Category Archives: Nostalgia

A labor of (community) love: The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum

Part 1…

Happy Historic Preservation Month!

Way back in 1973, the National Trust for Historic Preservation decided to establish a month-long observation of efforts to preserve a bit of the nation’s history before it was demolished, paved over, or otherwise lost to future generations.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines

The loss of the Oswego Depot to the wrecker’s ball lin 1970 alerted the community that its historic buildings were disappearing. (Little White School Museum photo)

It was right about that time, actually a little before, when efforts were underway to preserve Oswego’s railroad depot. Passenger service on the Fox River Branch line through Oswego had ceased in 1952, and by the 1960s the old depot was long obsolete. For us kids, it was always fascinating to peek in the windows to see the rows of seats in the passenger waiting room and the still-shiny brass fittings throughout the building.

In the late 1960s, the Oswego Jaycees announced they had a plan to preserve the building and turn it into a community museum. It would have made a good one, too. The Jaycees were negotiating in what they thought was good faith with the depot’s owners, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, when we all woke up one day to find the depot had been demolished literally overnight.

It was a shock to a community that had seen the landmark Red Brick School demolished to make way for the new Oswego Community Bank and Oswego Post Office in 1965 and suffered another wake-up call when a devastating 1973 fire in the downtown business district that destroyed two storefronts in the historic Union Block that had been built in 1867.

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When word got around the community that the landmark Little White School was in danger of being torn down, a grassroots community group, the Oswegoland Heritage Association, was formed to save it. (Little White School Museum collection)

So when word got around that the Oswego School District was contemplating the sale of the Little White School, one of the village’s most familiar remaining landmarks, it caused a group of history-interested persons to start thinking about ways the building could be saved.

Historic preservation in general got a bit shot in the arm during the years leading up to the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. Supporters of saving the Little White School piggybacked off that interest to establish the nonprofit Oswegoland Heritage Association, whose main goal was to save the historic old building from destruction, restore it, and establish a community museum there.

In order to get the job done, the founders of the OHA worked to create a unique three-way partnership between the nonprofit group; the Oswego School District, which owned the building; and the Oswegoland Park District, whose executive director, Ford Lippold, was one of the moving forces behind the formation of the OHA. The OHA pledged to coordination and raise funds to finance the building’s restoration; the park district pledged to maintain the school grounds (which they named Heritage Park) and provide regular building maintenance and operations financial support; and the school district agreed to maintain ownership of the building.

Because the school district had planned to sell the building for several years before restoration efforts began, they’d allowed it to badly deteriorate. There were three or four layers of roofing, none of which were weather-tight; the shingle siding added in the 1930s was deteriorating; and the structure was in generally poor overall condition.

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This postcard view of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church–later the Little White School–was created about 1901 after a major remodeling project was finished, including the addition of the bell tower and diamond-patterned glass panes in the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although called the Little White School to differentiate it from the nearby Red Brick School (Oswego school names have never been very innovative), the building wasn’t really all that little. Built on its site at the “Y” intersection of Jackson and Polk streets in 1850 as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, the timber-framed building measured 36 x 50 feet, and featured a bell and bell tower. During restoration work it was discovered that it’s likely the building had been constructed and used elsewhere and then dismantled and moved to Oswego. Doing such a thing with a timber frame building is not nearly as difficult as with a more modern balloon frame structure. The structure’s 11” x 11” oak and walnut timbers were fastened together using mortise and tenon joints and wooden pegs. Ceiling and floor joists fit into pockets mortised into the ceiling and floor beams in each of the building’s five timber bents. As originally built, the structure featured pine wainscoting grained to resemble oak around its complete interior, including on the low center partition, along with a pulpit platform at the front of the

1850-1913 floorplan

Floorplan of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church from 1850-1913. Note the lack of a center aisle. (Little White School Museum collection)

main room. Pews were arranged with no center aisle, but instead with two aisles on either side of the room accessed by doors on either side of the front entrance vestibule. Pews on both sides of the room extended from the wall to the aisle, and then from the other side of the aisle to a low center partition.

When the structure was dismantled for the move to Oswego from wherever it previously stood, the interior tongue and groove flooring was removed, although apparently not all of it was salvageable. Likewise, the old wainscoting was removed and stockpiled, as were the floor and ceiling joists. Last, the timber frame was taken apart, and the pieces moved to the Oswego site. Since the length and design of the floor and ceiling joists were identical, the pieces were interchangeable, and were taken off the pile to install without regard to whether they’d been floor or ceiling joists in their previous lives. Apparently, only enough tongue and groove flooring was available to piece together the floorboards on one side of the room, with new flooring probably bought from the Parker or other local sawmilling operation.

1912 4 August by D.S. Young II

This August 1912 photo of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church by Dwight Smith Young shows off the new concrete front porch and stairs that would cause restorers so much trouble 66 years later. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church served its congregation well, undergoing periodic renovations and maintenance. In 1901, the building got a major facelift. More ornate interior trim was added and the 32 glass panes in the building’s 16 double-hung windows was replaced by diamond-patterned glue-chipped panes that were a sort of poor man’s stained glass. In addition to the other upgrades, a bell tower and bell were also added to the building, with all the improvements financed thanks to donations from Tirzah Minard, widow of one of the church’s early ministers, Henry Minard.

But by that first decade of the 20th Century, the congregation was in near-constant financial trouble. So when the congregation dissolved in 1913 it wasn’t much of a shock to the community.

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The “Little School” in its tri-color paint scheme in this 1919 photograph by Fred Holzhueter. (Little White School Museum collection)

The building sat vacant for a couple years, and then in 1915, the Oswego School District found itself in need to additional classroom space for primary-aged students. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on Sept. 1, 1915 that “The Methodist church room will be used by the Oswego school, as one of their rooms this winter. It is being cleared and fitted for the work of education, non-sectarian.”

That fall, the pews and the center partition were removed revealing the floor that had been installed when the building had been erected on the Oswego site. It must have been interesting walking or sitting in desks since the boards did not span even half of the room. Instead, one length of floorboards extended from the wall to the edge of the aisle

1915-1930

The Little School’s floorplan from 1915 to 1930 with toilet rooms created by partitioning the vestibule. (Little White School Museum collection)

on each side of the room. A second set floored the aisles on either side of the room, and a third set floored the area under the pews from the aisles to the center partition. Although it didn’t matter much at the time, the newer floorboards on the building’s south side were about 3/8” thinner than the original boards on the north side.

In addition, the front vestibule was given two partitions to create two toilets, one on either side, one for girls and one for boys. With the two former vestibule doors no longer accessible, a new door was cut through the east wall of the vestibule to create access to the classroom. Sinks were also installed along the north and south walls on either side of the vestibule, and coat hooks were screwed into the wainscoting.

1919 LWS interior 1919 A

This 1919 postcard view is the only known interior photograph of the Little School before the 1930s. There are no known interior shots of the Oswego Methodist-Episcopal Church. Note the sink and coats on hooks in the back corner of the room. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dubbed “the Little School” to differentiate it from the larger nearby brick Oswego Community School, it was originally used as a one-room building for grades 1-3. About 1920, a new floor was laid over the original tongue and groove flooring, making the room much easier to use. Shims were used to fill the 3/8” space caused by the thinner floorboards on the south side of the room.

In 1930, the room was divided into two classrooms and the ceiling was dropped by four feet in each room. The windows remained untouched, however, so that now the upper sashes extended above the ceilings in the two rooms. Also, a new, larger vestibule was created around the entranceway. The bathrooms—this time with flush toilets—were moved to smaller rooms partitioned off of the new vestibule on either side of the entrance. The old, smaller, vestibule was retained for the time being, with the old toilet rooms remodeled into boys’ and girls’ closets.

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The Little School’s floorplan from 1930-34 with two classrooms, a larger vestibule/hall and restrooms moved to the front corners of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

When the students arrived for school that fall, they discovered a new teacher had been hired. Virginia Crossman roomed with the Morse family, along with another young teacher, Rachel Winebrenner, who taught fifth and sixth grade. Eventually, the two educators married local farmers, Crossman becoming Mrs. Pete Campbell and Winebrenner becoming Mrs. Bill Anderson. Crossman taught third grade and half of second in her room, while veteran teacher Isabel Rubel again taught first and half of second grade.

In 1934, making use of Federal Civil Works Administration funding, the Oswego School District had the Little School jacked up and had a basement dug beneath it. The job almost came to a disastrous end when the front of the building began slipping off the jacks. But fast work by local contractor Irvin Haines and his crew saved the day—and the building. But the lasting result was that the front of the building bows out by almost two inches.

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With a basement dug beneath the building in 1934, the restrooms were moved downstairs, stairwells replacing the old first floor restrooms in the building’s front corners. (Little White School Museum collection)

Inside, the old vestibule was completely removed and the bathrooms that had been added in 1930 were turned into stairwells to the basement where boys’ and girls’ restrooms were located.

Then two years later, this time using Works Progress Administration funds, a third classroom, measuring 36 x 30 feet was built on the east side of the Little School, along with a new main entrance hall and basement access stairway. In addition, the entire building received new wood shingle siding and a new coat of paint that picked out the window trim.

1948 abt exterior sepia

By 1948, the building had received it’s iconic coat of white paint and had become known as the Little White School. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1940s, the building had received its coat of white paint, and became known as the Little White School to a few more generations of students, including its last use as junior high classroom space in the middle of the Oswego School District’s first major enrollment growth spurt. When the new Oswego High School on Ill. Route 71 opened in the fall of 1964, and the old high school at Franklin and Washington was repurposed and renamed Oswego Junior High School. The Little White School, already in bad repair, was closed to students for the last time and the district pondered what to do with it. For several years it was used as school district storage space. But by the mid-1970s, school district officials were seeing the building as not only a community eyesore, but also obsolete for any conceivable use for them.

When word got around the community that the district was entertaining serious thoughts of demolishing the historic old structure, community residents came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to see another landmark razed.

To be continued…

 

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Urban barns a reminder of a bygone era

You see them tucked behind houses in the older sections of every town in Illinois. But while they’re part of the landscape most of us don’t give a second thought to the small barns that dot the urban landscape.

Some of these structures are smaller than a modern two-car garage. Others are far more elaborate, some built with multiple storys and some that once included living quarters for long-ago servants. Plans for urban barns were carefully developed, especially interior arrangements to allow efficient use of space. Books such as Barns, Sheds & Outbuildings by Byron D. Halsted (1881) provided floor plans and design ideas.

Until the first quarter of the 20th Century, the elements of life on farms and in small towns was not that much different. Just like their country cousins, village residents often kept a cow for fresh milk; raised chickens for eggs and meat; and kept one, and sometimes two, horses to pull their buggies, carriages, and winter sleighs. Also like their country cousins, they built barns to house their urban livestock and their horse-drawn vehicles—although on a much smaller scale than the big horse and dairy barns in rural areas.

In fact, small town residential lots often bore a resemblance to tiny farms. Along with barns, chicken houses, smoke houses, well houses, and small tool storage sheds were not uncommon. As an illustration, on Dec. 18, 1918, the Kendall County Record carried this advertisement: “For Sale: A new eight-room house, gas and electric light installed, a barn, chicken house, and four lots. Inquire of Henry Schilling, Oswego.”

Urban barns, as noted above, could be simple or more elaborate. They could be purpose-built and they were sometimes created from other buildings that were repurposed instead of being torn down. And sometimes, after they were no longer needed they themselves were repurposed into homes and other structures.

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My great-grandparents remodeled an 1840s saltbox house into an urban barn in 1908 that my family still uses for storage.

When my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town, they bought a plot near relatives containing several lots in what was then called the old Village of Troy. Located about a quarter-mile north of Oswego’s village limits at the time, the property extended from the CB&Q right-of-way down to the Fox River and was bisected by North Adams Street. There was a timber-framed house on the property they had moved, close to the south lot line, and then remodeled into an urban barn and chicken house. Their new home, finished in October 1908, was built where the old house originally sat.

As remodeled, their urban barn included a chicken house to the east and stalls for their horse and a cow in the main portion to the west. They added a shed on a concrete foundation on the south side to house their buggy and sleigh. The sturdy old structure, with its oak and black walnut timber frame, which we use for storage, is still standing next to my house today.

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Oswego druggist and banker Levi Hall built this elaborate urban barn and coach house in 1886.

The primary use for most urban barns in residential areas was to house the family driving horse or team and their buggy or carriage or their winter sleigh. Stalls in the barn were arranged so that horses had sufficient room, and the barn was built to include storage for bedding and food for the horse.

If a family cow was housed in the barn as well, provisions were also made for it.

In addition to barns in residential areas, commercial urban barns were also common throughout 19th Century communities. Many hotels had their own barns where guests could board their horses. Livery barns were also located in every town where those without access to their own barn could board horses or where a horse and buggy or a riding horse could be rented.

2016 Kohlhammer Barn

Fred Kohlhammer built this urban barn in 1904. His family lived in it while he finished construction of their new house next door.

In Oswego, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad company provided a barn for the use of the station agent, where he sometimes kept a horse and where he also raised chickens to supplement the family diet.

Most of the urban barns in small towns were well built structures. It was not uncommon for the barn to be built first and then used as living quarters until a new home was finished. That’s the route Oswego builder Fred Kohlhammer used when he built his new home on North Madison Street (Ill. Route 25) at Waubonsie Creek back in 1904. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Sept. 7: “The new Kohlhammer residence, now all enclosed and much of the inside work done will be a showy and all around good one. The cellar is divided into three apartments and made very convenient; the walls and floor being of cement. The woodwork is all done by himself and is done accurately. The family at present is domiciled in the barn, which was built first.”

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In 1905, the urban barns along Oswego’s “Barn Alley” were still marked with an “X” as “Stables” on fire insurance maps, but by 1931, due to the replacement of horses by automobiles, their designation had changed to “Accessory Building.”

The heyday of the urban barn was probably in the last decade of the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s. After that, the rapid replacement of horse-drawn vehicles with automobiles, trucks, and buses saw barns rapidly replaced by smaller, simpler garages. The change is evident in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map series. The maps recorded commercial and residential structures in virtually every small town and city in America, with an emphasis on fire protection measures. Each building is labeled with its use. The 1905 Sanborn map series for Oswego still shows urban barns labeled as “Stables.” The next series of maps for Oswego wasn’t published until 1931, and by then all of the village’s former urban barn-stables were labeled “A” for Accessory Building, an indication that many if not most had been turned into garages for the family automobile.

Unlike other more specialized structures, like smoke houses for instance, urban barns proved very adaptable, and so maintained their value to homeowners. The days of the family cow or horse and buggy is long gone, but urban barns have proven to be adequate garages as well as for storage and workshop areas.

It’s gratifying to see these days that communities are realizing the value of preserving their own architectural heritage. Entire neighborhoods are being designated for historical preservation. But while the value of fine old homes has been recognized and popularized by such programs as PBS’s “This Old House,” urban barns have sort of been left in the lurch. But their importance in urban cityscape planning and preservation has, I think, finally begun to sink in. In 2009 when my hometown of Oswego hired Granacki Historic Consultants to do an architectural resources survey and inventory of the village, they did, indeed, include 22 urban barns on their list of historic structures, six of which they listed as “Significant,” deserving special consideration, including the Kohlhammer Barn on North Street and even my own urban barn here on North Adams.

As they continue to soldier on, urban barns offer a link to a time that has been largely forgotten, an era when important aspects of rural and urban life were not that much different.

 

 

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Two Christmas stories: Things were different then…

Roughly every other year or two around Christmas time, I re-run a column in the Record Newspapers that I first did back in the late 1970s that featured interviews with my mother and my grandmother concerning their holiday experiences as youngsters. This is an off year, so thought I’d run it here while it’s waiting for its next turn.

Christmas in America has drastically changed through the years. When the Puritans stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock, the furthest thing from their minds was celebrating Christmas. They didn’t celebrate much, in fact, except getting rich. And as soon as they were assured they weren’t going to starve to death or be overrun by the local Native American tribes they were busy killing off, they prohibited celebrating Christmas.

But wet blanket Puritans aside, things have been looking up in terms of a “Merry Christmas” ever since more holiday-loving folks arrived. Probably the biggest shot in the arm the Christmas celebration ever got was the arrival in North America of large numbers of German Protestants in the mid-1700s. They brought Christmas trees, and all manner of cookies and pastries and other good things to eat, among other things.

In the last 60 years, Christmas has arguably undergone the most change in its entire history, thanks in part to us Baby Boomers, who have been moving through the economic gut of the United States like a large mammal lurching through a python’s digestive tract creating all sorts of distortions. But back in the late 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s, things were different. A LOT different.

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Back in 1977, the same year this photo was taken, I interviewed my mother, Sylvia Holzhueter Matile (left) and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter about how they celebrated Christmas when they were youngsters.

Way back in 1977, when I’d just started writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, I interviewed my Grandmother, then aged 88, and my mother, then aged 67, about how they celebrated Christmas when they were young members of German-American families. My grandmother’s Pennsylvania Dutch relatives moved to Illinois from the Keystone State in 1850, and settled on a Wheatland Township farm in Will County. She married my grandfather, a city kid from Aurora, and moved to a beautiful new home on the city’s far East Side in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelmingly German population. Since my grandmother’s family still spoke German at home despite having lived in North America since 1750 and my grandfather’s family, who arrived in the early 1880s—before Ellis Island was established—also spoke German at home, there was no language barrier.

In 1920, pining for country life once again, she talked my grandfather into moving back out into Wheatland Township onto a farm. They rented the farm from Louis McLaren that came with a truly decrepit house and buildings, which was no problem for my grandfather, a skilled carpenter. But it certainly meant a changed life for my mother and her two siblings as well as their mother.

My Grandmother died in 1979 after a long, hard, but happy life. My mother followed after a typically energetic battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1987, significantly bowed but still unbeaten. Here are their Christmas stories, complete with a bit of Pennsylvania German syntax.

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Left to right, my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz; my great-aunt, Edith Lantz Leppert; and my grandmother at their Wheatland Township farmhome about 1895. Today’s Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Naperville is located almost exactly where the house was situated.

Grandmother’s Story:

Q: When you were a little girl, what did you get for Christmas?

A: Well, dear me, we didn’t get much! When my Grandpa was alive yet, we always had a Christmas tree. That’s all I can tell you. Santa Claus used to come, but he never brought us much…a doll once in a while maybe.

Q: Do you remember what the Christmas tree looked like?

A: Ya, it was real nice. I think we had candles on it. And we used to string popcorn.

Q: Did you get any fruit or nuts or anything special?

A: Well, we’d set a cookie sheet down, Mother and Father had the big ones and there they’d put our nuts or whatever candy we got, and an orange probably, or an apple. We’d put the cookie sheets on the floor in a row. The oldest child got the one next to Mother and Father, and so on down. There were eight children. Each cookie sheet got a little smaller, you see, so we knew which one belonged to us!

Q: You didn’t hang up stockings?

A: No, just the cookie sheets. We’d set them on the floor.

We didn’t have as much furniture as we do now. I remember our living room had ingrain carpeting, and under that we had straw, if you can imagine that! And by spring when you’d houseclean, that was nothing but dust.

Q: You said the you got oranges…

A: Ya, one orange. We never got oranges through the year, but at Christmas time, there we had an orange.

Q: What about presents?

A: “Well, after Grandpa was gone, we didn’t have no Christmas tree then. I remember one Christmas when we had just gotten a new buggy, well we called it a carriage you know. The night before Christmas, they must have taken a board and run it down the siding of the house outside. What a racket it made! We got under the covers because we thought old Santa Claus was coming. We weren’t supposed to see him, you know. Then in the morning, there lay the harness, a new double harness. That was our Christmas that year.

Q: Did you ever go to anyone’s house for Christmas dinner?

A: No, I don’t think that we ever had what we call a Christmas Dinner nowadays.

Q: Did you ever have sleigh rides or anything like that?

A: Well, that was the only way you could go in the winter time! We’d drive right through the fields, you know.

 

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The dilapidated farmhouse my grandparents rented from the MacLarens in 1920. It was a big step down from the large two-story home they’d owned in Aurora, but my grandmother had had it mediating between overwrought in-laws. Thus the escape to rural Wheatland Township.

Mother’s Story:

Q: Was Christmas any different when you lived in town than when you moved to the farm in 1920?

A: Ya, it was different! When we lived in Aurora, there was evidently some money, and when we moved to the farm there wasn’t any. When we lived in Aurora, Mother and us kids went to church every Christmas Eve, and when we came home, Dad would have the Christmas tree up. We had candles on it, and they would be lit, but Dad would be very careful. We would go to everybody’s house to see their Christmas trees.

Q: Everybody in your neighborhood?

A: To the relatives, my great aunts and uncles. And then when we moved out to the farm, we always had a Christmas tree, we always had nuts and candy and fruit. I always got a new dress so I could speak my piece at the church program. We always had a Christmas program at school. We worked for weeks and weeks. We would march and sing and give a play…everything had to be perfect.

Q: Did you send or receive Christmas cards?

A: We didn’t have money to spend on things like that. We went to visit the people. Things were different then.

 

And from me to you, from here at the Matile Manse, have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.

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Days of youthful dawdling mostly a thing of the past…

I’ve always felt a little boredom for kids is a good thing.

Back, lo those many years ago when I was a kid, boredom wasn’t something we complained about. Today’s parents are apparently terrified their kids will complain about being bored. Back in the day, I knew better than to tell my parents I was bored, because they would have found plenty for me to do, pretty much none of which I would have been excited about.

These days, though, parents apparently feel their kids need to be scheduled 24/7 doing all manner of things, not to mention running themselves ragged in the attempt to avoid the dreaded “Mommm, I’m bored.”

As noted above, admitting to boredom would have been a deadly mistake back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so we made sure we always had something to do, or at least made it look like we had something to do. And without all of today’s frenetic scheduling, there was plenty of time for one of our all-time favorite pastimes—dawdling.

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Not sure what my cousin Bob (right) and I did, but knowing the two of us, it probably involved dawdling followed by a stern lecture from our Aunt Evelyn.

In fact, I believe dawdling was one of the high points of my life as a child here in the Oswego area, although I admit my parents sometimes did not exactly share my love of the practice.

We dawdled on the way to school and on the way home from school, as well as when sent on any sort of mission by our parents.

But it was those before and after school times that seemed best.

When I went to Church School out in Wheatland Township, we did a lot of serious dawdling on the way home from classes. After we got television sets and had our first look at the original “Adventures of Superman” series starring George Reeves, my buddy Rob and I decided that episode where Superman turned coal into diamonds by using “super pressure” had all sorts of possibilities; Superman did it, after all, so why couldn’t we? Finding a piece of coal wasn’t difficult in those years, but applying the “super pressure” was. We approached the problem by piling the biggest rocks we could find on top of the coal. Each day as we dawdled past the rock pile on the way home from school, we’d check to see if the lump of coal had turned into a diamond. I suspect the coal is still buried there beside Heggs Road awaiting super pressure that never came.

After I moved to town, the areas in which to dawdle increased geometrically. In order to get to and from school, we had to cross Waubonsie Creek, which was—and from what I see these days still is—an irresistible magnet for dawdlers.

We considered the creek valley, from North Adams street to the Route 25 bridge as our own private preserve. There was always something to do there, no matter what season of the year it was.

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About 1910, a bunch of kids engage in serious dawdling along the same stretch of Waubonsie Creek where we dawdled in the 1950s. In this shot, looks like there are more rocks than water in the creek. (Little White School Museum collections)

In the summertime, we’d build dams and try to catch the Red Horse that came upstream from the river. In the fall, we’d skip flat stones across the still waters behind the present Oswego Library. In the wintertime, we’d fool around on the ice, when it was thick enough, or pretend to be arctic explorers trudging through North Pole snowdrifts. In the spring, our fancy would tum to collecting fossils washing out of the bluegreen Maquoketa shale outcrop near the CB&Q railroad bridge.

One winter evening on the way home from school, my friend was standing with one foot on the creek shore and the other on an ice-covered rock a short distance from shore, vigorously shifting back and forth as he tried to dislodge the rock, which was stuck to the creek bottom. But then the rock suddenly gave way, shooting out from under his foot, which had all his weight on it. Physics being what they are, he was launched into the air, doing a complete airborne somersault before landing, sitting down, in the middle of the creek. Personally, I thought it was one of the funniest things I had ever seen, although his view was somewhat different.

I never had my own paper route, but I was always friendly with our paperboys, and found them excellent dawdling companions, which is perhaps one reason I don’t get too terribly upset when our paper is late nowadays.

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My buddy Rob and I tried to turn a lump of coal into a diamond for several months in 1953 while dawdling on the way home from school. Above, we consort with our dogs and a box of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (the TV sponsor for “Adventures of Superman”) for emergency nutrition.

It was his own fault, but one winter day our dawdling got the better of our then-current paperboy, one of my elementary school classmates. He had decided to do a monster walk across a large brush pile near the street. As he walked like Frankenstein’s monster, growling, over top of the brush pile, his feet suddenly broke through and he was up to his hips in brush. Unfortunately—for him—a broken stick in the pile was pointed upwards directly at a particularly sensitive area of his anatomy. I did my best as he screamed for me to rescue him. I really did. But it’s hard to move frozen, broken tree parts when you’re laughing so hard your stomach hurts.

My parents were largely understanding when it came to dawdling. As long as I was home for supper, no one seemed to care. In fact, I came to suspect that my father was a dawdler when he was a youngster. Unfortunately, it’s too late to find out about that now; like so many other things, I’d like to get his take on the subject.

Unfortunately, things have changed over the last 60 years when it comes to allowing children to have fun by doing nothing at all. Often for good reason, most parents fear to have their children wandering around loose these days. There are simply too many nuts around and too many other dangerous things for children to get involved in.

It’s a shame when innocent activities—like dawdling near a local creek—that are real learning experiences are all too often unavailable to modern kids because of fears for their safety, even if those fears are well founded. It is one of the prices we must pay as we continue to grow, I suppose, but it often seems as if it’s an awfully high one.

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Shouldn’t we be in a holding pattern about now?

So what I want to know is: Where is my helicopter?

1951-popular-mechanics

According to futurists in the 1950s, flying to work or to the store to shop was definitely in our future, with a helicopter parked in every garage.

When we were kids, Popular Mechanics magazine frequently published neat articles, complete with illustrations, about the future, wherein we would all be flying helicopters back and forth from work. In “The Future,” we were told, instead of garages, we’d have hangers that would shelter our private flying machines, which we’d use during the week to fly off to where ever we needed to go.

Today, of course, the mind sort of boggles at the thought of airborne traffic jams with everyone trying to fly to work. I mean, it’s hard enough now to find a parking spot in downtown Yorkville or Oswego with automobiles. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all hovering at 2,000 feet waiting for a parking space to open up so we could zip down in our helicopter and run into the hardware store or the dentist office?

Not that the future hasn’t wandered in while we were looking the other way, of course. My nephew out in Iowa now has a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver on his combine, which is hooked to an on-board computer. The computer keeps track of the yield in bushels as the combine moves across the field and in conjunction with the GPS receiver, essentially makes a yield map of the entire field. That map will, in turn, be downloaded to another computer-GPS combo the fertilizer company has on their machines that will control how much and what kind of fertilizer is laid down next spring.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

So while we were all fascinated about whether we would one day come to live like the Jetsons, our everyday lives have been moving into just as futuristic a direction, although a much less spectacular one. For instance, back in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were giant things that filled entire rooms and sometimes entire buildings. Nowadays, we take tiny, powerful computers in our toasters, microwaves, and automobiles for granted, but the advances those mundane tools represent are nearly miraculous.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were non-existent in homes 50 years ago. These days, we not only depend on the small electronic boxes to re-heat our coffee and defrost chicken before we fry it, but the touch of a button pops our popcorn and another button perfectly re-heats last night’s pot roast.

When we were kids, we took the car down to the service station when it was running rough, and the mechanics would use a combination of skill, art, and mechanical knowledge to diagnose what was wrong. Nowadays, “repair technicians” plug a computer into a car’s engine and an instant read-out (usually) reports what’s wrong.

The trouble with the future and predicting it has always been that no one really knows what the effect of a new invention will be. That GPS equipment mentioned above, for instance, was originally designed to allow military units and weapons systems to know exactly where they were anywhere on Earth so that killing could be made more efficient. Who was to know that cheap GPS receivers connected with miniature computers would be used for everything from leading an angler back to the fishing hotspot he stumbled across last month to increasing crop yields by allowing the precise application of fertilizer and seed in the areas where it’s needed?

Actually, futurists usually get into much more trouble when they predict what we won’t be able to do than by suggesting what will or could happen.

deforest-lee

Radio pioneer Lee DeForest was certain the world could be connected by radio waves. But he could not believe that sound and pictures both could be broadcast as a commercial success, illustrating that even visionaries are sometimes myopic.

Take the case of Lee De Forest, for instance. Just before World War I broke out, De Forest was trying to get investors interested in his new idea: Commercial radio broadcasts. From our vantage point, it seems like De Forest was a visionary, but the U.S. Government didn’t think so. In 1913, they hauled De Forest into court, charging him with fraud. A U.S. District Attorney charged with prosecuting De Forest charged: “De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to buy stock in his company.”

De Forest was eventually cleared and “before many years” radio signals were indeed being broadcast across the Atlantic. But just because De Forest foresaw the value of one invention didn’t necessarily mean he was a true futurist. When it came to moving one more step farther—to broadcasting sound with pictures—De Forest was unable to make the leap. Writing in 1926, he suggested: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So I’m not really sad there’s no helicopter out in our garage, because when it comes to the future, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems to rule. No one ever knows what will be invented or even how something already invented will be used to change our lives. The fellow who invented refrigeration had no idea his idea would one day be used to air condition the country and make possible the economic development of the Southwest and the resurgence of the Old South.

As Benjamin Franklin remarked when someone disdainfully asked of what use a new invention would be: “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

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How about a nice bowl of cereal?

I miss cereal.

Oh, I’m not totally cereal-bereft. I can—and do—still eat oatmeal, both because it’s good for my increasingly old body with its malfunctioning parts, and because it’s good.

No, the cereal I’m talking about is the boxed kind, the Honey Smacks and the Golden Crisp, and the Frosted Flakes.

Because part of the aforementioned malfunctioning of various parts is that for some reason this old body decided milk will now throw the plumbing system into serious, China Syndrome meltdown. So, goodbye bowl of cereal before bed. So long bowl of cereal for breakfast. Bye-bye bowl of cereal for mid-afternoon snack.

And it’s hard, because I enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the stuff.

shredded-wheat-box

I was lured to shredded wheat thanks to Straight Arrow’s tips on wilderness survival.

One of my earliest cereal memories is eating Nabisco shredded wheat, and looking forward to uncovering the pieces of cardboard that divided the three layers of shredded wheat biscuits in those rectangular boxes. That’s because there was neat stuff to read on those dividers.

Starting in 1949, the National Biscuit Company began printing “Straight Arrow’s secrets of Indian lore and know-how” on the dividers, which imparted all sorts of useful information, some of which still sticks in my mind to this day. The idea was that the innovative and inventive Indian, Straight Arrow, would explain how to survive in the wilderness as a way to get kids interested in eating shredded wheat. Because, let’s fact it. Shredded wheat is not a very interesting cereal, although it’s pretty healthy.

straight-arrow

Straight Arrow could survive in the wilderness with practically no modern help at all. For a 6 year-old, it was an eye-opening introduction to living off the land.

So Nabisco not only sponsored the “Straight Arrow” radio program, starting in 1949, but they also contracted with Fred L. Meagher to created the illustrated cards. I don’t know about other little kids, but they certainly hooked me.

For instance, birch bark canoes were not white like the outside of the bark but were brown like the inner layer of the bark when it was peeled off birch trees. Why? Because when birch bark dries, it naturally curls with the white outer bark inside the curl. The brilliant Ojibwa marine architects who invented birch bark canoes took advantage of the natural curl of the sheets of bark they peeled off paper birch trees to fit the bark onto the canoes’ cedar frames.

Another card insisted that when finding himself in the wilderness, a person could survive if all he had was an ax, because with a good ax and the necessary survival skills you can manufacture about anything, from one of those birch bark canoes noted above to the paddles for the canoe to a cozy bark lodge for shelter from the storm.

But shredded wheat was far from the only cereal that got my gastronomical juices flowing, although as a rule, gastronomy took a backseat to cereals sponsored by my favorite TV shows.

jets-cereal

Sugar Jets were hawked by one of my TV heroes, Jet Jackson, but each one of the things was like a little bomb dropped in my digestive tract.

Captain Midnight, for instance, was one of my favorites. It was sponsored by Ovaltine, which for some reason my mother absolutely refused to buy. But then in 1958, Captain Midnight’s name suddenly changed to Jet Jackson, and the Ovaltine sponsorship disappeared in favor of Sugar Jets Cereal. So I absolutely had to have a box of Jets in order to get the box top, but, it turned out, Jets did not agree with my digestive system at all.

So it was back to Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops (“Sugar Pops are tops!), Post Sugar Crisp and their Kellogg’s cousin, Sugar Smacks, and Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (“They’re grrrrreat!”). Sugar Corn Pops were a big favorite because they were the main sponsor of “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” one my favorite TV westerns. Favorite because Wild Bill wore his twin six-shooters butt first, which was his gimmick. The Lone Ranger had his mask, silver bullets, and black two-gun rig; Hopalong Cassidy dressed in all black that showed off nicely against his white horse, Topper; and Red Ryder had his lever-action carbine, of which I got the Daisy BB gun version when I was 9 years-old. But Wild Bill and his sidekick, Jingle Jones (who was from East Sedalia) was arguably my favorite, and thus the reason I ate so many boxes of Sugar Corn Pops.

sugar-crisp-roy-dale

First Captain Video and then Roy and Dale beckoned me with the sirens’ call to Sugar Crisp cereal.

Post Sugar Crisp was a sponsor yet another favorite cowboy TV show, “The Roy Rogers Show,” which was a sort of surrealistic time-warped show. Almost everyone rode horses, including Roy (Trigger) and Dale Evans (Buttermilk), except Roy’s sidekick Pat Brady, who drove a 1946 Jeep that had been accessorized with armor plating and which he named Nellybelle.

Cowboys weren’t the only kids’ TV personalities hawking cereal, either. I was introduced to science fiction, a lifelong love, by watching “Captain Video and his Video Rangers,” which also got me sort of hooked on Post Sugar Crisp, thanks to Post’s sponsorship of the show even before Roy and Dale and Pat showed up on TV. It was my first introduction to a robot, the show’s TOBOR character (“robot” spelled backwards) and it frankly scared the beejebus out of me.

But all that was then, and this is now. Sugar Crisp, Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes, and the rest of those carbohydrate-packed cereals are actually still around, although in deference to today’s healthy eating aspirations, Sugar Crisps are now Honey Crisps, Sugar Corn Pops are just Corn Pops, and Sugar Frosted Flakes are merely Frosted Flakes.

I sometimes visit the cereal isle at the grocery store, when I can ditch my wife, who hates shopping with the heat of a thousand suns, so that for at least a few minutes I can relive the old days when digestion and metabolism were kinder processes in my much younger body. And at least I can sort of make do with my daily morning bowl of oatmeal, on which I’ve found my sugarless creamer makes a passable substitute for the milk I so enjoyed on all those cereals of decades past.

But I still miss cereal.

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Filed under entertainment, History, Nostalgia, People in History

Bob Rung made a lasting, positive difference

My friend Bob Rung died last week.

Friends and acquaintances dying is getting to be all too common these days, with me having spent 70 summers on this here Earth.

Many of my friends are passionate people, and all are interesting. But only a few have made the kind of lasting impression on his community and region due to his passion that Bob Rung did.

fishing-the-fox

Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Fox River of Illinois draws thousands of anglers to the Fox Valley and also provides an excellent recreation source for area residents. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois-Wisconsin Fishing Blog)

His first and greatest passion was fishing, something to which he had devoted (as near as I could tell) his entire adult life, and most of his childhood, too. His family moved to the sprawling Boulder Hill subdivision between Montgomery and Oswego when he and his siblings were children, and there he grew up within walking distance of the Fox River.

He honed his skills and learned on his own how to manufacture the lures and equipment best-suited to tracking down the wily smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and other gamefish that were so rare when we were kids.

We went through high school together although he, being a Boulder Hill kid, wasn’t someone I hung around with. But he walked into the gym with the rest of us on graduation night in May 1964 after which so many of us went our own ways.

And for Bob, like so many of my male classmates, that meant being shipped off to the jungles and rivers and mountains of Vietnam, where he put his training as a U.S. Army medic to work, getting wounded himself along the way. When he came home he decided to put his love of animals in general and fish in particular to use and in the fall of 1971 he and a partner bought the Oswego Fish & Hobby Shop at 25 Jefferson Street, across the street from the Oswego Public Library in the Wilhelm Building.

But his first love was still the Fox River and fishing and he eventually decided to see if he could make a career out of it, which he managed to do by becoming a college-educated fisheries biologist working for the Illinois Department of Conservation.

And that’s where Bob and I met again. He knew that I had a pretty strong interest in the Fox River, too, especially in our local environmental hero who called himself “The Fox.” So when I needed some technical background for stories I was doing on the river or its tributaries, Bob was my go-to source.

Like me, he really hated the dams that dot the river from Dayton just above Ottawa near the river’s mouth to the series of dams that create the Chain O’Lakes up north. I did a number of articles about the Yorkville dam and how good it would be for the health of the river to get rid of it, and Bob helped by supplying me with good sources for research on the harm dams do to the streams they block.

Bob was also a major source of expert information and oversight after the Flood of 1996 badly damaged the dams along Waubonsie Creek, and the Oswegoland Park District decided to remove all the ones it had access to. The dams had been built over a span of more than a century, one to provide deep enough water for an ice harvesting operation, one to back up water to fill the water hazards at Fox Bend Golf Course, and the others for varying reasons. The problem was, the dams prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn and that had a negative impact on the diversity of life in the Fox River. So Bob strongly advocated for their removal, something we were able to help push along down at the newspaper. Today, fish can easily swim upstream to spawn, something that has had an extremely positive impact on the Fox River.

water-willow-planting

Friends of the Fox River organize an American Water Willow planting project in the summer of 2015. Bob Rung championed planting water willows up and down the Fox River’s banks to stabilize them and to provide enhanced habitat for fish. (Friends of the Fox River photo)

In addition, Bob was fascinated with improving the entire ecology of the river basin to enhance the environment for fish. To that end, he got both me and Jim Phillips—that aforementioned furry crusader doing business as “The Fox”—interested in his campaign to plant American Water Willows up and down the river’s banks. A low-growing tough-stemmed plant, it grows in colonies that stabilize stream banks, which is a good thing in and of itself. But in addition, the plants’ leaves, stems, and flowers also provide browse for deer, and its rhizomes provide tasty meals for beavers and muskrats. In addition, the plants’ water-covered roots and rhizomes provide cover newly hatched gamefish minnows and a fine habitat for invertebrates that fish and other creatures feed on.

bob-rung-gar

Bob Rung tosses a long-nosed gar back in the water in this 2012 photo from the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Over the years, he got organizations ranging from the Illinois Smallmouth Bass Alliance to the Friends of the Fox River to plant thousands of water willows along the rivershed’s stream banks. I once kidded him that he’d become the Johnny Appleseed of water willow propagation, and after a moment of silence he said he wouldn’t mind being called that.

Bob’s passion was the Fox River and he was one of those lucky individuals who was able to do important things that not only satisfied his own keen interests, but also left a continuing legacy for generations to come. On the Fox River below Montgomery, everyone who stalks fighting smallmouth bass and trophy muskies, who enjoys quiet canoe rides through a genetically rich and diverse riverscape, or who just likes to sit and appreciate the river’s beauty and serenity owes Bob Rung a vote of thanks for what he accomplished for the rest of us.

 

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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology