Category Archives: Nostalgia

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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Filed under Kendall County, Local History, Newspapers, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

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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Filed under Fox River, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

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

Hot dogs and gyros and scrapple and barbecue, oh my!

Travel, as the intellectuals say, can be a broadening experience. Especially if you munch your way from coast to coast.

Most people travel for one of two reasons, either to do some sightseeing or to “get away from it all.”

Getting away from it all certainly has its advantages. The problem is, sooner or later you’ve got to get back to it all, and it’s always all there when you do get back. The dirty socks are still on the floor by the washing machine, the couch in front of the TV is still infested with stale popcorn and stray sprinkles from Christmas cookies, and the job, lurking like a particularly vicious incarnation of Rush Limbaugh, is still there, smirking, waiting for you to show up.

Then there’s sightseeing, which can be okay, I suppose. At least you can take those fleeting images of some colorful native handcrafter or the sight of sea gulls eating the cruise ship’s garbage back home to warm you on a winter’s eve. But, really, when you’ve seen one Taj Mahal, you’ve seen ’em all.

For my money, the only way to travel is, as Napoleon said of his armies, on your stomach. Not that I mean you’ve got to slither along Interstate 80 like some demented two-armed, two-legged python, of course. No, you can still drive your ’63 Grand Prix at 65 mph in perfect comfort, with the vents open and the AM going all fuzzy every time you go under a high tension line. The trick—and the reward—is to know when to stop and smell the regional food a-cookin’.

For some reason, most Midwesterners don’t believe we have any regional cooking to enjoy. But, in fact, we do have distinctive regional dishes you might want to introduce to out-of-towners.

For instance, Italian beef sandwiches are a staple here in the Chicago area, but you just don’t find them many other places, absent a Chicagoland expatriate establishing an eatery in foreign parts. And gyros, those Greek pita sandwiches filled with thinly sliced roasted lamb and slathered with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce, were first introduced in the U.S. in Chicago, which still probably has more gyros joints than any other part of the country.

The well dressed Chicago style dog is much more than a mere hot dog. You can eschew the peppers if you want; I always do.

The well dressed Chicago style dog is much more than a mere hot dog. You can eschew the peppers if you want; I always do.

And then there are our hot dogs. Chicago style dogs are unique, although for some reason they seem to be an acquired taste for some. Chicago dogs are properly served in a steamed poppy seed bun and dressed with mustard, onions, pickle relish, a kosher dill slice, celery salt, tomatoes, and sport peppers. You note the pointed absence of ketchup. In fact, some militant hot dog purveyors will not even allow ketchup in their establishments. Not too long ago, my son was at a hot dog joint and asked for ketchup for his fries; the owner reluctantly complied but kept a suspicious eye on him to make sure he didn’t adulterate the dogs he had dressed with so much care.

We don’t take hot dog interlopers with much equanimity, either. Every once in a while, some New Yorker will arrive in Chicago to great fanfare with plans to introduce us Midwestern barbarians to East Coast dogs, only to soon leave due to monumental disinterest on the part of local hot dog lovers.

A Springfield breaded pork tenderloin horseshoe in all it's cheesy, carby glory.

A Springfield breaded pork tenderloin horseshoe in all it’s cheesy, carby glory.

There’s one other unique Illinois dish that you’re not likely to see elsewhere: Horseshoes. The horseshoe is a sort of open face sandwich invented by a Springfield hotel in the 1920s (possibly as a clever plot to shorten the lives of members of the General Assembly through induced coronary disease). Horseshoe may have been inspired by the Canadians’ poutine, which is French fries with gravy poured on top. The horseshoe, my friends, is poutine on steroids.

Let’s look at a typical lunch horseshoe: Take a couple pieces of toasted white bread on a dinner plate, add the meat of your choice—hamburger, ham, pork chop, chicken, whatever—cover the meat and bread with a thick layer of French fries, and then cover the fries with cheese sauce. Breakfast shoes contain ham or sausage patties covered with hashbrowns and then doused in sausage or white pepper gravy.

Go to one of Springfield’s cafes, and you’ll find breakfast shoes, lunch shoes, and dinner shoes. For those who don’t want to consume their entire monthly allotment of carbs and fat in one sitting, there are also pony shoes, which are supposed to be smaller.

Moving on East…

While the East Coast is not everyone’s cup of tea, I must grudgingly admit it has some pretty good regional food. Along the Connecticut shore, small roadside stands sell steamed freshly caught lobster, cooked while you wait. You eat them outside at picnic tables. New York’s delis serve the best corned beef and pastrami in the nation.

Farther south, in Delaware, you can find small cafés and roadhouses that feature crab boil. Crab boil isn’t just boiled crabs. Rather, it consists of crabs boiled in highly seasoned water, and then covered with more of the seasoning. You get them by the dozen, served on giant platters, and they are excellent.

Close by Chesapeake Bay, crab cakes are menu kings. Don’t confuse the poor excuses for the crab cakes, redolent with preservatives and who knows what, you see on restaurant menus here in the Midwest with the succulent variety available along the shores of the Delmarva Peninsula.

From the shore, head west into the Keystone State, and look for small Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants. The best have scrapple and shoofly pie on the menu.

Traveling through West Virginia some years ago, we had something for breakfast called Country Pudding. It was served with our eggs sort of like scrapple, but the waitress, looking embarrassed, refused to tell us what was in it. Turns out, the major ingredient is what is called in polite company (and family blogs) “sweetmeats.”

Although the might look like Maid Rites, Canteens, served only at Canteen Lunch in downtown Ottumwa, Ia., have their own special flavor. Canny diners get theirs with cheese to avoid losing too much loose meat while dining.

Although the might look like Maid Rites, Canteens, served only at Canteen Lunch in downtown Ottumwa, Ia., have their own special flavor. Canny diners get theirs with cheese to avoid losing too much loose meat while dining.

Let’s keep going west. We’ve already covered Illinois food, so we’ll head on to Iowa, home of the Maid Rite sandwich and its cousins. This blend of secret spices and loose, steamed hamburger was invented in the Hawkeye State. Maid Rite restaurants, one of the first fast food franchises in the nation if not the world, still serve up the delicious sandwiches, which got some brief fame on the old “Rosanne” show as “Iowa Loose Meat Sandwiches.” If you get to Radar O’Reilly’s hometown, Ottumwa, try the variety served at the tiny Canteen Lunch café, located in an alley behind the main downtown business street. The female staff makes fresh Canteens all day for patrons who sit at stools around the horseshoe counter. Served with Sterzing Potato Chips (the pride of Burlington, Ia.) and followed by a giant slice of homemade pie, it’s a Midwestern feast.

Turn south at Ottumwa and head into Missouri before turning farther west to Kansas. On your way, be sure to stop for the barbecue. Lots of good places in Springfield and in Kansas City, where Arthur Bryant’s and Oklahoma Joe’s are so good, it’s almost unbelievable.

Great Mexican food at El Chorro Cafe is maybe why John Wayne was so determined to get to Lordsburg, N.M. in the classic movie "Stagecoach."

Great Mexican food at the El Charro Café is maybe why John Wayne was so determined to get to Lordsburg, N.M. in the classic movie “Stagecoach.”

One rule of travel we’ve found is that the farther southwest you get, the better the Mexican food gets. By the time you get over the mountains and get to Lordsburg, N.M. you should be hungry enough to fully enjoy the restaurants there. (Diner’s advisory: Go easy on the green salsa. Under the right conditions, it can spontaneously combust). I heartily recommend virtually anything on the menu of the El Charro Café, just across the railroad tracks that’s been owned by the same family since 1922.

You can head farther west if you want, but I’d strongly advise that when you get to the California line, you turn around and head back to virtually any other region of the country because, frankly, California food is terrible.

Travel. A broadening experience in a caloric kind of way. And besides, it’s as American as apple pie. Which is pretty good too, come to think of it.

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Prairie farming by the rhythm of the seasons…

If there’s one profession that is still tied to the turn of the seasons, it’s farming.

When I was a youngster growing up on a northern Illinois farm back in the early 1950s, my father followed the rhythm of the agricultural year.

During the winter, my father fed cattle and hogs, kept the family cow milked, repaired equipment, and started thinking about spring planting season. Spring was given over to planting corn, oats, and soybeans and sowing alfalfa and timothy seed on land that had been corn ground the year before. During the summer months, crops were weeded first with the tractor-mounted cultivator and then by physically walking the rows of soybeans and hoeing out volunteer cornstalks and the ever-present velvet weed. Late summer and fall were harvest seasons and in late fall, we butchered cattle and hogs and froze the meat, after which winter arrived and the cycle began again.

In general terms, that had been the practice throughout the Midwest for decades before, and with some fairly major changes in emphasis, it still works pretty much the way today.

But what about pioneer times? What was the rhythm of the seasons our great-great-great-great grandparents observed on their farms during and immediately after the settlement era?

Unfortunately, most of those hardy pioneers left no record of how they lived their daily lives. But once in a while historians are lucky enough to stumble across accounts of pioneer life recorded by the settlers themselves.

This image of the Bossin Farm, Clinton County, Iowa, gives an idea of what the Savage farm may have looked like. (Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library)

This image of the Bossin Farm, Clinton County, Iowa, gives an idea of what the Savage farm may have looked like. (Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library)

One such account was left by John Savage, son of William Savage, a New Yorker who brought his family to Salem Township, Henry County, in the southeast corner of Iowa in the mid-1850s. The state was brand new and was the new frontier between settled areas to the east and the untamed shortgrass prairies to the west inhabited by immense herds of bison and the Native Americans who subsisted on them. But land was of good quality and inexpensive.

Young John Savage gradually took over the farming operation, continually improving the land originally purchased by his father. But while always looking ahead to what the Savages considered a better future, they kept close attention to the yearly routine of a prairie farm. In 1861, the year before he married Tacy Crew, John recorded a full year’s worth of that routine, an interesting window into the 19th Century farming cycle.

The Savages’ farm year started in January when the family butchered hogs for their own use and hauled corn from shocks in the field to the farmyard where it was hand-shelled and fed to the livestock. In the farm’s timber area, there were rails to split and put by for fencing come spring, and firewood to harvest that warmed twice, once when cut and again when burned in the stove. Cutting firewood and splitting rails continued through February, as did hauling in corn from shocks in the field.

This is what a properly built split rail fence looks like. Rail fences were timber-intensive and required constant maintenance, but they were relatively cheap during the settlement era.

This is what a properly built split rail fence looks like. Rail fences were timber-intensive and required constant maintenance, but they were relatively cheap during the settlement era. They were replaced with wire fencing as soon as it became practical.

In March, while continuing to split more rails, John and his father started clearing 10 acres of brush they planned to plow for the first time in the spring. In addition, sheep gave birth that month. In April the Savage men painted their apple tree trunks with lye and lime to combat insects and sowed oats. Generally, oats were sown by hand on ground that had been plowed and harrowed using a homemade horse-drawn drag harrow consisting of a wooden frame with metal or wooden teeth that smoothed the ground. It was harrowed again after planting to cover the oat seed.

May was time to plant potatoes, sorghum and corn. Work wrapped up clearing the brushland. They hauled the rails they’d split during the winter to repair fences around all of their tilled cropland, plus the newly cleared 10 acres. Late in the month, the sheep were washed in preparation for shearing by driving them into a gravel-bottomed stretch of creek that had been deepened with a temporary dam. Sheep with long fleece (which traps air) float and are fairly strong swimmers, so it was possible to give each a short but vigorous washing, sometimes using homemade lye soap. Released, the animals swam back to shore.

In June, the clean sheep were sheared and the wool taken to market. Mandatory township roadwork was completed (if it wasn’t, a tax was levied), and the cleared brushland was plowed. Cornfields were cultivated or “plowed,” as they termed it, to retard weeds. In early July, the corn got its last pass with the horsedrawn cultivator and was laid by. The first hay cutting was completed and late in the month, the “small grain” harvest got underway in the oat and wheat fields.

August opened with oats and wheat stalks cut and stacked in shocks to dry, followed by hauling manure from the barnyard to fertilize the Savages’ proposed winter wheat ground. In September, the winter wheat was planted and the hogs were brought in from the pastures to be penned and fattened for market. A new stable was built, and repairs were made to the barnyard fence. Sorghum was harvested and readied for grinding and pressing and the Savages started their share of work with the neighborhood threshing ring.

When ripe, corn was cut and gathered into shocks, which were allowed to stand in the field to dry. The ears were later husked and the kernels shelled. When mechanical corn huskers were perfected, corn shocking disappeared, except for use as autumn lawn decorations.

When ripe, corn was cut and gathered into shocks, which were allowed to stand in the field to dry. The ears were later husked and the kernels shelled from the cobs. When mechanical corn huskers were perfected, corn shocking disappeared, except for use as autumn lawn decorations.

Threshing continued in early October until all the ring’s members’ crops were finished. Corn was cut and bundled into shocks to dry, apples were picked and stored, and potatoes were dug and laid by in the root cellar. In November, standing corn was hand-husked and fed to the livestock and husking started on the corn shocked earlier that fall. Fattened hogs were driven to market, and more split rails were hauled from the timber to repair fences.

There was little snow early that December so the Savages continued clearing brush. They split more rails for fences around the fodder stacked in the farmyard to keep the livestock out. Then, as 1862 dawned, the process started all over again.

If you’re interested, you can read the whole story in From Prairie to Corn Belt: Farming on the Illinois and Iowa Prairies in the Nineteenth Century by Allan G. Bogue (Iowa State University Press, Ames, 1963).

These days, we’ve become largely disconnected from the seasons as we pursue our urbanized nine to five jobs, but from the era of pioneer prairie farming right up to the present day, out on the farm the seasons were real symbols of the way the world worked.

 

 

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The civilizing influence of cleanliness…

When Steven Johnson decided to tell the story about How We got to Now in his book and accompanying series on PBS last fall, he chose six technologies he decided explained how life came to be the way it is these days including glass, cold, sound, time, light, and hygiene.

The idea that hygiene is a crucial technology that helped create modern life might seem odd, but cleanliness as it as evolved to the way we consider it today has been absolutely vital in creating modern society.

I remember one time as I helped my mother do our regular Saturday housecleaning routine (my job was to dust the legs of the dining room table and chairs, the buffet, and the kitchen table and chairs since I was the youngest, shortest, and therefore closest to the ground) I asked whether her house was as clean when she was growing up as ours was.

“Well,” she said after thinking about it for a moment, “Clean is relative.”

What she meant wasn’t entire clear to me at the time, but her “Clean is relative” comment stuck with me. Because what we consider a clean house today was certainly not at all what it meant a century and more ago. Back then, the thin ingrain carpeting of the time or strips of rag rugs sewn together to create room-sized carpets, were often padded with a layer of straw. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the problems with cleanliness that would cause.

This Hoover vacuum ad from 1931 suggests that only the best families own electric vacuum cleaners, and further that it's necessary since the help can be so slovenly. My grandfather was an early-adopter of vacuum technology, but was far from as wealthy as those at which Hoover was aiming their ad.

This Hoover vacuum ad from 1931 suggests that only the best families own electric vacuum cleaners, and further that it’s necessary since the help can be so slovenly. My grandfather was an early-adopter of vacuum technology, but was far from as wealthy as those at which Hoover was aiming their ad.

Especially in the era before electric vacuum cleaners had been developed (along with the easily available electricity needed to power them), carpet sweepers were the implements of choice to clean rugs and carpets in place, and while they’d sweep up surface dust and debris, ground-in dirt was simply beyond them.

My grandfather was always fascinated with technological innovations. He had one of the first gasoline-powered tractors in the neighborhood and one of the first big Atwater-Kent radio sets. After electrical service was extended to our farming community, he became a self-taught electrician, and also bought one of the first electric vacuums in the neighborhood. He was so enthusiastic about its cleaning power that he took it around to the neighbors’ to demonstrate how well it cleaned. At one neighborhood farm, however, about all he managed to do was convince the farmer his wife was shirking her housewifely duties.

This past year, we got another lesson in relative hygiene when the Ebola virus staged another outbreak in Africa, the most severe yet. The big difference this time is that the virus managed to jump the Atlantic Ocean and ended up here in the U.S., where two visitors from abroad died and a few other healthcare workers were stricken. But unlike Africa, where cultural traditions and lack of what we consider basic sanitary conditions encouraged the virus’s spread, Ebola was pretty much stopped in its tracks here, despite the hysteria encouraged by those who ought to have known better.

The time was, however, and not all that long ago, that the lack of good hygiene and ignorance of its effect on our lives proved deadly and not just embarrassing like the dust my grandfather extracted from neighbors’ carpets.

In particular, the ignorance of how disease spreads due to bad sanitation took a long time to penetrate the lives of most Americans. Diseases such as typhoid fever, spread through lack of knowledge of how human and animal waste can contaminate water supplies, took a frightful toll on lives. And wealth was no barrier when it came to catching this deadly disease. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, contracted typhoid fever and died while living Windsor Castle in December 1861. Just a month earlier, his cousins, King Pedro V and Prince Ferdinand of Portugal, had also died of typhoid.

We now know that typhoid is spread through consumption of food or water that has been contaminated by an infected person’s feces. Which is why a number of government regulations now mandate how far, say, a private water well must be from a home’s septic system.

Although we now have antibiotics to treat the disease, we also know that typhoid must be treated by keeping the victim hydrated and making sure caretakers are careful not to infect themselves. A century and a half ago, doctors were still unsure of the efficacy of sterilizing their hands, instruments, much less the impact of contaminated water supplies.

Here in Oswego, typhoid was a constant threat, often striking entire families and their neighbors. A good illustration is Lorenzo Rank’s report in the Oct. 6, 1881 Kendall County Record:

“The typhoid patients are all on the gain except Jennie Hubbard, whose case is said to be precarious; her mother, Mrs. C.E. Hubbard, is convalescent; Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Smith are improving slowly.”

Oswego's first fire brigade poses in front of the village's new water tower in the summer of 1895. The tank atop the tower was made of basswood. (Little White School Museum collection)

Oswego’s first fire brigade poses in front of the village’s new water tower in the summer of 1895. The tank atop the tower was made of basswood. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, however, it became clear that towns that had central water supplies instead of relying on individual wells were healthier places to live, even though the exact reasons for that were still unclear. Oswego was finally able to establish its own municipal water system in 1895, using saloon licenses to pay for drilling the municipal well, laying the service pipes, and building the water tower. The system was inaugurated in July 1895, with Rank writing in the July 3 Record:

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost. They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has.”

The new steel water tank atop Oswego's 1895 cast iron tower is nearing completion in this 1906 photo. Officials were aghast at what they found floating in the water of the old basswood tank when it was finally uncovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new steel water tank atop Oswego’s 1895 cast iron tower is nearing completion in this 1906 photo. Officials were aghast at what they found floating in the water of the old basswood tank when it was finally uncovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

But while the new system was a marvel, folks continued to contract various waterborne diseases. In March 1906, the village board decided to replace the old 20×24 foot basswood tank, which had begun leaking, with a larger 18×30 foot steel tank. When the wooden tank was removed from atop the cast iron tower legs later that year, village officials were aghast at what they found. As Rank reported on July 11:

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

That could have been one reason people kept contracting typhoid in Oswego. For instance, Rank reported on Oct. 31, 1900 that the entire Ellis Darby family was down with the disease. The other reason could have been the lack of a municipal sanitary sewer system, too, with outhouses being the primary method of dealing with sanitary waste. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Oswego voters decided to finance construction of a municipal sanitary waste disposal plant, after which the village had finally caught up with municipal water and sewer service enjoyed by Ancient Romans 2,000 years before.

These days, we take the disposal of sanitary waste, rules and regulations that protect both public and private water supplies, and other advances such as the elimination of horses from cities as the main power source for delivery vehicles, whose manure and carcasses (in 1912 alone, Chicago public works employees disposed of 10,000 dead horses from city streets) created nearly unimaginable pollution.

We take clean for granted these days, at home, in the food industry, and elsewhere—and for good reason. But all this cleanliness didn’t just happen. It came from hard-fought victories led by everything from women’s magazine articles to efforts on the part of organizations from the Farm Bureau to labor unions.

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