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 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.
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.
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.