Category Archives: Nostalgia

Shouldn’t we be in a holding pattern about now?

So what I want to know is: Where is my helicopter?

1951-popular-mechanics

According to futurists in the 1950s, flying to work or to the store to shop was definitely in our future, with a helicopter parked in every garage.

When we were kids, Popular Mechanics magazine frequently published neat articles, complete with illustrations, about the future, wherein we would all be flying helicopters back and forth from work. In “The Future,” we were told, instead of garages, we’d have hangers that would shelter our private flying machines, which we’d use during the week to fly off to where ever we needed to go.

Today, of course, the mind sort of boggles at the thought of airborne traffic jams with everyone trying to fly to work. I mean, it’s hard enough now to find a parking spot in downtown Yorkville or Oswego with automobiles. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all hovering at 2,000 feet waiting for a parking space to open up so we could zip down in our helicopter and run into the hardware store or the dentist office?

Not that the future hasn’t wandered in while we were looking the other way, of course. My nephew out in Iowa now has a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver on his combine, which is hooked to an on-board computer. The computer keeps track of the yield in bushels as the combine moves across the field and in conjunction with the GPS receiver, essentially makes a yield map of the entire field. That map will, in turn, be downloaded to another computer-GPS combo the fertilizer company has on their machines that will control how much and what kind of fertilizer is laid down next spring.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

So while we were all fascinated about whether we would one day come to live like the Jetsons, our everyday lives have been moving into just as futuristic a direction, although a much less spectacular one. For instance, back in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were giant things that filled entire rooms and sometimes entire buildings. Nowadays, we take tiny, powerful computers in our toasters, microwaves, and automobiles for granted, but the advances those mundane tools represent are nearly miraculous.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were non-existent in homes 50 years ago. These days, we not only depend on the small electronic boxes to re-heat our coffee and defrost chicken before we fry it, but the touch of a button pops our popcorn and another button perfectly re-heats last night’s pot roast.

When we were kids, we took the car down to the service station when it was running rough, and the mechanics would use a combination of skill, art, and mechanical knowledge to diagnose what was wrong. Nowadays, “repair technicians” plug a computer into a car’s engine and an instant read-out (usually) reports what’s wrong.

The trouble with the future and predicting it has always been that no one really knows what the effect of a new invention will be. That GPS equipment mentioned above, for instance, was originally designed to allow military units and weapons systems to know exactly where they were anywhere on Earth so that killing could be made more efficient. Who was to know that cheap GPS receivers connected with miniature computers would be used for everything from leading an angler back to the fishing hotspot he stumbled across last month to increasing crop yields by allowing the precise application of fertilizer and seed in the areas where it’s needed?

Actually, futurists usually get into much more trouble when they predict what we won’t be able to do than by suggesting what will or could happen.

deforest-lee

Radio pioneer Lee DeForest was certain the world could be connected by radio waves. But he could not believe that sound and pictures both could be broadcast as a commercial success, illustrating that even visionaries are sometimes myopic.

Take the case of Lee De Forest, for instance. Just before World War I broke out, De Forest was trying to get investors interested in his new idea: Commercial radio broadcasts. From our vantage point, it seems like De Forest was a visionary, but the U.S. Government didn’t think so. In 1913, they hauled De Forest into court, charging him with fraud. A U.S. District Attorney charged with prosecuting De Forest charged: “De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to buy stock in his company.”

De Forest was eventually cleared and “before many years” radio signals were indeed being broadcast across the Atlantic. But just because De Forest foresaw the value of one invention didn’t necessarily mean he was a true futurist. When it came to moving one more step farther—to broadcasting sound with pictures—De Forest was unable to make the leap. Writing in 1926, he suggested: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So I’m not really sad there’s no helicopter out in our garage, because when it comes to the future, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems to rule. No one ever knows what will be invented or even how something already invented will be used to change our lives. The fellow who invented refrigeration had no idea his idea would one day be used to air condition the country and make possible the economic development of the Southwest and the resurgence of the Old South.

As Benjamin Franklin remarked when someone disdainfully asked of what use a new invention would be: “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

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Filed under entertainment, Farming, Frustration, History, Nostalgia, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

How about a nice bowl of cereal?

I miss cereal.

Oh, I’m not totally cereal-bereft. I can—and do—still eat oatmeal, both because it’s good for my increasingly old body with its malfunctioning parts, and because it’s good.

No, the cereal I’m talking about is the boxed kind, the Honey Smacks and the Golden Crisp, and the Frosted Flakes.

Because part of the aforementioned malfunctioning of various parts is that for some reason this old body decided milk will now throw the plumbing system into serious, China Syndrome meltdown. So, goodbye bowl of cereal before bed. So long bowl of cereal for breakfast. Bye-bye bowl of cereal for mid-afternoon snack.

And it’s hard, because I enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the stuff.

shredded-wheat-box

I was lured to shredded wheat thanks to Straight Arrow’s tips on wilderness survival.

One of my earliest cereal memories is eating Nabisco shredded wheat, and looking forward to uncovering the pieces of cardboard that divided the three layers of shredded wheat biscuits in those rectangular boxes. That’s because there was neat stuff to read on those dividers.

Starting in 1949, the National Biscuit Company began printing “Straight Arrow’s secrets of Indian lore and know-how” on the dividers, which imparted all sorts of useful information, some of which still sticks in my mind to this day. The idea was that the innovative and inventive Indian, Straight Arrow, would explain how to survive in the wilderness as a way to get kids interested in eating shredded wheat. Because, let’s fact it. Shredded wheat is not a very interesting cereal, although it’s pretty healthy.

straight-arrow

Straight Arrow could survive in the wilderness with practically no modern help at all. For a 6 year-old, it was an eye-opening introduction to living off the land.

So Nabisco not only sponsored the “Straight Arrow” radio program, starting in 1949, but they also contracted with Fred L. Meagher to created the illustrated cards. I don’t know about other little kids, but they certainly hooked me.

For instance, birch bark canoes were not white like the outside of the bark but were brown like the inner layer of the bark when it was peeled off birch trees. Why? Because when birch bark dries, it naturally curls with the white outer bark inside the curl. The brilliant Ojibwa marine architects who invented birch bark canoes took advantage of the natural curl of the sheets of bark they peeled off paper birch trees to fit the bark onto the canoes’ cedar frames.

Another card insisted that when finding himself in the wilderness, a person could survive if all he had was an ax, because with a good ax and the necessary survival skills you can manufacture about anything, from one of those birch bark canoes noted above to the paddles for the canoe to a cozy bark lodge for shelter from the storm.

But shredded wheat was far from the only cereal that got my gastronomical juices flowing, although as a rule, gastronomy took a backseat to cereals sponsored by my favorite TV shows.

jets-cereal

Sugar Jets were hawked by one of my TV heroes, Jet Jackson, but each one of the things was like a little bomb dropped in my digestive tract.

Captain Midnight, for instance, was one of my favorites. It was sponsored by Ovaltine, which for some reason my mother absolutely refused to buy. But then in 1958, Captain Midnight’s name suddenly changed to Jet Jackson, and the Ovaltine sponsorship disappeared in favor of Sugar Jets Cereal. So I absolutely had to have a box of Jets in order to get the box top, but, it turned out, Jets did not agree with my digestive system at all.

So it was back to Kellogg’s Sugar Corn Pops (“Sugar Pops are tops!), Post Sugar Crisp and their Kellogg’s cousin, Sugar Smacks, and Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes (“They’re grrrrreat!”). Sugar Corn Pops were a big favorite because they were the main sponsor of “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” one my favorite TV westerns. Favorite because Wild Bill wore his twin six-shooters butt first, which was his gimmick. The Lone Ranger had his mask, silver bullets, and black two-gun rig; Hopalong Cassidy dressed in all black that showed off nicely against his white horse, Topper; and Red Ryder had his lever-action carbine, of which I got the Daisy BB gun version when I was 9 years-old. But Wild Bill and his sidekick, Jingle Jones (who was from East Sedalia) was arguably my favorite, and thus the reason I ate so many boxes of Sugar Corn Pops.

sugar-crisp-roy-dale

First Captain Video and then Roy and Dale beckoned me with the sirens’ call to Sugar Crisp cereal.

Post Sugar Crisp was a sponsor yet another favorite cowboy TV show, “The Roy Rogers Show,” which was a sort of surrealistic time-warped show. Almost everyone rode horses, including Roy (Trigger) and Dale Evans (Buttermilk), except Roy’s sidekick Pat Brady, who drove a 1946 Jeep that had been accessorized with armor plating and which he named Nellybelle.

Cowboys weren’t the only kids’ TV personalities hawking cereal, either. I was introduced to science fiction, a lifelong love, by watching “Captain Video and his Video Rangers,” which also got me sort of hooked on Post Sugar Crisp, thanks to Post’s sponsorship of the show even before Roy and Dale and Pat showed up on TV. It was my first introduction to a robot, the show’s TOBOR character (“robot” spelled backwards) and it frankly scared the beejebus out of me.

