Category Archives: Architecture

The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, Part II

Part II in a two-part series in observation of National Historic Preservation Month…

In the autumn of 1964, Oswego’s Little White School was closed after serving as classroom space for the district’s students for the previous 49 years.

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Oswego’s Little White School in 1958 in a photo taken by Homer Durrand for the Oswegorama community celebration. (Little White School collection)

The building started its life in Oswego as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, opening in 1850. For the next 63 years it served the community’s Methodists as a worship center and the rest of the community as public meeting space. Probably one of the more interesting non-religious events held in the building was the presentation of Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California. The spectacular presentation, which consisted of dozens of scenes of travel overland to California painted by artist James Wilkins, was mounted on canvas and then scrolled past the viewers, who were seated in chairs (or pews in the case of the Methodist-Episcopal Church) with live narration and music.

As Kendall County Courier Editor H.S. Humphrey put it in the May 23, 1855 issue: “Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California was exhibited last night at the Methodist Church to quite a respectable audience. It is a magnificent work of art…Persons wishing to make a journey across the plains can do it by visiting this Panorama, without the expenses and hardships attendant upon such an excursion.”

Nevertheless, the congregation was perennially short on money, and eventually dissolved in 1913. In 1915, the Oswego School District bought the building for classroom space for primary students. It served the community as both a school and public meeting space until the district closed it in 1964, afterwards using it for storage. When the district announced plans to sell the badly deteriorated building in the mid-1970s, a grassroots community effort was launched to save the building due to its direct linkage to Oswego’s rich heritage.

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Photo of Little White School taken by Daryl Gaar in July 1970 in preparation of a real estate appraisal report for the Oswego School District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which is where we rejoin the story with the formation of the Oswegoland Heritage Association in 1976. After all the hoopla and excitement of the Bicentennial ended it was time for the OHA to get to work to save the building. Restoration began in 1977, just 40 years ago this summer. The project was to be completed under a unique agreement between the Oswego School District, which maintained ownership of the building and grounds; the Oswegoland Park District, which pledged regular maintenance support; and the heritage association, which pledged to raise funds and oversee the building’s restoration.

Stabilization of the badly deteriorated structure was a vital first step. The first task was to tear the old roofs off and install a new one, a task accomplished with a combination of volunteer and paid labor, with funds raised by the heritage association. Next it was time to pull off the old wooden shingle siding, fill the nail holes, mask the windows, and paint the building.

A concrete porch and stairs had replaced the buildings original wooden front porch and stairs sometime around 1912, and over the years it sank, and as it did more concrete was added to level it out. It was determined the old concrete needed to go, and so it was demolished and removed. And that’s when it was discovered the front 11 x 11 inch solid oak sill had almost completely rotted away thanks to water flowing backwards on the concrete front porch and onto the sill during

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Getting a new roof on the Little White School Museum was the first order of business as restoration began in 1977. (Little White School Museum collection)

the previous 60 years. The result was the floor joists at the front of the building were no longer connected to the sill (which no longer existed at that location), but were being held up by the vestibule’s floorboards to which they were nailed—which is pretty much the opposite of what was supposed to be happening.

So carpentry wizard Stan Young replaced the rotted sill, and reproduced the wooden front porch using a 1901 postcard view of the building to draw his plans.

With the building painted, the front stairs replaced and a new roof installed, the last major exterior project was restoring the building’s bell tower. We’d discovered the church’s original bell was doing duty as Oswego High School’s victory bell, and so would be available—provided we could find a replacement victory bell. The good news was that the Oswego School District then, and probably now, too, doesn’t throw anything away, and it turned out they still had the bell recovered when the Red Brick School was demolished in 1965. All concerned agreed that would do just fine.

1980 Bell tower in place

The Little White School Museum’s restored bell tower after it was lowered in place by Garbe Iron Works’ mobile crane on Oct. 25, 1980. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Stan Young got to work, assisted by his sons, Glenn and Don, building a replica of the original bell tower on the front lawn of the Little White School in the fall of 1980. By Oct. 25, the tower was completed, along with a timber support structure to hold the bell.

Thanks to Oswegoan Terry Peshia, the OHA got an in-kind donation of a mobile crane from Garbe Iron Works in Aurora that was used to hoist the church bell out of the high school’s courtyard and then replace it there with the Red Brick School bell.

With a crew ready to go at the museum, first the bell, now bolted to its support timbers, was hoisted up and set in place, where it fit neatly through holes in the roof Stan had already created, and into the original mortises in the building’s timber structure. Then the tower itself was swayed up and, despite a sudden gust of wind on that breezy cloudy autumn day, was lowered into place and secured.

Museum northwest before afterFor the next two years, Stan Young scrounged for copper materials from which he fabricated a finial to fit atop the tower, using that 1901 postcard photo of the building to recreate it to scale.

Meanwhile, the OHA Board of Directors had been holding spirited discussions about what to do with the rest of the building’s restoration. The exterior was going to look like the building did after the 1901 addition of the bell and tower, with the exception that the 1934 classroom would be retained. But what to do with the interior?

The first decision was to renovate—not restore—the third classroom and the 1936 hallway into a modern entry and museum room. The rooms were gutted, which wasn’t hard because the water damage from the bad roof was causing the plaster and plaster board to fall down anyway. The windows along the south wall were all removed, and the three windows along the north side of the room were replaced with sashes with UV-filtering glass. Then the museum room and hallway were completely rewired, drop ceilings with recessed lighting were installed, and steel security doors were installed at the two exterior entrances. Finally, new wallboard was installed and everything got a couple coats of paint.

The museum committee had been working, too, using a moveable panel system designed by Glenn Young to divide the third classroom into exhibit areas. Young fabricated the dividers and the locking pins after which volunteers painted the frames and museum committee members installed burlap coverings before the panels were moved into place and secured. With display cases donated by Shuler’s Drug Store and other Oswego businesses, artifacts were placed on exhibit all in time for the museum’s grand opening in the spring of 1983 in time for the celebration of Oswego’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

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Interior of the Little White School Museum’s main room after demolition of the drop ceiling and partitions. (Little White School Museum collection)

By that time, and after much debate, the decision had been made to follow the recommendations championed by Glenn Young to return the Little White School Museum’s main room back to its original, classic Greek Revival dimensions. It would be a single room, 36 x 50 feet with 17 foot ceilings, complete with restored windows, replica oil lamps installed where the building’s original lamps had hung, and refinished trim, replicated where necessary. To accomplish that, all the interior partitions would have to be torn out, including the newer vestibule, the drop ceiling would have to be removed, the stairways to the basement washrooms would have to be removed and the floor patched, and the original, smaller, vestibule restored.

Fortunately for the project, the United Auto Workers local at Oswego Township’s Caterpillar, Inc. plant happened to pick the autumn of 1983 to go on strike. That freed up some of the workers at Cat who, when they weren’t walking the picket line, volunteered to help with the interior demolition work. By late fall, the room was back to its original dimensions and the scope of work could be determined. The old stairwells were capped, and major floor repairs near the buildings front door were completed, and then the lumber salvaged after the demolition work was used to restore the original vestibule, the dimensions of which were clearly visible.

1990 Windows Glenn gluing

Glenn Young gluing up a frosted plate glass window pane during the glue-chipping process. About 12 hours of volunteer time was spent on each restored window sash. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next question was what to do with the walls and ceiling, repair the original horsehair plaster or tear it all off. The decision was made to repair it, but before that happened the opportunity was taken to blow insulation into the walls from the inside since the holes in the plaster walls could easily be patched during the wall repair. The entire room was also rewired with heavy duty wire and new outlets installed throughout, along with a new 200-amp breaker panel.

After both the wall and ceiling repairs and the insulation installation were finished, everything got a coat of heavy duty sealer, followed by two coats of off-white paint.

Meanwhile, the wainscoting that had been removed during restoration work had been stripped of its paint, but there was still lots of wainscoting still in place around the room that needed to be stripped. So my son, and his best friend, spend their summer earning a bit of spending money by stripping decades of paint with heat guns. When stripping was finished, and all the wainscoting boards replaced, Glenn Young began the process of graining it to look like more expensive oak boards, using the graining examples we found behind some of the room’s baseboard as a guide.

When restoration began, we found two small panes of the original 1901 diamond-patterned glass had survived in windows on the buildings southeast corner. We had no idea what the glass was, only that it was decorated with alternate rows of diamonds, one row frosted diamonds, and the next with a floral pattern that seemed etched into the glass itself. After a couple years of research, Glenn Young found the glass decorations had been created through a process called glue-chipping. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, glue-chipped glass could be bought by the square foot at almost every community’s lumber yard, but it was only obtainable by hobbiests creating their own when we decided to restore the Little White School Museum’s windows.

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Completed 4-sash window unit with glue-chipped panes and restored trim. Note the restored chair rail and grained wainscoting below the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young determined to figure out how to do glue-chipping, and so began a series of experiments. Originally, glue-chipping was done in the country’s glass factories. The diamond patterns were masked off with beeswax and then the panes were etched with hydrochloric acid. Then alternate rows of diamonds were painted with hide glue, which, when it dried, actually fractured the surface of the glass, leaving behind a fern-like pattern.

The first part of recreating the 32 individual 18×60 inch panes was relatively easy. Using the two original pieces of glue-chipped glass that still existed, Young created a template out of brown butcher’s paper. Then the new panes of plate glass were placed on the template and the diamond pattern created with pressure-sensitive packing tape cut to the right width. Then the taped-up panes were sandblasted to create an entire pane of frosted diamonds.

Through trial and error, Young found the correct mixture of dried hide glue and water to use and also determined it had to be kept at 140 degrees as he was carefully coating every other row of frosted diamonds. Figuring out how to properly dry the glue to create a consistent pattern was just as difficult. Eventually, it was found that allowing a glued-up pane to dry overnight, until it seemed dry to the touch, and then scattering a pound of silica gel crystals over the surface and wrapping it in plastic sheeting to flash-dry the rest of the moisture out of the glued diamonds was the most effective. The flash-drying process actually sounds like corn popping, as the glue, which has adhered to the rows of frosted diamonds, quickly contracts and fractures the surface, jumping up and bouncing off the plastic sheeting.

As each glue-chipped pane was created, it was carefully moved into a restored and painted sash to be glazed and then painted. Glass is really a solid liquid, and the glue-chipping process removes the surface tension that gives each pane its strength. Unless handled extremely carefully, panes fold up, breaking along the lines of the sandblasted diamonds.

1995 Lighting Glenn installing

Glenn Young finishes hanging one of the restored, electrified oil lamp fixtures in the Little White School Museum’s main room. (Little White School Museum collection)

We found we had enough original trim to restore half the room’s windows, so we took a sample up to Commercial Woodworking in Aurora where they created custom knives for their shapers to produce enough trim for the rest of the windows. Then as each set of four sashes was finished, the windows were restored, one after the other.

While that project was underway, the building’s heating system was completely replaced with a 98% efficient gas furnace. To avoid cutting a large hole in the floor for a return air duct, we built the ducts into the sides of the restored pulpit platform, covering them with decorative cast iron grilles. We were also working on the building’s basement, aiming to turn it into an artifact and archival storage area. When we ripped the old basement ceiling down, we found that over the years as this or that new heating system had been installed, floor joists had been cut out and never replaced. So as the window project continued (Young was spending about 12 hours of volunteer time most weekends on it) we spent a year scabbing new 2×8 floor joists onto the old joists and leveling, as far as we could, the floor.

1984-2002 Nathaniel at LWSM

My son Nathaniel literally grew up with the Little White School Museum’s restoration. At left, he inspects one of the building’s 11×11 inch structural timbers. At right, he finishes the main room’s pulpit platform floor in 2002. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the windows restored, we were seeing some light at the end of the restoration tunnel. And so we began working on restoring the main room’s lighting. We’d decided years before to use what the 1902 Sears catalog referred to as “store fixtures.” The building had apparently not been electrified until the 1930s, so there was no knob and tube wiring or any other antique system to deal with. Instead, in the building’s attic we found the counterweights, wooden pulleys, and wrought iron rods from which its seven oil lamps hung. The lamps were pulled down to trim the wicks and fill the fonts with oil. The counterweights—small boxes made from wainscot scraps—were fortunately still full of the rocks used to balance the weights of the lamps so we weighed a couple to figure out how heavy the original lamps were. And then we went shopping in the Sears catalog to

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The completely restored main room at the Little White School Museum provides community meeting space. (Little White School Museum collection)

figure out what lamps might have been used. For the next few years we gradually acquired nickel-plated kerosene lamps and fonts until we had enough for the whole room.

Back then, it was fashionable to buy the lamps and have the nickel plating removed to display the polished brass the fonts were actually made from. We were fortunate to find a small local plating business that agreed to replace all our lamp fonts with nickel as an in-kind donation. We then got Lee Winckler, a true artist in metalworking, make the lamp shades and harps, and to make the electrified burners too. Since the counterweights and rods were still in the building’s attic, we knew exactly where each lamp was to be positioned. We used ¼” black pipe to simulate the original wrought iron rods, and standard electrical lamp hooks to hang each lamp. Interestingly enough, we found the lamps were positioned over the building’s two side aisles, with three others grouped above the pulpit platform.

The last project was to floor the pulpit platform, and for that we were able to hire my son, who had been working on the building since he was five years old. The floor was finished in the autumn of 2002, wrapping up a quarter century of restoration work.

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Oswego’s Little White School Museum was in danger of demolition in 1976. Today it is a community landmark and repository for the Oswego area’s history. (Little White School Museum collection)

The moral of our story is restoration using mostly volunteer labor is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not a quick process, either—witness my son, who literally grew up with the project. But it does have its positives, too, especially having a community landmark to look at when you (finally) get done with it.

Today, the Little White School Museum, open seven days a week thanks to financial support from the Oswegoland Park District, is open seven days a week, annually hosts thousands of visitors, features a comprehensive community history museum, and houses a collection of nearly 27,000 photographs, artifacts, and archival materials. It is a tribute to all those instrumental in its preservation, from the grassroots group spearheaded by Janis Hoch who founded the Oswegoland Heritage Association, to the Oswego School District officials who took a chance that plans to restore the building would pan out, to Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Ford Lippold and his successor, Bert Gray, who were determined to save the building for future generations to the community groups who donated time, effort, and money, to all those who’ve served on the heritage association’s board for the last 40 years.

