Monthly Archives: October 2014

Main Street isn’t always a main street…

As I suggested in my last post, Oswego’s downtown business district is located on Main Street, a pretty American sort of thing for a town. But there are a surprising number of towns, large and small, where the main business district is not located on Main Street—supposing they have a Main Street at all.

Main Street–now East Galena Boulevard–in downtown Aurora about 1940.

Main Street–now East Galena Boulevard–in downtown Aurora about 1940.

Take Aurora for instance, Illinois’ second city with a population of about 200,000. Downtown Aurora’s main business district—although a shadow of its former self—stretches along Broadway, not Main Street. In fact, Aurora has no Main Street any more. It used to have a Main Street many years ago, a commercial street that crossed Broadway at one of the city’s busiest intersections, but the name was changed to East Galena Boulevard a long time ago. Not so long that my mother, who was born and raised mostly in the East Side’s “Dutchtown” German ethnic neighborhood, didn’t often forget and call it Main Street fairly often before her death in the late 1980s. Today, about the only reminder the city used to have a Main Street is the old Main Street Baptist Church, located on East Galena.

Just to our north is Montgomery, tucked between Aurora and Oswego along the banks of the Fox River. Montgomery indeed has a Main Street, but it’s not really a main street, if you get my drift. Instead, Montgomery’s real main street is actually two streets, River and Webster. Montgomery, even more than Oswego, suffered from its close proximity to Aurora, which discouraged the development of a true retail business district. Instead, stores were sort of strung out along River and Webster streets—and not many of them at that. Main Street, meanwhile, runs perpendicular to Webster Street. On its south end, it’s a mostly residential street. North of Webster, Main Street is dominated by the Lyon Metal Products, Inc. factory and some other quasi-industrial properties before it reverts back to a residential area.

Plano's Main Street, laid out from the beginning with stores facing the railroad tracks, is still its main downtown retail street.

Plano’s Main Street, laid out from the beginning with stores facing the railroad tracks, is still its main downtown retail street.

Among Kendall County’s other municipalities, Plano can be considered one with a real main Main Street, and that’s despite the city growing up as a railroad town. Classic railroad towns have their business district stores facing the tracks. Often, there are streets on either side of the tracks, each with blocks of stores facing the tracks—as long as they were designed from the ground up as railroad towns, as Plano definitely was. Lewis Steward had promised the promoters of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad that if they extended their tracks through the extensive land he owned that he’d create a city. Which he did. Plano’s Main Street is laid out north of and parallel to the CB&Q’s main line, with blocks of storefronts laid out on the north side of the street facing the tracks so rail travelers could clearly see them.

With its stores facing the railroad tracks, Plano’s design theory was much like Oswego’s, although when Oswego was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold in 1835, the major mode of transportation was the stagecoach. Therefore the stores were laid out facing Main Street, which was part of the western branch of the well-traveled Chicago to Ottawa Trail, running west southwest from Chicago through Naperville to Oswego and then southwest to Ottawa.

Newark, in far southwest Kendall County, was located on the same mail stage route as Oswego. As a result, Newark’s Main Street, laid out along the Chicago to Ottawa Trail, was also the heart of the village’s retail district. Like Oswego’s, Newark’s stores faced Main Street in an effort to appeal to stage travelers.

Sandwich's main business district street is Railroad Street, with its stores and hotel facing the tracks. Meanwhile, Main Street in Sandwich runs perpendicular to the tracks and has not been an important retail area since the railroad arrived in the 1850s.

Sandwich’s main business district street is Railroad Street, with its stores and hotel facing the tracks. Meanwhile, Main Street in Sandwich runs perpendicular to the tracks and has not been an important retail area since the railroad arrived in the 1850s.

Sandwich, located just across the Kendall County border in DeKalb County, is an interesting example of a town that predated the arrival of the railroad, but which, nonetheless, ended up looking like a traditional railroad town–except for the fact that Sandwich’s Main Street runs perpendicular to the CB&Q rail line. When the rails arrived in the 1850s, the village’s fathers simply changed the emphasis of its business district from Main Street to the aptly named Railroad Street. Main Street still exists as a connector without much commercial impact.

Then there’s Yorkville, the Kendall County seat, which has two Main Streets, neither of which are mercantile hubs. Yorkville started out as two adjoining villages, Bristol and Yorkville. Each of the towns were platted with their own Main Streets, Bristol’s running east-west, and Yorkville’s running north-south, each hoping to be the center of the retail trade in their towns. Instead, however, the bulk of retail businesses quickly located along Bridge Street, which ran north-south across the Fox River bridge.

Bridge Street in Yorkville became the home of business districts on both north and south sides of the Fox River thanks to the bridge crossing the Fox River. That left Yorkville with two Main Streets, one on each side of the river, one running north-south, the other east-west.

Bridge Street in Yorkville became the home of business districts on both north and south sides of the Fox River thanks to the bridge crossing the Fox River. That left Yorkville with two Main Streets, one on each side of the river, one running north-south, the other east-west.

On the south side of the river in Yorkville, Bridge Street provided access up to Courthouse Hill, where the county courthouse was built in 1864.  South of the river, in Bristol, Bridge Street ran past the city square park donated by Lyman Bristol and past several businesses located there to tap the trade on its way across the river.

The two Main Streets were eventually relegated to use as residential areas. In the 1957, the two villages merged into the United City of Yorkville, and the two Main Streets remained as historical artifacts, creating the interesting, and possibly unique, situation of Yorkville residents now enjoying North, South, East, and West Main Streets.

Which really does go to show that Main Street isn’t always a main street.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

A short history of Oswego’s Union Block…

From even before Oswego became a village, the area on what is today the east side of Main Street between Washington and Jackson streets was the center of its mercantile activity.

The timeline on Oswego’s earliest years is not entirely clear, but it’s possible that Levi Arnold had established his store in the middle of that block by the time he and Lewis B. Judson laid out the original village in 1835. When the village was granted its post office in January 1837, Arnold became the first postmaster with the post office located in his store.

This poor quality photograph is the only image we have of the east side of Main between Washington and Jackson Street we have, but it clearly shows the majestic National Hotel, along with the wood frame commercial buildings that made up the heart of downtown Oswego before the devastating fire of Feb. 9, 1867.

This poor quality photograph is the only pre-1867 image we have of the east side of Main between Washington and Jackson Street, but it clearly shows the majestic National Hotel, along with the wood frame commercial buildings that made up the heart of downtown Oswego before the devastating fire of Feb. 9, 1867. (Little White School Museum collection)

The east side of Main drew a variety of retail businesses with offices and residences located above. In the early 1840s, the stately Greek Revival National Hotel was built on the north half of the block where Arnold’s store was located. The first terms of the circuit court were held in the hotel after the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845 and the stores and offices continued to draw trade from a wide hinterland surrounding Oswego.

But then in February 1867, an overheated stovepipe caused a devastating fire that destroyed everything on the east side of Main from Washington north to Jackson Street, with the exception of the National Hotel’s horse barns.

Combined with the loss of the county seat back to Yorkville just three years before, the fire was a serious economic blow to the community.

But the community’s business leaders gathered and decided to rebuild as quickly as possible. Under the headline “To be Re-Built,” a short item in the May 2, 1867 Kendall County Record reported:

“The block of buildings that was burned down in Oswego last winter is to be replaced. The rubbish is being cleared away and soon phoenix-like, a new lock will spring from the ashes. The new stores are to have brick fronts and stone side walks.”

As a nod both to the recent war to save the Union and the group of business owners formed to build the new block of stores, it was dubbed the Union Block and was designed in the then-popular Italianate architectural style.

Record Editor John R. Marshall decided to take day trip up to Oswego later in the year, reporting in the June 20 Record:

“In Oswego today for the first time since the fire last February destroyed the main part of the town, I was surprised and pleased to see the improvements making. The large and substantial foundations of stone and brick now taking the place of the debris of the burnt district give promise that the enterprise of Oswego will be developed to such an extent that the trade of the rich country surrounding will be secured at home instead of seeking Aurora and other points. I do not see why Oswego cannot afford to supply the farmers with merchandise at as low rates as he can buy elsewhere. The promise of improvements now making is that Oswego intends to lead. Business is improving and all seem cheerful.”

By Nov. 7, the Record could report:

“Oswego is alive and is doing the best she can. More has been done the last summer in building than has been done in the past ten years. Six fine brick and stone front buildings have been erected and are now nearly complete. The builders are Messrs. [Lewis B.] Judson, [James] Shepard, [John] Chapman, [Thomas] Greenfield, [Marcius J.] Richards, and [Levi N.] Hall. They will have the finest block in Kendall County.”

Merchants gradually moved into the new building as each of the storefronts was finished. On December 12, the Record reported:

“We have at last a genuine Oswego advertisement and we earnestly request our readers in that vicinity to give the advertiser, Mr. L.N. Hall, a liberal patronage that his neighbors may see that it is good to advertise and do likewise. Mr. Hall has a splendid new store and is fitting it up at great expense; he’s an energetic young man and will fulfill his promises. Call and see him in the new block.”

This photo was probably taken in 1870 shortly after the decorative Italianate cornices were added to the Union Block storefronts. (Little White School Museum collection)

This photo was probably taken in 1870 shortly after the decorative Italianate cornices were added to the new Union Block storefronts. (Little White School Museum collection)

The second floor halls over the main floor retail businesses were also slowly occupied. Hall’s drug store, located at the north end of the block of stores on the alley bisecting the block, the same spot Arnold’s first store and post office stood, welcomed one of the village’s most prominent fraternal organizations to the hall above the store. According to Rank, reporting from Oswego in the Feb. 13, 1868 Record:

“The Odd Fellows occupied their new hall over the drug store last Tuesday evening; they have as good a room as can be found west of Chicago, all newly furnished.”

As the year wore on, businesses continued to occupy storefronts in the new brick block. On May 7 the Record reported:

“We would call the attention of our readers to the new advertisement of N. Goldsmith & Co., in another column. They have just opened a new clothing place in the new Union Block, Oswego.”

In the July 16 Record, Marshall decided to give Oswego another boost—and also probably hoped to gain a little more advertising from the village’s merchants:

“Oswego has recently shown a commendable enterprise in erecting a fine large brick block. This block contains six large elegant stores. All of these but one are already in successful operation, their occupants are undoubtedly getting rich fast.

“As an evidence of what may be done we mention an instance. Mr. D. M. Haight came to Oswego in April and occupied one of the new stores. The first month he did a small trade. The second month his trade amounted to nearly $2,000. The third month, June, it was increased more than a thousand dollars. Mr. Haight is a gentleman and understands his business. He keeps a splendid assortment of goods and, is well repaid. One gentleman informed us that his trade, amounting to about $500 per year, formerly went to Aurora. Since the recent enterprise facilities have opened it has stopped there.”

David M. Haight's store occupies the prime corner location in the Union Block at Main and Washington streets in this photo, probably taken in the mid-1880s. The Rank Building, housing Oswego's post office, borders the Union Block to the north, and next is the Star Roller Skating Rink. (Little White School Museum collection)

David M. Haight’s store occupies the prime corner location in the Union Block at Main and Washington streets in this photo, probably taken in the mid-1880s. The Rank Building, housing Oswego’s post office, borders the Union Block to the north, and next is the Star Roller Skating Rink. (Little White School Museum collection)

David Haight located his business in the corner storefront at Main and Washington, a location he would maintain until the financial Panic of 1893 drove him into bankruptcy.

The sturdy block of stores was not finally completed until June of 1870. On June 16, Rank wrote in his “Oswego” column that:

“L.N. Hall and the Richards are finally putting a cornice on their store buildings. VanEvra is the architect.”

And there the block stood for several decades, with businesses coming and going, and uses varying for the halls located above the stores. In the 1950s, Alva Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Drug Store, located in Levi Hall’s old store, opened a toy store each Christmas in the hall above the drug store. As the Oswego Ledger reported on Oct. 25, 1951:

“Shuler’s Toy Land will be open by appointment only from now until Nov. 10. From the 10th of November until Christmas Eve, Shuler’s Toy Land will be open every day. You will find a fine selection of the newest and finest toys in Shuler’s complete Toy Land.”

For those of us growing up in Oswego during the 1950s, Al Shuler’s annual toy extravaganza was the height of Christmas window shopping, an almost daily stop on our way home from school on those cold December evenings.

Oswego photographer Homer Durand snapped this photo of the Union Block in the spring of 1958, four years after the decorative cornices had been removed. A fair amount of the block's original Italianate accents remained, however. (Little White School Museum collection)

Oswego photographer Homer Durand snapped this photo of the Union Block in the spring of 1958, four years after the decorative cornices had been removed. A fair amount of the block’s original Italianate accents remained, however. (Little White School Museum collection)

In May 1954, the decorative cornices that the store owners had installed as elegant finishing touches for the Union Block’s storefronts were removed. On May 6, the Oswego Ledger reported:

“John Carr reported that overhanging cornices of the buildings on the east side of Main Street owned by Andrew Carr, A.M. Shuler, Wayne Denney, Ronald Smith, and Ida Mighell would be removed by June 1. The cornices were recently inspected by members of the village board and building inspector Halbesma of Aurora, and found to be in need of removal.”

The old limestone sidewalks from Jackson to Washington Street in front of the Union Block were removed and replaced by modern concrete walks. The work was approved by the Oswego Village Board in March 1959, and by August the work was underway, with the Ledger reporting:

“It is hoped that the shoppers of the area will be patient while the repairs are underway and take into consideration the fact that the improvement program is planned for their convenience and shopping comfort as well as to add to the looks of the downtown area. Remember, all places of business are open during the usual hours.”

Downtown businessmen, with a wary eye on shopping centers popping up throughout the Fox Valley,  in an effort to homogenize Oswego’s downtown into a shopping center-like area, decided in the spring of 1972, to build mansard canopies over the sidewalks past the Union Block and add mansard-like accents to many of the other buildings downtown.

On Sept. 21, the Ledger reported The Oswego Business Association had announced the downtown facelift project was complete;

“A wooden shake shingle mansard roof was extended over most of the older buildings, several of the buildings were sandblasted and tuckpointed. Decorative potted threes and garden areas have been added to those already in existence in the downtown area, as well as concrete benches for those who would like to sit and visit or rest while in the village shopping.”

As  this 2012 photo illustrates, the Union Block has been shorn of most of its Italianate architectural accents, while being defaced with a mansard canopy over the sidewalks along its front. Note the modern building at the north end of the block that replaced the two storefronts destroyed by the 1973 fire. (Roger Matile collection)

As this 2012 photo illustrates, the Union Block has been shorn of most of its Italianate architectural accents, while being defaced with a mansard canopy over the sidewalks along its front. Note the modern building at the north end of the block that replaced the two storefronts destroyed by the 1973 fire. (Roger Matile collection)

In April 1973, the Union Block suffered its most serious disaster when fire broke out in what was originally Hall’s Drug Store. By 1973, the storefront was home to the Oswego Ledger and Combs Real Estate, while the next door storefront housed the Main Street Home Center, an appliance store. Both businesses were gutted, as were the apartments that by then occupied the second story spaces above the buildings.

Like their predecessors in 1867, the owners of the storefronts, Don and Ann Krahn, determined to rebuild, adding a modern brick two-story building to the north end of the old Union Block. Designed with commercial rental space in the lower and ground level spaces, the building was designed with apartments above.

Today, the Union Block and its new cousin, finished in 1974, are still the heart of downtown Oswego. In the years since the village’s founding in 1835, the east side downtown business block has mirrored the history of many similar mercantile areas of small towns all over the Midwest.

2 Comments

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

Frank Vanderlip, financial panics, and documentaries…

So I’m basically minding my own business, doing history down at the Little White School Museum, when my friend, Vicki Mack, calls and wonders if she can stop by and film a segment for a documentary she’s working on.

I met Vicki, a professional photographer from Palos Verde, Calif., a few years ago when she working on a biography of journalist, financier, government official, and real estate developer Frank Vanderlip. The result, Frank A. Vanderlip: The Banker Who Changed America, was published just a year ago, to pretty good reviews.

In 1919, Frank Vanderlip (left), just weeks after resigning as president of the National City Bank in New York City, visited Oswego for the annual Duffy School Reunion, where he connected with his old teacher, Christopher C. Duffy, for the last time. (Little White School Museum photo)

In 1919, Frank Vanderlip (left), just weeks after resigning as president of the National City Bank in New York City, visited Oswego for the annual Duffy School Reunion, where he connected with his old teacher, Christopher C. Duffy, for the last time. (Little White School Museum photo)

And what did Oswego have to do with Frank Vanderlip? Well, he was born in Aurora, but the family moved to a farm just outside Oswego when he was very young. He grew up there and attended what became known as the Old Stone School, part of the number of students educated by Christopher C. Duffy, then the school’s principal and superintendent. Vanderlip’s father died in 1878, leaving the 14 year-old as the man of the household. Unfortunately, the country was still reeling from the devastating effects of the Panic of 1873—the most severe depression the nation would suffer until the 1930s—and Frank’s mother (a city girl raised in Aurora) simply couldn’t cope. The family lost the farm and their possessions, all of which were auctioned to the highest bidders.

The family moved back to Aurora where Frank parlayed his intelligence and hard-working spirit into first a job with a local paper, then moving up to a business reporter at the Chicago Tribune, then to the business editor’s position at the Trib, before heading off with one of his mentors to Washington, D.C. to eventually become an assistant treasury secretary. That led to a job in banking and the eventual presidency of the National City Bank in New York—today’s Citibank—a job that put him in a position to have a major impact on creating better methods for the nation to cope with periodic financial panics and depressions. And that led to the formation of the Federal Reserve System.

Not too bad for a one-time Oswego farm kid.

Vicki Mack and Elliott Haimoff of Global Science Productions set scene on the site of the old Vanderlip farm, now part of an Oswego subdivision. (Little White School Museum photo)

Vicki Mack and Elliott Haimoff of Global Science Productions set scene on the site of the old Vanderlip farm, now part of an Oswego subdivision. (Little White School Museum photo)

Call me cynical if you like, but after 30 years in the news biz, hearing about a possible documentary about Vanderlip didn’t really trip any triggers. I’ve seen too many big ideas inflate and deflate over the years. But then in late September, I got another call from Vicki announcing she and a few others would be in the Fox Valley filming and would I be up for a Sunday supper at the Two Brother Round House in Aurora. Old historian’s rule: Never turn down a free meal. So I asked my wife if she was up for a good, free meal, which she was. I like the Roundhouse; my grandfather and great-grandfather worked in the adjacent Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Shops, so it’s got a sort of homey feeling for me.

During the meal, the shooting schedule was nailed down: Filming in and around Aurora would take place Monday and part of Tuesday with Vicki directing and interviewing, her sister, Stephanie, acting as production assistant, and Elliott Haimoff, a documentary filmmaker and owner of Global Science Productions, doing the actual filming. Oswego shooting would start mid-afternoon Tuesday.

As these discussions went on, my wife looked more and more concerned. “Are you going to be in a MOVIE?” she asked, with trepidation obvious in her voice. “And how long have you known about all this?” That last said with a sort of dangerous glint in her eye. I tried to explain that things had been sort of simmering for a while, but that I didn’t figure it was worth getting all excited about until something actually happened. Like Sunday’s meal, for instance. That was definitely something.

Tuesday afternoon, I was able to do a little writing in the morning, and then at noon pick up a healthy lunch at McD’s and head down to the museum to eat and do research. I wasn’t sure what Vicki wanted, but I already had the outline of a story about Frank Vanderlip in mind.

My take on him is that his entire life, personal and professional, was shaped by the series of devastating financial panics that periodically struck the nation. His family lost the farm, at least partly, because of the effects of the Panic of 1873 that apparently resulted in Charles Vanderlip’s assumption of substantial debt. In that regard, he was no different than thousands of other farmers in Illinois and everywhere else in the country. By the time the Panic of 1893 struck, Vanderlip was the financial editor of the Chicago Tribune, where he reported on the economic collapse. In his one-time home county of Kendall, as a measure of how overwhelming the collapse was, all three of its banks failed within two weeks during the summer of 1893.

Frank Vanderlip in a portrait taken for his family, probably in the early 1920s. (Little White School Museum collection)

Frank Vanderlip in a portrait taken for his family, probably in the early 1920s. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fourteen years later, Vanderlip had been in and out of government and was working as a vice-president at National City Bank when the Panic of 1907 struck. That gave him a ringside seat to see how financier J.P. Morgan saved the nation’s financial structure almost single-handedly. Which was when Vanderlip began telling his friends and colleagues—anyone who would listen—that the nation needed to find an answer to those destructive cycles of boom and bust that continually set the country back.

So when Sen. Nathan Aldrich (R-Massachusetts) convened a secret meeting of bankers and financiers (this was back in the day when Republicans were still interested in governing the country with ideas that made at least some sense) at the exclusive Jekyl Island Club off the Georgia coast in November 1910 to figure out how to eliminate the boom and bust cycle, it wasn’t surprising that former Oswego schoolboy Frank Vanderlip was among those invited to attend.

The high-powered group proceeded to hammer out an outline of what they felt should be done to keep the nation’s finances from the tyranny of periodic panics. Although it took a while, their outline eventually became the roadmap for today’s Federal Reserve System, which, while not perfect, has greatly stabilized the nation’s monetary system.

Elliott Haimoff of Global Science Productions and Vicki Mack film in the area where the Vanderlip farmstead used to be located. Financier Frank Vanderlip grew up on the farm until his father died in 1878 and the farm was sold in 1880. (Little White School Museum photo)

Elliott Haimoff of Global Science Productions and Vicki Mack film in the area where the Vanderlip farmstead used to be located. Financier Frank Vanderlip grew up on the farm until his father died in 1878 and the farm was sold in 1880. (Little White School Museum photo)

So on that September Tuesday afternoon when Vicki, Stephanie, and Elliott showed up to film a conversation about Frank Vanderlip I was ready to give my take on how Vanderlip’s Oswego years may have informed his views on national financial stability. Sitting down in front of the museum’s permanent business exhibit, we chatted for about 40 minutes. And when Vicki wound up the interview by wondering what I’d say to Vanderlip if I could meet him today, I said I’d thank him for helping create the Fed. It seems pretty clear that without the Federal Reserve’s actions since 2008, the nation would have slipped into possibly one of its worst depressions ever.

From what I hear, the Vanderlip documentary will be released sometime late this year or early next (time will tell, I guess), and is set to be premiered at Palos Verdes Estates, the community Vanderlip created on the California coast near Los Angeles back before World War I. That’s where Vicki lives, and she’s involved with the local history scene there. In fact, her book is actually designed as a fundraiser for the Rancho Palos Verdes Estates Historical Society, of which she’s a board member.

But back to the nation’s finances. If the Federal Reserve and other federal institutions are designed to stop depressions, what’s with what’s been happening since 2008? Granted, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has—and frequently uses—the power to take over failing banks and savings and loans to stop bank runs, and that was a good thing. However, these days, bank runs are not the only things that can cause financial panics. A huge chunk of the nation’s banking is no long federally insured. Firewalls between banks and investment houses were torn down allowing 1920s style financial skullduggery to thrive. In addition, the unregulated, non-bank financial industry was responsible for half or more or all the loans outstanding, leading to the failure of Lehman Brothers, and the near-failure of other institutions that were, however, decided to be “too big to fail.” So those institutions were saved. Unfortunately, the government also decided the institutions’ executives, no matter how corrupt and inept they had proven to be, were too big to prosecute.

I’ve settled on being thankful, at least for a while, for the things that really did work to save the nation from a 19th Century-style financial panic.

On the other hand, one of the greatest failures of the Obama Administration has been to fairly enforce the law, both in terms of the financial crimes committed against the nation, its people, and the world leading up to the crash of 2008, and war crimes committed by those who tortured and murdered in all our names after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s clear we now have a two-tiered justice system, one for the well off and well connected and another for the rest of us. I’m not sure how long a democracy can last given such a situation, but I guess we’re on track to find out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Frustration, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized