While the hamburger sandwich as we know it today, a ground beef patty served on bread or a bun, may have been invented in a small town diner in Texas (views vary; strongly), it’s pretty much a sure thing that the cheeseburger was invented right here in Illinois.
When Kendall County’s first pioneer farmers arrived, they found a land of almost inconceivable richness where opportunity seemed limitless. The problem was, that while the Fox Valley’s rich, deep topsoil grew extremely bountiful crops, it was difficult to get all that grain, livestock, and other farm produce to a market where someone would pay for it.
Grain was expensive to ship overland due to the region’s truly awful road system. Until well after the Civil War, most rural roads (and most of them in small towns, too) were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie that turned into bottomless quagmires after every rain and following the spring melt of every winter’s snow.
But grain can be turned into many other useful things, such as cows, horses, hogs, and sheep. Livestock, unlike a bushel of grain, can walk to market all by itself, so until sufficient rail service was available, cattle and hog drives were not uncommon sights as the Fox Valley’s livestock farmers got their animals to the Chicago or Joliet market.
Grain can not only feed cattle destined to be turned into steaks and roasts, of course, but can also be turned into milk, and the products derived from it.
Before the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was pushed northeast from Streator to Geneva in 1870, dairying in Kendall County was important, but the county’s relative distance from larger markets meant problems in getting raw milk to market. When the new rail line opened, that helped ease some of the problems getting milk to market, but trains ran on tight schedules that didn’t necessarily match the needs of dairy farmers. And the line was still distant from many farmers, meaning that trips over the terrible roads of the era still meant large investments in time and labor.
And that’s when America’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. If it was proving too difficult to get milk to markets in larger towns, why not create milk-processing factories nearer to the farms that were producing it?
One of the first to fill this need was W.H. McConnell. In 1870, a brewery had been built between the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) and the new railroad right-of-way just north of Oswego’s village limits and atop a strong natural spring. Despite the area’s large German population, however, the brewery was a bust. But McConnell figured it would make the perfect location for a creamery, a factory to turn raw milk into butter, cheese, and other related products. It was adjacent to the railroad line, so getting his plant’s products to market would be easy.
The brewery’s access to a cold, clear fresh water spring offered natural cooling for safe storage of the newly produced cheese and butter, but just to help Mother Nature out a bit, Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting and storage facility about a half mile north of the creamery site in 1874.
So W.H. McConnell & Company opened for business early in 1877. Within months, the changeover from beer to butter was complete. By March 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped, in a measure, the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”
By May 9, 1878, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Oswego’s creamery had gotten the contract to supply a major Chicago hotel: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”
The Grand Pacific Hotel was a big deal, in more ways than one. Destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1873, covering the entire block bounded by Clark, LaSalle, Quincy, and Jackson streets. That McConnell was able to get the butter and cream contract was a real coup.
Other creameries soon opened throughout Kendall County. In those pre-electricity days, they were powered by small steam engines, meaning they could be located about anywhere—and they were—from rural NaAuSay Township, where today’s Walker Road crosses the AuSable Creek; to Plattville, Lisbon; and Millington. On the south side of today’s Yorkville, McConnell opened another creamery at Hydraulic and Main Street, and he also opened one at Bristol Station on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line. The Palace Car Creamery Company’s creamery and butter factory was located at the northeast corner of Hydraulic Avenue and Main Street.
With sufficient markets available, Kendall County farmers responded by greatly expanding their dairy herds. In 1870, the U.S. Government’s farm census reported there were just under 6,000 dairy cows on county farms. By 1880, the number ballooned to 9,000 before topping out in 1890 with 9,500 dairy cattle.
In order to get milk to the creameries, farmers first hauled their own, but within a short time, some farmers figured there was money to be made hauling their neighbors’ milk to local creameries.
In 1900, the construction of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Company’s interurban line down the Fox River from Aurora to Yorkville offered a handier way to transport farmers’ milk to creameries in Aurora. In addition, the development of efficient motorized trucks and the subsequent improvement of roads also made it easier to get milk to markets once considered far too distant.
The changes in transportation led to the disappearance of the small local creameries that dotted the rural landscape since larger dairies could pay more money for farmers’ milk and were more profitable.
And with all the dairy products being manufactured also came innovation. Chicago dairyman Joseph Kraft patented a method of processing cheese into a product that was not only more stable than the familiar cheddar, Swiss, and brick cheeses (meaning it could be stored and shipped far easier), but the process could be industrialized with Kraft’s cheese being mass produced. His new “American Cheese” was packed in tin cans and six million pounds of the stuff was shipped off to help feed Allied armies during World War I.
It proved a popular product here at home, too, especially after cooks found that American Cheese melted nicely without separating like natural cheeses did. At the Kraft Cheese labs in Chicago, they continually experimented with ways to use this new cheese product. One of those innovations was to top a hamburger with melted American Cheese.
And thus was born the all-American cheeseburger.
Kendall County’s love of dairying gradually cooled. Managing a dairy herd is hard, labor-intensive work. Cows have to be milked twice daily, 365 days a year. Hand-milking was hard, but ingenuity soon produced milking machines. But those, and all their myriad parts, have to be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Milk cans have to be cleaned, and the raw milk has to be properly stored so that it’s fresh when the driver picks it up to take to the city dairy where it is processed.
The big dairies merged, and what farmers called the “Milk Trusts” came to dominate the industry. Farmers fought back during the “Milk Wars” of the 1920s and 1930s.
Gradually, like all other agricultural endeavors, dairying became a specialized. Fewer farmers wanted to bother with the labor and expense involved. By 1900, the number of dairy cows on county farms had declined by a couple hundred to 9,300 from its 1890 peak. But by 1950, the number of county milk cows had been halved to 4,000 and nine years later had been nearly halved again to 2,300. During the last farm census in 2012, there were so few dairy farmers in Kendall County that the number of cows wasn’t even reported.
Today, dairy barns still dot Kendall County’s landscape, but virtually none of them are used for the purpose for which they were built. Instead, milk is produced on large corporate-owned dairy farms that are completely divorced from the communities where their milk is sold in stores.
There’s probably more truth than ever before in the old joke about city folks being asked where milk comes from and answering “The grocery store.” And I think we can all agree that it might be a good idea to give a tip of the old hat to Joseph Kraft the next time we bite into a nice juicy cheeseburger.