Category Archives: People in History

Plenty of people already lived in the Fox Valley when the first settlers got here…

Out in North Carolina, a friend of David Evans who had served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War of 1832 told Evans of the richness of the Illinois prairies west of Chicago. So in 1833—the Year of the Early Spring—Evans headed west prospecting for good land. 

Following his friend’s directions, Evans traveled up the Illinois River to Ottawa and then up the Fox River, counting tributaries until he got to Big Rock Creek. He followed the creek two and a half miles upstream until he found a spot he wanted and there he staked his claim.

“There were none to dispute his claim; no mark of white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” Evans’ son told Kendall County’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, in 1877.

While “no mark of the white man’s hand was anywhere to be seen,” there were plenty of marks on the landscape made by other hands—namely those of the Fox Valley’s Native American residents.

This map from Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, published by the University of Oklahoma Press at Norman in 1987, (with the Fox River marked in green) shows the number of Potawatomi villages on the mid-Fox River in 1830.

In the early 1830s, the local Native People were living in a number of villages dotting the banks of the Fox River. A map in the Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987) located several Potawatomi villages on our stretch of the Fox River south of, roughly, Elgin and north of Indian Creek, included the named villages of their leaders Waubonsee, Shaytee, Naysosay, and Awnkote, plus two more unnamed villages north of Waubonsee’s. And that doesn’t even count the other villages on the DuPage and DesPlaines rivers.

“The Year of the Early Spring,” as the settlers dubbed it, persuaded dozens of families to move west to the Illinois frontier, including many of Kendall County’s best-known pioneers. But the uncomfortable fact about that influx—the Fox Valley’s first real population explosion—was that those who came were illegal squatters.

The federal government had concluded a number of treaties over the years with the resident Native People that resulted in the cession of much of their land. But the treaty provisions promised that the resident Native Americans would have the use of the lands until the land was officially surveyed and put up for sale. And in 1833, the day when most of the land in the Fox River Valley would be surveyed was still four or five years in the future and the day it would be put up for sale was still nearly a decade away.

The friction caused by squatters illegally moving onto Indian land in northern Illinois was the main cause of the bloodshed that was called the Black Hawk War. Settlers seized the lands occupied by the Sac and Fox Tribes in western Illinois, badly beating the Sac warrior Black Hawk when he complained about the thefts.

The Sac warrior Black Sparrow Hawk, whose name was shortened to Black Hawk by American officials, tried, unsuccessfully, to peacefully live among White settlers. His efforts actually caused a war in which hundreds of his people were killed.

Here in the Fox Valley, a belligerent pioneer, William Davis, built a dam on Indian Creek in what is today northern LaSalle County just over the Kendall County border. The dam, just upstream from the creek’s mouth, was to power a mill Davis planned to build. But the dam prevented fish from the river swimming upstream to a Potawatomi village that relied on the fish for food. When a prominent warrior from the village complained, Davis severely beat him. When Black Hawk led his band of Sac and Fox men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois from Iowa, the resulting panic and eventual fighting offered a chance to settle scores, including the problem on Indian Creek. The resulting attack by Indians on the Davis claim led to the deaths of 14 settlers.

The continual friction between the Native People and settlers had led to passage by Congress of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. President Andrew Jackson strongly supported the legislation. The eastern “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles were first to be forced on a “Trail of Tears” west across the Mississippi to what’s today Oklahoma. By 1833, it was the turn of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes here in northern Illinois to be forced west to free up land for the growing number of settlers arriving almost daily.

To that end, the U.S. Government called thousands of members from the three tribes to Chicago in September 1833 to negotiate the cession of all their land east of the Mississippi. The negotiations got off to a strained start when the government negotiator announced to tribal representatives that officials in Washington had heard the Indians wished to sell their land. To which the Indians replied they had no idea where the government had gotten such an idea and that they had no intention of selling their land.

Several days of both above and below board bargaining followed before initial deals were reached to give the tribes rich land now in the extreme northeast corner of Missouri in exchange for their Illinois land plus other possible lands in Iowa. But the tide of settlement was already moving beyond the Mississippi and by the time the removal of the tribes really got underway a few years later, settlers were already moving into the lands reserved for the tribes.

Over the next few years, other areas were picked and had to be abandoned forcing the tribes to move off of before they were finally and permanently settled in Kansas on land much different in quality, climate, and topography from their northern Illinois tribal lands.

Although Waubonsee, war chief of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Tribe was rewarded for his pro-American stance during the Black Hawk War, he was still forced west of the Mississippi with the rest of his people in 1836. (Original image in the author’s collection)

There were, in fact, several instances of Native People leaving the lands the government picked for them out west and returning to their old homes in northern Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan before they were again removed by government agents back west again. Sometimes, the cause was because they were simply homesick for their old homelands, while other times it was because the government-mandated reservations were too close to traditional tribal enemies.

In other cases, land that had been given by the government to various Native American tribal bands, as opposed to individuals, was simply stolen. Such a case was that of Chief Shabbona’s land in what is today DeKalb County. Litigation over its theft continues to this day.

It’s interesting to read the accounts left by early settlers who reminisce about arriving from their Eastern homes and settling onto an empty landscape. The landscape, of course, was far from empty, but those settlers were able to ignore entire villages, home to hundreds of Native American men, women, and children, apparently because their lifestyles didn’t match the of the new arrivals. Some of those Eastern pioneers expressed a little sadness that the forced departure of the region’s Native People meant the end of a historical era. Most others, though, were firmly in the “Manifest Destiny” camp that White settlement was part of unstoppable progress that eventually led to removing Native People from as much of the landscape as possible from Illinois all the way to the Pacific Ocean. For that majority group, naming local landmarks or new political divisions for the displaced tribes and their leaders was about as far as they’d go in recognizing those who had populated the region for centuries before the first Whites arrived to make their new homes on the Illinois prairies.

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Filed under Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

Local history is just full of mysteries…

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of our region’s historical—and even prehistorical—mysteries because I think the origins of people, places, and things are always fun to uncover.

One of the most obvious questions for those of us living in the Fox River Valley is “Where did the Fox River come from?” For many, I suspect, it’s not an obvious question at all, though. Most of us accept the region’s landscape as a given, figuring it’s always been the way it is now. But that’s not true.

Up until around 19,000 or so years ago, the Lake Michigan Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier had covered our area with a couple thousand feet of ice, but then it began to retreat northwards. A deep glacial meltwater lake filled behind the high moraine ridge the glacier’s last advance created until one day, all those thousands of years ago, the water broke through that natural dam.

The last glacier to advance out of the north covered about half of Illinois. In the Fox Valley, the ice was about 2,000 feet thick.

The almost unimaginably ferocious flood rampaged south, quickly–at least in geological terms–scouring today’s Fox River Valley into the landscape.

The Fox River Torrent left a valley that ranged from wide and shallow at its northernmost end to narrower and deeper where it joined the Illinois River, which itself had been created by the Kankakee Torrent that had rampaged southwesterly from the Saginaw Lobe of the Wisconsin ice sheet. Over the years, the land formerly covered by those giant ice sheets gradually rebounded as the weight of the ice was removed, allowing both the Fox and the Illinois rivers to further erode their valleys.

It’s fascinating to contemplate what those torrents must have looked like, had any humans been around to see them.

Back to local historical mysteries, why wasn’t the Fox River used as a canoe route during the fur trade? A person would think the Fox would have been a perfect cutoff for the fur traders as they paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan from their posts at Green Bay. The source of the Fox is located a bit northwest of Milwaukee and is reachable by a relatively short portage from the Root River that empties into Lake Michigan near Racine.

But while the Fox looks pretty promising on maps, in reality, it’s always been a wide, relatively slow, and shallow stream, especially in its upper reaches. Not until it got south of modern Yorkville did the river deepen much at all, despite having a fairly substantial fall along that stretch. And especially in the summer and during dry autumns, the river was extremely shallow.

So, the Fox wasn’t used as a fur trade route because it just wasn’t the right kind of river for canoeing most of the year.

The era of settlement in what became the Fox River Valley started in the late 1820s. Where my hometown of Oswego is located here in mid-valley, settlement didn’t start until after the Black Hawk War of 1832.

The largest group of our county’s earliest settlers came overland from Ohio through Indiana. The second largest group arrived at Chicago on Lake Michigan, having sailed out here, mostly from the port of Buffalo at the terminus of the Erie Canal. The smallest group came up from the south having migrated west from Virginia and the Carolinas to Tennessee and Kentucky and then north.

Creating farms by plowing the sod on Oswego’s prairies began in the early 1830s

Why did those settlers leave their homes back East? For most, especially those from New England and the Middle Atlantic States, it was the search for better, cheaper land. For the Southerners, it was following the frontier as it moved west. New England’s farmland, along with that in New York, famously featured thin, rocky soil. In Pennsylvania, most of the best land had already been taken up and improved by the 1840s and 1850s, meaning it was expensive.

Meanwhile, land on the Illinois frontier of the 1830s was rich with deep black soil. The Prairie Peninsula, a vas, triangular-shaped region of rolling tallgrass prairie extending from northwestern Indiana all the way west to eastern fractions of modern North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas drew farmers because no timber needed to be laboriously cleared to start farming. Granted, that thick prairie sod had to be broken with specialized plows, a relatively expensive proposition that often cost as much as the land itself. And that lack of timber also meant that traditional frontier settlement methods using log buildings and rail fences often either couldn’t be used or created the additional expense of purchasing woodlots.

And then there was the price of that land, sold through government land offices as soon as it had been officially surveyed. The government price was $1.25 per acre, which was even cheap back then. Adjusted for inflation, that’s just $45 an acre in 2023 dollars. But, the price had to be paid in hard cash, no paper money allowed. And that was often difficult in those early days.

So, okay, cheap, high-quality land was for sale as the frontier moved west from Indiana, but why did settlers decide to move here in particular?

Most early accounts note our county’s earliest settlers came west literally prospecting for land. The Rev. E.W. Hicks in his history of Kendall County written in 1877 described one of these prospecting trips by two of the county’s earliest settlers: “Among those who came out prospecting in the spring of 1831 were Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan from New York. They descended the Ohio to the Mississippi, and then up to St. Louis, where buying ponies, they followed the banks of the Illinois river to Ottawa, and up the Fox to Yorkville. Reining up their horses on the present Court House Hill, they gazed on the lovely stream below them, the wide, beautiful prairies beyond them, and the timber behind them. The green was dotted with flowers, the birds sang in the branches, and a group of deer stood gazing at the strangers from the edge of a hazel thicket some distance away. Here,” thought Mr. Adams, “is my home,” and dismounting he drove his stake in the soil and took possession. Following up the river about two miles farther, they came to a creek, where Mr. Morgan halted and made his own claim. This done, they passed up to Chicago, sold their ponies, and returned home by way of the lakes.”

Adams and Morgan couldn’t get back to the land they’d claimed for a couple years, opening the way for others to be considered the earliest settlers in what’s today northern Kendall County.

In the summer of 1832, members of the extended Pearce family, Oswego’s first settlers, walked west in Champaign County, Ohio looking for likely land to settle. Possibly drawn here by reports back from Elijah Pearce’s son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter, who was familiar with the Fox and DuPage River valleys, they decided it was worth moving west to settle.

The Pearce family had started their westward trek in their home state of Maryland. They first emigrated through what’s now West Virginia and then settled for a decade or so along the Mad River in Champaign County, Ohio. After returning from their prospecting trip, the Pearces sold their Ohio farms and brought their families west to our Fox River Valley in 1833 by covered wagons pulled by oxen. Daniel Pearce settled along Waubonsie Creek on what’s now Oswego’s Fox Bend Golf Course. His brother-in-law and sister, William and Rebecca Wilson built their cabin at what’s now the busy intersection of U.S. Route 34 and Ill. Route 25 in downtown Oswego, while brothers John and Walter Pearce and their families settled on the west side of the river. Brother Elijah settled near his son-in-law and wife at what is now Montgomery in Kane County, north of Oswego.

Many of those early settlers didn’t stay put, however, but moved on as the mood struck them. Elijah Pearce and William Wilson and their families, for instance, only stayed along the Fox River for a few years before moving to Big Rock Creek near Plano, where they built a sawmill. They sold the mill in 1838 and headed west to Missouri and Iowa.

And speaking of mills, why did the Fox River have more mills than any other Illinois river? According to the Fox River Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams. The river was dammed at the following places: Ottawa, Dayton, Sheridan, Millington (Milford), Millbrook, Millhurst, Yorkville, Oswego, Montgomery, Aurora, two sites between Aurora and North Aurora, North Aurora, South Batavia, Batavia, Geneva, a site between Geneva and St. Charles (perhaps), St. Charles, South Elgin, Elgin, Dundee, Carpentersville, Algonquin, a site three miles below McHenry, and McHenry.”

In 1888, the Fox River dam at Montgomery was powering two mills located along the millrace. Of the two, Gray’s Mill (near the end of the millrace above) is still standing today. The millrace was filled in but can still be seen in Montgomery Park. (clip from Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map, 1888)

And that list doesn’t even include mills on the Fox River’s tributaries. Here in Kendall County, mills were built (as noted above) on Big Rock Creek and also on Little Rock Creek, Morgan Creek, Blackberry Creek, and Waubonsie Creek. So it appears we can thank the Fox River Torrent for creating a river valley so conducive to building dams to provide water power for mills.

The above are all interesting questions, but how about a real mystery? Like, for instance, who killed William Boyd.

On Thanksgiving night, 1859, Kendall County attorney, land dealer, businessman, and former newspaper publisher William P. Boyd was working late at his office in the village of Bristol, now the north side of Yorkville. As he worked away that evening, a person unknown stealthily aimed through Boyd’s office window and fired a shot, badly wounding him.

Boyd’s death capped an eventful life. He came to Kendall County from Kentucky with his parents in 1838. They settled near modern Newark in Fox Township. Boyd’s father, John, farmed, while William, who had already read law, helped but also engaged in business. In March 1840, he cemented relations with one of the county’s best-known families when he married Sarah Ann Hollenback.

Hollenback, writing in 1914, recalled of his brother-in-law: “Boyd was a born leader, a man of strong personality and great persuasive powers among his following. He was capable of swaying the riff raff crowd as best suited his purpose.”

A few years later, Boyd moved to Oswego, which had become the Kendall County seat in 1845. There he practiced law and engaged in land speculation, plus investing in other businesses. He and his wife also apparently ran a rooming house. In the 1850 U.S. Census for Oswego Township, the value of Boyd’s property was set at $10,000, a considerable fortune for the era.

In 1850 when the General Assembly passed legislation allowing counties to adopt the township supervisor form of government, as opposed to the commission form, Boyd was named one of three commissioners who divided Kendall County into its current nine political townships in accord with the recently passed state law.

Boyd bought the Kendall County Courier, the county seat paper, published in Oswego, from Abraham Sellers in 1855. He changed its political orientation from neutral to a paper supporting the Democratic Party under the editorship of Alexander P. Niblo, a former Newark resident. That move led the county’s Republicans to persuade the Courier’s former editor and publisher, Hector S. Humphrey, to establish a competing Republican paper, the Kendall County Free Press. The Courier supported Buchanan in the 1856 Presidential election. And while Buchanan won, public sentiment had already trended Republican in Kendall County, and Boyd was forced to close the Courier and sell its press and type to an Iowa paper.

By 1859, perhaps sensing voters were in favor of moving the county seat back to Yorkville, Boyd and his wife and children moved to the village of Bristol, just across the river from where the new courthouse would be built during the upcoming Civil War. And it was there that Boyd met his violent end.

Although mortally wounded, Boyd hung on until Jan. 5, 1860 when he died. Hollenback recalled years later: “The identity of his assassin was never discovered. The excitement of the trial and execution of [abolitionist John] Brown for a time dwarfed everything else. The assassination of Boyd had been so deftly accomplished there was little that could be done, and nothing was done by the Grand Jury of Kendall County.”

In what is undoubtedly Kendall County’s coldest case, Boyd’s murder is still unsolved after 163 years.

So you like history’s mysteries? As you can see, we’ve got plenty right here in the Middle Fox Valley. Some we’ve solved, and some we haven’t. What’s a local historical mystery that’s piqued your interest?

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Newspapers, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events

Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

Sat down in my small office here at History Central this morning and was treated to the scene of hundreds of Canada Geese sitting out on the ice shelf that grew in the Fox River’s main channel during our recent bitter cold spell.

The view from my home office window this morning. That black strip out on the other side of the trees on the island is several hundred geese enjoying northern Illinois’ latest cold snap by sitting on the ice.

And it occurred to me how much I love and appreciate this old river.

My family has owned the spot I’m sitting on right now since 1908 when my great-grandparents decided to retire from farming and move to town. They picked out four lots in the old, never incorporated Village of Troy on the east bank of the Fox River of Illinois about a half-mile above the Village of Oswego.

This photo by Irvin Haines shows the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory at right, North Adams Street (called Water Street back then) and, just a few yards upstream from the mill, the vacant lots where my sister built our current house in 1985.

They probably picked the site because it was right next door to my great-great-grandparents’ house and just a short distance south of my great-grandmother’s sister’s house.

They contracted with my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, to build their steep-roofed story-and-a-half Queen Anne-style retirement home on the two lots on the east side of Troy’s Water Street—now Oswego’s North Adams Street. And he did a great job, too. The house (now where my son and wife live) is still as sound and sturdy as the day my great-grandparents moved in, in October 1908.

The Lantz House Irvin Haines built for my great-grandparents, with the magnolia tree my sisters and I gave to my mother as a birthday gift many years ago in full bloom.

They reserved the two lots west of Water Street lying on the east bank of the river for grazing room for their cow and driving horse, and gardening.

The old Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory was located right next door to the north of those two lots, separated by the 66-foot wide Third Street right-of-way, which had been platted as part of Troy but never completed. The sawmill, whose power was provided by the adjoining dam across the river, had served the Oswego community for several years before William Parker added the furniture factory to process the numerous Black Walnut trees in the community into chairs, tables, and various kinds of chests.

At some point, the mill and furniture factor had burned down, leaving behind the remains of the building’s thick flagstone foundation and the millrace that had powered the turbines that, in turn, powered the entire operation.

Meanwhile, across the river at the west end of the dam, the Parker Gristmill had ground local farmers’ grain into flour and meal before being closed down around the turn of the 20th Century. In the early 1920s, Irvin Haines (yes, the same person who built my great-grandparents’ house) dismantled the mill and used the timber, sawn lumber, and foundation stones to remodel the old Seely Barn at the west end of the Oswego Bridge into the Turtle Rock Tearoom—which is still standing and is today a private home.

The old dam washed out sometime around the first or second decade of the 20th Century, never to be rebuilt.

Upon my great grandparents’ death during World War II, their house passed on to my grandparents. My aunt and uncle moved into the house during the war and then in 1955 my parents bought it when they were forced to quit farming due to my dad’s poor health. We moved off the farm in December that year and I began my love affair with the river.

The Fox River (of Illinois; the Fox River of Wisconsin empties into Green Bay), 202 miles long, has its source northwest of Milwaukee, just west of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, the river flows 84 miles past Brookfield, Waukesha, Big Bend, Waterford, Rochester, Burlington, Wheatland, Silver Lake and Wilmot before crossing the border into Illinois at the north end of the chain of six lakes on the border between Lake and McHenry counties. From there it flows generally south and slightly west to its mouth on the Illinois River near Starved Rock at Ottawa.

Detail from Thomas Hutchins’ 1778 map of the Old Northwest showing the Illinois River and the first mention of the modern name of the Fox River I’ve been able to find. (Indian Villages of Illinois, Vol. II, Atlas and Supplement, Sara Jones Tucker)

The Native People living along the river when the French arrived in the Illinois River Valley in 1673 called the river Pestequouy, the Algonquian-speaking peoples’ word for the American Bison. That indicated that by then buffalo were common on the prairies along the river’s course. After LaSalle’s efforts at colonizing the Illinois River Valley in the early 1680s, the Fox became known among the French as the River of the Rock. The French had named the landmark Starved Rock simply “The Rock.” Near the end of the 17th Century, the French moved their trading operations south to Lake Peoria on the Illinois River. It was after that period that the Fox River got its modern name, most likely named after the Fox Tribe, some groups of which lived along its northern reaches in the early 1700s.

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

On this map, the Fox River was finally given its modern name. The name was included on the first official map of the state of Illinois drawn by John Melish published in I819. And Fox River it has remained ever since.

The villages of Native People in northern Illinois as of about 1830, just as settlement was about to explode in the Fox River Valley. The river is picked out in green on this map. (Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History)

The Fox Valley was a rich place used as a hunting ground by the member tribes of the Illinois Confederacy. When the Illinois gradually lost population and power in the early 18th Century, interrelated bands of the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes created the Three Fires Confederacy and moved from their homelands in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana to fill the vacuum in the Fox Valley. These were the people living in the river valley when the first White settlers began arriving in the late 1820s.

The Three Fires and their cousins who had been living along the river for a few thousand years had manipulated the landscape to maintain the prairies and open wooded savannas that characterized the area when those White settlers arrived. That also included changing the river itself by building weirs to trap fish that tended to change water flows and create new islands and other features. But when the Whites showed up, they began making much more profound changes to the river and the prairies and hardwood groves in its watershed.

Drainage of wetlands that dotted the prairies, most of which were the remnants of Ice Age lakes, began as soon as pioneer farmers arrived and continued as new technologies were brought to bear. This had the beneficial effect of sharply cutting the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and hordes of biting flies. But it also led to the more rapid runoff of stormwater, leading to larger and more frequent floods on the Fox River.

Laying clay tile to drain wetlands on the Oswego Prairie east of the Village of Oswego abut 1900. The tile run went through a ridge on its way to empty into Waubonsie Creek. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In addition, the groves were cut to provide firewood and building materials and the prairies were plowed and turned into cropland. That led to more soil erosion and the once-clear river was turned into a muddy stream.

But those changes didn’t hold a candle to the effect the dams the region’s pioneer millwrights threw across the river to power sawmills and gristmills. According to The Fox River Area Assessment, Volume 5, Early Accounts of the Ecology of the Fox River Area published in 2000 by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Fox River became the most dammed stream in Illinois…The Fox River’s rocky channel and steep gradient made it ideal for constructing mill dams.” According to the assessment, 25 dams dotted the river’s course at one time or another, including at Oswego, Millington, Millbrook, Millhurst, and Yorkville here in Kendall County.

Noted the assessment’s authors, “The Fox River probably produced more hydro-power than all other streams in Illinois put together, excluding the Rock River. In addition to sawing wood and grinding grain, these mills ran factories. The Fox River Valley became more heavily industrialized than any other area of comparable size in Illinois.”

The dams themselves created problems. The dead water behind them—none of them except one in the Chain of Lakes were built with floodgates that would all the current to cleanse the river bottom behind them. As a result, the mill ponds up and down the river quickly filled with silt, covering the gravel gamefish preferred to lay their eggs. The dams also prevented fish from migrating to other spawning grounds.

The decline in gamefish, particularly, was noted and everyone from the U.S. Fish Commission to local angling clubs tried to fix the situation by stocking the Fox with a dizzying variety of fish, from Rainbow Trout to German Carp. Needless to say, the trout didn’t survive, but the carp certainly did, displacing native species and with their feeding habits contributing to the river’s already serious turgidity.

But it was the Fox Valley’s industrialization, which continued well after hydro power was economical, that caused the most severe problems. Instead of a source of power the river became viewed as a convenient dump for all manner of industrial waste. Especially starting when manufacturing coal gas became popular for home lighting, heating, and cooking the pollution of the river began spiking. And, of course, citizens in the growing towns along the river contributed by dumping their own, often untreated, sewage into the river.

The manufactured gas plant in Aurora in 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped in the river, as can be seen in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

By a century ago the problem had become acute. The Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on May 17, 1922: “In spite of all efforts which have been made in previous years and laws which have been passed by the legislature, the pollution of Fox River continues to make the waterway a menace to health. The Fox is a beautiful stream. The fishing in years gone past has been good and the boating in some places enjoyable. But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”

But the industrial interests had the money to buy as many politicians as needed to keep any meaningful change from taking place. As a result, when we moved into my great-grandparents’ house in 1955, the river was in even worse shape than ever. Within a couple years, chemical factories upstream dumped cyanide in the river at least twice, killing just about every living creature in the Fox from Aurora to Yorkville. During the first episode, we counted more than 500 dead fish along my parents’ riverbank.

We spent summers on and along the river in those years, but were always careful to wear our “river shoes” when wading to avoid stepping on broken glass or scrap metal that could provide a nasty cut in the polluted water. We enjoyed our river scows, too. From my office window, I look right at the bit of riverbank where some long-dead relative installed a large iron staple in concrete where I’d chain up my boat.

Fishing was fun, but it was strictly “catch and release” for us long before the term came into vogue. One look at the stunted Black Bullheads, Catfish, and Bluegills, often with lesions (that proved to be cancerous when studied) on them, prevented us from wanting to eat any of them.

Ice skating on the Fox River at the mouth of Waubonsie Creek about 1920. (Little White School Museum collection)

Still, the river valley was a great place to grow up. Winters were colder then, with -20° F. cold snaps not uncommon, which meant the river provided some great ice skating. Trudging down to the riverbank to sit on a handy log to change into my skates was a treat all winter. In fact, I’d often go skating for an hour or so before school. And I only fell through the ice once, and since it only involved one leg getting wet, I decided that discretion was probably a good idea and never bothered my parents with the details.

After the annual spring flood was over, it was back aboard our flat-bottomed river scows. When I became fascinated with the Age of Sail I talked my mother into sewing canvas sail and then built the necessary rigging for my boat, installed leeboards and even managed to sail upstream with the rig.

The memorial to Jim Phillips celebrating his efforts to save the nation’s air and water from pollution, acting as his alter-ego, “The Fox.” The memorial is on the banks of the Fox River in Oswego’s Violet Patch Park just off Ill. Route 25. The memorial, signed with the “cartoon”Fox” Phillips used to advertise his exploits, honors his activities and also illustrates the positive changes his activities prompted.

Then things began to change, thanks to activists like Jim Phillips who weren’t afraid to tackle all the money paying for politicians to ignore the river’s pollution. Acting as his secret identity of “The Fox,” Jim began waging a campaign against polluters using a brilliant combination of humor and public relations to shine a light on what was going on. His exploits were picked up by Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, the local press, and even National Geographic. His exploits, such as dumping the Lake Michigan outflow from a U.S. Steel coking plant onto the pristine white carpeting of the corporate offices in downtown Chicago and plugging untreated industrial effluent pipes emptying into local creeks and the Fox River itself, helped lead to a national reassessment of what we were doing to our own environment.

