Monthly Archives: June 2018

An Oswego mystery: Whatever happened to Lawrence L. Lynch?

Although she had only been publishing since 1920, by 1926 Agatha Christie was an established and well-known English mystery writer. So when she disappeared from her Berkshire, England home on Dec. 3, 1926—seemingly without a trace—it was an international sensation. The story made the front pages in virtually every British newspaper, as well as across the pond here in the U.S.

And then 10 days after her disappearance, and just as mysteriously, she reappeared at a Yorkshire health resort. What happened during those 10 days, and why, has never really been adequately explained (Christie completely ignored the subject in her autobiography), and remains a mystery to this day.

Interestingly, just like the famed British writer’s mystery, Kendall County, too, had a well-known female mystery writer with a significant question in her past.

Van Deventer, Emily Murdock

Emily Murdock Van Deventer (Little White School Museum collection)

Emily Medora Murdock—called Emma by her family and friends—was born in Oswego on January 16, 1853, the only daughter of Charles L. and Emily A. (Holland) Murdock. Charles was a justice of the peace in Oswego Township, held other local elective offices, and was an attorney.

The couple had one son, Emily’s older brother, Alfred X., who was born Nov. 30, 1844. He enlisted in the 127th Illinois Infantry and was killed at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta, Georgia on July 28, 1864. Initially buried in Georgia where he fell, his body was subsequently disinterred, brought back to Illinois and reburied in the Oswego Township Cemetery, where his parents had erected a monument in his memory.

The mysterious doings begin 13 years after her brother’s death when Emily Murdock married Lawrence L. Lynch on Valentines Day—Feb. 14, 1877—in Lincoln, Nebraska. Why and how the couple got to Lincoln would probably be an interesting story, as would how they got to Cheyenne, Wyoming, which seems a bit out of the way if they were headed back to Oswego. Unfortunately, the record is silent on those facts. What we do know is thanks to a note in the April 19, 1877 Kendall County Record: “Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, a recently-married couple and late of Cheyenne, Wyo., are now stopping at C.L. Murdock’s, the bride’s parents, she being the veritable Miss Emma Murdock.”

Two years after the couple was married, Emily published her first mystery-adventure novel, Shadowed by Three, writing under the pen name, Lawrence L. Lynch—her husband’s name.

It is unknown why Emily decided to begin a career writing mystery novels, but there’s little mystery about why she decided to use a male pen name. In the late 1870s and for decades afterwards, it simply wasn’t considered proper for women to write sensational literature such as detective and adventure novels. So she apparently decided to write her novels using the name of her husband, Lawrence L. Lynch, and presumably with his approval.

The family story in later years was that Emily decided to start writing mystery novels using the Lynch name after Lawrence died. However, the fact is she began writing using her pen name just two years after the couple married, and continued to write additional novels in the years immediately after their marriage. So it’s likely Lynch agreed to lend her his name for propriety’s sake. But then again, Emily kept using it even after the pair were no longer a couple.

Although Lynch, from occasional news notes about the couple in the Record, apparently traveled for his job, possibly as a theatrical agent (a Lawrence L. Lynch is listed as a theatrical agent in the Chicago city directory of 1876), Emily decided to embroider on his occupation a bit, claiming her books were written by “Lawrence L. Lynch (of the secret service).”

The Last Stroke

Emily Murdock Van Deventer published The Last Stroke in 1896.

According to frequent notes in the Record’s “Oswego” news column, Emily regularly joined Lynch in his travels around the country. For instance, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego columnist, reported on Aug. 28, 1879 that: “Mrs. L.L. Lynch has returned from travels with her husband.

On Dec. 7, 1882, a long letter to the editor of the Record from ‘Lawrence L. Lynch’ about the famed bandit Frank James and his upcoming trial on robbery and murder charges appeared on the front page of the paper. Whether this was really Lynch writing from Kansas City—where according to frequent notes in the paper, he apparently had business interests—or whether the real author was Emily writing under her already established pen name is not known. A note in the Nov. 9 Record had reported that “Mrs. L.L. Lynch will start to-day for Kansas City to join her husband there,” so Emily was definitely there and available to write the letter. Since no other writings attributed to Lynch himself have been discovered, and given the polished, dramatic tone of the letter, it’s not at all a stretch to assign authorship to Emily—by that time she had already published three novels under her pen name.

Sometime around 1886 or 1887, Emily ceased calling herself Emily Lynch, and reverted to her maiden name, Emily Murdock. In March 1886, she still referred to herself as Emily Lynch; by June 1887, she had become Emily Murdock once again. Whether Lawrence died, leaving her a widow as family legend states, or (perhaps more likely) the couple divorced, by mid 1887 she had retained her maiden name.

If writing mystery novels wasn’t done by young women, neither was divorce during that era, and thus the disappearance of the flesh-and-blood Lawrence L. Lynch creates a bit of a mystery. No record of the death of a Lawrence L. Lynch in the mid-1880s has yet been found. But nevertheless, she continued using her Lynch pen name, and by the time she once again became Emily Murdock, she had five published novels to her credit.

1912 abt Van Deventer, Dr A E

Emily Murdock married Dr. Abraham Van Deventer in 1887, shortly after resuming her maiden name. (Little White School Museum collection)

On July 12, 1887, not too long after the real Lawrence L. Lynch vanished from the scene, Emily Murdock (using her maiden name, Emily Medora Murdock) married Dr. Abraham Van Deventer in Oswego. Dr. Van Deventer, a recent widower and a prominent Oswego physician and Civil War veteran, had been married to Melissa Snook for 20 years until her death in 1885.

After marrying Dr. Van Deventer, Emily seems to have taken a few years’ break from publishing, although perhaps not from writing. She resumed her career as a novelist when she published The Lost Witness; or, The Mystery of Leah Paget Laird in 1890.

From 1890 until her death, she went on to publish 17 additional novels, the last, A Blind Lead, published in 1912, two years before she died as the result of a series of strokes. Besides here in the U.S., her novels were also published in England, France, and Spain.

In all, 24 titles by Emily Murdock Van Deventer writing under her Lawrence L. Lynch pen name have been discovered. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has copies of five of her novels, including her first, Shadowed by Three, 1879, and reissued in 1885; along with Madeline Paine: The Detective’s Daughter, 1883; The Diamond Coterie, 1884; Out of a Labyrinth, 1886; A Dead Man’s Step, 1893; and Against Odds: A Romance of The Midway Plaisance, 1894.

In order of publication, her books are: Shadowed by Three; The Diamond Coterie; Madeline Payne: the Detective’s Daughter; Dangerous Ground, or The Rival Detectives; Out of a Labyrinth; A Mountain Mystery, or The Outlaws of the Rockies; The Lost Witness; or The Mystery of Leah Paget Laird; Moina, or Against the Mighty; A Slender Clue, or The Mystery of Mardi Gras; The Romance of a Bomb Thrower; A Dead Man’s Step; Against Odds: A Romance of The Midway Plaisance; No Proof; The Last Stroke: A Detective Story; The Unseen Hand; High Stakes; Under Fate’s Wheel; The Woman Who Dared; The Danger Line; A Woman’s Tragedy, or The Detective’s Task; The Doverfields’ Diamonds; Man and Master; A Sealed Verdict; and A Blind Lead.

2018 Van Deventer house

The house Dr. Van Deventer built in 1902 at the southeast corner of Washington and Madison streets in Oswego is now a real estate office. (Little White School Museum collection)

Copies of many of her novels have been reprinted in recent years, attesting to her lasting popularity among at least some mystery fans.

In 1902, the Van Deventers built a new home at the southeast corner of Washington and Madison streets in Oswego. The house was newly renovated and restored in 2002, and is now used as commercial office space. Emily Van Deventer was active in local Oswego civic affairs and was a founder of the 19th Century Club, originally established to promote and educate the community’s women about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In fact, she used the World’s Fair as the backdrop for her 1894 novel Against Odds: A Romance of The Midway Plaisance. As for the 19th Century Club she help found, it has remained active in the community since it was established shortly after the exposition ended.

By the first decade of the 20th Century, Emily was one of Kendall County’s most prominent citizens. On Nov. 29, 1905, the Kendall County Record published a hagiographical sketch of the community’s famed mystery writer:

“A visit to the home of Mrs. Van Deventer in Oswego brings one into the atmosphere of a typical literary lady’s environments. To the casual caller there is a slight tinge of apprehension almost bordering on fear when the door is opened and the visitor is greeted by the barking and snapping of no less than seven spitz poodledogs, all of whom are so anxious to shake hands with the caller by nipping the bottom of his trousers that they all scrap “inter see” and tumble over each other and sometimes come near upsetting the caller himself. But they are perfectly harmless, the hostess informs you, and with this assurance of safety and easy chair is immediately occupied next to a big table heaped with magazines, books, and literary material. The pets soon become quiet, except for one little rascal, who is generally busy untying your shoestring, and you hardly know whether to persuade him to stop or maintain a safe side of the proposition by letting him have your whole shoe. Mrs. Van Deventer, writing under the fictitious name of Lawrence L. Lynch, has become La femme litteraire of Kendall county. She is now working on her 21st book, some of the advance sheets of which are now in the hands of the publishers and will soon be ready for the public, besides preparing a serial for Munsey’s magazine entitled “On the Knees of the Gods.” Her books have mostly been stories of adventure—the sensational novel—which is so much in demand today both by magazine and book publishers, because there is such a constant cry for them on the market. For many years past, Mrs. Van Deventer had all her foreign publishing done in London by Ward, Lock & Company, and to consider the manipulations of the foreign copyright laws convinces one that even for the author herself La critique est etsee, et l’art est difficile. Her books of past years including such as The Anger Line, High Stakes, Under Fate’s Wheel, The Woman Who Dared, etc. have all been translated into the German and French tongues and it was only a short while ago that Mrs. Van became aware that a big income was being derived from her works in foreign fields. Before she quits the literary profession, Mrs. Van Deventer proposes to write a story depicting the various phases of village life in Illinois, the plot of which will be laid in Oswego with prominent Oswego people making up the personnel of the character cast. It is difficult for her to get out of the line of writing in which she is now engaged as the orders for these stories come in faster than she can write them.”

