Category Archives: Farming

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Eight

So we got to Polson, Montana just fine, although we had to drive through some mid-September snow to get there. Although it was cloudy, rainy, snowy, and rainy again as we forged north from Salt Lake City, it was a pretty drive. We crossed the Continental Divide twice along the route north, and again my mind kept straying back to Lewis and Clark who were the first Americans to penetrate this vast, distant wilderness.

2017 9-15 Flathead Lake

Even on a cloudy day, the view coming down out of the mountains to Flathead Lake at Polson, Montana is a pretty sight.

Bob and his wife live on a small ranch just outside Polson, with mountains for a dramatic backdrop. A friend of mine suggested it is a ranchette, but I’ve always figured ranchettes were western hobby farms. George W. Bush’s ‘ranch’ was a hobby farm—a ranchette. Bob’s place is a small working ranch, where the deer and the yaks play in the pasture.

As Bob observed the night we got there, I’m his oldest friend and he’s mine. We met when we were six years old the first day of classes at Church School out in rural Wheatland Township. There were five kids in our first grade class, Bob and I, and two other boys, Gene and Ricky, and one girl, Diane. Bob’s farm was just up the road about a mile from my parents’ farm, with Church School about the same distance south of our farm.

Bob and Roger

The author (left) and his good buddy Bob out on the farm with two friendly dogs. Note the box of Sugar Frosted Flakes kept ready to hand.

Bob and I and Diane eventually went through all 12 grades together. But we didn’t know what the future would hold for those of us going to that one-room country school.

We loved watching TV and fooling around on our walks home from school in the afternoon. When “The Adventures of Superman” hit the television airwaves, we were enthralled, with the episode where Superman creates a diamond out of a lump of coal by super-squeezing it making a particular impression. On our way home one day we found a lump of coal alongside the road—a not unlikely occurrence in the days when most of the farmhouses in our neighborhood had coal-fired furnaces. We figured that if Superman could make a diamond by squeezing a lump of coal, maybe we could do the same thing. We knew we weren’t super-strong, so we found as many big rocks as we could and piled them carefully on top of the chunk of coal and then proceeded to check it every day when we walked home—we figured we could really use the profits from selling a diamond. But alas, the coal stayed coal and no diamond ever appeared.

Jim & Pidge

Hal Roach Studios made three Jim and Pidge movies staring Jimmy Rogers and Noah Beery Jr. in the early 1940s. They later became serialized staples on kids’ TV shows like “Captain Video and His Video Rangers.”

We were also big fans of Captain Video (and his Video Rangers), and watched his show religiously, especially enjoying the short cowboy movies and serials that were part of the program. One of our favorites was the Jim and Pidge series, with Bob always wanting to be Jim, meaning I had to be content with being Pidge.

In one of those films, there was a bit about a rancher raising Brahma bulls that immediately caught our eye—because Bob’s dad had one of the evil-tempered creatures out in their cattle yard. After seeing that the bulls would supposedly chase anything that was red, we had to try it out, which we did with a red bandana. Not sure if it was the color or just the fact we were inside his fence, but we found out Brahma bulls do not like pieces of cloth waived at them. Fortunately, we were pretty fast on our feet (you accelerate pretty quickly with a thousand pounds of bad mood with blood in its eye chasing you) and the fence was easy to climb.

After high school, I stayed around our hometown of Oswego, while Bob and his wife moved west, first to Colorado and then to Montana, where he worked for power companies and actually became one of those cowboys portrayed by Jim and Pidge.

He spent many summers for a couple decades inspecting high-tension lines through mountain areas of those two states on horseback. He had to visually inspect each tower or pole and keep a diary of the condition of the tower and the lines to make sure there were no situations that might cause wildfires. If he found repairs that had to be done, he’d call it in by radio and they’d send a helicopter and repair crew out to the site because the lines he checked were inaccessible by motor vehicle. He said it was sort of lonely, just him, his horse, his packhorse, and his dog dozens of miles from nowhere. But added that the solitude and the scenery were great.

After he retired he took up another career as a horse buyer, trainer and transporter. For a while he specialized in breaking wild horses to ride, but was also hired to train horses for both riding and driving. He got a job with a consortium of drug companies working on various equine disease vaccines and was responsible for buying horses for their trials, training them to stand quietly while blood samples were drawn or they were vaccinated or other tests were done. Then he arranged their sales to good homes after the trials were complete. He said he considered doing one more stint with the equine drug companies, but noted that like the rest of us, he’s getting too old for the training/breaking part and isn’t anxious to get any more broken bones. It’s a younger man’s game, he ruefully noted.

He’s currently engaged in raising those yaks that we were surprised to see in his back pasture. He raises them for some rich guy who’s invested in yak breeding stock. Apparently yak meat is very healthy and is sought-after by a certain class of people because of its low fat content and other reasons I can’t remember right now. Every spring, Yaks can be combed out and the hair they shed can be spun into very fine yarn. Also, yak milk can be turned into a fine butter.

Bob said they’re better tempered than cattle, and they’re also smaller and eat less. One main concern is grizzly bears, two of which the fish and game people had to trap in his back pasture last year after they killed a couple of his neighbor’s llamas (Montana stock raising isn’t exactly what I’d pictured). The sow grizzly was relocated about 30 miles away. The boar, which turned out to be the biggest ever trapped by the Montana fish and game folks, had to be euthanized because this was the third incident where it had definitely killed livestock.

Typical Polson espresso kiosk

A typical Polson espresso kiosk.

Modern Montana livestock raising was a surprise, but I was happy to see the area around Flathead Lake is still obsessed with espresso. The stuff is sold in little kiosks that look like those old Fotomat booths that used to dot shopping centers. Mornings, especially, dusty pick-up trucks with gun racks in their back windows line up for their morning pick-me-ups.

So yaks and llamas and espresso and cowboys…it’s good to get out and see the countryside so you don’t get too settled in your notions about the way things are or ought to be in areas you’ve never been before.

 

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Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Six…

Been a few days since I’ve checked in as we continued our Undaunted Courage 2017 Tour up the mountain chain from Salt Lake City into Montana, the main reason being contracting a nasty case of bronchitis.

But I’m feeling well enough to finally make some sense when I write—although I’m sure plenty will contest the fact—so it’s time to get back to recording things before, as happened to the unfortunate Meriwether Lewis, the account of our trip is lost in the mists of history.

The trip north out of Salt Lake got off to a slow, rainy, start since, as it turns out, rush hours in big cities is the same the nation over. As we inched north on I-15 it occurred to me that big city traffic and streetscapes are pretty much the same everywhere we’ve traveled.

But after getting north of the city center, traffic eased considerably as we drove into cattle, mining, and oil country.

2017 9-15 Lima, MT s

Although it was snowing pretty good in Lima, MT, it fortunately wasn’t sticking to the roads as I snapped this shot in the parking lot at Jen’s Cafe & Cabins.

Along about Idaho Falls, we got into what turned out to be a fairly vigorous series of snow squalls that followed us north along the chain. By the time we stopped for lunch at Jen’s Café & Cabins just across the Idaho state line in tiny Lima, Montana, there was about 5” of the stuff on the ground, with more coming down. Definitely a day for hot beef sandwiches. The locals were shaking their heads; Sept. 15 is a mite early for more than a dusting of snow, even in this high country.

Driving ever farther north, we eventually ran out of the snow as we crossed the continental divide twice.

Speaking of undaunted courage, you can’t get away from the redoubtable Lewis and Clark on I-15, passing as you do right by the Clark Canyon Reservoir and Clark’s Lookout State Park. Looking at the landscape as we drove, it wasn’t hard to imagine it as it was when the Corps of Discovery marched through—outside infrequent fences and pumping oil wells, the landscape itself hasn’t changed a whole lot.

At Butte, Montana we picked up I-90, and headed farther up the mountains to Missoula. From there U.S. Route 93 took us right north up to the foot of Flathead Lake and the town of Polson where my childhood buddy Bob and his wife live.

It was definitely cattle and horse country, but it also turned out to be wheat and potato country. Farmers rotate their potato and wheat crops to benefit the soil that’s none too deep in the river valleys where farming is conducted. We drove through just after the wheat harvest had been completed and the order of the day was baling straw, stacking the huge round bales modern machinery creates, and hauling them to market.

Unlike Illinois’ rural areas, local gravel roads are still the norm in the west. In the urbanizing Midwest of northern Illinois we’ve gradually replaced most rural gravel roads with either tar and chip or asphalt-surfaced roads, that are cheaper to maintain and which are more economical for drivers. Blacktopped roads create far less wear and tear on vehicles, and both cars and trucks get far better gas mileage on hard-surfaced roads.

Back in the 1920s when Illinois was considering how best to spend proceeds of a $63 million bond issue voters had approved in 1918, they paid attention to studies carried on concerning fuel efficiency on various road surfaces. In July 1922, Concrete Highway Magazine reported that a road test in Cleveland, Ohio measured fuel efficiency on five 2-ton White trucks loaded to capacity traveling over roads with various surfaces. The trucks averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon of gasoline over concrete roads and 9 mpg on gravel roads.

Driving as we were on a mixture of concrete and asphalt hard roads, I got to wondering about the relative fuel efficiencies of the two surfaces. Especially since concrete roads sometimes create really annoying road noise while asphalt roads are pretty quiet as a rule. I checked out various hypermiling sites on the Net—if you want to find out a bunch of tricks to stretch your gas mileage, the hypermiling guys and gals are your ticket—and the consensus seems to be that the hardest surface provides the best mileage. Period. Asphalt, it turns out, has a softer surface that offers a big of ‘give’ which cuts down on mileage. Not a lit, but a bit.

So up to Polson we drove, arriving when it was a bit cloudy, but where the backdrop was spectacular. Pulling in, Bob happily greeted us as we stretched our legs a bit. “So, what do you think of those?” Bob asked, waiving his hand towards his back pasture.

Yak

Home, home on the range where the deer and the yaks play.

We were farm kids together, and his dad kept Brahma bulls that, crazy kids we were, we used to tease with red handkerchiefs, so I was ready to see some prize cattle or horses (Bob’s sort of retired these days, but he’s still an honest-to-God cowboy), but instead I saw a group of short shaggy black animals ambling around out by the pasture’s back fence.

“Nice yaks, don’t you think,” he asked with a little grin.

More later…

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Reapers have vanished, but not reaping…

The other day, as I was driving there and back again, the CNBC business news came on the radio, and the newsreader launched into a piece about the weather affecting crops in the Midwest. Farm income is expected to decline, he reported, and as a result stock prices for farm equipment manufacturers are expected to decline. That’s because, he said, farmers will be “buying fewer tractors and reapers.”

In reply to which I muttered under my breath that I suspected the horse collar market would be pretty soft, too. And the buggy whip market didn’t even bear thinking about.

To be fair, the newswriter was probably trying to get the idea across that farm equipment manufacturers in general might be seeing some tough times on the horizon. You can almost see the words rattling around in the writer’s heat—what do farmers use out there on the (as the Chicago Tribune once put it) the rural plains? Well, tractors, sure, but what else to farmers do? They sow and they reap—they must use reapers!

You’d think the media big boys would be able to afford to hire folks who know a little something about what they’re writing about. It’s entirely possible farmers will be buying fewer tractors next year, but farmers haven’t bought reapers for well over a century now.

Cutting grain with scythe & cradle.jpg

Using scythe and cradle grain was cut by hand. Then it had to be gathered into bundles and piled in shocks to dry before it was threshed, again by hand.

A reaper, like a corn planter or a hay rake, was a machine with a special purpose—it cut “small grain” (oats, wheat, rye, barley) and prepared it to be bundled and allowed to dry before it was threshed—the grain separated from the stalks and chaff.

Reapers were some of the first harvesting machines and were the product of Yankee ingenuity. Before their advent, grain had to be cut by hand with scythes and then gathered into bundles by stoop labor that was laborious indeed. Only after the bundles were stacked into shocks and allowed to dry would they be hauled to the barn where they’d be threshed to remove the stalks and then the grain winnowed to remove the chaff.

McCormick Reaper

Cyrus McCormick’s reaper mechanized the grain cutting process, significantly improving farm productivity. McCormick Reapers were manufactured in Kendall County in the early 1840s.

With the frontier moving west into the prairies of Illinois where the rich soil produced bumper grain crops, Cyrus McCormick was among those who identified a need for a machine that would ease the labor and quicken the pace of the harvest. He came up with the first commercially successful harvester, a machine drawn by a horse or team that cut the grain stalks and laid them out where two men riding the harvester could bundle them and drop them on the ground to be later stacked into shocks to dry.

McCormick’s genius was his decision not to immediately manufacture all his own harvesters, but instead to sell franchises, letting others bear the cost of building manufacturies and producing his machines. Here in Kendall County, Isaac Townsend bought one of the first McCormick franchises and in 1841 began manufacturing harvesters in a small factory just off what is today Grove Road south of Oswego.

McCormick Binder

McCormick’s binder provided one more step in increased productivity by automatically tying the bundles of grain.

Powered by a steam engine shipped all the way from New York State, Townsend’s Oswego Manufacturing Company produced harvesters for a few years before the realities of his factory’s distance from raw materials and lack of a good transportation system led to its shutdown. But Townsend and the other franchisees helped spur others to perfect and then improve on McCormick’s basic design. In Plano, for instance, the Hollisters and Stewards developed an improved harvester that eventually added the capability to mechanically create and bind the bundles of grain. The development of the binder meant fewer farm laborers were needed to harvest much more grain, and productivity took another giant leap.

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

Binders, combined with steam-powered threshing machines provided another huge jump in productivity. Above, the East Oswego Threshing Ring harvests grain in 1911. (Little White School Museum photo)

But even with the binder, bundles of grain had to be stacked to dry and then threshed. The invention of the threshing machine—also called the separator because it separated grain from stalks and chaff—in the 1840s helped a lot. With the invention of self-propelled steam engines that could not only move themselves from farm to farm, but could also tow a threshing machine, too, productivity got another big boost as farmers banded together to buy the expensive steamers and threshing machines.

The increase in U.S. farm productivity in the 60 years between 1830 and 1890, thanks to increasing mechanization, was nothing less than astonishing. In 1830, it took about 300 man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, thanks to mechanization, it took just 50 man-hours to produce that same 100 bushels.

Modern combine

Modern combines have reduced the labor needed to produce 100 bushels of grain by 300 times compared to the prairie farmers of the 1830s.

Farm equipment manufacturers continued innovating and with economical internal combustion engine-powered tractors they also came up with a combined harvester that not only cut ripe grain in the field, but also threshed it to remove the stalks and winnowed it to separate out the chaff. These combines (combined harvesters) were first pulled by those new internal combustion tractors. Later, but not much later, self-propelled combines were introduced. It didn’t take long for the innovators to realize that the same machine could be used for both harvesting small grains as well as the newly introduced soybeans. And then somebody figured out how to design a combine that, just by changing the head—the mechanism that cuts and gathers the grain—on the combine you could turn it into a machine that also picked, husked, and shelled corn. And that leap led to the gigantic harvesting machines you see working in the fields from late summer on—one machine that replaced the harvester, the binder, the threshing machine, the corn picker/husker, and the corn sheller.

What has been the effect of all that mechanization on farm productivity? Nowadays, it takes less than three man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat—100 times less labor than it took our ancestors in the 1830s.

So here we are, nearly into September and the harvest of small grains is finished, the soybean harvest is coming up, and the corn harvest is at least on the horizon. For one more season, the farm calendar is shedding pages as folk in the country look forward to bringing in another crop.

 

 

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This family reunion a living link to pioneer prairie farmers

It was a beautiful day last Sunday to hold a family reunion, so it’s lucky that’s what my clan was up to.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. around 55 members of the related Lantz and Stoner families got together to chat and have a wonderful potluck dinner, just as they’ve been doing for the last 90 years. The first reunion was held in 1927 at my great-grandparents’ former farm—at the time it was worked by one of their sons—and 127 relatives showed up for the fun. We’ve met every summer since at various places. Although the place has changed from time to time, the reunion’s been held on the second Sunday in August since 1936.

Although there’s only one active farming family in the clan these days, there were some retired farmers in the crowd Sunday.

When the reunion got started, farmers predominated. And, in fact, that first reunion was held “the Sunday after the plowing match,” the minutes of the meeting state. Which plowing match? The Wheatland Plowing Match, of course. And what’s a plowing match? Well, there’s a story there.

The Lantz and Stoner families are both of good Pennsylvania Dutch stock. Baltzer Lantz arrived in 1752 and eventually settled in Lancaster in southeast Pennsylvania. A mason by trade, he helped build forts during the French and Indian War and founded a family that would go on to spread west, first to the tallgrass prairies in Illinois, then to the shortgrass Kansas plains, and finally all the way to the Pacific shore.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape where the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match was held looks more like Nebraska than northern Illinois in his Malcolm Rance photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

A century after Baltzer arrived aboard the ship Phoenix at Philadelphia harbor, his descendants loaded up their wagons and headed west to pioneer new land between the DuPage and Fox rivers in northern Illinois. The prairies of Will County’s Wheatland Township were so treeless they resembled more the flat Nebraska plains than land you’d expect to see in northern Illinois. As a result of that lack of timber, much of that rich land was still unclaimed in 1850 when the Lantz family, along with the Slicks and Shaals and Stoners and others made their way west. Settlement had demanded a lot of timber for building log cabins and outbuildings, splitting into rails for the miles of fences needed, for firewood, and for crafting looms and other tools needed to survive on the frontier. But by 1850, balloon framing using sawn lumber instead of log construction had been invented and was in increasingly wide use in northern Illinois. So houses and barns and machine sheds rose on the prairie with the work of those Pennsylvania Dutchmen and their families.

At the same time, an influx of Scots and English farmers, along with a number of German farmers direct from Germany was also taking place. From the Oswego Prairie east of that village, all the way to the DuPage River, the rich black soil was soon being turned by horse-drawn plows and planted in corn, wheat, oats, rye, and barley.

The groups seemed to work well together, too. The Germans from Germany spoke no English, but they fit right in with the Pennsylvania Dutch, almost all of which still spoke German at home. So prevalent were German-speaking folks around about Naperville in the 19th Century that J.L. Nichols—academic, printer, and namesake of Naperville’s Nichols Library—found it profitable in 1891 to publish The Business Guide, or Safe Methods of Business, a book with instructions in both German and English on how to draw up legal documents such as bills of sale and deeds in each language. I donated my family’s copy of Nichols’ book to the Naperville Heritage Society in 2012.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This image of the 1915 Wheatland Plowing Match shows some of the tents for the dining and exhibition areas. By this time, autos were replacing horses and buggies. (Little White School Museum photo)

The British and Scots farmers also settled in with their German-speaking neighbors, and the entire neighborhood became a real community. The great contribution of the Brits and Scots was the introduction of the latest scientific farming methods that had been perfected across the Atlantic. From proper drainage of wetlands to increase arable land to the introduction of blooded breeding livestock to the best and most efficient way to till the soil, farmers like the Pattersons, Stewarts, and Kings introduced the latest thinking. And the result of that was, a couple decades after they arrived, establishing the Wheatland Plowing Match in 1876.

A combined county fair and precision plowing competition, the annual event drew thousands to the Wheatland prairie each September, which placed it in the relative down time after the harvest of small grains and before the big corn harvest. The Sept. 11, 1879 Kendall County Record gave a good rundown of specifics behind the annual event’s competition:

There will be a plowing match on the farm of William King in Wheatland, Will county, just east of Oswego township Saturday, September 20th. Said match will be open to all residents of the town.

Straightness, neatness, and evenness of furrow to be considered. No plowing to be less than six inches deep.

Each plow will be required to finish three quarters of an acre in three and one-half hours. Plowing is to commence at 9 o’clock, a.m., sharp.

Sulky and gang plows will be exhibited by the agents of different manufactories and tested at 2 o’clock.

Judges of the walking plows: Henry Mussey, Thomas Stewart, George Leppert.

Judges of riding plows: Thomas Varley, Wm. Sillers, and Zach Fry.

The competition continued until 1976. After that, the Wheatland Plowing Match Association continued in business for several years promoting the history of prairie farming in Wheatland Township until they disbanded in 2014, turning over their records and funds to the Naperville Heritage Society.

2016 Reunion

The food tables at the 2016 Lantz-Stoner Family Reunion after folks have filled their plates the first time. The related families held their 90th annual reunion Aug. 13 in Oswego.

Those Pattersons who started the plowing match soon married into the Pennsylvania Dutch farming families, including my own and in the 1890s, the plowing match was held on my great-grandfather’s farm.

As a result of all that intermarrying, when that first family reunion was held in 1927, there were all sorts of families represented from the Pattersons and Lantzes to the Boughtons and Books and a number of others who are memorialized in the names of roads in DuPage, Will, and Kendall counties.

Today, those flat, rich prairies are growing mostly homes, roads, schools, and businesses. Farmers are slowly being squeezed farther and farther west as development starts picking up once again following the big housing bust of 2008. In a way, I guess, our family reunion represents a sort of social memory of that vibrant era of prairie farming when the land and the people were both new, and eager to do the absolute best they could in their chosen profession tilling the soil.

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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

Blogging’s been lighter than usual lately since we took a few days of vacation last week.

Every year about this time we try to head north to get away from the corn that’s tasseled out around these parts, since I’m allergic to corn pollen.

Corn is just a genetically modified grass, and allergy tests done when I was a lad showed that grass pollen really irritates my respiratory system. Not that I didn’t know that already, of course. Growing up on a farm, you couldn’t get away from grass pollen and dust; it was literally everywhere, from the bales of alfalfa and straw in the haymow to the bedding in the chickens’ nesting boxes. And since I was allergic to feathers, too, the chicken house always hit me with a double whammy. Some friends gave me a few pairs of bantam chickens for my birthday when I was six or seven and it turned out to be a gift that nearly did me in.

So, while I loved farming, it was something I simply couldn’t get involved in and continue to live. It was a good thing I finally figured out I could write, I guess.

But anyway, we head north several times a summer, up above the Tension Line in northern Wisconsin. Many of the things to which my body is allergic don’t like living north of Steven’s Point, so that’s where we go.

1888 Dr. Gilbert B LesterIt’s actually an old Midwestern tradition. As the Aug. 26, 1880 “Oswego” column in the Kendall County Record reported: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

It wasn’t that Dr. Gilbert Lester was a sissy, either, serving as a Union Army physician during the Civil War and out on the western plains before coming back to Illinois to practice in Oswego. Even so, Dr. Lester headed north and east every year in August and September to escape what the Record’s Oswego correspondent frequently dubbed “the plague” of hay fever.

This time of year was also a plague for me when I was a kid out on the farm because this is when the small grains—oats and wheat—were ripe and harvesting began. The era of threshing machines was over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the combines that were in use in the early 1950s created just as much dust as had their ancestor steam-powered threshing machines. Although I was spared being blasted with coal smoke from the steam engine, so I had that going for me.

So it was a relief when my folks took me north on summer vacations. Back in those days, there was no home air conditioning to speak of. The only folks who had an air conditioner out in our neighborhood were the Boughtons, something that was considered an odd, frivolous extravagance. Fans were the things. Big window fans, hassock fans, box fans, fans on wheeled carts, fans that oscillated, you name it, someone had one. Even so, those hot, humid summer nights out on the farm when you could literally hear the corn grow were not comfortable for those of us who, it turned out, were allergic to almost every important thing on the farm.

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

Richardson Root Beer barrel dispensers were a familiar sight in drug stores and cafes across the nation in the 1950s. A dime bought a frosty mug of the uniquely American drink.

The move to town when I was 8 was, I guess, a literal lifesaver, although I’ve always missed the farm, even though it was slowly killing me. In town, the nights were just as hot, but the air tended to carry less corn pollen. And there were, I must admit, more things to do.

For instance, there were places a person could actually spend an allowance of a quarter a week. Downtown at the Main Café, a mixed-on-the-spot Richardson Root Beer was just 10-cents in a frosty mug. I didn’t know it at the time, but the café’s soda fountain was the one that had formerly been in Shuler’s Drug Store across the street. When owner Al Shuler got tired of his store becoming a 1950s teen hangout, he sold the fountain to the owner of the café across the street.

As editor Ford Lippold reported in the Oswego Ledger on Dec. 9, 1954: “A fair-sized moving job took place downtown this week when the soda fountain formerly in Shuler’s Drug Store was transferred across the street to the Main Café. The moving of the soda fountain is part of a plan for increasing the facilities of the drug store. The present plan is to use the additional room for new items that are not now available in the community and to increase stocks of such popular items as greeting cards and gift-wrapping materials. The new and greatly enlarged stock will enable Oswegoans to obtain a wider selection and increased service.”

Sure, Al told Ford to put in the paper that he was getting rid of the soda fountain in order to serve the community better, but he was really anxious to get those pesky teenagers out of his store and across the street.

Chest type pop machineOr on evenings when the Main Café was closed, there was always the chest-type pop machine in front of Bohn’s Food Store. You put your dime in, and carefully slid the bottle of whatever soft drink you wanted along the slots to the end, where you could pull it out of the cold water, use the bottle opener on the side of the machine, and enjoy a drink while watching the traffic go by on busy U.S. Route 34. When the bottle was empty, you were expected to go back to Bohn’s and put it in the wooden pop bottle case at the end of the machine. Remarkably, almost everyone did.

Since I was the oldest among our neighborhood gang, on summer days the neighborhood kids would pool our nickels and dimes and I’d be dispatched on my bike down to Bohn’s to get a box of Popsiclesthe latest flavor of Popsicle. Back then, there were a myriad of flavors from licorice to root beer to banana. The trip back from town was always quick, because it was mostly downhill, but I had to ride carefully to make sure the box of valuable cargo didn’t bounce around too much and break any of the two-stick popsicles while hurrying enough to make sure none of them melted too much.

And for those totally bereft of any cash at all, there was the public water fountain at the corner of Main and Washington (Route 34), right next to the phone booth—remember phone booths? Oswego’s was a red and silver beauty that was brightly lighted at night. It

1958 Main St. East side

Oswego’s phone booth (lower left) at Main and Washington in 1958.

was probably the only one in the nation that actually had a phone book in it, too. The public fountain didn’t survive past the early 1950s, unfortunately, but the phone booth soldiered on for many years.

We take so many things for granted these days. Air conditioning makes us much more comfortable than any fan, and for those of us like Dr. Lester who are afflicted with “the plague of hay fever” and severe allergies, the hum of the AC on hot, humid Illinois summer days is a literal lifesaver. Kids’ allowances have inflated since the 1950s, and the places to spend them have grown. But there’s still a café on Main Street where you can get an icy drink, although alas, the Richardson Root Beer barrel and the old drug store soda fountain are long gone. Bohn’s is gone, along with their pop machine, but across the street at the cyclery shop, there’s a high-tech machine that dispenses bottles of healthy water and juice. And just down Main Street, across even busier Route 34, is the Dairy Hut where hungry kids of all ages can enjoy an ice cream cone or whatever. We’re no longer a small town, but have rather turned into a small city. Even so, there are still a lot of those old small town touches that bring back the memories for us increasingly rare natives.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

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

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

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

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

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

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

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo at Midewin

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

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

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

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

 

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Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

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

Watkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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