Category Archives: Transportation

Celebrating the 190th anniversary of “The Year of the Early Spring”

It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.

Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.

Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.

As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.

The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.

The grueling Winter of the Deep Snow led to privation and death for White settlers and Native People alike. Fireplaces consumed between 11 and 17 cords of firewood during a regular winter, each cord a stack of logs measuring 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 8 feet long, all of which had to be cut, stacked, and split by hand.

But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.

As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”

The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.

Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.

Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.

In 1833, John Schneider chose a spot at the mouth of Blackberry Creek across the Fox River from Yorkville as the site of his new sawmill. Here’s what the area looked like when U.S. Government surveyors mapped it in 1837.

Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.

New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.

In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.

Thanks to Peter Specie, Smith Minkler, Peter Minkler’s son, obtained seedlings that he used to breed the famed Minkler Apple, a commercial favorite during the era when cider and cider vinegar were big business.

Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.

Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.

John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.

Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.

Former French-Canadian fur trader Peter Specie earned money by renting his yokes of oxen and prairie breaking plow to newly arrived Kendall County settlers. It cost nearly as much to break the tough prairie sod as it did to buy the land.

Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.

Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.

Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.

The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.

And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”

“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.

This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Montgomery, Native Americans, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Before the colors fade: Local heroes who hid in plain sight…

During my 1950s childhood, we all envied friends whose dads were World War II veterans because so many of them had such cool war souvenirs. From web belts and canteens to equipment pouches, first aid kits, and even U.S. Army leather holsters, that stuff enlivened our hours playing “War.”

But little did we know that several of those dads—and even a few moms—had done far more than their part during the war, only to be determined to come back home to our little corner of northern Illinois and get back into “real life.” In fact, about the only time we saw any evidence of those folks’ service was during the annual Memorial Day Parade when they marched with our local American Legion Post to the cemetery to honor the nation’s war dead.

But from the director of the local funeral home to the carpenter down the street, many of them had stories of pivotal events they’d participated in that they simply didn’t want to discuss with anyone who hadn’t also participated in the same kinds of things they’d seen and done. So they kept their peace in public, lived productive lives by contributing to their communities, and have now passed on leaving others to piece together tales of the sacrifices they made to save their country during the momentous events of the war years.

Two men who spent almost their entire lives in our then-little town are excellent examples of those who served. Their service took them to opposite sides of the globe from each other, but after the war and returning home, they became related by marriage.

When it came to winning World War II, the combat arms of the Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Corps have justifiably gotten most of the attention. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who also fought and died to win the war, from the merchant mariners manning the Liberty Ships carrying vital Lend-Lease supplies across the oceans, to truckers who kept the supplies going to front line troops.

In September, Oswego’s Little White School Museum received two donations from long-time Oswegoland Heritage Association member and frequent donor Barbara Wolf Wood that added to our knowledge of how some of those unheralded participants in the war not only did their duty for their country, but helped win it.

The materials donated came from the estates of Oswegoans Ray Leifheit and Merrill Wolf. Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineering Battalion in the European Theatre of operations while Wolf served in the Seabees in the Pacific Theatre.

Merrill Wolf

The Merrill Wolf donation included his Seabee footlocker, two complete uniforms—his blues and his whites—a 1940s hard hat, and a pair of khaki shorts of the kind Seabees wore during their hard work maintaining the pipeline of supplies to Marine and Navy fighters as well as building the ports and airfields on once unknown Pacific islands to allow the bombing raids on Japan that eventually led to its surrender.

The Seabees were the construction experts for the Navy and Marines. The name stems from the initials for Construction Battalion. The force was created by Rear Admiral Ben Moreell just weeks after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. The original authorization was for a naval construction regiment consisting of three naval construction battalions to be comprised of construction tradesmen. Adm. Moreell realized that using civilian construction crews for the ports and airfields the Navy would need as they leapfrogged across the Pacific simply wouldn’t work. As the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command put it: “Under international law civilians were not permitted to resist enemy military attack. Resistance meant summary execution as guerrillas.”

Wolf, an electrician, enlisted in the Seabees in June 1943 at the age of 32.

He subsequently served throughout the Pacific Theatre, aboard LST-244, working as an Electrical Mechanic First Class. LST-244, was a large ship designed to land tanks and other heavy equipment directly ashore. Ironically, LST-244 was built not far from Wolf’s home in Oswego at Evansville, Indiana. Launched on Aug. 13, 1943, the ship sailed down the Ohio River and then down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From there it was down to Panama and through the canal to the Pacific. Reaching the Pacific Theatre of Operations, the ship and crew participated in the Gilbert Islands Campaign in November and December, 1943; the invasion of Kwajalein and Majuro atolls in February 1944; the capture and occupation of Guam, July and August 1944; and the bloody assault and occupation of Okinawa, April 1945.

Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs) under construction at the Evansville, Indiana shipyard on the Ohio River. The ships were launched sideways into the river. From there, they sailed to the Mississippi River, and down to New Orleans. The shipyard employed 19,000 workers at its height. Today, one of the LSTs like those built there is on exhibit as a fully-operational museum ship. (Courtesy of Evansville Museum/Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library)

After Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, Wolf continued to serve on Okinawa for a few more months. When his discharge number came up, he was shipped directly from there back to the U.S. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 13, 1945: “Merrill Wolf, who had the rank of Electrical Mechanic 1-C, received his honorable discharge at Great Lakes on Nov. 10 and came home to his wife and two little daughters. The younger, June Anne, 17 months, he had never seen. He had been in the Pacific for two years, coming home directly from Okinawa to Seattle and thence to Great Lakes.”

A future brother-in-law already in the Army Engineers

By the time Merrill Wolf enlisted, his future brother-in-law, Ray Leifheit, had been serving in the U.S. Army for almost two years. A carpenter by trade living in the Yorkville area, before the war Leifheit had volunteered for three years to serve in Company E, a unit of the Illinois National Guard’s 129th Infantry Regiment based here in Kendall County at tiny Plattville.

Raymond Leifheit

After induction into the U.S. Army, Leifheit was eventually assigned to Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion, an engineering unit attached to the 9th Armored Division.

He was shipped overseas to England in August 1944, where the 9th Armored Division and the 9th Engineers underwent additional training before being sent to France in October 1944 to aid in the defeat of Germany. The engineers assisted the division in its move across France, first seeing action in northern Luxembourg. The battalion was in the Ardennes Forest area in December 1944 when the Germans launched their surprise offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge.

Leifheit and the rest of his Company C mates found themselves desperately fighting to slow down the German armored spearhead. As U.S. forces retreated, C Company engineering troops worked hard continually creating new defensive positions, blocking roads and destroying bridges, and even fighting as infantry as they withdrew, finally reaching the strategic crossroads of Bastogne on Dec. 19. The engineers then returned to their engineering skills and from Dec. 20-27 blocked six roads south and east of Bastogne to check German assaults from those directions.

It was during the furious fighting to block those roads on Dec. 26 that Leifheit was seriously wounded and captured by the German Army. He was initially listed as missing in action, but in April his parents in Yorkville finally got the good news that he was indeed alive.

A U.S. Army engineer prepares to drop a tree onto a road near Bastogne in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Oswego’s Ray Leifheit served in Company C, 9th Armored Engineer Battalion during the battle. (Courtesy To Those Who Served website)

As the Kendall County Record reported on April 11, 1945: “Mr. and Mrs. R.W. Leifheit received the glad tidings in the form of a telegram on April 7 from the War Department stating that their son, T-5 Raymond Leifheit, who was reported as missing in action Dec. 26, in Belgium, was a prisoner of war of the German government. Many friends and relatives rejoice with them at this word and hope he will soon be released to return home.”

He had been treated in German military hospitals for two months after being wounded before he was liberated by Allied forces, and then spent more time in U.S. Military Hospitals before being finally sent home.

It took some time before he was completely healed. But he eventually did, getting back to his old carpentry profession.

Then on Jan. 3, 1948, he married Mary Wolf, sister of former Seabee Merrill Wolf.

Thanks to those recent donations from Wolf family descendants, the stories of these two World War II veterans will be preserved in the collections of the Little White School Museum, along with so many other stories of the men and women who have gone off to serve their nation in both war and peace, and whose memories the museum is committed to preserving.

As part of their mission to preserve the achievements of the hundreds of men and women from Oswego who have served their country for the last 190 years, the Little White School Museum, 72 Polk Street, Oswego, will host their “Remembering Our Veterans” special exhibit starting Thursday, Nov. 10 and running through Sunday, Nov. 27. Regular museum hours are Thursday and Friday, 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Monday, 4-9 p.m. The museum, located just two blocks east of Oswego’s historic downtown business district, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free, but donations are always gratefully accepted. For more information, call the museum at 630-554-2999, check the museum web site, http://www.littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org, or email info@littlewhiteschoolmuseum.org.

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Filed under Government, History, Illinois History, Local History, Military History, Oswego, People in History, Technology, Transportation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last agriculture census confirmed some trends, revealed some surprises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring and the start of the fur trade’s seasonal cycle likely didn’t include our Fox River

It would have been a grand sight, seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River here in what’s now northern Illinois as the winter fur-trapping season ended. The water sparkling as it dripped off their red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water, and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?

If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.

But the truth is, the Fox River has always been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy at best during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.

Every spring for well over a century, brigades of huge 35 to 40-foot freight canoes—called canots du maître (master canoes) or Montreal canoes—set off from Montreal and Quebec, each canoe laden with some three tons of goods destined for fur trading posts all over the Great Lakes region—and beyond. The route started just above the Lachine Rapids at Montreal on the Ottawa River. Paddling upstream via a number of often dangerous and usually difficult portages on the Ottawa, the arduous route then ran up the small Mattawa River, where paddling upstream ended at its source on Trout Lake and crossed the height of land where streams began flowing into Lake Huron. From there it was down into Lake Nipissing and then into the French River for 70 miles of easy paddling downstream into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for the sometimes stormy paddle to the fur trade depot of Michilimackinac at the straits between lakes Huron and Michigan.

Reenactors portray voyageurs paddling a 35-foot Montreal birch bark canoe as it would have appeared during the period the British dominated the fur trade following the French and Indian War beginning in the 1760s.

There, the goods were broken down into smaller cargoes for smaller 20 to 25-foot north canoes that were handier on the inland trade routes to the actual post of traders, such as the one at Chicago and posts on the Illinois River. The main route to get to the Illinois Country was via the Chicago portage—which, depending on how full or empty the Des Plaines River was could be up to 60 miles long—or the St. Joseph River east of Chicago.

To get to the Chicago portage, the brigades had to paddle right past the mouth of the Root River just south of today’s Milwaukee in modern Wisconsin, a short portage from which led to the headwaters of our Fox River—which is not to be confused with the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. So the Root-Fox route would have cut off some distance to reach the Illinois River, but the Fox usually wasn’t deep enough. Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player indeed.

In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a  shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher—Starved Rock—ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to their destination in central Illinois deciding to go on to Chicago instead of chancing finding deep enough water in the Fox.

