Category Archives: Environment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

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

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

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

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

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

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

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo at Midewin

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

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

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

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

 

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Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

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

Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

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

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia rail fence

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

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

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

Barbed wire fence

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

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

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

Osage orange hedge

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

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

Osage orange wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Removing spikes

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains 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.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive 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.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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No need to drive: When we took the trolley to our neighborhood amusement park

As the calendar moves steadily towards summer, area residents are looking forward to a season when entertainment opportunities seem to be never-ending. From community celebrations like Oswego’s PrairieFest to Yorkville and Plano’s Hometown Days, to Montgomery’s MontgomeryFest to community swimming pools to family reunions and picnics, there’s always plenty to enjoy here at home.

Of course lots of local folks also enjoy traveling to some of the Midwest’s theme parks to enjoy roller coasters and all the other amusement rides that only show up locally when carnivals briefly visit.

Fox River Park siteAt the turn of the 20th Century, though, Kendall County residents didn’t have to drive for hours or wait for the next carnival to arrive to enjoy amusement rides. Rather, all they had to do was come up with the five cent fare for the interurban trolley ride to extreme northeast Oswego Township, just south of Montgomery, where Riverview Park stood along the west bank of the Fox River. Today, the park grounds are an expanse of grass and mature trees, the former location of a massive manufacturing plant operated by AT&T Technologies. The plant was demolished in 1997, returning the land back to the grassy oak and hickory savanna it was more than a century ago.

The amusement park and the interurban trolley line from Aurora to Yorkville were built at the same time. Indeed, both trolley and park depended upon each other for financial survival.

In April 1897, Ill. State Sen. Henry Evans of Aurora incorporated the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway Company with the goal of connecting Morris on the Illinois River with Aurora, the terminus of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroads suburban service, and an important stop on the CB&Q’s main line.

Interurban trolleys powered by overhead electrical wires were the nation’s first mass transit system that served large metropolitan areas as well as rural areas. Starting in the last two decades of the 19th century, a web of interurban lines was built crisscrossing the nation, connecting villages and cities across the country, and along the way providing convenient passenger links to thousands of farm families. At one time, it was possible to ride, using transfers, from the Mississippi River to the East Coast wholly on interurban cars.

While Sen. Evans’ proposed line was to be just one strand in this interurban web, it was nonetheless an important one for the Fox Valley and Kendall County. In the days before paved roads, it was often impossible for residents to travel other than by rail during certain seasons of the year. That was especially true of rural residents.

The new trolley line aimed to help with that problem. The right-of-way for the line left Aurora on the west side of the river, and proceeded south to the end of River Street in Montgomery. From there the tracks passed under the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch line tracks just south of Montgomery, and then followed the river south paralleling today’s Ill. Route 31. At the intersection of today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego, the tracks turned east and crossed the Fox River on the Oswego bridge. At the top of today’s Washington Street hill, the tracks turned south again, running down the middle of Oswego’s Main Street to modern Ill. Route 71, which they followed to Van Emmon Road. The trolley line then curved toward Yorkville, paralleling Van Emmon Road the line’s southern terminus at Van Emmon and Bridge Street—today’s Ill. Route 47.

1911 FR Park mapSome portions of the old track bed are still visible along Route 31 if you know where to look, and are quite obvious along Van Emmon Road.

Actual construction on the trolley line began during the summer of 1899, with construction of the affiliated amusement park beginning at the same time.

Many of the nation’s interurban lines used the lure of amusement parks located along their rights-of-way to persuade people to ride the trolley on low-ridership weekends and holidays. Since electrical service was necessary for the trolley cars, it was also available to power amusement rides and bright electric lights at the parks. Along with Kendall County’s Riverview Park, other interurban-connected parks in the area included, in 1904, Electric Park along the DuPage River in Plainfield and, later, Exposition Park on Aurora’s north side.

1905 FR Park birdseye color crop

Hand-colored postcard view of the Riverview Park trolley station, taken from the top of the auditorium about 1904. (Little White School Museum collection)

By November of 1899, the trolley tracks had been extended from Aurora to the park site, and on Tuesday, Nov. 7, the first special trolley cars began operating. According to press reports, Montgomery was decorated with flags to greet the 500 people who showed up for the dedication ceremonies. The park, which Evans’ company named Riverview for its location on the banks of the Fox, cost $104,403.03 to build, plus $1,200 for auditorium seats.

In October 1900 the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported the first Aurora, Yorkville & Morris trolley car had reached Oswego, and by December the line was completed to Yorkville. The completion of the line to Kendall County’s seat of government not only opened up a variety of economic opportunities for everyone living along the line, but it also provided entertainment opportunities for thousands of rural families.

1905 FR Park map blue river

Fox River Park map, 1905

Although it closed each winter, Riverview Park was open for spring, summer, and fall activities each year. In 1900, more than 2,000 persons rode the trolley on the park’s opening day. And it didn’t diminish much in popularity as the summer wore on. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on July 18 that “Riverview Park has become very popular with our people. Small parties of both the old and the young frequently spend the afternoon there on fine days.”

By the early summer of 1900 the Aurora & Geneva Railway interurban line had been finished, completing the missing trolley link between Aurora and Elgin, drawing even more visitors south to Riverview Park from upriver towns.

The Record reported that during a game in August, 1906, “A disgraceful slugging match took place Sunday afternoon at Riverview Park, during the playing of the Elgin-Aurora baseball game when, it is alleged, the umpire was unmercifully beaten over the head with clubs and umbrellas.”

1912 FR Park with coaster

From the time it opened, the roller coaster was one of Fox River Park’s most popular attractions. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aurora’s pro baseball team played at the park for a couple years, reportedly with the legendary Casey Stengel on the squad.

Other more sedate entertainment on the park side included visiting the Penny Arcade and the park photographer, or picnicking on the wooded grounds.

On a good weekend during the height of the summer season, as many as 5,000 people a day visited Riverview Park.

Within a few years, the name of the park was changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with the new, and much larger, Riverview Park that had been built in 1904 on a 74-acre site at Belmont and Western in Chicago.

1911 FR Riverview Park boats

A bridge connected the small island just offshore in the Fox River with the rest of the park, providing a place for visitors to enjoy boating. (Little White School Museum collection)

Area residents made frequent use of the park, not only to take advantage of the permanent attractions, but also to attend the annual Chautaquas held there every summer that drew some of the era’s best-known speakers. In 1903, speakers included Wisconsin Gov. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, U.S. Rep. Champ Clark of Missouri, and labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Subsequent years’ Chautaquas featured such well-known personalities as African-American author and educator Booker T. Washington and fire and brimstone evangelist (and former baseball player) Billy Sunday.

1911 FR Park shoot the chutes close

Adventurous visitors could ride the shoot the chutes down a steep incline into the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Residents could rent space in tents on the park grounds and stay for however long that year’s event ran. Most Fox River Park Chautaquas had a ten-day or two-week run.

The concept became so popular that the area’s black residents decided to hold their own event, apparently a novel thing in those de facto segregated days. The July 5, 1911 Record announced that: “You are cordially invited to attend the first Chautauqua ever held by colored people in the north at Fox River Park Tuesday and Wednesday, July 11 and 12, 1911. Entertainment will include a grand concert of 200 voices of the A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] churches of Chicago and baseball, Leland Giants of Chicago vs. Deppens of Atlanta, Ga., two of the greatest colored teams in America.”

1911 FR Park boating.jpg

This hand-colored 1903 postcard showing visitors boating at Riverview Park almost looks like it was a French impressionist painting. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1920s, however, the park’s facilities were getting rundown. The area’s new roads and the increasing use of automobiles meant that those visiting along the banks of the Fox were not only local folks riding to the park on trolley cars. As the Record reported on Sept. 15, 1920: “Sheriff Hextell arrested three men from Chicago Sunday for operating a chuck-a-luck game at Fox River Park. They had driven out from the city and were in the midst of their gambling when the sheriff nabbed them. They were fined $25 and costs each before Magistrate Skinner Monday and the sheriff has some of their diamonds as security for the fines, to be paid the last of the week. Through the efforts of Sheriff Hextell, the park has been remarkable free from gambling. This is only one of many instances when Hextell has brought in gamblers from the park.”

In fact, Henry Ford’s idea to use an assembly line to produce inexpensive automobiles (he invented neither the assembly line nor the automobile but perfected both) affordable by working families eventually killed the interurban trolley industry, along with their associated amusement parks as collateral damage. Autos for the first time gave common people the freedom to travel previously enjoyed only by the rich, and distant attractions proved more popular than small homegrown amusement parks.

As the quality of the park declined, so, apparently did its clientele. On July 6, 1921, a Record editorial complained: “It is time the people of Kendall county woke up to the realization of the moral character of Fox River Park. The sheriff has done his best with what he has to work with to keep order in the place. It is time for Kendall county officials to get some action and protect the morals of the county as well as the reputation of their legal representative, Sheriff Hextell.”

In the end, it turned out Ford’s Model T’s were more potent as moral guardians than the county sheriff, and due to the economics of the situation, both the interurban trolley line and Fox River Park were abandoned in 1925.

Today, the stately hardwood trees shading the old vacant AT&T plant grounds are all that remain of the park enjoyed by so many during those summers more than a century ago.

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The Bridge on the River Fox at Oswego: A concrete reminder of pioneer days

After the last glaciers retreated from northern Illinois, releasing their melt waters’ titanic forces that created the state’s Fox River Valley, the area that would one day become the Village of Oswego was rewarded with a landscape that included the narrowest stretch along the entire stream’s course as well as a smooth limestone shelf that created a great place to ford the river.

The Oswego ford was located somewhere between today’s North Street and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Old township maps show the original road on the west side of the river where the Galena Road emerged from the ford. It was an excellent ford, with its smooth rock bottom making for easy passage by horses, freight wagons, and stagecoaches. Since traffic had to slow down, and even stop, before crossing the river, the area on the bluff above the ford became a good spot for an inn. It all helped the new village founded there in 1835 grow.

Although it was a really excellent fording place, as area population increased a bridge was clearly needed. Some temporary structures may have been built earlier, but in 1851, Oswegoans got serious about providing a permanent bridge. The county seat had been moved to the village in 1845, and county residents desiring to use the court system or conduct other county business probably demanded a bridge be provided. Community pride was also probably involved.

1851 Double Arch Chord bridge plan

Plan of a typical timber double arch chord bridge with braces of the kind built at Oswego in 1851

As indicated above, there’s some question about when the first bridge was built across the river at Oswego. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that that first bridge at Oswego was built in 1848. However, the July 13, 1851 issue of the Aurora Daily Beacon suggests the Fox wasn’t bridged at Oswego until that year. A short note in that edition of the paper reported: “We are happy to learn that our enterprising neighbors down the river are really engaged in constructing a bridge opposite their town. It is to be 300 feet long upon the approved plan of double arch chords and braces, with spans about 72 feet. J.W. Chapman has contracted to build it for $2,250 to be completed this fall.”

1846 Chapman land patent.jpg

John W. Chapman’s 1846 patent for land he purchased in Oswego Township. The original parchment patent is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Chapman was an established local builder who had also been the general contractor for the new Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego in 1848. He arrived in Oswego in 1835, the same year the new village was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, stayed a few months, and then moved on to Dickson. Chapman returned to Oswego in 1842 where he remained until his death in 1883.

The new bridge proved popular. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, the anonymous correspondent who signed himself “Plow Boy” boasted that in Oswego “We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River.”

Nevertheless, Oswego’s “substantial” bridge faced some tough times, and was even washed out by spring floods. The relatively new Oswego bridge, along with every other bridge across the river from Batavia south to Ottawa was washed away during the destructive Freshet of 1857. But the bridge was rebuilt as needed until 1867, when the wooden 1851 structure had become badly deteriorated.

In late July, the Oswego Township Board of Trustees condemned the bridge. At the trustees’ Aug. 7, 1867 meeting, they voted to replace the old timber bridge with a modern iron bridge. An amendment proposed by Chapman, then serving on the township board, to allow township voters to decide whether to build a timber or an iron bridge was defeated in favor of specifying an iron bridge.

At the trustees’ Sept. 3 meeting, they decided to spread the estimated $13,000 cost of the new bridge over three years.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

The elegant bowstring arch truss King’s Patent iron bridge built across the Fox River in 1867 sat on native limestone piers built by Oswego contractor John W. Chapman. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on the new bridge began in October 1867 and continued through the fall. As Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 14: “The piers of the new bridge are now being put up, by J.W. Chapman, Esq., who is sub-contractor for this part of the work, and we will soon have a splendid Iron Bridge (King’s Patent) which will excel any on the Fox River.”

The new structure, built by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was a tied arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge. The design was patented by the company’s owner, Zenas King in 1861 and improved through a second patent issued in 1866. Bowstring arch truss bridges were some of the earliest iron bridge designs that became popular as transportation needs moved away from the more maintenance-intensive and less robust timber bridges. Because they required less maintenance, iron bridges proved less expensive during their service lives. Although the bridge superstructure was entirely of iron, the bridge deck was of six-inch oak planks.

Even the new iron bridge had its limits, however, and during yet another destructive spring flood in 1868 it was damaged—but notably not destroyed—by the rampaging river.

Chapman’s new piers were built with sharpened iron-clad “icebreakers” on their upstream sides. According to a note in the March 15, 1893 Record, the icebreakers were torn off the piers when the ice went out that spring.

Tied arch bridges had their limits, especially weight limits. In addition, the 1867 structure had been weakened by a variety of other factors, including using dynamite to break up ice jams at the bridge in March 1893, the concussions reportedly weakening the piers’ mortar joints.

In 1897, the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad (later the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Railroad) proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south along the west side of the Fox River to Oswego, right next to the West River Road (today’s Ill. Route 31) where the line would turn east, cross the river on the existing bowstring arch bridge, and then turn south to downtown Yorkville. The AY&M proposed to strengthen, at its own expense, the old bridge with steel beams and promised they’d widen it so that a team and wagon could pass by a trolley car on the bridge. However, despite the best efforts of John D. Russell, Oswego Township’s county board representative, when the Kendall County Board approved the franchise agreement with the trolley company, it only stipulated the firm would be liable for $3,500 if the bridge needed to be replaced due to the demands placed on it due to trolley traffic.

At first, the trolley company proposed crossing the river about a mile above Oswego on their own bridge, but they apparently quickly realized how expensive that would be. In late May 1900, representatives of the company, Oswego Township, and the township’s bridge consultant decided that if the trolley was to cross at Oswego, a new bridge would be needed to carry the additional weight of the rails and the trolley cars.

The decision to stick taxpayers with most of the bill for a new bridge caused some local grumbling. “Who would have thought that our bridge wasn’t all O.K. if no electric road was being built?” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wondered.

By late June 1900, the trolley tracks had reached the west end of the Oswego bridge and limited passenger service from that point north was ready to begin.

1912 abt look east

The Joliet Bridge and Iron Company’s iron box truss replaced Oswego bowstring arch bridge in 1900. The bridge deck was shared between interurban trolley cars and road traffic. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new bridge was an iron box truss bridge manufactured by the Joliet Bridge and Iron Company. While the bridge superstructure and deck would be new, plans called for reusing the original 1867 piers. Work on the new bridge began in mid July, when Chapman’s 1867 piers were repaired in preparation for the new bridge superstructure. The first iron for the new structure was delivered in early August.

The new bridge was up and in place by early November 1900, allowing trolley cars to cross the river and stop in downtown Oswego. The trolley tracks occupied the north side of the bridge, while a one-lane road surface occupied the downstream side.

That bridge lasted almost 40 years before being replaced with a continuous steel beam bridge with concrete deck and concrete decorative railings.

On Oct. 2, 1935, the Kendall County Record reported a new bridge would be built at Oswego to replace the old 1900 structure, and would be designed to carry the heavier truck and auto traffic state officials predicted would be generated when Oswego and Naperville were finally connected by a paved road.

1937 Oswego bridge const

Work on the new continuous beam steel and concrete bridge at Oswego began in the summer of 1937. Chapman’s 1867 piers were retained but strengthened and widened to carry the new bridge deck. The newer, lighter colored limestone pier additions are visible in the above photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

“A new bridge and paving, which will connect Routes 25 and 65 [modern U.S. Route 34 between Oswego and Naperville] with Route 34 at Oswego, has been approved by the state, according to C.H. Apple, district state highway engineer,” the Record reported. “The bridge and connecting highways will be constructed at an approximate cost of $200,000. [Oswego Township] Supervisor Scott Cutter tells us that surveying of the new project will begin today, Wednesday.

“The bridge will be built on the site of the old iron bridge, which has been condemned for the past three years, and will be built of steel and concrete, 300 feet long and with a 40-foot roadway. The new paving will extend from the east end of the bridge east in Washington to Madison street, north in Madison to the intersection with 65 and 25, the East River Road, and then east in the old Chicago road to the Jim Pierce farm, where it will connect with the already paved road on the outskirts of Oswego.”

As in years past, the old 1867 piers were retained, although they were lengthened and significantly strengthened, with new concrete icebreakers installed at the base of each pier.

The Record reported on July 14, 1937 that “The steel bridge, which has carried traffic across the Fox river at Oswego for so many years, is being torn down and a new and more modern structure will replace it. The west span has been removed and we expect that the other two will follow as soon as possible. How many of you gals and guys remember when the old AE&C cars ran between Aurora and Yorkville, climbed a trestle at Oswego and went across the Fox on the old bridge and then bounded along on their way? It was always our secret fear that some day the trestle would be too weak to hold the car and would break, and we always felt better when we were past that mental hazard. After automobiles and trucks became more popular and the street cars were discontinued the bridge was subjected to heavy traffic, and was too narrow to be comfortable or very safe. The new one will be built to take care of the heavy loads which it must carry. No temporary bridge is being built at Oswego according to [Township] Supervisor Cutter, who says that the expense of such a structure would be prohibitive.”

1938 Oswego Bridge

Oswego’s new bridge opened in December 1937. This photo was taken the next summer after the steel bridge beams had been painted. (Little White School Museum collection)

Instead of a temporary bridge, motorists who needed to cross the river at Oswego made the last known regular use of the old stagecoach and wagon ford that played such a major role in the village’s early history.

Then on Dec. 1, 1937, the Record reported: “The new Oswego bridge will be opened to traffic this week. Foot passengers were using it last week.”

Wrote the Record’s editor on Jan. 12, 1938: “We traveled over the new Oswego bridge several weeks ago and up through the town on the new highway. The bridge is a ‘dandy’ one and the highway certainly smoothed out the bumps that were on the stretch by the railroad. Oswego business men are glad to have traffic again able to get into town and those who seek the short cut from 34 to Naperville are happy too. It is a big improvement.”

2008 Oswego bridge & bridge park

Oswego’s new four-lane bridge (right) now shares the river crossing with Hudson Crossing Bridge Park (left). (Photo by John Etheredge. Little White School Museum collection)

The 1937 bridge served motorists well during the next 53 years, although normal wear and tear took their toll. Then in 1993, the Illinois Department of Transportation proposed to replace the bridge as part of their plan to widen Route 34 through Oswego to four lanes. Original plans called for a completely new four-lane prestressed concrete I-beam bridge to be built immediately downstream from the 1937 bridge. According to the original plans, the old bridge would be open to traffic during construction, after which the old bridge would be demolished.

2003 Hudson Crossing Bridge Park

Hudson Crossing Bridge Park offers a place to sit and enjoy the Fox River, to walk, and to ride bicycles while preserving an important part of Oswego’s history.

But some Oswego residents had another idea. Naturalist, author, and former public official Dick Young, and his nephew, Glenn Young, then an IDOT bridge inspector, wondered why the old bridge couldn’t be left in place after the new one opened, with the old one to be turned into a bridge-park. They approached the Oswegoland Park District’s executive director, Bert Gray, with the plan. As Glenn Young told Gray as he successfully persuaded him the plan was eminently doable, the old bridge would “stand forever if we get the trucks off it” and that “it will cost the state a lot more to demolish it than to fix it up for pedestrians.”

The bridge-park concept was growing in popularity as communities tried to find innovative ways to increase recreational opportunities while, at the same time, preserving their architectural and engineering heritage. In Oswego, a bridge-park would provide a handy connection for pedestrians and bicyclists to the west bank of the river, where, even then, plans were percolating to build a new village hall. It would also offer a link to proposed cycling and walking trails that were being planned to link new subdivisions west of the river. And, as Young pointed out, it would not only save IDOT the expense of tearing it down and the cleanup of the environmentally sensitive site, but, if properly renovated, would stand virtually forever as long as there was no motor vehicle traffic on it.

Gray then took the proposal back to IDOT, which, with some prodding by local politicians, eventually agreed, although with the caveat that the bridge-park could not be owned by the park district. According to state law, the bridge could only be transferred to an agency that had roadway and highway responsibilities. So Gray then negotiated with the Village of Oswego and with the approval of village president Jim Detzler—because the village does have roadway responsibilities—the trade with the state was made.

Meanwhile, the engineering challenges of having two bridges and their piers so close together were all worked out and the new bridge was completed, opening in November 1993,

Then, instead of being demolished, the old bridge and its 121 year-old native limestone piers were saved as well. After it was reconditioned and renovated by IDOT as part of the construction project, the 1937 bridge was turned over to the village, which then made the Oswegoland Park District responsible for operating the park. It was renamed the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, and officially opened in September 1994, with a dedication ceremony presided over by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, named after what the village was called by its founders before it was changed to Oswego in 1837, is now a centerpiece of the adjoining Hudson Crossing Park. And for those who know a bit about its rich history, it’s also a direct connection to the community’s pioneer past, a place where visitors can still enjoy seeing the piers that were originally built by a man who was present at Oswego’s founding in 1835.

 

 

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European colonists’ ultimate weapon: consumerism

The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.

The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.

17th Century hats

Elaborate European hat fashions for both men and women from the 16th through the early 19th Century required new sources of animal fur–especially beaver pelts–to manufacture the felt need to make the hats.

The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.

It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.

One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.

From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.

It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.

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Frances Hopkins painted this portrait of a brigade of Montreal canoes navigating through the fog on Lake Superior.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.

trade silver

A selection of trade items from the late fur trade era includes a trade silver broche (top left), and cast German silver beaver, turtle, and kissing otters (bottom row).

At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.

Image result for Hudson's bay point blanket

A traditional red four-point Hudson’s Bay Company blanket was worth four prime winter beaver pelts.

Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.

Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.

In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.

And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.

While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.

 

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