Category Archives: Nostalgia

What’s in a name? A job, a trade, a profession, that’s what

The late Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, was once the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Harry Fuller was the former, and long-time, village president here in Oswego, Illinois. My friend Tom Fletcher is a retired history teacher and former member of the Kendall County Board.

What does each of these people have in common? Each has a last name that is descriptive of a trade that is, largely, lost in the mists of time.

Once upon a time, even here in our area of northern Illinois, individual craftsmen (and women) worked to provide residents with the things they needed to live comfortable lives. Unlike today, people living in the 19th Century did not go to a huge department or hardware store and purchase things like shoes, clothing, tools, or other necessary items. Instead, they went to individual craftsmen and women, who in turn, made each item by hand. These craftspeople, working in their specific trades, each had a name that described their profession, a name that was eventually given as a surname to the descendants of those who first engaged in those trades.

The best-known of these professionals were the smiths. Since there were so many kinds of smiths—coppersmiths, tinsmiths (also known as whitesmiths), and blacksmiths to name a few—there are a corresponding large number of families with the name of Smith.

1880 abt Young blacksmith shop retou

At his shop, located at Tyler and Madison streets in Oswego and shown here about 1880, John Young did both blacksmith and farrier work, and also built wagons and did wheelwright work. (Little White School Museum collection)

While blacksmithing is still commercially practiced today, it is a much more limited trade than in the past. A century and a half ago, blacksmiths, doing business in every crossroads hamlet and town in the country, manufactured and repaired the tools that built America, as well as turning out more mundane things such as nails, bolts, and hinges that literally held homes and businesses together. But early on, blacksmiths did not shoe horses, mules, and oxen—that job was done by the farrier. Gradually, however, the term blacksmith came to mean, in common speech, someone who shoes horses, even though those tradespeople are still officially farriers. Today’s modern blacksmiths, like my friend Tom Korthauer, specialize in sharpening, repairing, and sometimes making tools.

Another smith, the gunsmith, spent his time making and repairing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Before guns came into wide usage, English archers became feared for use of their longbows (made by boyers) that fired arrows with shafts a cloth-yard in length. Those arrows were made by fletchers.

Meanwhile, the cooper was busy making barrels, pails, panikins, piggins, and other wooden containers while using the specialized drawknives, pod augers, and kerfing saws of his trade.

Even coopers specialized, however, and white coopers, for instance, usually found in larger towns, made mostly round grain measures, firkins, sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of basswood or poplar shaved thin with sharp drawknives.

firkin

A firkin is a small to medium wooden cask that can come either with or without a handle.

Wrights also derive their names from a wide variety of skills. Housewrights, not surprisingly, built houses. More specifically, housewrights were responsible for the framing and all the materials of the shell— the four walls and roof. The inside of the house, the woodwork and built-in cabinets, were finished by joiners who, again, worked their creative magic with specialized tools.

Millwrights were the jack-of-all-trades specialists who not only built the mill buildings, but who also were experienced at the critical work of siting and building dams and manufacturing mill machinery. Professionals who only operated mills and who were responsible for maintaining and sharpening the millstones were known as millers, a trade that has become another common surname.

Cartwrights built two-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles while wagonwrights, or wainwrights, built wagons and other four-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles. They build the wagon running gears and boxes before making use of the output from the local wheelwright. Of the two—wagons and wheels—wheels were far more complicated to make and good wheelwrights were worth their weight in gold.

In order that hides from either wild or domestic animals could be used, they had to be tanned and softened. Hides were tanned by the tanner, a process that dried and chemically preserved the leather. After a hide is tanned, however, it is very stiff (rawhide). In order to make it pliable and give it a good surface finish, the leather had to be processed by the currier.

Spinning

Spinning was one of the many home crafts that disappeared when cheap factory-made cloth became available.

Instead of buying their clothing, pioneers made their own. They grew the sheep that were sheared for wool and the flax plants that could then be spun into woolen and linen yarn. The spinning was often done by older unmarried female family members, thus the not particularly kindly term spinster. The spun yarn was then made into cloth by the weaver.

After wool was woven into cloth it had to be fulled to cleanse it of oil and dirt and to compact its fibers and raise the nap. At first, this was done at fulling parties where neighbors sat in a circle and stamped on the soap-saturated cloth with their feet. This was neither efficient nor very effective, however, for large-scale wool making. So, fullers built and maintained mills that did the work with wooden machines powered either by animals or by water.

Shoes were made by the shoemaker, who was sometimes called a cordwainer until the early 18th Century. Shoes were repaired by the cobbler.

These and other traditional crafts have provided the basis for a good deal the names in modern phone listings. Tailors made clothing while chandlers made candles and tinkers repaired metalware such as pails and basins. Carters drove carts and wagons while baxters (or bakers) produced baked goods. Parkers maintained parks while foresters maintained forests. A collier mined or sold coal while a sherman (or shearman) trimmed the nap of freshly woven woolen cloth.

For those of us interested in history and how things came to be, it is noteworthy that something as commonplace as a phone listing carries clues to the way our culture has developed and changed during the past 400 years.

 

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The farming calendar once ruled Fox Valley life

Even the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic can’t alter the rhythm of the seasons. So sheltering in place or not, spring is here and another planting season for farmers here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley is upon us.

The various orders from state and local officials to avoid crowds and stay out of public won’t have much effect on this year’s planting season, although some items farmers need, such as protective gloves and masks might be hard to come by, because farming is a pretty solitary endeavor.

Farmers are already out in their fields working the ground for planting. There won’t be much planting just yet because there’s still a pretty good risk of frost, but it won’t be long until it starts. And when it does, it will, like the harvest, use up every day’s good, dry daylight until the job’s done.

