A number of observances will be held during June, and among them will be celebrating National Immigrant Heritage Month.
And here in North America, everyone can confidently say we’re all descended from immigrants. The indigenous people Europeans found living in North and South America when they finally got here for good in the 15th Century came from eastern Asia. Exactly HOW they got here is still debated by scientists and historians, not to mention those indigenous people themselves.
The best evidence now is that those earliest adventurous arrivals came by boat down along the Pacific Ocean edge of the ice sheet then covering much of North America, followed many centuries later by their distant cousins who took advantage of the ice-free corridor that opened the land bridge between Asia and North America.
During the next several thousand years they created the civilizations and cultural traditions that were confronted with the European invasion of North America and the continued exploitation of South America’s people and resources.
By the first third of the 19th Century, American settlement had reached our home area here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley. Successive government actions were in process to drive the remaining Native People living here to lands west of the Mississippi River to open the entire region east of the river to White settlement and land ownership.
Here in Kendall County, the first White settlers were Americans who had drifted west looking for cheap farmland and new business opportunities. But starting in the 1840s, foreign immigrants began arriving, seeking the same things their American cousins were.
The 1840s were fractious times in Europe, with disorder and revolution in the air, especially in what soon became the German Reich. Thousands of solid German farmers and business people left the turmoil of their homes and risked the trip across the Atlantic to try their luck in the United States. A fair number of those hardy souls ended up here in my home area of Oswego Township and elsewhere in Kendall County. Burkharts, Schogers (many of who simplified their name to Shoger), Hafenrichters, Ebingers, Schlapps and others came, liked what they saw, and put down roots.
Arriving about the same time were Scots farmers, many livestock experts, who were leaving their homes seeking land of their own to farm, it being nearly impossible for non-titled people to obtain their land in Scotland.
Those two groups had been here only a short while before another group of Germans arrived, but these were America’s own Germans. Many of the families had lived in the “Pennsylvania Dutch” country of the east for more than a century before they decided to seek their fortunes on the rich prairies of northern Illinois. And so came the Lantz, and Schall, and Stark, and other families, who even after living in what eventually became the United States for 100 years and more still spoke German at home.
The whole group of farming families soon intermarried, creating a web of cousins that persists to the present day.
They were joined by successive waves of Norwegians, Swedes, Welsh, and Danes who joined the mix that included a rich leavening of French Canadians who’d arrived earlier and added their rich culture to the region’s mix.
Following the end of the Civil War, a wave of Black farmers and business owners, almost all former enslaved people, arrived to settle, along with Hispanics, Eastern and Southern Europeans and others who brought their Catholic heritage with them as they provided the personnel for the Fox Valley’s growing industries.
And as the decades passed, the mix has just kept getting richer as the region’s seemingly bottomless and ever-changing business and industrial environment has continued to evolve. Eastern Europeans, Asians and Southeast Asians, Pakistanis, Indians, Pacific Islanders and people whose heritages stretch back to virtually every corner of the earth come and go to and from the dynamic melting pot we call home here in our small corner of northern Illinois.
It’s become all the rage in certain circles lately to disparage and harass, both legally and often physically, immigrants that some consider to be the wrong kind of additions to our American melting pot. And looking at history, that has unfortunately always been the case. The Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, Catholics as a whole, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and other entire groups have bourn the burden of intense discrimination—and in so many cases still are.
Nevertheless, we, as a nation, still welcome strangers who come to get ahead, to make our communities and their lives better and we’re all the better for it. Not the least reason being that we all really are, ultimately, from somewhere else, the descendants of those who made the decision to make better lives for their families and themselves by venturing out and away and ending up with us here. Those are the ones, in particular, we should all remember with gratitude during National Immigrant Heritage Month.
Exactly 190 years ago this year, the weather in the northern United States, especially in what was then called the Old Northwest Territory (the region north and west of the Ohio River), for once, proved congenial.
The two years previous to the spring of 1833 had been not only long and hard, but had been deadly, too. The winter of 1830-31 was dubbed “The Winter of the Deep Snow” by early settlers, while 1832 brought the Black Hawk War, the last Indian war fought in Illinois.
But then came the spring of 1833. Wrote the Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian:
“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.”
But all those early settlers were violating the law, in the form of solemn land cession treaties concluded between the U.S. Government and the region’s Native People. Those treaties had assured the indigenous people they’d have the use of the land they’d ceded to the U.S. Government until it was surveyed and put up for sale.
Nevertheless, settlers had begun moving into northern Illinois in substantial numbers in the late 1820s, creating tensions with the resident Native People. A series of near-wars between White settlers and indigenous residents was the result, finally culminating in the Black Hawk War of 1832. The result of these tensions were the various Indian Removal Acts passed by the U.S. Congress mandating the removal of all Native People west of the Mississippi. Removals of Illinois’ Native People were largely completed by 1838.
According to Michigan Territory Gov. Lewis Cass, the indigenous population of Illinois in 1830 was jus 5,900 souls, while that of Indiana was 4,050, and that of his own Michigan Territory was 29,060.
The ancestors of area’s original residents had arrived some thousands of years before, following the herds of giant Ice Age mammals that lived along the retreating edges of the stupendous glaciers. Those glaciers had advanced several times from the north, sometimes covering the area now occupied by Kendall County with several thousand feet of ice, then retreating only to advance once again.
But as the climate finally began warming somewhere around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, the ice slowly retreated for the last time leaving a bleak steppe behind. Bleak it may have been, but it was the perfect landscape for the Ice Age mammals that thrived on it, from giant bison to wooly mammoths and their mastodon cousins, and the predators whose food source they were. And that included the bands of human hunter-gatherers that followed the game.
Gradually, the hunter-gatherer tradition gave way to more sedentary lifestyles as the Native People began adapting wild foods by cross-breeding and selective growing to create more nutritious foods that began greatly complementing their diets.
Eventually, some group of native agronomists in South or Central America either brilliantly or luckily hit upon the possibilities selectively breeding maze, eventually coming up with the ancestors of the corn Illinois farmers are so famous for growing today. Two varieties of this early maze worked their way north, called by later-arriving European colonists flint corn and dent corn, proving so productive and nutritious that complicated and culturally diverse civilizations grew up around their cultivation.
The culmination of this rich cultural tradition was the Mississippian Culture whose capital grew up on the floodplain of the Mississippi River just across from modern St. Louis. The Mississippians were cultural inheritors of the earlier Hopewell Culture that was centered in the Ohio River Valley. Both cultures, besides heavily relying on maze agriculture, also built significant numbers of mounds, apparently as part of their religious traditions. While the Hopewell people built not only smaller burial mounds, they also built larger effigy mounds in the shape of animals, the Mississippians tended to concentrate on geometric mounds. They left behind their most spectacular engineering achievement, Monks Mound, across from St. Louis. The largest earthen construction in North America, the towering geometric mound is 100 feet high and measures about 15 acres on the base.
From their capital at the city eventually called Cahokia in the Mississippi floodplain, the Missippian culture spread up every tributary of the huge river, including the Illinois River and its tributary, our own Fox River. These early people not only left behind their finely-worked stone tools, but also their pottery and, even more noticeable, the mounds they build overlooking the river valleys they called home.
The region’s earliest settlers didn’t know what to make of the mounds those early people left behind. The innate racism of the early 19th Century settlement era argued against such amazing constructions being achieved by the region’s Native People, so all sorts of hypotheses were advanced to account for them, from some mysterious long-exterminated race to the lost Tribe of Israel.
While those early White settlers didn’t know who’d built the mounds, they did know the shear number of mounds were often in the way of progress, from building roads to building farmsteads. And if they weren’t subject to being used for road fill or other purposes, all those mounds offered inviting targets for curio hunters.
According to the Rev. E.W. Hicks writing in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The mounds in this part of the State are generally small, but quite numerous. Between one and two dozen are clearly marked on the bluffs along Fox river, in this county, and doubtless many others have been wholly or partially obliterated. One of the finest is on the county line at Millington, on Joseph Jackson’s land. It was dug into by a committee of citizens about forty years ago, and found to be a great burial heap. Numbers of human teeth were taken out, but some fragments of bones found were replaced and again covered. It is probable that these were remains of Indians subsequently buried there. Three rows of five mounds each are found on the northern bluff of the river: one on Mrs. Duryea’s land, near Bristol; another on Truman Hathaway’s; and a third on D. R. Ballou’s, above the woolen factory at Millington. In Mrs. Duryea’s mounds were also found in 1837 some teeth and a decayed skull. Others partially effaced are at the mouths of the Rob Roy and Rock creeks, and are only a few feet above the level of the river, proving that since they were built the river has flowed in its present channel. The Rob Roy mound a short time ago was partly uncovered by water, and George Steward, of Plano, our indefatigable archaeologist, picked up there, three hundred and twenty fragments of ancient pottery, and others may be found by any one curious enough to look for them.”
Elmer Baldwin, in his excellent 1877 history of LaSalle County wrote of the people who he believed built the mounds: “Their works remaining are their only history. They exist at Ottawa, LaSalle, Peru, and other points along the Illinois and Fox [rivers], and always on a commanding and sightly location, in fancy giving the spirits of the dead a view of the scenery they doubtless loved so well when living.”
Joslyn and Joslyn, on the other hand, recorded in their 1908 Kane County history the typically racist interpretation of the day, of the region’s indigenous people: “So the land which the red man failed to use was taken from him and given to those who would utilize it. But they left the graves of their ancestors behind, and several mounds in Aurora and vicinity are known as Indian burying grounds. Bones and arrow heads are all that remain as evidence that the country was once inhabited by another race.”
We can take at least a little comfort that all of our ancestors weren’t entirely insensitive to disturbing the dead, even if they were Native American dead. In the May 27, 1880 Kendall County Record, the paper’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a proposal was at hand by the residents of Millington to spend an afternoon picnicking in a grove near the village that contained several Indian burial mounds. The writer suggested it was wrong to desecrate the graves, even though the ancient Indians in question had not been Christian. “The cemeteries of the present day may in time become subject to investigation—they are so already to a small extent—the silver plate of coffins and jewelry on corpses may prove more desirable relics than the arrow heads and other trinkets of the Aborigines. The setting of precedents should be discouraged.”
And finally, on April 7, 1897, the Record reported from Millington: “The oldest landmark and relic of the red men in this vicinity, the Indian mound on Mr. Lewis Jones’s lot, and probably the largest of its kind in Kendall or LaSalle counties, is now no more, for the work of leveling it commenced Saturday and is now about finished. A great many people said it seemed too bad to destroy it, but it is located near the front of the lot and near where a house ought to be placed if the owner saw fit to build one. Mr. Jones’s family are known to be hustlers, but they did not care to have a hump on their front yard so, for reasons mentioned above, the historic pile has been leveled. As is generally known, the mound was an Indian burying place and was opened a number of years ago by relic hunters We do not remember just what relics were found or how many, but not all of them were unearthed at that time, for a few were discovered the other day, which proves that the redman’s remains have not yet all crumbled into dust. Monday, a part of the frontal bone of a skull was found and one of the bones of the lower limbs. They are of a dark brown color and have much the appearance of decayed wood, but the shape and porous structure proves them to be human bones. Quite a number of arrow heads of various sizes and shapes were also found.”
Some of those once-numerous mounds, so laboriously built by long-vanished Native People, still exist up and down the Fox Valley. Mound groups in both St. Charles and Aurora are still visible by the sharp-eyed investigator. And, of course, the World Heritage Site at Cahokia still maintains its wonderful collection of mounds and its truly amazing cultural interpretive center that is well worth a trip to see.
And while we don’t have any bonafide mounds left here in my hometown of Oswego, we do have a possibility of sorts. My good friend, the late Dick Young, was always convinced the rise around which the Oswego Township Cemeterey on South Main Street was developed might well be a remnant mound. As Dick noted, it’s in the right place, on the brow of the river valley overlooking the river, and it’s the only mound along that stretch of land, making it certainly look artificial.
If it is a remnant mound, it seems somehow fitting that our ancestors ended up using it for their own funerary traditions in conjunction with the people who lived here many hundreds of years before.
William Keating was the Geologist and Historiographer for Major Stephen Long’s expedition that crossed the Fox River valley in 1823. The explorers set out from Chicago on June 11. The next day, Keating reported: “On the west side we reached a beautiful but small prairie, situated on a high bank, which approaches within two hundred and fifty yards of the edge of the water; and upon this prairie we discovered a number of mounds, which appeared to have heen arranged with a certain degree of regularity. Of these mounds we counted twenty~seven ….”
Until we run into one of our area’s seemingly never-ending detours or other serious road construction projects, most of us continue to take fast and easy road transportation for granted. These days, we think nothing of jumping into our autos and cruising 50 miles or more to shop in some specialty store or to eat in a fancy restaurant.
It wasn’t always so. In fact, it wasn’t that many years ago that getting from place to place out here in once overwhelmingly rural Kendall County and the rest of northern Illinois was a real—often literal—pain.
The earliest White settlers who started arriving in the late 1820s had two choices. They could ride a horse from place to place or they could walk. As for shopping in fancy stores or eating in exclusive restaurants, well, those things just didn’t exist.
Back in the days of horse travel, 20 miles was about the limit of a day’s journey. A man, back in those hardy days, could also walk about 20 miles a day without too much trouble. When the Kendall County was established in 1841, the county seat was centrally located at Yorkville. But when voters moved it from Yorkville to Oswego, those folks down in the southern part of the county were obliged to stay overnight if they had some county business to transact, since a round trip of 20 miles (I0 each way) was about the limit of a day’s travel. That’s one of the main reasons the county seat was moved back to centrally-located Yorkville by vote of the county’s taxpayers in I859.
If you were in a big hurry to go a long distance in the 1830s, you took a stagecoach, in which your journey was completed in stages. At each stop (10-20 miles apart) the horses on the stagecoach were exchanged for fresh ones so the trip could be completed as soon as possible. In Kendall County, there were a number of stage stops, some owned by the Frink and Walker Stage Coach Company, and others owned by private parties.
But those early roads in the 1830s were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie, most of which had originally been Indian trails. Even calling them trails might not be quite accurate.
In March 1831, Juliette M. Kinzie traveled with her husband John and a small party from Prairie du Chien in modern Wisconsin to Chicago. The travelers, with someone described as an experienced guide, planned to take what was then known as the Great Sauk Trail east to the Fox River of Illinois, where they planned to then turn north-northeast to Chicago. But as she reported in her book Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the North-West, the supposedly experienced guide could not find the reportedly well-traveled Sauk Trail, and the party was forced to make its way as best it could across the rolling prairies of northwest Illinois. Fortunately for them, the Fox River’s pretty hard to miss and they did reach it, although some miles north of where they’d expected to.
Native People here in northern Illinois usually walked from place to place. They weren’t the horse-riding war-bonneted Western types seen in movies. And they walked astonishing distances. Once a year, most of the Sauk and Fox tribes of western Illinois hiked all the way to Canada and back to trade furs for guns, jewelry, axes, and other items with British traders on the afore-mentioned Great Sauk Trail.
Since the trails were used by people walking afoot, they took the route of least effort, going around sloughs, swamps and other impediments and using the best fording places across the regions numerous rivers and creeks. A modern remnant of this early travel history is Grove Road south of Oswego, where motorists may note it takes a big sweeping curve for no apparent reason. Back in the 1830s though, there was a dense wooded area there surrounding a large wetland—which the settlers called the Big Slough—that had to be bypassed. And so it went.
But as soon as settlers began arriving, though, formal roadways began to be laid out. These included roads from Chicago to Ottawa at the head of navigation on the Illinois River that boasted three separate branches and the two branches of roads from Chicago to the rich lead-mining Galena region.
The road to Ottawa was the first one laid out, connecting Chicago at the foot of Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and thence down to the Mississippi.
In the summer of 1831, the Cook County Board formally established the first county road west of the growing village, leading to Ottawa. According to the county board of commissioners’ minutes, that earliest branch of the Ottawa road was to run “from the town of Chicago to the house of B. Lawton, [Bernard Laughton’s tavern at modern Riverside] from thence to the house of James Walker on the DuPage River [at Plainfield] and so on to the west line of the county.”
The road began on the lakefront at Chicago and headed west across what travelers and city residents alike described as the “Nine-Mile Swamp” on modern Madison Street to Western Avenue where it became known as the Barry Point Trail and then southwest to Laughton’s Tavern.
Barry’s Point was a patch of timber that extended east from the Des Plaines River named for an early settler. By the time the road was officially laid out from Chicago, Mr. Barry had died and his widow, the Widow Barry, was living there.
The purpose of the road was to regularize the northern portion of the already well-used and familiar trail known as the Potowatomi Trace. By the 1830s the trace was more often called the High Prairie Trail, leading from the lakeshore at Chicago to the head of navigation on the Illinois River. During most of the year, that point was at Peru, although during periods of sufficiently high water on the Illinois River, steamboats could make it to the docks of the larger town, Ottawa.
Plank roads were the first real transportation improvements in Illinois as roads were paved with planks sawn or split from oak, walnut, or other hardwood trees. As you can imagine, such a road would use a tremendous amount of wood. And since wood rots, plank roads weren’t very durable. But in a time that considered forests as inexhaustible, plank roads were a very sensible way to weather-proof major highways. All the plank roads in the Illinois-Indiana area were toll roads. While one was planned to extend from Indiana through Plainfield to Oswego, no plank roads were ever built in Kendall County.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal was the first real economically feasible mass passenger and freight transportation system proposed for northern Illinois. The canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan, funneling everything from grain and livestock to lumber from northern forests down the Illinois and Mississippi River systems to the seaport of New Orleans—-and allowed international trade to flow the other way as well. The I&M Canal produced an economic miracle as the swampy little town of Chicago suddenly exploded into an economic giant.
Railroads soon followed the canal, and eventually led to its downfall as the prime transportation artery of our area. The Chicago and Northwestern, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, the Illinois Central, and other railroad companies all sprouted to meet need for efficient transportation. The first railroad (the Burlington) ran through Kendall County in 1853, bypassing Oswego, which still favored plank roads. The Fox River Valley Railroad was constructed through Oswego in 1870, finally giving Oswego a transportation window on the rest of the U.S.
And at the turn of the century, interurban trolley lines began running, with one line running from Aurora to Yorkville through Oswego, and another running south from Yorkville to Morris, the Fox and Illinois Union Electric Railway.
But farmers still had to get their crops and livestock to market and farm and town families alike had to get to places—school, shopping, church—that weren’t necessarily convenient to either rail or trolley lines. It was far from easy.
On March 12, 1890, the Joliet News had observed: “The farmers of Will and Kendall counties are just now realizing what public road economy means. Only those living on gravel roads have been in Joliet since before Christmas. Hay, butter, eggs, poultry, and onions have been commanding good prices in this market, and just a few farmers could avail themselves of this condition. The buyer and seller might as well be a thousand miles apart.”
Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked even while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of autos and (as they were called at the time) auto trucks, were traveling the roads, the system was at the breaking point.
The financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated townships. Road mileage might be the same as in heavily populated townships, but in less populated areas of Illinois, fewer taxpayers were available to shoulder the burden.
Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. As soon as the state was involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was because it was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on one with a dirt surface.
During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces. They averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than six miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (nine miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about seven mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.
So if motorists, those driving autos as well as commercial trucks, could save so much gasoline, state officials figured part of that savings could be used to build the better roads so many seemed to be demanding. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, over hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. In the event, auto taxes were figured not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.
With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of today’s Edens Expressway in Chicago and several northwest suburbs), a statewide organization was formed to lobby for hard roads, and to draw up specifications for them. Edens, a born organizer, had started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new Rural Free Delivery system. Leaving government, he became a successful Chicago banker, active in Chicago’s social and political scene.
Edens, with the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, including the association’s first convention in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.
Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.
The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission, use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the system.
Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”
As indeed they were. On March 11, 1903, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville that: “It took Harry Leifheit, [mail] carrier on Route 2, two days to make his trip to Plattville and return. Left Yorkville at 7:30 Monday morning and got back at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. No mail taken out Tuesday–the roads are about impassable.”
Not that the effort was entirely clear sailing, since township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.
Farmers protested the cost and wondered whether better roads would benefit them. Skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, tipping the balance in favor of support.
Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.
Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating a county superintendent of highways. John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, was appointed in Kendall County. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel—although he had no military experience. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907 and was always a strong good roads supporter.
The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall transportation plan. In 1914, a short demonstration stretch of 15-foot wide concrete roadway was built along the Fox River south of Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision. Another stretch, financed by Kendall County, was begun from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.
In November 1916, Democrat Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately pushed the good roads program begun by his predecessor.
“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden told the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”
Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William G. Edens to organize the statewide good roads effort. Unfortunately, just as pressure mounted for good roads, the nation plunged into World War I.
But On Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure easily passed. The vote in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.
The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.
The plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. It was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego on that existing stretch of road laid down in 1914, then south to Yorkville, across the Fox River to Plano on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.
But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small, a Republican, replaced Lowden. Small turned out to be one of Illinois’ more corrupt governors, who was politically beholden to the motor transportation industry. So when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street, past the sheep yards in Montgomery, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy mainline at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west. Paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in Yorkville and Oswego.
The route, the Kendall County Record charged in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB& Q mainline at the Wormley Crossing was required.
“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall contended on Jan. 26, 1921.
Local consensus was that the new route was picked thanks to the meatpacking and other commercial interests with undue influence on Small to create a direct route from Aurora and Chicago west rather than one that passed through and benefiting local communities.
Despite the protests and the loyal Republicans who predominated in the counties Route 18 would pass through, state officials refused to consider the old route. In fact, by the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way for the new route had been purchased. The final surveys of the right-of-way and design started in 1921, with actual construction starting later that year. By late May 1924, the 18-foot wide concrete highway had been completely laid from Chicago to Princeton and was curing.
Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the Route 18 concrete spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.
The section of modern Route 34 from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, the road was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway, today’s U.S. Route 30, and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad overpass. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until another year had passed.
With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished. Eventually the other hard road links, Ill. Route 71, Ill. Route 126, Ill. Route 25, Ill. Route 47, U.S. Route 30, and U.S. Route 52 were finished and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and the rest of Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads that’s still serving the county to this day.
Today, with traffic on the roads in Kendall County and the rest of Illinois west of Chicago heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those transportation design decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.
Humorist Charles Dudley Warner once quipped “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” And during Warner’s lifetime (1829-1900), that was mostly true—though not entirely.
For instance, the amount of coal smoke from tens of thousands of stoves and fireplaces created sometimes deadly weather conditions in London, England. But the feeling at the time was that humans really couldn’t affect nature, especially the weather.
Nevertheless, in 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed the hypothesis that massive amounts of human instigated fossil-fuel burning and other combustion that produced carbon dioxide was enough to cause global warming. His suggestion was met with general derision. But then in 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar, a British steam engineer, mathematician, and amateur climatologist gathered actual temperature records from the late 19th Century onward. When analyzed, his data showed that during the preceding 50 years, global land temperatures had increased. In other words, he proved global climate change was happening. In 1938. Something some still refuse to believe.
But back to Charles Dudley Warner and his quip about the weather. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the weather has had a relatively huge effect on world history. From the 16th Century Kamikaze “Divine Wind” that supposedly disrupted a Mongol invasion of Japan to the 1588 storm that scattered the Spanish Armada, to Napoleon’s disastrous winter retreat from Moscow in 1812, weather’s effects keep turning up in the historical record.
Here in North America—the New World to Europeans but the same old place to the Native People who had been living here for thousands of years—weather began playing an important role as soon as those Europeans mentioned above arrived.
For instance, in 1620, a group of disgruntled British religious separatists left the Netherlands bound for what they hoped would be their very own New World utopia across the Atlantic. Earlier, they’d left England for the Netherlands because their brand of Protestantism was actively suppressed. But they found the religious tolerance of the Dutch intolerable and so decided to make a truly clean break and a new start in the New World, where they hoped to have the religious freedom to oppress other faiths.
They aimed to land in Virginia when they sailed from Plymouth, England on Sept. 16, 1620, but the iffy navigation of their ship’s captain instead landed them on the coast of modern Massachusetts, hundreds of miles north of where they planned to take up their new homes. During their first winter in North America, the unplanned-for cold weather nearly killed the lot of them, but they managed to survive, and then eventually prosper.
Meanwhile even farther to the north, the French were settling Canada, eventually creating a string of settlements along the St. Lawrence River from its mouth upstream to the La Chine rapids, so named because the first explorers hoped China was just beyond them. Although they kept expecting to run across Chinese officials as they continued ever farther west, they were, disappointed when they found the Pacific Ocean in the way of extending their travels.
The weather in Canada was even more brutal than that experienced by the English Separatists settled in Massachusetts. But intrepid French explorers and rapacious businessmen—usually one in the same—kept pushing farther and farther into the interior in their search for China and the East Indies. Among them was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who managed to obtain the royal trade cession for what is now most of the upper Midwest. LaSalle pushed as far west as the thundering falls on the Niagara River between Lakes Erie and Ontario and in 1679, built the first large sailing ship on the western Great Lakes, the Griffin.
There, weather again came into play when the Griffin, loaded with valuable furs collected from tribes from the western lakes, disappeared, likely sinking during one of the Great Lakes’ frequent and violent storms. The loss threatened to bankrupt LaSalle, but he managed to talk his way out of the problem and mounted yet another expedition in the spring of 1682.
Setting off from Fort St. Joseph on the St. Joseph River, a Lake Michigan tributary, the LaSalle expedition had to haul their canoes downstream on improvised sledges because the St. Joseph was frozen solid, as was the Kankakee when they portaged into it, as was the Illinois River as they traveled downstream from the Kankakee’s mouth on the Des Plaines. Not until they reached Peoria did they find open water. That allowed them to paddle down the Illinois to the Mississippi, and then down to the Mississippi’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. There, in an elaborate ceremony (he’d brought along his royal court clothes in case he met some of those long-sought Chinese officials) LaSalle claimed the entire Mississippi watershed for France, something that must have, at the least, bemused the tens of thousands of Native People who’d been living there for the past several centuries.
Weather continued to have its affects on history as the thin line of European colonies that stretched along the Atlantic seaboard grew and prospered. The frontier moved ever farther west as White settlement pushed the resident Native People ever farther west. By 1830, settlement had begun in what geographers eventually called the Prairie Peninsula, a generally open, huge, roughly triangular-shaped tallgrass prairie with its apex in northwestern Indiana and extending northwest all the way to the eastern Dakotas and southwest into eastern Kansas. It must have been quite a sight for those early pioneers when they emerged from the familiar dense timber that stretched behind them east all the way to the Appalachian Mountains and saw a seemingly endless sea of 6-foot tall Big Bluestem grass extending all the way to the horizon.
All that open grassland was a great boon for those frontier farmers because they didn’t have to laboriously cut down towering old-growth hardwoods before they could farm the land. But the lack of timber also threw a wrench into traditional frontier farming techniques. While groves of hardwoods spotted the prairie and timber did grow on the east side of prairie water courses, the old ways of depending on logs for cabins and farm buildings, as well as to split into fence rails had to be modified.
The earliest prairie settlers here in northern Illinois staked their claims on the east side of groves and streamside woods in order to assure enough timber for building as well as for firewood. Because prairie pioneering required a LOT of timber for both. For instance, the rule of thumb for firewood was that it took about 30 cords to make it through a northern Illinois winter, a cord being a stack of wood 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long.
The earliest settlers who had vision and business sense quickly snapped up those isolated groves and other patches of timber out on the prairie, subdivided them into 10-acre plots, and sold them to later arrivals.
One of the other reasons early settlers preferred to locate their farmsteads on the east side of timber patches was to shelter against the prairie winds that came howling out of the west. In winter, especially, those winds could be brutal, as the early pioneers found out during the fierce winter of 1830-31. Forever after known as the Winter of the Deep Snow, the series of storms led to the deaths of countless settlers as well as many of the Native People who lived here. The weather that winter may even have created conditions that led to the Black Hawk War of 1832, Illinois’ last Indian war.
But while the Winter of the Deep Snow put a damper on things, and 1832 saw war across northern Illinois, just a year later, the Year of the Early Spring led, at least in percentage terms, to the biggest population explosion in northern Illinois history. As described by Kendall County’s first historian in his 1877 history: “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. This was partly because the emigration of the summer preceding had been held back by the [Black Hawk] war.”
And weather has continued to have more or less serious effects on our little corner of the world ever since. Annual spring floods—called “freshets” back in the day—regularly washed out the numerous dams and bridges on the Fox River, costing the dam owners and taxpayers substantial amounts of money to repair and replace. And weather’s effect on farming is well-known, from drought conditions to years that proved too wet. Townsfolk were also affected, from winters so cold they froze preserved food in area residents’ basements to summers so hot and dry the mills that depended on the Fox River’s waterpower had to temporarily close.
The blizzards that swept down across the Great Plains east across the Mississippi didn’t stop with the Winter of the Deep Snow, but created both economic and political problems right up to modern times. The winter of 1978-1979 brought parts of northern Illinois to a halt. And when two January storms dropped heavy snow on Chicago, voters showed their displeasure with how the city handled snow removal by kicking Mayor Michael Bilandic out of office and electing Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor.
Most recently, on-going global climate change has created a confused weather situation not only here in the Fox Valley but across the nation. Far western states have lately been toggling between extreme drought and record floods and snowfall. The fragile electrical grid in Texas gets regular stress tests that it partially fails due to colder than expected winters and hotter than anticipated summers.
Meanwhile here in northern Illinois, winters have become increasingly mild, creating year round open water on the Fox River and the numerous water detention ponds created to control stormwater runoff that has attracted tens of thousands of once extremely rare Canada geese and various duck species.
And from what we see on the news these days, warmer weather is not only encouraging the northward march of such pests as fire ants, but the climate change causing it seems to be pushing the old Tornado Alley of the Great Plains eastward across the Mississippi River into more densely populated areas.
Even with climate change driven weather causing so many problems, though, we’re still only taking baby steps to try to do something about it. While weather has always had major effects on history, and while we do have the technical ability to do something about it these days, it looks as if Charles Dudley Warner’s quip is likely to continue to describe the situation for the foreseeable future.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.
We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.
The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.
Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.
But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.
These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.
After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.
My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.
And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.
When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.
The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.
The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.
My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.
After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.
These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.
It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.
I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.
These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.
While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.