Category Archives: Crime

Bonnie and Clyde and the big 1933 Plattville Armory heist

Although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets in the news, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. as reported to the FBI is actually down significantly from what it was 20 years ago. The caveat is, of course, that the murder rate during the Covid pandemic has gone up in certain areas, but overall violent crime has been on a steady decline.

According to the latest statistics compiled and released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 1991, there were an average of 758.2 violent crimes committed for every 100,000 people in the U.S. In 2019, the last year for which statistics have been compiles, there were an average of 366.7 violent crimes committed in the U.S. for every 100,000 residents.

The reasons for the steady decrease in violent crime seem to be many and controversial. One of the most interesting is the theory that lead levels in the atmosphere all over the country due to lead in gasoline was responsible for the crime increase to begin with. The decline in crime began a few years after leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S.

The folks over at Wikipedia have a good, concise entry on the theory, the nut of the piece being: “Individuals exposed to lead at young ages are more vulnerable to learning disabilities, decreased I.Q., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and problems with impulse control, all of which may be negatively impacting decision making and leading to the commission of more crimes as these children reach adulthood, especially violent crimes. No safe level of lead in the human bloodstream exists given that any amount can contribute to deleterious health issues.”

Not that leaded gasoline was responsible for all the nation’s past crimes, of course. One of the worst crime waves to strike the country took place in the 1920s and 1930s as well-armed gangs used the new mobility conferred by a combination of fast, dependable automobiles and ever-better roads robbed banks, businesses, and even individuals all over the country.

John Dillinger and his gang were not unfamiliar with Kendall County. One of his henchmen was secretly buried just outside Oswego after he was shot during a Minnesota robbery attempt.

Here in Kendall County, for instance, back in November 1933, Oswego dentist Dr. Sheldon Bell and his wife were motoring along what is today U.S. Route 30 between Plainfield and Aurora when a pair of road agents held them up. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 8: “Dr. Sheldon F. Bell was one of the victims of the bandits during the 10 holdups in Kane and Kendall counties on Wednesday evening, Nov. 1. He was robbed of about seventeen dollars on Route 22 near Normantown. Dr. Bell was accompanied by his wife, who was not molested. All the robbers wanted was money, rejecting the bill fold and the papers it contained.”

Previously, Kendall County had suffered a plague of bank robberies, thefts, and bootlegging that was all reported in the local press, a situation that would continue until World War II calmed things down considerably. The Dillinger and Ma Barker gangs frequented the area and Al Capone’s illegal bootlegging operations favored our mostly rural county, even after Prohibition ended. One of John Dillinger’s gang, killed in a shootout in Minnesota, was even secretly buried by the gang just outside Oswego.

During that era, local law enforcement, especially in rural areas, was spotty to nonexistent. The Illinois State Police had been established in 1922 with eight officers using World War I surplus motorcycles to enforce state traffic laws, but even 10 years later, confronting organized, well-armed gangs was mostly beyond their capabilities. In October 1929, for instance, a criminal gang cut the telephone wires into and then blocked the roads into and out of the small Kendall County hamlet of Millbrook while they blew the safe in the Millbrook Bank, getting away with several hundred dollars. The situation was so bad that the Illinois Bankers Association established their own corps of bank guards.

While that and a lot of other truly fascinating local historical crime stories came out of that era, one of the most interesting really didn’t come to light until the dawn of the 21st Century, several decades after it occurred. Interestingly enough, the incident happened the same year Dr. Bell and his wife were held up.

It started this way: During the night of April 19, 1933, someone broke into the Illinois National Guard Armory in the tiny unincorporated Kendall County community of Plattville. Local, state, and national law enforcement and military officials were alarmed because taken was a virtual armory of four Browning Automatic Rifles (nicknamed with its initials, the BAR), along with 11 Colt M1911 .45 cal. automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.

Officers of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard based at Plattville in Kendall County. The photo was taken, about 1933 during summer drill at Camp Grant near Rockford. Capt. Charles G. “Timmie” Howell is second from left. (Little White School Museum collection)

The semi-automatic pistols, the standard .45 cal. U.S. Army sidearm, featured a 9-round box magazine, were heavy, rugged, and extremely dependable. The BARs were powerful, fully automatic weapons that served the U.S. Army as well as the National Guard as their standard squad automatic weapon. Each eight-man squad was generally equipped with one BAR to augment the firepower of the rest of the squad’s Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifles that were standard equipment during those pre-World War II days. Both the BAR and the Springfield rifles were chambered for the powerful .30-06 cartridge.

Plattville was the smallest community in the nation to boast its own National Guard Armory, the base for Company E of the 129th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The armory had been the brainchild of Kendall County resident Charles G. “Timmy” Howell, who commanded it, holding the rank of captain.

The armory was built with community donations and labor and through the pay it provided, Company E provided badly needed cash for more than 100 young men, mostly farm boys, during the dark years of the Great Depression. It also provided valuable training for those young men, most of whom would go on to fight their way through the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific during World War II.

But given its location in a sleepy farming community, the security provided for Company E’s arms and ammunition was simply not up to the task of fending off the new breed of mobile criminals that had lately blossomed.

As soon as the theft was reported law enforcement and military officials alike, began worrying about who, exactly, had taken the guns and why.

Word got around via the neighborhood telegraph while officials did their best to downplay the theft. They did such a good job minimizing it, in fact, that 60 years later, no one had an inkling such a thing had ever happened. As an example, in an oddly naive, but apparently serious, comment, the editor of the Kendall County Record remarked in the paper’s May 3 edition: “Hope the person who stole the four [BARs] from the armory is honest; we’d hate to face these guns in the hands of a crook.”

We can only hope he was prepared to be disappointed, because after a spectacular July 20 shootout between the notorious Barrow Gang—the Bonnie and Clyde and associates made so famous in subsequent movies—and law enforcement officers just outside Kansas City, Mo., some of the BARs and pistols were recovered from the motel rooms the gang had occupied.

The Barrow Gang, made famous to a new generation in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” was one of the most violent of the criminal groups afflicting the Midwest during the lawless 1920s and 1930s.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow pose with one of Clyde’s beloved V-8 Ford automobiles in this colorized photo of the pair.

Clyde Barrow was the leader of the gang, with his girlfriend Bonnie Parker (Parker was married to another man who was in jail at the time). Besides Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s brother, Melvin “Buck” Parker, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, along with C.W. Jones comprised the most consistent members of the gang. They were occasionally joined by Henry Methvin, Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, and Ralph Fults.

Although the gang garnered a lot of attention thanks to Bonnie and Clyde’s knack for publicizing themselves, they were mostly notable for the short period of time during which they were active, a period that only ran from 1932 to 1934, not to mention their extreme violence.

Early on, the gang primarily engaged in small business hold-ups, but then decided to add bank robbery to their repertoire. The Barrow Gang was notorious among law enforcement for its ferocious counter-attacks whenever confronted by authorities. The BAR was Clyde Barrow’s weapon of choice, something that easily out-gunned the revolvers and shotguns of most lawmen of the era. Although limited to 20-round detachable magazines, the BAR on full automatic could fire more than 500 rounds a minute. John Browning invented the weapon for U.S. troops during World War I, where it proved extremely effective, with its relatively light weight, mobility, high rate of fire, and long range—the BAR was accurate up to 1,500 yards and had a maximum range of nearly three miles. It could also be loaded with armor-piercing rounds, something else Barrow favored.

The automatic weapon with which most law enforcement agencies of the era were armed was the Thompson Submachine Gun—the famed Tommy Gun. The Thompson, however, while having a faster rate of fire than the BAR, fired the same cartridge as the .45 cal. pistol, and had an effective range of only 170 yards or so.

On April 13, 1933, when police officers raided the apartment in Joplin, Mo., where Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and W.D. Jones were hiding out after a four-month crime spree, they thought they were raiding a bootlegging operation, which is what suspicious neighbors had reported. But when they confronted the gang, the police were caught by surprise as the Barrow gang opened up with a vicious barrage of automatic weapons fire, killing Constable John Harryman and police officer Harry McGinnis. Although the gang escaped, they were forced by the gunfight to leave most of their belongings and weapons behind.

U.S. Army soldier displays his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) while serving in France in 1918. Gangster Clyde Barrow favored the BAR for its rate of fire and power.

Six days later, the Platteville National Guard Armory was raided and the four BARs, 11 Colt .45 automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were stolen. A week or so later, the gang hit a bank in Indiana.

During the next two and a half months, the Barrow Gang continued its wide-ranging campaign of lawlessness in Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri as they sped from crime scene to crime scene using the Ford V-8 autos Clyde favored.

In 1934, in fact, Clyde (who had worked as a mechanic before taking up outlawry) wrote to Henry Ford congratulating him on his Ford autos and their V-8 engines: “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8.”

On July 20, 1933, the gang decided to find someplace to lay low, choosing the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte County, Mo., just outside Kansas City. But their suspicious behavior caused people in the neighborhood to call the authorities.

Colt Arms’ .45 cal. semi-automatic pistol was the standard U.S. Army sidearm for most of the 20th Century. It was favored by gangsters because it was rugged, dependable, and fired a heavy round of ammunition.

This time the police showed up in force armed with submachine guns, a car that had been armored, plus a mobile plate steel bulletproof shield. The armored sedan pulled up to block the garage door behind which the gang’s car was parked, and Sheriff Holt Coffee rapped on the door of one of the two tourist cabins the gang occupied, demanding they come out. No dummy, he immediately ducked behind the steel shield.

Clyde, Buck, and Jones instantly replied with a withering fusillade of BAR fire, literally driving Coffee’s heavy steel shield backwards, although it proved proof against Clyde’s armor-piercing ammunition. The gang also shot up the armored car, this time their armor-piercing .30-06 rounds perforating the car’s light armor, and wounding the driver who backed up to get out of the line of fire, allowing the gang to escape. But both Buck and Blanche Barrow were seriously wounded. Amazingly, none of the dozens of spectators who had gathered to watch, nor any of the police officers were badly injured in the furious gun battle.

It took a while for the Feds to identify and trace all the weapons and other materials they found in the gang’s motel rooms, but on Oct. 19, 1933, FBI Agent J.J. Keating of the bureau’s Chicago office wrote to his superiors: “Will consult commander of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard, with respect to the loss of the Colt 45 pistols, and Browning automatic rifles mentioned in report of Special Agent Dwight Brantley, 9/1/33, Washington, D.C., and inform him that said firearms were taken from the Barrow gang and are in possession of the Kansas City office of this division.”

Presumably, the weapons were later returned to Company E and, hopefully, better secured from being pilfered by passing bandits. And there the matter largely rested until 2003 when Winston Ramsey, editor-in-chief of a World War II history magazine based in England, traveled to the U.S. while researching his book, On the Trail of Bonnie and Clyde Then and Now chronicling the days of Bonnie and Clyde, visiting places the notorious couple frequented during their crime spree.

Ramsey contacted reporter Tony Scott at the Kendall County Record concerning reports he had obtained that the Plattville Armory had been robbed of weapons and ammunition by Bonnie and Clyde, something that no one in the community recalled—or at least would admit to recalling. But then in 2011, Agent Keating’s letter became public, and Tony revisited the story in a couple articles. And by then I’d been working on transcribing the Record’s “Oswego” news columns, along with other news items that sounded interesting. One of those was the Record’s editor writing about the theft of weapons from the Plattville Armory in the paper’s April 26 edition and a follow-up the next week, May 3, 1933.

Granted, there’s no physical evidence the Barrow Gang were responsible for stealing the weapons from the Plattville Armory. And the question of how the gang would have known about the Plattville Armory still raises a few doubts.

But in the book Blanche Barrow wrote about her harrowing adventures with the gang, she said that Clyde and W.D. Jones robbed the Plattville Armory. At least three other books on the gang repeat the same story. And it is a fact that the FBI recovered many of the stolen weapons after the Red Crown shoot-out in Missouri, so the gang certainly had them in their possession.

The bullet-riddled Ford V-8 auto Clyde was driving when law enforcement officers ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in rural Louisiana is on exhibit in the casino at Whiskey Pete’s in Primm, Nevada.

Would the theft have made sense in terms of opportunity? The gang was in the Joplin, Mo. shootout on April 13, where they lost a lot of their arms and ammunition. They then attempted a bank robbery at the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana on May 12. The Plattville robbery took place the night of April 19-20, and Plattville is sort of right in between Joplin and that Indiana bank. Given Clyde’s love of long-distance high-speed driving taking random zigzag routes, it’s certainly possible—maybe even probable—Clyde and W.D. Jones really were the ones who stole all those weapons in the middle of his gang’s crime spree. Which leaves the question of how the gang knew about the Plattville Armory in the tiny rural community unanswered.

In any case, Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal spree came to a violent end a year later. On May 23, 1934, lawmen, taking no chances with the pair’s habit of replying with overwhelming firepower, set up an ambush in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and riddled Clyde’s car with more than 130 rounds of shotgun, rifle, and pistol fire, killing both of the outlaws. Federal authorities said the pair and their gang was responsible for at least 13 murders and robberies and burglaries too numerous to count.

In retrospect, local officials did a pretty good job consigning the Barrow Gang’s Plattville Armory robbery to the memory hole. But like most history, it eventually floated to the surface once again, assuring at least a footnote in the story of one of the most violent crime sprees the Midwest has ever seen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nation’s long history of terrorism against Black Americans is actual ‘hidden history’

The destruction of the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been much in the news recently, and for good reason. This year, 2021, marks the 100th anniversary of the destruction of the community by a White mob and the murder of more than 300 Black Greenwood residents, all with the collusion of local governmental officials.

It was a horrific event, one that none of us ever heard about in school. I’d never heard of such a thing until I started doing research several years ago into the effect of organized racism and anti-immigrant activities that led to the recreation of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s for a column I was working on concerning the Klan’s popularity here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

That’s when I stumbled across the East St. Louis race riot of 1917, and then when I looked further into things I came across the Tulsa riot—and many, many more such outrages.

We tend to think of riots concerning race and racial issues as relatively recent things. The ones that stick in most minds were those that occurred after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in the late 1960s, during which large portions of many of our major cities were destroyed.

Race riots are nearly as old as the nation, but instead of mostly involving Black rioters attacking Whites, the opposite is by far most common in the nation’s history.

In fact, Wikipedia has a handy page where you can check out the dismayingly long list of violent racial clashes across the nation’s history beginning in the early 19th Century.

The map at left I found on-line is a good reference tool, too, although it only includes a relatively small number instances of major U.S. racial violence. But it does illustrate one eye-opening fact—at least for me. And that is that while Louisiana seems to be the champion state for hosting racial riots targeting Black residents, Illinois comes in a distressing second.

Which, I suppose, shouldn’t really be all that much of a surprise. Illinois was initially settled by Southerners. In fact, it was originally governed as a county of the State of Virginia during and after the Revolutionary War. After the war, most of Illinois’ settlers came from Southern states, west through Kentucky and Tennessee and up into southern Illinois.

In accord with the Northwest Ordinance, Illinois was admitted as a free, non-slave state in 1818. But the state was never a friendly place for Black residents. A few years after statehood, in fact, agitation by pro-slavery politicians nearly rewrote the state’s constitution to legally permit slavery. That move was thwarted, narrowly.

But then things began to change. The Erie Canal in New York opened and the rush of settlers from New England and the Middle States (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) began and soon the population of anti-slave Northerners in northern Illinois easily outpaced Southerners in southern Illinois. So, by the time the Civil War broke out, Illinois as a whole was firmly in the anti-slave column, although most of the southern part of the state was more or less pro-Confederate. In fact, the state had to station troops in towns including Quincy to guard against pro-Southern violence during the war. And a number of Illinois men fought on the Southern side during the war.

There was a lot of discussion about this map on line the other day, but I find it generally accurate in offering the basic mindset of the people who live in the color-coded areas.

So the seeds of racist violence had long been planted here. And as the 20th Century dawned, the nation experienced a surge in racist and anti-immigrant violence fueled by social change. Blacks were leaving the Jim Crow South to make new lives in Northern manufacturing cities, while immigration from southern Europe—particularly Italy—was fueling anti-Catholic and anti-foreign tensions and violence, all whipped up by racist radio personalities and the reincarnation of the Ku Klux Klan.

By 1917, the 1908 Springfield riot was some years in the past and the Chicago violence was on the horizon. That July, one of the state’s most violent race riots broke out in East St. Louis. At least 50 persons were killed (the toll was undoubtedly higher) and 240 people were reported injured. Damage was set at $1,400,000—which would be $29 million in 2021 dollars.

The history of the riot and accompanying murders and destruction was not completely hidden, although it’s place in Illinois history has certainly been downplayed. In 1964, Elliott M. Rudwick, a professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, published an in-depth study of it, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917. And during the state’s 1968 sesquicentennial, Bob Sutton included Robert Asher’s “Documents of the Race Riot at East St. Louis,” previously published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, in his two-volume The Prairie State: A Documentary History of Illinois. It was certainly not covered in any of our junior or senior high school history courses, nor was the general topic covered in my college U.S. History survey course at Northern Illinois University. As someone on History Twitter noted the other day, back then it was as if Black Americans completely disappeared between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the public aspects of the Civil Rights movement a century later.

Granted, the story’s there. But you have to dig to find it. Letters and personal accounts left by victims of the violence vividly describe the events of July 2, 1917, something that makes it all the more puzzling the East St. Louis violence, along with all the other outbreaks preceding it and following it during the next few years were virtually erased from the histories taught in Illinois schools.

Trouble had been brewing in East St. Louis for several months, fanned by the labor problems then existing in the area. On July 1, supposedly as a means to forestall violence, police and Illinois National Guard soldiers appeared at the homes of black families and demanded their weapons. Most of the families complied. But in spite of—or perhaps because of—the seizure of Black citizens’ arms, throughout the day, warnings that rioting would begin that evening spread through the Black community.

But according to the testimony of a White woman, the actual riot started about noon, when a colored man came to her house to deliver gasoline. Whites attacked the man, but the woman held the mob at bay with a revolver while the black tried to escape through the back door. The mob pursued him and killed him. Scott Clark, a black teamster, was next. He was stoned to death by women in the mob as he was dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck.

The July 3, 1917 St. Louis Globe-Democrat described the violence in lurid detail. Although U.S. Senator William Yates Sherman frantically requested U.S. troops be sent to quell the violence, President Woodrow Wilson refused.

Most Black residents felt their only hope was to get to the Municipal Free Bridge across the Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri. Many made it, but many more did not, and were either hung, shot, or burned to death by the mob. Although the governor called out the Illinois National Guard, that seemed to have little or no effect on the destruction.

Among those who made it to safety was Daisy Westbrook. Westbrook, a young black woman at the time, was the director of music and drawing at Lincoln High School in East St. Louis. She described her experiences in a letter written on July 19, just l7 days after the riot, recounting the terror of the black residents of East St. Louis in graphic detail.

“It started early in the afternoon. We kept receiving calls over the ‘phone to pack our trunks and leave, because it was going to be awful that night. We did not heed the calls, but sent grandma and the baby on to St. Louis and said we should ‘stick’ no matter what happened. At first when the fire started, we stood on Broadway and watched it. As they neared our house we went in and went to the basement. It was too late to run then. They shot and yelled some thing awful, finally they reached our house. At first, they did not bother us (we watched from the basement window), they remarked that ‘white people live in that house, that is not a nigger house.’ Later, someone must have tipped them that it was a ‘nigger’ house, because, after leaving us for about 20 min. they returned and started shooting in the house, throwing bricks and yelling like mad ‘kill the nigger, burn that house,’

Destruction along six blocks of Walnut Street in East St. Louis caused by the race riot in July 1917.

“It seemed the whole house was falling in on us. Then some one said, ‘they must not be there; if they are they are certainly dead’. Then some one shouted ‘they are in the basement. Surround them and burn it down.’ Then they ran down our steps. Only prayer saved us, we were under tubs and any thing we could find praying and keeping as quite as possible, because if they had seen one face, we would have been shot or burned to death. Sister tipped to the door to see if the house was on fire. She saw the reflection of a soldier on the front door and pulled it open quickly and called for help. All of us ran out then and was taken to the city hall for the night. The next morning, we learned our house was not burned, so we tried to get protection to go out and get our clothes and have the rest of the things put in storage. We could not, but were sent on to St. Louis. Had to walk across the bridge with a line of soldiers on each side in the hot sun, no hats and scarcely no clothing.

“On Tuesday evening at 6 o’clock our house was burned with two soldiers on guard. So the papers stated. We were told that they looted the house before burning it.”

Things eventually calmed down in East St. Louis, only to flare up again in Chicago in 1919 and then in Tulsa in 1921. The riots could, I suppose, be seen as Jim Crow moving violently north in on-going efforts to stymie Black economic advancement. The riots and massacres destroyed millions in business and home equity that was thereby eliminated from being used to finance Black families’ generational advancement.

If that wasn’t bad enough, some years in the future when President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Alphabet Agencies” began fighting the Great Depression by pumping money into the economy, Black families were effectively barred from receiving any assistance. Black homeowners, farmers, and business owners were kept from participating, again denied the chance to build equity for the future. And yet again, after World War II with the passage of the G.I. Bills, rules created by Southern legislators effectively barred Black veterans from accessing federal housing and education loan and grant programs.

Not until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 did some equity begin making its way into the systemic racism that was baked into the nation’s governmental and social life. And as soon as that happened, racist Southern Democrats left the party in droves, to be warmly welcomed by cynical Republicans who figured they could keep the racism parts quiet while using the old Confederacy to cement their political power.

And so here we find ourselves in 2021, observing the centennial of the horrific Tulsa race massacre at a time when overt racism is again being promoted and encouraged by politicians as shameless as those who encouraged the racism and religious bigotry of the early 20th Century. Until the last five years, I’d assumed we’d come a lot farther along this particular road than we obviously have. It’s apparent the road’s a lot longer and more winding than I’d hoped or imagined.

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Filed under Black history, Crime, Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History

When Kendall County Guardsmen policed the southern Illinois mine wars

Taylorville, in south-central Illinois, was in the news this past week after it got hit by a powerful tornado. And hearing about Taylorville on the news reminded me about the town’s old connection with Kendall County.

That relationship, memorable though brief, goes back to the 1930s, when there were problems—big problems—in the Illinois coalfields that surround Taylorville in Christian County.

The nation’s economic conditions, and it slipped into the Great Depression just kept getting worse. And then, in the midst of all the economic turmoil on July 9, 1932, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), under the leadership of the pugnacious John L. Lewis, made a deal with the owners of coal mines around Taylorville and other nearby towns. Negotiations on a new four-year contract championed by Lewis had been dragging on since the spring, and the miners were anxious to get back to work. But when the union and the companies finally settled and the miners found out the details of the agreement, they were outraged.

Lewis had agreed to a cut in the basic daily wage from $6.10 a day to just $5. Lewis insisted it was the best deal the miners could get considering the economic shape the country was in. His argument was that the companies were in danger of going broke altogether. Not surprisingly, however, the members’ vote on the new contract went down by more than 2-1.

But Lewis was determined to force the contract through, and he ordered UMWA District 12 President John H. Walker to sell the new contract to his angry members, while Lewis traveled through safer areas of the state to lobby for acceptance of the pact. When Walker spoke to miners at Gillespie, physical violence nearly broke out.

A second vote on the contract was held Aug. 6, and Lewis and his union officers announced it had passed. But before the vote could be certified, the tally sheets were said to have been stolen. A couple days later, Lewis ordered District 12 miners to accept the new contract. But rebellion was in the air.

1932 abt Police vs Miners

Local police and the state police were often hostile to organized labor during the southern Illinois mine wars. The Taylorville confrontations were unusual in that the United Mine Workers were allied with coal company owners against the new Progressive Miners of America. (minewar.org image)

On Aug. 14 in the Macoupin County mining community of Benld, miners met and voted to go to neighboring Taylorville and close down the Peabody Coal Company mine there—Taylorville’s miners had voted in favor of the contract and had gone back to work. By Aug. 19, a convoy of some 1,500 miners left for Taylorville where they successfully shut down the mine—the Christian County miners refused to cross their picket line.

Farther south in Illinois, the protests were not successful, resulting in the so-called “Battle of Mulkeytown,” in which five miners were injured by sheriff’s deputies.

In early September disaffected miners met at Gillespie and established a new union, the Progressive Miners of America, in direct opposition to Lewis’ UMWA. Christian County—and Taylorville—became the battlefield between the two sides. While the “Proggies” managed to negotiate a slightly better contract, Peabody officials refused to hire any PMA workers. In fact, PMA membership became a ticket to being fired in most mines.

1932 PMA rally

The upstart Progressive Miners of America tried to foil the United Mineworkers’ John L. Lewis and the coal companies’ efforts to cut miners’ pay. The companies and the UMWA responded with violence. (minewars.org image)

With this as a backdrop, in 1933, open warfare finally broke out between the PMA on one side and the mine owners and the UMWA on the other. A headline in the Taylorville Breeze on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1933 reported: “4 Killed, 14 Shot in Mine Battle.” According to the news story, PMA opened fire on “scabs and special deputies” at Peabody’s Taylorville Mine No. 7. The report said the PMA miners opened up with rifles from “several homes,” and included machine gun fire from Freddie Bassana’s gas station (Bassana was subsequently charged with murder).

Clearly things were getting out of hand in Taylorville, so Gov. Henry Horner called out the Illinois National Guard. Initially, five infantry companies from Danville, Champagne, Springfield, and Salina were activated, along with a headquarters company from Sullivan to respond to Horner’s call.

1932 ING at Peabody Coal Company mine

The Illinois National Guard was dispatched to the Taylorville region in 1933 to maintain peace as the unions and companies fought each other over a new labor contract. (minewars.org image)

And ominously, on Jan. 7, 17 cases of explosives were reported stolen from a nearby mine.

Tensions went up further in February when National Guard cavalry from Chicago was stationed in Taylorville. The cavalrymen were generally well-to-do, and didn’t get along at all with the miners. By March 28, 10 miners had been killed and 100 wounded in the mine war. On April 3, a Baptist church in Taylorville was bombed, and a gun battle in Duquoin on April 7, left two Progressives dead. On April 13, perhaps thinking to cash in on the situation, Montgomery-Ward advertised a “Special Sale” on .22 cal. Rifles—just $3.41.

Then on May 13, the Breeze reported that the National Guard company from Kankakee that had been on duty at Taylorville was being replaced by Company E of the 129th Infantry, based in tiny Plattville, right here in Kendall County.

1935 abt Co E officers

Leadership of Company E, 129th Illinois National Guard Infantry, pictured about 1935 at Camp Grant, Illinois. Company commander Capt. Charles “Timmy” Howell is second from left; his son, Clyde, is on the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

The company had been established and accepted for service on July 16, 1923 with Capt. David Mewhirter, a World War I veteran, in command. In June 1928, Capt. Charles Howell succeeded Mewhirter. Howell was in command when the company was deployed to Taylorville.

On April 5, 1933, the Kendall County Record reported that “Capt. Charles Howell of Company E. Plattville, was in receipt Friday of orders for the men to be ready and fully equipped for service at Taylorville, the scene during many months of serious mine labor trouble and riots. When the orders for actual movement to the area will be received it cannot be foreseen, but farmers here are looking around for substitute hired men who can fill in during the Company’s absence Since the beginning of the disputes at Taylorville, national guard companies have been sent to the area in rotation for stated periods of time.”

1935 abt Stacked Springfields @ Camp Grant

Company E. Model 1903 Springfield rifles they carried while on duty at Taylorville, stacked outside the armory tent during their 1935 deployment to Camp Grant. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Daily Herald in nearby Morris reported on May 11 that: “A telephone message was received at midnight last night by Capt. Charles Howell in Plattville where the company quarters are located, to report for duty in Taylorville and the company of 60 men will leave for the trouble zone Saturday night by bus.”

According to the May 17, 1933 Kendall County Record, “Company E, 129th Infantry, left Yorkville Saturday night for Taylorville, where they will relieve the company from Kankakee and resume the guard of the mines. The company left in special buses. A truck carried the necessary equipment for the stay. The boys will return in two weeks. Their company is the last one in the district to be called. Capt. Charles F. Howell is in command. His lieutenants are Arthur Hubbard, first [lieutenant[; Irwin Knutson, second [lieutenant]; Rasmus Knutson, William Reed, Harvey Reed, Vernon Wright, Nels Nelson, Gordon Bertram, and Wilbert Henne, sergeants; and Harold Stein, mess sergeant.”

From both press reports and letters home, Company E did well. Years later, Clyde Howell, Capt. Howell’s son, recalled that “There were no problems when E Company was down there because they could read each other because everybody in E Company was a farmer. When you had somebody from Chicago, it wasn’t so good.”

On May 24, 1933, Capt. Howell wrote in a letter to the editor of the Record that “Taylorville is a very pretty town and the people treat us fine, but the small mining towns around are not so good. Fights are common afternoons and evenings.”

When Company E’s tour was up, the Guardsmen headed back to their homes, farms, and businesses in Kendall County. While it didn’t seem like much at the time, the experience they gained served several members of Company E in good stead some years later when World War II broke out. After it was nationalized, Company E and the rest of the 129th served in the Pacific Theatre throughout the war.

The boys from Kendall County made a good showing, both during their service during the mine war, and later on, during their actual combat against Japan. A pretty good showing for the farmers and small businessmen coming out of the nation’s smallest National Guard Armory. How tiny Plattville got a certified armory is a fascinating story in itself—but one for another time…

 

 

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Filed under Crime, Firearms, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, People in History

When it came to crime, it really was the “Roaring ’20s” in Kendall County…

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a period of history by its nickname. Sometimes not so much. For instance, the “Gay ‘90s” definitely were not happy and carefree, while the “Roaring ‘20s” definitely were all of that—and more.

The decade of the 1890s began with the Panic of 1893, one of the longest and deepest financial depressions in the nation’s history. Here in Kendall County, during a period of just a couple weeks, every bank failed and the repercussions drove numerous business owners and farmers into bankruptcy. The balance of the decade, far from the carefree picture in our minds of young women and men riding their bicycles built for two, was a grim climb back to financial solvency.

The “Roaring ‘20s,” on the other hand, were just that. Economic growth was stratospheric (fueled in part by all those World War I Liberty Bonds), newly available economical and dependable automobiles were creating an astonishingly mobile society, and even small town America was seeing a slice of the pie.

But while some areas of the economy were booming—the stock market in particular—other areas definitely were not. The farm depression that followed World War I was deepening, and that had serious effects in largely rural counties like Kendall. In addition, the approval of the 18th Amendment, which took affect on Jan. 17, 1920, banning the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was having a negative effect on small towns that relied on saloon licenses for much of their municipal revenue.

In the case of nationwide prohibition of alcohol, however, the citizenry started to push back almost immediately. The original physical opposition to Prohibition began at the local level; it would take a couple years for crime to become organized enough to take over bootlegging on a big scale.

Here in Kendall County, the Roaring ‘20s kicked off with the robbery of the State Bank of Newark in October. Rural banks had been favorites of robbers for years, but starting in 1920, the means and methods of the crimes began to change, primarily by the addition of automobiles as getaway vehicles. In the Newark case, a familiar face was on hand when the matter got to court. Fred Stuppy had been sent to prison a few years before for his role in robbing the Millbrook bank.

It was suddenly occurring to local officials that they were seriously under equipped to handle what seemed to be a growing wave of crime. Criminals had become more mobile as better roads and better cars came available, and they were often better armed than local constables and sheriffs.

As the Kendall County Record editorialized on Nov. 21, 1920: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Two years later, the General Assembly would create the Illinois State Police to help combat the rising tide of criminality in rural areas.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

Oswego’s Liberty Garage in 1927 after it’s purchase by Earl Zentmyer, who turned it into the village’s Ford dealership. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that local law enforcement wasn’t already trying their best, and sometimes finding themselves in perilous circumstances. In late April 1921, James Joslyn shot and killed West Chicago Chief of Police George Reihm while escaping from the attempted theft of lumber. Joslyn was working on an addition to his house and decided to get the material by robbing a lumber yard, killing Reihm when he got in the way. Joslyn kept one step ahead of the law for the next few months, eventually winding up in Oswego, where he and his wife and small son camped in Watts Cutter’s woods off South Main Street while he worked at the Liberty Garage. Although Joslyn was a good worker, Liberty Garage owner Clyde Lewis became suspicious when Joslyn showed up with a brand new Ford coupe wondering what the best way was to remove the serial numbers from the engine.

Yorkville Creamery

The old Yorkville Creamery where Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell shot it out with James Joslyn in 1921. (Little White School Museum collection)

And that’s where the new telecommunications technology came into play. Calls between Lewis, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell, and the Aurora Police Department convinced Hextell that Joslyn was worth questioning at least. And so with Lewis and deputy Frank Wellman in the car, Hextell headed to Yorkville, where Joslyn had been headed. The sheriff caught up to Joslyn at the old creamery building, and got out of his car just as Joslyn walked up to see who was in the car. Seeing the sheriff, Joslyn backed up, turned, and started to run. Hextell shouted for him to stop and fired a warning shot in the air. At that, Joslyn pulled his own pistol and snapped off a hurried shot at Hextell that nearly clipped the sheriff’s ear. Hextell fired in reply, hitting Joslyn in the side, knocking him down. As Hextell, Lewis, and Wellman approached Joslyn, they heard a shot, finding he’d shot himself in the head rather than suffer arrest and imprisonment. It wasn’t until Hextell compared notes with other law enforcement agencies that it was found Joslyn had a lengthy criminal record—including that active warrant for the murder of Reihm.

But beside garden variety gunfights, it was Prohibition that was preying on local minds as enterprising folks attempted to find ways around the new law. In October 1922, Hextell arrested J. Busby at his farm near the Five Mile Bridge between Yorkville and Plano for bootlegging. Explained the Kendall County Record: “When Sheriff Hextell served the search warrant he and his assistants found 24 different varieties of ‘booze,’ ranging from ‘home brew’ to cherry cordial.”

On Jan. 10, 1923, Record publisher Hugh Marshall commended the county’s law enforcement establishment: “Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [speakeasies] within its boundaries.”

As it turned out, Marshall’s congratulations were a bit premature, even as the redoubtable Sheriff Hextell was replaced by the new sheriff in town, George Barkley. I’ll let Marshall tell the story of what happened next as recounted in the March 28 Record:

“Sheriff Barkley and his assistants uncovered one of the biggest stills ever found in this part of the country in one place and a large supply of beer and whisky in another in raids made on Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night the sheriff and posse visited Plano where they searched the sample room of Stanley VanKirk and the sandwich room of his brother, Charles VanKirk, better known as “Bumps.” From these two raids, they garnered 80 cases of beer said to have been made in a Joliet brewery, and 14 quarts of supposed “real” whisky. Sheriff Barkley was assisted by former Sheriff Hextell and State Agents Jack Lecker and Pasnik. They had been working about Plano for two weeks. The two VanKirks were brought to Yorkville, where they were arraigned before Judge Larson on Tuesday pled guilty to the charges and were fined. Charles VanKirk paid $500; Stanly VanKirk, $300, and “Pidge” Robbins, who was arrested with them, stood a $100 levy.

“The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.”

Parker, Hawley, Schickler house

Built in 1869 by farmer and business owner George Parker, this ornate Italianate-style home featured a drive-in basement. Later owned by lawyer P.G. Hawley, it was sold to John Schickler, who attempted to run an illegal distilling operation there. (Little White School Museum collection)

While Stan and Bumps VanKirk’s activities didn’t seem to startle anyone too much, the Schickler distilling operation seemed to be a real surprise for local officials. John Schickler was a long-time Oswego businessman and farmer. He built the brick block of stores at the northwest corner of Washington and Main streets in the village’s downtown business district, where he variously operated a saloon and a grocery store. He’d purchased the old Parker-Hawley farm with its huge house that featured a drive-in basement.

Given prohibition, and Schickler’s former career running saloons, he and his son Clarence apparently decided to fulfill a need they figured the community had. John Schickler had always been interested in technology, and had added some of the most up-to-date features to his downtown Oswego building, including a freight elevator and a modern cooler for groceries and meat. So it wasn’t too surprising to see the amount of technology he and Clarence used to distill legal denatured medicinal alcohol into definitely illegal drinking liquor.

In the end, the Schicklers got what amounted to a slap on the wrist and the admonition to go and sin no more, which they apparently took seriously. Unfortunately, they also managed to get the notice of the local Ku Klux Klan. The Klan reportedly held a cross burning on the front lawn of the Schickler house, something that could have been fueled either by the Schicklers’ bootlegging activities or by the fact that they were Catholics.

John Schickler died in 1931, and Clarence found other things to do. “He was a slot machine king and his wife was a showgirl,” one elderly Oswego resident told me several years ago. Clarence, a few years after the bootlegging adventure, started the Schickler Dairy on the farm, milking 20 cows and housing the bottling operating in same basement where he and his father had distilled bootleg whisky.

At the time law enforcement raided it, the Schicklers’ operation seemed large and sophisticated. But it was paltry by later standards as crime became better organized.

In October 1930, police raided a farm a mile east of Plano and found six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, along with about 4,000 gallons of distilled alcohol, two boilers, and a large amount of yeast. And that was just one of a half-dozen or so operations knocked over during those years.

Despite the hopes of many Americans, the end of Prohibition in 1933 didn’t necessarily mean the end of local bootlegging. The biggest haul of federal and local agents took place in October 1936, well after Prohibition ended, as the mob tried to maintain a tax-free supply of alcohol. And the amounts of liquor the operation was about to produce were really astonishing, throwing the Schicklers’ operation back in 1923 definitely in the shade.

Here’s the account from the April 19, 1936 Record:

“Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…

“According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the ‘Feds’ on Thursday, April 9.

“The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed ‘the finest plant of its type in this territory.’ The plant was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.

“The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this. A wrecking crew from Chicago wrecked the equipment.”

After that, criminals in Kendall County got mostly back to the usual bank robberies and other crimes, including the occasional shoot-out with police.

Too often we read in the paper about some criminal activity or another and think to ourselves how much nicer it would be if we could go back to a simpler time when things weren’t so violent. But the thing is, that time never really existed.

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How Presbyterians, John Dillinger, and the Depression helped create an Oswego business…

Kendall County has never exactly been considered the artistic capital of the Fox Valley, but the time was, the work of a local commercial artist was sold nationwide. And as part of that process, jobs were created for many local residents at a time when cash was extremely hard to come by.

Larsen

The Rev. Horace Larsen

In the late 1930s, the Oswego Presbyterian Church was looking for a new pastor after the Rev. John Klein accepted a call to a church in Denver, Colorado. After a search, they reached out to the Rev. Horace Larsen who was then filling the pulpit at West Liberty, Iowa, inviting him to come to Oswego to see how he and the congregation liked each other. He spoke at the service in Oswego on the last Sunday in April 1938, and on March 8 the congregation voted to offer him the position.

When Rev. Larsen moved his family to Oswego, he also brought along the tools of his avocation as a commercial artist. For a few years, Larsen had been creating plaques with Biblical themes that he sold through religious supply houses. For each plaque, Larsen hand-carved the armature from which a latex mold would be made. Then the mold was filled with a relatively new, extremely hard plaster-like product called Hydrocal being manufactured by U.S. Gypsum.

Plaque graphic color

The small “Love Never Faileth” (1 Corinthians, 13:8) was first manufactured in Oswego in 1939, and was one of the Christian Art House’s more popular designs. (Little White School Museum collection)

Deposits of gypsum were discovered in the late 1840s along the Des Moines River near Fort Dodge, Iowa. Since mining began in 1872, millions of tons of the stuff have been removed from the extensive gypsum beds. First used to manufacture Plaster of Paris and as a soil additive, over the years U.S. Gypsum—now known as USG—developed a number of other gypsum-based products, including Hydrocal. The company still markets Hydrocal, advertising it as a “Multi-purpose gypsum cement ideal for both solid and hollow casting of lamp bases and figurines. High green strength minimizes breakage during removal from the most intricate latex molds. Achieves a stark, white color, making it ideal for accepting colorants.”

For Larsen’s purposes, Hydrocal was perfect. It’s drying time was not overly fast allowing easy removal from molds, and the plaques made from it dried extremely hard, durable, and dead white in color, which meant it was easier to paint them.

Larsen had produced plaques for a year or two in West Liberty, and continued to do the same when he arrived in Oswego. At first, he worked alone in the basement of his home, the church parsonage. As he chatted with members of the congregation, he found at least one who was interested in partnering in producing the plaques.

That was young Ron Smith, who was looking for a new career. After high school, Ron had decided he was interested in learning the undertaking business. So he joined Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home as an apprentice trainee. But it didn’t take long before he began seriously questioning his career choice.

Which is where the Dillinger Gang enters the story.

Thorsen Funeral Home

Ron Smith was a young undertaking apprentice at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home at the southwest corner of Madison and Van Buren Street. When he was tasked with processing John Hamilton’s badly decomposed body, he decided he should get into another line of work. That meant he was available to partner with Horace Larsen to form the Christian Art House. (Little White School Museum photo)

On April 22, 1934, gang members John Dillinger, John “Red” Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter were ambushed by law enforcement officers near St. Paul, Minnesota. Hamilton—nicknamed “Three-Fingered Jack” by the press—was seriously wounded by a rifle bullet in the back as the gang fled in their car. They headed to Aurora here in Illinois where one of the gang’s hangers-on named Volney Davis had an apartment with his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray. There they cared for Hamilton until he died, after which Dillinger, Van Meter, and Davis drove Hamilton’s body south along the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) to a spot just north of Oswego, opposite today’s Violet Patch Park, where they buried him in a shallow grave. To hide his identity, they poured lye on his hands and face to remove fingerprints and facial features.

Fast-forward to Aug. 28, 1935, when a team of FBI agents, finally learning of the location of Hamilton’s body from Davis, exhumed the corpse. Conferring with local lawmen, Hamilton’s badly decomposed body was removed to the Thorsen Funeral Home, where young Ron Smith was assigned to process and embalm it. Which was the point, Smith told me five decades later, that he decided he needed to make a different career choice.

Fortunately, Larsen arrived a couple years later looking for help, and Smith was willing, ready, and able to get involved in a new Oswego business that didn’t involve decomposed gangsters.

The pair called their new company the Christian Art House.

1944 Christian Art House

The employees of the Christian Art House in 1944 with the photo taken outside the firm’s Polk Street factory.

They began manufacturing their plaques in the parsonage basement, but it was soon apparent that more room was needed. So Smith conferred with his in-laws, Fred and Lettie Willis, and the operation was moved to a small addition to the Willis tin shop in downtown Oswego. But that space, too, was quickly outgrown and so Larsen and Smith again approached the Willises, who owned a vacant city lot on Polk Street that backed up to their own house on Washington Street. With local financial help the Christian Art House built a two-story concrete block building on the lot to serve as their factory. With an eye towards the uncertain future, especially given the on-going Depression, the structure was built as a factory, but was also designed by Larsen to be easily remodeled into apartments in case their plans fell through.

But the plans did not fall through, and in May, 1940, the new factory was completed.

The May 8, 1940 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that “In February of this year a building permit was granted and the erection of a new plant began. It is a two-story structure, sturdy and attractive, made of concrete blocks and built in such a way that it may be converted into living quarters in later years if desired… The building, designed by Dr. Larsen, will adequately care for the increased volume of business and make possible a more efficient service to the trade.”

Manufacturing plaques began almost immediately.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner with Christian Art House delivery truck.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner pose with the Christian Art House’s delivery truck shortly after the company’s new factory opened in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Larsen hand-carved each plaque’s armature. On plaques with relief carving (which was virtually all of them), he was careful to make all angles slope inwards so the latex molds made from the master could be easily removed, the plaques themselves easily slipping out. On an edge of each plaque, he added an incised copyright notice along with his name, “H.A. Larsen,” the plaque’s item number, and the place the plaque was made, either in West Liberty or Oswego.

After Larsen produced a master carving, it was taken to the factory where molds were prepared by spraying the master with a mold release and then spraying liquid latex onto the master. The latex was allowed to dry and was then peeled off the master, and another mold was prepared the same way.

The latex mold was sunk into a shallow box filled with liquid Hydrocal™, which was allowed to dry, thus providing a firm base for the mold. This was especially important for the larger plaques because the weight of the wet Hydrocal™ could distort the mold and ruin the plaque.

World Plaque

Larsen produced this unusual round design for the Christian Art House in 1940, featuring the verse from John 3:16 on a scroll superimposed on a cross, which is superimposed on the Earth. At 8.25″ in diameter, it’s one of Larsen’s larger efforts. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the plaques dried, they were removed from the molds and taken to the drying room. There, they were allowed to cure in the room’s elevated heat and lowered humidity.

After the plaques had thoroughly cured, they were taken to the paint room and were sprayed with a brown tinted antiquing paint. The plaques were then ready for final decorating, a job that was done by local women who worked at the Christian Art House part time.

During the late depression years and the immediate pre-war years of the late 1930s, the Christian Art House offered local women rare chances to earn cash wages without leaving town. While wages were only about 25 cents an hour, that was a fair amount in those years when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.

According to interviews with former paintresses, a specific color was painted each day. For instance, on a given Monday, everything green on whatever plaques to be decorated was painted. On Tuesday, blue portions of the plaques were painted, and so on.

Besides it’s women employees, the Christian Art House provided jobs for a number of men. Men worked in the actual plaque production, as well as in other jobs that required heavier manual labor. In addition, part-time male workers were employed from time to time for such labor-intensive tasks at unloading railcar loads of Hydrocal on the siding at the Oswego Depot. The men not only earned cash for this work, but were also sometimes also given complimentary plaques, a practice that spread the decorative art throughout the community.

2009 Plaque Factory

The old Christian Art House factory as it looks today as an apartment house on Polk Street in Oswego.

Besides the firm’s Oswego factory, plaques were also reportedly lately produced in Chicago, where female students from the Moody Bible Institute were employed part-time as paintresses. Also, the firm had a Toronto, Canada factory during the 1940s.

Christian Art House wall plaques were marketed on nationally-broadcast radio programs such as “The Lutheran Hour.” In addition, they were sold through religious supply houses including Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Larsen’s designs included both relief and incised schemes, and almost always featured familiar Bible verses. Along with Bible verses, each plaque included various familiar Protestant religious images. These included the empty Cross, signifying the risen Christ; oak motifs, including leaves, twigs, and acorns, relating back to the cross, which was thought to have been made of oak; lilies; open books representative of the Bible itself; and others.

Besides purely religious imagery, however, Larsen also experimented with a variety of other motifs, including the globe and also tried out various textures. He also combined standard motifs, such as small scrolls, with others, such as crosses, to come up with compound motif plaques.

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The Christian Art House exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The smaller plaques made inexpensive gifts, and were often given by Sunday school teachers to their students. Larger plaques were given as gifts and purchased as home decorations.

The Christian Art House business was finally dissolved in 1958. But even today, more than a few Oswego homes still sport some of Horace Larsen’s plaques. In total, his output still stands as probably the largest body of work by any Oswego artist.

Today, you can see some examples of Larsen’s work at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, which currently has an entire exhibit dedicated to Larsen and the Christian Art House.

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“The Roaring ‘20s” wasn’t just a meaningless nickname

A lot of folks are watching with trepidation as the Trump administration gets ready to take—and I do mean “take”—office. Although losing the popular vote by a historic margin for a Presidential candidate, Trump will assume the office of President Jan. 20. After which, those of us who’ve seen a thing or two and know a thing or two will not at all be surprised if the new administration becomes one of the most corrupt in the nation’s history.

Given the President-elect’s near complete ignorance of the nation’s history, the Constitution, and how representative government works; his disdain for public ethics and morals, not to mention the nation’s democratic traditions; and his seeming ignorance of most civilized norms, it will be a miracle if corruption doesn’t become a Trump Administration byword. After all, he will have violated the Constitution as soon as he takes the oath of office, so it’s unlikely he and his minions will have much more respect for it.

The U.S. has experienced lawless times in the past, of course, sometimes starting right at the top. While U.S. Grant was an excellent general, his political skills were lacking, and he managed to pick a cabinet that was closer to a gang of thieves. Same with Warren G. Harding.

But government lawlessness is one thing, public lawlessness is another. And after World War I ended, the nation entered a protracted era of ever-increasing criminal violence. Economics were part of the problem, and so was the nation’s experiment with the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. By November 1920, folks in northern Illinois were becoming ever more concerned about the crime wave that was sweeping the region.

In the Nov. 17 Kendall County Record, editor Hugh Marshall wrote: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Such concerns were the genesis for the formation of the he Illinois State Police, which was established in 1922. But even after the troopers were activated, fast cars, paved roads, and criminals who had received automatic weapons training during World War I gave bank-robbing criminal gangs a definite advantage over anything the authorities could do. At least at first.

That those worries were not overblown was illustrated by the raid on the Farmers State Bank of Millbrook in October 1929.

millbrook-bridge

The historic old Millbrook Bridge was built on the old ford across the Fox River in 1897, and at least for the present is still standing although it’s been bypassed with a change in road configuration and a new bridge.

The rural hamlet of Millbrook, located in Kendall County’s Fox Township, was settled in 1835. By 1837, families had arrived and the small community began growing. That year, Mrs. Rachel Blanding, on a tour of the west with her ailing husband, visited the Rev. Royal Bullard and William Vernon, both of whom lived in the tiny but growing community. Mrs. Blanding named Bullard’s farm Millbrook, and the name soon became applied to the entire small community.

The village itself wasn’t formally platted until the mid-1850s. Jacob Budd, born near Fishkill, New York, Nov. 11, 1811, emigrated to Kendall County in the summer of 1850, opening a store at Newark. Then in 1855, he moved to 250 acres of land in Fox Township, where he quickly became a leading citizen. Budd platted the town of Millbrook in the mid-1850s, building a store there. In 1866 when the old Mansfield Post Office was discontinued and moved to Millbrook, he became the first postmaster. And then when the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road was built from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox River Valley through Yorkville and Oswego to Geneva, the tracks passed through Millbrook, giving the small town a boost. Budd added a grain elevator, a hotel, a lumberyard to his operations and eventually a creamery and other businesses were added, including sometime before November 1912, a bank.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 26, 1912, Charles Stuppy and John Clint used a charge of nitroglycerine to blow the bank safe open. The pair were convicted of bank robbery in January 1914 after a lengthy legal process and sent to prison.

Stuppy, though defeated was apparently unbowed, and in October 1920 he was arrested again for bank robbery, this time of the Newark Farmers State Bank.

The robberies continued of small country banks, as well as those in larger communities despite growing efforts to halt the crime wave. And then on Oct. 29, 1929 came the most brazen robbery ever of a Kendall County community.

1922-millbrook

The village of Millbrook as it was mapped for George A. Ogle & Company’s 1922 Kendall County Atlas, just seven years before a large gang of bank thieves took the town over while they robbed the community’s bank.

The well-armed gang cut the telephone lines leading into Millbrook, and then sealed off the village’s streets leading out of town, patrolling to make sure nobody escaped to raise the alarm.

Meanwhile another group broke into the bank building and blew the safe. As the Kendall County Record noted the next day, while well organized, the gang wasn’t especially skilled in blowing bank vaults: “…they were inadept enough to use ten shots of ‘nitro’ to break open the vault.” In fact, the explosions of the badly placed nitroglycerine reportedly demolished the bank building.

After collecting the loot, the gang left in a cloud of dust, never to be seen again.

While the county had experienced bank robberies before, and was destined to experience a lot more of them as time passed, this was the only time such a large and well-armed gang was able to take over an entire county town.

Record editor Marshall was alarmed at the brazen act: “The residents of Millbrook experienced the sensation of being forced into submission last Tuesday morning when their bank was looted,” Marshall wrote. “A similar circumstance may be enacted in any of our towns at any time. The affair at Millbrook should demonstrate how powerless we are against an organized band of criminals. We do not know how they were armed, but suppose they had machine guns? If some gentleman in Millbrook had been so foolhardy as to attempt to stop these marauders, he would have had his home shot to pieces.

Eventually, the banks and the communities in which they were located got better organized, with the Illinois Bankers’ Association going so far as to help banks hire a private guard force. But small, isolated rural banks like the one in Millbrook, remained vulnerable. And, indeed, the Millbrook bank was robbed again in February 1931 and yet again in July 1933. But with the last robbery, the county had become much better organized and determined. Two of the three thieves were chased and run to ground near Sugar Grove by a 500-man posse of Kendall County farmers, while the third was shot dead while trying to steal a car at Cross Lutheran Church during services on the following Sunday morning.

All of which goes to show, they didn’t call that era the “Roaring ‘20s” for nothing, even here in normally sedate, rural Kendall County.

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When horses powered our lives

It’s difficult in this era of jet airliners and space stations to recall how vital horses once were to the nation’s economy. It’s probably not too strong a statement to say that a fairly large percentage of the nation’s economy was based on horses from the late 19th Century until the second decade of the 20th Century.

Farming, especially, became extremely dependent on horse power, but so did life in America’s cities.

farming-mccormick-reaper

McCormick’s first reaper proved to be popular with farmers. Here in Kendall County, Townsend & Davis manufactured the machines on franchise.

Until the second third of the 19th Century, virtually all farm work was done by hand, but starting in the 1830s, more and more mechanization was introduced as farmers tried to increase production and reduce the labor needed to plant and harvest crops.

Mechanical harvesters were the first complicated pieces of equipment introduced and used on a wide scale on individual farms. Cyrus McCormick’s horsedrawn machine, generally considered the first truly economically successful harvester, was introduced in 1831. It greatly sped up the harvest of small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—and sharply reduced the backbreaking labor of cutting ripe grain. Before the harvester’s invention, farmers had to cut grain by hand, using a large hand-held scythe fitted with a set of wooden fingers called a cradle. As the scythe was swung through standing stalks of grain, the blade cut the stalks, which were then caught by the fingers of the cradle. The farmer then laid them in a row on the ground as he moved ahead to cut the next batch of stalks.

The first harvester automatically cut the grain and laid it on a surface where a farmer walking beside the machine could rake it into a row, where it could then be bound into bundles, which were stacked into shocks to dry before the kernels of grain were threshed from the stalks. Improvements continued steadily until machines in the later 19th Century not only cut grain, but also automatically bound it into bundles.

All this progress required additional horses to pull first the harvesters and then the harvester-binders.

sweep-horse-power

Sweep-type horse-powers changed vertical shaft motion into horizontal motion to power a variety of machines. The unguarded shafts, however, were extremely dangerous, and many an unwary farmer lost a hand, arm, foot, or leg when clothing became ensnared.

When mechanical threshing machines–also called separators because they separated grain from stalks–were introduced, they, too, were powered by horses using a mechanism called a horse-power. Horse-powers came in all sorts of sizes and designs to provide power for everything from threshing grain to washing clothes to running newspaper printing presses.

Each time a new use was discovered, it meant more horses were required, in urban as well as in rural areas. City horsedrawn streetcars, dray wagons, peddler wagons, private buggies and carriages all required horses. All those urban horses required food that couldn’t be grown on city lots, so areas like Kendall County, located fairly close to large cities like Chicago, saw their mix of crops lean heavier towards those good for horse feed and fodder, especially oats and hay crops.

1880-incline-horse-power

Incline horse-powers were more compact and so suitable for use in town. The Kendall County Record used one to power its printing press until they changed over to steam power in the 1890s.

Here in northern Illinois, horses were valued both for the work they could perform and for their use as motive power for buggies and winter sleighs, as well as for riding, not to mention for entertainment—by the 1870s, harness racing was a national craze.

And with all that popularity naturally came a fair amount of larceny. Horse thievery was a big problem, even here in rural Kendall County, especially in the 1870s.

Under the headline “Horse Thieves Again: Shall We have some Judicious Lynching?” the Kendall County Record ran a story on Oct. 28, 1875 reporting:

“Tuesday night, a pair of horses were stolen from the stable of N.B. Young, Bristol; the same gentleman who had a wagon stolen at the time Mr. Patterson’s horses were taken. They were good farm horses only six years old. The thieves also took a farm wagon and set of double harness. The barn door was locked but the rascals wrenched the lock off. Mr. Young tracked the thieves as far as the Oswego bridge, which they crossed and there the trail was lost. Mr. Y. being a member of the Protective Association has notified its officers of the lost property. There are many scoundrels engaged in this business; some of them near home; and a little harsh treatment might do them good.”

By 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the number of horses in Kendall County stood at 7,275. That year, the county’s total population was reported as 12,400 meaning there was one horse in the county for every 1.7 people.

And as noted above, it wasn’t just thieves, farmers, and teamsters interested in good horseflesh in those days, either. According to the Record, reporting from Oswego on Aug. 1, 1872:

“The stock of extra fine horses in this town is now quite large, and our horsemen, of which Paul Hawley, Ed Mann and Hank Hopkins are the principal ones, are daily at training them to fast and square trotting on the half mile course in Hawley’s pasture, which is now in an excellent condition.”

While breeders and racers were an important segment of the horse-using population, farmers were making use of most of the county’s horses. Economical horse-power mechanisms were beginning to spread fairly widely. According to the Record on Sept. 30, 1875:

“Our threshing machines all seem to be doing a good business this season, and are making money for their owners. Last week with his new Case machine, Thos. Spencer thrashed 275 bags of oats in 3 hours and 30 minutes on the Helme farm for Mr. Garlick, and the horses on the power never stopped once during the time. This was 825 bushels of oats by weight.”

1910-horse-tower-trestle

In 1910, Oswego saloon keeper Johann Schmidt had his hired man hold his prized driving horse while he snapped a photo to send to his family back in Denmark. (Little White School Museum collection)

Good horseflesh was also demanded for other uses. On Jan. 8, 1874, the Record reported that: “Paul Hawley of Oswego recently sold a pair of horses that weigh 2,600 pounds to the Aurora Fire Department for $400.” According to my handy inflation calculator, that would be a little over $8,000 in 2016 dollars.

But reading the newspapers from that era, it’s the constant threat of horse thieves that dominated the country newspaper’s news columns. The Kendall County Horse Protective Association was formed in the 1850s to combat the plague of horse stealing, but without a whole lot of success, if those newspaper accounts are taken into account. Sometimes it was even left to kids to combat the bad guys. On April 10, 1879, the Record’s Oswego correspondent recounted one youngster’s hair-raising confrontation:

“Thursday evening while George Parker was over in town to witness the canvass of the vote, his son, Willie, about 12 years old, stepped out doors and heard something about the barn; thinking it was his brother he called to him, but receiving no answer he went back in the house got a navy revolver and with it started to the barn and found a fellow just in the act of leading off their best span of horses, but abandoned them when he saw the boy coming; Willie shot at the thief and followed him up, but another one who apparently had been on top of a hay stack put in an appearance and snapped a pistol at Willie close by; Willie then retreated and before he could get reinforcement the fellows had cleared out and no further trace of them could be found.”

1903-collins-george-in-england

In 1903, George Collins (right rear tipping his hat) traveled to England to bring home blooded stock to his Oswego Township farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

As more and more uses were found for them, horses continued to increase in numbers across the nation and here in Kendall County. By 1910, the county’s horse population had reached its all-time high, 10,421 animals, at a time when its total population stood at just 10,777. In those years, Kendall County was known throughout the state for the quality of its horses, with area farmers such as George Collins traveling to England and other countries to buy prize breeding stock.

But from 1910 on, the introduction of automobiles and other transportation options, plus increasing mechanization of farming powered by steam and internal combustion engines meant the number of horses was on the decline. By 1940, just as the nation was destined to enter World War II, there were only 3,300 horses on Kendall County farms, and by 1945 as the war ended, the number of farmers’ horses had declined by almost half to about 1,900.

Today, horses are an expensive hobby with ownership limited to pleasure riders, professional race horse breeders and owners, polo pony riders and breeders, and other such folks. You seldom see a horse on a working grain farm unless the farmer, his wife, or kids are 4-H’ers or hobbyists. But the time was, horses were ubiquitous in towns and on farms all over the country, vital components of the rural and urban economy.

 

 

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We ignore our financial history at our own peril

For the first time since the late 1920s, the nation was looking into the abyss of a possible financial depression as the financial crash of 2008 unfolded. And it was distressing that so many smart people seemed to have learned so little from the nation’s economic history.

Don’t, someone plaintively wondered not too long ago, they teach history in schools of economics any more? Apparently not, or what we’re now dealing with the aftermath of would not have happened—or at least not the level of severity we experienced.

The Great Depression is only called that because it was the last catastrophic financial meltdown some of those still living can remember. The two depressions previous to that were at least as “great,” and ones previous to those were arguably more severe yet.

The Panic of 1873, for instance, created six years of economic hardship for the nation and Kendall County. The financial collapse began in Austria, spread throughout Europe, and finally arrived in the U.S. with the September 1873 failure of Jay Cooke & Company in New York caused by a railroad overbuilding bubble and unscrupulous business practices. The railroad building craze had caused unsustainable construction growth in everything from seaside docks to steel mills. When Cooke was unable to cover his construction loans for the Northern Pacific Railroad, the whole system crashed. On Sept. 20 that year, the New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days as everything from silver mines to shipping lines went broke. Eventually, a quarter of the nation’s railroads were bankrupted.

On Sept. 25, 1873, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent hopefully noted that “The collapse of Jay Cooke & Co. and financial panic otherwise has not in the least impaired the business of this town.”

But from then on, comments about “the money crisis” and “stringency of the money” were common.

In 1877, a huge railroad strike nearly paralyzed the nation. Wrote the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “The shock of the strike caused old State Rights men to forsake their life-long principles and clamor for federal intervention; in the brains of the newspaper men it created a mighty revolution,” he wrote, adding that “The Chicago Tribune for years has had the nightmare caused by communism. One day of last week Chicago experienced a heavy shock by the collapse of her State Savings Institution. The next day the Tribune came out advocating communism, wanting the government to take care of our money; give us post office saving banks; verily things and men are changeable.”

halls-bank

Levi Hall opened a bank in his Oswego drug store (brick building at left) in 1881. His bank, along with Kendall County’s other two banks in Yorkville and Plano failed over a two-week span during the financial Panic of 1893.

Exactly 20 years later, another railroad bubble, combined with poor weather for Midwestern farmers and financial chicanery in mining and banking, created a second severe depression.

The Panic of 1893 officially began Feb. 23, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went broke. Then in May, amidst the hoopla of Chicago’s upcoming Columbian Exposition, the city’s Chemical National Bank, whose president was a former Kendall County farmer, went broke amid charges of criminal wrongdoing.

Noted Record Editor J.R. Marshall on May 10: “A few years ago Mr. Jacob O. Curry was a farmer in the town[ship] of Bristol; later he was engaged as a grain buyer and speculator at Hinckley…he went into business at Aurora as a capitalist and financier and was instrumental in starting a national bank in that city…a year or two ago he went to Chicago to become president of the Chemical National Bank with a capital stock of $1 million. Tuesday’s Chicago papers contained the news that the doors of Mr. Curry’s National bank had closed for want of funds. Brother Curry had better come back to the Fox River valley. People out here may not be so sharp, but they are a heap sight more comfortable.”

Actually, it turned out Curry’s reach extended well into the Fox River Valley after all, where the three major banks in Kendall County apparently held significant stakes in Chemical National. The result was that all three, first the Plano Bank on Aug. 7, and followed quickly a week later by the Oswego Bank and the Kendall County Bank at Yorkville, failed. Along with them went many local and regional businesses, from the Joliet Rolling Mills to local stores and businesses.

On Aug. 23 Record Editor Marshall, clearly flummoxed and chastened by what had happened, wrote: “The newspapers of the whole country assumed the task of staying the panic by encouraging words and prophecies of better things, but their efforts were without avail. The Record stated that our business institutions were safe and conducted by safe men, and we believed firmly the statement because we had confidence in the integrity and business ability of the men. This statement was too soon followed by the failure of Mr. Henning [in Plano], then of Mr. Hall [in Oswego], followed by that of Mr. Cornell [in Yorkville]. The conclusion we have come to is that the newspapers don’t know anything about the business of banks—neither does anyone else, not even the bank examiners—and we shall make no more prognostications along business lines.”

On Sept. 6, the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote the panic affected the whole community: “Oswego is now undergoing its full share of miseries; men that but a few weeks ago were ‘cheek by jowl’ would now like to devour each other. Bank failures most always entail much misery, widows with their little savings, old people with the accumulations for their declining years, and laborers with what was laid up for a rainy day are usually caught in them. There is a class of men who hold that governments, especially ours which is claimed to be by and for the people, should be responsible for the losses incurred through the institutions it makes legitimate, and the better to carry out this principle the government should run the institutions…By such a system there could be no motive for what is called ‘illegitimate banking,’ as all the earnings of the bank would go to the government. In unavoidable stringency the bank could be readily relieved; nothing would occur to stir up the bad blood as now exhibited….This would be the most opportune time for the teaching of the theories of socialism in Oswego.”

1919-duffy-c-c-wife-vanderlip

In 1919, Frank Vanderlip (left) visited Oswego for the last time to chat with his old schoolmaster, Christopher C. Duffy and his wife at the annual Duffy School Reunion. The photo was taken about a decade after Vanderlip met with other financiers and government officials to come up with what eventually became the Federal Reserve System.

It took one more depression, the Panic of 1907, before the financial industry and the government decided to join together to figure out a way to, if not stop, at least lessen the impact of recurring financial crashes on the nation.

When the meeting was held to outline a possible course of action, a former Oswego farm boy, Frank Vanderlip, then an official with the National City Bank of New York—now Citibank—was part of the group whose ideas eventually led to formation of the Federal Reserve system.

It worked to some extent, but there were still not enough controls on banks to prohibit them from dabbling in the stock market and other risky ventures and the result was what today we call the Great Depression. That financial panic began in 1929 when a gigantic stock market bubble collapsed, taking the nation’s and the world’s economy along with it.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s, it appeared the nation had learned its lesson. Regulations were put in place to prohibit risky speculation by banks as well as stricter regulation of the stock market. But with no further major panics in subsequent years, the financial industry was chaffing at the controls meant not only to rein it in, but to protect the world’s financial structure from collapsing. And so starting in the 1980s, they began agitating to have the most effective controls eliminated. Lax oversight on the part of government officials responsible for making sure financial firms obeyed what rules were still in effect were welcomed by the industry.

And so, we proceeded to enthusiastically replicate every mistake of the past plus a few new ones invented thanks to innovations like computerized trading and linking the entire world’s financial system into one giant network.

So, don’t they teach history in schools of economics any more? Yes, they do, but these days those cautionary tales seem to be looked upon merely as roadmaps to ways unscrupulous people can game the system at the expense of those who entrust their money to it. In addition, most people—and that especially includes business owners and politicians—remain profoundly and aggressively ignorant of how economics actually works. It’s not a situation that engenders much confidence that things will get much better going forward.

 

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Prohibition didn’t work the last time, either…

For much of its existence, the United States has had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. As soon as cities and towns figured out how to assure clean drinking water supplies, crusades against drinking alcohol intensified, especially against Catholic European immigrants.

In fact, the crusades against alcohol and immigrants were amalgamated allowing usually sane and moral people to begin approving of such hate organizations as the Ku Klux Klan.

As the 20th Century dawned, the campaign against Demon Rum and those who partook of it was gaining considerable political strength.

Here in Kendall County, local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the Red Ribbon Society, the Sons of Temperance, and the Anti-Saloon League were growing. At the same time, however, saloons were not only tolerated but were also often even encouraged by local officials because of the taxes they generated. In Oswego, saloon licenses, priced at several hundred dollars per year, were responsible for funding a variety of local improvements from the village water works to sidewalks. In the days before sales and property taxes were permitted, saloon licenses were about the only sources of municipal revenue other than legal fines.

As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent put it so presciently in April 1899:

“As to [saloon] license here, it is the settled belief that the revenue from it is necessary to keep the town from going to decay and that the illegal sale of liquor without license would be more demoralizing than the legal sale under license.”

Not that the community hadn’t experimented with prohibiting saloons. Exactly 10 years earlier, an anti-license majority won a surprising victory, and proceeded to immediately shut down Oswego’s three saloons. The attitude of the reformers was, however, was high-handed and the balance of the board simply stopped going to meetings, denying quorums for several months. In response, a pro-license ticket was reelected in 1891, and the saloons, with their all-important license fees, were back in business.

But as the century turned, anti-saloon feeling grew, boosted by local women’s suffrage and overwhelming support of Protestant churches. By 1914, a majority of Kendall County residents was ready to support temperance. In the April township elections, voters went for prohibition in a big way. The Record reported:

“At the close of the day May 7th, the saloons of Kendall county will go out of business—four in Plano, three in Yorkville, two in Oswego—in conformity to the will of the majority of the voters at the township elections on April 7.”

In August 1925, the Ku Klux Klan flexed its political muscles by holding a massive march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Its membership swelled thanks to its emphasis on prohibition and opposition to Catholics and immigrants. A number of Klan meetings were held here in Kendall County during that era. (Library of Congress photo)

In August 1925, the Ku Klux Klan flexed its political muscles by holding a massive march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Its membership swelled thanks to its emphasis on prohibition and opposition to Catholics and immigrants. A number of Klan meetings were held here in Kendall County during that era. (Library of Congress photo)

The nation wasn’t far behind in the popularization of temperance sentiment. While the issue was vigorously pushed by women’s organizations like the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League, other forces were also gathering steam. William J. Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and to the group’s traditional racism, Simmons added a popular mix of anti-immigration, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and anti-drinking to its laundry list of hate. Fueled by the success of D.W. Griffith’s technically brilliant, racially bigoted film, “The Birth of a Nation,” Klan membership exploded, and the organization became a respected leader in the prohibition movement.

On Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment mandating nationwide prohibition was ratified by Congress. With passage of the National Prohibition Act—known as the Volstead Act—to enforce it following in October, prohibition became the law of the land.

Which is right about when the real trouble started. Millions of Americans of German, French, and Italian descent, especially, but not limited to, Catholics, simply didn’t like the law. Millions of others had always defied government “revenuers” from their mountain dells and hollers, and had no intention of toeing this new line, either. Criminal organizations figured that since law-abiding folks couldn’t manufacture or sell the alcohol so many wanted, a new market had been created. The immense profits from bootlegging fueled a murderous crime wave the likes of which the nation had never seen as gangs viciously struggled with each other to corner the market on alcohol.

In January 1923, Record editor H.R. Marshall observed:

“Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [illegal stills] within its boundaries.”

Illegal distilling operations in violation of the prohibition act ranged from small backyard operations like this to elaborate distilleries that produced thousands of gallons of drinkable alcohol a day. (

Illegal distilling operations in violation of the prohibition act ranged from small backyard operations like this to elaborate distilleries that produced thousands of gallons of drinkable alcohol a day. (

But Marshall spoke too soon. On March 28 the Record reported local and federal agents had raided a restaurant in Plano, seizing 80 cases of beer and 14 quarts of whiskey. But the big haul, that week the Record reported, was on the John Schickler farm just north of Oswego on Ill. Route 31. Schickler was a former Oswego businessman and saloon owner on whose farm authorities found a modern still capable of turning 23 gallons of denatured alcohol a day into drinkable liquor.

“When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning,” the Record reported.

In 1927, Arthur W. Cramer, a well known druggist with stores in Plano and Joliet, was jailed for illegally operating a still after having been previously convicted of illegally selling alcohol.

Federal agents raided a farm a mile east of Plano in October 1930, and seized six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, 4,000 gallons of alcohol; two boilers; and quantity of yeast.

By the early 1930s, it was pretty clear the idea of Prohibition had failed. As the Record commented: “It is up to us to determine whether or not we made a mistake. If so, we should rectify it even though we must sacrifice our pride. A heroic attempt has been made to attain an ideal and is admittedly a failure.”

Ralph Johnson tends bar at Johnson's Tavern, Main at Jackson, in downtown Oswego. Although the captions says the photo was taken on Sept. 1, 1933. The sale of "near beer" with 3.2 percent alcohol was allowed starting after June, 1933 when county voters approved the 18th Amendment and the Kendall County Board approved a county liquor control ordinance. Prohibition didn't end until Dec. 5, 1933, when the sale of regular beer and hard liquor was allowed to be sold.

Ralph Johnson tends bar at Johnson’s Tavern, Main at Jackson, in downtown Oswego.The inscription on the back says the photo was taken on Sept. 1, 1933. The sale of “near beer” with 3.2 percent alcohol was allowed starting after June, 1933 when Kendall County voters approved the 18th Amendment and the Kendall County Board approved a county liquor control ordinance. Prohibition didn’t officially end until Dec. 5, 1933, when the sale of regular beer and hard liquor was finally permitted. (Little White School Museum photo)

Lawlessness didn’t immediately end when Prohibition did in 1933, because of efforts to avoid federal alcohol taxes. In April 1936, local and federal agents raided a gas station between Oswego and Yorkville seizing three 3,500 gallon supply tanks and 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol before going to the Baumann farm on Ill. Route 25 between Oswego and Montgomery where they seized a huge modern distilling plant capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day.

But that was the last large seizure in the county’s bootlegging era. By late 1933, taverns had reopened in Kendall County, and people could have a cold beer in peace. As the Record reported from Yorkville in September 1933: “The new proprietors of the Nading Café have installed a bar where they serve Schlitz beer.”

Looking back, it’s difficult to explain how Prohibition, by criminalizing of normally law-abiding citizens and creating a powerful, wealthy criminal underclass, differed very much at all from the effects of today’s ineffective, unsuccessful 40 year-old war on drugs.

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