Monthly Archives: August 2016

A great lake guaranteed Illinois’ economic success

Depending on their viewpoint and the era during which they lived, early explorers and settlers considered Lake Michigan to be either a priceless water highway deep into the interior of North America or a 307 mile long barrier to western travel.

The earliest European explorers didn’t even know Lake Michigan existed, thanks to the antipathy towards the French by the Iroquois Confederacy. French adventurers explored and mapped Lake Superior in the 1630s, long before the Iroquois allowed them passage to discover there was great water highway to the south. Not until Marquette and Jolliet explored south along the western store of Lake Michigan in 1673 did its length become appreciated.

A decade later, René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle used Lake Michigan as the major route to his new commercial colony in Illinois. By doing so, the French were able to bypass the Ohio River route to the west, the northern reaches of which were controlled by the well-armed and organized Iroquois Confederacy and their British allies.

Until the end of the French and Indian War in North America in 1764, Lake Michigan was, literally, a French lake. French forts controlled the Straits of Mackinac, Green Bay, and periodically Chicago and the mouth of the St. Joseph River at the southern end of the lake.

After the era of French control, the British controlled the lake for only a decade and a half or so before the new United States wrested control of most of the Great Lakes during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812, essentially a short, less successful, continuation of the Revolution, did manage to solidify U.S. control over the lakes.

1831 Fort Dearborn

Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, just a few years before the U.S. Army built a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River.

During the era of U.S. pioneer settlement, Lake Michigan became more an impediment than a help to settlement. That was because there was no harbor at the southern end of the lake. The rivers emptying into Green Bay gave access to the Mississippi River via portages to the Wisconsin River, but that left the interior of what would become Illinois difficult to reach. Sailing ships that arrived in Chicago had to lighter their cargoes using small boats to laboriously across the sandbar blocking the mouth of the shallow and sluggish Chicago River. The ships themselves, however, could not enter the river and so were unable to dock to ride out the storms that frequently blew up. As a result, ships had to quickly unload and get back out into the lake to avoid being driven ashore by rough weather.

Settlers that came west to Detroit, where there was a port, were hindered in heading overland to the Illinois prairies along the old Territorial Road by numerous bogs and swamps in Michigan and Indiana.

Not until the 1830s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel through the sandbar, was a true harbor created at Chicago. The new channel allowed ships to enter the Chicago River and safely dock, and also made unloading cargo a lot faster and less labor-intensive. Almost overnight, Chicago became a major Great Lakes port. In 1833, only four sailing ships called at Chicago. In 1834, after the first channel through the bar opened, 176 sailing vessels arrived.

Chicago’s position so far south allowed ships to carry grain from the prairie hinterland in the Des Plaines, DuPage, and Fox River valleys directly to the great eastern cities and return with goods ranging from finished products to lumber to build the great city that was taking shape along the lake shore.

Chicago Grain Elevators

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River just as Chicago was becoming the premier grain transhipment point in the nation.

In an astonishingly short time, in fact, Chicago displaced St. Louis as the chief grain shipment center in the west. St. Louis was well located on the Mississippi, but that was a curse as well as a blessing. Grain elevators, when they were finally invented and then perfected, could not be safely located on the shore of the great river because of its frequent floods. Chicago, however, with its location on Lake Michigan and the slow, sluggish Chicago River, was not affected by flooding since the lake level remained constant. That meant grain elevators could be built along the Chicago River—and the riverbank was soon lined with the towering structures.

In the late 1840s, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River—and from there the great Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri River system. The canal made shipping grain that much more efficient since it could be sent both south on the canal to the New Orleans market as well as east on the lakes to the New York market. In addition, the canal offered farmers living near its banks an easier shipping destination than hauling it overland all the way into Chicago.

At virtually the same time, railroads began to stretch west to Chicago and beyond, and the era of shipping cargo strictly via the lakes was over. Railroads that headed straight west from New York, Baltimore, and the other great eastern cities eventually met Lake Michigan, where they had to curve south to pass the end of the lake. And that made Chicago an even greater city. Not only was it still the lakes’ greatest port, but it quickly became the great rail center of the West.

