I hadn’t really thought about the structure of Kendall County’s history–and that of Oswego, too–until we started working on developing the new core exhibit down at the Little White School Museum.
Back in 2017, the Oswegoland Heritage Association Board decided we needed to do a complete makeover of the permanent exhibit in the museum room. So we hired museum consultant Lance Tawzer to come in and help us figure out what to do. The first thing we learned is that our museum room was not a museum room, it was our museum gallery, which was cool. We also learned our permanent exhibit was not a permanent exhibit, but rather our museum’s core exhibit. “Permanent,” Lance explained, makes the statement that it’s never going to change while “core” establishes the idea that what is on exhibit there is really the basis for your whole interpretation of local history.
And, we also learned that what museums do is exhibit artifacts, photos, and documents, they don’t display them. An exhibit includes interpretation of whatever is being shown to the public—its history, who owned it, and why it’s important to whatever the museum is trying to explain to visitors. Antique shops have displays, museums shouldn’t—but unfortunately, all too many do.
Anyway, when we got to discussing how we wanted to organize the story of Oswego‘s history for the new core exhibit, it suddenly occurred to me that two of the nation’s major wars—the Civil War and World War II—not only had major effects on the entire community (not to mention the whole nation), but that they really divided local history into three convenient eras. Those would be the area’s prehistory and the settlement era to 1861 and the start of the Civil War; the post-Civil War era up to 1941 and the start of World War II; and, finally, the post-World War II era that drastically changed Oswego from a small, sleepy farm town into one of the fastest growing communities in the nation.
Since we’re observing Veterans’ Day this week, I thought it might be a good time to revisit the major impacts those two wars had on Kendall County as a whole, with the Oswego area seeing so much change.
White pioneers settled Kendall County starting in the late 1820s. By the late 1830s, the nine townships that would one day become Kendall County were split between Kane County (Oswego, Bristol, Little Rock) and LaSalle County (NaAuSay, Kendall, Fox, Big Grove, Seward, Lisbon). In 1840 there was sufficient support to create a new county out of those nine townships that petitions were entertained by the Illinois General Assembly to do just that. Kendall County was established by an act of the General Assembly in February 1841.
The new county, already growing quickly, experienced even faster growth. By 1860, its population had reached 13,074, up 69 percent from its 1850 population of 7,730. By 1860, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line had been running through the northern part of the county for just seven years, but it had already resulted in the creation of a fast-growing town, Plano, in Little Rock Township. Plano, in fact, was quickly becoming an industrial center as the Hollister brothers and others tinkered with machines like grain harvesters with a view towards manufacturing them, making use of the CB&Q’s rails to bring in raw materials and ship out finished goods.
Then in 1861, the Civil War broke out, and men and boys from all over Kendall County rushed to join the Union Army to fight against the South’s treason in defense of slavery. By the end of the war, 1,251 county residents, nearly 10 percent of the county’s total 1860 population, had served in the fight, first to preserve the Union against Southern treason and then to eliminate slavery. Of those who served, 247—20 percent—died. Of the one in five men and boys who marched off to war and who never came home, 70 were killed in action, seven died as Confederate prisoners of war, and the rest succumbed to disease and wounds.
The war may have ended in 1865, but it continued to have profound effects on those who served, the communities they came from, and the county as a whole. The overwhelmingly young group of men—some as young as 13—who marched bravely off to war were changed in ways they never expected and which those who were left at home had problems understanding. Some, who had been given great responsibilities leading large numbers of men as commissioned and non-commissioned officers found it difficult to return to menial jobs and to the back-breaking work that farming was in 1865. After spending up to four years of continuous travel sometimes punctuated by vicious combat, many found their horizons had shifted.
The Homestead Act of 1862 offered an outlet for these restless souls as did new opportunities available in the Reconstruction South.
The result was a sharp decline in Kendall County’s population. By 1870, the county’s population had dropped to 12,399, and it continued to steadily decline thereafter as whole families packed up and headed west or south. Oswego Township’s population followed the same trend. It didn’t exceed its 1860 population until 1950.
The completion of the Fox River Branch of the CB&Q in 1870, linking the railroad’s mainline with Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Ottawa, offered not only a way for people to get to Kendall County towns, but also a way for families to leave, drawn by cheap land in the West and the restlessness of so many former soldiers. Throughout those years, the families leaving the county for what they saw were greener pastures elsewhere were chronicled in the local press.
On Nov. 9, 1871, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a [rail] car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”
Most headed west, but some headed south. The Record reported from Oswego on June 26, 1873: “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”
As the years passed, larger groups were established to head west in company. On March 8, 1883, the Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported: “Clarence Shumway and Alfred Linegar left for Nebraska with their goods and stock–in carloads–last Wednesday. Mrs. Shumway and children followed some days afterwards. Today, Alfred Wormley will start for the same destination; August Schmidt for Dakota; and James Gannon to Iowa with the effects and others are getting ready for going west.”
The correspondent added, somewhat plaintively, “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”
By 1890, the county’s population had decreased to 12,106 and continued to drop until it hit its low point of 10,074 in 1920. Not until 1930 did the number finally begin inching up.
It was just in time for the major impact that World War II had on Kendall County. By 1940, the county’s population had risen to 11,105. Farming—the county’s main industry—was beginning to recover from its long depression that began as World War I ended. Meanwhile, county retail and other businesses were slowly digging their way out of the Great Depression that began in 1929.
With the outbreak of war on Dec. 7, 1941, Kendall’s young men (and this time young women) again flocked to the colors, enlisting and being drafted to serve in the military. Meanwhile, thousands of Kendall women joined the homefront workforce to labor in munitions and other manufacturing plants, take over the businesses their husbands had been running until they were drafted, and volunteer in local Red Cross and other support roles. A good example of the effect the war had on family-owned businesses is the story of Everett and Evelyn McKeown. The McKeowns bought Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home in 1938. When war broke out, Everett was drafted to serve as an Army medic. Evelyn, meanwhile, determined to continue running the funeral home on her own, but there was a problem—she had no mortician’s license. Luckily, Leonard Larson, who owned the Yorkville funeral home, stepped in and agreed to act as the business’s licenced mortician. Everett was wounded during the invasion of Normandy, evacuated to England, recovered, and was sent back to what was considered an area unlikely to see combat, only to end up smack dab in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He was mustered out, went back to Oswego, and took over running the funeral home business. And he and his wife adopted a daughter, which fit right in with what so many other male and female vets were doing as they all started new families.
The war was easily the greatest government program in the nation’s history, removing millions of men and women in prime working ages from the private workforce, resulting in increased wages for those remaining, providing new markets for farm products, and generally ending the financial pain of the Depression.
At the end of the war, all those young people came home to a country that was drastically changing as new, expanding businesses tried to keep pace with the demand for goods and services. Millions of young men and women married after the war, finding jobs in the factories springing up to supply goods for the pent-up demand created by the Depression and then four years of war and rationing. All those new families needed places to live, cars to drive, furniture and appliances for their new homes, and then schools for their children to attend.
Kendall County, located at the periphery of the Chicago Metro region began to grow as the war decade of the 1940s turned into the decade of growth in the 1950s. U.S. highways Route 30, Route 34, and Route 52 provided interstate and inter-region routes into the county as did state highways Routes 25, 71, 47, and 126. Decent transportation, land available for development, and nearby jobs began drawing thousands of residents to new housing developments epitomized by Don L. Dise’s sprawling Boulder Hill Subdivision in northern Oswego Township. Between 1950 and 1970, the county’s population doubled. It took it another 30 years to double again, reaching 54,550 by 2000, but just 10 years to more than double again to 114,736 in 2010.
Along the way, Oswego ceased being that sleepy little farm town and became a full-fledged suburb, growing from a little over 1,200 people in 1950 to 3,000 in 1980 before literally exploding to more than 35,000 today.
The negative impact of the Civil War on Kendall County is long past, but World War II’s effects continue. Aspects of that growth are seen as both negative and positive, sometimes both at the same time, by longtime and new residents alike. But while the effects of the two wars can be debated, it seems pretty clear they both had profound consequences that, in so many ways, are still being felt today.
And as we ponder those consequences this Veterans’ Day week, you’re invited to the annual “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, honoring those who’ve served, from the Civil War to the present day. Admission’s free; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. The exhibit will be available until Dec. 2, so you’ve got plenty of time to stop by.