Category Archives: Crime

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.


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 plaster-like product being manufactured by U.S. Gypsum called Hydrocal.

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. After mining began in 1872, millions of tons of the stuff have been removed from the extensive gypsum beds. Over the years U.S. Gypsum—now known as USG—developed a number of 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, 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, pouring lye on his hands and face to hide his identity.

Fast-forward to Aug. 28, 1935, when a team of FBI agents, learning of the location of Hamilton’s body from Davis, exhumed the body. 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 bodies.

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 city lot on Polk 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 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)

Each plaque’s armature was hand-carved by Larsen. On plaques with relief carving, he was careful to make all angles slope inwards so the latex molds made from the master could be easily removed and that the plaques themselves would easily slip out of the molds. On one of each plaque’s edges, 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 of the late 1930s and the immediate pre-war years, the Christian Art House offered local women the chance to earn cash wages. 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 engaged in the actual production work and other jobs that required heavier manual labor. In addition, part-time male workers were also 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 them 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 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 religious images familiar to Protestants. 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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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-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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.



Filed under Business, Crime, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History

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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Filed under Crime, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Volney, Rabbits, and Three-Fingered Jack…

Oddly enough, given that violent crime rates have been steadily declining for years now, people—especially in small town America—seem convinced that crime is on the upswing.

We got to talking about local crime the other day, and the person I was chatting with was surprised to hear that back in the 1920s and 1930s, our little corner of the world was a lot more like the wild west than our modern, bustling suburban community.

Bank robbery was rife, with bandits being chased through rural farmland by sheriff’s posses, and highway robbery was not unheard of. Our local dentist and his wife, for instance, were stopped by road agents on the Lincoln Highway—now U.S. Route 30—between Plainfield and Aurora and robbed of their money and jewelry. In August 1921, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell fought a gun battle in downtown Yorkville with a man suspected of killing a West Chicago lawman.

The spate of criminal activity, aided by the mobility that better roads and fast automobiles offered, hit its height locally during the Dillinger years of the early 1930s.

Dapper John Dillinger orchestrated a crime wave in the upper Midwest during the 1930s with the help of a gang of colorful criminals eventually run to ground by federal agents..

Dapper John Dillinger orchestrated a crime wave in the upper Midwest during the 1930s with the help of a gang of colorful criminals eventually run to ground by federal agents..

In February 1935, the colorful Dillinger saga was far too familiar to far too many Kendall County citizens. The gang, including Dillinger himself and the homicidal maniac Lester Gillis who called himself Babyface Nelson, along with John “Red” Hamilton (nicknamed “Three Fingered Jack” by the press) had been frequenting the area for years, occasionally hiding out and, reportedly, making use of the services of a local doctor when one or the other of them needed to be patched up.

While the gang’s activities had been an undercurrent during the 1930s, that February, the gang’s last gasps became all too real.

Volney Davis was a minor member of the gang, but he was definitely connected. Agents of the U.S. Division of Investigation (the DOI would soon be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation) tracked him down and arrested him in Kansas City on charges of kidnapping a St. Paul, Minn. banker

While the DOI definitely wanted to chat with Davis about his recent kidnapping exploit, they also suspected he had information concerning the whereabouts of some Dillinger Gang members who were unaccounted for.

Famed G-Man Melvin Purvis and his task force of DOI agents had gunned Dillinger down the previous July in Chicago. And one by one, the rest of the Dillinger bunch and the loosely related Karpis-Barker Gang had been tracked down and either captured or killed. Davis, a member of the Karpis-Barker Gang, knew where some of the two gangs’ bodies were literally buried.

Volney Davis was an enthusiastic member of the Barker-Karpis Gang that had occasional dealings with the Dillinger bunch. He staged an escape from the custody of federal agents in downtown Yorkville.

Volney Davis was an enthusiastic member of the Karpis-Barker Gang that had occasional dealings with the Dillinger bunch. He staged an escape from the custody of federal agents in downtown Yorkville.

Davis, firmly in the custody of DOI agents Garrity and Trainor, was bundled aboard a chartered plane in Kansas City and sent off to St. Paul via Chicago, where a refueling stop was scheduled—and that’s where the fickle finger of fate intervened. Finding a solid overcast at Chicago, the pilot headed west looking for clear weather and a place to land. The fog gradually cleared over one of Eugene Matlock’s fields south of the Kendall County seat of Yorkville. Matlock’s neighbor, Bill Ford, saw the plane land and drove over to see what was happening.

As dusk was closing in and after asking where they were, the G-Men told Ford they needed to go into town to call Chicago. Removing Davis’s leg shackles so he could walk, they all piled into Ford’s car and headed into Yorkville. Ford, a friend of Kendall County Sheriff William Maier, suggested they go to the county jail where Davis could be locked up while the call was made, but the agents weren’t interested in sharing custody with the locals. “We don’t want any sheriffs in on this,” they told Ford.

So Ford drove them to the Hotel Nading at Bridge Street and West Hydraulic, at the south end of the Fox River bridge. On the way, Volney’s handcuffs were removed—after all, what could possibly go wrong?

Clean-cut and determined, Melvin Purvis got John Dillinger and Volney Davis while J. Edgar Hoover got the publicity.

Clean-cut and determined, Melvin Purvis got John Dillinger and Volney Davis while J. Edgar Hoover got the publicity.

Entering Charles Leech’s tavern on the hotel’s ground floor, Agent Trainor walked to the phone booth to call Chicago HQ while Garrity offered to buy Volney a beer. Garrity ordered two brews (these were the days before drinking on duty was frowned upon). As the agent raised his glass for a sip, Volney swung and connected with Garrity’s head, knocking him over a bar chair and to the floor. Then, as the Kendall County Record reported: “Turning, the prisoner made a running leap head-first through a nearby window. Garrity leaped to his feet drawing a revolver and ran to the window from which he fired three shots at the fugitive, who headed west after hurtling the iron fence which borders the hotel lawn.”

Volney, letting no grass grow beneath his feet, raced southwest on Hydraulic then zigzagged through a succession of Yorkville alleys, shrugging off his blue overcoat to increase his speed as he ran.

Three blocks south and a block west, his spirits must have soared when he spied Harlan Bretthauer’s V-8 Ford (speedy and lightweight, it was one of the gangsters’ favorite cars) parked at the Webster home with the keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. Driving with his headlights off, Davis sped out of Yorkville. The abandoned car was later found in Wheaton.

Purvis didn’t run Davis to ground until June 1. It’s likely that after his capture he revealed the answer to a mystery that had been nagging the G-Men for more than a year: The whereabouts of John “Red” Hamilton, the last member of Dillinger’s gang unaccounted for.

John "Red" Hamilton was one of the unluckiest gangsters of the 1930s. Wounded in several gun battles, he'd already two fingers on one hand shot off--thus the nickname given him by the press, Three-Fingered Jack. After dying of wounds, he was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just north of Oswego.

John “Red” Hamilton was one of the unluckiest gangsters of the 1930s. Wounded in several gun battles, he’d already had two fingers on one hand shot off–thus the nickname given him by the press, Three-Fingered Jack. After dying of wounds, he was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave just north of Oswego.

Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the press and lawmen, Hamilton was one of Dillinger’s closest associates and also one of the unluckiest gangsters in history, being the most likely to be wounded should shooting break out—two fingers had already been shot off one hand during gang battles, thus his press nickname. But the G-Men need not have worried because by then Red had been dead for a year.

On April 22, 1934, Hamilton was with Dillinger’s gang during the DOI’s deadly, botched ambush at the Little Bohemia Lodge near Manitowish Waters in northern Wisconsin. Dillinger, Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter fled the scene. At St. Paul, Minn. the next day, local lawmen again ambushed the trio. During the fusillade, Hamilton was seriously wounded in the back by a bullet that penetrated the car in which the gangsters were escaping.

The trio drove to Chicago for help, where a mob-connected doctor refused to treat the obviously dying Hamilton. Seeking help from members of the Karpis-Barker Gang, they were directed to Aurora where Davis and his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray, were living in an apartment on Fox Street (now East Downer Place). Hamilton died of his wounds there four days after being shot. Davis, Dillinger, and Van Meter (and possibly other Karpis-Barker Gang members) found a secluded spot roughly a hundred yards east of Ill. Route 25 about a half-mile north of Oswego (now the site of Eagle Ridge Park) to bury Hamilton in a shallow grave. Dillinger swore everyone to secrecy; he wanted to keep the G-Men guessing the gang members’ whereabouts.

After his capture, Davis likely spilled the beans about Hamilton’s whereabouts. After all, Dillinger had long been in his own grave. A team of agents dug the body up on Aug. 28, 1935. Dillinger had poured lye over Hamilton’s face and hands to obscure his identity, but a dentist from the Michigan City, Ind. prison was able to make a positive ID at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home from Hamilton’s dental work. Kendall County Coroner Dr. F.M. Groner declared the body that of Hamilton; the coroner’s jury agreed. Hamilton’s sister paid to have him buried in an unmarked grave at the Oswego Township Cemetery, adding a final period to Dillinger’s gang. As a sidelight, the young mortician-in-training at Thorsen’s who was tasked with handling Hamilton’s badly decomposed body decided he was in the wrong line of work. “It was the smell,” he told me decades later.

Davis spent most of the rest of his life in Alcatraz. But unlike most of his contemporaries, he died of natural causes in 1979 in Sonoma, Calif. at age 77. He never returned to Kendall County after his two brief, though stimulating, visits in the 1930s.


Filed under Aurora, Crime, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Oswego, People in History