Category Archives: Local History

Wetlands and meanders: Old problems that could be new solutions…

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found tallgrass prairies dotted with open groves of mixed hardwood trees. The prairie, however, was not a simple grass monoculture.

In their descriptions, the settlers divided prairie into wet prairie and dry prairie, with dry prairie the most desirable for farming, but not always the most prevalent. Drier, higher prairie was quickly claimed by the first settlers, and later arrivals were forced to settle land with fens, sloughs, and marshes. Bristol Township was notorious among early pioneers for having a lot more than its share of wetlands, and was derisively referred to as “Slough Grass,” “Pond Lilly,” and “Bull Rush” by the pioneers.

While wetlands may have been viewed with sarcasm, they were no laughing matter in those early days. Although rich in wildlife, wetlands tended to come with a dismaying number of sicknesses for early residents. Outbreaks of ague—malaria—and other diseases were blamed on “miasmas” that supposedly emanated from wetlands. Not until the germ theory of disease was discovered and gained acceptance many decades later did people realize insects that favored wet habitats spread sickness, not mysterious invisible swamp vapors.

Since there was no effective chemical insect control available, that knowledge probably wouldn’t have saved the wetlands, because draining them had the desired effect by eliminating mosquitoes. As the area’s extensive wetlands were drained, malaria was virtually eradicated. And just as importantly for those early farmers, formerly wet prairie became productive farmland.

1498380048097175455-00027285

George L. Griffin and J.H. Carper of Dallas City, Illinois invented this improved mole ditcher in 1860. Their main improvement was to make the machine cut its drainage tunnel with less effort on the horses or oxen pulling it.

Drainage work on the thousands of acres of wetland really started as soon as the settlers arrived. Initial efforts were fairly simple and labor intensive as ditches were dug from wetlands to the nearest streams.

In 1854, the mole ditcher was invented, a sort of subterranean plow that created a small underground tunnel. It took a lot of oxen and muscle power, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile of wetland a day. But while the machine worked well in clay soils, drain tunnels pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

The other major technique was to build underground drain pipes of wooden boards or stone, but that was expensive in both labor and capital.

Then in the 1860s, clay tile began to look like the best bet to drain wetlands. Tile plants in Joliet and Chicago began advertising in The Prairie Farmer magazine and drainage efforts accelerated and quickly expanded. Even more ambitious drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

The move towards draining ever more land led to entrepreneurs starting to manufacture their own field tile using locally-available clays. In April 1879, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted: “Samples of the [drainage] tile made at Millington can be seen at Willett & Welch’s implement room in Yorkville. Farmers should examine it.”

The new clay drainage tile technology allowed even the largest wetlands, such as the Great Wabasia Swamp, which covered 367 acres in northern Oswego and southern Aurora townships, to be drained by the 1890s.

By Jan. 1, 1884, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmers had laid the astonishing total of 800 miles of drainage tile throughout Kendall County alone.

Then in August that same year, the Record noted that tile making had come to Yorkville: “Joseph Tarbox is getting out a first quality of tile with his new machine, and has at his yard a general assortment of all sizes; and he will not be undersold by anyone. Address, Yorkville, Ill. Tile and brick yard on the north side, near the fairgrounds.”

On Nov. 17, 1897, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that: “Mr. Job Wampah is hauling large size tile–12-inch–from Plainfield so as to close up an open ditch across part of his farm. Land is nearly all drained out in this part of the country. What a difference between now and 25 years ago when ponds and swales were on every farm. When politicians tell of the great change that came over the country in ‘73, they should not forget to state that farmers began tiling about that time.”

From 1905 to 1910, $60,000 (a small fortune in those days) was spent in Bristol Township alone to tile and drain a total of 3,200 acres of wetlands.

Channelizing Waubonsie CreekWater drained by the county’s vast tile systems had to have someplace to go, so creeks were modified for fast drainage by channelizing—straightening and deepening them—to speed run-off to either the Fox River or AuSable Creek. As a result, rainwater that was once stockpiled in the county’s numerous wetlands and allowed to run off slowly was encourage to quickly flow away. The increased velocity of stormwater and spring melt runoff is often destructive in the short term as raging waters create severe erosion and other damage.

Fast runoff from its watershed combined with destruction of wetland has also had a drastic long-term effect on the Fox River. By the early years of the 20th Century, according to C.W. Rolfe, writing in The Fishes of Illinois published in 1908, the volume of the Fox River’s flow at its low water rate in late summer was half of its estimated low water flow in the 1830s. Tiling, ditching, and draining did not stop, of course, something that continued to plague the river during the next century. A measurement taken by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Fox River in 1975 north of Aurora showed that its low water flow rate had further declined by about 15 percent from Rolfe’s time.

Another cause for concern reported in the mid-1970s was the discovery that between 1905 and 1971 two “indicator” species of small fish that require access to wetlands to spawn, the Blacknose Shiner and the Iowa Darter, had completely disappeared from the Fox River system, both casualties of wetland destruction.

The destruction of wetlands has caused the county’s streams to resemble aquatic yo-yos, their levels bouncing up and down during successive wet and dry periods, sometimes within a matter of days of each other. In addition, the descendants of the very farmers who drained the wetlands have been adversely affected as ground water levels, once maintained by extensive wetlands, declined over the decades.

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

The devastating Flood of 1996 turned Waubonsie Creek into a raging torrent that nearly destroyed the railroad bridge crossing it near downtown Oswego. Wetlands and creek meanders eliminated more than a century before might have mitigated some of the flooding.

Most of the county’s wetlands did not totally and completely disappear, however, as unfortunate homeowners living in developments built on former marsh and swamp land often discover following rain storms or fast snow melt. Even with drainage patterns changed by the engineering of new subdivisions, commercial developments, and roads, the land tends to revert to its natural state during high water periods—and for a lot of county land, the natural state was that wet prairie noted above. In fact, old survey maps and historical accounts of the county’s early days suggest residents of more than one new development may have cause for continuing concern as many of them found out during the huge Flood of 1996 that resurrected a number of ancient marshes and sloughs following 17” of rain.

At least one solution for the intermittent flooding that plagues the area has gradually become apparent during the past few decades: Restore some of the area’s wetlands. Just as they did 160 years ago, wetlands can be used to slow flood waters to decrease the water’s damaging velocity and store the runoff for slower release, which reduces or even prevents flood damage. Side benefits—although naturalists would class them as major benefits—are that wetlands cleanse the streams they empty into by filtering polluted run-off from roads and parking lots. They also enrich the area’s wildlife diversity by attracting birds and other animals and creating spawning grounds for fish. And unlike the pioneers, we know how to deal with disease carrying insects that might be attracted to wetlands through sound ecological management.

When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like persuading Mother Nature to use her own tricks to help solve problems we’ve caused ourselves.

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

The huge impact of 19th Century roads on area towns is largely unappreciated

Downtown redevelopment frenzies seem to come and go with some regularity. From Montgomery to Yorkville to Plano and Sandwich, towns around this area keep looking for ways to revitalize their historic downtown business districts.

For instance,  back in 2005, Oswego wrapped up a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment project. Montgomery got into the act, too, with the end result being their wonderful new village hall, historic Settler’s Cottage, and extensive cleanup. Most recent was Yorkville’s (so far successful) attempt to preserve its downtown in the face of the widening Ill. Route 47 to five lanes right smack through the middle of their historic Bridge Street business district.

2001 Aug 23 N from Van Buren.jpg

Oswego’s downtown business district (looking north from Van Buren Street) under construction in August 2001. The project wasn’t completed for a few more years. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each of these communities faces its own challenges, even though each town’s business district is so much different than the others.

Talk to an economic historian about why communities develop the way they do, and you’ll likely get an eye-glazing lecture on, among other things, modern interpretations of S.H. Goodin’s central place theory and the definition of hinterlands. Those things certainly have had great effects on municipal development. But here in the Fox Valley area, the single most important aspect of why and how our communities evolved the way they have seems to have had more to do with transportation—in particular, transportation routes that existed in the middle two-thirds of the 19th Century—than other factors.

The results are interesting to contemplate. Plainfield, for instance, has a large downtown business district situated along what used to be U.S. Route 30, which ran through the middle of its business district until it was rerouted around downtown some years ago. Oswego’s business district is bordered on two sides by busy U.S. Route 34, the main, and often traffic-snarled, route through the village. Montgomery’s tiny downtown is flanked to the west by Ill. Route 31 and to the east by the Fox River. Yorkville, in a situation somewhat similar to Plainfield, has its respectable downtown business district bisected by busy Ill. Route 47.

Meanwhile, the tiny Kendall County community of Plattville has what once passed for a business district that meandered along Plattville Road, which runs through the middle of the village. Likewise, the hamlet of Little Rock in northwestern Kendall County also rambles along the road through town, in this case the old state stagecoach road to Galena. Plano’s downtown was designed to be bisected by the main line of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad while Sandwich’s Main Street (not to be confused with the street the business district is on) is perpendicular to the main line tracks, which inconveniently arrived after the village was platted.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Although Montgomery has a Main Street running parallel to the Fox River, it’s main business district became oriented to Mill Street and its bridge across the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

In each case, transportation routes arguably had the largest influence on how and where these business districts were located and eventually laid out, while each community’s location in the hinterland of a nearby larger community had an important impact on the size and makeup of each downtown.

Although Montgomery has a Main Street, the business district is located to its east and stretches along Mill, River, and Webster streets, similar to the meandering layouts of the hamlets of Little Rock and Plattville. Oswego’s main business district, a three block section of Main Street, is located parallel to the Fox River while Yorkville’s, which is about the same size, is sited perpendicular to the river. How did it all happen?

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, actually laid the village out with a Main Street that, like Oswego’s, ran parallel to the Fox River. But economic realities changed Gray’s vision so that businesses gradually grew up along the streets that led to the modern bridge (located north of Gray’s original 1830s bridge) across the river. Thus the gentle S route formed by Mill, River, and Webster streets became the de facto business district.

Meanwhile, Oswego’s founders laid out Main Street along the economically vital Chicago to Ottawa Road and immediately adjacent to the Joliet to Dixon road that crossed the river at Oswego on its way west across the prairie. Probably because the Ottawa Road was the more economically important connection in the 1830s and 1840s, the business district remained strong along Main Street. By the time the first bridge was built across the river in 1848, Main Street was established as the business district.

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

Yorkville’s Bridge Street, shown here looking north in 1893, became the town’s main thoroughfare, even though it ran perpendicular to the community’s two Main Streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in Yorkville, a different dynamic was at work. The Fox River Road, the stagecoach and mail route from Ottawa to Geneva, did not pass through Yorkville. Instead it ran through neighboring Bristol on the north bank of the Fox River. And the post road from Ottawa to Chicago (now Ill. Route 71) bypassed Yorkville to the south. Yorkville had been named the county seat by a state commission in 1841, but voters decided to move it to Oswego in 1845. As a result, Yorkville didn’t get a post office until 1864 when the county seat moved back from Oswego (Bristol’s post office had been established in 1839). Because the post office used by Yorkville residents was on the north side of the river in Bristol, along with connection to the busy Fox River Trail, and the location of the Chicago to Ottawa Road was well south of the river, Yorkville’s business district grew in a north-south orientation. The main route through the business district is called Bridge Street, denoting the importance of the river crossing to the city’s economy. And that’s despite two Main Streets in Yorkville, one on either side of the river. one in the old village of Bristol running parallel to the river on the north side and one in Yorkville proper, running perpendicular to the river on the south side.

Just as their orientation and layout is different, so too are the sizes of the three communities’ business districts, which grow in size the farther they are from Aurora.

Plainfield, on the other hand, is far enough from either Aurora or Joliet to have developed its own large independent business district, similar to Naperville’s. Plano and Sandwich, both fairly typical railroad towns, were mercantile centers in their own right early on with downtowns fueled by the passenger and economic traffic brought by rail lines. Compare them to Little Rock and Plattville, hamlets that owed their existence to the roads to Galena and Ottawa, respectively. The two villages declined precipitately when the rail lines extending west of Chicago missed both.

Today, 170 years after most of Kendall County’s town-founding took place, transportation is still shaping the towns we live in—for better or (more often) for worse. And as change occurs, it might be useful to recall that this isn’t the first time such major transformations and dislocations took place. Nor, I think it’s safe to say, will it be the last.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Believe it or not, dandelions not only taste good, they’re good for you, too.

They come with the spring. Kids pick them to make colorful chains and rub their blooms on each other to create satisfying yellow smudges. Adults, meanwhile, roll out the heavy artillery—the power sprayers, the lawn care services—to try to do their best to eradicate them.

Yes, it won’t be long before dandelion season is in full bloom once again.

The farm my Pennsylvania German ancestors settled along the Will-DuPage County line here in northern Illinois has disappeared under an up-scale businesses and streetscapes of posh new homes, but those bright yellow flowers starting to pop up along roadsides and in median strips are a visible reminder of pioneer settlement days on the flat prairies between the Fox and DuPage rivers.

A family tradition, possibly apocryphal but maybe not, tells the story of how the Pennsylvania German families carving farms out of the prairie between the DuPage and Fox Rivers were disappointed when they discovered in their first spring on the prairie the absence of one of their favorite all-purpose plants. As a result, my settler relatives wrote home and requested family back in Lancaster County send dandelion seeds, which they did.

The rest, as they always seem to say, is history.

Each spring, lawns throughout the Fox Valley are covered with a myriad of colorful, yellow flowerets as the descendants of those fluffy Pennsylvania seeds begin their hardy life cycles. While homeowners try, with varied success, to eradicate these hardy plants, others ease towards a live and let live policy.

Dandelion C

Dandelions are native to Europe where they’ve been used medicinally for centuries, thus their scientific name, Taraxacum officianale.

“There are really few sights as spectacular as a rich green, well-watered lawn, several acres in extent, perhaps under the spreading trees of a cloistered university campus, covered with a carpet of golden dandelions,” Dr. Harold Moldenke rhapsodized in American Wild Flowers. Clearly, Dr. Moldenke is not a lawn monoculture zealot.

While dandelions may be pretty to look at for some, especially when we remember those dandelion chain necklaces of our childhood, others see them as noxious weeds that do little more than choke out expensively sodded or seeded lawns. Such unkind thoughts towards dandelions are one reason platoons of tank trucks loaded with tons of herbicides invade Fox Valley neighborhoods on a daily basis to fight the spread of those golden flowers that resemble nothing so much as acres of innocent smiley faces.

Dandelions aren’t from around here. By that I mean not even from this continent. The plant is a native of Europe, probably Greece, although its name comes from the French, dent de lion, literally “lions tooth.” Most experts agree the name refers to the plant’s toothed leaves, although one herbalist devoted several paragraphs in a scholarly book to discussing whether the name refers to the plant’s leaves, its flowerets, or its root, which may illustrate how little some herbalists have to do with their time.

The ancients knew that the dandelion’s happy face masked its real potential as a medicinal herb. Its scientific name, Taraxacum officianale, is a living historical note on how well accepted the plant was by the ancient medical establishment.

In his 1763 book, The Natural History of Vegetables, English Dr. R. Brookes reported the dandelion was “accounted an aperient, and to open the obstructions of the viscera.” He observed that dandelions were eaten as a salad, but, he added with inborn English suspicion, only by the French.

dandelion BActually, more than the French liked the sharp taste of young dandelion leaves, for that is the main reason my relatives supposedly requested a packet of seeds from their German brethren in Pennsylvania. Not only can the leaves be eaten, but the plant’s colorful flowers can be harvested and used to make a delicious golden-hued wine.

But it is as an herb the dandelion has been most touted, both by 18th Century herbalists as well as by modern natural foods enthusiasts. One herbalist suggests that applications of the dandelion’s milky juice produced in late spring and summer can remove warts. Dandelion tea, made from the plant’s dried leaves, has been used for centuries as a treatment for rheumatism, and has a reputation for keeping the kidneys free from stones if used regularly.

Roasted dandelion roots can be dried, ground into powder, and used to make a coffee substitute that is high in vitamins and minerals, but which has zero caffeine. Nobody says much about the taste, however, and that might be one reason it hasn’t caught on at Starbucks just yet.

Dandelion greens

It’s important to pick only greens from dandelions that haven’t blossomed yet, otherwise bitterness will overtake the greens’ sharp, peppery taste.

Most area residents, however, will not make dandelion tea or coffee. But it is easy enough to harvest the tender young leaves of early spring dandelions and eat them mixed with other greens in salads or by themselves, wilted with vinegar and sugar. Make sure only young leaves are harvested before the plants flower, though, or the dandelion’s astringent qualities will dominate rather than its sharp good taste. Some dandelion lovers continue to eat the plants long after their tender young stage has gone by the boards by blanching the leaves before eating them to remove some of the bitterness.

My own family tradition calls for making a warm sweet and sour sauce which is poured over dandelion leaves to create a complementary dish for potatoes and meat, usually pork chops, pork steak, or a ham slice.

The recipe:

  • One egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup half & half or cream
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 or 3 slices of bacon, or use pan drippings from pork chops, ham, or pork steak
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Dice and cook the bacon crisp, or retain a small amount of pan drippings in a frying pan. Mix in the other ingredients and bring to a boil. Pour hot mixture over dandelion greens, leaf lettuce, or head lettuce to wilt. Serve as a side dish or (as we do) use the sauce as gravy over potatoes served as part of the meal.

The egg gives it a pleasant yellow color (thus our family name for it: yellow gravy) and the half and half (or better yet, cream) provides the sweetness that compliments the vinegar.

Image result for digging dandelion greens In my mind’s eye, I can still see my grandmother in coat and sunbonnet digging dandelion greens in her farmyard before lunch on sunny windy spring days in preparation for a dinner of boiled potatoes, canned green beans, pan-fried ham slice, and yellow gravy. Which always makes me appreciate why those Pennsylvania German ancestors wrote home and begged for dandelion seeds.

But I strongly suspect those lawn fanatics who see anything except an unbroken carpet of hybrid bluegrass as an affront to their family honor would just as soon my pioneer ancestors had left well enough alone.

On the other hand, lawncare firms and garden departments in big box and hardware stores that annually rake in millions from dandelion haters may want to consider a monument to those heroic Pennsylvania German dandelion lovers of yesteryear.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, family, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Women's History

Oswegoland’s Methodist roots run deep

Our little corner of Illinois has deep Methodist roots.

One of the first permanent settlers north of Peoria was Jesse Walker, a Methodist preacher who established a mission along the Fox River north of its mouth on the Illinois River in 1825.

Walker established the Fox River Mission in Section 15 of modern Mission Township, LaSalle County (T35N, R5E) on land purchased from the Potowatomi Tribe, on behalf of the Methodist Church. When the Illinois General Assembly approved allowing counties to establish the township form of government in 1850 and names were chosen for each, Mission was named after Walker’s enterprise a quarter of a century earlier.

The purpose of the mission was to teach the local Native Americans a variety of skills, including farming; educate Native American children at a mission-run school; and, of course, to spread the Gospel according to Methodist teachings.

Walker, Jesse

Jesse Walker

In his 1825 report, Walker reported to the Rock River Conference of the Methodist Church in Illinois that he had established the mission, after some confusion about the proper location, and that it included a large, two story house, built of hewn logs, measuring 50×30 feet. The house was divided into apartments for the mission staff (which mostly consisted of Walker’s extended family). The mission campus also included a blacksmith shop, a poultry house, a spring house and “other conveniences.”

Walker’s son-in-law, James Walker, arrived in the Fox Valley that same year and brought with him a horse-powered corn grinding mill. Soon after, however, James Walker moved on to the DuPage River where he established a new settlement, first called Walker’s Grove, and later renamed Plainfield.

Jesse Walker reported that by 1826, the mission had 40 acres of land under cultivation, seven acres in pasture, and one acre planted in garden crops to provide food for the staff. The cost of the venture was $2,034, of which the U.S. Government had pledged to pay two-thirds, since the mission staff promised to use their blacksmith to service the needs of the local Native Americans.

But the mission turned out to be neither a financial nor a spiritual success. American Indians were always difficult to convert to Christianity, at least one source reporting that Native Americans thought the concept of original sin ridiculous. And while the government had pledged to subsidize the new mission—it would have been a relatively cheap way to provide services to local tribes required under various treaties—Walker and the Methodists learned the hard lesson that it’s best to get cash in hand when the government makes promises and not rely on anyone’s good will or intentions. The Methodists, in fact, never did get the money they were promised.

By 1829, when Galena merchant James Stoddard sent a small wagon train loaded with lead to Chicago from the mines located around the bustling northwestern Illinois town (the train crossed the Fox River at the mission, drawn by the promise of blacksmithing services there) they found the mission abandoned.

While Walker and the other Methodists in the Rock River Conference gave the mission up as a bad idea, they continued to spread the Gospel according to Methodism to the new settlers beginning to flood into northern Illinois. Another Methodist preacher, Stephen R. Beggs, settled at James Walker’s growing hamlet on the DuPage River.

In 1832, when the Black Hawk War broke out, settlers up and down the Fox River Valley fled their homes for safety. Those in the southern part of today’s Kendall County line ran south to Ottawa, where a fort was under construction. Those in the northern part of the modern county’s boundaries first fled to Walker’s Grove where they congregated at Beggs’ farm. The panicked pioneers tore down some of Beggs’ sheds and fences and built a rude fort designed to scare off any Indian attackers. And, indeed, it was pretty much a bluff, because as Beggs later recalled, while there were some 125 frightened refugees there, they only had four guns among them, “some of which,” he added, didn’t work.

The war proved to be brief and the next year, 1833, was dubbed “The Year of the Early Spring.” The prairie dried out and the grass greened up early, allowing a pent-up wave of settlers to begin flooding into the Fox Valley.

