Monthly Archives: October 2015

Hunters’ Moon welcomes in full autumn…

Don’t know if you have been watching the moon lately, but it’s been pretty spectacular, even though it’s not even full yet. We’ll see the full Hunters’ Moon rise on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

The guys (and sometimes gals) in the 42nd Regiment of Foot—the Black Watch—reenactment are annual participants down at Fort Ouiatinon State Park near Lafayette, Ind. for each year's Feast of the Hunters Moon festival.

The guys (and sometimes gals) in the 42nd Regiment of Foot—the Black Watch—reenactment are annual participants down at Fort Ouiatenon State Park near West Lafayette, Ind. for each year’s Feast of the Hunters Moon festival.

Got to thinking about the Feast of the Hunters Moon along the banks of the Wabash down near West Lafayette, Ind. the other day, and then last evening the full Hunter’s Moon rose, and it took me back a good many years when we used to head down to the feast every year. But then it became so crowded, it was no longer the fun event for some of us French and Indian War, Revolutionary War and fur trade reenactors it had been back in the mid-1970s. Even so, West Lafayette welcomes in some 40,000 visitors to each year’s Feast.

But back to the full moon. Officially, the Hunter’s Moon is the first full moon after the Harvest Moon, which, in turn, is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox.

Ancient Europeans, Native Americans, and many other peoples had their own names for the full moons that rose roughly once each month in the night sky. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also are good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

The year began in January with the full Wolf Moon. Even here on the prairie, wolves were familiar animals (even if the local prairie and red wolves were smaller than their timber wolf cousins), and their howls marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling while families huddled around small but cheery fires in their lodges.

February’s full moon was called the Snow Moon, and, especially here in northern Illinois, for good reason. While February is felt by many to be a spring month, Native People out here on the Illinois prairies knew that it was the time of heaviest. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the full Snow Moon one of the most desolate during the year. As their food supplies dwindled, they saw more and more snow fall, forcing more than one family to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s food moon: the Hunger Moon.

January's Full Wolf Moon probably got its name from the howls the Native People heard on winter evenings as they gathered in their lodges.

January’s Full Wolf Moon probably got its name from the howls the Native People heard on winter evenings as they gathered in their lodges.

March finally marks the first beginnings of spring on the prairie. The Native Peoples called it the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Many also called it the full Sugar Moon. Each of those is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade nightcrawlers out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows forage among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of sap that was boiled down during maple sugaring that provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets, not to mention a tradable commodity, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the full Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon got its name because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory—April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the Native Peoples’ return from their winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the region.

May brought the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the derivation of the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, with May being the first.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this most important crop of the Native People. In late August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage.

In September, the Harvest Moon shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too.

October's Hunter's Moon has been spectacular during the past few evenings. It will be considered full on Oct. 27, before beginning to wax once again.

October’s Hunter’s Moon has been spectacular during the past few evenings. It will be considered full on Oct. 27, before beginning to wax once again.

October, as noted above, brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego was reportedly Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsite.

November marked the full Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats could be trapped. “Prime Winter Beaver” pelts represented the principal currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended ready only begin again with January’s full Wolf Moon.

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each October, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Hunters Moon is keeping watch over the Fox Valley’s farmers wrap up their harvest from its high vantage point.

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Filed under Fox River, Fur Trade, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, People in History, Science stuff

The week they killed the Illinois River…

Saw in the news the other day that Donald Trump, the real estate mogul who says he’s convinced he’s got what it takes to be President, said one of the government agencies he’d kill off as soon as possible is the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now Trump is not an entirely stupid person since he’s not been able, sometimes despite his best efforts, to squander the fortune left to him by his father and grandfather. But he does seem to be monumentally ignorant about everything other than how to bully opponents into doing whatever he thinks needs doing at the moment.

I’m sure Trump has absolutely no idea and even less interest in why the EPA was originally established, or the remarkably good things it does to make sure we don’t kill ourselves in the name of corporate profits.

After all, it’s not difficult to uncover stories recounting government bureaucracies run amuck, especially in the some of the areas regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and under the Endangered Species Act.

But before we get too enthusiastic about eliminating environmental and wildlife protection regulations because they might slow to the ability of corporate American to make an instant mega-buck or two, it might be useful to recall what the nation was like in the days before air and water quality were subjects for government regulation—and presumably what Trump and his ilk would like to see become the status quo once again.

It wasn’t all that long ago that rivers and creeks were considered to be little more than open sewers placed on the Earth as convenient dumping grounds for every human waste product from garbage and sewage to hazardous chemicals.

Starting from the era of settlement in the early 1830s, it took the pioneers and their descendants less than a century to kill the Fox River. And by the 1950s, the river was little more than a cesspool with a current. Changed as it was into a lethal mixture of heavy metals, chemical poisons such as cyanide, and raw sewage by the cities and industries along its course, the river was a daily reminder of how greed and ignorance can destroy a valuable natural asset.

While it took less than a century to kill the Fox, it took less than a week to kill the Des Plaines and upper Illinois rivers all the way from Chicago to Morris.

Sanitary and Ship Canal under construction. Photo by F.E. Compton Co., published 1914.

Sanitary and Ship Canal under construction in June 1899. Photo by F.E. Compton Co., published 1914.

By the late 1800s, Chicago was in trouble. Its rapidly growing population was daily creating about 500 million gallons of raw sewage, and the technology of the times simply wasn’t capable of dealing with it. It was impossible to continue dumping it into Lake Michigan because the city pumped its drinking water from the lake.

The only river in the city, the Chicago River, emptied into the lake, which was another problem. The slaughterhouses at the sprawling Union Stockyards had for years dumped the offal from butchering operations directly into the Chicago River, turning the stream septic by depriving the water of all oxygen. That poison, along with the raw human sewage of tens of thousands of residents and everything else dumped into the city’s sewers that flowed into the lake created a dangerous public health situation.

So the city’s engineers came up with what they figured was an ideal solution. The flow of the Chicago River and the ship canal that linked the lake with the Illinois River system via the Des Plaines would be reversed. Instead of the river flowing into the lake, the lake would flow into the river, creating a giant flushing mechanism designed to move the city’s sewage downstream to the less populated areas of the state. The sewage would be gone downstream, out of sight and out of mind. After all, who cared what happened to those living downstream?

Now the idea wasn’t completely new. Back when the Illinois & Michigan Canal was being contemplated, one of the ideas was to dig through the height of land separating Lake Michigan from the Des Plaines valley, and use lake water to keep the canal full. That, however, proved impossible given the engineering restrictions of the 1830s. In an early attempt to get sewage out of the lake in 1871, the old I&M Canal was deepened enough to introduce lake water into the canal system, but the scheme only lasted a year before the whole canal silted up and the reversal of flow halted.

But by the 1890s, such a project was not only conceivable, but eminently doable. And when the project was completed in January 1900, the locks at the old mouth of the Chicago River on the lakefront were opened on Jan. 17, lake water permanently rushed south for the first time.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looks tranquil in this 1904 photograph taken at Willow Springs, but the waterway was carrying a dangerous load of poisons and other pollutants that virtually eliminated all fish and other aquatic residents of the upper Illinois River.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal looks tranquil in this 1904 photograph taken at Willow Springs, but the waterway was carrying a dangerous load of poisons and other pollutants that virtually eliminated all fish and other aquatic residents of the upper Illinois River.

In the 1911 edition of the Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, famed fisheries biologist Stephen A. Forbes, the first head of the Illinois Natural History Survey, wrote a gripping description of what happened to the river during and immediately after the locks opened.

Not that you should get the idea the Des Plaines River was a pristine stream in 1900, of course. Forbes noted that the river’s flow was “sluggish” during the low water that summer as it carried “undiluted, the sewage of a number of large suburbs” of Chicago. The sewage carried by the Des Plaines “had consequently time to reach an advanced stage of decomposition and to develop immense numbers of septic organisms before it reached the mouth of the [sanitary and ship] canal,” Forbes wrote.

At the mouth of the canal, on the day the locks opened, the Des Plaines and its noisome cargo met the “comparatively fresh” sewage from Chicago. Forbes knew the Chicago sewage was “fresh” because of its “still recognizable ingredients, such as lumps of tallow, chunks of human excrement, pieces of toilet paper, watermelon and muskmelon seeds, broken grains of corn and wheat and finely chopped straw–all coming down practically unaltered through the whole length of the canal.”

The flood of sewage continued south in the Des Plaines until it met the Kankakee River where the two streams formed the Illinois River. Further downstream at Morris on July 15, Forbes wrote, the river “was grayish and sloppy, with foul, privy odors distinguishable….Putrescent masses of soft, grayish or blackish, slimy matter, loosely held together by threads of fungi and densely covered with bell animalcules, were floating down the stream….The gases from the bottom sediments of the stream were obtained for analysis and were found to be identical with those from septic tanks….There were, of course, no fishes here, or any other animals requiring oxygen.”

By the time the raw sewage stream arrived at Peoria, at least some of the raw sewage either precipitated out or had oxidized, removing what little oxygen that remained in the water. Fish in the Illinois were driven up the Fox and other tributaries as they sought oxygenated water. And the upper stretches of the Des Plaines and Illinois were dead. That’s they way things stayed for years.

As this photo posted on the Illinois Wisconsin Fishing Blog testifies, the Fox River has rebounded from its former badly polluted state. The river now boasts growing populations of smallmouth bass, walleye, norther pike and other gamefish.

As this photo posted on Blake’s great Illinois Wisconsin Fishing Blog testifies, the Fox River has rebounded from its former badly polluted state. The river now boasts growing populations of smallmouth bass, walleye, norther pike and other gamefish.

With the emphasis on clean air and water and the passage of national laws regulating both, things slowly began turning around. It’s taken some 40 years, but today, the Illinois-Des Plaines system is popular with boaters and fishermen. The Fox, which was also badly polluted until passage of the first Clean Water Act, has bounced back as well.

It is more than likely little of any of that progress would have been made without the efforts begun first at the federal level and then in the states as appreciation of how badly we’d treated the land, air and water we depend on for life itself.

It’s true that bureaucrats often overstep their bounds—is a mud puddle in an old gravel pit really a “wetland” that deserves federal protection? But before we get too enthusiastic about throwing out government regulations, it might be a good idea to recall those “putrescent masses of soft, grayish or blackish, slimy matter,” Dr. Forbes saw floating down the Illinois River in those good old pre-regulation days. I could be wrong, but I’m not sure even Donald Trump would be in favor of going back over that ground.

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Another year’s grain harvest is in full swing…

According to my sister, the corn and soybean harvest on their farming operation out in Iowa is moving along just fine, with good weather and what seems right now to be acceptable—or possibly even better—yields.

Driver around our piece of northern Illinois and you’ll see the guys and gals out in the field combining corn and beans, hauling the harvest either to giant cylindrical metal bins on their farms or using grain semi-trucks to take it right to the terminals on the Illinois River.

The corn harvest today is somewhat the same, but different in so many ways than it was during my farm childhood.

A nicely restored Allis-Chalmers WD like the one my dad owned.

A nicely restored Allis-Chalmers WD like the one my dad owned.

Back then, my dad had an Allis Chalmers W-D tractor for his main means of power, with an elderly Case for backup and other chores. Tractors of those sizes today are far too small to do much else than pull wagons in from the field at harvest or maybe mow the lawn.

And back in the 1950s, we didn’t combine corn, we husked it. Our 2-row corn husker—or picker—was a dangerous contraption that fit around the AC W-D so that the operator, basically, sat inside the corn picker with belts, chains and gears grinding and crashing uncomfortably close. Its advantage was that it didn’t destroy a couple rows of corn when a field was newly opened for husking. As a result, my dad opened fields for other nearby farmers when the harvest began.

As its name implies, the corn husker or picker didn’t do anything except pick the corn from the stalks and remove the husk, and then by a small conveyor, dumped the ears into a wagon being pulled behind.

An Allis-Chalmers WD tractor wearing its attached two-row corn picker.

An Allis-Chalmers WD tractor wearing its attached two-row corn picker.

Today’s combines—short for combined harvester—pick the ears off the stalks, husk them, shell the corn from the cobs, and grind up the cobs, and dump the flood of golden kernels into an onboard bin, all in one operation. Every round of so in the field, the corn in the bin is emptied, either into a waiting truck or tractor-pulled wagon. Today’s combine driver sits in a climate-controlled with a radio and CD player where he can keep an eye on the machine’s computerized operations and his exact location via GPS. Back in the 50s, even if my dad had a radio, he couldn’t have heard it over the noise of the husker.

After the corn was husked, the ears were stored in corn cribs to allow it to dry. Cribs are farm buildings with a large bin on either side of a central alley. The wooden boards that comprise the walls of the two bins are spaced about an inch apart to allow good air circulation to promote natural drying. Corn cribs are obsolete today, since shelled corn would just rum out through the slotted walls.

Today's corn harvest is being done with giant combined harvesters like this John Deere. It picks and processes corn from just a few more rows at a time than my dad's AC-WD did.

Today’s corn harvest is being done with giant combined harvesters like this John Deere. It picks and processes corn from just a few more rows at a time than my dad’s 2-row AC-WD did.

Back then, though, the corn was dried naturally before my dad contracted with Grant Shoger or someone else come with a corn sheller—a huge truck-mounted machine—to get the corn off the cobs.

In the days of coal furnaces and cook stoves, corn cobs came in handy as a way of getting a fire started quickly. We had a coal-fired water heater on the farm, and I remember stoking it with com cobs to get a good hot fire so my sisters, who were both in high school, could take baths prior to going on dates. I also remember my grandmother starting the cook stove in preparation for baking bread by filling the firebox with corncobs. Of course, us kids liked the piles of cobs for reasons all our own. We played king on the mountain for hours at a time, and had ‘wars’ by throwing cobs at each other.

The Oswego grain elevator, now long out of use, was similar in design to hundreds of such structures across the Midwest, was the destination for crops harvested by nearby farmers since its construction in 1914.

The Oswego grain elevator, long out of use, was similar in design to hundreds of such structures across the Midwest. It was the destination for crops harvested by nearby farmers since its construction in 1914.

But that only accounted for a small percentage of the cobs generated by shelling. The balance were generally burned, and I remember watching the flickering flames around the horizon as farmers burned their cob piles.

After husking and shelling was finished, the crop was hauled to a nearby grain elevator, since few farmers had suitable storage space for shelled corn. At that time, there were numerous grain elevators scattered along the area’s smaller rail lines such as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch line that ran through Oswego. The EJ&E ran just a mile or so from our farm so my dad used the elevators along it at Normantown, Wolf’s Crossing, and at Frontenac—none of which exist any more.

As I noted above, most farmers these days store their grain on the farm while waiting for better prices, or they sell on the grain futures market and take their harvested crops directly to the terminals on the Illinois River in their own grain-hauling semis.

Which is another big difference from the way things used to be. Our truck back in the 50s was an ancient Chevy with a grain box about the size of one of today’s large pick-up trucks. It sort of resembled the truck the Beverly Hillbillies drove out to California. It had a bad habit of failing to start (it was modern enough to have had a self-starter) because the battery was often dead. When this happened, my father would say a few choice words to the truck, grab the crank, and proceed to start it using muscle power instead of the fickle battery.

I remember one cold winter day when my father and I had both gotten into the truck to go to Frontenac. I was five or six years old, and had watched the truck starting ritual for years. Dad tried the starter, and it didn’t work, so he grabbed the crank and started to get out.

“Maybe it will start if you say ‘damn it’” I helpfully suggested. I couldn’t figure out why he had a smile on his face while cranked the old engine over.

 

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