A number of observances will be held during June, and among them will be celebrating National Immigrant Heritage Month.
And here in North America, everyone can confidently say we’re all descended from immigrants. The indigenous people Europeans found living in North and South America when they finally got here for good in the 15th Century came from eastern Asia. Exactly HOW they got here is still debated by scientists and historians, not to mention those indigenous people themselves.
The best evidence now is that those earliest adventurous arrivals came by boat down along the Pacific Ocean edge of the ice sheet then covering much of North America, followed many centuries later by their distant cousins who took advantage of the ice-free corridor that opened the land bridge between Asia and North America.
During the next several thousand years they created the civilizations and cultural traditions that were confronted with the European invasion of North America and the continued exploitation of South America’s people and resources.
By the first third of the 19th Century, American settlement had reached our home area here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley. Successive government actions were in process to drive the remaining Native People living here to lands west of the Mississippi River to open the entire region east of the river to White settlement and land ownership.
Here in Kendall County, the first White settlers were Americans who had drifted west looking for cheap farmland and new business opportunities. But starting in the 1840s, foreign immigrants began arriving, seeking the same things their American cousins were.
The 1840s were fractious times in Europe, with disorder and revolution in the air, especially in what soon became the German Reich. Thousands of solid German farmers and business people left the turmoil of their homes and risked the trip across the Atlantic to try their luck in the United States. A fair number of those hardy souls ended up here in my home area of Oswego Township and elsewhere in Kendall County. Burkharts, Schogers (many of who simplified their name to Shoger), Hafenrichters, Ebingers, Schlapps and others came, liked what they saw, and put down roots.
Arriving about the same time were Scots farmers, many livestock experts, who were leaving their homes seeking land of their own to farm, it being nearly impossible for non-titled people to obtain their land in Scotland.
Those two groups had been here only a short while before another group of Germans arrived, but these were America’s own Germans. Many of the families had lived in the “Pennsylvania Dutch” country of the east for more than a century before they decided to seek their fortunes on the rich prairies of northern Illinois. And so came the Lantz, and Schall, and Stark, and other families, who even after living in what eventually became the United States for 100 years and more still spoke German at home.
The whole group of farming families soon intermarried, creating a web of cousins that persists to the present day.
They were joined by successive waves of Norwegians, Swedes, Welsh, and Danes who joined the mix that included a rich leavening of French Canadians who’d arrived earlier and added their rich culture to the region’s mix.
Following the end of the Civil War, a wave of Black farmers and business owners, almost all former enslaved people, arrived to settle, along with Hispanics, Eastern and Southern Europeans and others who brought their Catholic heritage with them as they provided the personnel for the Fox Valley’s growing industries.
And as the decades passed, the mix has just kept getting richer as the region’s seemingly bottomless and ever-changing business and industrial environment has continued to evolve. Eastern Europeans, Asians and Southeast Asians, Pakistanis, Indians, Pacific Islanders and people whose heritages stretch back to virtually every corner of the earth come and go to and from the dynamic melting pot we call home here in our small corner of northern Illinois.
It’s become all the rage in certain circles lately to disparage and harass, both legally and often physically, immigrants that some consider to be the wrong kind of additions to our American melting pot. And looking at history, that has unfortunately always been the case. The Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, Catholics as a whole, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and other entire groups have bourn the burden of intense discrimination—and in so many cases still are.
Nevertheless, we, as a nation, still welcome strangers who come to get ahead, to make our communities and their lives better and we’re all the better for it. Not the least reason being that we all really are, ultimately, from somewhere else, the descendants of those who made the decision to make better lives for their families and themselves by venturing out and away and ending up with us here. Those are the ones, in particular, we should all remember with gratitude during National Immigrant Heritage Month.
We’re preparing to observe another Memorial Day holiday—an observation my mother insisted on calling Decoration Day despite it’s official title having been changed many decades before her death.
On that day, it was our family tradition to visit relatives’ graves and decorate them with flowers, something that gave my parents a chance to tell me about the family stories involved with the people lying in the cemeteries we visited. The stories always fascinated me. In fact, they’re what piqued my interest in history all those many years ago growing up in the rural America of the 1950s.
It was impossible to ignore, during those visits, the graves marked with small bronze plaques, each with a miniature American flag rippling in the breeze that denoted veterans’ graves, including some of the relatives whose graves we decorated. And as it turned out, the veterans whose graves drew my interest all those years ago were just the tip of the military service iceberg here in our small corner of northern Illinois. As I found out later in life as my interest in local history grew, veterans of every war in the nation’s history, starting with the Revolutionary War that created the nation, are buried on Kendall County soil.
From the resting place of Henry Misner in the Millington Cemetery—a Revolutionary War veteran of the Pennsylvania Line—to those who served in 1812, the Seminole Wars of the 1830s, and the Mexican War and who then marched off to the wars in places both near and far overseas, the service of these men and women is recalled by their tombstones and epitaphs.
That service began even before Kendall County was established in February 1841. In the spring of 1832, a band of around 1,200 men, women, and children of the Sauk and Fox tribes crossed into Illinois from the west bank of the Mississippi River with the intention of living with a Winnebago tribal group in northern Illinois. The problem was that the group of Sauk and Fox, led by the Sauk warrior Black Hawk, had previously agreed not to come back to Illinois. Their arrival created panic among American settlers, many of whom were squatting on land that still legally belonged to the two tribes. The situation also persuaded members of other tribes, disgruntled at the mostly illegal influx of White settlers across northern Illinois to retaliate against what they saw as injustices perpetrated against them.
The resulting conflict was called the Black Hawk War, named after the warrior who led his people back to Illinois from Iowa. Most all of the settlers in our own Fox River Valley left on learning about the rumor of war, fleeing either south to Ottawa or east to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn—whichever proved closer. Several of the settlers who had claimed land in what would become Kendall County—it had not been surveyed or put up for sale yet, so their presence was illegal—and who fled to Chicago volunteered for militia duty.
