Monthly Archives: August 2015

A plea on behalf of the lowly cottonwood…

Several years ago I lost an old, old friend, when crews from the village of Oswego removed a giant cottonwood tree just down North Adams Street from my home.

The tree was dying. After every storm, it dropped a few more branches. A strong windstorm a few weeks before it was taken down brought a giant limb larger than many trees in the village crashing down on the street. So it was probably time the venerable old tree was removed. But I still miss it.

When I moved to North Adams Street as a third grader, the tree, located just next door, was one of the largest along a street crowded with giant overarching elms and cottonwoods.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

In the summertime, we’d sit under it, and even during the hottest days, the rustle of cottonwood leaves–they pick up every hint of a breeze–made a sound that seemed to promise cooler weather. We never climbed the towering tree or tried to build a tree house in it. It was far to large, and the branches closest to the ground were still far higher than those on most of the other mature trees in the neighborhood.

After my wife and I were married, we bought the house—my great-great grandparents had lived there until their deaths in the early 1900s—and the giant cottonwood that dominated the front yard became a part of our lives. We watched each spring as leaves formed, and groused a bit as the inevitable cotton-like seeds coated the 1 neighborhood.

Even then, well over 40 years ago, the tree was starting to die. The dead branches, though, first became homes and feeding stations for woodpeckers and other birds. After limbs were culled by one of our vigorous Illinois windstorms, birds colonized the rotted heartwood voids in jagged stumps left on the tree’s towering trunk. And the rustle of those leaves still sounded a cooling note on the hot summer days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1976, we sold my great-great grandparents’ house and moved next door to my parents’ house (and my childhood home) in 1976. The tree was no longer ours, but we still kept an eye on it. It still shaded the street on sultry August days, and stood out in stark light gray contrast against a cold startlingly blue January sky, offering me, at least, a tie with my childhood and with all the folks who had known the tree.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

The giant cottonwood probably grew of its own accord, seeded by any one of the dozens of towering cottonwoods that once lined the banks of the Fox River. Cottonwoods like moisture, and in our narrow river bottomland along North Adams, the trees found conditions to their liking.

From the size of the tree, it may well have been an immature tree when the Battle of San Juan Hill was fought, possibly even providing some shade along the dirt track that was then called Water Street when my great-great-grandparents moved to the house in which my wife and I would one day live.

The tree had matured by the time my great-grandparents moved to town in 1908, building the home I now live in, to live next to my great-grandmother’s parents, whose front yard the cottonwood dominated. The tree was there to see wars and famine and depression and recovery as the decades passed, growing, maturing, and becoming old, providing shade and living space for a variety of wildlife from fox squirrels to red- headed woodpeckers.

During the years it stood close by the road, the springs that dampen the soil there providing plenty of nourishment, its relatives growing on the banks of the Fox River themselves became old and, ravaged by flood, ice, and age, and one by one, died.

When the settlers arrived, cottonwoods with their penchant for keeping their feet damp marked watercourses and provided both shade and a welcoming environment for hundreds of creatures. They were easy to spot with their distinctive medium gray deeply-fissured bark and towering trunks that can reach 100 feet in height. Like their relatives the poplars and aspens, cottonwoods have rounded triangular-shaped leaves that are dark green on top and a light silvery gray-green below.

The Midwest’s Native People favored cottonwoods for manufacturing dugout canoes because the wood is easily worked. They were not heavily logged as were most of the area’s other timber because cottonwood simply doesn’t make very good lumber. Dried, it becomes lightweight, almost like balsa wood, and so isn’t particularly good for firewood, either.

The passing of our cottonwoods is, I think, a melancholy event. Forest preserves, municipalities, and parks are much more likely to plant one of the more glamorous hardwoods, such as maples or oaks, when they decide to reforest an area. It’s too bad someone is not planting a few cottonwoods, especially in low-lying areas and along streams. They grow fast, tolerate wet conditions, and provide valuable streamside stabilization. And since only the female trees produce the billowing clouds of cottonwood seeds each spring, cloned male trees that are available for planting don’t create that particular problem.

So if no one else is willing to champion planting a few cottonwoods to replace our dying the giants, I will. Consider this a plea to allow our children to enjoy the sound of cottonwood leaves giving a cooling rustle as a breeze stirs on a sultry July afternoon. Give another generation a chance to see towering, gaunt, gray branches silhouetted against a brilliant winter sky. Offer all of us a chance to see the leading gusts of a fast-moving summer thunder storm change the dark green leaves to silvery green as the first gusts hit and big drops of rain begin to fall.

Our old friend on North Adams Street is long gone. The summers have been a little hotter on our street because of the loss of the old giant’s shade, and we have a little less diversity in bird life as woodpeckers and other insect-eaters hunt elsewhere for their dinners. But perhaps as reforestation takes place throughout Kendall County, our forest preserve, park district, and municipal officials will decide that diversity demands a cottonwood or two be included so that future generations can lie on their blankets on a summer day looking up and marveling at what nature—with the help of a few tree planters—has wrought.


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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

Wasting quality time during summers on the river

Summers when I was a kid, we spent hours on the Fox River.

These days, we see a lot of canoes and kayaks on the river, groups of them, in fact. But I don’t see any kids using river scows to poke around the shallows along the shore or in and out of the islands that dot the river.

When it comes to kids and the river, things are not what they used to be.

None of us had canoes when I was a youngster—they were, in fact, considered somewhat exotic—but many of us owned a scow at one time or another.

A river scow looked, basically, like a wooden box that tapered at the bow. The sides were generally 12” deep, with the usual width at about four feet (the width of a sheet of plywood), and their length was most often eight feet, though some were both longer and wider. The stern was generally flat, and the bow was slightly swept up. The bottom was usually completely flat with no keel to catch on rocks or other obstructions. Some were painted gray, and some green, some dark blue.

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow apparently got its owners were they needed to go. ("Repairing the Old Scow" from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow with upswept bow and stern apparently got its owners were they needed to go. (“Repairing the Old Scow” from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Unlike tippy round-bottomed canoes, river scows’ wide, flat bottoms made them very stable under almost all conditions. In addition, since they had relatively broad beams (sailor talk for “width”), they were also able to float on very little water, a definite advantage on the generally shallow Fox River during the summer months.

Our scows were never fitted for outboard motors, mostly because the Fox was far too shallow to safely run a motor, unless it was during the annual spring flood, and that was no time to be out on the river. Also, none of us had the money to buy an outboard motor, so there was that, too.

We usually didn’t row, either. Oars were expensive and had to be bought in a store, and rowing in the shallow, rock-filled river was way too challenging. Sometimes, though, oars could be a help, especially when trying to get up one of the river’s rapids.

We didn’t row and we didn’t paddle and we didn’t use outboards, so, you may ask, how did we propel our boats? We polled them, standing up in back like boatmen in Venice propel their gondolas and Senegalese fishermen get from place to place. We made our poles by cutting one of the soft maples that grew like weeds along the shoreline, generally choosing one that was eight to 10 feet long and about two inches in diameter. We favored using our hatchets to dress the business end into a blunt point that made it easier to get a grip on the river’s bottom which ranged from gravel, to rocky, to mud, and even sometimes smooth bedrock. And we left the bark on to give us a better grip.

Polling was a skill that took a bit of learning. Standing in the rear of the boat, the boatman (or boatgirl) stood sideways with the left foot forward (assuming the boatman to be right-handed). After feeling the bottom with the poll to get a good purchase, the poll was pushed using the shoulder and arm muscles and bracing with leg muscles. Besides muscles, successful polling required a good sense of both balance and rhythm.

Scows were generally made with two permanent seats, one in the bow and one amidships. Sometimes a third (usually removable) seat was installed at the stern. Since it was hard to poll with a seat in the way, the stern seat was usually removed during use.

Besides a good pole, the only other standard equipment was an anchor and a couple lengths of rope. We made our own anchors by putting some pieces of scrap iron in a coffee can, and then filling it with concrete, adding an eyebolt before the concrete set. Some scows boasted two anchors, although not many went to the trouble.

Scows were fine craft to explore islands and from which to fish. They were generally stable craft and forgiving of most mistakes. In addition, polling is quiet, and it’s easy to sneak up on a favorite fishing hole, gliding in to catch an unwary catfish.

I helped build two scows for friends, and owned one my folks bought me that was built like a tank of 1” lumber throughout and 2” gunwales. It was so stable that two of us could stand on the gunwale on one side and it wouldn’t tip over. That also meant, however, that it wasn’t the easiest boat to handle given that it was so heavy.

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River.  (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River. (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

By the time we were haunting the Fox River from Boulder Hill to the islands just below Oswego, scows were no longer used for commercial purposes. In the first half of the 20th Century, a lot of Kendall County residents made money clamming—harvesting clams whose shells were then sold to button factories, one of which was located in Yorkville for a few years. A combination of river pollution and the invention of white plastic killed the clamming industry along the river. By the time we came along, though, those days were merely memories and the big scows the clammers used were but memories.

Today, it seems, scows themselves are but memories. I haven’t seen one in use on the river in decades. Today’s kids seem to spend their waking hours playing organized sports, participating in one of the many scout or 4-H groups in the area, or being hustled from one to another of the many organized activities kids participate in these days. There seems to be little interest in spending time alone on the river, observing plants and animals outside the structured settings of school or park programs. And that’s a shame.

There’s nothing quite like gliding through the mist rising from the river on a cool summer morning, watching a Great Blue Heron fish for its breakfast or spying an egret resting on a riverside tree branch, or exploring an island looking for treasure. It’s too bad so few of today’s kids will ever experience it—they don’t know what they’re missing.

But I do.

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Playing by the immigration rules…

Immigration, especially on the GOP side of the political spectrum, is a hot political topic as the 2016 Presidential race begins. The GOP, which has snatched the mantle of the Know Nothings, the Dixiecrats, and pro segregationists, is angry about those who immigrate without following the rules and some are angry about immigrants in general, legal or illegal.

“My ancestors played by the rules,” their argument goes. “Today’s immigrants should too.” Hard-core anti-immigrationists would just as soon deport all immigrants, leaving behind only ‘true’ Americans, all of whom, of course, including Native People, are also either immigrants or or their descendants.

Anyway, it got me to wondering about the procedure all those legal immigrants had to follow when they arrived, especially during the heyday of European immigration. Turns out, if you were a European, there really weren’t a whole lot of rules.

The earliest arriving ancestor I know about was Baltzer Lantz, my five-times great grandfather on my Grandmother Holzhueter’s side, who stepped off the ship Phoenix, probably in Philadelphia, in 1750. Since there was no United States yet, Baltzer didn’t have a problem fitting in, since Pennsylvania was filled with Germans. He was a mason by trade who helped build forts on what was then the Pennsylvania frontier during the last of the French and Indian wars before settling down and raising his family in Lancaster County.

When my ancestors arrived in the U.S. in the late 19th Century, they disembarked at Castle Garden in New York harbor. This is a view as it would have looked about 1855.

When my ancestors arrived in the U.S. in the late 19th Century, they disembarked at Castle Garden in New York harbor. This is a view as it would have looked about 1855.

My dad’s Matile ancestors arrived in the U.S. in 1867. Henri Francois and Verginie (Ducommun-Dit-Veron) Matile, my great-grandparents, were among 126 passengers who sailed to the U.S. aboard the Harvest Home, a 598-ton wooden-hulled bark-rigged (three masts, with square sails on the fore and main masts and a triangular fore-and-aft sail on the mizzen mast) vessel of U.S. registry. Traveling from Switzerland’s canton of Neuchâtel, they embarked at LeHavre, France with their six children, and sailed for the port of New York, arriving Aug. 3, 1867.

Wilhelm and Fredericka (Tesch) Holzhueter, great-grandparents on my mom’s side, immigrated to the U.S. aboard the fast steamer Eider in 1885. The Eider was a new ship, many times larger than the Harvest Home that brought the Matiles to the U.S. Launched Dec. 15, 1884 in Glasgow, Scotland, she was a 4,719-ton iron-hulled ship with four masts and two funnels for her single steam engine. The Holzhueters and their three children were among 1,250 passengers and 167 crew on the voyage, arriving at the port of New York from Bremen, Germany on April 26, 1885.

Ellis Island is by far the better-known immigrant gateway to the United States, but it didn't open until 1892, well after all my European ancestors arrived.

Ellis Island is by far the better-known immigrant gateway to the United States, but it didn’t open until 1892, well after all my European ancestors arrived.

During that era, immigrant ships debarked their passengers at Castle Garden in New York harbor—Ellis Island wouldn’t open for business until 1892. There were no visas at the time, and passports really weren’t necessary, either. Henri and Virginie only had to give their names, ages, occupations, and places from where where they’d come. Wilhelm and Fredericka, on the other hand, answered a fairly long battery of questions that included everything the Matiles had been asked, plus a few more—whether they could read and write (yes), whether they had ever been in prison or an almshouse (no), and others. They also had to undergo a cursory health inspection before they were allowed to leave Castle Garden and make their way to Illinois where they first settled with my great-grandmother’s relatives before making their own home amongst the other Germans who had settled on Aurora’s Far East Side in what was then nicknamed Dutchtown.

Baltzer was never naturalized. Seeing as how he got here before the country was established he was grandfathered in. But Henri Matile did go through the naturalization process, as did my Holzhueter great-grandparents, and all became citizens.

That process, too, was straightforward and not at all complicated. Immigrants had to live in the U.S. for five years, and for a year in the state in which they were wishing to be naturalized. With the residency requirements out of the way, they could file a declaration of intent to become citizens. A couple years later (the time varied from one to three years depending on the state) they could file their second petition for naturalization. They were then required to sign an Oath of Allegiance that pledged their allegiance to the United States. After that, they were sworn in as U.S. citizens by a judge in their local court, and a certificate of naturalization was issued to them.

And just like that, they could pay taxes and vote.

My ancestors were fortunate they were white, European Protestant Christians. Catholics from Ireland and Southern Europe weren’t treated nearly as politely, and Asian people were treated even worse, starting with the Chinese exclusion acts, the first passed in 1879 and pretty much going downhill from there.

None of my ancestors could speak English when they arrived. Henri Matile, his wife, and children spoke only French. Baltzer Lantz and the Holzhueters spoke only German. And, in fact, Henri spoke only French at home for the rest of his life and the Lantzes and Holzhueters only spoke German. That was why my grandmother, a descendant of Baltzer Lantz and Pennsylvania Dutch through and through got on so well with my Grandfather Holzhueter—both families spoke German at home even though the Lantzes had lived in Pennsylvania and then Illinois for 150 years before my grandparents’ marriage—in our neighboring city of Aurora, Lutheran churches held German-language services right up to the 1960s.

So, yes, my ancestors came to America, started new lives, and were engaged in their communities while still retaining their cultural identities that seemed to mix pretty well with everyone else in the melting pot. And they all followed the immigration rules. It’s just that there weren’t many rules to follow, back in the day.


Filed under Aurora, Illinois History, Law, Local History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

They shoot rapids, don’t they?

Several years ago when we were visiting the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore Visitors Center we bought prints of three or four of Frances Anne Beechey Hopkins’ wonderful voyageur paintings. A framed copy of “Shooting the Rapids” that Mrs. Hopkins painted in 1879 hangs over my customary seat in our TV room, while other framed pints decorate the walls up at our Wisconsin fishing cabin.

Mrs. Frances Hopkins' "Shooting the Rapids" is one of her most famous paintings, though it's questionable how often birch bark canoes shot rapids during the fur trade era.

Mrs. Frances Hopkins’ “Shooting the Rapids” is one of her most famous paintings, though it’s questionable how often birch bark canoes shot rapids during the fur trade era.

While I love the drama on display in “Shooting the Rapids,” when I look at it I always hope that Mrs. Hopkins was taking artistic license and that she and her husband—both of whom are depicted sitting amidships in the huge canot de maître, the master or Montreal canoe, as it balances on the edge of the churning rapids in the instant before it shoots downstream—were actually not placed in such danger.

Because while birch bark freight canoes were the backbone of the fur trade transportation system in North America from the 17th through the 19th Century, something they definitely were not was robust. Any one of the rocks in the rapids Mrs. Hopkins depicted in her painting could have caused a catastrophic structural failure that would have led to injury and even death for the canoe’s crew and passengers.

I’ve written before about the amazing design of birch bark canoes. They proved the perfect vessels to haul trade goods to the interior of North America and then to haul the furs obtained in trade back east to be shipped to Europe. Over a period of many, many years, its Chippewa inventors refined it until the birch bark canoe was a reasonably sturdy, light-weight craft well suited for navigating waters as varied as the open water of the Great Lakes and small, swift rivers in the interior of the continent.

But while it was capable of traveling long distances in the hands of experienced canoemen, the birch bark canoe was also fragile and required almost constant maintenance. That wasn’t a problem as long as voyages were limited to regions where paper birch trees grew. But when the trade empire of first the French and later the British was extended to the lower lakes region below the line where paper birches thrive, logistical problems occurred and even more repair materials had to be carried along in the canoe itself.

At the end of each day after fur trade brigades had paddled many miles, their canoes were hauled out of the water to dry out and await minor repairs. The skin of each canoe was made up of sheets of birch bark stretched over a cedar frame, and secured with watap (tough, pliable strips split from the roots of spruce trees). The bark sheets themselves, which had been carefully stripped off large-diameter birch trees (bigger trees meant larger sheets, which meant fewer sheets, which meant fewer seams to leak), were tightly sewn together with watap as well.

When the entire canoe frame was covered with birch sheets, a mixture of spruce sap, or gum, was melted with finely ground charcoal over a low fire. The hot mixture was then painted on the seams to waterproof them.

During use, these seams worked themselves open, and so they had to be checked and re-sealed each day. On a 35-foot Montreal Canoe, the kind favored by the fur trade companies for the Great Lakes routes (and illustrated in Mrs. Hopkins’ painting), it took a lot of spruce gum to keep the water outside the canoe.

In addition to that, during a day’s paddling, a Montreal Canoe could absorb several hundred pounds of water, making it less maneuverable and, since it was sitting lower in the water, more prone to running aground. On sand bars this wasn’t much of a problem, but in a swift river or on a rocky shore, it could prove fatal.

That’s why, despite dramatic stories (and Mrs. Hopkins’ painting) to the contrary, fur traders seldom shot river rapids in their fragile canoes—one mistake in judgment could doom an entire crew and destroy tons of valuable furs or trade goods. Besides that, few voyageurs could swim (odd, given their vocations), so any accident that dumped them into especially deep or swift water was often fatal.

In reality, most canoe crews either portaged around rapids or cordelled their craft up or down rapids instead of taking the dangerous course of shooting the whitewater. (Frances Hopkins "Going up the Rapids")

In reality, most canoe crews either portaged around rapids or cordelled their craft up or down rapids instead of taking the dangerous course of shooting the whitewater. (Frances Hopkins “Going up the Rapids”)

Instead of shooting them, rapids were most often bypassed by portaging. Using that technique, each canoe was completely unloaded and then carried across the portage. Then all the goods or furs were also carried across, reloaded and the voyage continued. But depending on the rapids, sometimes canoes were only partially unloaded, and then moved across by cordelling, with the crew using ropes to pull the canoe up the rapids or floating it down the swift water in a controlled descent. A couple of the crew were usually kept aboard to fend the craft off any rocks, while others on shore did the same thing using long poles.

Even working as carefully as possible, damage to fragile canoe hulls was almost inevitable. In the North Country, where birch and spruce trees were common, repair materials could readily be obtained on the spot. But down here, well south of the birch line and out west, emergency repair materials had to be carried along. The amount of those materials was therefore limited, so a catastrophic accident meant the crew was in serious trouble.

Fur trader Peter Pond found himself in exactly that situation back in the late 1700s. Pond, who left an extremely entertaining account of his trading exploits (published in Five Fur Traders edited by Charles M. Gates, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1965), reported that he and a couple helpers paddled far up the Missouri River on a trading expedition with the Sioux. The area was, from the viewpoint of someone from the Northeast like Pond, desolate with the only trees visible being a few gaunt cottonwoods. After pulling their birch bark canoe up onto the bank to spend the night, the crew was awakened by a huge storm, as storms out on the prairie tend to be.

As Pond later recounted in his own inimitable style (he never met a word he couldn’t misspell—it makes the most sense to read it aloud), “the wind toock the Canew up in the Air Leat hir fall on the frosen flat & broke Hir in Peceis. I was then in a Sad Sittuation.” Pond and his men were forced to walk across the prairies to the nearest trading post, a trip of several arduous days on foot.

The 25-foot replica birch bark canoe crafted by Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base that we paddled down the rapids of the Fox River of Illinois.

The 25-foot replica birch bark canoe crafted by Ralph Frese of the Chicagoland Canoe Base that we paddled down the rapids of the Fox River of Illinois.

Even in areas where birch trees were plentiful, shooting a rapids could be extremely chancy, even for the most experienced canoemen. Louis Jolliet, the explorer and cartographer who traveled with Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., from Michilimackinac all the way south to the mouth of the Arkansas River on the Mississippi, and back again, found that out when his canoe wrecked near Montreal in 1675.

Frances Hopkins illustrated the life of voyageurs at the end of the canoe era. By the time she was traveling the north country with her husband, who was an executive with the Hudson’s Bay Company, the changeover to Mackinaw Boats (similar to the York Boats used in the far west) and bateaus was nearly complete, which is what makes her paintings so valuable for students of the fur trade.

Shooting the rapids sounds like fun, and with modern canoes it is. We did it once in one of Ralph Frese’s fiberglass replica North Canoes, 25-feet long and similar to one in another of Mrs. Hopkins’ paintings. But the fur traders of old didn’t have the luxury of seeking a thrill. Their canoes were literally their lives and their livelihood, and couldn’t be squandered on anything so chancy as the exhilarating thrill of shooting a rapids. And as Peter Pond discovered, even that couldn’t save a trader from the occasional disaster. The trick was to learn from mistakes. And weight down your canoe at night.

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