Monthly Archives: December 2015

Who is General Tso and why am I eating his chicken?*

Maybe it was sort of in honor of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” playing in a loop on Ted Turner’s old TBS and TNT stations, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, on Christmas Eve both my wife and I were hungry for Chinese food, which we ordered and drove over and picked up.

The last time we had Chinese, we decided to try General Tso’s chicken (the name had fascinated me for years), and we enjoyed it, although we went back to our old sesame chicken Christmas Eve. As I looked the menu over this time, I got to wondering about good old Gen Tso, and why somebody named a chicken dish in his honor.

Turns out, he was a major mover and shaker in the late 19th Century in China’s Qing Dynasty, not only an accomplished military leader, but also an effective diplomat. Oddly enough, he was not commemorated in his own country with a dish named in his honor. Rather, General Tso’s chicken was invented in the 1970s here in the U.S. in New York City, inspired by a dish developed by a Taiwanese chef named Peng.

And that, of course got me to thinking about all the other foods and dishes named after individuals, although their origins are mostly unknown these days.

As Vince put it, "Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff." Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it's named after Bakers German's Sweet Chocolate, developed by Bob German.

As Vince put it, “Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff.” Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it’s named after Bakers German’s Sweet Chocolate, developed by Sam German.

German chocolate cake is a good example. It’s not German, as in the country, but rather German as in Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was developed in 1852 by Sam German for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. The recipe for the cake was first published in the Dallas Morning Star in 1957 using German’s Sweet Chocolate. Over the years, the name has been shortened, dropping the apostrophe “s” suggesting to the unwary that Germans had something to do with it.

Graham crackers are another familiar food—no S’Mores with out ‘em!—that carry the name of their inventor, this time a guy by the name of Sylvester Graham. Graham was a Presbyterian minister back in the 1800s who was a health food fanatic who developed a process for milling whole wheat flour to be used in what he considered healthy eating. I suspect Sylvester would be horrified at what generations of Girl and Boy Scouts have done to his healthy crackers.

Which brings us to Fettuccine Alfredo, one of my favorite pasta dishes, that was created by early 20th Century Italian chef Alfredo di Lelio. He developed it as a mild dish for his pregnant wife. Tourists eating at his restaurant in Rome liked it and spread the recipe around the world.

A number of fruits and vegetables are named after the folks who developed them, including boysenberries. Rudolf Boysen, a botanist who was also the superintendent of parks in Anaheim, California, crossed a loganberry, raspberry, and blackberry sometime in the 1920s to arrive at the boysenberry. Its fame was assured when Walter Knott started pushing boysenberry jam, jelly, and syrup at his Knott’s Berry Farm California tourist trap.

Clementines, those delicious little oranges, are named after Père Clément Rodier. The good father either came across a mandarin orange mutation while serving in North Africa in the early 20th Century, or he himself made a mandarin and Seville orange cross to create the tiny, sweet fruit. That’s at least one story, the other being clementines may have been created by some nameless Asian horticulturalist long before Father Clement got into the act.

Granny Smith apples, named after BLANK, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Granny Smith apples, named after Marie Anna “Granny” Smith, the Australian woman who first cultivated them, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Lots of varieties of apples are named after the orchardists who developed them by cross-breeding. The Granny Smith apple, which was discovered, and then propagated, in in Australia in 1868 by Marie Anna “Granny” Smith was named in her honor. Closer to home here in Kendall County, the Minkler apple was named after 19th Century orchardist Smith Minkler, who developed it from seedlings given him in lieu of cash when he worked for local French American businessman and property owner Pierre Lamsette, who was also known as Peter Specie. While Granny Smiths are still very popular, Minklers are mostly only found now in old farmyard orchards and at nurseries that feature heirloom apples.

As well as fruit, we Americans love our salads. Last week we ate out at one of our local pizza/Italian beef/hot dog joints and I had a great Cobb salad, which I though was probably so named because it had kernels of sweet corn in it. But no, the Cobb salad was invented by Robert H. Cobb, the owner of the famed Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood. Sometime around 1936, Cobb rustled up a salad for himself using ingredients he had in the kitchen. He apparently liked it so well, he started serving it in his restaurant after naming it after himself.

