Monthly Archives: October 2018

Tiptoeing perilously close to self-praise…

Self-praise, my mother used to say, stinks. Earthy, but descriptive, and it’s something that’s stuck with me all my life. So it’s probably not an accident that I view the current occupant of the White House with more than a little disdain.

And then, as if my mother’s stern injunction wasn’t enough, I married someone who has a lot of Quaker in her background, and who is so opposed to blowing her own horn that she’s still never even read two local history booklets the two of us wrote back in 1975.

All that said, I now intend to blow my own horn a little, although I’m not ready to go so far as to call it self-praise because, you know, that’s bad.

Here it goes: I earned a first place in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s 2018 Newspaper Contest for the best local column in the non-daily paper classification. The awards were announced Oct. 18 at NINA’s annual awards dinner at Northern Illinois University.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

One of the columns that proved to be NINA award-winners concerned discovering the exact date of this photo of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. An original copy of the photo is in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield and Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

My “Reflections” column has been appearing weekly in Oswego’s weekly paper, the Ledger-Sentinel (corporate changed the name back to the Oswego Ledger a while ago, but I like the old name), since July 1980 when Jeff and Kathy Farren talked me into becoming the editor of the newly combined Oswego Ledger and Fox Valley Sentinel. Although I retired as the editor (and also a beat reporter—weekly newspaper folks do everything from photography to writing obits) of the Ledger-Sentinel back in 2008—I agreed to continue doing my weekly local history column, because it’s fun and I always enjoy a chance to talk history, even if I’m only talking to myself. It now also appears in several other Shaw Media newspapers on an irregular basis as well as the four papers they own here in Kendall County.

For the annual NINA contest, several columns have to be submitted written during the contest year, and this year, my editor, John Etheredge, sent in four of them including the Feb. 1 one on George Washington’s slave wedding gift and a similar one affecting a local family; the Jan. 29 piece on the Great Millbrook Bank Robbery; my May 25 update on the Nathan Hughes photo (he was a black Civil War veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment); and my Sept. 14 piece on how standardized testing in in public schools is virtually eliminating the study and appreciation of local history.

The contest is judged (mostly) by the profs in the journalism department at Northern Illinois University, which gives it a nice academic aura. The person who judged the non-daily column entries had this to say about “Reflections”: “Writing about history is one thing, and writing about now is another, but tying history to the present in a compelling way is a tall order, and Roger Matile does this very well.”

Which made me feel pretty good, because that’s what I try to do just about every week. It’s good to know that a disinterested third party thinks what I think I’m doing seems to be working. And I also get a spiffy framed certificate to hang on my brag wall here at History Central.

Hope you didn’t get too upset, mom…

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History

When it comes to school districts, the name’s the thing…

So we had a big hoohah going on here in my once little town of Oswego a few years ago. This post is going to be super-local, so if you’re not interested in really, really local history and want to go somewhere else today, I completely understand.

Hoohahs come and go, of course, and there are lots of them in any community. But here I’m specifically talking here about a former school superintendent’s brainstorm that changing the school district’s name by leaving “Oswego,” “school,” and “district” out of it would be a boffo idea.

Of course, the district’s official, legal name—Oswego Community Unit School District 308—did not change. So what the superintendent was really talking about was a school district nickname. What that meant in practice was changing the name atop school district stationery, on school buses, on the district’s web site, and the like. Things that cost money to change.

The preferred new nickname? SD308.

One school board member, a newcomer to the community like most all board members in recent years, announced at back then that Oswego had never been part of the district’s name and that “‘Oswego’ got interjected somewhere in there.”

Well, no, that was definitely not the case. Let’s get into the Way Back Machine and figure out what actually happened, shall we?

Back in May 1961, voters living inside the boundaries of Oswego Community High School District 300 voted to consolidate with Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8, creating a community unit school district educating children from first through 12th grades. That fall, kindergarten would be added, but at the time of the referendum, it was just first through 12th.

According to the June 22 Oswego Ledger:

“An election will be held Saturday, June 24, to select seven members for the board of education of the newly formed Oswego Community District No. 308. Four of the members of the new board must be from Oswego Township and three members must be from the other townships–Wheatland, Bristol, and NaAuSay.”

But wait…what was the deal with that “Consolidated” word in the elementary school district’s name? Did the 1961 election consolidate a consolidation? Why, yes, yes it did.

1880 abt Old Stone School

Oswego’s Old Stone School at Tyler and Monroe streets was built about 1855, probably with some of the first real estate tax money levied for education purposes in the community. The building was gutted by fire in 1885. (from a stereopticon view in the Little White School Museum collection)

To explain that, we’ve got to delve into the Illinois public education historical weeds.

School consolidation in Illinois has a long history, and Kendall County’s communities and myriad school district’s followed the statewide activities in that regard.

The earliest schools were formed by subscription during the pioneer era of the 1830s and 1840s. Groups of farm neighbors or village residents would take subscriptions to build and otherwise maintain a school building and hire a teacher. In 1855, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing levying property taxes to finance the cost of operating public schools.

Small rural school districts proliferated, each supporting a single, one-room school that educated students in first through eighth grades. In general, taxpayers’ farm homes were located no farther away from these rural schools than about a mile and a half (which sort of puts the lie to great-granddad’s claim that he walked 10 miles to school, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways).

In towns, elementary (or common) schools were often combined with “academies,” which were the name for high schools of the day. Academies were also the junior colleges of the era. About the only students who went on from elementary school to the upper grades were those who were planning to teach or the vanishingly small number of students who planned to actually attend college.

1894 Grove School

One of my all-time favorite school photos is this 1894 image of Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, with the kids dressed for a Mother Goose play. (Little White School Museum collection)

But times changed, and gradually it was realized that more education was a better, not to mention increasingly necessary, thing for all concerned. High schools replaced academies in the 1880s, and very gradually the numbers of students going on beyond eighth grade began to climb.

None of my grandparents, for instance, attended high school, and only two even graduated from eighth grade. My father graduated from eighth grade, but my mother graduated high school. Both my sisters graduated high school and went on to attend nurse’s training and became registered nurses, and both of my children graduated college—they’re all sort of a microcosm of how education has evolved since the early years of the 20th Century.

But back to consolidation. Here in Kendall County, Yorkville was the first area to consolidate some of its schools, and that in 1919. Consolidation bubbled under for several years, inhibited by the Great Depression. But after World War II, with the county’s population rising in some areas and the need for better education prompted by the new Cold War, nuclear weapons, and (literally) rocket science, consolidation began in earnest.

1925 abt Walker School

Walker School, at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego, was consolidated with the nearby Marysville and Gaylord schools in 1941, the first consolidation in the Oswego School District. The building, converted into a private home, still stands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first consolidations of the 1940s involved one-room school districts. Many districts only enrolled a handful of students each year, sometimes less than a half-dozen. That made hiring a teacher and maintaining a building expensive for local taxpayers, as did complying with new rules and regulations concerning such things as state-mandated courses of study and facilities requirements.

In 1941, the voters living in the contiguous Gaylord, Walker, and Wilcox one-room school districts voted to consolidate into a single district, to be called Consolidated District 5, with all the students moved to the Walker School. The other two buildings were closed and sold. The Gaylord building was moved into Oswego and remodeled into a private home, while the Wilcox School was moved a few miles away to Wolf’s Crossing Road and also turned into a private residence.

Then in the summer of 1948, a further consolidation took place in the region inside the Oswego High School District, a 68 square mile region extending from the Kane-Kendall line north of Oswego south all the way to Caton Farm Road. As the Kendall County Record reported:

“Voters yesterday in the Oswego-NaAuSay area approved the establishment of a community consolidated grade school district consisting of all of Oswego township, about two-thirds of NaAuSay, and four sections of Kendall township. There were 270 votes for and 178 against the proposition. The voters in the Village of Oswego approved the proposition 94 to 16, and those outside the village 176 to 162.

“The new district combines the Oswego, Squires, Wormley, Willow Hill, Walker, Harvey, Russell, Cutter, McCauley, Grove, Union, and Marysville districts. The assessed valuation will be $12 million and the grade school enrollment is 343. Board members for the new district will be elected July 17.”

1958 East View School cropped

The first new building constructed by Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 after the district’s creation in 1948 was East View School, opened in Oswego in the fall of 1957, originally housing students in grades 4, 5, and 6. Eventually, the building was enlarged to house some 1,400 kindergarten through fifth grade students. (Little White School Museum collection)

Eventually, a few more parcels were added to the elementary district from Bristol Township, which borders Oswego Township to the west, Aurora Township in Kane County, which borders Oswego Township to the north, and Wheatland Township in Will County, which borders Oswego Township to the east, creating the entire “consolidated” elementary district, mirroring the bounds of the high school district.

The Oswego districts, of course, were far from the only ones consolidating during the 1940s and 1950s. Starting in the 1920s, a series of state laws and regulation changes began forcing one-room school districts to merge to create larger tax bases to permit better facilities and more advanced curricula.

First was the “Standard School” drive of the 1930s. According to the Oct. 8, 1930 Record:

“A standard school is one which meets the requirements for a good school with the sanitation requirements met and with the right kind of a [school] house, the right kind of furnishings and equipment, the right kind of teaching, and the right kind of behavior and work by the pupils. A superior school is one which has gone farther in its efforts to offer something better to the community.”

The Record noted that only six county schools had been awarded the “Standard” ranking that year: the Squires, Millbrook, Kendall, McCauley, Fourth Ward, and Jones schools, adding that:

“Several other schools are very close to meeting the requirements. Among them are the Wormley, Boomer, Needham, Union, Bronk, Weeks, Scofield, Naden, Keck, Stephens, Pletcher, Plattville, Cassem, Brown, Wynne, Bell, Fox, Cutter, Walker, Willow Hill, Bethel, and Lisbon Center. Some of these schools lack only a well or some equipment, which will be secured this year.”

By the late 1940s, the costs of operating one-room schools with tiny enrollments led to the closure of many with their students transferred to adjoining districts. As the Record explained on Sept. 11, 1946:

“Thirty-three Kendall county one- and two-room schools opened their fall terms last Tuesday. Teachers have been provided for all pupils only by closing the doors of 17 buildings and transferring the children from these districts to neighboring schools. As a result, school enrollments are much larger. Schools which formerly had only enough pupils for a game of marbles will now be able to choose up sides for a ball game. One school, in district No. 5 south of Oswego, has 28 enrolled and half of the schools operating have 16 or more pupils. Three schools have but eight, the smallest number this year.”

1957 Church School exterior

Church School, where the author attended grades 1-3, was the last one-room rural school to close in the Oswego School District. It closed in the spring of 1958.

In 1947, the Kendall County School Survey Committee recommended that the county’s 54 existing school districts be consolidated into just four unit districts based around the county’s four high school districts that would educate children from elementary through high school.

In June 1948, building on the county survey committee’s recommendations, 11 rural districts, plus the district in Oswego announced plans to ask voters to consolidate, as noted above. As the Record pointed out:

“Present limitations in taxes would require tax rate elections in some of the present districts before they could operate another year.”

Voters throughout the county were engaged in similar consolidation elections in Yorkville, Lisbon, Newark, and other communities.

The era of the one-room school was dealt a further blow with new requirements mandated by the Illinois School Code requiring that after June 30, 1949 public schools have at least 10 pupils in average daily attendance; after June 20, 1951, at least 12 pupils, and after June 30, 1953 at least 15 pupils.

By the late 1950s, the era of the one-room school in Kendall County was over. The last one-room building in the Oswego Elementary School District closed in 1957.

1961 Sept BH School

Boulder Hill Elementary School, whose construction was partially financed by Boulder Hill Subdivision developer Don L. Dise, was the first school built under the direction of brand new Oswego Community Consolidated Unit District 308. The new school opened in the fall of 1961.

And then in 1961, voters approved consolidating Oswego’s already-consolidated elementary district and its high school district, to create Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

So what was the deal with changing the district’s name? Well, according to those new school board members and the new (at the time) superintendent, it didn’t seem fair to have “Oswego” in the name when students from several other municipalities attend the district’s schools.

But that has always been the case. Starting with the high school district’s establishment in the 1930s, folks with Aurora, Plainfield, Yorkville, Oswego, Minooka, and Montgomery mailing addresses sent their kids north, south, east, and west to Oswego to school, depending on where their homes were located. It’s hard to see how much has changed today, even though now we’ve also got kids with Joliet addresses coming to Oswego to school.

After a relatively short time of anger simmering under the surface, a group of local residents, including a retired school superintendent and a retired varsity coach, got together to agitate for changing the district’s advertised name back to one with “Oswego” in it. And in that effort, they were recently successful. Adding “Oswego” back to the district’s identity has begun, and it’s gradually come to the point that now when you drive around the community and you pass a school bus, it will likely have “Oswego” in the name on the side.

The schools here have had a long and winding, but interesting, road from yesterday to today. If the district’s name does anything, it anchors the schools in a region of the Fox Valley, which provides a sense of identity that SD308 (two other Illinois school districts have the same numerical designation) did not.

For this long-time community resident and 1964 OHS grad, it’s good to see “Oswego” back on the district’s buses.

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So what’s in YOUR pie?

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, asked what her friends’ favorite pie is. And because I’m a lifelong wiseacre, a replied, “hot or cold.”

Which reply I admit I stole from my dad, a pie lover from way back. The only kind of pie my dad really did not like was raisin pie, and I have to admit I am with him on that one as well, and have been since someone tried to foist a piece of the stuff off on me when I was just a lad.

I’m not sure where my dad got his pie craving, but he had one and had it bad. Maybe it was because my mom was such a good pie baker. Whatever its origin, when my parents were young farmers back during the Great Depression and right up through the 1940s my mom baked roughly one pie a day.

Defective apple pie

This defective apple pie is a good example why it’s unwise to buy apple pies in most bakeries or restaurants (Gruenke’s in Bayfield, Wisconsin is a prime exception to this rule). While the apples are sliced and not chunked, they are sliced WAY too thick, thus preventing proper cooking down. The wise pie aficionado is very cautious about his or her apple pie.

Back then, farm work started before dawn with livestock chores: feeding the pigs and cattle and milking the family cow. By the time breakfast rolled around, my dad was really hungry and so needed a large meal. The one he ate for most of his life—at least for the portion of it I was present for—was a glass of fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, two eggs over easy and two slices of bacon or sausage patties. It’s a breakfast he ate until a couple days before he died from the results of lung cancer and a list of ailments too long to record here.

Back in those farm days, he also had a large piece of pie for dessert at all three meals, breakfast, dinner, and supper. You’ll notice what I did there: the noon meal on the farm was dinner, not the evening meal. Town folks ate dinner at night; out in the country the evening meal was a much lighter one. The dinner bell rang at noon. In fact, the weekday farm report show on WLS radio was named “Dinner Bell Time” (not to be confused with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” or WJJD’s teenagers’ delight, “Suppertime Frolic).

Some of my earliest memories are being around the house and watching my mom, and when I was visiting down the road and around the corner, my grandmother, baking. My mom, as you might imagine after having all that practice, was a whiz at rolling out pie dough, which was the real stuff back then, with lard as a major ingredient. After making however many pies they planned that day, there was always a bit of piecrust left, so they’d both made what they called Poor Man’s Pie, usually in one or two small tart tins.

Poor Man's Pie

Found this image of Poor Man’s Pie somewhere on the Net. Not nearly enough cinnamon on top; the top should be dark brown all over with cinnamon.

I loved Poor Man’s Pie. It was a simple thing that only required milk, flour, and sugar for the filling, topped off with a pat of butter and sprinkled cinnamon on top.

Just about everyone out in the country had an orchard of one kind or another. Ours wasn’t very big, and included a towering pie cherry tree that produced quarts and quarts of the fruit. My grandparents’ orchard had number of plum trees, as well as a variety of apples and pears. Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries were all canned for use in pies during the winter. Apples, too, were stored fresh in the basement for later use.

Northern Illinois isn’t the best peach habitat, so while we had peach trees, they weren’t quite as prolific as apples, cherries, and pears. I remember relatives heading over to Michigan in a convoy to bring back peaches, which were divided up amongst the participants and then canned for winter table use and to bake pies.

Other than eating pickled herring when the clock struck 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve and somehow falling in love with oyster stew made with those awful canned oysters, my dad’s family really didn’t have many food habits or traditions. My mother’s German family—her mother was 100 percent Pennsylvania Dutch and her father was 100 percent East Prussian—however, loved their food, and that included dessert with every meal. Including breakfast. I remember my grandmother’s table always featured a pressed glass footed compote dish with jelly, so that even when there was no cake, pie, kuchen, or cookies (a rare occasion, indeed) there was always bread and jelly as a dessert fallback position.

wonderberry pie

To the uninitiated, wonderberries look like blueberries. But they’re a lot different and, in my estimation, make a superior pie. Unfortunately, hardly anybody grows them any more and it’s virtually impossible to find them at farmers’ markets, at least here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

Pie was always the queen of desserts in my family, with my grandmother, mother, and aunts using a wide variety of fillings from ground cherries, apples, peaches, rhubarb (“pie plant” to the Pennsylvania Dutch), cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, wonderberries (also called garden huckleberries)—you name it.

Pies have been a human food item for thousands of years. According to pie historians, the first pies were invented by the ancient Egyptians, who made dough from oats, wheat, rye, or barley, doubled it over and filled it with honey. After a few thousand years someone decided you could create a nice meal by using bread dough to enclose meat and other savory fillings. Meat pies were far more popular than fruit-filled concoctions for a long, long time. But gradually, the dessert aspects of pie could no longer be denied. When some brilliant cook invented what we call today piecrust, the place was set for pie to come into its own.

Classic pasty

A classic pasty with its built-in handle for easy eating is one of our favorites up in northern Wisconsin, especially served with a side of creamy cucumbers.

Over in Merry Olde England, meat pies reigned supreme, with all sorts of meat combined with veggies and then baked into whole-meal pies. In Cornwall, innovative cooks took a piecrust circle, put a big scoop of diced potatoes, turnips, and other veggies with finely chopped or even minced meat on half, doubled the other half over, and crimped the half-moon edge. Baked at home, these robust meat pies—called pasties—were just fine for taking down into the coal mines to be heated over a flame on a handy shovel and eaten for a miner’s lunch, the crimped half-circle crust offering a handy handle to hold the pie while eating. Here in the New World, Cornish immigrants brought their pasties with them, and today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is their Midwest natural habitat, with even most of the smallest cafes offering their own homemade varieties, as do delis in larger communities’ grocery stores.

Savory pies are all well and good—who doesn’t still enjoy a chicken or beef pot pie once in a while—but it’s the fruit variety that have tickled my fancy all these years. And thus my reply to my former high school classmate about my favorite variety. Baked fruit pies, single and double crust pies, cream pies (chocolate, custard, banana cream, coconut cream), pumpkin and sweet potato, and fresh fruit pies in season—who could possibly make a decision?

But here’s what I’m willing to do…I pledge to keep trying every kind of pie I can find (except raisin), until I finally settle on my favorite.

This could take quite a while, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

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