Category Archives: Illinois History

A different world: Growing up on an Illinois farm in the early 1950s

I sometimes get the feeling that I grew up in a kind of time warp.

1952 Musselman house Aurora

The house on Douglas Avenue on the southeast side of Aurora where my wife lived when she was six years old.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa (Radar O’Reilly’s hometown) and then moved around as her father was transferred with his job for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. As a result, she grew up in a series of subdivisions in Aurora here in Illinois, in St. Louis, and finally back to Illinois and Boulder Hill here in Kendall County where she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms and bedrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio.

For me, on the other hand, things were different. Very different.

When I was born, my folks took me home to the farm they were renting from Clarence and Elsie Butcher in Wheatland Township, just across the Will County line from Kendall County. The farm we lived on was considered relatively new, the buildings having only been built in the early l930s. But while the house might have been considered almost new when they moved in, it seemed to have been built in considerable haste.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm in Wheatland Township my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in the living room of that house, looking at the front door, and seeing it festooned with clean rags that had been carefully and tightly packed into its numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie wind that was barely slowed by the poor-quality storm door. While the door looked impressive, all those cracks and gaps meant it did little to keep those breezes out. That house was just plain COLD.

The bathroom in that farmhouse was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners. The cistern was a large open-topped concrete tank built into one corner of the basement where all the rain water from the gutters on the roof was directed. The collected rainwater, being ‘soft,’ was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds since the water from the well was loaded with minerals and therefore ‘hard.’

1947 Dad, Roger, Boots

My father looks on as I view Boots, the family Border Collie, with suspicion. Boots and I went on to become fast friends.

The bathroom had been added to the house as an afterthought in the basement corner next to the cistern a few years before I was born. My sisters, aged 9 and 12 when my parents brought me home from Copley Hospital in 1946, loved the indoor plumbing, no matter how primitive it might seem to modern sensibilities. Because anything was better than braving rain, sleet, and snow to make it to the outhouse. Even so, it took real courage for my childhood self to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, let me tell you.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water had to be produced via a hand-fired water heater that was fueled with corncobs. After I got old enough—six—it was my duty of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my date-bound sisters could take hot baths and otherwise get ready in time for their dates.

1947 Roger in wash tub

Nothing like a cool swim on a hot day. The family Buick is in the background. Bought used, the car was roundly hated by my father who always referred to it as “The Lemon.” For years, my sisters thought that was the brand name.

One particularly disastrous instance that has stuck in my mind all these years occurred when I had the fire going nicely, and then attempted to check its progress, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal lid handle. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a piece of cloth with which to pad my hand. There were plenty of random pieces of cloth lying around the basement, especially around the old wringer-type washing machine. Unfortunately, the piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself right onto the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. My father, who came down to the rescue, thought it was pretty funny. My sisters were less amused.

We didn’t get our first TV set until that year I was six years old. I’d seen TVs before that, of course, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, but my major electronic entertainment came from the big console radio in the living room. I remember the first TV was a black and gold table-model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s store in Plainfield.

Prior to the delivery of the TV, as noted above, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case that sat off the floor on four turned wooden legs. I remember enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

The Ranger & Sgt. Preston

“The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” shows were two of my favorites on radio. Both got ported over to TV and became hits there, too.

My mother and sisters (when they were home from school during the summer) listened to soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which seemed to feature excessive numbers of screen doors slamming shut), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of five or six. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters,” “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon,” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another really big favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the very first time. I ran right out to the barn to tell my father about the amazing occurrence! Superman could REALLY FLY! I’d just seen it happen on the television set with my own eyes! Which resulted in a gentle lecture about special effects that might have been the start of the skepticism that led me to a career in journalism.

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber McGee and Molly” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to enjoy a similar arrangement, at least according to my mother. “The Great Gildersleeve” was another favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I know “Amos and Andy” is not politically correct these days, but I really liked it a lot when I was a kid, and always figured the black guys who delivered the coal for our furnace from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora were probably very funny guys when they weren’t busy shoveling coal into our basement. On coal delivery day, I always waited patiently outside for them to tell a joke or two, but never with any success. Nowadays I wonder how they were able to restrain themselves from painting over the company’s motto lettered on the sides of the brown dump trucks they drove: “Our Name is Brown, Our Coal is Black, We Treat You White.”

1952-53 Grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School during the 1952-53 school year.  The author is sitting in the lower left corner. His wardrobe–jeans and flannel shirt–has not changed appreciably since.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. When I started, there were six grades and nearly 30 students in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. But at least I had classmates; five to start out with. My oldest sister went through eight years in two different rural one-room schools and was the only student in her class for all eight years.

By the time I started school, the seventh and eighth graders had already been moved into town, thanks to activism by my mother and other farm wives. The junior high in Oswego had much better facilities—a science lab, for instance—and there was no danger any student would have to go through their first eight grades as the only person in their class again.

But I started school almost at the end of the one-room country school in northern Illinois. Consolidation was being vigorously pursued by state education officials. When I started second grade, the fifth and sixth graders had been moved into town, and by third grade, the fourth graders followed. We moved off the farm in the middle of that third grade year and when I went to my first day of classes at my new school, there were more kids in my third grade classroom than there had been in our entire school out in the country.

And as part of the first real year of the Baby Boom, there was certainly no worry about me being the only student in my class. By the time we graduated from high school, we were the first class in school history to have more than 100 class members.

Farm technology was on the same cusp as electronic entertainment media at that time. Most farmers ran diversified farms, and my parents were no different. My dad took care of the livestock—cattle and hogs—out in the barn, and planted, tended, and harvested the fields that produced grain and forage crops. My mother’s realm was the garden, orchard, and chicken house as well as the farmhouse where she did the cooking, washing, and cleaning.

Diversified farms, as the name implies produced both grain and livestock, and my dad made a pretty good living on 120 acres of land. He often rented some more acreage from non-farming neighbors, but I don’t think he ever farmed more than 180 acres. My mom canned about everything that came out of the garden and the orchard, from fruits to vegetables. The chickens produced eggs that were, along with the dressed chickens themselves, traded in town for groceries. Meanwhile, my dad milked the family cow—a dappled golden brown and white Guernsey named Daisy by the time I came along—that provided milk and cream for the family with enough milk left over to have a family friend turn into cottage cheese. My grandmother churned the cream into butter and my father relished the buttermilk left over from the process. I never could stand the stuff straight, but it certainly made great pancakes.

Then I became a town kid when my father had to retire from farming. I hated leaving the farm, but it probably saved my life since I was violently allergic to just about everything on it from the hay and straw in the barn to the feathers on the chickens out in the chicken house. And by moving into town, I got to know and become intimately familiar with the Fox River in all its moods. It’s something I still enjoy since our house is located on the riverbank right across to the street from the house my parents moved to all those years ago.

It seems curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries in Montgomery and taking extra cream and milk to the creamery in Yorkville that other kids my age were living in modern ranch homes on paved streets with sidewalks, and who never got a case of goosebumps in their lives from an episode of “Inner Sanctum.”

But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up in my small corner of northern Illinois. And even though I have a hard time trying to fit my mind around it, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood days.

 

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Filed under family, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Women's History

Stagecoaching west of Chicago in the 1830s and 1840s was not for the faint of heart

John Taylor Temple was a young professional man on the make. And he happened to be in the right place for someone with the initiative—not to mention the connections and cash—necessary to make his ideas become reality.

To take advantage of the new roads being pushed west and south from Chicago, the travelers anxious to use them and, even more importantly, the new U.S. Mail contracts being awarded by Congress, Temple established a stagecoach company at Chicago in 1833.

Stagecoaches were so called because they completed their routes in stages, traveling from stop to stop on regular schedules, exchanging tired horses for fresh ones, and giving passengers a chance to rest, eat, and sometimes sleep. Although called stagecoach companies, the firms did not always operate what are commonly considered stagecoaches. Often, especially early in the region’s history, stages were usually little more than light wagons sporting (reportedly uncomfortable) seats and canvass covers.

Image result for John Taylor TempleFollowing the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, a succession of postmasters general headed the office until John McLean was appointed in 1823. McLean, it turned out, was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system and developed the system whereby the post office department controlled the mails in individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mails from office to office. By 1828, McLean’s system of private stage contractors was in place and working very well. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract was required to sell its stock and other assets to the successful bidder.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from Detroit. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon was placed in service between the two towns followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

With mail (and its related passenger) service set to be extended southwest of Chicago to Ottawa that same year, Temple saw an opportunity.

John Taylor Temple was born in Virginia and married in 1822. He graduated from Middlebury College in Casleton, Vermont on Dec. 29, 1830, and apparently arrived in Chicago a year or two later.

He quickly became involved in local politics, and probably had inside knowledge that the road the Cook County Board had laid out along the High Prairie Trail to Ottawa would soon become a mail route.

Thanks to a likely combination of hard work, foresight, sufficient funds, and help from his political friends, in 1833 Temple was awarded the contract to carry the mail between Chicago and Peoria via Ottawa.

Stagecoach model

Stagecoaches like this model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, were the favored vehicles until the stagecoach era ended.

Whether he had inside knowledge about the route’s immanent establishment or not, Temple was somehow able to plan far enough ahead to order what the Chicago American described as an “elegant, thorough-brace post carriage” from the East. He had the coach shipped to Chicago via the Great Lakes from Buffalo before ice closed navigation on the lakes for the winter of 1833-34 in time for it to be used to deliver mail starting in January of 1834.

Temple had most likely seen the newly-developed Concord Coaches making their runs while he lived and went to school in Vermont, and undoubtedly figured these most modern of conveyances would be perfect for his new Illinois venture.

According to most early Illinois historians, the first coach on Temple’s new stage line left Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834 with John D. Caton, a rising young lawyer, at the reins of the four horse team.

Word quickly spread concerning the new stage line. The Sangamo Journal in Springfield reported on Feb. 1, 1834, just a month after Temple’s coach made its first run: “We understand that there is now a line of stages running regularly once a week between Peoria and Chicago.”

But shortly after the establishment of Temple’s line, it appears he was already being challenged by more experienced operators, even though he held the all-important mail contract.

John D. Winters had been engaged in staging in Illinois for almost a decade by the time Temple began his line from Chicago to Ottawa. Winters first ran stages on the leg of the St. Louis to Galena route from Peoria north starting in the 1820s.

1840s-stage-road-map

John D. Caton drove the first stagecoach west of Chicago in January 1834, when he piloted a coach on the first leg of the trip to Ottawa.

In 1834, Winters, by then an experienced stage operator, established a stage company at Chicago, apparently to directly compete with Temple though without the vital mail contract. Given his personality, Winters may well have felt young Dr. Temple was out of his depth trying to run a stage company. According to a notice in the Feb. 18, 1834 Chicago Democrat, passengers were invited to try “The New Line of splendid four horse Post Coaches in Illinois—From Ottawa by way of Holderman’s Grove [in Kendall County], Walker’s Grove [Plainfield] and Laughtons [Riverside] to Chicago, once a week, 80 miles, through one and one half days, fare $5.”

Various histories of the region also state that John S. Trowbridge, who apparently established a competing line about 1835, also challenged Temple.

Trowbridge got his first experience with mail contracting when he submitted the low bid to carry mail on horseback on the Chicago Road between Niles, Michigan and Chicago.

Both the competing Temple and Trowbridge stages stopped at Elijah Wentworth’s tavern in Western Springs.

As late as Aug. 6, 1836, the Chicago American was reporting that “John T. Temple & Co. are proprietors of a stage line from Chicago to Peoria.” The paper noted that “the through trip is made in two days—to Ottawa the first day.” The newspaper reported the company’s stages left Chicago at 4 a.m. and arrived at Joliet in two hours on the southern route. Tickets were sold at Markle’s Exchange Coffee House in Chicago for passage.

1845-frink-walker-offices

John Frink and Martin O. Walker’s stagecoach office in downtown Chicago.

Then in 1837, the stagecoach game in northern Illinois changed forever when John Frink arrived on the scene. Frink wasted no time in getting into the thick of the Chicago-area stagecoach competition.

Born at Ashford, Connecticut in 1797, Frink reportedly “begun life as a stage driver” before becoming a successful stage line operator, establishing lines between Boston, Mass. and Albany, N.Y. as well as a line linking New York City and Montreal, Canada.

He was described as “A man of limited education and without cultivation, yet he was a man of strong mind, wonderful natural intelligence, indomitable will, great sagacity and a remarkable knowledge of human nature.”

Frink had his dark side, too, one that would eventually result in the dissolution of his successful partnerships and his estrangement from his family.

Railroads, when introduced into the areas Frink’s lines served, seriously undermined the stage business. As a result, Frink and his first wife, Martha R. Marcy Frink, decided to emigrate west to Chicago about 1836.

Meanwhile, a steadily growing number of competitors challenged Temple’s stage line. A medical doctor and an active politician, he was apparently better at dabbling in Chicago politics than making sure mail and passengers got delivered on time. As a result, few tears shed when he finally decided to give up the business and sell out to Winters. In the April 1, 1837 Chicago American, a news item headlined “South-Western Mail” reported that “It affords us much pleasure to be enabled to inform our readers that Dr. J.T. Temple has sold out his Stage line to the Illinois Stage Company. Our only regret is, that the arrangement was not sooner made. Success to the new line.”

But although Winters temporarily had the company, it was incumbent on him to obtain the all-important mail contract. And apparently that he was unable to do.

1840 Arrivals of the Mails

Late June 1840 mail routes from Ottawa carried in Frink, Walker & Company stagecoaches.

The post office sought new bids on all Illinois postal routes in 1837. And with Temple and his political connections out of the way, the way was open for someone else to step in. Frink was ready, willing, and able to successfully seek the mail contract what would allow him to build a new business in Illinois.

Frink, seemingly always looking for a knowledgeable partner, apparently decided the experienced Trowbridge fit the bill, and the two agreed to merge their operations. About the time Frink and Trowbridge joined forces, a man named Fowler then reportedly joined Frink and Trowbridge to form Frink, Fowler & Trowbridge.

It was about this time as well that Frink successfully acquired the mail contract he needed to move ahead with his stage line connecting Chicago and the head of navigation on the Illinois River.

Trowbridge and Fowler left the scene and Frink teamed with Charles K. Bingham to form Frink, Bingham & Company. The partners apparently ran stages over the old Temple routes, as well as establishing new lines to the northwest to serve Galena. After working with Bingham for a short time, the partner Frink had been looking for all along, one with seemingly deeper pockets and more business skills than any previous associate, was found. Martin O. Walker joined the partners either in late 1839 or early 1840, making the company a three-way venture.

Although the company was still known as Frink, Bingham & Company, Walker was apparently a full, although silent, partner in that firm as early as February of 1840.

The Fergus Directory of the City of Chicago for 1839 reported that Frink, Bingham & Company were doing business at 123 Lake Street. A concern called simply Frink & Walker was also in business at the same location, and Martin O. Walker was listed as one of the principals. In the directory, Walker’s occupation is listed as “mail contractor.”

1840 Frink & Walker formed

By early June 1840, Frink, Walker & Company had been established. It wou1d go on dominate the stagecoach business in the Midwest for many years.

Like all Frink’s earlier partners, Bingham soon left the scene. In a legal notice published in papers in the area dated June 1, 1840, it was announced that “The Co-partnership heretofore existing between John Frink, Charles K. Bingham and Martin O. Walker, under the firm of Frink, Bingham & Co, was dissolved on the 28th day of May, 1840. The business of the late firm will be settled by either of the subscribers.” John Frink and Martin O. Walker signed the notice.

A second notice followed the first stating: “The undersigned have formed a Co-partnership and will continue the Stageing [sic] business under the firm of Frink, Walker & Co., and hereafter no notes of hand or writing obligatory will be allowed other than signed by a member of the firm or an Agent duly authorized for that purpose.” The notice was signed by Frink, Walker, and Cunan Walker. Whether Bingham left the firm voluntarily or involuntarily is unknown.

It’s likely Walker provided sufficient cash and business acumen for the operation while Frink furnished the political and operational savvy to operate the company without the need for additional partners. Historian Milo M. Quaife (Chicago Highways Old and New, 1923) appeared to agree, at least in part, with this interpretation, reporting that Frink was the partner in the new stagecoach business responsible both for operations and for negotiating the vital mail contracts.

Whatever their relationship, Bingham and the rest of Frink’s former partners with the exception of Walker left the public scene after May of 1840. From then on, the company, although formally Frink, Walker & Company, was known throughout the Midwest as Frink & Walker.

In 1849, Walker once again apparently became a silent partner in the company, which by now included a number of business partners. That year, the firm became known simply as John Frink & Company, the name it operated under until Frink’s death in 1858.

1830s Arrival of the Stage

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Frink, as Quaife reported, appears to have had excellent political connections, and was able to procure the all-important mail contracts for the company. In June 1850, a St. Louis newspaper’s Washington, D.C. correspondent reported that Frink and Walker’s mail contracts in Illinois totaled $78,000 per year, a substantial sum for the time. In addition, the firm also had contracts to deliver mail in Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan that totaled another $50,000 per year. The company’s mail contracts often earned more than $150,000 annually.

As Quaife so aptly put it: “In a day when the spoils principle was accorded universal recognition in the realm of politics, it is evident that someone connected with the firm must have been possessed of no mean order of political talent to obtain, year after year, the extensive contracts of which the figures cited afford evidence.”

If Frink had the political and personal connections, Walker seemed to have the financial knowhow.

Martin Walker was born in Hubbardton, Rutland County, Vermont on June 9, 1809. As a youngster he worked in the dry goods business before moving to Albany, N.Y., where he worked in the stage line office of Baker & Walbridge. Upon Walbridge’s death, Walker bought his interest in the company before selling out to Baker in 1838 and moving to Chicago, where he almost at once joined Frink in the mail contracting business.

But in fact, their success may have come in spite of Frink’s partnership with Walker. Walker was reported to have had a personal dispute with Postmaster General Amos Kendall, after which Kendall supposedly ordered that Walker was to have no more mail contracts. That the firm did is either testament to Frink’s business acumen or Walker’s ability to keep his interests secret. Walker’s bad relations with the post office may also been one reason the firm’s name changed to John Frink & Company in 1849.

Martin Walker had varied interests in transportation companies in and around Chicago. In addition to stagecoach companies, Walker, according to the Proceedings of the City Council of Chicago, was, with Samuel B. Walker, his older brother, operating horse-drawn omnibuses in Chicago in 1855 and 1856. During that year, the bad condition of South Clark Street apparently damaged the pair’s omnibuses and injured some of the horses used to pull them, and they filed claims for damages with the city. The pair again applied for recompense the following year for more harm done to one of their horses due to “a defective plank on Clark St.” In 1867, the Proceedings reported Walker was a partner with Guy Cutting in the Chicago South Branch Dock Company, another transportation-related venture.

Samuel Walker arrived in Chicago two years after Martin, and proceeded to become involved in a variety of businesses, including the omnibus operation and livery stables. According to the 1850 Chicago Census, he lived relatively nearby Martin Walker’s household. In Gager’s 1857 Chicago city directory, both Martin and Samuel are listed as owning a livery stable at 54 Dearborn Street. Their brother Curran is listed as a bookkeeper who was living at 69 Randolph Street.

In the 1844 Chicago city directory, Martin Walker was listed as living at his home on State Street in Chicago. His only affiliation in that directory was with Frink, Walker, & Company.

To compliment his Chicago business enterprises and his stagecoach partnership with Frink, Martin Walker acquired several hundred acres of land in Seward Township of Kendall County. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that Frink and Walker, on the Seward Township property in Walker’s name, “had stables there for their horses, and a number of houses and farms.”

Raising and resting horses weren’t the only things happening on the Frink and Walker property. Hicks also reported that in 1844, a subscription school operated for a short time in one of the houses on the company’s land.

Besides the Kendall County land, Walker also held title to four lots in blocks 8, 9, and 10 of the original City of Chicago totaling more than $3,000 in value in 1843, and his brother, Samuel B. Walker owned another lot in Block 1 of the city that was worth $2,320 in 1843.

In addition to the land owned outright by Walker, the firm of Frink & Walker owned at least 20 acres in unincorporated Cook County plus other properties.

Frink, Walker & Company, operated from their stage depot at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Clark streets in Chicago. In 1846, the company had applied to move the Illinois Exchange Building, which stood on the site, after which they built their new depot on the site.

The company’s stagecoach storage sheds, where repairs were also done on coaches and where veterinarians treated horses, were located at the northwest corner of Wabash and Randolph streets.

The combination of Frink’s expertise and energy and Walker’s money was a potent one. According to one account, “This became one of the most powerful business concerns in the Northwest, and its operations eventually extended [west] to Des Moines, Iowa and [north to] Fort Snelling, Minnesota.”

Stagecoaching, of course, was not the only sort of transportation John Frink and Martin Walker dabbled in. But it got them their start. In the future, we’ll look at other transportation technologies that were used to tie our corner of northern Illinois to the rest of the nation.

 

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Filed under Business, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Transportation, travel, Uncategorized

The old trails, traces, and thoroughfares that helped build northern Illinois

It was the spring of 1837, and Robert Hill had a problem. It was his job to persuade his neighbors in his Cook County voting precinct to fulfill their responsibilities to work on the roads that passed through the area. One road was an almost purely local trail that ended—or began, depending on your perspective—at Hill’s claim. The other was a minor branch of the Chicago to Naperville Road, itself part of the system of main thoroughfares to Ottawa and Galena.

Chicago roads scan I

The web of trails, traces, and roads leading from Chicago on Lake Michigan to the prairie hinterland as settlement in northern Illinois began is evident from Albert Scharf’s 1900 map.

In those days before state and federal tax support of road construction and maintenance, local government required residents to work on the growing system of primitive roads that, like a spider web, spread westward from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The network of trails used by Native Americans in the area bounded by Lake Michigan and the Fox River Valley probably evolved from game trails. When Europeans arrived in the area, they continued to use the existing trail system, even though, as one historian suggested, the trails were often not the most direct routes from point to point. With their twists and turns, they were often hard to follow. Names like Vincennes Trace and Potawatomi Trace suggest the trails were little more than faint tracks through the prairies and groves that dotted northern Illinois. Even experienced guides frequently got lost.

But during the settlement era—the 1820s to the 1840s—overland routes were the only options for travelers between Lake Michigan and the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru and Ottawa. Not until the Illinois & Michigan Canal linked Chicago’s lakefront with the head of navigation on the Illinois River and rail lines began stretching west of Chicago in the late 1840s was overland transport by road eclipsed.

In addition, merchants and other business owners in and around the booming lead mining town of Galena in far northwest Illinois were interested in an overland link with Chicago that might offer an alternative to expensive, relatively slow river transport of food, equipment, and other supplies the growing area required. While river transport was satisfactory for bulk cargoes, the Mississippi River of those years was a sometimes fickle transportation route. Drought often closed off portions of the river to navigation. High water sometimes did the same as the primitive steamboats of the day struggled upstream against the raging current while trying to dodge a variety of hazards, from snags to shifting sandbars. And even the mighty Mississippi often froze over during the winter months.

1820 Chicago

Chicago, as seen in this view from Lake Michigan in 1820, boasted little more than Fort Dearborn and a few fur traders’ cabins scattered along the North and South Branches of the Chicago River. Two decades later, it would be an incorporated city, the largest in northern Illinois.

Beginning in the early 1830s, as settlement accelerated in the region around the southern tip of Lake Michigan, both the state and local governments in Illinois began to lay out an official system of roadways. In northern Illinois, the initial purpose of this fledgling road net was to connect the areas south and west of Lake Michigan with Chicago and its Great Lakes links with Eastern markets.

Shipping from the east via the Great Lakes to Chicago had slowly increased since the visit of the first steamboats carrying troops during the Black Hawk War in 1832. But a major problem existed; there was no harbor at Chicago. The Chicago River entered the lake at an acute angle, running parallel to the shoreline, with a sandbar blocking entrance of the river to ships on the lake. As a result, ships had to anchor offshore and transship their cargoes over the bar in small boats. It was, time-consuming, labor-intensive, and became downright dangerous to ships and crews when storms howled out of the north and west, threatening to drive unwary vessels ashore. As a result, while steamers first visited Chicago in 1832 to drop off their cargoes of U.S. Army troops, they left as soon as they were unloaded because there was no sheltered anchorage for them.

Realizing the settlement’s strategic advantages, the U.S. Government began the creation of a true port at Chicago in 1833 by cutting a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. Construction started July 1, supervised by Maj. George Bender, 5th U.S. Infantry. Bender began with setting a series of piers through the sand bar that blocked the harbor mouth. The deceptively simple task of cutting a channel through the bar—and then making sure it stayed open—proved a lot more difficult than originally thought. It eventually took some six years, and a cost more than $100,000 (nearly $3 in today’s dollars) to get the job completely finished.

1830 Chicago Harbor improvements

The proposed improvement of a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River. When it was finally completed, the channel helped fuel Chicago’s explosive growth.

But on Saturday, Feb. 15, 1834, with only a rudimentary channel carved through the sandbar, Mother Nature took a small hand in creating the Chicago Harbor. A heavy, two-day rainstorm caused the Chicago River to suddenly rise by three feet. The outflow of storm water found the channel Maj. Bender had begun and on which Lt. James Allen was then working, and cut a 30-foot wide, 12-foot deep channel through the bar. It’s likely the astonished engineers could hardly believe their good fortune.

On May 4, the Michigan, a sidewheel steamer with a fore-and-aft sail rig, took advantage of the new channel, and became the first steamboat to enter the Chicago River harbor, passing under the recently completed Dearborn Street drawbridge to anchor along the riverbank.

For the first time, with the channel finally cut through the bar, ships didn’t have to unload their cargoes immediately and flee to an area where there was some shelter. Instead, ships could be moored at docks along the river, safe from sudden storms, while cargo was unloaded.

3 Steamboat Michigan 1833

The Michigan was the first ship to make its way through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River and dock in the city.

Just a couple months after the Michigan arrived in Chicago’s new harbor, the aptly named Illinois became the first sailing ship to enter the Chicago River under full sail. On July 12, 1834, the Illinois forged through the newly opened channel with “her top-masts covered with flags and streamers,” sailing up-river through the open Dearborn Street drawbridge to dock at Newberry & Dole’s riverbank wharf.

While work to improve the channel through the bar and keep it from refilling with sand would continue for several years, the arrival of those first Great Lakes freighters was an important start.

1834 Dearborn St drawbridge

The Dearborn Street drawbridge—the first of many that would be built in Chicago—raises to let a ship through to dock along the Chicago River in 1834.

The tonnage of goods shipped to and from Chicago skyrocketed almost immediately after the safe harbor was provided for arriving vessels. In 1833, the year work on the channel through the bar began, just four ships arrived at Chicago—two brigs and two schooners, but no steamboats. Just two years later, 250 ships arrived and a year after that, the number of arrivals had nearly doubled to 456 vessels, with the total including 49 steamships.

In addition to goods, people were also arriving at the new port, as more and more pioneer farmers used the Great Lakes route to travel west. After arriving, these pioneer families left Chicago’s swampy streets and settled on the Illinois prairies in the fast-developing city’s hinterland. Meanwhile, a growing volume of cargo awaited shipment east. Goods crowding the docks along the Chicago River included steadily increasing amounts of grain produced as the acreage of cultivated prairie rapidly expanded in northern Illinois.

In 1837, four years after the channel through the bar at the mouth of the Chicago River was begun, only 100 bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago via the Great Lakes. A decade later—and a year before the completion of the I&M Canal and commencement of construction of the first railroad west of the city—more than 2.2 million bushels of grain were shipped from Chicago. Each and every bushel of that grain arrived at Chicago thanks to the network of roads extending into the growing city’s hinterland.

That spider web of roads stretching northwest, north, and southwest of the city provided the means for the coming tsunami of growth that would propel the Chicago metropolitan region that was then supercharged by completion of the old-technology I&M Canal and the new-technology rail lines that followed the old traces and trails out of the city by the lake.

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When express riders carried the U.S. Mail at a gallop

The Pony Express became the stuff of American legend, mostly thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his world-famous Wild West shows.

Businessman William Russell established the Pony Express in April 1860 as a publicity stunt he hoped would help him win a contract to carry the U.S. Mail by stagecoach from Independence, Mo. to California. In reality, Russell’s ploy lasted only 18 months, and never carried the U.S. Mail. Rather Russell’s venture was a private express service. As one of his riders later put it, the Pony Express was a stunt, “a put-up job from start to finish.”

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The Pony Express is one of the most enduring legends of the Old West. Unfortunately, most of the legend is historical bunk.

Despite the Pony Express’s short, ineffective run, thanks to Buffalo Bill (who as William Cody was one of the young men who rode for the company) and his entertaining wild west shows, the Pony Express has gone down in American history as a noble effort to provide speedy transcontinental communications. In fact, since 1907, it has been the subject of 15 movies, two made for TV movies, and a 1959 television series.

Although most of us seem to believe Russell’s effort was the first of its kind, people living at the time knew it was not. In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s. And unlike Russell’s PR stunt, it actually carried the U.S. Mail.

Designed primarily to carry financial news linking important, but far-distant cities in the West such as New Orleans and St. Louis with Eastern markets, the Express Mail had a couple branches. One of those Express Mail branches passed through our state of Illinois on the National Road (now U.S. Route 40), connecting Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill.

John McLean, postmaster general, 1823-1829

Express Mail differed from the regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who was required to make the best time possible. Unlike the contracts for carrying the regular mail by stagecoach and wagon, Express Mail carriers could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Actually, Express Mail service was sporadically established at many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders carried messages during the colonial period, then after the Revolution, most expresses were part of the military communications network.

The need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service became apparent in the spring of 1825. When a fast sailing ship arrived from England, New York cotton merchants, learned that cotton prices on the London market had skyrocketed. They then bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the news of the price jump. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news so they could buy all the cotton they could find at low prices. When they sold the cheap cotton at the high prices in London, they made hefty profits. The cotton merchants who weren’t let in on the deal were not happy.

Postmaster General John McLean, who served from 1823-1829, vowed such a thing would never happen again, and prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” meaning any messages carried by regular mail contractors, but not carried in the official portmanteau. During that era, the U.S. Mail was strictly defined as matter that was carried in the official portmanteaus, large canvas sacks with special locks. Mail contractors were threatened with loss of their contracts if they informally carried any messages that weren’t the mail. And that was a big deal, since without a mail contract, a stagecoach company simply couldn’t be profitable. In fact, at one time if a mail contractor lost his contract, he was obliged to sell his coaches, horses, and other equipment to the successful bidder.

In an effort to get the most important economic news delivered as quickly as possible, McLean decided to establish an Express Mail to travel what was called the Great Mail Line from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year. It would be up to one of his successors to create a true Express Mail service.

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Amos Kendall, postmaster general, 1835-1840

In 1835, Amos Kendall took over the job of Postmaster General for President Andrew Jackson following a scandal that erupted when Postmaster General William Barry, who was not only incompetent, but also allowed politics to enter the mail carriage contract system. Barry’s corrupt incompetence drove the previously financially healthy postal service into bankruptcy.

Enter Kendall—our county’s namesake. Kendall was a former Tennessee newspaper publisher and crony of Jackson who turned out to have a genius for organization. In taking over from the corrupt Barry, he instituted a wide range of reforms, which, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal revenue surpluses.

Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service carrying regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the New York to New Orleans route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news. During that era, newspapers were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing the news of governmental happenings was spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, another express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, express riders traveled from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to its terminus at Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie from Terre Haute to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis. Each stage of the trip was made daily by express riders.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. Thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major improvements to the nation’s road system, the regular mail had become nearly as fast as the express riders. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

While overland travel was quickly improving the speed of the mails, the nation was also on the cusp of a telecommunications revolution that would, in less than a decade, supersede all existing communications technology. Samuel F.B. Morse invented his electric telegraph in the 1830s, and had largely perfected by 1845. In March of that year Morse and his partner Alfred Vail hired none other than former Postmaster General Amos Kendall (who’d left government service in 1840) to manage their business. Kendall, no fool he, agreed to work for a ten percent stake in the new company, which he incorporated as the Magnetic Telegraph Company. The expansion of telegraph service throughout the nation soon meant that spreading vital economic information was no longer limited to the speed of a horse, but could instead speed along copper wires. It revolutionized communications—which it continues to do to this day.

And Kendall had a hand in that success. After leaving the post office, he tried journalism and went broke (not uncommon even today) and was nearly a subject for debtor’s prison when Samuel F.B. Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, decided to hire Kendall as their business manager to manage the business of promoting their new telegraph invention. It turned out to be a genius move as Kendall turned his organization skills to promoting the telegraph. And tt ended up making Kendall a multi-millionaire.

Kendall’s Express Mail, as a stopgap while the nation improved its transportation infrastructure and communications technology, was a success, keeping the nation tied together via the most sophisticated information technology the era offered. And it might be interesting to note that sending a one-page letter by Express Mail from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois in 1837 cost 75 cents—a time when land in Illinois was selling for $1.25 per acre. That certainly puts our seemingly endless modern postal rate increases into some historical perspective.

 

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Pestekouy River Valley? Not for the past 331 years

Names of things have always fascinated me, and I guess they sometimes interest other people as well. I know that when I speak to various groups about local history, one of the most-asked questions is, “How did Oswego get its name?” Although Oswego, Illinois was named after a long-settled city in New York state, its name of Mohawk Tribe origins, many of the names of local geographical features originated right here.

For instance, a good example of a major local feature of interest is the Fox River. The Fox had been tagged with its present name several decades before the first American pioneer settlers arrived along its banks. The Fox River, as a matter of fact, was well known to explorers and map makers for well over a century before the first American settlers arrived in the area in the late 1820s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer and explorer Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to see the Fox River during their 1673 expedition.

The very first explorers who traveled through Illinois noticed the Fox River. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., led an expedition to discover where the Mississippi River’s mouth was located. The French hoped the Mississippi bore to the southwest and that its mouth was on the Pacific Ocean. By the time Jolliet and Marquette reached the mouth of the Arkansas River they were certain the Mississippi headed due south and that its mouth was probably somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico and definitely not anywhere near the Pacific.

Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, drew a map of the expedition’s journey after he arrived back in Canada following the trip. Although the most familiar edition of this map was probably not drawn by Jolliet, but rather used his information (his name is misspelled on the map), it does show the course the expedition took. It also shows the Fox River, although the stream is unnamed.

1683 Franquelin map

Franquelin’s 1684 map of LaSalle’s colony shows a number of Native American towns clustered around Starved Rock. The map shows the mouth of the Riviere Pestekouy–our Fox River–just above Starved Rock.

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was an intrepid French explorer and unsuccessful businessman who, using Jolliet and Marquette’s information, attempted to colonize Illinois beginning in 1679. LaSalle made several trips to the area before getting his trading empire started at the fort he built atop Starved Rock. Starved Rock, just as imposing three centuries ago as it is today, was called le Rocher by the French.

Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin, LaSalle’s cartographer, drew a fairly accurate map of the area comprising LaSalle’s proposed colony in 1684. On this map, the Fox River appears, but is referred to as the Riviere Pestekouy. Pestekouy was the French spelling of an Algonquian Indian word for the American bison.

Clearly, the residents of the several Indian villages located on the map along the Pestekouy River must have hunted the herds of the Eastern Bison that roamed the Illinois tallgrass prairies during those years, thus giving the river its name.

Franquelin drew another map of the area in 1688, which while more accurate than his 1684 map, still called the river Pestekouy.

In addition, Marco Coronelli, a Venetian Conventual friar, produced a map in 1688 based on gores he made for a globe in 1687, on which the Fox River is labeled Pesteconti R. It seems pretty clear that Pesteconti is an Italianization of the French Pestekouy, which is not surprising since Coronelli got most of the information for his map and globe from French sources, including Franquelin.

After Franquelin and Coronelli’s maps, cartographers stopped putting a name on the Fox River for several years.

In fact, as early as 1684, Minet, an engineer and cartographer who accompanied LaSalle, published a map with the Fox River drawn in but not named. After Coronelli’s map was published, the name Pestekouy seems to have vanished from maps.

For instance, Louis de La Porte de Louvigny in 1697 and Guillaume Delisle in 1718 both produced fairly accurate maps of the interior of North America, including the Fox River Valley, but did not label the Fox River with any name at all. The reason for this is unknown, but was probably due to the fact that the area had lost whatever economic significance it had gained during the LaSalle period due to a combination of factors, including the hostility of the Fox Indian Tribe.

1754 Ottens map detail

This detail from Ottens’ 1754 map shows the Fox River labeled as R. du Rocher, probably because of the proximity of its mouth to Starved Rock–named du Rocher by the French.

By 1700, the French trading center at le Rocher had been moved south to Fort Pimiteoui on Lake Peoria, and along with it had gone French military power in the upper Illinois and Fox River valleys. The Fox Tribe had prohibited the French from the area south and west of Green Bay, and that included use of the portage from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Lake Michigan at Green Bay and the Wisconsin River that offers a good route to the Mississippi. For more than 30 years, the French and their Indian allies battled the Fox to secure access to the area northwest of Chicago. In 1730, the French and their Native American allies vanquished the Fox for the final time, opening the area to French trade and missionaries.

In 1754, after the French had in essence exterminated the Fox, an interesting map was published in both French and Dutch titled Map of the English and French possessions in the vast land of North America. The map was published in Amsterdam by Cartographer Josua Ottens. Interestingly enough, the Fox River is named R. du Rocher on Ottens’ map, which was quite a change from Riviere Pestekouy. It seems likely the name was derived from the Fox River’s mouth’s proximity to the old French post at le Rocher. It may well be that the French traders in the area had renamed the river after the old fort at le Rocher after the trouble with the Fox Tribe was settled.

1778 Hutchins map detail

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map showing the Fox River with its modern name.

It was a few years after Ottens’ map was published that our river officially received its present name. By 1764, the French had been defeated in the final French and Indian War—called the Seven Years War in Europe. British troops slowly moved into the vast area north and west of the Ohio River that had been controlled for so long by the French.

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

On this map, published the same year that George Rogers Clark conquered Illinois for the state of Virginia during the Revolution, the Fox River was given its modern name. It is not known why Hutchins recorded the river’s name as the Fox River, but the Fox Tribe’s occupation of the area in the northern reaches of the Fox River Valley probably had a lot to do with the renaming of the stream.

Whatever the reason, the name stuck and was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish and published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

 

 

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There are no obvious answers to reversing the decline of rural America

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion in Washington, D.C. these days concerning what to do about the decline in quality of life many rural areas of the country are experiencing.

Economic opportunity seems to have disappeared from the less-populated areas of the country while it has steadily grown in larger urban areas, especially on the nation’s East and West Coasts, as well as the Chicago metro region, not to mention some of the larger urban areas in the Sunbelt.

But the old Rust Belt areas of the East and Midwest, Appalachia, and the farming areas in the center of the country have seen a steady drain on population as the farming, heavy industry, and mining on which the areas once depended have slowly shrunk or disappeared completely.

So what’s causing this economic dislocation? Different things get blamed in different areas of the country. In Appalachia, the coal mining that was once the dominant industry has all but disappeared as the use of coal has steadily declined to the point that mining jobs in, say, West Virginia have sharply dropped. These days, more than twice as many people are employed in health care as in mining. And, following the national trend, the pay for the jobs in growth fields is much less than the old jobs in mining and manufacturing.

Oswego village limits.jpg

While many rural communities in the agricultural Midwest have declined, sometimes sharply, Oswego, Illinois’ population has boomed due to its proximity to the Chicago Metro Region.

Meanwhile, here in the Midwest, which is what I’m concentrating today, the number of farmers continues to steadily decline, outpacing the loss or repurposing of agricultural land. Nowadays, with giant computerized agricultural equipment, one farmer can work more land than ten could farm 50 years ago. And with modern hybrids, and computerized planting and harvesting equipment that accurately record yields so that fertilizers and pesticides are only applied where needed, yields are typically several times what they were 50 years ago.

Farming was once extremely labor-intensive, especially in the production of the small grains of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Until the middle of the 19th Century, planting, tilling, and harvesting small grains hadn’t changed all that much for the preceding 1,000 years. It was sown by hand and tended and cultivated by hand. Harvesting consisted of cutting it by hand using scythes, gathering the cut grain into bundles which were stacked in shocks to dry. Then threshing the grain from the stalks by hand using flails and then winnowing it—by hand—to separate the chaff from the grain before it could be bagged or shoveled into bins.

But shortly after the pioneer era ended here in Kendall County, farmers began to adopt a variety of machines to help in the small grain harvest, from horse-drawn harvesters that cut the grain—later models of which also tied the stalks into bundles—to other machines that were developed to thresh the grain from the stalks. By the early 20th Century, combined harvesters were developed that cut and threshed grain all in one pass.

In 1830, as Kendall County settlement was beginning, it took 250 to 300 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, efforts at horse-drawn mechanization were having a huge impact as it only took 40 to 50 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By the 1930s, with the introduction of gas-powered tractors, the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of wheat had been cut to just 15 to 20 hours. With today’s huge modern equipment, it takes a farmer less than three hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat.

1887 Binder at work

By 1887, harvesters had turned into binders that cut and bundled grain to ready it for threshing, greatly reducing the labor needed to produce a crop.

But wheat was not a major crop here in northern Illinois much past the settlement era since the humid climate doesn’t favor it. But our climate does favor growing corn, which was a major crop from the very beginning when Native People began farming the Illinois prairies. American settlers took up where the ancient people left off, turning over the wild prairie grasses with breaking plows and growing huge amounts of corn in ever increasing varieties.

Corn farming, like small grain farming, greatly benefited from mechanization. In 1840 it took one farmer about 280 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields were about 36 bushels per acre. By 1950 hybrids and modern fertilizers pushed yields to about 50 bushels per acre. But thanks to mechanization, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had been cut to only about 14 hours. Today, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields of more than 200 bushels per acre are common.

Successful efforts at mechanization have had fairly dramatic effects on farming across the nation, including here in Kendall County. Improvements in farm technology, from mechanization to better hybrids to improved fertilizers and pesticides have led, over the years, to fewer, larger farms. In 1950, there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County averaging 180 acres each. By 2012, the number had dropped to just 364 farms that were twice as large, averaging 356 acres.

John Deere corn harvester

Huge modern equipment allows one farmer to do the work it previously took 10 to do. The modernization of agriculture has had a significant impact on rural America.

The economic impact on Kendall County created by those profound changes in farming have not had a negative economic impact here, because beginning in the 1990s, instead of growing corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of farmland, we began growing residential and retail developments. Kendall County is at the end of the growth funnel created by the U.S. Route 34 corridor that continues to inject new residents here looking for less expensive housing than can be found to the immediate east, along with good schools, parks, libraries and other amenities families look for. Yes, that growth can often create problems. But the problems are minuscule compared with other rural areas of the Midwest are suffering as the result of changes created, I believe, in large part by the changes in agriculture.

All over Iowa, for instance, small towns are declining, watching their once-thriving business districts turn into vacant storefronts as the community is served, if they’re lucky, by a Casey’s General Store mini-mart and gas station. Up in Wisconsin, in country where there used to be thousands of small dairy farms, pastures and hayfields are now overgrown with brush and trees as barns and whole farmsteads are overtaken by the Northwoods. The smaller dairy farms were forced out of business by a combination of consolidation by larger corporate farms and implementation of stronger health standards that penalized smaller farms.

A case in point is the small northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls. My family has been heading up to Butternut Lake a couple miles north of town for more than 40 years now. And during that time the town’s population has declined by one-third.

So what’s going on in those areas not lucky enough to be near a vibrant region like the Chicago metro region? The answer I found lies in those farming statistics I cited above. One farm family can now take care of what 10 farm families tended 60 years ago. For every farm family left, there are nine fewer families to send their children to local schools, nine fewer families who go to church on Sunday, nine fewer families buying back-to-school clothes and supplies, and nine fewer farmers patronizing the local lumberyard, hardware store, and implement dealer. Even more population leaches out of communities as businesses leave and that makes it difficult to maintain public services from roads to fire departments to schools and impossible to attract any new classes of business that could conceivably replace agriculture. Most of these communities have seen their rail service, along with the tracks themselves, eliminated long ago by the frenzy of railroad consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s, and they’re too far from any Interstate highway, not to mention raw materials and potential customers, that could make locating a manufacturing operation there economical.

small depressed town

Small towns all over Iowa, central Illinois, and other areas of the rural Midwest are slowly dying as their populations evaporate.

It’s a negative feedback loop that turns into a death spiral: Children of the families that remain graduate from high school and can find no jobs, so they move away as do families with skills or wherewithal to find new jobs and start new lives elsewhere, increasing the population drain and leaving behind a populace that is increasingly unskilled, elderly, and impoverished that today is often also afflicted by the nation’s tragic opioid epidemic.

So, what’s to be done? I have no idea. Farmers certainly aren’t going to go back to growing crops with horse-drawn equipment. The local department, grocery, and hardware stores, even if they tried to come back, couldn’t compete with Walmart.

It’s probably a good thing that people are starting to look at these depressed areas with a view towards doing something to help them. But it’s going to take a much smarter person than I to figure out how to counteract the negative impact of nearly 200 years of technological progress on rural America.

 

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Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual during the cold weather months of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with those old coal-fired furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.

Today, coal is still an economic factor in Illinois (although a fast-diminishing one), although the uses to which it is now put have drifted far from home heating and firing kitchen cookstoves. Its modern uses would no doubt astound the explorers who discovered the mineral in the Illinois of the 1600s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and missionary Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., were the first Europeans to discover coal in what would one day become the State of Illinois.

In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”

These two instances were, in point of fact, the first discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for many years, however.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was first commercially mined in Illinois along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. Several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans that year.

As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal continued to be found in some abundance. Coal was found near the salines (salt producing areas) in Gallatin and Vermillion Counties, and as early as 1822 coal was shipped down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from Peoria to New Orleans.

19th Century coal mining

Coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous business. But it helped power Illinois as one of the nation’s premier industrial states.

Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers because of the problems transporting the stuff to market. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal that was mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi for heating and to fuel steam engines.

John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal. The line’s cars were horse-drawn from the mines over six miles of wooden rails to Illinoistown—modern East St. Louis—where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped down the Mississippi.

And the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.

By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal regularly—measurement in tons was several years in the future. The measurement in bushels indicates that at that time, coal was shipped in burlap bags, each of which had to be filled, and then moved on and off transports, from wagons to rail cars to riverboats for shipment.

Most of the early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs, or stream banks. Shaft mines were needed to reach the rich, thick veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining had to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.

marseillesilonimcanal.jpg

Tons of coal were hauled annually through Ottawa on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, cheaper than by rail. But the canal was closed due to winter freezes for several months a year.

By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal when it opened in 1848, which provided means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Erie, Penn.

Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source of fueling locomotives than was wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal fields in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free prairies in the central part of the state. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and shaft mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau, and Rock Island Counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox Counties, and the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermilion County.

Here in the Fox River Valley, coal was a vital resource for homes and businesses, and the CB&Q’s monopoly on transporting it, and therefore feeling free to gouge it’s customers, led to building the independent Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad linking the Vermilion coal fields in Streator with Geneva. From Ottawa north through Yorkville and Oswego on north, the tracks paralleled the course of the Fox River. But literally the minute the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to seize control of the new line and so was still able to dictate coal prices. The first railcar loads of coal on the new line arrived in Kendall County towns in January 1871, priced one-third higher than it had been promised when the line was being built.

As John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record complained in the paper’s Nov. 21, 1872 edition: The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

Throughout the 19th Century, continual efforts were made to secure adequate coal supplies for Kendall County’s farms and villages, even to the point of looking for it inside the county. And occasional coal seams were located. In 1887, coal was discovered by well-drillers in Fox Township, in Lisbon Township and in Oswego Township. But all the discoveries were too deep underground and the seams too thin to warrant sinking mine shafts.

Cliggitt Grain Elevator, Oswego, Dec. 2, 1911. Photo by Dwight S. Young.

The coal sheds at Oswego were located across the tracks of the CB&Q Railroad’s Fox River Branch from the Oswego Grain Company’s elevator. Oswego businessman John W. Chapman received the line’s first shipment of coal in January 1871. (Dwight Young photo in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

Since railroads, mining, and manufacturing—particularly producing iron and steel—were all interrelated, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of prairie farming.

At the start of the Civil War, iron and steel production was a growing, but still not an overly important industry. With the outbreak of war, however, domestic sources of these important metals were badly needed, and during the next 25 years, the United States grew to become the world’s leading steel and iron producer.

Because of Chicago’s strategic location between the iron mines of Lake Superior and the coal fields of central Illinois, the city soon became one of the nation’s leading centers of manufacturing and transportation. That also spread to the areas nearby, particularly Joliet, where starting in 1869 the Joliet Iron & Steel Works produced pig iron and in 1873 started out producing thousands of miles of railroad rails from its rolling mill. The Joliet Iron & Steel Company owned a dam on the DesPlaines River that powered four blast furnaces that could turn out 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. The iron mill closed in 1936, and the steel mill was finally completely shuttered in the early 1980s.

Coal mining underwent many changes over the years, too, with shaft mines being gradually replaced by huge open pit mines, such as those operated by the Peabody Coal Company in Grundy County, just south of the Kendall County line.

Image result for DeKalb County Illinois wind farm

Wind farms like this one in DeKalb County have popped all over northern Illinois’ rural countryside, part of the effort to replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Today, coal’s use as a fuel for electrical generating plants is rapidly dying out as more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of producing power, such as wind and solar energy are displacing it. A new study released this past May found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants nationally with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, with wind power in particular at times cutting the cost almost in half. Overseas, Sweden is pledging to be coal-free by 2040 and in South America, Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Coal isn’t just inefficient and expensive, it’s also dangerous to the environment. Burning coal spews a dismaying amount of aggressive pollutants into the atmosphere, many of which have been proven to worsen global climate change. Climate data captured in tree growth rings; ocean and lake sediments; ice cores; and other forms of data show that the effect on the world’s climate by burning coal began to show up almost as soon as coal began to power the Industrial Revolution—and that was on top of climate changes already put in place as early man began farming and otherwise changing the landscape to suit himself.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average coal generating plant, because of the trace elements coal contains, leaks more radiation into the environment than does a nuclear power plant. So it’s a good thing coal’s on its way out as a way to produce electrical power and that renewable resources from solar and wind to hydro and thermal are quickly replacing it.

But for decades, coal not only powered the nation in general, but it also powered Illinois’ ascension as one of the nation’s industrial powerhouses. Today, the challenge is to try to deal with all of the environmental problems we created for ourselves during that era.

 

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