Category Archives: Montgomery

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

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

Water-powered mills, once a familiar sight,  have nearly disappeared from the landscape

By the turn of the 20th Century, most of Kendall County’s old water-powered grist and sawmills had either completely disappeared or had switched to steam power.

That might seem puzzling given that the water powering all those mills was free, while steam engines require fuel of one kind or another that has to be purchased. As it turns out, though, while the water that powered mills might have been free, actually turning water into hydraulic power was pretty costly. Couple that with the economics of improved transportation and the economies of scale industrialization created, and it gets a lot easier to see why water-powered mills disappeared from the landscape.

Starting with the era of settlement in the 1830s, enterprising millwrights built sawmills and gristmills on almost every sizable stream in Kendall County. The Fox River had its share of mills of various kinds, of course, but so did local creeks including Blackberry, Morgan, Big Rock, and Waubonsie.

Dams were comprised of timber cribs staked to the stream bottom, filled with rocks and rubble, and then faced with timber. Illustration from Mill by David Macaulay, 1989.

According to the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, by 1846, Kendall County’s population totaled 5,600 people and “Their sawing and grinding was done by fourteen saw and grist mills.”

To create the waterpower to run their mills, millwrights first had to build dams. During that era, they were simple walls built across streams with no floodgates. The technology of the day called for putting together triangular timber frames that were than hauled into the stream and secured to the bottom with forged iron stakes. The open frames were then filled with rocks and rubble. The vertical upstream side of the dam was faced with planks to hold the rubble in place, while the slanted downstream side was also covered with planks to make a smooth surface for the water running over the dam.

1906 view of the Parker dam and gristmill taken from the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory on the east bank of the Fox River looking west. Note the damn’s plank facing. By this time, the mill had been long out of business and the dam was gradually being washed away. (Little White School Museum collection)

Millraces were dug around one or sometimes both ends of the dam and were generally faced with flagstone easily mined along the banks of the county’s streams. These millraces could be either simple, powering one mill or longer and more elaborate powering multiple mills. The long Montgomery millrace powered two mills, while the millrace at Yorkville powered Black’s paper mill as well as Yorkville’s first grain elevator via an overhead wire cable and pulley system.

1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map showing the wire cable and pulley system that powered the Walter & VanEmon’s Grain Elevator at Yorkville.

Here in Oswego, the dam was sort of anchored into the bedrock exposed on the two riverbanks. The mills were then built in such a way that their millraces ran through their basements, where the waterwheels, and later the turbines, were located. That had the advantage of eliminating the need for longer races that could be maintenance headaches. The gristmill on the west bank was built first, followed by the sawmill on the east bank. A furniture factory was eventually added to the sawmill. A small chest of drawers manufactured there is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The Parker Gristmill (far bank of the Fox River) and the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory (right) were located at opposite ends of the Oswego dam. Both ends of the dam were securely anchored in the bedrock on the banks of the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

The fast millrace water powered the millwheels. Because of our generally flat topography, many of our early mills used horizontal tub wheels although vertical undershot wheels that we generally think millwheels ought to look like were not uncommon, either. One county mill used an undershot wheel, powering equipment using water flowing under and not over it. Huge at 24-feet in diameter, the sawmill it powered was located on the Fox River at Millbrook.

The 1838 Federal survey map of Fox Township illustrates Jackson’s Mill at modern Millington nearly on the border with LaSalle County. The mill boasted a 24-foot undershot water wheel that powered both sawmill and gristmill equipment.

As soon as possible, those early tub and undershot wheels were replaced by turbines imported from back East. A later turbine wheel from Gray’s Mill is on exhibit near the riverbank in the park just upstream from the Mill Street Bridge in Montgomery.

Early on, sawmills were as, if not more important, than gristmills. They used vertical steel sawblades to cut local timber into lumber for buildings and fences. In the county’s oldest buildings the evidence of their vertical saw cuts are still clearly visible, looking much different than the spiral saw marks made by later circular sawblades.

The era of local sawmilling ended surprisingly soon as cheaper lumber began to flow into Chicago aboard sailing ships from Michigan and Wisconsin. The fate of Jackson’s Millbrook sawmill mentioned above was typical, as Hicks reported in 1877: “But the gang saws of Michigan and Wisconsin at last outstripped it, and left the aged frame to bleach in the sun until a year ago, when the spring freshet bore it away on its bosom to rest in a watery grave.”

Brownell Wing’s huge three-story limestone Millhurst gristmill is the only former water-powered mill still standing in Kendall County. Built in 1870, the mill never opened after the new Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road bypassed it by a mile to the southeast. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hicks’ comment above also points out one of the other downsides of the county’s water-powered mills—the cost of maintaining them in the face of annual floods, called freshets back in those days. Dams were damaged every year by the annual spring floods, and were sometimes–along with their adjacent mills–entirely destroyed by rampaging ice floes and high water during breakup.

As a result the dams also required constant maintenance. Those timber frames submerged in water tended to rot away and the upstream and downstream plank coverings had to be monitored continually, making for a lot of labor needed to make use of that “free” water. Couple that with the vagaries of water flow at various times of the year, and it becomes clear water power may not be such a hot power source after all. As the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on Aug. 21, 1879: “The water in the river is so low that the paper mill had to shut down Tuesday.”

The viability of local mills remained certain through the 1870s. After that two things tended to lead to their disappearance. First was the advent of affordable steam engines. When a steam engine could be installed and run the establishment with no need to maintain a dam, complicated turbines, or worry about low water levels, it made economic sense to switch power sources.

Looking north into Kane County on the Fox River from Bereman’s Curve on the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) towards the covered Montgomery Bridge and Gray’s Mill. The venerable old local landmark is one of the few former water-powered mills still standing along the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, the old mills closed down to be replaced by steam-powered mills in more convenient locations, which, in turn, were then made obsolete by the extension of rail lines through the county that carried farmers’ crops and livestock away and brought back manufactured materials, from wheat flour to sawn lumber, at prices no small local sawmill or gristmill could beat or even meet.

Photo probably taken about 1927 by Irvin Haines of the Parker Grist Mill, probably taken as he dismantled the mill provide timbers and other materials to rebuild the old Seely stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge into Turtle Rock Inn for Mr. and Mrs. James Curry. The Currys moved into Turtle Rock in November 1928. (Little White School Museum collection)

While some of the old mill buildings remained—especially ones like Gray’s Mill just north of the Kendall County line in Montgomery or Wing’s Mill In Kendall County’s Fox Township at Millhurst built of native limestone—others were washed away by floods, burned down, or were dismantled and their timbers reused for other purposes. The dams that provided their waterpower were gradually erased by annual spring floods and the breakup of ice in the spring. A few of the dams were maintained by companies that harvested ice from their millponds but the increasing pollution of the Fox River and the development of ice manufacturing equipment eliminated that use as well by the first decade of the 20th Century.

At low water on the Fox River, those with sharp eyes can often see some of the remaining timber frame members of the old mill dams–direct and tangible links to the era of pioneer millwrights and millers. The ones above, still staked to the river bottom, are the remains of the old Parker Dam at Oswego I photographed back in 2018.

Today, while some of those old dam and mill sites have been totally erased from the landscape, here and there their remains can still be seen if a person knows what they’re looking at—I can see the remains of a dam and the mills that stood at either end from my office window here in Oswego, for instance. And the remains of Montgomery’s long millrace are still visible as a swale extending along the riverbank above the Montgomery Bridge.

But for the most part it’s one more once-important Fox Valley business era that’s almost totally disappeared from our collective memory.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Technology

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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Filed under entertainment, family, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, religion, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized, Women's History

Hard-won environmental gains owe a big debt to a local environmentalist

When I was a youngster, the old-timers used to regale us with stories about how clear and pure the Fox River was when they were young. Like many really good stories of days gone by, they weren’t true.

The Native People who arrived along the banks of the Fox River some 10,000 years ago were the first to modify the stream. The weirs and other structures they used to harvest the river’s fish gradually attracted river debris, filled in, and created or enlarged islands and otherwise changing the valley’s topography.

But it was the white settlers who emigrated to the Fox Valley beginning in the late 1820s who really modified the river in major ways. And quickly, too. Those pioneer farms began the erosion of the Fox Valley’s topsoil, and wetland drainage to create more cropland had a major impact on the river’s water levels.

The biggest changes to the river, however, were the numerous dams that began dotting the stream from its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa north all the way above the Wisconsin state line. The Fox Valley’s millwrights built low dams to power sawmills and gristmills to serve the valley’s growing population. The dams, built without floodgates that would have maintained an undercurrent to scour the river bottom, created still ponds that allowed the silt eroded from all those farms that rain washed into the stream to gradually settle out.

The machinery at the Parker Gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River just above Oswego was powered by one of the river’s many dams. This photo was probably taken around the turn of the 20th Century by local photographer Irvin Haines. (Little White School Museum collection)

The dams also barred fish from ascending the river to spawn, as well as ruining some prime spawning areas by covering them with silt. The dams, in effect, created short stretches of river habitat that had a serious impact on the river’s original vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

From the mid-19th Century on, the Fox River had become an economic engine for the entire valley. First, the mills provided economic boosts for their surrounding communities. Then, after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad was built linking Ottawa at the river’s mouth with towns as far north as Geneva, the river’s water itself, in the form of ice, could be marketed. Large ice harvesting operations were begun above every dam on the river. The ice warehoused during the annual winter harvests was shipped out for use in homes to keep food fresh in ice boxes and commercially to cool the beef and pork being shipped east from Chicago’s slaughterhouses in newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.

Clamshells recovered near the old Rehbehn Brothers Button Factory in Yorkville with button blanks drilled out. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fish were commercially harvested from the river, as were the freshwater mussels and clams that covered the riverbed. Harvested clam shells were sold to button factories—one was located in Yorkville for a few years—where special drills punched out mother-of-pearl button blanks in various sizes that were turned into finished buttons by further processing. In amongst the millions of clams harvested an occasional pearl of great price was discovered.

Then as the years passed and industrialization in the Fox Valley increased, the river came under new, additional stresses. City storm sewer systems directed stormwater directly into the river, along with significant debris (including manure from the era’s thousands of urban horses), leading to drastic swings in the river’s water quality and levels. Municipal sewer systems, which were admirable from a public health standpoint, piped sewage directly into the river. The industries up and down the river did the same, sending their waste downstream—out of sight out of mind, the policy seemed to be.

Some of that industrial waste was even more harmful to humans as well as the fish and other animals who lived in the river than the growing volume of human and animal waste flowing into the stream.

By the 1880s, some people began realizing that some of the river’s uses were, to say the least, incompatible with its ecological health—all those dams, for instance. The low dams in the river that allowed silt build-up behind them were also blockades to spawning fish. Remedies were possible, of course, at least to the migration of fish. Those were called fishways, structures added to dams that would (at least theoretically) allow fish to bypass the dams during annual spawning runs.

Irvin Haines sits atop what might be the wreckage of the fishway in the Parker Dam just above Oswego around 1903. Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice storage houses loom in the background. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dam owners, of course, didn’t want to spend the money on fishways. That led the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation requiring them.

In November 1882, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville: “Notice has been served on the owners of all dams on Fox river asking them to put in fishways, and the owners refuse. The State Fish Commissioners will begin suits in the courts, which the mill men will contest to test the constitutionality of the law. The dam-owners have formed a league and employed Hopkins & Aldrich as their attorneys.”

In January 1883, the Aurora Beacon noted: “We have neglected to mention that in the suit commenced by the Fish Commissioners against Messrs. Hord, Broadhead & Co., owners of the Montgomery Dam, the case was regularly placed before justice Baldwin, when the defendants allowed a judgment to be taken. From this they appealed to the Circuit Court–and from thence they say they will pursue it through the higher courts. A prominent point they propose to make is the indefiniteness of the law, which makes no provision as to what shall constitute a fishway, or how it shall be constructed.”

The dam owners did indeed continue to protest, fighting the law in the courts, but consistently lost and fishways were gradually installed in all the dams, though in practice they proved of little value.

But even if fishways were provided, the polluted character of the river militated against the Fox’s wildlife. On Sept. 18, 1890 the Record noted: “The fish of Fox and other small rivers must soon be exterminated if factories and cities continue to use the streams for sewers. The glucose factories up the river are poisoning the fish by wholesale, and the fish in Vermillion river at Streator are killed by the water pumped from coal mines and refuse from paper mills.”

Conditions only worsened with the dawn of the 20th Century. The Feb. 9, 1916 Record reported: “The [Illinois Rivers and Lakes] commission has surveyed the Fox river and discovered it to be ‘a dirty, evil smelling waterway’ from which the fish have been killed off. The reason is that its flow is not sufficient in the summer months to purify the sewage dumped in it.”

Jim Phillips speaks during a program presented during Jolliet-Marquette II Expedition 1973. The group reenacted Father Jacques Marquette and geographer Louis Jolliet’s 1673 expedition from the Straits of Mackinac to the Arkansas River and back. (Little White School Museum collection)

More laws were passed, but enforcement was either lax or nonexistent. And so that day in the late 1960s when Kendall County resident Jim Phillips was taking a walk and found dead baby ducks in a small stream near his house made him decide to do something to try to change the status quo. He assumed the alter ego of “The Fox” and using a combination of audacity and humor he began plaguing polluters in a series of guerilla raids designed to shine the harsh light of publicity and ridicule on them.

His efforts, small at first, snowballed. Pollution became big news. His efforts were helped by what he termed his “Kindred Spirits,” and copycats around the nation began to wage their own campaigns against air and water pollution.

Sympathetic officials at the national, state, and local levels listened and, amazingly, acted. It was an era when “conservative” and “conservation” were not enemies, and both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. acted in a bipartisan ecological campaign to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as similar agencies at the state and local levels all designed to not just stop pollution, but to reverse it and save the nation’s air and water.

The result? Today, the Fox, that “dirty, evil smelling waterway” of a century ago, is now a destination for anglers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers, and folks who just like enjoying nature. Gamefish and freshwater mussels and clams are again plentiful and the Fox is once again an economic engine for the towns dotting its banks.

Private citizens funded this permanent memorial to Jim “The Fox” Phillips overlooking the Fox River at Violet Patch Park, Ill. Route 25, Oswego. Informational signs explain how the environmental crusader helped save the Fox River. The graphic on the rock is how Phillips signed his anti-pollution exploits. (Little White School Museum collection)

In a time when national environmental policy is cause for great concern, it’s worth thinking about how far we’ve come and why it’s so important we continue to insist on clean air and water.

And as part of that process, you might want to stop by the Little White School Museum at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego and visit their latest special exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” which will be open now through August. The exhibit was mounted by undergraduate students in the Exhibit Design class of Aurora University’s Museum Studies Program. Museum hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but like all local history museums, they welcome donations. For more information on the exhibit, call the museum at 630-554-2999, or visit their website, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

For more information on Jim Phillips, check out the new book by Pauline Marie Gambill, The Fox Feats and Shark Tales of Pollution Fighter James F. Phillips and Animal Rights Warrior Steven O. Hindi, just published last year and available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

Everyone thought these local landmarks would be around forever, but they’ve completely disappeared…

One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.

That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.

For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.

Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.

The Parker Mills about 1900 in a photo taken by Irvin Haines. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the foreground on the east bank of the Fox River. The gristmill is on the west bank with the miller’s house behind it and to the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.

Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.

Turbines like this one on display in Montgomery ran most of the mills on the Fox River.

The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.

Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.

Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.

A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice houses above the Parker Mill dam at Oswego. The operation produced hundreds of rail cars of ice annually. (Little White School Museum collection)

What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.

Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.

There is, however, a trace of another once-thriving business, and that’s the depot, sidings, and other facilities once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Fox River Branch Line at Oswego.

The Oswego Stockyards. The Waubonsie Creek bridge on Adams Street is visible upper center, and the old feed mill, later a home on the north side of the creek is visible just to the right–upstream–from the bridge. (Little White School Museum collection)

The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.

Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.

Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.

The Fox River Butter Company’s creamery located on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society photo)

The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”

McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.

Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.

The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.

A southbound interurban trolley crosses the 300-foot trestle taking it over the CB&Q tracks in Oswego around 1910. (Little White School Museum collection)

The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.

The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.

Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

Fiery 1943 Oswego train wreck produced a young heroine

What does it take to make a hero? What, in fact, does that word really mean?

We tend to throw “hero” around a lot these days. Sports stars in each generation, from Babe Ruth to Walter Payton to Michael Jordan are described as heroes. Men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were described as heroes. The hostages held in Iran back in the ’80s were called heroes.

But sports heroism consists mostly of being born with physical gifts and then using them to earn lots of money performing in front of sports fans. Not much actual heroism there. The men and women serving in the military were doing their jobs—tough jobs—and doing them very well. Those who left family and friends (including female soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who left spouses and children including newborn babies, and their homes) certainly verged on heroism if they didn’t exactly achieve it. The diplomats imprisoned by the Iranians 40+ years ago weren’t precisely heroes, although they acted, for the most part, heroically.

Local heroes are hard to come by, too. Perhaps that’s because we live in such a mundane community that there is little need for heroism here in northern Illinois. But we’ve had a few. Oswego native Slade Cutter was a bonafide World War II hero. Teenager Robinson B. Murphy was a legitimate hero, earning the Medal of Honor during the Civil War. And teacher Anna Brown achieved hero status in 1877 by saving one of her students from being run over by a train at the expense of losing part of a foot, crippling her for the rest of her life.

Several years ago, while going through some newspaper clippings donated to the Little White School Museum in Oswego, I came across another real life local hero. Just a year older than young Robinson B. Murphy, she nonetheless selflessly endangered her own life to save others.

Helen Gilmour was just 16 years old on that Tuesday afternoon in April 1943 when she stood waiting for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s gas-electric motor car—locals all called it the Dinky—to pull into the Oswego depot down at Jackson and South Adams streets.

The country was in the midst of World War II. Gilmour, a student at Oswego High School, was waiting at the Oswego depot to take the Dinky to Aurora to help her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Gilmour of Wheatland Township, celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

But although it had been scheduled to arrive at 4:05 p.m., the car was running an hour and a half late due to engine trouble at Streator.

Following the end of regular interurban trolley service in the late 1920s, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad began using the Dinky, which looked like a large trolley car, to provide daily passenger service from Streator to Aurora. The 58-mile Fox River Branch Line linked Streator with Aurora via Ottawa, Millington, Yorkville, Oswego, and Montgomery. The service was convenient and economical, offering residents of all those communities the public transportation option to commute to Aurora or Ottawa for jobs, school, and recreation in an era when two-car families were rare.

Plan of the CB&Q Railroad’s gas-electric passenger cars that ran on the Fox River Branch line through Oswego from the 1920s through 1952.

The Dinky, formally identified as Car 9850, was built in 1928 and was powered by a 275-horsepower gasoline engine that turned an electric generator that, in turn, powered the electric motors that turned the wheels.

The blocky car—no streamlined beauty—was painted a bright orange red, was nearly 78 feet long, and was divided into an engine and control compartment, a Railway Post Office compartment, a baggage compartment, and a passenger compartment seating 32 people.

One of the CB&Q’s gas-electric cars at the Aurora Depot on South Broadway in 1942. (Photo by H.W. Barber)

On that relatively warm April afternoon, the Dinky finally arrived in Oswego about 5:30 p.m. and the waiting passengers, including Helen Gilmour and one of her OHS schoolmates, 17 year-old Harold Alderman, hurried aboard. Motorman F.E. Bishop of Galesburg gunned the noisy engine and the car accelerated, heading north up the grade towards Montgomery. As the car clattered across the Waubonsie Creek trestle near downtown Oswego, mail clerk Paul Chrysler of Elmhurst and Chicago Assistant Chief Clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service sorted mail and baggage man Chalmers O. Kerchner of Streator prepared for the short run to Aurora. Conductor P.H. Follard kept track of the occupants of the passenger compartment in the car’s rear.

The Dinky sounded the distinctive “Blat!” of its horn at the North Street, North Adams, and Second Street crossings as it clattered up the gentle grade and across the Route 25 viaduct, laboring to reach 20 mph.

A steam shovel works in the gravel mine between Oswego and Yorkville in 1913 in this photograph from the Stephens-Adamson Manufacturing Company’s May 1913 “The Labor-Saver” newsletter. The mining operation used a variety of Stephens-Adamson equipment manufactured at the company’s Aurora plant.

Meanwhile, a CB&Q steam engine and caboose, with engineer Leo Kasid at the throttle, had started from Montgomery south on that same Fox River line to pick up a string of loaded hopper cars at the gravel pits south of Oswego. Fireman R.L. Parker stoked the engine’s boiler with coal as brakemen G.P. Schwartz and E.L. Shields and conductor D.R. Clark settled in the caboose for the short ride down the line to the gravel pit siding. Crossing the Fox River where Boulder Hill would one day be developed, the short train picked up speed as it steamed down the slight grade and around the gentle curve leading to Oswego.

It all seemed routine, but, as the Interstate Commerce Commission report on the accident noted about that stretch of track: “…the view of an engine approaching from the opposite direction is restricted to a distance of 753 feet, because of the cut and the track curvature.”

In addition, Kasid had not read the stack of dispatches he’d picked up on the way south, instead reading them as the train steamed down the grades. Possibly distracted by reading the dispatches, Kasid, who assumed the Dinky had passed that stretch of tracks an hour and a half earlier, didn’t see the Dinky coming towards him around the blind curve.

A Beacon-News photographer captured this image as rescuers removed the charred bodies of the motorman and the Railway Post Office workers from the wreck of the Dinky.

As a result, just after 5:30 p.m., roughly in back of today’s Oswegoland Civic Center, the steam engine crashed full speed into the Dinky, smashing five feet into the lighter weight car, pushing it 93 feet back down the track before the engine could be stopped.

Minnesota Falk, who lived about 300 yards from the crash site, told a reporter she heard the smash-up in her house and given the on-going war, feared the worst: “I heard the crash and thought it was the Nazis bombing the tracks,” she said.

A wider view of the wreck from a photograph in the collections of the Little White School Museum, Oswego, shows that a crowd of local residents gathered to see the wreck.

Dinky motorman Bishop along with baggage man Kerchner and the two post office employees, all riding in the front of the car, were killed almost instantly.

In addition, the Dinky’s fuel tank ruptured and then the fumes exploded, spraying 160 gallons of burning gasoline in all directions, engulfing the front half of the car in flames. Burning gasoline flowed downhill back towards the passenger compartment from the shattered fuel tank, setting everything in its path ablaze.

As the dazed passengers sat in danger of being incinerated, young Helen Gilmour, despite the ankle sprain she sustained in the collision, jumped up and began shepherding the traumatized survivors out of the blazing car.

“I just remembered what I had learned in first aid,” she later told a local newspaper. “We were taught not to get excited, so I didn’t; but it was pretty bad. The injured were lying all over the field. It looked just like a battlefield.”

Her schoolmate, Harold Alderman, critically injured, was rushed to St. Charles Hospital in Aurora, where he later died. A number of other passengers were also seriously injured, including the entire crew of the steam train.

The subsequent Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigation found the freight train, because the Dinky was running more than an hour late, was supposed to have waited at Montgomery until the Dinky passed. But faults in the communication system resulted in the failure to inform the locomotive’s crew of the on-coming passenger car. In fact, the steam engine crew, busy reading their stack of orders, never even saw the Dinky before the collision. Why the Dinky’s engineer both failed to see the approaching train and apply his brakes was never adequately explained.

The Dinky leaves the Oswego depot, heading southbound to Yorkville in this 1942 snapshot taken by the Cutter family, now in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

In its accident report, the ICC strongly recommended that all gasoline electric passenger cars be transitioned to diesel engines, which use less explosive fuel. Further, since the surviving train crew said they’d never have proceeded had block signals been installed and working on the Fox River Branch line, the report recommended the railroad install the signals along the entire Aurora to Streator line.

Helen Gilmour went on to graduate from Oswego High in 1945. The community mourned young Alderman’s death. And while much of the mail Chrysler and Gall were sorting at their time of their death was incinerated, some of the letters were saved, arriving at their destinations charred and streaked with soot, causing not a little consternation among local military personnel serving overseas.

The demolished Dinky was replaced, despite the ICC’s warning, by another gas-electric car that provided service until the CB&Q discontinued it, with the last scheduled passenger car on the Aurora to Streator branch finishing its run on Feb. 2, 1952.

That marked not only the end of the Dinky, but also the end of the passenger train era on the Fox River Branch Line that had begun in 1870. It was also the final reminder of the deadly, fiery crash late on that April afternoon in 1943.

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Covid and politics respite: Oswego as a mining and quarrying town

With all the turmoil driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the nation’s political situation, let’s get our minds off today’s troubles by taking a microhistorical dive into Oswego’s past life as a quarrying and mining center.

Quarrying? Mining? Those who give our small corner of the Fox Valley’s geology any thought at all probably figure the gently rolling landscape left after the last glaciers retreated has always been primarily used by farmers, first Native People and then the White settlers that displaced them.

But while it hasn’t gotten as much attention as farming, mining has been a local pursuit since prehistoric times.

A few hundred million years ago, Oswego was at the bottom of a shallow sea. Over the eons, tiny marine creatures died and drifted to the bottom where their shells built up into substantial layers of limestone.

The Native People who arrived following the retreating glaciers found they could mine the limestone bluffs along Waubonsie Creek behind the modern Oswego Public Library for nodules of chert that could be easily fashioned into razor-sharp knives, scrapers, drills, and points for arrows and spears. And, in fact, back in the 1980s when we were permitted to do a little rescue archaeology, we found a chert-knapping workshop on the bluff overlooking the creek not far upstream from those chert veins. We retrieved somewhere around 50 pounds of chips (a tiny fraction of the total) those ancient workmen left behind as they fashioned their tools and weapons—and those chips were still razor-sharp.

When White settlers arrived in the 1830s, they soon discovered the limestone that underlays the Oswego area was relatively easy to access, especially along the creek where those ancient people had mined chert. And they didn’t waste much time in mining that limestone for a number of purposes.

Local quarries were established in several areas, including along the banks of the creek behind what is now the Oswego Public Library where those chert mines had been located. Unlike the Native Americans who mined chert veins layering the limestone, the settlers quarried the limestone itself for building materials. Evidence of these early quarrying operations is still visible today if you look hard enough.

A poor quality but interesting photograph taken from the Route 25 bridge looking downstream along Waubonsie Creek sometime during the first quarter of the 20th Century shows spoil heaps from the old Loucks Quarry. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Hopkins brothers established a limestone quarry along the creek early in the village’s history. Then in 1871, another quarry was opened a bit farther upstream. As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 5 of that year, “Ed. Richards and Chas. Mann have opened a quarry up the Wauponsie [sic] on the land of Mr. Loucks from which they are taking very nice building stone.”

Eventually, Loucks took over the quarry’s operation, as the Feb. 10, 1876 Record reported: “Walter Loucks Esq., one of Oswego’s oldest citizens, has the well-known stone quarry on the Wauponsie [sic] creek open for business again, and parties in want of good stone for building purposes or good sharp sand for mortar or cement should call at the Wauponsie quarry. Mr. Loucks expects to be able to furnish cut stone for all purposes in a few months.”

By June that year, the Record reported Loucks’ quarry was in full operation: “When you want stone for foundation or cellar walls, for well or cistern, you can get a first class article at Walter Loucks’ stone quarry at Oswego.”

The Loucks lime kiln on Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Record noted about the Loucks quarry, in addition to using limestone as a building material, early Oswego residents also baked the limestone in kilns to produce quicklime, which, in turn was mixed with sand to create lime mortar for stone and brick construction. There was once at least one lime kiln along the banks of Waubonsie Creek just upstream from the Ill. Route 25 bridge, probably operated by Loucks in conjunction with his cut limestone and sand quarrying operation.

Over on the west side of the Fox River a mile north of Oswego, the Wormley Quarry, operated by Civil War veteran George D. Wormley, produced both cut limestone and flagstone. The Wormleys used cut stone from their quarry to build two of their farmhouses adjacent to the quarry. In addition, large quantities of flagstone were mined from the Wormley quarry, some of it likely used as foundation stones for the grist and sawmills built by Nathaniel Rising at the Fox River dam just north of Oswego.

George Wormley built this elegant Second Empire house out of limestone quarried just down the hill from the house–which still stands along Ill. Route 31 north of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Flagstone’s name derives from Middle English flagge, meaning turf, or maybe from the Old Norse flaga meaning slab or chip—opinions appear to vary. Flagstone occurs in layers of varying thickness and is ideal for sidewalks and paving.

The Wormley quarry continued on for many years. In July 1881, the Kendall County Record ran an ad from George Wormley touting the quality of stone from his quarry: “Stone! Stone!” the advertisement announced. In the advertisement, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”

Girls at the YWCA’s Camp Quarryledge enjoy swimming in George Wormley’s old limestone quarry in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

After its life as a stone quarry, the Wormley quarry property was sold to the YWCA for use as a summer camp and named Camp Quarryledge. Since those days, the parcel has had numerous owners but the old quarry, namesake of the camp, still exists, owned nowadays by the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints.

The Hopkins Quarry, operated by Oswego farmer Elijah Hopkins, was situated on Wolf’s Crossing Road, just west of Oswego. Hopkins and his family emigrated to Oswego from Ohio in 1857, settling just east of the village on what was sometimes called the Old Naperville Road, which we call today Wolf’s Crossing Road.

Hopkins found the topsoil on his land was only about two feet deep atop the underlying limestone, providing easy access by the Hopkins family quarrymen. Hopkins eventually opened quarries on both sides of the road. Like the Wormley and Loucks quarries, Hopkins’ quarries produced both good quality building limestone and flagstone. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 8, 1876, “Joseph Failing has laid down a very nice and substantial flagstone sidewalk in front of his residence. The stone came from the Hopkins quarry.”

The Hopkins quarries on both sides of Wolf’s Crossing Road a short distance east of the intersection of Ill. Route 71 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego in a view from Google Earth. The quarries still exist, although they’re now often hidden from the road by trees and bushes. The Herren family built a house (to the right of the lower quarry) to take advantage of the view.

Today, the former quarries are serene lakes and wildlife sanctuaryies amidst the area’s hustle and bustle where evidence of mining is still clearly visible on the quarry walls.

Those glaciers didn’t only uncover and leave behind limestone, either. Glacial till in the form of gravel deposits underlay much of the Fox River Valley, and that includes the Oswego area.

In 1885, Kendall County’s Grand Army of the Republic posts held their sumer picnic at Cowdrey’s Woods. (Little White School Museum collection)

South of Oswego along the river the Cowdrey family farmed along with their neighbors, the Leighs and Parkhursts and Herrens. In the 1870s, the scenic wooded parcels of the Cowdrey farm became favored destinations of picnickers from Oswego and Yorkville. During the hot summers of the era, refugees from nearby cities came to the area to camp, some spending a month or more at Cowdrey’s Woods.

As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Aug. 7, 1889, “A number from the cities of this region are now encamped in the Cowdrey park down the river.”

During that era, the railroads in the U.S. were undergoing explosive growth and every mile of rails required tons of gravel for the roadbed, including fill for depressions along the right-of-way. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad knew there were extensive gravel beds underlaying Cowdrey’s farm (the railroad’s Fox River Branch was built right through the gravel beds), as well as the farms along the river all the way nearly to Oswego. And when the company’s other gravel beds began playing out, they started looking at the area along their Fox River Branch south of Oswego for a replacement.

In 1892, the CB&Q’s huge gravel mining operation at Montgomery had played out, and the company was ready to convert the property into a livestock yard to allow sheep being shipped to the Chicago market to rest and feed before being sent on to the Chicago Stockyards. As the Record reported on July 27, 1892: “These extensive gravel beds have been nearly exhausted and will not be worked any longer than another year at most. The big excavation made there will be leveled off, properly drained and converted into sheep yards. The engineering work has already been completed and work of building will commence at once. Sheep that are shipped over the Chicago Burlington & Quincy and the Chicago Burlington & Northern lines will be unloaded at Montgomery and there prepared for the market. They will then be shipped to Chicago in car load lots or several cars at a time as wanted.”

This 1944 U.S. Geological Survey map Shows the rail sidings and interior network that served the gravel mining operation south of Oswego.

In April 1893, the Record reported that George Cowdrey was negotiation with “Chicago parties” on selling his property for a gravel mine. And by August, the deal was done. On Oct. 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted: “Operations in the gravel works down at Cowdrey’s have been commenced.”

The Elms was located on Van Emmon Road at the bend just before the junction with Route 71. According to Elmer Dickson in February 2010: “The Elms was a resort. You could board there for a weekend, week or what ever. People would come out from the Chicago area to picnic, play games on the grounds, swim, fish and boat in the Fox River, etc. Rumor has it that it was a speakeasy during prohibition.”

The far south end of Cowdrey’s land didn’t appeal to the gravel interests as much, and that remained a popular area for campers. Bought by Chicago parties and named “The Elms,” the place drew city folks for years. And under it’s current name of “Hide-A-Way Lakes,” it still does.

The effects of the financial Panic of 1893 temporarily closed the gravel mines, but as the economy got moving once again, gravel mining south of Oswego accelerated, too. Companies under various names—the Fox River Gravel Company, the Conkey Gravel Company, Chicago Sand and Gravel, and the CB&Q itself—operated portions of the pits up into the 1950s leaving behind a landscape of narrow lakes on land adjacent to the Fox River.

The mining operation was huge, and included its own rail sidings and huge processing plants along with its own small railroad that, in those pre-diesel hauler days, carried the gravel from the huge steam shovels and draglines to the processing plant on the site. From there, the Burlington’s rail cars carried it to where the railroad needed it. The pits closed during the Great Depression, but reopened during World War II and then continued on until about 1950 when the operation closed for good.

Steam dragline at the H.B. Conkey Sand & Gravel Company pit between Oswego and Yorkville loading gravel into the pit’s cars before being hauled to the crushers and sorted into grades. Note the pit’s narrow-gauge steam locomotive at left. (Little White School Museum collection)

The remaining lakes and spoil heaps from the old gravel mining operations remained, and provided some scenic areas for private homes and for organizations such as the Barber-Greene Hunting and Fishing Club. The State of Illinois bought a large parcel in the early 1950s when proposals were afoot to build a series of dams up and down the Fox River to make it navigable from the Chain of Lakes to Ottawa.

Part of the parcel was leased as a municipal dump for residents of Oswego and Oswego Township for several years. Then in the summer of 1963, the 160-acre parcel that included the dump was deeded over to the Oswego Park District (later renamed the Oswegoland Park District). Much to its future regret, the park district allowed dumping on the site to continue for a few years before closing the dump with the aim of turning the parcel into a natural area they named Saw Wee Kee Park.

Residents who lived on land adjacent to the park objected when the park district announced some modest development plans and a series of lawsuits was initiated against the park district alleging there was considerable contamination by hazardous materials on the old dump site. Years of litigation followed with the park district in the end forced to spend thousands of dollars to mitigate the contamination.

Today, Saw Wee Kee is one of the park district’s natural area gems, with a canoe launch on the river, hiking trails, and other facilities that mask the area’s one-time role as a vital cog in the expansion of the nation’s rail transportation network. It’s also a reminder of the era in which our little corner of the Fox River Valley not only produced agricultural products, but also turned out vital building materials that helped grow the community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maintaining an eclectic palate makes life more interesting

Anyone who’s ever read this blog knows that I enjoy food. And one of the initially alarming things about this stupid pandemic we’re suffering through were rumors and reports about the disruptions in the chain of food deliveries from growers to grocery stores. Fortunately, those dark days seem to have gradually passed by, though it’s not out of the question that they might return.

When we lived out on the farm, the food chain was pretty short. That was in the early 1950s, so we had indoor running water and a flush toilet along with electricity and a party line telephone. But in many ways, we were still living as farmers had from the end of World War I through the Great Depression and World War II.

Our Wheatland Township farm, about 1950.

My dad’s job was to farm. He grew the crops, raised the livestock—pigs and feeder cattle—milked the cow (when we had one), repaired machinery and our car and truck, and cut my hair. My mom was responsible for the house, keeping it clean and tidy, cooking the meals, raising chickens (which, with the eggs they produced, were traded for groceries in town), and maintaining the garden and our small orchard.

Every Saturday, my mom, my two older sisters, and I would head to town, where we’d drop my sisters off at their piano lessons, while mom and I would drive down the street to the grocery store. There, mom would deliver one or two crates of eggs and sometimes freshly dressed chickens ready to be sold. They liked my mom’s eggs because they were always clean and fresh with no cracked shells. She’d get a receipt for them and then we’d shop for groceries, mostly staples, the bill for which was reduced by the amount she’d earned in credit for from the eggs and chickens.

Michaels Brother Grocery Store in Montgomery where my mother traded eggs for staples. Although this photo was taken around 1900, it looked much the same 50 years later. (From The History of Montgomery, Illinois in Words and Pictures)

Some of those groceries were for the school lunches for my sisters and me, like peanut butter, bologna, and liver sausage, and, depending on the season, fruit.

We were lucky growing up in the 1940s and 1950s because by then there was sufficient money for food. My mother recalled when she went to her rural neighborhood one-room school that some of the kids were so poor their school lunch sandwiches were bread and lard.

By the early 1950s when I started school, our lunches consisted of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, some kind of fruit, and dessert—my family was big on dessert. I don’t recall eating salty things like potato chips, but I suppose we might have.

My grandmother happily holding up a hog’s head as she and her father-in-law make up a batch of head cheese on Hinman Street in Aurora about 1910.

Living on a farm during that era meant you got a lot of food choices that my town cousins and friends didn’t. Early on I developed a taste for sandwiches made with the pickled heart and pickled tongue my grandmother made after my family did their annual beef butchering. And then there was head cheese, a product whose creation I won’t go into detail about here, although I will note there’s a surprising amount of edible meat on a hog’s head. My grandmother had a frequent hankering for headcheese, as did her son-in-law, my father, although by the time I came along we ate the store-boughten stuff (as grandma put it), the days of using everything but the squeal on the butchered hog having passed on into history. Anyway, I still love the stuff.

Bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches seemed to predominate at lunch time during those early school years, but I always favored an eclectic mix that didn’t much interest my classmates when sandwich trades were in the wind.

Liver sausage—also called liverwurst and Braunschweiger (technically, Braunschweiger is the smoked variety of liver sausage) by some of my German friends and relatives—was one of my favorites. My buddy Glenn’s dad used to frequently remark, “Of all the things I like the best, I like liver wurst.” But I really liked liver sausage from the time I was a little kid, along with pickled tongue and head cheese, any one of which gave most of my lunch mates a bad case of the heebie-jeebies.

While I hated liver as a child—and still do as an adult, for that matter—I’ve always liked liver sausage. Don’t ask me why, except that the two, as far as my taste buds are concerned, are not even in the same food universe. Early on, my father attempted to get me to like liver as much as he did—which was a LOT. But there was something about the taste and consistency of the stuff I couldn’t stand. It was difficult for my parents to cajole me into eating liver since my mother couldn’t stand it, either, which made the whole “encourage by example” thing moot. Luckily for my father, he found a kindred spirit after I married my wife, and the two of them enjoyed liver and onions to their hearts’ content.

Still hard to beat Oscar Meyer’s recipe for liver sausage.

I got a real taste for the Oscar Mayer brand of liver sausage around fifth grade, and carried it in my lunch for several years. Liver sausage, dill pickle slices, and mustard was my standard lunch, and when Fritos were introduced, they provided a perfect compliment.

Out on the farm, my mother made jelly and jam from the fruit she grew in our farm’s small orchard, and pickles—sweet and dill—from the cucumbers she grew in the garden. We had a small grape arbor, and so did my grandparents, both of which seemed to produce lots of grapes for jelly as well. So peanut butter and jelly were my go-to sandwiches, along with bologna and cheese, for the two and a half years I went to one-room school when we lived on the farm, along with an occasional pickled tongue, liver sausage, or pickled heart sandwich treat.

But pickled heart or pickled tongue or head cheese sandwiches just aren’t very marketable in the sandwich trading market that often goes on during school lunchtimes. Even in my one-room country school, it was vanishingly rare to find anyone who’d risk a trade. Which was fine with me because it was hard to beat any of those sandwich fillings anyway.

My one-room school where we ate lunch at our desks and occasionally traded sandwiches–though few wanted to trade with me.

My grandparents retired from farming a year or so after my parents did, and moved into town. There, my grandmother still made the occasional batch of pickled tongue or pickled heart that made great sandwiches, though not ones anyone at school would have a thing to do with.

After my grandmother died, my sister Elaine continued the tradition and would make me an occasional batch of pickled tongue. I wrote a column several years ago about the joys of a good pickled tongue sandwich, lamenting my wife would have nothing to do with even the concept of pickled tongue. My editor and good friend, strongly agreed, stating she would definitely not have a thing to do with a recipe that began: “First peel the tongue.”

I did, however, manage to convince my son that unpopular foods might actually taste good. And that came in handy when we were traveling through West Virginia one time. We’d stopped at a local diner for breakfast, and he noticed something on the menu called “country sausage,” which was plainly differentiated from usual pork sausage. He asked the waitress what was in it, but she seemed a bit unsure what the difference might be. Turned out, it was a good pork sausage with a bit of a kick to it, and it was excellent.

Then there was our trip to Scotland. I was working on a book with my buddy Paul and it was also my 30th wedding anniversary, so I talked my wife into taking a celebratory trip to Scotland to do research for the book and generally have fun. It didn’t take much talking, either.

Scrooge McDuck was not a fan of Haggis. It turned out to taste pretty good.

That was back in the CompuServe days and I was able to make connections with people in Scotland who could help me out, and who became reasonably close on-line friends. We even stayed with one couple and their sons for a few days and enjoyed the kinds of Scottish food and pub visits you are denied with packaged tours. Our host told us he was preparing a true Scottish treat: Haggis, neeps, and tatties. That turned out to be haggis, served with yellow Swedish turnips and mashed potatoes.

I admit to having had a dim view of haggis since my days reading Scrooge McDuck comics—he claimed haggis nearly did him in. And, of course, haggis has been a banned Scottish import to the U.S. since 1971 just because it’s got sheep lungs in it. I mean, come on! We export Twinkies, which I suspect are far more deadly than the occasional sheep lung.

Haggis itself consists of sheep’s pluck minced and mixed with spices, oatmeal (wouldn’t be Scottish without it!), and suet, and then it’s all traditionally packed into a sheep’s stomach (artificial casings are favored these days) and then boiled, as are the Swedish turnips and potatoes, both of which are served on the side, mashed with butter and salt.

A hearty meal of haggis (center), neeps (right), and tatties looking much as it did when my friend Ian served it for my wife and I near St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland. Haggis is Scotland’s national dish.

So our friend Ian made the Haggis—the Scottish national dish, by the way—although his wife Sue would have nothing to do with it. He was fairly impressed when both my wife and I not only ate it, but really enjoyed it. I did, however, put my foot down at blood sausage as well as everything else the British insist on calling “sausage.” I don’t know what that stuff is, but it’s NOT sausage.

So my message today is that an outright refusal to try regional or national foods just because they’re a little off-putting (okay, haggis may be more than a little off-putting) is being short-sighted. Trying some adventurous food choices makes traveling—if this damned coronavirus ever allows us to get back to doing such a thing—a lot more interesting, and can even add a bit of a historical dimension as well. From colonial Williamsburg’s rabbit stew to Acadia National Park’s popovers to West Virginia’s country sausage to Lordsburg, New Mexico’s green salsa, there are tasty chances to be taken. Some of them might even make for a good school lunch.

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