Category Archives: Semi-Current Events

Sitting back and watching as entire eras come and go…

I was born in 1946 with the first tranche of the Baby Boom generation that’s been distorting the nation’s demographics and economics for the past 70 years. But beyond that, the immediate post-World War II era was an interesting one because of the great changes it both caused and experienced.

Millions of service men and women were released from military service and headed home to try to pick up the lives the war had disrupted. Congress helped by passing the various G.I. Bills and that allowed many of those ex-soldiers, sailors, and marines to buy homes and to go to college as well.

Unless they were Black, of course. Those new laws were cleverly written to make sure most Black veterans would be prohibited from buying homes with no down payment or getting college degrees. The resulting loss of accumulated wealth has been a continual drain on Black advancement for the last 70 years.

In the rural area of northern Illinois where I grew up, agriculture was undergoing change even before the war. Everything seemed to take a pause during the war years before getting back into gear when the war ended.

Lyle Shoger picking corn by hand near the end of the era of farming with horses about 1930 just off Route 34 west of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Change and progress had to wait a few years after the fighting ended because there were still major shortages of all kinds of mundane things from tires to farm equipment as industry shifted gears from war production to serving the nation’s civilian customer base.

One of the biggest changes in agriculture was the move from actual flesh-and-blood horse power to mechanical horsepower. The change started in the 1920, and accelerated even during the dark economic times of the Great Depression. By 1930, Kendall County farmers reported on the U.S. Census of Agriculture that just under half the county’s farms boasted some sort of internal combustion machine, from trucks and cars to tractors.

In the 1945 Ag Census, however, nearly all of the county’s 1,145 farms reported having at least one tractor and close to 1,100 of them reported having either a truck, a car, or both.

The author test-drives a new IH Farmall tractor at the Wheatland Plowing Match about 1950.

I got to thinking about that the other day when we were having breakfast with one of my nephews, and he asked about the kinds of work horses my dad favored. By the time I came along, the working horses on our farm were long gone, replaced by a bright orange Allis-Chalmers W-D tractor and an older 1930s model Case tractor.

But when he had farmed with horses, my father favored Percherons. He said he liked them for their intelligence and strength, although he said you always had to be on your toes around them because they were far from the most docile breed.

But while the working horses were gone from the farm—my sisters always managed to talk my dad into keeping at least one riding horse around the place—the evidence of them remained, from the wooden-floored stalls and tack room in the barn with the wooden pegs that once held their complicated harnesses to the odd wooden single or double-tree to the steel driver’s seats remaining on some of the older farm equipment.

The farm equipment itself was in transition during that era. Storing loose hay in the barn’s haymow had given way to having hay crops bailed and then stacking the bales in the mow. But I remember my dad and Frank, our hired man, still used the old hay fork system built into the barn to lift the bales up into the mow for a few years, at least. The forks were huge things designed to grab onto a big bunch of loose hay. They used the old Case tractor to pull the lifting rope that raised the forks up to the track that ran the length of the barn. When the forks reached the track, a lever automatically tripped and the forks with their load of loose hay—or carefully stacked bales—traveled into the barn on the track until it reached the stop, which caused the forks to open up and drop their load. The stop could be adjusted along the track so that the hay could be dropped progressively closer to the giant haymow door in front of the barn.

It was a fascinating process that I could only watch until my latest asthma attack began—I was allergic to just about everything on the farm, from the crops to the livestock.

The author, co-piloting the Matile Farm Case tractor with his father at the controls, about 1949.

Eventually, the hay forks were replaced by a tall portable elevator that was belt-powered from the old Case tractor, something that was a bit more efficient—and faster—than the old method. Hay bales could be pitched onto the elevator, raised up to the haymow opening, and dumped in an endless stream keeping the guys stacking them in the mow moving fast.

We needed that hay because diversified farming was still very much a thing in the early 1950s. My parents’ farm not only grew corn and soybeans, but also plenty of livestock. My dad fed cattle every winter and raised hogs as well. Along with the grain crops, my dad also grew alfalfa and timothy, which was baled for fodder for those feeder cattle. When my sisters prevailed upon him to keep a horse—and later when I was gifted with a particularly mean-spirited Shetland pony—he also raised a few acres of oats for their food.

Farming during that era was a true partnership. My mother didn’t work off the farm—she had way too much to do on it. She raised chickens and traded the eggs as well as the dressed chickens for groceries in town. She also kept a huge garden, and also harvested fruit from our farm’s small orchard, canning cherries, apples, apricots, plums, and peaches.

In fact, we grew a LOT of what we ate on the farm, from that garden produce to the hogs and steers the grown-ups butchered every year. Originally, before I came along, the beef was taken to the Farm Bureau building in Yorkville where it was further cut up, wrapped, and stored in the freezer locker my folks rented. But in 1951 or 1952, my grandparents bought all their kids gigantic International Harvester deepfreezes and after that we kept our own frozen food at home.

We also usually had our own cow, always a Guernsey because my dad thought they produced milk with the most butterfat. The cow had to be milked twice a day in one of the old workhorse stalls in the barn. I remember watching him milking and occasionally giving one of the barn cats a squirt of fresh milk straight from the cow. He was a good shot, and they soon learned that when the cow arrived, a treat for them wasn’t far behind. The milk was run through the milk separator down the basement to separate out most of the cream, which was either sold at the cream station in downtown Yorkville or given to my grandmother, who churned it into butter. What milk we didn’t need for our own consumption either went to my Aunt Bess McMicken for her to make cottage cheese or was fed to the hogs with coarse oat flour mixed in to create “slop.” You’ve heard about slopping the hogs? Well, that’s what THAT was all about.

But the times, they really were a-changin’, as the poet later said. Farmers had already begun to specialize in either grain or livestock farming instead of the diversified farming that had been a feature of American agriculture since the first colonists arrived. It became clear soon enough that farming wasn’t necessarily a small-time thing any more. Where my dad made a fairly decent living off 180 acres, the changes in farming meant more and more land was needed by each farmer. That led to much bigger equipment and much larger farms. But since there’s a finite amount of land there also relatively quickly became many fewer, larger farms, a trend that continues to this day.

Remember those 1,145 Kendall County farms back in 1945? Today there are a little over 300 farms in the county, but they average much, much more in acreage.

During the 1970s, the changeover from diversified to specialized grain or livestock farming culminated. Grain prices soared due to bad weather overseas and a new grain purchasing deal with the old Soviet Union. Government agricultural policy encouraged farmers to assume more and more debt to buy more and more land and the equipment to farm it.

As Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary urged in 1973, American farmers were supposed to plant “fencerow to fencerow,” and “get big or get out.”

A size comparison: My nephew poses with his classic old Farmall tractor and with one of the kinds of giant machines they use these days that dwarf anything used back in the heyday of diversified farming.

That caused both land values and prices of equipment to spike. And inflation wasn’t just affecting the farm sector, either—it was a nationwide problem. At which point the Federal Reserve System started raising interest rates to unprecedented levels to cool off the economy meaning all those farm loans were suddenly almost exponentially more expensive to service. And then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and President Jimmy Carter instituted a grain embargo in retaliation, choking off one of the farmers’ biggest markets.

The result was a rolling tide of farm bankruptcies that was particularly severe among family farmers. Which led to more consolidation and to ever fewer farmers as farms kept getting bigger. But even so, productivity soared as new crop varieties and steadily bigger farm equipment meant a single farmer could do the work that it took several to do just years before.

And the dominoes just kept falling. Fewer farmers meant thousands of families left already sparsely populated rural areas and that meant whole towns nearly disappearing along with institutions that once held those communities together, from churches and schools to locally-owned stores to civic organizations. The effects have been disastrously cumulative. For instance, largely rural Clinton County, Iowa’s population declined by nearly 19 percent between 1980 and 2020.

Meanwhile, here in Kendall County, Illinois, we’ve been experiencing a veritable population explosion as Chicago metro region growth has moved steadily west along the U.S. Route 34 corridor. During the last 43 years, thousands of acres of prime farmland were lost, not to farm consolidation but to development as we changed from an overwhelmingly rural county to one that is firmly suburban. Between 1980 and 2020, Kendall’s population more than doubled from 37,202 to 131,969, an increase of 254 percent.

Subdivision under construction in Oswego just as the housing bust hit in 2009. In the early 2000’s Kendall County, partly driven by Oswego’s growth, was the fastest growing county in the nation. The pause in construction caused by the lending crisis in 2009 has now largely disappeared and construction in the area is again booming. (Ledger-Sentinel photo by John Etheredge)

That growth has led to a number of challenges, but on the whole they’ve been easier to deal with than experiencing population declines and the severe strain that puts on communities and their institutions. The Biden administration is promising to try to help rural areas deal with the problems the last four decades of cultural and economic changes have created. But rural areas already receive significant federal assistance through a web of financial aid programs, so exactly what else can be done doesn’t seem clear to me. Hopefully, somebody far above my pay grade has some good ideas about what to do.

Time was, most of the nation was rural and much of our national mindset still drifts that way, even though the vast majority of the population no longer maintains any sort of rural lifestyle. And, oddly enough, because so few farmers are needed these days, even most rural residents don’t know much about farming these days.

I’ve always counted myself lucky to be born when I was. I got to experience the era of diversified farming and understand how it worked. I was able to go to a one-room rural school and experience the last vestiges of the kinds of schools that had educated so many Americans starting in colonial times. I saw my mother trade produce for groceries and experienced the monthly visits from the Raleigh man with his fascinating sample case full of ointment, and nostrums and spices. And I was able to enjoy the last of the great era of radio entertainment, listening to the soap operas my mother adored and the westerns my dad favored along with such rural standards as “The National Barn Dance” every Saturday night on WLS out of downtown Chicago and the “Dinner Bell Time” noon farm market reports every day.

Though fondly remembered, it’s an era as far gone as horse-and-buggy days.

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Filed under Environment, family, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Local history is just full of mysteries…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appreciating the Fox River, an old, old friend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It was great being a kid at Christmastime in the 1950s

‘Tis the time of year when a young person’s attention turns to what they might find under the tree come Christmas morning.

We all know that before Santa comes to town, he makes a list and checks it twice to affirm exactly who’s naughty and who’s nice. When I was a youngster, misbehavior might well have been rewarded with a lump of coal in one’s stocking come the big morning. Back in the day, of course, all you had to do was go down to the coal bin in the basement to find a likely looking lump. These days, I don’t even know where you’d go shopping for coal.

Taken back during the winter of 2021 out of my office window, ducks and geese congregate on the Fox River. Totally absent in the 1950s, the birds are common sights these days.

The Midwest of the 1950s was a very different place from the one I live in today, even though I live right across the street from the house I mostly grew up in. I can look out the window of my small home office at the Fox River, a scene—and stretch of river—I’ve been familiar with for going on 70 years. And yet, in many ways it’s not familiar at all.

Back in the 1950s, there was nary a duck nor goose nor, emphatically, a Bald Eagle to be seen. The river itself carried a load of heavy metals and other contaminants including raw sewage from towns up-river. Extensive fish kills were fairly common. Black bullheads and bluegills deformed by lesions caused by cancerous chemicals in the water predominated.

But this morning as I sat down to write this, a Bald Eagle landed high in a tree on the main channel side of the long island that parallels our riverbank, while flocks of ducks and Canada Geese flew up and down the river valley—giving the eagle a wide berth. Meanwhile our stretch of the once-badly polluted river is now frequented by serious anglers on the track of fat Smallmouth Bass and wily Walleyes.

These days, the river has also changed in other ways since those days now long ago. Its water is warmer, for one thing. These days, about 80 percent of the water in the Fox has already been used once by the time it flows past our house. The stream’s major tributaries are no longer wetlands and smaller streams that emptied into it, but rather the towns in its watershed upstream from us. The inflow from those towns sanitary treatment plants is warmer than natural tributaries would be. And at the same time, the climate has changed to the point it’s warmer now than in the ‘50s and ‘60s. So the river doesn’t freeze over like it used to when I was a youngster and when one of our major activities starting this time of the year was ice skating.

Snapped a shot of this guy last winter sitting in a tree on the far side of the island right off our stretch of riverbank.

After lacing our skates up tight while sitting on a log on the same riverbank I’m watching out of my office window, we could skate a couple miles north or a mile south to the U.S. Route 34 Bridge. I started out with used family skates, but one Christmas (1958?) a new pair of figure skates waited for me under our family Christmas tree. Santa thoughtfully sized them quite a bit bigger than my shoe size to handle expected (and realized) growth.

My family was far from wealthy, or even, as I found out as an adult, not even well-off. But my parents were excellent managers. They had to be. My father had become chronically ill with Ankylosing Spondylitis—spinal arthritis—as a young man and suffered with many other related illnesses through the years. My mother, with congenital heart problems so not the picture of health herself, worked outside the home—not all that uncommon during that era, no matter what you might hear in certain quarters these days.

And somehow, those gifts I found under the tree every Christmas were just right. From a cast aluminum semi-truck car transporter loaded with colorful Hudsons to an excellent model service station to my first Lionel train set, Santa always seemed to know exactly what I wanted, making up for the lack of quantity with an over-abundance of quality.

When we moved into town over Christmas vacation in 1954, the gifts were different, but still, I thought, stupendous. A Red Ryder Model 94 carbine BB gun one year (I managed NOT to shoot my eye out!), and a couple years later, a three-speed Schwinn Corvette bike with gleaming chrome fenders.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

The new Corvette replaced my trusty blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower the spring we moved into town for $5. And for the crisp $5 bill I paid him off with, I thanked my grandparents. Because back in that day, our extended family spend every Christmas with my grandparents. My folks and sisters, my aunts and uncles and first cousins made a for lively group, especially when my grandparents were still farming.

The most memorable of those gatherings was in 1951 when a blizzard struck Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. Fortunately, one of my uncles was earning a little extra money driving a snowplow for the township and he arranged to swing by our farm to lead our car the two and a half miles to my grandparents’ farm. He stayed long enough for a quick lunch and to fill his Thermos with hot coffee before heading back out into the storm. That Christmas, I wanted nothing so much as to be a snowplow driver.

My grandparents’ small farmhouse. The three windows on the left were in the long, narrow dining room.

My grandparents’ farmhouse, which was small but which managed to hold all of us, featured a long, narrow dining room with a table that, with numerous leaves, could seat the lot of us. Those Christmas dinners featured everything from roast turkey to the pheasants my uncles shot. Exactly which uncle provided the bird that year was my dad’s cue on whether to have some or not. One uncle was a good shot like my dad, who almost always hit the bird in the head; the other not so good. Eating the birds he provided meant keeping a sharp lookout for shotgun pellets while you chewed.

After dinner is when the real fun happened: the family gift exchange. We’d drawn names at Thanksgiving (those dinners were shared around the family circle, a different location every year) so we had plenty of time to get thoughtful gifts within the $1.50 limit—remember this was in the 1950s when a dollar was a dollar. And as we opened our presents my grandfather circulated around the crowded living room handing out those crisp $5 bills that were my grandparents’ annual gifts to their grandchildren. Our parents got $20 bills, but us kids got those bills in the individual holders that showed Abraham Lincoln’s picture, something we looked forward to all year.

These days, $5 doesn’t seem like much, but back in the ‘50s, my handy on-line inflation calculator tells me, that $5 bill was worth 50 2022 dollars. So a not inconsiderable fortune in the days of 10-cent root beers and 20-cent hamburgers. Or $5 blue Schwinn bikes.

The author on the blue Schwinn he bought for $5, ready for a 1950s Oswego Memorial Day Parade. Flags were the main decorations that year. We all got coupons for a free root beer at the Kopper Kettle restaurant.

It was the perfect bike for where we lived, because in those days, while we said we lived in town, we actually lived just north of Oswego’s village limits in unincorporated Oswego Township. The township maintained the street on which we lived, North Adams Street, as a gravel road over which their road grader made a couple passes a year to level out the chuckholes. The Schwinn’s fat tires were just the thing for navigating a gravel road, as well as Oswego’s tar and chip streets and its cinder-surfaced alleys. I added a basket to the front so that on hot summer days I could make the trip downtown to Bohn’s Food Store to buy and carry back boxes of the newest Popsicle flavor after the neighborhood kids all chipped in to pay for it.

I rode it in a few Memorial Day Parades, decorated with flags or crepe paper woven through the spokes and wrapped around the frame, and baseball trading cards clothes-pinned to the fender supports to make a satisfying motorcycle sound before I found that shiny new Schwinn Corvette standing in the living room on Christmas morning in 1957.

These days, the era of big extended family dinners seems to be largely past, with families splintered by careers, and social fashion changes. But there are still some vestiges of it in nostalgic TV shows and movies, and even sometimes in our own families.

While my grandchildren’s days of asking Santa for cool toys that I and their grandmother could have so much fun shopping for is over, they still appreciate the gift cards and cash we give them just like I appreciated my grandparents’ gifts all those years ago.

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, family, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

“The Basics” of American life have significantly evolved

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

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

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

What was going on was everyday life at that time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oswego’s historic downtown business district honored with National Register recognition

A roughly two-block section of Oswego’s historic downtown business district called the Downtown Oswego Historic District by village officials has been added to the National Register of Historic Places maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The bounds of the new downtown Oswego historic district added to the National Register of Historic Places is outlined in red on this map. It includes some of the community’s most historic areas.

The area selected for recognition is that section of Main Street from the north side of Jackson to the south side of Washington Street, which is generally considered the heart of downtown. That stretch of Main Street includes the brick and limestone Union Block on the east side of the street built in 1867; the classic frame false-front Rank Building, built by Oswego Postmaster Lorenzo Rank in 1874; and the Burkhart Block on the south side of Washington Street. On the west side of Main at Washington Street, the Schickler and Knapp buildings erected by two of Oswego’s German immigrant businessmen in the late 1890s and early 1900s are included, as is the 1840s native limestone Parke Building at the northwest corner of Main and Jackson.

The first settlers on the site of what is considered the original village of Oswego were William and Rebecca (Pearce) Wilson, who arrived with the extended Pearce family in 1833. Rebecca’s brother, Daniel, settled on what’s now Fox Bend Golf Course, where the old Pearce farmhouse still stands just east of the Waubonsie Creek bridge on Route 34, while brothers John and Walter settled west of the river. The Smiths built their cabin at the busy modern “Five Corners” intersection of Routes 25 and 34, and Jefferson Street.

But the Pearces were farmers, not town builders. It took a couple enthusiastic entrepreneurs, Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. “Squire” Arnold, to see that the lay of the land on the bluff overlooking the Fox River’s narrowest point for miles in either direction would be a good spot to build a new town.

The 1838 survey plat of Oswego Township showed the small village of Oswego at the Fox River narrows. I’ve highlighted the roads that crossed at Oswego, making it an area transportation hub. Also important was the Fox River ford just upstream from Waubonsie Creek’s mouth on the river.

The site also happened to be the intersection of four well-used Native American trails. One came across the prairie from the west, crossed the river, and headed east and a bit north to the ford across the DuPage River and on to Chicago, while another branched off that trail at Oswego and headed southeast across the prairie to Walker’s Grove, also on the DuPage, and then on to Chicago as well. From Oswego where those two branches merged, another trail headed southwest to Ottawa. A fourth trail came up the west side of the Fox River from Ottawa crossed the river on the Oswego ford, and ran north to the new settlement of LaFox—later renamed Geneva.

Arnold and Judson realized that ford was another geographical plus for their potential town site. Located just above the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River, the ford featured shallow, slow-moving water running over a smooth limestone floor that extended all the way across the river. Native Americans had used it for thousands of years and the White pioneers made immediate use of it as soon as they arrived. It would remain the only way to cross the river until the first timber-frame bridge spanned the river at Oswego in 1848.

Arnold, an ambitious emigrant from New York, had some experience with town building, having been involved, along with Chester Ingersoll, with turning the Walker’s Grove settlement on the DuPage River into the village of Plainfield in 1834 and then serving as that new town’s first postmaster.

The original 20-block village laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold is colored pink in this clip from Warner & Beers’ 1870 plat book and atlas of Kendall County. The plat illustrates how each block was laid out bisected by alleys running perpendicular to each other. (Little White School Museum collection)

Judson, a wealthy frontier businessman, like Arnold originally from New York but most recently from Michigan, partnered with Arnold to lay out their village on a square plan aligned with the east bank of the Fox River. As platted in 1835 by the two (and making, by a couple months, Oswego Kendall County’s oldest municipality), the new village contained 18 blocks, each 280.5 feet (17 rods in surveyor’s terms) square and containing eight lots, each 66 feet wide and 132 feet deep. Two 16.5-foot alleys running perpendicular to each other bisected each block.

They named all of the streets but two after U.S. Presidents, including Harrison, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson, Washington, Van Buren, and Tyler. The two non-Presidential street names were Main and Benton, named after U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a political ally of President Andrew Jackson and strong supporter of westward expansion.

The two originally named their new town “Hudson,” after the river in New York with which they were both so familiar. Arnold opened the first store in the new village right in the middle of what would become the village’s business district. Both Judson and Arnold began pushing for Congress to grant their new town a post office, and those wishes were granted on Jan. 24, 1837, with Arnold named the first postmaster.

The only known photo of the east side of Main Street as it looked before the devastating February 1867 fire destroyed all the buildings pictured, including the stately National Hotel. Levi Arnold opened Oswego’s first store and post office in the building to the right of the National Hotel. (Little White School Museum collection)

But there was a fly in the town-builders’ ointment. For whatever reason, Congress named the new post office “Lodi.” Lodi wasn’t a bad name, of course, carrying the name of a town in New York’s Finger Lakes Region, but it apparently didn’t suit Arnold and Judson. Within some months, the few permanent male residents held a referendum to choose a new permanent name. When the few votes were counted, neither Hudson nor Lodi had more than one vote. Instead, “Oswego” won with two votes in its column.

Kendall County was established in February 1841. The General Assembly appointed a three-man commission to pick a site for a county seat and they chose the hamlet of Yorkville, six miles south of Oswego. But with all those roads leading to the new town, Oswego was growing faster than other areas of the new county. So Arnold, Judson and other Oswego boosters immediately began encouraging moving the county seat to Oswego. They engineered a referendum in 1845 that populous Oswego won over the more centrally located Yorkville.

This view, looking north from Washington Street and reminiscent of cow towns in the Old West, shows the west side of Oswego’s Main Street, around time time the 1867 fire destroyed the east side of the business district. The only building in this image still standing is the native limestone Parke Building on the right side of the photograph. The building now houses the American Male & Company’s clothing stores. (Little White School Museum collection)

A new courthouse was built just outside the downtown area on the block bounded by Madison, Jackson, Jefferson, and Monroe streets. With that, Oswego’s business community began to cater as much to the traveling trade of the circuit court’s judges and lawyers as to the surrounding agricultural area with three hotels and numerous blacksmith and wagonwright shops.

But Oswego’s location in the northeast corner of the county was proving inconvenient for residents needing to go to the county seat in those days of horse and buggy and horseback travel. So another referendum was held in 1859, and the voters approved moving the county seat back to Yorkville. With the Civil War intruding, it took a few years to get a new courthouse built, but in June 1864, the county’s records were hauled down to Yorkville, and Oswego returned to its status as a mercantile hub for the surrounding agricultural area.

From the time Judson and Arnold platted it 187 years ago, Oswego’s downtown catered to the residents of the community itself, as well as to the farmers working the land around it, as well as to those elected county officials and members of the legal community during its stint as the county seat. As such it boasted a wide variety of businesses from the aforementioned hotels, to retail merchants, to service providers like barbers, milliners, and others.

Postmaster Lorenzo Rank built this false-front Italianate commercial building to house the Oswego Post Office in 1874. He lived in the building’s second floor apartment. In 1912, the post office moved south to the brick Burkhart Block. Rank willed the building to the Village of Oswego and it was used for a variety of purposes, including the site of the private lending library operated by the village’s Nineteenth Century Women’s Club. When the tax-supported library was built in 1964, the building was sold. It has housed a number of businesses over the years, including hosting for many years the offices of the Oswego weekly Ledger-Sentinel. The building is still used for business purposes. (Little White School Museum collection)

When I looked at the way the district is drawn, it occurred to me that it includes the sites of five of Oswego’s earliest post offices. While the building that housed it is long gone, the village’s first post office opened by Arnold in conjunction with his store (the first in the village) in 1837 was located at what is now 68 Main Street. It moved across the street and north to the limestone Parke Building at Main and Jackson in the 1840s and then back across the street and south to Lorenzo Rank’s new building in 1874. When the brick Burkhart Block was finished at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1912, the post office moved there before moving for the last time back north at the northwest corner of Main and Washington into the Schickler Building. Its last move was out of downtown altogether to the northeast corner of Madison and Jackson in March 1969.

After all the storefronts on the east side of Main were destroyed by fire in February 1867, a consortium of businessmen built the brick and limestone Union Block. Druggist Levi Hall was the first to move into the new block, locating in the storefront at the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

As noted, the designated historic district includes a lot of Oswego’s business and economic history. The brick Union Block on the east side of Main at Washington opened late in 1867 following the devastating February 1867 fire that destroyed everything on that side of Main from Washington to Jackson except the limestone horse barn of the stately National Hotel. The first occupant of the new block was Levi Hall, who opened his new drug store on the site of Arnold’s first store in December 1867 with a special sale of Christmas toys and decorations, a tradition that would continue through several subsequent owners for the next century.

By 1885, the brick and limestone Union Block on east side of Oswego’s Main Street was joined by Lorenzo Rank’s post office building, W.J. Collins’ Star Roller Skating Rink (with flagpole), and at the far left of the photo, the Shoger Brothers livery stable at Main and Jackson, one day to become the home of Zentmyer Ford Sales. (Little White School Museum collection

Other buildings came and went downtown including the Star Roller Skating Rink that occupied the site of the old National Hotel on the east side of Main Street for several years.

The west side of the street didn’t experience the same urban renewal caused by a raging fire. Instead, the old frame buildings were gradually replaced by newer brick buildings, first the Oswego Saloon in 1897, the Knapp Building—site of today’s Masonic Hall and Oswego Family Restaurant—adjoining it to the south in 1898. Then in 1899, John Schickler built his block of brick stores next to the Knapp Building, filling the space from there all the way south to Washington Street.

Meanwhile north of all that brick construction, Henry Helle was maintaining his shoemaking establishment at the southwest corner of Main and Jackson.

Earl Zentmyer bought the Parke Building on Main at Jackson from Gus Shoger and opened a combination service station and Ford dealership in 1922. This snapshot was taken in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

Across Jackson Street to the south, O.A. Parke’s limestone former post office and general store had subsequently become home to a variety of stores and other businesses, including a bowling alley, jewelry store, farm implement business, tin smithing business, and blacksmith shop. In 1922, a young fellow from Aurora named Earl Zentmyer bought it from its owner, Gus Shoger, and turned it into a combination gas station and Ford dealership. Zentmyer eventually bought the old Shoger Brothers Livery Stable across Main Street from the stone building and operated it as a service station and Ford dealership until it burned in 1965.

The Burkhart Block at Main and Washington was built by Oliver and Clinton Burkhart to house the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront, the Burkhart & Shoger auto dealership to the left, and the Oswego Post Office and the switchboard for the Chicago Telephone Company in the two storefronts to the right of the bank. This photo was taken about 1913 by Dwight Young. (Little White School Museum collection)

Also included in the historic district is the brick Burkhart Block, completed at the southeast corner of Main and Washington in 1911 to mainly as the home for the Oswego State Bank in the corner storefront. But also originally housed in the structure were the Burkhart and Shoger Studebaker dealership, the new Oswego Post Office, and the local switchboard of the Chicago (later Illinois Bell) Telephone Company.

Oswego’s streets were unpaved when this photo of an early auto northbound on Main Street through the heart of the business district about 1905. During that era, the hitching posts lining the street were not decorative; they were meant to be used. More than 100 years later, the downtown streetscape still looks familiar. (Little White School Museum collection)

Over the years the very transportation routes that allowed Oswego’s downtown to grow in the first place conspired to curb that growth. In 1870, the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road linked the coalfields lying between Ottawa and Streator with Geneva, running through Oswego and giving it a direct link with nearby Aurora. Regular passenger service meant the shopping opportunities of that much larger town were just a short train ride away, putting a brake on downtown Oswego’s expansion much beyond its three block base. Then in 1900, downtown Oswego was directly linked to downtown Aurora when the interurban trolley tracks of the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway were completed. For the next 22 years, shopping in downtown Aurora was a short, cheap trolley ride away, serving to keep the selection and size of downtown businesses small.

The final blow to any major expansion of the downtown was dealt by the advent of practical, economical automobiles, trucks, and buses coupled with the post-World War I state-financed drive to build all-weather hard roads. Initial concrete highways roughly followed some of those old 1830s routes through Oswego, again making it a transportation crossroads. In all, three state highways started in Oswego and one U.S. highway passed through following those old trails. And that made it even more convenient for residents to do much of their shopping elsewhere.

Oswego’s modern downtown, recently recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has not only managed to preserve a number of historic structures, but is still home to a mix of successful small retail and service businesses. (Little White School Museum collection)

Even so, Oswego’s downtown and near-downtown maintained a mix of retail and service businesses that catered just fine to the surrounding agricultural area, from general merchandise and grocery stores to doctors and dentists to grain and livestock marketing firms.

The heart of any town is its downtown business district. Oswego’s village government and business community have been both lucky and skillful at keeping the downtown healthy, willing to spend both tax dollars and funds generated by the business community on public improvements over the years that have kept it an inviting place to visit, shop, and run a business.

And to top it all off, Oswego’s downtown is also one of the village’s—and Kendall County’s—most historic areas, anchoring the greater Oswego community since 1835.

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Filed under Architecture, Business, Fox River, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Transportation

Last agriculture census confirmed some trends, revealed some surprises

From the time it was settled in the late 1820s, Kendall County’s geographical location has had both its positives and its negatives.

Claiming land 40 miles west of Chicago that was located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan, the farmer-pioneers who settled the county’s rich prairie found the fast-growing city’s market for grain and livestock an economic boon. Chicago was close enough that cattle and other livestock could be driven there within a couple days. The county’s farmers were able, in fact, to create personal relationships with such prime movers of the meat industry as Phillip Armour. And in the 20 years before rail lines pushed west, the city was also within realistic grain hauling distance.

Kendall County not only borders on three of the Chicago metro region’s populous “Collar Counties,” but it is within convenient distance of the city itself.

But the county’s location also posed some negatives, especially for those more interested in business than farming. Oswego, in the northeast corner of the county, was never able to grow its small two-block business district because of its proximity to Aurora, just six miles away. Aurora, with its large downtown business district fueled by heavy industry and the shops of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, drew enough business north to keep the village’s retail district from growing. Those effects only worsened when the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road opened in 1870 linking the coal fields south of Ottawa with Fox Valley towns as far north as Geneva. The advent of the interurban trolley, and completion of the line running from downtown Aurora through downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville made the situation worse.

The effects of the county’s location was to keep it almost entirely rural with the business of its scattered hamlets, villages, and towns aimed at supporting the farms that surrounded them. That 125-year era ended in the 1950s when Caterpillar Tractor Company built a sprawling plant in Oswego Township that eventually employed some 7,000 people and the manufacturing arm of AT&T expanded an old wallpaper factory, also in Oswego Township, to make electronic communications equipment. Those factories made an already-existing post World War II housing shortage in the area worse, prompting the area’s first sustained population growth since the Civil War. It didn’t take people elsewhere in the Chicago metro region long to decide Kendall County’s bucolic landscape was an inviting place to raise families. That first growth spurt of the late 1950s and 1960s, was joined by further growth eras culminating in the early 2000s when Kendall County, in percentage terms, was the fastest growing county in the United States.

Kendall’s farmers found, given the distance, it was practical to drive their cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses to the Chicago market, a definite plus in the pre-railroad era. After railroads and then interurban trolley lines and eventually all-season paved roads connected the county to Chicago it opened markets for everything from dairy products to honey and fruit.

For the 40 years from the 1970s through the first decade of the 2000s, the county grew housing and retail developments at a dizzying rate, as once productive farmland changed from growing crops to growing homes and businesses. The area’s explosive growth took a breather with the Great Recession of 2008 when the world’s economic system was nearly wrecked by the greed and illegal activities of the financial services industry.

The effect of all of that, along with profound changes in agriculture itself, had a not inconsiderable impact on farming in Kendall County, something I’ve been watching for decades now.

Threshing small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—was both labor and capital intensive, requiring farmers to create cooperatives to buy and use the complicated harvesting equipment of the era. Members of the Harvey Threshing Ring farmed on and around the Harvey Road east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

As a statistical measure of those changes, every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a farm census, with the last one completed in 2017. And with five years having passed since then, farmers and ranchers all over the U.S. got packets of surveys in June asking for information about their operations for the latest farm census.

That last ag census, taken back in 2017, reported a host of facts about Kendall County and that continuing change from an almost entirely rural area to a community that seems to be growing more and more homes and shopping centers than row crops every year.

A modern combine (short for “combined harvester”) does the work of several men and machines. Improved grain hybrids and high-tech equipment have combined for explosive growth in grain yields and much larger, although far fewer, farms—and farmers.

Some of the census information confirmed overall trends that have been continuing over the past several decades, while others suggested the farm scene itself is changing. Not all that change has been negative, either. For instance, the census reported that, as of 2017 at least, Kendall County farms were overwhelmingly still in the hands of families and not corporations. A total of 92 percent of the county’s ag land was in the hands of family farms, the census reported.

On the other hand, there were interesting changes to report along with some more predictable information. Two county farms, for instance, reported raising emus, not exactly the usual kind of poultry you’d perhaps expect to find out here on the northern Illinois prairie.

Emu wrangling? In Kendall County? In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, two county farms reported raising the big birds.

Other statistics in the report contained trends both continuing and interrupted. The number of Kendall County farms continued to decline, reaching a new all-time low of just 313. That’s nearly 100 fewer farms than the 412 the census reported in 2002 and 773 fewer farms than existed here in 1950.

But while the number of farms declined, the size of the remaining farms continued to increase as consolidation in the agriculture sector—even among family farms—continued. In 2017, the average Kendall County farm covered 419 acres. In 2012, Kendall County farms averaged 356 acres, and back in 1950 when modern farming was on the cusp of major changes in farm use philosophy, the average farm here was just 180 acres.

The trend of more and more ag land turning into housing and business developments, however, took a breather in 2017. The census numbers suggested the housing market crash of 2008 had an impact on the previously steady repurposing of farmland. For the first time since 1987—the result of another economic downturn—land was apparently returned to agriculture production instead of being used for development. According to census statistics, a little over 8,000 acres were put back into crop production between 2012 and 2017.

Even with that pause, the value of Kendall’s farmland continued to rise, going up 4.3 percent from 2012, reaching a record average of $9,059 an acre, the 2017 census reported.

As this 1939 aerial photo shows, at that time, a few years before the start of World War II, Oswego was a small village set among a surrounding agricultural area. Oswego’s population in 1940 was 978. (Little White School Museum collection)

Likewise, the value of farm homes and buildings continued to increase along with the land on which they sit. In 2017, the value of the average Kendall County farm’s land and buildings stood at nearly $4 million, a 29 percent increase over those same values in 2012.

The census counts farm producers these days—at one time called farm operators—and they found 548 of them in Kendall County. The department’s official definition of a producer is: “Persons or entities, including farmers, ranchers, loggers, agricultural harvesters and fishermen, that engage in the production or harvesting of an agricultural product.” Given that definition, it’s clear one farm can have more than one “operator,” and thus the change in nomenclature to producer.

Now with a population of more than 35,000 (more than three times the population of all of Kendall County in 1939), Oswego is no longer small, and instead of farmland is now set among the housing and commercial developments that surround it. On-going development in Kendall County is the main driver behind the substantial increases in the price of land since World War II. (Google Earth image)

The 2017 census reported 380 male farm producers, down almost 4 percent from 2012, while the number of female producers in 2017 was 168, up a hefty 15 percent over 2012.

Another trend that continued was the increasing number of Kendall County farm producers who work off the farm at least part of the time. Nearly 53 percent of the county’s farm producers reported working off the farm at least part of the time in 2017. That was the highest number in a quarter century.

While the county has lost a significant amount of farmland to development over the past several decades, there has been no corresponding decline in production. Modern hybrids and continually improving farming technology seem to be combining to offset the loss of Kendall County farmland to housing and commercial development. In 2002, 82 percent of the county was being farmed. By 2017, that number had decreased fairly sharply to 67 percent. But even with less land available to farm, crop yields had increased sharply. For instance, in 2002, county farmers produced 9,249,000 bushels of corn and 2,761,000 bushels of soybeans. But in 2017, with less land under cultivation, the county’s farmers produced a remarkable 13,780,000 bushels of corn, a 49 percent increase, and 3,122,000 bushels of soybeans, up 13 percent.

Kendall was also contributing to another interesting statewide agricultural trend: The increasing number of honeybee colonies on farms. In the 2012 ag census, 919 Illinois farms reported having honeybee colonies. The number nearly doubled in 2017, with 1,770 farms reporting colonies. In Kendall County, 14 farms reported having 296 honeybee colonies in 2017, with a bit over 10,000 pounds of honey collected during the previous year. The 2017 result was not an outlier, either. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farms producing honey doubled statewide and here in Kendall County, the number of honeybee colonies increased by 65 percent.

The Oswego Depot, its sidings, livestock loading chute, and the trackside stockyards—along with the livestock producers that once made use of them—are all gone today, but once provided a substantial economic boost for the area. (Little White School Museum collection)

While grain production was booming in 2017, the county’s livestock production continued it’s long-term decline. In 1950, during the heyday of diversified farming where each farm raised livestock as well as a variety of crops, 861 Kendall County farms reported having some beef cattle, 694 farms reported having at least one milk cow, and 741 farms reported raising hogs. The switch to specialized livestock or grain farming accelerated in the 1960s. And by the time the 2017 farm census was taken, with the switch to specialized grain or livestock farming, only 39 county farms reported having any beef cattle, only 1 reported owning milk cows, and 11 reported having hogs.

The switch away from raising livestock was also clearly evident in the sharp reduction in Kendall County acreage devoted to corn raised for silage to feed livestock as well as acreage devoted to pastureland. In 1950, county farmers raised 2,236 acres of corn for silage and had almost 24,000 acres devoted to pastureland. By 2017, county farmers only grew corn for silage on about 300 acres and only devoted about 1,600 acres to pastureland.

In 2017, Kendall County was still recovering from that near-total collapse of the world financial system driven by illegal and unethical practices of giant financial corporations. Recovery was slow, but by the time the 2020 U.S. Census was taken, population growth was already recovering in Kendall County, to the point that it was the fastest growing county in Illinois.

That’s why it will be so interesting to see what new information about the county farm scene this summer’s agricultural census will uncover.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Food, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

Chief Shabbona’s ghost still searching for justice 170 years after his land was stolen

For those of us interested in local history, it’s always fascinating when a bit of it pops up out of the time stream to intrude on modern life.

That’s what’s going on now as our friends west of the Fox Valley in DeKalb County find they’re having to deal with a bit of mid 19th Century chicanery that led to the illegal theft of land from one of the region’s most revered Native American leaders.

Ask someone to name a local Indian chief, and you’re likely to hear the names of either Waubonsee or Shabbona. Both men were influential leaders of their tribal groups and historically important, but it was Shabbona who was dubbed “Friend of the White Man” by the American settlers that flooded into northern Illinois after 1832. It wasn’t, however, necessarily a compliment from the viewpoint of Native Americans.

Ambrotype was made of “Chief Shaubonee” on June 7, 1857 at Morris by image artist H.B. Field. Little White School Museum collection.

Although sources differ about his birthplace, Shabbona himself told historian Nehemiah Matson he had been born about 1775 along the Kankakee River in what is now Will County near Wilmington. The son of an Ottawa father and a Seneca mother, he grew to be just under 6 feet in height, and was powerfully built, his name meaning, according to various sources, “Burly Shoulders,” “Indomitable,” “Hardy,” or “Built Like a Bear.”

Since Shabbona could neither read nor write English, the spelling of his name varied widely with its pronunciation. Ellen M. Whitney in The Black Hawk War, 1831-1832, records his name variously spelled as Chabone, Chaboni, Chabonie, Chabonne, Chaborne, Chamblee, Chamblie, Chambly, Shabanee, Shabanie, Shabehnay, Shabenai, Shabeneai, Shabeneai, Shabonee, and Shaubena. There were undoubtedly many more.

Shabbona was introduced to the Native Americans’ struggle against European encroachment by his father, reportedly a nephew of the charismatic Ottawa leader Pontiac. Pontiac conceived of and then conducted 1763’s Pontiac’s Rebellion, designed to drive the British and American victors of the French and Indian War out of the area north and west of the Ohio River. The effort failed due to the disinterest of the French in getting reinvolved in a war with the British and the effective military response of British military officers.

Decades before that, some Ottawas had closely allied themselves with bands of the Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes. In 1746, the three related tribal groups formed a loose alliance, the Three Fires Confederacy. That year, taking advantage of the vacuum created by the rapid disintegration of the once mighty Illinois Confederacy, the Three Fires, moved south from their current homes in Wisconsin and Michigan into northern Illinois where they settled along the Kankakee, Illinois, DesPlaines, DuPage, and Fox rivers.

Waubonsee was the principal war chief of the Potawatomi tribal bands in northern Illinois. Little White School Museum collection.

The three tribal groups mixed and intermarried freely. Shabbona’s first wife was Pokanoka, the daughter of a Potowatomi chief. Likely based on his skill as a warrior and his leadership ability, Shabbona, although an ethnic Ottawa, was elevated to chief of that Potawatomi band upon his father-in-law’s death.

The Three Fires remained mostly neutral during the Revolutionary War, although they leaned towards the British, and it’s likely individual members of the confederacy may have participated on the British side.

After the Revolution, and despite the British crown ceding the region to the new United States, British military and trading forces stayed on in the Old Northwest, where they kept the area in turmoil by supporting such anti-American Indian chiefs as the Shawnee military and political leader Blue Jacket.

It’s likely Shabbona participated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when Blue Jacket fought U.S. government forces under Gen. Anthony Wayne in modern Ohio. The U.S. Army won that battle, and broke Blue Jacket’s alliance. Shabbona’s name appears on the Treaty of Greenville signed between the western tribes and the Americans that ended that phase of the conflict, suggesting he had more than a passing interest in the outcome.

Despite that setback, agents working on behalf of both the British Government and British fur trade companies continued to support Native American defiance of U.S. government and economic control. Starting in the early 1800s, the influential Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother, called the Prophet, established the Wabash Confederacy. Comprised of tribes in Ohio and the Illinois Country, its goal was to evict the Americans from the area northwest of the Ohio River—the Northwest Territory. In 1810, Tecumseh made a recruiting trip to Illinois, when he visited Shabbona’s village, then located southwest of Chicago on the Illinois River. Shabbona was won over by the Shawnee chief’s political vision, and joined him, traveling throughout northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin lending his local prestige to recruit more members of the Wabash Confederacy.

The Native American nationalist leader Tecumseh was killed in action during the Battle of the Thames in Canada during the War of 1812. Granger Collection, New York.

In 1811, when Gen. William Henry Harrison marched on Tecumseh’s base at Prophetstown in Indiana, Shabbona, along with local chiefs Waubonsee and Winamac, led their Potawatomi contingent alongside Tecumseh’s other allies against the Americans. At the Battle of Tippecanoe, like Wayne before him, Harrison’s forces prevailed, and the tribes scattered back to their homelands.

But just a year later, war again broke out again, this time between the U.S. and Britain, and the Old Northwest became one of its major theatres of operation. Shabbona and other Potawatomi chiefs allied with the British and participated in the battle and subsequent Fort Dearborn massacre at Chicago. After the battle, Shabbona and Waubonsee both used their influence to save lives of several captured Americans.

Then they led their forces to Canada where they joined Tecumseh’s Native Americans fighting the invading U.S. Army, again under the command of Harrison. At the Battle of the Thames in Ontario Province, Shabbona fought beside Tecumseh until the Americans prevailed, the allied Indian and British army was beaten, and Tecumseh killed in action.

Following that defeat, Shabbona returned to Illinois to think things over. After much deliberation, he concluded further military opposition to the Americans was fruitless. In 1827, when the Winnebagoes decided to fight the incursion of American settlers on Indian land in southern Wisconsin, Shabbona and other Three Fires chiefs helped defuse hostilities.

Shabbona’s reserve granted in the Treaty of 1829 was located in Section 23 and the west half of Section 26 and the east half of Section 25 of Somonauk Township, DeKalb County, Illinois. In this original U.S. Township Survey Plat, Shabbona Grove is outlined in green.

At least partly in return for his efforts to stop a shooting war, Shabbona received, in the Treaty of 1829, a land grant of two sections, 1,280 acres, that became known as Shabbona Grove, and where the chief maintained his village. When the land was finally surveyed, it was legally described as Section 23 plus the east half of Section 26 and the west half of Section 25 of modern DeKalb County’s Shabbona Township.

Then Black Hawk’s band of Sauk and Foxes crossed the Mississippi River back into Illinois in the spring of 1832. This time, thanks largely to Illinois Gov. John Ford’s incompetent military and political leadership, an actual shooting war broke out, with both state militia and U.S. Army troops marching against Black Hawk’s group of roughly 1,200 men, women, and children.

Just as in 1827, Shabbona again worked hard to defuse hostilities. While he was able to keep most of the Three Fires bands officially out of the conflict, he wasn’t entirely successful trying to keep individuals out of the war. Realizing the dangers angry individual members of the Three Fires posed when fighting broke out along Old Man’s Creek, he and his nephew, like a pair of latter day Paul Reveres, rode up the Fox River Valley warning settlers to flee to either Ottawa or Chicago.

One group of pioneers who had gathered at the Davis claim on Indian Creek in LaSalle County just south of Kendall County declined to leave, and were killed by Potawatomis in revenge for Davis’s brutal treatment of them.

Following the Black Hawk War, the U.S. Government decreed that in accord with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, all Native People were to be removed from Illinois, and in 1836, most were moved west of the Mississippi under threat of military force.

Shabbona and his wife accompanied Three Fires groups who began leaving Illinois as early as 1835, although he did not give up title to the reserve he’d been granted for the benefit of himself and the Three Fires band he led. He returned to Illinois in 1837 and lived on his land at Shabbona Grove until 1849 when he left to visit Kansas. When he returned in 1852, he found that his reserve had been illegally sold at public auction. And the money from the sale, instead of being held in trust for him, apparently reverted to the government.

This 1871 plat book view of Shabbona Grove shows no evidence the chief used to own most of the grove. But it does show the numerous woodlots the grove has been subdivided into by settlers needing timber for firewood and building materials.

It’s never been adequately explained just how the theft of Shabbona’s land happened, either. After all, other reserves granted by various treaties—including two here in Kendall County—were owned until legally sold by their Native American owners, who were fairly paid for them. It’s also interesting, that official maps of Kendall County still sometimes show the outlines of those reserves, unlike Shabbona’s reserve in DeKalb, which was almost immediately erased from the region’s maps—almost like DeKalb’s leaders wanted to erase all evidence of the old chief’s ownership.

That the two sections of timber were extremely valuable to DeKalb County’s earliest settlers goes without saying. The county was almost entirely prairie with only a few groves, the largest of which was Shabbona’s grove. After its sale, early maps show that its new owners lost no time in subdividing the grove into dozens of valuable woodlots the settlers needed for building materials and firewood.

A few years later, a group of area citizens who remembered the contributions the old chief had made to the region bought him a small 20-acre farm near Seneca, where he lived for the rest of his life.

In an interesting historical sidelight, in 1858 he attended the first Lincoln-Douglas debate at Ottawa where he reportedly greeted his old Black Hawk War comrade, Abraham Lincoln, and where he was seated on the dais with the rest of the dignitaries.

Chief Shabbona’s granite marker purchased and emplaced by his former neighbors long after his death and the later plaque installed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1983.

Shabbona died on his farm July 17, 1859, and was buried at Morris in Evergreen Cemetery. For many years, his grave was unmarked, but then his old neighbors took up a collection to place a huge boulder on his grave with the simple inscription: SHABBONA 1775-1859. Finally, in September 1983, a bronze plaque, donated by the Illinois State Organization of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, was placed in front of the boulder with the inscription, “CHIEF SHABBONA – Born in 1775, this gentle man of peace, friend of white settlers, died July 17, 1859, near Morris, Grundy Co., Illinois.”

In 2001, the U.S. Department of the Interior, after years of study, finally decided that, yes, the old chief’s land was stolen from him all those years ago. They have been in talks with the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi, the logical heirs of Shabbona, as well as the current owners of the land stolen from the chief as well as the local governments involved ever since, to see how that wrong done so many years ago might be at least partially righted.

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Filed under Environment, Fox River, Fur Trade, Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Native Americans, People in History, Semi-Current Events

A homegrown activist and advocate to remember during Gay Pride Month

Few people would consider our small village of Oswego to have been a hotbed of activism during the town’s history, but it turns out we’ve produced our share of advocates and inspired others throughout the years.

Velma Young Tate

We made the latest discovery of an Oswego-related activist down at the Little White School Museum just this month. Museum manager Anne Jordan was looking around for any local connections to the annual observance of Gay Pride Month. She admitted she didn’t have much hope given Oswego’s history as a small farming town before its late 20th Century  population explosion. But it turned out that Velma Young Tate, whose family was among our early settlers, was a local connection to the LGBTQ+ community, and an important connection at that.

The activism part of Tate’s gay rights advocacy was nothing unusual for the extended Young family. Phoebe Margaret Phillips Young, Tate’s great-grandmother, who had arrived in Oswego with her parents in the early 1840s, was an early and vocal temperance activist, who was also apparently active in the women’s suffrage movement.

A Phillips cousin, Jim Phillips, gained national attention in the 1960s and 1970s when he became exasperated at the lack of environmental regulations and the devastating effect that lack was having on the ecological health of the Fox River Valley where his family had lived for so long. Phillips assumed the identity of “The Fox,” an environmental crusader whose exploits to publicize egregious pollution all over northern Illinois soon gained national attention, including mentions in Time Magazine and National Geographic.

And then there was Richard “Dick” Young, a mild-mannered Oswego native and one Phoebe Margaret’s great-grandsons, who became another champion of the environment. He was instrumental in the formation of the Kendall County Forest Preserve District, the Oswegoland Park District, Kendall County’s zoning laws, and the Kane County Environmental Protection Agency. He’s the only Illinois resident with forest preserves named after him in two different counties.

In a photo taken about 1913, Velma Young and her younger sister, Rose Marie, appear to be a couple of happy children. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Velma Young Tate came by her activism naturally; it really was a family thing. She was born a few miles upriver from Oswego in Aurora, Illinois in 1913, the daughter of Marshall and Elsie (Collins) Young.

Both Marshall and Elsie came from solid Oswego stock. The Collins family were English immigrant farmers, memorialized to this day by Collins Road just outside Oswego. Meanwhile, Marshall was the son of Jay and Carrie (Hoag) Young. Jay and his brother Lou C., were well-known Oswego carpenters, while their father, John Abel Young, was a prominent Oswego wagonwright and blacksmith. John Abel had married Phoebe Margaret Phillips in 1853, cementing the Phillips and Young families.

Marshall Young moved around a fair amount, spending some years up in Elgin. And on June 10, 1930, Velma graduated from Elgin High School. In 1935 she earned a two-year scholarship to Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois. While there, she became a member of the Socialist Party and began a lifelong pattern of advocacy for social issues.

Velma Young’s Elgin High School senior picture, taken in 1930.

After earning her two-year degree, she was qualified to teach in one-room rural schools. She taught one year in Plattville here in Kendall County, and then moved on to Mount Carol where she taught for one school year before her marriage. She and William Jerry Tate were married in Mt. Carol on May 10, 1939.

Subsequently, the couple moved and eventually ended up just east of Oswego at what was then called Tamarack Corners, the intersection of Heggs and Simons roads. Jerry was an electrician, though not very successful, while Velma got a job in Aurora working at Pictorial Paper Packaging Company as a switchboard operator.

She had apparently begun writing after having her three sons, including twins, in 1940 and 1942. On March 12, 1946, the Kendall County Record reported from Tamarack that: “Mrs. Velma Young Tate is one of the contributors in the March Household, the author of an article on the radio, written in a humorous vein. Mrs. Tate, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Young, is the mother of three lively young sons, but finds time to write both prose and poetry.”

“Whisper Their Love” was a 1957 lesbian pulp novel by Velma Young writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. Now collectible copies in good condition are price at nearly $130.

Things, however, were apparently not happy in the Tate household, made worse by her husband’s reported drinking problem and even worse when Velma discovered in the early 1950s that she was gay.

In 1953, she published her first novel, The Hired Girl, which earned her $500. She later said she took the money and “bought a pair of shoes, two dresses, and hired a divorce lawyer.”

That year, the couple divorced, and she took her three boys to live in “The Colony” in Chicago. From that time on, she became a successful novelist and poet, often writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor. She also became a strong advocate for gay rights and was well known as a speaker and advocate for that and other causes.

Velma Young Tate made her living writing under the pen name of Valerie Taylor.

In Chicago, she got a job, Ironically, as assistant editor at the conservative publishing house Henry Regnery & Sons, where she worked from 1956 to 1961.

After that she concentrated on social activism including feminism, elder rights, and like her cousins, environmentalism. She also accelerated her writing, churning out a number of novels and other works under a variety of pen names, most prominently Valerie Taylor.

According to her Wikipedia entry: “Due to her notoriety in the lesbian pulp fiction genre, as well as her public activism during her time in Chicago, she was dubbed one of the ‘Lesbian Grandmothers of America.’ Cornell University, which houses her literary estate, calls her novels ‘pulp fiction classics.’”

In 1978, after the death of her partner, attorney Pearl Heart, Velma moved from Chicago to Tucson, Arizona. The next year, she became a Quaker. In 1993, her health began to decline. She died Oct. 22, 1997 at her Tucson home.

After her death, her literary estate was donated to Cornell Library’s Human Sexuality Collection and her name was added to the list of other members of the LGBTQ community at the Tucson Gay Museum.

That two of Oswego’s related pioneer families would generate two cousins who became nationally-known advocates and activists in two separate areas is one of those hidden connections that makes even the most local of history so fascinating.

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Filed under entertainment, Environment, family, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Women's History

The history of getting hitched around these parts has ranged from fleeing in terror to public entertainment

On May 1, 1831, young Edward G. Ament and Emily Ann Harris were married by pioneer Methodist Missionary Rev. Isaac Scarritt, and thereby became the first couple to be wed within the bounds of what eventually became Kendall County.

From that time on, weddings multiplied as the frontier first caught up to the lands along the Fox River here in northern Illinois, and then moved on ever farther west until the nation’s boundaries reached the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Rev. Scarritt had arrived in Illinois from Connecticut in 1818—the year the state was officially established by an act of Congress—first setting in Edwardsville before being assigned to take over dissolving the Methodists’ Fox River Mission in 1828. The joint Methodist-U.S. Government mission had been established on the Fox River at the mouth of Mission Creek in modern LaSalle County just south of the current Kendall County line. After winding up the mission’s affairs, Scarritt moved with his family to what is today’s DuPage Township in Will County, building his cabin near the forks of the DuPage River.

Scarritt was appointed the first justice of the peace in the area and so was the closest legal authority to legally conduct the Ament-Harris marriage. The U.S. has always maintained a somewhat curious official attitude towards marriage. It has always been considered a binding legal contract between two people (and, by association, their families), and so unlike births and deaths records of them have always been carefully kept. A legal marriage conducted by a justice of the peace or other officer of the court does not need a religious blessing to be legal. Nor does a religious wedding conducted by a minister or briest need to be blessed by an officer of the government. But both are considered to be legal unions in the eyes of the law.

So with Edward and Emily Ann’s marriage conducted by Isaac Scarritt, who was both a Methodist minister of the gospel and a justice of the peace, their union was doubly safe.

Just a few days after the young couple was married, the Black Hawk War broke out, and all the White settlers in the Fox, DuPage, and Des Plaines valleys fled for their lives, those on the northern reaches of the streams heading first to the cabin of Stephen Beggs—another Methodist missionary making his home where Plainfield is located today—and those on the southern reaches of the rivers getting to Ottawa as quickly as possible.

In an interesting note on the living conditions of those early settlers on the Illinois prairie, Scarritt left his claim so quickly he didn’t have time to grab a pair of shoes, suggesting a lot of those settlers went barefoot in warmer weather to save expensive footwear. The tradition is that when he eventually got to Chicago’s Fort Dearborn and safety, he was asked to preach a Sunday sermon for which he had to borrow a pair of shoes to avoid the embarrassment of speaking to a crowd shoeless.

As for Edward and Emily Ann, early Kendall County historian the Rev. E.W. Hicks dryly reported “…they took their wedding trip two weeks afterward, when they fled from the Indians.”

And then there was the no less interesting wedding when early Montgomery settler William T. Elliott decided to marry the lovely Rebecca Pearce, daughter of Elijah Pearce, a member of the numerous extended Pearce family that also were the first settlers here in Oswego Township.

This plaque near the Dieterle Memorial Home in Montgomery marks Elliott Creek where William Elliott built the cabin he and Rebecca Pearce Elliott called home. (Montgomery Patch photo)

Seventeen year-old Rebecca was more than willing to marry Elliott, a 19 year-old go-getter. But her father, when asked, was not yet willing to let the young lady leave his household. At that time, 1834, neither Kane nor Kendall County had yet been established, and the nearest place to get legally married was Ottawa. So Elliott walked the roughly 40 miles where the county clerk told him that since Rebecca was only 17, the bans would have to be announced in a church for two weeks before a license could be issued.

With no churches yet established in the Fox Valley, Elliott despondently trudged back upriver to Montgomery. But shortly before he reached his cabin, he happened on the Rev. N.C. Clark, one of the region’s earliest Congregational ministers, known by one and all as “the kindly Father Clark.” After hearing Elliott’s story, Rev. Clark suggested that on Sunday Elliott come over to the Naperville cabin where Clark’s nascent congregation was meeting, and announce the bans. Rev. Clark said he’d take care of making sure the second announcement was made as well.

In the meantime, Elijah Pearce had heard that the bans had been announced over in Naperville, but was under the impression they’d only been announced once. Thinking he had an entire week to go over to Naperville to protest on the second reading—which had already taken place—Pearce headed into Chicago for supplies. Meanwhile Elliott had hustled back down to Ottawa, obtained, the marriage license from the LaSalle County Clerk, hustled back upriver to Montgomery where Rev. Clark happily married William and Rebecca.

Elijah was reportedly pretty upset when he got back from Chicago to find his daughter was now Mrs. Elliott, but after a night’s sleep decided maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to happen. And thereby on Aug. 3, 1835, William and Rebecca’s marriage became the first in what eventually became Aurora Township.

Tom (Charles Sherwood Stratton) Thumb’s wedding to bride Lavinia Warren on Feb. 10, 1863 at Grace Episcopal Church in New York City proved a wild financial success for showman P.T. Barnum, Stratton’s boss. Eventually, Stratton financially bailed Barnum out and the two became partners. (Costume Cocktail image)

Over the next several decades, weddings became quite a bit less exciting, with no Indian wars to cope with and a much shorter walk to the county seat to get a license. Church weddings gradually more popular, although marriages at home and in church parsonages seem to have been more the rule than the exception until after World War II when more elaborate marriages became the norm.

And, in fact, weddings eventually became the basis for some popular—if fairly unusual—community fundraisers in the early years of the 20th Century.

In the Feb. 25, 1914 Kendall County Record, the Oswego Parent-Teachers Club—ancestor of today’s PTAs and PTOs—announced plans to present a Tom Thumb Wedding fundraiser. Tom Thumb Weddings had been developed as comedic musical entertainment events with a community’s school children playing the parts of the groom and bride—based on the 1863 marriage of P.T. Barnum’s diminutive cast member, the wildly popular Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton) and his real life bride Lavinia Warren—as well as a large cast of other members of the wedding party and guests.

Photographer Dwight Young snapped this photo of the 1914 “Tom Thumb Wedding” performance in downtown Oswego’s Woodmen’s Hall. (Little White School Museum collection)

Performances of Tom Thumb Wedding fundraisers began in the 1890s in Pennsylvania, but then gradually spread as their success began to become more widely known. As an indication of the productions’ rising popularity, Walter H. Baker & Co. of Boston, Massachusetts published “The Tom Thumb wedding” script in 1898. Concerning the cast according to the Baker script, “there should be a minister, bride and groom, maid of honor, groomsman, father and mother, bridesmaids, ushers, guests, and flower girls.”

A Tom Thumb Wedding script published in 1895 by Eldridge Entertainment House, Inc. of Franklin, Ohio and Denver, Colorado.

The Oswego performance was an apparent success, the next week’s Record reporting: “The Tom Thumb wedding at the Woodman Hall Tuesday evening was well attended and a pleasant affair. Clement Burkhart as groom and Gladys Parkhurst as the bride, with their attendants made an interesting bridal party. Too much credit cannot be given all those participating.”

Apparently adults couldn’t wait to get in on the mock wedding fun, and within a few years, “womanless weddings” became popular amateur fundraising events where prominent local business owners and other luminaries—all men—dressed in costume and participated in the all-male events. The events proved popular in the Midwest during the years of the Great Depression.

On Feb. 19, 1930, the Record announced that “The XIX Century club of Oswego have procured the services of the Sympson Levi Producing company of Bardstown, Ky. to stage “The Womanless Wedding,” which has been put on so successfully in our neighboring towns. The dates will be March 17 and 18.”

The all-male cast of the 1930 Oswego “Womanless Wedding” production performed twice on successive nights in March 1930 on stage in the Red Brick School gym. (Little White School Museum collection)

According one script, “As title indicates, no women are to be used in this play, unless desired. Special care should be exercised in the selection of the cast. Use prominent men. Men taking ladies’ parts should wear ladies’ shoes if possible.  A small groom and large bride will prove effective. Have costumes and stage effects as elaborate as possible. An altar draped in red, white and blue is appropriate.”

Unlike the Tom Thumb Weddings, a professional director came as part of the production and there was little music and much more dialog by the characters in Womanless Wedding scripts, including racist depiction in blackface by Black participants.

By all accounts, the community found the production highly entertaining, especially given the prominence of men portraying the cross-dressing “women” in the cast.

The cast of the 1930 “Womanless Wedding” presented on stage in the Red Brick School gym included about every prominent man and boy in Oswego, from schoolboys to bankers to doctors. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reported the March 26, 1930 Kendall County Record: “The Womanless Wedding” has passed into history. It was one of the most talked of and enjoyable events in Oswego for some time. Many were unable to obtain seats. The parts were very well taken.”

In fact, the community had such a good time, they decided to produce their own version of the production, although this time not a wedding spoof. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Jan. 27, 1937 that “The womanless play, “Ladies for a Night,” given at the high school gym last Thursday and Friday, netted nearly $100 and everyone a lot of fun.” It doesn’t sound like a lot to us today, but back during the late Depression years, $100 was pretty big money—roughly $2,000 in 2022 dollars.

These days, although some communities still do produce variations on Tom Thumb Weddings, the political struggle over LGTBQ rights have pretty much put paid to womanless wedding productions. And when it comes to actual marriages, “destination weddings” seem to be all the rage nowadays, with people dragging friends and relatives all over the country and even off to foreign climes to witness two people getting hitched for better or worse. The good news is at least most of those newly married couples won’t spend their honeymoons fleeing to the nearest fort.

If you’re interested in chatting about some more entertaining Oswego wedding history, don’t miss Little White School Museum Manager Anne Jordan’s next History Happy Hour at the Fox Valley Winery (in the old Main Street fire station), set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 8. Residents of the Oswegoland Park District can register for $15 and non-residents for $25–registration includes one glass of wine to enjoy during the evening’s discussion about Oswego wedding history. Preregistration is required by calling the park district at 630-554-2999 or visit their web site at https://www.oswegolandparkdistrict.org/.

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Filed under entertainment, family, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, religion, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized, Women's History