Monthly Archives: February 2014

Journalism as I lived it…

My friend of some 40 years and former boss sent a photo to me the other day that was, in turn, sent to him via this wonderful communications medium we call the Internet.

The author, seemingly mezmerized by the black and white screen on his Mac in the spring of 1989, as big changes were happening in journalism.

The author, seemingly mezmerized by the black and white screen on his Mac in the spring of 1989, as big changes were happening in journalism.

There I was, perched at my borrowed desk at the Kendall County Record office in Yorkville on a Wednesday morning in 1989, running out copy. My trusty TRS-80 laptop is on the desk, connected with a null modem to the 512k Mac that we used to print out copy on the LaserWriter printer. While we knew we weren’t exactly at the cutting edge of news biz technology, we weren’t too far removed during that era when the Mac revolutionized how newspaper production.

By that time, we’d gone through a number of technological changes as the old Linotype hot type technology was left behind in favor of computerized type setting. But even those earlier typesetting reiterations were light years ahead of where newspapers started out when Kendall County was a youngster.

H.S. Humphrey's Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego's first paper.

H.S. Humphrey’s Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego’s first paper.

The first county newspaper was the Kendall County Courier, established by Hector S. Humphrey in 1852 at Oswego, then the Kendall County Seat. A native New Yorker like so many early pioneers, after earning his journeyman printer’s status, Humphrey headed west in 1848 to boisterous, fast-growing Chicago. After a few years there, he moved farther west to Naperville before deciding to start the Courier at Oswego.

Setting type by hand was a laborious process. Above, a stick of type has been pulled from the case.

Setting type by hand was a laborious process. Above, a stick of type has been pulled from the case.

During that era, printers need a variety of skills. Presses were operated by hand, producing one sheet at a time. Type was ordered in full sets from type foundries and graphics were set with individual woodcuts. Type cases were arranged so typographers stood, and pulled type from either the lower cases (with lower case letters) or the cases up high with capitals (upper case letters). Individual letters, punctuation marks, and spaces (which varied from N to M spaces—the width of a capital N or M) were set by hand in frames. When the setting was done, the frames were locked and a proof page was run off for the proofreader.

Converting horsepower to mechanical power allowed print presses at small country weeklies to become much more efficient.

Converting horsepower to mechanical power allowed print presses at small country weeklies to become much more efficient.

The first innovations in newspaper printing technology came with powered presses. Originally, presses were operated by apprentice printers or “printer’s devils,” who had to crank them by hand. Small country weeklies then moved to presses operated by a horsepower—the power provided by a horse plodding around a circle, the rotating arm providing power, or on a treadmill. In town, a treadmill horsepower was probably used.

On Feb. 15, 1883, publisher John R. Marshall wrote in the Kendall County Record that: “The Record office met with a catastrophe Wednesday morning. The snow on the horsepower shed gathered weight from the rain Tuesday night and the roof came down with a crash, making a ruin for awhile. The old power was badly busted and we haven’t money enough to buy a steam engine.”

But Marshall finally did find the money and by the late 1880s, the horsepower had been retired in favor of a small steam engine.

Linotype pretty much had the typesetting market to itself for years, only displaced when computerized cold type typesetters were perfected.

Linotype pretty much had the typesetting market to itself for years, only displaced when computerized cold type typesetters were perfected.

The next innovation was setting type by machine. Linotype was the leader in that field for the next several decades. Sitting at a giant, seemingly Rube Goldberg device, the Linotype operator used a keyboard whose keys were mechanically connected to the machine’s works. Each key struck caused the machine to cast a letter, space, or punctuation mark on the fly. At the Record, the first typesetters were powered by the same steam engine that powered the press, but in 1907, Marshall installed electric motors to run both machines. Originally, a gasoline burner melted the lead for typesetting, but in 1913 Western United Gas & Electric extended municipal gas lines to Yorkville from the company’s plant in Aurora, and the Record reported: “The Linotype machine in The Record office is now equipped with a gas burner to heat the metal for the casting of slugs. This new attachment does away with a gasoline burner.”

Off-set printing came in next, with pages being “burned” onto aluminum plates that never really touched newsprint. Instead, the plate was wrapped around a roller. When the roller turned, it picked up ink from an ink roller and the image was transferred to yet another roller, and THAT’s the roller that actually printed the image on the paper.

Then in the 1960s Compugraphic introduced computerized typesetters priced for smaller weeklies. With these gizmos, type was set on strips of photographic paper that spooled out of the machines. The strips were run through a waxer (which applied a thin layer of wax on—we fervently hoped—the blank side of the strip of copy) and then were pasted onto blank layout pages. Input for these cold type (as opposed to the old Linotype hot type machines) typesetters was either through a built-in keyboard, or a punched paper tape. The tape was produced by a sort of computerized terminal that offered a single line of copy viewable as the typesetter worked.

We produced yards of paper tape back in the early 1980s that were then run through photo typesetters, which spit copy out to be pasted up.

We produced yards of paper tape back in the early 1980s that were then run through photo typesetters, which spit copy out to be pasted up.

That’s how the Ledger-Sentinel’s type was set when the paper was formed in Oswego by the merger of the old Fox Valley Sentinel and the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. We typed copy on yellow foolscap using electric typewriters, edited our copy, and then passed it on to our faithful typesetter, Dorothy Kellogg, who transferred it to yards of paper tape. The rolls of tape were taken to the print shop in Yorkville and run through the typesetters, proofed and changes carefully pasted in place using the trusty waxer again.

The next big thing was the Macintosh revolution that allowed anyone with room for a Mac and a LaserWriter to start their own paper. No more paper tape, odd third-party typesetting terminals, or phototypesetters. Instead, copy could be printed on plain paper, waxed, and pasted up. Instead of ordering sets of type from foundries, they came on floppy discs from some of the old names in typesetting and typography.

The TRS-80 Model 100 became a ubiquitous reporter's tool in the late 1980s.

The TRS-80 Model 100 became a ubiquitous reporter’s tool in the late 1980s until replaced by early, far more useful, laptop computers.

Those early Macs were expensive, though, so we compromised by equipping our reporters with the then-new TRS-80 laptops. They were crude machines, but far better than typewriters. Copy could be edited—though it was a bit of a struggle since only about four lines of type were visible at a time and no spell-check was available. Every evening, we’d connect the TRS-80s to the phone line and send our copy down to Yorkville via the machines’ built-in 300 baud modems, where it was downloaded and formatted on Macs. Then on Wednesday we’d all gather at the print shop in Yorkville to do paste-up and download all the remaining copy to the accompaniment of the low rumble of the web press on the first floor spitting out copies at a rate that would have made old J.R. Marshall green with envy.

Early Macintosh computers were a revelation; they offered the opportunity for just about anyone to start their own newspaper. The revolution Steve Jobs started in 1984 continues at an ever-faster pace today.

The early Macintosh was a revelation; it offered the opportunity for just about anyone to start their own newspaper. The revolution Steve Jobs started in 1984 continues at an ever-faster pace today.

Which is what I’m doing in that 1989 photograph. It wasn’t too long afterwards that we got Macs at the Ledger-Sentinel office so we could create an office network, edit each other’s copy, and send the results down to Yorkville on much faster modems.

By the time I retired from the news biz in 2007, we were emailing copy via the Internet; no more dial-up modems required. And nowadays, paste-up is long gone, too. Pages are laid out using QuarkXpress, and are sent through a gizmo that turns the files directly into off-set printing plates.

Newspaper offices used to be notable for their noise: the machine noise of the Linotype, then the tapping of typewriters and the low hum of photo typesetters. Now, they’re fairly quiet places with only the tapping of keys on computer keyboards audible. But while the technology has seen great changes during the past few decades, the goal of journalists is still the same: Get the news and print it. While the big media folks seem to be having some problems figuring out exactly what’s news and what facts are concerning the big issues of the day, real journalism is still being committed at the local, weekly level.

And long may it be so.

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Filed under Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Uncategorized

How the interurban trolley changed one family’s lives…

Tomorrow, Saturday, we’ve invited Bill Molony, president of the Black Hawk Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, over to the Little White School museum to speak on the history of the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Electric Railroad. The program starts at 1 p.m. and the museum is located at 72 Polk Street—the Y between Jackson and Polk—just a couple blocks from downtown Oswego.

From 1904 to 1926, residents along the 20-mile corridor running beside modern U.S. Route 30 from Joliet to Aurora, not to mention the rural residents living along the route, had access to a relatively efficient, privately-owned mass transit line.

Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban cars like this one offered dependable service to those living along the line's 20-mile corridor.

Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban cars like this one offered dependable service to those living along the line’s 20-mile corridor.

The JP&A’s interurban service linked residents along its tracks to shopping, school, and jobs they would not have been able to otherwise enjoy. Travelers boarded the cars at various stops from downtown Joliet to downtown Plainfield to downtown Aurora, as well at rural stops at Normantown and Wolf’s Crossing, plus at other more informal stops along the way if passengers were waiting.

The JP&A has a special place in my family’s history. In 1920, my grandparents, for a number of reasons, decided to leave their comfortable home on Aurora’s East Side, right in the middle of the German-speaking “Dutchtown” area, to take up farming. They rented an 80-acre farm from Louis McLaren with one of the most dilapidated houses in that farming neighborhood, and took their three children along on their new adventure.

My grandfather, a cautious soul, decided to keep his job at the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s sprawling shops on Aurora’s North Broadway, and so began three or so years of commuting to work five days a week. According to his pay books, he was a supervisor of a crew of carpenters who built boxcars and cabooses in the Aurora shops. They worked five 10-hour days, with Saturday and Sunday off.

This photo, taken about 1920, illustrates the dillapidated condition of the farmhouse my grandparents moved to. Pictured are (L-R) my aunt, my mother, my Uncle Melvin, and Earl, whose body has not yet become as twisted as it would later in his life.

This photo, taken about 1920, illustrates the dillapidated condition of the farmhouse my grandparents moved to. Pictured are (L-R) my aunt, my mother, my Uncle Melvin, and Earl, whose body has not yet become as twisted as it would later in his life.

Every morning, rain or shine, my grandfather walked the mile and a half east on Simons Road to the JP&A tracks, where he caught the interurban to downtown Aurora and his job. And every evening after 10 hours of demanding labor, he caught the interurban back to the country for his mile and a half walk home. On weekends he caught up with chores and on the other days of the week, my grandmother ran the farm, milking cows, keeping chickens, feeding cattle an hogs, plus the thousand and one other things farm wives during that era had to do. Fortunately, the kids, my mother and my Aunt Evelyn, attended school a half mile east at Tamarack School, so they were near to hand, and it was an easy walk.

My Uncle Earl and his dog about 1945. The terrible disease he contracted had badly twisted his body, but it failed to daunt his spirit.

My Uncle Earl and his dog about 1945. The terrible disease he contracted as a young child  had badly twisted his body, but it failed to daunt his spirit.

My Uncle Earl, however, was another thing altogether. Intellectually gifted—he taught himself how to read—Earl’s body was twisted and bent by a cruel childhood disease. My grandparents tried everything they could think of, including taking him to specialists in Aurora and Chicago. The JP&A was their lifeline; my grandmother would carry her son the mile and a half to the trolley stop and then ride it to doctors’ appointments. Nothing, however, seemed to do much good and despite his intelligence, he was condemned to spend his life in special wheelchairs my grandfather made for him as he listened and learned from the radio, his magazine subscriptions, and the books he received as gifts.

My grandmother also used the JP&A to travel to her parents’ home here in Oswego—today’s Matile Manse. Built in 1908 by my great-grandparents upon their retirement from farming, the house is about three-quarters of a mile from the interurban trolley stop in downtown Oswego. Grandma would carry Earl down to the JP&A, and take that into Aurora, transfer to the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Valley Railroad’s trolley car for the six-mile trip down to Oswego. Then she’d carry him from the trolley stop downtown to her parents’ house. Occasionally, a friendly black lady who lived about a third of the way between the trolley stop and my great grandparents’ house would help carry Earl. My grandmother said the lady really enjoyed talking with Earl, who, as are many differently-abled people, was a keen observer of life in general.

The JP&A folded in 1924, and that may have helped persuade my grandfather to give up his job with the CB&Q. In its place, he farmed as well as did considerable carpentry work for the neighborhood’s overwhelmingly Scots farmers.

Meanwhile, about 1922 or so, my father had decided his job as a steeplejack at a glass factory in Ottawa, Illinois was pretty much a dead-end He heard there was farm work to be had up in Aurora, so he packed his suitcase, and headed north from Ottawa on the Chicago, Ottawa & Peoria interurban to Joliet. There he transferred to the JP&A, managing to get to downtown Aurora, just as he’d planned, on a Saturday night. During that era, farmers from miles around did their shopping in downtown Aurora on Saturday night, the only night all the stores were open. He later said he walked down the street until he saw someone who definitely looked like a farmer, and asked if he needed a hired man. No, the fellow said, but he knew someone who did, and so my dad began working for the McMicken family in Wheatland Township.

My grandfather helped do a lot of repair and renovation work at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church—so nicknamed because it was established right in the middle of a settlement of Stewarts, Glmours, McMickens, McLarens, Clows, Findlays, and others who had immigrated in the 1850s, mostly from Ayreshire, to the rich Illinois prairie. During one such project, my dad accompanied the McMicken family he was working for to help out, and he caught my grandfather’s eye. “There’s a new young man at McMickens, and he’s a worker,” my grandfather told the family that night at supper. In my grandfather’s parlance, calling somebody a worker was about the highest praise possible. Eventually, my parents met at another church function, and here I am today, thanks, at least in part, to the JP&A.

As part of their physical plant, the JP&A also built Electric Park at Plainfield, a hugely popular summertime entertainment destination on the banks of the DuPage River. It boasted a number of attractions that included a dance hall, a bowling alley, a thrilling “shoot the chutes” into the river, and even a passenger paddle boat, but closed down when the interurban line collapsed in 1924. However, one building from Electric Park remained right through my childhood. The large octagonal auditorium building saw service as a dance hall and then during the 1950s as a popular roller-skating rink. Each Thursday, the Oswegoland Park District would rent the rink, and we’d either take a bus over or have our parents drive us and our friends there to participate in an extremely odd ritual. Young males would nerve themselves up to ask a girl to skate with them, and they’d hold hands while trying to keep maximum distance between them as they teetered around the rink, with the skate staff effortlessly gliding backwards and forwards through the unsteady crowds, all accompanied by organ music. Eventually, the rink came on hard times and was then totally destroyed by the fearsome Plainfield tornado of 1992.

So come on over to the Little White School Saturday and hear more of the story of the JP&A and its impact on the area. For some of us, it had a very great impact indeed.

Admission donation for the program, which is aimed at visitors age 16 and older, is $5. Proceeds benefit the operations and mission of the Little White School Museum.

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

February snow blogging…

Looking out across the Fox River Valley from our second floor bedroom windows, we can see the river has more of its surface frozen over than any time in the last few decades.

Which isn’t surprising given this year’s invasion of the “polar vortex.” Knocked off it’s usual orbit over the Arctic by unusually warm weather in Alaska and Canada, the vortex has spun subzero temperatures down into the Lower 48, all the way south to the Old Confederacy.

Last year, the ice skating rink the Oswegoland Park District maintains on Briarcliff Lake up in Montgomery’s Seasons Ridge Subdivision was scarcely opened a single day. This year, the green “safe” flag has been regularly flying, inviting hardy pleasure and hockey skaters to try their luck.

And because of all that cold weather, the river has finally cooled off enough for much of its surface to freeze. Most recent years, the river only froze sporadically as warmer temperatures and warmer river water meant a free and open stream that thousands of Canada geese and ducks of various species enjoyed. Now, with more and more of the river’s surface covered with ice, the numbers of geese and ducks has decreased a little as they moved elsewhere to find open water.

Mary over at the wonderful Feathers, Fur, and Flowers blog snapped this amazing photo back in mid-January of a group of five Bald Eagles along the Fox. Visit her blog and see lots more truly amazing shots taken along our beautiful stretch of river.

Mary over at the wonderful Feathers, Fur, and Flowers blog snapped this amazing photo back in mid-January of a group of five Bald Eagles along the Fox. Visit her blog and see lots more truly amazing shots taken along our beautiful stretch of river.

The cold also persuaded larger than usual numbers of Bald Eagles to leave their usual wintering grounds along the frozen Illinois and Mississippi rivers to the Fox River Valley in search of enough open water to allow them to fish. With the extended cold spell this winter, there are fewer of the big, distinctive birds, but a few weeks ago, folks were counting them by the dozen on the six-mile stretch between Oswego and Montgomery. Some drivers were so dumbfounded by seeing whole flocks of the giant birds that they simply stopped right in the middle of Ill. Route 25 to gawk.

The good news on the eagle front is that the species has apparently walked back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to bans on DDT and other pesticides that traveled up the food chain to plague the eagle population, we’ve got a breeding pair right here in Oswego. My good friend Glenn watched Mr. and Mrs. Eagle raise their eaglet this year in a nest they built in a tree on an island in the river, easily monitored from Glenn’s upstairs deck.

Time was, there were no eagles around these parts, much less geese and ducks, except the tame ones raised by farmers. We built a blind back in the early 1960s on one of the river’s islands, and tried duck hunting for three years in a row, and never saw a single duck—except the high-flying Vs during the fall and spring migrations. Same with geese; it was a big deal when a flock of the big birds flew over heading north or south, depending on the season. Nowadays, with somewhere north of 60,000 of the giant (and obnoxious) birds living in the Fox Valley full-time, a bunch of the birds flying over doesn’t even rate a second look.

For most of us, the winter’s extreme cold has not been life threatening, so there’s that. We don’t have to worry about freezing temperatures inside our homes as long as we keep sending checks to NiGas and ComEd. But the time was, that wasn’t the case. Back in January 1873, the Kendall County Record reported: “Scores of our people are mourning the loss of cherished house plants by frost during the past week, while a great number have their cellars lumbered with vegetables rendered worthless in like manner.”

And back in that day and age, losing those  vegetables was a big problem, since so many folks depended on canned and otherwise preserved fruits and vegetables from their own gardens and orchards to survive.

Two years later, another extreme cold snap hit Kendall County, with Record editor John R. Marshall reporting: “We have been congratulating ourselves for some time over the mild winter and glorying over the light calls upon the fuel pile. But Old King Winter was not satisfied to let us off so easily and last Friday night with the assistance of Old Boreas, he sent the mercury down to zero—down to ten below; and not yet satisfied Saturday morning, the thermometer indicated from 20 to 25 below, according to location. All the night the wind blew a hurricane and the icy air entered at every crevice. Leaky cellars were no protection to vegetables, and potatoes were icy balls in the morning. Plants were frozen by wholesale and housewives mourned the loss of their favorites.”

The big snow of January 1918 brought most of Northern Illinois to a halt. Trolley and railroad tracks had to be shoveled out by hand, and some communities were cut off for several days.

The big snow of January 1918 brought most of Northern Illinois to a halt. Trolley and railroad tracks had to be shoveled out by hand, and some communities were cut off for several days.

And then there was the big blizzard of January 1918. That year, my grandfather left his home on Hinman Street in Aurora for work at the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops on South Broadway, and he didn’t get home for two weeks. CB&Q officials loaded every able body they could lay hands on aboard trains and sent them west to hand-shovel the main line.

On Jan. 9, 1918, the Record reported: “The blizzard which visited this part of the country Sunday was one of the most severe in years. The old-timers had a great time telling of what happened in ’48, but the younger ones were satisfied that this storm was a corker. Snow started falling Saturday night and continued with unabated fury all day Sunday and well into the night. A high wind accompanied the snow and filled the roads and walks with immense drifts. Traffic of every kind was stopped except on the Morris line. Superintendent Miller and his crews had cars going all night to avoid a tie-up. Aurora traffic stopped at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning and was not resumed till Tuesday night. One car lay in Yorkville all that time while another was held at Oswego. Trains on the Burlington were delayed and the mail carriers were unable to make their regular trips. Fortunately, the temperature stayed about 20 degrees above zero during the storm. On Tuesday morning, however, the mercury went to 12 below.”

During the Winter of 1979, it got hard to throw the snow high enough to get it over the banks already on the ground. My daughter Melissa is trying her best in this shot, taken at the Matile Manse.

During the Winter of 1979, it got hard to throw the snow high enough to get it over the banks already on the ground. My daughter Melissa is trying her best in this shot, taken at the Matile Manse.

A corker indeed. And, in more modern times, of course, we should not forget the Winter of 1979, when snow became piled so high, it hid entire buildings, not to mention every fire hydrant in town.

Us 21st Century residents have gotten a taste of Old Boreas—the Greek god of the north wind—this year as well, with wind chill warnings regularly reporting temps below -20° F. Nowadays, we have Thinsulate and down-filling and all manner of other modern miracles with which to defeat cold weather. And just like last summer’s high temperatures, we’ll just have to grin and bear the Winter of ‘14 until Boreas or Tom Skilling or someone decides it’s time to warm up a bit around these parts. At least we’ll have something to tell our grandchildren, so there’s that.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation