Monthly Archives: February 2019

A look inside the Fox River’s mills from Montgomery to Yorkville

On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills once served local residents.

Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and a sawmill and furniture factory—exist and are probably familiar to lots of this blog’s readers. One of those photographs, in fact, is on the heading of this blog page.

But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. What kind of tools and equipment were required to turn grain into flour at the three gristmills? What kind of tools did workers at that furniture factory use? Fortunately, there was a way to find out.

1891 Oswego Cooperative Creamery

The Oswego Cooperative Creamery at South Adams and Tyler streets as illustrated on the 1891 Oswego Fire Insurance Company map shows the detail available about commercial structures. The building’s yellow color means it was a frame structure. (Little White School Museum collection)

For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. The maps included accurate building footprints, color-coded to record building materials for not only the building itself, but also any additions, including porches. Each building is accurately depicted how it sits on the lot or parcel of land where it’s located. In addition, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents are also listed so insurance adjusters could determine the amount of loss in case of fire. All four mills on my stretch of river had been recorded by Sanborn.

Starting as soon as the region’s pioneer millwrights arrived, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. Upon arrival, the miller weighed the grain and then shunted it by bins and chutes into the smut room to prepare it for milling.

In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove bad grains.

1838 Gorton's mill and dam

The mill and dam built by the Gorton Brothers on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township. The Gortons sold the dam and mill to Nathaniel Rising in 1840. Rising added a sawmill on the east bank of the river in 1848 and then sold the mills and dam to William Parker in 1852. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, turned, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’

Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. When the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour produced was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins, and from there to the bolter.

1900 abt Parker Mills

William Parker & Son’s sawmill and furniture factory in the foreground (the downstream addition perpendicular to the river is the furniture factory) and gristmill across the river to the left. High water has nearly submerged the dam in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a grain of wheat or corn. The bolter was octagonal reel, usually 16 feet long and mounted at a gentle incline. The reel was covered with a series of open weave cloth of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water power slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, middlings towards the middle of the reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.

A middling purifier was also part of the Parker mill’s equipment. The machine was used to separate the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter separated in the middle of the bolting process.

In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ grain from the stalks.

Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain in trade, whichever the farmer preferred.

1900 abt Parker Mill & Furniture Factory crop

Parker and Son’s sawmill and furniture factory on the east bank of the Fox River. The sawmill is parallel to the river; the millrace ran beneath and powered a turbine water wheel. The furniture factory is the addition perpendicular to the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located opposite the gristmill at the east end of the Fox River dam. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite his gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.

By 1885, the sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.

The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand will be on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum when their core exhibit is finished in mid-March.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, built this gristmill of native limestone in 1853. Gray built the original bridge across the Fox just downstream from its current location where the original stagecoach trail crossed the river on Jefferson Street, and connected to Montgomery Road. The first covered bridge was moved to Montgomery from Aurora in 1868. This photo was probably taken around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—ran just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of modern metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.

Down in today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.

By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining both the mills and the dams they required. Both dams and mills were frequently damaged or completely destroyed by floods and the spring ice break-up, while low water levels could cause the mills to shut down for long periods while they waited for rain to raise the water level.

2018 8-8 Parker Sawmill foundation

The flagstone foundation of the Parker & Son Sawmill is still in existence today, offering an inviting spot for anglers and nature lovers. (photo by Roger Matile, 2018)

The region’s water-powered mills were replaced by steam-powered grain elevators that popped up along area railroad lines. Elevators not only could process grain, but they could also store it so farmers could wait to sell until prices were right. And local furniture factories like Parker’s, were replaced by giant far-off factories that could undersell locally produced furniture.

But though they’ve been gone for many decades, some evidence of the era when the Fox River powered mills at dams along it’s entire length are still around if you look closely enough.

 

 

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Winter travel in Illinois was always a challenge, but at least it was bug-free

Let’s say you’re a French colonial fur trader, and a resident of the Illinois Country in the late 1600s. In order to get here, you had to paddle a birch bark canoe loaded with several hundred pounds of trade goods all the way from Montreal.

Now it’s winter, and the snow has drifted deep outside your snug cabin at your fur trade post. The temperatures have dropped well below zero, much colder than it ever got in your native Provence. So what do you do now, during the short January days?

Road trip!

It turns out the winter months, not known as the most temperate or comfortable time of year in the Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, was a favored traveling time for the Europeans who began arriving in these parts more than 300 years ago.

Given that Gor-Tex and down parkas from L.L. Bean wouldn’t be invented for another three centuries, why was January and February the prime colonial travel season in Illinois?

The answer is a simple four-letter word: bugs. Illinois during most of the year was afflicted with a dismayingly large collection of biting insects including flies, mosquitoes, wasps and hornets, and a huge collections of others that made life on the Illinois prairie miserable between the last frost of spring and the first frost of late autumn. About the only way to make sure the critters wouldn’t suck every last drop of blood out of man or beast was to wait until everything froze solid.

Even given the primitive state of cold weather gear of the era, it was far preferable to deal with frostbite rather than hordes of biting insects.

1680 LaSalle on snowshoes

During the late winter of 1680, Robert Cavelier de La Salle and a couple companions hiked from Peoria to Canada, as imagined by artist George Catlin in this painting. While LaSalle was prompted to take his winter walk due to financial problems, it was also easier to travel thanks to the lack of biting flies and mosquitoes.

The early settlers divided Illinois prairies into two classes, dry and wet. Wet prairies were your basic marshes—a marsh being a swamp without trees—which were prime breeding grounds for not only mosquitoes but also the biting flies that made such an impression on so many early travelers.

According to John Madson in Where the Sky Began, there can be up to ten million insects to each acre of the kind of tallgrass prairie that covered Kendall County 300 years ago, and continued to cover it until the first pioneer farmers began planting fields of corn in the late 1820s.

A dismayingly large number of insect species are native to Illinois, but the ones that most tormented early travelers and settlers were the biting and stinging flies that swarmed over and around the area’s wet prairies and the various species of mosquitoes. A fairly large percentage of Kendall County was considered wet prairie, especially in Bristol Township and in the marshy areas along Morgan, Rob Roy, and AuxSable creeks.

Madson again: “I’ve suffered sorely enough from mosquitoes in the Everglades and Louisiana swamps, but never so sorely as on the wet prairies of southern Minnesota.”

Madison’s southern Minnesota prairies are almost identical to the kind that predominated here in the Fox Valley until the last half of the 19th Century. Starting soon after settlement and extending into the first quarter of the 20th Century, virtually all of them were drained.

In 1722, Jean Francois Nicolas Becquet, newly arrived at Fort de Chartres in modern southern Illinois, sent a letter to his mother back in France relating the hardships of the his journey up river from New Orleans, including being afflicted with biting insects: “The trip up the Mississippi was the worse journey I have ever known. I am convinced that the rain, the waters of the Mississippi, and the endless biting and stinging insects that abound there, could provide a more accurate image of hell than any fire.”

Almost a century later, things hadn’t improved much at all. One Illinois settler who sent greetings back to his family in Vermont in 1821 reported: “I became acquainted this year with the prairie flies about which I had heard so much in Vermont. The smallest kind are a beautiful green about twice the size of a common housefly. Another kind is about twice as large as these, of a slate color. These, this season, in riding on the prairies, would entirely cover a horse and when fastened they remain until killed by smoke or by being skinned off by a knife, and then the horse will be covered with blood. The only way of riding a horse by day is by covering a horse completely.”

The flies were so vicious they even had major impacts on Illinois’ native wildlife. According to M.J. Morgan in Land of Big Rivers: French and Indian Illinois, 1699-1778, the flies, during their most prolific season, forced even buffalo to leave their normal stomping grounds and seek relief elsewhere. “On account of the green-headed flies,” Morgan said one observer reported, buffalo left the Wabash valley to range west and north of the Illinois River during the summer months.

In the summer of 1683, while on the way from Canada to the Illinois Country, Louis-Henri de Baugy, a political and business rival of LaSalle’s, wrote a letter to his brother in France in which he noted, rather matter-of-factly, that it was likely the Iroquois would attack the French post at La Rocher—Starved Rock—the next year and he might well be killed. That, he wrote, did not trouble him so much, however. What did trouble him was looking forward to further travel by canoe, during which the flies “tormented a person so cruelly that one did not know what to do.”

Thomas Hulme, an Englishman who traveled through east central Illinois in 1818, noted the biting flies were a danger to travelers’ horses. “Our horses were very much tormented with flies, some as large as the English horse-fly and some as large as the wasp; these flies infest the prairies that are unimproved about three months oin the year, but go away altogether as soon as cultivation begins.

Illinois historian William Pooley observed in 1905 that the dense swarms of biting flies also had an impact on the pace of settlement of Illinois. “Excessively warm weather and numerous flies sometimes so worried immigrants that they resorted to night traveling, being unable to make progress during the day.”

Horses with fly nets

Biting flies remained a problem right through the era of horse-drawn farm equipment. One strategy to fight flies was to use fly netting that provided some protection.

As Clarence W. Alford, speaking of the state’s early settlers, put it in The Centennial History of Illinois, “His livestock was viciously attacked by several kinds of horse-flies, black flies, or buffalo gnats, and cattle flies, while his own peace of mind and his health were endangered by mosquitoes, three varieties being carriers of the malaria germ.

Illinois’ mosquitoes and flies—the green-headed fly (probably today’s green-eyed horsefly) was remarked on by most travelers who left accounts—were not only vicious in their own right, but to add to the torment also carried diseases. In particular, mosquitoes transmitted malaria, which the pioneers called the ague (pronounced A’gue). The ague was so common that the settlers divided it into several varieties: Dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and others. Common symptoms began with yawning, followed by a feeling of lassitude, fingernails turning blue, and then feeling cold until the victim’s teeth chattered noisily. After an hour or so, body warmth returned, increasing until fever raged with terrible head and back aches. The spells came to an end with an extremely heavy sweat.

The disease returned on a regular basis although it became less and less strong throughout a person’s life and wasn’t usually fatal, although it could be. Juliette Kinzie who wrote such a charming memoir of pioneer Illinois, died in 1870 when her New York druggist accidentally gave her morphine instead of quinine, probably for an ague attack, at the age of 64.

Tales of explorers, missionaries, and settlers traveling the Illinois prairies during the area’s fierce winters are rife. They didn’t do it because they wanted to, but it was either that or look forward to scraping the flies off your horse—and probably yourself, too—with a sharp knife.

Today, we still travel a lot during our Illinois winters, but it’s not because the insects are making us do it. And travel nowadays is usually by comfortable automobile or high-flying airplane with our destinations being somewhere in the sunny southland.

But sometimes, like when we’re stopped in traffic or hustling to make a connecting flight, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where and how far we’ve come—and why—as we look forward to where we’re headed.

 

 

 

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