Category Archives: Farming

The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

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

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia rail fence

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

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

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

Barbed wire fence

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

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

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

Osage orange hedge

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

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

Osage orange wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Removing spikes

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

You can go home again; you just can’t stay

We were driving past, the door was open, so we decided to stop in.

I hadn’t been inside our old farmhouse since my family moved out right after Christmas, 1954.

1950 Butcher Place

“The Butcher Place” where my folks farmed during the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.

My father’s ankylosing spondylitis was getting worse, as was my asthma, so my parents decided, early in 1954, to retire from farming, and move into town. We had the farm sale that fall, and spent a lot of time cleaning up and remodeling the “new” house in town. My great-grandparents had it built in 1908 by my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, one of Oswego’s better carpenters and contractors. Still owned by my grandparents in late 1954, it was vacant, the tenants having moved out.

My folks decided the move would be made over Christmas vacation. It wouldn’t affect my sister, who was a senior at Oswego High School, other than making the trip to school a lot shorter. For me, though, it meant a big change, going from a rural school with grades 1-3 and our single teacher (Mrs. Comerford) all in one room, to the imposing Red Brick School in town. There would be more kids in my new third grade classroom in town than the total enrollment of my old school.

1957 Church School exterior

The entire enrollment at Church School, where I spent first, second, and half of third grade, was less than the number of students in my third grade classroom in town. All three grades were taught in one large room. (Little White School Museum collection)

The students at Church School, the one-room school I attended, gave me a nice going-away party, and I remember visiting every one of the buildings on the farmstead during those December days before we finally left to live in Oswego.

Move the clock ahead from December 1954 to 1990. After attending my uncle’s funeral at the cemetery just down the road from our old farm, my family was driving back home, and our route took us past the old home place. The farm was being subdivided at the time, and the barn, crib, and chicken house had burned down the previous year. The three big cottonwood trees still stood out along the road and the house still stood, though not in the greatest condition. As we drove past, we noticed the front door was ajar. My wife and two children insisted that we stop, and, the lure being too great, I agreed.

Walking up the front steps, the memories started returning. The concrete and stone front porch itself was where I knocked two front teeth out one year on the eve of the annual Scotch Church Pancake Supper. I can still remember not being able to eat my usual amount of hotcakes due to that sore mouth.

The front door was indeed ajar–which was in itself pretty odd. We never used that door, and I don’t ever remember it being open when we lived there. In any case, it was a terrible door that let in about as much cold winter wind closed as it would have if we ever had opened it. The house, built in the early 1930s, was notoriously drafty, especially around that front door.

1947 Roger takes a dip

The author enjoys a cooling dip in the Matile family pool during the summer of 1948.

After 35 years, the inside of the house still seemed familiar, though. The front door opened directly into the living room, and that was where the radio was when we lived there–a large console job on which I listened to Victor Borge and “The Lone Ranger” and “Superman,” and my mother caught the soaps as she sewed and otherwise worked in the early afternoon. Later, our first television set was located at the other end of the living room, and I remember my amazement watching, for the first time, Superman (George Reeves) actually fly.

The memories were so vivid that I could almost see my father sitting in his chair, reading the Chicago American or the Prairie Farmer.

1952 Roger & Rob

The author and Rob Chada on the front porch, keeping our strength up with occasional handfuls of Sugar Frosted Flakes.

The dining room was larger and the kitchen smaller than I remembered. Both were in pretty rough shape, the house having obviously become the site of a number of teenage beer parties since it was abandoned. We always ate in the kitchen, the dining room used only when company came over. My mother used the dining room as her sewing room. I remember my teenaged sisters arriving home on the school bus and hustling into the dining room to catch my mother up on all the amazing things that had happened that day in far-off Oswego while my mother continued running her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine.

Upstairs, my sisters’ room had been divided into two smaller bedrooms, and my bedroom had become an upstairs bathroom. The stairs still went up from a door in the living room, and then took a 90-decree tum at the landing. That landing was the site of an oft-told family story: My sisters and town cousins were taking turns jumping down from the top of the stairs to the landing, squealing with much hilarity and causing a lot of thumping and other noise. After telling them to stop several times, my usually calm father finally had enough, and angrily yelled up, “If you kids do that just one more time…” Whereupon my most audacious girl cousin seriously told her accomplices, “Oh goodie! We get to do it one more time!”