With both ships and trains arriving in Chicago in large numbers, the population of the city and its hinterland quickly grew. It proved a boon for Kendall County, with new settlers able to cheaply and easily travel west from their old homes to Chicago and then undertake a short overland journey to the rich prairie lands along the Fox River. Once settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found themselves in an excellent location to easily get both their crops and livestock to the growing markets in Chicago and to take advantage of lower cost goods from raw lumber to finished clothing.

More than almost any other geographical feature, Lake Michigan has had the greatest long-term effect on the economic growth of Illinois throughout the history of the region. Although the lake is no longer the vital shipping link with the East it once was, its effect on rail and road transportation routes has guaranteed that Illinois will remain a U.S. economic powerhouse for the foreseeable future.

 

 

 

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Mother Nature, economics conspired to afflict area farmers in 1934…

In terms of numbers of people affected economically, 1933 was the worst year in Kendall County history. But 1934 didn’t provide much, if any, relief for county residents dealing with the profound effects of the Great Depression. In fact, bad just kept getting worse.

Not only was the nation dealing with the horrendous financial effects of the Great Depression, but severe drought was destroying farms and farmers all over the country. The drought, driven by hot, dry weather over a period of several months, resulted in the formation of severe dust storms that blew up out of the high, dry western plains and then surged east all the way to Washington, D.C., where a bewildered government was attempting to deal with the effects of dual nationwide financial and ecological disasters.

The Depression had begun with the stock market crash of October 1929, and from then on conditions got progressively and steadily worse over the next four years. Even so, the feeling of much of the country was that things would get better soon if only everyone would buck up and a little confidence in the country’s future. That was the course President Herbert Hoover had urged in the face of near-total economic collapse before everyone had enough and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

On Dec. 27, 1933, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall was still urging his readers to make 1934 a better year by the power of positive thinking:

“Few of us want to start 1934 with anything but a firm belief that the new year holds better things for us. We shouldn’t start the new year with a feeling that things will be worse. To do this will insure a bad year…Success is a result of your own efforts so if 1934 proves a disappointment, look to your own efforts before blaming anyone else for your bad luck.”

Milk Strike

Members of the Pure Milk Association dump milk before it could get to a non-member dairy in Harvard, Illinois sometime in the 1930s. The successful “Milk Strike” led to organizing farmers to get higher prices for their milk.

Positive thinking in place, the hits unfortunately just kept on coming. Farm commodity prices got so bad that notoriously independent farmers were finally starting to band together (as their urban worker countrymen already had) to demand more. Dairy farmers, for instance, who had formed the Pure Milk Association were conducting a milk strike, stopping trucks hauling milk from non-PMA members to Chicago dairies.

The Record reported on Jan, 10, 1934:

“As Norman Colby drove a truckload of cream for the Beatrice Creamery Company in Yorkville to Naperville on Route 18 [today’s U.S. Route 34], he was stopped between Oswego and Naperville by two carloads of men and the $275 worth of cream he was carrying was dumped into the ditch… After the cream was dumped, the men volunteered to help Colby load the empty cans back into his truck, but he angrily refused their help.”

While farmers were in bad straits, so were their city cousins. In order to create paying jobs for some of the working men thrown out of work by the Depression, the Roosevelt Administration’s new Works Progress Administration and Civil Works Administration was financing projects throughout the nation including right here in Kendall County, including bridge and road work. In February, even the Record’s editor, a firm Republican, had to grudgingly admit the government help seemed to be working:

May 13, 2010. Photo by Margaret Gienger.

Often derided as “make-work,” Works Progress Administration projects were sometimes literal lifesavers for the families of unemployed workers hired for them. In 1934, Oswego’s Little White School, now the Little White School Museum, was jacked up and a basement dug beneath it to provide more space as a WPA project, one of many throughout Kendall County.

“We drove on the East River road [modern Ill. Route 25] out of Aurora the other night and hardly knew the road. The work of the men on the CWA has made a real highway out of it. Some bad curves have been made safer by leveling off the banks on the side of the road. Good work, men.”

Meanwhile, the area’s farmers were hoping against hope that both luck and the weather would change in their favor. On April 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent commented: “The farmers have begun working in the fields with renewed hope that this year’s crops will at least afford them a living and cash for taxes and interest on their debts.”

Overcoming their aversion to government meddling in their business, virtually all of the county’s 1,080 farmers agreed to participate in the Agriculture Adjustment Administration’s corn and hog program. The AAA was another of Roosevelt’s “alphabet agencies” formed to fight the depression.

But extremely dry conditions persisted throughout Kendall County and in April the Record reported:

1934 May 11 Dust Storm

This dust storm, pictured west of the Mississippi, roared all the way from the Great Plains to the Eastern seaboard on May 11, 1934. An even more destructive storm had hit the central United States the previous month. Dust from the plains blew through Kendall County, where some of it precipitated out of the air and sifted across the landscape, filling ditches and infiltrating into homes.

“Even old timers say they never remember such wind and dust storms as are being experienced this spring. The ditches along some roads are filling up with dirt as they fill with snow in the winter time. The farmers and their teams in the fields are choked with dust; the housewives, especially those who house-cleaned early are desperate; the dust sifts in everywhere.”

Those conditions not only hindered crop growth, but also contributed to the ongoing plague of chinch bugs. According to the Record:

“The estimate of W.P. Flint, state entomologist, that chinch bugs would be five times as plentiful this spring as a year ago has come true. Damage to wheat fields and even oats by dry weather and chinch bugs is causing many farmers to plan re-seeding some of their grain fields to soybeans.”

The weather proved not only dry, but also extremely erratic. Excessive heat and drought not apparently being enough for Mother Nature, newly sprouted farm crops as well as gardens were devastated by destructive late May frosts, the Record reporting that:

“Two hard frosts last week worked havoc with the fruit and gardens. The corn, just nicely started, turned brown in many places and potatoes froze to the ground. Many farmers are planting over.”

Chinch Bug

Dry, hot conditions during the early 1930s led to an explosion in the chinch bug population. Tens of millions of the insects destroyed thousands of acres of crops in Illinois including in Kendall County in the days before effective pesticides were developed.

Then following the frosts the week before, new heat records were set May 31 and June 1 and on June 4 another dust storm hit. Meanwhile, “Thousands of miles of [chinch bug] barriers have been built as a result of demonstrations staged by county farm advisers, the extension service of the college of agriculture and the Illinois State Natural History Survey,” the Record reported.

Also in June, the federal government began to come to the rescue, announcing a drought relief program. To be eligible farmers had to certify they were in need of feed and seed to maintain their families, and also had to swear they were unable to supply sufficient feed and seed for himself. County officials estimated that while things weren’t good, few farmers fit that description, but it turned out, astonishingly enough, more than 20 percent of the county’s farmers applied for and really did qualify for emergency federal drought relief.

The Kendall County Farm Bureau and the federal government provided chinch bug eradication supplies, and county farmers kept battling whatever Mother Nature and the financial industry could throw at them. But it wasn’t until several years passed that they and their city brothers were able to get their heads above water again, thanks to their own collective action and an often grudgingly accepted hand up from Uncle Sam.

 

 

 

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There was no room for amateurs during the annual threshing season

About this time of year during our great-grandparents’ era, as “small grains” including oats, wheat, barley, and rye were rapidly ripening, the threshing season on area farms was just getting ready to begin.

Threshing outfits were too expensive for average farmers to buy on their own, and required far more labor to operate than a single farm could supply. Not that there weren’t a few individuals who owned them, of course. Irvin Moyer, who owned a machine shop that catered to local farmers at the intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Douglas Road here in Oswego Township, owned a threshing machine and a huge Aultman-Taylor gasoline-powered tractor. Moyer did custom threshing for many area farmers with his rig, as did Clarence Shoger from over Naperville way and Thad Seely on the west side of the Fox River.

But most farmers formed cooperative threshing rings of as few as four and up to a dozen farmers. Each member bought one or two shares in the ring and then participated in the annual harvest, with the threshing rig and the participating farmers and hired hands traveling from one farm to the next around the ring.

The Woolley Ring, for instance, operated on farms mostly located in School District 6 in the Woolley and Collins Road areas east of Oswego, while farmers on the Oswego Prairie along Wolf’s Crossing Road formed the East Oswego Ring. Farmers throughout the rest of Kendall County formed similar cooperatives in their neighborhoods.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the road to the next farm about 1900, with the steam traction engine pulling the ring’s threshing machine. Photo supplied by Dale Updike, Alberta, Canada, Little White School Museum Collection.

The East Oswego Ring owned an Aultman-Taylor threshing machine; a 20-40 Rumely Oil Pull kerosene-powered internal combustion tractor bought about 1918; a 100-foot drive belt; a canvas tarpaulin big enough to cover the threshing machine while it was stored between harvests; four big tarpaulins used to cover loads of grain in case of rain and overnight during the threshing process; and an equipment storage shed located on the Burkhart Farm. The engineer (who operated the tractor powering the threshing machine), the separator man (who operated the threshing machine itself), and the blowerman (who had to skillfully direct the flow of straw after it was stripped of grain kernels into neat straw stacks) were appointed at the ring’s annual meeting.

Farmer members of the ring were expected to supply the labor for the less skilled jobs in the ring including bundle haulers, bundle pitchers, and grain men. Unlike the skilled jobs, men and boys who filled the other positions usually rotated because some jobs were more desirable than others. Pitching bundles of grain into wagons from the field was considered a choice job, while grain men working in the heat, noise, and dust of the threshing machine itself were less likely to enjoy their work.

1912 Acme Binders

Photo of 25 Acme Queen binders taken June 22, 1912 on “The Flats” immediately north of the Oswego bridge, site of modern Hudson Crossing Park. Oswego implement dealer Bob Johnston sold the binders to local farmers for the 1912 harvest season. The photo, probably taken from the interurban trolley trestle, was snapped by H. R. Krueger, Yorkville.

At each ring’s annual meeting, generally called at about this time of year, right before threshing started, the jobs, labor rotation, any equipment purchases, and maintenance schedules were all laid out. Within a day or two, the threshing machine was taken out of storage and thoroughly checked, as was the giant belt that powered it. The ring’s tractor, whether steam or internal combustion, was serviced and readied for work. In rings with steam tractors, the engineers and firemen checked their machines carefully, because of the danger of bursting a boiler or some other equally serious accident could cause permanent injury or death.

As these preparations proceeded, the work of binding grain was wrapping up. Horse drawn binders cut and bound stalks of small grains into bundles a foot or so in diameter, each bundle, depending on the brand of binder, secured with either twine or wire. From the time of their invention until the 1920s, teams of horses pulled binders through the fields.

Amish oats in shocks

Oat shocks, which allow ripe grain to dry in preparation for threshing, are made of grain bundles cleverly stacked with other bundles fashioned into a relatively weather-tight roof. These shocks are on a modern Amish farm

Afterwards, increasingly affordable and dependable gasoline-powered tractors pulled them. However they were powered, the machines were the first step in the harvest process, as the binder dropped tied bundles of ripe grain on the ground The bundles were then stacked by hand into shocks of 20 or so bundles for further drying. Skillful stackers gave each shock an artful weatherproof roof of grain bundles to thoroughly dry and await threshing.

Moving threshing machines from farm to farm on the poor roads of the era was not easy, and stories abound of tractors and machines getting stuck or worse.

On Nov. 26, 1890, the Kendall County Record reported one such major mishap involving a steam traction engine and threshing machine in Bristol Township:

“The steam thresher outfit of the Leighs, of Oswego, has been for some days on the west side of Blackberry Creek doing clover hulling and threshing; Monday afternoon they left Fred young’s place for home and attempted to cross the Blackberry creek at the mouth over the bridge near the mill. The thresher and the traction engine were coupled together. There were two men riding on the engine, Mr. Leigh and his engineer. The engine had passed about 12 feet on the bridge when a needle-beam pulled out of the bolts by which it was attached to the bridge chords, and the engine fell with a great crash through the bridge floor into the creek below, a distance of about 12 feet. The men on the engine jumped as the bridge gave way; one landed in the deep water just under the dam, the other lit on the rock bottom of the creek on the lower side, breaking four ribs, a collar bone and being badly bruised in his fall. The injured man was Mr. Fred Leigh Jr. one of the owners of the machine. He was taken to a house and Dr. Kinnett repaired his injuries and from thence to his home near Oswego. The outfit was new this season and is quite a loss. The separator did not follow; a timber in the front end caught a plank on the portion of the bridge which did not fall and it hung there on the brink.”

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

The East Oswego Threshing Ring’s original Aultman-Taylor steam traction engine and threshing machine are hard at work in this 1911 photo by Malcom Rance. The steamer was replaced in 1918 with a Rumely Oil Pull internal combustion tractor. (Little White School Museum collection)

The East Oswego Ring’s Rumely pulled their threshing machine from farm to farm, and the rings with steam engines for power also had to make sure the water and fuel wagons were brought along, too.

Siting a threshing machine was an art in itself. First, it had to be positioned so that the exhaust from the steam or internal combustion tractor, and its attendant sparks, would be kept away from the grain, dust, and straw produced by the threshing process. The 50 to 100-foot belts that extended from the power take-off of the tractors helped, but prevailing winds also had to be kept in mind, as did the likely location of the straw stacks that were the byproducts of the process. Straw was necessary for raising livestock (as both bedding and fodder), so it was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Creating a compact stack of high quality straw was one more technical skill that had to be mastered.

Running the giant belt, eight to 10 inches wide, 50 to 100 feet from the tractor to the threshing machine was also a high-skill job. Both machines had to be level with each other to avoid undue belt wear and to make sure the belt wouldn’t be thrown off the machines’ pulleys. “Setting” a threshing machine and its tractor was no job for greenhorns.

And after all that work, it had to be done again and again and again as the crew moved from farm to farm, often working 10 hour days, until all the grain in the ring had been threshed.

Today, farmers use giant combine harvesters to do the same job it took more than 20 men and boys, plus a half-dozen or so farm wives in the kitchen at each farm to do. The harvest ritual is still with us, but it’s a lot different now than then. Which pretty much sums up history in general, when you stop to think about it

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Seem more humid these days? That’s because it probably is.

Note: The first version of this post was wrong, and thanks to commenter R. Anderson for pointing it out. Below is the new and (I’m fervently hoping) improved post. Math and I have never gotten along, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better the older I get…

Each summer, the Matiles up-stakes and head for Wisconsin’s Northwoods for periodic respites from the plague of corn pollen around these parts. The trips are unfortunately brief, but the respites are always welcomed.

I’ve been plagued with an allergy to grass pollen my entire life, something that makes living out here on the Illinois prairie during the summer months a trial. If it isn’t one kind of grass pollinating, it’s another. And a corn stalk, after all, is just a giant blade of grass.

Getting out of town this time of year, in fact, is a fine old Oswego tradition. On Aug. 19, 1880, the Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.” So I’m in good historical company, at least.

And corn just doesn’t affect us allergy sufferers, either. I saw a piece on the Weather Channel the other day about the effect all those fields of corn have on the weather here in northern Illinois. It turns out it’s a fairly large impact, especially on the fields’ impact on the region’s humidity.

In fact, it’s probably a lot more humid during mid-summer days now than it was 60 years ago, thanks to all that corn.

Why?

1938 Husking Stewart corn

Graeme Stewart used Case equipment to pick and husk the corn on his farm in Oswego and Wheatland townships back in 1938. Note how far apart the rows of corn are, as well as the space between each individual corn stalk. In pre-herbicide days, corn was planted at greater intervals to allow for more efficient mechanical cultivating.

In 1950, the U.S. Farm Census reported that Kendall County farmers grew about 80,000 acres of corn. During that era, individual corn plants were not spaced very close together. In fact, some farmers preferred to check or horse-step corn when they planted it, leaving an equidistant space between each individual stalk of corn and its neighbors. That allowed farmers to use their tractor-mounted cultivators to first run one direction, and then to do the field again perpendicular to the first go-round in order to get the weeds on all four sides of each stalk. That made a lot of sense in those pre-herbicide days when weeds had to be removed by hand.

By 2007, Kendall County farmers were planting more than 102,000 acres of corn. The increase in acreage was due to a number of factors, but was primarily caused by the shift from diversified farming, where each farm grew grain, forage, and livestock to today’s modern farming operations that specialize in either grain or livestock. All those fields in the 1950s that were dedicated to pastureland or planted in alfalfa and other forage crops, or oats and wheat are now planted in corn.

And not only are more acres of corn being cultivated in rural Illinois these days, but the corn plants themselves are much different than the ones farmers planted 60 years ago. Today’s corn is taller than its ancestors, grows much faster, and the plants are planted much more closely together.

A modern corn field

In this photo of a modern corn field, note how much closer together the rows of corn are, and how much closer together each individual corn plant is than they were in the photo taken of Graeme Stewart’s 1938 harvest.

These days, according to Delta Farm Press, farmers grow an average of 36,000 closely spaced corn plants on an acre of land. In 1900, according to Bulletin 111, “Corn Culture,” published by the Alabama Agricultural Station at Auburn, farmers were planting less than 3,200 plants per acre. Through the years, that number increased thanks to more efficient mechanical planters, better strains of corn, hybridization, and introducing better fertilizers. By the 1950s, Midwestern farmers were planting at least 10,000 plants per acre, and now they’re growing more than three times as many plants per acre.

Through the growing season, each one of those corn stalks draws a tremendous amount of water out of the soil for growth, and then transpirates 53 gallons of excess water into the atmosphere, most of it expelled during the prime growing season of July and August.

So do the math: Every modern acre planted in corn transpirates a total of nearly 2 million gallons of water during the growing season, with the bulk of it being expelled during the prime July and August growing season. And with Kendall’s 102,000 acres of corn, that means the plants are pumping 189 billion (that’s billion with a “b” son) gallons of water into the air during an average year. Back in 1950, each acre of corn was pumping out 530,000 gallons of water a season, which means, the county’s corn crop was transpirating 42.4 billion gallons of water into the atmosphere from early June through late September. That means about four and a half times the amount of humidity is being released today compared to 60 years ago.

An acre of prairie grass or other crops such as oats or wheat also transpirates water into the atmosphere, but at less than half the rates compared to corn.

So, it’s no wonder it seems a mite muggier around these parts nowadays. Crop scientists and meteorologists claim that dense corn fields can raise the dew point—the amount of humidity at which us humans become uncomfortable—by more than 10 percentage points or sometimes even more. The difference in the way you feel outside between a dew point of 50° and 70° is considerable.

And, of course, that’s just Kendall County. Head west on U.S. Route 30 or U.S. Route 34 or a country road like Galena Road, or south on Ill. Route 71 or Route 47, and you’ll see that there are millions of acres of corn in pretty close proximity to us here in the mid-Fox River Valley in DeKalb, Grundy, LaSalle, Kane, and all the other counties west to the Mississippi and south all the way to Marion and north to the Wisconsin border.

So yes, it was hot when I was a kid growing up, first on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and then here at the Matile Manse in Oswego, but it seems fairly clear that it probably wasn’t nearly as humid in July and August as it is these days.

 

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