Monthly Archives: October 2016

At least Illinois will always have the cheeseburger…

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.

1860-hog-drive

Until better roads were available, the easiest way to get hogs and cattle to the Chicago market was to drive them there overland.

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.

oswego-chesse-and-butter-factory

W.H. McConnell’s Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory opened in the spring of 1877. One of its first major contracts for butter and cream was with Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel.

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.”

1873-grand-pacific-hotel-chicagoBy 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.

1904 NaAuSay Creamery.jpg

NaAuSay Township’s cooperative creamery was located a good distance from any town, and served dozens of area dairy farmers.

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—then the Village of Bristol—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.

Graham farm scene

Fred Graham, sitting in the wagon at left, was one of the Kendall County farmers who earned additional money by hauling milk from dairy farms to the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory in Oswego.

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.

kraft-cheese-box

Joseph Kraft packed his patented processed American Cheese in 2 and 5 pound wooden boxes that were shipped all over the world. The cheese melted nicely, leading a nameless Kraft worker to invent the cheeseburger sometime in the 1920s.

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.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Despite our best efforts to kill it, the Fox River just keeps on rolling along…

One of Kendall County’s most valuable natural assets is it’s surprisingly extensive system of waterways.

The Fox River is, of course, the most dominant waterway in the county. The river enters the county in northwestern Oswego Township and then cuts diagonally cross county, running along the border between Oswego and Bristol townships, similarly along the Bristol-Kendall Township line and then into Little Rock Township and through Fox Township before exiting the county and heading southwesterly into LaSalle County.

The other major system of waterways in the county is the Aux Sable watershed. In terms of area within the county’s bounds, the Aux Sable watershed is actually the county’s largest, since it drains all or parts of six of Kendall County’s nine townships.

That Kendall has two major drainage basins separated by what the voyageurs used to call a “height of land,” is a rarity for such a small county. Thanks to that accident of geography, more than half the county’s surface waters drain directly into the Illinois River via the large Aux Sable system while the rest of the county drains through the Fox River watershed.

The Fox River’s watershed includes most of the county’s largest creeks, including Big Rock and Little Rock creeks, Rob Roy Creek, Blackberry Creek, Waubonsie Creek, and Morgan Creek.

indians-fishing

The county’s earliest residents, Stone Age Native American hunters and their families, found that the area’s numerous waterways made it a nice place to live. Those earliest inhabitants lived around the lakes, sloughs, and swamps left behind as the last glaciers retreated because game was abundant in those areas, as were many other necessities of life. Camp and village sites dating back thousands of years found overlooking the county’s waterways and wetlands show that those early residents depended on streams for clams and other invertebrates and fish, on swamps and sloughs for small and big game, and on rich bottomland for edible plants, from nuts and berries to wild grain, that could easily be gathered in abundance.

After European explorers arrived, the lifestyles of local Native Americans changed as they gathered materials to trade for brass pots, iron and steel axes, woolen blankets, linen cloth, brandy and run, firearms, and silver ornaments and glass beads. The area’s waterways proved even more valuable in that new mode of life, as local tribesmen trapped beaver, muskrat, fox, and other fur-bearing animals whose skins were sent back to Europe in trade for items that quickly became necessities.

In those days, the various branches of the Aux Sable (French for “Sandy Water”) were important geographical references, and were referred to as landmarks in several major treaties between the U.S. Government and the Indian tribes living in northern Illinois.

By the time the first permanent white settlers arrived along the banks of the Fox River in the 1820s, fur-bearing animals were nearly extinct and game in general was scarce due to over-hunting and over-trapping. In fact, the earliest Kendall County settlers found they had to import food to what had once been one of the richest natural areas on Earth.

fox-mill-on-hollenbacks-creek

According to this survey map, a sawmill was located at the mouth of Hollenback Creek in Fox Township in 1838, illustrating that even some of the smallest creeks in the Fox River’s watershed were harnessed to power mills.

Waterways proved just as important to the economics of early settlers as they had to Native Americans, although in far different ways. The settlers quickly harnessed the power of the county’s waterways through the construction of dams. The resulting water power was put to work turning mill wheels to grind corn and other grain and to saw the wood needed to build homes for the area’s fast-growing population. Virtually every substantial stream in the county—and even some insubstantial ones—boasted a mill of some kind at some time or another. And the Fox River itself eventually became dotted with dams along its length through Kendall County that provided water power for many more mills.

With the tribes gone (all Indians were removed from Northern Illinois in 1836), game slowly recovered, although the buffalo never returned to Illinois after it was wiped out about 1800 by a combination of over-hunting for skins and vicious winters.

Within a few generations, however, the newly recovered big and small game was again decimated by over-hunting. It has only recently began to recover relatively recently once again as fewer and fewer county residents hunt and trap during the winter months and as development has made hunting either inappropriate, unwelcome, or downright dangerous.

1910-abt-kids-along-creek

This group of youngsters was captured in a photograph around 1910 fishing in Waubonsie Creek near downtown Oswego. By then, the county’s two main watersheds was already badly polluted by homes, farms, and businesses.

Settlement also meant extreme changes in water quality for the county’s streams. Kendall County’s once-clear and cool streams were slowed by dams, choked by silt, and poisoned by fertilizer and other chemicals running off of cultivated fields. After the settlement era, the Fox River in particular became a dumping ground for growing industries upstream in Kane County and for human waste from virtually everywhere else in the river’s drainage basin. By the 1950s, the river and many of the county’s creeks had become little more than cesspools with currents.

But beginning in the 1970s, word on cleaning up the county’s streams began, thanks to federal clean water regulations, without which most of our streams would be open sewers still. Today, the Fox River is prized for its smallmouth bass fishery and the once-rare wildlife it attracts and nurtures. The City of Aurora even uses it for drinking water, and Oswego, Montgomery, and Yorkville are talking about doing that, too.

But Kendall County has yet, I think, to realize how valuable a resource the river and its tributaries is and how valuable it could be. The good news, I guess, is that at least we’ve at least temporarily quit trying to kill the river and its tributaries. The bad news is it took the federal government to make us do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized, Women's History

We ignore our financial history at our own peril

For the first time since the late 1920s, the nation was looking into the abyss of a possible financial depression as the financial crash of 2008 unfolded. And it was distressing that so many smart people seemed to have learned so little from the nation’s economic history.

Don’t, someone plaintively wondered not too long ago, they teach history in schools of economics any more? Apparently not, or what we’re now dealing with the aftermath of would not have happened—or at least not the level of severity we experienced.

The Great Depression is only called that because it was the last catastrophic financial meltdown some of those still living can remember. The two depressions previous to that were at least as “great,” and ones previous to those were arguably more severe yet.

The Panic of 1873, for instance, created six years of economic hardship for the nation and Kendall County. The financial collapse began in Austria, spread throughout Europe, and finally arrived in the U.S. with the September 1873 failure of Jay Cooke & Company in New York caused by a railroad overbuilding bubble and unscrupulous business practices. The railroad building craze had caused unsustainable construction growth in everything from seaside docks to steel mills. When Cooke was unable to cover his construction loans for the Northern Pacific Railroad, the whole system crashed. On Sept. 20 that year, the New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days as everything from silver mines to shipping lines went broke. Eventually, a quarter of the nation’s railroads were bankrupted.

On Sept. 25, 1873, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent hopefully noted that “The collapse of Jay Cooke & Co. and financial panic otherwise has not in the least impaired the business of this town.”

But from then on, comments about “the money crisis” and “stringency of the money” were common.

In 1877, a huge railroad strike nearly paralyzed the nation. Wrote the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “The shock of the strike caused old State Rights men to forsake their life-long principles and clamor for federal intervention; in the brains of the newspaper men it created a mighty revolution,” he wrote, adding that “The Chicago Tribune for years has had the nightmare caused by communism. One day of last week Chicago experienced a heavy shock by the collapse of her State Savings Institution. The next day the Tribune came out advocating communism, wanting the government to take care of our money; give us post office saving banks; verily things and men are changeable.”

halls-bank

Levi Hall opened a bank in his Oswego drug store (brick building at left) in 1881. His bank, along with Kendall County’s other two banks in Yorkville and Plano failed over a two-week span during the financial Panic of 1893.

Exactly 20 years later, another railroad bubble, combined with poor weather for Midwestern farmers and financial chicanery in mining and banking, created a second severe depression.

The Panic of 1893 officially began Feb. 23, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went broke. Then in May, amidst the hoopla of Chicago’s upcoming Columbian Exposition, the city’s Chemical National Bank, whose president was a former Kendall County farmer, went broke amid charges of criminal wrongdoing.

Noted Record Editor J.R. Marshall on May 10: “A few years ago Mr. Jacob O. Curry was a farmer in the town[ship] of Bristol; later he was engaged as a grain buyer and speculator at Hinckley…he went into business at Aurora as a capitalist and financier and was instrumental in starting a national bank in that city…a year or two ago he went to Chicago to become president of the Chemical National Bank with a capital stock of $1 million. Tuesday’s Chicago papers contained the news that the doors of Mr. Curry’s National bank had closed for want of funds. Brother Curry had better come back to the Fox River valley. People out here may not be so sharp, but they are a heap sight more comfortable.”

Actually, it turned out Curry’s reach extended well into the Fox River Valley after all, where the three major banks in Kendall County apparently held significant stakes in Chemical National. The result was that all three, first the Plano Bank on Aug. 7, and followed quickly a week later by the Oswego Bank and the Kendall County Bank at Yorkville, failed. Along with them went many local and regional businesses, from the Joliet Rolling Mills to local stores and businesses.

On Aug. 23 Record Editor Marshall, clearly flummoxed and chastened by what had happened, wrote: “The newspapers of the whole country assumed the task of staying the panic by encouraging words and prophecies of better things, but their efforts were without avail. The Record stated that our business institutions were safe and conducted by safe men, and we believed firmly the statement because we had confidence in the integrity and business ability of the men. This statement was too soon followed by the failure of Mr. Henning [in Plano], then of Mr. Hall [in Oswego], followed by that of Mr. Cornell [in Yorkville]. The conclusion we have come to is that the newspapers don’t know anything about the business of banks—neither does anyone else, not even the bank examiners—and we shall make no more prognostications along business lines.”

On Sept. 6, the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote the panic affected the whole community: “Oswego is now undergoing its full share of miseries; men that but a few weeks ago were ‘cheek by jowl’ would now like to devour each other. Bank failures most always entail much misery, widows with their little savings, old people with the accumulations for their declining years, and laborers with what was laid up for a rainy day are usually caught in them. There is a class of men who hold that governments, especially ours which is claimed to be by and for the people, should be responsible for the losses incurred through the institutions it makes legitimate, and the better to carry out this principle the government should run the institutions…By such a system there could be no motive for what is called ‘illegitimate banking,’ as all the earnings of the bank would go to the government. In unavoidable stringency the bank could be readily relieved; nothing would occur to stir up the bad blood as now exhibited….This would be the most opportune time for the teaching of the theories of socialism in Oswego.”

1919-duffy-c-c-wife-vanderlip

In 1919, Frank Vanderlip (left) visited Oswego for the last time to chat with his old schoolmaster, Christopher C. Duffy and his wife at the annual Duffy School Reunion. The photo was taken about a decade after Vanderlip met with other financiers and government officials to come up with what eventually became the Federal Reserve System.

It took one more depression, the Panic of 1907, before the financial industry and the government decided to join together to figure out a way to, if not stop, at least lessen the impact of recurring financial crashes on the nation.

When the meeting was held to outline a possible course of action, a former Oswego farm boy, Frank Vanderlip, then an official with the National City Bank of New York—now Citibank—was part of the group whose ideas eventually led to formation of the Federal Reserve system.

It worked to some extent, but there were still not enough controls on banks to prohibit them from dabbling in the stock market and other risky ventures and the result was what today we call the Great Depression. That financial panic began in 1929 when a gigantic stock market bubble collapsed, taking the nation’s and the world’s economy along with it.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s, it appeared the nation had learned its lesson. Regulations were put in place to prohibit risky speculation by banks as well as stricter regulation of the stock market. But with no further major panics in subsequent years, the financial industry was chaffing at the controls meant not only to rein it in, but to protect the world’s financial structure from collapsing. And so starting in the 1980s, they began agitating to have the most effective controls eliminated. Lax oversight on the part of government officials responsible for making sure financial firms obeyed what rules were still in effect were welcomed by the industry.

And so, we proceeded to enthusiastically replicate every mistake of the past plus a few new ones invented thanks to innovations like computerized trading and linking the entire world’s financial system into one giant network.

So, don’t they teach history in schools of economics any more? Yes, they do, but these days those cautionary tales seem to be looked upon merely as roadmaps to ways unscrupulous people can game the system at the expense of those who entrust their money to it. In addition, most people—and that especially includes business owners and politicians—remain profoundly and aggressively ignorant of how economics actually works. It’s not a situation that engenders much confidence that things will get much better going forward.

 

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Filed under Business, Crime, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History

Shouldn’t we be in a holding pattern about now?

So what I want to know is: Where is my helicopter?

1951-popular-mechanics

According to futurists in the 1950s, flying to work or to the store to shop was definitely in our future, with a helicopter parked in every garage.

When we were kids, Popular Mechanics magazine frequently published neat articles, complete with illustrations, about the future, wherein we would all be flying helicopters back and forth from work. In “The Future,” we were told, instead of garages, we’d have hangers that would shelter our private flying machines, which we’d use during the week to fly off to where ever we needed to go.

Today, of course, the mind sort of boggles at the thought of airborne traffic jams with everyone trying to fly to work. I mean, it’s hard enough now to find a parking spot in downtown Yorkville or Oswego with automobiles. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all hovering at 2,000 feet waiting for a parking space to open up so we could zip down in our helicopter and run into the hardware store or the dentist office?

Not that the future hasn’t wandered in while we were looking the other way, of course. My nephew out in Iowa now has a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver on his combine, which is hooked to an on-board computer. The computer keeps track of the yield in bushels as the combine moves across the field and in conjunction with the GPS receiver, essentially makes a yield map of the entire field. That map will, in turn, be downloaded to another computer-GPS combo the fertilizer company has on their machines that will control how much and what kind of fertilizer is laid down next spring.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

So while we were all fascinated about whether we would one day come to live like the Jetsons, our everyday lives have been moving into just as futuristic a direction, although a much less spectacular one. For instance, back in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were giant things that filled entire rooms and sometimes entire buildings. Nowadays, we take tiny, powerful computers in our toasters, microwaves, and automobiles for granted, but the advances those mundane tools represent are nearly miraculous.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were non-existent in homes 50 years ago. These days, we not only depend on the small electronic boxes to re-heat our coffee and defrost chicken before we fry it, but the touch of a button pops our popcorn and another button perfectly re-heats last night’s pot roast.

When we were kids, we took the car down to the service station when it was running rough, and the mechanics would use a combination of skill, art, and mechanical knowledge to diagnose what was wrong. Nowadays, “repair technicians” plug a computer into a car’s engine and an instant read-out (usually) reports what’s wrong.

The trouble with the future and predicting it has always been that no one really knows what the effect of a new invention will be. That GPS equipment mentioned above, for instance, was originally designed to allow military units and weapons systems to know exactly where they were anywhere on Earth so that killing could be made more efficient. Who was to know that cheap GPS receivers connected with miniature computers would be used for everything from leading an angler back to the fishing hotspot he stumbled across last month to increasing crop yields by allowing the precise application of fertilizer and seed in the areas where it’s needed?

Actually, futurists usually get into much more trouble when they predict what we won’t be able to do than by suggesting what will or could happen.

deforest-lee

Radio pioneer Lee DeForest was certain the world could be connected by radio waves. But he could not believe that sound and pictures both could be broadcast as a commercial success, illustrating that even visionaries are sometimes myopic.

Take the case of Lee De Forest, for instance. Just before World War I broke out, De Forest was trying to get investors interested in his new idea: Commercial radio broadcasts. From our vantage point, it seems like De Forest was a visionary, but the U.S. Government didn’t think so. In 1913, they hauled De Forest into court, charging him with fraud. A U.S. District Attorney charged with prosecuting De Forest charged: “De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to buy stock in his company.”

De Forest was eventually cleared and “before many years” radio signals were indeed being broadcast across the Atlantic. But just because De Forest foresaw the value of one invention didn’t necessarily mean he was a true futurist. When it came to moving one more step farther—to broadcasting sound with pictures—De Forest was unable to make the leap. Writing in 1926, he suggested: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So I’m not really sad there’s no helicopter out in our garage, because when it comes to the future, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems to rule. No one ever knows what will be invented or even how something already invented will be used to change our lives. The fellow who invented refrigeration had no idea his idea would one day be used to air condition the country and make possible the economic development of the Southwest and the resurgence of the Old South.

As Benjamin Franklin remarked when someone disdainfully asked of what use a new invention would be: “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

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