Category Archives: Government

The ultimate sacrifice of Elwyn Holdiman—a Memorial Day update

Last November, I wrote about the discovery that one of my distant cousins, Elwyn Holdiman, was killed in action during World War II.

A pretty typical Kendall County farm boy, his story was uncovered during our annual salute to local veterans down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, where I serve as the volunteer director. We do a lengthy special exhibit on the topic as the nation celebrates Veterans Day each year, and last year we discovered Elwyn Holdiman’s story. You can read about it here.

1935 Squires School students

Elwyn Holdiman attended classes at the one-room Squires School, located in Oswego at the corner of old Douglas Road and U.S. Route 34. He’s the tall kid in the back row circled in red.

But recently, the surprising reach of the Internet was brought home to me once again when a resident of the Netherlands ran across that blog post and contacted me concerning Holdiman’s death.

Werner van Osch, who created and maintains the 7th Armored Division Memorial Holland web site at http://www.7tharmoredmemorial.nl/index.php, contacted me to volunteer some more detailed information about Elwyn Holdiman’s death in combat back in October 1944.

Holdiman was a member of Company C of the 17th Tank Battalion, which itself was assigned to the 7th Armored Division. In the autumn of 1944, the 7th Division was part of Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army that was fighting in Holland in support of Operation Market Garden, the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to leapfrog over strong German positions using British, American, Canadian, and Polish airborne troops, along with Dutch resistance forces, to seize militarily vital bridges.

In fighting that was a small part of the Battle of Canals on Oct. 29 against the German 9th Panzer Division a couple miles from Heusden west of the Asten/Meijel Road, Cpl. Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by enemy fire while Company C was supporting an infantry push.

After reading the 17th Tank Battalion’s after action reports, I concluded that Holdiman had been killed in action, along with the rest of the crew. Four casualties were listed with the tank’s destruction, including Holdiman; 2nd Lt. Robert W. Denny, the tank’s commander; loader and machine gunner Pvt. Michael Ferris; and Tec 4 Leo W. Goers, the tank’s driver.

According to the report on Company C filed by the 17th Tank Battalion about the action on Oct. 29: “This Company did an excellent job but they lost Lt. DENNY who had just recently been Commissioned from the ranks, he had previously been a Platoon Sergeant in the same Company, Lt. DENNY was an excellent leader and his loss is a great loss to the Company. ‘C’ Company lost four tanks in this action and they definitely knocked out five German Tanks.”

Sherman tank

A U.S. Army M-4 Sherman Tank, the standard Allied tank of World War II. Cpl. Elwyn Holdiman was killed in action when the Sherman Tank in which he was a crew member was destroyed by enemy fire on Oct. 29, 1944.

But the documents supplied by Werner van Osch show that I didn’t have the story quite right. Granted, the four soldiers killed I originally listed indeed died in that violent action. But a fifth member of the tank crew, Pvt. Frank Velus escaped with his life. The official documents also reported what happened after the four members of the tank crew were killed in action.

Holdiman’s family was initially informed he was missing in action on Nov. 11, 1944. Then after the deaths of the four members of the tank crew were confirmed, the Army officially reclassified him as killed in action on March 10, 1945.

The combat situation was apparently pretty fluid in that area of Holland as the Allies pushed the Germans steadily back. The British Royal Army was assigned to control the area, and when they moved in and secured it, they found the burned out tank on a secondary road in a peat bog just south of the road between Miejel and Asten.

According to a report filed by Royal Army Chaplain A.I Dunlop, the remains of Lt. Denny, badly burned, were found a couple yards from the tank, while the remains of Pvt. Ferris were twenty yards from the tank and were unburned. According to his report, the chaplain helped remove Holdiman’s burned and maimed body from the tank for burial. Dunlop added that Tech 4 Goers’ body was so badly burned the British didn’t remove it from the tank but left it in place.

The conditions being what they were, the British troops didn’t have time to identify the three bodies they’d recovered. They did, however, take the time to bury them in shallow graves next to each other, arranged with Ferris first, then Holdiman, and then Lt. Denny. The British soldiers erected crosses over the three, with the cross over Holdiman’s body carrying the inscription: “Unknown American soldier, K/A Oct/Nov ’44.” They forwarded reports about what they’d done—it would be up to the U.S. Army to handle further activity concerning the dead G.I.’s.

In September 1945, four months after the end of the war in Europe, U.S. Army Graves Registration personnel, with the help of a local Dutch family, located, recovered, and identified the three bodies from the hasty graves in which Holdiman and his three comrades had been buried. Holdiman was identified by the single dog tag that he still wore around his neck, even in death. The three were then removed to a U.S. military cemetery. Holdiman was reburied in plot KKK, row 11, grave 273 at the U.S. military cemetery at Margraten, Holland.

In early December 1947, the U.S. Army notified the Holdiman family that families of the nation’s war dead were invited to request the repatriation of their bodies from the sprawling European military cemeteries. The Holdiman family immediately requested that Elwyn Holdiman’s body be returned to the U.S. for burial in the family plot at the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. In January 1948, the U.S. Army approved the Holdimans’ request.

Holdiman tombstone

Cpl. Edwyn Holdiman’s body was repatriated from Holland in 1948 and was reburied at Lincoln Memorial Park in Oswego Township in the family plot.

Cpl. Holdiman’s body was disinterred on Aug. 11, 1948, and readied for shipment back to Kendall County. His body was loaded aboard the USS Carroll Victory at Antwerp, Belgium for the trim back across the Atlantic on Oct. 29, 1948. The ship arrived back in the U.S. on Nov. 16.

After some minor repairs to the casket of damage sustained in shipping were completed on Dec. 10, Holdiman’s body was sent west to Illinois by train. Accompanied by a military escort, it was delivered on Monday, Dec. 13, 1948 to the Healy Undertaking Company on Downer Place in Aurora. His funeral was subsequently held at Lincoln Memorial Park in Oswego Township, where he was buried in the family plot.

As we look towards celebrating another Memorial Day, at a time when the nation’s young men and women are still fighting and dying in foreign battlefields, it is an excellent, and fitting, time to recall other young people of other generations—like Elwyn Holdiman—who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country and the fight for freedom and in defense of the Constitution.

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Filed under Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, 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.

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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.

 

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

When it comes to local government, you really do get what you pay for

The other day I was digging through a file of things I’d meant to write about someday (it’s a BIG file!) when I came across some interesting stuff about my hometown, Oswego, Illinois. Back in September 2016, the Value Penguin web site ranked Oswego as the worst town in Illinois in which to own a home. Then just a month later, the WalletHub web site ranked Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities, not only in Illinois but in the entire nation.

Clearly, studies like these two should always be considered with caution, but after reading both, it appeared Value Penguin’s analysis was heavily weighted towards tax burden, while WalletHub’s was heavily weighted towards quality of life.

“WalletHub’s analysts compared 1,268 cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 30 key indicators of livability,” according to the site’s news release, which I’d downloaded in hopes of doing something with it. “They range from ‘housing costs’ to ‘school-system quality’ to ‘number of restaurants per capita,’” the release continued.

After reading the release and thinking about the criteria WalletHub used, it was pretty clear their results strongly suggested that you get what you pay for.

Here in Oswego and in Kendall County in general, we have a fairly high property tax burden thanks to the way state politicians have gamed the system of financing government to make it extremely unfair and to also ensure their own reelections. As a result, regressive taxes, such as sales and property taxes, have become more and more prominent in financing local and state government while the income tax, a far more fair tax, has become increasingly marginalized.

But at least here in Oswego, we actually do get pretty much what we pay for. Those high property taxes finance a solid school system and outstanding park, library, and fire districts, all of which provide services that enhance the quality of life WalletHub values so highly.

1984 June Lippold, Ford cropped

Ford Lippold was a major force in creating the modern community residents see today.

I remember one Memorial Day, after watching our local parade and visiting the cemetery for the annual ceremony, mentioning to my wife that the guys who went off to war did a good job of protecting our American way of life. She replied that she thought politicians of the past ought to get some of the credit, too, something at the time I considered an interesting statement that strikes me as more and more profound as time passes.

Because today’s Oswego didn’t just pop into being fully and completely the way we see it today. It took a lot of careful work by a lot of people, many of them elected officials, to get us here.

The foundations for the modern community we enjoy today were laid in the immediate post-World War II era, when all of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines came home to either restart their old lives or to begin something completely new. There was an urgency back then that shines through the stories in the pages of the Oswego Ledger, the weekly newspaper Oswego native Ford Lippold started in 1949.

With all those young men marrying women of childbearing age, the post-war Baby Boom was just getting underway. All those new families needed homes and jobs. Uncle Sam stepped in to help supply both through generous G.I. Bill programs that helped veterans buy homes with virtually no down payment, and also offered to send them to college virtually for free. Millions of former service men took the government up on their offers, creating a housing boom and a huge pool of highly-educated workers hungry for their chance to make good. It turned out to be the biggest government stimulus program in history, and one of the most valuable to the nation’s economic health.

Here in Oswego it meant, at first, new subdivisions and area new employment opportunities. The first post-war housing developments were relatively small. But after Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric, then the manufacturing arm of AT&T, announced plans for local factories, the era of big housing developments began.

1959 BH sign

Boulder Hill was the Fox Valley’s first large unincorporated subdivision. It was planned by developer Don L. Dise to have its own schools, churches, and shopping areas, along the lines of the Levittown development in his native Pennsylvania. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first of these was Boulder Hill, proposed on the former Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family. The force behind Boulder Hill was developer Don L. Dise working with a group of financial backers. While the Caterpillar and Western Electric announcements had gotten some attention, Dise’s proposal to develop more than 700 acres into an entirely new community with its own schools, churches, and stores really made folks sit up and take notice.

Interestingly enough, there was little opposition to all these new developments. Instead, the folks in charge of local government—many of whom were parents of my school classmates—decided that growth was good for Oswego and the community was going to grow and that long-range planning was needed to cope with it.

In the Aug. 4, 1955 Ledger under the heading “Village Planning Commission Needed?” Lippold wrote: “It is time to wake up and recognize the fact that Oswego and adjoining territory is growing and at an accelerated pace…Many communities faced with like problems have formed a planning committee to prepare for a systematic and orderly growth…Now is the time! Oswego is growing! Let’s keep it growing! Tomorrow may be too late!”

1957 abt Boulder Hill aerial

This aerial view of Boulder Hill under development, taken in 1957, shows the Western Electric plant at upper right, along with U.S. Route 30 Bypass under construction, and the new Caterpillar plant under construction at upper left. (Little White School Museum collection)

With Boulder Hill already under construction inside the Oswego School District, the grade and high school boards had already started planning for the future. Looking at this piecemeal approach, Oswego Township government, under the direction of township supervisor Wayne Fosgett (the father of another of my classmates), organized local school, municipal, and other officials to look into some professional land planning. Two weeks later, the Ledger reported that at a meeting of local elected and appointed officials, “A committee consisting of John Carr, Dr. M.R. Saxon, Mrs. Homer Brown, Charles Lippincott, and Jerome Nelson was appointed to talk with Western Electric personnel officers concerning the likely needs of workers at the new plant.”

The committee was also charged with talking with Boulder Hill developer Dise about “preliminary planning on schools, parks, fire protection, etc.”

Even at that early date, Oswego had a few things going for it. A fire protection district had been established back in the late 1930s to provide fire protection not only to the village of Oswego, but also to the large rural area surrounding it. In addition, by 1955 the community had a robust park district whose programming, especially for children, was growing. The community also had use of the small community library operated by the Nineteenth Century Club, a women’s civic organization.

The idea to establish a comprehensive development plan began gaining widespread community support. In early September 1955, a petition containing the names of 220 Oswego registered voters was presented to the village board recommending establishing a comprehensive development plan be established. At a special board meeting later that month, the board approved an ordinance establishing an 11-member planning commission.

But the wheels of even local government move slowly. By early December, there had been no movement on the part of the village to appoint plan commission members, and Ledger editor Lippold reminded the community that time was wasting. “The time is urgent. The need is urgent. Let us hope that the plan commission is completed and in operation by the January board meeting,” he wrote.

By January 18, the village was ready to move, and that evening Oswego’s first plan commission, consisting of William K. Miller, Douglas Dreier, Henry W. Smith, Mrs. Lester (Dorothy) Bell, Mrs. Stanley Drew, John Luettich, Rev. G. Albert Murphy, Everett McKeown, and Stanley Herren was appointed.

The community was becoming aware of what awaited them as growth began to accelerate. There was plenty of agricultural land surrounding Oswego that could easily be subdivided. And with the exception of Caterpillar and Western Electric, there was very little industrial and commercial property available to take the tax burden off homeowners and farmers. Writing in the March 8, 1956 Ledger, Lippold commented: “Oswego is in a position where it will certainly get the full force of the influx of population. We are on the fringe of a huge industrial area and the trend from metropolitan Chicago is in our direction. If we are going to get the houses and the people, we might just as well have the industry and reap the tax benefits therefrom. Industry will ease the tax load on every person in the community. It is a good thing for our county and township officials to be thinking of, as well as our plan commission. Oswego is going to grow. The handwriting is on the wall. Now is the time to plan.”

