Monthly Archives: February 2016

Remembering Richard Irvin, one of the men who helped build Oswego

We’re nearing the end of this year’s observation of Black History Month, but there’s still plenty of time to recall that not only was there a vibrant Black community in the greater Oswego area in the years after the Civil War, but that those residents, most who were newly freed from slavery, played significant roles in helping build what we have today.

Kendall County’s earliest Black residents didn’t arrive voluntarily, but rather were brought here by their owners. Although Illinois was a free state in the 1830s, Southerners who emigrated to the Fox Valley created the useful fiction that the Black servants they brought with them were ‘indentured’ and not enslaved. It was a thin rationale, but was accepted in a state that was badly conflicted on the topic of abolition.

Not all of those with Southern roots were slave-owners, of course. The Elijah Hopkins family who settled on Wolf’s Crossing Road just outside Oswego in 1857, had Southern roots and brought a servant, Anne, with them when they came. She had been a wedding gift from Mrs. Hopkins’ father, but was apparently freed while the family still lived in Ohio. Anne eventually married Henry Hilliard. The Hilliards farmed in the Oswego area for some years before moving to Aurora where they finished raising their family.

During and after the Civil War, there was a substantial influx of former slaves, some who had served in the Union Army, who chose to live in Oswego and farm in the surrounding countryside. Among those arriving about 1864 was George Washington and his wife, Emma. They farmed and raised their family in the Specie Grove area just south of Oswego, along with several other Black families including the Hughes, Bradfords, Simms, and Longs. Among George and Emma’s children was Emma, who married farmer neighbor Solomon Long.

Not all the area’s Black families arrived immediately after the Civil War, however, and among the later arrivals was Richard Baxter Irvin. Born into slavery in 1859, Richard learned the mason’s trade. Married and living in Nashville in 1899, it’s possible his wife’s death spurred him to move north.

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Richard and Blanche Irvin outside their house on Van Buren Street, Oswego shortly before 1930. (Glen C. Irvin Jr. Collection)

The 1890s in the South were years of great racial upheaval as white legislatures enacted a flurry of racist laws designed to restrict the civil rights of Black citizens. Dubbed Jim Crow laws, the new order was viciously enforced by white mobs and lynch law. Blacks were prevented from holding public office or even voting, and were discriminated against in ways too numerous to count.

So it’s no wonder why Richard decided to leave Tennessee and move north. Why he picked Oswego, though, is a family mystery. Perhaps he knew relatives of former slaves who had already moved to the Fox Valley, or maybe he just decided to head north until he found a place to live that felt safe. Whatever the motivation, he hitched his horse to a buggy and drove the roughly 500 miles from Nashville to Oswego.

He picked wisely, because not only did he find a welcoming home for his mason’s trade, but he also found a wife, marrying Blanche a NaAuSay Township native and, the daughter of Emma Washington and Solomon Long. Getting firmly plugged into the close-knit Specie Grove Black community probably didn’t hurt Richard’s business prospects. And he was also able to begin a close business relationship with Oswego’s contractors, especially Irvin Haines. Haines contracted on his own, and also worked closely with his in-law, Ed Inman, as well as with Lou Young.

Haines Inman Young at work

The Haines-Inman-Young crew at work in 1899 on the Watts Cutter House, South Main Street, Oswego. L-R are an unknown man, Lou Inman, Irvin Haines, and Lou Young. Note Haines, a skilled amateur photographer, is snapping the photo (see blurred hand). (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1908, Haines—who my genealogy program tells me was my first cousin twice removed—built the house where I live for my great-grandparents who were retiring from farming. It’s highly likely Richard Irvin manufactured the decorative concrete blocks that comprise the visible foundation.

Haines, Inman, and Young built dozens of homes, commercial building, and farm buildings all over the greater Oswego area, some as far north as the Village of Montgomery—where, by the way, Haines built a home identical to the one I live in. Richard Irvin was an integral part of the group that these three, and probably other, Oswego builders regularly called on.

Richard and Blanche raised their family in Oswego where their children attended school and participated in sports. But like many small-town families, the young people found better jobs in bigger cities nearby, most notably Aurora.

And at home, tragedy was striking. In 1928, Richard and Blanche lost two of their children, son William, age 13, and daughter Emma, age 8. Both were mourned by both their family and by their heartbroken schoolmates. According to the Kendall County Record, virtually all the school’s junior high aged students turned out for the funeral and four of his classmates served as Richard’s pallbearers.

And then in 1930, Blanche herself finally succumbed to consumption—tuberculosis—after a long struggle with the deadly disease.

On Sept. 25, 1934, Richard died of chronic endocarditis at his home on Van Buren Street in Oswego. He was laid to rest beside his wife and children in the Cowdrey Cemetery.

His Kendall County Record obituary paid tribute to the contributions Richard made to Oswego’s growth during a 30 year masonry career:

Richard Irving [sic], colored, age 75, a long time resident of Oswego died Sept. 25, 1934. His wife and two children preceded him in death, but he is survived by five children, two daughters and three sons.

Mr. Irving [sic] had a wide acquaintance. He was a mason by trade and many fine pieces of cement work and brick-laying are his work in this community. He was born in slavery in Tennessee 75 years ago.

The funeral was held from the Thorsen funeral home with the Rev. R.E. Gayles of the Aurora A.M.E. Church officiating. Burial was in the Cowdrey Cemetery.

Richard Irvin was one of those unsung folks, white and black—the carpenters and masons and storekeepers—who helped build the Oswego area and made it work. They all left a mark that, while lasting and visible to us on a daily basis, is all too unfortunately anonymous.

 

With appreciation to Glen C. Irvin Jr. for sharing his family’s wonderful story…

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William Walker: Miner, merchant, soldier, politician

When the Civil War broke out, one of the earliest volunteer military units formed in the Fox Valley was the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, comprised of men from communities up and down the Fox River.

Although some of the companies raised by well-known citizens originally carried such martial names as the Elgin Guards and the Wayne Rifles, when they were mustered into federal service in the summer of 1861 the companies were renamed with letter designations.

Here in Kendall County, Company D, originally named the Wayne Rifles, was raised in Lisbon by Dr. William P. Pierce; Company E in Little Rock and Bristol, by Charles D. Fish and Albert M. Hobbs; Company F in Newark, by Porter C. Oleson; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles, in Oswego, by Samuel C. Camp and William Walker.

Greusel, Col Nicholas

Col. Nicholas Greusel, commanding officer of the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, was not impressed with William Walker’s military qualifications.

Oswego was the county seat at the time, and Camp and Walker were two of the community’s solidest citizens.

Camp, a Connecticut native, was a prominent lawyer. Walker, a harness maker by trade and an auctioneer by avocation, was the kind of colorful character who knew everyone. According to the regimental history of the 36th, his persuasive gift of gab was primarily responsible for filling out Company I’s roster.

But after the companies arrived at Camp Hammond in Montgomery for training, arming, and equipping, the commanding officer of the 36th, 44 year-old Nicholas Greusel, decided neither Camp nor Walker—who was the company’s 1st lieutenant—were the people he wanted in command of Company I. He engineered Walker’s resignation in February 1862 and Camp’s in March.

Greusel, a native of Bavaria who immigrated to the U.S. as a youngster in 1834, and who went on to serve as an officer in the Mexican War of 1846, was apparently looking for officers with military experience, and neither Camp nor Walker, while popular with the troops, had any. And by all accounts, Walker didn’t get along with Greusel, either.

Born in Tompkins County, N.Y. in 1833, Walker came with his parents to Illinois when he was a child.

At the relatively young age of 16, Walker joined a party of 24 Illinois Forty-Niners and headed to the California gold fields. Things went fine until the group got to the North Platte River where Indians stole all of their horses, horse stealing being the national sport of the plains tribes. Losing their means of transport demoralized the party and they all turned back except for Walker and his friend Thatcher, who decided to continue west on foot.

After an arduous journey, they arrived at the new Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City, where they were lucky enough to find work to build up their cash reserves before heading to California. But when the good Mormon folks of Salt Lake City found out the two were non-Mormons from Illinois (where the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, had been murdered by a lynch mob in the Carthage jail), they immediately forced the pair to leave.

The two eventually found temporary refuge with a band of Maidu Indians (called Diggers by American settlers), where they were able to at least survive if not prosper on a diet of snakes, roots, and berries. But they kept their goal to get to the gold fields firmly in mind and after a grueling trip afoot, during which they met the famed frontiersman Jim Bridger, they miraculously managed to reach San Francisco.Vigilante justice in San Francisco

William Walker was one of the first to join the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance, which aimed to clean up the raucous city in the near-complete absence of organized law enforcement.

 

Walker took up mining at first, but then decided he could make as much, if not more, money selling miners the things they needed, and so went into the mercantile business. San Francisco was a lawless frontier town at the time, infested with the sorts of miscreants who turn up in boomtowns all over the world. Deciding to help put an end to the violence, he helped found the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance, which cleaned up the town without paying too much attention to legal niceties.

By then, Walker had also managed to make a fortune, but all of it was wiped out by a bank failure. And that was apparently the last straw for Walker because he left California, never to return. Sailing back around the Horn to the East Coast, Walker then headed overland back west to Illinois one more time, this time settling in Oswego. There, on Nov. 23, 1859, he married Philetta, the 19 year-old daughter of prosperous Bristol Township farmer Ansel Kimball.

In Oswego, the couple had two sons while Walker pursued his trade of harness-making and also become a popular auctioneer. Whether it was Walker or Samuel Camp who got the idea to recruit an Oswego company for the new 36th Illinois, with his connections through his own businesses and his wife’s prominent family, it was no surprise he was able to quickly recruit Company I to full strength.

1862 Murdock & Pooley

Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were both young Oswego men who served under Capt. William Walker in Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Both were killed in action after Walker relinquished command  during the Battle of Ezra Church. (Little White School Museum collection)

After Greusel orchestrated his removal from the 36th, Walker bided his time until, later in 1862, it was announced a new regiment—the 127th—was being formed in Chicago, with recruitment taking place up and down the Fox Valley. Joining this time with Oswego businessman William Fowler, Walker helped recruit Company A to full strength before it was mustered in at Camp Douglas in Chicago. Company A was one of three recruited in Kendall County, the others being Companies F and K, both raised in Little Rock and Bristol townships. In all, about 240 Kendall County men enlisted in the 127th.

As had been the case in the 36th’s Company I, Walker was elected 1st lieutenant of Company A in the 127th. And when Fowler resigned in December 1862 due to medical problems that would plague him the rest of his life, Walker was promoted to captain and command of Company A. He led Company A until Dec. 1864, seeing hard fighting with the 127th. During his service, he was wounded twice, once in the head by a shell fragment and again in the leg during hand-to-hand combat with a Confederate officer.

Walker transferred to the 23rd Reserve Corps in February 1864, and went on to serve for two years after the war in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to oversee the ordinance stores at St. Louis.

After he resigned his commission, William and Philetta moved west from Illinois to West Liberty, Iowa, and then on to Beloit, Kansas and finally to Scandia, Kansas where, in 1881, he built that community’s first grain elevator and got involved in Democratic politics. He served two terms as Scandia’s mayor, oversaw building the Scandia City Hall, and served as postmaster, but was never able to repeat the financial success he enjoyed during the Gold Rush.

Walker died on Aug. 20, 1906 in Scandia. In an Oct. 6, 1906 obituary written by one-time friend and Kendall County Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank, Walker was described as “positive in his opinions and erratic in the methods of their support, strongly Democratic and prominent in the councils of his party; always found plenty of opposition and thrived upon it. Enjoying life to the full, he liked to see others happy and many were gladdened by his unobtrusive acts of kindness; was incorruptibly honest, it is not believed that a tainted dollar ever passed through his hands.

“Intensely religious by nature, he studied the scriptures with ardor and persistency, but looked not for the light in them; passed the beauties of the Ecclesiastes and dwelt upon Solomon’s Song, made a mountain of David’s sins but missed the Sermon on the Mount. A free-thinker by profession, he strove to maintain his position by arguments with others.

“His heart was big and open and intensely warm, especially toward little children and these will miss him most. He was steadfast in his friendships but bitter in his enmity toward those who had offended,” his obituary concluded.

William Walker was one more of those fascinating, anonymous characters who stroll in and fade out of the stories of every community, playing parts in events great and mundane. They are the stories that make learning about local history so much shear fun.

 

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