Category Archives: History

Sitting back and watching as entire eras come and go…

I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.

Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.

Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.

In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.

Lyle Shoger picking corn by hand near the end of the era of farming with horses about 1930 just off Route 34 west of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.

One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.

In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.

The author test-drives a new IH Farmall tractor at the Wheatland Plowing Match about 1950.

I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.

But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.

But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.

The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.

It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.

The author, co-piloting the Matile Farm Case tractor with his father at the controls, about 1949.

Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.

We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.

Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.

In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.

We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.

But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.

Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.

During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.

As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”

A size comparison: My nephew poses with his classic old Farmall tractor and with one of the kinds of giant machines they use these days that dwarf anything used back in the heyday of diversified farming.

That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.

The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.

And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.

Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.

Subdivision under construction in Oswego just as the housing bust hit in 2009. In the early 2000’s Kendall County, partly driven by Oswego’s growth, was the fastest growing county in the nation. The pause in construction caused by the lending crisis in 2009 has now largely disappeared and construction in the area is again booming. (Ledger-Sentinel photo by John Etheredge)

That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.

Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.

I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.

Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.

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Filed under Environment, family, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Plenty of people already lived in the Fox Valley when the first settlers got here…

Out in North Carolina, a friend of David Evans who had served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War of 1832 told Evans of the richness of the Illinois prairies west of Chicago. So in 1833—the Year of the Early Spring—Evans headed west prospecting for good land. 

Following his friend’s directions, Evans traveled up the Illinois River to Ottawa and then up the Fox River, counting tributaries until he got to Big Rock Creek. He followed the creek two and a half miles upstream until he found a spot he wanted and there he staked his claim.

“There were none to dispute his claim; no mark of white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” Evans’ son told Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, in 1877.

While “no mark of the white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” there were plenty of marks on the landscape made by other hands—namely those of the Fox Valley’s Native American residents.

This map from Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, published by the University of Oklahoma Press at Norman in 1987, (with the Fox River marked in green) shows the number of Potawatomi villages on the mid-Fox River in 1830.

In the early 1830s, the local Native People were living in a number of villages dotting the banks of the Fox River. A map in the Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987) located several Potawatomi villages on our stretch of the Fox River south of, roughly, Elgin and north of Indian Creek, included the named villages of their leaders Waubonsee, Shaytee, Naysosay, and Awnkote, plus two more unnamed villages north of Waubonsee’s. And that doesn’t even count the other villages on the DuPage and DesPlaines rivers.

“The Year of the Early Spring,” as the settlers dubbed it, persuaded dozens of families to move west to the Illinois frontier, including many of Kendall County’s best-known pioneers. But the uncomfortable fact about that influx—the Fox Valley’s first real population explosion—was that those who came were illegal squatters.

The federal government had concluded a number of treaties over the years with the resident Native People that resulted in the cession of much of their land. But the treaty provisions promised that the resident Native Americans would have the use of the lands until the land was officially surveyed and put up for sale. And in 1833, the day when most of the land in the Fox River Valley would be surveyed was still four or five years in the future and the day it would be put up for sale was still nearly a decade away.

The friction caused by squatters illegally moving onto Indian land in northern Illinois was the main cause of the bloodshed that was called the Black Hawk War. Settlers seized the lands occupied by the Sac and Fox Tribes in western Illinois, badly beating the Sac warrior Black Hawk when he complained about the thefts.

The Sac warrior Black Sparrow Hawk, whose name was shortened to Black Hawk by American officials, tried, unsuccessfully, to peacefully live among White settlers. His efforts actually caused a war in which hundreds of his people were killed.

Here in the Fox Valley, a belligerent pioneer, William Davis, built a dam on Indian Creek in what is today northern LaSalle County just over the Kendall County border. The dam, just upstream from the creek’s mouth, was to power a mill Davis planned to build. But the dam prevented fish from the river swimming upstream to a Potawatomi village that relied on the fish for food. When a prominent warrior from the village complained, Davis severely beat him. When Black Hawk led his band of Sac and Fox men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois from Iowa, the resulting panic and eventual fighting offered a chance to settle scores, including the problem on Indian Creek. The resulting attack by Indians on the Davis claim led to the deaths of 14 settlers.

The continual friction between the Native People and settlers had led to passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. President Andrew Jackson strongly supported the legislation. The eastern “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were first to be forced on a “Trail of Tears” west across the Mississippi to what’s today Oklahoma. By 1833, it was the turn of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes here in northern Illinois to be forced west to free up land for the growing number of settlers arriving almost daily.

To that end, the U.S. Government called thousands of members from the three tribes to Chicago in September 1833 to negotiate the cession of all their land east of the Mississippi. The negotiations got off to a strained start when the government negotiator announced to tribal representatives that officials in Washington had heard the Indians wished to sell their land. To which the Indians replied they had no idea where the government had gotten such an idea and that they had no intention of selling their land.

Several days of both above and below board bargaining followed before initial deals were reached to give the tribes rich land now in the extreme northeast corner of Missouri in exchange for their Illinois land plus other possible lands in Iowa. But the tide of settlement was already moving beyond the Mississippi and by the time the removal of the tribes really got underway a few years later, settlers were already moving into the lands reserved for the tribes.

Over the next few years, other areas were picked and had to be abandoned forcing the tribes to move off of before they were finally and permanently settled in Kansas on land much different in quality, climate, and topography from their northern Illinois tribal lands.

Although Waubonsee, war chief of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Tribe was rewarded for his pro-American stance during the Black Hawk War, he was still forced west of the Mississippi with the rest of his people in 1836. (Original image in the author’s collection)

There were, in fact, several instances of Native People leaving the lands the government picked for them out west and returning to their old homes in northern Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan before they were again removed by government agents back west again. Sometimes, the cause was because they were simply homesick for their old homelands, while other times it was because the government-mandated reservations were too close to traditional tribal enemies.

In other cases, land that had been given by the government to various Native American tribal bands, as opposed to individuals, was simply stolen. Such a case was that of Chief Shabbona’s land in what is today DeKalb County. Litigation over its theft continues to this day.

It’s interesting to read the accounts left by early settlers who reminisce about arriving from their Eastern homes and settling onto an empty landscape. The landscape, of course, was far from empty, but those settlers were able to ignore entire villages, home to hundreds of Native American men, women, and children, apparently because their lifestyles didn’t match the of the new arrivals. Some of those Eastern pioneers expressed a little sadness that the forced departure of the region’s Native People meant the end of a historical era. Most others, though, were firmly in the “Manifest Destiny” camp that White settlement was part of unstoppable progress that eventually led to removing Native People from as much of the landscape as possible from Illinois all the way to the Pacific Ocean. For that majority group, naming local landmarks or new political divisions for the displaced tribes and their leaders was about as far as they’d go in recognizing those who had populated the region for centuries before the first Whites arrived to make their new homes on the Illinois prairies.

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Filed under Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “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,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

Local history is just full of mysteries…

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of our region’s historical—and even prehistorical—mysteries because I think the origins of people, places, and things are always fun to uncover.

One of the most obvious questions for those of us living in the Fox River Valley is “Where did the Fox River come from?” For many, I suspect, it’s not an obvious question at all, though. Most of us accept the region’s landscape as a given, figuring it’s always been the way it is now. But that’s not true.

Up until around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had covered our area with a couple thousand feet of ice, but then it began to retreat northwards. A deep glacial meltwater lake filled behind the high moraine ridge the glacier’s last advance created until one day, all those thousands of years ago, the water broke through that natural dam.

The last glacier to advance out of the north covered about half of Illinois. In the Fox Valley, the ice was about 2,000 feet thick.

The almost unimaginably ferocious flood rampaged south, quickly–at least in geological terms–scouring today’s Fox River Valley into the landscape.

The Fox River Torrent left a valley that ranged from wide and shallow at its northernmost end to narrower and deeper where it joined the Illinois River, which itself had been created by the Kankakee Torrent that had rampaged southwesterly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Over the years, the land formerly covered by those giant ice sheets gradually rebounded as the weight of the ice was removed, allowing both the Fox and the Illinois rivers to further erode their valleys.

It’s fascinating to contemplate what those torrents must have looked like, had any humans been around to see them.

Back to local historical mysteries, why wasn’t the Fox River used as a canoe route during the fur trade? A person would think the Fox would have been a perfect cutoff for the fur traders as they paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan from their posts at Green Bay. The source of the Fox is located a bit northwest of Milwaukee and is reachable by a relatively short portage from the Root River that empties into Lake Michigan near Racine.

But while the Fox looks pretty promising on maps, in reality, it’s always been a wide, relatively slow, and shallow stream, especially in its upper reaches. Not until it got south of modern Yorkville did the river deepen much at all, despite having a fairly substantial fall along that stretch. And especially in the summer and during dry autumns, the river was extremely shallow.

So, the Fox wasn’t used as a fur trade route because it just wasn’t the right kind of river for canoeing most of the year.

The era of settlement in what became the Fox River Valley started in the late 1820s. Where my hometown of Oswego is located here in mid-valley, settlement didn’t start until after the Black Hawk War of 1832.

The largest group of our county’s earliest settlers came overland from Ohio through Indiana. The second largest group arrived at Chicago on Lake Michigan, having sailed out here, mostly from the port of Buffalo at the terminus of the Erie Canal. The smallest group came up from the south having migrated west from Virginia and the Carolinas to Tennessee and Kentucky and then north.

Creating farms by plowing the sod on Oswego’s prairies began in the early 1830s

Why did those settlers leave their homes back East? For most, especially those from New England and the Middle Atlantic States, it was the search for better, cheaper land. For the Southerners, it was following the frontier as it moved west. New England’s farmland, along with that in New York, famously featured thin, rocky soil. In Pennsylvania, most of the best land had already been taken up and improved by the 1840s and 1850s, meaning it was expensive.

Meanwhile, land on the Illinois frontier of the 1830s was rich with deep black soil. The Prairie Peninsula, a vas, triangular-shaped region of rolling tallgrass prairie extending from northwestern Indiana all the way west to eastern fractions of modern North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas drew farmers because no timber needed to be laboriously cleared to start farming. Granted, that thick prairie sod had to be broken with specialized plows, a relatively expensive proposition that often cost as much as the land itself. And that lack of timber also meant that traditional frontier settlement methods using log buildings and rail fences often either couldn’t be used or created the additional expense of purchasing woodlots.

And then there was the price of that land, sold through government land offices as soon as it had been officially surveyed. The government price was $1.25 per acre, which was even cheap back then. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just $45 an acre in 2023 dollars. But, the price had to be paid in hard cash, no paper money allowed. And that was often difficult in those early days.

So, okay, cheap, high-quality land was for sale as the frontier moved west from Indiana, but why did settlers decide to move here in particular?

Most early accounts note our county’s earliest settlers came west literally prospecting for land. The Rev. E.W. Hicks in his history of Kendall County written in 1877 described one of these prospecting trips by two of the county’s earliest settlers: “Among those who came out prospecting in the spring of 1831 were Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan from New York. They descended the Ohio to the Mississippi, and then up to St. Louis, where buying ponies, they followed the banks of the Illinois river to Ottawa, and up the Fox to Yorkville. Reining up their horses on the present Court House Hill, they gazed on the lovely stream below them, the wide, beautiful prairies beyond them, and the timber behind them. The green was dotted with flowers, the birds sang in the branches, and a group of deer stood gazing at the strangers from the edge of a hazel thicket some distance away. Here,” thought Mr. Adams, “is my home,” and dismounting he drove his stake in the soil and took possession. Following up the river about two miles farther, they came to a creek, where Mr. Morgan halted and made his own claim. This done, they passed up to Chicago, sold their ponies, and returned home by way of the lakes.”

Adams and Morgan couldn’t get back to the land they’d claimed for a couple years, opening the way for others to be considered the earliest settlers in what’s today northern Kendall County.

In the summer of 1832, members of the extended Pearce family, Oswego’s first settlers, walked west in Champaign County, Ohio looking for likely land to settle. Possibly drawn here by reports back from Elijah Pearce’s son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter, who was familiar with the Fox and DuPage River valleys, they decided it was worth moving west to settle.

The Pearce family had started their westward trek in their home state of Maryland. They first emigrated through what’s now West Virginia and then settled for a decade or so along the Mad River in Champaign County, Ohio. After returning from their prospecting trip, the Pearces sold their Ohio farms and brought their families west to our Fox River Valley in 1833 by covered wagons pulled by oxen. Daniel Pearce settled along Waubonsie Creek on what’s now Oswego’s Fox Bend Golf Course. His brother-in-law and sister, William and Rebecca Wilson built their cabin at what’s now the busy intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Ill. Route 25 in downtown Oswego, while brothers John and Walter Pearce and their families settled on the west side of the river. Brother Elijah settled near his son-in-law and wife at what is now Montgomery in Kane County, north of Oswego.

Many of those early settlers didn’t stay put, however, but moved on as the mood struck them. Elijah Pearce and William Wilson and their families, for instance, only stayed along the Fox River for a few years before moving to Big Rock Creek near Plano, where they built a sawmill. They sold the mill in 1838 and headed west to Missouri and Iowa.

And speaking of mills, why did the Fox River have more mills than any other Illinois river? According to the Fox River Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams. The river was dammed at the following places: Ottawa, Dayton, Sheridan, Millington (Milford), Millbrook, Millhurst, Yorkville, Oswego, Montgomery, Aurora, two sites between Aurora and North Aurora, North Aurora, South Batavia, Batavia, Geneva, a site between Geneva and St. Charles (perhaps), St. Charles, South Elgin, Elgin, Dundee, Carpentersville, Algonquin, a site three miles below McHenry, and McHenry.”

In 1888, the Fox River dam at Montgomery was powering two mills located along the millrace. Of the two, Gray’s Mill (near the end of the millrace above) is still standing today. The millrace was filled in but can still be seen in Montgomery Park. (clip from Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, 1888)

And that list doesn’t even include mills on the Fox River’s tributaries. Here in Kendall County, mills were built (as noted above) on Big Rock Creek and also on Little Rock Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Waubonsie Creek. So it appears we can thank the Fox River Torrent for creating a river valley so conducive to building dams to provide water power for mills.

The above are all interesting questions, but how about a real mystery? Like, for instance, who killed William Boyd.

On Thanksgiving night, 1859, Kendall County attorney, land dealer, businessman, and former newspaper publisher William P. Boyd was working late at his office in the village of Bristol, now the north side of Yorkville. As he worked away that evening, a person unknown stealthily aimed through Boyd’s office window and fired a shot, badly wounding him.

Boyd’s death capped an eventful life. He came to Kendall County from Kentucky with his parents in 1838. They settled near modern Newark in Fox Township. Boyd’s father, John, farmed, while William, who had already read law, helped but also engaged in business. In March 1840, he cemented relations with one of the county’s best-known families when he married Sarah Ann Hollenback.

Hollenback, writing in 1914, recalled of his brother-in-law: “Boyd was a born leader, a man of strong personality and great persuasive powers among his following. He was capable of swaying the riff raff crowd as best suited his purpose.”

A few years later, Boyd moved to Oswego, which had become the Kendall County seat in 1845. There he practiced law and engaged in land speculation, plus investing in other businesses. He and his wife also apparently ran a rooming house. In the 1850 U.S. Census for Oswego Township, the value of Boyd’s property was set at $10,000, a considerable fortune for the era.

