Category Archives: Aurora

“The Basics” of American life have significantly evolved

I was paging through an old photo album the other day and came upon a photo of my grandmother dated about 1915. There she was standing beside her father-in-law in back of her two-story Aurora home, smiling into the camera holding up the severed head of a pig.

In this day and age, someone hoisting a pig’s head up for the camera would be considered odd if not downright dangerous. But my gentle and kindly grandmother was obviously not a bloodthirsty woman. So what was going on?

Wilhelm Holzhueter and his daughter-in-law, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter, make headcheese at the Holzhueter Home on Hinman Street on Aurora, Illinois’ east side neighborhood nicknamed “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelming German population. Photo probably taken about 1915 by Fred Holzhueter.

What was going on was everyday life at that time.

The early years of this century were times not so far removed—in lifestyle if not in year—from the subsistence farming in which the pioneers engaged. Until relatively recently (we’re talking in historical terms here), people did not go down to the supermarket for their every food need. Sure, there were grocery stores, but they mostly stocked staples like flour, sugar, rice, and the like. Instead of buying everything they ate, our not-so-distant ancestors had big gardens, raised chickens, and they kept cows and sometimes pigs, often even in town.

One reason most women did not work outside the home back then is because there was so much work in their homes to do all that gardening and animal husbandry not to mention trying to keep up with normal household tasks like cooking. Back in that day, just doing the family wash was a day-long job that involved heavy lifting, not to mention often having to be a cross between an engineer and a water-carrier—as my grandmother came to realize after she and my grandfather moved to a farm in 1920.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering’s gasoline utility engines. My grandfather also used it to power his concrete mixer and for other farm chores in pre-rural electrification days.

Farmers, of course, always tried to grow as much of the food they needed as possible while also trying to grow enough extra to send to market to earn cash. But frontier farmers found that given the transportation technology of the day their farm produce was hard–if not downright impossible–to move to market. As a result, they tried to convert their produce into something that was easier to transport.

Corn, rye, and other grains raised west of the Appalachian Mountains could be fermented and then distilled into whiskey, which could be transported a lot easier than the tons of grain it took to make the spirits. One of the nation’s first tax crises, in fact, happened because the government insisted on taxing whiskey, a practice western farmers insisted was unfair, since grain sold by eastern farmers was not similarly taxed. The Whiskey Rebellion was brief, but the animosity of the western settlers towards the more settled east remained and simmered.

The concept of making it easier to get western agricultural products to eastern markets was one of the major forces driving development on the frontier. Such giant—for their times—public works projects as the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls), the all the other canal systems in the nation were attempts to open farm-to-market transport routes.

Meanwhile, farmers were trying to survive by producing enough for their families to eat. Virtually every farmstead featured a standardized set of buildings and agricultural features that were geared towards not only producing products for sale or barter but for the subsistence of the farm family as well. Early on, a barn to provide storage for fodder, protection for draft animals, and farm equipment storage (meaning a plow during pioneer days); a crop storage building that eventually evolved into what we now call a corn crib; and a chicken house were the minimum buildings, beside the farmhouse, that were included on most farmsteads. Gradually, the kinds of farm equipment farmers needed increased and so a separate machine shed was added to the farmstead.

About 1900, R.D. Gates proudly poses with the hogs he’s raising on his farm on Minkler Road south of Oswego as his hired man on the wagon full of freshly picked and husked corn looks on. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In terms of livestock, at least one cow was kept to provide milk and butter for the family. A few pigs were almost always kept because they were easy to raise and provided a lot of meat for the cost of feeding them. Cattle were usually kept, although they were more expensive to purchase and breed than pigs because they did not convert forage to meat as efficiently. And, of course, chickens were almost always on hand because of their utility as garbage disposals, egg layers, and ready sources of fresh meat.

Until the 1960s, most farmers raised all of the above animals at once on their farms, sometimes for the consumption of their families and even more often as profit centers for their farming operations.

Outside on the farmstead, there was an orchard and a large garden plot. Orchards usually included apple, cherry, and pear trees, plus sometimes plums, apricots, and peach trees. Early on, fruit was dried or stored in cellars for use later in the year. Later on, the fruit was either canned or turned into jellies and preserves.

Preserving vegetables and other garden produce, fruit, and meat was one of farm wives’ major tasks. Vegetables were canned, while root crops were preserved in cellars. Some vegetables, like cabbage and cucumbers were preserved by pickling, including making sauerkraut out of cabbage. Fruit was, as mentioned above, either canned for later use in pies and salads, or made into preserves, jams, and jellies. Many farm tables featured a jelly dish at all three meals during the day.

My grandmother in 1978 enjoying a rest after a busy life in the house my grandfather built in town for their retirement.

Meat was preserved in a variety of ways, including canning, which was especially favored for beef. Pork was preserved by frying the pork chops and putting them down in layers in large crocks. Each layer was sealed from outside air–and spoilage–with a thick layer of pork grease. Bacon and hams were smoked for preservation. And some parts of the hog were preserved in other ways. “Headcheese” was created by boiling the hog’s head to remove and cook the meat and release the natural gelatin in the bones and connective tissue. Then the mixture was seasoned and poured into loaf pans to cool. This produced a spiced lunch meat loaf that was sliced for use in sandwiches and other recipes.

Which gets us back to what my sweet grandmother was doing displaying that hog’s head so proudly: She was getting ready to make up a fresh batch of headcheese for use in my grandfather’s lunches at the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops in Aurora—no trip to the packaged meat aisle of the grocery store needed.

As a commentary on American life, the photo leading off this post is just one more indication of how far our definition of “the basics” has moved from the time of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, family, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Women's History

Railroaded: How big business stole the Fox Valley’s independent railroad

It’s natural for us to take so many things for granted. And yet everything we see, no matter how mundane, has some history behind it.

That goes for the towns we live in, the roads we drive on, and even the geography of the areas in which we live. Some of those things seem such a part of the landscape that we tend to discount them. The area’s rail lines, for instance, usually don’t enter our thinking unless we have to wait at a crossing for a seemingly endless freight train to pass or we need to catch a commuter train into Chicago.

The short line that once ran from Streator to Ottawa and then north up the Fox River Valley all the way to Geneva is one of those bits of the local landscape that seem to have been there forever. But, of course, it hasn’t been. Like everything else we see on the modern landscape, it had a beginning—and in it’s case, a pretty contentious one at that.

The final route of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road is illustrated in this 1870 railroad map of Illinois. It linked the coal fields along the Vermilion River at Streator with Geneva in Kane County. (Little White School Museum collection)

When it was finished in 1870, the line was envisioned not as a mere spur or short line, but rather an independent railroad line that would vigorously compete with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s local rail monopoly. The idea was a good one, but perhaps the hardball financial practices of that era should have warned the Fox Valley residents and local governments who financed the road’s construction that they stood a chance of being cheated out of their investment. And, as it turned out, they were.

In 1853, the Aurora Branch Railroad—what, in 1855 would become the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad and eventually today’s Burlington Northern- Santa Fe Railway—crossed the Fox River at Aurora and then pushed west through northern Kendall County, bypassing the established villages of Oswego and Yorkville.

Though bypassing those towns—Oswego, at the time, was the county seat of Kendall County—the line’s construction did result in the creation of a brand new town at a station between Aurora and Sandwich, which its founders decided to call Plano.

As the Civil War ended, business and agriculture interests began calling for construction of more railroads to serve the Fox Valley. The CB&Q’s monopoly resulted in high freight charges that most farmers thought unfair. For instance, farmers living east of the Fox River were charged lower freight rates than those living west of the river, because the railroad was trying to entice farmers from farther away to use the line.

In 1866 serious agitation began for a CB&Q alternative. Farmers wanted cheaper grain and livestock haulage, while the rest of the Fox Valley communities were looking for a cheaper way to obtain coal from the mines near Ottawa. Coal at the time was becoming an extremely energy source for heating homes and other buildings, as well as fueling the steam engines that were slowly replacing other means of powering everything from farmers’ corn shellers to factory machines to newspaper presses.

As a result, talks about reviving the old Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad Company were held up and down the Fox Valley. The company was originally established at Newark here in Kendall County in 1852. The OO&FRV was to have followed the river north from Ottawa to Elgin via Oswego. The list of directors from local towns reads like a list of Who’s Who among pioneer Kendall County residents: L.B. Judson (founder of Oswego), Nathaniel Rising (a pioneer Oswego miller), William Nobel Davis (prominent politician, farmer, and lawyer), Samuel Jackson, Samuel Roberts (an Oswego hotelier), John L. Clark, and Johnson Misner. But Kendall County voters decided by a narrow margin of 43 votes against borrowing $25,000 to support the road’s construction.

For the next several years, the railroad’s charter was amended a number of times by the Illinois General Assembly, until local interest waned. But then in the post-Civil War years fuel costs rose sharply. And as noted above, coal heated homes and fueled the steam engines that more and more often powered local businesses and industries.

Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road Company stock certificate issued in 1869 to Ottawa Township in LaSalle County to finance the railroad’s construction. (Little White School Museum Collection)

“The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into a new and more vigorous life,” suggested editor and publisher John R. Marshall in the May 31, 1866 Kendall County Record.

The difference was that residents and local governments seriously promised to put their money where their mouths were concerning the new railroad. In early September 1866, Oswego Township residents voted 220-51 to buy $25,000 in railroad stock (the total was eventually raised to $50,000). Other municipalities and county and township governments along the proposed route expressed strong interest, too. That was a substantial sum for the era, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s dollars.

In 1869, the Illinois General Assembly formally authorized the cities of Ottawa and Aurora, and the counties of Kane and Kendall to sell bonds to pay for stock in the rail line, now named the Fox River Valley Rail Road, which was to extend down the Fox Valley from Geneva to Ottawa and then due south to Streator.

Streator was a relatively new town located on the Vermilion River, on the border between LaSalle and Livingston counties in the midst of what were then called the Vermilion Coal Fields. Originally a hamlet named Hardscrabble, the name was changed to Unionville when it was formally platted in 1865. Just three years later the name was changed again to honor physician and capitalist Dr. W.L. Streator. Streator, from Cleveland, Ohio. Streator had been elected by its board of directors to head the newly formed Vermilion Coal Company, established to exploit the region’s huge coal deposits.

With no truly direct rail connection from the new coal fields north to the growing towns in the Fox River Valley, the new line’s promoters figured a new railroad running along that route would be a definite financial success.

But before the rail line could be built, the definite route had to be selected. Business interests in Morris, due south of Yorkville, lobbied hard for the line to leave the Fox Valley there and run down into Grundy County to access the county’s coal fields south of Morris. But Kane and Kendall promoters of the new line were unimpressed with the Morris boosters’ arguments.

Commented the Record’s Marshall in a Jan. 19, 1865 editorial: “Now, it is patent to all that the business of a road running in that direction with a terminus at the coal fields of Morris would be of little utility, and offer none of the advantages of a heavy freight and passenger trade. The carrying coal of itself is nothing. The natural channel for this road is down Fox river, where the greatest facilities are offered for manufacturing, flouring mills, and general produce trade, and at the same time reaching as good goal fields as at Morris, and developing by far a richer agricultural country than can be found in Grundy county.”

Railroads were built by hand in the 19th Century. Despite its difficulty, during construction of the OO&FRV Rail Road in 1869-1870, workers were paid $1.50 per day–the equivalent of about $31 in today’s dollars.

As finally established, the plan was for the Vermilion Coal Company to build their own shortline from Wenona, situated on the Illinois Central Railroad, to Streator. Then the OO&FRV line would be built north from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox Valley. In the end, Streator’s location in the midst of 26,000 acres of rich coal land, became a rail hub, with six lines passing through or near it.

By June 1866, the route north of Ottawa had been roughly finalized and engineers were hired to survey it. On July 19, the Record reported that: “The surveyors who are laying out the route for this road arrived in Yorkville on Tuesday evening and will have the survey completed from Ottawa to this place today. The gentleman in charge of the survey informed us that he finds the route very favorable for the economical and rapid building of the road. The route surveyed commences at the Illinois river [in Ottawa], crosses Fox river at Mission island, passes a little back of Millford [modern Millington], crosses Hollenbeck’s creek just west of Millbrook church, runs a little north of Mr. West Matlock’s and comes into Yorkville on Hydraulic venue. The river bottom at the Mission crossing is of solid rock and favorable for bridge building.”

Work on the road was nearly ready to begin in March and April 1867, when Fox Valley interests had to fend off an attempt by Will County interests to have the road run north to Plainfield from Streator. Ralph Plum, treasurer of the Vermilion Coal Company, hastened to reassure Fox Valley residents the route up the Fox was assured. In a letter to the editor of the Record on April 18, 1867: “The work we have already undertaken cannot be regarded by any business man in other light than as a guaranty that our whole interests are identical with your own…

“We have never doubted since we first looked over the map of Illinois, that our best market lay up the Fox River Valley, and we are sure that the superior quality of the Vermilion Coal will secure for it a sale in many localities where other coals are sold, yet the Fox River Valley (and Northern Illinois to be most directly reached therefrom) is most emphatically out best market, for we can reach it to a better advantage than any competitor, the moment the Fox River Valley Railroad is completed.”

Then on March 5, 1868, the Peoria Democrat published an unsourced bombshell of an article contending the OO&FRV company as well as the Vermilion Coal Company, were willing to turn over their charters to the CB&Q Railroad as long as the Burlington promised to offer guarantee a “perpetual” fair coal transport rate to Fox Valley communities. The bombshell report caused a huge uproar because the whole idea behind building the OO&FRV in the first place was to escape the CB&Q’s stranglehold on Fox Valley freight rates.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad dominated rail transport west of Chicago. The OO&FRV Rail Road was built in an attempt to compete with the “Q.” (Burlington Route Historical Society photo)

But on March 18, the Ottawa Free Trader reported the Democrat’s article wasn’t true—at least as far as anyone knew. “On inquiry of the officers of the F.R.V.R.R, we have come to the conclusion that, beyond as a sketch of what might be and very possibly yet will be, there is nothing in it. The officers of the Burlington Road and certain capitalists interested in the Fox R.V.R.R. have for a week or two past been in close consultation in N.Y., and it is possible that a hint from that quarter may have inspired the article in the Peoria paper, was thrown out as a feeler; but no definite agreement or arrangement of the kind indicated in that article, we are satisfied, has yet been arrived at.”

In retrospect, the OO&FRV’s board members and local boosters should have given a little more credence to the story.

The railroad company, with proceeds from its tax-purchased stock in hand, contracted with a man named Oliver Young to build the rail line from Streator north. And that’s where it got interesting. As part of the contract, signed Jan. 20, 1869, the railroad, upon completion, could be “used, managed and controlled” by Young.

“The object of the Directors to build this road and run it independently, with a view to making it a valuable road to the public and a paying one to the stockholders,” Marshall wrote in the Record on Jan. 28. But that clause gave Young virtual carte blanche, something the line’s board members apparently overlooked in their eagerness to get it built and operating.

Not a railroad builder himself, Young then contracted with the firm of C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Construction went fairly quickly. On Sept. 16, 1869, the Ottawa Free Trader reported: “The determination is to have the iron horse from Streator at Ottawa before the 1st of December, and to have the whole road done before another year is gone.”

On Oct. 14, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Work on the Railroad is now commenced; the ground through town was broken yesterday; the initiatory ceremonies were limited to a short speech from John W. Chapman, briefly showing the auspiciousness of the enterprise and that everything connected with it augurs success. He welcomed the shovel and spade saying there were the basis to greatness to wealth, to civilization, and to many other things…[Oswego founder Lewis B.] Judson with a spade broke the first ground and [wagon maker William] Hoze conducted the first wheelbarrow full of dirt; to-day a gang of from 15 to 20 men and several teams are at work.”

A a CB&Q steam engine hauls a railfan trip across the bridge at Sheridan in 1962 northbound on the Fox River Branch.

The Record reported in December that “Railroad hands hereabouts now get $1.50 a day.”

Then in early March 1870, the old rumor of the secret sale of the OO&FRV line to the CB&Q raised its head once again. The Ottawa Free Trader said not to worry though, that they’d looked into it. “There is quite a buzz up Fox river, we are told, over a rumor that the Fox River Valley Railroad has been sold out to the Burlington road, or some other road or connection, and instead of running to Aurora and Geneva, will stop at Sandwich, Somonauk or somewhere in that vicinity. These reports are without the slightest foundation. The road, we are confidently assured, will be completed to Aurora within the coming year. The sale of the road from Streator to Wenona to the Jacksonville and St. Louis R.R. Company in no way affects the road from Streator northward. The people up Fox River may rest easy. The road is ‘all right.’”

Work on the railroad moved forward steadily, with a few housekeeping details finally settled. On June 2, 1870, the Record reported that “The Common Council of Aurora has at length granted right of way through the city to the Ottawa and Fox River Valley Railroad by a vote of 8 to 2. This question has been agitated for over a year, and is just settled. The road will run up an alley just back of River Street.”

In that same edition, the Record reported that it wouldn’t be long before actual rails would be laid along the line through Kendall County: “On Wednesday the 25th, nine carloads of railroad material belonging to the Ottawa & Fox River Valley Railroad arrived at Montgomery. It consisted of 5,000 ties and the remainder of bridge timber for use on the bridge across the Fox River. It is the determination of contractor Young to have all the grading between Aurora and Ottawa finished before June 15th when the men will be free to labor on the extension to Geneva.”

Not that there weren’t a few legal snags still in the way of getting the road built through Kendall County. The “not in my backyard” movement is nothing new, and it was big enough to cause some initial headaches for the rail line’s boosters. Eventually, county government had to take the unusual step of condemning land for the rail right-of-way. As the Record reported on June 9, 1870: “Messrs Henry Sherrill, John K. LeBaron, and Oliver Havenhill were engaged on Tuesday and Wednesday in assessing damages and condemning certain lands over which the Fox River Railroad is to pass. There are several farmers who will not give the right of way, nor do they want the road to cross their farms, and this course has been forced upon the Railroad Company. Three men of more integrity could not have been found in the County than the gentlemen above named. Engineer Wilson accompanied the party.”

