Monthly Archives: February 2021

It’s past time to recognize African Americans’ long history in Kendall County

The patriarchs of the extended Hemm, Burkhart, and Shoger families that settled in Oswego Township pose for a family picture in the early years of the 20th Century. German represented a large percentage of immigrants to Kendall County in the mid-19th Century. (Little White School Museum collection)

In the history of Kendall County written in 1914, one of the writers spoke with pride about the breadth of the county’s ethnic heritage.From the perspective and mindset of someone writing in 1914, the county’s ethnic make-up probably did seem pretty broad. He mentioned, in particular, those of English, Scottish, German, and Welsh descent, plus some Irish and Scandinavians as well as those who could trace their families back to the French Canadians frontiersmen who once lived here and other areas throughout northern Illinois.

To modern sensibilities, though, that doesn’t sound like much of an ethnic mix at all.

Ku Klux Klan in its modern, second incarnation wasn’t strong yet—it would be another year before it would be officially reconstituted by William J. Simmons in 1915 atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain and begin sowing hatred of anyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon protestant. In addition, the Red Scares of the years after World War I had yet to get their start, fueled to a fair extent by the Klan’s racial and religious bigotry.

Bigotry towards ethnic groups, in fact, was common and growing, especially as the county’s white European, Canadian, and other settlers began enjoying their second, and sometimes third, generations in the U.S.

Two other ethnic groups—African Americans and Hispanics—weren’t even mentioned in that 1914 county history. During that era, there weren’t many of either group in Kendall County—but there were some—and those who were here kept a low profile, as did others across the nation.

But despite their lack of recognition, Kendall County did have an African American population in 1914, and, in fact, had had one since the early 1830s.

The first Blacks who emigrated to Kendall County had no say in whether they wanted come or not. In the summer of 1833, a group of three families emigrated to Kendall County from Camden, S.C. and settled on the north side of Hollenback’s Grove in today’s Big Grove Township. When they left North Carolina, the families of R.W. Carns, J.S. Murray, and E. Dyal decided to take two ‘former’ slaves with them. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, notes that the Carns family brought a Black woman named Dinah, and the Murray family brought a woman named Silvie with them from South Carolina.

Noted Hicks, “They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

Whether, as Hicks reports, they were former slaves is debatable, even doubtful. It’s also extremely unlikely they had any choice about whether to become pioneers on the Illinois frontier.

Kendall County’s first courthouse, where the county’s first and only slave auction was held, was this frame building. This photo was probably taken in 1894 shortly before it was torn down to make way for a private residence. The 1864 courthouse cupola is visible to the left rear. (Little White School Museum collection)

Blacks were rare enough to create interest—and sometimes consternation among some—in the years leading up to the Civil War. By that time, Illinois had passed some of the strictest anti-Black laws—called the Black Codes—of any state in the union. In 1844, another former Carolinian, M.O. Throckmorton and his father-in-law, William Boyd, seized an African American who was riding on a sleigh-load of dressed pork being hauled to Chicago by a resident of Bureau County named McLaughlin. Insisting the fellow was an escaped slave, Throckmorton and Boyd hauled the Black man to Yorkville where he was turned over to Sheriff James. S. Cornell. Cornell, without much choice in the matter due to existing state and federal law, reluctantly put the unfortunate Black man up for sale at auction at the courthouse in Yorkville. But no bids were forthcoming, probably because most of the crowd were grim-faced members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society. Eventually, one of the society members made the winning bid of $1, and the former prisoner was sent on his way to Chicago, and presumably on to Canada and freedom.

From the 1830s to the 1860s, a tiny number of Blacks made Kendall County their home. But in the years after the Civil War, a substantial influx of African American farmers arrived from the former Southern slave states and settled in the county, mostly in an area a few miles south of Oswego.

One of the Black men who arrived in the county after the war was Anthony “Tony” Burnett, who had been liberated by the 4th Illinois Cavalry during the war. Burnett joined the regiment’s Company C as a cook and later returned to Oswego with Lt. Robert Jolly where he enjoyed a close relationship with the family. Burnett is buried in the Jolly family plot at the Oswego Township Cemetery with a U.S. Government-issued tombstone that reads, “Cook, 4th Illinois Cavalry, Co. C.”

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes posed for this formal portrait by Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benensohn on the occasion of their wedding (anniversary in July 1893 (Little White School Museum collection)

Nathan Hughes, a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, which had been recruited in Illinois, and Robert Ridley Smith, who served in the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, both moved to the Oswego area after the war. Hughes worked a small farm south of Oswego on Minkler Road. He also joined the Yorkville Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the only Black county resident to do so, and where he served in various offices.

A number of other Black farming families also settled in the Minkler Road area where they worked small acreages. Their children were educated in the same one-room country school their White neighbors attended, without comment, suggesting the Jim Crow bigotry that was raging in the South had yet to reach this far north. Not that it wasn’t on the way.

By the 1920s, there were formal Klan organizations in Kendall County and the surrounding area. On June 7, 1922, the Kendall County Record reported: “The Ku Klux Klan initiated 2,000 candidates near Plainfield Saturday night. It is said some 25,000 members from Chicago and adjoining cities were present. The KKK is making a big stir in politics.”

Students at the one-room Grove School south of Oswego in December 1894. The Black children in the front row are all members of the Lucas family that farmed in the Minkler-Grove Road area. (Little White School Museum collection)

In February 1923, the Record noted that a 75-member Klan organization had been established in Sandwich, and then on June 4, 1924 reported from Yorkville that “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town Friday. It was a perfect day for the outing and several thousand visitors took advantage of the day to visit Yorkville, the beauty spot of the Fox, and take part in the events of the organization.”

But that was all in the future. In the late years of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, Black families were considered part of the community. Robert Ridley Smith raised his family in Oswego, and they became well-known and respected members of the town. Smith was for many years the janitor at Oswego’s large school building, and, a combat veteran of the Civil War, he didn’t seem at all shy of occasionally reminding area residents that Black Americans had a history worth acknowledging.

Robert Ridley Smith was the long-time janitor at Oswego’s community school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His children all graduated from the school, the first Black high school graduates in Kendall County.

For instance, in the Record’s April 17, 1907 edition, the paper’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Bob Smith, the colored janitor of the schoolhouse, had some grave humor out of the school Monday. He raised the flag on the schoolhouse at half mast; all wanted to know what it meant, but he told them they must guess it. Finally the principal came along and he too wanted to know what Bob meant by it, and then Bob replied that the day was the anniversary of the death of Lincoln and that it was appropriate for a negro to show his mournfulness.”

Smith’s son, Ferdinand, was a racial pioneer. The June 17, 1903 Record reported: “Ferdinand Smith holds the distinction of being the first black person to be graduated from High School in Kendall County. He was one of the graduates of the [Oswego High School] Class of fifteen who graduated on June 1, 1903.” Smith’s graduation address was titled “Power to Meet Our Wants.”

The next year, the Record reported Ferdinand’s sister Mary’s graduation, and in 1906 noted their sister Frances was among the graduates: “To Miss [Frances] Smith fell the task [of representing the community’s African Americans] on this occasion and she did the duty assigned her in a dignified and ladylike manner, showing no symptoms of embarrassment whatever. Her paper was on ‘Afro-American Progress.’”

Robert Smith, sone of Robert Ridley Smith, played varsity baseball for Oswego High School in the first quarter of the 20th Century. His older brothers and sisters were the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Smith family was athletically inclined as well. A photo of the 1907 Oswego High School baseball team shows yet another Smith sibling, Robert, standing proudly with the rest of the team, fielder’s glove in hand.

The picture is startling for the casual refusal of Oswego’s public high school to participate in a shameful era of U.S. sports history. At the time Robert was happily playing high school ball in Oswego against other area schools, his fellow African-Americans were banned from playing in the Major Leagues.

Today, Kendall County is more ethnically diverse than at any time in its history, with people from all over the world living, working, shopping, and sending their kids to school here. But it is worthwhile to understand, especially during Black History Month, that it is the extent, not the diversity itself, that is new.


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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet as…Old Spice?

So I was getting ready to go this morning and noticed Old Spice has put a slogan on their stick deodorant: “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t be here.”

My grandparents’ wedding photo. Old Spice had no effect on subsequent events.

Which seemed to me to be somewhere between a bit odd and borderline creepy. Should I really care which deodorant gave off an odor that moved my grandmother to sexual desire? Is wondering about my grandparents engaging in sexual ecstasy back in the autumn of 1909—or at any other time—really something I want to be thinking about in the first place? And, frankly, I’m not sure my grandfather even wore deodorant back in those days.

Shulton, Inc. didn’t start selling Old Spice until 1937, so, no, I’d still be here without Grandpa using it since Old Spice was 28 years in the future when my mother was conceived following a night of presumably lusty German-American love.

Not that there wasn’t deodorant around in 1909. The first commercial deodorant designed to disguise body odor, Mum, was trademarked in 1888. While it suffered from limited effectiveness, it did get better. You can apparently still buy Mum, and if you use Ban roll-on deodorant, you’re using the great-great grandchild of Mum.

Mum was the first true deodorant, but it wasn’t an antiperspirant.

But covering up odor isn’t the same as preventing it in the first place. The first effective antiperspirant—a product that actually inhibits sweat production as well as odor—wasn’t developed until 1903, not too long before my grandfather would have been trying to entice my grandmother to procreate my mother. It, too, had major drawbacks in that the aluminum chloride that was its active ingredient tended to literally eat clothing by dissolving it, not to mention it tended to severely irritate the sensitive skin under users’ arms.

But then in 1910, the father of Cincinnati high schooler Edna Murphey developed a better product, and the young lady decided to turn entrepreneur and go into business producing and marketing the deodorant her father invented. Naming her new product Odorono (“Odor? O, no!”), Edna decided the 1912 Atlantic City exposition would be the perfect place to get recognition and market share for her new toiletry. But results were disappointing at first, until the extremely hot, humid summer of 1912 wore on during which word got around about Odorono’s usefulness.

Unfortunately, the stuff still had the problems inherent in the process of suspending aluminum chloride in an acid base—it was hard on clothes and irritated users’ skin. And since it was colored red, it was really dangerous to use under the white cotton and linen summer dresses and shirts popular during the era.

But Edna and company eventually got the bugs ironed out, which you can see if you walk down the deodorant aisle at Walgreens; there are a ton of different brands and styles, including my current Old Spice, that have mimicked Edna’s product—which is also still for sale, by the way.

But even if it hadn’t taken until 1910 for someone to invent a usable antiperspirant deodorant, I have a feeling my grandfather wouldn’t have used it. Back in those days, my grandfather was working in the sprawling Burlington Shops in downtown Aurora. A carpenter, he worked his way up to supervise a crew of a half-dozen other carpenters building boxcars and cabooses. Enjoying the CB&Q’s 40-hour work week, the crew worked 10 hours a day four days a week and had three days off. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m not sure deodorant was anywhere on his event horizon. My grandmother had grown up on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and so probably wasn’t used to sweet-smelling men anyway.

While they didn’t use deodorant, men of that era did attempt to cover up body odor on the days between their usual Saturday night bath, especially when courting.

The whole idea of making oneself smell better wasn’t new during that era, of course, but went back hundreds of years. When the Three Wise Men sought out the Christ Child, according to that brief New Testament account, along with gold they brought myrrh and frankincense as gifts, both expensive ingredients of perfumes of that distant era. And who knows, maybe Joseph and Mary, ensconced as they were in a stable, were happy to get them.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Car Shops at Aurora, where my grandfather worked. The paint shop, coach shop, car shop, and blacksmith shop, located north of the roadhouse and locomotive shops, are shown above. Library of Congress collection.

In 1709, an Italian, Giovanni Maria Farina, developed the first commercially viable men’s scent in Cologne, Germany. Giovanni named it in honor of his adopted hometown, and the name soon came to be applied to all men’s scent products. Interestingly enough, his family still manufactures the stuff there.

By the early 20th Century, men were using a variety of products to improve their body scent, including a variety of aftershave products that were particularly popular in the barbershops of the era. And that included talcum powder, which was used to finish off a shave and a haircut—which really did cost two-bits.

When I was a youngster, the barber always ended the haircut ritual by shaking some sweet-smelling talc on a soft, long bristled brush and brushing down my neck. I can still smell that powder to this day, when I stop to think about it.

I’m sure my grandfather went a barbershop from time to time over there in the area of the East Side of Aurora nicknamed Dutchtown because of all its German-speaking residents. But being a frugal German, he would mostly have shaved himself. If he paged through the Sears catalog, he might even have decided to splurge by investing in their Gentlemen’s Shaving and Toilet Outfit for just $1.79—$51 in today’s dollars.

The outfit didn’t include a razor; that, Sears apparently figured, you already owned. The outfit’s top advertised item was a bottle of Violet Witch Hazel, a violet-scented after-shave. “It removes the irritation caused by shaving, cools and makes antiseptic the thousands of pores on the face, prevents chapping, and leaves that exquisite lasting odor of violets about the person,” the Sears copywriter promised. So, Grandpa may have smelled like violets, which isn’t a bad way to go, I guess.

Also included was an entire pound of Williams Genuine World Renowned Shaving Soap; a styptic pencil for those annoying razor nicks; a bottle of Belezaire Genuine Brilliantine “for perfuming the moustache or hair;” one stick of Williams Genuine French Cosmetique “for fixing and giving gloss to the moustache and whiskers;” a jar of Crystal Shampoo Jelly (“It removes dandruff!”); a bottle of Eastman’s Genuine Eau de Cologne (“It is very refreshing and of great value in the sick room, where it can be used as a disinfectant for destroying bad odors and rendering the air in the room fresh and pleasant.”); a fine bleach sponge for removing the soap and lather after shaving; one Genuine Faultless Beauty Brush “for coaxing the dirt out of its hiding places” and for “producing a healthy glow;” and, finally, two bottles of “well-known Wood Violet Talcum made by the well known Hilbert Perfumers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

So he would have gotten a pretty good deal on stuff to make himself smell better and even a bottle of cologne he could have used during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to freshen up the sick room, assuming he had any left. But nowhere in Sears’ 1909 catalog do they list any deodorants or antiperspirants for sale.

But the real problem, I suppose, is that when Old Spice talks about their customers’ grandfathers, they’re not talking about MY grandfather, or even my father. These days, they’re talking about ME. Even though when I was a young man dating my wife-to-be Old Spice was old news—it was the deodorant and aftershave and men’s cologne my father used. So, no, it wasn’t Old Spice that might have lured my wife, it was English Leather aftershave and soap on a rope (remember that?). But now the kids produced by the English Leather generation are back to using Old Spice again, while some of us are kidded until we try something new that’s not new at all—Old Spice.

Nevertheless, being a member of the Baby Boom generation and growing up when nearly the nation’s entire economy was aimed at trying to satisfy us, it is a bit mind-bending to remember we’re no longer in the prime demographic that advertisements are aimed at.

Instead, I keep trying to imagine my grandfather not only as a young man, but also as a guy just trying his best to smell better as he tried to impress his young wife, my grandmother, and it’s rough going.

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Feeding the Illinois & Michigan Canal was both an engineering and economic feat

The Erie Canal, championed and promoted by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton opened in 1826 and immediately became a huge economic engine, not only for New York but also for the newly settled states and territories of the Old Northwest.

The canal, 363 miles long, linked the head of navigation on the Hudson River at Albany with Buffalo on the shore of Lake Erie. Commerce on and along the canal absolutely boomed as soon as it opened, making a hero of Clinton (admiring New Yorkers heading west gave his name to counties and towns all the way west to the Pacific) and creating huge markets for Midwestern grain and livestock, not to mention providing an efficient transportation route for many of those westbound settlers.

Jesuit linguist Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet canoed up the Illinois River in 1673, and suggested it wouldn’t be difficult to build a canal linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

The Erie Canal’s success also prompted a frenzy of canal-building elsewhere, especially in Ohio. And it also spurred reexamination of plans to build a canal in Illinois linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. The idea for such a canal had been first broached in 1673 when Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago rivers on their way back to Lake Michigan from a trip of discovery down the Mississippi. Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, predicted it wouldn’t take much effort or money to dig a canal from the headwaters of the Chicago River on Mud Lake to the upper Des Plaines allowing boats to quickly pass from the lake to the river and then down the Des Plaines to its junction with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River is formed.

And, in fact, sometimes Mother Nature provided the means to traverse from the Chicago to the Des Plaines River with no portage at all. During spring floods and after heavy rains at other times of the year, the two rivers basically merged. In July 1826, thanks to heavy rains, a crew of 13 voyageurs paddled Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and his secretary, Robert Forsythe, on a desperate 16-day, 1,600-mile journey to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was on the verge of going to war with the U.S.

The crew started their journey at Butte des Morts on the Fox River of Wisconsin upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), and then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi. From there they paddled down to Jefferson Barracks, the U.S. Army post at St. Louis, spreading the word along the way. Gen. Henry Atkinson lost no time loading soldiers aboard a steamboat and heading upstream to Winnebago territory—Cass, Forsythe, their voyageur crew, and their canoe was also loaded aboard. When vessel reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass, Forsythe, and their crew left Atkinson and headed up the Illinois to warn as many settlers as they could. When they reached the forks of the Illinois where the Kankakee and the Des Plaines join, they were happy to see there was plenty of water in the Des Plaines—the river was notorious for being virtually dry during the summer months. But those July rainstorms had filled it nicely, so they set their course upstream, paddling as fast as they could. They reached the Mud Lake portage as night fell and laid over for fear of wrecking their canoe, but pushed on as soon as the sun rose. As it turned out, they paddled directly from Mud Lake into the Chicago River and got to the American Fur Company’s post at Chicago at breakfast time. After a day’s rest and reprovisioning, they left Chicago and headed back up the Lake Michigan shoreline, setting a canoeing record that will likely never be eclipsed.

But Cass and Forsythe knew they were lucky to make it over the height of land from the Des Plaines to Mud Lake. Most summers and autumns, the Chicago portage was some 60 miles all the way down the Des Plaines to the Kankakee, with canoes and cargoes often hauled aboard two-wheeled ox carts.

So the idea of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Illinois River and the immense Mississippi River watershed was attractive and had been for more than 200 years.

In fact, at the Treaty of St. Louis, signed on Aug. 24, 1816, Fox and Sauk tribes ceded a 20-mile wide corridor to the U.S. Government as part of the treaty terms. The cession ran southwesterly from the shore of Lake Michigan down the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois rivers to the Fox River at modern Ottawa. During the winter of 1818-19, John C. Sullivan and his assistant, James M. Duncan, did the initial survey of the corridor’s boundary lines. The accuracy left a bit to be desired—surveying in northern Illinois in the winter is generally contraindicated due to the ferocious weather.

So while the outlines were drawn, it wasn’t until 1821 that the land between the boundary lines was surveyed in anticipation of a canal being constructed. Already owned by the government thanks to treaties with the local tribes, as soon as the land was surveyed, it was opened to the preemption and homestead claims of settlers and speculators.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan.

Throughout the 1820s, Illinois’ Congressional delegation pushed the Federal Government to appropriate funds and grant lands to finance canal construction. In the meantime, a number of issues concerning canal construction had been discovered. When more thorough surveys were done and elevations measured, it was found that the original idea of a simple ditch from Lake Michigan to LaSalle on the Illinois River simply wasn’t possible. The height of land where drainage divided, flowing either to Lake Michigan or to the Illinois River was found to be comprised of extremely hard limestone, creating a barrier that would be costly to burrow through. So engineers came up with a plan for a canal with several locks to get cargo boats up from Lake Michigan across the height of land, and then down 141 feet of fall between Chicago and LaSalle.

The final plan called for a canal 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The Erie Canal had been built 40 feet wide and only four feet deep, a size found inadequate almost immediately after opening, so the I&M Canal’s engineers determined to build it big enough to start. They planed to use 15 locks to get down the 141 feet of fall to LaSalle. Because no water would be flowing into the canal from Lake Michigan, three feeder canals were required (Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox), along with one grade-level crossing and feeder combination of the DuPage River. Feeders were a common solution to maintaining canal water levels. The Erie Canal, for instance, had dozens of feeders to regulate its depth.

Lock 14 on the I&M Canal near the Little Vermilion River aqueduct has been restored.

Another engineering problem was how to get the canal across two other rivers (the Fox and the Little Vermilion) and two creeks (AuSable and Nettle) and their respective valleys. Again, the Erie Canal’s engineers had solved a similar problem by building 18 aqueducts to cross streams and valleys along the canal’s course. For the much shorter I&M, just four aqueducts were built, along with one at-grade crossing of the DuPage River.

Construction finally began with great fanfare on July 4, 1836. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837, a severe national financial depression created by President Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies, brought construction to a halt and essentially bankrupted the State of Illinois. It took several more years for the finances of the nation and Illinois to recover to the point that construction could be finished. The I&M didn’t open to traffic until 1848.

A lot of water was needed to maintain the I&M’s depth as boats and barges locked up and down the canal. As noted above, three smaller canals and one grade-level river crossing were constructed to maintain the I&M’s depth. Feeder canals were dug from the Fox River at Dayton to Ottawa; from the Kankakee River to the canal at Dresden, and from the Saganashkee Slough, the “Sag,” and the Calumet River to the canal near its northern end. The DuPage River was crossed at grade near Channahon.

The Kankakee Feeder was one of three 40-foot wide canals dug to supply the I&M Canal with sufficient water. (Map by the Kankakee Daily Journal, 2018)

Commercial traffic on the canal utilized nine canal basins; 12 widewaters for canal boat storage; sundry backwaters; the three feeders, also called lateral canals; and two hydraulic basins. Eleven towns developed along the I&M Canal, six of them founded by the canal commissioners, including: Ottawa, Chicago, LaSalle, Lockport, Channahon, and Morris.

In general it took between 22 and 26 hours to traverse the entire canal. The quickest recorded passage was 17 hours and 35 minutes. Canal boats traveled about 4 miles per hour.

While the canal itself had a huge economic impact on northern Illinois, the three feeder canals also had major economic effects on the areas surrounding them.

The Calumet Feeder Canal ran from the huge Saganashkee Slough at Blue Island, where the Little Calumet made a hairpin turn toward Lake Michigan, to meet the canal northeast of Lemont at the village of Sag Bridge.

The Kankakee Feeder ran northwest from a dam on the Kankakee River six miles north of Wilmington to the Des Plaines River. There, the feeder canal crossed the river on an aqueduct, to feed the canal just upstream from where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers join to form the Illinois River.

At Channahon, there was no feeder as such. Instead, the I&M crossed the DuPage River, creating a grade-level feeder for the canal. The Canal Commission built a dam across the DuPage just below where the canal crossed, creating a pool that was on the same level as the canal, allowing canal boats to cross the river with locks providing additional water for the canal as needed.

The Fox River Feeder for the I&M Canal ran south down the west bank of the Fox River to intersect the canal in Ottawa. From the canal, the feeder ran farther south before making a 90-degree turn to reenter the Fox River. (Click here to enlarge)

The final I&M feeder canal was the 40-foot wide Fox River Feeder. It began above the dam in Dayton and extended for nearly five miles south along the west bank of the Fox River to Ottawa where it crossed the I&M. From there, it extended seven blocks due south where it made a 90-degree turn to the east, where it abruptly narrowed to half its width to create more hydraulic power before emptying back into the Fox River. As wide as the original Erie Canal, the Fox River Feeder had its own towpath and could handle canal boats.

A number of businesses located along the Fox River Feeder in Ottawa to use the water power the feeder provided. Just south of the I&M, the I&M Canal Commission itself maintained a boat yard just a short distance from the canal itself. The 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of downtown Ottawa shows that the H.C. King Box Factory, Pump and Cooper Shop’s machinery was powered by the feeder’s flow, as was the J.A. Koeppen Machine Shop, William Colwell’s plow works, the Grove and Hess Feed Mill and Cider Press, and the D. Sanderson Refrigerator Factory. And those were just the ones located immediately south of the I&M. From there, the feeder—also called the lateral canal—flowed due south to two blocks north of the Illinois River where it made a 90-degree turn to the east to enter the Fox River again. Along its length were located dozens of businesses from grain elevators to lumber yards to warehouses to factories of various kinds.

The Fox River Feeder’s course from Dayton through Ottawa on its way to empty back into the Fox River. (Click to enlarge)

The problem with the feeder canals is that the region’s floods—called freshets at the time—regularly damaged the dams that fed them. And when that happened, it wasn’t only the I&M that sustained losses but so did the businesses that had located along the feeders.

In March 1873, for instance, the ice went out of the Fox River suddenly after a cold winter. The thick ice rampaged down the river demolishing bridges and dams, including the dam at Dayton that fed the Fox River Feeder. The March 27, 1873 Kendall County Record reprinted the account of the effects the disaster had on Ottawa:


The ice that went out of Fox River recently gave the manufacturing interests of Ottawa a serious blow, two dams being damaged to such an extent as to stop many establishments for a short time. The [Ottawa] Republican of the 20th says:

The dam across the Fox River at Dayton, owned by the State, is to all appearances a total wreck. Some ten days ago a part of the comb of this dam on the east end, about a third the length of the dam and apparently about two feet in depth, went off. The damage seemed to be trifling but on Friday last a field of ice came down with such force that it racked the whole structure downstream and as the ice moved off leaving the water clear, there seemed to but little left of the old Dayton dam. The river fell almost instantly, and the water of the feeder [canal] turned in its course and ran back into the Fox river, leaving the Dayton mills and factory without propelling power.

This dam was built some years before the opening of the canal, which took place in 1848. John Green had constructed a dam at the same place to create a water power, with which he ran a flouring and saw mill. The State having established that point as the place from which to take water from the Fox river to feed the canal, made an arrangement with Green by which he was secured in the perpetual use of water power much greater than has ever yet been used. This dam was built of timber crib work, just above the old one, and in the filling up, both the old and new were consolidated making it a very strong structure. It has stood many shocks in the years that have intervened, with slight repairs and little care. It will of course be rebuilt as soon as the stage of water will permit, as canal navigation can hardly be carried on without the use of this feeder. In the meantime, serious inconvenience and loss will be suffered by the numerous manufacturers of Ottawa whose mills are propelled by water from the “side cut” and hydraulic basin, which are supplied by this feeder.

The Fox River Feeder was maintained as long as the I&M needed it. But after the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, there was no longer a need for the I&M or its network of feeders and aqueducts. Businesses that once looked to the feeders for flowing water to power them had long since started relying on steam and then electrical power.

By 1931, the Fox River Feeder had become an unsightly, dangerous, economic liability through Ottawa’s downtown. The city hired workers unemployed by the accelerating Great Depression to fill in the feeder, thus ending a lively era of northern Illinois transportation history and one of the city’s links to the region’s canal age.

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