Category Archives: family

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Women's History

Growing up black and female in early 20th century Kendall County

The United States at the turn of the 20th century was not a particularly friendly place for many of those living here.

1894 Grove School

Whether in town or in the country, blacks and whites went to school together in 19th Century Kendall County. This is the student body of the Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, getting ready for a Mother Goose presentation in 1894. The Lucas kids are in the front row.

Down South, Jim Crow laws were fully in force against the region’s black population, severely restricting a vast number of civil activities we take for granted today. Everything from voting to drinking from a water fountain was governed by laws, both written and unwritten, that were not only enforced by the Southern legal system, but also by extralegal violence administered by forces including the Ku Klux Klan and unorganized mobs of white thugs.

Meanwhile, immigration was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip, and Catholic southern and eastern European and Irish immigrants faced considerable discrimination of their own from the mostly Protestant residents of the U.S., to the point that by the 1920s, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan was rapidly growing in national membership.

Starting in the 1870s and extending through the 1880s, Kendall County had become home to a surprisingly large population of black Americans, starting out with black farmers who settled in the rural NaAuSay-Kendall-Oswego township area of the county, followed by other black families who moved into the county’s towns and villages. By the 1900s, the number of black farming families had already begun to decline as they either moved elsewhere to farm or gave up farming and moved to town where they made more money working in factories and retail businesses or starting their own businesses.

1903 Smith, Ferdinand color

Ferdinand Smith, OHS, Class of 1903

Ferdinand Smith became the first black high school graduate in Kendall County history, graduating with the Oswego High School Class of 1903. His sisters, Mary and Frances, graduated in 1904 and 1907, respectively, becoming the first black females to graduate from high school in Kendall County.

At the time, black residents of small towns like Oswego undoubtedly faced the kind of casual discrimination so common during that era, but it’s clear from the way the Smith family was treated in local news accounts that they were also socially accepted in a way their cousins elsewhere in the country at the time were not. The mere fact that they attended and graduated from Oswego High School alongside their white peers testifies to that fact.

Their father, Robert Ridley Smith, was a Civil War veteran, while their mother was the daughter of Nathan Hughes, another black veteran of the Civil War.

The Smiths’ son, Ferdinand, apparently harbored a keen intellect and was socially adaptable to the point that he became a valued member of, first, the Oswego community, and then of the Aurora community.

His sisters, as black women, faced a number of hurdles that Ferdinand did not. But all three Smith siblings were given a solid familial grounding growing up in a small northern Illinois town, and then an even more solid educational grounding when their parents sent them to high school.

High school was definitely not the norm during that era. In fact, it was much more equivalent to a college education today. Although more than a dozen one-room schools of that era educated children who could have attended Oswego High School, not to mention all the children living in town who were also eligible, high school classes were relatively small. Ferdinand’s class had a remarkable 15 members—one of the largest high school classes in the school’s history up to that time. Mary’s 1904 class was more typical, with seven members, while Frances’s class in 1907 also numbered seven.

1906 Smith, Frances 1906

Frances Smith, OHS, Class of 1906

In the South of that era, strictly segregated education was the rule—and the law. But in Oswego, and other northern and western small towns across the country of that era, integration was the rule. Blacks and whites attended classes side by side, and like their white counterparts, black students were expected to write a graduation address and present it, just like their white classmates. The two presentations given by the Smith girls offer an insight into how they viewed their lives then and what they looked forward to as they left school for other endeavors.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote of Mary Smith’s presentation: “Miss Mary A. Smith, the young colored lady of the class of ’04, had a strong paper on the ‘Labor Unions.’ She is a sister of Ferdinand Smith, the young man who graduated in the Oswego class of 1903 and who has the distinction of being the first colored graduate in the county. Miss Smith has a musical voice and talked in forceful logic on the methods of the unions and combines. It was one of the longest themes on the program and the speaker acquitted herself with honor.”

The topic of her paper offered a glimpse into the importance blacks gave to the power to organize for better wages and working conditions. During organized labor’s early history, most unions discriminated against blacks. Not until the 1930s did it finally occur to union members that prohibiting black membership provided a ready pool of strike breakers.

OHS Baseball team 1907

1906 Oswego High School Baseball Team. The photo was taken at the old Red Brick School. In their first game of the season, they beat West Aurora, 28-2.

In 1906, Mary Smith’s sister Frances spoke on a subject that illustrated the growing educational attainments of black Americans. According to the Kendall County Record’s account of the graduation ceremonies: “Chicago has been called the Negroes’ paradise; in Chicago the negro has become a successful politician, holding more well-paying political positions than in any other calling.’ With this opening shot, Miss Frances Smith, the successful colored member of the class began her oration on ‘Afro-American Progress.’ Miss Smith is the third one of her family to graduate from the Oswego high school. She is a bright student and her people and town friends are proud of her accomplishments. In the course of her oration, ‘Booker T. Washington,’ she said, ‘Could adjourn school tomorrow and go into the forest with his 2,000 students and in a short space of time erect a magic city with every line of life represented.’ It was all a masterly effort and Miss Smith won spontaneous applause from all.”

The Smith girls went on to found families of their own, as did their brother, and today Smith descendants not only have attended some of the nation’s premier educational institutions but teach there as well, have served as federal judges, and have made their ways in the world in a variety of professions. It’s an old-fashioned American success story we ought to all celebrate during this year’s Women’s History Month.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Aurora, Civil War, Education, family, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History

Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

Watching television when I was a youngster was always a treat, especially when “The Cisco Kid” or one of the other westerns was on Sunday afternoons.

But often just as entertaining were the commercials. CET, a Chicago retailer, sold televisions featuring a very deep-voiced fellow singing to the beat of a tom-tom about CET and television, always ending with the phone number, “MOhawk four, four one hundred.”

Rug cleaning companies also advertised a lot back in those days before ScotchGuard and other stain resistant carpeting systems. Magikist was a prominent television advertiser, as was Boushelle. Boushelle also had a catchy jingle (not as catchy as CET’s Mohawk Indian tom-tom, but close) sung by another very deep-voiced fellow that ended with him singing the company’s phone number, “HUdson three two-seven-hundred.”

I checked on-line the other day, and Magikist went out of business in 2001, although some of its signature signs with huge Magikist lips, soldiered on (I remember a big one on the Kennedy Expressway) for a few more years before being dismantled.

Boushelle, however, is still very much a going concern—with the same phone number no less, although you have to dial a 773 area code first. (All you kids out there can listen to a 1970s era Boushelle commercial on YouTube.)

Back in the day, companies like Boushelle would come right to your home, roll up the area rug, and take it off to a large factory-type building, where it would be cleaned. Gradually, though, wall-to-wall carpeting came into favor as prices dropped far enough so that just about everyone could afford it. And with the disappearance of area rugs went some of the earliest area rug cleaning companies.

Rugs and carpeting—and keeping them clean—have been major preoccupations here in the Fox Valley almost from the time the pioneers arrived. Especially at this time of year, spring cleaning was a major thing, as was fall house cleaning after the summer season had ended.

Log Cabin

Some of the earliest log cabins built by the pioneers had packed earthen floors, later replaced by puncheon floors.

The earliest pioneer cabins, at least some of them anyway, didn’t even have floors, much less carpeting. Often, a pioneer family’s first cabin was built with a dirt floor inside. The soil was compacted into a hard surface that the wife swept daily. Sometimes pioneer women who missed their carpets and rugs back East drew designs on the packed earthen the floor and used crushed chalk to create colorful designs.

Not until the family got settled were logs split in half and planed smooth to create puncheons that were laid on the packed earth, flat sides up, to create wooden floors.

As soon as the first pioneer millwrights arrived, their sawmills began turning out sawn lumber for floors. And remarkably soon after that, Chicago became a giant lumber clearinghouse for pine, fur, and other timber cut up in Wisconsin and Michigan and shipped down the lake to the fast-growing city. Wooden floors—and frame houses—quickly became cheap enough for everyone.

Rug technology for the masses stayed pretty simple throughout the 19th century. Rag rugs were very popular with newly settled areas because they were relatively simple to make and were inexpensive because their main ingredient was recycled cloth. During the winter, women would sit (sometimes in groups to provide a social respite from the daily grind) and tear rags into 1″ wide strips, sew them together end-to-end, and roll the strips into large balls. When enough of the right colors were stockpiled, they were taken to the local rug weaver.

Rug looms were simple, but rugged affairs. They only needed to be two-harness looms, the most simple kind, which used mechanical means to separate the strings that formed the warp so that the shuttle carrying the end of a rag strip could be fed through. After each pass of the shuttle, the beater was pulled back smartly packing the cloth strip tightly against the previous strip. The tighter the weaver made the rug, the longer it lasted. But this created a dilemma for the rug maker. A rug not packed as tightly was easier and quicker to make; but customers might not return if the resulting rug didn’t hold up well.

rug loom in use

A rug weaver using a loom very similar to the one my great-great-grandfather built for my great-great-grandmother and which is still a family keepsake.

My great-great-grandmother made rugs on a homemade loom in her home here on North Adams Street to supplement her family’s income. The loom, which we have today in our son’s basement, is of 3” thick oak timbers and is of a very old design—old even in the 1870s when this one was likely built by my great- great-grandfather. We saw one exactly like it in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum. That loom was said to have been more than 200 years old. Looms of roughly the same design date back many hundreds of years.

Rag rugs were generally woven in varying lengths and were usually about 30 inches in width. The great advantage of rag rugs was their flexibility—they could be woven in virtually any length and in any color. In those days, they weren’t only used for hall runners or throw rugs, either. To create room-sized rugs, several 30-inch wide rag rugs of the correct length were sewn together to create a single carpet wide enough for a full room.

rag rugs

Traditional rag rugs are still pretty useful things; we’ve got several in our house. The trick is finding ones that have been woven tightly enough that they will last.

Padding for those early carpets was, on the farm at least, often a layer of straw under the rug. Fresh straw was laid down in the fall under the rug to help insulate against the cold and offer a bit of cushion. Then in the spring, the rug was taken apart into its component strips and hauled outside to be cleaned. Cleaning was generally accomplished by beating the straw dust and other dirt out of the rug using a wooden-handled rug beater.

Gradually other kinds of carpeting became available. Oriental rugs were always available for the rich, but the Industrial Revolution made other kinds of carpeting available, too. Dark red “ingrain” carpeting was the first non-rag rug carpeting to become popular. We found threads from such a kind of carpeting wound around tiny carpet tacks driven into the original floor of the Little White School Museum when we were restoring the building. The carpeting was apparently used on the building’s two aisles when it was the Oswego Methodist Episcopal Church from 1850 to 1912.

Nowadays, we’ve got synthetic yarn carpeting in all kinds of shades and colors with many styles to choose from. And on television, the ads of industrial carpet cleaning companyes have been replaced by those of carpet sellers and the makers of home carpet cleaning machines. But, while Empire Today’s commercials do tend to stick in one’s mind, no one has commercials quite as memorable as Boushelle; at least I can’t remember a modern phone number as easily as Boushelle’s HUdson 3-2700.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, family, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Technology, Uncategorized, Women's History

So what’s in YOUR pie?

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, asked what her friends’ favorite pie is. And because I’m a lifelong wiseacre, a replied, “hot or cold.”

Which reply I admit I stole from my dad, a pie lover from way back. The only kind of pie my dad really did not like was raisin pie, and I have to admit I am with him on that one as well, and have been since someone tried to foist a piece of the stuff off on me when I was just a lad.

I’m not sure where my dad got his pie craving, but he had one and had it bad. Maybe it was because my mom was such a good pie baker. Whatever its origin, when my parents were young farmers back during the Great Depression and right up through the 1940s my mom baked roughly one pie a day.

Defective apple pie

This defective apple pie is a good example why it’s unwise to buy apple pies in most bakeries or restaurants (Gruenke’s in Bayfield, Wisconsin is a prime exception to this rule). While the apples are sliced and not chunked, they are sliced WAY too thick, thus preventing proper cooking down. The wise pie aficionado is very cautious about his or her apple pie.

Back then, farm work started before dawn with livestock chores: feeding the pigs and cattle and milking the family cow. By the time breakfast rolled around, my dad was really hungry and so needed a large meal. The one he ate for most of his life—at least for the portion of it I was present for—was a glass of fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, two eggs over easy and two slices of bacon or sausage patties. It’s a breakfast he ate until a couple days before he died from the results of lung cancer and a list of ailments too long to record here.

Back in those farm days, he also had a large piece of pie for dessert at all three meals, breakfast, dinner, and supper. You’ll notice what I did there: the noon meal on the farm was dinner, not the evening meal. Town folks ate dinner at night; out in the country the evening meal was a much lighter one. The dinner bell rang at noon. In fact, the weekday farm report show on WLS radio was named “Dinner Bell Time” (not to be confused with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” or WJJD’s teenagers’ delight, “Suppertime Frolic).

Some of my earliest memories are being around the house and watching my mom, and when I was visiting down the road and around the corner, my grandmother, baking. My mom, as you might imagine after having all that practice, was a whiz at rolling out pie dough, which was the real stuff back then, with lard as a major ingredient. After making however many pies they planned that day, there was always a bit of piecrust left, so they’d both made what they called Poor Man’s Pie, usually in one or two small tart tins.

Poor Man's Pie

Found this image of Poor Man’s Pie somewhere on the Net. Not nearly enough cinnamon on top; the top should be dark brown all over with cinnamon.

I loved Poor Man’s Pie. It was a simple thing that only required milk, flour, and sugar for the filling, topped off with a pat of butter and sprinkled cinnamon on top.

Just about everyone out in the country had an orchard of one kind or another. Ours wasn’t very big, and included a towering pie cherry tree that produced quarts and quarts of the fruit. My grandparents’ orchard had number of plum trees, as well as a variety of apples and pears. Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries were all canned for use in pies during the winter. Apples, too, were stored fresh in the basement for later use.

Northern Illinois isn’t the best peach habitat, so while we had peach trees, they weren’t quite as prolific as apples, cherries, and pears. I remember relatives heading over to Michigan in a convoy to bring back peaches, which were divided up amongst the participants and then canned for winter table use and to bake pies.

Other than eating pickled herring when the clock struck 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve and somehow falling in love with oyster stew made with those awful canned oysters, my dad’s family really didn’t have many food habits or traditions. My mother’s German family—her mother was 100 percent Pennsylvania Dutch and her father was 100 percent East Prussian—however, loved their food, and that included dessert with every meal. Including breakfast. I remember my grandmother’s table always featured a pressed glass footed compote dish with jelly, so that even when there was no cake, pie, kuchen, or cookies (a rare occasion, indeed) there was always bread and jelly as a dessert fallback position.

wonderberry pie

To the uninitiated, wonderberries look like blueberries. But they’re a lot different and, in my estimation, make a superior pie. Unfortunately, hardly anybody grows them any more and it’s virtually impossible to find them at farmers’ markets, at least here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

Pie was always the queen of desserts in my family, with my grandmother, mother, and aunts using a wide variety of fillings from ground cherries, apples, peaches, rhubarb (“pie plant” to the Pennsylvania Dutch), cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, wonderberries (also called garden huckleberries)—you name it.

Pies have been a human food item for thousands of years. According to pie historians, the first pies were invented by the ancient Egyptians, who made dough from oats, wheat, rye, or barley, doubled it over and filled it with honey. After a few thousand years someone decided you could create a nice meal by using bread dough to enclose meat and other savory fillings. Meat pies were far more popular than fruit-filled concoctions for a long, long time. But gradually, the dessert aspects of pie could no longer be denied. When some brilliant cook invented what we call today piecrust, the place was set for pie to come into its own.

Classic pasty

A classic pasty with its built-in handle for easy eating is one of our favorites up in northern Wisconsin, especially served with a side of creamy cucumbers.

Over in Merry Olde England, meat pies reigned supreme, with all sorts of meat combined with veggies and then baked into whole-meal pies. In Cornwall, innovative cooks took a piecrust circle, put a big scoop of diced potatoes, turnips, and other veggies with finely chopped or even minced meat on half, doubled the other half over, and crimped the half-moon edge. Baked at home, these robust meat pies—called pasties—were just fine for taking down into the coal mines to be heated over a flame on a handy shovel and eaten for a miner’s lunch, the crimped half-circle crust offering a handy handle to hold the pie while eating. Here in the New World, Cornish immigrants brought their pasties with them, and today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is their Midwest natural habitat, with even most of the smallest cafes offering their own homemade varieties, as do delis in larger communities’ grocery stores.

Savory pies are all well and good—who doesn’t still enjoy a chicken or beef pot pie once in a while—but it’s the fruit variety that have tickled my fancy all these years. And thus my reply to my former high school classmate about my favorite variety. Baked fruit pies, single and double crust pies, cream pies (chocolate, custard, banana cream, coconut cream), pumpkin and sweet potato, and fresh fruit pies in season—who could possibly make a decision?

But here’s what I’m willing to do…I pledge to keep trying every kind of pie I can find (except raisin), until I finally settle on my favorite.

This could take quite a while, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under entertainment, family, Farming, Food, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Women's History

Generations growing up on Fox River…

Haven’t had much time to blog recently due to a family tragedy, but have had time during recent sleepless nights to think back over the years I’ve lived here along the banks of the Fox River, first with my parents, and then with my own wife and kids.

Two weeks ago, my funny, smart, talented, talkative daughter died of an apparent seizure, something we’re still trying to process as we deal with all the effects of that death.

I was eight when my parents moved off the farm to our riverside neighborhood; she was a year and a half old when my wife and I moved back here. We raised both her and her brother here and the river was always part of both of their childhood landscape.

Now I’m finally having a chance to sit here and watch the relatively fast-flowing current, brown with silt and other products of storm runoff, and I’m transported back to my own childhood growing up here in this riverside neighborhood.

We’ve had quite a bit of rain in this late summer of 2018. A lot of that rain fell, and continues to fall, up north along the northern reaches of the Fox, and the runoff has swelled the river virtually all summer. And that’s unusual. Generally, by this time of year, the river’s bones—gravel bars, boulders, old fallen tree snags—are clearly showing and it’s easy to walk across our narrow channel on stepping stones without getting the soles of our shoes wet. Not this year.

2018 Rising sawmill foundation stones

Tumbled and turned, the flagstones of the Rising sawmill’s foundation still mark the old mill’s location along the east bank of the Fox River at Troy Park in Oswego.

In those 1950s summers, we’d spend hours on the river in our scows, and we got to intimately know our stretch of river. We knew that it was almost impossible to pole up the channel along the west bank of the river because its bottom was smooth limestone. It could be done, sometimes, at low water, but never when there was much of a current. We could pole up over the middle of the old dam by expending a lot of effort. There were plenty of rocks and gravel on the bottom to give our poles good purchase. I didn’t know it then, but that gravel and those rocks were debris left over from the old mill dam that crossed the river there.

Dam building technology in the 19th Century called for building timber frames—cribs—out of squared-off oak and walnut trees, hauling them out into the stream, and then fastening the frames to the limestone bottom with hand-forged iron stakes. Those stakes were hefty things; we retrieved a couple over the years. They were about an inch and a half square and three or so feet long. After the cribbing was set firmly in place, it was gradually filled with gravel and rubble to create the dam. The structure was finished by being clad on the downstream side with thick wooden planks to encourage smooth water flow down the downstream side.

Well before we came along, the old dam had been damaged and virtually erased by floods—freshets, the old-timers called them—and spring ice floes. So all that was left was a low rubble mound from bank to bank that slowed but did not dam the river.

Along with a few of those giant stakes described above, there were also some of those old timber framing members still staked to the river bottom that would show up during periods of low water.

We learned to be careful around the remains of the old dam. The river was shallow on the crest of the destroyed dam, but on the downstream side, the action of water spilling over top of the dam for more than a half-century had eroded deep holes into the limestone riverbed. We learned where those holes were because while poling our scows in those areas, the bottom would sometimes seem to drop right out of the river and our longest poles couldn’t touch bottom.

If we had been inclined to wade in the river, that would have been even more vital information. But we were seldom lured into wading, and when we were, we always wore an old pair of tennis shoes because the river bottom was a virtual carpet of broken glass and scrap metal. And, of course, there was the water quality. In the 1950s, the river’s water was thick with heavy metals and other nasty pollutants that led to stunted, diseased fish and the extermination of most mollusks and crustaceans except for hardy crawfish. The major fish kills of the late 1950s, when a chemical factory upstream in North Aurora dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killed virtually everything in the river from Aurora to Yorkville. So, boating was in; wading was definitely out.

