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.

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

 

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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Filed under Business, Civil War, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

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