Category Archives: Business

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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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

The time France tried to make a profit on Illinois bison

Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.

For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.

The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.

It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.

The currency of the North American fur trade was the prime winter beaver pelt.

The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.

While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.

Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.

While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.

American Bison once roamed most of North America. These animals currently live at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Wilmington, Illinois, where a bison herd is being recreated.

Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.

Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.

And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.

The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.

Juchereau’s expedition probably traveled from Canada to southern Illinois using big Montreal Canoes like these. Made of birch bard, they were the mainstay cargo vessels of the North American fur trade for some 200 years.

Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.

The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.

From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.

In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.

It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.

The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.

Juchereau’s bison tannery and trading fort was located somewhere along the Ohio River in the Mound City area near the southern tip of Illinois.

Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.

By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.

Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.

Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”

With no birch trees available to build canoes in southern Illinois Juchereau’s men had to build boats to haul the tanned bison hides the operation had accumulated down to the Missssippi’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. They were probably bateaus, flat-bottomed, shallow draft boats favored in areas without sufficient birth trees.

Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.

The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.

It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.

When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.

For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Native Americans, People in History

Will County’s namesake made money from salt…and slavery

It’s not an exaggeration to observe that most people are ignorant of the history of their state, county, or the town in which they live. Part of that is due to how mobile our society is these days. A vanishingly tiny number of us live our entire lives in the same town or even in the same state. As a result, the history of the places in which people find themselves living really has little meaning for them because likely as not, they expect to be moving on again fairly soon.

The recent pandemic and the massive changes in the nation’s economy it’s caused—I’ve seen it dubbed the Great Pause, which I think fits it nicely—has also paused much of the nation’s former mobility. But I’d be surprised if it didn’t resume after COVID is beaten.

Not only do people’s transient lives militate against learning about local history, but so does the modern educational system. State-mandated standardized tests, with their national norms, cannot test local historical knowledge and so unless classroom teachers think it’s important enough to take time away from teaching to the tests, local history is ignored.

But having lived in the same area virtually all my life, and having lived on the same street for 66 years, I’ve seen local issues come and go that would have been considerably smoothed out had people had any knowledge of their community’s history. Because there are reasons why things are as they are. Sometimes they aren’t necessarily good reasons, but roads were not just arbitrarily sited, school districts weren’t created at the whim of some far-away bureaucrat, and municipal boundaries are like they are because of decisions made a long time ago by people who thought they were doing the best they could for their communities.

Will County, Illinois

One of the things some may wonder about is how local places got their names. For the most part, these were not names mandated by those far-away bureaucrats, but were picked by the residents who lived there. County names, however, were indeed given by the Illinois General Assembly, whether local residents liked them or not. My own county of Kendall, for instance, was named in opposition to the one—Orange County—local residents favored in order to honor one of former President Andrew Jackson’s political operatives.

On the other hand, Will County’s name didn’t seem to raise much, if any, opposition when it was given.

Dr. Conrad Will was one of the many Pennsylvania Germans—called the Pennsylvania Dutch by their British neighbors—who came to Illinois in its earliest days and then became active in both local commerce and government.

But Will was also known for something a lot less savory than were typical Pennsylvania Dutchmen. He was not only a business owner, but also one of the few legal Illinois slave owners.

Will was born near Philadelphia, Pa. on June 3, 1779. After he studied medicine for a while, he moved west, probably traveling to Illinois via the well-traveled Virginia-Tennessee migration route. He reportedly arrived at Kaskaskia in 1814. The next year he moved to land along the Big Muddy River in what is now Jackson County, located near the southern tip of Illinois. In 1816 or thereabouts, he obtained a government lease on one of three profitable salines the U.S. Government deeded to the Illinois Territory.

This sketch portrait is the only image of Conrad Will I’ve been able to find.

Salines, or salt springs, were valuable natural resources on the frontier, and the profits from their leases provided a good chunk of early Illinois’ revenue. The water from the springs was evaporated, using a relatively elaborate process for the era, and the salt that remained was then sold.

On the frontier, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat and hides. In inland areas away from the coast, salt springs like those that bubbled to the surface in Saline County or in the Illinois Territory’s Randolph County were prime sources for the indispensable material.

In order to make sure speculators didn’t buy up the leases and hold them to drive up prices, the federal leases required the holders to produce a set amount of salt each year or pay a penalty.

In the spring of 1816, the year Jackson County was formed by breaking off a portion of Randolph County, Will traveled back to Pittsburgh to buy a batch of giant cast iron evaporating kettles. Each of the big kettles could hold about 60 gallons and they weighed about 400 lbs. each. The kettles were floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat, and then transported up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Big Muddy River, and from there up to Will’s saline operation.

To increase productivity, Will deepened the saline spring and installed a horse-powered pump to raise the salt water into a large basin. From there, the salt-laden water it ran via wooden pipes to the kettles, which were lined up side-by-side resting on a long brick firebox. The first kettle was filled with salt water, a fire lit under it, and the evaporation process began. In turn, the increasingly salty water was ladled into each kettle down the row where it was further evaporated until only a salt paste remained. The paste was then dug out of the last kettle and allowed to air dry. After it dried, the raw salt was crushed, shoveled into sacks, and shipped down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and beyond.

Jackson County, Illinois

As you might imagine, the labor to manufacture the salt was hard, hot, grueling work, something with which the federal government assisted by allowing slaves to be imported into Illinois for the purpose of its manufacture. Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River, special territorial laws and constitutional provisions permitted exceptions at the salines.

Illinois’ first constitution, approved by Congress in 1818, continued to allow slaves to be leased for use in the state’s salt works, and it also allowed a form of indentured servitude that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery.

