Category Archives: Nostalgia

A Saturday trip up Memory Lane, Part 1…

Was headed northbound up Ill. Route 25 to Aurora Saturday to pick up my wife and grandchildren at the Aurora METRA station when it struck me I’d driven that route thousands of times over the last 50-plus years since I got my driver’s license. And I’d traveled it thousands of times before that as a passenger with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

With a few brief spans equaling only a couple years, I’ve lived on North Adams Street between the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch tracks and the Fox River since December 1954. Route 25 runs north along the brow of the Fox Valley ridge behind our house before dipping down to cross under the railroad tracks a quarter mile north. From there, it follows the banks of the river right into Aurora.

Bev Skaggs snapped this photo of Route 25 showing off her winter finery in 1959. It's still one of the area's most scenic drives at any season of the year. (Little White School Museum collection)

Bev Skaggs snapped this photo of Route 25 showing off her winter finery in 1959. It’s still one of the area’s most scenic drives at any season of the year. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s a beautiful stretch of road year round. In the spring, flowering trees and shrubs brighten and soften the landscape; in the summer the river draws wildlife of all kinds plus thousands of folks, young and old alike, who pedal, walk, and run the bicycle trail between the river and the highway championed all those years ago by my friends, Bert Gray and Dick Young. In autumn the trees blaze with reds, golds, and greens; and in winter, the river’s frozen beauty is enhanced by hoarfrost-clad leafless trees and shrubs.

It’s a historic drive, too. Having lived along the route most all my life, the stories constantly pop up on the drive north. Keep on reading for the first bunch of tales as I drove north on my personal Memory Lane:

Pulling out of our driveway, we take North Adams north past the old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory site immortalized on the blog’s front page photo, and then make the curve onto Second Street past the vacant lot once the site of the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses up the hill to the stop sign at Route 25. When we were kids, John Morley and I lugged buckets of water up to the top of that hill on cold winter days to ice the road down for sledding. Starting at the top, and providing we made the right-angled curve to the left at the bottom, we could sometimes coast all the way to my folks’ (now my) driveway.

What with all the traffic these days, it’s more of a challenge to pull onto Route 25 but we make the left turn, northbound, past the now-vanished rail siding that served the ice company, loading out more than 100 cars some months with ice that kept Armour’s and Swift’s refrigerator cars cold enough to ship beef and hog carcasses to Eastern markets. The family of a childhood friend, Roy Burton, lived in the old switchman’s shack. Then it’s into the gentle “S” curve, under the tracks. Back in the day, the rail crossing was a grade, but it was dangerous, and so the bridge was added, first with a pylon in the center of the roadway that led to numerous accidents before the current bridge was built.

A ticket to camp at Irvin Haines' Violet Grove Campground, now Violet Patch Park, between Route 25 and the Fox River.

A ticket to camp at Irvin Haines’ Violet Grove Campground, now Violet Patch Park, between Route 25 and the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Route 25 passes the old driveway to the Haines house that crosses Cedar Creek on a dry-laid stone bridge that once carried stagecoach traffic north on what was then called the East River Road. And then past Violet Patch Park, which has always been called the Violet Patch because they were once so prolific there. Irvin Haines, a long-deceased cousin, operated the Violet Grove Campground there in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other side of the road are the abandoned gravel pits where we spent so much time as kids, eating wild strawberries that once covered the spoil heaps in June, hunting in November, and generally fooling around the rest of the year. The old pit is nowadays home to the Oswego Township Highway Department garage, as well as to a branch of the bicycle trail that connects to Boulder Hill from the Violet Patch.

We didn’t know then that the old pit also covered the semi-final resting place of one John “Red” Hamilton, the unlucky Canada-born associate of John Dillinger. Dubbed “Three Fingered Jack” by the 1930s media, Hamilton had two fingers shot off in various Dillinger Gang jobs. In fact, if someone in the gang was to be wounded, it was Hamilton. His final wound, a rifle bullet fired by a security guard following a payroll heist, put an end to Hamilton’s career. Dillinger and George “Baby Face” Nelson and a couple others took the wounded Hamilton to an apartment in Aurora where he died. They looked for a handy place to bury him, and chose a rise along a fence line just uphill from Route 25. The Feds didn’t find out where his body was for more than a year, after which the FBI dug him up and confirmed his identity at the Croushorn Funeral Home in Oswego. Hamilton’s sister paid for his burial in the Oswego Cemetery. The young, novice mortician tapped to work with Hamilton’s body in Oswego subsequently decided he’d better look for a new line of work.

Farther north was the home of my sometime classmate Tom Wilson, perched up on the ridge overlooking the Fox River. Then it’s past the home of the late Bob Watson, who was A Character. A former CB&Q conductor, Bob was a prolific jokester and contrarian who spent his summers at the resort his family had owned since the 1940s in northern Wisconsin. And then past the house of my one-time junior high classmate Lonnie Precup, who dropped out of Oswego to go to a Lutheran school and who became a Lutheran minister.

Boulder Hill was planned by Don L. Dise to be a complete community with homes, churches, schools, and shopping. For some years, although unincorporated, it was the largest community in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

Boulder Hill was planned by Don L. Dise to be a complete community with homes, churches, schools, and shopping. For some years, although unincorporated, it was the largest community in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

The route extends under the railroad tracks one more time, as the old Fox River Branch heads across the river towards the Main Line in Montgomery, just before passing Boulder Hill, a huge, unincorporated subdivision began in the mid-1950s by developer Don L. Dise. My wife’s parents bought one of the first 100 houses there back in 1958, and early on the development was home to CB&Q executives (like my father-in-law) as well as workers and execs for the then-new Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants on the west side of the river.

This 1913 postcard view of Fox River Park illustrates why it was so popular. Attractions from enjoying a quiet afternoon to taking a ride on the roller coaster offered entertainment for all. (Little White School Museum collection)

This 1913 postcard view of Fox River Park illustrates why it was so popular. Attractions from enjoying a quiet afternoon to taking a ride on the roller coaster offered entertainment for all. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Western Electric plant, on the west bank of the river across from Boulder Hill, occupied a former wallpaper factory and World War II munitions factory. It was located on the old Riverview Park site, whose name was later changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with Chicago’s huge Riverview Park. From 1900 to the mid 1920s, Fox River Park hosted thousands of visitors weekly who enjoyed a roller coaster, merry widow swing, shoot the chutes ride into the river, boat rentals, dances and more. Annual Chautauquas drew thousands more to hear presentations by revivalists and nationally-known speakers. And the ball diamond featured professional players, including one whose name was Casey Stengel.

Along this stretch of the road, it’s always wise to keep a sharp lookout for folks crossing the highway to get to the biking and hiking trail, and I’m also pausing as I let the car in front of me turn into Boulder Hill.

The drive up Memory Lane continues below…

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized

A Saturday trip up Memory Lane, Part 2…

Having traveled the route north on Ill. Route 25 thousands of times during my life, it occurred to me last Saturday as I drove it once again that the route is rife with stories, both historical and nostalgic.

Aerial shot taken by Bev Skaggs in the spring of 1959 of the construction of Paul Egan's By-Pass bridge and Boulder Hill Playhouse. It's lack of sharpness is more than made up for by it's subject matter. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aerial shot taken by Bev Skaggs in the spring of 1959 of the construction of Paul Egan’s By-Pass bridge and Boulder Hill Playhouse. Its lack of sharpness is more than made up for by it’s subject matter. (Little White School Museum collection)

In the previous post, I had made it to the bridge carrying U.S. Route 30 over Route 25 and the Fox River beside it. And that’s where we pick up with this post driving up Memory Lane, right where Aurora Mayor Paul Egan’s former U.S. Route 30 By-Pass crosses the river valley. Egan championed the road, which bypassed downtown Aurora, where Route 30 used to go, to get the growing volume of through truck traffic away from the city’s business district. Although Egan was labeled a nut by his political enemies, his vision concerning By-Pass Route 30 was sound. It was a big success. Eventually, the “By-Pass” part of the name was dropped, as was the “Business Route 30″ designation of Galena Boulevard through downtown Aurora, and today the bypass is regular Route 30, the fabled Lincoln Highway.

Route 25 crosses under U.S. Route 30 at the north end of the original Boulder Hill development before passing the Bereman mansion still perched up on the eastern brow of the Fox Valley ridge. John Bereman made his fortune selling freckle cream to complexion-obsessed late Victorian women. He bought hundreds of acres of farmland along the River Road containing several farmsteads, calling the whole operation Boulder Hill Stock Farm—namesake of the modern subdivision. Rumor has it he picked the location of the house because it overlooked an island in the Fox River where a high-class house of ill repute was located in summer months, which men enjoyed while their wives and children cavorted at Fox River Park.

Gray's Bridge at what was then Graytown, eventually Montgomery, as it looked in 1838 when U.S. surveyors passed through. The road from Chicago to Galena crossed the river on the bridge until Aurora officials persuaded officials to move it to pass through Aurora. (State of Illinois Township Survey Map collection)

Gray’s Bridge at what was then Graytown, eventually Montgomery, as it looked in 1838 when U.S. surveyors passed through. The road from Chicago to Galena crossed the river on the bridge until Aurora officials persuaded officials to move it to pass through Aurora. (State of Illinois Township Survey Map collection)

Not far north of the Bereman House is the old location of Gray’s Bridge, one of the earliest bridges across the Fox River. Built by Daniel Gray, entrepreneur and founder of the village of Montgomery, the bridge was to carry stagecoach traffic on the old Chicago to Galena Road that went through Montgomery via the Fox River ford. Aurora tried every trick it could to lure the stage road (and the resulting post office) away from Montgomery, which it succeeded in doing, striking a fatal blow at Montgomery’s development, one from which it has never really recovered.

From the site of Gray’s bridge north to the modern bridge across the Fox in Montgomery, the banks of the river noticeably change, turning more artificial looking, the result of a cockamamie scheme to dredge the river and build a series of more than a dozen low dams to create a navigable motorboat channel from the Illinois River at Ottawa all the way north to the Chain o’ Lakes. One dam in the proposed series was built north of the bridge at Montgomery, where a coin-operated lock was supposed to allow boaters to pass up and down. The lock was never built, and the channel that was to serve it annually turns into a stagnant, sometimes septic mess in the summer.

But before we get to the dam, we drive past what used to be called the French Cemetery, whose modern official name is Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery. For many years, it was the closest Catholic cemetery to Oswego and the rural area south of Montgomery, and so became the final resting place for most of the many French and French Canadian pioneers who came to the area, including the Hebert wagonwright family of Oswego and the Danos. At least one of the Dano sons became a Catholic priest.

Passing the east end of the Montgomery dam I note there are a number of anglers trying their luck. The dam is a good place to find early season walleyes, as well as smallmouth bass and the occasional northern pike—even a musky once in a while—at other seasons of the year.

We’re getting close to Aurora now, going through the Ashland Avenue intersection, past the Ashland Avenue bridge across the Fox that Aurora Township tried to valiantly a few years ago to persuade everyone it actually belonged to Aurora or the State of Illinois, bridge maintenance being an expensive proposition. Telling anyone who’d listen that it wasn’t their bridge and they had no idea why anyone would think it was didn’t work out, however. The bronze plaque on the bridge announcing it was built by Aurora Township probably didn’t help their case.

The car passes Spring Lake Cemetery, and I’m old enough to remember when there really was a lake there. Long drained, the old lake has become an expansion area of the landlocked cemetery for more graves. A number of my Tesch relatives are buried in Spring Lake, and I always give a mental tip of my hat to those old cousins as I pass.

Now we’re getting into Aurora proper. Workers’ cottages line Route 25—now also called South Broadway—most now home to Hispanic families. Time was, it was an overwhelmingly German neighborhood but times change. And then we pass the old Fruit Juice House. A sort of local franchise business, the Fruit Juice House had locations on South Broadway, over on what was once Route 30 and is now Hill Avenue, on the West Side on Farnsworth, and at other locations around Aurora. The business offered fresh-suqeezed orange and other juices, along with groceries, sort of like a mini-mart. But they also had some of the best ice cream ever, and a Fruit Juice House chocolate malt was a delicacy.

Aurora's "Burlington Box" brick depot was a bustling place in 1968 when this photo was snapped. It was demolished in 2013.

Aurora’s “Burlington Box” brick depot was a bustling place in 1968 when this photo was snapped. After being allowed to deteriorate, it was demolished in 2013.

Driving farther north, we pass the intersection with North Avenue with its tiny octagon house just around the corner and then past the vacant parcel that used to be home to the Aurora depot. The CB&Q built a lot of those pedestrian depots along their Main Line from east to west. Dubbed the “Burlington Box” style, the buildings were utilitarian if not exactly beautiful. Aurora’s depot was allowed to deteriorate until it had to be demolished. It was unfortunate; it would have made a great restaurant location.

I’m continuing north past the old Firestone tire dealer, and under the elevated CB&Q tracks. The Burlington Main Line used to run through Aurora at grade, but in 1920, the tracks were raised to remove them from conflict with surface motor transportation. The viaducts were great places, when we were hotrodding kids, to gun a thinly muffled engine to produce satisfying, echoing thunder.

This color postcard gives an idea of what a vibrant retail area thrived along Aurora's Broadway—Route 25—until Sears, Roebuck & Company led the move of major retailers away from the downtown to shopping centers.

This color postcard gives an idea of what a vibrant retail area thrived along Aurora’s Broadway—Route 25—until Sears, Roebuck & Company led the move of major retailers away from the downtown to shopping centers.

The mix of stores in downtown Aurora has greatly changed over the past 60 years. No more Ward & Jones furniture, no more Sears, Roebuck & Company (where so many farmers shopped for so much on so many Saturday nights). And no more Fagerholm’s where we bought Dinky Toys and great models (including my model of the Cutty Sark); no more Main Surplus across the street where you could get everything from a bowling ball and bag to army surplus web gear. The three five and dime stores, Grants, Woolworth’s, and Kresge’s are long gone as is the lunch counter at Kresge’s where you could get a great BLT.

Passing Galena Boulevard, we’re now on North Broadway to the intersection with New York Street. The old stage route from Naperville across the river to Dixon and on to Galena, the one Sam and Joe McCarty worked so hard to steal from Montgomery, followed sections of both New

Time was, the roundhouse and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops at Aurora turned out locomotives, freight cars, and cabooses for the entire railroad. The roundhouse, now transformed into a banquet center, brew pub and restaurant, is still a local landmark, though greatly repurposed.

Time was, the roundhouse and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops at Aurora turned out locomotives, freight cars, and cabooses for the entire railroad. The roundhouse, now transformed into a banquet center, brew pub and restaurant, is still a local landmark, though greatly repurposed.

York Street and Galena Boulevard. And now the Aurora Transportation Center is in view. The stately old roundhouse is no longer occupied by steam locomotives under construction but rather is the fine dining destination for many area residents. One of the old former CB&Q shop buildings houses the METRA station. My great-grandfather worked in the shops as a stationary steam engineer, while my grandfather worked there building cabooses and boxcars for almost 20 years.

Saturday, however, there were no locomotives in the roundhouse to be turned around or repaired, and the sprawling shops were long gone. Rather, I’m there picking up the grandtwins and my wife, who’ve enjoyed the day in Chicago seeing the dinos and mummys and fossils at the Field Museum and splashing in the fountain at Millennium Park.

I’ve done that drive so many times I can almost do it on automatic pilot these days, but I can never really forget all the stories. It isn’t just a scenic drive, you see, it’s a trip through history.

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It’s a family thing…

My mother took over the mantle of family historian back in the early 1970s, and so began pulling together an updated genealogy of her mother’s family. That family had been the subject of a book written back in the 1920s, but hadn’t been updated since.

So, she started writing to relatives near and far, collecting information that she eventually self-published in time for our annual family reunion during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976.

Her work got me interested in the subject, and since it was about that time I started writing a weekly column on local history, I decided to look into my dad’s family history, and my mom volunteered to help a bit with that.

And since then, the topic of family history has expanded in our household to both my mother’s parents’ families and both my dad’s parents, as well as my wife’s related families.

According to the National Geographic's analysis of my maternal lineage DNA, this was the route my family took out of Africa and into Eastern Europe.

According to the National Geographic’s Genographic Project analysis of my maternal lineage DNA, this was the route my family took out of Africa and into Eastern Europe.

Several years ago, my niece bought a National Geographic Genographic Project DNA test kit for me for Christmas, which I dutifully sent off, because I figured it would open a few more historical doors—which it did.

When the results came back, they showed that my roots are deep indeed, stretching back to some of the earliest folks who were folks some 150,000 years ago on my mom’s side and then to a group of people who lived in the Rift Valley of Africa somewhere around 79,000 years ago on my dad’s side of the ledger. It would be truly interesting if one or two of those sets of early remains the Leakey family discovered in the Rift might belong to one of my ancestors.

So anyway, about 50,000 years ago, the Ice Age then gripping the planet turned Africa’s arid plains into grasslands, at which time my dad’s ancestors followed the game they relied on for sustenance north through the Arabian Peninsula before turning farther east into Eurasia and then circling west. Eventually, they reached Lombardy in northern Italy, where my dad’s earliest recorded ancestors lived before they moved to Switzerland in the 1300s.

According to the National Geographic folks, my mom’s line begins with Mitochondrial Eve, the beginning of the matrilineal line for all modern humans. The family spent some tens of thousands of years moving around central Africa. My mom’s ancestors split off Eve’s line and then split again about 80,000 years ago. And those were the folks who moved out of Africa, spurred on by the same conditions that prompted my dad’s ancestors to leave. That group split yet again, with one wave heading east to settle Australia and Polynesia, and the other moving ever farther north into the Near East—and those were my mom’s ancestors. About 50,000 years ago my mom’s ancestors moved north across the Caucasus Mountains and into the lands around the Black Sea. And that’s where, apparently, we acquired the part of our family that is related to the Ashkenazi Jewish people.

In 1867 my dad's grandparents boarded the bark Harvest Home at Le Harve, France for the voyage to the United States. Harvest Home probably looked a lot like the Harriet McGreggor, above, in this painting done in 1870.

In 1867 my dad’s grandparents boarded the bark Harvest Home at Le Harve, France for the voyage to the United States. Harvest Home probably looked a lot like the bark-rigged Harriet McGreggor, above, in this painting done in 1870.

Finding out that my mom was genetically related to one half of the great Jewish ancestral heritage (the others are the Sephardim of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East) came as no real surprise. My cousin’s granddaughter (related to me through my mother’s line) had then recently died of Tay Sachs disease, which requires a genetic Jewish component from both the mother and the father’s side.

There are, however, no Jews in my family genealogy. That probably means those Ashkenazi ancestors survived the pogroms and other brutal anti-Semitic assaults common in Eastern Europe until relatively modern times by renouncing their heritage and being baptized as Christians.

So anyway, that got my family to Europe. My mom’s family pretty much came from Germany. My maternal grandmother’s family immigrated to Pennsylvania from the German Palatinate in 1750, becoming Pennsylvania Deutsch. My maternal grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, coming over from East Prussia in 1885. Thus Pennsylvania Deutsch joined with Deutsch to create…my mom.

My maternal grandfather's parents traveled to the U.S. aboard the German Lloyd Line steamer SS Eider in 1885. This photo of the Eider was taken a year earlier. The family had begun their journey 80,000 years earlier in Africa.

My maternal grandfather’s parents traveled to the U.S. aboard the German Lloyd Line steamer SS Eider in 1885. This photo of the Eider was taken a year earlier. The family had begun their journey 80,000 years earlier in Africa.

My paternal grandfather’s family came over from Switzerland in 1867, first setting in Erie, Pennsylvania where he worked as a—and I know this seems a bit hackneyed—Swiss watchmaker. Really. The family then moved to Kansas, for reasons not entirely clear. Although there was a French settlement there at Le Loupe. My paternal grandmother’s family apparently came from Ireland, but when and what those ancestors’ names were I haven’t been able to determine. That’s because their name was Mitchell and they settled in New York City where the name is a dime a dozen. I know they came before the Civil War, because my Great-grandfather Mitchell served in an Ohio 100-day regiment during the war.

During the last several years, both my wife and I became fascinated with TV shows based around genealogy. In particular, we have greatly enjoyed historian Henry Louis Gates’ programs on PBS. For Christmas a couple years ago, I got my wife one of Ancestry.com’s DNA tests, which she sent in for analysis. This past winter, I did the same, and so we now have a pretty good handle on our ancestry after Europe’s earliest history.

During one of Dr. Gates’ “Finding Your Roots” episodes, he analyzed the family history of some movie star or another, and determined the guy was “one of the whitest people” he’d ever met. The star’s DNA proved he had virtually pure white, European DNA. And both my wife and I found about the same results.

My wife, it turns out, is descended from ancestors from Great Britain. In fact, the percentage of British ancestry in her DNA is greater than that of the average resident of Great Britain. Her DNA is 79 percent from Great Britain; the average resident of Great Britain only has 60 percent British DNA.

My DNA on the other hand, showed I’m 63 percent Western European, a higher percentage than the average modern Western European, who has just 48 percent Western European DNA.

So no American Indians in our background, not much other than the barest traces of people who aren’t white, including that tiny bit of Ashkenazi from my distant cousins in Eastern Europe. Which is maybe why I’m so fond of kosher corned beef and bagels. Or maybe not.

Whatever, searching for our roots has provided some grounding, some satisfaction for both my wife as we’ve been able to go beyond family tradition and stories to find out where our ancestors really came from. It’s perhaps not all that exciting, but then again we’re not very exciting people. And apparently we come from a long, long line of non-exciting people.

 

 

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The evolution of one small community’s Memorial Day observances

So here it is, another Memorial Day, wherein we commemorate the nation’s war dead. And, unfortunately, we seem to have more and more war dead to commemorate every year.

Memorial Day got its start as Decoration Day, the name by which my family still called it when I was a child. When we lived on the farm, we’d visit the graves of family members who served. After moving to town, I participated in the annual Memorial Day parade, after which we’d travel to cemeteries throughout the area to visit the graves of those deceased relatives.

Decorating the graves of soldiers who died during the Civil War started soon after the conflict ended. Decorating soldiers’ graves actually started in the South, with one of the first such commemorations being held on May 1, 1866 in Charleston, S.C., organized by the city’s black veterans to honor white Union soldiers who died in a local prisoner-of-war camp.

Another, more organized decoration event was organized in Columbus, Ga. that same year, this one by the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of Confederate veterans.

Then former Gen. John A. Logan, head of the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation on May 5, 1866 calling for an annual Decoration Day to honor the war’s dead. The first one was set for May 30, 1866. Reportedly, Logan chose the date because it was not the date of any of the war’s battles and was late enough in the spring that plenty of flowers would be blooming.

Here in Oswego and the rest of Kendall County, Decoration Day was organized by the members of the Women’s Relief Corps, the homefront organization that had provided so much support for local soldiers serving so far away from home.

The first local mention of decorating soldiers’ graves I’ve been able to track down was in the June 2, 1870 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column by correspondent Lorenzo Rank:

“The decoration of the soldiers’ graves yesterday was of a private nature.”

On June 7, 1877, Rank reported that:

“The demonstration on here on Decoration day was not of a general character, yet enough ladies had come together to perform the sacred work and observe the day.”

The next year, Rank explained a little more fully:

“The decoration ceremonies Thursday were of a private nature. A number of ladies met and went to the cemetery with plenty of flowers to copiously decorate all the soldiers’ graves. The speeches made were short but many of them; all spoke that were there.”

So the earliest ceremonies were small, private gatherings, organized to quietly commemorate the service of and to mourn those who gave their lives. Here in Kendall County, more than 230 soldiers died during the Civil War. If the same percentage were to die in war today, it would equal more than 2,000 Kendall County residents. As a result, there were few families in the county who were not affected.

Civil War veteran and Grand Army of the Republic member George White leads Oswego's Decoration Day parade south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery in this undated photo, probably taken about 1890.

Civil War veteran and Grand Army of the Republic member George White leads Oswego’s Decoration Day parade south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery in this undated photo, probably taken about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

But gradually, the emphasis changed, as G.A.R. members across the nation decided to take more control over the annual commemoration of their comrades’ deaths. By 1881, the ceremony here in Oswego had gone well beyond the ladies of the community organizing young girls to go to the cemetery each year to decorate soldiers’ graves. Here’s how Rank reported the day’s events:

Decoration programme at the cemetery:

1. Music by the band;

2. Prayer by Rev. Colgrove;

3. Vocal music;

4. Select reading by Mrs. I.F. Reed;

5. Address by Prof. Duffy;

6. Vocal music;

7. Select reading by D.M. Haight;

8. Vocal music;

9. Decoration of the graves. Capt. Mann at the same time will give a short army sketch of each of the buried soldiers;

10. Music by the band.

The exercises to commence at two o’clock, and it is desirable and the committee so request that business men may close their doors from 2 to 4 p.m. on that day.

On June 30 of that year, the community decided decoration services needed to be more organized. Or more to the point, the G.A.R.’s former soldiers decided it was time to take over. As Rank put it:

“A meeting will be held next Saturday evening at the ex-Red Ribbon hall to which everybody is invited, but more especially the soldiers; the object being to form a permanent organization, which might be called the “Soldiers’ Memorial Society,” and whose duty it shall be to collect and preserve the war records of the boys that went from here and to take charge of the annual decoration of the Soldiers’ graves.”

By 1885, with increased participation by the G.A.R., Decoration Day activities became far more militarized than they had been when they were begun by women morning the war’s dead. In May 1893, Rank described the Decoration Day observance:

“The soldiers in full dress at 10 Sunday morning rendezvoused at Dr. Lester’s office and, in a body marched to the Congregational church, which for a memorial service was most elaborately and profusely decorated with flags, buntings and flowers.”

The next year, Rank reported the ceremony had gotten even more elaborate:

“Decoration Day in Oswego was made a greater event than ever before. By the middle of forenoon the business houses were almost concealed from view by the bunting with which they were bedecked; every where flags were seen fluttering in the breeze. The procession was led by the Yorkville brass band from the Congregational church to the cemetery where graves were decorated.”

By the time Decoration Day 1898 rolled around, the nation was engaged in war with Spain, and, believe it or not, there was a lot of second guessing about patriotism and the proper way to honor the nation’s war dead. In a letter to the editor in the June 8, 1898 Kendall County Record, an Oswego writer signing himself as “Gnarl,” wrote a very contemporary-sounding essay, which I’m including in its entirety here:

By May 1957 when Everett Hafenrichter snapped this photo of Oswego's Memorial Day Parade, the change from private, sorrowful commemoration to patriotic ceremony was complete, as the Oswego High School Band under the direction of Reeve R. Thompson marches south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery.

By May 1957 when Everett Hafenrichter snapped this photo of Oswego’s Memorial Day Parade, the change from private, sorrowful commemoration to patriotic ceremony was complete, as the Oswego High School Band under the direction of Reeve R. Thompson marches south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery.

AN OSWEGO VIEW

Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

For several years following the rebellion, the decoration of the soldiers’ graves was not thought of, and, if I mistake not, the practice was first begun in the South. Here in Oswego it was commenced by a few ladies–and such seemed to be the case more or less all over the country–who, on a nice day, would quietly go to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the late war. The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.

But a regular day was appointed for it; the affair was taken out of the hands of the women by the soldiers, especially by the organized G.A.R. To secure a band was the first move towards decoration; the procession in military order was made the great imposing feature; the oration the more bombastic the better; in short, the spirit of pity was changed to that of glory, and the affair made to stimulate militarism. Under this spirit and practice, it was no wonder that the sporting class improved the day for races, base ball games, etc.

The question now is: Which disposition for a people is the best, the civil or military? A temperance lecture here one evening, of course portrayed the liquor business as the great danger with which the country is threatened; it fully endorsed the war with Spain; closing with a peroration of the most popular sentiments in regard to it such as the holy cause of securing liberty to the oppressed.

To illustrate a point, the opinions of two great men as to the destiny of the United States were quoted: one by President McKinley to the effect “that the institutions handed down by the father are safe in the hands of the people;” the other by the historian Macaulay, in substance “that the government within itself will furnish its destruction by the leading up to a military dictator.”

Considering the military spirit and hero worship to which we are running, the Macaulay opinion is the more in line. The expression “We want to lick Spain like h–l” may not sound very patriotic, but there is such a thing that the greater the victory the worse for the victory. By fighting for liberty for others, you may thereby lose your own. The more fighting, the greater the prestige of the army. Militarism and nobility are going hand in hand. The rule now that when other things being equal preference shall be given to the soldiers for federal offices can be easily enlarged. The islands to be conquered are to be governed by the army, of course, and Hawaii to be annexed by a small fraction of the inhabitants who, though not called nobility, constitute one all the same.

What makes millionaires and the sons of great men so readily enlist in the war but the fame to be realized from it?

Today, we’ve entirely given Memorial Day’s observances over to the patriotism of which Gnarl seemed so suspicious, at the expense of the sorrow for the sacrifices made by so many the members of the Women’s Relief Corps expressed as they began decorating soldiers’ graves nearly 150 years ago. But we do seem to have seen one major change in how we view war and rumors of war. These days “millionaires and the sons of great men” no longer feel the need to gain fame by risking service in their country’s military.

 

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The handwriting’s no longer on the wall…

So I was chatting with some friends recently, and the subject of handwriting in school came up. It turns out that many school districts across the county are now eliminating teaching cursive handwriting as an essential skill.

I’m not sure what the real reasons for this are, but I can think of a few right off the top of my head.

First, in today’s computer-driven society, where even our watches are becoming machines that put Dick Tracy’s wrist radio to shame, keyboarding skills have become paramount. Back in the stone age, we used to call it typing, but that was when there were machines called typewriters in which the typist rolled in a sheet of paper, held their hands at just the right angle, and then typed. At 40 words per minute if he or she wanted to pass Typing I.

By that time, “typewriter” referred to the machine, an not the person who was using it. As Lorenzo Rank but it in his “Oswego” column in the March 11, 1898 Kendall County Record: “Bessie Armstrong, now one of the stenographers and typewriters, came home from Chicago to spend Sunday.”

When I took high school typing, handwriting was still an essential skill that elementary kids spent a lot of time learning. Most elementary classrooms had depictions of correct upper and lower case cursive letters on cardboard strips up above the blackboard so there would be no excuse for failing to create a proper capital letter Q.

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

I learned cursive in second grade out in our one-room country school, first with pencil, and then graduating to (just like the big kids!) pen and ink. The ink pens we learned on were plastic dip pens with steel nibs that had to be dipped in an ink bottle every few letters. The wet ink then had to be blotted so you didn’t accidentally drag your shirt cuff through it and smudge your masterpiece. Ink blotters, in fact, were a major advertising medium during that era, with all sorts of businesses giving them out for free.

In the middle of my third grade year, when we moved into town, I was mildly shocked, and somewhat insulted, that my classmates were all still a) printing and b) writing in pencil.

The kids in country and town schools through the last of the 19th Century and start of the 20th, learned using the Spencerian Method invented and popularized by Platt Rogers Spencer. That was replaced by the Palmer Method developed by A.N. Palmer and spread nationwide in Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing, in which, by the way, my mother was an expert. She learned it in grade and high school and perfected it in a business college course.

Our school handwriting was very similar to Palmer’s, and was practiced daily.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

For reasons lost to the mists of time, we weren’t allowed to use ballpoint pens for some years. Fountain pens were fine, but the things leaked. So it was a lifesaver when the Shaeffer company came out with their cartridge ink pens. No filling from ink bottles any more, just buy a small box of plastic cartridges at the drug store and you were good to go. But eventually, the value of ballpoints penetrated the educational system. Our handwriting was a lot less messy, the blotter makers went the way of buggy whip manufacturers, and all was good and right with the world.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, from my senior year of high school, tells me so.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, that dates to my senior year of high school, tells me so.

Then, as I noted above, some of us learned typing in high school, which proved a very valuable skill. It was also challenging. We learned on standard QWERTY typewriters, but with the exciting modification of blank keys. The keyboard layout was printed on a poster above the blackboard at the front of the room. And no, I don’t remember why our typing room had blackboards.

For some of us, typing was, literally, a life-saver. A friend of mine, drafted into the U.S. Army during Vietnam, was appointed to clerical duties in his engineering company because he could type. It didn’t stop him from hunkering in a bunker and shooting up the bad guys with an M-79 grenade launcher during the Tet Offensive, but to a great extent, it kept him out of lots of other potentially fatal situations.

Typing was also a money maker during college, since the skill wasn’t universal and by that time, term papers were required to be typed in many classes.

Typing didn’t become keyboarding until the computer age dawned. In another interesting tern of events, “computer” had also once been the name of a person’s job, just like “typewriter.” But starting in the late 1970s, computers began requiring keyboards to input data. By the 1980s school boards all over the country were coming to the conclusion that all this computer stuff was something more than a technological flash in the pan. And by the 1990s, “keyboarding” was starting to be considered a basic skill, right along with handwriting.

And then came laptops, smart phones, tablets, and all the rest of the revolution we’ve been living through the past few decades.

Now, it appears, keyboarding has overtaken handwriting, as have more esoteric skills such as texting using nimble thumbs, which all the cool kids know is the rage these days.

Which brings us to the second reason handwriting is disappearing as a skill taught in school—which really has nothing to do with technology, and, when you stop to think about it, not much to do with improving education, either. Handwriting is simply not conducive to modern testing. And the modern mania for “high stakes” testing has pretty much left skills like handwriting in the dust. If it’s not on standardized tests, it is not, for the most part, taught.

So gone is handwriting, and so are lots of other things, like local history because giant testing companies owned by conglomerates overseen by distant financiers understand they can’t be shoehorned into a nationally-normed test. Education, of course, is not the goal here; making money is. For years, the folks who’ve been vacuuming up everyone’s tax dollars have been trying to figure out how to get at that huge pool of property taxes that support local government. With the ‘education reform’ movement, charter schools, and the Common Core, they figure they’re good to go.

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Were Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe from Illinois?

The late 1950s were the heyday of television westerns, and one of the most popular during that era was “Bonanza,” the tale of fictional Ponderosa Ranch owned by the Cartwright family—father Ben (a widower) and sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.

Was the Cartwright family of "Bonanza" fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be...

Was the Cartwright family of “Bonanza” fame based on a 19th Century Illinois family? Could be…

Their spread was located in the mountains near Nevada’s Lake Tahoe, where the family earned their living logging, raising cattle and selling supplies to the miners working on the huge silver strike called the Comstock Lode.

Lots of people enjoyed the interaction between the three brothers and their father, and the rest of the cast of characters, from the Chinese cook Hop Sing to Virginia City Sheriff Roy Coffee. So many, in fact, that “Bonanza” was number one in the ratings for four years running. It’s still playing in syndication.

What has interested me for years now is whether or not the saga of the Cartwrights might not have been, in part at least, based on a real-life family from Illinois that emigrated west in the 1840s. The patriarch of that family would have been well known to Kendall County’s pioneer settlers—by reputation if nothing else.

When the son of William and Katherine (Devers) Winters was born in 1794 in Pennsylvania, they named him John Devers Winters, his middle name honoring his mother’s family. Little is known of his early life, but he eventually arrived in Illinois, probably from the South. Former U.S. Secretary of State Elihu B. Washburne writing 30 years after the fact, said he believed Winters came “from either Kentucky or Tennessee,” before settling in northern Illinois with his wife, Elizabeth. Winters’ first son, Theodore, was born in Illinois in 1823. Before Elizabeth’s death, the couple had three sons, Theodore, John D. Junior, and Joseph (Little Joe?), along with two daughters, Amanda and Harriet.

In the 1830s and 1840s, the arrival of the mail stagecoach was an exciting community event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

John D. Winters engaged in the boisterous stagecoaching business in Illinois starting in the 1830s. Eventually, the Frink & Walker combine drove him out of the state to California. The arrival of the mail stage in Illinois’ small towns was a notable event, as this illustration from Stage-Coach and Tavern Days by Alice Morse Earle (1902) suggests.

Winters probably settled first in southern or central Illinois, possibly around Peoria. In 1827, Winters moved north to what would eventually become Jo Daviess County with James and John Flack. Shortly thereafter, Winters and Capt. Clack Stone (whose first name is, understandably enough, often incorrectly spelled “Clark”), established a village they named Elizabeth after Winters’ wife (Elizabeth is located on modern U.S. Route 20 a few miles southeast of Galena).

Winters apparently got into the freight, mail, and stagecoach business almost as soon as he arrived in Illinois. From his new base in Elizabeth, he began running coaches from Galena south to Peoria and St. Louis.

Dr. John Taylor Temple initiated stage service from Chicago to Ottawa, and from there to Peoria, in January 1834, using his political connections to obtain the mail contract, a must for any successful stage operator. Winters bought Temple out in the spring of 1837 but then lost the Chicago mail contracts to John Frink and his partners later that year.

Winters subsequently abandoned Chicago for greener pastures elsewhere in the state, concentrating on the Peoria to Galena and other lines in western and northwestern Illinois. Sharp increases in passenger and mail business between Chicago and Galena and other points in Illinois in the early 1840s led to Winters and Frink locking horns one more time. Frink’s coaches sported a wheel brake, a sensible safety device, but Winters denounced it as a “Damn Yankee contrivance,” and said he didn’t want anything holding his horses back. Frink fired back that Winters used old broken down horses. Winters then made a tactical error in advertising that passengers in his coaches traveled “leisurely over the prairies.” Frink replied his stages were pulled by lively horses and that due to their speed, space “was almost annihilated.” In the end, Winters braced Frink in the American House hotel in Galena and the two fought it out.

But Frink and his partner, Martin O. Walker, prevailed. In 1848, Winters gave up, sold out, and moved his family west to California. It turned out to be the first of a couple very fortuitous turns of events. Shortly after arriving in California, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. Winters and his sons, all skilled teamsters, made their first fortune hauling supplies to the gold fields.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

The popular view of wagon trains has them populated by emigrant families moving west to new homes. But the vast majority of the trains heading west from Independence, Mo. and east from California hauled freight, not pioneers.

Then when gold was discovered in Nevada, the Winters clan started hauling supplies from Placerville, Calif. to the Carson Valley in Nevada. It was about that time that old J.D. decided to take a chance in the mining game and he bought an 18th share in a new mine called the Ophir. It was a fateful decision because the Ophir was one of the mines burrowing into what became known as the Comstock Lode, a silver deposit so huge that it was almost incomprehensible. Wrote Sam Clemmens (who eventually became known as the writer Mark Twain) to his brother from Esmeralda, Nev. in July 1862, “An eighteenth of the Ophir was a fortune to John D. Winters.”

J.D. ended his life as a prominent rancher and businessman. Young J.D. Junior was elected a member of Nevada’s first territorial legislature and even ran for governor. Theodore, born all those years ago in Illinois, went on to found the town of Theodore, Calif., and was a rich man in his own right.

Although forced out of the stage and freight business in Illinois, the Winters family headed west where they were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to make their fortune in transportation, land, and mining. Just like the Cartwrights (whose name, possibly not so coincidentally, means “wagonmaker”), except the Winters’ story started right here in northern Illinois.

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Journalism as I lived it…

My friend of some 40 years and former boss sent a photo to me the other day that was, in turn, sent to him via this wonderful communications medium we call the Internet.

The author, seemingly mezmerized by the black and white screen on his Mac in the spring of 1989, as big changes were happening in journalism.

The author, seemingly mezmerized by the black and white screen on his Mac in the spring of 1989, as big changes were happening in journalism.

There I was, perched at my borrowed desk at the Kendall County Record office in Yorkville on a Wednesday morning in 1989, running out copy. My trusty TRS-80 laptop is on the desk, connected with a null modem to the 512k Mac that we used to print out copy on the LaserWriter printer. While we knew we weren’t exactly at the cutting edge of news biz technology, we weren’t too far removed during that era when the Mac revolutionized how newspaper production.

By that time, we’d gone through a number of technological changes as the old Linotype hot type technology was left behind in favor of computerized type setting. But even those earlier typesetting reiterations were light years ahead of where newspapers started out when Kendall County was a youngster.

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

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

The first county newspaper was the Kendall County Courier, established by Hector S. Humphrey in 1852 at Oswego, then the Kendall County Seat. A native New Yorker like so many early pioneers, after earning his journeyman printer’s status, Humphrey headed west in 1848 to boisterous, fast-growing Chicago. After a few years there, he moved farther west to Naperville before deciding to start the Courier at Oswego.

Setting type by hand was a laborious process. Above, a stick of type has been pulled from the case.

Setting type by hand was a laborious process. Above, a stick of type has been pulled from the case.

During that era, printers need a variety of skills. Presses were operated by hand, producing one sheet at a time. Type was ordered in full sets from type foundries and graphics were set with individual woodcuts. Type cases were arranged so typographers stood, and pulled type from either the lower cases (with lower case letters) or the cases up high with capitals (upper case letters). Individual letters, punctuation marks, and spaces (which varied from N to M spaces—the width of a capital N or M) were set by hand in frames. When the setting was done, the frames were locked and a proof page was run off for the proofreader.

Converting horsepower to mechanical power allowed print presses at small country weeklies to become much more efficient.

Converting horsepower to mechanical power allowed print presses at small country weeklies to become much more efficient.

The first innovations in newspaper printing technology came with powered presses. Originally, presses were operated by apprentice printers or “printer’s devils,” who had to crank them by hand. Small country weeklies then moved to presses operated by a horsepower—the power provided by a horse plodding around a circle, the rotating arm providing power, or on a treadmill. In town, a treadmill horsepower was probably used.

On Feb. 15, 1883, publisher John R. Marshall wrote in the Kendall County Record that: “The Record office met with a catastrophe Wednesday morning. The snow on the horsepower shed gathered weight from the rain Tuesday night and the roof came down with a crash, making a ruin for awhile. The old power was badly busted and we haven’t money enough to buy a steam engine.”

But Marshall finally did find the money and by the late 1880s, the horsepower had been retired in favor of a small steam engine.

Linotype pretty much had the typesetting market to itself for years, only displaced when computerized cold type typesetters were perfected.

Linotype pretty much had the typesetting market to itself for years, only displaced when computerized cold type typesetters were perfected.

The next innovation was setting type by machine. Linotype was the leader in that field for the next several decades. Sitting at a giant, seemingly Rube Goldberg device, the Linotype operator used a keyboard whose keys were mechanically connected to the machine’s works. Each key struck caused the machine to cast a letter, space, or punctuation mark on the fly. At the Record, the first typesetters were powered by the same steam engine that powered the press, but in 1907, Marshall installed electric motors to run both machines. Originally, a gasoline burner melted the lead for typesetting, but in 1913 Western United Gas & Electric extended municipal gas lines to Yorkville from the company’s plant in Aurora, and the Record reported: “The Linotype machine in The Record office is now equipped with a gas burner to heat the metal for the casting of slugs. This new attachment does away with a gasoline burner.”

Off-set printing came in next, with pages being “burned” onto aluminum plates that never really touched newsprint. Instead, the plate was wrapped around a roller. When the roller turned, it picked up ink from an ink roller and the image was transferred to yet another roller, and THAT’s the roller that actually printed the image on the paper.

Then in the 1960s Compugraphic introduced computerized typesetters priced for smaller weeklies. With these gizmos, type was set on strips of photographic paper that spooled out of the machines. The strips were run through a waxer (which applied a thin layer of wax on—we fervently hoped—the blank side of the strip of copy) and then were pasted onto blank layout pages. Input for these cold type (as opposed to the old Linotype hot type machines) typesetters was either through a built-in keyboard, or a punched paper tape. The tape was produced by a sort of computerized terminal that offered a single line of copy viewable as the typesetter worked.

We produced yards of paper tape back in the early 1980s that were then run through photo typesetters, which spit copy out to be pasted up.

We produced yards of paper tape back in the early 1980s that were then run through photo typesetters, which spit copy out to be pasted up.

That’s how the Ledger-Sentinel’s type was set when the paper was formed in Oswego by the merger of the old Fox Valley Sentinel and the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. We typed copy on yellow foolscap using electric typewriters, edited our copy, and then passed it on to our faithful typesetter, Dorothy Kellogg, who transferred it to yards of paper tape. The rolls of tape were taken to the print shop in Yorkville and run through the typesetters, proofed and changes carefully pasted in place using the trusty waxer again.

The next big thing was the Macintosh revolution that allowed anyone with room for a Mac and a LaserWriter to start their own paper. No more paper tape, odd third-party typesetting terminals, or phototypesetters. Instead, copy could be printed on plain paper, waxed, and pasted up. Instead of ordering sets of type from foundries, they came on floppy discs from some of the old names in typesetting and typography.

The TRS-80 Model 100 became a ubiquitous reporter's tool in the late 1980s.

The TRS-80 Model 100 became a ubiquitous reporter’s tool in the late 1980s until replaced by early, far more useful, laptop computers.

Those early Macs were expensive, though, so we compromised by equipping our reporters with the then-new TRS-80 laptops. They were crude machines, but far better than typewriters. Copy could be edited—though it was a bit of a struggle since only about four lines of type were visible at a time and no spell-check was available. Every evening, we’d connect the TRS-80s to the phone line and send our copy down to Yorkville via the machines’ built-in 300 baud modems, where it was downloaded and formatted on Macs. Then on Wednesday we’d all gather at the print shop in Yorkville to do paste-up and download all the remaining copy to the accompaniment of the low rumble of the web press on the first floor spitting out copies at a rate that would have made old J.R. Marshall green with envy.

Early Macintosh computers were a revelation; they offered the opportunity for just about anyone to start their own newspaper. The revolution Steve Jobs started in 1984 continues at an ever-faster pace today.

The early Macintosh was a revelation; it offered the opportunity for just about anyone to start their own newspaper. The revolution Steve Jobs started in 1984 continues at an ever-faster pace today.

Which is what I’m doing in that 1989 photograph. It wasn’t too long afterwards that we got Macs at the Ledger-Sentinel office so we could create an office network, edit each other’s copy, and send the results down to Yorkville on much faster modems.

By the time I retired from the news biz in 2007, we were emailing copy via the Internet; no more dial-up modems required. And nowadays, paste-up is long gone, too. Pages are laid out using QuarkXpress, and are sent through a gizmo that turns the files directly into off-set printing plates.

Newspaper offices used to be notable for their noise: the machine noise of the Linotype, then the tapping of typewriters and the low hum of photo typesetters. Now, they’re fairly quiet places with only the tapping of keys on computer keyboards audible. But while the technology has seen great changes during the past few decades, the goal of journalists is still the same: Get the news and print it. While the big media folks seem to be having some problems figuring out exactly what’s news and what facts are concerning the big issues of the day, real journalism is still being committed at the local, weekly level.

And long may it be so.

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