Category Archives: Kendall County

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 Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners.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

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.”

Image result for pony express

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.

Image result for amos kendall

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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Buying history is sometimes the only way it can be saved

A few years ago, I got an email from my friend Lyle Rolfe, who covers the Oswegoland Park District for our local community newspaper, the Ledger-Sentinel. He’d gotten a copy of the report I do every month for the board of the Oswegoland Heritage Association about the Little White School Museum here in town, and he noticed that we sometimes purchase items for our collections on eBay.

We don’t do a lot of that, but we probably average one item every couple months over a year’s time.

And thanks to those occasional eBay purchases, we’ve been able, for instance, to fill in the gaps of our collection of plaques manufactured by the Christian Art House here in Oswego from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and we’ve acquired a number of historically important postcards over the years, too.

One interesting postcard we purchased thanks to eBay ended up, like so many artifacts acquired for the museum, leading to us becoming more familiar with a couple interesting fragments of the Oswego area’s history.

1910 Horse tower trestle A b&w

The 1910 postcard showing the bell tower added to the old town hall in 1895 and the trolley trestle over the CB&Q tracks on Washington Street.

This particular postcard was mailed in 1910 from Oswego, and at first we thought the message on it was written in German. But it wasn’t necessarily the message on the postcard that caught our eye anyway. Instead, it was the view. The postcard’s photo was taken behind the retail businesses on the west side of Main Street, between Main Street and the (then) Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks, looking south. As a result, it showed the trestle on Washington Street that carried the interurban trolley tracks up and over the CB&Q tracks, which was interesting. But even more interesting was the view of the old Oswego Town Hall on Washington Street. It was one of the best views we’d seen of the hose tower that had been added to the hall after Oswego’s first pressurized water system was built and a fire brigade established.

2008 Twp Hall

The old town hall on Washington Street fell to the wrecker’s ball last year.

The tower was added to the town hall (built in 1884 as the village hall) in 1895 to house the village’s fire bell, and also to hang and dry the fire brigade’s canvas hoses after they were used.

The venerable old frame building was torn down last year to make way for a new business.

The bell the tower once housed, and which once called the village’s firefighters to action, is today the subject of a nice memorial out at the Oswego Fire Protection District’s new Station One on Woolley Road.

So we really wanted that postcard, and we were able to buy it very cheaply.

2010 March 5 fire bell remove

In March 2010, the old fire bell was moved from downtown Oswego to the new fire station on Woolley Road.

When we received the card, I immediately scanned it, and emailed a copy of the scan to a friend I knew could read German. He, however, informed me the card was not written in German, but in Danish!

Danes? In Oswego? Why, yes, actually. Turns out there was a small contingent of Danes living here, one of whom was Johann Schmidt, who had sent the postcard from Oswego to Denmark in 1910.

So we had a couple tasks. First, find someone to translate the card’s message, and second figure out who the heck Johann Schmidt was.

For help translating the card, I went to hNet, an Illinois network of professional historians. While I’m not one, they graciously allow me to participate from time to time. With their help we found native Danish speaker Anni Holm at Waubonsee Community College, who volunteered to translate the postcard.

According to her, the card was sent by Schmidt to his nephew, Max Schmidt, in Marstal, Denmark, congratulating the younger Schmidt on his recent confirmation, and explaining about the elder Schmidt’s prize stallion. Here’s Anni’s translation:

“Dear brother son Max S.

Have received your card and thank you for the applications. Yes, I am well and have it good. Hope the same for you and will I here wish you congratulations and a blessed confirmation, it is sad that I could not attend [unreadable word] to your confirmation

Your uncle Hans J. S.”

1910 Horse tower trestle B

The message side of the 1910 postcard, which turned out to have been written in Danish.

On top of the card the upside down text says the following: “this stallion as you see of the picture has been mine and it is hyre [Danish for hired] man who walked with it”

And who was Johann Schmidt? Turns out he was a prominent Oswego saloonkeeper during the early 1900s. Going by the names Johann Schmidt, John Schmidt, Shorty Smith, and John Smith, he owned The Oswego Saloon, which, when it was under construction in 1897, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, predicted:

“It will by far be the most gorgeous establishment of the kind that Oswego ever had.”

Just to sow a little more local history confusion, Rank added in March 1898:

“J.A. Schmidt and Ira Ackley have been doing the decorating of the new saloon building, all of which is most magnificent. Every room is of different color and pattern. The wine room–well, gorgeous or splendid–fail to express the sight of it.”

The J.A. Schmidt doing the decorating was not the Johann Schmidt who eventually bought The Oswego Saloon. J.A. was a German, a native Berliner, who worked around the Oswego area doing painting and wallpapering.

Johann Schmidt the saloonkeeper was a Dane who bought The Oswego Saloon from Al Cole in November 1904, and continued to run it as Oswego’s premier drinking establishment until prohibition closed it down.

So successful was he, in fact, that Schmidt was the victim of a strong-arm robbery. According to the Oct. 16, 1907 Kendall County Record:

HIT WITH AN AX;

ROBBED OF $300

John Schmidt, Oswego Saloon-Keeper,

Knocked Unconscious Last Night.

John “Shorty” Schmidt, one of the Oswego saloonkeepers, was going home last night from his place of business about 11 o’clock when he was attacked from ambush, hit on the head with an ax, and relieved of a roll if bills amounting to $800.

Mr. Schmidt lives in one of the small cottages along the railroad track below the village hall and it is his custom to go around the end of the town house, taking a shortcut to his own rear door. At the end of the village building is a clump of bushes and as he was passing those bushes he was suddenly felled to the ground with a heavy blow on the head. He was unconscious for about 15 minutes, and while he was senseless the hold-up men took his money. He is confined to his home this morning with a deep gash on the back of his head, which came near being a fractured skull.

So we gained a lot of interesting Oswego history with a vanishing small investment in a single postcard we were able to find thanks to eBay. And that’s the way local history rolls. Bit by bit, you build up a store of information that you can, when a key part finally becomes available, synthesize and arrive at some valuable insights.

“How do you go about researching local history,” a friend asked me not long ago. He’s right to be perplexed. It’s not like you can go to some Internet source and find out all about early 20th Century Oswego saloonkeepers of Danish descent.

Rather, this is how we do it, one bit at a time, until a key piece drops into place and makes the story whole, or at least as whole as it can be until the next bit is discovered and, in turn, drops into place.

 

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“Picturing Oswegoland”

We opened a new special exhibit at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego on Aug. 1 titled “Picturing Oswegoland.”

The museum is located at 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk), just a couple blocks east of the historic downtown business district here in Oswego. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, but we don’t turn donations down.

The exhibit was the brainchild of my fellow volunteer, Bob Stekl, who is the museum’s assistant director, and includes a few more than 240 images of Oswego and the surrounding area that date from the 19th Century through the 20th Century and into the 21st Century.

Since this blog’s readers don’t all live in or near Oswego, I thought I’d put up a selection of the images now on exhibit so you can get an idea of what it’s like. “Picturing Oswegoland” will be up through Sept. 1, so you’ve got a couple more weeks to go if you’re up to planning a visit.

Here are the images I selected:

1890 Harvey Threshing Ring B

Farmers in the area of Wolf’s Crossing and Harvey roads were members of the Harvey Threshing Ring. The small grains (oats, wheat, barley, rye) was pretty labor-intensive back in the day.

1898 Aurora Golf Club at Boulder Hill

Not many people know the Aurora Country Club got its start at the Boulder Hill Stock Farm–site of today’s Boulder Hill Subdivision. The clubhouse (top) was the A.C. Hyde House, which is still standing on Briarcliff Road.

1900 abt German Evangelical Church

The Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist is still a community landmark after standing at Washington and Madison streets for well over a century.

1900 Haag Farm Steam Engine

They used some serious equipment to thresh grain back in the day.

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main.jpg

In 1903, you could hop the interurban trolley car at Main and Washington streets for a trip to Aurora to shop or to go to high school or work. The two ladies at right have just gotten off the trolley and are walking home. Note the horse and buggy on Main Street.

1903 wagon crossing river

Another 1903 image we believe was taken by Mary Cutter Bickford looking north towards the bridge from behind the houses along South Main Street.

 

1904 Main at Wash look N

A nice postcard view of the Main Street business district looking north. Note the trolley tracks at left and the trolley’s electrical wires above the tracks. And you can’t miss the tangle of telephone lines on the poles on the east side of Main Street as two phone companies battled each other.

1905 OHS baseball

The 1905 Oswego High School Baseball Team on the steps of the old Red Brick School. The boys are wearing hand-me-down jerseys from the East Oswego men’s baseball team that was mostly comprised of farm boys from the Wolf’s Crossing Road area.

1910 5 Jun 3.30 pm Scan

One of my all-time favorite Oswego photos, snapped by Daniel Bloss at exactly 3:30 p.m. on June 5, 1910. Talk about your shapshots in time!

1910 Lumbard School, Amanda Hummel teach.jpg

The student body of the Lumbard School, often incorrectly called the Lombard School, that was located over in the Hafenrichter Road area. Check out all the barefoot kids…no dress code back then!

1911 abt Washington St. hill winter

Another one of my favorite Oswego shots, taken on Washington Street at Main, looking east towards what was then the German Evangelical Church. It nicely illustrates the era when automobiles were beginning to displace horse-drawn transport.

1911 Fox River Park Scene

The Oswego area once had its very own amusement park, Riverview Park, located on the site of the old Western Electric plant right across the river from Boulder Hill. It was a happening place with visitors taken there by the trolley line that ran from Aurora to Yorkville.

1913 Fox River Park with coaster.jpg

Another Riverview Park postcard view. The name was changed about 1906 to Fox River Park to differentiate it from the much larger Riverview Park in Chicago. Fox River Park featured a rollercoaster, giant merry-to-round, shoot the chutes, boating, and much more.

1912 Acme Binders

In 1912, Oswego implement dealer Bob Johnson sold 25 new Acme binders that arrived just in time for that year’s small grain harvest. The binders paraded through town down to “The Flats” just above the Oswego Bridge for this group photo before their owners drove them home.

1912 Red Brick exterior

A nice view of the Red Brick School before the 1920s classroom and gymnasium addition. The photo was taken by Dwight Young.

1922 (abt) Weishew Clinic

Dr. Lewis Weishew built this medical clinic at Main and Van Buren Streets in 1922. This photo was probably taken shortly after the building was finished.

1927 Parke Building

Earl Zentmyer bought the A.O Parke building on Main at Jackson Street  from Gus Shoger and opened his first Ford dealership and gas station in it. He eventually bought the old livery stable across Main Street from it and moved his dealership there, although he retained ownership of the building.

1930 Leapfrog at Bronk School.jpg

Nothing like a spirited game of leapfrog during recess, I always say. Bronk School, which marked the southern edge of the Oswego School District, was located at Caton Farm and Ridge roads–and still stands as a private home.

1933 Downtown Oswego, looking N from Washington St

Downtown Oswego all decorated up to celebrate the community’s centennial in 1933.

1940 Schultz Grocery Store freezer

Charlie Schultz (left) and Carl Bohn show off their brand new Birdseye frozen food display case in downtown Oswego in 1940.

1942 "Dinky" at Oswego Depot

The CB&Q’s gass-electric passenger car, nicknamed “The Dinky” by its riders, pulls out of the Oswego railroad station in 1942 on its way south through Yorkville and Ottawa to Streator. Passenger service was offered until 1952 when it was replaced by bus service.

1944 Sept saying pledge outdoors cropped

Saying the pledge at Church School out in Wheatland Township during World War II.

1949 Nehru visits WA Smith farm

The area enjoyed the occasional visit from an international celebrity, including a 1949 visit from the Prime Minister of India.

1954 St. Anne's Catholic Church

Postcard celebrating the opening of St. Anne’s Catholic Church in 1954. The reason it looks like half a building is because it was. Original plans called for eventually doubling the church’s size with an addition to the east, but instead a new church was built on Boulder Hill Pass.

Oswego High School, spring 1957. Little White School Museum photo.

I was in the last high school class to graduate from this building in the spring of 1964. Then it became Oswego Junior High and later Traughber Junior High.

1957 Willow Hill School

Speaking of schools, Willow Hill School was one of the last one-room schools in the Oswego School District. This photo was taken by Everett Hafenrichter.

1958 Bypass const at Playhouse

Building U.S. Route 30 Bypass in 1958, with the Boulder Hill Playhouse in the background.

1958 Wormley Campbell's Tomato farmer

Oswego’s Jim Wormley’s dad, Myron, was one of the many area farmers who raised tomatoes commercially in the 1950s. His son, Jim, became one of the advertising faces of Campbell’s Soup.

1960 basketball game

Everyone’s pretty excited at this basketball game in this photo from the 1960 Oswego High School yearbook, The Reflector.

1961 Federated Church

Leonard Hafenrichter captured this snapshot of the Federated Church–now the Church of the Good Shepherd–in the spring of 1960.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines retouch

CB&Q locomotives rumble past the Oswego Depot in September 1965.

1977 OHS Varsity Coach Dave Babcock

Dave “Chopper” Babcock encourages players during the 1977 varsity football season. I believe this is a Jon Cunningham photo, but am not sure.

1998 Oswego Prairie Church

This landmark out on the Oswego Prairie, with its lighted cross atop the bell tower, is still standing.

Stop by the museum from now through Sept. 1 and see all the images we’ve selected to exhibit from our collection of more than 10,000 prints, negatives, transparancies, tintypes, Daguerreotypes, and Ambrotypes. After all, it’s free, and it will be your last chance for a while to see most of these before we put them away again.

The Little White School Museum is a cooperative project of the not-for-profit Oswegoland Heritage Association and the Oswegoland Park District.

 

 

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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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