So with slaves and government lease in hand, Will continued his operation. Generally, one bushel of salt could be extracted for every 2.5 to 5.5 gallons of water from the saline. But sufficient salt water to evaporate wasn’t the problem; fuel to keep the evaporation process going was. At first, wood fires were used (a large plot of surrounding woods was part of the saline lease). As the nearby supply of wood was exhausted, the evaporation operation was moved farther and farther away from the saline spring. Ever-lengthening spans of wooden pipe, made by splitting logs in half, length-wise, hollowing out the interior, and then strapping them back together, were used to keep the salt water flowing into the evaporation kettles.

As Jacob Myers wrote of the saline operation in Gallatin County in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: “The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away the furnaces were moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one hundred miles of such piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.”

Section of original log pipe uncovered at the salines by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

With the scarcity of wood, salt manufacturers turned to the use of coal to keep the brine boiling, and as luck would have it coal was close to the surface in the area of the saline springs and could be reached by drift and slope mines.

The salt business was a hard one, and Will apparently decided politics might be a better way to make money. He was one of Illinois’ first state senators when the state was established in 1818 and in 1820 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in office on June 11, 1835.

With their colleague’s death still fresh in their minds, when a brand new county was formed by partitioning Cook, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties in January 1836, the General Assembly voted to name it after Conrad Will.

Will was just one of a group of salt manufacturers who imported slaves into Illinois, and who later imported even more slaves while calling them “indentured servants.” This form of slavery was not completely banned in Illinois until 15 years before the Civil War began.

Today, we remember Conrad Will as a politician and namesake for Will County. But like many historical characters, it turns out he’s carrying a lot more baggage under the surface than he appears to be.

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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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What’s in a name? A job, a trade, a profession, that’s what

The late Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, was once the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Harry Fuller was the former, and long-time, village president here in Oswego, Illinois. My friend Tom Fletcher is a retired history teacher and former member of the Kendall County Board.

What does each of these people have in common? Each has a last name that is descriptive of a trade that is, largely, lost in the mists of time.

Once upon a time, even here in our area of northern Illinois, individual craftsmen (and women) worked to provide residents with the things they needed to live comfortable lives. Unlike today, people living in the 19th Century did not go to a huge department or hardware store and purchase things like shoes, clothing, tools, or other necessary items. Instead, they went to individual craftsmen and women, who in turn, made each item by hand. These craftspeople, working in their specific trades, each had a name that described their profession, a name that was eventually given as a surname to the descendants of those who first engaged in those trades.

The best-known of these professionals were the smiths. Since there were so many kinds of smiths—coppersmiths, tinsmiths (also known as whitesmiths), and blacksmiths to name a few—there are a corresponding large number of families with the name of Smith.

1880 abt Young blacksmith shop retou

At his shop, located at Tyler and Madison streets in Oswego and shown here about 1880, John Young did both blacksmith and farrier work, and also built wagons and did wheelwright work. (Little White School Museum collection)

While blacksmithing is still commercially practiced today, it is a much more limited trade than in the past. A century and a half ago, blacksmiths, doing business in every crossroads hamlet and town in the country, manufactured and repaired the tools that built America, as well as turning out more mundane things such as nails, bolts, and hinges that literally held homes and businesses together. But early on, blacksmiths did not shoe horses, mules, and oxen—that job was done by the farrier. Gradually, however, the term blacksmith came to mean, in common speech, someone who shoes horses, even though those tradespeople are still officially farriers. Today’s modern blacksmiths, like my friend Tom Korthauer, specialize in sharpening, repairing, and sometimes making tools.

Another smith, the gunsmith, spent his time making and repairing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Before guns came into wide usage, English archers became feared for use of their longbows (made by boyers) that fired arrows with shafts a cloth-yard in length. Those arrows were made by fletchers.

Meanwhile, the cooper was busy making barrels, pails, panikins, piggins, and other wooden containers while using the specialized drawknives, pod augers, and kerfing saws of his trade.

Even coopers specialized, however, and white coopers, for instance, usually found in larger towns, made mostly round grain measures, firkins, sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of basswood or poplar shaved thin with sharp drawknives.

firkin

A firkin is a small to medium wooden cask that can come either with or without a handle.

Wrights also derive their names from a wide variety of skills. Housewrights, not surprisingly, built houses. More specifically, housewrights were responsible for the framing and all the materials of the shell— the four walls and roof. The inside of the house, the woodwork and built-in cabinets, were finished by joiners who, again, worked their creative magic with specialized tools.

Millwrights were the jack-of-all-trades specialists who not only built the mill buildings, but who also were experienced at the critical work of siting and building dams and manufacturing mill machinery. Professionals who only operated mills and who were responsible for maintaining and sharpening the millstones were known as millers, a trade that has become another common surname.

Cartwrights built two-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles while wagonwrights, or wainwrights, built wagons and other four-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles. They build the wagon running gears and boxes before making use of the output from the local wheelwright. Of the two—wagons and wheels—wheels were far more complicated to make and good wheelwrights were worth their weight in gold.

In order that hides from either wild or domestic animals could be used, they had to be tanned and softened. Hides were tanned by the tanner, a process that dried and chemically preserved the leather. After a hide is tanned, however, it is very stiff (rawhide). In order to make it pliable and give it a good surface finish, the leather had to be processed by the currier.

Spinning

Spinning was one of the many home crafts that disappeared when cheap factory-made cloth became available.

Instead of buying their clothing, pioneers made their own. They grew the sheep that were sheared for wool and the flax plants that could then be spun into woolen and linen yarn. The spinning was often done by older unmarried female family members, thus the not particularly kindly term spinster. The spun yarn was then made into cloth by the weaver.

