Category Archives: Environment

Watching from my window as the Fox rolls by…

There’s no doubt the view out the window here at the new History Central beats the view out of old History Central, although my office space has shrunk by about two-thirds.

The window in my old office looked out onto an increasingly scraggly pine tree my great grandparents planted to provide a bit of shade for the cistern and well that were formerly located in back of the house they built in 1908. My parents eliminated the old cistern a few years after we moved to the house in 1954 by filling it in with gravel and dirt.

1815 Fox portage map

This 1815 map by Rene Paul of St. Louis illustrates the old portage to the upper Fox River from the Root River in Wisconsin (see top, just to left of center)

The well was likewise eliminated about 1960 when we found it had been polluted by septic field seepage from the new Cedar Glen Subdivision up the hill from our house. All the houses there were built outside Oswego’s village limits, and so were on well and septic. The leachate from all those septic fields seeped down through the sand and gravel on which Cedar Glen is built and contaminated all the wells in my folks’ neighborhood. Most of those wells were old and were shallow, hand-dug affairs. Ours was 14 feet deep, spring fed, and always had a foot and a half of water in it, no matter how hard the pump ran. It was delicious water, clear and cold, and registered as raw sewage when the county health department had it tested.

1838 Oswego 1838

The 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township shows Levi and Darwin Gorton’s gristmill and dam just north of the new Village of Oswego.

So my brother-in-law the well-driller moved his drill rig into the backyard in the summer of 1960 and drilled a new well, with an 8” casing driven down into the bedrock and sealed with a 6” casing inside it down to the soft water aquifer at about 200 feet. The space between the two pipes was filled with hydraulic cement to assure none of the polluted surface water could infiltrate. I got to dig the trench from the well to the house for the feed pipe, a couple feet wide and 5 feet deep, one of many ditches I dug for him that summer, something that suggested to me perhaps there were easier ways to make a living.

The old well was filled with gravel and sealed with concrete, and then my parents had a multi-level concrete patio area created atop both well and cistern that remained until we did a major patio renovation a few years ago.

The old pine tree survived all those trials and tribulations, although during the past 15 years or so, it’s begun to shed branches one at a time, branches that used to be festooned with our bird feeders during the winter. From my office window I could watch the birds and the squirrels that enjoyed the cover the old pine provided, and could, in the winter, at least, get a view up the hill to Ill. Route 25. As views went, it was mostly useful for figuring out whether it was raining or snowing—similar to my friend, Zael’s, state-of-the-art weather rock. If the rock is wet it’s raining; if it isn’t, it isn’t.

1900 abt Parker Mills

By the time Irvin Haines snapped this photo of the gristmill (background to the left) and the sawmill (right), both had been out of business for a few years and the dam was in very poor condition. Our new house would be located at the far left edge of this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

My new view looks out onto our backyard that slopes gently down to the riverbank and the channel between our island and the river’s main channel. It’s a spot on which I spent a lot of time as a kid, playing “Pop Up or Fly” or “Move-Up” with the neighborhood gang, and practicing with my bow and arrow and BB gun. The blob of concrete with a hand-forged U-bolt embedded in it that one of my long ago relatives poured on the limestone ledge making up the riverbank, and to which once I chained my river scow, is long gone, but the memories of those summers when so many hours were spent on the water are not.

Nor are the hours spent ice skating on the channel during the cold winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s when the river froze over from bank to bank. A fallen tree trunk along the riverbank offered a handy seat to change into skates for a glide downstream past the Lantz house to the Foose’s property. We’d clear a hockey rink on the ice down there for games improvised with sticks and anything solid for a puck. Also from there, a person could skate south all the way to the Route 34 bridge. Or I could skate north up the channel and carefully pick my way over a couple small riffles and patchy ice above Levi Gorton’s old dam for an early morning skate all the way north to Boulder Hill, accompanied by the echoing snaps and sharp cracks as the ice contracted in the frigid temperatures.

2018 8-8 Upstream to Gorton's dam

The view from our riverbank, upstream to the Gorton brothers’ dam site.

I’d always been fascinated with stories of the Native People that had lived here before the settlers. And it was even more interesting when I learned the French, all the way from Canada, would trade with local tribes for furs. So it was a big letdown when I finally determined the river had never been useful as a fur trade route.

The Fox varies considerably in depth depending on the season of the year. Often in the late summer, you can wade across the stretch I can see from my window without getting your shins wet. And, as it turns out, that extreme variability in depth made it unsuitable as a trade route for those hardy French voyageurs.

Click here for a map of the Fox River’s watershed

The river and its valley were carved out by a few tremendous glacial floods called torrents by geologists, and in a relatively short time, too. The sight of billions of gallons of water suddenly released as a huge glacial lake’s ice dam suddenly gave way must have been horribly spectacular as the water carved its way through the limestone and sandstone that underlay this area of northern Illinois.

2018 8-8 Donwn stream from Rising's mill

Standing on the foundation flagstones of Nathaniel Rising’s sawmill looking downstream. The river’s main channel is to the right.

The torrents left behind a slow-flowing, shallow river that varies in width considerably along its 223 mile length. In this, its middle section, the Fox is relatively wide, which means flooding is generally rare except above its low dams where the pools have filled with silt.

Three centuries ago, however, there were no dams on the Fox, but its depth still varied considerably with the season. In the autumn of 1698, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Jesuit missionary, was dispatched from Quebec to establish a mission among the Illinois Indians along the Mississippi and Illinois river. As St. Cosme’s party paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan they were advised of a possible shortcut. Writing back to his superiors, St. Cosme reported:

“Some savages had led us to hope that we could ascend this river and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [today’s Fox River; “Pesioui” meant buffalo] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river [Root] which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either, and that instead of shortening our journey we should have been obliged to go over forty leagues of portage roads; this compelled us to take the route by way of Chikagou which is distant about twenty leagues.”

Not that the good father probably found the Chicago-DesPlaines-Illinois river route any easier. During dry conditions, the Chicago portage could extend up to 60 miles.

The Root-Fox River portage route was fairly well known, and was marked on early maps, but it was never much used because of how shallow the Fox was over most of its length. It was bad enough when the fur trade was carried in the big birch bark canoes of the early years—those canoes, as big as they were, didn’t need much water float—but it got a lot worse early in the 19th Century when transport switched to Mackinac boats, which were heavier and required much deeper water.

So the Fox was never really used for transportation, although its course did tend to dictate where roads and, later, rail lines crossed. Oswego grew up where it did, in part, because of the high-quality ford across the river just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Less than a mile south of where I’m writing this, a hard limestone shelf scoured smooth by the ancient torrents and centuries of flowing river water, offered an excellent crossing that appealed first to the Native People who lived in the area, then to the first pioneers, and finally for the stagecoach road that crossed the river here.

2018 8-8 Dam timbers

Submerged timber frame members from the old dam are still visible just under the water.

The force of the river’s flow also provided power to operate the machinery of gristmills and sawmills. Damming the river to create hydraulic power began as soon as the very first settlers arrive, pioneer millwrights following immediately behind them. Just a few dozen yards upstream from where I’m sitting, Merritt Clark arrived in 1836 and opened a corn mill and chair factory over on the west bank of the river. Brothers Levi and Darwin Gorton built a better dam and a true gristmill a couple years later, which they sold to Nathaniel Rising and his partner, John Robinson. Although Robinson died soon after, Rising, and Robinson’s estate under the control of Zelotus E. Bell, added a sawmill here on the east bank of the river. You can still see the giant slabs of flagstone on both sides of the river that formed the mills’ foundations. And at low water, you can still see some of the old timber frame members that were part of the dam buried in the rocks and gravel.

So the view out of my window here at History Central has gotten a lot more historic, not to mention nostalgic, now that we’ve settled into our new digs. It’s even possible, I suppose, that the view will provide a little historical inspiration going forward. We shall see…

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History

We’re here!

Well, we made it.

The final move from the old Matile Manse to the new Matile Manse was accomplished on July 23, thanks to work by Two Men and a Truck, my two energetic kids, and us two decrepit oldsters. The Metronet guys arrived on schedule to switch our broadband, landline, and cable TV service from across the street, so by the night of July 23 we were able to sleep in our own bed.

A week later, we’re now starting to finally settle into our new house. And it’s new in more ways than one. My great grandparents built the old Matile Manse in 1908 as their retirement home after turning their farming operation over to their sons. They lived in their new house for 35 years before their deaths a few months apart during World War II. So my wife and I beat their tenure by seven years with our 42 years of occupancy.

Now my son and his wife are moving into the old home place to carry on the family tradition.

1859 Oswego & Troy

The industrial suburb of Troy, just north of Oswego as it appeared in 1859. Each black dot represents a structure.

The story of our neighborhood down here on North Adams Street in the old Village of Troy starts back in the 1830s. In 1836, Merritt Clark arrived in the Oswego area and built a corn mill on the west bank of the Fox River, about three-quarters of a mile north of Oswego, which had been laid out in 1834 by Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold. Judson and Arnold called their village Hudson, but it was renamed Oswego in 1837 when postal service began.

Levi Gorton and William Wormley built a dam across the Fox River at Clark’s mill site that same year to provide waterpower, and Clark reportedly added a chair factory to his corn milling operation. Later that same year, however, Clark apparently sold his business, including the mill and dam, to Levi Gorton and his brother, Darwin. The Gortons, apparently unsatisfied with Clark’s rudimentary mill, started construction that year—1837— of a grist mill on the same site. The new mill was ready for operation the following year.

Sometime prior to 1840, the Gortons sold their mill and dam to Nathaniel A. Rising. Rising and his partner, John Robinson, added a store to the grist mill and continued the business the Gortons had founded.

In 1848, Rising and Robinson decided to plat a new village around their mill and dam. Robinson apparently died that year, however, so Rising worked with Zelolus E. Bell, who was acting on behalf of the estate of the now-deceased Robinson, to officially lay out the new Town of Troy on several acres at the east end of the mill dam. The official plat of the new village was recorded on June 24, 1848 at the Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego.

The new village almost, but not quite, adjoined the 15-block Loucks Addition to the north of the original village of Oswego, platted by Walter Loucks in 1842.

1870 Oswego & Troy

By 1870 when this map was published, Troy had fewer buildings and wasn’t even denoted with it’s own name on the map.

As laid out, Troy was bounded by Summit Street (now Ill. Route 25) to the east and the Fox River to the west. As originally numbered, the village consisted of Blocks 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 18, 19, 20, and 21. What happened to blocks 1 through 4, 8, and 11-17 has been lost in the mists of local history.

Summit and Water streets ran parallel to the riverbank, while (listed from north to south) First, Second, Main, and Third streets were platted perpendicular to the other two streets.

Rising and Bell added a sawmill at the east end of their dam to compliment the west bank gristmill, as well as a store on the gristmill site. But they didn’t operate the business very long because in 1852 they sold the mills, dam, store and all other parts of Troy that remained unsold to William O. Parker, a Canadian immigrant.

When the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was built from Streator through Ottawa and up the east bank of the Fox River through Yorkville and Oswego to Geneva, its route passed through the village of Troy, turning it into a sort of industrial suburb of Oswego. With rail service handy, the Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting operation above Parker’s dam. The business eventually comprised 14 gigantic ice houses that were filled each winter with 200 lb. blocks of ice insulated with sawdust from Parker’s sawmill and the furniture factory he had added there about 1870.

1890 abt Ice Houses

This early 1890s snapshot by Irvin Haines gives some perspective on just how massive the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice houses were. (Little White School Museum collection)

The ice business was huge, with up to 75 men hired each winter to cut and store thousands of tons of blocks of ice in the icehouses. As an indication of how big the business was, the railroad built a siding to handle all the rail cars used for ice shipments. In August 1880, Esch Brothers & Rabe shipped 124 rail car loads of ice from their Oswego operation.

When my great-great grandparents moved to a small house on Lot 1, Block 10 of Troy about 1870, the little community’s boom was just beginning. My great-great grandmother earned money weaving rag rugs as well as renting beds—not rooms, but beds—to railroad, and later ice company, workers, while my great-great grandfather worked for the railroad or doing whatever he could to earn a few dollars.

One of their daughters, Annalydia–called Annie by the family–married Edward Haines and the couple built a small house at the corner of Water and Second streets where they raised their family.

1900 abt Parker Mills

The Parker gristmill (left, rear) and sawmill and furniture factory (right) as they looked near the turn of the 20th Century. The house at left foreground was moved farther to the left in 1908 to make room for Amelia and John Peter Lantz’s new Queen Anne-style home.

So when another of their daughters, Amelia, and her husband John Peter Lantz decided to retire from farming in 1908, it was not surprising they decided to have their retirement home built in Troy. They chose to build the house on Lot 8 in Block 9. In order to do so, they moved the small house already on the property over to Lot 7 and turned it into a town barn to house their milk cow, driving horse, and chickens, adding a carriage shed to the north side. And to do the building, they chose their nephew, Annie and Edward Haines’ son, Irvin, one of Oswego’s better-known carpenters.

By that time, the ice industry was long gone, killed by a combination of horrific pollution of the Fox River and the development of economical mechanical ice production. The sawmill and furniture factory, after its heyday in the 1880s churning out walnut furniture, closed, as did the gristmill on the west end of the dam when it was replaced by steam-powered mills that didn’t depend on the vagaries of river water levels. The sawmill burned a few years before Amelia and John Peter built their new house. The gristmill remained a landmark until it was dismantled in the 1920s and its timbers used to add onto the old stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge to create Turtle Rock Inn.

Matile Manse

The old Matile Manse, now turned over to another generation to treasure.

Meanwhile, the streets and blocks and lots Rising and Bell platted 170 years ago last month still survived, though mostly on old maps. Second Street still connected Summit Street–today’s Ill. Route 25–with Water Street–today’s North Adams Street. But the rest of the village platted in 1848 remains a ghostly grid. And then in the 1990s, Oswego offered to annex old Troy, and residents along North Adams Street agreed that would be a good idea.

As the decades passed, the family-owned property here in the old Village of Troy was sold off, but Amelia and John Peter’s home stayed in the family, owned by their daughter and husband—my grandparents—and then my parents before my wife and I bought it in 1976. Now it’s going to go to one more generation—the fifth—to enjoy its location and its sturdy construction for, hopefully, several more years.

IMG_1583.JPG

The new (as of July 23) Matile Manse as it looked a few Novembers ago.

Across the street from the old house were two vacant lots bordering the Fox River where my uncle, when he and my aunt lived here in the 1940s and early 1950s, farmed. When we moved in from the farm, those lots turned into the neighborhood baseball diamond, go-cart track, fishing hole, and river scow dock that provided thousands of hours of entertainment for the gang of Baby Boomers growing up on North Adams Street in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then in 1984, my oldest sister, Eileen, decided to build her dream house on those two lots with their river frontage. She hired my best friend’s dad, Stan Young, to do the building using a plan she sketched out herself. She and her husband lived in the house through his death in 1998 and until she contracted multiple myeloma and was no longer able to care for her beloved home. In 2011, she sold the house to a young couple with two children, all of whom greatly enjoyed their place on the banks of the Fox River until they moved to Ohio due to a job change.

2018 7-30 View from History Central

The view from History Central this morning included the island just off our shoreline of which we are now reportedly part owners.

Which is where my wife and I came into the picture from our vantage point just across the street. And now here we are, having survived the move, though we’re still putting stuff away and looking for lost items (Where the heck are all the microfiber dust cloths? Has anybody seen the box with the bookends in it? Is my flintlock musket someplace where it won’t fall down and hurt somebody?). It’s a given we won’t be here for 42 years, but I do hope we’ll be able to pass this, our new house, down to one more generation.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History

Wheatland’s remarkable, scientific plowing match

The other day on Facebook, a guy got to wondering about an old sign he’d come across that advertised the Wheatland Plowing Match, which was once a big deal in eastern Wheatland and eastern Oswego townships here in northern Illinois.

Noting some of the information on the sign, he wondered: “Apparently plowing competitions were once a thing, but I am stumped as to how they incorporated a ‘ladies fair’ into such an event…:

To dig into this topic, we’ve got to go back in time to the region’s pioneer era. In the 1840s and 1850s, farming families from Scotland and Germany immigrated to the United States, and they wound up settling in northeastern Kendall and northwestern Will counties.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape in this Malcolm Rance snapshot of the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match, held that year on the John Hafenrichter farm, looks more like South Dakota than northern Illinois. By that hear, the match was one of the most popular agricultural events in the region. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Germans brought their rigorous work ethic to an area that was also being populated by their German-speaking cousins from the Pennsylvania Dutch region, who were arriving here in northern Illinois about the same time, and the two groups formed a cohesive German-speaking settlement that soon became known for its prosperous, well-run farms.

The Scots came seeking better, cheaper farmland than their thin-soiled rocky homeland, as well as more opportunity. Scotland was in the throes of a socio-economic revolution as large landowners forced farmers off their rented lands in an effort to maximize wool production. But Scotland’s loss was our gain, as dozens of skilled farmers decided to cross the Atlantic and try their luck with the rich prairie soil of Illinois.

The hardworking Germans and the canny Scots soon came to respect each other’s strong points. And the main strong point of the Scots farmers was their scientific approach to tilling the land.

Wheatland Plow Match Rumley Oil

The 1911 Plowing Match included plowing by farm tractors like this Rumely Oil Pull that would gradually supplant draft horses as the prime motive power for plowing. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the early years of the 19th century, the British Isles had become the center of an agricultural revolution, combining increasing mechanization with scientific techniques to increase the yield of both crops and livestock through genetic manipulation and land use practices. Farmers experimented with machines like seed drills, invented in the early 1700s, that proved superior to the old method of broadcast seeding and faster than planting individual seeds by hand. New plow designs were created, wet land was drained, crop rotation was analyzed and scientifically improved, and livestock breeding was placed on a scientific footing.

These techniques and more were brought to eastern Oswego and western Wheatland townships in the 1840s by Scots farming families with names like Patterson, Clow, Stewart, Ferguson, McMicken, and Harvey. By the 1870s, they were operating successful, growing farms and had also built churches and helped establish public schools they shared with their German-speaking neighbors.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This 1905 photo of the Wheatland Plowing Match grounds gives a flavor of the event’s popularity. (Little White School Museum collection)

In an effort to promote best practices in agriculture and to recognize those who were excelling, three prominent Scots and English farmers decided to use that idea to establish a new kind of farming festival. At the urging and invitation of James Patterson, Henry Massey and A.S. Thomas, a dozen farmers met at a one-room country school in Wheatland Township on July 15, 1877 and voted to establish what eventually became the Wheatland Plowing Association. The first competitive plowing match was set for Sept. 22 of that year on the farm of Alexander Brown.

The idea behind the match was to assess skill in plowing. Plowmen were to be judged on straightness, neatness, and evenness of their furrows. Depth of the furrow was to be no less than five inches and each plowman was required to plow a half-acre in no more than three and a half hours. The grand prize winner that year was James King, who took home the $15 prize. His descendants would continue to excel at the craft of plowing until the last match was held. Runners-up were John Thompson, Henry Westphal, Edward Green and Chris Catchpole, while the boys’ category winner was John Netley, who took home a neat $8—$187 in today’s dollars. The

1907 Wheatland Plowing Match ladied

My great-grandmother and my grandmother are both in this photo of the women who were tasked with preparing the noon meal at the 1906 Wheatland Plowing Match. The match had been held on their farm in 1895.

first match also reportedly had exhibits of farm implements displayed by local dealers, a feature that would grow during the next century.

By the next year, the plowing match had started to turn into an event whose size surprised everyone—perhaps even its creators. As the Sept. 26, 1878 Kendall County Record reported: “Saturday, Sept. 21st was the day advertised by the farmers of Wheatland township, Will county, (better known as Scotch settlement) for their annual plow trial. The trial was held on the farm of Robt. Clow Esq., about nine miles east of Oswego. To our great surprise the attendance was as large as the first day of the Will County Fair. A better show of plowmen and plowing would be hard to find. As the plowing progressed it was generally conceded that the Sulkies [riding plows] did better work than the Walking Plows, the work being side by side could be easily compared.”

And the Wheatland Plowing Match was off and running.

In those early years, the match was shared around the neighborhood, the neighborhood being the area along modern Ill. Route 59 from today’s White Eagle Club south to 127 Street, east to the DuPage River and west to the Kendall County line. And it didn’t take any time at all for the area’s German-speaking farmers to join in the event. After all, the Scots and Germans had already begun to intermarry, with, for instance, Minnigs, Lantzes and Schals marrying into the Patterson clan.

1939 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

Graeme Stewart competes in the Wheatland Plowing Match in this photo taken about 1940. By that time, horses had mostly supplanted horse-drawn plows. (Little White School Museum collection)

So by 1895, it was common for the match to be hosted by German farmers, including my Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandfather. The Record’s NaAuSay correspondent reported in the paper’s Sept. 25 edition that: “The plowing match at Wheatland on Saturday on the farm of Peter Lantz was a great attraction for farmers for many miles around. NaAuSay had a good share of its farmers there. It was estimated there was about nine to ten thousand people present.”

You read that right: nine to ten thousand attendees in the days of travel by horse and buggies.

1955 Wheatland Plowing Match

Aerial shot of the 1955 Wheatland Plowing Match in the late afternoon shows most of the spectators’ cars have left. Note the plowed strips at right where competition plowing was held. (Little White School Museum collection)

The plowing match became so much a part of the local farm calendar that other unrelated events were scheduled around it. Starting in 1933, for instance, my family simply stated the usual time for their annual family reunion would be the second Sunday after the plowing match.

The matches gradually grew in size, too, eventually incorporating such county fair-like attractions as baking and sewing contests. School kids submitted samples of their cursive handwriting for prizes and agricultural-based businesses flocked to set up booths to advertise their wares. My favorite was always the fire insurance booth that featured a miniature house that would catch fire after being struck by static electricity-generated “lightning.” The displays of the latest farm equipment offered irresistible opportunities for youngsters to climb on. I even took my first airplane ride at a Wheatland Plowing Match. We must have been 7 or 8 years old when my buddy Bob Chada and I were strapped into the front seat of Earl Matter’s bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub and were thrilled to see our farm neighborhood from the air.

1949 Roger at Plowing Match

The author test-drives a brand new International Harvester Farmall tractor at the 1949 Wheatland Plowing Match.

The matches were only interrupted by the two world wars, skipping one year for World War I and four years for World War II. With peace finally at hand, the Record’s Oswego correspondent gratefully wrote on Sept. 18, 1946: “Nearly everyone and his brother attended the Wheatland Plowing match on Saturday. The weather was perfect for the event and the crowd was very large and happy to meet after four long years.”

The plowing match continued to attract large crowds through the 1950s and 1960s, but then interest began to wane. Increased urbanization in DuPage and Will counties where the matches were held and decreasing numbers of farmers due to technological advances finally led to the event’s last hurrah in 1976.

Today, the Wheatland Plowing Match is but a footnote in our area’s agricultural history and traditions. But its one that left lasting memories for many of us and a lasting legacy of promoting the best scientific farming practices while providing a bit of rural entertainment for hardworking, innovative prairie farmers.

Note: If you’d like more information on the plowing match, the Wheatland Plow Match Association records from 1898 to 1978 are in the Regional History Center at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. The Naperville Heritage Association Library and Archives at the Naper Settlement also has a small, but nice collection of Wheatland Plowing Match memorabilia including several Wheatland Plowing Match Ladies’ Fair booklets from the 1890s and early 1900s.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Women's History

Exploring the ‘treeless land’ with Jolliet and Marquette

This year, Illinois will celebrate it’s Bicentennial. In December 1818, the U.S. Congress formally approved establishing the State of Illinois. And with its change in status from territory to state, Illinois was finally allowed to send two senators and a representative to represent the state’s people and their interests at the national capitol.

By the time Illinois became a state, Europeans had visited and settled in what the colonial French called the Illinois Country for nearly a century and a half. The first Europeans to arrive in Illinois did so illegally—that is, in violation of the Royal French colonial government’s prohibitions. Those earliest visitors were seeking riches, both mineral and in furs, and they found a bit of both.

The Indian way of life began to change as soon as those European influences began to reach Illinois. Thanks both to trade among the tribes and those hardy French freebooters, European influences reached Illinois well in advance of any permanent settlers.

Jolliet & Marquette map

The route taken by the Jolliet and Marquette expedition of 1673. They were the first Europeans to travel through and report on northern Illinois.

As such items as glass beads and brass cooking pots were traded for furs in the East, they began working their way west through the extensive web of Indian trading routes. Gradually, this trade became formalized, with the great trading nations of the west, the Ottawas and Chippewas, trading the grain and furs of the western tribes to the Iroquois and Hurons of the east for European trade goods.

The role of middleman between the western tribes located around the Great Lakes and the Europeans (primarily Dutch, French, and English) was hotly contested. This economic rivalry brought on a number of wars between the Huron and Iroquois, resulting in the eventual destruction of the Huron Tribe.

The first legal penetration of the area now known as Illinois was made by an exploration group led by Louis Jolliet in 1673. Jean Talon, governor of New France, had decided to investigate the reports carried east by French missionaries and traders about a great river to the west of Lake Superior, called “Great Water” or Mississippi, by the Indians.

Talon appointed Jolliet, an experienced mapmaker and explorer, to command an expedition to determine whether this river emptied into the Pacific Ocean. If it did, reasoned Talon, the French would have discovered the long-sought Northwest Passage.

An interpreter familiar with many Algonquian dialects was considered necessary for the expedition, and to fill this post Talon and Jolliet picked a studious intellectual Jesuit, Father Jacques Marquette—at the time the expedition left, Marquette could speak six different Indian languages. Just as importantly, Marquette was easily available. His regular post was at the Mission of St. Ignace at Michilimackinac, located on the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, the major crossroads of the western fur trade.

Jolliet

A sculptor’s vision of geographer and explorer Louis Jolliet.

The exploration party, consisting of Jolliet, Marquette and five French voyageurs in two canoes, left the strait between the two lakes on May 17, 1673—345 years ago this month—and set a course down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay. At the Bay, the party turned up the Fox River to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi.

As the party traveled south, Jolliet became convinced that hopes the mighty river’s course did not lead southwesterly to Gulf of California, offering a transcontinental passage to the Pacific Ocean as had been hoped. Instead, his navigational observations affirmed the Mississippi bore almost straight south to the Gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, upon reaching the Arkansas River in July, the party reversed its course and headed north once again. They were also encouraged on this course because the Indian villages around the Arkansas River’s mouth were in possession of Spanish trade goods, and given the small size of the French expedition, the last thing they wanted to do was get involved with hostile Spanish colonials.

So back up the Mississippi they paddled. When the explorers reached the mouth of the Illinois River, they decided to ascend it to Lake Michigan, probably on the recommendation of a friendly group of Indians who probably suggested the route as a shortcut back to the lake. They therefore became the first Europeans to see the rich Illinois River Valley, and their opinion of it was very favorable.

Noted Jolliet in an account written after the trip:

“At first, when we were told of these treeless lands, I imagined that it was a country savaged by fire, where the soil was so poor that it could produce nothing. But we have certainly observed the contrary; and no better soil can be found, either for corn, for vines, or for any other fruit whatever.

“The river, which we named for Saint Louis, which rises near the lower end of the Lake of the Illinois [Lake Michigan], seemed to me the most beautiful place; the most suitable for settlement…There are prairies three, six, ten, and twenty leagues in length and three in width, surrounded by forests of the same extent…A settler would not there spend ten years in cutting down and burning the trees; on the very day of his arrival, he could put his plow into the ground.”

Although he didn’t realize it, Jolliet’s words would be echoed a century and a half later in emigrants’ guidebooks luring pioneers to the Illinois prairies.

At the time the party traveled through the Illinois River Valley, the Illinois Indians were in the process of moving to the upper reaches of the river in large numbers The Indians’ village of Kaskaskia was located across from Starved Rock and numbered some 74 cabins in 1673. By the next year, the village had grown to 100-150 cabins. In 1677, Marquette’s Jesuit colleague Father Claude Jean Allouez reported that the village had grown to 351 cabins.

The reports of the Jolliet-Marquette expedition, as well as those of such missionaries as Father Allouez, were clear testaments to the richness of the Illinois River Valley. And the reports of large concentrations of Indians living in the area seemed to make it an ideal location for a centralized trading post to cater directly to the Indians, thus removing the Iroquois, Ottawa, and Chippewa middlemen from the profit equations of the French fur traders.

It would take a strong man with the right connections to make this move, but in 1666, Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle had arrived in New France, burning with the desire to make his fortune. It was a case of the right man being on the scene at the right time.

 

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Galena Road and its bridge are artifacts of the Fox Valley’s pioneer past

Busy Galena Road will be closed for a while this summer while contractors working for Kendall County replace the bridge across Blackberry Creek.

As it’s name suggests, Galena Road was one of the major routes to the lead mining region around the far northwestern Illinois boom town. Looking at a map, it might seem a bit odd to area residents that a road from Chicago to Galena headed west and a bit south from Chicago, then sharply dipped farther southwest across Blackberry Creek before finally turning northwest towards the lead mining region.

After all, why go southwest to get northwest? And therein lies a historical tale.

Galena Road

From the Aurora-Montgomery area, the old Chicago to Galena Road bent southwesterly to the ford across Blackberry Creek. The modern road still follows the same route.

Although the routes from Chicago to Ottawa were already major thoroughfares by the early 1830s, only sporadic—and difficult—travel was undertaken between Galena and Chicago. Granted, some commercial overland travel began as early as 1829, but there was no surveyed road until 1833.

Virtually all of Galena’s early transportation needs were met by steamboats and, much more laboriously, keelboats using the Mississippi River system. But shipping lead from the mines in the Galena region to market via the river system, and returning with food, clothing, and other necessities was an expensive and time-consuming process in those early years.

Galena 1840s

Galena, Illinois in the early 1840s was a bustling boom town built on lead mining. The illustration above shows lead smelters at work across the Galena River from the town.

Few steamboats of the era ran on regular schedules. Instead, they awaited full cargo holds and passenger cabins before sailing. In addition, low water levels, flood conditions, or winter ice could delay the shipment of goods, sometimes for months at a time. Keelboats were even worse in terms of time and expense. Although by the 1830s, steamboats were quickly replacing keelboats, they still made their slow ways up the Mississippi’s swift current.

Well aware of the limitations of river traffic, in August 1829 Galena businessman J.G. Stoddard decided to try to ship a ton and a half of lead overland from his growing, but relatively isolated, town to Chicago. On the return trip, the wagons would bring supplies Stoddard planned to sell to miners at a hefty profit. According to the Galena Advertiser of 1833, this was the first time an overland trip by wagon had been attempted from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan.

Milo M. Quaife, in Chicago Highways Old and New, reported that Stoddard’s wagons traveled overland using the following route, one that (with a few modifications) later became known as “The Southern Route” from Galena to Chicago: The route ran from Galena 80 miles south-southeast to Ogee’s (later Dixon’s) Ferry across the Rock River. After crossing the river, the route extended east-southeast 60 miles to the former site of the Fox River Mission on the Fox River, where the river was forded. From there, the wagons turned northeast to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement and the DuPage River ford, and then across the prairie to Laughton’s tavern and store on the Des Plaines River—modern Riverside—for the final ford before the last leg to Chicago.

Ogee’s Ferry was named for Joseph Ogee, the first ferry operator at the ford across the Rock River. Ogee, a Canadian, was allowed by the Winnebagoes to begin ferry operations in 1828, just a year before Stoddard’s wagons passed. Ogee also established a store and post office at the ferry, which was on the main road from Galena to Peoria. The ferry, tavern, and post office operation was purchased by John Dixon in 1830. The city of Dixon now stands on the spot.

Walker, Jesse

Said to be an image of Methodist missionary and circuit riding preacher Jesse Walker. (Image via findagrave.com)

The Fox River Mission was established by the Rev. Jesse Walker on land purchased from the Potowatomi Tribe, on behalf of the Methodist Church, in Section 15 of Mission Township, LaSalle County (T35N, R5E). The purpose of the mission was to teach the local Native Americans a variety of skills, including farming, plus educating Native American children at a mission-run school.

Walker reported to the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church in 1825 that he had established the mission, after some confusion about the proper location, and that it included a large, two story house, built of hewn logs, measuring 50×30 feet. The house was divided into apartments for the mission staff (which mostly consisted of Walker’s extended family). The mission also included a blacksmith shop, a poultry house, a spring house and “other conveniences.”

Walker’s son-in-law, James Walker, came that same year and brought with him a horse-powered corn grinding mill. Soon after, however, James Walker moved on to a patch of timber on the DuPage River where he established a new settlement, first called Walker’s Grove, and later renamed Plainfield.

Jesse Walker reported that by 1826, the mission had 40 acres of land under cultivation, seven acres in pasture, and one acre planted in garden crops to provide food for the staff. The cost of the venture was $2,034, of which the U.S. Government had pledged to pay two-thirds since the mission staff promised to use their blacksmith to service the needs of the local Native Americans.

Although by the time Stoddard’s journey took place, the Fox River Mission had been abandoned by the Methodists, the buildings were then still standing, and would have provided some welcomed shelter after a lonely trip across the rolling Illinois prairie.

Further, it is likely the Stoddard party’s route was also planned to take advantage of an already-familiar trace across the prairie (possibly a branch of the Great Sauk Trail). Juliette Kinzie described virtually the same route Stoddard’s party took in an account of an 1831 trip from Fort Winnebago near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to Chicago with her husband and a few others.

Kinzie described the route as south to Ogee’s Ferry, east-southeast to the Fox River, east-northeast to Naper’s settlement, and then on to Chicago. Unfortunately, the Kinzies’ guide, though claiming familiarity with the area, missed “The Great Sauk Trail,” and the party reached the Fox River well north of the old Fox River Mission. According to Kinzie’s narrative, the party crossed the Fox south of modern Oswego during a raging storm instead of using the good ford a mile or so to the north, and then went on to stay at Peter Specie’s cabin in Specie Grove. From there, they were guided to Chicago by John Dougherty, one of the area’s earliest settlers.

As Stoddard’s venture suggests, some overland travel did take place from Galena to Chicago in the 1820s, but there was no surveyed road until 1833. That year, surveyors working for the State of Illinois ran the line of what would become known as the southern route of the Chicago to Galena Road, the first government road connecting the two thriving towns.

The southern route to Galena followed virtually the same route as the High Prairie Trail to Ottawa until it crossed the Des Plaines River and passed Laughton’s tavern. The stretch from the lakefront at Chicago to Laughton’s was called the Berry Point Trail. The Laughtons’ tavern was probably located on or near the site of the modern Riverside Metra Station, 18 Bloomingbank Road, North Riverside. The inscribed granite boulder in the Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve that supposedly marks the trading post site, about two miles away, was apparently placed in error according to researcher Philip Vierling. (See the EarlyChicago web site encyclopedia listings for “Laughton” for more information on this interesting early pioneer family.)

Then at Brush Hill just west of Laughton’s, the Galena Road branched off, turning more westerly towards Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement on the DuPage River. Brush Hill (renamed Fullersburg in 1859) was located on what is today U.S. Route 34 at York Road just west of the DuPage-Cook County line. After crossing the DuPage at Naper’s, the road extended west across the Oswego Prairie to the Fox River ford, located about 200 feet north of the Kane–Kendall County line in present-day Montgomery, where it crossed the river.

According to the U.S. Government survey map of Aurora Township, the Fox River ford was located in the extreme southeast corner of Section 32, near the border with Oswego Township. After the road crossed the river, it continued west and then cut through the extreme northwest corner of Section 6 of Oswego Township.

The route then bore even farther southwesterly to the Blackberry Creek ford, which is where we pick up the story of the Blackberry Creek Bridge again.

The ford was located in the north half of the southeast quarter of Section 10, T37N, R7E. Blackberry Creek must have been difficult to ford, since the road ran so far south instead of crossing on a more direct line from the Fox River ford at Montgomery. The notes that U.S. Government Surveyor Eli Prescott took as he and his crew surveyed back and forth across the creek if October 1837 described the Blackberry as “Deep & sluggish,” suggesting fords suitable for wheeled vehicles were few and far between. As a result, the surveyors laying out the course of the Galena Road bent it southwest to access what appears to have been a rare ford across the Blackberry.

After the area had become sufficiently settled and bridges were built across the Fox Valley’s streams, local road commissioners decided to stick with the long-established route of the Galena Road. And to this day, Galena Road still bends far south to cross Blackberry on a bridge at the old ford, a route that has not changed for the past 185 years.

After crossing the creek, the Galena Road finally turned northwesterly through what would become the village of Little Rock before stretching across the prairies to John Dixon’s ferry on the Rock River and on north to Galena.

As surveyed, the distance was 102 miles, the survey crew describing the route from Chicago to Dixon as “high and dry prairie.” The only expense, they optimistically suggested, would be bridging occasional streams, adding they calculated the total cost would likely not exceed $500 for the entire 102-mile route.

It wasn’t long until the McCarty brothers managed to reroute the Galena Road through the new town they were building and which they called Aurora. Their actions, including wresting a post office from Montgomery, led directly to Aurora’s growth at the expense of Montgomery. (For more on this topic, see “U.S. Mail was the Internet of the 1830s.”)

But even so, the route of the road from Chicago to Galena was not changed, and its course—including the bridge across Blackberry Creek—still remains an artifact of the Fox Valley’s pioneer era.

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Spring planting a tradition around these parts for millennia

Spring planting is about ready to begin once again on the Illinois prairie, continuing a tradition that began thousands of years ago.

The first American pioneer farmers arrived here in the Fox River Valley area in the late 1820s. But the region’s Native People had already been farming for thousands of years by the time those first settlers arrived.

Most experts previously believed that agriculture in what is now the continental U.S. was imported from Mexico, along with the trinity of subtropical crops: maize (corn), beans, and squash. What is now accepted, after decades of archaeological work, is that the eastern United States is one of about ten regions in the world to become independent centers of agricultural origin.

The initial four plants known to have been domesticated by those earliest, pre-maize prehistoric farmers were goosefoot, sunflowers, marsh elder, and squash. Several other species of plants were subsequently added to the list of domesticated wild plants.

After 200 BCE when maize—corn—from Mexico was introduced into what is now the eastern United States, the Native People of the present-day United States and Canada soon stopped growing domesticated varieties of native plants, switching to an agricultural economy based on growing fields of maize complimented by beans and squash. As that evolution took place, the cultivation of domesticated native plants declined until it was almost wholly abandoned, and the domesticated native plants quickly reverted to their wild forms.

Cultivating Crops

Native People began cultivating and modifying native plants thousands of years ago.

Horticulture intensified in the Woodland period, and most Native American populations began living in villages near their fields. In about AD 800, corn and beans reached the Mississippi Valley, and by about AD 1000, the Mississippian culture that relied on corn, beans, and squash was established in Alabama.

Squash of the Cucurbita pepo var. ozarkana variety is considered to be one of the first domesticated native plants in the Eastern Woodland region, having been found in use here some 7,000 years ago. However, it doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly domesticated until around 3,000 years ago.

That earliest variety of squash was originally raised for its edible seeds, and used for small containers (gourds) when dried. Squash with edible flesh came quite a bit later.

Other edible native plants domesticated by the region’s Native People included little barley, goosefoot or lamb’s quarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers.

These edible plants are often divided by those studying the subject into “oily” and “starchy” categories. Oily edible seeds are produced by sunflowers and sumpweeds, while erect knotweed (not to be confused with its invasive Japanese cousin) and goosefoot, a leafy vegetable, are starchy. Maygrass and little barley, both of which are grasses that produce grains that may be ground to make flour, are also starches.

So how have we discovered all this new information? According to the most recent findings by archaeologists, humans were already collecting native edible plants by 6,000. Then Native People discovered by could modify them by selective breeding and cultivation. Archaeologists confirmed that process in the 1970s when they began noticing significant differences in seeds, burned and otherwise, collected in Native Peoples’ village sites, especially when those seeds were compared to their counterparts still growing in the wild. When carefully studied, the seeds collected in village sites were not only larger, but they were also easier to separate from their shells, husks, or chaff. It was those comparisons that led archaeologists to conclude ancient farmers had begun manipulating the genetics of wild plants by selective breeding much longer ago than previously thought.

One of the major regions where these successful efforts at ancient agriculture flourished is right here in the middle Mississippi River Valley, stretching from Memphis in the south to St. Louis in the north in a belt roughly 300 miles on either side of the river in the current states of Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

So far, the oldest-known archaeological site in the United States where ancient people have been found to be purposefully growing—rather than gathering—food is the Phillips Spring site in Missouri. At Phillips Spring, dating from 3,000 BCE, Archaeologists have found large numbers of walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, grapes, elderberries, ragweed, bottle gourd, and the seeds of a gourd that produces edible seeds that is the ancestor of pumpkins and most squashes. The gourd seeds found at the site were significantly larger than the wild variety, leading archaeologists to determine the plants’ genetics had been purposefully manipulated by native farmers who selected, planted, and then carefully tended the seeds that produced ever larger and more nutritious seeds. And eventually, continual genetic manipulation led to the gourds producing edible flesh as well.

Marsh elder is one of the many native plants ancient Native People domesticated for use as food before the introduction of maize–corn–an import from Mexico.

By 1800 BCE, Native People considered part of the Late Archaic cultural tradition in our region of the United States were cultivating a number of different plants. At the Riverton Site near downstate Palestine, IL in Crawford County, archaeologists have excavated one of best-known sites that illustrate the ancient people’s cultivation and domestication of native plants. At the Riverton Site, 10 dwelling houses have been excavated and studied, suggesting a village with a population of between 50 and 100 people. The fire hearths and storage pits excavated turned out to include a large number of plant remains. Among those remains were large numbers of seeds goosefoot, also called lamb’s quarters that the scientists determined came from cultivated and domesticated plants. They reached this conclusion because some of the seeds had husks only a third as thick as the plants’ wild varieties, making them much easier to process into food after harvesting.

As the years passed into the Middle Woodland cultural tradition, gardeners continued to cultivate and improve squash and gourds as Archaic Indians had done, but they also domesticated several other native plants that are considered to be weeds today. Building on their knowledge of Illinois’ native plants, Middle Woodland people began to establish gardens of goosefoot, marsh elder, little barley, maygrass, and other varieties of squash. Each autumn, they saved seeds from the best of the plants growing in their fields and then planted them when spring rolled around again. Eventually, these Native People became increasingly committed to particular plots of land and created a way of life organized around both wild and domesticated plants.

But change, in the form of maize, was just over the horizon. Strangely enough, though, as well as we know maize—we’ve been cultivating it around these parts for many hundreds of years now—we know very little about its origin. Many of those trying to figure out where it came from have fingered a grass named teosinte as the ancestor of modern corn. But there’s a fairly serious problem: Teosinte does not have a cob. This has led some of those looking into the mystery to suggest corn’s ancestor was some other wild grass that has now disappeared entirely.

Researchers Margaret Bunson and Stephen Bunson, suggest in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesoamerica that: “The wild maize plants altered by mutation were collected by early inhabitants of Mesoamerica and slowly domesticated. The wild form appears to have become extinct, possibly through backcrossing with domesticated forms.”

One problem is, however, that this “wild form” of corn has never been found in either the historical or archaeological record.

Another significant problems is there is no evidence that the early peoples of the Americas ever used or harvested teosinte. Finally, it has been theorized for a long time now that the Maya of Central and South America had cultivated and crossbred teosinte into maize. But no evidence has ever been discovered of this, either.

About all archaeologists and plant scientists have been able to nail down is that maize quickly became the most important staple grain in ancient Mexico. Ziz maize suddenly appeared about 4800 BCE on the Gulf Coast of Tabasco, Mexico, for instance. But there are no known wild specie of it in that area, suggesting it was imported, even at that early date, from somewhere else. After its abrupt appearance, the cultivation and genetic enhancement of maize became the focus of ancient American farmers.

But while maize quickly became the most important food grain for ancient peoples beans weren’t far behind. According to most current evidence, beans were originally domesticated in Mexico and Guatemala—the same areas where Zia maize was developed. The really neat thing about the beans those ancient farmers crossbred and improved so long ago is that beans’ proteins naturally complement the proteins in maize. Beans, it turns out, produce the acids lysine and tryptophan that nicely complement the amino acid zein from maize.

So with the invention of corn and beans, two of the legs of the Native Peoples’ Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—were in place where they joined the third leg that had already been undergoing genetic breeding for thousands of years.

2017 planting corn in Illinois

In another month and a half, area farmers will once again be looking to start planting corn and beans–just as they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Although it’s pretty obvious the methods they’ll be using this year have undergone some changes.

It took a while, but gradually maize and its complimentary beans spread north into the Mississippi River Valley, where its cultivation quickly displaced growing the region’s domesticated crops. Corn, beans, and native squash and other gourds caused the abandonment of the old, locally developed, strains of little barley, lambsquarters, erect knotweed, maygrass, sumpweed or marsh elder, and sunflowers, and the reversion of the cultivated strains of those plants to their native states.

Now, many centuries after corn and beans made their way north of their native Mexico and Central America, they still make up the bulk of the fields farmers in the Fox Valley plant. Granted, today’s soybeans are a strain developed in Asia, where they were being grown as long ago as 7000 BCE. It has always seemed ironic to me that our modern soybeans were developed by the descendants of some of the same people who crossed the land bridge to North America tens of thousands of years ago to become the people who also invented corn. All of which is nice historic and prehistoric symmetry, don’t you think?

 

 

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Vacuuming our way to a cleaner America

If you have a hobby or passion, these days all you have to do learn about it is cruise the Internet. For those of us fascinated with history, the Net is a positive gold mine of information. But there are electronic niches out there for just about anyone.

My wife, for instance, has lately been obsessed with housecleaning ideas. And so she spends time watching YouTube videos of ladies all over the world explaining how they clean their houses and on what schedules, which might seem odd to some, but are of surpassing interest to her.

Actually, housecleaning here in the U.S. is big business. If you don’t believe me, just watch daytime TV for about a half hour and count the number of commercials for household cleaning products, or walk down the housewares aisles in your average Meijer or Walmart store.

Although I’m not down with housecleaning as a major facet of my life, I have to admit I do enjoy watching those vacuum cleaner commercials on TV. The machines look all shiny and futuristic, and that Dyson guy you used to see all the time had a cool British accent, which, I imagine, got the attention of the ladies, at least. Even though all he really was was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Consumer Reports remains unconvinced that paying many hundreds of dollars for one of Dyson’s creations (or anyone else’s, for that matter) makes much financial sense when you can pick up a perfectly good vacuum at Meijer or Sears or Best Buy for about $100 that performs as well if not better.

Grandma's Kenmore

My grandmother’s Kenmore canister vacuum was our first in 1966 and soldiered on until the 21st Century.

After we got married, our personal vacuum cleaner experience began with my grandmother’s late 1940s vintage Kenmore tank-type machine, which we were gifted along with the family refrigerator and family apartment-sized gas stove. The Kenmore was nicely torpedo-shaped, and was mounted on a sort of hand-truck so it could be trundled from room to room or up and down stairs. We loved that vac, and I think it might still be out in the barn somewhere

When we moved from my great-great grandmother’s old 1850s-era home into my great-grandmother’s much more modern (definition: central heat) 1908 house in 1976, my mother (my parents preceded us in ownership) left her Hoover upright for us to use. A late 1950s model, it was a lot newer than the Kenmore, and did a better job on wall-to-wall carpeting. The Kenmore was relegated to the second floor, for use on un-carpeted wooden floors. After my grandmother’s death in the late 1970s, we inherited her “new” Hoover upright, purchased in the early 1960s. The old upright went upstairs, and the “new” Hoover became the main vac. The canister went down to the basement to become a shop vacuum. Since then, we’ve purchased three new vacuums, all black, sinister looking Eurekas with fearsome suction power that have been doing good work for about 20 years now.

Back when we bought the first Eureka, we noticed the new vacuum worked a lot better than the old Hoover, which meant we had different standards against which to judge a clean floor.

That’s the thing about “clean;” especially when you’re talking about the past, it’s a relative concept.

For instance, our colonial forebears had a far different concept of “clean” than we do today. Garbage, animal droppings, dirt, and dust were all thrown into the street, creating what was a truly remarkable bouquet on warm, humid summer evenings. Combine that with the general population’s distrust of regular bathing, and the mind boggles at what the aroma must have been like, say, having a beer with the boys down at the local stagecoach tavern.

Half-faced camp

Cleaning house took a backseat to keeping warm and dry for the earliest pioneer families who made due with a half-faced camp while they built their first log cabin.

When the 19th century made its debut, cleanliness appeared to be on the upswing—at least comparatively. But frankly, for most of the Americans who decided to blaze a trail or two west, keeping clean wasn’t a priority. After they arrived along the Fox River following a month or more on the trail, settlers built their half-faced camps (your basic lean-tos) and lived there until their log cabins could be raised. While that process continued, cleanliness was not much of a consideration; keeping dry and warm were the main goals.

Even after a pioneer family’s log cabin was erected, cleanliness wasn’t easy. For instance, most of the earliest cabins had dirt floors. Pioneer women tried to keep the floors swept, and surprisingly, they managed to make some of those early cabins look neat. One trick was to sprinkle salt on the floor while sweeping. Eventually, the combination of foot traffic and sweeping hardened the salt and dirt floor into something resembling thin concrete that could actually be kept sort of clean. Even so, after a few months living with dirt floors, most pioneer wives insisted on a wooden floor made from split logs called puncheons.

rag rug strip

Old clothing could be recycled into rag rugs on looms like my great-grandmother’s. Long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs of just about any size.

Keeping things what we’d consider clean didn’t really get a good push until the germ theory of disease was finally accepted—which didn’t take place, remarkably, until after Robert Koch’s work was published in 1881. Until then keeping things clean wasn’t a priority for many Americans, with the notable exception of New Englanders and Quakers. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard (not the Bible), suggested “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Especially on the frontier, though, folks just weren’t buying it. But from the time germ theory was generally accepted, house cleaning became a major preoccupation of housewives, spurred on by how-to articles in women’s and farm magazines and later pushed by farm and social organizations that stressed its utility is preventing and fighting illness.

By the late 19th Century, area rugs in homes, even farm homes, were common. To create a room-sized rug, long strips of manufactured ingrain wool carpeting or handmade rag rugs were sewn together. My great-grandmother was a rag rug weaver in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—we still have the handmade loom on which she made them—who made money recycling folks’ old clothes into rugs.

Ingrain Carpet strip

Wool cut pile ingrain carpeting was the first commercially available after the proper looms were perfected in the 1850s. Like rag rugs, long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs.

It was common to use clean straw as padding for carpeting in those days, with fresh beds of the stuff laid down after spring and fall housecleaning. By the time the household had walked on the straw rug padding for a few months it largely turned into dust, which was another reason good housewives found spring and fall housecleaning necessary.

Until after the first two decades of the 20th Century, housecleaning was virtually all done manually during spring and fall housecleaning. The carpet was taken apart into its component strips, taken outdoors, and the accumulated dirt, straw, and dust was physically beaten out of it with carpet beaters. Dirt and dust indoors was swept up using brooms, or dusted off using dust cloths and feather dusters.

And then came the first un-powered carpet sweepers, which were better than nothing.

But when electricity arrived, even in rural areas, in the 1930s, keeping things clean got a real boost.

My grandfather was always fond of gadgets. He had his farm neighborhood’s first gasoline-powered tractor and its first radio, a battery-powered Neutrodyne 500 five-tube table model made by the Wm. J. Murdock Co. in 1925, with a large horn for a speaker. It also had jacks for two sets of headphones. And, early-adopter he was, after rural electrification got to their farmstead he bought one of the earliest electric vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. He was so proud of it that he took it around to show his Wheatland Township neighbors, using it to vacuum “clean” carpets to show how efficient it was. The amount of dirt that came out of rugs that had just been beaten or cleaned with a carpet sweeper always amazed people. At least one farmer became very upset with his wife after such a demonstration, telling her he thought she said she worked hard cleaning house. From the look of the pile of dust that Grandpa emptied out of his newfangled vacuum, she wasn’t working hard enough, the fellow fumed. My grandfather always said he was sorry his enthusiastic demonstration of his new labor saving tool got his neighbor’s wife in trouble. I’ve always thought that story was interesting because it illustrated that my grandfather, unlike his neighbor, didn’t blame my grandmother for not working hard enough, but was fascinated that a machine could clean more effectively than even the best housewife.

1930s Kenmore upright

With the extension of electrical service, even into rural areas, by the 1930s electric vacuums became the best way to keep carpeting clean.

During the 1930s and 1940s, most homes in the U.S. were wired for electricity and got indoor plumbing, both of which made keeping things clean a whole lot easier. It became so easy, in fact, that cleanliness became the norm, giving rise to whole industries, not the least of which was that fixture of the post-World War II years, the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. That era, too, is pretty much over now with the exception of the occasional Kirby or Rainbow vacuum cleaner salesman who requests an appointment to conduct entertaining (if, at least for us, unproductive) demonstrations.

Benjamin Franklin, as I noted above, writing as Poor Richard, contended that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and from all the soap and cleaning commercials you see on TV, we seem to have taken his aphorism to heart. Nowadays, we’ve got the technology to really do a number on dirt. We mean business, and speaking for my household at least, one of these weekends, we’re really going to clean house.

 

 

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