Almost, it seems, in spite of their own natural inclinations, the people of Kendall County achieved a position in the first rank of those empowering women in government. It is odd, given the county’s historic conservatism–and by conservatism, I mean the real thing, not this modern conglomeration of far right wing activism with substantial amounts of racial and religious bigotry.
In a column several years ago, I told the story of how Frances E. Lane became the state’s first female circuit clerk in 1920 when she was elected to the office by Kendall County voters [“Frances E. Lane: Kendall County’s unlikely women’s rights warrior,” “Reflections,” March 3, 2010 Ledger-Sentinel].
But it turned out the way for Lane had been paved nearly a half century before during a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Kendall County, Illinois, and the rest of the nation.
After the Civil War, railroads began a flurry of construction funded through the sale of stocks and bonds. Unscrupulous business practices coupled with a near-total lack of regulation of the nation’s economy (sound familiar?) created a gigantic financial bubble that, in 1873, explosively deflated creating the Panic of 1873, also called “The Long Depression.” [see “We ignore our financial history at our peril”].
In the years immediately after the Civil War, railroads pursued cutthroat business practices unrestrained by custom or law. Here in Kendall County, for instance, farmers living south and east of the Fox River were eligible for lower shipping rates for grain and livestock than those living north and west of the river because railroad officials wanted to lure business across the river. Prices were increased and services were cut arbitrarily. So local farmers and businessmen strongly backed a scheme to build a local rail line to directly compete with the dominant Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The new railroad was planned to connect coalfields in the Vermilion River region with Geneva, running north up the Fox River from Ottawa through Millington, Yorkville, and Oswego in Kendall County. All three communities had been bypassed when the CB&Q main line was built in the 1850s.
Villages and cities, along with townships and counties, as well as private individuals along the route subscribed to bonds to build the new line, which was to be called the Ottawa Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road. Fundraising was successful, and construction was completed early in 1871.
But too late, the line’s investors found that placing complete financial and operational control in the hands of Oliver Young, the man hired to oversee construction and operations, was a bad idea. Using his contractual power, Young subcontracted C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Young, it later became known, was an owner of Force & Company, meaning he got paid twice for doing the same work. In addition—and this is a classic bit of corporate chicanery—by the time the line was completed, Force & Co. had already signed a secret 99-year lease on the entire rail line to the CB&Q. That they didn’t actually own it was remedied about the time the tracks reached Oswego when Young assigned his entire interest to Force & Co. It was, as engineers like to say, an elegant scheme. Taxpayers and investors built the line for the CB&Q, with the only cost being what it took to buy off Young. And as part of the deal, the CB&Q had assured there’d be none of that pesky competition by writing into the agreement that freight rates on the new line would be the same as on its existing lines.
Add to that the increasingly precarious financial situation of the nation’s workers, and farmers in particular, and it was a recipe for radicalism. Which popped up in Kendall County, of all places, as farmers frantically organized. Granges (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) and Farmers’ Clubs spread throughout Kendall County. They flexed their muscles in the June 1873 judicial elections when farmer-laborer candidate Silvanus Wilcox handily defeated the favored Republican in the race.
Meanwhile, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, had been working hard on women’s suffrage in Springfield, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. Women couldn’t vote for themselves, but for the first time they could be elected to a countywide office.
On July 4, 1873, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville to consolidate support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. Interestingly enough, those activist farmers invited laborers to join their ranks as well in order to fight for economic justice. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ and laborers’ political convention at Yorkville, where a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests was overwhelmingly passed.
“We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”
It was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third political party to represent the interests of workers and farmers, but the majority favored it. And so the New Party was established.
The eventual result of the convention was the nomination of an entire New Party county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority.
Taking into account the new state women’s suffrage law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.
In the November 4, 1873 general election Chittenden ran against popular Republican John R. Marshall (who was also the founder and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s major newspaper) for the office and was soundly beaten, as were the rest of her comrades on the New Party slate. But in the doing, she established a new first for women in Kendall County.
Farmers and laborers elsewhere in Illinois did elect a few New Party candidates, but not enough to really matter. Interestingly enough, the farmers’ and laborers’ efforts were the genesis that eventually led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party.
Nevertheless, bit by bit progress was made. Populists helped pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which provided some tools to tame rapacious business and industry. But as we’ve seen recently, laws and regulations without enforcement are useless. Not until Republican Theodore Roosevelt—the Trust Buster—became President in 1901 was there official enthusiasm for enforcing the law to rein in business.
Today, that long-ago struggle is one that’s still very much alive, as is the goal of electing both men and women to offices from local school boards all the way up to the President of the United States. But also adding to the interest of those long ago political struggles is the knowledge that our ancestors right here in Kendall County were heavily involved in them right along with the more famous people we learned about in school.