Pearce, Daniel & Sarah

Daniel and Sarah Pearce (Little White School Museum collection)

Many of those early pioneers were Methodists, and Jesse Walker and Stephen Beggs lost no time in establishing Methodist meetings at several settlers’ cabins up and down the Fox Valley, the two of them servicing their respective circuits. Beggs, who established the first Methodist class at Walker’s Grove in 1829, was receptive when Daniel and Sarah Pearce and their extended family, who had settled at what eventually became Oswego in 1833, asked for a class to be established there. That year, the Oswego Class joined new classes at Ottawa and Princeton. By 1835, when the Rev. William Royal was the circuit rider, his route took him from Oswego northwest to Belvedere, south to Princeton, and back through Mission Township in LaSalle County as he visited the 19 charges in his circuit.

1901 LWS as ME Church

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church, now the Little White School Museum, as it looked in 1901. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Methodist class meeting at the Pearce cabin eventually became a full-fledged congregation of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. The congregation began building a church in Oswego in 1848, finishing the building in 1850. It is today known as the Little White School Museum, and still stands on the site where those early Methodists erected it. The church was finally considered free of debt and eligible to be dedicated in 1854. The congregation met in the building until 1913,when they decided to merge with the German Methodists a few blocks away.

It was during the mid-19th Century that another group of Methodist farmers, this time from Germany called Albright Methodists, began settling on the prairie east of Oswego. They built their first church about 1850 on a low-lying parcel just west of modern Roth Road. The church and cemetery were moved east to Roth Road in 1861. Eventually, this congregation became known as the Prairie Church.

1871 Prairie Church exterior 1908

The Albright Methodists’ second church on the Oswego Prairie built in 1871. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile in Oswego, a group of Albright Methodists, members of the Prairie Church, were beginning to wish they had their own church in town so they didn’t have to drive three miles out in the country every Sunday. In 1860, the group began meeting in a stone building at the corner of Washington and Madison called the French Castle.

The French Castle, built as a large home by some of Oswego’s early French-Canadian residents (thus the name) at Washington and Madison streets, had been used by the village’s Presbyterians until 1857 when they moved to their new church at Madison and Douglas streets.

The vacant building proved a suitable home for the new congregation.

1914 Federated Church

The German Evangelical Church built by the Oswego’s Albright Methodists in 1894 on the site of the old “French Castle.” (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego congregation continued to grow, as more Germans immigrated to the area, along with Pennsylvania Germans, both drawn by the large population of German-speakers already in the area. Sermons and funerals at the new church were preached in German while the Methodist-Episcopal Church served the village’s English language population.

The town Methodists eventually built a new church in 1894 after tearing the old building down. So that year, Oswego boasted two Methodist churches, one German and one American, with services in English in the Methodist-Episcopal Church and services in German at the Albright Methodists’ new building.

1910 Oswego Prairie Church look NE

The German Methodists’ new Prairie Church was built in 1910, replacing the old 1871 building. (Little White School Museum collection)

The German Methodists hired a single preacher who ministered to a circuit of four congregations that included the one in town, the Prairie Church, and the Lantz Church and the Copenhagen Church, both just over the line in Will County’s Wheatland Township. The four-church circuit was served by a single pastor, based in Oswego. The Copenhagen and Lantz congregations eventually merged, creating a new congregation called the Salem Church.

In 1870, Oswego had boasted Baptist, Lutheran, German Evangelical, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist-Episcopal churches. But as the years passed, some of those congregations gradually dissolved. The Baptists were first to go, and their congregants spread themselves among the remaining churches. The Lutherans were next, with most of them joining their fellow

2004 Church of the Good Shepherd

Today’s Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

German-speakers at the Evangelical Church. The congregation at the Methodist-Episcopal Church—now the Little White School Museum—dissolved in 1913, and its members mostly transferred to the Evangelical Church. Possibly prompted by that union, services started being held in English in January of that year.

Finally, when the Congregational Church was destroyed by fire in 1920, its congregation also decided to join the Evangelical Church’s congregation, and a new church community, the Federated Church, was created. It’s a name by which some long-time Oswego residents still call the church.

2015 9-3 LWSM w sign

Formerly the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church, the Little White School Museum is now the repository for Oswego area history and heritage. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Federated Church became affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren denomination in 1947. It changed its name to the Church of the Good Shepherd EUB in 1957 in honor of the church building’s iconic stained glass window that faces Washington Street. In 1968, the EUB and Methodists merged, and the Church of the Good Shepherd added “United Methodist” to its name.

Today, the landmark Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist is the direct descendant of those pioneer Methodists who gathered in Daniel Pearce’s log cabin in 1833 to establish the first Oswego Methodist Class and went on to build the historic Little White School Museum, and to play such an important part in Oswego area history.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Architecture, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, religion

Historians’ major finds help preserve our local, state, and national heritage

Every once in a great while—if they’re very lucky—a person with historical inclinations makes a great find, something that will really advance knowledge of the area of history in which they’re interested.

The folks at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian did that a few years ago when they acquired, at auction, an album of rare historical photos put together by Emily Howland, a Quaker abolitionist and schoolteacher who lived in upstate New York. Howland, it turned out, was a neighbor and friend of the legendary anti-slavery activist Harriet Tubman. Before her death in 1929, Howland filled a photograph album given as a gift to her by a friend with images of people she met.

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture acquired the photos at auction in 2017. Highlights of the photos in the collection, which appear to date back to the 1860s, include pictures of Charles Dickens, former Massachusetts U.S. Senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner, writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and the only known photograph of John Willis Menard, the first African-American man elected to Congress.

1868 abt Harriet Tubman

The Smithsonian’s new cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman, taken about 1868.

Among the 48 photos in Howland’s album was a well-known image of her friend Tubman, but there was also a portrait of Tubman no one except Howland had ever seen before.

It shows the famed activist casually sitting in a chair exuding the certainty of her vision of freedom for her African-American brethren. She appears to be about 40 years of age, and unlike so many of the photos of her taken later in life, this image makes Tubman look attractive. In fact, it would be nice if the U.S. Mint chose this image of Tubman for the $20 bill when they get ready to redesign it.

Actually, I’d rather they removed Andrew Jackson from the $10 bill and replaced the old racist reprobate with Tubman, rather than displacing Alexander Hamilton’s image on the $20. But that’s an argument for another day.

To celebrate the new exhibit of Tubman’s photo this past winter, the media did a bunch of stories, and interviewed a number of folks involved in acquiring it for the Smithsonian. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recalled he was paging through the album while evaluating it prior to the sale when he had one of those historical Eureka moments.

“Suddenly, there was a picture of Harriet Tubman as a young woman, and as soon as I saw it I was stunned,” he recalled.

I know the feeling.

After the grassroots effort to save Oswego’s historic Little White School was made back in 1976, the slow process of restoration using mostly volunteer labor on Saturday mornings started. But as soon as people realized we were trying to start a community museum, they began bringing family memorabilia, photos, textiles, and all manner of other stuff. With the donation of some used shelving, the items were stored down the basement in a jumble. It wasn’t until 1992 that we were in a position to start actually cataloging all that stuff. Thanks to museum professional Keith Coryell being between jobs, he and ace researcher Stephenie Todd helped design the procedures we still use to catalog and store items. We did a macro sort first to pile like things together, and then began cataloging individual items using a database I designed by stealing ideas from other museums.

And, of course, stuff didn’t quit arriving in 1992, but just kept on coming, which both overjoyed us and depressed us because we weren’t even keeping up with cataloging newly arriving material, much less cutting into that giant conglomeration of items classed, as museums do, “Found in collections.” In fact, we wouldn’t largely finish cataloging all that “Found in collections” for some 20 years.

So back in 1998 as we worked on the backlog, I finally decided to tackle a large 1890s-vintage pedestal mounted photograph album that had been donated back in 1987 by the Collins family (of Collins Road fame). It was designed like a large Rolodex that was covered in dark red velvet, and mounted on a cast iron pedestal. Knobs on either side rotated the metal frames that held the photos, which flipped by so you could easily view the portraits. As standard practice, we removed photos from albums so they could be safely stored in acid-free pockets. The accession numbers we assigned to each photo in an album tied it back to the album itself, as well as to other photos that accompanied it.

So my task that day was to remove the photos from the mechanism, describe and number them, and file them in photo pages, which then went into our own three-ring photo binder. They were pretty typical 19th Century portraits of farm families from the Minkler Road area where the old Collins and related Gates farms were located.

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes’ portrait was taken to celebrate their 10th anniversary in 1893 at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio. (Little White School Museum collection)

But then I came across a portrait of a black couple, the man seated with his wife standing next to him. At that time, I had no idea that a vibrant community of black farmers once lived in the Minkler-Reservation Road area. It was a bit of lore that had been completely erased from local history—none of the county’s histories had a thing to say about it. So finding a formal portrait taken at Sigmund Benensohn’s Yorkville studio was a big surprise. I turned the photo over, hoping against hope they would be identified, and they were: “Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes” was written in pencil on the back.

That was my Eureka moment, when I realized I had something special in my hands.

Back during the nation’s Bicentennial I’d worked on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s Publications Committee. Our goal, which we met, was to publish an updated county history. Rick Brinkman, a friend I worked with at Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery volunteered to write the chapter on the Civil War, and during his research he was contacted by Mrs. Doris Davis of Aurora who said she had an interesting story about her great-grandfather, Nathan Hughes, who served in the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Rick learned that after the war, Hughes came to Kendall County, where he farmed along Minkler Road. But Mrs. Davis didn’t have a photograph of her great-grandfather, which we would have published along with Nathan Hughes’ story that made it into our book.

So fast-forward 22 years, and there I was holding a photo of what we then thought was one of Kendall County’s only black Civil War veterans. Later, we found several black Civil War veterans are buried in Kendall County, but that portrait of Nathan Hughes and his wife, which I later found was taken at Benensohn’s Yorkville studio in 1893 on the occasion of the couple’s 10th anniversary, is still the only photograph we know of that pictures one of those brave veterans.

We were pretty proud of our find at the museum, and made sure the photo was part of our upgraded Civil War exhibit back in 2003. Then in 2012, we found out just how special that portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield acquired another original print of the photo, which they said was the only known photograph of a veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry.

The folks in Springfield didn’t know much about Hughes, so we filled them in on his life and times here in Kendall County, and they helped us by providing copies of the records of the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War veterans’ version of today’s American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. From those records, we learned that Hughes was not only the only black member of the Yorkville GAR, but that he also held leadership positions in the organization. That he was a member of the generally all-white GAR was unusual, but it was extremely unusual for an African American veteran to hold any sort of office in the organization.

It may have helped his bonafides that he was not only a veteran, but that he saw combat and was twice wounded in action. But, in general, Kendall County was not as difficult a place for African-Americans to live as were other parts of the North, most definitely including Illinois. From the beginning, African-Americans were accepted in local schools and were considered parts of the communities in which they lived—Hughes’ grandchildren became the first African-American high school graduates in Kendall County. I’m not sure why that attitude prevailed, but it’s a fact that it did, at least until the 1920s when racist and religiously bigoted Ku Klux Klan mania swept the nation.

So it’s easy to appreciate Lonnie Bunch’s pleasant surprise when he saw that cabinet photo of Harriet Tubman for the first time. Myself, I keep hoping for another find like Nathan Hughes’ portrait, but I figure, deep down, one such in a lifetime is about all we’re allowed. And like the Tubman find, the Hughes photo is plenty for me.

 

Leave a comment

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

Growing up black and female in early 20th century Kendall County

The United States at the turn of the 20th century was not a particularly friendly place for many of those living here.

1894 Grove School

Whether in town or in the country, blacks and whites went to school together in 19th Century Kendall County. This is the student body of the Grove School, located on Grove Road south of Oswego, getting ready for a Mother Goose presentation in 1894. The Lucas kids are in the front row.

Down South, Jim Crow laws were fully in force against the region’s black population, severely restricting a vast number of civil activities we take for granted today. Everything from voting to drinking from a water fountain was governed by laws, both written and unwritten, that were not only enforced by the Southern legal system, but also by extralegal violence administered by forces including the Ku Klux Klan and unorganized mobs of white thugs.

Meanwhile, immigration was proceeding at a fairly rapid clip, and Catholic southern and eastern European and Irish immigrants faced considerable discrimination of their own from the mostly Protestant residents of the U.S., to the point that by the 1920s, the reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan was rapidly growing in national membership.

Starting in the 1870s and extending through the 1880s, Kendall County had become home to a surprisingly large population of black Americans, starting out with black farmers who settled in the rural NaAuSay-Kendall-Oswego township area of the county, followed by other black families who moved into the county’s towns and villages. By the 1900s, the number of black farming families had already begun to decline as they either moved elsewhere to farm or gave up farming and moved to town where they made more money working in factories and retail businesses or starting their own businesses.

1903 Smith, Ferdinand color

Ferdinand Smith, OHS, Class of 1903

Ferdinand Smith became the first black high school graduate in Kendall County history, graduating with the Oswego High School Class of 1903. His sisters, Mary and Frances, graduated in 1904 and 1907, respectively, becoming the first black females to graduate from high school in Kendall County.

At the time, black residents of small towns like Oswego undoubtedly faced the kind of casual discrimination so common during that era, but it’s clear from the way the Smith family was treated in local news accounts that they were also socially accepted in a way their cousins elsewhere in the country at the time were not. The mere fact that they attended and graduated from Oswego High School alongside their white peers testifies to that fact.

Their father, Robert Ridley Smith, was a Civil War veteran, while their mother was the daughter of Nathan Hughes, another black veteran of the Civil War.

The Smiths’ son, Ferdinand, apparently harbored a keen intellect and was socially adaptable to the point that he became a valued member of, first, the Oswego community, and then of the Aurora community.

His sisters, as black women, faced a number of hurdles that Ferdinand did not. But all three Smith siblings were given a solid familial grounding growing up in a small northern Illinois town, and then an even more solid educational grounding when their parents sent them to high school.

High school was definitely not the norm during that era. In fact, it was much more equivalent to a college education today. Although more than a dozen one-room schools of that era educated children who could have attended Oswego High School, not to mention all the children living in town who were also eligible, high school classes were relatively small. Ferdinand’s class had a remarkable 15 members—one of the largest high school classes in the school’s history up to that time. Mary’s 1904 class was more typical, with seven members, while Frances’s class in 1907 also numbered seven.

1906 Smith, Frances 1906

Frances Smith, OHS, Class of 1906

In the South of that era, strictly segregated education was the rule—and the law. But in Oswego, and other northern and western small towns across the country of that era, integration was the rule. Blacks and whites attended classes side by side, and like their white counterparts, black students were expected to write a graduation address and present it, just like their white classmates. The two presentations given by the Smith girls offer an insight into how they viewed their lives then and what they looked forward to as they left school for other endeavors.

The Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote of Mary Smith’s presentation: “Miss Mary A. Smith, the young colored lady of the class of ’04, had a strong paper on the ‘Labor Unions.’ She is a sister of Ferdinand Smith, the young man who graduated in the Oswego class of 1903 and who has the distinction of being the first colored graduate in the county. Miss Smith has a musical voice and talked in forceful logic on the methods of the unions and combines. It was one of the longest themes on the program and the speaker acquitted herself with honor.”

The topic of her paper offered a glimpse into the importance blacks gave to the power to organize for better wages and working conditions. During organized labor’s early history, most unions discriminated against blacks. Not until the 1930s did it finally occur to union members that prohibiting black membership provided a ready pool of strike breakers.

OHS Baseball team 1907

1906 Oswego High School Baseball Team. The photo was taken at the old Red Brick School. In their first game of the season, they beat West Aurora, 28-2.

In 1906, Mary Smith’s sister Frances spoke on a subject that illustrated the growing educational attainments of black Americans. According to the Kendall County Record’s account of the graduation ceremonies: “Chicago has been called the Negroes’ paradise; in Chicago the negro has become a successful politician, holding more well-paying political positions than in any other calling.’ With this opening shot, Miss Frances Smith, the successful colored member of the class began her oration on ‘Afro-American Progress.’ Miss Smith is the third one of her family to graduate from the Oswego high school. She is a bright student and her people and town friends are proud of her accomplishments. In the course of her oration, ‘Booker T. Washington,’ she said, ‘Could adjourn school tomorrow and go into the forest with his 2,000 students and in a short space of time erect a magic city with every line of life represented.’ It was all a masterly effort and Miss Smith won spontaneous applause from all.”

The Smith girls went on to found families of their own, as did their brother, and today Smith descendants not only have attended some of the nation’s premier educational institutions but teach there as well, have served as federal judges, and have made their ways in the world in a variety of professions. It’s an old-fashioned American success story we ought to all celebrate during this year’s Women’s History Month.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Aurora, Civil War, Education, family, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History

Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

Watching television when I was a youngster was always a treat, especially when “The Cisco Kid” or one of the other westerns was on Sunday afternoons.

But often just as entertaining were the commercials. CET, a Chicago retailer, sold televisions featuring a very deep-voiced fellow singing to the beat of a tom-tom about CET and television, always ending with the phone number, “MOhawk four, four one hundred.”

Rug cleaning companies also advertised a lot back in those days before ScotchGuard and other stain resistant carpeting systems. Magikist was a prominent television advertiser, as was Boushelle. Boushelle also had a catchy jingle (not as catchy as CET’s Mohawk Indian tom-tom, but close) sung by another very deep-voiced fellow that ended with him singing the company’s phone number, “HUdson three two-seven-hundred.”

I checked on-line the other day, and Magikist went out of business in 2001, although some of its signature signs with huge Magikist lips, soldiered on (I remember a big one on the Kennedy Expressway) for a few more years before being dismantled.

Boushelle, however, is still very much a going concern—with the same phone number no less, although you have to dial a 773 area code first. (All you kids out there can listen to a 1970s era Boushelle commercial on YouTube.)

Back in the day, companies like Boushelle would come right to your home, roll up the area rug, and take it off to a large factory-type building, where it would be cleaned. Gradually, though, wall-to-wall carpeting came into favor as prices dropped far enough so that just about everyone could afford it. And with the disappearance of area rugs went some of the earliest area rug cleaning companies.

Rugs and carpeting—and keeping them clean—have been major preoccupations here in the Fox Valley almost from the time the pioneers arrived. Especially at this time of year, spring cleaning was a major thing, as was fall house cleaning after the summer season had ended.

Log Cabin

Some of the earliest log cabins built by the pioneers had packed earthen floors, later replaced by puncheon floors.

The earliest pioneer cabins, at least some of them anyway, didn’t even have floors, much less carpeting. Often, a pioneer family’s first cabin was built with a dirt floor inside. The soil was compacted into a hard surface that the wife swept daily. Sometimes pioneer women who missed their carpets and rugs back East drew designs on the packed earthen the floor and used crushed chalk to create colorful designs.

Not until the family got settled were logs split in half and planed smooth to create puncheons that were laid on the packed earth, flat sides up, to create wooden floors.

As soon as the first pioneer millwrights arrived, their sawmills began turning out sawn lumber for floors. And remarkably soon after that, Chicago became a giant lumber clearinghouse for pine, fur, and other timber cut up in Wisconsin and Michigan and shipped down the lake to the fast-growing city. Wooden floors—and frame houses—quickly became cheap enough for everyone.

Rug technology for the masses stayed pretty simple throughout the 19th century. Rag rugs were very popular with newly settled areas because they were relatively simple to make and were inexpensive because their main ingredient was recycled cloth. During the winter, women would sit (sometimes in groups to provide a social respite from the daily grind) and tear rags into 1″ wide strips, sew them together end-to-end, and roll the strips into large balls. When enough of the right colors were stockpiled, they were taken to the local rug weaver.

Rug looms were simple, but rugged affairs. They only needed to be two-harness looms, the most simple kind, which used mechanical means to separate the strings that formed the warp so that the shuttle carrying the end of a rag strip could be fed through. After each pass of the shuttle, the beater was pulled back smartly packing the cloth strip tightly against the previous strip. The tighter the weaver made the rug, the longer it lasted. But this created a dilemma for the rug maker. A rug not packed as tightly was easier and quicker to make; but customers might not return if the resulting rug didn’t hold up well.

rug loom in use

A rug weaver using a loom very similar to the one my great-great-grandfather built for my great-great-grandmother and which is still a family keepsake.

My great-great-grandmother made rugs on a homemade loom in her home here on North Adams Street to supplement her family’s income. The loom, which we have today in our son’s basement, is of 3” thick oak timbers and is of a very old design—old even in the 1870s when this one was likely built by my great- great-grandfather. We saw one exactly like it in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum. That loom was said to have been more than 200 years old. Looms of roughly the same design date back many hundreds of years.

Rag rugs were generally woven in varying lengths and were usually about 30 inches in width. The great advantage of rag rugs was their flexibility—they could be woven in virtually any length and in any color. In those days, they weren’t only used for hall runners or throw rugs, either. To create room-sized rugs, several 30-inch wide rag rugs of the correct length were sewn together to create a single carpet wide enough for a full room.

rag rugs

Traditional rag rugs are still pretty useful things; we’ve got several in our house. The trick is finding ones that have been woven tightly enough that they will last.

Padding for those early carpets was, on the farm at least, often a layer of straw under the rug. Fresh straw was laid down in the fall under the rug to help insulate against the cold and offer a bit of cushion. Then in the spring, the rug was taken apart into its component strips and hauled outside to be cleaned. Cleaning was generally accomplished by beating the straw dust and other dirt out of the rug using a wooden-handled rug beater.

Gradually other kinds of carpeting became available. Oriental rugs were always available for the rich, but the Industrial Revolution made other kinds of carpeting available, too. Dark red “ingrain” carpeting was the first non-rag rug carpeting to become popular. We found threads from such a kind of carpeting wound around tiny carpet tacks driven into the original floor of the Little White School Museum when we were restoring the building. The carpeting was apparently used on the building’s two aisles when it was the Oswego Methodist Episcopal Church from 1850 to 1912.

Nowadays, we’ve got synthetic yarn carpeting in all kinds of shades and colors with many styles to choose from. And on television, the ads of industrial carpet cleaning companyes have been replaced by those of carpet sellers and the makers of home carpet cleaning machines. But, while Empire Today’s commercials do tend to stick in one’s mind, no one has commercials quite as memorable as Boushelle; at least I can’t remember a modern phone number as easily as Boushelle’s HUdson 3-2700.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Business, family, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Technology, Uncategorized, Women's History