Unfortunately, she never apparently finished her story with the Oswego plot and peopled by Oswego characters. After suffering a series of strokes, Emily Medora Murdock Lynch Van Deventer died at her Oswego home on May 3, 1914.

Interestingly enough, her obituary in the May 6, 1914 Kendall County Record does not mention Lawrence L. Lynch, her first husband and the source of her well-known pen name:

“Mrs. Emma Murdock Van Deventer, wife of Dr. A.E. Van Deventer, died at her late home Sunday night. Some months ago, Mrs. V. suffered a paralytic stroke, but recovered sufficiently to be about again. About a week ago, she was overcome by another stroke, which after a few days proved fatal. Born in Oswego Jan. 16, 1853, she resided with her parents who were among Oswego’s early settlers. Twenty-five years ago, she was married to Dr. A.E. Van Deventer, residing in Oswego till her death. In her girlhood days, a remarkable ability asserted itself and which soon came before the public in her many books sold extensively here and abroad. This she continued until unable to write on account of ill health. A husband is left to mourn her departure. Funeral services from Congregational church Wednesday; interment at Montgomery mausoleum.”

Her husband followed Emily in death seven months later. Emily Murdock Van Deventer—and the real story about her relationship with Lawrence L. Lynch—is buried with Dr. Abraham Van Deventer in the mausoleum at Riverside Cemetery in Montgomery just a few miles north of the Village of Oswego where she spent so much of her life.

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Inflection points: What made the Oswego area’s history

Since last winter, the Oswegoland Heritage Association’s board of directors has been working on a complete revamp of the Little White School Museum’s core exhibit.

The current core exhibit, with a few exceptions and some updating over the years, has been pretty much the same since the museum gallery opened back in 1983. So it was definitely time to do some remodeling and overhauling.

2013 June LWS Museum

Planning for a major redesign of the Little White School Museum’s exhibit gallery is creating food for historical thought.

It’s not that the community’s history has changed, of course, but we have learned a lot more about it during the past 35 years. And we’ve also learned to tell local history’s stories a lot better, too. And by doing that, we will (we hope!) reach more people and inform them about the area’s rich heritage in a way that presents history in an entertaining but nonetheless informative way.

Over the past several months, we hammered out a template that divides Oswego area history into three broad eras: prehistory to the eve of the Civil War; the end of the Civil War to the start of World War II; and the end of World War II to the present day. Current plans call for major exhibit space to be devoted to each of those three areas, plus two other standalone exhibits, one on Oswego’s Civil War experience and the other on its World War II experience.

I’ve been writing about local history since 1974 when our group of talented amateurs started work on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s county history and local history monograph series. Then I wrote about it weekly for the Fox Valley Sentinel from the fall of 1977 until Dave Dreier and Jeff and Kathy Farren merged the Sentinel with the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. From then until today, my “Reflections” column has appeared weekly in the Ledger-Sentinel an in other papers affiliated with it, all now part of the Shaw Media group.

But with all that experience telling the area’s historical story, until we laid all our ideas out for the planned new and updated exhibits in a sort of timeline, I hadn’t specifically considered the importance of the Civil War and World War II as two of the community’s three most important historical inflection points. There was no doubt about it once the facts were written down and I had a chance to see the outline in black and white.

I’ve written about the importance of those two events to the community in the past, of course, but always as singular events that had major impacts, not as the events that had irrevocable impacts on Oswego’s history.

The community’s third historical inflection point, of course, was pretty much a given—the community’s settlement in 1833 by the extended Pearce family.

