Category Archives: Firearms

Will your Fourth of July be another noisy old-time Independence Day?

So what are you planning for this year’s Independence Day observance?

Around the Fox Valley, there is no lack of festivals, from old-time traditional ones like Yorkville’s, to slightly slicker ones like Aurora’s.

Independence Day has been a festive occasion ever since the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Not that those signing the document thought it, in and of itself, was such a big deal.

The actual legal separation of the 13 American colonies from Great Britain took place July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress formally voted to approve a resolution of independence. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to adopting the Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their momentous decision. The Declaration was written by a committee, with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the Declaration, finally approving it for publication on July 4.

The Continental Congress voted on independence from Britain on July 2, but didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence until July 4. Either could have been termed Independence Day, but the people chose July 4 as the day to celebrate.

John Adams, then serving in the Continental Congress, wrote to his wife Abigail on July 3 that he believed July 2 would go down in the nation’s history as a day of thanksgiving and celebration for generations to come. Predicted Adams: “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Well, he was close, but didn’t win the celebration prediction cigar. Instead of the vote to separate from Great Britain, the nation chose to celebrate the date Jefferson’s elegant prose comprising the Declaration was approved. But to give Adams his due, ever since, it really has been “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other.”

Our ancestors had a great time every July 4, both with formal celebrations, and until they were banned as too dangerous, by firing off “illuminations” in every back yard, often to the annoyance of the neighbors.

It wasn’t as if our ancestors were a staid and stolid bunch, as you quickly find out as you read accounts in the local papers. As in modern times, celebrations sometimes got out of hand, propelled and lubricated by alcohol.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in July 1869 that “Probably owing to the approach of the 4th, a good deal of hilarity, stimulated by whiskey and lager, has been manifested among a certain class during the week; on one occasion, a young man got his countenance disfigured, caused by bringing it in contact with another’s fist or boot. Some boys more patriotic than honest broke during last night a light out of Coffin’s store window, and stole some fire crackers. A large flag is suspended across the street from the Drug store to Coffin’s and the cannon is fired on the old National [hotel] lot.”

Which suggests that in 1869, Oswego had its very own cannon. Unfortunately, by the time I came along it was long gone, probably snapped up in a scrap metal drive or maybe sent up-river to Aurora to quell some civil disturbance and never returned.

Anyway, two years later the village cannon was still around because the Record reported from Oswego that “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The amount of the holiday’s hilarity continued to ebb and flow. The next year, 1872, the Record reported that “The quietest 4th ever experienced in the annals of Oswego was the one last week; the patriotic drunks were limited down to a very few.”

While some succeeding years featured ad hoc celebrations gotten together on the spur of the moment, other years were marked with elaborately planned events.

The Record reported on July 1, 1875 that Oswego residents were invited to participate in a community-wide celebration in Judson’s Grove, the area just north of the current Oswego Cemetery on the west side of South Main Street. Reported the Record: “On Saturday will be held the celebration of the Fourth of July in Judson’s Grove; the procession will form at 11 o’clock; the Rev. T.F. Jessup, of Kendall [Township], will be the principal orator, also Rev. Beans will make a short address. The proceedings will be enlivened at intervals by the band; and there will be singing; croquet playing will form part of the amusement, and there will be races. No popping of fireworks will be allowed on the grounds.”

But despite strictures like that, it was always the noise the holiday’s celebration generated that seemed to make people feel good on July 4. If it wasn’t firing cannons or firing off firecrackers, it was firing anvils.

The Record reported from Oswego on July 6, 1882, that “The glorious racket was commenced early this morning with thirteen anvils before sunrise; the weather was gloriously chilly; the Garfield pole was lowered yesterday, the rope adjusted and from it the glorious old flag is now waving.”

What, exactly, was firing an anvil? Well, it was a truly glorious way to make a heck of a racket without benefit of a canon that looked much like one of the experiments they used to conduct on The Discovery Channel’s old “Mythbusters” cable TV show.

Firing the anvil during a 19th Century July Fourth celebration.

Firing an anvil requires at least two large iron blacksmith anvils, one of which is placed upside down on the ground with its base facing up. The base, which is slightly concave, is filled level full or a bit higher, with black gunpowder, a fuse inserted, and the second anvil (called the flyer) is placed carefully, right side up, on the base. The fuse is lit and the resulting explosion can blow the flyer up to 250 feet into the air, depending on how much gunpowder can be loaded in the base anvil. Some guys, of course, thanks to the invention of electrical and duct tape have figured out how to double the gunpowder charge to get the flier’s altitude increased—because guys and blowing things up are just sort of natural companions.

This year’s Fourth of July will undoubtedly involve plenty of noisy and entertaining celebrations, not to mention the neighborhood explosions the local cops pledge to stop every year and which every year continue unabated.

But part of the annual fun of this particular holiday (as long as you don’t have to cope with pets who are terrified on the seemingly non-stop explosions) is realizing our great-great-grandparents could be just as whacky as we are today.

If you’d like to watch an actual anvil firing, go to this web address: and enjoy.

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Filed under entertainment, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego

Bonnie and Clyde and the big 1933 Plattville Armory heist

Although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets in the news, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. as reported to the FBI is actually down significantly from what it was 20 years ago. The caveat is, of course, that the murder rate during the Covid pandemic has gone up in certain areas, but overall violent crime has been on a steady decline.

According to the latest statistics compiled and released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 1991, there were an average of 758.2 violent crimes committed for every 100,000 people in the U.S. In 2019, the last year for which statistics have been compiles, there were an average of 366.7 violent crimes committed in the U.S. for every 100,000 residents.

The reasons for the steady decrease in violent crime seem to be many and controversial. One of the most interesting is the theory that lead levels in the atmosphere all over the country due to lead in gasoline was responsible for the crime increase to begin with. The decline in crime began a few years after leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S.

The folks over at Wikipedia have a good, concise entry on the theory, the nut of the piece being: “Individuals exposed to lead at young ages are more vulnerable to learning disabilities, decreased I.Q., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and problems with impulse control, all of which may be negatively impacting decision making and leading to the commission of more crimes as these children reach adulthood, especially violent crimes. No safe level of lead in the human bloodstream exists given that any amount can contribute to deleterious health issues.”

Not that leaded gasoline was responsible for all the nation’s past crimes, of course. One of the worst crime waves to strike the country took place in the 1920s and 1930s as well-armed gangs used the new mobility conferred by a combination of fast, dependable automobiles and ever-better roads robbed banks, businesses, and even individuals all over the country.

John Dillinger and his gang were not unfamiliar with Kendall County. One of his henchmen was secretly buried just outside Oswego after he was shot during a Minnesota robbery attempt.

Here in Kendall County, for instance, back in November 1933, Oswego dentist Dr. Sheldon Bell and his wife were motoring along what is today U.S. Route 30 between Plainfield and Aurora when a pair of road agents held them up. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 8: “Dr. Sheldon F. Bell was one of the victims of the bandits during the 10 holdups in Kane and Kendall counties on Wednesday evening, Nov. 1. He was robbed of about seventeen dollars on Route 22 near Normantown. Dr. Bell was accompanied by his wife, who was not molested. All the robbers wanted was money, rejecting the bill fold and the papers it contained.”

Previously, Kendall County had suffered a plague of bank robberies, thefts, and bootlegging that was all reported in the local press, a situation that would continue until World War II calmed things down considerably. The Dillinger and Ma Barker gangs frequented the area and Al Capone’s illegal bootlegging operations favored our mostly rural county, even after Prohibition ended. One of John Dillinger’s gang, killed in a shootout in Minnesota, was even secretly buried by the gang just outside Oswego.

During that era, local law enforcement, especially in rural areas, was spotty to nonexistent. The Illinois State Police had been established in 1922 with eight officers using World War I surplus motorcycles to enforce state traffic laws, but even 10 years later, confronting organized, well-armed gangs was mostly beyond their capabilities. In October 1929, for instance, a criminal gang cut the telephone wires into and then blocked the roads into and out of the small Kendall County hamlet of Millbrook while they blew the safe in the Millbrook Bank, getting away with several hundred dollars. The situation was so bad that the Illinois Bankers Association established their own corps of bank guards.

While that and a lot of other truly fascinating local historical crime stories came out of that era, one of the most interesting really didn’t come to light until the dawn of the 21st Century, several decades after it occurred. Interestingly enough, the incident happened the same year Dr. Bell and his wife were held up.

It started this way: During the night of April 19, 1933, someone broke into the Illinois National Guard Armory in the tiny unincorporated Kendall County community of Plattville. Local, state, and national law enforcement and military officials were alarmed because taken was a virtual armory of four Browning Automatic Rifles (nicknamed with its initials, the BAR), along with 11 Colt M1911 .45 cal. automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.

Officers of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard based at Plattville in Kendall County. The photo was taken, about 1933 during summer drill at Camp Grant near Rockford. Capt. Charles G. “Timmie” Howell is second from left. (Little White School Museum collection)

The semi-automatic pistols, the standard .45 cal. U.S. Army sidearm, featured a 9-round box magazine, were heavy, rugged, and extremely dependable. The BARs were powerful, fully automatic weapons that served the U.S. Army as well as the National Guard as their standard squad automatic weapon. Each eight-man squad was generally equipped with one BAR to augment the firepower of the rest of the squad’s Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifles that were standard equipment during those pre-World War II days. Both the BAR and the Springfield rifles were chambered for the powerful .30-06 cartridge.

Plattville was the smallest community in the nation to boast its own National Guard Armory, the base for Company E of the 129th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The armory had been the brainchild of Kendall County resident Charles G. “Timmy” Howell, who commanded it, holding the rank of captain.

The armory was built with community donations and labor and through the pay it provided, Company E provided badly needed cash for more than 100 young men, mostly farm boys, during the dark years of the Great Depression. It also provided valuable training for those young men, most of whom would go on to fight their way through the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific during World War II.

But given its location in a sleepy farming community, the security provided for Company E’s arms and ammunition was simply not up to the task of fending off the new breed of mobile criminals that had lately blossomed.

As soon as the theft was reported law enforcement and military officials alike, began worrying about who, exactly, had taken the guns and why.

Word got around via the neighborhood telegraph while officials did their best to downplay the theft. They did such a good job minimizing it, in fact, that 60 years later, no one had an inkling such a thing had ever happened. As an example, in an oddly naive, but apparently serious, comment, the editor of the Kendall County Record remarked in the paper’s May 3 edition: “Hope the person who stole the four [BARs] from the armory is honest; we’d hate to face these guns in the hands of a crook.”

We can only hope he was prepared to be disappointed, because after a spectacular July 20 shootout between the notorious Barrow Gang—the Bonnie and Clyde and associates made so famous in subsequent movies—and law enforcement officers just outside Kansas City, Mo., some of the BARs and pistols were recovered from the motel rooms the gang had occupied.

The Barrow Gang, made famous to a new generation in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” was one of the most violent of the criminal groups afflicting the Midwest during the lawless 1920s and 1930s.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow pose with one of Clyde’s beloved V-8 Ford automobiles in this colorized photo of the pair.

Clyde Barrow was the leader of the gang, with his girlfriend Bonnie Parker (Parker was married to another man who was in jail at the time). Besides Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s brother, Melvin “Buck” Parker, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, along with C.W. Jones comprised the most consistent members of the gang. They were occasionally joined by Henry Methvin, Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, and Ralph Fults.

Although the gang garnered a lot of attention thanks to Bonnie and Clyde’s knack for publicizing themselves, they were mostly notable for the short period of time during which they were active, a period that only ran from 1932 to 1934, not to mention their extreme violence.

Early on, the gang primarily engaged in small business hold-ups, but then decided to add bank robbery to their repertoire. The Barrow Gang was notorious among law enforcement for its ferocious counter-attacks whenever confronted by authorities. The BAR was Clyde Barrow’s weapon of choice, something that easily out-gunned the revolvers and shotguns of most lawmen of the era. Although limited to 20-round detachable magazines, the BAR on full automatic could fire more than 500 rounds a minute. John Browning invented the weapon for U.S. troops during World War I, where it proved extremely effective, with its relatively light weight, mobility, high rate of fire, and long range—the BAR was accurate up to 1,500 yards and had a maximum range of nearly three miles. It could also be loaded with armor-piercing rounds, something else Barrow favored.

The automatic weapon with which most law enforcement agencies of the era were armed was the Thompson Submachine Gun—the famed Tommy Gun. The Thompson, however, while having a faster rate of fire than the BAR, fired the same cartridge as the .45 cal. pistol, and had an effective range of only 170 yards or so.

On April 13, 1933, when police officers raided the apartment in Joplin, Mo., where Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and W.D. Jones were hiding out after a four-month crime spree, they thought they were raiding a bootlegging operation, which is what suspicious neighbors had reported. But when they confronted the gang, the police were caught by surprise as the Barrow gang opened up with a vicious barrage of automatic weapons fire, killing Constable John Harryman and police officer Harry McGinnis. Although the gang escaped, they were forced by the gunfight to leave most of their belongings and weapons behind.

U.S. Army soldier displays his Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) while serving in France in 1918. Gangster Clyde Barrow favored the BAR for its rate of fire and power.

Six days later, the Platteville National Guard Armory was raided and the four BARs, 11 Colt .45 automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were stolen. A week or so later, the gang hit a bank in Indiana.

During the next two and a half months, the Barrow Gang continued its wide-ranging campaign of lawlessness in Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri as they sped from crime scene to crime scene using the Ford V-8 autos Clyde favored.

In 1934, in fact, Clyde (who had worked as a mechanic before taking up outlawry) wrote to Henry Ford congratulating him on his Ford autos and their V-8 engines: “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8.”

On July 20, 1933, the gang decided to find someplace to lay low, choosing the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte County, Mo., just outside Kansas City. But their suspicious behavior caused people in the neighborhood to call the authorities.

Colt Arms’ .45 cal. semi-automatic pistol was the standard U.S. Army sidearm for most of the 20th Century. It was favored by gangsters because it was rugged, dependable, and fired a heavy round of ammunition.

This time the police showed up in force armed with submachine guns, a car that had been armored, plus a mobile plate steel bulletproof shield. The armored sedan pulled up to block the garage door behind which the gang’s car was parked, and Sheriff Holt Coffee rapped on the door of one of the two tourist cabins the gang occupied, demanding they come out. No dummy, he immediately ducked behind the steel shield.

Clyde, Buck, and Jones instantly replied with a withering fusillade of BAR fire, literally driving Coffee’s heavy steel shield backwards, although it proved proof against Clyde’s armor-piercing ammunition. The gang also shot up the armored car, this time their armor-piercing .30-06 rounds perforating the car’s light armor, and wounding the driver who backed up to get out of the line of fire, allowing the gang to escape. But both Buck and Blanche Barrow were seriously wounded. Amazingly, none of the dozens of spectators who had gathered to watch, nor any of the police officers were badly injured in the furious gun battle.

It took a while for the Feds to identify and trace all the weapons and other materials they found in the gang’s motel rooms, but on Oct. 19, 1933, FBI Agent J.J. Keating of the bureau’s Chicago office wrote to his superiors: “Will consult commander of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard, with respect to the loss of the Colt 45 pistols, and Browning automatic rifles mentioned in report of Special Agent Dwight Brantley, 9/1/33, Washington, D.C., and inform him that said firearms were taken from the Barrow gang and are in possession of the Kansas City office of this division.”

Presumably, the weapons were later returned to Company E and, hopefully, better secured from being pilfered by passing bandits. And there the matter largely rested until 2003 when Winston Ramsey, editor-in-chief of a World War II history magazine based in England, traveled to the U.S. while researching his book, On the Trail of Bonnie and Clyde Then and Now chronicling the days of Bonnie and Clyde, visiting places the notorious couple frequented during their crime spree.

Ramsey contacted reporter Tony Scott at the Kendall County Record concerning reports he had obtained that the Plattville Armory had been robbed of weapons and ammunition by Bonnie and Clyde, something that no one in the community recalled—or at least would admit to recalling. But then in 2011, Agent Keating’s letter became public, and Tony revisited the story in a couple articles. And by then I’d been working on transcribing the Record’s “Oswego” news columns, along with other news items that sounded interesting. One of those was the Record’s editor writing about the theft of weapons from the Plattville Armory in the paper’s April 26 edition and a follow-up the next week, May 3, 1933.

Granted, there’s no physical evidence the Barrow Gang were responsible for stealing the weapons from the Plattville Armory. And the question of how the gang would have known about the Plattville Armory still raises a few doubts.

But in the book Blanche Barrow wrote about her harrowing adventures with the gang, she said that Clyde and W.D. Jones robbed the Plattville Armory. At least three other books on the gang repeat the same story. And it is a fact that the FBI recovered many of the stolen weapons after the Red Crown shoot-out in Missouri, so the gang certainly had them in their possession.

The bullet-riddled Ford V-8 auto Clyde was driving when law enforcement officers ambushed Bonnie and Clyde in rural Louisiana is on exhibit in the casino at Whiskey Pete’s in Primm, Nevada.

Would the theft have made sense in terms of opportunity? The gang was in the Joplin, Mo. shootout on April 13, where they lost a lot of their arms and ammunition. They then attempted a bank robbery at the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana on May 12. The Plattville robbery took place the night of April 19-20, and Plattville is sort of right in between Joplin and that Indiana bank. Given Clyde’s love of long-distance high-speed driving taking random zigzag routes, it’s certainly possible—maybe even probable—Clyde and W.D. Jones really were the ones who stole all those weapons in the middle of his gang’s crime spree. Which leaves the question of how the gang knew about the Plattville Armory in the tiny rural community unanswered.

In any case, Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal spree came to a violent end a year later. On May 23, 1934, lawmen, taking no chances with the pair’s habit of replying with overwhelming firepower, set up an ambush in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and riddled Clyde’s car with more than 130 rounds of shotgun, rifle, and pistol fire, killing both of the outlaws. Federal authorities said the pair and their gang was responsible for at least 13 murders and robberies and burglaries too numerous to count.

In retrospect, local officials did a pretty good job consigning the Barrow Gang’s Plattville Armory robbery to the memory hole. But like most history, it eventually floated to the surface once again, assuring at least a footnote in the story of one of the most violent crime sprees the Midwest has ever seen.

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Filed under Crime, entertainment, Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation, travel

Two wars’ major effects on Kendall County history…

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.

2019 Museum Gallery

The Little White School Museum’s new core exhibit opened March 24, 2019.

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.

Blake, John

John Blake enlisted as a substitute for wealthy Kendall County farmer Sheldon Wheeler, and was paid more than $400 to take Wheeler’s place. Blake was one of more than 1,200 Kendall County men who served in the Civil War. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

1880 abt Depot

Oswego’s CB&Q Depot was built at Jackson and South Adams Street in 1870, along with three side tracks. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

1944 Young, Dwight Los Alamos, NM

Among those Oswegoans serving during World War II was Dwight Young, who became a nuclear physicist working on the Manhattan Project that produced the first atom bomb. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

1959 BH sign 2

The first family moved into their home at Boulder Hill in 1956. By 1958, there were 100 homes on “The Hill.” The subdivision’s population eventually reached more than 9,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

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The Black Hawk War: A conflict of deadly folly and miscalculation

Got a question after last week’s post about place names here in Kendall County, particularly one that a reader heard involved an Indian attack. As it turned out, there was such a thing and the reader’s question was about the Black Hawk War of 1832.

I’ve frequently written about the war over the years in my newspaper columns, but, as a quick search surprisingly showed, I’ve never done one about the war here at History on the Fox. Which is a bit odd, since the Black Hawk War was a truly pivotal event here in northern Illinois, one that ended up introducing the region–especially the Fox River Valley–to hundreds of people who eventually decided to join the rush to settle the prairies round hereabouts.

Black Hawk

Black Hawk, though not a chief of the Sauk Tribe, was a respected military leader who had successfully fought U.S. troops during the War of 1812.

If World War I was “The War to End All Wars,” then the Black Hawk War of 1832, the last war fought inside the bounds of Illinois, could fairly be characterized as “The Miscalculation Conflict.” Black Hawk, an elderly warrior of the Sauk Tribe, miscalculated when he thought he could lead more than 1,000 men, women, and children of his tribe across the Mississippi to live peacefully once again in Illinois. U.S. Army Gen. Henry Atkinson miscalculated his ability to control the impetuous Illinois governor, John Reynolds. Reynolds miscalculated when he thought he could stage a major coup by quickly attacking Black Hawk and ending the war to his own political advantage. And Illinois Militia Major Isaiah Stillman gravely miscalculated the military ability of his poorly organized and undisciplined troops to overawe, much less subdue, even a small group of armed Indians who knew what they were about.

The most immediate result of these miscalculations was the short, bloody Battle of Stillman’s Run on May 14, 1832 on what was then named Old Man’s Creek in western Illinois. After being attacked despite attempting to parlay under a flag of truce, about two dozen Sauk and Fox warriors under Black Hawk routed Stillman’s 240-man mounted militia battalion, killing 11 and sending the rest fleeing the battlefield in total panic. Maj. Stillman fled faster than most of his men, and the routed force spread panic all over frontier Illinois. In coming years, the name of Old Man’s Creek would be changed to Stillman’s Run in an ironic tip of the hat to Stillman’s tactics that day.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Waubonsee, chief of the Prairie Potawatomi in the Fox and Illinois River valleys, refused to join the war against American settlers prompted by Black Hawk’s move back into Illinois from Iowa.

While the battle had a bit of comic opera flavor, the aftermath did not. Following the battle, the U.S. Army and the state militia decided they faced all-out war. Meanwhile, Black Hawk and the other head men of his band decided that retreat back to the west bank of the Mississippi was the only sensible course open to them. Their supposed Indian allies—local Winnebago, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribal bands—and the British in Canada all made it plain they would not participate in a war against the might of the U.S. Government and the State of Illinois. Chief Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Potawatomi in northern Illinois flatly told Black Hawk that his people would not fight the whites no matter what.

Even so, Black Hawk’s stunning defeat of Stillman’s militia force did embolden some local Indians who used the confusion to settle personal scores. Waubonsee and Chief Shabbona both realized the dangers the situation created. Shabbona, an experienced military leader who had been a chief aide of the great Chief Tecumseh, decided he had to warn as many local settlers as he could to flee to somewhere safe. The old chief and his young nephew spread the alarm to the isolated settlements and homesteads that had begun springing up and down the Fox Valley.

Settlers during that era in what is now Kendall County (it was then part of LaSalle County) were not the hard-bitten frontiersmen normally associated with pioneer life. U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for widespread armed violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines wrote after doing a personal assessment. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

In fact, the settlers’ best mode of defense was to run away, which they did as quickly as possible. Settlers in the northern part of Kendall County fled to Walker’s Grove (now Plainfield), while those farther south got to Ottawa as quickly as possible.

Late in his life, Ansel Reed, who in 1832 was a young hired hand of Big Grove Township pioneer Moses Booth, recalled the fear and confusion the outbreak of war caused:

“In going to work in the afternoon I met two Frenchmen, halfbreeds, riding each a mare with a colt following. They said they lived in Kankakee and were going north for seed corn….They talked a little while longer, and passed on toward Newark….Mr. Booth came out and had made two or three turns to furrowing [plowing] out the potato land when the Frenchmen returned in a great fright and told Mr. Booth what they had seen. He sent them on to alarm Anthony Litsey and beckoned to me to hurry, saying as I came near, ‘I don’t know but we shall all be killed.'”

The Booth family joined with several others after arriving at the Rev. Stephen Beggs’ home, where they tore down some buildings and quickly threw up a rickety fortification they dubbed Fort Beggs. Some 125 thoroughly frightened settlers crowded into the improvised fort. Rev. Beggs later confirmed Gen. Gaines’ estimate of the pioneers’ defensive capabilities when wrote that the settlers had only four firearms among them and that “some of them” didn’t work.The settlers huddled in Fort Beggs eventually were escorted to Chicago by militia troops.

Indian Creek monument

The Indian Creek Massacre monument in Shabbona County Park near the Kendall-LaSalle County line, marks the deaths of 15 men, women, and children at the hands of Native Americans during the Black Hawk War of 1832.

On May 19, a group of men, among whom was Kendall County resident Daniel Kellogg, wrote from Ottawa to General Atkinson seeking immediate help: “To the commander in chief at Rock River we the undersigned having been Eye Witness to burning of houses destruction of property but as yet there has been no lives taken that we know, but there is some missing but where they are we don’t know. Therefore we wish to send to our relief two or Three Hundred men as soon as possible to Rendevous at Ottawa the mouth of Fox River Rapids Illinois Ottaway. “P.S. The above destruction of property and depredations were committed by the Indians but to what tribe they belong is uncertain. There has also been some men fired on and Chaced for Miles.”

South of the present boundary of Kendall County in LaSalle County, on Big Indian Creek, events of late May of 1832 moved towards the kind of bloody climax Kellogg and his frightened neighbors and friends predicted.

In 1830, William Davis and his family had moved to Illinois from West Virginia. With him had come his wife and six children. Davis settled on the north-northeast bank of Big Indian Creek in the southwest quarter of Section 2, Freedom Township (Township 35 north, Range 3 east), of LaSalle County. Davis and his family were among the first, if not actually the first, whites to settle on Big Indian Creek. Davis, a blacksmith, arrived on the creek in the spring of 1830, and built a cabin and a blacksmith shop. By 1832, he had completed a dam across the creek and a sawmill to service the settlers who were moving into the area along the Fox River.

A Potawatomi village was located about six miles upstream from Davis’s new dam and sawmill. The Indians living there depended on netting fish from the creek for a large proportion of their diet. Davis’s new dam cut off the upper portion of the creek from the fish in the Fox River, therefore damaging the spawning cycle of the fish, and cutting off a large portion of the Indians’ food supply.

When the Indians complained to Davis of this problem, they were contemptuously dismissed. Then in early May 1832, Davis caught Keewassee, a leading warrior from the Potawatomi village, trying to dismantle the dam. Davis severely beat the Indian, and Keewassee began plotting revenge against the white settlers.

As soon as word got around, about Stillman’s defeat, many private quarrels between Indians and whites violently broke into the open, including that between Keewassee and William Davis.

Several people, feeling there was safety in numbers, had gathered at the Davis claim for mutual defense. There was Davis, his wife, and his six children; Mr. and Mrs. William Hall and their six children; Mr. and Mrs. William Pettygrew and their two children; John H. Henderson; William Norris; and Henry George. Despite being strongly urged to take refuge at Ottawa where a fort was being constructed, the group fatally elected to stay at the Davis claim until the Indian trouble cleared up.

Late in the afternoon of May 21, most of the settlers were in or around the Davis cabin. Henderson and a number of the older boys, on the other hand, were working in the fields, while Norris was working in Davis’s blacksmith shop. At about 4:30 p.m., the settlers were shocked to see 20 Indians, painted for war and heavily armed, vault the fence about 10 yards from the house and run to attack the frightened whites.

Wrote 17 year old Rachel Hall:

“Mr. Pettygrew made an effort to shut the door of the house but was shot down in the act of doing so, and indiscriminate murder of all the persons in the house consisting of one man, to wit, Mr. Pettygrew, four women Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Pettygrew, Mrs. Hall (my mother) and Miss Davis about fifteen years of age and six children, four girls and two boys, and four men killed out of the house, Viz, Mr. Davis, Mr. Hall, William Norris and Henry George, in all fifteen persons, the whole scene transpired within ten minutes as I think.”

John Henderson, three Hall boys, and two Davis boys working in the field escaped. Rachel Hall and her sister Sylvia, 19, were taken captive by the war party.

While Henderson and the Hall boys made a panic-stricken run overland to Ottawa, the Indians took the two girls to Black Hawk’s band, despite the fact that only three of the raiding party were Sauks, the rest being Potawatomis.

Gaines, Gen. Edmund P

General Edmund P. Gaines commanded the Western Military Department–which included Illinois–during the Black Hawk War. Gaines was generally sympathetic to Native Americans and opposed President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies. Gaines expressed surprise at how unprepared the Illinois settlers of the 1830s were to defend themselves when war broke out.

As soon as word about the attack reached the authorities, action was taken to secure the return of the girls, including dispatching Chief Waubonsee on a mission to gain their release. His mission came to naught, however, as the girls had already been ransomed by the Winnebagos, who were trying their best to stay on the good side of the Americans in the midst of the war.

In an fascinating sidelight, shortly after the end of the Black Hawk war, warrants were issued at the courthouse in Ottawa for the arrest of Keewassee and two other Potowatomi warriors, Ta-qua- wee and Comee, for the murder of the settlers at the Davis cabin. Interestingly enough, charges were dropped against all three in 1834 because Sylvia and Rachel Hall could not positively identify the members of the war party.

Marauding groups of Indians prowled the valley. At Georgetown (now Newark), they looted and burned George Hollenback’s trading post. Robert Beresford (considered the county’s first permanent settler) and one of his sons were killed by Indians near Ottawa.

But all was not so grim—the war didn’t prove to be the sort of brutal, scorched earth Indian war we have heard so much about in American history. For instance, when William and Emily Harris left their Fox Township cabin to escape, Emily’s elderly father, Mr. Combs, helpless with rheumatism, requested he be left behind, saying he would only slow the rest of the family down. Since, he said, he had lived a full life, if he was to die, he was content to do so. But when the Indians discovered him in the Harris cabin ready to face his fate, he was carried, in his bed, out of the cabin, which was then burned. Other tribesmen made sure he was supplied with food and water before they left.

After a few other brief but violent incidents, the settlers slowly returned to their Fox Valley homes, spurred on by a cholera outbreak in Chicago. The U.S. Army had dispatched troops west to help fight the war, but along the way they’d contracted the deadly cholera. By the time they arrived at Chicago, the war’s action had moved west and north into modern Wisconsin, so the settlers remaining at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn decided that while Indians might kill them, cholera certainly would. Most quickly left to head back to their homes.

The Black Hawk War itself eventually ended when the bedraggled and starving Indians were trapped and most were massacred as they tried to cross the Mississippi during the Battle of the Bad Axe River in Wisconsin. Ironically, the war would have ended much sooner had the army had interpreters with them—Black Hawk’s tribesmen attempted to surrender several times but none of the whites in the army could understand them.

While the war was a terrible tragedy for the Indians involved and for the small number of whites killed, it did give many militia volunteers a chance to see the rich lands in the Fox Valley, spurring a flood of settlement to northern Illinois in 1833. It also marked the beginning of the end of Indian occupation of the Fox Valley, and by 1836, virtually all the region’s Native Americans had been forcibly removed west of the Mississippi River.

 

 

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When Kendall County Guardsmen policed the southern Illinois mine wars

Taylorville, in south-central Illinois, was in the news this past week after it got hit by a powerful tornado. And hearing about Taylorville on the news reminded me about the town’s old connection with Kendall County.

That relationship, memorable though brief, goes back to the 1930s, when there were problems—big problems—in the Illinois coalfields that surround Taylorville in Christian County.

The nation’s economic conditions, and it slipped into the Great Depression just kept getting worse. And then, in the midst of all the economic turmoil on July 9, 1932, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), under the leadership of the pugnacious John L. Lewis, made a deal with the owners of coal mines around Taylorville and other nearby towns. Negotiations on a new four-year contract championed by Lewis had been dragging on since the spring, and the miners were anxious to get back to work. But when the union and the companies finally settled and the miners found out the details of the agreement, they were outraged.

Lewis had agreed to a cut in the basic daily wage from $6.10 a day to just $5. Lewis insisted it was the best deal the miners could get considering the economic shape the country was in. His argument was that the companies were in danger of going broke altogether. Not surprisingly, however, the members’ vote on the new contract went down by more than 2-1.

But Lewis was determined to force the contract through, and he ordered UMWA District 12 President John H. Walker to sell the new contract to his angry members, while Lewis traveled through safer areas of the state to lobby for acceptance of the pact. When Walker spoke to miners at Gillespie, physical violence nearly broke out.

A second vote on the contract was held Aug. 6, and Lewis and his union officers announced it had passed. But before the vote could be certified, the tally sheets were said to have been stolen. A couple days later, Lewis ordered District 12 miners to accept the new contract. But rebellion was in the air.

1932 abt Police vs Miners

Local police and the state police were often hostile to organized labor during the southern Illinois mine wars. The Taylorville confrontations were unusual in that the United Mine Workers were allied with coal company owners against the new Progressive Miners of America. (minewar.org image)

On Aug. 14 in the Macoupin County mining community of Benld, miners met and voted to go to neighboring Taylorville and close down the Peabody Coal Company mine there—Taylorville’s miners had voted in favor of the contract and had gone back to work. By Aug. 19, a convoy of some 1,500 miners left for Taylorville where they successfully shut down the mine—the Christian County miners refused to cross their picket line.

Farther south in Illinois, the protests were not successful, resulting in the so-called “Battle of Mulkeytown,” in which five miners were injured by sheriff’s deputies.

In early September disaffected miners met at Gillespie and established a new union, the Progressive Miners of America, in direct opposition to Lewis’ UMWA. Christian County—and Taylorville—became the battlefield between the two sides. While the “Proggies” managed to negotiate a slightly better contract, Peabody officials refused to hire any PMA workers. In fact, PMA membership became a ticket to being fired in most mines.

1932 PMA rally

The upstart Progressive Miners of America tried to foil the United Mineworkers’ John L. Lewis and the coal companies’ efforts to cut miners’ pay. The companies and the UMWA responded with violence. (minewars.org image)

With this as a backdrop, in 1933, open warfare finally broke out between the PMA on one side and the mine owners and the UMWA on the other. A headline in the Taylorville Breeze on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 1933 reported: “4 Killed, 14 Shot in Mine Battle.” According to the news story, PMA opened fire on “scabs and special deputies” at Peabody’s Taylorville Mine No. 7. The report said the PMA miners opened up with rifles from “several homes,” and included machine gun fire from Freddie Bassana’s gas station (Bassana was subsequently charged with murder).

Clearly things were getting out of hand in Taylorville, so Gov. Henry Horner called out the Illinois National Guard. Initially, five infantry companies from Danville, Champagne, Springfield, and Salina were activated, along with a headquarters company from Sullivan to respond to Horner’s call.

1932 ING at Peabody Coal Company mine

The Illinois National Guard was dispatched to the Taylorville region in 1933 to maintain peace as the unions and companies fought each other over a new labor contract. (minewars.org image)

And ominously, on Jan. 7, 17 cases of explosives were reported stolen from a nearby mine.

Tensions went up further in February when National Guard cavalry from Chicago was stationed in Taylorville. The cavalrymen were generally well-to-do, and didn’t get along at all with the miners. By March 28, 10 miners had been killed and 100 wounded in the mine war. On April 3, a Baptist church in Taylorville was bombed, and a gun battle in Duquoin on April 7, left two Progressives dead. On April 13, perhaps thinking to cash in on the situation, Montgomery-Ward advertised a “Special Sale” on .22 cal. Rifles—just $3.41.

Then on May 13, the Breeze reported that the National Guard company from Kankakee that had been on duty at Taylorville was being replaced by Company E of the 129th Infantry, based in tiny Plattville, right here in Kendall County.

1935 abt Co E officers

Leadership of Company E, 129th Illinois National Guard Infantry, pictured about 1935 at Camp Grant, Illinois. Company commander Capt. Charles “Timmy” Howell is second from left; his son, Clyde, is on the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

The company had been established and accepted for service on July 16, 1923 with Capt. David Mewhirter, a World War I veteran, in command. In June 1928, Capt. Charles Howell succeeded Mewhirter. Howell was in command when the company was deployed to Taylorville.

On April 5, 1933, the Kendall County Record reported that “Capt. Charles Howell of Company E. Plattville, was in receipt Friday of orders for the men to be ready and fully equipped for service at Taylorville, the scene during many months of serious mine labor trouble and riots. When the orders for actual movement to the area will be received it cannot be foreseen, but farmers here are looking around for substitute hired men who can fill in during the Company’s absence Since the beginning of the disputes at Taylorville, national guard companies have been sent to the area in rotation for stated periods of time.”

1935 abt Stacked Springfields @ Camp Grant

Company E. Model 1903 Springfield rifles they carried while on duty at Taylorville, stacked outside the armory tent during their 1935 deployment to Camp Grant. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Daily Herald in nearby Morris reported on May 11 that: “A telephone message was received at midnight last night by Capt. Charles Howell in Plattville where the company quarters are located, to report for duty in Taylorville and the company of 60 men will leave for the trouble zone Saturday night by bus.”

According to the May 17, 1933 Kendall County Record, “Company E, 129th Infantry, left Yorkville Saturday night for Taylorville, where they will relieve the company from Kankakee and resume the guard of the mines. The company left in special buses. A truck carried the necessary equipment for the stay. The boys will return in two weeks. Their company is the last one in the district to be called. Capt. Charles F. Howell is in command. His lieutenants are Arthur Hubbard, first [lieutenant[; Irwin Knutson, second [lieutenant]; Rasmus Knutson, William Reed, Harvey Reed, Vernon Wright, Nels Nelson, Gordon Bertram, and Wilbert Henne, sergeants; and Harold Stein, mess sergeant.”

From both press reports and letters home, Company E did well. Years later, Clyde Howell, Capt. Howell’s son, recalled that “There were no problems when E Company was down there because they could read each other because everybody in E Company was a farmer. When you had somebody from Chicago, it wasn’t so good.”

On May 24, 1933, Capt. Howell wrote in a letter to the editor of the Record that “Taylorville is a very pretty town and the people treat us fine, but the small mining towns around are not so good. Fights are common afternoons and evenings.”

When Company E’s tour was up, the Guardsmen headed back to their homes, farms, and businesses in Kendall County. While it didn’t seem like much at the time, the experience they gained served several members of Company E in good stead some years later when World War II broke out. After it was nationalized, Company E and the rest of the 129th served in the Pacific Theatre throughout the war.

The boys from Kendall County made a good showing, both during their service during the mine war, and later on, during their actual combat against Japan. A pretty good showing for the farmers and small businessmen coming out of the nation’s smallest National Guard Armory. How tiny Plattville got a certified armory is a fascinating story in itself—but one for another time…

 

 

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Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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