Category Archives: Law

Sitting back and watching as entire eras come and go…

I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.

Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.

Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.

In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.

Lyle Shoger picking corn by hand near the end of the era of farming with horses about 1930 just off Route 34 west of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.

One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.

In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.

The author test-drives a new IH Farmall tractor at the Wheatland Plowing Match about 1950.

I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.

But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.

But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.

The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.

It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.

The author, co-piloting the Matile Farm Case tractor with his father at the controls, about 1949.

Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.

We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.

Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.

In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.

We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.

But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.

Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.

During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.

As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”

A size comparison: My nephew poses with his classic old Farmall tractor and with one of the kinds of giant machines they use these days that dwarf anything used back in the heyday of diversified farming.

That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.

The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.

And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.

Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.

Subdivision under construction in Oswego just as the housing bust hit in 2009. In the early 2000’s Kendall County, partly driven by Oswego’s growth, was the fastest growing county in the nation. The pause in construction caused by the lending crisis in 2009 has now largely disappeared and construction in the area is again booming. (Ledger-Sentinel photo by John Etheredge)

That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.

Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.

I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.

Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.

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Filed under Environment, family, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Local history is just full of mysteries…

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of our region’s historical—and even prehistorical—mysteries because I think the origins of people, places, and things are always fun to uncover.

One of the most obvious questions for those of us living in the Fox River Valley is “Where did the Fox River come from?” For many, I suspect, it’s not an obvious question at all, though. Most of us accept the region’s landscape as a given, figuring it’s always been the way it is now. But that’s not true.

Up until around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had covered our area with a couple thousand feet of ice, but then it began to retreat northwards. A deep glacial meltwater lake filled behind the high moraine ridge the glacier’s last advance created until one day, all those thousands of years ago, the water broke through that natural dam.

The last glacier to advance out of the north covered about half of Illinois. In the Fox Valley, the ice was about 2,000 feet thick.

The almost unimaginably ferocious flood rampaged south, quickly–at least in geological terms–scouring today’s Fox River Valley into the landscape.

The Fox River Torrent left a valley that ranged from wide and shallow at its northernmost end to narrower and deeper where it joined the Illinois River, which itself had been created by the Kankakee Torrent that had rampaged southwesterly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Over the years, the land formerly covered by those giant ice sheets gradually rebounded as the weight of the ice was removed, allowing both the Fox and the Illinois rivers to further erode their valleys.

It’s fascinating to contemplate what those torrents must have looked like, had any humans been around to see them.

Back to local historical mysteries, why wasn’t the Fox River used as a canoe route during the fur trade? A person would think the Fox would have been a perfect cutoff for the fur traders as they paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan from their posts at Green Bay. The source of the Fox is located a bit northwest of Milwaukee and is reachable by a relatively short portage from the Root River that empties into Lake Michigan near Racine.

But while the Fox looks pretty promising on maps, in reality, it’s always been a wide, relatively slow, and shallow stream, especially in its upper reaches. Not until it got south of modern Yorkville did the river deepen much at all, despite having a fairly substantial fall along that stretch. And especially in the summer and during dry autumns, the river was extremely shallow.

So, the Fox wasn’t used as a fur trade route because it just wasn’t the right kind of river for canoeing most of the year.

The era of settlement in what became the Fox River Valley started in the late 1820s. Where my hometown of Oswego is located here in mid-valley, settlement didn’t start until after the Black Hawk War of 1832.

The largest group of our county’s earliest settlers came overland from Ohio through Indiana. The second largest group arrived at Chicago on Lake Michigan, having sailed out here, mostly from the port of Buffalo at the terminus of the Erie Canal. The smallest group came up from the south having migrated west from Virginia and the Carolinas to Tennessee and Kentucky and then north.

Creating farms by plowing the sod on Oswego’s prairies began in the early 1830s

Why did those settlers leave their homes back East? For most, especially those from New England and the Middle Atlantic States, it was the search for better, cheaper land. For the Southerners, it was following the frontier as it moved west. New England’s farmland, along with that in New York, famously featured thin, rocky soil. In Pennsylvania, most of the best land had already been taken up and improved by the 1840s and 1850s, meaning it was expensive.

Meanwhile, land on the Illinois frontier of the 1830s was rich with deep black soil. The Prairie Peninsula, a vas, triangular-shaped region of rolling tallgrass prairie extending from northwestern Indiana all the way west to eastern fractions of modern North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas drew farmers because no timber needed to be laboriously cleared to start farming. Granted, that thick prairie sod had to be broken with specialized plows, a relatively expensive proposition that often cost as much as the land itself. And that lack of timber also meant that traditional frontier settlement methods using log buildings and rail fences often either couldn’t be used or created the additional expense of purchasing woodlots.

And then there was the price of that land, sold through government land offices as soon as it had been officially surveyed. The government price was $1.25 per acre, which was even cheap back then. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just $45 an acre in 2023 dollars. But, the price had to be paid in hard cash, no paper money allowed. And that was often difficult in those early days.

So, okay, cheap, high-quality land was for sale as the frontier moved west from Indiana, but why did settlers decide to move here in particular?

Most early accounts note our county’s earliest settlers came west literally prospecting for land. The Rev. E.W. Hicks in his history of Kendall County written in 1877 described one of these prospecting trips by two of the county’s earliest settlers: “Among those who came out prospecting in the spring of 1831 were Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan from New York. They descended the Ohio to the Mississippi, and then up to St. Louis, where buying ponies, they followed the banks of the Illinois river to Ottawa, and up the Fox to Yorkville. Reining up their horses on the present Court House Hill, they gazed on the lovely stream below them, the wide, beautiful prairies beyond them, and the timber behind them. The green was dotted with flowers, the birds sang in the branches, and a group of deer stood gazing at the strangers from the edge of a hazel thicket some distance away. Here,” thought Mr. Adams, “is my home,” and dismounting he drove his stake in the soil and took possession. Following up the river about two miles farther, they came to a creek, where Mr. Morgan halted and made his own claim. This done, they passed up to Chicago, sold their ponies, and returned home by way of the lakes.”

Adams and Morgan couldn’t get back to the land they’d claimed for a couple years, opening the way for others to be considered the earliest settlers in what’s today northern Kendall County.

In the summer of 1832, members of the extended Pearce family, Oswego’s first settlers, walked west in Champaign County, Ohio looking for likely land to settle. Possibly drawn here by reports back from Elijah Pearce’s son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter, who was familiar with the Fox and DuPage River valleys, they decided it was worth moving west to settle.

The Pearce family had started their westward trek in their home state of Maryland. They first emigrated through what’s now West Virginia and then settled for a decade or so along the Mad River in Champaign County, Ohio. After returning from their prospecting trip, the Pearces sold their Ohio farms and brought their families west to our Fox River Valley in 1833 by covered wagons pulled by oxen. Daniel Pearce settled along Waubonsie Creek on what’s now Oswego’s Fox Bend Golf Course. His brother-in-law and sister, William and Rebecca Wilson built their cabin at what’s now the busy intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Ill. Route 25 in downtown Oswego, while brothers John and Walter Pearce and their families settled on the west side of the river. Brother Elijah settled near his son-in-law and wife at what is now Montgomery in Kane County, north of Oswego.

Many of those early settlers didn’t stay put, however, but moved on as the mood struck them. Elijah Pearce and William Wilson and their families, for instance, only stayed along the Fox River for a few years before moving to Big Rock Creek near Plano, where they built a sawmill. They sold the mill in 1838 and headed west to Missouri and Iowa.

And speaking of mills, why did the Fox River have more mills than any other Illinois river? According to the Fox River Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams. The river was dammed at the following places: Ottawa, Dayton, Sheridan, Millington (Milford), Millbrook, Millhurst, Yorkville, Oswego, Montgomery, Aurora, two sites between Aurora and North Aurora, North Aurora, South Batavia, Batavia, Geneva, a site between Geneva and St. Charles (perhaps), St. Charles, South Elgin, Elgin, Dundee, Carpentersville, Algonquin, a site three miles below McHenry, and McHenry.”

In 1888, the Fox River dam at Montgomery was powering two mills located along the millrace. Of the two, Gray’s Mill (near the end of the millrace above) is still standing today. The millrace was filled in but can still be seen in Montgomery Park. (clip from Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, 1888)

And that list doesn’t even include mills on the Fox River’s tributaries. Here in Kendall County, mills were built (as noted above) on Big Rock Creek and also on Little Rock Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Waubonsie Creek. So it appears we can thank the Fox River Torrent for creating a river valley so conducive to building dams to provide water power for mills.

The above are all interesting questions, but how about a real mystery? Like, for instance, who killed William Boyd.

On Thanksgiving night, 1859, Kendall County attorney, land dealer, businessman, and former newspaper publisher William P. Boyd was working late at his office in the village of Bristol, now the north side of Yorkville. As he worked away that evening, a person unknown stealthily aimed through Boyd’s office window and fired a shot, badly wounding him.

Boyd’s death capped an eventful life. He came to Kendall County from Kentucky with his parents in 1838. They settled near modern Newark in Fox Township. Boyd’s father, John, farmed, while William, who had already read law, helped but also engaged in business. In March 1840, he cemented relations with one of the county’s best-known families when he married Sarah Ann Hollenback.

Hollenback, writing in 1914, recalled of his brother-in-law: “Boyd was a born leader, a man of strong personality and great persuasive powers among his following. He was capable of swaying the riff raff crowd as best suited his purpose.”

A few years later, Boyd moved to Oswego, which had become the Kendall County seat in 1845. There he practiced law and engaged in land speculation, plus investing in other businesses. He and his wife also apparently ran a rooming house. In the 1850 U.S. Census for Oswego Township, the value of Boyd’s property was set at $10,000, a considerable fortune for the era.

In 1850 when the General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties to adopt the township supervisor form of government, as opposed to the commission form, Boyd was named one of three commissioners who divided Kendall County into its current nine political townships in accord with the recently passed state law.

