Category Archives: Nostalgia

Ice skating and other winter memories…

For some reason, I got to thinking this morning about ice skating on the Fox when I was a kid

So decided to, as one of my blogging heroes Brad DeLong puts it, hoist a January 2013 post from the archives about when we used to skate on the Fox.

This year, with December’s heavy rains, the Fox is nearly at flood stage so even if global climate change and development hadn’t ruined the river for skating, the high water would have precluded freezing anyway. The best years for skating featured dry autumn weather so that the water level and the current were both at low ebb, which encouraged freezing the river solid.

I recently went through bunches of family photos, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any photos of us ice skating. But we do have a few ice skating-related photos in the collections of the Little White School Museum, some of which are in this post.

Here it is…enjoy!

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Science stuff

Who is General Tso and why am I eating his chicken?*

Maybe it was sort of in honor of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” playing in a loop on Ted Turner’s old TBS and TNT stations, or maybe not. Whatever the reason, on Christmas Eve both my wife and I were hungry for Chinese food, which we ordered and drove over and picked up.

The last time we had Chinese, we decided to try General Tso’s chicken (the name had fascinated me for years), and we enjoyed it, although we went back to our old sesame chicken Christmas Eve. As I looked the menu over this time, I got to wondering about good old Gen Tso, and why somebody named a chicken dish in his honor.

Turns out, he was a major mover and shaker in the late 19th Century in China’s Qing Dynasty, not only an accomplished military leader, but also an effective diplomat. Oddly enough, he was not commemorated in his own country with a dish named in his honor. Rather, General Tso’s chicken was invented in the 1970s here in the U.S. in New York City, inspired by a dish developed by a Taiwanese chef named Peng.

And that, of course got me to thinking about all the other foods and dishes named after individuals, although their origins are mostly unknown these days.

As Vince put it, "Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff." Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it's named after Bakers German's Sweet Chocolate, developed by Bob German.

As Vince put it, “Hey, you know the Germans always make good stuff.” Alas, German chocolate cake has nothing to do with Germany. Rather, it’s named after Bakers German’s Sweet Chocolate, developed by Sam German.

German chocolate cake is a good example. It’s not German, as in the country, but rather German as in Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate, which was developed in 1852 by Sam German for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. The recipe for the cake was first published in the Dallas Morning Star in 1957 using German’s Sweet Chocolate. Over the years, the name has been shortened, dropping the apostrophe “s” suggesting to the unwary that Germans had something to do with it.

Graham crackers are another familiar food—no S’Mores with out ‘em!—that carry the name of their inventor, this time a guy by the name of Sylvester Graham. Graham was a Presbyterian minister back in the 1800s who was a health food fanatic who developed a process for milling whole wheat flour to be used in what he considered healthy eating. I suspect Sylvester would be horrified at what generations of Girl and Boy Scouts have done to his healthy crackers.

Which brings us to Fettuccine Alfredo, one of my favorite pasta dishes, that was created by early 20th Century Italian chef Alfredo di Lelio. He developed it as a mild dish for his pregnant wife. Tourists eating at his restaurant in Rome liked it and spread the recipe around the world.

A number of fruits and vegetables are named after the folks who developed them, including boysenberries. Rudolf Boysen, a botanist who was also the superintendent of parks in Anaheim, California, crossed a loganberry, raspberry, and blackberry sometime in the 1920s to arrive at the boysenberry. Its fame was assured when Walter Knott started pushing boysenberry jam, jelly, and syrup at his Knott’s Berry Farm California tourist trap.

Clementines, those delicious little oranges, are named after Père Clément Rodier. The good father either came across a mandarin orange mutation while serving in North Africa in the early 20th Century, or he himself made a mandarin and Seville orange cross to create the tiny, sweet fruit. That’s at least one story, the other being clementines may have been created by some nameless Asian horticulturalist long before Father Clement got into the act.

Granny Smith apples, named after BLANK, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Granny Smith apples, named after Marie Anna “Granny” Smith, the Australian woman who first cultivated them, are good cooking apples as well as pretty good eating. They are popular all over the world these days.

Lots of varieties of apples are named after the orchardists who developed them by cross-breeding. The Granny Smith apple, which was discovered, and then propagated, in in Australia in 1868 by Marie Anna “Granny” Smith was named in her honor. Closer to home here in Kendall County, the Minkler apple was named after 19th Century orchardist Smith Minkler, who developed it from seedlings given him in lieu of cash when he worked for local French American businessman and property owner Pierre Lamsette, who was also known as Peter Specie. While Granny Smiths are still very popular, Minklers are mostly only found now in old farmyard orchards and at nurseries that feature heirloom apples.

As well as fruit, we Americans love our salads. Last week we ate out at one of our local pizza/Italian beef/hot dog joints and I had a great Cobb salad, which I though was probably so named because it had kernels of sweet corn in it. But no, the Cobb salad was invented by Robert H. Cobb, the owner of the famed Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood. Sometime around 1936, Cobb rustled up a salad for himself using ingredients he had in the kitchen. He apparently liked it so well, he started serving it in his restaurant after naming it after himself.

And you might think Caesar salad was named after Julius or one of the other long line of Caesars who ruled Rome, but you’d be wrong. Granted, its creator, Caesar Cardini, was of Italian ancestry, but he was an American restaurateur and chef. One of his buddies created the Caesar salad in the restaurant at the Hotel Caesar in Tijuana, Mexico and named it for the hotel and his friend.

Ever wonder about nachos? About 1943, Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya created his original dish by making a bed of fried corn tortillas and then covered them with melted cheddar cheese and jalapeño peppers.

Hershey, Pennsylvania gets all the press about its famous chocolate candy, but really, Illinois probably ought to own the nation’s candy making crown. Heath bars, for instance, those delicious little English toffee bars were created in downstate Robinson by the owners of Heath Brothers Confectionery, Bayard and Everett Heath. A salesman brought the brothers a recipe developed by a Greek candy maker down in Champaign, and after some tweaking, the Heaths turned it into a local favorite during the Roaring 1920s. At the time, Crawford County was an oil production center, and the wildcatters who came and went carried those little Heath Bars with them all over the U.S. The orders rolled in and the rest is history.

Also developed right here in Illinois by Chicago’s Williamson Candy Company was the chewy Oh Henry! peanut, caramel, fudge and chocolate bar. The story goes that a young fellow by the name of Henry used to stop by the company’s offices who could be convinced to do odd jobs and the call for his services, “Oh Henry!” became so frequent they named a new candy bar in his honor in 1920. Although there are other explanations of the candy bar’s name, the company is sticking with their story about good old Henry.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it's almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Hard to beat a classic Reuben sandwich on marbled rye, even if it’s almost impossible to get one these days with real Russian dressing.

Not sure where we’d be these days if somebody hadn’t invented sandwiches. The name itself is easily traced back to John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718–1792). Now the Earl didn’t invent sandwiches; they were popular, especially among the lower classes for a long time before the Earl was a glint in his father’s eye. But the name for two pieces of bread with varied fillings is said to have been given the dish back during the Seven Years War when the Earl demanded food that could be easily and neatly handled while playing cards with his friends.

One of my favorite sandwiches is the Reuben sandwich. Although it’s almost impossible to find a true Reuben these days—it requires Russian dressing, not the almost-always-substituted Thousand Island Dressing—many local restaurants make a passable version. The best here in the Oswego area is at the Riverview Diner in Montgomery. Food historians believe the sandwich was invented at Reuben Kolakofsky’s restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska around 1925 to feed his poker buddies. On the other hand, some believe that Arnold Reuben, a New York City restaurateur, created it and named it after himself around 1914.

Finally, another of my favorite dishes is Salisbury steak, and it turns out the guy it was named for had dietary theories that pretty much exactly mirror my own. Dr. James H. Salisbury invented the dish named in his honor, and he strongly advised his patients to eat it three times a day, while limiting their intake of vegetables (which he considered to be somewhere between dangerous and evil) and starches.

A man truly after my own heart. And stomach.

 

 

*Turns out while I thought I was being original with this title, Kimberly Kohatsu already used it on a 2014 piece on Huffington Post. Oh well…

2 Comments

Filed under Food, History, Illinois History, Nostalgia, People in History, Uncategorized

When toy heaven opened on Main Street…

Holiday season has rolled around one more time, but somehow it doesn’t seem like Christmas just yet. Maybe this year’s singular lack of snow, ice, and nasty weather  here in northern Illinois has something to do with my feelings on the subject. Who knows?

Back when I was a fourth grade student at Oswego’s old Red Brick School, Christmas was considered by all of us youngsters a very special time of year. During the latter years of the 1950s, there weren’t as many commercials on television—we just had three channels to choose from back in the old days, so there wasn’t as much television, either. Today, commercials are aimed at the demographics advertisers figure watch whatever of the hundreds of channels are beamed into our homes. Lots of prescription drug and patent medicine ads on The Hallmark Channel and women’s products on Lifetime, for instance. And tune in Nickelodeon or one of the other kids’ commercial channels, and you’ll be inundated with commercials aimed at kids.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show's run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg's Sugar Corn Pops.

Guy Madison portrayed a very hunky Wild Bill Hickok during the TV show’s run. It was heavily promoted by its main sponsor, Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops.

Back in those early TV days, an awful lot of programming aimed at kids seemed  to have been funded by food companies. “Wild Bill Hickok,” for instance, was sponsored by Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops, to the extent that Wild Bill (played by Guy Madison in buckskins, who bore absolutely no resemblance to the real Wild Bill) decorated the Sugar Pops box. His image lingered there like one of Scrooge’s Christmas ghosts years after the show was yanked from the airwaves. Sugar Corn Pops themselves have morphed these days into just plain Corn Pops, Kellogg’s apparently hoping no one will notice they’re coated with sugar if the word isn’t mentioned in the cereal’s name.

And there was also “Captain Midnight” and his chief mechanic and comic relief Icky Mudd (with two d’s), which was sponsored by Ovaltine. I hated evil-tasting Ovaltine. But then Captain Midnight went into syndication and was mysteriously transformed into Jet Jackson, whose show was sponsored by Jets cereal. I couldn’t stand Jets cereal, and it didn’t like me, either. God knows I tried to eat enough boxes of the stuff because I really needed those box tops, only to have my body reject it like some poor fellow rejecting his transplanted heart.

So, anyway, we had a lot of cereal advertising, but very little toy advertising. Until Christmas time, that is. When Christmas rolled around, all the afternoon and noontime shows—“The Two-Ton Baker Show,” “Elmer the Elephant,” “Super Circus,” “Uncle Johnny Coons” —featured a ton of toy advertisements aimed at us Baby Boomers, as we oozed through the nation’s social fabric like a giant rodent through a python.

Shuler's Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Shuler’s Drug Store in Oswego as it looked to us in the mid-1950s. The door to Toy Heaven up on the second floor is visible at right. (Little White School Museum photo)

Our real problem, as ’50s kids, was not deciding what kind of toy we wanted most for Christmas, it was trying to get a look at the real thing. Here in Oswego, the only stores that sold toys were Carr’s Department Store and Shuler’s Drug Store. Carr’s had a tiny, not very good toy section, and Shuler’s selection of toys, which was only marginally better, was located on a couple of shelves at the back of the store. We had to deal with those conditions for most of the year. But at Christmas time, though, things changed drastically.

Al Shuler apparently loved Christmas, and, carrying on an Oswego drug store tradition that stretched back into pre-Civil War days, sponsored a huge Christmas toy sale and display in the second floor meeting hall above his store. He contracted with Mr. and Mrs. Carr, who owned the department store just down the block, to manage the sales portion of the annual event.

About Thanksgiving, the doors officially opened, and everyone was invited to climb the narrow, creaky, steep flight of stairs to what, for us, amounted to Toy Heaven.

After a hard day hitting the books (and sometimes each other) at the Red Brick School, we’d walk down to so some serious toy gazing before heading home. The school was located on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Monroe, and Jefferson streets, just two blocks from Shuler’s, and when the day’s final school bell rang, a mob of pushing and shoving munchkins would headed downtown, warmly dressed in zippered coats and five- buckle boots. To cross busy Madison Street—U.S. Route 34—to get

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego's old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

Ed Donnelly helps students from Oswego’s old Red Brick School cross Madison Street in the spring of 1957 with the help of traffic signal lights purchased by the Oswego Lions Club. (Little White School Museum photo by Everett Hafenrichter)

downtown, we’d use the pedestrian crosswalk signal lights at Jackson Street. There is no power on Earth like that felt by a fourth grader who is able to stop a whole line of autos, buses, and semi-trucks–even if it wass the elderly Mr. Donnelly who did the actual button-pushing. As traffic ground to a halt, we’d amble across the roadway with the same feeling General Patton must have felt when he wielded complete control of the Third Army in World War II.

On Main Street, we’d clamber up the steep wooden stairway into a large room which was filled with long tables laden with more toys than any of us had ever seen in one place. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains, Mattel six-guns and rifles and dolls, Marx electric trains and toys, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets, Flexible Flyer sleds, Structo trucks and fire engines (that really worked!), and game and puzzle sets by the hundreds were spread before our eyes.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

Because of its marvelously accurate steering, the Flexible Flyer was the gold standard for sleds for those of us who grew up in the 1950s. We always hoped to find one under the Christmas tree.

We’d spend hours looking at all those toys, imagining what it would be like to own a Flexible Flyer, or a Mattel pistol that really shot plastic bullets—imagination was a big part of the whole Christmas scene, not to mention the rest of our lives as children.

Today, however, children are bombarded with ads for toys of all kinds on a daily basis all year long. The special feeling that Christmas used to generate when we hoped for that one much-desired and fantasized-about toy seems to have ended in a rush by parents for whatever seems to be on the current year’s hot list. Back then we never really knew what we’d get for Christmas—our parents usually decided that (at least in part) what we wanted for Christmas and what we needed were two entirely different things. I never noticed any feelings of guilt on the part of parents who bought their children a less expensive toy than the one hoped for.

As a Missouri newspaper editor put it in one of our exchanges down at the newspaper office some 30 years ago now, today’s parents are apparently confusing the word “disappoint” with “deprive” as they fight and trample heir way to the counter to snatch the last whatever hot-selling toy in stock.

It‘s hard to persuade children to be satisfied with less when they’re constantly bombarded with instructions to beg for more from their parents. But it’s not impossible. As our parents found out, “no” can sometimes be exactly the right word.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under History, Local History, Nostalgia, Uncategorized

A journalism anniversary missed…

So I missed my own anniversary.

No, not the all-important wedding anniversary. To forget that would be something akin to a China Syndrome Chernobyl meltdown.

What I missed was the 35th anniversary of my “Reflections” column that’s been running in the Kendall County Record, Inc. newspapers (and now the KendallCountyNOW division of Shaw Media) since July 31, 1980.

I started in the column game back in August 1977 when Dave Dreier gave me a chance to start writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel. It was interesting part-time work that came in handy since I’d retired on disability from my previous job.

I began writing every other week, with the intervening weeks taken up by Mike Muzzy’s column on the local arts and music scene. But gradually, Dave moved “Epochs” up to running weekly, at least when there was room.

The Fox Valley Sentinel flag from the summer of 1978. A great weekly paper, it lasted just less than a decade covering Oswego, Montgomery, and Aurora news.

The Fox Valley Sentinel flag from the summer of 1978. A great weekly paper, it lasted just less than a decade covering Oswego, Montgomery, and Aurora news. Couldn’t beat the price, though.

The Sentinel was always short of money, so getting paid was often an adventure in itself. When the checks were handed out on Friday afternoon, there was a general stampede to the bank to cash them before the money in the account ran out. While Dave was creative, business sense wasn’t really his forte. Later, it was found that the woman Dave hired as the paper’s business manager was stealing him blind.

Working at the Sentinel, even part-time, was what I imagine working at one of those underground ‘60s papers must have been like. Dave managed to assemble a great group of writers that committed actual journalism in Oswego, really for the first time ever.

Gradually, though, that talented bunch went on to other things as they saw the business problems at the Sentinel increasing.

So Dave wondered whether I wanted to cover some actual news for the paper since I had free time and needed the extra cash. I reminded him that I had no journalism training or experience, but he waved that away, noting that writing news stories is pretty easy.

“Here,” he said, “Let me show you.”

And he proceeded to sketch an upside-down pyramid on the back of an envelope.

“This,” he said, “Is an inverted pyramid. You write your stories like this: The most important stuff at the top, and the least important at the bottom. That way, if it has to be cut due to space problems, the less important stuff is always handy to clip off.”

And with my journalism training complete and I was sent off to cover the Kane County Board, where I learned the ins and outs of parliamentary procedure from Phil Elfstrom, who used it masterfully to maintain an iron-handed control, and the West Aurora School Board, where I got my introduction to the education beat.

But while the Sentinel was fun in a guerrilla journalism sort of way, it really wasn’t sustainable because it was in direct competition with the Oswego Ledger. The Ledger had been started in 1949 by Ford Lippold as a free-distribution paper he and his family mimeographed and assembled in his basement. It was purchased in 1965 by Ann and Don Krahn, who turned it into a subscription-based tabloid weekly. Don and Ann sold it to their son, Dave, who subsequently sold it to Jeff and Kathy Farren, publishers of the venerable Kendall County Record in Yorkville. The Record was begun in 1864 by John Redmond Marshall as the county seat paper. The Marshall family kept control until selling to Howard Pince in the 1960. Jeff and Kathy, newly-minted graduates of the Northern Illinois University School of Journalism, bought it after they got married and then also started the Plano Record. One evening Jeff Farren and Dave Dreier got together down at the Oswego American Legion (a popular local watering hole) and, concluding the community couldn’t support two papers, came to the agreement that Dave would sell to Jeff and Kathy. Which he did, and the first issue of the Ledger-Sentinel was published July 31, 1980.

Our new design of the Ledger-Sentinel flag that I drew up in the summer of 2000. It's still pretty much the same, although with some changes put in place by Shaw Media since they acquired the Kendall County Record, Inc. papers this past summer.

Our new design of the Ledger-Sentinel flag that I drew up in the summer of 2000. It’s still pretty much the same, although with some changes put in place by Shaw Media since they acquired the Kendall County Record, Inc. papers this past summer.

I’d met Jeff and Kathy during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration when Kathy served on Kendall County Bicentennial Commission with my wife, Sue, and me as we worked on creating an updated county history. We’d all worked well together and after the Ledger-Sentinel deal was going down with Dave they asked whether I’d be willing to be the new paper’s editor. I reminded them that a) I still didn’t have any formal journalism training, b) I knew nothing about editing, and c) due to health problems I could only work part-time. They told me not to worry, that editing isn’t as hard as it might seem to some and that my familiarity with Oswego would be invaluable. Further, they’d been reading my “Epochs” column and liked it and wanted me to continue it—only they hated the name of it, to which I suggested changing it to “Reflections,” which was satisfactory to all concerned. The part-time part also wasn’t a problem, they said. They didn’t want to cover Kane County or the West Aurora Schools any more. And the village boards in Oswego and Montgomery met on different weeks, as did the Oswego School District Board, so it was possible for me to cover all of them by dedicating my Monday evenings to meeting coverage.

After a few months of that schedule, it was pretty clear I needed some help covering local government, so they authorized hiring John Etheredge. John was newly graduated from NIU’s journalism program and had actually been promised a job by Dave Dreier one evening months before when they enjoyed drinks at a popular bar called “The Office.” John was fresh off helping his dad win election to the Illinois State Senate, and was a good writer. So we hired him part-time at first, and then full-time so I could concentrate on editing, writing “Reflections,” and covering the Oswego school beat along with writing occasional features, doing annual in-depth coverage of property taxation, and the rest of the things weekly newspapers cover, although in my case on a somewhat limited part-time basis.

We must have been doing something right, despite my lack of training, though. From 1980 through my retirement as editor in 2008, the Ledger-Sentinel earned 216 awards from the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association and 99 from the Illinois Press Association. Dave Dreier’s back-of-the-envelope journalism instruction back in 1978 turned out to be pretty effective. That, along with covering local government and learning the ins and outs of how it worked led to several first place awards for school board coverage from the Illinois Association of School Boards and coverage of property taxation from the Tax Federation of Illinois.

Although I retired as the Ledger-Sentinel’s part-time editor—I’d given up the school board beat a couple years before—in 2008, Jeff and Kathy wanted me to keep writing “Reflections,” which they had started running in all four Kendall County Record, Inc. papers a few years before. And I agreed to do that, since it’s fun and because I think it’s good for folks new to our community to find out a little about what came before.

And there are a lot of new folks living here. In 1990, Kendall County’s total population was just above 39,000. In 2010, the census bureau counted nearly 115,000 county residents. Oswego’s population, during that same period, literally exploded from 3,900 to 30,000 residents.

Since that first column back in the summer of 1980, I churned out roughly 1,820 of them up through July 30 of this year, and since then I’ve added another 15 or so. That adds up to around 1.6 million words in about a half-mile of columns set at its normal 3.25” width.

Every once in a while as I was working as the Ledger-Sentinel’s editor, someone or other would pitch an idea for a column to me. When they did, I’d use Dave Dreier’s method to separate the wheat from the chaff. Write a half dozen columns for me, I’d reply, and we’ll see what they look like. The thing is, as Dave once noted, just about everyone has an idea for one good column. A few people might even have ideas for two or three. But coming up with good ideas for six columns is pretty difficult. In fact, I never had anyone get back to me with their packet of six columns.

So far, it’s been 35 years and counting for me at the “Reflections” column game, not to mention writing something now and then for this blog—something that didn’t even exist when I blundered into journalism back in 1977—plus the columns I did for the Sentinel. The thing about history, even local history, is that new stuff keeps popping up which leads to new takes on old stories and ideas. I plan to keep on chronicling as much as I can as long as I can so that the things, good and bad, people have been doing around these parts for the last few thousand years aren’t forgotten.

2 Comments

Filed under Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, People in History

Another year’s grain harvest is in full swing…

According to my sister, the corn and soybean harvest on their farming operation out in Iowa is moving along just fine, with good weather and what seems right now to be acceptable—or possibly even better—yields.

Driver around our piece of northern Illinois and you’ll see the guys and gals out in the field combining corn and beans, hauling the harvest either to giant cylindrical metal bins on their farms or using grain semi-trucks to take it right to the terminals on the Illinois River.

The corn harvest today is somewhat the same, but different in so many ways than it was during my farm childhood.

A nicely restored Allis-Chalmers WD like the one my dad owned.

A nicely restored Allis-Chalmers WD like the one my dad owned.

Back then, my dad had an Allis Chalmers W-D tractor for his main means of power, with an elderly Case for backup and other chores. Tractors of those sizes today are far too small to do much else than pull wagons in from the field at harvest or maybe mow the lawn.

And back in the 1950s, we didn’t combine corn, we husked it. Our 2-row corn husker—or picker—was a dangerous contraption that fit around the AC W-D so that the operator, basically, sat inside the corn picker with belts, chains and gears grinding and crashing uncomfortably close. Its advantage was that it didn’t destroy a couple rows of corn when a field was newly opened for husking. As a result, my dad opened fields for other nearby farmers when the harvest began.

As its name implies, the corn husker or picker didn’t do anything except pick the corn from the stalks and remove the husk, and then by a small conveyor, dumped the ears into a wagon being pulled behind.

An Allis-Chalmers WD tractor wearing its attached two-row corn picker.

An Allis-Chalmers WD tractor wearing its attached two-row corn picker.

Today’s combines—short for combined harvester—pick the ears off the stalks, husk them, shell the corn from the cobs, and grind up the cobs, and dump the flood of golden kernels into an onboard bin, all in one operation. Every round of so in the field, the corn in the bin is emptied, either into a waiting truck or tractor-pulled wagon. Today’s combine driver sits in a climate-controlled with a radio and CD player where he can keep an eye on the machine’s computerized operations and his exact location via GPS. Back in the 50s, even if my dad had a radio, he couldn’t have heard it over the noise of the husker.

After the corn was husked, the ears were stored in corn cribs to allow it to dry. Cribs are farm buildings with a large bin on either side of a central alley. The wooden boards that comprise the walls of the two bins are spaced about an inch apart to allow good air circulation to promote natural drying. Corn cribs are obsolete today, since shelled corn would just rum out through the slotted walls.

Today's corn harvest is being done with giant combined harvesters like this John Deere. It picks and processes corn from just a few more rows at a time than my dad's AC-WD did.

Today’s corn harvest is being done with giant combined harvesters like this John Deere. It picks and processes corn from just a few more rows at a time than my dad’s 2-row AC-WD did.

Back then, though, the corn was dried naturally before my dad contracted with Grant Shoger or someone else come with a corn sheller—a huge truck-mounted machine—to get the corn off the cobs.

In the days of coal furnaces and cook stoves, corn cobs came in handy as a way of getting a fire started quickly. We had a coal-fired water heater on the farm, and I remember stoking it with com cobs to get a good hot fire so my sisters, who were both in high school, could take baths prior to going on dates. I also remember my grandmother starting the cook stove in preparation for baking bread by filling the firebox with corncobs. Of course, us kids liked the piles of cobs for reasons all our own. We played king on the mountain for hours at a time, and had ‘wars’ by throwing cobs at each other.

The Oswego grain elevator, now long out of use, was similar in design to hundreds of such structures across the Midwest, was the destination for crops harvested by nearby farmers since its construction in 1914.

The Oswego grain elevator, long out of use, was similar in design to hundreds of such structures across the Midwest. It was the destination for crops harvested by nearby farmers since its construction in 1914.

But that only accounted for a small percentage of the cobs generated by shelling. The balance were generally burned, and I remember watching the flickering flames around the horizon as farmers burned their cob piles.

After husking and shelling was finished, the crop was hauled to a nearby grain elevator, since few farmers had suitable storage space for shelled corn. At that time, there were numerous grain elevators scattered along the area’s smaller rail lines such as the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch line that ran through Oswego. The EJ&E ran just a mile or so from our farm so my dad used the elevators along it at Normantown, Wolf’s Crossing, and at Frontenac—none of which exist any more.

As I noted above, most farmers these days store their grain on the farm while waiting for better prices, or they sell on the grain futures market and take their harvested crops directly to the terminals on the Illinois River in their own grain-hauling semis.

Which is another big difference from the way things used to be. Our truck back in the 50s was an ancient Chevy with a grain box about the size of one of today’s large pick-up trucks. It sort of resembled the truck the Beverly Hillbillies drove out to California. It had a bad habit of failing to start (it was modern enough to have had a self-starter) because the battery was often dead. When this happened, my father would say a few choice words to the truck, grab the crank, and proceed to start it using muscle power instead of the fickle battery.

I remember one cold winter day when my father and I had both gotten into the truck to go to Frontenac. I was five or six years old, and had watched the truck starting ritual for years. Dad tried the starter, and it didn’t work, so he grabbed the crank and started to get out.

“Maybe it will start if you say ‘damn it’” I helpfully suggested. I couldn’t figure out why he had a smile on his face while cranked the old engine over.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Farming, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology

A plea on behalf of the lowly cottonwood…

Several years ago I lost an old, old friend, when crews from the village of Oswego removed a giant cottonwood tree just down North Adams Street from my home.

The tree was dying. After every storm, it dropped a few more branches. A strong windstorm a few weeks before it was taken down brought a giant limb larger than many trees in the village crashing down on the street. So it was probably time the venerable old tree was removed. But I still miss it.

When I moved to North Adams Street as a third grader, the tree, located just next door, was one of the largest along a street crowded with giant overarching elms and cottonwoods.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

Cottonwoods can grow to 100 feet in height and can be four or more feet in diameter.

In the summertime, we’d sit under it, and even during the hottest days, the rustle of cottonwood leaves–they pick up every hint of a breeze–made a sound that seemed to promise cooler weather. We never climbed the towering tree or tried to build a tree house in it. It was far to large, and the branches closest to the ground were still far higher than those on most of the other mature trees in the neighborhood.

After my wife and I were married, we bought the house—my great-great grandparents had lived there until their deaths in the early 1900s—and the giant cottonwood that dominated the front yard became a part of our lives. We watched each spring as leaves formed, and groused a bit as the inevitable cotton-like seeds coated the 1 neighborhood.

Even then, well over 40 years ago, the tree was starting to die. The dead branches, though, first became homes and feeding stations for woodpeckers and other birds. After limbs were culled by one of our vigorous Illinois windstorms, birds colonized the rotted heartwood voids in jagged stumps left on the tree’s towering trunk. And the rustle of those leaves still sounded a cooling note on the hot summer days of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In 1976, we sold my great-great grandparents’ house and moved next door to my parents’ house (and my childhood home) in 1976. The tree was no longer ours, but we still kept an eye on it. It still shaded the street on sultry August days, and stood out in stark light gray contrast against a cold startlingly blue January sky, offering me, at least, a tie with my childhood and with all the folks who had known the tree.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

Cottonwoods create a distinctive foreground for clear blue Midwestern winter skies.

The giant cottonwood probably grew of its own accord, seeded by any one of the dozens of towering cottonwoods that once lined the banks of the Fox River. Cottonwoods like moisture, and in our narrow river bottomland along North Adams, the trees found conditions to their liking.

From the size of the tree, it may well have been an immature tree when the Battle of San Juan Hill was fought, possibly even providing some shade along the dirt track that was then called Water Street when my great-great-grandparents moved to the house in which my wife and I would one day live.

The tree had matured by the time my great-grandparents moved to town in 1908, building the home I now live in, to live next to my great-grandmother’s parents, whose front yard the cottonwood dominated. The tree was there to see wars and famine and depression and recovery as the decades passed, growing, maturing, and becoming old, providing shade and living space for a variety of wildlife from fox squirrels to red- headed woodpeckers.

During the years it stood close by the road, the springs that dampen the soil there providing plenty of nourishment, its relatives growing on the banks of the Fox River themselves became old and, ravaged by flood, ice, and age, and one by one, died.

When the settlers arrived, cottonwoods with their penchant for keeping their feet damp marked watercourses and provided both shade and a welcoming environment for hundreds of creatures. They were easy to spot with their distinctive medium gray deeply-fissured bark and towering trunks that can reach 100 feet in height. Like their relatives the poplars and aspens, cottonwoods have rounded triangular-shaped leaves that are dark green on top and a light silvery gray-green below.

The Midwest’s Native People favored cottonwoods for manufacturing dugout canoes because the wood is easily worked. They were not heavily logged as were most of the area’s other timber because cottonwood simply doesn’t make very good lumber. Dried, it becomes lightweight, almost like balsa wood, and so isn’t particularly good for firewood, either.

The passing of our cottonwoods is, I think, a melancholy event. Forest preserves, municipalities, and parks are much more likely to plant one of the more glamorous hardwoods, such as maples or oaks, when they decide to reforest an area. It’s too bad someone is not planting a few cottonwoods, especially in low-lying areas and along streams. They grow fast, tolerate wet conditions, and provide valuable streamside stabilization. And since only the female trees produce the billowing clouds of cottonwood seeds each spring, cloned male trees that are available for planting don’t create that particular problem.

So if no one else is willing to champion planting a few cottonwoods to replace our dying the giants, I will. Consider this a plea to allow our children to enjoy the sound of cottonwood leaves giving a cooling rustle as a breeze stirs on a sultry July afternoon. Give another generation a chance to see towering, gaunt, gray branches silhouetted against a brilliant winter sky. Offer all of us a chance to see the leading gusts of a fast-moving summer thunder storm change the dark green leaves to silvery green as the first gusts hit and big drops of rain begin to fall.

Our old friend on North Adams Street is long gone. The summers have been a little hotter on our street because of the loss of the old giant’s shade, and we have a little less diversity in bird life as woodpeckers and other insect-eaters hunt elsewhere for their dinners. But perhaps as reforestation takes place throughout Kendall County, our forest preserve, park district, and municipal officials will decide that diversity demands a cottonwood or two be included so that future generations can lie on their blankets on a summer day looking up and marveling at what nature—with the help of a few tree planters—has wrought.

1 Comment

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

Wasting quality time during summers on the river

Summers when I was a kid, we spent hours on the Fox River.

These days, we see a lot of canoes and kayaks on the river, groups of them, in fact. But I don’t see any kids using river scows to poke around the shallows along the shore or in and out of the islands that dot the river.

When it comes to kids and the river, things are not what they used to be.

None of us had canoes when I was a youngster—they were, in fact, considered somewhat exotic—but many of us owned a scow at one time or another.

A river scow looked, basically, like a wooden box that tapered at the bow. The sides were generally 12” deep, with the usual width at about four feet (the width of a sheet of plywood), and their length was most often eight feet, though some were both longer and wider. The stern was generally flat, and the bow was slightly swept up. The bottom was usually completely flat with no keel to catch on rocks or other obstructions. Some were painted gray, and some green, some dark blue.

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow apparently got its owners were they needed to go. ("Repairing the Old Scow" from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Built in the days before plywood, this sturdy scow with upswept bow and stern apparently got its owners were they needed to go. (“Repairing the Old Scow” from The Ice Queen by Ernest Ingersoll, Harper & Brothers, New York 1884)

Unlike tippy round-bottomed canoes, river scows’ wide, flat bottoms made them very stable under almost all conditions. In addition, since they had relatively broad beams (sailor talk for “width”), they were also able to float on very little water, a definite advantage on the generally shallow Fox River during the summer months.

Our scows were never fitted for outboard motors, mostly because the Fox was far too shallow to safely run a motor, unless it was during the annual spring flood, and that was no time to be out on the river. Also, none of us had the money to buy an outboard motor, so there was that, too.

We usually didn’t row, either. Oars were expensive and had to be bought in a store, and rowing in the shallow, rock-filled river was way too challenging. Sometimes, though, oars could be a help, especially when trying to get up one of the river’s rapids.

We didn’t row and we didn’t paddle and we didn’t use outboards, so, you may ask, how did we propel our boats? We polled them, standing up in back like boatmen in Venice propel their gondolas and Senegalese fishermen get from place to place. We made our poles by cutting one of the soft maples that grew like weeds along the shoreline, generally choosing one that was eight to 10 feet long and about two inches in diameter. We favored using our hatchets to dress the business end into a blunt point that made it easier to get a grip on the river’s bottom which ranged from gravel, to rocky, to mud, and even sometimes smooth bedrock. And we left the bark on to give us a better grip.

Polling was a skill that took a bit of learning. Standing in the rear of the boat, the boatman (or boatgirl) stood sideways with the left foot forward (assuming the boatman to be right-handed). After feeling the bottom with the poll to get a good purchase, the poll was pushed using the shoulder and arm muscles and bracing with leg muscles. Besides muscles, successful polling required a good sense of both balance and rhythm.

Scows were generally made with two permanent seats, one in the bow and one amidships. Sometimes a third (usually removable) seat was installed at the stern. Since it was hard to poll with a seat in the way, the stern seat was usually removed during use.

Besides a good pole, the only other standard equipment was an anchor and a couple lengths of rope. We made our own anchors by putting some pieces of scrap iron in a coffee can, and then filling it with concrete, adding an eyebolt before the concrete set. Some scows boasted two anchors, although not many went to the trouble.

Scows were fine craft to explore islands and from which to fish. They were generally stable craft and forgiving of most mistakes. In addition, polling is quiet, and it’s easy to sneak up on a favorite fishing hole, gliding in to catch an unwary catfish.

I helped build two scows for friends, and owned one my folks bought me that was built like a tank of 1” lumber throughout and 2” gunwales. It was so stable that two of us could stand on the gunwale on one side and it wouldn’t tip over. That also meant, however, that it wasn’t the easiest boat to handle given that it was so heavy.

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River.  (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

A clammer in his scow on the Rock River, Beloit, Wisconsin, about 1910. By the 1950s, clamming was long gone from the Fox River. (Photo by Lloyd Ballerd, Beloit College Archives)

By the time we were haunting the Fox River from Boulder Hill to the islands just below Oswego, scows were no longer used for commercial purposes. In the first half of the 20th Century, a lot of Kendall County residents made money clamming—harvesting clams whose shells were then sold to button factories, one of which was located in Yorkville for a few years. A combination of river pollution and the invention of white plastic killed the clamming industry along the river. By the time we came along, though, those days were merely memories and the big scows the clammers used were but memories.

Today, it seems, scows themselves are but memories. I haven’t seen one in use on the river in decades. Today’s kids seem to spend their waking hours playing organized sports, participating in one of the many scout or 4-H groups in the area, or being hustled from one to another of the many organized activities kids participate in these days. There seems to be little interest in spending time alone on the river, observing plants and animals outside the structured settings of school or park programs. And that’s a shame.

There’s nothing quite like gliding through the mist rising from the river on a cool summer morning, watching a Great Blue Heron fish for its breakfast or spying an egret resting on a riverside tree branch, or exploring an island looking for treasure. It’s too bad so few of today’s kids will ever experience it—they don’t know what they’re missing.

But I do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environment, Fox River, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Transportation