Category Archives: Food

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Eight

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

2017 9-15 Flathead Lake

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

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

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

Bob and Roger

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

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

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

Jim & Pidge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Typical Polson espresso kiosk

A typical Polson espresso kiosk.

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

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

 

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Undaunted Courage 2017, Day One…

Today was the first day of our “Undaunted Courage Expedition, 2017,” and things went pretty good, all things considered.

We got a good early start, a healthy heaping breakfast at the Scottish Restaurant (known to some as McDonald’s) and then hit the road west.

We’re on the way to visit my Aunt Shirley in Salt Lake City, after which we’ll hang a right and drive up along the eastern slopes of the Rockies to Montana where we plan to visit Rob, someone I’ve known since first grade. Rob was one of five of us in our first grade class at Church School–so named because it was right across the road from the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church. We went through all 12 grades together before we graduated, he getting married and moving to Montana and me not only continuing to live in my home town, but spending all those years in the house I grew up in.

While we’re not Lewis and Clark nuts enough to actually follow their entire route from Hartford, Illinois up the Missouri River, we are paralleling parts of the explorers’ route, thus the title of this year’s trip. By the way, if you haven’t read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, you really need to–it’s truly spectacular.

Anyway, we were lucky enough to get to Iowa’s Amana Colonies right around lunch time, and so stopped at our favorite restaurant there, the Ronneburg in Amana, Can’t beat good German food, and the Ronneberg provides lots of it.

Runza

An original Runza with no fancy trimmings. The bread, by the way, is to die for.

Then it was back on the road to finish the first leg of the trip at Lincoln, Nebraska. Whenever we travel, we really enjoy experimenting with local specialties. In Iowa, it’s Maid-Rites or Canteens; in Kansas City, it’s (obviously) barbeque; down in our Illinois state capital, Springfield, it’s ponyshoes and horseshoes. We had no idea Nebraska had an actual ethnic treat, but they do and they’re called Runzas.

A Runza is a loose meat sandwich like a Maid-Rite or Canteen, except for some major differences. Runza fillings include not only ground beef with mild (but tasty!) spices, but they are cooked with shredded cabbage and onions. Then the loose meat mixture is served in a special bun that superficially resembles a hot dog roll, except it’s freshly baked at the restaurant.

2017 9-10 Runza

My cheeseburger Runza with a side of onion rings, which were hand-cut and lightly coated with a corn meal breading.

According to Wikapedia–which is never wrong, right?–the Runza sandwich originated in Russia during the 1800s and spread to Germany, probably brought home by descendants of the German farmers who were lured to Russia by Catherine the Great and who settled along the Volga River. It was then brought to the U.S. by Volga German immigrants as a favorite family dish. Then in 1948, Sally Everett opened the first Runza restaurant here in Lincoln, Nebraska. She began expanding outlets in 1966, and today there are 88 of them in Nebraska and neighboring states.

I ordered the cheeseburger Runza with fresh-cut onion rings, while Sue stuck with the original Runza and a side salad. The cheeseburger Runza is dressed not only with cheese, but also with mustard, ketchup, and pickles. They were both delicious, another tasty regional treat to add to my preferred list.

Because the Matiles travel on their stomachs. From Chesapeake Bay crab cakes to German delicacies  at Schmidt’s in Columbus, Ohio;  to Arthur Bryant’s barbecue in Kansas City to those Canteens in Ottumwa, Iowa, regional specialties really are the spice that makes travel in the U.S. so much fun.

Tomorrow, we hit the road to Laramie, Wyoming. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1958 Main St. East side

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

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

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

 

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Clarissa Stewart Hobson: A savvy, resolute pioneer wife and mother

March is Women’s History Month, and every year about this time I can’t help but think about the contributions women made to the settlement of Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

From Christiana Holmes Tillson, who drove in a carriage from Massachusetts to Illinois with her husband in the 1820s to Juliette Kinzie who traveled on horseback with her husband from Prairie du Chein to Chicago in 1830 to the women who came to the Fox River Valley that was then the western frontier later that same decade, it’s hard to deny these were a special, hardy group females.

Hobson, Clarissa

Clarissa Stewart Hobson about 1870

Of that group the one that always seems to stick in my mind is Clarissa Stewart Hobson, who followed her husband west and found herself in circumstances that were not only isolated and extremely lonely, but which could also be profoundly dangerous.

Clarissa Hobson’s husband, Bailey, had located the family in southern Ohio near the banks of the Ohio River. Hobson soon despaired of ever clearing the heavy forest on the land he’d claimed, and so decided to prospect farther west into Illinois, where he heard there was good prairie land that didn’t need to be cleared of trees.

In May 1830, Hobson left his family and his claim in Ohio for a prospecting trip west. As Richmond and Valette put it in their 1857 history of DuPage County, “Without arms amounting to more than a jack-knife, for defense, he mounted his horse, and destitute of chart or compass, groped his way, as best he could, through the dense forests and deep ravines, and forded the bridgeless waters that lay in his course.”

He roamed as far as the Fox River of Illinois, choosing a spot in what was then called Hollenback’s Grove, now the location of Newark in southwestern Kendall County.

Hobson didn’t get back from his prospecting trip until the first of July, when he began making arrangements to sell his Ohio claim, load up the family’s possessions in a wagon, and head west. The Hobsons, their five children, and Hobson’s friend and brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, weren’t ready to leave for their new home until Sept. 1, 1830.

Hobson seems to have been a determined person, but one without much common sense. Traveling so late in the season necessarily meant no crop could be planted upon arrival in time for it to be harvested and that virtually every bit of food the family would need would have to be purchased. Further, it also meant that only the rudest sort of cabin could be erected in the short period of time until winter struck the Illinois prairies. But he didn’t let those concerns bother him.

The family spent 21 days on the road before arriving at Hollenback’s Grove, where Hobson immediately set out to build a cabin to house the family and to sow a few acres of winter wheat on the adjacent prairie. The Hobsons finally moved into their cabin in October, but the lack of supplies was already becoming a problem. So Hobson mounted his horse and, leaving the family to fend for itself, rode east looking for some food to buy. He finally found someone with some preserved pork to sell out on the Oxbow Prairie near modern Magnolia, Illinois, about 60 miles southwest of Hollenback’s Grove.

Hobson, Bailey

Bailey Hobson, about 1845

Hobson returned home, but instead of immediately hitching up his yoke of oxen and going to get the pork to stave off the family’s looming lack of food, he decided to go prospecting for better land. Leaving his family at home again with Stewart, he rode across the prairie to the DuPage River, where on the east side of the stream he found the land he thought would be a better claim.

By that time, the weather was getting pretty cold. In fact, the winter of 1830-31 would become fabled in frontier tales as “The Winter of the Early Snow.”

After being gone five days, Hobson got back home, and again deciding against going and getting the pork he’d already purchased, he and Stewart instead set off for the new claim.

By then it was December and brutal winter weather was starting to set in. Reaching the DuPage, the oxen refused to cross the stream, which was covered with ice ice, so Hobson had to break it up by walking in front of the wagon leading the team. Almost as soon as they arrived, the first major snow of that long winter hit, driving the two men from their tent camp to find shelter with a nearby settler where they waited out the storm. Then they headed back across the prairie to rejoin the Hobson family.

At this late date we can only speculate what Clarissa Hobson was thinking as her footloose husband continually wandered around the countryside instead of going and getting food for his family, which was in increasingly dire straits as Hobson and Stewart finally straggled home across the snowy prairie tired, wet, cold, and hungry.

The initial snowstorm changed to rain, then again to snow, and more rain, and then the temperature plunged, freezing the prairie solid. When the storm passed, Hobson finally decided it was time to go to the Oxbow Prairie to get the pork, leaving Stewart to look after the family. He planned to be back in ten days, but in the end, it took more than 20 days for him to return, and that without the promised pork, which had to be left behind due to continual snowstorms.

At that point, the family’s prospects were REALLY bleak. They had been subsisting solely on corn for two months, and were rapidly running out of that. The only thing Hobson could think to do was take Stewart and go back for the load of pork, reasoning that maybe the two of them could get the food through the increasingly deep snow somehow or another.

According to the account of that harrowing winter Clarissa’s family gave to Richmond and Vallette for their 1857 history of DuPage County, she reluctantly agreed, “Brushing the tears from her face, and summoning all the courage and resolution she could command, entreated him to go and leave her to do the best she could.”

Hobson and Stewart took one yoke of oxen to break a trail through the deepening snow, leaving Clarissa and the children to look after 13 head of cattle and three horses and themselves.

I’ll let Richmond and Vallette tell Clarissa’s story from that point on:

On the second day after the departure of Messrs. Hobson and Stewart, it commenced snowing and continued without interruption for two days and nights, covering the earth upon a level, three feet deep. On the third day, just at sunrise, the wind began to blow with fury from the west, and continued like a hurricane, without cessation, for three days, sweeping the snow from the ground and piling it in drifts twenty, thirty, and even forty feet high, while the atmosphere was so thick with the driving snow, as almost to turn daylight into darkness.

