prized. The souvenir is a real hand grenade converted into a savings bank. These banks are being manufactured from grenades designed for use by the American troops in France.

These are the four main types of hand grenades that were used by U.S. Troops during World War I. The two grenades on the left were used for defensive combat (far left) and offensive warfare.  The third grenade from the left was a poison gas grenade, while the final example was an incendiary phosphorous grenade.  (Image courtesy of Inert-Ord.Net)

These are the four main types of hand grenades that were used by U.S. Troops during World War I. The two grenades on the left were used for defensive combat (far left) and offensive warfare. The third grenade from the left was a poison gas grenade, while the final example was an incendiary phosphorous grenade. (Image courtesy of Inert-Ord.Net)

The mechanical contrivances for exploding the grenade and safeguarding the thrower are left intact. Only the TNT is removed. This had to be done to make room for the pennies and dimes the school children will save therein for the purchase of War Savings Stamps.

When the armistice was signed, the War Department had 15 million grenades on hand and these are being transformed into banks. Illinois has been allotted 30,000 and has asked for an option on an additional 30,000.

Under a plan approved by the Treasury Department for the distribution of the souvenir banks, each child under 10 years old who during the vacation season earns enough money to buy one War Savings Stamp and submits to his teacher an account of how the money was earned would be entitled to receive a bank. Children of more than 10 years would be required to purchase two War Savings Stamps.

The banks will be distributed in the fall by the teachers upon the pupils’ essay. it will be for the teachers to determine whether the Stamps bought represent bonifide vacation earnings.

Well, at least we can be relieved that the TNT was removed from the grenades before they were passed out to the kids. After all, had to have room for pennies, nickels, and dimes. I haven’t been able to find out whether this (at least to me) harebrained scheme came to fruition or not, but I’m going to keep looking with a sort of horrified fascination to see if there were any follow-up stories.

It’s interesting to ponder whether, if it did come to pass, whether these grenade banks might not be the source of some of the scary stories in the news that erupt when an inert grenade of some kind is found in places from private homes to show and tell sessions in elementary schools.

Further, and recalling my own youthful experiments making gunpowder, building rockets, and blowing stuff up in general, I can’t help but wonder how many of those hollow grenades were filled with black powder from emptied shotgun shells and then blown up with a satisfying, if terrifically dangerous, explosion, blasting shrapnel in all directions.

Handing out 30,000 hollow hand grenades to kids, many of whom liked nothing more than to see a satisfying explosion. What could possibly have gone wrong?



Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Gotta give old Stub Russell credit…

So I was reading through the Kendall County Record for December 1884 (hey, you read what you like for fun, and I’ll read what I like) and came across an item in the Dec. 16 paper that is an instant classic of local history. It’s one of those things that keep getting better the more of it you read until it winds up with a bang at the end:

Sheriff Newton has a boarder he would be glad to be rid of. The neighborhood pest, Stub Russell, is now in the County jail at Yorkville, much to the disgust of everybody. He stole a satchel over at Plano and was bound over by Squire Horton to appear before the Circuit Court. How a man with both legs off at the juncture of the thighs and only one arm can steal is a mystery.

I could find nothing more about the inventive and ambitious Mr. Russell, but by golly, you’ve got to admit he didn’t let a little thing like being a triple amputee keep him from trying to live a normal life. Even if he was a thief. And besides, he had one of the great names in history. Am I right?


Filed under Kendall County, Newspapers, People in History, Uncategorized

Has Steve Libert finally found the Griffin?

Back in November of 2004, I wrote a column about Great Lakes shipwreck hunter Steve Libert’s announcement that he was pretty sure he had found the wreckage of the first ship to sail the Great Lakes, Robert Cavalier, Seur de la Salle’s Griffin, somewhere in the Lakes Michigan-Huron area.

Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle.

Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle.

At the time, Libert was being very close-mouthed about his reported find, and for the next nine years, I didn’t hear any more from him about the success or failure of his effort.

Now, though, Libert’s efforts are back in the news, and it appears he’s got the backing and the legal permission to begin to finally prove whether he’s indeed found the famed ship’s resting place.

For LaSalle in mid-September 1679, it had been a struggle all the way, but he and his companions finally sailed their ship, the Griffin, into the mouth of Green Bay on Lake Michigan.

There, they found the French trading party LaSalle had dispatched the previous year. The group had acquired six tons of fine furs, ready to be shipped to the European market. In need of ready cash to continue his exploration and colonization of what would one day become the State of Illinois, LaSalle ordered the furs loaded aboard the Griffin, and then dispatched the ship and crew of two officers and five sailors to sail to Michilimacinac—today’s Straits of Macinac— before making the final leg of the voyage to his post at Niagara.

As LaSalle and his men watched the Griffin sail out of sight on Sept. 18, they had no idea the ship and its valuable cargo would never be seen again.

American artist George Catlin's take on how the Griffin's departure from Niagara looked in 1679. That's LaSalle on deck in a red cloak.

American artist George Catlin’s take on how the Griffin’s departure from Niagara looked in 1679. That’s LaSalle on deck in a red cloak.

Sailing off into the mists of history, the Griffin has become one of the enduring legends of the Great Lakes. LaSalle’s men, under the direction of his skillful second in command, Henri de Tonti, built the ship along the banks of the Niagara River, just upstream from the falls, during the winter of 1678-79. LaSalle had brought the artisans to build the craft, along with sufficient materials, from his base at Ft. Frontenac, today’s Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately, most of the materials, with the exception of two anchors and sufficient rope and cable to rig the ship, were lost along the way. But during the winter months, construction continued eventually resulting in a ship of about 45 to 60 tons berthen, measuring 40 to 60 feet in length. LaSalle decided to name the ship after the Griffin, the mythical beast that decorated the coat of arms of Count Frontenac, governor of New France. Griffins were said to have the body, tail, and back legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. It had an eagle’s talons as its front feet, and in legend was known for its ability to guard treasures.

Here's what LaSalle's Griffin may have looked like. No contemporary images of the vessel exist.

Here’s what LaSalle’s Griffin may have looked like. No contemporary images of the vessel exist.

After launching, the small ship was armed with five to seven cannons, as well as with matchlock muskets for defensive purposes. It was the first cargo ship to sail the upper Great Lakes,

With the ship equipped and provisioned and with a favorable northeast wind blowing, the ship’s crew set all available sail on Aug. 7, 1679. In addition, a party of “a dozen stalwart men” pulled on ropes from shore to help tow the ship over the rapids at the head of the Niagara River and the Griffin sailed into Lake Erie.

On Aug. 10, the ship reached the mouth of the Detroit River, where they met up with Tonti and a party of men sent on ahead. The voyage up the Detroit River started the same day, and as they crossed the lake midway on the river’s course, LaSalle named it after Saint Claire, on whose festival day Aug. 10 falls.

Henri de Tonti, LaSalle's right hand man. Tonti had lost his left hand in the wars in Italy and had replaced it with one made of iron, thus the Native Americans' name for him, "Iron Hand."

Henri de Tonti, LaSalle’s right hand man. Tonti had lost his right hand in the wars in Italy and had replaced it with one made of iron, thus the Native Americans’ name for him, “Iron Hand.” Courtesy Arkansas Historical Commission.

A westerly gale and the geography at the source of the Detroit River on Lake Huron—with its numerous islands and false channels—delayed the voyageurs. Again facing strong currents flowing over rapids that required a dozen men with tow ropes pulling from shore to cross, it wasn’t until Aug. 23 that the Griffin was able to sail into Lake Huron.

In the late afternoon of Aug. 27, the Griffin, ahead of a light southerly breeze, passed Point St. Ignace, and anchored in the calm waters of the bay at Michilimacinac—today’s Macinac Island.

LaSalle ordered a brief rest and refit, and he decided to take care of some of his typically contentious business, too. At Michilimacinac, he found some of the 15 men he had sent ahead to trade with the Illinois Indians and immediately arrested them for desertion. Hearing there were more at Sault Ste. Marie, he detached Tonti with six men to apprehend them. But the season was getting along and winter wasn’t far away, and by Sept. 12, LaSalle felt he could wait no longer for Tonti’s return. So he set sail for Green Bay, leaving orders for his lieutenant to follow as best he could.

A fair wind made for a quick run south along the western shore of Lake Michigan to the mouth of Green Bay, where the Griffin anchored in Detroit Harbor on today’s Washington Island. There, they found the rest of the party previously sent to trade with the Illinois and which had collected six tons of prime furs.

After waiting out a violent four-day storm, LaSalle ordered the Griffin to sail to Ft. Frontenac with the furs, which were to be shipped back to France to pay off his creditors. Since LaSalle and Tonti, who had by then caught up with the Griffin, would continue on to the Illinois River by canoe, there wasn’t enough room to carry all the trade goods he’d brought along. So the balance of the goods were kept aboard the Griffin, whose captain was ordered to stop at Michilimacinac and drop them off for future transshipment to the colony LaSalle planned in the Illinois Country.

On Sept. 18, the captain of the Griffin ordered a single cannon salute fired, and the ship sailed out of Detroit Harbor and into history. She never arrived at Michilimacinac, and LaSalle’s plans for the Illinois Country were delayed for a couple years while he regrouped and fought off angry creditors.

For the last 334 years, reports of the discovery of the Griffin have circulated, but none have borne out—until now, perhaps. Last week, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the state archaeologist’s office approved a plan by Great Lakes Exploration Group to dive on and excavate what Libert and other experts believe is the wreck of the Griffin.

Libert and his group have gathered a team of marine archaeologists and divers who plan to survey the wreck site this month, according to press reports, including excavating two test pits on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

If it is indeed LaSalle’s long-lost Griffin, Libert’s discovery would be arguably the greatest Great Lakes archaeological find ever. And it would solve one of the Midwest’s most enduring historical mysteries. The efforts of Libert’s team will be watched with much interest by all of those of us interested in the history of the Great Lakes region.

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Filed under Fur Trade, Illinois History, People in History, Science stuff


A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for the Record Newspapers about dandelions and my family’s long association with them. In fact, all the dandelions now growing so happily throughout northern Illinois might be the descendants of plants grown by my pioneer ancestors.

Dandelion CAnyway, in the column I noted that my grandmother used to harvest dandelion greens in the early spring for use at the table. It’s important to get dandelion greens before the plants flower, after which time the greens are not simply sharp tasting, but are downright bitter.

In my family, we served them as a dish similar to wilted lettuce, with a family-concocted sweet/sour sauce served, usually, with some sort of pork product, such as pork chops, pork steak, or ham. I haven’t had dandelion greens for decades, so imagine my surprise when I saw them today for sale in the produce section of our local Meijer store. If I had of a mind to, I could have bought a whole bunch or maybe two to have as the side dish for a meal this week.

If you decide not to click through to the column, here’s the recipe for our family sauce, which works on dandelion greens as well as leaf lettuce as a good compliment for pork:

•One egg, beaten

•1/4 cup vinegar

•1/2 cup half & half

•1/2 cup milk

•2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak

•Salt and pepper to taste

Cook and dice bacon, retain a small amount of pan drippings, mix in other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour over dandelion greens or leaf lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

There’s also dandelion wine, but we won’t get into that right now…


Filed under Food, Illinois History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events