Category Archives: Oswego

Two soldiers’ stories as Veterans’ Day approaches

Veterans’ Day, Nov. 11, was originally established as Armistice Day to honor the veterans of World War I. The armistice to end that war was signed on Nov. 11—the 11th hour of the 11th month of the 11th day.

But in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the holiday’s designation to Veterans’ Day as a way to honor all of the nation’s veterans from all of its wars.

Every year at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego, assistant museum director Bob Stekl and his crew of enthusiastic volunteers fills the museum’s main room with uniforms, photographs, and memorabilia of Oswego’s veterans, culled from the museum’s extensive collections. And every year, we seem to stumble across new facts and folks donate new veterans’ materials to the museum’s collections.

Maine explodes

After the USS Maine exploded in the harbor at Havana, Cuba the night of Feb. 15, 1898, tensions between the U.S. and Spain grew until the U.S. declared war on April 25.

This year, we thought we’d delve into the Spanish-American War of 1898 a bit in order to highlight information concerning Philip Clauser, our community’s only veteran of what Theodore Roosevelt called “a splendid little war.” In gathering information and memorabilia about Clauser’s service, we also recalled that his son, Frank, went on to serve in World War II, where he was killed in action when his B-26 was shot down over the Mediterranean near Italy in 1943.

The story of Oswego’s Clauser military family really begins on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, as the USS Maine was riding easily at anchor in the harbor at Havana, Cuba when, at 9:40 p.m., an explosion ripped through the ship, which then sank, still at anchor, with the loss of 266 of her 355-man crew.

At the time, it was determined the ship was sunk by a mine. Subsequent investigations, however, suggest that an internal explosion cause the ship to sink. But whatever the cause, the disaster whipped the war fever that had been raging in the United States into a positive frenzy. When the U.S. demanded they vacate Cuba, Spain declined. On April 11, President William McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, and 12 days later he sent a request for 122,000 volunteers to the states.

1898 abt Clauser, Philip

Philip Clauser in a portrait taken about 1898 when he became the only person from Oswego to enlist to fight in the Spanish-American War. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then on April 25, 1898, Congress voted to declare war on Spain, a conflict that led to land and sea battles in both the Caribbean Sea and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Among the volunteers flocking to the colors was Theodore Roosevelt himself, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt resigned his office and eventually wangled command of the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment—later famously nicknamed “The Rough Riders.”

Also volunteering was Oswegoan Philip Clauser, the only village resident who decided to serve.

Clauser was born in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country at Tower City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania on Aug. 12, 1868. As a young man, he decided to head west to Illinois where his aunt and uncle, John and Mary Ann (Wolf) Minnich, along with several cousins, were living in Oswego.

He worked at whatever jobs he could find, probably working for his cousins, Irvin Haines and Ed Inman, at carpentry in the spring, summer, and fall, and in the winter finding work with the Esch Brothers and Rabe Ice Company’s big ice harvesting and storage operation at Oswego. He also traveled for the company to their ice harvesting operations in Wisconsin, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reporting on April 2, 1890: “Charles Rieger, Alf Wormley Lars Nelson, John Peterson and Phillip Clauser returned Saturday from Wisconsin where they were employed in the housing of ice for Esch Bros. & Rabe. The firm is said to have gathered a full supply.”

By the time the war with Spain was declared, the nation’s two biggest newspaper barons, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, had used their media empires to whip up public enthusiasm for a war ostensibly fought to free the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from what Hearst and Pulitzer characterized as Spanish oppression. So when President McKinley issued his call for volunteers, there was no lack of men willing to go off to fight.

The President requested that Illinois supply seven regiments of infantry and one of cavalry.

Phil Clauser traveled up to Aurora on April 26, 1898, the day after Congress approved the declaration of war against Spain, to enlist in the Illinois National Guard’s 3rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was assigned to Company I, under the command of Capt. Charles M. Greene, volunteering to serve for two years or until the end of the war, whichever came first. The regiment was commanded by Col. Fred Bennitt, a prominent Joliet lawyer who had risen to the rank of full colonel in the Illinois National Guard.

Company I traveled by train from Aurora to Springfield, where the entire regiment was mustered into U.S. service at Camp Tanner—actually the state fairgrounds, renamed for the duration of the war—on May 7. The regiment entrained once again for Camp George H. Thomas on the old battlefield at Chickamauga, Georgia, arriving May 16. The Georgia camp was fittingly named for one of the Union’s top Civil War generals who had been nicknamed “The Rock of Chickamauga” after he withstood rebel attacks during the battle in 1863.

USS St Louis

A passenger liner, the USS St. Louis was armed after war with Spain was declared. The ship transported troops to Puerto Rico and went on to disrupt undersea communication cables between Spain and Cuba.

At Camp Thomas, the 3rd Illinois was fully equipped and underwent combat training. Three days after the regiment arrived, Phil Clauser was promoted to corporal.

Training complete, the troops left once again, this time for Newport News, Virginia, arriving July 24, where they were marched aboard the USS St. Louis and sailed for Puerto Rico, where they arrived off Ponce on July 31.

The Puerto Rican campaign was under the direct command of Gen. Nelson Miles, the U.S. Army’s commander-in-chief. The 3rd Illinois was assigned to Brig. Gen. Peter G. Hains’ Second Brigade along with the 4th Ohio and 4th Pennsylvania volunteer infantry regiments, plus a few other attached units. Miles ordered Hains to take Arroyo, a small port that served the larger nearby coastal town of Guayama. The brigade handily took Arroyo with only light resistance.

Then on Aug. 5, Haines ordered the 4th Ohio and the 3rd Illinois, supported by a battery of Sims-Dudley Dynamite guns to take Guayama itself. The Americans advanced up two small hills where Spanish forces had entrenched, and after a half-hour firefight the Illinoisans and Ohioans took the Spanish positions, suffering only three wounded.

