Category Archives: Oswego

A different world: Growing up on an Illinois farm in the early 1950s

I sometimes get the feeling that I grew up in a kind of time warp.

1952 Musselman house Aurora

The house on Douglas Avenue on the southeast side of Aurora where my wife lived when she was six years old.

My wife, for instance, cheerfully refers to herself as a “Subdivision Kid.” She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa (Radar O’Reilly’s hometown) and then moved around as her father was transferred with his job for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. As a result, she grew up in a series of subdivisions in Aurora here in Illinois, in St. Louis, and finally back to Illinois and Boulder Hill here in Kendall County where she lived in modern houses, watched television, had heated bathrooms and bedrooms, and never listened to “The Great Gildersleeve” on an RCA console radio.

For me, on the other hand, things were different. Very different.

When I was born, my folks took me home to the farm they were renting from Clarence and Elsie Butcher in Wheatland Township, just across the Will County line from Kendall County. The farm we lived on was considered relatively new, the buildings having only been built in the early l930s. But while the house might have been considered almost new when they moved in, it seemed to have been built in considerable haste.

1950 Butcher Place

The farm in Wheatland Township my parents rented from Clarence and Elsie Butcher.

One of my earliest memories is sitting in the living room of that house, looking at the front door, and seeing it festooned with clean rags that had been carefully and tightly packed into its numerous cracks to keep out the stiff prairie wind that was barely slowed by the poor-quality storm door. While the door looked impressive, all those cracks and gaps meant it did little to keep those breezes out. That house was just plain COLD.

The bathroom in that farmhouse was in the basement, right beside the cistern. Houses don’t have cisterns these days, they having been replaced by water softeners. The cistern was a large open-topped concrete tank built into one corner of the basement where all the rain water from the gutters on the roof was directed. The collected rainwater, being ‘soft,’ was then used for washing clothes and anything else that required some suds since the water from the well was loaded with minerals and therefore ‘hard.’

1947 Dad, Roger, Boots

My father looks on as I view Boots, the family Border Collie, with suspicion. Boots and I went on to become fast friends.

The bathroom had been added to the house as an afterthought in the basement corner next to the cistern a few years before I was born. My sisters, aged 9 and 12 when my parents brought me home from Copley Hospital in 1946, loved the indoor plumbing, no matter how primitive it might seem to modern sensibilities. Because anything was better than braving rain, sleet, and snow to make it to the outhouse. Even so, it took real courage for my childhood self to go to the bathroom before bed after listening to the latest installment of “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, let me tell you.

We had no automatic water heater, of course. Hot water had to be produced via a hand-fired water heater that was fueled with corncobs. After I got old enough—six—it was my duty of a Saturday night, to make sure the water heater had been started early enough so that my date-bound sisters could take hot baths and otherwise get ready in time for their dates.

1947 Roger in wash tub

Nothing like a cool swim on a hot day. The family Buick is in the background. Bought used, the car was roundly hated by my father who always referred to it as “The Lemon.” For years, my sisters thought that was the brand name.

One particularly disastrous instance that has stuck in my mind all these years occurred when I had the fire going nicely, and then attempted to check its progress, only to burn my hand on the spiral metal lid handle. After I complained, my mother advised me to use a piece of cloth with which to pad my hand. There were plenty of random pieces of cloth lying around the basement, especially around the old wringer-type washing machine. Unfortunately, the piece of cloth I grabbed happened to be one of my sisters’ nylon unmentionables, which promptly welded itself right onto the hot metal handle while a large hole melted in the undergarment. My father, who came down to the rescue, thought it was pretty funny. My sisters were less amused.

We didn’t get our first TV set until that year I was six years old. I’d seen TVs before that, of course, at friends’ and relatives’ homes, but my major electronic entertainment came from the big console radio in the living room. I remember the first TV was a black and gold table-model RCA that my parents bought from Don Pennington’s store in Plainfield.

Prior to the delivery of the TV, as noted above, the only entertainment I remember was listening to the radio. My folks owned a large console RCA Victor radio with an ornate walnut case that sat off the floor on four turned wooden legs. I remember enjoying a number of radio programs, from soap operas to action-adventure programs.

The Ranger & Sgt. Preston

“The Lone Ranger” and “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” shows were two of my favorites on radio. Both got ported over to TV and became hits there, too.

My mother and sisters (when they were home from school during the summer) listened to soaps during the day, including “One Man’s Family,” “Portia Faces Life” (my sister Elaine’s all-time favorite), “Ma Perkins” (which seemed to feature excessive numbers of screen doors slamming shut), “Our Gal Sal,” and “Just Plain Bill.”

I wasn’t much into soaps, however, being a boy of five or six. Action-adventure was my cup of tea. I listened to “Gang Busters,” “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon,” and “The Lone Ranger” as often as I could. “Superman” (Up, up, and away!) was another really big favorite. Imagine my amazement when I watched George Reeves actually go up, up, and away on our new TV set for the very first time. I ran right out to the barn to tell my father about the amazing occurrence! Superman could REALLY FLY! I’d just seen it happen on the television set with my own eyes! Which resulted in a gentle lecture about special effects that might have been the start of the skepticism that led me to a career in journalism.

Comedy shows were another favorite of mine. I liked “Fibber McGee and Molly” since Fibber’s closet and mine seemed to enjoy a similar arrangement, at least according to my mother. “The Great Gildersleeve” was another favorite, as was “Amos and Andy.” I know “Amos and Andy” is not politically correct these days, but I really liked it a lot when I was a kid, and always figured the black guys who delivered the coal for our furnace from the Brown Coal Company in Aurora were probably very funny guys when they weren’t busy shoveling coal into our basement. On coal delivery day, I always waited patiently outside for them to tell a joke or two, but never with any success. Nowadays I wonder how they were able to restrain themselves from painting over the company’s motto lettered on the sides of the brown dump trucks they drove: “Our Name is Brown, Our Coal is Black, We Treat You White.”

1952-53 Grades 1-6

Grades 1-6 at Church School during the 1952-53 school year.  The author is sitting in the lower left corner. His wardrobe–jeans and flannel shirt–has not changed appreciably since.

I attended a one-room school, Church School, located about a mile from our farm. When I started, there were six grades and nearly 30 students in one room, a far cry from schools in town where each grade had one or more rooms to itself. But at least I had classmates; five to start out with. My oldest sister went through eight years in two different rural one-room schools and was the only student in her class for all eight years.

By the time I started school, the seventh and eighth graders had already been moved into town, thanks to activism by my mother and other farm wives. The junior high in Oswego had much better facilities—a science lab, for instance—and there was no danger any student would have to go through their first eight grades as the only person in their class again.

But I started school almost at the end of the one-room country school in northern Illinois. Consolidation was being vigorously pursued by state education officials. When I started second grade, the fifth and sixth graders had been moved into town, and by third grade, the fourth graders followed. We moved off the farm in the middle of that third grade year and when I went to my first day of classes at my new school, there were more kids in my third grade classroom than there had been in our entire school out in the country.

And as part of the first real year of the Baby Boom, there was certainly no worry about me being the only student in my class. By the time we graduated from high school, we were the first class in school history to have more than 100 class members.

Farm technology was on the same cusp as electronic entertainment media at that time. Most farmers ran diversified farms, and my parents were no different. My dad took care of the livestock—cattle and hogs—out in the barn, and planted, tended, and harvested the fields that produced grain and forage crops. My mother’s realm was the garden, orchard, and chicken house as well as the farmhouse where she did the cooking, washing, and cleaning.

Diversified farms, as the name implies produced both grain and livestock, and my dad made a pretty good living on 120 acres of land. He often rented some more acreage from non-farming neighbors, but I don’t think he ever farmed more than 180 acres. My mom canned about everything that came out of the garden and the orchard, from fruits to vegetables. The chickens produced eggs that were, along with the dressed chickens themselves, traded in town for groceries. Meanwhile, my dad milked the family cow—a dappled golden brown and white Guernsey named Daisy by the time I came along—that provided milk and cream for the family with enough milk left over to have a family friend turn into cottage cheese. My grandmother churned the cream into butter and my father relished the buttermilk left over from the process. I never could stand the stuff straight, but it certainly made great pancakes.

Then I became a town kid when my father had to retire from farming. I hated leaving the farm, but it probably saved my life since I was violently allergic to just about everything on it from the hay and straw in the barn to the feathers on the chickens out in the chicken house. And by moving into town, I got to know and become intimately familiar with the Fox River in all its moods. It’s something I still enjoy since our house is located on the riverbank right across to the street from the house my parents moved to all those years ago.

It seems curious that when my family was trading eggs for groceries in Montgomery and taking extra cream and milk to the creamery in Yorkville that other kids my age were living in modern ranch homes on paved streets with sidewalks, and who never got a case of goosebumps in their lives from an episode of “Inner Sanctum.”

But time warp or not, the 1950s were a good time to grow up in my small corner of northern Illinois. And even though I have a hard time trying to fit my mind around it, I imagine today’s youngsters will look back just as fondly on their childhood days.

 

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Filed under family, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Nostalgia, Oswego, Women's History

Buying history is sometimes the only way it can be saved

A few years ago, I got an email from my friend Lyle Rolfe, who covers the Oswegoland Park District for our local community newspaper, the Ledger-Sentinel. He’d gotten a copy of the report I do every month for the board of the Oswegoland Heritage Association about the Little White School Museum here in town, and he noticed that we sometimes purchase items for our collections on eBay.

We don’t do a lot of that, but we probably average one item every couple months over a year’s time.

And thanks to those occasional eBay purchases, we’ve been able, for instance, to fill in the gaps of our collection of plaques manufactured by the Christian Art House here in Oswego from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and we’ve acquired a number of historically important postcards over the years, too.

One interesting postcard we purchased thanks to eBay ended up, like so many artifacts acquired for the museum, leading to us becoming more familiar with a couple interesting fragments of the Oswego area’s history.

1910 Horse tower trestle A b&w

The 1910 postcard showing the bell tower added to the old town hall in 1895 and the trolley trestle over the CB&Q tracks on Washington Street.

This particular postcard was mailed in 1910 from Oswego, and at first we thought the message on it was written in German. But it wasn’t necessarily the message on the postcard that caught our eye anyway. Instead, it was the view. The postcard’s photo was taken behind the retail businesses on the west side of Main Street, between Main Street and the (then) Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks, looking south. As a result, it showed the trestle on Washington Street that carried the interurban trolley tracks up and over the CB&Q tracks, which was interesting. But even more interesting was the view of the old Oswego Town Hall on Washington Street. It was one of the best views we’d seen of the hose tower that had been added to the hall after Oswego’s first pressurized water system was built and a fire brigade established.

2008 Twp Hall

The old town hall on Washington Street fell to the wrecker’s ball last year.

The tower was added to the town hall (built in 1884 as the village hall) in 1895 to house the village’s fire bell, and also to hang and dry the fire brigade’s canvas hoses after they were used.

The venerable old frame building was torn down last year to make way for a new business.

The bell the tower once housed, and which once called the village’s firefighters to action, is today the subject of a nice memorial out at the Oswego Fire Protection District’s new Station One on Woolley Road.

So we really wanted that postcard, and we were able to buy it very cheaply.

2010 March 5 fire bell remove

In March 2010, the old fire bell was moved from downtown Oswego to the new fire station on Woolley Road.

When we received the card, I immediately scanned it, and emailed a copy of the scan to a friend I knew could read German. He, however, informed me the card was not written in German, but in Danish!

Danes? In Oswego? Why, yes, actually. Turns out there was a small contingent of Danes living here, one of whom was Johann Schmidt, who had sent the postcard from Oswego to Denmark in 1910.

So we had a couple tasks. First, find someone to translate the card’s message, and second figure out who the heck Johann Schmidt was.

For help translating the card, I went to hNet, an Illinois network of professional historians. While I’m not one, they graciously allow me to participate from time to time. With their help we found native Danish speaker Anni Holm at Waubonsee Community College, who volunteered to translate the postcard.

According to her, the card was sent by Schmidt to his nephew, Max Schmidt, in Marstal, Denmark, congratulating the younger Schmidt on his recent confirmation, and explaining about the elder Schmidt’s prize stallion. Here’s Anni’s translation:

“Dear brother son Max S.

Have received your card and thank you for the applications. Yes, I am well and have it good. Hope the same for you and will I here wish you congratulations and a blessed confirmation, it is sad that I could not attend [unreadable word] to your confirmation

Your uncle Hans J. S.”

1910 Horse tower trestle B

The message side of the 1910 postcard, which turned out to have been written in Danish.

On top of the card the upside down text says the following: “this stallion as you see of the picture has been mine and it is hyre [Danish for hired] man who walked with it”

And who was Johann Schmidt? Turns out he was a prominent Oswego saloonkeeper during the early 1900s. Going by the names Johann Schmidt, John Schmidt, Shorty Smith, and John Smith, he owned The Oswego Saloon, which, when it was under construction in 1897, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, predicted:

“It will by far be the most gorgeous establishment of the kind that Oswego ever had.”

Just to sow a little more local history confusion, Rank added in March 1898:

“J.A. Schmidt and Ira Ackley have been doing the decorating of the new saloon building, all of which is most magnificent. Every room is of different color and pattern. The wine room–well, gorgeous or splendid–fail to express the sight of it.”

The J.A. Schmidt doing the decorating was not the Johann Schmidt who eventually bought The Oswego Saloon. J.A. was a German, a native Berliner, who worked around the Oswego area doing painting and wallpapering.

Johann Schmidt the saloonkeeper was a Dane who bought The Oswego Saloon from Al Cole in November 1904, and continued to run it as Oswego’s premier drinking establishment until prohibition closed it down.

So successful was he, in fact, that Schmidt was the victim of a strong-arm robbery. According to the Oct. 16, 1907 Kendall County Record:

HIT WITH AN AX;

ROBBED OF $300

John Schmidt, Oswego Saloon-Keeper,

Knocked Unconscious Last Night.

John “Shorty” Schmidt, one of the Oswego saloonkeepers, was going home last night from his place of business about 11 o’clock when he was attacked from ambush, hit on the head with an ax, and relieved of a roll if bills amounting to $800.

Mr. Schmidt lives in one of the small cottages along the railroad track below the village hall and it is his custom to go around the end of the town house, taking a shortcut to his own rear door. At the end of the village building is a clump of bushes and as he was passing those bushes he was suddenly felled to the ground with a heavy blow on the head. He was unconscious for about 15 minutes, and while he was senseless the hold-up men took his money. He is confined to his home this morning with a deep gash on the back of his head, which came near being a fractured skull.

So we gained a lot of interesting Oswego history with a vanishing small investment in a single postcard we were able to find thanks to eBay. And that’s the way local history rolls. Bit by bit, you build up a store of information that you can, when a key part finally becomes available, synthesize and arrive at some valuable insights.

“How do you go about researching local history,” a friend asked me not long ago. He’s right to be perplexed. It’s not like you can go to some Internet source and find out all about early 20th Century Oswego saloonkeepers of Danish descent.

Rather, this is how we do it, one bit at a time, until a key piece drops into place and makes the story whole, or at least as whole as it can be until the next bit is discovered and, in turn, drops into place.

 

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Filed under Architecture, Government, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

“Picturing Oswegoland”

We opened a new special exhibit at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego on Aug. 1 titled “Picturing Oswegoland.”

The museum is located at 72 Polk Street (Jackson at Polk), just a couple blocks east of the historic downtown business district here in Oswego. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, but we don’t turn donations down.

The exhibit was the brainchild of my fellow volunteer, Bob Stekl, who is the museum’s assistant director, and includes a few more than 240 images of Oswego and the surrounding area that date from the 19th Century through the 20th Century and into the 21st Century.

Since this blog’s readers don’t all live in or near Oswego, I thought I’d put up a selection of the images now on exhibit so you can get an idea of what it’s like. “Picturing Oswegoland” will be up through Sept. 1, so you’ve got a couple more weeks to go if you’re up to planning a visit.

Here are the images I selected:

1890 Harvey Threshing Ring B

Farmers in the area of Wolf’s Crossing and Harvey roads were members of the Harvey Threshing Ring. The small grains (oats, wheat, barley, rye) was pretty labor-intensive back in the day.

1898 Aurora Golf Club at Boulder Hill

Not many people know the Aurora Country Club got its start at the Boulder Hill Stock Farm–site of today’s Boulder Hill Subdivision. The clubhouse (top) was the A.C. Hyde House, which is still standing on Briarcliff Road.

1900 abt German Evangelical Church

The Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist is still a community landmark after standing at Washington and Madison streets for well over a century.

1900 Haag Farm Steam Engine

They used some serious equipment to thresh grain back in the day.

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main.jpg

In 1903, you could hop the interurban trolley car at Main and Washington streets for a trip to Aurora to shop or to go to high school or work. The two ladies at right have just gotten off the trolley and are walking home. Note the horse and buggy on Main Street.

1903 wagon crossing river

Another 1903 image we believe was taken by Mary Cutter Bickford looking north towards the bridge from behind the houses along South Main Street.

 

1904 Main at Wash look N

A nice postcard view of the Main Street business district looking north. Note the trolley tracks at left and the trolley’s electrical wires above the tracks. And you can’t miss the tangle of telephone lines on the poles on the east side of Main Street as two phone companies battled each other.

1905 OHS baseball

The 1905 Oswego High School Baseball Team on the steps of the old Red Brick School. The boys are wearing hand-me-down jerseys from the East Oswego men’s baseball team that was mostly comprised of farm boys from the Wolf’s Crossing Road area.

1910 5 Jun 3.30 pm Scan

One of my all-time favorite Oswego photos, snapped by Daniel Bloss at exactly 3:30 p.m. on June 5, 1910. Talk about your shapshots in time!

1910 Lumbard School, Amanda Hummel teach.jpg

The student body of the Lumbard School, often incorrectly called the Lombard School, that was located over in the Hafenrichter Road area. Check out all the barefoot kids…no dress code back then!

1911 abt Washington St. hill winter

Another one of my favorite Oswego shots, taken on Washington Street at Main, looking east towards what was then the German Evangelical Church. It nicely illustrates the era when automobiles were beginning to displace horse-drawn transport.

1911 Fox River Park Scene

The Oswego area once had its very own amusement park, Riverview Park, located on the site of the old Western Electric plant right across the river from Boulder Hill. It was a happening place with visitors taken there by the trolley line that ran from Aurora to Yorkville.

1913 Fox River Park with coaster.jpg

Another Riverview Park postcard view. The name was changed about 1906 to Fox River Park to differentiate it from the much larger Riverview Park in Chicago. Fox River Park featured a rollercoaster, giant merry-to-round, shoot the chutes, boating, and much more.

1912 Acme Binders

In 1912, Oswego implement dealer Bob Johnson sold 25 new Acme binders that arrived just in time for that year’s small grain harvest. The binders paraded through town down to “The Flats” just above the Oswego Bridge for this group photo before their owners drove them home.

1912 Red Brick exterior

A nice view of the Red Brick School before the 1920s classroom and gymnasium addition. The photo was taken by Dwight Young.

1922 (abt) Weishew Clinic

Dr. Lewis Weishew built this medical clinic at Main and Van Buren Streets in 1922. This photo was probably taken shortly after the building was finished.

1927 Parke Building

Earl Zentmyer bought the A.O Parke building on Main at Jackson Street  from Gus Shoger and opened his first Ford dealership and gas station in it. He eventually bought the old livery stable across Main Street from it and moved his dealership there, although he retained ownership of the building.

1930 Leapfrog at Bronk School.jpg

Nothing like a spirited game of leapfrog during recess, I always say. Bronk School, which marked the southern edge of the Oswego School District, was located at Caton Farm and Ridge roads–and still stands as a private home.

1933 Downtown Oswego, looking N from Washington St

Downtown Oswego all decorated up to celebrate the community’s centennial in 1933.

1940 Schultz Grocery Store freezer

Charlie Schultz (left) and Carl Bohn show off their brand new Birdseye frozen food display case in downtown Oswego in 1940.

1942 "Dinky" at Oswego Depot

The CB&Q’s gass-electric passenger car, nicknamed “The Dinky” by its riders, pulls out of the Oswego railroad station in 1942 on its way south through Yorkville and Ottawa to Streator. Passenger service was offered until 1952 when it was replaced by bus service.

1944 Sept saying pledge outdoors cropped

Saying the pledge at Church School out in Wheatland Township during World War II.

1949 Nehru visits WA Smith farm

The area enjoyed the occasional visit from an international celebrity, including a 1949 visit from the Prime Minister of India.

1954 St. Anne's Catholic Church

Postcard celebrating the opening of St. Anne’s Catholic Church in 1954. The reason it looks like half a building is because it was. Original plans called for eventually doubling the church’s size with an addition to the east, but instead a new church was built on Boulder Hill Pass.

Oswego High School, spring 1957. Little White School Museum photo.

I was in the last high school class to graduate from this building in the spring of 1964. Then it became Oswego Junior High and later Traughber Junior High.

1957 Willow Hill School

Speaking of schools, Willow Hill School was one of the last one-room schools in the Oswego School District. This photo was taken by Everett Hafenrichter.

1958 Bypass const at Playhouse

Building U.S. Route 30 Bypass in 1958, with the Boulder Hill Playhouse in the background.

1958 Wormley Campbell's Tomato farmer

Oswego’s Jim Wormley’s dad, Myron, was one of the many area farmers who raised tomatoes commercially in the 1950s. His son, Jim, became one of the advertising faces of Campbell’s Soup.

1960 basketball game

Everyone’s pretty excited at this basketball game in this photo from the 1960 Oswego High School yearbook, The Reflector.

1961 Federated Church

Leonard Hafenrichter captured this snapshot of the Federated Church–now the Church of the Good Shepherd–in the spring of 1960.

1965 Sept Oswego Depot & Engines retouch

CB&Q locomotives rumble past the Oswego Depot in September 1965.

1977 OHS Varsity Coach Dave Babcock

Dave “Chopper” Babcock encourages players during the 1977 varsity football season. I believe this is a Jon Cunningham photo, but am not sure.

1998 Oswego Prairie Church

This landmark out on the Oswego Prairie, with its lighted cross atop the bell tower, is still standing.

Stop by the museum from now through Sept. 1 and see all the images we’ve selected to exhibit from our collection of more than 10,000 prints, negatives, transparancies, tintypes, Daguerreotypes, and Ambrotypes. After all, it’s free, and it will be your last chance for a while to see most of these before we put them away again.

The Little White School Museum is a cooperative project of the not-for-profit Oswegoland Heritage Association and the Oswegoland Park District.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Education, entertainment, Farming, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Pestekouy River Valley? Not for the past 331 years

Names of things have always fascinated me, and I guess they sometimes interest other people as well. I know that when I speak to various groups about local history, one of the most-asked questions is, “How did Oswego get its name?” Although Oswego, Illinois was named after a long-settled city in New York state, its name of Mohawk Tribe origins, many of the names of local geographical features originated right here.

For instance, a good example of a major local feature of interest is the Fox River. The Fox had been tagged with its present name several decades before the first American pioneer settlers arrived along its banks. The Fox River, as a matter of fact, was well known to explorers and map makers for well over a century before the first American settlers arrived in the area in the late 1820s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer and explorer Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette were the first Europeans to see the Fox River during their 1673 expedition.

The very first explorers who traveled through Illinois noticed the Fox River. In 1673, Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., led an expedition to discover where the Mississippi River’s mouth was located. The French hoped the Mississippi bore to the southwest and that its mouth was on the Pacific Ocean. By the time Jolliet and Marquette reached the mouth of the Arkansas River they were certain the Mississippi headed due south and that its mouth was probably somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico and definitely not anywhere near the Pacific.

Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, drew a map of the expedition’s journey after he arrived back in Canada following the trip. Although the most familiar edition of this map was probably not drawn by Jolliet, but rather used his information (his name is misspelled on the map), it does show the course the expedition took. It also shows the Fox River, although the stream is unnamed.

1683 Franquelin map

Franquelin’s 1684 map of LaSalle’s colony shows a number of Native American towns clustered around Starved Rock. The map shows the mouth of the Riviere Pestekouy–our Fox River–just above Starved Rock.

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle was an intrepid French explorer and unsuccessful businessman who, using Jolliet and Marquette’s information, attempted to colonize Illinois beginning in 1679. LaSalle made several trips to the area before getting his trading empire started at the fort he built atop Starved Rock. Starved Rock, just as imposing three centuries ago as it is today, was called le Rocher by the French.

Jean-Baptiste Louis Franquelin, LaSalle’s cartographer, drew a fairly accurate map of the area comprising LaSalle’s proposed colony in 1684. On this map, the Fox River appears, but is referred to as the Riviere Pestekouy. Pestekouy was the French spelling of an Algonquian Indian word for the American bison.

Clearly, the residents of the several Indian villages located on the map along the Pestekouy River must have hunted the herds of the Eastern Bison that roamed the Illinois tallgrass prairies during those years, thus giving the river its name.

Franquelin drew another map of the area in 1688, which while more accurate than his 1684 map, still called the river Pestekouy.

In addition, Marco Coronelli, a Venetian Conventual friar, produced a map in 1688 based on gores he made for a globe in 1687, on which the Fox River is labeled Pesteconti R. It seems pretty clear that Pesteconti is an Italianization of the French Pestekouy, which is not surprising since Coronelli got most of the information for his map and globe from French sources, including Franquelin.

After Franquelin and Coronelli’s maps, cartographers stopped putting a name on the Fox River for several years.

In fact, as early as 1684, Minet, an engineer and cartographer who accompanied LaSalle, published a map with the Fox River drawn in but not named. After Coronelli’s map was published, the name Pestekouy seems to have vanished from maps.

For instance, Louis de La Porte de Louvigny in 1697 and Guillaume Delisle in 1718 both produced fairly accurate maps of the interior of North America, including the Fox River Valley, but did not label the Fox River with any name at all. The reason for this is unknown, but was probably due to the fact that the area had lost whatever economic significance it had gained during the LaSalle period due to a combination of factors, including the hostility of the Fox Indian Tribe.

1754 Ottens map detail

This detail from Ottens’ 1754 map shows the Fox River labeled as R. du Rocher, probably because of the proximity of its mouth to Starved Rock–named du Rocher by the French.

By 1700, the French trading center at le Rocher had been moved south to Fort Pimiteoui on Lake Peoria, and along with it had gone French military power in the upper Illinois and Fox River valleys. The Fox Tribe had prohibited the French from the area south and west of Green Bay, and that included use of the portage from the Fox River of Wisconsin that empties into Lake Michigan at Green Bay and the Wisconsin River that offers a good route to the Mississippi. For more than 30 years, the French and their Indian allies battled the Fox to secure access to the area northwest of Chicago. In 1730, the French and their Native American allies vanquished the Fox for the final time, opening the area to French trade and missionaries.

In 1754, after the French had in essence exterminated the Fox, an interesting map was published in both French and Dutch titled Map of the English and French possessions in the vast land of North America. The map was published in Amsterdam by Cartographer Josua Ottens. Interestingly enough, the Fox River is named R. du Rocher on Ottens’ map, which was quite a change from Riviere Pestekouy. It seems likely the name was derived from the Fox River’s mouth’s proximity to the old French post at le Rocher. It may well be that the French traders in the area had renamed the river after the old fort at le Rocher after the trouble with the Fox Tribe was settled.

1778 Hutchins map detail

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map showing the Fox River with its modern name.

It was a few years after Ottens’ map was published that our river officially received its present name. By 1764, the French had been defeated in the final French and Indian War—called the Seven Years War in Europe. British troops slowly moved into the vast area north and west of the Ohio River that had been controlled for so long by the French.

Thomas Hutchins, an engineering officer with the British 60th Royal American Regiment, traveled throughout the area between 1764 and 1775 with his regiment. In 1778, Hutchins published a map of North America titled, in part, A New Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Comprehending the River Ohio, and all the Rivers which fall into it; Part of the River Mississippi, the Whole of the Illinois River.

On this map, published the same year that George Rogers Clark conquered Illinois for the state of Virginia during the Revolution, the Fox River was given its modern name. It is not known why Hutchins recorded the river’s name as the Fox River, but the Fox Tribe’s occupation of the area in the northern reaches of the Fox River Valley probably had a lot to do with the renaming of the stream.

Whatever the reason, the name stuck and was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish and published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

 

 

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Cheap or thrifty? You be the judge…

My family was barely middle class and far from rich. But my mother and my grandmother both knew how to make things look nice and very middle classy.

My mom’s family were all Germans, some more recently from the Old Country than others. In 1885, her father’s family immigrated from East Prussia. They had been employed on one of the Kaiser’s estates, where my great-grandfather had been a gardener. Her mother’s family, on the other hand, had arrived here in 1750, settling in Pennsylvania and becoming one of the Pennsylvania Dutch families that lived in and around Lancaster County. They emigrated to Illinois in 1852, nearly a century after they arrived here in the New World.

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Castle Garden in New York harbor was the original point of entry for immigrants before Ellis Island opened. It welcomed immigrants from 1820 to 1892.

Even though Grandma’s family had been in North America for a century, they still spoke German at home, so they mixed easily with the new German immigrants that had begun arriving in Illinois in the 1840s. My grandfather’s family were relatively late arrivals, although not so late they got here by the time Ellis Island was the main European immigrants’ processing center. Instead, they came through Castle Garden, Ellis Island’s predecessor, and then traveled west to Aurora, Illinois to join my great-grandmother’s family as part of the chain migration cycle that modern right wing politicians decry.

They were thrifty, hard workers, those German and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors of mine. They knew how to hang onto a dollar so tightly that, as the song says, the eagle on it grinned.

My mother said they were tight. My sisters said they were so tight they squeaked. My grandmother calmly explained to be once, “Well, that’s just the way we did.”

The rule was to hang onto what you had, make do, make it last, fix it if you need to, and keep using it until it was unusable. Even my teacher (of English descent) at our one-room rural school was part of the infrastructure that pounded thrift into us. “Waste not, want not” was her favorite saying. Because thrift was the thing back then for all of us, something left over from the Great Depression of the 1930s and the wartime rationing of the 1940s.

1895 abt Amelia, Edith, Mable Lantz Lantz Farm

The Lantz family farmhouse in 1894. Left to right are my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz, my great-aunt, Edith Lantz, and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz.

For instance, when we moved to town after my dad retired from farming in 1954, I was introduced to student banking. Every week my third grade classmates would put a few coins in small brown envelopes that were sent off to the bank where we had our very own savings accounts. There was a lot of peer pressure to participate in student banking back then.

My mother ran a very thrifty household, but her mother seemed to think she was awfully liberal with her spending. For instance, my mother absolutely hated stale bread. Her one vice was to retire a loaf of bread as soon as it became even slightly stale. Not that she threw it away, of course. Instead, I grew up eating lots of bread pudding. That hit two birds with one stone, it prevented us from throwing out perfectly good bread and it provided dessert, with which no meal in my household was complete.

My grandmother was even thriftier than my mother. Stale bread was good bread as far as she was concerned. Moldy? Scrape it off and don’t complain. A little mold is probably good for you anyway.

But my grandmother’s parents were, hands down, the winners in the family thrift sweepstakes.

1899 Haines Inman Young at work

While working on the Watts Cutter house on Main Street in Oswego, Irvin “Irvy” Haines snapped this photo of the crew. Left to right are Dan Minnich, Lew Inman, Haines (note hand blurred when he pulled the cable to snap the shot), and Lou C. Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

My great-grandparents worked the family farm until they decided to retire in 1906 when my great-grandfather was 60 and my great-grandmother was 57. They bought land just outside the village limits of Oswego, Illinois on which to build their retirement home, selecting the vacant parcel between my great-grandmother’s parents’ house and her sisters’ house.

To build their new retirement home, they chose my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines (the family called him Irvy). Haines was a well-known Oswego contractor who worked, off and on, with a crew of other local carpenters including Lou C. Young, and two of Haines’ cousins, Lew Inman and Dan Minnich.

What they chose to have Haines build for them was a Queen Anne-style, story-and-a-half farmhouse design. Haines must have liked the design; he built at least three of them, including the one for my great-grandparents, one in neighboring Montgomery, Illinois, and one on a farm just outside of Oswego on Collins Road.

It was an interesting design, and relatively advanced for the period. On the exterior, it had clapboard siding that was wider on the first floor that narrowed on the second floor, drawing the eye up to the steeply-pitched roof making it look larger and taller than it actually was. Shingles and brackets in the peak provided a bit of interest, as did Greek Revival-like columns at the corners and which provided support for the front porch with its steep stairs. It was finished off with a fireproof lifetime roof of fiber-reinforced concrete shingles as protection against cinders and ash produced by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy locomotives that puffed through the backyard on the CB&Q’s Fox River Line. When they advertised them as lifetime shingles, they weren’t kidding. They’re still on the house and they’re still in great shape.

2005 Lantz-Matile House

The Queen Anne house Irvy Haines finished for his Aunt Amelia and Uncle John Peter Lantz in 1907 Note how the varying widths of clapboard siding draw the eye up towards the steep peak of the roof..

Inside, the home was fashionably dressed with long-leaf yellow pine woodwork throughout, including the tall kitchen cabinet, and built-in cabinets in the dining room and back parlor. The kitchen got a birdseye maple floor, while the rest of the house was floored with the same yellow pine used for the woodwork. It also included closets in each of the three upstairs bedrooms and a coat closet near the front door, relatively rare amenities that were rapidly gaining in popularity at the time. Also installed was a modern acetylene gas lighting system, powered by an acetylene gas generator in the basement.

But the biggest modern feature of the house was the indoor bathroom. Their farmhouse had never had such a modern thing, and it was something to behold with its white porcelain toilet and sink and its claw-foot cast iron tub.

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My great-grandparents celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary in the house Irvy Haines built for them in Oswego, Illinois

It was a grand house and an upgrade from their farmhouse, but the thing in their minds as they moved into town in October 1907 seems to have been resale. After all, while they were healthy they were definitely getting on in years and who knew how long they’d live. So they decided it would be too easy to wear out this wonderful house young Irvy Haines built for them. So they had him add a full kitchen in the basement where they could spend most of their time, and made sure he included an outhouse at the end of the sidewalk in back of their combination town barn and chicken house so they didn’t wear out the nice modern kitchen and bathroom upstairs.

It was an interesting plan and sensible, I guess, from their point of view. The problem was, however, that they didn’t live there for 10 years and die. Instead, they lived in the house for more than 30 years and it finally got to the point that resale value was about the last thing they worried about as they celebrated their 73rd anniversary there, still cooking in the basement and using the outhouse so as not to wear out their nice kitchen and bathroom.

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The long-leaf yellow pine woodwork in my great-grandparents’ house is still in good shape after more than 110 years.

Ownership of the house devolved to my grandmother after her parents’ death. My aunt and uncle lived there during World War II, moving up into Oswego proper in the early 1950s. The house was available when my parents moved off the farm, so they bought it from my grandparents. My wife and I bought it from my mother in 1976 and owned it until we moved across the street last year. My son lives there now with his family, the fifth generation of our family to enjoy it. His son asked him if he has to live there when he grows up, and he was assured it would be a strictly voluntary thing.

The living-in-the-basement thing ended when my aunt and uncle move there in 1943. When my parents moved there, my mother did some remodeling in keeping with the 1950s, ‘modernizing’ it by removing the yellow pine plate rail in the dining room, the picture rails in the living and dining rooms, and the cornices on the door frames, so it’s not quite as elegant as it was when Irvy Haines wrapped up construction back in ’08.

But I like to think that our family’s recycling the home that’s been going on for the past four generations sort of reflects the ethos of my great-grandparents that you don’t get rid of something just because it isn’t new and further that you take good care of what your have and make it last as long as you can. So, while none of us have lived in the basement, and while the old outhouse has gone the way of the rest of that breed, we’re still maintaining the old homestead just as we’ve done for the past 112 years. And with the care and skill Irvy Haines used when he built the place, it’s not impossible it will still be standing tall when my grandson’s grandchildren wonder about its history.

 

 

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There are no obvious answers to reversing the decline of rural America

There seems to be quite a bit of discussion in Washington, D.C. these days concerning what to do about the decline in quality of life many rural areas of the country are experiencing.

Economic opportunity seems to have disappeared from the less-populated areas of the country while it has steadily grown in larger urban areas, especially on the nation’s East and West Coasts, as well as the Chicago metro region, not to mention some of the larger urban areas in the Sunbelt.

But the old Rust Belt areas of the East and Midwest, Appalachia, and the farming areas in the center of the country have seen a steady drain on population as the farming, heavy industry, and mining on which the areas once depended have slowly shrunk or disappeared completely.

So what’s causing this economic dislocation? Different things get blamed in different areas of the country. In Appalachia, the coal mining that was once the dominant industry has all but disappeared as the use of coal has steadily declined to the point that mining jobs in, say, West Virginia have sharply dropped. These days, more than twice as many people are employed in health care as in mining. And, following the national trend, the pay for the jobs in growth fields is much less than the old jobs in mining and manufacturing.

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While many rural communities in the agricultural Midwest have declined, sometimes sharply, Oswego, Illinois’ population has boomed due to its proximity to the Chicago Metro Region.

Meanwhile, here in the Midwest, which is what I’m concentrating today, the number of farmers continues to steadily decline, outpacing the loss or repurposing of agricultural land. Nowadays, with giant computerized agricultural equipment, one farmer can work more land than ten could farm 50 years ago. And with modern hybrids, and computerized planting and harvesting equipment that accurately record yields so that fertilizers and pesticides are only applied where needed, yields are typically several times what they were 50 years ago.

Farming was once extremely labor-intensive, especially in the production of the small grains of wheat, oats, barley, and rye. Until the middle of the 19th Century, planting, tilling, and harvesting small grains hadn’t changed all that much for the preceding 1,000 years. It was sown by hand and tended and cultivated by hand. Harvesting consisted of cutting it by hand using scythes, gathering the cut grain into bundles which were stacked in shocks to dry. Then threshing the grain from the stalks by hand using flails and then winnowing it—by hand—to separate the chaff from the grain before it could be bagged or shoveled into bins.

But shortly after the pioneer era ended here in Kendall County, farmers began to adopt a variety of machines to help in the small grain harvest, from horse-drawn harvesters that cut the grain—later models of which also tied the stalks into bundles—to other machines that were developed to thresh the grain from the stalks. By the early 20th Century, combined harvesters were developed that cut and threshed grain all in one pass.

In 1830, as Kendall County settlement was beginning, it took 250 to 300 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, efforts at horse-drawn mechanization were having a huge impact as it only took 40 to 50 hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By the 1930s, with the introduction of gas-powered tractors, the amount of labor needed to produce 100 bushels of wheat had been cut to just 15 to 20 hours. With today’s huge modern equipment, it takes a farmer less than three hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat.

1887 Binder at work

By 1887, harvesters had turned into binders that cut and bundled grain to ready it for threshing, greatly reducing the labor needed to produce a crop.

But wheat was not a major crop here in northern Illinois much past the settlement era since the humid climate doesn’t favor it. But our climate does favor growing corn, which was a major crop from the very beginning when Native People began farming the Illinois prairies. American settlers took up where the ancient people left off, turning over the wild prairie grasses with breaking plows and growing huge amounts of corn in ever increasing varieties.

Corn farming, like small grain farming, greatly benefited from mechanization. In 1840 it took one farmer about 280 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields were about 36 bushels per acre. By 1950 hybrids and modern fertilizers pushed yields to about 50 bushels per acre. But thanks to mechanization, the labor to produce 100 bushels of corn had been cut to only about 14 hours. Today, only 2.5 hours of labor are needed to produce 100 bushels of corn. Yields of more than 200 bushels per acre are common.

Successful efforts at mechanization have had fairly dramatic effects on farming across the nation, including here in Kendall County. Improvements in farm technology, from mechanization to better hybrids to improved fertilizers and pesticides have led, over the years, to fewer, larger farms. In 1950, there were 1,086 farms in Kendall County averaging 180 acres each. By 2012, the number had dropped to just 364 farms that were twice as large, averaging 356 acres.

John Deere corn harvester

Huge modern equipment allows one farmer to do the work it previously took 10 to do. The modernization of agriculture has had a significant impact on rural America.

The economic impact on Kendall County created by those profound changes in farming have not had a negative economic impact here, because beginning in the 1990s, instead of growing corn and soybeans on thousands of acres of farmland, we began growing residential and retail developments. Kendall County is at the end of the growth funnel created by the U.S. Route 34 corridor that continues to inject new residents here looking for less expensive housing than can be found to the immediate east, along with good schools, parks, libraries and other amenities families look for. Yes, that growth can often create problems. But the problems are minuscule compared with other rural areas of the Midwest are suffering as the result of changes created, I believe, in large part by the changes in agriculture.

All over Iowa, for instance, small towns are declining, watching their once-thriving business districts turn into vacant storefronts as the community is served, if they’re lucky, by a Casey’s General Store mini-mart and gas station. Up in Wisconsin, in country where there used to be thousands of small dairy farms, pastures and hayfields are now overgrown with brush and trees as barns and whole farmsteads are overtaken by the Northwoods. The smaller dairy farms were forced out of business by a combination of consolidation by larger corporate farms and implementation of stronger health standards that penalized smaller farms.

A case in point is the small northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls. My family has been heading up to Butternut Lake a couple miles north of town for more than 40 years now. And during that time the town’s population has declined by one-third.

So what’s going on in those areas not lucky enough to be near a vibrant region like the Chicago metro region? The answer I found lies in those farming statistics I cited above. One farm family can now take care of what 10 farm families tended 60 years ago. For every farm family left, there are nine fewer families to send their children to local schools, nine fewer families who go to church on Sunday, nine fewer families buying back-to-school clothes and supplies, and nine fewer farmers patronizing the local lumberyard, hardware store, and implement dealer. Even more population leaches out of communities as businesses leave and that makes it difficult to maintain public services from roads to fire departments to schools and impossible to attract any new classes of business that could conceivably replace agriculture. Most of these communities have seen their rail service, along with the tracks themselves, eliminated long ago by the frenzy of railroad consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s, and they’re too far from any Interstate highway, not to mention raw materials and potential customers, that could make locating a manufacturing operation there economical.

small depressed town

Small towns all over Iowa, central Illinois, and other areas of the rural Midwest are slowly dying as their populations evaporate.

It’s a negative feedback loop that turns into a death spiral: Children of the families that remain graduate from high school and can find no jobs, so they move away as do families with skills or wherewithal to find new jobs and start new lives elsewhere, increasing the population drain and leaving behind a populace that is increasingly unskilled, elderly, and impoverished that today is often also afflicted by the nation’s tragic opioid epidemic.

So, what’s to be done? I have no idea. Farmers certainly aren’t going to go back to growing crops with horse-drawn equipment. The local department, grocery, and hardware stores, even if they tried to come back, couldn’t compete with Walmart.

It’s probably a good thing that people are starting to look at these depressed areas with a view towards doing something to help them. But it’s going to take a much smarter person than I to figure out how to counteract the negative impact of nearly 200 years of technological progress on rural America.

 

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Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual during the cold weather months of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with those old coal-fired furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.

Today, coal is still an economic factor in Illinois (although a fast-diminishing one), although the uses to which it is now put have drifted far from home heating and firing kitchen cookstoves. Its modern uses would no doubt astound the explorers who discovered the mineral in the Illinois of the 1600s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and missionary Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., were the first Europeans to discover coal in what would one day become the State of Illinois.

In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”

These two instances were, in point of fact, the first discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for many years, however.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was first commercially mined in Illinois along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. Several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans that year.

As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal continued to be found in some abundance. Coal was found near the salines (salt producing areas) in Gallatin and Vermillion Counties, and as early as 1822 coal was shipped down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from Peoria to New Orleans.

19th Century coal mining

Coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous business. But it helped power Illinois as one of the nation’s premier industrial states.

Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers because of the problems transporting the stuff to market. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal that was mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi for heating and to fuel steam engines.

John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal. The line’s cars were horse-drawn from the mines over six miles of wooden rails to Illinoistown—modern East St. Louis—where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped down the Mississippi.

And the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.

By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal regularly—measurement in tons was several years in the future. The measurement in bushels indicates that at that time, coal was shipped in burlap bags, each of which had to be filled, and then moved on and off transports, from wagons to rail cars to riverboats for shipment.

Most of the early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs, or stream banks. Shaft mines were needed to reach the rich, thick veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining had to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.

marseillesilonimcanal.jpg

Tons of coal were hauled annually through Ottawa on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, cheaper than by rail. But the canal was closed due to winter freezes for several months a year.

By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal when it opened in 1848, which provided means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Erie, Penn.

Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source of fueling locomotives than was wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal fields in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free prairies in the central part of the state. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and shaft mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau, and Rock Island Counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox Counties, and the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermilion County.

Here in the Fox River Valley, coal was a vital resource for homes and businesses, and the CB&Q’s monopoly on transporting it, and therefore feeling free to gouge it’s customers, led to building the independent Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad linking the Vermilion coal fields in Streator with Geneva. From Ottawa north through Yorkville and Oswego on north, the tracks paralleled the course of the Fox River. But literally the minute the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to seize control of the new line and so was still able to dictate coal prices. The first railcar loads of coal on the new line arrived in Kendall County towns in January 1871, priced one-third higher than it had been promised when the line was being built.

As John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record complained in the paper’s Nov. 21, 1872 edition: The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

Throughout the 19th Century, continual efforts were made to secure adequate coal supplies for Kendall County’s farms and villages, even to the point of looking for it inside the county. And occasional coal seams were located. In 1887, coal was discovered by well-drillers in Fox Township, in Lisbon Township and in Oswego Township. But all the discoveries were too deep underground and the seams too thin to warrant sinking mine shafts.

Cliggitt Grain Elevator, Oswego, Dec. 2, 1911. Photo by Dwight S. Young.

The coal sheds at Oswego were located across the tracks of the CB&Q Railroad’s Fox River Branch from the Oswego Grain Company’s elevator. Oswego businessman John W. Chapman received the line’s first shipment of coal in January 1871. (Dwight Young photo in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

Since railroads, mining, and manufacturing—particularly producing iron and steel—were all interrelated, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of prairie farming.

At the start of the Civil War, iron and steel production was a growing, but still not an overly important industry. With the outbreak of war, however, domestic sources of these important metals were badly needed, and during the next 25 years, the United States grew to become the world’s leading steel and iron producer.

Because of Chicago’s strategic location between the iron mines of Lake Superior and the coal fields of central Illinois, the city soon became one of the nation’s leading centers of manufacturing and transportation. That also spread to the areas nearby, particularly Joliet, where starting in 1869 the Joliet Iron & Steel Works produced pig iron and in 1873 started out producing thousands of miles of railroad rails from its rolling mill. The Joliet Iron & Steel Company owned a dam on the DesPlaines River that powered four blast furnaces that could turn out 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. The iron mill closed in 1936, and the steel mill was finally completely shuttered in the early 1980s.

Coal mining underwent many changes over the years, too, with shaft mines being gradually replaced by huge open pit mines, such as those operated by the Peabody Coal Company in Grundy County, just south of the Kendall County line.

Image result for DeKalb County Illinois wind farm

Wind farms like this one in DeKalb County have popped all over northern Illinois’ rural countryside, part of the effort to replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Today, coal’s use as a fuel for electrical generating plants is rapidly dying out as more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of producing power, such as wind and solar energy are displacing it. A new study released this past May found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants nationally with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, with wind power in particular at times cutting the cost almost in half. Overseas, Sweden is pledging to be coal-free by 2040 and in South America, Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Coal isn’t just inefficient and expensive, it’s also dangerous to the environment. Burning coal spews a dismaying amount of aggressive pollutants into the atmosphere, many of which have been proven to worsen global climate change. Climate data captured in tree growth rings; ocean and lake sediments; ice cores; and other forms of data show that the effect on the world’s climate by burning coal began to show up almost as soon as coal began to power the Industrial Revolution—and that was on top of climate changes already put in place as early man began farming and otherwise changing the landscape to suit himself.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average coal generating plant, because of the trace elements coal contains, leaks more radiation into the environment than does a nuclear power plant. So it’s a good thing coal’s on its way out as a way to produce electrical power and that renewable resources from solar and wind to hydro and thermal are quickly replacing it.

But for decades, coal not only powered the nation in general, but it also powered Illinois’ ascension as one of the nation’s industrial powerhouses. Today, the challenge is to try to deal with all of the environmental problems we created for ourselves during that era.

 

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