Category Archives: Frustration

My generation’s skewed view of the Civil War and Reconstruction still causing problems

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece recently entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his clearly crackpot views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I—were both getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays all too often. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which, as my mother would have put it, was not well.

But it did get me to thinking about how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best, outright racist at worst, and definitely skewed towards the myth of “The Lost Cause” that was constantly reinforced by a host of movies (John Ford’s cavalry trilogy for just one example) and TV series like “The Rebel.”

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Abolitionist John Brown lived up to his reputation as a murderous lunatic and was hanged for his troubles.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

1859 Underground Railroad

This map of the Underground Railroad through LaSalle and Kendall counties, was published in the 1914 history of Kendall County. It seems authentic in that the chapter’s author, Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam, interviewed county residents still living who had participated in helping escaping slaves.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

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Robert Lee in a March 1864 portrait taken the same month Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was appointed to command the armies of the United States. The war was about to enter its final phase; a year and a month after this portrait was taken, Lee was compelled to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant..

Then there was Robert Lee, who was neither an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out that the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician (Sherman was a better tactician) who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no

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Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in June 1864 at Cold Harbor, Va. A good but not brilliant tactician, Grant saved his brilliance for grand strategy, that he used to destroy Southern armies and the Confederacy they propped up.

illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War. (For a really good, brand new biography of Grant, read Grant by Ron Chernow.)

After the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. And there was not much fondness shown towards the rebel South by their Union opponents, either. There was general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to cow freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

But trouble was already on the horizon as the 1876 Presidential campaign got underway. As the Kendall County Record warned its readers in August, 1876: “Those who, from 1861 to 1865 attempted to destroy our government by armed rebellion are now gradually getting the political control of that government into their hands. This is a very serious matter and deserves public attention.”

Unfortunately, the tools Grant helped put in place were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The election was basically a draw, and was thrown into the U.S. House of Representatives. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, swung the election to Hayes and directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights. But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

The casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable today when I think back on it (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too. Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. For instance, his Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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Unintended consequences…

For some reason, there seems to be a lot of controversy connected with global climate change.

Well over 90 percent of climatologists say it’s proven science that us humans have greatly contributed to the warming of the earth’s climate since 1900, and even the big oil companies’ scientists told their bosses what was happening decades ago. In fact, there’s an interesting investigation going on right now where the attorneys general of several states are trying to determine whether Exxon misled the company’s investors about the issue.

But a lot of people still don’t buy the facts that have been laid out, mostly because those folks at Exxon didn’t only hide the facts their own scientists dug up from their own investors, but they also apparently bankrolled climate change denier individuals and organizations, muddying the waters for lots of us.

It’s not that hard to figure out what’s happening, though. Each recent year sets a new record as being the hottest on record, and individual months are regularly setting temperature records, too. But it’s not hard to find someone to dispute the fact of global climate change—although there aren’t a lot of them, the professional deniers are a pretty loud and determined bunch, once again proving muckraker Upon Sinclair’s dictum that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

If you’re a seed catalog saver, you can get an easily understood look into what’s happening. Just look at how those hardiness zone maps keep changing. The zones where certain plants can grow keep steadily moving north, indicating average temperatures are continuing to rise.

Walleye

Walleye, one of Wisconsin’s most sought-after gamefish, are becoming rare in some of the state’s most popular resort areas, at least partly due to global climate change.

Up in northern Wisconsin, the change in the climate means some of the fisheries up there are changing, too. In the Minocqua area, largemouth bass, which is generally considered a warmer weather species, have begun to take over some of the lakes in that region. The Wisconsin DNR figures that the growing largemouth population is feeding on walleye fry, thus leading to a decrease in walleyes. And that’s bad for the resort industry up there because walleyes are a big, big draw for anglers. To try to do something about the situation, the DNR has banned keeping any walleyes caught for a five-year period, supposedly to give the species a chance to rebound against largemouth predation.

I’m pretty sure it won’t work. Those largemouth that are suddenly so prevalent aren’t there by happenstance; they’re there because the water’s warmer there now on average, making it a friendlier habitat for bass. Helping the walleye population by increasing their numbers through lack of angler harvest isn’t going to do a thing to cool off the water in Minocqua area lakes. But since the DNR is now prohibited from discussing climate change’s effects on Wisconsin wildlife, it’s going to be interesting to see how the subject is handled going forward. Because you can bet this is just the tip of this particular rhetorical iceberg.

When you think about unintended consequences, global climate change is this era’s prime example. When the Industrial Age got really going, I doubt anyone thought that burning all that coal and, later, oil was going to have a negative impact on the entire earth. Just like adding lead to gasoline, which was designed to make internal combustion engines run smoother and more efficiently, the ultimate impact was to inflict lead poisoning on several generations of Americans. The outcome of that was likely the spike in crime rates in the 1970s, according to some who’ve studied the topic. Banning leaded gasoline may well be the reason violent crime has been declining since the 1970s.

It’s when we fiddle with the earth’s ecology that those unintended consequences seem to have their biggest effects. The folks in Wisconsin are trying their best to do something about a process over which they have little control by doing something over which they do have at least a little influence, although it’s probably futile. It probably won’t comfort them to know that we’ve been messing with fish populations for generations, sometimes with negative implications that didn’t show up for decades.

German carp

German carp thrived after being stocked in the Fox River by the U.S. Fish Commission in the 19th Century.

The lowly carp is prime example number one of that. We take these ubiquitous rough, annoying fish for granted these days. But they only got in our rivers and creeks because the U.S. Government put them there in the first place, hoping to provide a useful, marketable species to benefit everyone.

So they imported a bunch of them from Germany with plans to stock them in streams the next year. They were considered so valuable that they used the reflecting pool on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to house them over the winter. Then in the spring they stocked them all over the place.

I’ve already written about the general reaction to this bit of ecological sabotage, noting the reaction was far from unanimously positive. But, as luck would have it, carp were stocked at about the same time streams in long-settled parts of the country were being stressed beyond their limits with almost unbelievable amounts of pollution, from raw human and animal waste to manufacturing byproducts, from coking mill waste to waste from coal gas plants. The effect of chemical poisons on streams was amplified by increasing amounts of agricultural runoff that was containing more and more silt as unwise farming practices created erosion.

As their gravel-bottomed spawning grounds were covered with silt the oxygen content of water in polluted streams drastically declined due to huge increases in chemical and human waste, game fish populations catastrophically declined.

Enter those carp. They were far more adaptable to filthy water conditions and positively thrived on the muddy stream bottoms that were being manufactured by a near-total lack of any controls on pollution. And because they liked the conditions they were introduced in, they thrived—and therefore were blamed for creating the conditions rather than being lauded for making use of them, much like those largemouth bass up in northern Wisconsin are being blamed today for decreasing walleye populations.

A classic example of blaming the messenger—carp—for stream quality happened on the Rock River in southern Wisconsin back in the 1970s. The Rock has several dams up there creating lots of recreational fishing at Beloit, Janesville, and other towns along the river’s course. By the ‘70s, some of those impoundments had gathered a lot of sediment and silt from agriculture runoff, and while carp were flourishing, gamefish were not. So the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources decided to try poisoning the all the fish in one of those impoundments, the idea being that without carp rooting around the bottom and creating silt-laden water that gamefish didn’t like.

So that’s what they did. And it worked. The impoundment was cleanses of carp—and all the other fish as well, and that had the effect of clearing the water right up. Residents living there were ecstatic—you could actually see the bottom again!

But getting rid of the carp didn’t get rid of the sediment, which was extremely rich in nutrients thanks to runoff from all the farm fields through which the river ran. And as soon as the water clarified, sunlight finally got down to the bottom, creating a veritable algae explosion. The stuff grew inches thick on the surface, died, and sank to the bottom where it decomposed, sucking whatever oxygen still remained out of the water, creating a smelly, slimy mess. Which made residents far from ecstatic. It took a frantic DNR quite a while to get the situation stabilized and to try to reverse it because the agriculture interests were not interested in doing what needed to be done to reduce runoff from their fields.

The main point the ecology movement tried to get across to people when it got started is that almost everything in the natural world is connected one way or another. And sometimes, because much of the time we neither understand nor recognize them in the first place, those connections come back to bite us when we mess with one part or another without careful consideration first.

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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We ignore our financial history at our own peril

For the first time since the late 1920s, the nation was looking into the abyss of a possible financial depression as the financial crash of 2008 unfolded. And it was distressing that so many smart people seemed to have learned so little from the nation’s economic history.

Don’t, someone plaintively wondered not too long ago, they teach history in schools of economics any more? Apparently not, or what we’re now dealing with the aftermath of would not have happened—or at least not the level of severity we experienced.

The Great Depression is only called that because it was the last catastrophic financial meltdown some of those still living can remember. The two depressions previous to that were at least as “great,” and ones previous to those were arguably more severe yet.

The Panic of 1873, for instance, created six years of economic hardship for the nation and Kendall County. The financial collapse began in Austria, spread throughout Europe, and finally arrived in the U.S. with the September 1873 failure of Jay Cooke & Company in New York caused by a railroad overbuilding bubble and unscrupulous business practices. The railroad building craze had caused unsustainable construction growth in everything from seaside docks to steel mills. When Cooke was unable to cover his construction loans for the Northern Pacific Railroad, the whole system crashed. On Sept. 20 that year, the New York Stock Exchange closed for 10 days as everything from silver mines to shipping lines went broke. Eventually, a quarter of the nation’s railroads were bankrupted.

On Sept. 25, 1873, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent hopefully noted that “The collapse of Jay Cooke & Co. and financial panic otherwise has not in the least impaired the business of this town.”

But from then on, comments about “the money crisis” and “stringency of the money” were common.

In 1877, a huge railroad strike nearly paralyzed the nation. Wrote the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “The shock of the strike caused old State Rights men to forsake their life-long principles and clamor for federal intervention; in the brains of the newspaper men it created a mighty revolution,” he wrote, adding that “The Chicago Tribune for years has had the nightmare caused by communism. One day of last week Chicago experienced a heavy shock by the collapse of her State Savings Institution. The next day the Tribune came out advocating communism, wanting the government to take care of our money; give us post office saving banks; verily things and men are changeable.”

halls-bank

Levi Hall opened a bank in his Oswego drug store (brick building at left) in 1881. His bank, along with Kendall County’s other two banks in Yorkville and Plano failed over a two-week span during the financial Panic of 1893.

Exactly 20 years later, another railroad bubble, combined with poor weather for Midwestern farmers and financial chicanery in mining and banking, created a second severe depression.

The Panic of 1893 officially began Feb. 23, when the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad went broke. Then in May, amidst the hoopla of Chicago’s upcoming Columbian Exposition, the city’s Chemical National Bank, whose president was a former Kendall County farmer, went broke amid charges of criminal wrongdoing.

Noted Record Editor J.R. Marshall on May 10: “A few years ago Mr. Jacob O. Curry was a farmer in the town[ship] of Bristol; later he was engaged as a grain buyer and speculator at Hinckley…he went into business at Aurora as a capitalist and financier and was instrumental in starting a national bank in that city…a year or two ago he went to Chicago to become president of the Chemical National Bank with a capital stock of $1 million. Tuesday’s Chicago papers contained the news that the doors of Mr. Curry’s National bank had closed for want of funds. Brother Curry had better come back to the Fox River valley. People out here may not be so sharp, but they are a heap sight more comfortable.”

Actually, it turned out Curry’s reach extended well into the Fox River Valley after all, where the three major banks in Kendall County apparently held significant stakes in Chemical National. The result was that all three, first the Plano Bank on Aug. 7, and followed quickly a week later by the Oswego Bank and the Kendall County Bank at Yorkville, failed. Along with them went many local and regional businesses, from the Joliet Rolling Mills to local stores and businesses.

On Aug. 23 Record Editor Marshall, clearly flummoxed and chastened by what had happened, wrote: “The newspapers of the whole country assumed the task of staying the panic by encouraging words and prophecies of better things, but their efforts were without avail. The Record stated that our business institutions were safe and conducted by safe men, and we believed firmly the statement because we had confidence in the integrity and business ability of the men. This statement was too soon followed by the failure of Mr. Henning [in Plano], then of Mr. Hall [in Oswego], followed by that of Mr. Cornell [in Yorkville]. The conclusion we have come to is that the newspapers don’t know anything about the business of banks—neither does anyone else, not even the bank examiners—and we shall make no more prognostications along business lines.”

On Sept. 6, the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote the panic affected the whole community: “Oswego is now undergoing its full share of miseries; men that but a few weeks ago were ‘cheek by jowl’ would now like to devour each other. Bank failures most always entail much misery, widows with their little savings, old people with the accumulations for their declining years, and laborers with what was laid up for a rainy day are usually caught in them. There is a class of men who hold that governments, especially ours which is claimed to be by and for the people, should be responsible for the losses incurred through the institutions it makes legitimate, and the better to carry out this principle the government should run the institutions…By such a system there could be no motive for what is called ‘illegitimate banking,’ as all the earnings of the bank would go to the government. In unavoidable stringency the bank could be readily relieved; nothing would occur to stir up the bad blood as now exhibited….This would be the most opportune time for the teaching of the theories of socialism in Oswego.”

1919-duffy-c-c-wife-vanderlip

In 1919, Frank Vanderlip (left) visited Oswego for the last time to chat with his old schoolmaster, Christopher C. Duffy and his wife at the annual Duffy School Reunion. The photo was taken about a decade after Vanderlip met with other financiers and government officials to come up with what eventually became the Federal Reserve System.

It took one more depression, the Panic of 1907, before the financial industry and the government decided to join together to figure out a way to, if not stop, at least lessen the impact of recurring financial crashes on the nation.

When the meeting was held to outline a possible course of action, a former Oswego farm boy, Frank Vanderlip, then an official with the National City Bank of New York—now Citibank—was part of the group whose ideas eventually led to formation of the Federal Reserve system.

It worked to some extent, but there were still not enough controls on banks to prohibit them from dabbling in the stock market and other risky ventures and the result was what today we call the Great Depression. That financial panic began in 1929 when a gigantic stock market bubble collapsed, taking the nation’s and the world’s economy along with it.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression of the 1930s, it appeared the nation had learned its lesson. Regulations were put in place to prohibit risky speculation by banks as well as stricter regulation of the stock market. But with no further major panics in subsequent years, the financial industry was chaffing at the controls meant not only to rein it in, but to protect the world’s financial structure from collapsing. And so starting in the 1980s, they began agitating to have the most effective controls eliminated. Lax oversight on the part of government officials responsible for making sure financial firms obeyed what rules were still in effect were welcomed by the industry.

And so, we proceeded to enthusiastically replicate every mistake of the past plus a few new ones invented thanks to innovations like computerized trading and linking the entire world’s financial system into one giant network.

So, don’t they teach history in schools of economics any more? Yes, they do, but these days those cautionary tales seem to be looked upon merely as roadmaps to ways unscrupulous people can game the system at the expense of those who entrust their money to it. In addition, most people—and that especially includes business owners and politicians—remain profoundly and aggressively ignorant of how economics actually works. It’s not a situation that engenders much confidence that things will get much better going forward.

 

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Shouldn’t we be in a holding pattern about now?

So what I want to know is: Where is my helicopter?

1951-popular-mechanics

According to futurists in the 1950s, flying to work or to the store to shop was definitely in our future, with a helicopter parked in every garage.

When we were kids, Popular Mechanics magazine frequently published neat articles, complete with illustrations, about the future, wherein we would all be flying helicopters back and forth from work. In “The Future,” we were told, instead of garages, we’d have hangers that would shelter our private flying machines, which we’d use during the week to fly off to where ever we needed to go.

Today, of course, the mind sort of boggles at the thought of airborne traffic jams with everyone trying to fly to work. I mean, it’s hard enough now to find a parking spot in downtown Yorkville or Oswego with automobiles. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all hovering at 2,000 feet waiting for a parking space to open up so we could zip down in our helicopter and run into the hardware store or the dentist office?

Not that the future hasn’t wandered in while we were looking the other way, of course. My nephew out in Iowa now has a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver on his combine, which is hooked to an on-board computer. The computer keeps track of the yield in bushels as the combine moves across the field and in conjunction with the GPS receiver, essentially makes a yield map of the entire field. That map will, in turn, be downloaded to another computer-GPS combo the fertilizer company has on their machines that will control how much and what kind of fertilizer is laid down next spring.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

So while we were all fascinated about whether we would one day come to live like the Jetsons, our everyday lives have been moving into just as futuristic a direction, although a much less spectacular one. For instance, back in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were giant things that filled entire rooms and sometimes entire buildings. Nowadays, we take tiny, powerful computers in our toasters, microwaves, and automobiles for granted, but the advances those mundane tools represent are nearly miraculous.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were non-existent in homes 50 years ago. These days, we not only depend on the small electronic boxes to re-heat our coffee and defrost chicken before we fry it, but the touch of a button pops our popcorn and another button perfectly re-heats last night’s pot roast.

When we were kids, we took the car down to the service station when it was running rough, and the mechanics would use a combination of skill, art, and mechanical knowledge to diagnose what was wrong. Nowadays, “repair technicians” plug a computer into a car’s engine and an instant read-out (usually) reports what’s wrong.

The trouble with the future and predicting it has always been that no one really knows what the effect of a new invention will be. That GPS equipment mentioned above, for instance, was originally designed to allow military units and weapons systems to know exactly where they were anywhere on Earth so that killing could be made more efficient. Who was to know that cheap GPS receivers connected with miniature computers would be used for everything from leading an angler back to the fishing hotspot he stumbled across last month to increasing crop yields by allowing the precise application of fertilizer and seed in the areas where it’s needed?

Actually, futurists usually get into much more trouble when they predict what we won’t be able to do than by suggesting what will or could happen.

deforest-lee

Radio pioneer Lee DeForest was certain the world could be connected by radio waves. But he could not believe that sound and pictures both could be broadcast as a commercial success, illustrating that even visionaries are sometimes myopic.

Take the case of Lee De Forest, for instance. Just before World War I broke out, De Forest was trying to get investors interested in his new idea: Commercial radio broadcasts. From our vantage point, it seems like De Forest was a visionary, but the U.S. Government didn’t think so. In 1913, they hauled De Forest into court, charging him with fraud. A U.S. District Attorney charged with prosecuting De Forest charged: “De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to buy stock in his company.”

De Forest was eventually cleared and “before many years” radio signals were indeed being broadcast across the Atlantic. But just because De Forest foresaw the value of one invention didn’t necessarily mean he was a true futurist. When it came to moving one more step farther—to broadcasting sound with pictures—De Forest was unable to make the leap. Writing in 1926, he suggested: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So I’m not really sad there’s no helicopter out in our garage, because when it comes to the future, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems to rule. No one ever knows what will be invented or even how something already invented will be used to change our lives. The fellow who invented refrigeration had no idea his idea would one day be used to air condition the country and make possible the economic development of the Southwest and the resurgence of the Old South.

As Benjamin Franklin remarked when someone disdainfully asked of what use a new invention would be: “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

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It was St. Louis vs Chicago—And we’re not talking baseball, either

Got to thinking about my last post on plank roads and how local officials in the early 1850s rejected railroads, figuring that paving roads with wooden planks was the best technological fix for the era’s terrible roads.

You shouldn’t get the impression that those folks here in Kendall County were the only ones who misread the likely future that railroads were going to create. Something very similar happened down in St. Louis, with an even bigger economic impact as rejecting railroads had up here on our small farm town.

From the early 1830s to the early 1850s, as the pioneer era matured, Illinois became a huge grain exporter. Early on, the trick was to actually export all that excess grain farmers were beginning to produce using better agricultural techniques and increasing mechanization. One way to get it to market was to let it walk all by itself by turning grain into cattle and hogs that could be driven to Chicago. But to get the grain itself to market meant hauling in wagons over the region’s primitive road system.

Loading grain sacks

Until grain elevators were perfected, grain was shipped in sacks from the farm to market. Each sack was handled numerous times until it reached it’s ultimate destination, a process that was expensive and time-consuming.

In that day and age, grain in excess of needed food for the farm family and livestock feed was bagged, loaded aboard the farm’s wagon, a four-horse team hitched, and the load hauled to market. That market might be in the rapidly growing city of Chicago or, depending on the farm’s location, might be the Illinois River.

No matter where it went, though, it was transported in bags, which were unloaded into a warehouse. They, in turn, were then reloaded onto a sailing ship along the docks along South Water Street in Chicago or aboard a steamboat or flatboat on the Illinois River for the trip downstream to St. Louis. From Chicago, the grain was taken to Buffalo, where it was unloaded once again into a warehouse, for later transshipment down the Erie Canal to the New York City market. After grain arrived via the Illinois-Mississippi route at St. Louis, slaves unloaded the sacks onto the Levee, a broad strip of land extending along the city’s entire riverfront, where it was stacked for later sale or to be reloaded by more slave labor aboard a steamer or flatboat to be shipped down to New Orleans.

1857 Chicago port

This detail from J. T. Palmatary’s 1857 bird’s-eye view of Chicago shows why the warehouses and grain elevators along South Water Street offered so much efficiency in handling everything from lumber to grain. All manner of transportation, including rail cars, wagons, and sail and steamships could load and unload cargoes simultaneously.

All that loading and unloading took time, and time is money. With the introduction of rail transport, efficiency in loading and unloading became a pressing goal of those engaged in the grain trade. To that end, in 1842, Buffalo, N.Y. grain merchant and warehouse owner Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. Dart’s elevator was a tall building that consisted of a series of vertical grain bins. Once grain had been removed from its sacks and moved to the elevated bins using steam power, it could be moved from bin to bin or loaded aboard canal boats, lakes ships, or rail cars by gravity alone. It was a great idea and quickly spread west to Chicago where the city’s grain merchants quickly perfected the concept.

In seemingly no time at all, grain elevators replaced the grain warehouses that lined the banks of the Chicago River along South Water Street. Grain brought in from hinterland farms in sacks was emptied out, graded by quality, and elevated to bins where it was mixed with other grain of the same grade that could then be loaded aboard the new rail cars or on Great Lakes ships for shipment east, or even loaded aboard boats on the new Illinois & Michigan Canal to be sent south to the New Orleans market.

With the old sack system, individual farmers’ grain could be identified from the time it left the farm until it reached its ultimate destination, with farmers known for shipping quality grain receiving a premium sales price. With the new system, fair grading and accurate records were an absolute must, and as you might surmise, there proved to be a lot of ways the new system could be manipulated. And manipulated it certainly was, although that’s a story for another day.

Because the Chicago River and Lake Michigan do not flood, the South Water Street elevator complex could be built right on the river bank, where it could be directly serviced by wagon, rail, canal, and lakes shipping.

1852 St. Louis Levee

Thomas Easterly’s 1852 Daguerreotype of the busy St. Louis Levee illustrates the distance between the river and shoreline warehouses dictated by the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River’s water levels throughout the year. Every barrel, box, and sack of cargo had to be physically carried across the levy to and from waiting steamboats.

Not so in St. Louis. There, the Levee was not only a transshipment point, but was a buffer for the city against the power of the Mississippi, which frequently flooded. As a result of the unpredictable river, grain elevators could not be built directly on the Mississippi’s riverbank, but had to be located some distance from the river. That meant no direct access to the city’s elevators by steamboats on the river.

In addition, St. Louis’s economic leaders decided, much like their counterparts in Oswego, that railroads were not the coming thing in transport. The decision was to stick with steamboats, since the city already had infrastructure in place for them. Not only that, but the city fought against the idea of a direct rail connection across the river, forbidding any rail bridges to be built. Indeed, when the first rail bridge spanned the Mississippi, it was not at St. Louis, but rather crossed the river from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. And then St. Louis’s steamboat interests fought the bridge’s existence in court, the case decided in the railroad’s favor thanks to the legal acumen of their lawyer—himself a former flatboat crewman who transported bags of corn to New Orleans—Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois.

Chicago, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s central railroad hub with commodities from the huge hinterland surrounding it flowing into the city, and finished goods flowing out. There was good reason that when circumstances, including rural free mail delivery, made mail order businesses possible, the nation’s two largest, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward & Company, located in Chicago.

1874 Eads Bridge, St. Louis

James B. Eads’ revolutionary bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis didn’t open until 1874, more than two decades after a web of rail lines extended from Chicago to the rest of the Midwest. The bridge created the city’s first direct rail link to the east side of the Mississippi, but it proved too late to succeed in competition with Chicago.

St. Louis didn’t get its direct railroad connection with the east bank of the Mississippi until 1874, when James B. Eads’ remarkable, innovative bridge opened to traffic. Eads built his bridge despite the opposition of steamboat interests who remained economic powers in St. Louis despite railroads having proven to provide economical, year round transportation.

By that time, however, Chicago was preparing to steal the crown of the Midwest’s economic leader from St. Louis, a disparity that has only gotten greater over the ensuing decades. In 1840, St. Louis and St. Louis County had a total population of nearly 36,000, dwarfing Chicago and Cook County’s population of just 10,201. But by 1870, while the population of St. Louis and county had grown to 351,000 people, Chicago was already crowding it with 349,000. In 1880, St. Louis’s city and county population had barely increased to 382,000 while Chicago and Cook’s population had continued its strong growth to 607,000 and by 1890, the population of St. Louis was 488,000 while Chicago’s population had nearly doubled to 1,192,000.

Would the fate of St. Louis have been any different had the city embraced railroads in the 1850s instead of grudgingly accepting its first rail link east of the Mississippi two decades later? Possibly. Even probably. But it’s also pretty clear that Chicago would have surpassed St. Louis no matter what given the Windy City’s location that let it take advantage of direct connections via the Great Lakes and railroads to the New York market and rail and canal connections south to New Orleans, not to mention rail connections west across the nation to the Pacific.

But the railroad phobia that was apparently so common in the early 1850s undoubtedly made things worse for St. Louis.

There’s probably a lesson for us there, but as I’ve noted before, the real trick is to figure out what that it might be and then make use of the lesson learned. Because if current events show us anything at all, it’s that humans not only stubbornly refuse to learn history’s lessons, but more often than not refuse to admit there are any lesson to be learned in the first place.

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Where have all the farmers gone?

As I noted in my last post, my home area of Kendall County lost an unprecedented amount of farmland in the five years between 2007 and 2012, with more than 37,000 acres being taken out of production.

Some of it was lost to commercial development, but much more of it went to residential developers before the Crash of ’08 brought local development to a halt.

At least commercial development has the benefit of being a net tax gain for local residents. Residential development, however, is usually a net tax loss. Why? Commercial development creates not only increased real estate tax revenue over what that same land would produce as farmland, but it also generates sales tax revenue on which local municipal government, from villages and cities to counties and state government, depends. Residential real estate, on the other hand, gobbles up tax revenue at prodigious rates without producing enough revenue to break even.

All that residential development, as it absorbed so much good farmland, led to a net property tax revenue loss, only some of which was covered by commercial development.

And then what happened to all the farmers whose land began to grow houses instead of corn, beans, and livestock? They joined a trend that has been going on for decades, either leaving their way of life altogether or moving their farming operations out of the area to rural areas where development is less vigorous.

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County. Of those, nearly 80 percent were raising some livestock along with grain and forage crops. Average farm size in Kendall County was 180 acres in 1950.

By 2014, there were only 364 farms in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just 11 percent had some sort of livestock around the place. And the average size of county farms had risen to 356 acres.

Those figures illustrate what’s been happening in U.S. agriculture in general for nearly 200 years: Mechanization, improved agricultural techniques, and genetic manipulation of crops have led to vastly increased yields and vastly decreased labor needed to provide the grain and meat needed to feed not only ourselves, but a good chunk of the world, too. In effect, farmers and their communities have been victims of their own success.

In 1850, which was just after the period of settlement, it took about 90 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield was about 40 bushels per acre.

Farm Picking corn by hand

Until the late 1930s, virtually all the nation’s corn crop was picked by hand, one ear at a time, stored to dry, then shelled from the cob and finally hauled to market. Above, Lyle Shoger pauses with a full load on his way to the crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

Different varieties of corn were gradually introduced, including hybrids that would eventually lead to drastically increase yields, as were scientific farming methods first championed by English and Scottish immigrants who began arriving in northern Illinois in the late 1840s. Thanks to those factors, plus increasing mechanization, by 1900, while the yield per acre of corn production was about the same 40 bushels to the acre, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had dropped significantly, to just 35 hours.

During the next half-century, commercial fertilizers, hybrid crop varieties, the impact of agriculture science research at state land grant universities (like the University of Illinois), and the near-complete disappearance of horse-powered farming had dramatic effects. By 1950, not only had yields risen by 25 percent, but the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of corn had once again plummeted to just 14 hours.

And then came the real revolution in both mechanization and plant science. Howard Doster, a Purdue Extension farm management specialist, writing some 20 years ago, noted: “By the 1990s, the average American farmer produced a bushel of corn in less than one minute of labor.

Indeed, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn these days and yields of 200 and more bushels per acre are not uncommon.

So, you’d think that more productivity and larger farms might reasonably lead to the need for fewer farmers. And you’d be right. According to the USDA, between 2000 and 2009 alone, 56 percent of rural American counties lost population. The effect on most small towns in Illinois seems to have been a lot less drastic than in states that are far more rural. In Iowa, smaller towns are dying and disappearing, with few able to support much more than a Casey’s General Store and the local elevator/lumber yard. That’s led to the disappearance of community institutions in those small towns, from churches to schools, as farm families slowly disappear.

But what about the loss of all that prime farmland here in the Fox River Valley? Isn’t that creating a future food crisis? Maybe. But probably not.

Farm drovers

Livestock, from hogs to cattle to horses and sheep, were all driven to the Chicago market by farmers in the Fox and DuPage river valleys. It allowed the crops raised outside the city to be fed to animals that then walked to market, instead of hauling the grain itself.

When pioneer farmers arrived here on Kendall County’s prairies, each farmer’s first task was to support his own family, and then sell what little remained. Here in Chicago’s hinterland, that meant growing crops that could be fed to livestock, which, in turn, was driven to the Chicago market. Grain, too, was also gradually grown for sale, a market that exploded as soon as rail lines pushed west of Chicago. Subsistence farming disappeared relatively quickly after the rails arrived, and grain and livestock exports became the bedrock of Kendall County’s economy.

modern corn harvest

Modern combined harvesters not only pick the ears from several rows of corn at once but then they shell the kernels from the cob, producing a crop ready to ship to market saving astonishing amounts of time and money.

By 1940, with many farmers still relying on horses for power, each American farmer could feed 19 people. By 1950, U.S. farmers were beginning to export grain and meat to the rest of the world, with each farmer able to feed 27 people. During the past several decades, progress in crop varieties, farming techniques, and mechanization has led to a dramatic increase in U.S. farm productivity. These days, although there are far, far fewer farmers than there used to be, each one feeds an estimated 155 people here and around the world—and the number keeps inching up each year.

So, getting back to the question in the title above, where have all the farmers gone? Well, some got rich by selling their land to developers, which is what frequently happened around these parts. Others were ruined by the frequent ups and downs of farm economics and decided to take up jobs where drought, floods, or communicable livestock disease couldn’t ruin their families. Others, a distilled few hardy survivors, remain to make their own living and to feed the rest of us.

From the go-go development in Kendall County’s eastern and northern tier of townships, pick a road—Galena Road’s a good one—and head west. It won’t take many minutes before you will find yourself in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields, much as the entire Chicago metro region once was. But keep in mind that the vast majority of the barns and corn cribs and other outbuildings you see are as obsolete for farming as a Model T would be commuting into the Loop. Farmers are maintaining them, mostly, for their own pride in keeping a neat farmstead. And some for nostalgia, too, for a time of small farms, small rural towns with their small rural churches and schools, and the rest of what agricultural life had been for decades upon decades. While we sometimes feel that we’ve irrevocably lost any connection with our area’s rural heritage, it really doesn’t take much time or effort to realize those connections still exist. There are just not nearly as many as there used to be.

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