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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org/learn/historic-oswego/oswego-news-columns/