Buying history is sometimes the only way it can be saved

A few years ago, I got an email from my friend Lyle Rolfe, who covers the Oswegoland Park District for our local community newspaper, the Ledger-Sentinel. He’d gotten a copy of the report I do every month for the board of the Oswegoland Heritage Association about the Little White School Museum here in town, and he noticed that we sometimes purchase items for our collections on eBay.

We don’t do a lot of that, but we probably average one item every couple months over a year’s time.

And thanks to those occasional eBay purchases, we’ve been able, for instance, to fill in the gaps of our collection of plaques manufactured by the Christian Art House here in Oswego from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and we’ve acquired a number of historically important postcards over the years, too.

One interesting postcard we purchased thanks to eBay ended up, like so many artifacts acquired for the museum, leading to us becoming more familiar with a couple interesting fragments of the Oswego area’s history.

1910 Horse tower trestle A b&w

The 1910 postcard showing the bell tower added to the old town hall in 1895 and the trolley trestle over the CB&Q tracks on Washington Street.

This particular postcard was mailed in 1910 from Oswego, and at first we thought the message on it was written in German. But it wasn’t necessarily the message on the postcard that caught our eye anyway. Instead, it was the view. The postcard’s photo was taken behind the retail businesses on the west side of Main Street, between Main Street and the (then) Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks, looking south. As a result, it showed the trestle on Washington Street that carried the interurban trolley tracks up and over the CB&Q tracks, which was interesting. But even more interesting was the view of the old Oswego Town Hall on Washington Street. It was one of the best views we’d seen of the hose tower that had been added to the hall after Oswego’s first pressurized water system was built and a fire brigade established.

2008 Twp Hall

The old town hall on Washington Street fell to the wrecker’s ball last year.

The tower was added to the town hall (built in 1884 as the village hall) in 1895 to house the village’s fire bell, and also to hang and dry the fire brigade’s canvas hoses after they were used.

The venerable old frame building was torn down last year to make way for a new business.

The bell the tower once housed, and which once called the village’s firefighters to action, is today the subject of a nice memorial out at the Oswego Fire Protection District’s new Station One on Woolley Road.

So we really wanted that postcard, and we were able to buy it very cheaply.

2010 March 5 fire bell remove

In March 2010, the old fire bell was moved from downtown Oswego to the new fire station on Woolley Road.

When we received the card, I immediately scanned it, and emailed a copy of the scan to a friend I knew could read German. He, however, informed me the card was not written in German, but in Danish!

Danes? In Oswego? Why, yes, actually. Turns out there was a small contingent of Danes living here, one of whom was Johann Schmidt, who had sent the postcard from Oswego to Denmark in 1910.

So we had a couple tasks. First, find someone to translate the card’s message, and second figure out who the heck Johann Schmidt was.

For help translating the card, I went to hNet, an Illinois network of professional historians. While I’m not one, they graciously allow me to participate from time to time. With their help we found native Danish speaker Anni Holm at Waubonsee Community College, who volunteered to translate the postcard.

According to her, the card was sent by Schmidt to his nephew, Max Schmidt, in Marstal, Denmark, congratulating the younger Schmidt on his recent confirmation, and explaining about the elder Schmidt’s prize stallion. Here’s Anni’s translation:

“Dear brother son Max S.

Have received your card and thank you for the applications. Yes, I am well and have it good. Hope the same for you and will I here wish you congratulations and a blessed confirmation, it is sad that I could not attend [unreadable word] to your confirmation

Your uncle Hans J. S.”

1910 Horse tower trestle B

The message side of the 1910 postcard, which turned out to have been written in Danish.

On top of the card the upside down text says the following: “this stallion as you see of the picture has been mine and it is hyre [Danish for hired] man who walked with it”

And who was Johann Schmidt? Turns out he was a prominent Oswego saloonkeeper during the early 1900s. Going by the names Johann Schmidt, John Schmidt, Shorty Smith, and John Smith, he owned The Oswego Saloon, which, when it was under construction in 1897, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, predicted:

“It will by far be the most gorgeous establishment of the kind that Oswego ever had.”

Just to sow a little more local history confusion, Rank added in March 1898:

“J.A. Schmidt and Ira Ackley have been doing the decorating of the new saloon building, all of which is most magnificent. Every room is of different color and pattern. The wine room–well, gorgeous or splendid–fail to express the sight of it.”

The J.A. Schmidt doing the decorating was not the Johann Schmidt who eventually bought The Oswego Saloon. J.A. was a German, a native Berliner, who worked around the Oswego area doing painting and wallpapering.

Johann Schmidt the saloonkeeper was a Dane who bought The Oswego Saloon from Al Cole in November 1904, and continued to run it as Oswego’s premier drinking establishment until prohibition closed it down.

So successful was he, in fact, that Schmidt was the victim of a strong-arm robbery. According to the Oct. 16, 1907 Kendall County Record:

HIT WITH AN AX;

ROBBED OF $300

John Schmidt, Oswego Saloon-Keeper,

Knocked Unconscious Last Night.

John “Shorty” Schmidt, one of the Oswego saloonkeepers, was going home last night from his place of business about 11 o’clock when he was attacked from ambush, hit on the head with an ax, and relieved of a roll if bills amounting to $800.

Mr. Schmidt lives in one of the small cottages along the railroad track below the village hall and it is his custom to go around the end of the town house, taking a shortcut to his own rear door. At the end of the village building is a clump of bushes and as he was passing those bushes he was suddenly felled to the ground with a heavy blow on the head. He was unconscious for about 15 minutes, and while he was senseless the hold-up men took his money. He is confined to his home this morning with a deep gash on the back of his head, which came near being a fractured skull.

So we gained a lot of interesting Oswego history with a vanishing small investment in a single postcard we were able to find thanks to eBay. And that’s the way local history rolls. Bit by bit, you build up a store of information that you can, when a key part finally becomes available, synthesize and arrive at some valuable insights.

“How do you go about researching local history,” a friend asked me not long ago. He’s right to be perplexed. It’s not like you can go to some Internet source and find out all about early 20th Century Oswego saloonkeepers of Danish descent.

Rather, this is how we do it, one bit at a time, until a key piece drops into place and makes the story whole, or at least as whole as it can be until the next bit is discovered and, in turn, drops into place.

 

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Filed under Architecture, Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

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