Monthly Archives: October 2021

The haunting of Vermont Cemetery: A ghostly tale for a fall evening

It’s nearly time for All Hallows Eve again, when ghosties and goblins and things that go bump in the night come to your door for a ‘trick or treat.’ What with the ongoing Covid epidemic, I would imagine that the number of trick or treaters will be diminished again this year. But maybe not.

Trick or treating was fun when I was a youngster—we had all the good houses staked out that we made sure to visit. But the one place we did not go near that night was the Oswego Township Cemetery. We had heard the tales of “Three Fingered Jack” Hamilton, one of John Dillinger’s gang, who was buried there after meeting a violent death, and we didn’t want to chance meeting up with the old guy.

Built in 1869 by Oswego gristmill owner and farmer George Parker just north of Oswego, this elaborate Italianate home had fallen into disrepair by the late 1950s, making it a perfect candidate for a haunted house. (Little White School Museum collection)

Despite our fears, real, honest to goodness local ghost stories are pretty hard to come by. When I was growing up, there was indeed an old haunted house over on Ill. Route 31. Built by the Parker family of mill-owning fame, the rambling old Italianate mansion had seen its share of scandal. Modified in the 1920s with a drive-in basement, John Schickler and son operated an illegal moonshine still there. Later the son turned his hand to the dairy business, using the basement to house his milk bottling operation. But by the late 1950s, it had fallen into disrepair, fully meeting the requirements of a haunted house, although without the requisite ghosts in residence.

In fact, I never really heard any good local ghost stories. I suspect the Methodist and Congregationalist settlers who predominated among the area’s earliest pioneers simply didn’t have time for such nonsense.

After I got into the newspaper business, ever on the lookout for a good seasonal story, I talked to a number of people, both young and old, to see if there were any good ghost stories about our area that I might have missed—we were always looking for a good Halloween feature story. As noted, apparently local people, especially the descendants of those early settlers are a hard-headed lot, and are not given to admitting the existence of ghosts, spirits, or poltergeists.

Except for one story, that is. Several years ago, after much prodding and despite her obvious embarrassment, I did manage to get my grandmother to relate a couple of stories her parents told her, one of which turned out to be a pretty fair ghost story.

John Peter and Amelia Lantz on their wedding day, Feb. 16, 1869.

My great-grandparents, John Peter and Amelia Lantz, were both Pennsylvania Dutch, and were a bit more superstitious than most area residents who didn’t come from that tradition. An influx of Pennsylvania Germans arrived here on the northern Illinois prairies in the 1850s, drawn by stories of rich farmland that didn’t have to be cleared of dense forests before it could be cultivated. Arriving from Lancaster, Schuylkill, and other Pennsylvania counties heavily populated by the descendants of the German settlers William Penn had persuaded to immigrate—and mostly still speaking German at home even after having lived in Pennsylvania for 100 or more years—the new arrivals fit right in with the latest German immigrants who’d settled on the Oswego Prairie between Oswego and Naperville in the late 1840s.

Both groups of ethnic Germans brought their traditions with them, including the Pennsylvania Dutch ambivalence about superstition. My great- grandparents, for instance, had both been raised with the idea that ghosts and spirits were real things.

And so we come to the story that involves the old Vermont Cemetery in Wheatland Township.

The Vermont Settlement was created when the Jonathan Davis and Levi Blanchard families arrived from Vermont out on the Wheatland prairie in 1843. They were joined the next year by their fellow Green Mountain native, Layton Rice and his five sons along with Rudolph Houghton and family. The area continued to draw settlers, some from Vermont, others immigrating from Germany and traveling west from Pennsylvania. The settlers soon founded they needed both a burying ground as well as a school. The one-acre cemetery was laid out on the east side of what eventually became Normantown Road about a half mile south of Wolf’s Crossing Road.

My great-grandparents frequently traveled into Oswego to visit my great-great grandparents from their farm along what’s now Ill. Route 59. The quickest route for them was to take what’s today Route 59 north from their farm to modern 103rd Street, and drive on that all the way to Normantown Road (on part of 103rd that no longer exists). Then they’ turn north on Normantown Road to Wolf’s Crossing and into Oswego.

My grandmother in 1979, about the time she told me the Vermont Cemetery ghost story.

One dark night back just before the turn of the 20th Century, as my great-grandparents were returning to their farm from Oswego on that route, their horses began to act strangely. Just after passing the old Vermont Cemetery, they noticed a strange light that appeared to hover just under their horse.

The horse became terrified and bolted out of control. The couple had a wild ride until they reached the Leppert farm, where the light disappeared as mysteriously as it had come. The horse immediately became calm and slowed to a sedate walk as if nothing had happened. John Peter and Amelia, however, were quite shaken by the experience.

Some weeks later, another incident happened at the Vermont Cemetery that convinced my great-grandparents that the cemetery was indeed haunted.

This time, again, the Lantzes were on their way home from Oswego, when their horse began to act up. They noticed that they were again nearing the Vermont Cemetery, and at the same time saw, from the back, a man walking along the road headed towards the cemetery. John Peter thought the man looked very familiar, and when they caught up with him was astonished to recognize him as a neighbor who had been buried in the cemetery some time before.

As the couple pulled up to the walking man, John Peter said he asked him if he wanted a ride. The man made no response, and, acting as if he didn’t know the buggy was beside him, kept walking steadily towards the cemetery. When the couple in the buggy and the walking man reached the gates of the cemetery the man seemed to vanish into thin air. My great-grandparents hurried away as quickly as their horse and buggy could carry them.

According to my grandmother, a replay of this incident happened several times, always with a different deceased neighbor. It always happened in the same manner, with the person found walking towards the cemetery, and then disappearing when he reached the gate.

“That’s what they said,” my grandmother recalled, adding, “But I don’t believe it! Why, whoever heard of such a thing?”

The Vermont Cemetery Preserve today, with no ghosts evident. (Forest Preserve District of Will County photo)

Today, cemeteries aren’t so much sources for scary stories as they are considered repositories of historical information and rare native plants. Thanks to Northern Illinois University’s Dr. Robert Betz, volunteers began trying to preserve the Vermont Cemetery in 1961. It was fenced off in 1970 to preserve the rich collection of rare native prairie plants. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory identified 70 native species of plants at Vermont Cemetery. It was dedicated as an Illinois State Nature Preserve in 1999. The Forest Preserve District of Will County subsequently acquired the old cemetery along with a little over 24 acres to create a prairie buffer around it, creating today’s Vermont Cemetery Preserve, a living museum of northern Illinois’ prairie past.

l haven’t heard of anyone seeing ghosts out there lately, though, but then again, maybe no one has looked. Perhaps on a misty fall night, ghosts of pioneer farmers still trudge along that lonely stretch of country road on their way back to their resting places at the Vermont Cemetery.


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There was a time when apples were a cash crop in the Fox Valley

It’s fall here in northern Illinois, and that means it’s apple season.

Most of us figure there’s nothing quite as American as a good, fresh crisp apple. But the fact is, the eating and cooking apples we enjoy so much these days are descended from European imports. Only the lowly crabapple is actually native to North America.

The wild, ancient ancestor of virtually all of today’s apple varieties originally evolved in the mountains of Central Asia in the area today occupied by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the Xinjiang region of China. Apples appear to have been actually cultivated first in Turkey. Alexander the Great is generally given credit for introducing the fruit to Europe.

Although not native, apples were one of the first fruit crops brought to the New World by Europeans, who heavily relied on the fruit to produce cider for drinking and vinegar for food preservation, as well as a popular fruit for eating fresh.

The first apple seeds were brought across the Atlantic to North America by French Jesuits in the late sixteenth century. The religious separatists who settled Massachusetts starting in 1620 brought apple seeds and seedlings with them and immediately began planting orchards throughout the region when they arrived.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

In the 1630s, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore advised Maryland settlers to bring with them “kernalls of pears and apples, especially of Pipins, Pearmains and Deesons, for making thereafter of Cider and Perry.” Perry is a fermented drink made from pears. According to survey records of 1644, just ten years after Lord Baltimore’s decree, more than 90 percent of Maryland’s farms had apple orchards.

Pennsylvania’s German settlers, called Pennsylvania Dutch by their English neighbors, became famous for using apples to make a wide variety of food, including apple pie and apple butter.

In the early 1800s, John Chapman, a former resident of Massachusetts and Connecticut, began planting apple seedlings throughout Ohio and, eventually, Indiana. Looked upon with affection by the early settlers of those areas, the eccentric Chapman soon received his nickname, Johnny Appleseed. In addition to planting apple orchards from seeds retrieved from cider-making operations, Chapman also planted pennyroyal, catnip, and horehound on his tree-planting journeys. Besides planting orchards in unsettled areas, Chapman also regularly returned and pruned the trees to assure their productivity.

By planting the seeds instead of reproducing them by grafting (which he opposed on religious grounds), Chapman spread a huge variety of apple trees in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and as far west as eastern Illinois. Apples do not reproduce true from their seeds, meaning seeds from, say, a Pippin, do not necessarily produce Pippins. What Chapman really did was to spread a huge variety of apple rootstock all over the areas of the then fast-growing western frontier. As a result, when settlers did arrive, they could graft on desired varieties but they could also select the best of the varieties that grew from Chapman’s random seeding.

