Category Archives: Farming

Sitting back and watching as entire eras come and go…

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.

Lyle Shoger picking corn by hand near the end of the era of farming with horses about 1930 just off Route 34 west of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

The author test-drives a new IH Farmall tractor at the Wheatland Plowing Match about 1950.

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.

The author, co-piloting the Matile Farm Case tractor with his father at the controls, about 1949.

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.”

A size comparison: My nephew poses with his classic old Farmall tractor and with one of the kinds of giant machines they use these days that dwarf anything used back in the heyday of diversified farming.

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.

Subdivision under construction in Oswego just as the housing bust hit in 2009. In the early 2000’s Kendall County, partly driven by Oswego’s growth, was the fastest growing county in the nation. The pause in construction caused by the lending crisis in 2009 has now largely disappeared and construction in the area is again booming. (Ledger-Sentinel photo by John Etheredge)

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.

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Filed under Environment, family, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

Disappearance of wheat fields marked a major change in northern Illinois’ prairie farming

This year’s grain harvest has largely wrapped up here in the Fox River Valley, following roughly the same schedule it has been on for the last 1,200 years.

Illinois’ Native People began cultivating corn sometime between 900 and 1000 AD. It joined the beans and squash they’d been propagating to create the basis for their subsistence crops they called “The Three Sisters.”

Interestingly enough, modern farmers still grow versions of the Native People’s “Three Sisters,” although these days soybeans have taken the place of native edible beans and pumpkins have largely replaced other squash. But still, it’s sort of comforting that a 1,200 year-old harvest tradition continues into the 21st Century.

The member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy had moved into the area west and south of Lake Michigan in the 1740s, displacing the member tribal groups of the Illinois Confederacy. The Three Fires relied on growing “The Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) for a large proportion of their died. Like the region’s modern farmers, the Native People completed their harvest in late fall.

By the time the first permanent White settlers began arriving along the banks of the Fox River, the resident Native People were inter-related members of the Three Fires Confederacy comprised of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. These people, too, relied on growing The Three Sisters for a large percentage of their diet. Over the centuries since its introduction, corn had been crossbred and otherwise genetically modified by its Native American growers.

European immigrants had quickly adopted growing what they called “Indian corn” to differentiate it from the “corn’ they called wheat back in that day. It grew okay in the thin, rocky soils of New England, but crops kept getting better the farther west White settlement moved because soils were better, too. When the frontier finally moved out of the Eastern woodlands onto the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula in the 1820s, corn found its ideal habitat.

But those White settlers did not live on corn alone. They needed wheat for bread and other foods, along with oats to feed their livestock, and rye and barley for foodstuffs as well as to manufacture the alcoholic beverages that seemed to power so much of frontier society.

So the crops grown on those first Fox Valley pioneer farms were quite diversified, right along with those of their neighbors all the way west to the Mississippi. Wheat was considered a vital crop, both for consumption on the farm, and after pioneer town developers arrived, for sale in town. Corn was fed to the farm’s livestock, which could then walk the 40 miles east to market in Chicago. Rye and barley were both used on the farm, but were also good sale crops and which could also be turned into extremely valuable—and easily transported—whiskey.

Grain, too, could be hauled to the Chicago market, although the 80 mile round trip in wagon-and-team days was time-consuming, keeping the farmer away from taking care of his other responsibilities such as feeding and otherwise caring for his livestock, not to mention taking care of his family on their often isolated farmsteads.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

So when the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened following the course of the Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois River system from Lake Michigan to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru, it created a nearby, easily reached incentive to begin growing more grain of all kinds than could be consumed on the farm.

For one thing, it meant the meat being produced from Chicago’s stockyards could move south to the St. Louis–New Orleans market as easily as east to the New York market.

Even more importantly, its existence meant that grain from the rich region west and south of Chicago could finally be shipped north as well as south. Previously grain taken to the Illinois River system went downstream to the St. Louis market. But with canal boats hauling it, grain moved north as easily as south. Chicago’s grain elevators were ready to handle the huge influx of grain, too, readying it for shipment east to the New York market.

Thus began cash grain farming in earnest. And within a year or so, the first railroad, whose right-of-way followed the course of the canal, opened. That offered a year round grain and livestock shipping opportunity for area farmers, something the canal, which had to close during the winter months, could not.

It was during this period of the late 1840s and early 1850s, that northern Illinois’ wheat crops experienced a number of failures. And since it was a major crop during those years, it led to severe financial problems. In response, farmers tried everything they could to try to make the area a viable wheat-producer, including introducing dozens of new wheat varieties and tinkering with planting schedules.

The preferred wheat for market was hard winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, germinated and greened up, went dormant over the winter, and then resumed growing in the spring to be harvested in late summer. But northern Illinois’ climate and its very soil warred against producing good winter wheat crops. The region’s numerous freeze-thaw cycles during an average winter tended to kill the vulnerable wheat seedlings. Then if it did begin growing it was often attacked by a variety of diseases including rust and blight along with insect pests such as the Hessian fly and chinch bugs. And, oddly enough, the soils on northern Illinois tallgrass prairies seemed to be too rich to support good wheat crops. Farmer Edmund Flagg decided in the mid-1830s from his own observations that the worst soils of the Prairie Peninsula were best-adapted to growing wheat.

Before the advent of mechanical reapers, harvesting “small grains” (wheat, oats, barley, rye) was both labor-intensive and subject to weather-related problems. Those problems were so severe and prevalent on the Illinois prairies that farmers, a group normally reluctant to adopt new methods, were eager early adopters of mechanical harvesting equipment. McCormick Reapers were manufactured under license south of Oswego at AuSable Grove in 1847.

And then there was the problem that growing and harvesting wheat is extremely labor-intensive and very dependent on just the right weather conditions during the harvest cycle. Wheat had to be cut, bound into bundles, stacked to dry, and then threshed. Excessive moisture in the form of rain at any time after the grain was cut could lead to it developing rust or other fungus, or even sprouting spoiling the crop.

This need for speed during the wheat harvest spurred by the upper Midwest’s damp climate during the peak harvest season led to early and intense interest in mechanical harvesters that allowed far more acreage to be cut, bundled, and shocked than the old manual methods. Area farmers not only imported early harvesters made by Cyrus McCormick and others, but they also licensed them for manufacture here. Out in AuSable Grove south of Oswego Daniel Townsend secured a McCormick license and produced harvesters in the 1840s. Eventually, of course, the folks in Plano here in Kendall County became one of the premiere harvester manufacturers in the nation.

Corn, in comparison, was pretty hardy stuff. It could even be left standing in the field all winter if necessary, to be successfully picked and husked in the early spring with no visible impact on its value as a human or animal food.

Northern Illinois farmers gradually switched to trying to grow spring wheat and met with more success. But the spring varieties were softer and less attractive for milling into bread flour than the hard winter varieties. So, wheat growing began to disappear from Fox Valley farms in favor of corn and oats, which found a ready market in area cities during the era when horses provided the main motive power.

Not so in central and southern Illinois, where wheat farming was part of the Southern farming culture that had arrived with those regions’ pioneers. The southern part of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Virginia and the Carolinas who came west through Kentucky and Tennessee, and then up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. They were also some of central Illinois’ first pioneers.

Southern farming culture was far more subsistence-based than that of the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians who settled northern Illinois. The soils and climate of the southern half of the state favored wheat farming, which fit in with the culture Southern farmers brought with them. That culture not only included the kinds of crops they grew, but also extended to their farmsteads.

Probably built around 1847, the barn south of Oswego on the Daniel Townsend farm was used both as a traditional barn, but also may have housed Townsend’s manufacturing operation to produce McCormick reapers. The barn was built on the traditional stone Pennsylvania plan with slit ventilating windows.

Barns, for instance, were common sights on the northern Illinois landscape but not so farther south. According to Richard Bardolph, writing in the December 1948 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the editor of Moore’s Rural New Yorker visited Illinois in the 1850s and reported to his readers, that “barns are scarcely to be seen on the prairies, and they seem to be considered more of a luxury than a necessity.”

In contrast, here in the Fox Valley barns were among the first structures pioneer farmers built. They were multi-purpose buildings farmers relied upon for everything from grain and hay storage to protecting livestock from the region’s bitter winters to storing farm equipment. Storing farm equipment under roof seems to have been another Southern farmer cultural trait they didn’t share with their Northern counterparts.

As late as the 1940s, one of my Kansas cousins came east to learn Midwestern farming practices from my father and uncles. One of the things he took back with him was the importance of storing farm equipment out of the weather to lengthen the equipment’s lifespan and to assure it worked when needed. That was a new concept for many Kansas farmers of the era whose roots extended east through Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.

During the Great Depression here in northern Illinois, wheat farming nearly disappeared. The 1935 Census of Agriculture for Kendall County reported only four farms grew wheat, amounting to a bit over 400 bushels. We now know that 1934 was probably the worst year for northern Illinois farmers during those awful years. Drought, chinch bug invasions, crop diseases, dust storms, and just about any other disaster you can think of afflicted the region’s farmers. The price of corn had collapsed in 1933, bringing only 14-cents a bushel, down sharply from $1.14 in 1925. That made it cheaper for many farmers to burn it as fuel in their stoves and furnaces than coal. Sears Roebuck, in fact, marketed special stove grates in those years designed for corn, which burned hotter than coal or wood.

In addition, corn could also be fed to animals on the farm, producing livestock the farm family itself could consume. Many a farm family of those years helped feed their city cousins. In general, it took about seven bushels of corn to produce a pound of beef and 6.5 pounds to produce a bushel of pork, Many farmers favored raising hogs because pork could be turned into a variety of meats from roasts and chops to sausage and with smoking, hams and bacon. And corn could also be used as human food as well, ground into corn flour to make cornbread, fried mush, and other dishes. This diversity of use apparently made growing corn a more sensible course for the region’s farmers.

Also in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension Service began promoting soybeans as a new cash crop for Illinois farmers struggling through the Great Depression. And so starting here in Kendall County in the dismal year of 1933 a variety of beans far different than those grown by the region’s Native American farmers began to sprout on the Illinois prairies, just as the need for so much oat acreage was disappearing as the horses who used so many bushels of oats for food were replaced by motor vehicles.

Today, Illinois still produces a fair amount of wheat, but the vast majority of it is grown in central and southern Illinois where the climate, growing seasons, and soils favor it. Here in northern Illinois, occasional fields of wheat can be spotted by the alert motorist, along with a few acres of oats here and there. But for a crop that was once a vital staple of pioneer farms, the disappearance of wheat fields marked one of the many profound changes in prairie farming.

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“The Basics” of American life have significantly evolved

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?

Wilhelm Holzhueter and his daughter-in-law, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter, make headcheese at the Holzhueter Home on Hinman Street on Aurora, Illinois’ east side neighborhood nicknamed “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelming German population. Photo probably taken about 1915 by Fred Holzhueter.

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.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering’s gasoline utility engines. My grandfather also used it to power his concrete mixer and for other farm chores in pre-rural electrification days.

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.

About 1900, R.D. Gates proudly poses with the hogs he’s raising on his farm on Minkler Road south of Oswego as his hired man on the wagon full of freshly picked and husked corn looks on. (Little White School Museum Collection)

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.

My grandmother in 1978 enjoying a rest after a busy life in the house my grandfather built in town for their retirement.

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’.

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The end of two significant rural traditions reflected education, agriculture change in Illinois

We just opened a new seasonal exhibit down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, “Back to School.”

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.

The Little White School Museum’s “Back to School” exhibit celebrates the start of another school year with artifacts, documents, and photographs from the museum’s collections normally not on exhibit. The museum is located at 72 Polk Street, Oswego. Admission is free.

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.

Oswego High School’s first graduating class, the Class of 1887, left to right, back row, Addie Kimball (Curry), Mary Smith (Young.) Sitting, Bessie Armstrong (Long), Frank Lippold, Addie Wormley (Elliott). (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

Church School, Wheatland Township, student body, grades 1-6, 1952. The author is in the left foreground.

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.

The dedication of the new flagpole at Church School in 1944 during World War II, with the entire student body attending. My sister Eileen is fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

Church School, Heggs at Ferguson Road, Wheatland Township, Will County, 1957. The Oswego School District’s last rural school, it closed at the end of the 1957-1958 school year. (Little White School Museum photo)

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.

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Last agriculture census confirmed some trends, revealed some surprises

From the time it was settled in the late 1820s, Kendall County’s geographical location has had both its positives and its negatives.

Claiming land 40 miles west of Chicago that was located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the farmer-pioneers who settled the county’s rich prairie found the fast-growing city’s market for grain and livestock an economic boon. Chicago was close enough that cattle and other livestock could be driven there within a couple days. The county’s farmers were able, in fact, to create personal relationships with such prime movers of the meat industry as Phillip Armour. And in the 20 years before rail lines pushed west, the city was also within realistic grain hauling distance.

Kendall County not only borders on three of the Chicago metro region’s populous “Collar Counties,” but it is within convenient distance of the city itself.

But the county’s location also posed some negatives, especially for those more interested in business than farming. Oswego, in the northeast corner of the county, was never able to grow its small two-block business district because of its proximity to Aurora, just six miles away. Aurora, with its large downtown business district fueled by heavy industry and the shops of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, drew enough business north to keep the village’s retail district from growing. Those effects only worsened when the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road opened in 1870 linking the coal fields south of Ottawa with Fox Valley towns as far north as Geneva. The advent of the interurban trolley, and completion of the line running from downtown Aurora through downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville made the situation worse.

The effects of the county’s location was to keep it almost entirely rural with the business of its scattered hamlets, villages, and towns aimed at supporting the farms that surrounded them. That 125-year era ended in the 1950s when Caterpillar Tractor Company built a sprawling plant in Oswego Township that eventually employed some 7,000 people and the manufacturing arm of AT&T expanded an old wallpaper factory, also in Oswego Township, to make electronic communications equipment. Those factories made an already-existing post World War II housing shortage in the area worse, prompting the area’s first sustained population growth since the Civil War. It didn’t take people elsewhere in the Chicago metro region long to decide Kendall County’s bucolic landscape was an inviting place to raise families. That first growth spurt of the late 1950s and 1960s, was joined by further growth eras culminating in the early 2000s when Kendall County, in percentage terms, was the fastest growing county in the United States.

Kendall’s farmers found, given the distance, it was practical to drive their cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses to the Chicago market, a definite plus in the pre-railroad era. After railroads and then interurban trolley lines and eventually all-season paved roads connected the county to Chicago it opened markets for everything from dairy products to honey and fruit.

For the 40 years from the 1970s through the first decade of the 2000s, the county grew housing and retail developments at a dizzying rate, as once productive farmland changed from growing crops to growing homes and businesses. The area’s explosive growth took a breather with the Great Recession of 2008 when the world’s economic system was nearly wrecked by the greed and illegal activities of the financial services industry.

The effect of all of that, along with profound changes in agriculture itself, had a not inconsiderable impact on farming in Kendall County, something I’ve been watching for decades now.

Threshing small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—was both labor and capital intensive, requiring farmers to create cooperatives to buy and use the complicated harvesting equipment of the era. Members of the Harvey Threshing Ring farmed on and around the Harvey Road east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

As a statistical measure of those changes, every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a farm census, with the last one completed in 2017. And with five years having passed since then, farmers and ranchers all over the U.S. got packets of surveys in June asking for information about their operations for the latest farm census.

That last ag census, taken back in 2017, reported a host of facts about Kendall County and that continuing change from an almost entirely rural area to a community that seems to be growing more and more homes and shopping centers than row crops every year.

A modern combine (short for “combined harvester”) does the work of several men and machines. Improved grain hybrids and high-tech equipment have combined for explosive growth in grain yields and much larger, although far fewer, farms—and farmers.

