Category Archives: Illinois History

When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Technology

When sledding was good in the Fox Valley

Time was, we could joke about northern Illinois climate consisting of winter and six weeks of bad sledding. But in recent years, the favorite lament of Midwesterners—until 2017 wrapped up, at least—has been the general lack of an old-fashioned winter.

Historically, that’s been a common complaint. For instance, on Dec. 27, 1916, Kendall County Record Editor H.R. Marshall was pleased to report that, at last, Kendall County was enjoying a fine old-fashioned winter, although modern life was intruding into the enjoyment a bit:

“No one can complain of the good old-fashioned Christmas weather for 1916. Snow on the ground and the thermometer hovering around zero makes one think of the earlier days. But the thing that is missing is the tinkle of sleigh bells. Once in a while you see a sleigh or a bob [sled} go by but little of the jingle that makes one feel that there is some pleasure in the world. The raucous toot of the auto horn and the sound of the open muffler have taken the place of ‘Old Dobbin.’”

A century plus a year later, things are different still. We have occasional cold snaps, as my dad used to call them, but then the weather usually warms, the snow and ice melts. And in recent years it never really returned during late winter.

1922 Trolley & ice skaters @Oswego

Ice skating on the Fox River at the Oswego Bridge about 1922 as the interurban trolley car crosses southbound on its way to Yorkville. In those days, the river froze solid most winters. (Little White School Museum collection)

This winter’s cold snap, however, is proving persistent. The Fox River hardly ever freezes solid between Aurora and Yorkville any more—this year, even as cold as it’s been, is no exception—because it is so warm, and not necessarily due to global warming, either. The major tributaries of today’s Fox River are the municipal sanitary plants that line its banks, pumping out their streams of warm treated wastewater. You can see the results of that by driving along Ill. Route 25 opposite the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s plant in Oswego Township on a cold winter day. Just note the vapor rising from the treated water as it enters the river.

This year, however, not only have we had unusual cold, but we’ve also had a bit of snow as well. The cold arrived earlier in December, followed by a good covering of snow. And then as the New Year arrived, we began experiencing one of those old-fashioned cold snaps that almost made it seem like old times.

Which sort of leads us back to the point about sledding. If sledding was bad during some parts of the year, when was it good?

In those days of yore when I was young and the weather was colder more often, sledding possibilities were many and varied. When we lived out on the farm, we’d trudge what seemed to be miles to an abandoned gravel pit adjacent to our farm and ride our sleds down the nearly vertical slopes.

Besides that, my parents enjoyed having bobsled parties. My dad put his hayrack on a bobsled running gear every winter, hooked up the tractor, and everyone scrambled on board, sitting on bales of hay and straw. Away we went down country roads and farm lanes with everyone having a whale of a good time. The kids hooked their sleds onto the back of the bobsled with ropes and hung on for dear life as the party enjoyed themselves, after which hot chocolate and coffee and my mother’s great desserts capped the evening off.

The Hill horizontal S

The Second Street hill, looking west. The road makes a right-angle curve to the left at the bottom of the hill where Second joins North Adams Street. These days, the road is paved with asphalt.

When we moved to Oswego, bobsled parties were things of the past, but sledding opportunities grew. There was the road off Ill. Route 25 down to our street, for instance. Second Street is still a fairly steep climb today, although it’s paved with asphalt these days and village snowplow crews keep it cleared and well salted.

In the days of my childhood, however, Second Street was gravel, we were in the township, and we were lucky to see a plow for a while after the snow stopped. As a result, the hill’s gravel surface got snow-packed and slippery. All the locals knew you could drive down the hill with reasonable safety, but that most cars and trucks couldn’t make it up the slippery surface, especially since motorists almost always needed to stop at the Route 25 intersection. So traffic on the hill was light when there was snow on the ground.

And us kids quickly realized it made for a great sledding opportunity. You could start at the top and speed down, and if skillful enough, make the sharp turn at the bottom to head south on North Adams Street. A quarter mile distance was not difficult to achieve.

Sledding course

The trick to ensure a long sled ride was making the curve at the bottom of the Second Street hill.

Occasionally, we’d help Mother Nature out a bit by sprinkling water on the street, especially near the top and near the old CB&Q tracks to give us a bit more speed. It wasn’t unheard of for us to build up a bit of a snow bank on the curve where Second met North Adams Street, to allow us to make the curve a bit easier. Very careful and skillful sledders could make the curve at the bottom and head south on North Adams, sometimes all the way to the driveway at my folks’ house.

Motorists, however, did not appreciate our work, and cinders were soon sprinkled to offer a bit of traction for motorists.

We weren’t the only ones who sledded on the streets, either. In an editorial during a snowy winter in December 1952, Oswego Ledger Editor Ford Lippold wrote:

“Several motorists have reported that they had close calls during the past few days with children coasting on the streets. It is hard for motorists to stop quickly even when moving at a snail’s pace on the icy streets of the village.”

One winter, we got a good snowfall, and then it warmed up enough so that a very wet snow covered it, after which it turned very cold once again. That left an icy crust that measured nearly an inch thick on top of the snow, and provided some of the best sledding ever. That winter, we marked out a course that ran from my best friend Glenn’s backyard diagonally all the way to Bill Crimmins’ house. It led to some remarkably speedy trips across the ice, although control was a bit problematical. The most dangerous stretch of the route passed under a grape arbor’s wires. All but one of us were careful to duck our heads as we sped down the course, but he lifted his head at just the wrong time to see if anyone was gaining on him. The resulting gash in his face, and its spectacular amount of blood, spelled the end of our sledding on that course for the rest of the winter.

1940 abt Hall, Levi House Main Street cropped

Nellie Wormley Herren stands outside her ornate home on South Main Street during the winter of 1940. Generations of local kids had great fun coasting on the hill behind her house, where the ground sloped steeply down towards the railroad tracks and the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

There were other good sledding spots around town then, near Smith’s Pond, and in Mrs. Herren’s backyard off Main Street to name two off the top of my head.

Kids in Kendall County’s other towns enjoyed the same opportunities during those years of less traffic and fewer parental worries about whether their children were safe from the many challenges of modern life. I imagine almost anyone growing up in Plano or Yorkville or Newark during that era can name their favorite sledding spots, too. For instance, on Jan. 20, 1915, Marshall wrote in the Record about the good sledding on the Bridge Street hill—something that would be suicidal today with Bridge Street’s busy four lanes of traffic:

“While the coasting on the Bridge street hill has been fine and called out large crowds for several weeks, there were several accidents that lamed some of the young folks.”

So, yes, we really did have good sledding back in the day. Enough to establish a contrast so we knew when it was bad, anyway.

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized

Ghosts of Christmas Past are sort of fun folks…

Listening to an on-line holiday music channel and looking out to see another frosty morning here at the Matile Manse leads me to the conclusion that there’s no time of the year that stimulates a person’s nostalgia gland like the Christmas season.

Just about everybody has at least a few, and sometimes lots more, wonderful memories of Christmases past.

For the declining percentage of those of us who’ve lived their entire lives in the Fox Valley, the warm memories of those days gone by are tempered by the shear amazement with which we’ve been watching so many changes in our little corner of northern Illinois happen so quickly.

As part of that change, folks who live in Kendall County towns along the U.S. Route 34 corridor can now reasonably expect to do their holiday shopping in their own communities (and thereby making sure the resulting sales tax benefits themselves instead of residents of neighboring towns), something that, for several decades, was not possible. With the construction of shopping centers up and down the corridor from Sandwich east to Montgomery, shopping without leaving town has become not only possible, but with the traffic, preferable.

The thing is, though, that back in the day, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano and Sandwich residents could once do their holiday shopping in their own towns before the advent of regional shopping centers siphoned off those areas’ shoppers.

1950 Shulers Drugs

On a winter day in the 1950s, paper boys and girls wait for the Beacon-News to be dropped off at Shuler’s Drug Store so they can start their paper routes. Shuler’s annual toy sales area was in the hall above the store marked by the second story windows in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, I always figured that Al Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Drug Store on Main Street, must have been a huge fan of Christmas. When I was a kid, he’d order up a giant supply of the latest toys, which were sold from the large meeting hall on the floor above the drug and dry goods stores. On the way home from school, we’d make almost daily stops at that toy display, tromping our way up the steep stairs to make holiday wishes, our four-buckle boots jingling and swishing.

I didn’t know then, in the mid-1950s,  that the tradition of Oswego’s drug store selling an elaborate line of holiday merchandise extended nearly a century into the past, back to when pioneer druggist Levi Hall began the practice. As the Dec. 18, 1874 Kendall County Record reported:

Santa Claus in Oswego: This fine old gentleman, the patron saint of the children, has his Oswego headquarters this month at the drug store of L.N. Hall, and he requests all who love Christmas to call there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week and see what beautiful goods Mr. Hall has to sell. In the evening of those days, a beautiful Christmas tree will be lit up at 7 o’clock for the admiration of customers and little folks.

Image result for fanner 50

All the guys wanted a Fanner-50 under the tree. My buddy Glenn was the only one of my friends lucky enough to get one.

That was all fine, but from my point of view, as a confirmed television-watching youngster of the ‘50s, when the Christmas shopping season began the most wonderful place on earth had to have been Amlings Flowerland. Which might seem a bit odd, to the uninitiated, especially since I never actually went to Amlings. But Amlings (“conveniently located”) was a frequent sponsor of children’s TV shows like “Elmer the Elephant” and “Garfield Goose.” For about two months a year, Amlings’ commercials bombarded us with the lure of every wonderful toy imaginable. Fanner 50 revolvers, lever-action carbines like “The Rifleman” used, dolls that walked, real two-way radios, —Amlings had them all. I made frequent requests to be taken to this magical toy shopping Mecca, but to no avail. I had no idea where Hinsdale or Ogden Avenue was, but it didn’t sound very far away. Of course, Antarctica wouldn’t have seemed too far for the chance to visit Toy Nirvana. But as far as my parents were concerned, Amlings might as well of been on the far side of the moon.

But while Amlings was definitely out, downtown Aurora was definitely in. Aurora was only about six miles up the river on Route 25, which turned into Broadway–downtown Aurora’s main street–once we passed the city limits. My family had considered Aurora our main shopping town for at least a couple generations.

Back then, Sears was located in the middle of the downtown area on Broadway. At Christmas, they’d open a special toy department up in what was apparently the attic. I remember taking the elevator as far as it would go and then climbing the steep, narrow crowded stairway to a huge room filled, mostly it seemed, with frantic parents trying to get the latest Hasbro doll or Tonka truck for their kids.

1972 Aurora

When this photo was taken in 1972, downtown Aurora still hadn’t changed all that much from the way it looked in the late 1950s. You can just make out the Korn Krib sign at right partially obscurred by Lyon & Healy’s sign. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was surprisingly similar to Al Shuler’s toy emporium—except I don’t think as many people visited Shuler’s toy display in an entire season as did the customers who shopped at the Sears display on a single frenetic Friday night.

And it wasn’t only Sears that was such a kid’s delight. Downtown Aurora as a whole at Christmas was a fascinating place for kids. There was The Book Shop on Stolp Avenue that not only sold books, but also had a wonderful selection of “educational” toys. Microscopes, real miniature steam engines, Erector sets, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets—The Book Store was an always excellent place to while away a half-hour.

The dime stores, Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, had toy departments that were okay, but were nothing special. Grant’s, which wasn’t quite, but was pretty close to a dime store, had a passably good toy department, along with a truly excellent selection of comic books, including a good supply of Classics Illustrated, one of my favorite comic series.

For model kits and the only place in the south Fox Valley that sold British-made Dinky Toys, you had to take a walk south on Broadway to Fagerholm’s. They specialized in model kits, including gasoline-powered model planes, and had all the special paints needed to get just the right effect on that World War II Fletcher class destroyer or the Cutty Sark clipper ship model under construction up in my bedroom. And every once in a while I’d have enough money to add to my collection of Dinky Toy military vehicles.

Right across the street was Main Surplus where military surplus clothing and equipment shared store shelves with—bowling balls. It was the best place in town to pick up a new ball, get your old one drilled out, or get a nice bowling bag, your private towel, or your own pair of shoes.

1959 Route 25

After a hard day’s shopping in downtown Aurora, driving back south to Oswego down Ill. Route 25 offered some of the area’s nicest winter scenery. In fact, it still does. (Little White School Museum collection)

Out the door and walking north to Downer Place, a left turn took the discriminating shopper to May Electric where Lionel trains reigned supreme—at least for us kids. Parents were more interested in boring stuff like washing machines, but in the upstairs loft was the most complete selection of Lionel trains and equipment in our area. New switches, bottles of those tiny pills that made your steam locomotive smoke, signal bridges, and freight cars with little guys that actually unloaded crates of who knows what were all there, along with the newest diesel and steam engines and other rolling stock. I had my eye on a great Santa Fe diesel switch engine one year, and was almost beside myself when I found it under the tree Christmas morning.

Looking back, the amazing thing is that parents during that era thought nothing of letting their kids roam around downtown Aurora all by themselves, even at night. It was a wonderful place: the Korn Krib for some great caramel corn; or Reuland’s for hot, fresh giant cashews; or the Fox Valley Snack Shop for cantaloupe à la mode for the sophisticated palate (or a Belly-Buster for the audacious); or browsing the coming attractions posters at the Paramount or the Isle theater.

It was a time of shared experience now long gone, but far from forgotten. We like to look back and believe it was a simpler time, but it really wasn’t. The challenges were just different and us kids didn’t yet have to worry about the kinds of things our parents did. It’s entirely likely modern kids will look back on today in exactly the same way. It’s the “Good Old Days” syndrome. Thing is, some—even if not all—of those old days actually were pretty good.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, entertainment, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego

Visitor from the past would find a confusing modern farmscape

While development has taken a substantial toll on agricultural land here in Kendall County, there are still plenty of planted fields left for farmers to harvest this time of year. From the county’s congested tier of three northern-most townships, just take a drive west on Galena Road, or south on Route 47 or southwest on Route 71, and it doesn’t take long to leave tract homes and strip centers behind, and find yourself surrounded by fields that grow corn and soybeans, just as they have for generations.

It’s easy to think that our forebears would find the landscape on Route 47 down near Lisbon Center or on Grove Road south of Route 126 familiar. It’s rural; many of the farm homes are products of the late 19th century and early 20th century. There are even a few (very few) gravel roads to reinforce the feeling of stepping back in time.

But assuming we could crank up the Wayback Machine, and send Mr. Peabody and Sherman back to, say, 1870, to bring a farmer back for a brief summer visit to his future, he might find some similarities, but mostly he’d be struck by profound differences.

First and foremost, even if plunked down in a completely rural area, out of sight of any buildings, our farmer of the past would undoubtedly be struck by the odd uniformity of the agricultural landscape. Familiar, though unusually large and densely planted corn fields would stretch in every direction, but what, he would wonder, are those other row crops that seem to have bean leaves? And where in the world are the familiar fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rye? What’s happened to the pastures and the hay fields?

And where have all the fences gotten to? How on earth do modern farmers keep the neighbors’ cattle and hogs from eating growing crops with no fences to keep them out of the fields?

1890 abt Otto Johnson farm

The Otto Johnston farmstead in 1890 had a barn, a corn crib, and a chicken house, but no machine shed–the simple farm equipment of the era was stored in the barn and crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

That nearby farmstead looks odd, with no barn, and only some cylindrical metal buildings with conical roofs and one very large shed that looks as if it, too, is made of metal. And such a huge door it has. No cattle shed; no corn crib; no chicken house; no hog houses. The farmhouse lawn seems trimmed so neatly it’s almost unnatural, but where is the orchard?

Unlike our visitor from the past, today’s farmers operate in an either-or environment. They’re either grain farmers or livestock farmers. Our visitor from the past came from an era when every farmer grew both grain and livestock. Moreover, both were integral to the economic heath of every farmstead.

Grain was not only grown for market, like it is today, but was also grown for use on the farm to feed hogs, cattle, and poultry. Hogs and cattle were driven to market, meaning less grain had to be hauled over the abominable roads of the era. Poultry was kept for the eggs produced–which were traded for groceries in town–and used for meat on the farm and also to trade in town.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

Russell Rink had plenty of business for his custom baling operation in East Oswego Township in 1947 when this snapshot was taken, since alfalfa, timothy, and other hay crops were common on area farms. (Little White School Museum collection)

The manure produced as a byproduct of feeding hogs, cattle, and poultry was, in turn, used to fertilize the farmer’s grain fields.

A variety of crops were grown every year, and the fields in which they were grown were rotated each year, with pasture or hay land part of the rotation so the land could lay fallow for at least a year with no crops leaching nutrients out of the soil. The Anglo Saxon root of the word fallow refers to the colors of pale red or pale yellow—the color of fields tilled but not sown with seed.

Soybeans were not part of that rotation until they were popularized in the 1930s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. County agricultural agents instructed farmers in the fine points of their cultivation and harvest, and soon they became a popular cash crop—one probably unfamiliar to our visitor from the past.

2017 fenceless landscape

DeKalb County’s fenceless landscape is common on northern Illinois farms these days, With no livestock on farms, there’s no need to waste productive land with fence rows.

What happened to the crops with which our visitor was familiar? Where are the oats, the wheat, the rye and barley? Farmers not only specialize these days, but so do regions of the country. Illinois’ humid climate is not conducive to growing wheat, so its cultivation has migrated west of the Mississippi to drier the Great Plains. Oats were once necessary to feed the millions of horses that powered the nation’s farms and cities, and for on-farm livestock feed, needs that have largely disappeared today. So too have modern times sharply reduced the use of rye and barley.

Pastureland—where are the county’s pastures? Most have been plowed for cropland in the absence of livestock. The same with the hay fields that once covered thousands of Kendall County farmland acres. The sight of rolling stands of clover, timothy, and alfalfa rippling in the wind of mid-summer is largely a thing of our past that faded away with the livestock that once required them for food. It makes a person wonder what Timothy Hansen would think, the Norwegian immigrant who imported the nutritious forage grass named Phleum pratense to his farm in Virginia in 1721. So well did he conduct his campaign in its favor that farmers nicknamed the grass “timothy” in his honor. Where once timothy grew on virtually every farm, today its presence has dwindled, another victim of changes in farming.

Farm orchards, too, have largely departed leaving only memories of stands of apple, plum, pear, and cherry trees once prized for their abundant fruit. As have the dirt roads with which our farmer of the past would have been familiar. When studies were done in the early 20th century, it was found farmers’ cars and trucks got much better gas mileage on gravel roads, road maintenance costs were less, and wear and tear on vehicles was far, far less. And asphalt roads were far, far better than gravel roads in terms of damage to vehicles, mileage, and maintenance costs. So dirt roads have disappeared. Gravel roads, at least in most of Kendall County, have disappeared, too, because they’re expensive to maintain.

As our visiting farmer leaves to head down-time to his home, he is probably happy to get back to where farming makes some sense and where the parts of the landscape make cultural and economic sense to him. As for us, it’s another late autumn of taking life the way we find it in Kendall County.

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Filed under Architecture, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1859 Underground Railroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Two soldiers’ stories as Veterans’ Day approaches

Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, was originally established as Armistice Day to honor the veterans of World War I. The armistice to end that war was signed on Nov. 11—the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day.

But in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the holiday’s designation to Veterans’ Day as a way to honor all of the nation’s veterans from all of its wars.

Every year at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, assistant museum director Bob Stekl and his crew of enthusiastic volunteers fills the museum’s main room with uniforms, photographs, and memorabilia of Oswego’s veterans, culled from the museum’s extensive collections. And every year, we seem to stumble across new facts and folks donate new veterans’ materials to the museum’s collections.

Maine explodes

After the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba the night of Feb. 15, 1898, tensions between the U.S. and Spain grew until the U.S. declared war on April 25.

This year, we thought we’d delve into the Spanish-American War of 1898 a bit in order to highlight information concerning Philip Clauser, our community’s only veteran of what Theodore Roosevelt called “a splendid little war.” In gathering information and memorabilia about Clauser’s service, we also recalled that his son, Frank, went on to serve in World War II, where he was killed in action when his B-26 was shot down over the Mediterranean near Italy in 1943.

The story of Oswego’s Clauser military family really begins on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, as the USS Maine was riding easily at anchor in the harbor at Havana, Cuba when, at 9:40 p.m., an explosion ripped through the ship, which then sank, still at anchor, with the loss of 266 of her 355-man crew.

At the time, it was determined the ship was sunk by a mine. Subsequent investigations, however, suggest that an internal explosion cause the ship to sink. But whatever the cause, the disaster whipped the war fever that had been raging in the United States into a positive frenzy. When the U.S. demanded they vacate Cuba, Spain declined. On April 11, President William McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, and 12 days later he sent a request for 122,000 volunteers to the states.

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Philip Clauser in a portrait taken about 1898 when he became the only person from Oswego to enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then on April 25, 1898, Congress voted to declare war on Spain, a conflict that led to land and sea battles in both the Caribbean Sea and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Among the volunteers flocking to the colors was Theodore Roosevelt himself, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt resigned his office and eventually wangled command of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—later famously nicknamed “The Rough Riders.”

Also volunteering was Oswegoan Philip Clauser, the only village resident who decided to serve.

Clauser was born in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country at Tower City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania on Aug. 12, 1868. As a young man, he decided to head west to Illinois where his aunt and uncle, John and Mary Ann (Wolf) Minnich, along with several cousins, were living in Oswego.

He worked at whatever jobs he could find, probably working for his cousins, Irvin Haines and Ed Inman, at carpentry in the spring, summer, and fall, and in the winter finding work with the Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Company’s big ice harvesting and storage operation at Oswego. He also traveled for the company to their ice harvesting operations in Wisconsin, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reporting on April 2, 1890: “Charles Rieger, Alf Wormley Lars Nelson, John Peterson and Phillip Clauser returned Saturday from Wisconsin where they were employed in the housing of ice for Esch Bros. & Rabe. The firm is said to have gathered a full supply.”

By the time the war with Spain was declared, the nation’s two biggest newspaper barons, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, had used their media empires to whip up public enthusiasm for a war ostensibly fought to free the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from what Hearst and Pulitzer characterized as Spanish oppression. So when President McKinley issued his call for volunteers, there was no lack of men willing to go off to fight.

The President requested that Illinois supply seven regiments of infantry and one of cavalry.

Phil Clauser traveled up to Aurora on April 26, 1898, the day after Congress approved the declaration of war against Spain, to enlist in the Illinois National Guard’s 3rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was assigned to Company I, under the command of Capt. Charles M. Greene, volunteering to serve for two years or until the end of the war, whichever came first. The regiment was commanded by Col. Fred Bennitt, a prominent Joliet lawyer who had risen to the rank of full colonel in the Illinois National Guard.

Company I traveled by train from Aurora to Springfield, where the entire regiment was mustered into U.S. service at Camp Tanner—actually the state fairgrounds, renamed for the duration of the war—on May 7. The regiment entrained once again for Camp George H. Thomas on the old battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia, arriving May 16. The Georgia camp was fittingly named for one of the Union’s top Civil War generals who had been nicknamed “The Rock of Chickamauga” after he withstood rebel attacks during the battle in 1863.

USS St Louis

A passenger liner, the USS St. Louis was armed after war with Spain was declared. The ship transported troops to Puerto Rico and went on to disrupt undersea communication cables between Spain and Cuba.

At Camp Thomas, the 3rd Illinois was fully equipped and underwent combat training. Three days after the regiment arrived, Phil Clauser was promoted to corporal.

Training complete, the troops left once again, this time for Newport News, Virginia, arriving July 24, where they were marched aboard the USS St. Louis and sailed for Puerto Rico, where they arrived off Ponce on July 31.

The Puerto Rican campaign was under the direct command of Gen. Nelson Miles, the U.S. Army’s commander-in-chief. The 3rd Illinois was assigned to Brig. Gen. Peter G. Hains’ Second Brigade along with the 4th Ohio and 4th Pennsylvania volunteer infantry regiments, plus a few other attached units. Miles ordered Hains to take Arroyo, a small port that served the larger nearby coastal town of Guayama. The brigade handily took Arroyo with only light resistance.

Then on Aug. 5, Haines ordered the 4th Ohio and the 3rd Illinois, supported by a battery of Sims-Dudley Dynamite guns to take Guayama itself. The Americans advanced up two small hills where Spanish forces had entrenched, and after a half-hour firefight the Illinoisans and Ohioans took the Spanish positions, suffering only three wounded.

Other than small skirmishes north of Guayama on Aug. 9 and 13, that was the 3rd Illinois’ last combat as they went into camp near the city. On Nov. 2, they filed aboard the SS Roumania and set sail for New York, arriving on Nov. 9. They were sent back to Illinois by train where they were granted furloughs before being mustered out of federal service on Jan. 24. Their “splendid little war” had lasted three months, three weeks, and two days.

Cpl. Clauser returned to Oswego, where he told folks he hadn’t minded his military adventure at all.

“Phil Clauser, the returned soldier from here, is one that enjoyed the war; says that they had both rough and good times, but on the while he liked the service, that if the thing was to be done over again he would not miss it,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 23, 1898.

Clauser married Ella Wolf and settled down in Oswego to raise a family that included two sons, Sylvester and Frank, who went on to fight in World War II. Phil Clauser remained proud of his service for the rest of his life and was an active member of the United Spanish War Veterans.

It’s likely he told his war stories to his sons as they grew up, so that when World War II broke out, they were more than willing to serve. Theodore, the oldest son, had been two young to serve in World War I, and then found himself too old to serve in World War II. But Sylvester and Frank were just right, Sylvester serving in the U.S. Navy, and Frank joining the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Frank Clauser was born in Oswego in 1911. He grew up among a tight group of friends and relatives—often they were one in the same. A good athlete, he played basketball and was a letter-winner on the undefeated 1929 Oswego High School football team. As a teenager, he was able to find work around Oswego, especially with his friend, Earl Zentmyer, who owned the local Ford auto dealership and garage.

After high school, Frank worked around Oswego and continued to live at home until he married his wife, Dorothy, and the couple moved to Aurora, where Frank found work building steel lockers and shelving at Durabilt Steel, one of the city’s many factories.

1942 Clauser, Sgt. Frank abt 1943

Sgt. Frank Clauser in a military portrait taken in 1942. (Little White School Museum collection)

When World War II broke out, he joined the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Corps.

After basic and advanced training, Frank was assigned to the newly activated 438th Bomb Squadron, part of the 319th Bomb Group. When the 438th received its B-26 Marauder aircraft, he became an engineer-gunner.

Designed and built by the Martin Aircraft Corporation, the B-26 was termed a medium bomber by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Its two Pratt and Whitney engines gave it good range (1,100 miles) and an excellent top speed (310 mph) while carrying a potent bomb load of 5,200 lbs. It was also heavily armed with 11 .50 cal. machine guns.

The men of the 319th Bomb Group trained with their B-26’s as low-level raiders, and then flew their aircraft to England in September of 1942. From there, they flew on to North Africa where they operated against Italian and German forces. Besides engaging in tactical bombing against ground targets, the B-26’s of the 319th Bomb Group were also used as interceptors to shoot down German transport aircraft flying from Italy carrying supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa.

After the German Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were defeated in North Africa, the 438th turned its attention towards Sicily and Italy. Flying at low altitudes, Sgt. Clauser and the rest of the men of the 438th Bomb Squadron used their low level bombing to hit ground targets in Sicily and Italy, and also attacked Axis shipping in the Mediterranean using skip bombing techniques.

319th BG B-26

One of the 319th Bomb Group’s B-26 Martin Marauders, this one from the 437th Bomb Squadron, identical to the aircraft in which Frank Clauser flew.

But as might be expected when flying a demanding aircraft at low levels during combat situations, losses were high. In fact, they were so high the bomb group temporarily stood down in February 1943 and retrained to bomb from medium levels. When Clauser’s outfit went back into action bombing rail marshaling yards from medium altitudes, aircraft losses dropped sharply.

The men of the 438th Bomb Squadron woke up on the morning of Aug. 22, 1943 anticipating another mission against Italy. Based at DJedeida, Algeria since late June, the 438th and the rest of the squadrons in the 319th Bomb Group were assigned to cut the supply lines of Axis forces in southern Italy in support of the upcoming Allied invasion of the European mainland–what Winston Churchill called “The Soft Underbelly of Europe.”

On this particular morning, the airmen learned they’d be bombing the railroad marshaling yards at Salerno, just down the coast from Naples. The crew of Clauser’s plane included the aircraft’s pilot, Lt. William Brown, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Richard Lobdell, and the navigator/bombardier 2nd Lt. Charles McVaughan, along with Staff Sgt. Alfred Conz, the radio operator and waist gunner and Staff Sgt. Sidney Gibbs. Sgt. Clauser was the plane’s gunner/engineer whose battle station was in the B-26’s dorsal turret armed with twin .50 cal. Browning machine guns.

After the crew strapped in, Lt. Brown lifted the plane off the airstrip for the hour’s flight to the Italian mainland. They never returned.

Later that month, the Clauser family was officially notified by telegram that Sgt. Clauser was missing in action. A terse note appeared in the Record’s “Oswego” column on Sept. 22, 1943: “Mr. and Mrs. Philip Clauser received the sad news that their youngest son, Frank, is missing in action. His wife lives in Aurora.”

Clauser certificate

The Clauser family received this note signed by the President after Frank Clauser was finally declared dead. Shot down over the Mediterranean off Salerno, Italy, his body was never recovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although the Army Air Corps listed him as missing, they knew he was almost certainly dead. Second Lt. Clarence Kozenski was piloting his B-26 just off Lt. Brown’s wing about ten minutes past noon on Aug. 22 when Axis fighters attacked the formation. He reported that Frank Clauser’s plane was riddled with bullets. One engine was set on fire, and large sections of the aircraft skin pealed off the vertical stabilizer at the tail before the aircraft plunged into the Mediterranean. Lt. Kozenski reported no parachutes were sighted as the plane crashed.

Although the family held out hope for his eventual return, it became more and more likely Frank would never come home as the months went by and no word was received. Eventually, his status as a casualty was verified and a gold star, denoting “Killed in Action,” was painted next to Sgt. Clauser’s name on the “Honor Roll” billboard in downtown Oswego that listed the men and women serving in the armed forces. His family received a Certificate of Honor from Oswego Township reading: “Certificate of Honor. To whom these presents shall come: Greetings: Whereas Frank Clauser, who as a member of the armed forces of this, our great and glorious country, gave his life for the cause of liberty and freedom he had always loved. These communities, with God’s Blessing, pay tribute to our beloved hero.” It was signed by Oswego Township Supervisor Oliver Burkhart, NaAuSay Township Supervisor Hugh Christian, and A.M. Pierce, Oswego village president.

Because his body was never found, Sgt. Clauser’s name is carved on The Wall of the Missing in the North Africa Cemetery along with the names of 3,723 other missing U.S. servicemen. The cemetery is located close to the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia, near where Clauser and the rest of Lt. Brown’s crew left on their last flight. In addition to the honored missing, a total of 2,841 fallen U.S. servicemen are buried in neat ranks in the 27-acre cemetery.

This year’s “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit will be held from Nov. 4 through 12 at the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, and the two Clausers, father and son, will be among the hundreds honored for their service and, in Frank’s case, his ultimate sacrifice. You’re all invited, so stop on by; admission’s free.

 

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A tale of two towns…

Just got back from our annual early October trip up to the Northwoods to close our fishing cabin for another season.

My buddy, Paul and I, have known each other for more than 60 years, having met in third grade when my family moved off the farm and into town. Paul, I, and my wife Sue pooled our resources back in 1972 and bought five acres of wild land along the South Fork of the Flambeau River up in Price County, Wisconsin. Camping got old after six or seven years, so in 1980 we bought a fishing cabin a couple miles north of Park Falls—then, as now, Price County’s largest municipality—on Butternut Lake.

2017 10-10 Paul fishing

The sunset on Butternut Lake on Oct. 10 proved to be a spectacular one as we attempted to invite a few walleyes for supper.

We open the cabin each spring so as to be ready for opening day for walleye season on the first Saturday in May. And since it’s a three-season fishing cabin, we close it down for the winter each autumn, generally around Columbus Day.

As I sat out fishing with Paul as our annual autumn trip drew to a close, I started thinking about the big changes we’ve seen in northern Wisconsin, as well as the changes in my hometown of Oswego here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. In both cases, those changes have been profound, generally in a good way for Oswego but not so much for Park Falls.

Park Falls, like most of the municipalities in Price County, was established during the lumbering boom of the late 19th Century, growing faster than its neighboring villages when a paper mill was built there. It was not only the industrial center of the surrounding hinterland, but was also the agriculture market center for nearby farms, which were mostly dairy operations. Today, the paper mill is still busy, turning pulpwood harvested from the surrounding managed forests into paper.

The town’s businesses and industry led to construction of a large stock of housing, smaller worker’s cottages for industrial workers and retail employees, with larger homes built by executives and successful merchants.

Paper Mill

The Flambeau River Papers mill still dominates Park Falls’ downtown while providing jobs for residents.

But like so many small towns in overwhelmingly rural areas like northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has seen its population decline sharply over the years. When we bought our fishing cabin back in 1980, Park Falls’ population stood at its historic peak, 3,192. The town’s downtown sported a stock of substantial brick storefronts that housed two grocery stores and a fair variety of retail businesses.

That same year, Oswego’s population was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau at just slightly below Park Falls’, 3,021. Oswego was still the market town for the surrounding agricultural hinterland, but was rapidly changing into a suburban bedroom community. Residential and commercial development took a breather during the 1980s, but then in the 1990s it began again, surging strongly into the early 2000s. In fact, during that era, Kendall County, in which Oswego is situated, became (in percentage terms) the fastest growing county in the entire nation.

Meanwhile, Park Falls and Price County were steadily losing population. Young people graduating from high school found decreasing opportunities for economic advancement, leading to a population drain.

2017 10-6 Fall color at the lake.jpg

Autumn color was hitting the peak on Oct. 6 when I snapped this shot down towards Butternut Lake.

The paper mill continued to provide jobs, but increasing automation meant there were fewer of those available. Then in 2006, the factory closed, shocking the entire community. But with private and governmental economic cooperation, it reopened after a few months, and has continued operating since. In addition, St. Croix Rods opened a manufacturing plant in Park Falls for high-end fishing equipment, and later, the Weathershield company opened a state-of-the-art window factory in town, providing more relatively good-paying jobs.

Even so, the community’s population continued to decline. The 2016 population estimate for Park Falls was just 2,292, a decrease of nearly 30 percent since 1980.

In comparison, Oswego’s population surged during that same period, growth fueled by northern Illinois’ powerful economic engine. In 1990, Oswego’s population had grown, but not sharply, to 3,879. But then the frenetic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s hit and by the new millennium Oswego’s population had grown to 13,326. The growth explosion continued through the 2000s, despite the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, the village’s population stood at an astonishing 30,355. Between then and 2016, population went up another 10 percent or so to an estimated 34,571.

2008 Oswego look E from W bank

These days, there are more traffic signals on Oswego, Illinois’ Washington Street than in all of Park Falls, Wisconsin—one of the prices residents pay for the community’s growth.

Not sure what all this proves, other than the old cliché that the three most important factors contributing to real estate values is location, location, and location.

Park Falls’ population declined by nearly 30 percent during the same period when Oswego’s population grew by 10 times, mostly, but not entirely, based on where the two towns were situated, Park Falls largely isolated in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Oswego adjacent to the Chicago suburban economic powerhouse.

Those of us who have lived through Oswego’s growing pains often grumble about the area’s extreme changes. But all things considered, it’s been a lot better watching a community grow and prosper rather than slowly evaporate as its young people leave for places where there are opportunities to make a successful family life.

 

 

 

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