Monthly Archives: November 2016

When horses powered our lives

It’s difficult in this era of jet airliners and space stations to recall how vital horses once were to the nation’s economy. It’s probably not too strong a statement to say that a fairly large percentage of the nation’s economy was based on horses from the late 19th Century until the second decade of the 20th Century.

Farming, especially, became extremely dependent on horse power, but so did life in America’s cities.


McCormick’s first reaper proved to be popular with farmers. Here in Kendall County, Townsend & Davis manufactured the machines on franchise.

Until the second third of the 19th Century, virtually all farm work was done by hand, but starting in the 1830s, more and more mechanization was introduced as farmers tried to increase production and reduce the labor needed to plant and harvest crops.

Mechanical harvesters were the first complicated pieces of equipment introduced and used on a wide scale on individual farms. Cyrus McCormick’s horsedrawn machine, generally considered the first truly economically successful harvester, was introduced in 1831. It greatly sped up the harvest of small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—and sharply reduced the backbreaking labor of cutting ripe grain. Before the harvester’s invention, farmers had to cut grain by hand, using a large hand-held scythe fitted with a set of wooden fingers called a cradle. As the scythe was swung through standing stalks of grain, the blade cut the stalks, which were then caught by the fingers of the cradle. The farmer then laid them in a row on the ground as he moved ahead to cut the next batch of stalks.

The first harvester automatically cut the grain and laid it on a surface where a farmer walking beside the machine could rake it into a row, where it could then be bound into bundles, which were stacked into shocks to dry before the kernels of grain were threshed from the stalks. Improvements continued steadily until machines in the later 19th Century not only cut grain, but also automatically bound it into bundles.

All this progress required additional horses to pull first the harvesters and then the harvester-binders.


Sweep-type horse-powers changed vertical shaft motion into horizontal motion to power a variety of machines. The unguarded shafts, however, were extremely dangerous, and many an unwary farmer lost a hand, arm, foot, or leg when clothing became ensnared.

When mechanical threshing machines–also called separators because they separated grain from stalks–were introduced, they, too, were powered by horses using a mechanism called a horse-power. Horse-powers came in all sorts of sizes and designs to provide power for everything from threshing grain to washing clothes to running newspaper printing presses.

Each time a new use was discovered, it meant more horses were required, in urban as well as in rural areas. City horsedrawn streetcars, dray wagons, peddler wagons, private buggies and carriages all required horses. All those urban horses required food that couldn’t be grown on city lots, so areas like Kendall County, located fairly close to large cities like Chicago, saw their mix of crops lean heavier towards those good for horse feed and fodder, especially oats and hay crops.


Incline horse-powers were more compact and so suitable for use in town. The Kendall County Record used one to power its printing press until they changed over to steam power in the 1890s.

Here in northern Illinois, horses were valued both for the work they could perform and for their use as motive power for buggies and winter sleighs, as well as for riding, not to mention for entertainment—by the 1870s, harness racing was a national craze.

And with all that popularity naturally came a fair amount of larceny. Horse thievery was a big problem, even here in rural Kendall County, especially in the 1870s.

Under the headline “Horse Thieves Again: Shall We have some Judicious Lynching?” the Kendall County Record ran a story on Oct. 28, 1875 reporting:

“Tuesday night, a pair of horses were stolen from the stable of N.B. Young, Bristol; the same gentleman who had a wagon stolen at the time Mr. Patterson’s horses were taken. They were good farm horses only six years old. The thieves also took a farm wagon and set of double harness. The barn door was locked but the rascals wrenched the lock off. Mr. Young tracked the thieves as far as the Oswego bridge, which they crossed and there the trail was lost. Mr. Y. being a member of the Protective Association has notified its officers of the lost property. There are many scoundrels engaged in this business; some of them near home; and a little harsh treatment might do them good.”

By 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the number of horses in Kendall County stood at 7,275. That year, the county’s total population was reported as 12,400 meaning there was one horse in the county for every 1.7 people.

And as noted above, it wasn’t just thieves, farmers, and teamsters interested in good horseflesh in those days, either. According to the Record, reporting from Oswego on Aug. 1, 1872:

“The stock of extra fine horses in this town is now quite large, and our horsemen, of which Paul Hawley, Ed Mann and Hank Hopkins are the principal ones, are daily at training them to fast and square trotting on the half mile course in Hawley’s pasture, which is now in an excellent condition.”

While breeders and racers were an important segment of the horse-using population, farmers were making use of most of the county’s horses. Economical horse-power mechanisms were beginning to spread fairly widely. According to the Record on Sept. 30, 1875:

“Our threshing machines all seem to be doing a good business this season, and are making money for their owners. Last week with his new Case machine, Thos. Spencer thrashed 275 bags of oats in 3 hours and 30 minutes on the Helme farm for Mr. Garlick, and the horses on the power never stopped once during the time. This was 825 bushels of oats by weight.”


In 1910, Oswego saloon keeper Johann Schmidt had his hired man hold his prized driving horse while he snapped a photo to send to his family back in Denmark. (Little White School Museum collection)

Good horseflesh was also demanded for other uses. On Jan. 8, 1874, the Record reported that: “Paul Hawley of Oswego recently sold a pair of horses that weigh 2,600 pounds to the Aurora Fire Department for $400.” According to my handy inflation calculator, that would be a little over $8,000 in 2016 dollars.

But reading the newspapers from that era, it’s the constant threat of horse thieves that dominated the country newspaper’s news columns. The Kendall County Horse Protective Association was formed in the 1850s to combat the plague of horse stealing, but without a whole lot of success, if those newspaper accounts are taken into account. Sometimes it was even left to kids to combat the bad guys. On April 10, 1879, the Record’s Oswego correspondent recounted one youngster’s hair-raising confrontation:

“Thursday evening while George Parker was over in town to witness the canvass of the vote, his son, Willie, about 12 years old, stepped out doors and heard something about the barn; thinking it was his brother he called to him, but receiving no answer he went back in the house got a navy revolver and with it started to the barn and found a fellow just in the act of leading off their best span of horses, but abandoned them when he saw the boy coming; Willie shot at the thief and followed him up, but another one who apparently had been on top of a hay stack put in an appearance and snapped a pistol at Willie close by; Willie then retreated and before he could get reinforcement the fellows had cleared out and no further trace of them could be found.”


In 1903, George Collins (right rear tipping his hat) traveled to England to bring home blooded stock to his Oswego Township farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

As more and more uses were found for them, horses continued to increase in numbers across the nation and here in Kendall County. By 1910, the county’s horse population had reached its all-time high, 10,421 animals, at a time when its total population stood at just 10,777. In those years, Kendall County was known throughout the state for the quality of its horses, with area farmers such as George Collins traveling to England and other countries to buy prize breeding stock.

But from 1910 on, the introduction of automobiles and other transportation options, plus increasing mechanization of farming powered by steam and internal combustion engines meant the number of horses was on the decline. By 1940, just as the nation was destined to enter World War II, there were only 3,300 horses on Kendall County farms, and by 1945 as the war ended, the number of farmers’ horses had declined by almost half to about 1,900.

Today, horses are an expensive hobby with ownership limited to pleasure riders, professional race horse breeders and owners, polo pony riders and breeders, and other such folks. You seldom see a horse on a working grain farm unless the farmer, his wife, or kids are 4-H’ers or hobbyists. But the time was, horses were ubiquitous in towns and on farms all over the country, vital components of the rural and urban economy.





Filed under Crime, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers

Thank a Native American this month for all those corn fields

It is somehow fitting that November is Native American Heritage Month, given that the greatest gift Native People gave to agricultural history was the corn their agronomists developed over thousands of years.

Of course, it’s also the month we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday with its origin back in the 1620s when a ragtag group of religious separatists held such a celebration in New England to thank God for their survival. They’d have been more honest and accurate if they’d thanked the Native People who showed them how to plant corn, and whose stores of the grain probably pulled them through that first year of near starvation.

modern corn harvest

The nation’s corn harvest is well underway–in fact lots of farmers have already wrapped it up for this year. And the yield is already on its way to being shipped around the world.

The value corn holds for the nation is clear during this season of the year, especially, as farmers all over the Midwest hustle to get their fields harvested while the weather holds. Sometimes in 24 hour a day shifts, self-propelled combines work the fields picking, husking, and shelling corn kernels from the ears. When the on-board bins are full, they’re off-loaded into trucks or wagons waiting on the headlands. From the field, the golden harvest may be stored in bins on the farm, hauled to a grain elevator, or taken directly to the Illinois Waterway, the modern incarnation of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, where its loaded on barges for shipment south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there all over the world.

Corn is pretty common stuff these days. We pop it on cool evenings or to enjoy a movie at home, we boil sweet ears and enjoy them with butter during the summer, and we consume it in hundreds of products as starch or a sweetener. We even use alcohol made from it as fuel in our cars and trucks.

But as I noted above, for something so common, it’s mysterious stuff. The scientific name for corn is Zea mays, and was called maize by Native Americans. It had been grown and genetically modified for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in North and South America. By then, it had become the major source of vegetable food for the peoples of the Americas.

Ancient corn

Ancient corn’s family group sheet looks pretty definitive. But, really, those earliest ancestors over there on the left side are pretty much guesswork.

The Europeans found that corn was a wonderful plant. It produces far more grain per seed kernel than almost any other, and the grain it produces is very nutritious. It’s likely that a store of corn the Pilgrims dug up after they landed in 1620 was mainly responsible for their survival during their first brutal winter in New England. That they stole the corn from its rightful owners—the local Indians who grew and harvested it—was a harbinger of the way the two peoples would interact for the next 300 years.

There are five great subdivisions of corn: Pop corn, sweet corn, flour, flint, and dent. Popcorn, we all know. It has the interesting characteristic of turning itself inside out when heat is applied thanks to the extremely tough coating of its kernels. Flint corn has relatively small, hard, smooth kernels, while dent is the most familiar having relatively large kernels with dented (thus the name) crowns. Sweet corn is a type of dent with a genetic modification that prevents some of the sugar produced in the kernel from being converted into starch. Flour corn, too, is a form of dent with a very soft starchy kernel easily ground into flour. There are also a couple of other minor varieties, waxy and pod corn, grown in some parts of the world today. Pod corn, in fact, is a sort of throwback to what scientists believe is closer to the original primitive perennial corn.


Wherever corn came from, it fueled formation of sophisticated civilizations like the Mississippian cultural tradition in Southern Illinois, whose huge city at Cahokia may have housed more than 40,000 people.

In fact, scientists are still arguing about exactly what corn is descended from. Duke University researcher Mary Eubanks believes enterprising and observant Native American farmers developed corn some thousands of years ago by interbreeding two varieties of wild grasses. Eubanks believes that Eastern gamagrass, and Zea diploperennis, a perennial variety of teosinte (a tall annual grass found in Mexico) were crossbred to create the original maize that started the Native Americans’ agricultural revolution. The apparent problem with all the supposed ancestors of corn is that none of them have cobs on which the kernels form. Figuring out how to get from cobless bunches of kernels to kernels forming on a cob is the big problem nobody’s been able to solve. At least so far.

Whatever its origins, corn seems to have emerged in the Mexican highlands or perhaps in Guatemala, and later spread all over North and South America.

Corn, it turns out, is uniquely suited for genetic manipulation. Kernels were originally planted two or three to a hill rather than broadcast like wheat, oats, and other small grains in Old Europe. And ears of corn were harvested one at a time. That meant an observant farmer knew exactly which seeds produce the best crops.

Corn is also somewhat unique in that a genetic cross shows up in the first generation. That’s why gardeners are strongly advised not to plant a stand of decorative Indian corn next to the sweet corn they plan to eat.

Corn arrived in the Fox Valley and the rest of Illinois about 600 A.D. and quickly became the basis on which several Native American cultural traditions were based. Even at that early date, the state’s broad river valleys with their rich alluvial soils produced bumper crops.

Corn was growing everywhere plants could grow when the Europeans arrived in North America in the 15th Century.

European settlers worked to further improve the native corn varieties by intensive cross breeding. It was eventually found that a cross between New England flints and southerly dents created a hybrid that out-yielded either of the two ancestor varieties. That original cross was the basis for the dozens of different hybrid varieties that grow in fields all over the Fox Valley today.

Especially during this month, when you drive around the countryside and see those fields of corn being harvested, with the grain sold to people in every corner of the globe, you might give a tip of the hat to whichever brilliant ancient Native American farmer came up with that original cross of whatever ancient strains of grass that led to corn’s creation.

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Paying attention makes for a happy local historian…

It’s a sad day when I don’t learn something new related to local history. Fortunately, last Thursday was NOT one of those days.

The back story first: In 2012, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library announced, with pretty great fanfare, that they’d acquired an original print of the only known photograph of a black Illinois veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment. An anonymous donor had donated the funds to purchase the photograph, which, they announced was a portrait of a former soldier named Nathan Hughes and his wife.

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes sat for this formal portrait in the studio of Sigmund Benensohn in July 1893, shortly after Benesohn bought Charles Sabin’s studio, which was located aboveHobbs’ store in downtown Yorkville.

My friend Glenn had come across the story on-line and, recognizing the name because he’d seen the photograph in our collection, he stopped down at the museum to ask me why we hadn’t told him he’d held a genuine historical treasure in his own two hands.

And, indeed, when I checked with the Lincoln Library, I found they had indeed acquired another copy of the same photo in our collection.

The photograph had been taken by Sigmund Benensohn at his Yorkville studio. Our research showed that Benensohn had purchased the Sabin photographic gallery in Yorkville in late April 1893, and had continued in business there until he sold it to Charles Jessup in August 1901. So we knew the photograph had been taken sometime during those years, but really didn’t have any indication what the exact date might have been.

I supplied to the Lincoln Library folks what biographical information we had on Nathan Hughes, which was a fair amount, since he’d been a well-known farmer as well as active in the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic. In fact, he was the only black member of the GAR in Kendall County, and was an officer in the Yorkville post. He was well thought of by his neighbors, and a considerable crowd attended his funeral, after which he was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, one of at least five black Civil War veterans buried there.

Even with all the information we had, though, it still would have been nice to have figured out exactly when the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was taken, but there was no information available.

Until last Thursday.

I was looking through microfilm of the back issues of the Kendall County Record, searching for some biographical information on a person I was researching, when I struck historical gold.

In the July 19, 1893 was the following item in the Yorkville news column: “Artist Benensohn is making some extra fine pictures of Fox river scenery with his new view camera—an instrument that cost nearly $150. His river and street views are wonderfully fine and make us more proud than ever of our picturesque village. Take a look at his show-case in front of the Hobbs block. His portraits of Comrade and Mrs. Nathan Hughes are true to the life, and shows how excellent is Benensohn’s work in every line of photography.”

So, purely by accident, another one of history’s local mysteries was solved. I contacted the Lincoln Library folks, and they were happy to get the additional information about their treasure. And we were pretty happy, too. I was finally able to go through our collection of scanned photos and add “1893” to the title of our copies of the Hughes photo and to add the information on provenance to the museum’s collections database.

The thing you’ve got to keep in mind about local history: it’s not for wimps nor is it for the complacent. You’ve got to keep your wits about you at all times.


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Stagecoach taverns spurred Kendall County’s growth

While Kendall County was home to several small motels during the 20th Century, the construction of larger facilities like Holiday and Hampton inns didn’t start until the last population surge in the 1990s.


Oswego’s stately National Hotel (with pillars above) was the village’s premier hotel during its time as the Kendall County Seat. The National was destroyed by fire in February 1867. (Little White School Museum collection)

Time was, of course, every village in the county had at least one hotel, and sometimes more. Oswego, during the years it was the Kendall County Seat, had three hotels, the National Hotel, the Smith House, and the Kendall House.

Hotels and taverns were once vital to Kendall County’s growth—and by “tavern” I’m using the old definition of the word synonymous with inn. Today, a tavern is a place that sells alcoholic beverages, but in Kendall County of the 1820s and 1830s, taverns were places where weary travelers could rest for the evening, buy a meal while on the road, or both. In addition, taverns sometimes played the role of courthouse, church, and community meeting hall—not to mention polling place.


The National wasn’t just a hotel; it was also a community meeting place. And when the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845, the first term of the circuit court was held there. (Little White School Museum collection)

Typical stagecoach-era tavern fare for supper included bread, butter, potatoes and fried pork washed down by strong coffee, cider, wine, rum, brandy or whiskey. Breakfast was good old American bacon and eggs with corn bread and more coffee. Sleeping accommodations were generally in one large room—privacy was one of the casualties of travel in the 1830s—usually with more than one traveler per bed.

Lodging in the area west of Chicago often cost 12-1/2 cents a night, with 25 cents charged for combined supper and breakfast. Dinner—served at noon—was often 50 cents.

The county’s first inn was established on a road that was both old and new. In 1831, the High Prairie Trail from Chicago to Ottawa was laid out by state officials as both northern Illinois’ newest official road and one of its most established Indian trails. The road started at the shore of Lake Michigan near the muddy banks of the Chicago River and extended almost due west to the ford across the Des Plaines River—no bridges in those days, either—at modern Riverside. From there, the road headed west to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement at the DuPage River ford (now Naperville) before turning southwest towards Walker’s Grove—modern Plainfield. Leaving Plainfield, the trail passed into modern Kendall County, crossing the prairie to the tiny cluster of cabins at the southern-most point of a grove of towering black walnut trees before continuing on to Ottawa.


John Short built and then operated the Bristol House for many years as both innkeeper and postmaster of the village of Bristol–now the north side of Yorkville. It was a typical example of a larger village stagecoach inn. (Engraving from an Ambrotype on Lyman Bennett’s 1859 map of Kendall County)

In 1826, Robert Beresford, his wife, and his two sons made a small, lonely claim on the verge of that walnut grove just east of the Fox River. It was the only farm on the 60 miles of prairie between Ottawa and Chicago. Within a year or so, three more families settled near the Beresfords. In 1828, Beresford sold his claim to John Dougherty and moved south to Ottawa—and civilization—but the area the county’s first pioneer settled remained known as “Beresford’s” for some years thereafter.

Abraham Holderman arrived in Kendall County about 1831, and quickly realized the possibilities offered by the grove Beresford had claimed. In succeeding years, he bought out most of the earliest settlers in an around the grove, which became forever after known as Holderman’s Grove. In addition, Holderman opened a small tavern to serve travelers on the Ottawa road.


Daniel Platt replaced his first log tavern in 1842 with this substantial inn built with native limestone. (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1833, Daniel Platt and his wife arrived from New York State (his ancestors had founded Plattsburg), and quickly determined the road from Chicago to Ottawa offered commercial possibilities. The Platts purchased the claim of the Rev. William See, a Methodist minister who had staked out a claim at was called the Aux Sable Springs between Walker’s and Holderman’s groves. The artesian springs provided a ready source of pure water, and the Platts soon had a tavern up and running to serve travelers on Dr. John Temple’s new stagecoach line from Chicago to Ottawa.

That same year, the Hills brothers, Eben and Levi, and their families arrived and settled near Holderman’s claim. In 1835, Levi Hills rented Holderman’s tavern and 100 acres of land. He then re-let the land to another farmer and proceeded to use log rollers and yokes of oxen to move the log tavern up the road towards Platt’s tavern onto what was then bare prairie (another tavern-keeper began a new establishment at Holderman’s Grove). Today, the site Hills picked for the new location of his tavern is the village of Lisbon.


Moses Inscho built this fine three-story brick stagecoach tavern on the Chicago to Galena Road in the Kendall County hamlet of Little Rock. It became known as the Buck Tavern after its best-known innkeeper, Ephraim Buck. (Author’s photo)

Other, less-busy, routes were also fodder for the tavern trade. In what would one day become Seward Township, Alanson Milks started a tavern about 1836 where the road between Joliet and Lisbon crossed Au Sable Creek. In 1839, Jacob Patrick arrived in Seward Township and purchased Milks’ tavern, renaming it the Patrick Stand. Shortly thereafter, John Case Stevens bought the business, and renamed it the Wolf Tavern, using a stuffed prairie wolf as his tavern sign to the bemusement of travelers.

In 1838, 20 year-old Decolia Towle arrived in Oswego and established a tavern on the bluff overlooking Waubonsie Creek about where the Oswego Public Library is located today. Towle and his first wife, Elizabeth, operated the tavern until her death in June 1842. Towle continued as an innkeeper until his own death in 1847.

Kendall County’s early taverns were sometimes the precursors to settlements that grew up around them—Platt’s and Hills’ taverns are good examples—and they provided the offices for the county’s first mail service. The county’s first post office, in fact, was established in Holderman’s tavern at Holderman’s Grove in April 1834.

The tavern business continued strong in Kendall County until the advent of railroads and the disappearance of stagecoaches started its decline in the early 1850s.

These days, we’ve seen history make one of its periodic circles as the importance of highway travel has once more made new hotels attractive business opportunities in Kendall County.



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Filed under Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

Elections have consequences, sometimes more profound than we imagine

As I write this, folks all over the country are voting for the next President of the United States. Here at the Matile Manse, we cast our votes a week or so ago at the Oswego Village Hall, so our ballots are already part of the results of this historic election.

And historic it is, with the first woman representing a major U.S. political party possibly on the way to winning office. If Hillary Clinton does indeed prevail, she’ll be the second trendsetter in a row, following Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American President.

If we’re lucky enough to see a Clinton Presidency, the Republic will be safe for at least four more years as opposed to the existential danger to Constitutional government posed by her erratic, seemingly mentally unbalanced opponent.

The thing is, elections have consequences, and this election has more real consequences than any in the nation’s history. There have been other elections with major consequences, although none of them posing as dire a threat to our freedom as the current one. A case in point was the election of Andrew Jackson.

Political patronage armies are taken for granted these days—and looked upon with a good deal of well-deserved suspicion, for that matter. But when patronage was introduced, it was hailed by many as an innovative reform of the political process in the U.S. It also had an important impact on the settlement of the Old Northwest, including Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.


Andrew Jackson, although a wealthy planter by the time he was elected President, was the first chief executive who was born poor.

Prior to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the reins of political power in the United States were held by what amounted to an oligarchy of rich Northern intellectuals and even richer Southern planters. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to the Virginia aristocracy while the two Adamses, John and John Quincy, were New England patricians.

Jackson was the first person born poor to become President and he was determined (as only Jackson could be) to work hard to represent what he saw as the interests of the common man—as long as that man was white and, you know, a man.

One of the first things Jackson noted when he took office was that the government bureaucracy was dominated by representatives of the oligarchy of landed and moneyed classes typified by the first six presidents. Jackson was a very good politician in his own right, and he quickly realized that information and communication is power in any government—especially in a democracy. In order to solidify his power and also to make government more responsive to the people instead of the landed and wealthy, Jackson essentially invented patronage.

“Office is considered a species of property, and government rather as a means of promoting individual interests than as an instrument created solely for the service of the people,” he complained upon assuming office.


Amos Kendall, former lawyer and newspaper man, was Jackson’s political hatchet man and confidant. Kendall and Jackson essentially invented the patronage system as a way to assure two-way communication to and from Washington, D.C. to local communities.

Not only did he vigorously weed out the oligarchs in Washington, but working closely with his old friend Amos Kendall, whom Jackson eventually named Postmaster General, the new President proceeded to make local U.S. Post Offices his eyes and ears in every community in the nation.

When Jackson was elected, settlement was just beginning in Kendall County. The earliest pioneers arrived starting in 1826, settling in the southern part of the county in that area south of the old Indian Boundary Line. After the Black Hawk War of 1832, intense settlement began north of the line as pioneers flooded into the county in violation of treaties with Native American tribes.

The village of Oswego is an example of how settlement occurred in Kendall County in the 1830s. William Wilson and Daniel, John, and Walter Pearce and their families settled the area in 1833. In 1835, Levi Arnold and Lewis Judson laid out a village where the Fox River narrows and a good limestone ford across the stream was located, calling it Hudson. As soon as it was laid out, the town’s developers and the area’s early settlers began promoting their investment.

Settlers wanted to promote their areas for two major reasons during the pioneer period—financial gain and political power. Certainly those who were first to claim land in a fast-growing area stood a good chance of making money from their investment. But most early town builders—at least those in Kendall County—had financial gain second on their list of hopes for the future. Their real goal was political power, and that is why they encouraged settlement and the growth of pioneer industries.

With population growth came the possibility of representation, first at the local level. Local governments were the first to be formed, and often their first goal was to make sure the town acquired a road. A branch of the Chicago-Galena Trail and one of three branches of the Chicago-Ottawa Trail, ran through Oswego when it was established. The Galena Road was soon lost to enterprising businessmen in Montgomery, who in turn soon lost it to Aurora.

The Ottawa Trail remained, however, and in 1837 local interests achieved a major political victory when they succeeded in persuading the government to establish a post office in Oswego. With the post office came a direct pipeline to Washington D.C. via President Jackson’s patronage army via postmaster Levi Arnold.


While working their way west across the Prairie from Naperville in 1838, U.S. Government surveyors referred to the village along the Fox River as Hudson. But when they arrived to survey the village site, they noted its new name, “Oswego.” The village sat at the intersection of roads north along the Fox River, west to Dixon, southeast to Plainfield, and east to Naperville and Chicago.

But the acquisition also resulted in another watershed: Up until 1837, Oswego was known informally as Hudson. The post office, when it was granted, was named Lodi by the U.S. Postal Service. With two competing names, it was clear something needed to be done to avert confusion, so, according to an account in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, six pioneer residents of the village met to choose a name. Votes were cast and four names received votes. “Oswego,” which received two votes, won.

Oswego’s Federal connection came early; gaining local control took a couple more years. When Oswego was settled, it was part of Kane County. By 1840, in the throes of the effects of the Panic of 1837, residents of Oswego Township, along with those in Bristol and Little Rock Township, combined with residents in six other townships then part of LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Lisbon, and Seward) lobbied the Illinois General Assembly, and in February 1841 a new county was authorized, named after that same Amos Kendall who was Andrew Jackson’s political fixer. It’s always seemed a source of high irony to me that Kendall is named after one of the most powerful Democratic politicians of his day, given that the county, ever since the Republican Party was established, has been rock-ribbed GOP territory.

But anyway, the result of getting that new county established was retaining county-level political power close at hand, instead of ceding it to either Ottawa, the LaSalle County seat, or Geneva, the Kane County seat, both miles away. And in the early 19th Century, that distance was not trivial given the generally abominable state of the region’s road system.

The establishment of Oswego’s post office not only created that political pipeline to Washington, D.C., but it also connected the growing village to the national political and economic conversation via the newspaper slips carried free as part of the U.S. Mail. The slips, with their local, national, and international news items, were reprinted in the local press keeping local residents informed about everything from European wars to the latest political outrages in the nation’s capital.

Settlement continued to be promoted during the 1800s as area leaders sought direct representation in both state and Federal legislatures.

After a quiet period in the early 1900s, Kendall County’s population ballooned again beginning in the late 1950s as economic development drew new residents to the area. After pausing in the 1970s and early 1980s, another residential boom began in the late 1980s that was only stopped by the Great Recession and deflation of the huge housing bubble in 2008.

Along the way, patronage came into ill repute, and laws were passed severely limiting it. Even so, we managed to have our voices heard in both Washington, D.C. when a former area resident served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and another Oswego resident served as minority leader of the Illinois General Assembly. Our relatively brief fling with national power came to a bad end when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was convicted of financial misdeeds and suspected of worse things, although I think that despite his ignominious fall, he did an awful lot of good for Kendall County.

Today, there’s nothing like the Jackson-created direct pipeline from every crossroads post office in the nation directly to Washington, D.C., which may or may not be a good thing. Certainly, it seems a lot more efficient not to have every postmaster in the nation replaced when a different party assumes the Presidency, which is what happened for many, many years during the 19th Century.

But, still, one thing we’ve come to see during recent years is the bubble that Washington politicians seem to live in where they interact only with themselves and other members of the power structure in the nation’s capital, including those giant, vampire bat-like swarms of lobbyists and members of the national media. Maybe a direct connection from every local post office directly to the Oval Office to keep the President current on what regular folks are thinking might not be all bad.


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Filed under Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Talk about history…

I’m pretty sure the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series after a 108-year drought definitely counts as historic.

The Cardiac Kids won it by one run in the 10th inning after a rain delay and after it had been tied up by an Indian’s rally.

Baseball fans certainly got their money’s worth tonight…

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