On the first morning of the wind storm, Mrs. Hobson, taking a pail, went to a spring a few yards from the house for some water, but before reaching the house she was compelled to throw the water upon the ground and make all possible haste back. The children opened the door for her, which, being in the west side of the house, it required all their strength to close again. It was not opened again until after the storm had subsided. The snow, which was constantly driving into the house, supplied them with water; but who shall describe the feelings of that mother, as alone with her little ones, the days dragged wearily along, while her mind was filled with the most fearful apprehensions. Husband or brother she should in all probability see no more. Her children might perish in her sight, while a like fate awaited herself. It was, indeed, a severe trial of endurance, and needed all the fortitude of her soul to sustain such agonizing reflections while the raging storm swept around her solitary dwelling.

After the wind had ceased, Mrs. Hobson went out to look after the cattle and horses, but could discover nothing of them, and concluded they had been covered in the snow-drifts and perished. The day passed without any of them making their appearance. The next morning they all came around from the east side of the grove, whither they had fled and remained during the storm.

The fuel which had been prepared and put in the house was now exhausted, while that which had been left outside was embedded in a deep snow drift. The only alternative was to dig this wood out of the snow with a pick-ax, and Mrs. Hobson accordingly set about it, working and resting alternately, as her strength would permit. Weak and faint from hunger, and with hands frozen and blistered, she worked on day after day, unable to get out more wood than would barely serve from one day to another. A cow, that was accustomed to being fed at the door came into the house one day and seemed to reel, as if about to fall. Mrs. Hobson pushed her outside of the door, when she immediately fell dead. Fearing that the wolves, which were very plenty and hungry, would come to the door to feed upon the carcass, she covered it deep in the snow.

On the fourteenth day after his departure, Hobson returned with some provisions, leaving Stewart at Holderman’s grove with a part of the oxen that were unable to finish the trip. On his arrival, he found the wood which they had prepared, all consumed, and Mrs. Hobson tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for fuel.

Hobson, Clarissa Stewart

Clarissa Hobson, about 1880

The Hobsons were an extremely lucky family in that they survived “The Winter of the Deep Snow” with their lives, because so many other prairie settlers did not.

When Spring finally arrived, Hobson left Kendall County for good, and moved his family to their new claim on the DuPage where he built the gristmill that became the basis for his later fortune. There, Clarissa bore seven more children.

Hobson died in 1850, but Clarissa lived on at the claim the family moved to in 1831 for three more decades until her death in 1884 (outliving six of her children), her life a testament to the hardihood, resilience, and bravery of the women who pioneered the Illinois prairies alongside their husbands.

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Thank a Native American this month for all those corn fields

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

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

modern corn harvest

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

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

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

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

Ancient corn

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

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

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

cahokia-c

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stagecoach taverns spurred Kendall County’s growth

While Kendall County was home to several small motels during the 20th Century, the construction of larger facilities like Holiday and Hampton inns didn’t start until the last population surge in the 1990s.

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Oswego’s stately National Hotel (with pillars above) was the village’s premier hotel during its time as the Kendall County Seat. The National was destroyed by fire in February 1867. (Little White School Museum collection)

Time was, of course, every village in the county had at least one hotel, and sometimes more. Oswego, during the years it was the Kendall County Seat, had three hotels, the National Hotel, the Smith House, and the Kendall House.

Hotels and taverns were once vital to Kendall County’s growth—and by “tavern” I’m using the old definition of the word synonymous with inn. Today, a tavern is a place that sells alcoholic beverages, but in Kendall County of the 1820s and 1830s, taverns were places where weary travelers could rest for the evening, buy a meal while on the road, or both. In addition, taverns sometimes played the role of courthouse, church, and community meeting hall—not to mention polling place.

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The National wasn’t just a hotel; it was also a community meeting place. And when the county seat was moved to Oswego in 1845, the first term of the circuit court was held there. (Little White School Museum collection)

Typical stagecoach-era tavern fare for supper included bread, butter, potatoes and fried pork washed down by strong coffee, cider, wine, rum, brandy or whiskey. Breakfast was good old American bacon and eggs with corn bread and more coffee. Sleeping accommodations were generally in one large room—privacy was one of the casualties of travel in the 1830s—usually with more than one traveler per bed.

Lodging in the area west of Chicago often cost 12-1/2 cents a night, with 25 cents charged for combined supper and breakfast. Dinner—served at noon—was often 50 cents.

The county’s first inn was established on a road that was both old and new. In 1831, the High Prairie Trail from Chicago to Ottawa was laid out by state officials as both northern Illinois’ newest official road and one of its most established Indian trails. The road started at the shore of Lake Michigan near the muddy banks of the Chicago River and extended almost due west to the ford across the Des Plaines River—no bridges in those days, either—at modern Riverside. From there, the road headed west to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement at the DuPage River ford (now Naperville) before turning southwest towards Walker’s Grove—modern Plainfield. Leaving Plainfield, the trail passed into modern Kendall County, crossing the prairie to the tiny cluster of cabins at the southern-most point of a grove of towering black walnut trees before continuing on to Ottawa.

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John Short built and then operated the Bristol House for many years as both innkeeper and postmaster of the village of Bristol–now the north side of Yorkville. It was a typical example of a larger village stagecoach inn. (Engraving from an Ambrotype on Lyman Bennett’s 1859 map of Kendall County)

In 1826, Robert Beresford, his wife, and his two sons made a small, lonely claim on the verge of that walnut grove just east of the Fox River. It was the only farm on the 60 miles of prairie between Ottawa and Chicago. Within a year or so, three more families settled near the Beresfords. In 1828, Beresford sold his claim to John Dougherty and moved south to Ottawa—and civilization—but the area the county’s first pioneer settled remained known as “Beresford’s” for some years thereafter.

Abraham Holderman arrived in Kendall County about 1831, and quickly realized the possibilities offered by the grove Beresford had claimed. In succeeding years, he bought out most of the earliest settlers in an around the grove, which became forever after known as Holderman’s Grove. In addition, Holderman opened a small tavern to serve travelers on the Ottawa road.

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Daniel Platt replaced his first log tavern in 1842 with this substantial inn built with native limestone. (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1833, Daniel Platt and his wife arrived from New York State (his ancestors had founded Plattsburg), and quickly determined the road from Chicago to Ottawa offered commercial possibilities. The Platts purchased the claim of the Rev. William See, a Methodist minister who had staked out a claim at was called the Aux Sable Springs between Walker’s and Holderman’s groves. The artesian springs provided a ready source of pure water, and the Platts soon had a tavern up and running to serve travelers on Dr. John Temple’s new stagecoach line from Chicago to Ottawa.

That same year, the Hills brothers, Eben and Levi, and their families arrived and settled near Holderman’s claim. In 1835, Levi Hills rented Holderman’s tavern and 100 acres of land. He then re-let the land to another farmer and proceeded to use log rollers and yokes of oxen to move the log tavern up the road towards Platt’s tavern onto what was then bare prairie (another tavern-keeper began a new establishment at Holderman’s Grove). Today, the site Hills picked for the new location of his tavern is the village of Lisbon.

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Moses Inscho built this fine three-story brick stagecoach tavern on the Chicago to Galena Road in the Kendall County hamlet of Little Rock. It became known as the Buck Tavern after its best-known innkeeper, Ephraim Buck. (Author’s photo)

Other, less-busy, routes were also fodder for the tavern trade. In what would one day become Seward Township, Alanson Milks started a tavern about 1836 where the road between Joliet and Lisbon crossed Au Sable Creek. In 1839, Jacob Patrick arrived in Seward Township and purchased Milks’ tavern, renaming it the Patrick Stand. Shortly thereafter, John Case Stevens bought the business, and renamed it the Wolf Tavern, using a stuffed prairie wolf as his tavern sign to the bemusement of travelers.

In 1838, 20 year-old Decolia Towle arrived in Oswego and established a tavern on the bluff overlooking Waubonsie Creek about where the Oswego Public Library is located today. Towle and his first wife, Elizabeth, operated the tavern until her death in June 1842. Towle continued as an innkeeper until his own death in 1847.

Kendall County’s early taverns were sometimes the precursors to settlements that grew up around them—Platt’s and Hills’ taverns are good examples—and they provided the offices for the county’s first mail service. The county’s first post office, in fact, was established in Holderman’s tavern at Holderman’s Grove in April 1834.

The tavern business continued strong in Kendall County until the advent of railroads and the disappearance of stagecoaches started its decline in the early 1850s.

These days, we’ve seen history make one of its periodic circles as the importance of highway travel has once more made new hotels attractive business opportunities in Kendall County.

 

 

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At least Illinois will always have the cheeseburger…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graham farm scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus was born the all-American cheeseburger.

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

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

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

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

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

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