Monthly Archives: January 2017

Urban barns a reminder of a bygone era

You see them tucked behind houses in the older sections of every town in Illinois. But while they’re part of the landscape most of us don’t give a second thought to the small barns that dot the urban landscape.

Some of these structures are smaller than a modern two-car garage. Others are far more elaborate, some built with multiple storys and some that once included living quarters for long-ago servants. Plans for urban barns were carefully developed, especially interior arrangements to allow efficient use of space. Books such as Barns, Sheds & Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted (1881) provided floor plans and design ideas.

Until the first quarter of the 20th Century, the elements of life on farms and in small towns was not that much different. Just like their country cousins, village residents often kept a cow for fresh milk; raised chickens for eggs and meat; and kept one, and sometimes two, horses to pull their buggies, carriages, and winter sleighs. Also like their country cousins, they built barns to house their urban livestock and their horse-drawn vehicles—although on a much smaller scale than the big horse and dairy barns in rural areas.

In fact, small town residential lots often bore a resemblance to tiny farms. Along with barns, chicken houses, smoke houses, well houses, and small tool storage sheds were not uncommon. As an illustration, on Dec. 18, 1918, the Kendall County Record carried this advertisement: “For Sale: A new eight-room house, gas and electric light installed, a barn, chicken house, and four lots. Inquire of Henry Schilling, Oswego.”

Urban barns, as noted above, could be simple or more elaborate. They could be purpose-built and they were sometimes created from other buildings that were repurposed instead of being torn down. And sometimes, after they were no longer needed they themselves were repurposed into homes and other structures.

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My great-grandparents remodeled an 1840s saltbox house into an urban barn in 1908 that my family still uses for storage.

When my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town, they bought a plot near relatives containing several lots in what was then called the old Village of Troy. Located about a quarter-mile north of Oswego’s village limits at the time, the property extended from the CB&Q right-of-way down to the Fox River and was bisected by North Adams Street. There was a timber-framed house on the property they had moved, close to the south lot line, and then remodeled into an urban barn and chicken house. Their new home, finished in October 1908, was built where the old house originally sat.

As remodeled, their urban barn included a chicken house to the east and stalls for their horse and a cow in the main portion to the west. They added a shed on a concrete foundation on the south side to house their buggy and sleigh. The sturdy old structure, with its oak and black walnut timber frame, which we use for storage, is still standing next to my house today.

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Oswego druggist and banker Levi Hall built this elaborate urban barn and coach house in 1886.

The primary use for most urban barns in residential areas was to house the family driving horse or team and their buggy or carriage or their winter sleigh. Stalls in the barn were arranged so that horses had sufficient room, and the barn was built to include storage for bedding and food for the horse.

If a family cow was housed in the barn as well, provisions were also made for it.

In addition to barns in residential areas, commercial urban barns were also common throughout 19th Century communities. Many hotels had their own barns where guests could board their horses. Livery barns were also located in every town where those without access to their own barn could board horses or where a horse and buggy or a riding horse could be rented.

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Fred Kohlhammer built this urban barn in 1904. His family lived in it while he finished construction of their new house next door.

In Oswego, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad company provided a barn for the use of the station agent, where he sometimes kept a horse and where he also raised chickens to supplement the family diet.

Most of the urban barns in small towns were well built structures. It was not uncommon for the barn to be built first and then used as living quarters until a new home was finished. That’s the route Oswego builder Fred Kohlhammer used when he built his new home on North Madison Street (Ill. Route 25) at Waubonsie Creek back in 1904. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Sept. 7: “The new Kohlhammer residence, now all enclosed and much of the inside work done will be a showy and all around good one. The cellar is divided into three apartments and made very convenient; the walls and floor being of cement. The woodwork is all done by himself and is done accurately. The family at present is domiciled in the barn, which was built first.”

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In 1905, the urban barns along Oswego’s “Barn Alley” were still marked with an “X” as “Stables” on fire insurance maps, but by 1931, due to the replacement of horses by automobiles, their designation had changed to “Accessory Building.”

The heyday of the urban barn was probably in the last decade of the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. After that, the rapid replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with automobiles, trucks, and buses saw barns rapidly replaced by smaller, simpler garages. The change is evident in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map series. The maps recorded commercial and residential structures in virtually every small town and city in America, with an emphasis on fire protection measures. Each building is labeled with its use. The 1905 Sanborn map series for Oswego still shows urban barns labeled as “Stables.” The next series of maps for Oswego wasn’t published until 1931, and by then all of the village’s former urban barn-stables were labeled “A” for Accessory Building, an indication that many if not most had been turned into garages for the family automobile.

Unlike other more specialized structures, like smoke houses for instance, urban barns proved very adaptable, and so maintained their value to homeowners. The days of the family cow or horse and buggy is long gone, but urban barns have proven to be adequate garages as well as for storage and workshop areas.

It’s gratifying to see these days that communities are realizing the value of preserving their own architectural heritage. Entire neighborhoods are being designated for historical preservation. But while the value of fine old homes has been recognized and popularized by such programs as PBS’s “This Old House,” urban barns have sort of been left in the lurch. But their importance in urban cityscape planning and preservation has, I think, finally begun to sink in. In 2009 when my hometown of Oswego hired Granacki Historic Consultants to do an architectural resources survey and inventory of the village, they did, indeed, include 22 urban barns on their list of historic structures, six of which they listed as “Significant,” deserving special consideration, including the Kohlhammer Barn on North Street and even my own urban barn here on North Adams.

As they continue to soldier on, urban barns offer a link to a time that has been largely forgotten, an era when important aspects of rural and urban life were not that much different.

 

 

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U.S. Mail was the Internet of the 1830s

James Herrington apparently enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the tavern business, because he was extraordinarily good at it. But not only was he Geneva’s first and most successful early tavern keeper, but was also the person who lobbied successfully for the Kane County village’s first post office.

In fact, the post office was awarded even before the town had settled on its permanent name. Herrington had begun referring to the new settlement as La Fox, and when its first post office was granted March 12, 1836 at his urging, it was named La Fox. Geneva wouldn’t receive its permanent—and modern—name for three more months, and the postal service wouldn’t officially change the post office name until 1850.

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John Short built the Bristol House as his home, post office, and stagecoach inn. It was just one of several similar facilities sprinkled along stagecoach routes west of Chicago.

Like Herrington, John Short in Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville here in Kendall County) also operated a combination tavern and post office, as did Levi Hills in Lisbon, and many other tavern-keepers throughout our region of northern Illinois.

Early on, the federal government realized reliable communication within and between regions of the country was vital to the new nation’s growth and to an informed electorate. In those pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days, that meant total reliance on the mails, either carried privately or by the national postal service.

One of the first things the Federal government did, once it was firmly established, was to create an official definition for the mail. Starting with the first post office department under Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock. Only postmasters were entrusted with a key for this lock; without the key, the postmaster was, simply not a postmaster because he could neither accept nor send the mail.

While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was to be considered part of the official mail (carried in the portmanteau) and what wasn’t.

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The arrival of the mail stage was always an exciting event in pioneer communities in northern Illinois since they brought newspapers, letters, and passengers.

With the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress began settling that debate. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and, later, the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory. Among the Act of 1792’s most important provisions were:

+++Congress’s assumption of the power to establish post offices and post routes. Previously, the Post Office Department had established post routes on its own. With Congress’s involvement, it was assured the number of post offices would greatly and quickly expand due to constituents’ political pressure;

+++Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to maintain an informed electorate; and

+++Establishing the legal basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies for the delivery of the mail. By the 1830s, the stage companies were virtually quasi-public arms of the federal government. In fact, if a stagecoach company lost the government mail contract, government regulations required all of its rolling stock and horses had to be sold to the new contractor.

Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois.

Two years after the War of 1812 ended and still feeling the war’s effects, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, with the aim of further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery. Among its provisions, the law mandated mail service had to be extended to any county courthouse. Included were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was certain it would receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county seat was.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system. It was McLean’s decision to rely on private stage contractors to carry the mail instead of using government equipment and employees. Along with the stage delivery system, McLean perfected and expanded the “hub and spoke” sorting system originally adopted in 1800. The system relied on central distribution offices—hubs—that supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices via the spokes.

While post offices were vital to the growth of the region, sending mail was an expensive proposition in those years. Regular postal rates remained constant from 1825 to 1838, but the rates themselves were high in comparison to the cost of living at that time. A single sheet letter mailed up to 30 miles was six cents. The cost went up to 10 cents if mailed from 30 to 80 miles, 12-1/2 cents for 80 to 150 miles; 18-3/4 cents for 150 to 400 miles; and 25 cents for a single sheet mailed more than 400 miles. Two sheet letters cost double to mail, while the postage was tripled for a single sheet that weighed more than an ounce.

A collection of letters in the archives at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego confirms that postal rates continued unchanged for some years, and also suggests how effective the postal service was in maintaining communications between the frontier and the settled areas in the old colonies.

In December 1843, James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego after an 800-mile journey with a wagon train from Smyrna, N.Y. On Dec. 17, he wrote back to his parents describing his journey and his current circumstances. The single sheet letter, datelined Oswego, is marked with 25 cents postage.

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James Sheldon Barber’s December 1843 letter home from Oswego to his parents in tiny Smyrna, NY. The creases left behind when Barber folded the letter origami-like into an envelope, complete with triangular flap closed with red sealing wax. (Little White School Museum collections)

From accounts in Carlyle R Buley’s The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1978), and elsewhere, it appears the letters Barber sent to New York are typical of the era. Each is written on a single 10×16-inch sheet of good rag paper folded in half to create a folio of four 8×10 inch pages. The text of each letter is written on three of the pages. The fourth page is devoted to the letter’s exterior that, when folded with origami-like complexity, turned it into a compact 2.5 x 5 inch packet complete with an envelope-like triangular flap on the back, which was fixed with red sealing wax.

One of the most remarkable things about Barber’s letters is his certainty they would be transported east from the Illinois frontier and faithfully delivered in a timely manner at his parents’ home in a small hamlet in upstate New York. At the time, Kendall County was just two years old. Oswego Township had been settled for only 10 years and the village had yet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. But even from such a presumably rough and tough frontier region, Barber’s letters made it back to his former home.

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Major post roads in the Fox River Valley area of northern Illinois from the mid-1830s through the early 1850s.

By the time Barber was sending his letters home, mail routes throughout northern Illinois were well defined. Mail delivery in what are now the 24 counties of northern Illinois (there are more now than back then) had begun adjacent to the Mississippi River when the first post office was established June 6, 1825 and named Fever River (after the small tributary on which the settlement was located), only to be renamed Galena in 1826. Rock Island, located on the Mississippi itself, got its post office in September of the same year. Both offices became major distribution hubs.

But while the first two post offices in northern Illinois relied heavily on river transport for mail delivery, nine other post offices were established in the region before the next one (Ottawa) that mainly relied on river transport. Clearly, the region’s growing road system was becoming more vital to the delivery of the mail as new roads connected the county seats and other settlements in the growing region. In fact, by following the creation of post offices, a person can fairly easily follow the evolution of the region’s road system linking its major developing towns.

Around Galena, the postal system was gradually expanded, with Apple River granted an office in 1828 and Ogee’s Ferry—later Dixon—getting its office in 1829. Both Dixon and Apple River were branches that relied on the Galena hub.

As an illustration of how quickly the northwest corner of Illinois was developing during that era, and how unimportant the rest of the northern part of the state was, Jo Daviess County boasted seven of the first 11 post offices established in northern Illinois.

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Frink, Walker & Company’s general stagecoach office at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Lake Street in Chicago is where many of the mail routes of the 1840s west of Lake Michigan began. Frink and Walker eventually controlled virtually all the stagecoach traffic in the upper Midwest.

In March of 1831, Chicago finally got its post office, following the establishment of Cook County in January of 1831, with mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, then the nearest post office. In 1832, mail delivery was weekly from Detroit via a one-horse wagon. The next year, 1833, a two-horse post wagon delivered the mail. Not until regular four-horse stage service started in 1834 did Chicago’s mail arrive more than once a week.

Chicago remained the only post office in northeast Illinois until Ottawa was granted its post office in December 1832, suggesting growth was outstripping the post office’s ability to establish new offices. LaSalle County, of which Ottawa was the seat of government, had been established in January of 1831, meaning it took nearly two years for the town’s post office to be granted.

Chicago and Ottawa were officially linked by a state road in 1833, although it’s likely mail was carried on horseback from the Chicago office to Ottawa beginning in 1832. In 1833, the post office at Juliet (later renamed Joliet) and the DuPage post office, which was located in the extreme northeast corner of Section 19 of DuPage Township, Will County, were both established as Chicago branches. DuPage was a regular stop on the High Prairie Trail from Ottawa to Chicago. Plainfield didn’t get its post office—another branch—until January of 1834, followed in April by the post office at Holderman’s Grove, also on the High Prairie Trail. The post office at Holderman’s was the first in what would, in 1841, become Kendall County.

