Category Archives: Nostalgia

Sitting back and watching as entire eras come and go…

I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.

Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.

Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.

In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.

Lyle Shoger picking corn by hand near the end of the era of farming with horses about 1930 just off Route 34 west of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.

One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.

In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.

The author test-drives a new IH Farmall tractor at the Wheatland Plowing Match about 1950.

I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.

But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.

But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.

The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.

It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.

The author, co-piloting the Matile Farm Case tractor with his father at the controls, about 1949.

Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.

We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.

Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.

In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.

We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.

But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.

Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.

During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.

As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”

A size comparison: My nephew poses with his classic old Farmall tractor and with one of the kinds of giant machines they use these days that dwarf anything used back in the heyday of diversified farming.

That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.

The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.

And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.

Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.

Subdivision under construction in Oswego just as the housing bust hit in 2009. In the early 2000’s Kendall County, partly driven by Oswego’s growth, was the fastest growing county in the nation. The pause in construction caused by the lending crisis in 2009 has now largely disappeared and construction in the area is again booming. (Ledger-Sentinel photo by John Etheredge)

That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.

Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.

I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.

Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.

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Filed under Environment, family, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

Sat down in my small office here at History Central this morning and was treated to the scene of hundreds of Canada Geese sitting out on the ice shelf that grew in the Fox River’s main channel during our recent bitter cold spell.

The view from my home office window this morning. That black strip out on the other side of the trees on the island is several hundred geese enjoying northern Illinois’ latest cold snap by sitting on the ice.

And it occurred to me how much I love and appreciate this old river.

My family has owned the spot I’m sitting on right now since 1908 when my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town. They picked out four lots in the old, never incorporated Village of Troy on the east bank of the Fox River of Illinois about a half-mile above the Village of Oswego.

This photo by Irvin Haines shows the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory at right, North Adams Street (called Water Street back then) and, just a few yards upstream from the mill, the vacant lots where my sister built our current house in 1985.

They probably picked the site because it was right next door to my great-great-grandparents’ house and just a short distance south of my great-grandmother’s sister’s house.

They contracted with my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build their steep-roofed story-and-a-half Queen Anne-style retirement home on the two lots on the east side of Troy’s Water Street—now Oswego’s North Adams Street. And he did a great job, too. The house (now where my son and wife live) is still as sound and sturdy as the day my great-grandparents moved in, in October 1908.

The Lantz House Irvin Haines built for my great-grandparents, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

They reserved the two lots west of Water Street lying on the east bank of the river for grazing room for their cow and driving horse, and gardening.

The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory was located right next door to the north of those two lots, separated by the 66-foot wide Third Street right-of-way, which had been platted as part of Troy but never completed. The sawmill, whose power was provided by the adjoining dam across the river, had served the Oswego community for several years before William Parker added the furniture factory to process the numerous Black Walnut trees in the community into chairs, tables, and various kinds of chests.

At some point, the mill and furniture factor had burned down, leaving behind the remains of the building’s thick flagstone foundation and the millrace that had powered the turbines that, in turn, powered the entire operation.

Meanwhile, across the river at the west end of the dam, the Parker Gristmill had ground local farmers’ grain into flour and meal before being closed down around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 1920s, Irvin Haines (yes, the same person who built my great-grandparents’ house) dismantled the mill and used the timber, sawn lumber, and foundation stones to remodel the old Seely Barn at the west end of the Oswego Bridge into the Turtle Rock Tearoom—which is still standing and is today a private home.

The old dam washed out sometime around the first or second decade of the 20th Century, never to be rebuilt.

Upon my great grandparents’ death during World War II, their house passed on to my grandparents. My aunt and uncle moved into the house during the war and then in 1955 my parents bought it when they were forced to quit farming due to my dad’s poor health. We moved off the farm in December that year and I began my love affair with the river.

The Fox River (of Illinois; the Fox River of Wisconsin empties into Green Bay), 202 miles long, has its source northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the river flows 84 miles past Brookfield, Waukesha, Big Bend, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake and Wilmot before crossing the border into Illinois at the north end of the chain of six lakes on the border between Lake and McHenry counties. From there it flows generally south and slightly west to its mouth on the Illinois River near Starved Rock at Ottawa.

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map of the Old Northwest showing the Illinois River and the first mention of the modern name of the Fox River I’ve been able to find. (Indian Villages of Illinois, Vol. II, Atlas and Supplement, Sara Jones Tucker)

The Native People living along the river when the French arrived in the Illinois River Valley in 1673 called the river Pestequouy, the Algonquian-speaking peoples’ word for the American Bison. That indicated that by then buffalo were common on the prairies along the river’s course. After LaSalle’s efforts at colonizing the Illinois River Valley in the early 1680s, the Fox became known among the French as the River of the Rock. The French had named the landmark Starved Rock simply “The Rock.” Near the end of the 17th Century, the French moved their trading operations south to Lake Peoria on the Illinois River. It was after that period that the Fox River got its modern name, most likely named after the Fox Tribe, some groups of which lived along its northern reaches in the early 1700s.

Between 1764 and 1775, fter the British won the French and Indian War, Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled the area that eventually became the Old Northwest Territory with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, the Fox River was finally given its modern name. The name was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

The villages of Native People in northern Illinois as of about 1830, just as settlement was about to explode in the Fox River Valley. The river is picked out in green on this map. (Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History)

The Fox Valley was a rich place used as a hunting ground by the member tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. When the Illinois gradually lost population and power in the early 18th Century, interrelated bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes created the Three Fires Confederacy and moved from their homelands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to fill the vacuum in the Fox Valley. These were the people living in the river valley when the first White settlers began arriving in the late 1820s.

The Three Fires and their cousins who had been living along the river for a few thousand years had manipulated the landscape to maintain the prairies and open wooded savannas that characterized the area when those White settlers arrived. That also included changing the river itself by building weirs to trap fish that tended to change water flows and create new islands and other features. But when the Whites showed up, they began making much more profound changes to the river and the prairies and hardwood groves in its watershed.

Drainage of wetlands that dotted the prairies, most of which were the remnants of Ice Age lakes, began as soon as pioneer farmers arrived and continued as new technologies were brought to bear. This had the beneficial effect of sharply cutting the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hordes of biting flies. But it also led to the more rapid runoff of stormwater, leading to larger and more frequent floods on the Fox River.

Laying clay tile to drain wetlands on the Oswego Prairie east of the Village of Oswego abut 1900. The tile run went through a ridge on its way to empty into Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In addition, the groves were cut to provide firewood and building materials and the prairies were plowed and turned into cropland. That led to more soil erosion and the once-clear river was turned into a muddy stream.

But those changes didn’t hold a candle to the effect the dams the region’s pioneer millwrights threw across the river to power sawmills and gristmills. According to The Fox River Area Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River became the most dammed stream in Illinois…The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams.” According to the assessment, 25 dams dotted the river’s course at one time or another, including at Oswego, Millington, Millbrook, Millhurst, and Yorkville here in Kendall County.

Noted the assessment’s authors, “The Fox River probably produced more hydro-power than all other streams in Illinois put together, excluding the Rock River. In addition to sawing wood and grinding grain, these mills ran factories. The Fox River Valley became more heavily industrialized than any other area of comparable size in Illinois.”

The dams themselves created problems. The dead water behind them—none of them except one in the Chain of Lakes were built with floodgates that would all the current to cleanse the river bottom behind them. As a result, the mill ponds up and down the river quickly filled with silt, covering the gravel gamefish preferred to lay their eggs. The dams also prevented fish from migrating to other spawning grounds.

The decline in gamefish, particularly, was noted and everyone from the U.S. Fish Commission to local angling clubs tried to fix the situation by stocking the Fox with a dizzying variety of fish, from Rainbow Trout to German Carp. Needless to say, the trout didn’t survive, but the carp certainly did, displacing native species and with their feeding habits contributing to the river’s already serious turgidity.

But it was the Fox Valley’s industrialization, which continued well after hydro power was economical, that caused the most severe problems. Instead of a source of power the river became viewed as a convenient dump for all manner of industrial waste. Especially starting when manufacturing coal gas became popular for home lighting, heating, and cooking the pollution of the river began spiking. And, of course, citizens in the growing towns along the river contributed by dumping their own, often untreated, sewage into the river.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

By a century ago the problem had become acute. The Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on May 17, 1922: “In spite of all efforts which have been made in previous years and laws which have been passed by the legislature, the pollution of Fox River continues to make the waterway a menace to health. The Fox is a beautiful stream. The fishing in years gone past has been good and the boating in some places enjoyable. But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

But the industrial interests had the money to buy as many politicians as needed to keep any meaningful change from taking place. As a result, when we moved into my great-grandparents’ house in 1955, the river was in even worse shape than ever. Within a couple years, chemical factories upstream dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killing just about every living creature in the Fox from Aurora to Yorkville. During the first episode, we counted more than 500 dead fish along my parents’ riverbank.

