Monthly Archives: December 2013

It was once a real winter wonderland around these parts…

Our white Christmases seem to be getting a little thin on the ground lately. We seem to have had our snow early, followed by rain and ice and whatnot. As I write this, the snow cover we had has greatly diminished.

But then again, old-timers have always complained winters were lots worse when they were youngsters. And since I seem to have become a certified old-timer, it’s practically my job to insist we had colder weather and more snow when I was growing up in the 1950s on a Wheatland Township farm. In my defense, the official snowfall statistics for the area compiled by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources appear to back up those childhood memories. So maybe it’s not just the ravings of an old misanthrope after all.

My sisters and a cousin urge the ever-suffering and ever-patient Dobbin to pretend to be a driving horse in this undated snapshot taken on our Wheatland Township farm.

My sisters and a cousin urge the ever-suffering and ever-patient Dobbin to pretend to be a driving horse in this undated snapshot taken on our Wheatland Township farm.

According to those records, the biggest single month’s snow ever recorded in the area was in December of 1951. At 36.4 inches, it is still the all-time champ among local snowy months. Which is sort of odd, when you think about it, because historically, we generally get most of each winter’s snow in January and February. But then again, the big snows often seem to come relatively early in the winter.

The winter before that, the area had gotten over 20 inches of snow in December. It must have seemed as if we were entering a new Ice Age.

I remember that snowy 1951 December because my uncle was working part-time that winter driving a snowplow for Wheatland Township. For a little kid, it was a very impressive piece of equipment. And on that snowy Christmas Day when we were ready to go to my grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner, Uncle Gerald came past with the snowplow and cleared our way the three miles to my grandparents’ farm. Then, like now, it helped to know the right guy.

An old-fashioned hayride at the Matiles' place about 1950 on my father's bobsled. This one seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

An old-fashioned hayride at the Matiles’ place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled. This one seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

Winters in those years were special to me, as they often are to children. Each winter, my parents hosted hayrides using the bobsled running gear that was parked out behind the barn the rest of the year. Every winter, my dad put a hayrack on the running gear, hook it up behind one of our tractors, and pull everyone down the country roads near our farm. Bigger kids hooked their sleds onto the bobsled with ropes and performed daring maneuvers as the tractor made its steady way down the road, while the adults and little kids rode on bales of hay on the hayrack, well covered with blankets and quilts.

Occasionally during those years, my sisters would take me sledding to the abandoned gravel pit a quarter mile north of our house. The walls of the old pit seemed nearly vertical to me, providing a fast thrilling ride to the bottom. Afterwards, my sisters would make hot cocoa on the stove and play their 78-rpm records.

Dick Smith and Felix Bernard's "Winter Wonderland" has been a winter classic since it's release in 1934.

Dick Smith and Felix Bernard’s “Winter Wonderland” has been a winter classic since it’s release in 1934.

I remember the first time I heard “Winter Wonderland” on my sisters’ record player, and thinking it was pretty neat that someone had recorded a song about our neighborhood. Dick Smith and Felix Bernard wrote the song in 1934, and by the 1950s, the tune had become a winter standard. “Sleigh bells ring, Are you listening? In the lane, Snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, We’re happy tonight, Walking in a winter wonderland,” seemed to nicely describe our yearly hayrides, even though the horses had been retired by the 1950s. But we did have a lane, of sorts, although it was lots shorter than the neighbors’ to the north. Although more of a driveway, the snow on it really did glisten.

The song seemed to describe a lot of familiar things: “In the meadow we can build a snowman, And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say ‘No, man, But you can do the job when you’re in town.’”

We built lots of snowmen, and I kept pestering my sisters about the exact location of our meadow so we could get it just right. Turns out, our farm was meadowless. We did have a pasture, though, and my mother said pastures and meadows were pretty much the same, suggesting the pasture was just as good a place for the snowman as a meadow. It also had a handy slough where my sisters ice skated.

In addition, we really had a “Parson Brown” out in the country, although we called him Reverend Brown and I don’t know anyone who actually made a snowman in his image, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter.

Our one-room country school was a great place in the winter. Thanks to some rich neighborhood residents, it was brick and boasted a large fireplace. After playing outside during recess, we'd warm and dry our mittens by the fire the teacher started once or twice a week.

Our one-room country school was a great place in the winter. Thanks to some rich neighborhood residents, it was brick and boasted a large fireplace. After playing outside during recess, we’d warm and dry our mittens by the fire the teacher started once or twice a week.

The song nicely captured the feeling of coming inside after playing or working in the winter: “Later on, we’ll conspire, As we dream by the fire. We’ll face unafraid, The plans that we made, Walking in a winter wonderland.”

Walking around the farm in winter provided lots of sensory stimuli. It was always surprising how warm it was in the barn. Even with no heat, the cow and the other animals housed there managed to keep the temperature seemingly lots warmer than outside. And the barn’s rich smells melded into a single aroma that old farmers always recognize.

But heading into the house after hours spent outdoors hiking or sledding was always the biggest treat for me. There’s nothing quite like coming into a house from cold winter weather and smelling cookies baking—my family was big on cookies.

We had no fireplace on the farm, but we would make plans for what we would do the next day when we once again ventured outside. Arranging snow-covered mittens on the furnace register, putting our five-buckle boots carefully out of the way, and hanging up our coats was the prelude to relaxing and listening to records or the radio.

As the winter dusk would deepen into night, my dad would sit down to read the paper, my mother would pick up her crocheting or a magazine, and tunes like “Winter Wonderland” would softly fill the house in those days gone but hardly forgotten.

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Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

In which pop culture strikes back at geezer historian…

So anyway, I was cruising the Net this morning, got down to the Huff Post on my morning reading list,  and came across a post stating that the guy who wrote “All I Want for Christmas” doesn’t consider it his favorite song, which I sort of understood, but then the post went on to say that it had been recorded by Mariah Carey, which blew me away. “Wow!” I thought, “I didn’t know she was into that sort of music at all.” It also blew me away that the guy who wrote it was still alive, much less able to comment on whether it was his favorite or not.

But then I hit the button and played it, and suddenly understood. And I placed where I’d heard it: the movie “Love, Actually.”

Historians live in the past quite a bit–at least this one does–and that was my problem because I had the wrong song. Entirely. Which is a thing us geezers have to deal with on a regular basis. Pop culture whizzes past us, leaving us in the metaphorical dust as times change. Which makes me sound like my grandfather, but still.

See, here’s what I think of when I hear “All I Want for Christmas.” Which was why I was a little surprised (truthfully, more like dumbfounded)  that a looker like Mariah Carey would have recorded it, much less made it a hit, and which I hadn’t really remembered, either. And I was right; the guy who wrote the song that tripped my memory released the lyrics in 1946, which was the year I was born. So I’ve pretty much grown up with the thing.

Trying to envision Mariah Carey singing it does boggle the mind, you have to admit.

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

The visionary life of John Dean Caton

It was late in 1833, and Dr. John Taylor Temple was looking for somebody to drive his brand new stagecoach on its first trip down the new mail route from Chicago to Ottawa.

 Temple had a brand new Concord Coach shipped east west from Buffalo by Great Lakes steamer, and it was ready to go for its first run down the High Prairie Trail from Chicago on Lake Michigan to Ottawa on the Illinois River.

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

Polymath John Dean Caton enjoyed successful careers in the law, communications technology, and natural history. (image from Telegraph History web site, http://www.telegraph-history.org/)

John Dean Caton, an ambitious young man who had only recently been admitted to the Illinois bar—and thus becoming the first lawyer in Chicago—volunteered to take the reins. Born to a Quaker family in Monroe County, N.Y. on March 19, 1812, Caton’s early life was difficult. At the age of 3 he lost his father, after which his mother then moved the family to her brother’s farm near Utica, N.Y. There he worked hard and apparently studied just as hard at school. When he was 16, money was somehow found to send him to the Utica Academy (academies were the era’s high schools), where he excelled, his teachers telling him a year later he was qualified to teach in the area’s one-room schools. Caton taught for a year and continued his studies (something that proved a life-long habit), this time concentrating on the law. The next year, he was accepted to read law at a Utica firm, and after two years decided he was ready to set out on his own, and looking towards the western frontier—Illinois.

In June 1833, Caton and his brother, William, arrived in Chicago, then a boisterous, muddy, disease-ridden hamlet growing by leaps and bounds along the banks of the Chicago River at the foot of Lake Michigan. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Caton made the long trek south to Pekin, where Judge Stephen T. Logan examined him and licensed the young man to practice law in Illinois.

Caton wasted no time, renting a one-room office in Dr. Temple’s two-story frame building on Lake Street. He prosecuted Chicago’s first robbery case in July. On Dec. 4, 1833 he was elected Chicago village attorney.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

Abbott-Downing Company, based in Concord, N.H., manufactured thousands of stagecoaches for use hauling mail and passengers for companies all over North America. The one John D. Caton drove out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, looked much like this one.

That same year, Temple, who apparently used his political connections to snag the all-important contract to deliver mail between Ottawa and Chicago, established John T. Temple & Company, the city’s first stagecoach company. To carry the company’s mail and passengers, ordered a new state-of-the-art stagecoach from the Abbott-Downing Company in Concord, N.H., and by Jan. 1, 1834 Temple’s line was ready to roll.

Climbing up onto the driver’s seat, Caton, who learned to drive teams on his uncle’s farm, urged the horses on across the frozen Nine Mile Swamp and along the Barry Point Trail to Barney Laughton’s tavern at the DesPlaines River ford—and into history.

If his career had stalled at that point, he would still have been remembered by history. But Caton was only beginning a public life that would span decades of Illinois history. As Chicago boomed during the frenetic 1830s, Caton prospered. In 1835, he traveled back east to New Hartford, N.Y. where he married Laura A. Sherrill. The couple then headed back west to growing Chicago where they quickly had three children. In addition, Caton served a term as a Chicago’s alderman.

By 1838, Caton was exhausted, his heath had begun to suffer, and the devastating Panic of 1837 (we call them depressions these days) had seriously damaged his finances. Deciding on a change of scene and occupation, he and his wife purchased a few hundred acres of land in what would, in a few years, become Kendall County, adjacent to thousands of acres owned by her brother, Henry Sherrill, and by his brother and cousins. Caton farmed for a few years, and acquired more land, before reentering the law and deciding to join the state’s judiciary.

In 1842, Caton was appointed judge for the circuit that included Kendall County, and in that capacity presided over the county’s first murder trial in 1844 and at the first session of the circuit court after the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845. Along with his work on the regular circuit, Caton also served on the Illinois Supreme Court starting in 1842. In 1848, he left the circuit and concentrated on his Supreme Court duties, including a number of terms as chief justice.

Then in 1849, he found something even more interesting than the law. Friends in Ottawa, where he had moved, asked him to help Henry O’ Riley of Rochester N.Y., who had contracted with those holding Samuel F.W. Morse‘s patents to extend telegraph lines from St. Louis into Illinois. So Caton helped establish the Illinois and Mississippi Telegraph Company, becoming one of its first directors.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton's Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

One of the many telegraph innovations developed at Caton’s Ottawa, Ill. company was the Caton Pocket Relay, a telegraph key and sounder combined into a portable instrument, which was used throughout the industry for line testing.

Fascinated with the new technology but knowing little about it, Caton spent much of the next three years studying it and becoming a skilled telegrapher. And thanks to his legal acumen, the company weathered some rough financial patches. Applying his ingenuity to the new communications technology, he helped overcome a number of technical problems. For instance, he insisted the company use cedar poles that, while initially more expensive, were far more durable, sharply cutting maintenance costs.

His Caton Telegraph Instrument Shop in Ottawa, under the management of Robert Henning, became a technological leader in both telegraph instrument design and manufacture and in teaching telegraphy. In 1867, Caton sold all of his telegraphy interests to Western Union. His innovative instrument shop eventually became an ancestor of Western Electric, later Lucent Technologies.

Caton's 1881 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

Caton’s 1877 book, The Antelope and Deer of America, was a professional success, with naturalist Charles Darwin giving the study a thumbs-up.

A wealthy man by the late 1860s, Caton pivoted once again, plunging into the study of natural history while traveling the world, publishing several authoritative papers and books. Between 1868 and 1877, Caton frequently corresponded with Charles Darwin on observations on sexual behavior and characteristics of elk, deer, bison, and the habits of wild and domestic turkeys. Caton sent Darwin copies of papers he wrote on North American wildlife and Darwin reciprocated with his own work and comments. When Darwin’s sons visited the United States in 1871, he sent a letter of introduction with them to Caton. Caton sent Darwin a copy of his book The Antelope and Deer of America (1877), which Darwin warmly received.

In his busy retirement, Caton published books and papers on Hawaii, Norway, and on Illinois history before his death in Chicago on July 30, 1895. He never really forgot his local roots, either, and today Caton Farm Road in Kendall County and Caton Street in Ottawa are reminders of the life of this fascinating, visionary attorney, farmer, judge, businessman, historian, author, and scientist.

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

Pierre Lamsette, Peter Specie, and the dawn of Kendall County history

Few other figures of Kendall County’s pioneer era were as important to the history of Kendall County as Peter Specie—and yet so little known.

Specie partnered with Steven Sweet in 1830 to settle in the Kendall County grove that soon bore his name. By that time, he was already well known in northern Illinois, and he would soon become an invaluable resource for the county’s earliest settlers.

Born Pierre Marie Pichet Dupre Lamsette on Dec. 11, 1789 at Saint-Charles-Sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, it would be many years before he assumed his familiar local name.

Pierre Lamsette, later Peter Specie, engaged in the fur trade near old Fort St. Joseph at the portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River on the old Voyageur Highway.

Pierre Lamsette, later Peter Specie, engaged in the fur trade near old Fort St. Joseph at the portage from the St. Joseph to the Kankakee River on the old Voyageur Highway.

The business of that region was the fur trade, and young Pierre got involved early on. At age 18, he was recorded working (probably for the American Fur Company) with Joseph Bailey along the St. Joseph River in Michigan, on what was one of the region’s major fur trade routes. The St. Joseph portage to the Kankakee River had been part of the voyageurs’ highway since the 1680s.

In 1820, Specie was reported living along the Mazon River, where he not only engaged in the fur trade, but also dealt in coal, which he had discovered on the land he occupied. It may have been about this time he Anglicized his first name and assumed his new last name. Reportedly, the name “Specie” was given him by his customers because he only accepted hard currency—no credit permitted. And the nickname stuck. When his siblings eventually immigrated to Illinois, they assumed his already well-known name.

By 1825, Specie had moved to Chicago, where he worked a small farm about where Bridgeport is now located and also engaged in the fur trade, which was sometimes more exciting that he may have wished. In September 1829, Specie brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice of the Peace Alexander Doyle in Chicago (which was administered by Peoria County at the time) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians. Specie said he was on his way to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Fredrick Countryman and a half-barrel to Vetal Vermet, both of whom also engaged in the fur trade, when he was set upon near the DuPage River by Pottawatomie Chief Half Day and two warriors. The Indians slashed Specie and got away with some of the whiskey during the incident. Continuing on his way, he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who stole more liquor. Specie estimated his loss at about ten gallons of whiskey.

Specie's claim in what is today Kendall County included the grove named after him. This 1876 map shows the grove's relation to Oswego and Yorkville.

Specie’s claim in what is today Kendall County included the grove named after him. Specie Grove was separated from its companion, AuSable Grove, by the Big Slough, an ancient Ice Age lake and source of Morgan Creek. This 1876 map shows the grove’s relation to Oswego and Yorkville. (Click to enlarge)

For the next few years, his name appears in various Indian treaties as he pressed claims for goods he claimed were either stolen or destroyed during the Black Hawk War of 1832. After the war, he and Sweet moved back to their Specie Grove claim, but soon split up, Sweet moving to Yorkville before heading farther west to McLean County where he reportedly married.

At Specie Grove, Specie’s claim was centrally located with respect to what would one day become Kendall County. Specie had purchased a primitive sod-breaking plow in Chicago about 1825, and as the 1830s wore on, new settlers hired him to prepare their land for cultivation or rented his plow. He also hired some of those early settlers for various jobs, providing some of the area’s earliest employment.

The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, recounts Specie’s impact on early settler John Shurtliff: “He hired Peter Specie to break seven acres for him, paying him by driving his breaking team one month. Specie had six or seven yoke of oxen, and did breaking and teaming for the settlers.”

Early breaking plows were badly designed, since they cut through prairie plants' tough root systems, laying over a thin, wide strip of soil. Their wrought iron blades and wooden mouldboards required considerable energy to pull, provided by several yokes of oxen.

Early breaking plows were badly designed, since they cut through prairie plants’ tough root systems, laying over a thin, wide strip of soil. Their wrought iron plowshares and wooden moldboards required considerable energy to pull, provided by several yokes of oxen.

Those early breaking plows were uncertain machines, just good enough to do the job. They were generally set to cut four to six inches below the surface and lay over a strip of prairie sod about 16 inches wide. In so doing, the plowshare cut right through the toughest part of the prairie’s root system. Given the relatively high silica content of prairie grass roots and the design of the plowshare itself—generally a wrought iron chisel and share attached to a wooden moldboard—it was hard going and thus the need for so many yokes of oxen to pull the things. When John Deere invented his steel plowshare, he really did revolutionize prairie farming since steel plow blades polish—scour—themselves during use, allowing them to slide and cut through the prairie soil.

When the Minkler family arrived in the area, Specie traded the labor of Peter Minkler and his son, Smith Minkler, on the breaking plow and doing other work for a place to stay while they searched for a permanent claim. Specie also provided Smith Minkler’s first apple seedlings, the basis for Minkler’s famed fruit growing business. According to Hicks, Minkler “…got his first apple trees of Specie, cradling wheat for a dollar a day, and giving the dollar for four trees. Specie had raised them from the seed, and he thus became the pioneer nurseryman of Kendall County.”

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

From those seedlings, Minkler developed his famed Minkler Apple. Based partly on that success, Minkler was one of the founders of the Illinois State Horticultural Society (which is still active today), so Specie can honestly be said to have hand in that, too.

By 1835, Specie’s younger brother, Basil, and his wife and children had arrived in the area and had settled well south of Specie Grove in what is today Felix Township, Grundy County. Apparently Specie decided to sell out and move closer to his brother.

One of the few remaining stands of Minkler Apple trees on the Ament farm south of Yorkville.

One of the few remaining stands of Minkler Apple trees on the Ament farm just east of Ill. Route 47 south of Yorkville.

Hicks writes that in the summer of 1835: “John L. Clark and John K. LeBarron, after a horseback tour down the river, bought out the renowned Specie, at Specie grove, claim, personal property and all, for $2,000. There were some 15 horses, six yoke of oxen, and 50 hogs, all running at large on the prairie. He said to Clark and LeBarron: ‘This is your boundary through the grove, and southward you will always be open to the Illinois River.’ The old man’s ‘pasture,’ to which he could so calmly give a verbal warranty deed, was 18 miles long, and now supports four or five thousand people.”

Specie lived the rest of his life near his brother, until he died in his cabin on Feb. 22, 1846, well short of his 60th birthday.

In most area histories, Specie gets scant notice and less praise for his contributions to Kendall County’s settlement. But to his credit, Hicks, trying to be an honest reporter of historical facts, gives Specie his due, if somewhat grudgingly: “He was half Indian in his habits, and would as soon eat muskrat as pig, but the early settlers were indebted to him for many acts of kindness, which, sometimes, it must be confessed, were poorly requited.”

Specie is buried in the old Dresden Cemetery south of Morris near his brother, sister, and several nieces and nephews, one of the truly unsung heroes of Fox Valley history.

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