These days, farmers either specialize in grain or in some form of livestock. Most around these parts are grain farmers. But things were quite different in the past—and not all that far in the past, either, unless you consider the 1950s some sort of distant historical epoch. And I guess I understand if you do, although it seems a lot like just yesterday to me.

Farmers of the ‘50s worked smaller farms and engaged in diversified agriculture. That meant growing a wider variety of crops than is the norm today, as well as keeping livestock around the place as a money-maker and not as a hobby.

Today’s major crops of soybeans and corn were joined 70 years ago by oats, rye, barley, perhaps a bit of wheat, and hay crops like alfalfa, clover, and timothy. Farmyards were busy places since a lot of diversified farms kept at least a milk cow or two, hogs, chickens, and, in the fall, beef cattle.

3 1938 Husking Stewart corn

In 1938, Graeme Stewart used a 2-row Case husker to harvest two rows of corn at a time. (Little White School Museum collection)

The crops grown on diversified farms fitted together with the farmers’ livestock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some corn was used to feed cattle during the winter, with most of it sent off to market. Soybeans were also market crops, but beans, at least on our farm, weren’t used as animal feed. The small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—could be used as feed, and the left-over straw from their dried stems was used as livestock bedding. Northern Illinois, after the settlement era, was not wheat country due to the climate so a wheat field during that era was, as it is today, a curiosity. Hay crops like alfalfa were baled during the summer growing season and used as fodder for feeder cattle during the winter.

1940 Stewart farming corn

After husked ear corn dried in this temporary bin in 1950, Graeme Stewart hired a machine to come to his farm to shell it. The corn was then either hauled to market or kept to feed animals on the farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

The puzzle pieces of crops and livestock began to be put together during the spring planting season. Farmers rotated crops to allow the soil to rest and to recharge it with nutrients. Corn ground was planted the next year either with beans, alfalfa, or timothy. Beans fix nitrogen with their roots, which, in turn, helped the corn, oats, or other crop to grow better the next year. Alfalfa and timothy, plowed under in the fall or spring, also returned nutrients to the ground, too. Some farmers tried to get a jump on spring fieldwork by plowing in the fall, but many did not, both because they were too busy harvesting and because wind erosion of bare plowed land could be substantial during Illinois’ often windy winters.

After plowing and harrowing in the spring, the ground was seeded. Corn and beans were planted in rows to allow easier weeding—called cultivating by the farmers. Oats and other small grains were broadcast on the ground, usually from an endgate seeder on the back of a wagon, although they were planted in rows with grain drills in some farming areas. Hay crops like alfalfa were seeded with endgate seeders, too.

2010 12-row corn combine

By 2010, combine harvesters like this John Deere could pick and shell 12 rows of corn at once, vastly increasing farm productivity. (Daily Globe News photo, Worthing, MN)

When the crops began to grow, it was time to hire some local youngsters to walk the bean rows to hoe out volunteer corn stalks. The annual crop rotation resulted in corn growing up in bean rows, and other problems, too, including milkweeds, velvet weeds, and other pests. Although tractor-mounted cultivators could plow between the rows and uproot weeds, it was harder to get between the plants. Some farmers still “horse-stepped” or checked their corn rows, leaving equal spaces between each hill to allow diagonal cultivating, but the technique sharply cut the number of plants in a field, and thus reduced the yield. Most relied on teenagers (or themselves) walking the rows with sharp hoes to cut out “volunteer” stalks of corn in the beans and other weedy pests. Morning glories, hollyhocks, and other pests my farmer father roundly cursed (and which now turn up in trendy perennial gardens) also had to be hacked and burned out of fence rows by hand. Today’s effective herbicides have largely made those chores obsolete.

The small grains ripened first and were harvested in mid to late summer. By the 1950s, the huge steam-powered threshing machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had given way to tractor-towed combined harvesters compact, efficient, and economical enough for individual farmers to buy their own.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

Steam threshing outfits like this one owned by the East Oswego Threshing Ring were obsolete by the end of World War II. One combine could do the work of all this machinery, plus others needed for the small grain harvest.

During the steam threshing era, most farmers could not afford their own machines and so banded together in cooperatives to buy a threshing outfit that consisted of the threshing machine, a steam tractor to power it, and generally a water wagon and/or a coal wagon. During the harvest season, the machine was moved from farm to farm of the members of the cooperative to harvest their grain in turn, and thus the general name for these groups: Threshing rings.

But by the 1950s, most farmers harvested their own grain, which was either hauled to the nearest grain elevator for sale or storage or stored on the farm for use as animal feed. Oats, once the fuel that powered horse-driven farm implements, was mostly used by the 1950s for hog feed, although there was still a market for it as a food grain. The straw left in the field after the combines finished their harvest was raked and baled for use as animal bedding during the winter months.

1950 tractor-pulled combine

By the 1950s, one farmer with a tractor-pulled combine could harvest as much grain as a dozen farmers using a threshing outfit, and do it an order of a magnitude faster.

Soybeans ripened next, and were also harvested with combines. The stalks were not usable for feed or bedding, however, and so were left in the field to be plowed under and added back to the soil.

As fall rolled around, corn picking time approached. Farmers used either towed or tractor-mounted machines that picked and husked the orange-yellow ears, which were stored in the farms’ corn cribs to dry. After the ears had thoroughly dried, the kernels were shelled from them local businessmen who owned corn shellers. Corn shellers, like the threshing machines of previous years, were usually too expensive for an individual farmer to buy, and so a business niche was created.

modern grain combine

Modern computer-controlled grain combines are bigger, faster and more efficient than their 1950s ancestors, as well as more expensive and far more complicated.

After the corn harvest, cattle and hogs were turned into the fields—all of which were fenced—to glean the grain that had not been picked up by the mechanical harvesters.

