Category Archives: Science stuff

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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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Native Americans, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Disappearance of wheat fields marked a major change in northern Illinois’ prairie farming

This year’s grain harvest has largely wrapped up here in the Fox River Valley, following roughly the same schedule it has been on for the last 1,200 years.

Illinois’ Native People began cultivating corn sometime between 900 and 1000 AD. It joined the beans and squash they’d been propagating to create the basis for their subsistence crops they called “The Three Sisters.”

Interestingly enough, modern farmers still grow versions of the Native People’s “Three Sisters,” although these days soybeans have taken the place of native edible beans and pumpkins have largely replaced other squash. But still, it’s sort of comforting that a 1,200 year-old harvest tradition continues into the 21st Century.

The member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy had moved into the area west and south of Lake Michigan in the 1740s, displacing the member tribal groups of the Illinois Confederacy. The Three Fires relied on growing “The Three Sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) for a large proportion of their died. Like the region’s modern farmers, the Native People completed their harvest in late fall.

By the time the first permanent White settlers began arriving along the banks of the Fox River, the resident Native People were inter-related members of the Three Fires Confederacy comprised of Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. These people, too, relied on growing The Three Sisters for a large percentage of their diet. Over the centuries since its introduction, corn had been crossbred and otherwise genetically modified by its Native American growers.

European immigrants had quickly adopted growing what they called “Indian corn” to differentiate it from the “corn’ they called wheat back in that day. It grew okay in the thin, rocky soils of New England, but crops kept getting better the farther west White settlement moved because soils were better, too. When the frontier finally moved out of the Eastern woodlands onto the tallgrass Prairie Peninsula in the 1820s, corn found its ideal habitat.

But those White settlers did not live on corn alone. They needed wheat for bread and other foods, along with oats to feed their livestock, and rye and barley for foodstuffs as well as to manufacture the alcoholic beverages that seemed to power so much of frontier society.

So the crops grown on those first Fox Valley pioneer farms were quite diversified, right along with those of their neighbors all the way west to the Mississippi. Wheat was considered a vital crop, both for consumption on the farm, and after pioneer town developers arrived, for sale in town. Corn was fed to the farm’s livestock, which could then walk the 40 miles east to market in Chicago. Rye and barley were both used on the farm, but were also good sale crops and which could also be turned into extremely valuable—and easily transported—whiskey.

Grain, too, could be hauled to the Chicago market, although the 80 mile round trip in wagon-and-team days was time-consuming, keeping the farmer away from taking care of his other responsibilities such as feeding and otherwise caring for his livestock, not to mention taking care of his family on their often isolated farmsteads.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan at Chicago. Although its heyday was brief, it boosted Illinois’ economy starting in the late 1840s. (Wikipedia image)

So when the Illinois & Michigan Canal opened following the course of the Chicago-Des Plaines-Illinois River system from Lake Michigan to the head of navigation on the Illinois River at Peru, it created a nearby, easily reached incentive to begin growing more grain of all kinds than could be consumed on the farm.

For one thing, it meant the meat being produced from Chicago’s stockyards could move south to the St. Louis–New Orleans market as easily as east to the New York market.

Even more importantly, its existence meant that grain from the rich region west and south of Chicago could finally be shipped north as well as south. Previously grain taken to the Illinois River system went downstream to the St. Louis market. But with canal boats hauling it, grain moved north as easily as south. Chicago’s grain elevators were ready to handle the huge influx of grain, too, readying it for shipment east to the New York market.

Thus began cash grain farming in earnest. And within a year or so, the first railroad, whose right-of-way followed the course of the canal, opened. That offered a year round grain and livestock shipping opportunity for area farmers, something the canal, which had to close during the winter months, could not.

It was during this period of the late 1840s and early 1850s, that northern Illinois’ wheat crops experienced a number of failures. And since it was a major crop during those years, it led to severe financial problems. In response, farmers tried everything they could to try to make the area a viable wheat-producer, including introducing dozens of new wheat varieties and tinkering with planting schedules.

The preferred wheat for market was hard winter wheat, which was planted in the fall, germinated and greened up, went dormant over the winter, and then resumed growing in the spring to be harvested in late summer. But northern Illinois’ climate and its very soil warred against producing good winter wheat crops. The region’s numerous freeze-thaw cycles during an average winter tended to kill the vulnerable wheat seedlings. Then if it did begin growing it was often attacked by a variety of diseases including rust and blight along with insect pests such as the Hessian fly and chinch bugs. And, oddly enough, the soils on northern Illinois tallgrass prairies seemed to be too rich to support good wheat crops. Farmer Edmund Flagg decided in the mid-1830s from his own observations that the worst soils of the Prairie Peninsula were best-adapted to growing wheat.

Before the advent of mechanical reapers, harvesting “small grains” (wheat, oats, barley, rye) was both labor-intensive and subject to weather-related problems. Those problems were so severe and prevalent on the Illinois prairies that farmers, a group normally reluctant to adopt new methods, were eager early adopters of mechanical harvesting equipment. McCormick Reapers were manufactured under license south of Oswego at AuSable Grove in 1847.

And then there was the problem that growing and harvesting wheat is extremely labor-intensive and very dependent on just the right weather conditions during the harvest cycle. Wheat had to be cut, bound into bundles, stacked to dry, and then threshed. Excessive moisture in the form of rain at any time after the grain was cut could lead to it developing rust or other fungus, or even sprouting spoiling the crop.

This need for speed during the wheat harvest spurred by the upper Midwest’s damp climate during the peak harvest season led to early and intense interest in mechanical harvesters that allowed far more acreage to be cut, bundled, and shocked than the old manual methods. Area farmers not only imported early harvesters made by Cyrus McCormick and others, but they also licensed them for manufacture here. Out in AuSable Grove south of Oswego Daniel Townsend secured a McCormick license and produced harvesters in the 1840s. Eventually, of course, the folks in Plano here in Kendall County became one of the premiere harvester manufacturers in the nation.

Corn, in comparison, was pretty hardy stuff. It could even be left standing in the field all winter if necessary, to be successfully picked and husked in the early spring with no visible impact on its value as a human or animal food.

Northern Illinois farmers gradually switched to trying to grow spring wheat and met with more success. But the spring varieties were softer and less attractive for milling into bread flour than the hard winter varieties. So, wheat growing began to disappear from Fox Valley farms in favor of corn and oats, which found a ready market in area cities during the era when horses provided the main motive power.

Not so in central and southern Illinois, where wheat farming was part of the Southern farming culture that had arrived with those regions’ pioneers. The southern part of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Virginia and the Carolinas who came west through Kentucky and Tennessee, and then up the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. They were also some of central Illinois’ first pioneers.

Southern farming culture was far more subsistence-based than that of the New Englanders, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians who settled northern Illinois. The soils and climate of the southern half of the state favored wheat farming, which fit in with the culture Southern farmers brought with them. That culture not only included the kinds of crops they grew, but also extended to their farmsteads.

Probably built around 1847, the barn south of Oswego on the Daniel Townsend farm was used both as a traditional barn, but also may have housed Townsend’s manufacturing operation to produce McCormick reapers. The barn was built on the traditional stone Pennsylvania plan with slit ventilating windows.

Barns, for instance, were common sights on the northern Illinois landscape but not so farther south. According to Richard Bardolph, writing in the December 1948 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, the editor of Moore’s Rural New Yorker visited Illinois in the 1850s and reported to his readers, that “barns are scarcely to be seen on the prairies, and they seem to be considered more of a luxury than a necessity.”

In contrast, here in the Fox Valley barns were among the first structures pioneer farmers built. They were multi-purpose buildings farmers relied upon for everything from grain and hay storage to protecting livestock from the region’s bitter winters to storing farm equipment. Storing farm equipment under roof seems to have been another Southern farmer cultural trait they didn’t share with their Northern counterparts.

As late as the 1940s, one of my Kansas cousins came east to learn Midwestern farming practices from my father and uncles. One of the things he took back with him was the importance of storing farm equipment out of the weather to lengthen the equipment’s lifespan and to assure it worked when needed. That was a new concept for many Kansas farmers of the era whose roots extended east through Missouri into Tennessee and Kentucky.

During the Great Depression here in northern Illinois, wheat farming nearly disappeared. The 1935 Census of Agriculture for Kendall County reported only four farms grew wheat, amounting to a bit over 400 bushels. We now know that 1934 was probably the worst year for northern Illinois farmers during those awful years. Drought, chinch bug invasions, crop diseases, dust storms, and just about any other disaster you can think of afflicted the region’s farmers. The price of corn had collapsed in 1933, bringing only 14-cents a bushel, down sharply from $1.14 in 1925. That made it cheaper for many farmers to burn it as fuel in their stoves and furnaces than coal. Sears Roebuck, in fact, marketed special stove grates in those years designed for corn, which burned hotter than coal or wood.

In addition, corn could also be fed to animals on the farm, producing livestock the farm family itself could consume. Many a farm family of those years helped feed their city cousins. In general, it took about seven bushels of corn to produce a pound of beef and 6.5 pounds to produce a bushel of pork, Many farmers favored raising hogs because pork could be turned into a variety of meats from roasts and chops to sausage and with smoking, hams and bacon. And corn could also be used as human food as well, ground into corn flour to make cornbread, fried mush, and other dishes. This diversity of use apparently made growing corn a more sensible course for the region’s farmers.

Also in the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension Service began promoting soybeans as a new cash crop for Illinois farmers struggling through the Great Depression. And so starting here in Kendall County in the dismal year of 1933 a variety of beans far different than those grown by the region’s Native American farmers began to sprout on the Illinois prairies, just as the need for so much oat acreage was disappearing as the horses who used so many bushels of oats for food were replaced by motor vehicles.

Today, Illinois still produces a fair amount of wheat, but the vast majority of it is grown in central and southern Illinois where the climate, growing seasons, and soils favor it. Here in northern Illinois, occasional fields of wheat can be spotted by the alert motorist, along with a few acres of oats here and there. But for a crop that was once a vital staple of pioneer farms, the disappearance of wheat fields marked one of the many profound changes in prairie farming.

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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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Hard-won environmental gains owe a big debt to a local environmentalist

When I was a youngster, the old-timers used to regale us with stories about how clear and pure the Fox River was when they were young. Like many really good stories of days gone by, they weren’t true.

The Native People who arrived along the banks of the Fox River some 10,000 years ago were the first to modify the stream. The weirs and other structures they used to harvest the river’s fish gradually attracted river debris, filled in, and created or enlarged islands and otherwise changing the valley’s topography.

But it was the white settlers who emigrated to the Fox Valley beginning in the late 1820s who really modified the river in major ways. And quickly, too. Those pioneer farms began the erosion of the Fox Valley’s topsoil, and wetland drainage to create more cropland had a major impact on the river’s water levels.

The biggest changes to the river, however, were the numerous dams that began dotting the stream from its mouth on the Illinois River at Ottawa north all the way above the Wisconsin state line. The Fox Valley’s millwrights built low dams to power sawmills and gristmills to serve the valley’s growing population. The dams, built without floodgates that would have maintained an undercurrent to scour the river bottom, created still ponds that allowed the silt eroded from all those farms that rain washed into the stream to gradually settle out.

The machinery at the Parker Gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River just above Oswego was powered by one of the river’s many dams. This photo was probably taken around the turn of the 20th Century by local photographer Irvin Haines. (Little White School Museum collection)

The dams also barred fish from ascending the river to spawn, as well as ruining some prime spawning areas by covering them with silt. The dams, in effect, created short stretches of river habitat that had a serious impact on the river’s original vertebrate and invertebrate populations.

From the mid-19th Century on, the Fox River had become an economic engine for the entire valley. First, the mills provided economic boosts for their surrounding communities. Then, after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad was built linking Ottawa at the river’s mouth with towns as far north as Geneva, the river’s water itself, in the form of ice, could be marketed. Large ice harvesting operations were begun above every dam on the river. The ice warehoused during the annual winter harvests was shipped out for use in homes to keep food fresh in ice boxes and commercially to cool the beef and pork being shipped east from Chicago’s slaughterhouses in newly invented railroad refrigerator cars.

Clamshells recovered near the old Rehbehn Brothers Button Factory in Yorkville with button blanks drilled out. (Little White School Museum collection)

Fish were commercially harvested from the river, as were the freshwater mussels and clams that covered the riverbed. Harvested clam shells were sold to button factories—one was located in Yorkville for a few years—where special drills punched out mother-of-pearl button blanks in various sizes that were turned into finished buttons by further processing. In amongst the millions of clams harvested an occasional pearl of great price was discovered.

Then as the years passed and industrialization in the Fox Valley increased, the river came under new, additional stresses. City storm sewer systems directed stormwater directly into the river, along with significant debris (including manure from the era’s thousands of urban horses), leading to drastic swings in the river’s water quality and levels. Municipal sewer systems, which were admirable from a public health standpoint, piped sewage directly into the river. The industries up and down the river did the same, sending their waste downstream—out of sight out of mind, the policy seemed to be.

Some of that industrial waste was even more harmful to humans as well as the fish and other animals who lived in the river than the growing volume of human and animal waste flowing into the stream.

By the 1880s, some people began realizing that some of the river’s uses were, to say the least, incompatible with its ecological health—all those dams, for instance. The low dams in the river that allowed silt build-up behind them were also blockades to spawning fish. Remedies were possible, of course, at least to the migration of fish. Those were called fishways, structures added to dams that would (at least theoretically) allow fish to bypass the dams during annual spawning runs.

Irvin Haines sits atop what might be the wreckage of the fishway in the Parker Dam just above Oswego around 1903. Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice storage houses loom in the background. (Little White School Museum collection)

Dam owners, of course, didn’t want to spend the money on fishways. That led the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation requiring them.

In November 1882, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville: “Notice has been served on the owners of all dams on Fox river asking them to put in fishways, and the owners refuse. The State Fish Commissioners will begin suits in the courts, which the mill men will contest to test the constitutionality of the law. The dam-owners have formed a league and employed Hopkins & Aldrich as their attorneys.”

In January 1883, the Aurora Beacon noted: “We have neglected to mention that in the suit commenced by the Fish Commissioners against Messrs. Hord, Broadhead & Co., owners of the Montgomery Dam, the case was regularly placed before justice Baldwin, when the defendants allowed a judgment to be taken. From this they appealed to the Circuit Court–and from thence they say they will pursue it through the higher courts. A prominent point they propose to make is the indefiniteness of the law, which makes no provision as to what shall constitute a fishway, or how it shall be constructed.”

The dam owners did indeed continue to protest, fighting the law in the courts, but consistently lost and fishways were gradually installed in all the dams, though in practice they proved of little value.

But even if fishways were provided, the polluted character of the river militated against the Fox’s wildlife. On Sept. 18, 1890 the Record noted: “The fish of Fox and other small rivers must soon be exterminated if factories and cities continue to use the streams for sewers. The glucose factories up the river are poisoning the fish by wholesale, and the fish in Vermillion river at Streator are killed by the water pumped from coal mines and refuse from paper mills.”

Conditions only worsened with the dawn of the 20th Century. The Feb. 9, 1916 Record reported: “The [Illinois Rivers and Lakes] commission has surveyed the Fox river and discovered it to be ‘a dirty, evil smelling waterway’ from which the fish have been killed off. The reason is that its flow is not sufficient in the summer months to purify the sewage dumped in it.”

Jim Phillips speaks during a program presented during Jolliet-Marquette II Expedition 1973. The group reenacted Father Jacques Marquette and geographer Louis Jolliet’s 1673 expedition from the Straits of Mackinac to the Arkansas River and back. (Little White School Museum collection)

More laws were passed, but enforcement was either lax or nonexistent. And so that day in the late 1960s when Kendall County resident Jim Phillips was taking a walk and found dead baby ducks in a small stream near his house made him decide to do something to try to change the status quo. He assumed the alter ego of “The Fox” and using a combination of audacity and humor he began plaguing polluters in a series of guerilla raids designed to shine the harsh light of publicity and ridicule on them.

His efforts, small at first, snowballed. Pollution became big news. His efforts were helped by what he termed his “Kindred Spirits,” and copycats around the nation began to wage their own campaigns against air and water pollution.

Sympathetic officials at the national, state, and local levels listened and, amazingly, acted. It was an era when “conservative” and “conservation” were not enemies, and both Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. acted in a bipartisan ecological campaign to create the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as similar agencies at the state and local levels all designed to not just stop pollution, but to reverse it and save the nation’s air and water.

The result? Today, the Fox, that “dirty, evil smelling waterway” of a century ago, is now a destination for anglers, canoeists, kayakers, bird watchers, and folks who just like enjoying nature. Gamefish and freshwater mussels and clams are again plentiful and the Fox is once again an economic engine for the towns dotting its banks.

Private citizens funded this permanent memorial to Jim “The Fox” Phillips overlooking the Fox River at Violet Patch Park, Ill. Route 25, Oswego. Informational signs explain how the environmental crusader helped save the Fox River. The graphic on the rock is how Phillips signed his anti-pollution exploits. (Little White School Museum collection)

In a time when national environmental policy is cause for great concern, it’s worth thinking about how far we’ve come and why it’s so important we continue to insist on clean air and water.

And as part of that process, you might want to stop by the Little White School Museum at 72 Polk Street here in Oswego and visit their latest special exhibit, “Face the Fox: Environmental Activists on the Fox River,” which will be open now through August. The exhibit was mounted by undergraduate students in the Exhibit Design class of Aurora University’s Museum Studies Program. Museum hours are Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Mondays, 4 to 9 p.m. The museum is closed to visitors on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but like all local history museums, they welcome donations. For more information on the exhibit, call the museum at 630-554-2999, or visit their website, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

For more information on Jim Phillips, check out the new book by Pauline Marie Gambill, The Fox Feats and Shark Tales of Pollution Fighter James F. Phillips and Animal Rights Warrior Steven O. Hindi, just published last year and available at bookstores and on Amazon.com.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events

The long search for one town’s clean drinking water

Among the things we tend to take for granted these days—until its supply gets interrupted anyway—is water available when we turn on the taps in our homes. The safe water that comes out of the faucets in our homes and businesses has become so common a thing, in fact, that any interruption in the supply is big news.

But there was a time, of course, when there was no running water available in homes and businesses. And the assurance of safe, clean drinking water is an even newer development.

I got to thinking about the topic the other day while I was taking my morning post-exercise shower. Having hot and cold running water in our homes has become so common we really don’t think much about it any more. But as recently as my early childhood, automatic water heaters weren’t enjoyed by everyone, and some homes in our little corner of northern Illinois still relied on outhouses—privies—in place of in-house bathrooms.

The story of the quest for reliable fresh water supplies is one of those topics that seems so mundane as to not matter much at all. But at one time, the lack of safe drinking water was a literal matter of life or death from waterborne diseases such at typhoid fever. And the hazard didn’t depend on whether people were rich or poor, either. The husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861.

Even during pioneer days, using Waubonsie Creek’s water for drinking or cooking was problematical; you never knew who or what was using it upstream. (Little White School Museum collection)

When my hometown of Oswego was settled in the early 1830s, most of the surface water in the area was relatively safe to drink. The pioneers selected their new village’s site because it was situated at a good, hard-bottomed ford across the Fox River. Waubonsie Creek, that flowed through the community, as well as the smaller Bartlett’s Run provided fresh running water, as did the numerous springs that dotted the bluffs along the creek and river.

Those were adequate sources for the earliest arrivals, but as settlement continued area wetlands were drained and farming tended to create harmful runoff from silt to animal waste into streams and springs alike. The reaction was to hand-dig wells, but given Oswego’s underlayment with a thick layer of hard limestone that was often unsuccessful, making those earliest wells if not rare at least sparse throughout the community.

Margaret Phillips Young, who arrived as a youngster with her parents in 1839, remembered it was her job as a child to carry water for the family’s cooking and drinking needs.

“In ’41 Mr. Towle rented the tavern and built a home, which is now the Hinchman house,” she recalled in 1906. “There I met Mrs. Towle. I loved to look at her as at a beautiful picture, and often wondered if she knew my scrutiny was admiration or thought it impertinence. I saw her every day the first summer we lived here, for I had to carry the water for housekeeping from that place to the west side of Main street, where we lived and as I was allowed only a five quart tin bucket I made many trips.”

When it came to washing clothes, drinking water was too precious to use for that purpose, so families used Waubonsie Creek.

Margaret Phillips Young again: “I must not forget to mention the sawmill on Waubonsie creek, built by the Hopkins brothers…And there being no cisterns in the place and not many wells the women had a place to wash under the trees at the creek. If there came a shower they would seek shelter in the mill.”

During dry spells, even hand-dug wells, much less the springs in the area, could either dry up completely or become extremely reduced in flow. Wrote the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent on Jan. 30, 1869: “The thermometer on Tuesday morning at seven o’clock showed 16 below zero—it was still; no wind stirring. There is prospect of a dry month in February. Water is very scarce, most of our citizens are hauling ice from the river to get water for washing, etc.”

And on Dec. 5, 1872, the Record reported from Yorkville: “The continued drought is getting troublesome if not serious. Wells in this vicinity are very low and many do not afford a pail of water a day. Cisterns are also dry, and housekeepers have to get ice from the river for washing and culinary purposes. Rain is needed badly.”

Oswego Postmaster and Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank watched Oswego history unfold from this frame building in the midst of the community’s downtown. He built the post office in 1874 and lived in its second floor apartment. After his death, he willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it became the community’s first library. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next week, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, addressed the same issue, noting that the reduction in well water levels and the disappearance of springs had become noticeable and that possibly it was time to consider a municipal water supply: “Items this week are not very plenty with me and in the order of making my communication of the usual length, I undertook to fill up with the water question, but in trying to show the necessity of a public water supply in this town, to explain why by digging wells we cannot reach water a readily as heretofore, why springs are drying up, why there is so much less rain than formerly, and why water is getting continually scarcer, I got into water so deep that I had to back out for this time.”

Drought wasn’t the only problem with the town’s hand-dug wells, either. In 1835, Lewis B. Judson and Levi Arnold had laid out the original village of Oswego, consisting of 20 blocks, each block bisected by two perpendicular allies and containing eight lots, each measuring 66 x 132 feet. With lots that small it was difficult to assure that the hand-dug wells of the era were a safe distance away from the household privy. And that meant that waterborne diseases such as typhoid were distressingly common.

It would take a while for the connection between tainted drinking water and disease to be made, but when it was, attempts began to try to supply municipal residents with clean drinking water supplies.

While village officials and residents were looking at safe drinking water options, typhoid was a regular visitor to the community. For instance, the Record reported from Oswego on Nov. 13, 1873 that: “Nov. 13: James Shumway is quite sick with the typhoid fever; one of his daughters is also sick. Mrs. S. has been on a visit to the New England States and was expected home yesterday.”

Actually, in Oswego, the efforts to provide sufficient drinking water for horses in the downtown area were initially considered to be of more importance to residents than a safe municipal supply for humans. In October 1875, the village financed construction of a windmill, holding tank, and stock tank at street level at what is today 60 Main Street, then the vacant site of the old National Hotel that had burned in 1867.

Rank reported from Oswego on Oct. 21 that “The water trough by the post office will soon be a reality; Kuchl is doing the excavating work. Theron Richards and Bis Hunt are constructing the tower and the Marshall Wind Engine Co. will put up the wind mill; the National well is used for the supply of the water,” adding on Dec. 2 that “The town authorities caused the erection of a building over the supply water tank, the casing, sawdust interlining and covering of the trough, the painting of the whole, including the windmill tower, the laying of the flagstones around the trough, and the putting down of tile for the drainage of that part of the street.”

Oswego’s village fathers, with the health and comfort of downtown business customers’ teams in mind, were at first more interested in providing watering tanks for livestock than a municipal watering supply. (Little White School Museum collection)

The supply was not only used by horses of downtown residents and those visiting businesses there, but also by the residents themselves, a less than optimal situation. Rank’s suggestion that an actual municipal water supply might be a good idea continued to percolate through the community.

As it was, the village was finding out that providing even minimal water service involved regular maintenance. By 1881, the lack of maintenance and regular cleaning of the supply tank, as well as failure to maintain the windmill meant the whole system was failing badly. Wrote an exasperated Rank of its condition that September: “Our public watering tank is a nuisance. The thing is either dry or else it will contain some water slimy enough to make an alligator puke to drink it.”

In 1885, the village decided to have a well dug with the aim of supplying municipal water to the village’s downtown area. The well was apparently dug on the crest of the bluff in the area of Van Buren and Washington streets and was spring-fed. Its flow, when completed, was directed using a hydraulic ram downtown via 3” iron pipes buried in Van Buren and Main streets. As laid, the water main ran down Van Buren Street to a stable on the west side of the street, just north of South Adams Street. At Main Street, a “T” was installed along with a running fountain and watering tank. From there the water main ran up the street to the downtown business district. In front of the post office in the middle of the block between Washington and Jackson streets, the main crossed to the west side of the street until it got to Jackson Street, where it crossed back to the east side of the street before ending in a running fountain and watering tank in front of the livery stable at the corner of Main and Jackson.

Virtually all of the buildings downtown connected to the municipal water supply.

But the hydraulic ram system soon proved both unreliable and inadequate. On both the 1885 and 1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps of downtown Oswego, the fire insurance company rated Oswego’s municipal water facilities as “Not Good.”

By 1894, it was clear the water system was simply not functioning well or safely, and the village board began looking into a better well, erecting a water tower, and installing larger water mains throughout the village. Plans slowly moved ahead before Chicago Bridge and Iron submitted the low bid on the new system’s elevated tank and other parts excepting the water mains themselves.

Not that everyone in town was in favor of spending the money to upgrade the system, of course. Many long-time residents, including Record correspondent Rank, weren’t convinced the new-fangled pressurized system would be worth the money it was costing the village government to install it.

The basswood tank on Oswego’s first water tower under construction in 1895. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on installing the system didn’t begin until April 1895. In the April 24 Record, Rank reported that “The building of the new waterworks was commenced Monday without being accompanied by any special ceremonies. It should have been delayed a few days longer; being it is a work of great importance, all risks should be avoided including that of commencing it on a waning moon. Three days later would have brought it in the new of the moon. The contract for the mason work was taken by Frank Swanson.”

The new system called for larger mains and servicing more of the village with municipal water. The old 3” mains, however, were to be maintained in the downtown business district.

On July 3, the Record reported the water tower had been finished, with iron legs holding up the huge basswood tank measuring 20 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall. A gasoline engine powered the pump to temporarily draw water from two wells, the old one dug several years before, and a new one on the site of the water tower, with the new permanent engine on order and expected to arrive soon.

“The water works tower and tank are a grand success even should they prove a failure for what intended; the adornment they give to the place would be more than sufficient for what they have cost,” Rank wrote. “They are visible from all directions being 112 feet tall from the sole of the foot to the top of the vanes, the loftiest thing that Oswego has. The new well was walled up by Frank Swanson; in order to do the work a pump throwing an eight-inch stream of water was kept going constantly for three days and three nights; it pumped dry pretty much all the wells of the neighborhood. The well contains now ten feet of water. The engine is expected to be set up Tuesday. The job is nicely done, and the gang of men that did it are very clever fellows and got along with our folks splendidly.”

Oswego’s first firefighters with their new hose cart, purchased by the village, August 1895, Washington at Tyler Street, Oswego. The new water tower, completed earlier that year, is in the background. (Little White School Museum Collection)

With the village’s municipal water supply in operation, Oswego also decided to establish a permanent fire brigade. The village purchased a high-wheeled hose cart and canvas fire hose, all to be housed in the village hall on Washington Street. Eventually a fire bell was purchased and a tower for it and to hang wet hoses to dry was added to the building. A volunteer fire brigade was established consisting of 20 members to staff the new equipment.

Expanding the municipal system to more areas of the village began in early summer 1896. By late fall, 6” and 4” water mains had been laid with more installed the following summer, the job largely completed by July 1897.

The water system got it’s first test in an emergency in early fall 1897 when fires, just hours apart, broke out in the downtown business district on Sept. 8. Thanks to the village’s new hose cart, volunteer fire brigade, and pressurized water system, though, both blazes were quickly extinguished.

One of the fires was in the old Star Roller Skating Rink, which was next door to the Oswego Post Office. The post office building was owned by Record correspondent Rank, who was also the village postmaster. In addition, Rank lived in an apartment above the post office. So the fire brigade’s quick work dousing the second blaze that day was of special interest to him. It also caused him to change his mind about the usefulness of Oswego’s new municipal water system.

“So now, here it goes,” he wrote in his apology for opposing the water system in the Sept. 15 Record. “We are a miserable set of poltroons and nincompoops, a blight upon the earth which would revolve much easier if it wasn’t for us…May we soon be extinct and long may wave the enthusiasts of the water works.”

The Oswego water tower with the new 65,000 gallon steel tank that replaced the old wooden tank in 1906. (Little White School Museum collection)

While the new system was indeed working even better than village officials had hoped, there were still some problems, primarily the continual leakage of the wooden water tank atop the water tower. As a result, in the spring of 1906, the village board voted to replace the old tank with a new steel tank.

As Rank wrote in the March 14 Record, “About ten or 12 years ago the old basswood tank was erected on the street that leads to the Plainfield Road. The tank has seen its better day and for the last year has been in a decrepit condition Friday night at a special meeting of the [village] board, Mayor Cutter gaveled through a motion to erect a new one, which is sorely needed.”

Kottoe & Bro. of Aurora won the contract to dismantle the old tank and install the new one. As specified, the new tank was to be manufactured of 5/16” soft steel and measure  18 feet in diameter and 30 feet tall. It was to be set on the old tower, which was judged to be sturdy enough to handle the new tank. Officials said the additional height and smaller diameter of the new tank was estimated to give about 10 more pounds of water pressure in the downtown business district.

With the new tank installed, the water tower would stand at a total height of 125 feet, with a capacity of 65,000 gallons of water. Another new innovation possible with the steel tank was a hatch in the tank’s side at the bottom to allow it to be regularly cleaned, something impossible with the old tank.

And as it turned out, the old tank really did need some cleaning.

The new water tower under construction in 1958 to replace the old 1895 tower. This tower, in turn, was replaced by a newer, larger water tower in 2005. (Little White School Museum collection)

Village residents were shocked at what they found when the old tank was demolished. As Rank reported on July 11, 1906: “We Oswegoans were all along congratulating ourselves for enjoying such excellent water: Water that was so pure and free of any taste or smells. We were happy in being blessed with such good and healthful water. When it came to the taking down of the old tank recently it was found there was a heap of dead and decaying sparrows in it; it caused some of us copious water drinkers to almost gag when we heard of it; the beer trade doubtless was considerably increased by it. Let the new water tank be made sparrow proof.”

That new steel tank atop its tower legs served the community well for nearly 50 years until a new, much larger, water tower was built to replace it in 1958. For those of us who grew up in Oswego, the old tank was a landmark, one that was especially prized in summers when the automatic shut-off on the pump failed. That caused the tank to overflow like a landlocked Niagara Falls, word of which quickly spread around town so that those of us with ready access to bicycles could ride through the refreshing—though admittedly vigorous—cascade.

In 1900, Oswego’s population stood at just 619. By 1950, it had doubled to 1,220. And with post-World War II growth just beginning, in 1960, the population had risen to 1,510. And from then on it never slowed down, doubling again by 1980 and again by 2000.

Today, Oswego’s population stands at right around 35,000 and its municipal water system of eight wells and five water towers sometimes struggles to keep up with demand, particularly during hot, dry summer months. Recently, the village board announced plans to join a consortium of other area municipal water users who will tap into Lake Michigan’s water to supply their customers, something that would have certainly astonished those village residents in 1895 suspicious about that newfangled water tower idea.

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Those “Amber waves of grain” are mostly a thing of the past in Kendall County

My dad, while watching someone with a lot of energy, would often remark, “He’s really feeling his oats!”

It’s an expression you don’t hear much, if at all, these days, but back when the U.S. was a mainly agricultural nation the phrase really meant something, especially to those who had lived during the era when horses provided much of the motive power that grew the nation.

Granted, horses can eat hay and graze on pasture grass, but it turned out that oats are a sort of superfood for horses.

As Horse Canada magazine explained, “Of all the cereal grains (e.g. corn, barley, wheat, etc.) oats have the most appropriate nutritional profile for horses. They are an excellent source of calories, and have a better protein and amino acid profile than many other grains. They are higher in fat and fibre (thanks to the hull) and are, therefore, lower in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) than most other grains. They are well digested within the horse’s small intestine, even with little processing (as long a horse has good teeth!) and, therefore, pose a lower risk of sugars reaching the large intestine and contributing to colic or laminitis. Also, because of their lower NSC content, they are not considered a ‘hot’ feed.”

When Katharine Lee Bates wrote about “amber waves of grain” in “America the Beautiful,” she was talking about cereal grain fields like this stand of oats.

These days, horses, especially on farms, have been mostly relegated to the status of expensive hobbies and oats are considered for their value as health food. What were the mechanics of that change over time?

By now, even casual readers of this blog have realized I have a keen interest in how farming has evolved during the past couple centuries or so. And, especially as this time of year rolls around, few things illustrate the profound changes in farming and farm culture than virtual disappearance of small grains in the local agriculture cycle.

Small grains are ancient in origin and were (and in some areas of the world still are) vital parts of the farming process. But not here, and not now.

Defined as cereal grains—wheat, oats, rye, and barley—small grains are, like their cousin, corn, the seeds of genetically modified grasses that humans have relied upon for food for thousands of years. Some, like oats and wheat, still somewhat resemble their ancient genetic ancestors. Other grains, like corn, no more resemble their most ancient ancestor than a Chihuahua resembles a timber wolf.

You can still drive around the northern Illinois countryside this time of year and see a few small fields of small grains turning a beautiful golden color in the summer sun. But today’s occasional fields of oats and even more rare stands of wheat are pale shadows of what farmers planted and grew here a century and more ago.

A century ago, the annual harvest of cereal grains like oats, wheat, barley, and rye were just getting a good start this time of year. Above, the East Oswego Threshing Ring’s steam engine and threshing machine works on the 1911 harvest in eastern Oswego Township. From the Aug. 3, 1910 Kendall County Record: “Farmers are very busy threshing wheat and oats.” (Little White School Museum collection)

These days, instead of those once extensive fields of ripening small grains, you’ll mostly see extensive fields of tall corn swaying in summer prairie breeze, interspersed with huge fields of soybeans, a crop that was as rare here in the 1920s as wheat is today.

Why the change, why the evolution? Because times change as does the use to which crops are put. Back in the early 1800s when pioneer farm families settled Kendall County, small grains were absolutely necessary for survival. Wheat was harvested and ground into flour either on the farm or at one of the new gristmills that were rapidly popping up along every county stream whose bed had enough fall to power a waterwheel.

Oats, on the other hand, were the fuel that powered the horses and mules that were the backbone of energy on the farm and in the transportation industry of the era. Granted, oats, too, could be ground into flour or they could be otherwise processed for use as oatmeal and for other human foods, but their primary use was to feed the millions of horses the nation relied on for everything from pulling stagecoaches to delivering beer.

A stand of ripe oats in the field. The grain once fueled the horses that everyone from farmers to handsome cab drivers relied on.

Barley and rye were also used for human consumption by being ground into flour, but they were also popular grains for processing into the beer and whiskey so beloved by so many in that era when drinking water was mistrusted, often for good reason. The germ theory of disease was still considered a radical hypothesis, so wells and outhouses were often adjacent leading to outbreaks of typhoid fever and other waterborne illnesses from which even the wealthy were not immune. In 1861, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died of complications of typhoid fever contracted in their London palace, probably from tainted water.

But back to farming. It didn’t take too long after settlement for farmers to realize northern Illinois really wasn’t good wheat country. Wheat likes warm, relatively dry growing conditions, and while we all know Illinois does not lack for summer heat, dry conditions (except during drought years) are not what you find around these humid parts.

As the frontier kept moving ever farther west, those ideal wheat conditions were found west of the tallgrass prairies out on the Great Plains in a huge swath from Texas north to the Dakotas. Improved transportation systems added to the climate soon meant that bread could be baked in regional cities and shipped to small farming towns cheaper than rural folks could produce it on their own.

Horses and mules were raised in the barns at the old Judson Farm on South Madison Street at Wilson Place, on the south end of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

But that didn’t apply to oats. In 1912, which was close to the high-water mark for oat production, Kendall County farmers harvested 53,000 acres of the grain, producing well over 2.5 million bushels to feed their own horses and mules, but mostly for market. But by 2007, so few acres of oats were harvested in Kendall County that the U.S. Department of Agriculture didn’t even report them.

Why so many bushels of oats then and so few later on? When oat production was at its height, farmers relied on horses to plant and harvest crops and then haul them to market. Today, farmers use gasoline and diesel oil to fuel those activities, which have become entirely mechanized. And in towns and cities, where horses once hauled everything from streetcar passengers to mail delivery buggies to the milkman’s delivery wagon, hydrocarbon-fueled machines have replaced the millions of horses that once did those tasks.

By 1900, the nation’s total horse population reached an estimated 24.1 million, with just under three million being kept in cities. In cities with more than 100,000 population there was roughly one horse for every 15 people, varying from one horse for every 7.4 people in Kansas City to one for every 26.4 in New York City. And those horses required millions of bushels of oats for food. The nation’s horse population peaked about 1915, and from then on thanks to the advent of dependable, economical automobiles, the horse population declined by about a half a million animals a year. Along with that decline, the need for oats similarly decreased.

By 1912, the transition from horse powered vehicles to vehicles with horsepower was well underway as this winter scene on Washington Street in downtown Oswego suggests. (Little White School Museum collection)

Not that folks back then were sad to see horses go, of course. In Chicago in 1900, the city’s 82,000 horses deposited between 1.2 and 2.4 million pounds of manure and 20,500 gallons of urine in stables and on city streets every day. In addition, one contemporary expert estimated in 1900 that three billion flies—each a tiny airborne disease factory—hatched in horse manure every day in U.S. cities. It was little wonder automobiles and trucks were welcomed by public health experts of the era.

So the realization that wheat grew better farther west, the disappearance of the horse, and the evolution of Midwestern farming to specialization in either raising grain or livestock led to the annual harvest of small grains and all that it meant to our farmer forebears, both socially and economically. But gradually it became mostly a thing of the past here in the Fox Valley. The change accelerated as the nation transitioned from a largely rural to an overwhelmingly urbanized nation.

And so today, you can drive around Kendall County and still see small stands of cereal grains here and there. But the “amber waves of grain” that once carpeted our landscape have been almost entirely replaced by corn and soybeans–and subdivisions. I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly a big change.

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Throwing off the surly bonds of a Midwestern summer’s heat

Folks out on the Left Coast are sweltering this summer, with record high temps being set all the way up into Canada where triple-digit is—until recently at least—unheard of. And the problems is, of course, that most folks out and up that way have never bothered with installing air conditioning, because they’ve never really needed it.

Here in the Midwest, though, hot, humid summers with sultry nights are the rule rather than the exception, something that literally makes the tall corn grow around these parts.

Going way, way back into Kendall County’s prehistory, keeping cool was easy—the last Ice Age cooled everything off for several thousand years, burying History Central where I’m writing this under around 2,000 feet of ice. The main problem faced by what few area residents there were back then, in fact (besides fending off the passing saber-toothed tiger or the occasional dire wolf), was keeping warm, even in summer.

Summer heat wasn’t a problem for Kendall County’s ancient people–keeping from freezing during that era’s long Ice Age winters was.

But the climate did warm up during thousands of years and those skillful Native American hunters dealt with the dire wolves and saber-tooth cats, gradually added more gathering to their lifestyles, and eventually created tribal societies.

Later Kendall Countians, like the Pottawatomi Indians, kept cool in summer by removing clothing to maintain their comfort levels. Many American Indians wore nothing but their moccasins in summer, thoroughly offending the first Europeans who arrived who, because of existing morals and fashions, were wrapped, chin to toe, in woolens and linens year around.

Permanent settlement by White Americans didn’t start here in northern Illinois until the late 1820s. And as soon as those settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, sometimes dropping snow measured in feet, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.

That meant housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.

So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed summer heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent the hot air that collected up near the ceiling level.

The wide roof overhangs popular with long-ago architects were not stylistic affectations, either. They were both functional as well as decorative, keeping hot sun off the sides and gables of the houses, reducing solar gain in the summer.

My father’s boyhood home just south of Emporia, Kansas featured a porch that wrapped around the whole house, cooling all four walls.

The sun’s heat was also reduced in those homes by the sizeable porches favored by Victorians. Those porches also provided additional living area for the family in summer. The house my father grew up in just south of Emporia, Kansas, had a porch that wrapped completely around the structure, assuring that every room on the first floor was shaded from the sun’s rays.

When it got really hot, however, people in the 1800s did what we do today to cool off. Noted the Oswego correspondent of the Kendall County Record in the paper’s July 9, 1874 edition: “If those boys swimming under the bridge on Tuesday afternoon have no common decency, their parents should incorporate a little to them by the means of a switch. They took special pains when a lady and young girl were crossing the bridge to swim out and by various contortions indecently expose themselves.”

Back then, folks used all kinds of heat-beating measures. In church, the rhythmic movement of dozens of cardboard fans (usually advertising the local funeral home) in the congregants’ hands put many a youngster sound asleep on hot Sunday mornings.

This photo of a quartette of young ladies swimming was taken by Irvin Haines on the Fox River just above the old Parker mills and dam around 1900. (Little White School Museum collection)

Band concerts in the evening and picnics in the county’s cool groves and along the river got families out of their hot houses at other times. And there were those occasional dips in the river—with or without swimming costume.

And then as now, a frosty dish of cold ice cream could hold off the heat for awhile. Noted editor John R. Marshall in the July 22, 1875 Record: “Holland makes splendid chocolate ice cream, and if you want a real nice dish to cool you off, just drop into his [Yorkville] restaurant.”

Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th Century.

On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th Century, keeping food cool through the use of home iceboxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest. Large ice harvesting operations were located at almost every Fox River dam and on many area creeks as well, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed pork and beef carcasses from Midwest meat packing plants to eastern markets.

Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th Century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically-produced product ‘artificial ice.’ But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using ‘natural’ ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.

A huge ice harvesting operation was located just above the Oswego dam until the ice houses burned down in the 1890s. Similar businesses were located at dam sites up and down the Fox River Valley. (Little White School Museum collection)

Polluted water sources and warm winters combined to make Fox Valley ice harvesting chancy through the first two decades of the 20th Century. And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”

Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”

Restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”

Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration. When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Ill. Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “The still was of 23-gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloonkeeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol.”

Apparently seeing the error of his ways, Schickler got out of the bootlegging business and instead he and his son went into the dairy business, bottling milk in the same basement of his home where he’d previously been bottling bootleg whiskey.

Once refrigeration technology was understood, it wasn’t all that big a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.

Some of those first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. The early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate—provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.

Roy Roalson (left) gives a customer a trim in his barbershop on South Main Street in Oswego in 1936. They did both men’s and women’s hair in Roy’s shop. The shop’s Frididaire air conditioner is just out of the frame to the far right. (Little White School Museum collection)

While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”

Here in Oswego, barber Roy Roalson installed a heat-exchanger air conditioning system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barbershop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.

By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.

These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon. And it’s starting to look like our neighbors along the Pacific Coast may be looking at dealing with the same kinds of muggy, uncomfortable summers—at least some of the time—that we here in the Midwest have grown up with.

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The Fox Valley’s fresh water springs were valued by pioneers and their descendants, too

Although most of the Fox Valley’s wetlands were drained long ago, the region’s fresh water springs still pop up, especially after heavy rains. While the water seeping from the ground along the county’s watercourses and hillsides looks clear, these days most of that water has been badly polluted by everything from farm and lawn fertilizer to private septic systems.

When I was a youngster, I spent a lot of time on and around the Fox River. Most summers back in the 1950s, those days when small towns were safe places for kids to roam to their hearts’ content, we’d leave home in the morning and not get back until suppertime, except to grab some food at one time or another during the day. Food, we needed, but water to drink was pretty plentiful from the many springs along the riverbank.

There was a particularly good one that exited the riverbank under a tree and for which we cleared out a small, shallow rock-lined pool to drink from. That spring ran all year long. Last year, I took a walk along the riverbank there and found it’s still flowing, though not as strongly as when we were kids.

The Fox River Creamery in Oswego started out life as a brewery making use of the spring that ran through its basement. It was later enlarged and turned into a creamery that processed farmers’ milk and cream into butter and cheese using the spring to cool the dairy products. (Aurora Historical Society collection)

Just to the south of our house was a large spring that once provided cool water for, first, thirsty settlers, then Oswego’s first (and, for well over a century, it’s last) brewery, and later a creamery. The spring water had, at sometime in the past, been piped under what then passed for North Adams Street and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s right-of-way in a large iron pipe tile through which the cold water gushed. It was a handy place to stop for a drink on the way home from school or from bicycling. Folks used to come from all over to fill milk cans and large jugs with the clear, cold water, and since it was right next to the railroad tracks, the section gangs that put-putted up and down the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch Line stopped there to fill their water jugs, too.

And, as it turns out, springs were major assets during Kendall County’s settlement era, and not just for drinking purposes, either.

There were at least two springs in the county famed for their medicinal value. The most famous were at Plattville, originally called The Springs by the first settlers. According to E.W. Hicks’ 1877 history of Kendall County, there were a dozen mineral springs at Plattville that not only fed a fairly large marsh rich in fish, but whose water was also prized for its medicinal value by the pioneers. Daniel Platt bought The Springs claim when he arrived in 1833 for $80. It proved to be an excellent investment, providing water, both for drinking and for medicinal purposes, for many years to come.

The water table is very close to the surface in the Plattville area. Hicks reported in 1877 that some settlers in that area were lucky enough to strike artesian wells from which water didn’t need to be pumped: “Obadiah Naden one mile south, and George Mason, six miles south-east, each have flowing wells. The latter was sinking a tubular well, and when fifty-five feet below the surface water was struck, which flowed over the top, and it has continued to flow ever since.”

Daniel Platt’s stone tavern at Plattville replaced his log tavern in 1842. Plattville was originally known as The Springs for the fresh water and mineral springs that bubbled to the surface there. (Little White School Museum collection)

Meanwhile over in House’s Grove, now the site of a Kendall County Forest Preserve in Seward Township, settler Chester House prized the large sulfur spring that flowed in the grove. Sulfur waters were prized as popular cures for various conditions, including skin maladies. A second spring in the grove, located closer to House’s cabin, ran clear and pure without the added smell of sulfur, and, Hicks noted, was considered of less value than the sulfur spring. The House claim was a lonely one out on the prairie, but it provided some welcome security for weary travelers. According to Hicks, “Mrs. House kept a candle burning in the west window, and 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.”

The county’s biggest freshwater spring was located in modern Oswego Township along what’s now Ill. Route 31 north of Oswego near the old Wormley School. Called simply “The Great Spring,” it was located close to the old Wormley homestead and was notable enough that when U.S. Government surveyors measured the township in 1838, they noted it. It subsequently appeared on the official government 1842 survey map of the township.

U.S. Government surveyors marked two major springs near Oswego when they mapped the area in 1838, one north of Oswego that settlers called The Great Spring, and another one south of town that was still flowing strongly in the 1960s.

Down in Little Rock Township, there was the Griswold Spring and just a bit to the south over the line in Fox Township was the Greenfield Spring. The Griswold Spring was prominent enough to have a road named after it that still exists. The Native American village of Maramech on and around modern Maramech Hill near Plano was also supplied with water from a good spring.

And along the south bank of the Fox River in Fox Township, we can’t forget the Silver Springs that provide the name for Kendall County’s only Illinois State Fish and Wildlife area. The springs reportedly got their name from the way their water reflects sunlight, seeming to make their surface shine like silver. Those springs are still running strong to this day.

Down just outside of Millington, a 50-foot thick deposit of sparkling white St. Peter’s Sandstone was quarried for several years. At least two springs issued from the strata of the stone and ran west into the Fox River. Today, the old silica sand quarry is filled with water, marking the spot where so much sand was mined and sent down to Ottawa’s glass factories.

And the grounds of Riverview—later Fox River—Park just south of Montgomery featured an artesian spring that ran the year-around to refresh visitors at the amusement park, which was open from 1899-1925.

To the immediate south of Kendall County along the Illinois River, a major mineral spring, whose water was filtered through the St. Peter Sandstone that also underlays that entire area, was well known and valued by area pioneers.

When my great-grandparents moved into town in 1908, they dug a well 14 feet deep that was spring-fed. No matter how much water was pumped from it, a foot and a half of water remained in the well.

But that well, like all those crystal-clear springs along the Fox River near Oswego, was eventually polluted when subdivisions were built east of Route 25. Many of the houses in new unincorporated subdivisions had their own wells and septic systems, and the effluent from those systems found its way down to the bedrock that directs surface water towards the Fox River. The old brewery/creamery spring, my parent’s spring-fed well, and the springs along the river all now register as extremely close to raw sewage due to their heavy loads of coliform bacteria.

While water from streams was often suspect from a health perspective, the pioneers of  180 years ago knew they didn’t have to worry about whether the clear, cold water they drank from the Fox Valley’s many natural springs would sicken them. Unfortunately, these days we do.

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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet as…Old Spice?

So I was getting ready to go this morning and noticed Old Spice has put a slogan on their stick deodorant: “If your grandfather hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t be here.”

My grandparents’ wedding photo. Old Spice had no effect on subsequent events.

Which seemed to me to be somewhere between a bit odd and borderline creepy. Should I really care which deodorant gave off an odor that moved my grandmother to sexual desire? Is wondering about my grandparents engaging in sexual ecstasy back in the autumn of 1909—or at any other time—really something I want to be thinking about in the first place? And, frankly, I’m not sure my grandfather even wore deodorant back in those days.

Shulton, Inc. didn’t start selling Old Spice until 1937, so, no, I’d still be here without Grandpa using it since Old Spice was 28 years in the future when my mother was conceived following a night of presumably lusty German-American love.

Not that there wasn’t deodorant around in 1909. The first commercial deodorant designed to disguise body odor, Mum, was trademarked in 1888. While it suffered from limited effectiveness, it did get better. You can apparently still buy Mum, and if you use Ban roll-on deodorant, you’re using the great-great grandchild of Mum.

Mum was the first true deodorant, but it wasn’t an antiperspirant.

But covering up odor isn’t the same as preventing it in the first place. The first effective antiperspirant—a product that actually inhibits sweat production as well as odor—wasn’t developed until 1903, not too long before my grandfather would have been trying to entice my grandmother to procreate my mother. It, too, had major drawbacks in that the aluminum chloride that was its active ingredient tended to literally eat clothing by dissolving it, not to mention it tended to severely irritate the sensitive skin under users’ arms.

But then in 1910, the father of Cincinnati high schooler Edna Murphey developed a better product, and the young lady decided to turn entrepreneur and go into business producing and marketing the deodorant her father invented. Naming her new product Odorono (“Odor? O, no!”), Edna decided the 1912 Atlantic City exposition would be the perfect place to get recognition and market share for her new toiletry. But results were disappointing at first, until the extremely hot, humid summer of 1912 wore on during which word got around about Odorono’s usefulness.

Unfortunately, the stuff still had the problems inherent in the process of suspending aluminum chloride in an acid base—it was hard on clothes and irritated users’ skin. And since it was colored red, it was really dangerous to use under the white cotton and linen summer dresses and shirts popular during the era.

But Edna and company eventually got the bugs ironed out, which you can see if you walk down the deodorant aisle at Walgreens; there are a ton of different brands and styles, including my current Old Spice, that have mimicked Edna’s product—which is also still for sale, by the way.

But even if it hadn’t taken until 1910 for someone to invent a usable antiperspirant deodorant, I have a feeling my grandfather wouldn’t have used it. Back in those days, my grandfather was working in the sprawling Burlington Shops in downtown Aurora. A carpenter, he worked his way up to supervise a crew of a half-dozen other carpenters building boxcars and cabooses. Enjoying the CB&Q’s 40-hour work week, the crew worked 10 hours a day four days a week and had three days off. It was hard, dirty work, and I’m not sure deodorant was anywhere on his event horizon. My grandmother had grown up on a farm out in Wheatland Township, and so probably wasn’t used to sweet-smelling men anyway.

While they didn’t use deodorant, men of that era did attempt to cover up body odor on the days between their usual Saturday night bath, especially when courting.

The whole idea of making oneself smell better wasn’t new during that era, of course, but went back hundreds of years. When the Three Wise Men sought out the Christ Child, according to that brief New Testament account, along with gold they brought myrrh and frankincense as gifts, both expensive ingredients of perfumes of that distant era. And who knows, maybe Joseph and Mary, ensconced as they were in a stable, were happy to get them.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Car Shops at Aurora, where my grandfather worked. The paint shop, coach shop, car shop, and blacksmith shop, located north of the roadhouse and locomotive shops, are shown above. Library of Congress collection.

In 1709, an Italian, Giovanni Maria Farina, developed the first commercially viable men’s scent in Cologne, Germany. Giovanni named it in honor of his adopted hometown, and the name soon came to be applied to all men’s scent products. Interestingly enough, his family still manufactures the stuff there.

By the early 20th Century, men were using a variety of products to improve their body scent, including a variety of aftershave products that were particularly popular in the barbershops of the era. And that included talcum powder, which was used to finish off a shave and a haircut—which really did cost two-bits.

When I was a youngster, the barber always ended the haircut ritual by shaking some sweet-smelling talc on a soft, long bristled brush and brushing down my neck. I can still smell that powder to this day, when I stop to think about it.

I’m sure my grandfather went a barbershop from time to time over there in the area of the East Side of Aurora nicknamed Dutchtown because of all its German-speaking residents. But being a frugal German, he would mostly have shaved himself. If he paged through the Sears catalog, he might even have decided to splurge by investing in their Gentlemen’s Shaving and Toilet Outfit for just $1.79—$51 in today’s dollars.

The outfit didn’t include a razor; that, Sears apparently figured, you already owned. The outfit’s top advertised item was a bottle of Violet Witch Hazel, a violet-scented after-shave. “It removes the irritation caused by shaving, cools and makes antiseptic the thousands of pores on the face, prevents chapping, and leaves that exquisite lasting odor of violets about the person,” the Sears copywriter promised. So, Grandpa may have smelled like violets, which isn’t a bad way to go, I guess.

Also included was an entire pound of Williams Genuine World Renowned Shaving Soap; a styptic pencil for those annoying razor nicks; a bottle of Belezaire Genuine Brilliantine “for perfuming the moustache or hair;” one stick of Williams Genuine French Cosmetique “for fixing and giving gloss to the moustache and whiskers;” a jar of Crystal Shampoo Jelly (“It removes dandruff!”); a bottle of Eastman’s Genuine Eau de Cologne (“It is very refreshing and of great value in the sick room, where it can be used as a disinfectant for destroying bad odors and rendering the air in the room fresh and pleasant.”); a fine bleach sponge for removing the soap and lather after shaving; one Genuine Faultless Beauty Brush “for coaxing the dirt out of its hiding places” and for “producing a healthy glow;” and, finally, two bottles of “well-known Wood Violet Talcum made by the well known Hilbert Perfumers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

So he would have gotten a pretty good deal on stuff to make himself smell better and even a bottle of cologne he could have used during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 to freshen up the sick room, assuming he had any left. But nowhere in Sears’ 1909 catalog do they list any deodorants or antiperspirants for sale.

But the real problem, I suppose, is that when Old Spice talks about their customers’ grandfathers, they’re not talking about MY grandfather, or even my father. These days, they’re talking about ME. Even though when I was a young man dating my wife-to-be Old Spice was old news—it was the deodorant and aftershave and men’s cologne my father used. So, no, it wasn’t Old Spice that might have lured my wife, it was English Leather aftershave and soap on a rope (remember that?). But now the kids produced by the English Leather generation are back to using Old Spice again, while some of us are kidded until we try something new that’s not new at all—Old Spice.

Nevertheless, being a member of the Baby Boom generation and growing up when nearly the nation’s entire economy was aimed at trying to satisfy us, it is a bit mind-bending to remember we’re no longer in the prime demographic that advertisements are aimed at.

Instead, I keep trying to imagine my grandfather not only as a young man, but also as a guy just trying his best to smell better as he tried to impress his young wife, my grandmother, and it’s rough going.

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It’s that “most wonderful time of the year”

I noticed the first Christmas decorations popping up around the Fox Valley in October well before Halloween. Then the Hallmark Channels started their Christmas made-for-TV movie blitzkrieg, a seemingly never-ending bombardment of saccharine mono-plotted programming that became annoying for its monotony and the Canadian accents of its actors after the first week.

But now, the retail ball is really getting rolling, as well, even in the midst of the depressing Covid-19 pandemic. Communities have been trying to drum up holiday spirit for their generally dispirited populace with a variety of socially-distanced and masked events. It seems to have worked, at least a bit, although the general lack of snow has so far put a bit of a damper on the season as have the effects of sheltering in place. Some have decided not to do any home decorating for the holidays, while others have gone ahead in an effort to brighten up the end of a particularly dismal year.

When we were kids, we were told by adults, in serious tones, that Christmas was all about giving. Which was silly. We knew that Christmas was all about getting Christmas gifts. Besides, we didn’t have money to buy gifts for anybody anyway.

Out at the one-room Church School, our big musical number in our 1953 Christmas program was “How Much is that Doggie in the Window,” with a real set and everything.

In preparation for Christmas pageants at school and at church, we began cramming our lines along about the first of December. At school, especially during my early elementary years, the approach of Christmas meant a daily practice at Church School out in Wheatland Township, singing with Mrs. Eleanor Stewart at the piano helping our teacher, Mrs. Comerford, out. It also meant on-stage practices down in the basement of the Scotch Presbyterian Church. Not only was the church basement the biggest space in the neighborhood, but it was right across the road from the school. Conveniently, Mrs. Stewart also provided the piano accompaniment for our Sunday School Christmas program so we were all comfortable with each other during those seemingly endless practices.

It wasn’t until we moved to town, though, that the true and full force of Christmas hit me. Of course, I was a bit older then and able to grasp the full import of things like television commercials for the latest Mattel six-shooter, a replica Winchester lever action rifle, or Schwinn bike. For years, my greatest ambition was to visit Amling’s Flowerland, drawn to it because of the wonderful commercials on “Elmer the Elephant,” “Uncle Johnny Coons,” and other similarly culturally uplifting children’s television programs. There on the small screen were kids that looked just like me flying real gasoline powered model airplanes and wearing neat looking military uniforms—with helmets!—all available at Amlings.

In the 1950s, Shuler’s didn’t have a very big toy selection, but their comic book rack was well-stocked and regularly updated. (Little White School Museum collection)

The nearest big department stores to little Oswego were in downtown Aurora, but kids couldn’t get there on their own. So for most of the year we had to make do with the tiny toy departments at Shuler’s Drug Store and at Carr’s Department Store in downtown Oswego. Granted, Shuler’s had a pretty good comic book selection that was updated regularly, but their toy section left a lot to be desired.

But once a year after Thanksgiving, Shuler’s would offer a special and commodious toy selection in the old meeting hall above their drug store, staffed by the folks from Carr’s Department Store. On the way home from school, bundled up in our scratchy woolen coats with those silly attached half-belts that were always coming unhooked in front, hats with earflaps, and five-buckle rubber boots we’d trudge up the stairs off Main Street and enter a different world. Games from Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley were stacked along with six-guns from Marx (cheap) and Mattel (much better), trucks by Tootsie Toy and Tonka, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, dolls and a wide selection of accessories, and even an occasional Gilbert Chemistry Set. We all looked longingly at the chemistry sets with the happy kid on the front of the box mixing wonderful looking chemicals in a test tube while a retort on a Bunsen burner bubbled in the background.

We all wanted to try mixing the contents of a Gilbert Chemistry Set in “the wrong way” to create explosives. Alas, we were thwarted by cooler heads in Gilbert’s legal department.

We all knew that extraordinary explosives could be created with a chemistry set because we had all heard the rumor about the kid that blew up his garage by “accidentally” mixing chemicals “the wrong way.” But when one of us finally actually got a genuine Gilbert Chemistry Set—the big one with the steel case that folded out in four sections—we found that instead of truly cool stuff like the makings for gunpowder or nitroglycerine, the case was full of little glass tubes and bottles containing substances labeled “Xylan” and “Diatomaceous Earth” that didn’t explode worth a darn. In fact, it slowly dawned on us budding mad scientists that ingredients of chemistry sets are designed so they won’t explode no matter how they are mixed, and in fact are designed to be so maddingly safe that one of them would probably stop a nuclear chain reaction in its tracks if it was close enough.

A treasure I bought Fagerholm’s in Aurora with my Christmas gift money from my grandparents one year was the Dinky Toy version of the World War II British 5.5″ field gun and the truck to tow it with.

So we spent lots of time between Thanksgiving and Christmas looking longingly at toys both live and on TV, and then, every once in a while, our parents would have to go to downtown Aurora to replenish supplies of things that grownups figured they needed. That gave us a chance to visit the stores that had the neatest toys, mainly Fagerholm’s Toy Store on South Broadway, The Book Shop over on Stolp Avenue, and May Electric where you could go upstairs and see the latest Lionel train equipment. The Book Shop, was the “educational” toy store in downtown Aurora, and had wonderful things in its window, educational or not, things like shiny miniature steam engines that actually worked to drive working toy machines, and plastic planetariums that were guaranteed to project the heavens on your bedroom ceiling as long as the lights were turned off. Fagerholm’s had the marvelous British-made Dinky Toys and the best selection of model plane and car kits in Aurora, while the Lionel equipment at May Electric was first-rate.

The Christmas I found a new Lionel Santa Fe diesel switch engine under the tree was a happy one indeed.

Actually, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized that it really is better to give than receive at Christmas. The looks on the faces of our kids when they found some wished-for treasure under the tree Christmas morning brought home the fact like no amount of preaching did years before.

Actually, I’ve found, the season seems to be mostly about joy, and the satisfaction derived by doing good things for other people. This Christmas, little kids won’t remember a thing about the recent election or whether traffic signals have been installed down the street, although they might retain some memories of this crazy pandemic year. For sure, however, they definitely will remember the warm feelings the holidays bring them long after they have children and grandchildren of their own.

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