If anything, enthusiasm for the line’s completion was increasing. Marshall, writing in the June 16 Record, observed that “Passing through Montgomery on Saturday we were pleased to see huge pile of ties and bridge timbers for our railroad. Also, the grading done from that village to the river. We will have a ride on that road before 1870 is passed,” he predicted.

To a general community-wide celebration, on Oct. 6, the first engine and cars puffed into Oswego from Aurora on the newly laid rails. Exulted the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “There is no longer any need for Oswegoans to be poor or have the blues, no excuse now for dull times. I want to form a co-partnership with someone who has plenty of stamps in order to start a Daily newspaper; somebody ought to set themselves up in the banking business and furnish with money, which is still tight, the OO&FRV to the contrary notwithstanding. This town is now presenting fine opportunities for capital seeking investments.”

The Oswego depot of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. This photo was taken before the depot was expanded in the summer of 1886. Stationmaster Henry Green Smith is standing at left in his shirtsleeves. (Little White School Museum collection)

That same week, Marshall wrote an editorial in the Record about the coming of the new rail line to Yorkville that for the normally taciturn publisher was almost giddy: “By next Tuesday, weather permitting, the iron horse will be in Yorkville to awaken the people by a regular railroad whistle. On Monday afternoon we saw the train about two miles west of Oswego and the tracklayers hard at work laying from half to three quarters of a mile per day. The train is made up of three or four flat cars and the same number of box cars with CB&Q engine No. 54 to draw them…After 15 or 20 years’ working, the friends of this road are about to see their hopes realized by the completion of the road, and we all rejoice.”

On Oct. 27, Oswego received its first load of freight on the new rail line, a load of lumber for businessman William S. Bunn. By that date, the rails had been laid within a mile of downtown Yorkville.

Then on Nov. 3, Marshall reported from Yorkville that the county seat was finally a railroad town:

“On Thursday last, the 27th of October, 1870, a train of cars on the Fox River Valley Railroad entered Yorkville for the first time. It made the people of the villages feel big.

“Engine 54, belonging to the CB&Q R.R. drew the train. On Friday, Hon. W.P. Pierce came down as a passenger from Oswego.

“It was rather amusing to see the locomotive haul up along side of Crooker & Hobbs’ pump there to have its tank filled with water by means of buckets. Ground has been broken for a water tank just east of the Saw-mill, near the head of the [mill] race.

“A switch has been put in east of Black’s rag-house, with all the appurtenances. By the time this reaches our readers the train will be out of sight down the river, leaving only about 12 miles of track to lay between here and Ottawa.”

But those persistent clouds on the horizon concerning ownership of the new line were continually darkening. On Oct. 13, the DeKalb News reported that “The CB&Q company have gobbled the Fox River road, operations upon that line have been stopped north of Aurora, which city will be the northern terminus. The grading has been done as far north as Geneva, but the iron will not be laid.”

Marshall tried to find out what was really going on, and decided the report couldn’t be true, flatly stating “there is no doubt whatever but what the iron will be laid to Geneva.”

Unfortunately for the new railroad’s stock and bond holders and prospective customers, those rumors over the past several months turned out to be all too true. In July of 1870, Force & Co., the company actually building the rail line, using the excuse that the new rail line didn’t have any equipment to operate after construction was finished, secretly contracted with James F. Joy, president of the CB&Q, to provide rolling stock and other equipment for the line—despite the fact the line did indeed own two locomotives and dozens of rail cars.

Then on Aug. 20, 1870, Force & Co. secretly leased the whole railroad (which it didn’t own—yet) to the CB&Q for 99 years. The last piece fell of the elaborate con job into place in October when Young, for “a valuable consideration” (we can only guess what it was) assigned all his interest in the rail line—remember he could “use, manage, and control” the line however he wanted—to Force & Co.

In early November, the facts finally got out that the CB&Q had indeed seized control and de facto ownership of the road by means of the secret Force & Company 99 year lease. The Railroad Gazette reported the facts of the CB&Q’s coup, adding: “We are authorized to say that the road will be completed to Geneva and the whole operated as a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy road.”

This tangled but ruthlessly efficient series of events resulted in the CB&Q tricking its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company itself now controlled. And those dreams of cheap coal? The CB&Q’s lease pointedly stated: “The said party of the second part (the CB&Q) …agrees…that in the transportation of coal over said demised road it will charge no more or higher rates than shall be charged for the transportation of coal over like distances on the railroad of the said party…”

As Marshall dryly put it in a November 1872 editorial comment: “The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

A CB&Q freight train rumbles past the old Oswego Depot on Jackson at South Adams Street in 1965. The depot was demolished in 1969. (Little White School Museum collection)

The affair resulted in local governments holding a lot of worthless railroad stock—after all, it was stock in a railroad company without a railroad—and thousands in debts. The efforts of individual and local governmental bondholders to recover their money would stretch on for decades. One positive outcome of the fraud scheme was to spur the formation of a union of farmers and laborers that was politically active for some years, nominating the first female candidate for local office in Kendall County.

But it was generally acknowledge that while the new rail line was a huge economic boost for Fox Valley communities, its birthing process left a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth—except the CB&Q and those in the OO&FRV’s management who connived with them.

Commented the Rev. E.W. Hicks concerning the scandal in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “Happy the far off day of the mercantile millennium when every man can enjoy the sight of the world on wheels passing through his field without the discomfort of losing his railroad stock by swindling directors.”

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The rise and fall of the interurban trolley: Another innovation lost in time

Somebody was asking about the long-ago interurban trolley system a few days back and I thought to refer them to a post on this blog, only to find I’ve never really done a post on the basic topic.

I was sure I’d done at least one, but I was apparently confusing this blog with the “Reflections” column I’ve been writing since the summer of 1980—and the “Epochs” column I wrote for the three years prior to that. After all, you write that much stuff you tend to forget what went where and when—because I have indeed written a number of columns on the local interurban systems over the years. Because for a little over 20 years, the interurban system was, as President Joe likes to put it, a BFD.

By late September 1900 residents living in and around Oswego had some new sights to see and marvel at as they awaited the century’s turn at midnight on Dec. 31, 1900.

The window in my great-great-grandmother’s tiny bedroom looked out on the east bank of the Fox River. By that time, virtually all of the trees along the Fox River had been harvested and used for one purpose or another, so her view was clear all the way across the valley, letting her clearly see the area’s latest transportation marvel—the new interurban trolley line running from Aurora south through Oswego to Yorkville. As she  put it in a letter to her daughter out in Kansas: “When I can’t sleep at night I can watch the Street cars run out my window over across the river.”

The arrow marks my great-grandmother’s house on what was then Water Street, just north of downtown Oswego. By then the banks of the Fox River had been denuded of the thick timber the settlers found when they arrived. That gave her a clear view across the river from her small first-floor bedroom. That’s the old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory to the right. (Photo by Irvin Haines in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

A group of investors had proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south through Montgomery and Oswego to Yorkville in 1897. An early proposal to build a third-rail electric line was quickly discarded in favor of using overhead electric lines. As proposed, the line would run mostly on public rights-of-way using light rails and electrically-powered trolley cars.

In August 1897 representatives of the new (and optimistically named) Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad met with the Kendall County Board to start hammering out a trolley franchise. As proposed, the line would begin in downtown Aurora, run south on River Street through Montgomery and along the Fox River through the new Riverview amusement park then under construction just south of Montgomery before gently curving west to join the West River Road—now Ill. Route 31—for the run to the Oswego Bridge across the Fox River. There, the line would turn east, cross the river on the bridge and climb the bluff to Oswego’s Main Street, where it would turn south once more following Main Street towards Yorkville along what is now Ill. Route 71. At the Cowdrey Cemetery, the line would turn once again to follow the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch Line between the tracks and today’s VanEmmon Road into downtown Yorkville. This line was never extended to Morris, although another interurban line would link Yorkville and Morris more than a decade later.

Among the issues that had to be hammered out between the county and the company was who would pay for improvements the line required, such as either strengthening or rebuilding the Oswego Bridge. In addition, the company pledged “that in every way possible the company would guard against frightening horses” or otherwise interfering with traffic on the roads alongside which the trolleys would run. In the end, the trolley company agreed to pay $3,500 towards the cost of a new, stronger box truss iron bridge to replace the existing 1867 tied arch structure at Oswego—with Oswego Township to pick up the rest of the tab—and the other issues were ironed out as well.

Residents of the towns the trolley would serve were, in general, enthusiastic about this new, all-weather transportation option. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall noted in a Dec. 13, 1899 commentary: “With only four reliable trains a day, it was hard for one to come here and be so late getting into Chicago as is necessary with the regular passenger train. With the electric accommodations, one can go to Aurora and take an early morning train to Chicago.”

Construction began in the spring of 1900 and by June 27, the tracks were completed from Aurora to the west end of the Oswego Bridge.

