Category Archives: Environment

Sitting back and watching as entire eras come and go…

I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.

Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.

Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.

In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.

Lyle Shoger picking corn by hand near the end of the era of farming with horses about 1930 just off Route 34 west of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.

One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.

In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.

The author test-drives a new IH Farmall tractor at the Wheatland Plowing Match about 1950.

I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.

But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.

But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.

The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.

It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.

The author, co-piloting the Matile Farm Case tractor with his father at the controls, about 1949.

Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.

We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.

Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.

In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.

We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.

But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.

Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.

During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.

As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”

A size comparison: My nephew poses with his classic old Farmall tractor and with one of the kinds of giant machines they use these days that dwarf anything used back in the heyday of diversified farming.

That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.

The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.

And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.

Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.

Subdivision under construction in Oswego just as the housing bust hit in 2009. In the early 2000’s Kendall County, partly driven by Oswego’s growth, was the fastest growing county in the nation. The pause in construction caused by the lending crisis in 2009 has now largely disappeared and construction in the area is again booming. (Ledger-Sentinel photo by John Etheredge)

That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.

Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.

I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.

Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.

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Filed under Environment, family, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “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,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

Local history is just full of mysteries…

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of our region’s historical—and even prehistorical—mysteries because I think the origins of people, places, and things are always fun to uncover.

One of the most obvious questions for those of us living in the Fox River Valley is “Where did the Fox River come from?” For many, I suspect, it’s not an obvious question at all, though. Most of us accept the region’s landscape as a given, figuring it’s always been the way it is now. But that’s not true.

Up until around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had covered our area with a couple thousand feet of ice, but then it began to retreat northwards. A deep glacial meltwater lake filled behind the high moraine ridge the glacier’s last advance created until one day, all those thousands of years ago, the water broke through that natural dam.

The last glacier to advance out of the north covered about half of Illinois. In the Fox Valley, the ice was about 2,000 feet thick.

The almost unimaginably ferocious flood rampaged south, quickly–at least in geological terms–scouring today’s Fox River Valley into the landscape.

The Fox River Torrent left a valley that ranged from wide and shallow at its northernmost end to narrower and deeper where it joined the Illinois River, which itself had been created by the Kankakee Torrent that had rampaged southwesterly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Over the years, the land formerly covered by those giant ice sheets gradually rebounded as the weight of the ice was removed, allowing both the Fox and the Illinois rivers to further erode their valleys.

It’s fascinating to contemplate what those torrents must have looked like, had any humans been around to see them.

Back to local historical mysteries, why wasn’t the Fox River used as a canoe route during the fur trade? A person would think the Fox would have been a perfect cutoff for the fur traders as they paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan from their posts at Green Bay. The source of the Fox is located a bit northwest of Milwaukee and is reachable by a relatively short portage from the Root River that empties into Lake Michigan near Racine.

But while the Fox looks pretty promising on maps, in reality, it’s always been a wide, relatively slow, and shallow stream, especially in its upper reaches. Not until it got south of modern Yorkville did the river deepen much at all, despite having a fairly substantial fall along that stretch. And especially in the summer and during dry autumns, the river was extremely shallow.

So, the Fox wasn’t used as a fur trade route because it just wasn’t the right kind of river for canoeing most of the year.

The era of settlement in what became the Fox River Valley started in the late 1820s. Where my hometown of Oswego is located here in mid-valley, settlement didn’t start until after the Black Hawk War of 1832.

The largest group of our county’s earliest settlers came overland from Ohio through Indiana. The second largest group arrived at Chicago on Lake Michigan, having sailed out here, mostly from the port of Buffalo at the terminus of the Erie Canal. The smallest group came up from the south having migrated west from Virginia and the Carolinas to Tennessee and Kentucky and then north.

Creating farms by plowing the sod on Oswego’s prairies began in the early 1830s

Why did those settlers leave their homes back East? For most, especially those from New England and the Middle Atlantic States, it was the search for better, cheaper land. For the Southerners, it was following the frontier as it moved west. New England’s farmland, along with that in New York, famously featured thin, rocky soil. In Pennsylvania, most of the best land had already been taken up and improved by the 1840s and 1850s, meaning it was expensive.

Meanwhile, land on the Illinois frontier of the 1830s was rich with deep black soil. The Prairie Peninsula, a vas, triangular-shaped region of rolling tallgrass prairie extending from northwestern Indiana all the way west to eastern fractions of modern North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas drew farmers because no timber needed to be laboriously cleared to start farming. Granted, that thick prairie sod had to be broken with specialized plows, a relatively expensive proposition that often cost as much as the land itself. And that lack of timber also meant that traditional frontier settlement methods using log buildings and rail fences often either couldn’t be used or created the additional expense of purchasing woodlots.

And then there was the price of that land, sold through government land offices as soon as it had been officially surveyed. The government price was $1.25 per acre, which was even cheap back then. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just $45 an acre in 2023 dollars. But, the price had to be paid in hard cash, no paper money allowed. And that was often difficult in those early days.

So, okay, cheap, high-quality land was for sale as the frontier moved west from Indiana, but why did settlers decide to move here in particular?

Most early accounts note our county’s earliest settlers came west literally prospecting for land. The Rev. E.W. Hicks in his history of Kendall County written in 1877 described one of these prospecting trips by two of the county’s earliest settlers: “Among those who came out prospecting in the spring of 1831 were Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan from New York. They descended the Ohio to the Mississippi, and then up to St. Louis, where buying ponies, they followed the banks of the Illinois river to Ottawa, and up the Fox to Yorkville. Reining up their horses on the present Court House Hill, they gazed on the lovely stream below them, the wide, beautiful prairies beyond them, and the timber behind them. The green was dotted with flowers, the birds sang in the branches, and a group of deer stood gazing at the strangers from the edge of a hazel thicket some distance away. Here,” thought Mr. Adams, “is my home,” and dismounting he drove his stake in the soil and took possession. Following up the river about two miles farther, they came to a creek, where Mr. Morgan halted and made his own claim. This done, they passed up to Chicago, sold their ponies, and returned home by way of the lakes.”

Adams and Morgan couldn’t get back to the land they’d claimed for a couple years, opening the way for others to be considered the earliest settlers in what’s today northern Kendall County.

In the summer of 1832, members of the extended Pearce family, Oswego’s first settlers, walked west in Champaign County, Ohio looking for likely land to settle. Possibly drawn here by reports back from Elijah Pearce’s son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter, who was familiar with the Fox and DuPage River valleys, they decided it was worth moving west to settle.

The Pearce family had started their westward trek in their home state of Maryland. They first emigrated through what’s now West Virginia and then settled for a decade or so along the Mad River in Champaign County, Ohio. After returning from their prospecting trip, the Pearces sold their Ohio farms and brought their families west to our Fox River Valley in 1833 by covered wagons pulled by oxen. Daniel Pearce settled along Waubonsie Creek on what’s now Oswego’s Fox Bend Golf Course. His brother-in-law and sister, William and Rebecca Wilson built their cabin at what’s now the busy intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Ill. Route 25 in downtown Oswego, while brothers John and Walter Pearce and their families settled on the west side of the river. Brother Elijah settled near his son-in-law and wife at what is now Montgomery in Kane County, north of Oswego.

Many of those early settlers didn’t stay put, however, but moved on as the mood struck them. Elijah Pearce and William Wilson and their families, for instance, only stayed along the Fox River for a few years before moving to Big Rock Creek near Plano, where they built a sawmill. They sold the mill in 1838 and headed west to Missouri and Iowa.

And speaking of mills, why did the Fox River have more mills than any other Illinois river? According to the Fox River Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams. The river was dammed at the following places: Ottawa, Dayton, Sheridan, Millington (Milford), Millbrook, Millhurst, Yorkville, Oswego, Montgomery, Aurora, two sites between Aurora and North Aurora, North Aurora, South Batavia, Batavia, Geneva, a site between Geneva and St. Charles (perhaps), St. Charles, South Elgin, Elgin, Dundee, Carpentersville, Algonquin, a site three miles below McHenry, and McHenry.”

In 1888, the Fox River dam at Montgomery was powering two mills located along the millrace. Of the two, Gray’s Mill (near the end of the millrace above) is still standing today. The millrace was filled in but can still be seen in Montgomery Park. (clip from Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, 1888)

And that list doesn’t even include mills on the Fox River’s tributaries. Here in Kendall County, mills were built (as noted above) on Big Rock Creek and also on Little Rock Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Waubonsie Creek. So it appears we can thank the Fox River Torrent for creating a river valley so conducive to building dams to provide water power for mills.

The above are all interesting questions, but how about a real mystery? Like, for instance, who killed William Boyd.

On Thanksgiving night, 1859, Kendall County attorney, land dealer, businessman, and former newspaper publisher William P. Boyd was working late at his office in the village of Bristol, now the north side of Yorkville. As he worked away that evening, a person unknown stealthily aimed through Boyd’s office window and fired a shot, badly wounding him.

Boyd’s death capped an eventful life. He came to Kendall County from Kentucky with his parents in 1838. They settled near modern Newark in Fox Township. Boyd’s father, John, farmed, while William, who had already read law, helped but also engaged in business. In March 1840, he cemented relations with one of the county’s best-known families when he married Sarah Ann Hollenback.

Hollenback, writing in 1914, recalled of his brother-in-law: “Boyd was a born leader, a man of strong personality and great persuasive powers among his following. He was capable of swaying the riff raff crowd as best suited his purpose.”

A few years later, Boyd moved to Oswego, which had become the Kendall County seat in 1845. There he practiced law and engaged in land speculation, plus investing in other businesses. He and his wife also apparently ran a rooming house. In the 1850 U.S. Census for Oswego Township, the value of Boyd’s property was set at $10,000, a considerable fortune for the era.

In 1850 when the General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties to adopt the township supervisor form of government, as opposed to the commission form, Boyd was named one of three commissioners who divided Kendall County into its current nine political townships in accord with the recently passed state law.

Boyd bought the Kendall County Courier, the county seat paper, published in Oswego, from Abraham Sellers in 1855. He changed its political orientation from neutral to a paper supporting the Democratic Party under the editorship of Alexander P. Niblo, a former Newark resident. That move led the county’s Republicans to persuade the Courier’s former editor and publisher, Hector S. Humphrey, to establish a competing Republican paper, the Kendall County Free Press. The Courier supported Buchanan in the 1856 Presidential election. And while Buchanan won, public sentiment had already trended Republican in Kendall County, and Boyd was forced to close the Courier and sell its press and type to an Iowa paper.

By 1859, perhaps sensing voters were in favor of moving the county seat back to Yorkville, Boyd and his wife and children moved to the village of Bristol, just across the river from where the new courthouse would be built during the upcoming Civil War. And it was there that Boyd met his violent end.

Although mortally wounded, Boyd hung on until Jan. 5, 1860 when he died. Hollenback recalled years later: “The identity of his assassin was never discovered. The excitement of the trial and execution of [abolitionist John] Brown for a time dwarfed everything else. The assassination of Boyd had been so deftly accomplished there was little that could be done, and nothing was done by the Grand Jury of Kendall County.”

In what is undoubtedly Kendall County’s coldest case, Boyd’s murder is still unsolved after 163 years.

So you like history’s mysteries? As you can see, we’ve got plenty right here in the Middle Fox Valley. Some we’ve solved, and some we haven’t. What’s a local historical mystery that’s piqued your interest?

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

Sat down in my small office here at History Central this morning and was treated to the scene of hundreds of Canada Geese sitting out on the ice shelf that grew in the Fox River’s main channel during our recent bitter cold spell.

The view from my home office window this morning. That black strip out on the other side of the trees on the island is several hundred geese enjoying northern Illinois’ latest cold snap by sitting on the ice.

And it occurred to me how much I love and appreciate this old river.

My family has owned the spot I’m sitting on right now since 1908 when my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town. They picked out four lots in the old, never incorporated Village of Troy on the east bank of the Fox River of Illinois about a half-mile above the Village of Oswego.

This photo by Irvin Haines shows the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory at right, North Adams Street (called Water Street back then) and, just a few yards upstream from the mill, the vacant lots where my sister built our current house in 1985.

They probably picked the site because it was right next door to my great-great-grandparents’ house and just a short distance south of my great-grandmother’s sister’s house.

They contracted with my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build their steep-roofed story-and-a-half Queen Anne-style retirement home on the two lots on the east side of Troy’s Water Street—now Oswego’s North Adams Street. And he did a great job, too. The house (now where my son and wife live) is still as sound and sturdy as the day my great-grandparents moved in, in October 1908.

The Lantz House Irvin Haines built for my great-grandparents, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

They reserved the two lots west of Water Street lying on the east bank of the river for grazing room for their cow and driving horse, and gardening.

The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory was located right next door to the north of those two lots, separated by the 66-foot wide Third Street right-of-way, which had been platted as part of Troy but never completed. The sawmill, whose power was provided by the adjoining dam across the river, had served the Oswego community for several years before William Parker added the furniture factory to process the numerous Black Walnut trees in the community into chairs, tables, and various kinds of chests.

At some point, the mill and furniture factor had burned down, leaving behind the remains of the building’s thick flagstone foundation and the millrace that had powered the turbines that, in turn, powered the entire operation.

Meanwhile, across the river at the west end of the dam, the Parker Gristmill had ground local farmers’ grain into flour and meal before being closed down around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 1920s, Irvin Haines (yes, the same person who built my great-grandparents’ house) dismantled the mill and used the timber, sawn lumber, and foundation stones to remodel the old Seely Barn at the west end of the Oswego Bridge into the Turtle Rock Tearoom—which is still standing and is today a private home.

The old dam washed out sometime around the first or second decade of the 20th Century, never to be rebuilt.

Upon my great grandparents’ death during World War II, their house passed on to my grandparents. My aunt and uncle moved into the house during the war and then in 1955 my parents bought it when they were forced to quit farming due to my dad’s poor health. We moved off the farm in December that year and I began my love affair with the river.

The Fox River (of Illinois; the Fox River of Wisconsin empties into Green Bay), 202 miles long, has its source northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the river flows 84 miles past Brookfield, Waukesha, Big Bend, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake and Wilmot before crossing the border into Illinois at the north end of the chain of six lakes on the border between Lake and McHenry counties. From there it flows generally south and slightly west to its mouth on the Illinois River near Starved Rock at Ottawa.

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map of the Old Northwest showing the Illinois River and the first mention of the modern name of the Fox River I’ve been able to find. (Indian Villages of Illinois, Vol. II, Atlas and Supplement, Sara Jones Tucker)

The Native People living along the river when the French arrived in the Illinois River Valley in 1673 called the river Pestequouy, the Algonquian-speaking peoples’ word for the American Bison. That indicated that by then buffalo were common on the prairies along the river’s course. After LaSalle’s efforts at colonizing the Illinois River Valley in the early 1680s, the Fox became known among the French as the River of the Rock. The French had named the landmark Starved Rock simply “The Rock.” Near the end of the 17th Century, the French moved their trading operations south to Lake Peoria on the Illinois River. It was after that period that the Fox River got its modern name, most likely named after the Fox Tribe, some groups of which lived along its northern reaches in the early 1700s.

Between 1764 and 1775, fter the British won the French and Indian War, Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled the area that eventually became the Old Northwest Territory with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, the Fox River was finally given its modern name. The name was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

The villages of Native People in northern Illinois as of about 1830, just as settlement was about to explode in the Fox River Valley. The river is picked out in green on this map. (Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History)

The Fox Valley was a rich place used as a hunting ground by the member tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. When the Illinois gradually lost population and power in the early 18th Century, interrelated bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes created the Three Fires Confederacy and moved from their homelands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to fill the vacuum in the Fox Valley. These were the people living in the river valley when the first White settlers began arriving in the late 1820s.

The Three Fires and their cousins who had been living along the river for a few thousand years had manipulated the landscape to maintain the prairies and open wooded savannas that characterized the area when those White settlers arrived. That also included changing the river itself by building weirs to trap fish that tended to change water flows and create new islands and other features. But when the Whites showed up, they began making much more profound changes to the river and the prairies and hardwood groves in its watershed.

Drainage of wetlands that dotted the prairies, most of which were the remnants of Ice Age lakes, began as soon as pioneer farmers arrived and continued as new technologies were brought to bear. This had the beneficial effect of sharply cutting the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hordes of biting flies. But it also led to the more rapid runoff of stormwater, leading to larger and more frequent floods on the Fox River.

Laying clay tile to drain wetlands on the Oswego Prairie east of the Village of Oswego abut 1900. The tile run went through a ridge on its way to empty into Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In addition, the groves were cut to provide firewood and building materials and the prairies were plowed and turned into cropland. That led to more soil erosion and the once-clear river was turned into a muddy stream.

But those changes didn’t hold a candle to the effect the dams the region’s pioneer millwrights threw across the river to power sawmills and gristmills. According to The Fox River Area Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River became the most dammed stream in Illinois…The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams.” According to the assessment, 25 dams dotted the river’s course at one time or another, including at Oswego, Millington, Millbrook, Millhurst, and Yorkville here in Kendall County.

Noted the assessment’s authors, “The Fox River probably produced more hydro-power than all other streams in Illinois put together, excluding the Rock River. In addition to sawing wood and grinding grain, these mills ran factories. The Fox River Valley became more heavily industrialized than any other area of comparable size in Illinois.”

The dams themselves created problems. The dead water behind them—none of them except one in the Chain of Lakes were built with floodgates that would all the current to cleanse the river bottom behind them. As a result, the mill ponds up and down the river quickly filled with silt, covering the gravel gamefish preferred to lay their eggs. The dams also prevented fish from migrating to other spawning grounds.

The decline in gamefish, particularly, was noted and everyone from the U.S. Fish Commission to local angling clubs tried to fix the situation by stocking the Fox with a dizzying variety of fish, from Rainbow Trout to German Carp. Needless to say, the trout didn’t survive, but the carp certainly did, displacing native species and with their feeding habits contributing to the river’s already serious turgidity.

But it was the Fox Valley’s industrialization, which continued well after hydro power was economical, that caused the most severe problems. Instead of a source of power the river became viewed as a convenient dump for all manner of industrial waste. Especially starting when manufacturing coal gas became popular for home lighting, heating, and cooking the pollution of the river began spiking. And, of course, citizens in the growing towns along the river contributed by dumping their own, often untreated, sewage into the river.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

By a century ago the problem had become acute. The Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on May 17, 1922: “In spite of all efforts which have been made in previous years and laws which have been passed by the legislature, the pollution of Fox River continues to make the waterway a menace to health. The Fox is a beautiful stream. The fishing in years gone past has been good and the boating in some places enjoyable. But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

But the industrial interests had the money to buy as many politicians as needed to keep any meaningful change from taking place. As a result, when we moved into my great-grandparents’ house in 1955, the river was in even worse shape than ever. Within a couple years, chemical factories upstream dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killing just about every living creature in the Fox from Aurora to Yorkville. During the first episode, we counted more than 500 dead fish along my parents’ riverbank.

We spent summers on and along the river in those years, but were always careful to wear our “river shoes” when wading to avoid stepping on broken glass or scrap metal that could provide a nasty cut in the polluted water. We enjoyed our river scows, too. From my office window, I look right at the bit of riverbank where some long-dead relative installed a large iron staple in concrete where I’d chain up my boat.

Fishing was fun, but it was strictly “catch and release” for us long before the term came into vogue. One look at the stunted Black Bullheads, Catfish, and Bluegills, often with lesions (that proved to be cancerous when studied) on them, prevented us from wanting to eat any of them.

Ice skating on the Fox River at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek about 1920. (Little White School Museum collection)

Still, the river valley was a great place to grow up. Winters were colder then, with -20° F. cold snaps not uncommon, which meant the river provided some great ice skating. Trudging down to the riverbank to sit on a handy log to change into my skates was a treat all winter. In fact, I’d often go skating for an hour or so before school. And I only fell through the ice once, and since it only involved one leg getting wet, I decided that discretion was probably a good idea and never bothered my parents with the details.

After the annual spring flood was over, it was back aboard our flat-bottomed river scows. When I became fascinated with the Age of Sail I talked my mother into sewing canvas sail and then built the necessary rigging for my boat, installed leeboards and even managed to sail upstream with the rig.

The memorial to Jim Phillips celebrating his efforts to save the nation’s air and water from pollution, acting as his alter-ego, “The Fox.” The memorial is on the banks of the Fox River in Oswego’s Violet Patch Park just off Ill. Route 25. The memorial, signed with the “cartoon”Fox” Phillips used to advertise his exploits, honors his activities and also illustrates the positive changes his activities prompted.

Then things began to change, thanks to activists like Jim Phillips who weren’t afraid to tackle all the money paying for politicians to ignore the river’s pollution. Acting as his secret identity of “The Fox,” Jim began waging a campaign against polluters using a brilliant combination of humor and public relations to shine a light on what was going on. His exploits were picked up by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, the local press, and even National Geographic. His exploits, such as dumping the Lake Michigan outflow from a U.S. Steel coking plant onto the pristine white carpeting of the corporate offices in downtown Chicago and plugging untreated industrial effluent pipes emptying into local creeks and the Fox River itself, helped lead to a national reassessment of what we were doing to our own environment.

And, since that was the era when politicians could still work together for the greater good of society in general, that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon as well as similar agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels as well.

Today, the Fox River I look at out of my office window (which, by the way, is situated about where center field was back in the day when this was a vacant lot that housed the neighborhood baseball diamond and go-cart track) and see hundreds of Canada Geese and know that come spring the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass anglers will be back with a vengeance, it really gives me a good feeling. Seeing something that was so distressed that even as an eight year-old I knew it was in serious trouble recover to become something so unbelievably valuable as a recreational and natural areas resource is more satisfying than just about anything else I can think of.

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It was great being a kid at Christmastime in the 1950s

‘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.

Taken back during the winter of 2021 out of my office window, ducks and geese congregate on the Fox River. Totally absent in the 1950s, the birds are common sights these days.

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.

Snapped a shot of this guy last winter sitting in a tree on the far side of the island right off our stretch of riverbank.

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.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

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’ small farmhouse. The three windows on the left were in the long, narrow dining room.

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.

The author on the blue Schwinn he bought for $5, ready for a 1950s Oswego Memorial Day Parade. Flags were the main decorations that year. We all got coupons for a free root beer at the Kopper Kettle restaurant.

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.

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Water-powered mills, once a familiar sight,  have nearly disappeared from the landscape

By the turn of the 20th Century, most of Kendall County’s old water-powered grist and sawmills had either completely disappeared or had switched to steam power.

That might seem puzzling given that the water powering all those mills was free, while steam engines require fuel of one kind or another that has to be purchased. As it turns out, though, while the water that powered mills might have been free, actually turning water into hydraulic power was pretty costly. Couple that with the economics of improved transportation and the economies of scale industrialization created, and it gets a lot easier to see why water-powered mills disappeared from the landscape.

Starting with the era of settlement in the 1830s, enterprising millwrights built sawmills and gristmills on almost every sizable stream in Kendall County. The Fox River had its share of mills of various kinds, of course, but so did local creeks including Blackberry, Morgan, Big Rock, and Waubonsie.

Dams were comprised of timber cribs staked to the stream bottom, filled with rocks and rubble, and then faced with timber. Illustration from Mill by David Macaulay, 1989.

According to the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, by 1846, Kendall County’s population totaled 5,600 people and “Their sawing and grinding was done by fourteen saw and grist mills.”

To create the waterpower to run their mills, millwrights first had to build dams. During that era, they were simple walls built across streams with no floodgates. The technology of the day called for putting together triangular timber frames that were than hauled into the stream and secured to the bottom with forged iron stakes. The open frames were then filled with rocks and rubble. The vertical upstream side of the dam was faced with planks to hold the rubble in place, while the slanted downstream side was also covered with planks to make a smooth surface for the water running over the dam.

1906 view of the Parker dam and gristmill taken from the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory on the east bank of the Fox River looking west. Note the damn’s plank facing. By this time, the mill had been long out of business and the dam was gradually being washed away. (Little White School Museum collection)

Millraces were dug around one or sometimes both ends of the dam and were generally faced with flagstone easily mined along the banks of the county’s streams. These millraces could be either simple, powering one mill or longer and more elaborate powering multiple mills. The long Montgomery millrace powered two mills, while the millrace at Yorkville powered Black’s paper mill as well as Yorkville’s first grain elevator via an overhead wire cable and pulley system.

1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map showing the wire cable and pulley system that powered the Walter & VanEmon’s Grain Elevator at Yorkville.

Here in Oswego, the dam was sort of anchored into the bedrock exposed on the two riverbanks. The mills were then built in such a way that their millraces ran through their basements, where the waterwheels, and later the turbines, were located. That had the advantage of eliminating the need for longer races that could be maintenance headaches. The gristmill on the west bank was built first, followed by the sawmill on the east bank. A furniture factory was eventually added to the sawmill. A small chest of drawers manufactured there is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The Parker Gristmill (far bank of the Fox River) and the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory (right) were located at opposite ends of the Oswego dam. Both ends of the dam were securely anchored in the bedrock on the banks of the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

The fast millrace water powered the millwheels. Because of our generally flat topography, many of our early mills used horizontal tub wheels although vertical undershot wheels that we generally think millwheels ought to look like were not uncommon, either. One county mill used an undershot wheel, powering equipment using water flowing under and not over it. Huge at 24-feet in diameter, the sawmill it powered was located on the Fox River at Millbrook.

The 1838 Federal survey map of Fox Township illustrates Jackson’s Mill at modern Millington nearly on the border with LaSalle County. The mill boasted a 24-foot undershot water wheel that powered both sawmill and gristmill equipment.

As soon as possible, those early tub and undershot wheels were replaced by turbines imported from back East. A later turbine wheel from Gray’s Mill is on exhibit near the riverbank in the park just upstream from the Mill Street Bridge in Montgomery.

Early on, sawmills were as, if not more important, than gristmills. They used vertical steel sawblades to cut local timber into lumber for buildings and fences. In the county’s oldest buildings the evidence of their vertical saw cuts are still clearly visible, looking much different than the spiral saw marks made by later circular sawblades.

The era of local sawmilling ended surprisingly soon as cheaper lumber began to flow into Chicago aboard sailing ships from Michigan and Wisconsin. The fate of Jackson’s Millbrook sawmill mentioned above was typical, as Hicks reported in 1877: “But the gang saws of Michigan and Wisconsin at last outstripped it, and left the aged frame to bleach in the sun until a year ago, when the spring freshet bore it away on its bosom to rest in a watery grave.”

Brownell Wing’s huge three-story limestone Millhurst gristmill is the only former water-powered mill still standing in Kendall County. Built in 1870, the mill never opened after the new Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road bypassed it by a mile to the southeast. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hicks’ comment above also points out one of the other downsides of the county’s water-powered mills—the cost of maintaining them in the face of annual floods, called freshets back in those days. Dams were damaged every year by the annual spring floods, and were sometimes–along with their adjacent mills–entirely destroyed by rampaging ice floes and high water during breakup.

As a result the dams also required constant maintenance. Those timber frames submerged in water tended to rot away and the upstream and downstream plank coverings had to be monitored continually, making for a lot of labor needed to make use of that “free” water. Couple that with the vagaries of water flow at various times of the year, and it becomes clear water power may not be such a hot power source after all. As the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on Aug. 21, 1879: “The water in the river is so low that the paper mill had to shut down Tuesday.”

The viability of local mills remained certain through the 1870s. After that two things tended to lead to their disappearance. First was the advent of affordable steam engines. When a steam engine could be installed and run the establishment with no need to maintain a dam, complicated turbines, or worry about low water levels, it made economic sense to switch power sources.

Looking north into Kane County on the Fox River from Bereman’s Curve on the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) towards the covered Montgomery Bridge and Gray’s Mill. The venerable old local landmark is one of the few former water-powered mills still standing along the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, the old mills closed down to be replaced by steam-powered mills in more convenient locations, which, in turn, were then made obsolete by the extension of rail lines through the county that carried farmers’ crops and livestock away and brought back manufactured materials, from wheat flour to sawn lumber, at prices no small local sawmill or gristmill could beat or even meet.

Photo probably taken about 1927 by Irvin Haines of the Parker Grist Mill, probably taken as he dismantled the mill provide timbers and other materials to rebuild the old Seely stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge into Turtle Rock Inn for Mr. and Mrs. James Curry. The Currys moved into Turtle Rock in November 1928. (Little White School Museum collection)

While some of the old mill buildings remained—especially ones like Gray’s Mill just north of the Kendall County line in Montgomery or Wing’s Mill In Kendall County’s Fox Township at Millhurst built of native limestone—others were washed away by floods, burned down, or were dismantled and their timbers reused for other purposes. The dams that provided their waterpower were gradually erased by annual spring floods and the breakup of ice in the spring. A few of the dams were maintained by companies that harvested ice from their millponds but the increasing pollution of the Fox River and the development of ice manufacturing equipment eliminated that use as well by the first decade of the 20th Century.

At low water on the Fox River, those with sharp eyes can often see some of the remaining timber frame members of the old mill dams–direct and tangible links to the era of pioneer millwrights and millers. The ones above, still staked to the river bottom, are the remains of the old Parker Dam at Oswego I photographed back in 2018.

Today, while some of those old dam and mill sites have been totally erased from the landscape, here and there their remains can still be seen if a person knows what they’re looking at—I can see the remains of a dam and the mills that stood at either end from my office window here in Oswego, for instance. And the remains of Montgomery’s long millrace are still visible as a swale extending along the riverbank above the Montgomery Bridge.

But for the most part it’s one more once-important Fox Valley business era that’s almost totally disappeared from our collective memory.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Chief Shabbona’s ghost still searching for justice 170 years after his land was stolen

For those of us interested in local history, it’s always fascinating when a bit of it pops up out of the time stream to intrude on modern life.

That’s what’s going on now as our friends west of the Fox Valley in DeKalb County find they’re having to deal with a bit of mid 19th Century chicanery that led to the illegal theft of land from one of the region’s most revered Native American leaders.

Ask someone to name a local Indian chief, and you’re likely to hear the names of either Waubonsee or Shabbona. Both men were influential leaders of their tribal groups and historically important, but it was Shabbona who was dubbed “Friend of the White Man” by the American settlers that flooded into northern Illinois after 1832. It wasn’t, however, necessarily a compliment from the viewpoint of Native Americans.

Ambrotype was made of “Chief Shaubonee” on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field. Little White School Museum collection.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington. The son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother, he grew to be just under 6 feet in height, and was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely with its pronunciation. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name variously spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena. There were undoubtedly many more.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac conceived of and then conducted 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River. The effort failed due to the disinterest of the French in getting reinvolved in a war with the British and the effective military response of British military officers.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, taking advantage of the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from their current homes in Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois where they settled along the Kankakee, Illinois, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

Waubonsee was the principal war chief of the Potawatomi tribal bands in northern Illinois. Little White School Museum collection.

The three tribal groups mixed and intermarried freely. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potowatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an ethnic Ottawa, was elevated to chief of that Potawatomi band upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires remained mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British, and it’s likely individual members of the confederacy may have participated on the British side.

After the Revolution, and despite the British crown ceding the region to the new United States, British military and trading forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military and political leader Blue Jacket.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won that battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict, suggesting he had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Despite that setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American defiance of U.S. government and economic control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the area northwest of the Ohio River—the Northwest Territory. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, when he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s political vision, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin lending his local prestige to recruit more members of the Wabash Confederacy.

The Native American nationalist leader Tecumseh was killed in action during the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812. Granger Collection, New York.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with local chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, like Wayne before him, Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

But just a year later, war again broke out again, this time between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its major theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs allied with the British and participated in the battle and subsequent Fort Dearborn massacre at Chicago. After the battle, Shabbona and Waubonsee both used their influence to save lives of several captured Americans.

Then they led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois to think things over. After much deliberation, he concluded further military opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1827, when the Winnebagoes decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities.

Shabbona’s reserve granted in the Treaty of 1829 was located in Section 23 and the west half of Section 26 and the east half of Section 25 of Somonauk Township, DeKalb County, Illinois. In this original U.S. Township Survey Plat, Shabbona Grove is outlined in green.

At least partly in return for his efforts to stop a shooting war, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove, and where the chief maintained his village. When the land was finally surveyed, it was legally described as Section 23 plus the east half of Section 26 and the west half of Section 25 of modern DeKalb County’s Shabbona Township.

Then Black Hawk’s band of Sauk and Foxes crossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois in the spring of 1832. This time, thanks largely to Illinois Gov. John Ford’s incompetent military and political leadership, an actual shooting war broke out, with both state militia and U.S. Army troops marching against Black Hawk’s group of roughly 1,200 men, women, and children.

Just as in 1827, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands officially out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful trying to keep individuals out of the war. Realizing the dangers angry individual members of the Three Fires posed when fighting broke out along Old Man’s Creek, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to either Ottawa or Chicago.

One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potawatomis in revenge for Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that in accord with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, all Native People were to be removed from Illinois, and in 1836, most were moved west of the Mississippi under threat of military force.

Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, although he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted for the benefit of himself and the Three Fires band he led. He returned to Illinois in 1837 and lived on his land at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been illegally sold at public auction. And the money from the sale, instead of being held in trust for him, apparently reverted to the government.

This 1871 plat book view of Shabbona Grove shows no evidence the chief used to own most of the grove. But it does show the numerous woodlots the grove has been subdivided into by settlers needing timber for firewood and building materials.

It’s never been adequately explained just how the theft of Shabbona’s land happened, either. After all, other reserves granted by various treaties—including two here in Kendall County—were owned until legally sold by their Native American owners, who were fairly paid for them. It’s also interesting, that official maps of Kendall County still sometimes show the outlines of those reserves, unlike Shabbona’s reserve in DeKalb, which was almost immediately erased from the region’s maps—almost like DeKalb’s leaders wanted to erase all evidence of the old chief’s ownership.

That the two sections of timber were extremely valuable to DeKalb County’s earliest settlers goes without saying. The county was almost entirely prairie with only a few groves, the largest of which was Shabbona’s grove. After its sale, early maps show that its new owners lost no time in subdividing the grove into dozens of valuable woodlots the settlers needed for building materials and firewood.

A few years later, a group of area citizens who remembered the contributions the old chief had made to the region bought him a small 20-acre farm near Seneca, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In an interesting historical sidelight, in 1858 he attended the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa where he reportedly greeted his old Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln, and where he was seated on the dais with the rest of the dignitaries.

Chief Shabbona’s granite marker purchased and emplaced by his former neighbors long after his death and the later plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1983.

Shabbona died on his farm July 17, 1859, and was buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery. For many years, his grave was unmarked, but then his old neighbors took up a collection to place a huge boulder on his grave with the simple inscription: SHABBONA 1775-1859. Finally, in September 1983, a bronze plaque, donated by the Illinois State Organization of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, was placed in front of the boulder with the inscription, “CHIEF SHABBONA – Born in 1775, this gentle man of peace, friend of white settlers, died July 17, 1859, near Morris, Grundy Co., Illinois.”

In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior, after years of study, finally decided that, yes, the old chief’s land was stolen from him all those years ago. They have been in talks with the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi, the logical heirs of Shabbona, as well as the current owners of the land stolen from the chief as well as the local governments involved ever since, to see how that wrong done so many years ago might be at least partially righted.

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One of agriculture’s once-busiest seasons has virtually disappeared from northern Illinois’ farm calendar…

Time was this time of year, farmers had mostly wrapped up the harvest of their small grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—and were looking towards threshing it. Because back then, those were two different, extremely labor-intensive processes.

Nowadays, of course, grain farmers use giant combines to harvest, thresh, and winnow small grain—if they’ve grown any of it, of course.

Farming’s changed considerably during the last 70 years. Back in 1950, almost all farming operations were diversified, meaning farms produced both grain and livestock, from cattle and hogs to sheep and poultry. These days, farms specialize in either grain or livestock. And for grain farmers—the vast majority of today’s farmers—the types of grain grown here in northern Illinois have changed considerably. While you can still spot a few fields of traditional small grains here and there, for the most part farmers around these parts today grow corn and soybeans. Oats, wheat, rye, and barley have mostly disappeared from the area’s agricultural landscape. But for a century after the settlement era, Kendall County produced a LOT of small grains, both for market and for use on the farm. Oats, in particular, were valuable, both as a cash crop and on the farm itself to feed the horses and mules to power the farm equipment of the era.

There was a huge settlement rush into northern Illinois in 1833. Known as “The Year of the Early Spring,” the weather warmed earlier than usual drying out what roads and trails there were and greening up the prairie grass providing ample forage for the teams of horses and yokes of oxen pulling the settlers’ wagons.

The crops those pioneer farmers planted were largely the same as the ones they’d grown back east. Corn was a staple, and so was wheat as well as oats, rye, and barley along with flax for making linen thread.

And while experiments had been ongoing for a long time on mechanizing parts of the farming process, about the only thing that could be called a machine they used was a plow. And the ones of that era were nothing to write home about, either. While their iron plowshares and wooden moldboards worked in the thin stony soils found back east, they proved inadequate when working in Illinois’ deep, rich loam. John Deere eventually solved the plow problem, which was a definite help, but that only put a shallow scratch in the problem of easing farmers’ backbreaking labor.

Harvesting grain with scythe and cradle.

Those small grains needed for survival on the prairie—wheat for flour, oats for food for both man and beast, rye for flour and whiskey, and barley for food as well as beer and whiskey—were terribly labor intensive to grow and harvest.

Grain seed was broadcast by hand and then worked into plowed ground with harrows after which it was a chore to keep birds and other critters from eating all of it. Then weeds had to be hoed out as the crop matured. When it did, the real work began. First the grain stalks had to be cut and gathered into bundles. That task was done with large sickles called scythes with contraptions consisting of flimsy wooden fingers called a cradle attached. An experienced farmer could cut the grain, gather the stalks on the fingers of the cradle, and lay them in a neat row behind him as he worked through an entire field. A good man with a scythe and cradle could cut up to two acres of grain a day.

Shocking oats. (Wisconsin Historical Society collection)

After it was cut, the grain had to be gathered into bundles, each tied with a stalk of grain in a backbreaking process of stoop labor. The bundles were then neatly piled in small stacks called shocks, with roofs created by skillful placing of other bundles to shed most of any rain to allow the grain in the shock to dry. And that wrapped up harvesting.

After the grain bundles in the shocks dried they had to be hauled up to the barn where the threshing process began. Barns of the era had threshing floors where the boards were tightly fitted to allow no grain to escape. The bundles were laid in a single layer on the floor and then beat with a flail to separate the wheat, oat, or other grain from the stalks and hulls. Stalks of the straw had to be removed by hand and stacked for later use as livestock bedding, with the grain swept up and put into bins or barrels.

But the grain was still intermixed with a lot of dust and hulls, so it had to be winnowed. Using large, flat baskets or trays, the grain was tossed into the air on a windy day allowing the breeze to blow the lighter chaff away from the heavier grain. Then the clean grain was stored in bins for use on the farm or put directly into sacks to be hauled to whatever market might have existed.

As settlement moved west, pioneer farmers left the dense woods of the east and entered the Prairie Peninsula. The huge tallgrass prairie region was a rough triangle stretching from northwestern Indiana northwest through Illinois, Iowa, and western Minnesota to extreme eastern North Dakota, then straight south to the Kansas-Oklahoma border and then east and north back to northwestern Indiana.

McCormick’s patented reaper. Daniel J. Townsend manufactured McCormick reapers under license in rural NaAuSay Township in 1847

The region was underlain with rich, deep soils created by the last glacier and, as its name implies, thickly covered with prairie grasses and other plants sometimes seven and more feet tall. It was a revelation to eastern farmers who’d had to wrestle every acre out of dense forests, an area conducive to much larger farms. But there were problems.

First, labor was in short supply on the Illinois frontier. Second, as noted above, grain farming was extremely labor intensive. In 1830, it took around 300 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat and around 90 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn, with the whole family pitching in to help. Big farm families were a definite help, but it took a while for kids to get to an age when they were more help than hindrance.

So western farmers naturally started looking for ways to ease the labor needed to produce those crops. Which is where American ingenuity came in. The first area addressed was the initial harvest with scythe and cradle. Harvesters pulled by horses that cut grain stalks allowing a person riding on the machine to rake the stalks so they fell in rows behind the machine were first developed in the 1830s, with Cyrus McCormick’s machine gradually becoming dominant over its competitors.

Here in Kendall County, Royal Bullard of Millbrook bought one of the first McCormick Reapers in 1844. Three years later, Cyrus McCormick traveled out from Chicago and contracted with Daniel J. Townsend of NaAuSay Township to build and sell reapers for the 1847 crop. Townsend’s steam-powered factory was located in AuSable Grove, miles from any town and only operated for a few years.

A brand new 1881 Plano Harvester outside the firm’s Kendall County plant.

By the late 1840s, however, reapers were being replaced by harvesters, machines that allowed workers riding the machine to bundle the grain by hand after it was cut, dropping the bundles on the ground. The Plano Harvester Works here in Kendall County manufactured hundreds of the machines each year until they, too, were replaced by the grain binder. Those machines cut and automatically bundled the grain, allowing one man to do the work it previously took three to do. The Plano factory manufactured 2,000 Gordon patent binders in 1877 and early 1878 for the 1878 harvest. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, 10 improvements patented for the Gordon machines were developed by Kendall County residents.

In addition, the first practical mechanical threshing machines were beginning to appear on the Illinois prairies in the 1840s and 1850s. John Avery and Hiram Abial Pitts had patented a successful machine in 1837 that not only threshed the grain, but also mechanized the winnowing process. Their machines were animal-powered using simple devices that allowed horses hitched to horizontal arms to walk around a circle while gears powered a pulley. A belt from the pulley powered the machine. By the 1870s, steam engines were being used to power threshing machines, a novelty reported by the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Aug. 21, 1879: “A steam thresher is the latest enterprise added to the business institutions of this town; the proprietor of it is Wm. E. Smith. It was set to work Saturday out at Wm. Pearce’s and being the first thing of the kind in this vicinity a large number went there to see its operation and all expressed themselves highly pleased with it except a few of whose running horse-power machines, who of course saw disadvantages in it and predicted trouble.”

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the move from one member’s farm to another sometime around 1900. The ring was comprised of members living in the Harvey and Wolf’s Crossing roads area. (Dale Updike collection)

Threshing machines continued to improve, as did the steam engines that almost exclusively came to power them. But a threshing outfit was far too expensive for average farmers. So they combined into neighborhood cooperatives to buy the equipment. Each cooperative had its own rules and regulations and during the harvest, each member was entitled to have the equipment used on their farm, with all the members and their families contributing to the labor. The threshing outfit moved from farm to farm around the neighborhood, and so the cooperatives began to be called “rings.” Threshing rings operated in Kendall County up until the advent of affordable combines farmers could buy on their own. Combines were originally called combined harvesters because they mechanically combined harvesting and threshing in one piece of equipment.

The East Oswego Threshing ring in a photo taken by Malcom Rance during the 1911 season. The East Oswego Ring also included some farmers from Wheatland Township, Will County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Advances in harvesting and threshing technology, coupled with improvements in plows and other crop preparation equipment plus progress in new varieties of wheat had huge effects on farm production. While it took around 300 work hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat in 1830, by 1890 it was only taking about 30 hours.

Ironically, by that time, wheat was no longer a major crop in northern Illinois, it being discovered wheat grew much better farther west where the climate was dryer. In 1860 Wisconsin and Illinois were the nation’s chief wheat states. By 1910 North Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota were the chief wheat states as the Midwest’s eastern states began concentrating more and more on growing corn as well as oats and the other small grains.

The remaining small grains were also on the way out. Kendall County’s oat harvest reached its height in the early 20th Century. The county produced 2.1 million bushels of oats in 1910 that went to feed horses used on the farm as well as in town. But with horses being rapidly replaced as the prime movers both on the farm and in town, oats were no longer so much in demand. In 1940, the oat harvest in Kendall County was down to 1.8 million bushels and down further to 1.6 million bushels by 1958. From there, the bottom literally dropped out and by 2007 so few bushels were grown that the U.S. Census of Agriculture for Kendall County didn’t even report them.

The modern oat harvest–what there is of it in the Fox Valley these days–is now on.

In the 1930s, realizing that the days of Illinois’ production of small grains was numbered, the Farm Bureau partnered with the University of Illinois Extension Service to begin pushing soybean production. With a few inexpensive modifications, the same equipment farmers already owned could be used to plant and harvest beans. By the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture took the 2017 farm census, Kendall County farmers were producing 3.1 million bushels of soybeans annually.

If you drive around the countryside this time of year, you’ll still see a few acres of oats and wheat ripening in area fields. You might also get a chance to see a farmer using his combine to harvest those rare fields of small grains. While farming is still hard work and the hours during planting and harvesting seasons are long, today’s powerful, comfortable, computer-assisted equipment is a far cry from the days of cradling, bundling, and shocking grain by hand and threshing it with a flail on the barn floor.

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A homegrown activist and advocate to remember during Gay Pride Month

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.

Velma Young Tate

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.

In a photo taken about 1913, Velma Young and her younger sister, Rose Marie, appear to be a couple of happy children. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

Velma Young’s Elgin High School senior picture, taken in 1930.

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.”

“Whisper Their Love” was a 1957 lesbian pulp novel by Velma Young writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. Now collectible copies in good condition are price at nearly $130.

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.

Velma Young Tate made her living writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor.

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.

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Women's History

Hard-won environmental gains owe a big debt to a local environmentalist

When I was a youngster, the old-timers used to regale us with stories about how clear and pure the Fox River was when they were young. Like many really good stories of days gone by, they weren’t true.

The Native People who arrived along the banks of the Fox River some 10,000 years ago were the first to modify the stream. The weirs and other structures they used to harvest the river’s fish gradually attracted river debris, filled in, and created or enlarged islands and otherwise changing the valley’s topography.

But it was the white settlers who emigrated to the Fox Valley beginning in the late 1820s who really modified the river in major ways. And quickly, too. Those pioneer farms began the erosion of the Fox Valley’s topsoil, and wetland drainage to create more cropland had a major impact on the river’s water levels.

The biggest changes to the river, however, were the numerous dams that began dotting the stream from its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa north all the way above the Wisconsin state line. The Fox Valley’s millwrights built low dams to power sawmills and gristmills to serve the valley’s growing population. The dams, built without floodgates that would have maintained an undercurrent to scour the river bottom, created still ponds that allowed the silt eroded from all those farms that rain washed into the stream to gradually settle out.

The machinery at the Parker Gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River just above Oswego was powered by one of the river’s many dams. This photo was probably taken around the turn of the 20th Century by local photographer Irvin Haines. (Little White School Museum collection)

The dams also barred fish from ascending the river to spawn, as well as ruining some prime spawning areas by covering them with silt. The dams, in effect, created short stretches of river habitat that had a serious impact on the river’s original vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

From the mid-19th Century on, the Fox River had become an economic engine for the entire valley. First, the mills provided economic boosts for their surrounding communities. Then, after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad was built linking Ottawa at the river’s mouth with towns as far north as Geneva, the river’s water itself, in the form of ice, could be marketed. Large ice harvesting operations were begun above every dam on the river. The ice warehoused during the annual winter harvests was shipped out for use in homes to keep food fresh in ice boxes and commercially to cool the beef and pork being shipped east from Chicago’s slaughterhouses in newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.

Clamshells recovered near the old Rehbehn Brothers Button Factory in Yorkville with button blanks drilled out. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fish were commercially harvested from the river, as were the freshwater mussels and clams that covered the riverbed. Harvested clam shells were sold to button factories—one was located in Yorkville for a few years—where special drills punched out mother-of-pearl button blanks in various sizes that were turned into finished buttons by further processing. In amongst the millions of clams harvested an occasional pearl of great price was discovered.

Then as the years passed and industrialization in the Fox Valley increased, the river came under new, additional stresses. City storm sewer systems directed stormwater directly into the river, along with significant debris (including manure from the era’s thousands of urban horses), leading to drastic swings in the river’s water quality and levels. Municipal sewer systems, which were admirable from a public health standpoint, piped sewage directly into the river. The industries up and down the river did the same, sending their waste downstream—out of sight out of mind, the policy seemed to be.

Some of that industrial waste was even more harmful to humans as well as the fish and other animals who lived in the river than the growing volume of human and animal waste flowing into the stream.

By the 1880s, some people began realizing that some of the river’s uses were, to say the least, incompatible with its ecological health—all those dams, for instance. The low dams in the river that allowed silt build-up behind them were also blockades to spawning fish. Remedies were possible, of course, at least to the migration of fish. Those were called fishways, structures added to dams that would (at least theoretically) allow fish to bypass the dams during annual spawning runs.

Irvin Haines sits atop what might be the wreckage of the fishway in the Parker Dam just above Oswego around 1903. Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice storage houses loom in the background. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dam owners, of course, didn’t want to spend the money on fishways. That led the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation requiring them.

In November 1882, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville: “Notice has been served on the owners of all dams on Fox river asking them to put in fishways, and the owners refuse. The State Fish Commissioners will begin suits in the courts, which the mill men will contest to test the constitutionality of the law. The dam-owners have formed a league and employed Hopkins & Aldrich as their attorneys.”

In January 1883, the Aurora Beacon noted: “We have neglected to mention that in the suit commenced by the Fish Commissioners against Messrs. Hord, Broadhead & Co., owners of the Montgomery Dam, the case was regularly placed before justice Baldwin, when the defendants allowed a judgment to be taken. From this they appealed to the Circuit Court–and from thence they say they will pursue it through the higher courts. A prominent point they propose to make is the indefiniteness of the law, which makes no provision as to what shall constitute a fishway, or how it shall be constructed.”

The dam owners did indeed continue to protest, fighting the law in the courts, but consistently lost and fishways were gradually installed in all the dams, though in practice they proved of little value.

But even if fishways were provided, the polluted character of the river militated against the Fox’s wildlife. On Sept. 18, 1890 the Record noted: “The fish of Fox and other small rivers must soon be exterminated if factories and cities continue to use the streams for sewers. The glucose factories up the river are poisoning the fish by wholesale, and the fish in Vermillion river at Streator are killed by the water pumped from coal mines and refuse from paper mills.”

Conditions only worsened with the dawn of the 20th Century. The Feb. 9, 1916 Record reported: “The [Illinois Rivers and Lakes] commission has surveyed the Fox river and discovered it to be ‘a dirty, evil smelling waterway’ from which the fish have been killed off. The reason is that its flow is not sufficient in the summer months to purify the sewage dumped in it.”

Jim Phillips speaks during a program presented during Jolliet-Marquette II Expedition 1973. The group reenacted Father Jacques Marquette and geographer Louis Jolliet’s 1673 expedition from the Straits of Mackinac to the Arkansas River and back. (Little White School Museum collection)

More laws were passed, but enforcement was either lax or nonexistent. And so that day in the late 1960s when Kendall County resident Jim Phillips was taking a walk and found dead baby ducks in a small stream near his house made him decide to do something to try to change the status quo. He assumed the alter ego of “The Fox” and using a combination of audacity and humor he began plaguing polluters in a series of guerilla raids designed to shine the harsh light of publicity and ridicule on them.

His efforts, small at first, snowballed. Pollution became big news. His efforts were helped by what he termed his “Kindred Spirits,” and copycats around the nation began to wage their own campaigns against air and water pollution.

Sympathetic officials at the national, state, and local levels listened and, amazingly, acted. It was an era when “conservative” and “conservation” were not enemies, and both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. acted in a bipartisan ecological campaign to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as similar agencies at the state and local levels all designed to not just stop pollution, but to reverse it and save the nation’s air and water.

The result? Today, the Fox, that “dirty, evil smelling waterway” of a century ago, is now a destination for anglers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers, and folks who just like enjoying nature. Gamefish and freshwater mussels and clams are again plentiful and the Fox is once again an economic engine for the towns dotting its banks.

Private citizens funded this permanent memorial to Jim “The Fox” Phillips overlooking the Fox River at Violet Patch Park, Ill. Route 25, Oswego. Informational signs explain how the environmental crusader helped save the Fox River. The graphic on the rock is how Phillips signed his anti-pollution exploits. (Little White School Museum collection)

In a time when national environmental policy is cause for great concern, it’s worth thinking about how far we’ve come and why it’s so important we continue to insist on clean air and water.

And as part of that process, you might want to stop by the Little White School Museum at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego and visit their latest special exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” which will be open now through August. The exhibit was mounted by undergraduate students in the Exhibit Design class of Aurora University’s Museum Studies Program. Museum hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but like all local history museums, they welcome donations. For more information on the exhibit, call the museum at 630-554-2999, or visit their website, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

For more information on Jim Phillips, check out the new book by Pauline Marie Gambill, The Fox Feats and Shark Tales of Pollution Fighter James F. Phillips and Animal Rights Warrior Steven O. Hindi, just published last year and available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.

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