Category Archives: Semi-Current Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1996 Flood CB&Q Bridge C

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

My generation and how we came to view the Civil War…

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, one of the blogs I read semi-regularly, Eric Loomis posted an interesting piece back in the summer of 2017 entitled “Trump’s Generation and Civil War Education.” Loomis was trying to get a handle on where the current occupant of the White House got his strange views of the Civil War by looking at how U.S. history was taught in the 1960s when Trump—and I, for that matter—were getting our basic educations.

Frankly, I don’t think looking at how history was taught 60 years ago has much bearing on how Trump views the topic. Trump is astonishingly incurious about virtually everything except himself. His elementary and junior high and high school education is not to blame for the bigotry, ignorance, and racism he displays for all to see. That can more easily be explained by looking at how he was raised—which was not well.

But recently I got to thinking about that again as I did research on how the Civil War affected Kendall County in general and Oswego in particular. The war had a huge impact locally. For instance, it was probably responsible, at least in part, for Kendall County’s long-term population decline. Kendall did not reach its 1860 population again until the 1920 census was taken.

And those thoughts, in turn, got me to thinking about that article I’d read back in 2017 and how the history of the Civil War was taught when I was in junior high and high school, which was schizophrenic at best and outright racist at worst.

1859 john brown

John Brown, who attempted to start a rebellion against the U.S. Government, could reasonably be declared a terrorist. He was executed after his raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

We were told John Brown’s raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was bad and he was a murderous lunatic; the Underground Railroad was good. Secession was bad, but the North’s lording it over the South created a conflict driven by trying to curtail the rights of the Southern states. Oh, and slavery was sort of an issue, too. Abraham Lincoln was a saint. Robert E. Lee was likewise a saint, a kindly, dignified, honorable man who bravely chose to fight for his home state of Virginia instead of for those ruthless northern invaders. Ulysses Grant was a grim, alcoholic butcher. Confederates were wonderful soldiers. Yankees reveled in attacking Southern civilians. John Wilkes Booth was bad. Reconstruction was a terrible burden on the South, which was ravaged by Yankee carpetbaggers and the Southern scalawags who supported them. Freeing the slaves was a good thing, sort of, but left them pining for their old plantation homes. The Ku Klux Klan was a clearly bad, but it was an understandable reaction to the depredations of those corrupt carpetbaggers and scalawags. President Andrew Johnson was not as well liked as President Lincoln had been, but he was afflicted with Radical Republicans who were clearly unreasonable in their hatred of the South.

It wasn’t until I got to college that these truths I had been taught during 12 years of elementary and high school started to unravel. And it took years of self-education before I came to the conclusion that the Civil War was plainly a war of Southern aggression, not, as generations of Southern apologists had claimed, a war caused by the Northern invasion of a tranquil South.

Actually, some of those truths learned long ago turned out to be true—John Brown was a homicidal maniac who, just like today’s anti-abortion fanatics, saw terrorism as a perfectly defensible political tactic and murder of certain people entirely reasonable.

1859 underground railroad

Some of the local stations on the Underground Railroad just before the Civil War. From the 1914 history of Kendall County.

Andrew Johnson, a pro-slavery Democrat, was a personally unpleasant man who, if not hated, was roundly disliked by almost everyone with whom he came into contact.

And the Underground Railroad was a good thing, indeed, a perfect example of effective non-violent protest against a great moral wrong. But almost without exception it left those whites who acted as the conductors feeling forever after uncomfortable that they’d broken the law in helping enslaved Americans escape to freedom. I’ve often wondered whether their discomfort with what they did during that era had an impact on why so many in the North were so ambivalent about the terrorist Jim Crow regimes the southern states developed.

Other truths I learned so long ago were either outright lies or shadings of the truth so extreme as to make them lies. The South did not secede over any state’s rights issue other than slavery. They, in fact, said so at the time in the resolutions of secession their state governments passed. Slavery was not AN issue for secession; it was THE issue.

Southerners were good soldiers, but so were the boys in blue; they all did their jobs, the difference mainly being the unfortunate selection of military leaders the North found itself saddled with as the war began. It took two or three years for the North’s officer corps to rid itself of raging incompetence, and when the winnowing process was finished, the North found itself with a top command that was probably the best in the world at the time.

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Robert E. Lee, while he was still a loyal U.S. Army officer.

Then there was Robert Lee, who seems to have neither been an honorable man, nor particularly kindly. He was a slave owner who had no compunctions about the practice. His former slaves had nothing good to say about a man who repeatedly violated his moral duty to those he held in bondage by continually breaking up slave families, something that had not been a regular practice among his Custis family in-laws until he took over the operation of their plantations.

Lee violated his oath of office as a U.S. Army officer and committed treason on behalf of maintaining the South’s system of human bondage. He was a pretty good tactician who was fortunate in his opponents early in the war, but he was a terrible strategist who never figured out the South’s very limited material and human resources had to be conserved at all costs. Instead of fighting a defensive war, he determined to fight a ferociously offensive one, almost guaranteeing his defeat. Lee enjoyed war, famously quoted as remarking “It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

1864 grant at cold harbor

Gen. Hiram Ulysses Grant photographed at Cold Harbor, 1864. Grant later said Cold Harbor was the one battle during the war he’d rather never to have done.

Grant, on the other hand, was a pretty good tactician who had a brilliant grasp of grand strategy. Finally convinced after the battle of Shiloh the South would never accede to a voluntarily return to the Union, Grant grimly went about the task of forcing them to surrender by destroying their armies and their capacity to wage war. Unlike Lee, Grant was under no illusions about war. “Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace,” Grant explained in a speech in London two decades after the Civil War.

What about the idea that Grant was a clumsy butcher who only won because he was indifferent to the numbers of Union casualties he caused? Modern research suggests that’s simply not true. Using actual casualty figures, historians have now concluded that the term “butcher” might better fit Lee. In Grant’s major federal campaigns, he suffered just a bit more than 94,000 killed and wounded. Meanwhile, in Lee’s major campaigns, he suffered more than 121,000 killed and wounded. Lee continually dismissed the strategic fact that he couldn’t afford casualties at all; he was badly outnumbered by the American military.

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Oswegoans Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were two of the young men who died during the Civil War, killed in action at the Battle of Ezra Church in 1864. More than 200 Kendall County soldiers died during the war.

Immediately after the war, there was no doubt here in northern Illinois about what the war had been fought over. Immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, Record editor John R. Marshall commented about the recent conflict and the Southerners who conducted it: “The great and final act of the accursed slaveholders’ rebellion has culminated in this one outrageous, dastardly, and hellborn murder.”

There was even more general outrage as it became clear the former Southern power structure was behind the formation of terrorist groups, primarily the Ku Klux Klan, formed to terrorize freed African Americans and to deprive them of their rights as American citizens. To the rescue there came U.S. Grant once again, but this time as President. The series of laws he got Congress to pass, the three Enforcement Acts in the early 1870s, provided legal tools to successfully suppress the Klan and it’s imitators.

Unfortunately, those tools were largely eliminated following the political deal that led to the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. The deal, known as the Compromise of 1877, directly led to the removal of U.S. troops from the South and the gradual institution of what became known as the Jim Crow laws that violently oppressed millions of Black Southerners until the civil rights era of the 1960s at least restored their voting rights.

But even so, federal laws were still enforced for a while there, the Kendall County Record reporting on Nov. 1, 1884: “Some first families in Georgia have come to grief. A number of their young men belonged to the Kuklux gang and committed horrible outrages on negroes; a number of them were arrested, tried, and to their great astonishment, eight of them were convicted and go to the penitentiary. The young men wept when the verdict struck them. This is no Northern campaign lie.”

But unreconstructed former Confederate soldiers, officers, and government officials soon regained political power throughout the Old South, putting in place systematic oppression of black citizens.

When I think back on it, the casual racism of my childhood seems almost unbelievable (we still did musical minstrel shows, with end men in blackface through my high school years), racism that was reinforced by what we were taught as U.S. history. The remnants of that history still have a negative affect on the way far too many of us view race relations and sectionalism today. So I suppose it may have had a negative affect on Donald Trump’s outlook on those issues, too.

Except that I don’t think it would matter in Trump’s case one way or another, especially since his father was apparently at least a Klan sympathizer and at worst a member of the group. Trump’s a person who simply doesn’t see it as his responsibility to learn anything about anything unless it will have a positive personal effect on him. His Trump National Golf Course on Lowe’s Island at Sterling, Va., near Washington, D.C. features a historical marker explaining about the “River of Blood,” a Civil War battle he insists took place on the land along the Potomac River now covered by the course. No battle happened there; it’s simply all made up. That’s not something he can blame his junior high history teachers for.

So while our educations concerning U.S. history were definitely lacking as children of the 1950s and early 1960s, it’s a stretch to blame Trump’s ignorance of the topic on that. After all, he’s had more than 60 years to educate himself.

 

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World War I soldiers deserve our President’s recognition and respect…

So last week, Donald Trump flew over to France to represent the U.S. as the rest of the world, especially the European powers, commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

During its brief participation in the conflict, the U.S. suffered 53,402 combat deaths and a grand total of 116,708 deaths from all causes. Another 204,002 soldiers, sailors, and marines were wounded. As things go, that wasn’t an overwhelming total of fatalities—more than 600,000 died during the four years of the Civil War and the nation would suffer 407,300 total deaths during the upcoming Second World War, along with another 672,000 wounded.

But the U.S. only participated in World War I for 19 months, and suffered about the same casualties as in the war in Vietnam, which lasted 18 years, 10 months and 23 days between the first death on April 8, 1956 and the final two men killed in action on April 29, 1975.

World War I really ushered the U.S. onto the world scene, and while our nation’s part of the conflict was relatively brief, it also involved brutal, fierce combat. In Europe, the war resulted in an entire generation of young men being killed, maimed, and mentally injured. For them, it was a horrific, seemingly never-ending series of battles that gained no ground and resulted in no resolution. Not until the fresh troops supplied by the U.S. arrived at the front did the Germans and their allies finally come to the conclusion they could not win the war. And so at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, the Germans capitulated, finally ending the horrific bloodshed.

For our current European allies—and even our foes during that long-ago war—this centenary commemoration was a major event. Which made it doubly disappointing that our current President found it inconvenient to attend solemn ceremonies honoring all the war’s dead, including those tens of thousands of young men and women from the U.S. who served. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he likewise found it inconvenient to attend ceremonies here in the U.S. marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the war. Which made it seem an awful lot like he simply didn’t care about those who paid the ultimate price in defense of their nation—including the three men from Kendall County who were killed in action.

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Plano resident Leon Burson was the second Kendall County resident killed in action during World War I.

World War I, it seems, is no more familiar to most Americans—including, it seems, the current President—than the Civil War. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember elderly World War I vets riding to the cemetery on Memorial Day—still called Decoration Day by our grandparents—escorted by the color guard of young World War II and Korean Conflict vets, much like those World War II and Korean Conflict vets are escorted today by honor guards of Vietnam War and Desert Storm vets. Armistice Day—today’s Veterans Day—was an even more somber celebration, originally commemorating the service of those who went “over there” to fight the Kaiser.

It was hoped World War I would be the “War to End All Wars.” Several Kendall County residents lost their lives during the conflict, most dying from disease including the devastating worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic. But many others were killed in action during the conflict, including three county residents, one each from Plattville, Oswego, and Plano.

After the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Fred P. Thompson, a 34 year-old Plattville blacksmith, was determined to do his part. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at Aurora on May 28, and was assigned to the 16th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one of four regiments comprising the 1st Expeditionary Division, later renamed the 1st Infantry Division.

Thompson, in fact, was among the first U.S. troops to land in France. Though virtually untrained, they were enthusiastically welcomed by the French people, who were exhausted after years of seemingly unending war. On Independence Day, July 4, 1917 the 16th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion paraded through Paris, where one of General John J. Pershing’s staff is said to have announced, in a reference to France’s assistance during the Revolutionary War, “Lafayette, we are here!”

On Oct. 21, the 1st Division was assigned to the Allied line in the Luneville sector near Nancy. Two days later, Corporal Robert Bralet of the Sixth Artillery fired a 75 millimeter artillery round at the German lines, the first U.S. soldier to fire a shot in the war.

It was while the 16th Regiment was in the Luneville sector trenches on Jan. 22, 1918 that Thompson was killed in action, among the first to fight, and the first Kendall County soldier killed in action during the war.

burson post american legion

Plano’s American Legion post is named in Leon Burson’s honor.

Leon Burson, 26, a lifelong Plano resident, was drafted in 1917. He left from Plano in September for Camp Dodge, Ia., then on to Camp Logan at Houston, Tex. to join the Illinois National Guard’s 1st Infantry Regiment. The 1st Illinois had served in the Spanish American War and later had helped U.S. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing chase Pancho Villa along the Mexican border for three months in 1916. With the declaration of war, the 1st Illinois was federalized. Redesignated the 131st Infantry at Camp Logan, they were assigned to the 33rd “Prairie” Division.

At Camp Logan, Burson was assigned to the Medical Corps. In early May 1918 after finishing rigorous training, the regiment traveled to New Jersey, boarded the ocean liner SS Leviathan, and sailed for France on May 22. Arriving at Brest on May 30, the regiment entrained for Oisemont, where they underwent combat training under experienced British officers before joining the 3rd Corps, 4th British Army.

The 131st helped capture Hamel on the Fourth of July then helped reduce the Amiens salient. There, on Aug. 9, the regiment lost nearly 1,000 men at Chipilly Ridge and Gressaire Wood before advancing to help take the Etinchem Spur on Aug. 13.

Burson, behind the lines, was stocking an ambulance for the front a day later when he was killed by an artillery shell, the second Kendall County man killed in action in the Great War.

“It is my sad duty to write you of your son Leon’s death, the evening of August 14, 1918 due to the explosion of a shell,” Lt. Herbert Pease wrote to Burson’s parents. “Death no doubt was instant. He was on duty, having talked to me only two or three minutes before. He was buried today at Vayux, France under the direction of our Chaplain, Lieut. Egerton, in the American cemetery.” Years after the war, Plano’s American Legion Post would be named for Leon Burson.

Archie Lake grew up in Oswego but the young man and his family traveled to find work, eventually winding up in Hinsdale. When the U.S. entered the war, Lake, then 22, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was assigned to the 97th Company, 3rd Battalion, in the newly formed 6th Marine Regiment.

Lake, Archie KIA 97th 6th retouch

An Oswego native, the U.S. Marines’ Pvt. Archie Lake was killed in action on July 19, 1918.

In France, the 6th Marines, the 5th Marines, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion were formed into the 4th Brigade of the U.S. 2nd Division. Nicknamed the “Marine. Brigade,” the unit was assigned to the Toulon Sector near Verdun in March 1918. There, the 6th Marines lost 33 men, most killed when the 74th Company bivouac was attacked with poison gas on April 13.

In late May 1918, the Marine Brigade was ordered to help shore up crumbling French lines near Château-Thierry. On June 6, southwest of Belleau Wood, the 6th Marines were ordered to seize the town of Bouresches and to clear the southern half of Belleau Wood itself. The push started a bloody 40-day struggle in which the 6th lost 2,143 Marines. For their effort, the Marine units were all awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. And the French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

Lake, Archie marker Osw Cem

Pvt. Archie Lake, U.S. Marine Corps,  is buried in France where he was killed in action, but his family placed this marker in the Oswego Township Cemetery in his memory.

But bloodier fighting loomed when the Marine Brigade was ordered to counterattack near Soissons in mid July. The 6th Regiment was held in reserve during the initial July 18 assault, but on July 19, they advanced alone through heavy artillery and machinegun fire from Vierzy toward Tigny suffering catastrophic 50-70 percent casualties in most units. First Lt. Clifton Cates (a future Marine Corps commandant) reported only about two dozen of more than 400 men survived: “… There is no one on my left, and only a few on my right. I will hold” he reported to his superior office at headquarters.

One of the Marines lying dead on that battlefield was Archie Lake, the last Kendall County man to die in combat in World War I.

World War I and its heroes have largely faded from modern consciousness. But brave men and women did great things in our country’s name in the muddy, bloody trenches of France. It’s a shame–bordering on a national disgrace–that, on this 100th anniversary of the end of that devastating conflict, our nation’s elected leader decided to disregard his duty to honor of all those who perished during the conflict—including three young Kendall County men,.

 

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New marker a Kendall County link to Illinois statehood bicentennial…

For years I wondered what that historical marker on U.S. Route 34 between Yorkville and Plano was, but never bothered to stop and read it. Because, I guess I’m like everybody else: history that’s too close, too local, isn’t as interesting as that in other, far away places.

1816 NW Territory map by Melish

Although it rather oddly moves Lake Michigan a hundred or so miles east, John Melish’s 1816 map showing the Northwest Territory does illustrate Illinois’ originally proposed northern boundary, even  with the bottom of Lake Michigan.

And then it was too late to read it because it disappeared during one of the seemingly unending construction projects along that stretch of road.

But thanks to Linda Fellers, a resident of Crystal Lake of all places, and to the cooperation of the Illinois State Historical Society and the City of Yorkville, the marker has been replaced, this time relocated to a site on Van Emmon Road, avoiding Route 34 construction for all time.

And that gets us to how Fellers’ project to restore the missing marker is a nice compliment to our celebration of Illinois’ bicentennial this year, especially here in Kendall County. Because if the story recounted on the marker had not taken place, I’d be writing this piece in the state of Wisconsin.

The Ordinance of 1787—the Northwest Ordinance—was created to govern the region north and west of the Ohio River, and to eventually bring the region into the Union. The ordinance stipulated the territory was to be divided into not less than three, nor more than five territories that were, after they’d met minimum requirements, to then be admitted to the Union as states with all the privileges and responsibilities as the nation’s original 13 states.

1818 Daniel Pope Cook

Daniel Pope Cook, the young activist editor of the Illinois Intelligencer, Illinois Territory’s most popular newspaper, was a strong  advocate of Illinois statehood.

Illinois became a separate territory in 1809, boasting a population of about 10,000 mostly centered in the southern third of the modern state. But the territory was growing fast, and growth really accelerated after the War of 1812. By 1817, pressure for statehood was growing as many citizens grew increasingly dissatisfied with the absolute veto power over the territorial legislature wielded by the federally appointed territorial governor.

That year, a strong bid for statehood was begun by Daniel Pope Cook (for whom Cook County is named), the fire-eating 20-year-old editor of The Western Intelligencer, one of and the best known of Illinois Territory’s few newspapers. Beginning his campaign with an editorial in the Nov. 20, 1817 Intelligencer, Cook kept up a steady drumbeat of support and agitation for statehood. By Dec. 6 of that year, the territorial house of representatives had adopted a resolution to Congress asking to be admitted as a state.

Though the Northwest Ordinance required that a territory contain at least 60,000 people before admission as a state, Cook’s uncle, Nathaniel Pope, the territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, successfully lobbied to get the minimum decreased to 40,000. As further insurance, Pope worked hard in Congress to assure any census would be managed by an Illinois resident and not a U.S. marshal as required by law.

1818 Nathaniel Pope

Nathaniel Pope, Illinois Territory’s representative in Congress and Cook’s uncle, spearheaded statehood efforts in Washington, D.C. He was the father of Civil War General John Pope.

But even more importantly for Illinois’ future, Pope also lobbied to move the state’s northern boundary north to include 41 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline. As originally laid out, the state’s northern boundary would have been set at 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude, which would have put it even with the foot or bottom of Lake Michigan. That would have been on a line that would have placed modern Kendall County’s three northern townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—in Wisconsin.

Rep. Pope, however, had to take many political and economic issues into account as the statehood issue moved forward. Missouri was admitted to the Union in 1817 as a slave state, so the pressure was on to admit Illinois as a free state. But that was problematical since the vast majority of the state’s population were emigrants from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, and other southern slave states. So Pope, and Cook, were determined to make sure that eventually a majority of the population was anti-slavery.

Construction on the Erie Canal began in 1817, and those with a bit of foresight could see that when completed, the canal would create a commercial and passenger highway from New York City all the way to the muddy little settlement of Chicago near the foot of Lake Michigan. That would likely result in a tide of settlement from the generally anti-slavery former Middle Colonies and New England directly to northern Illinois. But with the original northern boundary set where it was, all that future northern, anti-slavery growth would end up in Wisconsin Territory, not Illinois.

2018 N Illinois

The red line was the original northern boundary of Illinois proposed in statehood legislation in Washington, D.C. With Cook’s strong backing, Pope lobbied successfully to have the state line moved 61 miles north. That not only secured an economically priceless expanse of Lake Michigan shoreline, but also assured a strong anti-slavery population base in northern Illinois.

Further, the existing boundary line cut Illinois off from the water highway that was the Great Lakes. And in an era when roads were either deplorable or simply didn’t exist, water transportation was vital if a state was to thrive economically.

As a result, Pope worked hard—and successfully—to move the new state’s northern boundary north 61 miles to a line at 42 degrees 30 minutes latitude. Pope’s amendment to the statehood legislation passed on April 18, 1818, eight months before Congress officially established the State of Illinois.

2018 Illinois northern boundaryThe boosters of Wisconsin Territory were not amused by the great land grab Pope engineered, and, in fact, unsuccessfully tried to overturn it for years. But the line remained where Pope—with the constant journalistic encouragement and boosterism of Cook—set it. As a result, Illinois gained 14 entire counties, including modern Cook and the City of Chicago that is, and has been, Illinois’ economic engine for the past two centuries—no matter how much us downstaters would like the facts to be different.

And, it turns out, that’s what that historical marker placed along Route 34 between Plano and Yorkville back on April 7, 1965 and which disappeared some years ago was all about. Thanks to Linda Fellers, though, the missing marker, with the story of why you’re reading its text in Illinois instead of Wisconsin, has been resuscitated and emplaced just off Ill. Route 47 at 102 E. Van Emmon Street at the Van Emmon Activity Center, almost exactly on that line of 41 degrees, 38 minutes north latitude.

The newly installed marker is a tangible reminder of those days when Illinois statehood was in flux and under discussion, and is especially relevant now as we look forward to celebrating Illinois 200th birthday on Statehood Day this coming Dec. 3.

 

 

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Moving on…

Sorry about the dearth of posting lately, but I do have an excuse—or, perhaps, a reason.

After 42 years living here at the Matile Manse, the missus and I are going to move. Won’t be going far; History Central is just moving across North Adams Street to the house my sister built on the riverbank back in 1985. She moved out in 2011, selling to a young couple with kids. That family moved to Dayton, Ohio over the Christmas holidays last year, and we decided to buy the house back into the family.

Thus the move. And thus having less time to do any blogging.

My folks, along with me and my big sister (the other sister was in nurse’s training up at Copley Memorial Hospital), moved off the farm and into the Matile Manse over Christmas break of 1954. I was in third grade, and proceeded to badly miss the farm, even though I was allergic to just about everything on it.

2012 3-24 Magnolia Tree

The old Matile Manse, built in 1908 by Irvin Haines for his aunt and uncle, John Peter and Amelia Lantz.

While it wasn’t the farm, moving here on North Adams Street turned out to be a great thing for me. The house had its own small town barn and the garage my Uncle Les built in 1943 so he could work on people’s cars. My great-grandparents had built the house itself, a tidy story-and-a-half Queen Anne, as their retirement home when they moved off their farm in 1908. Rather, they had my great-grandmother’s nephew, Irvin Haines, build the house for them. Irvy, as the family called him, was a first-class carpenter, well known in the Oswego-Montgomery area. The design my great-grandparents chose was apparently a popular one—there was a near identical one on a farm just outside Oswego until it was torn down to make way for the new fire station and another, which is still standing, was built in Montgomery.

When they moved in, in October 1908, my great-grandfather was 62, and my great-grandmother was 58. I suspect they figured they’d live in their new house for a couple decades and then pass it along to their children. In the end, they both lived well into their 90s, before dying during World War II. They chose the spot for their new home because the property was between that of my great-grandmother’s sister (to the south), and my great-grandmother’s mother (to the north).

From them, the house passed to my grandparents, who had looked after the old folks. It proved good timing, because their youngest daughter, my aunt, and her husband were looking for a place to live. I remember visiting them when I was a little kid before they bought a house in “town.” In those days, North Adams was not yet annexed to Oswego and was considered out in the country by folks living in the village. Country folk like us, of course, considered the house in town.

2018 New Matile Manse

The new Matile Manse, built in 1985 by Stan Young for Eileen and Lou Bacino.

After my aunt and uncle moved into Oswego, my grandparents rented the house out to a couple families until my parents offered to buy it when they were ready to move off the farm. So I lived there with my parents until my wife and I married, and for the next decade we lived in a couple different places, including that house next door where my great-great grandmother had lived.

In 1976, we bought my parents’ house and we’ve been here ever since. And I have to say, it’s been a good 42 years. But now it’s time to move on. My son and wife will move into the Matile Manse, and assuring it will remain the Matile Manse for at least a few more years.

So, we’ve been consumed with moving 42 years of accumulated memories from one side of the street to the other. And that includes lots and lots of books on Illinois and local history and more pounds of files that I ever would have imagined. And if our knees and backs hold up, I’m hoping to be back blogging regularly soon.

 

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Inflection points: What made the Oswego area’s history

Since last winter, the Oswegoland Heritage Association’s board of directors has been working on a complete revamp of the Little White School Museum’s core exhibit.

The current core exhibit, with a few exceptions and some updating over the years, has been pretty much the same since the museum gallery opened back in 1983. So it was definitely time to do some remodeling and overhauling.

2013 June LWS Museum

Planning for a major redesign of the Little White School Museum’s exhibit gallery is creating food for historical thought.

It’s not that the community’s history has changed, of course, but we have learned a lot more about it during the past 35 years. And we’ve also learned to tell local history’s stories a lot better, too. And by doing that, we will (we hope!) reach more people and inform them about the area’s rich heritage in a way that presents history in an entertaining but nonetheless informative way.

Over the past several months, we hammered out a template that divides Oswego area history into three broad eras: prehistory to the eve of the Civil War; the end of the Civil War to the start of World War II; and the end of World War II to the present day. Current plans call for major exhibit space to be devoted to each of those three areas, plus two other standalone exhibits, one on Oswego’s Civil War experience and the other on its World War II experience.

I’ve been writing about local history since 1974 when our group of talented amateurs started work on the Kendall County Bicentennial Commission’s county history and local history monograph series. Then I wrote about it weekly for the Fox Valley Sentinel from the fall of 1977 until Dave Dreier and Jeff and Kathy Farren merged the Sentinel with the Oswego Ledger in the summer of 1980. From then until today, my “Reflections” column has appeared weekly in the Ledger-Sentinel an in other papers affiliated with it, all now part of the Shaw Media group.

But with all that experience telling the area’s historical story, until we laid all our ideas out for the planned new and updated exhibits in a sort of timeline, I hadn’t specifically considered the importance of the Civil War and World War II as two of the community’s three most important historical inflection points. There was no doubt about it once the facts were written down and I had a chance to see the outline in black and white.

I’ve written about the importance of those two events to the community in the past, of course, but always as singular events that had major impacts, not as the events that had irrevocable impacts on Oswego’s history.

The community’s third historical inflection point, of course, was pretty much a given—the community’s settlement in 1833 by the extended Pearce family.

Economists like to look for history’s inflection points because they help explain how regions and nations come to be what they are. Back in 2015, economist Bradford DeLong wrote a short paper declaring that the major transportation innovation that proved to be the most important inflection point for trade and transport was not the invention of the railroad in 1830s England, but instead the production of the first iron-hulled, steam engined, propeller-driven trans-Atlantic passenger liner, which was built for the British White Star Line in Belfast, Northern Ireland.RMS Oceanic. Graphic from Sakhalia Net Project web site.

ilt in 1870 for England’s White Star Line and entering transatlantic service in 1871, the RMS Oceanic featured the first all-iron hull and a steam-powered propeller in lieu of sidewheels. The ship revolutionized freight and passenger service. (Sakhalia Net Project image)

From the innovative design of RMS Oceanic came thousands of freighters and ocean liners that decreased the cost of trans-Atlantic travel to a fraction of its former cost, driving the cost of shipping everything from finished goods to agricultural crops sharply lower. He noted the cost of a third class ticket on the Oceanic was just 3 pounds sterling, the modern equivalent of about $3,300, which was half as much as during the devastating Irish potato famine of the 1840s and a quarter of the cost of a trans-Atlantic ticket in 1800. A cost so reasonable, in fact, that an immigrant could travel from Europe to the U.S. (where jobs and opportunity were plentiful—wages in the U.S. were roughly twice what they were in Britain and Europe), find work, and recoup the ticket cost in less than a year.

And that led to the great migration from the Old World to the New that brought so many of our families here. Money was carefully saved to buy one family member a ticket and send them to America, where they worked and sent home money so the rest of the family could join them. Chain migration—which for some reason has gained negative connotations these days—was efficient, economical, and led to the start of one of the most prosperous eras in the nation’s history. It was, in fact, the story of my grandfather’s family who immigrated from East Prussia in the early 1880s at the urgings of his mother’s relatives who had come earlier, settled in Aurora, and made new lives.

Getting back to our original topic, looking at local history in terms of inflection points helps organize and explain how things turned out the way they have. The most obvious of these inflection points, the settlement of the Oswego area, is a given. Others had prospected along the Fox River up through the Oswego area, but none had decided to put down any roots here. The three Pearce brothers, Daniel, John, and Walter, and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson, had walked west from the area near Dayton, Ohio, looking for likely land to settle. They chanced their prospecting trip in 1832, missing the drama of the Black Hawk War, which by the time they arrived, had moved north and west and then fizzled to a bloody conclusion with the deaths of hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women, and children.

Pearce, Daniel & Sarah

Daniel Pearce and his wife, Sarah, settled in Oswego in 1833, along with two of Daniel’s brothers and his brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. (Little White School Museum collection)

It’s possible they came this direction because a Pearce relative, Jacob Carpenter, son-in-law of Elijah, Daniel, John, and Walter’s brother, had already come to Chicago. He may have gotten word back to them about his intentions to settle on the Fox River (he eventually became one of the first settlers of neighboring Montgomery). Whatever the reason, the Pearces and Wilson staked their claims—illegally because the land was still officially owned by the local tribes and had not been surveyed and placed for sale by the U.S. Government—and then headed back home to Ohio. There, they sold their farms and early the next year loaded their wagons and headed west to their new homes.

Luckily for them, 1833 was famed as “The Year of the Early Spring,” and they made good time on the trip, settling in quickly. Daniel settled along Waubonsie Creek where modern Route 34 crosses it and brother-in-law William Wilson chose land at what is today the busy “Five Corners” intersection in Oswego. Walter and John chose land across the Fox River.

Judson, Lewis B

Oswego was platted by Lewis B. Judson (above) and Levi F. Arnold in 1835, making it Kendall County’s oldest municipality. (Little White School Museum collection)

It didn’t take long for others to show up or to take advantage to the river ford located just above Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the Fox River. Just two years after the Pearces arrived, businessmen Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold laid out a village along the eastern bank of the Fox River and named it Hudson after the region in New York from where so many new settlers came. The growing community was granted a post office in January 1837, and that year eligible (male only) voters officially changed its name to Oswego.

Growth was explosive at that early date. Kendall County was established in February 1841 with its county seat in Yorkville. But in 1845, Oswego engineered a successful vote to capture the county seat, whereupon the village gained financial advantages from the money spent in town by those doing legal business, while it also acted as a center for the surrounding agricultural hinterland. Oswego Township’s population had grown to 1,750 by 1850, just 17 years after the first settlers’ wagons arrived. By 1860, the township’s population had surged again to 2,109.

A year later, the second of the area’s historical inflection points, the Civil War, broke out. Kendall County was a heavy participant in the conflict, sending off roughly 10 percent of its total population to fight. And the disruption was noticeable. Oswego Township’s 1865 population, counted by the state, had already fallen from its 1860 high of 2,109 to 1,924 and when the 1870 federal census was taken, the number had decreased yet again, to 1,756. In fact, Oswego Township’s population would not surpass its 1860 high until the federal census of 1950 was taken nearly a century later.

Murdock, A.X

Alfred X. Murdock, who grew up in Oswego, was one of more than 200 young Kendall County men and boys who died during the Civil War and was one of 70 killed in action. Murdock was shot and died during the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. (Little White School Museum collection)

So what happened? First was the impact of the war itself. A total of 267 Kendall County men and boys died in military service, including eight as prisoners of war and 70 killed in action out of a total 1860 county population of 13,074, meaning two percent of the county’s total population died as a result of the war. Dozens of others survived the war only to die later of their wounds or of its psychological effects. In an era when PSTD was unknown, the drunkenness and mental problems of ex-soldiers were attributed to personal weaknesses and not the war’s effect.

Second, it’s not unreasonable to assume that soldiers’ wartime experiences made them less likely to be satisfied with their former, quiet lives as farmers and store clerks. With the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, millions of acres of land had been opened for settlement west of the Mississippi, and that gave all those restless soldiers a place to try making new lives. Others decided to try carving new homes from the states of the old Confederacy. In short, there was no lack of opportunities and lots of folks took them. Those opportunities were enhanced by a new rail line built directly through Oswego in 1870. After that, it was easy for folks to load their goods aboard rail cars at the siding downtown and have them hauled west across the Mississippi to new towns growing up along the transcontinental railroad.

By the mid-1880s, the area’s population losses were palpable. Writing in the March 8, 1884 Kendall County Record, Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported on four more farming families, the Shumways, Linegars, the Alfred Wormleys and the August Schmidts loading their goods to head west. “If this exodus will continue much longer, there won’t be enough left of us for a quorum,” Rank grumbled.

1911 Oswego Phone switchboard

Although Oswego’s population did not recover its losses suffered after the Civil War, the community did enjoy modern improvements, such as the Chicago Telephone Company’s new switchboard in the Burkhart Building on South Main Street, shown here in March 1911. (Little White School Museum collection)

For the next four decades, Oswego continued to lose population. Not that conveniences and modern life didn’t arrive, of course. Electrical service, telephone communications, municipal gas service, and an interurban trolley line all came to make things easier for the average Oswegoan, along with progress out on the farm with mechanization and better, more efficient breeds of livestock and crops.

But Oswego’s steady population loss wasn’t turned around until the years following World War I. The township’s population in 1920 finally showed some growth. That was echoed in 1930 and again in 1940, despite the effects of the Great Depression that ravaged the area along with the rest of the country. By the early 1930s, economic conditions were so dire that Kendall County farmers and townsmen alike were willing to accept the U.S. Government’s help offered by a almost bewildering variety of alphabet agencies from WPA and PWA to NRA (the National Recovery Administration, not to be confused with today’s National Rifle Association) and AAA. In Oswego, WPA projects included adding onto and jacking up the Little White School to add a basement to funding a summer recreation program—the ancestor of today’s Oswegoland Park District. Another organization that helped the area was one more of those alphabet agencies, the CCC. Young men who signed up for a stint with the Civilian Conservation Corps were transported to national and state parks all over the country to build trails, lodges, picnic areas, and more. It not only gave them a little income, but it also removed them from the local employment pool at a time when unemployment was 30 percent and there just weren’t enough jobs to go around.

Which brings us to the last inflection point: World War II.

1944 July Seahorse Crew

The crew of the Balo Class submarine USS Seahorse, with the ship’s captain, Commander Slade Cutter sitting in the front row, fourth from left. An Oswego native, Cutter was one of the most successful submarine commanders of the war. (Little White School Museum collection)

Hundreds of young Kendall County men and women went off to fight the Axis powers, all of them serving in what became the biggest government program in the nation’s history. War work increased local employment as local factories switched from civilian products to the sinews of war. Lyon Metal Products in Montgomery, for instance, engaged in war work from manufacturing landing mats for amphibious operations in the South Pacific and fabricating vertical stabilizers for F4-U Corsair fighter planes. At the same time, work needs increased, the absence of all those young soldiers, sailors, and marines of both sexes caused wages to rise during the war years.

Local folks played integral roles in all aspects of the war. Oswego’s self-taught physicist Dwight Young worked directly with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, building the first atom bomb. Oswego farm boy, talented flautist, and Annapolis football and boxing All-American Slade Cutter became one of the war’s most successful submarine captains, sinking the second largest total of Japanese shipping and earning four Navy Crosses along with a host of other prestigious awards for valor.

After the war, all those young men and women came home and partook of the generous G.I. benefits, using them to build new homes and get college educations, giving the Oswego area its first economic bump forward.

1958 Aerial BH, Cat, Western Elect

Boulder Hill from the air in 1958, looking west. The new Caterpillar Tractor Company plant is in the upper left, while the Western Electric electronics manufacturing plant is just across the Fox River at mid-right. (Little White School Museum collection)

Then in the early 1950s, looking for good places to locate new factories, Caterpillar Tractor Company and Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of Bell Telephone Company, selected northern Oswego Township as the location for their new factories. Cat built new on a sprawling site along the old West River Road—Illinois Route 31—between Montgomery and Oswego, while Western Electric chose to rehab and enlarge a former wallpaper factory that had been turned to war work, located between the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line and the Fox River on the northern border of Oswego Township.

Don L. Dise, a native Pennsylvanian who was looking for housing development opportunities west of Chicago, heard about plans for the two huge plants and started looking for a good spot to build homes for those newly returned and married veterans. He put together a consortium of developers and in 1955 they purchased the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm where the Bereman family had raised more than 700 acres of crops along with thoroughbred Percheron draft horses. Naming their new development Boulder Hill after the old Bereman farm, Don L. Dise, Inc. began construction of what would become thousands of new homes in Kendall County’s first planned community.

Many if not most of those new homes were sold to former servicemen under the terms of the G.I. Bill, which meant nothing down and attractive financing, especially for new housing. But it wasn’t all ex-G.I.’s. A substantial contingent of professions, especially mid-level CB&Q Railroad executives, chose to located in Boulder Hill in those early years as well.

Dise’s plans not only called for homes. He also envisioned stores, churches, schools, and parks to make Boulder Hill a complete community similar to the Levittown developments in his native Pennsylvania. And he did it, too.

1978 Western Electric Plant

The Western Electric plant just across the Fox River from Boulder Hill once employed hundreds of workers. The plant was shuttered by Lucent Technologies in 1995 and demolished in 1997. (Little White School Museum collection)

In so doing he opened northeastern Kendall County to development. Which raised a few questions. Boulder Hill was situated in unincorporated Oswego Township and Dise had no plans to incorporate it into a separate municipality like Oswego or neighboring Montgomery. As a result, municipal services were fractured with municipal water eventually supplied by Montgomery; sanitary sewer service was provided by the Aurora Sanitary District; fire protection came from the Oswego Fire Protection District; police protection was supplied by the Kendall County Sheriff’s Department; library service came via the Oswego Township Library; street maintenance including snow plowing provided by Oswego Township; schools from Oswego Community School District 308; and park service from the Oswegoland Park District. With Boulder Hill as a model other unincorporated subdivisions popped up, the largest, the related Shore Heights and Marina Terrace developments right across the Fox River from Oswego.

If the new developments had any major societal shortcomings, it was the near total lack of people of color welcomed into them. That can probably be laid at the feet of how G.I. Bill loans were structured. They were approved by Southern legislators only with provisions that approval would be at the local, not the federal, level, which allowed blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities to be excluded. Not until the civil rights era of the late 1960s did things change in that respect.

The surge in development had a major impact on Oswego Township’s governmental services. Previously maintaining only rural roads, virtually all of them gravel surfaced, the Oswego Township Highway Department suddenly found itself maintaining dozens of miles of urban streets, sidewalks, and storm sewers. Oswego’s public schools also found themselves facing the pressure of rapidly increasing enrollments as the previously mainly rural school district began changing into a suburban district.

1968 Apr Hyper Sonic w Tower

Newly returned from Vietnam, 1964 Oswego High School grad Jim Williams snapped this photo of Brian Murphy’s “hyper-Sonic” at the Oswego Dragway in August 1968. (Little White School Museum collection)

The era attracted some late 20th Century innovations, the most famous of which was the Oswego Dragway, where drag racers from across the nation arrived every Sunday to compete on a quarter-mile track just west of the village on U.S. Route 34. They raced on a dirt strip for the first year or so before the owners, the Smith brothers, paved the former farmland with asphalt. It was extremely popular, drawing crowds from throughout the west suburban Chicago region. In 1957, at a time when Oswego’s population was just over 1,200, nearly 5,000 drivers, pit crew, officials, and spectators would show up to participate in, and watch the Sunday races.

Meanwhile, development continued apace until the Reagan recession of the early 1980s when it took a breather for a decade or so before accelerating again in the 1990s. And that’s when Oswego and Kendall County hit the development big-time. Until the recession of 2009, the area was, in percentage terms, often the fastest growing region of the country.

2004 OEHS exterior

Until the early 1980s, the Oswego School District operated one high school, two junior highs, and three elementary schools to educate around 4,000 students. As of the recently completed 2017-18 school year, the district now operates two high schools (including Oswego East High School, above); five junior high schools; 13 elementary schools and an early learning center that serve a total school district enrollment of more than 18,000 students.

By 1980, the Village of Oswego’s population stood at 3,021 while Boulder Hill’s totaled 9,333. Contrary to local legend, despite its size, Boulder Hill was never largest unincorporated subdivision in the United States, or even Illinois. But it was big—the biggest single community in Kendall County. But 1980 was Boulder Hill’s pinnacle. From that date on, an aging housing stock and a growing population of empty-nesters led to a steady decline in population on “the Hill.” Meanwhile, Oswego was growing, and growing fast, by annexing land on which ever-larger subdivisions were being built. In part, the village’s land annexations were made strategically, with an eye towards maintaining zoning control over nearby areas before neighboring communities could snap them up.

Those new developments all had the advantage of municipal services provided by Oswego’s municipal government. No waiting for a sheriff’s squad to respond to problems from far-off Yorkville or any waits for street maintenance, while residents enjoyed far cheaper solid waste pickup thanks to the village’s contracting with waste haulers.

By 1990, Oswego’s population had grown slightly to 3,876 while Boulder Hill’s had declined slightly to 8,894. But by 2000, Oswego boasted a total population of 13,326, easily—and for the first time ever—surpassing Boulder Hill’s 8,169. And by 2010, Oswego’s explosive growth was clear as its population stood at a remarkable 30,303. That was more than Kendall County’s entire 1970 population, and more than three times Boulder Hill’s 2010 population of 8,108.

Which, I believe, can all be traced back to a combination of events that merged with each other—into that inflection point—that began with the end of World War II: government G.I. Loan programs, a large population of young families, industrialization on a large scale making use of the area’s educated workforce, pent-up demand for financial investment, and plenty of land suitable for development.

It’s been an interesting journey from the time the Pearces got here in 1833, and it’s likely to get more so since history insists on happening anew every day.

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