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 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 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 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)
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)
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.