Other than small skirmishes north of Guayama on Aug. 9 and 13, that was the 3rd Illinois’ last combat as they went into camp near the city. On Nov. 2, they filed aboard the SS Roumania and set sail for New York, arriving on Nov. 9. They were sent back to Illinois by train where they were granted furloughs before being mustered out of federal service on Jan. 24. Their “splendid little war” had lasted three months, three weeks, and two days.

Cpl. Clauser returned to Oswego, where he told folks he hadn’t minded his military adventure at all.

“Phil Clauser, the returned soldier from here, is one that enjoyed the war; says that they had both rough and good times, but on the while he liked the service, that if the thing was to be done over again he would not miss it,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 23, 1898.

Clauser married Ella Wolf and settled down in Oswego to raise a family that included two sons, Sylvester and Frank, who went on to fight in World War II. Phil Clauser remained proud of his service for the rest of his life and was an active member of the United Spanish War Veterans.

It’s likely he told his war stories to his sons as they grew up, so that when World War II broke out, they were more than willing to serve. Theodore, the oldest son, had been two young to serve in World War I, and then found himself too old to serve in World War II. But Sylvester and Frank were just right, Sylvester serving in the U.S. Navy, and Frank joining the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Frank Clauser was born in Oswego in 1911. He grew up among a tight group of friends and relatives—often they were one in the same. A good athlete, he played basketball and was a letter-winner on the undefeated 1929 Oswego High School football team. As a teenager, he was able to find work around Oswego, especially with his friend, Earl Zentmyer, who owned the local Ford auto dealership and garage.

After high school, Frank worked around Oswego and continued to live at home until he married his wife, Dorothy, and the couple moved to Aurora, where Frank found work building steel lockers and shelving at Durabilt Steel, one of the city’s many factories.

1942 Clauser, Sgt. Frank abt 1943

Sgt. Frank Clauser in a military portrait taken in 1942. (Little White School Museum collection)

When World War II broke out, he joined the Army and was assigned to the Army Air Corps.

After basic and advanced training, Frank was assigned to the newly activated 438th Bomb Squadron, part of the 319th Bomb Group. When the 438th received its B-26 Marauder aircraft, he became an engineer-gunner.

Designed and built by the Martin Aircraft Corporation, the B-26 was termed a medium bomber by the U.S. Army Air Corps. Its two Pratt and Whitney engines gave it good range (1,100 miles) and an excellent top speed (310 mph) while carrying a potent bomb load of 5,200 lbs. It was also heavily armed with 11 .50 cal. machine guns.

The men of the 319th Bomb Group trained with their B-26’s as low-level raiders, and then flew their aircraft to England in September of 1942. From there, they flew on to North Africa where they operated against Italian and German forces. Besides engaging in tactical bombing against ground targets, the B-26’s of the 319th Bomb Group were also used as interceptors to shoot down German transport aircraft flying from Italy carrying supplies to the Axis forces in North Africa.

After the German Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were defeated in North Africa, the 438th turned its attention towards Sicily and Italy. Flying at low altitudes, Sgt. Clauser and the rest of the men of the 438th Bomb Squadron used their low level bombing to hit ground targets in Sicily and Italy, and also attacked Axis shipping in the Mediterranean using skip bombing techniques.

319th BG B-26

One of the 319th Bomb Group’s B-26 Martin Marauders, this one from the 437th Bomb Squadron, identical to the aircraft in which Frank Clauser flew.

But as might be expected when flying a demanding aircraft at low levels during combat situations, losses were high. In fact, they were so high the bomb group temporarily stood down in February 1943 and retrained to bomb from medium levels. When Clauser’s outfit went back into action bombing rail marshaling yards from medium altitudes, aircraft losses dropped sharply.

The men of the 438th Bomb Squadron woke up on the morning of Aug. 22, 1943 anticipating another mission against Italy. Based at DJedeida, Algeria since late June, the 438th and the rest of the squadrons in the 319th Bomb Group were assigned to cut the supply lines of Axis forces in southern Italy in support of the upcoming Allied invasion of the European mainland–what Winston Churchill called “The Soft Underbelly of Europe.”

On this particular morning, the airmen learned they’d be bombing the railroad marshaling yards at Salerno, just down the coast from Naples. The crew of Clauser’s plane included the aircraft’s pilot, Lt. William Brown, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Richard Lobdell, and the navigator/bombardier 2nd Lt. Charles McVaughan, along with Staff Sgt. Alfred Conz, the radio operator and waist gunner and Staff Sgt. Sidney Gibbs. Sgt. Clauser was the plane’s gunner/engineer whose battle station was in the B-26’s dorsal turret armed with twin .50 cal. Browning machine guns.

After the crew strapped in, Lt. Brown lifted the plane off the airstrip for the hour’s flight to the Italian mainland. They never returned.

Later that month, the Clauser family was officially notified by telegram that Sgt. Clauser was missing in action. A terse note appeared in the Record’s “Oswego” column on Sept. 22, 1943: “Mr. and Mrs. Philip Clauser received the sad news that their youngest son, Frank, is missing in action. His wife lives in Aurora.”

Clauser certificate

The Clauser family received this note signed by the President after Frank Clauser was finally declared dead. Shot down over the Mediterranean off Salerno, Italy, his body was never recovered. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although the Army Air Corps listed him as missing, they knew he was almost certainly dead. Second Lt. Clarence Kozenski was piloting his B-26 just off Lt. Brown’s wing about ten minutes past noon on Aug. 22 when Axis fighters attacked the formation. He reported that Frank Clauser’s plane was riddled with bullets. One engine was set on fire, and large sections of the aircraft skin pealed off the vertical stabilizer at the tail before the aircraft plunged into the Mediterranean. Lt. Kozenski reported no parachutes were sighted as the plane crashed.

Although the family held out hope for his eventual return, it became more and more likely Frank would never come home as the months went by and no word was received. Eventually, his status as a casualty was verified and a gold star, denoting “Killed in Action,” was painted next to Sgt. Clauser’s name on the “Honor Roll” billboard in downtown Oswego that listed the men and women serving in the armed forces. His family received a Certificate of Honor from Oswego Township reading: “Certificate of Honor. To whom these presents shall come: Greetings: Whereas Frank Clauser, who as a member of the armed forces of this, our great and glorious country, gave his life for the cause of liberty and freedom he had always loved. These communities, with God’s Blessing, pay tribute to our beloved hero.” It was signed by Oswego Township Supervisor Oliver Burkhart, NaAuSay Township Supervisor Hugh Christian, and A.M. Pierce, Oswego village president.

Because his body was never found, Sgt. Clauser’s name is carved on The Wall of the Missing in the North Africa Cemetery along with the names of 3,723 other missing U.S. servicemen. The cemetery is located close to the ancient city of Carthage in Tunisia, near where Clauser and the rest of Lt. Brown’s crew left on their last flight. In addition to the honored missing, a total of 2,841 fallen U.S. servicemen are buried in neat ranks in the 27-acre cemetery.

This year’s “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit will be held from Nov. 4 through 12 at the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, and the two Clausers, father and son, will be among the hundreds honored for their service and, in Frank’s case, his ultimate sacrifice. You’re all invited, so stop on by; admission’s free.

 

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Filed under History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History

A tale of two towns…

Just got back from our annual early October trip up to the Northwoods to close our fishing cabin for another season.

My buddy, Paul and I, have known each other for more than 60 years, having met in third grade when my family moved off the farm and into town. Paul, I, and my wife Sue pooled our resources back in 1972 and bought five acres of wild land along the South Fork of the Flambeau River up in Price County, Wisconsin. Camping got old after six or seven years, so in 1980 we bought a fishing cabin a couple miles north of Park Falls—then, as now, Price County’s largest municipality—on Butternut Lake.

2017 10-10 Paul fishing

The sunset on Butternut Lake on Oct. 10 proved to be a spectacular one as we attempted to invite a few walleyes for supper.

We open the cabin each spring so as to be ready for opening day for walleye season on the first Saturday in May. And since it’s a three-season fishing cabin, we close it down for the winter each autumn, generally around Columbus Day.

As I sat out fishing with Paul as our annual autumn trip drew to a close, I started thinking about the big changes we’ve seen in northern Wisconsin, as well as the changes in my hometown of Oswego here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. In both cases, those changes have been profound, generally in a good way for Oswego but not so much for Park Falls.

Park Falls, like most of the municipalities in Price County, was established during the lumbering boom of the late 19th Century, growing faster than its neighboring villages when a paper mill was built there. It was not only the industrial center of the surrounding hinterland, but was also the agriculture market center for nearby farms, which were mostly dairy operations. Today, the paper mill is still busy, turning pulpwood harvested from the surrounding managed forests into paper.

The town’s businesses and industry led to construction of a large stock of housing, smaller worker’s cottages for industrial workers and retail employees, with larger homes built by executives and successful merchants.

Paper Mill

The Flambeau River Papers mill still dominates Park Falls’ downtown while providing jobs for residents.

But like so many small towns in overwhelmingly rural areas like northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has seen its population decline sharply over the years. When we bought our fishing cabin back in 1980, Park Falls’ population stood at its historic peak, 3,192. The town’s downtown sported a stock of substantial brick storefronts that housed two grocery stores and a fair variety of retail businesses.

That same year, Oswego’s population was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau at just slightly below Park Falls’, 3,021. Oswego was still the market town for the surrounding agricultural hinterland, but was rapidly changing into a suburban bedroom community. Residential and commercial development took a breather during the 1980s, but then in the 1990s it began again, surging strongly into the early 2000s. In fact, during that era, Kendall County, in which Oswego is situated, became (in percentage terms) the fastest growing county in the entire nation.

Meanwhile, Park Falls and Price County were steadily losing population. Young people graduating from high school found decreasing opportunities for economic advancement, leading to a population drain.

2017 10-6 Fall color at the lake.jpg

Autumn color was hitting the peak on Oct. 6 when I snapped this shot down towards Butternut Lake.

The paper mill continued to provide jobs, but increasing automation meant there were fewer of those available. Then in 2006, the factory closed, shocking the entire community. But with private and governmental economic cooperation, it reopened after a few months, and has continued operating since. In addition, St. Croix Rods opened a manufacturing plant in Park Falls for high-end fishing equipment, and later, the Weathershield company opened a state-of-the-art window factory in town, providing more relatively good-paying jobs.

Even so, the community’s population continued to decline. The 2016 population estimate for Park Falls was just 2,292, a decrease of nearly 30 percent since 1980.

In comparison, Oswego’s population surged during that same period, growth fueled by northern Illinois’ powerful economic engine. In 1990, Oswego’s population had grown, but not sharply, to 3,879. But then the frenetic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s hit and by the new millennium Oswego’s population had grown to 13,326. The growth explosion continued through the 2000s, despite the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, the village’s population stood at an astonishing 30,355. Between then and 2016, population went up another 10 percent or so to an estimated 34,571.

2008 Oswego look E from W bank

These days, there are more traffic signals on Oswego, Illinois’ Washington Street than in all of Park Falls, Wisconsin—one of the prices residents pay for the community’s growth.

Not sure what all this proves, other than the old cliché that the three most important factors contributing to real estate values is location, location, and location.

Park Falls’ population declined by nearly 30 percent during the same period when Oswego’s population grew by 10 times, mostly, but not entirely, based on where the two towns were situated, Park Falls largely isolated in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Oswego adjacent to the Chicago suburban economic powerhouse.

Those of us who have lived through Oswego’s growing pains often grumble about the area’s extreme changes. But all things considered, it’s been a lot better watching a community grow and prosper rather than slowly evaporate as its young people leave for places where there are opportunities to make a successful family life.

 

 

 

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

Substituting electronic for personal contact is nothing new…

Got back from our Undaunted Courage trip out west all in one piece, despite a battle with bronchitis. The good folks at the walk-in clinic in Fergus Falls, Minnesota fixed me up with a supply of tetracycline and so we were good to go for the trip back home.

We planned to make a brief stop at our fishing cabin up in northern Wisconsin on the way back, and since the route there from Fergus Falls took us right past the Norske Nook in Hayward, we couldn’t stop ourselves from stopping for supper and pie.

When we got home, I had plenty of time to go back over the things I missed while we were on the road. While I was doing that, an article in the September issue of The Atlantic caught my eye. Written a couple months ago by Jean M. Twenge, it asked the question, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

The kicker to the title of Twenge’s piece, “More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis,” lays out her basic thesis, which is that teens are in danger of becoming mentally and physically isolated because of the impact of smartphones on their lives.

Twenge starts her piece by recounting a conversation with the teenage child of a friend. The kid told Twenge that she spent most of her summer hanging out along, in her room, in constant communication with friends via social media. “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people,” the teen told her.

Which leads to several hundred words of increasing concern that riff off a theme laid out in a sentence in the piece: “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.”

1911 Oswego Phone switchboard

In 1911, the Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in Oswego handled all the village’s calls with just two operators.

It’s entirely possible—even probable—that’s Twenge’s concerns are valid. But it’s likely panic isn’t necessarily something we need to do. In fact, it might also help put things in a little perspective to know that telecommunications revolutions have been gobsmacking technologically punch-drunk folks here in the U.S. for a long, long time.

In the early 1850s, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad extended its tracks across the Fox River at Aurora and then west across northern Kendall County on the line’s way to Burlington, Iowa. It didn’t take long for telegraph lines to follow the tracks west, thus tying the county in with the rest of the country and the world. But the line ran a couple miles west of both Oswego and Yorkville, so it still took messages a while to get to town from stations along the line. Not until 1870, with the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch was built connecting towns along the Fox River did the bulk of Kendall residents find themselves living in towns with direct telegraph service to the rest of the world.

In the spring of 1870, the Great Western Telegraph Company strung their lines south and west of Aurora past Oswego and Yorkville and then on to Plano. On May 19, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, reported that “Oswego is to be connected with the rest of the world by telegraph. A gentleman representing the Great Western Telegraph Company was here the other day disposing of the stock to our citizens and making preliminary arrangements for an office.”

Then in December 1870, the CB&Q built their own lines, following the Fox River Branch’s route all the way south to Streator. By the end of January, Rank could report: “The telegraph wire is up and we are in connection with the world at large.”

It was an immediate convenience for just about everyone from law enforcement, which used it to quickly track down horse thieves, to just regular folks. In December 1878, Tom Miller received word from England that he needed to go back to his native land to deal with settling an estate. He accordingly set off from Oswego for New York and was about to leave on a ship across the Atlantic when the British Counsel in New York telegraphed him at Oswego that due to fast-evolving circumstances, he should delay his trip. But Miller wasn’t in Oswego; he was in New York. So the message was immediately sent back east along the line, reaching him in time for him to get off the ship before it sailed for England.

It took not many more years for telephones to pop up here and there in Kendall County. Originally, they were two-party, personal affairs used to connect a business owner’s home with his store. By the late 1800s, telephone wires were beginning to stretch across the region, tying whole communities into a telecommunications network that was rapidly spanning the nation.

In December 1897, just as Oswego got connected to the national phone network, Rank commented: “The telephone is much appreciated by some of our people and quite a few distant colloquies were had by them through it on Monday. It was suggested to me that I might more readily phone my report to The Record than the doing it by writing.”

Cutter insulator

Oswegoan Scott Cutter’s tree-mounted insulator helped telephone companies extend service to rural areas without having to install utility poles.

By June 1900, Rank was predicting telephones would not only affect townspeople, but would also have an interesting impact on area farmers: “Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

And indeed, on June 16, 1901, the Record’s correspondent for the Specie Grove neighborhood along Minkler Road south of Oswego noted with some amazement: “We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

County residents weren’t only taking advantage of the telephone’s communications advantages; some were turning their inventive genius towards finding ways to make a buck off the technology itself. Oswego druggist Scott Cutter, for instance, invented an insulator for telephone wires that didn’t require telephone poles. As wires were strung through rural areas, it was a lot more cost effective if they could be hung from trees instead of installing utility poles—especially in that day when holes for them had to be hand-dug.

1903 abt N on Main from Wash wires

By the time his photo was taken about 1903 in downtown Oswego, utility wires, from overhead electric lines for the interurban trolley to telephone and electric service lines were starting to blot out the sky.

Gradually, even most rural areas were wired for service. In 1900, telephone service reached Judd and Maria Bushnell’s farm, just across the Kendall County line in DeKalb County near Sandwich.

The Bushnells were enthusiastic diarists, with Judd, Maria, and their son, Frank, all jotting their thoughts down on a near-daily basis around the turn of the 20th Century.

Reading the diaries, copies of which are in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, it is striking how much face-to-face socializing went on in rural areas of that time. The stereotype of isolated farms and their lonely residents simply doesn’t stand up to an encounter with the Bushnell diaries, which record a continual series of overnight guests, of the Bushnells visiting other families and staying overnight, and numerous trips to town and for pleasure.

But all that personalized socializing came to a halt with the arrival of the Bushnells’ telephone. After their phone was installed in their farm house, the swirl of face-to-face visits sharply declined, eventually trickling off to almost zero. Instead, the Bushnells write about talking on the phone with friends and relatives.

So like all new inventions, the impact of telephone technology had a host of unforeseen consequences for area residents. Business owners had no trouble adjusting to the phone system’s advent. It took regular folks a little longer to figure out how they’d benefit from it, some, like Oswego’s Scott Cutter, turning their inventive genius towards figuring out how to make a buck off improving aspects of the business. Others, like the Bushnells, experienced lifestyle changes they likely didn’t even notice until after they’d occurred. Although you could make a good case for the impact of television on society, I believe it would take until the invention and adoption of the Internet for such a major information technology-driven change in people’s lives to occur again.

Pretty sure we can already answer the question of that Atlantic article and figure that no, smartphones won’t destroy a generation. After all, we’ve survived the positive predictions of television, video games, and Pokemon Go destroying generations past. But given the way these things seem to creep up on us, I can hardly wait to find out how the next big thing in communications will disrupt my life.

 

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Filed under Business, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Andrew Carnegie and the Oswego Presbyterians’ pipe organ…

Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie managed to amass a fortune that would be in the billions in today’s dollars after he arrived penniless in the United States. His great creation was the U.S. Steel Corporation.

1913 Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie in 1913, the same year he agreed to pay half the cost of the Oswego Presbyterian Church’s new pipe organ.

But after making all that money he decided to give almost all of it away. During his last 18 years of life, Carnegie, through his private foundation, gave away some $350 million in those old dollars, which as a share of the nation’s modern gross domestic product would equal an nearly $78.6 billion.

Beneficiaries of Carnegie’s largess included universities and nearly 3,000 communities in the U.S. and a few other nations that received his iconic libraries.

Carnegie libraries are fairly well-known, but what isn’t so well known is that the old corporate buccaneer also helped finance more than 7,600 church organs. Carnegie wasn’t particularly religious, and at least one source suggests the reason for the organ donations was, in Carnegie’s own words, “To lessen the pain of the sermons.”

Here in Kendall County, the City of Plano was lucky enough to receive a Carnegie library grant. But Oswego also got a little of the Scottish immigrant’s money when he donated half the cost of a new pipe organ for the Oswego Presbyterian Church.

1902 abt Osw Pres spire

The Oswego Presbyterian Church about 1902 after its move to Madison and Benton streets. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Presbyterian congregation of Oswego built their first church in 1857. The timber-framed Greek Revival structure was built in a cluster of pines at the intersection of Madison and Douglas streets.

In 1901, the church building was jacked up, put on rollers, and moved three blocks north, down the hill to the intersection of Madison and Benton streets, the former site of the village’s Baptist church. In April 1928, the church’s former pastor, the Rev. W.A. Montgomery, recalled, “As I remember, I began my ministry in Oswego the first of September 1901. One of the first things the church undertook after our arrival was to move the church from its old location where it stood at the fork of the street…It was a very inspiring sight as I remember it in its old setting especially in the early evening, facing down the center of the street with an evergreen tree on either side…But the site was more picturesque than convenient and modern progress demanded a change to the present location.”

1913 Pres Church reconstion

The Oswego Presbyterian Church in the midst of its ambitious 1913 metamorphosis from a clapboard Greek Revival building to a brick Romanesque-style structure. (Little White School Museum photo)

In the early spring of 1913, the congregation decided to extensive remodel the original 1857 structure. Well-known Oswego builder Lou C. Young won the contract to change the building from a timber-framed, clapboard-sided structure into a brick Romanesque-style building with corner bell tower. And fortunately for us, Young had his son, Dwight, a professional photographer as well as a carpenter, record the progress of the project for future generations and probably for marketing purposes as well.

The Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported on April 9, 1913: “The farewell banquet in the old Presbyterian church was held in their parlors last Thursday evening. Despite the extreme weather, about 60 enjoyed a delicious banquet served by the ladies. The program, though very good was shortened by talent unable to attend on account of the storm. Preparations are about completed for the new structure, which will be commenced very soon.”

1914 Pres Church after remodel

The Oswego Presbyterian Church in 1914 after its ambitious transformation into a ‘modern’ Romanesque-style structure. (Little White School Museum photo)

With the new cornerstone laid in early August, construction continued throughout the rest of 1913. During the project, the Presbyterians were invited to meet at the German Evangelical Church just up the street at Madison and Washington.

As construction continued, the congregation’s pastor, the Rev. J. Turner Hood, resigned to take an administrative position with the Presbytery. But Hood had already contacted the Carnegie Foundation about obtaining a pipe organ for the renovated and remodeled church. Word was received late in 1913 that Carnegie had agreed to foot half the bill for the church’s new pipe organ, with was valued at $2,000.

1914 Pres Church New Carnegie Organ

The Oswego Presbyterian Church’s impressive pipe organ purchased in part with funds from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie in 1914. (Little White School Museum photo)

The organ was installed on the new church’s pulpit platform with its pipes forming the backdrop across the center front of the chancel. The choir seating was located between the organ and the pulpit.

As the Oswego correspondent for the Kendall County Record reported on Sept. 23, 1914 following the church’s dedication ceremony: “[T]he most impressive sight is the large pipe organ and pulpit at the west end of the building. This organ fills the place behind the pulpit and is one of which many city churches might well be proud. The woodwork matches the interior of the church and the immense pipes stand out in grandeur. Before it are the seats for the choir and a railing that divides the choir loft from the pulpit.”

Organ pipe

A wooden E flue pipe from the Oswego Presbyterian Church Carnegie pipe organ.

