Category Archives: Environment

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Six…

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

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

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

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

2017 9-15 Lima, MT s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yak

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

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

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

More later…

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under entertainment, Environment, Farming, History, Nostalgia, People in History, Technology, Transportation

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Five…

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

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

2017 9-14 Salt Lake 1

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

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

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

2017 9-14 Copper Smelter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, History, Semi-Current Events, travel

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Three…

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

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

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

2017 9-12 Ft Bridger, WY

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

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

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

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

2017 9-12 Entering the Wasach

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under entertainment, Environment, Fur Trade, History, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology, travel, Uncategorized

Undaunted Courage 2017, Day Two…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Laramie

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

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

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under entertainment, Environment, Fur Trade, History, Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

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

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

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

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

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

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

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo at Midewin

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

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

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

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under entertainment, Environment, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Science stuff, Transportation

Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

I was reading The Des Moines Register a couple weeks ago, and came across an editorial that immediately caught my eye. “To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa farmer: Shifting from two-crop cycle can produce profits and environmental benefits.”

Watkins

Farmer Seth Watkins (left) and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Lieberman in a stand of native prairie grasses that help control erosion and also enhance the soil. (National Public Radio photo by John Ydstie)

The piece profiled Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, who has hit on a new way to farm that he says both frees farmers from the Midwest’s near universal and rigid corn-soybean two-crop system. Watkins, instead of going all-in on either two-crop grain farming or raising livestock, does both in interesting ways.

Watkins does grow corn but he also raises oats, alfalfa and other cover crops. He grazes his 600-head herd of cattle on pastureland, and he’s set aside about 400 acres of his land as restored to prairie, ponds, and stream protection.

But he’s not only engaged in building up his farmland, but he says he’s also been seeing better financial returns on his farming operations.

Watkins’ new methods are not simply a success in his own mind, either. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a new report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits, that suggests adopting Watkins’ methods can help build up soil and decrease water runoff and the resulting pollution. Now you will probably contend that the Union of Concerned Scientists is sort of a far-left group—and you’re right—but even far-lefties are right sometimes–or should I say correct. Especially when their research is backed up by studies from a place like Iowa State University.

An ISU study compared a typical Midwest two-year, corn-soybean crop rotation to three- and four-year rotations that added such crops as oats, red clover, alfalfa and other crops. The longer rotations of corn and soybeans actually increased their yields while also producing surprisingly large decreases in runoff of agricultural herbicides (between 81 and 96 percent), along with requiring a lot less (a decrease of between 43 and 57 percent) nitrogen fertilizer—a big money-saver.

So what Watkins and his fellow travelers appear to have done is reinvent the same kind of diversified farming that was the norm until the adoption of the modern corn-soybean system.

If you’ve read many of the posts here at History on the Fox, or if you read my weekly “Reflections” columns in Shaw Media’s Kendall County NOW newspapers, you already know that I regularly lament the death of diversified farming.

It keeps receding farther and farther into the mists of time, but when I was a little kid growing up on a farm about 10 miles east and a little south of where I’m sitting at my computer typing this post, diversified farming was ubiquitous; it was pretty much the definition of farming.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

In the summer of 1947, Russell Rink bales hay on a farm in east Oswego Township. At the time, hay crops such as alfalfa, clover, and timothy were grown on nearly every farm in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

My dad raised corn and soybeans, but he also raised oats, alfalfa, clover, and timothy, rotating those crops with a bit of pasture so that the soil had a chance to rest. While the soybeans were all sold as grain, some of the corn was fed to his cattle and the rest went to market. The oats, too, were sold as grain, but a fair portion of them were ground into coarse flour which was mixed with the milk that had been separated from the cream produced by our Guernsey cow, to make the “slop” that his feeder pigs seemed to love so much.

My mother traded the eggs her chickens produced for groceries at Michaels Brothers Grocery Store in Montgomery, and my parents sold the excess cream our cow produced at the creamery in Yorkville.

In those days, chemical fertilizer was only just becoming common. Instead of that, my dad spread the manure produced by the cattle and hogs he fed and the chickens my mother raised on his fields. In that way, the grain and hay crops fed to the livestock, and which they then processed into manure, was returned to the land in a pretty efficient cycle.

In 1950 when I was four years old, the federal agricultural census showed there were nearly 1,100 farms in Kendall County, of which 861 reported having some feeder cattle, 694 had at least one milk cow, and 741 reported raising hogs. All that livestock produced a LOT of manure, which was then returned to the land in lieu of chemical fertilizer.

R.D. Gates at home on his Minkler Road farm, ca 1895

R.D. Gates (center) proudly shows off his feeder hogs as his wife and daughter and hired man look in in this photo taken sometime in the fall of 1897. Most Kendall County farms once raised livestock along with grain. (Little White School Museum collection)

By 2012, the number of farms in Kendall County had dropped to 364, although to be fair they’d just about doubled in size. But there had also been a cataclysmic change in what was being produced on those farms. Of the 364, only 42 reported have some cattle around the place, just two had milk cows, and only nine were raising hogs.

In fact, just about the only reason most grain farmers raise any livestock at all these days is either as a hobby or because their kids are in 4-H, and with the aging of the farm population, that’s an increasingly rare thing as well.

In these modern times, were facing a real agricultural conundrum. Fewer and fewer farms are family-owned, and more and more are corporate operations. And as we all should know by now, corporations care about only one thing: The bottom line. Unlike family farmers who contemplate handing their operations down to the next generation, and so often feel it’s incumbent on them to take care of the land they farm, corporate interests are focused on profits, almost always on short-term profits which are often detrimental not only to the long-term interests of their firms, but sometimes to their entire industries.

So will Watkins’ ‘new’ farming method catch on? It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy, either. On many farms, the infrastructure that was formerly common—hog houses, barns, chicken houses, and other buildings—are long gone, replaced by grain storage bins and towering machine sheds built to house gigantic modern farm equipment. Raising livestock calls for different skills, too, and requires a lot more time. And is there a market for the oats and the alfalfa, timothy, and clover that my dad grew as fodder for his feeder cattle? Not unless more farmers decided to diversify.

But, maybe. Family farming operations will likely be more amenable to trying it because of their mindset, but maybe the corporations will surprise us all and decide to look beyond next quarter’s profits. Not likely, but possible…

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

3 Comments

Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation