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.
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.”
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.
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.