Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Winter of the Deep Snow…

It’s still cold here in northern Illinois, and likely to get quite a bit colder. Next Monday, the low is predicted to be -20° F., which is cold in anyone’s book.

There’s quite a bit of snow on the ground, too, with more predicted during the next few days. So far, this has been the snowiest winter around these parts since the big snow of 1978-79.

But when it gets cold like this, most of us are fortunate enough to live in homes with central heat, even if it is costing us an arm and a leg to pay every time the furnace or boiler kicks on.

This year’s weather invites comparisons with some of Illinois’ past memorable winters. And while it’s been cold and snowy, it hasn’t held a candle to the winter of 1830-31, known forever after by the unlucky few pioneer families living in the Fox Valley back then as “The Winter of the Deep Snow.” It was so memorable, in fact, that it became definitive. As historian Jon Musgrave wrote: “The Winter of the Deep Snow became a dating point in pioneer legend. Residence in the Illinois country before that date was qualification for members in Old Settlers associations and special designation as a ‘Snow Bird.’ One pioneer wrote: ‘I have my Snow Bird badge which was given me at the Old Settlers’ meeting at Sugar Grove. I prize it very highly and would not trade it for a hundred wild turkeys running at large in Oregon.’”

According to one account, the really bad weather began with a cold rain on Dec. 20, 1830 which then changed to sleet and snow until a six inch snowfall on Christmas Eve. Then the wind blew, creating huge drifts. Then came more rain and then sub-zero weather, forming a crust atop the snow that in places would bear the weight of men and anilmals In other places, it wasn’t quite thick enough for that and made extremely slow going across the prairie.

Dr. Julian M. Sturtevan of Jacksonville, Ill., kept a journal during the winter and noted that: “For weeks, certainly for not less that two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher that 12 degrees below zero. The wind was a steady, fierce gale from the northwest, day and night. The air was filled with flying snow, which blinded the eyes and almost stopped the breath of anyone who attempted to face it. No man could, for any considerable length of time, make his way on foot against it.”

As 1830 turned from summer to autumn and then early winter, there were still relatively few hardy pioneers living in the Fox and DuPage River valleys. And none of them were really prepared for the harsh winter that was coming.

Bailey Hobson was one of the earliest settlers in both Kendall and DuPage counties. After weathering the brutal winter of 1830-31, Hobson opened a mill on the DuPage River at Naper's Settlement, now Naperville.

Bailey Hobson was one of the earliest settlers in both Kendall and DuPage counties. After weathering the brutal winter of 1830-31, Hobson opened a mill on the DuPage River at Naper’s Settlement, now Naperville.

Bailey Hobson rode horseback from his home in Orange County, located in southwestern Indiana, to northern Illinois in May 1830, prospecting for land to settle. Armed only with a pocket knife, he looked at land between the Fox and DuPage rivers, eventually selecting a site in the timber below Newark. He cut trees to mark his claim and then headed back to Indiana to get his wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson, and his children.

Hobson was adventurous, but wasn’t particularly wise about settling during the frontier era. The family didn’t leave Indiana until Sept. 1, 1830, well along in the season. They arrived at Holderman’s Grove in what would one day become Kendall County 21 days later and then traveled to his claim where he built a rude camp for the family while he completed their log cabin.

The family’s supplies were running low, and it was far too late in the season to plant any crops, so Hobson climbed aboard his horse and headed west looking to buy flour. He crossed the Vermilion River and went all the way to the Oxbow Prairie near modern Hennepin, finding no flour to be had, but did find some pork to buy. He promised to return for it later and headed back home, where, although supplies were running low, there was sufficient food for a while.

Even though the food situation was nagging, Hobson continued to prospect for better land. And he found it to the east along the DuPage River. He and his brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, traveled there in early December and staked a claim with the intent of working on a new cabin. But that night—Dec. 20—the first of what would be a nearly unending string of snow and windstorms struck. The DuPage froze over and Stewart and Hobson had to break the ice and lead their oxen across. It took a few days, but the two exhausted men finally made it back to the Hobson claim where his wife, Clarissa Stewart Hobson was looking after the children and the family’s livestock.

Clarissa Stewart Hobson's iron determination and courage got her children through the Winter of the Deep Snow as her husband left to find food for the family.

Clarissa Stewart Hobson’s iron determination and courage got her children through the Winter of the Deep Snow as her husband left to find food for the family.

It was nearly Christmas, the time Hobson had told the Oxbow people he would return for his pork, and so once again Hobson left his family to head west, leaving Stewart to look after the wife and children. He was gone 19 days, and was nearly lost on the prairie during a blizzard, but finally made it back to the cabin with the pork only to find that his family was down to the last of their corn meal.

It was clear to Hobson that the family needed more provisions or they’d starve. So he and Stewart determined to head off to get provisions elsewhere, leaving Clarissa home to look after the children and livestock. They took a yoke of oxen to break a trail through the snow, leaving 13 head of cattle and three horses for Clarissa to look after, as well as the children.

Two days after the men left, a two day storm dumped three feet of snow on the Hobson claim, followed by a three day windstorm and freezing temperatures. Immediately after the snow fell, Clarissa bundled up and trudged to the nearby spring to get water, but then the hurricane force windstorm hit, and she was forced to dump the water and sprint to safety at the cabin through the wind. The children opened the cabin door for her and then it took all their strength to close it again against the force of the storm. They didn’t go out again for three days.

Before his death in 1850, Bailey Hobson built a large, successful mill on the DuPage River at modern Naperville.

Before his death in 1850, Bailey Hobson built a large, successful mill on the DuPage River at modern Naperville.

When the wind finally stopped, the livestock were nowhere to be found, but they slowly straggled back to the lonely cabin, ha

ving weathered the storm in the lea of the grove where the Hobson cabin stood.

The firewood that had been stockpiled in the cabin had now been exhausted, so Clarissa made her way to the family’s wood pile, only to find it a solid mass of ice. Using a pickax, she was able to free enough wood to keep the cabin’s fire burning. The spring was buried in drifts, but Clarissa was able to melt snow for drinking water.

Hobson obitOn the 14th day after he left, Bailey finally returned with part of the provisions he and Stewart had procured. And it was just in time. Clarissa and the children had burned all the wood he and Stewart had stockpiled and Clarissa was in the process of tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for firewood.

Eight days later, Stewart arrived with the rest of the food, the oxen pulling the sledge limping and bleeding from breaking through the crust on top of the snow.

That spring, the Hobsons moved east to their new claim on the DuPage River becoming some of the first settlers in modern Naperville, and some of its most respected residents, having survived The Winter of the Deep Snow.

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Maybe it really is an old-fashioned winter…

The other day I heard somebody remark that we’re having a real old-fashioned winter this year.

But people have been saying that about northern Illinois winters for decades now.

When this photo was snapped looking east on Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914, autos had begun sharing snowy winter roads with farmers' wagons and bobsleds.

When this photo was snapped looking east on Washington Street in downtown Oswego about 1914, autos had begun sharing snowy winter roads with farmers’ wagons and bobsleds.

For instance, in the Dec. 27, 1916 Kendall County Record, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall observed: “No one can complain of the good old-fashioned Christmas weather for 1916. Snow on the ground and the thermometer hovering around zero makes one think of the earlier days. But the thing that is missing is the tinkle of sleigh bells. Once in a while you see a sleigh or a bob [sled] go by but little of the jingle that makes one feel that there is some pleasure in the world. The raucous toot of the auto horn and the sound of the open muffler have taken the place of ‘Old Dobbin.’”

About 1916, a mother and child marvel at the interurban trolley as it crosses the frozen Fox River at Oswego while others enjoy skating.

About 1916, a mother and child marvel at the interurban trolley as it crosses the frozen Fox River at Oswego while others enjoy skating.

On Jan. 18, 1922, Marshall returned to the theme: “Kendall county has been experiencing some real, old-fashioned winter weather. The boys and girls are enjoying skating and in many communities the annual ice crop is being harvested. The mercury has threatened zero for several mornings but has not yet reached it. With beautiful sunny days and moonlight nights, no one has worried about the temperature.”

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Fox Valley experienced some pretty cold, snowy winters, too. Nighttime temperatures dipped to -20° F. and the Fox River froze solid from the warm outflow of the Aurora Sanitary District’s treatment plant at opposite Boulder Hill, all the way south of the Oswego bridge.

This view looking south on Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill was taken by Bev Skaggs during the winter of 1959. The river has yet to fully freeze over, but the trees were nicely decorated with hoarfrost.

This view looking south on Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill was taken by Bev Skaggs during the winter of 1959. The river has yet to fully freeze over, but the trees were nicely decorated with hoarfrost.

Back in those “old-fashioned” days somewhere around 50 percent of the water in the river was “fresh,” meaning it came from tributaries. Nowadays, somewhere under 20 percent of the river’s water is “fresh,” while 80 percent or more of it has already been used at least once by somebody upstream. With the river’s major tributaries now consisting of sanitary treatment plants of one kind or another, the water is heated sufficiently to keep it from freezing solid.

In addition, until the past few weeks, winter temperatures simply haven’t been as cold as they used to be.

That has drawn lots of new visitors to the river, including tens of thousands of Canada geese, ducks of various species, and, especially this year, whole flocks of Bald Eagles. During the two weeks just past, drivers along Ill. Route 25 reported anywhere from 38 to 61 eagles sitting in trees along the banks of the Fox.

But that’s now. Back in the day, the river froze solid, often for weeks at a time. And that meant great ice-skating. From my neighborhood in Oswego, we could skate south to the U.S. Route 34 bridge in Oswego, even farther if we wanted; and we could skate north all the way to Boulder Hill, as long as we kept near the eastern bank to avoid the ASD plant’s outflow.

The winter of 1979 was a real old-fashioned winter, as this view of the Matile Manse taken that winter suggests. So far, we haven't gotten quite this much snow this year.

The winter of 1979 was a real old-fashioned winter, as this view of the Matile Manse taken that winter suggests. So far, we haven’t gotten quite this much snow this year.

Skating had long been a popular activity on the river. John Marshall, writing in the Kendall County Record on Jan. 13, 1892 noted that: “The ice [company] men were happy over the cold wave that struck this vicinity last week and the young people were also in a good mood because the skating was good.”

It was so popular, in fact, that a move to establish a curfew for young people in Oswego caused much consternation among the ice skating crowd. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 16, 1898: “Some of the school girls became much alarmed by thinking that the curfew institution would prevent them from moonlight skating after 7:30, but were much relieved when told that the river was outside the corporation and beyond jurisdiction of the marshal.”

Ice-skating was still popular in the 1960s, as I noted above, and not only with us kids who liked skating on the river. Aurora city officials always created an ice rink at Phillips Park to which lots of us would repair in the evening since it was lighted. When the Oswegoland Park District finally built their civic center in Boulder Hill, the parking lot was designed to be flooded in the winter and turned into a skating rink. That lasted until the park board realized that the freeze-thaw cycle was dismantling their parking lot, one crack at a time.

The nice thing about living in river towns like Yorkville and Oswego back then was that there were conveniently located hills kids could use for sledding. Back then, maintenance crews weren’t quite so quick to salt, sand, or cinder-coat municipal streets. As Hugh Marshall, again, wrote in January 1915: “While the coasting on the Bridge street hill has been fine and called out large crowds for several weeks, there were several accidents that lamed some of the young folks.”

In Oswego, street coasting had a fine old history. On Feb. 9, 1887, Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported that “Tobogganing was the rage during the last week; there was quite a good natural slide down Benton Street from John Young’s, and crowds of old and young would gather there to engage in the fun or at least witness it. The only accident in connection with it was the spraining of an ear by Roy Pogue.”

Sledding was still popular in 1901on the Benton Street hill. Rank reported that: “Neil, the youngest of Lew young’s boys, broke a leg while coasting, of which he won’t have any more this season but will be all right for playing marbles as he is doing well.”

Although we were unaware of such sledding traditions when we were kids, we unwittingly continued what our grandparents and great-grandparents started. During cold winters, we’d ice down the Second Street hill near my house for particularly good sledding. The trick was to make the curve at the bottom where Second meets North Adams Street, because missing that meant a tree-strewn trip through the woods at the bottom of the hill. Not necessarily safe, but pretty exciting.

These days, things are a lot more structured, and have to be, I suppose, because there so many more people round and about. Ice-skating is impossible on the river, and it’s not often that some civic group will create an outdoor rink like the old Oswego Jaycees did at Boulder Hill School for several years. Sledding has become a more chancy thing, with coasting hills frowned upon due to liability concerns. But after a good snowfall, it’s not too difficult to drive around the area and see folks enjoying some time on the slopes, no matter how gentile they may be, as another Illinois winter does its thing in the Fox River Valley.

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Okay, it’s cold and snowy, but at least we’re not living in log cabins

 So here we are at the Matile Manse, hunkered down while Winter Storm Ion has its way with us. Personally, I think naming winter storms is dorky, but then again I suppose we have to call them something.

Cold, snowy winters have been a rarity the past several years, but it looks as if the Winter of 2013-14 will be one to remember.

Even with our milder winters lately, northern Illinois is not, even during the best of winters, the place you want to be if you can’t stand cold, snowy, and wet weather. Given the state’s orientation, extending more than 350 miles straight south from the tip of Lake Michigan, Illinois tends to be the recipient of all sorts of interesting weather coming out of the north, west, and south, from summer dust storms to winter blizzards. And it’s always been so.

For instance, the winter of 1779-80 was said to have been one of the worst ones ever experienced on what was at that time the nation’s far western frontier. According to one source, local Indian tribes referred to that winter as “The Great Cold.” Whole herds of wild animals were said to have perished in the cold and snow, and Native American residents were hard-pressed to survive during the worst of it.

Tradition says Illinois' population of bison was virtually eradicated by a severe winter shortly after 1800. The last wild bison east of the Mississippi was shot in Indiana in 1830.

Tradition says Illinois’ population of bison was virtually eradicated by a severe winter shortly after 1800. The last wild bison east of the Mississippi was shot in Indiana in 1830.

Another hard winter shortly after the turn of the 19th Century is said to have killed off hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of the state’s native bison, leaving piles of their bones bleaching on the prairies.

But during both of those hard winters, there were few pioneers in northern Illinois to record either the weather or their reactions to it. Not until the late 1820s did settlement of Illinois north of Peoria get a good start, and even then, the prairies from Galena south to Peoria, were mostly occupied by Native Americans.

As the decade of the 1830s opened, however, the state was struck by a winter so brutal the area’s earliest settlers used it ever after to mark who was and who was not an “old settler.” Generally, those who arrived before the winter of 1830-31, dubbed the Winter of the Deep Early Snow, could claim that status, while later arrivals were considered mere pioneers.

Starting in late December 1830, snow fell continuously well into January 1831 to a depth of 3 feet on the level, according to those who lived through it. Then a flash warm-up followed by a sudden rain struck the northern part of the state, immediately followed by sub-zero temperatures. The result of this weather whiplash was a crust of ice on the snow, described by many of those old settlers as “nearly, if not quite, strong enough to bear a man.” That was then followed by several more inches of snow after which the skies cleared.

But those clear skies brought sharply colder temperatures, followed by strong northwest winds that blew for days on end. “For weeks, certainly not less than two weeks, the mercury in the thermometer tube was not, on any one morning, higher than 12 degrees below zero,” one pioneer recalled.

The icy crust over the deep snow prevented livestock from digging down through the snow cover to prairie grass for food, as well as severely hampering travel and importation of food. Game became nonexistent, and starvation stalked northern Illinois’ scattered settlements.

Pioneers were forced to make some wrenching decisions. Many of the men set off for Indiana’s Wabash Valley where food was available, leaving their families to fend for themselves. Bailey Hobson, who had settled in what is today Kendall County’s Big Grove Township, struggled east to find food for his family, arriving back at his cabin weeks later just in time to save his family from starving to death.

Abraham Lincoln and William F. Berry opened their store in New Salem in 1830. By the time the

Abraham Lincoln and William F. Berry opened their store in New Salem in 1830. By the time the Sudden Change Day struck Illinois, Lincoln had moved to Springfield to practice law.

As the 1830s wore on, erratic weather continued to plague the settlers on the Illinois prairies. On Dec. 20, 1836, a ferocious, fast-moving storm  howled through northern Illinois, leaving an indelible impression on the settlers then struggling to create new homes. Ever after, the day would be recalled as Sudden Change Day, Cold Tuesday, or The Cold Day in Illinois.

Monday, Dec. 19 had been relatively warm and rain had fallen, leaving snow melting into slush across the region. Then the front came through with a vicious temperature drop of more than 40° F., accompanied by strong winds. According to meteorologist Dr. Keith C. Heidorn, on Dec. 19, a Colorado low moved east along a frontal boundary lying across the northern plains. Shortly before sunrise on Dec. 20, the front was speeding across Iowa and on into Illinois with frigid arctic air howling in behind it.

North of Peoria in Lacon Township, a settler named Spencer Ellsworth later recalled: “The morning was mild, with a settled rain gradually changing the snow on the ground into a miserable slush. Suddenly a black cloud came sweeping over the sky from the northwest, accompanied by a roaring wind as the cold wave struck the land, the rain and slush were changed in a twinkling to ice.”

Other stories Heidorn collected report chickens frozen into the ice while standing on one leg, and men caught out on horseback who reportedly froze to their saddles and had to be lifted off and carried to a fire to be thawed apart.

The front reached the Indiana border by 6 p.m. Residents of Detroit and Cincinnati recorded it passing about 9 p.m. Gales roaring with the front hit Lake Erie, grounding two ships off Sandusky, Ohio and toppling chimneys in Buffalo, N.Y.

For many settlers, however, the Sudden Change was forced to the background of memory by the disastrous economic Panic of 1837.

It’s been pretty cold the past few weeks, and we’ve gotten a fair amount of snow as well. But if our ancestors could stick it out in log cabin days, who are we to complain too much in this day and age?

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After 180 years, the roads from Chicago to Ottawa still drive growth

Just 180 years ago this week, transportation history was made when the first stagecoach drove west out of Chicago on its way to Ottawa, the sometimes head of navigation on the Illinois River.

From its earliest days, Chicago owed its wealth—in fact, its very existence—to transportation. The Lake Michigan water highway, plunging deep into the interior of North America, brought the earliest French explorers to the Chicago portage. Throughout the colonial and pioneer era, the lake acted as a north-south superhighway for traders, soldiers, and settlers.

But while Lake Michigan penetrated deeply into what would one day become the Midwest, there was no direct link from the lake to the vital Mississippi-Ohio river system. The sluggish Chicago River emptied into the lake amid marshes and sand dunes, but it did not, except during floods, connect with any of the south-flowing rivers in the area. Instead, the earliest travelers paddled their canoes up the Chicago River to the overland portage to the Des Plaines River. From there, the route flowed south to the confluence with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River forms and then down to the Mississippi.

While that route was passable—for most of the year—for canoes and small boats, it was totally unsuitable unusable for steamboats. Instead, the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River during periods of high water was Ottawa. During the rest of the year when the river was shallower, Peru was as far as the steamboats of the 1820s and 1830s could get.

Because of this gap in water transportation from the lake to the Illinois, the road from Chicago to Ottawa was a major economic engine driving development, both in Chicago and its hinterland throughout northern Illinois.

The branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail known as the High Prairie Trail was probably first used by the region’s Native American inhabitants. While the Indians’ permanent villages were located along the Fox River and other area streams, winter family hunting camps were scattered along the banks of the Illinois River. It’s likely the trail from the lakeshore at Chicago to Ottawa was forged by these groups as they made their fall trips to the Illinois and spring journeys back to the Fox, DuPage, and DesPlaines rivers.

In the late 1820s when white settlement began in earnest in northern Illinois, the overland route from Chicago on the lake to Ottawa became economically significant. Goods were sent by steamboat up the Illinois and offloaded at either Peru or Ottawa for overland shipment to Chicago. In return, the growing variety of goods, ranging from timber cut and milled in Wisconsin and Michigan forests to grain and livestock grown by farmers in Chicago’s outlying area was shipped back south to be transported down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chicago-Ottawa trails

The two branches of the road from Chicago to Ottawa were the High Prairie Trail that passed through Plainfield, Plattville, and Lisbon and the road’s western branch that linked Naperville, Oswego and Newark as the road headed southwest.

As it evolved, the trail from Chicago to Ottawa consisted of three main branches, the eastern, central, and western. Two of the three—the western and central branches—passed through Kendall County. The eastern branch followed the course of the DesPlaines-Illinois River, looping about 10 miles east of Kendall County’s borders.

The central branch, called the High Prairie Trail, was the most heavily traveled. The northern stretch of the High Prairie Trail was established in 1831 by the Cook County Board during the county’s first year of existence. Cook originally included all of today’s Cook and DuPage counties, plus most of Will. The county road paralleled and sometimes directly followed today’s Odgen Avenue (U.S. Route 34) from downtown Chicago to Bernard Lawton’s inn and tavern at the DesPlaines River ford (at today’s Riverside), and from there in an almost direct route southwest to Walker’s Grove (today’s Plainfield) at the DuPage River ford. From there, the road followed a series of moraine ridges across the prairie into LaSalle County (then including all of LaSalle, Kendall, and Grundy counties, plus all the land north of there to the Wisconsin border) where it ran southwesterly through what would one day be Plattville and Lisbon to the tiny Holderman’s Grove settlement and then on to Ottawa.

For the first two years of the official route’s existence, there was only the occasional traveler on the road to stop at Abraham Holderman’s tiny inn at the southern tip of Big Grove. But in 1833, things began to pick up. That year, Dr. John Taylor Temple was granted the U.S. Post Office’s contract to carry mail from Chicago on the High Prairie Trail via Plainfield and Holderman’s to Ottawa, where it would be sent by steamboat to St. Louis. Meanwhile, mail that had come north by riverboat would be carried northeast up to the port of Chicago.

Temple’s first coach clattered out of Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834, with an ambitious young lawyer, John Dean Caton, at the reins.

Moving buildings from houses to taverns was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

Moving buildings,from houses to taverns, was common during the 19th Century. All the movers needed was a supply of log rollers and a few yokes of oxen.

News that Temple’s new stage line would start carrying mail and passengers spread quickly. Traveling the new road from Chicago southwest in 1833, Daniel Platt of New York (his family had established Plattsburg) arrived in what would one day become Kendall County and established an inn at Plattville, while Levi Hills and family, more New Yorkers, arrived and bought Holderman’s inn. A year later, Hills hitched up several yokes of oxen and using logs as rollers moved the log tavern out of its grove out onto the prairie to the site of what soon became the village of Lisbon, apparently to better serve stagecoach travelers.

The western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail used the same route as the High Prairie Trail until it crossed the Des Plaines at Lawton’s. From there, it headed to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement (modern Naperville) on the DuPage. From there, the road crossed the prairie to Oswego, where it turned south and followed the Fox River to Yorkville. From Yorkville, the road turned southwest down the Fox River to the hamlet of Pavilion and then to the Hollenbacks’ settlement at Newark before joining the High Prairie Trail just north of Ottawa.

Today, the western branch of the Chicago to Ottawa Trail is still an economic engine for Kendall County. The U.S. Route 34 corridor—which follows almost the exact course of the historic old road—has spurred the growth of towns along its route due to its direct connection to Naperville and the rest of the collar counties.

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