The organ was a focal part of the church and community for nearly eight decades.

In 1966, the Presbyterians dedicated their new building on North Madison Street (Ill. Route 25), and sold their old church building to the new Oswego Baptist congregation. After nearly 70 years, the Baptists again owned the site at Madison and Benton.

1965 Sue (Musselman) and Roger Matile

The author and his bride in front of the Oswego Presbyterian Church Carnegie organ on Nov. 25, 1965, a couple months before the organ was dismantled.

In January 1966, after purchasing the building, the Oswego Baptist Church removed the pipe organ and disposed of it to make room for the new congregation’s baptismal font. Members of the Presbyterian Church were invited to take individual pipes from the organ as souvenirs of the church’s history. Along with other remodeling of the building, the old pipe organ was replaced by an electric organ.

In the late 1970s, the Baptists, at the urging of their pastor, decided to demolish the 1914 structure. Demolition took place during the summer of 1979, finishing up on July 25. While the impressive pipe organ had been discarded, the old church’s stained glass windows were saved from destruction. Some are already on display at the Harvest New Beginnings Baptist Church in rural Oswego, the successor congregation to the Oswego Baptist Church. Other of the windows are currently undergoing restoration, with plans in hand to eventually display them as well.

Today, all that remains of the grand old Oswego Carnegie organ are some of the souvenir pipes in basements and attics of former Presbyterian church members—and the numerous photos of couples who began their marriages at the church between 1914 and 1966.

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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

Blogging’s been lighter than usual lately since we took a few days of vacation last week.

Every year about this time we try to head north to get away from the corn that’s tasseled out around these parts, since I’m allergic to corn pollen.

Corn is just a genetically modified grass, and allergy tests done when I was a lad showed that grass pollen really irritates my respiratory system. Not that I didn’t know that already, of course. Growing up on a farm, you couldn’t get away from grass pollen and dust; it was literally everywhere, from the bales of alfalfa and straw in the haymow to the bedding in the chickens’ nesting boxes. And since I was allergic to feathers, too, the chicken house always hit me with a double whammy. Some friends gave me a few pairs of bantam chickens for my birthday when I was six or seven and it turned out to be a gift that nearly did me in.

So, while I loved farming, it was something I simply couldn’t get involved in and continue to live. It was a good thing I finally figured out I could write, I guess.

But anyway, we head north several times a summer, up above the Tension Line in northern Wisconsin. Many of the things to which my body is allergic don’t like living north of Steven’s Point, so that’s where we go.

1888 Dr. Gilbert B LesterIt’s actually an old Midwestern tradition. As the Aug. 26, 1880 “Oswego” column in the Kendall County Record reported: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

It wasn’t that Dr. Gilbert Lester was a sissy, either, serving as a Union Army physician during the Civil War and out on the western plains before coming back to Illinois to practice in Oswego. Even so, Dr. Lester headed north and east every year in August and September to escape what the Record’s Oswego correspondent frequently dubbed “the plague” of hay fever.

This time of year was also a plague for me when I was a kid out on the farm because this is when the small grains—oats and wheat—were ripe and harvesting began. The era of threshing machines was over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the combines that were in use in the early 1950s created just as much dust as had their ancestor steam-powered threshing machines. Although I was spared being blasted with coal smoke from the steam engine, so I had that going for me.

So it was a relief when my folks took me north on summer vacations. Back in those days, there was no home air conditioning to speak of. The only folks who had an air conditioner out in our neighborhood were the Boughtons, something that was considered an odd, frivolous extravagance. Fans were the things. Big window fans, hassock fans, box fans, fans on wheeled carts, fans that oscillated, you name it, someone had one. Even so, those hot, humid summer nights out on the farm when you could literally hear the corn grow were not comfortable for those of us who, it turned out, were allergic to almost every important thing on the farm.

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

Richardson Root Beer barrel dispensers were a familiar sight in drug stores and cafes across the nation in the 1950s. A dime bought a frosty mug of the uniquely American drink.

The move to town when I was 8 was, I guess, a literal lifesaver, although I’ve always missed the farm, even though it was slowly killing me. In town, the nights were just as hot, but the air tended to carry less corn pollen. And there were, I must admit, more things to do.

For instance, there were places a person could actually spend an allowance of a quarter a week. Downtown at the Main Café, a mixed-on-the-spot Richardson Root Beer was just 10-cents in a frosty mug. I didn’t know it at the time, but the café’s soda fountain was the one that had formerly been in Shuler’s Drug Store across the street. When owner Al Shuler got tired of his store becoming a 1950s teen hangout, he sold the fountain to the owner of the café across the street.

As editor Ford Lippold reported in the Oswego Ledger on Dec. 9, 1954: “A fair-sized moving job took place downtown this week when the soda fountain formerly in Shuler’s Drug Store was transferred across the street to the Main Café. The moving of the soda fountain is part of a plan for increasing the facilities of the drug store. The present plan is to use the additional room for new items that are not now available in the community and to increase stocks of such popular items as greeting cards and gift-wrapping materials. The new and greatly enlarged stock will enable Oswegoans to obtain a wider selection and increased service.”

Sure, Al told Ford to put in the paper that he was getting rid of the soda fountain in order to serve the community better, but he was really anxious to get those pesky teenagers out of his store and across the street.

Chest type pop machineOr on evenings when the Main Café was closed, there was always the chest-type pop machine in front of Bohn’s Food Store. You put your dime in, and carefully slid the bottle of whatever soft drink you wanted along the slots to the end, where you could pull it out of the cold water, use the bottle opener on the side of the machine, and enjoy a drink while watching the traffic go by on busy U.S. Route 34. When the bottle was empty, you were expected to go back to Bohn’s and put it in the wooden pop bottle case at the end of the machine. Remarkably, almost everyone did.