Map probably drawn by Rene Paul of St. Louis in 1815 and subsequently copied by Lt. James Kearney, U.S. Army. Paul was St. Louis City Engineer and also worked as a surveyor. (Source: Plate XL, Indian Villages of the Illinois Country, Vol. 2, Part 1, Atlas, Sarah Jones Tucker, Illinois State Museum, 1942)

The route they investigated went up the Root River and then over a nine-mile portage to Muskego Lake in what is today southeastern Waukesha County, Wis., which empties into the upper reaches of our Fox River.

Traveling in 1699, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Seminary priest on his way to the Mississippi River, reported that “some savages had led us to hope we could ascend [the Root River in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [our Fox River] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either.”

Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root–Muskego Lake–Fox route was apparently used by at least some hardy and adventuresome travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.

The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by Native People. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s also likely villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.

During the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which, in turn, moved to their favored winter hunting grounds so as to spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times of the cold and snowy months.

The Fox River is picked out in green on this map of Native American villages in the Fox and Illinois River valleys as of about 1830. (Source: Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, Helen Hornbeck Tanner, University of Oklahoma Press, 1987)

Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.

Press for compressing cured hides into 90 pound pièces for the fur trade. Note the wrapped bundles of hides atop the press and to the right of the press mechanism. I took this photo many years ago at the Snake River Fur Post, a reconstruction operated by the Minnesota Historical Society at Pine City, MN.

The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and, later, British traders starting in the early 18th Century. In the late spring, canoe brigades arrived from Montreal and Quebec to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried, and packed into 90 lb. bundles, called pièces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season–which had been carefully packed in the same dimension 90 lb. pièces as the furs would be–and reloaded the big freight canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the Ottawa River.

By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birch bark freight canoes and were using Mackinaw boats, sturdy double-ended craft that could be either rowed or sailed and could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems and fragility inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, when settlement began in earnest here in the Fox Valley, the fur trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The furbearers had been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur pelt suppliers were being forced west of the Mississippi by government removal policies, and northern Illinois was rapidly being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.

Even though the Fox River may not been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.

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Everyone thought these local landmarks would be around forever, but they’ve completely disappeared…

One of my favorite local history topics through the years has been the changes our small corner of northern Illinois has undergone. In particular, I’ve been interested in those businesses and industries that were once major players in the area’s economy of which there is no longer any tangible evidence.

That doesn’t mean there is no evidence, of course, only that you have to, first of all, know there was something there in the first place, and then that you have to recognize the evidence you’re seeing but which might not register.

For instance, here in our little town of Oswego, Illinois, we once had three water-powered mills. One of them, the Hopkins Sawmill, was located on Waubonsie Creek very close to the village’s downtown business district. The other two were located at the dam that was once situated on the Fox River about a half-mile north of Oswego’s downtown.

Of the Hopkins mill, nothing at all remains—except for notations on legal papers created when the Oswego Public Library District bought the parcel of land along Waubonsie Creek on which the old mill once stood. When that happened, they found that a portion of the property had never been surveyed, presumably because it was covered with the mill pond’s water, and so had become a tiny island of real estate in the middle of town owned by no one. It took the library district’s lawyers a few months to figure out what had happened and why, and then fix it. For me, it once again proved that actions taken around these parts in the 1830s continue to have modern implications.

The Parker Mills about 1900 in a photo taken by Irvin Haines. The sawmill and furniture factory is in the foreground on the east bank of the Fox River. The gristmill is on the west bank with the miller’s house behind it and to the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

Of the other two mills on the river and the dam that provided the water power for them, there is at least some evidence they once existed—provided you know what you’re looking at. Both are now the sites of parks maintained by the Oswegoland Park District, one on either side of the Fox River. Millstone Park, site of the old Parker Gristmill, is on the river’s west bank, while Troy Park, the sawmill and furniture factory site, is on the east side of the river, directly opposite the old gristmill.

Both mills were built right at the dam that spanned the river, with their short millraces running underneath the mills. No tall overshot mill wheels for Fox River mills—at least not this far upstream. Instead these mills were powered first by horizontal tub wheels and then soon after by horizontal turbines. If you’re interested in what a turbine wheel of the era looked like, head up a few miles north to Montgomery and you can inspect one that sits as a sort of unmarked memorial on the river’s west bank just a couple yards above Montgomery’s Fox River bridge.

Turbines like this one on display in Montgomery ran most of the mills on the Fox River.

The mill sites are still marked with quite a bit of limestone flagging that provided the two mills’ foundations, especially around the sawmill site on the east bank of the river. Some of the limestone blocks used to wall the two millraces are still visible on both sides of the river.

Of the dam, not much is visible except the riffle caused by the rubble left behind when the dam crumbled early in the 20th Century. However, if a person looks closely, they can still make out, especially during periods of low water, some of the original timber from the cribs that made up the old dam’s structure. Timber cribs were fastened to the bottom of the river with huge wrought iron stakes before the cribs were filled with gravel and limestone rubble. The dam was finished by being sheathed with thick boards on the downstream side.

Just upstream from the old dam site was another industry that no longer exists, and of which there is no longer, unlike the mills, any evidence at all. Esch Brothers & Rabe built their first giant ice house in 1874, finishing it in time for the 1875 ice harvest. The company gradually added more ice storage houses to the riverbank north of Parker’s dam and mills until there were 20 of them to fill with ice. The northern group of 14 houses each measured 30×100 feet, while the southern group of six houses each measured 30 by 150 feet. Ice in the houses was stored in thick layers, each layer insulated with a thick layer of sawdust.

A lot of ice was harvested, too. Generally the ice harvesting crew consisted of 75 men who worked with horse-drawn ice plows to score 200 lb. ice blocks that were then broken off the frozen surface of the river and floated to the steam-powered elevator that lifted the blocks up to the scaffolds to be skidded to storage. In August 1880 alone, the company shipped 124 railcar loads of ice from the firm’s siding. In total that year, 581 railcar loads of ice were shipped to market from Oswego.

Esch Brothers & Rabe’s giant ice houses above the Parker Mill dam at Oswego. The operation produced hundreds of rail cars of ice annually. (Little White School Museum collection)

What was all that ice used for? Some of it went to homes for food preservation in those new-fangled iceboxes and some went to various businesses for use in soda fountains and to freeze ice cream. But most of it went to the meatpacking industry to keep railcar loads of dressed beef and pork carcasses cool while being shipped to eastern markets.

Gradually, the ice harvest declined due to a number of factors. Pollution of the Fox River prevented its ice from being used in food preparation. Warmer winters resulted in poor harvests, and spring floods damaged the old Parker dam. Then in March 1891, the northern group of 14 ice houses caught fire, probably by a lightning strike, and were destroyed. The southern group of houses was destroyed by fire in 1904. Today, there’s nary a trace of this once-thriving industry.

There is, however, a trace of another once-thriving business, and that’s the depot, sidings, and other facilities once used by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s Fox River Branch Line at Oswego.

The Oswego Stockyards. The Waubonsie Creek bridge on Adams Street is visible upper center, and the old feed mill, later a home on the north side of the creek is visible just to the right–upstream–from the bridge. (Little White School Museum collection)

The line reached Oswego in 1870. At one time, there were two sidings at Oswego, one that served the lumber yard and coal storage sheds (there were four of them) west of the main tracks, and another that served the grain elevators on the east side of the tracks just south of the depot. The depot was located on the east side of the tracks at Jackson and South Adams Street. In addition, there was a livestock loading yard and loading chute between the tracks and South Adams Street just south of the Waubonsie Creek bridge. The west siding not only served the stockyard, but also served the lumber company that had been located at Jackson and South Adams since the rail line was built.

Nowadays, both the sidings have been removed, the stockyard is long gone, and Alexander Lumber, the last lumber company to occupy the site, closed down in 2006. That site is now occupied by the sprawling Reserve at Hudson Crossing apartment, retail business, and parking garage complex. The depot was demolished by the railroad in 1969, the site now paved over as parking for the Oswego Brewing Company’s parking lot.

Another business that made use of Oswego’s rail connection in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Fox River Butter Company. Operating out of their creamery between the railroad tracks and what’s now Ill. Route 25 about an eighth of a mile north of North Street, the creamery was once big business in Oswego with hundreds of dairy farmers sending their milk there to be processed.

The Fox River Butter Company’s creamery located on Ill. Route 25 just north of North Street and east of North Adams Street. (Aurora Historical Society photo)

The native limestone building began life as a brewery in 1870, but for whatever reason was not a success. Then on Oct. 5, 1876, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “W.H. [William Huston “Hugh”] McConnell & Co., a new firm, have just commenced business in this town. They have bought the brewery and are converting it into a butter factory. The [steam] engine and other machinery for the establishment have arrived and they calculate to have it in running order by the first of December.”

McConnell made a success out of the creamery, the business growing as the number of local farmers milking cows increased. Business was so good, in fact, that another creamery operator, L.H. Partridge, moved to Oswego in 1881 to compete with McConnell from a new creamery located on the site of the old Armstrong Broom Factory on South Adams south of the grain elevator. The Partridge creamery was soon producing 400 pounds of butter a day, most of it shipped by rail to the New Orleans market. Partridge closed the creamery in the late 1880s and in 1892, the Farmers’ Mutual Benefit Association—a farmers’ cooperative—opened a new creamery apparently using the Partridge site and equipment. The cooperative eventually drove the Fox River Butter Company, then owned by C.S. Kilbourne, out of business.

Then a combination of factors, mostly competition by larger corporate butter and cheese makers, slowly drove all the small creameries—at one time there was at least one in every Kendall County community—out of business.

The final major business that once served Oswego was the interurban trolley line that ran from downtown Aurora through Montgomery and downtown Oswego to downtown Yorkville. Service in the line opened in 1900 and provided convenient passenger and light freight service for the next two decades. With trolleys on the line running hourly, Oswego residents could easily attend high school or college in Aurora, work there, or do their shopping in the city’s downtown.

A southbound interurban trolley crosses the 300-foot trestle taking it over the CB&Q tracks in Oswego around 1910. (Little White School Museum collection)

The trolley line also built an amusement park—all evidence of which has also disappeared—on a site across the Fox River from the huge Boulder Hill subdivision. Realizing ridership would probably lag on weekends, the company figured, rightly as it turned out, that an amusement park would boost weekend riders. The park included a rollercoaster, merry-go-round, shoot the chutes and featured boating on the Fox River, a huge auditorium, and a baseball diamond where semi-pro teams played.

The trolley line was finally killed off when hard-surfaced highways and affordable motor vehicles became common throughout the area in the early 1920s and along with it went the amusement park.

Humans tend to want to believe that the landscapes, services, and amenities they currently enjoy have not only always been around, but will continue to be around forever. But it doesn’t take much investigation to realize the old saying about the only sure things in life being death and taxes is true.

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Heading west to Illinois in the 1830s: A little perspective on modern traffic problems

The earliest American settlers came to Kendall County starting in the late 1820s on foot, and by wagon, flatboat, and steamship on Lake Michigan via Chicago.

Oswego’s first settlers, William and Rebecca Wilson and their children, along with their extended family, the Daniel, John, and Walter Pearces, traveled here to the Illinois prairie by wagon to settle permanently in the summer of 1833. The four men had walked west the summer before prospecting for good land and decided the area at and near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River would be a good spot to settle. They brought their families the next year.

Oswego in 1838 showing Daniel Pearce’s claim circled in red and the southernmost lobe of the Big Woods on the east side of the Fox River shaded in light green. (Little White School Museum collection)

In 1834, John and William Wormley walked all the way to Oswego Township. According to Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian, they walked from New York State with nothing but their rifles and a change of clothing. The Wormleys said they averaged 36 miles per day on the trip. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty good going. U.S. Cavalry standards usually called for a march by horse units of 20 miles per day.

When they got to the mid-Fox Valley, they decided this was the area in which they wanted to settle, so they walked all the way back and brought their families out by horse and wagon the next year. Like the Pearces, descendants of the Wormleys still live in the Oswego area.

Those who travelled by wagon had a longer trip, but they could also carry a good deal more equipment and household items with them. Plows and scythes were the main farming implements packed, while the women packed spinning wheels, quilts, candle molds, and seed for the first year’s crop. Sometimes treasured furniture was brought along to make the prairie cabin more comfortable and as a reminder of their former homes and lives.

An immigrant wagon in an 1833 illustration.

Pioneers who came by wagon sometimes brought livestock along with them, from chickens and cattle to milk cows. Cows not only could provide fresh milk and cream on the trip, as well as butter. Butter could be made after a fashion while traveling by putting cream in a covered bucket and hanging it from the rear axle of the wagon. The constant jolting and bumping and jouncing of the wagon over the prairie eventually churned the cream into butter.

Settlers who came by wagon from the settled East were in for a shock as they encountered what passed for roads farther west. Roads that were laid through wooded areas still had tree stumps left m the roadway in the 1830s and early 1840s. The stumps were generally cut within two feet of the road surface so that wagons could clear them.

Although the roads did exist, the western residents of the era didn’t seem to be real clear on the concept of government-owned roads. For instance, a traveler on the National Road from Wheeling, West Virginia to Vandalia reported during a journey to Illinois in the 1840’s that “On passing a house newly built we had to avoid a deep hole dug right in the middle of the road (this was the State Road be it remembered), from which the clay for daubing the chimney had evidently been taken. To be sure, the road was a mere track, but there was a good deal of passage on it, and it was the route of a stage carrying the mail.”

Settlers who wished to travel by flatboat first journeyed to Wheeling, Pittsburgh, or some other town on the Ohio River, where their wagon and team were exchanged in trade for a flatboat and usually some cash. The journey down the Ohio brought settlers to Shawneetown in southern Illinois where their flatboat would be traded, along with some cash, for another team and wagon for the trip to the prairies of northern Illinois. Flatboats had value because they were made of sawn lumber, something that was not overly common and so was of some value on the Illinois frontier.

Ten year-old Della Agusta Southworth and her family traveled on the Great Lakes to Chicago in 1838 aboard the schooner Detroit. Ironically, they sailed from Oswego, New York, and after arriving at Chicago, settled in the new village of Oswego, Illinois–named after the New York city. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes – Bowling Green State University)

For settlers with enough money, and who didn’t want to bring a lot of personal possessions or livestock with them, the quickest way to get to Illinois from Eastern states was via the Great Lakes. Steamboat travel was finally becoming commonplace in the 1840’s as a method of traversing the lakes, but sailing ships still predominated. Settlers usually got to Albany as best they could and then took the Erie Canal to Buffalo on Lake Erie. From there, they would board a steamboat for a quick passage (which was also expensive), or would take a lake schooner for a less expensive, though more leisurely (depending on the weather), sailing voyage to Chicago.

Della Agusta Southworth—later Mrs. Lyell Aldrich—an early settler in Kendall County, left an interesting record of such a sailing voyage. Mrs. Aldrich’s family came west to Illinois in 1838 when she was a 10 year-old girl.

“We took passage on the schooner ‘Detroit’ at Oswego, N.Y., on July 6, 1838, and five weeks later arrived in Chicago on Aug. 12. The Welland Canal with its 25 locks, almost one to a mile, was than not constructed to admit easy passage for so large a vessel as ours. So frequent delays occurred from running around and getting stuck in the locks. The keel had been taken off the schooner to save space, which caused her to drift in all directions.

“At Mackinac Island head winds delayed us for more than a week giving us time to visit the places of interest. When we finally reached Chicago, we sailed up the river toward the west, landing on the bank opposite the old log fort.”

It never gets old for me to compare 19th Century travel to travel today. These days, it is about a day’s drive from here to Niagara Falls via four-lane highways—no more waiting a week up at the Straits for the wind to change or the entire trip taking more than a month.

I always think it’s valuable to keep such facts in mind to offer a bit of perspective as we complain about today’s heavy traffic, gasoline prices, or road construction delays.

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Railroaded: How big business stole the Fox Valley’s independent railroad

It’s natural for us to take so many things for granted. And yet everything we see, no matter how mundane, has some history behind it.

That goes for the towns we live in, the roads we drive on, and even the geography of the areas in which we live. Some of those things seem such a part of the landscape that we tend to discount them. The area’s rail lines, for instance, usually don’t enter our thinking unless we have to wait at a crossing for a seemingly endless freight train to pass or we need to catch a commuter train into Chicago.

The short line that once ran from Streator to Ottawa and then north up the Fox River Valley all the way to Geneva is one of those bits of the local landscape that seem to have been there forever. But, of course, it hasn’t been. Like everything else we see on the modern landscape, it had a beginning—and in it’s case, a pretty contentious one at that.

The final route of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road is illustrated in this 1870 railroad map of Illinois. It linked the coal fields along the Vermilion River at Streator with Geneva in Kane County. (Little White School Museum collection)

When it was finished in 1870, the line was envisioned not as a mere spur or short line, but rather an independent railroad line that would vigorously compete with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s local rail monopoly. The idea was a good one, but perhaps the hardball financial practices of that era should have warned the Fox Valley residents and local governments who financed the road’s construction that they stood a chance of being cheated out of their investment. And, as it turned out, they were.

In 1853, the Aurora Branch Railroad—what, in 1855 would become the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad and eventually today’s Burlington Northern- Santa Fe Railway—crossed the Fox River at Aurora and then pushed west through northern Kendall County, bypassing the established villages of Oswego and Yorkville.

Though bypassing those towns—Oswego, at the time, was the county seat of Kendall County—the line’s construction did result in the creation of a brand new town at a station between Aurora and Sandwich, which its founders decided to call Plano.

As the Civil War ended, business and agriculture interests began calling for construction of more railroads to serve the Fox Valley. The CB&Q’s monopoly resulted in high freight charges that most farmers thought unfair. For instance, farmers living east of the Fox River were charged lower freight rates than those living west of the river, because the railroad was trying to entice farmers from farther away to use the line.

In 1866 serious agitation began for a CB&Q alternative. Farmers wanted cheaper grain and livestock haulage, while the rest of the Fox Valley communities were looking for a cheaper way to obtain coal from the mines near Ottawa. Coal at the time was becoming an extremely energy source for heating homes and other buildings, as well as fueling the steam engines that were slowly replacing other means of powering everything from farmers’ corn shellers to factory machines to newspaper presses.

As a result, talks about reviving the old Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad Company were held up and down the Fox Valley. The company was originally established at Newark here in Kendall County in 1852. The OO&FRV was to have followed the river north from Ottawa to Elgin via Oswego. The list of directors from local towns reads like a list of Who’s Who among pioneer Kendall County residents: L.B. Judson (founder of Oswego), Nathaniel Rising (a pioneer Oswego miller), William Nobel Davis (prominent politician, farmer, and lawyer), Samuel Jackson, Samuel Roberts (an Oswego hotelier), John L. Clark, and Johnson Misner. But Kendall County voters decided by a narrow margin of 43 votes against borrowing $25,000 to support the road’s construction.

For the next several years, the railroad’s charter was amended a number of times by the Illinois General Assembly, until local interest waned. But then in the post-Civil War years fuel costs rose sharply. And as noted above, coal heated homes and fueled the steam engines that more and more often powered local businesses and industries.

Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road Company stock certificate issued in 1869 to Ottawa Township in LaSalle County to finance the railroad’s construction. (Little White School Museum Collection)

“The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into a new and more vigorous life,” suggested editor and publisher John R. Marshall in the May 31, 1866 Kendall County Record.

The difference was that residents and local governments seriously promised to put their money where their mouths were concerning the new railroad. In early September 1866, Oswego Township residents voted 220-51 to buy $25,000 in railroad stock (the total was eventually raised to $50,000). Other municipalities and county and township governments along the proposed route expressed strong interest, too. That was a substantial sum for the era, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s dollars.

In 1869, the Illinois General Assembly formally authorized the cities of Ottawa and Aurora, and the counties of Kane and Kendall to sell bonds to pay for stock in the rail line, now named the Fox River Valley Rail Road, which was to extend down the Fox Valley from Geneva to Ottawa and then due south to Streator.

Streator was a relatively new town located on the Vermilion River, on the border between LaSalle and Livingston counties in the midst of what were then called the Vermilion Coal Fields. Originally a hamlet named Hardscrabble, the name was changed to Unionville when it was formally platted in 1865. Just three years later the name was changed again to honor physician and capitalist Dr. W.L. Streator. Streator, from Cleveland, Ohio. Streator had been elected by its board of directors to head the newly formed Vermilion Coal Company, established to exploit the region’s huge coal deposits.

With no truly direct rail connection from the new coal fields north to the growing towns in the Fox River Valley, the new line’s promoters figured a new railroad running along that route would be a definite financial success.

But before the rail line could be built, the definite route had to be selected. Business interests in Morris, due south of Yorkville, lobbied hard for the line to leave the Fox Valley there and run down into Grundy County to access the county’s coal fields south of Morris. But Kane and Kendall promoters of the new line were unimpressed with the Morris boosters’ arguments.

Commented the Record’s Marshall in a Jan. 19, 1865 editorial: “Now, it is patent to all that the business of a road running in that direction with a terminus at the coal fields of Morris would be of little utility, and offer none of the advantages of a heavy freight and passenger trade. The carrying coal of itself is nothing. The natural channel for this road is down Fox river, where the greatest facilities are offered for manufacturing, flouring mills, and general produce trade, and at the same time reaching as good goal fields as at Morris, and developing by far a richer agricultural country than can be found in Grundy county.”

Railroads were built by hand in the 19th Century. Despite its difficulty, during construction of the OO&FRV Rail Road in 1869-1870, workers were paid $1.50 per day–the equivalent of about $31 in today’s dollars.

As finally established, the plan was for the Vermilion Coal Company to build their own shortline from Wenona, situated on the Illinois Central Railroad, to Streator. Then the OO&FRV line would be built north from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox Valley. In the end, Streator’s location in the midst of 26,000 acres of rich coal land, became a rail hub, with six lines passing through or near it.

By June 1866, the route north of Ottawa had been roughly finalized and engineers were hired to survey it. On July 19, the Record reported that: “The surveyors who are laying out the route for this road arrived in Yorkville on Tuesday evening and will have the survey completed from Ottawa to this place today. The gentleman in charge of the survey informed us that he finds the route very favorable for the economical and rapid building of the road. The route surveyed commences at the Illinois river [in Ottawa], crosses Fox river at Mission island, passes a little back of Millford [modern Millington], crosses Hollenbeck’s creek just west of Millbrook church, runs a little north of Mr. West Matlock’s and comes into Yorkville on Hydraulic venue. The river bottom at the Mission crossing is of solid rock and favorable for bridge building.”

Work on the road was nearly ready to begin in March and April 1867, when Fox Valley interests had to fend off an attempt by Will County interests to have the road run north to Plainfield from Streator. Ralph Plum, treasurer of the Vermilion Coal Company, hastened to reassure Fox Valley residents the route up the Fox was assured. In a letter to the editor of the Record on April 18, 1867: “The work we have already undertaken cannot be regarded by any business man in other light than as a guaranty that our whole interests are identical with your own…

“We have never doubted since we first looked over the map of Illinois, that our best market lay up the Fox River Valley, and we are sure that the superior quality of the Vermilion Coal will secure for it a sale in many localities where other coals are sold, yet the Fox River Valley (and Northern Illinois to be most directly reached therefrom) is most emphatically out best market, for we can reach it to a better advantage than any competitor, the moment the Fox River Valley Railroad is completed.”

Then on March 5, 1868, the Peoria Democrat published an unsourced bombshell of an article contending the OO&FRV company as well as the Vermilion Coal Company, were willing to turn over their charters to the CB&Q Railroad as long as the Burlington promised to offer guarantee a “perpetual” fair coal transport rate to Fox Valley communities. The bombshell report caused a huge uproar because the whole idea behind building the OO&FRV in the first place was to escape the CB&Q’s stranglehold on Fox Valley freight rates.

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad dominated rail transport west of Chicago. The OO&FRV Rail Road was built in an attempt to compete with the “Q.” (Burlington Route Historical Society photo)

But on March 18, the Ottawa Free Trader reported the Democrat’s article wasn’t true—at least as far as anyone knew. “On inquiry of the officers of the F.R.V.R.R, we have come to the conclusion that, beyond as a sketch of what might be and very possibly yet will be, there is nothing in it. The officers of the Burlington Road and certain capitalists interested in the Fox R.V.R.R. have for a week or two past been in close consultation in N.Y., and it is possible that a hint from that quarter may have inspired the article in the Peoria paper, was thrown out as a feeler; but no definite agreement or arrangement of the kind indicated in that article, we are satisfied, has yet been arrived at.”

In retrospect, the OO&FRV’s board members and local boosters should have given a little more credence to the story.

The railroad company, with proceeds from its tax-purchased stock in hand, contracted with a man named Oliver Young to build the rail line from Streator north. And that’s where it got interesting. As part of the contract, signed Jan. 20, 1869, the railroad, upon completion, could be “used, managed and controlled” by Young.

“The object of the Directors to build this road and run it independently, with a view to making it a valuable road to the public and a paying one to the stockholders,” Marshall wrote in the Record on Jan. 28. But that clause gave Young virtual carte blanche, something the line’s board members apparently overlooked in their eagerness to get it built and operating.

Not a railroad builder himself, Young then contracted with the firm of C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Construction went fairly quickly. On Sept. 16, 1869, the Ottawa Free Trader reported: “The determination is to have the iron horse from Streator at Ottawa before the 1st of December, and to have the whole road done before another year is gone.”

On Oct. 14, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Work on the Railroad is now commenced; the ground through town was broken yesterday; the initiatory ceremonies were limited to a short speech from John W. Chapman, briefly showing the auspiciousness of the enterprise and that everything connected with it augurs success. He welcomed the shovel and spade saying there were the basis to greatness to wealth, to civilization, and to many other things…[Oswego founder Lewis B.] Judson with a spade broke the first ground and [wagon maker William] Hoze conducted the first wheelbarrow full of dirt; to-day a gang of from 15 to 20 men and several teams are at work.”

A a CB&Q steam engine hauls a railfan trip across the bridge at Sheridan in 1962 northbound on the Fox River Branch.

The Record reported in December that “Railroad hands hereabouts now get $1.50 a day.”

Then in early March 1870, the old rumor of the secret sale of the OO&FRV line to the CB&Q raised its head once again. The Ottawa Free Trader said not to worry though, that they’d looked into it. “There is quite a buzz up Fox river, we are told, over a rumor that the Fox River Valley Railroad has been sold out to the Burlington road, or some other road or connection, and instead of running to Aurora and Geneva, will stop at Sandwich, Somonauk or somewhere in that vicinity. These reports are without the slightest foundation. The road, we are confidently assured, will be completed to Aurora within the coming year. The sale of the road from Streator to Wenona to the Jacksonville and St. Louis R.R. Company in no way affects the road from Streator northward. The people up Fox River may rest easy. The road is ‘all right.’”

Work on the railroad moved forward steadily, with a few housekeeping details finally settled. On June 2, 1870, the Record reported that “The Common Council of Aurora has at length granted right of way through the city to the Ottawa and Fox River Valley Railroad by a vote of 8 to 2. This question has been agitated for over a year, and is just settled. The road will run up an alley just back of River Street.”

In that same edition, the Record reported that it wouldn’t be long before actual rails would be laid along the line through Kendall County: “On Wednesday the 25th, nine carloads of railroad material belonging to the Ottawa & Fox River Valley Railroad arrived at Montgomery. It consisted of 5,000 ties and the remainder of bridge timber for use on the bridge across the Fox River. It is the determination of contractor Young to have all the grading between Aurora and Ottawa finished before June 15th when the men will be free to labor on the extension to Geneva.”

Not that there weren’t a few legal snags still in the way of getting the road built through Kendall County. The “not in my backyard” movement is nothing new, and it was big enough to cause some initial headaches for the rail line’s boosters. Eventually, county government had to take the unusual step of condemning land for the rail right-of-way. As the Record reported on June 9, 1870: “Messrs Henry Sherrill, John K. LeBaron, and Oliver Havenhill were engaged on Tuesday and Wednesday in assessing damages and condemning certain lands over which the Fox River Railroad is to pass. There are several farmers who will not give the right of way, nor do they want the road to cross their farms, and this course has been forced upon the Railroad Company. Three men of more integrity could not have been found in the County than the gentlemen above named. Engineer Wilson accompanied the party.”

If anything, enthusiasm for the line’s completion was increasing. Marshall, writing in the June 16 Record, observed that “Passing through Montgomery on Saturday we were pleased to see huge pile of ties and bridge timbers for our railroad. Also, the grading done from that village to the river. We will have a ride on that road before 1870 is passed,” he predicted.

To a general community-wide celebration, on Oct. 6, the first engine and cars puffed into Oswego from Aurora on the newly laid rails. Exulted the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “There is no longer any need for Oswegoans to be poor or have the blues, no excuse now for dull times. I want to form a co-partnership with someone who has plenty of stamps in order to start a Daily newspaper; somebody ought to set themselves up in the banking business and furnish with money, which is still tight, the OO&FRV to the contrary notwithstanding. This town is now presenting fine opportunities for capital seeking investments.”

The Oswego depot of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. This photo was taken before the depot was expanded in the summer of 1886. Stationmaster Henry Green Smith is standing at left in his shirtsleeves. (Little White School Museum collection)

That same week, Marshall wrote an editorial in the Record about the coming of the new rail line to Yorkville that for the normally taciturn publisher was almost giddy: “By next Tuesday, weather permitting, the iron horse will be in Yorkville to awaken the people by a regular railroad whistle. On Monday afternoon we saw the train about two miles west of Oswego and the tracklayers hard at work laying from half to three quarters of a mile per day. The train is made up of three or four flat cars and the same number of box cars with CB&Q engine No. 54 to draw them…After 15 or 20 years’ working, the friends of this road are about to see their hopes realized by the completion of the road, and we all rejoice.”

On Oct. 27, Oswego received its first load of freight on the new rail line, a load of lumber for businessman William S. Bunn. By that date, the rails had been laid within a mile of downtown Yorkville.

Then on Nov. 3, Marshall reported from Yorkville that the county seat was finally a railroad town:

“On Thursday last, the 27th of October, 1870, a train of cars on the Fox River Valley Railroad entered Yorkville for the first time. It made the people of the villages feel big.

“Engine 54, belonging to the CB&Q R.R. drew the train. On Friday, Hon. W.P. Pierce came down as a passenger from Oswego.

“It was rather amusing to see the locomotive haul up along side of Crooker & Hobbs’ pump there to have its tank filled with water by means of buckets. Ground has been broken for a water tank just east of the Saw-mill, near the head of the [mill] race.

“A switch has been put in east of Black’s rag-house, with all the appurtenances. By the time this reaches our readers the train will be out of sight down the river, leaving only about 12 miles of track to lay between here and Ottawa.”

But those persistent clouds on the horizon concerning ownership of the new line were continually darkening. On Oct. 13, the DeKalb News reported that “The CB&Q company have gobbled the Fox River road, operations upon that line have been stopped north of Aurora, which city will be the northern terminus. The grading has been done as far north as Geneva, but the iron will not be laid.”

Marshall tried to find out what was really going on, and decided the report couldn’t be true, flatly stating “there is no doubt whatever but what the iron will be laid to Geneva.”

Unfortunately for the new railroad’s stock and bond holders and prospective customers, those rumors over the past several months turned out to be all too true. In July of 1870, Force & Co., the company actually building the rail line, using the excuse that the new rail line didn’t have any equipment to operate after construction was finished, secretly contracted with James F. Joy, president of the CB&Q, to provide rolling stock and other equipment for the line—despite the fact the line did indeed own two locomotives and dozens of rail cars.

Then on Aug. 20, 1870, Force & Co. secretly leased the whole railroad (which it didn’t own—yet) to the CB&Q for 99 years. The last piece fell of the elaborate con job into place in October when Young, for “a valuable consideration” (we can only guess what it was) assigned all his interest in the rail line—remember he could “use, manage, and control” the line however he wanted—to Force & Co.

In early November, the facts finally got out that the CB&Q had indeed seized control and de facto ownership of the road by means of the secret Force & Company 99 year lease. The Railroad Gazette reported the facts of the CB&Q’s coup, adding: “We are authorized to say that the road will be completed to Geneva and the whole operated as a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy road.”

This tangled but ruthlessly efficient series of events resulted in the CB&Q tricking its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company itself now controlled. And those dreams of cheap coal? The CB&Q’s lease pointedly stated: “The said party of the second part (the CB&Q) …agrees…that in the transportation of coal over said demised road it will charge no more or higher rates than shall be charged for the transportation of coal over like distances on the railroad of the said party…”

As Marshall dryly put it in a November 1872 editorial comment: “The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

A CB&Q freight train rumbles past the old Oswego Depot on Jackson at South Adams Street in 1965. The depot was demolished in 1969. (Little White School Museum collection)

The affair resulted in local governments holding a lot of worthless railroad stock—after all, it was stock in a railroad company without a railroad—and thousands in debts. The efforts of individual and local governmental bondholders to recover their money would stretch on for decades. One positive outcome of the fraud scheme was to spur the formation of a union of farmers and laborers that was politically active for some years, nominating the first female candidate for local office in Kendall County.

But it was generally acknowledge that while the new rail line was a huge economic boost for Fox Valley communities, its birthing process left a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth—except the CB&Q and those in the OO&FRV’s management who connived with them.

Commented the Rev. E.W. Hicks concerning the scandal in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “Happy the far off day of the mercantile millennium when every man can enjoy the sight of the world on wheels passing through his field without the discomfort of losing his railroad stock by swindling directors.”

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