We spent summers on and along the river in those years, but were always careful to wear our “river shoes” when wading to avoid stepping on broken glass or scrap metal that could provide a nasty cut in the polluted water. We enjoyed our river scows, too. From my office window, I look right at the bit of riverbank where some long-dead relative installed a large iron staple in concrete where I’d chain up my boat.

Fishing was fun, but it was strictly “catch and release” for us long before the term came into vogue. One look at the stunted Black Bullheads, Catfish, and Bluegills, often with lesions (that proved to be cancerous when studied) on them, prevented us from wanting to eat any of them.

Ice skating on the Fox River at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek about 1920. (Little White School Museum collection)

Still, the river valley was a great place to grow up. Winters were colder then, with -20° F. cold snaps not uncommon, which meant the river provided some great ice skating. Trudging down to the riverbank to sit on a handy log to change into my skates was a treat all winter. In fact, I’d often go skating for an hour or so before school. And I only fell through the ice once, and since it only involved one leg getting wet, I decided that discretion was probably a good idea and never bothered my parents with the details.

After the annual spring flood was over, it was back aboard our flat-bottomed river scows. When I became fascinated with the Age of Sail I talked my mother into sewing canvas sail and then built the necessary rigging for my boat, installed leeboards and even managed to sail upstream with the rig.

The memorial to Jim Phillips celebrating his efforts to save the nation’s air and water from pollution, acting as his alter-ego, “The Fox.” The memorial is on the banks of the Fox River in Oswego’s Violet Patch Park just off Ill. Route 25. The memorial, signed with the “cartoon”Fox” Phillips used to advertise his exploits, honors his activities and also illustrates the positive changes his activities prompted.

Then things began to change, thanks to activists like Jim Phillips who weren’t afraid to tackle all the money paying for politicians to ignore the river’s pollution. Acting as his secret identity of “The Fox,” Jim began waging a campaign against polluters using a brilliant combination of humor and public relations to shine a light on what was going on. His exploits were picked up by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, the local press, and even National Geographic. His exploits, such as dumping the Lake Michigan outflow from a U.S. Steel coking plant onto the pristine white carpeting of the corporate offices in downtown Chicago and plugging untreated industrial effluent pipes emptying into local creeks and the Fox River itself, helped lead to a national reassessment of what we were doing to our own environment.

And, since that was the era when politicians could still work together for the greater good of society in general, that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon as well as similar agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels as well.

Today, the Fox River I look at out of my office window (which, by the way, is situated about where center field was back in the day when this was a vacant lot that housed the neighborhood baseball diamond and go-cart track) and see hundreds of Canada Geese and know that come spring the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass anglers will be back with a vengeance, it really gives me a good feeling. Seeing something that was so distressed that even as an eight year-old I knew it was in serious trouble recover to become something so unbelievably valuable as a recreational and natural areas resource is more satisfying than just about anything else I can think of.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Native Americans, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

It was great being a kid at Christmastime in the 1950s

‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.

We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.

Taken back during the winter of 2021 out of my office window, ducks and geese congregate on the Fox River. Totally absent in the 1950s, the birds are common sights these days.

The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.

Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.

But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.

These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.

Snapped a shot of this guy last winter sitting in a tree on the far side of the island right off our stretch of riverbank.

After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.

My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.

And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.

When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.

The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.

My grandparents’ small farmhouse. The three windows on the left were in the long, narrow dining room.

My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.

After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.

These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.

The author on the blue Schwinn he bought for $5, ready for a 1950s Oswego Memorial Day Parade. Flags were the main decorations that year. We all got coupons for a free root beer at the Kopper Kettle restaurant.

It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.

I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.

These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.

While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, family, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

“The Basics” of American life have significantly evolved

I was paging through an old photo album the other day and came upon a photo of my grandmother dated about 1915. There she was standing beside her father-in-law in back of her two-story Aurora home, smiling into the camera holding up the severed head of a pig.

In this day and age, someone hoisting a pig’s head up for the camera would be considered odd if not downright dangerous. But my gentle and kindly grandmother was obviously not a bloodthirsty woman. So what was going on?

Wilhelm Holzhueter and his daughter-in-law, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter, make headcheese at the Holzhueter Home on Hinman Street on Aurora, Illinois’ east side neighborhood nicknamed “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelming German population. Photo probably taken about 1915 by Fred Holzhueter.

What was going on was everyday life at that time.

The early years of this century were times not so far removed—in lifestyle if not in year—from the subsistence farming in which the pioneers engaged. Until relatively recently (we’re talking in historical terms here), people did not go down to the supermarket for their every food need. Sure, there were grocery stores, but they mostly stocked staples like flour, sugar, rice, and the like. Instead of buying everything they ate, our not-so-distant ancestors had big gardens, raised chickens, and they kept cows and sometimes pigs, often even in town.

One reason most women did not work outside the home back then is because there was so much work in their homes to do all that gardening and animal husbandry not to mention trying to keep up with normal household tasks like cooking. Back in that day, just doing the family wash was a day-long job that involved heavy lifting, not to mention often having to be a cross between an engineer and a water-carrier—as my grandmother came to realize after she and my grandfather moved to a farm in 1920.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering’s gasoline utility engines. My grandfather also used it to power his concrete mixer and for other farm chores in pre-rural electrification days.

Farmers, of course, always tried to grow as much of the food they needed as possible while also trying to grow enough extra to send to market to earn cash. But frontier farmers found that given the transportation technology of the day their farm produce was hard–if not downright impossible–to move to market. As a result, they tried to convert their produce into something that was easier to transport.

Corn, rye, and other grains raised west of the Appalachian Mountains could be fermented and then distilled into whiskey, which could be transported a lot easier than the tons of grain it took to make the spirits. One of the nation’s first tax crises, in fact, happened because the government insisted on taxing whiskey, a practice western farmers insisted was unfair, since grain sold by eastern farmers was not similarly taxed. The Whiskey Rebellion was brief, but the animosity of the western settlers towards the more settled east remained and simmered.

The concept of making it easier to get western agricultural products to eastern markets was one of the major forces driving development on the frontier. Such giant—for their times—public works projects as the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls), the all the other canal systems in the nation were attempts to open farm-to-market transport routes.

Meanwhile, farmers were trying to survive by producing enough for their families to eat. Virtually every farmstead featured a standardized set of buildings and agricultural features that were geared towards not only producing products for sale or barter but for the subsistence of the farm family as well. Early on, a barn to provide storage for fodder, protection for draft animals, and farm equipment storage (meaning a plow during pioneer days); a crop storage building that eventually evolved into what we now call a corn crib; and a chicken house were the minimum buildings, beside the farmhouse, that were included on most farmsteads. Gradually, the kinds of farm equipment farmers needed increased and so a separate machine shed was added to the farmstead.

About 1900, R.D. Gates proudly poses with the hogs he’s raising on his farm on Minkler Road south of Oswego as his hired man on the wagon full of freshly picked and husked corn looks on. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In terms of livestock, at least one cow was kept to provide milk and butter for the family. A few pigs were almost always kept because they were easy to raise and provided a lot of meat for the cost of feeding them. Cattle were usually kept, although they were more expensive to purchase and breed than pigs because they did not convert forage to meat as efficiently. And, of course, chickens were almost always on hand because of their utility as garbage disposals, egg layers, and ready sources of fresh meat.

Until the 1960s, most farmers raised all of the above animals at once on their farms, sometimes for the consumption of their families and even more often as profit centers for their farming operations.

Outside on the farmstead, there was an orchard and a large garden plot. Orchards usually included apple, cherry, and pear trees, plus sometimes plums, apricots, and peach trees. Early on, fruit was dried or stored in cellars for use later in the year. Later on, the fruit was either canned or turned into jellies and preserves.

Preserving vegetables and other garden produce, fruit, and meat was one of farm wives’ major tasks. Vegetables were canned, while root crops were preserved in cellars. Some vegetables, like cabbage and cucumbers were preserved by pickling, including making sauerkraut out of cabbage. Fruit was, as mentioned above, either canned for later use in pies and salads, or made into preserves, jams, and jellies. Many farm tables featured a jelly dish at all three meals during the day.

My grandmother in 1978 enjoying a rest after a busy life in the house my grandfather built in town for their retirement.

Meat was preserved in a variety of ways, including canning, which was especially favored for beef. Pork was preserved by frying the pork chops and putting them down in layers in large crocks. Each layer was sealed from outside air–and spoilage–with a thick layer of pork grease. Bacon and hams were smoked for preservation. And some parts of the hog were preserved in other ways. “Headcheese” was created by boiling the hog’s head to remove and cook the meat and release the natural gelatin in the bones and connective tissue. Then the mixture was seasoned and poured into loaf pans to cool. This produced a spiced lunch meat loaf that was sliced for use in sandwiches and other recipes.

Which gets us back to what my sweet grandmother was doing displaying that hog’s head so proudly: She was getting ready to make up a fresh batch of headcheese for use in my grandfather’s lunches at the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops in Aurora—no trip to the packaged meat aisle of the grocery store needed.

As a commentary on American life, the photo leading off this post is just one more indication of how far our definition of “the basics” has moved from the time of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’.

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The end of two significant rural traditions reflected education, agriculture change in Illinois

We just opened a new seasonal exhibit down at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, “Back to School.”

Museum manager Annie Jordan made a deep dive into our collections and retrieved a bunch of photos, documents, and three-dimensional artifacts, from 1950s letter sweaters to the kind of slates kids used to use in lieu of expensive paper to practice arithmetic and handwriting skills. The goal, which seems successful to me, was to put more flesh on the bones of the story of how public education has evolved over the decades as told in the museum gallery’s various core exhibit.

The Little White School Museum’s “Back to School” exhibit celebrates the start of another school year with artifacts, documents, and photographs from the museum’s collections normally not on exhibit. The museum is located at 72 Polk Street, Oswego. Admission is free.

Everyone’s invited to stop by and spend some quality time browsing the new exhibit as well as the exhibits in the gallery. Regular hours are Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Monday, 4 to 9 p.m.; and Thursdays and Fridays, 2 to 6:30 p.m. Admission is free.

When I was providing some research assistance to Annie and museum assistant Emily Dutton, who was working on the exhibit’s labels, it occurred to me that, being a member of the first of the Baby Boom generation as I am, I’d seen—and participated in—one of the most significant times of change in public education in Illinois history. That era of change also coincided with eras of massive change that began in other areas during my childhood and early adulthood. That included the biggest changes in agriculture in a century (or much more) and the introduction of and miniaturization of computers that had massive effects on every aspect of life.

Public education opportunities had been divided into two categories for a century by that time. Elementary school districts educated students from first through eighth grade. Until the early years of the 20th Century, it was felt by many that eight years of schooling was enough for most people. High schools were relatively rare, as were their students. In 1916, only 175 students from all the county’s rural school districts attended at least some high school.

Until the 20th Century dawned, high school graduates were considered qualified to teach in rural schools. Then qualifications began rising and two years of college began to be required.

Oswego High School’s first graduating class, the Class of 1887, left to right, back row, Addie Kimball (Curry), Mary Smith (Young.) Sitting, Bessie Armstrong (Long), Frank Lippold, Addie Wormley (Elliott). (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, a two-year high school course—sufficient for rural school teachers—was offered with the first graduates matriculating in 1886. Those who wanted a full, four-year degree had to travel to nearby Aurora to finish. It wasn’t until the fall of 1928 that Oswego finally offered a fully accredited, four-year high school course of study.

High schools were expensive propositions with students’ tuitions originally paid for by rural districts. Finally, the state allowed the formation of property tax-supported high school districts and in December 1936 Oswego and Yorkville area voters created the Oswego and Yorkville community high school districts. Oswego High School District Superintendent John Clayton immediately set out to increase the geographical size of the district without adding too many potential students. The strategy made sense—farmland didn’t generate many students, but it did generate tax revenue. That worked until the 68 square miles of the once overwhelmingly rural district began growing more housing developments than crops.

Church School, Wheatland Township, student body, grades 1-6, 1952. The author is in the left foreground.

I started school at the age of 6 years in the fall of 1952, joining four classmates in the first grade at Church School in Wheatland Township, Will County, here in Illinois. No kindergarten then—we dove right into Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot; metal lunch boxes with Thermos bottles whose glass lining broke if you looked at them wrong; recess; penmanship; and the rest with none of those half-day socialization preliminaries.

Officially considered a one-room rural school, Church School was a substantial brick building that actually boasted a large classroom, boys’ and girls’ indoor bathrooms, and a tiny library room, along with a high-ceilinged basement sufficient for indoor recess on rainy days. It was given its name because it was right across the road from the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church.

The church and school were established by the group of Scots immigrant families that arrived on the Wheatland prairie in the 1840s and 1850s, the descendants of which were, a century later, some of my schoolmates. In the fall of 1952, our teacher, Dorothy Comerford, drove out from Joliet every school day to instruct 23 students in six grades.

We didn’t know it—Mrs. Comerford probably did, and our parents surely did—but we were participating in the last years of one-room rural schools. Seventh and eighth graders who would normally have been attending classes at Church School had already been bused into town to attend school in Oswego and sixth graders would follow the next year.

The dedication of the new flagpole at Church School in 1944 during World War II, with the entire student body attending. My sister Eileen is fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

My mother, in fact, was one of the people making sure that junior high students would have the expanded educational opportunities available in town schools. That’s because my oldest sister, Eileen, 12 years my senior, had been the only student in her grade level during her eight pre-high school years attending a couple different one-room schools. She finished her last few years at Church School, which was about a mile down the road from our farm.

Eileen told me one time that during the era when she graduated from eighth grade, graduates from all over Will County, a huge county extending all the way to the Indiana border, assembled at Lockport High School to receive their diplomas. She said she had a slight panic attack seeing that many students her own age after having no classmates her own age for her recently-completed eight years of school.

That prompted my mother’s activism. She helped establish the Oswego Mother’s Club (it eventually became the Oswego Woman’s Civic Club) that began strongly lobbying local school districts to get junior high students out of one-room schools and into town schools so they’d have access to more educational opportunities. Her efforts dovetailed nicely with the accelerating pace of public school consolidation then taking place all across Illinois.

By the early 1950s, Illinois was strongly encouraging merging rural, single-school districts into larger consolidated elementary school districts. The consolidation movement had begun years before, touted as both a tax-saving measure as well as an improvement in educational opportunities. Moving kids into larger in-town schools saved money because rural schools often had such low enrollments, sometimes as few as five or six students, which made for a great, but expensive student:teacher ratio. Larger schools could also offer a far richer curriculum for junior high students, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) areas where chemistry, biology, and physics labs were the kinds of things that would have benefited my sister, who was determined to be a nurse.

A few attempts at consolidating one-room school districts were made early on. Yorkville began considering consolidation in 1919. But efforts stalled during the Great Depression. As economic condition began to ease, consolidation efforts began again, this time out in rural areas. In June 1941, for instance, residents of the one-room Wilcox, Gaylord, and Walker schools voted to consolidate into a single district, with all students attending the Walker School at Plainfield and Simons roads southeast of Oswego.

The outbreak of World War II again stalled things, but after the war consolidation efforts, this time strongly encouraged by the State of Illinois, resumed. Teacher requirements were increased to require full four-year degrees, prompting dozens of Kendall County educators to go back to college if they wanted to keep teaching. Financial encouragement through the state aid to education formula also encouraged consolidation, not only of elementary districts with other elementary districts, but also the creation of unit districts that educated students from first grade through the senior year of high school.

Church School, Heggs at Ferguson Road, Wheatland Township, Will County, 1957. The Oswego School District’s last rural school, it closed at the end of the 1957-1958 school year. (Little White School Museum photo)

Here in the Oswego School District, it turned out that Church School, where I attended first through the first of half of third grade was one of the last three Oswego-affiliated one-room schools to operate. There had once been 11 one-room schools educating grade school students inside the bounds of the 68 square-mile area affiliated with Oswego through annexation to the high school district. Of the final three remaining schools, Willow Hill at the intersection of U.S. Route 30 and U.S. Route 34 and McCauley School on Caton Farm Road closed in the spring of 1957. Church School closed in the spring of 1958, ending the one-room country school era in the Oswego area.

(Fun fact: All three buildings are still standing, although poor Willow Hill gets more and more dilapidated every year. McCauley and Church schools have both been converted into single-family homes.)

Then in June 1961, voters in the Oswego Community Consolidated Grade School District 8 and Oswego Community Consolidated High School District 300 voted to create a new unit school district for students in first grade through high school, today’s Oswego Community Unit School District 308.

And that growth that was just getting a good start back in the late 1950s? Boy, did it keep going. One year old District 308 started the 1962-63 school year with 1,971 students. It started the current school year with just over 17,000.

So, I had the opportunity to attend a rural school very near the end of that era, and I have to say that for those first two and a half years, it provided me a very good, basic education, better than what I found when my parents moved into town. There were more students in my third grade classroom in town than had been in Church School in total, and I was in just one of three third grade classrooms, each with more than 30 students.

The thing was, the education you got in those one-room rural schools was hugely dependent on the skill of the teacher. A bad teacher could plague students through several years of school. But I, and my other Church School classmates were lucky; we had a great teacher.

Along with the end of the one-room school era, the end of diversified farming was also in sight when we moved off the farm in December 1954, soon to be replaced by specialization in grain, livestock, or dairy farming.

It was an interesting time, as two significant rural American eras came to an end.

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Preserving some local history out on the Wheatland prairie…

So I went back to the old neighborhood last Saturday to help celebrate the new name of Tamarack Settlement Park.

Formerly carrying the anodyne name Northwest Community Park, the 30.4 acre site is located just down the road from my grandparents’ farm and a couple miles south of the farm my folks worked until I was eight years old.

Tina Beaird wears a big smile as her dream of commemorating the old Tamarack settlement created by 19th Century Scots immigrants in the mid-19th Century came true with the dedication of the park’s new name on April 23.

Thanks to the activism of my friend Tina Beaird, the Plainfield Park District agreed to rename the park to commemorate the Scots settlers who arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s to settle the (literally) treeless prairie between Plainfield and Oswego. According to W.W. Stevens writing about the 36 square mile Wheatland Township in Past and Present of Will County, Illinois (1907), “It is wholly prairie, there never having been to exceed five acres of timber in the whole township.”

Stephen Findlay and family arrived in the area in 1844 and put down deep roots—his family still lives in the area. Other Scots including the Clow, McMicken, Gilmour, King, McLaren, and Stewart families soon joined them. Then in 1852, Thomas Burnett also arrived after a circuitous journey from his native Scotland.

Born in 1811 the son of a weaver, Burnett too took up the weaving trade until 1834 when he decided to try his luck across the Atlantic in the United States. According to his biography, he first stopped in Saratoga County, N.Y., then tried his luck west in Michigan before returning east to Connecticut and then New York again. But in 1852, he decided to try his luck prairie farming in Illinois, settling in the Findlays’ Scots settlement in which eventually became Will County’s Wheatland Township.

This 1873 plat map illustrates the heavy population of Scots settlers living around the old Tamarack Post Office. Modern Heggs Road runs due north and south past the post office, while modern 127th Street (Simons Road in Kendall County) runs east and west.

Sometime during his travels, Burnett had apparently become fond of tamarack trees. Although appearing to be evergreens, tamaracks lose their needles during the winter and regrow them each spring. They favor wetlands with plenty of sunshine—which really doesn’t describe Wheatland Township, but Burnett brought some along with him anyway and planted them near the intersection of modern 127th Street and Heggs Road. And thus the intersection soon became known as Tamarack Corners and the surrounding area as the Tamarack neighborhood.

The area got it’s own post office soon after Burnett arrived with his tamarack trees. The Tamarack Post Office opened on Dec. 8, 1858 in a private residence at the northwest corner of the 127th Street-Heggs Road intersection.

Then a couple years later, the Tamarack School was built at the southeast corner of the intersection on a small parcel owned by Scots farmer John Brown. The small frame building housed grades 1-8, and served an area a couple miles in diameter. The goal of rural school districts was to make sure students didn’t have to walk more than around a mile and a half to class. Generations of students went through Tamarack School for their first eight grades—and for most of them those were all the grades they finished.

Tamarack School as it looked in 1940

Eventually, blacksmith William Narin opened a shop a short distance east of the intersection on 127th Street, next to the house of ditch digger James Narin.

Postmaster Hugh Allen not only managed the post office, but also maintained a small store as well, a common practice for the thousands of rural postmasters across the nation. And, in fact, Allen’s small store was the only store within the bounds of Wheatland Township for several years.

In May 1848, a group of Scots Presbyterians met at Stephen Findlay’s home and established the Wheatland Presbyterian Church. Their first church building was erected a mile north of Tamarack Corners at the intersection of Heggs and Scotch Church roads in 1856. The original church building was replaced by a much larger structure in 1906 that still stands, and which, as the Wheatland United “Scotch” Presbyterian Church, is still attended by some of the descendants of the congregation’s original founders.

The old neighborhood in its modern guise, with subdivisions popping up all around it.

While some small rural crossroads hamlets grew into legitimate villages, many, including Tamarack, did not. It’s possible that the decision to locate the Scotch Church a mile north of Tamarack inhibited its growth. Certainly, the advent of the U.S. Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery in 1896 led to a major change in rural lifestyles as many small country post offices closed. The Tamarack Post Office closed its doors on April 15, 1901. And without the post office revenue, Allen’s tiny store could not succeed. Instead, the store’s business moved a few miles away to Normantown on the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway’s line running from Plainfield to Aurora. While Normantown’s post office (1893-1903) was also a casualty of Rural Free Delivery, the small hamlet’s grain elevator proved a big enough draw to lure customers to the store there, which later also added gasoline to their product line to serve the growing number of automobiles. When the U.S. Route 30—the Lincoln Highway—was finally rerouted and paved from Plainfield to Aurora following the railroad right-of-way, the store became a forerunner of what we’d call a mini-mart these days.

Tamarack School also eventually closed in the late 1940s, consolidating with Church School a mile north just across Scotch Church Road from the Scotch Church.

By the time I was growing up a mile north of the Scotch Church in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only two private homes marked the former Tamarack intersection hamlet. All that remained of Tamarack School was the hand pump on the old well. The post office and blacksmith shop had disappeared without a trace.

Strangely enough, my grandparents’ small farmhouse about a quarter mile west of Tamarack Corners still stands, though surrounded by the Wheatland Plains Subdivision.

Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time in that neighborhood, staying with my grandparents just up the road a bit and visiting with the Bowers, who had remodeled one of the two remaining houses at the intersection. Their son, Bob, was three years older than I, but we still had a good time playing together, and would often walk down the road to where it crossed a small creek to play in the running water as I imagine boys had been doing since those first Scots settlers arrived.

“Weren’t your parents worried about the traffic as you walked down there?” my wife wondered as she watched cars and trucks whizzing by on now-paved 127th Street. And I had to explain that other than the mail carrier, Ralton Sillers making his daily rounds, there wasn’t any traffic to speak of back in those days.

And that spot where we played so many years ago is now a naturalized wetland and part of Tamarack Settlement Park. It is kind of nice to know that as all the former farms that once surrounded Tamarack Corners develop and become covered with new homes that at least a piece of the old landscape will be preserved, even including some of the very native prairie plants the Findlays and Burnetts and those other families saw when they arrived all those many years ago.

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The long search for one town’s clean drinking water

Among the things we tend to take for granted these days—until its supply gets interrupted anyway—is water available when we turn on the taps in our homes. The safe water that comes out of the faucets in our homes and businesses has become so common a thing, in fact, that any interruption in the supply is big news.

But there was a time, of course, when there was no running water available in homes and businesses. And the assurance of safe, clean drinking water is an even newer development.

I got to thinking about the topic the other day while I was taking my morning post-exercise shower. Having hot and cold running water in our homes has become so common we really don’t think much about it any more. But as recently as my early childhood, automatic water heaters weren’t enjoyed by everyone, and some homes in our little corner of northern Illinois still relied on outhouses—privies—in place of in-house bathrooms.

The story of the quest for reliable fresh water supplies is one of those topics that seems so mundane as to not matter much at all. But at one time, the lack of safe drinking water was a literal matter of life or death from waterborne diseases such at typhoid fever. And the hazard didn’t depend on whether people were rich or poor, either. The husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861.

Even during pioneer days, using Waubonsie Creek’s water for drinking or cooking was problematical; you never knew who or what was using it upstream. (Little White School Museum collection)

When my hometown of Oswego was settled in the early 1830s, most of the surface water in the area was relatively safe to drink. The pioneers selected their new village’s site because it was situated at a good, hard-bottomed ford across the Fox River. Waubonsie Creek, that flowed through the community, as well as the smaller Bartlett’s Run provided fresh running water, as did the numerous springs that dotted the bluffs along the creek and river.

Those were adequate sources for the earliest arrivals, but as settlement continued area wetlands were drained and farming tended to create harmful runoff from silt to animal waste into streams and springs alike. The reaction was to hand-dig wells, but given Oswego’s underlayment with a thick layer of hard limestone that was often unsuccessful, making those earliest wells if not rare at least sparse throughout the community.

Margaret Phillips Young, who arrived as a youngster with her parents in 1839, remembered it was her job as a child to carry water for the family’s cooking and drinking needs.

“In ’41 Mr. Towle rented the tavern and built a home, which is now the Hinchman house,” she recalled in 1906. “There I met Mrs. Towle. I loved to look at her as at a beautiful picture, and often wondered if she knew my scrutiny was admiration or thought it impertinence. I saw her every day the first summer we lived here, for I had to carry the water for housekeeping from that place to the west side of Main street, where we lived and as I was allowed only a five quart tin bucket I made many trips.”

When it came to washing clothes, drinking water was too precious to use for that purpose, so families used Waubonsie Creek.

Margaret Phillips Young again: “I must not forget to mention the sawmill on Waubonsie creek, built by the Hopkins brothers…And there being no cisterns in the place and not many wells the women had a place to wash under the trees at the creek. If there came a shower they would seek shelter in the mill.”

During dry spells, even hand-dug wells, much less the springs in the area, could either dry up completely or become extremely reduced in flow. Wrote the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Jan. 30, 1869: “The thermometer on Tuesday morning at seven o’clock showed 16 below zero—it was still; no wind stirring. There is prospect of a dry month in February. Water is very scarce, most of our citizens are hauling ice from the river to get water for washing, etc.”

And on Dec. 5, 1872, the Record reported from Yorkville: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

Oswego Postmaster and Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank watched Oswego history unfold from this frame building in the midst of the community’s downtown. He built the post office in 1874 and lived in its second floor apartment. After his death, he willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it became the community’s first library. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next week, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, addressed the same issue, noting that the reduction in well water levels and the disappearance of springs had become noticeable and that possibly it was time to consider a municipal water supply: “Items this week are not very plenty with me and in the order of making my communication of the usual length, I undertook to fill up with the water question, but in trying to show the necessity of a public water supply in this town, to explain why by digging wells we cannot reach water a readily as heretofore, why springs are drying up, why there is so much less rain than formerly, and why water is getting continually scarcer, I got into water so deep that I had to back out for this time.”

Drought wasn’t the only problem with the town’s hand-dug wells, either. In 1835, Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold had laid out the original village of Oswego, consisting of 20 blocks, each block bisected by two perpendicular allies and containing eight lots, each measuring 66 x 132 feet. With lots that small it was difficult to assure that the hand-dug wells of the era were a safe distance away from the household privy. And that meant that waterborne diseases such as typhoid were distressingly common.

It would take a while for the connection between tainted drinking water and disease to be made, but when it was, attempts began to try to supply municipal residents with clean drinking water supplies.

While village officials and residents were looking at safe drinking water options, typhoid was a regular visitor to the community. For instance, the Record reported from Oswego on Nov. 13, 1873 that: “Nov. 13: James Shumway is quite sick with the typhoid fever; one of his daughters is also sick. Mrs. S. has been on a visit to the New England States and was expected home yesterday.”

Actually, in Oswego, the efforts to provide sufficient drinking water for horses in the downtown area were initially considered to be of more importance to residents than a safe municipal supply for humans. In October 1875, the village financed construction of a windmill, holding tank, and stock tank at street level at what is today 60 Main Street, then the vacant site of the old National Hotel that had burned in 1867.

Rank reported from Oswego on Oct. 21 that “The water trough by the post office will soon be a reality; Kuchl is doing the excavating work. Theron Richards and Bis Hunt are constructing the tower and the Marshall Wind Engine Co. will put up the wind mill; the National well is used for the supply of the water,” adding on Dec. 2 that “The town authorities caused the erection of a building over the supply water tank, the casing, sawdust interlining and covering of the trough, the painting of the whole, including the windmill tower, the laying of the flagstones around the trough, and the putting down of tile for the drainage of that part of the street.”

Oswego’s village fathers, with the health and comfort of downtown business customers’ teams in mind, were at first more interested in providing watering tanks for livestock than a municipal watering supply. (Little White School Museum collection)

The supply was not only used by horses of downtown residents and those visiting businesses there, but also by the residents themselves, a less than optimal situation. Rank’s suggestion that an actual municipal water supply might be a good idea continued to percolate through the community.

As it was, the village was finding out that providing even minimal water service involved regular maintenance. By 1881, the lack of maintenance and regular cleaning of the supply tank, as well as failure to maintain the windmill meant the whole system was failing badly. Wrote an exasperated Rank of its condition that September: “Our public watering tank is a nuisance. The thing is either dry or else it will contain some water slimy enough to make an alligator puke to drink it.”

In 1885, the village decided to have a well dug with the aim of supplying municipal water to the village’s downtown area. The well was apparently dug on the crest of the bluff in the area of Van Buren and Washington streets and was spring-fed. Its flow, when completed, was directed using a hydraulic ram downtown via 3” iron pipes buried in Van Buren and Main streets. As laid, the water main ran down Van Buren Street to a stable on the west side of the street, just north of South Adams Street. At Main Street, a “T” was installed along with a running fountain and watering tank. From there the water main ran up the street to the downtown business district. In front of the post office in the middle of the block between Washington and Jackson streets, the main crossed to the west side of the street until it got to Jackson Street, where it crossed back to the east side of the street before ending in a running fountain and watering tank in front of the livery stable at the corner of Main and Jackson.

Virtually all of the buildings downtown connected to the municipal water supply.

But the hydraulic ram system soon proved both unreliable and inadequate. On both the 1885 and 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps of downtown Oswego, the fire insurance company rated Oswego’s municipal water facilities as “Not Good.”

By 1894, it was clear the water system was simply not functioning well or safely, and the village board began looking into a better well, erecting a water tower, and installing larger water mains throughout the village. Plans slowly moved ahead before Chicago Bridge and Iron submitted the low bid on the new system’s elevated tank and other parts excepting the water mains themselves.

Not that everyone in town was in favor of spending the money to upgrade the system, of course. Many long-time residents, including Record correspondent Rank, weren’t convinced the new-fangled pressurized system would be worth the money it was costing the village government to install it.

The basswood tank on Oswego’s first water tower under construction in 1895. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on installing the system didn’t begin until April 1895. In the April 24 Record, Rank reported that “The building of the new waterworks was commenced Monday without being accompanied by any special ceremonies. It should have been delayed a few days longer; being it is a work of great importance, all risks should be avoided including that of commencing it on a waning moon. Three days later would have brought it in the new of the moon. The contract for the mason work was taken by Frank Swanson.”

The new system called for larger mains and servicing more of the village with municipal water. The old 3” mains, however, were to be maintained in the downtown business district.

On July 3, the Record reported the water tower had been finished, with iron legs holding up the huge basswood tank measuring 20 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall. A gasoline engine powered the pump to temporarily draw water from two wells, the old one dug several years before, and a new one on the site of the water tower, with the new permanent engine on order and expected to arrive soon.

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost,” Rank wrote. “They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has. The new well was walled up by Frank Swanson; in order to do the work a pump throwing an eight-inch stream of water was kept going constantly for three days and three nights; it pumped dry pretty much all the wells of the neighborhood. The well contains now ten feet of water. The engine is expected to be set up Tuesday. The job is nicely done, and the gang of men that did it are very clever fellows and got along with our folks splendidly.”

Oswego’s first firefighters with their new hose cart, purchased by the village, August 1895, Washington at Tyler Street, Oswego. The new water tower, completed earlier that year, is in the background. (Little White School Museum Collection)

With the village’s municipal water supply in operation, Oswego also decided to establish a permanent fire brigade. The village purchased a high-wheeled hose cart and canvas fire hose, all to be housed in the village hall on Washington Street. Eventually a fire bell was purchased and a tower for it and to hang wet hoses to dry was added to the building. A volunteer fire brigade was established consisting of 20 members to staff the new equipment.

Expanding the municipal system to more areas of the village began in early summer 1896. By late fall, 6” and 4” water mains had been laid with more installed the following summer, the job largely completed by July 1897.

The water system got it’s first test in an emergency in early fall 1897 when fires, just hours apart, broke out in the downtown business district on Sept. 8. Thanks to the village’s new hose cart, volunteer fire brigade, and pressurized water system, though, both blazes were quickly extinguished.

One of the fires was in the old Star Roller Skating Rink, which was next door to the Oswego Post Office. The post office building was owned by Record correspondent Rank, who was also the village postmaster. In addition, Rank lived in an apartment above the post office. So the fire brigade’s quick work dousing the second blaze that day was of special interest to him. It also caused him to change his mind about the usefulness of Oswego’s new municipal water system.

“So now, here it goes,” he wrote in his apology for opposing the water system in the Sept. 15 Record. “We are a miserable set of poltroons and nincompoops, a blight upon the earth which would revolve much easier if it wasn’t for us…May we soon be extinct and long may wave the enthusiasts of the water works.”

The Oswego water tower with the new 65,000 gallon steel tank that replaced the old wooden tank in 1906. (Little White School Museum collection)

While the new system was indeed working even better than village officials had hoped, there were still some problems, primarily the continual leakage of the wooden water tank atop the water tower. As a result, in the spring of 1906, the village board voted to replace the old tank with a new steel tank.

As Rank wrote in the March 14 Record, “About ten or 12 years ago the old basswood tank was erected on the street that leads to the Plainfield Road. The tank has seen its better day and for the last year has been in a decrepit condition Friday night at a special meeting of the [village] board, Mayor Cutter gaveled through a motion to erect a new one, which is sorely needed.”

Kottoe & Bro. of Aurora won the contract to dismantle the old tank and install the new one. As specified, the new tank was to be manufactured of 5/16” soft steel and measure  18 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. It was to be set on the old tower, which was judged to be sturdy enough to handle the new tank. Officials said the additional height and smaller diameter of the new tank was estimated to give about 10 more pounds of water pressure in the downtown business district.

With the new tank installed, the water tower would stand at a total height of 125 feet, with a capacity of 65,000 gallons of water. Another new innovation possible with the steel tank was a hatch in the tank’s side at the bottom to allow it to be regularly cleaned, something impossible with the old tank.

And as it turned out, the old tank really did need some cleaning.

The new water tower under construction in 1958 to replace the old 1895 tower. This tower, in turn, was replaced by a newer, larger water tower in 2005. (Little White School Museum collection)

Village residents were shocked at what they found when the old tank was demolished. As Rank reported on July 11, 1906: “We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”

That new steel tank atop its tower legs served the community well for nearly 50 years until a new, much larger, water tower was built to replace it in 1958. For those of us who grew up in Oswego, the old tank was a landmark, one that was especially prized in summers when the automatic shut-off on the pump failed. That caused the tank to overflow like a landlocked Niagara Falls, word of which quickly spread around town so that those of us with ready access to bicycles could ride through the refreshing—though admittedly vigorous—cascade.

In 1900, Oswego’s population stood at just 619. By 1950, it had doubled to 1,220. And with post-World War II growth just beginning, in 1960, the population had risen to 1,510. And from then on it never slowed down, doubling again by 1980 and again by 2000.

Today, Oswego’s population stands at right around 35,000 and its municipal water system of eight wells and five water towers sometimes struggles to keep up with demand, particularly during hot, dry summer months. Recently, the village board announced plans to join a consortium of other area municipal water users who will tap into Lake Michigan’s water to supply their customers, something that would have certainly astonished those village residents in 1895 suspicious about that newfangled water tower idea.

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End of another era, this time in Kendall newspapering…

Eras have been ending right and left during the past few years of political upheaval and the on-going worldwide pandemic.

The most recent era to end is the recent closing of the last physical newspaper office in Kendall County. For the first time since 1852, there’s no place to go to drop off news items, give news tips, and generally kibitz with the staff. Instead, the entire KendalCountyNOW staff that publishes the Shaw Media subgroup’s four local weeklies is now working wherever they can find a WiFi connection instead of in a newsroom.

This is not an entirely surprising development. After Shaw bought the Kendall County Record, Inc. group, they closed both the Ledger-Sentinel office on Main Street in downtown Oswego and the venerable Kendall County Record office on Bridge Street in downtown Yorkville. The two offices were combined and moved to a second floor office suite in a Yorkville bank, a location that did not invite casual visitation. Now the withdrawal from the communities the group’s papers report on is complete.

You’d think that having a visible presence in towns located in the fastest growing county in Illinois, and one of the fastest growing in the nation, would be a good move to advertise the brand, but apparently modern bean-counters are more in tune with today’s economic and marketing realities than old retired editors like me.

Time was, of course, there were newspaper offices in virtually every community in the county. It took a while after Kendall County’s establishment in 1841 for its first newspaper to open, but in 1852 Hector Seymour Humphrey began publishing the weekly Kendall County Courier in Oswego, then the county seat. Then, as now, local government legal advertisements were the lifeblood of local papers, and locating in the county seat made it easy to pick up those public notices from property tax assessment lists to new county ordinances.

Humphrey was born in Tompkins County, N.Y. Jan. 29, 1828. Early in his life he got into the newspaper business at the Ithaca Chronicle and News where he learned the trade. He headed west to Chicago in 1848, where he worked as a journeyman printer on the old Chicago Journal.

H.S. Humphrey’s Kendall County Courier was our first county weekly, and also Oswego’s first newspaper.

Then Humphrey moved west to Naperville where he worked in the newspaper business and got married. And in 1852, he and his wife packed up their press and type and moved farther west to Oswego where he started the Courier. It advertised itself as neutral in politics, and was apparently just barely successful. Humphrey ran the paper himself as both editor and publisher until the fall of 1854 when he sold it to Abraham Sellers. Humphrey agreed to stay on as the editor. That arrangement lasted until the summer of 1855 when Humphrey bought the paper back from Sellers.

Then during the winter of 1855-56, Humphrey sold the Chronicle to the cantankerous and combative William P. Boyd. Boyd, a pro-slavery native Kentuckian, writing under the pen name of Niblo, made the mistake of changing the Chronicle from a neutral paper to a Democratic sheet.

That didn’t go down very well in Oswego or the rest of Kendall County, which had been fairly strong Whig country before the Republican Party was established. After the Republicans organized, Kendall County, driven by its heavy population of New Englanders and New Yorkers, leaned heavily towards the new party.

As Humphrey recalled the era in a 1903 letter to Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall: “In the spring of 1856, the Republicans desiring an organ, called a meeting of the leading men of the county, decided to establish a paper, and requested me to take charge of it. Subscriptions were made for the paper, for advertising and job work, for which money was advanced for about two-thirds of the cost of material, which was purchased at once and ‘the Kendall County Free Press’ was out soon after for the campaign of 1856.”

At the behest of local Republicans, H.S. Humphrey established the Kendall County Free Press in the years immediately prior to and during the Civil War.

You may remember that the campaign of 1856 was famed in Illinois for the series of debates the Republican and Democratic candidates for U.S. Senator held throughout the state. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates introduced Abraham Lincoln to a statewide audience for the first time. While Lincoln was unsuccessful in that campaign, he was able to parlay his name recognition—and his considerable political skills—into winning the Presidency in 1860.

The Republican hold on Kendall County only grew more pronounced following the 1856 campaign. Boyd’s Chronicle was soon out of business, his printing outfit sold to an Iowa newspaper. A cutthroat businessman, land agent, and lawyer known for his pugnaciousness, Boyd was murdered on Nov. 24, 1859. His assailant was never identified.

Humphrey’s Free Press was successful, and he continued publishing it through the Civil War years until the county seat was moved back to Yorkville in 1864. At that point, Humphrey decided to move on to Vandalia.

In May 1864, John Redmond Marshal, a young Chicago newspaper man and Civil War veteran of the Sturgis Rifles, decided to start a new county seat paper in Kendall County. Naming it the Kendall County Record, Marshal located his office and printing press in space above a store in downtown Yorkville, moving it to a new one-story brick building on busy Bridge Street in November 1867—where it stayed until the paper was sold to Shaw in 2015.

The flag from John R. Marshall’s Kendall County Record, which started publishing as Kendall County’s newspaper of record in 1864.

While the Courier was Oswego’s first paper, it was hardly the last. In fact, Oswego has seen far more than its share of newspaper start-ups. Besides the Courier and The Free Press, papers published in Oswego included the Bald Hornet, 1855; Oswego Vidette, 1873; Oswego Daily Times, 1877; Oswego Reporter, 1892; Kendall County Press, 1884; Oswego Herald, 1904; Oswego News, 1948; Oswego Ledger, 1949-1980; Fox Valley Sentinel, 1974-1980; Ledger-Sentinel, 1980 to 2015; and now the Oswego Ledger again after the name was shortened, supposedly for marketing purposes, a few years ago.

As I noted above, virtually every other town in Kendall County has had its own newspaper, no matter how briefly, over the years.

Yorkville, of course, had—and still has—its Kendall County Record as well as in the mid-20th Century the free distribution Fox Valley Shopper, the 19th Century Kendall County Clarion, and in 1872, the Yorkville News. That paper eventually moved to Plano and became the Plano News in 1876, changing its name again in 1881 to the Kendall County News. Plano was also served by the Kendall County Journal, the Plano Pivot and the Plano Standard. Two religious newspapers were published in 19th Century Plano, The True Latter Day Saints Herald and Zion’s Hope, both by Joseph Smith Jr.’s Reorganized Church of the Latter Day Saints.

The Ledger-Sentinel was formed by the merger of the Fox Valley Sentinel and the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. The name was shortened back to Oswego Ledger by it’s current owners, Shaw Media, Inc. It’s still Oswego’s award-winning weekly newspaper.

The stagecoach hamlet of Little Rock in extreme northwestern Kendall County was briefly served in the 19th Century by The Little Rock Press, and Millington by The Millington Enterprise. The Newark Clipper was organized in 1872, and The Lisbon Comet was published early in the 20th Century.

It’s also worth noting that back in the late 20th Century, the daily Aurora Beacon-News had a bureau in Kendall County.

Nowadays, though, the whole idea of newspapers, even local weeklies, not maintaining a visible presence in the communities they serve has become the norm, especially with papers owned by large chains thet really seem more interested in profits than in community service and keeping their fingers on the pulse of the communities they serve. Most independently-owned weeklies still think that’s not only important to the places they cover, but also figure it’s good business—Cheryl Wormley’s successful Woodstock Independent up in the northern suburbs immediately comes to mind.

When I was the Ledger-Sentinel‘s editor, we had a lot of news stories just walk in—or past—the door of our Main Street office. For instance, there was the day a sheep galloped past the window, followed by another, followed by one of our former sports writers. Turned out he was working for a local farmer whose load of sheep got loose when they stopped at the gas station just up the street. Or the day a nicely-dressed white-haired woman walked in up to our counter, held her hand out to me and said, “Hello, I’m Jean Simon. What’s happening in Oswego we ought to know about?” Turned out she was Sen. Paul Simon’s wife, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Or the day Sen. Chuck Percy stopped in to chat about the I&M Canal Corridor legislation he was co-sponsoring. We had a nice chat, but I don’t think he ever figured out we were some miles outside the corridor he was so enthused about.

But while there will no longer be a physical newspaper office presence here in Kendall any more, that doesn’t mean the KendallCountyNOW staff won’t be getting and printing as much local news as they can.

Because, really, when it comes to finding a source for local news you need and can actually use—where your property tax dollars are being spent, what various local governmental boards are really up to, and what’s happening in local schools—weekly newspapers are the only serious game in town.

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Good old days: Going to the barber shop for an appendectomy

Back when I was a youngster, a guy by the name of Hal Boyle wrote a column that was syndicated by the Associated Press and which was carried in the Beacon-News up in Aurora. I liked Boyle’s column and read it regularly. Later, I found out he was an award-winning World War II correspondent who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, yes, I wasn’t the only one who liked Boyle’s stuff.

Every once in a while, Boyle would write a sort of trivia column with odd facts and short stories. And while I liked his regular columns, I loved those trivia pieces. I liked them so much, in fact, that when I started writing my own column, I stole the idea from him, stealing ideas being journalism’s highest form of flattery.

Back in those pre-computerized layout newspaper days, pages were physically pasted up. A few companies decided they could make a little money by supplying bits of miscellaneous information called fillers, from recipes to ads to trivia clips printed on heavy paper, ready to be clipped and waxed down on the paste-up sheet to fill in the occasional void on the page paste-up. The material was supplied free to everyone, from small weeklies to dailies, with the costs paid for by the companies whose advertising materials (which ranged from feature stories to short squibs featuring their brands) appeared in each week’s issue.

Hal Boyle’s idea of a trivia column combined with the availability of free fillers resulted in my junk mail columns—which proved popular among our paper’s readers.

So I had Hal Boyle’s idea, and a free, regular source of trivia and other basically useless information that I could use to fill a column once or so a month. Not that I didn’t like writing about local, regional, and state history, of course. But at the time besides writing my column, I was covering the local school board and other breaking news stories, editing the big pile of news releases that arrived every week, taking photos, and writing up to three editorials each week. So a trivia column gave me a bit of breathing room.

Since the trivia arrived along with all the rest of the junk mail at the newspaper, I decided to characterize the columns I wrote using that stuff as interesting bits of junk mail I’d mined out of the stack that was on my desk every week. And fortunately, the idea proved popular among the paper’s readers.

I still do one occasionally, although far less frequently since my column has been cut to twice monthly instead of weekly. But the things are fun, and I sort of miss doing them, so I thought to myself, why not do one for “History on the Fox” just for fun? And with no further ado, here’s my first junk mail blog post, which kicks off right at the start of the dog days of summer.

What, you may be wondering, are the dog days? Glad you asked. We used to joke they were they days during an Illinois summer when it was too hot for the dog to go outside. But really, the dog days are generally considered to last from about July 3 to Aug. 11 or so, and the name goes back in time to the ancients.

In the summer, Sirius, called the Dog Star, rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is closest in motion with the sun, so the ancients, not having a concept of how far away other stars are from our own, believed that Sirius’s heat added to the heat of the sun. That, they believed, created a stretch of hot and sultry weather, which they named the “dog days” after Sirius, the Dog Star.

But July isn’t only famous as the start of the dog days. Lots of other stuff, as I’m sure you know, happened in July. For instance, on July 8 in 1777 Vermont abolished slavery. The temperature hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. The first man landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—was established on July 29, 1958. And also in space-related news, the Telstar communications satellite relayed the first publicly-transmitted, live trans-Atlantic television program (featuring Walter Cronkite). In something that may or may not be related, this year’s full July moon will float across the heavens on July 23 as well. And don’t forget that during the Civil War, the U.S. Army won both the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, Vicksburg on July 4 and and Gettysburg on July 3. President Lincoln had a very good July in 1863. And let’s not forget the U.S. Post Office was established on July 26, 1775.

Where would we all be, after all, had Congress not established the U.S. Post Office? While Republicans in Congress keep trying to kill it off and replace it with expensive private contractors, the rest of us like it just fine. Because the point is that we get a lot of mail. Every day except Sunday. And some of it is actually mail we want to get. Here at History Central, I pretty much like all the mail I get, even the junk mail, because even there are a few nuggets of knowledge. In fact, here are bunch of things I never would have found out if I hadn’t opened all our mail (each and every day the mail carrier showed up out in front at our mailbox):

There are 40 spaces around a Monopoly game board, 22 of them properties. Hint: Always buy Marvin Gardens when you get the chance.

There are 40 spaces around the perimeter of the Monopoly board, and 22 of them are properties.

Before he left the boxing ring for his acting career, Tony Danza’s record as a middleweight fighter was 12 wins and three losses.

In 1964, golfer Norman Manley achieved consecutive holes-in-one on a golf course in Saugus, Calif. Both were par 4 holes, which probably means something to the golfers reading this.

On Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals football team celebrated Thanksgiving Day by scoring all 40 points (six touchdowns and 4 points-after) in the Cards’ 40-6 win at old Comiskey Park.

A shark’s skeleton has no bones. It is made entirely of cartilage.

The first—and so far the only—President to be married in the White House was Grover Cleveland. During his second year in office, he married Frances Folsom, a young lady 27 years the President’s junior.

The Electoral College system of electing U.S. Presidents has enabled five candidates to become President whose opponents won the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.

The Great Pyramids in Egypt are the only surviving sites considered to be among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Barnacles have three stages of life. In the first, they swim, have six legs, and one eye. In the second stage, they have 12 legs and two more eyes (total three). In the third stage, they have 24 legs but lose all their eyes.

Making sense of the heat index: When the air temperature is 85 degrees, it feels like 78 when the humidity is at zero percent; 88 when the humidity is 50 percent; and 108 when the humidity is at 100 percent.

Of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, only one, New York’s One World Trade Center, is in the U.S. Of the rest, 5 are in China and one each are in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan. The world’s tallest building, measuring more than a half-mile in height at 2,717 feet, is Burj Khalifa (named after the country’s ruler) in Dubai.

Monaco has the shortest coastline—2.38 miles—of any sovereign nation that’s not landlocked.

The busiest ship canal in the world is the Kiel Canal linking the North Sea with the Baltic Sea in Germany.

The Alaska pipeline carries 2.1 million barrels of oil a day—when it’s not springing leaks—to the Valdez Oil Terminal.

A normal adult pulse rate is 70 to 78 beats per minute at rest for men and 78 to 85 for women.

The earliest known zoo was created by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt about 1500 B.C.E. About 500 years later, the Chinese Emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, a huge zoo covering 1,500 acres.

The Tarantella is a popular folk dance that gets its name from the city of Taranto, Italy. The people there used to dance the Tarantella as a supposed cure for tarantula bites. Today, of course, we know the correct dance for curing tarantula bites is the Locomotion.

The first cartoon with Democrats portrayed as donkeys was published in Harper’s Weekly by pioneering cartoonist Thomas Nast on Jan. 15, 1870.

During the 1828 presidential election, the opponents of Andrew Jackson had insultingly called him a jackass, and Jackson decided to turn the tables on those opponents. Instead of opposing the characterization, Jackson used the symbol in his campaign materials, agreeing at least in part with his opponents that he was “stubborn.” On Jan. 15, 1870, the first recorded use of a donkey cartoon to represent the Democratic Party appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon was drawn by political illustrator Thomas Nast, and was titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.”

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower National monument in northeastern Wyoming as the nation’s first national monument. Devils Tower is a volcanic tower standing 865 feet above its base, which is 415 feet high.

Almost all large metropolitan newspapers—the ones still publishing—now publish in the morning. As late as 1996, there were 846 afternoon dailies and 686 morning papers. There now about 1,260 dailies in the U.S.

Until Henry VIII passed an act separating the professions, barbers were also surgeons. After that, the only surgical operations barbers could legally perform were bloodletting and tooth-pulling. On the other hand, surgeons were no longer allowed to give anyone a shave and a haircut—even for two bits.

Finally, Jefferson Davis, the traitorous president of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War, was U.S. Secretary of War in 1853. While in office, he improved infantry tactics and brought in new and better weapons that were eventually used against him and the Confederate cause. Although briefly imprisoned, Davis never had to account for his treason that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 U.S. and Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines.

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The Fox Valley’s fresh water springs were valued by pioneers and their descendants, too

Although most of the Fox Valley’s wetlands were drained long ago, the region’s fresh water springs still pop up, especially after heavy rains. While the water seeping from the ground along the county’s watercourses and hillsides looks clear, these days most of that water has been badly polluted by everything from farm and lawn fertilizer to private septic systems.

When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time on and around the Fox River. Most summers back in the 1950s, those days when small towns were safe places for kids to roam to their hearts’ content, we’d leave home in the morning and not get back until suppertime, except to grab some food at one time or another during the day. Food, we needed, but water to drink was pretty plentiful from the many springs along the riverbank.

There was a particularly good one that exited the riverbank under a tree and for which we cleared out a small, shallow rock-lined pool to drink from. That spring ran all year long. Last year, I took a walk along the riverbank there and found it’s still flowing, though not as strongly as when we were kids.

The Fox River Creamery in Oswego started out life as a brewery making use of the spring that ran through its basement. It was later enlarged and turned into a creamery that processed farmers’ milk and cream into butter and cheese using the spring to cool the dairy products. (Aurora Historical Society collection)

Just to the south of our house was a large spring that once provided cool water for, first, thirsty settlers, then Oswego’s first (and, for well over a century, it’s last) brewery, and later a creamery. The spring water had, at sometime in the past, been piped under what then passed for North Adams Street and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way in a large iron pipe tile through which the cold water gushed. It was a handy place to stop for a drink on the way home from school or from bicycling. Folks used to come from all over to fill milk cans and large jugs with the clear, cold water, and since it was right next to the railroad tracks, the section gangs that put-putted up and down the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch Line stopped there to fill their water jugs, too.

And, as it turns out, springs were major assets during Kendall County’s settlement era, and not just for drinking purposes, either.

There were at least two springs in the county famed for their medicinal value. The most famous were at Plattville, originally called The Springs by the first settlers. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, there were a dozen mineral springs at Plattville that not only fed a fairly large marsh rich in fish, but whose water was also prized for its medicinal value by the pioneers. Daniel Platt bought The Springs claim when he arrived in 1833 for $80. It proved to be an excellent investment, providing water, both for drinking and for medicinal purposes, for many years to come.

The water table is very close to the surface in the Plattville area. Hicks reported in 1877 that some settlers in that area were lucky enough to strike artesian wells from which water didn’t need to be pumped: “Obadiah Naden one mile south, and George Mason, six miles south-east, each have flowing wells. The latter was sinking a tubular well, and when fifty-five feet below the surface water was struck, which flowed over the top, and it has continued to flow ever since.”

Daniel Platt’s stone tavern at Plattville replaced his log tavern in 1842. Plattville was originally known as The Springs for the fresh water and mineral springs that bubbled to the surface there. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile over in House’s Grove, now the site of a Kendall County Forest Preserve in Seward Township, settler Chester House prized the large sulfur spring that flowed in the grove. Sulfur waters were prized as popular cures for various conditions, including skin maladies. A second spring in the grove, located closer to House’s cabin, ran clear and pure without the added smell of sulfur, and, Hicks noted, was considered of less value than the sulfur spring. The House claim was a lonely one out on the prairie, but it provided some welcome security for weary travelers. According to Hicks, “Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and so level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles.”

The county’s biggest freshwater spring was located in modern Oswego Township along what’s now Ill. Route 31 north of Oswego near the old Wormley School. Called simply “The Great Spring,” it was located close to the old Wormley homestead and was notable enough that when U.S. Government surveyors measured the township in 1838, they noted it. It subsequently appeared on the official government 1842 survey map of the township.

U.S. Government surveyors marked two major springs near Oswego when they mapped the area in 1838, one north of Oswego that settlers called The Great Spring, and another one south of town that was still flowing strongly in the 1960s.

Down in Little Rock Township, there was the Griswold Spring and just a bit to the south over the line in Fox Township was the Greenfield Spring. The Griswold Spring was prominent enough to have a road named after it that still exists. The Native American village of Maramech on and around modern Maramech Hill near Plano was also supplied with water from a good spring.

And along the south bank of the Fox River in Fox Township, we can’t forget the Silver Springs that provide the name for Kendall County’s only Illinois State Fish and Wildlife area. The springs reportedly got their name from the way their water reflects sunlight, seeming to make their surface shine like silver. Those springs are still running strong to this day.

Down just outside of Millington, a 50-foot thick deposit of sparkling white St. Peter’s Sandstone was quarried for several years. At least two springs issued from the strata of the stone and ran west into the Fox River. Today, the old silica sand quarry is filled with water, marking the spot where so much sand was mined and sent down to Ottawa’s glass factories.

And the grounds of Riverview—later Fox River—Park just south of Montgomery featured an artesian spring that ran the year-around to refresh visitors at the amusement park, which was open from 1899-1925.

To the immediate south of Kendall County along the Illinois River, a major mineral spring, whose water was filtered through the St. Peter Sandstone that also underlays that entire area, was well known and valued by area pioneers.

When my great-grandparents moved into town in 1908, they dug a well 14 feet deep that was spring-fed. No matter how much water was pumped from it, a foot and a half of water remained in the well.

But that well, like all those crystal-clear springs along the Fox River near Oswego, was eventually polluted when subdivisions were built east of Route 25. Many of the houses in new unincorporated subdivisions had their own wells and septic systems, and the effluent from those systems found its way down to the bedrock that directs surface water towards the Fox River. The old brewery/creamery spring, my parent’s spring-fed well, and the springs along the river all now register as extremely close to raw sewage due to their heavy loads of coliform bacteria.

While water from streams was often suspect from a health perspective, the pioneers of  180 years ago knew they didn’t have to worry about whether the clear, cold water they drank from the Fox Valley’s many natural springs would sicken them. Unfortunately, these days we do.

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