Category Archives: Kendall County

The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Pre-Civil War Illinois was an unfriendly place for people of color…

The treatment of Black Americans is once again big news as much of the nation has apparently decided they’re dissatisfied with how law enforcement treats people of color.

The senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of a veteran Minneapolis police officer, recorded on video by a young bystander has led to weeks of demonstrations, some initial violence, and quite a bit of introspection. The latest twist in the on-going story is the announced aim by the Minneapolis City Council to disband and completely reconfigure the city’s law enforcement agency in an effort to rid police ranks of those who can’t be trusted to wield authority.

That seems like a drastic situation, but it’s far from unprecedented. Camden, NJ successfully did the same thing a few years ago, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in crime. And Kalamazoo, Michigan essentially did the same by disbanding their police and fire departments and then reconstituting them as a single public safety department, reportedly with good results.

I wonder if those who won the Civil War—which more accurately ought to be called the War Against Treason in Defense of Slavery—thought we’d still be fighting the battle to assure equal treatment under the law for people of color more than a century and a half after Robert Lee surrendered to Gen. U.S. Grant in 1865 to end the war.

The struggle to end slavery had been on-going for many years before the Civil War began. After the nation’s founding following the Revolutionary War, northern states gradually outlawed or otherwise discouraged slavery. Anti-slavery societies were established to fight the institution all over the North. Abolitionists fought against a continual campaign by Southern states to protect and expand slavery into new territories as the nation expanded to the west. Part of that fight was to encourage slaves to escape their masters and head north, assisted by members of the Underground Railway—a network of anti-slavery advocates who hid, supported, and helped enslaved persons flee.

1826 Slave sale Kaskaskia

A Kaskaskia, Illinois newspaper carried these two advertisements in December 1826, clearly illustrating that slavery definitely existed in the state.

We’ve been led to believe that during the pre-Civil War era, if escaped slaves could just get north of the Ohio River or east of the Mississippi and into states like Ohio or Illinois, they were pretty much home free. But that’s far from the truth.

Granted, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were “free” states, but that didn’t mean that Blacks were welcomed—or even tolerated. In fact, racism and anti-slave sentiment were strong partners during that era, especially here in Illinois where a pro-slavery state constitution was nearly approved in the 1820s.

Actually, from the Black Codes of the early 19th Century to the largely unwritten “Sundown Laws” of the 20th Century, the history of race relations in Illinois has always been fraught with conflicting views and actions.

In accord with the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the new states formed from the old Northwest Territory—the region north and west of the Ohio River—were to be admitted to the Union as free, and not slave, states.

Illinois was formally admitted as a state of the Union in December 1818, the bicentennial of which we celebrated a couple years ago. But while slavery was prohibited by the Northwest Ordinance, that didn’t result in the new state being slave-free.

First of all, Illinois’ French inhabitants, a colonial remnant from the era before 1765 when the British prevailed in the French and Indian War, were allowed to keep their slaves, which created a significant legal loophole right off the bat. Further, state law permitted indentured servitude, meaning slave owners could bring their chattel property into Illinois as long as the owners engaged in the legal fiction of classifying their slaves as indentured servants.

In 1818 when it became clear Congress was going to establish the State of Illinois, elections were held and the first General Assembly began meeting on October 4, the session lasting until March 31, 1819. During that first General Assembly, one of the major pieces of legislation passed was the state’s first Black Code, a remarkably restrictive piece of legislation. In fact, Illinois’ restrictions on people of color were some of the toughest in the nation, North or South. Under the new law, black residents of Illinois were prohibited from voting, testifying in court, or even bringing suit against whites. They were further prohibited from gathering in groups of three or more without risk of being jailed or flogged. Finally, they were prohibited from serving in the militia and so were denied their Second Amendment right to own or bear arms.

It was made mandatory for blacks living in Illinois to obtain and carry a Certificate of Freedom with them at all times. Otherwise, they were assumed to be escaped slaves by default and were liable for arrest.

The new Illinois constitution also allowed unlimited indentured servitude—which was slavery in all but name—at the salt mines in southern Illinois, one of the new state government’s main sources of revenue.

At that time, most of the state’s residents had arrived by emigrating from the South, and most of the early state officials were southerners who were former—and sometimes current—slave owners. As a result, almost immediately after statehood, pro-slavery forces began militating for a new state constitutional convention at which they planned to write and pass a pro-slavery constitution. In 1822, the statewide referendum to do just that failed by a fairly substantial margin, but in response and as a sop to the state’s large pro-slavery faction, a series of even more restrictive Black Codes were adopted.

1854 John & Mary Jones certs of freedom

John and Mary Jones’ certificates of freedom issued by Madison County in southern Illinois in 1854. Black Americans were required to present their certificate of freedom issued by their county of residence or face being sold at auction.

For instance, an 1829 addition to the Black Codes required all free Black Illinois residents to register at their county seat. They were also required to register a certificate of freedom from the state in which they had previously lived. Further, each free Black, no matter their age, was required to post a $1,000 bond to cover any future costs should they become indigent or break the law. In today’s dollars, that was requiring a $25,000 cash bond, something that very few Black families could afford for even one person, let alone every single family member. In practice, most blacks who emigrated to Illinois during that period usually found a friendly white resident who would post the bond for them—something that created nearly insurmountable debt.

1859 Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad routes through Livingston, LaSalle, and Kendall counties in the years before the Civil War, as illustrated in the 1914 history of Kendall County.

As a result of these restrictive laws, most of the Black slaves from south of the Ohio River who fled their owners lived in Illinois illegally, subject to arrest and flogging if caught. The frequent arrival of escapees created an atmosphere of fear in Black communities, especially in southern Illinois where slave catchers from Kentucky and Tennessee had no compunctions about kidnapping even legally free blacks and selling them south of the river. Selling someone down the river wasn’t just a saying back then; it was a real threat. Kidnapping and selling people of color was, in fact, a financially lucrative practice with which state officials either ignored or tacitly supported.

Illinois’ official antipathy towards Black residents resulted in a large and active group of Underground Railroad supporters, who worked to hustle escaped slaves north to Canada where the government was far more welcoming.

It was under these restrictive, racist laws that Kendall County had its first, and last, slave auction. On Christmas Eve, 1844, Mr. McLaughlin, a prominent resident of Bureau County, was on his way to Chicago with three bobsled loads of dressed pork. McLaughlin was driving one of the bobs, his hired man was driving the second, and an African-American was driving the third.

As they traveled northeast on the old Chicago to Ottawa Trail, they passed the farm of John Boyd. Boyd and his son-in-law, Matthew Throckmorton, were working outside and saw the procession pass on the snowy road. The pair, natives of Kentucky and strongly pro-slavery, immediately suspected the black man driving one of the bobsleds was an escaped slave. So they mounted their horses and pursued McLaughlin’s party, catching up to it just as it crossed Hollenback Creek.

Boyd and Throckmorton forced the party to stop, and Throckmorton, in the words of George M. Hollenback, “rushed up to the negro driver, and with a great show of authority said. ‘Come down off that, suh, I want you.’” Hollenback went on to explain, “Throckmorton was a native of Kentucky, and had been a slave driver in his native state, and used to considerable extent, the southern dialect in ordinary conversation.”

Boyd ordered Throckmorton to tie both the black driver and McLaughlin up, but McLaughlin replied that he was a free man and would not stand to be detained, indicating that both he and his hired man would fight for their rights. George Hollenback, who had arrived at the scene by that time with several family members, including his son, George M. Hollenback, vouched for McLaughlin, who he knew, and ordered Boyd and Throckmorton to leave him alone. In the face of this defense, the two former Kentuckians decided to leave well enough alone, and told McLaughlin to go on his way, which he did, probably glad not to have had to use violence to free himself.

The Black man, however, was not so lucky. He could not produce his certificate of freedom (in fact, it’s likely he really was a traveler on the Underground Railroad, heading to Chicago and points north), so Boyd and Throckmorton headed to Newark to find the justice of the peace there, George B. Hollenback (nephew of McLaughlin’s defender, George Hollenback—that area was rife with Hollenbacks at the time). The two former Kentuckians demanded that Justice of the Peace Hollenback take charge of their prisoner, but he refused, claiming ignorance of the relevant law, and instead told the two men to take the man to Kendall County Sheriff James S. Cornell at Yorkville.

Boyd and Throckmorton took their prisoner to the county seat at Yorkville, where Sheriff James Cornell confined him with the intent to sell him to the highest bidder to defray the costs of boarding him.

At the time, abolitionists were considered by many to be far left extremists. While many Illinoisans disliked slavery, most opposition was based more on economic issues arising from the large pool of slave labor in the Southern states. On the other hand, many of the county’s settlers prior to 1844 had come from Northern states, including Vermont, Massachusetts, and, especially, New York. Their views of the evils of slavery put them at odds with settlers, like Boyd and Throckmorton, who had emigrated from Southern states.

1841 KC Courthouse

The 1844 Kendall County Courthouse in Yorkville, photographed shortly before it was demolished. The ‘new’ courthouse, built in 1864, can be seen in the left background.

The ensuing auction of the unlucky Black man took place on the steps of the original county courthouse, which stood a couple blocks from the present Historic Courthouse in Yorkville. A large crowd gathered, and from various accounts it appeared as if the members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society were well represented. Pro-slavery residents, if they attended at all, were apparently intimidated by the large number of anti-slavery members of the crowd. In the end, the only bidder was Dr. Townsend Seeley, a prominent member of the Anti-Slavery Society (and an undercover member of the Kendall County Underground Railway), who won with a bid of $3. Under terms of the state’s Black Codes, Seeley could put the newly purchased Black man to work to work off the cost of his purchase. Since Illinois was such a hostile place for Black Americans, Seeley came up with an innovative way for the man to work off his debt and escape at the same time.

As Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. Edmund W. Hicks, put it, since Seeley “could put him at any work, he decided to set him traveling toward liberty. The dark man was willing, and biding good-bye to his new acquaintances at the capital of Kendall county, he set out on a successful trip to Canada.”

As if the existing Black Codes weren’t bad enough, the 1853 Black Exclusion Act, sponsored by John A. Logan, later a Civil War general and creator of Memorial Day, was even more draconian and unfair.

So escaping to Illinois created a precarious existence for runaway slaves, but one many enslaved people were willing to chance to gain their freedom. And things didn’t significantly change until the later years of the Civil War.

1864 Repeal Black Codes

Prominent African-American John Jones (see his freedom certificate above) made this plea to repeal Illinois’ Black Codes in 1864. The General Assembly agreed to repeal in 1865 to encourage Black enlistment in the Union Army.

As the war dragged on, more troops were needed, and eventually the entreaties of prominent northern Blacks and anti-slavery whites persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to authorize enlistment of several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Illinois Governor Richard Yates enthusiastically jumped at the chance to enlist a Black regiment from Illinois, but recruitment was slow as Black Illinoisans pointed out the onerous and unfair restrictions on their freedoms represented by the state’s Black Codes.

In partial response, and bowing to the reality that Black Illinoisans were indeed being armed by the hundreds to fight against southern sedition, the General Assembly repealed the Black Codes early in 1865. But even then, Black residents were not granted the right to vote or most of the other civil rights white residents took for granted. Those were finally won thanks to the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, as well as, two decades later, the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 1885.

Even so, Yates was able to use promises of future civil rights, as well as monetary bounties to facilitate recruiting for Illinois’ Black infantry regiment, which was mustered into United States service as the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. The regiment fought through the later stages of the Civil War, acquitting itself well. It was severely mauled during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, suffering many killed and wounded. Among the wounded was Pvt. Nathan Hughes, who would recover only to get wounded one more time before moving to Kendall County after the war to farm along Minkler Road. Hughes and his 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment comrade Thomas Jefferson, are buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, along with Robert Ridley Smith, a veteran of the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry and Tony Burnett who served as a cook with the 4th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry Regiment.

Given the roadblocks thrown up in front of them, it is remarkable that so many Black Illinois residents tenaciously fought for the right to honorably serve their nation and their state during the country’s time of such great need.

 

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Oswego has had its very own fossil since the 19th Century

One of my favorite authors is the late James Michener. For years while he was alive, his fans looked forward to reading one of his thick, arm-breaking novels, especially during the summer.

From Hawaii to Texas to Alaska, Michener has entertained and enlightened. It seemed to me, at least, that Michener must have spent years researching each of his books—and he did. One of the wonderful things about all of them is the minute detail into which Michener goes in explaining the background of the story he’s telling.

In Centennial, for instance, Michener starts out by telling the story of the life of a lady brontosaurus who was galumphing around Colorado 60 million years or so ago.

Here in Kendall County, not a whole lot was happening 60 million years ago, at least we don’t think so. At that time, this part of the landscape was high, dry land of a kind that unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the preservation of fossils. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say we don’t think a whole lot was happening back then.

The real action had happened some millions of years before, starting in the Precambrian era when the Earth’s crust got its foundation. Here in Kendall County, the evidence of Precambrian times—a thick layer of granite—lies about 4,000 feet below the surface, forming what geologists like to call the Precambrian Basement. It’s sobering to think that at one time, about a billion years ago, that granite was the surface of the land, although not one we’d recognize. During that era, the area was bare, dense rock, possibly cut by a few streams with no life at all, because the oxygen we breathe today had yet to be liberated from the planet’s crust.

2 Tentaculities oswegoensis fossil

A nice bunch of tentaculites Oswegoensis (the elongated cone-shaped fossils) along with a nice crinoid plate is part of the exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

From the lifelessness of the Precambrian, the area lurched into a riot of life during the Paleozoic Era starting about 570 million years ago. It was during this era that much of the dolomite and limestone that undergirds Kendall County was laid down. During the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic, from about 505 to 438 million years ago, Kendall County was part of the floor of a shallow sea. Because of this, large deposits of sandstone—particularly the valuable white St. Peter sandstone that can be found along the south Fox River—that can be found up and down the Fox Valley were left behind, as were layers of Ordovician limestone and dolomite. The numerous invertebrate creatures that thrived in the warm seas overlaying Kendall County left their mark in fossils in limestone outcrops all over the area. They can be most easily seen in my hometown of Oswego along Waubonsie Creek near North Adams Street where brachiopods and other bi-valves, along with other fossilized creatures, are commonly visible.

And, in fact, one of those creatures is even named for Oswego. As the story goes, in 1852 Dr. Mordecai Davis, an Oswego doctor, was surveying the area along the creek while engaging in his hobby of geology, when he discovered a fossil of a worm-like animal embedded in the blue-gray shale the creek had gradually eroded away. Since the creature was unknown to him, he conferred with Professor Wilbur at Aurora College, but the good professor couldn’t put a name to the fossil, either. So the sample collected by Davis was then reportedly sent to Washington, D.C. for study and eventually ended up at the Philadelphia Museum, where it was classified and named Tentaculites oswegoensis, after the place it was first found.

Chicago’s Field Museum maintains specimens of the ancient creature, but its identity is just as shrouded in mystery as it was when Dr. Davis discovered it almost 150 years ago. According to paleontologists at the museum, it is believed to be a marine worm of some kind, but that’s all that is known about it. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has some Tentaculites oswegoensis specimens of it on exhibit.

Two other eras of the Paleozoic, the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian, are extensively represented in Illinois, though not necessarily here in Kendall County. Much of the limestone that is crushed for use on county roads and for other uses originated during the Mississippian era. And the Pennsylvanian era is responsible for the thick seams of coal that underlay much of Illinois just to the south of Kendall County.

Annularia fossil

A nice Annularia (a fern-like plant) fossil from the Pennsylvanian Era collected in the Mazon Creek area of Grundy County.

During the Pennsylvanian era, Kendall County was located on the equator, and the life forms that lived then support these findings by geologists. The beds of Pennsylvanian fossils found in Grundy and LaSalle counties are rich in tropical sea life and plants that grew along the shore. Geologists tell us that during the Pennsylvanian, the area was alternately flooded and dry, resulting in the absolute riot of plant and animal life (including Tully Monsters!) found in the era’s fossil beds. My buddy Paul and I spent a lot of time in the 1960s and 1970s hunting fossils down in the Mazon Creek area. We eventually donated our collection of 500 or so of them to the University of Wisconsin, keeping a few of the nicer specimens, including a Tully Monster each, for ourselves.

Then came the Mesozoic Era, from 245 to 66 million years ago, and that lack of dinosaurs that would probably have driven poor James Michener to distraction. In Illinois, rocks from that era are almost entirely missing, probably ground away by the glaciers that arrived during the Cenozoic Era—which is still underway, by the way. The Cenozoic Era has been a pretty exciting time, too, with the advent of mammals, the advance of ice sheets from the North Pole, and the arrival of the first humans along the Fox River. Up to 20 glaciations of Illinois took place during the era, during which some 85 percent of the surface area of the state was covered in glacial ice.

Interestingly enough, geologists no longer believe the glaciers were slow to advance and retreat. Instead, it is now believed that glaciers advanced quickly and retreated just as quickly. During the last cycle of advances and retreats, Kendall County’s familiar rolling landscape was created.

But back to our story of Oswego’s own fossil. Back in February as they were excavating the footings for the new multi-story commercial building on the block bounded by Washington, Adams, Jackson, and Harrison streets (the old Alexander Lumber Company site) excavators uncovered the layer of blue-green Maquoketa shale that extends to Waubonsie Creek. In amongst the shale—named for the Jackson County, Iowa town where it was first identified—a local fossil hunter found some nice specimens of Tentaculites oswegoensis. It was treated as quite a discovery by some of the local press and even the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times picked up on it as the collector presented a specimen to the Oswego Village Board. The board was appropriately gratified and village officials said they were busy learning more about the fossil named after the village and were discussing plans on how it could be properly displayed.

tentaculites exhibit

Oswego’s Little White School Museum features the story of Tentaculites oswegoensis as part of its core exhibit.

Of course, the real surprise would have been if no examples of good old Tentaculites oswegoensis had been found in that layer of Maquoketa shale. Most kids who grew up in Oswego knew there was a great fossil-hunting spot along the banks of Waubonsie Creek and they’ve been using their fingers to dig everything from Tentaculites to crinoid plates to bivalve fossils out of some of those soft Maquoketa deposits.

And, as noted above, there have been nice examples of the fossil on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum since the early 1990s. A fine example unearthed by naturalist, environmentalist, and author Dick Young some 25 years ago is part of the museum’s core exhibit. So, Oswego village people, if you’re looking for more information on the town’s very own fossil, just contact the museum and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out.

Mother Nature created a land that was kind to the humans who settled it during a period of tens of thousands of years, as well as to those who continue to arrive in growing numbers in this modern age. That creation wasn’t done quickly, of course, and still provides some surprises to those who are paying attention. But then again, things of great worth are seldom achieved overnight.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff

Nathan Hughes: An escaped slave who fought for freedom during the Civil War

Another Memorial Day has rolled around, this time with the nation in actual peril, thanks to a new highly contagious disease, for the first time in a many years.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Procession marching through downtown Oswego on Decoration Day, around 1910. Parade Marshal George White leads the parade, which usually consisted of a marching band, civic and fraternal organizations, and citizens. When the procession reached the Oswego Township Cemetery, a short memorial service was held for the community’s Civil War dead, after which Oswego school children decorated the graves of deceased veterans with flowers.

Originally established to honor the graves of Civil War soldiers and so named Decoration Day, today’s Memorial Day honors all the nation’s military personnel who have died.