I suspect it’s exactly what the folks who created National Historic Preservation Month had in mind back in 1973 when they got the historic preservation ball rolling.

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A labor of (community) love: The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum

Part 1…

Happy Historic Preservation Month!

Way back in 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to establish a month-long observation of efforts to preserve a bit of the nation’s history before it was demolished, paved over, or otherwise lost to future generations.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines

The loss of the Oswego Depot to the wrecker’s ball lin 1970 alerted the community that its historic buildings were disappearing. (Little White School Museum photo)

It was right about that time, actually a little before, when efforts were underway to preserve Oswego’s railroad depot. Passenger service on the Fox River Branch line through Oswego had ceased in 1952, and by the 1960s the old depot was long obsolete. For us kids, it was always fascinating to peek in the windows to see the rows of seats in the passenger waiting room and the still-shiny brass fittings throughout the building.

In the late 1960s, the Oswego Jaycees announced they had a plan to preserve the building and turn it into a community museum. It would have made a good one, too. The Jaycees were negotiating in what they thought was good faith with the depot’s owners, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, when we all woke up one day to find the depot had been demolished literally overnight.

It was a shock to a community that had seen the landmark Red Brick School demolished to make way for the new Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office in 1965 and suffered another wake-up call when a devastating 1973 fire in the downtown business district that destroyed two storefronts in the historic Union Block that had been built in 1867.

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When word got around the community that the landmark Little White School was in danger of being torn down, a grassroots community group, the Oswegoland Heritage Association, was formed to save it. (Little White School Museum collection)

So when word got around that the Oswego School District was contemplating the sale of the Little White School, one of the village’s most familiar remaining landmarks, it caused a group of history-interested persons to start thinking about ways the building could be saved.

Historic preservation in general got a bit shot in the arm during the years leading up to the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Supporters of saving the Little White School piggybacked off that interest to establish the nonprofit Oswegoland Heritage Association, whose main goal was to save the historic old building from destruction, restore it, and establish a community museum there.

In order to get the job done, the founders of the OHA worked to create a unique three-way partnership between the nonprofit group; the Oswego School District, which owned the building; and the Oswegoland Park District, whose executive director, Ford Lippold, was one of the moving forces behind the formation of the OHA. The OHA pledged to coordination and raise funds to finance the building’s restoration; the park district pledged to maintain the school grounds (which they named Heritage Park) and provide regular building maintenance and operations financial support; and the school district agreed to maintain ownership of the building.

Because the school district had planned to sell the building for several years before restoration efforts began, they’d allowed it to badly deteriorate. There were three or four layers of roofing, none of which were weather-tight; the shingle siding added in the 1930s was deteriorating; and the structure was in generally poor overall condition.

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This postcard view of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church–later the Little White School–was created about 1901 after a major remodeling project was finished, including the addition of the bell tower and diamond-patterned glass panes in the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although called the Little White School to differentiate it from the nearby Red Brick School (Oswego school names have never been very innovative), the building wasn’t really all that little. Built on its site at the “Y” intersection of Jackson and Polk streets in 1850 as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, the timber-framed building measured 36 x 50 feet, and featured a bell and bell tower. During restoration work it was discovered that it’s likely the building had been constructed and used elsewhere and then dismantled and moved to Oswego. Doing such a thing with a timber frame building is not nearly as difficult as with a more modern balloon frame structure. The structure’s 11” x 11” oak and walnut timbers were fastened together using mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. Ceiling and floor joists fit into pockets mortised into the ceiling and floor beams in each of the building’s five timber bents. As originally built, the structure featured pine wainscoting grained to resemble oak around its complete interior, including on the low center partition, along with a pulpit platform at the front of the

1850-1913 floorplan

Floorplan of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church from 1850-1913. Note the lack of a center aisle. (Little White School Museum collection)

main room. Pews were arranged with no center aisle, but instead with two aisles on either side of the room accessed by doors on either side of the front entrance vestibule. Pews on both sides of the room extended from the wall to the aisle, and then from the other side of the aisle to a low center partition.

When the structure was dismantled for the move to Oswego from wherever it previously stood, the interior tongue and groove flooring was removed, although apparently not all of it was salvageable. Likewise, the old wainscoting was removed and stockpiled, as were the floor and ceiling joists. Last, the timber frame was taken apart, and the pieces moved to the Oswego site. Since the length and design of the floor and ceiling joists were identical, the pieces were interchangeable, and were taken off the pile to install without regard to whether they’d been floor or ceiling joists in their previous lives. Apparently, only enough tongue and groove flooring was available to piece together the floorboards on one side of the room, with new flooring probably bought from the Parker or other local sawmilling operation.

1912 4 August by D.S. Young II

This August 1912 photo of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church by Dwight Smith Young shows off the new concrete front porch and stairs that would cause restorers so much trouble 66 years later. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church served its congregation well, undergoing periodic renovations and maintenance. In 1901, the building got a major facelift. More ornate interior trim was added and the 32 glass panes in the building’s 16 double-hung windows was replaced by diamond-patterned glue-chipped panes that were a sort of poor man’s stained glass. In addition to the other upgrades, a bell tower and bell were also added to the building, with all the improvements financed thanks to donations from Tirzah Minard, widow of one of the church’s early ministers, Henry Minard.

But by that first decade of the 20th Century, the congregation was in near-constant financial trouble. So when the congregation dissolved in 1913 it wasn’t much of a shock to the community.

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The “Little School” in its tri-color paint scheme in this 1919 photograph by Fred Holzhueter. (Little White School Museum collection)

The building sat vacant for a couple years, and then in 1915, the Oswego School District found itself in need to additional classroom space for primary-aged students. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on Sept. 1, 1915 that “The Methodist church room will be used by the Oswego school, as one of their rooms this winter. It is being cleared and fitted for the work of education, non-sectarian.”

That fall, the pews and the center partition were removed revealing the floor that had been installed when the building had been erected on the Oswego site. It must have been interesting walking or sitting in desks since the boards did not span even half of the room. Instead, one length of floorboards extended from the wall to the edge of the aisle

1915-1930

The Little School’s floorplan from 1915 to 1930 with toilet rooms created by partitioning the vestibule. (Little White School Museum collection)

on each side of the room. A second set floored the aisles on either side of the room, and a third set floored the area under the pews from the aisles to the center partition. Although it didn’t matter much at the time, the newer floorboards on the building’s south side were about 3/8” thinner than the original boards on the north side.

In addition, the front vestibule was given two partitions to create two toilets, one on either side, one for girls and one for boys. With the two former vestibule doors no longer accessible, a new door was cut through the east wall of the vestibule to create access to the classroom. Sinks were also installed along the north and south walls on either side of the vestibule, and coat hooks were screwed into the wainscoting.

1919 LWS interior 1919 A

This 1919 postcard view is the only known interior photograph of the Little School before the 1930s. There are no known interior shots of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church. Note the sink and coats on hooks in the back corner of the room. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dubbed “the Little School” to differentiate it from the larger nearby brick Oswego Community School, it was originally used as a one-room building for grades 1-3. About 1920, a new floor was laid over the original tongue and groove flooring, making the room much easier to use. Shims were used to fill the 3/8” space caused by the thinner floorboards on the south side of the room.