Out the back door, the old concrete stoop had been covered by a small wooden deck. I remember riding my tricycle up the small stretch of sidewalk from the driveway to the stoop hundreds of times, it seemed, a day–it was the only hard surfaced area on the whole farm, other than part of the cattle yard out next to the barn. But that was usually occupied by livestock.

We checked the basement, but it was flooded with a foot or two of water–construction of the subdivision had probably blocked the basement drain. But the old cistern was still there, as was what appeared to be the original furnace, somewhat upgraded. The old cob-fired water heater was no longer there, but the basement bathroom–the only one we had when I was a child–still sported the same fixtures.

The house had originally been built without an indoor bathroom. My parents were living there when rural electrification came through and allowed a pressurized water system in the house, and the possibility of a bathroom. There were only three bedrooms, all of which were needed, so it was decided to put the bathroom down the basement. To heat the water, a water heater fueled by corncobs was installed. Around the age of 5 or so, it became my job to get the water heater going, especially on Saturdays when my sisters were getting ready for dates. It was a learning experience, and one of the things I learned was NOT to use one of my sisters’ frilly nylon undergarments to protect my hand from getting burned on the handle of the water heater’s firebox. It was quite remarkable to watch the garment melt onto the handle–as was my sister’s anger when she discovered the wreckage.

The basement sink where my dad washed and shaved was gone, though the spigots remained. I couldn’t see in the dark basement if the Burma-Shave remnants were still on the ceiling above it: One hectic evening, Dad rushed downstairs to quickly shave, vigorously shook the Burma-Shave can, and shot a burst into his palm. The cream hit his palm, ricocheted at a sharp angle, and, to his amazement, splashed on the ceiling. The splash was still there when we moved.

Outside, the farmstead was in sad shape. The barn, crib, and big chicken house were gone, as were most of the trees. The folks who owned the farm when we lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Butcher, were tree fanatics. Every time he visited, it seemed, Mr. Butcher planted another one, much to my dad’s distress since he had to mow around the forest that was gradually being created.

1950 Hayride on dad's bobsled

An old-fashioned hayride at the Butcher Place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled, with the tool shed in the background. This ride seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

The old garage, which we seldom used, was still there, as was the tool shed that housed my dad’s farm equipment, although the outhouse that used to be tipped over every Halloween by mysterious forces was not. My son, used to his uncle’s sprawling buildings and big farm equipment, remarked how small the tool shed was, and I had to explain that in the 1950s, farm equipment was smaller than now, and farmers generally had a lot less of it. By the 1990s, farm equipment had already grown to the size of 1950s earthmoving equipment.

The things that made it our farm were all gone, though. The milk separator and the egg crates and scale in the basement, the two tractors and the old green and yellow four-row John Deere com planter in the tool shed, the old truck parked in the crib, and the bobsled running gear that provided so many entertaining hours during sleigh ride parties in the winter had all disappeared. In fact, the entire method of farming in which my father engaged had died by 1990. Our diversified farm grew corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa and other forage crops along with hogs, beef cattle, and chickens. My mother traded eggs for groceries in town, and we butchered a steer and a hog annually for our own consumption. By 1990, that kind of farming was long gone, replaced by specialized grain or livestock farmers.

But while so many familiar things were gone, it was remarkable how familiar the old place still felt. I knew what was left of it wouldn’t be there much longer–and it wasn’t–but it was especially nice to have that one last brief visit with my childhood out on the farm.

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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

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

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

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

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

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

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

1880 Dayton Tile Works

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

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

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

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

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

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

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

1838 Wabausia Swamp

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

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

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

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

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

1876 Wabansia Slough

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

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

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

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

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

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

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

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

1900 abt Drainage 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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When horses powered our lives

It’s difficult in this era of jet airliners and space stations to recall how vital horses once were to the nation’s economy. It’s probably not too strong a statement to say that a fairly large percentage of the nation’s economy was based on horses from the late 19th Century until the second decade of the 20th Century.

Farming, especially, became extremely dependent on horse power, but so did life in America’s cities.

farming-mccormick-reaper

McCormick’s first reaper proved to be popular with farmers. Here in Kendall County, Townsend & Davis manufactured the machines on franchise.

Until the second third of the 19th Century, virtually all farm work was done by hand, but starting in the 1830s, more and more mechanization was introduced as farmers tried to increase production and reduce the labor needed to plant and harvest crops.

Mechanical harvesters were the first complicated pieces of equipment introduced and used on a wide scale on individual farms. Cyrus McCormick’s horsedrawn machine, generally considered the first truly economically successful harvester, was introduced in 1831. It greatly sped up the harvest of small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—and sharply reduced the backbreaking labor of cutting ripe grain. Before the harvester’s invention, farmers had to cut grain by hand, using a large hand-held scythe fitted with a set of wooden fingers called a cradle. As the scythe was swung through standing stalks of grain, the blade cut the stalks, which were then caught by the fingers of the cradle. The farmer then laid them in a row on the ground as he moved ahead to cut the next batch of stalks.

The first harvester automatically cut the grain and laid it on a surface where a farmer walking beside the machine could rake it into a row, where it could then be bound into bundles, which were stacked into shocks to dry before the kernels of grain were threshed from the stalks. Improvements continued steadily until machines in the later 19th Century not only cut grain, but also automatically bound it into bundles.

All this progress required additional horses to pull first the harvesters and then the harvester-binders.

sweep-horse-power

Sweep-type horse-powers changed vertical shaft motion into horizontal motion to power a variety of machines. The unguarded shafts, however, were extremely dangerous, and many an unwary farmer lost a hand, arm, foot, or leg when clothing became ensnared.

When mechanical threshing machines–also called separators because they separated grain from stalks–were introduced, they, too, were powered by horses using a mechanism called a horse-power. Horse-powers came in all sorts of sizes and designs to provide power for everything from threshing grain to washing clothes to running newspaper printing presses.

Each time a new use was discovered, it meant more horses were required, in urban as well as in rural areas. City horsedrawn streetcars, dray wagons, peddler wagons, private buggies and carriages all required horses. All those urban horses required food that couldn’t be grown on city lots, so areas like Kendall County, located fairly close to large cities like Chicago, saw their mix of crops lean heavier towards those good for horse feed and fodder, especially oats and hay crops.

1880-incline-horse-power

Incline horse-powers were more compact and so suitable for use in town. The Kendall County Record used one to power its printing press until they changed over to steam power in the 1890s.

Here in northern Illinois, horses were valued both for the work they could perform and for their use as motive power for buggies and winter sleighs, as well as for riding, not to mention for entertainment—by the 1870s, harness racing was a national craze.

And with all that popularity naturally came a fair amount of larceny. Horse thievery was a big problem, even here in rural Kendall County, especially in the 1870s.

Under the headline “Horse Thieves Again: Shall We have some Judicious Lynching?” the Kendall County Record ran a story on Oct. 28, 1875 reporting:

“Tuesday night, a pair of horses were stolen from the stable of N.B. Young, Bristol; the same gentleman who had a wagon stolen at the time Mr. Patterson’s horses were taken. They were good farm horses only six years old. The thieves also took a farm wagon and set of double harness. The barn door was locked but the rascals wrenched the lock off. Mr. Young tracked the thieves as far as the Oswego bridge, which they crossed and there the trail was lost. Mr. Y. being a member of the Protective Association has notified its officers of the lost property. There are many scoundrels engaged in this business; some of them near home; and a little harsh treatment might do them good.”

By 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau reported the number of horses in Kendall County stood at 7,275. That year, the county’s total population was reported as 12,400 meaning there was one horse in the county for every 1.7 people.

And as noted above, it wasn’t just thieves, farmers, and teamsters interested in good horseflesh in those days, either. According to the Record, reporting from Oswego on Aug. 1, 1872:

“The stock of extra fine horses in this town is now quite large, and our horsemen, of which Paul Hawley, Ed Mann and Hank Hopkins are the principal ones, are daily at training them to fast and square trotting on the half mile course in Hawley’s pasture, which is now in an excellent condition.”

While breeders and racers were an important segment of the horse-using population, farmers were making use of most of the county’s horses. Economical horse-power mechanisms were beginning to spread fairly widely. According to the Record on Sept. 30, 1875:

“Our threshing machines all seem to be doing a good business this season, and are making money for their owners. Last week with his new Case machine, Thos. Spencer thrashed 275 bags of oats in 3 hours and 30 minutes on the Helme farm for Mr. Garlick, and the horses on the power never stopped once during the time. This was 825 bushels of oats by weight.”

1910-horse-tower-trestle

In 1910, Oswego saloon keeper Johann Schmidt had his hired man hold his prized driving horse while he snapped a photo to send to his family back in Denmark. (Little White School Museum collection)

Good horseflesh was also demanded for other uses. On Jan. 8, 1874, the Record reported that: “Paul Hawley of Oswego recently sold a pair of horses that weigh 2,600 pounds to the Aurora Fire Department for $400.” According to my handy inflation calculator, that would be a little over $8,000 in 2016 dollars.

But reading the newspapers from that era, it’s the constant threat of horse thieves that dominated the country newspaper’s news columns. The Kendall County Horse Protective Association was formed in the 1850s to combat the plague of horse stealing, but without a whole lot of success, if those newspaper accounts are taken into account. Sometimes it was even left to kids to combat the bad guys. On April 10, 1879, the Record’s Oswego correspondent recounted one youngster’s hair-raising confrontation:

“Thursday evening while George Parker was over in town to witness the canvass of the vote, his son, Willie, about 12 years old, stepped out doors and heard something about the barn; thinking it was his brother he called to him, but receiving no answer he went back in the house got a navy revolver and with it started to the barn and found a fellow just in the act of leading off their best span of horses, but abandoned them when he saw the boy coming; Willie shot at the thief and followed him up, but another one who apparently had been on top of a hay stack put in an appearance and snapped a pistol at Willie close by; Willie then retreated and before he could get reinforcement the fellows had cleared out and no further trace of them could be found.”

1903-collins-george-in-england

In 1903, George Collins (right rear tipping his hat) traveled to England to bring home blooded stock to his Oswego Township farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

As more and more uses were found for them, horses continued to increase in numbers across the nation and here in Kendall County. By 1910, the county’s horse population had reached its all-time high, 10,421 animals, at a time when its total population stood at just 10,777. In those years, Kendall County was known throughout the state for the quality of its horses, with area farmers such as George Collins traveling to England and other countries to buy prize breeding stock.

But from 1910 on, the introduction of automobiles and other transportation options, plus increasing mechanization of farming powered by steam and internal combustion engines meant the number of horses was on the decline. By 1940, just as the nation was destined to enter World War II, there were only 3,300 horses on Kendall County farms, and by 1945 as the war ended, the number of farmers’ horses had declined by almost half to about 1,900.

Today, horses are an expensive hobby with ownership limited to pleasure riders, professional race horse breeders and owners, polo pony riders and breeders, and other such folks. You seldom see a horse on a working grain farm unless the farmer, his wife, or kids are 4-H’ers or hobbyists. But the time was, horses were ubiquitous in towns and on farms all over the country, vital components of the rural and urban economy.

 

 

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Thank a Native American this month for all those corn fields

It is somehow fitting that November is Native American Heritage Month, given that the greatest gift Native People gave to agricultural history was the corn their agronomists developed over thousands of years.

Of course, it’s also the month we celebrate Thanksgiving, a holiday with its origin back in the 1620s when a ragtag group of religious separatists held such a celebration in New England to thank God for their survival. They’d have been more honest and accurate if they’d thanked the Native People who showed them how to plant corn, and whose stores of the grain probably pulled them through that first year of near starvation.

modern corn harvest

The nation’s corn harvest is well underway–in fact lots of farmers have already wrapped it up for this year. And the yield is already on its way to being shipped around the world.

The value corn holds for the nation is clear during this season of the year, especially, as farmers all over the Midwest hustle to get their fields harvested while the weather holds. Sometimes in 24 hour a day shifts, self-propelled combines work the fields picking, husking, and shelling corn kernels from the ears. When the on-board bins are full, they’re off-loaded into trucks or wagons waiting on the headlands. From the field, the golden harvest may be stored in bins on the farm, hauled to a grain elevator, or taken directly to the Illinois Waterway, the modern incarnation of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal, where its loaded on barges for shipment south to the Gulf of Mexico, and from there all over the world.

Corn is pretty common stuff these days. We pop it on cool evenings or to enjoy a movie at home, we boil sweet ears and enjoy them with butter during the summer, and we consume it in hundreds of products as starch or a sweetener. We even use alcohol made from it as fuel in our cars and trucks.

But as I noted above, for something so common, it’s mysterious stuff. The scientific name for corn is Zea mays, and was called maize by Native Americans. It had been grown and genetically modified for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in North and South America. By then, it had become the major source of vegetable food for the peoples of the Americas.

Ancient corn

Ancient corn’s family group sheet looks pretty definitive. But, really, those earliest ancestors over there on the left side are pretty much guesswork.

The Europeans found that corn was a wonderful plant. It produces far more grain per seed kernel than almost any other, and the grain it produces is very nutritious. It’s likely that a store of corn the Pilgrims dug up after they landed in 1620 was mainly responsible for their survival during their first brutal winter in New England. That they stole the corn from its rightful owners—the local Indians who grew and harvested it—was a harbinger of the way the two peoples would interact for the next 300 years.

There are five great subdivisions of corn: Pop corn, sweet corn, flour, flint, and dent. Popcorn, we all know. It has the interesting characteristic of turning itself inside out when heat is applied thanks to the extremely tough coating of its kernels. Flint corn has relatively small, hard, smooth kernels, while dent is the most familiar having relatively large kernels with dented (thus the name) crowns. Sweet corn is a type of dent with a genetic modification that prevents some of the sugar produced in the kernel from being converted into starch. Flour corn, too, is a form of dent with a very soft starchy kernel easily ground into flour. There are also a couple of other minor varieties, waxy and pod corn, grown in some parts of the world today. Pod corn, in fact, is a sort of throwback to what scientists believe is closer to the original primitive perennial corn.

cahokia-c

Wherever corn came from, it fueled formation of sophisticated civilizations like the Mississippian cultural tradition in Southern Illinois, whose huge city at Cahokia may have housed more than 40,000 people.

In fact, scientists are still arguing about exactly what corn is descended from. Duke University researcher Mary Eubanks believes enterprising and observant Native American farmers developed corn some thousands of years ago by interbreeding two varieties of wild grasses. Eubanks believes that Eastern gamagrass, and Zea diploperennis, a perennial variety of teosinte (a tall annual grass found in Mexico) were crossbred to create the original maize that started the Native Americans’ agricultural revolution. The apparent problem with all the supposed ancestors of corn is that none of them have cobs on which the kernels form. Figuring out how to get from cobless bunches of kernels to kernels forming on a cob is the big problem nobody’s been able to solve. At least so far.

Whatever its origins, corn seems to have emerged in the Mexican highlands or perhaps in Guatemala, and later spread all over North and South America.

Corn, it turns out, is uniquely suited for genetic manipulation. Kernels were originally planted two or three to a hill rather than broadcast like wheat, oats, and other small grains in Old Europe. And ears of corn were harvested one at a time. That meant an observant farmer knew exactly which seeds produce the best crops.

Corn is also somewhat unique in that a genetic cross shows up in the first generation. That’s why gardeners are strongly advised not to plant a stand of decorative Indian corn next to the sweet corn they plan to eat.

Corn arrived in the Fox Valley and the rest of Illinois about 600 A.D. and quickly became the basis on which several Native American cultural traditions were based. Even at that early date, the state’s broad river valleys with their rich alluvial soils produced bumper crops.

Corn was growing everywhere plants could grow when the Europeans arrived in North America in the 15th Century.

European settlers worked to further improve the native corn varieties by intensive cross breeding. It was eventually found that a cross between New England flints and southerly dents created a hybrid that out-yielded either of the two ancestor varieties. That original cross was the basis for the dozens of different hybrid varieties that grow in fields all over the Fox Valley today.

Especially during this month, when you drive around the countryside and see those fields of corn being harvested, with the grain sold to people in every corner of the globe, you might give a tip of the hat to whichever brilliant ancient Native American farmer came up with that original cross of whatever ancient strains of grass that led to corn’s creation.

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At least Illinois will always have the cheeseburger…

While the hamburger sandwich as we know it today, a ground beef patty served on bread or a bun, may have been invented in a small town diner in Texas (views vary; strongly), it’s pretty much a sure thing that the cheeseburger was invented right here in Illinois.

When Kendall County’s first pioneer farmers arrived, they found a land of almost inconceivable richness where opportunity seemed limitless. The problem was, that while the Fox Valley’s rich, deep topsoil grew extremely bountiful crops, it was difficult to get all that grain, livestock, and other farm produce to a market where someone would pay for it.

Grain was expensive to ship overland due to the region’s truly awful road system. Until well after the Civil War, most rural roads (and most of them in small towns, too) were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie that turned into bottomless quagmires after every rain and following the spring melt of every winter’s snow.

1860-hog-drive

Until better roads were available, the easiest way to get hogs and cattle to the Chicago market was to drive them there overland.

But grain can be turned into many other useful things, such as cows, horses, hogs, and sheep. Livestock, unlike a bushel of grain, can walk to market all by itself, so until sufficient rail service was available, cattle and hog drives were not uncommon sights as the Fox Valley’s livestock farmers got their animals to the Chicago or Joliet market.

Grain can not only feed cattle destined to be turned into steaks and roasts, of course, but can also be turned into milk, and the products derived from it.

Before the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was pushed northeast from Streator to Geneva in 1870, dairying in Kendall County was important, but the county’s relative distance from larger markets meant problems in getting raw milk to market. When the new rail line opened, that helped ease some of the problems getting milk to market, but trains ran on tight schedules that didn’t necessarily match the needs of dairy farmers. And the line was still distant from many farmers, meaning that trips over the terrible roads of the era still meant large investments in time and labor.

oswego-chesse-and-butter-factory

W.H. McConnell’s Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory opened in the spring of 1877. One of its first major contracts for butter and cream was with Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel.

And that’s when America’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. If it was proving too difficult to get milk to markets in larger towns, why not create milk-processing factories nearer to the farms that were producing it?

One of the first to fill this need was W.H. McConnell. In 1870, a brewery had been built between the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) and the new railroad right-of-way just north of Oswego’s village limits and atop a strong natural spring. Despite the area’s large German population, however, the brewery was a bust. But McConnell figured it would make the perfect location for a creamery, a factory to turn raw milk into butter, cheese, and other related products. It was adjacent to the railroad line, so getting his plant’s products to market would be easy.

The brewery’s access to a cold, clear fresh water spring offered natural cooling for safe storage of the newly produced cheese and butter, but just to help Mother Nature out a bit, Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting and storage facility about a half mile north of the creamery site in 1874.

So W.H. McConnell & Company opened for business early in 1877. Within months, the changeover from beer to butter was complete. By March 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped, in a measure, the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

1873-grand-pacific-hotel-chicagoBy May 9, 1878, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Oswego’s creamery had gotten the contract to supply a major Chicago hotel: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

The Grand Pacific Hotel was a big deal, in more ways than one. Destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1873, covering the entire block bounded by Clark, LaSalle, Quincy, and Jackson streets. That McConnell was able to get the butter and cream contract was a real coup.

1904 NaAuSay Creamery.jpg

NaAuSay Township’s cooperative creamery was located a good distance from any town, and served dozens of area dairy farmers.

Other creameries soon opened throughout Kendall County. In those pre-electricity days, they were powered by small steam engines, meaning they could be located about anywhere—and they were—from rural NaAuSay Township, where today’s Walker Road crosses the AuSable Creek; to Plattville, Lisbon; and Millington. On the south side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—McConnell opened another creamery at Hydraulic and Main Street, and he also opened one at Bristol Station on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line. The Palace Car Creamery Company’s creamery and butter factory was located at the northeast corner of Hydraulic Avenue and Main Street.

With sufficient markets available, Kendall County farmers responded by greatly expanding their dairy herds. In 1870, the U.S. Government’s farm census reported there were just under 6,000 dairy cows on county farms. By 1880, the number ballooned to 9,000 before topping out in 1890 with 9,500 dairy cattle.

In order to get milk to the creameries, farmers first hauled their own, but within a short time, some farmers figured there was money to be made hauling their neighbors’ milk to local creameries.

Graham farm scene

Fred Graham, sitting in the wagon at left, was one of the Kendall County farmers who earned additional money by hauling milk from dairy farms to the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory in Oswego.

In 1900, the construction of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Company’s interurban line down the Fox River from Aurora to Yorkville offered a handier way to transport farmers’ milk to creameries in Aurora. In addition, the development of efficient motorized trucks and the subsequent improvement of roads also made it easier to get milk to markets once considered far too distant.

The changes in transportation led to the disappearance of the small local creameries that dotted the rural landscape since larger dairies could pay more money for farmers’ milk and were more profitable.

kraft-cheese-box

Joseph Kraft packed his patented processed American Cheese in 2 and 5 pound wooden boxes that were shipped all over the world. The cheese melted nicely, leading a nameless Kraft worker to invent the cheeseburger sometime in the 1920s.

And with all the dairy products being manufactured also came innovation. Chicago dairyman Joseph Kraft patented a method of processing cheese into a product that was not only more stable than the familiar cheddar, Swiss, and brick cheeses (meaning it could be stored and shipped far easier), but the process could be industrialized with Kraft’s cheese being mass produced. His new “American Cheese” was packed in tin cans and six million pounds of the stuff was shipped off to help feed Allied armies during World War I.

It proved a popular product here at home, too, especially after cooks found that American Cheese melted nicely without separating like natural cheeses did. At the Kraft Cheese labs in Chicago, they continually experimented with ways to use this new cheese product. One of those innovations was to top a hamburger with melted American Cheese.

And thus was born the all-American cheeseburger.

Kendall County’s love of dairying gradually cooled. Managing a dairy herd is hard, labor-intensive work. Cows have to be milked twice daily, 365 days a year. Hand-milking was hard, but ingenuity soon produced milking machines. But those, and all their myriad parts, have to be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Milk cans have to be cleaned, and the raw milk has to be properly stored so that it’s fresh when the driver picks it up to take to the city dairy where it is processed.

The big dairies merged, and what farmers called the “Milk Trusts” came to dominate the industry. Farmers fought back during the “Milk Wars” of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gradually, like all other agricultural endeavors, dairying became a specialized. Fewer farmers wanted to bother with the labor and expense involved. By 1900, the number of dairy cows on county farms had declined by a couple hundred to 9,300 from its 1890 peak. But by 1950, the number of county milk cows had been halved to 4,000 and nine years later had been nearly halved again to 2,300. During the last farm census in 2012, there were so few dairy farmers in Kendall County that the number of cows wasn’t even reported.

Today, dairy barns still dot Kendall County’s landscape, but virtually none of them are used for the purpose for which they were built. Instead, milk is produced on large corporate-owned dairy farms that are completely divorced from the communities where their milk is sold in stores.

There’s probably more truth than ever before in the old joke about city folks being asked where milk comes from and answering “The grocery store.” And I think we can all agree that it might be a good idea to give a tip of the old hat to Joseph Kraft the next time we bite into a nice juicy cheeseburger.

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Despite our best efforts to kill it, the Fox River just keeps on rolling along…

One of Kendall County’s most valuable natural assets is it’s surprisingly extensive system of waterways.

The Fox River is, of course, the most dominant waterway in the county. The river enters the county in northwestern Oswego Township and then cuts diagonally cross county, running along the border between Oswego and Bristol townships, similarly along the Bristol-Kendall Township line and then into Little Rock Township and through Fox Township before exiting the county and heading southwesterly into LaSalle County.

The other major system of waterways in the county is the Aux Sable watershed. In terms of area within the county’s bounds, the Aux Sable watershed is actually the county’s largest, since it drains all or parts of six of Kendall County’s nine townships.

That Kendall has two major drainage basins separated by what the voyageurs used to call a “height of land,” is a rarity for such a small county. Thanks to that accident of geography, more than half the county’s surface waters drain directly into the Illinois River via the large Aux Sable system while the rest of the county drains through the Fox River watershed.

The Fox River’s watershed includes most of the county’s largest creeks, including Big Rock and Little Rock creeks, Rob Roy Creek, Blackberry Creek, Waubonsie Creek, and Morgan Creek.

indians-fishing

The county’s earliest residents, Stone Age Native American hunters and their families, found that the area’s numerous waterways made it a nice place to live. Those earliest inhabitants lived around the lakes, sloughs, and swamps left behind as the last glaciers retreated because game was abundant in those areas, as were many other necessities of life. Camp and village sites dating back thousands of years found overlooking the county’s waterways and wetlands show that those early residents depended on streams for clams and other invertebrates and fish, on swamps and sloughs for small and big game, and on rich bottomland for edible plants, from nuts and berries to wild grain, that could easily be gathered in abundance.

After European explorers arrived, the lifestyles of local Native Americans changed as they gathered materials to trade for brass pots, iron and steel axes, woolen blankets, linen cloth, brandy and run, firearms, and silver ornaments and glass beads. The area’s waterways proved even more valuable in that new mode of life, as local tribesmen trapped beaver, muskrat, fox, and other fur-bearing animals whose skins were sent back to Europe in trade for items that quickly became necessities.

In those days, the various branches of the Aux Sable (French for “Sandy Water”) were important geographical references, and were referred to as landmarks in several major treaties between the U.S. Government and the Indian tribes living in northern Illinois.

By the time the first permanent white settlers arrived along the banks of the Fox River in the 1820s, fur-bearing animals were nearly extinct and game in general was scarce due to over-hunting and over-trapping. In fact, the earliest Kendall County settlers found they had to import food to what had once been one of the richest natural areas on Earth.

fox-mill-on-hollenbacks-creek

According to this survey map, a sawmill was located at the mouth of Hollenback Creek in Fox Township in 1838, illustrating that even some of the smallest creeks in the Fox River’s watershed were harnessed to power mills.

Waterways proved just as important to the economics of early settlers as they had to Native Americans, although in far different ways. The settlers quickly harnessed the power of the county’s waterways through the construction of dams. The resulting water power was put to work turning mill wheels to grind corn and other grain and to saw the wood needed to build homes for the area’s fast-growing population. Virtually every substantial stream in the county—and even some insubstantial ones—boasted a mill of some kind at some time or another. And the Fox River itself eventually became dotted with dams along its length through Kendall County that provided water power for many more mills.

With the tribes gone (all Indians were removed from Northern Illinois in 1836), game slowly recovered, although the buffalo never returned to Illinois after it was wiped out about 1800 by a combination of over-hunting for skins and vicious winters.

Within a few generations, however, the newly recovered big and small game was again decimated by over-hunting. It has only recently began to recover relatively recently once again as fewer and fewer county residents hunt and trap during the winter months and as development has made hunting either inappropriate, unwelcome, or downright dangerous.

1910-abt-kids-along-creek

This group of youngsters was captured in a photograph around 1910 fishing in Waubonsie Creek near downtown Oswego. By then, the county’s two main watersheds was already badly polluted by homes, farms, and businesses.

Settlement also meant extreme changes in water quality for the county’s streams. Kendall County’s once-clear and cool streams were slowed by dams, choked by silt, and poisoned by fertilizer and other chemicals running off of cultivated fields. After the settlement era, the Fox River in particular became a dumping ground for growing industries upstream in Kane County and for human waste from virtually everywhere else in the river’s drainage basin. By the 1950s, the river and many of the county’s creeks had become little more than cesspools with currents.

But beginning in the 1970s, word on cleaning up the county’s streams began, thanks to federal clean water regulations, without which most of our streams would be open sewers still. Today, the Fox River is prized for its smallmouth bass fishery and the once-rare wildlife it attracts and nurtures. The City of Aurora even uses it for drinking water, and Oswego, Montgomery, and Yorkville are talking about doing that, too.

But Kendall County has yet, I think, to realize how valuable a resource the river and its tributaries is and how valuable it could be. The good news, I guess, is that at least we’ve at least temporarily quit trying to kill the river and its tributaries. The bad news is it took the federal government to make us do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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