Here in Kendall County, like every other frontier community, apple trees were prized possessions, and joined cherry and plum trees in the orchards planted by the earliest settlers.

Elvirah Walker Shumway and her husband James emigrated from Massachusetts to Kendall County in 1847, settling near her brothers, Seth and Lauriston Walker, on a farm just east of the intersection of Douglas and Simons Road in Oswego Township. On their arrival, Elvirah discovered one of the hardships she had to endure on the Illinois frontier was a serious lack of apple trees with which to produce vinegar. She didn’t let that stop her, though, from preserving food by pickling. In a letter written to her sister back in Massachusetts in September 1847, she reported she had “two three gallon pots of pickles stewing—if you ask what I do for vinegar! Oh I use whiskey and water.” Which may help explain some of those wild pioneer parties.

Apples were grown to be eaten fresh, but also to be dried for use during the Fox Valley’s long winters. The fruit was also turned into apple butter, jelly, and cider.

As the 19th Century progressed, apples became fairly big business here in Kendall County and the rest of the region. On Nov. 14, 1872, the Kendall County Record reported that “Dr. J.A. Cook has shipped 1,750 bushels of apples from his farm in Fox this fall, and made 50 barrels of cider.”

Many farmers owned their own small cider presses, but for processing serious quantities of apples, steam powered presses were used to squeeze cider out of apples.

In 1884, Kendall County produced nearly 25,000 bushels of apples according to state agricultural officials.

Cider itself, long a staple of the American diet, was served both fresh and fermented. Cider appeared on the table in virtually every American household in the first half of the 19th Century, as a good tasting and mildly alcoholic beverage enjoyed by all members of the family, no matter how young. Cider was also safer to drink than the water available in most of the era’s towns and villages.

After fermenting, hard cider was sometimes distilled into hard liquor. More often it was simply processed into applejack during the winter by allowing a keg of fermented cider to freeze, driving the alcohol to the center. The center was then tapped, producing a strong alcoholic drink.

Vinegar was the other major product made from apple cider. Since vinegar was one of the primary food preserving tools of early householders (everything from meat to vegetables to eggs were pickled in vinegar), its manufacture was an important early industry.

Besides merely reproducing popular varieties of apple trees, at least one Kendall County farmer developed his own variety. Smith G. Minkler, who farmed along what is now Minkler Road in Oswego and NaAuSay townships, perfected the Minkler Apple, and it proved to be a favorite of local orchardists. As a young man, Minkler received his first seedlings as payment for helping break prairie sod for early Kendall County entrepreneur Peter Specie. Specie apparently got the seedlings from the Detroit area’s French settlements.

Today, the Kendall County Historical Society still has a few Minkler apple trees at the Lyon Farm and Village, and there are a few Minkler apple trees still growing on area farmsteads.

Some of the apples Minkler produced were giants. The Kendall County Record reported in the fall of 1881 that apples weighing a pound each and measuring 14 inches in circumference were being picked in the Minkler orchards.

In January of 1889, Minkler printed a “Plea for an Old Orchard” in the Record. He urged county farmers to prune their trees, “plow the ground shallow” in their orchards, and then apply manure to feed the trees. “The orchard is the most abused piece of ground on the farm,” Minkler complained. “You expect it to produce a crop of apples, a crop of hay, and a pasture besides, and make no return to the land.”

A nice selection of Minkler apples from Eastman’s Antique Apples, Wheeler, Michigan. Minklers are large, juicy, and crisp, good for both eating and cider.

Apples harvested each fall were either pressed on-site in individual orchards or taken to the many local cider-pressing businesses. In the Oswego area, a number of pressing operations were in operation in the late 1800s, including at the Wormley farm on Ill. Route 31 and the Wayne farm on Ill. Route 71. In addition, Oswego businessman David Hall had two presses in operation in 1889. All were powered by small stationary steam engines.

All those apples grown in farm orchards had to be hauled to the presses by the wagonload for processing, and that offered numerous opportunities for mischief-inclined youngsters. From the Oct. 23, 1889 Record: “Owing to the making of much cider now, many loads of apples are being carried through town and whenever one is spied by the small boys, they swarm upon it filling their pockets, biting into a few, and then pelting each other with them so that the streets are strewn with apples. This raiding upon their loads causes farmers to get through town as quick as possible and Monday, as Charles Stiefbold was coming along at a trot with a load upon wish some boys jumped and by some means let down the end board, a patent device, and the first thing the owner knew was that most of the apples were strewn along the street the length of a block or more. As fathers don’t exercise the least control over their boys on the street, the formation of a society for such control would be much in order.

The cider-making season usually ran from September through November. Here’s what the Nov. 11, 1891 Record had to say about that year’s cider season in Oswego: “The end of cider making has not been reached. David Hall has made over 1,500 barrels so far…John Wormley, with his celebrated cider press, has managed to make about 1,700 barrels this season. The largest amount of cider to the bushel was made for S.B. English—from 50 bushels of Minkler apples, 252 gallons of cider was extracted.”

Much of the cider pressed locally went to make vinegar. David M. Haight, who owned the general store at the northeast comer of Washington Street (Route 34) and Main Street in Oswego, operated a large vinegar fermenting room in his store basement. One of Haight’s vinegar jugs is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Nowadays, many county residents have an apple tree or two on their property, but the days when thousands of gallons of cider were processed from local trees is long gone.

This fall, some hardy folks will still press fresh cider from local apples while the rest of us pick up a gallon or so at the grocery store or a farmer’s market while we reflect on the days when the Wormleys, the Waynes, and the Halls made apples one of the county’s commercial mainstays.

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Amos Kendall: Newspapering, the post office and the telegraph

My last post got me to thinking a little bit more closely about the post office and the role it’s played in the nation’s history, not to mention the history of Illinois in general and the Fox River Valley region in particular.

The postal service used to be a purely governmental service, considered so important to the nation that it is just about the only one enumerated in the Constitution. It is also just about the only U.S. Governmental service that was in operation before the nation was established.

On-going political efforts to cripple it have been going on for decades as the privatizing mania swept the nation. Back in the 1970s, the post office was changed from a purely governmental service to a separate money-making operation. Or that was supposed to be the plan, anyway. It was a plan destined for varying amounts of failure since post office workers continued to be employed by the U.S. Government and the post office remained under the control of Congress and thus subject to its political whims and pressure.

But despite the best efforts of its ideological opponents, the postal service just keeps soldiering on, delivering the mail six days a week everywhere in the country for the cost of a postage stamp.

Amos Kendall in an engraving showing what he looked like when serving as Postmaster General under Andrew Jackson, about 1835.

Interestingly enough, Kendall County has a direct, concrete tie to the post office: When it was established by an act of the Illinois General Assembly in February of 1841 from portions of Kane and LaSalle counties it was named after Amos Kendall, former Postmaster General and one of President Andrew Jackson’s most influential advisors.

Kendall County was first proposed to be named Orange County after the area in New York where many of the first settlers came from. But during the establishment process, the name was changed to Kendall County by the General Assembly’s house of representatives.

One of those voting in favor of the name change was Ill. Rep. Abraham Lincoln of Springfield. Since Lincoln was a Whig and Amos Kendall was a Democrat, Kendall must have had some extraordinary qualities.

Which he certainly did.

Amos Kendall was born in 1789, the same year the nation’s first President, George Washington, took office. His parents were farmers living near Dunstable in Middlesex County, Mass.

Kendall was plagued with ill health as a youngster, but nonetheless showed a studious disposition. The other members of the Kendall family, in fact, described him as the scholar of the family.

Amos Kendall graduated from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Kendall attended public school near Dunstable, and then went on to college at Dartmouth. He apparently maintained a studious disposition and the standoffishness many sickly youngsters demonstrate. One classmate described Kendall as a “reserved, priggish boy” during his years at Dartmouth.

Kendall graduated from Dartmouth in 1811, and the young 22 year-old moved to Groton, Conn., where he took a job teaching in the community’s academy, the era’s name for a private high school. While working as a teacher, Kendall also read law with the aim of becoming an attorney.

But he apparently realized that a man without connections in New England, even with a college education, probably would not make a fortune. So he looked West, where there were definitely fortunes to be made.

Kendall decided to head west to Lexington, Ky. He certainly made the right connection when he arrived—he managed to befriend a young law student who turned out to be the great Henry Clay’s brother. This happy accident gave Kendall an entry into one of the most powerful political families in Kentucky.

Richard M. Johnson, military hero and later Vice President under Martin Van Buren.

Possibly through the Clays, Kendall met Col. Richard Johnson, the man credited with killing the great Indian military leader Tecumseh during the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812. Which was another—admittedly somewhat tenuous—connection with what eventually became Kendall County, because two of Tecumseh’s close advisors were Native American residents of the Fox Valley, chiefs Shabbona and Waubonsee. One of Waubonsee’s favorite village sites was at Oswego along the creek that still carries his name.

But back to Amos Kendall. With Johnson’s sponsorship, Kendall established a newspaper, the Argus of Western America, at Frankfort, Ky. Through Kendall’s writing skill and his good business sense, the Argus quickly became one of the most successful and influential newspapers in the West of that era.

In the words of historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Kendall “plunged into Kentucky journalism with celerity, quickly adapting himself to its rugged ways.”

Those “rugged ways” included the necessity of Kendall carrying a large knife and a pistol for personal protection. For an entertaining tale of frontier journalism of that era, read Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee,” told with Twain’s characteristic dryly outrageous humor. And possibly a touch of exaggeration.

In the real world of the 1820s West, Kendall’s editorial stances aligned him with Andrew Jackson’s Democrats, and in 1828, when the nation’s voters sent “Old Hickory” to Washington, D.C. as President, Kendall went along as part of Jackson’s staff.

Andrew Jackson tapped Amos Kendall to serve as Postmaster General.

He received an appointment as a Treasury Department auditor, quickly discovering his predecessor—happily a Jackson foe—had embezzled $280,000 in government funds. Kendall’s discovery proved to be an accomplishment that marked him for more important jobs in the future.

In fact he hit it off so well with Jackson, that he was soon included as part of the President’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” He also became one of Jackson’s favorite speech writers.

In 1833, Jackson engineered his appointment as Postmaster General. In that job, he reorganized the department’s finances, improved coverage and letter delivery speed, and put the post office on a paying basis for the first time in U.S. history.

Kendall used the profits he’d created to improve and expand postal service throughout the country, including instituting an express mail service that predated the famed, privately operated Pony Express by decades.

Kendall’s Express Mail service carried regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the main New York to New Orleans Great Southern Mail route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to quickly spread the news.

During that era, newspapers and the news they carried concerning local, state, and national government were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing that news spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today’s attitudes towards both government and the press.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, a second express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a tributary of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off at Dayton, Ohio and running to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

The daily express mail sped up mail delivery considerably. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois. Thanks to the Express Mail, that delivery time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours a couple years later. Kendall’s Express Mail was phased out starting in 1838 thanks to advances in transportation technology—particular the advent of the nation’s first railroads, and more funding for better roads and bridges.

Kendall also proved to be a political innovator. With post offices spread all over the country, Kendall quickly realized that the position of postmaster in a community could offer the Jackson administration with its own network of loyal people perfectly positioned to report the pulses of the communities they served. To that end, the position of postmaster was made a political job, with the old corps of postmasters loyal to former President John Quincy Adams’ National Republican Party swept out and Jacksonian Democrats swept in. And the concept of a national patronage army was established.

Amos Kendall, about 1845.

Kendall also had his dark side, as did so many political figures of that era, particularly his support for slavery. As Postmaster General, Kendall was personally involved in the refusal to allow the Charleston, S.C. post office to deliver abolitionist pamphlets, as outlined in my last post.

While an organizational genius and a good writer, Kendall was also a bit of an eccentric. He was, while still in his 30s, described as bent, prematurely white- haired, badly dressed, near-sighted, and of sallow complexion with a hacking asthmatic cough. He affected heavy broadcloth coats, even during Washington’s hot summers, and often wore a bandage around his head to ward off headaches.

One observer noted: “Poor wretch; as he rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, he looked like Death on a pale horse.”

Kendall left government service about 1840 (Kendall County was named after him in February 1841), and in 1845 joined Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph firm as business manager. Morse was an inventive genius, but as a businessman, he left quite a bit to be desired. Kendall quickly put Morse’s business to rights, using the organizational genius that had led to the post office department showing a profit.

Donald B. Cole’s 2010 biography, “A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy” finally tells the story of Kendall’s fascinating life.

By the time he retired as a rich man in 1860, Kendall had helped build the company into the nation’s most successful long-distance communications company, the ancestor of today’s AT&T. Kendall had been interested in the education of deaf people for many years, and was one of the founders of and donated the initial land for Gallaudet University. He was also an active Baptist and financed construction of church buildings.

Kendall died Nov. 12, 1869, the last living member of the Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren administrations’ cabinets.

It is unfortunate that we had to wait until 2010 for a Kendall biography to be published, but A Jackson Man: Amos Kendall and the Rise of American Democracy by Donald B. Cole was worth the wait, and does Kendall the justice he deserves.

A newspaper editor, member of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” an innovative and efficient Postmaster General, a philanthropist, and a successful and farsighted businessman who saw the value of a new, though untried, communications technology, Kendall led a life many of us would envy.

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