Category Archives: Government

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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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, Part II

Part II in a two-part series in observation of National Historic Preservation Month…

In the autumn of 1964, Oswego’s Little White School was closed after serving as classroom space for the district’s students for the previous 49 years.

1958 LWS 1958

Oswego’s Little White School in 1958 in a photo taken by Homer Durrand for the Oswegorama community celebration. (Little White School collection)

The building started its life in Oswego as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, opening in 1850. For the next 63 years it served the community’s Methodists as a worship center and the rest of the community as public meeting space. Probably one of the more interesting non-religious events held in the building was the presentation of Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California. The spectacular presentation, which consisted of dozens of scenes of travel overland to California painted by artist James Wilkins, was mounted on canvas and then scrolled past the viewers, who were seated in chairs (or pews in the case of the Methodist-Episcopal Church) with live narration and music.

As Kendall County Courier Editor H.S. Humphrey put it in the May 23, 1855 issue: “Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California was exhibited last night at the Methodist Church to quite a respectable audience. It is a magnificent work of art…Persons wishing to make a journey across the plains can do it by visiting this Panorama, without the expenses and hardships attendant upon such an excursion.”

Nevertheless, the congregation was perennially short on money, and eventually dissolved in 1913. In 1915, the Oswego School District bought the building for classroom space for primary students. It served the community as both a school and public meeting space until the district closed it in 1964, afterwards using it for storage. When the district announced plans to sell the badly deteriorated building in the mid-1970s, a grassroots community effort was launched to save the building due to its direct linkage to Oswego’s rich heritage.

1970 LWS front cropped

Photo of Little White School taken by Daryl Gaar in July 1970 in preparation of a real estate appraisal report for the Oswego School District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which is where we rejoin the story with the formation of the Oswegoland Heritage Association in 1976. After all the hoopla and excitement of the Bicentennial ended it was time for the OHA to get to work to save the building. Restoration began in 1977, just 40 years ago this summer. The project was to be completed under a unique agreement between the Oswego School District, which maintained ownership of the building and grounds; the Oswegoland Park District, which pledged regular maintenance support; and the heritage association, which pledged to raise funds and oversee the building’s restoration.

Stabilization of the badly deteriorated structure was a vital first step. The first task was to tear the old roofs off and install a new one, a task accomplished with a combination of volunteer and paid labor, with funds raised by the heritage association. Next it was time to pull off the old wooden shingle siding, fill the nail holes, mask the windows, and paint the building.

A concrete porch and stairs had replaced the buildings original wooden front porch and stairs sometime around 1912, and over the years it sank, and as it did more concrete was added to level it out. It was determined the old concrete needed to go, and so it was demolished and removed. And that’s when it was discovered the front 11 x 11 inch solid oak sill had almost completely rotted away thanks to water flowing backwards on the concrete front porch and onto the sill during

1977 LWS Museum roofing 2

Getting a new roof on the Little White School Museum was the first order of business as restoration began in 1977. (Little White School Museum collection)

the previous 60 years. The result was the floor joists at the front of the building were no longer connected to the sill (which no longer existed at that location), but were being held up by the vestibule’s floorboards to which they were nailed—which is pretty much the opposite of what was supposed to be happening.

So carpentry wizard Stan Young replaced the rotted sill, and reproduced the wooden front porch using a 1901 postcard view of the building to draw his plans.

With the building painted, the front stairs replaced and a new roof installed, the last major exterior project was restoring the building’s bell tower. We’d discovered the church’s original bell was doing duty as Oswego High School’s victory bell, and so would be available—provided we could find a replacement victory bell. The good news was that the Oswego School District then, and probably now, too, doesn’t throw anything away, and it turned out they still had the bell recovered when the Red Brick School was demolished in 1965. All concerned agreed that would do just fine.

1980 Bell tower in place

The Little White School Museum’s restored bell tower after it was lowered in place by Garbe Iron Works’ mobile crane on Oct. 25, 1980. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Stan Young got to work, assisted by his sons, Glenn and Don, building a replica of the original bell tower on the front lawn of the Little White School in the fall of 1980. By Oct. 25, the tower was completed, along with a timber support structure to hold the bell.

Thanks to Oswegoan Terry Peshia, the OHA got an in-kind donation of a mobile crane from Garbe Iron Works in Aurora that was used to hoist the church bell out of the high school’s courtyard and then replace it there with the Red Brick School bell.

With a crew ready to go at the museum, first the bell, now bolted to its support timbers, was hoisted up and set in place, where it fit neatly through holes in the roof Stan had already created, and into the original mortises in the building’s timber structure. Then the tower itself was swayed up and, despite a sudden gust of wind on that breezy cloudy autumn day, was lowered into place and secured.

Museum northwest before afterFor the next two years, Stan Young scrounged for copper materials from which he fabricated a finial to fit atop the tower, using that 1901 postcard photo of the building to recreate it to scale.

Meanwhile, the OHA Board of Directors had been holding spirited discussions about what to do with the rest of the building’s restoration. The exterior was going to look like the building did after the 1901 addition of the bell and tower, with the exception that the 1934 classroom would be retained. But what to do with the interior?

The first decision was to renovate—not restore—the third classroom and the 1936 hallway into a modern entry and museum room. The rooms were gutted, which wasn’t hard because the water damage from the bad roof was causing the plaster and plaster board to fall down anyway. The windows along the south wall were all removed, and the three windows along the north side of the room were replaced with sashes with UV-filtering glass. Then the museum room and hallway were completely rewired, drop ceilings with recessed lighting were installed, and steel security doors were installed at the two exterior entrances. Finally, new wallboard was installed and everything got a couple coats of paint.

The museum committee had been working, too, using a moveable panel system designed by Glenn Young to divide the third classroom into exhibit areas. Young fabricated the dividers and the locking pins after which volunteers painted the frames and museum committee members installed burlap coverings before the panels were moved into place and secured. With display cases donated by Shuler’s Drug Store and other Oswego businesses, artifacts were placed on exhibit all in time for the museum’s grand opening in the spring of 1983 in time for the celebration of Oswego’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

09 1984 LWS look front

Interior of the Little White School Museum’s main room after demolition of the drop ceiling and partitions. (Little White School Museum collection)

By that time, and after much debate, the decision had been made to follow the recommendations championed by Glenn Young to return the Little White School Museum’s main room back to its original, classic Greek Revival dimensions. It would be a single room, 36 x 50 feet with 17 foot ceilings, complete with restored windows, replica oil lamps installed where the building’s original lamps had hung, and refinished trim, replicated where necessary. To accomplish that, all the interior partitions would have to be torn out, including the newer vestibule, the drop ceiling would have to be removed, the stairways to the basement washrooms would have to be removed and the floor patched, and the original, smaller, vestibule restored.

Fortunately for the project, the United Auto Workers local at Oswego Township’s Caterpillar, Inc. plant happened to pick the autumn of 1983 to go on strike. That freed up some of the workers at Cat who, when they weren’t walking the picket line, volunteered to help with the interior demolition work. By late fall, the room was back to its original dimensions and the scope of work could be determined. The old stairwells were capped, and major floor repairs near the buildings front door were completed, and then the lumber salvaged after the demolition work was used to restore the original vestibule, the dimensions of which were clearly visible.

1990 Windows Glenn gluing

Glenn Young gluing up a frosted plate glass window pane during the glue-chipping process. About 12 hours of volunteer time was spent on each restored window sash. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next question was what to do with the walls and ceiling, repair the original horsehair plaster or tear it all off. The decision was made to repair it, but before that happened the opportunity was taken to blow insulation into the walls from the inside since the holes in the plaster walls could easily be patched during the wall repair. The entire room was also rewired with heavy duty wire and new outlets installed throughout, along with a new 200-amp breaker panel.

After both the wall and ceiling repairs and the insulation installation were finished, everything got a coat of heavy duty sealer, followed by two coats of off-white paint.

Meanwhile, the wainscoting that had been removed during restoration work had been stripped of its paint, but there was still lots of wainscoting still in place around the room that needed to be stripped. So my son, and his best friend, spend their summer earning a bit of spending money by stripping decades of paint with heat guns. When stripping was finished, and all the wainscoting boards replaced, Glenn Young began the process of graining it to look like more expensive oak boards, using the graining examples we found behind some of the room’s baseboard as a guide.

When restoration began, we found two small panes of the original 1901 diamond-patterned glass had survived in windows on the buildings southeast corner. We had no idea what the glass was, only that it was decorated with alternate rows of diamonds, one row frosted diamonds, and the next with a floral pattern that seemed etched into the glass itself. After a couple years of research, Glenn Young found the glass decorations had been created through a process called glue-chipping. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, glue-chipped glass could be bought by the square foot at almost every community’s lumber yard, but it was only obtainable by hobbiests creating their own when we decided to restore the Little White School Museum’s windows.

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Completed 4-sash window unit with glue-chipped panes and restored trim. Note the restored chair rail and grained wainscoting below the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young determined to figure out how to do glue-chipping, and so began a series of experiments. Originally, glue-chipping was done in the country’s glass factories. The diamond patterns were masked off with beeswax and then the panes were etched with hydrochloric acid. Then alternate rows of diamonds were painted with hide glue, which, when it dried, actually fractured the surface of the glass, leaving behind a fern-like pattern.

The first part of recreating the 32 individual 18×60 inch panes was relatively easy. Using the two original pieces of glue-chipped glass that still existed, Young created a template out of brown butcher’s paper. Then the new panes of plate glass were placed on the template and the diamond pattern created with pressure-sensitive packing tape cut to the right width. Then the taped-up panes were sandblasted to create an entire pane of frosted diamonds.

Through trial and error, Young found the correct mixture of dried hide glue and water to use and also determined it had to be kept at 140 degrees as he was carefully coating every other row of frosted diamonds. Figuring out how to properly dry the glue to create a consistent pattern was just as difficult. Eventually, it was found that allowing a glued-up pane to dry overnight, until it seemed dry to the touch, and then scattering a pound of silica gel crystals over the surface and wrapping it in plastic sheeting to flash-dry the rest of the moisture out of the glued diamonds was the most effective. The flash-drying process actually sounds like corn popping, as the glue, which has adhered to the rows of frosted diamonds, quickly contracts and fractures the surface, jumping up and bouncing off the plastic sheeting.

As each glue-chipped pane was created, it was carefully moved into a restored and painted sash to be glazed and then painted. Glass is really a solid liquid, and the glue-chipping process removes the surface tension that gives each pane its strength. Unless handled extremely carefully, panes fold up, breaking along the lines of the sandblasted diamonds.

1995 Lighting Glenn installing

Glenn Young finishes hanging one of the restored, electrified oil lamp fixtures in the Little White School Museum’s main room. (Little White School Museum collection)

We found we had enough original trim to restore half the room’s windows, so we took a sample up to Commercial Woodworking in Aurora where they created custom knives for their shapers to produce enough trim for the rest of the windows. Then as each set of four sashes was finished, the windows were restored, one after the other.

While that project was underway, the building’s heating system was completely replaced with a 98% efficient gas furnace. To avoid cutting a large hole in the floor for a return air duct, we built the ducts into the sides of the restored pulpit platform, covering them with decorative cast iron grilles. We were also working on the building’s basement, aiming to turn it into an artifact and archival storage area. When we ripped the old basement ceiling down, we found that over the years as this or that new heating system had been installed, floor joists had been cut out and never replaced. So as the window project continued (Young was spending about 12 hours of volunteer time most weekends on it) we spent a year scabbing new 2×8 floor joists onto the old joists and leveling, as far as we could, the floor.

1984-2002 Nathaniel at LWSM

My son Nathaniel literally grew up with the Little White School Museum’s restoration. At left, he inspects one of the building’s 11×11 inch structural timbers. At right, he finishes the main room’s pulpit platform floor in 2002. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the windows restored, we were seeing some light at the end of the restoration tunnel. And so we began working on restoring the main room’s lighting. We’d decided years before to use what the 1902 Sears catalog referred to as “store fixtures.” The building had apparently not been electrified until the 1930s, so there was no knob and tube wiring or any other antique system to deal with. Instead, in the building’s attic we found the counterweights, wooden pulleys, and wrought iron rods from which its seven oil lamps hung. The lamps were pulled down to trim the wicks and fill the fonts with oil. The counterweights—small boxes made from wainscot scraps—were fortunately still full of the rocks used to balance the weights of the lamps so we weighed a couple to figure out how heavy the original lamps were. And then we went shopping in the Sears catalog to

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The completely restored main room at the Little White School Museum provides community meeting space. (Little White School Museum collection)

figure out what lamps might have been used. For the next few years we gradually acquired nickel-plated kerosene lamps and fonts until we had enough for the whole room.

Back then, it was fashionable to buy the lamps and have the nickel plating removed to display the polished brass the fonts were actually made from. We were fortunate to find a small local plating business that agreed to replace all our lamp fonts with nickel as an in-kind donation. We then got Lee Winckler, a true artist in metalworking, make the lamp shades and harps, and to make the electrified burners too. Since the counterweights and rods were still in the building’s attic, we knew exactly where each lamp was to be positioned. We used ¼” black pipe to simulate the original wrought iron rods, and standard electrical lamp hooks to hang each lamp. Interestingly enough, we found the lamps were positioned over the building’s two side aisles, with three others grouped above the pulpit platform.

The last project was to floor the pulpit platform, and for that we were able to hire my son, who had been working on the building since he was five years old. The floor was finished in the autumn of 2002, wrapping up a quarter century of restoration work.

2013 June LWS Museum

Oswego’s Little White School Museum was in danger of demolition in 1976. Today it is a community landmark and repository for the Oswego area’s history. (Little White School Museum collection)

The moral of our story is restoration using mostly volunteer labor is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not a quick process, either—witness my son, who literally grew up with the project. But it does have its positives, too, especially having a community landmark to look at when you (finally) get done with it.

Today, the Little White School Museum, open seven days a week thanks to financial support from the Oswegoland Park District, is open seven days a week, annually hosts thousands of visitors, features a comprehensive community history museum, and houses a collection of nearly 27,000 photographs, artifacts, and archival materials. It is a tribute to all those instrumental in its preservation, from the grassroots group spearheaded by Janis Hoch who founded the Oswegoland Heritage Association, to the Oswego School District officials who took a chance that plans to restore the building would pan out, to Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Ford Lippold and his successor, Bert Gray, who were determined to save the building for future generations to the community groups who donated time, effort, and money, to all those who’ve served on the heritage association’s board for the last 40 years.

I suspect it’s exactly what the folks who created National Historic Preservation Month had in mind back in 1973 when they got the historic preservation ball rolling.

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A labor of (community) love: The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum

Part 1…

Happy Historic Preservation Month!

Way back in 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to establish a month-long observation of efforts to preserve a bit of the nation’s history before it was demolished, paved over, or otherwise lost to future generations.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines

The loss of the Oswego Depot to the wrecker’s ball lin 1970 alerted the community that its historic buildings were disappearing. (Little White School Museum photo)

It was right about that time, actually a little before, when efforts were underway to preserve Oswego’s railroad depot. Passenger service on the Fox River Branch line through Oswego had ceased in 1952, and by the 1960s the old depot was long obsolete. For us kids, it was always fascinating to peek in the windows to see the rows of seats in the passenger waiting room and the still-shiny brass fittings throughout the building.

In the late 1960s, the Oswego Jaycees announced they had a plan to preserve the building and turn it into a community museum. It would have made a good one, too. The Jaycees were negotiating in what they thought was good faith with the depot’s owners, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, when we all woke up one day to find the depot had been demolished literally overnight.

It was a shock to a community that had seen the landmark Red Brick School demolished to make way for the new Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office in 1965 and suffered another wake-up call when a devastating 1973 fire in the downtown business district that destroyed two storefronts in the historic Union Block that had been built in 1867.

1970 LWS front cropped

When word got around the community that the landmark Little White School was in danger of being torn down, a grassroots community group, the Oswegoland Heritage Association, was formed to save it. (Little White School Museum collection)

So when word got around that the Oswego School District was contemplating the sale of the Little White School, one of the village’s most familiar remaining landmarks, it caused a group of history-interested persons to start thinking about ways the building could be saved.

Historic preservation in general got a bit shot in the arm during the years leading up to the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Supporters of saving the Little White School piggybacked off that interest to establish the nonprofit Oswegoland Heritage Association, whose main goal was to save the historic old building from destruction, restore it, and establish a community museum there.

In order to get the job done, the founders of the OHA worked to create a unique three-way partnership between the nonprofit group; the Oswego School District, which owned the building; and the Oswegoland Park District, whose executive director, Ford Lippold, was one of the moving forces behind the formation of the OHA. The OHA pledged to coordination and raise funds to finance the building’s restoration; the park district pledged to maintain the school grounds (which they named Heritage Park) and provide regular building maintenance and operations financial support; and the school district agreed to maintain ownership of the building.

Because the school district had planned to sell the building for several years before restoration efforts began, they’d allowed it to badly deteriorate. There were three or four layers of roofing, none of which were weather-tight; the shingle siding added in the 1930s was deteriorating; and the structure was in generally poor overall condition.

1901 LWS as ME Church

This postcard view of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church–later the Little White School–was created about 1901 after a major remodeling project was finished, including the addition of the bell tower and diamond-patterned glass panes in the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although called the Little White School to differentiate it from the nearby Red Brick School (Oswego school names have never been very innovative), the building wasn’t really all that little. Built on its site at the “Y” intersection of Jackson and Polk streets in 1850 as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, the timber-framed building measured 36 x 50 feet, and featured a bell and bell tower. During restoration work it was discovered that it’s likely the building had been constructed and used elsewhere and then dismantled and moved to Oswego. Doing such a thing with a timber frame building is not nearly as difficult as with a more modern balloon frame structure. The structure’s 11” x 11” oak and walnut timbers were fastened together using mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. Ceiling and floor joists fit into pockets mortised into the ceiling and floor beams in each of the building’s five timber bents. As originally built, the structure featured pine wainscoting grained to resemble oak around its complete interior, including on the low center partition, along with a pulpit platform at the front of the

1850-1913 floorplan

Floorplan of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church from 1850-1913. Note the lack of a center aisle. (Little White School Museum collection)

main room. Pews were arranged with no center aisle, but instead with two aisles on either side of the room accessed by doors on either side of the front entrance vestibule. Pews on both sides of the room extended from the wall to the aisle, and then from the other side of the aisle to a low center partition.

When the structure was dismantled for the move to Oswego from wherever it previously stood, the interior tongue and groove flooring was removed, although apparently not all of it was salvageable. Likewise, the old wainscoting was removed and stockpiled, as were the floor and ceiling joists. Last, the timber frame was taken apart, and the pieces moved to the Oswego site. Since the length and design of the floor and ceiling joists were identical, the pieces were interchangeable, and were taken off the pile to install without regard to whether they’d been floor or ceiling joists in their previous lives. Apparently, only enough tongue and groove flooring was available to piece together the floorboards on one side of the room, with new flooring probably bought from the Parker or other local sawmilling operation.

1912 4 August by D.S. Young II

This August 1912 photo of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church by Dwight Smith Young shows off the new concrete front porch and stairs that would cause restorers so much trouble 66 years later. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church served its congregation well, undergoing periodic renovations and maintenance. In 1901, the building got a major facelift. More ornate interior trim was added and the 32 glass panes in the building’s 16 double-hung windows was replaced by diamond-patterned glue-chipped panes that were a sort of poor man’s stained glass. In addition to the other upgrades, a bell tower and bell were also added to the building, with all the improvements financed thanks to donations from Tirzah Minard, widow of one of the church’s early ministers, Henry Minard.

But by that first decade of the 20th Century, the congregation was in near-constant financial trouble. So when the congregation dissolved in 1913 it wasn’t much of a shock to the community.

1919 LWS exterior 1919 crop

The “Little School” in its tri-color paint scheme in this 1919 photograph by Fred Holzhueter. (Little White School Museum collection)

The building sat vacant for a couple years, and then in 1915, the Oswego School District found itself in need to additional classroom space for primary-aged students. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on Sept. 1, 1915 that “The Methodist church room will be used by the Oswego school, as one of their rooms this winter. It is being cleared and fitted for the work of education, non-sectarian.”

That fall, the pews and the center partition were removed revealing the floor that had been installed when the building had been erected on the Oswego site. It must have been interesting walking or sitting in desks since the boards did not span even half of the room. Instead, one length of floorboards extended from the wall to the edge of the aisle

1915-1930

The Little School’s floorplan from 1915 to 1930 with toilet rooms created by partitioning the vestibule. (Little White School Museum collection)

on each side of the room. A second set floored the aisles on either side of the room, and a third set floored the area under the pews from the aisles to the center partition. Although it didn’t matter much at the time, the newer floorboards on the building’s south side were about 3/8” thinner than the original boards on the north side.

In addition, the front vestibule was given two partitions to create two toilets, one on either side, one for girls and one for boys. With the two former vestibule doors no longer accessible, a new door was cut through the east wall of the vestibule to create access to the classroom. Sinks were also installed along the north and south walls on either side of the vestibule, and coat hooks were screwed into the wainscoting.

1919 LWS interior 1919 A

This 1919 postcard view is the only known interior photograph of the Little School before the 1930s. There are no known interior shots of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church. Note the sink and coats on hooks in the back corner of the room. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dubbed “the Little School” to differentiate it from the larger nearby brick Oswego Community School, it was originally used as a one-room building for grades 1-3. About 1920, a new floor was laid over the original tongue and groove flooring, making the room much easier to use. Shims were used to fill the 3/8” space caused by the thinner floorboards on the south side of the room.

In 1930, the room was divided into two classrooms and the ceiling was dropped by four feet in each room. The windows remained untouched, however, so that now the upper sashes extended above the ceilings in the two rooms. Also, a new, larger vestibule was created around the entranceway. The bathrooms—this time with flush toilets—were moved to smaller rooms partitioned off of the new vestibule on either side of the entrance. The old, smaller, vestibule was retained for the time being, with the old toilet rooms remodeled into boys’ and girls’ closets.

1930-34

The Little School’s floorplan from 1930-34 with two classrooms, a larger vestibule/hall and restrooms moved to the front corners of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

When the students arrived for school that fall, they discovered a new teacher had been hired. Virginia Crossman roomed with the Morse family, along with another young teacher, Rachel Winebrenner, who taught fifth and sixth grade. Eventually, the two educators married local farmers, Crossman becoming Mrs. Pete Campbell and Winebrenner becoming Mrs. Bill Anderson. Crossman taught third grade and half of second in her room, while veteran teacher Isabel Rubel again taught first and half of second grade.

In 1934, making use of Federal Civil Works Administration funding, the Oswego School District had the Little School jacked up and had a basement dug beneath it. The job almost came to a disastrous end when the front of the building began slipping off the jacks. But fast work by local contractor Irvin Haines and his crew saved the day—and the building. But the lasting result was that the front of the building bows out by almost two inches.

1934-83

With a basement dug beneath the building in 1934, the restrooms were moved downstairs, stairwells replacing the old first floor restrooms in the building’s front corners. (Little White School Museum collection)

Inside, the old vestibule was completely removed and the bathrooms that had been added in 1930 were turned into stairwells to the basement where boys’ and girls’ restrooms were located.

Then two years later, this time using Works Progress Administration funds, a third classroom, measuring 36 x 30 feet was built on the east side of the Little School, along with a new main entrance hall and basement access stairway. In addition, the entire building received new wood shingle siding and a new coat of paint that picked out the window trim.

1948 abt exterior sepia

By 1948, the building had received it’s iconic coat of white paint and had become known as the Little White School. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1940s, the building had received its coat of white paint, and became known as the Little White School to a few more generations of students, including its last use as junior high classroom space in the middle of the Oswego School District’s first major enrollment growth spurt. When the new Oswego High School on Ill. Route 71 opened in the fall of 1964, and the old high school at Franklin and Washington was repurposed and renamed Oswego Junior High School. The Little White School, already in bad repair, was closed to students for the last time and the district pondered what to do with it. For several years it was used as school district storage space. But by the mid-1970s, school district officials were seeing the building as not only a community eyesore, but also obsolete for any conceivable use for them.

When word got around the community that the district was entertaining serious thoughts of demolishing the historic old structure, community residents came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to see another landmark razed.

To be continued…

 

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The Bridge on the River Fox at Oswego: A concrete reminder of pioneer days

After the last glaciers retreated from northern Illinois, releasing their melt waters’ titanic forces that created the state’s Fox River Valley, the area that would one day become the Village of Oswego was rewarded with a landscape that included the narrowest stretch along the entire stream’s course as well as a smooth limestone shelf that created a great place to ford the river.

The Oswego ford was located somewhere between today’s North Street and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Old township maps show the original road on the west side of the river where the Galena Road emerged from the ford. It was an excellent ford, with its smooth rock bottom making for easy passage by horses, freight wagons, and stagecoaches. Since traffic had to slow down, and even stop, before crossing the river, the area on the bluff above the ford became a good spot for an inn. It all helped the new village founded there in 1835 grow.

Although it was a really excellent fording place, as area population increased a bridge was clearly needed. Some temporary structures may have been built earlier, but in 1851, Oswegoans got serious about providing a permanent bridge. The county seat had been moved to the village in 1845, and county residents desiring to use the court system or conduct other county business probably demanded a bridge be provided. Community pride was also probably involved.

1851 Double Arch Chord bridge plan

Plan of a typical timber double arch chord bridge with braces of the kind built at Oswego in 1851

As indicated above, there’s some question about when the first bridge was built across the river at Oswego. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that that first bridge at Oswego was built in 1848. However, the July 13, 1851 issue of the Aurora Daily Beacon suggests the Fox wasn’t bridged at Oswego until that year. A short note in that edition of the paper reported: “We are happy to learn that our enterprising neighbors down the river are really engaged in constructing a bridge opposite their town. It is to be 300 feet long upon the approved plan of double arch chords and braces, with spans about 72 feet. J.W. Chapman has contracted to build it for $2,250 to be completed this fall.”

1846 Chapman land patent.jpg

John W. Chapman’s 1846 patent for land he purchased in Oswego Township. The original parchment patent is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Chapman was an established local builder who had also been the general contractor for the new Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego in 1848. He arrived in Oswego in 1835, the same year the new village was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, stayed a few months, and then moved on to Dickson. Chapman returned to Oswego in 1842 where he remained until his death in 1883.

The new bridge proved popular. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, the anonymous correspondent who signed himself “Plow Boy” boasted that in Oswego “We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River.”

Nevertheless, Oswego’s “substantial” bridge faced some tough times, and was even washed out by spring floods. The relatively new Oswego bridge, along with every other bridge across the river from Batavia south to Ottawa was washed away during the destructive Freshet of 1857. But the bridge was rebuilt as needed until 1867, when the wooden 1851 structure had become badly deteriorated.

In late July, the Oswego Township Board of Trustees condemned the bridge. At the trustees’ Aug. 7, 1867 meeting, they voted to replace the old timber bridge with a modern iron bridge. An amendment proposed by Chapman, then serving on the township board, to allow township voters to decide whether to build a timber or an iron bridge was defeated in favor of specifying an iron bridge.

At the trustees’ Sept. 3 meeting, they decided to spread the estimated $13,000 cost of the new bridge over three years.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

The elegant bowstring arch truss King’s Patent iron bridge built across the Fox River in 1867 sat on native limestone piers built by Oswego contractor John W. Chapman. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on the new bridge began in October 1867 and continued through the fall. As Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 14: “The piers of the new bridge are now being put up, by J.W. Chapman, Esq., who is sub-contractor for this part of the work, and we will soon have a splendid Iron Bridge (King’s Patent) which will excel any on the Fox River.”

The new structure, built by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was a tied arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge. The design was patented by the company’s owner, Zenas King in 1861 and improved through a second patent issued in 1866. Bowstring arch truss bridges were some of the earliest iron bridge designs that became popular as transportation needs moved away from the more maintenance-intensive and less robust timber bridges. Because they required less maintenance, iron bridges proved less expensive during their service lives. Although the bridge superstructure was entirely of iron, the bridge deck was of six-inch oak planks.

Even the new iron bridge had its limits, however, and during yet another destructive spring flood in 1868 it was damaged—but notably not destroyed—by the rampaging river.

Chapman’s new piers were built with sharpened iron-clad “icebreakers” on their upstream sides. According to a note in the March 15, 1893 Record, the icebreakers were torn off the piers when the ice went out that spring.

Tied arch bridges had their limits, especially weight limits. In addition, the 1867 structure had been weakened by a variety of other factors, including using dynamite to break up ice jams at the bridge in March 1893, the concussions reportedly weakening the piers’ mortar joints.

In 1897, the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad (later the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Railroad) proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south along the west side of the Fox River to Oswego, right next to the West River Road (today’s Ill. Route 31) where the line would turn east, cross the river on the existing bowstring arch bridge, and then turn south to downtown Yorkville. The AY&M proposed to strengthen, at its own expense, the old bridge with steel beams and promised they’d widen it so that a team and wagon could pass by a trolley car on the bridge. However, despite the best efforts of John D. Russell, Oswego Township’s county board representative, when the Kendall County Board approved the franchise agreement with the trolley company, it only stipulated the firm would be liable for $3,500 if the bridge needed to be replaced due to the demands placed on it due to trolley traffic.

At first, the trolley company proposed crossing the river about a mile above Oswego on their own bridge, but they apparently quickly realized how expensive that would be. In late May 1900, representatives of the company, Oswego Township, and the township’s bridge consultant decided that if the trolley was to cross at Oswego, a new bridge would be needed to carry the additional weight of the rails and the trolley cars.

The decision to stick taxpayers with most of the bill for a new bridge caused some local grumbling. “Who would have thought that our bridge wasn’t all O.K. if no electric road was being built?” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wondered.

By late June 1900, the trolley tracks had reached the west end of the Oswego bridge and limited passenger service from that point north was ready to begin.

1912 abt look east

The Joliet Bridge and Iron Company’s iron box truss replaced Oswego bowstring arch bridge in 1900. The bridge deck was shared between interurban trolley cars and road traffic. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new bridge was an iron box truss bridge manufactured by the Joliet Bridge and Iron Company. While the bridge superstructure and deck would be new, plans called for reusing the original 1867 piers. Work on the new bridge began in mid July, when Chapman’s 1867 piers were repaired in preparation for the new bridge superstructure. The first iron for the new structure was delivered in early August.

The new bridge was up and in place by early November 1900, allowing trolley cars to cross the river and stop in downtown Oswego. The trolley tracks occupied the north side of the bridge, while a one-lane road surface occupied the downstream side.

That bridge lasted almost 40 years before being replaced with a continuous steel beam bridge with concrete deck and concrete decorative railings.

On Oct. 2, 1935, the Kendall County Record reported a new bridge would be built at Oswego to replace the old 1900 structure, and would be designed to carry the heavier truck and auto traffic state officials predicted would be generated when Oswego and Naperville were finally connected by a paved road.

1937 Oswego bridge const

Work on the new continuous beam steel and concrete bridge at Oswego began in the summer of 1937. Chapman’s 1867 piers were retained but strengthened and widened to carry the new bridge deck. The newer, lighter colored limestone pier additions are visible in the above photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

“A new bridge and paving, which will connect Routes 25 and 65 [modern U.S. Route 34 between Oswego and Naperville] with Route 34 at Oswego, has been approved by the state, according to C.H. Apple, district state highway engineer,” the Record reported. “The bridge and connecting highways will be constructed at an approximate cost of $200,000. [Oswego Township] Supervisor Scott Cutter tells us that surveying of the new project will begin today, Wednesday.

“The bridge will be built on the site of the old iron bridge, which has been condemned for the past three years, and will be built of steel and concrete, 300 feet long and with a 40-foot roadway. The new paving will extend from the east end of the bridge east in Washington to Madison street, north in Madison to the intersection with 65 and 25, the East River Road, and then east in the old Chicago road to the Jim Pierce farm, where it will connect with the already paved road on the outskirts of Oswego.”

As in years past, the old 1867 piers were retained, although they were lengthened and significantly strengthened, with new concrete icebreakers installed at the base of each pier.

The Record reported on July 14, 1937 that “The steel bridge, which has carried traffic across the Fox river at Oswego for so many years, is being torn down and a new and more modern structure will replace it. The west span has been removed and we expect that the other two will follow as soon as possible. How many of you gals and guys remember when the old AE&C cars ran between Aurora and Yorkville, climbed a trestle at Oswego and went across the Fox on the old bridge and then bounded along on their way? It was always our secret fear that some day the trestle would be too weak to hold the car and would break, and we always felt better when we were past that mental hazard. After automobiles and trucks became more popular and the street cars were discontinued the bridge was subjected to heavy traffic, and was too narrow to be comfortable or very safe. The new one will be built to take care of the heavy loads which it must carry. No temporary bridge is being built at Oswego according to [Township] Supervisor Cutter, who says that the expense of such a structure would be prohibitive.”

1938 Oswego Bridge

Oswego’s new bridge opened in December 1937. This photo was taken the next summer after the steel bridge beams had been painted. (Little White School Museum collection)

Instead of a temporary bridge, motorists who needed to cross the river at Oswego made the last known regular use of the old stagecoach and wagon ford that played such a major role in the village’s early history.

Then on Dec. 1, 1937, the Record reported: “The new Oswego bridge will be opened to traffic this week. Foot passengers were using it last week.”

Wrote the Record’s editor on Jan. 12, 1938: “We traveled over the new Oswego bridge several weeks ago and up through the town on the new highway. The bridge is a ‘dandy’ one and the highway certainly smoothed out the bumps that were on the stretch by the railroad. Oswego business men are glad to have traffic again able to get into town and those who seek the short cut from 34 to Naperville are happy too. It is a big improvement.”

2008 Oswego bridge & bridge park

Oswego’s new four-lane bridge (right) now shares the river crossing with Hudson Crossing Bridge Park (left). (Photo by John Etheredge. Little White School Museum collection)

The 1937 bridge served motorists well during the next 53 years, although normal wear and tear took their toll. Then in 1993, the Illinois Department of Transportation proposed to replace the bridge as part of their plan to widen Route 34 through Oswego to four lanes. Original plans called for a completely new four-lane prestressed concrete I-beam bridge to be built immediately downstream from the 1937 bridge. According to the original plans, the old bridge would be open to traffic during construction, after which the old bridge would be demolished.

2003 Hudson Crossing Bridge Park

Hudson Crossing Bridge Park offers a place to sit and enjoy the Fox River, to walk, and to ride bicycles while preserving an important part of Oswego’s history.

But some Oswego residents had another idea. Naturalist, author, and former public official Dick Young, and his nephew, Glenn Young, then an IDOT bridge inspector, wondered why the old bridge couldn’t be left in place after the new one opened, with the old one to be turned into a bridge-park. They approached the Oswegoland Park District’s executive director, Bert Gray, with the plan. As Glenn Young told Gray as he successfully persuaded him the plan was eminently doable, the old bridge would “stand forever if we get the trucks off it” and that “it will cost the state a lot more to demolish it than to fix it up for pedestrians.”

The bridge-park concept was growing in popularity as communities tried to find innovative ways to increase recreational opportunities while, at the same time, preserving their architectural and engineering heritage. In Oswego, a bridge-park would provide a handy connection for pedestrians and bicyclists to the west bank of the river, where, even then, plans were percolating to build a new village hall. It would also offer a link to proposed cycling and walking trails that were being planned to link new subdivisions west of the river. And, as Young pointed out, it would not only save IDOT the expense of tearing it down and the cleanup of the environmentally sensitive site, but, if properly renovated, would stand virtually forever as long as there was no motor vehicle traffic on it.

Gray then took the proposal back to IDOT, which, with some prodding by local politicians, eventually agreed, although with the caveat that the bridge-park could not be owned by the park district. According to state law, the bridge could only be transferred to an agency that had roadway and highway responsibilities. So Gray then negotiated with the Village of Oswego and with the approval of village president Jim Detzler—because the village does have roadway responsibilities—the trade with the state was made.

Meanwhile, the engineering challenges of having two bridges and their piers so close together were all worked out and the new bridge was completed, opening in November 1993,

Then, instead of being demolished, the old bridge and its 121 year-old native limestone piers were saved as well. After it was reconditioned and renovated by IDOT as part of the construction project, the 1937 bridge was turned over to the village, which then made the Oswegoland Park District responsible for operating the park. It was renamed the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, and officially opened in September 1994, with a dedication ceremony presided over by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, named after what the village was called by its founders before it was changed to Oswego in 1837, is now a centerpiece of the adjoining Hudson Crossing Park. And for those who know a bit about its rich history, it’s also a direct connection to the community’s pioneer past, a place where visitors can still enjoy seeing the piers that were originally built by a man who was present at Oswego’s founding in 1835.

 

 

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

It took government, civic cooperation to build the first hard road system

Saw an interesting factoid the other day. Bucking the Republican Party’s fixation on cutting everything government does, the new Democratic governor of West Virginia has decided to make a strong push to sell bonds to upgrade the Mountain State’s roads and bridges.

As he lays the groundwork to get an increase in the state’s gasoline tax passed to retire the bonds he plans to sell to finance the program, he bucked another modern right wing idea—facts are only for elitists—and actually had a study done on the costs to the state’s drivers of the current, poorly maintained system. According to the study, done by TRIP, a Washington, D.C. based national transportation study group, poor roads in West Virginia cost each of the state’s drivers $1,357 a year in vehicle repair and maintenance, traffic accidents where poor road design and/or maintenance is a factor, and lost time and additional fuel use due to traffic congestion. That comes to more than $1.4 billion a year in additional costs for West Virginia drivers.

And the sad news is that with the right wing fixation on cutting taxes at all levels and not spending on even vital services, we’re gradually working our way back to where roads were more than a century ago.

For instance, Illinois’ early road system was a serious drag on its economy. Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of automobiles and, as they were called at the time, auto trucks were filling roads, the system was at the breaking point.

View from Poverty Point Oct 27, 1912 Photo: Dwight S. Young

Dwight Young snapped this photo near his home, Poverty Point, on what is now U.S. Route 34 just west of the Oswego Bridge on Oct 27, 1912. The road was paved with concrete in 1924. (Little White School Museum photo)

The township financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated areas—road mileage might be the same in rural areas as in heavily populated townships, but more urban taxpayers were helping share the burden.

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

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

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

An interesting historical aside: That 23-cent a gallon gas  back in 1911 sounds cheap but it is equivalent to $5.64 a gallon in 2017 dollars.

With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), a statewide organization was formed to lobby and draw up specifications for hard roads.

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In the first decade and a half of the 20th Century, the transition from horse-drawn to motorized vehicles was well underway, as this photo of Washington Street in Oswego illustrates. (Little White School Museum collection)

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

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

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

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

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that the idea of hard roads had entirely clear sailing, of course. In particular, township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Farmers also protested about the cost and wondered whether better roads would even benefit them. But skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, finally tipping the balance in favor of support.

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

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

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In 1915, a demonstration stretch of concrete pavement 15-feet wide was built from Aurora to the Waubonsie Creek bridge in Oswego, one of the first all-weather hard roads in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hard road plans drawn up

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan for a state system of paved highways.

For instance, a stretch of 15-foot wide concrete pavement snaked along the Fox River from Aurora south to Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another shorter stretch was poured from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated demonstration stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

And when the final plan emerged, it turned out to be a classic bait and switch. In the end Kendall County didn’t have much to say about where the first trans-county concrete highway would be built. Nearly a century later later, we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of decisions on where the area’s major highways would be routed.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately got behind the good roads program begun by his predecessor, Gov. Edward F. Dunne.

“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden promised the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William Edens, then serving as president of the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, to organize the statewide good roads campaign effort.

Unfortunately, just as pressure for good roads was reaching critical mass, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure was resoundingly approved by state voters. The vote here in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.

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

Special interests awarded Kendall route change

In order to get enough votes statewide, the plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. During the referendum campaign, its route was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville where it would cross the Fox River and turn towards Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the same route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small replaced Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up locally. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street in Aurora and Montgomery, past Montgomery’s sheep yards, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy main line at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west on modern Route 34. To cope with angry Oswego and Yorkville residents, paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in in the two communities.

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In 1924, despite the controversy over its route, Route 18 (today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34), was built connecting Aurora with Sandwich. Above, crews pour concrete on the stretch of road at the west end of the Oswego Bridge. (Little White School Museum photo)

The route, the Kendall County Record fumed in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use the two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB&Q mainline at the Wormley crossing was required.

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

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

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May of that year, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete had been laid to the county line at Sandwich and was curing.

1936-eje-rt-34-overpass

In 1936, the final, short stretch of concrete linking Naperville with Oswego was laid, including the bridge over the EJ&E tracks just east of the modern intersection of U.S. Routes 34 and 30, as well as the Route 34-30 interchange. Above, construction on the bridge is largely finished, and work on the approaches is ready to begin. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the old demonstration concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the new Route 18 spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July 1924 a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek to carry the new hard road section connecting with the 1914-era road that stopped at the north bank of the creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.

The section of modern Route 34—originally called Route 65 by the state—from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start on that stretch until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, that section was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway (today’s U.S. Route 30), and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the EJ&E tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads. Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.

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U.S. Mail was the Internet of the 1830s

James Herrington apparently enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the tavern business, because he was extraordinarily good at it. But not only was he Geneva’s first and most successful early tavern keeper, but was also the person who lobbied successfully for the Kane County village’s first post office.

In fact, the post office was awarded even before the town had settled on its permanent name. Herrington had begun referring to the new settlement as La Fox, and when its first post office was granted March 12, 1836 at his urging, it was named La Fox. Geneva wouldn’t receive its permanent—and modern—name for three more months, and the postal service wouldn’t officially change the post office name until 1850.

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John Short built the Bristol House as his home, post office, and stagecoach inn. It was just one of several similar facilities sprinkled along stagecoach routes west of Chicago.

Like Herrington, John Short in Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville here in Kendall County) also operated a combination tavern and post office, as did Levi Hills in Lisbon, and many other tavern-keepers throughout our region of northern Illinois.

Early on, the federal government realized reliable communication within and between regions of the country was vital to the new nation’s growth and to an informed electorate. In those pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days, that meant total reliance on the mails, either carried privately or by the national postal service.

One of the first things the Federal government did, once it was firmly established, was to create an official definition for the mail. Starting with the first post office department under Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock. Only postmasters were entrusted with a key for this lock; without the key, the postmaster was, simply not a postmaster because he could neither accept nor send the mail.

While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was to be considered part of the official mail (carried in the portmanteau) and what wasn’t.

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The arrival of the mail stage was always an exciting event in pioneer communities in northern Illinois since they brought newspapers, letters, and passengers.

With the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress began settling that debate. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and, later, the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory. Among the Act of 1792’s most important provisions were:

+++Congress’s assumption of the power to establish post offices and post routes. Previously, the Post Office Department had established post routes on its own. With Congress’s involvement, it was assured the number of post offices would greatly and quickly expand due to constituents’ political pressure;

+++Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to maintain an informed electorate; and

+++Establishing the legal basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies for the delivery of the mail. By the 1830s, the stage companies were virtually quasi-public arms of the federal government. In fact, if a stagecoach company lost the government mail contract, government regulations required all of its rolling stock and horses had to be sold to the new contractor.

Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois.

Two years after the War of 1812 ended and still feeling the war’s effects, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, with the aim of further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery. Among its provisions, the law mandated mail service had to be extended to any county courthouse. Included were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was certain it would receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county seat was.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system. It was McLean’s decision to rely on private stage contractors to carry the mail instead of using government equipment and employees. Along with the stage delivery system, McLean perfected and expanded the “hub and spoke” sorting system originally adopted in 1800. The system relied on central distribution offices—hubs—that supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices via the spokes.

While post offices were vital to the growth of the region, sending mail was an expensive proposition in those years. Regular postal rates remained constant from 1825 to 1838, but the rates themselves were high in comparison to the cost of living at that time. A single sheet letter mailed up to 30 miles was six cents. The cost went up to 10 cents if mailed from 30 to 80 miles, 12-1/2 cents for 80 to 150 miles; 18-3/4 cents for 150 to 400 miles; and 25 cents for a single sheet mailed more than 400 miles. Two sheet letters cost double to mail, while the postage was tripled for a single sheet that weighed more than an ounce.

A collection of letters in the archives at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego confirms that postal rates continued unchanged for some years, and also suggests how effective the postal service was in maintaining communications between the frontier and the settled areas in the old colonies.

In December 1843, James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego after an 800-mile journey with a wagon train from Smyrna, N.Y. On Dec. 17, he wrote back to his parents describing his journey and his current circumstances. The single sheet letter, datelined Oswego, is marked with 25 cents postage.

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James Sheldon Barber’s December 1843 letter home from Oswego to his parents in tiny Smyrna, NY. The creases left behind when Barber folded the letter origami-like into an envelope, complete with triangular flap closed with red sealing wax. (Little White School Museum collections)

From accounts in Carlyle R Buley’s The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1978), and elsewhere, it appears the letters Barber sent to New York are typical of the era. Each is written on a single 10×16-inch sheet of good rag paper folded in half to create a folio of four 8×10 inch pages. The text of each letter is written on three of the pages. The fourth page is devoted to the letter’s exterior that, when folded with origami-like complexity, turned it into a compact 2.5 x 5 inch packet complete with an envelope-like triangular flap on the back, which was fixed with red sealing wax.

One of the most remarkable things about Barber’s letters is his certainty they would be transported east from the Illinois frontier and faithfully delivered in a timely manner at his parents’ home in a small hamlet in upstate New York. At the time, Kendall County was just two years old. Oswego Township had been settled for only 10 years and the village had yet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. But even from such a presumably rough and tough frontier region, Barber’s letters made it back to his former home.

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Major post roads in the Fox River Valley area of northern Illinois from the mid-1830s through the early 1850s.

By the time Barber was sending his letters home, mail routes throughout northern Illinois were well defined. Mail delivery in what are now the 24 counties of northern Illinois (there are more now than back then) had begun adjacent to the Mississippi River when the first post office was established June 6, 1825 and named Fever River (after the small tributary on which the settlement was located), only to be renamed Galena in 1826. Rock Island, located on the Mississippi itself, got its post office in September of the same year. Both offices became major distribution hubs.

But while the first two post offices in northern Illinois relied heavily on river transport for mail delivery, nine other post offices were established in the region before the next one (Ottawa) that mainly relied on river transport. Clearly, the region’s growing road system was becoming more vital to the delivery of the mail as new roads connected the county seats and other settlements in the growing region. In fact, by following the creation of post offices, a person can fairly easily follow the evolution of the region’s road system linking its major developing towns.

Around Galena, the postal system was gradually expanded, with Apple River granted an office in 1828 and Ogee’s Ferry—later Dixon—getting its office in 1829. Both Dixon and Apple River were branches that relied on the Galena hub.

As an illustration of how quickly the northwest corner of Illinois was developing during that era, and how unimportant the rest of the northern part of the state was, Jo Daviess County boasted seven of the first 11 post offices established in northern Illinois.

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Frink, Walker & Company’s general stagecoach office at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Lake Street in Chicago is where many of the mail routes of the 1840s west of Lake Michigan began. Frink and Walker eventually controlled virtually all the stagecoach traffic in the upper Midwest.

In March of 1831, Chicago finally got its post office, following the establishment of Cook County in January of 1831, with mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, then the nearest post office. In 1832, mail delivery was weekly from Detroit via a one-horse wagon. The next year, 1833, a two-horse post wagon delivered the mail. Not until regular four-horse stage service started in 1834 did Chicago’s mail arrive more than once a week.

Chicago remained the only post office in northeast Illinois until Ottawa was granted its post office in December 1832, suggesting growth was outstripping the post office’s ability to establish new offices. LaSalle County, of which Ottawa was the seat of government, had been established in January of 1831, meaning it took nearly two years for the town’s post office to be granted.

Chicago and Ottawa were officially linked by a state road in 1833, although it’s likely mail was carried on horseback from the Chicago office to Ottawa beginning in 1832. In 1833, the post office at Juliet (later renamed Joliet) and the DuPage post office, which was located in the extreme northeast corner of Section 19 of DuPage Township, Will County, were both established as Chicago branches. DuPage was a regular stop on the High Prairie Trail from Ottawa to Chicago. Plainfield didn’t get its post office—another branch—until January of 1834, followed in April by the post office at Holderman’s Grove, also on the High Prairie Trail. The post office at Holderman’s was the first in what would, in 1841, become Kendall County.

As settlers began filling the area between the Fox River and Lake Michigan, more branch post offices were established on the region’s major thoroughfares using the Ottawa and Chicago hubs. Cass post office in Downers Grove Township on the High Prairie Trail, Brush Hill post office on the Galena and Ottawa roads, and Naperville were established in 1834, 1835, and 1836, respectively. Aurora and Oswego both got their post offices in 1837.

Montgomery was reportedly on the list to receive its post office in 1837, but the McCarty brothers, Samuel and Joseph, Aurora’s founders, appropriated the post route to Galena. According to at least one history, Montgomery was in line to get its post office, but Aurora supporters were able to somehow delay the delivery of the official postmaster’s key to the Montgomery postmaster. Without the key, of course, the official portmanteau could not be opened, ergo no mail delivery. Meanwhile, the McCarty brothers used their political connections to expedite the application for their own post office. At the same time, Aurora boosters improved the trail from Naperville to Aurora (today’s Aurora Avenue and East New York Street) by bridging the numerous wetlands that lay between the two settlements in the timber—called the Big Woods—that stretched from one to the other. The McCartys also promised the stagecoach company hauling mail over the route that they’d provide free room and board for the stage driver and would also put the coach’s four-horse team up free of charge. The result was that Montgomery lost its first chance for a post office and their direct access to the Galena Road at the same time.

In 1908, when Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora,” right near the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”

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On June 26, 1840, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced updated mail schedules and routes, including the modified Fox River Trail route from Ottawa north to LaFox–now Geneva in this advertisement published in Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, the  Illinois Free Trader.

Lisbon, in southern Kendall County, had gotten its post office in 1836, thanks to Levi Hills moving the log post office/tavern from Holderman’s Grove six miles out onto the prairie along the High Prairie Trail. Farther west on the Galena Road, Little Rock post office was established in 1837, followed that same year by the post office at Newark.

Meanwhile, at LaFox (Geneva), Herrington operated the post office in his home/tavern. In 1837, mail to LaFox first came from Naperville, and later that year from Aurora. But then in early June 1840, LaFox got its own mail delivery when it became the terminus of a new route up the west bank of the Fox River from Ottawa via Dayton, Northville, Penfield, Bristol, and Aurora to LaFox every Friday.

But just a couple weeks later, the route changed. On June 26, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced the mail up the Fox River Trail would be delivered three times a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. He also announced a route change, with the addition of Oswego to the list. The mail traveled up the west side of the Fox River to the Oswego ford across the Fox, and then north along the East River Road (today’s Ill. Route 25) through Aurora to LaFox

Interestingly enough, many of those post offices established during the go-go settlement years of the 1830s are still in business, continuing to serve their communities 180 years later. And every time you drop a letter in the mail in Oswego or Aurora or Geneva, you’re participating in a bit of the region’s long and fascinating post office history.

 

 

 

 

 

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