Since I was the oldest among our neighborhood gang, on summer days the neighborhood kids would pool our nickels and dimes and I’d be dispatched on my bike down to Bohn’s to get a box of Popsiclesthe latest flavor of Popsicle. Back then, there were a myriad of flavors from licorice to root beer to banana. The trip back from town was always quick, because it was mostly downhill, but I had to ride carefully to make sure the box of valuable cargo didn’t bounce around too much and break any of the two-stick popsicles while hurrying enough to make sure none of them melted too much.

And for those totally bereft of any cash at all, there was the public water fountain at the corner of Main and Washington (Route 34), right next to the phone booth—remember phone booths? Oswego’s was a red and silver beauty that was brightly lighted at night. It

1958 Main St. East side

Oswego’s phone booth (lower left) at Main and Washington in 1958.

was probably the only one in the nation that actually had a phone book in it, too. The public fountain didn’t survive past the early 1950s, unfortunately, but the phone booth soldiered on for many years.

We take so many things for granted these days. Air conditioning makes us much more comfortable than any fan, and for those of us like Dr. Lester who are afflicted with “the plague of hay fever” and severe allergies, the hum of the AC on hot, humid Illinois summer days is a literal lifesaver. Kids’ allowances have inflated since the 1950s, and the places to spend them have grown. But there’s still a café on Main Street where you can get an icy drink, although alas, the Richardson Root Beer barrel and the old drug store soda fountain are long gone. Bohn’s is gone, along with their pop machine, but across the street at the cyclery shop, there’s a high-tech machine that dispenses bottles of healthy water and juice. And just down Main Street, across even busier Route 34, is the Dairy Hut where hungry kids of all ages can enjoy an ice cream cone or whatever. We’re no longer a small town, but have rather turned into a small city. Even so, there are still a lot of those old small town touches that bring back the memories for us increasingly rare natives.

 

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When folks thought Kendall County was a good place to be from…

In 1954, my parents decided to retire from farming and move into town. When I resumed third grade classes in January 1955 at the old Red Brick School, there were more kids in that single classroom than had been in my entire one-room country school. It was a bit of an adjustment.

1942 Oswego Limits Sign

By 1942, Oswego’s population had gone up a bit from the number counted in 1940. Or perhaps village officials just decided to round up the 978 counted in the 1940 Census.

In those days, the population on Oswego’s village limit signs was 1,220, its population as of the 1950 census. It was a small, but growing community. New houses were going up around town and just north of town on John H. Bereman’s old Boulder Hill Stock Farm, a sprawling, unincorporated subdivision was going up with new, affordable houses aimed at the thousands of discharged World War II and Korean Conflict veterans who were starting new families.

Community growth was taken for granted in those days and looked upon as a mostly favorable thing, although it was starting to dawn on local folks that what they were looking at wasn’t just a dozen or so new homes, but hundreds of them that would generate new students for local schools and lots of motorists on previously lightly traveled roads.

Starting then, we got used to fairly constant growth, but Oswego and Kendall County weren’t always sure bets for population growth. After the explosive growth during the settlement era from the early 1830s through 1850, in the decades after the Civil War, the county’s population saw a slow, steady decline before it finally started to recover in the 1920s. But it didn’t reach its pre-Civil War high until the mid-1950s as that post-World War II and Korean Conflict growth began to kick in.

In 1860, on the cusp of the Civil War, Kendall County’s population stood at 13,074, nearly double the 7,730 recorded in 1850, the first census taken after the county was established in February 1841.

During the Civil War, Kendall contributed more than 1,200 soldiers, sailors, and marines (an astonishing 10 percent of the county’s total population) to the war effort, nearly 300 who were killed, or died of wounds or sickness.

Moving west

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad opened up millions of acres of western shortgrass prairies for settlement.

After the war, veterans trickled back to the county as their units were demobilized. Also arriving were a number of former slaves and black veterans of U.S. Army military units who arrived to start farming in Oswego and Kendall townships.

But more former residents had disappeared than new ones had arrived. When the Illinois state census was taken in 1865, the county’s population had taken a fairly serious hit, dropping by 445 residents. Part of that was accounted for by those soldiers who died as a result of the war. But when the 1870 U.S. Census was taken, it was found the county had lost another 230 residents in the previous five-year period.

A brief growth spurt of 684 residents was recorded in the 1880 census, but from then on it was a steady decline until growth began inching up in the 1920s. Between 1860 and 1920, the county’s population declined by 3,000 residents, a surprising 23 percent drop.

So, what was going on in those post-Civil War years?

I suspect that population loss was due to a number of factors. First, the veterans who returned from Civil War service were, for the most part, young, ambitious men who had seen more of the country than any preceding generation. They’d traveled south deep into the Confederacy all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. They’d marched west of the Mississippi, campaigning through Missouri and Arkansas, all the way to the Texas-Mexico border where the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry spent a while staring down French troops on the other side of the Rio Grande. Other Kendall County residents had fought through campaigns in the southeast on Sherman’s famed March to the Sea and with Grant all the way to Appomattox Courthouse.

Having seen so many new places, and for many, having so much responsibility for life and death situations thrust upon them at such a young age, I suspect it was hard for many of those former soldiers to simply return home and take up where they’d left off. They’d all changed one way or another in ways often profound.

A second factor was the availability of somewhere else to go where land was cheap and the chance existed to build whole new communities. In an effort to promote construction of a transcontinental railroad, the government had given millions of acres in land grants west of the Mississippi River to the railroad companies working on the project. The idea was that the railroads would sell the land, using the proceeds to help finance the gigantic construction project And that put those millions of acres into play for men and women who dreamed of establishing new farms and towns.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was another spur to western settlement that dovetailed nicely with the railroad land grants to lure new westerners. Any resident of the U.S. who had not taken up arms against the government could stake a 160-acre claim, improve it, and obtain ownership after five years of occupancy.

With the end of the war, the Homestead Act combined with the extension of the rails west of the Mississippi to provide easy access turbocharged western expansion.

The move west by county residents, as chronicled in the pages of the Kendall County Record, began early in the 1870s. Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted on Nov. 9, 1871: “Orson Ashley and his son, Martin, started yesterday for their new home in Kansas near Topeka; they chartered a car to take their effects, Orpha and Ella, daughter and son’s wife, are to follow.”

That was only the first of a veritable flood of emigration, which was facilitated by the completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road in 1870. The line, which followed the banks of the Fox River from Ottawa north to Geneva, directly connecting the county’s river towns with the wider world. As noted above, the Ashleys leased a rail car, loaded their goods aboard in Oswego, and weren’t required to offload them until they arrived on the shortgrass prairies of Kansas.

The flood of emigrants was helped along by frequent ads in the Record similar to this one from the Dec. 30, 1876 edition placed by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad general agent John M. Childs: “Ho for Kansas! I shall take out a small party of excursionists to Larned and Kinsley, Kan. on Tuesday, Jan. 11th, 1876. If you desire to go to any part of Kansas at excursion rates, let me know at once. I shall also send out emigrant freight and excursion trains on Feb. 15th and March 14th, 1876. Cars of freight, $95 and $100 each, from all points on C.R.I. & P. R.R.”

On March 15, 1877, Rank reported a large group of Oswegoans were bound for Kansas: “Charles A. and Henry Davis, with the latter’s family, and William H. Coffin and family, Will Miller, Dan Puff, Valentine somebody and others whose names I did not learn, altogether 12 persons, started this morning for a new home in Kansas. They have taken with them two carloads of effects including 12 horses and mules. The Davises have land in Lyon and Greenwood counties of that state. I believe it is the latter to which they are now going.

Not everyone went west to the plains, of course. In July 1873, a number of families loaded up their goods to move south rather than west. Rank wrote on June 26, 1873 that “A number of families are making preparations to move with William Hawley to the state of Mississippi.”

William A. Hawley was a veteran of the 13th Illinois Volunteer Infantry and campaigned with the regiment through much of Mississippi with Grant and Sherman during the war. Apparently, Hawley was so taken with that part of the country that he went to Madison County, Mississippi in April 1873 to look over the country, and then persuaded a number of Oswego families to join him.

And in 1880, Kendall County Circuit Clerk Lyman Bennett and his family moved to Missouri. In 1881, a large party of families moved to Plymouth County, Iowa, after which Rank plaintively remarked: “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum.”

1870 Brockway farms.jpg

The Brockways sold their farms and moved to Iowa in 1884.

Out on the Oswego prairie, the Edmund Brockway family had been farming right on the border with Wheatland Township, Will County, since the 1850s. In 1884, he decided he could increase his acreage by moving west to Iowa. Accordingly, he bought a farm near Newell in Buena Vista County, in far northwestern Iowa. Returning, he got his wife and several children ready to move starting in February 1884.

The Brockways’ farm was located on Stewart Road just north of Simons Road, making Aurora their largest nearby town. Accordingly, that’s where they moved the farm tools and household goods they planned to take west.

“We were to get possession of the new farm March 1, so we loaded our moveables on two [rail] cars to reach it at that date,” Edmund’s son, also named Edmund, wrote in a 1946 memoire.

The Brockways procured two rail cars from the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad and loaded their goods aboard in Aurora. “Machinery and four horses in one car, household goods and four cows, one calf, one dog, some hens, and maybe a cat,” young Edmund recalled. They left Aurora on a Tuesday evening, and arrived at their destination at noon Friday. The Brockways made a success of their move, and Edmund’s descendants live and farm in Buena Vista County still.

Not everyone made a go of it, of course. The families who tried Mississippi gradually straggled back to Kendall County, Hawley himself lasting not quite a year.

Also having sober second thoughts were a number of those who tried farming on the arid plains of western Kansas and Nebraska. On Dec. 18, 1889, Rank wrote: “Frank Hoard and all of the family have returned from Dakota and moved on a farm over near the old [CB&Q railroad] station. He was well pleased with the country out there but has had bad luck; first nearly losing everything by being burned out, and next being included in the district where nothing was raised the past season because of drought.”

As the 20th Century dawned, removals from Kendall County continued, although the destinations changed from west to north, with residents moving to Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Canada. On Oct. 21, 1908, the Record reported that “Charles Turpin loaded his [railroad] car Monday for his new home in Halbrite, Saskatchewan.”

2016 Oswego Village Limits

There appears to be little danger of Oswego’s population declining any time soon. Counting 3,876 residents in 1990, the latest population estimate is well over 30,000.

Canadian officials and railroad companies were so good at selling Americans on the good deals they could have by moving north that it became a concern. The Record reported on May 11, 1910 that officials in Washington, D.C. were alarmed at the exodus: “Washington officials of the departments of Agriculture and Commerce and Labor have a sharp sense of the need of something, no one yet seems to know just what, to stop the flood of emigration from the western United States into Canada. The administration is to take the matter up seriously. In the last eight years, 480,000 of American citizens have gone to Canada.”

But like all other fads, that, too soon passed. As the 20th Century reached its mid point, Kendall County’s population was finally recovering, fueled by all those Baby Boomers produced by military veterans. And by the 1960s, we’d reached and then quickly surpassed the 1860 population high point.

Given Kendall County’s location nestled up against three of the six fast-growing Collar Counties, it’s unlikely we’ll experience population loss any time soon. But it did happen once, so there’s that.

 

 

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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