“Operation of the electric road from the bridge will be commenced this Tuesday afternoon by a free ride of the town and village officials to Aurora and back,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote. “Yorkville will have to wait about three months longer before enjoying such privilege.”

Interurban trolley car approaches the west end of the Oswego Bridge about 1903 enroute from Aurora to Yorkville. The tracks crossed the new iron box truss Fox River on the Oswego Bridge and then turned south along Main Street. (Little White School Museum collection)

Regular service began in early July from Aurora to the Oswego Bridge terminus. Use immediately proved enthusiastic and frequent. As Marshall wrote on Aug. 1: “That the Aurora and Yorkville electric road will be a great convenience and daily comfort is shown by the way it is used now between Oswego and Aurora. Every day parties drive up from about here [Yorkville] to Oswego and take the car there for Aurora, saving 12 miles’ drive.”

Work continued feverishly the rest of the summer and into the fall of 1900 on the new, stronger Oswego Bridge and the trestle at the east end of the bridge designed to carry the electric line up Washington Street over the CB&Q tracks to Main Street.

By late December, the Oswego Bridge and trestle, along with the tracks were finished and regular trolley service had begun, linking downtown Aurora through Montgomery and Oswego with downtown Yorkville. The first car arrived at the Kendall County seat at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, 1900 to enthusiastic applause.

Passenger-baggage Combine Car 106 cresting the300-foot Washington Street trestle in Oswego getting ready to make its southbound morning stop at Washington and Main Street to drop off fresh bread and other freight on its way to Yorkville. Combine 106 made the first round trip every morning to deliver and pick up freight–including farmers’ milk on the way to Aurora dairies–and a few passengers along the route. (Little White School Museum collection)

“There were two cars down—one with the Aurora guests, the other empty to return with a number of the distinguished populace of Kendall’s capital,” the Record reported on Dec. 26. Welcoming the new arrivals was Record publisher Marshall, who had welcomed the first railroad train into Yorkville 30 years before.

The interurban, providing hourly service from Yorkville from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day at affordable rates, was part of a vast interurban rail network that, it was said, allowed passengers to travel via trolley all the way from the Mississippi River—with transfers—all the way to New York City.

In an era of terrible roads, the interurban was a godsend, carrying passengers and freight, including farmers’ milk, to and from Aurora. Everything from fresh bakery bread to high school and college students to office workers to shoppers rode the trolley to and from Aurora daily. In addition, the amusement parks financed by the trolley companies to encourage weekend ridership drew thousands. Riverview Park—later renamed Fox River Park to differentiate it from its much larger cousin in Chicago—featured a variety of amusement rides from a rollercoaster to a huge carousel to a “shoot-the-chutes” into the Fox River. Boating on the Fox, annual summer Chautauquas that drew nationally-known speakers, and even professional baseball attracted huge crowds.

Riverview (later Fox River) Park, from the roof of the pavilion on the island looking towards shore, with boaters and strollers enjoying a summer afternoon with the huge dance hall/auditorium in the background. Although this postcard is postmarked 1911, the name of the park was changed to Fox River Park about 1905. The park was located directly across the river from modern Boulder Hill. The Western Electric plant later occupied the site. (Little White School Museum collection)

But a little more than a decade later, the line, eventually renamed the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago after several reorganizations, and others throughout the nation found themselves under assault from the ever-growing numbers of internal combustion automobiles and trucks. As cars and trucks became more affordable and much more dependable, the public also insisted on more and better roads. In response, Illinois officials proposed a $60 million bond issue in 1918 to “get Illinois out of the mud” by building a network of paved roads that would link every county in the state.

The $60 million cost of the project was of considerable concern to residents here in Kendall County, always conservative when it came to making public expenditures. But as a Record editorial pointed out on Oct. 16, 1918, the bonded indebtedness was to be paid through gasoline taxes.

“The $60 million bond issue for good roads has frightened many by its name,” the Record pointed out. “They don’t realize that this amount of money is to be raised by the users of automobiles and comes out of their tax as machine owners. Not a cent will be added to the personal or real estate taxes of a person. The good roads will be built and maintained by the auto owner. Vote for the issue.

Despite the nation being involved in World War I, the Nov. 2 bond issue ended up passing easily. Kendall County voters overwhelmingly approved it, 1,532-90.

The construction crew pouring concrete on Route 18–later Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34–at the west end of the Oswego Bridge (just visible at upper right) in 1923 takes a break to chat with some local folks. Route 18 was built as part of the $60 million state bond issue that led to the end of the interurban system. (Photo by Dwight Young in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

The interurbans, with their privately-owned rights-of-way, tracks, and cars, quickly found themselves unable to compete with the combination of increasingly inexpensive, dependable motor vehicles and publicly financed hard-surfaced roads. And so, in the 1920s, one by one, the interurban lines closed down.

On Aug. 6, 1924, the Record reported that “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued.”

In the event, the line carried on until Feb. 1, finally succumbing to the advance of transportation technology and the nation’s willingness to subsidize roads but not rails.

Today, there are scant reminders of the trolley era, but there are still a few bits of evidence it existed. There are still one or two old concrete culvert remnants along Ill. Route 31 and if you look closely between the road and the railroad tracks the next time you drive VanEmmon Road into Yorkville, you will see some of the last evidence of the old trolley line.

Ironically, as we attempt to deal with climate change and the problems emissions from our internal combustion cars and trucks cause, the old interurban trolley system looks like another pretty good idea lost in time.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation, travel

A little local dairy history to celebrate National Dairy Month

So how are YOU celebrating National Dairy Month in June?

Down at the Little White School Museum, we’re doing a special exhibit and I’ll be giving a short program on the community’s dairy history—which turns out to have been fairly extensive.

Here in northern Illinois, the counties up north and communities like Harvard have been known for their dairy farms for generations. But little Kendall County had a surprisingly robust dairy industry right up until World War II, and even for a few years thereafter.

In late April 1875. H.N. Wheeler, editor and publisher of the St. Charles Leader up in Kane County, tweaked Oswego about its dairy business: “Oswego claims to send a good deal of milk to Chicago. Well how much? It’s the first time we knew that the milk business, to any extent, had got that far south.” To which Kendall County Record publisher John R. Marshall shot back: “Come down the river some day, Wheeler, and we’ll show you. Yorkville ships a dozen, or 10 cans a day, also. You haven’t all the milk (or the coconut) up the river.”

Milk cows arrived in the Fox Valley with the earliest settlers in the 1830s, and by the 1850s, dairy farms in Kendall County were producing quite a bit of milk. The problem was what to do with it. Milk spoils easily and in 1850, it would be three more years until a rail line extended through Kendall County that could handle shipping easily spoiled products like milk. The roads of that era were little more than tracks across the prairie, nearly impassable after the spring thaw or at any other time of the year after heavy rains.

The solution was to turn milk into products such as butter and cheese that were less prone to spoilage and that would stand being shipped overland.

In 1850, less than a decade after Kendall County was established, the U.S. Farm Census reported there were 3,160 dairy cows in Kendall County. Further, the county had reported producing 180,000 pounds of butter and 27,000 pounds of cheese that year. Most of those products were produced on individual farms or in homes in town for sale locally, but a fair amount was shipped east to the nearest railhead where it could reach the Chicago market.

Seely’s “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge housed the village’s first creamery. (Little White School Museum collection)

It wasn’t until 1867, that Oswego’s first commercial dairy operation opened. As reported in the Record on July 25 that year: “Oswego is still making improvements and among them is a new cheese factory on the west side of the river. The old stone machine shop has been fitted up by Messrs Roe & Seely into a neat and thorough factory for the manufacture of cheese. These gentlemen are both from that renowned dairy district, Orange County, N.Y. Mr. Roe has been 12 years in the milk and cheese business and understand it in all its branches. On Tuesday we called on him and he showed the operations of the factory and gave us much general information in regard to dairies, etc. The factory commenced operation on the 6th day of May last and has been constantly at work since. They use 1,500 quarts of milk a day from about 175 cows. They do not work on shares as some factories do, but buy the milk for cash.”

That “old stone machine shop” at the west end of the Oswego Bridge is still standing as a private residence, and is known today as Turtle Rock.

By 1860, the number of milk cows in the county had more than doubled to just over 7,000 and the amount of butter produced had skyrocketed to 602,000 lbs., while the amount of cheese manufactured on farms and in homes had not quite doubled to 46,000 lbs.

In 1870, the number of milk cows in the county had decreased a bit, just like the county’s population, but the amount of butter produced had again increased. And also that year, Oswego, Yorkville, and several other towns up and down the Fox River finally got a direct rail connection. That meant dairy products—including raw milk—could be more easily shipped to distant markets. But the rapaciousness of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad and its monopoly on rail transport meant shipping dairy products to market was an expensive proposition. Oswego general store owner David M. Haight went so far as to propose shipping milk and other dairy products by road to the Chicago market, but the condition of those roads remained terrible.

Instead, businessmen and farmers’ cooperatives decided the best course was to open local creameries where farmers could sell their milk that could then be processed into butter and cheese. By the late 1800s, most communities in Kendall County could boast their own creamery. Oswego, for several years, had two creameries, the first a commercial operation in an abandoned brewery along modern Ill. Route 25, and the other a farmers’ cooperative located in the area of the Oswego grain elevator.

McConnell’s Oswego Butter and Cheese Factory located in a former brewery on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society collection)

The March 1, 1877 Record reported that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped in a measure the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

Those creameries produced huge volumes of dairy products. By 1878 McConnell’s Oswego creamery alone was processing 14,000 lbs. (almost 1,630 gallons) of milk a day. On May 16 that year, the Record reported: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

Local dairy production was not limited to farms during that era, either. Most houses in town boasted a small barn on their property where the family kept a few chickens, the family cow, and a driving horse, with a buggy and, for the winter months, a sleigh. The problem, of course, is that town lots don’t have any space to pasture a cow. So for much of the 19th Century, cows in small towns like Oswego and Yorkville were allowed to roam at large. As you might guess, this caused frequent problems.

On March 21, 1867, Marshall complained in the Record that: “Farmers coming into Yorkville to trade are annoyed beyond patience by the cows running in the street, that make their way to a wagon as soon as it is left by the owner, and forage the hay, straw, apples, potatoes, or whatever there is eatable therein. Nothing is save from their ravages and at the coming town meeting something should be done to abate the nuisance.”

Oswego’s “Barn Alley” between Monroe and Madison streets had one of the village’s best collections of town barns. (Little White School Museum collection)

Towns soon passed laws forbidding cows to roaming at large. But that didn’t go down well with some residents. On May 20, 1869, under the headline “The Great Cow Rebellion,” Lawrence Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “The great sensation of Oswego last week was the cow rebellion. It happened this way: The corporation powers that be [the village board] ordained that all cattle should be prohibited from running at large in the village streets. A lot of cows soon were in the pound. Cow owners were filled with indignation, denouncing it as a piece of highhanded legislation, a crushing down of the poor, etc. The government backed down. The cows are now enjoying the liberty of the streets. As for myself in that struggle, I was on the side of the cow; am too much of a calf, that is, like milk too well to go back on her.”

Eventually, because of the destruction they kept causing, Oswego’s cows, like those in Yorkville, were ordered restrained from running at large, no matter how indignant their owners became.

How many cows were in town? I couldn’t find any figures from the 19th Century, but in 1910, the U.S. Farm Census reported how many cattle were being kept on farms as well as in town. It turned out there were half again as many cattle as people in Kendall County on farms that year. Plus there were 230 head of cattle—likely all or most being milk cows—kept in town, a fairly sizable number for a small county with a population of just over 10,000.

In 1890, Kendall County hit its peak dairy cow population, with 9,500 cows in the county. That year, at least a dozen creameries were operating in Kendall County, most of them farmer cooperatives.

The production of dairy products was high during that era, too. In 1885, the Illinois Agriculture Department had reported that during the previous year, Kendall County farms and businesses reported selling huge amounts of dairy products. According to the state, Kendall County farms sold 433,599 gallons of milk; 18,241 gallons of cream; 282,495 pounds of butter; and 24,500 pounds of cheese during 1884.

In the 1930s, Clarence Schickler operated a farm dairy from the basement of his large farm home along Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Ironically, his father had been arrested for operating large bootlegging operation out of the same space a decade before. (Little White School Museum collection)

From that high point, however, dairy production in Kendall County began to decline. The shear work dairy farming entails, along with the steady consolidation into ever-larger dairy farming operations and increasing health regulations began squeezing out, not only smaller dairy farm operations but also the small local creameries that processed their production. By the end of World War I, all the local creameries were gone.

By 1959, the number of dairy cows in the county had dropped below the count in 1850, and it, along with the number of dairy farms, declined even more sharply after that.

As late as 1950, 694 farms in Kendall County reported having at least one milk cow on the place and the number of dairy cattle was reported at 4,569. By 1964, the number of farms with a dairy cow on the place had dropped to just 133, and the number of dairy cows in the county had decreased to 1,751. In 1997, just nine dairy farms reported having only 246 head of dairy cattle and by 2002, there were only two dairy farms left in the county, the number of cows so low it wasn’t recorded by the farm census.

While the dairy farming and dairy products businesses were consolidating, so were the companies that provided milk to consumers. Very early on, farmers would actually go door-to-door in towns and sell milk to householders and businesses by the bucket. George Henry Lester patented the first glass milk container, the ungainly Lester Milk Jar, in 1878. He started selling milk in his jars in 1879, but it wasn’t until 1884 that really practical milk bottles hit the scene. The invention of practical milk bottles, along with the home icebox allowed small dairies to pop up all over the country—and not just in towns.

A milk and a cream bottle from Oswego’s Schickler Dairy will be among artifacts on exhibit during “Milk and More: Discovering Oswego’s Dairy Industry” at Oswego’s Little White School Museum on Saturday, June 12.

Here in Oswego, the community was served by two farm-based dairies. The Roberts Dairy was based on Charles Roberts’ farm south of the Oswego Bridge on modern U.S. Route 34, while the Schickler Dairy was located on the Clarence Schickler farm on modern Route 31 north of the bridge. They served the community during the 1920s and 1930s.

After World War II, larger dairies in Aurora were able to undercut the prices of the smaller local farm-based operations. Oswego was served mostly by Aurora’s Oatman’s Dairy in the 1950s. Oatman’s provided both home delivery by milkman Les Weis and also provided milk to Oswego’s schools for those government-subsidized daily milk breaks. At first school milk was served in small half-pint glass bottles, but those were soon replaced by waxed cardboard half-pint cartons.

Milkmen, in turn, were displaced in the home milk supply business in the 1960s when gas station owners discovered milk was a great customer draw. Grocery stores had by then begun selling more milk as well, but the hours of stores of that era were far more limited than gas stations. Gas station owners found the investment in a glass-doored milk cooler attracted many more customers than their old, limited product line. And thus was invented, after a few years of evolution, the mini mart that dominates so much of today’s retail landscape.

On Saturday afternoon, starting at 1:30 p.m. at the Little White School Museum, I’ll be recounting these stories along with a few others (such as the one about how Clarence Schickler’s father operated a huge illegal bootleg still out of the same space as his milk bottling operation occupied) during a program that’s part of our salute to National Dairy Month. We’re also assembling some fun exhibits of dairy-related materials from our museum collections—glass Schickler and Oatman’s milk bottles, a hand butter churn, milk and cream cans, and a lot more. Admission to the program at 1:30 is $5, with proceeds benefiting the museum. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

Hope to see you Saturday!

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology, Transportation

The Fox: River of not enough respect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet as…Old Spice?

So I was getting ready to go this morning and noticed Old Spice has put a slogan on their stick deodorant: “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t be here.”

My grandparents’ wedding photo. Old Spice had no effect on subsequent events.

Which seemed to me to be somewhere between a bit odd and borderline creepy. Should I really care which deodorant gave off an odor that moved my grandmother to sexual desire? Is wondering about my grandparents engaging in sexual ecstasy back in the autumn of 1909—or at any other time—really something I want to be thinking about in the first place? And, frankly, I’m not sure my grandfather even wore deodorant back in those days.

Shulton, Inc. didn’t start selling Old Spice until 1937, so, no, I’d still be here without Grandpa using it since Old Spice was 28 years in the future when my mother was conceived following a night of presumably lusty German-American love.

Not that there wasn’t deodorant around in 1909. The first commercial deodorant designed to disguise body odor, Mum, was trademarked in 1888. While it suffered from limited effectiveness, it did get better. You can apparently still buy Mum, and if you use Ban roll-on deodorant, you’re using the great-great grandchild of Mum.

Mum was the first true deodorant, but it wasn’t an antiperspirant.

But covering up odor isn’t the same as preventing it in the first place. The first effective antiperspirant—a product that actually inhibits sweat production as well as odor—wasn’t developed until 1903, not too long before my grandfather would have been trying to entice my grandmother to procreate my mother. It, too, had major drawbacks in that the aluminum chloride that was its active ingredient tended to literally eat clothing by dissolving it, not to mention it tended to severely irritate the sensitive skin under users’ arms.

But then in 1910, the father of Cincinnati high schooler Edna Murphey developed a better product, and the young lady decided to turn entrepreneur and go into business producing and marketing the deodorant her father invented. Naming her new product Odorono (“Odor? O, no!”), Edna decided the 1912 Atlantic City exposition would be the perfect place to get recognition and market share for her new toiletry. But results were disappointing at first, until the extremely hot, humid summer of 1912 wore on during which word got around about Odorono’s usefulness.

Unfortunately, the stuff still had the problems inherent in the process of suspending aluminum chloride in an acid base—it was hard on clothes and irritated users’ skin. And since it was colored red, it was really dangerous to use under the white cotton and linen summer dresses and shirts popular during the era.

But Edna and company eventually got the bugs ironed out, which you can see if you walk down the deodorant aisle at Walgreens; there are a ton of different brands and styles, including my current Old Spice, that have mimicked Edna’s product—which is also still for sale, by the way.

But even if it hadn’t taken until 1910 for someone to invent a usable antiperspirant deodorant, I have a feeling my grandfather wouldn’t have used it. Back in those days, my grandfather was working in the sprawling Burlington Shops in downtown Aurora. A carpenter, he worked his way up to supervise a crew of a half-dozen other carpenters building boxcars and cabooses. Enjoying the CB&Q’s 40-hour work week, the crew worked 10 hours a day four days a week and had three days off. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m not sure deodorant was anywhere on his event horizon. My grandmother had grown up on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and so probably wasn’t used to sweet-smelling men anyway.

While they didn’t use deodorant, men of that era did attempt to cover up body odor on the days between their usual Saturday night bath, especially when courting.

The whole idea of making oneself smell better wasn’t new during that era, of course, but went back hundreds of years. When the Three Wise Men sought out the Christ Child, according to that brief New Testament account, along with gold they brought myrrh and frankincense as gifts, both expensive ingredients of perfumes of that distant era. And who knows, maybe Joseph and Mary, ensconced as they were in a stable, were happy to get them.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Car Shops at Aurora, where my grandfather worked. The paint shop, coach shop, car shop, and blacksmith shop, located north of the roadhouse and locomotive shops, are shown above. Library of Congress collection.

In 1709, an Italian, Giovanni Maria Farina, developed the first commercially viable men’s scent in Cologne, Germany. Giovanni named it in honor of his adopted hometown, and the name soon came to be applied to all men’s scent products. Interestingly enough, his family still manufactures the stuff there.

By the early 20th Century, men were using a variety of products to improve their body scent, including a variety of aftershave products that were particularly popular in the barbershops of the era. And that included talcum powder, which was used to finish off a shave and a haircut—which really did cost two-bits.

When I was a youngster, the barber always ended the haircut ritual by shaking some sweet-smelling talc on a soft, long bristled brush and brushing down my neck. I can still smell that powder to this day, when I stop to think about it.

I’m sure my grandfather went a barbershop from time to time over there in the area of the East Side of Aurora nicknamed Dutchtown because of all its German-speaking residents. But being a frugal German, he would mostly have shaved himself. If he paged through the Sears catalog, he might even have decided to splurge by investing in their Gentlemen’s Shaving and Toilet Outfit for just $1.79—$51 in today’s dollars.

The outfit didn’t include a razor; that, Sears apparently figured, you already owned. The outfit’s top advertised item was a bottle of Violet Witch Hazel, a violet-scented after-shave. “It removes the irritation caused by shaving, cools and makes antiseptic the thousands of pores on the face, prevents chapping, and leaves that exquisite lasting odor of violets about the person,” the Sears copywriter promised. So, Grandpa may have smelled like violets, which isn’t a bad way to go, I guess.

Also included was an entire pound of Williams Genuine World Renowned Shaving Soap; a styptic pencil for those annoying razor nicks; a bottle of Belezaire Genuine Brilliantine “for perfuming the moustache or hair;” one stick of Williams Genuine French Cosmetique “for fixing and giving gloss to the moustache and whiskers;” a jar of Crystal Shampoo Jelly (“It removes dandruff!”); a bottle of Eastman’s Genuine Eau de Cologne (“It is very refreshing and of great value in the sick room, where it can be used as a disinfectant for destroying bad odors and rendering the air in the room fresh and pleasant.”); a fine bleach sponge for removing the soap and lather after shaving; one Genuine Faultless Beauty Brush “for coaxing the dirt out of its hiding places” and for “producing a healthy glow;” and, finally, two bottles of “well-known Wood Violet Talcum made by the well known Hilbert Perfumers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

So he would have gotten a pretty good deal on stuff to make himself smell better and even a bottle of cologne he could have used during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to freshen up the sick room, assuming he had any left. But nowhere in Sears’ 1909 catalog do they list any deodorants or antiperspirants for sale.

But the real problem, I suppose, is that when Old Spice talks about their customers’ grandfathers, they’re not talking about MY grandfather, or even my father. These days, they’re talking about ME. Even though when I was a young man dating my wife-to-be Old Spice was old news—it was the deodorant and aftershave and men’s cologne my father used. So, no, it wasn’t Old Spice that might have lured my wife, it was English Leather aftershave and soap on a rope (remember that?). But now the kids produced by the English Leather generation are back to using Old Spice again, while some of us are kidded until we try something new that’s not new at all—Old Spice.

Nevertheless, being a member of the Baby Boom generation and growing up when nearly the nation’s entire economy was aimed at trying to satisfy us, it is a bit mind-bending to remember we’re no longer in the prime demographic that advertisements are aimed at.

Instead, I keep trying to imagine my grandfather not only as a young man, but also as a guy just trying his best to smell better as he tried to impress his young wife, my grandmother, and it’s rough going.

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It’s that “most wonderful time of the year”

I noticed the first Christmas decorations popping up around the Fox Valley in October well before Halloween. Then the Hallmark Channels started their Christmas made-for-TV movie blitzkrieg, a seemingly never-ending bombardment of saccharine mono-plotted programming that became annoying for its monotony and the Canadian accents of its actors after the first week.

But now, the retail ball is really getting rolling, as well, even in the midst of the depressing Covid-19 pandemic. Communities have been trying to drum up holiday spirit for their generally dispirited populace with a variety of socially-distanced and masked events. It seems to have worked, at least a bit, although the general lack of snow has so far put a bit of a damper on the season as have the effects of sheltering in place. Some have decided not to do any home decorating for the holidays, while others have gone ahead in an effort to brighten up the end of a particularly dismal year.

When we were kids, we were told by adults, in serious tones, that Christmas was all about giving. Which was silly. We knew that Christmas was all about getting Christmas gifts. Besides, we didn’t have money to buy gifts for anybody anyway.

Out at the one-room Church School, our big musical number in our 1953 Christmas program was “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” with a real set and everything.

In preparation for Christmas pageants at school and at church, we began cramming our lines along about the first of December. At school, especially during my early elementary years, the approach of Christmas meant a daily practice at Church School out in Wheatland Township, singing with Mrs. Eleanor Stewart at the piano helping our teacher, Mrs. Comerford, out. It also meant on-stage practices down in the basement of the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Not only was the church basement the biggest space in the neighborhood, but it was right across the road from the school. Conveniently, Mrs. Stewart also provided the piano accompaniment for our Sunday School Christmas program so we were all comfortable with each other during those seemingly endless practices.

It wasn’t until we moved to town, though, that the true and full force of Christmas hit me. Of course, I was a bit older then and able to grasp the full import of things like television commercials for the latest Mattel six-shooter, a replica Winchester lever action rifle, or Schwinn bike. For years, my greatest ambition was to visit Amling’s Flowerland, drawn to it because of the wonderful commercials on “Elmer the Elephant,” “Uncle Johnny Coons,” and other similarly culturally uplifting children’s television programs. There on the small screen were kids that looked just like me flying real gasoline powered model airplanes and wearing neat looking military uniforms—with helmets!—all available at Amlings.

In the 1950s, Shuler’s didn’t have a very big toy selection, but their comic book rack was well-stocked and regularly updated. (Little White School Museum collection)

The nearest big department stores to little Oswego were in downtown Aurora, but kids couldn’t get there on their own. So for most of the year we had to make do with the tiny toy departments at Shuler’s Drug Store and at Carr’s Department Store in downtown Oswego. Granted, Shuler’s had a pretty good comic book selection that was updated regularly, but their toy section left a lot to be desired.

But once a year after Thanksgiving, Shuler’s would offer a special and commodious toy selection in the old meeting hall above their drug store, staffed by the folks from Carr’s Department Store. On the way home from school, bundled up in our scratchy woolen coats with those silly attached half-belts that were always coming unhooked in front, hats with earflaps, and five-buckle rubber boots we’d trudge up the stairs off Main Street and enter a different world. Games from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley were stacked along with six-guns from Marx (cheap) and Mattel (much better), trucks by Tootsie Toy and Tonka, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, dolls and a wide selection of accessories, and even an occasional Gilbert Chemistry Set. We all looked longingly at the chemistry sets with the happy kid on the front of the box mixing wonderful looking chemicals in a test tube while a retort on a Bunsen burner bubbled in the background.

We all wanted to try mixing the contents of a Gilbert Chemistry Set in “the wrong way” to create explosives. Alas, we were thwarted by cooler heads in Gilbert’s legal department.

We all knew that extraordinary explosives could be created with a chemistry set because we had all heard the rumor about the kid that blew up his garage by “accidentally” mixing chemicals “the wrong way.” But when one of us finally actually got a genuine Gilbert Chemistry Set—the big one with the steel case that folded out in four sections—we found that instead of truly cool stuff like the makings for gunpowder or nitroglycerine, the case was full of little glass tubes and bottles containing substances labeled “Xylan” and “Diatomaceous Earth” that didn’t explode worth a darn. In fact, it slowly dawned on us budding mad scientists that ingredients of chemistry sets are designed so they won’t explode no matter how they are mixed, and in fact are designed to be so maddingly safe that one of them would probably stop a nuclear chain reaction in its tracks if it was close enough.

A treasure I bought Fagerholm’s in Aurora with my Christmas gift money from my grandparents one year was the Dinky Toy version of the World War II British 5.5″ field gun and the truck to tow it with.

So we spent lots of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas looking longingly at toys both live and on TV, and then, every once in a while, our parents would have to go to downtown Aurora to replenish supplies of things that grownups figured they needed. That gave us a chance to visit the stores that had the neatest toys, mainly Fagerholm’s Toy Store on South Broadway, The Book Shop over on Stolp Avenue, and May Electric where you could go upstairs and see the latest Lionel train equipment. The Book Shop, was the “educational” toy store in downtown Aurora, and had wonderful things in its window, educational or not, things like shiny miniature steam engines that actually worked to drive working toy machines, and plastic planetariums that were guaranteed to project the heavens on your bedroom ceiling as long as the lights were turned off. Fagerholm’s had the marvelous British-made Dinky Toys and the best selection of model plane and car kits in Aurora, while the Lionel equipment at May Electric was first-rate.

The Christmas I found a new Lionel Santa Fe diesel switch engine under the tree was a happy one indeed.

Actually, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized that it really is better to give than receive at Christmas. The looks on the faces of our kids when they found some wished-for treasure under the tree Christmas morning brought home the fact like no amount of preaching did years before.

Actually, I’ve found, the season seems to be mostly about joy, and the satisfaction derived by doing good things for other people. This Christmas, little kids won’t remember a thing about the recent election or whether traffic signals have been installed down the street, although they might retain some memories of this crazy pandemic year. For sure, however, they definitely will remember the warm feelings the holidays bring them long after they have children and grandchildren of their own.

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Timber: The indispensable resource for pioneer prairie farmers

As settlers pushed west from Ohio into western Indiana, they encountered what geographers and geologists call the Prairie Peninsula.

The peninsula was a gigantic expanse of grassland that thrust eastward across the Mississippi into western Indiana, covering most of northern and central Illinois. The expanse notable for its scarcity of timber, at least compared with the densely wooded areas the pioneers had become used to as they moved west of the Appalachians.

Unlike the shortgrass prairies found west of the Mississippi, the Prairie Peninsula was a tallgrass prairie, abounding in wild grasses and forbs (non-woody, broadleaf plants) such as Big Bluestem and Compass Plant that towered as high as eight feet above the prairie sod.

Environmental scientists still argue about exactly how and why the Prairie Peninsula came to be. But however it was formed, in the thousands of years following the retreat of the last glacier that scoured northern Illinois, a diverse and complicated ecology grew up in the Prairie Peninsula. The landscape was dominated by prairie plants, particularly grasses and sedges (which have triangular-shaped, sharp-edged stems: “Sedges have edges,” which is a handy way to differentiate them from grasses).

You can still get an idea of what the Illinois tallgrass prairie looked like during the settlement era at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie at Wilmington, Illinois.

Grasses such as Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem predominated in the tallgrass prairie, but in the spring and the fall, before and after the grasses’ and sedges’ growing season, forbs predominated, creating the brightly colored carpets of wildflowers so many of the early settlers commented on.

The settlers didn’t spend a lot of time pondering questions on how the landscape came to be, but mostly wondered how they were to survive in seemingly endless grassland with few patches of timber.

The problem was that early 19th Century settlement technology was timber-intensive, requiring lots of trees from which to manufacture split rail fences, log cabins and outbuildings, and the firewood needed to heat homes during Illinois’ fierce winters.

As the settlers pushed west out of the Ohio and Indiana timber into the prairie, they found that, in general, wooded areas followed along the banks of streams and were growing in groves in other areas of wet prairie. They quickly realized woods proved thickest on the east side of streams.

Scientists generally agree now that the prairie fires that swept across the Prairie Peninsula on a regular basis, driven by the prevailing westerly winds, were slowed or stopped by streams, which allowed more and thicker timber to thrive on streams’ east bank.

Many native prairie grasses and forbs require periodic fires to thrive, while non-native species tend to be killed by fire. In addition to high resistance to fire, most native plant species are also highly drought resistant. Prairie plants and native tree species tend to have deep root systems and leaf systems that maximize water retention. Each year, about 37 inches of rain falls here in Kendall County. Significantly, that’s almost exactly the amount of rainfall absorbed by an acre of native prairie or oak savanna.

Not only the quantity of timber was changed due to location, but the type was too. In general, fire-resistant trees such as white oak were more likely to be found along the west banks of streams, while less fire-resistant species, such as black walnut, basswood, and maples, found life easier along the streams’ west banks.

When U.S. Government surveyors arrived in northern Illinois in the late 1830s to complete the survey mandated by the Northwest Ordinance before land could be sold to pioneer settlers, they documented the types and extent of timber up and down the Fox Valley. Looking at those original survey maps and reading the surveyors’ notes, it becomes clear how important location was when it came to the kinds and amounts of the area’s timber resources.

This photograph taken by Malcom Rance at the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match illustrates how timber-free that Will County township was even into the second decade of the 20th Century. (Little White School Museum collection)

In fact, timber-free land was settled last. Will County’s Wheatland Township, which neighbors Oswego Township to the east, was virtually treeless so when my Pennsylvania German ancestors arrived there in 1852, they were still able to buy unclaimed government land. It’s important to note that the land there, and elsewhere on treeless prairies where timber was far removed, wasn’t ignored at first because it wasn’t fertile, because it was. It was avoided for several years because vital timber was too far away.

When the earliest settlers reached the Fox Valley in the 1820s and early 1830s, they found timber edging both banks of the Fox River, although the belt along the east bank of the river was generally thicker with a more diverse species of hardwoods. In some areas, like in most of Aurora Township, just to the north of Oswego Township, there was scarcely any timber along the west bank of the river at all.

Some of these woods were, in part, densely timbered and had a hazel brush understory. But other parts of it were relatively open, what is called today an oak savanna that was fairly park-like.

In the spring and the fall, after native prairie grasses and other plants had dried out, thunderstorm lightning naturally started many swift-moving prairie fires. But in addition, in a practice that had been noted by the region’s first French explorers, the local Native American population also started fires, both intentionally and unintentionally. Unintentional fires happened when cooking fires escaped into the dry prairie. Intentional fires were much more common and were started to prepare fields for cultivation, combat insects, kill trees that were encroaching onto the prairies from the groves, and for hunting purposes. To hunt with fires, Native People would start a ring of fire sometimes a mile in diameter, and leave an unburned exit, through which game animals would be forced by the flames.

The fires also swept through the hardwood savanna areas, killing off brush and keeping the understory clear, while encouraging the growth of fire-tolerating trees and plants. Fires did a good job of creating lots of wooded edges that encouraged the deer and other animal populations.

The periodic burning, both natural and caused by man, largely created the prairie landscape found by the pioneers when they arrived. Over thousands of years, the plants and trees that grew on the prairies had come to not only tolerate, but to rely on fire. White oaks, for instance, are very fire resistant because of their thick bark and their high resistance to rotting after being scared by fire. In addition, they quickly grow after fires—fire actually helps some oak seedbeds sprout. On the other hand, many other species—maples, for instance—are very susceptible to fire damage.

While hardwood groves dotted the prairie, one extensive stretch of timber in particular caught the eye of many early mid-Fox Valley settlers.

From the location of today’s city of Batavia, all the way south to Waubonsie Creek in Oswego, a thick belt of maple, linden, oak, ash, and hickory provided an excellent source of timber, as well as protection from the prairie winds. In typical prosaic pioneer fashion, the settlers gave this huge stretch of woodland a simple and descriptive name. They called this big woods, the, well, “Big Woods.”

A detail from the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township shows the southernmost lobe of the Big Woods (highlighted in green) extending down the east bank of the Fox River from the Kane County line.

Not only did the settlers find welcome shelter among the hardwoods of the Big Woods, but so did the Native People who lived there before them. Chief Waubonsie, the principal war leader of the Prairie Potowatomi, located his permanent village in the western verge of the Big Woods, moving it often enough so that virtually every modern town up and down the Fox Valley from Oswego to Batavia can accurately claim to have been the site of the chief’s village at one time or another.

When the pioneers got here, they settled along the verge of the timber, locating their homes next to the woods and plowing fields in the nearby prairie. The Big Woods wasn’t regular in shape; it had many lobes that extended into the surrounding prairie, providing many protected areas where pioneers quickly established fields by plowing the native prairie with special “breaking plows,” designed to turn over the thick sod for the first time.

According to the original survey maps, the Big Woods stretched some miles east of the Fox River, almost to Naperville at the ford across the DuPage River. It then extended south all the way to Waubonsie Creek, where its southernmost lobe ended. As surveyor James Reed wrote in his notebook back on Aug. 8, 1838: “Mouth of Wabansia Creek 30 links [20 feet; a link was 7.92 inches] wide. North of creek land is timbered with white and Black oak. South of creek land is prairie and slopes gently to the river. The village of Oswego is located just below the mouth of the creek.”

The Big Woods covered almost half of Kane County’s Aurora Township, as this image of the 1838 U.S. Government survey map shows–with timbered areas highlighted in green. Note the near-total lack of timber on the west side of the river, with only a pencil-thin strip existing in the north half of the township.

The first thing the pioneers did when they arrived was start cutting down the Big Woods, along with most of the other stands of timber in the area. That initial wave of settlers was a timber-intensive bunch, requiring logs—and lots of them—to manufacture all those rail fences, build log homes and outbuildings, and supply firewood. According to James Sheldon Barber, an Oswego settler, writing back to his parents in New York State in 1843, a pioneer farm family needed 10 acres of timber to make a go of it on the Illinois frontier.

A large portion of AuSable Grove south of Oswego was subdivided into woodlots told to settlers where they could cut firewood and timber needed for building purposes. This cut is from the 1870 plat map of Kendall County.

For early arrivals, that was no problem, but they quickly claimed the timberland for their own use. Some, however, bought timber stands with the intention of dividing it into smaller parcels to sell to later arrivals. That’s why you see some wooded areas on early plat maps divided into many small chunks.

The settlers used didn’t always require cutting trees down, of course. Maple sugaring in the spring was a popular and profitable activity that even left its name behind in the name of one of our area towns—Sugar Grove. Further, the breeds of hogs the settlers brought along were hardy, ornery animals that got along just fine browsing in the oak savannas that were relatively common during those early years, especially eating all the acorns produced by native oaks.

Eventually, the only remaining woods were in wetlands and other areas not farmed for one reason or another. And, in fact, remnants still remain today, including a nice stand at Cook’s Savannah in Oswego’s Old Post Park and such areas such as Briarcliff Woods Park and the Arbor Ridge Subdivision in Montgomery and in several other areas up and down the Fox Valley. Each of those oak savanna remnants is a reminder of the landscape the pioneers encountered when they decided to settle along the banks of the Fox River.

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The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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A bit of local highway history changes with the Harvey Rd. intersection closure

A bit of area history came to an end on April 27 when the Illinois Department of Transportation announced the closure of the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and Harvey Road in northeast Oswego Township.

Harvey Road mapSince the construction of Oswego East High School just off Harvey Road, the angled intersection had become the site of accidents and near-misses so it made sense to close it and redirect traffic to the signalized intersection at Treasure Drive just a short distance east of Harvey Road. Instead of joining Route 30, Harvey Road will now end in a cul-de-sac.

How did that intersection come to be the way it is today? Well, the road used to go straight past Lincoln Memorial Park and down modern Harvey Road. That’s back when the road from Aurora was called the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first marked coast-to-coast road. A few years later, when the highway was paved and became U.S. Route 30, its route diverged making the modern curve to follow the right-of-way of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban trolley line. The right-of-way for that change of course for the 2.5 miles in Kendall County, starting at Harvey Road, was purchased by the Kendall County Board using a donation from the good roads folks in Aurora and then given to Illinois to speed paving the highway.

So what’s the story behind the Lincoln Highway itself?

In 1913 Carl Fisher was a man with a vision. The Indianapolis daredevil auto racer, showman, and entrepreneur figured that what the United States needed to spur business and hasten the development of the automobile was a transcontinental highway linking the Atlantic shore with the Pacific coast.

Fisher worked hard to drum up private support for what he called a “Coast to Coast Rock Highway,” so named because it was not to be just a marked route, but was to be one with a good gravel surface that would theoretically allow travel in all weather.

Fisher’s campaign was far from a slam-dunk, however. Henry Ford for instance, a guy you’d think would have jumped at the idea as a way to sell more of his Model T’s, disdained the whole notion, holding out for government funding for major roads, not private financing. Ford, of course, had a point. But at the time Fisher was militating for his coast-to-coast highway, government funding for such a project was simply not in the political cards. But Fisher persisted, and the pledges of support started rolling in, especially after he renamed the proposed interstate road after one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln.

In June 1913, Fisher incorporated the Lincoln Highway Association at Detroit, Mich., with Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Company, as its president and Fisher serving as vice-president.

At the time of incorporation, in fact, Joy was westbound with a caravan of Packards and their owners, blazing what he considered the most direct route west to California.

By October, the association settled on the Lincoln’s main course, making use of existing roads along most of the route’s 3,389 miles. They announced the route to the public on Oct. 26, 1913 at a meeting of the governors of the 13 states through which the new highway would run. As planned, the Lincoln started at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street at New York City’s Times Square, then headed west into New Jersey and then through to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where the terminus was established in San Francisco just outside today’s Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park just off Geary Boulevard at 34th Street.

The Lincoln Highway was formally dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913.

1924 Lincoln Highway

This 1924 map traces the original route of the Lincoln Highway–now U.S. Route 30–through Illinois from Indiana to Iowa.

As it was envisioned and designed, the highway bypassed major cities in favor of traveling through medium-sized towns and villages. Here in Illinois, it bypassed Chicago, looping south around the city through Joliet, Plainfield, on through a portion of Wheatland Township in Will County and Oswego Township in Kendall County, before reaching Aurora. The original route passed Phillips Park on modern Hill Avenue, where, in 1923, the Lincoln Highway Pavilion was built by the Aurora Automobile Club. I remember having family gatherings in the pavilion when I was a child. Completely restored a few years ago, the pavilion still exists, easily seen off Hill Avenue, the old Lincoln route near Phillips Park’s Hill Avenue entrance.

Lincoln Highway badge

The Lincoln Highway Association marked the route of the Lincoln Highway with red, white, and blue badges.

In Wheatland and Oswego townships, the road followed a winding course on existing country roads. Most of the original route has been marked by the Illinois chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association, so if you’re of a mind, you can travel that road today by following the signs east from Aurora.

But as more and more traffic surged onto the new highway, officials started looking to both simplify it’s course and to pave it. With so many twists and turns between Plainfield and Aurora, that section of the Lincoln was an obvious choice for revision. So in 1923, with the promise by Illinois officials to pave the route as soon as possible, the Kendall County Board voted to acquire 2.5 miles of right-of-way paralleling the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Transportation Company’s interurban line.

As the Feb. 14, 1923 Kendall County Record explained: “The new right-of-way in Kendall county for the Lincoln highway is necessitated by a relocating of the route to shorten the distance between Plainfield and Aurora.”

1924 Lincoln Highway shelter

The Lincoln Highway Shelter on the highway at Philips Park in Aurora was built for camping auto travelers in 1923 by the Aurora Automobile Club. Completely restored a few years ago, it’s a living reminder of the highway’s glory days.

Spurred on by the promise of quick action in Springfield, Kendall County officials were moving quickly. The policy at that time was that local government was responsible for obtaining highway rights-of-way, and then the state would cover the costs of engineering and construction. That spring, Gov. Len Small promised that if the right-of-way was procured at once, he’d add the Plainfield-Aurora section of the Lincoln to the 1923 highway program, along with the even more eagerly sought paving of Route 18, The Cannonball Trail Route (now U.S. Route 34).

Kendall County taxpayers, however, were not totally on the hook for the cost of the land. The Good Roads Committee of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce raised $1,000 in donations from city residents to defray Kendall County’s costs. “The money [for the right-of-way purchase] was all donated in Aurora,” the Record noted on March 14.

It was about this same time that the old system of giving highways names—such as the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway (another of Fisher’s creations), and The Cannonball Trail—was being phased out in favor of a system of numbered routes that were government-funded. In general, east-west routes were given even numbers, while north-south routes got odd numbers. The system wouldn’t go nationwide until 1926, but by then it had already begun in Illinois. The Lincoln, for instance, was first designated Route 22 by Illinois. The Cannonball Trail, linking Chicago with Princeton via Naperville, Aurora, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich, was initially numbered Route 18.

It’s remarkable how quickly things moved during that era, especially compared to the glacial pace at which modern highway projects advance. On May 9, 1923 the Record reported: “The Chicago Heights Coal Company of Chicago Heights was the lowest bidder for paving sections 15 and 16, Route 22, Lincoln Highway, commencing at Plainfield and running west to Aurora, a distance of 5.19 miles, when the bids were opened at Springfield April 13. Its bid was $222,000.”

1936 34-30 overpass

The last unpaved local section of U.S. Route 30 was finished in 1936 when the cloverleaf intersection with U.S. Route 34 was built with federal WPA funds. (Little White School Museum collection)

In early June, the Plainfield Enterprise reported state officials were promising that all 159.4 miles of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois would be paved during 1923. And, apparently, it was. The only remaining gravel stretch of the highway in Kendall County was at its intersection with Route 18—today’s Route 34. With delays and then the advent of the Great Depression, completion lagged. It required federal Works Progress Administration funds to complete the Route 30-34 cloverleaf intersection and overpass, which wasn’t finished until 1936.

In November 1926, the states officially approved the federal government’s new numbering system, part of which designated the Lincoln as U.S. Route 30 along its entire length and Route 18 as U.S. Route 34.

Despite the advent of the interstate highway system, the Lincoln Highway still carries hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses along its transcontinental length daily more than a century after Carl Fisher spearheaded its development, another living reminder of our area’s transportation and economic history. And with the closure of the Route 30–Harvey Road intersection, a bit of that history has added one more bit to the story of the Lincoln Highway.

 

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