Category Archives: People in History

1873: The year Kendall County farmers flexed their political muscle

Almost, it seems, in spite of their own natural inclinations, the people of Kendall County achieved a position in the first rank of those empowering women in government. It is odd, given the county’s historic conservatism–and by conservatism, I mean the real thing, not this modern conglomeration of far right wing activism with substantial amounts of racial and religious bigotry.

In a column several years ago, I told the story of how Frances E. Lane became the state’s first female circuit clerk in 1920 when she was elected to the office by Kendall County voters [“Frances E. Lane: Kendall County’s unlikely women’s rights warrior,” “Reflections,” March 3, 2010 Ledger-Sentinel].

But it turned out the way for Lane had been paved nearly a half century before during a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Kendall County, Illinois, and the rest of the nation.

After the Civil War, railroads began a flurry of construction funded through the sale of stocks and bonds. Unscrupulous business practices coupled with a near-total lack of regulation of the nation’s economy (sound familiar?) created a gigantic financial bubble that, in 1873, explosively deflated creating the Panic of 1873, also called “The Long Depression.” [see “We ignore our financial history at our peril”].

1870s CB&Q locomotive

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad Company leased an engine like this one from the CB&Q Railroad while the line was under construction. When the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to wrest ownership away and maintain their monopoly on rail freight in the Fox Valley.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, railroads pursued cutthroat business practices unrestrained by custom or law. Here in Kendall County, for instance, farmers living south and east of the Fox River were eligible for lower shipping rates for grain and livestock than those living north and west of the river because railroad officials wanted to lure business across the river. Prices were increased and services were cut arbitrarily. So local farmers and businessmen strongly backed a scheme to build a local rail line to directly compete with the dominant Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The new railroad was planned to connect coalfields in the Vermilion River region with Geneva, running north up the Fox River from Ottawa through Millington, Yorkville, and Oswego in Kendall County. All three communities had been bypassed when the CB&Q main line was built in the 1850s.

Villages and cities, along with townships and counties, as well as private individuals along the route subscribed to bonds to build the new line, which was to be called the Ottawa Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road. Fundraising was successful, and construction was completed early in 1871.

But too late, the line’s investors found that placing complete financial and operational control in the hands of Oliver Young, the man hired to oversee construction and operations, was a bad idea. Using his contractual power, Young subcontracted C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Young, it later became known, was an owner of Force & Company, meaning he got paid twice for doing the same work. In addition—and this is a classic bit of corporate chicanery—by the time the line was completed, Force & Co. had already signed a secret 99-year lease on the entire rail line to the CB&Q. That they didn’t actually own it was remedied about the time the tracks reached Oswego when Young assigned his entire interest to Force & Co. It was, as engineers like to say, an elegant scheme. Taxpayers and investors built the line for the CB&Q, with the only cost being what it took to buy off Young. And as part of the deal, the CB&Q had assured there’d be none of that pesky competition by writing into the agreement that freight rates on the new line would be the same as on its existing lines.

Add to that the increasingly precarious financial situation of the nation’s workers, and farmers in particular, and it was a recipe for radicalism. Which popped up in Kendall County, of all places, as farmers frantically organized. Granges (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) and Farmers’ Clubs spread throughout Kendall County. They flexed their muscles in the June 1873 judicial elections when farmer-laborer candidate Silvanus Wilcox handily defeated the favored Republican in the race.

Bradwell, Myra

Myra Colby Bradwell worked with her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, to establish women’s suffrage in Illinois in the early 1870s.

Meanwhile, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, had been working hard on women’s suffrage in Springfield, 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. Women couldn’t vote for themselves, but for the first time they could be elected to a countywide office.

On July 4, 1873, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville to consolidate support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. Interestingly enough, those activist farmers invited laborers to join their ranks as well in order to fight for economic justice. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ and laborers’ political convention at Yorkville, where a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests was overwhelmingly passed.

“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.”

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German immigrant farmers from the Oswego Prairie Church neighborhood flew this flag on their way to the July 4, 1873 farmers’ and laborers’ picnic in Yorkville. The flag is now in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

It was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third political party to represent the interests of workers and farmers, but the majority favored it. And so the New Party was established.

The eventual result of the convention was the nomination of an entire New Party county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority.

Taking into account the new state women’s suffrage law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.

In the November 4, 1873 general election Chittenden ran against popular Republican John R. Marshall (who was also the founder and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s major newspaper) for the office and was soundly beaten, as were the rest of her comrades on the New Party slate. But in the doing, she established a new first for women in Kendall County.

Farmers and laborers elsewhere in Illinois did elect a few New Party candidates, but not enough to really matter. Interestingly enough, the farmers’ and laborers’ efforts were the genesis that eventually led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party.

Nevertheless, bit by bit progress was made. Populists helped pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which provided some tools to tame rapacious business and industry. But as we’ve seen recently, laws and regulations without enforcement are useless. Not until Republican Theodore Roosevelt—the Trust Buster—became President in 1901 was there official enthusiasm for enforcing the law to rein in business.

Today, that long-ago struggle is one that’s still very much alive, as is the goal of electing both men and women to offices from local school boards all the way up to the President of the United States. But also adding to the interest of those long ago political struggles is the knowledge that our ancestors right here in Kendall County were heavily involved in them right along with the more famous people we learned about in school.

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Fox River, Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Women's History

When it comes to local government, you really do get what you pay for

The other day I was digging through a file of things I’d meant to write about someday (it’s a BIG file!) when I came across some interesting stuff about my hometown, Oswego, Illinois. Back in September 2016, the Value Penguin web site ranked Oswego as the worst town in Illinois in which to own a home. Then just a month later, the WalletHub web site ranked Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities, not only in Illinois but in the entire nation.

Clearly, studies like these two should always be considered with caution, but after reading both, it appeared Value Penguin’s analysis was heavily weighted towards tax burden, while WalletHub’s was heavily weighted towards quality of life.

“WalletHub’s analysts compared 1,268 cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 30 key indicators of livability,” according to the site’s news release, which I’d downloaded in hopes of doing something with it. “They range from ‘housing costs’ to ‘school-system quality’ to ‘number of restaurants per capita,’” the release continued.

After reading the release and thinking about the criteria WalletHub used, it was pretty clear their results strongly suggested that you get what you pay for.

Here in Oswego and in Kendall County in general, we have a fairly high property tax burden thanks to the way state politicians have gamed the system of financing government to make it extremely unfair and to also ensure their own reelections. As a result, regressive taxes, such as sales and property taxes, have become more and more prominent in financing local and state government while the income tax, a far more fair tax, has become increasingly marginalized.

But at least here in Oswego, we actually do get pretty much what we pay for. Those high property taxes finance a solid school system and outstanding park, library, and fire districts, all of which provide services that enhance the quality of life WalletHub values so highly.

1984 June Lippold, Ford cropped

Ford Lippold was a major force in creating the modern community residents see today.

I remember one Memorial Day, after watching our local parade and visiting the cemetery for the annual ceremony, mentioning to my wife that the guys who went off to war did a good job of protecting our American way of life. She replied that she thought politicians of the past ought to get some of the credit, too, something at the time I considered an interesting statement that strikes me as more and more profound as time passes.

Because today’s Oswego didn’t just pop into being fully and completely the way we see it today. It took a lot of careful work by a lot of people, many of them elected officials, to get us here.

The foundations for the modern community we enjoy today were laid in the immediate post-World War II era, when all of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines came home to either restart their old lives or to begin something completely new. There was an urgency back then that shines through the stories in the pages of the Oswego Ledger, the weekly newspaper Oswego native Ford Lippold started in 1949.

With all those young men marrying women of childbearing age, the post-war Baby Boom was just getting underway. All those new families needed homes and jobs. Uncle Sam stepped in to help supply both through generous G.I. Bill programs that helped veterans buy homes with virtually no down payment, and also offered to send them to college virtually for free. Millions of former service men took the government up on their offers, creating a housing boom and a huge pool of highly-educated workers hungry for their chance to make good. It turned out to be the biggest government stimulus program in history, and one of the most valuable to the nation’s economic health.

Here in Oswego it meant, at first, new subdivisions and area new employment opportunities. The first post-war housing developments were relatively small. But after Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric, then the manufacturing arm of AT&T, announced plans for local factories, the era of big housing developments began.

1959 BH sign

Boulder Hill was the Fox Valley’s first large unincorporated subdivision. It was planned by developer Don L. Dise to have its own schools, churches, and shopping areas, along the lines of the Levittown development in his native Pennsylvania. (Little White School Museum collection)

The first of these was Boulder Hill, proposed on the former Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family. The force behind Boulder Hill was developer Don L. Dise working with a group of financial backers. While the Caterpillar and Western Electric announcements had gotten some attention, Dise’s proposal to develop more than 700 acres into an entirely new community with its own schools, churches, and stores really made folks sit up and take notice.

Interestingly enough, there was little opposition to all these new developments. Instead, the folks in charge of local government—many of whom were parents of my school classmates—decided that growth was good for Oswego and the community was going to grow and that long-range planning was needed to cope with it.

In the Aug. 4, 1955 Ledger under the heading “Village Planning Commission Needed?” Lippold wrote: “It is time to wake up and recognize the fact that Oswego and adjoining territory is growing and at an accelerated pace…Many communities faced with like problems have formed a planning committee to prepare for a systematic and orderly growth…Now is the time! Oswego is growing! Let’s keep it growing! Tomorrow may be too late!”

1957 abt Boulder Hill aerial

This aerial view of Boulder Hill under development, taken in 1957, shows the Western Electric plant at upper right, along with U.S. Route 30 Bypass under construction, and the new Caterpillar plant under construction at upper left. (Little White School Museum collection)

With Boulder Hill already under construction inside the Oswego School District, the grade and high school boards had already started planning for the future. Looking at this piecemeal approach, Oswego Township government, under the direction of township supervisor Wayne Fosgett (the father of another of my classmates), organized local school, municipal, and other officials to look into some professional land planning. Two weeks later, the Ledger reported that at a meeting of local elected and appointed officials, “A committee consisting of John Carr, Dr. M.R. Saxon, Mrs. Homer Brown, Charles Lippincott, and Jerome Nelson was appointed to talk with Western Electric personnel officers concerning the likely needs of workers at the new plant.”

The committee was also charged with talking with Boulder Hill developer Dise about “preliminary planning on schools, parks, fire protection, etc.”

Even at that early date, Oswego had a few things going for it. A fire protection district had been established back in the late 1930s to provide fire protection not only to the village of Oswego, but also to the large rural area surrounding it. In addition, by 1955 the community had a robust park district whose programming, especially for children, was growing. The community also had use of the small community library operated by the Nineteenth Century Club, a women’s civic organization.

The idea to establish a comprehensive development plan began gaining widespread community support. In early September 1955, a petition containing the names of 220 Oswego registered voters was presented to the village board recommending establishing a comprehensive development plan be established. At a special board meeting later that month, the board approved an ordinance establishing an 11-member planning commission.

But the wheels of even local government move slowly. By early December, there had been no movement on the part of the village to appoint plan commission members, and Ledger editor Lippold reminded the community that time was wasting. “The time is urgent. The need is urgent. Let us hope that the plan commission is completed and in operation by the January board meeting,” he wrote.

By January 18, the village was ready to move, and that evening Oswego’s first plan commission, consisting of William K. Miller, Douglas Dreier, Henry W. Smith, Mrs. Lester (Dorothy) Bell, Mrs. Stanley Drew, John Luettich, Rev. G. Albert Murphy, Everett McKeown, and Stanley Herren was appointed.

