Monthly Archives: June 2017

When folks thought Kendall County was a good place to be from…

In 1954, my parents decided to retire from farming and move into town. When I resumed third grade classes in January 1955 at the old Red Brick School, there were more kids in that single classroom than had been in my entire one-room country school. It was a bit of an adjustment.

1942 Oswego Limits Sign

By 1942, Oswego’s population had gone up a bit from the number counted in 1940. Or perhaps village officials just decided to round up the 978 counted in the 1940 Census.

In those days, the population on Oswego’s village limit signs was 1,220, its population as of the 1950 census. It was a small, but growing community. New houses were going up around town and just north of town on John H. Bereman’s old Boulder Hill Stock Farm, a sprawling, unincorporated subdivision was going up with new, affordable houses aimed at the thousands of discharged World War II and Korean Conflict veterans who were starting new families.

Community growth was taken for granted in those days and looked upon as a mostly favorable thing, although it was starting to dawn on local folks that what they were looking at wasn’t just a dozen or so new homes, but hundreds of them that would generate new students for local schools and lots of motorists on previously lightly traveled roads.

Starting then, we got used to fairly constant growth, but Oswego and Kendall County weren’t always sure bets for population growth. After the explosive growth during the settlement era from the early 1830s through 1850, in the decades after the Civil War, the county’s population saw a slow, steady decline before it finally started to recover in the 1920s. But it didn’t reach its pre-Civil War high until the mid-1950s as that post-World War II and Korean Conflict growth began to kick in.

In 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, Kendall County’s population stood at 13,074, nearly double the 7,730 recorded in 1850, the first census taken after the county was established in February 1841.

During the Civil War, Kendall contributed more than 1,200 soldiers, sailors, and marines (an astonishing 10 percent of the county’s total population) to the war effort, nearly 300 who were killed, or died of wounds or sickness.

Moving west

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad opened up millions of acres of western shortgrass prairies for settlement.

After the war, veterans trickled back to the county as their units were demobilized. Also arriving were a number of former slaves and black veterans of U.S. Army military units who arrived to start farming in Oswego and Kendall townships.

But more former residents had disappeared than new ones had arrived. When the Illinois state census was taken in 1865, the county’s population had taken a fairly serious hit, dropping by 445 residents. Part of that was accounted for by those soldiers who died as a result of the war. But when the 1870 U.S. Census was taken, it was found the county had lost another 230 residents in the previous five-year period.

A brief growth spurt of 684 residents was recorded in the 1880 census, but from then on it was a steady decline until growth began inching up in the 1920s. Between 1860 and 1920, the county’s population declined by 3,000 residents, a surprising 23 percent drop.

So, what was going on in those post-Civil War years?

I suspect that population loss was due to a number of factors. First, the veterans who returned from Civil War service were, for the most part, young, ambitious men who had seen more of the country than any preceding generation. They’d traveled south deep into the Confederacy all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. They’d marched west of the Mississippi, campaigning through Missouri and Arkansas, all the way to the Texas-Mexico border where the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry spent a while staring down French troops on the other side of the Rio Grande. Other Kendall County residents had fought through campaigns in the southeast on Sherman’s famed March to the Sea and with Grant all the way to Appomattox Courthouse.

Having seen so many new places, and for many, having so much responsibility for life and death situations thrust upon them at such a young age, I suspect it was hard for many of those former soldiers to simply return home and take up where they’d left off. They’d all changed one way or another in ways often profound.

A second factor was the availability of somewhere else to go where land was cheap and the chance existed to build whole new communities. In an effort to promote construction of a transcontinental railroad, the government had given millions of acres in land grants west of the Mississippi River to the railroad companies working on the project. The idea was that the railroads would sell the land, using the proceeds to help finance the gigantic construction project And that put those millions of acres into play for men and women who dreamed of establishing new farms and towns.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was another spur to western settlement that dovetailed nicely with the railroad land grants to lure new westerners. Any resident of the U.S. who had not taken up arms against the government could stake a 160-acre claim, improve it, and obtain ownership after five years of occupancy.