The need was becoming much more urgent, and as community leaders gave the matter some thought, they realized that any planning effort had to be broad-based and not simply limited to the Oswego village limits. As a result, officials from Oswego Township, the grade and high school districts, the fire protection district, and representatives from the community’s civic organizations made the collective decision to significantly broaden the community planning base.

1957 Oswego Comp Plan

The cover of Oswego Park District President Ralph Wheeler’s copy of the 1957 comprehensive plan. (Little White School Museum collection)

At the annual Oswego Township meeting in April 1956, the electors attending voted $400 towards financing a community comprehensive plan. Then in late May about 50 community leaders, along with village officials and members of the new Oswego Plan Commission met at Oswego High School to hear a presentation by planners with Everett Kincaid and Associates, a prominent Chicago planning firm.

Lippold kept the pressure on, commenting in the May 30, 1956 Ledger: “This is a time for working together in our community. It is a time for thinking ahead and planning. It is a time for doing. How well we plan, how well we work will decide whether Oswego progresses or becomes a dusty spider-web covered community.”

The next week, the village board agreed to spend $2,500 to hire Kincaid to draw up a comprehensive development plan for Oswego and Oswego Township. The board expressed the hope that participation in drawing up the plan would be community-wide. On Feb. 21, 1957, the completed plan was unveiled to a crowd of more than 200 area residents at a special meeting at Oswego High School. “Oswego is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, town in this part of the United States to have such an official plan prepared and ready for adoption,” Lippold noted in the Ledger.

The village board eventually adopted the Kincaid plan after they adopted their first subdivision ordinance, building code, and land use maps. In late May 1957, the board formally approved the Kincaid plan and it was printed for distribution.

From that beginning, the Oswego area began growing as more and more folks moved into Dise’s Boulder Hill Subdivision, as well as into the other subdivisions being developed in and around Oswego. The transition from a small farming area to a fast-growing suburban community definitely put stress on local institutions. Dise pledged to help a bit by offering $100 to local taxing districts for each of his new homes. But the area needed some new resources, too.

During the Great Depression, Oswego had received Works Progress Administration funds to operate a summer recreation program for youngsters. In the post-war years, as members of the Baby Boom began making their presence felt, the community again began looking for some way to entertain them. In 1948, at the urging of the Oswego Parent-Teacher Association, a community recreation committee was established with Al Shuler as chairman, Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Secretary, and Max Cutter, treasurer. John Luettich, Mrs. O. W. (Jane) Patterson, Don Pinnow, and Ford L. Lippold, were directors. The committee canvassed the community and received $1,000 in donations to start a summer recreation program. In late 1949, another fund drive met with only lukewarm success, suggesting to the committee that a more formal funding mechanism was needed. The recreation board acting as the organizers, a drive was begun to establish a park district that would be funded through property taxes. In April 1950, voters approved establishing the new taxing district by a vote of 263-137. The first board of park commissioners elected that spring was Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Mrs. O.W. Patterson, William Anderson, Arthur Davis, and Ralph Wheeler.

1964 Oswego Pub Library dedication A

The Oswego Township Library was dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 18, 1964. Its construction was financed with community donations in a campaign organized by the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new public library was built through public subscription, opening in 1964 as a township library. In April 1977, by a 2-1 margin, township residents voted to change the library’s governance to a library district to protect its broad property tax base.

In 1962, the separate grade and high school districts merged to form Oswego Community Consolidated Unit School District 308, educating students from first through 12th grades. A few years later, kindergarten was added to the district, mostly at the urging of residents of Boulder Hill.

A few years later, reflecting the reality that it served more areas than simply the village of Oswego, the park district officially changed its name to the Oswegoland Park District.

“As more than two-thirds of the residents in the district live outside the village limits, it was felt that the Oswegoland designation would be more representative of the geography of the district,” Lippold reported in the Feb. 2, 1966 Ledger. “The Oswegoland Park District covers a 36 square mile area in the shape of a square with each side being six miles in length.”

So by 1977, the basic underpinning of the Oswego area community that led WalletHub to honor Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities in the U.S. were in place. Since then, Oswego’s population has literally exploded from 1980’s 3,012 residents to the latest estimate of 34,571, while Oswego Township’s total population has also boomed, from 1980s 16,772 to a population of 50,870 in 2010, the latest date I’ve been able to find a figure for.

Absorbing that many people in such a relatively short period of time—Oswego’s municipal population as late as 1990 was just 3,876—while maintaining a relatively high standard of living and making the community a desirable place to raise a family didn’t come about by accident. It started all the way back in 1956 when those newly discharged World War II draftees and enlistees started raising their families and looking towards making their community a good place to live. But they also—and this is the really important part of the story—wanted the Oswego area to be a nice place to live for those who came after them. We owe a significant debt of gratitude to people like Ford Lippold, newspaper publisher, strong advocate of youth recreation programs, and the first director of the Oswego Park District; Bill Miller, member of the first plan commission and village board member; Wayne Fosgett, Oswego Township Supervisor and strong community planning advocate; Jane Patterson, Oswego business owner and strong advocate of local parks and comprehensive planning; Dick Young, environmentalist, public official, author, and another strong advocate for planning and zoning; and so many others who volunteered their time and often their own treasure to make our community what it is today.

Local officials, the folks who serve, often at no pay, on the park, school, library, township, fire, county, and village boards come in for a lot of criticism—some of it justified!—but they work hard, and for the most part their efforts have made the Oswego area into what even people outside the community believe is a good place to live.

 

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It’s about time…

Remember that hour of sleep you gained last November when we went on Central Standard Time? Well it is coming due for payment as we switch to Central Daylight Savings Time. Before you go to bed on Saturday night, March 10, be sure to set your clocks ahead an hour.

As of 2 a.m. that Sunday morning here in the Central Time Zone, we all moved to Central Daylight Savings Time, meaning when it’s noon in Yorkville, it’s also noon in Ottumwa, Ia. and in Green Bay, Wis.

As you have probably gathered from material I’ve written over the years, one of the things I’m fascinated with is how things we take for granted came to be the way they are today. And time was, when it was 9 a.m. here in Oswego, it wasn’t anywhere close to 9 a.m. in, say, Council Bluffs, Ia. because each community set their clocks by when the sun was directly overhead at noon.

Image result for railroad time

The original time zone map for the United States has undergone a few modifications since the system was established in 1883, but for the most part the zones established 135 years ago are still largely intact.

This really wasn’t much of a problem for the first hundred years of the nation’s existence, but with the advent of railroads and their rapid expansion across the country, timing became a real challenge. It wasn’t only an issue with travelers, but safely scheduling increasingly fast trains on multiple tracks became a real, and sometimes deadly, problem.

So the big railroads in the U.S. and Canada got together and in 1883, they announced a new system of time zones across North America in which the time would be identical for all areas within each zone. And when the railroads, then the biggest economic power in the country, announced their new time zones were going to be put into effect starting Nov. 18, 1883, the entire nation was pretty much obliged to go along with them.

The Nov. 22, 1883 Kendall County Record announced the new time schedule in a prominent article headlined “Change of Railroad Time; Nine Minutes Slower.” As Record Editor John R. Marshall reported:

“By concerted action, which has been under discussion for some time, the leading railroads have established a new method of reckoning time, and it went into effect on Sunday last at noon.

“Heretofore, trains on different [rail]roads have been run on Chicago time or St. Louis time or Burlington or New York time, as the managers saw fit, and much inconvenience has been occasioned thereby. Now, instead of time being changed by the sun as we proceed east or west, for certain territories a fixed time has been established without regard to the time the sun’s ascension or declination would show. The territory is arbitrarily fixed by meridian lines, if we understand the matter rightly. With us, it is the 19th Meridian, known as ‘Central Standard Time,’ and it is nine minutes slower than Chicago time. This standard reaches to all points east of the Missouri river, so that, if we read right, 12 noon at Chicago is 12 noon at Council Bluffs, Ia. Under the old time, when it was 12 at Washington [D.C.], it was 11:17 at Chicago and 10:44 at Council Bluffs.”

A press release furnished the Record by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad informed Marshall that:

“This new time will be generally adopted by all the railroads in this section of the country and I would suggest the advisability of your considering its adoption for the standard time in your city.”

In other words, communities were free to adopt the new standard time or not. But since all of the nation’s railroads were going to operate on the new time, and since railroads were then the backbone of the nation’s economic system, not adopting the new standard simply didn’t make much sense.

Locally, the impact wasn’t very great since Kendall County is so close to the center of what became the new Central Time Zone. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent observed in his Nov. 29 column:

“The new time arrangement by the railroad authorities has called forth many newspaper notices. This locality is hardly any affected by it, being left with the true time nearly as much so as before—the Chicago time by which it was governed was about 4 minutes too fast, that now adopted 5 minutes too slow—but on the dividing lines its effects will be much felt and work queerly.”

As Rank noted:

“On the west side of the line the time always will be 30 minutes ahead of the true time, while on the east side it will be 30 minutes behind, making a difference of one hour between the two sections, so when a man jumps on a horse and gallops to a place east over the line some distance, making it in 30 minutes, he will get there a half hour before he started from home, but in returning at the same speed, it will take him an hour and a half.”

Not all areas of the country agreed with the railroads’ effective seizure of authority to set local time. But use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communications and travel.

Image result for daylight savings time 1918

Daylight Savings Time was introduced as an energy saving measure during World War I. Dropped after the war, it was reestablished when World War II broke out.

Odd as it may seem, standardized time zones across the country were not established by U.S. law until the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918, which also established Daylight Savings Time, a much more controversial idea, especially in rural areas like Kendall County.

Benjamin Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Savings Time in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1895 that George Vernon Hudson proposed its modern incarnation. Not until wartime conditions made the time right to establish nationally standardized time did Hudson’s idea become law. And an unpopular one at that.

But given the patriotism stirred up by World War I, the nation was willing to give it a try. Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall (son of John R. Marshall quoted above) observed that the idea didn’t prove as problematic as many feared, asking in the April 3, 1918 edition:

“Didn’t mind it, did you? You never noticed the change of time after the novelty wore off, but did you notice that you did not burn so much light at night as before?”

But the nation’s farmers did notice it. Because the cows that needed milking and the cattle and hogs and chickens that needed feeding didn’t care one little bit about what the farmers’ clocks said. They were running on their own internal clocks provided and maintained by Mother Nature, not some arbitrary schedule, even if it was codified into law.

While Congress voted to repeal Daylight Savings Time after the war—over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson—the idea of standardized time zones across the entire country remained enshrined in law. Daylight Savings Time returned once again during World War II, again touted as a method of saving energy. Referred to as “War Time,” Congress again voted to repeal it as soon as the war was over, much to the glee of farmers across the nation. The Record’s Oswego correspondent happily observed in the Oct. 31, 1945 edition:

O! the joy and peace and contentment when the announcer is heard to say, “We have no two-timers this morning; Central Standard has come to stay,” (we hope).”

Daylight Savings Time was finally made law in 1974 in the midst of the energy crisis, touted, just as it had been during the two world wars, as a way to save energy. And this year, come Nov. 18, we’ll observe the 135th anniversary of the day they made everyone and every thing in the nation’s time zones start running on the same times.

 

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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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It’s summer on the prairie once again in the Prairie State

It’s mid summer here on the Illinois prairie, and the cast of floral characters has changed from the cheery blooms of early spring to the whites of field daisies and blues of spiderwort and chicory as we close in on August.

A surprising number of the species of wildflowers we see along roadsides, railroad rights-of-way, and in abandoned cemeteries are the same ones that brightened the year of the first settlers on the prairie. They were a determined bunch, those early pioneers, who had been forced to adapt to an entirely new way of settling a frontier that offered few of the ingredients for the tried and true methods of early American settlement.

So it would have been interesting to have been able to listen in on the conversations that must have taken place as the tide of settlement finally reached western Indiana. Because there, pioneers ran out of the dense woodlands of the Eastern forest and looked out across the vast, mostly treeless expanse of tallgrass prairie that gently rolled west from the eastern edge of the Prairie Peninsula as far as the eye could see.

By the time the Revolutionary War ended, the technology of pioneering western lands was well established.

Using the abundant timber in the sprawling Eastern deciduous forest that stretched from northern New England to central Florida, all the way west to the Mississippi River, log cabins and outbuildings were built based on a design brought to the New World by Swedish settlers in the 1600s. Fields and pastures were enclosed with Virginia rail fences, with rails split from logs from the trees that had to be cleared to plant crops. Trees were girdled—stripped of bark in a belt around the circumference of the trunk—to kill them and the next year a crop of sorts could be planted among the standing trunks. Then the backbreaking work began to cut down the dead timber and chop, dig, and lever stumps out of the ground.

It was a technology well understood, if extremely labor intensive.

Historic prairies in the USNobody, even today, is entirely sure what created the giant, horizontal V-shaped expanse of grassland that stretches west from western Indiana and includes much of Illinois, a lot of Iowa and Missouri, and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Illinois Geological Survey notes, the Prairie Peninsula’s soil and climate is perfectly capable of supporting forests, and indeed miniature hardwood forests—called groves by the pioneers—dotted the tallgrass prairies.

Fire is one obvious answer to the conundrum. During the settlement era of the 1830s, fierce prairie fires roared over the prairies driven by the prevailing westerly winds, consuming anything combustible in their paths, including trees that were not fire resistant or tolerant. During the settlement era, these fires were entirely natural in nature, caused by early spring and late fall thunder storms. But scientists and anthropologists also have come to agree that in the pre-settlement era, prairie fires were set on purpose by the Native People who lived on the prairies. The reasons ranged from aids to hunting to clearing brush from wooded savannas to encourage the growth of desirable species and to increase grazing areas for game animals, particularly deer. Deer are creatures of the edges of forests, and periodic fires maintained the open woodlands that encouraged the growth of saplings and other plants deer prefer.

Whatever or whoever created them, the prairies must have caused many a pioneer to stop, scratch their head, and wondered to themselves, “What now?” Because there just wasn’t enough timber out on the prairies to sustain the traditional timber-centric pioneer settlement technology.

Granted, the lack of trees wasn’t all bad. No backbreaking tree and stump removal was required, and prairie soil was incredibly rich. But timber stands were only found in and around wetlands and along stream courses. Smart early settlers quickly snapped up the groves dotting the prairies, then subdividing them into small woodlots for sale to later arrivals.

1870 Oswego Twp woodlots

This detail of AuSable Grove from the 1870 Oswego Township plat map illustrates how many of the county’s groves were divided into small woodlots and sold to individual farm families.

James Sheldon Barber, who arrived at Oswego in December 1843 wrote to his parents back in Smyrna, New York, that it was generally agreed that a farmer needed a 10-acre woodlot to provide sufficient timber for fences and buildings and for firewood.

The lack of timber only got worse as the tide of settlement rolled farther west, until it reached the shortgrass prairies starting in western Iowa. From there on west, trees were virtually nonexistent.

To cope with the lack of timber, within a decade and a half of the first settlers arriving on the Illinois prairie, new technologies were developed to deal with the problem, chief among them being the timber-conserving balloon frame construction technique that used sawn lumber for building construction instead of logs.

The surprise bordering on awe in which the open, rolling grasslands of the Prairie Peninsula were greeted by our pioneering ancestors stayed with them the rest of their lives. The shear openness across which travelers could see for miles and where the sky seemed limitless—huge changes from the claustrophobic Eastern forests—proved a challenge for some and an incredible delight for others.

In 1834, former sea captain Morris Sleight traveled west from his home in New York to prospect for a likely place to settle, eventually reaching the small settlement along the DuPage River that would one day become Naperville. On July 9, he wrote to his wife, Hannah back in New York, of his impressions when he first encountered the tallgrass prairie: “The first view of a Michigan Prairie is Delightfull after Passing the oak openings & thick forest, but the first view of an Illinois Prairie is Sublime, I may almost say awfully Grand, as a person needs a compass to keep his course—but the more I travel over them the better I like them. There is a great variety of Flowers now on the Prairies, but they tell me in a month from this time they will be much prettier.”

1866 Illinois prairie near Kewanee

Junius Sloan captured this image of his parents’ farm in this 1866 oil painting, which gives a rough idea of what the Illinois prairie was like 150 years ago. The farm was located near Kewanee in Henry County. The original painting is owned by the Kewanee Historical Society.

Elmer Barce, in The Land of the Pottawatomi, noted: “Nothing could be more delightful than the open prairies. They were covered with a giant blue-stem grass in the late summer. A party of hunters in 1821 found some so high that a horseman could tie the ends over the top of his head. The color of the prairie flowers in the spring is bluish-purple, violets, bluebells, iris, and others. In midsummer it is red with phlox and Sweet William. In the autumn, it is yellow with golden rod, rosin-weed, and wild asters.”

Harriet Martineau, the distinguished British lecturer, visited the Fox Valley in 1836, and commented on the area west of Batavia: “I saw for the first time the American Primrose. It grew in. profusion over the whole prairie as far as I could see, graceful and pretty…the whole prairies were exquisitely beautiful.”

The New Englanders who began arriving on the Kendall County prairie in large numbers in the late 1830s were astonished by what they found.

Wrote Oliver C. Johnson, a descendant of early settlers Seth and Laureston Walker, who arrived in Kendall County from Massachusetts about 1845: “When these people who had come from the rocky hills of New England saw the beautiful, smooth prairies covered with thick grass and a sprinkling of wild flowers, they thought it a paradise compared with the country they had left.”

Their first introduction to the Illinois prairie sometimes left settlers speechless. Mrs. M.E. Jenesen, a member of Oswego’s Nineteenth Century Club, recalled in a 1905 lecture: “No words of mine can convey to you the vastness, the grandeur and beauty of the natural prairie in 1850, when I first came to Oswego…The music of the big frogs down in the slough and the drumming of prairie chickens must have been heard to be appreciated. The Fox River was pretty then. Its banks furnished attractions for those who liked a stroll—a sort of Lovers’ Lane, in fact.”

Goose Lake Prairie State Park

Goose Lake Prairie State Park south of Morris provides beautiful views year round, but is especially showy this time of year when the summer wildflowers strut their stuff.

James Sheldon Barber, noted above, traveled with a wagon train of friends from Smyrna, New York overland to Oswego in the late fall and early winter of 1843. After the dense forests of his home state and the other regions he’d traveled through, he marveled in a letter to his parents after arriving in Oswego: “How would it seem to you to [travel] 10 or 15 miles & not pass a tree nor a bush nor even a Stump. & so level that you could see a small house at the farthest side & then again there [are] Paurairies [sic] in this state where you may [travel] for 2 or 3 days & not see a tree nor anything of the kind.”

But all that wild beauty left other impressions as well, especially loneliness among the pioneer wives who arrived with their families.

In 1833, Chester and Lucinda (Wheeler) House arrived in what would become Kendall County’s Seward Township, staking a claim on the west bank of AuSable Creek where Chester built their log cabin. As the Rev. E.W. Hicks, the county’s first historian, described the House cabin in 1877: “It was a home, though so different from the comfortable surroundings that were left behind; and not only a home, but a frequent resting place for the traveler, and a beacon light, for persons were so often lost on the prairie that through the whole of the ensuing winter on dark nights Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”

William and Mary Young arrived in Chicago from England in 1835. In 1877, she explained Rev. E.W. Hicks how the couple made their way to Kendall County: “Mr. Young found work in a wagon shop during the winter, and there Isaac Townsend, being in Chicago, happened to meet him, and asked him if he would like to go out into the country. Mr. Young said yes, for he had the ague [malaria] very hard in Chicago. So we came out here [NaAuSay Township] in February. 1836. Mr. Townsend lived with Major Davis, and when we arrived, the wife of an Irishman who was keeping house for them said to me, ‘O, I am glad to see a woman, for I have not seen one for three months!’ Well, thinks I, we have got into a wilderness now, sure enough. However, we stood it better than I had feared, though we did have some times that were pretty hard.”

More and more settlers arrived on the prairies west of Chicago founding towns and villages, and as the country grew up around those early settlers the prairie plants disappeared under carpets of cultivated crops. Today, thanks to efforts began decades ago, area residents can get at least a glimpse of what the countryside looked like during the settlement era at prairie restorations throughout Illinois.

In fact, there’s a 45-acre prairie restoration right here in Kendall County at Silver Springs State Park with a one-mile nature trail winding through the big bluestem grass and prairie plants. A bigger chunk of prairie is not far away at Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County not far south of the Grundy-Kendall line. Nearly four square miles in area, Goose Lake Prairie includes some true native prairie along with thousands of acres of restored prairie.

Buffalo at Midewin

No, this isn’t Montana, it’s a typical scene of the Bison Restoration area of Midwen National Tallgrass Prairie on the old site of the Joliet Arsenal. Bison were introduced to the prairie in 2105.

Goose Lake is impressive, but to get a better idea of what the Illinois prairie really looked like, you need to visit the U.S. Forest Service’s 30 square mile Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on the old U.S. Army Arsenal site near Joliet. Not that all 30 square miles are pristine tallgrass prairie, of course. Midewin is definitely a prairie restoration work in progress, but it is a work that is progressing nicely to create a sizeable island of native prairie in the middle of the vigorous population and commercial growth our region has been undergoing for several decades now. And best of all, since 2015, the U.S. Forest Service has been reintroducing American bison at Midewin to help eventually create a true native prairie ecology. You can even enjoy watching the buffalo roam on the Midewin Bison Cam.

Besides their aesthetic attributes—spring on an Illinois prairie really is nearly indescribable—restored prairies limit and filter stormwater runoff, protect threatened species of both plants and animals, help recharge groundwater aquifers, and remove carbon from the atmosphere—a not inconsequential result in this day and age of global climate change.

And now in this long journey we’ve taken, from prairie to pioneer settlement to development and vigorous population growth, we’ve finally begun to see the value of connecting the circle back again to prairie here in the Prairie State.

 

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