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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.