Category Archives: Illinois History

The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

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

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

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

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

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

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

1880 Dayton Tile Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1838 Wabausia Swamp

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

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

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

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

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

1876 Wabansia Slough

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

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

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

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

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

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

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

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

1900 abt Drainage 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

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

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

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

1958 LWS 1958

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

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

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

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

1970 LWS front cropped

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

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

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

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

1977 LWS Museum roofing 2

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

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

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

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

1980 Bell tower in place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 1984 LWS look front

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

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

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

1990 Windows Glenn gluing

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

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

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

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

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

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

1995 Lighting Glenn installing

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

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

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

1984-2002 Nathaniel at LWSM

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 June LWS Museum

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Architecture, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Uncategorized

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

Part 1…

Happy Historic Preservation Month!

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

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines

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

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

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

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

1970 LWS front cropped

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

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

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

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

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

1901 LWS as ME Church

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

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

1850-1913 floorplan

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

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

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

1912 4 August by D.S. Young II

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

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

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

1919 LWS exterior 1919 crop

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

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

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

1915-1930

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

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

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

1919 LWS interior 1919 A

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

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

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

1930-34

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

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

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

1934-83

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

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

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

1948 abt exterior sepia

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

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

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

To be continued…

 

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Prizefights, Vice Presidents, and trolleys: When rails connected us to everywhere else…

Every couple of months stories pop up in the local media about the possibility of extending commuter rail service west of Aurora to Montgomery or even as far as Oswego here in Kendall County.

Given how large our area has grown, and how crowded the roads have gotten around these parts, offering direct commuter service from here to towns east along the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe’s main line all the way to downtown Chicago seems reasonable.

But extending the tracks out here would be expensive, as would adding a station and all the infrastructure it would require, not to mention additional rolling stock and other things no one’s even thought of yet.

Time was, of course, we had passenger service here, first by rail and then by trolley and rail, and then, finally, by bus and rail before affordable, dependable autos and tax-supported roads for them to drive on killed passenger rail service off.

Kendall County, at least the northern part of it, got connected to the rest of the United States when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad pushed its tracks west of the Fox River in the early 1850s. After attempting to persuade Oswego officials to allow the crossing at their village—the narrowest part of the Fox River along its entire course—the river crossing was made at Aurora, which also became the site of the railroad’s sprawling shops.

After crossing the river, the line did not run through any established county towns. Instead, it bypassed both Oswego and Yorkville. Residents who wanted to board the regular passenger trains had to travel a couple miles north and west of the two towns to do it. Plano, of course, was served because it was built as a railroad town in the first place, landowner Lewis Steward promising to build a town if the right-of-way would pass through his land.

1949 Fox River Branch steam loco

A steam locomotive pulls a train on the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch in 1949.

To serve both Oswego and Yorkville, stations were built on the main line. At Oswego Station, some lumber yards and a few other businesses grew up, while at Bristol Station (the north side of Yorkville was then the independent Village of Bristol) an actual small town grew up. Horse-drawn coach service connected the two towns with their stations.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Millbrook got their own direct rail link following completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road that ran from Streator and its regional coal fields up the Fox River through Ottawa to Yorkville and on to Aurora.

Nicknamed the Fox River Branch after it was acquired by the CB&Q, the line offered freight and passenger service to the towns dotted along the southern reaches of the Fox River. Two freight trains each direction ran on the line. Regular passenger service included one round trip each morning and afternoon, allowing residents to easily travel to the wider world. And it allowed the wider world to travel here, too.

1890 abt Depot

Passengers wait for the next train at the Oswego Depot about the same year Bull Howson and Tom Ryan and their fans and promoters arrived for an illegal prizefight in 1891. Station agent Henry G. Smith is standing in shirtsleeves fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

For instance, Vice President Schuler Colfax, who served with President U.S. Grant, had friends in Oswego, and he occasionally visited. As the Sept. 19, 1872 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “Vice President Schuler Colfax arrived here last week Tuesday on the 1 o’clock train for a visit and immediately repaired to the house of Mr. Sutherland. Hardly anyone outside of the Sutherlands knew of his presence until after he had gone; he wanted his visit to be a strictly private one, and such it was.”

And then there were the illegal prizefights that so infuriated local residents. In June of that year, a new business opened designed to cater to the latest leisure time craze—roller-skating. In the June 17, 1885 Kendall County Record, Oswego Correspondent Lorenzo Rank grumpily noted: “The grand opening of the [roller] skating rink occurs this evening, which doubtless will make the town tremble, for even the minor opening which took place last Saturday caused a lot of racket.”

The rink building was not only fine for roller-skating, however. It’s large open floor proved to also be a fine place for a bare-knuckle prizefight ring. Exactly who agreed to host the fights, which were illegal at the time, that seemed to magically appear was unknown, or at least kept pretty quiet. The first of the bouts was held in February 1890, with two or three subsequent contests before the big fight in 1891.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 8, 1891, a special passenger train pulled into the Oswego depot from Chicago. A crowd of Chicago gamblers and two boxers trudged up the Jackson Street hill to the skating rink. Boxers Tom Ryan and Bull Howson warmed up while the ringside crowd placed their bets. According to the Chicago Daily News, in a story with the plaintive headline, “Another Prize Fight—Is There No One to Enforce the Law?” the 14-round fight was one-sided. “Ryan pounded Howson into jelly and won over $8,000 for his side,” the Daily News reported.

While two trains a day to and from Chicago was okay for local residents, it didn’t allow people to easily commute to jobs or to school or other tasks. Then in 1900, an interurban trolley line that was eventually known as the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago was built linking downtown Aurora with downtown Yorkville via Oswego.

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main

In this 1903 photo, the AE&C trolley has just dropped off two ladies and is heading south on Main Street towards Yorkville. (Little White School Museum collection)

Trolley cars made the Aurora to Yorkville trip hourly, and that did create a true commuter system allowing Yorkville and Oswego residents to work in Aurora’s many factories and businesses and shop in the city’s big stores. In the days before Oswego had a four-year high school, the trolley allowed students to commute to East Aurora and West Aurora high schools.

For two decades, trolley and railroad passenger service made it convenient for local residents to travel virtually anywhere in the United States by rail.

But by the 1920s, the U.S. was undergoing a transportation revolution. Not only were motor vehicles, from autos to trucks to buses, being constantly improved, but so were the roads on which they traveled. And unlike the privately-owned tracks that trains and trolleys traveled on, roads were built and maintained by tax dollars. As a result, passenger rail service was being squeezed badly.

1915 Trolley AE&C livery

There was no missing the brightly painted AE&C interurban trolley cars as they rattled up and down the line from Aurora to Yorkville.

The first component to succumb to the competition with motor vehicles was the interurban trolley industry. By the early 1920s, most interurban lines were hanging on by a thread, and one by one, they failed. Finally, it was the turn of the AE&C.

On Aug. 9, 1924, the Record reported: “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued as soon as buses are provided to take care of the traffic. This permission comes after a long battle with the commission and a period of wretched service by the street car company at this end of the line.”

1942 Dinky at Streator

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s passenger motor car gets ready for a run from Streator up the Fox River Branch to Aurora in this 1942 photo.

The bus service started on Feb. 1, 1926, charging a 40 cent fare from downtown Yorkville to downtown Aurora. Within a couple years, the bus line was bought out by the CB&Q.

Meanwhile, the railroad, which had discontinued regular passenger trains on the Fox River Branch, introduced passenger service by what they officially called a passenger motor car and that the residents living along the line nicknamed “The Dinky.” The Dinky used a gasoline engine to power and electrical generator that, in turn, powered the motors on the car’s trucks.

Dinky plan

The CB&Q’s passenger motor car designed crammed a passenger section (with smoking section), a baggage/freight compartment, and a U.S. Railway Mail Service post office into it’s 78-foot length. (Little White School Museum collection)

While service was not nearly as handy as the old interurban service had been, it did provide regular passenger service up and down the Fox River Branch line. Each car, 78 feet in length, had a passenger section, along with a baggage section for light freight, and most interestingly, a small railway post office. Mail was collected from each post office along the route, sorted while the car was traveling, and either delivered at the next stop along the way or carried on to the collecting office at either end of the route.

1943 Train-Dinky Wreck 2 B&W

The crumpled and gutted wreckage of the Dinky after the April 1943 collision with a steam engine between Montgomery and Oswego near the site of today’s Oswegoland Civic Center in Boulder Hill. (Little White School Museum collection)

The big drawback with gas-electric cars was the gasoline that powered their engines. That problem became starkly apparent on a warm afternoon in April 1943 when miscommunication resulted in a head-on collision between the northbound Dinky and a southbound steam engine near present-day Boulder Hill. Motorman F.E. Bishop along with baggage man Chalmers Kerchner and the Dinky’s two post office employees, mail clerk Paul Chrysler and assistant chief clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, all riding in the front of the car, were killed as the car’s 200-gallon fuel tank burst, spewing flaming gasoline everywhere. Subsequently, one additional person died, high school student Harold Alderman, who’d been on his way from Oswego to Aurora.

Despite the inherent danger posed by the car’s gasoline engine, the passenger motor cars continued to provide service. In August 1950, the CB&Q announced it was reducing its Dinky service to just one run per day. And then on Feb. 2, 1952, the last passenger motor car up the Fox River Branch made one last stop at Oswego and Yorkville, ending a tradition of passenger rail service that began in 1870.

Nowadays, autos have become so successful that we can barely travel local roads, so choked are they with traffic. And so transportation planners seem these days to be looking back rather than ahead for solutions to the region’s increasing vehicle gridlock. Trolley cars—renamed “light rail”—and commuter rail service are both increasingly popular, at least as concepts, as solutions are sought. It really does go to show that there really are few new things under the sun, which is another fine argument for studying history.

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How Presbyterians, John Dillinger, and the Depression helped create an Oswego business…

Kendall County has never exactly been considered the artistic capital of the Fox Valley, but the time was, the work of a local commercial artist was sold nationwide. And as part of that process, jobs were created for many local residents at a time when cash was extremely hard to come by.

Larsen

The Rev. Horace Larsen

In the late 1930s, the Oswego Presbyterian Church was looking for a new pastor after the Rev. John Klein accepted a call to a church in Denver, Colorado. After a search, they reached out to the Rev. Horace Larsen who was then filling the pulpit at West Liberty, Iowa, inviting him to come to Oswego to see how he and the congregation liked each other. He spoke at the service in Oswego on the last Sunday in April 1938, and on March 8 the congregation voted to offer him the position.

When Rev. Larsen moved his family to Oswego, he also brought along the tools of his avocation as a commercial artist. For a few years, Larsen had been creating plaques with Biblical themes that he sold through religious supply houses. For each plaque, Larsen hand-carved the armature from which a latex mold would be made. Then the mold was filled with a relatively new plaster-like product being manufactured by U.S. Gypsum called Hydrocal.

Plaque graphic color

The small “Love Never Faileth” (1 Corinthians, 13:8) was first manufactured in Oswego in 1939, and was one of the Christian Art House’s more popular designs. (Little White School Museum collection)

Deposits of gypsum were discovered in the late 1840s along the Des Moines River near Fort Dodge, Iowa. After mining began in 1872, millions of tons of the stuff have been removed from the extensive gypsum beds. Over the years U.S. Gypsum—now known as USG—developed a number of gypsum-based products, including Hydrocal. The company still markets Hydrocal, advertising it as a “Multi-purpose gypsum cement ideal for both solid and hollow casting of lamp bases and figurines. High green strength minimizes breakage during removal from the most intricate latex molds. Achieves a stark, white color, making it ideal for accepting colorants.”

For Larsen’s purposes, Hydrocal was perfect. It’s drying time was not overly fast, and the plaques made from it dried extremely hard, durable, and dead white in color, which meant it was easier to paint them.

Larsen had produced plaques for a year or two in West Liberty, and continued to do the same when he arrived in Oswego. At first, he worked alone in the basement of his home, the church parsonage. As he chatted with members of the congregation, he found at least one who was interested in partnering in producing the plaques.

That was young Ron Smith, who was looking for a new career. After high school, Ron had decided he was interested in learning the undertaking business. So he joined Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home as an apprentice trainee. But it didn’t take long before he began seriously questioning his career choice.

Which is where the Dillinger Gang enters the story.