After wool was woven into cloth it had to be fulled to cleanse it of oil and dirt and to compact its fibers and raise the nap. At first, this was done at fulling parties where neighbors sat in a circle and stamped on the soap-saturated cloth with their feet. This was neither efficient nor very effective, however, for large-scale wool making. So, fullers built and maintained mills that did the work with wooden machines powered either by animals or by water.

Shoes were made by the shoemaker, who was sometimes called a cordwainer until the early 18th Century. Shoes were repaired by the cobbler.

These and other traditional crafts have provided the basis for a good deal the names in modern phone listings. Tailors made clothing while chandlers made candles and tinkers repaired metalware such as pails and basins. Carters drove carts and wagons while baxters (or bakers) produced baked goods. Parkers maintained parks while foresters maintained forests. A collier mined or sold coal while a sherman (or shearman) trimmed the nap of freshly woven woolen cloth.

For those of us interested in history and how things came to be, it is noteworthy that something as commonplace as a phone listing carries clues to the way our culture has developed and changed during the past 400 years.

 

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The farming calendar once ruled Fox Valley life

Even the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic can’t alter the rhythm of the seasons. So sheltering in place or not, spring is here and another planting season for farmers here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley is upon us.

The various orders from state and local officials to avoid crowds and stay out of public won’t have much effect on this year’s planting season, although some items farmers need, such as protective gloves and masks might be hard to come by, because farming is a pretty solitary endeavor.

Farmers are already out in their fields working the ground for planting. There won’t be much planting just yet because there’s still a pretty good risk of frost, but it won’t be long until it starts. And when it does, it will, like the harvest, use up every day’s good, dry daylight until the job’s done.

These days, farmers either specialize in grain or in some form of livestock. Most around these parts are grain farmers. But things were quite different in the past—and not all that far in the past, either, unless you consider the 1950s some sort of distant historical epoch. And I guess I understand if you do, although it seems a lot like just yesterday to me.

Farmers of the ‘50s worked smaller farms and engaged in diversified agriculture. That meant growing a wider variety of crops than is the norm today, as well as keeping livestock around the place as a money-maker and not as a hobby.

Today’s major crops of soybeans and corn were joined 70 years ago by oats, rye, barley, perhaps a bit of wheat, and hay crops like alfalfa, clover, and timothy. Farmyards were busy places since a lot of diversified farms kept at least a milk cow or two, hogs, chickens, and, in the fall, beef cattle.

3 1938 Husking Stewart corn

In 1938, Graeme Stewart used a 2-row Case husker to harvest two rows of corn at a time. (Little White School Museum collection)

The crops grown on diversified farms fitted together with the farmers’ livestock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some corn was used to feed cattle during the winter, with most of it sent off to market. Soybeans were also market crops, but beans, at least on our farm, weren’t used as animal feed. The small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—could be used as feed, and the left-over straw from their dried stems was used as livestock bedding. Northern Illinois, after the settlement era, was not wheat country due to the climate so a wheat field during that era was, as it is today, a curiosity. Hay crops like alfalfa were baled during the summer growing season and used as fodder for feeder cattle during the winter.

1940 Stewart farming corn

After husked ear corn dried in this temporary bin in 1950, Graeme Stewart hired a machine to come to his farm to shell it. The corn was then either hauled to market or kept to feed animals on the farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

The puzzle pieces of crops and livestock began to be put together during the spring planting season. Farmers rotated crops to allow the soil to rest and to recharge it with nutrients. Corn ground was planted the next year either with beans, alfalfa, or timothy. Beans fix nitrogen with their roots, which, in turn, helped the corn, oats, or other crop to grow better the next year. Alfalfa and timothy, plowed under in the fall or spring, also returned nutrients to the ground, too. Some farmers tried to get a jump on spring fieldwork by plowing in the fall, but many did not, both because they were too busy harvesting and because wind erosion of bare plowed land could be substantial during Illinois’ often windy winters.

After plowing and harrowing in the spring, the ground was seeded. Corn and beans were planted in rows to allow easier weeding—called cultivating by the farmers. Oats and other small grains were broadcast on the ground, usually from an endgate seeder on the back of a wagon, although they were planted in rows with grain drills in some farming areas. Hay crops like alfalfa were seeded with endgate seeders, too.

2010 12-row corn combine

By 2010, combine harvesters like this John Deere could pick and shell 12 rows of corn at once, vastly increasing farm productivity. (Daily Globe News photo, Worthing, MN)

When the crops began to grow, it was time to hire some local youngsters to walk the bean rows to hoe out volunteer corn stalks. The annual crop rotation resulted in corn growing up in bean rows, and other problems, too, including milkweeds, velvet weeds, and other pests. Although tractor-mounted cultivators could plow between the rows and uproot weeds, it was harder to get between the plants. Some farmers still “horse-stepped” or checked their corn rows, leaving equal spaces between each hill to allow diagonal cultivating, but the technique sharply cut the number of plants in a field, and thus reduced the yield. Most relied on teenagers (or themselves) walking the rows with sharp hoes to cut out “volunteer” stalks of corn in the beans and other weedy pests. Morning glories, hollyhocks, and other pests my farmer father roundly cursed (and which now turn up in trendy perennial gardens) also had to be hacked and burned out of fence rows by hand. Today’s effective herbicides have largely made those chores obsolete.

The small grains ripened first and were harvested in mid to late summer. By the 1950s, the huge steam-powered threshing machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had given way to tractor-towed combined harvesters compact, efficient, and economical enough for individual farmers to buy their own.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

Steam threshing outfits like this one owned by the East Oswego Threshing Ring were obsolete by the end of World War II. One combine could do the work of all this machinery, plus others needed for the small grain harvest.

During the steam threshing era, most farmers could not afford their own machines and so banded together in cooperatives to buy a threshing outfit that consisted of the threshing machine, a steam tractor to power it, and generally a water wagon and/or a coal wagon. During the harvest season, the machine was moved from farm to farm of the members of the cooperative to harvest their grain in turn, and thus the general name for these groups: Threshing rings.

But by the 1950s, most farmers harvested their own grain, which was either hauled to the nearest grain elevator for sale or storage or stored on the farm for use as animal feed. Oats, once the fuel that powered horse-driven farm implements, was mostly used by the 1950s for hog feed, although there was still a market for it as a food grain. The straw left in the field after the combines finished their harvest was raked and baled for use as animal bedding during the winter months.

1950 tractor-pulled combine

By the 1950s, one farmer with a tractor-pulled combine could harvest as much grain as a dozen farmers using a threshing outfit, and do it an order of a magnitude faster.

Soybeans ripened next, and were also harvested with combines. The stalks were not usable for feed or bedding, however, and so were left in the field to be plowed under and added back to the soil.

As fall rolled around, corn picking time approached. Farmers used either towed or tractor-mounted machines that picked and husked the orange-yellow ears, which were stored in the farms’ corn cribs to dry. After the ears had thoroughly dried, the kernels were shelled from them local businessmen who owned corn shellers. Corn shellers, like the threshing machines of previous years, were usually too expensive for an individual farmer to buy, and so a business niche was created.

modern grain combine

Modern computer-controlled grain combines are bigger, faster and more efficient than their 1950s ancestors, as well as more expensive and far more complicated.

After the corn harvest, cattle and hogs were turned into the fields—all of which were fenced—to glean the grain that had not been picked up by the mechanical harvesters.

During the winter months, the straw baled during the late summer harvest was used to bed chickens in their nests and cattle in their shed. Alfalfa was fed to cattle in feed bunks along with commercially purchased feed supplements and sometimes—if the farm had a silo—silage that had been put in the silo earlier. Hogs apparently enjoyed what my father called slop, made with either water or raw milk from our cow mixed with oats ground to a course flour.

In the spring, the cattle and hogs were sent off to market, and the cattle yard and hog and chicken houses were cleaned of the manure that had accumulated over the winter. The waste was then loaded aboard manure spreaders (ours carried the upbeat brand name, “New Idea”), and spread on fields, retuning the nutrients back to the soil.

And then whole process began again.

Except for the Amish and a few other small groups, diversified farms are as dead today as the Dodo Bird. Modem crop science and mechanical technology have helped boost crop yields. Today, a modern combine can be fitted with heads to harvest corn, with the corn efficiently removed from the cobs as it’s harvested—thus no more need for the neighborhood corn sheller—as well as any other grain from oats to wheat. But even with all that modern technology, crop science, and chemicals, a visitor to rural areas still sees the occasional stalk of stunted corn intruding into a neat field of soybeans or velvet weeds marring the perfectly straight rows of young corn.

A time-traveling farmer from the 1950s would have no trouble identifying today’s farms, and, in a month or so, what crops are growing on them. He would, however, probably be surprised at the size of the farms and the equipment working on them as well as the small number of farmers needed to handle today’s sprawling agricultural operations.

 

 

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After 42½ years, no more newspaper deadlines to meet—for the time being…

For the past 42½ years, come every Sunday evening I’m starting to think about a topic for a column—I’ve been writing a weekly column that mostly deals with local history for a weekly newspaper here in Oswego since the early autumn of 1977.

So it seemed more than a bit odd this past Sunday to realize I wasn’t working against any sort of deadline at all. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the newspaper group that owns the weekly Oswego Ledger has decided to suspend all their stringers—including columnists like me—“for the time being.” Not sure if that means forever, but given the newspaper business’s on-going financial problems it wouldn’t surprise me.

I started writing a local history column I called “Epochs” back in 1977, which my old elementary school classmate Dave Dreier published in the Fox Valley Sentinel.

1949 Oswego Ledger flagBack in those days, Oswego had two weekly newspapers. The Oswego Ledger was the oldest paper, having been started by Ford Lippold in 1949. Ford published the Ledger on a Mimeograph machine in his basement, with his whole family participating in assembling each week’s edition. The Ledger was a local institution that, while it was a free distribution weekly duplicated on tan 8-1/2 x 11” paper, covered the local news pretty professionally. In March 1965, Ann and Don Krahn bought the Ledger and turned it into an offset printed tabloid-sized paper, still published weekly but on a subscription basis.

1949 Oswego Ledger front pageI lost touch with Dave Dreier after his folks moved up to North Aurora when we were in sixth grade. As an adult, he had been involved in a variety of business interests before he came back to the Oswego area and went to work for the Krahns at the Ledger. Shortly thereafter, Dave and his friend Steve Keierlieber decided to start a competing Oswego weekly they named the Fox Valley Sentinel. Their business plan called for them to not only cover Oswego, but also Kendall County government as well as expanding coverage north to Montgomery, Aurora, the East and West Aurora school districts, and the Kane County Board. Their first issue was published in 1974, and from the beginning the competition between the Sentinel and the Ledger was fierce.

As for myself, I had no idea I could write until my wife and I volunteered to help produce a county history during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. Until the county history was published, the commission turned out a series of monographs on local historical topics (two of which I co-wrote and two of which I helped edit) as well as the hard covered history itself in which I was responsible for writing a couple chapters and helping edit others. The books and monographs proved popular and helped fund the county’s celebration.

1982 Bartlett House cropped

The Fox Valley Sentinel office was located in the historic Bartlett House on Main Street in Oswego. Built about 1837, it may be the oldest house in Oswego.

By 1977, I was forced to retire from my job due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, and was looking for something I could do at home to earn a little money. Since the history we’d produced during the Bicentennial proved pretty popular I figured maybe I could write a local history column. I hadn’t seen Dave for nearly 20 years, but when I stopped down at the Sentinel office, we hit it right off again. I pitched my idea to him about writing a column on local history topics. Unlike a lot of budding columnists, I at least had some published examples of my writing to show. And it didn’t hurt that we were old, old friends.

Did I think there’d be enough material to do more than a few columns, he wondered. Yes, I said, I thought there’d be enough for several. Well, write three and bring them back and Dave said he’d see. Which I did, and which he did, and he offered me the gig.

“What do you want to call the column,” he wondered. “It’s got to have a title.” I had no idea, really, it turning out that coming up with headlines is something I’m really bad at (as you can tell if you’ve read much of this lame blog). But I finally suggested “Epochs” had a sort of historical ring to it, and he thought that would work. My first piece was published in the Sentinel on Sept. 1, 1977. And except for the odd hospital stay and various non-hospitalized illnesses I’ve been writing a column a week ever since.

Sentinel Flag 1978Dave prevailed on me sometime in 1978 to cover some of the Sentinel’s news beats. I reminded him I had no journalism experience other than writing my “Epochs” column, to which he replied that he didn’t have any, either, and so what? And after witnessing the horrible political news coverage during the past few decades, I have to admit that my one-time awe of J-school grads has pretty much disappeared.

Newswriting, Dave explained as we sat in his cluttered Sentinel office, isn’t much different than writing a history column. The writing should be clear, accurate, and fair. Write news stories like you’re explaining the topic to your parents, he suggested. Then pulling a crumpled envelope out of the overflowing wastebasket next to his desk, he drew an upside-down pyramid on the back with a blue editing pen and explained, “This is the inverted pyramid. You write your stories like an inverted pyramid Put the important stuff up front, and less important stuff farther down so I can cut the less important parts if we’re tight on space. It’s really not difficult.”

And I found that after telling readers historical stories I’d researched for a while, writing news stories wasn’t difficult—but it was challenging. Get a date wrong in a historical piece by a couple years, and who would know or care? But getting a decimal point wrong in a tax story and a LOT of people cared. Since I’d grown up in Oswego, a lot of the people on boards and commissions had known me since I was a little kid, and they weren’t the least bit shy of collaring me at the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station to let me know what they thought about stories in the most recent edition.

I’d always disliked math, but after school I’d found myself working for a company where all I did all day was math, using a giant, startlingly noisy mechanical Frieden calculator. The main thing I took away from that job was memorizing the decimal equivalents of fractions all the way up to 32nds. So it was actually a relief of sorts when I was forced to retire from doing math all day. But in writing local news, I found I was back doing lots of math once again, figuring percentages of property tax increases, working on local taxing agency budgets, writing census stories, trying to explain school test scores—you name it.

By the summer of 1980, Dave had come to the conclusion that the Oswego area’s advertising base really couldn’t support two weekly papers. By that time, Jeff and Kathy Farren had added the Ledger to their small Kendall County Record, Inc. chain, joining joined the Kendall County Record and the Plano Record. Dave and Jeff talked things over down at the Oswego American Legion bar and Dave agreed to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens. The Farrens merged the two papers, with the new paper named the Ledger-Sentinel.

Ledger flag2000Along with adding newswriting to my part-time job, I’d also kept writing my weekly column and when the Farrens bought the Sentinel, they asked me if I’d come on board as the new paper’s part-time editor, photographer, reporter, janitor, whatever. And they asked if I’d continue writing my column. Jeff and Kathy didn’t care for the name—neither did I—so we decided to change it to “Reflections,” and “Reflections” it’s remained right up until today.

I retired from the news business in March 2008, but I agreed to continue writing “Reflections” every week. When the Farrens decided to retire in 2015, they sold the paper to a large newspaper group. I was asked to continue writing my column. The paper’s name was soon changed back to the Oswego Ledger, but I continued writing “Reflections” for each edition. Until last week.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The author at work at the Kendall County Record office on a summer Wednesday morning in 1989, transferring files from his TRS-80 laptop to a Mac so they can be edited and run out for paste-up.

The newspaper business has been in serious financial trouble for years, partly because of changes in technology and partly because too many news organizations–especially at the national level–seem to have lost their way, turning management over to accountants instead of news people and allowing their news judgment to be influenced by focus groups and other such corporate-influenced nonsense. And now the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be adding to the existing problem in a way that stands to destroy so many of the weekly papers that still manage to survive, the ones that cover the births and deaths and marriages and local government, school news, and other information communities rely on. And that will be a real tragedy.

Weeklies have withstood a number of serious challenges, especially in small towns where farming was once the mainstay of the surrounding region. Technology and scientific crop advances have drastically reduced the number of farmers needed to till the soil, and that has had major negative impacts on the population of the small towns that were interdependent on farming. Fading populations have led to disappearing churches, social, and civic organizations, and declining school enrollments. The invasion of rural America by big chains like Walmart and the dollar stores has largely destroyed whatever locally-owned businesses remained. And with that went the advertising base that once supported local newspapers. For years, the big chains refused to advertise in weeklies, preferring direct mail instead. Hundreds of communities lost their churches, their schools through consolidation, their downtown business districts, and, as a result, the newspapers that once helped tie those communities together.

2020 Ledger flagI’m hoping against hope that doesn’t happen to Shaw Media, the company that owns the Oswego Ledger and the other papers in the KendallCountyNOW newspaper group. Communities need local newspapers to make sure everyone’s informed about what’s going on. After all, who has time to raise a family and go to all the local governmental meetings that take place throughout the month, from the village, park, and library boards, to the county board, the fire district board, and all the others?

As for me, I’ll continue collecting local history and interpreting it down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum before it all gets thrown in the nearest Dumpster. And I’ll also continue to preserve and publish as much local history as I can by here at History on the Fox to preserve it, at least as long as this electronic format lasts, while I wait to see what happens to the Oswego Ledger and my old place on each week’s opinion page.

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

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

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

1900 abt Parker Mills

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

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

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

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

Parker Gristmill

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

Click here to enlarge.

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

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

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

Parker Gristmill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

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

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

Gray's Mill

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

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

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

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

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These are a few of my…

It’s just about Christmas, and most of us are looking forward to some quality family time around the tree, maybe at church, and possibly at the dinner table.

It sounds as if we’ll be enjoying one of those spiral-cut hams here at the Matile Manse on Christmas Day. No Christmas goose for this family, Uncle Scrooge. We tried doing goose for Christmas back in the 1970s and both times we were so sick with the respiratory flu we couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in a family dinner. We decided Someone was trying to tell us something, so no more goose on the Matile table.

This is also the time of year we remember those Christmases past and the special treats we enjoyed so much. My Aunt Evelyn’s divinity, Grandma Holzhueter’s sugar and molasses cookies, and my mom’s apple and pumpkin pies were all integral parts of Christmas we looked forward to.

1956 Schwinn Corvette

The Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 in a cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

And, of course, there were the presents under the tree. I remember the toy service station I got one year, along with a car transporter truck, loaded with four pastel-colored plastic Hudsons. And, of course, the Christmas when I was seven and got my first Lionel train. Yes, I did get a Red Ryder lever-action carbine when I was 9 or so, and that great red and chrome Schwinn Corvette bike when I was 11 was a beauty. It also taught me, the day I got it, to NEVER do a panic stop with the front wheel caliper brakes while going down our steep gravel driveway.

As the holiday approaches, and with nothing better to do than recover from the persistent cold I’ve had for the past several days, I thought I’d just list a few of my current favorite things, along with some of my pet peeves as 2019 comes to a close. So, with very little further ado, here are a few of my…

Favorite gadgets…

Towel bar

My trusty heated towel bar

When I take my shower every morning, I thank providence for my warming towel bar. The gadget is fixed to the wall in our first floor bath, and gently heats and dries our towels. There is NOTHING better than grabbing a warm towel after exiting the shower.

I’ve carried a pocketknife for decades, starting when I was in grade school. These days, students would probably be either jailed or sent for counseling if they turned up at school with a pocketknife but it was another time back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. To start with, I carried a farmer’s friend pocketknife just like my dad’s. Before he retired in 1964, he sold livestock feed for the Moorman Manufacturing Company of Quincy, IL. The company gave out premiums to farmers for buying their products, and one year around 1958 or so, the premium was a nice four-blade Case pocketknife. I carried that until I discovered Swiss Army Knives back some decades ago. My current Swiss Army version was a Christmas gift from my daughter about 15 years ago. One of my most useful gadgets, I use its knife blade, nail file, and folding scissors just about every day. Less frequently, I use the tiny built-in LED flashlight and retractable ballpoint pen. But its built-in 2gb thumb drive is something I frequently use to carry back-up files around. Clever people, those Swiss knife makers.

Swiss Army Knife

My Swiss Army Knife, complete with sneaker net USB drive.

Those of us with ankylosing spondylitis, after our spines finish calcifying, can no longer bend over to pick up errant coins dropped, shoes, or papers. So to deal with the situation, I’ve got my Gopher picker-uppers scattered around the house and out in the garage and in the storage shed. Since they fold, they’re easy to take on trips, too. A related tool I use just about every day is my collapsible shoehorn that lives on a shelf in my closet.

New food finds…

I tried Popeye’s much-ballyhooed chicken sandwich a couple weeks ago, and have to admit the ballyhoo was fully warranted. I tried Burger King’s spicy chicken sandwich a couple years ago, but didn’t really care for it. To me, there was just too much spice. Last week, I was hungry for another spicy chicken sandwich, but didn’t want to drive all the way over to Popeye’s, so decided to try Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich, which was enthusiastically boosted by my buddy Glenn. In doing so, I found that not only is Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich really good, but that their fries are even better. If you haven’t tried Wendy’s fries for awhile, I’d advise a visit sometime soon. In the end, though, Popeye’s sandwich is still the champ from my point of view.

Arby's gyro

Arby’s gyro passed the Matile taste test.

Bob, my partner in crime down at the museum, said the other day how good the gyros were at Arby’s. We hadn’t had gyros for quite awhile—it seemed like the 2008 recession killed off most of the nearby spots that sold them. Generally, we have pizza on Sunday night, but last night we decided to try Arby’s traditional Greek gyros, and were VERY favorably impressed. And at two for $6, the price couldn’t be beaten. Granted, gyros perfectionists may not like Arby’s substitution of flatbread for the traditional pita, but we thought the flatbread was softer and fluffier than pitas, and really tasty. And we really liked Arby’s

Year end pet peeves…

As 2019 grinds to a close, as a grumpy old man, I have to include a few of my lingering pet peeves, most of which involve the others I share the road with.

Using your vehicle’s turn signals is not some sort of politically correct suggestion. You’re required to use them by law when changing lanes and when making turns. And you’re supposed to use the signals BEFORE you turn, not as you’re turning in order to give drivers both behind and in front of you a bit of warning what you’re planning to do. In driver’s ed, I learned that on the highway, you’re supposed to use your turn signal 100 feet before you turn and in town, you’re supposed to use it 50 feet before you turn. Please have a little respect for your fellow motorists and use your turn signals like they’re supposed to be used.

Fox River Trail markerThe Matile Manse is located right on the Fox River Trail, a walking, running, and biking trail that extends from Oswego north all the way to the Wisconsin state line. It’s really nice to see so many people using it and seeming to have such a good time doing so. On a warm summer Sunday morning, I swear we see half of Oswego’s population walking, running, or biking on the trail. It’s certainly one of the most heavily used amenities in the Oswegoland area and we owe former Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Bert Gray and environmentalist, naturalist, author, and war hero Dick Young for doing all the deep spadework that made it a reality.

But as the trail passes in front of our house it’s situated right on North Adams Street, meaning all those walkers, runners, and bikers share the trail with cars on North Adams. Since that section of trail is on the street, the rules of the road prevail. That means walkers must walk AGAINST auto traffic and that cyclists must ride WITH the traffic. And, again, I do mean MUST, since it’s the law. It also means walkers and cyclists should NOT split up with half on one side of the street and half on the other side when they meet a vehicle. I usually give kids some leeway with the splitting up part—I remember doing the same dumb thing when I was a kid. But with adults, there’s simply no excuse for this dangerous habit.

Furthermore, North Adams is a dark street with only a few streetlights. Since walkers and cyclists share the street with motor vehicles, it’s extremely dangerous for those walkers and cyclists to be out after dark with no lights or reflective gear, especially if they’re on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Several times when we’ve come home on dark, moonless nights we’ll suddenly come upon pedestrians dressed in dark clothing—black hoodies seem favored—with no warning. So my plea is for walkers, runners, and cyclists to please wear some reflective tape or carry one of those neat blinking strobe lights to give a bit of warning to hapless motorists on dark nights. And that goes for those out walking their dogs after dark, too, especially on rainy nights.

So there, my major peeves, new food finds, and favorite gadgets are all laid out just in time for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Hope you and yours have a very happy winter holiday season and that you’ll stop by in 2020 to enjoy more local history!

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Two wars’ major effects on Kendall County history…

I hadn’t really thought about the structure of Kendall County’s history–and that of Oswego, too–until we started working on developing the new core exhibit down at the Little White School Museum.

Back in 2017, the Oswegoland Heritage Association Board decided we needed to do a complete makeover of the permanent exhibit in the museum room. So we hired museum consultant Lance Tawzer to come in and help us figure out what to do. The first thing we learned is that our museum room was not a museum room, it was our museum gallery, which was cool. We also learned our permanent exhibit was not a permanent exhibit, but rather our museum’s core exhibit. “Permanent,” Lance explained, makes the statement that it’s never going to change while “core” establishes the idea that what is on exhibit there is really the basis for your whole interpretation of local history.

2019 Museum Gallery

The Little White School Museum’s new core exhibit opened March 24, 2019.

And, we also learned that what museums do is exhibit artifacts, photos, and documents, they don’t display them. An exhibit includes interpretation of whatever is being shown to the public—its history, who owned it, and why it’s important to whatever the museum is trying to explain to visitors. Antique shops have displays, museums shouldn’t—but unfortunately, all too many do.

Anyway, when we got to discussing how we wanted to organize the story of Oswego‘s history for the new core exhibit, it suddenly occurred to me that two of the nation’s major wars—the Civil War and World War II—not only had major effects on the entire community (not to mention the whole nation), but that they really divided local history into three convenient eras. Those would be the area’s prehistory and the settlement era to 1861 and the start of the Civil War; the post-Civil War era up to 1941 and the start of World War II; and, finally, the post-World War II era that drastically changed Oswego from a small, sleepy farm town into one of the fastest growing communities in the nation.

Since we’re observing Veterans’ Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the major impacts those two wars had on Kendall County as a whole, with the Oswego area seeing so much change.

White pioneers settled Kendall County starting in the late 1820s. By the late 1830s, the nine townships that would one day become Kendall County were split between Kane County (Oswego, Bristol, Little Rock) and LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Seward, Lisbon). In 1840 there was sufficient support to create a new county out of those nine townships that petitions were entertained by the Illinois General Assembly to do just that. Kendall County was established by an act of the General Assembly in February 1841.

The new county, already growing quickly, experienced even faster growth. By 1860, its population had reached 13,074, up 69 percent from its 1850 population of 7,730. By 1860, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line had been running through the northern part of the county for just seven years, but it had already resulted in the creation of a fast-growing town, Plano, in Little Rock Township. Plano, in fact, was quickly becoming an industrial center as the Hollister brothers and others tinkered with machines like grain harvesters with a view towards manufacturing them, making use of the CB&Q’s rails to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods.

Blake, John

John Blake enlisted as a substitute for wealthy Kendall County farmer Sheldon Wheeler, and was paid more than $400 to take Wheeler’s place. Blake was one of more than 1,200 Kendall County men who served in the Civil War. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out, and men and boys from all over Kendall County rushed to join the Union Army to fight against the South’s treason in defense of slavery. By the end of the war, 1,251 county residents, nearly 10 percent of the county’s total 1860 population, had served in the fight, first to preserve the Union against Southern treason and then to eliminate slavery. Of those who served, 247—20 percent—died. Of the one in five men and boys who marched off to war and who never came home, 70 were killed in action, seven died as Confederate prisoners of war, and the rest succumbed to disease and wounds.

The war may have ended in 1865, but it continued to have profound effects on those who served, the communities they came from, and the county as a whole. The overwhelmingly young group of men—some as young as 13—who marched bravely off to war were changed in ways they never expected and which those who were left at home had problems understanding. Some, who had been given great responsibilities leading large numbers of men as commissioned and non-commissioned officers found it difficult to return to menial jobs and to the back-breaking work that farming was in 1865. After spending up to four years of continuous travel sometimes punctuated by vicious combat, many found their horizons had shifted.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered an outlet for these restless souls as did new opportunities available in the Reconstruction South.

The result was a sharp decline in Kendall County’s population. By 1870, the county’s population had dropped to 12,399, and it continued to steadily decline thereafter as whole families packed up and headed west or south. Oswego Township’s population followed the same trend. It didn’t exceed its 1860 population until 1950.

The completion of the Fox River Branch of the CB&Q in 1870, linking the railroad’s mainline with Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Ottawa, offered not only a way for people to get to Kendall County towns, but also a way for families to leave, drawn by cheap land in the West and the restlessness of so many former soldiers. Throughout those years, the families leaving the county for what they saw were greener pastures elsewhere were chronicled in the local press.

1880 abt Depot

Oswego’s CB&Q Depot was built at Jackson and South Adams Street in 1870, along with three side tracks. (Little White School Museum collection)

On Nov. 9, 1871, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a [rail] car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

Most headed west, but some headed south. The Record reported from Oswego on June 26, 1873: “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”

As the years passed, larger groups were established to head west in company. On March 8, 1883, the Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported: “Clarence Shumway and Alfred Linegar left for Nebraska with their goods and stock–in carloads–last Wednesday. Mrs. Shumway and children followed some days afterwards. Today, Alfred Wormley will start for the same destination; August Schmidt for Dakota; and James Gannon to Iowa with the effects and others are getting ready for going west.”

The correspondent added, somewhat plaintively, “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

By 1890, the county’s population had decreased to 12,106 and continued to drop until it hit its low point of 10,074 in 1920. Not until 1930 did the number finally begin inching up.

It was just in time for the major impact that World War II had on Kendall County. By 1940, the county’s population had risen to 11,105. Farming—the county’s main industry—was beginning to recover from its long depression that began as World War I ended. Meanwhile, county retail and other businesses were slowly digging their way out of the Great Depression that began in 1929.

1944 Young, Dwight Los Alamos, NM

Among those Oswegoans serving during World War II was Dwight Young, who became a nuclear physicist working on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atom bomb. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the outbreak of war on Dec. 7, 1941, Kendall’s young men (and this time young women) again flocked to the colors, enlisting and being drafted to serve in the military. Meanwhile, thousands of Kendall women joined the homefront workforce to labor in munitions and other manufacturing plants, take over the businesses their husbands had been running until they were drafted, and volunteer in local Red Cross and other support roles. A good example of the effect the war had on family-owned businesses is the story of Everett and Evelyn McKeown. The McKeowns bought Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home in 1938. When war broke out, Everett was drafted to serve as an Army medic. Evelyn, meanwhile, determined to continue running the funeral home on her own, but there was a problem—she had no mortician’s license. Luckily, Leonard Larson, who owned the Yorkville funeral home, stepped in and agreed to act as the business’s licenced mortician. Everett was wounded during the invasion of Normandy, evacuated to England, recovered, and was sent back to what was considered an area unlikely to see combat, only to end up smack dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He was mustered out, went back to Oswego, and took over running the funeral home business. And he and his wife adopted a daughter, which fit right in with what so many other male and female vets were doing as they all started new families.

The war was easily the greatest government program in the nation’s history, removing millions of men and women in prime working ages from the private workforce, resulting in increased wages for those remaining, providing new markets for farm products, and generally ending the financial pain of the Depression.

At the end of the war, all those young people came home to a country that was drastically changing as new, expanding businesses tried to keep pace with the demand for goods and services. Millions of young men and women married after the war, finding jobs in the factories springing up to supply goods for the pent-up demand created by the Depression and then four years of war and rationing. All those new families needed places to live, cars to drive, furniture and appliances for their new homes, and then schools for their children to attend.

1959 BH sign 2

The first family moved into their home at Boulder Hill in 1956. By 1958, there were 100 homes on “The Hill.” The subdivision’s population eventually reached more than 9,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

Kendall County, located at the periphery of the Chicago Metro region began to grow as the war decade of the 1940s turned into the decade of growth in the 1950s. U.S. highways Route 30, Route 34, and Route 52 provided interstate and inter-region routes into the county as did state highways Routes 25, 71, 47, and 126. Decent transportation, land available for development, and nearby jobs began drawing thousands of residents to new housing developments epitomized by Don L. Dise’s sprawling Boulder Hill Subdivision in northern Oswego Township. Between 1950 and 1970, the county’s population doubled. It took it another 30 years to double again, reaching 54,550 by 2000, but just 10 years to more than double again to 114,736 in 2010.

Along the way, Oswego ceased being that sleepy little farm town and became a full-fledged suburb, growing from a little over 1,200 people in 1950 to 3,000 in 1980 before literally exploding to more than 35,000 today.

The negative impact of the Civil War on Kendall County is long past, but World War II’s effects continue. Aspects of that growth are seen as both negative and positive, sometimes both at the same time, by longtime and new residents alike. But while the effects of the two wars can be debated, it seems pretty clear they both had profound consequences that, in so many ways, are still being felt today.

And as we ponder those consequences this Veterans’ Day week, you’re invited to the annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, honoring those who’ve served, from the Civil War to the present day. Admission’s free; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit will be available until Dec. 2, so you’ve got plenty of time to stop by.

 

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Filed under Business, Civil War, Farming, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, Semi-Current Events