Category Archives: Environment

Unintended consequences…

For some reason, there seems to be a lot of controversy connected with global climate change.

Well over 90 percent of climatologists say it’s proven science that us humans have greatly contributed to the warming of the earth’s climate since 1900, and even the big oil companies’ scientists told their bosses what was happening decades ago. In fact, there’s an interesting investigation going on right now where the attorneys general of several states are trying to determine whether Exxon misled the company’s investors about the issue.

But a lot of people still don’t buy the facts that have been laid out, mostly because those folks at Exxon didn’t only hide the facts their own scientists dug up from their own investors, but they also apparently bankrolled climate change denier individuals and organizations, muddying the waters for lots of us.

It’s not that hard to figure out what’s happening, though. Each recent year sets a new record as being the hottest on record, and individual months are regularly setting temperature records, too. But it’s not hard to find someone to dispute the fact of global climate change—although there aren’t a lot of them, the professional deniers are a pretty loud and determined bunch, once again proving muckraker Upon Sinclair’s dictum that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If you’re a seed catalog saver, you can get an easily understood look into what’s happening. Just look at how those hardiness zone maps keep changing. The zones where certain plants can grow keep steadily moving north, indicating average temperatures are continuing to rise.

Walleye

Walleye, one of Wisconsin’s most sought-after gamefish, are becoming rare in some of the state’s most popular resort areas, at least partly due to global climate change.

Up in northern Wisconsin, the change in the climate means some of the fisheries up there are changing, too. In the Minocqua area, largemouth bass, which is generally considered a warmer weather species, have begun to take over some of the lakes in that region. The Wisconsin DNR figures that the growing largemouth population is feeding on walleye fry, thus leading to a decrease in walleyes. And that’s bad for the resort industry up there because walleyes are a big, big draw for anglers. To try to do something about the situation, the DNR has banned keeping any walleyes caught for a five-year period, supposedly to give the species a chance to rebound against largemouth predation.

I’m pretty sure it won’t work. Those largemouth that are suddenly so prevalent aren’t there by happenstance; they’re there because the water’s warmer there now on average, making it a friendlier habitat for bass. Helping the walleye population by increasing their numbers through lack of angler harvest isn’t going to do a thing to cool off the water in Minocqua area lakes. But since the DNR is now prohibited from discussing climate change’s effects on Wisconsin wildlife, it’s going to be interesting to see how the subject is handled going forward. Because you can bet this is just the tip of this particular rhetorical iceberg.

When you think about unintended consequences, global climate change is this era’s prime example. When the Industrial Age got really going, I doubt anyone thought that burning all that coal and, later, oil was going to have a negative impact on the entire earth. Just like adding lead to gasoline, which was designed to make internal combustion engines run smoother and more efficiently, the ultimate impact was to inflict lead poisoning on several generations of Americans. The outcome of that was likely the spike in crime rates in the 1970s, according to some who’ve studied the topic. Banning leaded gasoline may well be the reason violent crime has been declining since the 1970s.

It’s when we fiddle with the earth’s ecology that those unintended consequences seem to have their biggest effects. The folks in Wisconsin are trying their best to do something about a process over which they have little control by doing something over which they do have at least a little influence, although it’s probably futile. It probably won’t comfort them to know that we’ve been messing with fish populations for generations, sometimes with negative implications that didn’t show up for decades.

German carp

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

The lowly carp is prime example number one of that. We take these ubiquitous rough, annoying fish for granted these days. But they only got in our rivers and creeks because the U.S. Government put them there in the first place, hoping to provide a useful, marketable species to benefit everyone.

So they imported a bunch of them from Germany with plans to stock them in streams the next year. They were considered so valuable that they used the reflecting pool on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to house them over the winter. Then in the spring they stocked them all over the place.

I’ve already written about the general reaction to this bit of ecological sabotage, noting the reaction was far from unanimously positive. But, as luck would have it, carp were stocked at about the same time streams in long-settled parts of the country were being stressed beyond their limits with almost unbelievable amounts of pollution, from raw human and animal waste to manufacturing byproducts, from coking mill waste to waste from coal gas plants. The effect of chemical poisons on streams was amplified by increasing amounts of agricultural runoff that was containing more and more silt as unwise farming practices created erosion.

As their gravel-bottomed spawning grounds were covered with silt the oxygen content of water in polluted streams drastically declined due to huge increases in chemical and human waste, game fish populations catastrophically declined.

Enter those carp. They were far more adaptable to filthy water conditions and positively thrived on the muddy stream bottoms that were being manufactured by a near-total lack of any controls on pollution. And because they liked the conditions they were introduced in, they thrived—and therefore were blamed for creating the conditions rather than being lauded for making use of them, much like those largemouth bass up in northern Wisconsin are being blamed today for decreasing walleye populations.

A classic example of blaming the messenger—carp—for stream quality happened on the Rock River in southern Wisconsin back in the 1970s. The Rock has several dams up there creating lots of recreational fishing at Beloit, Janesville, and other towns along the river’s course. By the ‘70s, some of those impoundments had gathered a lot of sediment and silt from agriculture runoff, and while carp were flourishing, gamefish were not. So the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decided to try poisoning the all the fish in one of those impoundments, the idea being that without carp rooting around the bottom and creating silt-laden water that gamefish didn’t like.

So that’s what they did. And it worked. The impoundment was cleanses of carp—and all the other fish as well, and that had the effect of clearing the water right up. Residents living there were ecstatic—you could actually see the bottom again!

But getting rid of the carp didn’t get rid of the sediment, which was extremely rich in nutrients thanks to runoff from all the farm fields through which the river ran. And as soon as the water clarified, sunlight finally got down to the bottom, creating a veritable algae explosion. The stuff grew inches thick on the surface, died, and sank to the bottom where it decomposed, sucking whatever oxygen still remained out of the water, creating a smelly, slimy mess. Which made residents far from ecstatic. It took a frantic DNR quite a while to get the situation stabilized and to try to reverse it because the agriculture interests were not interested in doing what needed to be done to reduce runoff from their fields.

The main point the ecology movement tried to get across to people when it got started is that almost everything in the natural world is connected one way or another. And sometimes, because much of the time we neither understand nor recognize them in the first place, those connections come back to bite us when we mess with one part or another without careful consideration first.

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A tale of two towns…

Just got back from our annual early October trip up to the Northwoods to close our fishing cabin for another season.

My buddy, Paul and I, have known each other for more than 60 years, having met in third grade when my family moved off the farm and into town. Paul, I, and my wife Sue pooled our resources back in 1972 and bought five acres of wild land along the South Fork of the Flambeau River up in Price County, Wisconsin. Camping got old after six or seven years, so in 1980 we bought a fishing cabin a couple miles north of Park Falls—then, as now, Price County’s largest municipality—on Butternut Lake.

2017 10-10 Paul fishing

The sunset on Butternut Lake on Oct. 10 proved to be a spectacular one as we attempted to invite a few walleyes for supper.

We open the cabin each spring so as to be ready for opening day for walleye season on the first Saturday in May. And since it’s a three-season fishing cabin, we close it down for the winter each autumn, generally around Columbus Day.

As I sat out fishing with Paul as our annual autumn trip drew to a close, I started thinking about the big changes we’ve seen in northern Wisconsin, as well as the changes in my hometown of Oswego here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. In both cases, those changes have been profound, generally in a good way for Oswego but not so much for Park Falls.

Park Falls, like most of the municipalities in Price County, was established during the lumbering boom of the late 19th Century, growing faster than its neighboring villages when a paper mill was built there. It was not only the industrial center of the surrounding hinterland, but was also the agriculture market center for nearby farms, which were mostly dairy operations. Today, the paper mill is still busy, turning pulpwood harvested from the surrounding managed forests into paper.

The town’s businesses and industry led to construction of a large stock of housing, smaller worker’s cottages for industrial workers and retail employees, with larger homes built by executives and successful merchants.

Paper Mill

The Flambeau River Papers mill still dominates Park Falls’ downtown while providing jobs for residents.

But like so many small towns in overwhelmingly rural areas like northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has seen its population decline sharply over the years. When we bought our fishing cabin back in 1980, Park Falls’ population stood at its historic peak, 3,192. The town’s downtown sported a stock of substantial brick storefronts that housed two grocery stores and a fair variety of retail businesses.

That same year, Oswego’s population was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau at just slightly below Park Falls’, 3,021. Oswego was still the market town for the surrounding agricultural hinterland, but was rapidly changing into a suburban bedroom community. Residential and commercial development took a breather during the 1980s, but then in the 1990s it began again, surging strongly into the early 2000s. In fact, during that era, Kendall County, in which Oswego is situated, became (in percentage terms) the fastest growing county in the entire nation.

Meanwhile, Park Falls and Price County were steadily losing population. Young people graduating from high school found decreasing opportunities for economic advancement, leading to a population drain.

2017 10-6 Fall color at the lake.jpg

Autumn color was hitting the peak on Oct. 6 when I snapped this shot down towards Butternut Lake.

The paper mill continued to provide jobs, but increasing automation meant there were fewer of those available. Then in 2006, the factory closed, shocking the entire community. But with private and governmental economic cooperation, it reopened after a few months, and has continued operating since. In addition, St. Croix Rods opened a manufacturing plant in Park Falls for high-end fishing equipment, and later, the Weathershield company opened a state-of-the-art window factory in town, providing more relatively good-paying jobs.

Even so, the community’s population continued to decline. The 2016 population estimate for Park Falls was just 2,292, a decrease of nearly 30 percent since 1980.

In comparison, Oswego’s population surged during that same period, growth fueled by northern Illinois’ powerful economic engine. In 1990, Oswego’s population had grown, but not sharply, to 3,879. But then the frenetic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s hit and by the new millennium Oswego’s population had grown to 13,326. The growth explosion continued through the 2000s, despite the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, the village’s population stood at an astonishing 30,355. Between then and 2016, population went up another 10 percent or so to an estimated 34,571.

2008 Oswego look E from W bank

These days, there are more traffic signals on Oswego, Illinois’ Washington Street than in all of Park Falls, Wisconsin—one of the prices residents pay for the community’s growth.

Not sure what all this proves, other than the old cliché that the three most important factors contributing to real estate values is location, location, and location.

Park Falls’ population declined by nearly 30 percent during the same period when Oswego’s population grew by 10 times, mostly, but not entirely, based on where the two towns were situated, Park Falls largely isolated in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Oswego adjacent to the Chicago suburban economic powerhouse.

Those of us who have lived through Oswego’s growing pains often grumble about the area’s extreme changes. But all things considered, it’s been a lot better watching a community grow and prosper rather than slowly evaporate as its young people leave for places where there are opportunities to make a successful family life.

 

 

 

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Six…

Been a few days since I’ve checked in as we continued our Undaunted Courage 2017 Tour up the mountain chain from Salt Lake City into Montana, the main reason being contracting a nasty case of bronchitis.

But I’m feeling well enough to finally make some sense when I write—although I’m sure plenty will contest the fact—so it’s time to get back to recording things before, as happened to the unfortunate Meriwether Lewis, the account of our trip is lost in the mists of history.

The trip north out of Salt Lake got off to a slow, rainy, start since, as it turns out, rush hours in big cities is the same the nation over. As we inched north on I-15 it occurred to me that big city traffic and streetscapes are pretty much the same everywhere we’ve traveled.

But after getting north of the city center, traffic eased considerably as we drove into cattle, mining, and oil country.

2017 9-15 Lima, MT s

Although it was snowing pretty good in Lima, MT, it fortunately wasn’t sticking to the roads as I snapped this shot in the parking lot at Jen’s Cafe & Cabins.

Along about Idaho Falls, we got into what turned out to be a fairly vigorous series of snow squalls that followed us north along the chain. By the time we stopped for lunch at Jen’s Café & Cabins just across the Idaho state line in tiny Lima, Montana, there was about 5” of the stuff on the ground, with more coming down. Definitely a day for hot beef sandwiches. The locals were shaking their heads; Sept. 15 is a mite early for more than a dusting of snow, even in this high country.

Driving ever farther north, we eventually ran out of the snow as we crossed the continental divide twice.

Speaking of undaunted courage, you can’t get away from the redoubtable Lewis and Clark on I-15, passing as you do right by the Clark Canyon Reservoir and Clark’s Lookout State Park. Looking at the landscape as we drove, it wasn’t hard to imagine it as it was when the Corps of Discovery marched through—outside infrequent fences and pumping oil wells, the landscape itself hasn’t changed a whole lot.

At Butte, Montana we picked up I-90, and headed farther up the mountains to Missoula. From there U.S. Route 93 took us right north up to the foot of Flathead Lake and the town of Polson where my childhood buddy Bob and his wife live.

It was definitely cattle and horse country, but it also turned out to be wheat and potato country. Farmers rotate their potato and wheat crops to benefit the soil that’s none too deep in the river valleys where farming is conducted. We drove through just after the wheat harvest had been completed and the order of the day was baling straw, stacking the huge round bales modern machinery creates, and hauling them to market.

Unlike Illinois’ rural areas, local gravel roads are still the norm in the west. In the urbanizing Midwest of northern Illinois we’ve gradually replaced most rural gravel roads with either tar and chip or asphalt-surfaced roads, that are cheaper to maintain and which are more economical for drivers. Blacktopped roads create far less wear and tear on vehicles, and both cars and trucks get far better gas mileage on hard-surfaced roads.

Back in the 1920s when Illinois was considering how best to spend proceeds of a $63 million bond issue voters had approved in 1918, they paid attention to studies carried on concerning fuel efficiency on various road surfaces. In July 1922, Concrete Highway Magazine reported that a road test in Cleveland, Ohio measured fuel efficiency on five 2-ton White trucks loaded to capacity traveling over roads with various surfaces. The trucks averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon of gasoline over concrete roads and 9 mpg on gravel roads.

Driving as we were on a mixture of concrete and asphalt hard roads, I got to wondering about the relative fuel efficiencies of the two surfaces. Especially since concrete roads sometimes create really annoying road noise while asphalt roads are pretty quiet as a rule. I checked out various hypermiling sites on the Net—if you want to find out a bunch of tricks to stretch your gas mileage, the hypermiling guys and gals are your ticket—and the consensus seems to be that the hardest surface provides the best mileage. Period. Asphalt, it turns out, has a softer surface that offers a big of ‘give’ which cuts down on mileage. Not a lit, but a bit.

So up to Polson we drove, arriving when it was a bit cloudy, but where the backdrop was spectacular. Pulling in, Bob happily greeted us as we stretched our legs a bit. “So, what do you think of those?” Bob asked, waiving his hand towards his back pasture.

Yak

Home, home on the range where the deer and the yaks play.

We were farm kids together, and his dad kept Brahma bulls that, crazy kids we were, we used to tease with red handkerchiefs, so I was ready to see some prize cattle or horses (Bob’s sort of retired these days, but he’s still an honest-to-God cowboy), but instead I saw a group of short shaggy black animals ambling around out by the pasture’s back fence.

“Nice yaks, don’t you think,” he asked with a little grin.

More later…

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Five…

We’ve spent the last few days in Salt Lake City visiting my aunt and cousin and seeing some of the sights, and I have to say I’m underwhelmed.

Not sure what I expected to find out here, but it definitely was not a bit of industrial America plopped down in the high desert around the Great Salt Lake.

2017 9-14 Salt Lake 1

The Great Salt Lake is at a relatively low level these days thanks to drought. The sandy area along the shore was previously under water.

Driving through Salt Lake City and its numerous suburbs today reminded me strongly of driving through Joliet and some sections of the South Side of Chicago. Downtown Salt Lake City, particularly around Temple Square, is immaculate, kept that way by numerous city workers driving miniature street sweepers. But get away from the city’s religious-government precinct and you find just another inner cityscape.

We started the day by driving out to see the Great Salt Lake because if you manage to get here, you’ve really got to see it. It was big, but was sort of down-at-the-heels looking. No vegetation can grow on the lakeshore except some of the very hardiest, salt-tolerant bushes and grasses. And there aren’t many of them. So it’s a lake with no greenery on its banks—which I thought I had been prepared for, but really hadn’t. It’s a desolate looking body of water with a rocky shoreline.

2017 9-14 Copper Smelter

Kennecott operates a large copper smelter across from Great Salt Lake State Park, somewhat marring the lake’s shorescape.

One of the interesting things about it was the sand along the lakeshore. Walking on it gave the same feeling as walking on dry dirt back in Illinois. A very strange feeling.

In keeping with the region’s mineral production history, we found a giant Kennecott copper smelter right across the road from the entrance to the Great Salt Lake State Park.

We had much the same feeling when we visited Green River, Wyoming. For some reason, I had envisioned Green River as a sort of oasis where the Mountain Men came to rest and relax, but it’s a pretty hardscrabble place. My wife suggested there might be as many rail cars on sidings in the middle of town as there are residents.

The drive from Green River down the mountains to Salt Lake City certainly met expectations, with spectacular mountain scenery all the way.

So a mixed bag. Beautiful scenery interspersed with mineral extraction sites and pipelines with few people and lots of railroad trackage on the way to Salt Lake City, a general letdown when we got here.

Tomorrow, we drive up the mountain chain to Polson, Montana. Fortunately, they’ve been getting rain up that way today, which has washed some of the smoke from the firs west of there out of the air. We’re looking forward to visiting with friends there before we swing back east again as we return to the Midwest.

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Three…

Day 3 of our Undaunted Courage 2017 tour got off to a good start this morning at Laramie, Wyoming. Had a great shower and a good motel breakfast, and then hit the road west.

The last two days, we saw a number of utility repair trucks in groups of two or three headed east, probably either to Texas to help recovery from Hurricane Harvey or maybe all the way to Florida to get the electricity back on for the millions without it thanks to Hurricane Irma. But not today; not a bucket truck in sight all day as we headed farther west into the high plains.

We gradually left the rolling shortgrass plains behind and got into the land of buttes and coulees where there appeared to be a lot more horses and cattle than people. It’s empty country west of Laramie. And that isn’t just a feeling, either. Wyoming has about the same population as Kane County back home in northern Illinois, the county that borders my home county of Kendall to the north. And Kane is just one of 102 counties in Illinois, so wide-open spaces Wyoming certainly has.

2017 9-12 Ft Bridger, WY

No worries about whether I-80 might take a sudden turn on this stretch just past old Fort Bridger. And I bet you thought Montana was the Big Sky Country!

It was interesting seeing the name of Jim Bridger frequently popping up on the Wyoming map. Bridger was the quintessential mountain man who engaged in the fur trade both as a trapper and as a trader, acted as a guide for the U.S. Army, and helped guide wagon trains to Oregon and California. As we drove west on I-80, we traversed Bridger Pass, a route over the Continental Divide he discovered in 1850.

Hydrocarbon extraction is still big business in Wyoming, and we passed one huge open pit coal mine serviced by a busy rail line. In addition, oil wells and their accompanying storage tanks dot the landscape. But so do the wind farms that, along with solar and other renewable sources, will likely replace all that mining and well drilling.

We made a brief stop at Green River, Wyoming for lunch, and enjoyed great tacos, steak for me and fish for Sue, before we hit the road again. Green River was a popular rendezvous for the mountain men after the fur trade moved to the far west. No trapper worth his salt set out unless he had a Green Rive knife on his belt.

2017 9-12 Entering the Wasach

As we entered Utah’s Wasatch Range, we were still climbing, but a little later we started a steep descent. No topography like THIS back in northern Illinois!

After crossing the state line into Utah, I-80 makes a dramatic descent of what seemed to be roughly 1,000 feet from those high plains across which Clint Eastwood’s man with no name drifted down to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Driving it in clear, warm weather was exciting enough for us Illinois flatlanders. We could only imagine what it must be like during the winter when it’s snowing and blowing.

We made the drive in good time, managed to find our motel with only a couple glitches, arriving as we did during Salt Lake City’s afternoon rush hour, and then had a nice dinner with my aunt and my cousin and her husband. Tomorrow will be given over to resting up and doing some family history.

I’ll check in again when we get back on the road.

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Undaunted Courage 2017, Day Two…

So day two of our Undaunted Courage 2017 expedition to Salt Lake City and beyond saw us starting out from Lincoln, Nebraska. We stayed last night at the Lincoln Fairfield Inn, which offered one of the best motel breakfasts I believe I’ve had. Highly recommended.

I drove the first two-hour leg, and enjoyed the cheerful sunflowers growing in thick patches along I-80’s wide Nebraska shoulders.

Nebraska’s a lightly-populated state—its current population is less than the combined population of Kane, Will, and DuPage counties in northern Illinois—and it occurred to me as we drove west what a marvel the interstate highway system really is.

The initial construction project was certainly a marvel, especially with routes like I-80 as it negotiates Nebraska’s sparsely populated shortgrass prairies. Just marshaling the construction equipment and building materials, especially the concrete, in some of the nation’s least populated regions must have been a lot like the logistics planning it took to win World War II.

It took decades from the initial pitch of the idea for the nation’s interstate system to become a reality thanks to the strong push the idea got from President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower cannily touted the system as part of the nation’s life or death struggle with worldwide Communism—authorization came in the National Interstate and Highways Defense Act. Ike didn’t invent the concept, but he made sure it got pushed through and begun as what became the nation’s biggest public construction project ever.

Russia is often compared to the U.S. in terms of it’s vast spaces and wealth of raw materials. But Russia has always suffered from its lack of a national highway system. There is no such thing as a transcontinental Russian highway, much less a continent-spanning superhighway system like we have in the U.S.

Lincoln Highway badgeWe, on the other hand, started experimenting with cross-continent highways more than a century ago when the Lincoln Highway Association was organized in 1912. The highway’s boosters envisioned it as an all-weather hard road running from New York’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Today, I-80 parallels the old Lincoln Highway—basically today’s U.S. Route 30—right across the western prairies. And the long-established U.S. Routes 34 and 6 are also close at hand. The thing is, a transcontinental highway is not only challenging to build, but also requires an extensive on-going support infrastructure of motor vehicle service stations, hotels and motels, restaurants, and all the other things we expect to find when we travel. The whole thing really is a modern marvel, one that is so amazingly ubiquitous in this country that everyone takes it for granted.

The idea of communicating from coast to coast, or at least all the way across the vast western plains, is far more than a century old, of course. For instance, the I-80 also parallels the route of the old Pony Express. One of history’s greatest publicity stunts, the Pony Express carried messages—NOT the U.S. Mail—for 19 months between April 3, 1860 to October 1861 in a bid for the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to win a government mail contract. While it garnered lots of publicity it failed to persuade the government to grant the company a mail contract. And it was ultimately killed because stagecoach lines and the coming of the telegraph made it superfluous.

Fort Laramie

Fort Laramie as it looked in 1837 near the end of the fur trade era. Painting by Jacob Miller.

We were also interested to note that our trip west is paralleling yet another historic route, that of the Oregon Trail.

And tonight, we find ourselves not far from the site of old Fort Laramie where so many mountain men exchanged furs for money and so many emigrant wagon trains paused to rest and refit on their way west. Knowing a bit of the history of the region through which you’re traveling isn’t necessary, I suppose, but it certainly makes for more fun on the road.

Tomorrow, it’s on to the city by the Great Salt Lake.

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It’s summer on the prairie once again in the Prairie State

It’s mid summer here on the Illinois prairie, and the cast of floral characters has changed from the cheery blooms of early spring to the whites of field daisies and blues of spiderwort and chicory as we close in on August.

A surprising number of the species of wildflowers we see along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and in abandoned cemeteries are the same ones that brightened the year of the first settlers on the prairie. They were a determined bunch, those early pioneers, who had been forced to adapt to an entirely new way of settling a frontier that offered few of the ingredients for the tried and true methods of early American settlement.

So it would have been interesting to have been able to listen in on the conversations that must have taken place as the tide of settlement finally reached western Indiana. Because there, pioneers ran out of the dense woodlands of the Eastern forest and looked out across the vast, mostly treeless expanse of tallgrass prairie that gently rolled west from the eastern edge of the Prairie Peninsula as far as the eye could see.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the technology of pioneering western lands was well established.

Using the abundant timber in the sprawling Eastern deciduous forest that stretched from northern New England to central Florida, all the way west to the Mississippi River, log cabins and outbuildings were built based on a design brought to the New World by Swedish settlers in the 1600s. Fields and pastures were enclosed with Virginia rail fences, with rails split from logs from the trees that had to be cleared to plant crops. Trees were girdled—stripped of bark in a belt around the circumference of the trunk—to kill them and the next year a crop of sorts could be planted among the standing trunks. Then the backbreaking work began to cut down the dead timber and chop, dig, and lever stumps out of the ground.

It was a technology well understood, if extremely labor intensive.

Historic prairies in the USNobody, even today, is entirely sure what created the giant, horizontal V-shaped expanse of grassland that stretches west from western Indiana and includes much of Illinois, a lot of Iowa and Missouri, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Illinois Geological Survey notes, the Prairie Peninsula’s soil and climate is perfectly capable of supporting forests, and indeed miniature hardwood forests—called groves by the pioneers—dotted the tallgrass prairies.

Fire is one obvious answer to the conundrum. During the settlement era of the 1830s, fierce prairie fires roared over the prairies driven by the prevailing westerly winds, consuming anything combustible in their paths, including trees that were not fire resistant or tolerant. During the settlement era, these fires were entirely natural in nature, caused by early spring and late fall thunder storms. But scientists and anthropologists also have come to agree that in the pre-settlement era, prairie fires were set on purpose by the Native People who lived on the prairies. The reasons ranged from aids to hunting to clearing brush from wooded savannas to encourage the growth of desirable species and to increase grazing areas for game animals, particularly deer. Deer are creatures of the edges of forests, and periodic fires maintained the open woodlands that encouraged the growth of saplings and other plants deer prefer.

Whatever or whoever created them, the prairies must have caused many a pioneer to stop, scratch their head, and wondered to themselves, “What now?” Because there just wasn’t enough timber out on the prairies to sustain the traditional timber-centric pioneer settlement technology.

Granted, the lack of trees wasn’t all bad. No backbreaking tree and stump removal was required, and prairie soil was incredibly rich. But timber stands were only found in and around wetlands and along stream courses. Smart early settlers quickly snapped up the groves dotting the prairies, then subdividing them into small woodlots for sale to later arrivals.

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

This detail of AuSable Grove from the 1870 Oswego Township plat map illustrates how many of the county’s groves were divided into small woodlots and sold to individual farm families.

James Sheldon Barber, who arrived at Oswego in December 1843 wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, New York, that it was generally agreed that a farmer needed a 10-acre woodlot to provide sufficient timber for fences and buildings and for firewood.

The lack of timber only got worse as the tide of settlement rolled farther west, until it reached the shortgrass prairies starting in western Iowa. From there on west, trees were virtually nonexistent.

To cope with the lack of timber, within a decade and a half of the first settlers arriving on the Illinois prairie, new technologies were developed to deal with the problem, chief among them being the timber-conserving balloon frame construction technique that used sawn lumber for building construction instead of logs.

The surprise bordering on awe in which the open, rolling grasslands of the Prairie Peninsula were greeted by our pioneering ancestors stayed with them the rest of their lives. The shear openness across which travelers could see for miles and where the sky seemed limitless—huge changes from the claustrophobic Eastern forests—proved a challenge for some and an incredible delight for others.

In 1834, former sea captain Morris Sleight traveled west from his home in New York to prospect for a likely place to settle, eventually reaching the small settlement along the DuPage River that would one day become Naperville. On July 9, he wrote to his wife, Hannah back in New York, of his impressions when he first encountered the tallgrass prairie: “The first view of a Michigan Prairie is Delightfull after Passing the oak openings & thick forest, but the first view of an Illinois Prairie is Sublime, I may almost say awfully Grand, as a person needs a compass to keep his course—but the more I travel over them the better I like them. There is a great variety of Flowers now on the Prairies, but they tell me in a month from this time they will be much prettier.”

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

Junius Sloan captured this image of his parents’ farm in this 1866 oil painting, which gives a rough idea of what the Illinois prairie was like 150 years ago. The farm was located near Kewanee in Henry County. The original painting is owned by the Kewanee Historical Society.

Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted: “Nothing could be more delightful than the open prairies. They were covered with a giant blue-stem grass in the late summer. A party of hunters in 1821 found some so high that a horseman could tie the ends over the top of his head. The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In midsummer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters.”

Harriet Martineau, the distinguished British lecturer, visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the area west of Batavia: “I saw for the first time the American Primrose. It grew in. profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty…the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful.”

The New Englanders who began arriving on the Kendall County prairie in large numbers in the late 1830s were astonished by what they found.

Wrote Oliver C. Johnson, a descendant of early settlers Seth and Laureston Walker, who arrived in Kendall County from Massachusetts about 1845: “When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left.”

Their first introduction to the Illinois prairie sometimes left settlers speechless. Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego’s Nineteenth Century Club, recalled in a 1905 lecture: “No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego…The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll—a sort of Lovers’ Lane, in fact.”

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Goose Lake Prairie State Park south of Morris provides beautiful views year round, but is especially showy this time of year when the summer wildflowers strut their stuff.

James Sheldon Barber, noted above, traveled with a wagon train of friends from Smyrna, New York overland to Oswego in the late fall and early winter of 1843. After the dense forests of his home state and the other regions he’d traveled through, he marveled in a letter to his parents after arriving in Oswego: “How would it seem to you to [travel] 10 or 15 miles & not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a Stump. & so level that you could see a small house at the farthest side & then again there [are] Paurairies [sic] in this state where you may [travel] for 2 or 3 days & not see a tree nor anything of the kind.”

But all that wild beauty left other impressions as well, especially loneliness among the pioneer wives who arrived with their families.

In 1833, Chester and Lucinda (Wheeler) House arrived in what would become Kendall County’s Seward Township, staking a claim on the west bank of AuSable Creek where Chester built their log cabin. As the Rev. E.W. Hicks, the county’s first historian, described the House cabin in 1877: “It was a home, though so different from the comfortable surroundings that were left behind; and not only a home, but a frequent resting place for the traveler, and a beacon light, for persons were so often lost on the prairie that through the whole of the ensuing winter on dark nights Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”

William and Mary Young arrived in Chicago from England in 1835. In 1877, she explained Rev. E.W. Hicks how the couple made their way to Kendall County: “Mr. Young found work in a wagon shop during the winter, and there Isaac Townsend, being in Chicago, happened to meet him, and asked him if he would like to go out into the country. Mr. Young said yes, for he had the ague [malaria] very hard in Chicago. So we came out here [NaAuSay Township] in February. 1836. Mr. Townsend lived with Major Davis, and when we arrived, the wife of an Irishman who was keeping house for them said to me, ‘O, I am glad to see a woman, for I have not seen one for three months!’ Well, thinks I, we have got into a wilderness now, sure enough. However, we stood it better than I had feared, though we did have some times that were pretty hard.”

More and more settlers arrived on the prairies west of Chicago founding towns and villages, and as the country grew up around those early settlers the prairie plants disappeared under carpets of cultivated crops. Today, thanks to efforts began decades ago, area residents can get at least a glimpse of what the countryside looked like during the settlement era at prairie restorations throughout Illinois.

In fact, there’s a 45-acre prairie restoration right here in Kendall County at Silver Springs State Park with a one-mile nature trail winding through the big bluestem grass and prairie plants. A bigger chunk of prairie is not far away at Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County not far south of the Grundy-Kendall line. Nearly four square miles in area, Goose Lake Prairie includes some true native prairie along with thousands of acres of restored prairie.

Buffalo at Midewin

No, this isn’t Montana, it’s a typical scene of the Bison Restoration area of Midwen National Tallgrass Prairie on the old site of the Joliet Arsenal. Bison were introduced to the prairie in 2105.

Goose Lake is impressive, but to get a better idea of what the Illinois prairie really looked like, you need to visit the U.S. Forest Service’s 30 square mile Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the old U.S. Army Arsenal site near Joliet. Not that all 30 square miles are pristine tallgrass prairie, of course. Midewin is definitely a prairie restoration work in progress, but it is a work that is progressing nicely to create a sizeable island of native prairie in the middle of the vigorous population and commercial growth our region has been undergoing for several decades now. And best of all, since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has been reintroducing American bison at Midewin to help eventually create a true native prairie ecology. You can even enjoy watching the buffalo roam on the Midewin Bison Cam.

Besides their aesthetic attributes—spring on an Illinois prairie really is nearly indescribable—restored prairies limit and filter stormwater runoff, protect threatened species of both plants and animals, help recharge groundwater aquifers, and remove carbon from the atmosphere—a not inconsequential result in this day and age of global climate change.

And now in this long journey we’ve taken, from prairie to pioneer settlement to development and vigorous population growth, we’ve finally begun to see the value of connecting the circle back again to prairie here in the Prairie State.

 

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