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The preservation and restoration of Oswego’s Little White School Museum, Part II

Part II in a two-part series in observation of National Historic Preservation Month…

In the autumn of 1964, Oswego’s Little White School was closed after serving as classroom space for the district’s students for the previous 49 years.

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Oswego’s Little White School in 1958 in a photo taken by Homer Durrand for the Oswegorama community celebration. (Little White School collection)

The building started its life in Oswego as a Methodist-Episcopal Church, opening in 1850. For the next 63 years it served the community’s Methodists as a worship center and the rest of the community as public meeting space. Probably one of the more interesting non-religious events held in the building was the presentation of Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California. The spectacular presentation, which consisted of dozens of scenes of travel overland to California painted by artist James Wilkins, was mounted on canvas and then scrolled past the viewers, who were seated in chairs (or pews in the case of the Methodist-Episcopal Church) with live narration and music.

As Kendall County Courier Editor H.S. Humphrey put it in the May 23, 1855 issue: “Wilkins’ Panorama of the Land Route to California was exhibited last night at the Methodist Church to quite a respectable audience. It is a magnificent work of art…Persons wishing to make a journey across the plains can do it by visiting this Panorama, without the expenses and hardships attendant upon such an excursion.”

Nevertheless, the congregation was perennially short on money, and eventually dissolved in 1913. In 1915, the Oswego School District bought the building for classroom space for primary students. It served the community as both a school and public meeting space until the district closed it in 1964, afterwards using it for storage. When the district announced plans to sell the badly deteriorated building in the mid-1970s, a grassroots community effort was launched to save the building due to its direct linkage to Oswego’s rich heritage.

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Photo of Little White School taken by Daryl Gaar in July 1970 in preparation of a real estate appraisal report for the Oswego School District. (Little White School Museum collection)

Which is where we rejoin the story with the formation of the Oswegoland Heritage Association in 1976. After all the hoopla and excitement of the Bicentennial ended it was time for the OHA to get to work to save the building. Restoration began in 1977, just 40 years ago this summer. The project was to be completed under a unique agreement between the Oswego School District, which maintained ownership of the building and grounds; the Oswegoland Park District, which pledged regular maintenance support; and the heritage association, which pledged to raise funds and oversee the building’s restoration.

Stabilization of the badly deteriorated structure was a vital first step. The first task was to tear the old roofs off and install a new one, a task accomplished with a combination of volunteer and paid labor, with funds raised by the heritage association. Next it was time to pull off the old wooden shingle siding, fill the nail holes, mask the windows, and paint the building.

A concrete porch and stairs had replaced the buildings original wooden front porch and stairs sometime around 1912, and over the years it sank, and as it did more concrete was added to level it out. It was determined the old concrete needed to go, and so it was demolished and removed. And that’s when it was discovered the front 11 x 11 inch solid oak sill had almost completely rotted away thanks to water flowing backwards on the concrete front porch and onto the sill during

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Getting a new roof on the Little White School Museum was the first order of business as restoration began in 1977. (Little White School Museum collection)

the previous 60 years. The result was the floor joists at the front of the building were no longer connected to the sill (which no longer existed at that location), but were being held up by the vestibule’s floorboards to which they were nailed—which is pretty much the opposite of what was supposed to be happening.

So carpentry wizard Stan Young replaced the rotted sill, and reproduced the wooden front porch using a 1901 postcard view of the building to draw his plans.

With the building painted, the front stairs replaced and a new roof installed, the last major exterior project was restoring the building’s bell tower. We’d discovered the church’s original bell was doing duty as Oswego High School’s victory bell, and so would be available—provided we could find a replacement victory bell. The good news was that the Oswego School District then, and probably now, too, doesn’t throw anything away, and it turned out they still had the bell recovered when the Red Brick School was demolished in 1965. All concerned agreed that would do just fine.

1980 Bell tower in place

The Little White School Museum’s restored bell tower after it was lowered in place by Garbe Iron Works’ mobile crane on Oct. 25, 1980. (Little White School Museum collection)

So Stan Young got to work, assisted by his sons, Glenn and Don, building a replica of the original bell tower on the front lawn of the Little White School in the fall of 1980. By Oct. 25, the tower was completed, along with a timber support structure to hold the bell.

Thanks to Oswegoan Terry Peshia, the OHA got an in-kind donation of a mobile crane from Garbe Iron Works in Aurora that was used to hoist the church bell out of the high school’s courtyard and then replace it there with the Red Brick School bell.

With a crew ready to go at the museum, first the bell, now bolted to its support timbers, was hoisted up and set in place, where it fit neatly through holes in the roof Stan had already created, and into the original mortises in the building’s timber structure. Then the tower itself was swayed up and, despite a sudden gust of wind on that breezy cloudy autumn day, was lowered into place and secured.

Museum northwest before afterFor the next two years, Stan Young scrounged for copper materials from which he fabricated a finial to fit atop the tower, using that 1901 postcard photo of the building to recreate it to scale.

Meanwhile, the OHA Board of Directors had been holding spirited discussions about what to do with the rest of the building’s restoration. The exterior was going to look like the building did after the 1901 addition of the bell and tower, with the exception that the 1934 classroom would be retained. But what to do with the interior?

The first decision was to renovate—not restore—the third classroom and the 1936 hallway into a modern entry and museum room. The rooms were gutted, which wasn’t hard because the water damage from the bad roof was causing the plaster and plaster board to fall down anyway. The windows along the south wall were all removed, and the three windows along the north side of the room were replaced with sashes with UV-filtering glass. Then the museum room and hallway were completely rewired, drop ceilings with recessed lighting were installed, and steel security doors were installed at the two exterior entrances. Finally, new wallboard was installed and everything got a couple coats of paint.

The museum committee had been working, too, using a moveable panel system designed by Glenn Young to divide the third classroom into exhibit areas. Young fabricated the dividers and the locking pins after which volunteers painted the frames and museum committee members installed burlap coverings before the panels were moved into place and secured. With display cases donated by Shuler’s Drug Store and other Oswego businesses, artifacts were placed on exhibit all in time for the museum’s grand opening in the spring of 1983 in time for the celebration of Oswego’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

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Interior of the Little White School Museum’s main room after demolition of the drop ceiling and partitions. (Little White School Museum collection)

By that time, and after much debate, the decision had been made to follow the recommendations championed by Glenn Young to return the Little White School Museum’s main room back to its original, classic Greek Revival dimensions. It would be a single room, 36 x 50 feet with 17 foot ceilings, complete with restored windows, replica oil lamps installed where the building’s original lamps had hung, and refinished trim, replicated where necessary. To accomplish that, all the interior partitions would have to be torn out, including the newer vestibule, the drop ceiling would have to be removed, the stairways to the basement washrooms would have to be removed and the floor patched, and the original, smaller, vestibule restored.

Fortunately for the project, the United Auto Workers local at Oswego Township’s Caterpillar, Inc. plant happened to pick the autumn of 1983 to go on strike. That freed up some of the workers at Cat who, when they weren’t walking the picket line, volunteered to help with the interior demolition work. By late fall, the room was back to its original dimensions and the scope of work could be determined. The old stairwells were capped, and major floor repairs near the buildings front door were completed, and then the lumber salvaged after the demolition work was used to restore the original vestibule, the dimensions of which were clearly visible.

1990 Windows Glenn gluing

Glenn Young gluing up a frosted plate glass window pane during the glue-chipping process. About 12 hours of volunteer time was spent on each restored window sash. (Little White School Museum collection)

The next question was what to do with the walls and ceiling, repair the original horsehair plaster or tear it all off. The decision was made to repair it, but before that happened the opportunity was taken to blow insulation into the walls from the inside since the holes in the plaster walls could easily be patched during the wall repair. The entire room was also rewired with heavy duty wire and new outlets installed throughout, along with a new 200-amp breaker panel.

After both the wall and ceiling repairs and the insulation installation were finished, everything got a coat of heavy duty sealer, followed by two coats of off-white paint.

Meanwhile, the wainscoting that had been removed during restoration work had been stripped of its paint, but there was still lots of wainscoting still in place around the room that needed to be stripped. So my son, and his best friend, spend their summer earning a bit of spending money by stripping decades of paint with heat guns. When stripping was finished, and all the wainscoting boards replaced, Glenn Young began the process of graining it to look like more expensive oak boards, using the graining examples we found behind some of the room’s baseboard as a guide.

When restoration began, we found two small panes of the original 1901 diamond-patterned glass had survived in windows on the buildings southeast corner. We had no idea what the glass was, only that it was decorated with alternate rows of diamonds, one row frosted diamonds, and the next with a floral pattern that seemed etched into the glass itself. After a couple years of research, Glenn Young found the glass decorations had been created through a process called glue-chipping. Back at the turn of the 20th Century, glue-chipped glass could be bought by the square foot at almost every community’s lumber yard, but it was only obtainable by hobbiests creating their own when we decided to restore the Little White School Museum’s windows.