On either bank of the river at the ends of the old dam were the remains of the two mills, a gristmill on the west bank and a sawmill on the east bank. The only thing left of them when we started spending time of the river were the mills’ foundation stones, giant slabs of flagstone, probably mined just upstream on the west bank at the Wormley quarry.

“Stone! Stone!” an advertisement in the July 7, 1881 Kendall County Record and signed by George D. Wormley announced. At his quarry located one mile north of Oswego on the west side of the river, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”

1974 Melissa & Roger fishermen

Father and daughter on a 1974 fishing expedition. Fishing was good, catching not so much…

Those giant slabs of flagstone where Nathaniel Rising built his sawmill about 100 feet north of where I’m writing this, provided perfect fishing platforms and boat landings for us, not to mention wonderful backdrops for hours of make-believe play.

The low dams of our Midwestern rivers seldom provided enough head for the big overshot water wheels that powered mills in southern Illinois and in the East. Instead, tub wheels early on and then turbines, both of which were horizontal and not vertical affairs, were the most common around these parts. One of those old turbines has been preserved by the Fox Valley Park District up in the Montgomery riverside park, on the west bank immediately north of the bridge.

The mill ruins on the west bank of the river, which I can just barely make out through the trees today, were less spectacular. I suspect much of that mill’s foundational flagstone was reused by local residents for other purposes.

During the years, a couple small islands had formed atop the ruins of the old dam, one here on the east bank, and another, sort of small double island, almost to the west bank. The west bank island had a small inlet that was handy to dock a boat while we fished off its shore into the fast current rushing along the west bank. The little island on the east bank—everyone called it the Little Island—was our territory for all sorts of escapades.

When I bought my first shotgun (a three-shot bolt-action Mossberg 20-gauge) my neighbor John Morley and I built a duck blind on the Little Island and for two autumns in a row lay in wait for waterfowl that never came. In that day of polluted river water, we never saw a duck or goose for two solid years, other than ones migrating high overhead in the fall. None of them were dumb enough to land on the poisoned waters of the Fox River.

As fall segued into winter, we prayed for dry weather, the drier the better. Because with dry weather, the river level dropped and the current stilled so that when the first cold days came along, the surface froze. We watched it carefully, gingerly walking out onto the ice with a hatchet to chop a hole to test its thickness. When it reached three or four inches it was time to get the skates out of the basement, taken them up to Crosby Sporting Goods in Aurora to get them sharpened, and head out onto the ice.

The cold during those winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s was intense, and the Fox Valley’s creeks and springs (instead of municipal sewer plants) were still the river’s major tributaries. So the river often froze over completely, bank to bank. From here just below the old dam, we could skate south to the Oswego Bridge, or after carefully picking our way over the old dam’s remains, head north three miles to Boulder Hill. It was on one of those skating expeditions downriver to the Oswego Bridge that I discovered another one of those holes in the river bottom. A spring emptied into the river near a small island about a half mile south of our house and that, unbeknownst to me, kept the ice in that channel thin. Skating along, I heard the ice crack, and before I knew it, I was on the ice, one leg through the surface and in the water, the other still on top. What concerned me is that I couldn’t feel the bottom with my submerged skate, something wholly unexpected—not to mention a bit frightening. But I was able to lay flat, work my leg back through the hole in the ice, and crawl to firm ice. On the skate home through the bitter cold, the soaked leg of my jeans froze solid, making it a little challenging to keep going—but I made it and was even able to conceal the adventure from my parents, who surely would have forbade any further ice skating adventures on the river.

2018 Melissa Marie Matile crop

Melissa Marie Matile 1966-2018

My daughter and her neighborhood friends played up and down the river during their childhood, too, and were even able to skate once in a great while, although by the early 1970s, the river was already warming during the winter due to increased use of river water upstream. When my son came along, he, too, and his friends made the river their territory, although skating by them was almost totally out of the question.

So I sit and watch this familiar, but ever-changing scene of river and island and shoreline enjoyed by six generations of my family, with a seventh just starting the process as my grandtwins, my daughter’s beloved niece and nephew, start to take up their own residence here. It keeps those memories of my daughter all those years ago alive somehow as we try to process her sudden disappearance from our lives.

 

2 Comments

Filed under family, Fox River, Nostalgia