Category Archives: Nostalgia

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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

The Silent Generation not so silent around these parts…

I learned a new term the other day: The Silent Generation.

According to Wikipedia—and we know everything on Wikipedia is true, right?—the Silent Generation consists of those born from the mid-1920s through the early 1940s. The name was given to that group of folks in a 1952 Time magazine article, and apparently it stuck, although it apparently didn’t stick with me.

Says the Wiki article: “…the ‘Silents’ are called that because many focused on their careers rather than on activism, and people in it were largely encouraged to conform with social norms.” Okay, so we’re talking “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” type of folks.

Then, however, they go on to list some of the Silents, a group that includes Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy and writers and artists like Gloria Steinem, Andy Warhol, Clint Eastwood, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Ray Charles, and Jimi Hendrix, a group that doesn’t seem very “silent” to me.

Granted, it was a relatively smaller generation than the Baby Boomers who followed, mostly due to the economic disaster that was the Great Depression, which led to a drop-off in birth rates. But it included many of those who fought World War II, and all of those who marched off to war again in Korea, plus a good number of those who fought during the early days in Vietnam.

Around these parts, the Silents were the young, vigorous guys who came back from World War II and Korea and proceeded to lay the foundations for modern Oswego and Kendall County.

The Silents were members of local governmental bodies, and, in fact, helped establish some of the most important—and popular—of our modern governmental agencies. They also laid the groundwork to prepare the area for the growth that many of them foresaw coming and the stresses that growth would cause.

They didn’t bat .1000, of course. But the foundations they laid are still benefiting the larger community today.

Ford Lippold, newspaper publisher, historian, poet, and governmental innovator, taking a break at Oswego's Little White School Museum in the summer of 1984. (Little White School Museum photo)

Ford Lippold, newspaper publisher, historian, poet, governmental innovator and member of the “Silent Generation,” taking a break at Oswego’s Little White School Museum in the summer of 1984. (Little White School Museum photo)

Ford Lippold was a local Silent who established Oswego’s first modern, successful weekly newspaper. The Oswego Ledger was a free-distribution paper that Lippold and his wife and kids mimeographed in his basement every week and which, starting in 1949, appeared in every Oswego mailbox come Thursday. The Ledger was the direct ancestor of today’s award-winning Ledger-Sentinel that, although the days of mimeographing it in someone’s basement are long gone, still arrives in mailboxes all over the area every Thursday.

Lippold was always a proponent of finding activities for young people to engage in, so he encouraged establishing a private recreational association in conjunction with the Oswego Lions Club to provide summer activities for local kids. That, within a few years, led to the formation of the Oswego Park District, later renamed the Oswegoland Park District, one of our area’s most popular local governmental agencies. From offering a few summer activities for a few dozen kids, the park district has grown to an agency that owns swimming pools, recreational centers, athletic fields, neighborhood parks, and extensive natural areas. In most community surveys, Lippold’s brainchild is praised as one of the area’s jewels.

And then there is the Oswego Plan Commission. Oswego was one of the first in Illinois and the smallest communities in the nation to establish a plan commission back in the mid-1950s. Lippold—again—was among the first to detect a need for community planning as he contemplated the likely effects of population growth that was beginning in the area.

On June 30, 1955, Lippold reported in the Ledger that: “Wayne Fosgett, supervisor of Oswego Township, is a member of the newly formed supervisor’s committee to develop a new zoning and building code for Oswego Township. With all the proposed new building being planned for the county and particularly Oswego Township, the county board of supervisors is greatly concerned with the zoning and building code, which at the present time is outmoded.”

Fosgett and Lippold proceeded to encourage establishing a special village commission to plan for future growth in the community. In a July Ledger comment, noting the proposed development of a number of subdivisions in and around Oswego, Lippold remarked in passing that there seemed to be a new realization among Oswego’s elected officials that some sort of formal planning was needed. “The fact that the village board is becoming cognizant of the need of planning for future expansion is heartening indeed. Oswego is a community with a future and now is the time to keep moving forward. Every new home, every improvement is a step in the right direction,” he observed.

Nothing focused the minds of local governmental officials like Don L. Dise's development of Boulder Hill on more than 600 acres of the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm. In fact, the sprawling subdivision's development led to the creation of the area's first comprehensive plan. (Little White School Museum photo by Bev Skaggs.)

Nothing focused the minds of local governmental officials like Don L. Dise’s development of Boulder Hill on more than 600 acres of the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm. In fact, the sprawling subdivision’s development led to the creation of the area’s first comprehensive plan. (Little White School Museum photo by Bev Skaggs)

Then came the news that a newcomer from suburban Chicago, a Pennsylvania native named Don L. Dise, was interested in developing a huge subdivision on the Bereman family’s 712 acre Boulder Hill Stock Farm. Located just north of Oswego along Ill. Route 25, the development’s initial plans were similar to the Levittown developments in New York and Dise’s native Pennsylvania. That meant it would be virtually a new town, including shopping, schools, and churches as well as more than 1,300 homes, dwarfing every municipality in Kendall County.

Dise’s Boulder Hill announcement was a shock to the area, and after digesting the implications, Lippold editorialized in the Aug. 6 Ledger under the headline “Village Planning Commission Needed?” that starkly laid out what he saw was vital for the Oswego area’s future: “It is time to wake up and recognize the fact that Oswego and adjoining territory is growing and at an accelerated pace…Many communities faced with like problems have formed a planning committee to prepare for a systematic and orderly growth…Now is the time! Oswego is growing! Let’s keep it growing! Tomorrow may be too late!”

At the time, the concept of plan commissions for small villages like Oswego (1950 population, 1,220) and small rural townships like Oswego (1950 population, 2,433) was a new one. Big cities had engaged in planning for years, but small communities avoided the whole idea—telling someone what they could or could not do with their own property was not popular. But with a lot of persuasion, not to mention the fear of the existing community being submerged by a flood of newcomers, eventually created an atmosphere where planning was considered the lesser of many other evils.

The formal genesis of the plan commission idea was the result of an August 1955 gathering called to discuss several Oswego Township developments then in the planning stages. As Lippold reported in the Aug. 18 Ledger: “A public meeting in the community room at Oswego High School was attended by area civic group leaders and representatives of the school, park, and fire district boards plus Oswego Village Board and Oswego Township Board members to discuss the incoming Western Electric Company plant and projected new subdivisions and their impact on the community. A committee consisting of John Carr, Dr. M.R. Saxon, Mrs. Homer Brown, Charles Lippincott, and Jerome Nelson was appointed to talk with Western Electric personnel officers concerning the likely needs of workers at the new plant. It was also recommended that this same committee talk with representatives of the building contractors who are to develop the subdivision of the Bereman property of some 600 to 700 homes in order that preliminary planning on schools, parks, fire protection, etc. can be discussed.”

This was pretty new territory for all of these folks, the majority of whom were Silents. And it wasn’t just these few motivated folks, either. At the Oswego Village Board’s September meeting, Lippold reported, “…the Oswego Village Board accepted a petition signed by 220 Oswego registered voters requesting the formation of a plan commission ‘To prepare and recommend to the corporate authorities a comprehensive plan of public improvement looking forward to the present and future development of the municipality.’”

When the commission was formally established in January 1956, the majority of its members were “Silents,” most either World War II vets or their wives—because the commission included, interestingly enough, two women, not exactly a common occurrence for the era.

Eventually, the planning process was combined with Oswego Township’s, thanks to Wayne Fosgett’s initiative. When the commission finally produced their comprehensive plan in February 1957, drawn by Everett Kincaid and Associates of Chicago, it was hailed as a remarkable achievement for a rural community. And not only did the process result in Oswego’s first comprehensive plan, but it also resulted in the village’s first zoning ordinance, which, in turn led to hiring their first zoning and building inspector (another Silent named Dick Young), and which also prodded Kendall County to establish their own building and zoning department.

“Planning is a sign that a community is growing up. It is a sign that a community is up on its toes and ready to go forward,” Lippold told his readers in a Ledger editorial.

Those once-young men and women who gave so much thought to what their community ought to become have largely passed away today. Most would probably be astonished at what their community has become. Oswego, then a village of 1,200 souls, is now home to more than 30,000 suburbanites. Oswego Township, once an overwhelmingly rural area, is now home to more than 50,000 people, and still growing.

But thanks to those Silents, we enjoy a vigorous park district, an effective and popular library district, a forest preserve district that does its best to save the county’s remaining natural areas from being paved over, and a host of other amenities that make it such a nice area in which to raise families. So, no, I don’t think I’d necessarily call those folks Silents. They seem to have made their voices heard 50 years ago and, in fact, are still being heard today.

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Confessions of a “free range kid”…

A couple months ago, the 24 hour news cycle glommed onto a story about “free range kids.” Turns out, there are parents who don’t believe their kids need to be scheduled 24-7, and that, in fact, they think kids can benefit by learning a measure of self-reliance.

This is not an easy road for parents to take in this day and age of abject fear of just about everything, including the seeming rash of child abductions. Which turn out to be another artifact of modern fear and refusal to credit facts. Because actual facts would prove that random child abductions are extremely rare—and always have been—those faces on the milk cartons included. Most child abductions are by parents or other relatives, not random child molesters prowling the streets. Actually, according to government statistics, little kids are far more likely to be killed by a family member or an acquaintance.

In addition, violent crime of all kinds has been sharply decreasing for a couple decades now, although people’s worry about crime have been increasing. Violent crime of all kinds in the U.S. decreased by 48 percent between 1995 and 2013. But during the same era, our fear of crime skyrocketed, something we have to credit that 24-hour news cycle noted above, plus right wing hate radio and FOX News, both groups which have a vested interest in stoking unreasoning fear. They could be citing the, you know, actual facts, but that wouldn’t play well with their audience or their sponsors and donors. As Upton Sinclair put it: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

The author as a young biker with his cycle decorated for the annual Memorial Day Parade, but nonetheless ready to rumble.

The author as a young biker with his cycle decorated for the annual Memorial Day Parade, but nonetheless ready to rumble, and probably for a game of ditch ’em after supper.

The fact is that crime probably isn’t a whole lot more prevalent when our increased population is taken into account than it was when I was a kid. And back then, in the 1950s, the current fixation on scheduling kids 24/7 wasn’t even possible, at least not in our small Illinois town. Turns out, I was a free range kid.

There simply wasn’t much to do, so we made our own entertainment. Both my folks worked, my dad selling and delivering livestock feed and my mother working at a series of bookkeeping jobs. As a result, my summers from third grade on were the sort of carefree times you read about in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We were corrupted by reading books by the aforementioned Twain, as well as the Penrod books by Booth Tarkington and—one of our particular, all-time favorites—Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy. Yes, Tarkington’s books on reading 50 years on are remarkably racist and Aldrich was a nativist of the worst stripe. But in those innocent days, the books were mostly useful for introducing the kinds of devilment our ancestors developed, and which we aimed to perfect.

We spent hours every day on the river in our flatbottomed scows, poling up and down the stream because it was far to shallow for oars. Sometimes we fished, although in those years, the fish were pitiful things, since the river was so polluted. It was so polluted, in fact, that we knew enough to never wade barefoot for fear of getting a cut or scrape. Chemical companies upstream figured the river was their own private disposal. One of them dumped cyanide in the river one fine day, killing all the fish—and almost every other aquatic creature, for that matter—for a 10 mile stretch of stream. We counted more than 500 dead fish along my folks’ 132 feet of shoreline. Along with the stunted bullheads and bluegills that we usually caught and the giant carp that infested the river were big bass, large catfish, and even a northern pike or two, fish we had no idea could even survive in our dirty stream (thanks for the allusion, Pete).

If worse came to worst, we'd head over to the park district playground at the Red Brick School to play croquet golf or volleyball or shoot arrows in the neighborhood of the targets. But it was generally considered far too structured for us free spirits.

If worse came to worst, we’d head over to the park district playground at the Red Brick School to play croquet golf or volleyball or shoot arrows in the neighborhood of the targets. But it was generally considered far too structured for us free spirits.

Even so, we were fascinated with exploring the river’s islands, looking for this and that, or just drifting along on a sunny afternoon. I bought my scow from a young fellow up river, but most of us built our own. Most were lightly built, but not mine, which was built of 1″ lumber throughout and was so heavy—and stable—that I could jump up and down on one of the gunwales and it would barely rock.

When we got tired of playing on the river, we’d repair to the woods across the street from my house where we cleared bicycle trails connecting “towns” we’d built with windfallen sticks we harvested from under the trees. Our houses sported gabled, thatched roofs thanks to the tall grasses that grew on some of the islands that were fairly rainproof.

Many an evening was spent sitting on the concrete steps on the corner of Main and Washington Street watching for the rarest out-of-state license plates we could see. Or trying to persuade truckers to lay on their air horns by vigorously pumping our bent arms up and down as they passed. Sometimes they even honked, too.

Many an evening was spent sitting on the concrete steps on the corner of Main and Washington Street watching for the rarest out-of-state license plates we could see. Or trying to persuade truckers to lay on their air horns by vigorously pumping our bent arms up and down as they passed. Sometimes they even honked, too.

In the evening, after supper, we’d head up to town to sit on the corner of Main Street and Route 34 and look for out-of-state license plates in those years when Ike’s Interstate system was under construction and U.S. highways were major transportation corridors, or play games of ditch-em on our bikes that taught us every nook, cranny, and back alley of our little village.

There were the pick-up games of baseball, First Bounce or Fly, and 500, and sometimes we’d even attend the park district’s youth programming—but that was very much a last resort. We didn’t much care for organized “fun,” and most of us still don’t. I suppose it was good training for the 1960s, attitudes that even the military service so many of us contributed didn’t, as far as I can tell, have much of an impact.

It was pretty much as idyllic a childhood as anyone could imagine. Boring? Sometimes, you bet it was, but it turns out boredom is a creative force, one that too many modern kids are not given the opportunity to enjoy along with the unstructured, creative play we enjoyed growing up in plenty.

 

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Instructions no longer available…

Every once in a while, during those slow news weeks, the media hauls out one of their old standby pieces, one of which is the one about modern kids having no idea how to use a rotary dial telephone.

This Bell System rotary dial phone looks like it's got a smile on its face, but its days were, unfortunately, numbered. But, hey kids, they really were easy to use!

This Bell System rotary dial phone looks like it’s got a smile on its face, but its days were, unfortunately, numbered. But, hey kids, they really were easy to use!

Once the Bell System introduced their Touch Tone technology, the old rotary dial instruments were living on borrowed time.

Of course, as time was passing, so were wired phones themselves, except for a few of us dinosaurs who still keep our landlines as sort of connections to a time that is rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror.

Most kids these days, unless they’ve seen one in an old film on Turner Classic Movies, really do have no idea how to use a rotary dial phone. I’ve still got two or three Princess dial phones up in the attic in case the Appocolipse arrives and pushbotton phones no longer work, but I suspect there are extremely few of the old girls still kicking around.

Which is fine. Times change. Not everyone alive today grew up with rotary dials. In fact, I remember when some phones didn’t have dials at all; you just picked up the receiver and asked the operator to connect you with whatever number you wanted.

When rotary dials came in, phone users had to learn how to use them. Now, apparently, at least some youngsters would have to learn to use them again should they have to. Which got me to thinking about all the things we used to use on a regular basis, but which some specialized training would be needed should we suddenly be forced to use them again today.

Remember one of these babies? It was a sort of mathematical torture device called a "slide rule," and it brings back bad memories of things like gas laws.

Remember one of these babies? It was a sort of mathematical torture device called a “slide rule,” and it brings back bad memories of things like gas laws.

The first thing that came to mind were slide rules. Back in the ’60s, you could tell the students taking physics and calculus and the rest of those incomprehensible classes where you came into contact with stuff like logarithms—they all carried slide rules. The really serious students carried slide rules in scabbards attached to their belts like hunting knives. They insisted you could use a slide rule to calculate answers to math problems, and apparently most of them did. I could never get the hang of the things, though, because their use seemed more an art than a skill.

But anyway, hand a kid a slide rule today, and the question would be “What am I supposed to do with this?” In this day of pocket-sized electronic calculators that have more power than a room full of computer equipment did 30 years ago, slide rule makers and user have gone the way of the buggy whip makers.

Here are (most) of the parts of the kind of harness our great-grandparents could use to hitch a horse to a buggy with their eyes closed. As you can see, it was simplicity itself...

Here are (most) of the parts of the kind of harness our great-grandparents could use to hitch a horse to a buggy with their eyes closed. As you can see, it was simplicity itself…

Speaking of buggy whips, getting around at the turn of the century took skills that hardly any of us have today, the primary one being the knowledge of harnesses. In horse and buggy days, the horse was attached to the buggy with a complicated harness of leather straps and buckles, collars, and the rest of what you needed to get a horse-drawn vehicle from here to there. The skill needed to harness a horse is gone from the population at large these days, as are such terms as evener, singletree, doubletree, and the rest of the equipment needed for the direct application of horsepower to transportation.

Just cooking a meal back at the turn of the last century took skills that few of us have today, namely the correct use of a cook stove. Cook stoves could be fired using wood, corncobs, or even coal. The trick was to know which fuel was appropriate for which job, and then to know how to regulate the draft so as to produce even baking and cooking heat. Like using the slide rule, it was more an art than a science. My grandmother used to test the oven heat when she baked bread in her cook stove out on the farm by sticking her hand in the oven to gauge the temperature.

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

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

Household operations as a whole, not just cooking, used skills that haven’t been used by most housewives for a few generations now. The cook stove referred to above was central to washing clothes and then ironing them as well. Monday was wash day, with water to wash clothes in heated on the cook stove (or sometimes on a smaller laundry stove). Hand clothes washing gave way to washing using powered washing machines, but the first of those were powered with gasoline engines. That meant housewives had to know a smattering of small engine repair and operation as well as how to get the most out of hard bars of lye soap (Hint: Whittling slices off with a sharp knife helps the soap dissolve in the wash water easier).

If Monday was wash day, Tuesday was always ironing day, with the cook stove pressed into service again to heat the cast iron sadirons. Tuesday usually became baking day as well to take advantage of the hot stove.

Meanwhile, out in the garage, the old reliable horse and buggy had been replaced by a Model T Ford or other automobile. The old cars look familiar—they’ve got four rubber tired wheels, doors, and a steering wheel. But get behind the wheel of a Model T, and it may as well be a space ship for most of us. How do you advance the spark to get the Tin Lizzie started? What does ‘advancing the spark’ even mean? How the heck do you shift gears? What are all those strange pedals on the floor? And what’s the deal with that crank below the radiator in front?

A Model T Ford looks simple and primitive from the outside, but the inside's a different thing. One thing Tin Lizzie owners don't have to worry about these days is some cluck jumping in and driving off with their Model T.

A Model T Ford looks simple and primitive from the outside, but the inside’s a different thing. One thing Tin Lizzie owners don’t have to worry about these days is some cluck jumping in and driving off with their Model T.

Later when the inside of cars and trucks began looking more familiar to our modern eyes, there were still some strange buttons and knobs. Some cars had separate starter pedals next to the accelerator that took some dexterity to use—some skill was needed to press the starter foot switch and the accelerator with the same foot to start while giving the engine a little gas. And some of those cars and trucks had throttles and choke knobs mounted on the dashboard. How many of us would know what to do with them?

We don’t realize how fleeting even common actions are until we haven’t used them for a generation.

While most of us recognize cook stoves, Model T’s, and possibly even a gasoline engine-powered Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine for what they are, figuring out how to use them is, as folks say down in Texas, a whole ‘nother thing.

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