Monthly Archives: July 2014

The passion and the tragedy of William Harkness

By late June 1862, it was becoming clear that the Civil War, begun the previous year when secessionist forces attacked American troops at Fort Sumter, was not going to be the brief conflict most thought. Instead, a series of reverses suffered by the Union Army was leading to deep concern on the part of military and political officials alike.

It was clear many more troops would be needed to put down the rebellion, and on June 30, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued an executive order calling for 300,000 additional troops.

Back in Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, the large railroad companies based in Chicago hastened to heed the call for troops by raising regiment of infantry. Officially designated the 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the unit was nicknamed “The Railroad Regiment” in honor of its prime backers.

1862 William Harkness

William Harkness in a photographic portrait probably taken after he enlisted in Company H, 89th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, but before he reported for duty. (Little White School Museum collection)

When a recruiting team for the 89th reached the Kendall County seat at Yorkville in August 1862, one of those choosing to enlist for three years or the duration of the war—whichever came first—was a well-known, and well-liked solemn young Scots farmer, William “Billy” Harkness. Short, at just 5’ 4”, Harkness had a luxuriant brown beard and calm, gray eyes. He was elected second lieutenant by the men of Company H, almost all of whom were his neighbors in the county.

Harkness was born Dec. 13, 1835 in Bowden, Roxburghshire, Scotland, the son of Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1840, first settling in New York State. In 1850, Andrew and Janette moved their considerable family, less three grown children who temporarily stayed behind in New York, to Kendall County, Illinois. Ten years later, William married Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart, and the pair settled down on an 80 acre farm at the corner of modern Walker and Immanuel roads in Kendall Township that William had purchased three years earlier. Shortly after their marriage, the couple had a son, Henry Herbert Harkness.

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart Harkness and the couple's only child, Henry Herbert

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Stewart Harkness and the couple’s only child, Henry Herbert “Herbie” Harkness. The photo was probably taken at the same time as William’s prewar portrait. (Little White School Museum collection)

William Harkness was a serious, religious man, active in his church. He attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and was reportedly well thought of by his neighbors. He apparently despised slavery and the culture that nurtured it, and so his decision to serve in the Union Army.

The 89th saw hard campaigning almost from the beginning. As soon as it was mustered, the regiment was sent south to Louisville and with the rest of the Union force, joined the pursuit of Braxton Bragg’s Confederate army. Having only been in service for four months, the 89th participated in the bloody Battle of Stone’s River, where the commander of Harkness’s Company H was killed in action.

The men of Company H appreciated Harkness’s steady leadership during the battle. According to a letter from Pvt. Joseph Buckley to his wife back home in the Kendall County village of Lisbon, “We have subscribed a Dollar each to buy Lieutenant Harkness a sword as a token of respect for the kindness and manly bearing he has shown to all of us.”

Stone’s River was the start of an extraordinarily tough stretch of campaigning as the men of the 89th fought first at Liberty Gap and then at the bloodbath that was Chickamauga, where a lieutenant colonel, three captains, and a lieutenant were killed in action.

After Chickamauga, the Union Army of the Cumberland was reorganized, and the 89th was assigned to the First Brigade, Third Division, IV Army Corps. From there it was on to fights at Orchard Knob and then to the Battle of Missionary Ridge at Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, the 89th was among the American troops that charged up the ridge’s precipitous slopes, driving entrenched Confederates before them. Although victorious, the 89th again lost two officers. But William Harkness was not among them.

In fact, he seemed to be leading a charmed life as he gained the respect of his military peers. When the 89th’s Company B needed a temporary commander, the regimental commander chose Harkness as its temporary commander.

Writing to his brother James from Strawberry Plains, Tennessee on Jan. 6, 1864: “I expect to go back to Company H in a few days as the officers of Company B are coming back.”

Lt. William Harkness, Company H, 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Little White School Museum collection)

Lt. William Harkness, Company H, 89th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the dawn of 1864, the 89th’s campaigning intensified as Union Gen William T. Sherman began the campaign to destroy Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee and capture the Confederate rail and industrial hub of Atlanta, Georgia. And the 89th Illinois seemed to be in the thick of most of the battles as Sherman forced the rebel army back on its heels.

With the hard campaigning, Lt. Harkness’s favor only grew with the men under his command. On April 16, 1864, a letter from a soldier in Company H was published in the Kendall County Record commenting: “Lt. Billy Harkness, everybody’s favorite, is at home on leave of absence–and that he may have a glorious time is the wish of all.”

What the soldiers in Harkness’s company didn’t know was that he was on compassionate leave given the sickness of his only son. Just four days after the laudatory letter was published, Henery Herbert “Herbie” Harkness died at four years of age.

But there was little time to grieve as Sherman’s American army of which the 89th was part continually marched and probed against Johnston’s Confederate forces as he attempted to protect Atlanta.

From May 13-16, the 89th was in the thick of the Battle of Resaca. Although considered a tactical draw, it was a strategic Union victory that forced Johnston to continue withdrawing before Sherman’s advance.

On May 27 west of Marietta, Georgia at Pickett’s Mill, Sherman thought he detected a weakness in Johnston’s deployment, and he ordered Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s IV Corps, which included the 89th, to attack. Unfortunately for the American forces, the rebels, under Gen. Patrick Cleburne, were well entrenched and awaiting the attack. The result was 1,600 casualties for the American army versus about 600 for the rebels. The 89th lost heavily, but again, Harkness came through without a scratch.

As the anonymous “Soldier H” observed in a letter to the editor of the Kendall County Record: “Capt. Hobbs and Lieut. Harkness, although in the heat of the fray, came off unscathed. These two officers have been in every fight in which the 1st Brigade has taken part and have done their duty as men; they must be ‘bullet proof.'”

As June 1864 arrived, Sherman was slowly but steadily closing the noose around Atlanta and the 89th fought hard at Pine Hill and Lost Mountain.

On June 14, although he didn’t know it, William Harkness was promoted to captain of the 89th’s Company A. At the time, Harkness was fighting in Company H at Pine Hill and then at Lost Mountain as Gen. George Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, of which the 89th was part, moved toward the southern flank of the Confederates’ Kenesaw Mountain position. By June 21, after another sharp fight the day before, the 89th was busy digging field fortifications—work that Harkness, among other officers, was supervising—to secure the ground they’d just gained.

The Kerr Rifle was a sniper version of the standard British-made Enfield rifled musket used by Confederate forces. Kerrs were used by specially trained marksmen who concentrated on officers and other important targets.

The Kerr Rifle was a sniper version of the standard British-made Enfield rifled musket used by Confederate forces. Kerrs were used by specially trained marksmen who concentrated on officers and other important targets. (From the “Kentucky Sharpshooters” page of the First Kentucky “Orphan” Brigade RootsWeb site)

Opposite the American Howard’s IV Corps, Kentucky’s famed 1st Kentucky Brigade—nicknamed the Orphan Brigade—watched the Union troops strengthening their position. The previous winter, the brigade had selected a group of especially good marksmen for special training with precision Kerr Rifles. The Kerr looked nearly identical to standard British-made Enfield rifled muskets, which wasn’t surprising. Kerrs, produced in very limited numbers by the London Armoury Company, had been developed by company superintendent James Kerr. Using a standard Enfield as a base, Kerr improved the rifle’s long range accuracy by reducing the bore from the standard .58 caliber down to .45 caliber. He also introduced an innovative pattern of rifling inside the barrel. Although the new design did, indeed, prove far more accurate over long distances, it also required far more frequent cleaning and performed best with specialized, expensive ammunition, both of which were definite liabilities under combat conditions.

Although less than a dozen Kerrs made it through the Union Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports to the Orphan Brigade, they proved deadly in trained hands. A contemporary account describing the battles around Atlanta in May 1864 noted the success of the small corps of what were then termed sharpshooters, and what today we’d call snipers: “They were armed with Kerr rifles, English guns, I believe, brought in through the blockade. They were of long range and in the hands of good marksmen did dreadful havoc in the enemy’s ranks. There were but eleven in the brigade, three of them from out regiment (9th Kentucky), chosen for their expert marksmanship. They became a great terror..,for they could kill at much greater range than the infantrymen.”

On June 21, while William Harkness supervised Company H troops who were fortifying their position in case of Confederate counterattack, a Kentucky sniper took careful aim with his precision Kerr Rifle some hundreds of yards away. He waited patiently, and when two American soldiers were in line and exposed, he fired. The bullet entered Pvt. Joseph Buckley’s shoulder, shattering his upper arm before exiting at his elbow and then striking William Harkness in the abdomen.

