Monthly Archives: January 2021

Watching Fox Valley history unreel a week at a time in the local press…

Back in the early 1980s, in preparation for writing a community history to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Oswego Township’s settlement, Ford Lippold started stopping by the Oswego Public Library to transcribe interesting tidbits from microfilm of the Kendall County Record’s weekly “Oswego” column.

Ford was an interesting guy. He championed youth activities in the Oswego area and was instrumental in establishing the Oswegoland Park District, becoming the district’s first executive director. He and contemporary Dick Young advocated for and spearheaded establishing the Kendall County Forest Preserve District. And in 1949, he established Oswego’s weekly newspaper, the Oswego Ledger which he owned, edited, and published until 1965.

But back to the Record, which was established in May 1864 in anticipation of the county seat moving from Oswego to Yorkville. Voters had approved removing the county seat from Oswego in an 1859 referendum. With the disruption caused by the Civil War, it wasn’t until June 1864 that the new Italianate-style courthouse, with its towering cupola, was ready for occupancy. On June 2, the Record reported that county officials had begun to move from Oswego to Yorkville and on June 16 a headline informed readers “The Records Have Come!”

The flag from the front page of Volume 1, Number 1 of the Kendall County Record

It took Record editor and publisher John R. Marshall a couple years to get his vision of a county weekly newspaper fully implemented. Marshall’s plan was to have regular correspondents in each community send a weekly “letter” reporting their area’s news. Gradually, each village in the county, along with some rural neighborhoods—Specie Grove, Tamarack and Wheatland, NaAuSay—joined the Record’s staff of stringers.

Here in Oswego, Lorenzo Rank, a tailor by trade and postmaster by occupation, joined the Record staff as a regular stringer in November 1868. So by 1980 when Ford began his transcription project, a lot of local history was available. Taking his portable typewriter—no word processors then—down to the library, he eventually came up with about 30 pages of historical news that struck his interest.

We used those transcriptions when Ford, Paul Shoger, and I, plus a corps of other volunteers, wrote the community’s sesquicentennial history, 150 Years Along the Fox: The History of Oswego Township, Illinois.

And by that time, I’d been hornswoggled into becoming the editor of Oswego’s Ledger-Sentinel. In June 1980, Jeff and Kathy Farren, owners of the Kendall County Record, and Dave Dreier, owner of the Fox Valley Sentinel, had decided to merge the two papers into the Ledger-Sentinel, with Dave selling his interest to the Farrens. We quickly hired John Etheredge, a new graduate of Northern Illinois University’s journalism school, as the paper’s full-time reporter (John’s still working and writing for the paper, now as managing editor).

He and I both thought continuing the Record’s regular column looking back to previous years would be popular with readers, and so we started the Ledger-Sentinel’s “Yesteryear” monthly column, using Ford’s 30-pages of transcriptions as a basis. But Ford’s transcriptions were pretty thin on the ground for some months, so I began adding to them, taking my trusty little TRS-80 laptop down to the library once a month and gradually fleshing out what Ford had started.

When we got our first Macs at the newspaper office, I started transcribing all those typewritten pages into a Microsoft Word file, which had grown considerably by the time I retired from the newspaper in 2008. By that time, I was not only using those transcriptions for the “Yesteryear” column, but found they were invaluable research aids in writing my weekly “Reflections” column as well as for researchers down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

After retiring and basking in the realization I didn’t have to cover evening meetings any more—by that point, I’d been covering local government for more than 30 years—I started looking for something to occupy my time. And that’s when I decided a more complete transcription of all those years of “Oswego” columns would be of quite a bit of use to historians, genealogists, and others researching Oswego history. And I also figured I could expand the transcriptions to cover the years when Ford Lippold’s Oswego Ledger started covering the local news.

By that time, the Little White School Museum, where I was serving as the volunteer director, had acquired the Record on microfilm through 1980 as well as microfilm of other area papers that had Kendall County and Oswego news in them from the 1840s and 1850s. So I started out with the early years and started working my way forward in history, transcribing news about the Oswegoland area, but also about news that affected the entire region and sometimes the nation. I also began transcribing Oswego Ledger news as well as news from the Fox Valley Sentinel until the papers’ merger.

The original file soon became too large to be manageable, so I broke it up into roughly 20-year increments, 1849-1869, 1870-1889, 1890-1909, 1930-1949, 1950-1969, and 1970-1989. When the Oswegoland Park District got the museum its own web site, we started posting the transcriptions, as individual PDF files from 1849 to 1969, so that researchers could download and then search them for names and dates. I figured I could work on the years from 1970 to 1989 later.

By November 2010, I’d expanded Ford’s original 30 typewritten pages into 2,300 pages of transcriptions, and from there I just kept going. By June 2014, I had pretty much finished filling out those years through1969—or so I thought. By that time, the files had grown to a total of 4,725 pages and contained a treasure trove of Oswego and Kendall County history.

Oswego’s Little White School Museum

But as we used the files for research at the museum and as I used them for research for my “Reflections” column (which I continue to write up to the present), I kept finding holes in the transcriptions. Sometimes I’d managed to miss an entire week; once I found I’d missed an entire month. Other times I’d find I’d missed an important event or obituary because it hadn’t been printed in the usual places in the papers.

So those transcriptions have been an on-going project as I find and try to correct deficiencies.

Which brings me to late last year when I found, while doing some research on post-Civil War Kendall County, that the transcriptions for the years 1865 through 1868 were missing tons of content. Granted, Rank hadn’t begun his “Oswego” column until mid-1868, but there was still a lot of Oswego and Oswego-related news in the Record before he began writing.

So I started filling in the missing information whenever I got a chance. And along the way, I found some fascinating stuff, some of it even relevant to present-day politics. And it involved one of the three major historical inflection points that have affected Oswegoland’s history.

The area in late 1865 and 1866 was just beginning to recover from the effects of the Civil War. News of the whereabouts of Illinois regiments, especially those with soldiers from Kendall County filled the pages. Many of those regiments were sent down to the border with Mexico due to the on-going civil war and revolution in that country. The conflict had been caused by the French government’s installation of Austrian Archduke Fernando Maximiliano José María de Habsburgo-Lorena as the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1864. The U.S. hadn’t been in a position to do much during the Civil War, but after the South’s rebellion had been put down, the government turned its attention to the border.

So Union Army units were sent there to remind the French the U.S. didn’t not appreciate their presence. Some with local residents were actually mustered out down there, such as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, comprised mostly of Black Illinois soldiers. Others were sent there then sent back north, some to be mustered out in Springfield, and others in other places.  The Record carried numerous stories about county towns holding welcome back picnics and dances for the returning soldiers.

The Record carried the story of the pursuit and capture of Lincoln assassination conspirator John Surratt.

In addition, the paper reported on other news of modern interest including the hunt for the Lincoln assassination conspirators and their trials, as well as the efforts to capture major Confederate political figures. In light of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, numerous stories criticized President Andrew Johnson’s friendliness towards former Confederate officers and officials, especially their immediate reentry into the South’s political life.

“The great desire of the rebellious states at the present is to be reconstructed on a basis that will give them representation in Congress equal to their entire population,” Marshall wrote on Jan. 11, 1866. “Before the war they were satisfied by having a three-fifth representation in their slaves, but now they wish every man to count one, be he black or white, but white [men] propose to do the voting for both colors.”

And on Feb. 11, 1866, Marshall warned of Johnson, “The South has ruled nearly all the Presidents the country has had, until the days of Lincoln, the martyr to freedom, and since his death it bids fair to resume its sway. The people elected a Southern man as Vice President, who now fills the executive chair. He was elected as an exponent of freedom and equal rights–but he is fast changing, like a weathercock, from his northern supporters to the more congenial fellowship of reconstructed rebels. His boasted ‘hangings for treason,’ and his harsh dealings with rebels is fast vanishing…He is drifting in the Southern current.”

It’s also interesting realizing that during those years, great change was taking place in Kendall County that was only dimly realized at the time. The region—and the nation—was on the cusp of substantial economic and technological changes that were only sinking in a bit at a time.

In 1866, plans were afoot to make the Fox River navigable from its mouth at Ottawa, possibly all the way to Oswego.

For instance, the Fox River was recognized as an economic engine that had yet to be fully utilized, with stories in the paper concerning possible uses for both its waterpower and its transportation possibilities. And, in fact, local political pressure was applied to the area’s member of congress to get the U.S Army to do a survey of the river valley with an eye towards making the stream navigable. The initial plan called for dams and locks to create a commercial waterway from the river’s mouth at Ottawa upstream past the dam at Dayton to modern Millington—then called Milford—with later plans to extend its navigability all the way upstream to Yorkville or Oswego. Not only was the river as a freight canal envisioned, but also its use to power a vast array of manufacturing machinery.

“Make the Fox River navigable by this means and at every dam there will be a factory or factories of some kind and villages and towns will spring up in profusion,” the Record predicted. “Farmers will have a market for their grain, which will compete with New York direct, and the days of railroad monopoly in this section will be past.”

But at the same time, there was also growing agitation to build a railroad linking the developing coalfields around modern Streator with the towns up and down the Fox Valley. The line was envisioned by most of its backers as direct competition with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, which ruthlessly used its monopoly west of Chicago to set high freight rates on coal and other necessary supplies as well as the grain and livestock county residents needed to ship to the Chicago market. Individuals and local governments up and down the Fox Valley enthusiastically subscribed to buy bonds to finance the new railroad.

Bond issued to finance construction of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1869.

The result was the Ottawa, Oswego, & Fox River Valley Rail Road that opened to most Fox Valley towns in 1870. And almost immediately, the CB&Q wrested control of the railroad away from its independent owners, thanks to less than competent legal safeguards and what appeared to be bribes being applied in the right places. The legal fight whether the bondholders were liable for the costs of the railroad’s construction went on for decades afterwards.

The railroad was, of course, one more indication that the Fox River’s vaunted capacity to nurture water-powered industries was soon to be completely eclipsed by the development of steam engines in virtually every size suitable for powering any sort of business wherever the owner wanted to locate it. Granted, once a dam was built, waterpower was basically free, but it really wasn’t. Dams require constant maintenance and the region’s annual spring floods—called freshets in that day and age—could completely wash them away. The mills and factories that relied on waterpower also required constant maintenance of the waterpower machinery. And during times of low water or extreme cold, they often had to shut down altogether.

Working my way through all those issues of the Kendall County Record from late 1865 through 1866 and 1867, it was interesting for me, who knew what was going to happen next, to watch those long-ago business owners and farmers and local governmental officials try to make decisions based on what they knew at the time on issues that would have effects on our communities right up to the present day.

If you’re interested in downloading these interesting Oswego history files, just visit the Little White School Museum web site. Here’s a direct link to the transcription page:



Filed under Black history, Business, Civil War, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation

Out with the old President; in with the new…

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Joe Biden has just taken the oath of office, finally assuring the peaceful transfer of power to the 46th President of the United States.

Usually, this is a time for celebration; in 2021, it’s a time for considerable relief. Since the election in November, the former occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, refused to admit he’d lost. Further, he continually inflamed his supporters, assisted by those who have enabled his extraordinarily bad administration, to the point that they attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, in an attempt to overturn the election and detain and execute members of Congress and the Vice President of the United States.

Trump leaves the White House already judged the worst President by virtually all presidential historians. In addition, history is unlikely to be kind to him as a person, much less as a politician. About the only good thing, historically speaking, about the Trump years will be that it will provide historians with years of work trying to determine exactly what happened and why. That won’t be as easy as it should since Trump was as contemptuous about obeying the Presidential Records Act of 1978 as he was the rest of the nation’s laws he had solemnly sworn to uphold.

At this point, it’s hard to determine exactly how destructive to the nation Trump’s Presidency has been; that will take some study and perspective and months, if not years, of investigation. But it’s not to early to judge his administration as a failure on its own terms. Here’s a great rundown of how Trump failed to meet his own stated goals–whether he ever meant to is obviously a topic for another time:

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Filed under Frustration, Government, History, Law, People in History, Semi-Current Events

No Kohl’s, Walmart, or Target. Where did the pioneers get their clothes?

Three imperatives drove the pioneers as they moved ever westward from the Atlantic Coast: Obtaining food, shelter, and clothing.

The earliest pioneers who crossed the Appalachian Mountains lived a subsistence-level existence, making and growing virtually everything they needed for their own survival. In fact, they didn’t live that much differently from the Native People they were steadily displacing.

They farmed and hunted for food for themselves and their livestock, built their homes and outbuildings from the timber growing in the dense forests of the east and southeast, and made their own clothing from flax and wool they raised on their small farms, as well as from the hides of animals they raised and hunted.

Cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River created a true harbor that led to the city’s explosive growth.

By the time settlement began accelerating here in the Fox River Valley and the rest of northern Illinois, the old frontier lifestyle had begun phasing out. The settlers who arrived here starting in the early 1830s were a different breed from the hard-bitten Daniel Boone types that had settled the timbered regions. For the most part, these settlers on the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and spread westerly all the way across the Mississippi River were experienced farmers, used to selling the livestock and crops their farms produced for profit.

They arrived at a propitious moment in history. By 1834, U.S. Army engineers had finally pushed a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating a true stormproof harbor at Chicago. That meant ships could arrive and take time to safely offload cargo, seek repairs, resupply their crews, and the other things found in Great Lakes ports. Chicago’s harbor, coupled with New York’s Erie Canal opened Illinois’ prairie farming market to the rest of the nation. In 1833, only four ships had called at Chicago. In 1834, with the development of its harbor, 176 vessels arrived, with the numbers exponentially increasing after that.

For the most part, the Fox Valley’s early settlers didn’t lack for shelter as log cabins quickly gave way to homes built of sawmill produced lumber. By the mid-1840s, lumber for prairie farm homes was being shipped into Chicago from forests in northern Wisconsin and Michigan. Likewise, food was relatively abundant, produced locally and imported.

But what about clothing? Ready-made clothing wasn’t available for a decade or two after the settlers began arriving in large numbers here along the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines rivers. So where did the pioneers’ clothes come from?

Our picture of early settlers, colored by Hollywood movies, has settlers dressed in fringed buckskin, but that era was long gone by the time settlers began arriving on the tallgrass prairie. It turns out buckskin just isn’t very comfortable to wear; it gets positively slimy when wet and dries hard. Native People switched to cloth clothing as soon as traders began offering fabric and blankets as fur trade items.

Fiber Folklore – Hateful Flax Spinning | Dances with Wools
Producing flax suitable for spinning was an extremely labor-intensive process. Then the fibers had to be spun into linen thread with more labor, and the thread then woven into cloth.

And in any case, by the time of settlement deer had become increasingly rare in northern Illinois due to the trade in hides and furs.

Some of the earliest settlers made their own fabric from their farms’ patches of flax and from the wool produced by their own sheep. But making linen from flax plants is an extremely labor-intensive task that requires growing the plants and then laboriously processing the stalks before the fibers can be spun into thread. Manufacturing cloth from wool grown on the farm is far less difficult, but still time consuming.

And by the time settlement was really accelerating in the early 1840s, that harbor at Chicago was one of the busiest in the whole nation, bringing every sort of thing people needed, including tons of cloth manufactured in the woolen and cotton mills of New England. So it quickly became a lot cheaper in terms of time spent to buy cloth for clothing than to make it at home.

But cloth still had to be turned into clothing. Most of that was, of course done at home. Needlework was a major home craft of wives and daughters of the era. But they didn’t make all of the clothing of the era and that left niches for men’s tailors and women’s dressmakers.

James Sheldon Barber came west to Oswego with a wagon train of his neighbors from Smyrna, New York in late 1843. As a single man, he had neither the time nor the skills to make his own clothing, although he indicated he was able to make repairs. Clothing was not cheap. In February 1844, just a couple months after he arrived, he wrote back to his mother in Smyrna: “I have not bought any clothes yet but the prices of making is a trifle higher here than there.  There coat $4 to $8, pants 1 to $2. Vest 1 to $2. Shirts like these you make for me 3 shillings; Socks 2 shillings to 3 shillings.”

Lorenzo Rank was one of six tailors working in Oswego in 1850 according to the U.S. Census of that year. Rank went on to become the community’s long-time postmaster and local columnist for the Kendall County Record. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the area expanded, the number of single men who needed clothes as well as families who didn’t have the time to make their own clothes grew as well. By 1850, nine tailors were doing business in Oswego—then the Kendall County Seat.

But just 20 years later, according to the 1870 U.S. Census of Oswego, only one tailor and two dressmakers were doing business in Oswego. What happened?

One major impact seems to have been the development of the first practical sewing machines for home use. Isaac Singer had patented his first machine in 1851, something he continued to improve in conjunction with other inventors and sewing machine company owners. Singer was a typical robber baron of the era, once remarking, “I don’t care a damn for the invention. The dimes are what I’m after.” But his invention did, indeed, revolutionize how people obtained their clothing.

Locally, tailors bent with the times. Some began selling what amounted to clothing kits. In the June 20, 1867 Kendall County Record, editor J.R. Marshall noted that a tailor in Plano was offering a new service: “Many of our readers wish to buy cloth by the yard for their clothing, have it cut by a tailor, and made at home. They can be accommodated in this way by Mr. Morley, who has a large stock of cloths on hand, which he sells in any quantity desired and cut it into garments in the most fashionable manner. He asked but a small profit on his cloths. Clothing made to order.”

In the late 1860s, when Mr. Morley was making a buck by selling shirt, pants, and coat kits, only about 25 percent of people’s clothing in the U.S. was readymade. With the growing national economy and improvements in transportation, however, by 1890, 60 percent of the nation’s clothing was readymade and sold in stores, and by 1951, almost all—right around 90 percent—of the nation’s clothing was factory-made and store bought.

Steady improvements in transportation bought the products of the world to Kendall County so that it was soon much cheaper—at least in terms of labor—to buy first cloth and then clothing in local stores than it was to make it. And the revolution in mechanization in the form of sewing machines that made it cheaper for companies to manufacture off-the-rack clothing as well as for clothing to be made at home, had a huge effect on how people obtained their clothing. Another game-changer was the development of mail order firms like Sears and Montgomery Ward, that allowed clothing to be ordered at home and thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, shipped right to consumers’ mail boxes.

It was a trend that’s continued right up through the present day when spinning, weaving, and making clothing at home has turned into a leisure-time craft.

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Filed under Business, family, Farming, History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation