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

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