Monthly Archives: June 2015

Carping about the Fox River…

The good news is that the Fox River has somewhat, if far from entirely, recovered from the grievous things done to it in the name of progress during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Right now, the river is pretty much a raging torrent, carrying the runoff from well over 6” of precipitation that has fallen on the Fox River Valley since June 1—with more on the way. The high water helps flush poisons, old and new, out of the streambed, which encourages the spawning of gamefish so sought-after by local anglers. From muskies to walleyes to fighting smallmouth bass, the Fox now boasts an increasingly healthy fishery.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

It wasn’t always so, of course. The pioneers who arrived along the river’s banks in the early 19th Century started indiscriminately used it as a handy sewer as soon as they got here, dumping everything in from their own human waste to the byproducts of industries large and small, in to watch it drift downstream. The most noxious producers of waste products were the coal gas manufacturing plants, the largest at Aurora owned by what became Western United Gas & Electric. There, coal was cooked to release gas used for cooking and heating Fox Valley homes while the byproducts, laced with crazily lethal carcinogens, were dumped in the river.

The result was the elimination of most desirable gamefish, which left the river mostly to the German carp. Many area residents were convinced the carp had driven the other species out by clouding and otherwise fouling the water, but, in fact, the carp were among the only fish tough enough to survive until the federal government started getting serious about cleaning up the nation’s streams in the 1970s.

There are still parts of the river—in the dead-end channel on the east side of the Ashland Avenue dam at Montgomery, for instance—where nothing other than what pioneering fisheries biologists S.A. Forbes and R.E. Richardson described as “filth enduring species” like carp can be found. That’s because those areas, especially in summer, suffer from oxygen depletion and lack of sufficient current to cleanse the channel of pollutants.

But in the free-flowing stretches of the river, particularly the portion from the dam in Montgomery to just above the dam at Yorkville, and from there to Dayton, the river is relatively healthy and the numbers of Forbes’ and Richardson’s “filth enduring species” are far lower.

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

As I noted above, carp, while generally disdained by anglers, did not cause the river’s problems. But they are certainly a powerful sign that serious problems still exist, because carp can thrive where other fish simply can’t live.

At that same time, of course, we must keep in mind that carp are not native to the Fox River. Rather, they were shipped here from Europe at fair expense and stocked in the river as part of a U.S. Government project to encourage a commercial inland fishery on the Illinois River and its tributaries.

“Sufficient attention has not been paid in the United States to the introduction of the European carp as a food-fish,” a U.S. Fish Commission report for 1872-1873 contended.

But attention was soon more than sufficient and the commission began carp imports in the late 1870s. The fish were so prized that the first shipments from Europe were placed in the reflecting pools at the Washington Monument to recover from the trip and lazily pass the winter before they were released in western rivers.

The first batch, 40 carp, was stocked in the Fox River in Kendall County in 1882. In 1883, 20 more were stocked in Kendall County. After that, the program accelerated, with 1,000 stocked at Aurora during a single day on Jan. 2, 1886.

Illinois in general and the Fox River in particular got so much attention partly because the one-time superintendent of the U.S. Fish Commission was Dr. S.P. Bartlett of Quincy. Bartlett was a staunch carp booster who wrote in 1900 that “…it is today the universal opinion of every responsible fish dealer on the Illinois River that the carp was the best gift ever made by the United States Fish Commission to the people of the State.”

Which was saying something, because among some of the other species the fish commission stocked in the Fox River were Atlantic Salmon, Chinook Salmon, and Rainbow Trout. Unfortunately, the salmon and trout didn’t take. Even more unfortunately, the carp did.

Bartlett complained that people kept blaming him for introducing carp to Illinois rivers. But he contended, lots of people liked the carp, pointing to a letter he received form M.D. Hurley, president of the Illinois Fishermen’s Association. According to Hurley: “I have heard it said that the carp are driving the fine fish out of the river. This is also far from the truth, as the carp lives in harmony with all kinds of fine fish. The only fish that does not seem to like the carp is the buffalo, and that is because carp are too lively for them and they cannot stand the jumping about of the carp.”

Bartlett’s cheerleading aside, by the early 1900s, carp had become an increasingly contentious issue in Illinois and elsewhere. Bartlett complained in 1902 that “This cry against the carp is a great big humbug—it is an outrage—they are a good fish if you know how to cook them.” Although he added with refreshing honesty, “But not so good if you don’t know how.”

Shot back W.E. Meehan, commissioner of fisheries for Pennsylvania and someone who didn’t like carp (or, apparently, those people, who turned out to be Italians) one bit: “Possibly the carp is fit for food. Personally, I do not like his looks as a fish and I do not like the looks of the people I have seen buying him in the market. I believe he is a cheap food for a cheap people…I do not think we can make good people out of cheap food.”

And so the arguments went. In the end it was found the introduction of carp, along with many more boneheaded species introductions, have had serious and negative impacts on the nation’s environment. Oddly enough, we still haven’t learned that lesson—witness those annoying Asian ladybugs, Dutch elm disease, and a host of other calamities we’ve brought on ourselves.

But one thing you can give the lowly carp credit for: They’re wonderful living gauges of stream quality. When you see them and no other fish swimming in a river or creek you know that stretch of water is in big environmental trouble.

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Food, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History

Prohibition didn’t work the last time, either…

For much of its existence, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. As soon as cities and towns figured out how to assure clean drinking water supplies, crusades against drinking alcohol intensified, especially against Catholic European immigrants.

In fact, the crusades against alcohol and immigrants were amalgamated allowing usually sane and moral people to begin approving of such hate organizations as the Ku Klux Klan.

As the 20th Century dawned, the campaign against Demon Rum and those who partook of it was gaining considerable political strength.

Here in Kendall County, local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Red Ribbon Society, the Sons of Temperance, and the Anti-Saloon League were growing. At the same time, however, saloons were not only tolerated but were also often even encouraged by local officials because of the taxes they generated. In Oswego, saloon licenses, priced at several hundred dollars per year, were responsible for funding a variety of local improvements from the village water works to sidewalks. In the days before sales and property taxes were permitted, saloon licenses were about the only sources of municipal revenue other than legal fines.

As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent put it so presciently in April 1899:

“As to [saloon] license here, it is the settled belief that the revenue from it is necessary to keep the town from going to decay and that the illegal sale of liquor without license would be more demoralizing than the legal sale under license.”

Not that the community hadn’t experimented with prohibiting saloons. Exactly 10 years earlier, an anti-license majority won a surprising victory, and proceeded to immediately shut down Oswego’s three saloons. The attitude of the reformers was, however, was high-handed and the balance of the board simply stopped going to meetings, denying quorums for several months. In response, a pro-license ticket was reelected in 1891, and the saloons, with their all-important license fees, were back in business.

But as the century turned, anti-saloon feeling grew, boosted by local women’s suffrage and overwhelming support of Protestant churches. By 1914, a majority of Kendall County residents was ready to support temperance. In the April township elections, voters went for prohibition in a big way. The Record reported:

“At the close of the day May 7th, the saloons of Kendall county will go out of business—four in Plano, three in Yorkville, two in Oswego—in conformity to the will of the majority of the voters at the township elections on April 7.”

In August 1925, the Ku Klux Klan flexed its political muscles by holding a massive march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Its membership swelled thanks to its emphasis on prohibition and opposition to Catholics and immigrants. A number of Klan meetings were held here in Kendall County during that era. (Library of Congress photo)

In August 1925, the Ku Klux Klan flexed its political muscles by holding a massive march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Its membership swelled thanks to its emphasis on prohibition and opposition to Catholics and immigrants. A number of Klan meetings were held here in Kendall County during that era. (Library of Congress photo)

The nation wasn’t far behind in the popularization of temperance sentiment. While the issue was vigorously pushed by women’s organizations like the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League, other forces were also gathering steam. William J. Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and to the group’s traditional racism, Simmons added a popular mix of anti-immigration, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-drinking to its laundry list of hate. Fueled by the success of D.W. Griffith’s technically brilliant, racially bigoted film, “The Birth of a Nation,” Klan membership exploded, and the organization became a respected leader in the prohibition movement.

On Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment mandating nationwide prohibition was ratified by Congress. With passage of the National Prohibition Act—known as the Volstead Act—to enforce it following in October, prohibition became the law of the land.

Which is right about when the real trouble started. Millions of Americans of German, French, and Italian descent, especially, but not limited to, Catholics, simply didn’t like the law. Millions of others had always defied government “revenuers” from their mountain dells and hollers, and had no intention of toeing this new line, either. Criminal organizations figured that since law-abiding folks couldn’t manufacture or sell the alcohol so many wanted, a new market had been created. The immense profits from bootlegging fueled a murderous crime wave the likes of which the nation had never seen as gangs viciously struggled with each other to corner the market on alcohol.

In January 1923, Record editor H.R. Marshall observed:

“Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [illegal stills] within its boundaries.”

Illegal distilling operations in violation of the prohibition act ranged from small backyard operations like this to elaborate distilleries that produced thousands of gallons of drinkable alcohol a day. (

Illegal distilling operations in violation of the prohibition act ranged from small backyard operations like this to elaborate distilleries that produced thousands of gallons of drinkable alcohol a day. (

But Marshall spoke too soon. On March 28 the Record reported local and federal agents had raided a restaurant in Plano, seizing 80 cases of beer and 14 quarts of whiskey. But the big haul, that week the Record reported, was on the John Schickler farm just north of Oswego on Ill. Route 31. Schickler was a former Oswego businessman and saloon owner on whose farm authorities found a modern still capable of turning 23 gallons of denatured alcohol a day into drinkable liquor.

“When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning,” the Record reported.

In 1927, Arthur W. Cramer, a well known druggist with stores in Plano and Joliet, was jailed for illegally operating a still after having been previously convicted of illegally selling alcohol.

Federal agents raided a farm a mile east of Plano in October 1930, and seized six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, 4,000 gallons of alcohol; two boilers; and quantity of yeast.

By the early 1930s, it was pretty clear the idea of Prohibition had failed. As the Record commented: “It is up to us to determine whether or not we made a mistake. If so, we should rectify it even though we must sacrifice our pride. A heroic attempt has been made to attain an ideal and is admittedly a failure.”

Ralph Johnson tends bar at Johnson's Tavern, Main at Jackson, in downtown Oswego. Although the captions says the photo was taken on Sept. 1, 1933. The sale of "near beer" with 3.2 percent alcohol was allowed starting after June, 1933 when county voters approved the 18th Amendment and the Kendall County Board approved a county liquor control ordinance. Prohibition didn't end until Dec. 5, 1933, when the sale of regular beer and hard liquor was allowed to be sold.

Ralph Johnson tends bar at Johnson’s Tavern, Main at Jackson, in downtown Oswego.The inscription on the back says the photo was taken on Sept. 1, 1933. The sale of “near beer” with 3.2 percent alcohol was allowed starting after June, 1933 when Kendall County voters approved the 18th Amendment and the Kendall County Board approved a county liquor control ordinance. Prohibition didn’t officially end until Dec. 5, 1933, when the sale of regular beer and hard liquor was finally permitted. (Little White School Museum photo)

Lawlessness didn’t immediately end when Prohibition did in 1933, because of efforts to avoid federal alcohol taxes. In April 1936, local and federal agents raided a gas station between Oswego and Yorkville seizing three 3,500 gallon supply tanks and 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol before going to the Baumann farm on Ill. Route 25 between Oswego and Montgomery where they seized a huge modern distilling plant capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day.

But that was the last large seizure in the county’s bootlegging era. By late 1933, taverns had reopened in Kendall County, and people could have a cold beer in peace. As the Record reported from Yorkville in September 1933: “The new proprietors of the Nading Café have installed a bar where they serve Schlitz beer.”

Looking back, it’s difficult to explain how Prohibition, by criminalizing of normally law-abiding citizens and creating a powerful, wealthy criminal underclass, differed very much at all from the effects of today’s ineffective, unsuccessful 40 year-old war on drugs.

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Filed under Crime, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Volney, Rabbits, and Three-Fingered Jack…

Oddly enough, given that violent crime rates have been steadily declining for years now, people—especially in small town America—seem convinced that crime is on the upswing.

We got to talking about local crime the other day, and the person I was chatting with was surprised to hear that back in the 1920s and 1930s, our little corner of the world was a lot more like the wild west than our modern, bustling suburban community.

Bank robbery was rife, with bandits being chased through rural farmland by sheriff’s posses, and highway robbery was not unheard of. Our local dentist and his wife, for instance, were stopped by road agents on the Lincoln Highway—now U.S. Route 30—between Plainfield and Aurora and robbed of their money and jewelry. In August 1921, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell fought a gun battle in downtown Yorkville with a man suspected of killing a West Chicago lawman.

The spate of criminal activity, aided by the mobility that better roads and fast automobiles offered, hit its height locally during the Dillinger years of the early 1930s.

Dapper John Dillinger orchestrated a crime wave in the upper Midwest during the 1930s with the help of a gang of colorful criminals eventually run to ground by federal agents..

Dapper John Dillinger orchestrated a crime wave in the upper Midwest during the 1930s with the help of a gang of colorful criminals eventually run to ground by federal agents..

In February 1935, the colorful Dillinger saga was far too familiar to far too many Kendall County citizens. The gang, including Dillinger himself and the homicidal maniac Lester Gillis who called himself Babyface Nelson, along with John “Red” Hamilton (nicknamed “Three Fingered Jack” by the press) had been frequenting the area for years, occasionally hiding out and, reportedly, making use of the services of a local doctor when one or the other of them needed to be patched up.

While the gang’s activities had been an undercurrent during the 1930s, that February, the gang’s last gasps became all too real.

Volney Davis was a minor member of the gang, but he was definitely connected. Agents of the U.S. Division of Investigation (the DOI would soon be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) tracked him down and arrested him in Kansas City on charges of kidnapping a St. Paul, Minn. banker

While the DOI definitely wanted to chat with Davis about his recent kidnapping exploit, they also suspected he had information concerning the whereabouts of some Dillinger Gang members who were unaccounted for.

Famed G-Man Melvin Purvis and his task force of DOI agents had gunned Dillinger down the previous July in Chicago. And one by one, the rest of the Dillinger bunch and the loosely related Karpis-Barker Gang had been tracked down and either captured or killed. Davis, a member of the Karpis-Barker Gang, knew where some of the two gangs’ bodies were literally buried.

Volney Davis was an enthusiastic member of the Barker-Karpis Gang that had occasional dealings with the Dillinger bunch. He staged an escape from the custody of federal agents in downtown Yorkville.

Volney Davis was an enthusiastic member of the Karpis-Barker Gang that had occasional dealings with the Dillinger bunch. He staged an escape from the custody of federal agents in downtown Yorkville.

Davis, firmly in the custody of DOI agents Garrity and Trainor, was bundled aboard a chartered plane in Kansas City and sent off to St. Paul via Chicago, where a refueling stop was scheduled—and that’s where the fickle finger of fate intervened. Finding a solid overcast at Chicago, the pilot headed west looking for clear weather and a place to land. The fog gradually cleared over one of Eugene Matlock’s fields south of the Kendall County seat of Yorkville. Matlock’s neighbor, Bill Ford, saw the plane land and drove over to see what was happening.

As dusk was closing in and after asking where they were, the G-Men told Ford they needed to go into town to call Chicago. Removing Davis’s leg shackles so he could walk, they all piled into Ford’s car and headed into Yorkville. Ford, a friend of Kendall County Sheriff William Maier, suggested they go to the county jail where Davis could be locked up while the call was made, but the agents weren’t interested in sharing custody with the locals. “We don’t want any sheriffs in on this,” they told Ford.

So Ford drove them to the Hotel Nading at Bridge Street and West Hydraulic, at the south end of the Fox River bridge. On the way, Volney’s handcuffs were removed—after all, what could possibly go wrong?

Clean-cut and determined, Melvin Purvis got John Dillinger and Volney Davis while J. Edgar Hoover got the publicity.

Clean-cut and determined, Melvin Purvis got John Dillinger and Volney Davis while J. Edgar Hoover got the publicity.

Entering Charles Leech’s tavern on the hotel’s ground floor, Agent Trainor walked to the phone booth to call Chicago HQ while Garrity offered to buy Volney a beer. Garrity ordered two brews (these were the days before drinking on duty was frowned upon). As the agent raised his glass for a sip, Volney swung and connected with Garrity’s head, knocking him over a bar chair and to the floor. Then, as the Kendall County Record reported: “Turning, the prisoner made a running leap head-first through a nearby window. Garrity leaped to his feet drawing a revolver and ran to the window from which he fired three shots at the fugitive, who headed west after hurtling the iron fence which borders the hotel lawn.”

Volney, letting no grass grow beneath his feet, raced southwest on Hydraulic then zigzagged through a succession of Yorkville alleys, shrugging off his blue overcoat to increase his speed as he ran.

Three blocks south and a block west, his spirits must have soared when he spied Harlan Bretthauer’s V-8 Ford (speedy and lightweight, it was one of the gangsters’ favorite cars) parked at the Webster home with the keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. Driving with his headlights off, Davis sped out of Yorkville. The abandoned car was later found in Wheaton.

Purvis didn’t run Davis to ground until June 1. It’s likely that after his capture he revealed the answer to a mystery that had been nagging the G-Men for more than a year: The whereabouts of John “Red” Hamilton, the last member of Dillinger’s gang unaccounted for.

John "Red" Hamilton was one of the unluckiest gangsters of the 1930s. Wounded in several gun battles, he'd already two fingers on one hand shot off--thus the nickname given him by the press, Three-Fingered Jack. After dying of wounds, he was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just north of Oswego.

John “Red” Hamilton was one of the unluckiest gangsters of the 1930s. Wounded in several gun battles, he’d already had two fingers on one hand shot off–thus the nickname given him by the press, Three-Fingered Jack. After dying of wounds, he was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just north of Oswego.

Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the press and lawmen, Hamilton was one of Dillinger’s closest associates and also one of the unluckiest gangsters in history, being the most likely to be wounded should shooting break out—two fingers had already been shot off one hand during gang battles, thus his press nickname. But the G-Men need not have worried because by then Red had been dead for a year.

On April 22, 1934, Hamilton was with Dillinger’s gang during the DOI’s deadly, botched ambush at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Manitowish Waters in northern Wisconsin. Dillinger, Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter fled the scene. At St. Paul, Minn. the next day, local lawmen again ambushed the trio. During the fusillade, Hamilton was seriously wounded in the back by a bullet that penetrated the car in which the gangsters were escaping.

The trio drove to Chicago for help, where a mob-connected doctor refused to treat the obviously dying Hamilton. Seeking help from members of the Karpis-Barker Gang, they were directed to Aurora where Davis and his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray, were living in an apartment on Fox Street (now East Downer Place). Hamilton died of his wounds there four days after being shot. Davis, Dillinger, and Van Meter (and possibly other Karpis-Barker Gang members) found a secluded spot roughly a hundred yards east of Ill. Route 25 about a half-mile north of Oswego (now the site of Eagle Ridge Park) to bury Hamilton in a shallow grave. Dillinger swore everyone to secrecy; he wanted to keep the G-Men guessing the gang members’ whereabouts.

After his capture, Davis likely spilled the beans about Hamilton’s whereabouts. After all, Dillinger had long been in his own grave. A team of agents dug the body up on Aug. 28, 1935. Dillinger had poured lye over Hamilton’s face and hands to obscure his identity, but a dentist from the Michigan City, Ind. prison was able to make a positive ID at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home from Hamilton’s dental work. Kendall County Coroner Dr. F.M. Groner declared the body that of Hamilton; the coroner’s jury agreed. Hamilton’s sister paid to have him buried in an unmarked grave at the Oswego Township Cemetery, adding a final period to Dillinger’s gang. As a sidelight, the young mortician-in-training at Thorsen’s who was tasked with handling Hamilton’s badly decomposed body decided he was in the wrong line of work. “It was the smell,” he told me decades later.

Davis spent most of the rest of his life in Alcatraz. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he died of natural causes in 1979 in Sonoma, Calif. at age 77. He never returned to Kendall County after his two brief, though stimulating, visits in the 1930s.

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Filed under Aurora, Crime, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Oswego, People in History