In 1954, my parents decided to retire from farming and move into town. When I resumed third grade classes in January 1955 at the old Red Brick School, there were more kids in that single classroom than had been in my entire one-room country school. It was a bit of an adjustment.
By 1942, Oswego’s population had gone up a bit from the number counted in 1940. Or perhaps village officials just decided to round up the 978 counted in the 1940 Census.
In those days, the population on Oswego’s village limit signs was 1,220, its population as of the 1950 census. It was a small, but growing community. New houses were going up around town and just north of town on John H. Bereman’s old Boulder Hill Stock Farm, a sprawling, unincorporated subdivision was going up with new, affordable houses aimed at the thousands of discharged World War II and Korean Conflict veterans who were starting new families.
Community growth was taken for granted in those days and looked upon as a mostly favorable thing, although it was starting to dawn on local folks that what they were looking at wasn’t just a dozen or so new homes, but hundreds of them that would generate new students for local schools and lots of motorists on previously lightly traveled roads.
Starting then, we got used to fairly constant growth, but Oswego and Kendall County weren’t always sure bets for population growth. After the explosive growth during the settlement era from the early 1830s through 1850, in the decades after the Civil War, the county’s population saw a slow, steady decline before it finally started to recover in the 1920s. But it didn’t reach its pre-Civil War high until the mid-1950s as that post-World War II and Korean Conflict growth began to kick in.
In 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, Kendall County’s population stood at 13,074, nearly double the 7,730 recorded in 1850, the first census taken after the county was established in February 1841.
During the Civil War, Kendall contributed more than 1,200 soldiers, sailors, and marines (an astonishing 10 percent of the county’s total population) to the war effort, nearly 300 who were killed, or died of wounds or sickness.
Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad opened up millions of acres of western shortgrass prairies for settlement.
After the war, veterans trickled back to the county as their units were demobilized. Also arriving were a number of former slaves and black veterans of U.S. Army military units who arrived to start farming in Oswego and Kendall townships.
But more former residents had disappeared than new ones had arrived. When the Illinois state census was taken in 1865, the county’s population had taken a fairly serious hit, dropping by 445 residents. Part of that was accounted for by those soldiers who died as a result of the war. But when the 1870 U.S. Census was taken, it was found the county had lost another 230 residents in the previous five-year period.
A brief growth spurt of 684 residents was recorded in the 1880 census, but from then on it was a steady decline until growth began inching up in the 1920s. Between 1860 and 1920, the county’s population declined by 3,000 residents, a surprising 23 percent drop.
So, what was going on in those post-Civil War years?
I suspect that population loss was due to a number of factors. First, the veterans who returned from Civil War service were, for the most part, young, ambitious men who had seen more of the country than any preceding generation. They’d traveled south deep into the Confederacy all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. They’d marched west of the Mississippi, campaigning through Missouri and Arkansas, all the way to the Texas-Mexico border where the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry spent a while staring down French troops on the other side of the Rio Grande. Other Kendall County residents had fought through campaigns in the southeast on Sherman’s famed March to the Sea and with Grant all the way to Appomattox Courthouse.
Having seen so many new places, and for many, having so much responsibility for life and death situations thrust upon them at such a young age, I suspect it was hard for many of those former soldiers to simply return home and take up where they’d left off. They’d all changed one way or another in ways often profound.
A second factor was the availability of somewhere else to go where land was cheap and the chance existed to build whole new communities. In an effort to promote construction of a transcontinental railroad, the government had given millions of acres in land grants west of the Mississippi River to the railroad companies working on the project. The idea was that the railroads would sell the land, using the proceeds to help finance the gigantic construction project And that put those millions of acres into play for men and women who dreamed of establishing new farms and towns.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was another spur to western settlement that dovetailed nicely with the railroad land grants to lure new westerners. Any resident of the U.S. who had not taken up arms against the government could stake a 160-acre claim, improve it, and obtain ownership after five years of occupancy.
With the end of the war, the Homestead Act combined with the extension of the rails west of the Mississippi to provide easy access turbocharged western expansion.
The move west by county residents, as chronicled in the pages of the Kendall County Record, began early in the 1870s. Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted on Nov. 9, 1871: “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”
That was only the first of a veritable flood of emigration, which was facilitated by the completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1870. The line, which followed the banks of the Fox River from Ottawa north to Geneva, directly connecting the county’s river towns with the wider world. As noted above, the Ashleys leased a rail car, loaded their goods aboard in Oswego, and weren’t required to offload them until they arrived on the shortgrass prairies of Kansas.
The flood of emigrants was helped along by frequent ads in the Record similar to this one from the Dec. 30, 1876 edition placed by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad general agent John M. Childs: “Ho for Kansas! I shall take out a small party of excursionists to Larned and Kinsley, Kan. on Tuesday, Jan. 11th, 1876. If you desire to go to any part of Kansas at excursion rates, let me know at once. I shall also send out emigrant freight and excursion trains on Feb. 15th and March 14th, 1876. Cars of freight, $95 and $100 each, from all points on C.R.I. & P. R.R.”
On March 15, 1877, Rank reported a large group of Oswegoans were bound for Kansas: “Charles A. and Henry Davis, with the latter’s family, and William H. Coffin and family, Will Miller, Dan Puff, Valentine somebody and others whose names I did not learn, altogether 12 persons, started this morning for a new home in Kansas. They have taken with them two carloads of effects including 12 horses and mules. The Davises have land in Lyon and Greenwood counties of that state. I believe it is the latter to which they are now going.
Not everyone went west to the plains, of course. In July 1873, a number of families loaded up their goods to move south rather than west. Rank wrote on June 26, 1873 that “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”
William A. Hawley was a veteran of the 13th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and campaigned with the regiment through much of Mississippi with Grant and Sherman during the war. Apparently, Hawley was so taken with that part of the country that he went to Madison County, Mississippi in April 1873 to look over the country, and then persuaded a number of Oswego families to join him.
And in 1880, Kendall County Circuit Clerk Lyman Bennett and his family moved to Missouri. In 1881, a large party of families moved to Plymouth County, Iowa, after which Rank plaintively remarked: “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”
The Brockways sold their farms and moved to Iowa in 1884.
Out on the Oswego prairie, the Edmund Brockway family had been farming right on the border with Wheatland Township, Will County, since the 1850s. In 1884, he decided he could increase his acreage by moving west to Iowa. Accordingly, he bought a farm near Newell in Buena Vista County, in far northwestern Iowa. Returning, he got his wife and several children ready to move starting in February 1884.
The Brockways’ farm was located on Stewart Road just north of Simons Road, making Aurora their largest nearby town. Accordingly, that’s where they moved the farm tools and household goods they planned to take west.
“We were to get possession of the new farm March 1, so we loaded our moveables on two [rail] cars to reach it at that date,” Edmund’s son, also named Edmund, wrote in a 1946 memoire.
The Brockways procured two rail cars from the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad and loaded their goods aboard in Aurora. “Machinery and four horses in one car, household goods and four cows, one calf, one dog, some hens, and maybe a cat,” young Edmund recalled. They left Aurora on a Tuesday evening, and arrived at their destination at noon Friday. The Brockways made a success of their move, and Edmund’s descendants live and farm in Buena Vista County still.
Not everyone made a go of it, of course. The families who tried Mississippi gradually straggled back to Kendall County, Hawley himself lasting not quite a year.
Also having sober second thoughts were a number of those who tried farming on the arid plains of western Kansas and Nebraska. On Dec. 18, 1889, Rank wrote: “Frank Hoard and all of the family have returned from Dakota and moved on a farm over near the old [CB&Q railroad] station. He was well pleased with the country out there but has had bad luck; first nearly losing everything by being burned out, and next being included in the district where nothing was raised the past season because of drought.”
As the 20th Century dawned, removals from Kendall County continued, although the destinations changed from west to north, with residents moving to Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Canada. On Oct. 21, 1908, the Record reported that “Charles Turpin loaded his [railroad] car Monday for his new home in Halbrite, Saskatchewan.”
There appears to be little danger of Oswego’s population declining any time soon. Counting 3,876 residents in 1990, the latest population estimate is well over 30,000.
Canadian officials and railroad companies were so good at selling Americans on the good deals they could have by moving north that it became a concern. The Record reported on May 11, 1910 that officials in Washington, D.C. were alarmed at the exodus: “Washington officials of the departments of Agriculture and Commerce and Labor have a sharp sense of the need of something, no one yet seems to know just what, to stop the flood of emigration from the western United States into Canada. The administration is to take the matter up seriously. In the last eight years, 480,000 of American citizens have gone to Canada.”
But like all other fads, that, too soon passed. As the 20th Century reached its mid point, Kendall County’s population was finally recovering, fueled by all those Baby Boomers produced by military veterans. And by the 1960s, we’d reached and then quickly surpassed the 1860 population high point.
Given Kendall County’s location nestled up against three of the six fast-growing Collar Counties, it’s unlikely we’ll experience population loss any time soon. But it did happen once, so there’s that.