In 1930, the room was divided into two classrooms and the ceiling was dropped by four feet in each room. The windows remained untouched, however, so that now the upper sashes extended above the ceilings in the two rooms. Also, a new, larger vestibule was created around the entranceway. The bathrooms—this time with flush toilets—were moved to smaller rooms partitioned off of the new vestibule on either side of the entrance. The old, smaller, vestibule was retained for the time being, with the old toilet rooms remodeled into boys’ and girls’ closets.

1930-34

The Little School’s floorplan from 1930-34 with two classrooms, a larger vestibule/hall and restrooms moved to the front corners of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

When the students arrived for school that fall, they discovered a new teacher had been hired. Virginia Crossman roomed with the Morse family, along with another young teacher, Rachel Winebrenner, who taught fifth and sixth grade. Eventually, the two educators married local farmers, Crossman becoming Mrs. Pete Campbell and Winebrenner becoming Mrs. Bill Anderson. Crossman taught third grade and half of second in her room, while veteran teacher Isabel Rubel again taught first and half of second grade.

In 1934, making use of Federal Civil Works Administration funding, the Oswego School District had the Little School jacked up and had a basement dug beneath it. The job almost came to a disastrous end when the front of the building began slipping off the jacks. But fast work by local contractor Irvin Haines and his crew saved the day—and the building. But the lasting result was that the front of the building bows out by almost two inches.

1934-83

With a basement dug beneath the building in 1934, the restrooms were moved downstairs, stairwells replacing the old first floor restrooms in the building’s front corners. (Little White School Museum collection)

Inside, the old vestibule was completely removed and the bathrooms that had been added in 1930 were turned into stairwells to the basement where boys’ and girls’ restrooms were located.

Then two years later, this time using Works Progress Administration funds, a third classroom, measuring 36 x 30 feet was built on the east side of the Little School, along with a new main entrance hall and basement access stairway. In addition, the entire building received new wood shingle siding and a new coat of paint that picked out the window trim.

1948 abt exterior sepia

By 1948, the building had received it’s iconic coat of white paint and had become known as the Little White School. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1940s, the building had received its coat of white paint, and became known as the Little White School to a few more generations of students, including its last use as junior high classroom space in the middle of the Oswego School District’s first major enrollment growth spurt. When the new Oswego High School on Ill. Route 71 opened in the fall of 1964, and the old high school at Franklin and Washington was repurposed and renamed Oswego Junior High School. The Little White School, already in bad repair, was closed to students for the last time and the district pondered what to do with it. For several years it was used as school district storage space. But by the mid-1970s, school district officials were seeing the building as not only a community eyesore, but also obsolete for any conceivable use for them.

When word got around the community that the district was entertaining serious thoughts of demolishing the historic old structure, community residents came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to see another landmark razed.

To be continued…

 

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The Bridge on the River Fox at Oswego: A concrete reminder of pioneer days

After the last glaciers retreated from northern Illinois, releasing their melt waters’ titanic forces that created the state’s Fox River Valley, the area that would one day become the Village of Oswego was rewarded with a landscape that included the narrowest stretch along the entire stream’s course as well as a smooth limestone shelf that created a great place to ford the river.

The Oswego ford was located somewhere between today’s North Street and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Old township maps show the original road on the west side of the river where the Galena Road emerged from the ford. It was an excellent ford, with its smooth rock bottom making for easy passage by horses, freight wagons, and stagecoaches. Since traffic had to slow down, and even stop, before crossing the river, the area on the bluff above the ford became a good spot for an inn. It all helped the new village founded there in 1835 grow.

Although it was a really excellent fording place, as area population increased a bridge was clearly needed. Some temporary structures may have been built earlier, but in 1851, Oswegoans got serious about providing a permanent bridge. The county seat had been moved to the village in 1845, and county residents desiring to use the court system or conduct other county business probably demanded a bridge be provided. Community pride was also probably involved.

1851 Double Arch Chord bridge plan

Plan of a typical timber double arch chord bridge with braces of the kind built at Oswego in 1851

As indicated above, there’s some question about when the first bridge was built across the river at Oswego. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that that first bridge at Oswego was built in 1848. However, the July 13, 1851 issue of the Aurora Daily Beacon suggests the Fox wasn’t bridged at Oswego until that year. A short note in that edition of the paper reported: “We are happy to learn that our enterprising neighbors down the river are really engaged in constructing a bridge opposite their town. It is to be 300 feet long upon the approved plan of double arch chords and braces, with spans about 72 feet. J.W. Chapman has contracted to build it for $2,250 to be completed this fall.”

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John W. Chapman’s 1846 patent for land he purchased in Oswego Township. The original parchment patent is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Chapman was an established local builder who had also been the general contractor for the new Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego in 1848. He arrived in Oswego in 1835, the same year the new village was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, stayed a few months, and then moved on to Dickson. Chapman returned to Oswego in 1842 where he remained until his death in 1883.

The new bridge proved popular. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, the anonymous correspondent who signed himself “Plow Boy” boasted that in Oswego “We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River.”

Nevertheless, Oswego’s “substantial” bridge faced some tough times, and was even washed out by spring floods. The relatively new Oswego bridge, along with every other bridge across the river from Batavia south to Ottawa was washed away during the destructive Freshet of 1857. But the bridge was rebuilt as needed until 1867, when the wooden 1851 structure had become badly deteriorated.

In late July, the Oswego Township Board of Trustees condemned the bridge. At the trustees’ Aug. 7, 1867 meeting, they voted to replace the old timber bridge with a modern iron bridge. An amendment proposed by Chapman, then serving on the township board, to allow township voters to decide whether to build a timber or an iron bridge was defeated in favor of specifying an iron bridge.

At the trustees’ Sept. 3 meeting, they decided to spread the estimated $13,000 cost of the new bridge over three years.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

The elegant bowstring arch truss King’s Patent iron bridge built across the Fox River in 1867 sat on native limestone piers built by Oswego contractor John W. Chapman. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on the new bridge began in October 1867 and continued through the fall. As Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 14: “The piers of the new bridge are now being put up, by J.W. Chapman, Esq., who is sub-contractor for this part of the work, and we will soon have a splendid Iron Bridge (King’s Patent) which will excel any on the Fox River.”

The new structure, built by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was a tied arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge. The design was patented by the company’s owner, Zenas King in 1861 and improved through a second patent issued in 1866. Bowstring arch truss bridges were some of the earliest iron bridge designs that became popular as transportation needs moved away from the more maintenance-intensive and less robust timber bridges. Because they required less maintenance, iron bridges proved less expensive during their service lives. Although the bridge superstructure was entirely of iron, the bridge deck was of six-inch oak planks.

Even the new iron bridge had its limits, however, and during yet another destructive spring flood in 1868 it was damaged—but notably not destroyed—by the rampaging river.

Chapman’s new piers were built with sharpened iron-clad “icebreakers” on their upstream sides. According to a note in the March 15, 1893 Record, the icebreakers were torn off the piers when the ice went out that spring.

Tied arch bridges had their limits, especially weight limits. In addition, the 1867 structure had been weakened by a variety of other factors, including using dynamite to break up ice jams at the bridge in March 1893, the concussions reportedly weakening the piers’ mortar joints.

In 1897, the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad (later the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Railroad) proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south along the west side of the Fox River to Oswego, right next to the West River Road (today’s Ill. Route 31) where the line would turn east, cross the river on the existing bowstring arch bridge, and then turn south to downtown Yorkville. The AY&M proposed to strengthen, at its own expense, the old bridge with steel beams and promised they’d widen it so that a team and wagon could pass by a trolley car on the bridge. However, despite the best efforts of John D. Russell, Oswego Township’s county board representative, when the Kendall County Board approved the franchise agreement with the trolley company, it only stipulated the firm would be liable for $3,500 if the bridge needed to be replaced due to the demands placed on it due to trolley traffic.

At first, the trolley company proposed crossing the river about a mile above Oswego on their own bridge, but they apparently quickly realized how expensive that would be. In late May 1900, representatives of the company, Oswego Township, and the township’s bridge consultant decided that if the trolley was to cross at Oswego, a new bridge would be needed to carry the additional weight of the rails and the trolley cars.

The decision to stick taxpayers with most of the bill for a new bridge caused some local grumbling. “Who would have thought that our bridge wasn’t all O.K. if no electric road was being built?” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wondered.

By late June 1900, the trolley tracks had reached the west end of the Oswego bridge and limited passenger service from that point north was ready to begin.

1912 abt look east

The Joliet Bridge and Iron Company’s iron box truss replaced Oswego bowstring arch bridge in 1900. The bridge deck was shared between interurban trolley cars and road traffic. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new bridge was an iron box truss bridge manufactured by the Joliet Bridge and Iron Company. While the bridge superstructure and deck would be new, plans called for reusing the original 1867 piers. Work on the new bridge began in mid July, when Chapman’s 1867 piers were repaired in preparation for the new bridge superstructure. The first iron for the new structure was delivered in early August.

The new bridge was up and in place by early November 1900, allowing trolley cars to cross the river and stop in downtown Oswego. The trolley tracks occupied the north side of the bridge, while a one-lane road surface occupied the downstream side.

That bridge lasted almost 40 years before being replaced with a continuous steel beam bridge with concrete deck and concrete decorative railings.

On Oct. 2, 1935, the Kendall County Record reported a new bridge would be built at Oswego to replace the old 1900 structure, and would be designed to carry the heavier truck and auto traffic state officials predicted would be generated when Oswego and Naperville were finally connected by a paved road.

1937 Oswego bridge const

Work on the new continuous beam steel and concrete bridge at Oswego began in the summer of 1937. Chapman’s 1867 piers were retained but strengthened and widened to carry the new bridge deck. The newer, lighter colored limestone pier additions are visible in the above photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

“A new bridge and paving, which will connect Routes 25 and 65 [modern U.S. Route 34 between Oswego and Naperville] with Route 34 at Oswego, has been approved by the state, according to C.H. Apple, district state highway engineer,” the Record reported. “The bridge and connecting highways will be constructed at an approximate cost of $200,000. [Oswego Township] Supervisor Scott Cutter tells us that surveying of the new project will begin today, Wednesday.

“The bridge will be built on the site of the old iron bridge, which has been condemned for the past three years, and will be built of steel and concrete, 300 feet long and with a 40-foot roadway. The new paving will extend from the east end of the bridge east in Washington to Madison street, north in Madison to the intersection with 65 and 25, the East River Road, and then east in the old Chicago road to the Jim Pierce farm, where it will connect with the already paved road on the outskirts of Oswego.”

As in years past, the old 1867 piers were retained, although they were lengthened and significantly strengthened, with new concrete icebreakers installed at the base of each pier.

The Record reported on July 14, 1937 that “The steel bridge, which has carried traffic across the Fox river at Oswego for so many years, is being torn down and a new and more modern structure will replace it. The west span has been removed and we expect that the other two will follow as soon as possible. How many of you gals and guys remember when the old AE&C cars ran between Aurora and Yorkville, climbed a trestle at Oswego and went across the Fox on the old bridge and then bounded along on their way? It was always our secret fear that some day the trestle would be too weak to hold the car and would break, and we always felt better when we were past that mental hazard. After automobiles and trucks became more popular and the street cars were discontinued the bridge was subjected to heavy traffic, and was too narrow to be comfortable or very safe. The new one will be built to take care of the heavy loads which it must carry. No temporary bridge is being built at Oswego according to [Township] Supervisor Cutter, who says that the expense of such a structure would be prohibitive.”

1938 Oswego Bridge

Oswego’s new bridge opened in December 1937. This photo was taken the next summer after the steel bridge beams had been painted. (Little White School Museum collection)

Instead of a temporary bridge, motorists who needed to cross the river at Oswego made the last known regular use of the old stagecoach and wagon ford that played such a major role in the village’s early history.

Then on Dec. 1, 1937, the Record reported: “The new Oswego bridge will be opened to traffic this week. Foot passengers were using it last week.”

Wrote the Record’s editor on Jan. 12, 1938: “We traveled over the new Oswego bridge several weeks ago and up through the town on the new highway. The bridge is a ‘dandy’ one and the highway certainly smoothed out the bumps that were on the stretch by the railroad. Oswego business men are glad to have traffic again able to get into town and those who seek the short cut from 34 to Naperville are happy too. It is a big improvement.”

2008 Oswego bridge & bridge park

Oswego’s new four-lane bridge (right) now shares the river crossing with Hudson Crossing Bridge Park (left). (Photo by John Etheredge. Little White School Museum collection)

The 1937 bridge served motorists well during the next 53 years, although normal wear and tear took their toll. Then in 1993, the Illinois Department of Transportation proposed to replace the bridge as part of their plan to widen Route 34 through Oswego to four lanes. Original plans called for a completely new four-lane prestressed concrete I-beam bridge to be built immediately downstream from the 1937 bridge. According to the original plans, the old bridge would be open to traffic during construction, after which the old bridge would be demolished.

2003 Hudson Crossing Bridge Park

Hudson Crossing Bridge Park offers a place to sit and enjoy the Fox River, to walk, and to ride bicycles while preserving an important part of Oswego’s history.

But some Oswego residents had another idea. Naturalist, author, and former public official Dick Young, and his nephew, Glenn Young, then an IDOT bridge inspector, wondered why the old bridge couldn’t be left in place after the new one opened, with the old one to be turned into a bridge-park. They approached the Oswegoland Park District’s executive director, Bert Gray, with the plan. As Glenn Young told Gray as he successfully persuaded him the plan was eminently doable, the old bridge would “stand forever if we get the trucks off it” and that “it will cost the state a lot more to demolish it than to fix it up for pedestrians.”

The bridge-park concept was growing in popularity as communities tried to find innovative ways to increase recreational opportunities while, at the same time, preserving their architectural and engineering heritage. In Oswego, a bridge-park would provide a handy connection for pedestrians and bicyclists to the west bank of the river, where, even then, plans were percolating to build a new village hall. It would also offer a link to proposed cycling and walking trails that were being planned to link new subdivisions west of the river. And, as Young pointed out, it would not only save IDOT the expense of tearing it down and the cleanup of the environmentally sensitive site, but, if properly renovated, would stand virtually forever as long as there was no motor vehicle traffic on it.

Gray then took the proposal back to IDOT, which, with some prodding by local politicians, eventually agreed, although with the caveat that the bridge-park could not be owned by the park district. According to state law, the bridge could only be transferred to an agency that had roadway and highway responsibilities. So Gray then negotiated with the Village of Oswego and with the approval of village president Jim Detzler—because the village does have roadway responsibilities—the trade with the state was made.

Meanwhile, the engineering challenges of having two bridges and their piers so close together were all worked out and the new bridge was completed, opening in November 1993,

Then, instead of being demolished, the old bridge and its 121 year-old native limestone piers were saved as well. After it was reconditioned and renovated by IDOT as part of the construction project, the 1937 bridge was turned over to the village, which then made the Oswegoland Park District responsible for operating the park. It was renamed the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, and officially opened in September 1994, with a dedication ceremony presided over by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, named after what the village was called by its founders before it was changed to Oswego in 1837, is now a centerpiece of the adjoining Hudson Crossing Park. And for those who know a bit about its rich history, it’s also a direct connection to the community’s pioneer past, a place where visitors can still enjoy seeing the piers that were originally built by a man who was present at Oswego’s founding in 1835.

 

 

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Urban barns a reminder of a bygone era

You see them tucked behind houses in the older sections of every town in Illinois. But while they’re part of the landscape most of us don’t give a second thought to the small barns that dot the urban landscape.

Some of these structures are smaller than a modern two-car garage. Others are far more elaborate, some built with multiple storys and some that once included living quarters for long-ago servants. Plans for urban barns were carefully developed, especially interior arrangements to allow efficient use of space. Books such as Barns, Sheds & Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted (1881) provided floor plans and design ideas.

Until the first quarter of the 20th Century, the elements of life on farms and in small towns was not that much different. Just like their country cousins, village residents often kept a cow for fresh milk; raised chickens for eggs and meat; and kept one, and sometimes two, horses to pull their buggies, carriages, and winter sleighs. Also like their country cousins, they built barns to house their urban livestock and their horse-drawn vehicles—although on a much smaller scale than the big horse and dairy barns in rural areas.

In fact, small town residential lots often bore a resemblance to tiny farms. Along with barns, chicken houses, smoke houses, well houses, and small tool storage sheds were not uncommon. As an illustration, on Dec. 18, 1918, the Kendall County Record carried this advertisement: “For Sale: A new eight-room house, gas and electric light installed, a barn, chicken house, and four lots. Inquire of Henry Schilling, Oswego.”

Urban barns, as noted above, could be simple or more elaborate. They could be purpose-built and they were sometimes created from other buildings that were repurposed instead of being torn down. And sometimes, after they were no longer needed they themselves were repurposed into homes and other structures.

2017-matile-barn

My great-grandparents remodeled an 1840s saltbox house into an urban barn in 1908 that my family still uses for storage.

When my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town, they bought a plot near relatives containing several lots in what was then called the old Village of Troy. Located about a quarter-mile north of Oswego’s village limits at the time, the property extended from the CB&Q right-of-way down to the Fox River and was bisected by North Adams Street. There was a timber-framed house on the property they had moved, close to the south lot line, and then remodeled into an urban barn and chicken house. Their new home, finished in October 1908, was built where the old house originally sat.

As remodeled, their urban barn included a chicken house to the east and stalls for their horse and a cow in the main portion to the west. They added a shed on a concrete foundation on the south side to house their buggy and sleigh. The sturdy old structure, with its oak and black walnut timber frame, which we use for storage, is still standing next to my house today.

IMG_1515.JPG

Oswego druggist and banker Levi Hall built this elaborate urban barn and coach house in 1886.

The primary use for most urban barns in residential areas was to house the family driving horse or team and their buggy or carriage or their winter sleigh. Stalls in the barn were arranged so that horses had sufficient room, and the barn was built to include storage for bedding and food for the horse.

If a family cow was housed in the barn as well, provisions were also made for it.

In addition to barns in residential areas, commercial urban barns were also common throughout 19th Century communities. Many hotels had their own barns where guests could board their horses. Livery barns were also located in every town where those without access to their own barn could board horses or where a horse and buggy or a riding horse could be rented.

2016 Kohlhammer Barn

Fred Kohlhammer built this urban barn in 1904. His family lived in it while he finished construction of their new house next door.

In Oswego, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad company provided a barn for the use of the station agent, where he sometimes kept a horse and where he also raised chickens to supplement the family diet.

Most of the urban barns in small towns were well built structures. It was not uncommon for the barn to be built first and then used as living quarters until a new home was finished. That’s the route Oswego builder Fred Kohlhammer used when he built his new home on North Madison Street (Ill. Route 25) at Waubonsie Creek back in 1904. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Sept. 7: “The new Kohlhammer residence, now all enclosed and much of the inside work done will be a showy and all around good one. The cellar is divided into three apartments and made very convenient; the walls and floor being of cement. The woodwork is all done by himself and is done accurately. The family at present is domiciled in the barn, which was built first.”

1905-1931-block-slide

In 1905, the urban barns along Oswego’s “Barn Alley” were still marked with an “X” as “Stables” on fire insurance maps, but by 1931, due to the replacement of horses by automobiles, their designation had changed to “Accessory Building.”

The heyday of the urban barn was probably in the last decade of the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. After that, the rapid replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with automobiles, trucks, and buses saw barns rapidly replaced by smaller, simpler garages. The change is evident in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map series. The maps recorded commercial and residential structures in virtually every small town and city in America, with an emphasis on fire protection measures. Each building is labeled with its use. The 1905 Sanborn map series for Oswego still shows urban barns labeled as “Stables.” The next series of maps for Oswego wasn’t published until 1931, and by then all of the village’s former urban barn-stables were labeled “A” for Accessory Building, an indication that many if not most had been turned into garages for the family automobile.

Unlike other more specialized structures, like smoke houses for instance, urban barns proved very adaptable, and so maintained their value to homeowners. The days of the family cow or horse and buggy is long gone, but urban barns have proven to be adequate garages as well as for storage and workshop areas.

It’s gratifying to see these days that communities are realizing the value of preserving their own architectural heritage. Entire neighborhoods are being designated for historical preservation. But while the value of fine old homes has been recognized and popularized by such programs as PBS’s “This Old House,” urban barns have sort of been left in the lurch. But their importance in urban cityscape planning and preservation has, I think, finally begun to sink in. In 2009 when my hometown of Oswego hired Granacki Historic Consultants to do an architectural resources survey and inventory of the village, they did, indeed, include 22 urban barns on their list of historic structures, six of which they listed as “Significant,” deserving special consideration, including the Kohlhammer Barn on North Street and even my own urban barn here on North Adams.

As they continue to soldier on, urban barns offer a link to a time that has been largely forgotten, an era when important aspects of rural and urban life were not that much different.

 

 

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Lewis, Clark, Boone, Earp, Wayne: Illinois’ entertaining historical coincidences…

Random coincidences are some of the things that make the study of history so interesting.

Daniel Boone House

The sturdy Daniel Boone home in Defiance, Missouri may come as a surprise to those who think he lived in log cabins all his life. A talented blacksmith, he handcrafted the home’s locks, hinges, and other hardware.

For instance, in May 1804, Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark and their Corps of Discovery pushed off into the Mississippi River from Wood River, Illinois and headed up the Missouri River. The expedition’s goal was to explore the huge Louisiana Territory President Thomas Jefferson had bought from Spain and determine if there was a practical trade route to the Pacific Ocean.

Although just under way, Lewis and Clark decided to make a brief stop just a bit upstream from St. Louis. They had been told the old explorer, soldier, and settler Daniel Boone was living just a few miles away, and so they decided to stop by to see what the old pathfinder might be able to tell them.

So, the story goes, the pair visited Boone to ask about the techniques they might use and dangers they should be on the lookout for while exploring the West. The picture of the two eager young explorers conferring with the grand old man of frontier adventure is a fascinating one. But then Boone was a fascinating fellow in his own right, something you find right away when you visit his imposing three-storey Pennsylvania-style stone house (and you thought he lived in a log cabin!), which is still standing and lovingly maintained in the hamlet of Defiance, Missouri, just west of St. Charles. And thus did three of the three greatest explorers the U.S. has produced get together to chat.

Illinois history is sprinkled with such coincidences, and they are often the things that make reading about it so much fun.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp was a legendary lawman in the Old West. His father, Nicholas, a town constable in Monmouth, Illinois, didn’t get along with a faction in town led by Presbyterian Marion Morrison.

For instance, a 1997 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society had an interesting article about Wyatt Earp’s father, Nicholas P. Earp. We all know the story about Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil and Doc Holiday at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. But few of us know their introduction to law enforcement came from their father, Nicholas, who was the town constable of Monmouth, Illinois, located on U.S. Route 34 in western Illinois’ Warren County.

Just like his sons, Nicholas didn’t get along with the local power structure. He had continual run-ins with a band of local ministers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and officials from Monmouth College, at that time a strictly religious school. Nicholas not only had strong personal views, but was also distrustful of reformers of any stripe. His problems stemmed from his relative unconcern with enforcing Monmouth’s temperance ordinance, which was favored by local Republicans (the temperance party) and influential Presbyterian congregations. Liquor was supposed to be sold only by druggists for medicinal purposes, but Nicholas and his brother Walter Earp were in favor of a liberal interpretation of the law (including what “medicinal” really meant) and came down on the side of their friends, the drug store owners. One of the Earps’ antagonists was a fellow named Marion Morrison, a staunch Presbyterian and temperance man.

John Wayne.jpg

John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison, was the namesake of Wyatt Earp’s father’s political enemy. It is too bad Wayne never played Earp in one of his films or a historical circle might have been completed.

And that’s where the historical coincidence comes in. Marion Morrison, the political enemy of Wyatt Earp’s father, it turns out, was the great-uncle of actor John Wayne who made his name in western movies. In fact, the Earps’ enemy, Morrison, was the actor’s namesake. John “Duke” Wayne’s real name was, of course, Marion Mitchell Morrison. John Wayne never played Wyatt Earp in the movies, but if he had it would have made for some nicely symmetrical history.

The Illinois historical event that arguably had the most historical coincidences was the Black Hawk War of 1832. The unequal conflict was fought between a rag-tag band of Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomi Indians led by the influential Sauk warrior Black Hawk on one side and the Illinois militia and U.S. Army on the other. The coincidences abound in the roster of those fighting against the Indians, which appears to be a veritable Who’s Who of Civil War personages.

For instance, not only did Abraham Lincoln, future U.S. President during the Civil War, participate in the Black Hawk War, but so did U.S. Army Lt. Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy. Lincoln, a young Illinois storekeeper at the time, served in the militia, where he was elected captain of his militia

Abraham Lincoln

A young Abraham Lincoln served in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War, along with several men who would be his allies and enemies during the Civil War.

company. Davis served near the end of the war doing various administrative tasks. To add to the interest, both Lincoln and Davis were born in Kentucky, Davis to a moderately wealthy family and Lincoln to a very poor one.

In the aftermath of the Black Hawk War, one of the tasks Davis was ordered to undertake was to escort the Sauk and Fox prisoners, including Black Hawk, to prison. He was under the orders of another U.S. Army lieutenant named Robert Anderson. Almost 30 years later, Anderson, then a major, would be in command of Ft. Sumter when it was fired upon by South Carolina secessionist forces loyal to his one-time brother-in-arms, Jefferson Davis.

The aide-de-camp of Gen. Henry Atkinson, the U.S. Army commander on the scene during virtually the entire Black Hawk War was another young U.S. Army lieutenant named Albert Sidney Johnston. Johnston later served in the army of the Republic of Texas from 1834-37, and was named the Republic’s secretary of war in 1838. Later, he moved back to the U.S., rejoined the U.S. Army, and served on the western frontier with the U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment until the

Jefferson Davis

Lt. Jefferson Davis was one of the U.S. Army officers who served during the Black Hawk War, and who eventually turned their coats during the Civil War. Davis served as the Confederate States of America’s only president.

Civil War broke out. He resigned his commission, went home and was appointed a Confederate major general to fight against his old comrades. A friend and favorite of President Jefferson Davis (with whom he had served during the Black Hawk War), Johnston was killed in action at Shiloh in 1862.

The other major Civil War personage to serve in the Black Hawk War was Gen. Winfield Scott. Scott led the U.S. Army reinforcements who arrived (carrying the dreaded Asiatic cholera disease with them) in Chicago in the summer of 1832, and he helped mop up after the Black Hawk War. When the Civil War broke out, Scott was the U.S. Army’s commander. And while’s Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” to squeeze the Confederacy into submission by dividing the Confederacy by controlling the Mississippi River and attacking it all around the periphery came in for derisive criticism at the time. In the end, the basic points of Scott’s strategy were adopted piecemeal and became the eventual strategy Abraham Lincoln adopted to defeat the South.

Historical coincidences can sometimes offer important insights into the motivations driving historical events. Mostly, though, they’re just plain fun.

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112 year-old urban barn in danger of demolition

One of Oswego’s most historic urban barns has been in the news lately, and in a troubling way.

Our local library district has bought the land on which the small barn occupies a tiny corner, and they’ve announced plans to demolish the barn. According to the library district, there is “no record of any historical significance for the” barn and the small rental cottage on the property. They’re wrong, of course.

Urban barn plan

Urban barn plan with carriage room and stalls for horses and other livestock from Barn Plans and Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted, Orange Judd Company, New York, 1881.

Urban barns, as an architectural class, are usually pretty unassuming. Virtually all of them (with the exception of the odd modern knock-off) were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in that day and age, lots in villages and in many towns and cities as well, resembled tiny farmsteads plunked down in urban settings.

Until sanitary sewer systems were widely introduced in the first half of the 20th Century, each small town residential lot featured the family home, an outhouse, and an urban barn. Sometimes a smokehouse and a small chicken house were also included.

Like their larger rural siblings, urban barns housed the family driving horse as well as the family buggy or carriage and often a cutter—a one-horse open sleigh—for winter travel. In addition, the barn also provided a home for the family milk cow, and often a small flock of chickens provided they didn’t have their own chicken house on the lot.

Matile Barn

The urban barn here at the Matile Manse started out its life as a timber-framed (oak and black walnut) saltbox-style house. It was moved a few dozen feet south in 1908 and my great-grandparents built their retirement home on its former site.

When the horse and buggy era ended, urban barns were easily converted into auto garages, workshops, and homes for lawnmowers and lawn sweepers. Over the years, some of those urban barns have even been converted into residences. In other cases back in the day, unwanted residences were also converted into urban barns—like the one here at the Matile Manse. When my great-grandparents bought the property our house sits on, it was already occupied by a timber-framed saltbox style house. Back then, in 1908, folks weren’t so quick to tear old buildings down. So the old house was put on rollers and moved a few dozen feet south to make room for the new house—and turned into an urban barn.

Today, Oswego has a fine collection of 19th and early 20th Century urban barns, possibly one of the best such collections in the Fox Valley. According to the village’s 2009 historic structure survey, conducted by Granicki Historical Consultants of Chicago, “Oswego stands apart from other towns in Northeastern Illinois with its enduring collection of urban barns.”

Granicki counted 22 urban barn examples in the village and labeled six as historically significant in their final report—including the one that the library district could find “no record of any historical significance.” Which suggests they weren’t looking very hard.

Historical preservation got a good start back in the last decade when the village established the Oswego Historic Preservation Commission. And shortly after, they paid for the historic structures survey. But since then, it’s been pretty much downhill when it comes to preserving local historic structures. Changes in the village board’s membership, as well as the turnover of other top elected and appointed officials has basically led to the commission being severely marginalized, with officials withdrawing support and even treating the group with outright hostility.

2016 Kohlhammer Barn

Unless community pressure changes its mind, the Oswego Public Library District plans to demolish the old Kohlhammer Barn.

The urban barn the library district would like to tear down differs from many others in Oswego in that we know who built, when, and why.

The May 18, 1904 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that “Fred Kohlhammer has completed the excavation for the basement for his barn on his lately acquired land north of the Waubonsie.”

Kohlhammer was a well-known German-American contractor in the Oswego area who built homes as well as farm and commercial buildings. The parcel he purchased was bordered to the south by Waubonsie Creek, to the east by the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25), to the north by North Street, and to the west by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way. The site Kohlhammer chose for his house was on a rise overlooking the creek, where the land fell off sharply towards the stream bank. Later, the Kohlhammers would extensively landscape that steep slope with perennials, rock gardens, and an artificial stream, the water for which was pumped from the creek by a scale model Dutch windmill. Interestingly enough, for the driveway to the house, Kohlhammer made use of a short stretch of the old Chicago to Galena Road that cut through the parcel on its way to the limestone-floored ford across the Fox River just to the west.

Kohlhammer placed his barn at the corner of the East River Road and North Street where it would be handy to the house and where it would be easy to store the family buggy and other equipment.

He chose to build a modified bank barn, with an upper floor for buggy and tack storage and a lower lever for the horse and cow stalls. And he built neatly and well, because upon completion in July 1904, the whole Kohlhammer family moved in while construction was on-going for their new home right next door. In early 1905, the family moved into their new home, and the barn was given over to its original purpose.

Some years ago, the barn and small adjacent rental cottage and remnant of the oak savanna on which they stood were separated from the house and sold as separate properties. And now the library district has purchased the barn and rental cottage and the oak savanna remnant. While the rental cottage, which dates to the early 1950s, is not historically significant, the urban barn certainly is.

So what will happen to this endangered urban barn? Well, the folks who own the house Fred Kohlhammer built in 1904 want to buy it from the library district and restore it. It’s situated on the extreme northeast corner of the property, meaning that piece could easily be clipped off and sold to the homeowners, who really want to restore and preserve it. So the barn could be saved at no cost to the taxpayers and the community would continue to enjoy a link with Oswego’s past that’s been standing on the same spot for the last 112 years.

Seems like a win-win, but then again modern folks usually seem fixated on demolishing things they neither want nor understand. Time will tell on this one.

And on a somewhat related note, I’m going to be giving my “Barning Around: Kendall County” presentation this coming Thursday, April 14, starting at 7 p.m. at the Big Rock Historical Society, 48W445 Hinckley Rd., Big Rock. It’s free, and the Big Rock folks won’t mind a bit if you stop by.

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Filed under Architecture, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Building a barn, 1912 style…

Back in the summer of 1912, Charles Sorg, a farmer living out on what was then called the German Prairie east of Oswego, decided he needed a new barn. So he contacted one of Oswego’s well-known carpenters, Lou C. Young, to build it for him.

Lou C. Young, in an image by his son, Dwight S. Young, taken in September 1911, the year before he built Charles Sorg's new barn.

Lou C. Young, in an image by his son, Dwight S. Young, taken in September 1911, the year before he built Charles Sorg’s new barn.

Young was the son of Oswego blacksmith and wagonwright John Young. Not only was Lou Young a good carpenter and contractor who built a number of prominent Oswego area buildings, but he was a bit of an innovator, too, with at least one patent to his credit.

Young also seemed interested in publicizing his talent at constructing farm buildings because he contracted with his son, Dwight S. Young, to photograph the process of erecting Sorg’s barn. Accordingly, Dwight Young set up his camera on the site and snapped a series of photos that allow us, today, to follow the process of erecting a typical early 20th Century barn. Copies of the photos were passed on to the Little White School Museum in Oswego by Dwight Young’s grandson, Glenn Young, where they form part of a valuable collection of images that show snapshots of the Oswego area’s history.

What struck me the first time I saw the sequence of photos was the small number of men it took to erect the barn’s timber frame, not to mention the relatively quick process. Of course, all the work shaping the timbers, and completing the mortise and tennon joints had already been completed when the frame was raised on July 18, 1912. But nonetheless, it’s still startling to see how much work a few men can accomplish using those simple machines we all learned about in school: The pulley and the lever. Here’s how it was done (with Dwight Young’s caption information):

Sorg's Barn, ready to be raised on July 18, 1912

The timber bents for Sorg’s Barn, ready to be raised on the morning of July 18, 1912

Jib booms up and ready to pull the first bent.

Jib booms up and ready to pull the first bent.

Putting in the first girth.

Putting in the first girth.

Noon, July 18, mule on top of pole, two bents up.

Noon, July 18, mule on top of pole, two bents up.

Third bent half up.

Third bent half up.

Putting in the girths; fourth bent.

Putting in the girths; fourth bent.

Putting up the plates.

Putting up the plates.

Sorg Barn frame at quitting time, July 18, 1912.

Sorg Barn frame at quitting time, July 18, 1912.

Putting up end girths  jul 24, 1912

Putting up end girths jul 24, 1912

Putting up end rafters  July 25, 1912

Putting up end rafters July 25, 1912

Charles Sorg's barn, still standing after more than a century, as it looked on April 13, 2014.

Charles Sorg’s barn, still standing after more than a century, as it looked on April 13, 2014.

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Filed under Architecture, Farming, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego