Monthly Archives: March 2021

The Fox: River of not enough respect?

I’ve lived along or on the banks of the Fox River for most of the years since I was eight years old. And one of the things those of us who grew up on the river know is that it can quickly become dangerous, and therefore demands respect—especially during this time of year.

Far too many of those who live in the Fox River Valley and nearby areas take the Fox for granted. It’s “only the Fox,” I hear far too often. And while it is generally a fairly placid, shallow, well-behaved stream, it can quickly and often unexpectedly become a danger to the unwary.

When the settlers arrived, they knew the river posed its greatest danger during the spring ice breakup when heavy rains and melting ice created a raging torrent that bore no resemblance to what it was like the rest of the year. And they also knew that sudden storms at any time of the year could also turn the Fox into a dangerous antagonist.

The valley’s early residents called those floods “freshets.” Major 19th Century freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868. It was the consensus of the old-timers that the 1857 event was by far the worst. Oswego resident J.H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the February 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind: “When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was floating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also floated downstream, the flour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”

Downtown Aurora during the Freshet of 1857 saw all sorts of things floating down the Fox River, including entire buildings, not to mention the town’s bridge.

Twenty years after the flood, the Rev. E.W. Hicks’ account of the flood in his 1877 history of Kendall County still rang with the fear the flood caused among the Fox Valley’s residents: “The spring of 1857 opened with the most destructive freshet ever known on Fox river, caused by a heavy rain on February 6th, which melted the snow and broke up the ice and set the entire winter’s crop free. All the bridges from Batavia to Ottawa were swept away, and the river was covered with boards, boxes, furniture, chickens, and debris of all kinds. At Oswego, Parker’s saw mill was taken at a loss of three thousand dollars, and Rowley & English’s lumber yard suffered a loss of one thousand dollars. At Millington half the village was flooded; water was waist deep on Vine street, in front of Watters’ store, two blocks from the river. The freshet extended throughout the country, and in other places many lives were lost. Houses were undermined and carried away while the inmates were still asleep, and they knew nothing of their danger until the hungry waters swallowed them up. Such another freshet has not been known in this country; yet each winter the materials for such another accumulates, and it is a striking exemplification of the goodness of the providence of God that these materials are dispersed gradually, and rarely allowed to go out with the terrible and fatal rush of 1857.”

Dwight Young snapped this photo in March 1913 from the west bank of the Fox River looking east towards Oswego as the river’s thick ice broke up. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Freshet of 1868, Fox Valley residents agreed, was close to, but did not surpass, the 1857 flood. Nevertheless, it did considerable damage here in Kendall County. According to the Kendall County Record’s March 12, 1868 edition: “The ‘breaking up’ of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks…Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.”

The river’s freshets were destructive, but most people knew enough to stay out of the river while they were happening. At least most did. Sometimes, however, people just didn’t pay attention and were in danger of paying with their lives. A good example of daring the river to do its worst—and luckily surviving—was recounted by silent film star William S. Hart.

Parker’s Gristmill at the west end of the dam just above downtown Oswego, with the miller’s house where William S. Hart’s family lived when his father worked at the mill about 1870. (Photo by Irvin Haines. Little White School Museum collection)

As Hart put it in the first two sentences of his 1926 autobiography, My Life East and West, “I was born in Newburgh, New York. My first recollection is of Oswego, Illinois.”

Hart’s father was the miller at the Parker & Sons gristmill on the west bank of the Fox just above Oswego. In the spring of 1870, the ice was just going out of the Fox River, with huge, thick floes of ice rushing down the stream and across Parker’s dam. At the sawmill across the river at the east end of the dam, the sawyers needed supplies from the Hart family at the gristmill. The supplies were loaded aboard a rickety rowboat and Nicholas, William’s father prepared to set off to deliver the supplies. Like kids anywhere, six year-old William and his sister begged to go along for the boat ride. Astonishingly, their parents agreed.

Popular silent cowboy movie start–and one-time Oswego resident–William S. Hart was featured on the cover of the June 1917 issue of Motion Picture Magazine.

Off the party went, the plan being for Hart’s father to row upstream along the west bank to Bullhead Bend—opposite today’s Violet Patch Park—before turning across the current to land at the sawmill on the east side of the river. As Nicholas battled the current and the ice floes battered the flimsy rowboat, the family dog—Ring—suddenly decided to swim out and join the fun. They managed to get dog hauled aboard, but by that time the boat was dangerously close to the dam. Had it gone over, the roller wave at the base of the dam would certainly have drowned all three Harts. But through a truly Herculean effort, Nicholas somehow managed to make the east bank, and get everyone ashore, although the boat was badly damaged in the process by the ice floes.

Then there was the March 1879 adventure of teenagers Etta McKinney and Hattie Mullen who went down to the flooded river by the Oswego bridge with friends and found a rowboat tied up along the bank. The two thought it would be great fun to float downstream, Etta promising she “knew how to make the boat go.” But once underway, Etta found she couldn’t control the boat in the flooded river and couldn’t get back to shore, either. Meanwhile their friends ran for help shouting the two girls had probably drowned by then. Etta managed to get close enough to shore that Hattie sensibly jumped out and waded ashore. But Etta couldn’t gather the courage to jump, and instead continued downstream, “industriously singing Sunday school hymns,” to keep up her courage, according to the newspaper account. Eventually adult help arrived, got the boat to shore, and rescued Etta. When she was finally safely ashore, and despite her lusty hymn singing, Eta (who was apparently what my dad used to call “a real pistol”) maintained she hadn’t been frightened a bit and that “it was the best boat ride she ever had.”

Not everyone was so lucky, though. A month later, young Ed Moore was swept over the Yorkville dam, bounced around badly on the river bottom in the roller wave and nearly drowned. In January 1880, George Wormley, a relative of the Wormleys who lived on the west side of the river, and his friend George Pollard were rowing their boat across the river just above Oswego when they struck a sandbar just below the Oswego dam, overturning the boat and drowning Wormley.

In February 1965, a rapid breakup on the Fox created an ice dam at the Oswego bridge that backed water up all the way to Montgomery and left these giant chunks of ice littering the bank along Ill. Route 25 at Boulder Hill. (Photo by Bev Skaggs. Little White School Museum collection)

In April 1896, ten year-old Willie Stein fell in the flooded river at Montgomery while fishing and drowned, and in June 1908 Israel Blume and Louis Spink drowned at Yorkville when their rowboat went over the dam and they were caught in the roller wave at the dam’s base.

In most of the cases of people drowning in the river, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and right up to the present century, the deaths can be attributed to people being unacquainted with the river and not taking the stream, especially when flooded, seriously. After all, it’s only the familiar old Fox.

Those of us who grew up on the river know some of its secrets: Where the occasional deep holes are, places where the currents can play havoc with boats and canoes, and where dangerous rocks and bars endanger those using the river. But for the occasional canoeist, kayaker, or angler the Fox can present problems that can sometimes turn dangerous—or even fatal.


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Filed under Aurora, entertainment, Environment, Fox River, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Oswego, People in History

It’s my ninth blogiversery and I’m still finding local history to write about…

On the afternoon of March 10, 2012 I sat down at my Mac Mini and set up my own page on the WordPress blogging site. I’d been retired as the editor of the Ledger-Sentinel here in Oswego for a few years and had largely finished my project to transcribe the “Oswego” news columns from each week’s Kendall County Record from the 1860s to the 1970s. So I was looking for another history project to occupy my time—when I wasn’t volunteering down at the Little White School Museum.

My good friend John Etheredge, who took over the editorship of the Ledger-Sentinel when I left, asked me shortly before I retired whether I’d ever considered blogging. I had, from time to time, but not seriously. But by March 2012—four years after I had hung up my editor’s blue pencil—I was apparently ready to start making more local history accessible to a wider audience.

So with my blogging home established, I wrote my very first post here at History on the Fox. It was a short piece on the coming change to Daylight Savings Time, the point being people had been grousing about time changes for a long, long time, bolstered with a couple of 1930s quotes from the Kendall County Record. I posted that entry at 4:28 p.m.

Then, I apparently figured maybe I ought to explain what I hoped to accomplish here, and so just before 8 p.m., I posted another piece titled “Blogging in the 21st Century with a 19th Century mind…” to do just that.

I started blogging in my upstairs office across the street from where I’m writing this post in the house my great-grandparents built for their retirement from farming.

The original History Central office featured my trusty Royal upright typewriter, with inspiration provided by the Pennsylvania rifle I’d built and my Brown Bess musket hanging on the wall and my trusty guitar close at hand.

That office was the descendant of the original History Central that I’d set up when we were working on county histories for the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission back in 1974. The first History Central was located out on an enclosed porch at the first house we ever owned, which was a true relic. My great-great-grandparents moved there shortly after the Civil War. My great-great-grandmother wove rag rugs on her giant loom there as well as renting out sleeping rooms to railroad and ice harvesting company workers. Her son built the porch onto the house in the 1920s so his tubercular daughter could sleep in the fresh air. We remodeled it into office space a few years before we moved next door to my great-grandparents house. Then in 2018 we moved across the street to the house my sister built on the east bank of the Fox River. So three moves since 1968, all in a radius of about 1,500 feet.

It’s now been nine years—that’s a long time in blogging years, by the way—and I’m still plugging away on my Mac Mini here at the newest History Central, trying to post at least once a week, mostly on the history of the Fox Valley and topics related to it.

Since March 10, 2012, I’ve written 284 unique posts, some of which I’ve re-posted from time to time. My weekly posting schedule has gotten corrupted from time to time as real life intruded, including a heart valve replacement and most recently an emergency pacemaker install.

During the past nine years, nearly 34,000 visitors have clicked into History on the Fox to read about local, Illinois, and Midwestern history, not to mention the occasional off-topic posts that go up from time to time.

Things started pretty slowly. For the entire year of 2012, I had a total of 58 individual visitors. Even then, the places those visitors lived was sort of mind-boggling and included not just the U.S., but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Macau, Mexico, Japan, and France.

The 2021 version of History Central is still a bit of a work in progress but the window out onto the Fox River offers plenty of inspiration.

Since then, however, the blog—and its number visitors—has continued to grow. In 2020, a total of 11,230 folks stopped by History on the Fox from a mind-blowing 84 countries around the world. Not surprisingly (since they’re our close neighbors to the north and French Canadians were some of the first non-Native American residents in our area), most of my foreign visitors last year—610—came from Canada, followed by 363 from the United Kingdom, 177 from Australia, and 115 from France, none of which seem too odd. But I always wonder what the 22 visitors from Thailand, 18 from South Korea, and 8 from Ghana got out of “History on the Fox’s” content.

When it comes to the all-time popularity of individual blog posts, “Those marvelous Ojibwa birch bark canoes” is the clear winner, with 1,529 individual readers since I posted it Nov. 4, 2013. Seldom a day goes by that the post doesn’t get at least one hit.

The canoe post is followed in all-time popularity by “The days when the Rawleigh man came to call” with 1,325 readers since I posted it in September 2013, and “The week they killed the Illinois River” with 1,305 readers since October 2015.

Writing about local history is a satisfying endeavor, one that occasionally pays dividends when other on-line folks use History on the Fox posts in their own blogs and for other research purposes.

Back in 1977 when I started writing a weekly column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, the editor and publisher, my grade school buddy Dave Dreier, wondered whether there would be enough local history available to fill a weekly column. I assured him there was. And 44 years later, here we are, with the descendant of that column, today’s Reflections column, appearing twice monthly in Shaw Media papers, and more takes on the topic here at History on the Fox.

So, as long as I can keep digging up new stories about the people and events that made the Fox Valley what it is today, I’ll keep typing away here at the newest History Central.

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Filed under entertainment, family, History, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

Celebrating the hardy, determined women who made their own way on the Illinois frontier

Women’s History Month has rolled around once again, which gives me an excuse to emphasize once again the important roles women played in early local, as well as national and world, history.

While women certainly haven’t had an easy time of it during the past several millennia, they’ve at least had many more chances to make a go of it on their own here in the U.S. than in virtually any other nation on earth.

We tend to view the role of women during the nation’s frontier era as similar to that of the poor women who must suffer under modern religious fundamentalists such as radical Islamists and so many others. It’s really not unfair to consider the western frontier of the early 19th Century—which included Illinois—an era, in many respects, that was a time of female oppression. Nevertheless, the U.S. during frontier times was also a place where single women could, if not always thrive, at least make their own way. Determination, courage, and luck, in fact, resulted in a surprising number of women surviving and prospering on the Illinois frontier. Women were key ingredients in the settlement of the frontier as it moved west from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean all the way west to the Pacific shore.

Tom Lincoln’s Indiana cabin where Abraham Lincoln grew up. After his mother died, Lincoln’s father remarried Sarah Bush Johnston and brought her to the family cabin to help raise his children.

During that pioneer era of the 18th and 19th centuries, women were a basic requirement for successful settlement. Wives were vital partners for the farmers of that era. It’s not coincidental that when Abraham Lincoln‘s birth mother died from disease, his father almost immediately sought out and married another wife. On the Kentucky and Indiana frontier of Lincoln’s youth, it really did take two to create success. Husbands were expected to do the farming and other heavy manual labor, while wives were expected to take care of the household work—and it was substantial (as well as labor-intensive), ranging from raising the kids to doing the wash (which in those days was no picnic) to preserving and preparing food to making the family’s clothes.

It’s sometimes said that women couldn’t own property during the frontier era, but that’s not true. Here in Kendall County, for instance, between 1836 and 1849, 22 women by my count successfully obtained land patents for 30 parcels of government land in their own names. Granted, some of these women were purchasing land on behalf of their husbands, but not all of them. How much control those female landowners exercised over the land they owned was partly, if not largely, governed by whether or not they were married. Married women actually had fewer property rights than unmarried or widowed women, until laws were passed starting in the 1860s that allowed married women to own and control (control being the key) their own land.

Decolia Towle, Oswego’s first innkeeper, died in 1847, leaving his wife, Emeline with two children to raise. She first bought land in Fox Township, but then married Roland McCloud and moved out of the area.

For instance, Emeline Towle purchased 80 acres in Fox Township in 1848, and it was for her own use. Her husband, Decolia Towle, had died in December of 1847, leaving her with two children to raise. Emeline apparently decided to get out of Oswego where Decolia had been a businessman, landowner, and innkeeper. Just a year later, Emeline married Roland McCloud, and moved away from Kendall County, eventually winding up on Mackinac Island, Michigan where Emeline ran a small hotel and Roland was a lumberman.

On the other hand, it seems likely 60 year-old Hannah Sweet purchased 39 acres of Seward Township land in June of 1849 as an investment.

Several married women likely purchased land either in conjunction with or on behalf of their husbands. Laura A. Sherrill Caton, for instance, likely purchased land in conjunction with her husband, lawyer John Dean Caton. The Catons eventually put together one of the largest tracts of land in Kendall County, immortalized even today by the name of Caton Farm Road down in the southern third of the county.

Women were able to take over after their husbands’ deaths as the frontier era ended, and apparently became successful farmers and business owners. The 1850 Census of Kendall County, the county’s first after its formation in 1841, recorded a number of widows who were carrying on for their late husbands as heads of households.

After Oswego co-founder Levi F. Arnold died in 1844, his wife became a successful farm owner.

For instance, 38 year-old Maria Arnold took over for her husband, Levi, after he died in 1844. Arnold, with Lewis B. Judson, had been one of the founders of Oswego, operating the first store in the village and appointed its first postmaster. After his death, Maria successfully took over the family’s farming operation just outside Oswego’s village limits. By 1850, her Oswego Township land and holdings were worth $6,000, a considerable sum for the era.

Meanwhile, widow Emeline Gaylord, 48, was overseeing her family’s farming operation worth $2,400 in Lisbon Township while raising her four children.

Over in Bristol Township, Ruth Kennedy was making the most of the 168 acres she purchased from the federal government for $1.25 an acre in 1843. By 1850, the 60 year-old Kennedy and her three grown sons were running a farming operation worth $6,000, with Mrs. Kennedy heading up the business. Today, Kennedy Road is a reminder of the contributions she and her family made to Kendall County and its history.

Not that it was easy being a woman during that era, of course. Many traditional occupations were closed to women, and women weren’t allowed to vote until the second decade of the 20th Century. Oddly enough, however, even before women won the constitutional right to vote, they could hold elective office. That’s why one of my shirt-tail relatives, Emma Inman, was able to be elected to the Oswego School Board and serve as the board’s president even before passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote throughout the U.S. Illinois school board elections were the one area where women could make their governmental presence known.

Clarissa Hobson managed to save her family from freezing to death during the brutal Winter of the Deep Snow–but just barely.

But that was later. We’re talking frontier life here, and it wasn’t easy. Disease and disaster were always lurking in the background waiting to ensnare the unlucky or unwary. During the horrible winter of 1830-31, for instance, Baily Hobson’s wife and his children nearly died. Hobson was forced to leave his family alone at their cabin in Hollenback’s Grove near Kendall County’s modern Newark while he traveled east to Indiana to find food for them. The series of storms that hit while he was gone nearly did the family in. Called afterwards “The Winter of the Early Snow,” early blizzards that winter were followed by rainstorms, which were followed by frigid temperatures and then more blizzards. The family had stockpiled enough firewood to last but the weather covered it with thick ice. To keep her children from freezing, Clarissa Hobson was reduced to chopping firewood out of the icy snow after rain, frigid temperatures, and a subsequent blizzard froze the landscape solid.

The Hobsons’ plight was not all that unusual during the era and they were lucky they survived until Baily Hobson returned with food to save them from starving and freezing to death.

Just walk through any pioneer cemetery in the region and you’ll find evidence of tragic tales of disease and death that struck entire families. From smallpox to diphtheria to typhoid to recurrent malaria, women and their families were always at risk.

It is to their credit, then, that so many of them survived and prospered despite the danger and hardships that so many of them took in such graceful stride. And we owe it to them not to forget or minimize what they accomplished and contributed to the region’s rich history and heritage.

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Filed under family, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History