During the winter months, the straw baled during the late summer harvest was used to bed chickens in their nests and cattle in their shed. Alfalfa was fed to cattle in feed bunks along with commercially purchased feed supplements and sometimes—if the farm had a silo—silage that had been put in the silo earlier. Hogs apparently enjoyed what my father called slop, made with either water or raw milk from our cow mixed with oats ground to a course flour.

In the spring, the cattle and hogs were sent off to market, and the cattle yard and hog and chicken houses were cleaned of the manure that had accumulated over the winter. The waste was then loaded aboard manure spreaders (ours carried the upbeat brand name, “New Idea”), and spread on fields, retuning the nutrients back to the soil.

And then whole process began again.

Except for the Amish and a few other small groups, diversified farms are as dead today as the Dodo Bird. Modem crop science and mechanical technology have helped boost crop yields. Today, a modern combine can be fitted with heads to harvest corn, with the corn efficiently removed from the cobs as it’s harvested—thus no more need for the neighborhood corn sheller—as well as any other grain from oats to wheat. But even with all that modern technology, crop science, and chemicals, a visitor to rural areas still sees the occasional stalk of stunted corn intruding into a neat field of soybeans or velvet weeds marring the perfectly straight rows of young corn.

A time-traveling farmer from the 1950s would have no trouble identifying today’s farms, and, in a month or so, what crops are growing on them. He would, however, probably be surprised at the size of the farms and the equipment working on them as well as the small number of farmers needed to handle today’s sprawling agricultural operations.

 

 

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That’s a lot of bologna…

Was just making out our sheltering-in-place grocery list and found myself adding Oscar Mayer bologna. Which, of course, started the

My bologna has a first name;
it’s O-S-C-A-R.
My bologna has a second name;
it’s M-A-Y-E-R.

jingle rattling through my head nonstop.

Ring bologna

Ring bologna’s never been one of my favs, but my dad really liked the stuff, thanks to childhood memories.

But it also brought up bologna for lunches in decades past. LOTS of decades. My dad had a soft spot in his heart for bologna. Turned out that when he was a little kid growing up in poor, rural Kansas and the family would take the horse and wagon into the little village of Madison to do the weekly shopping, the children looked forward to a treat. If there was enough money left over after buying the necessary staples, the kids would be treated to sharing a ring bologna as they sat, swinging their barefooted legs, on the back of the wagon on the way home.

So we ate quite a bit of it when I was a kid growing up on a farm out in then-rural Wheatland Township here in Illinois. We never, however, ate the stuff fried. Long after I was grown and raised I heard some people actually eat their bologna fried—and LIKE it. The thought of it sort of gives me a queasy stomach to this day.

At home, early on, I preferred my bologna with a slice of good old American cheese (none of that fancy-schmancy Longhorn or Colby stuff for me!) and mustard. But I also came to enjoy my sisters’ and my mom’s favorite method of making a sandwich with bologna, lettuce and Miracle Whip—which my mother always called salad dressing, for some reason.

1953 interior grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School in the spring of 1953. No cafeteria–we had to take our lunches–but we did have a fireplace!

When I was 6 and went to school—no kindergarten out in the country (or in many towns for that matter)—we all carried our lunches in colorful lithographed steel lunchboxes with a Thermos bottle clipped inside. Those glass-lined Thermos bottles were marvels that kept soup hot or milk cold. But they also broke easily when dropped, and kids drop things a lot. The standard procedure after dropping our lunchbox with the Thermos inside, or dropping the Thermos itself was to shake it and listen for the sound of broken class scritching around inside.

For those first two and a half years of school, I alternated between bologna and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and that largely continued until we moved to town in the middle of my third grade year.

But in town, we had at least three choices for lunch during the school year. We could continue taking our lunch from home, although colorful steel lunchboxes were out in terms of fashion and brown lunch bags were in. My mother, a great saver, insisted that I bring the bags home to be reused.

1961 OHS Cafeteria ladies

The cafeteria ladies at Oswego High School fed every kid in town who wanted a hot lunch. In fact, it’s where I ate every hot lunch during my school years from the second half of my third grade year until I graduated from high school. After all these years, I only recognize two of them, Mrs. Fiscus on the far left (mother of my classmate Terry Fiscus) and Bernice Bower on the far right (an old, old family friend).

The second choice was to get a hot meal at the cafeteria. Our small town had one cafeteria in the high school basement, several blocks east of our elementary building. That meant that when the bell rang for lunch, anyone wanting a hot meal had to run the blocks up Polk Street to the high school, rush down the basement, and stand in the queue while waiting to go through the lunch line. We quickly learned which foods it was worth all the trouble to run the blocks there and back. For me, that included their toasted cheese sandwiches, which were cheese sandwiches that had been wrapped in tinfoil and baked instead of being fried on a griddle. I have tried—and failed—as an adult to recreate those things with their crunchy outside and tender, gooey interior with no luck at all.

1957 Red Brick flag raising

Rob Chada (right) and Mike Ode raise the flag at the old Red Brick School in the spring of 1957. For lunch, we either ate in, walked to the high school cafeteria several blocks away, or went home. (Little White School Museum collection)

I’ve always thought that it was remarkable that school authorities allowed all of us elementary students to take off and go all that way for lunch. And as an adult, I’ve also thought it was remarkable that we all came back again. But in those days, if we misbehaved on the way to the cafeteria someone would be bound to call our parents at home to let them know. In those days, the whole village was interested in raising children, whether the children liked it or not.

My third option in town was to be invited to my grandmother’s for lunch. She made the best pancakes in the world, and it was only a couple blocks to my grandparents’ house, just a couple minutes on my bike. I’ve never been able to figure out why Grandma’s pancakes were so much better than my mother’s ever were. The best I’ve had since are at the Bob Evans restaurants.

Oscar Mayer bologna

After all these years, Oscar Mayer is still my favorite bologna.

Throughout junior high and high school, I still had the occasional bologna sandwich in my school lunch, although they were much more common as lunches at home, especially during the summer when those bologna, lettuce, and Miracle Whip sandwiches were a lunch staple at our kitchen table.

After my wife and I married, I was pleased to find out that she liked bologna sandwich as much—if not more—than I do. We imparted that love to our daughter, but our son never caught the bologna fever. And frankly, he’s never been able to figure out what the lure of the stuff is.

But it’s well into spring, and there are warm sunny days now. And after working out in the yard during these shelter-in-place days, our fancy turns to bologna, lettuce, and Miracle Whip (or do you call it salad dressing?) between two slices of fresh Butternut or Rainbo bread that not only satisfy our hunger but also bring back the memories of a couple family generations.

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After 42½ years, no more newspaper deadlines to meet—for the time being…

For the past 42½ years, come every Sunday evening I’m starting to think about a topic for a column—I’ve been writing a weekly column that mostly deals with local history for a weekly newspaper here in Oswego since the early autumn of 1977.

So it seemed more than a bit odd this past Sunday to realize I wasn’t working against any sort of deadline at all. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the newspaper group that owns the weekly Oswego Ledger has decided to suspend all their stringers—including columnists like me—“for the time being.” Not sure if that means forever, but given the newspaper business’s on-going financial problems it wouldn’t surprise me.

I started writing a local history column I called “Epochs” back in 1977, which my old elementary school classmate Dave Dreier published in the Fox Valley Sentinel.

1949 Oswego Ledger flagBack in those days, Oswego had two weekly newspapers. The Oswego Ledger was the oldest paper, having been started by Ford Lippold in 1949. Ford published the Ledger on a Mimeograph machine in his basement, with his whole family participating in assembling each week’s edition. The Ledger was a local institution that, while it was a free distribution weekly duplicated on tan 8-1/2 x 11” paper, covered the local news pretty professionally. In March 1965, Ann and Don Krahn bought the Ledger and turned it into an offset printed tabloid-sized paper, still published weekly but on a subscription basis.

1949 Oswego Ledger front pageI lost touch with Dave Dreier after his folks moved up to North Aurora when we were in sixth grade. As an adult, he had been involved in a variety of business interests before he came back to the Oswego area and went to work for the Krahns at the Ledger. Shortly thereafter, Dave and his friend Steve Keierlieber decided to start a competing Oswego weekly they named the Fox Valley Sentinel. Their business plan called for them to not only cover Oswego, but also Kendall County government as well as expanding coverage north to Montgomery, Aurora, the East and West Aurora school districts, and the Kane County Board. Their first issue was published in 1974, and from the beginning the competition between the Sentinel and the Ledger was fierce.

As for myself, I had no idea I could write until my wife and I volunteered to help produce a county history during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. Until the county history was published, the commission turned out a series of monographs on local historical topics (two of which I co-wrote and two of which I helped edit) as well as the hard covered history itself in which I was responsible for writing a couple chapters and helping edit others. The books and monographs proved popular and helped fund the county’s celebration.

1982 Bartlett House cropped

The Fox Valley Sentinel office was located in the historic Bartlett House on Main Street in Oswego. Built about 1837, it may be the oldest house in Oswego.

By 1977, I was forced to retire from my job due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, and was looking for something I could do at home to earn a little money. Since the history we’d produced during the Bicentennial proved pretty popular I figured maybe I could write a local history column. I hadn’t seen Dave for nearly 20 years, but when I stopped down at the Sentinel office, we hit it right off again. I pitched my idea to him about writing a column on local history topics. Unlike a lot of budding columnists, I at least had some published examples of my writing to show. And it didn’t hurt that we were old, old friends.

Did I think there’d be enough material to do more than a few columns, he wondered. Yes, I said, I thought there’d be enough for several. Well, write three and bring them back and Dave said he’d see. Which I did, and which he did, and he offered me the gig.

“What do you want to call the column,” he wondered. “It’s got to have a title.” I had no idea, really, it turning out that coming up with headlines is something I’m really bad at (as you can tell if you’ve read much of this lame blog). But I finally suggested “Epochs” had a sort of historical ring to it, and he thought that would work. My first piece was published in the Sentinel on Sept. 1, 1977. And except for the odd hospital stay and various non-hospitalized illnesses I’ve been writing a column a week ever since.

Sentinel Flag 1978Dave prevailed on me sometime in 1978 to cover some of the Sentinel’s news beats. I reminded him I had no journalism experience other than writing my “Epochs” column, to which he replied that he didn’t have any, either, and so what? And after witnessing the horrible political news coverage during the past few decades, I have to admit that my one-time awe of J-school grads has pretty much disappeared.

Newswriting, Dave explained as we sat in his cluttered Sentinel office, isn’t much different than writing a history column. The writing should be clear, accurate, and fair. Write news stories like you’re explaining the topic to your parents, he suggested. Then pulling a crumpled envelope out of the overflowing wastebasket next to his desk, he drew an upside-down pyramid on the back with a blue editing pen and explained, “This is the inverted pyramid. You write your stories like an inverted pyramid Put the important stuff up front, and less important stuff farther down so I can cut the less important parts if we’re tight on space. It’s really not difficult.”

And I found that after telling readers historical stories I’d researched for a while, writing news stories wasn’t difficult—but it was challenging. Get a date wrong in a historical piece by a couple years, and who would know or care? But getting a decimal point wrong in a tax story and a LOT of people cared. Since I’d grown up in Oswego, a lot of the people on boards and commissions had known me since I was a little kid, and they weren’t the least bit shy of collaring me at the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station to let me know what they thought about stories in the most recent edition.

I’d always disliked math, but after school I’d found myself working for a company where all I did all day was math, using a giant, startlingly noisy mechanical Frieden calculator. The main thing I took away from that job was memorizing the decimal equivalents of fractions all the way up to 32nds. So it was actually a relief of sorts when I was forced to retire from doing math all day. But in writing local news, I found I was back doing lots of math once again, figuring percentages of property tax increases, working on local taxing agency budgets, writing census stories, trying to explain school test scores—you name it.

By the summer of 1980, Dave had come to the conclusion that the Oswego area’s advertising base really couldn’t support two weekly papers. By that time, Jeff and Kathy Farren had added the Ledger to their small Kendall County Record, Inc. chain, joining joined the Kendall County Record and the Plano Record. Dave and Jeff talked things over down at the Oswego American Legion bar and Dave agreed to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens. The Farrens merged the two papers, with the new paper named the Ledger-Sentinel.

Ledger flag2000Along with adding newswriting to my part-time job, I’d also kept writing my weekly column and when the Farrens bought the Sentinel, they asked me if I’d come on board as the new paper’s part-time editor, photographer, reporter, janitor, whatever. And they asked if I’d continue writing my column. Jeff and Kathy didn’t care for the name—neither did I—so we decided to change it to “Reflections,” and “Reflections” it’s remained right up until today.

I retired from the news business in March 2008, but I agreed to continue writing “Reflections” every week. When the Farrens decided to retire in 2015, they sold the paper to a large newspaper group. I was asked to continue writing my column. The paper’s name was soon changed back to the Oswego Ledger, but I continued writing “Reflections” for each edition. Until last week.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The author at work at the Kendall County Record office on a summer Wednesday morning in 1989, transferring files from his TRS-80 laptop to a Mac so they can be edited and run out for paste-up.

The newspaper business has been in serious financial trouble for years, partly because of changes in technology and partly because too many news organizations–especially at the national level–seem to have lost their way, turning management over to accountants instead of news people and allowing their news judgment to be influenced by focus groups and other such corporate-influenced nonsense. And now the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be adding to the existing problem in a way that stands to destroy so many of the weekly papers that still manage to survive, the ones that cover the births and deaths and marriages and local government, school news, and other information communities rely on. And that will be a real tragedy.

Weeklies have withstood a number of serious challenges, especially in small towns where farming was once the mainstay of the surrounding region. Technology and scientific crop advances have drastically reduced the number of farmers needed to till the soil, and that has had major negative impacts on the population of the small towns that were interdependent on farming. Fading populations have led to disappearing churches, social, and civic organizations, and declining school enrollments. The invasion of rural America by big chains like Walmart and the dollar stores has largely destroyed whatever locally-owned businesses remained. And with that went the advertising base that once supported local newspapers. For years, the big chains refused to advertise in weeklies, preferring direct mail instead. Hundreds of communities lost their churches, their schools through consolidation, their downtown business districts, and, as a result, the newspapers that once helped tie those communities together.

2020 Ledger flagI’m hoping against hope that doesn’t happen to Shaw Media, the company that owns the Oswego Ledger and the other papers in the KendallCountyNOW newspaper group. Communities need local newspapers to make sure everyone’s informed about what’s going on. After all, who has time to raise a family and go to all the local governmental meetings that take place throughout the month, from the village, park, and library boards, to the county board, the fire district board, and all the others?

As for me, I’ll continue collecting local history and interpreting it down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum before it all gets thrown in the nearest Dumpster. And I’ll also continue to preserve and publish as much local history as I can by here at History on the Fox to preserve it, at least as long as this electronic format lasts, while I wait to see what happens to the Oswego Ledger and my old place on each week’s opinion page.

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These are a few of my…

It’s just about Christmas, and most of us are looking forward to some quality family time around the tree, maybe at church, and possibly at the dinner table.

It sounds as if we’ll be enjoying one of those spiral-cut hams here at the Matile Manse on Christmas Day. No Christmas goose for this family, Uncle Scrooge. We tried doing goose for Christmas back in the 1970s and both times we were so sick with the respiratory flu we couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in a family dinner. We decided Someone was trying to tell us something, so no more goose on the Matile table.

This is also the time of year we remember those Christmases past and the special treats we enjoyed so much. My Aunt Evelyn’s divinity, Grandma Holzhueter’s sugar and molasses cookies, and my mom’s apple and pumpkin pies were all integral parts of Christmas we looked forward to.

1956 Schwinn Corvette

The Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 in a cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

And, of course, there were the presents under the tree. I remember the toy service station I got one year, along with a car transporter truck, loaded with four pastel-colored plastic Hudsons. And, of course, the Christmas when I was seven and got my first Lionel train. Yes, I did get a Red Ryder lever-action carbine when I was 9 or so, and that great red and chrome Schwinn Corvette bike when I was 11 was a beauty. It also taught me, the day I got it, to NEVER do a panic stop with the front wheel caliper brakes while going down our steep gravel driveway.

As the holiday approaches, and with nothing better to do than recover from the persistent cold I’ve had for the past several days, I thought I’d just list a few of my current favorite things, along with some of my pet peeves as 2019 comes to a close. So, with very little further ado, here are a few of my…

Favorite gadgets…

Towel bar

My trusty heated towel bar

When I take my shower every morning, I thank providence for my warming towel bar. The gadget is fixed to the wall in our first floor bath, and gently heats and dries our towels. There is NOTHING better than grabbing a warm towel after exiting the shower.

I’ve carried a pocketknife for decades, starting when I was in grade school. These days, students would probably be either jailed or sent for counseling if they turned up at school with a pocketknife but it was another time back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. To start with, I carried a farmer’s friend pocketknife just like my dad’s. Before he retired in 1964, he sold livestock feed for the Moorman Manufacturing Company of Quincy, IL. The company gave out premiums to farmers for buying their products, and one year around 1958 or so, the premium was a nice four-blade Case pocketknife. I carried that until I discovered Swiss Army Knives back some decades ago. My current Swiss Army version was a Christmas gift from my daughter about 15 years ago. One of my most useful gadgets, I use its knife blade, nail file, and folding scissors just about every day. Less frequently, I use the tiny built-in LED flashlight and retractable ballpoint pen. But its built-in 2gb thumb drive is something I frequently use to carry back-up files around. Clever people, those Swiss knife makers.

Swiss Army Knife

My Swiss Army Knife, complete with sneaker net USB drive.

Those of us with ankylosing spondylitis, after our spines finish calcifying, can no longer bend over to pick up errant coins dropped, shoes, or papers. So to deal with the situation, I’ve got my Gopher picker-uppers scattered around the house and out in the garage and in the storage shed. Since they fold, they’re easy to take on trips, too. A related tool I use just about every day is my collapsible shoehorn that lives on a shelf in my closet.

New food finds…

I tried Popeye’s much-ballyhooed chicken sandwich a couple weeks ago, and have to admit the ballyhoo was fully warranted. I tried Burger King’s spicy chicken sandwich a couple years ago, but didn’t really care for it. To me, there was just too much spice. Last week, I was hungry for another spicy chicken sandwich, but didn’t want to drive all the way over to Popeye’s, so decided to try Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich, which was enthusiastically boosted by my buddy Glenn. In doing so, I found that not only is Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich really good, but that their fries are even better. If you haven’t tried Wendy’s fries for awhile, I’d advise a visit sometime soon. In the end, though, Popeye’s sandwich is still the champ from my point of view.

Arby's gyro

Arby’s gyro passed the Matile taste test.

Bob, my partner in crime down at the museum, said the other day how good the gyros were at Arby’s. We hadn’t had gyros for quite awhile—it seemed like the 2008 recession killed off most of the nearby spots that sold them. Generally, we have pizza on Sunday night, but last night we decided to try Arby’s traditional Greek gyros, and were VERY favorably impressed. And at two for $6, the price couldn’t be beaten. Granted, gyros perfectionists may not like Arby’s substitution of flatbread for the traditional pita, but we thought the flatbread was softer and fluffier than pitas, and really tasty. And we really liked Arby’s

Year end pet peeves…

As 2019 grinds to a close, as a grumpy old man, I have to include a few of my lingering pet peeves, most of which involve the others I share the road with.

Using your vehicle’s turn signals is not some sort of politically correct suggestion. You’re required to use them by law when changing lanes and when making turns. And you’re supposed to use the signals BEFORE you turn, not as you’re turning in order to give drivers both behind and in front of you a bit of warning what you’re planning to do. In driver’s ed, I learned that on the highway, you’re supposed to use your turn signal 100 feet before you turn and in town, you’re supposed to use it 50 feet before you turn. Please have a little respect for your fellow motorists and use your turn signals like they’re supposed to be used.

Fox River Trail markerThe Matile Manse is located right on the Fox River Trail, a walking, running, and biking trail that extends from Oswego north all the way to the Wisconsin state line. It’s really nice to see so many people using it and seeming to have such a good time doing so. On a warm summer Sunday morning, I swear we see half of Oswego’s population walking, running, or biking on the trail. It’s certainly one of the most heavily used amenities in the Oswegoland area and we owe former Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Bert Gray and environmentalist, naturalist, author, and war hero Dick Young for doing all the deep spadework that made it a reality.

But as the trail passes in front of our house it’s situated right on North Adams Street, meaning all those walkers, runners, and bikers share the trail with cars on North Adams. Since that section of trail is on the street, the rules of the road prevail. That means walkers must walk AGAINST auto traffic and that cyclists must ride WITH the traffic. And, again, I do mean MUST, since it’s the law. It also means walkers and cyclists should NOT split up with half on one side of the street and half on the other side when they meet a vehicle. I usually give kids some leeway with the splitting up part—I remember doing the same dumb thing when I was a kid. But with adults, there’s simply no excuse for this dangerous habit.

Furthermore, North Adams is a dark street with only a few streetlights. Since walkers and cyclists share the street with motor vehicles, it’s extremely dangerous for those walkers and cyclists to be out after dark with no lights or reflective gear, especially if they’re on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Several times when we’ve come home on dark, moonless nights we’ll suddenly come upon pedestrians dressed in dark clothing—black hoodies seem favored—with no warning. So my plea is for walkers, runners, and cyclists to please wear some reflective tape or carry one of those neat blinking strobe lights to give a bit of warning to hapless motorists on dark nights. And that goes for those out walking their dogs after dark, too, especially on rainy nights.

So there, my major peeves, new food finds, and favorite gadgets are all laid out just in time for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Hope you and yours have a very happy winter holiday season and that you’ll stop by in 2020 to enjoy more local history!

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During this harvest season, images capture a bygone farming era…

By the late 1930s, as they slowly climbed out of nearly two decades of agricultural depression, U.S. farmers were slowly changing over from horsepower to tractor power as soon as their finances permitted.

During that pre-World War II era, horses were still ubiquitous on farms and mechanization had yet to completely replace a lot of the hand labor on farms. Producing small grains—oats, wheat, barley, and rye—was the most mechanized of the crop cycles of that time. Machines planted, cultivated, cut, bundled, and threshed the grain, although admittedly a substantial amount of physical labor still went into the production process.

Husking hook

Husking hook or peg. By the 1930s the hook was usually metal with leather finger loops. Earlier models had wood hooks.

With corn, however, while the planting and cultivating cycle had been largely mechanized, the harvest portion of the crop cycle was still labor-intensive. Although mechanical corn huskers had begun to be introduced, until after the war most corn here in Kendall County and the rest of Illinois was still picked by hand. The farmer walked the long rows of standing corn, twisting off each ear and smoothly removing the dried husk with a small device variously called a husking hook, husking peg, or husking mitten before pitching the ear up and into the wagon pulled by a team of horses that matched his pace down the row.

My father told me that a skilled hand husker could keep one husked ear of corn in the air and one ear bouncing off the tall bang-board on the opposite side of the wagon all the way down the row, an astonishing feat when you stop to think about it.

Farmers were justifiably proud of their husking skills, which required a combination of endurance, timing, and manual dexterity. On Nov. 20, 1935, a news note in the Kendall County Record reported: “In the Lisbon items, Mrs. Jones tells us that five brothers husked an average of 156 bushels of corn each one day. The ‘boys’ are all over six feet tall. They issue a challenge to any other five-brother team in the vicinity to a husking match.”

Photo by Amanda Hummel Hafenrichter

The 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match was held in late September on the Hafenrichter farm in Wheatland Township, Will County. The last Wheatland Plowing Match was held in 1976. (Little White School Museum collection)

Husking matches were just one of the contests, formal and informal, farmers engaged in to test and advertise their skill at various parts of the agricultural process. Probably the most famous of the formal contests were the plowing matches that were established by Scots and English settlers starting in the late 1800s. The matches tested how skillful farmers were at plowing straight furrows at specific depths as a measure of proficiency.

Husking matches weren’t so much aimed at testing farmers’ scientific proficiency as they were aimed at demonstrating the dexterity prized by their peers and providing a good time for all concerned, with a bit of prize money at the end for the lucky winner.

Husking matches began in Kendall County in the 1920s, with the Kendall County Farm Bureau sponsoring the first match in 1925. The winner of the Kendall County match, August Wollenweber Jr., went on to the state competition. After that, while Kendall farmers often attended the state matches, another formal husking contest wasn’t held until the fall of 1936, possibly encouraged by Mrs. Jones’ tale of five brothers husking challenge in 1935.

The Kendall County Farm Bureau was again the sponsoring organization for the contest, held on Nov. 2 on the Bert Kellogg farm in NaAuSay Township—his descendants still farm in that area, by the way. Ed Olson won the 1936 contest.

The 1937 contest was again held on the Kellogg farm, and this time Roy Johnson was the county winner who went on to the state contest.

There was apparently no contest in 1938, but in 1939 the Farm Bureau again hosted a contest, this time at the Thomas Fletcher farm at Lisbon Center. And luckily for us, either the Farm Bureau or the Fletcher family decided to document the year’s contest with a nice batch of professionally produced photographs. Today, a couple of Tom Fletchers still farm down on Lisbon Center Road, the grandson and great-grandson of the 1939 Tom Fletcher. Today’s elder Tom recently allowed the Little White School Museum in Oswego to scan in a batch of photos from the 1939 contest. For those keeping track, the winner in 1939 was the same Ed Olson who won in 1936.

Since this year’s corn harvest is now on-going, and this marks the 80th anniversary of the 1939 Kendall County Hand Husking Contest, I thought it would be of some interest to post some of the photos of the contest. Hope you enjoy them as much as I do…

1 1939 Thomas Fletcher Farm aerial

Aerial shot of the Tom Fletcher farm at Liston Center in 1939.

2 1939 Cars parked at husking contest

Hand husking contests were popular throughout Illinois in the 1920s and 1930s. Farmers from all over Kendall County drove to the Fletcher Farm for the 1939 contest.

3 1939 Husking contest field

Contestants’ wagons lined up ready to start. The goal was to see how much ear corn, by weight, could be husked during the contest’s time limit. Points were subtracted if too much husk was left on the ear when it was pitched into the wagon.

4 1939 Husking contest start gun

Farm owner Tom Fletcher started the day’s contest with a round from his shotgun.

5 1939 Husking contest contestant husking

As judges look on, a contestant twists an ear of corn off the stalk and strips the husk off with his husking hook.

6 1939 Husking contest contestant working

The small whitish blur is an ear of corn headed up to bounce off the bang board into the wagon as this contestant reaches for another ear to twist off and husk. A good husker could keep one ear in the air all the way down a long row of corn.

7 1939 Husking contest weighing loads

Before the contest began, each wagon was weighed on the farm’s Fairbanks-Morse scale (platform at far right) and then weighed again when full to determine the weight of corn husked.

8 1939 Husking contest tallying results

Running results were kept on the leader board nailed above the corn crib door and updated as each load came in and was weighed.

9 1939 Huskinc contest contestants

The contestants in the 1939 contest with Tom Fletcher center rear and winner Ed Olson in the center.

10 1939 Husking contest winnr Ed Olson

Champion corn husker Ed Olson, looking a bit like one of the subjects in a Grant Wood painting.

 

 

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A different world: Growing up on an Illinois farm in the early 1950s

I sometimes get the feeling that I grew up in a kind of time warp.

1952 Musselman house Aurora

The house on Douglas Avenue on the southeast side of Aurora where my wife lived when she was six years old.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa (Radar O’Reilly’s hometown) and then moved around as her father was transferred with his job for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. As a result, she grew up in a series of subdivisions in Aurora here in Illinois, in St. Louis, and finally back to Illinois and Boulder Hill here in Kendall County where she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms and bedrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio.

For me, on the other hand, things were different. Very different.

When I was born, my folks took me home to the farm they were renting from Clarence and Elsie Butcher in Wheatland Township, just across the Will County line from Kendall County. The farm we lived on was considered relatively new, the buildings having only been built in the early l930s. But while the house might have been considered almost new when they moved in, it seemed to have been built in considerable haste.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm in Wheatland Township my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in the living room of that house, looking at the front door, and seeing it festooned with clean rags that had been carefully and tightly packed into its numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie wind that was barely slowed by the poor-quality storm door. While the door looked impressive, all those cracks and gaps meant it did little to keep those breezes out. That house was just plain COLD.

The bathroom in that farmhouse was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners. The cistern was a large open-topped concrete tank built into one corner of the basement where all the rain water from the gutters on the roof was directed. The collected rainwater, being ‘soft,’ was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds since the water from the well was loaded with minerals and therefore ‘hard.’

1947 Dad, Roger, Boots

My father looks on as I view Boots, the family Border Collie, with suspicion. Boots and I went on to become fast friends.

The bathroom had been added to the house as an afterthought in the basement corner next to the cistern a few years before I was born. My sisters, aged 9 and 12 when my parents brought me home from Copley Hospital in 1946, loved the indoor plumbing, no matter how primitive it might seem to modern sensibilities. Because anything was better than braving rain, sleet, and snow to make it to the outhouse. Even so, it took real courage for my childhood self to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, let me tell you.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water had to be produced via a hand-fired water heater that was fueled with corncobs. After I got old enough—six—it was my duty of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my date-bound sisters could take hot baths and otherwise get ready in time for their dates.

1947 Roger in wash tub

Nothing like a cool swim on a hot day. The family Buick is in the background. Bought used, the car was roundly hated by my father who always referred to it as “The Lemon.” For years, my sisters thought that was the brand name.

One particularly disastrous instance that has stuck in my mind all these years occurred when I had the fire going nicely, and then attempted to check its progress, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal lid handle. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a piece of cloth with which to pad my hand. There were plenty of random pieces of cloth lying around the basement, especially around the old wringer-type washing machine. Unfortunately, the piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself right onto the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. My father, who came down to the rescue, thought it was pretty funny. My sisters were less amused.

We didn’t get our first TV set until that year I was six years old. I’d seen TVs before that, of course, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, but my major electronic entertainment came from the big console radio in the living room. I remember the first TV was a black and gold table-model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s store in Plainfield.

Prior to the delivery of the TV, as noted above, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case that sat off the floor on four turned wooden legs. I remember enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

The Ranger & Sgt. Preston

“The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” shows were two of my favorites on radio. Both got ported over to TV and became hits there, too.

My mother and sisters (when they were home from school during the summer) listened to soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which seemed to feature excessive numbers of screen doors slamming shut), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of five or six. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters,” “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon,” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another really big favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the very first time. I ran right out to the barn to tell my father about the amazing occurrence! Superman could REALLY FLY! I’d just seen it happen on the television set with my own eyes! Which resulted in a gentle lecture about special effects that might have been the start of the skepticism that led me to a career in journalism.

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber McGee and Molly” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to enjoy a similar arrangement, at least according to my mother. “The Great Gildersleeve” was another favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I know “Amos and Andy” is not politically correct these days, but I really liked it a lot when I was a kid, and always figured the black guys who delivered the coal for our furnace from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora were probably very funny guys when they weren’t busy shoveling coal into our basement. On coal delivery day, I always waited patiently outside for them to tell a joke or two, but never with any success. Nowadays I wonder how they were able to restrain themselves from painting over the company’s motto lettered on the sides of the brown dump trucks they drove: “Our Name is Brown, Our Coal is Black, We Treat You White.”

1952-53 Grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School during the 1952-53 school year.  The author is sitting in the lower left corner. His wardrobe–jeans and flannel shirt–has not changed appreciably since.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. When I started, there were six grades and nearly 30 students in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. But at least I had classmates; five to start out with. My oldest sister went through eight years in two different rural one-room schools and was the only student in her class for all eight years.

By the time I started school, the seventh and eighth graders had already been moved into town, thanks to activism by my mother and other farm wives. The junior high in Oswego had much better facilities—a science lab, for instance—and there was no danger any student would have to go through their first eight grades as the only person in their class again.

But I started school almost at the end of the one-room country school in northern Illinois. Consolidation was being vigorously pursued by state education officials. When I started second grade, the fifth and sixth graders had been moved into town, and by third grade, the fourth graders followed. We moved off the farm in the middle of that third grade year and when I went to my first day of classes at my new school, there were more kids in my third grade classroom than there had been in our entire school out in the country.

And as part of the first real year of the Baby Boom, there was certainly no worry about me being the only student in my class. By the time we graduated from high school, we were the first class in school history to have more than 100 class members.

Farm technology was on the same cusp as electronic entertainment media at that time. Most farmers ran diversified farms, and my parents were no different. My dad took care of the livestock—cattle and hogs—out in the barn, and planted, tended, and harvested the fields that produced grain and forage crops. My mother’s realm was the garden, orchard, and chicken house as well as the farmhouse where she did the cooking, washing, and cleaning.

Diversified farms, as the name implies produced both grain and livestock, and my dad made a pretty good living on 120 acres of land. He often rented some more acreage from non-farming neighbors, but I don’t think he ever farmed more than 180 acres. My mom canned about everything that came out of the garden and the orchard, from fruits to vegetables. The chickens produced eggs that were, along with the dressed chickens themselves, traded in town for groceries. Meanwhile, my dad milked the family cow—a dappled golden brown and white Guernsey named Daisy by the time I came along—that provided milk and cream for the family with enough milk left over to have a family friend turn into cottage cheese. My grandmother churned the cream into butter and my father relished the buttermilk left over from the process. I never could stand the stuff straight, but it certainly made great pancakes.

Then I became a town kid when my father had to retire from farming. I hated leaving the farm, but it probably saved my life since I was violently allergic to just about everything on it from the hay and straw in the barn to the feathers on the chickens out in the chicken house. And by moving into town, I got to know and become intimately familiar with the Fox River in all its moods. It’s something I still enjoy since our house is located on the riverbank right across to the street from the house my parents moved to all those years ago.

It seems curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries in Montgomery and taking extra cream and milk to the creamery in Yorkville that other kids my age were living in modern ranch homes on paved streets with sidewalks, and who never got a case of goosebumps in their lives from an episode of “Inner Sanctum.”

But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up in my small corner of northern Illinois. And even though I have a hard time trying to fit my mind around it, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood days.

 

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