Category Archives: Environment

Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual during the cold weather months of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with those old coal-fired furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.

Today, coal is still an economic factor in Illinois (although a fast-diminishing one), although the uses to which it is now put have drifted far from home heating and firing kitchen cookstoves. Its modern uses would no doubt astound the explorers who discovered the mineral in the Illinois of the 1600s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and missionary Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., were the first Europeans to discover coal in what would one day become the State of Illinois.

In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”

These two instances were, in point of fact, the first discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for many years, however.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was first commercially mined in Illinois along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. Several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans that year.

As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal continued to be found in some abundance. Coal was found near the salines (salt producing areas) in Gallatin and Vermillion Counties, and as early as 1822 coal was shipped down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from Peoria to New Orleans.

19th Century coal mining

Coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous business. But it helped power Illinois as one of the nation’s premier industrial states.

Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers because of the problems transporting the stuff to market. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal that was mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi for heating and to fuel steam engines.

John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal. The line’s cars were horse-drawn from the mines over six miles of wooden rails to Illinoistown—modern East St. Louis—where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped down the Mississippi.

And the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.

By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal regularly—measurement in tons was several years in the future. The measurement in bushels indicates that at that time, coal was shipped in burlap bags, each of which had to be filled, and then moved on and off transports, from wagons to rail cars to riverboats for shipment.

Most of the early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs, or stream banks. Shaft mines were needed to reach the rich, thick veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining had to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.

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Tons of coal were hauled annually through Ottawa on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, cheaper than by rail. But the canal was closed due to winter freezes for several months a year.

By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal when it opened in 1848, which provided means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Erie, Penn.

Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source of fueling locomotives than was wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal fields in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free prairies in the central part of the state. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and shaft mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau, and Rock Island Counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox Counties, and the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermilion County.

Here in the Fox River Valley, coal was a vital resource for homes and businesses, and the CB&Q’s monopoly on transporting it, and therefore feeling free to gouge it’s customers, led to building the independent Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad linking the Vermilion coal fields in Streator with Geneva. From Ottawa north through Yorkville and Oswego on north, the tracks paralleled the course of the Fox River. But literally the minute the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to seize control of the new line and so was still able to dictate coal prices. The first railcar loads of coal on the new line arrived in Kendall County towns in January 1871, priced one-third higher than it had been promised when the line was being built.

As John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record complained in the paper’s Nov. 21, 1872 edition: The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

Throughout the 19th Century, continual efforts were made to secure adequate coal supplies for Kendall County’s farms and villages, even to the point of looking for it inside the county. And occasional coal seams were located. In 1887, coal was discovered by well-drillers in Fox Township, in Lisbon Township and in Oswego Township. But all the discoveries were too deep underground and the seams too thin to warrant sinking mine shafts.

Cliggitt Grain Elevator, Oswego, Dec. 2, 1911. Photo by Dwight S. Young.

The coal sheds at Oswego were located across the tracks of the CB&Q Railroad’s Fox River Branch from the Oswego Grain Company’s elevator. Oswego businessman John W. Chapman received the line’s first shipment of coal in January 1871. (Dwight Young photo in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

Since railroads, mining, and manufacturing—particularly producing iron and steel—were all interrelated, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of prairie farming.

At the start of the Civil War, iron and steel production was a growing, but still not an overly important industry. With the outbreak of war, however, domestic sources of these important metals were badly needed, and during the next 25 years, the United States grew to become the world’s leading steel and iron producer.

Because of Chicago’s strategic location between the iron mines of Lake Superior and the coal fields of central Illinois, the city soon became one of the nation’s leading centers of manufacturing and transportation. That also spread to the areas nearby, particularly Joliet, where starting in 1869 the Joliet Iron & Steel Works produced pig iron and in 1873 started out producing thousands of miles of railroad rails from its rolling mill. The Joliet Iron & Steel Company owned a dam on the DesPlaines River that powered four blast furnaces that could turn out 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. The iron mill closed in 1936, and the steel mill was finally completely shuttered in the early 1980s.

Coal mining underwent many changes over the years, too, with shaft mines being gradually replaced by huge open pit mines, such as those operated by the Peabody Coal Company in Grundy County, just south of the Kendall County line.

Image result for DeKalb County Illinois wind farm

Wind farms like this one in DeKalb County have popped all over northern Illinois’ rural countryside, part of the effort to replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Today, coal’s use as a fuel for electrical generating plants is rapidly dying out as more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of producing power, such as wind and solar energy are displacing it. A new study released this past May found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants nationally with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, with wind power in particular at times cutting the cost almost in half. Overseas, Sweden is pledging to be coal-free by 2040 and in South America, Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Coal isn’t just inefficient and expensive, it’s also dangerous to the environment. Burning coal spews a dismaying amount of aggressive pollutants into the atmosphere, many of which have been proven to worsen global climate change. Climate data captured in tree growth rings; ocean and lake sediments; ice cores; and other forms of data show that the effect on the world’s climate by burning coal began to show up almost as soon as coal began to power the Industrial Revolution—and that was on top of climate changes already put in place as early man began farming and otherwise changing the landscape to suit himself.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average coal generating plant, because of the trace elements coal contains, leaks more radiation into the environment than does a nuclear power plant. So it’s a good thing coal’s on its way out as a way to produce electrical power and that renewable resources from solar and wind to hydro and thermal are quickly replacing it.

But for decades, coal not only powered the nation in general, but it also powered Illinois’ ascension as one of the nation’s industrial powerhouses. Today, the challenge is to try to deal with all of the environmental problems we created for ourselves during that era.

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

When it was summer and the livin’ was easy…

Summer has not yet quite officially arrived in the Fox Valley, although summer vacation has. Family vacations are on the horizon, and the newly out-of-school kids are able to ignore the fact they’ll have to get back in the academic harness in a few months. Instead, they’re settling into whatever summer routines their parents have mapped out for them.

These days, in fact, kids are heavily scheduled and deeply involved in a variety of organized sports, from the littlest tots to teens. Practice for upcoming Youth Tackle Football League games is starting along with soccer practice, tennis practice, and a variety of other sports leagues that would have astonished us here in Oswego 60 years ago. And that doesn’t even count the swimming lessons, craft activities, reading programs, and all the other things parents get their kids involved in.

1958 Fishing expedition

Oswego kids line up at the Red Brick School for a 1958 fishing derby at Hafenrichter’s Pond sponsored by the Oswego Park District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in the late 1950s when I was just a kid, the group I traveled with loathed structured activities of any kind, which was probably a good thing, since there weren’t too many of those kinds of things to do anyway. We did have Little League baseball, provided by the park district, but I lost my enthusiasm for that when John Seidelman threw a high hard one inside and managed to hit me right in the ear hole of my batting helmet one day. After picking myself up off the batter’s box, I found my enthusiasm for baseball had disappeared. In fact, I haven’t liked baseball all that much ever since.

We also had the summer youth programs of the Oswego (later Oswegoland) Park District overseen by Ford Lippold up at the Little White School and the Red Brick School, but we weren’t much interested in them, either.

Spanky & the Gang

The Little Rascals, with Spanky third from the left.

Mostly, we hung around in a group and played along Waubonsie Creek and the Fox River. Our games were greatly influenced by two books, Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington and The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, not to mention “The Little Rascals” movie short comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Penrod and Sam concerned two boys growing up in the early years of the 20th Century. Their adventures enthralled us, and we tried to pattern ourselves after Penrod, Sam, and their friends. The Story of a Bad Boy, on the other hand, was Aldrich’s semi-autobiography about a boy growing up in a small New England town in the 1850s who wasn’t a bad boy at all. He did get into some interesting scrapes, though. And he and his friends had the neatest snowball war any of us had ever heard about. The “Our Gang” comedies, of course, involved Alfalfa, Spanky, the beautiful Darla, and their gang of friends who had the neatest adventures and cobbled together the most wonderful inventions ever.

Daguerrotype of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Daguerrotype in the Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Upon rereading as an adult, however, Penrod and Sam, published in 1916, is startling for its casual racism. During the 1950s growing up here along the banks of the Fox River, though, none of us knew what racism was. I recall being extremely confused when a friend who had traveled through the South reported there were separate bathrooms and water fountains just for black people, and it made us all wonder how come black people couldn’t drink out of everybody else’s water fountains. After all, we’d been going to school with black kids for years and they didn’t have to do that in Oswego. It really puzzled us. Even with its early 20th Century racism, however, Penrod and Sam is still an extremely funny book and we all read it several times.

The Story of a Bad Boy is still one of my very favorite books, although I can’t seem to persuade anyone else of its worth. And there, too, there was disappointment when I got old enough to learn more about Aldrich. Despite his charming book, Aldrich turned out to be an adherent of preventing immigration, particularly that of Catholics. But it’s possible to forget Aldrich’s foibles when submerged in his marvelous tale about his youthful hero, Tom Bailey, and his friends growing up in a small 19th Century seacoast town.

1957 Pinochle Bunch kids

Nothing like cold watermelon on a hot summer day. The author, in his favorite cap won at a carnival in Oswego, is third from left.

“The Little Rascals” movies, that we watched as part of the numerous local kids’ TV shows of the 1950s have worn extremely well. Even so, every once in a while, some Hollywood genius decides to try reviving them with always disastrous results. It’s really impossible to improve on or recreate a true classic.

After having studied up using the right books and absorbed as much “Rascals” lore as we could, we ventured forth each summer to have fun—and have fun we did. The woods near my home became our special preserve. We built bicycle trails throughout the stand of young soft maples woods, and built a series of three villages located on those trails. We maintained the houses and trails in the woods for about two years, I think, before we were forced to move elsewhere by unfriendly neighbors.

1962 Paul & fish

We spent a LOT of time on the Fox River. Above, my fishing buddy Paul holds up a big carp he caught. We still go fishing together twice a year.

Shortly before the move, we obtained our first river boats, and so became even more independent. My boat was purchased from a young man in Aurora, as I recall. It resembled nothing so much as the kind of large wooden box that contractors mix cement in.

It was very heavy, made of one inch lumber throughout, with a three-quarter inch plywood bottom. It even had a keel, for what reason I was never able to determine. About all the keel did was to catch on the rocks on the bottom of the shallow Fox River.

Granted, my boat was very heavy, but that meant it was also very stable. Three of my friends could stand on the gunwale at one time, and the boat would come nowhere near to tipping over.

The nice thing about the Fox, of course, was that it was so shallow that it was difficult—though not impossible—to find a place deep enough in which to drown. There were holes, of course, but we learned where nearly all of them were and stayed away from them.

After it became too much of a hassle to keep our towns on the mainland, we moved to a large island in the river where we built similar houses and forts.

The move to the island occasioned the need for a communications system from the island to the mainland, and from there to our tree house. It was determined that tying letters to arrows and shooting them from the island to the mainland and from there to the tree house was the answer to our problems. On the first test of our new communications system, the fellow standing in the field on the mainland came within six inches of getting the arrow with the message through his foot, but he gamely picked up the arrow and message and shot it up to the base of the tree in which we had our fort. The plan was then to attach the note to a hunting arrow and shoot it up into the bottom of the trapdoor of the tree house. As he shot the arrow, however, the fellow on the ground yelled, “Here it comes!” Not quite hearing him, another of my compatriots opened up the trap door to ask what he said, just as the hunting arrow whistled past his ear. After narrowly averting disaster twice during the first message test, we decided to scrap the system for something a little less hazardous.

Image result for Elmer the Elephant chicago tv

Elmer the Elephant: Gone but not forgotten.

I’m not sure what kids read these days, but I suspect that neither Penrod and Sam nor The Story of a Bad Boy are among the books parents will allow in the house. And, sadly, “The Little Rascals” comedies are not broadcast daily on the kind of live-action kids’ shows we tuned into back in the day like “Here’s Geraldine” or “Elmer the Elephant.”

I suppose, with the number of kids we have today, all these modern structured activities might really be necessary. I’m glad I never had to cope with them, though. For me, it was much more fun spending the summer with Penrod, Spanky, and Tom Bailey.

 

 

 

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, Fox River, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

Wetlands and meanders: Old problems that could be new solutions…

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found tallgrass prairies dotted with open groves of mixed hardwood trees. The prairie, however, was not a simple grass monoculture.

In their descriptions, the settlers divided prairie into wet prairie and dry prairie, with dry prairie the most desirable for farming, but not always the most prevalent. Drier, higher prairie was quickly claimed by the first settlers, and later arrivals were forced to settle land with fens, sloughs, and marshes. Bristol Township was notorious among early pioneers for having a lot more than its share of wetlands, and was derisively referred to as “Slough Grass,” “Pond Lilly,” and “Bull Rush” by the pioneers.

While wetlands may have been viewed with sarcasm, they were no laughing matter in those early days. Although rich in wildlife, wetlands tended to come with a dismaying number of sicknesses for early residents. Outbreaks of ague—malaria—and other diseases were blamed on “miasmas” that supposedly emanated from wetlands. Not until the germ theory of disease was discovered and gained acceptance many decades later did people realize insects that favored wet habitats spread sickness, not mysterious invisible swamp vapors.

Since there was no effective chemical insect control available, that knowledge probably wouldn’t have saved the wetlands, because draining them had the desired effect by eliminating mosquitoes. As the area’s extensive wetlands were drained, malaria was virtually eradicated. And just as importantly for those early farmers, formerly wet prairie became productive farmland.

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George L. Griffin and J.H. Carper of Dallas City, Illinois invented this improved mole ditcher in 1860. Their main improvement was to make the machine cut its drainage tunnel with less effort on the horses or oxen pulling it.

Drainage work on the thousands of acres of wetland really started as soon as the settlers arrived. Initial efforts were fairly simple and labor intensive as ditches were dug from wetlands to the nearest streams.

In 1854, the mole ditcher was invented, a sort of subterranean plow that created a small underground tunnel. It took a lot of oxen and muscle power, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile of wetland a day. But while the machine worked well in clay soils, drain tunnels pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

The other major technique was to build underground drain pipes of wooden boards or stone, but that was expensive in both labor and capital.

Then in the 1860s, clay tile began to look like the best bet to drain wetlands. Tile plants in Joliet and Chicago began advertising in The Prairie Farmer magazine and drainage efforts accelerated and quickly expanded. Even more ambitious drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

The move towards draining ever more land led to entrepreneurs starting to manufacture their own field tile using locally-available clays. In April 1879, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted: “Samples of the [drainage] tile made at Millington can be seen at Willett & Welch’s implement room in Yorkville. Farmers should examine it.”

The new clay drainage tile technology allowed even the largest wetlands, such as the Great Wabasia Swamp, which covered 367 acres in northern Oswego and southern Aurora townships, to be drained by the 1890s.

By Jan. 1, 1884, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmers had laid the astonishing total of 800 miles of drainage tile throughout Kendall County alone.

Then in August that same year, the Record noted that tile making had come to Yorkville: “Joseph Tarbox is getting out a first quality of tile with his new machine, and has at his yard a general assortment of all sizes; and he will not be undersold by anyone. Address, Yorkville, Ill. Tile and brick yard on the north side, near the fairgrounds.”

On Nov. 17, 1897, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that: “Mr. Job Wampah is hauling large size tile–12-inch–from Plainfield so as to close up an open ditch across part of his farm. Land is nearly all drained out in this part of the country. What a difference between now and 25 years ago when ponds and swales were on every farm. When politicians tell of the great change that came over the country in ‘73, they should not forget to state that farmers began tiling about that time.”

From 1905 to 1910, $60,000 (a small fortune in those days) was spent in Bristol Township alone to tile and drain a total of 3,200 acres of wetlands.

Channelizing Waubonsie CreekWater drained by the county’s vast tile systems had to have someplace to go, so creeks were modified for fast drainage by channelizing—straightening and deepening them—to speed run-off to either the Fox River or AuSable Creek. As a result, rainwater that was once stockpiled in the county’s numerous wetlands and allowed to run off slowly was encourage to quickly flow away. The increased velocity of stormwater and spring melt runoff is often destructive in the short term as raging waters create severe erosion and other damage.

Fast runoff from its watershed combined with destruction of wetland has also had a drastic long-term effect on the Fox River. By the early years of the 20th Century, according to C.W. Rolfe, writing in The Fishes of Illinois published in 1908, the volume of the Fox River’s flow at its low water rate in late summer was half of its estimated low water flow in the 1830s. Tiling, ditching, and draining did not stop, of course, something that continued to plague the river during the next century. A measurement taken by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Fox River in 1975 north of Aurora showed that its low water flow rate had further declined by about 15 percent from Rolfe’s time.

Another cause for concern reported in the mid-1970s was the discovery that between 1905 and 1971 two “indicator” species of small fish that require access to wetlands to spawn, the Blacknose Shiner and the Iowa Darter, had completely disappeared from the Fox River system, both casualties of wetland destruction.

The destruction of wetlands has caused the county’s streams to resemble aquatic yo-yos, their levels bouncing up and down during successive wet and dry periods, sometimes within a matter of days of each other. In addition, the descendants of the very farmers who drained the wetlands have been adversely affected as ground water levels, once maintained by extensive wetlands, declined over the decades.

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

The devastating Flood of 1996 turned Waubonsie Creek into a raging torrent that nearly destroyed the railroad bridge crossing it near downtown Oswego. Wetlands and creek meanders eliminated more than a century before might have mitigated some of the flooding.

Most of the county’s wetlands did not totally and completely disappear, however, as unfortunate homeowners living in developments built on former marsh and swamp land often discover following rain storms or fast snow melt. Even with drainage patterns changed by the engineering of new subdivisions, commercial developments, and roads, the land tends to revert to its natural state during high water periods—and for a lot of county land, the natural state was that wet prairie noted above. In fact, old survey maps and historical accounts of the county’s early days suggest residents of more than one new development may have cause for continuing concern as many of them found out during the huge Flood of 1996 that resurrected a number of ancient marshes and sloughs following 17” of rain.

At least one solution for the intermittent flooding that plagues the area has gradually become apparent during the past few decades: Restore some of the area’s wetlands. Just as they did 160 years ago, wetlands can be used to slow flood waters to decrease the water’s damaging velocity and store the runoff for slower release, which reduces or even prevents flood damage. Side benefits—although naturalists would class them as major benefits—are that wetlands cleanse the streams they empty into by filtering polluted run-off from roads and parking lots. They also enrich the area’s wildlife diversity by attracting birds and other animals and creating spawning grounds for fish. And unlike the pioneers, we know how to deal with disease carrying insects that might be attracted to wetlands through sound ecological management.

When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like persuading Mother Nature to use her own tricks to help solve problems we’ve caused ourselves.

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

The huge impact of 19th Century roads on area towns is largely unappreciated

Downtown redevelopment frenzies seem to come and go with some regularity. From Montgomery to Yorkville to Plano and Sandwich, towns around this area keep looking for ways to revitalize their historic downtown business districts.

For instance,  back in 2005, Oswego wrapped up a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment project. Montgomery got into the act, too, with the end result being their wonderful new village hall, historic Settler’s Cottage, and extensive cleanup. Most recent was Yorkville’s (so far successful) attempt to preserve its downtown in the face of the widening Ill. Route 47 to five lanes right smack through the middle of their historic Bridge Street business district.

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Oswego’s downtown business district (looking north from Van Buren Street) under construction in August 2001. The project wasn’t completed for a few more years. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each of these communities faces its own challenges, even though each town’s business district is so much different than the others.

Talk to an economic historian about why communities develop the way they do, and you’ll likely get an eye-glazing lecture on, among other things, modern interpretations of S.H. Goodin’s central place theory and the definition of hinterlands. Those things certainly have had great effects on municipal development. But here in the Fox Valley area, the single most important aspect of why and how our communities evolved the way they have seems to have had more to do with transportation—in particular, transportation routes that existed in the middle two-thirds of the 19th Century—than other factors.

The results are interesting to contemplate. Plainfield, for instance, has a large downtown business district situated along what used to be U.S. Route 30, which ran through the middle of its business district until it was rerouted around downtown some years ago. Oswego’s business district is bordered on two sides by busy U.S. Route 34, the main, and often traffic-snarled, route through the village. Montgomery’s tiny downtown is flanked to the west by Ill. Route 31 and to the east by the Fox River. Yorkville, in a situation somewhat similar to Plainfield, has its respectable downtown business district bisected by busy Ill. Route 47.

Meanwhile, the tiny Kendall County community of Plattville has what once passed for a business district that meandered along Plattville Road, which runs through the middle of the village. Likewise, the hamlet of Little Rock in northwestern Kendall County also rambles along the road through town, in this case the old state stagecoach road to Galena. Plano’s downtown was designed to be bisected by the main line of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad while Sandwich’s Main Street (not to be confused with the street the business district is on) is perpendicular to the main line tracks, which inconveniently arrived after the village was platted.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Although Montgomery has a Main Street running parallel to the Fox River, it’s main business district became oriented to Mill Street and its bridge across the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

In each case, transportation routes arguably had the largest influence on how and where these business districts were located and eventually laid out, while each community’s location in the hinterland of a nearby larger community had an important impact on the size and makeup of each downtown.

Although Montgomery has a Main Street, the business district is located to its east and stretches along Mill, River, and Webster streets, similar to the meandering layouts of the hamlets of Little Rock and Plattville. Oswego’s main business district, a three block section of Main Street, is located parallel to the Fox River while Yorkville’s, which is about the same size, is sited perpendicular to the river. How did it all happen?

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, actually laid the village out with a Main Street that, like Oswego’s, ran parallel to the Fox River. But economic realities changed Gray’s vision so that businesses gradually grew up along the streets that led to the modern bridge (located north of Gray’s original 1830s bridge) across the river. Thus the gentle S route formed by Mill, River, and Webster streets became the de facto business district.

Meanwhile, Oswego’s founders laid out Main Street along the economically vital Chicago to Ottawa Road and immediately adjacent to the Joliet to Dixon road that crossed the river at Oswego on its way west across the prairie. Probably because the Ottawa Road was the more economically important connection in the 1830s and 1840s, the business district remained strong along Main Street. By the time the first bridge was built across the river in 1848, Main Street was established as the business district.

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

Yorkville’s Bridge Street, shown here looking north in 1893, became the town’s main thoroughfare, even though it ran perpendicular to the community’s two Main Streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in Yorkville, a different dynamic was at work. The Fox River Road, the stagecoach and mail route from Ottawa to Geneva, did not pass through Yorkville. Instead it ran through neighboring Bristol on the north bank of the Fox River. And the post road from Ottawa to Chicago (now Ill. Route 71) bypassed Yorkville to the south. Yorkville had been named the county seat by a state commission in 1841, but voters decided to move it to Oswego in 1845. As a result, Yorkville didn’t get a post office until 1864 when the county seat moved back from Oswego (Bristol’s post office had been established in 1839). Because the post office used by Yorkville residents was on the north side of the river in Bristol, along with connection to the busy Fox River Trail, and the location of the Chicago to Ottawa Road was well south of the river, Yorkville’s business district grew in a north-south orientation. The main route through the business district is called Bridge Street, denoting the importance of the river crossing to the city’s economy. And that’s despite two Main Streets in Yorkville, one on either side of the river. one in the old village of Bristol running parallel to the river on the north side and one in Yorkville proper, running perpendicular to the river on the south side.

Just as their orientation and layout is different, so too are the sizes of the three communities’ business districts, which grow in size the farther they are from Aurora.

Plainfield, on the other hand, is far enough from either Aurora or Joliet to have developed its own large independent business district, similar to Naperville’s. Plano and Sandwich, both fairly typical railroad towns, were mercantile centers in their own right early on with downtowns fueled by the passenger and economic traffic brought by rail lines. Compare them to Little Rock and Plattville, hamlets that owed their existence to the roads to Galena and Ottawa, respectively. The two villages declined precipitately when the rail lines extending west of Chicago missed both.

Today, 170 years after most of Kendall County’s town-founding took place, transportation is still shaping the towns we live in—for better or (more often) for worse. And as change occurs, it might be useful to recall that this isn’t the first time such major transformations and dislocations took place. Nor, I think it’s safe to say, will it be the last.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Believe it or not, dandelions not only taste good, they’re good for you, too.

They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.

Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.

The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.

A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.

The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.

Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.

Dandelion C

Dandelions are native to Europe where they’ve been used medicinally for centuries, thus their scientific name, Taraxacum officianale.

“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.

While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.

Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.

The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.

In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.

dandelion BActually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.

But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.

Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.

Dandelion greens

It’s important to pick only greens from dandelions that haven’t blossomed yet, otherwise bitterness will overtake the greens’ sharp, peppery taste.

Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.

My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.

The recipe:

  • One egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup half & half or cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar.

Image result for digging dandelion greens In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.

But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.

On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.

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A look inside the Fox River’s mills from Montgomery to Yorkville

On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills once served local residents.

Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and a sawmill and furniture factory—exist and are probably familiar to lots of this blog’s readers. One of those photographs, in fact, is on the heading of this blog page.

But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. What kind of tools and equipment were required to turn grain into flour at the three gristmills? What kind of tools did workers at that furniture factory use? Fortunately, there was a way to find out.

1891 Oswego Cooperative Creamery

The Oswego Cooperative Creamery at South Adams and Tyler streets as illustrated on the 1891 Oswego Fire Insurance Company map shows the detail available about commercial structures. The building’s yellow color means it was a frame structure. (Little White School Museum collection)

For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. The maps included accurate building footprints, color-coded to record building materials for not only the building itself, but also any additions, including porches. Each building is accurately depicted how it sits on the lot or parcel of land where it’s located. In addition, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents are also listed so insurance adjusters could determine the amount of loss in case of fire. All four mills on my stretch of river had been recorded by Sanborn.

Starting as soon as the region’s pioneer millwrights arrived, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. Upon arrival, the miller weighed the grain and then shunted it by bins and chutes into the smut room to prepare it for milling.

In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove bad grains.

1838 Gorton's mill and dam

The mill and dam built by the Gorton Brothers on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township. The Gortons sold the dam and mill to Nathaniel Rising in 1840. Rising added a sawmill on the east bank of the river in 1848 and then sold the mills and dam to William Parker in 1852. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, turned, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’

Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. When the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour produced was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins, and from there to the bolter.

1900 abt Parker Mills

William Parker & Son’s sawmill and furniture factory in the foreground (the downstream addition perpendicular to the river is the furniture factory) and gristmill across the river to the left. High water has nearly submerged the dam in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a grain of wheat or corn. The bolter was octagonal reel, usually 16 feet long and mounted at a gentle incline. The reel was covered with a series of open weave cloth of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water power slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, middlings towards the middle of the reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.

A middling purifier was also part of the Parker mill’s equipment. The machine was used to separate the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter separated in the middle of the bolting process.

In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ grain from the stalks.

Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain in trade, whichever the farmer preferred.

1900 abt Parker Mill & Furniture Factory crop

Parker and Son’s sawmill and furniture factory on the east bank of the Fox River. The sawmill is parallel to the river; the millrace ran beneath and powered a turbine water wheel. The furniture factory is the addition perpendicular to the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located opposite the gristmill at the east end of the Fox River dam. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite his gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.

By 1885, the sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.

The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand will be on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum when their core exhibit is finished in mid-March.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, built this gristmill of native limestone in 1853. Gray built the original bridge across the Fox just downstream from its current location where the original stagecoach trail crossed the river on Jefferson Street, and connected to Montgomery Road. The first covered bridge was moved to Montgomery from Aurora in 1868. This photo was probably taken around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—ran just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of modern metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.

Down in today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.

By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining both the mills and the dams they required. Both dams and mills were frequently damaged or completely destroyed by floods and the spring ice break-up, while low water levels could cause the mills to shut down for long periods while they waited for rain to raise the water level.

2018 8-8 Parker Sawmill foundation

The flagstone foundation of the Parker & Son Sawmill is still in existence today, offering an inviting spot for anglers and nature lovers. (photo by Roger Matile, 2018)

The region’s water-powered mills were replaced by steam-powered grain elevators that popped up along area railroad lines. Elevators not only could process grain, but they could also store it so farmers could wait to sell until prices were right. And local furniture factories like Parker’s, were replaced by giant far-off factories that could undersell locally produced furniture.

But though they’ve been gone for many decades, some evidence of the era when the Fox River powered mills at dams along it’s entire length are still around if you look closely enough.

 

 

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Winter travel in Illinois was always a challenge, but at least it was bug-free

Let’s say you’re a French colonial fur trader, and a resident of the Illinois Country in the late 1600s. In order to get here, you had to paddle a birch bark canoe loaded with several hundred pounds of trade goods all the way from Montreal.

Now it’s winter, and the snow has drifted deep outside your snug cabin at your fur trade post. The temperatures have dropped well below zero, much colder than it ever got in your native Provence. So what do you do now, during the short January days?

Road trip!

It turns out the winter months, not known as the most temperate or comfortable time of year in the Illinois and the rest of the Midwest, was a favored traveling time for the Europeans who began arriving in these parts more than 300 years ago.

Given that Gor-Tex and down parkas from L.L. Bean wouldn’t be invented for another three centuries, why was January and February the prime colonial travel season in Illinois?

The answer is a simple four-letter word: bugs. Illinois during most of the year was afflicted with a dismayingly large collection of biting insects including flies, mosquitoes, wasps and hornets, and a huge collections of others that made life on the Illinois prairie miserable between the last frost of spring and the first frost of late autumn. About the only way to make sure the critters wouldn’t suck every last drop of blood out of man or beast was to wait until everything froze solid.

Even given the primitive state of cold weather gear of the era, it was far preferable to deal with frostbite rather than hordes of biting insects.

1680 LaSalle on snowshoes

During the late winter of 1680, Robert Cavelier de La Salle and a couple companions hiked from Peoria to Canada, as imagined by artist George Catlin in this painting. While LaSalle was prompted to take his winter walk due to financial problems, it was also easier to travel thanks to the lack of biting flies and mosquitoes.

The early settlers divided Illinois prairies into two classes, dry and wet. Wet prairies were your basic marshes—a marsh being a swamp without trees—which were prime breeding grounds for not only mosquitoes but also the biting flies that made such an impression on so many early travelers.

According to John Madson in Where the Sky Began, there can be up to ten million insects to each acre of the kind of tallgrass prairie that covered Kendall County 300 years ago, and continued to cover it until the first pioneer farmers began planting fields of corn in the late 1820s.

A dismayingly large number of insect species are native to Illinois, but the ones that most tormented early travelers and settlers were the biting and stinging flies that swarmed over and around the area’s wet prairies and the various species of mosquitoes. A fairly large percentage of Kendall County was considered wet prairie, especially in Bristol Township and in the marshy areas along Morgan, Rob Roy, and AuxSable creeks.

Madson again: “I’ve suffered sorely enough from mosquitoes in the Everglades and Louisiana swamps, but never so sorely as on the wet prairies of southern Minnesota.”

Madison’s southern Minnesota prairies are almost identical to the kind that predominated here in the Fox Valley until the last half of the 19th Century. Starting soon after settlement and extending into the first quarter of the 20th Century, virtually all of them were drained.

In 1722, Jean Francois Nicolas Becquet, newly arrived at Fort de Chartres in modern southern Illinois, sent a letter to his mother back in France relating the hardships of the his journey up river from New Orleans, including being afflicted with biting insects: “The trip up the Mississippi was the worse journey I have ever known. I am convinced that the rain, the waters of the Mississippi, and the endless biting and stinging insects that abound there, could provide a more accurate image of hell than any fire.”

Almost a century later, things hadn’t improved much at all. One Illinois settler who sent greetings back to his family in Vermont in 1821 reported: “I became acquainted this year with the prairie flies about which I had heard so much in Vermont. The smallest kind are a beautiful green about twice the size of a common housefly. Another kind is about twice as large as these, of a slate color. These, this season, in riding on the prairies, would entirely cover a horse and when fastened they remain until killed by smoke or by being skinned off by a knife, and then the horse will be covered with blood. The only way of riding a horse by day is by covering a horse completely.”

The flies were so vicious they even had major impacts on Illinois’ native wildlife. According to M.J. Morgan in Land of Big Rivers: French and Indian Illinois, 1699-1778, the flies, during their most prolific season, forced even buffalo to leave their normal stomping grounds and seek relief elsewhere. “On account of the green-headed flies,” Morgan said one observer reported, buffalo left the Wabash valley to range west and north of the Illinois River during the summer months.

In the summer of 1683, while on the way from Canada to the Illinois Country, Louis-Henri de Baugy, a political and business rival of LaSalle’s, wrote a letter to his brother in France in which he noted, rather matter-of-factly, that it was likely the Iroquois would attack the French post at La Rocher—Starved Rock—the next year and he might well be killed. That, he wrote, did not trouble him so much, however. What did trouble him was looking forward to further travel by canoe, during which the flies “tormented a person so cruelly that one did not know what to do.”

Thomas Hulme, an Englishman who traveled through east central Illinois in 1818, noted the biting flies were a danger to travelers’ horses. “Our horses were very much tormented with flies, some as large as the English horse-fly and some as large as the wasp; these flies infest the prairies that are unimproved about three months oin the year, but go away altogether as soon as cultivation begins.

Illinois historian William Pooley observed in 1905 that the dense swarms of biting flies also had an impact on the pace of settlement of Illinois. “Excessively warm weather and numerous flies sometimes so worried immigrants that they resorted to night traveling, being unable to make progress during the day.”

Horses with fly nets

Biting flies remained a problem right through the era of horse-drawn farm equipment. One strategy to fight flies was to use fly netting that provided some protection.

As Clarence W. Alford, speaking of the state’s early settlers, put it in The Centennial History of Illinois, “His livestock was viciously attacked by several kinds of horse-flies, black flies, or buffalo gnats, and cattle flies, while his own peace of mind and his health were endangered by mosquitoes, three varieties being carriers of the malaria germ.

Illinois’ mosquitoes and flies—the green-headed fly (probably today’s green-eyed horsefly) was remarked on by most travelers who left accounts—were not only vicious in their own right, but to add to the torment also carried diseases. In particular, mosquitoes transmitted malaria, which the pioneers called the ague (pronounced A’gue). The ague was so common that the settlers divided it into several varieties: Dumb ague, shaking ague, chill fever, and others. Common symptoms began with yawning, followed by a feeling of lassitude, fingernails turning blue, and then feeling cold until the victim’s teeth chattered noisily. After an hour or so, body warmth returned, increasing until fever raged with terrible head and back aches. The spells came to an end with an extremely heavy sweat.

The disease returned on a regular basis although it became less and less strong throughout a person’s life and wasn’t usually fatal, although it could be. Juliette Kinzie who wrote such a charming memoir of pioneer Illinois, died in 1870 when her New York druggist accidentally gave her morphine instead of quinine, probably for an ague attack, at the age of 64.

Tales of explorers, missionaries, and settlers traveling the Illinois prairies during the area’s fierce winters are rife. They didn’t do it because they wanted to, but it was either that or look forward to scraping the flies off your horse—and probably yourself, too—with a sharp knife.

Today, we still travel a lot during our Illinois winters, but it’s not because the insects are making us do it. And travel nowadays is usually by comfortable automobile or high-flying airplane with our destinations being somewhere in the sunny southland.

But sometimes, like when we’re stopped in traffic or hustling to make a connecting flight, it’s worthwhile to reflect on where and how far we’ve come—and why—as we look forward to where we’re headed.

 

 

 

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