Although most of the Fox Valley’s wetlands were drained long ago, the region’s fresh water springs still pop up, especially after heavy rains. While the water seeping from the ground along the county’s watercourses and hillsides looks clear, these days most of that water has been badly polluted by everything from farm and lawn fertilizer to private septic systems.
When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time on and around the Fox River. Most summers back in the 1950s, those days when small towns were safe places for kids to roam to their hearts’ content, we’d leave home in the morning and not get back until suppertime, except to grab some food at one time or another during the day. Food, we needed, but water to drink was pretty plentiful from the many springs along the riverbank.
There was a particularly good one that exited the riverbank under a tree and for which we cleared out a small, shallow rock-lined pool to drink from. That spring ran all year long. Last year, I took a walk along the riverbank there and found it’s still flowing, though not as strongly as when we were kids.
Just to the south of our house was a large spring that once provided cool water for, first, thirsty settlers, then Oswego’s first (and, for well over a century, it’s last) brewery, and later a creamery. The spring water had, at sometime in the past, been piped under what then passed for North Adams Street and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way in a large iron pipe tile through which the cold water gushed. It was a handy place to stop for a drink on the way home from school or from bicycling. Folks used to come from all over to fill milk cans and large jugs with the clear, cold water, and since it was right next to the railroad tracks, the section gangs that put-putted up and down the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch Line stopped there to fill their water jugs, too.
And, as it turns out, springs were major assets during Kendall County’s settlement era, and not just for drinking purposes, either.
There were at least two springs in the county famed for their medicinal value. The most famous were at Plattville, originally called The Springs by the first settlers. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, there were a dozen mineral springs at Plattville that not only fed a fairly large marsh rich in fish, but whose water was also prized for its medicinal value by the pioneers. Daniel Platt bought The Springs claim when he arrived in 1833 for $80. It proved to be an excellent investment, providing water, both for drinking and for medicinal purposes, for many years to come.
The water table is very close to the surface in the Plattville area. Hicks reported in 1877 that some settlers in that area were lucky enough to strike artesian wells from which water didn’t need to be pumped: “Obadiah Naden one mile south, and George Mason, six miles south-east, each have flowing wells. The latter was sinking a tubular well, and when fifty-five feet below the surface water was struck, which flowed over the top, and it has continued to flow ever since.”
Meanwhile over in House’s Grove, now the site of a Kendall County Forest Preserve in Seward Township, settler Chester House prized the large sulfur spring that flowed in the grove. Sulfur waters were prized as popular cures for various conditions, including skin maladies. A second spring in the grove, located closer to House’s cabin, ran clear and pure without the added smell of sulfur, and, Hicks noted, was considered of less value than the sulfur spring. The House claim was a lonely one out on the prairie, but it provided some welcome security for weary travelers. According to Hicks, “Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”
The county’s biggest freshwater spring was located in modern Oswego Township along what’s now Ill. Route 31 north of Oswego near the old Wormley School. Called simply “The Great Spring,” it was located close to the old Wormley homestead and was notable enough that when U.S. Government surveyors measured the township in 1838, they noted it. It subsequently appeared on the official government 1842 survey map of the township.
Down in Little Rock Township, there was the Griswold Spring and just a bit to the south over the line in Fox Township was the Greenfield Spring. The Griswold Spring was prominent enough to have a road named after it that still exists. The Native American village of Maramech on and around modern Maramech Hill near Plano was also supplied with water from a good spring.
And along the south bank of the Fox River in Fox Township, we can’t forget the Silver Springs that provide the name for Kendall County’s only Illinois State Fish and Wildlife area. The springs reportedly got their name from the way their water reflects sunlight, seeming to make their surface shine like silver. Those springs are still running strong to this day.
Down just outside of Millington, a 50-foot thick deposit of sparkling white St. Peter’s Sandstone was quarried for several years. At least two springs issued from the strata of the stone and ran west into the Fox River. Today, the old silica sand quarry is filled with water, marking the spot where so much sand was mined and sent down to Ottawa’s glass factories.
And the grounds of Riverview—later Fox River—Park just south of Montgomery featured an artesian spring that ran the year-around to refresh visitors at the amusement park, which was open from 1899-1925.
To the immediate south of Kendall County along the Illinois River, a major mineral spring, whose water was filtered through the St. Peter Sandstone that also underlays that entire area, was well known and valued by area pioneers.
When my great-grandparents moved into town in 1908, they dug a well 14 feet deep that was spring-fed. No matter how much water was pumped from it, a foot and a half of water remained in the well.
But that well, like all those crystal-clear springs along the Fox River near Oswego, was eventually polluted when subdivisions were built east of Route 25. Many of the houses in new unincorporated subdivisions had their own wells and septic systems, and the effluent from those systems found its way down to the bedrock that directs surface water towards the Fox River. The old brewery/creamery spring, my parent’s spring-fed well, and the springs along the river all now register as extremely close to raw sewage due to their heavy loads of coliform bacteria.
While water from streams was often suspect from a health perspective, the pioneers of 180 years ago knew they didn’t have to worry about whether the clear, cold water they drank from the Fox Valley’s many natural springs would sicken them. Unfortunately, these days we do.