It was clear from the beginning that his wound was fatal as Harkness was removed to a place of relative safety where he died a few hours later. Buckley survived the wound, managed to keep his arm, and survived the war.

In a letter in the Kendall County Record anonymously signed by “Corporal,” the death of Harkness was described: “I must add the name of Lieutenant William Harkness to those before sent you as among the killed in Company H, during the campaign. He was shot on the Twenty-first of June, the ball striking him in the abdomen and causing his death a few hours later. His usual fortitude sustained him through this last moments and enabled him to write a letter to his wife, although conscious of the nature of the wound and his rapidly approaching end…The ground had been won on which he was shot and he was superintending the erection of barricades to shelter the soldiers who were to hold it.”

Awaiting his death, Harkness scribbled a brief note to Maggie back in Illinois: “My dear Maggie. I am badly wounded, I shall soon be with our dear little Herbie. May God bless you my dear wife. —William.” He died later that day at the age of 29.

William’s body was taken back to Kendall County for burial and a memorial service was held July 24 at the Pavilion Baptist Church. The crowd assembled was far too large for the small church, so they moved them outside to the grove that adjoined the church.

Maggie, having lost both her son and her husband barely a month apart, sold the couple’s farm to other members of the Harkness family. She also fought for a widow’s pension. The Army assured William’s promotion to caption of Company A, although he never served in that capacity, and on Feb. 23, 1865 she received a captain’s widow’s pension, retroactive to the day of William’s death on June 21, 1864.

In September 1866 she married Isaac Wright, a widower 16 years her senior with four children. Two years later, the couple had a son, and soon after that the family moved to Missouri.

We throw the word “hero” around quite a lot these days to the point that using it indiscriminately to describe everyone from Medal of Honor winners to soldiers just doing their jobs, has debased its meaning.

But 150 years ago, during the struggle to save our nation, real heroes seemed to abound, men like William Harkness who did their duty in ways that earned the respect of both their superiors and the men serving under them and who, when he knew he was dying had the fortitude to reassure his wife that his thoughts were of her and their son during his last moments.

Information on the Harkness family came from excerpts of  “The Descendants of Andrew and Janette Penman Harkness of Roxburghshire, Scotland” by Elmer George Dickson, 1990, in the collections of the Little White School Museum. For the latest history of the 89th Volunteer Infantry, see “Clear the Track: A History of the Eighty-Ninth Illinois Volunteer Infantry, The Railroad Regiment” by Phillip J. Reyburn, 2012, available on-line through Google.
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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

The time Oswego’s mayor went on the lam…

See update…

Kendall County used to be a pretty peaceful place. It was, for most of the time since it was established in 1841, a small farming community dotted with a few unincorporated hamlets as well as four incorporated municipalities.

Since Chicago’s populated hinterland reached out to snare the county, driven by the post-World War II population explosion and the huge government veterans’ programs that paid for everything from brand new houses to brand new college degrees, the county’s population growth surged. Now, while the majority of the county is still agricultural, only about 1 percent of the population is engaged in farming. So that’s changed considerably from the 1950s when I was growing up.

Even so, crime is still pretty rare, especially on a per capita basis, with most of it safely classed as petty crime, although we’ve had a few murders over the years, starting with the first one in 1843, just a couple years after the county’s formation.

Abner Updike in happier days in 1884 at the age of 16.

Abner Updike in happier days in 1884 at the age of 16.

But on the whole, crime was, at one time, fairly rare, both in the private and public sectors. Granted, some years ago, the Oswego Village Treasurer managed to siphon off around $100,000, for which she was made a guest of the state for a while, and the Bristol Township Supervisor found better use for about three times as much of the public purse as did Oswego’s treasurer, but being a Republican and connected, he didn’t serve any time at all.

But probably the most spectacular failure of an elected public official in the county happened in 1907. Back then, the Village of Oswego really didn’t have much money to spend. The bulk of its income, about $1,400 a year, came from two saloon licenses sold annually, municipal property and sales taxes having not yet become innovations.

In 1907, a fairly severe, although relatively brief, financial panic struck the country. As banks failed right and left, Oswego resident and newly elected mayor Abner Updike seems to have been caught in a financial squeeze.

Updike was a popular guy, involved in all sorts of activities in and around Oswego. His family was a prosperous one who owned a profitable farm out in the Wolf’s Crossing area. He married well, taking as a wife one of the likewise prosperous Armour family.

Abner Updike, center, with the Oswego Pirates community baseball team about 1900.

Abner Updike, center, with the Oswego Pirates community baseball team about 1900.

Updike was active in the community, serving as the manager of the East Oswego Pirates, the community baseball team. While farming, Updike was popular enough to be elected timekeeper of the Harvey Threshing Ring, a cooperative started by neighboring farmers to buy and operate a steam-powered threshing machine. In 1900, he was one of the successful promoters of acquiring a post office for Wolf’s Crossing, which was an economic boost for the tiny farming hamlet. He was also an agent for the well-known draft horse breeding firm of Dunham, Fletcher & Coleman of Wayne, Ill.

But clouds had been gathering on Updike’s horizon for some years, although few, including his own family, realized what a deep financial hole he was digging for himself. In an era when farming was a full-time job (which it definitely is not for most farmers today), Updike held down a number of off the farm jobs, including working at Ryburn, Wolf & Parker’s Aurora hardware store and hauling milk from Wolf’s Crossing area farms to the Palace Car Creamery in Aurora.

Map of a portion of east Oswego Township, 1903, with the Rink, formerly the Updike, farm highlighted.

Map of a portion of east Oswego Township, 1903, with the Rink, formerly the Updike, farm highlighted.

And then, unbeknownst to most, he lost the Updike family farm. His brother-in-law, Henry Rink, bought the farm and saved Updike from bankruptcy.

After moving into town in February of 1902, he was almost immediately touted as a candidate for village president. A staunch Republican, he had been a firm backer of Theodore Roosevelt and was active in state and local Republican politics.

Updike joined a syndicate that bought the old Walter Loucks farm in Oswego and which became what amounted to one of Oswego’s first subdivisions. Called the Park Addition, because it was to include Oswego’s first park, the developers successfully advocated that municipal water service and concrete sidewalks to be extended there. Updike, in fact, built one of the first homes in the Park Addition, on what was described as the highest spot in the village.

In 1904 he was elected Oswego Village President. That same year, he also became a business partner, with Lew Gaylord, in the hardware and harness firm of Updike & Gaylord.

And he also apparently heavily speculated in land. Updike was an enthusiastic promoter of land in the Canadian province of Alberta. In 1904, he organized and accompanied more than one trip up into Alberta where he encouraged well-off local farmers and businessmen to buy land. In addition, he and his business partner, Lew Gaylord, speculated in land in Missouri. In 1907 and early 1907, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Updike was making a flurry of trips to Canada and South Dakota to promote land deals. He was also spending more and more time taking business trips to Chicago on the interurban trolley.

Then came the Panic of 1907 and Updike’s financial house began to teeter. The partnership of Gaylord & Updike sold their hardware business in April 1907, and started engaging in land speculation in Missouri, among other places.

On May 8, 1907, the Kendall County Record reported that:

“Mayor Updike left Oswego Friday night for another trip to Hannibal, Mo., where he has a big land deal under way. He had returned a few days previous from Missouri with his former partner, Lew Gaylord, the two having been away for a week or two.”

Apparently, the Missouri deal didn’t go as hoped. On Oct. 9, the Record reported that Updike was selling his elegant new house in the Park Addition. A week later, a news bombshell hit Oswego when a double deck Oct. 16 Record headline announced:

OSWEGO’S MAYOR DESERTS FAMILY
Abner Updike Leaves Home Mysteriously

According to the story:

“The village of Oswego is the center of interest in one of the most talked-of disappearances that has occurred in Kendall county for many years, owing to the departure last week of Abner Updike, mayor of the town, president of the Citizens’ Club, former president of the Kendall County Fair Association, and at one time a prospective candidate for sheriff of Kendall County, leaving an excellent family–a wife and eight children ranging from nine months to 18 years of age.”

According to the story, Updike and joined his teenaged daughter for an interurban trip, his daughter getting off in downtown Aurora to do errands, but Updike, telling her he was going on to conduct business in Chicago for a few hours, took the interurban from downtown Aurora to the city. He promised her he would join her on his return and the two would then head back to Oswego. But Updike never returned.

Although he wrote a letter to his wife informing her he had left and would never return was postmarked Chicago, it appeared he had then fled to El Paso, Texas. There, Sugar Grove resident Robert Findley, a long-time friend of Updike, reported meeting him on the street. Not having heard abut Updike’s scamper, Findlay loaned him $15—which, by the way, he never recovered. To top it off, Updike’s farewell letter to his wife explaining he had fled was marked postage-due, forcing her to pay to receive it.

After Updike left, the full extent of his financial woes finally became public. As the Record reported on Oct. 23:

“It is astonishing to note the number of creditors of Mr. Updike in Oswego and Aurora. Great amounts of money have been loaned to him and there seems to be little chance of ever getting any of it back. Some of the most prominent men of the village and farmers of the township were taken in on the grand haul, and after his departure found themselves the sole owner of a worthless note.”

Updike never returned to Oswego, although he did come back to Illinois, at least for a while. His wife, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Armour Updike, left in debt and with no means of support, departed Oswego and moved to Elgin, where at some point prior to 1910, Abner rejoined her. His occupation on the 1910 U.S. Census for Elgin was listed as a traveling salesman for a cigar company.

Eventually, however, Abner apparently left again, and his wife, apparently no shrinking violet, packed up seven of her children in a car and headed north to Canada, where she settled them in the small prairie farming community of Lockwood, Saskatchewan, Canada. There, she went to work as the local telephone operator, and raised all the children who had accompanied her. She died in Regina, Saskatchewan in 1946. Her descendants live in Saskatchewan to this day.

Update: Didn’t mean to slight the descendants of Abner and Lizzie through their daughter, Alice, who stayed behind in Illinois when Lizzie took the rest of the couple’s children to Canada. Those family members are still living throughout the Fox Valley area, along with other branches of the Updike family.

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A Saturday trip up Memory Lane, Part 1…

Was headed northbound up Ill. Route 25 to Aurora Saturday to pick up my wife and grandchildren at the Aurora METRA station when it struck me I’d driven that route thousands of times over the last 50-plus years since I got my driver’s license. And I’d traveled it thousands of times before that as a passenger with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

With a few brief spans equaling only a couple years, I’ve lived on North Adams Street between the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch tracks and the Fox River since December 1954. Route 25 runs north along the brow of the Fox Valley ridge behind our house before dipping down to cross under the railroad tracks a quarter mile north. From there, it follows the banks of the river right into Aurora.

Bev Skaggs snapped this photo of Route 25 showing off her winter finery in 1959. It's still one of the area's most scenic drives at any season of the year. (Little White School Museum collection)

Bev Skaggs snapped this photo of Route 25 showing off her winter finery in 1959. It’s still one of the area’s most scenic drives at any season of the year. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s a beautiful stretch of road year round. In the spring, flowering trees and shrubs brighten and soften the landscape; in the summer the river draws wildlife of all kinds plus thousands of folks, young and old alike, who pedal, walk, and run the bicycle trail between the river and the highway championed all those years ago by my friends, Bert Gray and Dick Young. In autumn the trees blaze with reds, golds, and greens; and in winter, the river’s frozen beauty is enhanced by hoarfrost-clad leafless trees and shrubs.

It’s a historic drive, too. Having lived along the route most all my life, the stories constantly pop up on the drive north. Keep on reading for the first bunch of tales as I drove north on my personal Memory Lane:

Pulling out of our driveway, we take North Adams north past the old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory site immortalized on the blog’s front page photo, and then make the curve onto Second Street past the vacant lot once the site of the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses up the hill to the stop sign at Route 25. When we were kids, John Morley and I lugged buckets of water up to the top of that hill on cold winter days to ice the road down for sledding. Starting at the top, and providing we made the right-angled curve to the left at the bottom, we could sometimes coast all the way to my folks’ (now my) driveway.

What with all the traffic these days, it’s more of a challenge to pull onto Route 25 but we make the left turn, northbound, past the now-vanished rail siding that served the ice company, loading out more than 100 cars some months with ice that kept Armour’s and Swift’s refrigerator cars cold enough to ship beef and hog carcasses to Eastern markets. The family of a childhood friend, Roy Burton, lived in the old switchman’s shack. Then it’s into the gentle “S” curve, under the tracks. Back in the day, the rail crossing was a grade, but it was dangerous, and so the bridge was added, first with a pylon in the center of the roadway that led to numerous accidents before the current bridge was built.

A ticket to camp at Irvin Haines' Violet Grove Campground, now Violet Patch Park, between Route 25 and the Fox River.

