Category Archives: Technology

The Fox River’s still recovering from “Gaslight Era” pollution…

I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”

It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.

The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.

Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.

A typical manufactured gas plant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.

Clip from the Aurora Beacon-News showing the old gasometer on Hurd’s Island in the Fox River near downtown Aurora. (Courtesy the Aurora Then and Now Facebook page)

But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.

The Aurora Gaslight Company’s relatively modest manufactured gas plant at River Street and North Avenue in 1888. (Courtesy Sanborn Fire Insurance Company Maps)

Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.

Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.

John Edwards’ acetylene gas generator from a 1901 advertisement in the Kendall County Record.

In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.

All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.

Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.

On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”

Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”

Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.

By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.

In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.

Aurora’s manufactured gas plant 1883. Solid waste from the plant was dumped on the riverbank and eventually into the river, as can be seen from the piles of refuse in the photo above. (Vernon Derry collection)

But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.

By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “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.”

By 1907, Western United, the successor to the Aurora Gaslight Company, had considerably expanded it’s plant and facilities on River Street at North Avenue in Aurora. (Sanborn Fire Insurance Company)

In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”

It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.

The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.

The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.

The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”

By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.

In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.

Nicor, which supplies natural gas to millions of customers in northern Illinois, is a direct descendant of the old Western United Gas and Electric Company.

They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.

These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, Environment, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Semi-Current Events, Technology

Will County’s namesake made money from salt…and slavery

It’s not an exaggeration to observe that most people are ignorant of the history of their state, county, or the town in which they live. Part of that is due to how mobile our society is these days. A vanishingly tiny number of us live our entire lives in the same town or even in the same state. As a result, the history of the places in which people find themselves living really has little meaning for them because likely as not, they expect to be moving on again fairly soon.

The recent pandemic and the massive changes in the nation’s economy it’s caused—I’ve seen it dubbed the Great Pause, which I think fits it nicely—has also paused much of the nation’s former mobility. But I’d be surprised if it didn’t resume after COVID is beaten.

Not only do people’s transient lives militate against learning about local history, but so does the modern educational system. State-mandated standardized tests, with their national norms, cannot test local historical knowledge and so unless classroom teachers think it’s important enough to take time away from teaching to the tests, local history is ignored.

But having lived in the same area virtually all my life, and having lived on the same street for 66 years, I’ve seen local issues come and go that would have been considerably smoothed out had people had any knowledge of their community’s history. Because there are reasons why things are as they are. Sometimes they aren’t necessarily good reasons, but roads were not just arbitrarily sited, school districts weren’t created at the whim of some far-away bureaucrat, and municipal boundaries are like they are because of decisions made a long time ago by people who thought they were doing the best they could for their communities.

Will County, Illinois

One of the things some may wonder about is how local places got their names. For the most part, these were not names mandated by those far-away bureaucrats, but were picked by the residents who lived there. County names, however, were indeed given by the Illinois General Assembly, whether local residents liked them or not. My own county of Kendall, for instance, was named in opposition to the one—Orange County—local residents favored in order to honor one of former President Andrew Jackson’s political operatives.

On the other hand, Will County’s name didn’t seem to raise much, if any, opposition when it was given.

Dr. Conrad Will was one of the many Pennsylvania Germans—called the Pennsylvania Dutch by their British neighbors—who came to Illinois in its earliest days and then became active in both local commerce and government.

But Will was also known for something a lot less savory than were typical Pennsylvania Dutchmen. He was not only a business owner, but also one of the few legal Illinois slave owners.

Will was born near Philadelphia, Pa. on June 3, 1779. After he studied medicine for a while, he moved west, probably traveling to Illinois via the well-traveled Virginia-Tennessee migration route. He reportedly arrived at Kaskaskia in 1814. The next year he moved to land along the Big Muddy River in what is now Jackson County, located near the southern tip of Illinois. In 1816 or thereabouts, he obtained a government lease on one of three profitable salines the U.S. Government deeded to the Illinois Territory.

This sketch portrait is the only image of Conrad Will I’ve been able to find.

Salines, or salt springs, were valuable natural resources on the frontier, and the profits from their leases provided a good chunk of early Illinois’ revenue. The water from the springs was evaporated, using a relatively elaborate process for the era, and the salt that remained was then sold.

On the frontier, salt was used for everything from seasoning food to preserving meat and hides. In inland areas away from the coast, salt springs like those that bubbled to the surface in Saline County or in the Illinois Territory’s Randolph County were prime sources for the indispensable material.

In order to make sure speculators didn’t buy up the leases and hold them to drive up prices, the federal leases required the holders to produce a set amount of salt each year or pay a penalty.

In the spring of 1816, the year Jackson County was formed by breaking off a portion of Randolph County, Will traveled back to Pittsburgh to buy a batch of giant cast iron evaporating kettles. Each of the big kettles could hold about 60 gallons and they weighed about 400 lbs. each. The kettles were floated down the Ohio River to the Mississippi on a flatboat, and then transported up the Mississippi to the mouth of the Big Muddy River, and from there up to Will’s saline operation.

To increase productivity, Will deepened the saline spring and installed a horse-powered pump to raise the salt water into a large basin. From there, the salt-laden water it ran via wooden pipes to the kettles, which were lined up side-by-side resting on a long brick firebox. The first kettle was filled with salt water, a fire lit under it, and the evaporation process began. In turn, the increasingly salty water was ladled into each kettle down the row where it was further evaporated until only a salt paste remained. The paste was then dug out of the last kettle and allowed to air dry. After it dried, the raw salt was crushed, shoveled into sacks, and shipped down the Mississippi to Kaskaskia, St. Louis, and beyond.

Jackson County, Illinois

As you might imagine, the labor to manufacture the salt was hard, hot, grueling work, something with which the federal government assisted by allowing slaves to be imported into Illinois for the purpose of its manufacture. Although the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory north and west of the Ohio River, special territorial laws and constitutional provisions permitted exceptions at the salines.

Illinois’ first constitution, approved by Congress in 1818, continued to allow slaves to be leased for use in the state’s salt works, and it also allowed a form of indentured servitude that was virtually indistinguishable from slavery.

So with slaves and government lease in hand, Will continued his operation. Generally, one bushel of salt could be extracted for every 2.5 to 5.5 gallons of water from the saline. But sufficient salt water to evaporate wasn’t the problem; fuel to keep the evaporation process going was. At first, wood fires were used (a large plot of surrounding woods was part of the saline lease). As the nearby supply of wood was exhausted, the evaporation operation was moved farther and farther away from the saline spring. Ever-lengthening spans of wooden pipe, made by splitting logs in half, length-wise, hollowing out the interior, and then strapping them back together, were used to keep the salt water flowing into the evaporation kettles.

As Jacob Myers wrote of the saline operation in Gallatin County in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society: “The problem of securing fuel was a great one, because of the distance it had to be hauled. As the timber was cleared away the furnaces were moved back farther and farther from the wells and the brine was piped by means of hollow logs or pipes made by boring four-inch holes through the log lengthwise. These were joined end to end, but the joints were not always tight and there was much loss from leakage. It has been estimated that over one hundred miles of such piping was laid from 1800 to 1873.”