The community was becoming aware of what awaited them as growth began to accelerate. There was plenty of agricultural land surrounding Oswego that could easily be subdivided. And with the exception of Caterpillar and Western Electric, there was very little industrial and commercial property available to take the tax burden off homeowners and farmers. Writing in the March 8, 1956 Ledger, Lippold commented: “Oswego is in a position where it will certainly get the full force of the influx of population. We are on the fringe of a huge industrial area and the trend from metropolitan Chicago is in our direction. If we are going to get the houses and the people, we might just as well have the industry and reap the tax benefits therefrom. Industry will ease the tax load on every person in the community. It is a good thing for our county and township officials to be thinking of, as well as our plan commission. Oswego is going to grow. The handwriting is on the wall. Now is the time to plan.”

The need was becoming much more urgent, and as community leaders gave the matter some thought, they realized that any planning effort had to be broad-based and not simply limited to the Oswego village limits. As a result, officials from Oswego Township, the grade and high school districts, the fire protection district, and representatives from the community’s civic organizations made the collective decision to significantly broaden the community planning base.

1957 Oswego Comp Plan

The cover of Oswego Park District President Ralph Wheeler’s copy of the 1957 comprehensive plan. (Little White School Museum collection)

At the annual Oswego Township meeting in April 1956, the electors attending voted $400 towards financing a community comprehensive plan. Then in late May about 50 community leaders, along with village officials and members of the new Oswego Plan Commission met at Oswego High School to hear a presentation by planners with Everett Kincaid and Associates, a prominent Chicago planning firm.

Lippold kept the pressure on, commenting in the May 30, 1956 Ledger: “This is a time for working together in our community. It is a time for thinking ahead and planning. It is a time for doing. How well we plan, how well we work will decide whether Oswego progresses or becomes a dusty spider-web covered community.”

The next week, the village board agreed to spend $2,500 to hire Kincaid to draw up a comprehensive development plan for Oswego and Oswego Township. The board expressed the hope that participation in drawing up the plan would be community-wide. On Feb. 21, 1957, the completed plan was unveiled to a crowd of more than 200 area residents at a special meeting at Oswego High School. “Oswego is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, town in this part of the United States to have such an official plan prepared and ready for adoption,” Lippold noted in the Ledger.

The village board eventually adopted the Kincaid plan after they adopted their first subdivision ordinance, building code, and land use maps. In late May 1957, the board formally approved the Kincaid plan and it was printed for distribution.

From that beginning, the Oswego area began growing as more and more folks moved into Dise’s Boulder Hill Subdivision, as well as into the other subdivisions being developed in and around Oswego. The transition from a small farming area to a fast-growing suburban community definitely put stress on local institutions. Dise pledged to help a bit by offering $100 to local taxing districts for each of his new homes. But the area needed some new resources, too.

During the Great Depression, Oswego had received Works Progress Administration funds to operate a summer recreation program for youngsters. In the post-war years, as members of the Baby Boom began making their presence felt, the community again began looking for some way to entertain them. In 1948, at the urging of the Oswego Parent-Teacher Association, a community recreation committee was established with Al Shuler as chairman, Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Secretary, and Max Cutter, treasurer. John Luettich, Mrs. O. W. (Jane) Patterson, Don Pinnow, and Ford L. Lippold, were directors. The committee canvassed the community and received $1,000 in donations to start a summer recreation program. In late 1949, another fund drive met with only lukewarm success, suggesting to the committee that a more formal funding mechanism was needed. The recreation board acting as the organizers, a drive was begun to establish a park district that would be funded through property taxes. In April 1950, voters approved establishing the new taxing district by a vote of 263-137. The first board of park commissioners elected that spring was Mrs. Gerald DuSell, Mrs. O.W. Patterson, William Anderson, Arthur Davis, and Ralph Wheeler.

1964 Oswego Pub Library dedication A

The Oswego Township Library was dedicated on Sunday, Oct. 18, 1964. Its construction was financed with community donations in a campaign organized by the Nineteenth Century Woman’s Club. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new public library was built through public subscription, opening in 1964 as a township library. In April 1977, by a 2-1 margin, township residents voted to change the library’s governance to a library district to protect its broad property tax base.

In 1962, the separate grade and high school districts merged to form Oswego Community Consolidated Unit School District 308, educating students from first through 12th grades. A few years later, kindergarten was added to the district, mostly at the urging of residents of Boulder Hill.

A few years later, reflecting the reality that it served more areas than simply the village of Oswego, the park district officially changed its name to the Oswegoland Park District.

“As more than two-thirds of the residents in the district live outside the village limits, it was felt that the Oswegoland designation would be more representative of the geography of the district,” Lippold reported in the Feb. 2, 1966 Ledger. “The Oswegoland Park District covers a 36 square mile area in the shape of a square with each side being six miles in length.”

So by 1977, the basic underpinning of the Oswego area community that led WalletHub to honor Oswego as one of the Best Small Cities in the U.S. were in place. Since then, Oswego’s population has literally exploded from 1980’s 3,012 residents to the latest estimate of 34,571, while Oswego Township’s total population has also boomed, from 1980s 16,772 to a population of 50,870 in 2010, the latest date I’ve been able to find a figure for.

Absorbing that many people in such a relatively short period of time—Oswego’s municipal population as late as 1990 was just 3,876—while maintaining a relatively high standard of living and making the community a desirable place to raise a family didn’t come about by accident. It started all the way back in 1956 when those newly discharged World War II draftees and enlistees started raising their families and looking towards making their community a good place to live. But they also—and this is the really important part of the story—wanted the Oswego area to be a nice place to live for those who came after them. We owe a significant debt of gratitude to people like Ford Lippold, newspaper publisher, strong advocate of youth recreation programs, and the first director of the Oswego Park District; Bill Miller, member of the first plan commission and village board member; Wayne Fosgett, Oswego Township Supervisor and strong community planning advocate; Jane Patterson, Oswego business owner and strong advocate of local parks and comprehensive planning; Dick Young, environmentalist, public official, author, and another strong advocate for planning and zoning; and so many others who volunteered their time and often their own treasure to make our community what it is today.

Local officials, the folks who serve, often at no pay, on the park, school, library, township, fire, county, and village boards come in for a lot of criticism—some of it justified!—but they work hard, and for the most part their efforts have made the Oswego area into what even people outside the community believe is a good place to live.

 

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Filed under Government, History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History

It’s about time…

Remember that hour of sleep you gained last November when we went on Central Standard Time? Well it is coming due for payment as we switch to Central Daylight Savings Time. Before you go to bed on Saturday night, March 10, be sure to set your clocks ahead an hour.

As of 2 a.m. that Sunday morning here in the Central Time Zone, we all moved to Central Daylight Savings Time, meaning when it’s noon in Yorkville, it’s also noon in Ottumwa, Ia. and in Green Bay, Wis.

As you have probably gathered from material I’ve written over the years, one of the things I’m fascinated with is how things we take for granted came to be the way they are today. And time was, when it was 9 a.m. here in Oswego, it wasn’t anywhere close to 9 a.m. in, say, Council Bluffs, Ia. because each community set their clocks by when the sun was directly overhead at noon.

Image result for railroad time

The original time zone map for the United States has undergone a few modifications since the system was established in 1883, but for the most part the zones established 135 years ago are still largely intact.

This really wasn’t much of a problem for the first hundred years of the nation’s existence, but with the advent of railroads and their rapid expansion across the country, timing became a real challenge. It wasn’t only an issue with travelers, but safely scheduling increasingly fast trains on multiple tracks became a real, and sometimes deadly, problem.

So the big railroads in the U.S. and Canada got together and in 1883, they announced a new system of time zones across North America in which the time would be identical for all areas within each zone. And when the railroads, then the biggest economic power in the country, announced their new time zones were going to be put into effect starting Nov. 18, 1883, the entire nation was pretty much obliged to go along with them.

The Nov. 22, 1883 Kendall County Record announced the new time schedule in a prominent article headlined “Change of Railroad Time; Nine Minutes Slower.” As Record Editor John R. Marshall reported:

“By concerted action, which has been under discussion for some time, the leading railroads have established a new method of reckoning time, and it went into effect on Sunday last at noon.

“Heretofore, trains on different [rail]roads have been run on Chicago time or St. Louis time or Burlington or New York time, as the managers saw fit, and much inconvenience has been occasioned thereby. Now, instead of time being changed by the sun as we proceed east or west, for certain territories a fixed time has been established without regard to the time the sun’s ascension or declination would show. The territory is arbitrarily fixed by meridian lines, if we understand the matter rightly. With us, it is the 19th Meridian, known as ‘Central Standard Time,’ and it is nine minutes slower than Chicago time. This standard reaches to all points east of the Missouri river, so that, if we read right, 12 noon at Chicago is 12 noon at Council Bluffs, Ia. Under the old time, when it was 12 at Washington [D.C.], it was 11:17 at Chicago and 10:44 at Council Bluffs.”

A press release furnished the Record by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad informed Marshall that:

“This new time will be generally adopted by all the railroads in this section of the country and I would suggest the advisability of your considering its adoption for the standard time in your city.”

In other words, communities were free to adopt the new standard time or not. But since all of the nation’s railroads were going to operate on the new time, and since railroads were then the backbone of the nation’s economic system, not adopting the new standard simply didn’t make much sense.

Locally, the impact wasn’t very great since Kendall County is so close to the center of what became the new Central Time Zone. As Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent observed in his Nov. 29 column:

“The new time arrangement by the railroad authorities has called forth many newspaper notices. This locality is hardly any affected by it, being left with the true time nearly as much so as before—the Chicago time by which it was governed was about 4 minutes too fast, that now adopted 5 minutes too slow—but on the dividing lines its effects will be much felt and work queerly.”

As Rank noted:

“On the west side of the line the time always will be 30 minutes ahead of the true time, while on the east side it will be 30 minutes behind, making a difference of one hour between the two sections, so when a man jumps on a horse and gallops to a place east over the line some distance, making it in 30 minutes, he will get there a half hour before he started from home, but in returning at the same speed, it will take him an hour and a half.”

Not all areas of the country agreed with the railroads’ effective seizure of authority to set local time. But use of standard time gradually increased because of its obvious practical advantages for communications and travel.

Image result for daylight savings time 1918

Daylight Savings Time was introduced as an energy saving measure during World War I. Dropped after the war, it was reestablished when World War II broke out.

Odd as it may seem, standardized time zones across the country were not established by U.S. law until the Standard Time Act of March 19, 1918, which also established Daylight Savings Time, a much more controversial idea, especially in rural areas like Kendall County.

Benjamin Franklin first proposed the idea of Daylight Savings Time in 1784, but it wasn’t until 1895 that George Vernon Hudson proposed its modern incarnation. Not until wartime conditions made the time right to establish nationally standardized time did Hudson’s idea become law. And an unpopular one at that.

But given the patriotism stirred up by World War I, the nation was willing to give it a try. Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall (son of John R. Marshall quoted above) observed that the idea didn’t prove as problematic as many feared, asking in the April 3, 1918 edition:

“Didn’t mind it, did you? You never noticed the change of time after the novelty wore off, but did you notice that you did not burn so much light at night as before?”

But the nation’s farmers did notice it. Because the cows that needed milking and the cattle and hogs and chickens that needed feeding didn’t care one little bit about what the farmers’ clocks said. They were running on their own internal clocks provided and maintained by Mother Nature, not some arbitrary schedule, even if it was codified into law.

