Category Archives: Oswego

How traditional are our Thanksgiving celebrations, anyway?

After rereading the Thanksgiving post I dredged up from the History on the Fox archives last week, I got to wondering just how “traditional” Thanksgiving celebrations were here in Illinois. We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln declaring an official day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the Civil War. But where did Lincoln get the idea? Why the last Thursday in November? Is turkey really a traditional Thanksgiving treat?

So I started digging into it.

Celebrations to mark the end of the harvest date to ancient times in England. When the colonists calling themselves Pilgrims arrived in the New World in 1620, they brought that tradition with them. And in 1621, the survivors of the first harrowing year on the Massachusetts coast had real reason to offer their thanks to God, their own labors, and to the Native People who’d been key in helping them survive.

Lyle Shoger, about 1930, with a load of corn he picked by hand, probably looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner to come. (Little White School Museum collection)

When those New Englanders began pioneering the western frontier—Illinois—in the 1830s, they took their traditions, including the end-of-harvest Thanksgiving, with them. Those earliest celebrations, mostly held in late November after the vital corn harvest was largely finished, were family affairs. It wasn’t until 1842 that Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford, in the midst of the harrowing effects of the disastrous economic Panic of 1837, proclaimed Thursday, Dec. 29, as a statewide day of Thanksgiving.

It’s more than likely the pioneers from Vermont, Massachusetts, and other New England and Middle Atlantic states brought Thanksgiving celebrations west with them to Kendall County. So local residents were receptive to Gov. Ford’s proclamation.

“It was, perhaps, the darkest time in the history of our State, and in many a household the pinching of poverty was extreme,” noted Kendall County’s earliest historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks. “The prayers offered up were heard, for times began to be better, and two years thereafter emigration began to pour in as of old, and money, the life blood of the community, began to circulate through the channels of trade.”

In 1847, Hicks reported, Illinois’ official Thanksgiving Day was set for Thursday, Dec. 16, just in time for people to be thankful a smallpox epidemic at Newark had ended.

And the tradition continued. The Kendall County Courier reported from Oswego in their Nov. 21, 1855 edition: “In acknowledgement of the bounteous blessings bestowed upon us the past year from the hand of the Giver of every good and perfect gift, the Governor of our State has appointed and recommended the 29th day of the present month to be observed as one of thanksgiving and prayer.”

So by the time Lincoln made his 1863 proclamation, he was used to his home state’s Thanksgiving celebrations that had, by then, been observed for some two decades.

After the war, and after Lincoln’s assassination, celebrating the nation continued to celebrate the holiday, though not always at the end of November. Some years, the event was moved to the first week or so of December. In the Nov. 30, 1865 Kendall County Record, editor John R. Marshall wrote: “Next Thursday is the day set apart for national thanksgiving. The war is among the things that were, and our armies are nearly disbanded. Peace and prosperity assume their reign. Give God the praise.”

Those local celebrations, early on, had two main elements: solemn thanks given for whatever blessings people acknowledged, and turkey dinners. Whether it was a carryover from those Pilgrim days or for some other reason, the turkey dinner seems to have been a key Thanksgiving element for all who could afford one.

Thanksgiving was a popular subject for postcards during the 19th Century into the early years of the 20th Century.

Marshall even joked about it in that same Nov. 30 issue of the Record. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he suggested: “Turkies [sic] for Thanksgiving festivities will be received at this office at all hours of the day till the 7th prox. If any are belated, they will be taken after the 7th, and will answer for future dinners. No hint is meant by the foregoing,” he added with a wink.

In 1866, Thanksgiving was again observed on the last Thursday in November, and its observance was linked to veneration of Lincoln. Wrote Marshall in the Nov. 22, 1866 Record, “Next Thursday is the day set aside by the President and by our Governor as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God for his many blessings conferred upon the nation and upon this state. This is a relic of the New England fathers, which, under the honored Lincoln, became National property.”

Oswego union Thanksgiving church service was held in the Presbyterian Church with the village’s Methodist minister giving the sermon. (Little White School Museum collection)

Another tradition that arose, and continued for more than a century, was “union” church services in most communities in Kendall County. The services were generally shared around among each church in town from year to year, as were the sermons. On Nov. 25, 1869, the Record reported that in Oswego, “Thanksgiving was observed in the usual manner by eating a turkey or chicken-pie dinner, religious services were observed in the Presbyterian church, the Methodist minister preached the sermon,” and adding, “Business was not generally suspended.”

So while people attended church and enjoyed family dinners, Thanksgiving wasn’t necessarily a business holiday. Gradually, however, as the years passed, businesses at least closed during the community church services, an eventually closed for the entire day making it more of what we recognize as a true holiday.

The union Thanksgiving church service was a tradition that continued for well over a century. Here in my hometown of Oswego, the high school glee club always sang at those Thanksgiving services through the 1960s. It was one reason the district’s music director wasn’t fond of Catholics. During that era Catholic kids weren’t allowed to engage in other denominations’ services and so were prohibited from the union services, robbing the choir of some of its voices.

By 1872, a third leg had been added to the annual Thanksgiving celebration. As the Record’s Oswego corresponded reported on Dec. 5 of the holiday’s activities: “The turkey shoot was a spirited affair; a number of crack marksmen from abroad were present but the shooting was poor, the cause of which was laid to the wind. It blowed quite hard.”

An old pigeon shoot.

Eventually, the local sportsmen added pigeons to the day’s shoot as well.

In 1874, a final diversion had been added, even as the severe economic Panic of 1873 began in earnest. Known as “The Long Depression,” the downturn’s effects would extend over two decades. Even so, small towns like Oswego celebrated the holiday, the Record’s Oswego correspondent writing on Nov. 26, 1874 that: “Thanksgiving day is to be celebrated by divine worship in the forenoon, by eating turkey at noon by those who can afford it, and by dancing in the evening of those both old and young who know how and delight in that diversion.”

For several years, the Thanksgiving holiday consisted of those elements: religious services, turkey dinners, a turkey and/or a pigeon shoot, and a dance in the evening. Eventually parts of the celebration began falling away until by the 20th Century it had been whittled down to religious services and a traditional turkey dinner.

Most recently, those joint community church services have gradually disappeared as well. Instead, Thanksgiving has come to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. And, in fact, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving to the third Thursday of November in order to provide more shopping days until Christmas to boost the retail industry. The move proved unpopular, however, and the celebration has remained on the fourth Thursday since.

So, yes, Thanksgiving as we know it, especially those turkey dinners, really is a tradition that dates back into the nation’s history—here in Illinois, we’ve been enjoying the observances since 1842. And, I think it’s fair to say, doing something for 178 years can legitimately be dubbed a true tradition.

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Filed under entertainment, family, Farming, Food, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Covid and politics respite: Oswego as a mining and quarrying town

With all the turmoil driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and the nation’s political situation, let’s get our minds off today’s troubles by taking a microhistorical dive into Oswego’s past life as a quarrying and mining center.

Quarrying? Mining? Those who give our small corner of the Fox Valley’s geology any thought at all probably figure the gently rolling landscape left after the last glaciers retreated has always been primarily used by farmers, first Native People and then the White settlers that displaced them.

But while it hasn’t gotten as much attention as farming, mining has been a local pursuit since prehistoric times.

A few hundred million years ago, Oswego was at the bottom of a shallow sea. Over the eons, tiny marine creatures died and drifted to the bottom where their shells built up into substantial layers of limestone.

The Native People who arrived following the retreating glaciers found they could mine the limestone bluffs along Waubonsie Creek behind the modern Oswego Public Library for nodules of chert that could be easily fashioned into razor-sharp knives, scrapers, drills, and points for arrows and spears. And, in fact, back in the 1980s when we were permitted to do a little rescue archaeology, we found a chert-knapping workshop on the bluff overlooking the creek not far upstream from those chert veins. We retrieved somewhere around 50 pounds of chips (a tiny fraction of the total) those ancient workmen left behind as they fashioned their tools and weapons—and those chips were still razor-sharp.

When White settlers arrived in the 1830s, they soon discovered the limestone that underlays the Oswego area was relatively easy to access, especially along the creek where those ancient people had mined chert. And they didn’t waste much time in mining that limestone for a number of purposes.

Local quarries were established in several areas, including along the banks of the creek behind what is now the Oswego Public Library where those chert mines had been located. Unlike the Native Americans who mined chert veins layering the limestone, the settlers quarried the limestone itself for building materials. Evidence of these early quarrying operations is still visible today if you look hard enough.

A poor quality but interesting photograph taken from the Route 25 bridge looking downstream along Waubonsie Creek sometime during the first quarter of the 20th Century shows spoil heaps from the old Loucks Quarry. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Hopkins brothers established a limestone quarry along the creek early in the village’s history. Then in 1871, another quarry was opened a bit farther upstream. As the Kendall County Record reported on Oct. 5 of that year, “Ed. Richards and Chas. Mann have opened a quarry up the Wauponsie [sic] on the land of Mr. Loucks from which they are taking very nice building stone.”

Eventually, Loucks took over the quarry’s operation, as the Feb. 10, 1876 Record reported: “Walter Loucks Esq., one of Oswego’s oldest citizens, has the well-known stone quarry on the Wauponsie [sic] creek open for business again, and parties in want of good stone for building purposes or good sharp sand for mortar or cement should call at the Wauponsie quarry. Mr. Loucks expects to be able to furnish cut stone for all purposes in a few months.”

By June that year, the Record reported Loucks’ quarry was in full operation: “When you want stone for foundation or cellar walls, for well or cistern, you can get a first class article at Walter Loucks’ stone quarry at Oswego.”

The Loucks lime kiln on Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum collection)

As the Record noted about the Loucks quarry, in addition to using limestone as a building material, early Oswego residents also baked the limestone in kilns to produce quicklime, which, in turn was mixed with sand to create lime mortar for stone and brick construction. There was once at least one lime kiln along the banks of Waubonsie Creek just upstream from the Ill. Route 25 bridge, probably operated by Loucks in conjunction with his cut limestone and sand quarrying operation.

Over on the west side of the Fox River a mile north of Oswego, the Wormley Quarry, operated by Civil War veteran George D. Wormley, produced both cut limestone and flagstone. The Wormleys used cut stone from their quarry to build two of their farmhouses adjacent to the quarry. In addition, large quantities of flagstone were mined from the Wormley quarry, some of it likely used as foundation stones for the grist and sawmills built by Nathaniel Rising at the Fox River dam just north of Oswego.

George Wormley built this elegant Second Empire house out of limestone quarried just down the hill from the house–which still stands along Ill. Route 31 north of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Flagstone’s name derives from Middle English flagge, meaning turf, or maybe from the Old Norse flaga meaning slab or chip—opinions appear to vary. Flagstone occurs in layers of varying thickness and is ideal for sidewalks and paving.

The Wormley quarry continued on for many years. In July 1881, the Kendall County Record ran an ad from George Wormley touting the quality of stone from his quarry: “Stone! Stone!” the advertisement announced. In the advertisement, Wormley stated: “I am getting out some very fine stone and will try and get enough to go around. Come and see for yourselves. Also flagging. Can get stone to cover culverts almost any time.”

Girls at the YWCA’s Camp Quarryledge enjoy swimming in George Wormley’s old limestone quarry in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

After its life as a stone quarry, the Wormley quarry property was sold to the YWCA for use as a summer camp and named Camp Quarryledge. Since those days, the parcel has had numerous owners but the old quarry, namesake of the camp, still exists, owned nowadays by the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints.

The Hopkins Quarry, operated by Oswego farmer Elijah Hopkins, was situated on Wolf’s Crossing Road, just west of Oswego. Hopkins and his family emigrated to Oswego from Ohio in 1857, settling just east of the village on what was sometimes called the Old Naperville Road, which we call today Wolf’s Crossing Road.

Hopkins found the topsoil on his land was only about two feet deep atop the underlying limestone, providing easy access by the Hopkins family quarrymen. Hopkins eventually opened quarries on both sides of the road. Like the Wormley and Loucks quarries, Hopkins’ quarries produced both good quality building limestone and flagstone. As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on June 8, 1876, “Joseph Failing has laid down a very nice and substantial flagstone sidewalk in front of his residence. The stone came from the Hopkins quarry.”

The Hopkins quarries on both sides of Wolf’s Crossing Road a short distance east of the intersection of Ill. Route 71 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego in a view from Google Earth. The quarries still exist, although they’re now often hidden from the road by trees and bushes. The Herren family built a house (to the right of the lower quarry) to take advantage of the view.

Today, the former quarries are serene lakes and wildlife sanctuaryies amidst the area’s hustle and bustle where evidence of mining is still clearly visible on the quarry walls.

Those glaciers didn’t only uncover and leave behind limestone, either. Glacial till in the form of gravel deposits underlay much of the Fox River Valley, and that includes the Oswego area.

In 1885, Kendall County’s Grand Army of the Republic posts held their sumer picnic at Cowdrey’s Woods. (Little White School Museum collection)

South of Oswego along the river the Cowdrey family farmed along with their neighbors, the Leighs and Parkhursts and Herrens. In the 1870s, the scenic wooded parcels of the Cowdrey farm became favored destinations of picnickers from Oswego and Yorkville. During the hot summers of the era, refugees from nearby cities came to the area to camp, some spending a month or more at Cowdrey’s Woods.

As the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Aug. 7, 1889, “A number from the cities of this region are now encamped in the Cowdrey park down the river.”

During that era, the railroads in the U.S. were undergoing explosive growth and every mile of rails required tons of gravel for the roadbed, including fill for depressions along the right-of-way. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad knew there were extensive gravel beds underlaying Cowdrey’s farm (the railroad’s Fox River Branch was built right through the gravel beds), as well as the farms along the river all the way nearly to Oswego. And when the company’s other gravel beds began playing out, they started looking at the area along their Fox River Branch south of Oswego for a replacement.

In 1892, the CB&Q’s huge gravel mining operation at Montgomery had played out, and the company was ready to convert the property into a livestock yard to allow sheep being shipped to the Chicago market to rest and feed before being sent on to the Chicago Stockyards. As the Record reported on July 27, 1892: “These extensive gravel beds have been nearly exhausted and will not be worked any longer than another year at most. The big excavation made there will be leveled off, properly drained and converted into sheep yards. The engineering work has already been completed and work of building will commence at once. Sheep that are shipped over the Chicago Burlington & Quincy and the Chicago Burlington & Northern lines will be unloaded at Montgomery and there prepared for the market. They will then be shipped to Chicago in car load lots or several cars at a time as wanted.”

This 1944 U.S. Geological Survey map Shows the rail sidings and interior network that served the gravel mining operation south of Oswego.

In April 1893, the Record reported that George Cowdrey was negotiation with “Chicago parties” on selling his property for a gravel mine. And by August, the deal was done. On Oct. 11, the Record’s Oswego correspondent noted: “Operations in the gravel works down at Cowdrey’s have been commenced.”

The Elms was located on Van Emmon Road at the bend just before the junction with Route 71. According to Elmer Dickson in February 2010: “The Elms was a resort. You could board there for a weekend, week or what ever. People would come out from the Chicago area to picnic, play games on the grounds, swim, fish and boat in the Fox River, etc. Rumor has it that it was a speakeasy during prohibition.”

The far south end of Cowdrey’s land didn’t appeal to the gravel interests as much, and that remained a popular area for campers. Bought by Chicago parties and named “The Elms,” the place drew city folks for years. And under it’s current name of “Hide-A-Way Lakes,” it still does.

The effects of the financial Panic of 1893 temporarily closed the gravel mines, but as the economy got moving once again, gravel mining south of Oswego accelerated, too. Companies under various names—the Fox River Gravel Company, the Conkey Gravel Company, Chicago Sand and Gravel, and the CB&Q itself—operated portions of the pits up into the 1950s leaving behind a landscape of narrow lakes on land adjacent to the Fox River.

The mining operation was huge, and included its own rail sidings and huge processing plants along with its own small railroad that, in those pre-diesel hauler days, carried the gravel from the huge steam shovels and draglines to the processing plant on the site. From there, the Burlington’s rail cars carried it to where the railroad needed it. The pits closed during the Great Depression, but reopened during World War II and then continued on until about 1950 when the operation closed for good.

Steam dragline at the H.B. Conkey Sand & Gravel Company pit between Oswego and Yorkville loading gravel into the pit’s cars before being hauled to the crushers and sorted into grades. Note the pit’s narrow-gauge steam locomotive at left. (Little White School Museum collection)

The remaining lakes and spoil heaps from the old gravel mining operations remained, and provided some scenic areas for private homes and for organizations such as the Barber-Greene Hunting and Fishing Club. The State of Illinois bought a large parcel in the early 1950s when proposals were afoot to build a series of dams up and down the Fox River to make it navigable from the Chain of Lakes to Ottawa.

Part of the parcel was leased as a municipal dump for residents of Oswego and Oswego Township for several years. Then in the summer of 1963, the 160-acre parcel that included the dump was deeded over to the Oswego Park District (later renamed the Oswegoland Park District). Much to its future regret, the park district allowed dumping on the site to continue for a few years before closing the dump with the aim of turning the parcel into a natural area they named Saw Wee Kee Park.

Residents who lived on land adjacent to the park objected when the park district announced some modest development plans and a series of lawsuits was initiated against the park district alleging there was considerable contamination by hazardous materials on the old dump site. Years of litigation followed with the park district in the end forced to spend thousands of dollars to mitigate the contamination.

Today, Saw Wee Kee is one of the park district’s natural area gems, with a canoe launch on the river, hiking trails, and other facilities that mask the area’s one-time role as a vital cog in the expansion of the nation’s rail transportation network. It’s also a reminder of the era in which our little corner of the Fox River Valley not only produced agricultural products, but also turned out vital building materials that helped grow the community.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, religion, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

We’ll cast our ballots Australian-style on Nov. 3

Much to, I suspect, the relief of just about everyone in the U.S., not to mention the rest of the entire world, we’ll be heading to the polls next week to elect a President, as well as a host of down-ballot state and local officials.

It’s probably understating the situation to say this has been one of the most unusual Presidential campaigns in the nation’s history. Similar to the 2016 presidential election, one of the nation’s two major political parties has found itself with a candidate that public opinion polls say much of the country intensely dislikes—and that includes a surprisingly large portion of his own party. This despite being an incumbent for the office.

In addition, the strangeness has been heightened by the campaign concluding right in the middle of an unprecedented surge during one of the worst worldwide pandemics to strike in more than a century. The Federal Government’s refusal to coordinate the response to the pandemic has led to general unease among voters, which, in turn, has also led to unprecedented numbers of voters casting their ballots by mail or during in-person early voting.

But despite all the drama surrounding the election, those who have cast their ballots early, or those who decide to go to the polls in person on Tuesday, Nov. 3, will find the usual set-up of voting booths arranged so we can fill out our ballots in private and then have them counted anonymously.

And, in fact, we take voting by secret ballot for granted, but that’s not the situation our great-great-great-grandfathers (our great-great-great grandmothers not being allowed to vote) found when they went to the polls. Not until 1891 were Illinois and Kendall County residents allowed to cast their ballots in secret, marking the end of a voting process that had begun millennia before.

Although we like to think that democratic tools like voting are relatively modern processes, voting using ballots has a long and honorable history in both the East and the West. The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of ballots as early as the 5th Century B.C., using ballots that ranged from kernels of grain to colored balls. Farther east, balloting was used in India before 300 B.C.

Later, balloting was used during the Roman Republic, but gradually disappeared as government became more and more autocratic, and voting virtually disappeared for hundreds of years.

Not until the 13th Century was balloting revived by some Italian city states. By the 16th and 17th centuries, balloting had crossed the English Channel to Great Britain.

The first use of voting by ballot in the New World was practiced by the General Court of Massachusetts, which used the process to select governors after 1634. Gradually, balloting became widespread. Its existence was assumed by the U.S. Constitution as well as state constitutions after the nation won its freedom in the Revolutionary War.

But voting during that era was a lot different from what it means to us today. At that time, ballots were often passed out throughout the community—no polls necessary—and at other times the ballots were pre-marked. When a vote was cast, it was done in the open, often orally—reading and writing skills were often absent among many in the general population during those early days—and there were usually separate ballot boxes for each political party. It was as if every general election was a partisan caucus.

George Caleb Bingham’s famous painting, “Election Day” illustrates what United States balloting was like in 1846.

It was a system open to coercion and, to modern sensibilities, almost unbelievable violence, especially in the nation’s cities. In the middle years of the 19th Century, 89 voters were killed during election violence in the United States.

In the 1870s and 1880s, a parade of financial crises called panics—we’d term them depressions these days—plagued the nation. A general public that was becoming more educated in the ways of critical thinking, thanks to the nation’s public schools, and more disenchanted with being told what to do by politicians who were little more than lapdogs of big business, clamored for change.

Australians had been voting by secret ballot since 1856. Great Britain had adopted the system of secret ballots in 1872, and by the late 19th Century here in the United States, the public was ready for a system that would allow every voter to cast their ballot without fearing for their life or being otherwise intimidated.

The U.S. Constitution grants the individual states the authority to organize and conduct elections, so any change had to take place at the state level. Agitation for safe, secure voting had two parts. First, ballots had to be provided by the government so that voters couldn’t be intercepted on their way to the polls and their ballots stolen. Second, voting had to be done in such a way that no one but the voter knew individual votes were cast. After some study, it was decided the Australian Ballot system was by far the most fair.

Under the new system, ballots were to be printed at public expense and would be distributed only at official polling places. When ballots were marked, voters would place them in locked ballot boxes to secure them until they were counted. The states of Kentucky and Massachusetts became the first to institute the Australian ballot, followed by New York and then the rest of the states. After approval by the Illinois General Assembly, the first election by secret ballot was held in Kendall County in the local elections of November 1891.

In the first quarter of the 20th Century, wooden boxes like this were used to ship fresh bread to Oswego on the interurban trolley. This box was repurposed in the 1920s for use as Oswego’s official ballot box. It’s on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

Not that everyone was looking forward to the new system, of course. The system was popular in the South because it discriminated against former slaves, immigrants, and others who could not read the names on the ballots. Others thought that voters should be sufficiently proud of the candidates they were voting for to announce it publicly.

In October of 1891, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, Lorenzo Rank, observed: “In a few weeks we shall be called upon to vote by a new system imported from Australia. No tariff will be was paid on it, perhaps having been admitted under reciprocity.”

During succeeding weeks, the Record included a number of articles explaining how the new voting system would work and instructing voters on the process. In addition, public meetings were held in communities throughout the county to explain the new procedures.

In the Record’s Nov. 4, 1891 edition, Rank wrote: “Today we do as the Australians do. As everyone will want to try the new style of voting, a good turnout may be expected.”

And, once again, remember: “everyone” in that era meant strictly men.

In Oswego, a Mr. John Pitt—who seems to have been somewhat of a character—had the honor of casting the first secret ballot under the new system, although not without a few problems that entertained bystanders. Rank wrote: “He [Pitt] is a very enthusiastic, quick, and nimble man. When starting for the booths, someone said, ‘Do you know how to fix the ticket, John?’ ‘Yis,’ said he; on entering, instead of lifting up the curtain or drawing it to one side, he dove right down under it, coming up on the inside under the shelf, with which his head came in collision, making the sheet-iron concern tremble and jingle from bow to stern, but no damage resulted to either it or John’s head.”

Presumably, Pitt’s exploit was the highlight of the day, although it was also apparently instructive because no more booth diving was reported.

Not everyone was happy with the new system, of course.

In the April 15, 1941 village election, Earl Zentmyer, owner of the town’s Ford dealership, was running for election as Oswego Village President on the non-partisan “People’s Ticket.” (Little White School Museum collection)

“There was but one man that balked when told that he must go into a booth to prepare his ballot and who declared that if it has become to such a point when an American citizen cannot mark his ticket wherever he pleased, he proposed not to vote at all,” Rank reported, adding, “Upon second thought, however, he concluded to go through the important forms.”

The new voting system proved both successful and popular, although there were still some lingering doubts about whether secret balloting would really catch on. “While the system was met with general favor, it will be apt to be too cumbersome when it comes to a general election with a full slate,” Rank predicted.

Rank’s prediction was not out of line. Those of us who voted back before ballots changed to the kind with computer-read blocks we fill in will remember the sheer size of the last full-sized paper ballots that made trying to fill one out in the confines of a voting booth an interesting exercise.

But in the end, of course, the Australian Ballot was officially and permanently adopted here in Illinois as well as nationwide, and its direct, computer recorded and tabulated descendant is still in use today in Kendall County, although sadly not enlivened by the entertainment value provided by Mr. Pitt.

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

Solved: The mystery of the butter factory’s hand grenades

One of our handiest research aids down at the Little White School Museum is our set of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, downloaded from the Library of Congress web site.

The maps are so valuable because the Sanborn company actually sent their contractors out to just about every community in the nation of any size at all to plot the building outlines—footprints—of every structure in and around their business districts. The maps, originally published in full color, included codes for the building material of each structure (stone, brick, frame), any additions or porches, accessory buildings, street and alley rights-of-way, and information on municipal water supplies or any other information related to fire safety.

On the original color maps, stone structures were colored blue, frame buildings yellow, and brick buildings red. A dwelling colored blue on the map has its frame porch—if it had one—drawn in and colored yellow. Stone buildings colored blue have their decorative brick fronts colored red.

The maps, published in yearly editions are valuable for anyone looking to see what the footprint of their house or other building looked like over the years, or where businesses, churches, schools or other buildings of the past might have been located.

Inset from the 1885 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Map showing the William Parker & Son gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River jut north of the Oswego bridge. Not the mill is colored yellow, denoting it’s a frame building.

One major limitation of the maps is that they only depict certain areas of every town. For Oswego, that means basically the downtown business district and a few blocks surrounding it. Larger and important nearby businesses, however, are included in map insets. So, for example, the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company’s gigantic ice houses are carefully drawn in, occupying their own small box on the Oswego maps. And so are the Parker mills, the gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River and the sawmill and furniture factory on the east bank.

Another limitation is that the maps were only updated during a few years. For Oswego, Sanborn maps are only available for the years 1885, 1891, 1898, 1902, and 1931. Even so, that gives an interesting time span to examine the houses and other buildings to determine what changes in the structures included on the maps occurred during those years.

Black and white copies of the maps have been kicking around for many years, and so have black and white microfilm copies of the maps. Also, the Oswego Public Library has had PDF versions of the maps available for download on their web site for several years now. The PDF versions are extremely clear and are fine for tracing building footprint changes over the years, as well as using the maps as historical resources. For instance, the map portions of the Parker mills include lists of exactly what kinds of equipment are inside them, including all the various woodworking machines for the furniture factory and the grain processing equipment in the gristmill.

But the big limitation of the black and white maps is the inability to tell what each structure is built out of, since the colors don’t show up.

The Parker gristmill photographed from the east end of the dam looking west, about 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

That situation has changed in recent years as the Library of Congress began scanning the color versions of the Sanborn maps, and posting copies on their web site. As soon as we found out they were available, we started downloading them, and printed out copies to be used in the museum archives area for researchers. Most recently, the 1902 maps became available and we’re waiting anxiously for the 1931 maps, which in their three pages include a bit more of the village than the two-page maps of the previous year editions.

I’ve found that looking at the maps is a good way to spend a couple hours that absolutely fly by—they’re a positive danger to getting anything productive done, like all that boring paperwork with which museum directors are plagued.

But when I help someone with research using the maps, it’s hard not be drawn into everything that’s going on in them. On the 1885 map, for instance, I see that the Union Block of brick storefronts on the east side of Main Street, built in 1867 after the disastrous February fire gutted the entire block, are actually stone buildings clad with brick. The six storefronts in 1885 were occupied by (going from south to north—Washington Street towards Jackson Street) a drygoods store; a hardware store with a singing school above; a drygoods and grocery store combo; a furniture store with storage and a dwelling above; a grocery and hardware store with the Oswego Masonic Lodge above; and a drug store (the future site of Shuler’s Drugs for all you Oswego natives) with the Odd Fellows Lodge on the second floor.

The Union Block at Main and Washington streets , probably taken in the mid-1880s, about the same time the 1885 Sanborn map was published. The Rank Building, housing Oswego’s post office, borders the Union Block to the north, and next is the Star Roller Skating Rink. (Little White School Museum collection)

Down by Waubonsie Creek, along the north bank between North Adams Street and the railroad right-of-way was, in 1885, David Height’s gristmill. By the time I was a kid, that building was a private house where Clare Smith lived, but in 1885 it was a gristmill and the Sanborn company reports it included a corn sheller, one run of grindstones, a fanning mill, and a grinder, all powered by a small steam engine.

About a half mile north along North Adams, was the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory where they were turning out all kinds of walnut furniture—an example of which (a walnut washstand) is on exhibit in the Little White School Museum’s gallery. The factory was water powered, with equipment including a planer; a sticker (a machine that made thin sticks used to separate layers of stacked lumber); two rip, three cut-off, one scroll, and one band saws; a mortiser; a tennoning machine; a drill press; a lathe; a pony planer (a small, single-sided planer); an emery wheel and two grind stones to sharpen tools; a shaper; and one dovetail machine.

And since the Sanborn company sold their maps to fire insurance companies, the furniture factory’s fire-fighting equipment was also carefully noted: “No watchman. Water barrels& buckets.” Very straightforward.

The 1885 Sanborn Map plan of the Fox River Butter Company, noting its puzzling stock of hand grenades.

But then I note, in another inset on the map, is the Fox River Butter Company’s factory, located midway between downtown Oswego and the Parker furniture factory on North Adams. By the time I was a youngster this building was long gone. Originally built between modern Ill. Route 25 and the railroad right-of-way in 1870 as a brewery, it was turned into a butter and cheese factory in October 1876 by W.H. McConnell & Company. By 1885, its equipment was listed on the Sanborn map as two butter churns, three cheese vats, and three separators, all run by a 20 horsepower steam engine.

And then the firefighting equipment was listed: One rotary pump and 100 feet of one-inch rubber hose. Also noted was “Man sleeps in building,” which would be a definite plus in case the place caught on fire after everyone left for the day. But then the final note: “hand grenades.”

Which has made me wonder for years why a business would have hand grenades on hand. Was this for the protection of the guy sleeping in the building at night? Why were hand grenades included in the section that included firefighting equipment?

Well, I found out this week after my friend, Ted Clauser, conducted one of the museum’s historical walking tours of downtown Oswego. Ted mentioned that the butter factory a quarter of a mile or so north of downtown kept hand grenades, possibly for the protection of the man sleeping there. No, said one of the participants. Those hand grenades were really fire grenades.

Decorative pressed glass fire grenades–the perfect home accessory.

A fire grenade was a blown glass sphere or other shaped bottle filled with, at first, salt water. The idea was to throw the grenade into a blaze, the glass would break, and the salt water would act to put out the fire. The grenades were often sold in sets of three. Later on, the salt water was replaced with carbon tetrachloride, which was a more effective fire retardant, but had a host of other problems. The stuff gives off dangerous fumes, and is believed to be a carcinogen. That’s bad, but even worse is what happens when you heat it. Like, for instance, when you throw it into a fire. That generates phosgene gas, a really nasty substance the Germans used as a poison gas during World War I.

So after all these years of wondering why Oswego’s butter factory was stocking hand grenades back in 1885, I find they were actually the 19th Century firefighting equivalent of water balloons. Which is, I have to admit, a relief. I had problems getting my head around some sleepy guy pitching hand grenades at burglars in the middle of the night and the damage that might have done to the guy and the burglars—not to mention the cheese factory.

So another Oswego historical mystery solved—which always makes my day a little brighter.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Military History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Technology

Timber: The indispensable resource for pioneer prairie farmers

As settlers pushed west from Ohio into western Indiana, they encountered what geographers and geologists call the Prairie Peninsula.

The peninsula was a gigantic expanse of grassland that thrust eastward across the Mississippi into western Indiana, covering most of northern and central Illinois. The expanse notable for its scarcity of timber, at least compared with the densely wooded areas the pioneers had become used to as they moved west of the Appalachians.

Unlike the shortgrass prairies found west of the Mississippi, the Prairie Peninsula was a tallgrass prairie, abounding in wild grasses and forbs (non-woody, broadleaf plants) such as Big Bluestem and Compass Plant that towered as high as eight feet above the prairie sod.

Environmental scientists still argue about exactly how and why the Prairie Peninsula came to be. But however it was formed, in the thousands of years following the retreat of the last glacier that scoured northern Illinois, a diverse and complicated ecology grew up in the Prairie Peninsula. The landscape was dominated by prairie plants, particularly grasses and sedges (which have triangular-shaped, sharp-edged stems: “Sedges have edges,” which is a handy way to differentiate them from grasses).

You can still get an idea of what the Illinois tallgrass prairie looked like during the settlement era at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie at Wilmington, Illinois.

Grasses such as Big Blue Stem and Little Blue Stem predominated in the tallgrass prairie, but in the spring and the fall, before and after the grasses’ and sedges’ growing season, forbs predominated, creating the brightly colored carpets of wildflowers so many of the early settlers commented on.

The settlers didn’t spend a lot of time pondering questions on how the landscape came to be, but mostly wondered how they were to survive in seemingly endless grassland with few patches of timber.

The problem was that early 19th Century settlement technology was timber-intensive, requiring lots of trees from which to manufacture split rail fences, log cabins and outbuildings, and the firewood needed to heat homes during Illinois’ fierce winters.

As the settlers pushed west out of the Ohio and Indiana timber into the prairie, they found that, in general, wooded areas followed along the banks of streams and were growing in groves in other areas of wet prairie. They quickly realized woods proved thickest on the east side of streams.

Scientists generally agree now that the prairie fires that swept across the Prairie Peninsula on a regular basis, driven by the prevailing westerly winds, were slowed or stopped by streams, which allowed more and thicker timber to thrive on streams’ east bank.

Many native prairie grasses and forbs require periodic fires to thrive, while non-native species tend to be killed by fire. In addition to high resistance to fire, most native plant species are also highly drought resistant. Prairie plants and native tree species tend to have deep root systems and leaf systems that maximize water retention. Each year, about 37 inches of rain falls here in Kendall County. Significantly, that’s almost exactly the amount of rainfall absorbed by an acre of native prairie or oak savanna.

Not only the quantity of timber was changed due to location, but the type was too. In general, fire-resistant trees such as white oak were more likely to be found along the west banks of streams, while less fire-resistant species, such as black walnut, basswood, and maples, found life easier along the streams’ west banks.

When U.S. Government surveyors arrived in northern Illinois in the late 1830s to complete the survey mandated by the Northwest Ordinance before land could be sold to pioneer settlers, they documented the types and extent of timber up and down the Fox Valley. Looking at those original survey maps and reading the surveyors’ notes, it becomes clear how important location was when it came to the kinds and amounts of the area’s timber resources.

This photograph taken by Malcom Rance at the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match illustrates how timber-free that Will County township was even into the second decade of the 20th Century. (Little White School Museum collection)

In fact, timber-free land was settled last. Will County’s Wheatland Township, which neighbors Oswego Township to the east, was virtually treeless so when my Pennsylvania German ancestors arrived there in 1852, they were still able to buy unclaimed government land. It’s important to note that the land there, and elsewhere on treeless prairies where timber was far removed, wasn’t ignored at first because it wasn’t fertile, because it was. It was avoided for several years because vital timber was too far away.

When the earliest settlers reached the Fox Valley in the 1820s and early 1830s, they found timber edging both banks of the Fox River, although the belt along the east bank of the river was generally thicker with a more diverse species of hardwoods. In some areas, like in most of Aurora Township, just to the north of Oswego Township, there was scarcely any timber along the west bank of the river at all.

Some of these woods were, in part, densely timbered and had a hazel brush understory. But other parts of it were relatively open, what is called today an oak savanna that was fairly park-like.

In the spring and the fall, after native prairie grasses and other plants had dried out, thunderstorm lightning naturally started many swift-moving prairie fires. But in addition, in a practice that had been noted by the region’s first French explorers, the local Native American population also started fires, both intentionally and unintentionally. Unintentional fires happened when cooking fires escaped into the dry prairie. Intentional fires were much more common and were started to prepare fields for cultivation, combat insects, kill trees that were encroaching onto the prairies from the groves, and for hunting purposes. To hunt with fires, Native People would start a ring of fire sometimes a mile in diameter, and leave an unburned exit, through which game animals would be forced by the flames.

The fires also swept through the hardwood savanna areas, killing off brush and keeping the understory clear, while encouraging the growth of fire-tolerating trees and plants. Fires did a good job of creating lots of wooded edges that encouraged the deer and other animal populations.

The periodic burning, both natural and caused by man, largely created the prairie landscape found by the pioneers when they arrived. Over thousands of years, the plants and trees that grew on the prairies had come to not only tolerate, but to rely on fire. White oaks, for instance, are very fire resistant because of their thick bark and their high resistance to rotting after being scared by fire. In addition, they quickly grow after fires—fire actually helps some oak seedbeds sprout. On the other hand, many other species—maples, for instance—are very susceptible to fire damage.

While hardwood groves dotted the prairie, one extensive stretch of timber in particular caught the eye of many early mid-Fox Valley settlers.

From the location of today’s city of Batavia, all the way south to Waubonsie Creek in Oswego, a thick belt of maple, linden, oak, ash, and hickory provided an excellent source of timber, as well as protection from the prairie winds. In typical prosaic pioneer fashion, the settlers gave this huge stretch of woodland a simple and descriptive name. They called this big woods, the, well, “Big Woods.”

A detail from the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township shows the southernmost lobe of the Big Woods (highlighted in green) extending down the east bank of the Fox River from the Kane County line.

Not only did the settlers find welcome shelter among the hardwoods of the Big Woods, but so did the Native People who lived there before them. Chief Waubonsie, the principal war leader of the Prairie Potowatomi, located his permanent village in the western verge of the Big Woods, moving it often enough so that virtually every modern town up and down the Fox Valley from Oswego to Batavia can accurately claim to have been the site of the chief’s village at one time or another.

When the pioneers got here, they settled along the verge of the timber, locating their homes next to the woods and plowing fields in the nearby prairie. The Big Woods wasn’t regular in shape; it had many lobes that extended into the surrounding prairie, providing many protected areas where pioneers quickly established fields by plowing the native prairie with special “breaking plows,” designed to turn over the thick sod for the first time.

According to the original survey maps, the Big Woods stretched some miles east of the Fox River, almost to Naperville at the ford across the DuPage River. It then extended south all the way to Waubonsie Creek, where its southernmost lobe ended. As surveyor James Reed wrote in his notebook back on Aug. 8, 1838: “Mouth of Wabansia Creek 30 links [20 feet; a link was 7.92 inches] wide. North of creek land is timbered with white and Black oak. South of creek land is prairie and slopes gently to the river. The village of Oswego is located just below the mouth of the creek.”

The Big Woods covered almost half of Kane County’s Aurora Township, as this image of the 1838 U.S. Government survey map shows–with timbered areas highlighted in green. Note the near-total lack of timber on the west side of the river, with only a pencil-thin strip existing in the north half of the township.

The first thing the pioneers did when they arrived was start cutting down the Big Woods, along with most of the other stands of timber in the area. That initial wave of settlers was a timber-intensive bunch, requiring logs—and lots of them—to manufacture all those rail fences, build log homes and outbuildings, and supply firewood. According to James Sheldon Barber, an Oswego settler, writing back to his parents in New York State in 1843, a pioneer farm family needed 10 acres of timber to make a go of it on the Illinois frontier.

A large portion of AuSable Grove south of Oswego was subdivided into woodlots told to settlers where they could cut firewood and timber needed for building purposes. This cut is from the 1870 plat map of Kendall County.

For early arrivals, that was no problem, but they quickly claimed the timberland for their own use. Some, however, bought timber stands with the intention of dividing it into smaller parcels to sell to later arrivals. That’s why you see some wooded areas on early plat maps divided into many small chunks.

The settlers used didn’t always require cutting trees down, of course. Maple sugaring in the spring was a popular and profitable activity that even left its name behind in the name of one of our area towns—Sugar Grove. Further, the breeds of hogs the settlers brought along were hardy, ornery animals that got along just fine browsing in the oak savannas that were relatively common during those early years, especially eating all the acorns produced by native oaks.

Eventually, the only remaining woods were in wetlands and other areas not farmed for one reason or another. And, in fact, remnants still remain today, including a nice stand at Cook’s Savannah in Oswego’s Old Post Park and such areas such as Briarcliff Woods Park and the Arbor Ridge Subdivision in Montgomery and in several other areas up and down the Fox Valley. Each of those oak savanna remnants is a reminder of the landscape the pioneers encountered when they decided to settle along the banks of the Fox River.

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Farming, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, Science stuff

It wasn’t easy: Celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage

Last week, women had a prominent role in the Democratic National Convention and it looks as if they will also have a substantial role in this week’s Republican National Convention.

While women are now playing an important role in today’s politics, it wasn’t always so. It wasn’t until August 1920—just a century ago this month—that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and women were finally granted the right to vote in all elections—local, state, and national. And so, women and women’s organizations across the nation are marking the 100th anniversary of universal women’s suffrage in the United States.

What many probably do not realize is that here in Illinois, women had the right to vote, for at least some local and state offices, several years before the rest of the U.S. got up to speed.

It might seem strange to us today that half of the adult citizens of the U.S. and all of the talent they had to offer were once disenfranchised, but that was indeed the case until the 19th Amendment was finally passed.

In frontier areas, however, the idea of women being able to vote was apparently a little easier to swallow than in the settled East, where religious bigotry had long resulted in women’s political and economic subjugation. As the frontier moved west, first across the Appalachians into the old Northwest Territory, of which Illinois was once part, and then across the Mississippi, the importance of women continued to grow.

While they couldn’t vote, women could become property owners on the frontier, something that began to earn them political influence. Here in Kendall County, for instance, a number of single women and their families settled on the prairie. When Kendall County’s land was offered for sale by the federal government, 23 women purchased 29 parcels in the county. Abby Bulloch purchased the largest amount—400 acres in today’s Lisbon Township—in 1836.

Women’s land purchases in the county weren’t limited to the early settlement era, either. In 1854, Nancy Hogsett Elliott, a widow with four sons and two daughters, determined to move west from Indianapolis to a place with more opportunity. Elliott eventually settled here in the Fox River Valley where she raised her children and carved a living out of the rolling prairie that then made up Kendall County.

When their men had to be absent during that pioneer era, it was up to frontier women to look after things until they returned. When Capt. David Beebe decided to sail to California, joining the “Forty-Niners” looking for gold, his wife, Nancy Steward Beebe, stayed behind in North Ridge, Ohio where she ran the couple’s farm and looked after their children until David’s planned return from the gold fields. Unfortunately, he did not make it home, but died during his return trip and was buried at sea.

Mrs. Beebe was a determined woman who apparently never let her gender get in the way of her aims in life or doing what she considered was right. While the family lived in Ohio, she served as a postmaster and was also a conductor on the Underground Railroad. After moving to Kendall County with her second husband to join her sons and her brother, Lewis Steward, she wrote poetry, was active in the Underground Railroad here helping escaped slaves get to freedom in Canada, and was an organizer of the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

So maybe it was because of that strong streak Western women developed that the right to vote—in some elections, at least—came early in Illinois. The extreme financial problems of the 1870s prompted all kinds of activism, including that on behalf of women. Down in Springfield, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife had been working hard on women’s suffrage, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. The strange result was that while women couldn’t vote for themselves, for the first time they could be elected to local political office.

By that summer, the devastating Panic of 1873—also known as The Long Depression—was in full swing and feelings in rural and urban areas alike was running high against those blamed for the financial troubles. On July 4, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville that generated support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ political convention at Yorkville that approved a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests. “We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”

The convention was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third party, but the majority favoring it. The upshot was the nomination of an entire county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority. Taking into account the new law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.

Incumbent county school superintendent John R. Marshall, who was also the editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s paper of record, perceiving the winds of change might have begun blowing, gingerly congratulated Chittenden: “Miss Chittenden, I don’t know but she is an excellent lady—all ladies are excellent—and would doubtless would make an excellent Sueprintendress.”

He needn’t have worried, however, because she subsequently declined the nomination. Even so, Chittenden’s nomination established a new political first for Kendall County women.

Agitation for women’s suffrage continued and in 1891, Illinois women were given, for the first time, the right to vote for school board members or any other school official except the state superintendent of public instruction and the county superintendent of schools. Women were not allowed to vote for the state and county superintendents because those offices were specifically enumerated in the 1870 Illinois Constitution, which made no mention of allowing women to vote.

As a result of that legal ruling, while women could vote for school board members and other locally elected school officials whose offices were not mentioned in the constitution, they could not cast ballots on any educational propositions, such as tax rate referendums.

Locally, women wasted no time in taking up the franchise. At the election for Oswego Township School Trustees on April 9, 1892, Mrs. Mary Frances (Porter) Hunt, wife of Oswego businessman and politician John B. Hunt, may have become the first woman in Kendall County to vote for a school official.

That was only the beginning. When local school board elections were held a week later, women all over Kendall County not only voted, but helped elect two of their number to previously all-male boards. In balloting on April 16, voters in Oswego elected Florence K. Read to the Oswego School District 4 Board, while in Newark, the unmarried Martha Olson soundly beat Will Manchester for a school board seat, 26-16.

“Six ladies cast their first ballot and are pleased that a lady so worthy in every respect and well qualified for a position was elected school director by a good majority,” wrote Julia Hull, the Record’s Newark correspondent.

In 1894, the Illinois Suffragette Convention persuaded state officials to allow women to hold the kinds of school offices for which they could vote. That year, Lucy Flower, a well-known social worker of the time, became the first woman to hold statewide office here in the Prairie State when she was elected as a trustee of the University of Illinois.

Then in 1913, Illinois women were given the right to vote for any elected official whose office could be abolished by the General Assembly. The rationale was, again, that those offices were not mentioned in the state constitution and so were fair game for the female underclass.

Suffragists in New York State got behind an effort to pass a Constitutional amendment to allow women to vote in 1917 and then in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for women’s suffrage. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in early June 1919 and sent it to the states for their approval. And on June 10, 1919, Illinois won a three-way tie with Wisconsin and Michigan to be the first states to ratify the amendment, allowing women to vote for all state and national offices.

Just a few months before the General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment, long-time Kendall County Circuit Clerk Avery Beebe died following years of illness. The county board, with the enthusiastic support of Circuit Court Judge Mazzini Slusser—one of the great local historical names of all time—appointed Beebe’s popular assistant, 34 year-old Frances Lane, as clerk pro tempore. Lane’s grandparents settled in Kendall County in 1837. Her father, Charles E. Lane, was an itinerate journalist, and Frances was born in Kansas. Her father later returned to Illinois, where, among other jobs, he managed the Kendall County Record. Frances graduated from Yorkville High School in 1902 and taught school for several years before Beebe tapped her for his assistant clerk.

In March 1920, Lane announced her candidacy for clerk—permitted under the 1913 legislation—much to the chagrin of Earl Weeks, who had announced for the office in February. In a letter to the editor of the Record, Weeks suggested Lane was not permitted to run for clerk. In the March 31, 1920 Record, Aurora attorney John M. Raymond, himself a Kendall County native, and Lane herself made spirited rebuttals to Weeks’ charges.

As a Record columnist dryly observed that same week: “When the efficient little clerk pro tempore of the circuit court announced her candidacy for the office of clerk she surely started something upon which every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinks he is eminently qualified to pass a judicial opinion.”

It was a short-lived controversy, however. Weeks dropped out and Lane, “the efficient little clerk pro tempore” won the uncontested GOP primary and with it the general election in rock-ribbed Republican Kendall County becoming the county’s first female elected county official.

With Lane’s example and the 19th Amendment on their side, Kendall County women didn’t waste much time running for other local offices. In the April 1922 primary election, Ella D. Hill won the Republican nomination for county treasurer over popular former sheriff Martin Hextell, 1,495 votes to 1,316. In those days, just like Lane’s election, the winner of the Republican primary was assured success in the general election.

Two years later, in 1924, Louetta B. Davis won the April Republican primary election for Circuit Court Clerk. She, also, went on to win election the following November.

Then in 1926, Laura Nichols handily won the GOP nomination for Kendall County Treasurer over male candidates Frank Crum and Frank Weber. Nichols polled 1,402 ballots to 1,006 for Crum and 464 for Weber.

While lots of women served as school board members and local officials, it took many more years before females were trusted enough to be elected to statewide office. In 1955, Mrs. Earle Benjamin Searcy of Springfield was appointed to fill the unexpired term of her late husband as State Supreme Court Clerk. Mrs. Searcy was subsequently elected to the post, the first women to serve in a statewide office in Illinois.

Other women, however, had been elected to other positions of power before that. For instance, Winifred Mason Huck of Chicago was elected Congressman-at-large in 1922 to replace her father, William E. Mason, who had died. Lottie Holman O’Neill of Downers Grove was the first elected female member of the General Assembly, with the voters sending her to the house in 1922. She served until 1964, with terms both in the Illinois House and Senate.

Today, with numerous female office-holders at the local, state and federal levels, we take women in politics so much for granted that it looks as if Kamala Harris has a good chance of becoming the first Vice-President of the United States. It is sobering to recall that within the lifespan of some Kendall County residents, women were forbidden to vote for those who were making decisions that affected their very lives. 

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Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Women's History

Serious disease outbreaks not uncommon in Illinois, Fox Valley history

At the order of Gov. J.B. Pritzger, Illinois remains somewhat hunkered down these days as the medical profession and biologists try to figure out how to handle the severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus 2—shortened to COVID-19—pandemic sweeping the world.

Here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley, towns up and down the river issued shelter in place orders last spring, businesses (except for those deemed essential) were closed along with most governmental agencies including schools, park districts, museums, and libraries, and the only reason most people left home was to get groceries or visit the drug store. Things have begun to loosen up a bit, but as they’ve done so, cases have started on an upward trend line once again, making the area’s financial recovery problematical in the near future.

Serious disease outbreaks were fairly common around these parts back during the settlement era, a situation that lasted well into the 20th Century. In the early days, nobody knew what caused the periodic outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, or the ever-present ague—which we know today as malaria.

But when it came to actually killing our pioneer ancestors, the big three diseases were cholera, typhoid, and smallpox.

Gen. Winfield Scott

Illinois’ earliest cholera outbreak happened in 1832 as the U.S. Army responded to the Black Hawk War. Troops brought west on the Great Lakes had picked up the disease along the way, and were dying even as they arrived. When Gen. Winfield Scott arrived at Chicago’s Fort Dearborn with his infected soldiers, most settlers who had fled to the fort for protection quickly left for their homes, figuring while the Indians might kill them, the cholera surely would. Legend has it that as Scott’s small army marched northwest to the Rock River country in western Illinois and southern Wisconsin, and as additional soldiers died, they were buried along the route with a cannon ball used as a marker for each dead soldier, thus, supposedly, the origin of today’s Cannonball Trail.

But of the three, smallpox was the most feared, and most certain, killer during that era. Thought to be eradicated in the 1970s, smallpox made a comeback of sorts back in the early 2000s, with the spread of rumors it was being cultured for biological warfare.

Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Raz

Although known to be at least 3,000 years old, smallpox wasn’t mentioned in Europe until the 6th Century. Oddly enough, given the current unpleasantness between ourselves and the Islamic countries, the first scientific description of smallpox distinguishing it from its cousin, measles, was made by Abu-Bakr Muhammed ibn-Zakariya’al-Razi, chief physician at a Baghdad hospital—in 900 A.D. He established the diagnosis criteria for the disease that would be used until the 1700s.

From the 6th Century on, frequent European epidemics killed millions. Those same epidemics, however, provided a growing tolerance to the disease that allowed the death rate to decline to between 10 and 30 percent of those infected. Even so, the disease remained deadly. During the 18th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans.

Even royalty suffered the ravages of the pox. The earliest-known royal smallpox victim was the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses V who died of it in 1160 B.C. Other, more modern, monarchs who succumbed included William II of Orange in 1650, Queen Mary II of England in 1694, Czar Peter II of Russia in 1730, Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maria Theresa of Austria in 1780.

Early European explorers brought Old World diseases to North America, and they proved extra deadly to the New World’s Native People. The combination of smallpox and measles killed upwards of 90 percent of the Native American population in some areas, along with smaller numbers of European settlers. When the Pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, they found what later became Massachusetts strangely uninhabited, although the empty villages and fields of Native People were scattered all over the region, their residents having been killed during a recent smallpox epidemic, probably inadvertently spread by Portuguese fishermen.

Then came the 18th Century and some true medical progress. Greek physician Emanuel Timoni, living in Constantinople in 1713, described how smallpox might be prevented by immunization using some of the liquid from a smallpox sore and rubbing it into a small scratch on a healthy person’s skin. While the inoculation caused a mild case of the pox, 98 percent survived and were thereafter immune.

In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British minister to Constantinople, described inoculations she personally witnessed. During a 1721 smallpox epidemic in London, Lady Montagu had her five year-old daughter inoculated. The child developed a mild case, but recovered almost immediately. The exploit persuaded King George I to have two of his grandchildren inoculated—after having the process tested on 11 children from a charity school and a half-dozen prisoners at Newgate Gaol first. Couldn’t be too careful, you know.

Gen. George Washington mandated immunizations for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War to stop the debilitating spread of smallpox.

Although inoculation was known, the pox still caused untold deaths throughout the world. In 1776, smallpox struck the Continental Army around Boston, and 5,500 of the 10,000-man force came down with the disease. In 1777, General George Washington, himself a smallpox survivor, ordered his entire army inoculated against the pox. Although Congress was opposed to the relatively new treatment (Washington’s home state of Virginia outlawed smallpox inoculations), Washington insisted—no anti-vaxxers allowed. As a result, Washington’s Continentals were spared the smallpox that was ravaging the 13 Colonies. When infection rates dropped from 20 percent to 1 percent, even Congress couldn’t ignore it. That led to one of the nation’s first public health laws legalizing smallpox vaccinations. Previously, some colonies (including Washington’s own Virginia) had prohibited vaccination under penalty of law.

British soldiers, most of whom had been exposed to the pox as children, suffered far less mortality than their American cousins during the war.

Then in 1796, English scientist and doctor Edward Jenner invented his famed method of inoculating patients with cowpox vaccine, leading to protection from smallpox with few, if any side effects.

Edward Jenner administers smallpox vaccine to a child in this painting.

Even so, epidemics continued to strike, particularly hitting Native People the hardest. In 1837, a smallpox outbreak along the Missouri River, probably carried by fur traders, killed 15,000 Indians, virtually wiping out the Arikara, Hidatsa  and Mandan tribes.

Smallpox made careers other than Jenner’s, too. In 1878, when a deadly smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood, S.D., 26 year-old Martha Jane Canary nursed patients, rendering services during the disastrous outbreak that eventually made her the legendary “Calamity Jane.”

Here in the Fox Valley, an 1845 epidemic struck Oswego. James Sheldon Barber, writing to his parents in Smyrna, N.Y. from Lockport on April 27 of that year, reported: “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vaccinated one week ago last Monday. It worked tolerably well & I have got over it & now I feel perfectly safe.”

Barber finally got to Oswego to visit the friends with which he’d traveled from Smyrna to Oswego back in 1843 and was happy to find them all alive, if somewhat scarred: “I found the folks all well. Hawley’s folks have all had the small pox but Honer, Harriet & Jabez had the hardest of them all. Harriet’s face is scarred some but she says it is not so bad as it has been & I think She will get over it entirely in a short time.”

Oswego’s last smallpox scare came when a passenger arrived at the Oswego Depot in 1891.

One of the last local smallpox scares was in January of 1891. According to the Kendall County Record, a woman traveling by rail to Chicago through Oswego was found to have a rash some thought to be smallpox. A community panic ensued, with calls for the school to be closed, a community-wide quarantine established, suspension of mail service, social gatherings canceled and attendance at church services curtailed (does this sound familiar?). But within a day or so, it was found the woman had a simple rash and “The scare ceased almost as fast as it began,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported.

The last recorded case of smallpox was reported in Somalia in October 1977, and it is officially considered an eradicated disease.

Now, we’re dealing with a new disease that seems every bit as deadly as smallpox for those who contract it. The strange thing, though, is that today we know what a virus is, and even what the microscopic COVID-19 virus looks like. We just don’t know—at the present time—how to manufacture a vaccine to inoculate people against it.

In that respect, it’s at least a little bit like those days of long ago when diseases struck for no apparent reason, killed dozens, hundreds, or thousands, and then disappeared as quickly as they came. At least today, we have reason to believe help is on the way as the scientific community is working hard to come up with a vaccine for those not stricken and effective treatments for those who have contracted COVID-19.

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The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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Oswego has had its very own fossil since the 19th Century

One of my favorite authors is the late James Michener. For years while he was alive, his fans looked forward to reading one of his thick, arm-breaking novels, especially during the summer.

From Hawaii to Texas to Alaska, Michener has entertained and enlightened. It seemed to me, at least, that Michener must have spent years researching each of his books—and he did. One of the wonderful things about all of them is the minute detail into which Michener goes in explaining the background of the story he’s telling.

In Centennial, for instance, Michener starts out by telling the story of the life of a lady brontosaurus who was galumphing around Colorado 60 million years or so ago.

Here in Kendall County, not a whole lot was happening 60 million years ago, at least we don’t think so. At that time, this part of the landscape was high, dry land of a kind that unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the preservation of fossils. So I suppose it would be more accurate to say we don’t think a whole lot was happening back then.

The real action had happened some millions of years before, starting in the Precambrian era when the Earth’s crust got its foundation. Here in Kendall County, the evidence of Precambrian times—a thick layer of granite—lies about 4,000 feet below the surface, forming what geologists like to call the Precambrian Basement. It’s sobering to think that at one time, about a billion years ago, that granite was the surface of the land, although not one we’d recognize. During that era, the area was bare, dense rock, possibly cut by a few streams with no life at all, because the oxygen we breathe today had yet to be liberated from the planet’s crust.

2 Tentaculities oswegoensis fossil

A nice bunch of tentaculites Oswegoensis (the elongated cone-shaped fossils) along with a nice crinoid plate is part of the exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

From the lifelessness of the Precambrian, the area lurched into a riot of life during the Paleozoic Era starting about 570 million years ago. It was during this era that much of the dolomite and limestone that undergirds Kendall County was laid down. During the Ordovician period of the Paleozoic, from about 505 to 438 million years ago, Kendall County was part of the floor of a shallow sea. Because of this, large deposits of sandstone—particularly the valuable white St. Peter sandstone that can be found along the south Fox River—that can be found up and down the Fox Valley were left behind, as were layers of Ordovician limestone and dolomite. The numerous invertebrate creatures that thrived in the warm seas overlaying Kendall County left their mark in fossils in limestone outcrops all over the area. They can be most easily seen in my hometown of Oswego along Waubonsie Creek near North Adams Street where brachiopods and other bi-valves, along with other fossilized creatures, are commonly visible.

And, in fact, one of those creatures is even named for Oswego. As the story goes, in 1852 Dr. Mordecai Davis, an Oswego doctor, was surveying the area along the creek while engaging in his hobby of geology, when he discovered a fossil of a worm-like animal embedded in the blue-gray shale the creek had gradually eroded away. Since the creature was unknown to him, he conferred with Professor Wilbur at Aurora College, but the good professor couldn’t put a name to the fossil, either. So the sample collected by Davis was then reportedly sent to Washington, D.C. for study and eventually ended up at the Philadelphia Museum, where it was classified and named Tentaculites oswegoensis, after the place it was first found.

Chicago’s Field Museum maintains specimens of the ancient creature, but its identity is just as shrouded in mystery as it was when Dr. Davis discovered it almost 150 years ago. According to paleontologists at the museum, it is believed to be a marine worm of some kind, but that’s all that is known about it. The Little White School Museum in Oswego has some Tentaculites oswegoensis specimens of it on exhibit.

Two other eras of the Paleozoic, the Mississippian and the Pennsylvanian, are extensively represented in Illinois, though not necessarily here in Kendall County. Much of the limestone that is crushed for use on county roads and for other uses originated during the Mississippian era. And the Pennsylvanian era is responsible for the thick seams of coal that underlay much of Illinois just to the south of Kendall County.

Annularia fossil

A nice Annularia (a fern-like plant) fossil from the Pennsylvanian Era collected in the Mazon Creek area of Grundy County.

During the Pennsylvanian era, Kendall County was located on the equator, and the life forms that lived then support these findings by geologists. The beds of Pennsylvanian fossils found in Grundy and LaSalle counties are rich in tropical sea life and plants that grew along the shore. Geologists tell us that during the Pennsylvanian, the area was alternately flooded and dry, resulting in the absolute riot of plant and animal life (including Tully Monsters!) found in the era’s fossil beds. My buddy Paul and I spent a lot of time in the 1960s and 1970s hunting fossils down in the Mazon Creek area. We eventually donated our collection of 500 or so of them to the University of Wisconsin, keeping a few of the nicer specimens, including a Tully Monster each, for ourselves.

Then came the Mesozoic Era, from 245 to 66 million years ago, and that lack of dinosaurs that would probably have driven poor James Michener to distraction. In Illinois, rocks from that era are almost entirely missing, probably ground away by the glaciers that arrived during the Cenozoic Era—which is still underway, by the way. The Cenozoic Era has been a pretty exciting time, too, with the advent of mammals, the advance of ice sheets from the North Pole, and the arrival of the first humans along the Fox River. Up to 20 glaciations of Illinois took place during the era, during which some 85 percent of the surface area of the state was covered in glacial ice.

Interestingly enough, geologists no longer believe the glaciers were slow to advance and retreat. Instead, it is now believed that glaciers advanced quickly and retreated just as quickly. During the last cycle of advances and retreats, Kendall County’s familiar rolling landscape was created.

But back to our story of Oswego’s own fossil. Back in February as they were excavating the footings for the new multi-story commercial building on the block bounded by Washington, Adams, Jackson, and Harrison streets (the old Alexander Lumber Company site) excavators uncovered the layer of blue-green Maquoketa shale that extends to Waubonsie Creek. In amongst the shale—named for the Jackson County, Iowa town where it was first identified—a local fossil hunter found some nice specimens of Tentaculites oswegoensis. It was treated as quite a discovery by some of the local press and even the Chicago Trib and the Sun-Times picked up on it as the collector presented a specimen to the Oswego Village Board. The board was appropriately gratified and village officials said they were busy learning more about the fossil named after the village and were discussing plans on how it could be properly displayed.

tentaculites exhibit

Oswego’s Little White School Museum features the story of Tentaculites oswegoensis as part of its core exhibit.

Of course, the real surprise would have been if no examples of good old Tentaculites oswegoensis had been found in that layer of Maquoketa shale. Most kids who grew up in Oswego knew there was a great fossil-hunting spot along the banks of Waubonsie Creek and they’ve been using their fingers to dig everything from Tentaculites to crinoid plates to bivalve fossils out of some of those soft Maquoketa deposits.

And, as noted above, there have been nice examples of the fossil on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum since the early 1990s. A fine example unearthed by naturalist, environmentalist, and author Dick Young some 25 years ago is part of the museum’s core exhibit. So, Oswego village people, if you’re looking for more information on the town’s very own fossil, just contact the museum and I’m sure they’ll be happy to help you out.

Mother Nature created a land that was kind to the humans who settled it during a period of tens of thousands of years, as well as to those who continue to arrive in growing numbers in this modern age. That creation wasn’t done quickly, of course, and still provides some surprises to those who are paying attention. But then again, things of great worth are seldom achieved overnight.

 

 

 

 

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Nathan Hughes: An escaped slave who fought for freedom during the Civil War

Another Memorial Day has rolled around, this time with the nation in actual peril, thanks to a new highly contagious disease, for the first time in a many years.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Procession marching through downtown Oswego on Decoration Day, around 1910. Parade Marshal George White leads the parade, which usually consisted of a marching band, civic and fraternal organizations, and citizens. When the procession reached the Oswego Township Cemetery, a short memorial service was held for the community’s Civil War dead, after which Oswego school children decorated the graves of deceased veterans with flowers.

Originally established to honor the graves of Civil War soldiers and so named Decoration Day, today’s Memorial Day honors all the nation’s military personnel who have died.

As wars go, the Civil War has never been my favorite area of historical study. Better named the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery, the war pitted the largely rural Southern states against the North and its mix of rural and industrialized urban areas. Both sides were unlucky in the military commanders they chose to lead the fight against the other side. It took a few years before the North’s crop of military leaders was finally distilled down to no-nonsense men like Ulysses Grant and William Sherman, Grant invaluable because of his grasp of strategy and Sherman for his tactical brilliance. Meanwhile, the South chose Robert Lee as their military leader, a man whose grasp of the kind of strategy required to defeat a stronger foe was disastrously flawed. The result was more than 600,000 killed in action, dead of wounds, and perished from disease.

Here in Kendall County, more than 10 percent of the total population went off to fight and the war’s lasting effect was to see the county’s population steadily decline for the next century until it finally surpassed its 1860 total in 1960.

But while the South was soundly beaten militarily during the war, it immediately began fighting to win the peace, which it did. Reinstituting the terrorism that had kept the South’s slave population in line, the Jim Crow era was, if anything, even more violent than slavery itself. And the South’s efforts to redefine the cause of the war was just as successful. By the time I was in high school a century after the war was fought, we were taught that the underlying cause of the war was state’s rights. Slavery, we were told, was a dying institution at the time and would have ended had the war never been fought.

Neither of those were true. The war was mainly fought over the South’s continuing, and increasingly unsuccessful, efforts to expand slavery into the new territories being brought into the Union. All of the existing resolutions of secession passed by Southern state legislators mention the North’s attitude towards slavery as a major cause, if not the major cause, of the states’ secession. Union. And as for being on the way out, slavery was financially lucrative in the extreme. In fact, the value of all the South’s slaves was more than the value of all of the North’s industrial, railroad, and banking facilities.

As for the Civil War itself, a little over a century and a half ago this month, the conflict was in full swing with the ultimate result still very much in doubt.

While the Union was still convinced it could defeat the rebellious secessionists if just given a little more time, reality was staring to intrude. It would take more years of blood and treasure to finally stamp out the rebellion begun by the South’s pro-slavery forces.

It would also take a lot more soldiers—by 1864, the Union was scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel. But there was an as-yet untapped resource: thousands of black men who were already living in the North and areas in the South controlled by the U.S. Government. Some were Northern-born and wanted to fight; others had escaped from slavery and were eager to do their part to ensure freedom for everyone in the nation.

Many blacks were already serving in support roles as teamsters and other noncombatant jobs. Others were serving in combat with state units, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the subject of the film, “Glory.” But on May 22, 1863, with the number of potential soldiers drying up across the North, the War Department issued General Order 143, establishing the United States Colored Troops. Regulations called for all officers to be white, although non-commissioned officers—corporals and sergeants—were to be promoted from the ranks.

However, some light-skinned blacks passed for white in order to serve as officers, like William N. Reed, a New York abolitionist. Reed graduated from the German military school at Kiel and had served in the German army. Arriving back in the U.S. he managed to obtain a commission as colonel of the 1st. North Carolina Colored Infantry Regiment, later reorganized as the 35th U.S. Colored Infantry. Reed is recognized as the highest-ranking African American in the Civil War

US Colored troops recruitmentIllinois Gov. Richard Yates began raising a regiment of colored troops late in 1863, but the early efforts were slow, due to a combination of factors including lower pay for black soldiers and the brutal treatment black prisoners of war received at the hands of the rebels. But gradually the regiment’s companies were filled with volunteers from all over the state until it was ready to be formally accepted for service at Quincy on April 24, 1864.

Although U.S.C.T. (U.S. Colored Troops) regiments were not always fortunate in their commanders, the 29th was, with Lt. Col. John Bross of Chicago, a skilled, knowledgeable veteran, in command. The regiment was assigned to the Fourth Division, IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac, the first black division to serve with the Union in the Virginia theater.

Among those who enlisted in the 29th, was an escaped slave named Nathan Hughes. According to his military records, Hughes was born in Bourbon County, Ky. and was, according to his family’s tradition, of mixed black and Seminole ancestry. Like many slaves, he was apparently unsure of his birth date. His military records stated he was 33 when he enlisted in 1864, making his birth year 1831. However, his family had a birth date of 1824 inscribed on his tombstone.

Whatever his age, Hughes managed to escape slavery, but in doing so was forced to leave his family behind. Reaching Illinois, he apparently settled near Yorkville and worked as a laborer until he volunteered for service in the 29th, enlisting in Company B under Capt. Hector Aiken.

While the 29th was fortunate in its commanding officers, it was not so lucky in those assigned to command the Fourth Division, nor the IX Corps to which it was assigned. Gen. Edward Ferrero the division commander, was a former dance instructor of middling ability, and the corps commander, Gen. Ambrose Burnside, was better but no military genius. After reaching the Virginia front where Union forces besieged the rebel capital of Richmond, the 29th was assigned to protect the Union Army’s supply lines, participating in a number of skirmishes. On May 9, 1864, the 29th was instrumental in throwing back a determined rebel assault on some vital Union supply convoys.

After Gen. Ulysses Grant took command of the Union armies, he orchestrated a campaign designed to destroy the main rebel force, the Army of Northern Virginia, using a series of flanking movements gradually forcing the rebel army back on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va. Richmond was not only valuable as the rebel capital, but also because of its industrial facilities and its position as a rail hub—the Civil War was the first railroad war and the lines were vital to supply the huge armies involved.

But the siege of Richmond was not something Grant wanted. He had pursued rebel Gen. Robert Lee in a series of hard marches and battles through the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor unsuccessfully trying to corner him before Lee was run to ground in the extensive defensive works around Richmond.

Grant knew the heavily fortified Richmond suburb of Petersburg was the key to the rebel position, but could see no way to break into it. While Lee was a good tactician and a middling strategist, he was a fine military engineer.

Battle of the Crater

This detail from a Tom Lovell painting shows the ferocious combat that took place between rebel troops and United States soldiers during the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia.

So the two armies, the Union Army of the Potomac and the rebels’ Army of Northern Virginia settled down in a siege neither side wanted. Enter the coal miners serving in the Union Army’s 48th Pennsylvania Infantry, who proposed to dig a tunnel under the rebel works. The idea was to hollow out a large open cavern under the rebel fortifications, fill the cavern with gunpowder, and blow up the rebel works. The mine was completed, the charge blown up, and a huge break in the rebel lines was created. But the Union assault was a confused failure, thanks to incompetent commanders. The Battle of the Crater that took place as Union troops, including Ferrero’s U.S. Colored Troops, attempted to exploit the new break in the rebel lines was depicted from the Southern point of view in the 2003 film “Cold Harbor.” It was a Union disaster.

The 29th U.S. Colored Infantry was one of the regiments that were part of the assault force, and during the melee, Nathan Hughes was badly wounded, shot in his left knee. He must have been a tough guy because unlike so many Union soldiers, Hughes survived the serious wound, including being sent to a military hospital. He not only survived but was returned to duty months later, just in time to be wounded again, this time less seriously in the hand. Doing hard marching with the 29th, Hughes fought through the battles and skirmishes of Boydton Plank Road, Globe Tavern, Poplar Grove Church, and Hatcher’s Run before Grant was able to bring the Army of Northern Virginia to bay at Appomattox Courthouse, Lee’s surrender in April 1865 effectively ending the war. The 29th was then sent down to Texas to watch the border with Mexico thanks to French meddling with that country while the U.S. was distracted with its internal conflict. The regiment was mustered out of U.S. service in November 1865.

After being mustered out with the rest of the regiment in Texas, Hughes returned to Illinois where he decided to settle on a small plot in Kendall County near Oswego on today’s Minkler Road. Like many escaped slaves forced to leave their families behind during their desperate flight north, Hughes headed back to Kentucky after the war to try to retrieve his wife and children. His three children decided to go back north with their father. His wife, for whatever reason, decided to stay in Kentucky. It must have been a wrenching decision to watch her children leave, but it must also have been an almost impossible choice for those who had been considered property only a few months before to make another such momentous change in their lives. I suspect the PTSD suffered by former slaves, as well as many of the men who served during the war, was a real burden for thousands for many years after the war.

 

 

1893 Hughes, Nathan & Wife

In 1893, Yorkville photographer Sigmund Benesohn took this portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. Hughes is proudly wearing his Grand Army of the Republic lapel pin. Confederate Army canons were melted down to make the pins. (Little White School Museum

Nathan Hughes came back to the Oswego area with his children, eventually remarried and lived for the rest of his life on his small farm on Minkler Road southwest of Oswego. He was a respected member of the farming community there, and was the only Black member in Kendall County of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization, where he served as an officer of the GAR’s Yorkville post.

His children married into the nearby Black farming community, most members of which eventually moved into Aurora where jobs in the city’s many factories were more attractive than the labor-intensive, low income farming of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His descendants prospered, two of his grandchildren becoming the first Black male and first Black female to graduate from high school in Kendall County (both from Oswego High School). And their descendants prospered, too, becoming elementary and high school teachers, and college professors—and at least one Federal judge.

Hughes died in March 1910, and was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, where he lays today with four of his black Civil War comrades. Wrote Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall—himself a Civil War veteran—upon Hughes’s death: “It is a pleasure to bear testimony to his worth as a man and a patriot; he was loyal to his country and in all his associations was a quiet, self-possessed man of the best of traits… A good citizen, he has left a vacant place in the ranks of the ‘boys in blue.’”

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Filed under Civil War, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History