Section of original log pipe uncovered at the salines by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

With the scarcity of wood, salt manufacturers turned to the use of coal to keep the brine boiling, and as luck would have it coal was close to the surface in the area of the saline springs and could be reached by drift and slope mines.

The salt business was a hard one, and Will apparently decided politics might be a better way to make money. He was one of Illinois’ first state senators when the state was established in 1818 and in 1820 he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives. He died in office on June 11, 1835.

With their colleague’s death still fresh in their minds, when a brand new county was formed by partitioning Cook, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties in January 1836, the General Assembly voted to name it after Conrad Will.

Will was just one of a group of salt manufacturers who imported slaves into Illinois, and who later imported even more slaves while calling them “indentured servants.” This form of slavery was not completely banned in Illinois until 15 years before the Civil War began.

Today, we remember Conrad Will as a politician and namesake for Will County. But like many historical characters, it turns out he’s carrying a lot more baggage under the surface than he appears to be.

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What’s in a name? A job, a trade, a profession, that’s what

The late Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, was once the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Harry Fuller was the former, and long-time, village president here in Oswego, Illinois. My friend Tom Fletcher is a retired history teacher and former member of the Kendall County Board.

What does each of these people have in common? Each has a last name that is descriptive of a trade that is, largely, lost in the mists of time.

Once upon a time, even here in our area of northern Illinois, individual craftsmen (and women) worked to provide residents with the things they needed to live comfortable lives. Unlike today, people living in the 19th Century did not go to a huge department or hardware store and purchase things like shoes, clothing, tools, or other necessary items. Instead, they went to individual craftsmen and women, who in turn, made each item by hand. These craftspeople, working in their specific trades, each had a name that described their profession, a name that was eventually given as a surname to the descendants of those who first engaged in those trades.

The best-known of these professionals were the smiths. Since there were so many kinds of smiths—coppersmiths, tinsmiths (also known as whitesmiths), and blacksmiths to name a few—there are a corresponding large number of families with the name of Smith.

1880 abt Young blacksmith shop retou

At his shop, located at Tyler and Madison streets in Oswego and shown here about 1880, John Young did both blacksmith and farrier work, and also built wagons and did wheelwright work. (Little White School Museum collection)

While blacksmithing is still commercially practiced today, it is a much more limited trade than in the past. A century and a half ago, blacksmiths, doing business in every crossroads hamlet and town in the country, manufactured and repaired the tools that built America, as well as turning out more mundane things such as nails, bolts, and hinges that literally held homes and businesses together. But early on, blacksmiths did not shoe horses, mules, and oxen—that job was done by the farrier. Gradually, however, the term blacksmith came to mean, in common speech, someone who shoes horses, even though those tradespeople are still officially farriers. Today’s modern blacksmiths, like my friend Tom Korthauer, specialize in sharpening, repairing, and sometimes making tools.

Another smith, the gunsmith, spent his time making and repairing pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Before guns came into wide usage, English archers became feared for use of their longbows (made by boyers) that fired arrows with shafts a cloth-yard in length. Those arrows were made by fletchers.

Meanwhile, the cooper was busy making barrels, pails, panikins, piggins, and other wooden containers while using the specialized drawknives, pod augers, and kerfing saws of his trade.

Even coopers specialized, however, and white coopers, for instance, usually found in larger towns, made mostly round grain measures, firkins, sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of basswood or poplar shaved thin with sharp drawknives.

firkin

A firkin is a small to medium wooden cask that can come either with or without a handle.

Wrights also derive their names from a wide variety of skills. Housewrights, not surprisingly, built houses. More specifically, housewrights were responsible for the framing and all the materials of the shell— the four walls and roof. The inside of the house, the woodwork and built-in cabinets, were finished by joiners who, again, worked their creative magic with specialized tools.

Millwrights were the jack-of-all-trades specialists who not only built the mill buildings, but who also were experienced at the critical work of siting and building dams and manufacturing mill machinery. Professionals who only operated mills and who were responsible for maintaining and sharpening the millstones were known as millers, a trade that has become another common surname.

Cartwrights built two-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles while wagonwrights, or wainwrights, built wagons and other four-wheeled horsedrawn vehicles. They build the wagon running gears and boxes before making use of the output from the local wheelwright. Of the two—wagons and wheels—wheels were far more complicated to make and good wheelwrights were worth their weight in gold.

In order that hides from either wild or domestic animals could be used, they had to be tanned and softened. Hides were tanned by the tanner, a process that dried and chemically preserved the leather. After a hide is tanned, however, it is very stiff (rawhide). In order to make it pliable and give it a good surface finish, the leather had to be processed by the currier.

Spinning

Spinning was one of the many home crafts that disappeared when cheap factory-made cloth became available.

Instead of buying their clothing, pioneers made their own. They grew the sheep that were sheared for wool and the flax plants that could then be spun into woolen and linen yarn. The spinning was often done by older unmarried female family members, thus the not particularly kindly term spinster. The spun yarn was then made into cloth by the weaver.

After wool was woven into cloth it had to be fulled to cleanse it of oil and dirt and to compact its fibers and raise the nap. At first, this was done at fulling parties where neighbors sat in a circle and stamped on the soap-saturated cloth with their feet. This was neither efficient nor very effective, however, for large-scale wool making. So, fullers built and maintained mills that did the work with wooden machines powered either by animals or by water.

Shoes were made by the shoemaker, who was sometimes called a cordwainer until the early 18th Century. Shoes were repaired by the cobbler.

These and other traditional crafts have provided the basis for a good deal the names in modern phone listings. Tailors made clothing while chandlers made candles and tinkers repaired metalware such as pails and basins. Carters drove carts and wagons while baxters (or bakers) produced baked goods. Parkers maintained parks while foresters maintained forests. A collier mined or sold coal while a sherman (or shearman) trimmed the nap of freshly woven woolen cloth.

For those of us interested in history and how things came to be, it is noteworthy that something as commonplace as a phone listing carries clues to the way our culture has developed and changed during the past 400 years.

 

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Filed under Business, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Technology

The farming calendar once ruled Fox Valley life

Even the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic can’t alter the rhythm of the seasons. So sheltering in place or not, spring is here and another planting season for farmers here in northern Illinois’ Fox River Valley is upon us.

The various orders from state and local officials to avoid crowds and stay out of public won’t have much effect on this year’s planting season, although some items farmers need, such as protective gloves and masks might be hard to come by, because farming is a pretty solitary endeavor.

Farmers are already out in their fields working the ground for planting. There won’t be much planting just yet because there’s still a pretty good risk of frost, but it won’t be long until it starts. And when it does, it will, like the harvest, use up every day’s good, dry daylight until the job’s done.

These days, farmers either specialize in grain or in some form of livestock. Most around these parts are grain farmers. But things were quite different in the past—and not all that far in the past, either, unless you consider the 1950s some sort of distant historical epoch. And I guess I understand if you do, although it seems a lot like just yesterday to me.

Farmers of the ‘50s worked smaller farms and engaged in diversified agriculture. That meant growing a wider variety of crops than is the norm today, as well as keeping livestock around the place as a money-maker and not as a hobby.

Today’s major crops of soybeans and corn were joined 70 years ago by oats, rye, barley, perhaps a bit of wheat, and hay crops like alfalfa, clover, and timothy. Farmyards were busy places since a lot of diversified farms kept at least a milk cow or two, hogs, chickens, and, in the fall, beef cattle.

3 1938 Husking Stewart corn

In 1938, Graeme Stewart used a 2-row Case husker to harvest two rows of corn at a time. (Little White School Museum collection)

The crops grown on diversified farms fitted together with the farmers’ livestock like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some corn was used to feed cattle during the winter, with most of it sent off to market. Soybeans were also market crops, but beans, at least on our farm, weren’t used as animal feed. The small grains—oats, wheat, rye, barley—could be used as feed, and the left-over straw from their dried stems was used as livestock bedding. Northern Illinois, after the settlement era, was not wheat country due to the climate so a wheat field during that era was, as it is today, a curiosity. Hay crops like alfalfa were baled during the summer growing season and used as fodder for feeder cattle during the winter.

1940 Stewart farming corn

After husked ear corn dried in this temporary bin in 1950, Graeme Stewart hired a machine to come to his farm to shell it. The corn was then either hauled to market or kept to feed animals on the farm. (Little White School Museum collection)

The puzzle pieces of crops and livestock began to be put together during the spring planting season. Farmers rotated crops to allow the soil to rest and to recharge it with nutrients. Corn ground was planted the next year either with beans, alfalfa, or timothy. Beans fix nitrogen with their roots, which, in turn, helped the corn, oats, or other crop to grow better the next year. Alfalfa and timothy, plowed under in the fall or spring, also returned nutrients to the ground, too. Some farmers tried to get a jump on spring fieldwork by plowing in the fall, but many did not, both because they were too busy harvesting and because wind erosion of bare plowed land could be substantial during Illinois’ often windy winters.

After plowing and harrowing in the spring, the ground was seeded. Corn and beans were planted in rows to allow easier weeding—called cultivating by the farmers. Oats and other small grains were broadcast on the ground, usually from an endgate seeder on the back of a wagon, although they were planted in rows with grain drills in some farming areas. Hay crops like alfalfa were seeded with endgate seeders, too.

2010 12-row corn combine

By 2010, combine harvesters like this John Deere could pick and shell 12 rows of corn at once, vastly increasing farm productivity. (Daily Globe News photo, Worthing, MN)

When the crops began to grow, it was time to hire some local youngsters to walk the bean rows to hoe out volunteer corn stalks. The annual crop rotation resulted in corn growing up in bean rows, and other problems, too, including milkweeds, velvet weeds, and other pests. Although tractor-mounted cultivators could plow between the rows and uproot weeds, it was harder to get between the plants. Some farmers still “horse-stepped” or checked their corn rows, leaving equal spaces between each hill to allow diagonal cultivating, but the technique sharply cut the number of plants in a field, and thus reduced the yield. Most relied on teenagers (or themselves) walking the rows with sharp hoes to cut out “volunteer” stalks of corn in the beans and other weedy pests. Morning glories, hollyhocks, and other pests my farmer father roundly cursed (and which now turn up in trendy perennial gardens) also had to be hacked and burned out of fence rows by hand. Today’s effective herbicides have largely made those chores obsolete.

The small grains ripened first and were harvested in mid to late summer. By the 1950s, the huge steam-powered threshing machines of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had given way to tractor-towed combined harvesters compact, efficient, and economical enough for individual farmers to buy their own.

1897 Harvey Threshing Ring

Steam threshing outfits like this one owned by the East Oswego Threshing Ring were obsolete by the end of World War II. One combine could do the work of all this machinery, plus others needed for the small grain harvest.

During the steam threshing era, most farmers could not afford their own machines and so banded together in cooperatives to buy a threshing outfit that consisted of the threshing machine, a steam tractor to power it, and generally a water wagon and/or a coal wagon. During the harvest season, the machine was moved from farm to farm of the members of the cooperative to harvest their grain in turn, and thus the general name for these groups: Threshing rings.

But by the 1950s, most farmers harvested their own grain, which was either hauled to the nearest grain elevator for sale or storage or stored on the farm for use as animal feed. Oats, once the fuel that powered horse-driven farm implements, was mostly used by the 1950s for hog feed, although there was still a market for it as a food grain. The straw left in the field after the combines finished their harvest was raked and baled for use as animal bedding during the winter months.

1950 tractor-pulled combine

By the 1950s, one farmer with a tractor-pulled combine could harvest as much grain as a dozen farmers using a threshing outfit, and do it an order of a magnitude faster.

Soybeans ripened next, and were also harvested with combines. The stalks were not usable for feed or bedding, however, and so were left in the field to be plowed under and added back to the soil.

As fall rolled around, corn picking time approached. Farmers used either towed or tractor-mounted machines that picked and husked the orange-yellow ears, which were stored in the farms’ corn cribs to dry. After the ears had thoroughly dried, the kernels were shelled from them local businessmen who owned corn shellers. Corn shellers, like the threshing machines of previous years, were usually too expensive for an individual farmer to buy, and so a business niche was created.

modern grain combine

Modern computer-controlled grain combines are bigger, faster and more efficient than their 1950s ancestors, as well as more expensive and far more complicated.

After the corn harvest, cattle and hogs were turned into the fields—all of which were fenced—to glean the grain that had not been picked up by the mechanical harvesters.

During the winter months, the straw baled during the late summer harvest was used to bed chickens in their nests and cattle in their shed. Alfalfa was fed to cattle in feed bunks along with commercially purchased feed supplements and sometimes—if the farm had a silo—silage that had been put in the silo earlier. Hogs apparently enjoyed what my father called slop, made with either water or raw milk from our cow mixed with oats ground to a course flour.

In the spring, the cattle and hogs were sent off to market, and the cattle yard and hog and chicken houses were cleaned of the manure that had accumulated over the winter. The waste was then loaded aboard manure spreaders (ours carried the upbeat brand name, “New Idea”), and spread on fields, retuning the nutrients back to the soil.

And then whole process began again.

Except for the Amish and a few other small groups, diversified farms are as dead today as the Dodo Bird. Modem crop science and mechanical technology have helped boost crop yields. Today, a modern combine can be fitted with heads to harvest corn, with the corn efficiently removed from the cobs as it’s harvested—thus no more need for the neighborhood corn sheller—as well as any other grain from oats to wheat. But even with all that modern technology, crop science, and chemicals, a visitor to rural areas still sees the occasional stalk of stunted corn intruding into a neat field of soybeans or velvet weeds marring the perfectly straight rows of young corn.

A time-traveling farmer from the 1950s would have no trouble identifying today’s farms, and, in a month or so, what crops are growing on them. He would, however, probably be surprised at the size of the farms and the equipment working on them as well as the small number of farmers needed to handle today’s sprawling agricultural operations.

 

 

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After 42½ years, no more newspaper deadlines to meet—for the time being…

For the past 42½ years, come every Sunday evening I’m starting to think about a topic for a column—I’ve been writing a weekly column that mostly deals with local history for a weekly newspaper here in Oswego since the early autumn of 1977.

So it seemed more than a bit odd this past Sunday to realize I wasn’t working against any sort of deadline at all. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the newspaper group that owns the weekly Oswego Ledger has decided to suspend all their stringers—including columnists like me—“for the time being.” Not sure if that means forever, but given the newspaper business’s on-going financial problems it wouldn’t surprise me.