Thorsen Funeral Home

Ron Smith was a young undertaking apprentice at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home at the southwest corner of Madison and Van Buren Street. When he was tasked with processing John Hamilton’s badly decomposed body, he decided he should get into another line of work. That meant he was available to partner with Horace Larsen to form the Christian Art House. (Little White School Museum photo)

On April 22, 1934, gang members John Dillinger, John “Red” Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter were ambushed by law enforcement officers near St. Paul, Minnesota. Hamilton—nicknamed “Three-Fingered Jack” by the press—was seriously wounded by a rifle bullet in the back as the gang fled in their car. They headed to Aurora here in Illinois where one of the gang’s hangers-on named Volney Davis had an apartment with his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray. There they cared for Hamilton until he died, after which Dillinger, Van Meter, and Davis drove Hamilton’s body south along the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) to a spot just north of Oswego, opposite today’s Violet Patch Park, where they buried him in a shallow grave, pouring lye on his hands and face to hide his identity.

Fast-forward to Aug. 28, 1935, when a team of FBI agents, learning of the location of Hamilton’s body from Davis, exhumed the body. Conferring with local lawmen, Hamilton’s badly decomposed body was removed to the Thorsen Funeral Home, where young Ron Smith was assigned to process and embalm it. Which was the point, Smith told me five decades later, that he decided he needed to make a different career choice.

Fortunately, Larsen arrived a couple years later looking for help, and Smith was willing, ready, and able to get involved in a new Oswego business that didn’t involve decomposed bodies.

The pair called their new company the Christian Art House.

1944 Christian Art House

The employees of the Christian Art House in 1944 with the photo taken outside the firm’s Polk Street factory.

They began manufacturing their plaques in the parsonage basement, but it was soon apparent that more room was needed. So Smith conferred with his in-laws, Fred and Lettie Willis, and the operation was moved to a small addition to the Willis tin shop in downtown Oswego. But that space, too, was quickly outgrown and so Larsen and Smith again approached the Willises, who owned a city lot on Polk Street. With local financial help the Christian Art House built a two-story concrete block building on the lot to serve as their factory. With an eye towards the uncertain future, especially given the on-going Depression, the structure was built as a factory, but was also designed to be easily remodeled into apartments in case their plans fell through.

But the plans did not fall through, and in May, 1940, the new factory was completed.

The May 8, 1940 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that “In February of this year a building permit was granted and the erection of a new plant began. It is a two-story structure, sturdy and attractive, made of concrete blocks and built in such a way that it may be converted into living quarters in later years if desired… The building, designed by Dr. Larsen, will adequately care for the increased volume of business and make possible a more efficient service to the trade.”

Manufacturing plaques began almost immediately.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner with Christian Art House delivery truck.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner pose with the Christian Art House’s delivery truck shortly after the company’s new factory opened in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each plaque’s armature was hand-carved by Larsen. On plaques with relief carving, he was careful to make all angles slope inwards so the latex molds made from the master could be easily removed and that the plaques themselves would easily slip out of the molds. On one of each plaque’s edges, he added an incised copyright notice along with his name, “H.A. Larsen,” the plaque’s item number, and the place the plaque was made, either in West Liberty or Oswego.

After Larsen produced a master carving, it was taken to the factory where molds were prepared by spraying the master with a mold release and then spraying liquid latex onto the master. The latex was allowed to dry and was then peeled off the master, and another mold was prepared the same way.

The latex mold was sunk into a shallow box filled with liquid Hydrocal™, which was allowed to dry, thus providing a firm base for the mold. This was especially important for the larger plaques because the weight of the wet Hydrocal™ could distort the mold and ruin the plaque.

World Plaque

Larsen produced this unusual round design for the Christian Art House in 1940, featuring the verse from John 3:16 on a scroll superimposed on a cross, which is superimposed on the Earth. At 8.25″ in diameter, it’s one of Larsen’s larger efforts. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the plaques dried, they were removed from the molds and taken to the drying room. There, they were allowed to cure in the room’s elevated heat and lowered humidity.

After the plaques had thoroughly cured, they were taken to the paint room and were sprayed with a brown tinted antiquing paint. The plaques were then ready for final decorating, a job that was done by local women who worked at the Christian Art House part time.

During the late depression years of the late 1930s and the immediate pre-war years, the Christian Art House offered local women the chance to earn cash wages. While wages were only about 25 cents an hour, that was a fair amount in those years when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.

According to interviews with former paintresses, a specific color was painted each day. For instance, on a given Monday, everything green on whatever plaques to be decorated was painted. On Tuesday, blue portions of the plaques were painted, and so on.

Besides it’s women employees, the Christian Art House provided jobs for a number of men. Men engaged in the actual production work and other jobs that required heavier manual labor. In addition, part-time male workers were also employed from time to time for such labor-intensive tasks at unloading railcar loads of Hydrocal on the siding at the Oswego Depot. The men not only earned cash for this work, but were also sometimes also given complimentary plaques, a practice that spread them throughout the community.

2009 Plaque Factory

The old Christian Art House factory as it looks today as an apartment house on Polk Street in Oswego.

Besides the firm’s Oswego factory, plaques were also reportedly produced in Chicago, where female students from the Moody Bible Institute were employed part-time as paintresses. Also, the firm had a Toronto, Canada factory during the 1940s.

Christian Art House wall plaques were marketed on nationally-broadcast radio programs such as “The Lutheran Hour.” In addition, they were sold through religious supply houses including Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Larsen’s designs included both relief and incised schemes, and almost always featured familiar Bible verses. Along with Bible verses, each plaque included various religious images familiar to Protestants. These included the empty Cross, signifying the risen Christ; oak motifs, including leaves, twigs, and acorns, relating back to the cross, which was thought to have been made of oak; lilies; open books representative of the Bible itself; and others.

Besides purely religious imagery, however, Larsen also experimented with a variety of other motifs, including the globe and also tried out various textures. He also combined standard motifs, such as small scrolls, with others, such as crosses, to come up with compound motif plaques.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The Christian Art House exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The smaller plaques made inexpensive gifts, and were often given by Sunday school teachers to their students. Larger plaques were given as gifts and purchased as home decorations.

The Christian Art House business was finally dissolved in 1958. But even today, more than a few Oswego homes still sport some of Horace Larsen’s plaques. In total, his output still stands as probably the largest body of work by any Oswego artist.

Today, you can see some examples of Larsen’s work at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, which has an entire exhibit dedicated to Larsen and the Christian Art House.

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European colonists’ ultimate weapon: consumerism

The trade in pelts and furs between Europeans and Native Americans was one of the most pivotal parts of American history. In the end, the trade destroyed the culture of every American Indian group it touched as it pushed the “frontier” ever farther west in the search for the pelts of fur-bearing animals.

The first northern European explorers and settlers in the New World were disappointed. Unlike the gold and silver riches found in the Spanish colonies well to the south, northern North America produced little mineral wealth. But early on, the French, Dutch, and British colonials discovered that this New World abounded in rich fur bearing animals ranging from martens to mink to the beaver.

17th Century hats

Elaborate European hat fashions for both men and women from the 16th through the early 19th Century required new sources of animal fur–especially beaver pelts–to manufacture the felt need to make the hats.

The trade in furs quickly became an economic mainstay of the earliest colonies in Canada and what would one day become the United States. Furs were sought to make warm clothing and to adorn Europe’s wealthy. And beaver pelts were particularly desired because of that fur’s unique properties that resulted, when beaver fur was the basis, in the world’s finest, strongest felt. In turn, felt was important because it was necessary to make the hats demanded by 17th Century custom and fashion.

It almost seems absurd that colonization, commercial contests, and wars would be conducted over the desire for fashionable hats, but there it is.

One of the most intriguing colonial industries, the fur trade grew up around the collection of valuable furs. The French colony in Canada became the main supplier of prime furs to European manufacturers, where the local populations of fur-bearing animals had long been wiped out. Beaver and other pelts were collected during the winter months when the fur was at its thickest—called prime winter pelts in the trade—and then taken to market in the spring for shipment back to Europe.

From the 16th through the early years of the 19th Century, the fur trade was centered in Montreal and Quebec. Brigades (from the original usage of the word meaning groups or companies) of fur trade canoes left Montreal every spring to travel to posts in the interior of North America. The original route took them up the Ottawa River, over the height of land via the Grand Portage into Lake Nipissing and then down into Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The brigades then followed the northern shore of the lake through North Channel to the impressive rapids at Sault Ste. Marie and then into Lake Superior.

It took a few years until the French realized there were other Great Lakes to the south of Georgian Bay and Superior because of a strategic error made by Samuel de Champlain in the 1500s, when he allied himself with an Algonquian tribe that was fighting off an incursion by the well organized, ruthlessly efficient Iroquois. As a result of this French error, the Iroquois proceeded to eliminate any Frenchmen they found in or near Lakes Ontario, lower Huron, Erie, and Michigan for the next several decades. By the 1630s, the French had mapped Lake Superior but not the lower lakes.

Image result for Montreal canoe

Frances Hopkins painted this portrait of a brigade of Montreal canoes navigating through the fog on Lake Superior.

Eventually, however, the Iroquois relented thanks to French diplomacy, and the French began to extend their trade routes into the lower lakes. Combined forts and fur trade depots were built at Niagara, Detroit, Mackinac, and Green Bay. Each spring the canoe brigades would take trade goods to the western posts and pick up furs trapped during the winter season for transport back east. The big Montreal birch bark canoes used in the trade, 35 feet long, hauled four to six tons of cargo each. Trade goods and furs were packed into standardized bundles weighing 90 lbs. each, called “pieces,” for easier packing in the canoes and transport across the numerous portages between the western posts and Montreal.

trade silver

A selection of trade items from the late fur trade era includes a trade silver broche (top left), and cast German silver beaver, turtle, and kissing otters (bottom row).

At the forts, the trade goods were either traded directly with Indian trappers or were trans-shipped to the interior in smaller canoes. As a result, European trade goods eventually reached virtually every comer of North America. Here in Kendall County, several silver ornaments made especially for the fur trade–called trade silver—were found in the late years of the last century. In fact, trade silver became a sort of fur trade currency beginning about 1765 after the British had at last driven the French government from Canada, and continuing through the early 1800s. Also reported being found locally were brass pots, flintlock firearms, and iron trade axes—often called tomahawks. One excellent example of an iron trade ax is on display in the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

While trade silver was sought after by Indian trappers, the prime winter beaver pelt was the actual currency of the fur trade. As an indication of a single pelt’s value, in I703, one prime pelt could buy six small knives, two small axes, 10 lbs. of salt pork, a pint of lead shot, or two pints of gunpowder. In 1733, one pelt would earn a half pound of white glass beads, three-quarters of a pound of colored glass beads, one brass kettle, a pound of lead, one and a half pounds of gunpowder, or two pounds of sugar.

Image result for Hudson's bay point blanket

A traditional red four-point Hudson’s Bay Company blanket was worth four prime winter beaver pelts.

Special blankets were manufactured especially for the fur trade that featured short black stripes–or points~-woven into one edge. Each point stood for one prime beaver pelt. So a four-point blanket could be bought with four prime beaver pelts; a two point was worth two prime pelts. Replica fur trade blankets are still sold in Hudson Bay Company stores in Canada and here in the U.S. by such outlets as L.L. Bean, and they still have points woven into one edge, a direct tip of the historical beaver felt hat to the blankets’ original design and purpose.

Eventually, the fur trade companies such as the Hudson Bay Company, the Northwest Company, and the American Fur Company became, in essence, the Indian tribes‘ employers who traded necessities for the tribes’ annual fur pelt production. In tum, Native Americans depended on the companies for food, clothing, and other necessities. By the time the first settlers arrived in Kendall County, the fur trade had largely moved west of the Mississippi since most fur bearing animals in the Fox Valley had been eradicated. Local American Indian bands had, by that time, lost much of their unique culture and were reduced to relying on fur company and government gifts.

In the 1830s, as the fur trade moved west of the Mississippi, the lore of the mountain man was born as the U.S. began its assault on the far West. While it took nearly 200 years to eradicate fur bearing animals east of the Mississippi, the process went much faster on the shortgrass prairies and the mountain West. By the late 1850s, the fur trade era was finished virtually everywhere, with the exception of a brief resurgence during the buffalo slaughter of the 1870s.

And so here we once again find ourselves watching the seasons turn from winter to spring, the time of year when the big brigades of Montreal canoes were being readied to load up and head west along the St. Lawrence River and the last of the winter’s pelt harvest was being pressed into the 80-pound “pieces” that would be sent back east.

While land grabs and other such actions on the part of Europeans are popular reasons why Native Americans were overcome so thoroughly, the real answer seems to be that Indians were bought off by cloth blankets, iron cookware, glass beads, iron axes and flintlock muskets. In the end, consumerism did them in.

 

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Lock, stock, and barrel: Matchlocks, wheellocks, and flintlocks oh my!

Saw a thought-provoding television commercial the other day produced by States United to Prevent Gun Violence. In it, a grim middle-aged fellow stalks into an office carrying a long gun, strides back to where he sees a person (presumably his boss), snaps the gun up to his shoulder and pulls the trigger.

The twist is that the gun is a flintlock musket—it looked to me like the same reproduction of the venerable Brown Bess produced by the thousands for the British Army in the 18th and 19th centuries that I have here in my office.

Anyway, the guy pulls the trigger, misses (not hard with a Brown Bess), and then begins the laborious process of reloading while everyone in the office beats feet out of there, quickly emptying the office as the commercial catch phrase pops up: “Guns have changed. Shouldn’t our gun laws?”

With all the violence in the news these days, especially gun violence, the commercial makes a good point. In 2016 more than 15,000 people were shot and killed in the U.S., compared, say, to the 66 people who were killed by domestic terrorists, including the 50 people killed in an Orlando, Florida nightclub by a person armed with a semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol.

The unfortunate fact seems to be that the United States has an overabundance of firearms, many in the hands of people that should not have them, due to the Founders’ imprecise language concerning well-regulated militias.

Firearms of all kinds have been such a tradition in America that numerous gun-related terms have entered everyday language. When someone says they’re selling out lock, stock, and barrel, they probably don’t realize they’re referring to the three major components of a flintlock rifle or musket. Hair trigger, misfire, quick on the trigger, ramrod straight, keep your powder dry, keep your sights set, and other such terms all hark back to the days when, we are told, everyone kept a loaded rifle or musket behind the door in the cabin to guard against marauding Indians.

Matchlock

Matchlock muskets were undependable, but were widely used in the 1500s.

The very first European settlers in North America brought firearms with them, but they were crude matchlocks. To fire them, the weaponeer actually had to light a slow-burning length of fuse—called a slow match—and keep it smoldering. After pouring gunpowder down the matchlock’s barrel and filling the priming pan with more powder, the trigger was pulled to press the lighted end of the match into the gunpowder in the pan causing the weapon to fire. Needless to say, a bit of rain pretty much eliminated any gunplay.

Wheellock

Wheellock firearms were complicated and expensive. The wheellock was wound up like a clock. Pulling the trigger made the wheel spin, creating sparks like a cigarette lighter.

Matchlocks were replaced by wheellocks, which used a spring-driven wheel to create sparks to set off a musket or pistol. It was better than a matchlock, but much more complicated and so prone to malfunctions.

The wheellock led to the first flintlock, the earliest version of which was called the snaphaunce. The snaphaunce lock’s hammer held a piece of flint in its jaws. When the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped the flint against the steel frizzen to create the sparks that set off a weapon’s gunpowder. They were replaced fairly quickly by true flintlocks.

“Flintlock” actually refers to the mechanism that caused the ignition of a weapon’s gunpowder. The lock included a hammer with jaws that held a piece of flint, a priming pan, and a frizzen against which the flint struck causing sparks. The hammer was spring driven, and when the trigger was pulled, the hammer snapped forward. The flint in the hammer jaws struck hard against the frizzen, creating sparks. At the same time, the hammer pushed the frizzen forward, uncovering the priming pan, in which a pinch of very fine gunpowder had been placed. The sparks from the flint were directed into the pan, setting off the priming powder. Part of the resulting flame went through a tiny hole drilled into the weapon’s barrel, where it set off the main powder charge.

Brown Bess

The sturdy, dependable Brown Bess flintlock musket armed British armies until the early 19th Century. Many Americans also used the Brown Bess during the Revolutionary War. Unlike rifles of the era, musket barrels could accept bayonets.

At least that was the plan.

With such a complicated chain of events, misfires were fairly common. If it was raining, wet priming powder wouldn’t set off the weapon, and if it was particularly windy, the wind might blow the powder out of the pan before it could ignite. And a musket or rifle had to be loaded in the correct order to fire, too. The powder had to be measured and poured into the barrel, and then if it was a musket (smooth barreled), the musket ball was simply dropped down the barrel, followed by a bit of wadding to hold the ball in place. After loading the priming pan received its bit of gunpowder, and frizzen was closed, the hammer cocked, aim was taken, and the trigger pulled. If all went well, the gun fired.

Smooth-bored muskets were the favored arm of the military of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and the first half of the 19th centuries. They were easy to load and could be fired relatively rapidly—trained soldiers were expected to get off four shots a minute.

Pennsylvania rifle

A classic Pennsylvania-Kentucky rifle with powder horn and bullet bag. Long rifles were extremely accurate, but were slower to load and fire. In the hands of such skilled marksmen as Morgan’s Riflemen, the weapon gained an out-sized reputation during the Revolutionary War.

Rifled arms were made popular by the German Jaegers (hunters) who accompanied Continental armies as scouts. Over here in the New World, Pennsylvania German gunsmiths modified the jaeger rifle, which was short and usually of large caliber (.69 was popular), into what today is misnamed the Kentucky rifle. These slim, graceful rifles built one at a time by craftsmen with last names like Meylin, Dickert, Haymaker, and Klette were long, about five feet, had relatively small bores of .36 to .45 caliber, and were very accurate. They were made famous during the Revolutionary War by small corps of riflemen who earned reputations far bigger than their numbers and achievements  justified.

The military was slow to adopt the rifle because of two major drawbacks. It took about three minutes to load a rifle, compared to 15 seconds for a smoothbore musket and in addition early rifles had octagon shaped barrels that prevented bayonets from being fitted. Bayonets were vital accessories in the days of massed armies firing single shot weapons.

Finally, in 1803, the U.S. Army did adopt, for limited use, the Harper’s Ferry rifle, which had a relatively large bore (.54 cal.). The 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle barrel featured an octagonal breech that transitioned to a round barrel, which allowed a bayonet to be fitted, a first for a rifle. Although the U.S. Army continued to favor smoothbore muskets for the next five decades, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery was outfitted with Harper’s Ferry prototype rifles on their history-making journey to the Pacific Ocean and back.

When the first settlers arrived here in Kendall County, not all of them were armed. For instance, early settler Bailey Hobson bragged he traveled by horseback all the way from Ohio scouting for good land armed only with a jackknife. The ones who did come armed often brought surplus smoothbore flintlock muskets of War of 1812 vintage. Flintlocks had the advantage of being able to double as fire-starters—they could just as easily set fire to a wad of tow or shredded grass as priming powder.

Experienced frontiersmen were continually surprised that so few early settlers were armed. As the Black Hawk War of 1832 was getting underway, U.S. Army Gen. Edmund Gaines wrote of his surprise at how unprepared for violence settlers of northern Illinois were in a letter to the Secretary of War. “These settlements are even more sparse and feebler than I had anticipated,” Gaines complained. “Few of the inhabitants are supplied, as our border men used to be, with good rifles, or other means of defense.”

As an illustration of Gains’ point, when more than 120 settlers from Will and Kendall counties fled to Plainfield for mutual safety in May 1832 to escape Indian depredations, they found they only had four weapons among them for defense. And, according to one of the folks forted up there, ‘some’ of the guns didn’t work.

In the end, the frontier period in Kendall County lasted less than 10 years during which a relatively small number of residents owned firearms. The vast majority of the pioneers who came were either farmers or business people, not the well-armed “border people” with which Gaines was so familiar.

Although it seems a bit strange to say, once Black Hawk and his people had been vanquished, the frontier in northern Illinois wasn’t a very violent place. In fact, while it may seem odd to those of us raised on TV and movie Westerns and historical fiction, it’s safe to say that county residents, on a per capita basis, are probably better armed today than they were in 1832.

 

 

 

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Filed under Firearms, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Military History, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology