Monthly Archives: August 2013

Memories of farming years past…

We were driving through the countryside some miles east of Kendall County a while ago, and came across a sight that made me want to stop and watch for a while. I couldn’t, of course, given the traffic, so I only got a fleeting glimpse of something we hardly ever see these days.

There, making the rounds in a stubble field was a vintage tractor pulling a genuine hay baler.  Bales of golden straw were rhythmically moving off the rear chute, where a muscular young man riding on the rubber-tired hayrack grabbed each with a baling hook and swung it around, adding it to the neat stack. A second, hayrack, already loaded with straw bales, stood on the field’s headland, ready to be pulled who knows where.

The way straw used to be baled. A John Deere 720 pulls John Deere baler, and the resulting straw bales are stacked on the hay rack towed behind.

The way straw used to be baled. A John Deere 720 pulls John Deere baler, and the resulting straw bales are stacked on the hay rack towed behind.

To the uninitiated, this might seem like a normal country activity. But in business terms, it would be akin to walking into an accounting office and seeing everyone madly punching the keys on Comtometers or watching giant Frieden mechanical calculators clack and grind through long division problems.

First of all, the kind of hay baler being used in that field was almost a museum piece. Modern balers produce giant rolls of hay (some neatly wrapped in weather-proof plastic), not small bales. Second, straw is seldom baled at all nowadays because modern harvesting equipment tends to mulch it instead of leaving enough to be raked and baled. And third, hardly anyone in the Fox Valley grows the kinds of small grains that produce straw as a byproduct in the first place.

Time was, lots of straw was baled in Kendall County because the kind of diversified farming practiced here until modern specialized farming emerged in the 1960s required it. Farmers rotated crops from field to field, each crop having its place in the farming cycle. Before tractors came into universal use following World War II, oats fueled the county’s horse-powered farms, not to mention the millions of horses that made urban areas function. As a result, thousands of acres of oats were raised each year, along other thousands of acres of barley, rye, and wheat that all had their uses in those long-gone times.

August was harvest time for small grains—as opposed to large kernel grains such as corn. Fields planted in the spring turned a golden color when the grain was ripe. Pioneer farmers had to cut their oats, wheat, and other small grain by hand, using large scythes with attached cradles that caught the ripe grain as it was cut. One man could harvest an acre or two a day using a cradle and scythe. Soon, however, reapers and harvesters were invented that mechanically cut the grain. Later machines called binders cut and bound the grain into bundles so it could be manually stacked in shocks to thoroughly dry.

Farmers used flails to thresh grain for centuries. "Men Threshing a Sheaf of Wheat with Flails" was ublished in The Luttrell Psalter sometime between 1325 and 1335. These medieval farmers would have been right at home on a Kendall County Farm in 1841. From the collections of the British Library.

Farmers used flails to thresh grain for centuries. “Men Threshing a Sheaf of Wheat with Flails” was published in The Luttrell Psalter sometime between 1325 and 1335. These medieval farmers would have been right at home on a Kendall County Farm in 1841. From the collections of the British Library.

In pre-mechanized days, dried bundles of, say, oats, were taken to a clean threshing floor in a barn and were beaten with a flail. Flails had long handles to which were attached a shorter flattened piece of wood on a leather thong. The flail was used to literally beat the grain off the stalks. The straw remaining after threshing was then stacked and used as animal bedding.

Starting in the mid-19th Century, threshing machines were perfected. The first ones were powered by teams of horses on treadmills or other mechanical contrivances. As soon as they had enough money, though, farmers pooled their resources to purchase steam engines to power threshing machines. These large self-propelled steam engines were woefully under-powered by modern standards—most were in the neighborhood of 15 horsepower—and so were unsuitable for tilling fields. Instead, they were used to pull threshing machines from field to field and then act as a stationary engine to power the machines.

Threshing machines and their steam engines were expensive outfits, and few farmers could afford them on their own. As a result, they formed cooperative threshing “rings,” so named because the grain of their members was threshed as the machines moved from farm to farm.

In 1897, the Harvey Threshing Ring out in eastern Oswego Township pauses while moving their threshing machine to the next farm. Photo from the Dale Updike collection, courtesy of the Little White School Museum, Oswego, Illinois.

In 1897, the Harvey Threshing Ring out in eastern Oswego Township pauses while moving their threshing machine to the next farm. Photo from the Dale Updike collection, courtesy of the Little White School Museum, Oswego, Illinois.

In late July and August of each year, threshing rings all over the Fox Valley would swing into operation. Someone standing on a high point could look around the horizon and see the “smokes” from steam-powered machines rising.

As more efficient and more powerful internal combustion engines were developed, more capable equipment followed. The combined harvester, a machine that combined the tasks of the old harvesters and binders with threshing machines, soon became standard farm equipment. By the 1970s, most combines were self-propelled and today, their cabs are air conditioned and equipped with stereos, computers, and global positioning satellite receivers that can produce accurate soil and grain yield maps.

Or they would if many farmers in the Fox Valley still grew the small grains their great-grandparents did. Today, anyone who does grow them is doing it for a special reason; they’re simply not part of the Fox Valley’s modern grain farming scene. Which is why the fellows sweating through baling that straw got my attention. What they were doing was much akin to the Chicago Tribune’s annual publication of “Injuun Summer,” a reminder of times long past.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Technology

Hyperloop? We’ve sort of tried it before…

So the other day, gazillionaire Elon Musk finally released his plans for a futuristic transportation system he’s dubbed the Hyperloop.

According to press reports, the Hyperloop would consist of automobile-sized capsules that would be transported through an evacuated tube at extremely high speed, propelled by magnetic bands. The whole system is to be powered by solar panels.

Musk is an interesting guy. He was a co-founder of both PayPal and Tesla Motors, and was the creator of the SpaceX company that is involved in the privatization of space travel. Now he’s turned his considerable talent—and fortune—to something he figures is a next-generation people and freight mover.

But while Musk’s Hyperloop has some interesting points, it’s always wise to keep in mind that some ideas—like non-road and non-railroad transportation systems—are nothing new under the sun. A case in point is Oswego resident Henry Wise Farley.

Now, it is entirely possible you may not recognize Mr. Farley’s name. But he was a thinker of big thoughts, a man who saw a need, and was ready to jump into the business of providing a low cost, dependable method of transporting just about anything, but particularly grain, from the nation’s breadbasket here in Illinois east to the New York market.

Farley’s efforts at inventing a new way of transporting freight and people put him right alongside several other 19th century Kendall County inventors. Our pioneers, it turned out, were not only hardy folk, they were also an innovative bunch.

Oddly enough, 19th Century Kendall County was a hotbed of invention and innovation. In his 1877 history of Kendall County, the Rev. E.W. Hicks enumerates the wide range of inventions created by Kendall County residents including plows, cultivators, harrows, reapers, headers, harvesters, binders, horse-drawn rakes, ditchers and scrapers, barbed wire, stoves, stereoscopes, sewing and knitting machines, waterwheels, Mr. Farley’s transportation conveyor, store furniture, railroad improvements, and miscellaneous inventions ranging from an improved lock patented in 1857 by V. R. David of Newark to a double cylinder corn sheller patented in 1876 by Ezra McEwen of Lisbon.

In fact, there seemed to be, in the late 1870s, what amounted to a national mania for inventing things. In the spring of 1876, Thomas Edison had moved all his operations to his new facility at Menlo Park, N.J., and was already churning out a host of inventions, many of which were the basis for technology we’re still using today.

A year later, right here in Kendall County, an Oswego hardware store owner and tinkerer, copied Edison’s idea, although on a smaller scale. According to Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, writing on Dec. 13. 1877: “In the shop of M.C. Richards & Co., a private compartment is being constructed for the manufacture of models by Eugene for new inventions.” The next summer, Rank reported that tinkering and inventing was proceeding apace, noting: “the boys in M.C. Richards & Co.’s establishment have invented and manufactured some new scientific instruments for making observations of the eclipse.”

Eventually, “the boys” went on to invent an innovative hanger and track for sliding barn and shed doors. That led to manufacturing the hangers in a small abandoned building just north of Waubonsie Creek (where patent Marshall Wind Engine windmills had formerly been made) before the operation was moved to Ottawa, and then back north to Aurora where it eventually became today’s Richards-Wilcox Company.

But few Kendall County inventors outside the Plano harvester folks got as much press as did Henry Farley. A Massachusetts native and one-time railroad shop machinist, Farley was, in his spare time, a politician, serving on the Kendall County Board and as Oswego Village President. But his day job was as a skilled builder and former lightning rod and windmill manufacturer. In accord with the feelings of the era against the railroads’ stifling monopoly on transporting goods and passengers, Farley decided to try something completely different, a horizontal transportation conveyor that would carry passengers and freight without steam locomotives. His idea was to use endless belts placed in series to transport materials for great distances, much like the people movers in modern airports.

Farley was working on his idea as early as November 1874, when Rank reported in the Record from Oswego that: “This place contains a good deal of inventive and mechanical genius; Mr. Farley’s new system of transportation is before the public.”

Henry W. Farley's 1876 version of Elon Musk's Hyperloop got some good press, but was never developed to a practical level. Time will tell whether Musk's innovation will be any more successful.

Henry W. Farley’s 1876 version of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop got some good press, but was never developed to a practical level. Time will tell whether Musk’s innovation will be any more successful.

By 1876, he had his first full-scale model ready for exhibit, and on Saturday, July 29, of that year he exhibited a 1,000-foot working model of it in Oswego that drew widespread attention. According to the Chicago Times: “Mr. Farley calls his invention the ‘Horizontal Conveyor.’ It consists, in popular language, of an endless belt running over rollers, and carrying an endless number of cars of shallow depth. The belt is moved by stationary engines located 10 miles apart, and is so constructed as to round curves and ascend and descend grades without difficulty. The carrying capacity of the belt is at the rate of a bushel of grain to every two and a half feet. It is provided that the conveyor shall be in continuous motion and that the loading and unloading shall be done without any stoppage. In some calculations relative to the belt moving at the rate of 4-1/2 miles a hour from Chicago to New York, it is shown that its average daily capacity of receiving, delivering, and discharging would be 200,000 bushels of grain; and which would coast about 2-1/2 mills per ton per mile, or about one-fourth the cost on the regular [rail] roads.…”

Unfortunately, Farley’s wonderful horizontal conveyor proved essentially unworkable for a variety of reasons, and it joined so many other potentially amazing inventions on the dust heap of history.

But persistence often pays off handsomely when it comes to inventing things. The Stewards, Hollisters, and others down in Plano who labored to improve grain harvesting equipment were prime examples of that. As were such later inventors as Lou C. Young of Oswego who patented a farm silo liner and Oswego druggist Scott Cutter, who patented an innovative telephone and electric wire insulator designed to be attached to standing trees where utility poles were impracticable or too expensive. And of course, the company descended from “those Richards boys” is still doing business on Aurora’s southwest side.

While it would be greatly overstating things to suggest that Kendall County was a Silicon Valley of the 19th century, the facts suggest it was a hotbed of innovation during that exciting era. It will be interesting to see whether Elon Musk’s innovative Hyperloop is any more successful than Henry Farley’s conveyor.

1 Comment

Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

You collect what?

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”

Groucho Marx

I’m an admitted history nut, which is probably one reason I really like antiques. The love of antiques and my long-time association with them through my family (and that’s not necessarily a crack about their relative ages. Really) is undoubtedly one of the reasons I became so interested in first preserving the Little White School Museum as a historic structure, and then helping to organize its collections.

Nowadays, I serve at the museum’s director, a post that certainly has its ups and downs. While I love the access to the vast storehouse of Oswego area history and heritage, I could really do without the administrative side of the deal. Because, my main goal in life these days is to do history, not record-keeping. But I guess that’s life.

So when I got involved with the Oswegoland Heritage Association’s formation back in 1976, and then with the restoration and later the museum’s operation, I found there really was a conflict with my love of antiques. According to most museum ethics statements, museum staff should not have a direct interest in collecting the kind of antiques that might find their way into the museum’s collections.

That seems like common sense. Would an antique dealer or collector be amenable to making sure a particularly valuable antique made its way into the museum’s collections, or would there be a strong impetus to keep that item for the individual’s collection?

With me, probably not, but still, I decided that other than the antiques with local connections I already owned as part of the collection created by family members and passed on to me, I’d have to find other stuff to collect.

4th addn CAMIt was about that same time my buddy Paul Baumann was contemplating writing the fourth edition of his seminal Collecting Antique Marbles book. A friend since third grade and long-time fossil-hunting and fishing buddy, Paul started to talk me into collecting ceramic carpet bowls.

Now, of course, is the point at which you wonder, what is a carpet bowl? Right?

The game of carpet bowls was invented in Scotland in the early years of the 19th Century as a way of taking the extremely popular game of lawn bowls inside for play during those extremely long Scottish winter nights. The game is played much like lawn bowls, but the bowls themselves were apparently designed as much for their aesthetics as for their game-piece attributes.

 In 1846, I. Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland included this delightful advertisement for “parlour bowls” from William Grant’s Kingfield Pottery in Glasgow. Apparently then a new game, the advertisement notes it is well suited for women, unlike curling, which might (at least according to the advertisement), cause “over excitement.”

In 1846, I. Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland included this delightful advertisement for “parlour bowls” from William Grant’s Kingfield Pottery in Glasgow. Apparently then a new game, the advertisement notes it is well suited for women, unlike curling, which might (at least according to the advertisement), cause “over excitement.”

Eventually, the game pieces were sorted out into a jack, or target bowl, which was white and which sometimes was imprinted with the logo of the sporting goods firm that sold the sets. The sets further contained glazed ceramic bowls roughly 3” in diameter that came in matched pairs of striped bowls and bowls imprinted with some sort of spotted type decoration. Four to eight of these matched pairs made a complete set, along with the white jack.

The Scots played carpet bowls in church halls, pubs, and in houses with long enough hallways. It didn’t take long for the game to spread to England, and then overseas to British possessions, mainly Australia and Canada.

When suitable plastics were invented, the manufacture of ceramic carpet bowls by Scotland’s numerous small potteries ceased. With the advent of the new, tougher bowls, the ceramic sets were broken up, and they became very collectible.

Carpetbowlset3

A complete set of carpet bowls from a Canadian fishing resort. Note that half the pairs are decorated with spotted patterns, the other half with stripes.

So, thought I, this would be a suitable antique for me to collect since the bowls really had no connection with Illinois or my hometown of Oswego. So off I went collecting these fascinating, colorful ceramic spheres. My interest in them and their history eventually coincided with Paul’s efforts to get the fourth edition of his book published, and he talked me into writing a few chapters in it on the history of collecting carpet bowls and the joy of collecting them. We even made a pilgrimage to Scotland to photograph collections of bowls in museums there, as well as in northern England.

This carpet bowl fragment was collected during archaeological excavations at James Madison's Montpelier suggesting the game may have been enjoyed by those living on the estate.

This carpet bowl fragment was collected during archaeological excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier suggesting the game may have been enjoyed by those living on the estate.

Ironically, along the way I found that carpet bowls had been indeed manufactured here in the United States at potteries in the Ohio River Valley. Further, remains of a carpet bowl were recovered during excavations at James Madison’s Montpelier, suggesting that either Madison or his relatives or friends enjoyed the occasional game of bowls.

Today, I still collect them, and occasionally speak on the topic to area antique study groups and organizations of antique dealers, mostly to explain just what they are and the joy of collecting them.

The nice thing about them is that they really have no local connection at all, which gives me a chance to dabble in the history of something other than Illinois and the Fox River Valley.

And, I hope, I’m maintaining a few of those principles to which Groucho was referring.

Leave a comment

Filed under People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized