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.
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
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.
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.