‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.
We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.
The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.
Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.
But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.
These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.
After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.
My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.
And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.
When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.
The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.
The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.
My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.
After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.
These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.
It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.
I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.
These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.
While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.
So what are you planning for this year’s Independence Day observance?
Around the Fox Valley, there is no lack of festivals, from old-time traditional ones like Yorkville’s, to slightly slicker ones like Aurora’s.
Independence Day has been a festive occasion ever since the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Not that those signing the document thought it, in and of itself, was such a big deal.
The actual legal separation of the 13 American colonies from Great Britain took place July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress formally voted to approve a resolution of independence. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to adopting the Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their momentous decision. The Declaration was written by a committee, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the Declaration, finally approving it for publication on July 4.
John Adams, then serving in the Continental Congress, wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3 that he believed July 2 would go down in the nation’s history as a day of thanksgiving and celebration for generations to come. Predicted Adams: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
Well, he was close, but didn’t win the celebration prediction cigar. Instead of the vote to separate from Great Britain, the nation chose to celebrate the date Jefferson’s elegant prose comprising the Declaration was approved. But to give Adams his due, ever since, it really has been “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”
Our ancestors had a great time every July 4, both with formal celebrations, and until they were banned as too dangerous, by firing off “illuminations” in every back yard, often to the annoyance of the neighbors.
It wasn’t as if our ancestors were a staid and stolid bunch, as you quickly find out as you read accounts in the local papers. As in modern times, celebrations sometimes got out of hand, propelled and lubricated by alcohol.
The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in July 1869 that “Probably owing to the approach of the 4th, a good deal of hilarity, stimulated by whiskey and lager, has been manifested among a certain class during the week; on one occasion, a young man got his countenance disfigured, caused by bringing it in contact with another’s fist or boot. Some boys more patriotic than honest broke during last night a light out of Coffin’s store window, and stole some fire crackers. A large flag is suspended across the street from the Drug store to Coffin’s and the cannon is fired on the old National [hotel] lot.”
Which suggests that in 1869, Oswego had its very own cannon. Unfortunately, by the time I came along it was long gone, probably snapped up in a scrap metal drive or maybe sent up-river to Aurora to quell some civil disturbance and never returned.
Anyway, two years later the village cannon was still around because the Record reported from Oswego that “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”
The amount of the holiday’s hilarity continued to ebb and flow. The next year, 1872, the Record reported that “The quietest 4th ever experienced in the annals of Oswego was the one last week; the patriotic drunks were limited down to a very few.”
While some succeeding years featured ad hoc celebrations gotten together on the spur of the moment, other years were marked with elaborately planned events.
The Record reported on July 1, 1875 that Oswego residents were invited to participate in a community-wide celebration in Judson’s Grove, the area just north of the current Oswego Cemetery on the west side of South Main Street. Reported the Record: “On Saturday will be held the celebration of the Fourth of July in Judson’s Grove; the procession will form at 11 o’clock; the Rev. T.F. Jessup, of Kendall [Township], will be the principal orator, also Rev. Beans will make a short address. The proceedings will be enlivened at intervals by the band; and there will be singing; croquet playing will form part of the amusement, and there will be races. No popping of fireworks will be allowed on the grounds.”
But despite strictures like that, it was always the noise the holiday’s celebration generated that seemed to make people feel good on July 4. If it wasn’t firing cannons or firing off firecrackers, it was firing anvils.
The Record reported from Oswego on July 6, 1882, that “The glorious racket was commenced early this morning with thirteen anvils before sunrise; the weather was gloriously chilly; the Garfield pole was lowered yesterday, the rope adjusted and from it the glorious old flag is now waving.”
What, exactly, was firing an anvil? Well, it was a truly glorious way to make a heck of a racket without benefit of a canon that looked much like one of the experiments they used to conduct on The Discovery Channel’s old “Mythbusters” cable TV show.
Firing an anvil requires at least two large iron blacksmith anvils, one of which is placed upside down on the ground with its base facing up. The base, which is slightly concave, is filled level full or a bit higher, with black gunpowder, a fuse inserted, and the second anvil (called the flyer) is placed carefully, right side up, on the base. The fuse is lit and the resulting explosion can blow the flyer up to 250 feet into the air, depending on how much gunpowder can be loaded in the base anvil. Some guys, of course, thanks to the invention of electrical and duct tape have figured out how to double the gunpowder charge to get the flier’s altitude increased—because guys and blowing things up are just sort of natural companions.
This year’s Fourth of July will undoubtedly involve plenty of noisy and entertaining celebrations, not to mention the neighborhood explosions the local cops pledge to stop every year and which every year continue unabated.
But part of the annual fun of this particular holiday (as long as you don’t have to cope with pets who are terrified on the seemingly non-stop explosions) is realizing our great-great-grandparents could be just as whacky as we are today.
Few people would consider our small village of Oswego to have been a hotbed of activism during the town’s history, but it turns out we’ve produced our share of advocates and inspired others throughout the years.
We made the latest discovery of an Oswego-related activist down at the Little White School Museum just this month. Museum manager Anne Jordan was looking around for any local connections to the annual observance of Gay Pride Month. She admitted she didn’t have much hope given Oswego’s history as a small farming town before its late 20th Century population explosion. But it turned out that Velma Young Tate, whose family was among our early settlers, was a local connection to the LGBTQ+ community, and an important connection at that.
The activism part of Tate’s gay rights advocacy was nothing unusual for the extended Young family. Phoebe Margaret Phillips Young, Tate’s great-grandmother, who had arrived in Oswego with her parents in the early 1840s, was an early and vocal temperance activist, who was also apparently active in the women’s suffrage movement.
A Phillips cousin, Jim Phillips, gained national attention in the 1960s and 1970s when he became exasperated at the lack of environmental regulations and the devastating effect that lack was having on the ecological health of the Fox River Valley where his family had lived for so long. Phillips assumed the identity of “The Fox,” an environmental crusader whose exploits to publicize egregious pollution all over northern Illinois soon gained national attention, including mentions in Time Magazine and National Geographic.
And then there was Richard “Dick” Young, a mild-mannered Oswego native and one Phoebe Margaret’s great-grandsons, who became another champion of the environment. He was instrumental in the formation of the Kendall County Forest Preserve District, the Oswegoland Park District, Kendall County’s zoning laws, and the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency. He’s the only Illinois resident with forest preserves named after him in two different counties.
So Velma Young Tate came by her activism naturally; it really was a family thing. She was born a few miles upriver from Oswego in Aurora, Illinois in 1913, the daughter of Marshall and Elsie (Collins) Young.
Both Marshall and Elsie came from solid Oswego stock. The Collins family were English immigrant farmers, memorialized to this day by Collins Road just outside Oswego. Meanwhile, Marshall was the son of Jay and Carrie (Hoag) Young. Jay and his brother Lou C., were well-known Oswego carpenters, while their father, John Abel Young, was a prominent Oswego wagonwright and blacksmith. John Abel had married Phoebe Margaret Phillips in 1853, cementing the Phillips and Young families.
Marshall Young moved around a fair amount, spending some years up in Elgin. And on June 10, 1930, Velma graduated from Elgin High School. In 1935 she earned a two-year scholarship to Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. While there, she became a member of the Socialist Party and began a lifelong pattern of advocacy for social issues.
After earning her two-year degree, she was qualified to teach in one-room rural schools. She taught one year in Plattville here in Kendall County, and then moved on to Mount Carol where she taught for one school year before her marriage. She and William Jerry Tate were married in Mt. Carol on May 10, 1939.
Subsequently, the couple moved and eventually ended up just east of Oswego at what was then called Tamarack Corners, the intersection of Heggs and Simons roads. Jerry was an electrician, though not very successful, while Velma got a job in Aurora working at Pictorial Paper Packaging Company as a switchboard operator.
She had apparently begun writing after having her three sons, including twins, in 1940 and 1942. On March 12, 1946, the Kendall County Record reported from Tamarack that: “Mrs. Velma Young Tate is one of the contributors in the March Household, the author of an article on the radio, written in a humorous vein. Mrs. Tate, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Young, is the mother of three lively young sons, but finds time to write both prose and poetry.”
Things, however, were apparently not happy in the Tate household, made worse by her husband’s reported drinking problem and even worse when Velma discovered in the early 1950s that she was gay.
In 1953, she published her first novel, The Hired Girl, which earned her $500. She later said she took the money and “bought a pair of shoes, two dresses, and hired a divorce lawyer.”
That year, the couple divorced, and she took her three boys to live in “The Colony” in Chicago. From that time on, she became a successful novelist and poet, often writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. She also became a strong advocate for gay rights and was well known as a speaker and advocate for that and other causes.
In Chicago, she got a job, Ironically, as assistant editor at the conservative publishing house Henry Regnery & Sons, where she worked from 1956 to 1961.
After that she concentrated on social activism including feminism, elder rights, and like her cousins, environmentalism. She also accelerated her writing, churning out a number of novels and other works under a variety of pen names, most prominently Valerie Taylor.
According to her Wikipedia entry: “Due to her notoriety in the lesbian pulp fiction genre, as well as her public activism during her time in Chicago, she was dubbed one of the ‘Lesbian Grandmothers of America.’ Cornell University, which houses her literary estate, calls her novels ‘pulp fiction classics.’”
In 1978, after the death of her partner, attorney Pearl Heart, Velma moved from Chicago to Tucson, Arizona. The next year, she became a Quaker. In 1993, her health began to decline. She died Oct. 22, 1997 at her Tucson home.
After her death, her literary estate was donated to Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection and her name was added to the list of other members of the LGBTQ community at the Tucson Gay Museum.
That two of Oswego’s related pioneer families would generate two cousins who became nationally-known advocates and activists in two separate areas is one of those hidden connections that makes even the most local of history so fascinating.
On May 1, 1831, young Edward G. Ament and Emily Ann Harris were married by pioneer Methodist Missionary Rev. Isaac Scarritt, and thereby became the first couple to be wed within the bounds of what eventually became Kendall County.
From that time on, weddings multiplied as the frontier first caught up to the lands along the Fox River here in northern Illinois, and then moved on ever farther west until the nation’s boundaries reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Rev. Scarritt had arrived in Illinois from Connecticut in 1818—the year the state was officially established by an act of Congress—first setting in Edwardsville before being assigned to take over dissolving the Methodists’ Fox River Mission in 1828. The joint Methodist-U.S. Government mission had been established on the Fox River at the mouth of Mission Creek in modern LaSalle County just south of the current Kendall County line. After winding up the mission’s affairs, Scarritt moved with his family to what is today’s DuPage Township in Will County, building his cabin near the forks of the DuPage River.
Scarritt was appointed the first justice of the peace in the area and so was the closest legal authority to legally conduct the Ament-Harris marriage. The U.S. has always maintained a somewhat curious official attitude towards marriage. It has always been considered a binding legal contract between two people (and, by association, their families), and so unlike births and deaths records of them have always been carefully kept. A legal marriage conducted by a justice of the peace or other officer of the court does not need a religious blessing to be legal. Nor does a religious wedding conducted by a minister or briest need to be blessed by an officer of the government. But both are considered to be legal unions in the eyes of the law.
So with Edward and Emily Ann’s marriage conducted by Isaac Scarritt, who was both a Methodist minister of the gospel and a justice of the peace, their union was doubly safe.
Just a few days after the young couple was married, the Black Hawk War broke out, and all the White settlers in the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines valleys fled for their lives, those on the northern reaches of the streams heading first to the cabin of Stephen Beggs—another Methodist missionary making his home where Plainfield is located today—and those on the southern reaches of the rivers getting to Ottawa as quickly as possible.
In an interesting note on the living conditions of those early settlers on the Illinois prairie, Scarritt left his claim so quickly he didn’t have time to grab a pair of shoes, suggesting a lot of those settlers went barefoot in warmer weather to save expensive footwear. The tradition is that when he eventually got to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn and safety, he was asked to preach a Sunday sermon for which he had to borrow a pair of shoes to avoid the embarrassment of speaking to a crowd shoeless.
As for Edward and Emily Ann, early Kendall County historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks dryly reported “…they took their wedding trip two weeks afterward, when they fled from the Indians.”
And then there was the no less interesting wedding when early Montgomery settler William T. Elliott decided to marry the lovely Rebecca Pearce, daughter of Elijah Pearce, a member of the numerous extended Pearce family that also were the first settlers here in Oswego Township.
Seventeen year-old Rebecca was more than willing to marry Elliott, a 19 year-old go-getter. But her father, when asked, was not yet willing to let the young lady leave his household. At that time, 1834, neither Kane nor Kendall County had yet been established, and the nearest place to get legally married was Ottawa. So Elliott walked the roughly 40 miles where the county clerk told him that since Rebecca was only 17, the bans would have to be announced in a church for two weeks before a license could be issued.
With no churches yet established in the Fox Valley, Elliott despondently trudged back upriver to Montgomery. But shortly before he reached his cabin, he happened on the Rev. N.C. Clark, one of the region’s earliest Congregational ministers, known by one and all as “the kindly Father Clark.” After hearing Elliott’s story, Rev. Clark suggested that on Sunday Elliott come over to the Naperville cabin where Clark’s nascent congregation was meeting, and announce the bans. Rev. Clark said he’d take care of making sure the second announcement was made as well.
In the meantime, Elijah Pearce had heard that the bans had been announced over in Naperville, but was under the impression they’d only been announced once. Thinking he had an entire week to go over to Naperville to protest on the second reading—which had already taken place—Pearce headed into Chicago for supplies. Meanwhile Elliott had hustled back down to Ottawa, obtained, the marriage license from the LaSalle County Clerk, hustled back upriver to Montgomery where Rev. Clark happily married William and Rebecca.
Elijah was reportedly pretty upset when he got back from Chicago to find his daughter was now Mrs. Elliott, but after a night’s sleep decided maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to happen. And thereby on Aug. 3, 1835, William and Rebecca’s marriage became the first in what eventually became Aurora Township.
Over the next several decades, weddings became quite a bit less exciting, with no Indian wars to cope with and a much shorter walk to the county seat to get a license. Church weddings gradually more popular, although marriages at home and in church parsonages seem to have been more the rule than the exception until after World War II when more elaborate marriages became the norm.
And, in fact, weddings eventually became the basis for some popular—if fairly unusual—community fundraisers in the early years of the 20th Century.
In the Feb. 25, 1914 Kendall County Record, the Oswego Parent-Teachers Club—ancestor of today’s PTAs and PTOs—announced plans to present a Tom Thumb Wedding fundraiser. Tom Thumb Weddings had been developed as comedic musical entertainment events with a community’s school children playing the parts of the groom and bride—based on the 1863 marriage of P.T. Barnum’s diminutive cast member, the wildly popular Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and his real life bride Lavinia Warren—as well as a large cast of other members of the wedding party and guests.
Performances of Tom Thumb Wedding fundraisers began in the 1890s in Pennsylvania, but then gradually spread as their success began to become more widely known. As an indication of the productions’ rising popularity, Walter H. Baker & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts published “The Tom Thumb wedding” script in 1898. Concerning the cast according to the Baker script, “there should be a minister, bride and groom, maid of honor, groomsman, father and mother, bridesmaids, ushers, guests, and flower girls.”
The Oswego performance was an apparent success, the next week’s Record reporting: “The Tom Thumb wedding at the Woodman Hall Tuesday evening was well attended and a pleasant affair. Clement Burkhart as groom and Gladys Parkhurst as the bride, with their attendants made an interesting bridal party. Too much credit cannot be given all those participating.”
Apparently adults couldn’t wait to get in on the mock wedding fun, and within a few years, “womanless weddings” became popular amateur fundraising events where prominent local business owners and other luminaries—all men—dressed in costume and participated in the all-male events. The events proved popular in the Midwest during the years of the Great Depression.
On Feb. 19, 1930, the Record announced that “The XIX Century club of Oswego have procured the services of the Sympson Levi Producing company of Bardstown, Ky. to stage “The Womanless Wedding,” which has been put on so successfully in our neighboring towns. The dates will be March 17 and 18.”
According one script, “As title indicates, no women are to be used in this play, unless desired. Special care should be exercised in the selection of the cast. Use prominent men. Men taking ladies’ parts should wear ladies’ shoes if possible. A small groom and large bride will prove effective. Have costumes and stage effects as elaborate as possible. An altar draped in red, white and blue is appropriate.”
Unlike the Tom Thumb Weddings, a professional director came as part of the production and there was little music and much more dialog by the characters in Womanless Wedding scripts, including racist depiction in blackface by Black participants.
By all accounts, the community found the production highly entertaining, especially given the prominence of men portraying the cross-dressing “women” in the cast.
Reported the March 26, 1930 Kendall County Record: “The Womanless Wedding” has passed into history. It was one of the most talked of and enjoyable events in Oswego for some time. Many were unable to obtain seats. The parts were very well taken.”
In fact, the community had such a good time, they decided to produce their own version of the production, although this time not a wedding spoof. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Jan. 27, 1937 that “The womanless play, “Ladies for a Night,” given at the high school gym last Thursday and Friday, netted nearly $100 and everyone a lot of fun.” It doesn’t sound like a lot to us today, but back during the late Depression years, $100 was pretty big money—roughly $2,000 in 2022 dollars.
These days, although some communities still do produce variations on Tom Thumb Weddings, the political struggle over LGTBQ rights have pretty much put paid to womanless wedding productions. And when it comes to actual marriages, “destination weddings” seem to be all the rage nowadays, with people dragging friends and relatives all over the country and even off to foreign climes to witness two people getting hitched for better or worse. The good news is at least most of those newly married couples won’t spend their honeymoons fleeing to the nearest fort.
If you’re interested in chatting about some more entertaining Oswego wedding history, don’t miss Little White School Museum Manager Anne Jordan’s next History Happy Hour at the Fox Valley Winery (in the old Main Street fire station), set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8. Residents of the Oswegoland Park District can register for $15 and non-residents for $25–registration includes one glass of wine to enjoy during the evening’s discussion about Oswego wedding history. Preregistration is required by calling the park district at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/.
One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.
That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.
For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.
Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.
Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.
Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.
The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.
Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.
Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.
A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.
What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.
Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.
The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.
Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.
Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.
The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”
McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.
Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.
The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.
The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.
The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.
Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back when I was a youngster, a guy by the name of Hal Boyle wrote a column that was syndicated by the Associated Press and which was carried in the Beacon-News up in Aurora. I liked Boyle’s column and read it regularly. Later, I found out he was an award-winning World War II correspondent who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, yes, I wasn’t the only one who liked Boyle’s stuff.
Every once in a while, Boyle would write a sort of trivia column with odd facts and short stories. And while I liked his regular columns, I loved those trivia pieces. I liked them so much, in fact, that when I started writing my own column, I stole the idea from him, stealing ideas being journalism’s highest form of flattery.
Back in those pre-computerized layout newspaper days, pages were physically pasted up. A few companies decided they could make a little money by supplying bits of miscellaneous information called fillers, from recipes to ads to trivia clips printed on heavy paper, ready to be clipped and waxed down on the paste-up sheet to fill in the occasional void on the page paste-up. The material was supplied free to everyone, from small weeklies to dailies, with the costs paid for by the companies whose advertising materials (which ranged from feature stories to short squibs featuring their brands) appeared in each week’s issue.
So I had Hal Boyle’s idea, and a free, regular source of trivia and other basically useless information that I could use to fill a column once or so a month. Not that I didn’t like writing about local, regional, and state history, of course. But at the time besides writing my column, I was covering the local school board and other breaking news stories, editing the big pile of news releases that arrived every week, taking photos, and writing up to three editorials each week. So a trivia column gave me a bit of breathing room.
Since the trivia arrived along with all the rest of the junk mail at the newspaper, I decided to characterize the columns I wrote using that stuff as interesting bits of junk mail I’d mined out of the stack that was on my desk every week. And fortunately, the idea proved popular among the paper’s readers.
I still do one occasionally, although far less frequently since my column has been cut to twice monthly instead of weekly. But the things are fun, and I sort of miss doing them, so I thought to myself, why not do one for “History on the Fox” just for fun? And with no further ado, here’s my first junk mail blog post, which kicks off right at the start of the dog days of summer.
What, you may be wondering, are the dog days? Glad you asked. We used to joke they were they days during an Illinois summer when it was too hot for the dog to go outside. But really, the dog days are generally considered to last from about July 3 to Aug. 11 or so, and the name goes back in time to the ancients.
In the summer, Sirius, called the Dog Star, rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is closest in motion with the sun, so the ancients, not having a concept of how far away other stars are from our own, believed that Sirius’s heat added to the heat of the sun. That, they believed, created a stretch of hot and sultry weather, which they named the “dog days” after Sirius, the Dog Star.
But July isn’t only famous as the start of the dog days. Lots of other stuff, as I’m sure you know, happened in July. For instance, on July 8 in 1777 Vermont abolished slavery. The temperature hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. The first man landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—was established on July 29, 1958. And also in space-related news, the Telstar communications satellite relayed the first publicly-transmitted, live trans-Atlantic television program (featuring Walter Cronkite). In something that may or may not be related, this year’s full July moon will float across the heavens on July 23 as well. And don’t forget that during the Civil War, the U.S. Army won both the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, Vicksburg on July 4 and and Gettysburg on July 3. President Lincoln had a very good July in 1863. And let’s not forget the U.S. Post Office was established on July 26, 1775.
Where would we all be, after all, had Congress not established the U.S. Post Office? While Republicans in Congress keep trying to kill it off and replace it with expensive private contractors, the rest of us like it just fine. Because the point is that we get a lot of mail. Every day except Sunday. And some of it is actually mail we want to get. Here at History Central, I pretty much like all the mail I get, even the junk mail, because even there are a few nuggets of knowledge. In fact, here are bunch of things I never would have found out if I hadn’t opened all our mail (each and every day the mail carrier showed up out in front at our mailbox):
There are 40 spaces around the perimeter of the Monopoly board, and 22 of them are properties.
Before he left the boxing ring for his acting career, Tony Danza’s record as a middleweight fighter was 12 wins and three losses.
In 1964, golfer Norman Manley achieved consecutive holes-in-one on a golf course in Saugus, Calif. Both were par 4 holes, which probably means something to the golfers reading this.
On Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals football team celebrated Thanksgiving Day by scoring all 40 points (six touchdowns and 4 points-after) in the Cards’ 40-6 win at old Comiskey Park.
A shark’s skeleton has no bones. It is made entirely of cartilage.
The first—and so far the only—President to be married in the White House was Grover Cleveland. During his second year in office, he married Frances Folsom, a young lady 27 years the President’s junior.
The Electoral College system of electing U.S. Presidents has enabled five candidates to become President whose opponents won the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.
The Great Pyramids in Egypt are the only surviving sites considered to be among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Barnacles have three stages of life. In the first, they swim, have six legs, and one eye. In the second stage, they have 12 legs and two more eyes (total three). In the third stage, they have 24 legs but lose all their eyes.
Making sense of the heat index: When the air temperature is 85 degrees, it feels like 78 when the humidity is at zero percent; 88 when the humidity is 50 percent; and 108 when the humidity is at 100 percent.
Of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, only one, New York’s One World Trade Center, is in the U.S. Of the rest, 5 are in China and one each are in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan. The world’s tallest building, measuring more than a half-mile in height at 2,717 feet, is Burj Khalifa (named after the country’s ruler) in Dubai.
Monaco has the shortest coastline—2.38 miles—of any sovereign nation that’s not landlocked.
The busiest ship canal in the world is the Kiel Canal linking the North Sea with the Baltic Sea in Germany.
The Alaska pipeline carries 2.1 million barrels of oil a day—when it’s not springing leaks—to the Valdez Oil Terminal.
A normal adult pulse rate is 70 to 78 beats per minute at rest for men and 78 to 85 for women.
The earliest known zoo was created by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt about 1500 B.C.E. About 500 years later, the Chinese Emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, a huge zoo covering 1,500 acres.
The Tarantella is a popular folk dance that gets its name from the city of Taranto, Italy. The people there used to dance the Tarantella as a supposed cure for tarantula bites. Today, of course, we know the correct dance for curing tarantula bites is the Locomotion.
During the 1828 presidential election, the opponents of Andrew Jackson had insultingly called him a jackass, and Jackson decided to turn the tables on those opponents. Instead of opposing the characterization, Jackson used the symbol in his campaign materials, agreeing at least in part with his opponents that he was “stubborn.” On Jan. 15, 1870, the first recorded use of a donkey cartoon to represent the Democratic Party appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon was drawn by political illustrator Thomas Nast, and was titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.”
President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower National monument in northeastern Wyoming as the nation’s first national monument. Devils Tower is a volcanic tower standing 865 feet above its base, which is 415 feet high.
Almost all large metropolitan newspapers—the ones still publishing—now publish in the morning. As late as 1996, there were 846 afternoon dailies and 686 morning papers. There now about 1,260 dailies in the U.S.
Until Henry VIII passed an act separating the professions, barbers were also surgeons. After that, the only surgical operations barbers could legally perform were bloodletting and tooth-pulling. On the other hand, surgeons were no longer allowed to give anyone a shave and a haircut—even for two bits.
Finally, Jefferson Davis, the traitorous president of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War, was U.S. Secretary of War in 1853. While in office, he improved infantry tactics and brought in new and better weapons that were eventually used against him and the Confederate cause. Although briefly imprisoned, Davis never had to account for his treason that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 U.S. and Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines.
I’ve lived along or on the banks of the Fox River for most of the years since I was eight years old. And one of the things those of us who grew up on the river know is that it can quickly become dangerous, and therefore demands respect—especially during this time of year.
Far too many of those who live in the Fox River Valley and nearby areas take the Fox for granted. It’s “only the Fox,” I hear far too often. And while it is generally a fairly placid, shallow, well-behaved stream, it can quickly and often unexpectedly become a danger to the unwary.
When the settlers arrived, they knew the river posed its greatest danger during the spring ice breakup when heavy rains and melting ice created a raging torrent that bore no resemblance to what it was like the rest of the year. And they also knew that sudden storms at any time of the year could also turn the Fox into a dangerous antagonist.
The valley’s early residents called those floods “freshets.” Major 19th Century freshets were recorded in 1840, 1857, and 1868. It was the consensus of the old-timers that the 1857 event was by far the worst. Oswego resident J.H. Sutherland wrote in the Oswego Herald in 1907 that the February 1857 spring freshet was still clear in his mind: “When I arose next morning at about seven o’clock, lo! and behold, the river was a raging torrent. A lumber yard owned by a Mr. Rowley was ﬂoating downstream, and was all lost during the day; the bridge was washed away, a sawmill at the east end of the mill dam also ﬂoated downstream, the ﬂour mill was seriously damaged, and the mill dam was washed out.”
Twenty years after the flood, the Rev. E.W. Hicks’ account of the flood in his 1877 history of Kendall County still rang with the fear the flood caused among the Fox Valley’s residents: “The spring of 1857 opened with the most destructive freshet ever known on Fox river, caused by a heavy rain on February 6th, which melted the snow and broke up the ice and set the entire winter’s crop free. All the bridges from Batavia to Ottawa were swept away, and the river was covered with boards, boxes, furniture, chickens, and debris of all kinds. At Oswego, Parker’s saw mill was taken at a loss of three thousand dollars, and Rowley & English’s lumber yard suffered a loss of one thousand dollars. At Millington half the village was flooded; water was waist deep on Vine street, in front of Watters’ store, two blocks from the river. The freshet extended throughout the country, and in other places many lives were lost. Houses were undermined and carried away while the inmates were still asleep, and they knew nothing of their danger until the hungry waters swallowed them up. Such another freshet has not been known in this country; yet each winter the materials for such another accumulates, and it is a striking exemplification of the goodness of the providence of God that these materials are dispersed gradually, and rarely allowed to go out with the terrible and fatal rush of 1857.”
The Freshet of 1868, Fox Valley residents agreed, was close to, but did not surpass, the 1857 flood. Nevertheless, it did considerable damage here in Kendall County. According to the Kendall County Record’s March 12, 1868 edition: “The ‘breaking up’ of 1868 has been unusually severe and disastrous in the destruction of property. Last year our freshet began about the 12th or 13th of February and this year it took place on Friday and Saturday, the 6th and 7th of March. It commenced raining on Thursday afternoon and continued till Saturday night, carrying off the snow into the streams and raising them rapidly. We have heard that one of the piers of the new bridge at Oswego was badly damaged by the ice, and that travel over it was impeded for some time till the beams were shored up by blocks…Post’s bridge across the river opposite Plano was carried away, piers and all. The greatest loss, however, to our county is the destruction of the new bridge at Milford [Millington], which was only finished last summer at heavy cost. Three spans of this bridge were lost, and as it was built mostly by private subscription, the damage is severely felt.”
The river’s freshets were destructive, but most people knew enough to stay out of the river while they were happening. At least most did. Sometimes, however, people just didn’t pay attention and were in danger of paying with their lives. A good example of daring the river to do its worst—and luckily surviving—was recounted by silent film star William S. Hart.
As Hart put it in the first two sentences of his 1926 autobiography, My Life East and West, “I was born in Newburgh, New York. My first recollection is of Oswego, Illinois.”
Hart’s father was the miller at the Parker & Sons gristmill on the west bank of the Fox just above Oswego. In the spring of 1870, the ice was just going out of the Fox River, with huge, thick floes of ice rushing down the stream and across Parker’s dam. At the sawmill across the river at the east end of the dam, the sawyers needed supplies from the Hart family at the gristmill. The supplies were loaded aboard a rickety rowboat and Nicholas, William’s father prepared to set off to deliver the supplies. Like kids anywhere, six year-old William and his sister begged to go along for the boat ride. Astonishingly, their parents agreed.
Off the party went, the plan being for Hart’s father to row upstream along the west bank to Bullhead Bend—opposite today’s Violet Patch Park—before turning across the current to land at the sawmill on the east side of the river. As Nicholas battled the current and the ice floes battered the flimsy rowboat, the family dog—Ring—suddenly decided to swim out and join the fun. They managed to get dog hauled aboard, but by that time the boat was dangerously close to the dam. Had it gone over, the roller wave at the base of the dam would certainly have drowned all three Harts. But through a truly Herculean effort, Nicholas somehow managed to make the east bank, and get everyone ashore, although the boat was badly damaged in the process by the ice floes.
Then there was the March 1879 adventure of teenagers Etta McKinney and Hattie Mullen who went down to the flooded river by the Oswego bridge with friends and found a rowboat tied up along the bank. The two thought it would be great fun to float downstream, Etta promising she “knew how to make the boat go.” But once underway, Etta found she couldn’t control the boat in the flooded river and couldn’t get back to shore, either. Meanwhile their friends ran for help shouting the two girls had probably drowned by then. Etta managed to get close enough to shore that Hattie sensibly jumped out and waded ashore. But Etta couldn’t gather the courage to jump, and instead continued downstream, “industriously singing Sunday school hymns,” to keep up her courage, according to the newspaper account. Eventually adult help arrived, got the boat to shore, and rescued Etta. When she was finally safely ashore, and despite her lusty hymn singing, Eta (who was apparently what my dad used to call “a real pistol”) maintained she hadn’t been frightened a bit and that “it was the best boat ride she ever had.”
Not everyone was so lucky, though. A month later, young Ed Moore was swept over the Yorkville dam, bounced around badly on the river bottom in the roller wave and nearly drowned. In January 1880, George Wormley, a relative of the Wormleys who lived on the west side of the river, and his friend George Pollard were rowing their boat across the river just above Oswego when they struck a sandbar just below the Oswego dam, overturning the boat and drowning Wormley.
In April 1896, ten year-old Willie Stein fell in the flooded river at Montgomery while fishing and drowned, and in June 1908 Israel Blume and Louis Spink drowned at Yorkville when their rowboat went over the dam and they were caught in the roller wave at the dam’s base.
In most of the cases of people drowning in the river, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and right up to the present century, the deaths can be attributed to people being unacquainted with the river and not taking the stream, especially when flooded, seriously. After all, it’s only the familiar old Fox.
Those of us who grew up on the river know some of its secrets: Where the occasional deep holes are, places where the currents can play havoc with boats and canoes, and where dangerous rocks and bars endanger those using the river. But for the occasional canoeist, kayaker, or angler the Fox can present problems that can sometimes turn dangerous—or even fatal.
On the afternoon of March 10, 2012 I sat down at my Mac Mini and set up my own page on the WordPress blogging site. I’d been retired as the editor of the Ledger-Sentinel here in Oswego for a few years and had largely finished my project to transcribe the “Oswego” news columns from each week’s Kendall County Record from the 1860s to the 1970s. So I was looking for another history project to occupy my time—when I wasn’t volunteering down at the Little White School Museum.
My good friend John Etheredge, who took over the editorship of the Ledger-Sentinel when I left, asked me shortly before I retired whether I’d ever considered blogging. I had, from time to time, but not seriously. But by March 2012—four years after I had hung up my editor’s blue pencil—I was apparently ready to start making more local history accessible to a wider audience.
So with my blogging home established, I wrote my very first post here at History on the Fox. It was a short piece on the coming change to Daylight Savings Time, the point being people had been grousing about time changes for a long, long time, bolstered with a couple of 1930s quotes from the Kendall County Record. I posted that entry at 4:28 p.m.
I started blogging in my upstairs office across the street from where I’m writing this post in the house my great-grandparents built for their retirement from farming.
That office was the descendant of the original History Central that I’d set up when we were working on county histories for the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission back in 1974. The first History Central was located out on an enclosed porch at the first house we ever owned, which was a true relic. My great-great-grandparents moved there shortly after the Civil War. My great-great-grandmother wove rag rugs on her giant loom there as well as renting out sleeping rooms to railroad and ice harvesting company workers. Her son built the porch onto the house in the 1920s so his tubercular daughter could sleep in the fresh air. We remodeled it into office space a few years before we moved next door to my great-grandparents house. Then in 2018 we moved across the street to the house my sister built on the east bank of the Fox River. So three moves since 1968, all in a radius of about 1,500 feet.
It’s now been nine years—that’s a long time in blogging years, by the way—and I’m still plugging away on my Mac Mini here at the newest History Central, trying to post at least once a week, mostly on the history of the Fox Valley and topics related to it.
Since March 10, 2012, I’ve written 284 unique posts, some of which I’ve re-posted from time to time. My weekly posting schedule has gotten corrupted from time to time as real life intruded, including a heart valve replacement and most recently an emergency pacemaker install.
During the past nine years, nearly 34,000 visitors have clicked into History on the Fox to read about local, Illinois, and Midwestern history, not to mention the occasional off-topic posts that go up from time to time.
Things started pretty slowly. For the entire year of 2012, I had a total of 58 individual visitors. Even then, the places those visitors lived was sort of mind-boggling and included not just the U.S., but also the United Kingdom, Canada, Macau, Mexico, Japan, and France.
Since then, however, the blog—and its number visitors—has continued to grow. In 2020, a total of 11,230 folks stopped by History on the Fox from a mind-blowing 84 countries around the world. Not surprisingly (since they’re our close neighbors to the north and French Canadians were some of the first non-Native American residents in our area), most of my foreign visitors last year—610—came from Canada, followed by 363 from the United Kingdom, 177 from Australia, and 115 from France, none of which seem too odd. But I always wonder what the 22 visitors from Thailand, 18 from South Korea, and 8 from Ghana got out of “History on the Fox’s” content.
When it comes to the all-time popularity of individual blog posts, “Those marvelous Ojibwa birch bark canoes” is the clear winner, with 1,529 individual readers since I posted it Nov. 4, 2013. Seldom a day goes by that the post doesn’t get at least one hit.
Writing about local history is a satisfying endeavor, one that occasionally pays dividends when other on-line folks use History on the Fox posts in their own blogs and for other research purposes.
Back in 1977 when I started writing a weekly column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, the editor and publisher, my grade school buddy Dave Dreier, wondered whether there would be enough local history available to fill a weekly column. I assured him there was. And 44 years later, here we are, with the descendant of that column, today’s Reflections column, appearing twice monthly in Shaw Media papers, and more takes on the topic here at History on the Fox.
So, as long as I can keep digging up new stories about the people and events that made the Fox Valley what it is today, I’ll keep typing away here at the newest History Central.
So I was getting ready to go this morning and noticed Old Spice has put a slogan on their stick deodorant: “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t be here.”
Which seemed to me to be somewhere between a bit odd and borderline creepy. Should I really care which deodorant gave off an odor that moved my grandmother to sexual desire? Is wondering about my grandparents engaging in sexual ecstasy back in the autumn of 1909—or at any other time—really something I want to be thinking about in the first place? And, frankly, I’m not sure my grandfather even wore deodorant back in those days.
Shulton, Inc. didn’t start selling Old Spice until 1937, so, no, I’d still be here without Grandpa using it since Old Spice was 28 years in the future when my mother was conceived following a night of presumably lusty German-American love.
Not that there wasn’t deodorant around in 1909. The first commercial deodorant designed to disguise body odor, Mum, was trademarked in 1888. While it suffered from limited effectiveness, it did get better. You can apparently still buy Mum, and if you use Ban roll-on deodorant, you’re using the great-great grandchild of Mum.
But covering up odor isn’t the same as preventing it in the first place. The first effective antiperspirant—a product that actually inhibits sweat production as well as odor—wasn’t developed until 1903, not too long before my grandfather would have been trying to entice my grandmother to procreate my mother. It, too, had major drawbacks in that the aluminum chloride that was its active ingredient tended to literally eat clothing by dissolving it, not to mention it tended to severely irritate the sensitive skin under users’ arms.
But then in 1910, the father of Cincinnati high schooler Edna Murphey developed a better product, and the young lady decided to turn entrepreneur and go into business producing and marketing the deodorant her father invented. Naming her new product Odorono (“Odor? O, no!”), Edna decided the 1912 Atlantic City exposition would be the perfect place to get recognition and market share for her new toiletry. But results were disappointing at first, until the extremely hot, humid summer of 1912 wore on during which word got around about Odorono’s usefulness.
Unfortunately, the stuff still had the problems inherent in the process of suspending aluminum chloride in an acid base—it was hard on clothes and irritated users’ skin. And since it was colored red, it was really dangerous to use under the white cotton and linen summer dresses and shirts popular during the era.
But Edna and company eventually got the bugs ironed out, which you can see if you walk down the deodorant aisle at Walgreens; there are a ton of different brands and styles, including my current Old Spice, that have mimicked Edna’s product—which is also still for sale, by the way.
But even if it hadn’t taken until 1910 for someone to invent a usable antiperspirant deodorant, I have a feeling my grandfather wouldn’t have used it. Back in those days, my grandfather was working in the sprawling Burlington Shops in downtown Aurora. A carpenter, he worked his way up to supervise a crew of a half-dozen other carpenters building boxcars and cabooses. Enjoying the CB&Q’s 40-hour work week, the crew worked 10 hours a day four days a week and had three days off. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m not sure deodorant was anywhere on his event horizon. My grandmother had grown up on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and so probably wasn’t used to sweet-smelling men anyway.
While they didn’t use deodorant, men of that era did attempt to cover up body odor on the days between their usual Saturday night bath, especially when courting.
The whole idea of making oneself smell better wasn’t new during that era, of course, but went back hundreds of years. When the Three Wise Men sought out the Christ Child, according to that brief New Testament account, along with gold they brought myrrh and frankincense as gifts, both expensive ingredients of perfumes of that distant era. And who knows, maybe Joseph and Mary, ensconced as they were in a stable, were happy to get them.
In 1709, an Italian, Giovanni Maria Farina, developed the first commercially viable men’s scent in Cologne, Germany. Giovanni named it in honor of his adopted hometown, and the name soon came to be applied to all men’s scent products. Interestingly enough, his family still manufactures the stuff there.
By the early 20th Century, men were using a variety of products to improve their body scent, including a variety of aftershave products that were particularly popular in the barbershops of the era. And that included talcum powder, which was used to finish off a shave and a haircut—which really did cost two-bits.
When I was a youngster, the barber always ended the haircut ritual by shaking some sweet-smelling talc on a soft, long bristled brush and brushing down my neck. I can still smell that powder to this day, when I stop to think about it.
I’m sure my grandfather went a barbershop from time to time over there in the area of the East Side of Aurora nicknamed Dutchtown because of all its German-speaking residents. But being a frugal German, he would mostly have shaved himself. If he paged through the Sears catalog, he might even have decided to splurge by investing in their Gentlemen’s Shaving and Toilet Outfit for just $1.79—$51 in today’s dollars.
The outfit didn’t include a razor; that, Sears apparently figured, you already owned. The outfit’s top advertised item was a bottle of Violet Witch Hazel, a violet-scented after-shave. “It removes the irritation caused by shaving, cools and makes antiseptic the thousands of pores on the face, prevents chapping, and leaves that exquisite lasting odor of violets about the person,” the Sears copywriter promised. So, Grandpa may have smelled like violets, which isn’t a bad way to go, I guess.
Also included was an entire pound of Williams Genuine World Renowned Shaving Soap; a styptic pencil for those annoying razor nicks; a bottle of Belezaire Genuine Brilliantine “for perfuming the moustache or hair;” one stick of Williams Genuine French Cosmetique “for fixing and giving gloss to the moustache and whiskers;” a jar of Crystal Shampoo Jelly (“It removes dandruff!”); a bottle of Eastman’s Genuine Eau de Cologne (“It is very refreshing and of great value in the sick room, where it can be used as a disinfectant for destroying bad odors and rendering the air in the room fresh and pleasant.”); a fine bleach sponge for removing the soap and lather after shaving; one Genuine Faultless Beauty Brush “for coaxing the dirt out of its hiding places” and for “producing a healthy glow;” and, finally, two bottles of “well-known Wood Violet Talcum made by the well known Hilbert Perfumers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
So he would have gotten a pretty good deal on stuff to make himself smell better and even a bottle of cologne he could have used during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to freshen up the sick room, assuming he had any left. But nowhere in Sears’ 1909 catalog do they list any deodorants or antiperspirants for sale.
But the real problem, I suppose, is that when Old Spice talks about their customers’ grandfathers, they’re not talking about MY grandfather, or even my father. These days, they’re talking about ME. Even though when I was a young man dating my wife-to-be Old Spice was old news—it was the deodorant and aftershave and men’s cologne my father used. So, no, it wasn’t Old Spice that might have lured my wife, it was English Leather aftershave and soap on a rope (remember that?). But now the kids produced by the English Leather generation are back to using Old Spice again, while some of us are kidded until we try something new that’s not new at all—Old Spice.
Nevertheless, being a member of the Baby Boom generation and growing up when nearly the nation’s entire economy was aimed at trying to satisfy us, it is a bit mind-bending to remember we’re no longer in the prime demographic that advertisements are aimed at.
Instead, I keep trying to imagine my grandfather not only as a young man, but also as a guy just trying his best to smell better as he tried to impress his young wife, my grandmother, and it’s rough going.