Category Archives: Technology

Reapers have vanished, but not reaping…

The other day, as I was driving there and back again, the CNBC business news came on the radio, and the newsreader launched into a piece about the weather affecting crops in the Midwest. Farm income is expected to decline, he reported, and as a result stock prices for farm equipment manufacturers are expected to decline. That’s because, he said, farmers will be “buying fewer tractors and reapers.”

In reply to which I muttered under my breath that I suspected the horse collar market would be pretty soft, too. And the buggy whip market didn’t even bear thinking about.

To be fair, the newswriter was probably trying to get the idea across that farm equipment manufacturers in general might be seeing some tough times on the horizon. You can almost see the words rattling around in the writer’s heat—what do farmers use out there on the (as the Chicago Tribune once put it) the rural plains? Well, tractors, sure, but what else to farmers do? They sow and they reap—they must use reapers!

You’d think the media big boys would be able to afford to hire folks who know a little something about what they’re writing about. It’s entirely possible farmers will be buying fewer tractors next year, but farmers haven’t bought reapers for well over a century now.

Cutting grain with scythe & cradle.jpg

Using scythe and cradle grain was cut by hand. Then it had to be gathered into bundles and piled in shocks to dry before it was threshed, again by hand.

A reaper, like a corn planter or a hay rake, was a machine with a special purpose—it cut “small grain” (oats, wheat, rye, barley) and prepared it to be bundled and allowed to dry before it was threshed—the grain separated from the stalks and chaff.

Reapers were some of the first harvesting machines and were the product of Yankee ingenuity. Before their advent, grain had to be cut by hand with scythes and then gathered into bundles by stoop labor that was laborious indeed. Only after the bundles were stacked into shocks and allowed to dry would they be hauled to the barn where they’d be threshed to remove the stalks and then the grain winnowed to remove the chaff.

McCormick Reaper

Cyrus McCormick’s reaper mechanized the grain cutting process, significantly improving farm productivity. McCormick Reapers were manufactured in Kendall County in the early 1840s.

With the frontier moving west into the prairies of Illinois where the rich soil produced bumper grain crops, Cyrus McCormick was among those who identified a need for a machine that would ease the labor and quicken the pace of the harvest. He came up with the first commercially successful harvester, a machine drawn by a horse or team that cut the grain stalks and laid them out where two men riding the harvester could bundle them and drop them on the ground to be later stacked into shocks to dry.

McCormick’s genius was his decision not to immediately manufacture all his own harvesters, but instead to sell franchises, letting others bear the cost of building manufacturies and producing his machines. Here in Kendall County, Isaac Townsend bought one of the first McCormick franchises and in 1841 began manufacturing harvesters in a small factory just off what is today Grove Road south of Oswego.

McCormick Binder

McCormick’s binder provided one more step in increased productivity by automatically tying the bundles of grain.

Powered by a steam engine shipped all the way from New York State, Townsend’s Oswego Manufacturing Company produced harvesters for a few years before the realities of his factory’s distance from raw materials and lack of a good transportation system led to its shutdown. But Townsend and the other franchisees helped spur others to perfect and then improve on McCormick’s basic design. In Plano, for instance, the Hollisters and Stewards developed an improved harvester that eventually added the capability to mechanically create and bind the bundles of grain. The development of the binder meant fewer farm laborers were needed to harvest much more grain, and productivity took another giant leap.

1911 East Oswego Threshing Ring

Binders, combined with steam-powered threshing machines provided another huge jump in productivity. Above, the East Oswego Threshing Ring harvests grain in 1911. (Little White School Museum photo)

But even with the binder, bundles of grain had to be stacked to dry and then threshed. The invention of the threshing machine—also called the separator because it separated grain from stalks and chaff—in the 1840s helped a lot. With the invention of self-propelled steam engines that could not only move themselves from farm to farm, but could also tow a threshing machine, too, productivity got another big boost as farmers banded together to buy the expensive steamers and threshing machines.

The increase in U.S. farm productivity in the 60 years between 1830 and 1890, thanks to increasing mechanization, was nothing less than astonishing. In 1830, it took about 300 man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat. By 1890, thanks to mechanization, it took just 50 man-hours to produce that same 100 bushels.

Modern combine

Modern combines have reduced the labor needed to produce 100 bushels of grain by 300 times compared to the prairie farmers of the 1830s.

Farm equipment manufacturers continued innovating and with economical internal combustion engine-powered tractors they also came up with a combined harvester that not only cut ripe grain in the field, but also threshed it to remove the stalks and winnowed it to separate out the chaff. These combines (combined harvesters) were first pulled by those new internal combustion tractors. Later, but not much later, self-propelled combines were introduced. It didn’t take long for the innovators to realize that the same machine could be used for both harvesting small grains as well as the newly introduced soybeans. And then somebody figured out how to design a combine that, just by changing the head—the mechanism that cuts and gathers the grain—on the combine you could turn it into a machine that also picked, husked, and shelled corn. And that leap led to the gigantic harvesting machines you see working in the fields from late summer on—one machine that replaced the harvester, the binder, the threshing machine, the corn picker/husker, and the corn sheller.

What has been the effect of all that mechanization on farm productivity? Nowadays, it takes less than three man-hours to produce 100 bushels of wheat—100 times less labor than it took our ancestors in the 1830s.

So here we are, nearly into September and the harvest of small grains is finished, the soybean harvest is coming up, and the corn harvest is at least on the horizon. For one more season, the farm calendar is shedding pages as folk in the country look forward to bringing in another crop.

 

 

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This family reunion a living link to pioneer prairie farmers

It was a beautiful day last Sunday to hold a family reunion, so it’s lucky that’s what my clan was up to.

From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. around 55 members of the related Lantz and Stoner families got together to chat and have a wonderful potluck dinner, just as they’ve been doing for the last 90 years. The first reunion was held in 1927 at my great-grandparents’ former farm—at the time it was worked by one of their sons—and 127 relatives showed up for the fun. We’ve met every summer since at various places. Although the place has changed from time to time, the reunion’s been held on the second Sunday in August since 1936.

Although there’s only one active farming family in the clan these days, there were some retired farmers in the crowd Sunday.

When the reunion got started, farmers predominated. And, in fact, that first reunion was held “the Sunday after the plowing match,” the minutes of the meeting state. Which plowing match? The Wheatland Plowing Match, of course. And what’s a plowing match? Well, there’s a story there.

The Lantz and Stoner families are both of good Pennsylvania Dutch stock. Baltzer Lantz arrived in 1752 and eventually settled in Lancaster in southeast Pennsylvania. A mason by trade, he helped build forts during the French and Indian War and founded a family that would go on to spread west, first to the tallgrass prairies in Illinois, then to the shortgrass Kansas plains, and finally all the way to the Pacific shore.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape where the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match was held looks more like Nebraska than northern Illinois in his Malcolm Rance photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

A century after Baltzer arrived aboard the ship Phoenix at Philadelphia harbor, his descendants loaded up their wagons and headed west to pioneer new land between the DuPage and Fox rivers in northern Illinois. The prairies of Will County’s Wheatland Township were so treeless they resembled more the flat Nebraska plains than land you’d expect to see in northern Illinois. As a result of that lack of timber, much of that rich land was still unclaimed in 1850 when the Lantz family, along with the Slicks and Shaals and Stoners and others made their way west. Settlement had demanded a lot of timber for building log cabins and outbuildings, splitting into rails for the miles of fences needed, for firewood, and for crafting looms and other tools needed to survive on the frontier. But by 1850, balloon framing using sawn lumber instead of log construction had been invented and was in increasingly wide use in northern Illinois. So houses and barns and machine sheds rose on the prairie with the work of those Pennsylvania Dutchmen and their families.

At the same time, an influx of Scots and English farmers, along with a number of German farmers direct from Germany was also taking place. From the Oswego Prairie east of that village, all the way to the DuPage River, the rich black soil was soon being turned by horse-drawn plows and planted in corn, wheat, oats, rye, and barley.

The groups seemed to work well together, too. The Germans from Germany spoke no English, but they fit right in with the Pennsylvania Dutch, almost all of which still spoke German at home. So prevalent were German-speaking folks around about Naperville in the 19th Century that J.L. Nichols—academic, printer, and namesake of Naperville’s Nichols Library—found it profitable in 1891 to publish The Business Guide, or Safe Methods of Business, a book with instructions in both German and English on how to draw up legal documents such as bills of sale and deeds in each language. I donated my family’s copy of Nichols’ book to the Naperville Heritage Society in 2012.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This image of the 1915 Wheatland Plowing Match shows some of the tents for the dining and exhibition areas. By this time, autos were replacing horses and buggies. (Little White School Museum photo)

The British and Scots farmers also settled in with their German-speaking neighbors, and the entire neighborhood became a real community. The great contribution of the Brits and Scots was the introduction of the latest scientific farming methods that had been perfected across the Atlantic. From proper drainage of wetlands to increase arable land to the introduction of blooded breeding livestock to the best and most efficient way to till the soil, farmers like the Pattersons, Stewarts, and Kings introduced the latest thinking. And the result of that was, a couple decades after they arrived, establishing the Wheatland Plowing Match in 1876.

A combined county fair and precision plowing competition, the annual event drew thousands to the Wheatland prairie each September, which placed it in the relative down time after the harvest of small grains and before the big corn harvest. The Sept. 11, 1879 Kendall County Record gave a good rundown of specifics behind the annual event’s competition:

There will be a plowing match on the farm of William King in Wheatland, Will county, just east of Oswego township Saturday, September 20th. Said match will be open to all residents of the town.

Straightness, neatness, and evenness of furrow to be considered. No plowing to be less than six inches deep.

Each plow will be required to finish three quarters of an acre in three and one-half hours. Plowing is to commence at 9 o’clock, a.m., sharp.

Sulky and gang plows will be exhibited by the agents of different manufactories and tested at 2 o’clock.

Judges of the walking plows: Henry Mussey, Thomas Stewart, George Leppert.

Judges of riding plows: Thomas Varley, Wm. Sillers, and Zach Fry.

The competition continued until 1976. After that, the Wheatland Plowing Match Association continued in business for several years promoting the history of prairie farming in Wheatland Township until they disbanded in 2014, turning over their records and funds to the Naperville Heritage Society.

2016 Reunion

The food tables at the 2016 Lantz-Stoner Family Reunion after folks have filled their plates the first time. The related families held their 90th annual reunion Aug. 13 in Oswego.

Those Pattersons who started the plowing match soon married into the Pennsylvania Dutch farming families, including my own and in the 1890s, the plowing match was held on my great-grandfather’s farm.

As a result of all that intermarrying, when that first family reunion was held in 1927, there were all sorts of families represented from the Pattersons and Lantzes to the Boughtons and Books and a number of others who are memorialized in the names of roads in DuPage, Will, and Kendall counties.

Today, those flat, rich prairies are growing mostly homes, roads, schools, and businesses. Farmers are slowly being squeezed farther and farther west as development starts picking up once again following the big housing bust of 2008. In a way, I guess, our family reunion represents a sort of social memory of that vibrant era of prairie farming when the land and the people were both new, and eager to do the absolute best they could in their chosen profession tilling the soil.

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Surviving another summer in small town northern Illinois

Blogging’s been lighter than usual lately since we took a few days of vacation last week.

Every year about this time we try to head north to get away from the corn that’s tasseled out around these parts, since I’m allergic to corn pollen.

Corn is just a genetically modified grass, and allergy tests done when I was a lad showed that grass pollen really irritates my respiratory system. Not that I didn’t know that already, of course. Growing up on a farm, you couldn’t get away from grass pollen and dust; it was literally everywhere, from the bales of alfalfa and straw in the haymow to the bedding in the chickens’ nesting boxes. And since I was allergic to feathers, too, the chicken house always hit me with a double whammy. Some friends gave me a few pairs of bantam chickens for my birthday when I was six or seven and it turned out to be a gift that nearly did me in.

So, while I loved farming, it was something I simply couldn’t get involved in and continue to live. It was a good thing I finally figured out I could write, I guess.

But anyway, we head north several times a summer, up above the Tension Line in northern Wisconsin. Many of the things to which my body is allergic don’t like living north of Steven’s Point, so that’s where we go.

1888 Dr. Gilbert B LesterIt’s actually an old Midwestern tradition. As the Aug. 26, 1880 “Oswego” column in the Kendall County Record reported: “Dr. Lester has gone to spend some time on the Atlantic coast in Canada and Maine for the purpose of escaping the hay fever.”

It wasn’t that Dr. Gilbert Lester was a sissy, either, serving as a Union Army physician during the Civil War and out on the western plains before coming back to Illinois to practice in Oswego. Even so, Dr. Lester headed north and east every year in August and September to escape what the Record’s Oswego correspondent frequently dubbed “the plague” of hay fever.

This time of year was also a plague for me when I was a kid out on the farm because this is when the small grains—oats and wheat—were ripe and harvesting began. The era of threshing machines was over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the combines that were in use in the early 1950s created just as much dust as had their ancestor steam-powered threshing machines. Although I was spared being blasted with coal smoke from the steam engine, so I had that going for me.

So it was a relief when my folks took me north on summer vacations. Back in those days, there was no home air conditioning to speak of. The only folks who had an air conditioner out in our neighborhood were the Boughtons, something that was considered an odd, frivolous extravagance. Fans were the things. Big window fans, hassock fans, box fans, fans on wheeled carts, fans that oscillated, you name it, someone had one. Even so, those hot, humid summer nights out on the farm when you could literally hear the corn grow were not comfortable for those of us who, it turned out, were allergic to almost every important thing on the farm.

Richardsons Root Beer barrel

Richardson Root Beer barrel dispensers were a familiar sight in drug stores and cafes across the nation in the 1950s. A dime bought a frosty mug of the uniquely American drink.

The move to town when I was 8 was, I guess, a literal lifesaver, although I’ve always missed the farm, even though it was slowly killing me. In town, the nights were just as hot, but the air tended to carry less corn pollen. And there were, I must admit, more things to do.

For instance, there were places a person could actually spend an allowance of a quarter a week. Downtown at the Main Café, a mixed-on-the-spot Richardson Root Beer was just 10-cents in a frosty mug. I didn’t know it at the time, but the café’s soda fountain was the one that had formerly been in Shuler’s Drug Store across the street. When owner Al Shuler got tired of his store becoming a 1950s teen hangout, he sold the fountain to the owner of the café across the street.

As editor Ford Lippold reported in the Oswego Ledger on Dec. 9, 1954: “A fair-sized moving job took place downtown this week when the soda fountain formerly in Shuler’s Drug Store was transferred across the street to the Main Café. The moving of the soda fountain is part of a plan for increasing the facilities of the drug store. The present plan is to use the additional room for new items that are not now available in the community and to increase stocks of such popular items as greeting cards and gift-wrapping materials. The new and greatly enlarged stock will enable Oswegoans to obtain a wider selection and increased service.”

Sure, Al told Ford to put in the paper that he was getting rid of the soda fountain in order to serve the community better, but he was really anxious to get those pesky teenagers out of his store and across the street.

Chest type pop machineOr on evenings when the Main Café was closed, there was always the chest-type pop machine in front of Bohn’s Food Store. You put your dime in, and carefully slid the bottle of whatever soft drink you wanted along the slots to the end, where you could pull it out of the cold water, use the bottle opener on the side of the machine, and enjoy a drink while watching the traffic go by on busy U.S. Route 34. When the bottle was empty, you were expected to go back to Bohn’s and put it in the wooden pop bottle case at the end of the machine. Remarkably, almost everyone did.

Since I was the oldest among our neighborhood gang, on summer days the neighborhood kids would pool our nickels and dimes and I’d be dispatched on my bike down to Bohn’s to get a box of Popsiclesthe latest flavor of Popsicle. Back then, there were a myriad of flavors from licorice to root beer to banana. The trip back from town was always quick, because it was mostly downhill, but I had to ride carefully to make sure the box of valuable cargo didn’t bounce around too much and break any of the two-stick popsicles while hurrying enough to make sure none of them melted too much.

And for those totally bereft of any cash at all, there was the public water fountain at the corner of Main and Washington (Route 34), right next to the phone booth—remember phone booths? Oswego’s was a red and silver beauty that was brightly lighted at night. It

1958 Main St. East side

Oswego’s phone booth (lower left) at Main and Washington in 1958.

was probably the only one in the nation that actually had a phone book in it, too. The public fountain didn’t survive past the early 1950s, unfortunately, but the phone booth soldiered on for many years.

We take so many things for granted these days. Air conditioning makes us much more comfortable than any fan, and for those of us like Dr. Lester who are afflicted with “the plague of hay fever” and severe allergies, the hum of the AC on hot, humid Illinois summer days is a literal lifesaver. Kids’ allowances have inflated since the 1950s, and the places to spend them have grown. But there’s still a café on Main Street where you can get an icy drink, although alas, the Richardson Root Beer barrel and the old drug store soda fountain are long gone. Bohn’s is gone, along with their pop machine, but across the street at the cyclery shop, there’s a high-tech machine that dispenses bottles of healthy water and juice. And just down Main Street, across even busier Route 34, is the Dairy Hut where hungry kids of all ages can enjoy an ice cream cone or whatever. We’re no longer a small town, but have rather turned into a small city. Even so, there are still a lot of those old small town touches that bring back the memories for us increasingly rare natives.

 

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Clichés are sometimes the truth: Everything old is new again

I was reading The Des Moines Register a couple weeks ago, and came across an editorial that immediately caught my eye. “To clean up our water, go ‘nuts’ like this Iowa farmer: Shifting from two-crop cycle can produce profits and environmental benefits.”

Watkins

Farmer Seth Watkins (left) and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Lieberman in a stand of native prairie grasses that help control erosion and also enhance the soil. (National Public Radio photo by John Ydstie)

The piece profiled Iowa farmer Seth Watkins, who has hit on a new way to farm that he says both frees farmers from the Midwest’s near universal and rigid corn-soybean two-crop system. Watkins, instead of going all-in on either two-crop grain farming or raising livestock, does both in interesting ways.

Watkins does grow corn but he also raises oats, alfalfa and other cover crops. He grazes his 600-head herd of cattle on pastureland, and he’s set aside about 400 acres of his land as restored to prairie, ponds, and stream protection.

But he’s not only engaged in building up his farmland, but he says he’s also been seeing better financial returns on his farming operations.

Watkins’ new methods are not simply a success in his own mind, either. The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a new report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits, that suggests adopting Watkins’ methods can help build up soil and decrease water runoff and the resulting pollution. Now you will probably contend that the Union of Concerned Scientists is sort of a far-left group—and you’re right—but even far-lefties are right sometimes–or should I say correct. Especially when their research is backed up by studies from a place like Iowa State University.

An ISU study compared a typical Midwest two-year, corn-soybean crop rotation to three- and four-year rotations that added such crops as oats, red clover, alfalfa and other crops. The longer rotations of corn and soybeans actually increased their yields while also producing surprisingly large decreases in runoff of agricultural herbicides (between 81 and 96 percent), along with requiring a lot less (a decrease of between 43 and 57 percent) nitrogen fertilizer—a big money-saver.

So what Watkins and his fellow travelers appear to have done is reinvent the same kind of diversified farming that was the norm until the adoption of the modern corn-soybean system.

If you’ve read many of the posts here at History on the Fox, or if you read my weekly “Reflections” columns in Shaw Media’s Kendall County NOW newspapers, you already know that I regularly lament the death of diversified farming.

It keeps receding farther and farther into the mists of time, but when I was a little kid growing up on a farm about 10 miles east and a little south of where I’m sitting at my computer typing this post, diversified farming was ubiquitous; it was pretty much the definition of farming.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

In the summer of 1947, Russell Rink bales hay on a farm in east Oswego Township. At the time, hay crops such as alfalfa, clover, and timothy were grown on nearly every farm in Kendall County. (Little White School Museum collection)

My dad raised corn and soybeans, but he also raised oats, alfalfa, clover, and timothy, rotating those crops with a bit of pasture so that the soil had a chance to rest. While the soybeans were all sold as grain, some of the corn was fed to his cattle and the rest went to market. The oats, too, were sold as grain, but a fair portion of them were ground into coarse flour which was mixed with the milk that had been separated from the cream produced by our Guernsey cow, to make the “slop” that his feeder pigs seemed to love so much.

My mother traded the eggs her chickens produced for groceries at Michaels Brothers Grocery Store in Montgomery, and my parents sold the excess cream our cow produced at the creamery in Yorkville.

In those days, chemical fertilizer was only just becoming common. Instead of that, my dad spread the manure produced by the cattle and hogs he fed and the chickens my mother raised on his fields. In that way, the grain and hay crops fed to the livestock, and which they then processed into manure, was returned to the land in a pretty efficient cycle.

In 1950 when I was four years old, the federal agricultural census showed there were nearly 1,100 farms in Kendall County, of which 861 reported having some feeder cattle, 694 had at least one milk cow, and 741 reported raising hogs. All that livestock produced a LOT of manure, which was then returned to the land in lieu of chemical fertilizer.

R.D. Gates at home on his Minkler Road farm, ca 1895

R.D. Gates (center) proudly shows off his feeder hogs as his wife and daughter and hired man look in in this photo taken sometime in the fall of 1897. Most Kendall County farms once raised livestock along with grain. (Little White School Museum collection)

By 2012, the number of farms in Kendall County had dropped to 364, although to be fair they’d just about doubled in size. But there had also been a cataclysmic change in what was being produced on those farms. Of the 364, only 42 reported have some cattle around the place, just two had milk cows, and only nine were raising hogs.

In fact, just about the only reason most grain farmers raise any livestock at all these days is either as a hobby or because their kids are in 4-H, and with the aging of the farm population, that’s an increasingly rare thing as well.

In these modern times, were facing a real agricultural conundrum. Fewer and fewer farms are family-owned, and more and more are corporate operations. And as we all should know by now, corporations care about only one thing: The bottom line. Unlike family farmers who contemplate handing their operations down to the next generation, and so often feel it’s incumbent on them to take care of the land they farm, corporate interests are focused on profits, almost always on short-term profits which are often detrimental not only to the long-term interests of their firms, but sometimes to their entire industries.

So will Watkins’ ‘new’ farming method catch on? It’s not impossible, but it won’t be easy, either. On many farms, the infrastructure that was formerly common—hog houses, barns, chicken houses, and other buildings—are long gone, replaced by grain storage bins and towering machine sheds built to house gigantic modern farm equipment. Raising livestock calls for different skills, too, and requires a lot more time. And is there a market for the oats and the alfalfa, timothy, and clover that my dad grew as fodder for his feeder cattle? Not unless more farmers decided to diversify.

But, maybe. Family farming operations will likely be more amenable to trying it because of their mindset, but maybe the corporations will surprise us all and decide to look beyond next quarter’s profits. Not likely, but possible…

 

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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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How Presbyterians, John Dillinger, and the Depression helped create an Oswego business…

Kendall County has never exactly been considered the artistic capital of the Fox Valley, but the time was, the work of a local commercial artist was sold nationwide. And as part of that process, jobs were created for many local residents at a time when cash was extremely hard to come by.

Larsen

The Rev. Horace Larsen

In the late 1930s, the Oswego Presbyterian Church was looking for a new pastor after the Rev. John Klein accepted a call to a church in Denver, Colorado. After a search, they reached out to the Rev. Horace Larsen who was then filling the pulpit at West Liberty, Iowa, inviting him to come to Oswego to see how he and the congregation liked each other. He spoke at the service in Oswego on the last Sunday in April 1938, and on March 8 the congregation voted to offer him the position.

When Rev. Larsen moved his family to Oswego, he also brought along the tools of his avocation as a commercial artist. For a few years, Larsen had been creating plaques with Biblical themes that he sold through religious supply houses. For each plaque, Larsen hand-carved the armature from which a latex mold would be made. Then the mold was filled with a relatively new plaster-like product being manufactured by U.S. Gypsum called Hydrocal.