Boyd bought the Kendall County Courier, the county seat paper, published in Oswego, from Abraham Sellers in 1855. He changed its political orientation from neutral to a paper supporting the Democratic Party under the editorship of Alexander P. Niblo, a former Newark resident. That move led the county’s Republicans to persuade the Courier’s former editor and publisher, Hector S. Humphrey, to establish a competing Republican paper, the Kendall County Free Press. The Courier supported Buchanan in the 1856 Presidential election. And while Buchanan won, public sentiment had already trended Republican in Kendall County, and Boyd was forced to close the Courier and sell its press and type to an Iowa paper.

By 1859, perhaps sensing voters were in favor of moving the county seat back to Yorkville, Boyd and his wife and children moved to the village of Bristol, just across the river from where the new courthouse would be built during the upcoming Civil War. And it was there that Boyd met his violent end.

Although mortally wounded, Boyd hung on until Jan. 5, 1860 when he died. Hollenback recalled years later: “The identity of his assassin was never discovered. The excitement of the trial and execution of [abolitionist John] Brown for a time dwarfed everything else. The assassination of Boyd had been so deftly accomplished there was little that could be done, and nothing was done by the Grand Jury of Kendall County.”

In what is undoubtedly Kendall County’s coldest case, Boyd’s murder is still unsolved after 163 years.

So you like history’s mysteries? As you can see, we’ve got plenty right here in the Middle Fox Valley. Some we’ve solved, and some we haven’t. What’s a local historical mystery that’s piqued your interest?

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

Sat down in my small office here at History Central this morning and was treated to the scene of hundreds of Canada Geese sitting out on the ice shelf that grew in the Fox River’s main channel during our recent bitter cold spell.

The view from my home office window this morning. That black strip out on the other side of the trees on the island is several hundred geese enjoying northern Illinois’ latest cold snap by sitting on the ice.

And it occurred to me how much I love and appreciate this old river.

My family has owned the spot I’m sitting on right now since 1908 when my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town. They picked out four lots in the old, never incorporated Village of Troy on the east bank of the Fox River of Illinois about a half-mile above the Village of Oswego.

This photo by Irvin Haines shows the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory at right, North Adams Street (called Water Street back then) and, just a few yards upstream from the mill, the vacant lots where my sister built our current house in 1985.

They probably picked the site because it was right next door to my great-great-grandparents’ house and just a short distance south of my great-grandmother’s sister’s house.

They contracted with my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build their steep-roofed story-and-a-half Queen Anne-style retirement home on the two lots on the east side of Troy’s Water Street—now Oswego’s North Adams Street. And he did a great job, too. The house (now where my son and wife live) is still as sound and sturdy as the day my great-grandparents moved in, in October 1908.

The Lantz House Irvin Haines built for my great-grandparents, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

They reserved the two lots west of Water Street lying on the east bank of the river for grazing room for their cow and driving horse, and gardening.

The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory was located right next door to the north of those two lots, separated by the 66-foot wide Third Street right-of-way, which had been platted as part of Troy but never completed. The sawmill, whose power was provided by the adjoining dam across the river, had served the Oswego community for several years before William Parker added the furniture factory to process the numerous Black Walnut trees in the community into chairs, tables, and various kinds of chests.

At some point, the mill and furniture factor had burned down, leaving behind the remains of the building’s thick flagstone foundation and the millrace that had powered the turbines that, in turn, powered the entire operation.

Meanwhile, across the river at the west end of the dam, the Parker Gristmill had ground local farmers’ grain into flour and meal before being closed down around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 1920s, Irvin Haines (yes, the same person who built my great-grandparents’ house) dismantled the mill and used the timber, sawn lumber, and foundation stones to remodel the old Seely Barn at the west end of the Oswego Bridge into the Turtle Rock Tearoom—which is still standing and is today a private home.

The old dam washed out sometime around the first or second decade of the 20th Century, never to be rebuilt.

Upon my great grandparents’ death during World War II, their house passed on to my grandparents. My aunt and uncle moved into the house during the war and then in 1955 my parents bought it when they were forced to quit farming due to my dad’s poor health. We moved off the farm in December that year and I began my love affair with the river.

The Fox River (of Illinois; the Fox River of Wisconsin empties into Green Bay), 202 miles long, has its source northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the river flows 84 miles past Brookfield, Waukesha, Big Bend, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake and Wilmot before crossing the border into Illinois at the north end of the chain of six lakes on the border between Lake and McHenry counties. From there it flows generally south and slightly west to its mouth on the Illinois River near Starved Rock at Ottawa.

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map of the Old Northwest showing the Illinois River and the first mention of the modern name of the Fox River I’ve been able to find. (Indian Villages of Illinois, Vol. II, Atlas and Supplement, Sara Jones Tucker)

The Native People living along the river when the French arrived in the Illinois River Valley in 1673 called the river Pestequouy, the Algonquian-speaking peoples’ word for the American Bison. That indicated that by then buffalo were common on the prairies along the river’s course. After LaSalle’s efforts at colonizing the Illinois River Valley in the early 1680s, the Fox became known among the French as the River of the Rock. The French had named the landmark Starved Rock simply “The Rock.” Near the end of the 17th Century, the French moved their trading operations south to Lake Peoria on the Illinois River. It was after that period that the Fox River got its modern name, most likely named after the Fox Tribe, some groups of which lived along its northern reaches in the early 1700s.

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

On this map, the Fox River was finally given its modern name. The name was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

The villages of Native People in northern Illinois as of about 1830, just as settlement was about to explode in the Fox River Valley. The river is picked out in green on this map. (Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History)

The Fox Valley was a rich place used as a hunting ground by the member tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. When the Illinois gradually lost population and power in the early 18th Century, interrelated bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes created the Three Fires Confederacy and moved from their homelands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to fill the vacuum in the Fox Valley. These were the people living in the river valley when the first White settlers began arriving in the late 1820s.

The Three Fires and their cousins who had been living along the river for a few thousand years had manipulated the landscape to maintain the prairies and open wooded savannas that characterized the area when those White settlers arrived. That also included changing the river itself by building weirs to trap fish that tended to change water flows and create new islands and other features. But when the Whites showed up, they began making much more profound changes to the river and the prairies and hardwood groves in its watershed.

Drainage of wetlands that dotted the prairies, most of which were the remnants of Ice Age lakes, began as soon as pioneer farmers arrived and continued as new technologies were brought to bear. This had the beneficial effect of sharply cutting the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hordes of biting flies. But it also led to the more rapid runoff of stormwater, leading to larger and more frequent floods on the Fox River.

Laying clay tile to drain wetlands on the Oswego Prairie east of the Village of Oswego abut 1900. The tile run went through a ridge on its way to empty into Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In addition, the groves were cut to provide firewood and building materials and the prairies were plowed and turned into cropland. That led to more soil erosion and the once-clear river was turned into a muddy stream.

But those changes didn’t hold a candle to the effect the dams the region’s pioneer millwrights threw across the river to power sawmills and gristmills. According to The Fox River Area Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River became the most dammed stream in Illinois…The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams.” According to the assessment, 25 dams dotted the river’s course at one time or another, including at Oswego, Millington, Millbrook, Millhurst, and Yorkville here in Kendall County.

Noted the assessment’s authors, “The Fox River probably produced more hydro-power than all other streams in Illinois put together, excluding the Rock River. In addition to sawing wood and grinding grain, these mills ran factories. The Fox River Valley became more heavily industrialized than any other area of comparable size in Illinois.”

The dams themselves created problems. The dead water behind them—none of them except one in the Chain of Lakes were built with floodgates that would all the current to cleanse the river bottom behind them. As a result, the mill ponds up and down the river quickly filled with silt, covering the gravel gamefish preferred to lay their eggs. The dams also prevented fish from migrating to other spawning grounds.

The decline in gamefish, particularly, was noted and everyone from the U.S. Fish Commission to local angling clubs tried to fix the situation by stocking the Fox with a dizzying variety of fish, from Rainbow Trout to German Carp. Needless to say, the trout didn’t survive, but the carp certainly did, displacing native species and with their feeding habits contributing to the river’s already serious turgidity.

But it was the Fox Valley’s industrialization, which continued well after hydro power was economical, that caused the most severe problems. Instead of a source of power the river became viewed as a convenient dump for all manner of industrial waste. Especially starting when manufacturing coal gas became popular for home lighting, heating, and cooking the pollution of the river began spiking. And, of course, citizens in the growing towns along the river contributed by dumping their own, often untreated, sewage into the river.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

By a century ago the problem had become acute. The Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on May 17, 1922: “In spite of all efforts which have been made in previous years and laws which have been passed by the legislature, the pollution of Fox River continues to make the waterway a menace to health. The Fox is a beautiful stream. The fishing in years gone past has been good and the boating in some places enjoyable. 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.”

But the industrial interests had the money to buy as many politicians as needed to keep any meaningful change from taking place. As a result, when we moved into my great-grandparents’ house in 1955, the river was in even worse shape than ever. Within a couple years, chemical factories upstream dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killing just about every living creature in the Fox from Aurora to Yorkville. During the first episode, we counted more than 500 dead fish along my parents’ riverbank.

We spent summers on and along the river in those years, but were always careful to wear our “river shoes” when wading to avoid stepping on broken glass or scrap metal that could provide a nasty cut in the polluted water. We enjoyed our river scows, too. From my office window, I look right at the bit of riverbank where some long-dead relative installed a large iron staple in concrete where I’d chain up my boat.

Fishing was fun, but it was strictly “catch and release” for us long before the term came into vogue. One look at the stunted Black Bullheads, Catfish, and Bluegills, often with lesions (that proved to be cancerous when studied) on them, prevented us from wanting to eat any of them.

Ice skating on the Fox River at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek about 1920. (Little White School Museum collection)

Still, the river valley was a great place to grow up. Winters were colder then, with -20° F. cold snaps not uncommon, which meant the river provided some great ice skating. Trudging down to the riverbank to sit on a handy log to change into my skates was a treat all winter. In fact, I’d often go skating for an hour or so before school. And I only fell through the ice once, and since it only involved one leg getting wet, I decided that discretion was probably a good idea and never bothered my parents with the details.

After the annual spring flood was over, it was back aboard our flat-bottomed river scows. When I became fascinated with the Age of Sail I talked my mother into sewing canvas sail and then built the necessary rigging for my boat, installed leeboards and even managed to sail upstream with the rig.

The memorial to Jim Phillips celebrating his efforts to save the nation’s air and water from pollution, acting as his alter-ego, “The Fox.” The memorial is on the banks of the Fox River in Oswego’s Violet Patch Park just off Ill. Route 25. The memorial, signed with the “cartoon”Fox” Phillips used to advertise his exploits, honors his activities and also illustrates the positive changes his activities prompted.

Then things began to change, thanks to activists like Jim Phillips who weren’t afraid to tackle all the money paying for politicians to ignore the river’s pollution. Acting as his secret identity of “The Fox,” Jim began waging a campaign against polluters using a brilliant combination of humor and public relations to shine a light on what was going on. His exploits were picked up by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, the local press, and even National Geographic. His exploits, such as dumping the Lake Michigan outflow from a U.S. Steel coking plant onto the pristine white carpeting of the corporate offices in downtown Chicago and plugging untreated industrial effluent pipes emptying into local creeks and the Fox River itself, helped lead to a national reassessment of what we were doing to our own environment.

And, since that was the era when politicians could still work together for the greater good of society in general, that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon as well as similar agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels as well.

Today, the Fox River I look at out of my office window (which, by the way, is situated about where center field was back in the day when this was a vacant lot that housed the neighborhood baseball diamond and go-cart track) and see hundreds of Canada Geese and know that come spring the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass anglers will be back with a vengeance, it really gives me a good feeling. Seeing something that was so distressed that even as an eight year-old I knew it was in serious trouble recover to become something so unbelievably valuable as a recreational and natural areas resource is more satisfying than just about anything else I can think of.

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The end of two significant rural traditions reflected education, agriculture change in Illinois

We just opened a new seasonal exhibit down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, “Back to School.”

Museum manager Annie Jordan made a deep dive into our collections and retrieved a bunch of photos, documents, and three-dimensional artifacts, from 1950s letter sweaters to the kind of slates kids used to use in lieu of expensive paper to practice arithmetic and handwriting skills. The goal, which seems successful to me, was to put more flesh on the bones of the story of how public education has evolved over the decades as told in the museum gallery’s various core exhibit.

The Little White School Museum’s “Back to School” exhibit celebrates the start of another school year with artifacts, documents, and photographs from the museum’s collections normally not on exhibit. The museum is located at 72 Polk Street, Oswego. Admission is free.

Everyone’s invited to stop by and spend some quality time browsing the new exhibit as well as the exhibits in the gallery. Regular hours are Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday, 4 to 9 p.m.; and Thursdays and Fridays, 2 to 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.

When I was providing some research assistance to Annie and museum assistant Emily Dutton, who was working on the exhibit’s labels, it occurred to me that, being a member of the first of the Baby Boom generation as I am, I’d seen—and participated in—one of the most significant times of change in public education in Illinois history. That era of change also coincided with eras of massive change that began in other areas during my childhood and early adulthood. That included the biggest changes in agriculture in a century (or much more) and the introduction of and miniaturization of computers that had massive effects on every aspect of life.

Public education opportunities had been divided into two categories for a century by that time. Elementary school districts educated students from first through eighth grade. Until the early years of the 20th Century, it was felt by many that eight years of schooling was enough for most people. High schools were relatively rare, as were their students. In 1916, only 175 students from all the county’s rural school districts attended at least some high school.

Until the 20th Century dawned, high school graduates were considered qualified to teach in rural schools. Then qualifications began rising and two years of college began to be required.

Oswego High School’s first graduating class, the Class of 1887, left to right, back row, Addie Kimball (Curry), Mary Smith (Young.) Sitting, Bessie Armstrong (Long), Frank Lippold, Addie Wormley (Elliott). (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, a two-year high school course—sufficient for rural school teachers—was offered with the first graduates matriculating in 1886. Those who wanted a full, four-year degree had to travel to nearby Aurora to finish. It wasn’t until the fall of 1928 that Oswego finally offered a fully accredited, four-year high school course of study.

High schools were expensive propositions with students’ tuitions originally paid for by rural districts. Finally, the state allowed the formation of property tax-supported high school districts and in December 1936 Oswego and Yorkville area voters created the Oswego and Yorkville community high school districts. Oswego High School District Superintendent John Clayton immediately set out to increase the geographical size of the district without adding too many potential students. The strategy made sense—farmland didn’t generate many students, but it did generate tax revenue. That worked until the 68 square miles of the once overwhelmingly rural district began growing more housing developments than crops.

Church School, Wheatland Township, student body, grades 1-6, 1952. The author is in the left foreground.

I started school at the age of 6 years in the fall of 1952, joining four classmates in the first grade at Church School in Wheatland Township, Will County, here in Illinois. No kindergarten then—we dove right into Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot; metal lunch boxes with Thermos bottles whose glass lining broke if you looked at them wrong; recess; penmanship; and the rest with none of those half-day socialization preliminaries.

Officially considered a one-room rural school, Church School was a substantial brick building that actually boasted a large classroom, boys’ and girls’ indoor bathrooms, and a tiny library room, along with a high-ceilinged basement sufficient for indoor recess on rainy days. It was given its name because it was right across the road from the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church.

The church and school were established by the group of Scots immigrant families that arrived on the Wheatland prairie in the 1840s and 1850s, the descendants of which were, a century later, some of my schoolmates. In the fall of 1952, our teacher, Dorothy Comerford, drove out from Joliet every school day to instruct 23 students in six grades.

We didn’t know it—Mrs. Comerford probably did, and our parents surely did—but we were participating in the last years of one-room rural schools. Seventh and eighth graders who would normally have been attending classes at Church School had already been bused into town to attend school in Oswego and sixth graders would follow the next year.

The dedication of the new flagpole at Church School in 1944 during World War II, with the entire student body attending. My sister Eileen is fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

My mother, in fact, was one of the people making sure that junior high students would have the expanded educational opportunities available in town schools. That’s because my oldest sister, Eileen, 12 years my senior, had been the only student in her grade level during her eight pre-high school years attending a couple different one-room schools. She finished her last few years at Church School, which was about a mile down the road from our farm.

Eileen told me one time that during the era when she graduated from eighth grade, graduates from all over Will County, a huge county extending all the way to the Indiana border, assembled at Lockport High School to receive their diplomas. She said she had a slight panic attack seeing that many students her own age after having no classmates her own age for her recently-completed eight years of school.

That prompted my mother’s activism. She helped establish the Oswego Mother’s Club (it eventually became the Oswego Woman’s Civic Club) that began strongly lobbying local school districts to get junior high students out of one-room schools and into town schools so they’d have access to more educational opportunities. Her efforts dovetailed nicely with the accelerating pace of public school consolidation then taking place all across Illinois.

By the early 1950s, Illinois was strongly encouraging merging rural, single-school districts into larger consolidated elementary school districts. The consolidation movement had begun years before, touted as both a tax-saving measure as well as an improvement in educational opportunities. Moving kids into larger in-town schools saved money because rural schools often had such low enrollments, sometimes as few as five or six students, which made for a great, but expensive student:teacher ratio. Larger schools could also offer a far richer curriculum for junior high students, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) areas where chemistry, biology, and physics labs were the kinds of things that would have benefited my sister, who was determined to be a nurse.

A few attempts at consolidating one-room school districts were made early on. Yorkville began considering consolidation in 1919. But efforts stalled during the Great Depression. As economic condition began to ease, consolidation efforts began again, this time out in rural areas. In June 1941, for instance, residents of the one-room Wilcox, Gaylord, and Walker schools voted to consolidate into a single district, with all students attending the Walker School at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego.

The outbreak of World War II again stalled things, but after the war consolidation efforts, this time strongly encouraged by the State of Illinois, resumed. Teacher requirements were increased to require full four-year degrees, prompting dozens of Kendall County educators to go back to college if they wanted to keep teaching. Financial encouragement through the state aid to education formula also encouraged consolidation, not only of elementary districts with other elementary districts, but also the creation of unit districts that educated students from first grade through the senior year of high school.

Church School, Heggs at Ferguson Road, Wheatland Township, Will County, 1957. The Oswego School District’s last rural school, it closed at the end of the 1957-1958 school year. (Little White School Museum photo)

Here in the Oswego School District, it turned out that Church School, where I attended first through the first of half of third grade was one of the last three Oswego-affiliated one-room schools to operate. There had once been 11 one-room schools educating grade school students inside the bounds of the 68 square-mile area affiliated with Oswego through annexation to the high school district. Of the final three remaining schools, Willow Hill at the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and U.S. Route 34 and McCauley School on Caton Farm Road closed in the spring of 1957. Church School closed in the spring of 1958, ending the one-room country school era in the Oswego area.

(Fun fact: All three buildings are still standing, although poor Willow Hill gets more and more dilapidated every year. McCauley and Church schools have both been converted into single-family homes.)

Then in June 1961, voters in the Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 and Oswego Community Consolidated High School District 300 voted to create a new unit school district for students in first grade through high school, today’s Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

And that growth that was just getting a good start back in the late 1950s? Boy, did it keep going. One year old District 308 started the 1962-63 school year with 1,971 students. It started the current school year with just over 17,000.

So, I had the opportunity to attend a rural school very near the end of that era, and I have to say that for those first two and a half years, it provided me a very good, basic education, better than what I found when my parents moved into town. There were more students in my third grade classroom in town than had been in Church School in total, and I was in just one of three third grade classrooms, each with more than 30 students.

The thing was, the education you got in those one-room rural schools was hugely dependent on the skill of the teacher. A bad teacher could plague students through several years of school. But I, and my other Church School classmates were lucky; we had a great teacher.

Along with the end of the one-room school era, the end of diversified farming was also in sight when we moved off the farm in December 1954, soon to be replaced by specialization in grain, livestock, or dairy farming.

It was an interesting time, as two significant rural American eras came to an end.

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The history of getting hitched around these parts has ranged from fleeing in terror to public entertainment

On May 1, 1831, young Edward G. Ament and Emily Ann Harris were married by pioneer Methodist Missionary Rev. Isaac Scarritt, and thereby became the first couple to be wed within the bounds of what eventually became Kendall County.

From that time on, weddings multiplied as the frontier first caught up to the lands along the Fox River here in northern Illinois, and then moved on ever farther west until the nation’s boundaries reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Rev. Scarritt had arrived in Illinois from Connecticut in 1818—the year the state was officially established by an act of Congress—first setting in Edwardsville before being assigned to take over dissolving the Methodists’ Fox River Mission in 1828. The joint Methodist-U.S. Government mission had been established on the Fox River at the mouth of Mission Creek in modern LaSalle County just south of the current Kendall County line. After winding up the mission’s affairs, Scarritt moved with his family to what is today’s DuPage Township in Will County, building his cabin near the forks of the DuPage River.

Scarritt was appointed the first justice of the peace in the area and so was the closest legal authority to legally conduct the Ament-Harris marriage. The U.S. has always maintained a somewhat curious official attitude towards marriage. It has always been considered a binding legal contract between two people (and, by association, their families), and so unlike births and deaths records of them have always been carefully kept. A legal marriage conducted by a justice of the peace or other officer of the court does not need a religious blessing to be legal. Nor does a religious wedding conducted by a minister or briest need to be blessed by an officer of the government. But both are considered to be legal unions in the eyes of the law.

So with Edward and Emily Ann’s marriage conducted by Isaac Scarritt, who was both a Methodist minister of the gospel and a justice of the peace, their union was doubly safe.

Just a few days after the young couple was married, the Black Hawk War broke out, and all the White settlers in the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines valleys fled for their lives, those on the northern reaches of the streams heading first to the cabin of Stephen Beggs—another Methodist missionary making his home where Plainfield is located today—and those on the southern reaches of the rivers getting to Ottawa as quickly as possible.

In an interesting note on the living conditions of those early settlers on the Illinois prairie, Scarritt left his claim so quickly he didn’t have time to grab a pair of shoes, suggesting a lot of those settlers went barefoot in warmer weather to save expensive footwear. The tradition is that when he eventually got to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn and safety, he was asked to preach a Sunday sermon for which he had to borrow a pair of shoes to avoid the embarrassment of speaking to a crowd shoeless.

As for Edward and Emily Ann, early Kendall County historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks dryly reported “…they took their wedding trip two weeks afterward, when they fled from the Indians.”

And then there was the no less interesting wedding when early Montgomery settler William T. Elliott decided to marry the lovely Rebecca Pearce, daughter of Elijah Pearce, a member of the numerous extended Pearce family that also were the first settlers here in Oswego Township.

This plaque near the Dieterle Memorial Home in Montgomery marks Elliott Creek where William Elliott built the cabin he and Rebecca Pearce Elliott called home. (Montgomery Patch photo)

Seventeen year-old Rebecca was more than willing to marry Elliott, a 19 year-old go-getter. But her father, when asked, was not yet willing to let the young lady leave his household. At that time, 1834, neither Kane nor Kendall County had yet been established, and the nearest place to get legally married was Ottawa. So Elliott walked the roughly 40 miles where the county clerk told him that since Rebecca was only 17, the bans would have to be announced in a church for two weeks before a license could be issued.

With no churches yet established in the Fox Valley, Elliott despondently trudged back upriver to Montgomery. But shortly before he reached his cabin, he happened on the Rev. N.C. Clark, one of the region’s earliest Congregational ministers, known by one and all as “the kindly Father Clark.” After hearing Elliott’s story, Rev. Clark suggested that on Sunday Elliott come over to the Naperville cabin where Clark’s nascent congregation was meeting, and announce the bans. Rev. Clark said he’d take care of making sure the second announcement was made as well.

In the meantime, Elijah Pearce had heard that the bans had been announced over in Naperville, but was under the impression they’d only been announced once. Thinking he had an entire week to go over to Naperville to protest on the second reading—which had already taken place—Pearce headed into Chicago for supplies. Meanwhile Elliott had hustled back down to Ottawa, obtained, the marriage license from the LaSalle County Clerk, hustled back upriver to Montgomery where Rev. Clark happily married William and Rebecca.

Elijah was reportedly pretty upset when he got back from Chicago to find his daughter was now Mrs. Elliott, but after a night’s sleep decided maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to happen. And thereby on Aug. 3, 1835, William and Rebecca’s marriage became the first in what eventually became Aurora Township.

Tom (Charles Sherwood Stratton) Thumb’s wedding to bride Lavinia Warren on Feb. 10, 1863 at Grace Episcopal Church in New York City proved a wild financial success for showman P.T. Barnum, Stratton’s boss. Eventually, Stratton financially bailed Barnum out and the two became partners. (Costume Cocktail image)

Over the next several decades, weddings became quite a bit less exciting, with no Indian wars to cope with and a much shorter walk to the county seat to get a license. Church weddings gradually more popular, although marriages at home and in church parsonages seem to have been more the rule than the exception until after World War II when more elaborate marriages became the norm.

And, in fact, weddings eventually became the basis for some popular—if fairly unusual—community fundraisers in the early years of the 20th Century.

In the Feb. 25, 1914 Kendall County Record, the Oswego Parent-Teachers Club—ancestor of today’s PTAs and PTOs—announced plans to present a Tom Thumb Wedding fundraiser. Tom Thumb Weddings had been developed as comedic musical entertainment events with a community’s school children playing the parts of the groom and bride—based on the 1863 marriage of P.T. Barnum’s diminutive cast member, the wildly popular Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and his real life bride Lavinia Warren—as well as a large cast of other members of the wedding party and guests.

Photographer Dwight Young snapped this photo of the 1914 “Tom Thumb Wedding” performance in downtown Oswego’s Woodmen’s Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

Performances of Tom Thumb Wedding fundraisers began in the 1890s in Pennsylvania, but then gradually spread as their success began to become more widely known. As an indication of the productions’ rising popularity, Walter H. Baker & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts published “The Tom Thumb wedding” script in 1898. Concerning the cast according to the Baker script, “there should be a minister, bride and groom, maid of honor, groomsman, father and mother, bridesmaids, ushers, guests, and flower girls.”

A Tom Thumb Wedding script published in 1895 by Eldridge Entertainment House, Inc. of Franklin, Ohio and Denver, Colorado.

The Oswego performance was an apparent success, the next week’s Record reporting: “The Tom Thumb wedding at the Woodman Hall Tuesday evening was well attended and a pleasant affair. Clement Burkhart as groom and Gladys Parkhurst as the bride, with their attendants made an interesting bridal party. Too much credit cannot be given all those participating.”

Apparently adults couldn’t wait to get in on the mock wedding fun, and within a few years, “womanless weddings” became popular amateur fundraising events where prominent local business owners and other luminaries—all men—dressed in costume and participated in the all-male events. The events proved popular in the Midwest during the years of the Great Depression.

On Feb. 19, 1930, the Record announced that “The XIX Century club of Oswego have procured the services of the Sympson Levi Producing company of Bardstown, Ky. to stage “The Womanless Wedding,” which has been put on so successfully in our neighboring towns. The dates will be March 17 and 18.”

The all-male cast of the 1930 Oswego “Womanless Wedding” production performed twice on successive nights in March 1930 on stage in the Red Brick School gym. (Little White School Museum collection)

According one script, “As title indicates, no women are to be used in this play, unless desired. Special care should be exercised in the selection of the cast. Use prominent men. Men taking ladies’ parts should wear ladies’ shoes if possible.  A small groom and large bride will prove effective. Have costumes and stage effects as elaborate as possible. An altar draped in red, white and blue is appropriate.”

Unlike the Tom Thumb Weddings, a professional director came as part of the production and there was little music and much more dialog by the characters in Womanless Wedding scripts, including racist depiction in blackface by Black participants.

By all accounts, the community found the production highly entertaining, especially given the prominence of men portraying the cross-dressing “women” in the cast.

The cast of the 1930 “Womanless Wedding” presented on stage in the Red Brick School gym included about every prominent man and boy in Oswego, from schoolboys to bankers to doctors. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reported the March 26, 1930 Kendall County Record: “The Womanless Wedding” has passed into history. It was one of the most talked of and enjoyable events in Oswego for some time. Many were unable to obtain seats. The parts were very well taken.”

In fact, the community had such a good time, they decided to produce their own version of the production, although this time not a wedding spoof. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Jan. 27, 1937 that “The womanless play, “Ladies for a Night,” given at the high school gym last Thursday and Friday, netted nearly $100 and everyone a lot of fun.” It doesn’t sound like a lot to us today, but back during the late Depression years, $100 was pretty big money—roughly $2,000 in 2022 dollars.

These days, although some communities still do produce variations on Tom Thumb Weddings, the political struggle over LGTBQ rights have pretty much put paid to womanless wedding productions. And when it comes to actual marriages, “destination weddings” seem to be all the rage nowadays, with people dragging friends and relatives all over the country and even off to foreign climes to witness two people getting hitched for better or worse. The good news is at least most of those newly married couples won’t spend their honeymoons fleeing to the nearest fort.

If you’re interested in chatting about some more entertaining Oswego wedding history, don’t miss Little White School Museum Manager Anne Jordan’s next History Happy Hour at the Fox Valley Winery (in the old Main Street fire station), set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8. Residents of the Oswegoland Park District can register for $15 and non-residents for $25–registration includes one glass of wine to enjoy during the evening’s discussion about Oswego wedding history. Preregistration is required by calling the park district at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/.

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Railroaded: How big business stole the Fox Valley’s independent railroad

It’s natural for us to take so many things for granted. And yet everything we see, no matter how mundane, has some history behind it.

That goes for the towns we live in, the roads we drive on, and even the geography of the areas in which we live. Some of those things seem such a part of the landscape that we tend to discount them. The area’s rail lines, for instance, usually don’t enter our thinking unless we have to wait at a crossing for a seemingly endless freight train to pass or we need to catch a commuter train into Chicago.

The short line that once ran from Streator to Ottawa and then north up the Fox River Valley all the way to Geneva is one of those bits of the local landscape that seem to have been there forever. But, of course, it hasn’t been. Like everything else we see on the modern landscape, it had a beginning—and in it’s case, a pretty contentious one at that.

The final route of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road is illustrated in this 1870 railroad map of Illinois. It linked the coal fields along the Vermilion River at Streator with Geneva in Kane County. (Little White School Museum collection)

When it was finished in 1870, the line was envisioned not as a mere spur or short line, but rather an independent railroad line that would vigorously compete with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s local rail monopoly. The idea was a good one, but perhaps the hardball financial practices of that era should have warned the Fox Valley residents and local governments who financed the road’s construction that they stood a chance of being cheated out of their investment. And, as it turned out, they were.

In 1853, the Aurora Branch Railroad—what, in 1855 would become the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad and eventually today’s Burlington Northern- Santa Fe Railway—crossed the Fox River at Aurora and then pushed west through northern Kendall County, bypassing the established villages of Oswego and Yorkville.

Though bypassing those towns—Oswego, at the time, was the county seat of Kendall County—the line’s construction did result in the creation of a brand new town at a station between Aurora and Sandwich, which its founders decided to call Plano.

As the Civil War ended, business and agriculture interests began calling for construction of more railroads to serve the Fox Valley. The CB&Q’s monopoly resulted in high freight charges that most farmers thought unfair. For instance, farmers living east of the Fox River were charged lower freight rates than those living west of the river, because the railroad was trying to entice farmers from farther away to use the line.

In 1866 serious agitation began for a CB&Q alternative. Farmers wanted cheaper grain and livestock haulage, while the rest of the Fox Valley communities were looking for a cheaper way to obtain coal from the mines near Ottawa. Coal at the time was becoming an extremely energy source for heating homes and other buildings, as well as fueling the steam engines that were slowly replacing other means of powering everything from farmers’ corn shellers to factory machines to newspaper presses.

As a result, talks about reviving the old Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad Company were held up and down the Fox Valley. The company was originally established at Newark here in Kendall County in 1852. The OO&FRV was to have followed the river north from Ottawa to Elgin via Oswego. The list of directors from local towns reads like a list of Who’s Who among pioneer Kendall County residents: L.B. Judson (founder of Oswego), Nathaniel Rising (a pioneer Oswego miller), William Nobel Davis (prominent politician, farmer, and lawyer), Samuel Jackson, Samuel Roberts (an Oswego hotelier), John L. Clark, and Johnson Misner. But Kendall County voters decided by a narrow margin of 43 votes against borrowing $25,000 to support the road’s construction.

For the next several years, the railroad’s charter was amended a number of times by the Illinois General Assembly, until local interest waned. But then in the post-Civil War years fuel costs rose sharply. And as noted above, coal heated homes and fueled the steam engines that more and more often powered local businesses and industries.

Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road Company stock certificate issued in 1869 to Ottawa Township in LaSalle County to finance the railroad’s construction. (Little White School Museum Collection)

“The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into a new and more vigorous life,” suggested editor and publisher John R. Marshall in the May 31, 1866 Kendall County Record.

The difference was that residents and local governments seriously promised to put their money where their mouths were concerning the new railroad. In early September 1866, Oswego Township residents voted 220-51 to buy $25,000 in railroad stock (the total was eventually raised to $50,000). Other municipalities and county and township governments along the proposed route expressed strong interest, too. That was a substantial sum for the era, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s dollars.

In 1869, the Illinois General Assembly formally authorized the cities of Ottawa and Aurora, and the counties of Kane and Kendall to sell bonds to pay for stock in the rail line, now named the Fox River Valley Rail Road, which was to extend down the Fox Valley from Geneva to Ottawa and then due south to Streator.

Streator was a relatively new town located on the Vermilion River, on the border between LaSalle and Livingston counties in the midst of what were then called the Vermilion Coal Fields. Originally a hamlet named Hardscrabble, the name was changed to Unionville when it was formally platted in 1865. Just three years later the name was changed again to honor physician and capitalist Dr. W.L. Streator. Streator, from Cleveland, Ohio. Streator had been elected by its board of directors to head the newly formed Vermilion Coal Company, established to exploit the region’s huge coal deposits.

With no truly direct rail connection from the new coal fields north to the growing towns in the Fox River Valley, the new line’s promoters figured a new railroad running along that route would be a definite financial success.

But before the rail line could be built, the definite route had to be selected. Business interests in Morris, due south of Yorkville, lobbied hard for the line to leave the Fox Valley there and run down into Grundy County to access the county’s coal fields south of Morris. But Kane and Kendall promoters of the new line were unimpressed with the Morris boosters’ arguments.

Commented the Record’s Marshall in a Jan. 19, 1865 editorial: “Now, it is patent to all that the business of a road running in that direction with a terminus at the coal fields of Morris would be of little utility, and offer none of the advantages of a heavy freight and passenger trade. The carrying coal of itself is nothing. The natural channel for this road is down Fox river, where the greatest facilities are offered for manufacturing, flouring mills, and general produce trade, and at the same time reaching as good goal fields as at Morris, and developing by far a richer agricultural country than can be found in Grundy county.”

Railroads were built by hand in the 19th Century. Despite its difficulty, during construction of the OO&FRV Rail Road in 1869-1870, workers were paid $1.50 per day–the equivalent of about $31 in today’s dollars.

As finally established, the plan was for the Vermilion Coal Company to build their own shortline from Wenona, situated on the Illinois Central Railroad, to Streator. Then the OO&FRV line would be built north from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox Valley. In the end, Streator’s location in the midst of 26,000 acres of rich coal land, became a rail hub, with six lines passing through or near it.

By June 1866, the route north of Ottawa had been roughly finalized and engineers were hired to survey it. On July 19, the Record reported that: “The surveyors who are laying out the route for this road arrived in Yorkville on Tuesday evening and will have the survey completed from Ottawa to this place today. The gentleman in charge of the survey informed us that he finds the route very favorable for the economical and rapid building of the road. The route surveyed commences at the Illinois river [in Ottawa], crosses Fox river at Mission island, passes a little back of Millford [modern Millington], crosses Hollenbeck’s creek just west of Millbrook church, runs a little north of Mr. West Matlock’s and comes into Yorkville on Hydraulic venue. The river bottom at the Mission crossing is of solid rock and favorable for bridge building.”

Work on the road was nearly ready to begin in March and April 1867, when Fox Valley interests had to fend off an attempt by Will County interests to have the road run north to Plainfield from Streator. Ralph Plum, treasurer of the Vermilion Coal Company, hastened to reassure Fox Valley residents the route up the Fox was assured. In a letter to the editor of the Record on April 18, 1867: “The work we have already undertaken cannot be regarded by any business man in other light than as a guaranty that our whole interests are identical with your own…

“We have never doubted since we first looked over the map of Illinois, that our best market lay up the Fox River Valley, and we are sure that the superior quality of the Vermilion Coal will secure for it a sale in many localities where other coals are sold, yet the Fox River Valley (and Northern Illinois to be most directly reached therefrom) is most emphatically out best market, for we can reach it to a better advantage than any competitor, the moment the Fox River Valley Railroad is completed.”

Then on March 5, 1868, the Peoria Democrat published an unsourced bombshell of an article contending the OO&FRV company as well as the Vermilion Coal Company, were willing to turn over their charters to the CB&Q Railroad as long as the Burlington promised to offer guarantee a “perpetual” fair coal transport rate to Fox Valley communities. The bombshell report caused a huge uproar because the whole idea behind building the OO&FRV in the first place was to escape the CB&Q’s stranglehold on Fox Valley freight rates.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad dominated rail transport west of Chicago. The OO&FRV Rail Road was built in an attempt to compete with the “Q.” (Burlington Route Historical Society photo)

But on March 18, the Ottawa Free Trader reported the Democrat’s article wasn’t true—at least as far as anyone knew. “On inquiry of the officers of the F.R.V.R.R, we have come to the conclusion that, beyond as a sketch of what might be and very possibly yet will be, there is nothing in it. The officers of the Burlington Road and certain capitalists interested in the Fox R.V.R.R. have for a week or two past been in close consultation in N.Y., and it is possible that a hint from that quarter may have inspired the article in the Peoria paper, was thrown out as a feeler; but no definite agreement or arrangement of the kind indicated in that article, we are satisfied, has yet been arrived at.”

In retrospect, the OO&FRV’s board members and local boosters should have given a little more credence to the story.

The railroad company, with proceeds from its tax-purchased stock in hand, contracted with a man named Oliver Young to build the rail line from Streator north. And that’s where it got interesting. As part of the contract, signed Jan. 20, 1869, the railroad, upon completion, could be “used, managed and controlled” by Young.

“The object of the Directors to build this road and run it independently, with a view to making it a valuable road to the public and a paying one to the stockholders,” Marshall wrote in the Record on Jan. 28. But that clause gave Young virtual carte blanche, something the line’s board members apparently overlooked in their eagerness to get it built and operating.

Not a railroad builder himself, Young then contracted with the firm of C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Construction went fairly quickly. On Sept. 16, 1869, the Ottawa Free Trader reported: “The determination is to have the iron horse from Streator at Ottawa before the 1st of December, and to have the whole road done before another year is gone.”

On Oct. 14, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Work on the Railroad is now commenced; the ground through town was broken yesterday; the initiatory ceremonies were limited to a short speech from John W. Chapman, briefly showing the auspiciousness of the enterprise and that everything connected with it augurs success. He welcomed the shovel and spade saying there were the basis to greatness to wealth, to civilization, and to many other things…[Oswego founder Lewis B.] Judson with a spade broke the first ground and [wagon maker William] Hoze conducted the first wheelbarrow full of dirt; to-day a gang of from 15 to 20 men and several teams are at work.”

A a CB&Q steam engine hauls a railfan trip across the bridge at Sheridan in 1962 northbound on the Fox River Branch.

The Record reported in December that “Railroad hands hereabouts now get $1.50 a day.”

Then in early March 1870, the old rumor of the secret sale of the OO&FRV line to the CB&Q raised its head once again. The Ottawa Free Trader said not to worry though, that they’d looked into it. “There is quite a buzz up Fox river, we are told, over a rumor that the Fox River Valley Railroad has been sold out to the Burlington road, or some other road or connection, and instead of running to Aurora and Geneva, will stop at Sandwich, Somonauk or somewhere in that vicinity. These reports are without the slightest foundation. The road, we are confidently assured, will be completed to Aurora within the coming year. The sale of the road from Streator to Wenona to the Jacksonville and St. Louis R.R. Company in no way affects the road from Streator northward. The people up Fox River may rest easy. The road is ‘all right.’”

Work on the railroad moved forward steadily, with a few housekeeping details finally settled. On June 2, 1870, the Record reported that “The Common Council of Aurora has at length granted right of way through the city to the Ottawa and Fox River Valley Railroad by a vote of 8 to 2. This question has been agitated for over a year, and is just settled. The road will run up an alley just back of River Street.”

In that same edition, the Record reported that it wouldn’t be long before actual rails would be laid along the line through Kendall County: “On Wednesday the 25th, nine carloads of railroad material belonging to the Ottawa & Fox River Valley Railroad arrived at Montgomery. It consisted of 5,000 ties and the remainder of bridge timber for use on the bridge across the Fox River. It is the determination of contractor Young to have all the grading between Aurora and Ottawa finished before June 15th when the men will be free to labor on the extension to Geneva.”

Not that there weren’t a few legal snags still in the way of getting the road built through Kendall County. The “not in my backyard” movement is nothing new, and it was big enough to cause some initial headaches for the rail line’s boosters. Eventually, county government had to take the unusual step of condemning land for the rail right-of-way. As the Record reported on June 9, 1870: “Messrs Henry Sherrill, John K. LeBaron, and Oliver Havenhill were engaged on Tuesday and Wednesday in assessing damages and condemning certain lands over which the Fox River Railroad is to pass. There are several farmers who will not give the right of way, nor do they want the road to cross their farms, and this course has been forced upon the Railroad Company. Three men of more integrity could not have been found in the County than the gentlemen above named. Engineer Wilson accompanied the party.”

If anything, enthusiasm for the line’s completion was increasing. Marshall, writing in the June 16 Record, observed that “Passing through Montgomery on Saturday we were pleased to see huge pile of ties and bridge timbers for our railroad. Also, the grading done from that village to the river. We will have a ride on that road before 1870 is passed,” he predicted.

To a general community-wide celebration, on Oct. 6, the first engine and cars puffed into Oswego from Aurora on the newly laid rails. Exulted the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “There is no longer any need for Oswegoans to be poor or have the blues, no excuse now for dull times. I want to form a co-partnership with someone who has plenty of stamps in order to start a Daily newspaper; somebody ought to set themselves up in the banking business and furnish with money, which is still tight, the OO&FRV to the contrary notwithstanding. This town is now presenting fine opportunities for capital seeking investments.”

The Oswego depot of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. This photo was taken before the depot was expanded in the summer of 1886. Stationmaster Henry Green Smith is standing at left in his shirtsleeves. (Little White School Museum collection)

That same week, Marshall wrote an editorial in the Record about the coming of the new rail line to Yorkville that for the normally taciturn publisher was almost giddy: “By next Tuesday, weather permitting, the iron horse will be in Yorkville to awaken the people by a regular railroad whistle. On Monday afternoon we saw the train about two miles west of Oswego and the tracklayers hard at work laying from half to three quarters of a mile per day. The train is made up of three or four flat cars and the same number of box cars with CB&Q engine No. 54 to draw them…After 15 or 20 years’ working, the friends of this road are about to see their hopes realized by the completion of the road, and we all rejoice.”

On Oct. 27, Oswego received its first load of freight on the new rail line, a load of lumber for businessman William S. Bunn. By that date, the rails had been laid within a mile of downtown Yorkville.

Then on Nov. 3, Marshall reported from Yorkville that the county seat was finally a railroad town:

“On Thursday last, the 27th of October, 1870, a train of cars on the Fox River Valley Railroad entered Yorkville for the first time. It made the people of the villages feel big.

“Engine 54, belonging to the CB&Q R.R. drew the train. On Friday, Hon. W.P. Pierce came down as a passenger from Oswego.

“It was rather amusing to see the locomotive haul up along side of Crooker & Hobbs’ pump there to have its tank filled with water by means of buckets. Ground has been broken for a water tank just east of the Saw-mill, near the head of the [mill] race.

“A switch has been put in east of Black’s rag-house, with all the appurtenances. By the time this reaches our readers the train will be out of sight down the river, leaving only about 12 miles of track to lay between here and Ottawa.”

But those persistent clouds on the horizon concerning ownership of the new line were continually darkening. On Oct. 13, the DeKalb News reported that “The CB&Q company have gobbled the Fox River road, operations upon that line have been stopped north of Aurora, which city will be the northern terminus. The grading has been done as far north as Geneva, but the iron will not be laid.”

Marshall tried to find out what was really going on, and decided the report couldn’t be true, flatly stating “there is no doubt whatever but what the iron will be laid to Geneva.”

Unfortunately for the new railroad’s stock and bond holders and prospective customers, those rumors over the past several months turned out to be all too true. In July of 1870, Force & Co., the company actually building the rail line, using the excuse that the new rail line didn’t have any equipment to operate after construction was finished, secretly contracted with James F. Joy, president of the CB&Q, to provide rolling stock and other equipment for the line—despite the fact the line did indeed own two locomotives and dozens of rail cars.

Then on Aug. 20, 1870, Force & Co. secretly leased the whole railroad (which it didn’t own—yet) to the CB&Q for 99 years. The last piece fell of the elaborate con job into place in October when Young, for “a valuable consideration” (we can only guess what it was) assigned all his interest in the rail line—remember he could “use, manage, and control” the line however he wanted—to Force & Co.

In early November, the facts finally got out that the CB&Q had indeed seized control and de facto ownership of the road by means of the secret Force & Company 99 year lease. The Railroad Gazette reported the facts of the CB&Q’s coup, adding: “We are authorized to say that the road will be completed to Geneva and the whole operated as a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy road.”

This tangled but ruthlessly efficient series of events resulted in the CB&Q tricking its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company itself now controlled. And those dreams of cheap coal? The CB&Q’s lease pointedly stated: “The said party of the second part (the CB&Q) …agrees…that in the transportation of coal over said demised road it will charge no more or higher rates than shall be charged for the transportation of coal over like distances on the railroad of the said party…”

As Marshall dryly put it in a November 1872 editorial comment: “The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

A CB&Q freight train rumbles past the old Oswego Depot on Jackson at South Adams Street in 1965. The depot was demolished in 1969. (Little White School Museum collection)

The affair resulted in local governments holding a lot of worthless railroad stock—after all, it was stock in a railroad company without a railroad—and thousands in debts. The efforts of individual and local governmental bondholders to recover their money would stretch on for decades. One positive outcome of the fraud scheme was to spur the formation of a union of farmers and laborers that was politically active for some years, nominating the first female candidate for local office in Kendall County.

But it was generally acknowledge that while the new rail line was a huge economic boost for Fox Valley communities, its birthing process left a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth—except the CB&Q and those in the OO&FRV’s management who connived with them.

Commented the Rev. E.W. Hicks concerning the scandal in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “Happy the far off day of the mercantile millennium when every man can enjoy the sight of the world on wheels passing through his field without the discomfort of losing his railroad stock by swindling directors.”

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A Kendall County witness to history: Nathan Hughes and the first Juneteenth

It’s not often that a Kendall County resident is present during a momentous historical event, but that was the case when the first Juneteenth took place at Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. When he issued his General Order Number 3, Union Major General Gordon Granger formally—and forcefully—notified the State of Texas that slavery was irrevocably eliminated.

And last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth the United States’ newest national holiday as a symbolic celebration of the end of slavery throughout the nation.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger

From the time of its settlement as a part of Mexico that welcomed U.S. colonists, Texas had enthusiastically embraced slavery. Mexico’s abolition of slavery in 1829 was, in fact, one cause of Texas’ 1836 war of independence. The Mexican government had encouraged Stephen A. Austin to recruit settlers for Texas. He mostly recruited in the southern U.S., encouraging slave owners to emigrate by allowing them to purchase an extra 50 acres of land for every slave they brought with them. Both before and after it was admitted to the Union in 1845, East Texas and the state’s Gulf Coast became major cotton growing regions relying extensively on slavery.

So when the Southern states seceded, Texas went right along with them, citing Northern efforts to end slavery as the main reason they were leaving the Union. In their Declaration of Causes approved by the Texas legislature on Feb. 2, 1861, the state’s leaders contended:

“We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

“That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.”

Legally, slavery had been abolished by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862 immediately after the bloody Union victory at Antietam. Lincoln’s executive order did not free all the nation’s slaves. Instead, it was aimed at the South as an economic weapon and therefore freed the slaves only in areas of the Confederate states not under the control of the Union Army. And that meant Texas. But the state’s slave owners, like those in the rest of the Confederacy, paid no attention to Lincoln’s proclamation.

But by the spring of 1865, the Confederacy was imploding. Robert Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered on April 9, and the rest of the South’s organized forces quickly followed suit.

On May 9, Gen. Granger was ordered to concentrate his XIII Corps at Mobile, Alabama and then move to the Gulf Coast to secure the area for the Union. Granger was a familiar name to Kendall County residents since he’d commanded the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment—along with many others—at the Battle of Missionary Ridge outside Chattanooga back in 1863. In fact, the 36th had been the first unit to plant its regimental flag atop the ridge. The 36th included four companies of Kendall County residents, Company D, the Lisbon Rifles; Company E, the Bristol Light Infantry; Company F, the Newark Rifles; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles.

Gen. Joseph A. Mower

By June 18, Granger had arrived at Galveston with Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of the XIII Corps. Units that reportedly came ashore with Granger at Galveston on June 18 included the 28th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, recruited in Indiana; the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry, recruited in Illinois; and the 26th and the 31st U.S. Colored Infantry Regiments, both recruited in New York.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment had been recruited in Illinois and was mustered in in April 1864. It had served well, including at the brutal Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

Serving in Company B of the 29th was Nathan Hughes, who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky before the war, fled north into Illinois and briefly lived in Kendall County before he enlisted to fight for his own freedom. By the time the 29th came ashore at Galveston, Hughes had been wounded twice—once at the Battle of the Crater—and was a seasoned veteran.

It’s interesting to contemplate what the residents of Galveston must have thought seeing 2,000 smartly uniformed and well-armed Black soldiers disembark and march through their town. Especially since it’s more than likely the only Black Americans most of them had ever seen had been slaves.

On April 19th, Granger issued his General Order Number 3 and had it read at three locations throughout Galveston so there would be no confusion about the new situation in which Texas found itself. According to Granger’s order:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

And the thing is, there were a LOT of slaves in Texas in 1865. As Union armies had moved through the Confederate states east of the Mississippi, worried slaveowners had sent more and more of their enslaved people west to Texas. In 1861, there were 275,000 slaves in Texas. By 1865, there were 400,000.

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes, photographed in July 1893 on the occasion of their 10th wedding anniversary. Hughes, a witness to the first Juneteenth in 1865, is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic medal. He was the only Black member of the Kendall County G.A.R. (Little White School Museum collection)

In addition, Texans tended to believe that while perhaps slaves had been freed elsewhere, certainly their enslaved people wouldn’t be freed. As William Lee Richter wrote in The Army In Texas during Reconstruction, 1865-1870. “Planters vainly hoped that they would be compensated for the loss of their slaves or that the Supreme Court or the election of 1866 would overturn the Republicans’ majority in Congress. In addition, there was a cotton crop to bring in that fall. For these reasons, the planters forced their ex-bondsmen to stay on the plantation as slaves in fact, if not in name. To achieve this end, the farmers liberally employed whipping and murder.”

Southerners began resisting extending basic rights, including the right to vote and to peacefully assemble, as soon as the war ended. The U.S. Army and the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands worked hard to combat the racist violence with which the South responded to its defeat at the end of the Civil War, but those efforts proved ineffective. The violence grew to such an extent that during the Presidential election campaign of 1868, John R. Marshall, publisher of the Kendall County Record in Yorkville—himself a veteran of the Civil War who served in the Sturges Rifles—was far from alone when he wondered whether the war had ended two years too soon:

“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.”

That, however, was in the future, a bleak future at that, in which it would take nearly a century from the time Gen. Granger issued General Order Number 3 until acts enshrining civil and voting rights in U.S. law. From the time Granger impressed upon Texans that slavery was over once and for all, Black Americans began quietly observing June 19 as their own private day of independence from being enslaved and finally gaining their freedom.

After showing the U.S. Flag in Galveston, the 29th marched to the Rio Grande River where it was part of the Army of Observation tasked with reminding Maximilian and his French supporters that the United States was not pleased with their intervention in Mexico. The 29th was mustered out of U.S. service on Nov. 6, and its troops left for their homes.

Nathan Hughes came back to Kendall County and settled on a small farm on Minkler Road, went down to Kentucky and found his children, and brought them back to Illinois. His wife, however, decided to stay in familiar Kentucky and not move north. He eventually remarried. His grandchildren became the first black high school graduates in Kendall County, and THEIR grandchildren and great-grandchildren became teachers and professors, and lawyers and other professionals.

The family, now scattered across the nation, continues to pay forward the momentous results of that first Juneteenth Nathan Hughes had been part of in 1865.

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It’s past time to recognize African Americans’ long history in Kendall County

The patriarchs of the extended Hemm, Burkhart, and Shoger families that settled in Oswego Township pose for a family picture in the early years of the 20th Century. German represented a large percentage of immigrants to Kendall County in the mid-19th Century. (Little White School Museum collection)

In observation of Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting and informative to dredge up some posts from the History on the Fox archives about the topic that I’ve published during the past several years. There is currently an active move afoot, apparently led by the governor of Florida, for government to censor American history by eliminating all the bits that make some people uncomfortable from school curricula. But it’s not history’s job to make people feel good; it’s history’s job to preserve the truth so that we can benefit from it—all of it, even (especially!) the uncomfortable parts…

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In the history of Kendall County written in 1914, one of the writers spoke with pride about the breadth of the county’s ethnic heritage.From the perspective and mindset of someone writing in 1914, the county’s ethnic make-up probably did seem pretty broad. He mentioned, in particular, those of English, Scottish, German, and Welsh descent, plus some Irish and Scandinavians as well as those who could trace their families back to the French Canadians frontiersmen who once lived here and other areas throughout northern Illinois.

To modern sensibilities, though, that doesn’t sound like much of an ethnic mix at all.

Ku Klux Klan in its modern, second incarnation wasn’t strong yet—it would be another year before it would be officially reconstituted by William J. Simmons in 1915 atop Georgia’s Stone Mountain and begin sowing hatred of anyone who wasn’t an Anglo-Saxon protestant. In addition, the Red Scares of the years after World War I had yet to get their start, fueled to a fair extent by the Klan’s racial and religious bigotry.

Bigotry towards ethnic groups, in fact, was common and growing, especially as the county’s white European, Canadian, and other settlers began enjoying their second, and sometimes third, generations in the U.S.

Two other ethnic groups—African Americans and Hispanics—weren’t even mentioned in that 1914 county history. During that era, there weren’t many of either group in Kendall County—but there were some—and those who were here kept a low profile, as did others across the nation.

But despite their lack of recognition, Kendall County did have an African American population in 1914, and, in fact, had had one since the early 1830s.

The first Blacks who emigrated to Kendall County had no say in whether they wanted come or not. In the summer of 1833, a group of three families emigrated to Kendall County from Camden, S.C. and settled on the north side of Hollenback’s Grove in today’s Big Grove Township. When they left North Carolina, the families of R.W. Carns, J.S. Murray, and E. Dyal decided to take two ‘former’ slaves with them. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, notes that the Carns family brought a Black woman named Dinah, and the Murray family brought a woman named Silvie with them from South Carolina.

Noted Hicks, “They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

Whether, as Hicks reports, they were former slaves is debatable, even doubtful. It’s also extremely unlikely they had any choice about whether to become pioneers on the Illinois frontier.

Kendall County’s first courthouse, where the county’s first and only slave auction was held, was this frame building. This photo was probably taken in 1894 shortly before it was torn down to make way for a private residence. The 1864 courthouse cupola is visible to the left rear. (Little White School Museum collection)

Blacks were rare enough to create interest—and sometimes consternation among some—in the years leading up to the Civil War. By that time, Illinois had passed some of the strictest anti-Black laws—called the Black Codes—of any state in the union. In 1844, another former Carolinian, M.O. Throckmorton and his father-in-law, William Boyd, seized an African American who was riding on a sleigh-load of dressed pork being hauled to Chicago by a resident of Bureau County named McLaughlin. Insisting the fellow was an escaped slave, Throckmorton and Boyd hauled the Black man to Yorkville where he was turned over to Sheriff James. S. Cornell. Cornell, without much choice in the matter due to existing state and federal law, reluctantly put the unfortunate Black man up for sale at auction at the courthouse in Yorkville. But no bids were forthcoming, probably because most of the crowd were grim-faced members of the Kendall County Anti-Slavery Society. Eventually, one of the society members made the winning bid of $1, and the former prisoner was sent on his way to Chicago, and presumably on to Canada and freedom.

From the 1830s to the 1860s, a tiny number of Blacks made Kendall County their home. But in the years after the Civil War, a substantial influx of African American farmers arrived from the former Southern slave states and settled in the county, mostly in an area a few miles south of Oswego.

One of the Black men who arrived in the county after the war was Anthony “Tony” Burnett, who had been liberated by the 4th Illinois Cavalry during the war. Burnett joined the regiment’s Company C as a cook and later returned to Oswego with Lt. Robert Jolly where he enjoyed a close relationship with the family. Burnett is buried in the Jolly family plot at the Oswego Township Cemetery with a U.S. Government-issued tombstone that reads, “Cook, 4th Illinois Cavalry, Co. C.”

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes posed for this formal portrait by Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benensohn on the occasion of their wedding (anniversary in July 1893 (Little White School Museum collection)

Nathan Hughes, a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, which had been recruited in Illinois, and Robert Ridley Smith, who served in the 66th U.S. Colored Infantry, both moved to the Oswego area after the war. Hughes worked a small farm south of Oswego on Minkler Road. He also joined the Yorkville Post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the only Black county resident to do so, and where he served in various offices.

A number of other Black farming families also settled in the Minkler Road area where they worked small acreages. Their children were educated in the same one-room country school their White neighbors attended, without comment, suggesting the Jim Crow bigotry that was raging in the South had yet to reach this far north. Not that it wasn’t on the way.

By the 1920s, there were formal Klan organizations in Kendall County and the surrounding area. On June 7, 1922, the Kendall County Record reported: “The Ku Klux Klan initiated 2,000 candidates near Plainfield Saturday night. It is said some 25,000 members from Chicago and adjoining cities were present. The KKK is making a big stir in politics.”

Students at the one-room Grove School south of Oswego in December 1894. The Black children in the front row are all members of the Lucas family that farmed in the Minkler-Grove Road area. (Little White School Museum collection)

In February 1923, the Record noted that a 75-member Klan organization had been established in Sandwich, and then on June 4, 1924 reported from Yorkville that “Members of the Ku Klux Klan from Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet staged a big picnic and demonstration at the big woods east of town Friday. It was a perfect day for the outing and several thousand visitors took advantage of the day to visit Yorkville, the beauty spot of the Fox, and take part in the events of the organization.”

But that was all in the future. In the late years of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th, Black families were considered part of the community. Robert Ridley Smith raised his family in Oswego, and they became well-known and respected members of the town. Smith was for many years the janitor at Oswego’s large school building, and, a combat veteran of the Civil War, he didn’t seem at all shy of occasionally reminding area residents that Black Americans had a history worth acknowledging.

Robert Ridley Smith was the long-time janitor at Oswego’s community school in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His children all graduated from the school, the first Black high school graduates in Kendall County.

For instance, in the Record’s April 17, 1907 edition, the paper’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Bob Smith, the colored janitor of the schoolhouse, had some grave humor out of the school Monday. He raised the flag on the schoolhouse at half mast; all wanted to know what it meant, but he told them they must guess it. Finally the principal came along and he too wanted to know what Bob meant by it, and then Bob replied that the day was the anniversary of the death of Lincoln and that it was appropriate for a negro to show his mournfulness.”

Smith’s son, Ferdinand, was a racial pioneer. The June 17, 1903 Record reported: “Ferdinand Smith holds the distinction of being the first black person to be graduated from High School in Kendall County. He was one of the graduates of the [Oswego High School] Class of fifteen who graduated on June 1, 1903.” Smith’s graduation address was titled “Power to Meet Our Wants.”

The next year, the Record reported Ferdinand’s sister Mary’s graduation, and in 1906 noted their sister Frances was among the graduates: “To Miss [Frances] Smith fell the task [of representing the community’s African Americans] on this occasion and she did the duty assigned her in a dignified and ladylike manner, showing no symptoms of embarrassment whatever. Her paper was on ‘Afro-American Progress.’”

Robert Smith, sone of Robert Ridley Smith, played varsity baseball for Oswego High School in the first quarter of the 20th Century. His older brothers and sisters were the first Black students to graduate from high school in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Smith family was athletically inclined as well. A photo of the 1907 Oswego High School baseball team shows yet another Smith sibling, Robert, standing proudly with the rest of the team, fielder’s glove in hand.

The picture is startling for the casual refusal of Oswego’s public high school to participate in a shameful era of U.S. sports history. At the time Robert was happily playing high school ball in Oswego against other area schools, his fellow African-Americans were banned from playing in the Major Leagues.

Today, Kendall County is more ethnically diverse than at any time in its history, with people from all over the world living, working, shopping, and sending their kids to school here. But it is worthwhile to understand, especially during Black History Month, that it is the extent, not the diversity itself, that is new.

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Out with the old President; in with the new…

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Joe Biden has just taken the oath of office, finally assuring the peaceful transfer of power to the 46th President of the United States.

Usually, this is a time for celebration; in 2021, it’s a time for considerable relief. Since the election in November, the former occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, refused to admit he’d lost. Further, he continually inflamed his supporters, assisted by those who have enabled his extraordinarily bad administration, to the point that they attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, in an attempt to overturn the election and detain and execute members of Congress and the Vice President of the United States.

Trump leaves the White House already judged the worst President by virtually all presidential historians. In addition, history is unlikely to be kind to him as a person, much less as a politician. About the only good thing, historically speaking, about the Trump years will be that it will provide historians with years of work trying to determine exactly what happened and why. That won’t be as easy as it should since Trump was as contemptuous about obeying the Presidential Records Act of 1978 as he was the rest of the nation’s laws he had solemnly sworn to uphold.

At this point, it’s hard to determine exactly how destructive to the nation Trump’s Presidency has been; that will take some study and perspective and months, if not years, of investigation. But it’s not to early to judge his administration as a failure on its own terms. Here’s a great rundown of how Trump failed to meet his own stated goals–whether he ever meant to is obviously a topic for another time:

http://www.honestgraft.com/2021/01/in-end-trump-presidency-was-failure-on.html

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We’ll cast our ballots Australian-style on Nov. 3

Much to, I suspect, the relief of just about everyone in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the entire world, we’ll be heading to the polls next week to elect a President, as well as a host of down-ballot state and local officials.

It’s probably understating the situation to say this has been one of the most unusual Presidential campaigns in the nation’s history. Similar to the 2016 presidential election, one of the nation’s two major political parties has found itself with a candidate that public opinion polls say much of the country intensely dislikes—and that includes a surprisingly large portion of his own party. This despite being an incumbent for the office.

In addition, the strangeness has been heightened by the campaign concluding right in the middle of an unprecedented surge during one of the worst worldwide pandemics to strike in more than a century. The Federal Government’s refusal to coordinate the response to the pandemic has led to general unease among voters, which, in turn, has also led to unprecedented numbers of voters casting their ballots by mail or during in-person early voting.

But despite all the drama surrounding the election, those who have cast their ballots early, or those who decide to go to the polls in person on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will find the usual set-up of voting booths arranged so we can fill out our ballots in private and then have them counted anonymously.

And, in fact, we take voting by secret ballot for granted, but that’s not the situation our great-great-great-grandfathers (our great-great-great grandmothers not being allowed to vote) found when they went to the polls. Not until 1891 were Illinois and Kendall County residents allowed to cast their ballots in secret, marking the end of a voting process that had begun millennia before.

Although we like to think that democratic tools like voting are relatively modern processes, voting using ballots has a long and honorable history in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of ballots as early as the 5th Century B.C., using ballots that ranged from kernels of grain to colored balls. Farther east, balloting was used in India before 300 B.C.

Later, balloting was used during the Roman Republic, but gradually disappeared as government became more and more autocratic, and voting virtually disappeared for hundreds of years.

Not until the 13th Century was balloting revived by some Italian city states. By the 16th and 17th centuries, balloting had crossed the English Channel to Great Britain.

The first use of voting by ballot in the New World was practiced by the General Court of Massachusetts, which used the process to select governors after 1634. Gradually, balloting became widespread. Its existence was assumed by the U.S. Constitution as well as state constitutions after the nation won its freedom in the Revolutionary War.

But voting during that era was a lot different from what it means to us today. At that time, ballots were often passed out throughout the community—no polls necessary—and at other times the ballots were pre-marked. When a vote was cast, it was done in the open, often orally—reading and writing skills were often absent among many in the general population during those early days—and there were usually separate ballot boxes for each political party. It was as if every general election was a partisan caucus.

George Caleb Bingham’s famous painting, “Election Day” illustrates what United States balloting was like in 1846.

It was a system open to coercion and, to modern sensibilities, almost unbelievable violence, especially in the nation’s cities. In the middle years of the 19th Century, 89 voters were killed during election violence in the United States.

In the 1870s and 1880s, a parade of financial crises called panics—we’d term them depressions these days—plagued the nation. A general public that was becoming more educated in the ways of critical thinking, thanks to the nation’s public schools, and more disenchanted with being told what to do by politicians who were little more than lapdogs of big business, clamored for change.

Australians had been voting by secret ballot since 1856. Great Britain had adopted the system of secret ballots in 1872, and by the late 19th Century here in the United States, the public was ready for a system that would allow every voter to cast their ballot without fearing for their life or being otherwise intimidated.

The U.S. Constitution grants the individual states the authority to organize and conduct elections, so any change had to take place at the state level. Agitation for safe, secure voting had two parts. First, ballots had to be provided by the government so that voters couldn’t be intercepted on their way to the polls and their ballots stolen. Second, voting had to be done in such a way that no one but the voter knew individual votes were cast. After some study, it was decided the Australian Ballot system was by far the most fair.

Under the new system, ballots were to be printed at public expense and would be distributed only at official polling places. When ballots were marked, voters would place them in locked ballot boxes to secure them until they were counted. The states of Kentucky and Massachusetts became the first to institute the Australian ballot, followed by New York and then the rest of the states. After approval by the Illinois General Assembly, the first election by secret ballot was held in Kendall County in the local elections of November 1891.

In the first quarter of the 20th Century, wooden boxes like this were used to ship fresh bread to Oswego on the interurban trolley. This box was repurposed in the 1920s for use as Oswego’s official ballot box. It’s on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

Not that everyone was looking forward to the new system, of course. The system was popular in the South because it discriminated against former slaves, immigrants, and others who could not read the names on the ballots. Others thought that voters should be sufficiently proud of the candidates they were voting for to announce it publicly.

In October of 1891, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, observed: “In a few weeks we shall be called upon to vote by a new system imported from Australia. No tariff will be was paid on it, perhaps having been admitted under reciprocity.”

During succeeding weeks, the Record included a number of articles explaining how the new voting system would work and instructing voters on the process. In addition, public meetings were held in communities throughout the county to explain the new procedures.

In the Record’s Nov. 4, 1891 edition, Rank wrote: “Today we do as the Australians do. As everyone will want to try the new style of voting, a good turnout may be expected.”

And, once again, remember: “everyone” in that era meant strictly men.

In Oswego, a Mr. John Pitt—who seems to have been somewhat of a character—had the honor of casting the first secret ballot under the new system, although not without a few problems that entertained bystanders. Rank wrote: “He [Pitt] is a very enthusiastic, quick, and nimble man. When starting for the booths, someone said, ‘Do you know how to fix the ticket, John?’ ‘Yis,’ said he; on entering, instead of lifting up the curtain or drawing it to one side, he dove right down under it, coming up on the inside under the shelf, with which his head came in collision, making the sheet-iron concern tremble and jingle from bow to stern, but no damage resulted to either it or John’s head.”

Presumably, Pitt’s exploit was the highlight of the day, although it was also apparently instructive because no more booth diving was reported.

Not everyone was happy with the new system, of course.

In the April 15, 1941 village election, Earl Zentmyer, owner of the town’s Ford dealership, was running for election as Oswego Village President on the non-partisan “People’s Ticket.” (Little White School Museum collection)

“There was but one man that balked when told that he must go into a booth to prepare his ballot and who declared that if it has become to such a point when an American citizen cannot mark his ticket wherever he pleased, he proposed not to vote at all,” Rank reported, adding, “Upon second thought, however, he concluded to go through the important forms.”

The new voting system proved both successful and popular, although there were still some lingering doubts about whether secret balloting would really catch on. “While the system was met with general favor, it will be apt to be too cumbersome when it comes to a general election with a full slate,” Rank predicted.

Rank’s prediction was not out of line. Those of us who voted back before ballots changed to the kind with computer-read blocks we fill in will remember the sheer size of the last full-sized paper ballots that made trying to fill one out in the confines of a voting booth an interesting exercise.

But in the end, of course, the Australian Ballot was officially and permanently adopted here in Illinois as well as nationwide, and its direct, computer recorded and tabulated descendant is still in use today in Kendall County, although sadly not enlivened by the entertainment value provided by Mr. Pitt.

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