I started writing a local history column I called “Epochs” back in 1977, which my old elementary school classmate Dave Dreier published in the Fox Valley Sentinel.

1949 Oswego Ledger flagBack in those days, Oswego had two weekly newspapers. The Oswego Ledger was the oldest paper, having been started by Ford Lippold in 1949. Ford published the Ledger on a Mimeograph machine in his basement, with his whole family participating in assembling each week’s edition. The Ledger was a local institution that, while it was a free distribution weekly duplicated on tan 8-1/2 x 11” paper, covered the local news pretty professionally. In March 1965, Ann and Don Krahn bought the Ledger and turned it into an offset printed tabloid-sized paper, still published weekly but on a subscription basis.

1949 Oswego Ledger front pageI lost touch with Dave Dreier after his folks moved up to North Aurora when we were in sixth grade. As an adult, he had been involved in a variety of business interests before he came back to the Oswego area and went to work for the Krahns at the Ledger. Shortly thereafter, Dave and his friend Steve Keierlieber decided to start a competing Oswego weekly they named the Fox Valley Sentinel. Their business plan called for them to not only cover Oswego, but also Kendall County government as well as expanding coverage north to Montgomery, Aurora, the East and West Aurora school districts, and the Kane County Board. Their first issue was published in 1974, and from the beginning the competition between the Sentinel and the Ledger was fierce.

As for myself, I had no idea I could write until my wife and I volunteered to help produce a county history during the nation’s Bicentennial celebration. Until the county history was published, the commission turned out a series of monographs on local historical topics (two of which I co-wrote and two of which I helped edit) as well as the hard covered history itself in which I was responsible for writing a couple chapters and helping edit others. The books and monographs proved popular and helped fund the county’s celebration.

1982 Bartlett House cropped

The Fox Valley Sentinel office was located in the historic Bartlett House on Main Street in Oswego. Built about 1837, it may be the oldest house in Oswego.

By 1977, I was forced to retire from my job due to severe rheumatoid arthritis, and was looking for something I could do at home to earn a little money. Since the history we’d produced during the Bicentennial proved pretty popular I figured maybe I could write a local history column. I hadn’t seen Dave for nearly 20 years, but when I stopped down at the Sentinel office, we hit it right off again. I pitched my idea to him about writing a column on local history topics. Unlike a lot of budding columnists, I at least had some published examples of my writing to show. And it didn’t hurt that we were old, old friends.

Did I think there’d be enough material to do more than a few columns, he wondered. Yes, I said, I thought there’d be enough for several. Well, write three and bring them back and Dave said he’d see. Which I did, and which he did, and he offered me the gig.

“What do you want to call the column,” he wondered. “It’s got to have a title.” I had no idea, really, it turning out that coming up with headlines is something I’m really bad at (as you can tell if you’ve read much of this lame blog). But I finally suggested “Epochs” had a sort of historical ring to it, and he thought that would work. My first piece was published in the Sentinel on Sept. 1, 1977. And except for the odd hospital stay and various non-hospitalized illnesses I’ve been writing a column a week ever since.

Sentinel Flag 1978Dave prevailed on me sometime in 1978 to cover some of the Sentinel’s news beats. I reminded him I had no journalism experience other than writing my “Epochs” column, to which he replied that he didn’t have any, either, and so what? And after witnessing the horrible political news coverage during the past few decades, I have to admit that my one-time awe of J-school grads has pretty much disappeared.

Newswriting, Dave explained as we sat in his cluttered Sentinel office, isn’t much different than writing a history column. The writing should be clear, accurate, and fair. Write news stories like you’re explaining the topic to your parents, he suggested. Then pulling a crumpled envelope out of the overflowing wastebasket next to his desk, he drew an upside-down pyramid on the back with a blue editing pen and explained, “This is the inverted pyramid. You write your stories like an inverted pyramid Put the important stuff up front, and less important stuff farther down so I can cut the less important parts if we’re tight on space. It’s really not difficult.”

And I found that after telling readers historical stories I’d researched for a while, writing news stories wasn’t difficult—but it was challenging. Get a date wrong in a historical piece by a couple years, and who would know or care? But getting a decimal point wrong in a tax story and a LOT of people cared. Since I’d grown up in Oswego, a lot of the people on boards and commissions had known me since I was a little kid, and they weren’t the least bit shy of collaring me at the grocery store or the drug store or the gas station to let me know what they thought about stories in the most recent edition.

I’d always disliked math, but after school I’d found myself working for a company where all I did all day was math, using a giant, startlingly noisy mechanical Frieden calculator. The main thing I took away from that job was memorizing the decimal equivalents of fractions all the way up to 32nds. So it was actually a relief of sorts when I was forced to retire from doing math all day. But in writing local news, I found I was back doing lots of math once again, figuring percentages of property tax increases, working on local taxing agency budgets, writing census stories, trying to explain school test scores—you name it.

By the summer of 1980, Dave had come to the conclusion that the Oswego area’s advertising base really couldn’t support two weekly papers. By that time, Jeff and Kathy Farren had added the Ledger to their small Kendall County Record, Inc. chain, joining joined the Kendall County Record and the Plano Record. Dave and Jeff talked things over down at the Oswego American Legion bar and Dave agreed to sell the Sentinel to the Farrens. The Farrens merged the two papers, with the new paper named the Ledger-Sentinel.

Ledger flag2000Along with adding newswriting to my part-time job, I’d also kept writing my weekly column and when the Farrens bought the Sentinel, they asked me if I’d come on board as the new paper’s part-time editor, photographer, reporter, janitor, whatever. And they asked if I’d continue writing my column. Jeff and Kathy didn’t care for the name—neither did I—so we decided to change it to “Reflections,” and “Reflections” it’s remained right up until today.

I retired from the news business in March 2008, but I agreed to continue writing “Reflections” every week. When the Farrens decided to retire in 2015, they sold the paper to a large newspaper group. I was asked to continue writing my column. The paper’s name was soon changed back to the Oswego Ledger, but I continued writing “Reflections” for each edition. Until last week.

1989 Roger @ KCR Yorkville

The author at work at the Kendall County Record office on a summer Wednesday morning in 1989, transferring files from his TRS-80 laptop to a Mac so they can be edited and run out for paste-up.

The newspaper business has been in serious financial trouble for years, partly because of changes in technology and partly because too many news organizations–especially at the national level–seem to have lost their way, turning management over to accountants instead of news people and allowing their news judgment to be influenced by focus groups and other such corporate-influenced nonsense. And now the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be adding to the existing problem in a way that stands to destroy so many of the weekly papers that still manage to survive, the ones that cover the births and deaths and marriages and local government, school news, and other information communities rely on. And that will be a real tragedy.

Weeklies have withstood a number of serious challenges, especially in small towns where farming was once the mainstay of the surrounding region. Technology and scientific crop advances have drastically reduced the number of farmers needed to till the soil, and that has had major negative impacts on the population of the small towns that were interdependent on farming. Fading populations have led to disappearing churches, social, and civic organizations, and declining school enrollments. The invasion of rural America by big chains like Walmart and the dollar stores has largely destroyed whatever locally-owned businesses remained. And with that went the advertising base that once supported local newspapers. For years, the big chains refused to advertise in weeklies, preferring direct mail instead. Hundreds of communities lost their churches, their schools through consolidation, their downtown business districts, and, as a result, the newspapers that once helped tie those communities together.

2020 Ledger flagI’m hoping against hope that doesn’t happen to Shaw Media, the company that owns the Oswego Ledger and the other papers in the KendallCountyNOW newspaper group. Communities need local newspapers to make sure everyone’s informed about what’s going on. After all, who has time to raise a family and go to all the local governmental meetings that take place throughout the month, from the village, park, and library boards, to the county board, the fire district board, and all the others?

As for me, I’ll continue collecting local history and interpreting it down at Oswego’s Little White School Museum before it all gets thrown in the nearest Dumpster. And I’ll also continue to preserve and publish as much local history as I can by here at History on the Fox to preserve it, at least as long as this electronic format lasts, while I wait to see what happens to the Oswego Ledger and my old place on each week’s opinion page.

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Could we be looking at a repeat of 1918’s Spanish Flu pandemic?

Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

In late December 1915, the Record reported from Yorkville that: “An epidemic of the grip has prevailed in this section for the past month and efforts are being made to stop the infection. Chicago is taking radical measures and every home should take precautions.”

“There is a report that a grip siege is passing over this continent and NaAuSay seems to be directly in its path as many are afflicted with the dread disease,” the Record’s NaAuSay correspondent added on Jan. 5, 1916.

1918 7-7 Camp Grant mess

A mess hall at Camp Grant was pictured on this postcard, illustrating the close quarters the soldiers undergoing training lived in. Hundreds of recruits were afflicted with the Spanish Flu there in 1918.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. Then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely virulent and deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before.

The nationwide outbreak started in the summer of 1918 as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease. That meant the only news about the disease was coming from Spain and thus the name. And, in fact, the U.S. and other governments at war were mightily trying to keep the seriousness and extent of the disease as secret as they could. Unfortunately for them—and for the millions who would eventually die from it—it soon became impossible to deny what was happening.

Here in Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s “Oswego” news column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man. Previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Meanwhile, at the county seat of Yorkville, schools were being affected: “The epidemic of influenza struck the Yorkville high school last week and that branch of the school was closed on Thursday to reopen Monday,” the Record also reported on Oct. 2. “The teachers afflicted are Misses Hatch, Keith, and Klindworth. Superintendent Ackerman says if present conditions prevail, there is no cause for worry as to the rest of the school.”

But in reality, there was plenty of cause for worry.

The very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher’s tombstone in the Elmwood Cemetery in Yorkville. Fletcher and his wife both died of the Spanish Flu at the Navy’s submarine base in New London, Connecticut.

That was easier said than done because the disease struck so quickly and was so deadly. That it respected no boundaries of any kind was illustrated by another story in that week’s Record when the death of Record editor H.R. Marshall’s brother-in-law, Chief Gunner’s Mate A.N. Fletcher and his wife at the submarine base hospital at New London Conn. was revealed. The official cause of their death was listed as pneumonia, but that was often an official euphemism for the flu insisted on by government officials trying to minimize the epidemic’s seriousness. At the time of his death, Chief Fletcher was instructing recruits in gunnery at the New London submarine base. His body was returned to Yorkville for burial. The Marshalls had no idea their family members had even been ill until they were notified of their deaths.

The disease was also hitting recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away.

Funeral Home

Oswego’s Croushorn Funeral Home was operated by undertake George Croushorn. (Little White School Museum collection)

For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office in downtown Yorkville, Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

The local deaths were joined by those from all over the nation. Out in Ottumwa, Iowa, local grocer Frank Musselman (my wife’s grandfather), just 34 years of age, died on Oct. 27, 1918, one of five young Ottumwa men to die that day. All five are buried near each other on a steep hillside in the Ottumwa Cemetery.

The flu epidemic gradually burned itself out—mostly—although there were still many more more deaths to suffer.

Looking back at that pandemic of more than a century ago, it’s hard not to compare it to what seems to be developing with the current coronavirus outbreak. Although officials are not yet labeling it a pandemic, it is clearly spreading at a terrific rate throughout the world. The U.S. government again seems to be concentrating on downplaying the outbreak’s seriousness, although this time they don’t have wartime security to blame. Instead, the disease’s spread and efforts to slow it—medical officials say it cannot be stopped, only slowed—seem to be soft-pedaled for purely political reasons.

One of the main reasons we study history is so that we can learn what works and what doesn’t so that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Unfortunately, we no longer seem to learn from mistakes. Instead, these days the fashion seems to simply deny any mistake happened in the first place and go on our merry way.

The Spanish Flu of 1918 ended up killing tens of millions of people around the world. We now have the means to stop that from happening again. The question will be whether anyone in positions of responsibility has any idea how to make use of those means. Here’s hoping competence wins out over political expedience.

 

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Fox River mills served both Kendall’s rural and small town communities

Water-powered mills were among the first businesses that started operating during northern Illinois’ pioneer period. On ‘my’ section of the Fox River, which runs from Montgomery south to Yorkville, four water-powered mills served the needs of local residents during the 1840s and early 1850s.

Photographs of the buildings—three gristmills and one combined sawmill-furniture factory—exist. But recently I got interested in what was actually inside the mills during their working years. Fortunately, there was a way to find out.

1900 abt Parker Mills

Parker & Sons mills on the Fox River just above Oswego. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the right foreground while the gristmill is across the river just to the left of center. Little White School Museum collection.

For many years, the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company published maps of virtually every community in the U.S. that included accurate building footprints as well as, in the case of commercial buildings, their contents so insurance adjusters would be able to determine the amount of loss in case of fire. And all four mills had been recorded by Sanborn.

Starting with the region’s pioneer millwrights, farmers brought their grain to their local gristmill to be ground into either fine flour or coarser meal. At the mill, the grain was weighed and then shunted by chutes and bins into the smut room to prepare it for milling.

In Oswego, Parker & Son’s mill at the west end of the Fox River dam had two smutters—modern farmers would recognize them as fanning mills—that used mill wheel-powered fans to clean the grain of smut, mold, and mildew and remove the lighter weight bad kernels.

Parker Gristmill

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s image of the Parker gristmill. Little White School Museum collection.

Click here to enlarge.

Then, the grain was directed by chutes to the mill’s five run of millstones. Each run of stones consisted of a pair of circular stones, one of which rested on the other. The bottom stone, or bed stone, was firmly fixed in position, while the upper stone, or runner stone, rotated, powered by the mill’s water wheel. The runner sat on a large iron or steel pin called the spindle that extended through the center of the bed stone and rested on a wooden beam. Using levers, the miller could raise or lower the beam to increase or decrease the fineness of the flour or meal produced, testing the flour’s coarseness with his thumb as it exited the stones—thus the term ‘rule of thumb.’

Each run of stones sat in a wooden tub, called a vat. The miller directed grain into the center hole of the top runner stone through a chute called a shoe. As the runner turned against the bed stone, the runner’s weight ground the grain into flour. As the grain was ground, the flour was forced to the edges of the stones by centrifugal force, where it fell into the wooden vat, and by the vat’s sloping bottom into another chute that routed the flour into bins. From there, it went to the bolters.

Parker’s mill had two bolters that used the mill’s water power to separate newly ground flour into three grades, fine, middling, and bran, the hard outer layer of a kernel of wheat or corn. The bolter was an octagonal reel, usually 16 feet wide, fixed at a gentle incline, and covered with a series of open weave cloths of increasingly coarse mesh. Unbolted flour was directed from a bin into the raised end of the bolter. As the mill’s water-powered machinery slowly turned the bolting reel, the finest flour fell through the fine mesh at the head of the bolting reel, while the bran finally left at the very bottom of the reel.

Parker Gristmill

The Sanborn Fire Insurance Company’s illustration of the Parker gristmill on the west bank of the Fox River at Oswego. Little White School Museum collection.

A middling purifier, also part of the Parker mill’s equipment, separated the coarse bran from the middling flour the bolter had separated in the middle of the bolting process.

In addition to grinding grain into flour or into coarser meal, Parker’s mill also had a corn sheller, where farmers could bring ear corn to have the kernels removed from the cobs. There were also two separators at the Parker mill that could separate farmers’ wheat and oats from the stalks.

Millers accepted payment for processing grain in both cash and by accepting part of the ground grain, whichever the farmer preferred.

Besides his Oswego gristmill, William Parker also owned and operated the William Parker & Son Furniture Factory, located at the east end of the Fox River dam, opposite the gristmill. Nathaniel Rising had added the sawmill opposite the gristmill in 1848. Parker bought the mills and dam four years later. Parker added the furniture factory to the sawmill in 1875 to process the large stands of black walnut trees along the Fox River in Kendall County into furniture.

By 1885, Parker’s sawmill and furniture factory were equipped with two rip saws, three cut-off saws, one scroll saw, and one band saw; a planer and matcher to smooth both sides of the boards produced; one pony planer that smoothed one side of a board at a time; a sticker, a machine that produced small sticks of wood used to separate layers of stacked lumber to allow proper air circulation; a mortising machine and a tenoning machine to produce mortise and tenon joints; one shaper and dovetail machine; a drill press; a lathe; one emery wheel and two grind stones.

The factory produced a variety of chairs, tables, chests of drawers, and other furniture. A walnut Parker washstand is on exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Gray’s Mill, built by Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, still stands at the west end of the Montgomery Bridge. One of the stonemasons who worked on the three-story limestone building was Oswego Township farmer John Hemm. The covered bridge was moved to Montgomery from Aurora, and was replaced in 1913 with a concrete bridge. Little White School Museum collection.

Meanwhile up in Montgomery, the Hord Brothers & Company Montgomery Roller & Feed Mills—now known as Gray’s Mill—had just two run of millstones by the middle of the 1880s. Instead of their previous large run of millstones, the mill’s turbine wheels also ran seven sets of metal rollers that ground grain more efficiently than millstones. A much larger operation than the Parker mill, Hord’s mill featured a large smutter, three bolting chests, each with five bolters, two centrifugal purifiers, three flour packers for collecting and bagging flour, and a separator.

Gray's Mill

Gray’s mill sat atop the wide, and fairly long millrace at Montgomery, where the extra force of flowing water was needed to power all of the mill’s machinery. Evidence of the millrace’s existence can still be seen along the riverbank north of the bridge today. Little White School Museum collection.

Down on the north side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—the Blackberry Mills at the mouth of Blackberry Creek on the Fox River were equipped with a smutter, three run of millstones, a flour cooler designed to cool the warm flour or meal before it entered the bolters, three bolting chests plus three additional small bolting reels, a middling purifier, and a separator.

By the 1880s, the era of water-powered gristmills was quickly passing due to the cost of maintaining them and the dams they required. Floods on the Fox River frequently damaged the dams, and at period of low water, the mills had to close down until enough water started flowing to power the machinery. During the winter months, it took constant maintenance to keep the millraces that directed water to the turbine wheels free from ice—a dangerous, wet, and cold job.

The Fox River Valley’s water-powered gristmills were eventually replaced by steam-powered grain elevators and local furniture makers by giant far-off factories. If you’ve seen the PBS film “Ben’s Mill,” which was produced back in 1982, you’ve seen a water-powered mill in action. If you haven’t, you can get an idea of how clever 19th Century mechanics made use of water power in this excerpt of the film on YouTube. Although water powered mills are long gone from the Fox Valley, some evidence of the time of that water-powered industry is is still around if you look closely enough.

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Quarantines may return if Novel Coronavirus spreads into the U.S.

The Novel Cronavirus outbreak in China, which seems to be rapidly spreading all over the world, is threatening to remove politics from the national headlines.

The pangolin, or scaled anteater, has been named as a possible source of the Novel Coronavirus now afflicting thousands of people all over the world.

From what I’ve read, the disease mutated enough to jump from a wild animal—possibly the scaly anteater, also called the pangolin—to humans in China, where it’s a popular dish. It then proceeded to evolve even further and more quickly to enable it to jump from human to human.

As of Saturday morning when I’m writing this, Cronavirus has popped up in 27 other nations besides China. And the first U.S. citizen, a resident of China, has died from the disease, along with more than 700 Chinese—including the doctor who first identified the new virus. More than 37,000 people have been afflicted with the disease in China, along with thousands more all over the world.

As visitors flee China, some carrying the virus with them, the disease is threatening to become a true pandemic. It appears to pose a much more serious threat than the recent outbreaks of Ebola, although as of today, more people die annually of the flu in the U.S. than have contracted the Coronavirus in China. World health experts are frantically working on vaccines for the new killer, although even if they find one, only time will tell whether that would be effective. After all, the anti-vaccination craze seems to be causing mini epidemics of once-rare childhood diseases like whooping cough and even polio.

But looking back in our own history, there are effective methods of dealing with communicable diseases—it’s just that some people might not be enthusiastic supporters.

Back in the days of our great and great-grandparents, there were a whole host of deadly diseases for which there were no cures. How did they cope? Quarantine was the main public health weapon against everything from scarlet fever, typhus, whooping cough, and smallpox among people, to virulent animal diseases like hoof and mouth disease.

Over in China, 50 million people are subject to quarantine in an effort to stop the spread of Coronavirus, and other nearby countries are rapidly following suit. Whether it will work, though, is anybody’s guess. For instance, Wuhan, the city where the virus first emerged, has a larger population than New York City, and is now under strict quarantine. It’s hard to imagine New York City living under a quarantine like that.

Here in Kendall County, one of the first references to quarantine of any kind I was able to locate appeared in the July 24, 1879 Kendall County Record. Editor and publisher John R. Marshall reported on Illinois’ reaction to the on-going Memphis, Tenn. yellow fever epidemic. “No steamers from below [downstream] are allowed to land at Cairo; the city is in strict quarantine against yellow fever,” he reported.

Quarantine signFor county residents, I found quarantine first mentioned in a March 3, 1886 Record note when correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported from Oswego: “One of Kilbourne’s little girls became affected with the scarlet fever, a very mild case, however, the early part of last week. The family are boarders at Mrs. Teller’s, and that house has been somewhat quarantined. Miss Cox, one of our teachers, who also boarded there, for the reason of precaution immediately changed her place to Mrs. Moore’s.”

One of the major problems in those years was that people really didn’t understand how highly infectious diseases spread, although by the late 1800s and early 1900s, medical advances were coming. Dread diseases like smallpox were no longer quite so fearsome because vaccination had been around for so long.

In the late 1840s, James Sheldon Barber, who had arrived in Oswego in 1843, but who was then living over in Lockport, noted in an April 1845 letter to his parents back in Smyrna, N.Y. that a smallpox epidemic was sweeping through Oswego. He wrote that he wanted to go visit friends there, but had wait until he’d been vaccinated and then assured he hadn’t actually gotten the pox. “I have been waiting to go to Oswego and partly on account of the small pox. I was vacinated [sic] one week ago Monday and worked tolerably well and I have got over it and now feel perfectly safe,” he wrote.

But as late as the 1890s, smallpox could still spook a community, as Rank reported from Oswego on Jan. 28, 1891: “Oswego has had a scare. A lady who had been making a trip to Chicago and had been suffering from a cold had some kind of a rash breaking out on her. A doctor saw her Saturday and said that whatever it was had not sufficiently developed to be sure about and a little precaution might be in order as it might turn out to be a light case of the varioloid. That was enough. In a very short time ‘We have the small pox!’ was spread all over town and then everybody advised what should be done: The school must be closed; everyone who had been in hailing distance of the patient should be quarantined; the writing and sending of letters should be stopped; some of the invitations to social doings were cancelled; money was received with apprehension; some were afraid to go to church on Sunday; all living things in town should be vaccinated, etc. By Monday, however, it was found that it was only a simple case of eruption and the scare ceased almost as fast as it began.”

People weren’t the only ones susceptible to virulent, contagious diseases fought by quarantine. A little more than a century ago, in 1914, a hoof and mouth epidemic broke out in Kendall County creating near panic. Entire herds of cows and pigs were destroyed and entire farms were quarantined.

Foot & MouthUnder the headline “Kendall County Cattle Quarantined,” the Record reported in its Nov. 11 issue: “The spread of the dreaded hoof and mouth disease that has been gaining serious proportions in Chicago and vicinity has brought it into Kendall County and up to Monday morning several herds of cattle had been quarantined. This disease has been prevalent in Europe for a number of years, has been noted in the United States but eight times and never before in Illinois. As a result of the visitation nearly all the northern counties of the state have been placed under quarantine, the Chicago stockyards closed and stringent methods have been adopted by the state veterinarian. Where a case is found in a herd of cattle they are segregated, killed, and the bodies either burned or destroyed with quick lime.”

The last major countywide human quarantine was imposed during the misnamed Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Kendall County was no stranger to influenza in the years before 1918, of course. Back in those pre-World War I days, though, they called it by the name given it by French doctors: the grippe.

On Jan. 1, 1890, Rank reported from Oswego that a newly-named sickness had arrived: “There are two or three new cases of sickness, but merely of the ordinary and domestic kind–none of the new style and imported ‘La Grippe’ in town.”

Over the next decade, waves of the grippe—it’s name quickly simplified to the grip—passed through the community, and its annual presence became fairly commonplace. But the seriousness of the occasional waves seemed to be getting greater as the years passed.

Scattered outbreaks of the grip continued through 1916 and 1917. But then in October of 1918 a newer, deadlier strain of respiratory illness—this time more accurately dubbed influenza—made its appearance in Kendall County. By that time, the nation was deeply involved in World War I, with hundreds of young Kendall County men heading off for basic training, most to Camp Grant near Rockford.

Little did area residents know that an extremely deadly strain of the H1N1 influenza virus had mutated into a far more aggressive and deadly variety than ever experienced before. The nationwide outbreak started in the summer as Navy and merchant ships brought the disease—which had, ironically, actually evolved in Kansas the year before—back to the U.S. after it began ravaging Europe. It was dubbed the Spanish Flu because the press in Spain—which was a neutral in the war—was unhindered by wartime censorship in its coverage of the disease.

In Kendall County, the first case of the new influenza was reported in the Record’s Oswego column on Oct. 2, 1918: “Mr. and Mrs. Harold Russell attended the funeral of her cousin, Howard Byers of Sandwich. He had just received the commission as lieutenant when he was taken ill with Spanish influenza, living but a few days.”

That initial mention included some troubling foreshadowing. First, Byers was a healthy young man, while previous episodes of the grip had largely affected older, less healthy adults. Second, and more ominously, Byers died very quickly

Flu noticeThe very next week, the Record reported: “The influenza has a firm grip on the country but it is gradually being shaken off, say the authorities. Advice offered to everyone is to be careful of that cold or any symptom promising the ‘flu.’ The death rate in this country has been heavy. People have been dying in large numbers in both civilian and official life. The only way to keep the country from a more serious epidemic is to use care in your health.”

The disease was also hitting all those young recruits at Camp Grant hard. There were so many influenza deaths, in fact, that the Army had to import morticians from around the country to process the bodies. Again, the government tried to keep a lid on exactly how bad things were, but a close reading of local news in community weeklies gave the game away. For instance, on Oct. 9, the Record reported from Oswego that: “[Undertaker] George Croushorn is at Leland, where he is substituting for Jake Thorson who has been called to Camp Grant to care for the bodies of pneumonia victims,” adding the significant news that “Otto Schuman of Fairbury, Nebraska, spent an hour in Oswego Tuesday. Mr. Schuman was born in Oswego and in early years moved to Nebraska. Owing to scarcity of undertakers he was sent to Camp Grant by the government.”

Sitting at his desk in the Record office, editor and publisher Hugh R. Marshall seemed at his wit’s end, writing on Oct. 23: “The epidemic of influenza has knocked the bottom out of all social and business affairs. Its spread had caused the stopping of all congregations for any purpose and public gatherings are claimed to be a menace to health.”

Indeed, the “Oswego” column in the Record’s Oct. 16, 1918 edition reported: “Owing to the quarantine placed recently on public gatherings the lecture that was to have been given in the Presbyterian church is not to be given. Owing to prevailing illness, the Red Cross rooms will not be open this week; also the 19th Century Club will not hold their regular meeting.”

Quarantine continued to be a major public health tool to fight scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and polio right up through the middle of the 20th century, with Oswego first grader Dwight Foster being the last student I’ve found, so far, quarantined for scarlet fever in March 1950.

Perhaps with communicable diseases making a frequent comeback, quarantine will make one, too. And on the good side of things, perhaps seeing those red “Quarantine!” signs tacked up on their homes might cause some parents to see vaccination in a different light.

 

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How prairie farming got its start: New program at Oswego museum Saturday

Oxen with plowMany of us believe the era when Illinois really was “The Prairie State” is impossibly remote and bucolic. But the farmers who came to northern Illinois in the late 1820s and early 1830s were practical, scientific, literate and above all, hard working.

At 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, join Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Archaeologist and Tribal Liaison Joe Wheeler at Oswego’s Little White School Museum to discover the people who broke the sod and developed so many of the crops and farming techniques we take for granted as part of the modern northeast Illinois landscape, from siloes to “The Corn Belt.”

The museum is located at 72 Polk Street, Oswego, just a couple blocks from Oswego’s historic downtown business district.

The presentation will focus on the years from 1830 to 1880 when the tallgrass prairie sod disappeared under the hard work of the breaking plow as farmers from the long-settled Eastern states as well as immigrants from England and other countries transformed the landscape.

Pre-registration is recommended but walk-in registration at the door is welcomed. Admission is $5 for the program, recommended for visitors age 16 and older. The program is hosted by the Oswegoland Heritage Association in partnership with the Oswegoland Park District.

For more information, call 630—554-2999, visit the museum web site at https://littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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These are a few of my…

It’s just about Christmas, and most of us are looking forward to some quality family time around the tree, maybe at church, and possibly at the dinner table.

It sounds as if we’ll be enjoying one of those spiral-cut hams here at the Matile Manse on Christmas Day. No Christmas goose for this family, Uncle Scrooge. We tried doing goose for Christmas back in the 1970s and both times we were so sick with the respiratory flu we couldn’t get out of bed, much less participate in a family dinner. We decided Someone was trying to tell us something, so no more goose on the Matile table.

This is also the time of year we remember those Christmases past and the special treats we enjoyed so much. My Aunt Evelyn’s divinity, Grandma Holzhueter’s sugar and molasses cookies, and my mom’s apple and pumpkin pies were all integral parts of Christmas we looked forward to.

1956 Schwinn Corvette

The Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 in a cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

And, of course, there were the presents under the tree. I remember the toy service station I got one year, along with a car transporter truck, loaded with four pastel-colored plastic Hudsons. And, of course, the Christmas when I was seven and got my first Lionel train. Yes, I did get a Red Ryder lever-action carbine when I was 9 or so, and that great red and chrome Schwinn Corvette bike when I was 11 was a beauty. It also taught me, the day I got it, to NEVER do a panic stop with the front wheel caliper brakes while going down our steep gravel driveway.

As the holiday approaches, and with nothing better to do than recover from the persistent cold I’ve had for the past several days, I thought I’d just list a few of my current favorite things, along with some of my pet peeves as 2019 comes to a close. So, with very little further ado, here are a few of my…

Favorite gadgets…

Towel bar

My trusty heated towel bar

When I take my shower every morning, I thank providence for my warming towel bar. The gadget is fixed to the wall in our first floor bath, and gently heats and dries our towels. There is NOTHING better than grabbing a warm towel after exiting the shower.

I’ve carried a pocketknife for decades, starting when I was in grade school. These days, students would probably be either jailed or sent for counseling if they turned up at school with a pocketknife but it was another time back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. To start with, I carried a farmer’s friend pocketknife just like my dad’s. Before he retired in 1964, he sold livestock feed for the Moorman Manufacturing Company of Quincy, IL. The company gave out premiums to farmers for buying their products, and one year around 1958 or so, the premium was a nice four-blade Case pocketknife. I carried that until I discovered Swiss Army Knives back some decades ago. My current Swiss Army version was a Christmas gift from my daughter about 15 years ago. One of my most useful gadgets, I use its knife blade, nail file, and folding scissors just about every day. Less frequently, I use the tiny built-in LED flashlight and retractable ballpoint pen. But its built-in 2gb thumb drive is something I frequently use to carry back-up files around. Clever people, those Swiss knife makers.

Swiss Army Knife

My Swiss Army Knife, complete with sneaker net USB drive.

Those of us with ankylosing spondylitis, after our spines finish calcifying, can no longer bend over to pick up errant coins dropped, shoes, or papers. So to deal with the situation, I’ve got my Gopher picker-uppers scattered around the house and out in the garage and in the storage shed. Since they fold, they’re easy to take on trips, too. A related tool I use just about every day is my collapsible shoehorn that lives on a shelf in my closet.

New food finds…

I tried Popeye’s much-ballyhooed chicken sandwich a couple weeks ago, and have to admit the ballyhoo was fully warranted. I tried Burger King’s spicy chicken sandwich a couple years ago, but didn’t really care for it. To me, there was just too much spice. Last week, I was hungry for another spicy chicken sandwich, but didn’t want to drive all the way over to Popeye’s, so decided to try Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich, which was enthusiastically boosted by my buddy Glenn. In doing so, I found that not only is Wendy’s spicy chicken sandwich really good, but that their fries are even better. If you haven’t tried Wendy’s fries for awhile, I’d advise a visit sometime soon. In the end, though, Popeye’s sandwich is still the champ from my point of view.

Arby's gyro

Arby’s gyro passed the Matile taste test.

Bob, my partner in crime down at the museum, said the other day how good the gyros were at Arby’s. We hadn’t had gyros for quite awhile—it seemed like the 2008 recession killed off most of the nearby spots that sold them. Generally, we have pizza on Sunday night, but last night we decided to try Arby’s traditional Greek gyros, and were VERY favorably impressed. And at two for $6, the price couldn’t be beaten. Granted, gyros perfectionists may not like Arby’s substitution of flatbread for the traditional pita, but we thought the flatbread was softer and fluffier than pitas, and really tasty. And we really liked Arby’s

Year end pet peeves…

As 2019 grinds to a close, as a grumpy old man, I have to include a few of my lingering pet peeves, most of which involve the others I share the road with.

Using your vehicle’s turn signals is not some sort of politically correct suggestion. You’re required to use them by law when changing lanes and when making turns. And you’re supposed to use the signals BEFORE you turn, not as you’re turning in order to give drivers both behind and in front of you a bit of warning what you’re planning to do. In driver’s ed, I learned that on the highway, you’re supposed to use your turn signal 100 feet before you turn and in town, you’re supposed to use it 50 feet before you turn. Please have a little respect for your fellow motorists and use your turn signals like they’re supposed to be used.

Fox River Trail markerThe Matile Manse is located right on the Fox River Trail, a walking, running, and biking trail that extends from Oswego north all the way to the Wisconsin state line. It’s really nice to see so many people using it and seeming to have such a good time doing so. On a warm summer Sunday morning, I swear we see half of Oswego’s population walking, running, or biking on the trail. It’s certainly one of the most heavily used amenities in the Oswegoland area and we owe former Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Bert Gray and environmentalist, naturalist, author, and war hero Dick Young for doing all the deep spadework that made it a reality.

But as the trail passes in front of our house it’s situated right on North Adams Street, meaning all those walkers, runners, and bikers share the trail with cars on North Adams. Since that section of trail is on the street, the rules of the road prevail. That means walkers must walk AGAINST auto traffic and that cyclists must ride WITH the traffic. And, again, I do mean MUST, since it’s the law. It also means walkers and cyclists should NOT split up with half on one side of the street and half on the other side when they meet a vehicle. I usually give kids some leeway with the splitting up part—I remember doing the same dumb thing when I was a kid. But with adults, there’s simply no excuse for this dangerous habit.

Furthermore, North Adams is a dark street with only a few streetlights. Since walkers and cyclists share the street with motor vehicles, it’s extremely dangerous for those walkers and cyclists to be out after dark with no lights or reflective gear, especially if they’re on the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD! Several times when we’ve come home on dark, moonless nights we’ll suddenly come upon pedestrians dressed in dark clothing—black hoodies seem favored—with no warning. So my plea is for walkers, runners, and cyclists to please wear some reflective tape or carry one of those neat blinking strobe lights to give a bit of warning to hapless motorists on dark nights. And that goes for those out walking their dogs after dark, too, especially on rainy nights.

So there, my major peeves, new food finds, and favorite gadgets are all laid out just in time for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Hope you and yours have a very happy winter holiday season and that you’ll stop by in 2020 to enjoy more local history!

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