Among those early settlers volunteering to serve were Edmond Weed, George Hollenback, Edward Ament, Stephen Sweet, William Harris, Thomas Hollenback, and Anson Ament. Methodist missionaries Jesse Walker and Stephen Beggs of the Walker’s Grove settlement—now Plainfield—also volunteered. That unit only served for 14 days but after it dissolved many of the men in it volunteered to serve a longer hitch in another, more permanent unit.
The Black Hawk War was over by the summer of 1832 and was the last to be fought in Illinois. But other wars were to follow at regular intervals, each drawing either volunteers or draftees—or both—to fight for their country.
In 1846, for instance, President James K. Polk took the nation to war against Mexico. By that time, Kendall County had been established, the county seat had been moved to Oswego, and the era of settlement was coming to a close. Upon receipt of the news that war had been declared, a mass meeting was called at Oswego. A torchlight parade marched to the schoolhouse—then a one-room structure on Madison Street just south of Van Buren Street—where patriotic speeches were given and a number of local men agreed to volunteer.
Company D, 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry was recruited here in Kendall and Kane counties by Capt. A.R. Dodge, a prominent lawyer. According to early historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County men serving in the company included A. H. Kellogg, William Sprague. David W. Carpenter, John Sanders, John Roberts, George Roberts Aaron Fields, Edward Fields, James Lewis, Dr. Reuben Poindexter, William Joyce, Benjamin Van Doozer, and William Potter, along with a Mr. Tacker, Mr. Hunt, Mr. Hatch and Mr. Sheldon.
The 2nd Illinois and the 1st Illinois both fought in the fierce battle of Buena Vista that was a U.S. victory. They then served in garrison duty before being discharged in 1847 and sent home.
The outbreak of the Civil War, when a confederation of Southern states attacked the U.S. Government in 1861, again saw a torchlight parade in Oswego, this time to the courthouse that hadn’t yet been completed in 1846. Again, patriotic speeches were given and men pledged to serve. But it wasn’t until 1862, when it became evident the war was not going to be a short one, that Kendall County men and boys began heading off to battle in earnest.
Eventually, nearly 1,500 county residents would serve, a huge percentage of the county’s total 1860 population of 13,000. The largest number of county residents served in the 20th, 36th, 89th, and 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiments and the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Several eventual county residents also served in the U.S. Colored Troops after their service was authorized by President Lincoln. Kendall County’s only Medal of Honor winner, Robinson Barr Murphy, served as a drummer boy in the 127th Infantry, earning the medal when he was just 15. Several hundred of those who so confidently marched off to war never returned, most dying of rampant disease or the results of wounds. And many more returned only to deal with what a later generation would call post-traumatic stress disorder as well as the lingering effects of wounds or hard military service.
Kendall County men also served in the 1896 Spanish American War, including Philip Clauser of Oswego, but the conflict—described as “A splendid little war” by future president Theodore Roosevelt—was over too quickly to draw many into service.
U.S. participation in World War I also drew a number of Kendall County men into service, and this time, women like Oswego’s Mary Cutter also served, especially as nurses and YMCA volunteers. A total of 487 soldiers served and three—Archie Lake, Oswego; Leon Burson, Plano; and Fred Thompson, Yorkville—were killed in action.
The U.S. entered World War II when the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. The German government declared war on us a few days later. In that conflict, about the same number of county residents, both men and women, served in the nation’s armed forces as served during the Civil War, this time amounting to more than 10 percent of the county’s total 1940 population of 11,100. Of the total who served from Kendall County, 32 were killed in action.
And this time, those who objected to service that might cause them to kill others also honorably served the nation in other capacities, from battlefield medics to volunteering for experimental subjects that pushed medical science forward—and received official government recognition for doing so in the Alternative Service Program.
The county’s participation in military service to the nation continued during the Cold War era as well as the terrorism wars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as soldiers went off to fight in the snows of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam and then to the deserts of the Middle East where so much religious and political turmoil has roiled the entire globe.
Starting as the Civil War ended, it became a tradition for young girls to decorate the graves of that war’s dead with bouquets of flowers. As Oswegoan Lorenzo Rank explained in 1898: “The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.”
Gradually, however, Decoration Day became a commemoration of the dead in all the nation’s wars and was renamed “Memorial Day.” This year’s commemoration will be held throughout the nation on Monday, May 29.
In between the normal holiday activities, why not take a few moments to recall the service so many of our men and women have provided to the nation through the years?
I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.
Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.
Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.
In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.
Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.
One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.
In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.
I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.
But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.
But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.
The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.
It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.
Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.
We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.
Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.
In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.
We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.
But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.
Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.
During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.
As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”
That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.
The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.
And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.
Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.
That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.
Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.
I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.
Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.
‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.
We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.
The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.
Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.
But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.
These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.
After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.
My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.
And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.
When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.
The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.
The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.
My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.
After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.
These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.
It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.
I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.
These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.
While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.
I was paging through an old photo album the other day and came upon a photo of my grandmother dated about 1915. There she was standing beside her father-in-law in back of her two-story Aurora home, smiling into the camera holding up the severed head of a pig.
In this day and age, someone hoisting a pig’s head up for the camera would be considered odd if not downright dangerous. But my gentle and kindly grandmother was obviously not a bloodthirsty woman. So what was going on?
What was going on was everyday life at that time.
The early years of this century were times not so far removed—in lifestyle if not in year—from the subsistence farming in which the pioneers engaged. Until relatively recently (we’re talking in historical terms here), people did not go down to the supermarket for their every food need. Sure, there were grocery stores, but they mostly stocked staples like flour, sugar, rice, and the like. Instead of buying everything they ate, our not-so-distant ancestors had big gardens, raised chickens, and they kept cows and sometimes pigs, often even in town.
One reason most women did not work outside the home back then is because there was so much work in their homes to do all that gardening and animal husbandry not to mention trying to keep up with normal household tasks like cooking. Back in that day, just doing the family wash was a day-long job that involved heavy lifting, not to mention often having to be a cross between an engineer and a water-carrier—as my grandmother came to realize after she and my grandfather moved to a farm in 1920.
Farmers, of course, always tried to grow as much of the food they needed as possible while also trying to grow enough extra to send to market to earn cash. But frontier farmers found that given the transportation technology of the day their farm produce was hard–if not downright impossible–to move to market. As a result, they tried to convert their produce into something that was easier to transport.
Corn, rye, and other grains raised west of the Appalachian Mountains could be fermented and then distilled into whiskey, which could be transported a lot easier than the tons of grain it took to make the spirits. One of the nation’s first tax crises, in fact, happened because the government insisted on taxing whiskey, a practice western farmers insisted was unfair, since grain sold by eastern farmers was not similarly taxed. The Whiskey Rebellion was brief, but the animosity of the western settlers towards the more settled east remained and simmered.
The concept of making it easier to get western agricultural products to eastern markets was one of the major forces driving development on the frontier. Such giant—for their times—public works projects as the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls), the all the other canal systems in the nation were attempts to open farm-to-market transport routes.
Meanwhile, farmers were trying to survive by producing enough for their families to eat. Virtually every farmstead featured a standardized set of buildings and agricultural features that were geared towards not only producing products for sale or barter but for the subsistence of the farm family as well. Early on, a barn to provide storage for fodder, protection for draft animals, and farm equipment storage (meaning a plow during pioneer days); a crop storage building that eventually evolved into what we now call a corn crib; and a chicken house were the minimum buildings, beside the farmhouse, that were included on most farmsteads. Gradually, the kinds of farm equipment farmers needed increased and so a separate machine shed was added to the farmstead.
In terms of livestock, at least one cow was kept to provide milk and butter for the family. A few pigs were almost always kept because they were easy to raise and provided a lot of meat for the cost of feeding them. Cattle were usually kept, although they were more expensive to purchase and breed than pigs because they did not convert forage to meat as efficiently. And, of course, chickens were almost always on hand because of their utility as garbage disposals, egg layers, and ready sources of fresh meat.
Until the 1960s, most farmers raised all of the above animals at once on their farms, sometimes for the consumption of their families and even more often as profit centers for their farming operations.
Outside on the farmstead, there was an orchard and a large garden plot. Orchards usually included apple, cherry, and pear trees, plus sometimes plums, apricots, and peach trees. Early on, fruit was dried or stored in cellars for use later in the year. Later on, the fruit was either canned or turned into jellies and preserves.
Preserving vegetables and other garden produce, fruit, and meat was one of farm wives’ major tasks. Vegetables were canned, while root crops were preserved in cellars. Some vegetables, like cabbage and cucumbers were preserved by pickling, including making sauerkraut out of cabbage. Fruit was, as mentioned above, either canned for later use in pies and salads, or made into preserves, jams, and jellies. Many farm tables featured a jelly dish at all three meals during the day.
Meat was preserved in a variety of ways, including canning, which was especially favored for beef. Pork was preserved by frying the pork chops and putting them down in layers in large crocks. Each layer was sealed from outside air–and spoilage–with a thick layer of pork grease. Bacon and hams were smoked for preservation. And some parts of the hog were preserved in other ways. “Headcheese” was created by boiling the hog’s head to remove and cook the meat and release the natural gelatin in the bones and connective tissue. Then the mixture was seasoned and poured into loaf pans to cool. This produced a spiced lunch meat loaf that was sliced for use in sandwiches and other recipes.
Which gets us back to what my sweet grandmother was doing displaying that hog’s head so proudly: She was getting ready to make up a fresh batch of headcheese for use in my grandfather’s lunches at the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops in Aurora—no trip to the packaged meat aisle of the grocery store needed.
As a commentary on American life, the photo leading off this post is just one more indication of how far our definition of “the basics” has moved from the time of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’.
Museum manager Annie Jordan made a deep dive into our collections and retrieved a bunch of photos, documents, and three-dimensional artifacts, from 1950s letter sweaters to the kind of slates kids used to use in lieu of expensive paper to practice arithmetic and handwriting skills. The goal, which seems successful to me, was to put more flesh on the bones of the story of how public education has evolved over the decades as told in the museum gallery’s various core exhibit.
Everyone’s invited to stop by and spend some quality time browsing the new exhibit as well as the exhibits in the gallery. Regular hours are Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday, 4 to 9 p.m.; and Thursdays and Fridays, 2 to 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.
When I was providing some research assistance to Annie and museum assistant Emily Dutton, who was working on the exhibit’s labels, it occurred to me that, being a member of the first of the Baby Boom generation as I am, I’d seen—and participated in—one of the most significant times of change in public education in Illinois history. That era of change also coincided with eras of massive change that began in other areas during my childhood and early adulthood. That included the biggest changes in agriculture in a century (or much more) and the introduction of and miniaturization of computers that had massive effects on every aspect of life.
Public education opportunities had been divided into two categories for a century by that time. Elementary school districts educated students from first through eighth grade. Until the early years of the 20th Century, it was felt by many that eight years of schooling was enough for most people. High schools were relatively rare, as were their students. In 1916, only 175 students from all the county’s rural school districts attended at least some high school.
Until the 20th Century dawned, high school graduates were considered qualified to teach in rural schools. Then qualifications began rising and two years of college began to be required.
Here in Oswego, a two-year high school course—sufficient for rural school teachers—was offered with the first graduates matriculating in 1886. Those who wanted a full, four-year degree had to travel to nearby Aurora to finish. It wasn’t until the fall of 1928 that Oswego finally offered a fully accredited, four-year high school course of study.
High schools were expensive propositions with students’ tuitions originally paid for by rural districts. Finally, the state allowed the formation of property tax-supported high school districts and in December 1936 Oswego and Yorkville area voters created the Oswego and Yorkville community high school districts. Oswego High School District Superintendent John Clayton immediately set out to increase the geographical size of the district without adding too many potential students. The strategy made sense—farmland didn’t generate many students, but it did generate tax revenue. That worked until the 68 square miles of the once overwhelmingly rural district began growing more housing developments than crops.
I started school at the age of 6 years in the fall of 1952, joining four classmates in the first grade at Church School in Wheatland Township, Will County, here in Illinois. No kindergarten then—we dove right into Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot; metal lunch boxes with Thermos bottles whose glass lining broke if you looked at them wrong; recess; penmanship; and the rest with none of those half-day socialization preliminaries.
Officially considered a one-room rural school, Church School was a substantial brick building that actually boasted a large classroom, boys’ and girls’ indoor bathrooms, and a tiny library room, along with a high-ceilinged basement sufficient for indoor recess on rainy days. It was given its name because it was right across the road from the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church.
The church and school were established by the group of Scots immigrant families that arrived on the Wheatland prairie in the 1840s and 1850s, the descendants of which were, a century later, some of my schoolmates. In the fall of 1952, our teacher, Dorothy Comerford, drove out from Joliet every school day to instruct 23 students in six grades.
We didn’t know it—Mrs. Comerford probably did, and our parents surely did—but we were participating in the last years of one-room rural schools. Seventh and eighth graders who would normally have been attending classes at Church School had already been bused into town to attend school in Oswego and sixth graders would follow the next year.
My mother, in fact, was one of the people making sure that junior high students would have the expanded educational opportunities available in town schools. That’s because my oldest sister, Eileen, 12 years my senior, had been the only student in her grade level during her eight pre-high school years attending a couple different one-room schools. She finished her last few years at Church School, which was about a mile down the road from our farm.
Eileen told me one time that during the era when she graduated from eighth grade, graduates from all over Will County, a huge county extending all the way to the Indiana border, assembled at Lockport High School to receive their diplomas. She said she had a slight panic attack seeing that many students her own age after having no classmates her own age for her recently-completed eight years of school.
That prompted my mother’s activism. She helped establish the Oswego Mother’s Club (it eventually became the Oswego Woman’s Civic Club) that began strongly lobbying local school districts to get junior high students out of one-room schools and into town schools so they’d have access to more educational opportunities. Her efforts dovetailed nicely with the accelerating pace of public school consolidation then taking place all across Illinois.
By the early 1950s, Illinois was strongly encouraging merging rural, single-school districts into larger consolidated elementary school districts. The consolidation movement had begun years before, touted as both a tax-saving measure as well as an improvement in educational opportunities. Moving kids into larger in-town schools saved money because rural schools often had such low enrollments, sometimes as few as five or six students, which made for a great, but expensive student:teacher ratio. Larger schools could also offer a far richer curriculum for junior high students, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) areas where chemistry, biology, and physics labs were the kinds of things that would have benefited my sister, who was determined to be a nurse.
A few attempts at consolidating one-room school districts were made early on. Yorkville began considering consolidation in 1919. But efforts stalled during the Great Depression. As economic condition began to ease, consolidation efforts began again, this time out in rural areas. In June 1941, for instance, residents of the one-room Wilcox, Gaylord, and Walker schools voted to consolidate into a single district, with all students attending the Walker School at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego.
The outbreak of World War II again stalled things, but after the war consolidation efforts, this time strongly encouraged by the State of Illinois, resumed. Teacher requirements were increased to require full four-year degrees, prompting dozens of Kendall County educators to go back to college if they wanted to keep teaching. Financial encouragement through the state aid to education formula also encouraged consolidation, not only of elementary districts with other elementary districts, but also the creation of unit districts that educated students from first grade through the senior year of high school.
Here in the Oswego School District, it turned out that Church School, where I attended first through the first of half of third grade was one of the last three Oswego-affiliated one-room schools to operate. There had once been 11 one-room schools educating grade school students inside the bounds of the 68 square-mile area affiliated with Oswego through annexation to the high school district. Of the final three remaining schools, Willow Hill at the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and U.S. Route 34 and McCauley School on Caton Farm Road closed in the spring of 1957. Church School closed in the spring of 1958, ending the one-room country school era in the Oswego area.
(Fun fact: All three buildings are still standing, although poor Willow Hill gets more and more dilapidated every year. McCauley and Church schools have both been converted into single-family homes.)
Then in June 1961, voters in the Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 and Oswego Community Consolidated High School District 300 voted to create a new unit school district for students in first grade through high school, today’s Oswego Community Unit School District 308.
And that growth that was just getting a good start back in the late 1950s? Boy, did it keep going. One year old District 308 started the 1962-63 school year with 1,971 students. It started the current school year with just over 17,000.
So, I had the opportunity to attend a rural school very near the end of that era, and I have to say that for those first two and a half years, it provided me a very good, basic education, better than what I found when my parents moved into town. There were more students in my third grade classroom in town than had been in Church School in total, and I was in just one of three third grade classrooms, each with more than 30 students.
The thing was, the education you got in those one-room rural schools was hugely dependent on the skill of the teacher. A bad teacher could plague students through several years of school. But I, and my other Church School classmates were lucky; we had a great teacher.
Along with the end of the one-room school era, the end of diversified farming was also in sight when we moved off the farm in December 1954, soon to be replaced by specialization in grain, livestock, or dairy farming.
It was an interesting time, as two significant rural American eras came to an end.
Few people would consider our small village of Oswego to have been a hotbed of activism during the town’s history, but it turns out we’ve produced our share of advocates and inspired others throughout the years.
We made the latest discovery of an Oswego-related activist down at the Little White School Museum just this month. Museum manager Anne Jordan was looking around for any local connections to the annual observance of Gay Pride Month. She admitted she didn’t have much hope given Oswego’s history as a small farming town before its late 20th Century population explosion. But it turned out that Velma Young Tate, whose family was among our early settlers, was a local connection to the LGBTQ+ community, and an important connection at that.
The activism part of Tate’s gay rights advocacy was nothing unusual for the extended Young family. Phoebe Margaret Phillips Young, Tate’s great-grandmother, who had arrived in Oswego with her parents in the early 1840s, was an early and vocal temperance activist, who was also apparently active in the women’s suffrage movement.
A Phillips cousin, Jim Phillips, gained national attention in the 1960s and 1970s when he became exasperated at the lack of environmental regulations and the devastating effect that lack was having on the ecological health of the Fox River Valley where his family had lived for so long. Phillips assumed the identity of “The Fox,” an environmental crusader whose exploits to publicize egregious pollution all over northern Illinois soon gained national attention, including mentions in Time Magazine and National Geographic.
And then there was Richard “Dick” Young, a mild-mannered Oswego native and one Phoebe Margaret’s great-grandsons, who became another champion of the environment. He was instrumental in the formation of the Kendall County Forest Preserve District, the Oswegoland Park District, Kendall County’s zoning laws, and the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency. He’s the only Illinois resident with forest preserves named after him in two different counties.
So Velma Young Tate came by her activism naturally; it really was a family thing. She was born a few miles upriver from Oswego in Aurora, Illinois in 1913, the daughter of Marshall and Elsie (Collins) Young.
Both Marshall and Elsie came from solid Oswego stock. The Collins family were English immigrant farmers, memorialized to this day by Collins Road just outside Oswego. Meanwhile, Marshall was the son of Jay and Carrie (Hoag) Young. Jay and his brother Lou C., were well-known Oswego carpenters, while their father, John Abel Young, was a prominent Oswego wagonwright and blacksmith. John Abel had married Phoebe Margaret Phillips in 1853, cementing the Phillips and Young families.
Marshall Young moved around a fair amount, spending some years up in Elgin. And on June 10, 1930, Velma graduated from Elgin High School. In 1935 she earned a two-year scholarship to Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. While there, she became a member of the Socialist Party and began a lifelong pattern of advocacy for social issues.
After earning her two-year degree, she was qualified to teach in one-room rural schools. She taught one year in Plattville here in Kendall County, and then moved on to Mount Carol where she taught for one school year before her marriage. She and William Jerry Tate were married in Mt. Carol on May 10, 1939.
Subsequently, the couple moved and eventually ended up just east of Oswego at what was then called Tamarack Corners, the intersection of Heggs and Simons roads. Jerry was an electrician, though not very successful, while Velma got a job in Aurora working at Pictorial Paper Packaging Company as a switchboard operator.
She had apparently begun writing after having her three sons, including twins, in 1940 and 1942. On March 12, 1946, the Kendall County Record reported from Tamarack that: “Mrs. Velma Young Tate is one of the contributors in the March Household, the author of an article on the radio, written in a humorous vein. Mrs. Tate, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Young, is the mother of three lively young sons, but finds time to write both prose and poetry.”
Things, however, were apparently not happy in the Tate household, made worse by her husband’s reported drinking problem and even worse when Velma discovered in the early 1950s that she was gay.
In 1953, she published her first novel, The Hired Girl, which earned her $500. She later said she took the money and “bought a pair of shoes, two dresses, and hired a divorce lawyer.”
That year, the couple divorced, and she took her three boys to live in “The Colony” in Chicago. From that time on, she became a successful novelist and poet, often writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. She also became a strong advocate for gay rights and was well known as a speaker and advocate for that and other causes.
In Chicago, she got a job, Ironically, as assistant editor at the conservative publishing house Henry Regnery & Sons, where she worked from 1956 to 1961.
After that she concentrated on social activism including feminism, elder rights, and like her cousins, environmentalism. She also accelerated her writing, churning out a number of novels and other works under a variety of pen names, most prominently Valerie Taylor.
According to her Wikipedia entry: “Due to her notoriety in the lesbian pulp fiction genre, as well as her public activism during her time in Chicago, she was dubbed one of the ‘Lesbian Grandmothers of America.’ Cornell University, which houses her literary estate, calls her novels ‘pulp fiction classics.’”
In 1978, after the death of her partner, attorney Pearl Heart, Velma moved from Chicago to Tucson, Arizona. The next year, she became a Quaker. In 1993, her health began to decline. She died Oct. 22, 1997 at her Tucson home.
After her death, her literary estate was donated to Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection and her name was added to the list of other members of the LGBTQ community at the Tucson Gay Museum.
That two of Oswego’s related pioneer families would generate two cousins who became nationally-known advocates and activists in two separate areas is one of those hidden connections that makes even the most local of history so fascinating.
On May 1, 1831, young Edward G. Ament and Emily Ann Harris were married by pioneer Methodist Missionary Rev. Isaac Scarritt, and thereby became the first couple to be wed within the bounds of what eventually became Kendall County.
From that time on, weddings multiplied as the frontier first caught up to the lands along the Fox River here in northern Illinois, and then moved on ever farther west until the nation’s boundaries reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
Rev. Scarritt had arrived in Illinois from Connecticut in 1818—the year the state was officially established by an act of Congress—first setting in Edwardsville before being assigned to take over dissolving the Methodists’ Fox River Mission in 1828. The joint Methodist-U.S. Government mission had been established on the Fox River at the mouth of Mission Creek in modern LaSalle County just south of the current Kendall County line. After winding up the mission’s affairs, Scarritt moved with his family to what is today’s DuPage Township in Will County, building his cabin near the forks of the DuPage River.
Scarritt was appointed the first justice of the peace in the area and so was the closest legal authority to legally conduct the Ament-Harris marriage. The U.S. has always maintained a somewhat curious official attitude towards marriage. It has always been considered a binding legal contract between two people (and, by association, their families), and so unlike births and deaths records of them have always been carefully kept. A legal marriage conducted by a justice of the peace or other officer of the court does not need a religious blessing to be legal. Nor does a religious wedding conducted by a minister or briest need to be blessed by an officer of the government. But both are considered to be legal unions in the eyes of the law.
So with Edward and Emily Ann’s marriage conducted by Isaac Scarritt, who was both a Methodist minister of the gospel and a justice of the peace, their union was doubly safe.
Just a few days after the young couple was married, the Black Hawk War broke out, and all the White settlers in the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines valleys fled for their lives, those on the northern reaches of the streams heading first to the cabin of Stephen Beggs—another Methodist missionary making his home where Plainfield is located today—and those on the southern reaches of the rivers getting to Ottawa as quickly as possible.
In an interesting note on the living conditions of those early settlers on the Illinois prairie, Scarritt left his claim so quickly he didn’t have time to grab a pair of shoes, suggesting a lot of those settlers went barefoot in warmer weather to save expensive footwear. The tradition is that when he eventually got to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn and safety, he was asked to preach a Sunday sermon for which he had to borrow a pair of shoes to avoid the embarrassment of speaking to a crowd shoeless.
As for Edward and Emily Ann, early Kendall County historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks dryly reported “…they took their wedding trip two weeks afterward, when they fled from the Indians.”
And then there was the no less interesting wedding when early Montgomery settler William T. Elliott decided to marry the lovely Rebecca Pearce, daughter of Elijah Pearce, a member of the numerous extended Pearce family that also were the first settlers here in Oswego Township.
Seventeen year-old Rebecca was more than willing to marry Elliott, a 19 year-old go-getter. But her father, when asked, was not yet willing to let the young lady leave his household. At that time, 1834, neither Kane nor Kendall County had yet been established, and the nearest place to get legally married was Ottawa. So Elliott walked the roughly 40 miles where the county clerk told him that since Rebecca was only 17, the bans would have to be announced in a church for two weeks before a license could be issued.
With no churches yet established in the Fox Valley, Elliott despondently trudged back upriver to Montgomery. But shortly before he reached his cabin, he happened on the Rev. N.C. Clark, one of the region’s earliest Congregational ministers, known by one and all as “the kindly Father Clark.” After hearing Elliott’s story, Rev. Clark suggested that on Sunday Elliott come over to the Naperville cabin where Clark’s nascent congregation was meeting, and announce the bans. Rev. Clark said he’d take care of making sure the second announcement was made as well.
In the meantime, Elijah Pearce had heard that the bans had been announced over in Naperville, but was under the impression they’d only been announced once. Thinking he had an entire week to go over to Naperville to protest on the second reading—which had already taken place—Pearce headed into Chicago for supplies. Meanwhile Elliott had hustled back down to Ottawa, obtained, the marriage license from the LaSalle County Clerk, hustled back upriver to Montgomery where Rev. Clark happily married William and Rebecca.
Elijah was reportedly pretty upset when he got back from Chicago to find his daughter was now Mrs. Elliott, but after a night’s sleep decided maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to happen. And thereby on Aug. 3, 1835, William and Rebecca’s marriage became the first in what eventually became Aurora Township.
Over the next several decades, weddings became quite a bit less exciting, with no Indian wars to cope with and a much shorter walk to the county seat to get a license. Church weddings gradually more popular, although marriages at home and in church parsonages seem to have been more the rule than the exception until after World War II when more elaborate marriages became the norm.
And, in fact, weddings eventually became the basis for some popular—if fairly unusual—community fundraisers in the early years of the 20th Century.
In the Feb. 25, 1914 Kendall County Record, the Oswego Parent-Teachers Club—ancestor of today’s PTAs and PTOs—announced plans to present a Tom Thumb Wedding fundraiser. Tom Thumb Weddings had been developed as comedic musical entertainment events with a community’s school children playing the parts of the groom and bride—based on the 1863 marriage of P.T. Barnum’s diminutive cast member, the wildly popular Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and his real life bride Lavinia Warren—as well as a large cast of other members of the wedding party and guests.
Performances of Tom Thumb Wedding fundraisers began in the 1890s in Pennsylvania, but then gradually spread as their success began to become more widely known. As an indication of the productions’ rising popularity, Walter H. Baker & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts published “The Tom Thumb wedding” script in 1898. Concerning the cast according to the Baker script, “there should be a minister, bride and groom, maid of honor, groomsman, father and mother, bridesmaids, ushers, guests, and flower girls.”
The Oswego performance was an apparent success, the next week’s Record reporting: “The Tom Thumb wedding at the Woodman Hall Tuesday evening was well attended and a pleasant affair. Clement Burkhart as groom and Gladys Parkhurst as the bride, with their attendants made an interesting bridal party. Too much credit cannot be given all those participating.”
Apparently adults couldn’t wait to get in on the mock wedding fun, and within a few years, “womanless weddings” became popular amateur fundraising events where prominent local business owners and other luminaries—all men—dressed in costume and participated in the all-male events. The events proved popular in the Midwest during the years of the Great Depression.
On Feb. 19, 1930, the Record announced that “The XIX Century club of Oswego have procured the services of the Sympson Levi Producing company of Bardstown, Ky. to stage “The Womanless Wedding,” which has been put on so successfully in our neighboring towns. The dates will be March 17 and 18.”
According one script, “As title indicates, no women are to be used in this play, unless desired. Special care should be exercised in the selection of the cast. Use prominent men. Men taking ladies’ parts should wear ladies’ shoes if possible. A small groom and large bride will prove effective. Have costumes and stage effects as elaborate as possible. An altar draped in red, white and blue is appropriate.”
Unlike the Tom Thumb Weddings, a professional director came as part of the production and there was little music and much more dialog by the characters in Womanless Wedding scripts, including racist depiction in blackface by Black participants.
By all accounts, the community found the production highly entertaining, especially given the prominence of men portraying the cross-dressing “women” in the cast.
Reported the March 26, 1930 Kendall County Record: “The Womanless Wedding” has passed into history. It was one of the most talked of and enjoyable events in Oswego for some time. Many were unable to obtain seats. The parts were very well taken.”
In fact, the community had such a good time, they decided to produce their own version of the production, although this time not a wedding spoof. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Jan. 27, 1937 that “The womanless play, “Ladies for a Night,” given at the high school gym last Thursday and Friday, netted nearly $100 and everyone a lot of fun.” It doesn’t sound like a lot to us today, but back during the late Depression years, $100 was pretty big money—roughly $2,000 in 2022 dollars.
These days, although some communities still do produce variations on Tom Thumb Weddings, the political struggle over LGTBQ rights have pretty much put paid to womanless wedding productions. And when it comes to actual marriages, “destination weddings” seem to be all the rage nowadays, with people dragging friends and relatives all over the country and even off to foreign climes to witness two people getting hitched for better or worse. The good news is at least most of those newly married couples won’t spend their honeymoons fleeing to the nearest fort.
If you’re interested in chatting about some more entertaining Oswego wedding history, don’t miss Little White School Museum Manager Anne Jordan’s next History Happy Hour at the Fox Valley Winery (in the old Main Street fire station), set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8. Residents of the Oswegoland Park District can register for $15 and non-residents for $25–registration includes one glass of wine to enjoy during the evening’s discussion about Oswego wedding history. Preregistration is required by calling the park district at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/.
Formerly carrying the anodyne name Northwest Community Park, the 30.4 acre site is located just down the road from my grandparents’ farm and a couple miles south of the farm my folks worked until I was eight years old.
Thanks to the activism of my friend Tina Beaird, the Plainfield Park District agreed to rename the park to commemorate the Scots settlers who arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s to settle the (literally) treeless prairie between Plainfield and Oswego. According to W.W. Stevens writing about the 36 square mile Wheatland Township in Past and Present of Will County, Illinois (1907), “It is wholly prairie, there never having been to exceed five acres of timber in the whole township.”
Stephen Findlay and family arrived in the area in 1844 and put down deep roots—his family still lives in the area. Other Scots including the Clow, McMicken, Gilmour, King, McLaren, and Stewart families soon joined them. Then in 1852, Thomas Burnett also arrived after a circuitous journey from his native Scotland.
Born in 1811 the son of a weaver, Burnett too took up the weaving trade until 1834 when he decided to try his luck across the Atlantic in the United States. According to his biography, he first stopped in Saratoga County, N.Y., then tried his luck west in Michigan before returning east to Connecticut and then New York again. But in 1852, he decided to try his luck prairie farming in Illinois, settling in the Findlays’ Scots settlement in which eventually became Will County’s Wheatland Township.
Sometime during his travels, Burnett had apparently become fond of tamarack trees. Although appearing to be evergreens, tamaracks lose their needles during the winter and regrow them each spring. They favor wetlands with plenty of sunshine—which really doesn’t describe Wheatland Township, but Burnett brought some along with him anyway and planted them near the intersection of modern 127th Street and Heggs Road. And thus the intersection soon became known as Tamarack Corners and the surrounding area as the Tamarack neighborhood.
The area got it’s own post office soon after Burnett arrived with his tamarack trees. The Tamarack Post Office opened on Dec. 8, 1858 in a private residence at the northwest corner of the 127th Street-Heggs Road intersection.
Then a couple years later, the Tamarack School was built at the southeast corner of the intersection on a small parcel owned by Scots farmer John Brown. The small frame building housed grades 1-8, and served an area a couple miles in diameter. The goal of rural school districts was to make sure students didn’t have to walk more than around a mile and a half to class. Generations of students went through Tamarack School for their first eight grades—and for most of them those were all the grades they finished.
Eventually, blacksmith William Narin opened a shop a short distance east of the intersection on 127th Street, next to the house of ditch digger James Narin.
Postmaster Hugh Allen not only managed the post office, but also maintained a small store as well, a common practice for the thousands of rural postmasters across the nation. And, in fact, Allen’s small store was the only store within the bounds of Wheatland Township for several years.
In May 1848, a group of Scots Presbyterians met at Stephen Findlay’s home and established the Wheatland Presbyterian Church. Their first church building was erected a mile north of Tamarack Corners at the intersection of Heggs and Scotch Church roads in 1856. The original church building was replaced by a much larger structure in 1906 that still stands, and which, as the Wheatland United “Scotch” Presbyterian Church, is still attended by some of the descendants of the congregation’s original founders.
While some small rural crossroads hamlets grew into legitimate villages, many, including Tamarack, did not. It’s possible that the decision to locate the Scotch Church a mile north of Tamarack inhibited its growth. Certainly, the advent of the U.S. Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery in 1896 led to a major change in rural lifestyles as many small country post offices closed. The Tamarack Post Office closed its doors on April 15, 1901. And without the post office revenue, Allen’s tiny store could not succeed. Instead, the store’s business moved a few miles away to Normantown on the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway’s line running from Plainfield to Aurora. While Normantown’s post office (1893-1903) was also a casualty of Rural Free Delivery, the small hamlet’s grain elevator proved a big enough draw to lure customers to the store there, which later also added gasoline to their product line to serve the growing number of automobiles. When the U.S. Route 30—the Lincoln Highway—was finally rerouted and paved from Plainfield to Aurora following the railroad right-of-way, the store became a forerunner of what we’d call a mini-mart these days.
Tamarack School also eventually closed in the late 1940s, consolidating with Church School a mile north just across Scotch Church Road from the Scotch Church.
By the time I was growing up a mile north of the Scotch Church in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only two private homes marked the former Tamarack intersection hamlet. All that remained of Tamarack School was the hand pump on the old well. The post office and blacksmith shop had disappeared without a trace.
Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time in that neighborhood, staying with my grandparents just up the road a bit and visiting with the Bowers, who had remodeled one of the two remaining houses at the intersection. Their son, Bob, was three years older than I, but we still had a good time playing together, and would often walk down the road to where it crossed a small creek to play in the running water as I imagine boys had been doing since those first Scots settlers arrived.
“Weren’t your parents worried about the traffic as you walked down there?” my wife wondered as she watched cars and trucks whizzing by on now-paved 127th Street. And I had to explain that other than the mail carrier, Ralton Sillers making his daily rounds, there wasn’t any traffic to speak of back in those days.
And that spot where we played so many years ago is now a naturalized wetland and part of Tamarack Settlement Park. It is kind of nice to know that as all the former farms that once surrounded Tamarack Corners develop and become covered with new homes that at least a piece of the old landscape will be preserved, even including some of the very native prairie plants the Findlays and Burnetts and those other families saw when they arrived all those many years ago.
It’s nearly time for All Hallows Eve again, when ghosties and goblins and things that go bump in the night come to your door for a ‘trick or treat.’ What with the ongoing Covid epidemic, I would imagine that the number of trick or treaters will be diminished again this year. But maybe not.
Trick or treating was fun when I was a youngster—we had all the good houses staked out that we made sure to visit. But the one place we did not go near that night was the Oswego Township Cemetery. We had heard the tales of “Three Fingered Jack” Hamilton, one of John Dillinger’s gang, who was buried there after meeting a violent death, and we didn’t want to chance meeting up with the old guy.
Despite our fears, real, honest to goodness local ghost stories are pretty hard to come by. When I was growing up, there was indeed an old haunted house over on Ill. Route 31. Built by the Parker family of mill-owning fame, the rambling old Italianate mansion had seen its share of scandal. Modified in the 1920s with a drive-in basement, John Schickler and son operated an illegal moonshine still there. Later the son turned his hand to the dairy business, using the basement to house his milk bottling operation. But by the late 1950s, it had fallen into disrepair, fully meeting the requirements of a haunted house, although without the requisite ghosts in residence.
In fact, I never really heard any good local ghost stories. I suspect the Methodist and Congregationalist settlers who predominated among the area’s earliest pioneers simply didn’t have time for such nonsense.
After I got into the newspaper business, ever on the lookout for a good seasonal story, I talked to a number of people, both young and old, to see if there were any good ghost stories about our area that I might have missed—we were always looking for a good Halloween feature story. As noted, apparently local people, especially the descendants of those early settlers are a hard-headed lot, and are not given to admitting the existence of ghosts, spirits, or poltergeists.
Except for one story, that is. Several years ago, after much prodding and despite her obvious embarrassment, I did manage to get my grandmother to relate a couple of stories her parents told her, one of which turned out to be a pretty fair ghost story.
My great-grandparents, John Peter and Amelia Lantz, were both Pennsylvania Dutch, and were a bit more superstitious than most area residents who didn’t come from that tradition. An influx of Pennsylvania Germans arrived here on the northern Illinois prairies in the 1850s, drawn by stories of rich farmland that didn’t have to be cleared of dense forests before it could be cultivated. Arriving from Lancaster, Schuylkill, and other Pennsylvania counties heavily populated by the descendants of the German settlers William Penn had persuaded to immigrate—and mostly still speaking German at home even after having lived in Pennsylvania for 100 or more years—the new arrivals fit right in with the latest German immigrants who’d settled on the Oswego Prairie between Oswego and Naperville in the late 1840s.
Both groups of ethnic Germans brought their traditions with them, including the Pennsylvania Dutch ambivalence about superstition. My great- grandparents, for instance, had both been raised with the idea that ghosts and spirits were real things.
And so we come to the story that involves the old Vermont Cemetery in Wheatland Township.
The Vermont Settlement was created when the Jonathan Davis and Levi Blanchard families arrived from Vermont out on the Wheatland prairie in 1843. They were joined the next year by their fellow Green Mountain native, Layton Rice and his five sons along with Rudolph Houghton and family. The area continued to draw settlers, some from Vermont, others immigrating from Germany and traveling west from Pennsylvania. The settlers soon founded they needed both a burying ground as well as a school. The one-acre cemetery was laid out on the east side of what eventually became Normantown Road about a half mile south of Wolf’s Crossing Road.
My great-grandparents frequently traveled into Oswego to visit my great-great grandparents from their farm along what’s now Ill. Route 59. The quickest route for them was to take what’s today Route 59 north from their farm to modern 103rd Street, and drive on that all the way to Normantown Road (on part of 103rd that no longer exists). Then they’ turn north on Normantown Road to Wolf’s Crossing and into Oswego.
One dark night back just before the turn of the 20th Century, as my great-grandparents were returning to their farm from Oswego on that route, their horses began to act strangely. Just after passing the old Vermont Cemetery, they noticed a strange light that appeared to hover just under their horse.
The horse became terriﬁed and bolted out of control. The couple had a wild ride until they reached the Leppert farm, where the light disappeared as mysteriously as it had come. The horse immediately became calm and slowed to a sedate walk as if nothing had happened. John Peter and Amelia, however, were quite shaken by the experience.
Some weeks later, another incident happened at the Vermont Cemetery that convinced my great-grandparents that the cemetery was indeed haunted.
This time, again, the Lantzes were on their way home from Oswego, when their horse began to act up. They noticed that they were again nearing the Vermont Cemetery, and at the same time saw, from the back, a man walking along the road headed towards the cemetery. John Peter thought the man looked very familiar, and when they caught up with him was astonished to recognize him as a neighbor who had been buried in the cemetery some time before.
As the couple pulled up to the walking man, John Peter said he asked him if he wanted a ride. The man made no response, and, acting as if he didn’t know the buggy was beside him, kept walking steadily towards the cemetery. When the couple in the buggy and the walking man reached the gates of the cemetery the man seemed to vanish into thin air. My great-grandparents hurried away as quickly as their horse and buggy could carry them.
According to my grandmother, a replay of this incident happened several times, always with a different deceased neighbor. It always happened in the same manner, with the person found walking towards the cemetery, and then disappearing when he reached the gate.
“That’s what they said,” my grandmother recalled, adding, “But I don’t believe it! Why, whoever heard of such a thing?”
Today, cemeteries aren’t so much sources for scary stories as they are considered repositories of historical information and rare native plants. Thanks to Northern Illinois University’s Dr. Robert Betz, volunteers began trying to preserve the Vermont Cemetery in 1961. It was fenced off in 1970 to preserve the rich collection of rare native prairie plants. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory identified 70 native species of plants at Vermont Cemetery. It was dedicated as an Illinois State Nature Preserve in 1999. The Forest Preserve District of Will County subsequently acquired the old cemetery along with a little over 24 acres to create a prairie buffer around it, creating today’s Vermont Cemetery Preserve, a living museum of northern Illinois’ prairie past.
l haven’t heard of anyone seeing ghosts out there lately, though, but then again, maybe no one has looked. Perhaps on a misty fall night, ghosts of pioneer farmers still trudge along that lonely stretch of country road on their way back to their resting places at the Vermont Cemetery.