A number of observances will be held during June, and among them will be celebrating National Immigrant Heritage Month.
And here in North America, everyone can confidently say we’re all descended from immigrants. The indigenous people Europeans found living in North and South America when they finally got here for good in the 15th Century came from eastern Asia. Exactly HOW they got here is still debated by scientists and historians, not to mention those indigenous people themselves.
The best evidence now is that those earliest adventurous arrivals came by boat down along the Pacific Ocean edge of the ice sheet then covering much of North America, followed many centuries later by their distant cousins who took advantage of the ice-free corridor that opened the land bridge between Asia and North America.
During the next several thousand years they created the civilizations and cultural traditions that were confronted with the European invasion of North America and the continued exploitation of South America’s people and resources.
By the first third of the 19th Century, American settlement had reached our home area here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley. Successive government actions were in process to drive the remaining Native People living here to lands west of the Mississippi River to open the entire region east of the river to White settlement and land ownership.
Here in Kendall County, the first White settlers were Americans who had drifted west looking for cheap farmland and new business opportunities. But starting in the 1840s, foreign immigrants began arriving, seeking the same things their American cousins were.
The 1840s were fractious times in Europe, with disorder and revolution in the air, especially in what soon became the German Reich. Thousands of solid German farmers and business people left the turmoil of their homes and risked the trip across the Atlantic to try their luck in the United States. A fair number of those hardy souls ended up here in my home area of Oswego Township and elsewhere in Kendall County. Burkharts, Schogers (many of who simplified their name to Shoger), Hafenrichters, Ebingers, Schlapps and others came, liked what they saw, and put down roots.
Arriving about the same time were Scots farmers, many livestock experts, who were leaving their homes seeking land of their own to farm, it being nearly impossible for non-titled people to obtain their land in Scotland.
Those two groups had been here only a short while before another group of Germans arrived, but these were America’s own Germans. Many of the families had lived in the “Pennsylvania Dutch” country of the east for more than a century before they decided to seek their fortunes on the rich prairies of northern Illinois. And so came the Lantz, and Schall, and Stark, and other families, who even after living in what eventually became the United States for 100 years and more still spoke German at home.
The whole group of farming families soon intermarried, creating a web of cousins that persists to the present day.
They were joined by successive waves of Norwegians, Swedes, Welsh, and Danes who joined the mix that included a rich leavening of French Canadians who’d arrived earlier and added their rich culture to the region’s mix.
Following the end of the Civil War, a wave of Black farmers and business owners, almost all former enslaved people, arrived to settle, along with Hispanics, Eastern and Southern Europeans and others who brought their Catholic heritage with them as they provided the personnel for the Fox Valley’s growing industries.
And as the decades passed, the mix has just kept getting richer as the region’s seemingly bottomless and ever-changing business and industrial environment has continued to evolve. Eastern Europeans, Asians and Southeast Asians, Pakistanis, Indians, Pacific Islanders and people whose heritages stretch back to virtually every corner of the earth come and go to and from the dynamic melting pot we call home here in our small corner of northern Illinois.
It’s become all the rage in certain circles lately to disparage and harass, both legally and often physically, immigrants that some consider to be the wrong kind of additions to our American melting pot. And looking at history, that has unfortunately always been the case. The Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, Catholics as a whole, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and other entire groups have bourn the burden of intense discrimination—and in so many cases still are.
Nevertheless, we, as a nation, still welcome strangers who come to get ahead, to make our communities and their lives better and we’re all the better for it. Not the least reason being that we all really are, ultimately, from somewhere else, the descendants of those who made the decision to make better lives for their families and themselves by venturing out and away and ending up with us here. Those are the ones, in particular, we should all remember with gratitude during National Immigrant Heritage Month.
We’re preparing to observe another Memorial Day holiday—an observation my mother insisted on calling Decoration Day despite it’s official title having been changed many decades before her death.
On that day, it was our family tradition to visit relatives’ graves and decorate them with flowers, something that gave my parents a chance to tell me about the family stories involved with the people lying in the cemeteries we visited. The stories always fascinated me. In fact, they’re what piqued my interest in history all those many years ago growing up in the rural America of the 1950s.
It was impossible to ignore, during those visits, the graves marked with small bronze plaques, each with a miniature American flag rippling in the breeze that denoted veterans’ graves, including some of the relatives whose graves we decorated. And as it turned out, the veterans whose graves drew my interest all those years ago were just the tip of the military service iceberg here in our small corner of northern Illinois. As I found out later in life as my interest in local history grew, veterans of every war in the nation’s history, starting with the Revolutionary War that created the nation, are buried on Kendall County soil.
From the resting place of Henry Misner in the Millington Cemetery—a Revolutionary War veteran of the Pennsylvania Line—to those who served in 1812, the Seminole Wars of the 1830s, and the Mexican War and who then marched off to the wars in places both near and far overseas, the service of these men and women is recalled by their tombstones and epitaphs.
That service began even before Kendall County was established in February 1841. In the spring of 1832, a band of around 1,200 men, women, and children of the Sauk and Fox tribes crossed into Illinois from the west bank of the Mississippi River with the intention of living with a Winnebago tribal group in northern Illinois. The problem was that the group of Sauk and Fox, led by the Sauk warrior Black Hawk, had previously agreed not to come back to Illinois. Their arrival created panic among American settlers, many of whom were squatting on land that still legally belonged to the two tribes. The situation also persuaded members of other tribes, disgruntled at the mostly illegal influx of White settlers across northern Illinois to retaliate against what they saw as injustices perpetrated against them.
The resulting conflict was called the Black Hawk War, named after the warrior who led his people back to Illinois from Iowa. Most all of the settlers in our own Fox River Valley left on learning about the rumor of war, fleeing either south to Ottawa or east to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn—whichever proved closer. Several of the settlers who had claimed land in what would become Kendall County—it had not been surveyed or put up for sale yet, so their presence was illegal—and who fled to Chicago volunteered for militia duty.
Among those early settlers volunteering to serve were Edmond Weed, George Hollenback, Edward Ament, Stephen Sweet, William Harris, Thomas Hollenback, and Anson Ament. Methodist missionaries Jesse Walker and Stephen Beggs of the Walker’s Grove settlement—now Plainfield—also volunteered. That unit only served for 14 days but after it dissolved many of the men in it volunteered to serve a longer hitch in another, more permanent unit.
The Black Hawk War was over by the summer of 1832 and was the last to be fought in Illinois. But other wars were to follow at regular intervals, each drawing either volunteers or draftees—or both—to fight for their country.
In 1846, for instance, President James K. Polk took the nation to war against Mexico. By that time, Kendall County had been established, the county seat had been moved to Oswego, and the era of settlement was coming to a close. Upon receipt of the news that war had been declared, a mass meeting was called at Oswego. A torchlight parade marched to the schoolhouse—then a one-room structure on Madison Street just south of Van Buren Street—where patriotic speeches were given and a number of local men agreed to volunteer.
Company D, 2nd Illinois Volunteer Infantry was recruited here in Kendall and Kane counties by Capt. A.R. Dodge, a prominent lawyer. According to early historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County men serving in the company included A. H. Kellogg, William Sprague. David W. Carpenter, John Sanders, John Roberts, George Roberts Aaron Fields, Edward Fields, James Lewis, Dr. Reuben Poindexter, William Joyce, Benjamin Van Doozer, and William Potter, along with a Mr. Tacker, Mr. Hunt, Mr. Hatch and Mr. Sheldon.
The 2nd Illinois and the 1st Illinois both fought in the fierce battle of Buena Vista that was a U.S. victory. They then served in garrison duty before being discharged in 1847 and sent home.
The outbreak of the Civil War, when a confederation of Southern states attacked the U.S. Government in 1861, again saw a torchlight parade in Oswego, this time to the courthouse that hadn’t yet been completed in 1846. Again, patriotic speeches were given and men pledged to serve. But it wasn’t until 1862, when it became evident the war was not going to be a short one, that Kendall County men and boys began heading off to battle in earnest.
Eventually, nearly 1,500 county residents would serve, a huge percentage of the county’s total 1860 population of 13,000. The largest number of county residents served in the 20th, 36th, 89th, and 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiments and the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment. Several eventual county residents also served in the U.S. Colored Troops after their service was authorized by President Lincoln. Kendall County’s only Medal of Honor winner, Robinson Barr Murphy, served as a drummer boy in the 127th Infantry, earning the medal when he was just 15. Several hundred of those who so confidently marched off to war never returned, most dying of rampant disease or the results of wounds. And many more returned only to deal with what a later generation would call post-traumatic stress disorder as well as the lingering effects of wounds or hard military service.
Kendall County men also served in the 1896 Spanish American War, including Philip Clauser of Oswego, but the conflict—described as “A splendid little war” by future president Theodore Roosevelt—was over too quickly to draw many into service.
U.S. participation in World War I also drew a number of Kendall County men into service, and this time, women like Oswego’s Mary Cutter also served, especially as nurses and YMCA volunteers. A total of 487 soldiers served and three—Archie Lake, Oswego; Leon Burson, Plano; and Fred Thompson, Yorkville—were killed in action.
The U.S. entered World War II when the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. The German government declared war on us a few days later. In that conflict, about the same number of county residents, both men and women, served in the nation’s armed forces as served during the Civil War, this time amounting to more than 10 percent of the county’s total 1940 population of 11,100. Of the total who served from Kendall County, 32 were killed in action.
And this time, those who objected to service that might cause them to kill others also honorably served the nation in other capacities, from battlefield medics to volunteering for experimental subjects that pushed medical science forward—and received official government recognition for doing so in the Alternative Service Program.
The county’s participation in military service to the nation continued during the Cold War era as well as the terrorism wars in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as soldiers went off to fight in the snows of Korea and the jungles of Vietnam and then to the deserts of the Middle East where so much religious and political turmoil has roiled the entire globe.
Starting as the Civil War ended, it became a tradition for young girls to decorate the graves of that war’s dead with bouquets of flowers. As Oswegoan Lorenzo Rank explained in 1898: “The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.”
Gradually, however, Decoration Day became a commemoration of the dead in all the nation’s wars and was renamed “Memorial Day.” This year’s commemoration will be held throughout the nation on Monday, May 29.
In between the normal holiday activities, why not take a few moments to recall the service so many of our men and women have provided to the nation through the years?
Exactly 190 years ago this year, the weather in the northern United States, especially in what was then called the Old Northwest Territory (the region north and west of the Ohio River), for once, proved congenial.
The two years previous to the spring of 1833 had been not only long and hard, but had been deadly, too. The winter of 1830-31 was dubbed “The Winter of the Deep Snow” by early settlers, while 1832 brought the Black Hawk War, the last Indian war fought in Illinois.
But then came the spring of 1833. Wrote the Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian:
“The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”
But all those early settlers were violating the law, in the form of solemn land cession treaties concluded between the U.S. Government and the region’s Native People. Those treaties had assured the indigenous people they’d have the use of the land they’d ceded to the U.S. Government until it was surveyed and put up for sale.
Nevertheless, settlers had begun moving into northern Illinois in substantial numbers in the late 1820s, creating tensions with the resident Native People. A series of near-wars between White settlers and indigenous residents was the result, finally culminating in the Black Hawk War of 1832. The result of these tensions were the various Indian Removal Acts passed by the U.S. Congress mandating the removal of all Native People west of the Mississippi. Removals of Illinois’ Native People were largely completed by 1838.
According to Michigan Territory Gov. Lewis Cass, the indigenous population of Illinois in 1830 was jus 5,900 souls, while that of Indiana was 4,050, and that of his own Michigan Territory was 29,060.
The ancestors of area’s original residents had arrived some thousands of years before, following the herds of giant Ice Age mammals that lived along the retreating edges of the stupendous glaciers. Those glaciers had advanced several times from the north, sometimes covering the area now occupied by Kendall County with several thousand feet of ice, then retreating only to advance once again.
But as the climate finally began warming somewhere around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, the ice slowly retreated for the last time leaving a bleak steppe behind. Bleak it may have been, but it was the perfect landscape for the Ice Age mammals that thrived on it, from giant bison to wooly mammoths and their mastodon cousins, and the predators whose food source they were. And that included the bands of human hunter-gatherers that followed the game.
Gradually, the hunter-gatherer tradition gave way to more sedentary lifestyles as the Native People began adapting wild foods by cross-breeding and selective growing to create more nutritious foods that began greatly complementing their diets.
Eventually, some group of native agronomists in South or Central America either brilliantly or luckily hit upon the possibilities selectively breeding maze, eventually coming up with the ancestors of the corn Illinois farmers are so famous for growing today. Two varieties of this early maze worked their way north, called by later-arriving European colonists flint corn and dent corn, proving so productive and nutritious that complicated and culturally diverse civilizations grew up around their cultivation.
The culmination of this rich cultural tradition was the Mississippian Culture whose capital grew up on the floodplain of the Mississippi River just across from modern St. Louis. The Mississippians were cultural inheritors of the earlier Hopewell Culture that was centered in the Ohio River Valley. Both cultures, besides heavily relying on maze agriculture, also built significant numbers of mounds, apparently as part of their religious traditions. While the Hopewell people built not only smaller burial mounds, they also built larger effigy mounds in the shape of animals, the Mississippians tended to concentrate on geometric mounds. They left behind their most spectacular engineering achievement, Monks Mound, across from St. Louis. The largest earthen construction in North America, the towering geometric mound is 100 feet high and measures about 15 acres on the base.
From their capital at the city eventually called Cahokia in the Mississippi floodplain, the Missippian culture spread up every tributary of the huge river, including the Illinois River and its tributary, our own Fox River. These early people not only left behind their finely-worked stone tools, but also their pottery and, even more noticeable, the mounds they build overlooking the river valleys they called home.
The region’s earliest settlers didn’t know what to make of the mounds those early people left behind. The innate racism of the early 19th Century settlement era argued against such amazing constructions being achieved by the region’s Native People, so all sorts of hypotheses were advanced to account for them, from some mysterious long-exterminated race to the lost Tribe of Israel.
While those early White settlers didn’t know who’d built the mounds, they did know the shear number of mounds were often in the way of progress, from building roads to building farmsteads. And if they weren’t subject to being used for road fill or other purposes, all those mounds offered inviting targets for curio hunters.
According to the Rev. E.W. Hicks writing in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The mounds in this part of the State are generally small, but quite numerous. Between one and two dozen are clearly marked on the bluffs along Fox river, in this county, and doubtless many others have been wholly or partially obliterated. One of the finest is on the county line at Millington, on Joseph Jackson’s land. It was dug into by a committee of citizens about forty years ago, and found to be a great burial heap. Numbers of human teeth were taken out, but some fragments of bones found were replaced and again covered. It is probable that these were remains of Indians subsequently buried there. Three rows of five mounds each are found on the northern bluff of the river: one on Mrs. Duryea’s land, near Bristol; another on Truman Hathaway’s; and a third on D. R. Ballou’s, above the woolen factory at Millington. In Mrs. Duryea’s mounds were also found in 1837 some teeth and a decayed skull. Others partially effaced are at the mouths of the Rob Roy and Rock creeks, and are only a few feet above the level of the river, proving that since they were built the river has flowed in its present channel. The Rob Roy mound a short time ago was partly uncovered by water, and George Steward, of Plano, our indefatigable archaeologist, picked up there, three hundred and twenty fragments of ancient pottery, and others may be found by any one curious enough to look for them.”
Elmer Baldwin, in his excellent 1877 history of LaSalle County wrote of the people who he believed built the mounds: “Their works remaining are their only history. They exist at Ottawa, LaSalle, Peru, and other points along the Illinois and Fox [rivers], and always on a commanding and sightly location, in fancy giving the spirits of the dead a view of the scenery they doubtless loved so well when living.”
Joslyn and Joslyn, on the other hand, recorded in their 1908 Kane County history the typically racist interpretation of the day, of the region’s indigenous people: “So the land which the red man failed to use was taken from him and given to those who would utilize it. But they left the graves of their ancestors behind, and several mounds in Aurora and vicinity are known as Indian burying grounds. Bones and arrow heads are all that remain as evidence that the country was once inhabited by another race.”
We can take at least a little comfort that all of our ancestors weren’t entirely insensitive to disturbing the dead, even if they were Native American dead. In the May 27, 1880 Kendall County Record, the paper’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a proposal was at hand by the residents of Millington to spend an afternoon picnicking in a grove near the village that contained several Indian burial mounds. The writer suggested it was wrong to desecrate the graves, even though the ancient Indians in question had not been Christian. “The cemeteries of the present day may in time become subject to investigation—they are so already to a small extent—the silver plate of coffins and jewelry on corpses may prove more desirable relics than the arrow heads and other trinkets of the Aborigines. The setting of precedents should be discouraged.”
And finally, on April 7, 1897, the Record reported from Millington: “The oldest landmark and relic of the red men in this vicinity, the Indian mound on Mr. Lewis Jones’s lot, and probably the largest of its kind in Kendall or LaSalle counties, is now no more, for the work of leveling it commenced Saturday and is now about finished. A great many people said it seemed too bad to destroy it, but it is located near the front of the lot and near where a house ought to be placed if the owner saw fit to build one. Mr. Jones’s family are known to be hustlers, but they did not care to have a hump on their front yard so, for reasons mentioned above, the historic pile has been leveled. As is generally known, the mound was an Indian burying place and was opened a number of years ago by relic hunters We do not remember just what relics were found or how many, but not all of them were unearthed at that time, for a few were discovered the other day, which proves that the redman’s remains have not yet all crumbled into dust. Monday, a part of the frontal bone of a skull was found and one of the bones of the lower limbs. They are of a dark brown color and have much the appearance of decayed wood, but the shape and porous structure proves them to be human bones. Quite a number of arrow heads of various sizes and shapes were also found.”
Some of those once-numerous mounds, so laboriously built by long-vanished Native People, still exist up and down the Fox Valley. Mound groups in both St. Charles and Aurora are still visible by the sharp-eyed investigator. And, of course, the World Heritage Site at Cahokia still maintains its wonderful collection of mounds and its truly amazing cultural interpretive center that is well worth a trip to see.
And while we don’t have any bonafide mounds left here in my hometown of Oswego, we do have a possibility of sorts. My good friend, the late Dick Young, was always convinced the rise around which the Oswego Township Cemeterey on South Main Street was developed might well be a remnant mound. As Dick noted, it’s in the right place, on the brow of the river valley overlooking the river, and it’s the only mound along that stretch of land, making it certainly look artificial.
If it is a remnant mound, it seems somehow fitting that our ancestors ended up using it for their own funerary traditions in conjunction with the people who lived here many hundreds of years before.
William Keating was the Geologist and Historiographer for Major Stephen Long’s expedition that crossed the Fox River valley in 1823. The explorers set out from Chicago on June 11. The next day, Keating reported: “On the west side we reached a beautiful but small prairie, situated on a high bank, which approaches within two hundred and fifty yards of the edge of the water; and upon this prairie we discovered a number of mounds, which appeared to have heen arranged with a certain degree of regularity. Of these mounds we counted twenty~seven ….”
Until we run into one of our area’s seemingly never-ending detours or other serious road construction projects, most of us continue to take fast and easy road transportation for granted. These days, we think nothing of jumping into our autos and cruising 50 miles or more to shop in some specialty store or to eat in a fancy restaurant.
It wasn’t always so. In fact, it wasn’t that many years ago that getting from place to place out here in once overwhelmingly rural Kendall County and the rest of northern Illinois was a real—often literal—pain.
The earliest White settlers who started arriving in the late 1820s had two choices. They could ride a horse from place to place or they could walk. As for shopping in fancy stores or eating in exclusive restaurants, well, those things just didn’t exist.
Back in the days of horse travel, 20 miles was about the limit of a day’s journey. A man, back in those hardy days, could also walk about 20 miles a day without too much trouble. When the Kendall County was established in 1841, the county seat was centrally located at Yorkville. But when voters moved it from Yorkville to Oswego, those folks down in the southern part of the county were obliged to stay overnight if they had some county business to transact, since a round trip of 20 miles (I0 each way) was about the limit of a day’s travel. That’s one of the main reasons the county seat was moved back to centrally-located Yorkville by vote of the county’s taxpayers in I859.
If you were in a big hurry to go a long distance in the 1830s, you took a stagecoach, in which your journey was completed in stages. At each stop (10-20 miles apart) the horses on the stagecoach were exchanged for fresh ones so the trip could be completed as soon as possible. In Kendall County, there were a number of stage stops, some owned by the Frink and Walker Stage Coach Company, and others owned by private parties.
But those early roads in the 1830s were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie, most of which had originally been Indian trails. Even calling them trails might not be quite accurate.
In March 1831, Juliette M. Kinzie traveled with her husband John and a small party from Prairie du Chien in modern Wisconsin to Chicago. The travelers, with someone described as an experienced guide, planned to take what was then known as the Great Sauk Trail east to the Fox River of Illinois, where they planned to then turn north-northeast to Chicago. But as she reported in her book Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the North-West, the supposedly experienced guide could not find the reportedly well-traveled Sauk Trail, and the party was forced to make its way as best it could across the rolling prairies of northwest Illinois. Fortunately for them, the Fox River’s pretty hard to miss and they did reach it, although some miles north of where they’d expected to.
Native People here in northern Illinois usually walked from place to place. They weren’t the horse-riding war-bonneted Western types seen in movies. And they walked astonishing distances. Once a year, most of the Sauk and Fox tribes of western Illinois hiked all the way to Canada and back to trade furs for guns, jewelry, axes, and other items with British traders on the afore-mentioned Great Sauk Trail.
Since the trails were used by people walking afoot, they took the route of least effort, going around sloughs, swamps and other impediments and using the best fording places across the regions numerous rivers and creeks. A modern remnant of this early travel history is Grove Road south of Oswego, where motorists may note it takes a big sweeping curve for no apparent reason. Back in the 1830s though, there was a dense wooded area there surrounding a large wetland—which the settlers called the Big Slough—that had to be bypassed. And so it went.
But as soon as settlers began arriving, though, formal roadways began to be laid out. These included roads from Chicago to Ottawa at the head of navigation on the Illinois River that boasted three separate branches and the two branches of roads from Chicago to the rich lead-mining Galena region.
The road to Ottawa was the first one laid out, connecting Chicago at the foot of Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and thence down to the Mississippi.
In the summer of 1831, the Cook County Board formally established the first county road west of the growing village, leading to Ottawa. According to the county board of commissioners’ minutes, that earliest branch of the Ottawa road was to run “from the town of Chicago to the house of B. Lawton, [Bernard Laughton’s tavern at modern Riverside] from thence to the house of James Walker on the DuPage River [at Plainfield] and so on to the west line of the county.”
The road began on the lakefront at Chicago and headed west across what travelers and city residents alike described as the “Nine-Mile Swamp” on modern Madison Street to Western Avenue where it became known as the Barry Point Trail and then southwest to Laughton’s Tavern.
Barry’s Point was a patch of timber that extended east from the Des Plaines River named for an early settler. By the time the road was officially laid out from Chicago, Mr. Barry had died and his widow, the Widow Barry, was living there.
The purpose of the road was to regularize the northern portion of the already well-used and familiar trail known as the Potowatomi Trace. By the 1830s the trace was more often called the High Prairie Trail, leading from the lakeshore at Chicago to the head of navigation on the Illinois River. During most of the year, that point was at Peru, although during periods of sufficiently high water on the Illinois River, steamboats could make it to the docks of the larger town, Ottawa.
Plank roads were the first real transportation improvements in Illinois as roads were paved with planks sawn or split from oak, walnut, or other hardwood trees. As you can imagine, such a road would use a tremendous amount of wood. And since wood rots, plank roads weren’t very durable. But in a time that considered forests as inexhaustible, plank roads were a very sensible way to weather-proof major highways. All the plank roads in the Illinois-Indiana area were toll roads. While one was planned to extend from Indiana through Plainfield to Oswego, no plank roads were ever built in Kendall County.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal was the first real economically feasible mass passenger and freight transportation system proposed for northern Illinois. The canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan, funneling everything from grain and livestock to lumber from northern forests down the Illinois and Mississippi River systems to the seaport of New Orleans—-and allowed international trade to flow the other way as well. The I&M Canal produced an economic miracle as the swampy little town of Chicago suddenly exploded into an economic giant.
Railroads soon followed the canal, and eventually led to its downfall as the prime transportation artery of our area. The Chicago and Northwestern, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, the Illinois Central, and other railroad companies all sprouted to meet need for efficient transportation. The first railroad (the Burlington) ran through Kendall County in 1853, bypassing Oswego, which still favored plank roads. The Fox River Valley Railroad was constructed through Oswego in 1870, finally giving Oswego a transportation window on the rest of the U.S.
And at the turn of the century, interurban trolley lines began running, with one line running from Aurora to Yorkville through Oswego, and another running south from Yorkville to Morris, the Fox and Illinois Union Electric Railway.
But farmers still had to get their crops and livestock to market and farm and town families alike had to get to places—school, shopping, church—that weren’t necessarily convenient to either rail or trolley lines. It was far from easy.
On March 12, 1890, the Joliet News had observed: “The farmers of Will and Kendall counties are just now realizing what public road economy means. Only those living on gravel roads have been in Joliet since before Christmas. Hay, butter, eggs, poultry, and onions have been commanding good prices in this market, and just a few farmers could avail themselves of this condition. The buyer and seller might as well be a thousand miles apart.”
Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked even while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of autos and (as they were called at the time) auto trucks, were traveling the roads, the system was at the breaking point.
The financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated townships. Road mileage might be the same as in heavily populated townships, but in less populated areas of Illinois, fewer taxpayers were available to shoulder the burden.
Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. As soon as the state was involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was because it was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on one with a dirt surface.
During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces. They averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than six miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (nine miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about seven mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.
So if motorists, those driving autos as well as commercial trucks, could save so much gasoline, state officials figured part of that savings could be used to build the better roads so many seemed to be demanding. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, over hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. In the event, auto taxes were figured not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.
With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of today’s Edens Expressway in Chicago and several northwest suburbs), a statewide organization was formed to lobby for hard roads, and to draw up specifications for them. Edens, a born organizer, had started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new Rural Free Delivery system. Leaving government, he became a successful Chicago banker, active in Chicago’s social and political scene.
Edens, with the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, including the association’s first convention in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.
Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.
The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission, use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the system.
Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”
As indeed they were. On March 11, 1903, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville that: “It took Harry Leifheit, [mail] carrier on Route 2, two days to make his trip to Plattville and return. Left Yorkville at 7:30 Monday morning and got back at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. No mail taken out Tuesday–the roads are about impassable.”
Not that the effort was entirely clear sailing, since township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.
Farmers protested the cost and wondered whether better roads would benefit them. Skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, tipping the balance in favor of support.
Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.
Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating a county superintendent of highways. John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, was appointed in Kendall County. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel—although he had no military experience. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907 and was always a strong good roads supporter.
The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall transportation plan. In 1914, a short demonstration stretch of 15-foot wide concrete roadway was built along the Fox River south of Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision. Another stretch, financed by Kendall County, was begun from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.
In November 1916, Democrat Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately pushed the good roads program begun by his predecessor.
“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden told the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”
Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William G. Edens to organize the statewide good roads effort. Unfortunately, just as pressure mounted for good roads, the nation plunged into World War I.
But On Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure easily passed. The vote in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.
The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.
The plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. It was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego on that existing stretch of road laid down in 1914, then south to Yorkville, across the Fox River to Plano on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.
But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small, a Republican, replaced Lowden. Small turned out to be one of Illinois’ more corrupt governors, who was politically beholden to the motor transportation industry. So when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street, past the sheep yards in Montgomery, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy mainline at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west. Paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in Yorkville and Oswego.
The route, the Kendall County Record charged in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB& Q mainline at the Wormley Crossing was required.
“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall contended on Jan. 26, 1921.
Local consensus was that the new route was picked thanks to the meatpacking and other commercial interests with undue influence on Small to create a direct route from Aurora and Chicago west rather than one that passed through and benefiting local communities.
Despite the protests and the loyal Republicans who predominated in the counties Route 18 would pass through, state officials refused to consider the old route. In fact, by the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way for the new route had been purchased. The final surveys of the right-of-way and design started in 1921, with actual construction starting later that year. By late May 1924, the 18-foot wide concrete highway had been completely laid from Chicago to Princeton and was curing.
Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the Route 18 concrete spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.
The section of modern Route 34 from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, the road was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway, today’s U.S. Route 30, and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad overpass. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until another year had passed.
With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished. Eventually the other hard road links, Ill. Route 71, Ill. Route 126, Ill. Route 25, Ill. Route 47, U.S. Route 30, and U.S. Route 52 were finished and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and the rest of Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads that’s still serving the county to this day.
Today, with traffic on the roads in Kendall County and the rest of Illinois west of Chicago heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those transportation design decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.
School kids’ summer vacation isn’t here yet, but if my grandchildren are any indication, students have begun counting the weeks and days until the last day of classes for the current school year.
During “The Year of the Early Spring” in 1833—exactly 190 years ago—settlement in the Fox River Valley boomed, drawing pioneer families from settled Eastern states to the prairies of northern Illinois.
Some of the first institutions these new arrivals established were churches and schools. And kids back then looked forward to summer vacation as much as their modern descendants do.
While a few of those early settlers were from southern states, most were from what our school history books called the old Middle and New England colonies—mostly New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts—joined by other families, like the Pearces who settled at Oswego in June 1833, most recently from Ohio but from farther east before that.
Those Eastern settlers brought their view that both religion and education were required to produce solid informed citizenry in a thriving democracy, a view sharply at odds with their southern countrymen. Public education already had a long history in the northeast by the era of heavy Illinois settlement—public education was mandated in Massachusetts as early as 1647—but it was a rare, virtually nonexistent thing in the South. The Southern planter class who ran the region like their own private fiefdoms felt, not without some justification, that an educated population tended to ask uncomfortable questions, including demanding rights the planters wanted to keep for themselves. And, of course, it was flatly illegal to educate a large percentage of the South’s population, the Black slaves who produced most of its wealth., suggesting just how dangerous the southern upper crust knew education could be to the established order.
In fact, public education didn’t become the law in Southern states until after they lost the Civil War when establishing systems of public schools was one of the requirements to be readmitted to the Union.
Here in Illinois, where the earliest settlers in southern Illinois were from Southern states, tax support for public schools wasn’t available until the early 1850s. But that didn’t keep the new arrivals here in northern Illinois from establishing schools funded by subscriptions collected from students’ parents.
According to the county’s first historian, Rev. E.W. Hicks, the first school in the county was built in what soon became the thriving settlement of Pavilion on one of the busy trails from Chicago to Ottawa—now Ill. Route 71. According to Hicks, “It was a log house, with slabs for benches.”
Our neighbors to the north in Aurora managed to organize their school a couple years after Pavilion’s school started. Wrote Hicks: “The first school was begun in Aurora that season, 1836, in a log school house covered with bark. Mrs. Spaulding was the first teacher.”
Meanwhile here in my hometown of Oswego, the folks didn’t get their act together to establish a school until 1837. Probably because it was free, the subscribers picked for their school a vacant log building along what is now Ill. Route 25, about a city block north of modern North Street. Tradition had it the building was constructed by missionaries to the resident Potawatomi Indians, but despite checking with the Catholic and Protestant religious organizations that were active in the area during that era, researchers at Oswego’s Little White School Museum have not been able to find any proof of that. It seems more likely the cabin was a temporary trading post abandoned when the U.S. Government removed the local tribes people in 1836, forcing them west of the Mississippi River.
But in any case, classes were held there in the fall of that year with young George Washington Kellogg hired as the teacher. Interestingly enough, his family is still prominent in Kendall County politics and social life after all these years—one descendant was just elected Kendall County Board Chairman—suggesting a certain stability for these parts that belies the constant hurly-burly of modern life.
The old log cabin only served for a year—we can only imagine how decrepit it must have been—before it was replaced. Explained Hicks: “The next season a frame building was put up on the same lot with the store [64 Main Street in downtown Oswego]. The studdings were hewed out of rails. It was the first frame in Oswego, and is now a part of Albert Snook’s residence. It was made for a store, but school was held in it. Adaline Warner, sister of Mrs. George Parker, was the first teacher.”
A few years later, a purpose-built one-room school was built about where Madison Street crosses Bartlett Creek, and that served until the two-story Old Stone School was built about the time state law was passed permitting levying property taxes to support public schools.
And speaking of those one-room schools, they popped up all over Kendall County, the goal being to keep students from having to walk no farther than a mile and a half to two miles to get to class. Which sort of explodes our grandparents’ boasts that unlike us pampered younglings, they had to walk 10 miles to school, uphill both directions.
By the middle of the 19th Century, the educational year had been somewhat standardized into two terms, usually called the summer and winter terms. The summer term was often taught by a woman because the bigger, usually rowdier, boys were hard at work with farm work instead of attending classes at that time of the year. Men were often sought to teach the winter term when the rowdies were in attendance, if somewhat unwillingly.
The differences in the pay scales of male and female teachers reflected those seasonal differences. At the Kendall School, built in 1855 at the corner of Ashley and Ament roads in Kendall Township, Margaret Leith received $15 a month for teaching the four-month summer term in 1858, while George Bishop was paid $30 a month to teach the succeeding winter term.
Starting with those first subscription schools, some 125 rural schools operated in Kendall County over the years. But early in the 20th Century, the State of Illinois began urging consolidating small rural schools with in-town schools to save money. Noted the Kendall County Record on April 11, 1923: “It costs more per capita to meet the running expenses of rural schools of Illinois than in the cities and incorporated villages, according to figures compiled by public school officials in the state. Five pupils in a country school cost not less than $1,000 per year or $200 for each pupil while in cities and large units the cost is about $40 each. Figures compiled show that 165 school districts of Illinois have fewer than five pupils attending school, while in 1,581 there is an average daily attendance of fewer than 9 pupils.”
Education quality also suffered when a school had few students, and the costs to supply a quality junior high education in a one-room school were out of reach for most of those districts.
It’s not that Illinois didn’t continually try to upgrade the educational experience of rural school students. Such efforts as the Country Life movement were dedicated to trying to keep young rural people from moving on into towns, strongly supporting improvements in rural schools as a major method of achieving that. The movement advocated improving both rural schools’ curricula as well as the facilities themselves. And thus was born the Standard School movement.
At this same time, our familiar system of standardized grade levels, from kindergarten through high school, was almost universally adopted across the nation. While kindergarten was vanishingly rare outside of large cities, rural schools began offering a standard course of study for grades 1-8. Students who graduated from eighth grade were eligible to attend high school. Before high school districts were established throughout the state in the 1930s, students could attend whichever high school would accept them, with their home one-room districts paying the tuition.
Of course during that era, not a whole lot of eighth graders went on to high school. According to the May 25, 1938 Kendall County Record, only 115 rural school students graduated from eighth grade in the county that year.
Right around the turn of the 20th Century, Illinois State Superintendent of Public Instruction Alfred Bayliss decided to institute a series of standards to improve rural school education. State inspectors began visiting rural schools all over the state, no small task since by 1908 there were 10,638 rural schools in Illinois.
In 1909, the Standard School movement in Illinois set initial minimum standards in the general areas of grounds, schoolhouse, furnishings and supplies, organization, and the teacher.
Standards were gradually increased, clarified and tightened. According to Illinois’ 1910 requirements, a Standard School was required to have “a capable, well prepared and efficient teacher; good organization, discipline and teaching; a comfortable and sanitary [school]house; proper equipment, including a library suitable for the children, dictionaries, maps, and globes.” The earlier category of “grounds” was incorporated into the “comfortable and sanitary [school]house requirement. State School Superintendent Francis Blair warned, “Wanting any of these, no school can be as good as it ought to be.”
By 1913, it was the turn of rural schools here in Kendall County to be visited. As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 15 that year: “[County School] Superintendent A.D. Curran and U.J. Hoffman, state supervisor of rural schools, are making a tour of Kendall county. They will visit every rural school and Mr. Hoffman has the power to place these schools on what is known as the ‘standardized list’ if they come up to the requirements. There is no doubt but that the schools of Kendall county are up to the standard of any in the state and that Mr. Hoffman will be pleased with his visit.”
A well-lit classroom was deemed especially valuable for both students and teachers. Minimum square footage of window area based on the schoolroom’s area were set. If you’ve visited any restored one-room schools in Illinois or you’ve seen early 20th Century photos of them, you will notice that they have large windows, but on only one side of the building. That’s due to A.D.F. Hamlin’s 1910 manual, Modern School Houses; Being A Series of Authoritative Articles on Planning, Sanitation, Heating and Ventilation.
According to Hamlin, “Light should come over the left shoulder of each pupil,” suggesting all students should be writing right-handed to assure good light on what they were doing—whether they were naturally right-handed or not.
Further, the amount of window area and its placement in the building were also critical, Hamlin contended: “The total window area should equal from 40 to 50 percent of the total wall area of the long side of the room, and in general, one-quarter the floor area of the classroom. The windows should extend up to within 6 inches of the ceiling; the window stools should be from 3 to 3 1/2 feet from the floor. Light from below that level is useless; it is the height of the top of the window that determines its lighting efficiency. The sill should, however, not be higher than 3 1/2 feet from the floor, as it is desirable that the pupils should be able to rest their eyes at times by looking out at more or less distant objects, which is impossible for many with a sill 4 1/2 or even 4 feet high.”
In 1941, Kendall County had 54 rural school districts. Two decades later, almost all of them had consolidated with in-town districts with students riding those bright yellow buses to class instead of trudging the one to two miles down a country road to class.
School today would be almost unimaginable to those rural school students of the past in terms of size if nothing else. The enrollment of the Oswego School District this year is about equal to the entire 1960 population of Kendall County. Even so, students and teachers alike are engaged in learning just as they have since C.B. Alvord called that first class to order back in 1834.
Humorist Charles Dudley Warner once quipped “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” And during Warner’s lifetime (1829-1900), that was mostly true—though not entirely.
For instance, the amount of coal smoke from tens of thousands of stoves and fireplaces created sometimes deadly weather conditions in London, England. But the feeling at the time was that humans really couldn’t affect nature, especially the weather.
Nevertheless, in 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed the hypothesis that massive amounts of human instigated fossil-fuel burning and other combustion that produced carbon dioxide was enough to cause global warming. His suggestion was met with general derision. But then in 1938, Guy Stewart Callendar, a British steam engineer, mathematician, and amateur climatologist gathered actual temperature records from the late 19th Century onward. When analyzed, his data showed that during the preceding 50 years, global land temperatures had increased. In other words, he proved global climate change was happening. In 1938. Something some still refuse to believe.
But back to Charles Dudley Warner and his quip about the weather. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that the weather has had a relatively huge effect on world history. From the 16th Century Kamikaze “Divine Wind” that supposedly disrupted a Mongol invasion of Japan to the 1588 storm that scattered the Spanish Armada, to Napoleon’s disastrous winter retreat from Moscow in 1812, weather’s effects keep turning up in the historical record.
Here in North America—the New World to Europeans but the same old place to the Native People who had been living here for thousands of years—weather began playing an important role as soon as those Europeans mentioned above arrived.
For instance, in 1620, a group of disgruntled British religious separatists left the Netherlands bound for what they hoped would be their very own New World utopia across the Atlantic. Earlier, they’d left England for the Netherlands because their brand of Protestantism was actively suppressed. But they found the religious tolerance of the Dutch intolerable and so decided to make a truly clean break and a new start in the New World, where they hoped to have the religious freedom to oppress other faiths.
They aimed to land in Virginia when they sailed from Plymouth, England on Sept. 16, 1620, but the iffy navigation of their ship’s captain instead landed them on the coast of modern Massachusetts, hundreds of miles north of where they planned to take up their new homes. During their first winter in North America, the unplanned-for cold weather nearly killed the lot of them, but they managed to survive, and then eventually prosper.
Meanwhile even farther to the north, the French were settling Canada, eventually creating a string of settlements along the St. Lawrence River from its mouth upstream to the La Chine rapids, so named because the first explorers hoped China was just beyond them. Although they kept expecting to run across Chinese officials as they continued ever farther west, they were, disappointed when they found the Pacific Ocean in the way of extending their travels.
The weather in Canada was even more brutal than that experienced by the English Separatists settled in Massachusetts. But intrepid French explorers and rapacious businessmen—usually one in the same—kept pushing farther and farther into the interior in their search for China and the East Indies. Among them was René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who managed to obtain the royal trade cession for what is now most of the upper Midwest. LaSalle pushed as far west as the thundering falls on the Niagara River between Lakes Erie and Ontario and in 1679, built the first large sailing ship on the western Great Lakes, the Griffin.
There, weather again came into play when the Griffin, loaded with valuable furs collected from tribes from the western lakes, disappeared, likely sinking during one of the Great Lakes’ frequent and violent storms. The loss threatened to bankrupt LaSalle, but he managed to talk his way out of the problem and mounted yet another expedition in the spring of 1682.
Setting off from Fort St. Joseph on the St. Joseph River, a Lake Michigan tributary, the LaSalle expedition had to haul their canoes downstream on improvised sledges because the St. Joseph was frozen solid, as was the Kankakee when they portaged into it, as was the Illinois River as they traveled downstream from the Kankakee’s mouth on the Des Plaines. Not until they reached Peoria did they find open water. That allowed them to paddle down the Illinois to the Mississippi, and then down to the Mississippi’s mouth on the Gulf of Mexico. There, in an elaborate ceremony (he’d brought along his royal court clothes in case he met some of those long-sought Chinese officials) LaSalle claimed the entire Mississippi watershed for France, something that must have, at the least, bemused the tens of thousands of Native People who’d been living there for the past several centuries.
Weather continued to have its affects on history as the thin line of European colonies that stretched along the Atlantic seaboard grew and prospered. The frontier moved ever farther west as White settlement pushed the resident Native People ever farther west. By 1830, settlement had begun in what geographers eventually called the Prairie Peninsula, a generally open, huge, roughly triangular-shaped tallgrass prairie with its apex in northwestern Indiana and extending northwest all the way to the eastern Dakotas and southwest into eastern Kansas. It must have been quite a sight for those early pioneers when they emerged from the familiar dense timber that stretched behind them east all the way to the Appalachian Mountains and saw a seemingly endless sea of 6-foot tall Big Bluestem grass extending all the way to the horizon.
All that open grassland was a great boon for those frontier farmers because they didn’t have to laboriously cut down towering old-growth hardwoods before they could farm the land. But the lack of timber also threw a wrench into traditional frontier farming techniques. While groves of hardwoods spotted the prairie and timber did grow on the east side of prairie water courses, the old ways of depending on logs for cabins and farm buildings, as well as to split into fence rails had to be modified.
The earliest prairie settlers here in northern Illinois staked their claims on the east side of groves and streamside woods in order to assure enough timber for building as well as for firewood. Because prairie pioneering required a LOT of timber for both. For instance, the rule of thumb for firewood was that it took about 30 cords to make it through a northern Illinois winter, a cord being a stack of wood 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long.
The earliest settlers who had vision and business sense quickly snapped up those isolated groves and other patches of timber out on the prairie, subdivided them into 10-acre plots, and sold them to later arrivals.
One of the other reasons early settlers preferred to locate their farmsteads on the east side of timber patches was to shelter against the prairie winds that came howling out of the west. In winter, especially, those winds could be brutal, as the early pioneers found out during the fierce winter of 1830-31. Forever after known as the Winter of the Deep Snow, the series of storms led to the deaths of countless settlers as well as many of the Native People who lived here. The weather that winter may even have created conditions that led to the Black Hawk War of 1832, Illinois’ last Indian war.
But while the Winter of the Deep Snow put a damper on things, and 1832 saw war across northern Illinois, just a year later, the Year of the Early Spring led, at least in percentage terms, to the biggest population explosion in northern Illinois history. As described by Kendall County’s first historian in his 1877 history: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county. This was partly because the emigration of the summer preceding had been held back by the [Black Hawk] war.”
And weather has continued to have more or less serious effects on our little corner of the world ever since. Annual spring floods—called “freshets” back in the day—regularly washed out the numerous dams and bridges on the Fox River, costing the dam owners and taxpayers substantial amounts of money to repair and replace. And weather’s effect on farming is well-known, from drought conditions to years that proved too wet. Townsfolk were also affected, from winters so cold they froze preserved food in area residents’ basements to summers so hot and dry the mills that depended on the Fox River’s waterpower had to temporarily close.
The blizzards that swept down across the Great Plains east across the Mississippi didn’t stop with the Winter of the Deep Snow, but created both economic and political problems right up to modern times. The winter of 1978-1979 brought parts of northern Illinois to a halt. And when two January storms dropped heavy snow on Chicago, voters showed their displeasure with how the city handled snow removal by kicking Mayor Michael Bilandic out of office and electing Jane Byrne, the city’s first female mayor.
Most recently, on-going global climate change has created a confused weather situation not only here in the Fox Valley but across the nation. Far western states have lately been toggling between extreme drought and record floods and snowfall. The fragile electrical grid in Texas gets regular stress tests that it partially fails due to colder than expected winters and hotter than anticipated summers.
Meanwhile here in northern Illinois, winters have become increasingly mild, creating year round open water on the Fox River and the numerous water detention ponds created to control stormwater runoff that has attracted tens of thousands of once extremely rare Canada geese and various duck species.
And from what we see on the news these days, warmer weather is not only encouraging the northward march of such pests as fire ants, but the climate change causing it seems to be pushing the old Tornado Alley of the Great Plains eastward across the Mississippi River into more densely populated areas.
Even with climate change driven weather causing so many problems, though, we’re still only taking baby steps to try to do something about it. While weather has always had major effects on history, and while we do have the technical ability to do something about it these days, it looks as if Charles Dudley Warner’s quip is likely to continue to describe the situation for the foreseeable future.
I think we can all agree that a century is a long time. But when it comes to advances in society and technology, some centuries are much more different than others.
Got to thinking about that the other day when I was musing about what was going on around my neighborhood in this small corner of northern Illinois. I imagine that to younger generations, 1923 must seem to be the misty, distant past. But to me, sure, it’s 100 years ago, but it doesn’t SEEM like that long ago.
My parents were both born well before 1923 and, in fact, would get married just seven years later. My grandparents were all born well before the turn of the 20th Century as were the old folks around town when I was growing up.
Back in the 1950s, we’d ride our bikes in our small-town Memorial Day Parade, led by a color guard of young, fit American Legion World War II and Korea vets—many of whom were born in the 1920s—while the aged veterans of World War I rode in cars and waved at the watching crowd. These days, it’s getting to be that the aged vets riding in the cars are Vietnam vets and the color guardsmen are veterans of Desert Storm and those 21st Century conflicts.
So while time is catching up with us Baby Boomers, it still doesn’t make 1923 seem that far in the past. After all, a century before my generation, the first cohort of that post-World War II Baby Boom, was born was almost unbelievably divorced from life at that time. In 1946, society was well along the road to modernity. In 1846, the frontier was still moving west, Mexico still owned what is today the U.S. Southwest (although our war of conquest of it had begun in April), sailing ships were built of wood, the telegraph was just two years old, and the telephone’s invention lay three years in the future. Individual transportation and farm work depended entirely on horses, indoor plumbing was far in the future and safe and sanitary municipal water supplies were virtually non-existent. Air travel consisted of a few hot air balloon enthusiasts.
By 1946, the internal combustion engine had long supplanted horses to power vehicles and farm equipment; virtually every household was connected to the national electrical power grid meaning not only towns but individual homes enjoyed electrical lighting; indoor plumbing was the rule and not the exception; home refrigerators and washing machines were the rule not pricy exceptions; passenger airplane networks spanned the entire globe as did fleets of steel-hulled ships. Far more people lived in towns and cities than on the farm. 1946 was, in fact, a completely different world from a century before.
But looking back a century from today, we really can’t say that. Plunk someone from 1923 down in 2023 northern Illinois, and while the changes would be startling—and not a bit confusing—the commonalities would perhaps be just as surprising.
Many of the issues back in 1923, at least according to articles in the Kendall County Record, sound remarkably familiar.
Take, for instance, the problems we’re having with guns these days. Guns were a problem back then, too. As Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall noted in the paper’s Jan. 10 edition: “The Chicago Tribune and the Herald-Examiner are putting on drives to stop the indiscriminate sale of firearms and skeleton keys. These are commendable acts and should receive the support of every citizen. There is too much lawlessness made possible by these sales.”
It was a prescient comment because in the paper’s Aug. 29 edition, Marshall reported: “We had a murder in Kendall county last week. The killing was the result of a revolver, or automatic, in the hands of a man who was not authorized to carry a ‘shooting iron.’”
Turned out a dispute between workers on the new concrete highway being built between Yorkville and Oswego that year turned violent, leading to the shooting and to the perpetrator getting 16 years in the state pen over in Joliet.
Which brings us to another similarity of those days of the Roaring ‘20s with this day and age: road construction, which these days seems to be going on 365 days a year.
Back in 1918, Illinois voters had passed a $60 million bond issue to build a network of “hard roads”—concrete highways—designed to link every county seat in the state. By 1923, construction was well along on the project, with Route 18, nicknamed the Cannon Ball Trail, being built through Kendall County as it linked Chicago with Princeton in western Illinois
The route went west from Chicago to Aurora following, roughly, the CB&Q Railroad right-of-way. From Aurora, the route ran south along the west side of the Fox River on modern Ill. Route 31 to Oswego, where it met modern U.S. Route 34 for the run west past Yorkville on to Plano, Sandwich and on west. By late 1923, the route through Kendall County was mostly paved and ready for traffic, with the rest of it completed the next year.
“Illinois already has a running start toward breaking her own world’s record for hard road construction mileage within a single year, and 1923 already looms as a red letter period,” Marshall marveled in June. “In 1922, when the world’s record was broken by the completion of 722 miles of road, there was built up to May 24 only 51.98 miles, as compared with this year’s record over the same period of 114.95. At present there are employed 7,000 men, 1,650 teams, and 87 [concrete] mixers in addition to the vast volume of other necessary equipment.”
And then there’s our modern problem of drug trafficking. These days it mostly consists of drugs being smuggled into the country across our northern and southern borders. During the 2022 fiscal year, nearly 35 tons of illegal drugs were intercepted along the nation’s northern border while 143 tons were seized at the nation’s southern border and another 150 tons were seized in coastal and interior areas.
In February 1923, Marshall observed: “The use of drugs and the increase in the number of addicts are matters which are causing much comment and agitation in medical circles. We hope that success will attend the efforts of leaders in Chicago’s organization against the use of drugs in their latest declaration of war.”
But the biggest drug problem a century ago was the illicit use and production of alcohol. Prohibition was in effect and illegally trafficked and consumed alcohol was a huge problem, even—or maybe especially—out in rural areas. Kendall County was, in fact, a hotbed of bootlegging with illegal stills producing illicit alcohol on industrial scales. Aided by better roads and fast, dependable and affordable cars and trucks, bootleggers found little Kendall a great place to do business.
In March 1923, a task force of federal officers and county sheriff’s police shut down a large Plano speakeasy operation and then raided the Schickler farm on the west side of the Fox River at Oswego, where they destroyed a modern still turning out 23 gallons a day.
“The work of Sheriff Barkley and his deputies in the cleaning up of several of the illicit liquor places of the county is to be commended,” Marshall commented. “They went after the job in a systematic manner and accomplished the results they sought. Kendall county can afford to be clean and should be. But the efforts of the law enforcement officers should not lag–it is said that two of these places grown where one is closed as in the case of the blades of grass…The worst time for this particular kind of law-breaking is in the summer months when many of the former Aurora bootleggers take up their station along the cement highways and peddle their nefarious stuff to those who have the right password.”
And finally, there is a spirited national discussion going on right now over abortion and, relatedly, birth control. Just like there was 100 years ago. Record Editor Marshall was a mild birth control skeptic who pointed out the rich would always have access to it when he wrote on Dec. 12: “The question of birth control is insistent in Chicago. There is one serious objection to its adoption—it would be practiced by those whose financial condition merits a large family and unsought by the illiterate and ignorant class where it should be practiced. But unscrupulous practitioners will help the wealthy while they laugh at those who are answering the impulses of natural instinct.”
Which sounds a lot like some of the arguments being issued these days after the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to not only ban abortion but also, if they so wish, to restrict or even ban birth control.
So, yes, a century is a very long time. But as history has moved forward it seems as if the changes experienced over that most recent 100 year span have been a bit less startling in the ways they’ve changed our world.
I read a news story on the Oswego Ledger website a week or so ago and that got me to thinking about the history of safety in general and safety at rail crossings and crossing accidents in Kendall County in particular.
The story reported that the unprotected rail crossings at Jackson and North streets in Oswego will be signalized. Most of the funding will come from the Illinois Grade Crossing Protection Fund, with the rest coming from Illinois Railway, which is said to currently own the rail line.
Railroad accidents began happening almost as soon as the first rail line extended through the county in the early 1850s. That was the CB&Q’s main line that bent slightly to the southwest after crossing the Fox River at Aurora to run through northern Kendall County—Lewis Steward had offered to build a town if the line ran through his land. The railroad did, and the city of Plano was the result.
Next, the Fox River Branch Line opened in 1870 as the independent Oswego, Ottawa & Fox River Valley Rail Road. But the line was immediately—and not a little fraudulently—snapped up by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
As laid out, the OO&FRVRR ran from what was then called the Vermillion Coal Fields to Streator and then to Ottawa before turning due north along the Fox River all the way to Geneva. Its route took it through Oswego and its suburban neighbor to the north, the old Village of Troy, cutting slightly diagonally through the two long-established communities. That put the roadbed perilously close to some existing homes and businesses, including my great-great-grandparents’ house where my wife and I lived for about 10 years and not quite as close to my great-grandparents’ house next door, where my parents and I moved when they left and farm in 1954 and where my wife and I subsequently moved to spend 42 years of our marriage.
We were lucky, I guess, during the 72 years my family and I lived adjacent to the railroad there were no serious derailments on our branch line like the one that’s recently been in the news out in Ohio. About the most serious semi-recent local accident on our section of the line was in December 1972 when a youngster found a key for one of the switches on a siding in downtown Oswego, threw the switch, and derailed the three diesel engines on an 80-car CB&Q freight. Fortunately, neither the cars nor the engines overturned.
Almost immediately after the rail line opened in 1870, its trains were involved in a variety of accidents, from killing livestock that wandered on the tracks—locomotive cowcatchers actually caught cows back in those days—to hitting the unwary horse-drawn wagon or buggy at crossings.
In January 1870, just weeks after the stretch of line between Yorkville and Oswego opened to traffic, young Theodore Minkler was struck and killed by a southbound train when the lumber wagon he was driving was hit while crossing the tracks south of Oswego, thus becoming the first county fatality on our stretch of the new line.
All the accidents on the Fox River Branch didn’t happen at crossings, of course. On May Day, 1877, for instance, Oswego teacher Anna Brown took her elementary students on a nature walk down the tracks south of Oswego to collect wildflowers. According to the Kendall County Record: “As the five o’clock train came along a little boy, named Carpenter, about nine years old, was on a railroad bridge over a ravine and became frightened. Miss Brown ran on the bridge to help him off. She saved the boy, but the engine struck her, ran over her left foot and threw her from the bridge to the creek, ten feet below.” But Miss Brown, obviously a tough cookie, was helped back up out of the ravine and was taken to a doctor. She recovered, but walked with a limp and used a cane the rest of her long, eventful, and colorful life.
On the other hand, many accidents did indeed happen at rail crossings. In September 1883, according to the Record’s Oswego correspondent, cufflinks caused a near-fatality: “When Henry Johnston, a young fellow from Specie Grove, was returning from the Fox River Creamery [located north of downtown Oswego between modern Rt. 25 and the Fox River Branch right-of-way], and Charles Lehman the superintendent was riding down to town with him; Charley was engaged in readjusting his gold cuff buttons and the driver failed to look up the track, so they drove on the crossing just as the 10:14 passenger came along. The engine struck the hind wheel. Charley however had jumped, but being that he was run over by the horses and the wrecked wagon piled on top of him, he received a few scratches; Henry, who was thrown off with the wagon, wasn’t hurt a bit.”
Not that the Fox River Branch was the only local rail line where serious accidents happened, of course. The CB&Q’s main line on the west side of the Fox River crossed the West River Road—now Ill. Route 31—near the Wormley family farms. Called the Wormley Crossing, it was the site of a number of accidents some of which involved Wormley family members themselves. As the Record reported from Oswego on Dec. 19, 1872: “John H. Wormley was considerably hurt one day last week at the railroad crossing this side of Montgomery.”
And on the morning of June 3, 1889, Fannie, wife of prominent Oswegoan Charles Roberts of Oswego, drove her horse and buggy into the path of a westbound passenger train while driving across the CB&Q’s main line tracks at Montgomery. She was seriously injured after her horse and buggy were thrown about 50 feet by the collision. Miraculously, she survived and was finally able to return home after spending a little over two months in the “new” Aurora hospital (the building adjacent to the old Copley Memorial Hospital that formerly housed the Copley School of Nursing and then the Aurora Blood Bank).
In 1918, Illinois voters approved a $60 million bond issue to build paved roads linking every county seat in the state to a new hard road system. In Yorkville, the Kendall County seat, that meant more traffic on already busy Bridge Street—now U.S. Route 47 through its downtown—and across the street’s Fox River Branch Line crossing. By early 1928, in light of the eminent paving of Route 47 through town, Yorkville had prevailed on the CB&Q to put up one of the new warning lights with bells at the busy crossing.
As the Record reported on Feb. 15: “After several years of faithful endeavor the village fathers have had the Burlington railroad interested sufficiently to put up a crossing light at Bridge street and the tracks. The new danger light is under construction and will be in the middle of the street, plainly visible to drivers and a wonderful relief to locomotive engineers.”
As might be imagined, however, state highway engineers had some serious safety concerns about a warning light atop a raised concrete base in the middle of a busy north-south state highway located at the bottom of steep grades in both directions.
So the state ordered the light-and-bell warning device moved to the side of the road But Yorkville officials, who liked it where it had been originally, finally prevailed in getting it moved back to the center of the highway. As the Record explained on Feb. 29, 1929: “There is not a better way in which to guard the crossing at Yorkville than this light and bell equipment. The fact that it is in the center of the street is more of a benefit than a menace. People will not be able to drive so fast through the main street and the traffic will be slowed up for those who wish to back out from the curb.”
And there the signal remained for a few decades before common sense—and frequent collisions—dictated the warning signal be moved to the sides of the street.
The increasing speed of trains as the years rolled by didn’t have much impact on the Fox River Branch Line, where the grades and curves it followed tended to keep speed down. But the speed on the CB&Q’s main line was a different thing. First improved steam locomotives began breaking speed records and then the Burlington introduced the streamlined diesel-powered Zephyrs, which were even faster. So fast, and so much quieter than their steam locomotive ancestors that they created new rail crossing danger.
On June 28, 1936, Mr. and Mrs. Harley Shoger were driving across the Burlington Main Line in rural Bristol Township when their car was struck by the racing Denver Zephyr, which was making a speed run west from Chicago. Mrs. Shoger was killed in the collision and her husband died shortly thereafter at Aurora’s St. Joseph Hospital.
But a couple of incidental crossing deaths couldn’t dampen the Burlington’s Zephyr spirit. As a CB&Q press release enthusiastically explained: “Capping the climax of their sensational performance since inauguration of the service May 31, the original Zephyr on June 28 gave a startling demonstration of its reserve stamina and speed. Delayed by striking an automobile near Bristol, the Zephyr made up an hour and twenty minutes in 700 miles from Galesburg, Ill. to Wray, Colo. and coasted into Denver exactly on the dot June 29 for the 29th consecutive day to maintain its perfect record.” So, yes, sorry about the two crossing deaths, the railroad seemed to say, but, hey, we managed to keep to the schedule in spite of them!
There have been a few accidents over the years at the two Oswego crossings approved for signalization. But traffic across the stretch of rail line at the North Street and Jackson Street crossings has increased significantly during past years as more and more motorists use the Adams Street cutoff to avoid crowded Route 34 through Oswego. And it’s likely to increase even further with the construction of the new multi-story apartment building at Adams and Washington streets and plans for a second adjacent building.
But after those signals are installed, at least we shouldn’t have to worry about a young man getting his milk wagon smashed to smithereens at one of those crossings while admiring his gold cufflinks.
I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.
Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.
Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.
In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.
Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.
One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.
In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.
I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.
But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.
But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.
The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.
It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.
Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.
We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.
Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.
In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.
We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.
But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.
Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.
During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.
As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”
That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.
The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.
And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.
Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.
That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.
Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.
I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.
Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.
Out in North Carolina, a friend of David Evans who had served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War of 1832 told Evans of the richness of the Illinois prairies west of Chicago. So in 1833—the Year of the Early Spring—Evans headed west prospecting for good land.
Following his friend’s directions, Evans traveled up the Illinois River to Ottawa and then up the Fox River, counting tributaries until he got to Big Rock Creek. He followed the creek two and a half miles upstream until he found a spot he wanted and there he staked his claim.
“There were none to dispute his claim; no mark of white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” Evans’ son told Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, in 1877.
While “no mark of the white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” there were plenty of marks on the landscape made by other hands—namely those of the Fox Valley’s Native American residents.
In the early 1830s, the local Native People were living in a number of villages dotting the banks of the Fox River. A map in the Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987) located several Potawatomi villages on our stretch of the Fox River south of, roughly, Elgin and north of Indian Creek, included the named villages of their leaders Waubonsee, Shaytee, Naysosay, and Awnkote, plus two more unnamed villages north of Waubonsee’s. And that doesn’t even count the other villages on the DuPage and DesPlaines rivers.
“The Year of the Early Spring,” as the settlers dubbed it, persuaded dozens of families to move west to the Illinois frontier, including many of Kendall County’s best-known pioneers. But the uncomfortable fact about that influx—the Fox Valley’s first real population explosion—was that those who came were illegal squatters.
The federal government had concluded a number of treaties over the years with the resident Native People that resulted in the cession of much of their land. But the treaty provisions promised that the resident Native Americans would have the use of the lands until the land was officially surveyed and put up for sale. And in 1833, the day when most of the land in the Fox River Valley would be surveyed was still four or five years in the future and the day it would be put up for sale was still nearly a decade away.
The friction caused by squatters illegally moving onto Indian land in northern Illinois was the main cause of the bloodshed that was called the Black Hawk War. Settlers seized the lands occupied by the Sac and Fox Tribes in western Illinois, badly beating the Sac warrior Black Hawk when he complained about the thefts.
Here in the Fox Valley, a belligerent pioneer, William Davis, built a dam on Indian Creek in what is today northern LaSalle County just over the Kendall County border. The dam, just upstream from the creek’s mouth, was to power a mill Davis planned to build. But the dam prevented fish from the river swimming upstream to a Potawatomi village that relied on the fish for food. When a prominent warrior from the village complained, Davis severely beat him. When Black Hawk led his band of Sac and Fox men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois from Iowa, the resulting panic and eventual fighting offered a chance to settle scores, including the problem on Indian Creek. The resulting attack by Indians on the Davis claim led to the deaths of 14 settlers.
The continual friction between the Native People and settlers had led to passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. President Andrew Jackson strongly supported the legislation. The eastern “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were first to be forced on a “Trail of Tears” west across the Mississippi to what’s today Oklahoma. By 1833, it was the turn of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes here in northern Illinois to be forced west to free up land for the growing number of settlers arriving almost daily.
To that end, the U.S. Government called thousands of members from the three tribes to Chicago in September 1833 to negotiate the cession of all their land east of the Mississippi. The negotiations got off to a strained start when the government negotiator announced to tribal representatives that officials in Washington had heard the Indians wished to sell their land. To which the Indians replied they had no idea where the government had gotten such an idea and that they had no intention of selling their land.
Several days of both above and below board bargaining followed before initial deals were reached to give the tribes rich land now in the extreme northeast corner of Missouri in exchange for their Illinois land plus other possible lands in Iowa. But the tide of settlement was already moving beyond the Mississippi and by the time the removal of the tribes really got underway a few years later, settlers were already moving into the lands reserved for the tribes.
Over the next few years, other areas were picked and had to be abandoned forcing the tribes to move off of before they were finally and permanently settled in Kansas on land much different in quality, climate, and topography from their northern Illinois tribal lands.
There were, in fact, several instances of Native People leaving the lands the government picked for them out west and returning to their old homes in northern Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan before they were again removed by government agents back west again. Sometimes, the cause was because they were simply homesick for their old homelands, while other times it was because the government-mandated reservations were too close to traditional tribal enemies.
In other cases, land that had been given by the government to various Native American tribal bands, as opposed to individuals, was simply stolen. Such a case was that of Chief Shabbona’s land in what is today DeKalb County. Litigation over its theft continues to this day.
It’s interesting to read the accounts left by early settlers who reminisce about arriving from their Eastern homes and settling onto an empty landscape. The landscape, of course, was far from empty, but those settlers were able to ignore entire villages, home to hundreds of Native American men, women, and children, apparently because their lifestyles didn’t match the of the new arrivals. Some of those Eastern pioneers expressed a little sadness that the forced departure of the region’s Native People meant the end of a historical era. Most others, though, were firmly in the “Manifest Destiny” camp that White settlement was part of unstoppable progress that eventually led to removing Native People from as much of the landscape as possible from Illinois all the way to the Pacific Ocean. For that majority group, naming local landmarks or new political divisions for the displaced tribes and their leaders was about as far as they’d go in recognizing those who had populated the region for centuries before the first Whites arrived to make their new homes on the Illinois prairies.