As wars go, the Civil War has never been my favorite area of historical study. Better named the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery, the war pitted the largely rural Southern states against the North and its mix of rural and industrialized urban areas. Both sides were unlucky in the military commanders they chose to lead the fight against the other side. It took a few years before the North’s crop of military leaders was finally distilled down to no-nonsense men like Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, Grant invaluable because of his grasp of strategy and Sherman for his tactical brilliance. Meanwhile, the South chose Robert Lee as their military leader, a man whose grasp of the kind of strategy required to defeat a stronger foe was disastrously flawed. The result was more than 600,000 killed in action, dead of wounds, and perished from disease.

Here in Kendall County, more than 10 percent of the total population went off to fight and the war’s lasting effect was to see the county’s population steadily decline for the next century until it finally surpassed its 1860 total in 1960.

But while the South was soundly beaten militarily during the war, it immediately began fighting to win the peace, which it did. Reinstituting the terrorism that had kept the South’s slave population in line, the Jim Crow era was, if anything, even more violent than slavery itself. And the South’s efforts to redefine the cause of the war was just as successful. By the time I was in high school a century after the war was fought, we were taught that the underlying cause of the war was state’s rights. Slavery, we were told, was a dying institution at the time and would have ended had the war never been fought.

Neither of those were true. The war was mainly fought over the South’s continuing, and increasingly unsuccessful, efforts to expand slavery into the new territories being brought into the Union. All of the existing resolutions of secession passed by Southern state legislators mention the North’s attitude towards slavery as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the states’ secession. Union. And as for being on the way out, slavery was financially lucrative in the extreme. In fact, the value of all the South’s slaves was more than the value of all of the North’s industrial, railroad, and banking facilities.

As for the Civil War itself, a little over a century and a half ago this month, the conflict was in full swing with the ultimate result still very much in doubt.

While the Union was still convinced it could defeat the rebellious secessionists if just given a little more time, reality was staring to intrude. It would take more years of blood and treasure to finally stamp out the rebellion begun by the South’s pro-slavery forces.

It would also take a lot more soldiers—by 1864, the Union was scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel. But there was an as-yet untapped resource: thousands of black men who were already living in the North and areas in the South controlled by the U.S. Government. Some were Northern-born and wanted to fight; others had escaped from slavery and were eager to do their part to ensure freedom for everyone in the nation.

Many blacks were already serving in support roles as teamsters and other noncombatant jobs. Others were serving in combat with state units, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the subject of the film, “Glory.” But on May 22, 1863, with the number of potential soldiers drying up across the North, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops. Regulations called for all officers to be white, although non-commissioned officers—corporals and sergeants—were to be promoted from the ranks.

However, some light-skinned blacks passed for white in order to serve as officers, like William N. Reed, a New York abolitionist. Reed graduated from the German military school at Kiel and had served in the German army. Arriving back in the U.S. he managed to obtain a commission as colonel of the 1st. North Carolina Colored Infantry Regiment, later reorganized as the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. Reed is recognized as the highest-ranking African American in the Civil War

US Colored troops recruitmentIllinois Gov. Richard Yates began raising a regiment of colored troops late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to a combination of factors including lower pay for black soldiers and the brutal treatment black prisoners of war received at the hands of the rebels. But gradually the regiment’s companies were filled with volunteers from all over the state until it was ready to be formally accepted for service at Quincy on April 24, 1864.

Although U.S.C.T. (U.S. Colored Troops) regiments were not always fortunate in their commanders, the 29th was, with Lt. Col. John Bross of Chicago, a skilled, knowledgeable veteran, in command. The regiment was assigned to the Fourth Division, IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the first black division to serve with the Union in the Virginia theater.

Among those who enlisted in the 29th, was an escaped slave named Nathan Hughes. According to his military records, Hughes was born in Bourbon County, Ky. and was, according to his family’s tradition, of mixed black and Seminole ancestry. Like many slaves, he was apparently unsure of his birth date. His military records stated he was 33 when he enlisted in 1864, making his birth year 1831. However, his family had a birth date of 1824 inscribed on his tombstone.

Whatever his age, Hughes managed to escape slavery, but in doing so was forced to leave his family behind. Reaching Illinois, he apparently settled near Yorkville and worked as a laborer until he volunteered for service in the 29th, enlisting in Company B under Capt. Hector Aiken.

While the 29th was fortunate in its commanding officers, it was not so lucky in those assigned to command the Fourth Division, nor the IX Corps to which it was assigned. Gen. Edward Ferrero the division commander, was a former dance instructor of middling ability, and the corps commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was better but no military genius. After reaching the Virginia front where Union forces besieged the rebel capital of Richmond, the 29th was assigned to protect the Union Army’s supply lines, participating in a number of skirmishes. On May 9, 1864, the 29th was instrumental in throwing back a determined rebel assault on some vital Union supply convoys.

After Gen. Ulysses Grant took command of the Union armies, he orchestrated a campaign designed to destroy the main rebel force, the Army of Northern Virginia, using a series of flanking movements gradually forcing the rebel army back on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. Richmond was not only valuable as the rebel capital, but also because of its industrial facilities and its position as a rail hub—the Civil War was the first railroad war and the lines were vital to supply the huge armies involved.

But the siege of Richmond was not something Grant wanted. He had pursued rebel Gen. Robert Lee in a series of hard marches and battles through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor unsuccessfully trying to corner him before Lee was run to ground in the extensive defensive works around Richmond.

Grant knew the heavily fortified Richmond suburb of Petersburg was the key to the rebel position, but could see no way to break into it. While Lee was a good tactician and a middling strategist, he was a fine military engineer.

Battle of the Crater

This detail from a Tom Lovell painting shows the ferocious combat that took place between rebel troops and United States soldiers during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

So the two armies, the Union Army of the Potomac and the rebels’ Army of Northern Virginia settled down in a siege neither side wanted. Enter the coal miners serving in the Union Army’s 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, who proposed to dig a tunnel under the rebel works. The idea was to hollow out a large open cavern under the rebel fortifications, fill the cavern with gunpowder, and blow up the rebel works. The mine was completed, the charge blown up, and a huge break in the rebel lines was created. But the Union assault was a confused failure, thanks to incompetent commanders. The Battle of the Crater that took place as Union troops, including Ferrero’s U.S. Colored Troops, attempted to exploit the new break in the rebel lines was depicted from the Southern point of view in the 2003 film “Cold Harbor.” It was a Union disaster.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry was one of the regiments that were part of the assault force, and during the melee, Nathan Hughes was badly wounded, shot in his left knee. He must have been a tough guy because unlike so many Union soldiers, Hughes survived the serious wound, including being sent to a military hospital. He not only survived but was returned to duty months later, just in time to be wounded again, this time less seriously in the hand. Doing hard marching with the 29th, Hughes fought through the battles and skirmishes of Boydton Plank Road, Globe Tavern, Poplar Grove Church, and Hatcher’s Run before Grant was able to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay at Appomattox Courthouse, Lee’s surrender in April 1865 effectively ending the war. The 29th was then sent down to Texas to watch the border with Mexico thanks to French meddling with that country while the U.S. was distracted with its internal conflict. The regiment was mustered out of U.S. service in November 1865.

After being mustered out with the rest of the regiment in Texas, Hughes returned to Illinois where he decided to settle on a small plot in Kendall County near Oswego on today’s Minkler Road. Like many escaped slaves forced to leave their families behind during their desperate flight north, Hughes headed back to Kentucky after the war to try to retrieve his wife and children. His three children decided to go back north with their father. His wife, for whatever reason, decided to stay in Kentucky. It must have been a wrenching decision to watch her children leave, but it must also have been an almost impossible choice for those who had been considered property only a few months before to make another such momentous change in their lives. I suspect the PTSD suffered by former slaves, as well as many of the men who served during the war, was a real burden for thousands for many years after the war.

 

 

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

In 1893, Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benesohn took this portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin. Confederate Army canons were melted down to make the pins. (Little White School Museum

Nathan Hughes came back to the Oswego area with his children, eventually remarried and lived for the rest of his life on his small farm on Minkler Road southwest of Oswego. He was a respected member of the farming community there, and was the only Black member in Kendall County of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, where he served as an officer of the GAR’s Yorkville post.

His children married into the nearby Black farming community, most members of which eventually moved into Aurora where jobs in the city’s many factories were more attractive than the labor-intensive, low income farming of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His descendants prospered, two of his grandchildren becoming the first Black male and first Black female to graduate from high school in Kendall County (both from Oswego High School). And their descendants prospered, too, becoming elementary and high school teachers, and college professors—and at least one Federal judge.

Hughes died in March 1910, and was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, where he lays today with four of his black Civil War comrades. Wrote Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall—himself a Civil War veteran—upon Hughes’s death: “It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits… A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the ‘boys in blue.’”

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Filed under Civil War, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

Maramech Hill area a historical gem—just not the one many believe it to be

Maramech Hill, located between Big Rock and Little Rock creeks just upstream from where the combined streams enter the Fox River, has been a celebrated local historical site for more than a century. Once touted as the site of a climactic battle between colonial French forces and their allies and the Fox Tribe, the area around the hill has become one of Kendall County’s premiere cultural and natural destinations.

Maramech Hill Area

The Maramech Hill area of Kendall County. Click here to enlarge.

Part of the area’s story begins during Illinois’ colonial era.

Warfare between Europeans and Native Americans began almost as soon as Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

In South and Central America, and a portion of southern North America, the Spanish waged a series of very successful wars of extinction against the native populations.

For most of North America, however, the situation was quite different. A series of powerful, adaptable, Indian tribes made the conquest of North America anything but a sure thing. Eventually, however, European numbers and technology won out over the Indians. But it was a tough, generations-long struggle.

For instance, the area that now includes the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia was known as “the dark and bloody ground” long before colonial American frontier settlers began filtering into it.

Maramech Hill site with timber

The Maramech Hill area (between the two creeks), during the settlement era, was surrounded by tall timber as the original survey map from 1838 shows. Click to enlarge.

Claimed as a prime hunting and trapping ground by the native tribes of the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and Huron people, the region was the location of nearly continuous intertribal warfare. It was warfare made worse when European colonial powers began playing the tribes off against each other in a quest to dominate the trade in furs. By the mid-1760s, the Europeans’ wars against each other had largely been settled in favor of England. English peace efforts included issuing a proclamation declaring a no-go zone for settlers west of a line that roughly ran along the peaks of the Appalachian chain. That effort failed spectacularly as American colonials flooded across the mountains to settle the region, touching off even more warfare with and between the tribes. A “dark and bloody ground,” indeed.

But it’s not so well known that nearly a century before those events took place, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and Michigan could have been accurately described as a dark and bloody ground as well, primarily because of a decades-long war between the French colonial government and the Fox Tribe.

The Foxes call themselves Meskwaki, or people of the red earth. The French, after encountering the tribe, referred to them as the Outagami or the Renards—French for fox. The tribe was first recorded living along the St. Lawrence River in modern Ontario. But warfare resulting from side effects of the fur trade—primarily conflict with the Huron Tribe—pushed the Foxes west, first to lower Michigan and then, eventually, to the Green Bay area of Wisconsin. So the Foxes arrived in our region with built-in animosity towards the French as well as a favorable feeling towards the Iroquois, deadly enemies of both the Hurons and the French.

Through that series of wars and forced relocation, the Foxes became a pugnacious people. Part of the great Algonquian-speaking majority of Native tribes in northern North America, they were members of a linguistic subgroup with the Sauks and Kickapoos.

After being driven out of eastern Michigan by the Ojibwas, the Foxes were involved in fairly constant warfare with that tribe. The Foxes also engaged in sharp battles with the Sioux in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota. The Illinois, Potawatomis, the Miamis, and several other tribes in the upper Midwest were also often at odds with the Foxes.

Franquelin map color

Franquelin’s map of LaSalle’s colony in 1684 shows what early 20th Century advocate John F. Steward believed was Maramech Hill near Plano.

The warfare was bad for the business of the fur trade (especially their efforts to trade with the Sioux) and the French tried to stop it by weighing in on the side of the Foxes’ numerous enemies. This led the Foxes to cultivate ties with the powerful and ruthless Iroquois Confederacy, who were friends of the British and implacable enemies of the French and their Algonquian-speaking Native allies.

The Foxes’ actions to become the middlemen for the fur trade west of southern Lake Michigan—and to deny French firearms to the Sioux—resulted in denying the use of the strategic and economically valuable portage between the upper Fox River of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin River to French trading interests. Instead, French traders had to use the longer and far more difficult Chicago Portage. And if that wasn’t bad enough, cozying up to British interests eventually persuaded the French that the Foxes had to be destroyed.

In 1710, a large group of Foxes—not the entire tribe—agreed to move adjacent to the French fort at Detroit, ostensibly to live under the protection of the French military. However, given the Foxes’ long animosity toward the French and their Indian allies, the Foxes were soon—and predictably—embroiled with disputes against French interests. In 1712, the disputes led to a Fox siege of the French fort, with the Foxes heavily and skillfully fortified inside their own camp. Eventually, Indian allies of the French arrived to lift the siege and to besiege the Foxes. The stalemate lasted nearly a month until the group of Foxes, out of food and water, attempted to escape during a thunderstorm. They were unsuccessful, and virtually the entire band was destroyed.

The rest of the Fox Tribe, not surprisingly, was infuriated. They retaliated by killing French traders and several members of the tribes allied with France. At the same time, the Foxes mounted a diplomatic offensive, and concluded a treaty with their old enemies, the Sioux, to eliminate the threat of an attack on them from the west.

Kee-Shes-Wa Fox Warrior

Kee-Shes-Wa, a Meskwaki chief, painted by Charles Bird King in the early 1800s.

In response to the Foxes’ military actions, in 1715, the French attempted to launch a punitive expedition but those efforts were badly planned, and failed. The Foxes used the respite to build a strong, well-planned fortification on the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Green Bay. The fort’s walls were made of oak logs reinforced with earth dug out of trenches inside the fort.

When the French and their allies finally attacked in 1716, they used artillery and formal European siege tactics to attack the Foxes’ fort. However, the Foxes held out against the French and their allies, and forced a humiliating retreat.

The Indians of southern Wisconsin, the Fox included, often hunted buffalo on the Illinois prairie without the permission of the latter. In 1722, members of the Illinois Confederacy captured the nephew a Fox chief and burned him alive. The murder was in retaliation for the Foxes’ continually hunting in the Illinois Country without the permission of the Confederacy. In their own retaliation, a Fox force swiftly moved down into the Illinois County, and attacked a group of the Illinois Confederacy they found, forcing them to take refuge at LaSalle’s old fort atop Starved Rock. The Illinois managed to send a message south to Fort de Chartres in southern Illinois and a force of French and their Native American allies was dispatched to rescue the besieged Illinois. By the time the relief force arrived, the Foxes had wisely retreated, leaving about 120 Illinois dead.

Not content with hindering the French trade in furs, the Fox continually attacked down into the Illinois Country, raiding French and Native American villages alike. Deciding to take the offensive against the Foxes once again in 1727, the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Beauharnois, planned a campaign to destroy the Foxes’ military power. The governor appointed Constant Le Marchand de Lignery to command the campaign. Under the plan, de Lignery gathered a force of French troops and Native American allies in the summer of 1728. The Canadian force was to link up with another group from Illinois commanded by Pierre Charles Desliettes, commander at Fort des Chartres. the Commandant of the Illinois District. The rendezvous of the two forces was to have been at Chicago. But Desliettes’ force of 20 French soldiers and 500 Illini warriors happened upon a hunting camp of Foxes, along with some Kickapoos and Mascoutens, which they immediately attacked. The French force killed 20 and captured 15, after which Desliettes’ Illinois decided they’d had enough warfare and headed back home..

The balance of de Lignery’s large force, numbering some 1,650 French and Indians, continued into the Foxes’ country, but moved too slowly. The Fox learned of the coming assault and escaped before they could be attacked. The attackers only managed to burn some Fox and Winnebago villages and crops before they retired back to Canada.

Governor Beauharnois, however, had become determined to permanently solve his “Fox problem.” Part of the plan involved using interpreter Jean-Baptiste Reaume to stir up animosity against the Foxes among other tribes. With that set in motion, he also ordered French officials in the Illinois Country to be alert for any opportunities to destroy the Fox Tribe.

1731 Carte du Fort ou des Renards

Carte du Fort ou des Renards,” a map drawn in 1731 from accounts provided by French officers involved in the 1730 battle against the Fox Tribe proved Maramech Hill near Plano could not be the battle site. Click here for a larger copy. of the map.

At the same time, the bulk of the Fox Tribe had decided they’d had enough, and determined to leave their homeland and head back east to live under the protection of their one-time allies, the Iroquois. To that end they packed up and headed southeast with the intention of looping round the end of Lake Michigan down to Starved Rock and then east to cross the Wabash. The first part of their trip was uneventful, but when they reached Starved Rock, they attacked a group of Illinois Indians, capturing the son of one of that group’s chiefs, whom they burned at the stake. That infuriated the Illinois, who complained to the commandant at Fort de Chartres. For good measure, the Foxes had also attacked and angered groups of the Potawatomi, Kickapoo, and Mascouten tribes, which, it turned out played right into the hands of the French since Reaume had been goading all of them to attack the Fox for the past couple years.

From Starved Rock, the Foxes, with about 350 warriors and around 1,000 women, children, and old men, headed southeast, intending to cross the Wabash River. But having again angered the Illinois with their attacks, a force of about 200 Illinois warriors forced the Foxes to stop and build a fort to protect themselves. In the meantime, the French were calling on their Indian allies to join them to fight the Foxes.

The French forces eventually involved included Lieutenant Nicolas-Antoine Coulon de Villiers, Commandant at the River St. Joseph in modern southern Michigan; Lieutenant Robert Groston de St. Ange from Fort de Chartres; and Reaume. The allied French and Indian forces numbered about 1,400, and arrived to besiege the Foxes about Aug. 20, 1730.

This time, the Foxes’ luck against the French and their allies ran out. Low on food and water, the Foxes decided to make a desperate run for it during a violent thunderstorm the night of Sept. 8. Caught on the prairie outside their fortification, the Foxes were attacked and nearly exterminated. The battle did solve the Fox problem for the French, but it also served to sow dissent among their own allies. After all, if the French could exterminate one tribe, they could probably exterminate others.

Steward, John FIn the late 1800s and early 1900s, John Steward of Plano decided this climactic battle took place Maramech Hill near Plano here in Kendall County. Armed with this conviction and a good deal of money, he set out to find information to prove his contention. In 1903, Steward published a book he felt proved his point, Lost Maramech and Earliest Chicago, and even had a huge rock moved to the hill and inscribed with his version of what be believed transpired there.

Steward’s contentions, however, were controversial from the beginning, with most historians pointing out the plain language of the French colonial documents Steward located in France proved Maramech Hill could not have been the battle’s location. His thesis suffered a serious blow in 1935 when Stanley Faye published “The Foxes Fort—1730” in The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, an article that demolished most of Steward’s contentions. Some 50 years later, three contemporary maps of the battle and site that had been unavailable to Steward were discovered and described the Journal in 1980 (“The 1730 Fox Fort: A Recently Discovered Map Throws New Light on Its Siege and Location”) and 1987 (“The 1730 Siege of the Foxes: Two Maps by Canadian Participants Provide Additional Information on the Fort and Its Location”).

1900 Lettering the Maramech Hill marker

The carved granite boulder John F. Steward (right in photo) placed on Maramech Hill near Plano  to mark what he believed was the location of the climactic battle between the French and their Native American allies and the Fox Tribe in 1730.

That new evidence, combined with both old and newly discovered accounts of the battle have persuaded historians that Maramech Hill was not the site of the battle. Rather, it is probable it happened near Arrowsmith, Ill., located well to the south-southeast of Starved Rock, east of Bloomington in McLean County. Archaeological work at the Arrowsmith site has made it all but certain that was the location of the 1730 battle.

1903 Maramech Hill B

Maramech Hill in 1903

So, okay, the French-Fox battle of 1730 didn’t happen at Maramech Hill. What did go on there? Obviously, given the artifacts recovered by Steward, the site had been inhabited by Native Americans. As it turns out, many of the artifacts Steward recovered proved Maramech Hill had been the home of Native Americans for a long, long time—just not the ones he thought lived there.

The potsherds he recovered from the site, for instance, appear to be from the Mississippian cultural tradition, as do other stone tools such as hoes for working cornfields. The Mississippian culture was based on growing corn and on trade all over North America. Their capital was at modern Cahokia where upwards of 40,000 may have lived in the area surrounding Monk’s Mound, the largest manmade earthen structure in the Western Hemisphere. The river and creek bottomlands around Maramech Hill seem to have been tailor-made for the intensive agriculture practiced by the Mississippians.

But the artifacts Steward says he collected also point to habitation after the era of the French-Fox War as well, including trade silver that was created by British fur trade companies after the end of the French and Indian War in the late 1760s. Maramech Hill may have been the location of a Potawatomi village in the early 1800s led by Main Poche, a noted warrior who opposed the U.S. during the War of 1812.

Today, Maramech Hill and its immediate area are one of Kendall County’s most historically significant areas. Although Steward’s insistence that the climactic battle of 1730 between the French and the Fox Tribe happened there has been proven wrong over the last century and a quarter, the research into that era and the conflict between the Foxes and the French have proved to be extremely informative. For instance, warfare between the Fox Tribe and the French did not follow the familiar Hollywood script. Instead, the Foxes were able to develop the practical engineering expertise to blunt or thwart every French attack, including those involving artillery. In the end, it was lack of supplies that forced the Foxes to leave their fortified camp, leaving them vulnerable to an attack by a superior force. And while the battle didn’t happen here in Kendall County, it was part of the region’s history that made this its own “dark and bloody ground.’

Van de Rohe Farnsworth House drawing

The house legendary architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed and built for Dr. Edith Farnsworth draws visitors from all over the world to the Maramech Hill area.

Further, the area in which Maramech Hill is situated had its own fascinating history during the pioneer era and afterwards. Just down the road a bit from Maramech Hill, where the road—part of the old Fox River Trail stagecoach road from Ottawa to Geneva—crosses Rob Roy Creek was the tiny hamlet of Penfield, where a post office was established in December 1839. When Marcus Steward—John Steward’s father—established his new town along the right-of-way of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, the Penfield Post Office was moved to the new town on the railroad tracks, opening as Plano in May, 1854.

In addition, the neighborhood also features Kendall County’s only international attraction, the Farnsworth House, designed and built between 1945 and 1951 by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth on the banks of the Fox River just a short distance from Maramech Hill. The architectural treasure annually draws thousands of visitors from around the world to see van der Rohe’s architectural gem.

2016 Maramech Forest PreserveFinally, thanks to the area’s topography, today the Maramech Hill area is also one of Kendall County’s natural jewels featuring rare and endangered plants, a startling variety of wildlife, and unique geographical features.

Prehistory and the region’s elaborate civilizations created by Native People, Illinois’ turbulent early frontier era, the era of settlement, its rare and endangered plants and animals, the nearby Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, and world-class architecture combine to make Maramech Hill and its surrounding region one of Kendall County’s most important and interesting areas.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

A bit of local highway history changes with the Harvey Rd. intersection closure

A bit of area history came to an end on April 27 when the Illinois Department of Transportation announced the closure of the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and Harvey Road in northeast Oswego Township.

Harvey Road mapSince the construction of Oswego East High School just off Harvey Road, the angled intersection had become the site of accidents and near-misses so it made sense to close it and redirect traffic to the signalized intersection at Treasure Drive just a short distance east of Harvey Road. Instead of joining Route 30, Harvey Road will now end in a cul-de-sac.

How did that intersection come to be the way it is today? Well, the road used to go straight past Lincoln Memorial Park and down modern Harvey Road. That’s back when the road from Aurora was called the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first marked coast-to-coast road. A few years later, when the highway was paved and became U.S. Route 30, its route diverged making the modern curve to follow the right-of-way of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora interurban trolley line. The right-of-way for that change of course for the 2.5 miles in Kendall County, starting at Harvey Road, was purchased by the Kendall County Board using a donation from the good roads folks in Aurora and then given to Illinois to speed paving the highway.

So what’s the story behind the Lincoln Highway itself?

In 1913 Carl Fisher was a man with a vision. The Indianapolis daredevil auto racer, showman, and entrepreneur figured that what the United States needed to spur business and hasten the development of the automobile was a transcontinental highway linking the Atlantic shore with the Pacific coast.

Fisher worked hard to drum up private support for what he called a “Coast to Coast Rock Highway,” so named because it was not to be just a marked route, but was to be one with a good gravel surface that would theoretically allow travel in all weather.

Fisher’s campaign was far from a slam-dunk, however. Henry Ford for instance, a guy you’d think would have jumped at the idea as a way to sell more of his Model T’s, disdained the whole notion, holding out for government funding for major roads, not private financing. Ford, of course, had a point. But at the time Fisher was militating for his coast-to-coast highway, government funding for such a project was simply not in the political cards. But Fisher persisted, and the pledges of support started rolling in, especially after he renamed the proposed interstate road after one of his heroes, Abraham Lincoln.

In June 1913, Fisher incorporated the Lincoln Highway Association at Detroit, Mich., with Henry B. Joy, president of the Packard Motor Company, as its president and Fisher serving as vice-president.

At the time of incorporation, in fact, Joy was westbound with a caravan of Packards and their owners, blazing what he considered the most direct route west to California.

By October, the association settled on the Lincoln’s main course, making use of existing roads along most of the route’s 3,389 miles. They announced the route to the public on Oct. 26, 1913 at a meeting of the governors of the 13 states through which the new highway would run. As planned, the Lincoln started at the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street at New York City’s Times Square, then headed west into New Jersey and then through to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California, where the terminus was established in San Francisco just outside today’s Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park just off Geary Boulevard at 34th Street.

The Lincoln Highway was formally dedicated on Oct. 31, 1913.

1924 Lincoln Highway

This 1924 map traces the original route of the Lincoln Highway–now U.S. Route 30–through Illinois from Indiana to Iowa.

As it was envisioned and designed, the highway bypassed major cities in favor of traveling through medium-sized towns and villages. Here in Illinois, it bypassed Chicago, looping south around the city through Joliet, Plainfield, on through a portion of Wheatland Township in Will County and Oswego Township in Kendall County, before reaching Aurora. The original route passed Phillips Park on modern Hill Avenue, where, in 1923, the Lincoln Highway Pavilion was built by the Aurora Automobile Club. I remember having family gatherings in the pavilion when I was a child. Completely restored a few years ago, the pavilion still exists, easily seen off Hill Avenue, the old Lincoln route near Phillips Park’s Hill Avenue entrance.

Lincoln Highway badge

The Lincoln Highway Association marked the route of the Lincoln Highway with red, white, and blue badges.

In Wheatland and Oswego townships, the road followed a winding course on existing country roads. Most of the original route has been marked by the Illinois chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association, so if you’re of a mind, you can travel that road today by following the signs east from Aurora.

But as more and more traffic surged onto the new highway, officials started looking to both simplify it’s course and to pave it. With so many twists and turns between Plainfield and Aurora, that section of the Lincoln was an obvious choice for revision. So in 1923, with the promise by Illinois officials to pave the route as soon as possible, the Kendall County Board voted to acquire 2.5 miles of right-of-way paralleling the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad and the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora Transportation Company’s interurban line.

As the Feb. 14, 1923 Kendall County Record explained: “The new right-of-way in Kendall county for the Lincoln highway is necessitated by a relocating of the route to shorten the distance between Plainfield and Aurora.”

1924 Lincoln Highway shelter

The Lincoln Highway Shelter on the highway at Philips Park in Aurora was built for camping auto travelers in 1923 by the Aurora Automobile Club. Completely restored a few years ago, it’s a living reminder of the highway’s glory days.

Spurred on by the promise of quick action in Springfield, Kendall County officials were moving quickly. The policy at that time was that local government was responsible for obtaining highway rights-of-way, and then the state would cover the costs of engineering and construction. That spring, Gov. Len Small promised that if the right-of-way was procured at once, he’d add the Plainfield-Aurora section of the Lincoln to the 1923 highway program, along with the even more eagerly sought paving of Route 18, The Cannonball Trail Route (now U.S. Route 34).

Kendall County taxpayers, however, were not totally on the hook for the cost of the land. The Good Roads Committee of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce raised $1,000 in donations from city residents to defray Kendall County’s costs. “The money [for the right-of-way purchase] was all donated in Aurora,” the Record noted on March 14.

It was about this same time that the old system of giving highways names—such as the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway (another of Fisher’s creations), and The Cannonball Trail—was being phased out in favor of a system of numbered routes that were government-funded. In general, east-west routes were given even numbers, while north-south routes got odd numbers. The system wouldn’t go nationwide until 1926, but by then it had already begun in Illinois. The Lincoln, for instance, was first designated Route 22 by Illinois. The Cannonball Trail, linking Chicago with Princeton via Naperville, Aurora, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich, was initially numbered Route 18.

It’s remarkable how quickly things moved during that era, especially compared to the glacial pace at which modern highway projects advance. On May 9, 1923 the Record reported: “The Chicago Heights Coal Company of Chicago Heights was the lowest bidder for paving sections 15 and 16, Route 22, Lincoln Highway, commencing at Plainfield and running west to Aurora, a distance of 5.19 miles, when the bids were opened at Springfield April 13. Its bid was $222,000.”

1936 34-30 overpass

The last unpaved local section of U.S. Route 30 was finished in 1936 when the cloverleaf intersection with U.S. Route 34 was built with federal WPA funds. (Little White School Museum collection)

In early June, the Plainfield Enterprise reported state officials were promising that all 159.4 miles of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois would be paved during 1923. And, apparently, it was. The only remaining gravel stretch of the highway in Kendall County was at its intersection with Route 18—today’s Route 34. With delays and then the advent of the Great Depression, completion lagged. It required federal Works Progress Administration funds to complete the Route 30-34 cloverleaf intersection and overpass, which wasn’t finished until 1936.

In November 1926, the states officially approved the federal government’s new numbering system, part of which designated the Lincoln as U.S. Route 30 along its entire length and Route 18 as U.S. Route 34.

Despite the advent of the interstate highway system, the Lincoln Highway still carries hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, and buses along its transcontinental length daily more than a century after Carl Fisher spearheaded its development, another living reminder of our area’s transportation and economic history. And with the closure of the Route 30–Harvey Road intersection, a bit of that history has added one more bit to the story of the Lincoln Highway.

 

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Thank Carter Harrison and the Wheelmen for better Illinois roads

In 1918, with very few exceptions, Illinois’ roads were in the same condition in which they had been for the previous century. Virtually all roads were dirt tracks, dusty in dry weather and bottomless quagmires after rains. In order for farmers to get to town in spring, heavy teams of draft horses had to be hitched to wagons and buggies. Often the vehicles were dragged to town with the wheels unable to turn at least part of the time due to the sticky prairie mud. But voters were on the cusp of making a big change in the state’s road system.

By the 1850s, numerous railroad companies were extending tracks throughout the state with the goal of making money by helping farmers get their crops to market. However, farmers still had to get their crops and livestock to the nearest railhead. Livestock could walk to market, but crops had to be hauled there by team and wagon. Unfortunately, roads were often so bad that even short distances were all but impossible to travel. Spring was bad, but late fall rains also turned dirt roads into deeply rutted bottomless mud tracks, just at the time farmers were trying to get their crops to market. And when cold weather came, frozen, rutted road surfaces made travel especially destructive to horses and wagons, not to mention the people who rode in them.

1890 abt Otto Johnson farm B&W

This photo of Mr. and Mrs. Otto Johnston at their farm outside Oswego suggests how iffy rural roads were in the area during the 1890s. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although farmers complained loud, long, and bitterly about the state’s roads, their cries went largely unheard. Instead, strangely enough, it is to the riders of high-wheel bicycles that we owe a large debt of gratitude for helping create the ancestors of today’s good roads.

With the arrival of the 1890s, the high-wheel bicycle craze was at its peak, a craze that encouraged crowds of well-to-do city dwellers to venture into the countryside and, for many of them, to experience rural life away from the railroad tracks for the first time. The cyclists called their machines “wheels,” and they named themselves “wheelmen,” especially because the vehicles didn’t lend themselves to being ridden by women dressed in the clothing of the era.

Kendall County, located just next door to more populous Kane County, proved a favorite destination for wheelmen who enjoyed riding down the East River Road (modern Ill. Route 25), just as their descendants still do on the Fox River Trail. For instance, on July 22, 1891, the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported that “A string of about 20 of the Aurora bicyclists had an excursion to this town in the evening on their wheels Tuesday.”

1890 abt Cutter & Sierp

Oswego wheelmen Slade F. Cutter (left) and Joe Sierp pose beside their high-wheeled bicycles about 1890 somewhere in town. (Little White School Museum collection)

Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a city bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then astonishing distance of 100 miles in a single day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling.

The upshot of Carter’s well-publicized efforts was that a growing number of influential people began demanding better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther.

It was about this same time that these same people were buying and tinkering with newfangled horseless carriages. Both their wheels and their new autos required better roads on which to drive. Where farmers alone had failed to interest state officials in better roads, rich transportation hobbyists succeeded.

Reacting to the strong and growing drumbeat for better roads by the coalition of cycling and auto enthusiasts as well as farmers, Illinois established the Good Roads Commission in 1903 to study the condition of all roads in the state and recommend changes. The commission decided that dirt roads were inadequate to carry the ever-growing volume of traffic. However, township officials and their rural constituents resisted early road improvement efforts, but not because they didn’t want better roads. The improvements would cost considerable money, they argued, and besides, there was considerable uncertainty how paved roads would be maintained. At the time, the old system of having townships responsible for road maintenance was in effect. Township property owners were responsible for working on the roads in lieu of paying a road tax. The resulting patchwork system meant that one township might opt for better roads, but the neighboring one would not.

1904 abt first Oswego auto

Oswego Jeweler A.P. Werve pilots his auto–Oswego’s first–on a dirt road near Oswego in 1904. Pressure was already building for better roads thanks to hobbyists like Werve and bicyclists. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in I911, Illinois House Rep. Homer J. Tice of Greenview pushed a bill through the General Assembly that provided for automobile and truck license fees to be used for road and bridge construction. Tice and William G. Edens (the namesake of Chicago’s Edens Expressway), chairman of the Good Roads Committee of the Illinois Bankers Association, contended that good roads would be an economic asset for the entire state, rural and urban areas alike. The efforts of Tice and Edens were quickly joined by the Chicago Motor Club in mobilizing support for good roads.

As a result of all this activity, Gov. Edward Dunne signed a law in 1912 transferring the townships’ responsibility for maintenance and construction of main highways to county government. The law required each county to have a qualified superintendent of highways who was to be responsible to a three member state highway commission and a professional state highway engineer. The law provided for the state to pay half of the construction and all the maintenance costs of county highways. In order to expedite the jobs, counties were authorized to sell bonds to finance new construction projects.

Russell, John D

Oswego area farmer and politician John D. Russell was the first Kendall County Superintendent of Highways.

Some progress on better roads resulted. Here in Kendall County, the first-ever county highway superintendent was appointed. According to the Dec. 3, 1913 Kendall County Record: “Col. John D. Russell of Oswego was appointed County Superintendent of Highways by the board of supervisors Monday. His salary was fixed at $1,000 a year. This appointment was made from a field of five candidates, all of whom passed the state examination.”

But overall, the new law was a failure. Only 174 miles of road were improved under the program, all in Vermilion County. Paved highways, it turned out, were simply too expensive for counties to fund.

Then in 1916, Congress agreed to match state highway funds with federal matching funds. As a result, the state highway commission developed an ambitious plan to “pull Illinois out of the mud” with hard—paved—roads. Eventually, the plan called for construction of 4,800 miles of hard roads throughout the state. To help sell the plan, Illinois road officials pointed to a variety of studies that had been done showing that paved roads resulted in much better gasoline mileage for drivers and far less spent in vehicle maintenance.

State officials and the growing number of good roads organizations also sweetened the pot for voters by making sure every county in the state got at least one stretch of all-weather, paved highway. The $60 million bond issue to pay for the project would be retired through auto license fees, proponents said, so that non-motorists wouldn’t be paying the costs for something they were not using. Although the bond issue passed overwhelmingly in 1918 (the Kendall County vote was a remarkable 1,532–90), World War I intervened and only a two-mile road design strip was built.

But after the war, Governor Len Small pushed road construction hard, both to help the state and to enrich his friends. During his administration, proposed hard road mileage increased substantially and thousands were put to work building the new paved highways.

Cannonball Traile Route

The Cannonball Trail Route Association developed this sign used before highways were numbered.

In Kendall County, the Small administration caused a huge uproar when the right-of-way of the newly proposed Route 18—the county’s promised paved highway under the bond issue—was changed. Originally slated to run from Aurora down the east side of the Fox River on pavement laid in 1914 (modern Route 25), pass through Oswego and go on to Yorkville via modern Route 71 to hook up with another paved mile on modern Van Emmon Road. From there it would go into downtown Yorkville and cross the Fox River before heading west to Plano and Sandwich all the way to Princeton on the route of the old Cannon Ball Trail Route.

To the considerable anger of Kendall County officials, however, the Small administration changed the route to run from Aurora down the west side of the Fox River on modern Ill. Route 31 and Route 34, bypassing both Oswego and Yorkville—and the paved stretches of road that already existed. Both towns were connected with the road via paved stubs that crossed the Fox River to get to their downtown business districts, although that did little to assuage county officials’ anger.

1924 Building Route 18 at Oswego Bridge

Dwight Young snapped this photo of paving Route 18–the old Cannonball Trail Route–at the west end of the Oswego Bridge in 1923.  (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, local folks were happy to be getting some all-weather hard roads even if not exactly the same ones they’d been promised.

But while hard roads were more economical for drivers, they did cost more to maintain using vehicle license fees alone. In 1929, Illinois became the last state in the union to levy a gasoline tax of three cents a gallon that was earmarked for road maintenance and construction. By 1930, the state boasted some 7,500 miles of paved roads (some of which, frankly, don’t seem to have been repaired since).

Oddly enough, we’re entering another era of decreasing funds for road construction and maintenance like the state faced in 1929. Given the heavy reliance on gasoline taxes to finance road maintenance at a time when electric vehicles are becoming ever more common and even conventionally-powered vehicles are far more fuel efficient than a couple decades ago, different methods of financing road maintenance will have to be found.

These days we’ve got a lot of things to worry about (dying in a plague comes immediately to mind), but seeing our roads disappear into bottomless mud pits every spring and autumn aren’t among them. Not too long ago, in fact, Kendall County’s last stretch of gravel road was paved.

Given the history of our modern road system, though, maybe the next time you are exasperated by a group of bicycle riders using the public highways, you might recall that if it wasn’t for Carter Harrison, his well-publicized high-wheeler, and his wheelmen friends, driving conditions these days might be very different.

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What’s in a name? A job, a trade, a profession, that’s what

The late Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, was once the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Harry Fuller was the former, and long-time, village president here in Oswego, Illinois. My friend Tom Fletcher is a retired history teacher and former member of the Kendall County Board.

What does each of these people have in common? Each has a last name that is descriptive of a trade that is, largely, lost in the mists of time.

Once upon a time, even here in our area of northern Illinois, individual craftsmen (and women) worked to provide residents with the things they needed to live comfortable lives. Unlike today, people living in the 19th Century did not go to a huge department or hardware store and purchase things like shoes, clothing, tools, or other necessary items. Instead, they went to individual craftsmen and women, who in turn, made each item by hand. These craftspeople, working in their specific trades, each had a name that described their profession, a name that was eventually given as a surname to the descendants of those who first engaged in those trades.

The best-known of these professionals were the smiths. Since there were so many kinds of smiths—coppersmiths, tinsmiths (also known as whitesmiths), and blacksmiths to name a few—there are a corresponding large number of families with the name of Smith.

1880 abt Young blacksmith shop retou

At his shop, located at Tyler and Madison streets in Oswego and shown here about 1880, John Young did both blacksmith and farrier work, and also built wagons and did wheelwright work. (Little White School Museum collection)

While blacksmithing is still commercially practiced today, it is a much more limited trade than in the past. A century and a half ago, blacksmiths, doing business in every crossroads hamlet and town in the country, manufactured and repaired the tools that built America, as well as turning out more mundane things such as nails, bolts, and hinges that literally held homes and businesses together. But early on, blacksmiths did not shoe horses, mules, and oxen—that job was done by the farrier. Gradually, however, the term blacksmith came to mean, in common speech, someone who shoes horses, even though those tradespeople are still officially farriers. Today’s modern blacksmiths, like my friend Tom Korthauer, specialize in sharpening, repairing, and sometimes making tools.

Another smith, the gunsmith, spent his time making and repairing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Before guns came into wide usage, English archers became feared for use of their longbows (made by boyers) that fired arrows with shafts a cloth-yard in length. Those arrows were made by fletchers.

Meanwhile, the cooper was busy making barrels, pails, panikins, piggins, and other wooden containers while using the specialized drawknives, pod augers, and kerfing saws of his trade.

Even coopers specialized, however, and white coopers, for instance, usually found in larger towns, made mostly round grain measures, firkins, sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of basswood or poplar shaved thin with sharp drawknives.

firkin

A firkin is a small to medium wooden cask that can come either with or without a handle.

Wrights also derive their names from a wide variety of skills. Housewrights, not surprisingly, built houses. More specifically, housewrights were responsible for the framing and all the materials of the shell— the four walls and roof. The inside of the house, the woodwork and built-in cabinets, were finished by joiners who, again, worked their creative magic with specialized tools.

Millwrights were the jack-of-all-trades specialists who not only built the mill buildings, but who also were experienced at the critical work of siting and building dams and manufacturing mill machinery. Professionals who only operated mills and who were responsible for maintaining and sharpening the millstones were known as millers, a trade that has become another common surname.

Cartwrights built two-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles while wagonwrights, or wainwrights, built wagons and other four-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles. They build the wagon running gears and boxes before making use of the output from the local wheelwright. Of the two—wagons and wheels—wheels were far more complicated to make and good wheelwrights were worth their weight in gold.

In order that hides from either wild or domestic animals could be used, they had to be tanned and softened. Hides were tanned by the tanner, a process that dried and chemically preserved the leather. After a hide is tanned, however, it is very stiff (rawhide). In order to make it pliable and give it a good surface finish, the leather had to be processed by the currier.

Spinning

Spinning was one of the many home crafts that disappeared when cheap factory-made cloth became available.

Instead of buying their clothing, pioneers made their own. They grew the sheep that were sheared for wool and the flax plants that could then be spun into woolen and linen yarn. The spinning was often done by older unmarried female family members, thus the not particularly kindly term spinster. The spun yarn was then made into cloth by the weaver.

After wool was woven into cloth it had to be fulled to cleanse it of oil and dirt and to compact its fibers and raise the nap. At first, this was done at fulling parties where neighbors sat in a circle and stamped on the soap-saturated cloth with their feet. This was neither efficient nor very effective, however, for large-scale wool making. So, fullers built and maintained mills that did the work with wooden machines powered either by animals or by water.

Shoes were made by the shoemaker, who was sometimes called a cordwainer until the early 18th Century. Shoes were repaired by the cobbler.

These and other traditional crafts have provided the basis for a good deal the names in modern phone listings. Tailors made clothing while chandlers made candles and tinkers repaired metalware such as pails and basins. Carters drove carts and wagons while baxters (or bakers) produced baked goods. Parkers maintained parks while foresters maintained forests. A collier mined or sold coal while a sherman (or shearman) trimmed the nap of freshly woven woolen cloth.

For those of us interested in history and how things came to be, it is noteworthy that something as commonplace as a phone listing carries clues to the way our culture has developed and changed during the past 400 years.

 

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How a prehistoric catastrophe created the Fox River Valley

In 1837, Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz announced his theory that an ice age had enveloped the Earth’s northern hemisphere, creating the landforms then in existence. His studies were done in his native area, Switzerland’s Jura Mountains, and, oddly enough, he was a friend, classmate, and associate of one of my distant cousins—the Matiles had lived in Switzerland’s Jura Mountain region since the 1300s.

After Agassiz, scientists began to better understand how, after the vast ice sheets melted, modern landforms were created. But until relatively recently, it was thought that geological features like our own Fox River Valley were created over eons as water and wind erosion did their work. Now, however, it’s looking more and more like many river and stream valleys were created in the blink of a geologic eye.

Midwestern waterways have always been mixed blessings, including those here in northern Illinois. While they were barriers to travel for both the Native People that lived here as well as for the pioneers who later displaced them, they were also sources of food and—for the pioneers—water power that ran the mills that were so vital to the region’s growth.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

In 1867, the first iron bridge was built across the Fox River at Oswego, replacing the old 1848 timber bridge. A King’s Patent tied-arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge, it was built by Oswego Township at a cost of $17,000. (Little White School Museum collection)

Virtually all the region’s early towns were established on some waterway or another. Sometimes those settlements grew where the region’s roads and trails crossed streams, because the pauses in traffic they caused offered an opportunity to serve—or exploit—travelers with inns, stores, blacksmith shops and the like. Many of those crossings also offered sites for the dams that provided water power to run saw mills that produced lumber for homes and other buildings, grist mills that ground flour from grain, carding and filling mills that processed raw wool, and for other useful and necessary activities.

In addition, streams provided relatively clean sources of drinking water (at least for the first settlers, until pollution made them questionable sources at best), as well as sources of food. Before the settlement era, the area’s Native American inhabitants had intensively utilized local streams for food production. It is rare but not unheard-of in Kendall County to find carefully crafted stone plummets ancient fishermen used to weight their nets, along with bone fishing hooks and fishing spearheads. Village sites are invariably on the bank of a creek or the Fox River itself—or on the shorelines of ancient lakes that dried up hundreds or thousands of years ago. In virtually all of those villages are found mussel shells, fish bones, scales, and other evidence that Native People relied on streams to produce important parts of their diets.

Like our pioneer ancestors, however, we tend to pretty much take the landscape, including the geological features of the Fox River Valley, including all its tributary creeks, for granted, as if the landscape has always looked this way. And, certainly for the past several thousand years it has, as it provided a relatively rich natural area where people ranging from paleo Indian hunters and gatherers to modern anglers, canoeists, and kayakers have found food and natural beauty.

Native People fishing with nets

Native Americans made extensive use of the Fox River and its tributaries. Fish and a variety of invertebrates were regularly harvested while the river’s floodplain provided rich land where various wild plants could be cultivated.

But like everything else, the current geography of the Fox Valley had a starting point. In our case the familiar lay of our land was created by titanic forces unleashed when the last glacial advance into northern Illinois began to retreat.

Sometime around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had begun to melt and retreat as the Earth warmed. During the previous tens of thousands of years, glacial advances had covered almost all of northern Illinois except a small iceless island in what eventually became the far northwest corner of our state. Called the Driftless Region, that fragment of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin is today a scenic area of rocky hills, valleys, and lakes.

Geologists don’t really know what triggered these various ice ages, but the global cooling that caused them resulted in heavy snowfalls far to the north that never completely melted during the summer months. That, in turn, caused the snow cover to build up, its own weight gradually compacting it into ice. As the ice became thicker and thicker—and we’re talking hundreds and thousands of feet here, nothing like a modern Illinois or Michigan winter snowdrift—its own weight began squeezing the lowest regions out like toothpaste from a tube, causing glacial advances.

end of the glaciersThe Wisconsin Glacier was the last of these advances, and as it slowly advanced, it bulldozed and abraded the landscape right down to the bedrock, then briefly retreating before moving forward again, leaving a variety of glacial landforms behind from kames (irregularly shaped sand, gravel and till hills or mounds that accumulates in a glacial depression) to eskers (long, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel) to moraines (an accumulation of debris ranging in size from silt-sized glacial flour to large boulders created by glacial action).

During its last advance, the glacier had built a high moraine of gravel, rocks, and ground up organic materials along its leading southern edge. Glaciers act more like a conveyor belt than a bulldozer, with the pressure of the ice above forcing material from under the glacier out under the front, creating the moraine along its foot. And as the giant ice sheet melted and retreated, water filled the area between the foot of the glacier and the moraine. It must have been a spectacular sight as the ice cold water deepened year after year, creating a huge impoundment.

1972 August Fox River bluffs near Wedron

The rampaging Fox River Torrent carved the sandstone bluffs along the Lower Fox River that are enjoyed so much by canoeists.

And then one day, the natural dam gave way, and a catastrophic flood rushed southwestward washing and grinding everything before it. The unprecedented flood may have created a cataract nearly 100 feet high as it crashed along its course, carrying huge boulders and giant chunks of ice with it, gouging and washing its way through the till previous glaciers had laid atop the primordial bedrock.

The end result of this catastrophe was the Fox River Valley we see today, which was created, geologically speaking, in a relatively short period of time by that single astonishingly destructive event geologists have named the Fox River Torrent. From the wide valley in the river’s northern reaches to the narrow stream bound by towering white sandstone bluffs in its southern course, the Fox Valley had been created in virtually a blink of a geologic eye.

Starved Rock

This image, from a vintage postcard, shows Starved Rock at it’s summer best. The white sandstone rock, carved by the Kankakee Torrent, soars high above the Illinois River, which washes its base.

Just as the unimaginable force freed by the break in the moraine created the Fox Valley, just to the east, the similar, although much larger, Kankakee Torrent gouged out the modern Illinois River Valley. When the Kankakee Torrent rampaged westerly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet, the leading wave was some 180 feet high, carving the valley and the river’s main channel, leaving behind the spectacular sandstone bluffs at Starved Rock State Park.

It must have been quite a sight, had anyone been around to see it. WAS there anyone here at the time? Perhaps.

The January 2015 issue of National Geographic Magazine included a fascinating article concerning the latest thinking about the arrival of the first people in North America, and it seems that it’s not impossible that some advance party of paleo hunters following the giant Ice Age mammals they relied on for food might have been on hand to witness either or both of the Fox River or Kankakee torrents. If they were around for those titanic geological events, they would have had ringside seats for some of the most catastrophic episodes of landscape formation in recent geologic history.

 

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The farming calendar once ruled Fox Valley life

Even the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic can’t alter the rhythm of the seasons. So sheltering in place or not, spring is here and another planting season for farmers here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley is upon us.

The various orders from state and local officials to avoid crowds and stay out of public won’t have much effect on this year’s planting season, although some items farmers need, such as protective gloves and masks might be hard to come by, because farming is a pretty solitary endeavor.

Farmers are already out in their fields working the ground for planting. There won’t be much planting just yet because there’s still a pretty good risk of frost, but it won’t be long until it starts. And when it does, it will, like the harvest, use up every day’s good, dry daylight until the job’s done.

These days, farmers either specialize in grain or in some form of livestock. Most around these parts are grain farmers. But things were quite different in the past—and not all that far in the past, either, unless you consider the 1950s some sort of distant historical epoch. And I guess I understand if you do, although it seems a lot like just yesterday to me.

Farmers of the ‘50s worked smaller farms and engaged in diversified agriculture. That meant growing a wider variety of crops than is the norm today, as well as keeping livestock around the place as a money-maker and not as a hobby.

Today’s major crops of soybeans and corn were joined 70 years ago by oats, rye, barley, perhaps a bit of wheat, and hay crops like alfalfa, clover, and timothy. Farmyards were busy places since a lot of diversified farms kept at least a milk cow or two, hogs, chickens, and, in the fall, beef cattle.

3 1938 Husking Stewart corn

In 1938, Graeme Stewart used a 2-row Case husker to harvest two rows of corn at a time. (Little White School Museum collection)

The crops grown on diversified farms fitted together with the farmers’ livestock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some corn was used to feed cattle during the winter, with most of it sent off to market. Soybeans were also market crops, but beans, at least on our farm, weren’t used as animal feed. The small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—could be used as feed, and the left-over straw from their dried stems was used as livestock bedding. Northern Illinois, after the settlement era, was not wheat country due to the climate so a wheat field during that era was, as it is today, a curiosity. Hay crops like alfalfa were baled during the summer growing season and used as fodder for feeder cattle during the winter.

1940 Stewart farming corn

After husked ear corn dried in this temporary bin in 1950, Graeme Stewart hired a machine to come to his farm to shell it. The corn was then either hauled to market or kept to feed animals on the farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

The puzzle pieces of crops and livestock began to be put together during the spring planting season. Farmers rotated crops to allow the soil to rest and to recharge it with nutrients. Corn ground was planted the next year either with beans, alfalfa, or timothy. Beans fix nitrogen with their roots, which, in turn, helped the corn, oats, or other crop to grow better the next year. Alfalfa and timothy, plowed under in the fall or spring, also returned nutrients to the ground, too. Some farmers tried to get a jump on spring fieldwork by plowing in the fall, but many did not, both because they were too busy harvesting and because wind erosion of bare plowed land could be substantial during Illinois’ often windy winters.

After plowing and harrowing in the spring, the ground was seeded. Corn and beans were planted in rows to allow easier weeding—called cultivating by the farmers. Oats and other small grains were broadcast on the ground, usually from an endgate seeder on the back of a wagon, although they were planted in rows with grain drills in some farming areas. Hay crops like alfalfa were seeded with endgate seeders, too.

2010 12-row corn combine

By 2010, combine harvesters like this John Deere could pick and shell 12 rows of corn at once, vastly increasing farm productivity. (Daily Globe News photo, Worthing, MN)

When the crops began to grow, it was time to hire some local youngsters to walk the bean rows to hoe out volunteer corn stalks. The annual crop rotation resulted in corn growing up in bean rows, and other problems, too, including milkweeds, velvet weeds, and other pests. Although tractor-mounted cultivators could plow between the rows and uproot weeds, it was harder to get between the plants. Some farmers still “horse-stepped” or checked their corn rows, leaving equal spaces between each hill to allow diagonal cultivating, but the technique sharply cut the number of plants in a field, and thus reduced the yield. Most relied on teenagers (or themselves) walking the rows with sharp hoes to cut out “volunteer” stalks of corn in the beans and other weedy pests. Morning glories, hollyhocks, and other pests my farmer father roundly cursed (and which now turn up in trendy perennial gardens) also had to be hacked and burned out of fence rows by hand. Today’s effective herbicides have largely made those chores obsolete.

The small grains ripened first and were harvested in mid to late summer. By the 1950s, the huge steam-powered threshing machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had given way to tractor-towed combined harvesters compact, efficient, and economical enough for individual farmers to buy their own.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

Steam threshing outfits like this one owned by the East Oswego Threshing Ring were obsolete by the end of World War II. One combine could do the work of all this machinery, plus others needed for the small grain harvest.

During the steam threshing era, most farmers could not afford their own machines and so banded together in cooperatives to buy a threshing outfit that consisted of the threshing machine, a steam tractor to power it, and generally a water wagon and/or a coal wagon. During the harvest season, the machine was moved from farm to farm of the members of the cooperative to harvest their grain in turn, and thus the general name for these groups: Threshing rings.

But by the 1950s, most farmers harvested their own grain, which was either hauled to the nearest grain elevator for sale or storage or stored on the farm for use as animal feed. Oats, once the fuel that powered horse-driven farm implements, was mostly used by the 1950s for hog feed, although there was still a market for it as a food grain. The straw left in the field after the combines finished their harvest was raked and baled for use as animal bedding during the winter months.

1950 tractor-pulled combine

By the 1950s, one farmer with a tractor-pulled combine could harvest as much grain as a dozen farmers using a threshing outfit, and do it an order of a magnitude faster.

Soybeans ripened next, and were also harvested with combines. The stalks were not usable for feed or bedding, however, and so were left in the field to be plowed under and added back to the soil.

As fall rolled around, corn picking time approached. Farmers used either towed or tractor-mounted machines that picked and husked the orange-yellow ears, which were stored in the farms’ corn cribs to dry. After the ears had thoroughly dried, the kernels were shelled from them local businessmen who owned corn shellers. Corn shellers, like the threshing machines of previous years, were usually too expensive for an individual farmer to buy, and so a business niche was created.

modern grain combine

Modern computer-controlled grain combines are bigger, faster and more efficient than their 1950s ancestors, as well as more expensive and far more complicated.

After the corn harvest, cattle and hogs were turned into the fields—all of which were fenced—to glean the grain that had not been picked up by the mechanical harvesters.

During the winter months, the straw baled during the late summer harvest was used to bed chickens in their nests and cattle in their shed. Alfalfa was fed to cattle in feed bunks along with commercially purchased feed supplements and sometimes—if the farm had a silo—silage that had been put in the silo earlier. Hogs apparently enjoyed what my father called slop, made with either water or raw milk from our cow mixed with oats ground to a course flour.

In the spring, the cattle and hogs were sent off to market, and the cattle yard and hog and chicken houses were cleaned of the manure that had accumulated over the winter. The waste was then loaded aboard manure spreaders (ours carried the upbeat brand name, “New Idea”), and spread on fields, retuning the nutrients back to the soil.

And then whole process began again.

Except for the Amish and a few other small groups, diversified farms are as dead today as the Dodo Bird. Modem crop science and mechanical technology have helped boost crop yields. Today, a modern combine can be fitted with heads to harvest corn, with the corn efficiently removed from the cobs as it’s harvested—thus no more need for the neighborhood corn sheller—as well as any other grain from oats to wheat. But even with all that modern technology, crop science, and chemicals, a visitor to rural areas still sees the occasional stalk of stunted corn intruding into a neat field of soybeans or velvet weeds marring the perfectly straight rows of young corn.

A time-traveling farmer from the 1950s would have no trouble identifying today’s farms, and, in a month or so, what crops are growing on them. He would, however, probably be surprised at the size of the farms and the equipment working on them as well as the small number of farmers needed to handle today’s sprawling agricultural operations.

 

 

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