In 1850 when the General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties to adopt the township supervisor form of government, as opposed to the commission form, Boyd was named one of three commissioners who divided Kendall County into its current nine political townships in accord with the recently passed state law.

Boyd bought the Kendall County Courier, the county seat paper, published in Oswego, from Abraham Sellers in 1855. He changed its political orientation from neutral to a paper supporting the Democratic Party under the editorship of Alexander P. Niblo, a former Newark resident. That move led the county’s Republicans to persuade the Courier’s former editor and publisher, Hector S. Humphrey, to establish a competing Republican paper, the Kendall County Free Press. The Courier supported Buchanan in the 1856 Presidential election. And while Buchanan won, public sentiment had already trended Republican in Kendall County, and Boyd was forced to close the Courier and sell its press and type to an Iowa paper.

By 1859, perhaps sensing voters were in favor of moving the county seat back to Yorkville, Boyd and his wife and children moved to the village of Bristol, just across the river from where the new courthouse would be built during the upcoming Civil War. And it was there that Boyd met his violent end.

Although mortally wounded, Boyd hung on until Jan. 5, 1860 when he died. Hollenback recalled years later: “The identity of his assassin was never discovered. The excitement of the trial and execution of [abolitionist John] Brown for a time dwarfed everything else. The assassination of Boyd had been so deftly accomplished there was little that could be done, and nothing was done by the Grand Jury of Kendall County.”

In what is undoubtedly Kendall County’s coldest case, Boyd’s murder is still unsolved after 163 years.

So you like history’s mysteries? As you can see, we’ve got plenty right here in the Middle Fox Valley. Some we’ve solved, and some we haven’t. What’s a local historical mystery that’s piqued your interest?

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Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

Sat down in my small office here at History Central this morning and was treated to the scene of hundreds of Canada Geese sitting out on the ice shelf that grew in the Fox River’s main channel during our recent bitter cold spell.

The view from my home office window this morning. That black strip out on the other side of the trees on the island is several hundred geese enjoying northern Illinois’ latest cold snap by sitting on the ice.

And it occurred to me how much I love and appreciate this old river.

My family has owned the spot I’m sitting on right now since 1908 when my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town. They picked out four lots in the old, never incorporated Village of Troy on the east bank of the Fox River of Illinois about a half-mile above the Village of Oswego.

This photo by Irvin Haines shows the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory at right, North Adams Street (called Water Street back then) and, just a few yards upstream from the mill, the vacant lots where my sister built our current house in 1985.

They probably picked the site because it was right next door to my great-great-grandparents’ house and just a short distance south of my great-grandmother’s sister’s house.

They contracted with my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build their steep-roofed story-and-a-half Queen Anne-style retirement home on the two lots on the east side of Troy’s Water Street—now Oswego’s North Adams Street. And he did a great job, too. The house (now where my son and wife live) is still as sound and sturdy as the day my great-grandparents moved in, in October 1908.

The Lantz House Irvin Haines built for my great-grandparents, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

They reserved the two lots west of Water Street lying on the east bank of the river for grazing room for their cow and driving horse, and gardening.

The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory was located right next door to the north of those two lots, separated by the 66-foot wide Third Street right-of-way, which had been platted as part of Troy but never completed. The sawmill, whose power was provided by the adjoining dam across the river, had served the Oswego community for several years before William Parker added the furniture factory to process the numerous Black Walnut trees in the community into chairs, tables, and various kinds of chests.

At some point, the mill and furniture factor had burned down, leaving behind the remains of the building’s thick flagstone foundation and the millrace that had powered the turbines that, in turn, powered the entire operation.

Meanwhile, across the river at the west end of the dam, the Parker Gristmill had ground local farmers’ grain into flour and meal before being closed down around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 1920s, Irvin Haines (yes, the same person who built my great-grandparents’ house) dismantled the mill and used the timber, sawn lumber, and foundation stones to remodel the old Seely Barn at the west end of the Oswego Bridge into the Turtle Rock Tearoom—which is still standing and is today a private home.

The old dam washed out sometime around the first or second decade of the 20th Century, never to be rebuilt.

Upon my great grandparents’ death during World War II, their house passed on to my grandparents. My aunt and uncle moved into the house during the war and then in 1955 my parents bought it when they were forced to quit farming due to my dad’s poor health. We moved off the farm in December that year and I began my love affair with the river.

The Fox River (of Illinois; the Fox River of Wisconsin empties into Green Bay), 202 miles long, has its source northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the river flows 84 miles past Brookfield, Waukesha, Big Bend, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake and Wilmot before crossing the border into Illinois at the north end of the chain of six lakes on the border between Lake and McHenry counties. From there it flows generally south and slightly west to its mouth on the Illinois River near Starved Rock at Ottawa.

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map of the Old Northwest showing the Illinois River and the first mention of the modern name of the Fox River I’ve been able to find. (Indian Villages of Illinois, Vol. II, Atlas and Supplement, Sara Jones Tucker)

The Native People living along the river when the French arrived in the Illinois River Valley in 1673 called the river Pestequouy, the Algonquian-speaking peoples’ word for the American Bison. That indicated that by then buffalo were common on the prairies along the river’s course. After LaSalle’s efforts at colonizing the Illinois River Valley in the early 1680s, the Fox became known among the French as the River of the Rock. The French had named the landmark Starved Rock simply “The Rock.” Near the end of the 17th Century, the French moved their trading operations south to Lake Peoria on the Illinois River. It was after that period that the Fox River got its modern name, most likely named after the Fox Tribe, some groups of which lived along its northern reaches in the early 1700s.

Between 1764 and 1775, fter the British won the French and Indian War, Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled the area that eventually became the Old Northwest Territory with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, the Fox River was finally given its modern name. The name was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

The villages of Native People in northern Illinois as of about 1830, just as settlement was about to explode in the Fox River Valley. The river is picked out in green on this map. (Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History)

The Fox Valley was a rich place used as a hunting ground by the member tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. When the Illinois gradually lost population and power in the early 18th Century, interrelated bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes created the Three Fires Confederacy and moved from their homelands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to fill the vacuum in the Fox Valley. These were the people living in the river valley when the first White settlers began arriving in the late 1820s.

The Three Fires and their cousins who had been living along the river for a few thousand years had manipulated the landscape to maintain the prairies and open wooded savannas that characterized the area when those White settlers arrived. That also included changing the river itself by building weirs to trap fish that tended to change water flows and create new islands and other features. But when the Whites showed up, they began making much more profound changes to the river and the prairies and hardwood groves in its watershed.

Drainage of wetlands that dotted the prairies, most of which were the remnants of Ice Age lakes, began as soon as pioneer farmers arrived and continued as new technologies were brought to bear. This had the beneficial effect of sharply cutting the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hordes of biting flies. But it also led to the more rapid runoff of stormwater, leading to larger and more frequent floods on the Fox River.

Laying clay tile to drain wetlands on the Oswego Prairie east of the Village of Oswego abut 1900. The tile run went through a ridge on its way to empty into Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In addition, the groves were cut to provide firewood and building materials and the prairies were plowed and turned into cropland. That led to more soil erosion and the once-clear river was turned into a muddy stream.

But those changes didn’t hold a candle to the effect the dams the region’s pioneer millwrights threw across the river to power sawmills and gristmills. According to The Fox River Area Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River became the most dammed stream in Illinois…The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams.” According to the assessment, 25 dams dotted the river’s course at one time or another, including at Oswego, Millington, Millbrook, Millhurst, and Yorkville here in Kendall County.

Noted the assessment’s authors, “The Fox River probably produced more hydro-power than all other streams in Illinois put together, excluding the Rock River. In addition to sawing wood and grinding grain, these mills ran factories. The Fox River Valley became more heavily industrialized than any other area of comparable size in Illinois.”

The dams themselves created problems. The dead water behind them—none of them except one in the Chain of Lakes were built with floodgates that would all the current to cleanse the river bottom behind them. As a result, the mill ponds up and down the river quickly filled with silt, covering the gravel gamefish preferred to lay their eggs. The dams also prevented fish from migrating to other spawning grounds.

The decline in gamefish, particularly, was noted and everyone from the U.S. Fish Commission to local angling clubs tried to fix the situation by stocking the Fox with a dizzying variety of fish, from Rainbow Trout to German Carp. Needless to say, the trout didn’t survive, but the carp certainly did, displacing native species and with their feeding habits contributing to the river’s already serious turgidity.

But it was the Fox Valley’s industrialization, which continued well after hydro power was economical, that caused the most severe problems. Instead of a source of power the river became viewed as a convenient dump for all manner of industrial waste. Especially starting when manufacturing coal gas became popular for home lighting, heating, and cooking the pollution of the river began spiking. And, of course, citizens in the growing towns along the river contributed by dumping their own, often untreated, sewage into the river.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

By a century ago the problem had become acute. The Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on May 17, 1922: “In spite of all efforts which have been made in previous years and laws which have been passed by the legislature, the pollution of Fox River continues to make the waterway a menace to health. The Fox is a beautiful stream. The fishing in years gone past has been good and the boating in some places enjoyable. But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

But the industrial interests had the money to buy as many politicians as needed to keep any meaningful change from taking place. As a result, when we moved into my great-grandparents’ house in 1955, the river was in even worse shape than ever. Within a couple years, chemical factories upstream dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killing just about every living creature in the Fox from Aurora to Yorkville. During the first episode, we counted more than 500 dead fish along my parents’ riverbank.

We spent summers on and along the river in those years, but were always careful to wear our “river shoes” when wading to avoid stepping on broken glass or scrap metal that could provide a nasty cut in the polluted water. We enjoyed our river scows, too. From my office window, I look right at the bit of riverbank where some long-dead relative installed a large iron staple in concrete where I’d chain up my boat.

Fishing was fun, but it was strictly “catch and release” for us long before the term came into vogue. One look at the stunted Black Bullheads, Catfish, and Bluegills, often with lesions (that proved to be cancerous when studied) on them, prevented us from wanting to eat any of them.

Ice skating on the Fox River at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek about 1920. (Little White School Museum collection)

Still, the river valley was a great place to grow up. Winters were colder then, with -20° F. cold snaps not uncommon, which meant the river provided some great ice skating. Trudging down to the riverbank to sit on a handy log to change into my skates was a treat all winter. In fact, I’d often go skating for an hour or so before school. And I only fell through the ice once, and since it only involved one leg getting wet, I decided that discretion was probably a good idea and never bothered my parents with the details.

After the annual spring flood was over, it was back aboard our flat-bottomed river scows. When I became fascinated with the Age of Sail I talked my mother into sewing canvas sail and then built the necessary rigging for my boat, installed leeboards and even managed to sail upstream with the rig.

The memorial to Jim Phillips celebrating his efforts to save the nation’s air and water from pollution, acting as his alter-ego, “The Fox.” The memorial is on the banks of the Fox River in Oswego’s Violet Patch Park just off Ill. Route 25. The memorial, signed with the “cartoon”Fox” Phillips used to advertise his exploits, honors his activities and also illustrates the positive changes his activities prompted.

Then things began to change, thanks to activists like Jim Phillips who weren’t afraid to tackle all the money paying for politicians to ignore the river’s pollution. Acting as his secret identity of “The Fox,” Jim began waging a campaign against polluters using a brilliant combination of humor and public relations to shine a light on what was going on. His exploits were picked up by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, the local press, and even National Geographic. His exploits, such as dumping the Lake Michigan outflow from a U.S. Steel coking plant onto the pristine white carpeting of the corporate offices in downtown Chicago and plugging untreated industrial effluent pipes emptying into local creeks and the Fox River itself, helped lead to a national reassessment of what we were doing to our own environment.

And, since that was the era when politicians could still work together for the greater good of society in general, that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon as well as similar agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels as well.

Today, the Fox River I look at out of my office window (which, by the way, is situated about where center field was back in the day when this was a vacant lot that housed the neighborhood baseball diamond and go-cart track) and see hundreds of Canada Geese and know that come spring the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass anglers will be back with a vengeance, it really gives me a good feeling. Seeing something that was so distressed that even as an eight year-old I knew it was in serious trouble recover to become something so unbelievably valuable as a recreational and natural areas resource is more satisfying than just about anything else I can think of.

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It was great being a kid at Christmastime in the 1950s

‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.

We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.

Taken back during the winter of 2021 out of my office window, ducks and geese congregate on the Fox River. Totally absent in the 1950s, the birds are common sights these days.

The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.

Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.

But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.

These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.

Snapped a shot of this guy last winter sitting in a tree on the far side of the island right off our stretch of riverbank.

After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.

My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.

And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.

When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.

The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.

My grandparents’ small farmhouse. The three windows on the left were in the long, narrow dining room.

My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.

After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.

These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.

The author on the blue Schwinn he bought for $5, ready for a 1950s Oswego Memorial Day Parade. Flags were the main decorations that year. We all got coupons for a free root beer at the Kopper Kettle restaurant.

It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.

I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.

These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.

While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.

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Disappearance of wheat fields marked a major change in northern Illinois’ prairie farming

This year’s grain harvest has largely wrapped up here in the Fox River Valley, following roughly the same schedule it has been on for the last 1,200 years.

Illinois’ Native People began cultivating corn sometime between 900 and 1000 AD. It joined the beans and squash they’d been propagating to create the basis for their subsistence crops they called “The Three Sisters.”

Interestingly enough, modern farmers still grow versions of the Native People’s “Three Sisters,” although these days soybeans have taken the place of native edible beans and pumpkins have largely replaced other squash. But still, it’s sort of comforting that a 1,200 year-old harvest tradition continues into the 21st Century.

The member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy had moved into the area west and south of Lake Michigan in the 1740s, displacing the member tribal groups of the Illinois Confederacy. The Three Fires relied on growing “The Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) for a large proportion of their died. Like the region’s modern farmers, the Native People completed their harvest in late fall.

By the time the first permanent White settlers began arriving along the banks of the Fox River, the resident Native People were inter-related members of the Three Fires Confederacy comprised of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. These people, too, relied on growing The Three Sisters for a large percentage of their diet. Over the centuries since its introduction, corn had been crossbred and otherwise genetically modified by its Native American growers.

European immigrants had quickly adopted growing what they called “Indian corn” to differentiate it from the “corn’ they called wheat back in that day. It grew okay in the thin, rocky soils of New England, but crops kept getting better the farther west White settlement moved because soils were better, too. When the frontier finally moved out of the Eastern woodlands onto the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula in the 1820s, corn found its ideal habitat.

But those White settlers did not live on corn alone. They needed wheat for bread and other foods, along with oats to feed their livestock, and rye and barley for foodstuffs as well as to manufacture the alcoholic beverages that seemed to power so much of frontier society.

So the crops grown on those first Fox Valley pioneer farms were quite diversified, right along with those of their neighbors all the way west to the Mississippi. Wheat was considered a vital crop, both for consumption on the farm, and after pioneer town developers arrived, for sale in town. Corn was fed to the farm’s livestock, which could then walk the 40 miles east to market in Chicago. Rye and barley were both used on the farm, but were also good sale crops and which could also be turned into extremely valuable—and easily transported—whiskey.

Grain, too, could be hauled to the Chicago market, although the 80 mile round trip in wagon-and-team days was time-consuming, keeping the farmer away from taking care of his other responsibilities such as feeding and otherwise caring for his livestock, not to mention taking care of his family on their often isolated farmsteads.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

So when the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened following the course of the Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois River system from Lake Michigan to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru, it created a nearby, easily reached incentive to begin growing more grain of all kinds than could be consumed on the farm.

For one thing, it meant the meat being produced from Chicago’s stockyards could move south to the St. Louis–New Orleans market as easily as east to the New York market.

Even more importantly, its existence meant that grain from the rich region west and south of Chicago could finally be shipped north as well as south. Previously grain taken to the Illinois River system went downstream to the St. Louis market. But with canal boats hauling it, grain moved north as easily as south. Chicago’s grain elevators were ready to handle the huge influx of grain, too, readying it for shipment east to the New York market.

Thus began cash grain farming in earnest. And within a year or so, the first railroad, whose right-of-way followed the course of the canal, opened. That offered a year round grain and livestock shipping opportunity for area farmers, something the canal, which had to close during the winter months, could not.

It was during this period of the late 1840s and early 1850s, that northern Illinois’ wheat crops experienced a number of failures. And since it was a major crop during those years, it led to severe financial problems. In response, farmers tried everything they could to try to make the area a viable wheat-producer, including introducing dozens of new wheat varieties and tinkering with planting schedules.

The preferred wheat for market was hard winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, germinated and greened up, went dormant over the winter, and then resumed growing in the spring to be harvested in late summer. But northern Illinois’ climate and its very soil warred against producing good winter wheat crops. The region’s numerous freeze-thaw cycles during an average winter tended to kill the vulnerable wheat seedlings. Then if it did begin growing it was often attacked by a variety of diseases including rust and blight along with insect pests such as the Hessian fly and chinch bugs. And, oddly enough, the soils on northern Illinois tallgrass prairies seemed to be too rich to support good wheat crops. Farmer Edmund Flagg decided in the mid-1830s from his own observations that the worst soils of the Prairie Peninsula were best-adapted to growing wheat.

Before the advent of mechanical reapers, harvesting “small grains” (wheat, oats, barley, rye) was both labor-intensive and subject to weather-related problems. Those problems were so severe and prevalent on the Illinois prairies that farmers, a group normally reluctant to adopt new methods, were eager early adopters of mechanical harvesting equipment. McCormick Reapers were manufactured under license south of Oswego at AuSable Grove in 1847.

And then there was the problem that growing and harvesting wheat is extremely labor-intensive and very dependent on just the right weather conditions during the harvest cycle. Wheat had to be cut, bound into bundles, stacked to dry, and then threshed. Excessive moisture in the form of rain at any time after the grain was cut could lead to it developing rust or other fungus, or even sprouting spoiling the crop.

This need for speed during the wheat harvest spurred by the upper Midwest’s damp climate during the peak harvest season led to early and intense interest in mechanical harvesters that allowed far more acreage to be cut, bundled, and shocked than the old manual methods. Area farmers not only imported early harvesters made by Cyrus McCormick and others, but they also licensed them for manufacture here. Out in AuSable Grove south of Oswego Daniel Townsend secured a McCormick license and produced harvesters in the 1840s. Eventually, of course, the folks in Plano here in Kendall County became one of the premiere harvester manufacturers in the nation.

Corn, in comparison, was pretty hardy stuff. It could even be left standing in the field all winter if necessary, to be successfully picked and husked in the early spring with no visible impact on its value as a human or animal food.

Northern Illinois farmers gradually switched to trying to grow spring wheat and met with more success. But the spring varieties were softer and less attractive for milling into bread flour than the hard winter varieties. So, wheat growing began to disappear from Fox Valley farms in favor of corn and oats, which found a ready market in area cities during the era when horses provided the main motive power.

Not so in central and southern Illinois, where wheat farming was part of the Southern farming culture that had arrived with those regions’ pioneers. The southern part of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Virginia and the Carolinas who came west through Kentucky and Tennessee, and then up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. They were also some of central Illinois’ first pioneers.

Southern farming culture was far more subsistence-based than that of the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians who settled northern Illinois. The soils and climate of the southern half of the state favored wheat farming, which fit in with the culture Southern farmers brought with them. That culture not only included the kinds of crops they grew, but also extended to their farmsteads.

Probably built around 1847, the barn south of Oswego on the Daniel Townsend farm was used both as a traditional barn, but also may have housed Townsend’s manufacturing operation to produce McCormick reapers. The barn was built on the traditional stone Pennsylvania plan with slit ventilating windows.

Barns, for instance, were common sights on the northern Illinois landscape but not so farther south. According to Richard Bardolph, writing in the December 1948 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the editor of Moore’s Rural New Yorker visited Illinois in the 1850s and reported to his readers, that “barns are scarcely to be seen on the prairies, and they seem to be considered more of a luxury than a necessity.”

In contrast, here in the Fox Valley barns were among the first structures pioneer farmers built. They were multi-purpose buildings farmers relied upon for everything from grain and hay storage to protecting livestock from the region’s bitter winters to storing farm equipment. Storing farm equipment under roof seems to have been another Southern farmer cultural trait they didn’t share with their Northern counterparts.

As late as the 1940s, one of my Kansas cousins came east to learn Midwestern farming practices from my father and uncles. One of the things he took back with him was the importance of storing farm equipment out of the weather to lengthen the equipment’s lifespan and to assure it worked when needed. That was a new concept for many Kansas farmers of the era whose roots extended east through Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.

During the Great Depression here in northern Illinois, wheat farming nearly disappeared. The 1935 Census of Agriculture for Kendall County reported only four farms grew wheat, amounting to a bit over 400 bushels. We now know that 1934 was probably the worst year for northern Illinois farmers during those awful years. Drought, chinch bug invasions, crop diseases, dust storms, and just about any other disaster you can think of afflicted the region’s farmers. The price of corn had collapsed in 1933, bringing only 14-cents a bushel, down sharply from $1.14 in 1925. That made it cheaper for many farmers to burn it as fuel in their stoves and furnaces than coal. Sears Roebuck, in fact, marketed special stove grates in those years designed for corn, which burned hotter than coal or wood.

In addition, corn could also be fed to animals on the farm, producing livestock the farm family itself could consume. Many a farm family of those years helped feed their city cousins. In general, it took about seven bushels of corn to produce a pound of beef and 6.5 pounds to produce a bushel of pork, Many farmers favored raising hogs because pork could be turned into a variety of meats from roasts and chops to sausage and with smoking, hams and bacon. And corn could also be used as human food as well, ground into corn flour to make cornbread, fried mush, and other dishes. This diversity of use apparently made growing corn a more sensible course for the region’s farmers.

Also in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension Service began promoting soybeans as a new cash crop for Illinois farmers struggling through the Great Depression. And so starting here in Kendall County in the dismal year of 1933 a variety of beans far different than those grown by the region’s Native American farmers began to sprout on the Illinois prairies, just as the need for so much oat acreage was disappearing as the horses who used so many bushels of oats for food were replaced by motor vehicles.

Today, Illinois still produces a fair amount of wheat, but the vast majority of it is grown in central and southern Illinois where the climate, growing seasons, and soils favor it. Here in northern Illinois, occasional fields of wheat can be spotted by the alert motorist, along with a few acres of oats here and there. But for a crop that was once a vital staple of pioneer farms, the disappearance of wheat fields marked one of the many profound changes in prairie farming.

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Before the colors fade: A young Oswego “daredevil” jumped into Pacific Theatre combat

My friend Stan Young died on Nov. 9.

He was my best friend’s dad, so I literally grew up with him. He was a sort of building genius here in town, and in my adult years I had him do a number of projects at our house. He was absolutely top-notch in maintaining our house’s Queen Anne architectural elements, making additions or improvements look like they’d always been there.

Stan Young (left at top of ladder) and his son, Glenn installed the finial Stan made for the top of the Little White School Museum’s bell tower in 1983 the day before the museum gallery opened for the first time. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in 1977, when we started restoring the Little White School Museum, Stan volunteered to take on a number of projects, mostly donating his labor for free. Those projects included stabilizing and replacing the building’s timber front sill that had been badly rotted out over the years and replacing floor joists in the building’s entry, recreating the building’s wooden front porch, and then recreating and installing its iconic bell tower. His last big project was recreating the finial atop the bell tower, something he and his son, Glenn, installed the day before the museum in the building opened in 1983.

A lifelong resident of Oswego, Stan joined the Army when he was drafted on Jan. 12, 1943. He volunteered for the paratroopers and fought in several engagements in the Philippines, making four combat parachute drops. Serving in the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division as a mortar gunner, Young eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant by the end of the war.

Several years ago, he retired from both contracting and owning, with his wife Lydia, Scotty’s Restaurant in Oswego and moved to Mena, Arkansas. And after battling some increasingly serious health issues, that’s where he died at age 99 after a long and very eventful life.

Stanley Young’s Oswego High School senior class photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in August 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VJ Day marking the victory over the Japanese in World War II, I interviewed Stan for the Ledger-Sentinel and finally got him to talk a bit about his years in the military, something he never really spoke of—other than to note one time that one of the guys in his company was always going around writing stuff and eventually became involved with television. That literary former paratrooper turned out to have been Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame.

Born and raised in Oswego to a family that had been in the area since the 1830s, Stan was popular in the community as a youngster. At Oswego High School, he was involved in just about every activity that was offered, from sports to helping produce the yearbook, to his election as senior class president. He graduated with the Class of 1941 and attended teacher’s college in Winona, Minnesota before being drafted.

Although he wanted to be a paratrooper, he was nearly talked out of it before he left for the service. As he related the story to me back in 1985:

“It’s a funny story and it’s kind of a sad story as well. I had always thought I’d like to jump out of a plane with a parachute. 1 Just was kind of a little daredevil in those days, and I thought it would be fun. The last day when I was leaving, my mother said, ‘You’re not going to get into paratroops, are you?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t think they’d accept me anyway.’

“So, riding in on the train, my best buddy that I had gone through school with from first grade was Stuart Parkhurst. And he said, ‘Let’s get into paratroops.’ And 1 said ‘No, I told my mother I probably wouldn’t.’ He said, ‘Aw, come on. You get better pay, nicer uniforms; you get your own special camps. It would be neat!’ And I said, ‘Well, it probably wouldn’t hurt me.’

“So, I volunteered that I wanted to be in the paratroops, and the first thing they said to me was, ‘I don’t think you want to be in the paratroops.’ And I said that I really did, and they had me sign some other papers and take some more physicals. At noon 1 got out of all that, and I said, ‘Stu! I made it! I made it! How’d you do?’ And he said, ‘They told me they didn’t think I wanted to be in it and I decided not to.’

“He subsequently went into an infantry outfit and was killed over in Europe. So, I made it and came through alright, and he didn’t and he was in what he thought was a safer outfit. If they got your number, they got your number.

“Initially, we went to Tacoa, Ga., where the unit was formed and then to Camp McCall, N.C. where we took parachute jump training. By then the division (l1th Airborne) had solidified and was preparing for duty in the South Pacific. We trained additionally at Camp Polk, La., and shipped out in April of ’44 for New Guinea. There we trained additionally. We made a few more parachute jumps and did some more jungle training, preparatory to going to the Philippines.

11th Airborne Division Paratrooper Stan Young, 1943. (Little White School Museum collection)

“In November of that year, they put us on a ship and we arrived at Leyte [an island in the Philippine Group]. When we got there, they had concluded that the war was about over there, as far as Leyte was concerned, and we were to go into a mop-up operation. But when we arrived, new troops arrived from Japan on the opposite side of the islan—and also paratroops and ships and airplanes attacked, and we had a full-scale war instead of a mop-up operation.

“We were in combat there for about 30 days in the jungles and mountains of Leyte, and the mountain where we were was subsequently named Starvation Ridge. We didn’t eat for five days from the time the last C-ration was gone, and we were on one-third of a C-ration at THAT time. Every time they air-dropped something, the Japs got to it before we did because of the heavy fog and mist, because they kind of had us surrounded there.

“We finally got back to the beach about Christmas. About mid-January we got on some little landing craft and sailed across the Philippine Sea to Mindoro Island, not knowing where we were going at the time. There we enplaned and made a combat parachute drop about 37 miles south of Manila. We marched a shuttle march, the entire 511th Parachute Regiment, with us walking and being shuttled forward by the three trucks we had, to a little village. And here all hell broke loose. We arrived just before dark and they gave us the option of digging in. The ground was like sandstone. About that time, the artillery started hitting and we decided it was about time to start digging in. We took several casualties before we did dig m and they were lobbing mortar rounds and artillery right into our position.

“We were there until June, in that area, from February until June. At one time I figured it was 102 days that I didn’t lay down to sleep, that we slept in the ground sitting up in our foxholes. We were in some pretty intense combat.

Troopers from the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment get ready to enplane for the Raid on Los Baños to free the roughly 2,000 prisoners the Japanese housed there. (History Net photo)

“Along with it, we freed one of the Japanese prison camps where they held a bunch of Catholic nuns and priests. There were some showgirls and prostitutes and dancers; some businessmen; some Americans; some Spanish and other nationalities. They were holding them at Los Baños near Santa Rosa.

“It was about that time there was a lull in Southern Luzon. We went, at one point, into this little town of Santa Rosa and they said they had a festival. What it was was several Japanese collaborators had been captured and they were going to punish them. We saw them execute three men by slow degrees–torture. It was horrifying. For the grand finale, they had a woman. They tied her to a post in the square, put rice straw all around it, threw gasoline on it, and set it on fire. I’ll tell you, it’s quite a shock. We were told we were not to interfere with the Philippine guerillas in any way.

“We eventually took Luzon Province. On June 23, we were enplaned and flew to the very tip of Luzon Island and engaged in a parachute jump there, but there was no combat. All the Japs pulled back.

There I sustained a serious shoulder injury and was taken to the hospital. I was released on July 20, and we entered into a training program, and the word was out we were to make a jump on Japan proper. But then the scuttlebutt had it that a big bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and subsequently another one was dropped [on Nagasaki].

“When they said the Japs had given up, there about the middle of August, 1 have never seen so much jubilation in my entire life. I think that was the happiest moment of my life, when they said the Japanese had surrendered, because I figured there was new life. Regardless of any joys I have ever had over anything in the whole world, ever, that was the happiest single moment. And I would imagine any of the guys who were there would agree with me. Guys were running up and down the company street, running in and out of tents, you never saw such running and jubilation! You can’t imagine the jubilance!

“Some people say, ‘I bet it was thrilling;’ and others say, ‘I bet you miss your old buddies and I bet that was exciting.’”

“Hey—none of the above. It was horrible. 1 can look back and say 1 was there and it was interesting, but it was a horrible thing. And to hear it happened again in Korea and Vietnam, you wonder why aren’t people smarter? They learn to build huge buildings and marvelous communications systems and yet two people can’t even sit side by side in a bar and keep from arguing and then they carry that right on to country to country.

“If there’s one thing 1 brought back with me, it’s a total aversion to violence of any kind. I can’t even stand to watch it on television. If it comes on, 1 just get up and turn it off. I had enough of the real thing.”

After the end of the war was announced, Stan was among those on one of the first, if not THE first, Allied planes to land Allied military forces in Japan to take that country’s surrender. Given how ferocious the Japanese military had been during combat I asked him if he and his buddies were worried about what kind of reception they’d get when they touched down at that Japanese military base. He replied that, yes, there was worry, but it turned out once the emperor told the military to surrender, they did it virtually without incident.

As a sort of sidelight, both of Stan’s brothers also fought through the Pacific. John, an Army Air Corps pilot, eventually flew 50 missions in A-20 Havoc bombers, also in McArthur’s campaign through New Guinea and the Philippines. Brother Dick, a Marine, was wounded three times on Iwo Jima in the Navy’s island-hopping campaign. Stan and John were even able to meet once in January 1945. As reported back home in the Kendall County Record: “Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Young have three sons in the service for two years. Two of the boys met in the Philippines on Jan 25. Lt. John S., a pilot, landed on an island and heard that his brother, Corporal Stanley, was on the same island. Obtaining a jeep he drove 20 miles, found his brother, who was more surprised than words can tell. The two had a fine time for about two hours when the party had to break up. John reports Stanley as looking fine and strong. Lt. John has 13 missions.”

And the boys’ father, Dwight, was involved in the Pacific Theatre as well, although not in direct combat. Instead, he was a self-taught physicist who was working on something called The Manhattan Project in New Mexico. That “big bomb” Stan heard about through the paratroopers’ scuttlebutt was partly his dad’s handiwork.

After the war was finally over, all three of the Young boys found they’d survived and came home to resume their lives, and they made good ones, too. Stan was the last of the three, surviving to 99 years despite not playing it safe in 1943 like his best friend. Stu Parkhurst.

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Before the colors fade: Local heroes who hid in plain sight…

During my 1950s childhood, we all envied friends whose dads were World War II veterans because so many of them had such cool war souvenirs. From web belts and canteens to equipment pouches, first aid kits, and even U.S. Army leather holsters, that stuff enlivened our hours playing “War.”

But little did we know that several of those dads—and even a few moms—had done far more than their part during the war, only to be determined to come back home to our little corner of northern Illinois and get back into “real life.” In fact, about the only time we saw any evidence of those folks’ service was during the annual Memorial Day Parade when they marched with our local American Legion Post to the cemetery to honor the nation’s war dead.

But from the director of the local funeral home to the carpenter down the street, many of them had stories of pivotal events they’d participated in that they simply didn’t want to discuss with anyone who hadn’t also participated in the same kinds of things they’d seen and done. So they kept their peace in public, lived productive lives by contributing to their communities, and have now passed on leaving others to piece together tales of the sacrifices they made to save their country during the momentous events of the war years.

Two men who spent almost their entire lives in our then-little town are excellent examples of those who served. Their service took them to opposite sides of the globe from each other, but after the war and returning home, they became related by marriage.

When it came to winning World War II, the combat arms of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Corps have justifiably gotten most of the attention. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who also fought and died to win the war, from the merchant mariners manning the Liberty Ships carrying vital Lend-Lease supplies across the oceans, to truckers who kept the supplies going to front line troops.

In September, Oswego’s Little White School Museum received two donations from long-time Oswegoland Heritage Association member and frequent donor Barbara Wolf Wood that added to our knowledge of how some of those unheralded participants in the war not only did their duty for their country, but helped win it.

The materials donated came from the estates of Oswegoans Ray Leifheit and Merrill Wolf. Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineering Battalion in the European Theatre of operations while Wolf served in the Seabees in the Pacific Theatre.

Merrill Wolf

The Merrill Wolf donation included his Seabee footlocker, two complete uniforms—his blues and his whites—a 1940s hard hat, and a pair of khaki shorts of the kind Seabees wore during their hard work maintaining the pipeline of supplies to Marine and Navy fighters as well as building the ports and airfields on once unknown Pacific islands to allow the bombing raids on Japan that eventually led to its surrender.

The Seabees were the construction experts for the Navy and Marines. The name stems from the initials for Construction Battalion. The force was created by Rear Admiral Ben Moreell just weeks after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. The original authorization was for a naval construction regiment consisting of three naval construction battalions to be comprised of construction tradesmen. Adm. Moreell realized that using civilian construction crews for the ports and airfields the Navy would need as they leapfrogged across the Pacific simply wouldn’t work. As the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command put it: “Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.”

Wolf, an electrician, enlisted in the Seabees in June 1943 at the age of 32.

He subsequently served throughout the Pacific Theatre, aboard LST-244, working as an Electrical Mechanic First Class. LST-244, was a large ship designed to land tanks and other heavy equipment directly ashore. Ironically, LST-244 was built not far from Wolf’s home in Oswego at Evansville, Indiana. Launched on Aug. 13, 1943, the ship sailed down the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From there it was down to Panama and through the canal to the Pacific. Reaching the Pacific Theatre of Operations, the ship and crew participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign in November and December, 1943; the invasion of Kwajalein and Majuro atolls in February 1944; the capture and occupation of Guam, July and August 1944; and the bloody assault and occupation of Okinawa, April 1945.

Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) under construction at the Evansville, Indiana shipyard on the Ohio River. The ships were launched sideways into the river. From there, they sailed to the Mississippi River, and down to New Orleans. The shipyard employed 19,000 workers at its height. Today, one of the LSTs like those built there is on exhibit as a fully-operational museum ship. (Courtesy of Evansville Museum/Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library)

After Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Wolf continued to serve on Okinawa for a few more months. When his discharge number came up, he was shipped directly from there back to the U.S. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 13, 1945: “Merrill Wolf, who had the rank of Electrical Mechanic 1-C, received his honorable discharge at Great Lakes on Nov. 10 and came home to his wife and two little daughters. The younger, June Anne, 17 months, he had never seen. He had been in the Pacific for two years, coming home directly from Okinawa to Seattle and thence to Great Lakes.”

A future brother-in-law already in the Army Engineers

By the time Merrill Wolf enlisted, his future brother-in-law, Ray Leifheit, had been serving in the U.S. Army for almost two years. A carpenter by trade living in the Yorkville area, before the war Leifheit had volunteered for three years to serve in Company E, a unit of the Illinois National Guard’s 129th Infantry Regiment based here in Kendall County at tiny Plattville.

Raymond Leifheit

After induction into the U.S. Army, Leifheit was eventually assigned to Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, an engineering unit attached to the 9th Armored Division.

He was shipped overseas to England in August 1944, where the 9th Armored Division and the 9th Engineers underwent additional training before being sent to France in October 1944 to aid in the defeat of Germany. The engineers assisted the division in its move across France, first seeing action in northern Luxembourg. The battalion was in the Ardennes Forest area in December 1944 when the Germans launched their surprise offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Leifheit and the rest of his Company C mates found themselves desperately fighting to slow down the German armored spearhead. As U.S. forces retreated, C Company engineering troops worked hard continually creating new defensive positions, blocking roads and destroying bridges, and even fighting as infantry as they withdrew, finally reaching the strategic crossroads of Bastogne on Dec. 19. The engineers then returned to their engineering skills and from Dec. 20-27 blocked six roads south and east of Bastogne to check German assaults from those directions.

It was during the furious fighting to block those roads on Dec. 26 that Leifheit was seriously wounded and captured by the German Army. He was initially listed as missing in action, but in April his parents in Yorkville finally got the good news that he was indeed alive.

A U.S. Army engineer prepares to drop a tree onto a road near Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Oswego’s Ray Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion during the battle. (Courtesy To Those Who Served website)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 11, 1945: “Mr. and Mrs. R.W. Leifheit received the glad tidings in the form of a telegram on April 7 from the War Department stating that their son, T-5 Raymond Leifheit, who was reported as missing in action Dec. 26, in Belgium, was a prisoner of war of the German government. Many friends and relatives rejoice with them at this word and hope he will soon be released to return home.”

He had been treated in German military hospitals for two months after being wounded before he was liberated by Allied forces, and then spent more time in U.S. Military Hospitals before being finally sent home.

It took some time before he was completely healed. But he eventually did, getting back to his old carpentry profession.

Then on Jan. 3, 1948, he married Mary Wolf, sister of former Seabee Merrill Wolf.

Thanks to those recent donations from Wolf family descendants, the stories of these two World War II veterans will be preserved in the collections of the Little White School Museum, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have gone off to serve their nation in both war and peace, and whose memories the museum is committed to preserving.

As part of their mission to preserve the achievements of the hundreds of men and women from Oswego who have served their country for the last 190 years, the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street, Oswego, will host their “Remembering Our Veterans” special exhibit starting Thursday, Nov. 10 and running through Sunday, Nov. 27. Regular museum hours are Thursday and Friday, 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Monday, 4-9 p.m. The museum, located just two blocks east of Oswego’s historic downtown business district, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but donations are always gratefully accepted. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, check the museum web site, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org, or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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The era when the Fox River Valley’s Native People and settlers lived along side each other

Starting in 1835, under terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Fox Valley’s Native Americans were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River.

But that meant the region’s white settlers lived alongside their Native American neighbors for roughly a decade. How were relations between the two groups? An honest appraisal would have to say those relations were mixed.

By the time whites began settling the region between Chicago and the Fox River Valley, the area was mostly populated by bands of the Three Fires Confederacy. About 1745, reports that the interrelated tribes of the Illinois Confederacy had become so weakened they could no longer claim control of that area prompted the Three Fires member tribal bands to move south from their current homelands in Michigan and Wisconsin to fill the vacuum created by the Illinois’ difficulties.

A cultural mixture of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa tribal bands, Three Fires villages soon dotted the banks of the Fox, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Illinois rivers. The member tribal groups had been hostile to the United States until the end of the War of 1812, after which they determined to live in peace with Americans.

Ottawa, located at the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River, was the jumping off spot for many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers. This 1845 map of the area west of Chicago was published in the Guide Through Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin & Iowa. Showing the Township lines of the United States Surveys by J. Calvin Smith. New York in the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Settlement in the Fox Valley region really didn’t begin until about 1826 when Robert Bearsford’s family moved up the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa and settled in modern Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. Bearsford’s claim was reportedly at the southernmost point of the grove of mixed hardwood trees.

By 1829, a couple other families had moved to the Big Grove area including former French Canadian fur trader Vetal Vermet’s family as well as American Frederick Countryman and his Potawatomi wife, En-do-ga.

In August of that year, whiskey provided a trigger for a relatively violent incident between the two cultures. Peter Lamsett, nicknamed Peter Specie by the settlers for his policy of only accepting coins—specie—in payment for the goods and services he sold, brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice Alexander Doyle at Chicago (then governed from Peoria County) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians.

Specie Grove in Oswego and Kendall townships of Kendall County was named after Peter Lamsett Specie, who was living there when the county’s first White settlers arrived. This clip from an 1876 map of the county in the Biographical Directory of the Voters and Tax-Payers of Kendall County, Illinois by George Fisher & Company.

Specie, a French Canadian who had engaged in the fur trade before concentrating on providing various services to new settlers, was on his way from Chicago with his ox cart to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Countryman and a half-barrel to Vermet at Big Grove when he said he was set upon near the DuPage River by the Potawatomi Chief Half Day and two warriors. He said the Indians took a quantity of alcohol, claiming one of them slashing him with a knife during the scuffle. Specie continued his delivery, but testified he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who, he said, stole more liquor. Specie told Justice Doyle he estimated about 10 gallons of whiskey had been taken. The resolution of Specie’s complaint is missing from the county court records, but the case and Specie’s testimony does suggest some significant tensions between Native Americans and the increasing number of White settlers—even those generally considered sympathetic to the tribes.

Sauk Warrior Black Hawk

The worst clash of the era between the area’s White settlers and Native People was 1832’s Black Hawk War. An influential Sauk warrior, Black Hawk determined to move his band of about 1,500 men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois in the spring of 1832 in violation of government orders. Black Hawk had a long history of opposing White settlement of western Illinois. During the War of 1812, Black Hawk, who had allied himself with the British, out-generaled Illinois militia troops who tried to attack the Sauk Tribe’s main settlement at Rock Island. After that war, Black Hawk still remained attached to British interests to such an extent that the tribal group he led was called the British Band by U.S. officials.

In 1832, the British Band’s return to Illinois caused conflict to break out across northern Illinois. Local tribes people seized on the opportunity to settle some scores. The most violent of these was the Indian Creek Massacre in LaSalle County, where 14 men, women and children at the William Davis claim were killed over Davis’s cruel and violent treatment of local Three Fires people.

A few miles north of Indian Creek, Hollenback’s store at modern Newark was looted and burned, as were the cabins of settlers who had been warned to flee by the Three Fires’ Chief Shabbona. At the William Harris cabin, panic reigned. The family’s horses had bolted meaning the couple, their seven children, and Mrs. Harris’s father, the aged and crippled John Coombs, had to flee on foot. Realizing he’d slow them down, Mr. Coombs told the family, “Leave me to my fate, and save yourselves; I am an old man and can live but a little while at best.” Which they tearfully did, thinking they’d never see him alive again. But when an Indian raiding party arrived at the Harris cabin and saw Mr. Coombs was an invalid, they left him be and passed on to other pickings, not exactly the picture of ruthlessness we expect to see during a war.

Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi

And as for the perpetrators of the Indian Creek Massacre, the suspects were arrested after the war and tried in Ottawa. But since the survivors of the attack, including Sylvia and Rachel Hall, teenage sisters seized and held for ransom, could not positively identify which warriors had attacked the cabin, the charges against the defendants were ruled unproven and they were released, which seems an interesting comment on the attitude towards justice, even on the frontier that was northern Illinois at that time.

After the war, until the Fox Valley’s Native People were removed, relations seemed to be good. Early settler and eventual orchardist Smith Minkler’s recollection of visiting the claim of William Wilson, Oswego’s first settler, in late 1833 as recounted in the Rev. E.W. Hicks’1877 history of the county might have been typical: “Mr. Minkler was down there [at Oswego] one day when Wilson’s boys were astride of an Indian pony, and the Indians with wild shouts of glee were pulling it along the trail. It seemed to be great fun for them.”

Ambrotype of “Chief Shaubonee” made on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field

Shabbona, who had warned the settlers to flee during Black Hawk’s war, was rewarded with a small reserve at the grove west of the Fox River in modern DeKalb County that had been named for him. But he, along with Waubonsee, and the other chiefs and families, were all ordered west anyway. The first group left Chicago in 1835 for a grueling trip first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas that rivaled in tragedy the famed “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes. Other groups left in 1836, but some of those who’d been removed hated where they’d been situated and filtered back to northern Illinois. It wasn’t until 1837 that the last of the Three Fires were finally, permanently removed.

Even after that, Shabbona returned for visits, living on his land off and on until it was simply sold out from underneath him, something that is still in litigation to this day. Virtually homeless, the old chief’s friends bought him a small house where he spent the last two years of his life. The highlight of that period was at Ottawa on Aug. 21, 1858 when he was invited to sit on the dais during the first Lincoln and Douglas Debate and when he was able to greet his former Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln.

Like most of history, the era when settlers and Native People lived together in Illinois’ Fox River Valley is complicated, an era when both sides had something to learn from and teach to each other. And that’s perhaps something worth thinking about throughout November as the nation celebrates this year’s Native American Heritage Month.

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