After rereading the Thanksgiving post I dredged up from the History on the Fox archives last week, I got to wondering just how “traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations were here in Illinois. We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln declaring an official day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the Civil War. But where did Lincoln get the idea? Why the last Thursday in November? Is turkey really a traditional Thanksgiving treat?
So I started digging into it.
Celebrations to mark the end of the harvest date to ancient times in England. When the colonists calling themselves Pilgrims arrived in the New World in 1620, they brought that tradition with them. And in 1621, the survivors of the first harrowing year on the Massachusetts coast had real reason to offer their thanks to God, their own labors, and to the Native People who’d been key in helping them survive.
When those New Englanders began pioneering the western frontier—Illinois—in the 1830s, they took their traditions, including the end-of-harvest Thanksgiving, with them. Those earliest celebrations, mostly held in late November after the vital corn harvest was largely finished, were family affairs. It wasn’t until 1842 that Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford, in the midst of the harrowing effects of the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, proclaimed Thursday, Dec. 29, as a statewide day of Thanksgiving.
It’s more than likely the pioneers from Vermont, Massachusetts, and other New England and Middle Atlantic states brought Thanksgiving celebrations west with them to Kendall County. So local residents were receptive to Gov. Ford’s proclamation.
“It was, perhaps, the darkest time in the history of our State, and in many a household the pinching of poverty was extreme,” noted Kendall County’s earliest historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks. “The prayers offered up were heard, for times began to be better, and two years thereafter emigration began to pour in as of old, and money, the life blood of the community, began to circulate through the channels of trade.”
In 1847, Hicks reported, Illinois’ official Thanksgiving Day was set for Thursday, Dec. 16, just in time for people to be thankful a smallpox epidemic at Newark had ended.
And the tradition continued. The Kendall County Courier reported from Oswego in their Nov. 21, 1855 edition: “In acknowledgement of the bounteous blessings bestowed upon us the past year from the hand of the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the Governor of our State has appointed and recommended the 29th day of the present month to be observed as one of thanksgiving and prayer.”
So by the time Lincoln made his 1863 proclamation, he was used to his home state’s Thanksgiving celebrations that had, by then, been observed for some two decades.
After the war, and after Lincoln’s assassination, celebrating the nation continued to celebrate the holiday, though not always at the end of November. Some years, the event was moved to the first week or so of December. In the Nov. 30, 1865 Kendall County Record, editor John R. Marshall wrote: “Next Thursday is the day set apart for national thanksgiving. The war is among the things that were, and our armies are nearly disbanded. Peace and prosperity assume their reign. Give God the praise.”
Those local celebrations, early on, had two main elements: solemn thanks given for whatever blessings people acknowledged, and turkey dinners. Whether it was a carryover from those Pilgrim days or for some other reason, the turkey dinner seems to have been a key Thanksgiving element for all who could afford one.
Marshall even joked about it in that same Nov. 30 issue of the Record. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he suggested: “Turkies [sic] for Thanksgiving festivities will be received at this office at all hours of the day till the 7th prox. If any are belated, they will be taken after the 7th, and will answer for future dinners. No hint is meant by the foregoing,” he added with a wink.
In 1866, Thanksgiving was again observed on the last Thursday in November, and its observance was linked to veneration of Lincoln. Wrote Marshall in the Nov. 22, 1866 Record, “Next Thursday is the day set aside by the President and by our Governor as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for his many blessings conferred upon the nation and upon this state. This is a relic of the New England fathers, which, under the honored Lincoln, became National property.”
Another tradition that arose, and continued for more than a century, was “union” church services in most communities in Kendall County. The services were generally shared around among each church in town from year to year, as were the sermons. On Nov. 25, 1869, the Record reported that in Oswego, “Thanksgiving was observed in the usual manner by eating a turkey or chicken-pie dinner, religious services were observed in the Presbyterian church, the Methodist minister preached the sermon,” and adding, “Business was not generally suspended.”
So while people attended church and enjoyed family dinners, Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a business holiday. Gradually, however, as the years passed, businesses at least closed during the community church services, an eventually closed for the entire day making it more of what we recognize as a true holiday.
The union Thanksgiving church service was a tradition that continued for well over a century. Here in my hometown of Oswego, the high school glee club always sang at those Thanksgiving services through the 1960s. It was one reason the district’s music director wasn’t fond of Catholics. During that era Catholic kids weren’t allowed to engage in other denominations’ services and so were prohibited from the union services, robbing the choir of some of its voices.
By 1872, a third leg had been added to the annual Thanksgiving celebration. As the Record’s Oswego corresponded reported on Dec. 5 of the holiday’s activities: “The turkey shoot was a spirited affair; a number of crack marksmen from abroad were present but the shooting was poor, the cause of which was laid to the wind. It blowed quite hard.”
Eventually, the local sportsmen added pigeons to the day’s shoot as well.
In 1874, a final diversion had been added, even as the severe economic Panic of 1873 began in earnest. Known as “The Long Depression,” the downturn’s effects would extend over two decades. Even so, small towns like Oswego celebrated the holiday, the Record’s Oswego correspondent writing on Nov. 26, 1874 that: “Thanksgiving day is to be celebrated by divine worship in the forenoon, by eating turkey at noon by those who can afford it, and by dancing in the evening of those both old and young who know how and delight in that diversion.”
For several years, the Thanksgiving holiday consisted of those elements: religious services, turkey dinners, a turkey and/or a pigeon shoot, and a dance in the evening. Eventually parts of the celebration began falling away until by the 20th Century it had been whittled down to religious services and a traditional turkey dinner.
Most recently, those joint community church services have gradually disappeared as well. Instead, Thanksgiving has come to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. And, in fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November in order to provide more shopping days until Christmas to boost the retail industry. The move proved unpopular, however, and the celebration has remained on the fourth Thursday since.
So, yes, Thanksgiving as we know it, especially those turkey dinners, really is a tradition that dates back into the nation’s history—here in Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the observances since 1842. And, I think it’s fair to say, doing something for 178 years can legitimately be dubbed a true tradition.
Much to, I suspect, the relief of just about everyone in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the entire world, we’ll be heading to the polls next week to elect a President, as well as a host of down-ballot state and local officials.
It’s probably understating the situation to say this has been one of the most unusual Presidential campaigns in the nation’s history. Similar to the 2016 presidential election, one of the nation’s two major political parties has found itself with a candidate that public opinion polls say much of the country intensely dislikes—and that includes a surprisingly large portion of his own party. This despite being an incumbent for the office.
In addition, the strangeness has been heightened by the campaign concluding right in the middle of an unprecedented surge during one of the worst worldwide pandemics to strike in more than a century. The Federal Government’s refusal to coordinate the response to the pandemic has led to general unease among voters, which, in turn, has also led to unprecedented numbers of voters casting their ballots by mail or during in-person early voting.
But despite all the drama surrounding the election, those who have cast their ballots early, or those who decide to go to the polls in person on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will find the usual set-up of voting booths arranged so we can fill out our ballots in private and then have them counted anonymously.
And, in fact, we take voting by secret ballot for granted, but that’s not the situation our great-great-great-grandfathers (our great-great-great grandmothers not being allowed to vote) found when they went to the polls. Not until 1891 were Illinois and Kendall County residents allowed to cast their ballots in secret, marking the end of a voting process that had begun millennia before.
Although we like to think that democratic tools like voting are relatively modern processes, voting using ballots has a long and honorable history in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of ballots as early as the 5th Century B.C., using ballots that ranged from kernels of grain to colored balls. Farther east, balloting was used in India before 300 B.C.
Later, balloting was used during the Roman Republic, but gradually disappeared as government became more and more autocratic, and voting virtually disappeared for hundreds of years.
Not until the 13th Century was balloting revived by some Italian city states. By the 16th and 17th centuries, balloting had crossed the English Channel to Great Britain.
The first use of voting by ballot in the New World was practiced by the General Court of Massachusetts, which used the process to select governors after 1634. Gradually, balloting became widespread. Its existence was assumed by the U.S. Constitution as well as state constitutions after the nation won its freedom in the Revolutionary War.
But voting during that era was a lot different from what it means to us today. At that time, ballots were often passed out throughout the community—no polls necessary—and at other times the ballots were pre-marked. When a vote was cast, it was done in the open, often orally—reading and writing skills were often absent among many in the general population during those early days—and there were usually separate ballot boxes for each political party. It was as if every general election was a partisan caucus.
It was a system open to coercion and, to modern sensibilities, almost unbelievable violence, especially in the nation’s cities. In the middle years of the 19th Century, 89 voters were killed during election violence in the United States.
In the 1870s and 1880s, a parade of financial crises called panics—we’d term them depressions these days—plagued the nation. A general public that was becoming more educated in the ways of critical thinking, thanks to the nation’s public schools, and more disenchanted with being told what to do by politicians who were little more than lapdogs of big business, clamored for change.
Australians had been voting by secret ballot since 1856. Great Britain had adopted the system of secret ballots in 1872, and by the late 19th Century here in the United States, the public was ready for a system that would allow every voter to cast their ballot without fearing for their life or being otherwise intimidated.
The U.S. Constitution grants the individual states the authority to organize and conduct elections, so any change had to take place at the state level. Agitation for safe, secure voting had two parts. First, ballots had to be provided by the government so that voters couldn’t be intercepted on their way to the polls and their ballots stolen. Second, voting had to be done in such a way that no one but the voter knew individual votes were cast. After some study, it was decided the Australian Ballot system was by far the most fair.
Under the new system, ballots were to be printed at public expense and would be distributed only at official polling places. When ballots were marked, voters would place them in locked ballot boxes to secure them until they were counted. The states of Kentucky and Massachusetts became the first to institute the Australian ballot, followed by New York and then the rest of the states. After approval by the Illinois General Assembly, the first election by secret ballot was held in Kendall County in the local elections of November 1891.
Not that everyone was looking forward to the new system, of course. The system was popular in the South because it discriminated against former slaves, immigrants, and others who could not read the names on the ballots. Others thought that voters should be sufficiently proud of the candidates they were voting for to announce it publicly.
In October of 1891, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, observed: “In a few weeks we shall be called upon to vote by a new system imported from Australia. No tariff will be was paid on it, perhaps having been admitted under reciprocity.”
During succeeding weeks, the Record included a number of articles explaining how the new voting system would work and instructing voters on the process. In addition, public meetings were held in communities throughout the county to explain the new procedures.
In the Record’s Nov. 4, 1891 edition, Rank wrote: “Today we do as the Australians do. As everyone will want to try the new style of voting, a good turnout may be expected.”
And, once again, remember: “everyone” in that era meant strictly men.
In Oswego, a Mr. John Pitt—who seems to have been somewhat of a character—had the honor of casting the first secret ballot under the new system, although not without a few problems that entertained bystanders. Rank wrote: “He [Pitt] is a very enthusiastic, quick, and nimble man. When starting for the booths, someone said, ‘Do you know how to fix the ticket, John?’ ‘Yis,’ said he; on entering, instead of lifting up the curtain or drawing it to one side, he dove right down under it, coming up on the inside under the shelf, with which his head came in collision, making the sheet-iron concern tremble and jingle from bow to stern, but no damage resulted to either it or John’s head.”
Presumably, Pitt’s exploit was the highlight of the day, although it was also apparently instructive because no more booth diving was reported.
Not everyone was happy with the new system, of course.
“There was but one man that balked when told that he must go into a booth to prepare his ballot and who declared that if it has become to such a point when an American citizen cannot mark his ticket wherever he pleased, he proposed not to vote at all,” Rank reported, adding, “Upon second thought, however, he concluded to go through the important forms.”
The new voting system proved both successful and popular, although there were still some lingering doubts about whether secret balloting would really catch on. “While the system was met with general favor, it will be apt to be too cumbersome when it comes to a general election with a full slate,” Rank predicted.
Rank’s prediction was not out of line. Those of us who voted back before ballots changed to the kind with computer-read blocks we fill in will remember the sheer size of the last full-sized paper ballots that made trying to fill one out in the confines of a voting booth an interesting exercise.
But in the end, of course, the Australian Ballot was officially and permanently adopted here in Illinois as well as nationwide, and its direct, computer recorded and tabulated descendant is still in use today in Kendall County, although sadly not enlivened by the entertainment value provided by Mr. Pitt.
As settlers pushed west from Ohio into western Indiana, they encountered what geographers and geologists call the Prairie Peninsula.
The peninsula was a gigantic expanse of grassland that thrust eastward across the Mississippi into western Indiana, covering most of northern and central Illinois. The expanse notable for its scarcity of timber, at least compared with the densely wooded areas the pioneers had become used to as they moved west of the Appalachians.
Unlike the shortgrass prairies found west of the Mississippi, the Prairie Peninsula was a tallgrass prairie, abounding in wild grasses and forbs (non-woody, broadleaf plants) such as Big Bluestem and Compass Plant that towered as high as eight feet above the prairie sod.
Environmental scientists still argue about exactly how and why the Prairie Peninsula came to be. But however it was formed, in the thousands of years following the retreat of the last glacier that scoured northern Illinois, a diverse and complicated ecology grew up in the Prairie Peninsula. The landscape was dominated by prairie plants, particularly grasses and sedges (which have triangular-shaped, sharp-edged stems: “Sedges have edges,” which is a handy way to differentiate them from grasses).
Grasses such as Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem predominated in the tallgrass prairie, but in the spring and the fall, before and after the grasses’ and sedges’ growing season, forbs predominated, creating the brightly colored carpets of wildflowers so many of the early settlers commented on.
The settlers didn’t spend a lot of time pondering questions on how the landscape came to be, but mostly wondered how they were to survive in seemingly endless grassland with few patches of timber.
The problem was that early 19th Century settlement technology was timber-intensive, requiring lots of trees from which to manufacture split rail fences, log cabins and outbuildings, and the firewood needed to heat homes during Illinois’ fierce winters.
As the settlers pushed west out of the Ohio and Indiana timber into the prairie, they found that, in general, wooded areas followed along the banks of streams and were growing in groves in other areas of wet prairie. They quickly realized woods proved thickest on the east side of streams.
Scientists generally agree now that the prairie fires that swept across the Prairie Peninsula on a regular basis, driven by the prevailing westerly winds, were slowed or stopped by streams, which allowed more and thicker timber to thrive on streams’ east bank.
Many native prairie grasses and forbs require periodic fires to thrive, while non-native species tend to be killed by fire. In addition to high resistance to fire, most native plant species are also highly drought resistant. Prairie plants and native tree species tend to have deep root systems and leaf systems that maximize water retention. Each year, about 37 inches of rain falls here in Kendall County. Significantly, that’s almost exactly the amount of rainfall absorbed by an acre of native prairie or oak savanna.
Not only the quantity of timber was changed due to location, but the type was too. In general, fire-resistant trees such as white oak were more likely to be found along the west banks of streams, while less fire-resistant species, such as black walnut, basswood, and maples, found life easier along the streams’ west banks.
When U.S. Government surveyors arrived in northern Illinois in the late 1830s to complete the survey mandated by the Northwest Ordinance before land could be sold to pioneer settlers, they documented the types and extent of timber up and down the Fox Valley. Looking at those original survey maps and reading the surveyors’ notes, it becomes clear how important location was when it came to the kinds and amounts of the area’s timber resources.
In fact, timber-free land was settled last. Will County’s Wheatland Township, which neighbors Oswego Township to the east, was virtually treeless so when my Pennsylvania German ancestors arrived there in 1852, they were still able to buy unclaimed government land. It’s important to note that the land there, and elsewhere on treeless prairies where timber was far removed, wasn’t ignored at first because it wasn’t fertile, because it was. It was avoided for several years because vital timber was too far away.
When the earliest settlers reached the Fox Valley in the 1820s and early 1830s, they found timber edging both banks of the Fox River, although the belt along the east bank of the river was generally thicker with a more diverse species of hardwoods. In some areas, like in most of Aurora Township, just to the north of Oswego Township, there was scarcely any timber along the west bank of the river at all.
Some of these woods were, in part, densely timbered and had a hazel brush understory. But other parts of it were relatively open, what is called today an oak savanna that was fairly park-like.
In the spring and the fall, after native prairie grasses and other plants had dried out, thunderstorm lightning naturally started many swift-moving prairie fires. But in addition, in a practice that had been noted by the region’s first French explorers, the local Native American population also started fires, both intentionally and unintentionally. Unintentional fires happened when cooking fires escaped into the dry prairie. Intentional fires were much more common and were started to prepare fields for cultivation, combat insects, kill trees that were encroaching onto the prairies from the groves, and for hunting purposes. To hunt with fires, Native People would start a ring of fire sometimes a mile in diameter, and leave an unburned exit, through which game animals would be forced by the flames.
The fires also swept through the hardwood savanna areas, killing off brush and keeping the understory clear, while encouraging the growth of fire-tolerating trees and plants. Fires did a good job of creating lots of wooded edges that encouraged the deer and other animal populations.
The periodic burning, both natural and caused by man, largely created the prairie landscape found by the pioneers when they arrived. Over thousands of years, the plants and trees that grew on the prairies had come to not only tolerate, but to rely on fire. White oaks, for instance, are very fire resistant because of their thick bark and their high resistance to rotting after being scared by fire. In addition, they quickly grow after fires—fire actually helps some oak seedbeds sprout. On the other hand, many other species—maples, for instance—are very susceptible to fire damage.
While hardwood groves dotted the prairie, one extensive stretch of timber in particular caught the eye of many early mid-Fox Valley settlers.
From the location of today’s city of Batavia, all the way south to Waubonsie Creek in Oswego, a thick belt of maple, linden, oak, ash, and hickory provided an excellent source of timber, as well as protection from the prairie winds. In typical prosaic pioneer fashion, the settlers gave this huge stretch of woodland a simple and descriptive name. They called this big woods, the, well, “Big Woods.”
Not only did the settlers find welcome shelter among the hardwoods of the Big Woods, but so did the Native People who lived there before them. Chief Waubonsie, the principal war leader of the Prairie Potowatomi, located his permanent village in the western verge of the Big Woods, moving it often enough so that virtually every modern town up and down the Fox Valley from Oswego to Batavia can accurately claim to have been the site of the chief’s village at one time or another.
When the pioneers got here, they settled along the verge of the timber, locating their homes next to the woods and plowing fields in the nearby prairie. The Big Woods wasn’t regular in shape; it had many lobes that extended into the surrounding prairie, providing many protected areas where pioneers quickly established fields by plowing the native prairie with special “breaking plows,” designed to turn over the thick sod for the first time.
According to the original survey maps, the Big Woods stretched some miles east of the Fox River, almost to Naperville at the ford across the DuPage River. It then extended south all the way to Waubonsie Creek, where its southernmost lobe ended. As surveyor James Reed wrote in his notebook back on Aug. 8, 1838: “Mouth of Wabansia Creek 30 links [20 feet; a link was 7.92 inches] wide. North of creek land is timbered with white and Black oak. South of creek land is prairie and slopes gently to the river. The village of Oswego is located just below the mouth of the creek.”
