Monthly Archives: April 2019

Believe it or not, dandelions not only taste good, they’re good for you, too.

They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.

Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.

The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.

A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.

The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.

Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.

Dandelion C

Dandelions are native to Europe where they’ve been used medicinally for centuries, thus their scientific name, Taraxacum officianale.

“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.

While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.

Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.

The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.

In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.

dandelion BActually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.

But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.

Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.

Dandelion greens

It’s important to pick only greens from dandelions that haven’t blossomed yet, otherwise bitterness will overtake the greens’ sharp, peppery taste.

Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.

My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.

The recipe:

  • One egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup half & half or cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar.

Image result for digging dandelion greens In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.

But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.

On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.

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Filed under Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Women's History

Oswegoland’s Methodist roots run deep

Our little corner of Illinois has deep Methodist roots.

One of the first permanent settlers north of Peoria was Jesse Walker, a Methodist preacher who established a mission along the Fox River north of its mouth on the Illinois River in 1825.

Walker established the Fox River Mission in Section 15 of modern Mission Township, LaSalle County (T35N, R5E) on land purchased from the Potowatomi Tribe, on behalf of the Methodist Church. When the Illinois General Assembly approved allowing counties to establish the township form of government in 1850 and names were chosen for each, Mission was named after Walker’s enterprise a quarter of a century earlier.

The purpose of the mission was to teach the local Native Americans a variety of skills, including farming; educate Native American children at a mission-run school; and, of course, to spread the Gospel according to Methodist teachings.

Walker, Jesse

Jesse Walker

In his 1825 report, Walker reported to the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church in Illinois that he had established the mission, after some confusion about the proper location, and that it included a large, two story house, built of hewn logs, measuring 50×30 feet. The house was divided into apartments for the mission staff (which mostly consisted of Walker’s extended family). The mission campus also included a blacksmith shop, a poultry house, a spring house and “other conveniences.”

Walker’s son-in-law, James Walker, arrived in the Fox Valley that same year and brought with him a horse-powered corn grinding mill. Soon after, however, James Walker moved on to the DuPage River where he established a new settlement, first called Walker’s Grove, and later renamed Plainfield.

Jesse Walker reported that by 1826, the mission had 40 acres of land under cultivation, seven acres in pasture, and one acre planted in garden crops to provide food for the staff. The cost of the venture was $2,034, of which the U.S. Government had pledged to pay two-thirds, since the mission staff promised to use their blacksmith to service the needs of the local Native Americans.

But the mission turned out to be neither a financial nor a spiritual success. American Indians were always difficult to convert to Christianity, at least one source reporting that Native Americans thought the concept of original sin ridiculous. And while the government had pledged to subsidize the new mission—it would have been a relatively cheap way to provide services to local tribes required under various treaties—Walker and the Methodists learned the hard lesson that it’s best to get cash in hand when the government makes promises and not rely on anyone’s good will or intentions. The Methodists, in fact, never did get the money they were promised.

By 1829, when Galena merchant James Stoddard sent a small wagon train loaded with lead to Chicago from the mines located around the bustling northwestern Illinois town (the train crossed the Fox River at the mission, drawn by the promise of blacksmithing services there) they found the mission abandoned.

While Walker and the other Methodists in the Rock River Conference gave the mission up as a bad idea, they continued to spread the Gospel according to Methodism to the new settlers beginning to flood into northern Illinois. Another Methodist preacher, Stephen R. Beggs, settled at James Walker’s growing hamlet on the DuPage River.

In 1832, when the Black Hawk War broke out, settlers up and down the Fox River Valley fled their homes for safety. Those in the southern part of today’s Kendall County line ran south to Ottawa, where a fort was under construction. Those in the northern part of the modern county’s boundaries first fled to Walker’s Grove where they congregated at Beggs’ farm. The panicked pioneers tore down some of Beggs’ sheds and fences and built a rude fort designed to scare off any Indian attackers. And, indeed, it was pretty much a bluff, because as Beggs later recalled, while there were some 125 frightened refugees there, they only had four guns among them, “some of which,” he added, didn’t work.

The war proved to be brief and the next year, 1833, was dubbed “The Year of the Early Spring.” The prairie dried out and the grass greened up early, allowing a pent-up wave of settlers to begin flooding into the Fox Valley.

Pearce, Daniel & Sarah

Daniel and Sarah Pearce (Little White School Museum collection)

Many of those early pioneers were Methodists, and Jesse Walker and Stephen Beggs lost no time in establishing Methodist meetings at several settlers’ cabins up and down the Fox Valley, the two of them servicing their respective circuits. Beggs, who established the first Methodist class at Walker’s Grove in 1829, was receptive when Daniel and Sarah Pearce and their extended family, who had settled at what eventually became Oswego in 1833, asked for a class to be established there. That year, the Oswego Class joined new classes at Ottawa and Princeton. By 1835, when the Rev. William Royal was the circuit rider, his route took him from Oswego northwest to Belvedere, south to Princeton, and back through Mission Township in LaSalle County as he visited the 19 charges in his circuit.

1901 LWS as ME Church

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church, now the Little White School Museum, as it looked in 1901. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Methodist class meeting at the Pearce cabin eventually became a full-fledged congregation of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. The congregation began building a church in Oswego in 1848, finishing the building in 1850. It is today known as the Little White School Museum, and still stands on the site where those early Methodists erected it. The church was finally considered free of debt and eligible to be dedicated in 1854. The congregation met in the building until 1913,when they decided to merge with the German Methodists a few blocks away.

It was during the mid-19th Century that another group of Methodist farmers, this time from Germany called Albright Methodists, began settling on the prairie east of Oswego. They built their first church about 1850 on a low-lying parcel just west of modern Roth Road. The church and cemetery were moved east to Roth Road in 1861. Eventually, this congregation became known as the Prairie Church.

1871 Prairie Church exterior 1908

The Albright Methodists’ second church on the Oswego Prairie built in 1871. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, a group of Albright Methodists, members of the Prairie Church, were beginning to wish they had their own church in town so they didn’t have to drive three miles out in the country every Sunday. In 1860, the group began meeting in a stone building at the corner of Washington and Madison called the French Castle.

The French Castle, built as a large home by some of Oswego’s early French-Canadian residents (thus the name) at Washington and Madison streets, had been used by the village’s Presbyterians until 1857 when they moved to their new church at Madison and Douglas streets.

The vacant building proved a suitable home for the new congregation.

1914 Federated Church

The German Evangelical Church built by the Oswego’s Albright Methodists in 1894 on the site of the old “French Castle.” (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego congregation continued to grow, as more Germans immigrated to the area, along with Pennsylvania Germans, both drawn by the large population of German-speakers already in the area. Sermons and funerals at the new church were preached in German while the Methodist-Episcopal Church served the village’s English language population.

The town Methodists eventually built a new church in 1894 after tearing the old building down. So that year, Oswego boasted two Methodist churches, one German and one American, with services in English in the Methodist-Episcopal Church and services in German at the Albright Methodists’ new building.

1910 Oswego Prairie Church look NE

The German Methodists’ new Prairie Church was built in 1910, replacing the old 1871 building. (Little White School Museum collection)

The German Methodists hired a single preacher who ministered to a circuit of four congregations that included the one in town, the Prairie Church, and the Lantz Church and the Copenhagen Church, both just over the line in Will County’s Wheatland Township. The four-church circuit was served by a single pastor, based in Oswego. The Copenhagen and Lantz congregations eventually merged, creating a new congregation called the Salem Church.

In 1870, Oswego had boasted Baptist, Lutheran, German Evangelical, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist-Episcopal churches. But as the years passed, some of those congregations gradually dissolved. The Baptists were first to go, and their congregants spread themselves among the remaining churches. The Lutherans were next, with most of them joining their fellow

2004 Church of the Good Shepherd

Today’s Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

German-speakers at the Evangelical Church. The congregation at the Methodist-Episcopal Church—now the Little White School Museum—dissolved in 1913, and its members mostly transferred to the Evangelical Church. Possibly prompted by that union, services started being held in English in January of that year.

Finally, when the Congregational Church was destroyed by fire in 1920, its congregation also decided to join the Evangelical Church’s congregation, and a new church community, the Federated Church, was created. It’s a name by which some long-time Oswego residents still call the church.

2015 9-3 LWSM w sign

Formerly the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church, the Little White School Museum is now the repository for Oswego area history and heritage. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Federated Church became affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1947. It changed its name to the Church of the Good Shepherd EUB in 1957 in honor of the church building’s iconic stained glass window that faces Washington Street. In 1968, the EUB and Methodists merged, and the Church of the Good Shepherd added “United Methodist” to its name.

Today, the landmark Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist is the direct descendant of those pioneer Methodists who gathered in Daniel Pearce’s log cabin in 1833 to establish the first Oswego Methodist Class and went on to build the historic Little White School Museum, and to play such an important part in Oswego area history.

 

 

 

 

 

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Historians’ major finds help preserve our local, state, and national heritage

Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.

The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.

1868 abt Harriet Tubman

The Smithsonian’s new cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman, taken about 1868.

Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.

It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.

Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.

To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.

“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.

I know the feeling.

After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.

And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.

So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.

So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes’ portrait was taken to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1893 at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio. (Little White School Museum collection)

But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.

That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.

Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.

So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.

We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.

It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.

So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.

 

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Filed under Civil War, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History