Category Archives: Kendall County

Shabbona’s life a microcosm of 19th Century white – Indian relations…

We took a drive up to Aurora with some friends this past week to both visit a Fox River art exhibit at Aurora University and to listen to a speaker at AU’s Schingoethe Center. It was a very satisfying evening.

The exhibit, open through Dec. 14, is “Joel Sheesley: A Fox River Testimony,” featuring 73 landscapes painted during a two-year period, in all seasons of the year, from West Dundee in the north to Ottawa in the south. A number of scenes Sheesley chose for subjects were familiar, but his vision of those familiar spots makes them look fresh and new, and gave me, at least, a new appreciation of the beauty of our river valley. I highly recommend this exhibit. If you can’t make it, though, don’t worry because it sounds like it may also be coming to the Little White School Museum next spring.

After enjoying view of the valley, we wandered over to the Tapper Recital Hall in the same building to hear “The Power of Place: The Indigenous Peoples of Northeastern Illinois and the Fox River Valley” by Dr. John N. Low of the Ohio State University at Newark, OH.

Low’s an interesting guy. Himself an enrolled citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, he’s earned a juris doctorate as well as a Ph.D in American Culture and is currently on the OSU faculty.

Leopold Pokagon

Chief Leopold Pokagon

My rule of thumb is that it’s a poor day when I don’t learn something new, and Low certainly taught me something new the other evening, namely that all of the members of the Three Fires Confederacy were not forced west by the U.S. Government in 1836. A separate band of 280 individuals, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi named after the chief, Leopold Pokagon, was allowed to stay in southern Michigan and northern Indiana after the Treaty of 1833 extinguished the claims of the rest of the Three Fires’ land in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois.

Between 1836 and 1838, the rest of the Three Fires were rounded up and forced west, including two well-known local chiefs, Waubonsie and Shabbona.

Although Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted in 1829. He returned to Illinois in 1837 despite the official removal then going on and lived at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been seized and sold at public auction. This high-handed act has resulted in more than a little legal action over the years, which, as I understand it, isn’t settled yet.

1858 abt Shabbona

Chief Shabbona, about 1858

The citizens of Ottawa, however, seeing that the old chief’s land had been stolen from him, pooled their resources and bought him a small farm near Seneca in LaSalle County.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington, the son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother. Just under 6 feet in height, he was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely, as it was spelled phonetically. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena.

1765 Pontiac

Pontiac, about 1765. As no portraits of the Ottawa chief are known to exist, this is an artist’s conception.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac planned, organized, and carried out 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, which was designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, aiming to fill the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois and Indiana where they settled along the Wabash, Kankakee, Illinois, St. Joseph, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

The three tribal groups mixed freely and frequently. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potawatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an Ottawa, was elevated to chief upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires were mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British. After the Revolution, British forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military leader Blue Jacket.

1812 Tecumseh

Tecumseh, about 1812, in a British Army uniform.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won the battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict.

Despite the setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American opposition to U.S. control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the Old Northwest. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, where he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s views, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin recruiting more members for the Wabash Confederacy.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

1840 abt Waubonsee

Chief Waubonsee, about 1840

In 1812, war again broke out between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois, and after much deliberation, he concluded further opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1825, when the Winnebagos decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities. In return, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove in modern DeKalb County, and where the chief moved his village.

When the Black Hawk War broke out in 1832, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful. On the war’s outbreak, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to Chicago. One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potowatomis angered by Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that all Indians were to be removed from Illinois, and most were, with the exception of the Pokagon Band. And, as we saw above, Shabbona.

To give credit where it’s due, though, Shabbona’s friends in LaSalle County showed their appreciation for his efforts to maintain peace, and then to reduce human losses when the Black Hawk War broke out not only by helping him financially after his land had been stolen, but also by treating him as one of the community’s honored citizens.

1857 Shabbona ambrotype in case

Ambrotype of Chief Shabbona taken about 1857.

Which brings me to another interesting fact about the folks who lived in the Fox and Illinois River valleys in the 19th Century. The very first Lincoln and Douglas Debate, held during the 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate from Illinois was held at Ottawa. Both Lincoln, representing the new Republican Party, and Douglas, the old-line Democrat, were well known politicians, Lincoln also famed because of his extremely successful legal career. So the crowd on hand to listen to the debate was a big one. The stage set up on the grounds of the LaSalle County Courthouse on the square in Ottawa provided room for the two speakers, plus chairs for local dignitaries. And among those invited luminaries was elderly Chief Shabbona, who by all accounts was warmly greeted by his Black Hawk War comrade, Abe Lincoln, who had served in the Illinois militia during the conflict.

Shabbona lived on his small farm near Seneca until the end of his life on July 17, 1859

What interests me is that just two decades after the Indians had been forcibly removed from Illinois, and less than 25 years after the Black Hawk War itself, Shabbona found himself treated as an honored citizen and local dignitary. That’s something that somehow doesn’t quite fit in with our usual view of how whites treated Indians during that era.

Shabbona is buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery under a marker paid for by donations from his admiring friends and neighbors.

Meanwhile, the Pokagon Band of Potawtomi Indians was not treated as a legitimate part of the Potawatomi Nation or the Three Fires Confederacy because, like Shabbona, they ultimately chose to stay. But following 160 years of struggle, they were finally granted official tribal status in 1994.

These two stories represent just some of the unknown stories about how Native People were treated differently by a disinterested and borderline hostile government and sympathetic local residents. Most, but not all of the Three Fires were forced west on what they came to call the Trail of Death. And most, but not all those forced west never returned. But there were exceptions and those exceptions make for great local history.

 

 

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Filed under Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

World War I soldiers deserve our President’s recognition and respect…

So last week, Donald Trump flew over to France to represent the U.S. as the rest of the world, especially the European powers, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

During its brief participation in the conflict, the U.S. suffered 53,402 combat deaths and a grand total of 116,708 deaths from all causes. Another 204,002 soldiers, sailors, and marines were wounded. As things go, that wasn’t an overwhelming total of fatalities—more than 600,000 died during the four years of the Civil War and the nation would suffer 407,300 total deaths during the upcoming Second World War, along with another 672,000 wounded.

But the U.S. only participated in World War I for 19 months, and suffered about the same casualties as in the war in Vietnam, which lasted 18 years, 10 months and 23 days between the first death on April 8, 1956 and the final two men killed in action on April 29, 1975.

World War I really ushered the U.S. onto the world scene, and while our nation’s part of the conflict was relatively brief, it also involved brutal, fierce combat. In Europe, the war resulted in an entire generation of young men being killed, maimed, and mentally injured. For them, it was a horrific, seemingly never-ending series of battles that gained no ground and resulted in no resolution. Not until the fresh troops supplied by the U.S. arrived at the front did the Germans and their allies finally come to the conclusion they could not win the war. And so at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the Germans capitulated, finally ending the horrific bloodshed.

For our current European allies—and even our foes during that long-ago war—this centenary commemoration was a major event. Which made it doubly disappointing that our current President found it inconvenient to attend solemn ceremonies honoring all the war’s dead, including those tens of thousands of young men and women from the U.S. who served. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he likewise found it inconvenient to attend ceremonies here in the U.S. marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Which made it seem an awful lot like he simply didn’t care about those who paid the ultimate price in defense of their nation—including the three men from Kendall County who were killed in action.

burson marker

Plano resident Leon Burson was the second Kendall County resident killed in action during World War I.

World War I, it seems, is no more familiar to most Americans—including, it seems, the current President—than the Civil War. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember elderly World War I vets riding to the cemetery on Memorial Day—still called Decoration Day by our grandparents—escorted by the color guard of young World War II and Korean Conflict vets, much like those World War II and Korean Conflict vets are escorted today by honor guards of Vietnam War and Desert Storm vets. Armistice Day—today’s Veterans Day—was an even more somber celebration, originally commemorating the service of those who went “over there” to fight the Kaiser.

It was hoped World War I would be the “War to End All Wars.” Several Kendall County residents lost their lives during the conflict, most dying from disease including the devastating worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. But many others were killed in action during the conflict, including three county residents, one each from Plattville, Oswego, and Plano.

After the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Fred P. Thompson, a 34 year-old Plattville blacksmith, was determined to do his part. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Aurora on May 28, and was assigned to the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of four regiments comprising the 1st Expeditionary Division, later renamed the 1st Infantry Division.

Thompson, in fact, was among the first U.S. troops to land in France. Though virtually untrained, they were enthusiastically welcomed by the French people, who were exhausted after years of seemingly unending war. On Independence Day, July 4, 1917 the 16th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion paraded through Paris, where one of General John J. Pershing’s staff is said to have announced, in a reference to France’s assistance during the Revolutionary War, “Lafayette, we are here!”

On Oct. 21, the 1st Division was assigned to the Allied line in the Luneville sector near Nancy. Two days later, Corporal Robert Bralet of the Sixth Artillery fired a 75 millimeter artillery round at the German lines, the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in the war.

It was while the 16th Regiment was in the Luneville sector trenches on Jan. 22, 1918 that Thompson was killed in action, among the first to fight, and the first Kendall County soldier killed in action during the war.

burson post american legion

Plano’s American Legion post is named in Leon Burson’s honor.

Leon Burson, 26, a lifelong Plano resident, was drafted in 1917. He left from Plano in September for Camp Dodge, Ia., then on to Camp Logan at Houston, Tex. to join the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Infantry Regiment. The 1st Illinois had served in the Spanish American War and later had helped U.S. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing chase Pancho Villa along the Mexican border for three months in 1916. With the declaration of war, the 1st Illinois was federalized. Redesignated the 131st Infantry at Camp Logan, they were assigned to the 33rd “Prairie” Division.

At Camp Logan, Burson was assigned to the Medical Corps. In early May 1918 after finishing rigorous training, the regiment traveled to New Jersey, boarded the ocean liner SS Leviathan, and sailed for France on May 22. Arriving at Brest on May 30, the regiment entrained for Oisemont, where they underwent combat training under experienced British officers before joining the 3rd Corps, 4th British Army.

The 131st helped capture Hamel on the Fourth of July then helped reduce the Amiens salient. There, on Aug. 9, the regiment lost nearly 1,000 men at Chipilly Ridge and Gressaire Wood before advancing to help take the Etinchem Spur on Aug. 13.

Burson, behind the lines, was stocking an ambulance for the front a day later when he was killed by an artillery shell, the second Kendall County man killed in action in the Great War.

“It is my sad duty to write you of your son Leon’s death, the evening of August 14, 1918 due to the explosion of a shell,” Lt. Herbert Pease wrote to Burson’s parents. “Death no doubt was instant. He was on duty, having talked to me only two or three minutes before. He was buried today at Vayux, France under the direction of our Chaplain, Lieut. Egerton, in the American cemetery.” Years after the war, Plano’s American Legion Post would be named for Leon Burson.

Archie Lake grew up in Oswego but the young man and his family traveled to find work, eventually winding up in Hinsdale. When the U.S. entered the war, Lake, then 22, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was assigned to the 97th Company, 3rd Battalion, in the newly formed 6th Marine Regiment.

Lake, Archie KIA 97th 6th retouch

An Oswego native, the U.S. Marines’ Pvt. Archie Lake was killed in action on July 19, 1918.

In France, the 6th Marines, the 5th Marines, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion were formed into the 4th Brigade of the U.S. 2nd Division. Nicknamed the “Marine. Brigade,” the unit was assigned to the Toulon Sector near Verdun in March 1918. There, the 6th Marines lost 33 men, most killed when the 74th Company bivouac was attacked with poison gas on April 13.

In late May 1918, the Marine Brigade was ordered to help shore up crumbling French lines near Château-Thierry. On June 6, southwest of Belleau Wood, the 6th Marines were ordered to seize the town of Bouresches and to clear the southern half of Belleau Wood itself. The push started a bloody 40-day struggle in which the 6th lost 2,143 Marines. For their effort, the Marine units were all awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. And the French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

Lake, Archie marker Osw Cem

Pvt. Archie Lake, U.S. Marine Corps,  is buried in France where he was killed in action, but his family placed this marker in the Oswego Township Cemetery in his memory.

But bloodier fighting loomed when the Marine Brigade was ordered to counterattack near Soissons in mid July. The 6th Regiment was held in reserve during the initial July 18 assault, but on July 19, they advanced alone through heavy artillery and machinegun fire from Vierzy toward Tigny suffering catastrophic 50-70 percent casualties in most units. First Lt. Clifton Cates (a future Marine Corps commandant) reported only about two dozen of more than 400 men survived: “… There is no one on my left, and only a few on my right. I will hold” he reported to his superior office at headquarters.

One of the Marines lying dead on that battlefield was Archie Lake, the last Kendall County man to die in combat in World War I.

World War I and its heroes have largely faded from modern consciousness. But brave men and women did great things in our country’s name in the muddy, bloody trenches of France. It’s a shame–bordering on a national disgrace–that, on this 100th anniversary of the end of that devastating conflict, our nation’s elected leader decided to disregard his duty to honor of all those who perished during the conflict—including three young Kendall County men,.

 

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Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Tiptoeing perilously close to self-praise…

Self-praise, my mother used to say, stinks. Earthy, but descriptive, and it’s something that’s stuck with me all my life. So it’s probably not an accident that I view the current occupant of the White House with more than a little disdain.

And then, as if my mother’s stern injunction wasn’t enough, I married someone who has a lot of Quaker in her background, and who is so opposed to blowing her own horn that she’s still never even read two local history booklets the two of us wrote back in 1975.

All that said, I now intend to blow my own horn a little, although I’m not ready to go so far as to call it self-praise because, you know, that’s bad.

Here it goes: I earned a first place in the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s 2018 Newspaper Contest for the best local column in the non-daily paper classification. The awards were announced Oct. 18 at NINA’s annual awards dinner at Northern Illinois University.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

One of the columns that proved to be NINA award-winners concerned discovering the exact date of this photo of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. An original copy of the photo is in the collections of the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield and Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

My “Reflections” column has been appearing weekly in Oswego’s weekly paper, the Ledger-Sentinel (corporate changed the name back to the Oswego Ledger a while ago, but I like the old name), since July 1980 when Jeff and Kathy Farren talked me into becoming the editor of the newly combined Oswego Ledger and Fox Valley Sentinel. Although I retired as the editor (and also a beat reporter—weekly newspaper folks do everything from photography to writing obits) of the Ledger-Sentinel back in 2008—I agreed to continue doing my weekly local history column, because it’s fun and I always enjoy a chance to talk history, even if I’m only talking to myself. It now also appears in several other Shaw Media newspapers on an irregular basis as well as the four papers they own here in Kendall County.

For the annual NINA contest, several columns have to be submitted written during the contest year, and this year, my editor, John Etheredge, sent in four of them including the Feb. 1 one on George Washington’s slave wedding gift and a similar one affecting a local family; the Jan. 29 piece on the Great Millbrook Bank Robbery; my May 25 update on the Nathan Hughes photo (he was a black Civil War veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment); and my Sept. 14 piece on how standardized testing in in public schools is virtually eliminating the study and appreciation of local history.

The contest is judged (mostly) by the profs in the journalism department at Northern Illinois University, which gives it a nice academic aura. The person who judged the non-daily column entries had this to say about “Reflections”: “Writing about history is one thing, and writing about now is another, but tying history to the present in a compelling way is a tall order, and Roger Matile does this very well.”

Which made me feel pretty good, because that’s what I try to do just about every week. It’s good to know that a disinterested third party thinks what I think I’m doing seems to be working. And I also get a spiffy framed certificate to hang on my brag wall here at History Central.

Hope you didn’t get too upset, mom…

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History

When it comes to school districts, the name’s the thing…

So we had a big hoohah going on here in my once little town of Oswego a few years ago. This post is going to be super-local, so if you’re not interested in really, really local history and want to go somewhere else today, I completely understand.

Hoohahs come and go, of course, and there are lots of them in any community. But here I’m specifically talking here about a former school superintendent’s brainstorm that changing the school district’s name by leaving “Oswego,” “school,” and “district” out of it would be a boffo idea.

Of course, the district’s official, legal name—Oswego Community Unit School District 308—did not change. So what the superintendent was really talking about was a school district nickname. What that meant in practice was changing the name atop school district stationery, on school buses, on the district’s web site, and the like. Things that cost money to change.

The preferred new nickname? SD308.

One school board member, a newcomer to the community like most all board members in recent years, announced at back then that Oswego had never been part of the district’s name and that “‘Oswego’ got interjected somewhere in there.”

Well, no, that was definitely not the case. Let’s get into the Way Back Machine and figure out what actually happened, shall we?

Back in May 1961, voters living inside the boundaries of Oswego Community High School District 300 voted to consolidate with Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8, creating a community unit school district educating children from first through 12th grades. That fall, kindergarten would be added, but at the time of the referendum, it was just first through 12th.

According to the June 22 Oswego Ledger:

“An election will be held Saturday, June 24, to select seven members for the board of education of the newly formed Oswego Community District No. 308. Four of the members of the new board must be from Oswego Township and three members must be from the other townships–Wheatland, Bristol, and NaAuSay.”

But wait…what was the deal with that “Consolidated” word in the elementary school district’s name? Did the 1961 election consolidate a consolidation? Why, yes, yes it did.

1880 abt Old Stone School

Oswego’s Old Stone School at Tyler and Monroe streets was built about 1855, probably with some of the first real estate tax money levied for education purposes in the community. The building was gutted by fire in 1885. (from a stereopticon view in the Little White School Museum collection)

To explain that, we’ve got to delve into the Illinois public education historical weeds.

School consolidation in Illinois has a long history, and Kendall County’s communities and myriad school district’s followed the statewide activities in that regard.

The earliest schools were formed by subscription during the pioneer era of the 1830s and 1840s. Groups of farm neighbors or village residents would take subscriptions to build and otherwise maintain a school building and hire a teacher. In 1855, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing levying property taxes to finance the cost of operating public schools.

Small rural school districts proliferated, each supporting a single, one-room school that educated students in first through eighth grades. In general, taxpayers’ farm homes were located no farther away from these rural schools than about a mile and a half (which sort of puts the lie to great-granddad’s claim that he walked 10 miles to school, barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways).

In towns, elementary (or common) schools were often combined with “academies,” which were the name for high schools of the day. Academies were also the junior colleges of the era. About the only students who went on from elementary school to the upper grades were those who were planning to teach or the vanishingly small number of students who planned to actually attend college.

1894 Grove School

One of my all-time favorite school photos is this 1894 image of Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, with the kids dressed for a Mother Goose play. (Little White School Museum collection)

But times changed, and gradually it was realized that more education was a better, not to mention increasingly necessary, thing for all concerned. High schools replaced academies in the 1880s, and very gradually the numbers of students going on beyond eighth grade began to climb.

None of my grandparents, for instance, attended high school, and only two even graduated from eighth grade. My father graduated from eighth grade, but my mother graduated high school. Both my sisters graduated high school and went on to attend nurse’s training and became registered nurses, and both of my children graduated college—they’re all sort of a microcosm of how education has evolved since the early years of the 20th Century.

But back to consolidation. Here in Kendall County, Yorkville was the first area to consolidate some of its schools, and that in 1919. Consolidation bubbled under for several years, inhibited by the Great Depression. But after World War II, with the county’s population rising in some areas and the need for better education prompted by the new Cold War, nuclear weapons, and (literally) rocket science, consolidation began in earnest.

1925 abt Walker School

Walker School, at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego, was consolidated with the nearby Marysville and Gaylord schools in 1941, the first consolidation in the Oswego School District. The building, converted into a private home, still stands. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first consolidations of the 1940s involved one-room school districts. Many districts only enrolled a handful of students each year, sometimes less than a half-dozen. That made hiring a teacher and maintaining a building expensive for local taxpayers, as did complying with new rules and regulations concerning such things as state-mandated courses of study and facilities requirements.

In 1941, the voters living in the contiguous Gaylord, Walker, and Wilcox one-room school districts voted to consolidate into a single district, to be called Consolidated District 5, with all the students moved to the Walker School. The other two buildings were closed and sold. The Gaylord building was moved into Oswego and remodeled into a private home, while the Wilcox School was moved a few miles away to Wolf’s Crossing Road and also turned into a private residence.

Then in the summer of 1948, a further consolidation took place in the region inside the Oswego High School District, a 68 square mile region extending from the Kane-Kendall line north of Oswego south all the way to Caton Farm Road. As the Kendall County Record reported:

“Voters yesterday in the Oswego-NaAuSay area approved the establishment of a community consolidated grade school district consisting of all of Oswego township, about two-thirds of NaAuSay, and four sections of Kendall township. There were 270 votes for and 178 against the proposition. The voters in the Village of Oswego approved the proposition 94 to 16, and those outside the village 176 to 162.

“The new district combines the Oswego, Squires, Wormley, Willow Hill, Walker, Harvey, Russell, Cutter, McCauley, Grove, Union, and Marysville districts. The assessed valuation will be $12 million and the grade school enrollment is 343. Board members for the new district will be elected July 17.”

1958 East View School cropped

The first new building constructed by Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 after the district’s creation in 1948 was East View School, opened in Oswego in the fall of 1957, originally housing students in grades 4, 5, and 6. Eventually, the building was enlarged to house some 1,400 kindergarten through fifth grade students. (Little White School Museum collection)

Eventually, a few more parcels were added to the elementary district from Bristol Township, which borders Oswego Township to the west, Aurora Township in Kane County, which borders Oswego Township to the north, and Wheatland Township in Will County, which borders Oswego Township to the east, creating the entire “consolidated” elementary district, mirroring the bounds of the high school district.

The Oswego districts, of course, were far from the only ones consolidating during the 1940s and 1950s. Starting in the 1920s, a series of state laws and regulation changes began forcing one-room school districts to merge to create larger tax bases to permit better facilities and more advanced curricula.

First was the “Standard School” drive of the 1930s. According to the Oct. 8, 1930 Record:

“A standard school is one which meets the requirements for a good school with the sanitation requirements met and with the right kind of a [school] house, the right kind of furnishings and equipment, the right kind of teaching, and the right kind of behavior and work by the pupils. A superior school is one which has gone farther in its efforts to offer something better to the community.”

The Record noted that only six county schools had been awarded the “Standard” ranking that year: the Squires, Millbrook, Kendall, McCauley, Fourth Ward, and Jones schools, adding that:

“Several other schools are very close to meeting the requirements. Among them are the Wormley, Boomer, Needham, Union, Bronk, Weeks, Scofield, Naden, Keck, Stephens, Pletcher, Plattville, Cassem, Brown, Wynne, Bell, Fox, Cutter, Walker, Willow Hill, Bethel, and Lisbon Center. Some of these schools lack only a well or some equipment, which will be secured this year.”

By the late 1940s, the costs of operating one-room schools with tiny enrollments led to the closure of many with their students transferred to adjoining districts. As the Record explained on Sept. 11, 1946:

“Thirty-three Kendall county one- and two-room schools opened their fall terms last Tuesday. Teachers have been provided for all pupils only by closing the doors of 17 buildings and transferring the children from these districts to neighboring schools. As a result, school enrollments are much larger. Schools which formerly had only enough pupils for a game of marbles will now be able to choose up sides for a ball game. One school, in district No. 5 south of Oswego, has 28 enrolled and half of the schools operating have 16 or more pupils. Three schools have but eight, the smallest number this year.”

1957 Church School exterior

Church School, where the author attended grades 1-3, was the last one-room rural school to close in the Oswego School District. It closed in the spring of 1958.

In 1947, the Kendall County School Survey Committee recommended that the county’s 54 existing school districts be consolidated into just four unit districts based around the county’s four high school districts that would educate children from elementary through high school.

In June 1948, building on the county survey committee’s recommendations, 11 rural districts, plus the district in Oswego announced plans to ask voters to consolidate, as noted above. As the Record pointed out:

“Present limitations in taxes would require tax rate elections in some of the present districts before they could operate another year.”

Voters throughout the county were engaged in similar consolidation elections in Yorkville, Lisbon, Newark, and other communities.

The era of the one-room school was dealt a further blow with new requirements mandated by the Illinois School Code requiring that after June 30, 1949 public schools have at least 10 pupils in average daily attendance; after June 20, 1951, at least 12 pupils, and after June 30, 1953 at least 15 pupils.

By the late 1950s, the era of the one-room school in Kendall County was over. The last one-room building in the Oswego Elementary School District closed in 1957.

1961 Sept BH School

Boulder Hill Elementary School, whose construction was partially financed by Boulder Hill Subdivision developer Don L. Dise, was the first school built under the direction of brand new Oswego Community Consolidated Unit District 308. The new school opened in the fall of 1961.

And then in 1961, voters approved consolidating Oswego’s already-consolidated elementary district and its high school district, to create Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

So what was the deal with changing the district’s name? Well, according to those new school board members and the new (at the time) superintendent, it didn’t seem fair to have “Oswego” in the name when students from several other municipalities attend the district’s schools.

But that has always been the case. Starting with the high school district’s establishment in the 1930s, folks with Aurora, Plainfield, Yorkville, Oswego, Minooka, and Montgomery mailing addresses sent their kids north, south, east, and west to Oswego to school, depending on where their homes were located. It’s hard to see how much has changed today, even though now we’ve also got kids with Joliet addresses coming to Oswego to school.

After a relatively short time of anger simmering under the surface, a group of local residents, including a retired school superintendent and a retired varsity coach, got together to agitate for changing the district’s advertised name back to one with “Oswego” in it. And in that effort, they were recently successful. Adding “Oswego” back to the district’s identity has begun, and it’s gradually come to the point that now when you drive around the community and you pass a school bus, it will likely have “Oswego” in the name on the side.

The schools here have had a long and winding, but interesting, road from yesterday to today. If the district’s name does anything, it anchors the schools in a region of the Fox Valley, which provides a sense of identity that SD308 (two other Illinois school districts have the same numerical designation) did not.

For this long-time community resident and 1964 OHS grad, it’s good to see “Oswego” back on the district’s buses.

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When it came to crime, it really was the “Roaring ’20s” in Kendall County…

Sometimes you can tell a lot about a period of history by its nickname. Sometimes not so much. For instance, the “Gay ‘90s” definitely were not happy and carefree, while the “Roaring ‘20s” definitely were all of that—and more.

The decade of the 1890s began with the Panic of 1893, one of the longest and deepest financial depressions in the nation’s history. Here in Kendall County, during a period of just a couple weeks, every bank failed and the repercussions drove numerous business owners and farmers into bankruptcy. The balance of the decade, far from the carefree picture in our minds of young women and men riding their bicycles built for two, was a grim climb back to financial solvency.

The “Roaring ‘20s,” on the other hand, were just that. Economic growth was stratospheric (fueled in part by all those World War I Liberty Bonds), newly available economical and dependable automobiles were creating an astonishingly mobile society, and even small town America was seeing a slice of the pie.

But while some areas of the economy were booming—the stock market in particular—other areas definitely were not. The farm depression that followed World War I was deepening, and that had serious effects in largely rural counties like Kendall. In addition, the approval of the 18th Amendment, which took affect on Jan. 17, 1920, banning the sale, transportation and manufacture of alcoholic beverages was having a negative effect on small towns that relied on saloon licenses for much of their municipal revenue.

In the case of nationwide prohibition of alcohol, however, the citizenry started to push back almost immediately. The original physical opposition to Prohibition began at the local level; it would take a couple years for crime to become organized enough to take over bootlegging on a big scale.

Here in Kendall County, the Roaring ‘20s kicked off with the robbery of the State Bank of Newark in October. Rural banks had been favorites of robbers for years, but starting in 1920, the means and methods of the crimes began to change, primarily by the addition of automobiles as getaway vehicles. In the Newark case, a familiar face was on hand when the matter got to court. Fred Stuppy had been sent to prison a few years before for his role in robbing the Millbrook bank.

It was suddenly occurring to local officials that they were seriously under equipped to handle what seemed to be a growing wave of crime. Criminals had become more mobile as better roads and better cars came available, and they were often better armed than local constables and sheriffs.

As the Kendall County Record editorialized on Nov. 21, 1920: “Plainfield had a bank robbery, Newark suffered from burglars, Somonauk had an attack on its bank, auto robbers and bandits work unhampered, mail trains are held up and criminals of the worst sort are abroad in the state. There is no organized method of apprehending them. The officials in the small towns are not competent to wrestle with the question of a robbery. A state constabulary would be able to throw out a cordon within a few minutes after a robbery and the criminals would be apprehended or killed.”

Two years later, the General Assembly would create the Illinois State Police to help combat the rising tide of criminality in rural areas.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

Oswego’s Liberty Garage in 1927 after it’s purchase by Earl Zentmyer, who turned it into the village’s Ford dealership. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that local law enforcement wasn’t already trying their best, and sometimes finding themselves in perilous circumstances. In late April 1921, James Joslyn shot and killed West Chicago Chief of Police George Reihm while escaping from the attempted theft of lumber. Joslyn was working on an addition to his house and decided to get the material by robbing a lumber yard, killing Reihm when he got in the way. Joslyn kept one step ahead of the law for the next few months, eventually winding up in Oswego, where he and his wife and small son camped in Watts Cutter’s woods off South Main Street while he worked at the Liberty Garage. Although Joslyn was a good worker, Liberty Garage owner Clyde Lewis became suspicious when Joslyn showed up with a brand new Ford coupe wondering what the best way was to remove the serial numbers from the engine.

Yorkville Creamery

The old Yorkville Creamery where Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell shot it out with James Joslyn in 1921. (Little White School Museum collection)

And that’s where the new telecommunications technology came into play. Calls between Lewis, Kendall County Sheriff Martin Hextell, and the Aurora Police Department convinced Hextell that Joslyn was worth questioning at least. And so with Lewis and deputy Frank Wellman in the car, Hextell headed to Yorkville, where Joslyn had been headed. The sheriff caught up to Joslyn at the old creamery building, and got out of his car just as Joslyn walked up to see who was in the car. Seeing the sheriff, Joslyn backed up, turned, and started to run. Hextell shouted for him to stop and fired a warning shot in the air. At that, Joslyn pulled his own pistol and snapped off a hurried shot at Hextell that nearly clipped the sheriff’s ear. Hextell fired in reply, hitting Joslyn in the side, knocking him down. As Hextell, Lewis, and Wellman approached Joslyn, they heard a shot, finding he’d shot himself in the head rather than suffer arrest and imprisonment. It wasn’t until Hextell compared notes with other law enforcement agencies that it was found Joslyn had a lengthy criminal record—including that active warrant for the murder of Reihm.

But beside garden variety gunfights, it was Prohibition that was preying on local minds as enterprising folks attempted to find ways around the new law. In October 1922, Hextell arrested J. Busby at his farm near the Five Mile Bridge between Yorkville and Plano for bootlegging. Explained the Kendall County Record: “When Sheriff Hextell served the search warrant he and his assistants found 24 different varieties of ‘booze,’ ranging from ‘home brew’ to cherry cordial.”

On Jan. 10, 1923, Record publisher Hugh Marshall commended the county’s law enforcement establishment: “Kendall County is to be congratulated on the small number of ‘bootleggers’ and ‘blind pigs’ [speakeasies] within its boundaries.”

As it turned out, Marshall’s congratulations were a bit premature, even as the redoubtable Sheriff Hextell was replaced by the new sheriff in town, George Barkley. I’ll let Marshall tell the story of what happened next as recounted in the March 28 Record:

“Sheriff Barkley and his assistants uncovered one of the biggest stills ever found in this part of the country in one place and a large supply of beer and whisky in another in raids made on Sunday night and Monday morning. Sunday night the sheriff and posse visited Plano where they searched the sample room of Stanley VanKirk and the sandwich room of his brother, Charles VanKirk, better known as “Bumps.” From these two raids, they garnered 80 cases of beer said to have been made in a Joliet brewery, and 14 quarts of supposed “real” whisky. Sheriff Barkley was assisted by former Sheriff Hextell and State Agents Jack Lecker and Pasnik. They had been working about Plano for two weeks. The two VanKirks were brought to Yorkville, where they were arraigned before Judge Larson on Tuesday pled guilty to the charges and were fined. Charles VanKirk paid $500; Stanly VanKirk, $300, and “Pidge” Robbins, who was arrested with them, stood a $100 levy.

“The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.”

Parker, Hawley, Schickler house

Built in 1869 by farmer and business owner George Parker, this ornate Italianate-style home featured a drive-in basement. Later owned by lawyer P.G. Hawley, it was sold to John Schickler, who attempted to run an illegal distilling operation there. (Little White School Museum collection)

While Stan and Bumps VanKirk’s activities didn’t seem to startle anyone too much, the Schickler distilling operation seemed to be a real surprise for local officials. John Schickler was a long-time Oswego businessman and farmer. He built the brick block of stores at the northwest corner of Washington and Main streets in the village’s downtown business district, where he variously operated a saloon and a grocery store. He’d purchased the old Parker-Hawley farm with its huge house that featured a drive-in basement.

Given prohibition, and Schickler’s former career running saloons, he and his son Clarence apparently decided to fulfill a need they figured the community had. John Schickler had always been interested in technology, and had added some of the most up-to-date features to his downtown Oswego building, including a freight elevator and a modern cooler for groceries and meat. So it wasn’t too surprising to see the amount of technology he and Clarence used to distill legal denatured medicinal alcohol into definitely illegal drinking liquor.

In the end, the Schicklers got what amounted to a slap on the wrist and the admonition to go and sin no more, which they apparently took seriously. Unfortunately, they also managed to get the notice of the local Ku Klux Klan. The Klan reportedly held a cross burning on the front lawn of the Schickler house, something that could have been fueled either by the Schicklers’ bootlegging activities or by the fact that they were Catholics.

John Schickler died in 1931, and Clarence found other things to do. “He was a slot machine king and his wife was a showgirl,” one elderly Oswego resident told me several years ago. Clarence, a few years after the bootlegging adventure, started the Schickler Dairy on the farm, milking 20 cows and housing the bottling operating in same basement where he and his father had distilled bootleg whisky.

At the time law enforcement raided it, the Schicklers’ operation seemed large and sophisticated. But it was paltry by later standards as crime became better organized.

In October 1930, police raided a farm a mile east of Plano and found six mash vats of 7,000 gallons capacity each, along with about 4,000 gallons of distilled alcohol, two boilers, and a large amount of yeast. And that was just one of a half-dozen or so operations knocked over during those years.

Despite the hopes of many Americans, the end of Prohibition in 1933 didn’t necessarily mean the end of local bootlegging. The biggest haul of federal and local agents took place in October 1936, well after Prohibition ended, as the mob tried to maintain a tax-free supply of alcohol. And the amounts of liquor the operation was about to produce were really astonishing, throwing the Schicklers’ operation back in 1923 definitely in the shade.

Here’s the account from the April 19, 1936 Record:

“Sheriff William A. Maier of Kendall county, in company with several federal agents, entered the Lippold gas station on Route 34 between Yorkville and Oswego Monday finding in a tool shed three 3,500 gallon supply tanks, two of them containing 5,000 gallons of denatured alcohol. There were also three open tanks in the shed and a copper column for a cooker, which assembled, Sheriff Maier said, would be 20 feet high…

“According to Sheriff Maier, the plant was the supply depot for the still raided on the George Bauman farm by Sheriff and the ‘Feds’ on Thursday, April 9.

“The Bauman farm is located between Oswego and Montgomery on Route 25. There the agents found what they termed ‘the finest plant of its type in this territory.’ The plant was valued at $20,000, and was capable of producing 50,000 gallons of 188-proof alcohol a day, using denatured alcohol to start with. The plant was within two weeks of being ready for operating, lacking the copper column found later at the Lippold station.

“The size of the outfit may be realized by a description of the larger pieces: three vats 14 feet long, 10 feet high and six feed wide; 12 cracking units 5-1/2 feet high and 3-1/2 feet in diameter; four 3,500 gallon storage tanks; one cooker base 18-1/2 feet high, eight feet in diameter; one 75 horsepower boiler; an oil-burner unit; deep well pump and motor; and two tons of regular table salt. Besides these items there were motor-driven agitators and the many other small items going into a plant like this. A wrecking crew from Chicago wrecked the equipment.”

After that, criminals in Kendall County got mostly back to the usual bank robberies and other crimes, including the occasional shoot-out with police.

Too often we read in the paper about some criminal activity or another and think to ourselves how much nicer it would be if we could go back to a simpler time when things weren’t so violent. But the thing is, that time never really existed.

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New marker a Kendall County link to Illinois statehood bicentennial…

For years I wondered what that historical marker on U.S. Route 34 between Yorkville and Plano was, but never bothered to stop and read it. Because, I guess I’m like everybody else: history that’s too close, too local, isn’t as interesting as that in other, far away places.

1816 NW Territory map by Melish

Although it rather oddly moves Lake Michigan a hundred or so miles east, John Melish’s 1816 map showing the Northwest Territory does illustrate Illinois’ originally proposed northern boundary, even  with the bottom of Lake Michigan.

And then it was too late to read it because it disappeared during one of the seemingly unending construction projects along that stretch of road.

But thanks to Linda Fellers, a resident of Crystal Lake of all places, and to the cooperation of the Illinois State Historical Society and the City of Yorkville, the marker has been replaced, this time relocated to a site on Van Emmon Road, avoiding Route 34 construction for all time.

And that gets us to how Fellers’ project to restore the missing marker is a nice compliment to our celebration of Illinois’ bicentennial this year, especially here in Kendall County. Because if the story recounted on the marker had not taken place, I’d be writing this piece in the state of Wisconsin.

The Ordinance of 1787—the Northwest Ordinance—was created to govern the region north and west of the Ohio River, and to eventually bring the region into the Union. The ordinance stipulated the territory was to be divided into not less than three, nor more than five territories that were, after they’d met minimum requirements, to then be admitted to the Union as states with all the privileges and responsibilities as the nation’s original 13 states.

1818 Daniel Pope Cook

Daniel Pope Cook, the young activist editor of the Illinois Intelligencer, Illinois Territory’s most popular newspaper, was a strong  advocate of Illinois statehood.

Illinois became a separate territory in 1809, boasting a population of about 10,000 mostly centered in the southern third of the modern state. But the territory was growing fast, and growth really accelerated after the War of 1812. By 1817, pressure for statehood was growing as many citizens grew increasingly dissatisfied with the absolute veto power over the territorial legislature wielded by the federally appointed territorial governor.

That year, a strong bid for statehood was begun by Daniel Pope Cook (for whom Cook County is named), the fire-eating 20-year-old editor of The Western Intelligencer, one of and the best known of Illinois Territory’s few newspapers. Beginning his campaign with an editorial in the Nov. 20, 1817 Intelligencer, Cook kept up a steady drumbeat of support and agitation for statehood. By Dec. 6 of that year, the territorial house of representatives had adopted a resolution to Congress asking to be admitted as a state.

Though the Northwest Ordinance required that a territory contain at least 60,000 people before admission as a state, Cook’s uncle, Nathaniel Pope, the territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, successfully lobbied to get the minimum decreased to 40,000. As further insurance, Pope worked hard in Congress to assure any census would be managed by an Illinois resident and not a U.S. marshal as required by law.

1818 Nathaniel Pope

Nathaniel Pope, Illinois Territory’s representative in Congress and Cook’s uncle, spearheaded statehood efforts in Washington, D.C. He was the father of Civil War General John Pope.

But even more importantly for Illinois’ future, Pope also lobbied to move the state’s northern boundary north to include 41 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. As originally laid out, the state’s northern boundary would have been set at 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude, which would have put it even with the foot or bottom of Lake Michigan. That would have been on a line that would have placed modern Kendall County’s three northern townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—in Wisconsin.

Rep. Pope, however, had to take many political and economic issues into account as the statehood issue moved forward. Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1817 as a slave state, so the pressure was on to admit Illinois as a free state. But that was problematical since the vast majority of the state’s population were emigrants from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other southern slave states. So Pope, and Cook, were determined to make sure that eventually a majority of the population was anti-slavery.

Construction on the Erie Canal began in 1817, and those with a bit of foresight could see that when completed, the canal would create a commercial and passenger highway from New York City all the way to the muddy little settlement of Chicago near the foot of Lake Michigan. That would likely result in a tide of settlement from the generally anti-slavery former Middle Colonies and New England directly to northern Illinois. But with the original northern boundary set where it was, all that future northern, anti-slavery growth would end up in Wisconsin Territory, not Illinois.

2018 N Illinois

The red line was the original northern boundary of Illinois proposed in statehood legislation in Washington, D.C. With Cook’s strong backing, Pope lobbied successfully to have the state line moved 61 miles north. That not only secured an economically priceless expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, but also assured a strong anti-slavery population base in northern Illinois.

Further, the existing boundary line cut Illinois off from the water highway that was the Great Lakes. And in an era when roads were either deplorable or simply didn’t exist, water transportation was vital if a state was to thrive economically.

As a result, Pope worked hard—and successfully—to move the new state’s northern boundary north 61 miles to a line at 42 degrees 30 minutes latitude. Pope’s amendment to the statehood legislation passed on April 18, 1818, eight months before Congress officially established the State of Illinois.

2018 Illinois northern boundaryThe boosters of Wisconsin Territory were not amused by the great land grab Pope engineered, and, in fact, unsuccessfully tried to overturn it for years. But the line remained where Pope—with the constant journalistic encouragement and boosterism of Cook—set it. As a result, Illinois gained 14 entire counties, including modern Cook and the City of Chicago that is, and has been, Illinois’ economic engine for the past two centuries—no matter how much us downstaters would like the facts to be different.

And, it turns out, that’s what that historical marker placed along Route 34 between Plano and Yorkville back on April 7, 1965 and which disappeared some years ago was all about. Thanks to Linda Fellers, though, the missing marker, with the story of why you’re reading its text in Illinois instead of Wisconsin, has been resuscitated and emplaced just off Ill. Route 47 at 102 E. Van Emmon Street at the Van Emmon Activity Center, almost exactly on that line of 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude.

The newly installed marker is a tangible reminder of those days when Illinois statehood was in flux and under discussion, and is especially relevant now as we look forward to celebrating Illinois 200th birthday on Statehood Day this coming Dec. 3.

 

 

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The struggle of getting from here to there has proven long and expensive…

Got word last week that the NaAuSay Township Highway Commissioner plans to pave the last remaining gravel road in the township with a tar-and-chip surface, thus ending a hard-fought transportation era out that direction.

It’s interesting that gravel roads are now considered old technology, when our farming great-grandparents would have done just about anything to have had access to a gravel road back in the 1890s.

Roads here in northern Illinois when the first pioneer farmers began arriving in the late 1820s weren’t much to look at. And I mean that literally. The roads of that era weren’t actually ‘roads,’ but were rather mere tracks and traces across the prairie originally created by bison and other animals that were then adopted by the region’s Native People. It wasn’t for nothing that a synonym for “trail” back in those days was “trace,” because often that’s about all there was, a trace.

Kinzie, JulietteFor instance, in March 1831, Juliette Kinzie described a trip she and her Indian trader husband, John, took from Prairie du Chien in modern Wisconsin to Chicago. Because it was so early in the year, the tribes were still in their winter camps, so the normal route, which was basically a straight line from Prairie du Chien to Chicago, was impractical. That’s because all the Indian villages where the party would depend on for food and shelter would be vacant for at least another month. So the plan was to head south to John Dixon’s ferry across the Rock River—modern Dickson, Illinois—and then strike the Great Sauk Trail, the region’s major road used by the Sauk, Fox, and other tribes to make their annual trek to Fort Malden in Canada to trade with the British. The Kinzies made sure they had an experienced guide to help them on their route, with the plan to take the Sauk Trail to the former Fox River Mission in modern Mission Township, LaSalle County, where they’d cross the Fox River and then head northeast to John Naper’s settlement on the DuPage River and then on to Chicago.

But the Kinzies’ experienced guide missed the Great Sauk Trail—the major trail in the region, remember—forcing the party to blunder around before striking the Fox River just south of modern Oswego, where they crossed and then headed to Naper’s settlement—modern Naperville.

There were, of course, other trails and traces used by Native People and pioneers alike, of course, and they became the template on which the region’s first roads were laid. Those roads took the courses of least resistance on their way across the prairie, avoiding the numerous sloughs and other wetlands, generally sticking to high ground, and aiming at the best fords across both the Fox River and its numerous tributaries.

1838 Old Galena Road red road

The original stagecoach mail road to Galena (highlighted in red) crossed the Fox River at Montgomery, then bent southwesterly to the ford across Blackberry Creek, before bending northwesterly on its way to Dickson and Galena. It’s a good illustration of a road that pays no attention to township or section lines. Interestingly enough, it still follows this same route 180 years after this map was drawn.

After northern Illinois was officially surveyed by the U.S. Government and the land divided into sections of one squire mile, or 640 acres, and townships were formed from 36 of those sections, it was found the old trail and road system cut inconveniently across those neat boundary lines. As a result, some of those old roads were vacated and their rights-of-way were moved to follow section lines to avoid bisecting farms and towns alike at odd angles. When you fly over the Midwest, you’ll clearly see the survey grid outlined in road rights-of-way. But you’ll also see some roads that still cut across country at varying angles. And when you see them, you’ll be looking at remnants of those old pioneer trails. Here in Kendall County, U.S. Route 34 from Oswego east to Naperville is one of those old trails, as is Ill. Routes 71 from Oswego to Ottawa and 126 from Yorkville to Plainfield, not to mention the best example, Chicago Road, northeast from Lisbon Road through Plattville to Peterson Road, a bonafide old stagecoach and wagon route.

But well after the settlement era ended, the area’s road system continued to mostly consist of dirt roads. Even most streets in town were dirt tracks. And that increasingly caused serious economic problems.

Mail carrier Ebinger

Mr. Ebinger, one of Oswego’s rural mail carriers near the turn of the 20th Century, pauses in town after making his run on his mail route’s muddy roads. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 21, 1881: “The roads out in the country are almost impassable. The mud goes to the wheel hubs.”

The bad roads had both negative economic and sociological effects on county residents. During certain parts of the year, bad roads almost completely isolated farmsteads in some parts of the county. That not only prevented farmers from marketing their livestock and grain, but also cut merchants off from the business farmers gave them.

As the Joliet News reported in March 1890: “The farmers of Will and Kendall counties are just now realizing what public road economy means. Only those living on gravel roads have been in Joliet since before Christmas. Hay, butter, eggs, poultry, and onions have been commanding good prices in this market, and just a few farmers could avail themselves of this condition. The buyer and seller might as well be a thousand miles apart.”

Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. As noted above, the system barely worked while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of autos and (as they were called at the time) auto trucks, traveled roads, the system was breaking down.

The financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated townships. Road mileage might be the same as in heavily populated townships, but more taxpayers helped shoulder the burden.

1910 (abt) Main St car NB B&W

About 1910, an auto drives north on dusty Main Street, Oswego. Dirt-surfaced roads were the rule in town as well as in the country of that era. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. As soon as the state became involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques and better road design. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was that it was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on a dirt road.

During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White Motor Company trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces. They averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than 6 miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (9 miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about 7 mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.

So if those driving autos as well as commercial trucks could save so much gasoline, state officials figured, part of that savings could be used to build roads with better surfaces. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, over hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. In the event, auto taxes were figured not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.

Lincoln Highway badge

The private Lincoln Highway Association promoted the first coast-to-coast improved highway that was marked with these red, white, and blue badges.

With the advocacy of several groups, including the Kendall County Automobile Club (formed at Plano in 1911), and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of today’s Edens Expressway in Cook County), a statewide organization was formed to lobby for hard roads and to draw up specifications for them.

Edens, a born organizer, started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new free delivery system. Leaving government he became a successful Chicago banker, active in Chicago’s social and political scene.

Edens, with the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, including the association’s first convention in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.

Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.

The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission, use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the system.

Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, (sounding not unlike the Joliet News of 1890) contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”

Not that it was entirely clear sailing. Township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.

Unsurprisingly, farmers protested the cost and wondered whether better roads would benefit them, but skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Most decisively, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, tipping the balance in favor of support.

Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.

1915 abt Rt 25 at BH

The stretch of modern Ill. Route 25 from the Kane County line south to Oswego was laid down as a concrete demonstration roadway before World War I, the first hard road in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating the first county superintendent of highways. John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, was appointed in Kendall County. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907.

The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall plan. A short stretch of 15-foot wide concrete roadway—today’s Ill. Route 25—snaked along the east bank of the Fox River south of Montgomery from the Kane County line past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision to Oswego. Another stretch was built from Yorkville on Van Emmon Road to it’s junction with modern Ill. Route 71. But without a plan to link these isolated stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.

In November 1916, Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately pushed the good roads program begun by Gov. Dunne. “Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden told the General Assembly in January 1917, “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”

Lowden, like Dunne, tapped Edens to organize the new statewide good roads effort. Active members of the association in Kendall County included George Faxon of Plano and Dr. McClelland of Yorkville.

Unfortunately, just as pressure mounted for good roads, the nation plunged into World War I. Even so, on Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure easily passed. The vote in Kendall County was an overwhelming 1,532 to 90.

The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.

The plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. It was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego, then south to Yorkville, across the Fox River to Plano and on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.

But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small was elected over Lowden. And when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side—not the east side—of the Fox River as an extension of Aurora’s River Street, past the Montgomery sheep yards, and across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy mainline at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district a block or two to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west. Paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in Yorkville and Oswego.

1924 Building Route 18 at Oswego Bridge

Pouring the intersection at modern Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego at the west end of the Oswego bridge across the Fox River in 1924. Photo by Dwight Young in the collections of the Little White School Museum.

The route, the Kendall County Record charged in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use those two sections of concrete road already laid in the county. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB& Q mainline was required at the Wormley crossing.

“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall complained on Jan. 26, 1921.

Local consensus was that the new route was picked to cater to the meatpacking and other commercial interests of Aurora and Chicago with a direct route favored rather than one that connected local communities.

Despite the protests, state officials insisted on the new route. By the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way had been purchased. Surveying took place in 1923, with actual construction moving ahead in 1924. By late May, the 18-foot wide stretch of concrete pavement had been poured through Oswego to Plano and was curing.

1910 Rt. 25 Waubonsie Bridge

The old iron truss bridge across Waubonsie Creek on today’s Ill. Route 25 was replaced with a concrete bridge in 1924 when the concrete road from Aurora to downtown Oswego was completed. The old bridge was moved downstream to cross the creek at Pearce Cemetery. Little White School Museum collection.

Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the 1915 concrete section of today’s Ill. Route 25 with the Route 18 concrete spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July the state built a new concrete bridge across Waubonsie Creek, and the old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December 1924.

The section of modern Route 34 from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, the road was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway, today’s U.S. Route 30, and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until two more years had passed.

1936 34-30 overpass

The U.S. Route 30-U.S. Route 34 overpass east of Oswego under construction in the summer of 1936. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished, and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and western Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads.

Meanwhile, out in the county’s rural areas, state and federal funds paid for a variety of road surface improvements and new bridges. And gradually, even totally rural areas like NaAuSay Township were pulled out of the mud.

But gravel roads, too, had their drawbacks, including high maintenance costs as well as draining motorists’ gas mileage and increasing vehicle maintenance costs. So township road commissioners and the county highway department began hard-surfacing rural roads, first with tar and chip and then asphalt to create smooth, all-weather surfaces. These days, Bristol and Oswego townships have no gravel roads at all, and with NaAuSay’s recent announcement, there are none left there, either. The county’s other townships all have a few gravel roads left, but they’re disappearing as the county’s population continues to grow, and its former corn and soybean fields grow increasing numbers of houses instead of crops.

Today, with traffic on Kendall County roads heavier than anyone a century ago could have conceived, we’re still trying to figure out how to maintain a transportation infrastructure that will be of the most value to all area residents.

 

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