A ticket to camp at Irvin Haines’ Violet Grove Campground, now Violet Patch Park, between Route 25 and the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Route 25 passes the old driveway to the Haines house that crosses Cedar Creek on a dry-laid stone bridge that once carried stagecoach traffic north on what was then called the East River Road. And then past Violet Patch Park, which has always been called the Violet Patch because they were once so prolific there. Irvin Haines, a long-deceased cousin, operated the Violet Grove Campground there in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other side of the road are the abandoned gravel pits where we spent so much time as kids, eating wild strawberries that once covered the spoil heaps in June, hunting in November, and generally fooling around the rest of the year. The old pit is nowadays home to the Oswego Township Highway Department garage, as well as to a branch of the bicycle trail that connects to Boulder Hill from the Violet Patch.

We didn’t know then that the old pit also covered the semi-final resting place of one John “Red” Hamilton, the unlucky Canada-born associate of John Dillinger. Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the 1930s media, Hamilton had two fingers shot off in various Dillinger Gang jobs. In fact, if someone in the gang was to be wounded, it was Hamilton. His final wound, a rifle bullet fired by a security guard following a payroll heist, put an end to Hamilton’s career. Dillinger and George “Baby Face” Nelson and a couple others took the wounded Hamilton to an apartment in Aurora where he died. They looked for a handy place to bury him, and chose a rise along a fence line just uphill from Route 25. The Feds didn’t find out where his body was for more than a year, after which the FBI dug him up and confirmed his identity at the Croushorn Funeral Home in Oswego. Hamilton’s sister paid for his burial in the Oswego Cemetery. The young, novice mortician tapped to work with Hamilton’s body in Oswego subsequently decided he’d better look for a new line of work.

Farther north was the home of my sometime classmate Tom Wilson, perched up on the ridge overlooking the Fox River. Then it’s past the home of the late Bob Watson, who was A Character. A former CB&Q conductor, Bob was a prolific jokester and contrarian who spent his summers at the resort his family had owned since the 1940s in northern Wisconsin. And then past the house of my one-time junior high classmate Lonnie Precup, who dropped out of Oswego to go to a Lutheran school and who became a Lutheran minister.

Boulder Hill was planned by Don L. Dise to be a complete community with homes, churches, schools, and shopping. For some years, although unincorporated, it was the largest community in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Boulder Hill was planned by Don L. Dise to be a complete community with homes, churches, schools, and shopping. For some years, although unincorporated, it was the largest community in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

The route extends under the railroad tracks one more time, as the old Fox River Branch heads across the river towards the Main Line in Montgomery, just before passing Boulder Hill, a huge, unincorporated subdivision began in the mid-1950s by developer Don L. Dise. My wife’s parents bought one of the first 100 houses there back in 1958, and early on the development was home to CB&Q executives (like my father-in-law) as well as workers and execs for the then-new Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants on the west side of the river.

This 1913 postcard view of Fox River Park illustrates why it was so popular. Attractions from enjoying a quiet afternoon to taking a ride on the roller coaster offered entertainment for all. (Little White School Museum collection)

This 1913 postcard view of Fox River Park illustrates why it was so popular. Attractions from enjoying a quiet afternoon to taking a ride on the roller coaster offered entertainment for all. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Western Electric plant, on the west bank of the river across from Boulder Hill, occupied a former wallpaper factory and World War II munitions factory. It was located on the old Riverview Park site, whose name was later changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with Chicago’s huge Riverview Park. From 1900 to the mid 1920s, Fox River Park hosted thousands of visitors weekly who enjoyed a roller coaster, merry widow swing, shoot the chutes ride into the river, boat rentals, dances and more. Annual Chautauquas drew thousands more to hear presentations by revivalists and nationally-known speakers. And the ball diamond featured professional players, including one whose name was Casey Stengel.

Along this stretch of the road, it’s always wise to keep a sharp lookout for folks crossing the highway to get to the biking and hiking trail, and I’m also pausing as I let the car in front of me turn into Boulder Hill.

The drive up Memory Lane continues below…

 

 

 

 

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A Saturday trip up Memory Lane, Part 2…

Having traveled the route north on Ill. Route 25 thousands of times during my life, it occurred to me last Saturday as I drove it once again that the route is rife with stories, both historical and nostalgic.

Aerial shot taken by Bev Skaggs in the spring of 1959 of the construction of Paul Egan's By-Pass bridge and Boulder Hill Playhouse. It's lack of sharpness is more than made up for by it's subject matter. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aerial shot taken by Bev Skaggs in the spring of 1959 of the construction of Paul Egan’s By-Pass bridge and Boulder Hill Playhouse. Its lack of sharpness is more than made up for by it’s subject matter. (Little White School Museum collection)

In the previous post, I had made it to the bridge carrying U.S. Route 30 over Route 25 and the Fox River beside it. And that’s where we pick up with this post driving up Memory Lane, right where Aurora Mayor Paul Egan’s former U.S. Route 30 By-Pass crosses the river valley. Egan championed the road, which bypassed downtown Aurora, where Route 30 used to go, to get the growing volume of through truck traffic away from the city’s business district. Although Egan was labeled a nut by his political enemies, his vision concerning By-Pass Route 30 was sound. It was a big success. Eventually, the “By-Pass” part of the name was dropped, as was the “Business Route 30” designation of Galena Boulevard through downtown Aurora, and today the bypass is regular Route 30, the fabled Lincoln Highway.

Route 25 crosses under U.S. Route 30 at the north end of the original Boulder Hill development before passing the Bereman mansion still perched up on the eastern brow of the Fox Valley ridge. John Bereman made his fortune selling freckle cream to complexion-obsessed late Victorian women. He bought hundreds of acres of farmland along the River Road containing several farmsteads, calling the whole operation Boulder Hill Stock Farm—namesake of the modern subdivision. Rumor has it he picked the location of the house because it overlooked an island in the Fox River where a high-class house of ill repute was located in summer months, which men enjoyed while their wives and children cavorted at Fox River Park.

Gray's Bridge at what was then Graytown, eventually Montgomery, as it looked in 1838 when U.S. surveyors passed through. The road from Chicago to Galena crossed the river on the bridge until Aurora officials persuaded officials to move it to pass through Aurora. (State of Illinois Township Survey Map collection)

Gray’s Bridge at what was then Graytown, eventually Montgomery, as it looked in 1838 when U.S. surveyors passed through. The road from Chicago to Galena crossed the river on the bridge until Aurora officials persuaded officials to move it to pass through Aurora. (State of Illinois Township Survey Map collection)

Not far north of the Bereman House is the old location of Gray’s Bridge, one of the earliest bridges across the Fox River. Built by Daniel Gray, entrepreneur and founder of the village of Montgomery, the bridge was to carry stagecoach traffic on the old Chicago to Galena Road that went through Montgomery via the Fox River ford. Aurora tried every trick it could to lure the stage road (and the resulting post office) away from Montgomery, which it succeeded in doing, striking a fatal blow at Montgomery’s development, one from which it has never really recovered.

From the site of Gray’s bridge north to the modern bridge across the Fox in Montgomery, the banks of the river noticeably change, turning more artificial looking, the result of a cockamamie scheme to dredge the river and build a series of more than a dozen low dams to create a navigable motorboat channel from the Illinois River at Ottawa all the way north to the Chain o’ Lakes. One dam in the proposed series was built north of the bridge at Montgomery, where a coin-operated lock was supposed to allow boaters to pass up and down. The lock was never built, and the channel that was to serve it annually turns into a stagnant, sometimes septic mess in the summer.

But before we get to the dam, we drive past what used to be called the French Cemetery, whose modern official name is Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery. For many years, it was the closest Catholic cemetery to Oswego and the rural area south of Montgomery, and so became the final resting place for most of the many French and French Canadian pioneers who came to the area, including the Hebert wagonwright family of Oswego and the Danos. At least one of the Dano sons became a Catholic priest.

Passing the east end of the Montgomery dam I note there are a number of anglers trying their luck. The dam is a good place to find early season walleyes, as well as smallmouth bass and the occasional northern pike—even a musky once in a while—at other seasons of the year.

We’re getting close to Aurora now, going through the Ashland Avenue intersection, past the Ashland Avenue bridge across the Fox that Aurora Township tried to valiantly a few years ago to persuade everyone it actually belonged to Aurora or the State of Illinois, bridge maintenance being an expensive proposition. Telling anyone who’d listen that it wasn’t their bridge and they had no idea why anyone would think it was didn’t work out, however. The bronze plaque on the bridge announcing it was built by Aurora Township probably didn’t help their case.

The car passes Spring Lake Cemetery, and I’m old enough to remember when there really was a lake there. Long drained, the old lake has become an expansion area of the landlocked cemetery for more graves. A number of my Tesch relatives are buried in Spring Lake, and I always give a mental tip of my hat to those old cousins as I pass.

Now we’re getting into Aurora proper. Workers’ cottages line Route 25—now also called South Broadway—most now home to Hispanic families. Time was, it was an overwhelmingly German neighborhood but times change. And then we pass the old Fruit Juice House. A sort of local franchise business, the Fruit Juice House had locations on South Broadway, over on what was once Route 30 and is now Hill Avenue, on the West Side on Farnsworth, and at other locations around Aurora. The business offered fresh-suqeezed orange and other juices, along with groceries, sort of like a mini-mart. But they also had some of the best ice cream ever, and a Fruit Juice House chocolate malt was a delicacy.

Aurora's "Burlington Box" brick depot was a bustling place in 1968 when this photo was snapped. It was demolished in 2013.

Aurora’s “Burlington Box” brick depot was a bustling place in 1968 when this photo was snapped. After being allowed to deteriorate, it was demolished in 2013.

Driving farther north, we pass the intersection with North Avenue with its tiny octagon house just around the corner and then past the vacant parcel that used to be home to the Aurora depot. The CB&Q built a lot of those pedestrian depots along their Main Line from east to west. Dubbed the “Burlington Box” style, the buildings were utilitarian if not exactly beautiful. Aurora’s depot was allowed to deteriorate until it had to be demolished. It was unfortunate; it would have made a great restaurant location.

I’m continuing north past the old Firestone tire dealer, and under the elevated CB&Q tracks. The Burlington Main Line used to run through Aurora at grade, but in 1920, the tracks were raised to remove them from conflict with surface motor transportation. The viaducts were great places, when we were hotrodding kids, to gun a thinly muffled engine to produce satisfying, echoing thunder.

This color postcard gives an idea of what a vibrant retail area thrived along Aurora's Broadway—Route 25—until Sears, Roebuck & Company led the move of major retailers away from the downtown to shopping centers.

This color postcard gives an idea of what a vibrant retail area thrived along Aurora’s Broadway—Route 25—until Sears, Roebuck & Company led the move of major retailers away from the downtown to shopping centers.

The mix of stores in downtown Aurora has greatly changed over the past 60 years. No more Ward & Jones furniture, no more Sears, Roebuck & Company (where so many farmers shopped for so much on so many Saturday nights). And no more Fagerholm’s where we bought Dinky Toys and great models (including my model of the Cutty Sark); no more Main Surplus across the street where you could get everything from a bowling ball and bag to army surplus web gear. The three five and dime stores, Grants, Woolworth’s, and Kresge’s are long gone as is the lunch counter at Kresge’s where you could get a great BLT.

Passing Galena Boulevard, we’re now on North Broadway to the intersection with New York Street. The old stage route from Naperville across the river to Dixon and on to Galena, the one Sam and Joe McCarty worked so hard to steal from Montgomery, followed sections of both New

Time was, the roundhouse and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops at Aurora turned out locomotives, freight cars, and cabooses for the entire railroad. The roundhouse, now transformed into a banquet center, brew pub and restaurant, is still a local landmark, though greatly repurposed.

Time was, the roundhouse and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops at Aurora turned out locomotives, freight cars, and cabooses for the entire railroad. The roundhouse, now transformed into a banquet center, brew pub and restaurant, is still a local landmark, though greatly repurposed.

York Street and Galena Boulevard. And now the Aurora Transportation Center is in view. The stately old roundhouse is no longer occupied by steam locomotives under construction but rather is the fine dining destination for many area residents. One of the old former CB&Q shop buildings houses the METRA station. My great-grandfather worked in the shops as a stationary steam engineer, while my grandfather worked there building cabooses and boxcars for almost 20 years.

Saturday, however, there were no locomotives in the roundhouse to be turned around or repaired, and the sprawling shops were long gone. Rather, I’m there picking up the grandtwins and my wife, who’ve enjoyed the day in Chicago seeing the dinos and mummys and fossils at the Field Museum and splashing in the fountain at Millennium Park.

I’ve done that drive so many times I can almost do it on automatic pilot these days, but I can never really forget all the stories. It isn’t just a scenic drive, you see, it’s a trip through history.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Transportation