Plaque graphic color

The small “Love Never Faileth” (1 Corinthians, 13:8) was first manufactured in Oswego in 1939, and was one of the Christian Art House’s more popular designs. (Little White School Museum collection)

Deposits of gypsum were discovered in the late 1840s along the Des Moines River near Fort Dodge, Iowa. After mining began in 1872, millions of tons of the stuff have been removed from the extensive gypsum beds. Over the years U.S. Gypsum—now known as USG—developed a number of gypsum-based products, including Hydrocal. The company still markets Hydrocal, advertising it as a “Multi-purpose gypsum cement ideal for both solid and hollow casting of lamp bases and figurines. High green strength minimizes breakage during removal from the most intricate latex molds. Achieves a stark, white color, making it ideal for accepting colorants.”

For Larsen’s purposes, Hydrocal was perfect. It’s drying time was not overly fast, and the plaques made from it dried extremely hard, durable, and dead white in color, which meant it was easier to paint them.

Larsen had produced plaques for a year or two in West Liberty, and continued to do the same when he arrived in Oswego. At first, he worked alone in the basement of his home, the church parsonage. As he chatted with members of the congregation, he found at least one who was interested in partnering in producing the plaques.

That was young Ron Smith, who was looking for a new career. After high school, Ron had decided he was interested in learning the undertaking business. So he joined Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home as an apprentice trainee. But it didn’t take long before he began seriously questioning his career choice.

Which is where the Dillinger Gang enters the story.

Thorsen Funeral Home

Ron Smith was a young undertaking apprentice at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home at the southwest corner of Madison and Van Buren Street. When he was tasked with processing John Hamilton’s badly decomposed body, he decided he should get into another line of work. That meant he was available to partner with Horace Larsen to form the Christian Art House. (Little White School Museum photo)

On April 22, 1934, gang members John Dillinger, John “Red” Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter were ambushed by law enforcement officers near St. Paul, Minnesota. Hamilton—nicknamed “Three-Fingered Jack” by the press—was seriously wounded by a rifle bullet in the back as the gang fled in their car. They headed to Aurora here in Illinois where one of the gang’s hangers-on named Volney Davis had an apartment with his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray. There they cared for Hamilton until he died, after which Dillinger, Van Meter, and Davis drove Hamilton’s body south along the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) to a spot just north of Oswego, opposite today’s Violet Patch Park, where they buried him in a shallow grave, pouring lye on his hands and face to hide his identity.

Fast-forward to Aug. 28, 1935, when a team of FBI agents, learning of the location of Hamilton’s body from Davis, exhumed the body. Conferring with local lawmen, Hamilton’s badly decomposed body was removed to the Thorsen Funeral Home, where young Ron Smith was assigned to process and embalm it. Which was the point, Smith told me five decades later, that he decided he needed to make a different career choice.

Fortunately, Larsen arrived a couple years later looking for help, and Smith was willing, ready, and able to get involved in a new Oswego business that didn’t involve decomposed bodies.

The pair called their new company the Christian Art House.

1944 Christian Art House

The employees of the Christian Art House in 1944 with the photo taken outside the firm’s Polk Street factory.

They began manufacturing their plaques in the parsonage basement, but it was soon apparent that more room was needed. So Smith conferred with his in-laws, Fred and Lettie Willis, and the operation was moved to a small addition to the Willis tin shop in downtown Oswego. But that space, too, was quickly outgrown and so Larsen and Smith again approached the Willises, who owned a city lot on Polk Street. With local financial help the Christian Art House built a two-story concrete block building on the lot to serve as their factory. With an eye towards the uncertain future, especially given the on-going Depression, the structure was built as a factory, but was also designed to be easily remodeled into apartments in case their plans fell through.

But the plans did not fall through, and in May, 1940, the new factory was completed.

The May 8, 1940 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that “In February of this year a building permit was granted and the erection of a new plant began. It is a two-story structure, sturdy and attractive, made of concrete blocks and built in such a way that it may be converted into living quarters in later years if desired… The building, designed by Dr. Larsen, will adequately care for the increased volume of business and make possible a more efficient service to the trade.”

Manufacturing plaques began almost immediately.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner with Christian Art House delivery truck.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner pose with the Christian Art House’s delivery truck shortly after the company’s new factory opened in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each plaque’s armature was hand-carved by Larsen. On plaques with relief carving, he was careful to make all angles slope inwards so the latex molds made from the master could be easily removed and that the plaques themselves would easily slip out of the molds. On one of each plaque’s edges, he added an incised copyright notice along with his name, “H.A. Larsen,” the plaque’s item number, and the place the plaque was made, either in West Liberty or Oswego.

After Larsen produced a master carving, it was taken to the factory where molds were prepared by spraying the master with a mold release and then spraying liquid latex onto the master. The latex was allowed to dry and was then peeled off the master, and another mold was prepared the same way.

The latex mold was sunk into a shallow box filled with liquid Hydrocal™, which was allowed to dry, thus providing a firm base for the mold. This was especially important for the larger plaques because the weight of the wet Hydrocal™ could distort the mold and ruin the plaque.

World Plaque

Larsen produced this unusual round design for the Christian Art House in 1940, featuring the verse from John 3:16 on a scroll superimposed on a cross, which is superimposed on the Earth. At 8.25″ in diameter, it’s one of Larsen’s larger efforts. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the plaques dried, they were removed from the molds and taken to the drying room. There, they were allowed to cure in the room’s elevated heat and lowered humidity.

After the plaques had thoroughly cured, they were taken to the paint room and were sprayed with a brown tinted antiquing paint. The plaques were then ready for final decorating, a job that was done by local women who worked at the Christian Art House part time.

During the late depression years of the late 1930s and the immediate pre-war years, the Christian Art House offered local women the chance to earn cash wages. While wages were only about 25 cents an hour, that was a fair amount in those years when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.

According to interviews with former paintresses, a specific color was painted each day. For instance, on a given Monday, everything green on whatever plaques to be decorated was painted. On Tuesday, blue portions of the plaques were painted, and so on.

Besides it’s women employees, the Christian Art House provided jobs for a number of men. Men engaged in the actual production work and other jobs that required heavier manual labor. In addition, part-time male workers were also employed from time to time for such labor-intensive tasks at unloading railcar loads of Hydrocal on the siding at the Oswego Depot. The men not only earned cash for this work, but were also sometimes also given complimentary plaques, a practice that spread them throughout the community.

2009 Plaque Factory

The old Christian Art House factory as it looks today as an apartment house on Polk Street in Oswego.

Besides the firm’s Oswego factory, plaques were also reportedly produced in Chicago, where female students from the Moody Bible Institute were employed part-time as paintresses. Also, the firm had a Toronto, Canada factory during the 1940s.

Christian Art House wall plaques were marketed on nationally-broadcast radio programs such as “The Lutheran Hour.” In addition, they were sold through religious supply houses including Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Larsen’s designs included both relief and incised schemes, and almost always featured familiar Bible verses. Along with Bible verses, each plaque included various religious images familiar to Protestants. These included the empty Cross, signifying the risen Christ; oak motifs, including leaves, twigs, and acorns, relating back to the cross, which was thought to have been made of oak; lilies; open books representative of the Bible itself; and others.

Besides purely religious imagery, however, Larsen also experimented with a variety of other motifs, including the globe and also tried out various textures. He also combined standard motifs, such as small scrolls, with others, such as crosses, to come up with compound motif plaques.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The Christian Art House exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The smaller plaques made inexpensive gifts, and were often given by Sunday school teachers to their students. Larger plaques were given as gifts and purchased as home decorations.

The Christian Art House business was finally dissolved in 1958. But even today, more than a few Oswego homes still sport some of Horace Larsen’s plaques. In total, his output still stands as probably the largest body of work by any Oswego artist.

Today, you can see some examples of Larsen’s work at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, which has an entire exhibit dedicated to Larsen and the Christian Art House.

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