Category Archives: Fox River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1838 Old Galena Road red road

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

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

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

Mail carrier Ebinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

1910 (abt) Main St car NB B&W

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

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

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

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

Lincoln Highway badge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1915 abt Rt 25 at BH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1924 Building Route 18 at Oswego Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

1910 Rt. 25 Waubonsie Bridge

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

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

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

1936 34-30 overpass

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

3 Comments

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

Watching from my window as the Fox rolls by…

There’s no doubt the view out the window here at the new History Central beats the view out of old History Central, although my office space has shrunk by about two-thirds.

The window in my old office looked out onto an increasingly scraggly pine tree my great grandparents planted to provide a bit of shade for the cistern and well that were formerly located in back of the house they built in 1908. My parents eliminated the old cistern a few years after we moved to the house in 1954 by filling it in with gravel and dirt.

1815 Fox portage map

This 1815 map by Rene Paul of St. Louis illustrates the old portage to the upper Fox River from the Root River in Wisconsin (see top, just to left of center)

The well was likewise eliminated about 1960 when we found it had been polluted by septic field seepage from the new Cedar Glen Subdivision up the hill from our house. All the houses there were built outside Oswego’s village limits, and so were on well and septic. The leachate from all those septic fields seeped down through the sand and gravel on which Cedar Glen is built and contaminated all the wells in my folks’ neighborhood. Most of those wells were old and were shallow, hand-dug affairs. Ours was 14 feet deep, spring fed, and always had a foot and a half of water in it, no matter how hard the pump ran. It was delicious water, clear and cold, and registered as raw sewage when the county health department had it tested.

1838 Oswego 1838

The 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township shows Levi and Darwin Gorton’s gristmill and dam just north of the new Village of Oswego.

So my brother-in-law the well-driller moved his drill rig into the backyard in the summer of 1960 and drilled a new well, with an 8” casing driven down into the bedrock and sealed with a 6” casing inside it down to the soft water aquifer at about 200 feet. The space between the two pipes was filled with hydraulic cement to assure none of the polluted surface water could infiltrate. I got to dig the trench from the well to the house for the feed pipe, a couple feet wide and 5 feet deep, one of many ditches I dug for him that summer, something that suggested to me perhaps there were easier ways to make a living.

The old well was filled with gravel and sealed with concrete, and then my parents had a multi-level concrete patio area created atop both well and cistern that remained until we did a major patio renovation a few years ago.

The old pine tree survived all those trials and tribulations, although during the past 15 years or so, it’s begun to shed branches one at a time, branches that used to be festooned with our bird feeders during the winter. From my office window I could watch the birds and the squirrels that enjoyed the cover the old pine provided, and could, in the winter, at least, get a view up the hill to Ill. Route 25. As views went, it was mostly useful for figuring out whether it was raining or snowing—similar to my friend, Zael’s, state-of-the-art weather rock. If the rock is wet it’s raining; if it isn’t, it isn’t.

1900 abt Parker Mills

By the time Irvin Haines snapped this photo of the gristmill (background to the left) and the sawmill (right), both had been out of business for a few years and the dam was in very poor condition. Our new house would be located at the far left edge of this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

My new view looks out onto our backyard that slopes gently down to the riverbank and the channel between our island and the river’s main channel. It’s a spot on which I spent a lot of time as a kid, playing “Pop Up or Fly” or “Move-Up” with the neighborhood gang, and practicing with my bow and arrow and BB gun. The blob of concrete with a hand-forged U-bolt embedded in it that one of my long ago relatives poured on the limestone ledge making up the riverbank, and to which once I chained my river scow, is long gone, but the memories of those summers when so many hours were spent on the water are not.

Nor are the hours spent ice skating on the channel during the cold winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s when the river froze over from bank to bank. A fallen tree trunk along the riverbank offered a handy seat to change into skates for a glide downstream past the Lantz house to the Foose’s property. We’d clear a hockey rink on the ice down there for games improvised with sticks and anything solid for a puck. Also from there, a person could skate south all the way to the Route 34 bridge. Or I could skate north up the channel and carefully pick my way over a couple small riffles and patchy ice above Levi Gorton’s old dam for an early morning skate all the way north to Boulder Hill, accompanied by the echoing snaps and sharp cracks as the ice contracted in the frigid temperatures.

2018 8-8 Upstream to Gorton's dam

The view from our riverbank, upstream to the Gorton brothers’ dam site.

I’d always been fascinated with stories of the Native People that had lived here before the settlers. And it was even more interesting when I learned the French, all the way from Canada, would trade with local tribes for furs. So it was a big letdown when I finally determined the river had never been useful as a fur trade route.

The Fox varies considerably in depth depending on the season of the year. Often in the late summer, you can wade across the stretch I can see from my window without getting your shins wet. And, as it turns out, that extreme variability in depth made it unsuitable as a trade route for those hardy French voyageurs.

Click here for a map of the Fox River’s watershed

The river and its valley were carved out by a few tremendous glacial floods called torrents by geologists, and in a relatively short time, too. The sight of billions of gallons of water suddenly released as a huge glacial lake’s ice dam suddenly gave way must have been horribly spectacular as the water carved its way through the limestone and sandstone that underlay this area of northern Illinois.

2018 8-8 Donwn stream from Rising's mill

Standing on the foundation flagstones of Nathaniel Rising’s sawmill looking downstream. The river’s main channel is to the right.

The torrents left behind a slow-flowing, shallow river that varies in width considerably along its 223 mile length. In this, its middle section, the Fox is relatively wide, which means flooding is generally rare except above its low dams where the pools have filled with silt.

Three centuries ago, however, there were no dams on the Fox, but its depth still varied considerably with the season. In the autumn of 1698, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Jesuit missionary, was dispatched from Quebec to establish a mission among the Illinois Indians along the Mississippi and Illinois river. As St. Cosme’s party paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan they were advised of a possible shortcut. Writing back to his superiors, St. Cosme reported:

“Some savages had led us to hope that we could ascend this river and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [today’s Fox River; “Pesioui” meant buffalo] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river [Root] which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either, and that instead of shortening our journey we should have been obliged to go over forty leagues of portage roads; this compelled us to take the route by way of Chikagou which is distant about twenty leagues.”

Not that the good father probably found the Chicago-DesPlaines-Illinois river route any easier. During dry conditions, the Chicago portage could extend up to 60 miles.

The Root-Fox River portage route was fairly well known, and was marked on early maps, but it was never much used because of how shallow the Fox was over most of its length. It was bad enough when the fur trade was carried in the big birch bark canoes of the early years—those canoes, as big as they were, didn’t need much water float—but it got a lot worse early in the 19th Century when transport switched to Mackinac boats, which were heavier and required much deeper water.

So the Fox was never really used for transportation, although its course did tend to dictate where roads and, later, rail lines crossed. Oswego grew up where it did, in part, because of the high-quality ford across the river just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Less than a mile south of where I’m writing this, a hard limestone shelf scoured smooth by the ancient torrents and centuries of flowing river water, offered an excellent crossing that appealed first to the Native People who lived in the area, then to the first pioneers, and finally for the stagecoach road that crossed the river here.

2018 8-8 Dam timbers

Submerged timber frame members from the old dam are still visible just under the water.

The force of the river’s flow also provided power to operate the machinery of gristmills and sawmills. Damming the river to create hydraulic power began as soon as the very first settlers arrive, pioneer millwrights following immediately behind them. Just a few dozen yards upstream from where I’m sitting, Merritt Clark arrived in 1836 and opened a corn mill and chair factory over on the west bank of the river. Brothers Levi and Darwin Gorton built a better dam and a true gristmill a couple years later, which they sold to Nathaniel Rising and his partner, John Robinson. Although Robinson died soon after, Rising, and Robinson’s estate under the control of Zelotus E. Bell, added a sawmill here on the east bank of the river. You can still see the giant slabs of flagstone on both sides of the river that formed the mills’ foundations. And at low water, you can still see some of the old timber frame members that were part of the dam buried in the rocks and gravel.

So the view out of my window here at History Central has gotten a lot more historic, not to mention nostalgic, now that we’ve settled into our new digs. It’s even possible, I suppose, that the view will provide a little historical inspiration going forward. We shall see…

2 Comments

Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History

We’re here!

Well, we made it.

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

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

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

1859 Oswego & Troy

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

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

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

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

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

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

1870 Oswego & Troy

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

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

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

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

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

1890 abt Ice Houses

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

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

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

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

1900 abt Parker Mills

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

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

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

Matile Manse

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

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

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

IMG_1583.JPG

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

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

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

2018 7-30 View from History Central

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

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

1 Comment

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

Galena Road and its bridge are artifacts of the Fox Valley’s pioneer past

Busy Galena Road will be closed for a while this summer while contractors working for Kendall County replace the bridge across Blackberry Creek.

As it’s name suggests, Galena Road was one of the major routes to the lead mining region around the far northwestern Illinois boom town. Looking at a map, it might seem a bit odd to area residents that a road from Chicago to Galena headed west and a bit south from Chicago, then sharply dipped farther southwest across Blackberry Creek before finally turning northwest towards the lead mining region.

After all, why go southwest to get northwest? And therein lies a historical tale.

Galena Road

From the Aurora-Montgomery area, the old Chicago to Galena Road bent southwesterly to the ford across Blackberry Creek. The modern road still follows the same route.

Although the routes from Chicago to Ottawa were already major thoroughfares by the early 1830s, only sporadic—and difficult—travel was undertaken between Galena and Chicago. Granted, some commercial overland travel began as early as 1829, but there was no surveyed road until 1833.

Virtually all of Galena’s early transportation needs were met by steamboats and, much more laboriously, keelboats using the Mississippi River system. But shipping lead from the mines in the Galena region to market via the river system, and returning with food, clothing, and other necessities was an expensive and time-consuming process in those early years.

Galena 1840s

Galena, Illinois in the early 1840s was a bustling boom town built on lead mining. The illustration above shows lead smelters at work across the Galena River from the town.

Few steamboats of the era ran on regular schedules. Instead, they awaited full cargo holds and passenger cabins before sailing. In addition, low water levels, flood conditions, or winter ice could delay the shipment of goods, sometimes for months at a time. Keelboats were even worse in terms of time and expense. Although by the 1830s, steamboats were quickly replacing keelboats, they still made their slow ways up the Mississippi’s swift current.

Well aware of the limitations of river traffic, in August 1829 Galena businessman J.G. Stoddard decided to try to ship a ton and a half of lead overland from his growing, but relatively isolated, town to Chicago. On the return trip, the wagons would bring supplies Stoddard planned to sell to miners at a hefty profit. According to the Galena Advertiser of 1833, this was the first time an overland trip by wagon had been attempted from the Mississippi to Lake Michigan.

Milo M. Quaife, in Chicago Highways Old and New, reported that Stoddard’s wagons traveled overland using the following route, one that (with a few modifications) later became known as “The Southern Route” from Galena to Chicago: The route ran from Galena 80 miles south-southeast to Ogee’s (later Dixon’s) Ferry across the Rock River. After crossing the river, the route extended east-southeast 60 miles to the former site of the Fox River Mission on the Fox River, where the river was forded. From there, the wagons turned northeast to Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement and the DuPage River ford, and then across the prairie to Laughton’s tavern and store on the Des Plaines River—modern Riverside—for the final ford before the last leg to Chicago.

Ogee’s Ferry was named for Joseph Ogee, the first ferry operator at the ford across the Rock River. Ogee, a Canadian, was allowed by the Winnebagoes to begin ferry operations in 1828, just a year before Stoddard’s wagons passed. Ogee also established a store and post office at the ferry, which was on the main road from Galena to Peoria. The ferry, tavern, and post office operation was purchased by John Dixon in 1830. The city of Dixon now stands on the spot.

Walker, Jesse

Said to be an image of Methodist missionary and circuit riding preacher Jesse Walker. (Image via findagrave.com)

The Fox River Mission was established by the Rev. Jesse Walker on land purchased from the Potowatomi Tribe, on behalf of the Methodist Church, in Section 15 of Mission Township, LaSalle County (T35N, R5E). The purpose of the mission was to teach the local Native Americans a variety of skills, including farming, plus educating Native American children at a mission-run school.

Walker reported to the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church in 1825 that he had established the mission, after some confusion about the proper location, and that it included a large, two story house, built of hewn logs, measuring 50×30 feet. The house was divided into apartments for the mission staff (which mostly consisted of Walker’s extended family). The mission also included a blacksmith shop, a poultry house, a spring house and “other conveniences.”

Walker’s son-in-law, James Walker, came that same year and brought with him a horse-powered corn grinding mill. Soon after, however, James Walker moved on to a patch of timber on the DuPage River where he established a new settlement, first called Walker’s Grove, and later renamed Plainfield.

Jesse Walker reported that by 1826, the mission had 40 acres of land under cultivation, seven acres in pasture, and one acre planted in garden crops to provide food for the staff. The cost of the venture was $2,034, of which the U.S. Government had pledged to pay two-thirds since the mission staff promised to use their blacksmith to service the needs of the local Native Americans.

Although by the time Stoddard’s journey took place, the Fox River Mission had been abandoned by the Methodists, the buildings were then still standing, and would have provided some welcomed shelter after a lonely trip across the rolling Illinois prairie.

Further, it is likely the Stoddard party’s route was also planned to take advantage of an already-familiar trace across the prairie (possibly a branch of the Great Sauk Trail). Juliette Kinzie described virtually the same route Stoddard’s party took in an account of an 1831 trip from Fort Winnebago near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, to Chicago with her husband and a few others.

Kinzie described the route as south to Ogee’s Ferry, east-southeast to the Fox River, east-northeast to Naper’s settlement, and then on to Chicago. Unfortunately, the Kinzies’ guide, though claiming familiarity with the area, missed “The Great Sauk Trail,” and the party reached the Fox River well north of the old Fox River Mission. According to Kinzie’s narrative, the party crossed the Fox south of modern Oswego during a raging storm instead of using the good ford a mile or so to the north, and then went on to stay at Peter Specie’s cabin in Specie Grove. From there, they were guided to Chicago by John Dougherty, one of the area’s earliest settlers.

As Stoddard’s venture suggests, some overland travel did take place from Galena to Chicago in the 1820s, but there was no surveyed road until 1833. That year, surveyors working for the State of Illinois ran the line of what would become known as the southern route of the Chicago to Galena Road, the first government road connecting the two thriving towns.

The southern route to Galena followed virtually the same route as the High Prairie Trail to Ottawa until it crossed the Des Plaines River and passed Laughton’s tavern. The stretch from the lakefront at Chicago to Laughton’s was called the Berry Point Trail. The Laughtons’ tavern was probably located on or near the site of the modern Riverside Metra Station, 18 Bloomingbank Road, North Riverside. The inscribed granite boulder in the Ottawa Trail Woods Forest Preserve that supposedly marks the trading post site, about two miles away, was apparently placed in error according to researcher Philip Vierling. (See the EarlyChicago web site encyclopedia listings for “Laughton” for more information on this interesting early pioneer family.)

Then at Brush Hill just west of Laughton’s, the Galena Road branched off, turning more westerly towards Capt. Joseph Naper’s settlement on the DuPage River. Brush Hill (renamed Fullersburg in 1859) was located on what is today U.S. Route 34 at York Road just west of the DuPage-Cook County line. After crossing the DuPage at Naper’s, the road extended west across the Oswego Prairie to the Fox River ford, located about 200 feet north of the Kane–Kendall County line in present-day Montgomery, where it crossed the river.

According to the U.S. Government survey map of Aurora Township, the Fox River ford was located in the extreme southeast corner of Section 32, near the border with Oswego Township. After the road crossed the river, it continued west and then cut through the extreme northwest corner of Section 6 of Oswego Township.

The route then bore even farther southwesterly to the Blackberry Creek ford, which is where we pick up the story of the Blackberry Creek Bridge again.

The ford was located in the north half of the southeast quarter of Section 10, T37N, R7E. Blackberry Creek must have been difficult to ford, since the road ran so far south instead of crossing on a more direct line from the Fox River ford at Montgomery. The notes that U.S. Government Surveyor Eli Prescott took as he and his crew surveyed back and forth across the creek if October 1837 described the Blackberry as “Deep & sluggish,” suggesting fords suitable for wheeled vehicles were few and far between. As a result, the surveyors laying out the course of the Galena Road bent it southwest to access what appears to have been a rare ford across the Blackberry.

After the area had become sufficiently settled and bridges were built across the Fox Valley’s streams, local road commissioners decided to stick with the long-established route of the Galena Road. And to this day, Galena Road still bends far south to cross Blackberry on a bridge at the old ford, a route that has not changed for the past 185 years.

After crossing the creek, the Galena Road finally turned northwesterly through what would become the village of Little Rock before stretching across the prairies to John Dixon’s ferry on the Rock River and on north to Galena.

As surveyed, the distance was 102 miles, the survey crew describing the route from Chicago to Dixon as “high and dry prairie.” The only expense, they optimistically suggested, would be bridging occasional streams, adding they calculated the total cost would likely not exceed $500 for the entire 102-mile route.

It wasn’t long until the McCarty brothers managed to reroute the Galena Road through the new town they were building and which they called Aurora. Their actions, including wresting a post office from Montgomery, led directly to Aurora’s growth at the expense of Montgomery. (For more on this topic, see “U.S. Mail was the Internet of the 1830s.”)

But even so, the route of the road from Chicago to Galena was not changed, and its course—including the bridge across Blackberry Creek—still remains an artifact of the Fox Valley’s pioneer era.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, religion, Transportation

1873: The year Kendall County farmers flexed their political muscle

Almost, it seems, in spite of their own natural inclinations, the people of Kendall County achieved a position in the first rank of those empowering women in government. It is odd, given the county’s historic conservatism–and by conservatism, I mean the real thing, not this modern conglomeration of far right wing activism with substantial amounts of racial and religious bigotry.

In a column several years ago, I told the story of how Frances E. Lane became the state’s first female circuit clerk in 1920 when she was elected to the office by Kendall County voters [“Frances E. Lane: Kendall County’s unlikely women’s rights warrior,” “Reflections,” March 3, 2010 Ledger-Sentinel].

But it turned out the way for Lane had been paved nearly a half century before during a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Kendall County, Illinois, and the rest of the nation.

After the Civil War, railroads began a flurry of construction funded through the sale of stocks and bonds. Unscrupulous business practices coupled with a near-total lack of regulation of the nation’s economy (sound familiar?) created a gigantic financial bubble that, in 1873, explosively deflated creating the Panic of 1873, also called “The Long Depression.” [see “We ignore our financial history at our peril”].

1870s CB&Q locomotive

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad Company leased an engine like this one from the CB&Q Railroad while the line was under construction. When the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to wrest ownership away and maintain their monopoly on rail freight in the Fox Valley.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, railroads pursued cutthroat business practices unrestrained by custom or law. Here in Kendall County, for instance, farmers living south and east of the Fox River were eligible for lower shipping rates for grain and livestock than those living north and west of the river because railroad officials wanted to lure business across the river. Prices were increased and services were cut arbitrarily. So local farmers and businessmen strongly backed a scheme to build a local rail line to directly compete with the dominant Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The new railroad was planned to connect coalfields in the Vermilion River region with Geneva, running north up the Fox River from Ottawa through Millington, Yorkville, and Oswego in Kendall County. All three communities had been bypassed when the CB&Q main line was built in the 1850s.

Villages and cities, along with townships and counties, as well as private individuals along the route subscribed to bonds to build the new line, which was to be called the Ottawa Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road. Fundraising was successful, and construction was completed early in 1871.

But too late, the line’s investors found that placing complete financial and operational control in the hands of Oliver Young, the man hired to oversee construction and operations, was a bad idea. Using his contractual power, Young subcontracted C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Young, it later became known, was an owner of Force & Company, meaning he got paid twice for doing the same work. In addition—and this is a classic bit of corporate chicanery—by the time the line was completed, Force & Co. had already signed a secret 99-year lease on the entire rail line to the CB&Q. That they didn’t actually own it was remedied about the time the tracks reached Oswego when Young assigned his entire interest to Force & Co. It was, as engineers like to say, an elegant scheme. Taxpayers and investors built the line for the CB&Q, with the only cost being what it took to buy off Young. And as part of the deal, the CB&Q had assured there’d be none of that pesky competition by writing into the agreement that freight rates on the new line would be the same as on its existing lines.

Add to that the increasingly precarious financial situation of the nation’s workers, and farmers in particular, and it was a recipe for radicalism. Which popped up in Kendall County, of all places, as farmers frantically organized. Granges (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) and Farmers’ Clubs spread throughout Kendall County. They flexed their muscles in the June 1873 judicial elections when farmer-laborer candidate Silvanus Wilcox handily defeated the favored Republican in the race.

Bradwell, Myra

Myra Colby Bradwell worked with her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, to establish women’s suffrage in Illinois in the early 1870s.

Meanwhile, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, had been working hard on women’s suffrage in Springfield, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. Women couldn’t vote for themselves, but for the first time they could be elected to a countywide office.

On July 4, 1873, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville to consolidate support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. Interestingly enough, those activist farmers invited laborers to join their ranks as well in order to fight for economic justice. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ and laborers’ political convention at Yorkville, where a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests was overwhelmingly passed.

“We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

German immigrant farmers from the Oswego Prairie Church neighborhood flew this flag on their way to the July 4, 1873 farmers’ and laborers’ picnic in Yorkville. The flag is now in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

It was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third political party to represent the interests of workers and farmers, but the majority favored it. And so the New Party was established.

The eventual result of the convention was the nomination of an entire New Party county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority.

Taking into account the new state women’s suffrage law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.

In the November 4, 1873 general election Chittenden ran against popular Republican John R. Marshall (who was also the founder and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s major newspaper) for the office and was soundly beaten, as were the rest of her comrades on the New Party slate. But in the doing, she established a new first for women in Kendall County.

Farmers and laborers elsewhere in Illinois did elect a few New Party candidates, but not enough to really matter. Interestingly enough, the farmers’ and laborers’ efforts were the genesis that eventually led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party.

Nevertheless, bit by bit progress was made. Populists helped pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which provided some tools to tame rapacious business and industry. But as we’ve seen recently, laws and regulations without enforcement are useless. Not until Republican Theodore Roosevelt—the Trust Buster—became President in 1901 was there official enthusiasm for enforcing the law to rein in business.

Today, that long-ago struggle is one that’s still very much alive, as is the goal of electing both men and women to offices from local school boards all the way up to the President of the United States. But also adding to the interest of those long ago political struggles is the knowledge that our ancestors right here in Kendall County were heavily involved in them right along with the more famous people we learned about in school.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Farming, Fox River, Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Women's History

It’s open water year round these days on the Fox River

Drive south on Ill. Route 25 along the Fox River from the Kane County line during the coldest winter months and you won’t help but notice that the farther you travel into Kendall County the more the amount of ice on the river increases.

Granted, the river from the Montgomery dam south to Oswego is generally swift moving and dotted with small rapids, but swift-flowing water isn’t the reason the Fox doesn’t freeze over, because it used to just a few decades ago.

So what’s the reason for the open water until you nearly reach Yorkville?

The main answer seems to be that the largest tributaries of the Fox River these days are not those creeks, springs, and wetlands created by the last Ice Age. Instead, we are the river’s largest tributaries—the men, women, and children who live in the Fox Valley.

When the 18th Century ended, it was less than three decades until the first permanent white settlers arrived in the Fox Valley. As 1799 turned into 1800, the river’s largest tributaries were the creeks that drained thousands of acres of wetlands that dotted the river valley from Wisconsin to the mouth of the Fox on the Illinois River. In Kendall County, the largest of these subsidiary streams were, from north to south, Waubonsie Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Big Rock Creek.

Most of these creeks were the main outlets for large wetlands. Waubonsie Creek, for instance, drained the Wabausia Swamp on the Kane-Kendall County border, a wetland that covered nearly a square mile. Morgan Creek, too, drained extensive wetlands that were the remains of a former glacial lake.

Both north and south, other smaller and larger streams and springs added their flows to the river.

During the winter months, the water that seeped and flowed into the river from its bordering wetlands and tributary creeks was cold, having been pre-cooled as it slowly made its way to the river.

1915 abt Drainage

One of the many rural drainage projects was this 24″ tile draining wetlands along Wolf’s Crossing Road into Waubonsie Creek about 1911. This particular project was dug by hand. (Little White School Museum collection)

As soon as the settlers arrived, they began to wage war on the Fox Valley’s expansive wetlands. Over a 50-year period, they aggressively drained marshland and channelized streams, the former to create more farmland and the latter to drain stormwater into the river as quickly as possible to stop nearby farmland from flooding. Their efforts were extremely effective, even given that all the earliest drainage work was completed by animal power and hand labor. By the start of the 20th Century, drainage efforts continued, now assisted by steam-powered dredges.

The result was the addition of additional tillable land, and the elimination of wetlands that were homes to hordes of disease-carrying insects. Drying up the county’s numerous marshes and sloughs led to a precipitous decline in the occurrence of malaria—called “the ague” by the settlers.

But a major unintended consequence of all those drainage efforts was that they not only sharply decreased the summer and winter flows of the river, but they also led to more frequent flooding. That’s because the stormwater “banks” created by the county’s wetlands and meandering streams were eliminated. Instead of runoff trapped in sloughs and marshes slowly soaking in to recharge ground water supplies and be slowly discharged over a period of weeks following rainstorms or snow melt, the runoff was rapidly channeled into the Fox River where it flowed downstream to the Illinois River. When dry months arrived, there was no water “bank” to add to the river’s flows, and it nearly dried up during some dry periods.

In addition, the velocity of the water from the Fox’s tributaries greatly increased due to the elimination of meanders in the streams—channelization—and the disappearance of the wetlands that once slowed the speed of stormwater runoff. That resulted in farmland drying out much more quickly after precipitation fell, but it also resulted in more erosion, with the area’s incredibly rich topsoil washing into the fast-flowing channelized streams. The fast-flowing muddy water caused major flooding far more frequently.

Fox Metro plant

The Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s sprawling wastewater treatment plant between Montgomery and Oswego is today a major Fox River tributary.

And then, as the 19th Century ended, a new sort of tributary started adding to the river’s flows, this one far from the crystal clear water that was once generated by wetlands and meandering creeks. In the early decades of the 20th Century, it finally became apparent, that simply dumping raw sewage, from human waste to industrial products, didn’t get rid of the problem; it just moved it downstream. The human, animal, and industrial waste pumped directly into the river began to be treated to greater or lesser degrees as recognition of the dangers of pollution became clearer, and as wastewater treatment technology advanced.

With the Fox Valley’s population growth, the increasing volume of body temperature sewage began raising the river’s temperature, but at first there wasn’t enough inflow volume to noticeably affect it. As late as the late 1960s, the river regularly froze over all the way from Aurora south to Yorkville. When I was in high school in the early 1960s, we regularly ice skated on the river from Oswego north to Boulder Hill, a distance of three or so miles.

Ice skating on Fox

In about 1920, when this photo was snapped on the frozen Fox River immediately upstream from the Oswego bridge, the river regularly froze over and offered a fine site for community ice skating. (Little White School Museum collection)

But shortly after that, as my friend, Dr. Paul Baumann, pointed out in his 1976 monograph, A Bicentennial History of the Fox River, by the time we celebrated the United States’ 200th birthday, about one-third of the water in the Fox River had already been used at least once by humans or businesses by the time it reached Kendall County.

And then came the Fox Valley’s explosive growth from the 1970s into the first decade of the 21st Century. With that growth, it’s likely the river’s single largest tributary has become the sanitary sewage treatment plants linking the river’s banks. And the relative warmth of that water (it’s slightly warmer, but no less pure than water already in the river thanks to modern wastewater treatment technology) means that nowadays the river seldom freezes between the Fox Valley Water Reclamation District’s huge wastewater treatment plant, located across the river from Boulder Hill, and the pool created behind the Yorkville dam.

Ice Houses

This view of Esch Brothers & Rabe’s ice houses north of Oswego, taken about 1890, gives an idea of the size of the company’s ice harvesting operation. (Little White School Museum collection)

As shallow as it is now and historically has been, the Fox River was never a main transportation route, but its dams did provide power for mills, its waters were rich in clams harvested for freshwater pearls and shells for buttons, and in winter its ice was harvested for use in both the home and industry. In fact, huge ice harvesting operations were conducted at each of the dams across the river, including at Yorkville and Oswego. How huge? In 1880, the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice company shipped 581 railcars of ice from Oswego. Of that number, they shipped 124 railcars full of ice from Oswego in August alone. By 1884, the ice company was shipping nearly 1,100 railcars of ice annually.

It’s fortunate cooling technology advanced so far that we don’t require that ice today, because through the impact on the environment of our mere presence here in the Fox Valley, we’ve managed to raise the river’s average temperature so much that it seldom freezes along much of its length in northern Kendall and southern Kane counties.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Science stuff

When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Technology