Monthly Archives: April 2016

Jethro Tull: The farmers’ friend

During the past couple decades, we’ve lost tens of thousands of acres of rich agricultural land in Kendall County to commercial and residential development. But there’s still plenty of farmland left around these parts, and with Mother Nature’s annual spring warm-up, crops are being planted once again on the Illinois prairie.

Despite all too many former farms seem to be growing houses and strip malls these days instead of corn and soybeans, you don’t have to drive many minutes south or west before you’re deep in real farm country.

The old spring plowing, disking, dragging, and planting of my youth has given way to modern farmers’ minimum tillage techniques that maintain the stubble from the previous year’s crops for moisture retaining and soil enrichment mulch. New equipment works a fraction of a field’s surface, creating a good growth medium for row crops like soybeans and corn that assure newly planted seeds get plenty of sun to promote early germination. Minimum tillage implements do everything that needs doing to prepare the ground for seeding with a single pass, which saves time, fuel, and wear and tear on equipment. The farmers of my youth would be amazed, and probably not a little appalled. Back then, a farmer’s skill was gauged at least partly on how straight a furrow he plowed, and the accepted look of newly fields showed off their clean, black dirt surfaces.

Huron farmer

William Kubiak’s depiction of a Huron farmer in the era before European fur traders introduced iron hoes and other tools. Among the Native People of the Great Lakes, women were responsible for planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops. (from Great Lakes Indians: A Pictorial Guide by William J. Kubiak, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1970)

When my wife was still teaching, she had an aide whose family had recently moved to the Fox Valley from Georgia, and that spring when planting began, one of the aide’s daughters, seeing all those black dirt fields being planted in corn and beans, asked her mother where those farmers got all that potting soil.

Planting crops in fields in the Fox Valley’s been going on for a few thousand years now. And it turns out that the Native People who moved here as the last Ice Age ended began the tradition of farming our prairies.

Those earliest of residents were hunter-gatherers who arrived following the giant Ice Age mammals they used for a goodly portion of their diet. But the other part of their name—gatherers—suggests they didn’t live by hunting or fishing alone. Indeed, they began the long process of domesticating wild grains.

As the centuries passed, other cultural traditions arose, and native agronomists intensified the domestication of a variety of plants, including little barley, goosefoot (also called lambsquarters), maygrass, erect knotweed, sunflowers, marsh elders, and squash.

Archaeological studies suggest that humans had begun the process of domesticating these wild grains and other plants by 6000 B.C. Ancient farmers modified the original wild strains by selective collection and careful breeding, harvesting seeds from the best plants in autumn to save for planting in the spring. In the 1970s, archaeologists began noticing that seeds recovered from ancient Native American habitation sites differed from their wild brethren in that they had become larger and easier to separate from the chaff and husks. And the husks themselves were far thinner in domesticated versions of the grains.

The grains the Native People chose for their use were divided into oily (sunflowers, marsh elder) and starchy (goosefoot, little barley) categories, both providing substantial nutrition when ground into flour or mixed with other foods to make pemmican or other staples of the Native Peoples’ diets.

And then a big change occurred. About 800 A.D., Zea mays—corn—was introduced to Illinois, having finally made its way north and east from Mexico, where it had been perfected over hundreds of generations. The mysterious origins of corn are still the subject of spirited debate among archaeologists and botanists. Many favor a South American grass called teosinte as corn’s ultimate ancestor. But there’s a problem: teosinte seeds do not form around a cob like corn kernels do. Nor is there any evidence at all that South American Native People ever used teosinte for food. As a result, some researchers now hypothesize corn’s real progenitor is some other wild grass, now extinct, which did have a cob on which the seeds could form. But no one really knows.

All they do know is that about 4800 B.C. primitive corn, with kernels on cobs, appeared in the archaeological record at San Andrés in Mexico, on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco near the Olmec site of La Venta. And from there, it moved along the Native Peoples’ trade routes to southern Illinois, where this extensively modified grass revolutionized agriculture.

Corn was such a successful crop, that it displaced all of the other domesticated grains Illinois residents had been breeding and planting for thousands of years, and the one-time staples soon reverted to their wild states. At one time, archaeologists and plant historians believed that Native American agriculture was created when corn arrived on the scene. But now, it’s fairly widely accepted that Native People (and we’re talking almost solely here about tribal women) were already skilled farmers when corn arrived, so that it was quickly, and almost seamlessly inserted in the existing agricultural tradition of North American native farmers.

Corn was so successful, in fact that it led to the rise of the Mississippian cultural tradition whose zenith was creation of the metropolis of Cahokia on the banks of the Mississippi River opposite modern St. Louis. Starting about 1000 A.D., Cahokia would be the largest city in North America until Philadelphia finally surpassed it in the 1780s. It was a culture built on the Native Peoples’ cornfields, along with fields of their two other staples domesticated and bred during a period of centuries, beans and squash.

Squash, it turns out, was domesticated even earlier than corn, and diffused throughout Central and North America very early on. Squash itself was edible, as were its seeds, providing an excellent source of nutrition.

And beans, it turns out, produce amino acids called lysine and tryptophan that compliment the amino acid zein found in corn, making the combination of the two far superior in nutritional value than either separately.

Prairie breaking plow

The breaking plows used on the Illinois frontier of the 1830s cut shallow furrows–through the toughest part of prairie sod–and because the plowshares were made of iron, not steel, they didn’t ‘scour,’ or polish. As a result they required teams of four or more yokes of oxen.

Thanks to all those ancient farmers, corn was prominent among the contributions they made to the success of the United States. From the colonial era into the era of pioneer settlement here in northern Illinois, corn played a huge role in feeding the area’s population.

The pioneers’ prairie farming in Illinois was based on corn, for which the state’s thick loam proved a particularly rich growth medium. When the first settlers arrived, the land was so rich, in fact, that during their first season on the prairie they often planted what they called sod corn. As one of the big, cumbersome breaking plows turned the thick prairie sod over for the first time, pioneer families walked ahead of the plow dropping kernels of corn on the ground. As the plow cut a furrow, it laid the sod over onto the ground covering the seeds. Those first crops weren’t the best, but even so, they were far better than most crops planted on prepared ground in the thin, rocky soils of Vermont or Massachusetts or New York.

Jethro Tull's grain drill, from  Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, 4th Edition, 1762.

Jethro Tull’s grain drill, from his Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, 4th Edition, 1762.

In those pioneer days, corn was often planted in rows of hills, each hill with three or four kernels of seed corn. Oats, wheat, barley, and rye, on the other hand, were planted by broadcasting the seed on prepared fields, at first by hand, then by patent seeders that did the broadcasting when a crank was turned, and then by broadcast seeders attached to a farm wagon’s endgate. The endgate seeder’s broadcasting wheel that fanned the seeds behind the wagon was turned by a belt or chain attached to the wagon wheel. After broadcasting, the field was drag harrowed to cover the seeds with soil.

In those early years, pioneer farmers faced the same challenges as had the Native People, in that birds and rodents found newly seeded fields great cafeterias full of food for the taking. Native Americans tasked the tribal group’s children with scaring off grain predators, and so did the earliest pioneers. Then scarecrows were introduced, and many if not most counties in Illinois tried to reduce predation by paying bounties on crows, rats, sparrows, and other animals that ate newly broadcast seed. Later on, as farmers began to rely more on mechanization, the descendants of Jethro Tull’s (not to be confused with the rock band of the same name) grain drill came to the rescue, a machine that inserted the seeds of small grains below the ground’s surface.

Modern planting

A farmer in western Illinois plants corn using new minimum tillage equipment that requires fewer passes over a field than even just a few years ago. The technology results in less compaction of the soil, retains moisture better, puts nutrients back into the ground, uses less fuel, and creates less pollution than the old plow, disk, drag, plant method. (

By the time I was a youngster, endgate seeders were still used by many farmers—my dad and my grandfather, for instance—to plant oats as well as forage crops like timothy, alfalfa, and clover, while they used 4-row corn planters to plant corn. And nowadays, the whole process of planting has undergone another complete revolution, at least in terms of the size of the equipment farmers use to till their ground.

From the Native American female farmers who domesticated, planted, and raised the grain from ancient times, to the pioneer men who broke the prairie sod and grew grain to feed their families, to modern farmers, who are so efficient that each feeds 155 people, the plant ritual has continued, something all of us Fox Valley residents can witness on a daily basis this time of year, sometimes in our own backyards.




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It was all relative…but not all of the time

It was such a beautiful day Sunday here in the Fox Valley that we did considerable work outside. As a reward for my son doing some chores, some up on a ladder, I grilled bratwurst and then simmered them in beer (I figure it’s what God invented Pabst Blue Ribbon for) and yellow onions for our first meal out on the patio this year.

As we ate, we chatted about families, and our family in particular. My son noted that our concept of family doesn’t match that of many of his friends. In my family, formerly almost all farmers, extended family members are all considered aunts, uncles, and cousins no matter how far removed. Apparently, among his friends this is no longer a common family practice.

At our yearly family reunion—we’ll be holding the 89th annual event on the second Sunday in August—second, third, and fourth cousins abound.

And, in fact, it got me to thinking about my early childhood in a close-knit farming community where several of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents were actually no relation at all.

1915 abt Wheatland "Scotch" Church.jpg

The Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church about 1915 was a relatively new building, and served a neighborhood of majority Scots immigrant farmers. (Little White School Museum collection)

There was Granny Ferguson, who lived down by the neighborhood one-room school where a tiny sort of residential subdivision had grown up, seemingly by accident. The Wheatland United Presbyterian Church, nicknamed the Scotch Church because of its overwhelmingly Scottish early membership, was at the intersection of modern Heggs and Ferguson roads, across Ferguson Road from the school, which was known (naturally) as Church School.

That’s where my sisters and I went to elementary school, my oldest sister going through all eight grades where she was the only one in her class for virtually all eight years.

A few houses, including Granny Ferguson’s, had sprung up around the church-school intersection. I was of absolutely no relation to Granny Ferguson, nor to Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, who lived right next to the church across from the school. They were among my parents’ best friends, and so became default uncle and aunt. Unlike my parents’ friends, Octa and Howard Gengler, who were also dear friends, but who were never an uncle nor aunt, but were just plain Howard and Octa. However, the neighbors to our farm to the north were Auntie Grace and Uncle Herb Norris—again, no relationship whatsoever, but close friends so for some mysterious reason became aunt and uncle. Grandma Rance, Auntie Grace’s mother, lived in the little next door to the Norris’s classic American Foursquare.

1936 abt Clarence Lloyd Bernice

A typically out-of-focus snapshot taken by my mother of (L-R) my dad and Uncle Lloyd and Auntie Bernice Bower, the men looking particularly natty in their tall boots, during a Wisconsin trip about 1936.

And not only that, but Auntie Bernice Bower’s mother and father became Grandma and Grandpa Anderson. Who were not to be confused with Granny Stewart lived in the neighborhood and who mysteriously faded in and out of my childhood memories. So far as I know, not a drop of shared blood was in our veins.

And I shouldn’t give Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken short shrift, either. When my dad, a young former Kansas cowboy and oilfield roustabout, arrived in the neighborhood looking for farmwork, they hired him and introduced him to the Scotch Church community, where he met his future father-in-law, and through him, my mother. I should mention that my grandparents were Lutherans, but since there was no Lutheran church in the farm neighborhood, they went to the nearby Scotch Church. Because that’s what Protestants do. Or did, at least. Didn’t like the Methodist minister? Okay, we’ll go to the Presbyterian Church until he goes somewhere else. My Catholic friends never could get their minds around this practice.

1910 McMicken, Jim & Bess farm E

Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim McMicken’s Wheatland Township farm, with its stately Four-Square house, was a place I visited frequently as a child. (Little White School Museum collection)

But anyway, my dad worked for the McMickens before he and my mom married in 1930, and forever after, the Matiles were all considered family. Aunt Bess looked after me when I was a youngster, and she made the most delicious cottage cheese from the leftover milk from our productive Guernsey cow, Daisy. When my wife and I were married, the McMickens gave us a piece of their family furniture, a glass door fronted Mission Style bookcase that still fills a prominent corner of our living room.

And then there was Grandma Fitzpatrick, who was the mother of my actual uncle-by-marriage, Les Penn. I was a little unclear until a bit later in life why Grandma Fitzpatrick could be Uncle Les Penn’s mother when they had different last names, but in the welter of random aunts, uncles, and grandparents in which I lived it was not as big a deal as it might have been for some.

1945 Gerald Holzhueter

My uncle and first cousin once removed Gerald, who requested that my grandparents legally adopt him before he went off to serve in World War II.

And if that wasn’t confusing enough, there a number of uncles in my life who were related, but who weren’t actually uncles. Rather, they were cousins of various degrees. My Uncle Gerald, for instance, started out his life as my first cousin once removed—his mother and my grandmother were sisters, who were extremely close all their lives. Unfortunately, Aunt Edith (my grandmother’s sister) died almost immediately after giving to her seventh child—Gerald. On her deathbed, Edith asked my grandmother to promise to raise Gerald as her own child, which my grandmother faithfully did. Before he went off to fight in World War II, Gerald asked my grandparents to officially adopt him, which they did, and so he became not only my first cousin once removed but also my uncle by adoption. His two children are not only my first cousins, but also my second cousins.

Of Gerald’s brothers, only one, Oliver, was called uncle by me and my sisters. On the other hand, some of my other first cousins once removed—the children of one of my grandmother’s brothers—did get the designation. In that family were Uncle Herbert, Uncle Wilfred, and Aunt Esther.

This was particularly mystifying for a youngster because I never really knew at first whether an aunt, uncle, or grandparent was actually one, whether they were even tangentially related or not.

I suspect that figuring out who was who and then keeping all those relationships straight was what got me interested in history. When my wife and I got married, she had a bit of a struggle trying to figure out which grannies, aunties, and uncles were actually related, since calling non-blood relatives by those names was, in her family, pretty much not done. But, since she was a history major, too, it didn’t take long before she was able to keep track of what was what.

Today, all of those relatives by courtesy are long gone, although our era of claiming even the most distant cousins as part of the family continues pretty much unabated. It’s one remnant of those days when the term “extended family” meant more than precisely that, something that provided a warm, comfortable security blanket to those of us lucky to enjoy it.


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Filed under Farming, History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Epic story of “10,000 Years of People on the Land”

Find out how experts use archaeological and archival techniques to understand the lives of the people who have lived in northeastern Illinois when the Little White School Museum hosts “10,000 Years of People on the Land” this Saturday, April 16.

The museum is located at 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk Street) in Oswego.


1987 Jensen Site dig overview

The 1987 Jensen Site dig in Oswego uncovered an ancient Native American village site, complete with a workshop where stone tools were made. Archaeologist Joe Wheeler will explain the techniques historians and archaeologists use to fill in the blanks of the long history of human occupation in northern Illinois during “10,000 Years of People on the Land” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, April 16, at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

Beginning at 1:30 p.m., archaeologist Joe Wheeler will explain how the use of techniques from historical research to archaeological excavations are being used to trace and interpret the lifestyles of those who have lived in our region of Illinois for the past ten millennia. The first part of the program will focus on the region’s long history of geological change and human occupation. Part II will examine the tools archaeologists and historians use to understand the past.

A Cook County native, Wheeler is the U.S. Forest Service Archaeologist and Tribal Liaison at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located on the old Joliet Arsenal site in southern Will County. The sprawling former arsenal location is being restored to a tallgrass prairie ecology.


1987 Chip McGimsey lecture

Illinois State Museum Archaeologist Chip McGimsey demonstrates how Native Americans manufactured stone knives, scrapers, and other tools during a 1987 dig at the Jensen Site in Oswego.

Retiring after more than 28 years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Wheeler pursued his life-long interest in archaeology by attending graduate school at the University of Wyoming on the post 9/11 GI Bill. He was then employed as a traveling field archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service, working at national forests throughout the western and southwestern U.S. In 2013 he returned to Illinois to assume the duties as the Midewin Heritage Program Manager.

Pre-registration is not required. Admission the day of the program is $5 for this program geared for area residents 14 and older. Proceeds will benefit operations of the Little White School Museum, a joint project of the Oswegoland Heritage Association and the Oswegoland Park District.

For more information, call the museum, 630-554-2999, or send an email to


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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History

112 year-old urban barn in danger of demolition

One of Oswego’s most historic urban barns has been in the news lately, and in a troubling way.

Our local library district has bought the land on which the small barn occupies a tiny corner, and they’ve announced plans to demolish the barn. According to the library district, there is “no record of any historical significance for the” barn and the small rental cottage on the property. They’re wrong, of course.

Urban barn plan

Urban barn plan with carriage room and stalls for horses and other livestock from Barn Plans and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted, Orange Judd Company, New York, 1881.

Urban barns, as an architectural class, are usually pretty unassuming. Virtually all of them (with the exception of the odd modern knock-off) were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in that day and age, lots in villages and in many towns and cities as well, resembled tiny farmsteads plunked down in urban settings.

Until sanitary sewer systems were widely introduced in the first half of the 20th Century, each small town residential lot featured the family home, an outhouse, and an urban barn. Sometimes a smokehouse and a small chicken house were also included.

Like their larger rural siblings, urban barns housed the family driving horse as well as the family buggy or carriage and often a cutter—a one-horse open sleigh—for winter travel. In addition, the barn also provided a home for the family milk cow, and often a small flock of chickens provided they didn’t have their own chicken house on the lot.

Matile Barn

The urban barn here at the Matile Manse started out its life as a timber-framed (oak and black walnut) saltbox-style house. It was moved a few dozen feet south in 1908 and my great-grandparents built their retirement home on its former site.

When the horse and buggy era ended, urban barns were easily converted into auto garages, workshops, and homes for lawnmowers and lawn sweepers. Over the years, some of those urban barns have even been converted into residences. In other cases back in the day, unwanted residences were also converted into urban barns—like the one here at the Matile Manse. When my great-grandparents bought the property our house sits on, it was already occupied by a timber-framed saltbox style house. Back then, in 1908, folks weren’t so quick to tear old buildings down. So the old house was put on rollers and moved a few dozen feet south to make room for the new house—and turned into an urban barn.

Today, Oswego has a fine collection of 19th and early 20th Century urban barns, possibly one of the best such collections in the Fox Valley. According to the village’s 2009 historic structure survey, conducted by Granicki Historical Consultants of Chicago, “Oswego stands apart from other towns in Northeastern Illinois with its enduring collection of urban barns.”

Granicki counted 22 urban barn examples in the village and labeled six as historically significant in their final report—including the one that the library district could find “no record of any historical significance.” Which suggests they weren’t looking very hard.

Historical preservation got a good start back in the last decade when the village established the Oswego Historic Preservation Commission. And shortly after, they paid for the historic structures survey. But since then, it’s been pretty much downhill when it comes to preserving local historic structures. Changes in the village board’s membership, as well as the turnover of other top elected and appointed officials has basically led to the commission being severely marginalized, with officials withdrawing support and even treating the group with outright hostility.

2016 Kohlhammer Barn

Unless community pressure changes its mind, the Oswego Public Library District plans to demolish the old Kohlhammer Barn.

The urban barn the library district would like to tear down differs from many others in Oswego in that we know who built, when, and why.

The May 18, 1904 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that “Fred Kohlhammer has completed the excavation for the basement for his barn on his lately acquired land north of the Waubonsie.”

Kohlhammer was a well-known German-American contractor in the Oswego area who built homes as well as farm and commercial buildings. The parcel he purchased was bordered to the south by Waubonsie Creek, to the east by the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25), to the north by North Street, and to the west by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way. The site Kohlhammer chose for his house was on a rise overlooking the creek, where the land fell off sharply towards the stream bank. Later, the Kohlhammers would extensively landscape that steep slope with perennials, rock gardens, and an artificial stream, the water for which was pumped from the creek by a scale model Dutch windmill. Interestingly enough, for the driveway to the house, Kohlhammer made use of a short stretch of the old Chicago to Galena Road that cut through the parcel on its way to the limestone-floored ford across the Fox River just to the west.

Kohlhammer placed his barn at the corner of the East River Road and North Street where it would be handy to the house and where it would be easy to store the family buggy and other equipment.

He chose to build a modified bank barn, with an upper floor for buggy and tack storage and a lower lever for the horse and cow stalls. And he built neatly and well, because upon completion in July 1904, the whole Kohlhammer family moved in while construction was on-going for their new home right next door. In early 1905, the family moved into their new home, and the barn was given over to its original purpose.

Some years ago, the barn and small adjacent rental cottage and remnant of the oak savanna on which they stood were separated from the house and sold as separate properties. And now the library district has purchased the barn and rental cottage and the oak savanna remnant. While the rental cottage, which dates to the early 1950s, is not historically significant, the urban barn certainly is.

So what will happen to this endangered urban barn? Well, the folks who own the house Fred Kohlhammer built in 1904 want to buy it from the library district and restore it. It’s situated on the extreme northeast corner of the property, meaning that piece could easily be clipped off and sold to the homeowners, who really want to restore and preserve it. So the barn could be saved at no cost to the taxpayers and the community would continue to enjoy a link with Oswego’s past that’s been standing on the same spot for the last 112 years.

Seems like a win-win, but then again modern folks usually seem fixated on demolishing things they neither want nor understand. Time will tell on this one.

And on a somewhat related note, I’m going to be giving my “Barning Around: Kendall County” presentation this coming Thursday, April 14, starting at 7 p.m. at the Big Rock Historical Society, 48W445 Hinckley Rd., Big Rock. It’s free, and the Big Rock folks won’t mind a bit if you stop by.

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Filed under Architecture, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Seward Township’s name a reminder of another bigoted political era

Of Kendall County’s nine townships, Seward and NaAuSay were traditionally the least populated. Seward Township is located in the far southeastern corner of Kendall County, and, like NaAuSay, has had no municipalities until, in recent years, the growing community of Joliet annexed into it. But Seward’s population was also swelled when a second municipality, Minooka, also annexed into it.

Steward, Lewis

Lewis Steward, businessman and politician, and the man for which Seward Township is not named.

Some seem to think the township was named after the Steward family of Plano—despite the clear differences in spelling. The Stewards were a prominent 19th Century Kendall County family. Lewis Steward founded Plano, narrowly lost a bid for governor in 1876 running on the Democratic ticket. Although well-liked locally, he failed to carry Kendall County while losing by fewer than 5,000 votes statewide. He had more success running for Congress in 1890, elected in that economically depressed year when Republicans had over-reached by promoting English-only laws, coming out strongly as anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, and favoring the rich and corporations over wage earners. Any comparison to modern U.S. politics is, of course, silly. Right?

But in any event, Seward Township was not named for the Steward family. Rather, its namesake is William H. Seward, former governor and U.S. Senator from New York, and U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.

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, one of the many anti movements of the time. 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.

Seward 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.

The politics of that era was turbulent. The Whig Party was beginning to crack into the “conscience” and “cotton” wings over the slavery issue, and the American Party—also known as the Know Nothings—that was virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, was gaining strength. Seward was in constant conflict with the Know Nothings as they used the Whigs’ disintegration to step in and pick up some of the pieces.

The 1840s and 1850s marked one of the high tides of the nativist movement, the members of which called themselves Know Nothings, because when questioned about the group’s activities they professed to know nothing. The Know Nothings’ rallying cry was to ‘save America for Americans.’

It doesn’t take reading many Know Nothing political speeches to realize that Donald Trump almost seems to be using them as campaign source materials.

Trump, of course, is not anti-Catholic (although he doesn’t seem to like the Pope very much, the sentiment seemingly reciprocated), although the Know Nothings viewed Catholics as dangerously anti-American because of the supposed influence of the Pope on church members.

Most of the immigrants of that era were fleeing Ireland’s terrible potato famine as well as the Enclosure Laws. The flood of cheap Irish Catholic labor into some of the nation’s largest cities led to nativist violence and to the formation of a number of secret societies such as the American Defense Society, the American Patriotic League, and the American Protective Association among others, all of which were organized around the kind of rituals and secrecy pioneered by Freemasonry. They were extremely successful in certain areas of the country—particularly New York.

Seward, William H

William H. Seward, former governor, U.S. Senator from New York, U.S. Secretary of State, and namesake of Seward Township.

Seward was never a nativist. After his brief fling with the anti-Masonic movement, which was a reaction against the supposed power the fraternal organization had on American politics, he seems to have become an extremely tolerant person for his day.

Many northern Know Nothings, while rabidly anti-foreigner were also anti- slavery. As a result, they were attempting to persuade anti-slavery Whigs to join the American Party at the expense of the Republican Party, which was, in the early 1850s, just getting going.

And that’s where Seward decided there was a line to be drawn. Fortunately, he was powerful enough to do so. In 1852, Know Nothings virtually took control of New York, but just two years later, Seward won a resounding reelection to the U.S. Senate as a newly-minted Republican.

What had happened in the meantime? The northern and southern wings of the Know Nothings split over slavery, just as the Whig Party had. They also split over Catholicism. Many Louisiana Know Nothings were Catholic, something northern party members couldn’t abide. Nor could the southern party members abide the northerners’ anti-slavery positions. After reaching their high water mark in 1852, the American Party’s fervor burned out.

The Know Nothing phenomenon was never very strong in Illinois. In the 1856 election, the only time an American Party candidate appeared on the ballot in Kendall County, the Know Nothing candidate for President, Millard Fillmore, got just 13 votes, while the party’s candidate for governor got only 10. There were just too many influential ethnic groups in the Midwest for nativism to catch on at that time.

Meanwhile, when Kendall County had to name its nine townships in 1850, local folks arrived at names with a variety of origins. Originally, the township in the county’s far southeastern corner was named Franklin Township, but since that conflicted with another township in Illinois, a new name had to be found, and it turned out to be Seward. Why honor a New York politician out here on the Illinois tallgrass prairie? Seward was a respected politician from the home state–and even the home county–of many of Kendall County’s early settlers, and his anti-slavery and anti-Know Nothing stands were popular here.

Seward Township’s name is a reminder of an unfortunate time in American history when bigotry was normalized into a political party, something that seems, in this election year of 2016, to be happening all over again. But today’s politicians would do well to take heed of what happened to the Know Nothings when political bigotry got out of hand. We ought to all hope that somewhere among our modern crop of politicians, there is one who will be as courageous as William Seward in fighting religious bigotry and racism in U.S. politics.


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Filed under History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized