Monthly Archives: June 2016

They paved paradise…

Did a story for the Ledger-Sentinel (although corporate has apparently decided to just call it the Ledger these days) a few weeks ago that recapped the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census for Kendall County.

This most recent national farm census was taken in 2012, with the results finally released in 2014. I’d been thinking of doing a piece about it around the time it was to be released, but then the whole thing slipped my mind until late spring this year.

Farm censuses have been taken for almost 200 years now, with the first one taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1820 as part of the regular decennial population census. That was the practice until 1950, when the census bureau started collecting farm data only in years ending with 4 and 9. In 1978, that was changed to taking the farm census in years ending in 2 and 7. Finally, in 1997, Congress moved responsibility for collecting farm data to the USDA—which seemed pretty logical to me—and keeping the requirement to collect the data in years ending in 2 and 7. Thus the 2012 census.

When I finally got the data entered into my trusty spreadsheet, I have to admit being surprised—astonished, really—at the amount of farmland the census showed had been lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

Collar Counties

Kendall is the only non-Collar County to border on three of the six Chicago metro region Collar Counties, putting it in the perfect spot to absorb overflow population from fast-growing Kane, DuPage, and Will counties.

Previously, the largest amount of farmland lost to development had been the 8,313 acres lost between 1992 and 1997.But between 2007 and 2012, Kendall County lost an astonishing 37,131 acres of farmland to development. In the 57 years prior to 2007, the county had only lost a total of 28,365 acres to developme

Granted, it was clear that the county’s strong growth was going to catch up with it sooner or later. Between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population grew from 39,413 to nearly 115,000. My hometown of Oswego went from 3,914 to 30,303 during the same period.

But in the five years between 2007 and 2012 the biggest recession since the Great Depression hit the nation, and it hit Chicago’s collar counties particularly hard. It’s an indication of just how frenetic the financial industry was driving inflation of the nation’s housing bubble in the years immediately prior to the crash of 2008. Billions of fraudulent dollars were changing hands as vast tracts of farmland in Chicago’s hinterland were purchased, subdivided, and developed. Infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters, water and sewer lines—was being pushed as developers rushed to provide the new homes the financial industry required to keep the bubble inflated through a whole host of actions that ranged from simply unethical to downright illegal.

It took a while for the development train wreck to come to a standstill and the dust to settle. When it did, not only had a bunch of productive farmland been sold for development, but also vast swaths of it had been covered with all that infrastructure listed above. And that meant that while some land sold for development could still be farmed because it was vacant, a lot of it simply could not.

The disappearance of so much farmland capped a long-term period of population growth in Kendall County, particularly in its northern three townships, but also in the county’s eastern tier of three once almost entirely rural townships. Oswego, situated in Kendall’s northeast corner, is a member of both groups.

NaAuSay and Seward townships, situated directly south of Oswego, until this most recent flood of growth hit in the 1990s, had no municipalities in their boundaries. But then Plainfield began expanding across the eastern border of NaAuSay Township, while Joliet and Minooka began intruding into Seward. And that’s how come some residents of Joliet and Plainfield send their children to Oswego schools. It’s also one more reason why so much farmland was lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

The northern tier of Kendall’s townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—had been undergoing growth for years prior to the inflation of the housing bubble. Oswego and Bristol, especially, were the subject of growth hurtling down the corridor along U.S. Route 34—called Ogden Avenue east of the Kendall County border—that accelerated to extraordinary levels after the construction of the huge Waubonsie Interceptor sewer line. The 60” diameter sanitary sewer line was built down the Waubonsie Creek valley from what was then called the Fox Valley Mall to Montgomery, where it crossed the Fox River to the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

As soon as adequate sanitary sewer capacity was available, residential and commercial growth along the Route 23 corridor in Kendall County exploded. Why? For the same reason folks found the county a good place to live way back in the 1830s. Back then, the search was on for cheaper land that was good for farming in a location not too far away from the Chicago market that even in the early 1830s had begun to grow. As soon as U.S. Army engineers figured out how to drive a permanent channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating for the first time a safe harbor for Great Lakes shipping, that growth turned exponential.

The Chicago region’s population grew outward from the Lake Michigan shore, first spurred by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s commuter line that terminated at Aurora, and then after World War II by the web of multi-lane limited access expressways that stretched from Chicago north, south, and west.

Oswego Township was picked for industrial development in the early 1950s, with sprawling Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants built. Plenty of land was available at relatively low prices in the area that was outside the Chicago metro area, but close enough, and with the necessary rail connections industry of that era required.

And at the same time, developer Don L. Dise, hearing about the coming construction of those facilities, decided Oswego Township was the perfect spot to build Kendall County’s first super subdivision. He picked the huge Boulder Hill Stock Farm, owned by the Bereman family, as the location for his development, located right across the Fox River from the new Western Electric and Caterpillar plants, figuring the plants’ workers would need housing. Eventually, the Cat plant alone employed more than 7,000.

Calling his new planned development Boulder Hill after the former livestock farm, Dise proposed building out neighborhoods to attract all economic levels, from executives to factory workers. And he succeeded, attracting an eclectic mix of new homeowners, from CB&Q executives to Caterpillar and other local factory line workers, with most of the first homes financed thanks to the post-World War II GI Bill. Not only did the GI Bill promote home ownership, but it also encouraged veterans to get college degrees, which allowed the millions who served in the war to move up to better jobs, and then buy brand new houses from Dise and other developers.

The first families moved into their new Boulder Hill homes exactly 60 years ago.

The late 1950s was the county’s first big spasm of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 Oswego Township’s population doubled. Then it doubled again between 1960 and 1970. As growth to the east continued to accelerate even faster, refugees from Cook and DuPage counties looking for cheaper housing, less traffic, and a small town atmosphere, continued to move into Kendall County, but growth was relatively restrained until the Waubonsie Interceptor literally opened the floodgates.

And that touched off the next era of growth that both flowed and ebbed several times before the financial industry, with the help of Congress and President Bill Clinton, who removed regulations that had kept it to reasonable levels, hit on the idea of securitizing mortgages. Not only did they securitize mortgages, they also figured out how to defraud the entire real estate financing system by methods ranging from forcing appraisers to artificially inflate existing home values to require bigger loans to gaming the home loan system itself to allow mortgages to be awarded to those who could not afford them. Which was fine, because the goal was not to make money off house payments, but rather by selling the mortgages (sometimes several times), bundling them, and dividing them into batches so they could be securitized into bonds for sale to investors. Since the bond rating agencies were in on the fraud and since government was not allowed to regulate the bonds, the amount of farmland purchased at greatly inflated prices in order to feed the need for more and more mortgages to be sliced and diced and sold to suckers was substantial.

In Kendall County alone, it amounted to that 37,000 acre loss in just five years mentioned above. As the bubble inflated between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population tripled. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2007, Kendall was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing county in the nation.

Then the crash came, but here we sit nonetheless.

And what happened to all those farmers as land was gobbled up by developers? Glad you asked. More later…

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized

Small-town America’s search for fun

Big doings in town this week as Oswegoans gird their loins for our annual PrairieFest community celebration.

Oswego’s annual community festival has gone through a lot of iterations since downtown business owners started trying to draw customers to their stores back in the 1930s with free movies projected on a white canvass stretched on the wall of Ralph Johnson’s Oswego Tavern. It was the height (or perhaps the depths) of the Great Depression, and free entertainment was extremely popular among folks beset by financial catastrophe.

1933 Centennial drill team

The Joliet Auxiliary Drill Team, first prize winners in the drill team competition during the Oswego Centennial Parade on Sept. 16, 1933, in downtown Oswego proudly show off their trophy in front of the Oswego Tavern. Free movies were projected on a canvas screen mounted on the right side of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in the June 20, 1934 edition: “Free [movie] shows are given each Wednesday night, sponsored by the merchants of Oswego. Last Wednesday evening more than 600 attended.”

Since Oswego’s 1930 population was just 934 men, women, and children, drawing 600 people to town on a warm summer Wednesday evening suggested a lot of people were hungry for a little escapism in their lives during a particularly dark period of the nation’s history.

From that economically-driven start, business owners sponsored a variety of annual celebrations that offered some fun, but which were mostly efforts at drawing paying customers downtown. Eventually, civic groups joined in and promoted the addition of an annual carnival that was set up right on Main Street downtown. And that planted the first seeds of opposition to drawing crowds downtown since business owners weren’t getting much of the action. A new home was found for the annual carnivals, but the business community continued to view drawing large crowds downtown with puzzling suspicion. After all, you’d think that attracting a big crowd of prospective customers to the sidewalk outside your store would be a good thing, but the resistance to what became called Oswego

2005 dragon ride scream

Photographer Joanne Pleskovich perfectly captured the exuberant terror experienced by two excited little girls on the Dragon ride at PrairieFest 2005. Kids of all ages will again be entertained this weekend at PrairieFest 2016 here in Oswego. (Ledger-Sentinel photo)

Days continued to grow, until the Oswego Business Association finally washed their hands of sponsoring the thing. And that’s when the Oswegoland Park District stepped in, renamed it PrairieFest, and proceeded to move the most heavily attended activities out of downtown. Which also caused grumbling by downtown business owners that none of the crowds were now coming downtown.

The effort to find something to do in small towns all over the country has been a seemingly never ending task. Nowadays, of course, there are almost too many things to do, something that has led to the disappearance of many of civic and fraternal organizations as life became too busy for people to take time out of their schedules to enjoy the camaraderie they offered. The myriad of entertainment options for youngsters, especially, has exploded in recent decades.

Time was, small town and rural America was a boring place for all too many youngsters. And when suitable recreation does not exist, delinquent youngsters usually take matters into their own hands, something they’ve been doing for a long, long time. For instance, the July 21, 1864 Kendall County Record reported: “Three boys from Oswego crept into one of the school houses in NaAuSay and tore up and destroyed [a large] amount of books. They were arrested [and]..lodged in the jail at the Court House [in Yorkville], having been bound over before the Circuit Court.”

So much for lack of crime in the good old days when Traditional Family Values reigned supreme.

And how about public disturbances caused by entertainment getting out of hand? Well, try on this item from the Feb. 4, 1869 Record: “The Dance at Chapman Hall on Friday night was a pleasant affair but there was an afterpiece of a quite contrary nature. It seems Mark Chapman refused to sell a ticket to Bob Jolly. Bob, being highly incensed at not being able to dance and share in the fun, provided himself with a club and waited for Mark outside. As he came out on the sidewalk, he was set upon by Bob and pretty severely beaten. Bob is under arrest.”

When calmer entertainment was attempted, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

19th Century hearse

It took two years for Oswego’s Union Sewing Society raise enough money to buy the community a hearse through fundraising events such as peach festivals  before they finally reached their goal in 1872.

For instance, the Sept. 30, 1869 Record reported: “The Oswego Union Sewing Society’s peach festival of last week was not well attended; the proceeds of it are to go towards buying a hearse. But this generation need not expect the benefits of one unless funds for the same are raised by some other means.”

A peach festival and a hearse might seem like strange bedfellows—especially today when hearses are privately owned by independent funeral homes—but apparently it was considered pretty much business as usual almost 150 years ago.

Tradition meant a lot in 19th Century Oswego, especially in the years immediately after the Civil War. The Fourth of July was an especially patriotic time of year in Oswego as this note in the July 4, 1871 Record illustrates: “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The Oswego cannon? What do you suppose happened to that? It certainly would be a neat thing to have around these days—especially during those planning boundary wars with Joliet, Plainfield, Aurora and the rest of the aggressors.

But back to business. Remember the Union Sewing Society’s drive to buy a new hearse? Well, in the Aug. 31, 1871 Record, the results were in. Wrote correspondent Lorenzo Rank: “A few more days and death will be no longer be any terror; the new hearse is ready for delivery. The ladies who brought about this achievement of a free hearse through raising of monies in fairs, socials, etc., now wish to finish their labors and enjoy the fruits of it. The greatest harmony and goodwill was maintained during the endeavor and their several years of joint labor and it is now hoped that no jealousy will spring up between them, and that the honor of its first usage may not create any envy among them.”

The various church congregations in Oswego also sponsored various entertainments, mostly as fundraisers. For instance, the May 30, 1872 Record reported: “A mush and milk festival is arranged for next Thursday evening at Chapman’s Hall for the benefit of the Baptist church.”

One wonders how mush and milk could be festive, suggesting tastes have apparently changed more than a bit over the last century and a half or so. About the only way a group could raise money through a mush and milk festival these days would be to promise never, ever to have one. People would probably pay for that.

Finally, in the days of horses and wagons, there was always some entertainment just waiting to happen. A good example was in the Record’s Oswego news of March 27, 1873: “One day recently as John Tatge was engaged in hauling out manure with the old gray, on throwing down the lines to step back for the fork, the horse got frightened and ran all over town spilling the manure and scattering parts of the wagon along the road.”

Now that’s something you don’t see in this day and age of dump trucks and backhoes. Ah but for the good old days—and an exciting runaway manure wagon now and then.

 

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Filed under entertainment, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Uncategorized

The historical legacy of Marvin Lawyer

Unless you live around these parts, you probably didn’t hear about the death of Marvin Lawyer a couple weeks ago.

Lawyer, Marvin

Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person whose extraordinary love of one-room schools has left an invaluable historical legacy.

He died May 28 at the fine old age of 91 at the Illinois Veterans Home in LaSalle.

Marvin was a lifelong Kendall County resident, except for the years he spent helping Uncle Sam beat the Nazis over in Europe during World War II. He served in Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and central Europe and was sent back to Kendall County after the war, where he married, had a family, and led what amounted to a fairly ordinary life in those days.

As a child, he attended the old Inscho School, located in Section 18 of Kendall Township on Highpoint Road just south of Ill. Route 71. The school was named after the Inscho family, who originally owned the small parcel on which it was built.

The original school, then named the Long Grove School was built by subscription in 1841, the subscribers each contributing from one to three logs for its construction. In 1855, a new timber frame building was constructed under the terms of Illinois’ new law allowing property tax revenues to fund public schools and it also got its modern name.

Marvin graduated from Yorkville High School, served in the military, and then returned to farm, drive a school bus, work at the Aurora Post Office, and own small businesses in Newark, where he spent virtually the rest of his life.

While many remember Marvin as an avid rock collector, I remember him as someone fascinated with Kendall County’s one-room schools. Like me, he’d attended a one-room country school, and enjoyed the experience. In fact, he apparently enjoyed it so much that for a time he lived in the Inscho School after it had been converted into a private residence. By the early 1990s, Marvin’s interest had led him to begin collecting everything he could find on Kendall County’s one-room schools. I suspect he wasn’t sure what he’d do with all the information, but he doggedly kept at it.

That’s when I met him. He enjoyed my “Reflections” columns on local history in the Kendall County Record, and so he’d stop by the newspaper office from time to time to pick my brain about one-room rural schools in the Oswego area. He was always an interesting guy to chat with, and we exchanged information until 1995 when he finally self-published his 410-page The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County. He stopped by the newspaper office that year to proudly give me a copy as well as one for the Little White School Museum’s collections.

Union School cropped.jpg

The Union School, District 48, in Kendall County was the home of both a Presbyterian Church and a one-room school. The congregation went on to build the AuSable Grove Presbyterian Church, after which the building was used solely as a school. Today it has been moved to the Lyon Historical Farm and Village near Yorkville, where it has been restored. (Little White School Museum collection)

The book is not a polished history, but rather is simply the most invaluable reference on the county’s old country schools anywhere in existence. He was able to track down 99 of them that were in operation at one time or another through the years. Some were familiar—the Fern Dell School has been restored by Newark’s Fern Dell Historical Association and the Union School was moved to the Kendall County Historical Society’s Lyon Farm and Village, where it was likewise restored. But others—the Sandy Bluff, the Booth, the Porter, and the Asbury schools, for instance—were much more obscure.

But for each, he interviewed former students to get their stories, tried to find out who the teachers had been, described the buildings, and tried to obtain photographs.

The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County was obviously a labor of love, the kind of project that guarantees his name will be remembered long after his death. Which, of course, is not at all why he did it. He did it because he loved his county and his community and he was determined to set down a record of one part of its fast-disappearing history—its one-room country schools—before the memories of them faded forever.

It was a task at which he succeeded, and along the way, which has left a priceless record of an important time in the lives of so many thousands of people that will never be again. Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing for which students of Kendall County history will be forever grateful.

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Filed under History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events