While Congress voted to repeal Daylight Savings Time after the war—over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson—the idea of standardized time zones across the entire country remained enshrined in law. Daylight Savings Time returned once again during World War II, again touted as a method of saving energy. Referred to as “War Time,” Congress again voted to repeal it as soon as the war was over, much to the glee of farmers across the nation. The Record’s Oswego correspondent happily observed in the Oct. 31, 1945 edition:

O! the joy and peace and contentment when the announcer is heard to say, “We have no two-timers this morning; Central Standard has come to stay,” (we hope).”

Daylight Savings Time was finally made law in 1974 in the midst of the energy crisis, touted, just as it had been during the two world wars, as a way to save energy. And this year, come Nov. 18, we’ll observe the 135th anniversary of the day they made everyone and every thing in the nation’s time zones start running on the same times.

 

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Vacuuming our way to a cleaner America

If you have a hobby or passion, these days all you have to do learn about it is cruise the Internet. For those of us fascinated with history, the Net is a positive gold mine of information. But there are electronic niches out there for just about anyone.

My wife, for instance, has lately been obsessed with housecleaning ideas. And so she spends time watching YouTube videos of ladies all over the world explaining how they clean their houses and on what schedules, which might seem odd to some, but are of surpassing interest to her.

Actually, housecleaning here in the U.S. is big business. If you don’t believe me, just watch daytime TV for about a half hour and count the number of commercials for household cleaning products, or walk down the housewares aisles in your average Meijer or Walmart store.

Although I’m not down with housecleaning as a major facet of my life, I have to admit I do enjoy watching those vacuum cleaner commercials on TV. The machines look all shiny and futuristic, and that Dyson guy you used to see all the time had a cool British accent, which, I imagine, got the attention of the ladies, at least. Even though all he really was was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Consumer Reports remains unconvinced that paying many hundreds of dollars for one of Dyson’s creations (or anyone else’s, for that matter) makes much financial sense when you can pick up a perfectly good vacuum at Meijer or Sears or Best Buy for about $100 that performs as well if not better.

Grandma's Kenmore

My grandmother’s Kenmore canister vacuum was our first in 1966 and soldiered on until the 21st Century.

After we got married, our personal vacuum cleaner experience began with my grandmother’s late 1940s vintage Kenmore tank-type machine, which we were gifted along with the family refrigerator and family apartment-sized gas stove. The Kenmore was nicely torpedo-shaped, and was mounted on a sort of hand-truck so it could be trundled from room to room or up and down stairs. We loved that vac, and I think it might still be out in the barn somewhere

When we moved from my great-great grandmother’s old 1850s-era home into my great-grandmother’s much more modern (definition: central heat) 1908 house in 1976, my mother (my parents preceded us in ownership) left her Hoover upright for us to use. A late 1950s model, it was a lot newer than the Kenmore, and did a better job on wall-to-wall carpeting. The Kenmore was relegated to the second floor, for use on un-carpeted wooden floors. After my grandmother’s death in the late 1970s, we inherited her “new” Hoover upright, purchased in the early 1960s. The old upright went upstairs, and the “new” Hoover became the main vac. The canister went down to the basement to become a shop vacuum. Since then, we’ve purchased three new vacuums, all black, sinister looking Eurekas with fearsome suction power that have been doing good work for about 20 years now.

Back when we bought the first Eureka, we noticed the new vacuum worked a lot better than the old Hoover, which meant we had different standards against which to judge a clean floor.

That’s the thing about “clean;” especially when you’re talking about the past, it’s a relative concept.

For instance, our colonial forebears had a far different concept of “clean” than we do today. Garbage, animal droppings, dirt, and dust were all thrown into the street, creating what was a truly remarkable bouquet on warm, humid summer evenings. Combine that with the general population’s distrust of regular bathing, and the mind boggles at what the aroma must have been like, say, having a beer with the boys down at the local stagecoach tavern.

Half-faced camp

Cleaning house took a backseat to keeping warm and dry for the earliest pioneer families who made due with a half-faced camp while they built their first log cabin.

When the 19th century made its debut, cleanliness appeared to be on the upswing—at least comparatively. But frankly, for most of the Americans who decided to blaze a trail or two west, keeping clean wasn’t a priority. After they arrived along the Fox River following a month or more on the trail, settlers built their half-faced camps (your basic lean-tos) and lived there until their log cabins could be raised. While that process continued, cleanliness was not much of a consideration; keeping dry and warm were the main goals.

Even after a pioneer family’s log cabin was erected, cleanliness wasn’t easy. For instance, most of the earliest cabins had dirt floors. Pioneer women tried to keep the floors swept, and surprisingly, they managed to make some of those early cabins look neat. One trick was to sprinkle salt on the floor while sweeping. Eventually, the combination of foot traffic and sweeping hardened the salt and dirt floor into something resembling thin concrete that could actually be kept sort of clean. Even so, after a few months living with dirt floors, most pioneer wives insisted on a wooden floor made from split logs called puncheons.

rag rug strip

Old clothing could be recycled into rag rugs on looms like my great-grandmother’s. Long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs of just about any size.

Keeping things what we’d consider clean didn’t really get a good push until the germ theory of disease was finally accepted—which didn’t take place, remarkably, until after Robert Koch’s work was published in 1881. Until then keeping things clean wasn’t a priority for many Americans, with the notable exception of New Englanders and Quakers. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard (not the Bible), suggested “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Especially on the frontier, though, folks just weren’t buying it. But from the time germ theory was generally accepted, house cleaning became a major preoccupation of housewives, spurred on by how-to articles in women’s and farm magazines and later pushed by farm and social organizations that stressed its utility is preventing and fighting illness.

By the late 19th Century, area rugs in homes, even farm homes, were common. To create a room-sized rug, long strips of manufactured ingrain wool carpeting or handmade rag rugs were sewn together. My great-grandmother was a rag rug weaver in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—we still have the handmade loom on which she made them—who made money recycling folks’ old clothes into rugs.

Ingrain Carpet strip

Wool cut pile ingrain carpeting was the first commercially available after the proper looms were perfected in the 1850s. Like rag rugs, long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs.

It was common to use clean straw as padding for carpeting in those days, with fresh beds of the stuff laid down after spring and fall housecleaning. By the time the household had walked on the straw rug padding for a few months it largely turned into dust, which was another reason good housewives found spring and fall housecleaning necessary.

Until after the first two decades of the 20th Century, housecleaning was virtually all done manually during spring and fall housecleaning. The carpet was taken apart into its component strips, taken outdoors, and the accumulated dirt, straw, and dust was physically beaten out of it with carpet beaters. Dirt and dust indoors was swept up using brooms, or dusted off using dust cloths and feather dusters.

And then came the first un-powered carpet sweepers, which were better than nothing.

But when electricity arrived, even in rural areas, in the 1930s, keeping things clean got a real boost.

My grandfather was always fond of gadgets. He had his farm neighborhood’s first gasoline-powered tractor and its first radio, a battery-powered Neutrodyne 500 five-tube table model made by the Wm. J. Murdock Co. in 1925, with a large horn for a speaker. It also had jacks for two sets of headphones. And, early-adopter he was, after rural electrification got to their farmstead he bought one of the earliest electric vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. He was so proud of it that he took it around to show his Wheatland Township neighbors, using it to vacuum “clean” carpets to show how efficient it was. The amount of dirt that came out of rugs that had just been beaten or cleaned with a carpet sweeper always amazed people. At least one farmer became very upset with his wife after such a demonstration, telling her he thought she said she worked hard cleaning house. From the look of the pile of dust that Grandpa emptied out of his newfangled vacuum, she wasn’t working hard enough, the fellow fumed. My grandfather always said he was sorry his enthusiastic demonstration of his new labor saving tool got his neighbor’s wife in trouble. I’ve always thought that story was interesting because it illustrated that my grandfather, unlike his neighbor, didn’t blame my grandmother for not working hard enough, but was fascinated that a machine could clean more effectively than even the best housewife.

1930s Kenmore upright

With the extension of electrical service, even into rural areas, by the 1930s electric vacuums became the best way to keep carpeting clean.

During the 1930s and 1940s, most homes in the U.S. were wired for electricity and got indoor plumbing, both of which made keeping things clean a whole lot easier. It became so easy, in fact, that cleanliness became the norm, giving rise to whole industries, not the least of which was that fixture of the post-World War II years, the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. That era, too, is pretty much over now with the exception of the occasional Kirby or Rainbow vacuum cleaner salesman who requests an appointment to conduct entertaining (if, at least for us, unproductive) demonstrations.

Benjamin Franklin, as I noted above, writing as Poor Richard, contended that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and from all the soap and cleaning commercials you see on TV, we seem to have taken his aphorism to heart. Nowadays, we’ve got the technology to really do a number on dirt. We mean business, and speaking for my household at least, one of these weekends, we’re really going to clean house.

 

 

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When giving human beings as wedding gifts was fashionable

It’s always puzzled me why Black History Month (or is it African American History Month? Views differ…) is observed in February. It seems to me it would have been more fitting had it been observed in January, since that’s when the birthday of the nation’s foremost African American civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated his birthday and when the nation celebrates it to this day.

But February it is, and each year in my “Reflections” column for Shaw Media, Inc., I try to mark the observance with explaining how African Americans affected local history. Which is a surprise to many because that little Kendall County once had a thriving population of black farm families, whose descendants still live in the Fox Valley is one of the area’s little-known facts.

This year, I decided to tell the story of two women who were given away as wedding presents, one local and one not. It strains credulity these days to consider there was a time in this country when one person not only owned another, but could simply give them away as gifts. But the custom was common for the first two centuries of the European settlement of North America. But nevertheless it’s true.

The plight of these two women, one of whom was owned by George Washington, President of the United States, and the other owned and then freed by an eventual resident of Kendall County, came to my attention through the reading list for my daily exercise program.

Exercise is boring, so I try to choose books that are lively reads to make my morning stint on the NuStep machine go faster, and also try to mix fiction with non-fiction. Having just finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (highly recommended), I decided to try a book I stumbled across on Amazon with the intriguing title of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.

And it proved as thought-provoking as I suspected it would. In her biography of Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar relates the story of Judge’s early life as a slave at Mount Vernon, how her life changed when George Washington was elected President, and her eventual escape after Martha Washington decided to convert Judge into a wedding present for her granddaughter. After all, Judge was just one more of the Washington family’s possessions.

And the book got me thinking about the similarities between Ona Judge and another enslaved black woman, Ann Lewis, who had also been a wedding present, but who was freed by her owners, moved with them to Kendall County, and started a family that still lives in the area.

Judge began planning her escape from slavery in the spring of 1796, when Martha Custis Washington notified the slave girl that she was being given Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present.

Image result for escaped female slave poster

After the importation of slaves was outlawed, the price of slaves increased sharply as this poster for a $300 reward for a runaway slave woman from 1853 suggests. In today’s dollars, the reward offered for Emily would equal more than $9,000.

Judge had been born at the Washingtons’ plantation, Mount Vernon, about 1776, from the union of her enslaved mother, Betty, and her white father, Andrew Judge, a Mount Vernon tailor. Ona was trained as a seamstress and body servant by her mother, and when the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia, New York, and Philadelphia again after George Washington’s election as President, she was taken along to serve the First Lady.

Things went well for the slaves who accompanied the President and Mrs. Washington until the U.S. seat of government was moved back to Philadelphia in 1790, where it was to remain until the new capital at Washington City in what was to be called the District of Columbia was built. Before the end of the Revolution, Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, a provision of which mandated that if someone brought slaves into the state, they would automatically be freed after six months’ residence. The act was amended in 1788 to close loopholes. Acting on the advice of U.S. Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Washington circumvented the law by sending slaves who were nearing their six months’ anniversary in Philadelphia home to Virginia for a few weeks, before bringing them back again to restart freedom’s clock.

That was undoubtedly annoying enough for the Washingtons’ slaves who understood perfectly well what George and Martha were doing. But when Martha informed Ona Judge she was to be a wedding gift for Martha’s mercurial granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, that was apparently too much. Ona’s plans included gradually taking most of her few possessions to the home of a free black family in Philadelphia and then slipping out of the household in May 1796 while the Washingtons ate dinner.

Judge wanted ad

The Washingtons placed numerous ads promising a reward for anyone who returned Ony Judge to them. Fortunately for her, no one was able to successfully capture her and she lived out her life in New Hampshire. Maybe if they’d offered a bit more reward money, someone might have taken them up on the offer.

She retrieved her possessions and then boarded the sloop Nancy, whose destination was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making good her escape. In Portsmouth, she found work, got married, and had children with her husband, Jack Staines, a free black seaman, all while fending off slave catchers dispatched over the next several years by the angry Washington family. Meanwhile, Ona learned to read and write—something that was against the law for black people in Virginia. She also became a Christian—it turned out the Washingtons also provided no religious training or services for their enslaved workers.

While he could have engaged the legal system set up under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that he himself had signed into law to legally retrieve Judge, the intensely private Washington wished his slave catching activities to remain discrete. Unfortunately for him, they also remained ineffective, as Judge was determined never to return to enslavement. She remained classified as an escaped slave the rest of her life, as did her three children. Even though they were born in a free state and their father was a free black man, Virginia law insisted since they were the children of an enslaved mother, Ona’s three children, too, were enslaved and were the rightful property of Martha Washington’s heirs.

Ona Judge Staines died in 1848, having outlived her husband and all three of her children. But she managed to snatch a bit of immortality when she gave interviews to abolitionist publications, the only first person accounts by one of the Washingtons’ slaves ever published. She’s also been the subject of a number of books, the most recent being Never Caught.

Ann Lewis, on the other hand, was literally ripped from her family at the age of seven years when her owner, John Gay, a wealthy planter in Woodford County, Kentucky, decided to present the child as a wedding gift to his daughter, Elizabeth, upon her 1842 marriage to Elijah Hopkins. The Hopkins settled with Elijah’s family just across the Ohio River in Ohio. And while Ann started out as a slave, in accord with Ohio law, she was freed the minute she set foot on Ohio real estate. Although free, she continued to live with Hopkins family, helping the couple raise their several children.

When the Hopkins family moved to Illinois in 1857, they bought land along modern Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of today’s Route 71–Route 34 intersection. There the Hopkins family farmed, raised prize-winning horses, and operated their limestone quarries which can still be seen on either side of the road.

After helping the Hopkins raise their children, Ann Lewis decided to start her own, marrying local farmhand Henry Hilliard. As a measure of the high regard in which the Hopkins family held Ann, the wedding was conducted in the Hopkins home. The couple farmed along Wolf’s Crossing Road for some years before moving to Aurora, where they raised their three children and helped establish Aurora’s Colored Baptist Church (now Main Baptist Church) on East Galena Boulevard. She maintained a lifelong attachment to the Hopkins family as well. Ann Lewis Hilliard died at the home of her son, William, on Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora at the age of 106 after an incredible, long life. She is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Two enslaved females who were given as wedding gifts, something that led to freedom for one and that led to a life of worry about losing the freedom she seized for herself and her children for the other. “In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America,” wrote educator and political and women’s rights activist Fannie Barrier Williams. But Ann Lewis and Oney Judge figured out how to defy that very effort. Something to think about during this year’s Black History Month.

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

Getting enough milk for all those cookies…

We’ve all heard the old joke about the teacher asking her students where milk comes from, with one pupil answering “From the grocery store.”

Time was, even town kids knew milk comes from cows because—especially if they lived in a small town—their family quite likely had their own cow. And sometimes in not-quite-so-small towns. Remember, one story about how the Chicago fire started was because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s barn.

If a family had their own cow, they had access to fresh milk and cream, and could fairly easily make their own butter and cheese if they wanted.

Otherwise, early in the nation’s history, they could buy milk directly from local farmers who brought their milk to town to sell door-to-door. After bottling technology was developed, wasn’t long before dairies got started, buying milk from nearby dairy farms and selling it to customers.

Larger towns and cities could support more than one dairy, while smaller towns and villages were generally served by only one dairy.

While we’re at it, we should make a distinction between dairies and creameries. Dairies sold fresh milk as well as other products such as cheese and butter to their customers. Creameries processed farmers’ milk into the cheese and butter available in general stores, hotels, aboard railroad dining cars, and from in-town dairies.

By the late 1800s, creameries had popped up all over Kendall County, often, but not always, operated as farmer cooperatives. Along with their larger cousins, tiny crossroads communities like Plattville in eastern Kendall County supported creameries, as did purely rural areas like NaAuSay Township.

Oswego, on the other hand, even though a small rural village, supported two creameries for a while, one a commercial operation owned by the McConnell family and later on, a cooperative creamery established by farmers dissatisfied with the prices they were getting for their milk.

Schickler house

In 1924, John Schickler and his son, Clarence, ran a sizeable distilling operation out of the basement of the Schickler House, located on the west side of Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Later, the Schickler Dairy operated out of the same space. (Little White School Museum photo)

Oswego could even, in the 1920s and 1930s, boast their own dairy, the Schickler Dairy, operated by local businessman John Schickler. Schickler, one of Oswego’s several German entrepreneurs, operated both a grocery and general merchandise store and a saloon. In 1900, he built the Schickler Block at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets to house his grocery and saloon businesses. Gradually, he got out of those retail businesses, especially when the saloon business was eliminated thanks to the nation’s 13-year experiment with prohibition, starting with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

At first, Schickler decided to try opposing prohibition by building a substantial, illegal, distilling operation in the walk-out basement at his Oswego farmhouse, located just north of Oswego on the west side of Ill. Route 31. In the effort, he was assisted by his son, a college grad who taught in the West Aurora Schools. But word got out and his operation came to the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. As the Kendall County Record reported on March 28, 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.

On April 4, the Record reported the Schicklers had appeared before the local judiciary:

John P. Schickler and Clarence Schickler of Oswego were arraigned before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner on Monday morning and bound over to the Kendall county grand jury under bonds of $5,000 each. There are several counts against each of the defendants including the sale, possession, transporting for illegal sale and illegal manufacture of intoxicating liquor and the illegal possession of a still. This is one of the biggest “booze” cases that has come up in this part of the country and is being watched with interest. The tales of the extent of the operations are fabulous–the amount of alcohol which is said to have been turned out at this place being beyond belief.

It was after his arrest for bootlegging that Schickler decided to go into the dairy business, and until larger dairies in Aurora absorbed the local business, he provided milk and other dairy products to Oswego residents.

Lantz Dairy receipt

A receipt from the Lantz Dairy, located near Plainfield. Note the phone number.

Small dairies like Schickler’s popped up all over the place. For instance, my great uncle and his wife, the Lantzes, had a dairy they ran out of their farm over on what’s now Route 59 between Plainfield and Naperville.

As the 20th Century wore on technology and the consolidation mentioned above had big impacts on the dairy industry. Gradually, smaller dairy operations were either bought up by the big companies or were driven out of business as a result of improved transportation that benefited large, centralized operations.

Advances in animal husbandry also had a big effect, as cows were bred to give more milk, which meant fewer cows were needed to produce the same volume of milk. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, dairy farmers were hard-hit. They fought back by forming cooperative organizations like the Pure Milk Association that were labor unions in all but name. The struggle for higher dairy prices resulted in some violence, not to mention a lot of milk intercepted and dumped on its way to dairies that refused to deal with organized farmers.

The height of Kendall County’s dairying was in 1890, when the U.S. Farm Census counted 9,500 milk cows in the county that fed milk into small creameries located in the villages of Oswego, Yorkville, Montgomery, Millington, Plattville, and Lisbon and in rural NaAuSay and Wheatland townships.

From that high point, the numbers steadily declined. The decline accelerated during the 1950s due to a number of factors, including the amount of labor required to run a dairy herd and the mechanization of the milking process. Not every dairy farmer could afford the new equipment or wanted to take the trouble to comply with increasingly strict heath regulations. By 1954, the county’s dairy cow population was down to 4,000 and five years later it had dropped by nearly half to just 2,300. In the 2012 farm census, there were so few dairy cows in Kendall County that they weren’t even counted.

And that’s despite the huge increases in the amount of milk, butter, and cheese the nation consumed. For instance, after World War II, someone decided it was vital that all us school kids drink lots of milk, so we had milk breaks at school. You could get either plain or chocolate, and at first it came in little glass bottles. But then it started coming in half-pint waxed cardboard containers, each of which cost, as near as I can remember, three cents, thanks to a generous government subsidy.

Guernsey cow

Our family cow was a Guernsey named Daisy who looked a lot like this classic example.

That only accounted for a portion of the nation’s increasing love affair with milk, which was also spurred by an innovative dairyman right here in Illinois. Joseph Kraft invented processed cheese, cleverly naming it American Cheese, and packing it in tin cans for shipment to Europe during World War I. After the war, Kraft began selling his processed cheese in two and five pound boxes, and also directed his team of dairy experts to find more ways to use the stuff. Those efforts resulted in discovering that American Cheese melts really smoothly without getting tough or separating. And that led to the invention of the cheeseburger, which is generally credited to Kraft’s Chicago labs. And then, in 1936, Kraft introduced his boxed Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, the staple of kids (and many parents) the nation over to this day.

Out on the farm, we had our own cow when I was really little, but then my dad got tired of milking Daisy twice a day, every day, all year round, and we started buying our milk in town. My dad favored Guernsey cows because of the high butterfat content of the milk they produced. After he milked Daisy (squirting some of as a treat it at the barn cats who gathered around as he worked), he took the bucket of milk in the house and down the basemen where the separator was. The raw milk went in the top, and cream and mostly de-creamed milk came out the bottom. The cream was either saved to take into Yorkville to the cream station to sell or sent to my grandmother to be made into butter. We drank the milk, but every once in a while, my folks would take a few gallons over to my Aunt Bess McMicken to be made into cottage cheese.

Fruit Juice House bottle

Aurora’s Fruit Juice House, Inc. had several locations in the city where they sold fruit juice by the gallon, along with milk in their wide-mouth gallon jugs, and great ice cream.

After getting rid of Daisy, we bought milk in town. Since we went into Montgomery every week for my sisters’ piano lessons, we stopped on the way home at the Fruit Juice House on Hill Avenue and got our milk in gallon glass jugs—along with their great-tasting orange juice. And, every once in a great while, an ice cream cone or chocolate malt. A great place, the Fruit Juice House was.

After we moved to town, we got milk delivered by Oatman’s Dairy. My Uncle George worked for Pike’s Dairy in Aurora where he delivered milk in Pike’s familiar brown bottles, but they didn’t deliver to Oswego so Oatman’s it was.

Les Weis was the Oatman milkman who brought half-gallon glass jugs to our door. I can’t remember the exact schedule, but I do remember my mother would put the empty, washed jugs out for him to pick up when the brought a fresh supply a couple times a week.

Back when we owned our own cow, we knew exactly where the milk we drank came from. These days, food production is far less transparent—it’s almost impossible to figure out which farm the milk you buy at the supermarket came from. But on the other hand, thanks to modern dairy technology and government health regulations, we don’t have to worry about contracting one disease or another from the groceries we buy. This modern life of ours is certainly different, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

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When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

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Filed under Aurora, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, People in History, Technology