Monthly Archives: December 2020

Northern Illinois winters are still challenging–even with global warming

Winter snows have dusted—and often buried—Kendall County’s present landscape since glaciers shaped it some tens of thousands of years ago.

The area’s first inhabitants were Stone Age hunters who gradually moved north as the huge ice sheet, which once covered our area here in northern Illinois to a depth of several thousand feet, retreated. The glacial melt and the climate change it caused not only created the Fox Valley’s landforms, but also produced the area’s rich soil.

During the summer, those ancient wandering hunters had a relatively easy life–game of all sizes was abundant along the ice edge and there were plenty of native plants to add to their diet. During that era, northern Illinois’ landscape strongly resembled that seen in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and was dominated by spruce forests.

Northern Illinois’ first inhabitants arrived as they followed the herds of Ice Age animals, that, in turn, were following the retreating glaciers.

In winter, living for the hunter-gatherer groups got more difficult. In the truly harsh winters of that era it is likely they ate dried wild fruits, nuts, and berries along with dried meat and fish. But food storage technology was not much advanced during that era, making it difficult for the Native People to preserve food for the long winters they had to endure.

The struggle for survival by these groups is illustrated today by the remains of ancient campsites found in Kendall County, especially in the Morgan Creek area of Oswego Township. The creek valley is actually the remains of a prehistoric glacial lake, around whose rim many ancient campsites have been discovered. In addition, characteristic projectile points from this prehistoric period have been discovered on the ridges around the old glacial lake and at several other Kendall County sites.

As the years passed, those glacial lakes disappeared, filling in with silt, while the Fox River continued to cut its way down through layers of limestone, slowly decreasing in volume as the glaciers that originally fed it with their melt water retreated far to the north and eventually disappeared.

During the next several centuries, successive Indian groups moved in and through the Fox Valley, only to be dispossessed by other groups seeking to control the rich hunting grounds. Pothole lakes gouged by the glaciers silted in and became marshes and sloughs that supported huge numbers of game animals.

The Fox River’s bottomlands, enriched by the silt deposits washed off the prairies, were heavily farmed by highly organized Indian groups of the Mississippian Cultural Tradition.

The Mississippians had invaded Illinois about 800 A.D. from the south, pushing out or absorbing the resident Hopewell people. Large numbers of Mississippians probably lived in Kendall County, extensively farming the river bottom, especially in the area of today’s Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area. Large amounts of Mississippian pottery shards were uncovered when the new Five Mile Bridge across the Fox was built near Silver Springs State Park several decades ago.

Because the Mississippian culture relied heavily on farming for subsistence, winter fell much less heavily on them than it had on the area’s ancient hunters. During the winter months, Mississippians probably hunted when the weather permitted as they whiled away the cold weather repairing fishing nets, making tools, and eating the preserved corn, beans and squash they’d harvested.

Len Tantillo’s fine painting of Native American hunters returning to their winter camp gives a little of the atmosphere of a time when surviving an Illinois winter was not nearly as easy as it is now.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in Illinois, the Mississippian people had vanished, their civilization possibly destroyed by the same climate changes that destroyed Native Peoples’ cultural traditions in the West and Southwest. It appears the Mississippians broke up into tribal groups that eventually became the Illinois Confederacy and related tribes Europeans found living here when they explored the region in the 1600s. Starting in the 1680s, Europeans and Americans of European descent slowly pushed northern Illinois’ Native People west of the Mississippi River, finally in the 1830s completing a pattern begun thousands of years before.

The area’s first pioneer settlers followed roughly the same seasonal rituals as did the Native People they displaced, saving up food during the warm months in order to survive northern Illinois’ often-brutal winters.

Permanent American settlers arrived in Kendall County in the late 1820s, building their log cabins and barns and rail fences in the southern part of the county. Like the Native People they’d soon displace, the settlers farmed in summer to store up enough food to last through the area’s severe winters. In order to create more tillable land, the farmers cut down the county’s groves, straightened the creeks, and drained the glacier-created wetlands, all of which had negative effects on periodic flooding and erosion.

The descendants of those first settlers also managed to use the Fox Valley’s harsh winter weather as a money-maker. Every town along the Fox River boasted a mill and dam. Since mechanical refrigeration was unknown, huge quantities of ice were required to preserve food in homes and businesses and to cool meat shipped East from Chicago’s sprawling stockyards. Companies were established to organize ice harvesting at the area’s dam sites. Each winter, tons of ice were cut and stored in icehouses to await shipment later in the year.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s huge ice houses on the east bank of the Fox River about a half mile north of downtown Oswego supplied huge quantities of ice for home and commercial use. (Little White School Museum collection)

According to an article in the Jan. 25, 1883 Kendall County Record, the Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Company harvested 1,000 tons of ice a day from the pond behind the dam at Parker’s Mills, just north of Oswego’s downtown, storing it in huge ice houses, the largest of which measured 150 feet by 180 feet. The company owned a similar operation at Yorkville.

In most of 19th Century Kendall County, though, the pace of life slowed in winter. Farmers fed their livestock, cut firewood, split fence rails, and repaired equipment while the rest of the area’s residents kept warm and attended numerous dinners, speeches, and church services. They also enjoyed getting their sleighs out, harnessing up the family driving horse and went “dashing through the snow.” As the Record reported in December 1886, “The roads are now in splendid condition for a light fall of snow to make good sleighing–in fact, you will find a cutter [one-horse open sleigh] runs very nicely now on most roads.

Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh.

Today, with all-weather roads and modern autos, life in winter is not much different than life in summer, and in fact becomes more hectic during the holiday season, even this one that has been so seriously affected by the pandemic. In fact, global climate change is resulting in more and more mild winters here on the northern Illinois prairies.

But as we drive on slushy roads and look towards a cold and wintry New Years, it may be well to remember it was not always thus. In a simpler, less populated, chillier time, during the snowy winter of 1887 with no motorized traffic on area roads and streets, the Record’s Oswego correspondent could admiringly write: “Tobogganing was the rage during the last week; there was a good natural slide down Benton Street from John Young’s, and crowds of young and old enjoyed themselves.”


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It’s that “most wonderful time of the year”

I noticed the first Christmas decorations popping up around the Fox Valley in October well before Halloween. Then the Hallmark Channels started their Christmas made-for-TV movie blitzkrieg, a seemingly never-ending bombardment of saccharine mono-plotted programming that became annoying for its monotony and the Canadian accents of its actors after the first week.

But now, the retail ball is really getting rolling, as well, even in the midst of the depressing Covid-19 pandemic. Communities have been trying to drum up holiday spirit for their generally dispirited populace with a variety of socially-distanced and masked events. It seems to have worked, at least a bit, although the general lack of snow has so far put a bit of a damper on the season as have the effects of sheltering in place. Some have decided not to do any home decorating for the holidays, while others have gone ahead in an effort to brighten up the end of a particularly dismal year.

When we were kids, we were told by adults, in serious tones, that Christmas was all about giving. Which was silly. We knew that Christmas was all about getting Christmas gifts. Besides, we didn’t have money to buy gifts for anybody anyway.

Out at the one-room Church School, our big musical number in our 1953 Christmas program was “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” with a real set and everything.

In preparation for Christmas pageants at school and at church, we began cramming our lines along about the first of December. At school, especially during my early elementary years, the approach of Christmas meant a daily practice at Church School out in Wheatland Township, singing with Mrs. Eleanor Stewart at the piano helping our teacher, Mrs. Comerford, out. It also meant on-stage practices down in the basement of the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Not only was the church basement the biggest space in the neighborhood, but it was right across the road from the school. Conveniently, Mrs. Stewart also provided the piano accompaniment for our Sunday School Christmas program so we were all comfortable with each other during those seemingly endless practices.

It wasn’t until we moved to town, though, that the true and full force of Christmas hit me. Of course, I was a bit older then and able to grasp the full import of things like television commercials for the latest Mattel six-shooter, a replica Winchester lever action rifle, or Schwinn bike. For years, my greatest ambition was to visit Amling’s Flowerland, drawn to it because of the wonderful commercials on “Elmer the Elephant,” “Uncle Johnny Coons,” and other similarly culturally uplifting children’s television programs. There on the small screen were kids that looked just like me flying real gasoline powered model airplanes and wearing neat looking military uniforms—with helmets!—all available at Amlings.

In the 1950s, Shuler’s didn’t have a very big toy selection, but their comic book rack was well-stocked and regularly updated. (Little White School Museum collection)

The nearest big department stores to little Oswego were in downtown Aurora, but kids couldn’t get there on their own. So for most of the year we had to make do with the tiny toy departments at Shuler’s Drug Store and at Carr’s Department Store in downtown Oswego. Granted, Shuler’s had a pretty good comic book selection that was updated regularly, but their toy section left a lot to be desired.

But once a year after Thanksgiving, Shuler’s would offer a special and commodious toy selection in the old meeting hall above their drug store, staffed by the folks from Carr’s Department Store. On the way home from school, bundled up in our scratchy woolen coats with those silly attached half-belts that were always coming unhooked in front, hats with earflaps, and five-buckle rubber boots we’d trudge up the stairs off Main Street and enter a different world. Games from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley were stacked along with six-guns from Marx (cheap) and Mattel (much better), trucks by Tootsie Toy and Tonka, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, dolls and a wide selection of accessories, and even an occasional Gilbert Chemistry Set. We all looked longingly at the chemistry sets with the happy kid on the front of the box mixing wonderful looking chemicals in a test tube while a retort on a Bunsen burner bubbled in the background.

We all wanted to try mixing the contents of a Gilbert Chemistry Set in “the wrong way” to create explosives. Alas, we were thwarted by cooler heads in Gilbert’s legal department.

We all knew that extraordinary explosives could be created with a chemistry set because we had all heard the rumor about the kid that blew up his garage by “accidentally” mixing chemicals “the wrong way.” But when one of us finally actually got a genuine Gilbert Chemistry Set—the big one with the steel case that folded out in four sections—we found that instead of truly cool stuff like the makings for gunpowder or nitroglycerine, the case was full of little glass tubes and bottles containing substances labeled “Xylan” and “Diatomaceous Earth” that didn’t explode worth a darn. In fact, it slowly dawned on us budding mad scientists that ingredients of chemistry sets are designed so they won’t explode no matter how they are mixed, and in fact are designed to be so maddingly safe that one of them would probably stop a nuclear chain reaction in its tracks if it was close enough.

A treasure I bought Fagerholm’s in Aurora with my Christmas gift money from my grandparents one year was the Dinky Toy version of the World War II British 5.5″ field gun and the truck to tow it with.

So we spent lots of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas looking longingly at toys both live and on TV, and then, every once in a while, our parents would have to go to downtown Aurora to replenish supplies of things that grownups figured they needed. That gave us a chance to visit the stores that had the neatest toys, mainly Fagerholm’s Toy Store on South Broadway, The Book Shop over on Stolp Avenue, and May Electric where you could go upstairs and see the latest Lionel train equipment. The Book Shop, was the “educational” toy store in downtown Aurora, and had wonderful things in its window, educational or not, things like shiny miniature steam engines that actually worked to drive working toy machines, and plastic planetariums that were guaranteed to project the heavens on your bedroom ceiling as long as the lights were turned off. Fagerholm’s had the marvelous British-made Dinky Toys and the best selection of model plane and car kits in Aurora, while the Lionel equipment at May Electric was first-rate.

The Christmas I found a new Lionel Santa Fe diesel switch engine under the tree was a happy one indeed.

Actually, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized that it really is better to give than receive at Christmas. The looks on the faces of our kids when they found some wished-for treasure under the tree Christmas morning brought home the fact like no amount of preaching did years before.

Actually, I’ve found, the season seems to be mostly about joy, and the satisfaction derived by doing good things for other people. This Christmas, little kids won’t remember a thing about the recent election or whether traffic signals have been installed down the street, although they might retain some memories of this crazy pandemic year. For sure, however, they definitely will remember the warm feelings the holidays bring them long after they have children and grandchildren of their own.

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1870s Oswego dispatched lighting rod salesmen across the Midwest

With the introduction of Covid vaccines, science is getting a bit of a shot in the arm after four years of insistence that opinions—no matter how nuts—are every bit as valid as actual facts. I won’t go into all the strangeness that’s resulted in so much modern science and fact denial here, but I will note that innovation and invention was once a national mania that filtered right down to the local level.

Like many rural areas, Kendall County was a hotbed of invention and innovation in the 19th Century. In fact, Oswego boasted it’s own mini-Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison’s famed invention and innovation lab, operated by the Richards brothers in their hardware store.

One of those popular innovations that became extremely popular throughout the Midwest was lightning rods, popularity driven because of the constant threat of fire posed by the region’s frequent thunderstorms to buildings both in town and out on the farm, particularly the large barns of the era. Most small towns had little or no firefighting capability, and farms had none at all. As a result, a lightning strike could mean ruin for a building owner.

A basic lightning rod installation consists of the rod atop a building connected with a thick copper wire buried in the ground.

Ben Franklin is generally given credit for inventing the first practical lightning rod system. In 1752, Franklin developed the first lightning rod as part of his famous experiments with electricity. As developed, the Franklin Rod—as it was called—consisted of a metal rod mounted on the highest point of a building’s roof that was then, by running a wire from the rod down to the ground, grounded. The energy of a lightning bolt striking the rod was harmlessly diverted into the ground instead of causing the building to burst into flame.

On the largely treeless prairies of Illinois lightning strikes were a constant threat. As the June 8, 1871 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “In the storm of Sunday afternoon the barn of William Ladd was struck by lightning and consumed with pretty much all its contents, including two new wagons, reaper, mower, planter, harnesses and nearly everything required on a farm; also upwards of 300 bushels of grain, a part of which and also one of the wagons belonged to Abe Emmons, who upon his removal in the spring to Amboy left it there in store. Of the other contents a large share belonged to N.T. Ferris, who is working the farm. The entire loss will exceed $3,000.”

So lightning rods became a fairly big business starting in the mid-19th Century. Herman Melville’s short story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” published in the August 1854 edition of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, recounts the fictional interaction between the story’s narrator and an inventive and ambitious lightning rod salesman. A humorous tale filled with plenty of Melville allegory, it’s interesting for its treatment of a trade long gone from the American scene: the traveling lightening rod salesman.

Nineteenth Century Kendall County was one many hotbeds of invention, with all sorts of ingenious tinkering going on. And for whatever reason, Oswego seems to have been a center of lightning rod invention, manufacture, and sales. A number of firms annually sent out teams of lightning rod salesmen like Melville’s protagonist that ranged all over the Midwest and that provided employment for a number of local residents.

According to one county history, lightning rods were first introduced in Kendall County by Oswego storekeeper Garret H. Teller in 1844. Although Teller didn’t manufacture his own rods but was a wholesaler, he continued to sell lightning rods for the rest of his life, while taking on a number of partners during the years.

As the 1870s began, lightning rods were a growing business. According to the business directory in the 1870 atlas and plat book of Kendall County, along with Henry W. Farley (the only manufacturer listed), Oswegoans Teller, William Hoze, and Thomas P. Mullenix were all engaged in selling lightning rods.

Henry Wise Farley (1819-1892), engineer, inventor, businessman. He invented and patented an improved lightning rod in 1869 and manufactured them in Oswego, sending out door-to-door salesmen each spring to a territory that covered all of Illinois, as well as parts of Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Farley was the community’s premier lightning rod manufacturer, although others apparently dabbled in the business. Farley was a former railroad official who worked as a construction engineer on a number of Eastern rail lines. A native of Massachusetts, after his service in the Civil War in Missouri, Farley moved his family north, settling in Oswego.

In the pre-war period, Farley had patented a number of mechanisms, mostly centered around railroad locomotives. But after moving to Oswego sometime before 1869, he put his mind to inventing a variety of items, from an innovative conveyor of people and freight to an improved lightning rod. Farley’s lighting rod proved to be cheaper than the pure copper rods that were the most efficient conductors of lightning bolts, and more effective than the cheaper iron rods economy-minded building owners often favored.

Farley’s big lightning rod innovation was to manufacture an iron rod with a star-shaped cross-section that was then twisted into a spiral shape. The sturdy rods were manufactured with screw threads at top and bottom, allowing them to be connected with a threaded collar creating whatever length of rod was desired.

Farley’s major improvement was to wrap copper wires or strips up the spiral grooves to provide a much better lightning conductor. The spiral grooved iron rod proved much stronger than a similar, soft copper rod. As he noted in his patent application, the star-shaped spiral rod “combines the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight, and also giving great area of surface.” He was finally granted a patent for the idea in 1869.

By that time, he was already installing them around Oswego and the rest of Kendall County. As early as 1868, the Record reported from Oswego that several residents had contracted with Farley for his new, improved lightning rods. On April 15 of that year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Farley has commenced active operation in the lightning rod business. Several houses in the town were rodded last week, among which are Snook’s, Bunn’s, and Wollenweber’s.”

The great thing about manufacturing and marketing lighting rods was that Mother Nature, in the form of frequent thunderstorms, kept reminding everyone why it was such a good idea to buy and install them—sometimes spectacularly so. On June 28, 1877, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “During Wednesday evening’s storm the barn of Phillip Boessenecker, a large and almost new one, was struck by lightning, causing its consumption by fire with a large lot of hay, farming utensils, and a very good colt. The prominent location of the barn made the fire conspicuous in town and a number went out to it. There had been no rod on it, hence our lightning rodders point now to it as proof of the stupidity of men that don’t have their buildings rodded.”

Even with frequent help from the weather, it was clear that all those lightning rod dealers couldn’t make a living selling just to Kendall County residents. So Farley and the other major lightning rod wholesalers in Oswego began sending teams of salesmen out to hawk their wares to a wide strip of the upper Midwest.

List of lightning rod dealers in Oswego from the 1870 Kendall County plat book and atlas. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was a fortunate time to be recruiting young men for traveling sales jobs because of the number of Civil War veterans looking for decent jobs with travel and a little adventure thrown in.

Generally, the sales teams loaded up brightly painted horsedrawn wagons with their goods and headed out to their territories in mid to late April and then headed to their assigned territories.

As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on April 14, 1870: “The lightning rod establishments are now very busy in getting up and sending out teams. Oliver [Hebert] has got up some very nice looking wagons for them.”

Oliver Hebert ran Oswego’s premier wagon manufactory out of this combination shop (at left in the photo0 and home at the corner of Madison and VanBuren streets. The wagon shop was eventually torn down and the residential part became Oswego’s first funeral home in 1931. Grocery merchant Ken Bohn bought the house in the 1950s. It was destroyed by fire on Jan. 31, 1994. (Little White School Museum photo.

Hebert was Oswego’s premier carriage, road cart, and wagon maker during that era, suggesting the firms weren’t stinting on the quality of their equipment.

Territories for individual companies extended as far north as Minnesota and as far south as southern Illinois and as far west as Iowa. During the sales year, the crews came home to visit their families on summer and early fall holidays, as the July 6, 1871 Record reported from Oswego: “A number of the lightning rod boys came home to spend the Fourth.”

And sometimes they just came home for a visit after a couple months on the road. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 13, 1871: “The lightning rod folks who are and have been home on a visit to their families and friends may be mentioned [include] Boss G.H. Teller; C.L. Murdock, and C.L. Judson.”

Of course, given that the sales forces were mostly comprised of young Civil War veterans, activities weren’t strictly confined to business. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on Oct. 17, 1872: “Charles E. Hubbard went last spring in the Teller company to Wisconsin lightning rodding; it appears however that he did not wholly confine his attention to that business, for he came home one day last week with a wife.”

The sales season generally wrapped up in September as the season for lightning-producing thunderstorms ended.

The county’s era as a center of the Midwest’s lightning rod business was largely over by the 1880s as bigger firms were able to undersell and out-produce smaller companies like Farley’s. But while it lasted, lightning rodding was a business that put Oswego and Kendall County on the region’s business map.

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How traditional are our Thanksgiving celebrations, anyway?

After rereading the Thanksgiving post I dredged up from the History on the Fox archives last week, I got to wondering just how “traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations were here in Illinois. We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln declaring an official day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the Civil War. But where did Lincoln get the idea? Why the last Thursday in November? Is turkey really a traditional Thanksgiving treat?

So I started digging into it.

Celebrations to mark the end of the harvest date to ancient times in England. When the colonists calling themselves Pilgrims arrived in the New World in 1620, they brought that tradition with them. And in 1621, the survivors of the first harrowing year on the Massachusetts coast had real reason to offer their thanks to God, their own labors, and to the Native People who’d been key in helping them survive.

Lyle Shoger, about 1930, with a load of corn he picked by hand, probably looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner to come. (Little White School Museum collection)

When those New Englanders began pioneering the western frontier—Illinois—in the 1830s, they took their traditions, including the end-of-harvest Thanksgiving, with them. Those earliest celebrations, mostly held in late November after the vital corn harvest was largely finished, were family affairs. It wasn’t until 1842 that Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford, in the midst of the harrowing effects of the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, proclaimed Thursday, Dec. 29, as a statewide day of Thanksgiving.

It’s more than likely the pioneers from Vermont, Massachusetts, and other New England and Middle Atlantic states brought Thanksgiving celebrations west with them to Kendall County. So local residents were receptive to Gov. Ford’s proclamation.

“It was, perhaps, the darkest time in the history of our State, and in many a household the pinching of poverty was extreme,” noted Kendall County’s earliest historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks. “The prayers offered up were heard, for times began to be better, and two years thereafter emigration began to pour in as of old, and money, the life blood of the community, began to circulate through the channels of trade.”

In 1847, Hicks reported, Illinois’ official Thanksgiving Day was set for Thursday, Dec. 16, just in time for people to be thankful a smallpox epidemic at Newark had ended.

And the tradition continued. The Kendall County Courier reported from Oswego in their Nov. 21, 1855 edition: “In acknowledgement of the bounteous blessings bestowed upon us the past year from the hand of the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the Governor of our State has appointed and recommended the 29th day of the present month to be observed as one of thanksgiving and prayer.”

So by the time Lincoln made his 1863 proclamation, he was used to his home state’s Thanksgiving celebrations that had, by then, been observed for some two decades.

After the war, and after Lincoln’s assassination, celebrating the nation continued to celebrate the holiday, though not always at the end of November. Some years, the event was moved to the first week or so of December. In the Nov. 30, 1865 Kendall County Record, editor John R. Marshall wrote: “Next Thursday is the day set apart for national thanksgiving. The war is among the things that were, and our armies are nearly disbanded. Peace and prosperity assume their reign. Give God the praise.”

Those local celebrations, early on, had two main elements: solemn thanks given for whatever blessings people acknowledged, and turkey dinners. Whether it was a carryover from those Pilgrim days or for some other reason, the turkey dinner seems to have been a key Thanksgiving element for all who could afford one.

Thanksgiving was a popular subject for postcards during the 19th Century into the early years of the 20th Century.

Marshall even joked about it in that same Nov. 30 issue of the Record. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he suggested: “Turkies [sic] for Thanksgiving festivities will be received at this office at all hours of the day till the 7th prox. If any are belated, they will be taken after the 7th, and will answer for future dinners. No hint is meant by the foregoing,” he added with a wink.

In 1866, Thanksgiving was again observed on the last Thursday in November, and its observance was linked to veneration of Lincoln. Wrote Marshall in the Nov. 22, 1866 Record, “Next Thursday is the day set aside by the President and by our Governor as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for his many blessings conferred upon the nation and upon this state. This is a relic of the New England fathers, which, under the honored Lincoln, became National property.”

Oswego union Thanksgiving church service was held in the Presbyterian Church with the village’s Methodist minister giving the sermon. (Little White School Museum collection)

Another tradition that arose, and continued for more than a century, was “union” church services in most communities in Kendall County. The services were generally shared around among each church in town from year to year, as were the sermons. On Nov. 25, 1869, the Record reported that in Oswego, “Thanksgiving was observed in the usual manner by eating a turkey or chicken-pie dinner, religious services were observed in the Presbyterian church, the Methodist minister preached the sermon,” and adding, “Business was not generally suspended.”

So while people attended church and enjoyed family dinners, Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a business holiday. Gradually, however, as the years passed, businesses at least closed during the community church services, an eventually closed for the entire day making it more of what we recognize as a true holiday.

The union Thanksgiving church service was a tradition that continued for well over a century. Here in my hometown of Oswego, the high school glee club always sang at those Thanksgiving services through the 1960s. It was one reason the district’s music director wasn’t fond of Catholics. During that era Catholic kids weren’t allowed to engage in other denominations’ services and so were prohibited from the union services, robbing the choir of some of its voices.

By 1872, a third leg had been added to the annual Thanksgiving celebration. As the Record’s Oswego corresponded reported on Dec. 5 of the holiday’s activities: “The turkey shoot was a spirited affair; a number of crack marksmen from abroad were present but the shooting was poor, the cause of which was laid to the wind. It blowed quite hard.”

An old pigeon shoot.

Eventually, the local sportsmen added pigeons to the day’s shoot as well.

In 1874, a final diversion had been added, even as the severe economic Panic of 1873 began in earnest. Known as “The Long Depression,” the downturn’s effects would extend over two decades. Even so, small towns like Oswego celebrated the holiday, the Record’s Oswego correspondent writing on Nov. 26, 1874 that: “Thanksgiving day is to be celebrated by divine worship in the forenoon, by eating turkey at noon by those who can afford it, and by dancing in the evening of those both old and young who know how and delight in that diversion.”

For several years, the Thanksgiving holiday consisted of those elements: religious services, turkey dinners, a turkey and/or a pigeon shoot, and a dance in the evening. Eventually parts of the celebration began falling away until by the 20th Century it had been whittled down to religious services and a traditional turkey dinner.

Most recently, those joint community church services have gradually disappeared as well. Instead, Thanksgiving has come to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. And, in fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November in order to provide more shopping days until Christmas to boost the retail industry. The move proved unpopular, however, and the celebration has remained on the fourth Thursday since.

So, yes, Thanksgiving as we know it, especially those turkey dinners, really is a tradition that dates back into the nation’s history—here in Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the observances since 1842. And, I think it’s fair to say, doing something for 178 years can legitimately be dubbed a true tradition.

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