Family historians are familiar with the problem. You have set aside a day for research and are eagerly looking forward to accomplishing great things. Then you get sidetracked on the family of an obscure spouse of your fourth cousin twice removed and hours later you finally come to and realize you’ve spent your valuable time and resources researching a family to which you’re not even related.
It’s the same, I’ve found, with museum work, at least at the local level.
I’ve been the volunteer director of the Little White School Museum here in Oswego since the Oswegoland Heritage Association Board of Directors appointed me to the position back in 1994. As part of the job, I help all sorts of people out with research, either directly using our collections at the museum or offering recommendations where they can hopefully find what they’re looking for elsewhere.
So when a local reporter called the other day wondering what the story was behind Wolf’s Crossing Road’s name, I was happy to help. The road, once a country byway, has become a busy suburban alternative route to even busier U.S. Route 34, which it roughly parallels a bit to the south.
The road name’s tie to the Wolf family (it wasn’t named for the animal) stretches back to the late 1800s with the construction of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway. The rail line’s right-of-way looped from Indiana around Chicago to the south and west. Thus its nickname, the Outer Belt Line.
As built, the line ran from Indiana to Joliet here in Illinois and then west northwest to Plainfield where it took a more straight northerly to Normantown, named after one of the sons of an EJ&E executive. According to the lore of the King family who owned farmland there, Normantown was supposed to have been named King’s Crossing, but the railroad brass later decided otherwise. Even so, the Normantown Station’s code remained “K.”
At Normantown, a branch line switched off the mainline and ran to Aurora, crossing what had been once called the Old Naperville Road and also known in Oswego as the Wheatland Road because it ran from the village mostly straight east to the rich farming community in Will County’s Wheatland Township.
The rail line crossed the existing country road right at the border between Kendall County’s Oswego Township and Will County’s Wheatland Township at the adjoining farms of Leonard John Wolf and that of either his father, John Ulrich Wolf or his brother, John Wolf Jr. That was the first rabbit hole I went down.
The Wolfs were one of the many German farming families that had immigrated to the fertile Oswego Prairie between Oswego and Naperville from Bavaria, Germany in the 1840s and 1850s. The family patriarch was John Leonard Wolf, who was accompanied by his son, John Ulrich Wolf when they came to Illinois. But John Ulrich Wolf also had a son, known as John Wolf Jr., plus the other son, Leonard John Wolf. By the time the railroad was built the Wolfs owned four farms, one of abut 74 acres in Oswego Township on the line with Wheatland Township owned by just plain John Wolf; and three adjoining it right across the Wheatland Township line, stacked one above the other. The first one of 130 acres was owned by Leonard Wolf, the second adjoining it to the south of 115 acres owned by John Wolf Sr. and the third adjoining it owned by John Wolf Jr. The question then became which John Wolf was which, something I’m still not entirely sure about.
The EJ&E built grain elevators and stations at both the Normantown switch and where the road between Oswego and Naperville crossed the right-of-way of the branch line to Aurora. While towns didn’t grow up around either grain elevator, each did eventually get its own rural post office, important in the years before Rural Free Delivery was introduced by the U.S. Postal service in 1893 and finally standardized across the country in 1902. The post office was located in John Wolf’s home at the crossing. Which John Wolf, you ask? Good question, say I.
The elevator where the Wheatland Road crossed the tracks was named Wolf’s and the road itself quickly became known as Wolf’s Crossing Road. When a post office was granted to serve the neighborhood on Oct. 9, 1890, the post office was also named Wolf’s Crossing. That post office served the community for about 10 years before it was closed in August 1900.
So anyway, back to the call from the Ledger reporter. He noted that Oswego is coordinating the widening of Wolf’s Crossing Road plus other improvements including a traffic circle at the Harvey Road intersection and another at the Douglas Road intersections. As part of the improvements, Oswego is planning to change the name of the road to Wolfs Crossing Road—no apostrophe. He was wondering if the road had ever been called Wolfs Crossing Road, and I said I’d look into it.
So down I went into rabbit hole number two.
The thing is, of course, most rural roads in the county were not officially named for many years. Most were numbered but no formal names were given them until relatively late in the 20th Century. Locals all identified them by the names of the farm families that lived along them. So my quest was to find out what Wolf’s Crossing itself was named over the years.
I went first to the museum’s county atlas collection, which includes large format hardcovered atlases that would include that information from 1903, 1922, and 1941. I found that in the 1903 Kendall County atlas, the name was given as Wolf Crossing Station. The 1922 atlas listed it as simply Wolf Crossing, while the 1940 atlas had it as simply Wolfs—no apostrophe, no “Crossing.”
So nothing definitive. Next, I thought I’d try our collection of plat books, booklets with cardboard covers that were issued by the Kendall County Farm Bureau over the years, and see how the name was listed.
In the 1935 plat book, it’s listed as simply Wolfs, no apostrophe. In the 1947 and 1951 plat books it’s listed as Wolf’s Crossing, apostrophe and “Crossing” firmly in place. But in 1959, it was back to just Wolfs, no apostrophe and no “Crossing.” In 1965, it was Wolf’s, getting its apostrophe back although the “Crossing” remained absent, and the 1970 plat book was the same. But after that, the 1974 through the 1987 plat books all listed it as simply Wolfs, no apostrophe and no “Crossing.”
The plat books I was looking at were all duplicates we keep available for researchers. The others in the collection are all safely stored where they’re only accessed at need. When I reached the last plat book in the file folder, I noticed a piece of folded paper loose in the folder. And so down rabbit hole number three I went.
When unfolded, the paper proved to be a 22×15.5” highway map of Kendall County dated 1947. It had no accession number on it and no apparent reason to be loose in the plat book file. I turned it over and noted it looked as if it had been glued to something green—the same color as the 1947 Kendall County plat book I’d examined. I looked at both covers of the 1947 plat book I’d just looked through, and inside the back cover was an exact match for the glue remains on the folded map. So the map belonged to the plat book.
There were two other copies of that year’s plat book in the file I hadn’t bothered with—a person can only read one book at a time after all—so I looked through them and found both had accession numbers. One also still had its large fold-out map attached inside the back cover as well, while the map was missing from the other, just leaving a bit of glue behind.
Which got me to wondering how many copies of the 1947 plat book we had, so I looked it up in the museum database and found we’d catalogued five copies. Three of them—two with intact maps and one with the map missing—were in secure plat book storage, while two were in the duplicates-for-research folder. The one that had held the map that got my attention had apparently never been catalogued.
So I decided to catalog it, and since its fold-out map was already loose, I further decided to separately catalog the both of them. I put the newly catalogued plat book back in the research folder and then went to store the map flat—not folded—in our Maps, Plats & Surveys Collection, housed in one of our flat file drawers. Which is where I entered rabbit hole number four.
When I opened the drawer, I found two booklets there, one a copy of the Village of Oswego’s comprehensive plan for 1988 and the other titled Mapping the Metropolis: A Community History Using Old Maps and Aerial Photographs: Elk Grove Village & Township, a booklet published by Chicago’s Newberry Library and the Elk Grove Historical Society. Clearly they didn’t belong in the Maps, Plats & Surveys drawer, so I removed them and got the 1947 county highway map safely put in a nice acid-free folder.
I checked inside the covers of both the comp plan and the Elk Grove booklets and found only one, the Elk Grove booklet, had been catalogued. There was no accession number in the comp plan booklet anywhere I looked. So I checked the museum database and found no copies of the 1988 plan there, which seemed odd. The database reported all of our copies of Oswego’s comprehensive plans were handily stored all in one place, in our “Village of Oswego Collection, Box 3.” So, I thought, I’ll just check and make sure we haven’t missed something along the line.
I checked our Location Inventory Map—actually a separate database that lists the location of every box and folder in the museum’s collections—and there was no “Village of Oswego Collection, Box 3.” listed. Boxes 1 and 2 where there right where they should have been. But no Box 3.
Now, the Little White School Museum is a small institution, an extremely local history museum, but even so, we have more than 36,000 items in our collections database, all stored…somewhere. When I give tours of our museum work areas I tell visitors that the trick isn’t cataloging artifacts and archival materials or safely storing them in the correct folders or boxes. That’s simple. There are hundreds of books about how to do that stuff. No, the REAL trick is finding something once you’ve catalogued it and put it on a shelf or in a cabinet or a file drawer somewhere. Lose something and it’s a problem you can’t solve by reading a book about it.
So I got out the only tool that works in a situation like I faced, the old Mark I Eyeball and started visually scanning all the shelves in our main archives storage room. I was going over the shelves for the second time when I remembered we had started storing a few file boxes in Artifacts Room II.
Back in 2010 when the Oswego Prairie Church congregation dissolved, we inherited their records collection spanning 1848 to 2010. We had purchased wire rack shelf units to store the record boxes on, but the shelves were just a bit wider than two standard Hollinger acid-free records cartons, leaving about a 9” or so space on each shelf. Always looking to maximize our extremely tight storage ability, we’d started putting flip-top acid-free storage boxes in those spaces.
So leaving off my second (and increasingly boring) visual scan in the Archives Room, I went back to good old Artifacts Room II, and there was Box 3, Oswego, Village of staring me right in the face. So I pulled it out went to the research area and pulled its contents and found a copy of Oswego’s comprehensive plan identical to the un-numbered and catalogued one I’d found in the Maps, Plats & Survey drawer. Why didn’t it show up in our database? Because there was a typo: the date in the database said it was from 1983, not 1988. And I couldn’t even yell at anybody because I was the moron who’d catalogued it back in 2009.
So I catalogued the 1988 comp plan I’d found in the flat file drawer, put it in Box 3 with all the others, put Box 3 back in its place, and added “Village of Oswego Collection, Box 3” to the Location Map.
Then I had to decide what to do with the Elk Grove Village booklet, and so went down the fifth and final rabbit hole of the day. Normally, we wouldn’t keep something concerning a town so far away (close to 40 miles) from us. But I have a super soft spot for northern Illinois transportation history during the 1830s. It’s really one of my favorite topics and this 9×12 booklet is just plain fascinating. And with the Newberry involved you know absolutely its information will be very accurate.
When I was looking for the booklet’s accession number, some papers fell out. One of them was a letter to me from the booklet’s donor who had read and enjoyed my By Trace and Trail monograph on stagecoach routes west of Chicago back in 2003 and who was a co-author of the Elk Grove booklet. The other nine stapled pages were an unpublished manuscript, Early Trails of Carroll County and Northwestern Illinois by John Faivre.
I scanned Mr. Faivre’s manuscript and created a searchable PDF for our Transportation History file, and also separately catalogued it so that it will show up in the database when researching early area trails. Then I went to put the two pieces in our Booklets collection.
We have two boxes of booklets. Box 1 proved to be not just filled but over-filled. Box 2, a half-Hollinger, was on its way to being full but could handle the Elk Grove booklet and accompanying Carroll County trails piece just fine. Even so, I found two Folder 11s, one of which was empty. In addition, there were a number of loose booklets in the box, most of which were the kind of tourist promotional literature you find at tourism bureaus. None of them were numbered, so I removed those, creating more space in the box. And then I went to the database to figure out what was going on with two folders numbered the same. Turned out, the empty one should have been numbered 10, and was supposed to contain a couple other loose booklets about military burials in the Oswego Township Cemetery I found in the box. There was still plenty of room so the Elk Grove booklet also found a home there.
I filed the tourism booklets in the appropriate folders in our vertical file on area towns. Then I checked out the over-full Box 1, which had way too many duplicate copies of the Lions Club’s old Oswegoland: Where the living is better! booklets. I culled, leaving only two of each year in the box, but that meant I had to update the collections database to reflect their new locations, which turned out to be on the local history research materials shelf. I printed out the accession forms with their new locations (we do hard copies because you never know if these snappy computer things will suddenly decide to go rogue), and decided to—finally—call it a day.
It hadn’t been an entirely unproductive day, but I didn’t get done a lot of the things I’d hoped to do. Nevertheless, our database now not only knows that we have a “Village of Oswego Box 3,” but also where it’s at. Our booklets collection can breathe a bit, and we’ve got a really nice 1947 highway map of Kendall County ready for some future researcher.
Oh yes, and as for the name of Wolf’s Crossing Road, as a former newspaper editor, I’d favor keeping the apostrophe in the name, but if, as I’ve heard, the state doesn’t like possessive names for streets and roads, I’d leave it at Wolf Crossing Road, no “s” and no apostrophe. Kendall County’s highway maps have shown the road’s name as simply Wolf Road for years, which has the advantage of being concise, I suppose. But it is—or was—the road to Wolf’s Crossing. It wasn’t their road, but it WAS their crossing since they owned the land before the railroad barged through without so much as a howdy-do. And finally, “Wolfs” isn’t even a decent word. Make it a single Wolf or no Wolf at all, please.