Monthly Archives: July 2019

Cheap or thrifty? You be the judge…

My family was barely middle class and far from rich. But my mother and my grandmother both knew how to make things look nice and very middle classy.

My mom’s family were all Germans, some more recently from the Old Country than others. In 1885, her father’s family immigrated from East Prussia. They had been employed on one of the Kaiser’s estates, where my great-grandfather had been a gardener. Her mother’s family, on the other hand, had arrived here in 1750, settling in Pennsylvania and becoming one of the Pennsylvania Dutch families that lived in and around Lancaster County. They emigrated to Illinois in 1852, nearly a century after they arrived here in the New World.

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Castle Garden in New York harbor was the original point of entry for immigrants before Ellis Island opened. It welcomed immigrants from 1820 to 1892.

Even though Grandma’s family had been in North America for a century, they still spoke German at home, so they mixed easily with the new German immigrants that had begun arriving in Illinois in the 1840s. My grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, although not so late they got here by the time Ellis Island was the main European immigrants’ processing center. Instead, they came through Castle Garden, Ellis Island’s predecessor, and then traveled west to Aurora, Illinois to join my great-grandmother’s family as part of the chain migration cycle that modern right wing politicians decry.

They were thrifty, hard workers, those German and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors of mine. They knew how to hang onto a dollar so tightly that, as the song says, the eagle on it grinned.

My mother said they were tight. My sisters said they were so tight they squeaked. My grandmother calmly explained to be once, “Well, that’s just the way we did.”

The rule was to hang onto what you had, make do, make it last, fix it if you need to, and keep using it until it was unusable. Even my teacher (of English descent) at our one-room rural school was part of the infrastructure that pounded thrift into us. “Waste not, want not” was her favorite saying. Because thrift was the thing back then for all of us, something left over from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wartime rationing of the 1940s.

1895 abt Amelia, Edith, Mable Lantz Lantz Farm

The Lantz family farmhouse in 1894. Left to right are my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz, my great-aunt, Edith Lantz, and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz.

For instance, when we moved to town after my dad retired from farming in 1954, I was introduced to student banking. Every week my third grade classmates would put a few coins in small brown envelopes that were sent off to the bank where we had our very own savings accounts. There was a lot of peer pressure to participate in student banking back then.

My mother ran a very thrifty household, but her mother seemed to think she was awfully liberal with her spending. For instance, my mother absolutely hated stale bread. Her one vice was to retire a loaf of bread as soon as it became even slightly stale. Not that she threw it away, of course. Instead, I grew up eating lots of bread pudding. That hit two birds with one stone, it prevented us from throwing out perfectly good bread and it provided dessert, with which no meal in my household was complete.

My grandmother was even thriftier than my mother. Stale bread was good bread as far as she was concerned. Moldy? Scrape it off and don’t complain. A little mold is probably good for you anyway.

But my grandmother’s parents were, hands down, the winners in the family thrift sweepstakes.

1899 Haines Inman Young at work

While working on the Watts Cutter house on Main Street in Oswego, Irvin “Irvy” Haines snapped this photo of the crew. Left to right are Dan Minnich, Lew Inman, Haines (note hand blurred when he pulled the cable to snap the shot), and Lou C. Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

My great-grandparents worked the family farm until they decided to retire in 1906 when my great-grandfather was 60 and my great-grandmother was 57. They bought land just outside the village limits of Oswego, Illinois on which to build their retirement home, selecting the vacant parcel between my great-grandmother’s parents’ house and her sisters’ house.

To build their new retirement home, they chose my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines (the family called him Irvy). Haines was a well-known Oswego contractor who worked, off and on, with a crew of other local carpenters including Lou C. Young, and two of Haines’ cousins, Lew Inman and Dan Minnich.

What they chose to have Haines build for them was a Queen Anne-style, story-and-a-half farmhouse design. Haines must have liked the design; he built at least three of them, including the one for my great-grandparents, one in neighboring Montgomery, Illinois, and one on a farm just outside of Oswego on Collins Road.

It was an interesting design, and relatively advanced for the period. On the exterior, it had clapboard siding that was wider on the first floor that narrowed on the second floor, drawing the eye up to the steeply-pitched roof making it look larger and taller than it actually was. Shingles and brackets in the peak provided a bit of interest, as did Greek Revival-like columns at the corners and which provided support for the front porch with its steep stairs. It was finished off with a fireproof lifetime roof of fiber-reinforced concrete shingles as protection against cinders and ash produced by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy locomotives that puffed through the backyard on the CB&Q’s Fox River Line. When they advertised them as lifetime shingles, they weren’t kidding. They’re still on the house and they’re still in great shape.

2005 Lantz-Matile House

The Queen Anne house Irvy Haines finished for his Aunt Amelia and Uncle John Peter Lantz in 1907 Note how the varying widths of clapboard siding draw the eye up towards the steep peak of the roof..

Inside, the home was fashionably dressed with long-leaf yellow pine woodwork throughout, including the tall kitchen cabinet, and built-in cabinets in the dining room and back parlor. The kitchen got a birdseye maple floor, while the rest of the house was floored with the same yellow pine used for the woodwork. It also included closets in each of the three upstairs bedrooms and a coat closet near the front door, relatively rare amenities that were rapidly gaining in popularity at the time. Also installed was a modern acetylene gas lighting system, powered by an acetylene gas generator in the basement.

But the biggest modern feature of the house was the indoor bathroom. Their farmhouse had never had such a modern thing, and it was something to behold with its white porcelain toilet and sink and its claw-foot cast iron tub.

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My great-grandparents celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary in the house Irvy Haines built for them in Oswego, Illinois

It was a grand house and an upgrade from their farmhouse, but the thing in their minds as they moved into town in October 1907 seems to have been resale. After all, while they were healthy they were definitely getting on in years and who knew how long they’d live. So they decided it would be too easy to wear out this wonderful house young Irvy Haines built for them. So they had him add a full kitchen in the basement where they could spend most of their time, and made sure he included an outhouse at the end of the sidewalk in back of their combination town barn and chicken house so they didn’t wear out the nice modern kitchen and bathroom upstairs.

It was an interesting plan and sensible, I guess, from their point of view. The problem was, however, that they didn’t live there for 10 years and die. Instead, they lived in the house for more than 30 years and it finally got to the point that resale value was about the last thing they worried about as they celebrated their 73rd anniversary there, still cooking in the basement and using the outhouse so as not to wear out their nice kitchen and bathroom.

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The long-leaf yellow pine woodwork in my great-grandparents’ house is still in good shape after more than 110 years.

Ownership of the house devolved to my grandmother after her parents’ death. My aunt and uncle lived there during World War II, moving up into Oswego proper in the early 1950s. The house was available when my parents moved off the farm, so they bought it from my grandparents. My wife and I bought it from my mother in 1976 and owned it until we moved across the street last year. My son lives there now with his family, the fifth generation of our family to enjoy it. His son asked him if he has to live there when he grows up, and he was assured it would be a strictly voluntary thing.

The living-in-the-basement thing ended when my aunt and uncle move there in 1943. When my parents moved there, my mother did some remodeling in keeping with the 1950s, ‘modernizing’ it by removing the yellow pine plate rail in the dining room, the picture rails in the living and dining rooms, and the cornices on the door frames, so it’s not quite as elegant as it was when Irvy Haines wrapped up construction back in ’08.

But I like to think that our family’s recycling the home that’s been going on for the past four generations sort of reflects the ethos of my great-grandparents that you don’t get rid of something just because it isn’t new and further that you take good care of what your have and make it last as long as you can. So, while none of us have lived in the basement, and while the old outhouse has gone the way of the rest of that breed, we’re still maintaining the old homestead just as we’ve done for the past 112 years. And with the care and skill Irvy Haines used when he built the place, it’s not impossible it will still be standing tall when my grandson’s grandchildren wonder about its history.

 

 

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There are no obvious answers to reversing the decline of rural America

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion in Washington, D.C. these days concerning what to do about the decline in quality of life many rural areas of the country are experiencing.

Economic opportunity seems to have disappeared from the less-populated areas of the country while it has steadily grown in larger urban areas, especially on the nation’s East and West Coasts, as well as the Chicago metro region, not to mention some of the larger urban areas in the Sunbelt.

But the old Rust Belt areas of the East and Midwest, Appalachia, and the farming areas in the center of the country have seen a steady drain on population as the farming, heavy industry, and mining on which the areas once depended have slowly shrunk or disappeared completely.

So what’s causing this economic dislocation? Different things get blamed in different areas of the country. In Appalachia, the coal mining that was once the dominant industry has all but disappeared as the use of coal has steadily declined to the point that mining jobs in, say, West Virginia have sharply dropped. These days, more than twice as many people are employed in health care as in mining. And, following the national trend, the pay for the jobs in growth fields is much less than the old jobs in mining and manufacturing.

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While many rural communities in the agricultural Midwest have declined, sometimes sharply, Oswego, Illinois’ population has boomed due to its proximity to the Chicago Metro Region.

Meanwhile, here in the Midwest, which is what I’m concentrating today, the number of farmers continues to steadily decline, outpacing the loss or repurposing of agricultural land. Nowadays, with giant computerized agricultural equipment, one farmer can work more land than ten could farm 50 years ago. And with modern hybrids, and computerized planting and harvesting equipment that accurately record yields so that fertilizers and pesticides are only applied where needed, yields are typically several times what they were 50 years ago.

Farming was once extremely labor-intensive, especially in the production of the small grains of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Until the middle of the 19th Century, planting, tilling, and harvesting small grains hadn’t changed all that much for the preceding 1,000 years. It was sown by hand and tended and cultivated by hand. Harvesting consisted of cutting it by hand using scythes, gathering the cut grain into bundles which were stacked in shocks to dry. Then threshing the grain from the stalks by hand using flails and then winnowing it—by hand—to separate the chaff from the grain before it could be bagged or shoveled into bins.

But shortly after the pioneer era ended here in Kendall County, farmers began to adopt a variety of machines to help in the small grain harvest, from horse-drawn harvesters that cut the grain—later models of which also tied the stalks into bundles—to other machines that were developed to thresh the grain from the stalks. By the early 20th Century, combined harvesters were developed that cut and threshed grain all in one pass.

In 1830, as Kendall County settlement was beginning, it took 250 to 300 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, efforts at horse-drawn mechanization were having a huge impact as it only took 40 to 50 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By the 1930s, with the introduction of gas-powered tractors, the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of wheat had been cut to just 15 to 20 hours. With today’s huge modern equipment, it takes a farmer less than three hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat.

1887 Binder at work

By 1887, harvesters had turned into binders that cut and bundled grain to ready it for threshing, greatly reducing the labor needed to produce a crop.

But wheat was not a major crop here in northern Illinois much past the settlement era since the humid climate doesn’t favor it. But our climate does favor growing corn, which was a major crop from the very beginning when Native People began farming the Illinois prairies. American settlers took up where the ancient people left off, turning over the wild prairie grasses with breaking plows and growing huge amounts of corn in ever increasing varieties.

Corn farming, like small grain farming, greatly benefited from mechanization. In 1840 it took one farmer about 280 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields were about 36 bushels per acre. By 1950 hybrids and modern fertilizers pushed yields to about 50 bushels per acre. But thanks to mechanization, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had been cut to only about 14 hours. Today, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields of more than 200 bushels per acre are common.

Successful efforts at mechanization have had fairly dramatic effects on farming across the nation, including here in Kendall County. Improvements in farm technology, from mechanization to better hybrids to improved fertilizers and pesticides have led, over the years, to fewer, larger farms. In 1950, there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County averaging 180 acres each. By 2012, the number had dropped to just 364 farms that were twice as large, averaging 356 acres.

John Deere corn harvester

Huge modern equipment allows one farmer to do the work it previously took 10 to do. The modernization of agriculture has had a significant impact on rural America.

The economic impact on Kendall County created by those profound changes in farming have not had a negative economic impact here, because beginning in the 1990s, instead of growing corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of farmland, we began growing residential and retail developments. Kendall County is at the end of the growth funnel created by the U.S. Route 34 corridor that continues to inject new residents here looking for less expensive housing than can be found to the immediate east, along with good schools, parks, libraries and other amenities families look for. Yes, that growth can often create problems. But the problems are minuscule compared with other rural areas of the Midwest are suffering as the result of changes created, I believe, in large part by the changes in agriculture.

All over Iowa, for instance, small towns are declining, watching their once-thriving business districts turn into vacant storefronts as the community is served, if they’re lucky, by a Casey’s General Store mini-mart and gas station. Up in Wisconsin, in country where there used to be thousands of small dairy farms, pastures and hayfields are now overgrown with brush and trees as barns and whole farmsteads are overtaken by the Northwoods. The smaller dairy farms were forced out of business by a combination of consolidation by larger corporate farms and implementation of stronger health standards that penalized smaller farms.

A case in point is the small northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls. My family has been heading up to Butternut Lake a couple miles north of town for more than 40 years now. And during that time the town’s population has declined by one-third.

So what’s going on in those areas not lucky enough to be near a vibrant region like the Chicago metro region? The answer I found lies in those farming statistics I cited above. One farm family can now take care of what 10 farm families tended 60 years ago. For every farm family left, there are nine fewer families to send their children to local schools, nine fewer families who go to church on Sunday, nine fewer families buying back-to-school clothes and supplies, and nine fewer farmers patronizing the local lumberyard, hardware store, and implement dealer. Even more population leaches out of communities as businesses leave and that makes it difficult to maintain public services from roads to fire departments to schools and impossible to attract any new classes of business that could conceivably replace agriculture. Most of these communities have seen their rail service, along with the tracks themselves, eliminated long ago by the frenzy of railroad consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s, and they’re too far from any Interstate highway, not to mention raw materials and potential customers, that could make locating a manufacturing operation there economical.

small depressed town

Small towns all over Iowa, central Illinois, and other areas of the rural Midwest are slowly dying as their populations evaporate.

It’s a negative feedback loop that turns into a death spiral: Children of the families that remain graduate from high school and can find no jobs, so they move away as do families with skills or wherewithal to find new jobs and start new lives elsewhere, increasing the population drain and leaving behind a populace that is increasingly unskilled, elderly, and impoverished that today is often also afflicted by the nation’s tragic opioid epidemic.

So, what’s to be done? I have no idea. Farmers certainly aren’t going to go back to growing crops with horse-drawn equipment. The local department, grocery, and hardware stores, even if they tried to come back, couldn’t compete with Walmart.

It’s probably a good thing that people are starting to look at these depressed areas with a view towards doing something to help them. But it’s going to take a much smarter person than I to figure out how to counteract the negative impact of nearly 200 years of technological progress on rural America.

 

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Filed under Business, family, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual during the cold weather months of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with those old coal-fired furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.

Today, coal is still an economic factor in Illinois (although a fast-diminishing one), although the uses to which it is now put have drifted far from home heating and firing kitchen cookstoves. Its modern uses would no doubt astound the explorers who discovered the mineral in the Illinois of the 1600s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and missionary Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., were the first Europeans to discover coal in what would one day become the State of Illinois.

In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”

These two instances were, in point of fact, the first discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for many years, however.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was first commercially mined in Illinois along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. Several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans that year.

As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal continued to be found in some abundance. Coal was found near the salines (salt producing areas) in Gallatin and Vermillion Counties, and as early as 1822 coal was shipped down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from Peoria to New Orleans.

19th Century coal mining

Coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous business. But it helped power Illinois as one of the nation’s premier industrial states.

Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers because of the problems transporting the stuff to market. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal that was mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi for heating and to fuel steam engines.

John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal. The line’s cars were horse-drawn from the mines over six miles of wooden rails to Illinoistown—modern East St. Louis—where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped down the Mississippi.

And the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.

By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal regularly—measurement in tons was several years in the future. The measurement in bushels indicates that at that time, coal was shipped in burlap bags, each of which had to be filled, and then moved on and off transports, from wagons to rail cars to riverboats for shipment.

Most of the early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs, or stream banks. Shaft mines were needed to reach the rich, thick veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining had to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.

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Tons of coal were hauled annually through Ottawa on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, cheaper than by rail. But the canal was closed due to winter freezes for several months a year.

By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal when it opened in 1848, which provided means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Erie, Penn.

Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source of fueling locomotives than was wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal fields in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free prairies in the central part of the state. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and shaft mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau, and Rock Island Counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox Counties, and the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermilion County.

Here in the Fox River Valley, coal was a vital resource for homes and businesses, and the CB&Q’s monopoly on transporting it, and therefore feeling free to gouge it’s customers, led to building the independent Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad linking the Vermilion coal fields in Streator with Geneva. From Ottawa north through Yorkville and Oswego on north, the tracks paralleled the course of the Fox River. But literally the minute the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to seize control of the new line and so was still able to dictate coal prices. The first railcar loads of coal on the new line arrived in Kendall County towns in January 1871, priced one-third higher than it had been promised when the line was being built.

As John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record complained in the paper’s Nov. 21, 1872 edition: The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

Throughout the 19th Century, continual efforts were made to secure adequate coal supplies for Kendall County’s farms and villages, even to the point of looking for it inside the county. And occasional coal seams were located. In 1887, coal was discovered by well-drillers in Fox Township, in Lisbon Township and in Oswego Township. But all the discoveries were too deep underground and the seams too thin to warrant sinking mine shafts.

Cliggitt Grain Elevator, Oswego, Dec. 2, 1911. Photo by Dwight S. Young.

The coal sheds at Oswego were located across the tracks of the CB&Q Railroad’s Fox River Branch from the Oswego Grain Company’s elevator. Oswego businessman John W. Chapman received the line’s first shipment of coal in January 1871. (Dwight Young photo in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

Since railroads, mining, and manufacturing—particularly producing iron and steel—were all interrelated, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of prairie farming.

At the start of the Civil War, iron and steel production was a growing, but still not an overly important industry. With the outbreak of war, however, domestic sources of these important metals were badly needed, and during the next 25 years, the United States grew to become the world’s leading steel and iron producer.

Because of Chicago’s strategic location between the iron mines of Lake Superior and the coal fields of central Illinois, the city soon became one of the nation’s leading centers of manufacturing and transportation. That also spread to the areas nearby, particularly Joliet, where starting in 1869 the Joliet Iron & Steel Works produced pig iron and in 1873 started out producing thousands of miles of railroad rails from its rolling mill. The Joliet Iron & Steel Company owned a dam on the DesPlaines River that powered four blast furnaces that could turn out 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. The iron mill closed in 1936, and the steel mill was finally completely shuttered in the early 1980s.

Coal mining underwent many changes over the years, too, with shaft mines being gradually replaced by huge open pit mines, such as those operated by the Peabody Coal Company in Grundy County, just south of the Kendall County line.

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Wind farms like this one in DeKalb County have popped all over northern Illinois’ rural countryside, part of the effort to replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Today, coal’s use as a fuel for electrical generating plants is rapidly dying out as more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of producing power, such as wind and solar energy are displacing it. A new study released this past May found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants nationally with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, with wind power in particular at times cutting the cost almost in half. Overseas, Sweden is pledging to be coal-free by 2040 and in South America, Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Coal isn’t just inefficient and expensive, it’s also dangerous to the environment. Burning coal spews a dismaying amount of aggressive pollutants into the atmosphere, many of which have been proven to worsen global climate change. Climate data captured in tree growth rings; ocean and lake sediments; ice cores; and other forms of data show that the effect on the world’s climate by burning coal began to show up almost as soon as coal began to power the Industrial Revolution—and that was on top of climate changes already put in place as early man began farming and otherwise changing the landscape to suit himself.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average coal generating plant, because of the trace elements coal contains, leaks more radiation into the environment than does a nuclear power plant. So it’s a good thing coal’s on its way out as a way to produce electrical power and that renewable resources from solar and wind to hydro and thermal are quickly replacing it.

But for decades, coal not only powered the nation in general, but it also powered Illinois’ ascension as one of the nation’s industrial powerhouses. Today, the challenge is to try to deal with all of the environmental problems we created for ourselves during that era.

 

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