Monthly Archives: September 2018

Generations growing up on Fox River…

Haven’t had much time to blog recently due to a family tragedy, but have had time during recent sleepless nights to think back over the years I’ve lived here along the banks of the Fox River, first with my parents, and then with my own wife and kids.

Two weeks ago, my funny, smart, talented, talkative daughter died of an apparent seizure, something we’re still trying to process as we deal with all the effects of that death.

I was eight when my parents moved off the farm to our riverside neighborhood; she was a year and a half old when my wife and I moved back here. We raised both her and her brother here and the river was always part of both of their childhood landscape.

Now I’m finally having a chance to sit here and watch the relatively fast-flowing current, brown with silt and other products of storm runoff, and I’m transported back to my own childhood growing up here in this riverside neighborhood.

We’ve had quite a bit of rain in this late summer of 2018. A lot of that rain fell, and continues to fall, up north along the northern reaches of the Fox, and the runoff has swelled the river virtually all summer. And that’s unusual. Generally, by this time of year, the river’s bones—gravel bars, boulders, old fallen tree snags—are clearly showing and it’s easy to walk across our narrow channel on stepping stones without getting the soles of our shoes wet. Not this year.

2018 Rising sawmill foundation stones

Tumbled and turned, the flagstones of the Rising sawmill’s foundation still mark the old mill’s location along the east bank of the Fox River at Troy Park in Oswego.

In those 1950s summers, we’d spend hours on the river in our scows, and we got to intimately know our stretch of river. We knew that it was almost impossible to pole up the channel along the west bank of the river because its bottom was smooth limestone. It could be done, sometimes, at low water, but never when there was much of a current. We could pole up over the middle of the old dam by expending a lot of effort. There were plenty of rocks and gravel on the bottom to give our poles good purchase. I didn’t know it then, but that gravel and those rocks were debris left over from the old mill dam that crossed the river there.

Dam building technology in the 19th Century called for building timber frames—cribs—out of squared-off oak and walnut trees, hauling them out into the stream, and then fastening the frames to the limestone bottom with hand-forged iron stakes. Those stakes were hefty things; we retrieved a couple over the years. They were about an inch and a half square and three or so feet long. After the cribbing was set firmly in place, it was gradually filled with gravel and rubble to create the dam. The structure was finished by being clad on the downstream side with thick wooden planks to encourage smooth water flow down the downstream side.

Well before we came along, the old dam had been damaged and virtually erased by floods—freshets, the old-timers called them—and spring ice floes. So all that was left was a low rubble mound from bank to bank that slowed but did not dam the river.

Along with a few of those giant stakes described above, there were also some of those old timber framing members still staked to the river bottom that would show up during periods of low water.

We learned to be careful around the remains of the old dam. The river was shallow on the crest of the destroyed dam, but on the downstream side, the action of water spilling over top of the dam for more than a half-century had eroded deep holes into the limestone riverbed. We learned where those holes were because while poling our scows in those areas, the bottom would sometimes seem to drop right out of the river and our longest poles couldn’t touch bottom.

If we had been inclined to wade in the river, that would have been even more vital information. But we were seldom lured into wading, and when we were, we always wore an old pair of tennis shoes because the river bottom was a virtual carpet of broken glass and scrap metal. And, of course, there was the water quality. In the 1950s, the river’s water was thick with heavy metals and other nasty pollutants that led to stunted, diseased fish and the extermination of most mollusks and crustaceans except for hardy crawfish. The major fish kills of the late 1950s, when a chemical factory upstream in North Aurora dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killed virtually everything in the river from Aurora to Yorkville. So, boating was in; wading was definitely out.

On either bank of the river at the ends of the old dam were the remains of the two mills, a gristmill on the west bank and a sawmill on the east bank. The only thing left of them when we started spending time of the river were the mills’ foundation stones, giant slabs of flagstone, probably mined just upstream on the west bank at the Wormley quarry.

“Stone! Stone!” an advertisement in the July 7, 1881 Kendall County Record and signed by George D. Wormley announced. At his quarry located one mile north of Oswego on the west side of the river, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”

1974 Melissa & Roger fishermen

Father and daughter on a 1974 fishing expedition. Fishing was good, catching not so much…

Those giant slabs of flagstone where Nathaniel Rising built his sawmill about 100 feet north of where I’m writing this, provided perfect fishing platforms and boat landings for us, not to mention wonderful backdrops for hours of make-believe play.

The low dams of our Midwestern rivers seldom provided enough head for the big overshot water wheels that powered mills in southern Illinois and in the East. Instead, tub wheels early on and then turbines, both of which were horizontal and not vertical affairs, were the most common around these parts. One of those old turbines has been preserved by the Fox Valley Park District up in the Montgomery riverside park, on the west bank immediately north of the bridge.

The mill ruins on the west bank of the river, which I can just barely make out through the trees today, were less spectacular. I suspect much of that mill’s foundational flagstone was reused by local residents for other purposes.

During the years, a couple small islands had formed atop the ruins of the old dam, one here on the east bank, and another, sort of small double island, almost to the west bank. The west bank island had a small inlet that was handy to dock a boat while we fished off its shore into the fast current rushing along the west bank. The little island on the east bank—everyone called it the Little Island—was our territory for all sorts of escapades.

When I bought my first shotgun (a three-shot bolt-action Mossberg 20-gauge) my neighbor John Morley and I built a duck blind on the Little Island and for two autumns in a row lay in wait for waterfowl that never came. In that day of polluted river water, we never saw a duck or goose for two solid years, other than ones migrating high overhead in the fall. None of them were dumb enough to land on the poisoned waters of the Fox River.

As fall segued into winter, we prayed for dry weather, the drier the better. Because with dry weather, the river level dropped and the current stilled so that when the first cold days came along, the surface froze. We watched it carefully, gingerly walking out onto the ice with a hatchet to chop a hole to test its thickness. When it reached three or four inches it was time to get the skates out of the basement, taken them up to Crosby Sporting Goods in Aurora to get them sharpened, and head out onto the ice.

The cold during those winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s was intense, and the Fox Valley’s creeks and springs (instead of municipal sewer plants) were still the river’s major tributaries. So the river often froze over completely, bank to bank. From here just below the old dam, we could skate south to the Oswego Bridge, or after carefully picking our way over the old dam’s remains, head north three miles to Boulder Hill. It was on one of those skating expeditions downriver to the Oswego Bridge that I discovered another one of those holes in the river bottom. A spring emptied into the river near a small island about a half mile south of our house and that, unbeknownst to me, kept the ice in that channel thin. Skating along, I heard the ice crack, and before I knew it, I was on the ice, one leg through the surface and in the water, the other still on top. What concerned me is that I couldn’t feel the bottom with my submerged skate, something wholly unexpected—not to mention a bit frightening. But I was able to lay flat, work my leg back through the hole in the ice, and crawl to firm ice. On the skate home through the bitter cold, the soaked leg of my jeans froze solid, making it a little challenging to keep going—but I made it and was even able to conceal the adventure from my parents, who surely would have forbade any further ice skating adventures on the river.

2018 Melissa Marie Matile crop

Melissa Marie Matile 1966-2018

My daughter and her neighborhood friends played up and down the river during their childhood, too, and were even able to skate once in a great while, although by the early 1970s, the river was already warming during the winter due to increased use of river water upstream. When my son came along, he, too, and his friends made the river their territory, although skating by them was almost totally out of the question.

So I sit and watch this familiar, but ever-changing scene of river and island and shoreline enjoyed by six generations of my family, with a seventh just starting the process as my grandtwins, my daughter’s beloved niece and nephew, start to take up their own residence here. It keeps those memories of my daughter all those years ago alive somehow as we try to process her sudden disappearance from our lives.

 

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Filed under family, Fox River, Nostalgia

When it came to crime, it really was the “Roaring ’20s” in Kendall County…

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a period of history by its nickname. Sometimes not so much. For instance, the “Gay ‘90s” definitely were not happy and carefree, while the “Roaring ‘20s” definitely were all of that—and more.

The decade of the 1890s began with the Panic of 1893, one of the longest and deepest financial depressions in the nation’s history. Here in Kendall County, during a period of just a couple weeks, every bank failed and the repercussions drove numerous business owners and farmers into bankruptcy. The balance of the decade, far from the carefree picture in our minds of young women and men riding their bicycles built for two, was a grim climb back to financial solvency.

The “Roaring ‘20s,” on the other hand, were just that. Economic growth was stratospheric (fueled in part by all those World War I Liberty Bonds), newly available economical and dependable automobiles were creating an astonishingly mobile society, and even small town America was seeing a slice of the pie.

But while some areas of the economy were booming—the stock market in particular—other areas definitely were not. The farm depression that followed World War I was deepening, and that had serious effects in largely rural counties like Kendall. In addition, the approval of the 18th Amendment, which took affect on Jan. 17, 1920, banning the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was having a negative effect on small towns that relied on saloon licenses for much of their municipal revenue.

In the case of nationwide prohibition of alcohol, however, the citizenry started to push back almost immediately. The original physical opposition to Prohibition began at the local level; it would take a couple years for crime to become organized enough to take over bootlegging on a big scale.

Here in Kendall County, the Roaring ‘20s kicked off with the robbery of the State Bank of Newark in October. Rural banks had been favorites of robbers for years, but starting in 1920, the means and methods of the crimes began to change, primarily by the addition of automobiles as getaway vehicles. In the Newark case, a familiar face was on hand when the matter got to court. Fred Stuppy had been sent to prison a few years before for his role in robbing the Millbrook bank.

It was suddenly occurring to local officials that they were seriously under equipped to handle what seemed to be a growing wave of crime. Criminals had become more mobile as better roads and better cars came available, and they were often better armed than local constables and sheriffs.

As the Kendall County Record editorialized on Nov. 21, 1920: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Two years later, the General Assembly would create the Illinois State Police to help combat the rising tide of criminality in rural areas.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

Oswego’s Liberty Garage in 1927 after it’s purchase by Earl Zentmyer, who turned it into the village’s Ford dealership. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that local law enforcement wasn’t already trying their best, and sometimes finding themselves in perilous circumstances. In late April 1921, James Joslyn shot and killed West Chicago Chief of Police George Reihm while escaping from the attempted theft of lumber. Joslyn was working on an addition to his house and decided to get the material by robbing a lumber yard, killing Reihm when he got in the way. Joslyn kept one step ahead of the law for the next few months, eventually winding up in Oswego, where he and his wife and small son camped in Watts Cutter’s woods off South Main Street while he worked at the Liberty Garage. Although Joslyn was a good worker, Liberty Garage owner Clyde Lewis became suspicious when Joslyn showed up with a brand new Ford coupe wondering what the best way was to remove the serial numbers from the engine.

Yorkville Creamery

The old Yorkville Creamery where Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell shot it out with James Joslyn in 1921. (Little White School Museum collection)

And that’s where the new telecommunications technology came into play. Calls between Lewis, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell, and the Aurora Police Department convinced Hextell that Joslyn was worth questioning at least. And so with Lewis and deputy Frank Wellman in the car, Hextell headed to Yorkville, where Joslyn had been headed. The sheriff caught up to Joslyn at the old creamery building, and got out of his car just as Joslyn walked up to see who was in the car. Seeing the sheriff, Joslyn backed up, turned, and started to run. Hextell shouted for him to stop and fired a warning shot in the air. At that, Joslyn pulled his own pistol and snapped off a hurried shot at Hextell that nearly clipped the sheriff’s ear. Hextell fired in reply, hitting Joslyn in the side, knocking him down. As Hextell, Lewis, and Wellman approached Joslyn, they heard a shot, finding he’d shot himself in the head rather than suffer arrest and imprisonment. It wasn’t until Hextell compared notes with other law enforcement agencies that it was found Joslyn had a lengthy criminal record—including that active warrant for the murder of Reihm.

But beside garden variety gunfights, it was Prohibition that was preying on local minds as enterprising folks attempted to find ways around the new law. In October 1922, Hextell arrested J. Busby at his farm near the Five Mile Bridge between Yorkville and Plano for bootlegging. Explained the Kendall County Record: “When Sheriff Hextell served the search warrant he and his assistants found 24 different varieties of ‘booze,’ ranging from ‘home brew’ to cherry cordial.”

On Jan. 10, 1923, Record publisher Hugh Marshall commended the county’s law enforcement establishment: “Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [speakeasies] within its boundaries.”

As it turned out, Marshall’s congratulations were a bit premature, even as the redoubtable Sheriff Hextell was replaced by the new sheriff in town, George Barkley. I’ll let Marshall tell the story of what happened next as recounted in the March 28 Record:

“Sheriff Barkley and his assistants uncovered one of the biggest stills ever found in this part of the country in one place and a large supply of beer and whisky in another in raids made on Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night the sheriff and posse visited Plano where they searched the sample room of Stanley VanKirk and the sandwich room of his brother, Charles VanKirk, better known as “Bumps.” From these two raids, they garnered 80 cases of beer said to have been made in a Joliet brewery, and 14 quarts of supposed “real” whisky. Sheriff Barkley was assisted by former Sheriff Hextell and State Agents Jack Lecker and Pasnik. They had been working about Plano for two weeks. The two VanKirks were brought to Yorkville, where they were arraigned before Judge Larson on Tuesday pled guilty to the charges and were fined. Charles VanKirk paid $500; Stanly VanKirk, $300, and “Pidge” Robbins, who was arrested with them, stood a $100 levy.

“The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.”

Parker, Hawley, Schickler house

Built in 1869 by farmer and business owner George Parker, this ornate Italianate-style home featured a drive-in basement. Later owned by lawyer P.G. Hawley, it was sold to John Schickler, who attempted to run an illegal distilling operation there. (Little White School Museum collection)

While Stan and Bumps VanKirk’s activities didn’t seem to startle anyone too much, the Schickler distilling operation seemed to be a real surprise for local officials. John Schickler was a long-time Oswego businessman and farmer. He built the brick block of stores at the northwest corner of Washington and Main streets in the village’s downtown business district, where he variously operated a saloon and a grocery store. He’d purchased the old Parker-Hawley farm with its huge house that featured a drive-in basement.

Given prohibition, and Schickler’s former career running saloons, he and his son Clarence apparently decided to fulfill a need they figured the community had. John Schickler had always been interested in technology, and had added some of the most up-to-date features to his downtown Oswego building, including a freight elevator and a modern cooler for groceries and meat. So it wasn’t too surprising to see the amount of technology he and Clarence used to distill legal denatured medicinal alcohol into definitely illegal drinking liquor.

In the end, the Schicklers got what amounted to a slap on the wrist and the admonition to go and sin no more, which they apparently took seriously. Unfortunately, they also managed to get the notice of the local Ku Klux Klan. The Klan reportedly held a cross burning on the front lawn of the Schickler house, something that could have been fueled either by the Schicklers’ bootlegging activities or by the fact that they were Catholics.

John Schickler died in 1931, and Clarence found other things to do. “He was a slot machine king and his wife was a showgirl,” one elderly Oswego resident told me several years ago. Clarence, a few years after the bootlegging adventure, started the Schickler Dairy on the farm, milking 20 cows and housing the bottling operating in same basement where he and his father had distilled bootleg whisky.

At the time law enforcement raided it, the Schicklers’ operation seemed large and sophisticated. But it was paltry by later standards as crime became better organized.

In October 1930, police raided a farm a mile east of Plano and found six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, along with about 4,000 gallons of distilled alcohol, two boilers, and a large amount of yeast. And that was just one of a half-dozen or so operations knocked over during those years.

Despite the hopes of many Americans, the end of Prohibition in 1933 didn’t necessarily mean the end of local bootlegging. The biggest haul of federal and local agents took place in October 1936, well after Prohibition ended, as the mob tried to maintain a tax-free supply of alcohol. And the amounts of liquor the operation was about to produce were really astonishing, throwing the Schicklers’ operation back in 1923 definitely in the shade.

Here’s the account from the April 19, 1936 Record:

“Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…

“According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the ‘Feds’ on Thursday, April 9.

“The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed ‘the finest plant of its type in this territory.’ The plant was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.

“The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this. A wrecking crew from Chicago wrecked the equipment.”

After that, criminals in Kendall County got mostly back to the usual bank robberies and other crimes, including the occasional shoot-out with police.

Too often we read in the paper about some criminal activity or another and think to ourselves how much nicer it would be if we could go back to a simpler time when things weren’t so violent. But the thing is, that time never really existed.

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