As settlers began filling the area between the Fox River and Lake Michigan, more branch post offices were established on the region’s major thoroughfares using the Ottawa and Chicago hubs. Cass post office in Downers Grove Township on the High Prairie Trail, Brush Hill post office on the Galena and Ottawa roads, and Naperville were established in 1834, 1835, and 1836, respectively. Aurora and Oswego both got their post offices in 1837.

Montgomery was reportedly on the list to receive its post office in 1837, but the McCarty brothers, Samuel and Joseph, Aurora’s founders, appropriated the post route to Galena. According to at least one history, Montgomery was in line to get its post office, but Aurora supporters were able to somehow delay the delivery of the official postmaster’s key to the Montgomery postmaster. Without the key, of course, the official portmanteau could not be opened, ergo no mail delivery. Meanwhile, the McCarty brothers used their political connections to expedite the application for their own post office. At the same time, Aurora boosters improved the trail from Naperville to Aurora (today’s Aurora Avenue and East New York Street) by bridging the numerous wetlands that lay between the two settlements in the timber—called the Big Woods—that stretched from one to the other. The McCartys also promised the stagecoach company hauling mail over the route that they’d provide free room and board for the stage driver and would also put the coach’s four-horse team up free of charge. The result was that Montgomery lost its first chance for a post office and their direct access to the Galena Road at the same time.

In 1908, when Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora,” right near the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”

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On June 26, 1840, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced updated mail schedules and routes, including the modified Fox River Trail route from Ottawa north to LaFox–now Geneva in this advertisement published in Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, the  Illinois Free Trader.

Lisbon, in southern Kendall County, had gotten its post office in 1836, thanks to Levi Hills moving the log post office/tavern from Holderman’s Grove six miles out onto the prairie along the High Prairie Trail. Farther west on the Galena Road, Little Rock post office was established in 1837, followed that same year by the post office at Newark.

Meanwhile, at LaFox (Geneva), Herrington operated the post office in his home/tavern. In 1837, mail to LaFox first came from Naperville, and later that year from Aurora. But then in early June 1840, LaFox got its own mail delivery when it became the terminus of a new route up the west bank of the Fox River from Ottawa via Dayton, Northville, Penfield, Bristol, and Aurora to LaFox every Friday.

But just a couple weeks later, the route changed. On June 26, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced the mail up the Fox River Trail would be delivered three times a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. He also announced a route change, with the addition of Oswego to the list. The mail traveled up the west side of the Fox River to the Oswego ford across the Fox, and then north along the East River Road (today’s Ill. Route 25) through Aurora to LaFox

Interestingly enough, many of those post offices established during the go-go settlement years of the 1830s are still in business, continuing to serve their communities 180 years later. And every time you drop a letter in the mail in Oswego or Aurora or Geneva, you’re participating in a bit of the region’s long and fascinating post office history.

 

 

 

 

 

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The long, successful, battle against the scourge of smallpox…

So our President-elect has announced plans to appoint someone who opposes vaccinations to head a commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. “Anti-vaxxers,” as they’re called these days, have been trying to gain momentum for their view that vaccinating children is dangerous.

The medical profession, of course, takes a very dim view of this. Here in the Fox River Valley of Illinois, at least one large clinic group—and maybe all of them for all I know—have told parents that if they refuse vaccinations they can find another clinic to take their children to.

It wasn’t so long ago that vaccines were seen as lifesavers, medical miracles that people simply didn’t refuse. That’s because vaccinations eliminated a variety of childhood killers like polio and other communicative diseases like measles and smallpox that annually killed thousands of people.

Back in the first half of the 19th Century, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about—wild animals, starvation—Kendall County’s pioneers also had to worry about disease. A lot. When they wrote in a letter to a friend or relative that they were in good health it wasn’t a meaningless phrase. Because during the pioneer era, and right up through World War II, getting sick didn’t just put a crimp in peoples’ styles; it all too often killed them.

A dismayingly large number of really serious epidemics regularly broke out in those days. And rich or poor, disease killed far more than warfare or any other cause. Not that serious illness still isn’t a problem, of course. Each year, as many as 56,000 U.S. residents die of the flu. But in times past, that many might die within a couple weeks from Asiatic cholera, typhoid, or smallpox.

Of the three, smallpox was the most regular, and most certain and feared, killer.

Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. During the early Middle Ages Arabs were the premier medical researchers and practitioners in the world. Although some might find it surprising, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.

From the 6th Century on, frequent European smallpox epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance and even immunity to the disease that slowly forced the death rate down to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Nevertheless, during the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.

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England’s Queen Mary II was one of a number of royals who died of smallpox over the centuries.

Even royalty was not immune to the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.

Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America with them, and they proved more deadly than gunpowder weapons. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European colonists.

Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived. In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol. A king couldn’t be too venturesome with this medical technology stuff, after all, who’d miss a few charity kids anyway?

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After smallpox struck the Continental Army in 1776, Gen. George Washington ordered the smallpox vaccination of the entire army in 1777.

Although inoculation was known, and known to work, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000 man force come down with the disease. As a result, General George Washington ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox in 1777. British soldiers, many of whom had been exposed as children, suffered far less mortality.

Then in 1796, Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects. Even so, epidemics continued to strike. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the upper Missouri River killed 15,000 Native Americans, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.

Here in the Fox Valley, settlers arrived starting in the late 1820s, and smallpox wasn’t far behind. In 1845 an epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing back home to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe. I was at Oswego one week ago today & found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”

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Martha Jane “Calamity Jane” Canary made her first mark in history nursing smallpox patients during a Deadwood, South Dakota epidemic.

Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”

On June 16, 1881, the Kendall County Record laconically reported: “Five cases of small-pox in Joliet.” And on Dec. 29 of the same year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that a former Oswego resident had died due to the sickness: “From the daily papers we learned that Mrs. John Hinchman of Chicago has lately died from small pox and in a condition uncommonly sad.” In late January of 1882, Record Editor John Marshall published the alarming news that “Small-pox is raging in Braidwood, Will county.”

In June, 1884, a major smallpox epidemic broke out in downtown Yorkville. Public officials and the community’s doctors battled it with quarantines and vaccinations, and it quickly burned itself out.

One of the last local smallpox scares—as opposed to an actual epidemic—took place in January 1891. According to the Record, a woman traveling to Chicago by rail through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be small pox. A small community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed. But within a day or so, the woman’s problem was found to be a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.

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Isaac and Ellen Tripp pause for a photograph about 1910 at the NaAuSay Township farm they were renting. Norval (right) and Kenneth both contracted, but survived, smallpox in their late teens.

Another local outbreak of smallpox was reported in the May 22, 1918 Record, where the correspondent wrote: “Oswego has had and is having the prevailing epidemic, one more being added when last week Miss Mary Goodendorf was put under quarantine with smallpox. There are now five cases in that and the George Denman family.” A year later, in May 1919, both of Isaac Tripp’s sons, Norval and Kenneth, came down with smallpox. Both recovered after a fairly long convalescence.

The last case of smallpox in Kendall County I’ve been able to find involved Oswego resident O.L. Knight, who made a trip to St. Louis on business in April 1929, where he was exposed to smallpox, bringing it home with him. Both he and his wife—who worked at the Oswego telephone exchange—were quarantined for a month. Mrs. Knight survived without catching the pox from her husband and Mr. Knight fully recovered.

The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease. But fears generated by biological warfare rumors, not to mention the new reluctance to vaccinate are making some wonder what would happen if smallpox was ever unleashed on the world again.

 

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But I’m a HAPPY blockhead…

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Guilty as charged, Dr. Johnson, much to my long-suffering wife’s annoyance…

 

 

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Everything started somewhere and sometime, even Kendall County

There were big doings 176 years ago next month down in Springfield.

In February 1841, the Illinois General Assembly, in a veritable fit of constructive action possibly never seen before or since, feverishly worked on establishing four new counties. Three new counties had been formed in January; the four ready for approval in February would bring the grand total for 1841 to seven.

Debate on each of the proposals that February was hot and heavy, as Whigs and Democrats maneuvered to get the best advantage possible for their respective parties. When the political dust cleared and a vote was finally held Feb. 19, 1841, the second new county formed that month (the first was Grundy County on Feb. 17) was voted into law.

It was to be named Kendall County after former President Andrew Jackson’s Postmaster General, Amos Kendall.

The flood of settlement that began in the Fox Valley in 1833 continued in 1834 and 1835. Enough people made their way to the banks of the Fox River by that year that towns were being surveyed and laid out. Boosters (optimists all) laid out Oswego on the bluff overlooking the Fox River and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek in 1835 as well as Newark in the timber called Hollenback Grove, and Bristol along the north bank of the Fox River. Yorkville, across the river from Bristol, followed in 1836, as did Little Rock, followed by Lisbon and Millington in 1838.

As population increased, so did the need to do business at the county seat. For those living in what eventually became Bristol, Little Rock, and Oswego townships, that meant a long trip north to Geneva in Kane County. For those living in what became Fox, Kendall, NaAuSay, Seward, Lisbon, and Big Grove townships, conducting official business meant a trip down the river and across the prairie to the LaSalle County seat of Ottawa.

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Lock 14 on the I&M Canal at LaSalle. Illinois borrowed heavily to build the canal and the Panic of 1837 nearly bankrupted the entire state. (Illinois Department of Conservation photo)

Added to the inconvenience of travel in the Fox Valley’s pioneer days and in the midst of the area’s biggest spurt in population growth ever (in percentage if not actual numbers), the Panic of 1837 struck like a sledgehammer blow. The word “panic” doesn’t carry the emotional baggage “depression” does these days, but the Panic of 1837 was a major financial depression in its fullest and most devastating sense. Unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, the Panic of 1837 almost led to the financial destruction of state government in Illinois as the nation’s monetary system collapsed.

The financial collapse seriously affected construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The failure of the state’s banking system idled canal construction crews, and the inability of the state to pay contractors for work already done or materials delivered rippled unpleasantly through Ottawa’s economy.

The problems with the canal meant little to settlers around Yorkville, Pavilion, and other northern regions of huge LaSalle County—the proposed canal was out of sight and largely out of mind. The continued preoccupation of county officials with canal matters finally persuaded northern county residents their interests were being ignored, and those interests could best be served by establishing a new county whose seat of government would be much closer, in both geography and attitude, to the governed.

Finding themselves at the neglected far fringes of Kane and LaSalle counties, and still feeling the bond with each other forged during the crisis of the Black Hawk War of 1832, residents of the nine townships decided to petition the state to form a brand new county.

Acting on these convictions, supporters of forming one or more new counties at the expense of LaSalle began to circulate petitions. As early as Oct. 10, 1840, the Illinois Free Trader, Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, published a legal notice informing the county’s residents “That application will be made in the Legislature of the state of Illinois…for the formation of a new county to be taken off of the county of LaSalle.”

The petition given credit by the Illinois State Archives as the one leading to the establishment of Kendall County began circulating on Nov. 12, 1840.

“The petitions of the Subscribers, inhabitants of LaSalle, DeKalb, and Kane counties,” the appeal read, “most respectfully Showeth that your petitioners suffer much inconvenience in doing all their business relative to their respective counties By reason of the great Territory embraced in the said countys and believing that the time has now arrived when it has been made absolutely necessary that a new county be Laid off of those.”

The document was signed by 109 male settlers, including such early Kendall County pioneers as Clark and George Hollenback, Earl Adams, Joseph B. Lyon, and Henry Misner,

As proposed by the petitioners, the new county would have comprised nine townships. Since townships are supposed to be square (and contain 36 sections of one square mile each), the proposed county would have had three tiers of townships, each row three townships long, comprising a perfectly square county.

As originally requested, Bristol, Little Rock, Kendall, Fox, Lisbon, and Big Grove townships in today’s Kendall County would have been joined by Sandwich Township from DeKalb County plus Northfield and most of Mission townships in LaSalle County.

Sober second thoughts…

The request for the new county apparently stirred up a number of competing factions, only some of which can be reconstructed a century and three-quarters. On Nov. 27, 1840, the General Assembly received a second petition from residents of the area that contended “there are sundry petitions now circulating to present to your honourable body for the division of Lasalle County and that many of those petitions were got up for private and Selfish purposes without references to publick good and convenience or benift and if those proposed divisions were carried out they would Material prejudice the remaining part of Lasalle county without any particular advantage or benefit to them Selves….”

1839-northern-ill-counties

How LaSalle and Kane counties looked in 1840 before LaSalle’s east side was sliced off and Kane lost its southern three townships to create Kendall and Grundy counties.

Then in a petition dated Dec. 18, 1840, several times the number of LaSalle County residents than signed the first document pleaded with the General Assembly not to dismantle LaSalle County. If a new county was absolutely necessary, however, the petitioners suggested removing the four southwest townships, known then as Sandy Precinct, would be acceptable.

“Your petitioners, inhabitants of La Salle county, represent that divers petitions are in circulation, praying for various divisions of said county and in such a manner as virtually to ruin the same,” the third petition read. “Some of your petitioners have signed heretofore other addresses on this subject, without defining boundaries, and some without due examination, but now present this their prayer as the result of their ‘sober second thoughts.’”

The petition carried the names of many of the area’s influential men, including Peter and Smith Minkler, William W. Winn, John Inscho, Solomon Heustis, and William Cowdrey.

Sober second thoughts aside, the wheels of state government had already begun to turn, and the division of LaSalle County was inevitable. As noted in another context entirely, the wheels of state government move slowly but they grind extremely fine. On Dec. 30, 1840, State Rep. Dodge rose in the Illinois House to present, in the words of the Journal of the House of Representatives of the Twelfth General Assembly of the State of Illinois (1840), “the petitions and remonstrance of sundry citizens of LaSalle and Kane counties; which, without reading, on his motion were referred to a select committee.” Committee members included Reps. Dodge, McClernand, and Ormsbee. On Jan. 11, 1841, the petition for a new county was referred to the General Assembly’s Committee on Counties. Then on Jan. 16, Rep. Carpenter reported a bill titled “An act to create the county of Orange” for its first reading.

The new county was configured differently than the one the citizens’ petition of Nov. 12 had suggested. Instead of including what is today Sandwich Township of DeKalb County and Mission and Northfield townships of LaSalle County, the new county was shifted east one township, picking up Oswego Township from Kane County and NaAuSay and Seward townships from LaSalle to complete the nine-township square county.

The Committee on Counties probably shifted the boundary to straighten up the lines of the two donor counties. If the configuration had remained as originally petitioned, Oswego Township would have thrust like a lone tooth south from Kane County, while NaAuSay and Seward would have created a clumsy narrow finger jutting north from LaSalle County.

Although Sandwich Township was denied membership in the new county, efforts have sporadically been engaged in over the past 175-plus years by that township’s residents to annex to Kendall County. So far, those efforts have not been successful, although many Sandwich area residents still feel more of an affinity to Kendall County than to DeKalb.

old-state-capitol

The state capitol building at Springfield was less than two years old when the Illinois General Assembly voted to create Kendall County. Today, the building is a state historic site.

From Orange to Kendall…

In the end, the General Assembly decided to create two new counties from LaSalle, and Democrats in Springfield were working hard to make sure the new counties would carry the names of politicians prominent in their party. One of the counties was named Grundy after U.S. Senator Felix Grundy of Tennessee, a Jackson stalwart. But the decision to name the other county after one of Jackson’s closest political operatives led to some tougher sledding.

On Jan. 19, the bill to create Orange County received its second reading. After reading the bill’s title, Rep. Peck moved to amend the bill by changing the name of the county from “Orange” to “Kendall.” The amendment was approved, with Rep. Abraham Lincoln voting in favor.

The new name was selected to honor Amos Kendall, former Postmaster General under both Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. Kendall had announced his plans to retire from the office in May 1840 in order to seek more profitable employment. As Jackson’s and Van Buren’s Postmaster General, Kendall had been the Democrats’ patronage chief, handing out sought-after post master slots. In effect, local post offices became Jackson’s grassroots eyes throughout the nation. But in his favor, Kendall brought a new level of efficiency and honesty to the Post Office Department, even operating the sprawling agency at a profit for a few years while stamping out rampant corruption. Not surprisingly, the powerful Kendall was not well liked by the Whig opposition.

To illustrate that political hi-jinks are nothing new in Springfield, following the successful vote amending the name of the county to Kendall, Rep. Gillespie rose to further amend the bill by inserting the words “Honest Amos” in front of the word Kendall.

1835 Amos Kendall.jpg

Postmaster General Amos Kendall in an 1835 engraving. Kendall was one of the most powerful politicians in both the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations.

Gillespie’s move echoed sentiments expressed during an 1837 Congressional debate in Washington, D.C. when U.S. Rep. Henry A. Wise of Virginia branded the Postmaster General “Honest Iago” Kendall during a particularly nasty debate over the nation’s financial policy. Iago was the friend of Othello in Shakespeare’s play who whispered lies about the doomed Desdimona. Wise intimated that Kendall was doing the same thing to President Jackson regarding the nation’s financial health. The insult apparently appealed to the anti-Democrats, only to be brought up again in Illinois during the debate to establish Kendall County.

Gillespie’s amendment was tabled, however, and the new county—just plain Kendall County—was established by a vote of 54-27.

Writing from the state capital, the Illinois Free Trader’s Springfield correspondent reported to his readers in Ottawa: “Gentlemen—Today the bill for the creation and organization of the two new counties off of LaSalle and Kane came up in order in the House. Some debate arose on a motion made by Mr. Peck, to change the name of the county formed of Part of LaSalle and Kane counties from “Orange” to “Kendall,” but the motion prevailed and the bill was ordered to be engrossed for a third reading. The bill to organize the county of “Grundy” was referred to the canal committees…These counties, you are probably aware, will include a strip off of the east side of LaSalle eighteen miles in width and one tier of townships of the south end of Kane county.”

On Feb. 3, the act to create the county of Kendall was passed for the final time by the House, and was sent to the Senate for its concurrence.

In the Illinois Free Trader’s Feb. 4 edition, the paper’s Springfield correspondent gloomily predicted: “The bills for the division of our fine county will pass and Kendall and Grundy be established in all probability. However much I may regret that the county has been divided at this time, and under its embarrassed circumstances at this time, no blame can be attached to our representative and senator who have been most fully instructed in relation to it.”

His prediction proved correct when, after successfully passing the state senate, the county was officially created by an act of the General Assembly on Feb. 19, 1841.

1841-courthouse-by-janis-hoch

A pen and ink sketch by Janis Hoch of Kendall County’s first courthouse in 1841. The county rented the private residence from Daniel Johnson. County voters decided to move the courthouse to Oswego in an 1845 referendum. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County inaugurated…

County government began in earnest on April 5, 1841, when voters, in the first-ever Kendall County election, elected a sheriff, coroner, recorder, surveyor, treasurer, probate justice, clerk, and three county commissioners—the precursor of today’s county board.

Later that year, a three-man commission appointed by the General Assembly, consisting of John H. Harriss of Tazwell County, Eli A. Rider of Cook County, and William E. Armstrong of LaSalle County, met in Yorkville to determine the location of the new county’s seat of government. The three decided that Yorkville, with its central location, would be the best site. In August 1841, county officials leased a private residence owned by Daniel Johnson, situated on Lot 8, Block 15 in the village of Yorkville as the county’s first courthouse, and then appropriated the grand sum of $30 to “fit up” the new facility.

oswego-courthouse

This image of the Greek Revival courthouse built at Oswego in 1847 probably began as a Daguerrotype before it was heavily retouched. It stood on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

Since that time 176 years ago, the county seat has moved twice, once in 1845, when the voters decided to move it northeast to Oswego, and again in 1864.

In 1845 after 175 registered voters petitioned the General Assembly, a special election was scheduled to determine whether the county seat should remain in Yorkville. Proponents of the move noted that Oswego Township had been the county’s most populous for several years. Further, they pointed out that Yorkville didn’t even have its own post office. To get their mail, residents had to cross a footbridge across the Fox River to the Village of Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville). In balloting in August of that year, no county village received a majority of votes as the new county seat. In a second referendum held on Sept. 1, 1845, the voters picked Oswego as the new county seat.

In April 1847, the county commissioners let a contract for $2,545 to Luke W. Swan to build a new courthouse in Oswego. Festus Burr, an Oswegoan who was also the town clerk, drew the plans for the two story, Greek Revival style building, which was located on the site of today’s Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office.

2015-kc-courthouse

Opened in 1864 during the Civil War, the Historic Kendall County Courthouse was renovated and restored with extensive federal and state grants.

But by April 1859, most residents had apparently tired of traveling to the extreme northeast corner of the county to do their legal business, and another vote was held, the results of which were to move the county seat back to centrally-located Yorkville.

A new courthouse was ordered built by the county board, and architect O.S. Finnie was hired to draw the plans for a fashionable Italianate style structure. The brick and stone courthouse was completed in 1864 at a cost of $22,051.62. The county’s records were removed from Oswego to Yorkville in June 1864 by team and wagon where they’ve remained ever since.

The decision of those 109 settlers to strike off on their own in 1841 was as important then as it is today, 176 years later. They wanted to control their own local political destinies, and so do we. They achieved their goal; it remains to be seen if we are interested enough to maintain what they built, locally, statewide, and, especially, nationally.

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Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History