And, since that was the era when politicians could still work together for the greater good of society in general, that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon as well as similar agencies at the state, county, and municipal levels as well.

Today, the Fox River I look at out of my office window (which, by the way, is situated about where center field was back in the day when this was a vacant lot that housed the neighborhood baseball diamond and go-cart track) and see hundreds of Canada Geese and know that come spring the Walleye and Smallmouth Bass anglers will be back with a vengeance, it really gives me a good feeling. Seeing something that was so distressed that even as an eight year-old I knew it was in serious trouble recover to become something so unbelievably valuable as a recreational and natural areas resource is more satisfying than just about anything else I can think of.

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Before the colors fade: A young Oswego “daredevil” jumped into Pacific Theatre combat

My friend Stan Young died on Nov. 9.

He was my best friend’s dad, so I literally grew up with him. He was a sort of building genius here in town, and in my adult years I had him do a number of projects at our house. He was absolutely top-notch in maintaining our house’s Queen Anne architectural elements, making additions or improvements look like they’d always been there.

Stan Young (left at top of ladder) and his son, Glenn installed the finial Stan made for the top of the Little White School Museum’s bell tower in 1983 the day before the museum gallery opened for the first time. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in 1977, when we started restoring the Little White School Museum, Stan volunteered to take on a number of projects, mostly donating his labor for free. Those projects included stabilizing and replacing the building’s timber front sill that had been badly rotted out over the years and replacing floor joists in the building’s entry, recreating the building’s wooden front porch, and then recreating and installing its iconic bell tower. His last big project was recreating the finial atop the bell tower, something he and his son, Glenn, installed the day before the museum in the building opened in 1983.

A lifelong resident of Oswego, Stan joined the Army when he was drafted on Jan. 12, 1943. He volunteered for the paratroopers and fought in several engagements in the Philippines, making four combat parachute drops. Serving in the headquarters company of the 1st Battalion, 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division as a mortar gunner, Young eventually rose to the rank of staff sergeant by the end of the war.

Several years ago, he retired from both contracting and owning, with his wife Lydia, Scotty’s Restaurant in Oswego and moved to Mena, Arkansas. And after battling some increasingly serious health issues, that’s where he died at age 99 after a long and very eventful life.

Stanley Young’s Oswego High School senior class photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Back in August 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of VJ Day marking the victory over the Japanese in World War II, I interviewed Stan for the Ledger-Sentinel and finally got him to talk a bit about his years in the military, something he never really spoke of—other than to note one time that one of the guys in his company was always going around writing stuff and eventually became involved with television. That literary former paratrooper turned out to have been Rod Serling of “The Twilight Zone” fame.

Born and raised in Oswego to a family that had been in the area since the 1830s, Stan was popular in the community as a youngster. At Oswego High School, he was involved in just about every activity that was offered, from sports to helping produce the yearbook, to his election as senior class president. He graduated with the Class of 1941 and attended teacher’s college in Winona, Minnesota before being drafted.

Although he wanted to be a paratrooper, he was nearly talked out of it before he left for the service. As he related the story to me back in 1985:

“It’s a funny story and it’s kind of a sad story as well. I had always thought I’d like to jump out of a plane with a parachute. 1 Just was kind of a little daredevil in those days, and I thought it would be fun. The last day when I was leaving, my mother said, ‘You’re not going to get into paratroops, are you?’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t think they’d accept me anyway.’

“So, riding in on the train, my best buddy that I had gone through school with from first grade was Stuart Parkhurst. And he said, ‘Let’s get into paratroops.’ And 1 said ‘No, I told my mother I probably wouldn’t.’ He said, ‘Aw, come on. You get better pay, nicer uniforms; you get your own special camps. It would be neat!’ And I said, ‘Well, it probably wouldn’t hurt me.’

“So, I volunteered that I wanted to be in the paratroops, and the first thing they said to me was, ‘I don’t think you want to be in the paratroops.’ And I said that I really did, and they had me sign some other papers and take some more physicals. At noon 1 got out of all that, and I said, ‘Stu! I made it! I made it! How’d you do?’ And he said, ‘They told me they didn’t think I wanted to be in it and I decided not to.’

“He subsequently went into an infantry outfit and was killed over in Europe. So, I made it and came through alright, and he didn’t and he was in what he thought was a safer outfit. If they got your number, they got your number.

“Initially, we went to Tacoa, Ga., where the unit was formed and then to Camp McCall, N.C. where we took parachute jump training. By then the division (l1th Airborne) had solidified and was preparing for duty in the South Pacific. We trained additionally at Camp Polk, La., and shipped out in April of ’44 for New Guinea. There we trained additionally. We made a few more parachute jumps and did some more jungle training, preparatory to going to the Philippines.

11th Airborne Division Paratrooper Stan Young, 1943. (Little White School Museum collection)

“In November of that year, they put us on a ship and we arrived at Leyte [an island in the Philippine Group]. When we got there, they had concluded that the war was about over there, as far as Leyte was concerned, and we were to go into a mop-up operation. But when we arrived, new troops arrived from Japan on the opposite side of the islan—and also paratroops and ships and airplanes attacked, and we had a full-scale war instead of a mop-up operation.

“We were in combat there for about 30 days in the jungles and mountains of Leyte, and the mountain where we were was subsequently named Starvation Ridge. We didn’t eat for five days from the time the last C-ration was gone, and we were on one-third of a C-ration at THAT time. Every time they air-dropped something, the Japs got to it before we did because of the heavy fog and mist, because they kind of had us surrounded there.

“We finally got back to the beach about Christmas. About mid-January we got on some little landing craft and sailed across the Philippine Sea to Mindoro Island, not knowing where we were going at the time. There we enplaned and made a combat parachute drop about 37 miles south of Manila. We marched a shuttle march, the entire 511th Parachute Regiment, with us walking and being shuttled forward by the three trucks we had, to a little village. And here all hell broke loose. We arrived just before dark and they gave us the option of digging in. The ground was like sandstone. About that time, the artillery started hitting and we decided it was about time to start digging in. We took several casualties before we did dig m and they were lobbing mortar rounds and artillery right into our position.

“We were there until June, in that area, from February until June. At one time I figured it was 102 days that I didn’t lay down to sleep, that we slept in the ground sitting up in our foxholes. We were in some pretty intense combat.

Troopers from the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment get ready to enplane for the Raid on Los Baños to free the roughly 2,000 prisoners the Japanese housed there. (History Net photo)

“Along with it, we freed one of the Japanese prison camps where they held a bunch of Catholic nuns and priests. There were some showgirls and prostitutes and dancers; some businessmen; some Americans; some Spanish and other nationalities. They were holding them at Los Baños near Santa Rosa.

“It was about that time there was a lull in Southern Luzon. We went, at one point, into this little town of Santa Rosa and they said they had a festival. What it was was several Japanese collaborators had been captured and they were going to punish them. We saw them execute three men by slow degrees–torture. It was horrifying. For the grand finale, they had a woman. They tied her to a post in the square, put rice straw all around it, threw gasoline on it, and set it on fire. I’ll tell you, it’s quite a shock. We were told we were not to interfere with the Philippine guerillas in any way.

“We eventually took Luzon Province. On June 23, we were enplaned and flew to the very tip of Luzon Island and engaged in a parachute jump there, but there was no combat. All the Japs pulled back.

There I sustained a serious shoulder injury and was taken to the hospital. I was released on July 20, and we entered into a training program, and the word was out we were to make a jump on Japan proper. But then the scuttlebutt had it that a big bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and subsequently another one was dropped [on Nagasaki].

“When they said the Japs had given up, there about the middle of August, 1 have never seen so much jubilation in my entire life. I think that was the happiest moment of my life, when they said the Japanese had surrendered, because I figured there was new life. Regardless of any joys I have ever had over anything in the whole world, ever, that was the happiest single moment. And I would imagine any of the guys who were there would agree with me. Guys were running up and down the company street, running in and out of tents, you never saw such running and jubilation! You can’t imagine the jubilance!

“Some people say, ‘I bet it was thrilling;’ and others say, ‘I bet you miss your old buddies and I bet that was exciting.’”

“Hey—none of the above. It was horrible. 1 can look back and say 1 was there and it was interesting, but it was a horrible thing. And to hear it happened again in Korea and Vietnam, you wonder why aren’t people smarter? They learn to build huge buildings and marvelous communications systems and yet two people can’t even sit side by side in a bar and keep from arguing and then they carry that right on to country to country.

“If there’s one thing 1 brought back with me, it’s a total aversion to violence of any kind. I can’t even stand to watch it on television. If it comes on, 1 just get up and turn it off. I had enough of the real thing.”

After the end of the war was announced, Stan was among those on one of the first, if not THE first, Allied planes to land Allied military forces in Japan to take that country’s surrender. Given how ferocious the Japanese military had been during combat I asked him if he and his buddies were worried about what kind of reception they’d get when they touched down at that Japanese military base. He replied that, yes, there was worry, but it turned out once the emperor told the military to surrender, they did it virtually without incident.

As a sort of sidelight, both of Stan’s brothers also fought through the Pacific. John, an Army Air Corps pilot, eventually flew 50 missions in A-20 Havoc bombers, also in McArthur’s campaign through New Guinea and the Philippines. Brother Dick, a Marine, was wounded three times on Iwo Jima in the Navy’s island-hopping campaign. Stan and John were even able to meet once in January 1945. As reported back home in the Kendall County Record: “Mr. and Mrs. Dwight Young have three sons in the service for two years. Two of the boys met in the Philippines on Jan 25. Lt. John S., a pilot, landed on an island and heard that his brother, Corporal Stanley, was on the same island. Obtaining a jeep he drove 20 miles, found his brother, who was more surprised than words can tell. The two had a fine time for about two hours when the party had to break up. John reports Stanley as looking fine and strong. Lt. John has 13 missions.”

And the boys’ father, Dwight, was involved in the Pacific Theatre as well, although not in direct combat. Instead, he was a self-taught physicist who was working on something called The Manhattan Project in New Mexico. That “big bomb” Stan heard about through the paratroopers’ scuttlebutt was partly his dad’s handiwork.

After the war was finally over, all three of the Young boys found they’d survived and came home to resume their lives, and they made good ones, too. Stan was the last of the three, surviving to 99 years despite not playing it safe in 1943 like his best friend. Stu Parkhurst.

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Before the colors fade: Local heroes who hid in plain sight…

During my 1950s childhood, we all envied friends whose dads were World War II veterans because so many of them had such cool war souvenirs. From web belts and canteens to equipment pouches, first aid kits, and even U.S. Army leather holsters, that stuff enlivened our hours playing “War.”

But little did we know that several of those dads—and even a few moms—had done far more than their part during the war, only to be determined to come back home to our little corner of northern Illinois and get back into “real life.” In fact, about the only time we saw any evidence of those folks’ service was during the annual Memorial Day Parade when they marched with our local American Legion Post to the cemetery to honor the nation’s war dead.

But from the director of the local funeral home to the carpenter down the street, many of them had stories of pivotal events they’d participated in that they simply didn’t want to discuss with anyone who hadn’t also participated in the same kinds of things they’d seen and done. So they kept their peace in public, lived productive lives by contributing to their communities, and have now passed on leaving others to piece together tales of the sacrifices they made to save their country during the momentous events of the war years.

Two men who spent almost their entire lives in our then-little town are excellent examples of those who served. Their service took them to opposite sides of the globe from each other, but after the war and returning home, they became related by marriage.

When it came to winning World War II, the combat arms of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Corps have justifiably gotten most of the attention. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who also fought and died to win the war, from the merchant mariners manning the Liberty Ships carrying vital Lend-Lease supplies across the oceans, to truckers who kept the supplies going to front line troops.

In September, Oswego’s Little White School Museum received two donations from long-time Oswegoland Heritage Association member and frequent donor Barbara Wolf Wood that added to our knowledge of how some of those unheralded participants in the war not only did their duty for their country, but helped win it.

The materials donated came from the estates of Oswegoans Ray Leifheit and Merrill Wolf. Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineering Battalion in the European Theatre of operations while Wolf served in the Seabees in the Pacific Theatre.

Merrill Wolf

The Merrill Wolf donation included his Seabee footlocker, two complete uniforms—his blues and his whites—a 1940s hard hat, and a pair of khaki shorts of the kind Seabees wore during their hard work maintaining the pipeline of supplies to Marine and Navy fighters as well as building the ports and airfields on once unknown Pacific islands to allow the bombing raids on Japan that eventually led to its surrender.

The Seabees were the construction experts for the Navy and Marines. The name stems from the initials for Construction Battalion. The force was created by Rear Admiral Ben Moreell just weeks after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. The original authorization was for a naval construction regiment consisting of three naval construction battalions to be comprised of construction tradesmen. Adm. Moreell realized that using civilian construction crews for the ports and airfields the Navy would need as they leapfrogged across the Pacific simply wouldn’t work. As the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command put it: “Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.”

Wolf, an electrician, enlisted in the Seabees in June 1943 at the age of 32.

He subsequently served throughout the Pacific Theatre, aboard LST-244, working as an Electrical Mechanic First Class. LST-244, was a large ship designed to land tanks and other heavy equipment directly ashore. Ironically, LST-244 was built not far from Wolf’s home in Oswego at Evansville, Indiana. Launched on Aug. 13, 1943, the ship sailed down the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From there it was down to Panama and through the canal to the Pacific. Reaching the Pacific Theatre of Operations, the ship and crew participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign in November and December, 1943; the invasion of Kwajalein and Majuro atolls in February 1944; the capture and occupation of Guam, July and August 1944; and the bloody assault and occupation of Okinawa, April 1945.

Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) under construction at the Evansville, Indiana shipyard on the Ohio River. The ships were launched sideways into the river. From there, they sailed to the Mississippi River, and down to New Orleans. The shipyard employed 19,000 workers at its height. Today, one of the LSTs like those built there is on exhibit as a fully-operational museum ship. (Courtesy of Evansville Museum/Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library)

After Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Wolf continued to serve on Okinawa for a few more months. When his discharge number came up, he was shipped directly from there back to the U.S. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 13, 1945: “Merrill Wolf, who had the rank of Electrical Mechanic 1-C, received his honorable discharge at Great Lakes on Nov. 10 and came home to his wife and two little daughters. The younger, June Anne, 17 months, he had never seen. He had been in the Pacific for two years, coming home directly from Okinawa to Seattle and thence to Great Lakes.”

A future brother-in-law already in the Army Engineers

By the time Merrill Wolf enlisted, his future brother-in-law, Ray Leifheit, had been serving in the U.S. Army for almost two years. A carpenter by trade living in the Yorkville area, before the war Leifheit had volunteered for three years to serve in Company E, a unit of the Illinois National Guard’s 129th Infantry Regiment based here in Kendall County at tiny Plattville.

Raymond Leifheit

After induction into the U.S. Army, Leifheit was eventually assigned to Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, an engineering unit attached to the 9th Armored Division.

He was shipped overseas to England in August 1944, where the 9th Armored Division and the 9th Engineers underwent additional training before being sent to France in October 1944 to aid in the defeat of Germany. The engineers assisted the division in its move across France, first seeing action in northern Luxembourg. The battalion was in the Ardennes Forest area in December 1944 when the Germans launched their surprise offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Leifheit and the rest of his Company C mates found themselves desperately fighting to slow down the German armored spearhead. As U.S. forces retreated, C Company engineering troops worked hard continually creating new defensive positions, blocking roads and destroying bridges, and even fighting as infantry as they withdrew, finally reaching the strategic crossroads of Bastogne on Dec. 19. The engineers then returned to their engineering skills and from Dec. 20-27 blocked six roads south and east of Bastogne to check German assaults from those directions.

It was during the furious fighting to block those roads on Dec. 26 that Leifheit was seriously wounded and captured by the German Army. He was initially listed as missing in action, but in April his parents in Yorkville finally got the good news that he was indeed alive.

A U.S. Army engineer prepares to drop a tree onto a road near Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Oswego’s Ray Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion during the battle. (Courtesy To Those Who Served website)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 11, 1945: “Mr. and Mrs. R.W. Leifheit received the glad tidings in the form of a telegram on April 7 from the War Department stating that their son, T-5 Raymond Leifheit, who was reported as missing in action Dec. 26, in Belgium, was a prisoner of war of the German government. Many friends and relatives rejoice with them at this word and hope he will soon be released to return home.”

He had been treated in German military hospitals for two months after being wounded before he was liberated by Allied forces, and then spent more time in U.S. Military Hospitals before being finally sent home.

It took some time before he was completely healed. But he eventually did, getting back to his old carpentry profession.

Then on Jan. 3, 1948, he married Mary Wolf, sister of former Seabee Merrill Wolf.

Thanks to those recent donations from Wolf family descendants, the stories of these two World War II veterans will be preserved in the collections of the Little White School Museum, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have gone off to serve their nation in both war and peace, and whose memories the museum is committed to preserving.

As part of their mission to preserve the achievements of the hundreds of men and women from Oswego who have served their country for the last 190 years, the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street, Oswego, will host their “Remembering Our Veterans” special exhibit starting Thursday, Nov. 10 and running through Sunday, Nov. 27. Regular museum hours are Thursday and Friday, 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Monday, 4-9 p.m. The museum, located just two blocks east of Oswego’s historic downtown business district, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but donations are always gratefully accepted. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, check the museum web site, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org, or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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The era when the Fox River Valley’s Native People and settlers lived along side each other

Starting in 1835, under terms of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the Fox Valley’s Native Americans were forcibly moved west of the Mississippi River.

But that meant the region’s white settlers lived alongside their Native American neighbors for roughly a decade. How were relations between the two groups? An honest appraisal would have to say those relations were mixed.

By the time whites began settling the region between Chicago and the Fox River Valley, the area was mostly populated by bands of the Three Fires Confederacy. About 1745, reports that the interrelated tribes of the Illinois Confederacy had become so weakened they could no longer claim control of that area prompted the Three Fires member tribal bands to move south from their current homelands in Michigan and Wisconsin to fill the vacuum created by the Illinois’ difficulties.

A cultural mixture of the Potawatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa tribal bands, Three Fires villages soon dotted the banks of the Fox, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Illinois rivers. The member tribal groups had been hostile to the United States until the end of the War of 1812, after which they determined to live in peace with Americans.

Ottawa, located at the head of steam navigation on the Illinois River, was the jumping off spot for many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers. This 1845 map of the area west of Chicago was published in the Guide Through Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin & Iowa. Showing the Township lines of the United States Surveys by J. Calvin Smith. New York in the David Rumsey Map Collection.

Settlement in the Fox Valley region really didn’t begin until about 1826 when Robert Bearsford’s family moved up the Fox River from its confluence with the Illinois River at Ottawa and settled in modern Kendall County’s Big Grove Township. Bearsford’s claim was reportedly at the southernmost point of the grove of mixed hardwood trees.

By 1829, a couple other families had moved to the Big Grove area including former French Canadian fur trader Vetal Vermet’s family as well as American Frederick Countryman and his Potawatomi wife, En-do-ga.

In August of that year, whiskey provided a trigger for a relatively violent incident between the two cultures. Peter Lamsett, nicknamed Peter Specie by the settlers for his policy of only accepting coins—specie—in payment for the goods and services he sold, brought a complaint before Peoria County Justice Alexander Doyle at Chicago (then governed from Peoria County) concerning the theft of several gallons of whiskey by a group of Indians.

Specie Grove in Oswego and Kendall townships of Kendall County was named after Peter Lamsett Specie, who was living there when the county’s first White settlers arrived. This clip from an 1876 map of the county in the Biographical Directory of the Voters and Tax-Payers of Kendall County, Illinois by George Fisher & Company.

Specie, a French Canadian who had engaged in the fur trade before concentrating on providing various services to new settlers, was on his way from Chicago with his ox cart to deliver three barrels of whiskey to Countryman and a half-barrel to Vermet at Big Grove when he said he was set upon near the DuPage River by the Potawatomi Chief Half Day and two warriors. He said the Indians took a quantity of alcohol, claiming one of them slashing him with a knife during the scuffle. Specie continued his delivery, but testified he was again stopped near Countryman’s cabin on Aux Sable Creek by the two warriors, who, he said, stole more liquor. Specie told Justice Doyle he estimated about 10 gallons of whiskey had been taken. The resolution of Specie’s complaint is missing from the county court records, but the case and Specie’s testimony does suggest some significant tensions between Native Americans and the increasing number of White settlers—even those generally considered sympathetic to the tribes.

Sauk Warrior Black Hawk

The worst clash of the era between the area’s White settlers and Native People was 1832’s Black Hawk War. An influential Sauk warrior, Black Hawk determined to move his band of about 1,500 men, women, and children back across the Mississippi to Illinois in the spring of 1832 in violation of government orders. Black Hawk had a long history of opposing White settlement of western Illinois. During the War of 1812, Black Hawk, who had allied himself with the British, out-generaled Illinois militia troops who tried to attack the Sauk Tribe’s main settlement at Rock Island. After that war, Black Hawk still remained attached to British interests to such an extent that the tribal group he led was called the British Band by U.S. officials.

In 1832, the British Band’s return to Illinois caused conflict to break out across northern Illinois. Local tribes people seized on the opportunity to settle some scores. The most violent of these was the Indian Creek Massacre in LaSalle County, where 14 men, women and children at the William Davis claim were killed over Davis’s cruel and violent treatment of local Three Fires people.

A few miles north of Indian Creek, Hollenback’s store at modern Newark was looted and burned, as were the cabins of settlers who had been warned to flee by the Three Fires’ Chief Shabbona. At the William Harris cabin, panic reigned. The family’s horses had bolted meaning the couple, their seven children, and Mrs. Harris’s father, the aged and crippled John Coombs, had to flee on foot. Realizing he’d slow them down, Mr. Coombs told the family, “Leave me to my fate, and save yourselves; I am an old man and can live but a little while at best.” Which they tearfully did, thinking they’d never see him alive again. But when an Indian raiding party arrived at the Harris cabin and saw Mr. Coombs was an invalid, they left him be and passed on to other pickings, not exactly the picture of ruthlessness we expect to see during a war.

Waubonsee, principal war chief of the Prairie Potawatomi

And as for the perpetrators of the Indian Creek Massacre, the suspects were arrested after the war and tried in Ottawa. But since the survivors of the attack, including Sylvia and Rachel Hall, teenage sisters seized and held for ransom, could not positively identify which warriors had attacked the cabin, the charges against the defendants were ruled unproven and they were released, which seems an interesting comment on the attitude towards justice, even on the frontier that was northern Illinois at that time.

After the war, until the Fox Valley’s Native People were removed, relations seemed to be good. Early settler and eventual orchardist Smith Minkler’s recollection of visiting the claim of William Wilson, Oswego’s first settler, in late 1833 as recounted in the Rev. E.W. Hicks’1877 history of the county might have been typical: “Mr. Minkler was down there [at Oswego] one day when Wilson’s boys were astride of an Indian pony, and the Indians with wild shouts of glee were pulling it along the trail. It seemed to be great fun for them.”

Ambrotype of “Chief Shaubonee” made on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field

Shabbona, who had warned the settlers to flee during Black Hawk’s war, was rewarded with a small reserve at the grove west of the Fox River in modern DeKalb County that had been named for him. But he, along with Waubonsee, and the other chiefs and families, were all ordered west anyway. The first group left Chicago in 1835 for a grueling trip first to Missouri, then to Iowa, and finally to Kansas that rivaled in tragedy the famed “Trail of Tears” of the Five Civilized Tribes. Other groups left in 1836, but some of those who’d been removed hated where they’d been situated and filtered back to northern Illinois. It wasn’t until 1837 that the last of the Three Fires were finally, permanently removed.

Even after that, Shabbona returned for visits, living on his land off and on until it was simply sold out from underneath him, something that is still in litigation to this day. Virtually homeless, the old chief’s friends bought him a small house where he spent the last two years of his life. The highlight of that period was at Ottawa on Aug. 21, 1858 when he was invited to sit on the dais during the first Lincoln and Douglas Debate and when he was able to greet his former Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln.

Like most of history, the era when settlers and Native People lived together in Illinois’ Fox River Valley is complicated, an era when both sides had something to learn from and teach to each other. And that’s perhaps something worth thinking about throughout November as the nation celebrates this year’s Native American Heritage Month.

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“The Basics” of American life have significantly evolved

I was paging through an old photo album the other day and came upon a photo of my grandmother dated about 1915. There she was standing beside her father-in-law in back of her two-story Aurora home, smiling into the camera holding up the severed head of a pig.

In this day and age, someone hoisting a pig’s head up for the camera would be considered odd if not downright dangerous. But my gentle and kindly grandmother was obviously not a bloodthirsty woman. So what was going on?

Wilhelm Holzhueter and his daughter-in-law, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter, make headcheese at the Holzhueter Home on Hinman Street on Aurora, Illinois’ east side neighborhood nicknamed “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelming German population. Photo probably taken about 1915 by Fred Holzhueter.

What was going on was everyday life at that time.

The early years of this century were times not so far removed—in lifestyle if not in year—from the subsistence farming in which the pioneers engaged. Until relatively recently (we’re talking in historical terms here), people did not go down to the supermarket for their every food need. Sure, there were grocery stores, but they mostly stocked staples like flour, sugar, rice, and the like. Instead of buying everything they ate, our not-so-distant ancestors had big gardens, raised chickens, and they kept cows and sometimes pigs, often even in town.

One reason most women did not work outside the home back then is because there was so much work in their homes to do all that gardening and animal husbandry not to mention trying to keep up with normal household tasks like cooking. Back in that day, just doing the family wash was a day-long job that involved heavy lifting, not to mention often having to be a cross between an engineer and a water-carrier—as my grandmother came to realize after she and my grandfather moved to a farm in 1920.

In this public relations photo taken by the McCormick-Deering folks about 1925, my grandmother washes clothes in a Dexter Double-Tub Washing Machine powered by one of Deering’s gasoline utility engines. My grandfather also used it to power his concrete mixer and for other farm chores in pre-rural electrification days.

Farmers, of course, always tried to grow as much of the food they needed as possible while also trying to grow enough extra to send to market to earn cash. But frontier farmers found that given the transportation technology of the day their farm produce was hard–if not downright impossible–to move to market. As a result, they tried to convert their produce into something that was easier to transport.

Corn, rye, and other grains raised west of the Appalachian Mountains could be fermented and then distilled into whiskey, which could be transported a lot easier than the tons of grain it took to make the spirits. One of the nation’s first tax crises, in fact, happened because the government insisted on taxing whiskey, a practice western farmers insisted was unfair, since grain sold by eastern farmers was not similarly taxed. The Whiskey Rebellion was brief, but the animosity of the western settlers towards the more settled east remained and simmered.

The concept of making it easier to get western agricultural products to eastern markets was one of the major forces driving development on the frontier. Such giant—for their times—public works projects as the Erie Canal, the Welland Canal (around Niagara Falls), the all the other canal systems in the nation were attempts to open farm-to-market transport routes.

Meanwhile, farmers were trying to survive by producing enough for their families to eat. Virtually every farmstead featured a standardized set of buildings and agricultural features that were geared towards not only producing products for sale or barter but for the subsistence of the farm family as well. Early on, a barn to provide storage for fodder, protection for draft animals, and farm equipment storage (meaning a plow during pioneer days); a crop storage building that eventually evolved into what we now call a corn crib; and a chicken house were the minimum buildings, beside the farmhouse, that were included on most farmsteads. Gradually, the kinds of farm equipment farmers needed increased and so a separate machine shed was added to the farmstead.

About 1900, R.D. Gates proudly poses with the hogs he’s raising on his farm on Minkler Road south of Oswego as his hired man on the wagon full of freshly picked and husked corn looks on. (Little White School Museum Collection)

In terms of livestock, at least one cow was kept to provide milk and butter for the family. A few pigs were almost always kept because they were easy to raise and provided a lot of meat for the cost of feeding them. Cattle were usually kept, although they were more expensive to purchase and breed than pigs because they did not convert forage to meat as efficiently. And, of course, chickens were almost always on hand because of their utility as garbage disposals, egg layers, and ready sources of fresh meat.

Until the 1960s, most farmers raised all of the above animals at once on their farms, sometimes for the consumption of their families and even more often as profit centers for their farming operations.

Outside on the farmstead, there was an orchard and a large garden plot. Orchards usually included apple, cherry, and pear trees, plus sometimes plums, apricots, and peach trees. Early on, fruit was dried or stored in cellars for use later in the year. Later on, the fruit was either canned or turned into jellies and preserves.

Preserving vegetables and other garden produce, fruit, and meat was one of farm wives’ major tasks. Vegetables were canned, while root crops were preserved in cellars. Some vegetables, like cabbage and cucumbers were preserved by pickling, including making sauerkraut out of cabbage. Fruit was, as mentioned above, either canned for later use in pies and salads, or made into preserves, jams, and jellies. Many farm tables featured a jelly dish at all three meals during the day.

My grandmother in 1978 enjoying a rest after a busy life in the house my grandfather built in town for their retirement.

Meat was preserved in a variety of ways, including canning, which was especially favored for beef. Pork was preserved by frying the pork chops and putting them down in layers in large crocks. Each layer was sealed from outside air–and spoilage–with a thick layer of pork grease. Bacon and hams were smoked for preservation. And some parts of the hog were preserved in other ways. “Headcheese” was created by boiling the hog’s head to remove and cook the meat and release the natural gelatin in the bones and connective tissue. Then the mixture was seasoned and poured into loaf pans to cool. This produced a spiced lunch meat loaf that was sliced for use in sandwiches and other recipes.

Which gets us back to what my sweet grandmother was doing displaying that hog’s head so proudly: She was getting ready to make up a fresh batch of headcheese for use in my grandfather’s lunches at the old Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad shops in Aurora—no trip to the packaged meat aisle of the grocery store needed.

As a commentary on American life, the photo leading off this post is just one more indication of how far our definition of “the basics” has moved from the time of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’.

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Water-powered mills, once a familiar sight,  have nearly disappeared from the landscape

By the turn of the 20th Century, most of Kendall County’s old water-powered grist and sawmills had either completely disappeared or had switched to steam power.

That might seem puzzling given that the water powering all those mills was free, while steam engines require fuel of one kind or another that has to be purchased. As it turns out, though, while the water that powered mills might have been free, actually turning water into hydraulic power was pretty costly. Couple that with the economics of improved transportation and the economies of scale industrialization created, and it gets a lot easier to see why water-powered mills disappeared from the landscape.

Starting with the era of settlement in the 1830s, enterprising millwrights built sawmills and gristmills on almost every sizable stream in Kendall County. The Fox River had its share of mills of various kinds, of course, but so did local creeks including Blackberry, Morgan, Big Rock, and Waubonsie.

Dams were comprised of timber cribs staked to the stream bottom, filled with rocks and rubble, and then faced with timber. Illustration from Mill by David Macaulay, 1989.

According to the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, by 1846, Kendall County’s population totaled 5,600 people and “Their sawing and grinding was done by fourteen saw and grist mills.”

To create the waterpower to run their mills, millwrights first had to build dams. During that era, they were simple walls built across streams with no floodgates. The technology of the day called for putting together triangular timber frames that were than hauled into the stream and secured to the bottom with forged iron stakes. The open frames were then filled with rocks and rubble. The vertical upstream side of the dam was faced with planks to hold the rubble in place, while the slanted downstream side was also covered with planks to make a smooth surface for the water running over the dam.

1906 view of the Parker dam and gristmill taken from the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory on the east bank of the Fox River looking west. Note the damn’s plank facing. By this time, the mill had been long out of business and the dam was gradually being washed away. (Little White School Museum collection)

Millraces were dug around one or sometimes both ends of the dam and were generally faced with flagstone easily mined along the banks of the county’s streams. These millraces could be either simple, powering one mill or longer and more elaborate powering multiple mills. The long Montgomery millrace powered two mills, while the millrace at Yorkville powered Black’s paper mill as well as Yorkville’s first grain elevator via an overhead wire cable and pulley system.

1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map showing the wire cable and pulley system that powered the Walter & VanEmon’s Grain Elevator at Yorkville.

Here in Oswego, the dam was sort of anchored into the bedrock exposed on the two riverbanks. The mills were then built in such a way that their millraces ran through their basements, where the waterwheels, and later the turbines, were located. That had the advantage of eliminating the need for longer races that could be maintenance headaches. The gristmill on the west bank was built first, followed by the sawmill on the east bank. A furniture factory was eventually added to the sawmill. A small chest of drawers manufactured there is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The Parker Gristmill (far bank of the Fox River) and the Parker Sawmill and Furniture Factory (right) were located at opposite ends of the Oswego dam. Both ends of the dam were securely anchored in the bedrock on the banks of the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

The fast millrace water powered the millwheels. Because of our generally flat topography, many of our early mills used horizontal tub wheels although vertical undershot wheels that we generally think millwheels ought to look like were not uncommon, either. One county mill used an undershot wheel, powering equipment using water flowing under and not over it. Huge at 24-feet in diameter, the sawmill it powered was located on the Fox River at Millbrook.

The 1838 Federal survey map of Fox Township illustrates Jackson’s Mill at modern Millington nearly on the border with LaSalle County. The mill boasted a 24-foot undershot water wheel that powered both sawmill and gristmill equipment.

As soon as possible, those early tub and undershot wheels were replaced by turbines imported from back East. A later turbine wheel from Gray’s Mill is on exhibit near the riverbank in the park just upstream from the Mill Street Bridge in Montgomery.

Early on, sawmills were as, if not more important, than gristmills. They used vertical steel sawblades to cut local timber into lumber for buildings and fences. In the county’s oldest buildings the evidence of their vertical saw cuts are still clearly visible, looking much different than the spiral saw marks made by later circular sawblades.

The era of local sawmilling ended surprisingly soon as cheaper lumber began to flow into Chicago aboard sailing ships from Michigan and Wisconsin. The fate of Jackson’s Millbrook sawmill mentioned above was typical, as Hicks reported in 1877: “But the gang saws of Michigan and Wisconsin at last outstripped it, and left the aged frame to bleach in the sun until a year ago, when the spring freshet bore it away on its bosom to rest in a watery grave.”

Brownell Wing’s huge three-story limestone Millhurst gristmill is the only former water-powered mill still standing in Kendall County. Built in 1870, the mill never opened after the new Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road bypassed it by a mile to the southeast. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hicks’ comment above also points out one of the other downsides of the county’s water-powered mills—the cost of maintaining them in the face of annual floods, called freshets back in those days. Dams were damaged every year by the annual spring floods, and were sometimes–along with their adjacent mills–entirely destroyed by rampaging ice floes and high water during breakup.

As a result the dams also required constant maintenance. Those timber frames submerged in water tended to rot away and the upstream and downstream plank coverings had to be monitored continually, making for a lot of labor needed to make use of that “free” water. Couple that with the vagaries of water flow at various times of the year, and it becomes clear water power may not be such a hot power source after all. As the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville on Aug. 21, 1879: “The water in the river is so low that the paper mill had to shut down Tuesday.”

The viability of local mills remained certain through the 1870s. After that two things tended to lead to their disappearance. First was the advent of affordable steam engines. When a steam engine could be installed and run the establishment with no need to maintain a dam, complicated turbines, or worry about low water levels, it made economic sense to switch power sources.

Looking north into Kane County on the Fox River from Bereman’s Curve on the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) towards the covered Montgomery Bridge and Gray’s Mill. The venerable old local landmark is one of the few former water-powered mills still standing along the river. (Little White School Museum collection)

Gradually, the old mills closed down to be replaced by steam-powered mills in more convenient locations, which, in turn, were then made obsolete by the extension of rail lines through the county that carried farmers’ crops and livestock away and brought back manufactured materials, from wheat flour to sawn lumber, at prices no small local sawmill or gristmill could beat or even meet.

Photo probably taken about 1927 by Irvin Haines of the Parker Grist Mill, probably taken as he dismantled the mill provide timbers and other materials to rebuild the old Seely stone barn at the west end of the Oswego bridge into Turtle Rock Inn for Mr. and Mrs. James Curry. The Currys moved into Turtle Rock in November 1928. (Little White School Museum collection)

While some of the old mill buildings remained—especially ones like Gray’s Mill just north of the Kendall County line in Montgomery or Wing’s Mill In Kendall County’s Fox Township at Millhurst built of native limestone—others were washed away by floods, burned down, or were dismantled and their timbers reused for other purposes. The dams that provided their waterpower were gradually erased by annual spring floods and the breakup of ice in the spring. A few of the dams were maintained by companies that harvested ice from their millponds but the increasing pollution of the Fox River and the development of ice manufacturing equipment eliminated that use as well by the first decade of the 20th Century.

At low water on the Fox River, those with sharp eyes can often see some of the remaining timber frame members of the old mill dams–direct and tangible links to the era of pioneer millwrights and millers. The ones above, still staked to the river bottom, are the remains of the old Parker Dam at Oswego I photographed back in 2018.

Today, while some of those old dam and mill sites have been totally erased from the landscape, here and there their remains can still be seen if a person knows what they’re looking at—I can see the remains of a dam and the mills that stood at either end from my office window here in Oswego, for instance. And the remains of Montgomery’s long millrace are still visible as a swale extending along the riverbank above the Montgomery Bridge.

But for the most part it’s one more once-important Fox Valley business era that’s almost totally disappeared from our collective memory.

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Columbus, genocide, and federal holidays: Trying to make sense of the Age of Exploration

Some historians like to bicker about whether the driving force in history is people or events, in other words, do individuals create historical events or do historical events create significant individuals through their reactions to those events?

Actually, when you get right down to it, history doesn’t seem to be much more than a series of accidents and mistakes that combine to form a historical context lurching from one catastrophe to another. If that might be a trend in history, then the history of North America has certainly seems to have followed it.

The New World’s accidental history began as soon as Christopher Columbus weighed anchor on the coast of Spain and headed west across the Atlantic. This week, we commemorated the results of that voyage, which proved catastrophic for millions of Indigenous people in North, Central, and South America while creating opportunities for downtrodden people elsewhere on earth for the next five centuries.

When Columbus finally sighted land at the end of his voyage 530 years ago this week, he was positive he had discovered either China or India. But as one historian noted, he hadn’t even discovered Indiana.

Much to their later chagrin, the Tainos people welcomed Christopher Columbus and his three ships loaded with European fortune hunters on Oct. 12, 1492. It didn’t take long for Columbus to set out on a program designed to enrich both his Spanish backers and him, personally. Outright theft, murder, rape, and genocide that wiped out most of the Indigenous People in the Caribbean followed.

Instead, Columbus landed on an island off the coast of what became known as the Americas but was so convinced he had reached the mysterious East that he named the inhabitants of his new discovery Indians, a name not a few of them have been trying to live down ever since.

It seems to have been, in fact, a fortunate thing that Columbus never actually found North, Central, or South America, given his murderous proclivities. The first people Columbus stumbled across were the Tainos, a peaceful bunch in which Columbus immediately saw possibilities. “They should be good servants,” he wrote in his journal. After which he instituted a brutal regime of torture, rape, and murder against them in order to steal whatever gold, silver, or other valuables that might have had.

After establishing a colony on the island of Hispaniola during his second voyage to the New World—and in direct violation of his orders from the Spanish monarchy—Columbus figured the numerous indigenous people living there would make fine slaves, and so he began shipping hundreds of them back to Spain, and enslaving thousands more on Hispaniola allowing Spaniards serving under him to rape, pillage, and murder.

As historian Samuel Elliott Morrison put it: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

Alarmed by the reports they were receiving about the brutality of Columbus towards not only the Native People, but also Hispaniola’s European colonists after Columbus’s fourth voyage, the Spanish crown ordered an investigation. That led to Columbus’s arrest and return in chains to Spain where the authorities stripped him of his titles.

Despite Spain’s initial decision to treat Native People with respect and kindness, when it apparently occurred to them they didn’t have to worry about reciprocal attacks from organized Indian or Chinese armies, the ethical gloves came completely off. And the Spanish quickly came to consider all the Indigenous People as surplus population. Five hundred years before the Germans perfected the method, the Spanish practiced the Final Solution on entire peoples living in North, Central, and South America.

Although Columbus thought he’d found India or China (he remained convinced until his death), it quickly became apparent to others that a) there seemed to be a major error in their calculations of the diameter of the earth and b) there further seemed to be a large mass of land taking up all that space between Europe and Asia. Due to those miscalculations of the Earth’s diameter, those early explorers thought that what turned out to be North, Central, and South America was a narrow island. Stories of rich nations and cities just beyond the horizon, some undoubtedly concocted by Native People eager to see murderous, greedy Europeans go elsewhere, became a staple of the colonization of the New World.

So, when the French landed in Canada and began exploring to the west, they were sure they would soon reach China. In fact, a series of rapids on the St. Lawrence River was named La Chine because early colonists were sure China was just up the river a few miles beyond the rapids. With that as a precedent, every time a French adventurer took possession of land as the boundaries of exploration were pushed ever farther westward, it was with one eye on the Chinese. For instance, when the French seized the Sault Ste. Marie rapids leading from Lake Superior just before 1620, the official doing the taking had brought along rich robes for the ceremony because he was sure a few Chinese potentates would show up for the festivities.

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, explored the Mississippi River in 1673, proving it didn’t empty into the Pacific Ocean.

The conviction that rich Asian markets lay just beyond next hill to the west drove two centuries’ worth of searches for the non-existent Northwest Passage. And unlike those homicidal Spanish conquistadors, the French generally tended to be more benign in their colonial treatment of Native People.

French geographer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, who were sent to discover whether the Mississippi River was a sort of Southwest Passage to the Pacific, both had high hopes of finding the long-sought route. Instead, they discovered the Mississippi didn’t flow southwest. Rather, they found, it headed pretty much directly south or slightly southeast to end up emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Gulf of California as had been hoped.

The Jolliet-Marquette expedition had began in 1673 when Jolliet was commissioned to find out exactly where the Mississippi went given Native People insisted it led to a huge body of water. He and a few companions left Montreal and paddled up the Ottawa River following the old trade route the Chippewa and Ottawa people had blazed and perfected centuries before.

The party crossed Rainy Lake and portaged into Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, eventually arriving at the French post of St. Ignace. There they picked up Father Marquette, who was added to the expedition for his linguistic skills.

The party then paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to the Fox River of Wisconsin that emptied into Green Bay. Paddling up the Fox, they portaged to the Wisconsin River at the site of today’s Portage, Wis., and then followed the Wisconsin down to its mouth on the Mississippi.

During their voyage down the Mississippi, Jolliet made navigational observations until, upon reaching the mouth of the Arkansas River, he realized the Mississippi had to flow into the Gulf of Mexico not the Gulf of California. In addition, at the mouth of the Arkansas, they were welcomed by an Indian village whose residents were using Spanish trade goods. That was alarming because Spain and France were quarreling at the time, creating a potentially unhealthy atmosphere for the French explorers.

So the expedition turned around and paddled back north. Reaching the mouth of the Illinois River, they were advised by some helpful Native People the smaller river was a shortcut to the Great Lakes, so they became the first Europeans to explore the Illinois River Valley. Both Jolliet and Marquette commented on the rich prairie land they saw during their voyage north, and both correctly predicted the territory would prove to be a productive farming region.

Father Marquette lived just one more year before dying on the lonely Lake Michigan coastline near modern Marquette, Mich.

Nineteenth Century artist George Catlin’s depiction of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s 1682 ceremony claiming the Mississippi River’s watershed for Louis XIV. LaSalle named the entire river basin La Louisiane in the Sun King’s honor. The thoughts of the resident Native People having their ancestral home renamed after a foreign monarch were not recorded.

Jolliet was within sight of Montreal when his canoe upset in some rapids and he lost all of the journals and maps he had made during the expedition. However, he reconstructed much of the information, and that eventually caught the attention of Robert René Cavalier, Seur de la Salle, who concocted a grand scheme for the settlement of the lands Jolliet and Marquette had first explored as well as lands along the south shore of Lake Michigan east of the Chicago River.

And so it came to pass that nearly 200 years after Columbus landed, LaSalle finally discovered Indiana.

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