The first thing the pioneers did when they arrived was start cutting down the Big Woods, along with most of the other stands of timber in the area. That initial wave of settlers was a timber-intensive bunch, requiring logs—and lots of them—to manufacture all those rail fences, build log homes and outbuildings, and supply firewood. According to James Sheldon Barber, an Oswego settler, writing back to his parents in New York State in 1843, a pioneer farm family needed 10 acres of timber to make a go of it on the Illinois frontier.
For early arrivals, that was no problem, but they quickly claimed the timberland for their own use. Some, however, bought timber stands with the intention of dividing it into smaller parcels to sell to later arrivals. That’s why you see some wooded areas on early plat maps divided into many small chunks.
The settlers used didn’t always require cutting trees down, of course. Maple sugaring in the spring was a popular and profitable activity that even left its name behind in the name of one of our area towns—Sugar Grove. Further, the breeds of hogs the settlers brought along were hardy, ornery animals that got along just fine browsing in the oak savannas that were relatively common during those early years, especially eating all the acorns produced by native oaks.
Eventually, the only remaining woods were in wetlands and other areas not farmed for one reason or another. And, in fact, remnants still remain today, including a nice stand at Cook’s Savannah in Oswego’s Old Post Park and such areas such as Briarcliff Woods Park and the Arbor Ridge Subdivision in Montgomery and in several other areas up and down the Fox Valley. Each of those oak savanna remnants is a reminder of the landscape the pioneers encountered when they decided to settle along the banks of the Fox River.
Okay, things got sort of discombobulated here at History Central early this year. What with COVID, my spouse’s knee replacement, and my own emergency pacemaker install, some important local history milestones got past me without notice or comment.
One of those milestones was the 100th birthday of the Kendall County Farm Bureau that rolled past in December 2019, with the group’s operational existence dated to early 1920.
Farm families once comprised the vast majority of Kendall County residents and agriculture was the county’s most successful business. While those days are past, the county’s land area is still mostly rural. Residents living, as I do, in the county’s three northernmost townships might not realize how rural our area of the state is. But all you have to do is drive a few minutes west on I-88 or U.S. Route 30, or southwest on Ill. Route 71 and you’ll be deep in corn and soybean fields that run all the way to the horizon no matter which direction you look.
But while there’s still a lot of farmland in Kendall County, its value as a percentage of the county’s total real estate valuations keeps declining as more and more land is turned to growing houses and businesses instead of crops. As late at 1988, farmland comprised more than 10 percent of the county’s property valuation. It now stands at less than one percent.
Nevertheless, farming is still a valuable industry in the county’s economy.
Back in the settlement era, of course, farming was the county’s primary industry, a situation that continued well into the 20th Century. And in order for farmers to succeed they required the efforts of not only themselves and their own families, but also those living in their neighborhoods.
The first informal farmer groups helped each other with barn and cabin raisings as pioneer families arrived. A settler could cut his own logs and get them to the building sites using his own teams of horses or oxen, but he needed assistance with the heavy work of raising beams and logs into place—something not easily be done by a single family.
Also at the beginning of Kendall County’s settlement, farmers had to band together for their very safety. The Black Hawk War of 1832 forced the county’s farmers and their families to flee to Ottawa or Walker’s Grove (Plainfield) as unfriendly Indians roamed the area. The militia companies that were subsequently recruited and serving until the end of the war were yet another, although more formal, example of pioneer farmer organizations.
Following the war, normal pioneer life resumed with the addition of another type of local organization: vigilantes. With the near-total lack of effective law enforcement on the frontier, citizen groups were required to protect individual farmers against stock thieves and highwaymen. The protective associations established during the settlement era—particularly the ones aimed at rustlers—continued their activities well into the late 19th Century.
Another common frontier farmer organization popped up when the vast majority of Kendall County’s U.S. Government land was up for sale in 1842. The settlers who arrived before that could not buy the land they squatted on. By treaties between the government at the Fox Valley’s Native People, the land couldn’t be sold until it was surveyed, the treaties reserving for the tribes’ use until the sales were held. The Indians, however, were removed from the Fox Valley by 1837, negating government promises that they would be able to hunt and fish on the land until it was sold.
While the Native People were gone by the time land sales took place, a far more dangerous species—the land speculator—was not. With the willing collusion of government officials, speculators would often buy the land that settlers had already improved and fenced and then sell it back to them for a profit.
A couple of governmental practices made the speculators‘ lot easy. While the land was inexpensive, going for only $1.25 an acre (even cheap in 1842), payment had to be made in gold, a very scarce commodity on the frontier of that era. Also, land sales were held at central federal land offices, and neither travel nor obtaining information on where and when sales would be held was easy in early Illinois.
So, in their own defense, farmers formed claim associations. A delegation of honest men was elected to buy the land, while another picked group, usually armed, intercepted and detained any speculators seen in the area. The resulting land was then divided up between those who were members of the association. According to early county histories, it was an effective tactic for Fox Valley settlers. And it’s why here in Oswego Township, Walter Loucks is listed as the first private seller of most of the township’s land following the government land sale. Loucks served as the designated buyer for much of the township, later transferring to those who were actually living on the claims.
As the 1840s progressed, the era of ad hoc farmer organizations began to be replaced by an era of more formal groups. In 1841, just one year before Kendall County’s land went on sale, The Prairie Farmernewspaper was established in Chicago. Published especially for the Prairie State’s farmers, the paper helped encourage them organize, for the first time, on a statewide basis.
Still, farmers proved an independent lot not much given to joining groups, even those that worked in farmers’ own best interests. But then came a severe financial crunch, the Panic of 1873, nicknamed The Long Depression. Farmers were primed to swing into action due to the nation’s railroads’ collusion on freight rates for grain and livestock, and high prices caused by industrial monopolies. As a result, farmers’ organizations such as the National Farmers Alliance and the Farmer’s Mutual Benefit Association popped up all over the nation.
Here in Kendall County, a Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Club was established in Millbrook in February 1873 to “work for the overthrow of monopolies in general and railroad monopolies in particular.” It is interesting to note that farmers were so upset that they were willing to work together with “mechanics,” the 19th Century term for factory and other non-farm workers to try to break the power of Big Business.
That led to establishing a Farmers’ Association of Kendall County in April 1873, and a “mass convention” May 23 in Yorkville. The immediate aim was to elect a farmers’ party circuit court judge, due to the courts obvious favoritism towards business interests. Much to the surprise of local Republicans, the farmers’ party’s candidate beat the party candidate.
Then in July, a formal political convention at Yorkville nominated an entire slate of local candidates—including the first woman candidate in county history—for the upcoming fall election. That prompted the local Republican Party to close ranks around their own candidates to defeat these proto-progressives. The 1873 convention proved the local group’s high water mark, but it also laid the groundwork for more organizing by farmers by emphasizing the importance of organizing to fight for their own interests.
One of the major results of this feeling of community among pioneer farmers was creation of one the first real farm organizations, the Patrons of Husbandry, or Grange. There were Granges in Bristol, Na-Au-Say, Oswego, and Seward Townships in Kendall County. The organization became so popular that “granger” became synonymous with “farmer” for several years.
It might seem counterintuitive, but continual progress in farm mechanization encouraged the creation of farmer cooperative organizations. The harvest of small grains—wheat, oats, barley, and rye—was backbreaking and extremely labor intensive. It therefore became the target for inventors who created labor-saving machines to help with the tasks. The earliest harvesters cut the grain so farmers could bundle it by hand and then stack it to dry before threshing it by hand using flails to separate the grain from the stalks. Soon after, mechanical threshers were invented and by the 1870s, these machines—also called separators because they separated grain from hulls and stalks—were being powered by steam engines. Such threshing outfits, including a threshing machine, a steam traction engine, mobile water tank and coal wagon, were too expensive for most farmers to buy on their own. So farmers formed cooperatives to buy the equipment. The outfits would then travel around the neighborhood from farm to farm of stockholders in the cooperative to thresh their grain. Which was the origin of the name of these cooperatives: threshing rings.
By the early years of the 20th Century, however, big business and the growing influence of government in farmers’ lives again pointed to the need for real political influence on the part of farmers. In December 1913, the Illinois Agricultural Association was established to represent farmers in Springfield, but some had already begun calling the group the Farm Bureau.
Meanwhile here in Kendall County, local farmers were organizing their own local clubs to socialize and to encourage good farming practices. In April 1919, the Kendall County Record reported that “A meeting of the farmers of the neighborhood of Oswego was held at the home of Nate L. Pearce Thursday and an organization formed known as the Oswego Farmers Improvement and Social Club. The group, later renamed the East Oswego Progressive Farmers Club, was one of many established throughout the county.
And while the betterment of individual farmers was a laudable goal, there was also the sense that there was a growing need for an organization with actual political clout. In a July 23, 1919 letter to the editor of the Record, farmer W.F. Osborn complained that an effort by farmers to politically eliminate Daylight Savings Time had failed in Washington, D.C., and wondered whether it might not be time to start some sort of national farmers’ organization to represent farm interests.
As it turned out, such an organization was already in the works. In December 1913, the Illinois Agricultural Association was established to represent farmers’ interests before the General Assembly in Springfield. Shortly thereafter, some in Illinois had already begun calling the group the Farm Bureau. In November 1919, the name of the group—now affiliated nationally—became the American Farm Bureau Federation.
It was at that same time that interest in creating a farmers’ organization peaked in Kendall County. The Nov. 26, 1919 Record reported that: “The Kendall County Farm Bureau perfected a temporary organization last Wednesday and are preparing a drive for membership during December.”
On Dec. 10, the Record noted that a membership drive was about to begin, and encouraged all county farmers to join, explaining: “It is for mutual assistance among the men of the country in getting their rights.”
The organizing effort proved remarkably successful, probably driven by the farm depression then already gripping the nation. The Record reported on Dec. 24 that the formation of a Kendall County Farm Bureau was already assured: “The farmers of Kendall county made a move in the right direction last week when they organized into a permanent farm bureau for mutual benefit. The spirit with which the organization is made is commendable. There is no radical element in the local association whereby the benefits of the organization would be lost in an effort to revolutionize. Better market facilities, the demand for a superior grade of seed, the improvement in farm finances, and best of all, a farm adviser are some of the leading features for consideration.”
The organization began with 961 farmer members and quickly reached and then exceeded the one thousand mark. While encouraging membership, the Record was quick to note—possibly with the on-going Red Scare in mind—that the Farm Bureau was not some sort of radical organization: “It is not in the way of a labor union–it is not antagonistic to present day principles–it is for the good of the farmer,” Record Editor Hugh Marshall contended.
The organization elected its first slate of officers as well as an executive committee consisting of one member from each of the county’s nine townships.
There had been some pressure for Kendall to join with Kane County in a joint Farm Bureau, but the members at Kendall’s organizational meeting made it crystal clear they wanted no outsiders telling them what to do.
“The group also passed a resolution stating their unanimous opinion that Kendall County was able to protect her own integrity and would have nothing to do with the proposed merger with Kane County. This was passed with a whoop that showed that the feeling was unanimous,” the Record reported.
The new organization didn’t have to wait long before an important issue dropped in their laps. Railroads, long the bane of farmers, were again slowing the shipment of grain, something that had negative effects on both farmers and agribusinesses. The Jan. 7 Record reported on a critical shortage of rail cars for grain shipments: “Where the trouble is cannot be told. Mr. Hines of the railroads says that everything is in excellent condition but this condition contradicts any such statement. There’s a problem offered right here for the new Kendall County Farm Bureau and its larger associates. If the farmer wants to go to the bottom of the affair he will probably loosen up the grain cars, be able to ship his grain at a good price and taken an awful crack at the high cost of living all in one fell swoop.”
In March, the Kendall County Farm Bureau passed a major milestone when it hired its first professional farm advisor. Earl Price, the farm advisor in Saline County, agreed to move north to Kendall County to take the brand new job. Price, then 37, was born in Clearspring, Indiana and who was a graduate of Purdue University, took up residence in his new office in the Kendall County Courthouse.
Price’s first job was to conduct a livestock census of county farms on behalf of the state Farm Bureau with the aim of using statewide livestock figures to begin stabilizing prices for pork, beef, and poultry. In September Price helped organize a collective buying plan. The Kendall County Cooperative Buying Agency began with the cooperation of virtually all the grain elevator concerns and cooperatives in the county.
Under Price’s leadership, the Farm Bureau also worked to introduce the concept of fertilizing fields with phosphates and surveying farm labor costs. “A survey of the cost of labor in Kendall County for last year being made by the Farm Bureau indicates an average of about $63 for single men and $75 for married men per month,” the Record reported on Jan. 12, 1921.
As the “Roaring ‘20s” proceeded, the nation’s farm economy was in danger of collapse. The post-World War I farm depression was in full swing by 1924, when the Farm Bureau called a meeting in Chicago attended by representatives from 88 of the state’s local bureaus.
“The result was that the farm bureau men unanimously endorsed and approved the McNary-Haugen bill for the relief of agriculture and demanded that Illinois members of Congress earnestly and actively support this measure,” the Record reported on March 14, 1924. The McNary–Haugen Farm Relief Act was a plan to subsidize American agriculture by raising domestic farm product prices. Co-authored by Charles L. McNary (R-Oregon) and Gilbert N. Haugen (R-Iowa), the bill called for the U.S. Government to buy wheat and store it or export it at a loss to prop up prices. Despite strong opposition from business, the bill passed Congress twice, but was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge.
Despite low prices caused by over-production, Coolidge, and later Herbert Hoover, championed modernizing farming by encouraging more mechanization and rural electrification—which would have created even more surpluses, further depressing prices. Not until Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932 were farmers made the beneficiaries of effective government assistance by reducing surpluses and increasing the market.
Throughout the rest of the 1920s, the Farm Bureau championed a number of political issues of importance to farmers, including eliminating farm owners’ responsibility to maintain township and county roads in favor of gasoline taxes.
In 1926, Price resigned as farm advisor to go into the poultry business in Yorkville and was replaced by young M.H. Watson in January 1927. Watson lost no time throwing the Farm Bureau’s support behind the plan to pave Ill. Route 47 from Yorkville south to Morris. The state had already begun paving the section of the road from Dwight to Morris, and completing it from Morris north to Yorkville would be of great benefit to everyone living along the route local residents contended.
As Record Editor Marshall pointed out on May 11, 1927, “It is not Kendall county alone to be benefited by the Route 47 connection; it is the entire farming belt which extends from Champaign county to the Wisconsin line. Twenty-one state highways are intersected by Route 47, and we are for it.”
Ironically, the Crash of 1929 that initiated the Great Depression really didn’t have much of an impact on farmers, since the farm depression had been going on with no relief for a decade. But as the 1930s ground on, conditions continued to worsen for the county’s agricultural community. Drought; infestations by voracious chinch bugs, grasshoppers, and armyworms; and the continuing economic calamity had a continuing and increasing impact. By 1933, conditions had grown so desperate with so many farms and businesses being lost due to unpaid taxes and mortgages that residents were banding together to protect each other.
In early February, the Record reported that “Pledge cards are being circulated throughout Kendall county reading as follows: ‘As a citizen of the United States and a believer in justice to all alike, I pledge that I will give my moral and physical support that no person in financial distress shall be unreasonably troubled.’ it is reported that over 700 such cards have already been signed by farmers in this county and that more are being signed every day.”
The Record went on to predict that more than 2,000 farmers and other residents would take the pledge to help protect property from being seized due to tax and other debts during the drive organized by a group calling itself the Kendall County Farmers’ and Business Men’s Protective Association.
Later that month in a letter to the Record’s editor, Illinois Governor Henry Horner noted: “Many of our citizens are face to face with the prospect of losing their farms and their homes and suffering a still further decrease in their earning capacity… I therefore appeal, in this emergency, to all holders of mortgages on Illinois real estate and personal property, whether residents of Illinois or elsewhere, whether corporations or individuals, to use the utmost forbearance in foreclosing on mortgages upon farms, homes, and chattels when the farm or home owner is in such desperate financial circumstances that he is actually unable to pay.”
It seems Horner’s plea had little impact locally. Banks continued to foreclose and the properties were sold at sheriff’s sales, often with insurance and other companies buying them for less than the debts against them, leaving farmers and business owners with no means to pay off the balance owed on the loans. Locally, the situation came to a head in late February 1933 when a sheriff’s sale of a farm was scheduled.
“The courthouse in Yorkville appeared to be in a state of siege Thursday morning when farmers of this county gathered to prevent the sale of the August Wollenweber farm south of town on such terms as would allow for the entering of a deficiency judgment,” the Record reported in its March 1 edition. More than 750 farmers had gathered to make sure Wollenweber, a well-liked and prominent farmer, would be treated fairly—an astonishing occurrence in normally staid and law abiding Kendall County. Seeing the crowd and gauging its mood, the lone bidder, the Life and Casualty Agency of Chicago, met with officers of the Farmers’ and Business Men’s Protective Association (most of whom were also members of the Kendall County Farm Bureau) immediately before bidding began. When Kendall County Sheriff Martin N. Hextell called for bids, Life and Casualty’s representative, Chicago attorney J. Edgar Kelly, made the only offer—at the agreed price to satisfy the entire outstanding loan against the farm. Wollenweber was given 15 months to arrange refinancing. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief that violence had been averted, and Kelly was relieved to get out of Yorkville with his skin intact because the gathered farmers left no question about whether they were ready to use force to stop the sale if necessary.
Even as the county’s assessed value of farmland continued to plummet due to the Depression—it decreased by 10 percent in 1932 alone—the Farm Bureau continued to assist farmers with everything from combating chicken thieves to trying to keep chinch bug infestations from destroying crops. It also continued to be a leader as the nation’s floundering economy struck hard in Kendall County. In May 1933, the Record reported that: “Farmers, bankers, and business men of Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office Friday evening and elected a county conciliation committee to help debtors and creditors settle farm debt problems.”
As if the chaos caused by the Great Depression wasn’t bad enough, the nationwide drought had spurred an infestation of voracious chinch bugs that, in those pre-insecticide days, could devastate a grain field in a day. As the plague grew, the Farm Bureau stepped up its efforts to teach farmers how to protect fields from the bugs’ attack. The method involved plowing a deep furrow around a field of grain and then dragging a wooden fence post through the furrow to loosen dirt on its sides. Then deep postholes were dug every rod (16 feet) or so in the furrow. The bugs, as long as they hadn’t developed into their flying stage yet, would fall into the furrow. The loose dirt would keep them from climbing back out, so they’d turn and walk one way or the other along the furrow until falling into one of the postholes. When the postholes were nearly filled, farmers would pour fuel oil or kerosene in and light them off incinerating the bugs.
Those who lived through that era said they’d never forget the stench of burning chinch bugs that filled the air all over northern Illinois.
The June 14, 1933 Record reported: “According to Farm Advisor Miller chinch bugs are plentiful in most parts of Kendall county. At present they are most abundant in barley and the young brood is just beginning to hatch. The old bugs are now dying and it is the young ones that will go into the corn when the small grain is cut. Farmers should be on their guard at harvest time so as to protect their cornfields by making barriers. Further information may be secured at the Farm Bureau office.”
The federal government provided considerable fuel oil to incinerate chinch bugs, but by July, that had run out. To fill the gap, the State of Illinois began providing free creosote to farmers to burn the bugs. The Record reported a rail car a day was arriving in Yorkville daily with free creosote, with distribution organized by the Farm Bureau.
Meanwhile, the Farm Bureau was also working on concert with federal, state, and local officials to combat the effect of debt on town and country alike. The Record reported in May 1933: “Farmers, bankers, and business men of Kendall county met at the Farm Bureau office Friday evening and elected a county conciliation committee to help debtors and creditors settle farm debt problems. This committee is in accordance with the suggestion of Gov. Horner.
And we can’t forget the dust storms caused by the on-going drought. They didn’t just afflict Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. They also swept through the Midwest eroding soils and causing untold damage. The Nov. 15, 1933 Record reported on a particularly nasty dust storm that had struck the Fox Valley the previous weekend: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”
If all that wasn’t bad enough, June 1937, a plague of grasshoppers and armyworms struck the Midwest. In Kendall County, the Farm Bureau arranged the distribution of government-supplied and developed poison good for combating both destructive pests.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course. In amongst all the natural and economic devastation, the Farm Bureau found time to champion growing soybeans as a new cash crop and persuading farmers to switch from open pollinated corn to hybrids. By the time the Farm Bureau held their 1939 meeting, Farm Advisor Miller could report that Kendall County farmers had nearly all switched to planting hybrid corn.
Shortly before then, it had become clear the Kendall County Farm Bureau had out-grown its courthouse office space and badly needed its own building to house its growing number of programs. In July 1937, word spread that the organization was interested in property on Van Emmon Street in Yorkville as the site of a permanent building.
“The building will consist of a basement and two stories. The basement will house the cold storage locker plant,” the Record reported on July 21. “The main floor will be devoted to the offices of the organization, while the second floor will be a meeting room.”
In those days before home freezers were common, locker plants were popular in small towns all over the country. Farmer members of the Farm Bureau could rent locker space where they could store their own frozen meat and vegetables instead of canning them. As the Record helpfully explained: “The meat is brought to the cold storage locker plant immediately after it is butchered, where it is stored in the chill room at a temperature of 35 degrees for a few days until it is thoroughly chilled. It is then cut in pieces of suitable size for table use, wrapped in a specially prepared paper, and stamped with the number of the locker and the cut of meat. It is then placed in the freezer at a temperature of zero or below where it is immediately frozen and then placed in the locker rented by the individual, where it is kept at a temperature of 15 above zero.”
I remember going to the locker plant with my parents when I was around five years old—before my grandparents bought each of their children huge chest-type International Harvester deep freezes—and watching them wrap beef and pork from our own cattle and hogs in some of that special paper. It always impressed me as a wonderful place to live, especially when we went there on hot summer days to get a week’s worth of meat to take back to our farm.
With their own building, which opened in the early spring of 1938, the Farm Bureau could offer even more programs to educate farmers and their families. 4-H clubs got their start there, as did the county’s Home Bureau, an educational program to teach farm women how to safely harvest, preserve, and cook food, along with many other skills.
My mother was an avid Home Bureau member who came away from those courses with two bedrock convictions: Pressure cookers will blow up and kill you, and mayonnaise will quickly spoil and kill you. So I grew up with water bath canners and the presumably less lethal Miracle Whip—that my mother always called salad dressing.
Today, Farm Bureau membership is a shadow of its old self—mostly because farming in Kendall County is a shadow of its old self—although it continues to effectively serve the county’s farming community. 4-H is still as popular as ever, and the Farm Bureau continues to advocate for farmers and farm issues at the local, state, and national levels. The Home Bureau, which got its start back in 1938, is still functioning just fine as the Association for Home and Community Education.
The Farm Bureau’s building, brand new in 1938, on Van Emmon Street in Yorkville is vacant now awaiting repurposing as these modern times have demanded a leaner organization to serve the farm community’s modern issues, right along with some of the same ones they’ve been dealing with since the group was established back in December 1919. The Kendall County Farm Bureau itself has now changed, merging with the Grundy County Farm Bureau in 2019 to form a new combined organization. The new Kendall-Grundy Farm Bureau is headquartered in Morris.
Even with all the modern changes, the Farm Bureau remains an organization whose local ties go right back to those cabin and barn raising groups, the stock protective associations, and the claim associations that protected and promoted farmers’ interests so long ago.
Last week, women had a prominent role in the Democratic National Convention and it looks as if they will also have a substantial role in this week’s Republican National Convention.
While women are now playing an important role in today’s politics, it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t until August 1920—just a century ago this month—that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and women were finally granted the right to vote in all elections—local, state, and national. And so, women and women’s organizations across the nation are marking the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage in the United States.
What many probably do not realize is that here in Illinois, women had the right to vote, for at least some local and state offices, several years before the rest of the U.S. got up to speed.
It might seem strange to us today that half of the adult citizens of the U.S. and all of the talent they had to offer were once disenfranchised, but that was indeed the case until the 19th Amendment was finally passed.
In frontier areas, however, the idea of women being able to vote was apparently a little easier to swallow than in the settled East, where religious bigotry had long resulted in women’s political and economic subjugation. As the frontier moved west, first across the Appalachians into the old Northwest Territory, of which Illinois was once part, and then across the Mississippi, the importance of women continued to grow.
While they couldn’t vote, women could become property owners on the frontier, something that began to earn them political influence. Here in Kendall County, for instance, a number of single women and their families settled on the prairie. When Kendall County’s land was offered for sale by the federal government, 23 women purchased 29 parcels in the county. Abby Bulloch purchased the largest amount—400 acres in today’s Lisbon Township—in 1836.
Women’s land purchases in the county weren’t limited to the early settlement era, either. In 1854, Nancy Hogsett Elliott, a widow with four sons and two daughters, determined to move west from Indianapolis to a place with more opportunity. Elliott eventually settled here in the Fox River Valley where she raised her children and carved a living out of the rolling prairie that then made up Kendall County.
When their men had to be absent during that pioneer era, it was up to frontier women to look after things until they returned. When Capt. David Beebe decided to sail to California, joining the “Forty-Niners” looking for gold, his wife, Nancy Steward Beebe, stayed behind in North Ridge, Ohio where she ran the couple’s farm and looked after their children until David’s planned return from the gold fields. Unfortunately, he did not make it home, but died during his return trip and was buried at sea.
Mrs. Beebe was a determined woman who apparently never let her gender get in the way of her aims in life or doing what she considered was right. While the family lived in Ohio, she served as a postmaster and was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. After moving to Kendall County with her second husband to join her sons and her brother, Lewis Steward, she wrote poetry, was active in the Underground Railroad here helping escaped slaves get to freedom in Canada, and was an organizer of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
So maybe it was because of that strong streak Western women developed that the right to vote—in some elections, at least—came early in Illinois. The extreme financial problems of the 1870s prompted all kinds of activism, including that on behalf of women. Down in Springfield, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife had been working hard on women’s suffrage, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. The strange result was that while women couldn’t vote for themselves, for the first time they could be elected to local political office.
By that summer, the devastating Panic of 1873—also known as The Long Depression—was in full swing and feelings in rural and urban areas alike was running high against those blamed for the financial troubles. On July 4, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville that generated support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ political convention at Yorkville that approved a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests. “We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”
The convention was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third party, but the majority favoring it. The upshot was the nomination of an entire county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority. Taking into account the new law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.
Incumbent county school superintendent John R. Marshall, who was also the editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s paper of record, perceiving the winds of change might have begun blowing, gingerly congratulated Chittenden: “Miss Chittenden, I don’t know but she is an excellent lady—all ladies are excellent—and would doubtless would make an excellent Sueprintendress.”
He needn’t have worried, however, because she subsequently declined the nomination. Even so, Chittenden’s nomination established a new political first for Kendall County women.
Agitation for women’s suffrage continued and in 1891, Illinois women were given, for the first time, the right to vote for school board members or any other school official except the state superintendent of public instruction and the county superintendent of schools. Women were not allowed to vote for the state and county superintendents because those offices were specifically enumerated in the 1870 Illinois Constitution, which made no mention of allowing women to vote.
As a result of that legal ruling, while women could vote for school board members and other locally elected school officials whose offices were not mentioned in the constitution, they could not cast ballots on any educational propositions, such as tax rate referendums.
Locally, women wasted no time in taking up the franchise. At the election for Oswego Township School Trustees on April 9, 1892, Mrs. Mary Frances (Porter) Hunt, wife of Oswego businessman and politician John B. Hunt, may have become the first woman in Kendall County to vote for a school official.
That was only the beginning. When local school board elections were held a week later, women all over Kendall County not only voted, but helped elect two of their number to previously all-male boards. In balloting on April 16, voters in Oswego elected Florence K. Read to the Oswego School District 4 Board, while in Newark, the unmarried Martha Olson soundly beat Will Manchester for a school board seat, 26-16.
“Six ladies cast their first ballot and are pleased that a lady so worthy in every respect and well qualified for a position was elected school director by a good majority,” wrote Julia Hull, the Record’s Newark correspondent.
In 1894, the Illinois Suffragette Convention persuaded state officials to allow women to hold the kinds of school offices for which they could vote. That year, Lucy Flower, a well-known social worker of the time, became the first woman to hold statewide office here in the Prairie State when she was elected as a trustee of the University of Illinois.
Then in 1913, Illinois women were given the right to vote for any elected official whose office could be abolished by the General Assembly. The rationale was, again, that those offices were not mentioned in the state constitution and so were fair game for the female underclass.
Suffragists in New York State got behind an effort to pass a Constitutional amendment to allow women to vote in 1917 and then in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for women’s suffrage. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in early June 1919 and sent it to the states for their approval. And on June 10, 1919, Illinois won a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Michigan to be the first states to ratify the amendment, allowing women to vote for all state and national offices.
Just a few months before the General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment, long-time Kendall County Circuit Clerk Avery Beebe died following years of illness. The county board, with the enthusiastic support of Circuit Court Judge Mazzini Slusser—one of the great local historical names of all time—appointed Beebe’s popular assistant, 34 year-old Frances Lane, as clerk pro tempore. Lane’s grandparents settled in Kendall County in 1837. Her father, Charles E. Lane, was an itinerate journalist, and Frances was born in Kansas. Her father later returned to Illinois, where, among other jobs, he managed the Kendall County Record. Frances graduated from Yorkville High School in 1902 and taught school for several years before Beebe tapped her for his assistant clerk.
In March 1920, Lane announced her candidacy for clerk—permitted under the 1913 legislation—much to the chagrin of Earl Weeks, who had announced for the office in February. In a letter to the editor of the Record, Weeks suggested Lane was not permitted to run for clerk. In the March 31, 1920 Record, Aurora attorney John M. Raymond, himself a Kendall County native, and Lane herself made spirited rebuttals to Weeks’ charges.
As a Record columnist dryly observed that same week: “When the efficient little clerk pro tempore of the circuit court announced her candidacy for the office of clerk she surely started something upon which every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks he is eminently qualified to pass a judicial opinion.”
It was a short-lived controversy, however. Weeks dropped out and Lane, “the efficient little clerk pro tempore” won the uncontested GOP primary and with it the general election in rock-ribbed Republican Kendall County becoming the county’s first female elected county official.
With Lane’s example and the 19th Amendment on their side, Kendall County women didn’t waste much time running for other local offices. In the April 1922 primary election, Ella D. Hill won the Republican nomination for county treasurer over popular former sheriff Martin Hextell, 1,495 votes to 1,316. In those days, just like Lane’s election, the winner of the Republican primary was assured success in the general election.
Two years later, in 1924, Louetta B. Davis won the April Republican primary election for Circuit Court Clerk. She, also, went on to win election the following November.
Then in 1926, Laura Nichols handily won the GOP nomination for Kendall County Treasurer over male candidates Frank Crum and Frank Weber. Nichols polled 1,402 ballots to 1,006 for Crum and 464 for Weber.
While lots of women served as school board members and local officials, it took many more years before females were trusted enough to be elected to statewide office. In 1955, Mrs. Earle Benjamin Searcy of Springfield was appointed to fill the unexpired term of her late husband as State Supreme Court Clerk. Mrs. Searcy was subsequently elected to the post, the first women to serve in a statewide office in Illinois.
Other women, however, had been elected to other positions of power before that. For instance, Winifred Mason Huck of Chicago was elected Congressman-at-large in 1922 to replace her father, William E. Mason, who had died. Lottie Holman O’Neill of Downers Grove was the first elected female member of the General Assembly, with the voters sending her to the house in 1922. She served until 1964, with terms both in the Illinois House and Senate.
Today, with numerous female office-holders at the local, state and federal levels, we take women in politics so much for granted that it looks as if Kamala Harris has a good chance of becoming the first Vice-President of the United States. It is sobering to recall that within the lifespan of some Kendall County residents, women were forbidden to vote for those who were making decisions that affected their very lives.
When his secretary informed him the missionaries from the western frontier had arrived for their appointment during that summer of 1824, we can only guess what U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun expected.
What Calhoun actually got when Jesse Walker strode into the room was a bluff, powerfully built man whose complexion had been weathered during a lifetime spent outdoors, both working at his trade as a tanner and hide dresser, as well as on horseback laboring at his vocation as one of the best-known itinerant frontier missionaries.
On a trip that spanned three months, Walker had ridden east on horseback from his post along the Mississippi River at St. Louis to the Methodist-Episcopal Church National Conference at Baltimore. On the journey, he’d been accompanied by another pioneer circuit rider, Thomas A. Morris, a delegate from the Kentucky Conference.
The man Calhoun greeted was plainly dressed in the manner of frontier missionaries of the era in plain, sturdy pants, coat and vest of wool with a white cravat at his neck, carrying his distinctive large light-colored beaver felt hat that was “nearly as large as a lady’s umbrella,” Morris recalled of his traveling companion.
Walker‘s proposition for Calhoun: If the government contributed part of the cost, the Methodists’ Illinois Conference would establish a school among the related members of the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes living along the Illinois and Fox rivers of Illinois. The mission would include a blacksmith shop and a corn mill to grind grain into flour. Not only would Indian children be taught the English language, as well as the Methodist gospel, Walker said, but also their parents would be instructed in the “civilized arts” of farming.
Calhoun probably figured it was good bargain. With it, the government would obtain professional services that had been promised in various treaties for the tribes at little expense. Meanwhile the Methodists would get funding to establish a mission with the aim of converting Native Americans to Christianity in general and Methodism in particular.
Satisfied, Walker returned to Illinois where he set to work to create a permanent Illinois River Valley mission. His first attempt was at the old French village of Peoria near Fort Clark on the Illinois River. Walker and his wife, Susannah Webly Walker, opened a mission school that attracted only six Native American youngsters. Walker soon realized the Peoria mission was located too far south of the main population of the tribes he was trying to serve.
So early in the spring of 1825, Walker, in the company of John Hamlin and six others, rowed their Mackinaw boat up the Illinois and then the DesPlaines River to Chicago to scout new mission locations. During the trip, Walker became the first Methodist to hold services at Chicago.
After returning, the Walkers and five other families traveled up the Illinois above Starved Rock to the mouth of the Fox River where they established a small settlement and mission school—the seed around which modern Ottawa would grow. Some 14 Native American students were soon attending classes at the new mission school. But that site, too, proved too distant from the bulk of the area’s Indian population which was living farther north. At that point, Chief Shabbona and a fur trader and interpreter of mixed Pottawatomie and French Canadian blood named George Forquier (also spelled Furkee), volunteered to help. Shabbona was born an Ottawa but had become an influential chief of the Potawatomi people living within the Three Fires Confederacy. The Confederacy was comprised of groups of Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi who shared both cultural and family ties.
Shabbona, Walker, and Forquier explored 20 miles up the east bank of the Fox River until they found a grove with a good spring. There, on the site of what soon became the Fox River Mission, Walker drove his claim stakes. It included all of Section 15 in Township 35, Range 5 of LaSalle County, later named Mission Township in honor of Walker’s activities.
That October in 1825, Walker reported about the proposed mission site: “The place is about one hundred miles above Fort Clark [at Peoria], about twenty miles north of the Illinois River, between it and Fox River. The soil is very good, timber plenty, and the spot well watered.”
The following year he reported to his superiors that work on the mission was proceeding: “I have built a house for the accommodation of the family, which consists of eighteen persons.” The large two-story log house measured 20 x 50 feet.
“A smith’s shop, a convenience that I could not dispense with, situated as I was, so remote from the settlements of the whites; a poultry house, springhouse, and other conveniences,” completed the mission, he reported. He said he had 40 acres in crops, seven in fenced pasture, and a one-acre garden.
“Hitherto everything has been attended with much hardship, hunger, cold and fatigue; and the distance which we have to transport everything has made it expensive; but with regard to the settlement, the greatest obstacles are overcome, and a few more years’ labour will furnish a comfortable home and plenty,” he told his Methodist superiors, adding, “The school consists of 15 Indian children, 7 males and 8 females, and two teachers. I am encouraged with the prospect of considerable acquisitions to the school this fall.”
In the missionary venture, Walker was assisted by his wife; his nephew who was also his son-in-law, James Walker, who brought along a horse-powered grain mill; James Walker’s wife, Jane, Jesse’s daughter, who became the teacher at the mission school, and all their children.
The missionaries’ spirits were more than willing, but the local Indians proved infertile ground for mission work—the idea of original sin was often a non-starter with Native People. And besides that, the promised government funding never arrived. Amid rumors the local tribes were to be removed west of the Mississippi, the Illinois Conference decided to close the mission down by 1829. Then to finish the venture off, all the buildings were burned by Indians in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.
Although its life was brief, the mission nevertheless was well-known among early Illinois settlers. When Galena businessman J.G. Stoddard decided to try shipping a ton and a half of lead overland to Chicago in 1829, the expedition aimed to cross the Fox River at Walker’s mission, probably hoping the blacksmith there could make any necessary repairs. Unfortunately, by the time Stoddard’s wagons got there, the mission had closed.
Then in 1831, John Kinzie and his wife, Juliette, traveled from Kinzie’s fur trade post at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin across Illinois to Chicago. Kinzie’s party also aimed to strike the Fox River near Walker’s mission, but they never made it due to poor navigation by their supposedly experienced guide. Instead, the encountered the Fox River just below modern Oswego, well north of the old mission.
After closing down the mission, James and Jane Walker established Walker’s Grove along the DuPage River (the nucleus around which Plainfield eventually formed) while Jesse Walker continued riding his circuit.
Walker’s wife, Susannah, died in 1832 and was buried at Plainfield. Mostly retired, Walker died in 1835 at his farm located where Grand Avenue crosses the DesPlaines River in modern River Grove.
In 1850, Walker’s remains were moved to the Plainfield Cemetery, where he was reburied in the same casket as Susannah. A fine monument that was dedicated there in 1911 gives a brief account of Walker’s fascinating career and hints at his importance in the settlement of northern Illinois.
At the order of Gov. J.B. Pritzger, Illinois remains somewhat hunkered down these days as the medical profession and biologists try to figure out how to handle the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2—shortened to COVID-19—pandemic sweeping the world.
Here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley, towns up and down the river issued shelter in place orders last spring, businesses (except for those deemed essential) were closed along with most governmental agencies including schools, park districts, museums, and libraries, and the only reason most people left home was to get groceries or visit the drug store. Things have begun to loosen up a bit, but as they’ve done so, cases have started on an upward trend line once again, making the area’s financial recovery problematical in the near future.
Serious disease outbreaks were fairly common around these parts back during the settlement era, a situation that lasted well into the 20th Century. In the early days, nobody knew what caused the periodic outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, or the ever-present ague—which we know today as malaria.
But when it came to actually killing our pioneer ancestors, the big three diseases were cholera, typhoid, and smallpox.
Illinois’ earliest cholera outbreak happened in 1832 as the U.S. Army responded to the Black Hawk War. Troops brought west on the Great Lakes had picked up the disease along the way, and were dying even as they arrived. When Gen. Winfield Scott arrived at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn with his infected soldiers, most settlers who had fled to the fort for protection quickly left for their homes, figuring while the Indians might kill them, the cholera surely would. Legend has it that as Scott’s small army marched northwest to the Rock River country in western Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and as additional soldiers died, they were buried along the route with a cannon ball used as a marker for each dead soldier, thus, supposedly, the origin of today’s Cannonball Trail.
But of the three, smallpox was the most feared, and most certain, killer during that era. Thought to be eradicated in the 1970s, smallpox made a comeback of sorts back in the early 2000s, with the spread of rumors it was being cultured for biological warfare.
Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. Oddly enough, given the current unpleasantness between ourselves and the Islamic countries, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.
From the 6th Century on, frequent European epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance to the disease that allowed the death rate to decline to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Even so, the disease remained deadly. During the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.
Even royalty suffered the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.
Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America, and they proved extra deadly to the New World’s Native People. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European settlers. When the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they found what later became Massachusetts strangely uninhabited, although the empty villages and fields of Native People were scattered all over the region, their residents having been killed during a recent smallpox epidemic, probably inadvertently spread by Portuguese fishermen.
Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived and were thereafter immune.
In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol first. Couldn’t be too careful, you know.
Although inoculation was known, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000-man force came down with the disease. In 1777, General George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox. Although Congress was opposed to the relatively new treatment (Washington’s home state of Virginia outlawed smallpox inoculations), Washington insisted—no anti-vaxxers allowed. As a result, Washington’s Continentals were spared the smallpox that was ravaging the 13 Colonies. When infection rates dropped from 20 percent to 1 percent, even Congress couldn’t ignore it. That led to one of the nation’s first public health laws legalizing smallpox vaccinations. Previously, some colonies (including Washington’s own Virginia) had prohibited vaccination under penalty of law.
British soldiers, most of whom had been exposed to the pox as children, suffered far less mortality than their American cousins during the war.
Then in 1796, English scientist and doctor Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects.
Even so, epidemics continued to strike, particularly hitting Native People the hardest. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the Missouri River, probably carried by fur traders, killed 15,000 Indians, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan tribes.
Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services during the disastrous outbreak that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”
Here in the Fox Valley, an 1845 epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27 of that year, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe.”
Barber finally got to Oswego to visit the friends with which he’d traveled from Smyrna to Oswego back in 1843 and was happy to find them all alive, if somewhat scarred: “I found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”
One of the last local smallpox scares was in January of 1891. According to the Kendall County Record, a woman traveling by rail to Chicago through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be smallpox. A community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine established, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed (does this sound familiar?). But within a day or so, it was found the woman had a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.
The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease.
Now, we’re dealing with a new disease that seems every bit as deadly as smallpox for those who contract it. The strange thing, though, is that today we know what a virus is, and even what the microscopic COVID-19 virus looks like. We just don’t know—at the present time—how to manufacture a vaccine to inoculate people against it.
In that respect, it’s at least a little bit like those days of long ago when diseases struck for no apparent reason, killed dozens, hundreds, or thousands, and then disappeared as quickly as they came. At least today, we have reason to believe help is on the way as the scientific community is working hard to come up with a vaccine for those not stricken and effective treatments for those who have contracted COVID-19.
I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”
It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.
The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.
Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.
Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.
But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.
Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.
Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.
In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.
All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.
Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.
On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”
Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”
Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.
By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.
In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.
But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.
By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “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.”
In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”
It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.
The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.
The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.
The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”
By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.
In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.
They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.
These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.
Given the current situation here and across the world as we attempt to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest (sometimes caused by civil authorities themselves), and almost unbelievable government dysfunction and dishonesty, it’s always valuable to have a mental bolthole handy for a therapeutic retreat.
For me, that’s colonial Illinois history, where there’s always something new to learn, especially stories about colonial efforts that didn’t turn out like their promoters expected.
The fur trade era, when fortunes were made and lost as colonial European powers traded with North America’s Native People for the pelts and hides of fur-bearing animals in exchange for various goods, is one of my historical favorites. The trade is so interesting because it was such an important driver of the European settlement that resulted in centuries of death and cultural destruction of so many of the confinement’s Native People. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the fur trade North America certainly would not have developed like it did.
It may seem odd to us today that animal furs and skins would be such valuable commodities that the trade in them would lead to political and military conflict on a worldwide scale. But that was indeed the case as the great European powers fought over who would control the extraction of natural riches from what they called the New World.
The North American fur trade was built around beaver pelts. Fashion during the 17th and 18th centuries and the first quarter or so of the 19th century decreed men, in particular, wear hats in a myriad of styles manufactured from felt. It turned out the beaver’s under-fur, because of its unique physical structure, produced the finest felt in the world.
While millions of beaver pelts were harvested in North America and sent to European factories annually, those weren’t the only animal products of interest to Europeans. Mink, otter, fisher, and other fine furs were highly sought after, as were deer hides, bearskins, and the hides of American Bison.
Bison hides, when properly tanned, proved to be durable and extremely tough. Bison hide shields used by Native People had been known to be proof against even musket balls. Europeans turned the hides into heavy blankets and coats, and the hide with the fur removed was used to make boots and other heavy-duty footwear.
While bison hides were definitely salable items, they weren’t favored by the regular trade, due to their size and weight. A single bison hide weighs between 20 and 30 pounds, and measures around 7×5 feet. The fur trade, especially during the 18th Century, relied on transporting furs and trade goods by birch bark canoe, even the larges of which would have been hard-pressed to carry many oversized bison hides.
Even so, there was a market for bison hides, and it just so happened that in the early 18th Century the bison population east of the Mississippi River was at its height. There had always been bison east of the great river, but it wasn’t until the 1500s that their numbers began to rapidly increase. That was due to a number of factors that included the success of Native People in modifying the environment by using grass fires to create and maintain open savannahs in the generally dense eastern forests and to enlarge and maintain the large prairies that began in western Indiana stretching all the way to the Mississippi. That provided additional bison habitat and by creating numerous edges around wooded areas created ideal deer habitat. At its height, the bison population east of the Mississippi is estimated at between two and four million animals.
Another, far less positive, factor was the deadly epidemics of Old World diseases loosed on Native People by Europeans that depopulated large areas east of the Mississippi, drastically lowering hunting pressure on large game animals. So, by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the eastern bison herds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, significantly smaller than the ones on the shortgrass prairie west of the Mississippi, but still substantial.
And that’s where Charles Juchereau de St. Denys saw an opportunity. The fur trade in today’s Midwest was controlled from either Quebec or Louisiana, depending on which side of the dividing line the area was located. Juchereau’s plan was to build a trading fort and a bison hide tannery on the Ohio River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a scheme he was able to interest King Louis XIV in personally. But since that fell within Quebec’s area of influence, Juchereau had to work hard to reassure officials there that he had no designs on trading for beaver pelts. Eventually, after a lot of hard bargaining, he was able to allay enough of their suspicion to get their grudging approval. Juchereau pointed out that his post near the confluence of the two great rivers would stand as a bulwark against the growing incursions of British traders then filtering into the area, while also offering protection to the Native People Juchereau hoped to relocated near his fort. Those considerations got the strong support of the officials at New Orleans who were getting concerned about growing British influence in the area.
The expedition Juchereau put together included 24 men in eight canoes. It was prohibited from selling brandy to the Native People and from trading in beaver pelts. Any other pelts and skins were fair game, however.
Juchereau’s expedition left Montreal on May 18, 1702 and headed up the well-worn St. Lawrence-Ottawa River trade route into Lake Huron, arriving at the post of Michilimackinac on July 10. During the summer months, Midwestern rivers were at low levels, so the expedition waited until late summer to head south when, they hoped, river levels would be higher.
The expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay and the mouth of the Fox River of Wisconsin. The Fox River of Wisconsin was under the control of the Fox Tribe. Not yet in open warfare with the French, the Fox nonetheless charged Juchereau’s expedition a stiff toll of trade goods to pass on their way upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River at today’s Portage, Wisconsin.
From there, the route was down the Wisconsin to its mouth on the Mississippi, and then downstream to the French settlement at Kaskaskia, where they picked up the “almoner” Juchereau’s concession required. For this duty, the Bishop of Quebec assigned the unfortunate Jesuit Father Jean Mermet.
In early 1700 Mermet had been assigned to assist Father François Pinet with the Miami mission at what is now Chicago. For whatever reason, Pinet decided to leave, putting Mermet in charge although he could not speak the languages of the local tribes. He spent the winter of 1701-02 isolated there. In the spring, Mermet made his way east to the Jesuit mission at the St. Joseph River in modern southwestern Michigan, where at least he had someone else to talk to. But this annoyed, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the commander at Fort Detroit who suspected the Jesuits were trying to increase the size of the St. Joseph Mission at the expense of Detroit. So Mermet was sent on his way once more, this time down to Kaskaskia, where Juchereau’s expedition found him when they arrived from Michilimackinac.
It also turned out there were some doubts among the Jesuits about Juchereau’s plans, mainly they were suspicious—undoubtedly justified—the efforts to make a profit out of buffalo hides would have a higher priority than saving souls. Further, they noted, Mermet really didn’t have any actual missionary skills—as an almoner his job had been to distribute goods and money to the poor. But Juchereau’s patrons were powerful enough to overcome the Jesuits’ worries and off Mermet went with the expedition. At least the poor guy had somebody to talk to on the way.
The expedition reached the site of Juchereau’s concession sometime in November 1702. The location is believed to have been on the Illinois side of the Ohio River somewhere around Mound City.
Juchereau immediately began construction of his trade fort and tannery while Mermet began his new job as missionary to the local tribes—although inexperienced, he was given credit for working with “zeal and fortitude” and generally made a good impression on the Native People he could reach.
By the early 18th Century, the French had learned that a successful trading establishment required a large nearby population of Native Americans, something Juchereau’s concession, located in a sort of no-man’s land between tribal areas. But once it became known that Juchereau was paying top dollar for bison hides, Native People—mostly Mascoutins—began to congregate. But then disaster struck in the form of a virulent epidemic, probably malaria. The disease was a European import for which the Native People had no immunity, and it killed roughly half the Mascoutins despite Father Mermet’s frantic medical efforts.
Not incidentally, Juchereau also died from the disease, throwing the entire tannery operation into temporary chaos. But the rest of the French voyageurs quickly assumed control and the collection of hides continued until some 12,000 had been accumulated.
Which is when the big flaw in Juchereau’s scheme became clear: How to get 180 tons of tanned bison hides from the wilds of North America to market—any market. Louisiana’s new governor, Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, responded to pleas for help by dispatching six workmen to help the tannery crew build boats to ship the hides south. In late 1704, all 12,000 hides were loaded aboard the boats and floated down the Mississippi to Fort de la Boulaye—New Orleans wouldn’t be founded for another 14 years. But there was virtually no ship traffic from the relatively new fort to France, or anywhere else at the time. The result, as one of Juchereau’s companions ruefully explained, was that “These goods we brought down in very great numbers…and for want of ships in two years’ time the moths got into them, the waters rose, and for lack of people to guard them the Indians took them and the whole lot was lost.”
Thus was the ignominious end of Juchereau’s bison hide venture.
The scheme is of interest to historians because of its colonial Illinois commercial nature and because of the evidence it offers of large numbers of bison east of the Mississippi during that era. The eastern herd, unlike the gigantic herds on the western shortgrass prairies, was divided into relatively small groups of hundreds or perhaps a few thousand each ranging into western Virginia, the Carolinas, the future states of Kentucky and Tennessee and even Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. But there were enough bison in the east to produce 12,000 tanned hides in about two years by a single trading and tanning operation, a substantial number by anyone’s reckoning.
It’s not clear if Juchereau’s venture had a negative effect on bison population east of the Mississippi, but it does seem that from the early 18th Century on, bison numbers began a steady decline. The last recorded wild bison in Illinois was reported killed in 1808.
When the topic of the American Bison comes up, Illinois isn’t generally the first part of their range that springs to mind. But time was, the Prairie State was home territory for thousands of them.
For more information on bison in Illinois, see Records of Early Bison in Illinois, R. Bruce McMillan, editor; Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers, Vol. XXXI, Springfield, 2006. For more on Juchereau’s tannery venture see “A Historical Reexamination of Juchereau’s Illinois Tannery,” by John Fortier and Donald Chaput, pps. 385-406, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 1969).
It’s not an exaggeration to observe that most people are ignorant of the history of their state, county, or the town in which they live. Part of that is due to how mobile our society is these days. A vanishingly tiny number of us live our entire lives in the same town or even in the same state. As a result, the history of the places in which people find themselves living really has little meaning for them because likely as not, they expect to be moving on again fairly soon.
The recent pandemic and the massive changes in the nation’s economy it’s caused—I’ve seen it dubbed the Great Pause, which I think fits it nicely—has also paused much of the nation’s former mobility. But I’d be surprised if it didn’t resume after COVID is beaten.
Not only do people’s transient lives militate against learning about local history, but so does the modern educational system. State-mandated standardized tests, with their national norms, cannot test local historical knowledge and so unless classroom teachers think it’s important enough to take time away from teaching to the tests, local history is ignored.
But having lived in the same area virtually all my life, and having lived on the same street for 66 years, I’ve seen local issues come and go that would have been considerably smoothed out had people had any knowledge of their community’s history. Because there are reasons why things are as they are. Sometimes they aren’t necessarily good reasons, but roads were not just arbitrarily sited, school districts weren’t created at the whim of some far-away bureaucrat, and municipal boundaries are like they are because of decisions made a long time ago by people who thought they were doing the best they could for their communities.
One of the things some may wonder about is how local places got their names. For the most part, these were not names mandated by those far-away bureaucrats, but were picked by the residents who lived there. County names, however, were indeed given by the Illinois General Assembly, whether local residents liked them or not. My own county of Kendall, for instance, was named in opposition to the one—Orange County—local residents favored in order to honor one of former President Andrew Jackson’s political operatives.
On the other hand, Will County’s name didn’t seem to raise much, if any, opposition when it was given.
Dr. Conrad Will was one of the many Pennsylvania Germans—called the Pennsylvania Dutch by their British neighbors—who came to Illinois in its earliest days and then became active in both local commerce and government.
But Will was also known for something a lot less savory than were typical Pennsylvania Dutchmen. He was not only a business owner, but also one of the few legal Illinois slave owners.
Will was born near Philadelphia, Pa. on June 3, 1779. After he studied medicine for a while, he moved west, probably traveling to Illinois via the well-traveled Virginia-Tennessee migration route. He reportedly arrived at Kaskaskia in 1814. The next year he moved to land along the Big Muddy River in what is now Jackson County, located near the southern tip of Illinois. In 1816 or thereabouts, he obtained a government lease on one of three profitable salines the U.S. Government deeded to the Illinois Territory.
Salines, or salt springs, were valuable natural resources on the frontier, and the profits from their leases provided a good chunk of early Illinois’ revenue. The water from the springs was evaporated, using a relatively elaborate process for the era, and the salt that remained was then sold.
On the frontier, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat and hides. In inland areas away from the coast, salt springs like those that bubbled to the surface in Saline County or in the Illinois Territory’s Randolph County were prime sources for the indispensable material.
In order to make sure speculators didn’t buy up the leases and hold them to drive up prices, the federal leases required the holders to produce a set amount of salt each year or pay a penalty.
In the spring of 1816, the year Jackson County was formed by breaking off a portion of Randolph County, Will traveled back to Pittsburgh to buy a batch of giant cast iron evaporating kettles. Each of the big kettles could hold about 60 gallons and they weighed about 400 lbs. each. The kettles were floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat, and then transported up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Big Muddy River, and from there up to Will’s saline operation.
To increase productivity, Will deepened the saline spring and installed a horse-powered pump to raise the salt water into a large basin. From there, the salt-laden water it ran via wooden pipes to the kettles, which were lined up side-by-side resting on a long brick firebox. The first kettle was filled with salt water, a fire lit under it, and the evaporation process began. In turn, the increasingly salty water was ladled into each kettle down the row where it was further evaporated until only a salt paste remained. The paste was then dug out of the last kettle and allowed to air dry. After it dried, the raw salt was crushed, shoveled into sacks, and shipped down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and beyond.
As you might imagine, the labor to manufacture the salt was hard, hot, grueling work, something with which the federal government assisted by allowing slaves to be imported into Illinois for the purpose of its manufacture. Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River, special territorial laws and constitutional provisions permitted exceptions at the salines.
Illinois’ first constitution, approved by Congress in 1818, continued to allow slaves to be leased for use in the state’s salt works, and it also allowed a form of indentured servitude that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery.
So with slaves and government lease in hand, Will continued his operation. Generally, one bushel of salt could be extracted for every 2.5 to 5.5 gallons of water from the saline. But sufficient salt water to evaporate wasn’t the problem; fuel to keep the evaporation process going was. At first, wood fires were used (a large plot of surrounding woods was part of the saline lease). As the nearby supply of wood was exhausted, the evaporation operation was moved farther and farther away from the saline spring. Ever-lengthening spans of wooden pipe, made by splitting logs in half, length-wise, hollowing out the interior, and then strapping them back together, were used to keep the salt water flowing into the evaporation kettles.
As Jacob Myers wrote of the saline operation in Gallatin County in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: “The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away the furnaces were moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one hundred miles of such piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.”
With the scarcity of wood, salt manufacturers turned to the use of coal to keep the brine boiling, and as luck would have it coal was close to the surface in the area of the saline springs and could be reached by drift and slope mines.
The salt business was a hard one, and Will apparently decided politics might be a better way to make money. He was one of Illinois’ first state senators when the state was established in 1818 and in 1820 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in office on June 11, 1835.
With their colleague’s death still fresh in their minds, when a brand new county was formed by partitioning Cook, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties in January 1836, the General Assembly voted to name it after Conrad Will.
Will was just one of a group of salt manufacturers who imported slaves into Illinois, and who later imported even more slaves while calling them “indentured servants.” This form of slavery was not completely banned in Illinois until 15 years before the Civil War began.
Today, we remember Conrad Will as a politician and namesake for Will County. But like many historical characters, it turns out he’s carrying a lot more baggage under the surface than he appears to be.