But all that was then, and this is now. Sugar Crisp, Sugar Corn Pops, Sugar Frosted Flakes, and the rest of those carbohydrate-packed cereals are actually still around, although in deference to today’s healthy eating aspirations, Sugar Crisps are now Honey Crisps, Sugar Corn Pops are just Corn Pops, and Sugar Frosted Flakes are merely Frosted Flakes.

I sometimes visit the cereal isle at the grocery store, when I can ditch my wife, who hates shopping with the heat of a thousand suns, so that for at least a few minutes I can relive the old days when digestion and metabolism were kinder processes in my much younger body. And at least I can sort of make do with my daily morning bowl of oatmeal, on which I’ve found my sugarless creamer makes a passable substitute for the milk I so enjoyed on all those cereals of decades past.

But I still miss cereal.

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Filed under entertainment, History, Nostalgia, People in History

Bob Rung made a lasting, positive difference

My friend Bob Rung died last week.

Friends and acquaintances dying is getting to be all too common these days, with me having spent 70 summers on this here Earth.

Many of my friends are passionate people, and all are interesting. But only a few have made the kind of lasting impression on his community and region due to his passion that Bob Rung did.

fishing-the-fox

Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Fox River of Illinois draws thousands of anglers to the Fox Valley and also provides an excellent recreation source for area residents. (Photo courtesy of the Illinois-Wisconsin Fishing Blog)

His first and greatest passion was fishing, something to which he had devoted (as near as I could tell) his entire adult life, and most of his childhood, too. His family moved to the sprawling Boulder Hill subdivision between Montgomery and Oswego when he and his siblings were children, and there he grew up within walking distance of the Fox River.

He honed his skills and learned on his own how to manufacture the lures and equipment best-suited to tracking down the wily smallmouth bass, northern pike, walleyes, and other gamefish that were so rare when we were kids.

We went through high school together although he, being a Boulder Hill kid, wasn’t someone I hung around with. But he walked into the gym with the rest of us on graduation night in May 1964 after which so many of us went our own ways.

And for Bob, like so many of my male classmates, that meant being shipped off to the jungles and rivers and mountains of Vietnam, where he put his training as a U.S. Army medic to work, getting wounded himself along the way. When he came home he decided to put his love of animals in general and fish in particular to use and in the fall of 1971 he and a partner bought the Oswego Fish & Hobby Shop at 25 Jefferson Street, across the street from the Oswego Public Library in the Wilhelm Building.

But his first love was still the Fox River and fishing and he eventually decided to see if he could make a career out of it, which he managed to do by becoming a college-educated fisheries biologist working for the Illinois Department of Conservation.

And that’s where Bob and I met again. He knew that I had a pretty strong interest in the Fox River, too, especially in our local environmental hero who called himself “The Fox.” So when I needed some technical background for stories I was doing on the river or its tributaries, Bob was my go-to source.

Like me, he really hated the dams that dot the river from Dayton just above Ottawa near the river’s mouth to the series of dams that create the Chain O’Lakes up north. I did a number of articles about the Yorkville dam and how good it would be for the health of the river to get rid of it, and Bob helped by supplying me with good sources for research on the harm dams do to the streams they block.

Bob was also a major source of expert information and oversight after the Flood of 1996 badly damaged the dams along Waubonsie Creek, and the Oswegoland Park District decided to remove all the ones it had access to. The dams had been built over a span of more than a century, one to provide deep enough water for an ice harvesting operation, one to back up water to fill the water hazards at Fox Bend Golf Course, and the others for varying reasons. The problem was, the dams prevented fish from swimming upstream to spawn and that had a negative impact on the diversity of life in the Fox River. So Bob strongly advocated for their removal, something we were able to help push along down at the newspaper. Today, fish can easily swim upstream to spawn, something that has had an extremely positive impact on the Fox River.

water-willow-planting

Friends of the Fox River organize an American Water Willow planting project in the summer of 2015. Bob Rung championed planting water willows up and down the Fox River’s banks to stabilize them and to provide enhanced habitat for fish. (Friends of the Fox River photo)

In addition, Bob was fascinated with improving the entire ecology of the river basin to enhance the environment for fish. To that end, he got both me and Jim Phillips—that aforementioned furry crusader doing business as “The Fox”—interested in his campaign to plant American Water Willows up and down the river’s banks. A low-growing tough-stemmed plant, it grows in colonies that stabilize stream banks, which is a good thing in and of itself. But in addition, the plants’ leaves, stems, and flowers also provide browse for deer, and its rhizomes provide tasty meals for beavers and muskrats. In addition, the plants’ water-covered roots and rhizomes provide cover newly hatched gamefish minnows and a fine habitat for invertebrates that fish and other creatures feed on.

bob-rung-gar

Bob Rung tosses a long-nosed gar back in the water in this 2012 photo from the Kankakee Daily Journal.

Over the years, he got organizations ranging from the Illinois Smallmouth Bass Alliance to the Friends of the Fox River to plant thousands of water willows along the rivershed’s stream banks. I once kidded him that he’d become the Johnny Appleseed of water willow propagation, and after a moment of silence he said he wouldn’t mind being called that.

Bob’s passion was the Fox River and he was one of those lucky individuals who was able to do important things that not only satisfied his own keen interests, but also left a continuing legacy for generations to come. On the Fox River below Montgomery, everyone who stalks fighting smallmouth bass and trophy muskies, who enjoys quiet canoe rides through a genetically rich and diverse riverscape, or who just likes to sit and appreciate the river’s beauty and serenity owes Bob Rung a vote of thanks for what he accomplished for the rest of us.

 

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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

The days when the Rawleigh man came to call…

Back not all that many years ago, grocery stores were places where you went to buy mostly staples–flour, dried beans, rice, sugar, salt, meat, perhaps canned fruit. You didn’t have to go to the store for the other things, from bread to milk to vitamins to ice cream, since they were brought to your door by the bread, milk, and sundry companies.

Out on the farm, for instance, we got our bread from the Omar Bread man, milk came from our cow, Daisy; ice cream came from the ice cream man; and spices, vitamins and useful potions and ointments came from the Rawleigh man. All my mother had to do was to be home during the day (which, being a farm wife, she was) and the stuff was delivered right to our door.

There were also a number of other door-to-door salesmen that worked rural areas. Down at the Little White School Museum, we have copies of a series of diaries written by a farm family in the first decade of the 20th Century. One of the diarists, the farm wife who lived near the Kane-Kendall border in the Hinckley-Little Rock-Plano area, noted on a bi-weekly basis that the “tea man” had been to the farm. It could have been the National Tea Company representative or the Jewel Tea Company man; she didn’t say. It would have been interesting if she would have listed what she bought from the tea man, who usually provided a variety of products from coffee and tea to other sundry items.

Rawleigh's Ointment

Every Rawleigh family had at least one round, blue tin of Raleigh’s Ointment on hand for those minor scrapes, scuffs, and bruises.

We didn’t order from the tea man when I lived on the farm, but some neighbors did. We did, however, order from the Rawleigh man. You were, my sister once reminded me, either a Rawleigh famil’y or a Watkins family. It was sort of like farmers and their cars. My dad was a Chevy man (he’d had a Model T in 1919, and vowed never to own another of Henry Ford’s products), but his friend and fishing buddy Howard Gengler was a Ford man, and they used to kid each other unmercifully.

And our extended family were all Rawleigh people, too. Every so often, the Rawleigh man would arrive in our farm driveway in what I later learned was called a panel truck with the Rawleigh logo painted in gold on the side. In our kitchen, he would open his multi-layered case and display the most fascinating variety of things ranging from bottles of vanilla extract to Rawleigh’s ointment and salve to vitamins. And best of all, there was always a small packet of gum for me.

Many years later, we went to a relative’s wedding and my mother saw someone sitting at the next table that she knew, but couldn’t immediately place. Turned out to be the Rawleigh man. Why, she asked, was he there?

“I’ve been their Rawleigh man for years,” he explained, and for him that’s all there was to it.

Omar Bread truck

Omar Bread we got; pastries not so much since my mother was an excellent baker. And we got quite a bit of bread, too, because unlike my grandmother, my mother could not abide stale bread.

Our bread man delivered Omar Bread, but my grandmother, who lived about three miles down the road, signed up with the Peter Wheat Bread man instead. She made the most wonderful homemade bread, but my grandfather liked the store-bought variety better, so the bread man delivered. The best thing was the bread man also carried a variety of sweet rolls and donuts in the big metal basket he used to lug from his truck to the house. We didn’t get many of those treats, both because my father was battling diabetes and my mother could out-bake any bread company, but my grandmother did. She loved those “boughten” cinnamon rolls. Even stale, they tasted just fine (and they usually were stale because Grandma didn’t throw anything out; you ate it until it was gone).

Peter Wheat Bread comic.jpg

Walt Kelly, later of “Pogo” fame, drew the Peter Wheat comics and other books. While not the most interesting to read, they were fine for a youngster looking for any literary port in a storm.

The best thing about Grandma’s Peter Wheat Bread man, though, was that he dropped off colorful Peter Wheat comic books. Granted, they weren’t the most interesting comic books, but for me, a kid who spent an inordinate amount of time reading, they were an absolute treat.

We had a very productive Guernsey cow (the aforementioned Daisy) for milk. After she was sold off we picked up our milk in glass jugs at The Fruit Juice House, one of the local fruit juice and dairy products chains’ stores on what was then the Lincoln Highway on Aurora’s far east side. And every once in a great while, we’d get one of those delicious Fruit Juice House malts.

My grandparents, though, had no cow and so bought their milk in dark brown bottles from the Lockwood Dairy man who drove the farm neighborhood route from the firm’s headquarters in Plainfield. Although my grandparents didn’t have a cow, Grandma was as good at making butter from the cream our cow, Daisy, produced, as she was at baking bread. Freshly baked bread with freshly churned, salted, and worked butter might not have been heaven, but it was awfully close. Daisy’s excess milk, sans cream, was taken over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who magically turned it into truly excellent cottage cheese.

Later, when we moved to town, Oatman’s milk was delivered to our door from their dairy in Aurora. Besides milk, cottage cheese, cream, and other dairy products were brought to our door by our milkman.

The delivery of bread, milk, and other such stuff was a regular feature of life in the Midwest’s small towns and rural areas from the 1930s through the 1960s before economics and the advent of “convenience” stores killed off such house-to-house service.

And in the case of the big tea companies, house-to-house and farm-to-farm deliveries started long before motor vehicles were invented to make the rounds. Some house-to-house delivery services are apparently making a comeback, especially milk deliveries. We haven’t seen a bread man making the rounds though, but the Schwanz Ice Cream man does travel routes around town making home deliveries as the company has for decades.

Basically, though, getting groceries and other products is on your own these days without the interface of a company representative extolling the virtues of, say, Rawleigh liniment or Watkins’ salve, in the comfort of our own homes. Not many of us are home during the day nowadays anyway, so it probably wouldn’t be a money-maker for aspiring door-to-door tea men and women. It’s hard to tell if this difference is better or worse than the way things used to be—but a person has to admit it definitely is a difference.

 

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events

Where have all the farmers gone?

As I noted in my last post, my home area of Kendall County lost an unprecedented amount of farmland in the five years between 2007 and 2012, with more than 37,000 acres being taken out of production.

Some of it was lost to commercial development, but much more of it went to residential developers before the Crash of ’08 brought local development to a halt.

At least commercial development has the benefit of being a net tax gain for local residents. Residential development, however, is usually a net tax loss. Why? Commercial development creates not only increased real estate tax revenue over what that same land would produce as farmland, but it also generates sales tax revenue on which local municipal government, from villages and cities to counties and state government, depends. Residential real estate, on the other hand, gobbles up tax revenue at prodigious rates without producing enough revenue to break even.

All that residential development, as it absorbed so much good farmland, led to a net property tax revenue loss, only some of which was covered by commercial development.

And then what happened to all the farmers whose land began to grow houses instead of corn, beans, and livestock? They joined a trend that has been going on for decades, either leaving their way of life altogether or moving their farming operations out of the area to rural areas where development is less vigorous.

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County. Of those, nearly 80 percent were raising some livestock along with grain and forage crops. Average farm size in Kendall County was 180 acres in 1950.

By 2014, there were only 364 farms in the county, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Just 11 percent had some sort of livestock around the place. And the average size of county farms had risen to 356 acres.

Those figures illustrate what’s been happening in U.S. agriculture in general for nearly 200 years: Mechanization, improved agricultural techniques, and genetic manipulation of crops have led to vastly increased yields and vastly decreased labor needed to provide the grain and meat needed to feed not only ourselves, but a good chunk of the world, too. In effect, farmers and their communities have been victims of their own success.

In 1850, which was just after the period of settlement, it took about 90 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. The average yield was about 40 bushels per acre.

Farm Picking corn by hand

Until the late 1930s, virtually all the nation’s corn crop was picked by hand, one ear at a time, stored to dry, then shelled from the cob and finally hauled to market. Above, Lyle Shoger pauses with a full load on his way to the crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

Different varieties of corn were gradually introduced, including hybrids that would eventually lead to drastically increase yields, as were scientific farming methods first championed by English and Scottish immigrants who began arriving in northern Illinois in the late 1840s. Thanks to those factors, plus increasing mechanization, by 1900, while the yield per acre of corn production was about the same 40 bushels to the acre, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had dropped significantly, to just 35 hours.

During the next half-century, commercial fertilizers, hybrid crop varieties, the impact of agriculture science research at state land grant universities (like the University of Illinois), and the near-complete disappearance of horse-powered farming had dramatic effects. By 1950, not only had yields risen by 25 percent, but the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of corn had once again plummeted to just 14 hours.

And then came the real revolution in both mechanization and plant science. Howard Doster, a Purdue Extension farm management specialist, writing some 20 years ago, noted: “By the 1990s, the average American farmer produced a bushel of corn in less than one minute of labor.

Indeed, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn these days and yields of 200 and more bushels per acre are not uncommon.

So, you’d think that more productivity and larger farms might reasonably lead to the need for fewer farmers. And you’d be right. According to the USDA, between 2000 and 2009 alone, 56 percent of rural American counties lost population. The effect on most small towns in Illinois seems to have been a lot less drastic than in states that are far more rural. In Iowa, smaller towns are dying and disappearing, with few able to support much more than a Casey’s General Store and the local elevator/lumber yard. That’s led to the disappearance of community institutions in those small towns, from churches to schools, as farm families slowly disappear.

But what about the loss of all that prime farmland here in the Fox River Valley? Isn’t that creating a future food crisis? Maybe. But probably not.

Farm drovers

Livestock, from hogs to cattle to horses and sheep, were all driven to the Chicago market by farmers in the Fox and DuPage river valleys. It allowed the crops raised outside the city to be fed to animals that then walked to market, instead of hauling the grain itself.

When pioneer farmers arrived here on Kendall County’s prairies, each farmer’s first task was to support his own family, and then sell what little remained. Here in Chicago’s hinterland, that meant growing crops that could be fed to livestock, which, in turn, was driven to the Chicago market. Grain, too, was also gradually grown for sale, a market that exploded as soon as rail lines pushed west of Chicago. Subsistence farming disappeared relatively quickly after the rails arrived, and grain and livestock exports became the bedrock of Kendall County’s economy.

modern corn harvest

Modern combined harvesters not only pick the ears from several rows of corn at once but then they shell the kernels from the cob, producing a crop ready to ship to market saving astonishing amounts of time and money.

By 1940, with many farmers still relying on horses for power, each American farmer could feed 19 people. By 1950, U.S. farmers were beginning to export grain and meat to the rest of the world, with each farmer able to feed 27 people. During the past several decades, progress in crop varieties, farming techniques, and mechanization has led to a dramatic increase in U.S. farm productivity. These days, although there are far, far fewer farmers than there used to be, each one feeds an estimated 155 people here and around the world—and the number keeps inching up each year.

So, getting back to the question in the title above, where have all the farmers gone? Well, some got rich by selling their land to developers, which is what frequently happened around these parts. Others were ruined by the frequent ups and downs of farm economics and decided to take up jobs where drought, floods, or communicable livestock disease couldn’t ruin their families. Others, a distilled few hardy survivors, remain to make their own living and to feed the rest of us.

From the go-go development in Kendall County’s eastern and northern tier of townships, pick a road—Galena Road’s a good one—and head west. It won’t take many minutes before you will find yourself in a landscape dominated by corn and soybean fields, much as the entire Chicago metro region once was. But keep in mind that the vast majority of the barns and corn cribs and other outbuildings you see are as obsolete for farming as a Model T would be commuting into the Loop. Farmers are maintaining them, mostly, for their own pride in keeping a neat farmstead. And some for nostalgia, too, for a time of small farms, small rural towns with their small rural churches and schools, and the rest of what agricultural life had been for decades upon decades. While we sometimes feel that we’ve irrevocably lost any connection with our area’s rural heritage, it really doesn’t take much time or effort to realize those connections still exist. There are just not nearly as many as there used to be.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Small-town America’s search for fun

Big doings in town this week as Oswegoans gird their loins for our annual PrairieFest community celebration.

Oswego’s annual community festival has gone through a lot of iterations since downtown business owners started trying to draw customers to their stores back in the 1930s with free movies projected on a white canvass stretched on the wall of Ralph Johnson’s Oswego Tavern. It was the height (or perhaps the depths) of the Great Depression, and free entertainment was extremely popular among folks beset by financial catastrophe.

1933 Centennial drill team

The Joliet Auxiliary Drill Team, first prize winners in the drill team competition during the Oswego Centennial Parade on Sept. 16, 1933, in downtown Oswego proudly show off their trophy in front of the Oswego Tavern. Free movies were projected on a canvas screen mounted on the right side of the building. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported in the June 20, 1934 edition: “Free [movie] shows are given each Wednesday night, sponsored by the merchants of Oswego. Last Wednesday evening more than 600 attended.”

Since Oswego’s 1930 population was just 934 men, women, and children, drawing 600 people to town on a warm summer Wednesday evening suggested a lot of people were hungry for a little escapism in their lives during a particularly dark period of the nation’s history.

From that economically-driven start, business owners sponsored a variety of annual celebrations that offered some fun, but which were mostly efforts at drawing paying customers downtown. Eventually, civic groups joined in and promoted the addition of an annual carnival that was set up right on Main Street downtown. And that planted the first seeds of opposition to drawing crowds downtown since business owners weren’t getting much of the action. A new home was found for the annual carnivals, but the business community continued to view drawing large crowds downtown with puzzling suspicion. After all, you’d think that attracting a big crowd of prospective customers to the sidewalk outside your store would be a good thing, but the resistance to what became called Oswego

2005 dragon ride scream

Photographer Joanne Pleskovich perfectly captured the exuberant terror experienced by two excited little girls on the Dragon ride at PrairieFest 2005. Kids of all ages will again be entertained this weekend at PrairieFest 2016 here in Oswego. (Ledger-Sentinel photo)

Days continued to grow, until the Oswego Business Association finally washed their hands of sponsoring the thing. And that’s when the Oswegoland Park District stepped in, renamed it PrairieFest, and proceeded to move the most heavily attended activities out of downtown. Which also caused grumbling by downtown business owners that none of the crowds were now coming downtown.

The effort to find something to do in small towns all over the country has been a seemingly never ending task. Nowadays, of course, there are almost too many things to do, something that has led to the disappearance of many of civic and fraternal organizations as life became too busy for people to take time out of their schedules to enjoy the camaraderie they offered. The myriad of entertainment options for youngsters, especially, has exploded in recent decades.

Time was, small town and rural America was a boring place for all too many youngsters. And when suitable recreation does not exist, delinquent youngsters usually take matters into their own hands, something they’ve been doing for a long, long time. For instance, the July 21, 1864 Kendall County Record reported: “Three boys from Oswego crept into one of the school houses in NaAuSay and tore up and destroyed [a large] amount of books. They were arrested [and]..lodged in the jail at the Court House [in Yorkville], having been bound over before the Circuit Court.”

So much for lack of crime in the good old days when Traditional Family Values reigned supreme.

And how about public disturbances caused by entertainment getting out of hand? Well, try on this item from the Feb. 4, 1869 Record: “The Dance at Chapman Hall on Friday night was a pleasant affair but there was an afterpiece of a quite contrary nature. It seems Mark Chapman refused to sell a ticket to Bob Jolly. Bob, being highly incensed at not being able to dance and share in the fun, provided himself with a club and waited for Mark outside. As he came out on the sidewalk, he was set upon by Bob and pretty severely beaten. Bob is under arrest.”

When calmer entertainment was attempted, sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.

19th Century hearse

It took two years for Oswego’s Union Sewing Society raise enough money to buy the community a hearse through fundraising events such as peach festivals  before they finally reached their goal in 1872.

For instance, the Sept. 30, 1869 Record reported: “The Oswego Union Sewing Society’s peach festival of last week was not well attended; the proceeds of it are to go towards buying a hearse. But this generation need not expect the benefits of one unless funds for the same are raised by some other means.”

A peach festival and a hearse might seem like strange bedfellows—especially today when hearses are privately owned by independent funeral homes—but apparently it was considered pretty much business as usual almost 150 years ago.

Tradition meant a lot in 19th Century Oswego, especially in the years immediately after the Civil War. The Fourth of July was an especially patriotic time of year in Oswego as this note in the July 4, 1871 Record illustrates: “The Glorious Fourth of July was ushered in early this morning with 13 loud blasts from the Oswego cannon.”

The Oswego cannon? What do you suppose happened to that? It certainly would be a neat thing to have around these days—especially during those planning boundary wars with Joliet, Plainfield, Aurora and the rest of the aggressors.

But back to business. Remember the Union Sewing Society’s drive to buy a new hearse? Well, in the Aug. 31, 1871 Record, the results were in. Wrote correspondent Lorenzo Rank: “A few more days and death will be no longer be any terror; the new hearse is ready for delivery. The ladies who brought about this achievement of a free hearse through raising of monies in fairs, socials, etc., now wish to finish their labors and enjoy the fruits of it. The greatest harmony and goodwill was maintained during the endeavor and their several years of joint labor and it is now hoped that no jealousy will spring up between them, and that the honor of its first usage may not create any envy among them.”

The various church congregations in Oswego also sponsored various entertainments, mostly as fundraisers. For instance, the May 30, 1872 Record reported: “A mush and milk festival is arranged for next Thursday evening at Chapman’s Hall for the benefit of the Baptist church.”

One wonders how mush and milk could be festive, suggesting tastes have apparently changed more than a bit over the last century and a half or so. About the only way a group could raise money through a mush and milk festival these days would be to promise never, ever to have one. People would probably pay for that.

Finally, in the days of horses and wagons, there was always some entertainment just waiting to happen. A good example was in the Record’s Oswego news of March 27, 1873: “One day recently as John Tatge was engaged in hauling out manure with the old gray, on throwing down the lines to step back for the fork, the horse got frightened and ran all over town spilling the manure and scattering parts of the wagon along the road.”

Now that’s something you don’t see in this day and age of dump trucks and backhoes. Ah but for the good old days—and an exciting runaway manure wagon now and then.

 

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The historical legacy of Marvin Lawyer

Unless you live around these parts, you probably didn’t hear about the death of Marvin Lawyer a couple weeks ago.

Lawyer, Marvin

Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person whose extraordinary love of one-room schools has left an invaluable historical legacy.

He died May 28 at the fine old age of 91 at the Illinois Veterans Home in LaSalle.

Marvin was a lifelong Kendall County resident, except for the years he spent helping Uncle Sam beat the Nazis over in Europe during World War II. He served in Normandy, Northern France, Ardennes, Rhineland and central Europe and was sent back to Kendall County after the war, where he married, had a family, and led what amounted to a fairly ordinary life in those days.

As a child, he attended the old Inscho School, located in Section 18 of Kendall Township on Highpoint Road just south of Ill. Route 71. The school was named after the Inscho family, who originally owned the small parcel on which it was built.

The original school, then named the Long Grove School was built by subscription in 1841, the subscribers each contributing from one to three logs for its construction. In 1855, a new timber frame building was constructed under the terms of Illinois’ new law allowing property tax revenues to fund public schools and it also got its modern name.

Marvin graduated from Yorkville High School, served in the military, and then returned to farm, drive a school bus, work at the Aurora Post Office, and own small businesses in Newark, where he spent virtually the rest of his life.

While many remember Marvin as an avid rock collector, I remember him as someone fascinated with Kendall County’s one-room schools. Like me, he’d attended a one-room country school, and enjoyed the experience. In fact, he apparently enjoyed it so much that for a time he lived in the Inscho School after it had been converted into a private residence. By the early 1990s, Marvin’s interest had led him to begin collecting everything he could find on Kendall County’s one-room schools. I suspect he wasn’t sure what he’d do with all the information, but he doggedly kept at it.

That’s when I met him. He enjoyed my “Reflections” columns on local history in the Kendall County Record, and so he’d stop by the newspaper office from time to time to pick my brain about one-room rural schools in the Oswego area. He was always an interesting guy to chat with, and we exchanged information until 1995 when he finally self-published his 410-page The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County. He stopped by the newspaper office that year to proudly give me a copy as well as one for the Little White School Museum’s collections.

Union School cropped.jpg

The Union School, District 48, in Kendall County was the home of both a Presbyterian Church and a one-room school. The congregation went on to build the AuSable Grove Presbyterian Church, after which the building was used solely as a school. Today it has been moved to the Lyon Historical Farm and Village near Yorkville, where it has been restored. (Little White School Museum collection)

The book is not a polished history, but rather is simply the most invaluable reference on the county’s old country schools anywhere in existence. He was able to track down 99 of them that were in operation at one time or another through the years. Some were familiar—the Fern Dell School has been restored by Newark’s Fern Dell Historical Association and the Union School was moved to the Kendall County Historical Society’s Lyon Farm and Village, where it was likewise restored. But others—the Sandy Bluff, the Booth, the Porter, and the Asbury schools, for instance—were much more obscure.

But for each, he interviewed former students to get their stories, tried to find out who the teachers had been, described the buildings, and tried to obtain photographs.

The Old Rural Schools of Kendall County was obviously a labor of love, the kind of project that guarantees his name will be remembered long after his death. Which, of course, is not at all why he did it. He did it because he loved his county and his community and he was determined to set down a record of one part of its fast-disappearing history—its one-room country schools—before the memories of them faded forever.

It was a task at which he succeeded, and along the way, which has left a priceless record of an important time in the lives of so many thousands of people that will never be again. Marvin Lawyer was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing for which students of Kendall County history will be forever grateful.

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