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Completed 4-sash window unit with glue-chipped panes and restored trim. Note the restored chair rail and grained wainscoting below the window. (Little White School Museum collection)

Young determined to figure out how to do glue-chipping, and so began a series of experiments. Originally, glue-chipping was done in the country’s glass factories. The diamond patterns were masked off with beeswax and then the panes were etched with hydrochloric acid. Then alternate rows of diamonds were painted with hide glue, which, when it dried, actually fractured the surface of the glass, leaving behind a fern-like pattern.

The first part of recreating the 32 individual 18×60 inch panes was relatively easy. Using the two original pieces of glue-chipped glass that still existed, Young created a template out of brown butcher’s paper. Then the new panes of plate glass were placed on the template and the diamond pattern created with pressure-sensitive packing tape cut to the right width. Then the taped-up panes were sandblasted to create an entire pane of frosted diamonds.

Through trial and error, Young found the correct mixture of dried hide glue and water to use and also determined it had to be kept at 140 degrees as he was carefully coating every other row of frosted diamonds. Figuring out how to properly dry the glue to create a consistent pattern was just as difficult. Eventually, it was found that allowing a glued-up pane to dry overnight, until it seemed dry to the touch, and then scattering a pound of silica gel crystals over the surface and wrapping it in plastic sheeting to flash-dry the rest of the moisture out of the glued diamonds was the most effective. The flash-drying process actually sounds like corn popping, as the glue, which has adhered to the rows of frosted diamonds, quickly contracts and fractures the surface, jumping up and bouncing off the plastic sheeting.

As each glue-chipped pane was created, it was carefully moved into a restored and painted sash to be glazed and then painted. Glass is really a solid liquid, and the glue-chipping process removes the surface tension that gives each pane its strength. Unless handled extremely carefully, panes fold up, breaking along the lines of the sandblasted diamonds.

1995 Lighting Glenn installing

Glenn Young finishes hanging one of the restored, electrified oil lamp fixtures in the Little White School Museum’s main room. (Little White School Museum collection)

We found we had enough original trim to restore half the room’s windows, so we took a sample up to Commercial Woodworking in Aurora where they created custom knives for their shapers to produce enough trim for the rest of the windows. Then as each set of four sashes was finished, the windows were restored, one after the other.

While that project was underway, the building’s heating system was completely replaced with a 98% efficient gas furnace. To avoid cutting a large hole in the floor for a return air duct, we built the ducts into the sides of the restored pulpit platform, covering them with decorative cast iron grilles. We were also working on the building’s basement, aiming to turn it into an artifact and archival storage area. When we ripped the old basement ceiling down, we found that over the years as this or that new heating system had been installed, floor joists had been cut out and never replaced. So as the window project continued (Young was spending about 12 hours of volunteer time most weekends on it) we spent a year scabbing new 2×8 floor joists onto the old joists and leveling, as far as we could, the floor.

1984-2002 Nathaniel at LWSM

My son Nathaniel literally grew up with the Little White School Museum’s restoration. At left, he inspects one of the building’s 11×11 inch structural timbers. At right, he finishes the main room’s pulpit platform floor in 2002. (Little White School Museum collection)

With the windows restored, we were seeing some light at the end of the restoration tunnel. And so we began working on restoring the main room’s lighting. We’d decided years before to use what the 1902 Sears catalog referred to as “store fixtures.” The building had apparently not been electrified until the 1930s, so there was no knob and tube wiring or any other antique system to deal with. Instead, in the building’s attic we found the counterweights, wooden pulleys, and wrought iron rods from which its seven oil lamps hung. The lamps were pulled down to trim the wicks and fill the fonts with oil. The counterweights—small boxes made from wainscot scraps—were fortunately still full of the rocks used to balance the weights of the lamps so we weighed a couple to figure out how heavy the original lamps were. And then we went shopping in the Sears catalog to

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The completely restored main room at the Little White School Museum provides community meeting space. (Little White School Museum collection)

figure out what lamps might have been used. For the next few years we gradually acquired nickel-plated kerosene lamps and fonts until we had enough for the whole room.

Back then, it was fashionable to buy the lamps and have the nickel plating removed to display the polished brass the fonts were actually made from. We were fortunate to find a small local plating business that agreed to replace all our lamp fonts with nickel as an in-kind donation. We then got Lee Winckler, a true artist in metalworking, make the lamp shades and harps, and to make the electrified burners too. Since the counterweights and rods were still in the building’s attic, we knew exactly where each lamp was to be positioned. We used ¼” black pipe to simulate the original wrought iron rods, and standard electrical lamp hooks to hang each lamp. Interestingly enough, we found the lamps were positioned over the building’s two side aisles, with three others grouped above the pulpit platform.

The last project was to floor the pulpit platform, and for that we were able to hire my son, who had been working on the building since he was five years old. The floor was finished in the autumn of 2002, wrapping up a quarter century of restoration work.

2013 June LWS Museum

Oswego’s Little White School Museum was in danger of demolition in 1976. Today it is a community landmark and repository for the Oswego area’s history. (Little White School Museum collection)

The moral of our story is restoration using mostly volunteer labor is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not a quick process, either—witness my son, who literally grew up with the project. But it does have its positives, too, especially having a community landmark to look at when you (finally) get done with it.

Today, the Little White School Museum, open seven days a week thanks to financial support from the Oswegoland Park District, is open seven days a week, annually hosts thousands of visitors, features a comprehensive community history museum, and houses a collection of nearly 27,000 photographs, artifacts, and archival materials. It is a tribute to all those instrumental in its preservation, from the grassroots group spearheaded by Janis Hoch who founded the Oswegoland Heritage Association, to the Oswego School District officials who took a chance that plans to restore the building would pan out, to Oswegoland Park District Executive Director Ford Lippold and his successor, Bert Gray, who were determined to save the building for future generations to the community groups who donated time, effort, and money, to all those who’ve served on the heritage association’s board for the last 40 years.

I suspect it’s exactly what the folks who created National Historic Preservation Month had in mind back in 1973 when they got the historic preservation ball rolling.

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Marking change in Kendall County during African American History Month

One Monday night in May 2004, when I was still covering the Oswego School District Board for the Ledger-Sentinel, I sat at the press table during the board meeting, resigned to listen to yet another staff presentation, this one on the program—English Language Learners—designed to help students who live in homes where English is not the first language spoken.

What really got my attention during the teachers’ presentation was the revelation that more than 50 different languages were being spoken in homes throughout the school district. If a more dramatic example was needed that Oswegoans were no longer living in the relatively isolated small farming town of my youth, this was certainly it. Nowadays, I’ve found by a bit of digging, fewer non-English languages are being spoken at homes throughout the school district, but the number is still more than 30.

Times in our little corner of the Midwest had actually begun changing many years before 2004, of course. By even the 1970s Kendall County had gone a long way past the era—which extended as late as the 1950s—when Kendall County residential developers added covenants prohibiting blacks and Jews, and sometimes Catholics, from buying homes they were building. And the era of the official and unofficial “sunset laws” that prohibited blacks from being in area towns after the sun set had also been as quietly discarded by that time as they had been instituted in the first place.

The interesting thing to me, as I grew up in and then made my home in Kendall County— and learned about the racism that was downplayed so effectively in our history classes—was not the casual racism that existed virtually everywhere; I expected that. Rather it was that the county, almost from the time of its earliest permanent setters, was home to varying numbers of minority residents who were, for the most part, accepted on their own merits by their white neighbors.

Among the settlers who arrived in Kendall County in 1834 was a party of South Carolinians, the families of Robert W. Carnes, James S. Murray and Elias Dial, all of whom settled around Hollenback’s Grove, now the Millbrook area of Fox Township on the county’s west border.

The party, unlike so many other pioneers of that era who hailed from Ohio, New England, and, especially New York, had come directly from the South. Also unlike settlers from other regions, they brought the county’s first two black residents with them.

In his 1877 county history, the Rev. E.W. Hicks wrote that the families “brought two colored women, former slaves, who had been a long time in their families—Dinah in Mr. Carns’ and Silvie in Mr. Murray’s. They were the first colored people in the county and both died here.”

It is unlikely either Silvie or Dinah were “former slaves” when they arrived on the Illinois prairies. De facto slavery was winked at by state government as long as the fiction could be maintained that the people in question were indentured servants. And with state government still heavily influenced by slavery sympathizers, state law was friendly towards those who enjoyed owning their fellow humans. The low regard their owners had for the two women brought here in 1834 is suggested by the failure to record their surnames—assuming they had been given them by their owners in the first place, of course.

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Kendall County schools, even rural one-room schools, were integrated from the beginning. In December 1894, the students and teacher from the Grove School southeast of Oswego on Grove Road, posed for the camera creating an image you would not have seen in the states of the old Confederacy, or even in many big northern cities. (Little White School Museum collection)

During the tempestuous years leading up to the Civil War, the federal Fugitive Slave Act and Illinois’ own Black Laws made it difficult, if not downright dangerous, for free black people to live in Illinois. According to the 1850 U.S. Census, the county’s black population stood at six persons, two each in Oswego and Kendall townships, and one each in Fox and Franklin (later renamed Seward) townships. The county’s 1860 census recorded a single black person living in Oswego Township. Whether those counts were accurate or not is one of history’s open questions.

After the Civil War, Kendall County’s population began a long, slow decline, with the county total declining by some 3,000 residents between 1860 and 1920. The reasons for this probably ranged from the lure of cheap land west of the Mississippi to the lingering psychological effects of the Civil War.

But strangely enough, while its overall population was declining immediately after the war, the county’s black population boomed. From the single black person officially counted in 1860, Kendall’s black population grew to the official county of 54 in 1870, with nearly half of them calling NaAuSay Township, bordering Oswego Township to the south, home.

Most of NaAuSay Township’s 22 black residents lived and worked on farms in the township’s northwest corner. Thomas Lewis and his wife, Lucinda; George Washington and his wife, Emma; Neuman Northcup and wife Lusan; and Alfred Lucas and his two nearly grown children were all residents of that neighborhood. According to the census records, the value of the individual farms in this small island of black culture in overwhelmingly white Kendall County was comparable to their white neighbors, as was the value of the personal property they owned.

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The son and grandson of former slaves, Ferdinand Smith was the first black student to graduate from high school in Kendall County as a member of the Oswego High School Class of 1903.

As the years wore on, however, the county’s black farmers slowly left the land to live in nearby towns where they found work off the farm. The family of Nathan Hughes is a good example of the trend. Hughes, a Civil War veteran, farmed in NaAuSay Township in the Minkler Road area after the Civil War. He married into the Lucas family, which already had roots in the township’s farming community, and his children subsequently married into the Smith family, which was living in Oswego. Hughes was a respected member of the community who was an officer in the Yorkville post of the politically powerful Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization.

In 1903, Hughes’ grandson, Ferdinand Smith, became the first black student to graduate from a Kendall County high school. As the June 1, 1903 Kendall County Record reported: “”It was the first time a class contained a colored member; the Negroes were well represented in the audience and Uncle Nathan Hughes was there to see his grandson take this important step” Then in 1904, Ferdinand’s sister, Mary, became the first black female to graduate from a Kendall County high school, followed in 1907 by their sister, Frances. Many descendants of the Hughes and Smith families still live in the Fox Valley area.

Today, Kendall County’s African-American population is substantial, most having arrived as part of the housing boom of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unlike the two slave women brought here from South Carolina in 1834, though, they’ve come to the Fox Valley voluntarily. And with any luck, like the members of the extended Hughes and Smith families, their descendants will value the roots they’ve put down here.

We’ve been lucky here in the Fox Valley in recent years that, probably thanks to careful management by our political leaders, we’ve been relatively free from the plague of official violence against people of color—at least outside of Chicago, where a major clean-up seems now finally underway. As the nation observes African American History Month, it will benefit everyone to take a look back and remember that we’ve all got a stake in the future of our country in general and Kendall County in particular–no matter what the color of our skin is.

 

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But I’m a HAPPY blockhead…

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Guilty as charged, Dr. Johnson, much to my long-suffering wife’s annoyance…

 

 

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Paying attention makes for a happy local historian…

It’s a sad day when I don’t learn something new related to local history. Fortunately, last Thursday was NOT one of those days.

The back story first: In 2012, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library announced, with pretty great fanfare, that they’d acquired an original print of the only known photograph of a black Illinois veteran of the 29th U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment. An anonymous donor had donated the funds to purchase the photograph, which, they announced was a portrait of a former soldier named Nathan Hughes and his wife.

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes sat for this formal portrait in the studio of Sigmund Benensohn in July 1893, shortly after Benesohn bought Charles Sabin’s studio, which was located aboveHobbs’ store in downtown Yorkville.

My friend Glenn had come across the story on-line and, recognizing the name because he’d seen the photograph in our collection, he stopped down at the museum to ask me why we hadn’t told him he’d held a genuine historical treasure in his own two hands.

And, indeed, when I checked with the Lincoln Library, I found they had indeed acquired another copy of the same photo in our collection.

The photograph had been taken by Sigmund Benensohn at his Yorkville studio. Our research showed that Benensohn had purchased the Sabin photographic gallery in Yorkville in late April 1893, and had continued in business there until he sold it to Charles Jessup in August 1901. So we knew the photograph had been taken sometime during those years, but really didn’t have any indication what the exact date might have been.

I supplied to the Lincoln Library folks what biographical information we had on Nathan Hughes, which was a fair amount, since he’d been a well-known farmer as well as active in the Yorkville post of the Grand Army of the Republic. In fact, he was the only black member of the GAR in Kendall County, and was an officer in the Yorkville post. He was well thought of by his neighbors, and a considerable crowd attended his funeral, after which he was buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery, one of at least five black Civil War veterans buried there.

Even with all the information we had, though, it still would have been nice to have figured out exactly when the portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Hughes was taken, but there was no information available.

Until last Thursday.

I was looking through microfilm of the back issues of the Kendall County Record, searching for some biographical information on a person I was researching, when I struck historical gold.

In the July 19, 1893 was the following item in the Yorkville news column: “Artist Benensohn is making some extra fine pictures of Fox river scenery with his new view camera—an instrument that cost nearly $150. His river and street views are wonderfully fine and make us more proud than ever of our picturesque village. Take a look at his show-case in front of the Hobbs block. His portraits of Comrade and Mrs. Nathan Hughes are true to the life, and shows how excellent is Benensohn’s work in every line of photography.”

So, purely by accident, another one of history’s local mysteries was solved. I contacted the Lincoln Library folks, and they were happy to get the additional information about their treasure. And we were pretty happy, too. I was finally able to go through our collection of scanned photos and add “1893” to the title of our copies of the Hughes photo and to add the information on provenance to the museum’s collections database.

The thing you’ve got to keep in mind about local history: it’s not for wimps nor is it for the complacent. You’ve got to keep your wits about you at all times.

 

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Talk about history…

I’m pretty sure the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series after a 108-year drought definitely counts as historic.

The Cardiac Kids won it by one run in the 10th inning after a rain delay and after it had been tied up by an Indian’s rally.

Baseball fans certainly got their money’s worth tonight…

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Did you see the spectacular full Hunter’s Moon on Sunday?

We were on our way back from Sugar Grove last evening after I gave a presentation for the Sugar Grove Historical Society, and the one day old Hunter’s Moon was really spectacular as it shown down over the Fox Valley’s corn and bean fields.

Ancient Europeans and Native Americans alike had their own names for the full moons that appeared roughly once each month. The Native American names, especially those given by the Algonquian peoples living east of the Mississippi River, were not only descriptive, but also offer some good clues about what local tribes were doing during each month of the year.

wolf-moonThe Native Americans’ Lunar year began in January with the Wolf Moon. Here in the Fox Valley, prairie wolves—coyotes—were familiar animals, as were their larger red wolf cousins (now largely vanished), and their howls and yips marked many a winter eve. The mere name “Wolf Moon” evokes snowy, cold nights with prairie wolves howling as families huddled around small but cheery fires in their winter lodges.

The full moon in February was called the Snow Moon, and for good reason. While many figure February ought to be a spring month, the Indians knew it was the time of heaviest snows on the Illinois prairies. The settlers, like their Indian neighbors, found the month of the Snow Moon one of the year’s most desolate and cheerless. As their food supplies dwindled, and they saw more and more snow fall, more than one family was forced to leave their pioneer claims to search for food in settlements near and far, illustrating the truth behind the alternate name for February’s full moon: the Hunger Moon.

March finally marks the first real evidence of spring on the prairie. The Native Americans called its full moon the Worm Moon, or sometimes the Crow Moon. Some also called it the Sugar Moon. Each of those names is descriptive of an important part of Native American life. The Worm Moon denotes thawing ground and occasional warm nights that persuade worms to crawl out of their burrows for the first time. Also in March, crows are noisily foraging among the unlucky animals that failed to live through the long winter. And the Sugar Moon denotes the rising of tree sap that was turned into maple sugar, which provided an important part of Native Americans’ diets. Maple sugar was also a valuable trade item, both before and after Europeans arrived.

April brought the Pink Moon or Grass Moon. The Pink Moon was so named because it sometimes looks pink through the rising amount of humidity at moonrise. The Grass Moon is self-explanatory. April is when grass starts to green up on the prairie. Before 1800, that meant the movement of buffalo on the prairie and the return from winter hunting camps back to their permanent village sites throughout the Fox Valley.

indians-planting-cornMay brings the Full Flower Moon, sometimes called the Planting Corn Moon. On the prairies, April showers really did bring May flowers, thus the first of the names. And corn—maize—was so important to the Native American diet that it was the basis for the moon names of three months, May being the first. In the Algonquian tradition followed by local tribes, the women controlled the corn-growing process.

June was the Full Strawberry Moon, marking the time when the tiny, wonderfully sweet, wild berries were picked by the bark bucketful to be eaten fresh or dried for use later on.

July’s full moon was called the Buck Moon or sometimes the Thunder Moon. Male deer are very active during July, and anyone who has lived in Illinois for very long knows the month is punctuated by swift-moving, sometimes violent, thunderstorms.

August marks the Corn Moon, the second full moon named in honor of this crop that was absolutely vital to Native American life. In August, the corn harvest began for Native Americans, the small golden ears picked and hung on frames to dry before shelling and storage or parching.

In September, the Harvest Moon usually shown down on the Fox Valley, marking the season when corn, beans, and squash were harvested and preserved for use during the coming winter months. Some tribes called September’s full moon the Corn Moon, too, the third month carrying the name.

hunters-moonOctober brought the Hunter’s Moon when deer and other large game animals were hunted so the meat could be property dried for storage and use during the winter. Some tribes called it the Drying Grass Moon, while others called it the Travel Moon—October was often the month when tribes broke into small family groups that traveled to their winter hunting camps. Oswego, for instance, was one of Chief Waubonsee’s favorite winter hunting campsites. The Hunter’s Moon has also provided an excuse for the wonderful Feast of the Hunter’s Moon down on the Wabash River at West Lafayette, Ind., one of the last chances for fur trade, Revolutionary War, and French and Indian War reenactors to party before the snow flies.

November marked the Beaver Moon, the time when beavers wearing their full, lush winter coats were trapped, their skins processed for exchange in the fur trade. The “Prime Winter Beaver” pelt was the basic currency of the fur trade.

December, with its cold weather and short days, not only brought the end of the year, but also brought the Cold Moon. Sometimes the December full moon was called the Long Nights Moon as the yearly cycle ended with the shortest day of the year, which was nearly ready to begin the cycle again with January’s full Wolf Moon.night-harvest

Just as the Fox Valley’s Native American residents once hurried to gather in the harvest each autumn, so too do area farmers still work hard to get their corn and soy beans harvested before the snow starts to fall. This year, just as it has for thousands of years, the full Harvest and Hunter’s moons are shining down, watching the Fox Valley’s farmers ply their trade from its high vantage point.

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Filed under Environment, Farming, Food, Fox River, Fur Trade, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Uncategorized, Women's History

They paved paradise…

Did a story for the Ledger-Sentinel (although corporate has apparently decided to just call it the Ledger these days) a few weeks ago that recapped the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census for Kendall County.

This most recent national farm census was taken in 2012, with the results finally released in 2014. I’d been thinking of doing a piece about it around the time it was to be released, but then the whole thing slipped my mind until late spring this year.

Farm censuses have been taken for almost 200 years now, with the first one taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1820 as part of the regular decennial population census. That was the practice until 1950, when the census bureau started collecting farm data only in years ending with 4 and 9. In 1978, that was changed to taking the farm census in years ending in 2 and 7. Finally, in 1997, Congress moved responsibility for collecting farm data to the USDA—which seemed pretty logical to me—and keeping the requirement to collect the data in years ending in 2 and 7. Thus the 2012 census.

When I finally got the data entered into my trusty spreadsheet, I have to admit being surprised—astonished, really—at the amount of farmland the census showed had been lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

Collar Counties

Kendall is the only non-Collar County to border on three of the six Chicago metro region Collar Counties, putting it in the perfect spot to absorb overflow population from fast-growing Kane, DuPage, and Will counties.

Previously, the largest amount of farmland lost to development had been the 8,313 acres lost between 1992 and 1997.But between 2007 and 2012, Kendall County lost an astonishing 37,131 acres of farmland to development. In the 57 years prior to 2007, the county had only lost a total of 28,365 acres to developme

Granted, it was clear that the county’s strong growth was going to catch up with it sooner or later. Between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population grew from 39,413 to nearly 115,000. My hometown of Oswego went from 3,914 to 30,303 during the same period.

But in the five years between 2007 and 2012 the biggest recession since the Great Depression hit the nation, and it hit Chicago’s collar counties particularly hard. It’s an indication of just how frenetic the financial industry was driving inflation of the nation’s housing bubble in the years immediately prior to the crash of 2008. Billions of fraudulent dollars were changing hands as vast tracts of farmland in Chicago’s hinterland were purchased, subdivided, and developed. Infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters, water and sewer lines—was being pushed as developers rushed to provide the new homes the financial industry required to keep the bubble inflated through a whole host of actions that ranged from simply unethical to downright illegal.

It took a while for the development train wreck to come to a standstill and the dust to settle. When it did, not only had a bunch of productive farmland been sold for development, but also vast swaths of it had been covered with all that infrastructure listed above. And that meant that while some land sold for development could still be farmed because it was vacant, a lot of it simply could not.

The disappearance of so much farmland capped a long-term period of population growth in Kendall County, particularly in its northern three townships, but also in the county’s eastern tier of three once almost entirely rural townships. Oswego, situated in Kendall’s northeast corner, is a member of both groups.

NaAuSay and Seward townships, situated directly south of Oswego, until this most recent flood of growth hit in the 1990s, had no municipalities in their boundaries. But then Plainfield began expanding across the eastern border of NaAuSay Township, while Joliet and Minooka began intruding into Seward. And that’s how come some residents of Joliet and Plainfield send their children to Oswego schools. It’s also one more reason why so much farmland was lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

The northern tier of Kendall’s townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—had been undergoing growth for years prior to the inflation of the housing bubble. Oswego and Bristol, especially, were the subject of growth hurtling down the corridor along U.S. Route 34—called Ogden Avenue east of the Kendall County border—that accelerated to extraordinary levels after the construction of the huge Waubonsie Interceptor sewer line. The 60” diameter sanitary sewer line was built down the Waubonsie Creek valley from what was then called the Fox Valley Mall to Montgomery, where it crossed the Fox River to the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

As soon as adequate sanitary sewer capacity was available, residential and commercial growth along the Route 23 corridor in Kendall County exploded. Why? For the same reason folks found the county a good place to live way back in the 1830s. Back then, the search was on for cheaper land that was good for farming in a location not too far away from the Chicago market that even in the early 1830s had begun to grow. As soon as U.S. Army engineers figured out how to drive a permanent channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating for the first time a safe harbor for Great Lakes shipping, that growth turned exponential.

The Chicago region’s population grew outward from the Lake Michigan shore, first spurred by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s commuter line that terminated at Aurora, and then after World War II by the web of multi-lane limited access expressways that stretched from Chicago north, south, and west.

Oswego Township was picked for industrial development in the early 1950s, with sprawling Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants built. Plenty of land was available at relatively low prices in the area that was outside the Chicago metro area, but close enough, and with the necessary rail connections industry of that era required.

And at the same time, developer Don L. Dise, hearing about the coming construction of those facilities, decided Oswego Township was the perfect spot to build Kendall County’s first super subdivision. He picked the huge Boulder Hill Stock Farm, owned by the Bereman family, as the location for his development, located right across the Fox River from the new Western Electric and Caterpillar plants, figuring the plants’ workers would need housing. Eventually, the Cat plant alone employed more than 7,000.

Calling his new planned development Boulder Hill after the former livestock farm, Dise proposed building out neighborhoods to attract all economic levels, from executives to factory workers. And he succeeded, attracting an eclectic mix of new homeowners, from CB&Q executives to Caterpillar and other local factory line workers, with most of the first homes financed thanks to the post-World War II GI Bill. Not only did the GI Bill promote home ownership, but it also encouraged veterans to get college degrees, which allowed the millions who served in the war to move up to better jobs, and then buy brand new houses from Dise and other developers.

The first families moved into their new Boulder Hill homes exactly 60 years ago.

The late 1950s was the county’s first big spasm of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 Oswego Township’s population doubled. Then it doubled again between 1960 and 1970. As growth to the east continued to accelerate even faster, refugees from Cook and DuPage counties looking for cheaper housing, less traffic, and a small town atmosphere, continued to move into Kendall County, but growth was relatively restrained until the Waubonsie Interceptor literally opened the floodgates.

And that touched off the next era of growth that both flowed and ebbed several times before the financial industry, with the help of Congress and President Bill Clinton, who removed regulations that had kept it to reasonable levels, hit on the idea of securitizing mortgages. Not only did they securitize mortgages, they also figured out how to defraud the entire real estate financing system by methods ranging from forcing appraisers to artificially inflate existing home values to require bigger loans to gaming the home loan system itself to allow mortgages to be awarded to those who could not afford them. Which was fine, because the goal was not to make money off house payments, but rather by selling the mortgages (sometimes several times), bundling them, and dividing them into batches so they could be securitized into bonds for sale to investors. Since the bond rating agencies were in on the fraud and since government was not allowed to regulate the bonds, the amount of farmland purchased at greatly inflated prices in order to feed the need for more and more mortgages to be sliced and diced and sold to suckers was substantial.

In Kendall County alone, it amounted to that 37,000 acre loss in just five years mentioned above. As the bubble inflated between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population tripled. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2007, Kendall was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing county in the nation.

Then the crash came, but here we sit nonetheless.

And what happened to all those farmers as land was gobbled up by developers? Glad you asked. More later…

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized