Category Archives: Farming

Recalling food favorites of the good old (and not so old) days…

Anyone who knows me or who reads this blog regularly (or both, come to think of it) knows I really like food.

The other day, I got to thinking about the many different kinds of food I’ve had over the years, from childhood on, that I’ll not likely be able to enjoy again.

What brought on the introspection was starting off my meal at an area buffet restaurant with cottage cheese and pickled beets. Granted, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid. And while pickled beets and cottage cheese are available in just about every grocery store in the country, it was the cottage cheese that prompted memories of my favorite kind when I was a little kid growing up out on the farm.

In those days, we had our own cow, a placid Guernsey my sisters had named Daisy. My dad milked her twice a day in a stall in the barn, sitting a three-legged milking stool, occasionally expertly aiming a shot of fresh milk from Daisy’s udder to one of the barn cats that crowded around waiting for a treat. When he was done milking, Dad would take the bucket of fresh milk in the house and down the basement to run it through the separator that separated (most of) the cream from the milk.

My family used Daisy’s milk for a number of things, from morning cereal to coffee cream (the real thing!) to ingredients for baking and cooking. That milk was also manufactured into two other products that we really enjoyed, meaning now we’re getting back to the cottage cheese part of the story.

Cottage cheese container

Sort of, kind of the containers we’d get from Aunt Bess filled with homemade cottage cheese.

My mother would occasionally take a large container or two of Daisy’s milk over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who was one of the many aunts and uncles I had out in that neighborhood who were of absolutely no blood relation to me at all. But they were all like family, especially Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim. Aunt Bess would then somehow magically transform the milk my mother took to her into cottage cheese, which we were invited to go back and pick up a few days later. She always packaged in in two tall aluminum containers, and it tasted wonderful.

It’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever have the chance to taste Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese again, in this lifetime at least. Nor will I ever be able to taste the butter my grandmother made from Daisy’s cream. I remember her making it with an electric churn, and then working out the buttermilk and the salt in using a wooden paddle in a large wooden bowl. My dad loved buttermilk, but I was never able to acquire a taste for it, although using it in pancakes, banana nut muffins, and the like is a really good idea. The taste of my grandmother’s homemade butter is another thing I’m probably never going to be able to enjoy again.

A couple more of my grandmother’s foods I’ll likely never see again are her molasses cookies (my dad would sometimes crumble up a couple in a bowl and have them for breakfast with some of Daisy’s milk) and her homemade bread, which my grandfather didn’t particularly care for. My grandfather, instead, loved sliced commercial bakery bread delivered by the Peter Wheat Bread man. That, however, was fine with me because that meant more of grandma’s amazing homemade bread for me.

Cookstove

Grandma’s cookstove looked something like this, and it dominated her farmhouse kitchen.

Grandma’s baking was all done in her huge black and white porcelain wood-fired cook stove that dominated her kitchen. She had a modern propane-fueled range, too, but she favored her cookstove for baking. How, I once asked her, did she regulate the temperature to get the right results? “Well,” she said, “you just stick your hand in the oven and when it’s the right heat, then you do your baking.”

When I was really little, we still butchered our own pork and beef, using hogs and steers my dad had carefully picked out and fed especially for the purpose. After butchering, we’d get the occasional covered bowl of pickled heart or pickled tongue from grandma that made really great sandwiches. Those are things you just don’t see in the grocery store these days, at least not around these parts.

During those long ago summers, my family seemed to attend a never-ending series of picnics, each of which featured a wonderful potluck dinner or supper. My mother’s specialty for these occasions was her baked fried chicken, which was outstanding. She made it by first dredging the chicken parts in seasoned flour and then frying it in her big cast aluminum Pan-American frying pan. Then she finished it by baking it in the oven. It came out nearly falling off the bone, cooked through, moist and tasting wonderful. That kind of chicken used to be available at the Amana Colonies out in Iowa, but in recent years it’s been dropped in favor of regular fried chicken—a culinary loss to the Midwest.

At our annual family reunion in August, along with my mother’s chicken, we enjoyed a huge selection of desserts, some of which I’ll likely never taste again such as wonderberry pie and ground cherry pie. Both wonderberries and ground cherries are relatively labor-intensive to grow and as they are considered heirloom plants these days, are not easily available at your local garden center. But back in that day and age, they were found in lots of farm gardens. My grandmother had a ground cherry patch outside her back door. They always reminded me of tiny yellow cherries growing inside Japanese lanterns.

In the early spring each year, the Wheatland United Presbyterian Church just down the road from our farm held their annual pancake supper, put on by the young farming families. It was their major fundraiser for the year, and was extremely popular, drawing visitors from far and wide. One of the major draws was the sausage they served with their pancakes. It was whole hog sausage, made from a couple entire hogs, which were donated by a congregation member and made by the volunteer sausage committee members. For my taste, it was seasoned perfectly with just the right amount of salt, pepper and—most importantly—sage, because you can’t have decent breakfast sausage without sage.

Scrapple & egg

About the only thing better for breakfast than fried mush and eggs is scrapple and eggs. Our neighbor Sam’s homemade scrapple was a true gourmet treat of my childhood.

Enjoying that quality of sausage ever again is unlikely, as is the scrapple our neighbor Sam made after we moved into town. He called it by another of its Pennsylvania Dutch names, pon haus, and it was wonderful. You can buy canned scrapple these days, but it resembles scrapple about as much as Spam resembles ham. If you can wait, it’s really best to make a special trip east to Pennsylvania Dutch country in Pennsylvania or Delaware and either buy it at a farmers’ market or at a small country diner. But however you are able to get hold of some these days, it won’t hold a candle to the taste of Sam’s pon haus.

Image result for watermelon ahead sign

On our summer Kansas trips during my childhood we’d keep a sharp eye out for a sign advertising a roadside watermelon stand, where an ice cold slice could be had for 15 or 20 cents, welcome relief in those pre-air conditioned auto days.

Some of the foods I enjoyed in my younger life tasted good, I suspect, just because of the situation I was in when eating them. Ice cold watermelon at the picnic table of a roadside stand on the dusty Kansas prairie during a hot summer trip to visit relatives; fresh lobster boiled while we watched at a picnic table at a roadside stand along the Connecticut shore; Yorkshire pudding and roast beef in a Yorkshire, England restaurant; a fountain-mixed root beer at the soda fountain in Oswego’s Main Cafe on a hot 1959 summer afternoon; and a 2” thick slice of raspberry pie at a country diner during the Kansas wheat harvest all left wonderful memories of those times and places.

I recall asking my grandmother one time whether she’d ever like to go back to visit “the gold old days” of her younger life. After thinking for a moment, she ventured “Maybe for supper.” She explained that she missed the canned roast beef they used to put up when she was a youngster and a young married woman in the days before home freezers. She said the taste and texture of the meat, tender and moist, was simply not available any more.

So I seem to come by my food nostalgia naturally; it’s apparently embedded in my DNA. Some of those eating experiences are gone forever—Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese—but there’s an outside chance that I may someday still get a chance to enjoy a good scrapple breakfast again or maybe even a slice of wonderberry pie. A person can certainly hope…

 

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Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Log Cabin

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

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

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

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

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

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

rug loom in use

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

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

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

rag rugs

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

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

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

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

 

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Trying to stay one step ahead of destruction in the Machine Age

When Czech science fiction writer and playwright Karel Čapek used the word robot (its root goes back to a term for “serf labor”), invented by his brother, Josef, he had human-shaped machines in mind that would do man’s bidding, for good or ill.

Image result for tobor captain video

65 years later, Tobot doesn’t look nearly as frightening as he did to my 7 year-old self.

Today, millions of robots are quietly and industriously going about their business but, alas, few of them look like the classic robot of SF literature or the robots we grew up watching on TV and in the movies. I recall being scared to death of the Tobot character (“robot” spelled backwards) when I watched “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” as a little kid. Robbie the robot in “Forbidden Planet” was a good-natured mechanical man, as was Robot, the combination nanny and straight man on “Lost in Space.”

But instead of humanoid machines mingling in modern society, these days robotic carts deliver parts from storage to machine in factories all over the world; robotic arms help build most kinds of trucks and autos these days; and deep space robots land on distant planets, tool around for years over the surface or dig around a bit and then return their finds to Earth. Robots even mow our lawns and vacuum our living rooms.

In short, robots are replacing people in jobs that are either too dangerous or too costly or too repetitive for humans to perform if industry, government, or ourselves are to be freed up to do other things—or make even bigger profits without all those pesky union contracts to deal with.

On the plus side, machines have made humanity’s physical burden lighter from the time the first cave man found a long enough lever could move a giant boulder. At the same time, those same machines have sometimes caused huge workforce dislocations.

No one knows what the first machine really was. It could have been that rock-moving lever noted above. Or it could have been the inclined plane used to help a group of Paleolithic hunters move the carcass of a large animal up to their cave.

The simple machine that probably had the most impact on the earliest civilizations right up through the present was the wheel, which allowed all manner of things to happen, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Even as the first crude wagon led to the automobile, the first war chariot led to today’s tanks, effects I am sure the inventor of the wheel could not imagine.

Image result for Ben Hur chariot race

No wheels, no Ben-Hur chariot race. Bummer.

But far from being simply a troublemaker, the wheel has also, over the course of history, been the greatest labor saving device ever invented, and may well have led to the invention of civilization. Wheels allowed larger cargoes to be carried from the countryside to the cities that grew into the Urs, Babylons, Romes, and other great capitals of the ancient world. And something as simple as a wheelbarrow lighten the workload on generation after generation of workers.

When put to work properly and with some innovation, wheels made manufacturing possible on large scales for the first time.

The water wheel was probably invented in the Far East, but it eventually became the foundation on which the West’s Industrial Revolution was built. Once the power of water was harnessed and put to productive work, all manner of things became not only possible but practical.

Gears and pulleys—also wheels—allowed the power of falling or flowing water to turn millstones to grind grain into flour, and to make saw blades first travel up and down and then round and round to saw trees into lumber.

At some time or other, an inventive person invented the trip hammer, a particularly useful machine. A trip hammer is lifted by a cam—basically a bulge—attached to a shaft turned by waterpower. As the bulge of the cam passes, the hammer falls. Of what use is an endlessly rising and falling hammer? Let us count the ways.

Image result for water powered trip hammer

Water-powered trip hammers made work from blacksmithing to dye making much easier.

In olden times, dye was made from vegetable substances that had to be pulverized, and that pulverization was all done by hand. With a water-powered trip hammer, dye stocks could be made much more cheaply because machines did not get tired and cranky. They just went on pounding and pounding all day every day without complaint. As a result, dye prices fell, and even common folks were able to afford colorful clothing.

Water powered hammers were also useful to folks who wanted to make a lot of metal items. Blacksmithing was an art, and a hard one at that. But trip hammers could be used to automate the tiresome process of hammering larger pieces of steel or iron to flatten or weld or shape them, making workers more productive.

In addition, falling or flowing water could also power all manner of other complicated machine assemblages from textile mills and elaborate looms to irrigation pumps to those sawmill blades mentioned above.

Indeed, when the first settlers began arriving here in Kendall County, pioneer millwrights were among the first wave of settlement in the 1830s. Ebenezer Morgan, John Schneider, Merritt Clark, Levi Gorton and the others found likely sites along the county’s creeks and rivers and built their dams and mills.

1900 (abt) Parker Mills

Levi Gorton built the gristmill on the riverbank just north of Oswego at left, and Nathaniel Rising added the sawmill in the right foreground, while George Parker added a furniture factory wing to the sawmill.

Gristmills were usually the first mills to be built to allow farmers to grind their com, barley, oats, and wheat into flour. But sawmills were almost as quickly built, and lumber for homes for the county’s growing population was soon available.

All manner of water-powered factories followed, and even the water behind the numerous mill dams itself was soon sold in the form of ice, harvested during the winter and stored for sale later in the warm months of the year.

The steam engine—which also relies on wheels to operate—gradually put the county’s water-powered mills out of business, since steam engines require no expensive, maintenance-intensive dams, they aren’t affected by low or high water levels, and they don’t freeze up in the winter.

Besides revolutionizing milling, steam engines installed aboard boats opened the Midwest’s extensive river system to trade, while other steam engines equipped with wheels and pulling cars over a network of rails changed the nation forever by revolutionizing transportation.

Today, we are facing another revolution almost as great as the one occasioned by the invention of the wheel. The combination of powerful computers and a worldwide communications network is bringing people together as nothing else ever has. The old totalitarian nations were unable to stand against the communications revolution as fax machines and computer networks spread the truths they had been suppressing for generations.

Now, however, the social media that toppled dictators is being used more and more to promote new dictatorial and hateful propaganda to a credulous citizenry. As we face the same messy ethnic and territorial problems the world has been dealing with since civilizations arose, our immediate challenge is trying to figure out how to use all this new technology in the service of rights and freedom of civilization before it destroys both.

 

 

 

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So what’s in YOUR pie?

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

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

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

Defective apple pie

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

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

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

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

Poor Man's Pie

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

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

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

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

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

wonderberry pie

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

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

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

Classic pasty

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The struggle of getting from here to there has proven long and expensive…

Got word last week that the NaAuSay Township Highway Commissioner plans to pave the last remaining gravel road in the township with a tar-and-chip surface, thus ending a hard-fought transportation era out that direction.

It’s interesting that gravel roads are now considered old technology, when our farming great-grandparents would have done just about anything to have had access to a gravel road back in the 1890s.

Roads here in northern Illinois when the first pioneer farmers began arriving in the late 1820s weren’t much to look at. And I mean that literally. The roads of that era weren’t actually ‘roads,’ but were rather mere tracks and traces across the prairie originally created by bison and other animals that were then adopted by the region’s Native People. It wasn’t for nothing that a synonym for “trail” back in those days was “trace,” because often that’s about all there was, a trace.

Kinzie, JulietteFor instance, in March 1831, Juliette Kinzie described a trip she and her Indian trader husband, John, took from Prairie du Chien in modern Wisconsin to Chicago. Because it was so early in the year, the tribes were still in their winter camps, so the normal route, which was basically a straight line from Prairie du Chien to Chicago, was impractical. That’s because all the Indian villages where the party would depend on for food and shelter would be vacant for at least another month. So the plan was to head south to John Dixon’s ferry across the Rock River—modern Dickson, Illinois—and then strike the Great Sauk Trail, the region’s major road used by the Sauk, Fox, and other tribes to make their annual trek to Fort Malden in Canada to trade with the British. The Kinzies made sure they had an experienced guide to help them on their route, with the plan to take the Sauk Trail to the former Fox River Mission in modern Mission Township, LaSalle County, where they’d cross the Fox River and then head northeast to John Naper’s settlement on the DuPage River and then on to Chicago.

But the Kinzies’ experienced guide missed the Great Sauk Trail—the major trail in the region, remember—forcing the party to blunder around before striking the Fox River just south of modern Oswego, where they crossed and then headed to Naper’s settlement—modern Naperville.

There were, of course, other trails and traces used by Native People and pioneers alike, of course, and they became the template on which the region’s first roads were laid. Those roads took the courses of least resistance on their way across the prairie, avoiding the numerous sloughs and other wetlands, generally sticking to high ground, and aiming at the best fords across both the Fox River and its numerous tributaries.

1838 Old Galena Road red road

The original stagecoach mail road to Galena (highlighted in red) crossed the Fox River at Montgomery, then bent southwesterly to the ford across Blackberry Creek, before bending northwesterly on its way to Dickson and Galena. It’s a good illustration of a road that pays no attention to township or section lines. Interestingly enough, it still follows this same route 180 years after this map was drawn.

After northern Illinois was officially surveyed by the U.S. Government and the land divided into sections of one squire mile, or 640 acres, and townships were formed from 36 of those sections, it was found the old trail and road system cut inconveniently across those neat boundary lines. As a result, some of those old roads were vacated and their rights-of-way were moved to follow section lines to avoid bisecting farms and towns alike at odd angles. When you fly over the Midwest, you’ll clearly see the survey grid outlined in road rights-of-way. But you’ll also see some roads that still cut across country at varying angles. And when you see them, you’ll be looking at remnants of those old pioneer trails. Here in Kendall County, U.S. Route 34 from Oswego east to Naperville is one of those old trails, as is Ill. Routes 71 from Oswego to Ottawa and 126 from Yorkville to Plainfield, not to mention the best example, Chicago Road, northeast from Lisbon Road through Plattville to Peterson Road, a bonafide old stagecoach and wagon route.

But well after the settlement era ended, the area’s road system continued to mostly consist of dirt roads. Even most streets in town were dirt tracks. And that increasingly caused serious economic problems.

Mail carrier Ebinger

Mr. Ebinger, one of Oswego’s rural mail carriers near the turn of the 20th Century, pauses in town after making his run on his mail route’s muddy roads. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 21, 1881: “The roads out in the country are almost impassable. The mud goes to the wheel hubs.”

The bad roads had both negative economic and sociological effects on county residents. During certain parts of the year, bad roads almost completely isolated farmsteads in some parts of the county. That not only prevented farmers from marketing their livestock and grain, but also cut merchants off from the business farmers gave them.

As the Joliet News reported in March 1890: “The farmers of Will and Kendall counties are just now realizing what public road economy means. Only those living on gravel roads have been in Joliet since before Christmas. Hay, butter, eggs, poultry, and onions have been commanding good prices in this market, and just a few farmers could avail themselves of this condition. The buyer and seller might as well be a thousand miles apart.”

Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. As noted above, the system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of autos and (as they were called at the time) auto trucks, traveled roads, the system was breaking down.

The financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated townships. Road mileage might be the same as in heavily populated townships, but more taxpayers helped shoulder the burden.

1910 (abt) Main St car NB B&W

About 1910, an auto drives north on dusty Main Street, Oswego. Dirt-surfaced roads were the rule in town as well as in the country of that era. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. As soon as the state became involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques and better road design. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was that it was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on a dirt road.

During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White Motor Company trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces. They averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than 6 miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (9 miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about 7 mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.

So if those driving autos as well as commercial trucks could save so much gasoline, state officials figured, part of that savings could be used to build roads with better surfaces. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, over hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. In the event, auto taxes were figured not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.

Lincoln Highway badge

The private Lincoln Highway Association promoted the first coast-to-coast improved highway that was marked with these red, white, and blue badges.

With the advocacy of several groups, including the Kendall County Automobile Club (formed at Plano in 1911), and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of today’s Edens Expressway in Cook County), a statewide organization was formed to lobby for hard roads and to draw up specifications for them.

Edens, a born organizer, started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new free delivery system. Leaving government he became a successful Chicago banker, active in Chicago’s social and political scene.

Edens, with the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, including the association’s first convention in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.

Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.

The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission, use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the system.

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, (sounding not unlike the Joliet News of 1890) contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that it was entirely clear sailing. Township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Unsurprisingly, farmers protested the cost and wondered whether better roads would benefit them, but skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Most decisively, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, tipping the balance in favor of support.

Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.

1915 abt Rt 25 at BH

The stretch of modern Ill. Route 25 from the Kane County line south to Oswego was laid down as a concrete demonstration roadway before World War I, the first hard road in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating the first county superintendent of highways. John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, was appointed in Kendall County. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907.

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan. A short stretch of 15-foot wide concrete roadway—today’s Ill. Route 25—snaked along the east bank of the Fox River south of Montgomery from the Kane County line past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another stretch was built from Yorkville on Van Emmon Road to it’s junction with modern Ill. Route 71. But without a plan to link these isolated stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately pushed the good roads program begun by Gov. Dunne. “Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden told the General Assembly in January 1917, “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped Edens to organize the new statewide good roads effort. Active members of the association in Kendall County included George Faxon of Plano and Dr. McClelland of Yorkville.

Unfortunately, just as pressure mounted for good roads, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure easily passed. The vote in Kendall County was an overwhelming 1,532 to 90.

The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.

The plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. It was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville, across the Fox River to Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small was elected over Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side—not the east side—of the Fox River as an extension of Aurora’s River Street, past the Montgomery sheep yards, and across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy mainline at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district a block or two to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west. Paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in Yorkville and Oswego.

1924 Building Route 18 at Oswego Bridge

Pouring the intersection at modern Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego at the west end of the Oswego bridge across the Fox River in 1924. Photo by Dwight Young in the collections of the Little White School Museum.

The route, the Kendall County Record charged in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use those two sections of concrete road already laid in the county. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB& Q mainline was required at the Wormley crossing.

“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall complained on Jan. 26, 1921.

Local consensus was that the new route was picked to cater to the meatpacking and other commercial interests of Aurora and Chicago with a direct route favored rather than one that connected local communities.

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete pavement had been poured through Oswego to Plano and was curing.

1910 Rt. 25 Waubonsie Bridge

The old iron truss bridge across Waubonsie Creek on today’s Ill. Route 25 was replaced with a concrete bridge in 1924 when the concrete road from Aurora to downtown Oswego was completed. The old bridge was moved downstream to cross the creek at Pearce Cemetery. Little White School Museum collection.

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the 1915 concrete section of today’s Ill. Route 25 with the Route 18 concrete spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July the state built a new concrete bridge across Waubonsie Creek, and the old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December 1924.

The section of modern Route 34 from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, the road was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway, today’s U.S. Route 30, and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

1936 34-30 overpass

The U.S. Route 30-U.S. Route 34 overpass east of Oswego under construction in the summer of 1936. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads.

Meanwhile, out in the county’s rural areas, state and federal funds paid for a variety of road surface improvements and new bridges. And gradually, even totally rural areas like NaAuSay Township were pulled out of the mud.

But gravel roads, too, had their drawbacks, including high maintenance costs as well as draining motorists’ gas mileage and increasing vehicle maintenance costs. So township road commissioners and the county highway department began hard-surfacing rural roads, first with tar and chip and then asphalt to create smooth, all-weather surfaces. These days, Bristol and Oswego townships have no gravel roads at all, and with NaAuSay’s recent announcement, there are none left there, either. The county’s other townships all have a few gravel roads left, but they’re disappearing as the county’s population continues to grow, and its former corn and soybean fields grow increasing numbers of houses instead of crops.

Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone a century ago could have conceived, we’re still trying to figure out how to maintain a transportation infrastructure that will be of the most value to all area residents.

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

We’re here!

Well, we made it.

The final move from the old Matile Manse to the new Matile Manse was accomplished on July 23, thanks to work by Two Men and a Truck, my two energetic kids, and us two decrepit oldsters. The Metronet guys arrived on schedule to switch our broadband, landline, and cable TV service from across the street, so by the night of July 23 we were able to sleep in our own bed.

A week later, we’re now starting to finally settle into our new house. And it’s new in more ways than one. My great grandparents built the old Matile Manse in 1908 as their retirement home after turning their farming operation over to their sons. They lived in their new house for 35 years before their deaths a few months apart during World War II. So my wife and I beat their tenure by seven years with our 42 years of occupancy.

Now my son and his wife are moving into the old home place to carry on the family tradition.

1859 Oswego & Troy

The industrial suburb of Troy, just north of Oswego as it appeared in 1859. Each black dot represents a structure.

The story of our neighborhood down here on North Adams Street in the old Village of Troy starts back in the 1830s. In 1836, Merritt Clark arrived in the Oswego area and built a corn mill on the west bank of the Fox River, about three-quarters of a mile north of Oswego, which had been laid out in 1834 by Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold. Judson and Arnold called their village Hudson, but it was renamed Oswego in 1837 when postal service began.

Levi Gorton and William Wormley built a dam across the Fox River at Clark’s mill site that same year to provide waterpower, and Clark reportedly added a chair factory to his corn milling operation. Later that same year, however, Clark apparently sold his business, including the mill and dam, to Levi Gorton and his brother, Darwin. The Gortons, apparently unsatisfied with Clark’s rudimentary mill, started construction that year—1837— of a grist mill on the same site. The new mill was ready for operation the following year.

Sometime prior to 1840, the Gortons sold their mill and dam to Nathaniel A. Rising. Rising and his partner, John Robinson, added a store to the grist mill and continued the business the Gortons had founded.

In 1848, Rising and Robinson decided to plat a new village around their mill and dam. Robinson apparently died that year, however, so Rising worked with Zelolus E. Bell, who was acting on behalf of the estate of the now-deceased Robinson, to officially lay out the new Town of Troy on several acres at the east end of the mill dam. The official plat of the new village was recorded on June 24, 1848 at the Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego.

The new village almost, but not quite, adjoined the 15-block Loucks Addition to the north of the original village of Oswego, platted by Walter Loucks in 1842.

1870 Oswego & Troy

By 1870 when this map was published, Troy had fewer buildings and wasn’t even denoted with it’s own name on the map.

As laid out, Troy was bounded by Summit Street (now Ill. Route 25) to the east and the Fox River to the west. As originally numbered, the village consisted of Blocks 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 18, 19, 20, and 21. What happened to blocks 1 through 4, 8, and 11-17 has been lost in the mists of local history.

Summit and Water streets ran parallel to the riverbank, while (listed from north to south) First, Second, Main, and Third streets were platted perpendicular to the other two streets.

Rising and Bell added a sawmill at the east end of their dam to compliment the west bank gristmill, as well as a store on the gristmill site. But they didn’t operate the business very long because in 1852 they sold the mills, dam, store and all other parts of Troy that remained unsold to William O. Parker, a Canadian immigrant.

When the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was built from Streator through Ottawa and up the east bank of the Fox River through Yorkville and Oswego to Geneva, its route passed through the village of Troy, turning it into a sort of industrial suburb of Oswego. With rail service handy, the Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting operation above Parker’s dam. The business eventually comprised 14 gigantic ice houses that were filled each winter with 200 lb. blocks of ice insulated with sawdust from Parker’s sawmill and the furniture factory he had added there about 1870.

1890 abt Ice Houses

This early 1890s snapshot by Irvin Haines gives some perspective on just how massive the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice houses were. (Little White School Museum collection)

The ice business was huge, with up to 75 men hired each winter to cut and store thousands of tons of blocks of ice in the icehouses. As an indication of how big the business was, the railroad built a siding to handle all the rail cars used for ice shipments. In August 1880, Esch Brothers & Rabe shipped 124 rail car loads of ice from their Oswego operation.

When my great-great grandparents moved to a small house on Lot 1, Block 10 of Troy about 1870, the little community’s boom was just beginning. My great-great grandmother earned money weaving rag rugs as well as renting beds—not rooms, but beds—to railroad, and later ice company, workers, while my great-great grandfather worked for the railroad or doing whatever he could to earn a few dollars.

One of their daughters, Annalydia–called Annie by the family–married Edward Haines and the couple built a small house at the corner of Water and Second streets where they raised their family.

1900 abt Parker Mills

The Parker gristmill (left, rear) and sawmill and furniture factory (right) as they looked near the turn of the 20th Century. The house at left foreground was moved farther to the left in 1908 to make room for Amelia and John Peter Lantz’s new Queen Anne-style home.

So when another of their daughters, Amelia, and her husband John Peter Lantz decided to retire from farming in 1908, it was not surprising they decided to have their retirement home built in Troy. They chose to build the house on Lot 8 in Block 9. In order to do so, they moved the small house already on the property over to Lot 7 and turned it into a town barn to house their milk cow, driving horse, and chickens, adding a carriage shed to the north side. And to do the building, they chose their nephew, Annie and Edward Haines’ son, Irvin, one of Oswego’s better-known carpenters.

By that time, the ice industry was long gone, killed by a combination of horrific pollution of the Fox River and the development of economical mechanical ice production. The sawmill and furniture factory, after its heyday in the 1880s churning out walnut furniture, closed, as did the gristmill on the west end of the dam when it was replaced by steam-powered mills that didn’t depend on the vagaries of river water levels. The sawmill burned a few years before Amelia and John Peter built their new house. The gristmill remained a landmark until it was dismantled in the 1920s and its timbers used to add onto the old stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge to create Turtle Rock Inn.

Matile Manse

The old Matile Manse, now turned over to another generation to treasure.

Meanwhile, the streets and blocks and lots Rising and Bell platted 170 years ago last month still survived, though mostly on old maps. Second Street still connected Summit Street–today’s Ill. Route 25–with Water Street–today’s North Adams Street. But the rest of the village platted in 1848 remains a ghostly grid. And then in the 1990s, Oswego offered to annex old Troy, and residents along North Adams Street agreed that would be a good idea.

As the decades passed, the family-owned property here in the old Village of Troy was sold off, but Amelia and John Peter’s home stayed in the family, owned by their daughter and husband—my grandparents—and then my parents before my wife and I bought it in 1976. Now it’s going to go to one more generation—the fifth—to enjoy its location and its sturdy construction for, hopefully, several more years.

IMG_1583.JPG

The new (as of July 23) Matile Manse as it looked a few Novembers ago.

Across the street from the old house were two vacant lots bordering the Fox River where my uncle, when he and my aunt lived here in the 1940s and early 1950s, farmed. When we moved in from the farm, those lots turned into the neighborhood baseball diamond, go-cart track, fishing hole, and river scow dock that provided thousands of hours of entertainment for the gang of Baby Boomers growing up on North Adams Street in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then in 1984, my oldest sister, Eileen, decided to build her dream house on those two lots with their river frontage. She hired my best friend’s dad, Stan Young, to do the building using a plan she sketched out herself. She and her husband lived in the house through his death in 1998 and until she contracted multiple myeloma and was no longer able to care for her beloved home. In 2011, she sold the house to a young couple with two children, all of whom greatly enjoyed their place on the banks of the Fox River until they moved to Ohio due to a job change.

2018 7-30 View from History Central

The view from History Central this morning included the island just off our shoreline of which we are now reportedly part owners.

Which is where my wife and I came into the picture from our vantage point just across the street. And now here we are, having survived the move, though we’re still putting stuff away and looking for lost items (Where the heck are all the microfiber dust cloths? Has anybody seen the box with the bookends in it? Is my flintlock musket someplace where it won’t fall down and hurt somebody?). It’s a given we won’t be here for 42 years, but I do hope we’ll be able to pass this, our new house, down to one more generation.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History

Wheatland’s remarkable, scientific plowing match

The other day on Facebook, a guy got to wondering about an old sign he’d come across that advertised the Wheatland Plowing Match, which was once a big deal in eastern Wheatland and eastern Oswego townships here in northern Illinois.

Noting some of the information on the sign, he wondered: “Apparently plowing competitions were once a thing, but I am stumped as to how they incorporated a ‘ladies fair’ into such an event…:

To dig into this topic, we’ve got to go back in time to the region’s pioneer era. In the 1840s and 1850s, farming families from Scotland and Germany immigrated to the United States, and they wound up settling in northeastern Kendall and northwestern Will counties.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape in this Malcolm Rance snapshot of the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match, held that year on the John Hafenrichter farm, looks more like South Dakota than northern Illinois. By that hear, the match was one of the most popular agricultural events in the region. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Germans brought their rigorous work ethic to an area that was also being populated by their German-speaking cousins from the Pennsylvania Dutch region, who were arriving here in northern Illinois about the same time, and the two groups formed a cohesive German-speaking settlement that soon became known for its prosperous, well-run farms.

The Scots came seeking better, cheaper farmland than their thin-soiled rocky homeland, as well as more opportunity. Scotland was in the throes of a socio-economic revolution as large landowners forced farmers off their rented lands in an effort to maximize wool production. But Scotland’s loss was our gain, as dozens of skilled farmers decided to cross the Atlantic and try their luck with the rich prairie soil of Illinois.

The hardworking Germans and the canny Scots soon came to respect each other’s strong points. And the main strong point of the Scots farmers was their scientific approach to tilling the land.

Wheatland Plow Match Rumley Oil

The 1911 Plowing Match included plowing by farm tractors like this Rumely Oil Pull that would gradually supplant draft horses as the prime motive power for plowing. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the early years of the 19th century, the British Isles had become the center of an agricultural revolution, combining increasing mechanization with scientific techniques to increase the yield of both crops and livestock through genetic manipulation and land use practices. Farmers experimented with machines like seed drills, invented in the early 1700s, that proved superior to the old method of broadcast seeding and faster than planting individual seeds by hand. New plow designs were created, wet land was drained, crop rotation was analyzed and scientifically improved, and livestock breeding was placed on a scientific footing.

These techniques and more were brought to eastern Oswego and western Wheatland townships in the 1840s by Scots farming families with names like Patterson, Clow, Stewart, Ferguson, McMicken, and Harvey. By the 1870s, they were operating successful, growing farms and had also built churches and helped establish public schools they shared with their German-speaking neighbors.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This 1905 photo of the Wheatland Plowing Match grounds gives a flavor of the event’s popularity. (Little White School Museum collection)

In an effort to promote best practices in agriculture and to recognize those who were excelling, three prominent Scots and English farmers decided to use that idea to establish a new kind of farming festival. At the urging and invitation of James Patterson, Henry Massey and A.S. Thomas, a dozen farmers met at a one-room country school in Wheatland Township on July 15, 1877 and voted to establish what eventually became the Wheatland Plowing Association. The first competitive plowing match was set for Sept. 22 of that year on the farm of Alexander Brown.

The idea behind the match was to assess skill in plowing. Plowmen were to be judged on straightness, neatness, and evenness of their furrows. Depth of the furrow was to be no less than five inches and each plowman was required to plow a half-acre in no more than three and a half hours. The grand prize winner that year was James King, who took home the $15 prize. His descendants would continue to excel at the craft of plowing until the last match was held. Runners-up were John Thompson, Henry Westphal, Edward Green and Chris Catchpole, while the boys’ category winner was John Netley, who took home a neat $8—$187 in today’s dollars. The

1907 Wheatland Plowing Match ladied

My great-grandmother and my grandmother are both in this photo of the women who were tasked with preparing the noon meal at the 1906 Wheatland Plowing Match. The match had been held on their farm in 1895.

first match also reportedly had exhibits of farm implements displayed by local dealers, a feature that would grow during the next century.

By the next year, the plowing match had started to turn into an event whose size surprised everyone—perhaps even its creators. As the Sept. 26, 1878 Kendall County Record reported: “Saturday, Sept. 21st was the day advertised by the farmers of Wheatland township, Will county, (better known as Scotch settlement) for their annual plow trial. The trial was held on the farm of Robt. Clow Esq., about nine miles east of Oswego. To our great surprise the attendance was as large as the first day of the Will County Fair. A better show of plowmen and plowing would be hard to find. As the plowing progressed it was generally conceded that the Sulkies [riding plows] did better work than the Walking Plows, the work being side by side could be easily compared.”

And the Wheatland Plowing Match was off and running.

In those early years, the match was shared around the neighborhood, the neighborhood being the area along modern Ill. Route 59 from today’s White Eagle Club south to 127 Street, east to the DuPage River and west to the Kendall County line. And it didn’t take any time at all for the area’s German-speaking farmers to join in the event. After all, the Scots and Germans had already begun to intermarry, with, for instance, Minnigs, Lantzes and Schals marrying into the Patterson clan.

1939 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

Graeme Stewart competes in the Wheatland Plowing Match in this photo taken about 1940. By that time, horses had mostly supplanted horse-drawn plows. (Little White School Museum collection)

So by 1895, it was common for the match to be hosted by German farmers, including my Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandfather. The Record’s NaAuSay correspondent reported in the paper’s Sept. 25 edition that: “The plowing match at Wheatland on Saturday on the farm of Peter Lantz was a great attraction for farmers for many miles around. NaAuSay had a good share of its farmers there. It was estimated there was about nine to ten thousand people present.”

You read that right: nine to ten thousand attendees in the days of travel by horse and buggies.

1955 Wheatland Plowing Match

Aerial shot of the 1955 Wheatland Plowing Match in the late afternoon shows most of the spectators’ cars have left. Note the plowed strips at right where competition plowing was held. (Little White School Museum collection)

The plowing match became so much a part of the local farm calendar that other unrelated events were scheduled around it. Starting in 1933, for instance, my family simply stated the usual time for their annual family reunion would be the second Sunday after the plowing match.

The matches gradually grew in size, too, eventually incorporating such county fair-like attractions as baking and sewing contests. School kids submitted samples of their cursive handwriting for prizes and agricultural-based businesses flocked to set up booths to advertise their wares. My favorite was always the fire insurance booth that featured a miniature house that would catch fire after being struck by static electricity-generated “lightning.” The displays of the latest farm equipment offered irresistible opportunities for youngsters to climb on. I even took my first airplane ride at a Wheatland Plowing Match. We must have been 7 or 8 years old when my buddy Bob Chada and I were strapped into the front seat of Earl Matter’s bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub and were thrilled to see our farm neighborhood from the air.

1949 Roger at Plowing Match

The author test-drives a brand new International Harvester Farmall tractor at the 1949 Wheatland Plowing Match.

The matches were only interrupted by the two world wars, skipping one year for World War I and four years for World War II. With peace finally at hand, the Record’s Oswego correspondent gratefully wrote on Sept. 18, 1946: “Nearly everyone and his brother attended the Wheatland Plowing match on Saturday. The weather was perfect for the event and the crowd was very large and happy to meet after four long years.”

The plowing match continued to attract large crowds through the 1950s and 1960s, but then interest began to wane. Increased urbanization in DuPage and Will counties where the matches were held and decreasing numbers of farmers due to technological advances finally led to the event’s last hurrah in 1976.

Today, the Wheatland Plowing Match is but a footnote in our area’s agricultural history and traditions. But its one that left lasting memories for many of us and a lasting legacy of promoting the best scientific farming practices while providing a bit of rural entertainment for hardworking, innovative prairie farmers.

Note: If you’d like more information on the plowing match, the Wheatland Plow Match Association records from 1898 to 1978 are in the Regional History Center at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. The Naperville Heritage Association Library and Archives at the Naper Settlement also has a small, but nice collection of Wheatland Plowing Match memorabilia including several Wheatland Plowing Match Ladies’ Fair booklets from the 1890s and early 1900s.

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