Some of the census information confirmed overall trends that have been continuing over the past several decades, while others suggested the farm scene itself is changing. Not all that change has been negative, either. For instance, the census reported that, as of 2017 at least, Kendall County farms were overwhelmingly still in the hands of families and not corporations. A total of 92 percent of the county’s ag land was in the hands of family farms, the census reported.

On the other hand, there were interesting changes to report along with some more predictable information. Two county farms, for instance, reported raising emus, not exactly the usual kind of poultry you’d perhaps expect to find out here on the northern Illinois prairie.

Emu wrangling? In Kendall County? In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, two county farms reported raising the big birds.

Other statistics in the report contained trends both continuing and interrupted. The number of Kendall County farms continued to decline, reaching a new all-time low of just 313. That’s nearly 100 fewer farms than the 412 the census reported in 2002 and 773 fewer farms than existed here in 1950.

But while the number of farms declined, the size of the remaining farms continued to increase as consolidation in the agriculture sector—even among family farms—continued. In 2017, the average Kendall County farm covered 419 acres. In 2012, Kendall County farms averaged 356 acres, and back in 1950 when modern farming was on the cusp of major changes in farm use philosophy, the average farm here was just 180 acres.

The trend of more and more ag land turning into housing and business developments, however, took a breather in 2017. The census numbers suggested the housing market crash of 2008 had an impact on the previously steady repurposing of farmland. For the first time since 1987—the result of another economic downturn—land was apparently returned to agriculture production instead of being used for development. According to census statistics, a little over 8,000 acres were put back into crop production between 2012 and 2017.

Even with that pause, the value of Kendall’s farmland continued to rise, going up 4.3 percent from 2012, reaching a record average of $9,059 an acre, the 2017 census reported.

As this 1939 aerial photo shows, at that time, a few years before the start of World War II, Oswego was a small village set among a surrounding agricultural area. Oswego’s population in 1940 was 978. (Little White School Museum collection)

Likewise, the value of farm homes and buildings continued to increase along with the land on which they sit. In 2017, the value of the average Kendall County farm’s land and buildings stood at nearly $4 million, a 29 percent increase over those same values in 2012.

The census counts farm producers these days—at one time called farm operators—and they found 548 of them in Kendall County. The department’s official definition of a producer is: “Persons or entities, including farmers, ranchers, loggers, agricultural harvesters and fishermen, that engage in the production or harvesting of an agricultural product.” Given that definition, it’s clear one farm can have more than one “operator,” and thus the change in nomenclature to producer.

Now with a population of more than 35,000 (more than three times the population of all of Kendall County in 1939), Oswego is no longer small, and instead of farmland is now set among the housing and commercial developments that surround it. On-going development in Kendall County is the main driver behind the substantial increases in the price of land since World War II. (Google Earth image)

The 2017 census reported 380 male farm producers, down almost 4 percent from 2012, while the number of female producers in 2017 was 168, up a hefty 15 percent over 2012.

Another trend that continued was the increasing number of Kendall County farm producers who work off the farm at least part of the time. Nearly 53 percent of the county’s farm producers reported working off the farm at least part of the time in 2017. That was the highest number in a quarter century.

While the county has lost a significant amount of farmland to development over the past several decades, there has been no corresponding decline in production. Modern hybrids and continually improving farming technology seem to be combining to offset the loss of Kendall County farmland to housing and commercial development. In 2002, 82 percent of the county was being farmed. By 2017, that number had decreased fairly sharply to 67 percent. But even with less land available to farm, crop yields had increased sharply. For instance, in 2002, county farmers produced 9,249,000 bushels of corn and 2,761,000 bushels of soybeans. But in 2017, with less land under cultivation, the county’s farmers produced a remarkable 13,780,000 bushels of corn, a 49 percent increase, and 3,122,000 bushels of soybeans, up 13 percent.

Kendall was also contributing to another interesting statewide agricultural trend: The increasing number of honeybee colonies on farms. In the 2012 ag census, 919 Illinois farms reported having honeybee colonies. The number nearly doubled in 2017, with 1,770 farms reporting colonies. In Kendall County, 14 farms reported having 296 honeybee colonies in 2017, with a bit over 10,000 pounds of honey collected during the previous year. The 2017 result was not an outlier, either. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms producing honey doubled statewide and here in Kendall County, the number of honeybee colonies increased by 65 percent.

The Oswego Depot, its sidings, livestock loading chute, and the trackside stockyards—along with the livestock producers that once made use of them—are all gone today, but once provided a substantial economic boost for the area. (Little White School Museum collection)

While grain production was booming in 2017, the county’s livestock production continued it’s long-term decline. In 1950, during the heyday of diversified farming where each farm raised livestock as well as a variety of crops, 861 Kendall County farms reported having some beef cattle, 694 farms reported having at least one milk cow, and 741 farms reported raising hogs. The switch to specialized livestock or grain farming accelerated in the 1960s. And by the time the 2017 farm census was taken, with the switch to specialized grain or livestock farming, only 39 county farms reported having any beef cattle, only 1 reported owning milk cows, and 11 reported having hogs.

The switch away from raising livestock was also clearly evident in the sharp reduction in Kendall County acreage devoted to corn raised for silage to feed livestock as well as acreage devoted to pastureland. In 1950, county farmers raised 2,236 acres of corn for silage and had almost 24,000 acres devoted to pastureland. By 2017, county farmers only grew corn for silage on about 300 acres and only devoted about 1,600 acres to pastureland.

In 2017, Kendall County was still recovering from that near-total collapse of the world financial system driven by illegal and unethical practices of giant financial corporations. Recovery was slow, but by the time the 2020 U.S. Census was taken, population growth was already recovering in Kendall County, to the point that it was the fastest growing county in Illinois.

That’s why it will be so interesting to see what new information about the county farm scene this summer’s agricultural census will uncover.

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One of agriculture’s once-busiest seasons has virtually disappeared from northern Illinois’ farm calendar…

Time was this time of year, farmers had mostly wrapped up the harvest of their small grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—and were looking towards threshing it. Because back then, those were two different, extremely labor-intensive processes.

Nowadays, of course, grain farmers use giant combines to harvest, thresh, and winnow small grain—if they’ve grown any of it, of course.

Farming’s changed considerably during the last 70 years. Back in 1950, almost all farming operations were diversified, meaning farms produced both grain and livestock, from cattle and hogs to sheep and poultry. These days, farms specialize in either grain or livestock. And for grain farmers—the vast majority of today’s farmers—the types of grain grown here in northern Illinois have changed considerably. While you can still spot a few fields of traditional small grains here and there, for the most part farmers around these parts today grow corn and soybeans. Oats, wheat, rye, and barley have mostly disappeared from the area’s agricultural landscape. But for a century after the settlement era, Kendall County produced a LOT of small grains, both for market and for use on the farm. Oats, in particular, were valuable, both as a cash crop and on the farm itself to feed the horses and mules to power the farm equipment of the era.

There was a huge settlement rush into northern Illinois in 1833. Known as “The Year of the Early Spring,” the weather warmed earlier than usual drying out what roads and trails there were and greening up the prairie grass providing ample forage for the teams of horses and yokes of oxen pulling the settlers’ wagons.

The crops those pioneer farmers planted were largely the same as the ones they’d grown back east. Corn was a staple, and so was wheat as well as oats, rye, and barley along with flax for making linen thread.

And while experiments had been ongoing for a long time on mechanizing parts of the farming process, about the only thing that could be called a machine they used was a plow. And the ones of that era were nothing to write home about, either. While their iron plowshares and wooden moldboards worked in the thin stony soils found back east, they proved inadequate when working in Illinois’ deep, rich loam. John Deere eventually solved the plow problem, which was a definite help, but that only put a shallow scratch in the problem of easing farmers’ backbreaking labor.

Harvesting grain with scythe and cradle.

Those small grains needed for survival on the prairie—wheat for flour, oats for food for both man and beast, rye for flour and whiskey, and barley for food as well as beer and whiskey—were terribly labor intensive to grow and harvest.

Grain seed was broadcast by hand and then worked into plowed ground with harrows after which it was a chore to keep birds and other critters from eating all of it. Then weeds had to be hoed out as the crop matured. When it did, the real work began. First the grain stalks had to be cut and gathered into bundles. That task was done with large sickles called scythes with contraptions consisting of flimsy wooden fingers called a cradle attached. An experienced farmer could cut the grain, gather the stalks on the fingers of the cradle, and lay them in a neat row behind him as he worked through an entire field. A good man with a scythe and cradle could cut up to two acres of grain a day.

Shocking oats. (Wisconsin Historical Society collection)

After it was cut, the grain had to be gathered into bundles, each tied with a stalk of grain in a backbreaking process of stoop labor. The bundles were then neatly piled in small stacks called shocks, with roofs created by skillful placing of other bundles to shed most of any rain to allow the grain in the shock to dry. And that wrapped up harvesting.

After the grain bundles in the shocks dried they had to be hauled up to the barn where the threshing process began. Barns of the era had threshing floors where the boards were tightly fitted to allow no grain to escape. The bundles were laid in a single layer on the floor and then beat with a flail to separate the wheat, oat, or other grain from the stalks and hulls. Stalks of the straw had to be removed by hand and stacked for later use as livestock bedding, with the grain swept up and put into bins or barrels.

But the grain was still intermixed with a lot of dust and hulls, so it had to be winnowed. Using large, flat baskets or trays, the grain was tossed into the air on a windy day allowing the breeze to blow the lighter chaff away from the heavier grain. Then the clean grain was stored in bins for use on the farm or put directly into sacks to be hauled to whatever market might have existed.

As settlement moved west, pioneer farmers left the dense woods of the east and entered the Prairie Peninsula. The huge tallgrass prairie region was a rough triangle stretching from northwestern Indiana northwest through Illinois, Iowa, and western Minnesota to extreme eastern North Dakota, then straight south to the Kansas-Oklahoma border and then east and north back to northwestern Indiana.

McCormick’s patented reaper. Daniel J. Townsend manufactured McCormick reapers under license in rural NaAuSay Township in 1847

The region was underlain with rich, deep soils created by the last glacier and, as its name implies, thickly covered with prairie grasses and other plants sometimes seven and more feet tall. It was a revelation to eastern farmers who’d had to wrestle every acre out of dense forests, an area conducive to much larger farms. But there were problems.

First, labor was in short supply on the Illinois frontier. Second, as noted above, grain farming was extremely labor intensive. In 1830, it took around 300 labor hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat and around 90 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn, with the whole family pitching in to help. Big farm families were a definite help, but it took a while for kids to get to an age when they were more help than hindrance.

So western farmers naturally started looking for ways to ease the labor needed to produce those crops. Which is where American ingenuity came in. The first area addressed was the initial harvest with scythe and cradle. Harvesters pulled by horses that cut grain stalks allowing a person riding on the machine to rake the stalks so they fell in rows behind the machine were first developed in the 1830s, with Cyrus McCormick’s machine gradually becoming dominant over its competitors.

Here in Kendall County, Royal Bullard of Millbrook bought one of the first McCormick Reapers in 1844. Three years later, Cyrus McCormick traveled out from Chicago and contracted with Daniel J. Townsend of NaAuSay Township to build and sell reapers for the 1847 crop. Townsend’s steam-powered factory was located in AuSable Grove, miles from any town and only operated for a few years.

A brand new 1881 Plano Harvester outside the firm’s Kendall County plant.

By the late 1840s, however, reapers were being replaced by harvesters, machines that allowed workers riding the machine to bundle the grain by hand after it was cut, dropping the bundles on the ground. The Plano Harvester Works here in Kendall County manufactured hundreds of the machines each year until they, too, were replaced by the grain binder. Those machines cut and automatically bundled the grain, allowing one man to do the work it previously took three to do. The Plano factory manufactured 2,000 Gordon patent binders in 1877 and early 1878 for the 1878 harvest. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, 10 improvements patented for the Gordon machines were developed by Kendall County residents.

In addition, the first practical mechanical threshing machines were beginning to appear on the Illinois prairies in the 1840s and 1850s. John Avery and Hiram Abial Pitts had patented a successful machine in 1837 that not only threshed the grain, but also mechanized the winnowing process. Their machines were animal-powered using simple devices that allowed horses hitched to horizontal arms to walk around a circle while gears powered a pulley. A belt from the pulley powered the machine. By the 1870s, steam engines were being used to power threshing machines, a novelty reported by the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Aug. 21, 1879: “A steam thresher is the latest enterprise added to the business institutions of this town; the proprietor of it is Wm. E. Smith. It was set to work Saturday out at Wm. Pearce’s and being the first thing of the kind in this vicinity a large number went there to see its operation and all expressed themselves highly pleased with it except a few of whose running horse-power machines, who of course saw disadvantages in it and predicted trouble.”

The Harvey Threshing Ring on the move from one member’s farm to another sometime around 1900. The ring was comprised of members living in the Harvey and Wolf’s Crossing roads area. (Dale Updike collection)

Threshing machines continued to improve, as did the steam engines that almost exclusively came to power them. But a threshing outfit was far too expensive for average farmers. So they combined into neighborhood cooperatives to buy the equipment. Each cooperative had its own rules and regulations and during the harvest, each member was entitled to have the equipment used on their farm, with all the members and their families contributing to the labor. The threshing outfit moved from farm to farm around the neighborhood, and so the cooperatives began to be called “rings.” Threshing rings operated in Kendall County up until the advent of affordable combines farmers could buy on their own. Combines were originally called combined harvesters because they mechanically combined harvesting and threshing in one piece of equipment.

The East Oswego Threshing ring in a photo taken by Malcom Rance during the 1911 season. The East Oswego Ring also included some farmers from Wheatland Township, Will County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Advances in harvesting and threshing technology, coupled with improvements in plows and other crop preparation equipment plus progress in new varieties of wheat had huge effects on farm production. While it took around 300 work hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat in 1830, by 1890 it was only taking about 30 hours.

Ironically, by that time, wheat was no longer a major crop in northern Illinois, it being discovered wheat grew much better farther west where the climate was dryer. In 1860 Wisconsin and Illinois were the nation’s chief wheat states. By 1910 North Dakota, Kansas, and Minnesota were the chief wheat states as the Midwest’s eastern states began concentrating more and more on growing corn as well as oats and the other small grains.

The remaining small grains were also on the way out. Kendall County’s oat harvest reached its height in the early 20th Century. The county produced 2.1 million bushels of oats in 1910 that went to feed horses used on the farm as well as in town. But with horses being rapidly replaced as the prime movers both on the farm and in town, oats were no longer so much in demand. In 1940, the oat harvest in Kendall County was down to 1.8 million bushels and down further to 1.6 million bushels by 1958. From there, the bottom literally dropped out and by 2007 so few bushels were grown that the U.S. Census of Agriculture for Kendall County didn’t even report them.

The modern oat harvest–what there is of it in the Fox Valley these days–is now on.

In the 1930s, realizing that the days of Illinois’ production of small grains was numbered, the Farm Bureau partnered with the University of Illinois Extension Service to begin pushing soybean production. With a few inexpensive modifications, the same equipment farmers already owned could be used to plant and harvest beans. By the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture took the 2017 farm census, Kendall County farmers were producing 3.1 million bushels of soybeans annually.

If you drive around the countryside this time of year, you’ll still see a few acres of oats and wheat ripening in area fields. You might also get a chance to see a farmer using his combine to harvest those rare fields of small grains. While farming is still hard work and the hours during planting and harvesting seasons are long, today’s powerful, comfortable, computer-assisted equipment is a far cry from the days of cradling, bundling, and shocking grain by hand and threshing it with a flail on the barn floor.

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Preserving some local history out on the Wheatland prairie…

So I went back to the old neighborhood last Saturday to help celebrate the new name of Tamarack Settlement Park.

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.

Tina Beaird wears a big smile as her dream of commemorating the old Tamarack settlement created by 19th Century Scots immigrants in the mid-19th Century came true with the dedication of the park’s new name on April 23.

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.

This 1873 plat map illustrates the heavy population of Scots settlers living around the old Tamarack Post Office. Modern Heggs Road runs due north and south past the post office, while modern 127th Street (Simons Road in Kendall County) runs east and west.

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.

Tamarack School as it looked in 1940

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.

The old neighborhood in its modern guise, with subdivisions popping up all around it.

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.

Strangely enough, my grandparents’ small farmhouse about a quarter mile west of Tamarack Corners still stands, though surrounded by the Wheatland Plains Subdivision.

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.

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Everyone thought these local landmarks would be around forever, but they’ve completely disappeared…

One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.

That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.

For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.

Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.

The Parker Mills about 1900 in a photo taken by Irvin Haines. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the foreground on the east bank of the Fox River. The gristmill is on the west bank with the miller’s house behind it and to the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.

Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.

Turbines like this one on display in Montgomery ran most of the mills on the Fox River.

The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.

Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.

Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.

A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice houses above the Parker Mill dam at Oswego. The operation produced hundreds of rail cars of ice annually. (Little White School Museum collection)

What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.

Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.

There is, however, a trace of another once-thriving business, and that’s the depot, sidings, and other facilities once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Fox River Branch Line at Oswego.

The Oswego Stockyards. The Waubonsie Creek bridge on Adams Street is visible upper center, and the old feed mill, later a home on the north side of the creek is visible just to the right–upstream–from the bridge. (Little White School Museum collection)

The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.

Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.

Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.

The Fox River Butter Company’s creamery located on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society photo)

The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”

McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.

Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.

The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.

A southbound interurban trolley crosses the 300-foot trestle taking it over the CB&Q tracks in Oswego around 1910. (Little White School Museum collection)

The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.

The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.

Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.

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The world–and Kendall County–changed 80 years ago today with the attack on Pearl Harbor

Eighty years ago today the world changed when the Japanese bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor to begin the 20th Century’s second world war. A few days later, Germany followed Japan’s lead and declared war on the U.S. as well.

From our vantage point eight decades later, we clearly see that both Japan and Germany made extremely foolish decisions. While Japan had a very respectable navy to begin the war, their industrial base was small compared to the U.S. and the natural resources necessary to conduct modern warfare—coal, oil, and iron—were severely lacking compared to the seemingly unlimited supplies the U.S. had.

Likewise, Germany’s Adolph Hitler seriously erred in bringing the U.S., with its huge population and almost unimaginable industrial base, into the war he’d started in Europe. Britain’s wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill, could scarcely believe his luck when he heard about Hitler’s declaration.

Historians like to play the what-if game as much as anyone else. And they also like to look at events—particularly wars—to determine what the major turning points were. Many historians believe the thing that lost Japan and Germany the war was declaring it in the first place. The same can be said about our Civil War. The South, in its zeal to expand slavery into the western states, attacked the north, which had several times its population and industrial base, assuring its eventual defeat.

At Oswego’s Little White School Museum, the story of the community’s history is divided by three major inflection points: Settlement in the 1830s, the Civil War, and World War II. Why World War II? Because it marked the end of the Great Depression locally and nationally thanks to the greatest government funding program in the nation’s history and because of the generous way the government treated most of the millions who served after the war.

In early December 1941 the Oswego High School Band was practicing for their upcoming Christmas concert. After war was declared on Dec. 7, many of the boys in this photograph–and some of the girls–ended up serving in the military. (Little White School Museum collection)

Our county’s late 20th Century population boom has its roots in the G.I. Bill housing and education programs that, at least for White veterans, supplied low-cost single-family homes and college educations. It was something that created considerable wealth for those families lucky enough to have been eligible to participate—and not just for the generation that fought the war. That postwar economic base the World War II generation created continues to generate wealth here to this day. Kendall County’s population grew faster than any other county in Illinois between 2010 and 2010 because of what happened thanks to those government programs of the 1950s and 1960s.

To commemorate this year’s 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and its immediate impact on our county, I wrote a column that appeared in last week’s Oswego Ledger. Generally, I don’t post blog entries and columns on the same topic at the same time, but this seems worth making a special case. Back all those years ago, the county’s residents were just clawing their way out of the Depression and they really weren’t paying much attention to what was happening thousands of miles away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Life at home, at school, at people’s workplaces and on area farms was going on as the community looked back at the end of the harvest and towards the coming Christmas and New Years holiday season.

So when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, residents here were caught more or less off-guard. It seems to have taken a week or two for them to process the idea that the nation had again been drawn into a conflict with a foreign nation a couple short decades after what many had hoped would be “The War to End all Wars” ended in 1918.

With that introduction, here’s my take on the effect the start of World War II had on our little corner of northern Illinois, published in the Ledger last Thursday, Dec. 2:

******************************************************

Eighty years ago next Tuesday, the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii without warning, destroying the fleet’s battleship squadrons. Fortunately, they missed the fleet’s aircraft carriers, and even more critically to the war effort, the huge tank farms with the fleet’s fuel oil supplies.

That Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt angrily described as “a day which will live infamy,” galvanized the nation into an almost unbelievable level of cooperation that created the “Arsenal of Democracy” that eventually led to crushing the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy.

The attack literally stunned the nation. Here in Kendall County, immediate reaction was shock, with not a little confusion.

Tensions with Japan over their conduct in China and elsewhere in the East had been growing for years, tensions that were getting through, even to such a safe and protected place like pre-World War II Kendall County.

The Oswego High School District had just completed the purchase of this house at Washington and Monroe streets in late November 1941 to house the school’s home economics classes. (Little White School Museum collection)

In general, life as usual was going on in November 1941. In Oswego, the high school’s home economics classes had moved into and off-campus house on Washington at Monroe Street. The house was built by Luella Hettrich in 1907 after she moved the house originally on the lot around the corner to Monroe Street. Mr. and Mrs. Ed Weidert moved into the moved house in the late 1930s. Shortly before the home ec students moved in, the Weiderts welcomed home a new son, Gerald, born Oct. 26.

But those looming problems half a word away were beginning to cloud the horizon. The Nov. 12 Kendall County Record noted that “Gov. Dwight H. Green expressed faith in Illinois farmers to meet the call for increased food production and pledged the support of the State Department of Agriculture to the nation’s ‘food for defense’ program in a statement issued through the Illinois USDA Defense board.”

In general, though, life was moving on. The corn harvest was on-going, with farmers planning to work right through Thanksgiving Day, weather permitting. At the county’s country and town schools, teachers—overwhelmingly young women—headed home to share the holiday with family. On Nov. 13, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Condon welcomed a new son. And on Nov. 19, the Record announced “Richard Young, a senior at Oswego Community high school, has been elected by the student body to represent them as ‘Boy Mayor’ in the parade to be held in Aurora Nov. 21.”

But those war clouds continued to gather. On Nov. 26, the Record carried a short note announcing “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Robinson entertained relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner Sunday. Their son, Wylie, in the selective service, will leave Saturday, as will two other Oswego boys, Louie Reid and J. Fred Reeves.”

The next week, Dec. 3, while noting a whooping cough epidemic was getting started in Oswego in those pre-vaccination days, the county, state, and nation were beginning to get serious about registering everyone—even those who’d previously served—with the Selective Service. “Those men in the National Guard or Regular Army on Registration day who didn’t register but who have been discharged since must register immediately,” a note in the Record warned. “If you are within the age limits and haven’t registered because you were in the service, you had better get in touch with Mr. Wells of the Selective Service board at the courthouse in Yorkville and straighten out your status.”

Then on Dec. 7 came that devastating attack on the Pacific Fleet, and the start of a world war, the second worldwide conflict in the first half of the 20th Century.

Kay Ivan Fugate, whose family had deep Oswego roots, was killed Dec. 7, 1941 at Pear Harbor aboard the USS Nevada. (Little White School Museum collection)

Finding the news difficult to believe, the Record’s Oswego correspondent briefly remarked with considerable understatement on Dec. 10: “The world is in a turmoil this Monday morning. This will be a day whose date goes down in history.” A story about a fire in the basement of the Oswego Prairie Church was several times as long.

Down in Yorkville, Record Publisher John Marshall tried to come to grips with what had happened in his usually breezy weekly local gossip column: “Of course the main topic of thought and conversation in Yorkville and elsewhere is the attack of the Japanese upon the United States and its possessions. And here we sit at the Linotype and try to concentrate what we facetiously call our brain on the writing of this here kolyum and at the same time hear the news reports as they come over the radio which is a difficult thing to do. So if the kolyum sounds a wee bit more screwy this week than it usually does, you know that there is some reason for it.”

The area’s Republican Congressman, Noah Mason, a bitter Roosevelt foe, threw his support solidly behind the war effort. “Signing off for Duration,” he wrote in the Record. “America has been attacked. War has come. From now on all Americans must put aside differences of opinion and unite to win the war as quickly as possible. We pray that ‘Peace on earth good will to men’ may soon become the controlling gospel of all nations.”

Elwyn Holdiman, whose family farmed in the Oswego area, was among the Oswego men drafted during World War II. He was killed in action 29 Oct 1944 in the Netherlands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The pages of the Record began recording meetings of local Red Cross chapters who were knitting hats and mittens for soldiers, as well as notes on the young men who were either enlisting or being drafted. Forest Wooley, Bill Leigh, Bob McMicken, Cecil E. Carlson, Logan Harvey, Paul Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer all headed off to serve.

And bringing the Dec. 7 attack home to Kendall County, the Record reported on Jan. 28 that “Mrs. Mary Shoger received a message telling of the death of her grandson, Kay Fugate, 24 years old, who was killed in action at Pearl Harbor He enlisted two years ago in Aurora.”

The conflict beginning Dec. 7 would continue for nearly five years and involve hundreds of local men and women. Some, like Dick Young, the “Boy Mayor,” would fight on bloody Iwo Jima with the U.S. Marines but live to return home. So many, many more like Kay Fugate at Pearl Harbor; Elwyn Holdiman, drafted just weeks after Pearl Harbor and killed in action in Holland in 1944 along with young Oswego men Frank Clauser, Donald Johnson, Stuart Parkhurst, and Paul Zwoyer would never return, but instead make the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.

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