The time Oswego’s mayor went on the lam…

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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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4 Comments

Filed under Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History

4 responses to “The time Oswego’s mayor went on the lam…

  1. Bert Gray

    a new twist every day  🙂

  2. There’s nothing really new under the sun, but it is interesting to find out new things about the old stuff that happened, even stuff that happened 107 years ago.

  3. Sam

    “BEING A REPUBLICAN AND CONNECTED HE DIDN’T SERVE TIME?”…what’s being a republican gotta do with it? Thanks to democrats the once great areas you write about resemble Mexico.

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