Category Archives: Architecture

Water-powered mills, once a familiar sight,  have nearly disappeared from the landscape

By the turn of the 20th Century, most of Kendall County’s old water-powered grist and sawmills had either completely disappeared or had switched to steam power.

That might seem puzzling given that the water powering all those mills was free, while steam engines require fuel of one kind or another that has to be purchased. As it turns out, though, while the water that powered mills might have been free, actually turning water into hydraulic power was pretty costly. Couple that with the economics of improved transportation and the economies of scale industrialization created, and it gets a lot easier to see why water-powered mills disappeared from the landscape.

Starting with the era of settlement in the 1830s, enterprising millwrights built sawmills and gristmills on almost every sizable stream in Kendall County. The Fox River had its share of mills of various kinds, of course, but so did local creeks including Blackberry, Morgan, Big Rock, and Waubonsie.

Dams were comprised of timber cribs staked to the stream bottom, filled with rocks and rubble, and then faced with timber. Illustration from Mill by David Macaulay, 1989.

According to the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, by 1846, Kendall County’s population totaled 5,600 people and “Their sawing and grinding was done by fourteen saw and grist mills.”

To create the waterpower to run their mills, millwrights first had to build dams. During that era, they were simple walls built across streams with no floodgates. The technology of the day called for putting together triangular timber frames that were than hauled into the stream and secured to the bottom with forged iron stakes. The open frames were then filled with rocks and rubble. The vertical upstream side of the dam was faced with planks to hold the rubble in place, while the slanted downstream side was also covered with planks to make a smooth surface for the water running over the dam.

1906 view of the Parker dam and gristmill taken from the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory on the east bank of the Fox River looking west. Note the damn’s plank facing. By this time, the mill had been long out of business and the dam was gradually being washed away. (Little White School Museum collection)

Millraces were dug around one or sometimes both ends of the dam and were generally faced with flagstone easily mined along the banks of the county’s streams. These millraces could be either simple, powering one mill or longer and more elaborate powering multiple mills. The long Montgomery millrace powered two mills, while the millrace at Yorkville powered Black’s paper mill as well as Yorkville’s first grain elevator via an overhead wire cable and pulley system.

1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map showing the wire cable and pulley system that powered the Walter & VanEmon’s Grain Elevator at Yorkville.

Here in Oswego, the dam was sort of anchored into the bedrock exposed on the two riverbanks. The mills were then built in such a way that their millraces ran through their basements, where the waterwheels, and later the turbines, were located. That had the advantage of eliminating the need for longer races that could be maintenance headaches. The gristmill on the west bank was built first, followed by the sawmill on the east bank. A furniture factory was eventually added to the sawmill. A small chest of drawers manufactured there is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The Parker Gristmill (far bank of the Fox River) and the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory (right) were located at opposite ends of the Oswego dam. Both ends of the dam were securely anchored in the bedrock on the banks of the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

The fast millrace water powered the millwheels. Because of our generally flat topography, many of our early mills used horizontal tub wheels although vertical undershot wheels that we generally think millwheels ought to look like were not uncommon, either. One county mill used an undershot wheel, powering equipment using water flowing under and not over it. Huge at 24-feet in diameter, the sawmill it powered was located on the Fox River at Millbrook.

The 1838 Federal survey map of Fox Township illustrates Jackson’s Mill at modern Millington nearly on the border with LaSalle County. The mill boasted a 24-foot undershot water wheel that powered both sawmill and gristmill equipment.

As soon as possible, those early tub and undershot wheels were replaced by turbines imported from back East. A later turbine wheel from Gray’s Mill is on exhibit near the riverbank in the park just upstream from the Mill Street Bridge in Montgomery.

Early on, sawmills were as, if not more important, than gristmills. They used vertical steel sawblades to cut local timber into lumber for buildings and fences. In the county’s oldest buildings the evidence of their vertical saw cuts are still clearly visible, looking much different than the spiral saw marks made by later circular sawblades.

The era of local sawmilling ended surprisingly soon as cheaper lumber began to flow into Chicago aboard sailing ships from Michigan and Wisconsin. The fate of Jackson’s Millbrook sawmill mentioned above was typical, as Hicks reported in 1877: “But the gang saws of Michigan and Wisconsin at last outstripped it, and left the aged frame to bleach in the sun until a year ago, when the spring freshet bore it away on its bosom to rest in a watery grave.”

Brownell Wing’s huge three-story limestone Millhurst gristmill is the only former water-powered mill still standing in Kendall County. Built in 1870, the mill never opened after the new Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road bypassed it by a mile to the southeast. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hicks’ comment above also points out one of the other downsides of the county’s water-powered mills—the cost of maintaining them in the face of annual floods, called freshets back in those days. Dams were damaged every year by the annual spring floods, and were sometimes–along with their adjacent mills–entirely destroyed by rampaging ice floes and high water during breakup.

As a result the dams also required constant maintenance. Those timber frames submerged in water tended to rot away and the upstream and downstream plank coverings had to be monitored continually, making for a lot of labor needed to make use of that “free” water. Couple that with the vagaries of water flow at various times of the year, and it becomes clear water power may not be such a hot power source after all. As the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on Aug. 21, 1879: “The water in the river is so low that the paper mill had to shut down Tuesday.”

The viability of local mills remained certain through the 1870s. After that two things tended to lead to their disappearance. First was the advent of affordable steam engines. When a steam engine could be installed and run the establishment with no need to maintain a dam, complicated turbines, or worry about low water levels, it made economic sense to switch power sources.

Looking north into Kane County on the Fox River from Bereman’s Curve on the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) towards the covered Montgomery Bridge and Gray’s Mill. The venerable old local landmark is one of the few former water-powered mills still standing along the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, the old mills closed down to be replaced by steam-powered mills in more convenient locations, which, in turn, were then made obsolete by the extension of rail lines through the county that carried farmers’ crops and livestock away and brought back manufactured materials, from wheat flour to sawn lumber, at prices no small local sawmill or gristmill could beat or even meet.

Photo probably taken about 1927 by Irvin Haines of the Parker Grist Mill, probably taken as he dismantled the mill provide timbers and other materials to rebuild the old Seely stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge into Turtle Rock Inn for Mr. and Mrs. James Curry. The Currys moved into Turtle Rock in November 1928. (Little White School Museum collection)

While some of the old mill buildings remained—especially ones like Gray’s Mill just north of the Kendall County line in Montgomery or Wing’s Mill In Kendall County’s Fox Township at Millhurst built of native limestone—others were washed away by floods, burned down, or were dismantled and their timbers reused for other purposes. The dams that provided their waterpower were gradually erased by annual spring floods and the breakup of ice in the spring. A few of the dams were maintained by companies that harvested ice from their millponds but the increasing pollution of the Fox River and the development of ice manufacturing equipment eliminated that use as well by the first decade of the 20th Century.

At low water on the Fox River, those with sharp eyes can often see some of the remaining timber frame members of the old mill dams–direct and tangible links to the era of pioneer millwrights and millers. The ones above, still staked to the river bottom, are the remains of the old Parker Dam at Oswego I photographed back in 2018.

Today, while some of those old dam and mill sites have been totally erased from the landscape, here and there their remains can still be seen if a person knows what they’re looking at—I can see the remains of a dam and the mills that stood at either end from my office window here in Oswego, for instance. And the remains of Montgomery’s long millrace are still visible as a swale extending along the riverbank above the Montgomery Bridge.

But for the most part it’s one more once-important Fox Valley business era that’s almost totally disappeared from our collective memory.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Oswego’s historic downtown business district honored with National Register recognition

A roughly two-block section of Oswego’s historic downtown business district called the Downtown Oswego Historic District by village officials has been added to the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The bounds of the new downtown Oswego historic district added to the National Register of Historic Places is outlined in red on this map. It includes some of the community’s most historic areas.

The area selected for recognition is that section of Main Street from the north side of Jackson to the south side of Washington Street, which is generally considered the heart of downtown. That stretch of Main Street includes the brick and limestone Union Block on the east side of the street built in 1867; the classic frame false-front Rank Building, built by Oswego Postmaster Lorenzo Rank in 1874; and the Burkhart Block on the south side of Washington Street. On the west side of Main at Washington Street, the Schickler and Knapp buildings erected by two of Oswego’s German immigrant businessmen in the late 1890s and early 1900s are included, as is the 1840s native limestone Parke Building at the northwest corner of Main and Jackson.

The first settlers on the site of what is considered the original village of Oswego were William and Rebecca (Pearce) Wilson, who arrived with the extended Pearce family in 1833. Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, settled on what’s now Fox Bend Golf Course, where the old Pearce farmhouse still stands just east of the Waubonsie Creek bridge on Route 34, while brothers John and Walter settled west of the river. The Smiths built their cabin at the busy modern “Five Corners” intersection of Routes 25 and 34, and Jefferson Street.

But the Pearces were farmers, not town builders. It took a couple enthusiastic entrepreneurs, Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. “Squire” Arnold, to see that the lay of the land on the bluff overlooking the Fox River’s narrowest point for miles in either direction would be a good spot to build a new town.

The 1838 survey plat of Oswego Township showed the small village of Oswego at the Fox River narrows. I’ve highlighted the roads that crossed at Oswego, making it an area transportation hub. Also important was the Fox River ford just upstream from Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the river.

The site also happened to be the intersection of four well-used Native American trails. One came across the prairie from the west, crossed the river, and headed east and a bit north to the ford across the DuPage River and on to Chicago, while another branched off that trail at Oswego and headed southeast across the prairie to Walker’s Grove, also on the DuPage, and then on to Chicago as well. From Oswego where those two branches merged, another trail headed southwest to Ottawa. A fourth trail came up the west side of the Fox River from Ottawa crossed the river on the Oswego ford, and ran north to the new settlement of LaFox—later renamed Geneva.

Arnold and Judson realized that ford was another geographical plus for their potential town site. Located just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River, the ford featured shallow, slow-moving water running over a smooth limestone floor that extended all the way across the river. Native Americans had used it for thousands of years and the White pioneers made immediate use of it as soon as they arrived. It would remain the only way to cross the river until the first timber-frame bridge spanned the river at Oswego in 1848.

Arnold, an ambitious emigrant from New York, had some experience with town building, having been involved, along with Chester Ingersoll, with turning the Walker’s Grove settlement on the DuPage River into the village of Plainfield in 1834 and then serving as that new town’s first postmaster.

The original 20-block village laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold is colored pink in this clip from Warner & Beers’ 1870 plat book and atlas of Kendall County. The plat illustrates how each block was laid out bisected by alleys running perpendicular to each other. (Little White School Museum collection)

Judson, a wealthy frontier businessman, like Arnold originally from New York but most recently from Michigan, partnered with Arnold to lay out their village on a square plan aligned with the east bank of the Fox River. As platted in 1835 by the two (and making, by a couple months, Oswego Kendall County’s oldest municipality), the new village contained 18 blocks, each 280.5 feet (17 rods in surveyor’s terms) square and containing eight lots, each 66 feet wide and 132 feet deep. Two 16.5-foot alleys running perpendicular to each other bisected each block.

They named all of the streets but two after U.S. Presidents, including Harrison, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson, Washington, Van Buren, and Tyler. The two non-Presidential street names were Main and Benton, named after U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a political ally of President Andrew Jackson and strong supporter of westward expansion.

The two originally named their new town “Hudson,” after the river in New York with which they were both so familiar. Arnold opened the first store in the new village right in the middle of what would become the village’s business district. Both Judson and Arnold began pushing for Congress to grant their new town a post office, and those wishes were granted on Jan. 24, 1837, with Arnold named the first postmaster.

The only known photo of the east side of Main Street as it looked before the devastating February 1867 fire destroyed all the buildings pictured, including the stately National Hotel. Levi Arnold opened Oswego’s first store and post office in the building to the right of the National Hotel. (Little White School Museum collection)

But there was a fly in the town-builders’ ointment. For whatever reason, Congress named the new post office “Lodi.” Lodi wasn’t a bad name, of course, carrying the name of a town in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, but it apparently didn’t suit Arnold and Judson. Within some months, the few permanent male residents held a referendum to choose a new permanent name. When the few votes were counted, neither Hudson nor Lodi had more than one vote. Instead, “Oswego” won with two votes in its column.

Kendall County was established in February 1841. The General Assembly appointed a three-man commission to pick a site for a county seat and they chose the hamlet of Yorkville, six miles south of Oswego. But with all those roads leading to the new town, Oswego was growing faster than other areas of the new county. So Arnold, Judson and other Oswego boosters immediately began encouraging moving the county seat to Oswego. They engineered a referendum in 1845 that populous Oswego won over the more centrally located Yorkville.

This view, looking north from Washington Street and reminiscent of cow towns in the Old West, shows the west side of Oswego’s Main Street, around time time the 1867 fire destroyed the east side of the business district. The only building in this image still standing is the native limestone Parke Building on the right side of the photograph. The building now houses the American Male & Company’s clothing stores. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new courthouse was built just outside the downtown area on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Jefferson, and Monroe streets. With that, Oswego’s business community began to cater as much to the traveling trade of the circuit court’s judges and lawyers as to the surrounding agricultural area with three hotels and numerous blacksmith and wagonwright shops.

But Oswego’s location in the northeast corner of the county was proving inconvenient for residents needing to go to the county seat in those days of horse and buggy and horseback travel. So another referendum was held in 1859, and the voters approved moving the county seat back to Yorkville. With the Civil War intruding, it took a few years to get a new courthouse built, but in June 1864, the county’s records were hauled down to Yorkville, and Oswego returned to its status as a mercantile hub for the surrounding agricultural area.

From the time Judson and Arnold platted it 187 years ago, Oswego’s downtown catered to the residents of the community itself, as well as to the farmers working the land around it, as well as to those elected county officials and members of the legal community during its stint as the county seat. As such it boasted a wide variety of businesses from the aforementioned hotels, to retail merchants, to service providers like barbers, milliners, and others.

Postmaster Lorenzo Rank built this false-front Italianate commercial building to house the Oswego Post Office in 1874. He lived in the building’s second floor apartment. In 1912, the post office moved south to the brick Burkhart Block. Rank willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it was used for a variety of purposes, including the site of the private lending library operated by the village’s Nineteenth Century Women’s Club. When the tax-supported library was built in 1964, the building was sold. It has housed a number of businesses over the years, including hosting for many years the offices of the Oswego weekly Ledger-Sentinel. The building is still used for business purposes. (Little White School Museum collection)

When I looked at the way the district is drawn, it occurred to me that it includes the sites of five of Oswego’s earliest post offices. While the building that housed it is long gone, the village’s first post office opened by Arnold in conjunction with his store (the first in the village) in 1837 was located at what is now 68 Main Street. It moved across the street and north to the limestone Parke Building at Main and Jackson in the 1840s and then back across the street and south to Lorenzo Rank’s new building in 1874. When the brick Burkhart Block was finished at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1912, the post office moved there before moving for the last time back north at the northwest corner of Main and Washington into the Schickler Building. Its last move was out of downtown altogether to the northeast corner of Madison and Jackson in March 1969.

After all the storefronts on the east side of Main were destroyed by fire in February 1867, a consortium of businessmen built the brick and limestone Union Block. Druggist Levi Hall was the first to move into the new block, locating in the storefront at the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

As noted, the designated historic district includes a lot of Oswego’s business and economic history. The brick Union Block on the east side of Main at Washington opened late in 1867 following the devastating February 1867 fire that destroyed everything on that side of Main from Washington to Jackson except the limestone horse barn of the stately National Hotel. The first occupant of the new block was Levi Hall, who opened his new drug store on the site of Arnold’s first store in December 1867 with a special sale of Christmas toys and decorations, a tradition that would continue through several subsequent owners for the next century.

By 1885, the brick and limestone Union Block on east side of Oswego’s Main Street was joined by Lorenzo Rank’s post office building, W.J. Collins’ Star Roller Skating Rink (with flagpole), and at the far left of the photo, the Shoger Brothers livery stable at Main and Jackson, one day to become the home of Zentmyer Ford Sales. (Little White School Museum collection

Other buildings came and went downtown including the Star Roller Skating Rink that occupied the site of the old National Hotel on the east side of Main Street for several years.

The west side of the street didn’t experience the same urban renewal caused by a raging fire. Instead, the old frame buildings were gradually replaced by newer brick buildings, first the Oswego Saloon in 1897, the Knapp Building—site of today’s Masonic Hall and Oswego Family Restaurant—adjoining it to the south in 1898. Then in 1899, John Schickler built his block of brick stores next to the Knapp Building, filling the space from there all the way south to Washington Street.

Meanwhile north of all that brick construction, Henry Helle was maintaining his shoemaking establishment at the southwest corner of Main and Jackson.

Earl Zentmyer bought the Parke Building on Main at Jackson from Gus Shoger and opened a combination service station and Ford dealership in 1922. This snapshot was taken in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

Across Jackson Street to the south, O.A. Parke’s limestone former post office and general store had subsequently become home to a variety of stores and other businesses, including a bowling alley, jewelry store, farm implement business, tin smithing business, and blacksmith shop. In 1922, a young fellow from Aurora named Earl Zentmyer bought it from its owner, Gus Shoger, and turned it into a combination gas station and Ford dealership. Zentmyer eventually bought the old Shoger Brothers Livery Stable across Main Street from the stone building and operated it as a service station and Ford dealership until it burned in 1965.

The Burkhart Block at Main and Washington was built by Oliver and Clinton Burkhart to house the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront, the Burkhart & Shoger auto dealership to the left, and the Oswego Post Office and the switchboard for the Chicago Telephone Company in the two storefronts to the right of the bank. This photo was taken about 1913 by Dwight Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

Also included in the historic district is the brick Burkhart Block, completed at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1911 to mainly as the home for the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront. But also originally housed in the structure were the Burkhart and Shoger Studebaker dealership, the new Oswego Post Office, and the local switchboard of the Chicago (later Illinois Bell) Telephone Company.

Oswego’s streets were unpaved when this photo of an early auto northbound on Main Street through the heart of the business district about 1905. During that era, the hitching posts lining the street were not decorative; they were meant to be used. More than 100 years later, the downtown streetscape still looks familiar. (Little White School Museum collection)

Over the years the very transportation routes that allowed Oswego’s downtown to grow in the first place conspired to curb that growth. In 1870, the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road linked the coalfields lying between Ottawa and Streator with Geneva, running through Oswego and giving it a direct link with nearby Aurora. Regular passenger service meant the shopping opportunities of that much larger town were just a short train ride away, putting a brake on downtown Oswego’s expansion much beyond its three block base. Then in 1900, downtown Oswego was directly linked to downtown Aurora when the interurban trolley tracks of the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway were completed. For the next 22 years, shopping in downtown Aurora was a short, cheap trolley ride away, serving to keep the selection and size of downtown businesses small.

The final blow to any major expansion of the downtown was dealt by the advent of practical, economical automobiles, trucks, and buses coupled with the post-World War I state-financed drive to build all-weather hard roads. Initial concrete highways roughly followed some of those old 1830s routes through Oswego, again making it a transportation crossroads. In all, three state highways started in Oswego and one U.S. highway passed through following those old trails. And that made it even more convenient for residents to do much of their shopping elsewhere.

Oswego’s modern downtown, recently recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has not only managed to preserve a number of historic structures, but is still home to a mix of successful small retail and service businesses. (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, Oswego’s downtown and near-downtown maintained a mix of retail and service businesses that catered just fine to the surrounding agricultural area, from general merchandise and grocery stores to doctors and dentists to grain and livestock marketing firms.

The heart of any town is its downtown business district. Oswego’s village government and business community have been both lucky and skillful at keeping the downtown healthy, willing to spend both tax dollars and funds generated by the business community on public improvements over the years that have kept it an inviting place to visit, shop, and run a business.

And to top it all off, Oswego’s downtown is also one of the village’s—and Kendall County’s—most historic areas, anchoring the greater Oswego community since 1835.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

The long search for one town’s clean drinking water

Among the things we tend to take for granted these days—until its supply gets interrupted anyway—is water available when we turn on the taps in our homes. The safe water that comes out of the faucets in our homes and businesses has become so common a thing, in fact, that any interruption in the supply is big news.

But there was a time, of course, when there was no running water available in homes and businesses. And the assurance of safe, clean drinking water is an even newer development.

I got to thinking about the topic the other day while I was taking my morning post-exercise shower. Having hot and cold running water in our homes has become so common we really don’t think much about it any more. But as recently as my early childhood, automatic water heaters weren’t enjoyed by everyone, and some homes in our little corner of northern Illinois still relied on outhouses—privies—in place of in-house bathrooms.

The story of the quest for reliable fresh water supplies is one of those topics that seems so mundane as to not matter much at all. But at one time, the lack of safe drinking water was a literal matter of life or death from waterborne diseases such at typhoid fever. And the hazard didn’t depend on whether people were rich or poor, either. The husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861.

Even during pioneer days, using Waubonsie Creek’s water for drinking or cooking was problematical; you never knew who or what was using it upstream. (Little White School Museum collection)

When my hometown of Oswego was settled in the early 1830s, most of the surface water in the area was relatively safe to drink. The pioneers selected their new village’s site because it was situated at a good, hard-bottomed ford across the Fox River. Waubonsie Creek, that flowed through the community, as well as the smaller Bartlett’s Run provided fresh running water, as did the numerous springs that dotted the bluffs along the creek and river.

Those were adequate sources for the earliest arrivals, but as settlement continued area wetlands were drained and farming tended to create harmful runoff from silt to animal waste into streams and springs alike. The reaction was to hand-dig wells, but given Oswego’s underlayment with a thick layer of hard limestone that was often unsuccessful, making those earliest wells if not rare at least sparse throughout the community.

Margaret Phillips Young, who arrived as a youngster with her parents in 1839, remembered it was her job as a child to carry water for the family’s cooking and drinking needs.

“In ’41 Mr. Towle rented the tavern and built a home, which is now the Hinchman house,” she recalled in 1906. “There I met Mrs. Towle. I loved to look at her as at a beautiful picture, and often wondered if she knew my scrutiny was admiration or thought it impertinence. I saw her every day the first summer we lived here, for I had to carry the water for housekeeping from that place to the west side of Main street, where we lived and as I was allowed only a five quart tin bucket I made many trips.”

When it came to washing clothes, drinking water was too precious to use for that purpose, so families used Waubonsie Creek.

Margaret Phillips Young again: “I must not forget to mention the sawmill on Waubonsie creek, built by the Hopkins brothers…And there being no cisterns in the place and not many wells the women had a place to wash under the trees at the creek. If there came a shower they would seek shelter in the mill.”

During dry spells, even hand-dug wells, much less the springs in the area, could either dry up completely or become extremely reduced in flow. Wrote the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Jan. 30, 1869: “The thermometer on Tuesday morning at seven o’clock showed 16 below zero—it was still; no wind stirring. There is prospect of a dry month in February. Water is very scarce, most of our citizens are hauling ice from the river to get water for washing, etc.”

And on Dec. 5, 1872, the Record reported from Yorkville: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

Oswego Postmaster and Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank watched Oswego history unfold from this frame building in the midst of the community’s downtown. He built the post office in 1874 and lived in its second floor apartment. After his death, he willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it became the community’s first library. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next week, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, addressed the same issue, noting that the reduction in well water levels and the disappearance of springs had become noticeable and that possibly it was time to consider a municipal water supply: “Items this week are not very plenty with me and in the order of making my communication of the usual length, I undertook to fill up with the water question, but in trying to show the necessity of a public water supply in this town, to explain why by digging wells we cannot reach water a readily as heretofore, why springs are drying up, why there is so much less rain than formerly, and why water is getting continually scarcer, I got into water so deep that I had to back out for this time.”

Drought wasn’t the only problem with the town’s hand-dug wells, either. In 1835, Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold had laid out the original village of Oswego, consisting of 20 blocks, each block bisected by two perpendicular allies and containing eight lots, each measuring 66 x 132 feet. With lots that small it was difficult to assure that the hand-dug wells of the era were a safe distance away from the household privy. And that meant that waterborne diseases such as typhoid were distressingly common.

It would take a while for the connection between tainted drinking water and disease to be made, but when it was, attempts began to try to supply municipal residents with clean drinking water supplies.

While village officials and residents were looking at safe drinking water options, typhoid was a regular visitor to the community. For instance, the Record reported from Oswego on Nov. 13, 1873 that: “Nov. 13: James Shumway is quite sick with the typhoid fever; one of his daughters is also sick. Mrs. S. has been on a visit to the New England States and was expected home yesterday.”

Actually, in Oswego, the efforts to provide sufficient drinking water for horses in the downtown area were initially considered to be of more importance to residents than a safe municipal supply for humans. In October 1875, the village financed construction of a windmill, holding tank, and stock tank at street level at what is today 60 Main Street, then the vacant site of the old National Hotel that had burned in 1867.

Rank reported from Oswego on Oct. 21 that “The water trough by the post office will soon be a reality; Kuchl is doing the excavating work. Theron Richards and Bis Hunt are constructing the tower and the Marshall Wind Engine Co. will put up the wind mill; the National well is used for the supply of the water,” adding on Dec. 2 that “The town authorities caused the erection of a building over the supply water tank, the casing, sawdust interlining and covering of the trough, the painting of the whole, including the windmill tower, the laying of the flagstones around the trough, and the putting down of tile for the drainage of that part of the street.”

Oswego’s village fathers, with the health and comfort of downtown business customers’ teams in mind, were at first more interested in providing watering tanks for livestock than a municipal watering supply. (Little White School Museum collection)

The supply was not only used by horses of downtown residents and those visiting businesses there, but also by the residents themselves, a less than optimal situation. Rank’s suggestion that an actual municipal water supply might be a good idea continued to percolate through the community.

As it was, the village was finding out that providing even minimal water service involved regular maintenance. By 1881, the lack of maintenance and regular cleaning of the supply tank, as well as failure to maintain the windmill meant the whole system was failing badly. Wrote an exasperated Rank of its condition that September: “Our public watering tank is a nuisance. The thing is either dry or else it will contain some water slimy enough to make an alligator puke to drink it.”

In 1885, the village decided to have a well dug with the aim of supplying municipal water to the village’s downtown area. The well was apparently dug on the crest of the bluff in the area of Van Buren and Washington streets and was spring-fed. Its flow, when completed, was directed using a hydraulic ram downtown via 3” iron pipes buried in Van Buren and Main streets. As laid, the water main ran down Van Buren Street to a stable on the west side of the street, just north of South Adams Street. At Main Street, a “T” was installed along with a running fountain and watering tank. From there the water main ran up the street to the downtown business district. In front of the post office in the middle of the block between Washington and Jackson streets, the main crossed to the west side of the street until it got to Jackson Street, where it crossed back to the east side of the street before ending in a running fountain and watering tank in front of the livery stable at the corner of Main and Jackson.

Virtually all of the buildings downtown connected to the municipal water supply.

But the hydraulic ram system soon proved both unreliable and inadequate. On both the 1885 and 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps of downtown Oswego, the fire insurance company rated Oswego’s municipal water facilities as “Not Good.”

By 1894, it was clear the water system was simply not functioning well or safely, and the village board began looking into a better well, erecting a water tower, and installing larger water mains throughout the village. Plans slowly moved ahead before Chicago Bridge and Iron submitted the low bid on the new system’s elevated tank and other parts excepting the water mains themselves.

Not that everyone in town was in favor of spending the money to upgrade the system, of course. Many long-time residents, including Record correspondent Rank, weren’t convinced the new-fangled pressurized system would be worth the money it was costing the village government to install it.

The basswood tank on Oswego’s first water tower under construction in 1895. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on installing the system didn’t begin until April 1895. In the April 24 Record, Rank reported that “The building of the new waterworks was commenced Monday without being accompanied by any special ceremonies. It should have been delayed a few days longer; being it is a work of great importance, all risks should be avoided including that of commencing it on a waning moon. Three days later would have brought it in the new of the moon. The contract for the mason work was taken by Frank Swanson.”

The new system called for larger mains and servicing more of the village with municipal water. The old 3” mains, however, were to be maintained in the downtown business district.

On July 3, the Record reported the water tower had been finished, with iron legs holding up the huge basswood tank measuring 20 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall. A gasoline engine powered the pump to temporarily draw water from two wells, the old one dug several years before, and a new one on the site of the water tower, with the new permanent engine on order and expected to arrive soon.

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost,” Rank wrote. “They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has. The new well was walled up by Frank Swanson; in order to do the work a pump throwing an eight-inch stream of water was kept going constantly for three days and three nights; it pumped dry pretty much all the wells of the neighborhood. The well contains now ten feet of water. The engine is expected to be set up Tuesday. The job is nicely done, and the gang of men that did it are very clever fellows and got along with our folks splendidly.”

Oswego’s first firefighters with their new hose cart, purchased by the village, August 1895, Washington at Tyler Street, Oswego. The new water tower, completed earlier that year, is in the background. (Little White School Museum Collection)

With the village’s municipal water supply in operation, Oswego also decided to establish a permanent fire brigade. The village purchased a high-wheeled hose cart and canvas fire hose, all to be housed in the village hall on Washington Street. Eventually a fire bell was purchased and a tower for it and to hang wet hoses to dry was added to the building. A volunteer fire brigade was established consisting of 20 members to staff the new equipment.

Expanding the municipal system to more areas of the village began in early summer 1896. By late fall, 6” and 4” water mains had been laid with more installed the following summer, the job largely completed by July 1897.

The water system got it’s first test in an emergency in early fall 1897 when fires, just hours apart, broke out in the downtown business district on Sept. 8. Thanks to the village’s new hose cart, volunteer fire brigade, and pressurized water system, though, both blazes were quickly extinguished.

One of the fires was in the old Star Roller Skating Rink, which was next door to the Oswego Post Office. The post office building was owned by Record correspondent Rank, who was also the village postmaster. In addition, Rank lived in an apartment above the post office. So the fire brigade’s quick work dousing the second blaze that day was of special interest to him. It also caused him to change his mind about the usefulness of Oswego’s new municipal water system.

“So now, here it goes,” he wrote in his apology for opposing the water system in the Sept. 15 Record. “We are a miserable set of poltroons and nincompoops, a blight upon the earth which would revolve much easier if it wasn’t for us…May we soon be extinct and long may wave the enthusiasts of the water works.”

The Oswego water tower with the new 65,000 gallon steel tank that replaced the old wooden tank in 1906. (Little White School Museum collection)

While the new system was indeed working even better than village officials had hoped, there were still some problems, primarily the continual leakage of the wooden water tank atop the water tower. As a result, in the spring of 1906, the village board voted to replace the old tank with a new steel tank.

As Rank wrote in the March 14 Record, “About ten or 12 years ago the old basswood tank was erected on the street that leads to the Plainfield Road. The tank has seen its better day and for the last year has been in a decrepit condition Friday night at a special meeting of the [village] board, Mayor Cutter gaveled through a motion to erect a new one, which is sorely needed.”

Kottoe & Bro. of Aurora won the contract to dismantle the old tank and install the new one. As specified, the new tank was to be manufactured of 5/16” soft steel and measure  18 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. It was to be set on the old tower, which was judged to be sturdy enough to handle the new tank. Officials said the additional height and smaller diameter of the new tank was estimated to give about 10 more pounds of water pressure in the downtown business district.

With the new tank installed, the water tower would stand at a total height of 125 feet, with a capacity of 65,000 gallons of water. Another new innovation possible with the steel tank was a hatch in the tank’s side at the bottom to allow it to be regularly cleaned, something impossible with the old tank.

And as it turned out, the old tank really did need some cleaning.

The new water tower under construction in 1958 to replace the old 1895 tower. This tower, in turn, was replaced by a newer, larger water tower in 2005. (Little White School Museum collection)

Village residents were shocked at what they found when the old tank was demolished. As Rank reported on July 11, 1906: “We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”

That new steel tank atop its tower legs served the community well for nearly 50 years until a new, much larger, water tower was built to replace it in 1958. For those of us who grew up in Oswego, the old tank was a landmark, one that was especially prized in summers when the automatic shut-off on the pump failed. That caused the tank to overflow like a landlocked Niagara Falls, word of which quickly spread around town so that those of us with ready access to bicycles could ride through the refreshing—though admittedly vigorous—cascade.

In 1900, Oswego’s population stood at just 619. By 1950, it had doubled to 1,220. And with post-World War II growth just beginning, in 1960, the population had risen to 1,510. And from then on it never slowed down, doubling again by 1980 and again by 2000.

Today, Oswego’s population stands at right around 35,000 and its municipal water system of eight wells and five water towers sometimes struggles to keep up with demand, particularly during hot, dry summer months. Recently, the village board announced plans to join a consortium of other area municipal water users who will tap into Lake Michigan’s water to supply their customers, something that would have certainly astonished those village residents in 1895 suspicious about that newfangled water tower idea.

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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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Throwing off the surly bonds of a Midwestern summer’s heat

Folks out on the Left Coast are sweltering this summer, with record high temps being set all the way up into Canada where triple-digit is—until recently at least—unheard of. And the problems is, of course, that most folks out and up that way have never bothered with installing air conditioning, because they’ve never really needed it.

Here in the Midwest, though, hot, humid summers with sultry nights are the rule rather than the exception, something that literally makes the tall corn grow around these parts.

Going way, way back into Kendall County’s prehistory, keeping cool was easy—the last Ice Age cooled everything off for several thousand years, burying History Central where I’m writing this under around 2,000 feet of ice. The main problem faced by what few area residents there were back then, in fact (besides fending off the passing saber-toothed tiger or the occasional dire wolf), was keeping warm, even in summer.

Summer heat wasn’t a problem for Kendall County’s ancient people–keeping from freezing during that era’s long Ice Age winters was.

But the climate did warm up during thousands of years and those skillful Native American hunters dealt with the dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, gradually added more gathering to their lifestyles, and eventually created tribal societies.

Later Kendall Countians, like the Pottawatomi Indians, kept cool in summer by removing clothing to maintain their comfort levels. Many American Indians wore nothing but their moccasins in summer, thoroughly offending the first Europeans who arrived who, because of existing morals and fashions, were wrapped, chin to toe, in woolens and linens year around.

Permanent settlement by White Americans didn’t start here in northern Illinois until the late 1820s. And as soon as those settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, sometimes dropping snow measured in feet, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.

That meant housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.

So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed summer heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent the hot air that collected up near the ceiling level.

The wide roof overhangs popular with long-ago architects were not stylistic affectations, either. They were both functional as well as decorative, keeping hot sun off the sides and gables of the houses, reducing solar gain in the summer.

My father’s boyhood home just south of Emporia, Kansas featured a porch that wrapped around the whole house, cooling all four walls.

The sun’s heat was also reduced in those homes by the sizeable porches favored by Victorians. Those porches also provided additional living area for the family in summer. The house my father grew up in just south of Emporia, Kansas, had a porch that wrapped completely around the structure, assuring that every room on the first floor was shaded from the sun’s rays.

When it got really hot, however, people in the 1800s did what we do today to cool off. Noted the Oswego correspondent of the Kendall County Record in the paper’s July 9, 1874 edition: “If those boys swimming under the bridge on Tuesday afternoon have no common decency, their parents should incorporate a little to them by the means of a switch. They took special pains when a lady and young girl were crossing the bridge to swim out and by various contortions indecently expose themselves.”

Back then, folks used all kinds of heat-beating measures. In church, the rhythmic movement of dozens of cardboard fans (usually advertising the local funeral home) in the congregants’ hands put many a youngster sound asleep on hot Sunday mornings.

This photo of a quartette of young ladies swimming was taken by Irvin Haines on the Fox River just above the old Parker mills and dam around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Band concerts in the evening and picnics in the county’s cool groves and along the river got families out of their hot houses at other times. And there were those occasional dips in the river—with or without swimming costume.

And then as now, a frosty dish of cold ice cream could hold off the heat for awhile. Noted editor John R. Marshall in the July 22, 1875 Record: “Holland makes splendid chocolate ice cream, and if you want a real nice dish to cool you off, just drop into his [Yorkville] restaurant.”

Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th Century.

On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th Century, keeping food cool through the use of home iceboxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest. Large ice harvesting operations were located at almost every Fox River dam and on many area creeks as well, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed pork and beef carcasses from Midwest meat packing plants to eastern markets.

Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th Century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically-produced product ‘artificial ice.’ But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using ‘natural’ ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.

A huge ice harvesting operation was located just above the Oswego dam until the ice houses burned down in the 1890s. Similar businesses were located at dam sites up and down the Fox River Valley. (Little White School Museum collection)

Polluted water sources and warm winters combined to make Fox Valley ice harvesting chancy through the first two decades of the 20th Century. And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”

Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”

Restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”

Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration. When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Ill. Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “The still was of 23-gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloonkeeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol.”

Apparently seeing the error of his ways, Schickler got out of the bootlegging business and instead he and his son went into the dairy business, bottling milk in the same basement of his home where he’d previously been bottling bootleg whiskey.

Once refrigeration technology was understood, it wasn’t all that big a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.

Some of those first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. The early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate—provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.

Roy Roalson (left) gives a customer a trim in his barbershop on South Main Street in Oswego in 1936. They did both men’s and women’s hair in Roy’s shop. The shop’s Frididaire air conditioner is just out of the frame to the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”

Here in Oswego, barber Roy Roalson installed a heat-exchanger air conditioning system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barbershop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.

By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.

These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon. And it’s starting to look like our neighbors along the Pacific Coast may be looking at dealing with the same kinds of muggy, uncomfortable summers—at least some of the time—that we here in the Midwest have grown up with.

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1870s Oswego dispatched lighting rod salesmen across the Midwest

With the introduction of Covid vaccines, science is getting a bit of a shot in the arm after four years of insistence that opinions—no matter how nuts—are every bit as valid as actual facts. I won’t go into all the strangeness that’s resulted in so much modern science and fact denial here, but I will note that innovation and invention was once a national mania that filtered right down to the local level.

Like many rural areas, Kendall County was a hotbed of invention and innovation in the 19th Century. In fact, Oswego boasted it’s own mini-Menlo Park, Thomas A. Edison’s famed invention and innovation lab, operated by the Richards brothers in their hardware store.

One of those popular innovations that became extremely popular throughout the Midwest was lightning rods, popularity driven because of the constant threat of fire posed by the region’s frequent thunderstorms to buildings both in town and out on the farm, particularly the large barns of the era. Most small towns had little or no firefighting capability, and farms had none at all. As a result, a lightning strike could mean ruin for a building owner.

A basic lightning rod installation consists of the rod atop a building connected with a thick copper wire buried in the ground.

Ben Franklin is generally given credit for inventing the first practical lightning rod system. In 1752, Franklin developed the first lightning rod as part of his famous experiments with electricity. As developed, the Franklin Rod—as it was called—consisted of a metal rod mounted on the highest point of a building’s roof that was then, by running a wire from the rod down to the ground, grounded. The energy of a lightning bolt striking the rod was harmlessly diverted into the ground instead of causing the building to burst into flame.

On the largely treeless prairies of Illinois lightning strikes were a constant threat. As the June 8, 1871 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “In the storm of Sunday afternoon the barn of William Ladd was struck by lightning and consumed with pretty much all its contents, including two new wagons, reaper, mower, planter, harnesses and nearly everything required on a farm; also upwards of 300 bushels of grain, a part of which and also one of the wagons belonged to Abe Emmons, who upon his removal in the spring to Amboy left it there in store. Of the other contents a large share belonged to N.T. Ferris, who is working the farm. The entire loss will exceed $3,000.”

So lightning rods became a fairly big business starting in the mid-19th Century. Herman Melville’s short story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” published in the August 1854 edition of Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, recounts the fictional interaction between the story’s narrator and an inventive and ambitious lightning rod salesman. A humorous tale filled with plenty of Melville allegory, it’s interesting for its treatment of a trade long gone from the American scene: the traveling lightening rod salesman.

Nineteenth Century Kendall County was one many hotbeds of invention, with all sorts of ingenious tinkering going on. And for whatever reason, Oswego seems to have been a center of lightning rod invention, manufacture, and sales. A number of firms annually sent out teams of lightning rod salesmen like Melville’s protagonist that ranged all over the Midwest and that provided employment for a number of local residents.

According to one county history, lightning rods were first introduced in Kendall County by Oswego storekeeper Garret H. Teller in 1844. Although Teller didn’t manufacture his own rods but was a wholesaler, he continued to sell lightning rods for the rest of his life, while taking on a number of partners during the years.

As the 1870s began, lightning rods were a growing business. According to the business directory in the 1870 atlas and plat book of Kendall County, along with Henry W. Farley (the only manufacturer listed), Oswegoans Teller, William Hoze, and Thomas P. Mullenix were all engaged in selling lightning rods.

Henry Wise Farley (1819-1892), engineer, inventor, businessman. He invented and patented an improved lightning rod in 1869 and manufactured them in Oswego, sending out door-to-door salesmen each spring to a territory that covered all of Illinois, as well as parts of Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Farley was the community’s premier lightning rod manufacturer, although others apparently dabbled in the business. Farley was a former railroad official who worked as a construction engineer on a number of Eastern rail lines. A native of Massachusetts, after his service in the Civil War in Missouri, Farley moved his family north, settling in Oswego.

In the pre-war period, Farley had patented a number of mechanisms, mostly centered around railroad locomotives. But after moving to Oswego sometime before 1869, he put his mind to inventing a variety of items, from an innovative conveyor of people and freight to an improved lightning rod. Farley’s lighting rod proved to be cheaper than the pure copper rods that were the most efficient conductors of lightning bolts, and more effective than the cheaper iron rods economy-minded building owners often favored.

Farley’s big lightning rod innovation was to manufacture an iron rod with a star-shaped cross-section that was then twisted into a spiral shape. The sturdy rods were manufactured with screw threads at top and bottom, allowing them to be connected with a threaded collar creating whatever length of rod was desired.

Farley’s major improvement was to wrap copper wires or strips up the spiral grooves to provide a much better lightning conductor. The spiral grooved iron rod proved much stronger than a similar, soft copper rod. As he noted in his patent application, the star-shaped spiral rod “combines the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight, and also giving great area of surface.” He was finally granted a patent for the idea in 1869.

By that time, he was already installing them around Oswego and the rest of Kendall County. As early as 1868, the Record reported from Oswego that several residents had contracted with Farley for his new, improved lightning rods. On April 15 of that year, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Farley has commenced active operation in the lightning rod business. Several houses in the town were rodded last week, among which are Snook’s, Bunn’s, and Wollenweber’s.”

The great thing about manufacturing and marketing lighting rods was that Mother Nature, in the form of frequent thunderstorms, kept reminding everyone why it was such a good idea to buy and install them—sometimes spectacularly so. On June 28, 1877, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “During Wednesday evening’s storm the barn of Phillip Boessenecker, a large and almost new one, was struck by lightning, causing its consumption by fire with a large lot of hay, farming utensils, and a very good colt. The prominent location of the barn made the fire conspicuous in town and a number went out to it. There had been no rod on it, hence our lightning rodders point now to it as proof of the stupidity of men that don’t have their buildings rodded.”

Even with frequent help from the weather, it was clear that all those lightning rod dealers couldn’t make a living selling just to Kendall County residents. So Farley and the other major lightning rod wholesalers in Oswego began sending teams of salesmen out to hawk their wares to a wide strip of the upper Midwest.

List of lightning rod dealers in Oswego from the 1870 Kendall County plat book and atlas. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was a fortunate time to be recruiting young men for traveling sales jobs because of the number of Civil War veterans looking for decent jobs with travel and a little adventure thrown in.

Generally, the sales teams loaded up brightly painted horsedrawn wagons with their goods and headed out to their territories in mid to late April and then headed to their assigned territories.

As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on April 14, 1870: “The lightning rod establishments are now very busy in getting up and sending out teams. Oliver [Hebert] has got up some very nice looking wagons for them.”

Oliver Hebert ran Oswego’s premier wagon manufactory out of this combination shop (at left in the photo0 and home at the corner of Madison and VanBuren streets. The wagon shop was eventually torn down and the residential part became Oswego’s first funeral home in 1931. Grocery merchant Ken Bohn bought the house in the 1950s. It was destroyed by fire on Jan. 31, 1994. (Little White School Museum photo.

Hebert was Oswego’s premier carriage, road cart, and wagon maker during that era, suggesting the firms weren’t stinting on the quality of their equipment.

Territories for individual companies extended as far north as Minnesota and as far south as southern Illinois and as far west as Iowa. During the sales year, the crews came home to visit their families on summer and early fall holidays, as the July 6, 1871 Record reported from Oswego: “A number of the lightning rod boys came home to spend the Fourth.”

And sometimes they just came home for a visit after a couple months on the road. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 13, 1871: “The lightning rod folks who are and have been home on a visit to their families and friends may be mentioned [include] Boss G.H. Teller; C.L. Murdock, and C.L. Judson.”

Of course, given that the sales forces were mostly comprised of young Civil War veterans, activities weren’t strictly confined to business. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported on Oct. 17, 1872: “Charles E. Hubbard went last spring in the Teller company to Wisconsin lightning rodding; it appears however that he did not wholly confine his attention to that business, for he came home one day last week with a wife.”

The sales season generally wrapped up in September as the season for lightning-producing thunderstorms ended.

The county’s era as a center of the Midwest’s lightning rod business was largely over by the 1880s as bigger firms were able to undersell and out-produce smaller companies like Farley’s. But while it lasted, lightning rodding was a business that put Oswego and Kendall County on the region’s business map.

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Solved: The mystery of the butter factory’s hand grenades

One of our handiest research aids down at the Little White School Museum is our set of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, downloaded from the Library of Congress web site.

The maps are so valuable because the Sanborn company actually sent their contractors out to just about every community in the nation of any size at all to plot the building outlines—footprints—of every structure in and around their business districts. The maps, originally published in full color, included codes for the building material of each structure (stone, brick, frame), any additions or porches, accessory buildings, street and alley rights-of-way, and information on municipal water supplies or any other information related to fire safety.

On the original color maps, stone structures were colored blue, frame buildings yellow, and brick buildings red. A dwelling colored blue on the map has its frame porch—if it had one—drawn in and colored yellow. Stone buildings colored blue have their decorative brick fronts colored red.

The maps, published in yearly editions are valuable for anyone looking to see what the footprint of their house or other building looked like over the years, or where businesses, churches, schools or other buildings of the past might have been located.

Inset from the 1885 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Map showing the William Parker & Son gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River jut north of the Oswego bridge. Not the mill is colored yellow, denoting it’s a frame building.

One major limitation of the maps is that they only depict certain areas of every town. For Oswego, that means basically the downtown business district and a few blocks surrounding it. Larger and important nearby businesses, however, are included in map insets. So, for example, the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses are carefully drawn in, occupying their own small box on the Oswego maps. And so are the Parker mills, the gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River and the sawmill and furniture factory on the east bank.

Another limitation is that the maps were only updated during a few years. For Oswego, Sanborn maps are only available for the years 1885, 1891, 1898, 1902, and 1931. Even so, that gives an interesting time span to examine the houses and other buildings to determine what changes in the structures included on the maps occurred during those years.

Black and white copies of the maps have been kicking around for many years, and so have black and white microfilm copies of the maps. Also, the Oswego Public Library has had PDF versions of the maps available for download on their web site for several years now. The PDF versions are extremely clear and are fine for tracing building footprint changes over the years, as well as using the maps as historical resources. For instance, the map portions of the Parker mills include lists of exactly what kinds of equipment are inside them, including all the various woodworking machines for the furniture factory and the grain processing equipment in the gristmill.

But the big limitation of the black and white maps is the inability to tell what each structure is built out of, since the colors don’t show up.

The Parker gristmill photographed from the east end of the dam looking west, about 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

That situation has changed in recent years as the Library of Congress began scanning the color versions of the Sanborn maps, and posting copies on their web site. As soon as we found out they were available, we started downloading them, and printed out copies to be used in the museum archives area for researchers. Most recently, the 1902 maps became available and we’re waiting anxiously for the 1931 maps, which in their three pages include a bit more of the village than the two-page maps of the previous year editions.

I’ve found that looking at the maps is a good way to spend a couple hours that absolutely fly by—they’re a positive danger to getting anything productive done, like all that boring paperwork with which museum directors are plagued.

But when I help someone with research using the maps, it’s hard not be drawn into everything that’s going on in them. On the 1885 map, for instance, I see that the Union Block of brick storefronts on the east side of Main Street, built in 1867 after the disastrous February fire gutted the entire block, are actually stone buildings clad with brick. The six storefronts in 1885 were occupied by (going from south to north—Washington Street towards Jackson Street) a drygoods store; a hardware store with a singing school above; a drygoods and grocery store combo; a furniture store with storage and a dwelling above; a grocery and hardware store with the Oswego Masonic Lodge above; and a drug store (the future site of Shuler’s Drugs for all you Oswego natives) with the Odd Fellows Lodge on the second floor.

The Union Block at Main and Washington streets , probably taken in the mid-1880s, about the same time the 1885 Sanborn map was published. The Rank Building, housing Oswego’s post office, borders the Union Block to the north, and next is the Star Roller Skating Rink. (Little White School Museum collection)

Down by Waubonsie Creek, along the north bank between North Adams Street and the railroad right-of-way was, in 1885, David Height’s gristmill. By the time I was a kid, that building was a private house where Clare Smith lived, but in 1885 it was a gristmill and the Sanborn company reports it included a corn sheller, one run of grindstones, a fanning mill, and a grinder, all powered by a small steam engine.

About a half mile north along North Adams, was the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory where they were turning out all kinds of walnut furniture—an example of which (a walnut washstand) is on exhibit in the Little White School Museum’s gallery. The factory was water powered, with equipment including a planer; a sticker (a machine that made thin sticks used to separate layers of stacked lumber); two rip, three cut-off, one scroll, and one band saws; a mortiser; a tennoning machine; a drill press; a lathe; a pony planer (a small, single-sided planer); an emery wheel and two grind stones to sharpen tools; a shaper; and one dovetail machine.

And since the Sanborn company sold their maps to fire insurance companies, the furniture factory’s fire-fighting equipment was also carefully noted: “No watchman. Water barrels& buckets.” Very straightforward.

The 1885 Sanborn Map plan of the Fox River Butter Company, noting its puzzling stock of hand grenades.

But then I note, in another inset on the map, is the Fox River Butter Company’s factory, located midway between downtown Oswego and the Parker furniture factory on North Adams. By the time I was a youngster this building was long gone. Originally built between modern Ill. Route 25 and the railroad right-of-way in 1870 as a brewery, it was turned into a butter and cheese factory in October 1876 by W.H. McConnell & Company. By 1885, its equipment was listed on the Sanborn map as two butter churns, three cheese vats, and three separators, all run by a 20 horsepower steam engine.

And then the firefighting equipment was listed: One rotary pump and 100 feet of one-inch rubber hose. Also noted was “Man sleeps in building,” which would be a definite plus in case the place caught on fire after everyone left for the day. But then the final note: “hand grenades.”

Which has made me wonder for years why a business would have hand grenades on hand. Was this for the protection of the guy sleeping in the building at night? Why were hand grenades included in the section that included firefighting equipment?

Well, I found out this week after my friend, Ted Clauser, conducted one of the museum’s historical walking tours of downtown Oswego. Ted mentioned that the butter factory a quarter of a mile or so north of downtown kept hand grenades, possibly for the protection of the man sleeping there. No, said one of the participants. Those hand grenades were really fire grenades.

Decorative pressed glass fire grenades–the perfect home accessory.

A fire grenade was a blown glass sphere or other shaped bottle filled with, at first, salt water. The idea was to throw the grenade into a blaze, the glass would break, and the salt water would act to put out the fire. The grenades were often sold in sets of three. Later on, the salt water was replaced with carbon tetrachloride, which was a more effective fire retardant, but had a host of other problems. The stuff gives off dangerous fumes, and is believed to be a carcinogen. That’s bad, but even worse is what happens when you heat it. Like, for instance, when you throw it into a fire. That generates phosgene gas, a really nasty substance the Germans used as a poison gas during World War I.

So after all these years of wondering why Oswego’s butter factory was stocking hand grenades back in 1885, I find they were actually the 19th Century firefighting equivalent of water balloons. Which is, I have to admit, a relief. I had problems getting my head around some sleepy guy pitching hand grenades at burglars in the middle of the night and the damage that might have done to the guy and the burglars—not to mention the cheese factory.

So another Oswego historical mystery solved—which always makes my day a little brighter.

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Our local Farm Bureau, aged 100, still serving Kendall’s rural community

Okay, things got sort of discombobulated here at History Central early this year. What with COVID, my spouse’s knee replacement, and my own emergency pacemaker install, some important local history milestones got past me without notice or comment.

One of those milestones was the 100th birthday of the Kendall County Farm Bureau that rolled past in December 2019, with the group’s operational existence dated to early 1920.

Farm families once comprised the vast majority of Kendall County residents and agriculture was the county’s most successful business. While those days are past, the county’s land area is still mostly rural. Residents living, as I do, in the county’s three northernmost townships might not realize how rural our area of the state is. But all you have to do is drive a few minutes west on I-88 or U.S. Route 30, or southwest on Ill. Route 71 and you’ll be deep in corn and soybean fields that run all the way to the horizon no matter which direction you look.

But while there’s still a lot of farmland in Kendall County, its value as a percentage of the county’s total real estate valuations keeps declining as more and more land is turned to growing houses and businesses instead of crops. As late at 1988, farmland comprised more than 10 percent of the county’s property valuation. It now stands at less than one percent.

Nevertheless, farming is still a valuable industry in the county’s economy.

Back in the settlement era, of course, farming was the county’s primary industry, a situation that continued well into the 20th Century. And in order for farmers to succeed they required the efforts of not only themselves and their own families, but also those living in their neighborhoods.

It generally took several people to actually assemble a log cabin after the logs had been cut. Cabin raisings were some of frontier Illinois’ first farmer cooperative activities.

The first informal farmer groups helped each other with barn and cabin raisings as pioneer families arrived. A settler could cut his own logs and get them to the building sites using his own teams of horses or oxen, but he needed assistance with the heavy work of raising beams and logs into place—something not easily be done by a single family.

Also at the beginning of Kendall County’s settlement, farmers had to band together for their very safety. The Black Hawk War of 1832 forced the county’s farmers and their families to flee to Ottawa or Walker’s Grove (Plainfield) as unfriendly Indians roamed the area. The militia companies that were subsequently recruited and serving until the end of the war were yet another, although more formal, example of pioneer farmer organizations.

Following the war, normal pioneer life resumed with the addition of another type of local organization: vigilantes. With the near-total lack of effective law enforcement on the frontier, citizen groups were required to protect individual farmers against stock thieves and highwaymen. The protective associations established during the settlement era—particularly the ones aimed at rustlers—continued their activities well into the late 19th Century.

In the days before effective law enforcement, farmers often had to take the law into their own hands. The Kendall County Horse Protective Association was established to deter horse thievery. (Little White School Museum collection)

Another common frontier farmer organization popped up when the vast majority of Kendall County’s U.S. Government land was up for sale in 1842. The settlers who arrived before that could not buy the land they squatted on. By treaties between the government at the Fox Valley’s Native People, the land couldn’t be sold until it was surveyed, the treaties reserving for the tribes’ use until the sales were held. The Indians, however, were removed from the Fox Valley by 1837, negating government promises that they would be able to hunt and fish on the land until it was sold.

While the Native People were gone by the time land sales took place, a far more dangerous species—the land speculator—was not. With the willing collusion of government officials, speculators would often buy the land that settlers had already improved and fenced and then sell it back to them for a profit.

A couple of governmental practices made the speculators‘ lot easy. While the land was inexpensive, going for only $1.25 an acre (even cheap in 1842), payment had to be made in gold, a very scarce commodity on the frontier of that era. Also, land sales were held at central federal land offices, and neither travel nor obtaining information on where and when sales would be held was easy in early Illinois.

So, in their own defense, farmers formed claim associations. A delegation of honest men was elected to buy the land, while another picked group, usually armed, intercepted and detained any speculators seen in the area. The resulting land was then divided up between those who were members of the association. According to early county histories, it was an effective tactic for Fox Valley settlers. And it’s why here in Oswego Township, Walter Loucks is listed as the first private seller of most of the township’s land following the government land sale. Loucks served as the designated buyer for much of the township, later transferring to those who were actually living on the claims.

As the 1840s progressed, the era of ad hoc farmer organizations began to be replaced by an era of more formal groups. In 1841, just one year before Kendall County’s land went on sale, The Prairie Farmer newspaper was established in Chicago. Published especially for the Prairie State’s farmers, the paper helped encourage them organize, for the first time, on a statewide basis.

Still, farmers proved an independent lot not much given to joining groups, even those that worked in farmers’ own best interests. But then came a severe financial crunch, the Panic of 1873, nicknamed The Long Depression. Farmers were primed to swing into action due to the nation’s railroads’ collusion on freight rates for grain and livestock, and high prices caused by industrial monopolies. As a result, farmers’ organizations such as the National Farmers Alliance and the Farmer’s Mutual Benefit Association popped up all over the nation.

Here in Kendall County, a Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Club was established in Millbrook in February 1873 to “work for the overthrow of monopolies in general and railroad monopolies in particular.” It is interesting to note that farmers were so upset that they were willing to work together with “mechanics,” the 19th Century term for factory and other non-farm workers to try to break the power of Big Business.

That led to establishing a Farmers’ Association of Kendall County in April 1873, and a “mass convention” May 23 in Yorkville. The immediate aim was to elect a farmers’ party circuit court judge, due to the courts obvious favoritism towards business interests. Much to the surprise of local Republicans, the farmers’ party’s candidate beat the party candidate.

Then in July, a formal political convention at Yorkville nominated an entire slate of local candidates—including the first woman candidate in county history—for the upcoming fall election. That prompted the local Republican Party to close ranks around their own candidates to defeat these proto-progressives. The 1873 convention proved the local group’s high water mark, but it also laid the groundwork for more organizing by farmers by emphasizing the importance of organizing to fight for their own interests.

The Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange, combined attributes of the fraternal orders so popular in the 19th Century with political activism to aid farmers. Several Grange lodges were established in Kendall County starting in the 1870s.

One of the major results of this feeling of community among pioneer farmers was creation of one the first real farm organizations, the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange. There were Granges in Bristol, Na-Au-Say, Oswego, and Seward Townships in Kendall County. The organization became so popular that “granger” became synonymous with “farmer” for several years.

It might seem counterintuitive, but continual progress in farm mechanization encouraged the creation of farmer cooperative organizations. The harvest of small grains—wheat, oats, barley, and rye—was backbreaking and extremely labor intensive. It therefore became the target for inventors who created labor-saving machines to help with the tasks. The earliest harvesters cut the grain so farmers could bundle it by hand and then stack it to dry before threshing it by hand using flails to separate the grain from the stalks. Soon after, mechanical threshers were invented and by the 1870s, these machines—also called separators because they separated grain from hulls and stalks—were being powered by steam engines. Such threshing outfits, including a threshing machine, a steam traction engine, mobile water tank and coal wagon, were too expensive for most farmers to buy on their own. So farmers formed cooperatives to buy the equipment. The outfits would then travel around the neighborhood from farm to farm of stockholders in the cooperative to thresh their grain. Which was the origin of the name of these cooperatives: threshing rings.

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the move during the 1897 threshing season in the area of Wolf’s Crossing and Harvey roads. (Dale Updike collection)

By the early years of the 20th Century, however, big business and the growing influence of government in farmers’ lives again pointed to the need for real political influence on the part of farmers. In December 1913, the Illinois Agricultural Association was established to represent farmers in Springfield, but some had already begun calling the group the Farm Bureau.

Meanwhile here in Kendall County, local farmers were organizing their own local clubs to socialize and to encourage good farming practices. In April 1919, the Kendall County Record reported that “A meeting of the farmers of the neighborhood of Oswego was held at the home of Nate L. Pearce Thursday and an organization formed known as the Oswego Farmers Improvement and Social Club. The group, later renamed the East Oswego Progressive Farmers Club, was one of many established throughout the county.

And while the betterment of individual farmers was a laudable goal, there was also the sense that there was a growing need for an organization with actual political clout. In a July 23, 1919 letter to the editor of the Record, farmer W.F. Osborn complained that an effort by farmers to politically eliminate Daylight Savings Time had failed in Washington, D.C., and wondered whether it might not be time to start some sort of national farmers’ organization to represent farm interests.

As it turned out, such an organization was already in the works. In December 1913, the Illinois Agricultural Association was established to represent farmers’ interests before the General Assembly in Springfield. Shortly thereafter, some in Illinois had already begun calling the group the Farm Bureau. In November 1919, the name of the group—now affiliated nationally—became the American Farm Bureau Federation.

It was at that same time that interest in creating a farmers’ organization peaked in Kendall County. The Nov. 26, 1919 Record reported that: “The Kendall County Farm Bureau perfected a temporary organization last Wednesday and are preparing a drive for membership during December.”

On Dec. 10, the Record noted that a membership drive was about to begin, and encouraged all county farmers to join, explaining: “It is for mutual assistance among the men of the country in getting their rights.”

The organizing effort proved remarkably successful, probably driven by the farm depression then already gripping the nation. The Record reported on Dec. 24 that the formation of a Kendall County Farm Bureau was already assured: “The farmers of Kendall county made a move in the right direction last week when they organized into a permanent farm bureau for mutual benefit. The spirit with which the organization is made is commendable. There is no radical element in the local association whereby the benefits of the organization would be lost in an effort to revolutionize. Better market facilities, the demand for a superior grade of seed, the improvement in farm finances, and best of all, a farm adviser are some of the leading features for consideration.”

The first Kendall County Farm Bureau office was located in the Kendall County Courthouse. This photo was taken about 1922.

The organization began with 961 farmer members and quickly reached and then exceeded the one thousand mark. While encouraging membership, the Record was quick to note—possibly with the on-going Red Scare in mind—that the Farm Bureau was not some sort of radical organization: “It is not in the way of a labor union–it is not antagonistic to present day principles–it is for the good of the farmer,” Record Editor Hugh Marshall contended.

The organization elected its first slate of officers as well as an executive committee consisting of one member from each of the county’s nine townships.

There had been some pressure for Kendall to join with Kane County in a joint Farm Bureau, but the members at Kendall’s organizational meeting made it crystal clear they wanted no outsiders telling them what to do.

“The group also passed a resolution stating their unanimous opinion that Kendall County was able to protect her own integrity and would have nothing to do with the proposed merger with Kane County. This was passed with a whoop that showed that the feeling was unanimous,” the Record reported.

The new organization didn’t have to wait long before an important issue dropped in their laps. Railroads, long the bane of farmers, were again slowing the shipment of grain, something that had negative effects on both farmers and agribusinesses. The Jan. 7 Record reported on a critical shortage of rail cars for grain shipments: “Where the trouble is cannot be told. Mr. Hines of the railroads says that everything is in excellent condition but this condition contradicts any such statement. There’s a problem offered right here for the new Kendall County Farm Bureau and its larger associates. If the farmer wants to go to the bottom of the affair he will probably loosen up the grain cars, be able to ship his grain at a good price and taken an awful crack at the high cost of living all in one fell swoop.”

In March, the Kendall County Farm Bureau passed a major milestone when it hired its first professional farm advisor. Earl Price, the farm advisor in Saline County, agreed to move north to Kendall County to take the brand new job. Price, then 37, was born in Clearspring, Indiana and who was a graduate of Purdue University, took up residence in his new office in the Kendall County Courthouse.

Price’s first job was to conduct a livestock census of county farms on behalf of the state Farm Bureau with the aim of using statewide livestock figures to begin stabilizing prices for pork, beef, and poultry. In September Price helped organize a collective buying plan. The Kendall County Cooperative Buying Agency began with the cooperation of virtually all the grain elevator concerns and cooperatives in the county.

Under Price’s leadership, the Farm Bureau also worked to introduce the concept of fertilizing fields with phosphates and surveying farm labor costs. “A survey of the cost of labor in Kendall County for last year being made by the Farm Bureau indicates an average of about $63 for single men and $75 for married men per month,” the Record reported on Jan. 12, 1921.

As the “Roaring ‘20s” proceeded, the nation’s farm economy was in danger of collapse. The post-World War I farm depression was in full swing by 1924, when the Farm Bureau called a meeting in Chicago attended by representatives from 88 of the state’s local bureaus.

In 1924, Charles L. McNary (R-Oregon) and Gilbert N. Haugen (R-Iowa) shake hands after Congress passes their bill to aid farmers. President Calvin Coolidge vetoed the legislation twice.

“The result was that the farm bureau men unanimously endorsed and approved the McNary-Haugen bill for the relief of agriculture and demanded that Illinois members of Congress earnestly and actively support this measure,” the Record reported on March 14, 1924. The McNary–Haugen Farm Relief Act was a plan to subsidize American agriculture by raising domestic farm product prices. Co-authored by Charles L. McNary (R-Oregon) and Gilbert N. Haugen (R-Iowa), the bill called for the U.S. Government to buy wheat and store it or export it at a loss to prop up prices. Despite strong opposition from business, the bill passed Congress twice, but was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge.

Despite low prices caused by over-production, Coolidge, and later Herbert Hoover, championed modernizing farming by encouraging more mechanization and rural electrification—which would have created even more surpluses, further depressing prices. Not until Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 were farmers made the beneficiaries of effective government assistance by reducing surpluses and increasing the market.

Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the Farm Bureau championed a number of political issues of importance to farmers, including eliminating farm owners’ responsibility to maintain township and county roads in favor of gasoline taxes.

In 1926, Price resigned as farm advisor to go into the poultry business in Yorkville and was replaced by young M.H. Watson in January 1927. Watson lost no time throwing the Farm Bureau’s support behind the plan to pave Ill. Route 47 from Yorkville south to Morris. The state had already begun paving the section of the road from Dwight to Morris, and completing it from Morris north to Yorkville would be of great benefit to everyone living along the route local residents contended.

As Record Editor Marshall pointed out on May 11, 1927, “It is not Kendall county alone to be benefited by the Route 47 connection; it is the entire farming belt which extends from Champaign county to the Wisconsin line. Twenty-one state highways are intersected by Route 47, and we are for it.”

Ironically, the Crash of 1929 that initiated the Great Depression really didn’t have much of an impact on farmers, since the farm depression had been going on with no relief for a decade. But as the 1930s ground on, conditions continued to worsen for the county’s agricultural community. Drought; infestations by voracious chinch bugs, grasshoppers, and armyworms; and the continuing economic calamity had a continuing and increasing impact. By 1933, conditions had grown so desperate with so many farms and businesses being lost due to unpaid taxes and mortgages that residents were banding together to protect each other.

By 1939, the corn Graeme Stewart was harvesting in this family photo was grown from hybrid seed, which substantially increased yields. The Farm Bureau championed the change from growing open-pollinated corn to hybrid varieties. (Little White School Museum collection)

In early February, the Record reported that “Pledge cards are being circulated throughout Kendall county reading as follows: ‘As a citizen of the United States and a believer in justice to all alike, I pledge that I will give my moral and physical support that no person in financial distress shall be unreasonably troubled.’ it is reported that over 700 such cards have already been signed by farmers in this county and that more are being signed every day.”

The Record went on to predict that more than 2,000 farmers and other residents would take the pledge to help protect property from being seized due to tax and other debts during the drive organized by a group calling itself the Kendall County Farmers’ and Business Men’s Protective Association.

Later that month in a letter to the Record’s editor, Illinois Governor Henry Horner noted: “Many of our citizens are face to face with the prospect of losing their farms and their homes and suffering a still further decrease in their earning capacity… I therefore appeal, in this emergency, to all holders of mortgages on Illinois real estate and personal property, whether residents of Illinois or elsewhere, whether corporations or individuals, to use the utmost forbearance in foreclosing on mortgages upon farms, homes, and chattels when the farm or home owner is in such desperate financial circumstances that he is actually unable to pay.”

It seems Horner’s plea had little impact locally. Banks continued to foreclose and the properties were sold at sheriff’s sales, often with insurance and other companies buying them for less than the debts against them, leaving farmers and business owners with no means to pay off the balance owed on the loans. Locally, the situation came to a head in late February 1933 when a sheriff’s sale of a farm was scheduled.

“The courthouse in Yorkville appeared to be in a state of siege Thursday morning when farmers of this county gathered to prevent the sale of the August Wollenweber farm south of town on such terms as would allow for the entering of a deficiency judgment,” the Record reported in its March 1 edition. More than 750 farmers had gathered to make sure Wollenweber, a well-liked and prominent farmer, would be treated fairly—an astonishing occurrence in normally staid and law abiding Kendall County. Seeing the crowd and gauging its mood, the lone bidder, the Life and Casualty Agency of Chicago, met with officers of the Farmers’ and Business Men’s Protective Association (most of whom were also members of the Kendall County Farm Bureau) immediately before bidding began. When Kendall County Sheriff Martin N. Hextell called for bids, Life and Casualty’s representative, Chicago attorney J. Edgar Kelly, made the only offer—at the agreed price to satisfy the entire outstanding loan against the farm. Wollenweber was given 15 months to arrange refinancing. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that violence had been averted, and Kelly was relieved to get out of Yorkville with his skin intact because the gathered farmers left no question about whether they were ready to use force to stop the sale if necessary.

Even as the county’s assessed value of farmland continued to plummet due to the Depression—it decreased by 10 percent in 1932 alone—the Farm Bureau continued to assist farmers with everything from combating chicken thieves to trying to keep chinch bug infestations from destroying crops. It also continued to be a leader as the nation’s floundering economy struck hard in Kendall County. In May 1933, the Record reported that: “Farmers, bankers, and business men of Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office Friday evening and elected a county conciliation committee to help debtors and creditors settle farm debt problems.”

As if the chaos caused by the Great Depression wasn’t bad enough, the nationwide drought had spurred an infestation of voracious chinch bugs that, in those pre-insecticide days, could devastate a grain field in a day. As the plague grew, the Farm Bureau stepped up its efforts to teach farmers how to protect fields from the bugs’ attack. The method involved plowing a deep furrow around a field of grain and then dragging a wooden fence post through the furrow to loosen dirt on its sides. Then deep postholes were dug every rod (16 feet) or so in the furrow. The bugs, as long as they hadn’t developed into their flying stage yet, would fall into the furrow. The loose dirt would keep them from climbing back out, so they’d turn and walk one way or the other along the furrow until falling into one of the postholes. When the postholes were nearly filled, farmers would pour fuel oil or kerosene in and light them off incinerating the bugs.

Those who lived through that era said they’d never forget the stench of burning chinch bugs that filled the air all over northern Illinois.

The June 14, 1933 Record reported: “According to Farm Advisor Miller chinch bugs are plentiful in most parts of Kendall county. At present they are most abundant in barley and the young brood is just beginning to hatch. The old bugs are now dying and it is the young ones that will go into the corn when the small grain is cut. Farmers should be on their guard at harvest time so as to protect their cornfields by making barriers. Further information may be secured at the Farm Bureau office.”

The federal government provided considerable fuel oil to incinerate chinch bugs, but by July, that had run out. To fill the gap, the State of Illinois began providing free creosote to farmers to burn the bugs. The Record reported a rail car a day was arriving in Yorkville daily with free creosote, with distribution organized by the Farm Bureau.

Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau was also working on concert with federal, state, and local officials to combat the effect of debt on town and country alike. The Record reported in May 1933: “Farmers, bankers, and business men of Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office Friday evening and elected a county conciliation committee to help debtors and creditors settle farm debt problems. This committee is in accordance with the suggestion of Gov. Horner.

This photo was taken Nov. 12, 1933 in South Dakota during the dust storm that carried dust all the way to Kendall County on 70 mph winds.

And we can’t forget the dust storms caused by the on-going drought. They didn’t just afflict Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. They also swept through the Midwest eroding soils and causing untold damage. The Nov. 15, 1933 Record reported on a particularly nasty dust storm that had struck the Fox Valley the previous weekend: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”

If all that wasn’t bad enough, June 1937, a plague of grasshoppers and armyworms struck the Midwest. In Kendall County, the Farm Bureau arranged the distribution of government-supplied and developed poison good for combating both destructive pests.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course. In amongst all the natural and economic devastation, the Farm Bureau found time to champion growing soybeans as a new cash crop and persuading farmers to switch from open pollinated corn to hybrids. By the time the Farm Bureau held their 1939 meeting, Farm Advisor Miller could report that Kendall County farmers had nearly all switched to planting hybrid corn.

Shortly before then, it had become clear the Kendall County Farm Bureau had out-grown its courthouse office space and badly needed its own building to house its growing number of programs. In July 1937, word spread that the organization was interested in property on Van Emmon Street in Yorkville as the site of a permanent building.

“The building will consist of a basement and two stories. The basement will house the cold storage locker plant,” the Record reported on July 21. “The main floor will be devoted to the offices of the organization, while the second floor will be a meeting room.”

The Kendall County Farm Bureau built their headquarters building on Van Emmon Street in downtown Yorkville in 1937, opening it in 1938. The Farm Bureau moved to new quarters in 2019 after merging with the Grundy County Farm Bureau.

In those days before home freezers were common, locker plants were popular in small towns all over the country. Farmer members of the Farm Bureau could rent locker space where they could store their own frozen meat and vegetables instead of canning them. As the Record helpfully explained: “The meat is brought to the cold storage locker plant immediately after it is butchered, where it is stored in the chill room at a temperature of 35 degrees for a few days until it is thoroughly chilled. It is then cut in pieces of suitable size for table use, wrapped in a specially prepared paper, and stamped with the number of the locker and the cut of meat. It is then placed in the freezer at a temperature of zero or below where it is immediately frozen and then placed in the locker rented by the individual, where it is kept at a temperature of 15 above zero.”

I remember going to the locker plant with my parents when I was around five years old—before my grandparents bought each of their children huge chest-type International Harvester deep freezes—and watching them wrap beef and pork from our own cattle and hogs in some of that special paper. It always impressed me as a wonderful place to live, especially when we went there on hot summer days to get a week’s worth of meat to take back to our farm.

With their own building, which opened in the early spring of 1938, the Farm Bureau could offer even more programs to educate farmers and their families. 4-H clubs got their start there, as did the county’s Home Bureau, an educational program to teach farm women how to safely harvest, preserve, and cook food, along with many other skills.

My mother was an avid Home Bureau member who came away from those courses with two bedrock convictions: Pressure cookers will blow up and kill you, and mayonnaise will quickly spoil and kill you. So I grew up with water bath canners and the presumably less lethal Miracle Whip—that my mother always called salad dressing.

Today, Farm Bureau membership is a shadow of its old self—mostly because farming in Kendall County is a shadow of its old self—although it continues to effectively serve the county’s farming community. 4-H is still as popular as ever, and the Farm Bureau continues to advocate for farmers and farm issues at the local, state, and national levels. The Home Bureau, which got its start back in 1938, is still functioning just fine as the Association for Home and Community Education.

The Farm Bureau’s building, brand new in 1938, on Van Emmon Street in Yorkville is vacant now awaiting repurposing as these modern times have demanded a leaner organization to serve the farm community’s modern issues, right along with some of the same ones they’ve been dealing with since the group was established back in December 1919. The Kendall County Farm Bureau itself has now changed, merging with the Grundy County Farm Bureau in 2019 to form a new combined organization. The new Kendall-Grundy Farm Bureau is headquartered in Morris.

Even with all the modern changes, the Farm Bureau remains an organization whose local ties go right back to those cabin and barn raising groups, the stock protective associations, and the claim associations that protected and promoted farmers’ interests so long ago.

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Maramech Hill area a historical gem—just not the one many believe it to be

Maramech Hill, located between Big Rock and Little Rock creeks just upstream from where the combined streams enter the Fox River, has been a celebrated local historical site for more than a century. Once touted as the site of a climactic battle between colonial French forces and their allies and the Fox Tribe, the area around the hill has become one of Kendall County’s premiere cultural and natural destinations.

Maramech Hill Area

The Maramech Hill area of Kendall County. Click here to enlarge.

Part of the area’s story begins during Illinois’ colonial era.

Warfare between Europeans and Native Americans began almost as soon as Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

In South and Central America, and a portion of southern North America, the Spanish waged a series of very successful wars of extinction against the native populations.

For most of North America, however, the situation was quite different. A series of powerful, adaptable, Indian tribes made the conquest of North America anything but a sure thing. Eventually, however, European numbers and technology won out over the Indians. But it was a tough, generations-long struggle.

For instance, the area that now includes the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia was known as “the dark and bloody ground” long before colonial American frontier settlers began filtering into it.

Maramech Hill site with timber

The Maramech Hill area (between the two creeks), during the settlement era, was surrounded by tall timber as the original survey map from 1838 shows. Click to enlarge.

Claimed as a prime hunting and trapping ground by the native tribes of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Huron people, the region was the location of nearly continuous intertribal warfare. It was warfare made worse when European colonial powers began playing the tribes off against each other in a quest to dominate the trade in furs. By the mid-1760s, the Europeans’ wars against each other had largely been settled in favor of England. English peace efforts included issuing a proclamation declaring a no-go zone for settlers west of a line that roughly ran along the peaks of the Appalachian chain. That effort failed spectacularly as American colonials flooded across the mountains to settle the region, touching off even more warfare with and between the tribes. A “dark and bloody ground,” indeed.

But it’s not so well known that nearly a century before those events took place, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan could have been accurately described as a dark and bloody ground as well, primarily because of a decades-long war between the French colonial government and the Fox Tribe.

The Foxes call themselves Meskwaki, or people of the red earth. The French, after encountering the tribe, referred to them as the Outagami or the Renards—French for fox. The tribe was first recorded living along the St. Lawrence River in modern Ontario. But warfare resulting from side effects of the fur trade—primarily conflict with the Huron Tribe—pushed the Foxes west, first to lower Michigan and then, eventually, to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. So the Foxes arrived in our region with built-in animosity towards the French as well as a favorable feeling towards the Iroquois, deadly enemies of both the Hurons and the French.

Through that series of wars and forced relocation, the Foxes became a pugnacious people. Part of the great Algonquian-speaking majority of Native tribes in northern North America, they were members of a linguistic subgroup with the Sauks and Kickapoos.

After being driven out of eastern Michigan by the Ojibwas, the Foxes were involved in fairly constant warfare with that tribe. The Foxes also engaged in sharp battles with the Sioux in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The Illinois, Potawatomis, the Miamis, and several other tribes in the upper Midwest were also often at odds with the Foxes.

Franquelin map color

Franquelin’s map of LaSalle’s colony in 1684 shows what early 20th Century advocate John F. Steward believed was Maramech Hill near Plano.

The warfare was bad for the business of the fur trade (especially their efforts to trade with the Sioux) and the French tried to stop it by weighing in on the side of the Foxes’ numerous enemies. This led the Foxes to cultivate ties with the powerful and ruthless Iroquois Confederacy, who were friends of the British and implacable enemies of the French and their Algonquian-speaking Native allies.

The Foxes’ actions to become the middlemen for the fur trade west of southern Lake Michigan—and to deny French firearms to the Sioux—resulted in denying the use of the strategic and economically valuable portage between the upper Fox River of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River to French trading interests. Instead, French traders had to use the longer and far more difficult Chicago Portage. And if that wasn’t bad enough, cozying up to British interests eventually persuaded the French that the Foxes had to be destroyed.

In 1710, a large group of Foxes—not the entire tribe—agreed to move adjacent to the French fort at Detroit, ostensibly to live under the protection of the French military. However, given the Foxes’ long animosity toward the French and their Indian allies, the Foxes were soon—and predictably—embroiled with disputes against French interests. In 1712, the disputes led to a Fox siege of the French fort, with the Foxes heavily and skillfully fortified inside their own camp. Eventually, Indian allies of the French arrived to lift the siege and to besiege the Foxes. The stalemate lasted nearly a month until the group of Foxes, out of food and water, attempted to escape during a thunderstorm. They were unsuccessful, and virtually the entire band was destroyed.

The rest of the Fox Tribe, not surprisingly, was infuriated. They retaliated by killing French traders and several members of the tribes allied with France. At the same time, the Foxes mounted a diplomatic offensive, and concluded a treaty with their old enemies, the Sioux, to eliminate the threat of an attack on them from the west.

Kee-Shes-Wa Fox Warrior

Kee-Shes-Wa, a Meskwaki chief, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

In response to the Foxes’ military actions, in 1715, the French attempted to launch a punitive expedition but those efforts were badly planned, and failed. The Foxes used the respite to build a strong, well-planned fortification on the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay. The fort’s walls were made of oak logs reinforced with earth dug out of trenches inside the fort.

When the French and their allies finally attacked in 1716, they used artillery and formal European siege tactics to attack the Foxes’ fort. However, the Foxes held out against the French and their allies, and forced a humiliating retreat.

The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, members of the Illinois Confederacy captured the nephew a Fox chief and burned him alive. The murder was in retaliation for the Foxes’ continually hunting in the Illinois Country without the permission of the Confederacy. In their own retaliation, a Fox force swiftly moved down into the Illinois County, and attacked a group of the Illinois Confederacy they found, forcing them to take refuge at LaSalle’s old fort atop Starved Rock. The Illinois managed to send a message south to Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and a force of French and their Native American allies was dispatched to rescue the besieged Illinois. By the time the relief force arrived, the Foxes had wisely retreated, leaving about 120 Illinois dead.

Not content with hindering the French trade in furs, the Fox continually attacked down into the Illinois Country, raiding French and Native American villages alike. Deciding to take the offensive against the Foxes once again in 1727, the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beauharnois, planned a campaign to destroy the Foxes’ military power. The governor appointed Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to command the campaign. Under the plan, de Lignery gathered a force of French troops and Native American allies in the summer of 1728. The Canadian force was to link up with another group from Illinois commanded by Pierre Charles Desliettes, commander at Fort des Chartres. the Commandant of the Illinois District. The rendezvous of the two forces was to have been at Chicago. But Desliettes’ force of 20 French soldiers and 500 Illini warriors happened upon a hunting camp of Foxes, along with some Kickapoos and Mascoutens, which they immediately attacked. The French force killed 20 and captured 15, after which Desliettes’ Illinois decided they’d had enough warfare and headed back home..

The balance of de Lignery’s large force, numbering some 1,650 French and Indians, continued into the Foxes’ country, but moved too slowly. The Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked. The attackers only managed to burn some Fox and Winnebago villages and crops before they retired back to Canada.

Governor Beauharnois, however, had become determined to permanently solve his “Fox problem.” Part of the plan involved using interpreter Jean-Baptiste Reaume to stir up animosity against the Foxes among other tribes. With that set in motion, he also ordered French officials in the Illinois Country to be alert for any opportunities to destroy the Fox Tribe.

1731 Carte du Fort ou des Renards

Carte du Fort ou des Renards,” a map drawn in 1731 from accounts provided by French officers involved in the 1730 battle against the Fox Tribe proved Maramech Hill near Plano could not be the battle site. Click here for a larger copy. of the map.

At the same time, the bulk of the Fox Tribe had decided they’d had enough, and determined to leave their homeland and head back east to live under the protection of their one-time allies, the Iroquois. To that end they packed up and headed southeast with the intention of looping round the end of Lake Michigan down to Starved Rock and then east to cross the Wabash. The first part of their trip was uneventful, but when they reached Starved Rock, they attacked a group of Illinois Indians, capturing the son of one of that group’s chiefs, whom they burned at the stake. That infuriated the Illinois, who complained to the commandant at Fort de Chartres. For good measure, the Foxes had also attacked and angered groups of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Mascouten tribes, which, it turned out played right into the hands of the French since Reaume had been goading all of them to attack the Fox for the past couple years.

From Starved Rock, the Foxes, with about 350 warriors and around 1,000 women, children, and old men, headed southeast, intending to cross the Wabash River. But having again angered the Illinois with their attacks, a force of about 200 Illinois warriors forced the Foxes to stop and build a fort to protect themselves. In the meantime, the French were calling on their Indian allies to join them to fight the Foxes.

The French forces eventually involved included Lieutenant Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers, Commandant at the River St. Joseph in modern southern Michigan; Lieutenant Robert Groston de St. Ange from Fort de Chartres; and Reaume. The allied French and Indian forces numbered about 1,400, and arrived to besiege the Foxes about Aug. 20, 1730.

This time, the Foxes’ luck against the French and their allies ran out. Low on food and water, the Foxes decided to make a desperate run for it during a violent thunderstorm the night of Sept. 8. Caught on the prairie outside their fortification, the Foxes were attacked and nearly exterminated. The battle did solve the Fox problem for the French, but it also served to sow dissent among their own allies. After all, if the French could exterminate one tribe, they could probably exterminate others.

Steward, John FIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, John Steward of Plano decided this climactic battle took place Maramech Hill near Plano here in Kendall County. Armed with this conviction and a good deal of money, he set out to find information to prove his contention. In 1903, Steward published a book he felt proved his point, Lost Maramech and Earliest Chicago, and even had a huge rock moved to the hill and inscribed with his version of what be believed transpired there.

Steward’s contentions, however, were controversial from the beginning, with most historians pointing out the plain language of the French colonial documents Steward located in France proved Maramech Hill could not have been the battle’s location. His thesis suffered a serious blow in 1935 when Stanley Faye published “The Foxes Fort—1730” in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, an article that demolished most of Steward’s contentions. Some 50 years later, three contemporary maps of the battle and site that had been unavailable to Steward were discovered and described the Journal in 1980 (“The 1730 Fox Fort: A Recently Discovered Map Throws New Light on Its Siege and Location”) and 1987 (“The 1730 Siege of the Foxes: Two Maps by Canadian Participants Provide Additional Information on the Fort and Its Location”).

1900 Lettering the Maramech Hill marker

The carved granite boulder John F. Steward (right in photo) placed on Maramech Hill near Plano  to mark what he believed was the location of the climactic battle between the French and their Native American allies and the Fox Tribe in 1730.

That new evidence, combined with both old and newly discovered accounts of the battle have persuaded historians that Maramech Hill was not the site of the battle. Rather, it is probable it happened near Arrowsmith, Ill., located well to the south-southeast of Starved Rock, east of Bloomington in McLean County. Archaeological work at the Arrowsmith site has made it all but certain that was the location of the 1730 battle.

1903 Maramech Hill B

Maramech Hill in 1903

So, okay, the French-Fox battle of 1730 didn’t happen at Maramech Hill. What did go on there? Obviously, given the artifacts recovered by Steward, the site had been inhabited by Native Americans. As it turns out, many of the artifacts Steward recovered proved Maramech Hill had been the home of Native Americans for a long, long time—just not the ones he thought lived there.

The potsherds he recovered from the site, for instance, appear to be from the Mississippian cultural tradition, as do other stone tools such as hoes for working cornfields. The Mississippian culture was based on growing corn and on trade all over North America. Their capital was at modern Cahokia where upwards of 40,000 may have lived in the area surrounding Monk’s Mound, the largest manmade earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. The river and creek bottomlands around Maramech Hill seem to have been tailor-made for the intensive agriculture practiced by the Mississippians.

But the artifacts Steward says he collected also point to habitation after the era of the French-Fox War as well, including trade silver that was created by British fur trade companies after the end of the French and Indian War in the late 1760s. Maramech Hill may have been the location of a Potawatomi village in the early 1800s led by Main Poche, a noted warrior who opposed the U.S. during the War of 1812.

Today, Maramech Hill and its immediate area are one of Kendall County’s most historically significant areas. Although Steward’s insistence that the climactic battle of 1730 between the French and the Fox Tribe happened there has been proven wrong over the last century and a quarter, the research into that era and the conflict between the Foxes and the French have proved to be extremely informative. For instance, warfare between the Fox Tribe and the French did not follow the familiar Hollywood script. Instead, the Foxes were able to develop the practical engineering expertise to blunt or thwart every French attack, including those involving artillery. In the end, it was lack of supplies that forced the Foxes to leave their fortified camp, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by a superior force. And while the battle didn’t happen here in Kendall County, it was part of the region’s history that made this its own “dark and bloody ground.’

Van de Rohe Farnsworth House drawing

The house legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed and built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth draws visitors from all over the world to the Maramech Hill area.

Further, the area in which Maramech Hill is situated had its own fascinating history during the pioneer era and afterwards. Just down the road a bit from Maramech Hill, where the road—part of the old Fox River Trail stagecoach road from Ottawa to Geneva—crosses Rob Roy Creek was the tiny hamlet of Penfield, where a post office was established in December 1839. When Marcus Steward—John Steward’s father—established his new town along the right-of-way of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Penfield Post Office was moved to the new town on the railroad tracks, opening as Plano in May, 1854.

In addition, the neighborhood also features Kendall County’s only international attraction, the Farnsworth House, designed and built between 1945 and 1951 by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth on the banks of the Fox River just a short distance from Maramech Hill. The architectural treasure annually draws thousands of visitors from around the world to see van der Rohe’s architectural gem.

2016 Maramech Forest PreserveFinally, thanks to the area’s topography, today the Maramech Hill area is also one of Kendall County’s natural jewels featuring rare and endangered plants, a startling variety of wildlife, and unique geographical features.

Prehistory and the region’s elaborate civilizations created by Native People, Illinois’ turbulent early frontier era, the era of settlement, its rare and endangered plants and animals, the nearby Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, and world-class architecture combine to make Maramech Hill and its surrounding region one of Kendall County’s most important and interesting areas.

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Fox River mills served both Kendall’s rural and small town communities

Water-powered mills were among the first businesses that started operating during northern Illinois’ pioneer period. On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills served the needs of local residents during the 1840s and early 1850s.

Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and one combined sawmill-furniture factory—exist. But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. Fortunately, there was a way to find out.

1900 abt Parker Mills

Parker & Sons mills on the Fox River just above Oswego. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the right foreground while the gristmill is across the river just to the left of center. Little White School Museum collection.

For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. that included accurate building footprints as well as, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents so insurance adjusters would be able to determine the amount of loss in case of fire. And all four mills had been recorded by Sanborn.

Starting with the region’s pioneer millwrights, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. At the mill, the grain was weighed and then shunted by chutes and bins into the smut room to prepare it for milling.

In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove the lighter weight bad kernels.

Parker Gristmill

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s image of the Parker gristmill. Little White School Museum collection.

Click here to enlarge.

Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, rotated, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’

Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into the center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. As the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins. From there, it went to the bolters.

Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a kernel of wheat or corn. The bolter was an octagonal reel, usually 16 feet wide, fixed at a gentle incline, and covered with a series of open weave cloths of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water-powered machinery slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.

Parker Gristmill

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s illustration of the Parker gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River at Oswego. Little White School Museum collection.

A middling purifier, also part of the Parker mill’s equipment, separated the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter had separated in the middle of the bolting process.

In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed from the cobs. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ wheat and oats from the stalks.

Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain, whichever the farmer preferred.

Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located at the east end of the Fox River dam, opposite the gristmill. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite the gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.

By 1885, Parker’s sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber to allow proper air circulation; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.

The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Gray’s Mill, built by Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, still stands at the west end of the Montgomery Bridge. One of the stonemasons who worked on the three-story limestone building was Oswego Township farmer John Hemm. The covered bridge was moved to Montgomery from Aurora, and was replaced in 1913 with a concrete bridge. Little White School Museum collection.

Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—had just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.

Gray's Mill

Gray’s mill sat atop the wide, and fairly long millrace at Montgomery, where the extra force of flowing water was needed to power all of the mill’s machinery. Evidence of the millrace’s existence can still be seen along the riverbank north of the bridge today. Little White School Museum collection.

Down on the north side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.

By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining them and the dams they required. Floods on the Fox River frequently damaged the dams, and at period of low water, the mills had to close down until enough water started flowing to power the machinery. During the winter months, it took constant maintenance to keep the millraces that directed water to the turbine wheels free from ice—a dangerous, wet, and cold job.

The Fox River Valley’s water-powered gristmills were eventually replaced by steam-powered grain elevators and local furniture makers by giant far-off factories. If you’ve seen the PBS film “Ben’s Mill,” which was produced back in 1982, you’ve seen a water-powered mill in action. If you haven’t, you can get an idea of how clever 19th Century mechanics made use of water power in this excerpt of the film on YouTube. Although water powered mills are long gone from the Fox Valley, some evidence of the time of that water-powered industry is is still around if you look closely enough.

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