Category Archives: Oswego

Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

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

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

Marquette & Jolliet

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

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

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

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

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

19th Century coal mining

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

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

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

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

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

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

marseillesilonimcanal.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for DeKalb County Illinois wind farm

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

Local history firsts are often fleeting, coming and going rapidly

One of the interesting, and not infrequently frustrating, things about studying local history is the speed at which significant individuals made their appearances and then disappeared from the historical record.

During the settlement era this was largely due to the kind of people—pioneer farmers—who settled in our neck of the woods. A footloose lot, they often remained in one place for only a short period of time. Down in the Yorkville area, for instance, Lyman Bristol settled, gave his name to a new village and eventually a township, and then headed farther west where he was killed in a wagon accident in California.

William and Rebecca Pearce Wilson settled at the busy modern intersection of Routes 34 and 25 in Oswego in 1833, becoming the village’s first residents.

Meanwhile in 1834, one of Rebecca’s brothers, Elijah Pearce, settled with his wife and children at today’s Montgomery with his son-in-law’s family where Pearce built and operated a stagecoach inn on the east bank of the Fox River.

On page 270 of the 1878 history of Kane County, The Past and Present of Kane County, Illinois, the author claims of Pearce that “for years he kept entertainment for man and beast” at his one-room log cabin inn on the banks of the Fox River.

But by “years” here, the author means two years. Because in 1836, the families of Elijah Pearce and William Wilson moved farther west in what would become Kendall County to a claim on Big Rock Creek near modern Plano, where the two men built a sawmill. And then, just a few years later, they sold the sawmill and moved their families out of Illinois altogether, settling in Jasper County, Missouri before moving even farther west to Kansas.

Levi F. Arnold, who with Lewis B. Judson mapped out the original village of Oswego in 1835 was also instrumental in Plainfield’s history—he was the first postmaster of both villages. He, too, appears and then quickly disappears from local history, but not by choice. Arnold died in 1844 in the same unrecorded epidemic that claimed his 2 year-old daughter, Josephine.

1902 abt Downtown look north

Main Street, Oswego, looking north about 1902. The building with the flagpole at right is the Star Roller Skating Rink. The Shoger-Park Building is at left center. (Little White School Museum collection)

This quick entrance and exit of folks who made important contributions to Oswego didn’t end with the settlement era, either, but continued right up through the 20th Century. A really good example of this phenomenon is A.P. Werve, who owned Oswego’s first automobile.

Anthony Peter Werve (pronounced WERE-vie) was born April 3, 1870 in Kenosha, Wis. He married Anna Margrete Christine Alsted on Oct. 4, 1893 in Kenosha, and the couple had two children.

A.P. was trained as a jeweler, but he also had a fascination for the new craze of automobiles and the internal combustion engines that powered them.

In 1899, Werve decided to move his family to Oswego where there was an open opportunity for a jeweler, since the community didn’t have one. On Sept. 6, 1899, the “Oswego” news column in the Kendall County Record reported that “A.P. Werve of Kenosha, Wisconsin, has opened a jeweler’s shop in the south room of the Shoger block.” The Shoger Block was a two storefront commercial block at the southeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. It was eventually torn down to built the Oswego Tavern—now the Oswego Inn.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

The Shoger-Parke Building has been used for many purposes including the first Zentmyer Ford Garage in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

According to his business’s advertising, he dealt in watches, jewelry and musical instruments. He also gradually branched out in business. In the fall of 1901, he opened a feed mill in a frame addition at the rear of the limestone Shoger-Parke building kitty-corner across the street—better known today as the location of the former Jacqueline Shop, today’s Bella-gia Boutique and The Prom Shoppe. Within a few months, Werve moved his family to the upstairs apartment of the stone, and then in November 1901, he moved his jewelry store across the street into the same building.

There was plenty of room in the stone building where Werve’s jewelry and musical instrument business was located, and in April 1902 he was granted a license by the Oswego Village Board to install two pool tables.

1904 abt first Oswego auto

A.P. Werve’s friction-drive auto, that he built in 1903. Taking a spin in the spring of 1904 are (L-R) Anna and Hattie Werve, Clarence Smith, Werve, and John Varner. (Little White School Museum collection)

But along with engaging in several kinds of businesses, Werve was also pursuing his automotive hobby. And in the spring of 1903 he unveiled the thing for which he became famous in Oswego history. As the Record’s “Oswego” news column reported on Oct. 28, 1903: “It should have been mentioned heretofore that Oswego has its first automobile. A.P Werve bought some of the parts, the rest he made himself and he has it now in successful running order.”

We should be ignorant of what Werve’s home-built auto looked like had not one of his tinkering buddies, Irvin Haines not snapped a photo of it while the Werve family took it out for a spin. Werve reportedly repurposed a used an inboard boat engine to drive the car, with power transmitted to the rear wheels via a friction pulley.

In Haines’ photo, Anthony Werve is at the wheel with his wife riding in back with their oldest daughter, Nettie. Also along for the ride were fellow auto enthusiasts Clarence Smith, riding in back with Mrs. Werve and Nettie, and John Varner in front with A.P. Both Smith and Varner were, at one time or another, employed as steam engineers to run Oswego’s water pumping operation. In addition, Varner was a skilled cyclist on the high-wheel bicycles of the era, while Smith enjoyed working on engines and, eventually, other Oswego autos.

1905 abt Clarence Smith

Clarence Smith tinkers with an auto engine about 1905. Note the chassis on sawhorses behind Smith. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although A.P. Werve was celebrated for a significant Oswego first, he didn’t hang around very long to enjoy his fame as a local hero. In January 1904, he continued expanding his business by installing Oswego’s second bowling alley, also in the Shoger-Parke Building. Bowling had come to Oswego just weeks earlier with an alley being installed in the old Star Roller Skating Rink Building to capitalize on the latest community sports craze. As the Record reported on Dec. 23, 1903, “Oswego has been struck with a streak of unusual enterprises. The bank will soon go into operation and about the same time another new institution, a bowling alley. At the one where we can get money and at the other where we can spend it.”

Werve’s bowling alley, installed by Lou Young, Lew Inman, Irvin Haines, and Art Roswell, opened at the end of January, but even then, he was apparently looking to change professions and get into something where he could practice his automotive hobby—and get paid for it.

On April 13, 1904, the Record’s “Oswego” column reported that “A.P. Werve, our jeweler, is getting ready to move to Benton Harbor, Mich., where he has accepted a good position with the Searchlight Manufacturing Company.”

Searchlight manufactured internal combustion engines for early autos, along with other mechanical products, and Werve apparently found a good fit there. Unfortunately, Searchlight apparently got caught up in the financial Panic of 1907 and its operations were thrown into confusion, although it continued operating at Benton Harbor for a few years afterwards. According to a 1907 Benton Harbor city directory, Werve had gone back to his core business of owning a jewelry store.

Then, the Werve family, like so many others, headed west in search of new opportunities, and by 1914 were living in southern California where he ran a garage.

Werve also maintained his fascination with automobiles. In 1914, the Werve family came back to the Midwest to visit friends and family in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, stopping for a few days in Oswego. The Record reported on July 29, 1914 that “Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Werve and children left Monday morning for Los Angeles, Cal., expecting to make the trip by auto taking from four to six weeks.” A hardy and adventuresome crew indeed during an era when there really were few, if any, marked interstate roads.

The couple remained in southern California for the rest of their lives. After a career as a jeweler, business owner, Oswego automobile pioneer, mechanic, and rancher, A.P. Werve died on Aug. 8, 1951 in Imperial County, California. He and his wife are buried in Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, California with nothing to mark his brief, though significant, claim to fame here in northern Illinois.

Want to do your part to preserve and protect the history of the Oswego, Illinois area at the Little White School Museum? Join the Oswegoland Heritage Association–dues are just $20 per person per year. Send your check made out to the Oswegoland Heritage Association to Box 23, Oswego, IL 60543.

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Recalling food favorites of the good old (and not so old) days…

Anyone who knows me or who reads this blog regularly (or both, come to think of it) knows I really like food.

The other day, I got to thinking about the many different kinds of food I’ve had over the years, from childhood on, that I’ll not likely be able to enjoy again.

What brought on the introspection was starting off my meal at an area buffet restaurant with cottage cheese and pickled beets. Granted, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid. And while pickled beets and cottage cheese are available in just about every grocery store in the country, it was the cottage cheese that prompted memories of my favorite kind when I was a little kid growing up out on the farm.

In those days, we had our own cow, a placid Guernsey my sisters had named Daisy. My dad milked her twice a day in a stall in the barn, sitting a three-legged milking stool, occasionally expertly aiming a shot of fresh milk from Daisy’s udder to one of the barn cats that crowded around waiting for a treat. When he was done milking, Dad would take the bucket of fresh milk in the house and down the basement to run it through the separator that separated (most of) the cream from the milk.

My family used Daisy’s milk for a number of things, from morning cereal to coffee cream (the real thing!) to ingredients for baking and cooking. That milk was also manufactured into two other products that we really enjoyed, meaning now we’re getting back to the cottage cheese part of the story.

Cottage cheese container

Sort of, kind of the containers we’d get from Aunt Bess filled with homemade cottage cheese.

My mother would occasionally take a large container or two of Daisy’s milk over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who was one of the many aunts and uncles I had out in that neighborhood who were of absolutely no blood relation to me at all. But they were all like family, especially Aunt Bess and Uncle Jim. Aunt Bess would then somehow magically transform the milk my mother took to her into cottage cheese, which we were invited to go back and pick up a few days later. She always packaged in in two tall aluminum containers, and it tasted wonderful.

It’s extremely unlikely I’ll ever have the chance to taste Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese again, in this lifetime at least. Nor will I ever be able to taste the butter my grandmother made from Daisy’s cream. I remember her making it with an electric churn, and then working out the buttermilk and the salt in using a wooden paddle in a large wooden bowl. My dad loved buttermilk, but I was never able to acquire a taste for it, although using it in pancakes, banana nut muffins, and the like is a really good idea. The taste of my grandmother’s homemade butter is another thing I’m probably never going to be able to enjoy again.

A couple more of my grandmother’s foods I’ll likely never see again are her molasses cookies (my dad would sometimes crumble up a couple in a bowl and have them for breakfast with some of Daisy’s milk) and her homemade bread, which my grandfather didn’t particularly care for. My grandfather, instead, loved sliced commercial bakery bread delivered by the Peter Wheat Bread man. That, however, was fine with me because that meant more of grandma’s amazing homemade bread for me.

Cookstove

Grandma’s cookstove looked something like this, and it dominated her farmhouse kitchen.

Grandma’s baking was all done in her huge black and white porcelain wood-fired cook stove that dominated her kitchen. She had a modern propane-fueled range, too, but she favored her cookstove for baking. How, I once asked her, did she regulate the temperature to get the right results? “Well,” she said, “you just stick your hand in the oven and when it’s the right heat, then you do your baking.”

When I was really little, we still butchered our own pork and beef, using hogs and steers my dad had carefully picked out and fed especially for the purpose. After butchering, we’d get the occasional covered bowl of pickled heart or pickled tongue from grandma that made really great sandwiches. Those are things you just don’t see in the grocery store these days, at least not around these parts.

During those long ago summers, my family seemed to attend a never-ending series of picnics, each of which featured a wonderful potluck dinner or supper. My mother’s specialty for these occasions was her baked fried chicken, which was outstanding. She made it by first dredging the chicken parts in seasoned flour and then frying it in her big cast aluminum Pan-American frying pan. Then she finished it by baking it in the oven. It came out nearly falling off the bone, cooked through, moist and tasting wonderful. That kind of chicken used to be available at the Amana Colonies out in Iowa, but in recent years it’s been dropped in favor of regular fried chicken—a culinary loss to the Midwest.

At our annual family reunion in August, along with my mother’s chicken, we enjoyed a huge selection of desserts, some of which I’ll likely never taste again such as wonderberry pie and ground cherry pie. Both wonderberries and ground cherries are relatively labor-intensive to grow and as they are considered heirloom plants these days, are not easily available at your local garden center. But back in that day and age, they were found in lots of farm gardens. My grandmother had a ground cherry patch outside her back door. They always reminded me of tiny yellow cherries growing inside Japanese lanterns.

In the early spring each year, the Wheatland United Presbyterian Church just down the road from our farm held their annual pancake supper, put on by the young farming families. It was their major fundraiser for the year, and was extremely popular, drawing visitors from far and wide. One of the major draws was the sausage they served with their pancakes. It was whole hog sausage, made from a couple entire hogs, which were donated by a congregation member and made by the volunteer sausage committee members. For my taste, it was seasoned perfectly with just the right amount of salt, pepper and—most importantly—sage, because you can’t have decent breakfast sausage without sage.

Scrapple & egg

About the only thing better for breakfast than fried mush and eggs is scrapple and eggs. Our neighbor Sam’s homemade scrapple was a true gourmet treat of my childhood.

Enjoying that quality of sausage ever again is unlikely, as is the scrapple our neighbor Sam made after we moved into town. He called it by another of its Pennsylvania Dutch names, pon haus, and it was wonderful. You can buy canned scrapple these days, but it resembles scrapple about as much as Spam resembles ham. If you can wait, it’s really best to make a special trip east to Pennsylvania Dutch country in Pennsylvania or Delaware and either buy it at a farmers’ market or at a small country diner. But however you are able to get hold of some these days, it won’t hold a candle to the taste of Sam’s pon haus.

Image result for watermelon ahead sign

On our summer Kansas trips during my childhood we’d keep a sharp eye out for a sign advertising a roadside watermelon stand, where an ice cold slice could be had for 15 or 20 cents, welcome relief in those pre-air conditioned auto days.

Some of the foods I enjoyed in my younger life tasted good, I suspect, just because of the situation I was in when eating them. Ice cold watermelon at the picnic table of a roadside stand on the dusty Kansas prairie during a hot summer trip to visit relatives; fresh lobster boiled while we watched at a picnic table at a roadside stand along the Connecticut shore; Yorkshire pudding and roast beef in a Yorkshire, England restaurant; a fountain-mixed root beer at the soda fountain in Oswego’s Main Cafe on a hot 1959 summer afternoon; and a 2” thick slice of raspberry pie at a country diner during the Kansas wheat harvest all left wonderful memories of those times and places.

I recall asking my grandmother one time whether she’d ever like to go back to visit “the gold old days” of her younger life. After thinking for a moment, she ventured “Maybe for supper.” She explained that she missed the canned roast beef they used to put up when she was a youngster and a young married woman in the days before home freezers. She said the taste and texture of the meat, tender and moist, was simply not available any more.

So I seem to come by my food nostalgia naturally; it’s apparently embedded in my DNA. Some of those eating experiences are gone forever—Aunt Bess’s cottage cheese—but there’s an outside chance that I may someday still get a chance to enjoy a good scrapple breakfast again or maybe even a slice of wonderberry pie. A person can certainly hope…

 

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When it was summer and the livin’ was easy…

Summer has not yet quite officially arrived in the Fox Valley, although summer vacation has. Family vacations are on the horizon, and the newly out-of-school kids are able to ignore the fact they’ll have to get back in the academic harness in a few months. Instead, they’re settling into whatever summer routines their parents have mapped out for them.

These days, in fact, kids are heavily scheduled and deeply involved in a variety of organized sports, from the littlest tots to teens. Practice for upcoming Youth Tackle Football League games is starting along with soccer practice, tennis practice, and a variety of other sports leagues that would have astonished us here in Oswego 60 years ago. And that doesn’t even count the swimming lessons, craft activities, reading programs, and all the other things parents get their kids involved in.

1958 Fishing expedition

Oswego kids line up at the Red Brick School for a 1958 fishing derby at Hafenrichter’s Pond sponsored by the Oswego Park District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in the late 1950s when I was just a kid, the group I traveled with loathed structured activities of any kind, which was probably a good thing, since there weren’t too many of those kinds of things to do anyway. We did have Little League baseball, provided by the park district, but I lost my enthusiasm for that when John Seidelman threw a high hard one inside and managed to hit me right in the ear hole of my batting helmet one day. After picking myself up off the batter’s box, I found my enthusiasm for baseball had disappeared. In fact, I haven’t liked baseball all that much ever since.

We also had the summer youth programs of the Oswego (later Oswegoland) Park District overseen by Ford Lippold up at the Little White School and the Red Brick School, but we weren’t much interested in them, either.

Spanky & the Gang

The Little Rascals, with Spanky third from the left.

Mostly, we hung around in a group and played along Waubonsie Creek and the Fox River. Our games were greatly influenced by two books, Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington and The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, not to mention “The Little Rascals” movie short comedies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Penrod and Sam concerned two boys growing up in the early years of the 20th Century. Their adventures enthralled us, and we tried to pattern ourselves after Penrod, Sam, and their friends. The Story of a Bad Boy, on the other hand, was Aldrich’s semi-autobiography about a boy growing up in a small New England town in the 1850s who wasn’t a bad boy at all. He did get into some interesting scrapes, though. And he and his friends had the neatest snowball war any of us had ever heard about. The “Our Gang” comedies, of course, involved Alfalfa, Spanky, the beautiful Darla, and their gang of friends who had the neatest adventures and cobbled together the most wonderful inventions ever.

Daguerrotype of Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Daguerrotype in the Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Upon rereading as an adult, however, Penrod and Sam, published in 1916, is startling for its casual racism. During the 1950s growing up here along the banks of the Fox River, though, none of us knew what racism was. I recall being extremely confused when a friend who had traveled through the South reported there were separate bathrooms and water fountains just for black people, and it made us all wonder how come black people couldn’t drink out of everybody else’s water fountains. After all, we’d been going to school with black kids for years and they didn’t have to do that in Oswego. It really puzzled us. Even with its early 20th Century racism, however, Penrod and Sam is still an extremely funny book and we all read it several times.

The Story of a Bad Boy is still one of my very favorite books, although I can’t seem to persuade anyone else of its worth. And there, too, there was disappointment when I got old enough to learn more about Aldrich. Despite his charming book, Aldrich turned out to be an adherent of preventing immigration, particularly that of Catholics. But it’s possible to forget Aldrich’s foibles when submerged in his marvelous tale about his youthful hero, Tom Bailey, and his friends growing up in a small 19th Century seacoast town.

1957 Pinochle Bunch kids

Nothing like cold watermelon on a hot summer day. The author, in his favorite cap won at a carnival in Oswego, is third from left.

“The Little Rascals” movies, that we watched as part of the numerous local kids’ TV shows of the 1950s have worn extremely well. Even so, every once in a while, some Hollywood genius decides to try reviving them with always disastrous results. It’s really impossible to improve on or recreate a true classic.

After having studied up using the right books and absorbed as much “Rascals” lore as we could, we ventured forth each summer to have fun—and have fun we did. The woods near my home became our special preserve. We built bicycle trails throughout the stand of young soft maples woods, and built a series of three villages located on those trails. We maintained the houses and trails in the woods for about two years, I think, before we were forced to move elsewhere by unfriendly neighbors.

1962 Paul & fish

We spent a LOT of time on the Fox River. Above, my fishing buddy Paul holds up a big carp he caught. We still go fishing together twice a year.

Shortly before the move, we obtained our first river boats, and so became even more independent. My boat was purchased from a young man in Aurora, as I recall. It resembled nothing so much as the kind of large wooden box that contractors mix cement in.

It was very heavy, made of one inch lumber throughout, with a three-quarter inch plywood bottom. It even had a keel, for what reason I was never able to determine. About all the keel did was to catch on the rocks on the bottom of the shallow Fox River.

Granted, my boat was very heavy, but that meant it was also very stable. Three of my friends could stand on the gunwale at one time, and the boat would come nowhere near to tipping over.

The nice thing about the Fox, of course, was that it was so shallow that it was difficult—though not impossible—to find a place deep enough in which to drown. There were holes, of course, but we learned where nearly all of them were and stayed away from them.

After it became too much of a hassle to keep our towns on the mainland, we moved to a large island in the river where we built similar houses and forts.

The move to the island occasioned the need for a communications system from the island to the mainland, and from there to our tree house. It was determined that tying letters to arrows and shooting them from the island to the mainland and from there to the tree house was the answer to our problems. On the first test of our new communications system, the fellow standing in the field on the mainland came within six inches of getting the arrow with the message through his foot, but he gamely picked up the arrow and message and shot it up to the base of the tree in which we had our fort. The plan was then to attach the note to a hunting arrow and shoot it up into the bottom of the trapdoor of the tree house. As he shot the arrow, however, the fellow on the ground yelled, “Here it comes!” Not quite hearing him, another of my compatriots opened up the trap door to ask what he said, just as the hunting arrow whistled past his ear. After narrowly averting disaster twice during the first message test, we decided to scrap the system for something a little less hazardous.

Image result for Elmer the Elephant chicago tv

Elmer the Elephant: Gone but not forgotten.

I’m not sure what kids read these days, but I suspect that neither Penrod and Sam nor The Story of a Bad Boy are among the books parents will allow in the house. And, sadly, “The Little Rascals” comedies are not broadcast daily on the kind of live-action kids’ shows we tuned into back in the day like “Here’s Geraldine” or “Elmer the Elephant.”

I suppose, with the number of kids we have today, all these modern structured activities might really be necessary. I’m glad I never had to cope with them, though. For me, it was much more fun spending the summer with Penrod, Spanky, and Tom Bailey.

 

 

 

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Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

On June 1, 1898, the Kendall County Record published an anonymous letter to the editor from an Oswego resident noting how the commemoration of Decoration Day—today’s Memorial Day—had changed over the years.

The commemoration started out with the girls of the community going to the cemetery to decorate the graves of Civil War soldiers. Gradually, it morphed into almost a celebration of the military, something that became really evident during 1898, when this letter to the editor appeared in the Record.

As we finish commemorating another Memorial Day, I thought it might be interesting and instructive to reprint that anonymous letter to give a slightly different take on this annual holiday:

************************************************************************************

AN OSWEGO VIEW

Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

1898 abt Decoration Day Parade

Former Civil War soldier George White leads Oswego’s Decoration Day parade through the downtown business district about 1898. (Little White School Museum collection)

For several years following the rebellion, the decoration of the soldiers’ graves was not thought of, and, if I mistake not, the practice was first begun in the South. Here in Oswego it was commenced by a few ladies–and such seemed to be the case more or less all over the country–who, on a nice day, would quietly go to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the late war. The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.

But a regular day was appointed for it; the affair was taken out of the hands of the women by the soldiers, especially by the organized G.A.R. To secure a band was the first move towards decoration; the procession in military order was made the great imposing feature; the oration the more bombastic the better; in short, the spirit of pity was changed to that of glory, and the affair made to stimulate militarism. Under this spirit and practice, it was no wonder that the sporting class improved the day for races, base ball games, etc.

The question now is: Which disposition for a people is the best, the civil or military? A temperance lecture here one evening, of course portrayed the liquor business as the great danger with which the country is threatened; it fully endorsed the war with Spain; closing with a peroration of the most popular sentiments in regard to it such as the holy cause of securing liberty to the oppressed.

To illustrate a point, the opinions of two great men as to the destiny of the United States were quoted: one by President McKinley to the effect “that the institutions handed down by the father are safe in the hands of the people;” the other by the historian Macaulay, in substance “that the government within itself will furnish its destruction by the leading up to a military dictator.”

1957 OHS Band at Bartlett cr

Legendary Oswego music educator Reeve R. Thompson marches down Main Street on the way to the Oswego Township Cemetery with the OHS Band on Memorial Day 1957. (Little White School Museum collection)

Considering the military spirit and hero worship to which we are running, the Macaulay opinion is the more in line. The expression “We want to lick Spain like h–l” may not sound very patriotic, but there is such a thing that the greater the victory the worse for the victory. By fighting for liberty for others, you may thereby lose your own. The more fighting, the greater the prestige of the army. Militarism and nobility are going hand in hand. The rule now that when other things being equal, preference shall be given to the soldiers for federal offices can be easily enlarged. The islands to be conquered are to be governed by the army, of course, and Hawaii to be annexed by a small fraction of the inhabitants who, though not called nobility, constitute one all the same.

What makes millionaires and the sons of great men so readily enlist in the war but the fame to be realized from it?

 

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Wetlands and meanders: Old problems that could be new solutions…

When the first settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found tallgrass prairies dotted with open groves of mixed hardwood trees. The prairie, however, was not a simple grass monoculture.

In their descriptions, the settlers divided prairie into wet prairie and dry prairie, with dry prairie the most desirable for farming, but not always the most prevalent. Drier, higher prairie was quickly claimed by the first settlers, and later arrivals were forced to settle land with fens, sloughs, and marshes. Bristol Township was notorious among early pioneers for having a lot more than its share of wetlands, and was derisively referred to as “Slough Grass,” “Pond Lilly,” and “Bull Rush” by the pioneers.

While wetlands may have been viewed with sarcasm, they were no laughing matter in those early days. Although rich in wildlife, wetlands tended to come with a dismaying number of sicknesses for early residents. Outbreaks of ague—malaria—and other diseases were blamed on “miasmas” that supposedly emanated from wetlands. Not until the germ theory of disease was discovered and gained acceptance many decades later did people realize insects that favored wet habitats spread sickness, not mysterious invisible swamp vapors.

Since there was no effective chemical insect control available, that knowledge probably wouldn’t have saved the wetlands, because draining them had the desired effect by eliminating mosquitoes. As the area’s extensive wetlands were drained, malaria was virtually eradicated. And just as importantly for those early farmers, formerly wet prairie became productive farmland.

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George L. Griffin and J.H. Carper of Dallas City, Illinois invented this improved mole ditcher in 1860. Their main improvement was to make the machine cut its drainage tunnel with less effort on the horses or oxen pulling it.

Drainage work on the thousands of acres of wetland really started as soon as the settlers arrived. Initial efforts were fairly simple and labor intensive as ditches were dug from wetlands to the nearest streams.

In 1854, the mole ditcher was invented, a sort of subterranean plow that created a small underground tunnel. It took a lot of oxen and muscle power, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile of wetland a day. But while the machine worked well in clay soils, drain tunnels pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

The other major technique was to build underground drain pipes of wooden boards or stone, but that was expensive in both labor and capital.

Then in the 1860s, clay tile began to look like the best bet to drain wetlands. Tile plants in Joliet and Chicago began advertising in The Prairie Farmer magazine and drainage efforts accelerated and quickly expanded. Even more ambitious drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

The move towards draining ever more land led to entrepreneurs starting to manufacture their own field tile using locally-available clays. In April 1879, Kendall County Record Editor John Marshall noted: “Samples of the [drainage] tile made at Millington can be seen at Willett & Welch’s implement room in Yorkville. Farmers should examine it.”

The new clay drainage tile technology allowed even the largest wetlands, such as the Great Wabasia Swamp, which covered 367 acres in northern Oswego and southern Aurora townships, to be drained by the 1890s.

By Jan. 1, 1884, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, farmers had laid the astonishing total of 800 miles of drainage tile throughout Kendall County alone.

Then in August that same year, the Record noted that tile making had come to Yorkville: “Joseph Tarbox is getting out a first quality of tile with his new machine, and has at his yard a general assortment of all sizes; and he will not be undersold by anyone. Address, Yorkville, Ill. Tile and brick yard on the north side, near the fairgrounds.”

On Nov. 17, 1897, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that: “Mr. Job Wampah is hauling large size tile–12-inch–from Plainfield so as to close up an open ditch across part of his farm. Land is nearly all drained out in this part of the country. What a difference between now and 25 years ago when ponds and swales were on every farm. When politicians tell of the great change that came over the country in ‘73, they should not forget to state that farmers began tiling about that time.”

From 1905 to 1910, $60,000 (a small fortune in those days) was spent in Bristol Township alone to tile and drain a total of 3,200 acres of wetlands.

Channelizing Waubonsie CreekWater drained by the county’s vast tile systems had to have someplace to go, so creeks were modified for fast drainage by channelizing—straightening and deepening them—to speed run-off to either the Fox River or AuSable Creek. As a result, rainwater that was once stockpiled in the county’s numerous wetlands and allowed to run off slowly was encourage to quickly flow away. The increased velocity of stormwater and spring melt runoff is often destructive in the short term as raging waters create severe erosion and other damage.

Fast runoff from its watershed combined with destruction of wetland has also had a drastic long-term effect on the Fox River. By the early years of the 20th Century, according to C.W. Rolfe, writing in The Fishes of Illinois published in 1908, the volume of the Fox River’s flow at its low water rate in late summer was half of its estimated low water flow in the 1830s. Tiling, ditching, and draining did not stop, of course, something that continued to plague the river during the next century. A measurement taken by the U.S. Geological Survey on the Fox River in 1975 north of Aurora showed that its low water flow rate had further declined by about 15 percent from Rolfe’s time.

Another cause for concern reported in the mid-1970s was the discovery that between 1905 and 1971 two “indicator” species of small fish that require access to wetlands to spawn, the Blacknose Shiner and the Iowa Darter, had completely disappeared from the Fox River system, both casualties of wetland destruction.

The destruction of wetlands has caused the county’s streams to resemble aquatic yo-yos, their levels bouncing up and down during successive wet and dry periods, sometimes within a matter of days of each other. In addition, the descendants of the very farmers who drained the wetlands have been adversely affected as ground water levels, once maintained by extensive wetlands, declined over the decades.

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

The devastating Flood of 1996 turned Waubonsie Creek into a raging torrent that nearly destroyed the railroad bridge crossing it near downtown Oswego. Wetlands and creek meanders eliminated more than a century before might have mitigated some of the flooding.

Most of the county’s wetlands did not totally and completely disappear, however, as unfortunate homeowners living in developments built on former marsh and swamp land often discover following rain storms or fast snow melt. Even with drainage patterns changed by the engineering of new subdivisions, commercial developments, and roads, the land tends to revert to its natural state during high water periods—and for a lot of county land, the natural state was that wet prairie noted above. In fact, old survey maps and historical accounts of the county’s early days suggest residents of more than one new development may have cause for continuing concern as many of them found out during the huge Flood of 1996 that resurrected a number of ancient marshes and sloughs following 17” of rain.

At least one solution for the intermittent flooding that plagues the area has gradually become apparent during the past few decades: Restore some of the area’s wetlands. Just as they did 160 years ago, wetlands can be used to slow flood waters to decrease the water’s damaging velocity and store the runoff for slower release, which reduces or even prevents flood damage. Side benefits—although naturalists would class them as major benefits—are that wetlands cleanse the streams they empty into by filtering polluted run-off from roads and parking lots. They also enrich the area’s wildlife diversity by attracting birds and other animals and creating spawning grounds for fish. And unlike the pioneers, we know how to deal with disease carrying insects that might be attracted to wetlands through sound ecological management.

When you get right down to it, there’s nothing like persuading Mother Nature to use her own tricks to help solve problems we’ve caused ourselves.

 

 

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

The huge impact of 19th Century roads on area towns is largely unappreciated

Downtown redevelopment frenzies seem to come and go with some regularity. From Montgomery to Yorkville to Plano and Sandwich, towns around this area keep looking for ways to revitalize their historic downtown business districts.

For instance,  back in 2005, Oswego wrapped up a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment project. Montgomery got into the act, too, with the end result being their wonderful new village hall, historic Settler’s Cottage, and extensive cleanup. Most recent was Yorkville’s (so far successful) attempt to preserve its downtown in the face of the widening Ill. Route 47 to five lanes right smack through the middle of their historic Bridge Street business district.

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Oswego’s downtown business district (looking north from Van Buren Street) under construction in August 2001. The project wasn’t completed for a few more years. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each of these communities faces its own challenges, even though each town’s business district is so much different than the others.

Talk to an economic historian about why communities develop the way they do, and you’ll likely get an eye-glazing lecture on, among other things, modern interpretations of S.H. Goodin’s central place theory and the definition of hinterlands. Those things certainly have had great effects on municipal development. But here in the Fox Valley area, the single most important aspect of why and how our communities evolved the way they have seems to have had more to do with transportation—in particular, transportation routes that existed in the middle two-thirds of the 19th Century—than other factors.

The results are interesting to contemplate. Plainfield, for instance, has a large downtown business district situated along what used to be U.S. Route 30, which ran through the middle of its business district until it was rerouted around downtown some years ago. Oswego’s business district is bordered on two sides by busy U.S. Route 34, the main, and often traffic-snarled, route through the village. Montgomery’s tiny downtown is flanked to the west by Ill. Route 31 and to the east by the Fox River. Yorkville, in a situation somewhat similar to Plainfield, has its respectable downtown business district bisected by busy Ill. Route 47.

Meanwhile, the tiny Kendall County community of Plattville has what once passed for a business district that meandered along Plattville Road, which runs through the middle of the village. Likewise, the hamlet of Little Rock in northwestern Kendall County also rambles along the road through town, in this case the old state stagecoach road to Galena. Plano’s downtown was designed to be bisected by the main line of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad while Sandwich’s Main Street (not to be confused with the street the business district is on) is perpendicular to the main line tracks, which inconveniently arrived after the village was platted.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Although Montgomery has a Main Street running parallel to the Fox River, it’s main business district became oriented to Mill Street and its bridge across the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

In each case, transportation routes arguably had the largest influence on how and where these business districts were located and eventually laid out, while each community’s location in the hinterland of a nearby larger community had an important impact on the size and makeup of each downtown.

Although Montgomery has a Main Street, the business district is located to its east and stretches along Mill, River, and Webster streets, similar to the meandering layouts of the hamlets of Little Rock and Plattville. Oswego’s main business district, a three block section of Main Street, is located parallel to the Fox River while Yorkville’s, which is about the same size, is sited perpendicular to the river. How did it all happen?

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, actually laid the village out with a Main Street that, like Oswego’s, ran parallel to the Fox River. But economic realities changed Gray’s vision so that businesses gradually grew up along the streets that led to the modern bridge (located north of Gray’s original 1830s bridge) across the river. Thus the gentle S route formed by Mill, River, and Webster streets became the de facto business district.

Meanwhile, Oswego’s founders laid out Main Street along the economically vital Chicago to Ottawa Road and immediately adjacent to the Joliet to Dixon road that crossed the river at Oswego on its way west across the prairie. Probably because the Ottawa Road was the more economically important connection in the 1830s and 1840s, the business district remained strong along Main Street. By the time the first bridge was built across the river in 1848, Main Street was established as the business district.

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

Yorkville’s Bridge Street, shown here looking north in 1893, became the town’s main thoroughfare, even though it ran perpendicular to the community’s two Main Streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in Yorkville, a different dynamic was at work. The Fox River Road, the stagecoach and mail route from Ottawa to Geneva, did not pass through Yorkville. Instead it ran through neighboring Bristol on the north bank of the Fox River. And the post road from Ottawa to Chicago (now Ill. Route 71) bypassed Yorkville to the south. Yorkville had been named the county seat by a state commission in 1841, but voters decided to move it to Oswego in 1845. As a result, Yorkville didn’t get a post office until 1864 when the county seat moved back from Oswego (Bristol’s post office had been established in 1839). Because the post office used by Yorkville residents was on the north side of the river in Bristol, along with connection to the busy Fox River Trail, and the location of the Chicago to Ottawa Road was well south of the river, Yorkville’s business district grew in a north-south orientation. The main route through the business district is called Bridge Street, denoting the importance of the river crossing to the city’s economy. And that’s despite two Main Streets in Yorkville, one on either side of the river. one in the old village of Bristol running parallel to the river on the north side and one in Yorkville proper, running perpendicular to the river on the south side.

Just as their orientation and layout is different, so too are the sizes of the three communities’ business districts, which grow in size the farther they are from Aurora.

Plainfield, on the other hand, is far enough from either Aurora or Joliet to have developed its own large independent business district, similar to Naperville’s. Plano and Sandwich, both fairly typical railroad towns, were mercantile centers in their own right early on with downtowns fueled by the passenger and economic traffic brought by rail lines. Compare them to Little Rock and Plattville, hamlets that owed their existence to the roads to Galena and Ottawa, respectively. The two villages declined precipitately when the rail lines extending west of Chicago missed both.

Today, 170 years after most of Kendall County’s town-founding took place, transportation is still shaping the towns we live in—for better or (more often) for worse. And as change occurs, it might be useful to recall that this isn’t the first time such major transformations and dislocations took place. Nor, I think it’s safe to say, will it be the last.

 

 

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Filed under Architecture, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation