Monthly Archives: October 2013

When will we ever learn?

Canada’s sardine fleet set off this year with high hopes. But this past month, the fleet came back to port having caught not a single sardine. The Canadian sardine industry, which generates about $32 million a year, has apparently been destroyed by over fishing.

Once again, we humans seem to have turned a renewable resource into extinction.

I suppose I’m a bit to blame as well, because I enjoy—or should I say enjoyed—a sardine sandwich every once in a while, not really thinking about where the succulent little guys came from or how they got into our local grocery store.

It sort of puts me in mind of what happened to the seemingly limitless herds of American Bison. Teams of market hunters, mowing down dozens of the huge shaggy animals with their Sharps “Big 50” rolling block rifles were follwed by the skinners who deftly removed the thick hides, which were shipped east to make robes and coats.

The range of American Bison before the herds were eradicated by over-hunting.

The range of American Bison before the herds were eradicated by over-hunting.

In the 1500s, scientists believe there were between 30 and 60 million bison in what would one day become the United States. By 1820, the Eastern Bison had been eradicated by a combination of Native American subsistence hunters and European market hunters. Then they started working on the herds west of the Mississippi.

The same combination of forces that eradicated the eastern herd came to bear on the gigantic herds of western bison, with the Hudson Bay Company leading the early charge. In 1844, the HBC handled 75,000 buffalo hides. But that was a drop in the bucket of what was to come.

In the late 1860s, the U.S. Government encouraged the extension of a rail line across the nation to link the east and west coasts. The construction companies hired hunters to harvest bison to feed their construction crews. Young William Cody was one of those hunters. He later became famous as Buffalo Bill, and was well-known for his “Wild West” shows that tried to preserve the old culture of early life on the western plains.

A reenactor demonstrates how buffalo hunters used their Sharps .50 cal. rolling block rifles to exterminate the American bison herds on the western plains.

A reenactor demonstrates how buffalo hunters used their Sharps .50 cal. rolling block rifles to exterminate the American bison herds on the western plains.

Then some entrepreneurs in Germany invented a process to tan buffalo hides, making them soft and supple. That made buffalo robes much more desirable and in 1870, about 2 million bison in the southern herd were killed by hunting and skinning teams. From then on, the slaughter accelerated as first the southern herd was exterminated and then the northern herd was attacked. The southern herd had been eliminated by 1874. Then the slaughter of the northern herd began, with millions of hides taken and shipped east. In 1883, the hunt ended early due to lack of buffalo. It was thought the herd had moved north of the U.S. Canada border. But in 1884 when the hunters headed out onto the plains, just like this year’s sardine fleet, they didn’t find a single buffalo. Other than about 300 animals remaining in protected areas, the tens of millions of the animals that once roamed the plains were gone.

I’ve always believed we can learn a lot from history—”lessons learned” the military folks call it. But I’ve also come to understand that while some of us do learn from history, far too many of us never learn a thing. While George Santayana suggested that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I think these days the Internet Corollary is more to the point: “Those who know history are condemned to watch others repeat it.”

 

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Filed under Frustration, Fur Trade, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Epic 1826 canoe voyage created an enduring Illinois legend

It was July 1826 on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River and John Kinzie’s household, along with a good friend who was visiting, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, was just sitting down to breakfast when they thought they heard singing.

Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, just a few years before Lewis Cass arrived by canoe on his epic 1,800 mile journey.

Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, just a few years before Lewis Cass arrived by canoe on his epic 1,800 mile journey. This view is looking ashore from Lake Michigan.

The past few days had been odd; a mysterious fire badly damaged old Fort Dearborn and heavy July thunderstorms had flooded the area.

As they listened, the faint sound seemed to be one of the traditional songs the American Fur Company’s voyageurs favored to set their paddling cadence. Suddenly, Kinzie brightened, telling Hubbard he recognized the strong lead voice—it was his half-brother, Bob. Robert “Bob” Forsyth, his brother Thomas (Kinzie’s other half-brother), and Kinzie were all former partners in the fur trade Kinzie was then carrying on alone. By 1826, Robert Forsyth was serving as secretary for Michigan Territory Governor Lewis Cass, the U.S. Government’s point man in dealing with Native Americans along the Northwest frontier and Kinzie thought him to be with Cass at Green Bay.

Hurrying outside, they saw a sleek birch bark express canoe moving quickly up the normally sluggish Chicago River towards Kinzie’s trading house. As the canoe reached shore, half the tough, wiry voyageur crew jumped out to steady the craft and keep it from striking the muddy riverbank while others carried Forsyth, and, Kinzie was surprised to see, Gov. Cass himself, to shore on their backs.

Governor Lewis Cass, former brigadier general in the U.S. Army and future Secretary of War, U.S. Senator, candidate for President, and Secretary of State, was the leader of an epic 1826 frontier canoe journey, setting a record that is likely never to be beaten.

Governor Lewis Cass, former brigadier general in the U.S. Army and future Secretary of War, U.S. Senator, candidate for President, and Secretary of State, was the leader of an epic 1826 frontier canoe journey, setting a record that is likely never to be beaten.

Which is how Kinzie and Hubbard learned the Winnebago Tribe in what is today Wisconsin was on the verge of open warfare with whites encroaching on their lands—and that Cass, Forsyth, and their crew of 13 hardy voyageurs were on the brink of making Illinois frontier history.

Cass explained he had traveled to Butte des Morts, just upstream from Green Bay on the Fox River of Wisconsin for treaty talks with the Winnebagoes, to find only one small group had showed up. Further, he learned Winnebagoes had attacked and killed a Métis (mixed French-Canadian and Indian ancestry) fur trader and that a keelboat on the Mississippi had also been attacked.

Cass, a former military officer, knew serious trouble when he saw it, and he decided decisive action was needed to keep the situation from deteriorating. Cass and Forsyth quickly gathered supplies aboard a handy express canoe, and set off like nautical Paul Reveres to warn the frontier and get military help at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Cass’s route was the familiar “Voyageur Highway” up the Fox River from Green Bay to the portage to the Wisconsin River (at modern Portage, Wis.) and then down the Wisconsin through Winnebago territory where he stopped to urge the tribe reconsider their actions—and where he was nearly assassinated. Then it was down to the Mississippi, a quick July 4 stop at Prairie du Chien to buck up terrified settlers and on to the Fever River by July 6. There he organized the defense of Galena and dispatched a relief force to Prairie du Chien.

From Galena, Cass set his course down the broad Mississippi to Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis, where he alerted U.S. Army Brigadier General Henry Atkinson that troops were needed in a big hurry up north. Gen. Atkinson moved fast, leading an armed and equipped detachment aboard a steamboat for the trip up the Mississippi while Cass, Forsyth and their crew loaded their canoe aboard the steamboat.

A light birch bark express canoe of the type Lewis Cass, Robert Forsythe, and their crew of hardy voyageurs used on their epic 1826 voyage to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was ready to go to war.

A light birch bark express canoe of the type Lewis Cass, Robert Forsythe, and their crew of hardy voyageurs used on their epic 1826 voyage to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was ready to go to war.

When the steamer reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass and company left to continue up the Illinois with the goal of warning the residents of Peoria and Kinzie’s American Fur Company post at Chicago that hostilities with the Winnebagoes were likely.

The voyageurs set a fast pace as they paddled upstream through Peoria Lake and past its historic village overlooked by old Fort Clark, sped along by the urgency of their mission. Passing the confluence with the Kankakee and steering up the Des Plains River, they knew they were finally just 60 miles from their goal of Lake Michigan and Chicago.

Especially during the summer months, this was one of the most problematical stretches of any journey up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. During periods of low water, the shallow Des Plaines required lengthy portages. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for the portage to extend the full 60 miles from the confluence with the Kankakee all the way to Chicago. Providing wagons and ox teams to haul canoes and boats across the wildly variable length of what was called the Chicago Portage was, in fact, one of the businesses Kinzie’s friend, Hubbard, operated.

But this time Mother Nature favored Cass and Forsyth. The heavy rains that struck the southern end of Lake Michigan swelled the Des Plaines, as well as the tributary from the river to Mud Lake (the source of the normally sluggish Chicago River), and the Chicago itself to such an extent that no portage was needed at all. The canoe and its crew and passengers reached Mud Lake just as night fell, and darkness prevented Cass from continuing on. One misstep with the efficient but fragile hull of the bark canoe would have meant disaster, so the voyageurs anchored the canoe by driving their paddles into the muddy lake bottom and everyone passed a miserable mosquito-plagued July night sitting upright in their seats.

As soon as dawn lit the sky, they set off again, with Forsyth leading the traditional canoe songs that set the paddlers’ cadence—and which had alerted Kinzie and Hubbard. By the time they reached Chicago, they’d already paddled more than 1,400 miles in 13 days.

Cass and Forsyth quickly explained their mission to Kinzie and Hubbard while replenishing their supplies and Kinzie acted at once to secure the vital Chicago Portage. After a good night’s rest, the canoemen set off again, this time up the shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay to complete their remarkable 1,600 mile circuit, setting a record that is unlikely to ever be matched, and creating an enduring Illinois frontier legend.

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The time economic incentives to lure business actually worked…

So the ridge cap on the lower gable of the Matile Manse roof needs to be replaced. Actually, it’s needed to be replaced for some decades now, but it’s something I just never got around to. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, our television antenna was attached to the gable roof section over the small attic above our kitchen, bathroom, and side porch. During that period of time, windstorms knocked it down three or four times, and each time it crashed into the metal cap that runs along the ridge of the roof, denting it. Eventually, those dents became deep enough to fill with water during rainstorms and with winter snow, and gradually, the metal, which was zinc-coated steel, rusted through. And now we have the occasional leak when it rains hard.

As a result, I’ve been looking around for someone to craft about 17 feet of ridge cap, and other than a company out in New York State, have been unsuccessful, until today. I tried a local roofing supply company, and they suggested a second company that specializes in metal roofing parts up on Rathbone Avenue in Aurora. I took a drive up there today, and while dodging forklifts and flatbed semis as I drove down the street I recalled how Rathbone, and one of its main cross streets, Sard Avenue, got their names.

Until the 1890s, there was no Rathbone and no Sard Avenue in Aurora. And the way they got their names is a story of how even well over a century ago, “incentives” were important parts of economic development.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding providing financial incentives to lure businesses to states and municipalities. Some say they are harmful in the extreme, while others consider them a necessary evil. Most of the time, I agree with the “harmful in the extreme” side of the argument. But back in the day, Aurora came up with an innovative way to provide an extensive list of sweeteners at no cost to taxpayers.

In 1889, Rathbone, Sard & Company, manufacturers of the popular Acorn Stoves, announced they were planning to build a new factory in Aurora, Illinois. Based in Albany, N.Y., Rathbone, Sard & Company was one of the largest manufacturers of heating and cook stoves in the nation.

Landing the new factory was a major economic coup for Aurora. As John R. Marshall commented in the Oct. 2, 1889 edition of the Kendall County Record:

“Aurora is in high glee and the papers of the city are exceedingly puffed up. Why? It is now decided that the great stove works of Rathbone, Sard & Co. are to be moved from Albany, N.Y. to Aurora, and as these works employ about 1,000 men, the cause for all this joy is apparent. For some months, the struggle has been going on between Aurora, Elgin, Rockford, and Joliet as to which city should get the works, and Aurora has triumphed.

“The works will be located on the west side of the river near where the Aurora & Joliet railroad bridge crosses Fox River; 115 acres have been  bought, 15 acres will be donated to the stove company and the other hundred cut up into lots and sold at two hundred dollars each to citizens of Aurora to make up the necessary cash.

“So large a plant located only ten miles up the river from Yorkville and five from Oswego will certainly make property more valuable at these points.”

This 1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map shows the layout of the Rathbone, Sard & Company stove works in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora Public Library collections.

This 1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map shows the layout of the Rathbone, Sard & Company stove works in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora Public Library collections.

Actually, the company was not shuttering its Albany operation as Marshall intimated. Instead, the Aurora works were to be an addition to the prosperous company’s operations in other cities.

In order to lure the stove works to Aurora, the city put on a full-court economic press. According to Montgomery historian Pat Torrance, the city formed a committee to negotiate with the firm, eventually offering 15 acres of free land, $60,000 in cash, and the all-important access to railroad facilities. In addition, the city guaranteed the company they’d extend gas, sewer and water service, and add a streetcar line past the factory site. In exchange the company would build a $350,000 factory and employ 500 people.

Rathbone, Sard & Company's popular Acorn stoves and ranges were sold nationwide. When the firm moved to Aurora, IL, the city created an entirely new neighborhood to house the firm and its workers.

Rathbone, Sard & Company’s popular Acorn stoves and ranges were sold nationwide. When the firm moved to Aurora, IL, the city created an entirely new neighborhood to house the firm and its workers.

In order to raise the $60,000 needed to finance their portion of the plan, the committee secured options on 150 acres of land bordering the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Of the total, 15 acres would go to Rathbone, Sard & Company for their factory; 10 acres would be reserved for other manufacturers who, it was hoped, would be lured to Aurora by the stove works; 10 acres was designated for the rail line and sidings; with the rest being subdivided into 500 city lots. The lots were to be sold to defray the cost of the development at a cost of $200 each.

It was a brilliant success. The lots were all sold within a day, raising $100,000, which more than paid the city’s development sweetener. It was so successful, in fact, that under the name of the “Aurora Plan,” municipalities all over the nation tried to emulate Aurora’s success.

As the area was developed, the stove works was bounded to the north by the brand new Rathbone Avenue, to the east by the brand new Sard Avenue, and to the west by the CB&Q tracks and sidings.

Construction of the works was finished by 1893, and Acorn Stoves were produced there until the mid-1920s. The problem with the company’s products was that by the time the factory was built, wood-burners like the various Acorn models, were on the way out as first gas stoves and then electric stoves began to drive them off the market.

But for several decades, Aurora’s stove works employed hundreds of men and provided middle class lifestyles for their families.

Today, the area of Sard and Rathbone is still industrialized, although the old stove works buildings are long gone, destroyed by a spectacular fire on Christmas Eve of 1983. And those 200 lots still boast a large stock of vintage workmen’s cottages built to house workers drawn to the factory building Acorn stoves as well as to other companies who took advantage of the municipal services extended to the neighborhood.

And while my trip up to Sard & Rathbone in Aurora to see if ABC Supply could fabricate my ridge cap was unsuccessful, they did point me to another metal fabricator who likely can do the job so I can keep the roof on my 1908 Queen Anne right and tight.

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Filed under Illinois History, Montgomery, Technology