Monthly Archives: April 2014

Watching the past repeat itself…

I was cruising the Net the other day and stumbled across some stories about recent dust storms out west. It seems that the drought in Texas, Arizona, and up into Colorado, among other places, coupled with recent extreme climate change is resulting in some fierce dust storms that are uncomfortably reminiscent of what we think of as the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

The awesome aspect of a dust storm in Washington State earlier in April 2014 was on full display in this photo.

The awesome aspect of a dust storm in Washington State earlier in April 2014 was on full display in this photo. Courtesy the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Actually, dust storms started ravaging the western Midwest long before the 1930s, as drought and poor farming practices combined to create a problem that got much worse before it ever got better.

My dad was born and raised on a Kansas farm just south of Emporia. He was about 18, a sometime cowboy and oil field roustabout, in 1919, he recalled, when he woke up one morning and discovered dust had drifted against the back door during the night, blocking it shut. He said that was the day he decided Kansas was a good place to be from, and headed east to Illinois.

After a brief stint steeplejacking, he returned to farming and married my mother in 1930, just in time to live through the depths of the Great Depression with her.

Because by late 1933, local farmers were in serious trouble. The price of corn had collapsed to just 14 cents a bushel, less than it cost to haul it from farm to market. Providing they had any corn to sell in the first place, that is. A brutal drought had gripped the Midwest that summer, wiping out some crops, and badly damaging the gardens and orchards farm families depended on for so much of their food.

Then came the plague of chinch bugs, a voracious living tide moving from field to field, starting with the small grains, and destroying everything in their path. My dad could hardly believe his bad luck. He told me many years later he’d hoped after leaving Kansas that he’d never see another chinch bug the rest of his life. But there they were. At least he knew what to do about them, unlike farmers here in northern Illinois.

In mid-June, the Kendall County Farm Bureau strongly recommended that fields should be protected with chinch bug barriers, but most local farmers simply didn’t understand what they were facing. By early July, the Kendall County Record reported: “All the farmer families are talking chinch bugs, which have invaded this area as never before. They ruined much of the wheat and barley and some oats and are now entering the cornfields…Later and more reports are coming in of the destruction of whole fields of small grain and the entering of cornfields by the chinch bug. Perhaps Illinois farm folks never realized before this hot, dry year how much they have had for which to be thankful.”

But Mother Nature wasn’t done wreaking devastation yet. The year also saw a procession of strong weather systems that brought sharp temperature changes, drought, and strong winds. For instance, on June 10, the thermometer stood at 100 degrees at noon, but within minutes, the wind had swung round to the north and the temperature dropped by 20 degrees.

But despite the wild temperature swings and strong winds, the weather fronts brought little rain, and the drought only deepened. It was hard here in Kendall County, but farther west, on the high plains of Kansas, the Dakotas, and Montana, it was catastrophic. Farmers had been lured to the intermountain west in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s with cheap land during a period of relatively high rainfall. They plowed and planted the fragile shortgrass prairie, destroying the root systems that held the region’s topsoil in place. Then immediately after World War I, a crippling drought struck that was destined to last for years. By 1933, conditions were ripe for a disaster, and it came on Veterans Day.

In March 1935, a series of dust storms swept across the nation, darkening the skies as far east as Washington, D.C., as this view of the Lincoln Memorial attests.

In March 1935, a series of dust storms swept across the nation, darkening the skies as far east as Washington, D.C., as this view of the Lincoln Memorial attests.

That Saturday, Nov. 11, a violent windstorm hit South Dakota, sweeping up tons of dust, blotting out the sun. As it moved east, carrying its load, it picked up more as it went. When it reached Manson, in western Iowa, the dust “turned daylight into darkness at 3 p.m.”

By Sunday, Nov. 12, the storm and the dust it carried reached Kendall County. As the Record reported in their Nov. 15 edition: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”

From Illinois, the storm—dubbed the “Great Black Blizzard”—moved east, continuing to pick up and drop dust and blot out the sun all the way to the Atlantic coast.

It wasn’t the first dust storm to hit Middle America, but it was the worst—so far. And Hugh Hammond Bennett, who had been appointed the first head of the new Soil Erosion Service about a month before the great storm struck, lost no time in using the $5 million in emergency employment funds Congress had appropriated to begin badly needed conservation efforts. But too much of the arid high plains had already been stripped of its shortgrass prairie plants.

So the next spring, the general drought and dust storms continued. In early April 1934, a huge storm hit the central U.S. Then later in the month, frustrated Kendall County housewives and worried farmers again watched the skies darken and the wind pick up. The Record reported on April 25: “Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the wintertime. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”

With the dust, drought, voracious insects, and the nation’s desperate finances, it’s no wonder times were so difficult.

Gradually, some rain returned to the center of the country and frantic conservation efforts on the part of government at the local, state, and federal levels began to have an effect on the land.

During the last 80 years, we’ve managed to forget a lot about the Great Depression, from the destructive financial practices that caused the nation’s economy to crash to the common-sense soil conservation measures that brought the center of the nation back from the brink of destruction to become the world’s breadbasket. So we eliminated the financial safety valves installed during the 1930s and even began ignoring soil conservation practices learned the hard way during the Dust Bowl years.

Now the Great Wheel of History seems to have revolved around once again at a time when learning from historical mistakes seems like a Utopian ideal instead of the way things really ought to be. George Santayana once wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But these days, the Internet Corollary to Santayana seems much more appropriate: “Those who remember the past are condemned to watch others repeat it.”


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Filed under Farming, Food, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

So who was Andrew Jackson Haynes, anyway?

(See update below…)

Go down to my favorite Kendall County cemetery, the Cowdrey Cemetery right off Ill. Route 71, and you’ll see an interesting monument.

Cowdrey’s one of Oswego Township’s older cemeteries and was originally situated on the old Cowdrey farm, thus the name. In the early spring and the late fall when the leaves are not on the trees, you can enjoy a wonderful vista from the cemetery’s high ground, which overlooks some glistening lakes that are the remains of the extensive gravel mining operation on the property. The wooded Cowdrey farm was a favorite picnic spot during the later years of the 19th Century before it was sold off to the gravel mining companies and some folks who tried, with some success, to establish recreational cabins along the river.

The Haynes monument is a two part obelisk (the top of which has since fallen from its base) memorializing Andrew Jackson Haynes, who was killed in 1869 in Arkansas. According to the epitaph on the monument:

“Capt. A. J. Haynes, Assassinated by Collyer while in defence of his country at Marion, Ark, July 15 1869, Aged 31 yrs 1 m 5 dys, O Mother do not weep though You never see again thy noblemanly Son who in a distant land was slain.”

That epitaph has fascinated me ever since I first saw it almost 40 years ago. This week I finally decided to see if I could get to the bottom of Andrew Haynes, and why a nice Kendall County boy was shot dead in Arkansas.

Image from The story of the marches, battles, and incidents of the Third United States Colored Cavalry; a fighting regiment in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-5 by Edward M. Main, 1908.

Image from The Story of the Marches, Battles, and Incidents of the Third United States Colored Cavalry; A Fighting Regiment in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-5 by Edward M. Main, 1908.

When the Civil War broke out, Haynes was a strapping (over 6 feet) young man working in Oswego as a tinsmith. He enlisted in Company C, 4th Illinois Cavalry Regiment, an outfit recruited by political heavyweight T. Lyle Dickey. Dickey was a Mexican War veteran and had political pull on his side, so he was authorized to recruit a federal cavalry regiment. Illinois Gov. Richard Yates, however, complained, probably to his close friend Abraham Lincoln, and the War Department decided Dickey’s unit ought to be an Illinois volunteer regiment.

C Company was recruited mostly in Kendall County, with the pitch to enlist made by the colonel Charles Townsend and his lieutenant, Asher B. Hall. Both men were well-known, Townsend a farmer and Hall a merchant, who came from well-known families.

Haynes was described as being black haired with blue eyes, standing almost two inches over six feet. Enlisting as a private, Haynes served with the 4th though some pretty heavy campaigning in the western theatre of the war with the Army of the Tennessee. The 4th was there during the Vicksburg campaign and on Grierson’s Raid on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad from Dec. 21, 1864, to Jan. 15, 1865.

But by the time of Grierson’s Mobile and Ohio raid, Haynes was long gone, having been discharged as a sergeant on Feb. 18, 1864. The same day, he was mustered in as a captain in the brand new 1st. Mississippi Cavalry (African Descent). A month later, the 1st Mississippi was mustered in as the 3rd U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment.

During the Civil War, the Union was willing to recruit regiments among escaped slaves and free blacks, but there was a strong cultural prohibition against black officers. Thus, officers in black regiments were almost uniformly white. When the 1st Mississippi was formed, the call went out for experienced horse soldiers, which by then Haynes was certainly one.

We don’t know what his expectations were, but if Andrew Haynes expected his new post to be less rigorous than his old job with the 4th Illinois, he was mistaken. The 3rd USCC saw lots of hard campaigning, and was on hand to join the hunt for Jefferson Davis as he and his wife attempted to escape at the end of the war.

The regiment was mustered out on Jan. 26, 1866, but Haynes apparently decided to stay in the South to assist in reconstruction. He was apparently appointed as an officer in a black militia unit operating in Arkansas. His activities did not make friends among the defeated former rebel military officers and troops. One of those who he had a dispute with was a former rebel soldier and reputed member of the then-new Ku Klux Klan named Clarence Collier. On July 15, 1869, Collier took his revenge by shooting and killing Haynes.

Haynes’ body was brought back to Kendall County for burial, John Redmond Marshall writing in the Aug. 5, 1869 Kendall County Record:

“The corpse of Andrew J. Haynes, who was murderously shot dead by one Collier, at Marion, Arkansas, arrived last Thursday and was buried next day in the Cemetery near Morgan’s. The funeral service was performed by a Rev. Mr. Barna in the Presbyterian church.”

1869 seems like an awful long time ago, but the poison of those divisive years of war and more war still seems to be with us, as the alleged murder of three innocent people in Kansas by a Missouri racist and religious bigot crackpot last week illustrates. As William Faulkner (who knew a thing or two about the South) so famously and so accurately phrased it:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Still fascinated by Andrew Jackson Haynes, I decided to do a little more research today and found an account of exactly how Clarence Collier carried out Haynes’ murder down in Marion County, Arkansas. From the Aug. 5, 1869 Kendall County Record:

“…Clarence Collier, who had apparently been lying in wait for him [Haynes], came out of a grocery on the opposite corner of the street Haynes was leaving, and without a word of warning, drew a bead upon him with a double-barreled shotgun and fired. The charge took effect in Captain Haynes’ left side. The assassin instantly discharged the contents of the second barrel into his back. The Captain fell upon his face a corpse. But the vengeance of the brutal fiend was not satisfied. He advanced toward his prostrate victim and emptied his revolver into his body, riddling it with balls. Two lodged in his head. The assassin coolly returned to the grocery whence he had issued to do his bloody work, received his coat, mounted a horse, evidently prepared for the occasion, and rode out of town undisturbed.”

Collier was just 23 when he pulled the triggers on his shotgun and revolver. It was a pretty bloody piece of work all the way around…


Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

The remarkable life and astonishing times of Dwight Smith Young

Down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, we have the audio tape and transcript of an interview with Dick Young that was done by an unfortunately anonymous high school student back in 1973.

Young was a World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Marines during the Pacific island-hopping campaign, including some very heavy combat on Iwo Jima (where he earned two Purple Hearts). Like many of the Youngs, Dick was a polymath. He had been a contractor, a mason, and by 1973, he was serving as the first director of the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency, although he lived here in Oswego in a house he designed himself that features a sod roof.

The interview was a school project, designed to encourage community residents to talk about history in Oswego. For the interviewer, the story really started getting interesting when the discussion reached the Great Depression. In Dick’s matter-of-fact words:

“Between about 1930 and ‘36, as I recall, things were very tight. My father [Dwight Smith Young] worked as a maintenance man at a box factory in Aurora. His field was construction and everything like that dried up. And during the depression he built Route 34 through Oswego and he paved roads. That was his first job after about a year out of a job. I remember picking up hickory nuts and selling those, a bushel of those, and I remember helping with miscellaneous things to bring in a little change. Money would go a long way then as you can probably figure, since we started out for Aurora with 25 cents to do our weekly shopping. And they would buy their groceries with that. Then I don’t believe he got into anything until the end as a maintenance man at the factory. At the onset of World War II he was a physicist also and one of the original developers of the atomic bomb. He was one of the initial group in Chicago. It has been written up in a number of magazines, and then he went down to Los Alamos and was there for the original bomb explosion there and – I might add also, that on his own, he retired briefly and developed a miniature nuclear reactor, and then a few years later when the government got interested in rocketry, they took his individual little miniature reactor, took it and put it in the first rocket in the lab.”

Dwight Smith Young, in a self-portrait working in his darkroom, probably in Wilmington, Illinois. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dwight Smith Young as a young photographer, in a self-portrait working in his darkroom, probably in Wilmington, Illinois, ca. 1914. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which sounds like a pretty wild tale, but the thing is, it’s true. Dwight Young really was a carpenter and contractor, and a professional photographer, too. And he really was working at a box factory in Aurora when he heard about a job opening up at the University of Chicago with a group called the Metallurgical Laboratory. The guy heading up that project was Enrico Fermi, and in reality the “Metallurgical” part was a cover for the very hush-hush project of developing an atomic weapon.

Young got the job after a face-to-face interview with one of the physicists working on the project. When the lab moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico (where it morphed into the Manhattan Project), to continue developing the atom bomb, Young went along as a photographer and general engineering assistant. Because he, too, was one of the polymaths the Young family seems to produce on a regular basis, he apparently absorbed atomic theory through osmosis and actually did become a nuclear physicist, publishing a number of papers and, yes, even developing the first-known breeder reactor as a testbed.

Dwight Smith Young was born Oct. 22, 1892 in Elgin, Illinois, son of Lou C. and Mary Young, members of two of Oswego’s pioneer families.

Within a few years, the family moved back to Oswego, where Dwight attended school and learned the carpentry trade from his father. He, like many of his friends during the era when Oswego only had a two-year high school, went on to East Aurora High, graduating in 1910, already fascinated with photography.

Young enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing flight training in Texas when the war ended.

Young enlisted in what was then the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing flight training in Texas when the war ended. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young worked at both photography and carpentry with his father, leaving a priceless photographic record of many of the projects Lou Young built, from houses to farm buildings, not to mention a historic collection of Oswego area views created during the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1916, he was in Texas to record the devastation caused by the Galveston hurricane. Heading back to Illinois, he opened a photography studio in Wilmington. There, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I. He was undergoing pilot training in Texas when the war ended. Heading back to Illinois, he continued working as a photographer and carpenter.

Which brings us up to the time of the story Dwight’s son Dick told that youthful interviewer back in 1973.

When the first atomic test was set in New Mexico, Young recalled he was not at first interested in viewing it. But then decided to go ahead to see what he could see, walking from Los Alamos to Santa Fe, a 12 hour stroll—not an unusual hike for Young, who enjoyed rambling over the desert countryside. After catching a few hours sleep in a Santa Fe hotel, he was walking into the city plaza when the southern sky suddenly flashed brighter than the sun, which he took as confirmation the project’s success.

Dwight Young, about 1944, in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico while work on the nation's first nuclear weapons was still moving ahead. (Litte White School Museum collection)

Dwight Young, about 1944, in the nuclear lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico while work on the nation’s first nuclear weapons was still moving ahead. (Litlte White School Museum collection)

Young never expressed any doubts about bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, his three sons were all fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, John flying for the U.S. Army Air Corps; Dick, as noted above, island-hopping with the U.S. Marines; and Stan, fighting as a U.S. Army paratrooper.

After the war, Young continued to work as an atomic researcher, and was present during the world’s second nuclear accident on May 21, 1946. At the demand of Gen. Leslie Groves, the head of the nation’s nuclear program, Dr. Louis Slotin, and a team of scientists and technologists were attempting to accurately measure the critical mass of two hemispheres of fissionable uranium held apart with shims. During that era, things were much more primitive than today. As Slotin pried the two hemispheres apart with a screwdriver, manually removing shims and gaging the result, the wooden assembly slipped, all the shims fell out, and the two hemespheres came together, starting a chain reaction. Although not enough material was there to cause an atomic explosion, there was more than enough material to create a giant burst of gamma rays. Slotin immediately knocked the two hemispheres of radioactive material apart with his hand, probably saving the other technicians and scientists in the room—including Young—from immediate death.

Slotin died of radiation poisoning within nine days. Young, who was standing opposite Slotin at the time, received a heavy, but non-lethal, dose of radiation; Slotin’s body absorbed most of the flash. Hospitalized for observation, Young was released, but forever after blamed Groves’ insistence on test results before proper equipment was available for Slotin’s death. “There was no need to kill Louis Slotin to show that making critical mass measures should be made by remote control,” he wrote in 1975.

Shortly thereafter, Young began working on a breeder reactor of his own design that was to be used to test nuclear theory. He was also busy publishing papers on nuclear physics, still doing photography, and was also deeply involved in archaeology in the Arizona and New Mexico area.

And that brings us to 1953 when Young’s boss, Hugh Paxton, was busy trying to figure out how to promote Young from his technician’s rating to full staff member status. Paxton and his colleagues had come to heavily rely on Young’s expertise in a wide range of subjects critical to the nation’s nuclear program, from nuclear physics itself to more prosaic skills including photography and basic engineering.

As the personnel division noted, Young’s activities in his current grade were “anomalous, in that his activities do not fit the graded series,” since he was engaged in work far above his technician’s grade. With understatement, Paxton added, “On the other hand, his formal education is far short of that generally associated with staff member status.” Because, as Paxton noted to his superiors, Young didn’t have a degree in nuclear physics. In fact, he didn’t have a college degree at all.

In his letter to request Young’s promotion, Paxton noted the Los Alamos team had initially been dismissive of Young’s work on his innovative breeder reactor.

Young lived in this cabin on the Los Alamos reservation in Pajarito Canyon, off and on, for several years.

Young lived in this cabin on the Los Alamos reservation in Pajarito Canyon, off and on, for several years.

“The work received no encouragement because of the nearly unanimous expectation of the rest of us that precision would be inadequate,” Paxton wrote, adding, “Actually, the results are beautiful.”

Young got his promotion becoming probably the only non-degreed physicist ever at Los Alamos and continued to work on the nation’s nuclear programs until his retirement in 1959. After retiring, Young moved to the Texas gulf shore where he experimented with meteorology and engaged in his loves of botany, biology, archaeology, gardening, and cooking. In declining health, probably due in part to the stress on his body caused by that nuclear accident a couple decades before, he came back north to briefly live with his son, John, before dying on Christmas Eve, 1975, the end of a remarkable life.


Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology