Monthly Archives: March 2015

Yellow Jack a no-show on this Florida vacation…

So after spending February 2014 mostly chasing my snowblower up and down our driveway, I decided it might be prudent to get the heck out of northern Illinois during February 2015.

February has always been a problematical month here on the prairies west of Lake Michigan. It’s not for nothing that the Native Peoples who lived here when the settlers arrived called February’s full moon the “Full Snow Moon.”

Winter in Oswego, 2014, persuaded us that it might be prudent to head south during February 2015. We did, and it was.

Winter in Oswego, 2014, persuaded us that it might be prudent to head south during February 2015. We did, and it was.

Of course back then, while there was a lot of snow, the good news was that the wetlands that dotted the prairie were frozen solid, and there weren’t any flies or mosquitoes to deal with. And that meant no ague—which we call malaria these days. The roads during the settlement era were mere tracks and traces (thus the title of the monograph on area roads and stagecoach travel I wrote: By Trace and Trail) that morphed into bottomless muddy quagmires whenever a brief winter thaw happened. So February, with all its snow, was usually a month for good sleighing.

Farmers generally took their wagon boxes and hayracks off their running gears and put them on bobsled gears when the snow built up so they could haul feed to their own livestock and take the occasional load of grain to the grain elevator in town to sell or have ground into coarse flour to feed the hogs and chickens.

Actually, opting out of the Fox Valley for the winter really isn’t anything new. On May 20, 1875, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Kinney have returned in the best of health and spirits from about a seven months’ sojourn in southern California.”

California was really the thing for quite a while if you wanted to avoid the worst of a northern Illinois winter. But slowly, Florida began to be mentioned as a destination. Early on, folks avoided Florida like the plague. Because, it just wasn’t a very healthy place to live, even though some local folks decided to take their chances anyway.

For instance, in October 1878, Oswego was all agog with the plans of the George Avery family, who had decided to sell out and move to Florida. They sold all the household goods that they couldn’t carry, and sold their house to Anton Miller. Then young George headed south to Utica, where he built a boat.

As the Record reported on Oct. 17: “Mrs. Lucy Avery with the children depart this morning to join her husband, and old George Avery at Utica, where they have been building a boat in which the party will embark for Florida or at least go in the same as far as New Orleans.”

By late November, the family, consisting of George and Lucy and their three daughters, George’s father, nicknamed “The General,” and their cats and dogs had reached the Mississippi above St. Louis. They eventually made their way all the way to Florida, and sent back such glowing reports that George’s brother, Ed, decided to sell out in Oswego and head down there, too.

On Oct. 2, 1879, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported he’d had a letter from the venturesome Avery family:

“Who does not like to be remembered and thought well of by the children? Was especially pleased to receive a letter from Allie Avery the other day with an alligator cuticle inclosed for a watch charm. The family went away from here over a year ago, spent the winter in Missouri, early in the spring went to Florida and chose Pensacola for their new home. Miss Allie also sent me a full record of the temperature of that locality for August, the hottest month they had, which shows the thermometer to have stood between 70 and 93 in the daytime, the latter point reached on the ninth; the average of the month at 7 a.m. was about 78, at noon 87, and 6 p.m. 80, and there were 12 days scattered through the month on which they had rain. Ed Avery, who sold out his house-hold goods and other effects Saturday, will also start for that region in a short time.”

Ed and family left Oswego Oct. 8, and headed south to join his father, brother, and family.

On Feb. 12, 1880, Rank reported he’d received another letter from young Lucy Avery:

“Received word the other day from the Oswegoans now residing in Florida by letter from Mrs. Lucy Avery in which she gave me a record of the temperature at Pensacola during January, the coldest month of the year, of which the following is the average of the thermometer: At 6 a.m., about 59; noon, 67; and 6 p.m., 63. The old General, too, sends me his respects with the advice that this is the country for old chaps.”

All wasn’t sweetness and light, of course. In September 1880, Rank said he’d received news of a near-tragedy involving the family: “It is said that Ed. Avery with a part of his family while out boating in Pensacola bay was overtaken by the big storm down there and compelled to put into a cove where they had to remain all night; that another boatload in their company were drowned by capsizing.”

“The Old General” was the first of the Florida Averys to die, although it seems to have been more old age that claimed him than any disease. Reported Rank in early November 1881: “The information was received yesterday by his wife and brother that George W. Avery, ‘the Old General,’ who several years ago in company with his son went to Pensacola, Florida died there very suddenly. The bell was tolled for him this morning.”

And maybe Ed should have seen the boating mishap as a portent, because he was the next to go, but this time it was no accident and it wasn’t old age. It was yellow fever.

At the time, one of the main reasons folks tended to avoid Florida was the tendency of yellow fever epidemics to break out. Yellow fever is one of hemorrhagic fevers—as is Ebola—but it’s far less contagious and is only spread by mosquitoes that have bitten infected people. However, no one knew that at the time and the occasional outbreaks of the deadly disease were terrifying.

Pensacola had been yellow fever free since 1874, and residents had let their guard down. Malaria was common, but not the deadly Yellow Jack. But then the Spanish bark Saletra arrived at the port of Pensacola with three sick crewmen aboard. The first night the ship was in port, one of the mates suddenly died of yellow fever. Panicky officials ordered the ship into quarantine, but it was apparently too late. Next stricken was Captain Bartolo, of the Italian bark Vincenzo Accamé, who died the same day he fell ill, and from there the disease spread quickly until it claimed one of the Oswego Averys.

In the Oct. 19, 1882 Kendall County Record, Rank reported the distressing news: “The sad intelligence was received last week that Ed Avery had died at Pensacola, Florida from yellow fever.”

February 2015 in Cape Coral, Florida proved a bit warmer than it was out on the Illinois prairie. A quiet sunrise out on the screened porch—they call them lanais—was a lot nicer than -10° F. with a stiff wind and snow.

February 2015 in Cape Coral, Florida proved a bit warmer than it was out on the Illinois prairie. A quiet sunrise out on the screened porch—they call them lanais—was a lot nicer than -10° F. with a stiff wind and snow. And we didn’t see a single case of Yellow Jack.

The epidemic finally burned itself out without taking any more Avery lives.

So that was on my mind as we headed south to spend February in Cape Coral, a relatively new town carved out of the mangrove swamps along the Caloosahatchee River starting in 1957. Today, the place is huge and features more than 400 miles of canals, most of which link to the river, whose mouth is on the Gulf of Mexico.

The good news was we got all the way through February without hearing about a single case of Yellow Jack. The traffic might kill you down there, but we didn’t see a single mosquito, much less the homicidal little Aedes aegypti that would sooner give you yellow fever than look at you.

In fact, we liked it so much we are probably going back down next year, especially since we kept up with the weather news (it wasn’t pretty) from the Fox Valley while we were there—along with no mosquitoes, we didn’t see any snow either, which was a big plus for me. And the food was pretty good, too.

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One historical mystery down, a bunch still to go…

One of the things we seem to get too little time to do these days down at the museum is to do actual history. Every day we spend down there seems more clogged with paperwork, policy discussions, and keeping databases up to date, not to mention trying to shoehorn in 20 artifacts where only 18 ought to fit—our storage space problems are almost legendary.

But every once in awhile, a researcher strolls through the door with a fascinating problem, or something else turns up that forces us to (not at all reluctantly) to turn away from the mundane and get back into history. Recently, for instance, we’ve had descendants of two black families who lived in Oswego for many years in the late 1800s and early 1900s come in looking for info on their families. And we were able to supply enough to make them happy. One family lived on South Main Street, where the father, a black Civil War veteran, was the long-time custodian at the Oswego grade and high school, where his children became the first male and female African-Americans to graduate from high school in Kendall County. The patriarch of the other family drove a horse and buggy 500 miles from Nashville, Tenn. to Oswego in 1899 where he engaged in the concrete contracting business, married into a prominent black farming family, and raised his family until his death in 1934.

2015 3-15 Mary Wolf stoneThat was probably enough really neat local history to have lasted us the entire year, but then a week or so ago, my buddy and Assistant Museum Director Bob Stekl, who has to continually rearrange our storage shelves to make room for new donations due to the museum’s lack of storage space, was working in the textile storage area when he spied the fragment of a tombstone we store upright at the end of one textile shelving unit. Newly intrigued, he decided to try to figure out exactly who this “Mary” was.

In the early 2000s when working along the Fox River Trail, a walking and cycling path paralleling Ill. Route 25 from Montgomery south to its Oswego terminus, an Oswegoland Park District crew recovered the tombstone fragment from the bank of the Fox River.

Engraving on the fragment indicated the stone was for a woman named Mary who died in September in the 1860s, and who was 63 years, 10 months, and 21 days old. The part of the stone with her husband’s name and her last name had broken off.

The park district crew wondered whether the Little White School Museum wanted the stone, and we immediately accepted it, but then largely forgot about it. After all, with no last name and no husband’s name, it would have been really difficult to determine which “Mary” who died in the 1860s it belonged to.

But Bob was newly interested, and so got on the computer and headed over to Ancestry.com, where he searched without any luck. Next stop was FamilySearch.org, the Latter Day Saints’ website, but didn’t have any luck there either. There just wasn’t enough information to do an effective search at either site.

So he decided to take another run at the problem from a different direction. He decided to assume Mary was a Kendall County resident as a starting point, therefore making his next stop Elmer Dickson’s excellent Kendall County genealogy web page. Dickson’s comprehensive web page offers, among many other resources, a database of Kendall County burials. Bob found that the burial listings (there are more than 60,000 of them) can be sorted by any of the columns on the page, including death date. So he clicked on the top of the death date year column and scrolled down looking for deaths during a September in the 1860s where the person was 63 years, 10 months, and 21 days old.

The original location of the Oswego Prairie Church was about a quarter mile east of Roth Road in Oswego Township. Due to access and drainage issues, the church was moved.

This 1859 Oswego Township map shows thee original location of the Oswego Prairie Church was about a quarter mile east of Roth Road in Oswego Township. Due to access and drainage issues, the church and cemetery were both moved in 1861.

And there, down near the very end of the list of 1861 burials, popped up Mary Barbara Wolf, wife of Leonard Wolf, who died in September 1861 at the age of 63 years, 10 months, and 21 days old.

John Leonard Wolf’s son, John Ulrich Wolf, was the earliest Wolf settler out at what is today called Wolf’s Crossing where Wolf’s Crossing Road crosses U.S. Route 30. The Wolfs arrived in 1850, and in 1860 John U. brought his parents, John Leonard and Mary Barbara (Heulf) Wolf to Illinois from their home in the hamlet of Schussbach, Bavaria.

In his history of the Oswego Prairie Church’s Evergreen Cemetery, historian John Hafenrichter referred to Mary Barbara as the matriarch of the Wolf family (of the couple’s nine children, all but three emigrated to Illinois) in Kendall County. Unfortunately, she lived less than a year after arriving.

The congregation of what eventually became the Oswego Prairie Church built their first church and cemetery in 1850 on a low-lying site about a half-mile due east of Roth Road and the current Evergreen Cemetery. Due to drainage and access problems, both cemetery and church were relocated in 1861 to the current Evergreen site along Roth Road. Most of the graves in the old cemetery were removed to the communal section of the new cemetery. It was there that Mary Barbara Wolf was interred when she died in September 1861, where her tombstone was apparently erected. When her husband, John Leonard Wolf, died in 1865, he was buried next to her, and a new marker, containing the names of both John and Mary was erected, replacing Mary’s original stone.

In 1861, the church and the cemetery were both moved west to adjoin Roth Road. In 1870, the church purchased a site at Roth and Wolf's Crossing roads, where they built a newer, larger church.

In 1861, the church and the cemetery were both moved west to adjoin Roth Road. In 1870, the church purchased a site at Roth and Wolf’s Crossing roads, where they built a newer, larger church, as this 1871 map of Oswego Township illustrates.

In 1871, the new cemetery was enlarged, plus it was surveyed and lots were laid off and sold to church members. John Wolf, son of John Leonard and Mary Barbara, purchased a block of burial plots, and then had his parents moved from the communal section to his new family block, along with the couple’s marker. In his 1999 history of Evergreen Cemetery, John Hafenrichter wondered whether Mary Barbara had had a marker at her original burial location.

“What marker, if any, was erected in 1861 marking Mary Barbara’s grave is not known,” he wrote. “After John Leonard’s death, four years later, his son installed a large rectangular stone, marking jointly what must have been the burial area of his parents, John Leonard and Mary Barbara Wolf.” That large stone with the names of both his parents’ names inscribed, was then moved in 1871 to the Wolfs’ final resting place in the new family plot.

My indefatigable friend, John Lee Hafenrichter (1928-2011), historian and researcher extraordinaire.

My indefatigable friend, John Lee Hafenrichter (1928-2011), historian and researcher extraordinaire.

We now believe the broken stone found along the Fox River by those park district workers was Mary Barbara’s original 1861 stone, which was probably discarded after the couple’s new marker was created following John Leonard’s death.

Although it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t tie the tombstone fragment to Mary Barbara (Huelf) Wolf while John Hafenrichter was living, we’re pretty sure he keeps a close eye on things having to do with the history of doings out on what they used to call the German Prairie—not to mention here at the museum where he spent quite a bit of time. So, John, this find’s for you.

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Confessions of a “free range kid”…

A couple months ago, the 24 hour news cycle glommed onto a story about “free range kids.” Turns out, there are parents who don’t believe their kids need to be scheduled 24-7, and that, in fact, they think kids can benefit by learning a measure of self-reliance.

This is not an easy road for parents to take in this day and age of abject fear of just about everything, including the seeming rash of child abductions. Which turn out to be another artifact of modern fear and refusal to credit facts. Because actual facts would prove that random child abductions are extremely rare—and always have been—those faces on the milk cartons included. Most child abductions are by parents or other relatives, not random child molesters prowling the streets. Actually, according to government statistics, little kids are far more likely to be killed by a family member or an acquaintance.

In addition, violent crime of all kinds has been sharply decreasing for a couple decades now, although people’s worry about crime have been increasing. Violent crime of all kinds in the U.S. decreased by 48 percent between 1995 and 2013. But during the same era, our fear of crime skyrocketed, something we have to credit that 24-hour news cycle noted above, plus right wing hate radio and FOX News, both groups which have a vested interest in stoking unreasoning fear. They could be citing the, you know, actual facts, but that wouldn’t play well with their audience or their sponsors and donors. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

The author as a young biker with his cycle decorated for the annual Memorial Day Parade, but nonetheless ready to rumble.

The author as a young biker with his cycle decorated for the annual Memorial Day Parade, but nonetheless ready to rumble, and probably for a game of ditch ’em after supper.

The fact is that crime probably isn’t a whole lot more prevalent when our increased population is taken into account than it was when I was a kid. And back then, in the 1950s, the current fixation on scheduling kids 24/7 wasn’t even possible, at least not in our small Illinois town. Turns out, I was a free range kid.

There simply wasn’t much to do, so we made our own entertainment. Both my folks worked, my dad selling and delivering livestock feed and my mother working at a series of bookkeeping jobs. As a result, my summers from third grade on were the sort of carefree times you read about in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We were corrupted by reading books by the aforementioned Twain, as well as the Penrod books by Booth Tarkington and—one of our particular, all-time favorites—Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy. Yes, Tarkington’s books on reading 50 years on are remarkably racist and Aldrich was a nativist of the worst stripe. But in those innocent days, the books were mostly useful for introducing the kinds of devilment our ancestors developed, and which we aimed to perfect.

We spent hours every day on the river in our flatbottomed scows, poling up and down the stream because it was far to shallow for oars. Sometimes we fished, although in those years, the fish were pitiful things, since the river was so polluted. It was so polluted, in fact, that we knew enough to never wade barefoot for fear of getting a cut or scrape. Chemical companies upstream figured the river was their own private disposal. One of them dumped cyanide in the river one fine day, killing all the fish—and almost every other aquatic creature, for that matter—for a 10 mile stretch of stream. We counted more than 500 dead fish along my folks’ 132 feet of shoreline. Along with the stunted bullheads and bluegills that we usually caught and the giant carp that infested the river were big bass, large catfish, and even a northern pike or two, fish we had no idea could even survive in our dirty stream (thanks for the allusion, Pete).

If worse came to worst, we'd head over to the park district playground at the Red Brick School to play croquet golf or volleyball or shoot arrows in the neighborhood of the targets. But it was generally considered far too structured for us free spirits.

If worse came to worst, we’d head over to the park district playground at the Red Brick School to play croquet golf or volleyball or shoot arrows in the neighborhood of the targets. But it was generally considered far too structured for us free spirits.

Even so, we were fascinated with exploring the river’s islands, looking for this and that, or just drifting along on a sunny afternoon. I bought my scow from a young fellow up river, but most of us built our own. Most were lightly built, but not mine, which was built of 1″ lumber throughout and was so heavy—and stable—that I could jump up and down on one of the gunwales and it would barely rock.

When we got tired of playing on the river, we’d repair to the woods across the street from my house where we cleared bicycle trails connecting “towns” we’d built with windfallen sticks we harvested from under the trees. Our houses sported gabled, thatched roofs thanks to the tall grasses that grew on some of the islands that were fairly rainproof.

Many an evening was spent sitting on the concrete steps on the corner of Main and Washington Street watching for the rarest out-of-state license plates we could see. Or trying to persuade truckers to lay on their air horns by vigorously pumping our bent arms up and down as they passed. Sometimes they even honked, too.

Many an evening was spent sitting on the concrete steps on the corner of Main and Washington Street watching for the rarest out-of-state license plates we could see. Or trying to persuade truckers to lay on their air horns by vigorously pumping our bent arms up and down as they passed. Sometimes they even honked, too.

In the evening, after supper, we’d head up to town to sit on the corner of Main Street and Route 34 and look for out-of-state license plates in those years when Ike’s Interstate system was under construction and U.S. highways were major transportation corridors, or play games of ditch-em on our bikes that taught us every nook, cranny, and back alley of our little village.

There were the pick-up games of baseball, First Bounce or Fly, and 500, and sometimes we’d even attend the park district’s youth programming—but that was very much a last resort. We didn’t much care for organized “fun,” and most of us still don’t. I suppose it was good training for the 1960s, attitudes that even the military service so many of us contributed didn’t, as far as I can tell, have much of an impact.

It was pretty much as idyllic a childhood as anyone could imagine. Boring? Sometimes, you bet it was, but it turns out boredom is a creative force, one that too many modern kids are not given the opportunity to enjoy along with the unstructured, creative play we enjoyed growing up in plenty.

 

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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events