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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.