Economists like to look for history’s inflection points because they help explain how regions and nations come to be what they are. Back in 2015, economist Bradford DeLong wrote a short paper declaring that the major transportation innovation that proved to be the most important inflection point for trade and transport was not the invention of the railroad in 1830s England, but instead the production of the first iron-hulled, steam engined, propeller-driven trans-Atlantic passenger liner, which was built for the British White Star Line in Belfast, Northern Ireland.RMS Oceanic. Graphic from Sakhalia Net Project web site.

ilt in 1870 for England’s White Star Line and entering transatlantic service in 1871, the RMS Oceanic featured the first all-iron hull and a steam-powered propeller in lieu of sidewheels. The ship revolutionized freight and passenger service. (Sakhalia Net Project image)

From the innovative design of RMS Oceanic came thousands of freighters and ocean liners that decreased the cost of trans-Atlantic travel to a fraction of its former cost, driving the cost of shipping everything from finished goods to agricultural crops sharply lower. He noted the cost of a third class ticket on the Oceanic was just 3 pounds sterling, the modern equivalent of about $3,300, which was half as much as during the devastating Irish potato famine of the 1840s and a quarter of the cost of a trans-Atlantic ticket in 1800. A cost so reasonable, in fact, that an immigrant could travel from Europe to the U.S. (where jobs and opportunity were plentiful—wages in the U.S. were roughly twice what they were in Britain and Europe), find work, and recoup the ticket cost in less than a year.

And that led to the great migration from the Old World to the New that brought so many of our families here. Money was carefully saved to buy one family member a ticket and send them to America, where they worked and sent home money so the rest of the family could join them. Chain migration—which for some reason has gained negative connotations these days—was efficient, economical, and led to the start of one of the most prosperous eras in the nation’s history. It was, in fact, the story of my grandfather’s family who immigrated from East Prussia in the early 1880s at the urgings of his mother’s relatives who had come earlier, settled in Aurora, and made new lives.

Getting back to our original topic, looking at local history in terms of inflection points helps organize and explain how things turned out the way they have. The most obvious of these inflection points, the settlement of the Oswego area, is a given. Others had prospected along the Fox River up through the Oswego area, but none had decided to put down any roots here. The three Pearce brothers, Daniel, John, and Walter, and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson, had walked west from the area near Dayton, Ohio, looking for likely land to settle. They chanced their prospecting trip in 1832, missing the drama of the Black Hawk War, which by the time they arrived, had moved north and west and then fizzled to a bloody conclusion with the deaths of hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women, and children.

Pearce, Daniel & Sarah

Daniel Pearce and his wife, Sarah, settled in Oswego in 1833, along with two of Daniel’s brothers and his brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s possible they came this direction because a Pearce relative, Jacob Carpenter, son-in-law of Elijah, Daniel, John, and Walter’s brother, had already come to Chicago. He may have gotten word back to them about his intentions to settle on the Fox River (he eventually became one of the first settlers of neighboring Montgomery). Whatever the reason, the Pearces and Wilson staked their claims—illegally because the land was still officially owned by the local tribes and had not been surveyed and placed for sale by the U.S. Government—and then headed back home to Ohio. There, they sold their farms and early the next year loaded their wagons and headed west to their new homes.

Luckily for them, 1833 was famed as “The Year of the Early Spring,” and they made good time on the trip, settling in quickly. Daniel settled along Waubonsie Creek where modern Route 34 crosses it and brother-in-law William Wilson chose land at what is today the busy “Five Corners” intersection in Oswego. Walter and John chose land across the Fox River.

Judson, Lewis B

Oswego was platted by Lewis B. Judson (above) and Levi F. Arnold in 1835, making it Kendall County’s oldest municipality. (Little White School Museum collection)

It didn’t take long for others to show up or to take advantage to the river ford located just above Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the Fox River. Just two years after the Pearces arrived, businessmen Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold laid out a village along the eastern bank of the Fox River and named it Hudson after the region in New York from where so many new settlers came. The growing community was granted a post office in January 1837, and that year eligible (male only) voters officially changed its name to Oswego.

Growth was explosive at that early date. Kendall County was established in February 1841 with its county seat in Yorkville. But in 1845, Oswego engineered a successful vote to capture the county seat, whereupon the village gained financial advantages from the money spent in town by those doing legal business, while it also acted as a center for the surrounding agricultural hinterland. Oswego Township’s population had grown to 1,750 by 1850, just 17 years after the first settlers’ wagons arrived. By 1860, the township’s population had surged again to 2,109.

A year later, the second of the area’s historical inflection points, the Civil War, broke out. Kendall County was a heavy participant in the conflict, sending off roughly 10 percent of its total population to fight. And the disruption was noticeable. Oswego Township’s 1865 population, counted by the state, had already fallen from its 1860 high of 2,109 to 1,924 and when the 1870 federal census was taken, the number had decreased yet again, to 1,756. In fact, Oswego Township’s population would not surpass its 1860 high until the federal census of 1950 was taken nearly a century later.

Murdock, A.X

Alfred X. Murdock, who grew up in Oswego, was one of more than 200 young Kendall County men and boys who died during the Civil War and was one of 70 killed in action. Murdock was shot and died during the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. (Little White School Museum collection)

So what happened? First was the impact of the war itself. A total of 267 Kendall County men and boys died in military service, including eight as prisoners of war and 70 killed in action out of a total 1860 county population of 13,074, meaning two percent of the county’s total population died as a result of the war. Dozens of others survived the war only to die later of their wounds or of its psychological effects. In an era when PSTD was unknown, the drunkenness and mental problems of ex-soldiers were attributed to personal weaknesses and not the war’s effect.

Second, it’s not unreasonable to assume that soldiers’ wartime experiences made them less likely to be satisfied with their former, quiet lives as farmers and store clerks. With the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, millions of acres of land had been opened for settlement west of the Mississippi, and that gave all those restless soldiers a place to try making new lives. Others decided to try carving new homes from the states of the old Confederacy. In short, there was no lack of opportunities and lots of folks took them. Those opportunities were enhanced by a new rail line built directly through Oswego in 1870. After that, it was easy for folks to load their goods aboard rail cars at the siding downtown and have them hauled west across the Mississippi to new towns growing up along the transcontinental railroad.

By the mid-1880s, the area’s population losses were palpable. Writing in the March 8, 1884 Kendall County Record, Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported on four more farming families, the Shumways, Linegars, the Alfred Wormleys and the August Schmidts loading their goods to head west. “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum,” Rank grumbled.

1911 Oswego Phone switchboard

Although Oswego’s population did not recover its losses suffered after the Civil War, the community did enjoy modern improvements, such as the Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in the Burkhart Building on South Main Street, shown here in March 1911. (Little White School Museum collection)

For the next four decades, Oswego continued to lose population. Not that conveniences and modern life didn’t arrive, of course. Electrical service, telephone communications, municipal gas service, and an interurban trolley line all came to make things easier for the average Oswegoan, along with progress out on the farm with mechanization and better, more efficient breeds of livestock and crops.

But Oswego’s steady population loss wasn’t turned around until the years following World War I. The township’s population in 1920 finally showed some growth. That was echoed in 1930 and again in 1940, despite the effects of the Great Depression that ravaged the area along with the rest of the country. By the early 1930s, economic conditions were so dire that Kendall County farmers and townsmen alike were willing to accept the U.S. Government’s help offered by a almost bewildering variety of alphabet agencies from WPA and PWA to NRA (the National Recovery Administration, not to be confused with today’s National Rifle Association) and AAA. In Oswego, WPA projects included adding onto and jacking up the Little White School to add a basement to funding a summer recreation program—the ancestor of today’s Oswegoland Park District. Another organization that helped the area was one more of those alphabet agencies, the CCC. Young men who signed up for a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps were transported to national and state parks all over the country to build trails, lodges, picnic areas, and more. It not only gave them a little income, but it also removed them from the local employment pool at a time when unemployment was 30 percent and there just weren’t enough jobs to go around.

Which brings us to the last inflection point: World War II.

1944 July Seahorse Crew

The crew of the Balo Class submarine USS Seahorse, with the ship’s captain, Commander Slade Cutter sitting in the front row, fourth from left. An Oswego native, Cutter was one of the most successful submarine commanders of the war. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hundreds of young Kendall County men and women went off to fight the Axis powers, all of them serving in what became the biggest government program in the nation’s history. War work increased local employment as local factories switched from civilian products to the sinews of war. Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery, for instance, engaged in war work from manufacturing landing mats for amphibious operations in the South Pacific and fabricating vertical stabilizers for F4-U Corsair fighter planes. At the same time, work needs increased, the absence of all those young soldiers, sailors, and marines of both sexes caused wages to rise during the war years.

Local folks played integral roles in all aspects of the war. Oswego’s self-taught physicist Dwight Young worked directly with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, building the first atom bomb. Oswego farm boy, talented flautist, and Annapolis football and boxing All-American Slade Cutter became one of the war’s most successful submarine captains, sinking the second largest total of Japanese shipping and earning four Navy Crosses along with a host of other prestigious awards for valor.

After the war, all those young men and women came home and partook of the generous G.I. benefits, using them to build new homes and get college educations, giving the Oswego area its first economic bump forward.

1958 Aerial BH, Cat, Western Elect

Boulder Hill from the air in 1958, looking west. The new Caterpillar Tractor Company plant is in the upper left, while the Western Electric electronics manufacturing plant is just across the Fox River at mid-right. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in the early 1950s, looking for good places to locate new factories, Caterpillar Tractor Company and Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of Bell Telephone Company, selected northern Oswego Township as the location for their new factories. Cat built new on a sprawling site along the old West River Road—Illinois Route 31—between Montgomery and Oswego, while Western Electric chose to rehab and enlarge a former wallpaper factory that had been turned to war work, located between the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line and the Fox River on the northern border of Oswego Township.

Don L. Dise, a native Pennsylvanian who was looking for housing development opportunities west of Chicago, heard about plans for the two huge plants and started looking for a good spot to build homes for those newly returned and married veterans. He put together a consortium of developers and in 1955 they purchased the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm where the Bereman family had raised more than 700 acres of crops along with thoroughbred Percheron draft horses. Naming their new development Boulder Hill after the old Bereman farm, Don L. Dise, Inc. began construction of what would become thousands of new homes in Kendall County’s first planned community.

Many if not most of those new homes were sold to former servicemen under the terms of the G.I. Bill, which meant nothing down and attractive financing, especially for new housing. But it wasn’t all ex-G.I.’s. A substantial contingent of professions, especially mid-level CB&Q Railroad executives, chose to located in Boulder Hill in those early years as well.

Dise’s plans not only called for homes. He also envisioned stores, churches, schools, and parks to make Boulder Hill a complete community similar to the Levittown developments in his native Pennsylvania. And he did it, too.

1978 Western Electric Plant

The Western Electric plant just across the Fox River from Boulder Hill once employed hundreds of workers. The plant was shuttered by Lucent Technologies in 1995 and demolished in 1997. (Little White School Museum collection)

In so doing he opened northeastern Kendall County to development. Which raised a few questions. Boulder Hill was situated in unincorporated Oswego Township and Dise had no plans to incorporate it into a separate municipality like Oswego or neighboring Montgomery. As a result, municipal services were fractured with municipal water eventually supplied by Montgomery; sanitary sewer service was provided by the Aurora Sanitary District; fire protection came from the Oswego Fire Protection District; police protection was supplied by the Kendall County Sheriff’s Department; library service came via the Oswego Township Library; street maintenance including snow plowing provided by Oswego Township; schools from Oswego Community School District 308; and park service from the Oswegoland Park District. With Boulder Hill as a model other unincorporated subdivisions popped up, the largest, the related Shore Heights and Marina Terrace developments right across the Fox River from Oswego.

If the new developments had any major societal shortcomings, it was the near total lack of people of color welcomed into them. That can probably be laid at the feet of how G.I. Bill loans were structured. They were approved by Southern legislators only with provisions that approval would be at the local, not the federal, level, which allowed blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities to be excluded. Not until the civil rights era of the late 1960s did things change in that respect.

The surge in development had a major impact on Oswego Township’s governmental services. Previously maintaining only rural roads, virtually all of them gravel surfaced, the Oswego Township Highway Department suddenly found itself maintaining dozens of miles of urban streets, sidewalks, and storm sewers. Oswego’s public schools also found themselves facing the pressure of rapidly increasing enrollments as the previously mainly rural school district began changing into a suburban district.

1968 Apr Hyper Sonic w Tower

Newly returned from Vietnam, 1964 Oswego High School grad Jim Williams snapped this photo of Brian Murphy’s “hyper-Sonic” at the Oswego Dragway in August 1968. (Little White School Museum collection)

The era attracted some late 20th Century innovations, the most famous of which was the Oswego Dragway, where drag racers from across the nation arrived every Sunday to compete on a quarter-mile track just west of the village on U.S. Route 34. They raced on a dirt strip for the first year or so before the owners, the Smith brothers, paved the former farmland with asphalt. It was extremely popular, drawing crowds from throughout the west suburban Chicago region. In 1957, at a time when Oswego’s population was just over 1,200, nearly 5,000 drivers, pit crew, officials, and spectators would show up to participate in, and watch the Sunday races.

Meanwhile, development continued apace until the Reagan recession of the early 1980s when it took a breather for a decade or so before accelerating again in the 1990s. And that’s when Oswego and Kendall County hit the development big-time. Until the recession of 2009, the area was, in percentage terms, often the fastest growing region of the country.

2004 OEHS exterior

Until the early 1980s, the Oswego School District operated one high school, two junior highs, and three elementary schools to educate around 4,000 students. As of the recently completed 2017-18 school year, the district now operates two high schools (including Oswego East High School, above); five junior high schools; 13 elementary schools and an early learning center that serve a total school district enrollment of more than 18,000 students.

By 1980, the Village of Oswego’s population stood at 3,021 while Boulder Hill’s totaled 9,333. Contrary to local legend, despite its size, Boulder Hill was never largest unincorporated subdivision in the United States, or even Illinois. But it was big—the biggest single community in Kendall County. But 1980 was Boulder Hill’s pinnacle. From that date on, an aging housing stock and a growing population of empty-nesters led to a steady decline in population on “the Hill.” Meanwhile, Oswego was growing, and growing fast, by annexing land on which ever-larger subdivisions were being built. In part, the village’s land annexations were made strategically, with an eye towards maintaining zoning control over nearby areas before neighboring communities could snap them up.

Those new developments all had the advantage of municipal services provided by Oswego’s municipal government. No waiting for a sheriff’s squad to respond to problems from far-off Yorkville or any waits for street maintenance, while residents enjoyed far cheaper solid waste pickup thanks to the village’s contracting with waste haulers.

By 1990, Oswego’s population had grown slightly to 3,876 while Boulder Hill’s had declined slightly to 8,894. But by 2000, Oswego boasted a total population of 13,326, easily—and for the first time ever—surpassing Boulder Hill’s 8,169. And by 2010, Oswego’s explosive growth was clear as its population stood at a remarkable 30,303. That was more than Kendall County’s entire 1970 population, and more than three times Boulder Hill’s 2010 population of 8,108.

Which, I believe, can all be traced back to a combination of events that merged with each other—into that inflection point—that began with the end of World War II: government G.I. Loan programs, a large population of young families, industrialization on a large scale making use of the area’s educated workforce, pent-up demand for financial investment, and plenty of land suitable for development.

It’s been an interesting journey from the time the Pearces got here in 1833, and it’s likely to get more so since history insists on happening anew every day.

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Wheatland’s remarkable, scientific plowing match

The other day on Facebook, a guy got to wondering about an old sign he’d come across that advertised the Wheatland Plowing Match, which was once a big deal in eastern Wheatland and eastern Oswego townships here in northern Illinois.

Noting some of the information on the sign, he wondered: “Apparently plowing competitions were once a thing, but I am stumped as to how they incorporated a ‘ladies fair’ into such an event…:

To dig into this topic, we’ve got to go back in time to the region’s pioneer era. In the 1840s and 1850s, farming families from Scotland and Germany immigrated to the United States, and they wound up settling in northeastern Kendall and northwestern Will counties.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape in this Malcolm Rance snapshot of the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match, held that year on the John Hafenrichter farm, looks more like South Dakota than northern Illinois. By that hear, the match was one of the most popular agricultural events in the region. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Germans brought their rigorous work ethic to an area that was also being populated by their German-speaking cousins from the Pennsylvania Dutch region, who were arriving here in northern Illinois about the same time, and the two groups formed a cohesive German-speaking settlement that soon became known for its prosperous, well-run farms.

The Scots came seeking better, cheaper farmland than their thin-soiled rocky homeland, as well as more opportunity. Scotland was in the throes of a socio-economic revolution as large landowners forced farmers off their rented lands in an effort to maximize wool production. But Scotland’s loss was our gain, as dozens of skilled farmers decided to cross the Atlantic and try their luck with the rich prairie soil of Illinois.

The hardworking Germans and the canny Scots soon came to respect each other’s strong points. And the main strong point of the Scots farmers was their scientific approach to tilling the land.

Wheatland Plow Match Rumley Oil

The 1911 Plowing Match included plowing by farm tractors like this Rumely Oil Pull that would gradually supplant draft horses as the prime motive power for plowing. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the early years of the 19th century, the British Isles had become the center of an agricultural revolution, combining increasing mechanization with scientific techniques to increase the yield of both crops and livestock through genetic manipulation and land use practices. Farmers experimented with machines like seed drills, invented in the early 1700s, that proved superior to the old method of broadcast seeding and faster than planting individual seeds by hand. New plow designs were created, wet land was drained, crop rotation was analyzed and scientifically improved, and livestock breeding was placed on a scientific footing.

These techniques and more were brought to eastern Oswego and western Wheatland townships in the 1840s by Scots farming families with names like Patterson, Clow, Stewart, Ferguson, McMicken, and Harvey. By the 1870s, they were operating successful, growing farms and had also built churches and helped establish public schools they shared with their German-speaking neighbors.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This 1905 photo of the Wheatland Plowing Match grounds gives a flavor of the event’s popularity. (Little White School Museum collection)

In an effort to promote best practices in agriculture and to recognize those who were excelling, three prominent Scots and English farmers decided to use that idea to establish a new kind of farming festival. At the urging and invitation of James Patterson, Henry Massey and A.S. Thomas, a dozen farmers met at a one-room country school in Wheatland Township on July 15, 1877 and voted to establish what eventually became the Wheatland Plowing Association. The first competitive plowing match was set for Sept. 22 of that year on the farm of Alexander Brown.

The idea behind the match was to assess skill in plowing. Plowmen were to be judged on straightness, neatness, and evenness of their furrows. Depth of the furrow was to be no less than five inches and each plowman was required to plow a half-acre in no more than three and a half hours. The grand prize winner that year was James King, who took home the $15 prize. His descendants would continue to excel at the craft of plowing until the last match was held. Runners-up were John Thompson, Henry Westphal, Edward Green and Chris Catchpole, while the boys’ category winner was John Netley, who took home a neat $8—$187 in today’s dollars. The

1907 Wheatland Plowing Match ladied

My great-grandmother and my grandmother are both in this photo of the women who were tasked with preparing the noon meal at the 1906 Wheatland Plowing Match. The match had been held on their farm in 1895.

first match also reportedly had exhibits of farm implements displayed by local dealers, a feature that would grow during the next century.

By the next year, the plowing match had started to turn into an event whose size surprised everyone—perhaps even its creators. As the Sept. 26, 1878 Kendall County Record reported: “Saturday, Sept. 21st was the day advertised by the farmers of Wheatland township, Will county, (better known as Scotch settlement) for their annual plow trial. The trial was held on the farm of Robt. Clow Esq., about nine miles east of Oswego. To our great surprise the attendance was as large as the first day of the Will County Fair. A better show of plowmen and plowing would be hard to find. As the plowing progressed it was generally conceded that the Sulkies [riding plows] did better work than the Walking Plows, the work being side by side could be easily compared.”

And the Wheatland Plowing Match was off and running.

In those early years, the match was shared around the neighborhood, the neighborhood being the area along modern Ill. Route 59 from today’s White Eagle Club south to 127 Street, east to the DuPage River and west to the Kendall County line. And it didn’t take any time at all for the area’s German-speaking farmers to join in the event. After all, the Scots and Germans had already begun to intermarry, with, for instance, Minnigs, Lantzes and Schals marrying into the Patterson clan.

1939 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

Graeme Stewart competes in the Wheatland Plowing Match in this photo taken about 1940. By that time, horses had mostly supplanted horse-drawn plows. (Little White School Museum collection)

So by 1895, it was common for the match to be hosted by German farmers, including my Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandfather. The Record’s NaAuSay correspondent reported in the paper’s Sept. 25 edition that: “The plowing match at Wheatland on Saturday on the farm of Peter Lantz was a great attraction for farmers for many miles around. NaAuSay had a good share of its farmers there. It was estimated there was about nine to ten thousand people present.”

You read that right: nine to ten thousand attendees in the days of travel by horse and buggies.

1955 Wheatland Plowing Match

Aerial shot of the 1955 Wheatland Plowing Match in the late afternoon shows most of the spectators’ cars have left. Note the plowed strips at right where competition plowing was held. (Little White School Museum collection)

The plowing match became so much a part of the local farm calendar that other unrelated events were scheduled around it. Starting in 1933, for instance, my family simply stated the usual time for their annual family reunion would be the second Sunday after the plowing match.

The matches gradually grew in size, too, eventually incorporating such county fair-like attractions as baking and sewing contests. School kids submitted samples of their cursive handwriting for prizes and agricultural-based businesses flocked to set up booths to advertise their wares. My favorite was always the fire insurance booth that featured a miniature house that would catch fire after being struck by static electricity-generated “lightning.” The displays of the latest farm equipment offered irresistible opportunities for youngsters to climb on. I even took my first airplane ride at a Wheatland Plowing Match. We must have been 7 or 8 years old when my buddy Bob Chada and I were strapped into the front seat of Earl Matter’s bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub and were thrilled to see our farm neighborhood from the air.

1949 Roger at Plowing Match

The author test-drives a brand new International Harvester Farmall tractor at the 1949 Wheatland Plowing Match.

The matches were only interrupted by the two world wars, skipping one year for World War I and four years for World War II. With peace finally at hand, the Record’s Oswego correspondent gratefully wrote on Sept. 18, 1946: “Nearly everyone and his brother attended the Wheatland Plowing match on Saturday. The weather was perfect for the event and the crowd was very large and happy to meet after four long years.”

The plowing match continued to attract large crowds through the 1950s and 1960s, but then interest began to wane. Increased urbanization in DuPage and Will counties where the matches were held and decreasing numbers of farmers due to technological advances finally led to the event’s last hurrah in 1976.

Today, the Wheatland Plowing Match is but a footnote in our area’s agricultural history and traditions. But its one that left lasting memories for many of us and a lasting legacy of promoting the best scientific farming practices while providing a bit of rural entertainment for hardworking, innovative prairie farmers.

Note: If you’d like more information on the plowing match, the Wheatland Plow Match Association records from 1898 to 1978 are in the Regional History Center at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. The Naperville Heritage Association Library and Archives at the Naper Settlement also has a small, but nice collection of Wheatland Plowing Match memorabilia including several Wheatland Plowing Match Ladies’ Fair booklets from the 1890s and early 1900s.

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