And you might think Caesar salad was named after Julius or one of the other long line of Caesars who ruled Rome, but you’d be wrong. Granted, its creator, Caesar Cardini, was of Italian ancestry, but he was an American restaurateur and chef. One of his buddies created the Caesar salad in the restaurant at the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Mexico and named it for the hotel and his friend.

Ever wonder about nachos? About 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya created his original dish by making a bed of fried corn tortillas and then covered them with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Hershey, Pennsylvania gets all the press about its famous chocolate candy, but really, Illinois probably ought to own the nation’s candy making crown. Heath bars, for instance, those delicious little English toffee bars were created in downstate Robinson by the owners of Heath Brothers Confectionery, Bayard and Everett Heath. A salesman brought the brothers a recipe developed by a Greek candy maker down in Champaign, and after some tweaking, the Heaths turned it into a local favorite during the Roaring 1920s. At the time, Crawford County was an oil production center, and the wildcatters who came and went carried those little Heath Bars with them all over the U.S. The orders rolled in and the rest is history.

Also developed right here in Illinois by Chicago’s Williamson Candy Company was the chewy Oh Henry! peanut, caramel, fudge and chocolate bar. The story goes that a young fellow by the name of Henry used to stop by the company’s offices who could be convinced to do odd jobs and the call for his services, “Oh Henry!” became so frequent they named a new candy bar in his honor in 1920. Although there are other explanations of the candy bar’s name, the company is sticking with their story about good old Henry.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it's almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it’s almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Not sure where we’d be these days if somebody hadn’t invented sandwiches. The name itself is easily traced back to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792). Now the Earl didn’t invent sandwiches; they were popular, especially among the lower classes for a long time before the Earl was a glint in his father’s eye. But the name for two pieces of bread with varied fillings is said to have been given the dish back during the Seven Years War when the Earl demanded food that could be easily and neatly handled while playing cards with his friends.

One of my favorite sandwiches is the Reuben sandwich. Although it’s almost impossible to find a true Reuben these days—it requires Russian dressing, not the almost-always-substituted Thousand Island Dressing—many local restaurants make a passable version. The best here in the Oswego area is at the Riverview Diner in Montgomery. Food historians believe the sandwich was invented at Reuben Kolakofsky’s restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska around 1925 to feed his poker buddies. On the other hand, some believe that Arnold Reuben, a New York City restaurateur, created it and named it after himself around 1914.

Finally, another of my favorite dishes is Salisbury steak, and it turns out the guy it was named for had dietary theories that pretty much exactly mirror my own. Dr. James H. Salisbury invented the dish named in his honor, and he strongly advised his patients to eat it three times a day, while limiting their intake of vegetables (which he considered to be somewhere between dangerous and evil) and starches.

A man truly after my own heart. And stomach.

 

 

*Turns out while I thought I was being original with this title, Kimberly Kohatsu already used it on a 2014 piece on Huffington Post. Oh well…

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Food, History, Illinois History, Nostalgia, People in History, Uncategorized

Merry Christmas!

On Christmas Eve, 1912, Irvin Haines, my first cousin twice removed (according to my genealogy program), snapped this photo of his Minnich nieces and nephews surrounding the Christmas tree at the kids’ grandparents’ house, which was just down the street from where I’m sitting this morning. I thought I’d share it with you this Christmas morning. The candles had just been lighted, and everyone looks to be in a good mood for Santa’s arrival.

Florence (1902-1924), Olive (1906-1971), and John (1910-1977) Minnich, probably at Christmas 1912. Note John is wearing a dress, common for young male children before World War I. The photo was likely taken at the home of their aunt, Annie Minnich Haines, at North Adams and Second Street, Oswego. Florence died of tuberculosis. Photo probably taken by irvin Haines. Part of the Homer Durand Oswegorama Photo Collection.

From here on North Adams Street, Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year, too while you’re at it!

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

When toy heaven opened on Main Street…

Holiday season has rolled around one more time, but somehow it doesn’t seem like Christmas just yet. Maybe this year’s singular lack of snow, ice, and nasty weather  here in northern Illinois has something to do with my feelings on the subject. Who knows?

Back when I was a fourth grade student at Oswego’s old Red Brick School, Christmas was considered by all of us youngsters a very special time of year. During the latter years of the 1950s, there weren’t as many commercials on television—we just had three channels to choose from back in the old days, so there wasn’t as much television, either. Today, commercials are aimed at the demographics advertisers figure watch whatever of the hundreds of channels are beamed into our homes. Lots of prescription drug and patent medicine ads on The Hallmark Channel and women’s products on Lifetime, for instance. And tune in Nickelodeon or one of the other kids’ commercial channels, and you’ll be inundated with commercials aimed at kids.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show's run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg's Sugar Corn Pops.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show’s run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops.

Back in those early TV days, an awful lot of programming aimed at kids seemed  to have been funded by food companies. “Wild Bill Hickok,” for instance, was sponsored by Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, to the extent that Wild Bill (played by Guy Madison in buckskins, who bore absolutely no resemblance to the real Wild Bill) decorated the Sugar Pops box. His image lingered there like one of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts years after the show was yanked from the airwaves. Sugar Corn Pops themselves have morphed these days into just plain Corn Pops, Kellogg’s apparently hoping no one will notice they’re coated with sugar if the word isn’t mentioned in the cereal’s name.

And there was also “Captain Midnight” and his chief mechanic and comic relief Icky Mudd (with two d’s), which was sponsored by Ovaltine. I hated evil-tasting Ovaltine. But then Captain Midnight went into syndication and was mysteriously transformed into Jet Jackson, whose show was sponsored by Jets cereal. I couldn’t stand Jets cereal, and it didn’t like me, either. God knows I tried to eat enough boxes of the stuff because I really needed those box tops, only to have my body reject it like some poor fellow rejecting his transplanted heart.

So, anyway, we had a lot of cereal advertising, but very little toy advertising. Until Christmas time, that is. When Christmas rolled around, all the afternoon and noontime shows—“The Two-Ton Baker Show,” “Elmer the Elephant,” “Super Circus,” “Uncle Johnny Coons” —featured a ton of toy advertisements aimed at us Baby Boomers, as we oozed through the nation’s social fabric like a giant rodent through a python.

Shuler's Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Shuler’s Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Our real problem, as ’50s kids, was not deciding what kind of toy we wanted most for Christmas, it was trying to get a look at the real thing. Here in Oswego, the only stores that sold toys were Carr’s Department Store and Shuler’s Drug Store. Carr’s had a tiny, not very good toy section, and Shuler’s selection of toys, which was only marginally better, was located on a couple of shelves at the back of the store. We had to deal with those conditions for most of the year. But at Christmas time, though, things changed drastically.

Al Shuler apparently loved Christmas, and, carrying on an Oswego drug store tradition that stretched back into pre-Civil War days, sponsored a huge Christmas toy sale and display in the second floor meeting hall above his store. He contracted with Mr. and Mrs. Carr, who owned the department store just down the block, to manage the sales portion of the annual event.

About Thanksgiving, the doors officially opened, and everyone was invited to climb the narrow, creaky, steep flight of stairs to what, for us, amounted to Toy Heaven.

After a hard day hitting the books (and sometimes each other) at the Red Brick School, we’d walk down to so some serious toy gazing before heading home. The school was located on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets, just two blocks from Shuler’s, and when the day’s final school bell rang, a mob of pushing and shoving munchkins would headed downtown, warmly dressed in zippered coats and five- buckle boots. To cross busy Madison Street—U.S. Route 34—to get

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego's old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego’s old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

downtown, we’d use the pedestrian crosswalk signal lights at Jackson Street. There is no power on Earth like that felt by a fourth grader who is able to stop a whole line of autos, buses, and semi-trucks–even if it wass the elderly Mr. Donnelly who did the actual button-pushing. As traffic ground to a halt, we’d amble across the roadway with the same feeling General Patton must have felt when he wielded complete control of the Third Army in World War II.

On Main Street, we’d clamber up the steep wooden stairway into a large room which was filled with long tables laden with more toys than any of us had ever seen in one place. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains, Mattel six-guns and rifles and dolls, Marx electric trains and toys, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets, Flexible Flyer sleds, Structo trucks and fire engines (that really worked!), and game and puzzle sets by the hundreds were spread before our eyes.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

We’d spend hours looking at all those toys, imagining what it would be like to own a Flexible Flyer, or a Mattel pistol that really shot plastic bullets—imagination was a big part of the whole Christmas scene, not to mention the rest of our lives as children.

Today, however, children are bombarded with ads for toys of all kinds on a daily basis all year long. The special feeling that Christmas used to generate when we hoped for that one much-desired and fantasized-about toy seems to have ended in a rush by parents for whatever seems to be on the current year’s hot list. Back then we never really knew what we’d get for Christmas—our parents usually decided that (at least in part) what we wanted for Christmas and what we needed were two entirely different things. I never noticed any feelings of guilt on the part of parents who bought their children a less expensive toy than the one hoped for.

As a Missouri newspaper editor put it in one of our exchanges down at the newspaper office some 30 years ago now, today’s parents are apparently confusing the word “disappoint” with “deprive” as they fight and trample heir way to the counter to snatch the last whatever hot-selling toy in stock.

It‘s hard to persuade children to be satisfied with less when they’re constantly bombarded with instructions to beg for more from their parents. But it’s not impossible. As our parents found out, “no” can sometimes be exactly the right word.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Local History, Nostalgia, Uncategorized

Reindeer games…

Both before and immediately after I retired from the news biz I worked on a project to transcribe the “Oswego” news columns from the Kendall County Record from they time they started appearing in the late 1860s through 1969. The object was to create a reference tool for family historians and other researchers. Along the line I accumulated close to 10,000 pages of local news.

As I worked through transcribing those bits of local news, I usually didn’t pay much attention to the content. After all, if I was ever to finish the project I couldn’t get too interested, but occasionally, the words I was transcribing off of often poor quality microfilm jumped right off the page and slapped me in the face.

That’s what happened as I was transcribing the “Oswego” news column from the Record’s March 9, 1898 edition.

“The outfit went through Chicago one day last week,” I typed. “And consisted of 539 reindeer and 118 Laps, including the women and children.”

After which I stopped typing to read the piece Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank wrote. It turned out to be a fairly lengthy item gently complaining about what he saw as the latest puzzling government boondoggle.

Noting that the government was attempting to assist needy, hungry miners who were struggling to get to the Klondike gold fields, Rank said that a relief expedition had been planned, and the necessary supplies, livestock (those reindeer) and experts (those Laplanders) had been acquired, and everything was on its way to the Klondike.

Reindeer? Laplanders?

And there was indeed a story there, even if somewhat off-kilter, even for a government project. It started out, though, with the best of intentions.

As you may recall, gold was discovered in the late 1890s up in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory, which resulted in a gold rush, not to mention the creation of such entertainment staples of my childhood such as “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” who with his great lead dog King, went sledding along on both radio and TV.

It took a year for word of the gold strike to get back to the Lower 48 States, but when it did the media created a firestorm of gold lust. The result was the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

This iconic photo of Klondike gold-seekers packing their one ton of supplies over the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 illustrates some of the realities of the gold rush. (Library and Archives of Canada photo)

This iconic photo of Klondike gold-seekers packing their one ton of supplies over the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 illustrates some of the realities of the gold rush. (Library and Archives of Canada photo)

Tens of thousands of Americans and Canadians headed to the Yukon, either to Washington State and from there north along the coast to Juneau and then on through Alaska to Skagway to reach the gold fields, or overland through Canada where Edmonton in British Columbia was the jumping off place.

The Klondike region is a desolate, isolated place and soon, down in the Lower 48, tales of starving miners began sharing the front pages of newspapers with tales of striking it rich. Those tales of starving miners caught the eye of politicians in Washington, D.C. Proving that panic-stricken responses to real and imagined crises is not some new 21st Century thing, and at the behest of determined lobbying by Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson, Congress appropriated $200,000 (nearly $6 million in today’s dollars). And Jackson made sure he got the lucrative got the contract to get relief to the ‘starving’ miners. Because Jackson knew how to get those supplies to the Klondike fast—reindeer!

Everybody got in on the action trying to separate credulous gold-seekers from their money. Dozens of how-to manuals were quickly written and published, some of which actually had useful ilnformation.

Everybody got in on the action trying to separate credulous gold-seekers from their money. Dozens of how-to manuals were quickly written and published, some of which actually had useful information.

In reality, however, there was no starvation crisis. Figuring that few of the would-be miners knew anything at all about survival in arctic conditions like those along the Klondike River, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (hurrah for Sgt. Preston!) strictly enforced “The One-Ton Rule,” wherein no miner was allowed to cross into Canada unless he had an entire year’s worth of food and supplies. Which is the story behind that iconic photo of miners laboriously climbing the Chilkat Pass with immense packs—each one of those guys had to make numerous trips up and down the near-vertical trail to pack in 2,000 pounds of supplies before the Mounties would let them go on to try their luck along the Klondike River.

So let’s recap: we have a made up crisis (check!), based on sort of a truthful story (check!), strongly promoted by a lobbyist (check!), who stood to personally gain from government money (check!). The more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

It turned out Rev. Jackson was fascinated with reindeer and had been trying for some time to stock Alaska with them. By 1891 he was somehow able to convince the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service—later renamed the U.S. Coast Guard—to import reindeer (also called caribou)  to Alaska from Siberia as food and draft animals. At first, the government also imported Siberians to teach the locals how to raise reindeer, but then Jackson figured out that Laplanders were better at the whole reindeer herding thing.

So when Jackson heard the government was going to give someone $200,000 to get food and supplies to miners in the Great White North, it’s likely the very first thing that popped into his head was “Reindeer!” At least he certainly convinced Congress reindeer were the answer to their problems. Not only could reindeer haul sleds laden with supplies, but they could be butchered for food for the miners and any live leftovers could be used to start yet another reindeer herd in Alaska if the Canadians weren’t interested.

Siberians with their reindeer and sleds in a photo taken in the late 19th Century.

Siberians with their reindeer and sleds in a photo taken in the late 19th Century.

So off he went to northern Norway where he procured 539 reindeer, 118 men, women, and children Laplanders to take care of the reindeer, 418 sleds, 510 sets of reindeer harness, and 250 tons of reindeer moss to keep the animals fed on the trip. The Laps and their reindeer were shipped across the Atlantic, arriving in New York harbor on Feb. 27, 1898. They were loaded aboard rail cars and shipped west to Seattle, creating the spectacle related by Rank as their train steamed through Chicago.

But even before the party reached Seattle, word finally made it back south that thanks to the Mounties and private businesses, nobody was starving on the way to the gold fields. As Rank put it in his Record column: “The provisions now are not wanted, as they only interfere with the trade—private enterprise there.”

Jackson, however, decided, with his Congressional appropriation in hand to continue on to Alaska with the reindeer and their Lap herders. Unfortunately, by that time, the expedition was running out of reindeer moss, and since the animals cannot survive on regular grasses, they were beginning to starve to death. Four died in Seattle, and eight more expired on the voyage up the coast to Haines Mission, Alaska, which the expedition reached on March 29.

The Laps drove the reindeer up into the mountains where the animals were able to find some forage but deep snow prevented them from finding enough of it. By the time the expedition was ready to move up the Dawson Trail along the Chilkat River into the mountains where forage was said to be abundant in May, there were only 228 left.

“Of these some were taken to Circle City and there killed for food, and a few of the remaining animals were taken to the Tanana Valley, where they all disappeared in a short time,” according to C.L. Andrews writing in 1919 in the Washington Historical Quarterly.

Of the Lap herders, some had to be sent back down to the Lower 48 because of a lack of food for them.

Some said that Jackson’s real goal had been to start another reindeer herd with the animals imported from Norway, but Andrews slapped that theory down: “These deer were all sled deer for transport purposes and were gelded males.”

Rather, Andrews suggested the real goal was to import more Laplanders, not the reindeer, into Alaska in order to assure the Laps and Norwegians were dominant in the reindeer herding industry Jackson had worked so hard to create. Alas, that didn’t work out, either, since the Laps reached Nome just about the time the gold fever was at its height.

“There, nearly all of them left the government service to engage in the search for gold, and the colonization scheme passed into oblivion,” Andrews reported.

Rank, in his March 9 Record column, was philosophical about the enterprise, which, he suggested was, if not precisely harebrained, at least overkill, indicating he wasn’t entirely against it because at least it wasn’t rich people being, again, enriched by preferred access to government money.

And finally, Rank wrote, gold rushes almost always turn out for the worst anyway, suggesting it would be good policy to resist any sort of government support for them in the future: “Instead of protection, gold-seeking rushes should be discouraged; they are demoralizing, breaking up families, and while one man be the gainer by them, nine will be losers.”

Which was pretty good advice.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation, Uncategorized

Seward Township’s namesake a reminder bigotry can be fought

Religious bigotry is all the rage in some political circles these days as everyone from candidates for state office right up to Presidential candidates contend that Muslims are born terrorists. And I have to say that since the goal of the actual terrorists is to terrorize, they seem to have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, at least among the right wing here in the U.S.

One of the real downers for those of us who enjoy reading and writing about history is that it seems no one ever learns a thing from it these days. And since learning from past mistakes is one of the major reasons for studying history in the first place, it is extremely frustrating.

The current rampant fear-mongering on the right is a good case in point. In fact, it’s several cases in point. There hasn’t been a national crisis in years that the right hasn’t used to sow fear to create panic and dissension. Last week’s shooting rampage, the one out in California by a couple of unhinged Muslim malcontents, seems to have driven more than a few folks right over the edge, something that didn’t happen, for some reason, with the recent rampages by the Christian terrorists who gunned down Baptist prayer meeting attendees in South Carolina and people unlucky enough to be near a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

Hate, when you get right down to it, is pretty ecumenical. Time was, the in folks to hate were Catholics, the Irish, and Germans. There was enough hate percolating around, in fact, to settle out and create the basis of an entire political party.

In the 1840s and ‘50s, the United States was experiencing a strong surge of ethnic and religious rancor and fear, with Catholics bearing the brunt of the hate of the dominant Protestants. The fear arose from the increasing numbers of Irish and Germans who were immigrating to the U.S. to escape everything from famine to war. Most of those new immigrants were Catholic and as their numbers increased, they posed a potential political challenge to the Protestant establishment.

In 1850 residents of one of Kendall County's nine townships voted to name it after Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, they had to come up with a new idea shortly thereafter.

In 1850 residents of one of Kendall County’s nine townships voted to name it after Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, they had to come up with a new idea shortly thereafter.

As the number of Catholics continued to grow, so did the conspiracy theories about why they were immigrating, chief among those theories being that the Pope was planning to subjugate the nation by increasing the Catholic vote. To combat the perceived threat, a number of secret societies were founded with names like the Order of the Star Spangled Banner and the Order of United Americans. Society members worked to establish political parties that would champion their views—the existing Whig and Democratic parties were considered far too cozy with foreigners—and the end result was the American Party. Because of its secret society foundation, members of the new party were encouraged not to divulge its stands on the most contentious issues, but instead were instructed to reply to questions with “I know nothing.” It didn’t take long for opponents to dub party members the Know Nothings.

The American Party ran candidates for state and local offices in the 1856 election with platforms that promised to crack down on crime, enforce Sunday saloon closings, encourage the use of the Bible and prayer in public schools, and appoint only American-born citizens to government positions. The party was strongest in Massachusetts and New York, but American Party candidates ran in many states.

In 1856, voters here in Illinois, had the opportunity to vote for American Party candidates for President and Governor. Former Whig President Millard Fillmore was their Presidential candidate while Buckner Stith Morris, a former mayor of Chicago and sitting Lake County circuit court judge, ran for Governor of Illinois.

In Kendall County, the appeals to religious and ethnic bigotry didn’t get much traction. Stith only polled 10 votes for Governor, while the GOP candidate, William Henry Bissell, not only swept Kendall with 1,615 out of 1,954, but became the first Republican Illinois Governor.

Fillmore, too, was crushed in Kendall County, polling just 13 votes out of 1,969 cast for President.

Unfortunately, the winner of the 1856 Presidential election, Democrat James Buchanan, proved to be one of the nation’s worst Presidents, whose incompetence sped the country’s march towards civil war.

Forced to discard the Franklin name, county residents next chose to name their township in honor of popular New York politician William H. Seward.

Forced to discard the Franklin name, county residents next chose to name their township in honor of popular New York politician William H. Seward.

Which, strangely enough, brings us to Seward Township here in Kendall County. In 1850, the Illinois General Assembly allowed counties to adopt the township form of government as opposed to the former commission form. Under the commission form of government, three commissioners formed the entire county board. Under the township form, the supervisors from each township in the county formed the county board.

Since so many of Kendall County’s new residents came from states back east where township government was the norm, it was quickly adopted by the voters here, meaning the county’s townships needed official names. The folks living in Seward Township decided to name their township after Benjamin Franklin, and the name appeared on the township’s official U.S. Census returns for 1850. But there was a conflict with another Illinois township and so residents, so many of whom emigrated from New York State, decided to change it to Seward, after William H. Seward, former governor and U.S. Senator from New York—and Abraham Lincoln’s future U.S. Secretary of State.

Seward was born May 16, 1801 in Orange County, N.Y. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1822, and quickly became involved in state politics, including, in the late 1820s, with the anti-Masonic movement. He was elected to the New York State Senate in 1830. After an unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1834, he ran again in 1838, and was elected.

He was an early anti-slavery advocate, a popular position in New York outside of New York City, and in 1848 his stand against slavery got him elected to the U.S. Senate under the Whig Party banner.

As Seward rose in New York’s political hierarchy, he came into constant conflict with the state’s nativists, who eventually turned into the Know Nothings. He was never sympathetic to the growing nativist movement, and after that brief fling with the anti-Masonic movement, he seems to have developed both ethnic and religious tolerance unusual for his day.

By the early 1850s, Seward’s Whig Party was beginning to disintegrate, split by the slavery issue into the “conscience” and “cotton” wings, and the Know Nothings were eagerly waiting to step in and pick up whatever pieces they could grab. Oddly enough, many northern Know Nothings, while rabidly anti-foreigner and anti-Catholic, were also anti-slavery. As a result, they worked hard to convince anti-slavery “conscience” Whigs to join the American Party at the expense of the then-brand new Republican Party.

Buckner Stith Morris, the American Party's candidate for Illinois Governor in the 1856 election was trounced in Kendall County and the rest of the state.

Buckner Stith Morris, the American Party’s candidate for Illinois Governor in the 1856 election was trounced in Kendall County and the rest of the state.

Seward, by then a political power in his own right, decided the Know Nothings were both wrong and dangerous, and he determined to fight them for political control of New York. Even so, in 1852—nearing the height of their power—Know Nothings took virtual political control of the state. But just two years later, Seward won a resounding and overwhelming victory, gaining reelection to the U.S. Senate, this time as a Republican.

What had happened during those few years? Just as had happened to the Whigs, the northern and southern wings of the Know Nothings split over both slavery and Catholicism. Many Louisiana Know Nothings were Catholic, something northern party members couldn’t abide. Nor could southern party members abide the northerners’ anti-slavery position. After managing to run a Presidential candidate in 1856, the Know Nothings pretty much collapsed.

The Know Nothings’ residue drifted to either the new Republicans, or the Democrats—who themselves were beginning to splinter into slavery and anti-slavery wings. During Buchanan’s disastrous Presidency, slavery became the premier sectional issue, one that eventually split the entire nation, temporarily dampening nativist and religious bigotry as the nation was engulfed in war.

Seward Township’s name is a reminder of that unfortunate era of American history when bigotry was formalized into a national political party. Today’s politicians, especially Republican Presidential contenders, would do well to take heed of what happened to the Know Nothings when political bigotry got out of hand. The question is, will there be another William Seward waiting in the wings to save the GOP from itself.

Leave a comment

Filed under Frustration, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History