Category Archives: Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dandelion C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dandelion greens

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

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

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

The recipe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Log Cabin

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

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

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

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

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

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

rug loom in use

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

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

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

rag rugs

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

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

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

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

 

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Trying to stay one step ahead of destruction in the Machine Age

When Czech science fiction writer and playwright Karel Čapek used the word robot (its root goes back to a term for “serf labor”), invented by his brother, Josef, he had human-shaped machines in mind that would do man’s bidding, for good or ill.

Image result for tobor captain video

65 years later, Tobot doesn’t look nearly as frightening as he did to my 7 year-old self.

Today, millions of robots are quietly and industriously going about their business but, alas, few of them look like the classic robot of SF literature or the robots we grew up watching on TV and in the movies. I recall being scared to death of the Tobot character (“robot” spelled backwards) when I watched “Captain Video and his Video Rangers” as a little kid. Robbie the robot in “Forbidden Planet” was a good-natured mechanical man, as was Robot, the combination nanny and straight man on “Lost in Space.”

But instead of humanoid machines mingling in modern society, these days robotic carts deliver parts from storage to machine in factories all over the world; robotic arms help build most kinds of trucks and autos these days; and deep space robots land on distant planets, tool around for years over the surface or dig around a bit and then return their finds to Earth. Robots even mow our lawns and vacuum our living rooms.

In short, robots are replacing people in jobs that are either too dangerous or too costly or too repetitive for humans to perform if industry, government, or ourselves are to be freed up to do other things—or make even bigger profits without all those pesky union contracts to deal with.

On the plus side, machines have made humanity’s physical burden lighter from the time the first cave man found a long enough lever could move a giant boulder. At the same time, those same machines have sometimes caused huge workforce dislocations.

No one knows what the first machine really was. It could have been that rock-moving lever noted above. Or it could have been the inclined plane used to help a group of Paleolithic hunters move the carcass of a large animal up to their cave.

The simple machine that probably had the most impact on the earliest civilizations right up through the present was the wheel, which allowed all manner of things to happen, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. Even as the first crude wagon led to the automobile, the first war chariot led to today’s tanks, effects I am sure the inventor of the wheel could not imagine.

Image result for Ben Hur chariot race

No wheels, no Ben-Hur chariot race. Bummer.

But far from being simply a troublemaker, the wheel has also, over the course of history, been the greatest labor saving device ever invented, and may well have led to the invention of civilization. Wheels allowed larger cargoes to be carried from the countryside to the cities that grew into the Urs, Babylons, Romes, and other great capitals of the ancient world. And something as simple as a wheelbarrow lighten the workload on generation after generation of workers.

When put to work properly and with some innovation, wheels made manufacturing possible on large scales for the first time.

The water wheel was probably invented in the Far East, but it eventually became the foundation on which the West’s Industrial Revolution was built. Once the power of water was harnessed and put to productive work, all manner of things became not only possible but practical.

Gears and pulleys—also wheels—allowed the power of falling or flowing water to turn millstones to grind grain into flour, and to make saw blades first travel up and down and then round and round to saw trees into lumber.

At some time or other, an inventive person invented the trip hammer, a particularly useful machine. A trip hammer is lifted by a cam—basically a bulge—attached to a shaft turned by waterpower. As the bulge of the cam passes, the hammer falls. Of what use is an endlessly rising and falling hammer? Let us count the ways.

Image result for water powered trip hammer

Water-powered trip hammers made work from blacksmithing to dye making much easier.

In olden times, dye was made from vegetable substances that had to be pulverized, and that pulverization was all done by hand. With a water-powered trip hammer, dye stocks could be made much more cheaply because machines did not get tired and cranky. They just went on pounding and pounding all day every day without complaint. As a result, dye prices fell, and even common folks were able to afford colorful clothing.

Water powered hammers were also useful to folks who wanted to make a lot of metal items. Blacksmithing was an art, and a hard one at that. But trip hammers could be used to automate the tiresome process of hammering larger pieces of steel or iron to flatten or weld or shape them, making workers more productive.

In addition, falling or flowing water could also power all manner of other complicated machine assemblages from textile mills and elaborate looms to irrigation pumps to those sawmill blades mentioned above.

Indeed, when the first settlers began arriving here in Kendall County, pioneer millwrights were among the first wave of settlement in the 1830s. Ebenezer Morgan, John Schneider, Merritt Clark, Levi Gorton and the others found likely sites along the county’s creeks and rivers and built their dams and mills.

1900 (abt) Parker Mills

Levi Gorton built the gristmill on the riverbank just north of Oswego at left, and Nathaniel Rising added the sawmill in the right foreground, while George Parker added a furniture factory wing to the sawmill.

Gristmills were usually the first mills to be built to allow farmers to grind their com, barley, oats, and wheat into flour. But sawmills were almost as quickly built, and lumber for homes for the county’s growing population was soon available.

All manner of water-powered factories followed, and even the water behind the numerous mill dams itself was soon sold in the form of ice, harvested during the winter and stored for sale later in the warm months of the year.

The steam engine—which also relies on wheels to operate—gradually put the county’s water-powered mills out of business, since steam engines require no expensive, maintenance-intensive dams, they aren’t affected by low or high water levels, and they don’t freeze up in the winter.

Besides revolutionizing milling, steam engines installed aboard boats opened the Midwest’s extensive river system to trade, while other steam engines equipped with wheels and pulling cars over a network of rails changed the nation forever by revolutionizing transportation.

Today, we are facing another revolution almost as great as the one occasioned by the invention of the wheel. The combination of powerful computers and a worldwide communications network is bringing people together as nothing else ever has. The old totalitarian nations were unable to stand against the communications revolution as fax machines and computer networks spread the truths they had been suppressing for generations.

Now, however, the social media that toppled dictators is being used more and more to promote new dictatorial and hateful propaganda to a credulous citizenry. As we face the same messy ethnic and territorial problems the world has been dealing with since civilizations arose, our immediate challenge is trying to figure out how to use all this new technology in the service of rights and freedom of civilization before it destroys both.

 

 

 

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So what’s in YOUR pie?

A week or so ago, a Facebook friend, one of my high school classmates, asked what her friends’ favorite pie is. And because I’m a lifelong wiseacre, a replied, “hot or cold.”

Which reply I admit I stole from my dad, a pie lover from way back. The only kind of pie my dad really did not like was raisin pie, and I have to admit I am with him on that one as well, and have been since someone tried to foist a piece of the stuff off on me when I was just a lad.

I’m not sure where my dad got his pie craving, but he had one and had it bad. Maybe it was because my mom was such a good pie baker. Whatever its origin, when my parents were young farmers back during the Great Depression and right up through the 1940s my mom baked roughly one pie a day.

Defective apple pie

This defective apple pie is a good example why it’s unwise to buy apple pies in most bakeries or restaurants (Gruenke’s in Bayfield, Wisconsin is a prime exception to this rule). While the apples are sliced and not chunked, they are sliced WAY too thick, thus preventing proper cooking down. The wise pie aficionado is very cautious about his or her apple pie.

Back then, farm work started before dawn with livestock chores: feeding the pigs and cattle and milking the family cow. By the time breakfast rolled around, my dad was really hungry and so needed a large meal. The one he ate for most of his life—at least for the portion of it I was present for—was a glass of fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, two eggs over easy and two slices of bacon or sausage patties. It’s a breakfast he ate until a couple days before he died from the results of lung cancer and a list of ailments too long to record here.

Back in those farm days, he also had a large piece of pie for dessert at all three meals, breakfast, dinner, and supper. You’ll notice what I did there: the noon meal on the farm was dinner, not the evening meal. Town folks ate dinner at night; out in the country the evening meal was a much lighter one. The dinner bell rang at noon. In fact, the weekday farm report show on WLS radio was named “Dinner Bell Time” (not to be confused with Don McNeil’s “Breakfast Club” or WJJD’s teenagers’ delight, “Suppertime Frolic).

Some of my earliest memories are being around the house and watching my mom, and when I was visiting down the road and around the corner, my grandmother, baking. My mom, as you might imagine after having all that practice, was a whiz at rolling out pie dough, which was the real stuff back then, with lard as a major ingredient. After making however many pies they planned that day, there was always a bit of piecrust left, so they’d both made what they called Poor Man’s Pie, usually in one or two small tart tins.

Poor Man's Pie

Found this image of Poor Man’s Pie somewhere on the Net. Not nearly enough cinnamon on top; the top should be dark brown all over with cinnamon.

I loved Poor Man’s Pie. It was a simple thing that only required milk, flour, and sugar for the filling, topped off with a pat of butter and sprinkled cinnamon on top.

Just about everyone out in the country had an orchard of one kind or another. Ours wasn’t very big, and included a towering pie cherry tree that produced quarts and quarts of the fruit. My grandparents’ orchard had number of plum trees, as well as a variety of apples and pears. Apples, pears, peaches, and cherries were all canned for use in pies during the winter. Apples, too, were stored fresh in the basement for later use.

Northern Illinois isn’t the best peach habitat, so while we had peach trees, they weren’t quite as prolific as apples, cherries, and pears. I remember relatives heading over to Michigan in a convoy to bring back peaches, which were divided up amongst the participants and then canned for winter table use and to bake pies.

Other than eating pickled herring when the clock struck 12 midnight on New Year’s Eve and somehow falling in love with oyster stew made with those awful canned oysters, my dad’s family really didn’t have many food habits or traditions. My mother’s German family—her mother was 100 percent Pennsylvania Dutch and her father was 100 percent East Prussian—however, loved their food, and that included dessert with every meal. Including breakfast. I remember my grandmother’s table always featured a pressed glass footed compote dish with jelly, so that even when there was no cake, pie, kuchen, or cookies (a rare occasion, indeed) there was always bread and jelly as a dessert fallback position.

wonderberry pie

To the uninitiated, wonderberries look like blueberries. But they’re a lot different and, in my estimation, make a superior pie. Unfortunately, hardly anybody grows them any more and it’s virtually impossible to find them at farmers’ markets, at least here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley.

Pie was always the queen of desserts in my family, with my grandmother, mother, and aunts using a wide variety of fillings from ground cherries, apples, peaches, rhubarb (“pie plant” to the Pennsylvania Dutch), cherries, pears, apricots, raspberries, wonderberries (also called garden huckleberries)—you name it.

Pies have been a human food item for thousands of years. According to pie historians, the first pies were invented by the ancient Egyptians, who made dough from oats, wheat, rye, or barley, doubled it over and filled it with honey. After a few thousand years someone decided you could create a nice meal by using bread dough to enclose meat and other savory fillings. Meat pies were far more popular than fruit-filled concoctions for a long, long time. But gradually, the dessert aspects of pie could no longer be denied. When some brilliant cook invented what we call today piecrust, the place was set for pie to come into its own.

Classic pasty

A classic pasty with its built-in handle for easy eating is one of our favorites up in northern Wisconsin, especially served with a side of creamy cucumbers.

Over in Merry Olde England, meat pies reigned supreme, with all sorts of meat combined with veggies and then baked into whole-meal pies. In Cornwall, innovative cooks took a piecrust circle, put a big scoop of diced potatoes, turnips, and other veggies with finely chopped or even minced meat on half, doubled the other half over, and crimped the half-moon edge. Baked at home, these robust meat pies—called pasties—were just fine for taking down into the coal mines to be heated over a flame on a handy shovel and eaten for a miner’s lunch, the crimped half-circle crust offering a handy handle to hold the pie while eating. Here in the New World, Cornish immigrants brought their pasties with them, and today the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is their Midwest natural habitat, with even most of the smallest cafes offering their own homemade varieties, as do delis in larger communities’ grocery stores.

Savory pies are all well and good—who doesn’t still enjoy a chicken or beef pot pie once in a while—but it’s the fruit variety that have tickled my fancy all these years. And thus my reply to my former high school classmate about my favorite variety. Baked fruit pies, single and double crust pies, cream pies (chocolate, custard, banana cream, coconut cream), pumpkin and sweet potato, and fresh fruit pies in season—who could possibly make a decision?

But here’s what I’m willing to do…I pledge to keep trying every kind of pie I can find (except raisin), until I finally settle on my favorite.

This could take quite a while, but I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Generations growing up on Fox River…

Haven’t had much time to blog recently due to a family tragedy, but have had time during recent sleepless nights to think back over the years I’ve lived here along the banks of the Fox River, first with my parents, and then with my own wife and kids.

Two weeks ago, my funny, smart, talented, talkative daughter died of an apparent seizure, something we’re still trying to process as we deal with all the effects of that death.

I was eight when my parents moved off the farm to our riverside neighborhood; she was a year and a half old when my wife and I moved back here. We raised both her and her brother here and the river was always part of both of their childhood landscape.

Now I’m finally having a chance to sit here and watch the relatively fast-flowing current, brown with silt and other products of storm runoff, and I’m transported back to my own childhood growing up here in this riverside neighborhood.

We’ve had quite a bit of rain in this late summer of 2018. A lot of that rain fell, and continues to fall, up north along the northern reaches of the Fox, and the runoff has swelled the river virtually all summer. And that’s unusual. Generally, by this time of year, the river’s bones—gravel bars, boulders, old fallen tree snags—are clearly showing and it’s easy to walk across our narrow channel on stepping stones without getting the soles of our shoes wet. Not this year.

2018 Rising sawmill foundation stones

Tumbled and turned, the flagstones of the Rising sawmill’s foundation still mark the old mill’s location along the east bank of the Fox River at Troy Park in Oswego.

In those 1950s summers, we’d spend hours on the river in our scows, and we got to intimately know our stretch of river. We knew that it was almost impossible to pole up the channel along the west bank of the river because its bottom was smooth limestone. It could be done, sometimes, at low water, but never when there was much of a current. We could pole up over the middle of the old dam by expending a lot of effort. There were plenty of rocks and gravel on the bottom to give our poles good purchase. I didn’t know it then, but that gravel and those rocks were debris left over from the old mill dam that crossed the river there.

Dam building technology in the 19th Century called for building timber frames—cribs—out of squared-off oak and walnut trees, hauling them out into the stream, and then fastening the frames to the limestone bottom with hand-forged iron stakes. Those stakes were hefty things; we retrieved a couple over the years. They were about an inch and a half square and three or so feet long. After the cribbing was set firmly in place, it was gradually filled with gravel and rubble to create the dam. The structure was finished by being clad on the downstream side with thick wooden planks to encourage smooth water flow down the downstream side.

Well before we came along, the old dam had been damaged and virtually erased by floods—freshets, the old-timers called them—and spring ice floes. So all that was left was a low rubble mound from bank to bank that slowed but did not dam the river.

Along with a few of those giant stakes described above, there were also some of those old timber framing members still staked to the river bottom that would show up during periods of low water.

We learned to be careful around the remains of the old dam. The river was shallow on the crest of the destroyed dam, but on the downstream side, the action of water spilling over top of the dam for more than a half-century had eroded deep holes into the limestone riverbed. We learned where those holes were because while poling our scows in those areas, the bottom would sometimes seem to drop right out of the river and our longest poles couldn’t touch bottom.

If we had been inclined to wade in the river, that would have been even more vital information. But we were seldom lured into wading, and when we were, we always wore an old pair of tennis shoes because the river bottom was a virtual carpet of broken glass and scrap metal. And, of course, there was the water quality. In the 1950s, the river’s water was thick with heavy metals and other nasty pollutants that led to stunted, diseased fish and the extermination of most mollusks and crustaceans except for hardy crawfish. The major fish kills of the late 1950s, when a chemical factory upstream in North Aurora dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killed virtually everything in the river from Aurora to Yorkville. So, boating was in; wading was definitely out.

On either bank of the river at the ends of the old dam were the remains of the two mills, a gristmill on the west bank and a sawmill on the east bank. The only thing left of them when we started spending time of the river were the mills’ foundation stones, giant slabs of flagstone, probably mined just upstream on the west bank at the Wormley quarry.

“Stone! Stone!” an advertisement in the July 7, 1881 Kendall County Record and signed by George D. Wormley announced. At his quarry located one mile north of Oswego on the west side of the river, 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.”

1974 Melissa & Roger fishermen

Father and daughter on a 1974 fishing expedition. Fishing was good, catching not so much…

Those giant slabs of flagstone where Nathaniel Rising built his sawmill about 100 feet north of where I’m writing this, provided perfect fishing platforms and boat landings for us, not to mention wonderful backdrops for hours of make-believe play.

The low dams of our Midwestern rivers seldom provided enough head for the big overshot water wheels that powered mills in southern Illinois and in the East. Instead, tub wheels early on and then turbines, both of which were horizontal and not vertical affairs, were the most common around these parts. One of those old turbines has been preserved by the Fox Valley Park District up in the Montgomery riverside park, on the west bank immediately north of the bridge.

The mill ruins on the west bank of the river, which I can just barely make out through the trees today, were less spectacular. I suspect much of that mill’s foundational flagstone was reused by local residents for other purposes.

During the years, a couple small islands had formed atop the ruins of the old dam, one here on the east bank, and another, sort of small double island, almost to the west bank. The west bank island had a small inlet that was handy to dock a boat while we fished off its shore into the fast current rushing along the west bank. The little island on the east bank—everyone called it the Little Island—was our territory for all sorts of escapades.

When I bought my first shotgun (a three-shot bolt-action Mossberg 20-gauge) my neighbor John Morley and I built a duck blind on the Little Island and for two autumns in a row lay in wait for waterfowl that never came. In that day of polluted river water, we never saw a duck or goose for two solid years, other than ones migrating high overhead in the fall. None of them were dumb enough to land on the poisoned waters of the Fox River.

As fall segued into winter, we prayed for dry weather, the drier the better. Because with dry weather, the river level dropped and the current stilled so that when the first cold days came along, the surface froze. We watched it carefully, gingerly walking out onto the ice with a hatchet to chop a hole to test its thickness. When it reached three or four inches it was time to get the skates out of the basement, taken them up to Crosby Sporting Goods in Aurora to get them sharpened, and head out onto the ice.

The cold during those winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s was intense, and the Fox Valley’s creeks and springs (instead of municipal sewer plants) were still the river’s major tributaries. So the river often froze over completely, bank to bank. From here just below the old dam, we could skate south to the Oswego Bridge, or after carefully picking our way over the old dam’s remains, head north three miles to Boulder Hill. It was on one of those skating expeditions downriver to the Oswego Bridge that I discovered another one of those holes in the river bottom. A spring emptied into the river near a small island about a half mile south of our house and that, unbeknownst to me, kept the ice in that channel thin. Skating along, I heard the ice crack, and before I knew it, I was on the ice, one leg through the surface and in the water, the other still on top. What concerned me is that I couldn’t feel the bottom with my submerged skate, something wholly unexpected—not to mention a bit frightening. But I was able to lay flat, work my leg back through the hole in the ice, and crawl to firm ice. On the skate home through the bitter cold, the soaked leg of my jeans froze solid, making it a little challenging to keep going—but I made it and was even able to conceal the adventure from my parents, who surely would have forbade any further ice skating adventures on the river.

2018 Melissa Marie Matile crop

Melissa Marie Matile 1966-2018

My daughter and her neighborhood friends played up and down the river during their childhood, too, and were even able to skate once in a great while, although by the early 1970s, the river was already warming during the winter due to increased use of river water upstream. When my son came along, he, too, and his friends made the river their territory, although skating by them was almost totally out of the question.

So I sit and watch this familiar, but ever-changing scene of river and island and shoreline enjoyed by six generations of my family, with a seventh just starting the process as my grandtwins, my daughter’s beloved niece and nephew, start to take up their own residence here. It keeps those memories of my daughter all those years ago alive somehow as we try to process her sudden disappearance from our lives.

 

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Filed under family, Fox River, Nostalgia

Watching from my window as the Fox rolls by…

There’s no doubt the view out the window here at the new History Central beats the view out of old History Central, although my office space has shrunk by about two-thirds.

The window in my old office looked out onto an increasingly scraggly pine tree my great grandparents planted to provide a bit of shade for the cistern and well that were formerly located in back of the house they built in 1908. My parents eliminated the old cistern a few years after we moved to the house in 1954 by filling it in with gravel and dirt.

1815 Fox portage map

This 1815 map by Rene Paul of St. Louis illustrates the old portage to the upper Fox River from the Root River in Wisconsin (see top, just to left of center)

The well was likewise eliminated about 1960 when we found it had been polluted by septic field seepage from the new Cedar Glen Subdivision up the hill from our house. All the houses there were built outside Oswego’s village limits, and so were on well and septic. The leachate from all those septic fields seeped down through the sand and gravel on which Cedar Glen is built and contaminated all the wells in my folks’ neighborhood. Most of those wells were old and were shallow, hand-dug affairs. Ours was 14 feet deep, spring fed, and always had a foot and a half of water in it, no matter how hard the pump ran. It was delicious water, clear and cold, and registered as raw sewage when the county health department had it tested.

1838 Oswego 1838

The 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township shows Levi and Darwin Gorton’s gristmill and dam just north of the new Village of Oswego.

So my brother-in-law the well-driller moved his drill rig into the backyard in the summer of 1960 and drilled a new well, with an 8” casing driven down into the bedrock and sealed with a 6” casing inside it down to the soft water aquifer at about 200 feet. The space between the two pipes was filled with hydraulic cement to assure none of the polluted surface water could infiltrate. I got to dig the trench from the well to the house for the feed pipe, a couple feet wide and 5 feet deep, one of many ditches I dug for him that summer, something that suggested to me perhaps there were easier ways to make a living.

The old well was filled with gravel and sealed with concrete, and then my parents had a multi-level concrete patio area created atop both well and cistern that remained until we did a major patio renovation a few years ago.

The old pine tree survived all those trials and tribulations, although during the past 15 years or so, it’s begun to shed branches one at a time, branches that used to be festooned with our bird feeders during the winter. From my office window I could watch the birds and the squirrels that enjoyed the cover the old pine provided, and could, in the winter, at least, get a view up the hill to Ill. Route 25. As views went, it was mostly useful for figuring out whether it was raining or snowing—similar to my friend, Zael’s, state-of-the-art weather rock. If the rock is wet it’s raining; if it isn’t, it isn’t.

1900 abt Parker Mills

By the time Irvin Haines snapped this photo of the gristmill (background to the left) and the sawmill (right), both had been out of business for a few years and the dam was in very poor condition. Our new house would be located at the far left edge of this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

My new view looks out onto our backyard that slopes gently down to the riverbank and the channel between our island and the river’s main channel. It’s a spot on which I spent a lot of time as a kid, playing “Pop Up or Fly” or “Move-Up” with the neighborhood gang, and practicing with my bow and arrow and BB gun. The blob of concrete with a hand-forged U-bolt embedded in it that one of my long ago relatives poured on the limestone ledge making up the riverbank, and to which once I chained my river scow, is long gone, but the memories of those summers when so many hours were spent on the water are not.

Nor are the hours spent ice skating on the channel during the cold winters of the late 1950s and early 1960s when the river froze over from bank to bank. A fallen tree trunk along the riverbank offered a handy seat to change into skates for a glide downstream past the Lantz house to the Foose’s property. We’d clear a hockey rink on the ice down there for games improvised with sticks and anything solid for a puck. Also from there, a person could skate south all the way to the Route 34 bridge. Or I could skate north up the channel and carefully pick my way over a couple small riffles and patchy ice above Levi Gorton’s old dam for an early morning skate all the way north to Boulder Hill, accompanied by the echoing snaps and sharp cracks as the ice contracted in the frigid temperatures.

2018 8-8 Upstream to Gorton's dam

The view from our riverbank, upstream to the Gorton brothers’ dam site.

I’d always been fascinated with stories of the Native People that had lived here before the settlers. And it was even more interesting when I learned the French, all the way from Canada, would trade with local tribes for furs. So it was a big letdown when I finally determined the river had never been useful as a fur trade route.

The Fox varies considerably in depth depending on the season of the year. Often in the late summer, you can wade across the stretch I can see from my window without getting your shins wet. And, as it turns out, that extreme variability in depth made it unsuitable as a trade route for those hardy French voyageurs.

Click here for a map of the Fox River’s watershed

The river and its valley were carved out by a few tremendous glacial floods called torrents by geologists, and in a relatively short time, too. The sight of billions of gallons of water suddenly released as a huge glacial lake’s ice dam suddenly gave way must have been horribly spectacular as the water carved its way through the limestone and sandstone that underlay this area of northern Illinois.

2018 8-8 Donwn stream from Rising's mill

Standing on the foundation flagstones of Nathaniel Rising’s sawmill looking downstream. The river’s main channel is to the right.

The torrents left behind a slow-flowing, shallow river that varies in width considerably along its 223 mile length. In this, its middle section, the Fox is relatively wide, which means flooding is generally rare except above its low dams where the pools have filled with silt.

Three centuries ago, however, there were no dams on the Fox, but its depth still varied considerably with the season. In the autumn of 1698, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Jesuit missionary, was dispatched from Quebec to establish a mission among the Illinois Indians along the Mississippi and Illinois river. As St. Cosme’s party paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan they were advised of a possible shortcut. Writing back to his superiors, St. Cosme reported:

“Some savages had led us to hope that we could ascend this river and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [today’s Fox River; “Pesioui” meant buffalo] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river [Root] which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either, and that instead of shortening our journey we should have been obliged to go over forty leagues of portage roads; this compelled us to take the route by way of Chikagou which is distant about twenty leagues.”

Not that the good father probably found the Chicago-DesPlaines-Illinois river route any easier. During dry conditions, the Chicago portage could extend up to 60 miles.

The Root-Fox River portage route was fairly well known, and was marked on early maps, but it was never much used because of how shallow the Fox was over most of its length. It was bad enough when the fur trade was carried in the big birch bark canoes of the early years—those canoes, as big as they were, didn’t need much water float—but it got a lot worse early in the 19th Century when transport switched to Mackinac boats, which were heavier and required much deeper water.

So the Fox was never really used for transportation, although its course did tend to dictate where roads and, later, rail lines crossed. Oswego grew up where it did, in part, because of the high-quality ford across the river just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Less than a mile south of where I’m writing this, a hard limestone shelf scoured smooth by the ancient torrents and centuries of flowing river water, offered an excellent crossing that appealed first to the Native People who lived in the area, then to the first pioneers, and finally for the stagecoach road that crossed the river here.

2018 8-8 Dam timbers

Submerged timber frame members from the old dam are still visible just under the water.

The force of the river’s flow also provided power to operate the machinery of gristmills and sawmills. Damming the river to create hydraulic power began as soon as the very first settlers arrive, pioneer millwrights following immediately behind them. Just a few dozen yards upstream from where I’m sitting, Merritt Clark arrived in 1836 and opened a corn mill and chair factory over on the west bank of the river. Brothers Levi and Darwin Gorton built a better dam and a true gristmill a couple years later, which they sold to Nathaniel Rising and his partner, John Robinson. Although Robinson died soon after, Rising, and Robinson’s estate under the control of Zelotus E. Bell, added a sawmill here on the east bank of the river. You can still see the giant slabs of flagstone on both sides of the river that formed the mills’ foundations. And at low water, you can still see some of the old timber frame members that were part of the dam buried in the rocks and gravel.

So the view out of my window here at History Central has gotten a lot more historic, not to mention nostalgic, now that we’ve settled into our new digs. It’s even possible, I suppose, that the view will provide a little historical inspiration going forward. We shall see…

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History

We’re here!

Well, we made it.

The final move from the old Matile Manse to the new Matile Manse was accomplished on July 23, thanks to work by Two Men and a Truck, my two energetic kids, and us two decrepit oldsters. The Metronet guys arrived on schedule to switch our broadband, landline, and cable TV service from across the street, so by the night of July 23 we were able to sleep in our own bed.

A week later, we’re now starting to finally settle into our new house. And it’s new in more ways than one. My great grandparents built the old Matile Manse in 1908 as their retirement home after turning their farming operation over to their sons. They lived in their new house for 35 years before their deaths a few months apart during World War II. So my wife and I beat their tenure by seven years with our 42 years of occupancy.

Now my son and his wife are moving into the old home place to carry on the family tradition.

1859 Oswego & Troy

The industrial suburb of Troy, just north of Oswego as it appeared in 1859. Each black dot represents a structure.

The story of our neighborhood down here on North Adams Street in the old Village of Troy starts back in the 1830s. In 1836, Merritt Clark arrived in the Oswego area and built a corn mill on the west bank of the Fox River, about three-quarters of a mile north of Oswego, which had been laid out in 1834 by Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold. Judson and Arnold called their village Hudson, but it was renamed Oswego in 1837 when postal service began.

Levi Gorton and William Wormley built a dam across the Fox River at Clark’s mill site that same year to provide waterpower, and Clark reportedly added a chair factory to his corn milling operation. Later that same year, however, Clark apparently sold his business, including the mill and dam, to Levi Gorton and his brother, Darwin. The Gortons, apparently unsatisfied with Clark’s rudimentary mill, started construction that year—1837— of a grist mill on the same site. The new mill was ready for operation the following year.

Sometime prior to 1840, the Gortons sold their mill and dam to Nathaniel A. Rising. Rising and his partner, John Robinson, added a store to the grist mill and continued the business the Gortons had founded.

In 1848, Rising and Robinson decided to plat a new village around their mill and dam. Robinson apparently died that year, however, so Rising worked with Zelolus E. Bell, who was acting on behalf of the estate of the now-deceased Robinson, to officially lay out the new Town of Troy on several acres at the east end of the mill dam. The official plat of the new village was recorded on June 24, 1848 at the Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego.

The new village almost, but not quite, adjoined the 15-block Loucks Addition to the north of the original village of Oswego, platted by Walter Loucks in 1842.

1870 Oswego & Troy

By 1870 when this map was published, Troy had fewer buildings and wasn’t even denoted with it’s own name on the map.

As laid out, Troy was bounded by Summit Street (now Ill. Route 25) to the east and the Fox River to the west. As originally numbered, the village consisted of Blocks 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 18, 19, 20, and 21. What happened to blocks 1 through 4, 8, and 11-17 has been lost in the mists of local history.

Summit and Water streets ran parallel to the riverbank, while (listed from north to south) First, Second, Main, and Third streets were platted perpendicular to the other two streets.

Rising and Bell added a sawmill at the east end of their dam to compliment the west bank gristmill, as well as a store on the gristmill site. But they didn’t operate the business very long because in 1852 they sold the mills, dam, store and all other parts of Troy that remained unsold to William O. Parker, a Canadian immigrant.

When the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was built from Streator through Ottawa and up the east bank of the Fox River through Yorkville and Oswego to Geneva, its route passed through the village of Troy, turning it into a sort of industrial suburb of Oswego. With rail service handy, the Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting operation above Parker’s dam. The business eventually comprised 14 gigantic ice houses that were filled each winter with 200 lb. blocks of ice insulated with sawdust from Parker’s sawmill and the furniture factory he had added there about 1870.

1890 abt Ice Houses

This early 1890s snapshot by Irvin Haines gives some perspective on just how massive the Esch Brothers & Rabe ice houses were. (Little White School Museum collection)

The ice business was huge, with up to 75 men hired each winter to cut and store thousands of tons of blocks of ice in the icehouses. As an indication of how big the business was, the railroad built a siding to handle all the rail cars used for ice shipments. In August 1880, Esch Brothers & Rabe shipped 124 rail car loads of ice from their Oswego operation.

When my great-great grandparents moved to a small house on Lot 1, Block 10 of Troy about 1870, the little community’s boom was just beginning. My great-great grandmother earned money weaving rag rugs as well as renting beds—not rooms, but beds—to railroad, and later ice company, workers, while my great-great grandfather worked for the railroad or doing whatever he could to earn a few dollars.

One of their daughters, Annalydia–called Annie by the family–married Edward Haines and the couple built a small house at the corner of Water and Second streets where they raised their family.

1900 abt Parker Mills

The Parker gristmill (left, rear) and sawmill and furniture factory (right) as they looked near the turn of the 20th Century. The house at left foreground was moved farther to the left in 1908 to make room for Amelia and John Peter Lantz’s new Queen Anne-style home.

So when another of their daughters, Amelia, and her husband John Peter Lantz decided to retire from farming in 1908, it was not surprising they decided to have their retirement home built in Troy. They chose to build the house on Lot 8 in Block 9. In order to do so, they moved the small house already on the property over to Lot 7 and turned it into a town barn to house their milk cow, driving horse, and chickens, adding a carriage shed to the north side. And to do the building, they chose their nephew, Annie and Edward Haines’ son, Irvin, one of Oswego’s better-known carpenters.

By that time, the ice industry was long gone, killed by a combination of horrific pollution of the Fox River and the development of economical mechanical ice production. The sawmill and furniture factory, after its heyday in the 1880s churning out walnut furniture, closed, as did the gristmill on the west end of the dam when it was replaced by steam-powered mills that didn’t depend on the vagaries of river water levels. The sawmill burned a few years before Amelia and John Peter built their new house. The gristmill remained a landmark until it was dismantled in the 1920s and its timbers used to add onto the old stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge to create Turtle Rock Inn.

Matile Manse

The old Matile Manse, now turned over to another generation to treasure.

Meanwhile, the streets and blocks and lots Rising and Bell platted 170 years ago last month still survived, though mostly on old maps. Second Street still connected Summit Street–today’s Ill. Route 25–with Water Street–today’s North Adams Street. But the rest of the village platted in 1848 remains a ghostly grid. And then in the 1990s, Oswego offered to annex old Troy, and residents along North Adams Street agreed that would be a good idea.

As the decades passed, the family-owned property here in the old Village of Troy was sold off, but Amelia and John Peter’s home stayed in the family, owned by their daughter and husband—my grandparents—and then my parents before my wife and I bought it in 1976. Now it’s going to go to one more generation—the fifth—to enjoy its location and its sturdy construction for, hopefully, several more years.

IMG_1583.JPG

The new (as of July 23) Matile Manse as it looked a few Novembers ago.

Across the street from the old house were two vacant lots bordering the Fox River where my uncle, when he and my aunt lived here in the 1940s and early 1950s, farmed. When we moved in from the farm, those lots turned into the neighborhood baseball diamond, go-cart track, fishing hole, and river scow dock that provided thousands of hours of entertainment for the gang of Baby Boomers growing up on North Adams Street in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then in 1984, my oldest sister, Eileen, decided to build her dream house on those two lots with their river frontage. She hired my best friend’s dad, Stan Young, to do the building using a plan she sketched out herself. She and her husband lived in the house through his death in 1998 and until she contracted multiple myeloma and was no longer able to care for her beloved home. In 2011, she sold the house to a young couple with two children, all of whom greatly enjoyed their place on the banks of the Fox River until they moved to Ohio due to a job change.

2018 7-30 View from History Central

The view from History Central this morning included the island just off our shoreline of which we are now reportedly part owners.

Which is where my wife and I came into the picture from our vantage point just across the street. And now here we are, having survived the move, though we’re still putting stuff away and looking for lost items (Where the heck are all the microfiber dust cloths? Has anybody seen the box with the bookends in it? Is my flintlock musket someplace where it won’t fall down and hurt somebody?). It’s a given we won’t be here for 42 years, but I do hope we’ll be able to pass this, our new house, down to one more generation.

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Local History, Nostalgia, People in History