With the end of the war, the Homestead Act combined with the extension of the rails west of the Mississippi to provide easy access turbocharged western expansion.

The move west by county residents, as chronicled in the pages of the Kendall County Record, began early in the 1870s. Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted on Nov. 9, 1871: “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

That was only the first of a veritable flood of emigration, which was facilitated by the completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1870. The line, which followed the banks of the Fox River from Ottawa north to Geneva, directly connecting the county’s river towns with the wider world. As noted above, the Ashleys leased a rail car, loaded their goods aboard in Oswego, and weren’t required to offload them until they arrived on the shortgrass prairies of Kansas.

The flood of emigrants was helped along by frequent ads in the Record similar to this one from the Dec. 30, 1876 edition placed by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad general agent John M. Childs: “Ho for Kansas! I shall take out a small party of excursionists to Larned and Kinsley, Kan. on Tuesday, Jan. 11th, 1876. If you desire to go to any part of Kansas at excursion rates, let me know at once. I shall also send out emigrant freight and excursion trains on Feb. 15th and March 14th, 1876. Cars of freight, $95 and $100 each, from all points on C.R.I. & P. R.R.”

On March 15, 1877, Rank reported a large group of Oswegoans were bound for Kansas: “Charles A. and Henry Davis, with the latter’s family, and William H. Coffin and family, Will Miller, Dan Puff, Valentine somebody and others whose names I did not learn, altogether 12 persons, started this morning for a new home in Kansas. They have taken with them two carloads of effects including 12 horses and mules. The Davises have land in Lyon and Greenwood counties of that state. I believe it is the latter to which they are now going.

Not everyone went west to the plains, of course. In July 1873, a number of families loaded up their goods to move south rather than west. Rank wrote on June 26, 1873 that “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”

William A. Hawley was a veteran of the 13th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and campaigned with the regiment through much of Mississippi with Grant and Sherman during the war. Apparently, Hawley was so taken with that part of the country that he went to Madison County, Mississippi in April 1873 to look over the country, and then persuaded a number of Oswego families to join him.

And in 1880, Kendall County Circuit Clerk Lyman Bennett and his family moved to Missouri. In 1881, a large party of families moved to Plymouth County, Iowa, after which Rank plaintively remarked: “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

1870 Brockway farms.jpg

The Brockways sold their farms and moved to Iowa in 1884.

Out on the Oswego prairie, the Edmund Brockway family had been farming right on the border with Wheatland Township, Will County, since the 1850s. In 1884, he decided he could increase his acreage by moving west to Iowa. Accordingly, he bought a farm near Newell in Buena Vista County, in far northwestern Iowa. Returning, he got his wife and several children ready to move starting in February 1884.

The Brockways’ farm was located on Stewart Road just north of Simons Road, making Aurora their largest nearby town. Accordingly, that’s where they moved the farm tools and household goods they planned to take west.

“We were to get possession of the new farm March 1, so we loaded our moveables on two [rail] cars to reach it at that date,” Edmund’s son, also named Edmund, wrote in a 1946 memoire.

The Brockways procured two rail cars from the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad and loaded their goods aboard in Aurora. “Machinery and four horses in one car, household goods and four cows, one calf, one dog, some hens, and maybe a cat,” young Edmund recalled. They left Aurora on a Tuesday evening, and arrived at their destination at noon Friday. The Brockways made a success of their move, and Edmund’s descendants live and farm in Buena Vista County still.

Not everyone made a go of it, of course. The families who tried Mississippi gradually straggled back to Kendall County, Hawley himself lasting not quite a year.

Also having sober second thoughts were a number of those who tried farming on the arid plains of western Kansas and Nebraska. On Dec. 18, 1889, Rank wrote: “Frank Hoard and all of the family have returned from Dakota and moved on a farm over near the old [CB&Q railroad] station. He was well pleased with the country out there but has had bad luck; first nearly losing everything by being burned out, and next being included in the district where nothing was raised the past season because of drought.”

As the 20th Century dawned, removals from Kendall County continued, although the destinations changed from west to north, with residents moving to Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Canada. On Oct. 21, 1908, the Record reported that “Charles Turpin loaded his [railroad] car Monday for his new home in Halbrite, Saskatchewan.”

2016 Oswego Village Limits

There appears to be little danger of Oswego’s population declining any time soon. Counting 3,876 residents in 1990, the latest population estimate is well over 30,000.

Canadian officials and railroad companies were so good at selling Americans on the good deals they could have by moving north that it became a concern. The Record reported on May 11, 1910 that officials in Washington, D.C. were alarmed at the exodus: “Washington officials of the departments of Agriculture and Commerce and Labor have a sharp sense of the need of something, no one yet seems to know just what, to stop the flood of emigration from the western United States into Canada. The administration is to take the matter up seriously. In the last eight years, 480,000 of American citizens have gone to Canada.”

But like all other fads, that, too soon passed. As the 20th Century reached its mid point, Kendall County’s population was finally recovering, fueled by all those Baby Boomers produced by military veterans. And by the 1960s, we’d reached and then quickly surpassed the 1860 population high point.

Given Kendall County’s location nestled up against three of the six fast-growing Collar Counties, it’s unlikely we’ll experience population loss any time soon. But it did happen once, so there’s that.

 

 

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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You can go home again; you just can’t stay

We were driving past, the door was open, so we decided to stop in.

I hadn’t been inside our old farmhouse since my family moved out right after Christmas, 1954.

1950 Butcher Place

“The Butcher Place” where my folks farmed during the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.

My father’s ankylosing spondylitis was getting worse, as was my asthma, so my parents decided, early in 1954, to retire from farming, and move into town. We had the farm sale that fall, and spent a lot of time cleaning up and remodeling the “new” house in town. My great-grandparents had it built in 1908 by my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, one of Oswego’s better carpenters and contractors. Still owned by my grandparents in late 1954, it was vacant, the tenants having moved out.

My folks decided the move would be made over Christmas vacation. It wouldn’t affect my sister, who was a senior at Oswego High School, other than making the trip to school a lot shorter. For me, though, it meant a big change, going from a rural school with grades 1-3 and our single teacher (Mrs. Comerford) all in one room, to the imposing Red Brick School in town. There would be more kids in my new third grade classroom in town than the total enrollment of my old school.

1957 Church School exterior

The entire enrollment at Church School, where I spent first, second, and half of third grade, was less than the number of students in my third grade classroom in town. All three grades were taught in one large room. (Little White School Museum collection)

The students at Church School, the one-room school I attended, gave me a nice going-away party, and I remember visiting every one of the buildings on the farmstead during those December days before we finally left to live in Oswego.

Move the clock ahead from December 1954 to 1990. After attending my uncle’s funeral at the cemetery just down the road from our old farm, my family was driving back home, and our route took us past the old home place. The farm was being subdivided at the time, and the barn, crib, and chicken house had burned down the previous year. The three big cottonwood trees still stood out along the road and the house still stood, though not in the greatest condition. As we drove past, we noticed the front door was ajar. My wife and two children insisted that we stop, and, the lure being too great, I agreed.

Walking up the front steps, the memories started returning. The concrete and stone front porch itself was where I knocked two front teeth out one year on the eve of the annual Scotch Church Pancake Supper. I can still remember not being able to eat my usual amount of hotcakes due to that sore mouth.

The front door was indeed ajar–which was in itself pretty odd. We never used that door, and I don’t ever remember it being open when we lived there. In any case, it was a terrible door that let in about as much cold winter wind closed as it would have if we ever had opened it. The house, built in the early 1930s, was notoriously drafty, especially around that front door.

1947 Roger takes a dip

The author enjoys a cooling dip in the Matile family pool during the summer of 1948.

After 35 years, the inside of the house still seemed familiar, though. The front door opened directly into the living room, and that was where the radio was when we lived there–a large console job on which I listened to Victor Borge and “The Lone Ranger” and “Superman,” and my mother caught the soaps as she sewed and otherwise worked in the early afternoon. Later, our first television set was located at the other end of the living room, and I remember my amazement watching, for the first time, Superman (George Reeves) actually fly.

The memories were so vivid that I could almost see my father sitting in his chair, reading the Chicago American or the Prairie Farmer.

1952 Roger & Rob

The author and Rob Chada on the front porch, keeping our strength up with occasional handfuls of Sugar Frosted Flakes.

The dining room was larger and the kitchen smaller than I remembered. Both were in pretty rough shape, the house having obviously become the site of a number of teenage beer parties since it was abandoned. We always ate in the kitchen, the dining room used only when company came over. My mother used the dining room as her sewing room. I remember my teenaged sisters arriving home on the school bus and hustling into the dining room to catch my mother up on all the amazing things that had happened that day in far-off Oswego while my mother continued running her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine.

Upstairs, my sisters’ room had been divided into two smaller bedrooms, and my bedroom had become an upstairs bathroom. The stairs still went up from a door in the living room, and then took a 90-decree tum at the landing. That landing was the site of an oft-told family story: My sisters and town cousins were taking turns jumping down from the top of the stairs to the landing, squealing with much hilarity and causing a lot of thumping and other noise. After telling them to stop several times, my usually calm father finally had enough, and angrily yelled up, “If you kids do that just one more time…” Whereupon my most audacious girl cousin seriously told her accomplices, “Oh goodie! We get to do it one more time!”

Out the back door, the old concrete stoop had been covered by a small wooden deck. I remember riding my tricycle up the small stretch of sidewalk from the driveway to the stoop hundreds of times, it seemed, a day–it was the only hard surfaced area on the whole farm, other than part of the cattle yard out next to the barn. But that was usually occupied by livestock.

We checked the basement, but it was flooded with a foot or two of water–construction of the subdivision had probably blocked the basement drain. But the old cistern was still there, as was what appeared to be the original furnace, somewhat upgraded. The old cob-fired water heater was no longer there, but the basement bathroom–the only one we had when I was a child–still sported the same fixtures.

The house had originally been built without an indoor bathroom. My parents were living there when rural electrification came through and allowed a pressurized water system in the house, and the possibility of a bathroom. There were only three bedrooms, all of which were needed, so it was decided to put the bathroom down the basement. To heat the water, a water heater fueled by corncobs was installed. Around the age of 5 or so, it became my job to get the water heater going, especially on Saturdays when my sisters were getting ready for dates. It was a learning experience, and one of the things I learned was NOT to use one of my sisters’ frilly nylon undergarments to protect my hand from getting burned on the handle of the water heater’s firebox. It was quite remarkable to watch the garment melt onto the handle–as was my sister’s anger when she discovered the wreckage.

The basement sink where my dad washed and shaved was gone, though the spigots remained. I couldn’t see in the dark basement if the Burma-Shave remnants were still on the ceiling above it: One hectic evening, Dad rushed downstairs to quickly shave, vigorously shook the Burma-Shave can, and shot a burst into his palm. The cream hit his palm, ricocheted at a sharp angle, and, to his amazement, splashed on the ceiling. The splash was still there when we moved.

Outside, the farmstead was in sad shape. The barn, crib, and big chicken house were gone, as were most of the trees. The folks who owned the farm when we lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Butcher, were tree fanatics. Every time he visited, it seemed, Mr. Butcher planted another one, much to my dad’s distress since he had to mow around the forest that was gradually being created.

1950 Hayride on dad's bobsled

An old-fashioned hayride at the Butcher Place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled, with the tool shed in the background. This ride seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

The old garage, which we seldom used, was still there, as was the tool shed that housed my dad’s farm equipment, although the outhouse that used to be tipped over every Halloween by mysterious forces was not. My son, used to his uncle’s sprawling buildings and big farm equipment, remarked how small the tool shed was, and I had to explain that in the 1950s, farm equipment was smaller than now, and farmers generally had a lot less of it. By the 1990s, farm equipment had already grown to the size of 1950s earthmoving equipment.

The things that made it our farm were all gone, though. The milk separator and the egg crates and scale in the basement, the two tractors and the old green and yellow four-row John Deere com planter in the tool shed, the old truck parked in the crib, and the bobsled running gear that provided so many entertaining hours during sleigh ride parties in the winter had all disappeared. In fact, the entire method of farming in which my father engaged had died by 1990. Our diversified farm grew corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa and other forage crops along with hogs, beef cattle, and chickens. My mother traded eggs for groceries in town, and we butchered a steer and a hog annually for our own consumption. By 1990, that kind of farming was long gone, replaced by specialized grain or livestock farmers.

But while so many familiar things were gone, it was remarkable how familiar the old place still felt. I knew what was left of it wouldn’t be there much longer–and it wasn’t–but it was especially nice to have that one last brief visit with my childhood out on the farm.

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Bicycling all the way to women’s rights

The Matile Manse sits right on the Fox River Trail about a half-mile north of its current southern terminus at Oswego’s Hudson Crossing Park. Every day the weather permits, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of pedestrians and cyclists pass by, and all of them seem to be having good times.

The family ramblers are a happy bunch, sometimes pushing strollers or holding hands. The runners, however, all seem to have somewhat pained looks on their faces. But the bicyclists seem the happiest. From family groups herding youngsters on gaily hued bikes to couples easing along on their cruisers to the high-tech folks on their sleek recumbents to the rare tandem, they all whiz by with smiles on their faces. Even the guys and girls with garish spandex duds and aerodynamic helmets seem to have a happy, though sometimes grimly determined look in their eyes and they speed past.

Bicycling has become an extremely popular leisure-time activity in the U.S. for all ages. According to the data I’ve seen, some 100 million Americans bike sometime during the year. And it’s not all just for fun, either. Nearly a million Americans commute to work by bike these days.

But like everything else, cycling had to start somewhere. And around these parts, it was in 1880. The “Oswego” column of the Sept. 16, 1880 Kendall County Record reported something completely different: “Clint Gaylord bicycled our streets Saturday; he came from home and returned in the same manner.”

The Gaylord farm was out on the Plainfield-Oswego Road, and Gaylord pedaled about five miles into Oswego on his new machine.

Wheelman and his wheel

A wheelman and his wheel, about 1890.

The whole cycling craze of the late 19th Century had its genesis with Frenchman Eugène Meyer, who perfected the tensioned wire spoke wheel in 1869. Then English inventor James Stanley perfected the familiar high-wheeled design that became known as the Ordinary. Here in the U.S., Civil War veteran Albert Pope started manufacturing Columbia high-wheelers in a factory just outside Boston in 1878. It was just two years later when Clint Gaylord pedaled into Oswego to see what he could see.

The high-wheeler was not easy to ride. Consisting of a giant front wheel some five feet in diameter and a tiny rear wheel, the operator had to push it in a running start, and then nimbly climb aboard the seat using two pegs on the frame just above the small rear wheel to reach the pedals, which were attached to a crankshaft that formed the hub of the front wheel. No coaster brakes on these bad boys; you just had to keep pedaling or you’d fall over.

From the start, the things were formally called bicycles, but were most often called wheels, and their operators were dubbed wheelmen. Given the acrobatics needed to climb aboard one, and the long, heavy dresses of the day, women riders were vanishingly rare.

By 1884, bicycling was becoming ever more popular. In July of that year, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Thomas Stevens, the man from San Francisco on his way around the world on a bicycle, passed through here the other day. Another bicyclist, namely Harry West of Wichita, Kansas (son of Wm. West, formerly of this place) is here on a visit at his uncle’s, W.H. McConnell. He works the bicycle very easily and gracefully.”

By the summer of 1887, Rank could report that “Oswego has now several quite expert bicyclists.”

1890 abt Cutter & Sierp

Wheelman Joe Sierp (right) and Slade Cutter Sr. pose with their wheels at Oswego about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

One of those experts was Oswego native and Aurora business owner Joe Sierp. Sierp spent a lot of time with Oswego friends, so his love of cycling fit right in with his lifestyle, which included joining the Aurora Bicycle Club. “Nine bicyclists of Aurora came to town one evening; they were joined by Joe Sierp on his wheel and an extensive and imposing ride was enjoyed in our streets,” Rank wrote in the summer of 1888.

Within a decade or so, cycling had become a national craze, which led, oddly enough, to pressure for more and better roads in the nation and Illinois. Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then respectable distance of 100 miles in one day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling on his wheel. That led to the demand of a number of influential people for better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther. At about this same time, the same people were buying horseless carriages and wanted roads on which to drive them.

Safety bicycle

Standard safety bicycle with chain drive and pneumatic tires (introduced in 1888) that produced a bicycling and social revolution.

But that was in the future. While the wheelmen enjoyed their status as men among men, women who wanted to pedal their own bicycles were out of luck until the perfection of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. British engineer Harry Lawson designed the first safety in 1876, featuring two wheels of equal diameter—thus making it lots safer to ride than the ordinary (and thus its name). But it was propelled with a clumsy treadle system that limited its usefulness. But then in 1879, Lawson perfected the design by using pedals on a crankshaft with a sprocket that turned a chain that powered the rear wheel. It would be nearly a decade before the safety made it across the Atlantic to the U.S.

Men, however, still loved their wheels, despite how difficult they were to operate. In the summer of 1893, the Record reported from Oswego that “The road race of the Aurora cyclists Wednesday was attended with some accidents near here. One met a tumble right below town by which he lost a portion of his skin, and another broke down his wheel just after having crossed the bridge. The hurt cyclist was taken home by J.H. Reed in his buggy.”

Bicycling was not only a leisure activity, but had increasing business uses as well. In the autumn of 1897, the Record reported from Yorkville that “We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality.”

So common were high-wheelers that one of them was involved in one of Kendall County’s earliest road rage incidents. In October 1898, Chris Henne was driving his horse and wagon home to his farm from Oswego after having enjoyed the hospitality of one or more of the village’s saloons. Driving his rig erratically west on modern U.S. Route 34, he first ran the driver of the local ice delivery wagon off the road, and then did the same thing to a wheelman who was eastbound to Oswego. Unfortunately for Henne, the wheelman was armed. He climbed back aboard his wheel, caught up with Henne, and shot and killed the farmer as he sped past. The vengeful wheelman was never caught.

Wheelmen race

League of American Wheelmen last sanctioned high-wheel race in Chicago, 1893, probably at Washington Park Racetrack. (Chicagology web site: https://chicagology.com/cycling/)

Century rides and county fair high-wheel races became common entertainments during the 1890s. But after their U.S. introduction in 1887, those safety bikes were slowly making inroads, mostly because women could use them right alongside their male friends. In the June 3, 1891 Record, Rank noted that “Coming down the road by Squires [modern U.S. Route 34] to this place and returning on the west side of the river is a much-frequented route of the Aurorians for a pleasure drive on Sundays. On the last, a party of four each of ladies and gentlemen on bicycles came also over that route. Ladies will have to get a new costume for that purpose in order to look graceful on bicycles.”

And there Rank made an observation of some portent. While women were anxious to enjoy the freedom of cycling, they were constrained not only by the social conventions of the time, but also by the fashion dictates of the era. Long, heavy skirts, corsets, and voluminous undergarments all conspired against cycling, even on the user-friendly safeties. But the urge to glide off on their bikes to the freedom of the open road was so strong that it soon led to major changes in everything from women’s wardrobes to social rules of how single men and women interacted away from the confines of chaperones.

The changes were so profound that Susan B. Anthony remarked to investigative journalist Nelly Bly in an 1896 interview: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Locally, women’s strong attraction to bicycling was chronicled in the local press, and that included the controversy over female cyclists’ new use of loose pantaloons called bloomers. Bloomers had been a hallmark of the original women’s rights agitators in the 1850s, but quickly fell out of fashion. But by the 1890s, there was not only an ideological reason to wear them, but a practical one, too.

1896 abt Haines, Irvin

Irvin Haines’s self-portrait with his safety bicycle about 1896 (note the twine running from his foot into the foreground to trip the shutter). The photo was taken along Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

In June 1895, the Record’s Bristol correspondent remarked: “While lying in my hammock today two ladies rode by on bicycles, dressed in bloomers (the first I have seen), and I thought why this hue and cry against that style of dress. I cannot see anything improper about them….If riding a bicycle is healthy for woman and the dress skirt is in the way, that surely is the best costume.” And, in fact, bloomers quickly became a signature of the growing women’s rights movement—thus Anthony’s remark to Nelly Bly.

For his part, Rank couldn’t figure out what the bloomer hubbub was all about, commenting in August 1895: “According to those newspaper fellows that are commenting on bloomers, it would appear that all what makes women pretty is their dress. Don’t mind those fellows.”

A month later, in a comment with surprisingly modern overtones, he was still contending it was silly to judge people by the way they dressed.

“The ‘new woman’ is for independence; she will require the man to make himself attractive and that not merely by his clothes; she is for being no more anxious of getting left than the man shall be. In short, she is for the enjoyment of equal privileges. Again, beauty, grace, taste, and style are to a great extent mere notions, cultivated conceptions. Old style costumes look ridiculous now, but they were pretty and tasty when in fashion,” he suggested, adding a political note referring to the looming Spanish-American War, “That bloomers were downed 30 years ago is no reason why they should not succeed now. Many good things fail in their first effort; the Cubans have been defeated heretofore in several revolts, but that is no reason that they should not succeed now.”

As a way to make a practical statement of freedom, it was hard to beat a woman’s bicycle. They were relatively inexpensive and were easy to care for. It wasn’t long before they became not just pleasure vehicles but also work transportation.

Searching for a way to describe this newfangled trend, Rank commented in March 1895: “Edith Edwards has become a bicyclestrain.”

1918 Henry and Gertie Heffelfinger

By 1918 bicycles were passe, and motorcycles and automobiles were in, as Gertie and Henry Heffelfinger get ready for an outing. (Little White School Museum collection)

Adding in September of that year that “Misses Cora and Ella Willis, engaged in Aurora, were seen several times in town on their bicycles.” A year after that, he noted that biking to work by at least one of the community’s one-room schoolteachers was the latest thing, “Anna Robinson commenced to teach the school in the Wormley district last Monday and got herself a bicycle for journeying to and from it.”

Throughout the balance of the 19th Century, well into the first decades of the 20th Century, women’s use of bicycles for transportation to work and as a leisure activity continued to grow until that was supplanted by the automobile craze.

But bicycling never entirely went away. Always popular among youngsters—I still fondly remember my first bike, a used blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower for $5—bicycling is booming again as people look for the freedom of coasting along on their bikes. And today, millions upon millions of women in the United States regularly bike, thanks, in part, to a leisure craze that turned out to be a route to women’s social and political freedom.

 

 

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