Category Archives: Nostalgia

Undaunted Courage 2017: Day Six…

Been a few days since I’ve checked in as we continued our Undaunted Courage 2017 Tour up the mountain chain from Salt Lake City into Montana, the main reason being contracting a nasty case of bronchitis.

But I’m feeling well enough to finally make some sense when I write—although I’m sure plenty will contest the fact—so it’s time to get back to recording things before, as happened to the unfortunate Meriwether Lewis, the account of our trip is lost in the mists of history.

The trip north out of Salt Lake got off to a slow, rainy, start since, as it turns out, rush hours in big cities is the same the nation over. As we inched north on I-15 it occurred to me that big city traffic and streetscapes are pretty much the same everywhere we’ve traveled.

But after getting north of the city center, traffic eased considerably as we drove into cattle, mining, and oil country.

2017 9-15 Lima, MT s

Although it was snowing pretty good in Lima, MT, it fortunately wasn’t sticking to the roads as I snapped this shot in the parking lot at Jen’s Cafe & Cabins.

Along about Idaho Falls, we got into what turned out to be a fairly vigorous series of snow squalls that followed us north along the chain. By the time we stopped for lunch at Jen’s Café & Cabins just across the Idaho state line in tiny Lima, Montana, there was about 5” of the stuff on the ground, with more coming down. Definitely a day for hot beef sandwiches. The locals were shaking their heads; Sept. 15 is a mite early for more than a dusting of snow, even in this high country.

Driving ever farther north, we eventually ran out of the snow as we crossed the continental divide twice.

Speaking of undaunted courage, you can’t get away from the redoubtable Lewis and Clark on I-15, passing as you do right by the Clark Canyon Reservoir and Clark’s Lookout State Park. Looking at the landscape as we drove, it wasn’t hard to imagine it as it was when the Corps of Discovery marched through—outside infrequent fences and pumping oil wells, the landscape itself hasn’t changed a whole lot.

At Butte, Montana we picked up I-90, and headed farther up the mountains to Missoula. From there U.S. Route 93 took us right north up to the foot of Flathead Lake and the town of Polson where my childhood buddy Bob and his wife live.

It was definitely cattle and horse country, but it also turned out to be wheat and potato country. Farmers rotate their potato and wheat crops to benefit the soil that’s none too deep in the river valleys where farming is conducted. We drove through just after the wheat harvest had been completed and the order of the day was baling straw, stacking the huge round bales modern machinery creates, and hauling them to market.

Unlike Illinois’ rural areas, local gravel roads are still the norm in the west. In the urbanizing Midwest of northern Illinois we’ve gradually replaced most rural gravel roads with either tar and chip or asphalt-surfaced roads, that are cheaper to maintain and which are more economical for drivers. Blacktopped roads create far less wear and tear on vehicles, and both cars and trucks get far better gas mileage on hard-surfaced roads.

Back in the 1920s when Illinois was considering how best to spend proceeds of a $63 million bond issue voters had approved in 1918, they paid attention to studies carried on concerning fuel efficiency on various road surfaces. In July 1922, Concrete Highway Magazine reported that a road test in Cleveland, Ohio measured fuel efficiency on five 2-ton White trucks loaded to capacity traveling over roads with various surfaces. The trucks averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon of gasoline over concrete roads and 9 mpg on gravel roads.

Driving as we were on a mixture of concrete and asphalt hard roads, I got to wondering about the relative fuel efficiencies of the two surfaces. Especially since concrete roads sometimes create really annoying road noise while asphalt roads are pretty quiet as a rule. I checked out various hypermiling sites on the Net—if you want to find out a bunch of tricks to stretch your gas mileage, the hypermiling guys and gals are your ticket—and the consensus seems to be that the hardest surface provides the best mileage. Period. Asphalt, it turns out, has a softer surface that offers a big of ‘give’ which cuts down on mileage. Not a lit, but a bit.

So up to Polson we drove, arriving when it was a bit cloudy, but where the backdrop was spectacular. Pulling in, Bob happily greeted us as we stretched our legs a bit. “So, what do you think of those?” Bob asked, waiving his hand towards his back pasture.

Yak

Home, home on the range where the deer and the yaks play.

We were farm kids together, and his dad kept Brahma bulls that, crazy kids we were, we used to tease with red handkerchiefs, so I was ready to see some prize cattle or horses (Bob’s sort of retired these days, but he’s still an honest-to-God cowboy), but instead I saw a group of short shaggy black animals ambling around out by the pasture’s back fence.

“Nice yaks, don’t you think,” he asked with a little grin.

More later…

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Don’t worry Dave; I still haven’t run out of local history to write about…

Even as a kid I was interested in history. Not sure why; maybe because family was such an important part of my life growing up—and my family on my maternal grandmother’s side had been here since before the French and Indian War.

Then during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, I discovered I could write things that people enjoyed reading. As part of the publications committee of the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission, as I wrote and co-wrote and helped edit monographs and a new county history, I became fascinated with local history, something I found that few knew much about. But the topic increasingly interested me, particularly how national and international history affected folks living here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. So I started looking into what was happening around these parts during the fur trade era, the nation’s various wars, the era of settlement, and the area’s growth and maturity from a frontier farming community to burgeoning suburbia.

Then, thanks to a cascade of health problems, in the late summer of 1977 I found myself out of work and looking for a part-time job. At the same time, Dave Dreier was looking for a couple columnists to punch up the Fox Valley Sentinel, one of Oswego’s two weekly newspapers.

Dave had started the Sentinel in 1973 as competition for the Oswego Ledger, which had been published since 1949, and was the new paper’s editor and publisher. He and I went to elementary school together before his family moved to North Aurora during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. But we still knew each other, so when I pitched the idea for a column on local, county, and state history, he said he’d take a chance and see what I’d produce. He asked me to write three columns of about 900 words each and he’d let me know his verdict after he read them. I later discovered that three-column thing was a good way to gauge how serious someone is about becoming a columnist. Just about everybody has one good column idea. Some people have two. Very few have three—a lesson I took to heart a few years later when budding columnists would pitch their ideas to me.

I dropped the columns off and Dave read them and said he liked what he saw. His one serious question was whether I thought I’d have enough material to keep the column going for a full year. I said I was pretty sure I would.

And, in fact, I’ve now been writing about local history in all its odd, wonderful, and sometimes startling twists and turns each week for four decades. Oh, I’ve missed a few weeks here and there for occasional hospitalizations for ulcers, installation of a new hip and a new heart valve, and whatnot, plus a few other pitfalls of adult life, but in general, I’ve churned out my average of 1,000 words, week in and week out, since Dave printed that first Fox Valley Sentinel column on Sept. 1, 1977—just 40 years ago today.

So at one paper or another, I’ve been covering the news, both contemporary and historical, for longer than I ever would have thought possible.

Forty years not only seems like a long time; it IS a long time. In January of 1977, Jimmy Carter had taken the oath as President, and things, unfortunately, pretty much went downhill from there. Carter’s Presidency wound up with Iranian religious fanatics seizing 52 American hostages. His administration’s handling of that crisis even had an impact on the Fox Valley Sentinel.

Sentinel flag

The flag of the late, and still lamented Fox Valley Sentinel, which ran upside down during the Iran hostage crisis, much to readers’ confusion.

The banner with the newspaper’s name at the top of the front page, in journalismese, is called, the flag. Dreier, in a patriotic gesture, decided that we would fly the Fox Valley Sentinel’s “flag” upside down (the international signal for distress) until the hostages were released, something we all agreed would be a wonderful expression of American solidarity. Little did we know the crisis would drag on for 444 days. Week after week, we printed the Sentinel’s flag inverted, and week after week we fielded calls from puzzled readers wondering whether we noticed part of the front page was printed upside down, to the point that we quickly started adding a note at the top of page 2 informing readers that, yes, we know the flag is upside down, and explaining the reason for it. After the Farrens bought the paper, Oswego’s era of upside-down journalism ended. And now you know, if you happen to look at microfilm copies of the Sentinel from those years, the upside-down flag is not exactly a mistake. Miscalculation, yes; mistake, no.

Returning to the kind and decent Jimmy Carter for a minute, he has definitely turned into our nation’s finest ex-President.

Dreier had perennial problems trying to keep reporters on staff—he was a first-rate journalist, photographer, and page designer, but not so good at actually running a business—and so one day when I stopped down at the Sentinel office to drop off my latest column (no email in those days), he asked if I’d be willing to cover some public meetings and write news stories about them. I told him I’d never taken a journalism course in my life and had no idea how to write news stories.

No problem, he said, plucking an envelope out of the wastebasket by his desk. “This,” he said drawing an upside-down pyramid on the back of the envelope, “Is an inverted pyramid. It’s how you write news stories, with the most important things at the top, and moving down to the least important things at the end. That’s so the editor can cut the copy if necessary and the most important things will still make it into the newspaper.”

But how do you write news, as opposed to the columns I was doing? Dave said the two styles were pretty much the same; include the things you think readers need to know, make sure of your facts, and do your best to explain them in plain English. He concluded by remarking the two basic things everyone wants to know about any local governmental issue are how much will it cost, and who’s going to pay, a bit of wisdom I carried with me the rest of my newswriting days.

Ledger flag2000

The Ledger-Sentinel flag flew over the “Reflections” column from 1980 until the name of the paper reverted back to its pre-merger Oswego Ledger last year.

With my first and last journalism lesson under my belt, I ventured forth with some trepidation to cover Kane County government (where I learned how knowledge of parliamentary procedure can be used as a political weapon) and the West Aurora School Board. Later I added the Montgomery Village Board, the Oswego School District, the quasi-governmental Boulder Hill Civic Association, and the Oswego Village Board. I was destined to cover Oswego’s school board for more than 25 years all together, something that gives me a somewhat different perspective on the perennial questions that arise about public education than most folks.

In the summer of 1980, finally deciding there wasn’t enough advertising revenue in Oswego to support both his Sentinel and Jeff and Kathy Farren’s Oswego Ledger (subscriptions just about cover the cost of printing a newspaper, but nothing else, including personnel, office rental, utilities, or equipment), Dave decided to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The columnist-editor-reporter on a Wednesday morning in 1989 helping publish the Ledger-Sentinel using the latest Mac and TRS tech.

Jeff, who started working at the Kendall County Record when he was a teenager (back when type was set on a giant Linotype hot-lead machine), and Kathy were both Northern Illinois University journalism grads and were then publishing the Record in Yorkville, the Ledger in Oswego, and the Plano Record. They asked if I’d stay on as the new Ledger-Sentinel’s part-time editor. I reminded them that I had no editing experience, but I agreed to give it a try, starting out as the paper’s reporter, editor, and columnist.

It’s been quite a ride, this past 40 years has been. While chronicling the area’s history, I’ve seen Kendall County’s population balloon from 1980’s 37,000 to today’s estimated 130,000. In fact, the population of my hometown, Oswego, is larger today than the entire county’s population in 1970. The county was still overwhelmingly rural in 1977. Today, the number of farmers and farms continues to shrink as farms get bigger and bigger even as residential and commercial subdivisions gobble up additional hundreds of acres of once-productive farmland every year.

Fortunately, Dave Dreier’s fear that I might run out of history to write about didn’t come to pass. But times did change. Dave’s heart failed and he died in 2011, and my friends Jeff and Kathy Farren sold the Kendall County Record, Inc. to Shaw Media in 2016. Even the Ledger-Sentinel itself has changed again, its name reverting to the Oswego Ledger that was on the flag when Ford Lippold started publishing it on a Mimeograph machine in his basement back in 1949.

Not sure how much longer I’ll keep writing about local history, but it’s so much fun and so interesting that I don’t plan to quit any time soon. There’s always something new to learn, new people to learn about, and new clarity to bring to how our local communities came to be what they are today. So unless life intervenes (which, I’ve learned over the years, it has an annoying habit of doing) I’ll continue writing “Reflections” for the Ledger and the other Shaw papers in the Kendall County Now group, as well as in this space for History on the Fox, occasionally marveling that blogging didn’t even exist when I started writing and doing local history in 1977. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

 

 

 

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Andrew Carnegie and the Oswego Presbyterians’ pipe organ…

Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie managed to amass a fortune that would be in the billions in today’s dollars after he arrived penniless in the United States. His great creation was the U.S. Steel Corporation.

1913 Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie in 1913, the same year he agreed to pay half the cost of the Oswego Presbyterian Church’s new pipe organ.

But after making all that money he decided to give almost all of it away. During his last 18 years of life, Carnegie, through his private foundation, gave away some $350 million in those old dollars, which as a share of the nation’s modern gross domestic product would equal an nearly $78.6 billion.

Beneficiaries of Carnegie’s largess included universities and nearly 3,000 communities in the U.S. and a few other nations that received his iconic libraries.

Carnegie libraries are fairly well-known, but what isn’t so well known is that the old corporate buccaneer also helped finance more than 7,600 church organs. Carnegie wasn’t particularly religious, and at least one source suggests the reason for the organ donations was, in Carnegie’s own words, “To lessen the pain of the sermons.”

Here in Kendall County, the City of Plano was lucky enough to receive a Carnegie library grant. But Oswego also got a little of the Scottish immigrant’s money when he donated half the cost of a new pipe organ for the Oswego Presbyterian Church.

1902 abt Osw Pres spire

The Oswego Presbyterian Church about 1902 after its move to Madison and Benton streets. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Presbyterian congregation of Oswego built their first church in 1857. The timber-framed Greek Revival structure was built in a cluster of pines at the intersection of Madison and Douglas streets.

In 1901, the church building was jacked up, put on rollers, and moved three blocks north, down the hill to the intersection of Madison and Benton streets, the former site of the village’s Baptist church. In April 1928, the church’s former pastor, the Rev. W.A. Montgomery, recalled, “As I remember, I began my ministry in Oswego the first of September 1901. One of the first things the church undertook after our arrival was to move the church from its old location where it stood at the fork of the street…It was a very inspiring sight as I remember it in its old setting especially in the early evening, facing down the center of the street with an evergreen tree on either side…But the site was more picturesque than convenient and modern progress demanded a change to the present location.”

1913 Pres Church reconstion

The Oswego Presbyterian Church in the midst of its ambitious 1913 metamorphosis from a clapboard Greek Revival building to a brick Romanesque-style structure. (Little White School Museum photo)

In the early spring of 1913, the congregation decided to extensive remodel the original 1857 structure. Well-known Oswego builder Lou C. Young won the contract to change the building from a timber-framed, clapboard-sided structure into a brick Romanesque-style building with corner bell tower. And fortunately for us, Young had his son, Dwight, a professional photographer as well as a carpenter, record the progress of the project for future generations and probably for marketing purposes as well.

The Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported on April 9, 1913: “The farewell banquet in the old Presbyterian church was held in their parlors last Thursday evening. Despite the extreme weather, about 60 enjoyed a delicious banquet served by the ladies. The program, though very good was shortened by talent unable to attend on account of the storm. Preparations are about completed for the new structure, which will be commenced very soon.”

1914 Pres Church after remodel

The Oswego Presbyterian Church in 1914 after its ambitious transformation into a ‘modern’ Romanesque-style structure. (Little White School Museum photo)

With the new cornerstone laid in early August, construction continued throughout the rest of 1913. During the project, the Presbyterians were invited to meet at the German Evangelical Church just up the street at Madison and Washington.

As construction continued, the congregation’s pastor, the Rev. J. Turner Hood, resigned to take an administrative position with the Presbytery. But Hood had already contacted the Carnegie Foundation about obtaining a pipe organ for the renovated and remodeled church. Word was received late in 1913 that Carnegie had agreed to foot half the bill for the church’s new pipe organ, with was valued at $2,000.

1914 Pres Church New Carnegie Organ

The Oswego Presbyterian Church’s impressive pipe organ purchased in part with funds from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1914. (Little White School Museum photo)

The organ was installed on the new church’s pulpit platform with its pipes forming the backdrop across the center front of the chancel. The choir seating was located between the organ and the pulpit.

As the Oswego correspondent for the Kendall County Record reported on Sept. 23, 1914 following the church’s dedication ceremony: “[T]he most impressive sight is the large pipe organ and pulpit at the west end of the building. This organ fills the place behind the pulpit and is one of which many city churches might well be proud. The woodwork matches the interior of the church and the immense pipes stand out in grandeur. Before it are the seats for the choir and a railing that divides the choir loft from the pulpit.”

Organ pipe

A wooden E flue pipe from the Oswego Presbyterian Church Carnegie pipe organ.

The organ was a focal part of the church and community for nearly eight decades.

In 1966, the Presbyterians dedicated their new building on North Madison Street (Ill. Route 25), and sold their old church building to the new Oswego Baptist congregation. After nearly 70 years, the Baptists again owned the site at Madison and Benton.

1965 Sue (Musselman) and Roger Matile

The author and his bride in front of the Oswego Presbyterian Church Carnegie organ on Nov. 25, 1965, a couple months before the organ was dismantled.

In January 1966, after purchasing the building, the Oswego Baptist Church removed the pipe organ and disposed of it to make room for the new congregation’s baptismal font. Members of the Presbyterian Church were invited to take individual pipes from the organ as souvenirs of the church’s history. Along with other remodeling of the building, the old pipe organ was replaced by an electric organ.

In the late 1970s, the Baptists, at the urging of their pastor, decided to demolish the 1914 structure. Demolition took place during the summer of 1979, finishing up on July 25. While the impressive pipe organ had been discarded, the old church’s stained glass windows were saved from destruction. Some are already on display at the Harvest New Beginnings Baptist Church in rural Oswego, the successor congregation to the Oswego Baptist Church. Other of the windows are currently undergoing restoration, with plans in hand to eventually display them as well.

Today, all that remains of the grand old Oswego Carnegie organ are some of the souvenir pipes in basements and attics of former Presbyterian church members—and the numerous photos of couples who began their marriages at the church between 1914 and 1966.

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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

Blogging’s been lighter than usual lately since we took a few days of vacation last week.

Every year about this time we try to head north to get away from the corn that’s tasseled out around these parts, since I’m allergic to corn pollen.

Corn is just a genetically modified grass, and allergy tests done when I was a lad showed that grass pollen really irritates my respiratory system. Not that I didn’t know that already, of course. Growing up on a farm, you couldn’t get away from grass pollen and dust; it was literally everywhere, from the bales of alfalfa and straw in the haymow to the bedding in the chickens’ nesting boxes. And since I was allergic to feathers, too, the chicken house always hit me with a double whammy. Some friends gave me a few pairs of bantam chickens for my birthday when I was six or seven and it turned out to be a gift that nearly did me in.

So, while I loved farming, it was something I simply couldn’t get involved in and continue to live. It was a good thing I finally figured out I could write, I guess.

But anyway, we head north several times a summer, up above the Tension Line in northern Wisconsin. Many of the things to which my body is allergic don’t like living north of Steven’s Point, so that’s where we go.

1888 Dr. Gilbert B LesterIt’s actually an old Midwestern tradition. As the Aug. 26, 1880 “Oswego” column in the Kendall County Record reported: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

It wasn’t that Dr. Gilbert Lester was a sissy, either, serving as a Union Army physician during the Civil War and out on the western plains before coming back to Illinois to practice in Oswego. Even so, Dr. Lester headed north and east every year in August and September to escape what the Record’s Oswego correspondent frequently dubbed “the plague” of hay fever.

This time of year was also a plague for me when I was a kid out on the farm because this is when the small grains—oats and wheat—were ripe and harvesting began. The era of threshing machines was over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the combines that were in use in the early 1950s created just as much dust as had their ancestor steam-powered threshing machines. Although I was spared being blasted with coal smoke from the steam engine, so I had that going for me.

So it was a relief when my folks took me north on summer vacations. Back in those days, there was no home air conditioning to speak of. The only folks who had an air conditioner out in our neighborhood were the Boughtons, something that was considered an odd, frivolous extravagance. Fans were the things. Big window fans, hassock fans, box fans, fans on wheeled carts, fans that oscillated, you name it, someone had one. Even so, those hot, humid summer nights out on the farm when you could literally hear the corn grow were not comfortable for those of us who, it turned out, were allergic to almost every important thing on the farm.

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

Richardson Root Beer barrel dispensers were a familiar sight in drug stores and cafes across the nation in the 1950s. A dime bought a frosty mug of the uniquely American drink.

The move to town when I was 8 was, I guess, a literal lifesaver, although I’ve always missed the farm, even though it was slowly killing me. In town, the nights were just as hot, but the air tended to carry less corn pollen. And there were, I must admit, more things to do.

For instance, there were places a person could actually spend an allowance of a quarter a week. Downtown at the Main Café, a mixed-on-the-spot Richardson Root Beer was just 10-cents in a frosty mug. I didn’t know it at the time, but the café’s soda fountain was the one that had formerly been in Shuler’s Drug Store across the street. When owner Al Shuler got tired of his store becoming a 1950s teen hangout, he sold the fountain to the owner of the café across the street.

As editor Ford Lippold reported in the Oswego Ledger on Dec. 9, 1954: “A fair-sized moving job took place downtown this week when the soda fountain formerly in Shuler’s Drug Store was transferred across the street to the Main Café. The moving of the soda fountain is part of a plan for increasing the facilities of the drug store. The present plan is to use the additional room for new items that are not now available in the community and to increase stocks of such popular items as greeting cards and gift-wrapping materials. The new and greatly enlarged stock will enable Oswegoans to obtain a wider selection and increased service.”

Sure, Al told Ford to put in the paper that he was getting rid of the soda fountain in order to serve the community better, but he was really anxious to get those pesky teenagers out of his store and across the street.

Chest type pop machineOr on evenings when the Main Café was closed, there was always the chest-type pop machine in front of Bohn’s Food Store. You put your dime in, and carefully slid the bottle of whatever soft drink you wanted along the slots to the end, where you could pull it out of the cold water, use the bottle opener on the side of the machine, and enjoy a drink while watching the traffic go by on busy U.S. Route 34. When the bottle was empty, you were expected to go back to Bohn’s and put it in the wooden pop bottle case at the end of the machine. Remarkably, almost everyone did.

Since I was the oldest among our neighborhood gang, on summer days the neighborhood kids would pool our nickels and dimes and I’d be dispatched on my bike down to Bohn’s to get a box of Popsiclesthe latest flavor of Popsicle. Back then, there were a myriad of flavors from licorice to root beer to banana. The trip back from town was always quick, because it was mostly downhill, but I had to ride carefully to make sure the box of valuable cargo didn’t bounce around too much and break any of the two-stick popsicles while hurrying enough to make sure none of them melted too much.

And for those totally bereft of any cash at all, there was the public water fountain at the corner of Main and Washington (Route 34), right next to the phone booth—remember phone booths? Oswego’s was a red and silver beauty that was brightly lighted at night. It

1958 Main St. East side

Oswego’s phone booth (lower left) at Main and Washington in 1958.

was probably the only one in the nation that actually had a phone book in it, too. The public fountain didn’t survive past the early 1950s, unfortunately, but the phone booth soldiered on for many years.

We take so many things for granted these days. Air conditioning makes us much more comfortable than any fan, and for those of us like Dr. Lester who are afflicted with “the plague of hay fever” and severe allergies, the hum of the AC on hot, humid Illinois summer days is a literal lifesaver. Kids’ allowances have inflated since the 1950s, and the places to spend them have grown. But there’s still a café on Main Street where you can get an icy drink, although alas, the Richardson Root Beer barrel and the old drug store soda fountain are long gone. Bohn’s is gone, along with their pop machine, but across the street at the cyclery shop, there’s a high-tech machine that dispenses bottles of healthy water and juice. And just down Main Street, across even busier Route 34, is the Dairy Hut where hungry kids of all ages can enjoy an ice cream cone or whatever. We’re no longer a small town, but have rather turned into a small city. Even so, there are still a lot of those old small town touches that bring back the memories for us increasingly rare natives.

 

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Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

I was reading The Des Moines Register a couple weeks ago, and came across an editorial that immediately caught my eye. “To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa farmer: Shifting from two-crop cycle can produce profits and environmental benefits.”

Watkins

Farmer Seth Watkins (left) and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Lieberman in a stand of native prairie grasses that help control erosion and also enhance the soil. (National Public Radio photo by John Ydstie)

The piece profiled Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, who has hit on a new way to farm that he says both frees farmers from the Midwest’s near universal and rigid corn-soybean two-crop system. Watkins, instead of going all-in on either two-crop grain farming or raising livestock, does both in interesting ways.

Watkins does grow corn but he also raises oats, alfalfa and other cover crops. He grazes his 600-head herd of cattle on pastureland, and he’s set aside about 400 acres of his land as restored to prairie, ponds, and stream protection.

But he’s not only engaged in building up his farmland, but he says he’s also been seeing better financial returns on his farming operations.

Watkins’ new methods are not simply a success in his own mind, either. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a new report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits, that suggests adopting Watkins’ methods can help build up soil and decrease water runoff and the resulting pollution. Now you will probably contend that the Union of Concerned Scientists is sort of a far-left group—and you’re right—but even far-lefties are right sometimes–or should I say correct. Especially when their research is backed up by studies from a place like Iowa State University.

An ISU study compared a typical Midwest two-year, corn-soybean crop rotation to three- and four-year rotations that added such crops as oats, red clover, alfalfa and other crops. The longer rotations of corn and soybeans actually increased their yields while also producing surprisingly large decreases in runoff of agricultural herbicides (between 81 and 96 percent), along with requiring a lot less (a decrease of between 43 and 57 percent) nitrogen fertilizer—a big money-saver.

So what Watkins and his fellow travelers appear to have done is reinvent the same kind of diversified farming that was the norm until the adoption of the modern corn-soybean system.

If you’ve read many of the posts here at History on the Fox, or if you read my weekly “Reflections” columns in Shaw Media’s Kendall County NOW newspapers, you already know that I regularly lament the death of diversified farming.

It keeps receding farther and farther into the mists of time, but when I was a little kid growing up on a farm about 10 miles east and a little south of where I’m sitting at my computer typing this post, diversified farming was ubiquitous; it was pretty much the definition of farming.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

In the summer of 1947, Russell Rink bales hay on a farm in east Oswego Township. At the time, hay crops such as alfalfa, clover, and timothy were grown on nearly every farm in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

My dad raised corn and soybeans, but he also raised oats, alfalfa, clover, and timothy, rotating those crops with a bit of pasture so that the soil had a chance to rest. While the soybeans were all sold as grain, some of the corn was fed to his cattle and the rest went to market. The oats, too, were sold as grain, but a fair portion of them were ground into coarse flour which was mixed with the milk that had been separated from the cream produced by our Guernsey cow, to make the “slop” that his feeder pigs seemed to love so much.

My mother traded the eggs her chickens produced for groceries at Michaels Brothers Grocery Store in Montgomery, and my parents sold the excess cream our cow produced at the creamery in Yorkville.

In those days, chemical fertilizer was only just becoming common. Instead of that, my dad spread the manure produced by the cattle and hogs he fed and the chickens my mother raised on his fields. In that way, the grain and hay crops fed to the livestock, and which they then processed into manure, was returned to the land in a pretty efficient cycle.

In 1950 when I was four years old, the federal agricultural census showed there were nearly 1,100 farms in Kendall County, of which 861 reported having some feeder cattle, 694 had at least one milk cow, and 741 reported raising hogs. All that livestock produced a LOT of manure, which was then returned to the land in lieu of chemical fertilizer.

R.D. Gates at home on his Minkler Road farm, ca 1895

R.D. Gates (center) proudly shows off his feeder hogs as his wife and daughter and hired man look in in this photo taken sometime in the fall of 1897. Most Kendall County farms once raised livestock along with grain. (Little White School Museum collection)

By 2012, the number of farms in Kendall County had dropped to 364, although to be fair they’d just about doubled in size. But there had also been a cataclysmic change in what was being produced on those farms. Of the 364, only 42 reported have some cattle around the place, just two had milk cows, and only nine were raising hogs.

In fact, just about the only reason most grain farmers raise any livestock at all these days is either as a hobby or because their kids are in 4-H, and with the aging of the farm population, that’s an increasingly rare thing as well.

In these modern times, were facing a real agricultural conundrum. Fewer and fewer farms are family-owned, and more and more are corporate operations. And as we all should know by now, corporations care about only one thing: The bottom line. Unlike family farmers who contemplate handing their operations down to the next generation, and so often feel it’s incumbent on them to take care of the land they farm, corporate interests are focused on profits, almost always on short-term profits which are often detrimental not only to the long-term interests of their firms, but sometimes to their entire industries.

So will Watkins’ ‘new’ farming method catch on? It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy, either. On many farms, the infrastructure that was formerly common—hog houses, barns, chicken houses, and other buildings—are long gone, replaced by grain storage bins and towering machine sheds built to house gigantic modern farm equipment. Raising livestock calls for different skills, too, and requires a lot more time. And is there a market for the oats and the alfalfa, timothy, and clover that my dad grew as fodder for his feeder cattle? Not unless more farmers decided to diversify.

But, maybe. Family farming operations will likely be more amenable to trying it because of their mindset, but maybe the corporations will surprise us all and decide to look beyond next quarter’s profits. Not likely, but possible…

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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You can go home again; you just can’t stay

We were driving past, the door was open, so we decided to stop in.

I hadn’t been inside our old farmhouse since my family moved out right after Christmas, 1954.

1950 Butcher Place

“The Butcher Place” where my folks farmed during the late 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.

My father’s ankylosing spondylitis was getting worse, as was my asthma, so my parents decided, early in 1954, to retire from farming, and move into town. We had the farm sale that fall, and spent a lot of time cleaning up and remodeling the “new” house in town. My great-grandparents had it built in 1908 by my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, one of Oswego’s better carpenters and contractors. Still owned by my grandparents in late 1954, it was vacant, the tenants having moved out.

My folks decided the move would be made over Christmas vacation. It wouldn’t affect my sister, who was a senior at Oswego High School, other than making the trip to school a lot shorter. For me, though, it meant a big change, going from a rural school with grades 1-3 and our single teacher (Mrs. Comerford) all in one room, to the imposing Red Brick School in town. There would be more kids in my new third grade classroom in town than the total enrollment of my old school.

1957 Church School exterior

The entire enrollment at Church School, where I spent first, second, and half of third grade, was less than the number of students in my third grade classroom in town. All three grades were taught in one large room. (Little White School Museum collection)

The students at Church School, the one-room school I attended, gave me a nice going-away party, and I remember visiting every one of the buildings on the farmstead during those December days before we finally left to live in Oswego.

Move the clock ahead from December 1954 to 1990. After attending my uncle’s funeral at the cemetery just down the road from our old farm, my family was driving back home, and our route took us past the old home place. The farm was being subdivided at the time, and the barn, crib, and chicken house had burned down the previous year. The three big cottonwood trees still stood out along the road and the house still stood, though not in the greatest condition. As we drove past, we noticed the front door was ajar. My wife and two children insisted that we stop, and, the lure being too great, I agreed.

Walking up the front steps, the memories started returning. The concrete and stone front porch itself was where I knocked two front teeth out one year on the eve of the annual Scotch Church Pancake Supper. I can still remember not being able to eat my usual amount of hotcakes due to that sore mouth.

The front door was indeed ajar–which was in itself pretty odd. We never used that door, and I don’t ever remember it being open when we lived there. In any case, it was a terrible door that let in about as much cold winter wind closed as it would have if we ever had opened it. The house, built in the early 1930s, was notoriously drafty, especially around that front door.

1947 Roger takes a dip

The author enjoys a cooling dip in the Matile family pool during the summer of 1948.

After 35 years, the inside of the house still seemed familiar, though. The front door opened directly into the living room, and that was where the radio was when we lived there–a large console job on which I listened to Victor Borge and “The Lone Ranger” and “Superman,” and my mother caught the soaps as she sewed and otherwise worked in the early afternoon. Later, our first television set was located at the other end of the living room, and I remember my amazement watching, for the first time, Superman (George Reeves) actually fly.

The memories were so vivid that I could almost see my father sitting in his chair, reading the Chicago American or the Prairie Farmer.

1952 Roger & Rob

The author and Rob Chada on the front porch, keeping our strength up with occasional handfuls of Sugar Frosted Flakes.

The dining room was larger and the kitchen smaller than I remembered. Both were in pretty rough shape, the house having obviously become the site of a number of teenage beer parties since it was abandoned. We always ate in the kitchen, the dining room used only when company came over. My mother used the dining room as her sewing room. I remember my teenaged sisters arriving home on the school bus and hustling into the dining room to catch my mother up on all the amazing things that had happened that day in far-off Oswego while my mother continued running her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine.

Upstairs, my sisters’ room had been divided into two smaller bedrooms, and my bedroom had become an upstairs bathroom. The stairs still went up from a door in the living room, and then took a 90-decree tum at the landing. That landing was the site of an oft-told family story: My sisters and town cousins were taking turns jumping down from the top of the stairs to the landing, squealing with much hilarity and causing a lot of thumping and other noise. After telling them to stop several times, my usually calm father finally had enough, and angrily yelled up, “If you kids do that just one more time…” Whereupon my most audacious girl cousin seriously told her accomplices, “Oh goodie! We get to do it one more time!”

Out the back door, the old concrete stoop had been covered by a small wooden deck. I remember riding my tricycle up the small stretch of sidewalk from the driveway to the stoop hundreds of times, it seemed, a day–it was the only hard surfaced area on the whole farm, other than part of the cattle yard out next to the barn. But that was usually occupied by livestock.

We checked the basement, but it was flooded with a foot or two of water–construction of the subdivision had probably blocked the basement drain. But the old cistern was still there, as was what appeared to be the original furnace, somewhat upgraded. The old cob-fired water heater was no longer there, but the basement bathroom–the only one we had when I was a child–still sported the same fixtures.

The house had originally been built without an indoor bathroom. My parents were living there when rural electrification came through and allowed a pressurized water system in the house, and the possibility of a bathroom. There were only three bedrooms, all of which were needed, so it was decided to put the bathroom down the basement. To heat the water, a water heater fueled by corncobs was installed. Around the age of 5 or so, it became my job to get the water heater going, especially on Saturdays when my sisters were getting ready for dates. It was a learning experience, and one of the things I learned was NOT to use one of my sisters’ frilly nylon undergarments to protect my hand from getting burned on the handle of the water heater’s firebox. It was quite remarkable to watch the garment melt onto the handle–as was my sister’s anger when she discovered the wreckage.

The basement sink where my dad washed and shaved was gone, though the spigots remained. I couldn’t see in the dark basement if the Burma-Shave remnants were still on the ceiling above it: One hectic evening, Dad rushed downstairs to quickly shave, vigorously shook the Burma-Shave can, and shot a burst into his palm. The cream hit his palm, ricocheted at a sharp angle, and, to his amazement, splashed on the ceiling. The splash was still there when we moved.

Outside, the farmstead was in sad shape. The barn, crib, and big chicken house were gone, as were most of the trees. The folks who owned the farm when we lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Butcher, were tree fanatics. Every time he visited, it seemed, Mr. Butcher planted another one, much to my dad’s distress since he had to mow around the forest that was gradually being created.

1950 Hayride on dad's bobsled

An old-fashioned hayride at the Butcher Place about 1950 on my father’s bobsled, with the tool shed in the background. This ride seems to mostly have involved relatives. The author is in the left foreground.

The old garage, which we seldom used, was still there, as was the tool shed that housed my dad’s farm equipment, although the outhouse that used to be tipped over every Halloween by mysterious forces was not. My son, used to his uncle’s sprawling buildings and big farm equipment, remarked how small the tool shed was, and I had to explain that in the 1950s, farm equipment was smaller than now, and farmers generally had a lot less of it. By the 1990s, farm equipment had already grown to the size of 1950s earthmoving equipment.

The things that made it our farm were all gone, though. The milk separator and the egg crates and scale in the basement, the two tractors and the old green and yellow four-row John Deere com planter in the tool shed, the old truck parked in the crib, and the bobsled running gear that provided so many entertaining hours during sleigh ride parties in the winter had all disappeared. In fact, the entire method of farming in which my father engaged had died by 1990. Our diversified farm grew corn, soybeans, oats, and alfalfa and other forage crops along with hogs, beef cattle, and chickens. My mother traded eggs for groceries in town, and we butchered a steer and a hog annually for our own consumption. By 1990, that kind of farming was long gone, replaced by specialized grain or livestock farmers.

But while so many familiar things were gone, it was remarkable how familiar the old place still felt. I knew what was left of it wouldn’t be there much longer–and it wasn’t–but it was especially nice to have that one last brief visit with my childhood out on the farm.

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