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The day my distant cousin talked Abraham Lincoln out of his autograph and fingerprint

Matiles aren’t really known for their pursuit of fame and really haven’t done much over the centuries since the late 1300s to seek it. That was the year two Matile brothers with military training from Lombardy in what’s today northern Italy, Jean and Jacques, signed on as mercenaries in the service of Jean d’Arberg de Vlangin in the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel. The two had enough experience to be hired as as military officers or governors of du Locle and La-Sagne in the canton.

Suggesting that my penchant for never moving farther than several hundred feet from my childhood home may be genetic, Matiles still live in that area today.

The Matiles’ ancestral home at the Castle of Valangin. It’s not elaborate as castles go, but we find it comfortable and cozy.

As a reward for the brothers’ services, the Matile family was given the hereditary title of Burghers of Valangin. Valangin–the name of both a castle and town–is located about three kilometers north of the city of Neuchâtel. The castle of Valangin was the military seat of government during Neuchâtel’s Prussian ownership. It was built in the Middle Ages as the main defensive works on the main route into the Val-de-Ruz, a fertile valley.

Matiles became local governmental officials, farmers, and, yes, Swiss watchmakers. In 1867, for reasons no one in the family ever recorded, my great-grandfather, Henri Francois Matile decided to immigrate to the United States with his wife and children. They first settled in Erie, Pennsylvania where my grandfather, William Matile, was born. Shortly afterwards, the family, strangely enough, moved west to the area near the eastern Kansas hamlet of Wellsville. Granted, land was cheap in the Kansas of the 1870s, but a spot more different from the Val-de-Ruz valley of Neuchâtel could hardly be found. There, Henri Francois farmed outside of town and made and repaired watches in his Wellsville shop. I still have a few of his watchmaking tools.

My grandfather married and settled on a farm just south of Emporia, Kansas and there my father lived until about 1919 when the combination of the post-World War I farm depression and the increasingly severe dust storms persuaded him to head east to Illinois to find work. Which he found, along with my mother and a new farming community to call home—and where I still live today.

Here in Illinois, we have a special fondness for President Abraham Lincoln, the Springfield lawyer and 16th President of the United States who refused to acquiesce to Southern blackmail over the slavery question, and who fought a bloody war to keep the Union strong and undivided.

And strangely enough, it seems one of my distant cousins, Gustave Matile, served for a few months as one of Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. How that happened is a bit of historical serendipity itself. And how Gustave added an interesting chapter to the lore of Abraham Lincoln is another.

Gustave Eugene Matile was born Aug. 11, 1839 in the Canton of Neuchatel, Switzerland. Neuchatel, as I noted above, is the homeland of the “modern” Matile family.

George Agustus Matile, Gustave’s father, was a well-known Swiss academic. Among other luminaries, he was a good friend of Louis Agassiz, a fellow native of the French-speaking portion of Switzerland who science historians have dubbed one of the founding fathers of the American scientific tradition (he’s also an ancestor of tennis legend Andre Agassiz).

George Matile taught history at the University of Neuchatel as well as in other European universities before immigrating to the U.S. with his family in 1849. That branch of the family settled in New York State. He had two sons who made names for themselves, Gustave and Leon Albert. Gustave, we’ll get to in a minute. Leon Albert enlisted in the Union Army, served as a private during the Civil War and subsequently served during the Plains Indian Wars and in the Spanish American War, eventually retiring as a brigadier general.

George mostly worked for the U.S. Government with the exception of one year during which he worked as an “antiquarian” for the museum at Princeton University in New Jersey. After Lincoln’s election, George served as an advisor to Secretary of State William H. Seward, who he met while participating in New York Republican politics.

It’s likely George, with his connection to Seward, was able to get Gustave, who had just turned 21when the Civil War began, a job as a clerk at the Interior Department. Then, as now in Washington, it was who, not what, you knew that counted when seeking a job. Gustave apparently read law during his government service as well as carrying out whatever duties he was assigned at the Interior Department.

In 1863, the Lincoln Administration was not only fully engaged in fighting the Civil War, but it was also trying to start Lincoln’s reelection campaign. Today’s giant Presidential staff did not exist at the time, and, in fact, Lincoln’s staff consisted, essentially, of just two men. John Nicolay and John Hay. The two young men from Illinois loyally served Lincoln throughout his Presidency. But in 1863, with the press of campaigning, they needed some help with the day-to-day business of the office of the President. So they apparently put out feelers for a dependable temporary assistant, and Gustave’s name popped up.

Unofficially, Gustave was seconded from Interior to be employed as Hay’s undersecretary. While Nicolay was away on campaign and other business, Matile and Hay carried on the Administration’s staff work, the kind of work that now employs hundreds of people.

Because his transfer was unofficial and temporary, Matile’s name apparently does not appear on the White House employment roster. One of the only clues he worked for Hay at all is a passing reference in an Oct. 10, 1864 note from Hay to Nicolay published in Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letters of John Hay, compiled by Tyler Dennett and published in 1939. Wrote Hay: “Here are your mails for this morning. We are very busy. Mr. Matile is sick.”

And then, of course, there’s the Lincoln fingerprint.

A copy of the note Gustave sent along with Lincoln’s autograph and fingerprint to Samuel Holmes in 1864. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

In late August 1864, Samuel Newell Holmes, one of Matile’s New York friends wrote to him asking if he could get an autograph from the President. Agreeable with doing a friend a favor, Gustave went ahead and asked the President. The accommodating Lincoln dipped his pen in his inkwell and signed his familiar “A. Lincoln” autograph on a scrap of paper and gave it back to Matile. But when he signed, Lincoln’s pen apparently left a drop of ink on the scrap, and as he handed the scrap back to Matile, Lincoln left his thumbprint in the ink on the paper.

When Matile sent the autograph back to Holmes, he included a short note explaining that the fingerprint inkblot was Lincoln’s: “The finger marks are also his. They will do as the olden times seals that were made by impressing the thumb on the wax.”

Holmes kept the autograph and passed it to his daughter when he died. It was sold upon her death and was acquired in 1949 by William A. Steiger, a Springfield, Illinois Lincoln collector. In 1953, Steiger sent our family a letter seeking information on Gustave, but since he was only a distant cousin of our branch and from the New York branch of the family to boot of which none of the Kansas Matiles even knew about, my parents were of no help.

Clipping from the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Jan. 28, 1957 illustrating the Lincoln fingerprint obtained by Gustave Matile.

For his part, Gustave continued reading law after the war and became a lawyer. He moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1865 where he practiced law. He also practiced law in Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota before moving back to Green Bay where he was appointed to the federal bench. There, he served as U.S. Court Commissioner for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. He was a member of the Wisconsin Bar and the Brown County Bar Association in Wisconsin and also served a stint as the Swiss counsel at Green Bay.

A cigar smoker, he died of cancer on June 17, 1908. The Green Bay Gazette, in Matile’s obituary, described him as “one of the best known lawyers who practiced during Green Bay’s early history.”

As a side note, when Gustave died, he left some of his possessions to the Green Bay public library. One of those possessions was an autographed photograph of Lincoln and his son, Tad. Only two original prints of the image are known to exist. The photograph was sold to a community group in 2006 as part of a collection of other historic materials, including a painting by the famous artist Howard Pyle, from the library for $1.2 million. The collection is on permanent loan to the Brown County, Wisconsin historical society where portions of it are occasionally placed on exhibit.

Today, while periodic questions arise about them, the Lincoln autograph and fingerprint firmly reside in the collections of the Illinois State Historical Society, proof positive that some mistakes, even ink blots, can have a historical value all their own.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The food’s the thing, no matter what season it is

The phenomenon of working mothers seems considered by many to be a relatively new one, but anyone who grew up on a farm lived with a working mother, whether she left the farm to work part- or full-time in an office or factory or whether she raised chickens to sell eggs, gardened, and did the other things farm wives and mothers do.

My wife and I are, I understand from stories that pop up from time to time, unusual in that both of us grew up in 1950s households where our mothers held full-time jobs outside the home—both working as small business bookkeepers.

I got to thinking about the subject because of food. My wife suggests this is the usual motivation for my thought process on virtually any subject. Take Delaware: crab boil. The Chesapeake Bay area: crab cakes. Columbus, Ohio: Schmidt’s German Restaurant. Missouri: barbecue. Kansas City: Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue (Bryant’s is to barbecue as Tiffany is to diamond watches—only more so). Iowa: Maid-Rites; Ottumwa, IA: Canteens (which are to Maid-Rites as Bryant’s BBQ is to a McRib). California: don’t go there; they can’t even make decent pizza.

Our farm out in Wheatland Township a few years before we moved.

So anyway, I was thinking about food. My wife, during her working years as an elementary school learning center director, perfected cooking supper in no more than 20 minutes, and even better, making things we both really liked.

After my family moved off the farm to town back in 1954, my mother, on the other hand, prepared food that was virtually identical to the things we ate when we lived on the farm, despite working a full 40-hour week. No one ever accused my wife of being a sluggard, but my mother was a sort of human dynamo who took her housework duties very seriously indeed and who loved cooking, eating and get this—washing dishes!

Somehow, every morning before I left for school, she cooked a full breakfast: cereal, eggs, bacon, toast, juice…the works. That, of course, was left over from our days on the farm. Back in those days, my folks got up early, dad off to feeding livestock and milking our cow (when we had one) and my mom down to the kitchen where she baked a pie and started preparing breakfast for my dad, my two sisters and me, so that my sisters could catch the bus for school. By the time my dad came in to eat, he’d already been up for a couple hours doing hard work, and he was hungry. A full breakfast always included pie for dessert. Because we always had dessert.

Somehow, somebody got my mom to stop for a moment for this photo taken at my folks’ 25th anniversary celebration after we moved into town. Those are my two sisters and my dad, with me in the middle looking for some cake.

At noon, there was no lunch on the farm—dinner was at noon. After we moved to town, I was surprised to find that city folks called their evening meal dinner. It was supposed to be called supper, of course. Dinner was at noon. After all, “Dinner Bell Time,” the popular farm radio show on WLS radio out of Chicago, wasn’t called “Lunch Bell Time,” was it? And the “Suppertime Frolic” that my sisters listened to on WJJD every evening as they were doing dishes was at night and it certainly wasn’t called “Dinnertime Frolic.”

Supper was often left-overs from dinner. A lunch was something you had after school or before you went to bed to stave off starvation until it was time to get up and start doing chores again.

After we moved to town, mom still cooked those full breakfasts, so I went to school well filled with good food like all the experts say you’re supposed to. When I left the house every morning, all the dishes were done, and the kitchen nicely tidied up as mom left for her office job and dad headed off to sell livestock feed to farmers. Mother cooked dinner at night after we moved to town, although the number of full course meals was cut down. But she liked to eat, as did my father, although he lived with serious health problems most of his life. With all the pain and discomfort, eating was one thing he could still enjoy without reservation.

We moved off the farm into this house, built in 1908 by my great-grandparents.

So in the late 1950s, those non-working mothers on “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” were not what I experienced. Instead, my mother worked outside the home, and then came home to work much the same way she had on the farm. She still canned fruit and vegetables in summer, cleaned house, washed the family’s clothes, and cooked, all at top speed.

Modern moms work hard too, and have even more going on because there is so much more for their kids to be involved in. Just go to the grocery store on a Friday night and watch the working moms trudge in and out, leaning forward as if struggling against a stiff wind, slowed by a week’s worth of hard work and the prospect of a weekend trying to catch up.

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A time to honor the nation’s veterans…

The Little White School Museum, here in Oswego, is once again hosting their “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit to honor those who’ve served during the nation’s wars. This year’s exhibit, curated by Bob Stekl, the museum’s former volunteer assistant director, will run from Nov. 11-28, plus a special members-only Oswego Chamber of Commerce preview on Wednesday morning, Nov. 10.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event had to be canceled last year, but this year’s exhibit will once again fill the museum’s main room with uniforms, equipment, souvenirs, photographs, and documents related to the military service of Oswego area residents.

A special exhibit-with-the-exhibit each year is the commemoration of the community’s residents who were killed in action from the Civil War through the present day. I thought explaining who these young men were and how they died might be a good way to memorialize their service, with Veterans Day—and the exhibit—nearly here. So here’s the honor roll of our community’s residents who gave their full measure to defending our nation:

Civil War

Seventeen year-old Alfred X. Murdock enlisted in the late summer of 1862 when Oswego businessman William F. Fowler recruited what eventually became Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. The company was comprised mostly of Oswego men and boys.

Alfred X. Murdock

The 127th participated in some of the fiercest combat in the western theatre of operations, including the Battle of Arkansas Post and the Siege of Vicksburg. Murdock was on hand for the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. On the day of the surrender, Murdock wrote his parents in Oswego:

“This is the greatest day of the year, and we had ought to celebrate it with new vigor and honor….This is the hardest blow that has been struck for the Rebels. With Vicksburg in our hands Port Hudson must surly fall and then the Miss. River will be open… I hope this war will soon end and we can go home—what is left of us.”

By the end of the battle, the entire 127th Infantry, originally nearly 1,000 strong, only had 50 men fit for duty, the others either dead or recovering from wounds or sickness.

As the sick and wounded gradually filtered back, the 127th continued more hard campaigning through Mississippi and Tennessee, including the Chattanooga-Ringgold Campaign and the relief of Gen. Burnside, who was besieged by Gen. James Longstreet at Knoxville, Tenn.

In May 1864, the 127th was assigned to Sherman’s effort to capture Atlanta, fighting in the battle of Resaca, May 8-13. As the Atlanta campaign ground on the 127th saw much more action, including the Battle of Atlanta on July 22. Then on July 28, at a place outside Atlanta called Ezra Church, Confederate John Bell Hood assaulted the far right of the Union line, a position held by the 127th. By that time, there were only eight soldiers out of the original 109 in Company A fit for duty and in the desperate fighting, two were killed—Alfred X. Murdock and William Pooley. Murdock was buried on the battlefield, but later his body was removed and taken to Oswego where he is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

William Pooley and his brother, John, were recruited by Capt. William Fowler when he formed Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry in and around Oswego in August 1863. The brothers had immigrated from England with their parents and their nine siblings in 1855, settling at Oswego where the brothers’ grandparents had settled in 1841.

William Pooley

The Pooley brothers’ father, William, was a blacksmith, a trade his son, William, also followed, John farmed. When the pair enlisted, William was 23 and John was just 18.

The 127th Illinois saw hard soldiering starting shortly after the regiment’s formation. After being sworn into Federal service in September 1862, the regiment was detailed as prisoner-of-war guards at Camp Douglas near Chicago before being sent south to fight.

John Pooley died in a military hospital at Memphis, Tennessee on March 16, 1863 after participating in action in Mississippi and Arkansas.

William soldiered on as the 127th marched and fought with Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee throughout the middle South, surviving battles at Jackson, Mississippi, Champion’s Mill, and the siege of Vicksburg.

After Vicksburg fell on July 4, 1863, Sherman turned his attention towards the Confederate stronghold at Atlanta. From May to November, Sherman’s Union Army fought dozens of actions ranging from skirmishes to full-blown battles.

At the Battle of Ezra Church south of Atlanta on July 28, Confederate General John Bell Hood attempted to outflank the Union Army. The 127th Illinois formed the right end of the Union line, and Hood’s attack nearly overwhelmed the few soldiers still fit for duty. The timely arrival of reinforcements, led to the 127th position by 15 year-old Oswegoan Robinson Barr Murphy, saved the Union line from disaster.

But during the battle, William Pooley was killed, along with his fellow Oswegoan, Alfred X. Murdock. For his efforts to save the Union line, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, the only Kendall County resident ever to have earned the honor.

Johann Wilhelm Schoger was the first child born to Georg Michael Schoger, Jr. and his second wife, Eva Maria Brunner on April 15, 1841 in the village of Marktlustenau in the Crailsheim District, Kingdom of Wuerttemberg, Germany.  George Michael had 13 sons, 10 of whom were named Johann and all of whom therefore went by their middle names. 

William Shoger

The family farmed in and around Marktlustenau. In 1854, at age 13, Johann Wilhelm emigrated to the United States with two older brothers, John Frederick, 20, and John Andrew, 17, to Oswego, Illinois. They made the crossing together with three cousins as a scouting party to meet Brunner relatives living in the Oswego area. Once in Kendall County, they searched for likely places for their father to locate, and selected land on the border of Bristol and Oswego townships, just west of the village.

Their reports of good land to be had led to the arrival in 1856 of nine remaining members of the Georg Michael Schoger Jr. family. Upon arrival, most of the family Anglicized their names, with Johann Wilhelm Schoger becoming William Shoger.

After the Civil War broke out, William traveled to Joliet and on May 14, 1861 enlisted for a three-year hitch in Company K, 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. At his enlistment, he was described as 5 feet, 9 inches tall with dark hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion.

The 20th Illinois saw some of the fiercest combat of the war, including fights in Missouri, the campaigns to capture Forts Henry and Donelson in Mississippi, the Battle of Shiloh, and the grueling Vicksburg campaign. William was killed in action May 12, 1863 along with two of his friends at the Battle of Raymond as Gen. U.S. Grant tightened the noose around the fortress city of Vicksburg. Reported his friend, Andrew Brown in his 1894 history of Company K, “Comrades [Israel] Waters, Shoger and [David] Barrows were at my right [at the Battle of Raymond]. They were all shot through the head and, when killed, lay touching each other.” Brown helped bury the three near where they fell on the Raymond battlefield. Later, William’s family erected a monument to his memory in the Oswego Township Cemetery. In addition, they sponsored a stained glass window in his memory when the new German Evangelical Church–now the Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist–was built in Oswego in 1896.

World War I

Pvt. Archie Lewis Lake served in the 97th Company, 6th Regiment, 2nd U.S. Marine Division. He was killed in action during the Aisne-Marne Offensive in France on July 19, 1918.

Archie Lake was born in Oswego on Aug. 5, 1893. His father, Archibald “Archie” Lake was a barber in Oswego, whose mother was a member of the prominent Fox family in Oswego. Throughout his childhood, as his father moved to find better business opportunities, Archie frequently visited his Oswego relatives. In addition, the family occasionally lived in Oswego. In 1905, the elder Archie Lake was serving as Oswego Township Clerk as well as working in the Figge Barbershop in town. The family moved to LaGrange in August 1907, and that’s where Archie Lake was living when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I.

During the Aisne-Marne Offensive the U.S. 2nd Division, including the Marine Brigade, was attached to the French XX Corps to conduct a counterattack near Soissons about 75 miles northeast of Paris in mid-July 1918. The 6th Regiment was held in reserve when the initial assault waves went over the top on July 18. The next day, July 19, the 6th Marines advanced alone from Vierzy toward Tigny, but it was stopped short of the objective by intense artillery and machine gun fire. It was during this assault that 24 year-old Archie Lake was killed in action.

6th Marine casualties were estimated at 50–70%. First Lt. Clifton B. Cates (a future commandant of the Marine Corps) reported only about two dozen of more than 400 men survived and added “… There is no one on my left, and only a few on my right. I will hold.”

Regimental losses during the Aisne-Marne Offensive numbered 1,431; July 19, 1918 was the single costliest day of fighting in the history of the 6th Marine Regiment.

Pvt. Archie Lake was buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Fere-en-Tardenois, France. After the war, a memorial marker was placed in the Oswego Township Cemetery by his family.

World War II

Frank Clauser was born in Oswego in 1912. He grew up in Oswego and attended Oswego High School, where he excelled in football. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in April 1942, and moved up through the ranks to staff sergeant.

Sgt. Frank Clauser

After basic and advanced training, Clauser was assigned to the newly activated 438th Bomb Squadron, part of the 319th Bomb Group. Clauser was trained, and when the 438th received its B-26 Marauder aircraft, he became an engineer-gunner. Designed and built by the Martin Aircraft Corporation, the B-26 was a medium bomber with a range of 1,100 miles and a top speed of 310 mph carrying a bomb load of 5,200 lbs. It was also armed with 11 .50 cal. machine guns.

The men of the 319th Bomb Group trained with their B-26’s as low-level raiders, and then flew their aircraft to England in September 1942 before flying on to North Africa to operate against Italian and German forces.

In February of 1943 the 438th was re-trained to bomb from medium levels and then went into action against Italian targets across the Mediterranean. On Aug. 22, 1943, the 438th was assigned to attack railroad marshaling yards at Salerno, just down the coast from Naples, Italy.

The B-26 Invader’s crew consisted of Lt. William Brown, pilot; co-pilot 2nd Lt. Richard Lobdell, navigator/bombardier 2nd Lt. Charles McVaughan; radio operator and waist gunner Staff Sgt. Alfred Conz,; tailgunner Staff Sgt. Sidney Gibbs, and engineer and turret gunner Staff Sgt. Frank Clauser. During the raid, Sgt. Clauser’s plane was attacked by several German fighters and shot down. According to an eyewitness account, the plane crashed into the Mediterranean and there were no survivors.

Sgt. Clauser’s name is inscribed on The Wall of the Missing in the North Africa American Cemetery in Tunisia, along with the names of 3,723 other missing U.S. servicemen.

Kay Ivan Fugate was born November 16, 1917 in North Dakota to Ivan and Sylvia (Shoger) Fugate. He grew up on the Fugates’ North Dakota farm, but maintained close ties to his relatives, the extended Shoger family living in and around Oswego. As a child, he traveled to Oswego frequently to visit, particularly with his grandmother, Mary (Stacy) Shoger, who continued to live in Oswego after her husband, William’s, death in 1912.

Kay Ivan Fugate

Fugate enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1940 at Aurora, Illinois, and was eventually stationed aboard the battleship USS Nevada.

Launched in 1914, the Nevada was a leap forward in battleship technology for the U.S. Navy. In fact, four of her new features would be included on almost every subsequent US battleship: triple gun turrets, oil in place of coal for fuel, and geared steam turbines for greater range and speed. Serving briefly during World War I protecting convoys to England, the Nevada was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and was based at Pearl Harbor.

When the Japanese attacked the Pearl Harbor fleet base on Dec. 7, 1941, the Nevada was the only U.S. battleship to get underway. Although she managed to get away from “Battleship Row,” the Nevada was hit by at least one torpedo and six bombs. Her crew beached her to keep her from sinking and blocking Pearl Harbor’s main ship channel. Seaman First Class Kay Fugate was one of 69 killed and 109 wounded in action aboard the Nevada during the Japanese attack.

The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego in their Jan. 28, 1942 edition that: “Mrs. Mary Shoger received a message telling of the death of her grandson, Kay Fugate, 24 years old, who was killed in action at Pearl Harbor. He enlisted two years ago in Aurora.”

Kay Fugate is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Nevada was raised, repaired, and returned to fight to the end of World War II. She was sunk after the war in July 1946 as part of Operation Crossroads, the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.

Elwyn Holdiman was born on the farm his father was renting in Oswego Township on Jan. 22, 1920. He attended Squires School, a rural one-room school at the intersection of Douglas Road and U.S. Route 34 just east of Oswego, and also worked for various farmers around the Oswego area. On Jan. 21, 1942, the Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” news column reported that: ?Oswego men selected for induction from the local draft included Cecil E. Carlson, Paul T. Krug, John Lewis, Elwyn Holdiman, and Charles Sleezer.”

Elwyn Holdiman

After basic training, Pvt. Holdiman was assigned to the tank corps and was trained as a gunner on the M-4 Sherman Tank, the standard U.S. tank of World War II.

He was sent to Company C, in the 17th Tank Battalion, part of the brand new 7th Armored Division, activated at Camp Polk, Louisiana, under command of Gen. Lindsay Silvester on March 1, 1942. The division trained in Louisiana and Texas through early November 1942 and then underwent desert training in California. Then it was back east for more training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Along the way, Pvt. Holdiman was promoted to Corporal Holdiman.

On June 6, 1944, the day the Allies waded ashore on the beaches at Normandy, Elwyn Holdiman and the rest of the men of the 7th Armored Division were embarking on the SS Queen Mary in New York harbor for a fast trip across the Atlantic to England. After final training in England, they boarded landing craft for Normandy, and landed on Omaha and Utah Beaches, Aug. 13-14. There, they were assigned to Gen. George S. Patton’s newly activated U.S. Third Army. The division drove through Nogent-le-Rotrou to take Chartres on Aug. 18, then on Verdun, and finally across the Moselle River.

In late September, the 7th Armored Division was tasked with supporting Operation Market Garden, the combined arms invasion of the Netherlands recounted in the movie, “A Bridge Too Far.” From Sept. 29 to Oct. 6, they fought in the Battle for Overloon and from Oct. 7-26 were in action around Griendtsveen and patrolling around Ell-Weert-Meijel-Deurne, before they were engaged in the Battle of the Canals starting Oct. 27.

In a tank battle on Oct. 29 against German armored forces a couple miles from Heusden west of the Asten/Meijel Road, Cpl. Holdiman’s Sherman tank was destroyed by enemy fire, killing him in action. His parents, Albert and Hazel Holdiman, were first notified that he was missing in action before they finally learned he had ben killed. The family erected a marker in the memory of his sacrifice in Lincoln Memorial Park.

Donald A. Johnson, was born in 1923. During his boyhood he lived in Oswego with his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John Van Ault, where he attended Oswego schools before moving to Aurora, where he finished his junior year of high school. The lanky 6-footer enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps on Sept. 2, 1941 in Chicago, exactly three months before Pearl Harbor.

Donald A. Johnson

Johnson was assigned as a crew chief aboard a C-87 Consolidated Liberator Express, a transport modification of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber in the 77th Transport Squadron, 22nd Transportation Group. The 22nd Transportation Group flew cargo “over the hump” across the Himalaya Mountains from western India to eastern China in support of Chinese forces fighting Japanese invaders.

The C-87 was an ill-fated stop-gap aircraft designed to allow the U.S. Army Air Forces to fly cargo at high altitudes. On the bomber assembly lines, C-87’s were created by eliminating the B-24’s defensive machine gun armament, replacing the nose bombardier position with a hinged door, adding a cargo door to the side, and reinforcing the floor to handle up to 12,000 lbs. of cargo. The resulting changes in the aircraft’s balance made it difficult to fly. Other problems included a clumsy flight control layout, frequent engine problems, hydraulic leaks, and frequent electrical power losses in the cockpit during takeoffs and landings. The C-87 was withdrawn as soon as sufficient C-54 and C-46 cargo aircraft were available.

On August 9, 1943, Johnson’s C-87 was reported missing on a flight returning west from Yangkai, China to Jorhat, India.

On Aug. 25, 1943, the Kendall County Record reported in its “Oswego” news column: “Pfc. Donald A. Johnson, an Air Corps mechanic, is reported missing in action while on a flight from India to China [sic]. Donald is an Oswego boy, having been brought up by his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John VanAult, and attending the Oswego school and East Aurora high school.”

Nothing further was heard of the plane or its five-man crew, including pilot, Capt. Tom Perry, co-pilot, First Lt. John T. Tennison, navigator, Second Lt. John W. Funk, radio operator, Staff Sgt. Alvin J. Lenox, and Johnson, the plane’s crew chief. After the war, and as a service member declared missing in action, his name was inscribed on the “Tablets of the Missing” at Manila American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines.

On Oct. 3, 2008, independent crashed aircraft investigator Clayton Kuhles tracked down the crash site. He found the C-87 had crashed into a forested mountainside at an altitude of 8,018 feet. Kuhles said the wreck is located a four-day hike southeast of Donli, Arunachal Pradesh, India. Kuhles interviewed an elderly resident of Donli who said he reached the site five days after the 1943 crash–it was still smoldering–and buried the crew next to their crashed aircraft.

Stuart Amos Parkhurst was born Feb. 13, 1923 in Oswego to Clarence and Lillian (Shoger) Parkhurst. He was active in school and Presbyterian Church activities in Oswego. In November 1939, he was chosen by his high school classmates to represent the community as “Oswego Boy Mayor,” during the annual Aurora Christmas Parade. He graduated from Oswego High School in 1941.

Stuart Amos Parkhurst

He was drafted into the U.S. Army on January 21,1943 and was eventually assigned to headquarters company, 2nd Battalion, 345th Infantry Regiment, 87th “Golden Acorn” Infantry Division, where he rose to the rank of sergeant.

The regiment sailed for England aboard the Queen Elizabeth, leaving New York harbor at 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 17, 1944. On Oct. 22, the ship anchored in the Clyde River, Scotland and the 345th disembarked, traveling by train to their billet, a 20 square mile area of England’s Midlands in the villages of Biddulph, Stone, Leek, and Peover Hall.

The regiment enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner Nov. 23, but that night the 345th moved out by train to Southampton, then marching to the docks the morning of their arrival. Within two days they arrived at St. Saens near Rouen, France greeted by rain, cold, fog, and mud.

On the morning of Dec. 15, the 345th relieved the 346th Infantry’s 1st and 2nd battalions in the vicinity of Rimling, France on the German border. The regiment’s 1st and 3rd Battalions attacked German positions that afternoon and the next day, taking heavy enemy fire. Parkhurst’s 2nd Battalion was placed in regimental reserve.

On Sunday, Dec. 17, the 2nd Battalion relieved 3rd Battalion and advanced on a densely wooded area west of Medelsheim, Germany. The initial advance went well, despite the failure of promised tank support to appear. But then, shortly before noon, the battalion ran into German machine guns supported by two tanks. Tank and machine gun fire swept the entire battalion, including the unit’s headquarters. Maj. Anthony Airoldt, battalion executive officer and Capt. Clarence Patten, battalion intelligence officer, were seriously wounded. It’s probable the heavy fire sweeping the headquarters area seriously wounded Sgt. Parkhurst—exactly two months after he had left New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The day was forever after known as “Bloody Sunday” to the men of the 345th Infantry.

Sgt. Parkhurst died of his wounds two days later and his body was buried in the Limey Temporary Military Cemetery at Toul, France. In 1948, at the request of his family, his body was home to Illinois, where he was buried with full military honors at the Camp Butler National Cemetery near Springfield, on Aug. 11, 1948.

From the April 24, 1946 Kendall County Record:

Second Lt. Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer Jr., 22, of Oswego, a member of the crew of a B-29 Superfortress who has been listed as missing in action for more than a year, was killed when his bomber was shot down April 15, 1945 over Toyko, according to official word received from the War department by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Paul E. Zwoyer Sr., of Oswego and his wife Mrs. Mary C. Zwoyer of Chicago.

Paul Ellsworth Zwoyer Jr.

Describing the action in which the Oswego flier lost his life, the War department letter to his wife says: “The records concerning your husband show he was a crew member of a B-29 Superfortress bomber which took off from Isley Field, Saipan, Marianas Islands, enroute to Tokyo, Japan.  The aircraft was on a night raid in which radio silence was maintained unless an emergency occurred.  No radio contact was made with the aircraft.  Two B-29 aircraft were seen to go down over the target as a result of accurate anti-aircraft fire and night fighter opposition.  One aircraft was seen to explode in midair just on the bomb run and the other was on fire and crashed after bombs away.  It is presumed that his aircraft was one of the two as no message was received from it.”

 Lt. Zwoyer, whose father is a war veteran and active in the American Legion in Kendall County, was born July 18, 1923. He graduated from Yorkville High School in 1941.  At the time of his enlistment in Company E of the 129th Infantry at Plattville, he was attending the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Missing Aircraft Report

B29 #42-65344, “Ball of Fire,” with Japanese Report information

Crash time: April 13, 1945

Crash position: Ajiki town Yaguchi Imba-gun, Chiba-pref (Now Ajiki Yaguchi, Sakaemachi, Imba-gun, Chiba-pref)

Affiliation: 879 bombing party, 499th Bomb Group, 73rd Bomb Wing, Air Force

Attack target: The Tokyo Army Factory

Cause of crash: Fighter

Nickname: Ball of Fire

Pilot RUBINSTEIN, Douglas H. first lieutenant

Copilot ZWOYER, Paul E. Jr., Second lieutenant

CROOK, Raw W., first lieutenant

WOLFE, Jack P. first lieutenant

HARTLEY, David B., first lieutenant

RYAN, John J., Second grade staff sergeant

McNAMARA, Alfred J. Second grade staff sergeant

GRAHAN, Arnold C., Technical staff sergeant

WALLACE, William T., Technical staff sergeant

TOOEY, Harold K., staff sergeant

NYATROM, George W., Second grade staff sergeant

A total of 327 B-29 bombers participated in the Friday, April 13, 1945 raid on the Tokyo Army Factory. Seven U.S. aircraft were shot down on the raid. “Ball of Fire” was attacked at about 11 p.m. over Matsudo—City, Chiba—prefecture by fighters of the 53rd Squadron, Japanese Army Air Force. “Ball of Fire” exploded in midair in an area over Ajiki town Yaguchi’s Tonegwa shore. Staff Sgt. Alfred McNamara was the only survivor. He was captured by Japanese military police and was sent to the Tokyo arm prison. He was reportedly killed in the firebombing raid of Tokyo by U.S. bombers on May 25, 1945.


Oswego resident E4 (Corporal) Hans Wolfgang “John” Brunner, a German national, was killed in action on March 29, 1968 at Pleiku, Vietnam by a grenade.

Hans Wolfgang “John” Brunner

Born Dec. 24, 1944 in Herford, West Germany, he immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1957 and graduated from West Aurora High in 1963. He married Patricia Kifowit June 3, 1967 and the couple moved to Oswego.

Brunner was drafted into the U.S. Army, leaving for duty just 10 days after his marriage. He served with B Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Artillery Regiment, First Field Force.

The South Vietnamese air base at Pleiku was under construction by U.S. military personnel when it was attacked by the Viet Cong on Feb. 6, 1965, which led to the commitment of U.S. ground forces to Vietnam. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Artillery was deployed to the Republic of Vietnam in 1966 as part of the initial U.S. build-up. The battalion, equipped with M108 Self-Propelled Howitzers, was based at Camp Saint Barbara (later called Artillery Hill) outside of Pleiku. Its task, along with other Army units assigned to Pleiku, was to support and protect the air base from Viet Cong attacks.

The Pleiku Air Base dispatched forward air controller missions, coordinated with South Vietnamese forces, and was a base for U.S.  special operations forces in the Central Highlands. Units from the Army, Navy, and Marines were stationed there with the Air Force, which operated and maintained the base.

E4 Brunner earned a posthumous Purple Heart, plus the Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign ribbon, and the Marksman Badge with Rifle Bar.

PFC Fred Heriaud was Kendall County’s first Vietnam War casualty, dying in battle on November 17, 1965 during the fierce Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.

Fred Heriaud

PFC Heriaud was born December 4, 1943, and lived with his family on various farms in the Yorkville and Oswego areas. He graduated from Yorkville High School. When he was drafted into the U.S. Army, his family was living on a farm at the northeast corner of the current intersection of Orchard Road and U.S. Route 34 in Bristol Township, where his siblings attended Oswego schools. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Vietnam, arriving on August 16, 1965.

Assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, Airmobile, he was among the troops airlifted into Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang River Valley in mid-November 1965, where U.S. forces encountered an entire regiment and elements of two additional regiments of the regular People’s Army of North Vietnam.

The battle, one of the first using the new air mobile tactics developed by the U.S. Army, was commemorated in Lt. Gen. Howard G. Moore’s book, We Were Soldiers Once – And Young, the inspiration for the 2002 motion picture, “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson.

PFC Heriaud was killed by mortar fire on the third day of intense fighting at Landing Zone X-Ray as he lay next to his buddy, Brian Ripley.

His body was recovered and sent back to the U.S. for burial. A funeral service was held December 4, 1965—he would have been 22 the day of his funeral—at the Church of the Good Shepherd United Methodist in downtown Oswego. Burial at the Oswego Township Cemetery, with full military honors provided by Oswego American Legion Post 675, followed the service.

Robert Charles Rogers grew up in Wheatland Township, and attended Oswego School District schools, graduating with the Oswego High School Class of 1966.

Robert C. Rogers

He was drafted April 10, 1968, and was assigned to the 11th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam on Sept. 9, 1968.

Beginning in early 1967, the brigade had trained extensively in jungle operations in preparation for its role in Vietnam. To stress realism in the Vietnam-oriented tactical training, the brigade conducted live-fire operations in the rugged terrain of the Koolau Mountains on the island of Oahu.

After arriving in Vietnam and prior to joining the Americal Division, intensive training was conducted for a month. In late January 1968, upon completion of this training, the 11th Infantry Brigade moved from Landing Zone Carentan to their permanent base camp at Landing Zone Bronco, near Duc Pho.

SP4 Rogers was killed in action by mortar fire on March 19, 1969 in Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam during Phase I of Operation Iron Mountain, one of 348 U.S. servicemen to die during that phase of the operation.

The Army described the goal of Iron Mountain as conducting “unilateral and combined operations with ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] and provincial forces to find, fix and destroy enemy main force and local force units” in the area for which the 11th Light Infantry Brigade was responsible, as well as to “interdict enemy supply and communication lines” while supporting the Government of Vietnam’s Pacification and Revolutionary Development Program.

SP4 Rogers’ body was recovered and returned to the U.S. where his funeral was held on Monday, March 31, 1969, at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church in Wheatland Township. He is buried in the church cemetery, just a few miles from his boyhood home.

Two of the World War II killed in action, Frank Clauser and Elwyn Holdiman, turn out to have been cousins of mine, related through my maternal grandmother. And I went to grade and high school with one of the Vietnam casualties, Bobby Rogers, who lived just across the field from our farm out in Wheatland Township.

Which really tends to bring home the effect war has on what was at the time a small farming community.

As we observe this year’s Veterans Day and take in the “Remembering Our Veterans” exhibit at the Little White School Museum it will be an excellent time to again revisit General William T. Sherman’s warning about war made in a speech to Michigan Military Academy cadets in 1879. It ought to be engraved in the halls of Congress: “You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

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There was a time when apples were a cash crop in the Fox Valley

It’s fall here in northern Illinois, and that means it’s apple season.

Most of us figure there’s nothing quite as American as a good, fresh crisp apple. But the fact is, the eating and cooking apples we enjoy so much these days are descended from European imports. Only the lowly crabapple is actually native to North America.

The wild, ancient ancestor of virtually all of today’s apple varieties originally evolved in the mountains of Central Asia in the area today occupied by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and the Xinjiang region of China. Apples appear to have been actually cultivated first in Turkey. Alexander the Great is generally given credit for introducing the fruit to Europe.

Although not native, apples were one of the first fruit crops brought to the New World by Europeans, who heavily relied on the fruit to produce cider for drinking and vinegar for food preservation, as well as a popular fruit for eating fresh.

The first apple seeds were brought across the Atlantic to North America by French Jesuits in the late sixteenth century. The religious separatists who settled Massachusetts starting in 1620 brought apple seeds and seedlings with them and immediately began planting orchards throughout the region when they arrived.

Cecil Calvert, 2nd Baron Baltimore

In the 1630s, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore advised Maryland settlers to bring with them “kernalls of pears and apples, especially of Pipins, Pearmains and Deesons, for making thereafter of Cider and Perry.” Perry is a fermented drink made from pears. According to survey records of 1644, just ten years after Lord Baltimore’s decree, more than 90 percent of Maryland’s farms had apple orchards.

Pennsylvania’s German settlers, called Pennsylvania Dutch by their English neighbors, became famous for using apples to make a wide variety of food, including apple pie and apple butter.

In the early 1800s, John Chapman, a former resident of Massachusetts and Connecticut, began planting apple seedlings throughout Ohio and, eventually, Indiana. Looked upon with affection by the early settlers of those areas, the eccentric Chapman soon received his nickname, Johnny Appleseed. In addition to planting apple orchards from seeds retrieved from cider-making operations, Chapman also planted pennyroyal, catnip, and horehound on his tree-planting journeys. Besides planting orchards in unsettled areas, Chapman also regularly returned and pruned the trees to assure their productivity.

By planting the seeds instead of reproducing them by grafting (which he opposed on religious grounds), Chapman spread a huge variety of apple trees in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and as far west as eastern Illinois. Apples do not reproduce true from their seeds, meaning seeds from, say, a Pippin, do not necessarily produce Pippins. What Chapman really did was to spread a huge variety of apple rootstock all over the areas of the then fast-growing western frontier. As a result, when settlers did arrive, they could graft on desired varieties but they could also select the best of the varieties that grew from Chapman’s random seeding.

Here in Kendall County, like every other frontier community, apple trees were prized possessions, and joined cherry and plum trees in the orchards planted by the earliest settlers.

Elvirah Walker Shumway and her husband James emigrated from Massachusetts to Kendall County in 1847, settling near her brothers, Seth and Lauriston Walker, on a farm just east of the intersection of Douglas and Simons Road in Oswego Township. On their arrival, Elvirah discovered one of the hardships she had to endure on the Illinois frontier was a serious lack of apple trees with which to produce vinegar. She didn’t let that stop her, though, from preserving food by pickling. In a letter written to her sister back in Massachusetts in September 1847, she reported she had “two three gallon pots of pickles stewing—if you ask what I do for vinegar! Oh I use whiskey and water.” Which may help explain some of those wild pioneer parties.

Apples were grown to be eaten fresh, but also to be dried for use during the Fox Valley’s long winters. The fruit was also turned into apple butter, jelly, and cider.

As the 19th Century progressed, apples became fairly big business here in Kendall County and the rest of the region. On Nov. 14, 1872, the Kendall County Record reported that “Dr. J.A. Cook has shipped 1,750 bushels of apples from his farm in Fox this fall, and made 50 barrels of cider.”

Many farmers owned their own small cider presses, but for processing serious quantities of apples, steam powered presses were used to squeeze cider out of apples.

In 1884, Kendall County produced nearly 25,000 bushels of apples according to state agricultural officials.

Cider itself, long a staple of the American diet, was served both fresh and fermented. Cider appeared on the table in virtually every American household in the first half of the 19th Century, as a good tasting and mildly alcoholic beverage enjoyed by all members of the family, no matter how young. Cider was also safer to drink than the water available in most of the era’s towns and villages.

After fermenting, hard cider was sometimes distilled into hard liquor. More often it was simply processed into applejack during the winter by allowing a keg of fermented cider to freeze, driving the alcohol to the center. The center was then tapped, producing a strong alcoholic drink.

Vinegar was the other major product made from apple cider. Since vinegar was one of the primary food preserving tools of early householders (everything from meat to vegetables to eggs were pickled in vinegar), its manufacture was an important early industry.

Besides merely reproducing popular varieties of apple trees, at least one Kendall County farmer developed his own variety. Smith G. Minkler, who farmed along what is now Minkler Road in Oswego and NaAuSay townships, perfected the Minkler Apple, and it proved to be a favorite of local orchardists. As a young man, Minkler received his first seedlings as payment for helping break prairie sod for early Kendall County entrepreneur Peter Specie. Specie apparently got the seedlings from the Detroit area’s French settlements.

Today, the Kendall County Historical Society still has a few Minkler apple trees at the Lyon Farm and Village, and there are a few Minkler apple trees still growing on area farmsteads.

Some of the apples Minkler produced were giants. The Kendall County Record reported in the fall of 1881 that apples weighing a pound each and measuring 14 inches in circumference were being picked in the Minkler orchards.

In January of 1889, Minkler printed a “Plea for an Old Orchard” in the Record. He urged county farmers to prune their trees, “plow the ground shallow” in their orchards, and then apply manure to feed the trees. “The orchard is the most abused piece of ground on the farm,” Minkler complained. “You expect it to produce a crop of apples, a crop of hay, and a pasture besides, and make no return to the land.”

A nice selection of Minkler apples from Eastman’s Antique Apples, Wheeler, Michigan. Minklers are large, juicy, and crisp, good for both eating and cider.

Apples harvested each fall were either pressed on-site in individual orchards or taken to the many local cider-pressing businesses. In the Oswego area, a number of pressing operations were in operation in the late 1800s, including at the Wormley farm on Ill. Route 31 and the Wayne farm on Ill. Route 71. In addition, Oswego businessman David Hall had two presses in operation in 1889. All were powered by small stationary steam engines.

All those apples grown in farm orchards had to be hauled to the presses by the wagonload for processing, and that offered numerous opportunities for mischief-inclined youngsters. From the Oct. 23, 1889 Record: “Owing to the making of much cider now, many loads of apples are being carried through town and whenever one is spied by the small boys, they swarm upon it filling their pockets, biting into a few, and then pelting each other with them so that the streets are strewn with apples. This raiding upon their loads causes farmers to get through town as quick as possible and Monday, as Charles Stiefbold was coming along at a trot with a load upon wish some boys jumped and by some means let down the end board, a patent device, and the first thing the owner knew was that most of the apples were strewn along the street the length of a block or more. As fathers don’t exercise the least control over their boys on the street, the formation of a society for such control would be much in order.

The cider-making season usually ran from September through November. Here’s what the Nov. 11, 1891 Record had to say about that year’s cider season in Oswego: “The end of cider making has not been reached. David Hall has made over 1,500 barrels so far…John Wormley, with his celebrated cider press, has managed to make about 1,700 barrels this season. The largest amount of cider to the bushel was made for S.B. English—from 50 bushels of Minkler apples, 252 gallons of cider was extracted.”

Much of the cider pressed locally went to make vinegar. David M. Haight, who owned the general store at the northeast comer of Washington Street (Route 34) and Main Street in Oswego, operated a large vinegar fermenting room in his store basement. One of Haight’s vinegar jugs is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Nowadays, many county residents have an apple tree or two on their property, but the days when thousands of gallons of cider were processed from local trees is long gone.

This fall, some hardy folks will still press fresh cider from local apples while the rest of us pick up a gallon or so at the grocery store or a farmer’s market while we reflect on the days when the Wormleys, the Waynes, and the Halls made apples one of the county’s commercial mainstays.

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Good old days: Going to the barber shop for an appendectomy

Back when I was a youngster, a guy by the name of Hal Boyle wrote a column that was syndicated by the Associated Press and which was carried in the Beacon-News up in Aurora. I liked Boyle’s column and read it regularly. Later, I found out he was an award-winning World War II correspondent who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, yes, I wasn’t the only one who liked Boyle’s stuff.

Every once in a while, Boyle would write a sort of trivia column with odd facts and short stories. And while I liked his regular columns, I loved those trivia pieces. I liked them so much, in fact, that when I started writing my own column, I stole the idea from him, stealing ideas being journalism’s highest form of flattery.

Back in those pre-computerized layout newspaper days, pages were physically pasted up. A few companies decided they could make a little money by supplying bits of miscellaneous information called fillers, from recipes to ads to trivia clips printed on heavy paper, ready to be clipped and waxed down on the paste-up sheet to fill in the occasional void on the page paste-up. The material was supplied free to everyone, from small weeklies to dailies, with the costs paid for by the companies whose advertising materials (which ranged from feature stories to short squibs featuring their brands) appeared in each week’s issue.

Hal Boyle’s idea of a trivia column combined with the availability of free fillers resulted in my junk mail columns—which proved popular among our paper’s readers.

So I had Hal Boyle’s idea, and a free, regular source of trivia and other basically useless information that I could use to fill a column once or so a month. Not that I didn’t like writing about local, regional, and state history, of course. But at the time besides writing my column, I was covering the local school board and other breaking news stories, editing the big pile of news releases that arrived every week, taking photos, and writing up to three editorials each week. So a trivia column gave me a bit of breathing room.

Since the trivia arrived along with all the rest of the junk mail at the newspaper, I decided to characterize the columns I wrote using that stuff as interesting bits of junk mail I’d mined out of the stack that was on my desk every week. And fortunately, the idea proved popular among the paper’s readers.

I still do one occasionally, although far less frequently since my column has been cut to twice monthly instead of weekly. But the things are fun, and I sort of miss doing them, so I thought to myself, why not do one for “History on the Fox” just for fun? And with no further ado, here’s my first junk mail blog post, which kicks off right at the start of the dog days of summer.

What, you may be wondering, are the dog days? Glad you asked. We used to joke they were they days during an Illinois summer when it was too hot for the dog to go outside. But really, the dog days are generally considered to last from about July 3 to Aug. 11 or so, and the name goes back in time to the ancients.

In the summer, Sirius, called the Dog Star, rises and sets with the sun. During late July Sirius is closest in motion with the sun, so the ancients, not having a concept of how far away other stars are from our own, believed that Sirius’s heat added to the heat of the sun. That, they believed, created a stretch of hot and sultry weather, which they named the “dog days” after Sirius, the Dog Star.

But July isn’t only famous as the start of the dog days. Lots of other stuff, as I’m sure you know, happened in July. For instance, on July 8 in 1777 Vermont abolished slavery. The temperature hit 134 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley on July 10, 1913. The first man landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—was established on July 29, 1958. And also in space-related news, the Telstar communications satellite relayed the first publicly-transmitted, live trans-Atlantic television program (featuring Walter Cronkite). In something that may or may not be related, this year’s full July moon will float across the heavens on July 23 as well. And don’t forget that during the Civil War, the U.S. Army won both the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in July 1863, Vicksburg on July 4 and and Gettysburg on July 3. President Lincoln had a very good July in 1863. And let’s not forget the U.S. Post Office was established on July 26, 1775.

Where would we all be, after all, had Congress not established the U.S. Post Office? While Republicans in Congress keep trying to kill it off and replace it with expensive private contractors, the rest of us like it just fine. Because the point is that we get a lot of mail. Every day except Sunday. And some of it is actually mail we want to get. Here at History Central, I pretty much like all the mail I get, even the junk mail, because even there are a few nuggets of knowledge. In fact, here are bunch of things I never would have found out if I hadn’t opened all our mail (each and every day the mail carrier showed up out in front at our mailbox):

There are 40 spaces around a Monopoly game board, 22 of them properties. Hint: Always buy Marvin Gardens when you get the chance.

There are 40 spaces around the perimeter of the Monopoly board, and 22 of them are properties.

Before he left the boxing ring for his acting career, Tony Danza’s record as a middleweight fighter was 12 wins and three losses.

In 1964, golfer Norman Manley achieved consecutive holes-in-one on a golf course in Saugus, Calif. Both were par 4 holes, which probably means something to the golfers reading this.

On Nov. 28, 1929, Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals football team celebrated Thanksgiving Day by scoring all 40 points (six touchdowns and 4 points-after) in the Cards’ 40-6 win at old Comiskey Park.

A shark’s skeleton has no bones. It is made entirely of cartilage.

The first—and so far the only—President to be married in the White House was Grover Cleveland. During his second year in office, he married Frances Folsom, a young lady 27 years the President’s junior.

The Electoral College system of electing U.S. Presidents has enabled five candidates to become President whose opponents won the popular vote: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.

The Great Pyramids in Egypt are the only surviving sites considered to be among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Barnacles have three stages of life. In the first, they swim, have six legs, and one eye. In the second stage, they have 12 legs and two more eyes (total three). In the third stage, they have 24 legs but lose all their eyes.

Making sense of the heat index: When the air temperature is 85 degrees, it feels like 78 when the humidity is at zero percent; 88 when the humidity is 50 percent; and 108 when the humidity is at 100 percent.

Of the 10 tallest buildings in the world, only one, New York’s One World Trade Center, is in the U.S. Of the rest, 5 are in China and one each are in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Taiwan. The world’s tallest building, measuring more than a half-mile in height at 2,717 feet, is Burj Khalifa (named after the country’s ruler) in Dubai.

Monaco has the shortest coastline—2.38 miles—of any sovereign nation that’s not landlocked.

The busiest ship canal in the world is the Kiel Canal linking the North Sea with the Baltic Sea in Germany.

The Alaska pipeline carries 2.1 million barrels of oil a day—when it’s not springing leaks—to the Valdez Oil Terminal.

A normal adult pulse rate is 70 to 78 beats per minute at rest for men and 78 to 85 for women.

The earliest known zoo was created by Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt about 1500 B.C.E. About 500 years later, the Chinese Emperor Wen Wang founded the Garden of Intelligence, a huge zoo covering 1,500 acres.

The Tarantella is a popular folk dance that gets its name from the city of Taranto, Italy. The people there used to dance the Tarantella as a supposed cure for tarantula bites. Today, of course, we know the correct dance for curing tarantula bites is the Locomotion.

The first cartoon with Democrats portrayed as donkeys was published in Harper’s Weekly by pioneering cartoonist Thomas Nast on Jan. 15, 1870.

During the 1828 presidential election, the opponents of Andrew Jackson had insultingly called him a jackass, and Jackson decided to turn the tables on those opponents. Instead of opposing the characterization, Jackson used the symbol in his campaign materials, agreeing at least in part with his opponents that he was “stubborn.” On Jan. 15, 1870, the first recorded use of a donkey cartoon to represent the Democratic Party appeared in Harper’s Weekly. The cartoon was drawn by political illustrator Thomas Nast, and was titled “A Live Jackass Kicking a Dead Lion.”

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Devils Tower National monument in northeastern Wyoming as the nation’s first national monument. Devils Tower is a volcanic tower standing 865 feet above its base, which is 415 feet high.

Almost all large metropolitan newspapers—the ones still publishing—now publish in the morning. As late as 1996, there were 846 afternoon dailies and 686 morning papers. There now about 1,260 dailies in the U.S.

Until Henry VIII passed an act separating the professions, barbers were also surgeons. After that, the only surgical operations barbers could legally perform were bloodletting and tooth-pulling. On the other hand, surgeons were no longer allowed to give anyone a shave and a haircut—even for two bits.

Finally, Jefferson Davis, the traitorous president of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War, was U.S. Secretary of War in 1853. While in office, he improved infantry tactics and brought in new and better weapons that were eventually used against him and the Confederate cause. Although briefly imprisoned, Davis never had to account for his treason that resulted in the deaths of 620,000 U.S. and Confederate soldiers, sailors, and marines.


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The Union won the Civil War but lost the peace

Today marks the 156th anniversary of the surrender of the rebellious “Army of Northern Virginia,” under the command of a renegade U.S. Army colonel, Robert E. Lee, to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the U.S. armies fighting to preserve the Union and end slavery.

It had been a long, bloody conflict, by far the deadliest in U.S. history, but with Lee’s surrender, the few remaining rebellious Southern forces likewise surrendered and the war was over.

But while the military phase of the war was over, the political phase was far from finished. Indeed, the previously rebellious Southern states immediately began organizing against the reconstruction plans of the victorious North.

U.S. Grant, 1868 GOP candidate for President

President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by Southerners just days after the end of the war, and his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, took over the reins of government. Johnson proved an ineffective replacement for Lincoln. In the election of 1868, Johnson didn’t succeed in gaining the Democratic nomination. Instead, it went to Horatio Seymour, former Democratic governor of New York. The Republican nomination went, by acclamation, to Ulysses Grant, the victor of the Civil War.

The Democrats based their campaign on outright racism, and violence across the South was widespread and vicious. By the summer of 1868, in fact, Union veterans were beginning to wonder if the war, despite all of the death and privation, had ended too soon. While the South’s armies had been vanquished, Southern citizenry had not and the rise of armed White racist terrorists was creating chaos across the region.

John Redman Marshall was born in 1837 at Skipton, Maryland. He enlisted in the Sturgess Rifles at Chicago in 1861 and fought in many of the major battles in the Eastern Theatre before he was mustered out in 1863. In 1864, he established the Kendall County Record, at Yorkville, Illinois, publishing the first issue on May 1. Marshall died 18 April 1927 in Yorkville, Kendall, Illinois. (Little White School Museum collection)

It is with that backdrop that John Redmon Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record, decided to write an editorial wondering whether more organized violence against the South might be warranted. A Civil War veteran himself, Marshall was alarmed at the viciously racist attitude of Southerners and their growing reliance on violence as the campaign continued. In the Record’s Aug. 13, 1868 edition, Marshall laid out his thinking to his readers—including his former comrades-in-arms—here in our little corner of northern Illinois:

“Many Union men assert that the war of the rebellion ended two years too soon. That the rebels were overpowered but not conquered. It is becoming public opinion that the assertion is true and that the aim of the Democratic party is to revolutionize the country if it gets into power. The South threatens to appeal to the bayonet at any rate, whether it is successful at the polls or not

“The Democratic platform is revolutionary. The leaders of the party desire the success of the South to overthrow the reconstructed States, and they are revolutionary. Shall we have another war? Do the people of this Country wish to engage in another deadly strife? If not, let them give no countenance to the Copperheads or to their plans. Harper’s Weekly says: ‘The Democratic party proposes to reverse all the national legislation of three last years, to subvert the reconstruction which the country has approved, to disperse organized State governments by the bayonet; by the same means to reinstate those who, for the highest crime against the Commonwealth, have been temporarily disfranchised; to deprive hundreds of thousands of new citizens of the ballot, and thrust them back into a semi-enslaved condition—a project which can not be accomplished but by the most sanguinary measures. Proclaiming a wholly arbitrary test of citizenship in color—a test involving caste and inconceivable injustice, which embraces the entire disaffected class, and excludes a large body of the loyal people—it announces that if its claim is disregarded, it will appeal to physical force,’ and pass its candidate in the White House at the point of a bayonet.

“‘It will not be forgotten that the party which thus enters into a political campaign with a loud threat of civil war is the one that has previously made the same threat and fulfilled it to the letter. In 1860 the Democratic orators said that ‘the South could not be expected to submit to the election of Mr. Lincoln.’ In 1856, Mr. Filmore, absurdly called Conservative, had said the same thing in view of the election of Mr. Freemont. It was not bravado merely. Whatever the Northern portion of the party may have thought or intended, the Southern portion was sincere and resolved; and it was that portion which had entirely controlled the party and dictated its policy, because it was the positive element.’

“Mr. John Forsythe, of the Mobile Register, thus candidly states the propose of the South, and gives a fair warning to the Northern people:

“’If by any species of chicanery or fraud the legitimate voices of the majority of the whole people of the United States are condemned, and the Radical candidates are pronounced elected by the Radical Congress, the Democracy of the country will not submit to it, and will take arms to sustain the decrees of the ballot box.

Horatio Seymour, the Democratic candidate for President in 1868.

Now, if civil war comes out of this conflict of political forces, the white men of the South cannot be worsted; for war and its terrors, in their deadliest form, are not comparable to the evils they will have to endure under a perpetuation of scalawag and carpet-bag rule. And here we may as well say that the people of the South do not intend to submit to that permanent rule, result as the Presidential election may. And they have only submitted to its indignities and insults so far because they have been waiting for the good sense and justice of the American people to relieve them from it, and restore them to their civil rights in the November elections.’

“Did not the war end too soon? Is the cursed spirit of rebellion crushed? Are we to be threatened with the bayonet at every Presidential election? If the Democrats are defeated in November they threaten the bayonet. If they are successful, they will overthrow the acts of Congress passed during and since the war. Slavery or serfdom will be re-established and the country will be placed back to where it was in the days of Pierce and Buchanan. Then the five years’ war will have been a failure and this progressive people will have once more to contend with the devils of treason and slavery.

“Then defeat Seymour and Blair, the devil and his angel, and let the South, backed by the Copperheads of the North, endeavor to revolutionize the country. But they will not do it. They dare not do it. Southern braggadocio and copperhead threats are too well know by the loyal millions to frighten them.”

Given the violence of last year’s Presidential election, as well as the violence of the post-election period that was instigated and encouraged by the former President, it may be useful to contemplate that there were misgivings about the end of the Civil War at the time. That the racist attitudes of that era are coming to the fore once again suggests that Marshall and the “Union men” he referenced were not being overly alarmist.

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Farmers’ annual ritual of moving from farm to farm a thing of the past

By this time in the farming calendar of Fox Valley residents from the early 1900s through the later years of the 20th Century, tenant farmers were settled on the land they planned to work for the coming year. The moves from former rental farms to their new homes had been accomplished in February and March so that by early April families were pretty much settled in and ready to go to work.

But speaking of the second month of the year, if you’ve lived in Illinois for any time at all, you know that February is not the nicest month around these parts. Despite all the love expressed on Valentine’s Day, the fact is, Illinois weather in February is just about the worst the region can offer. Cold, snow, sometimes rain and mud, followed by ice and frozen mud are all things February throws at us every year—sometimes all at once.

Which is why it might puzzle you a bit that February was the month my parents chose to get married.

Until she was 10 years-old, my mom’s family lived on the East Side of Aurora in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of the majority population of Germans that lived there. My grandfather worked in the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops downtown while my grandmother kept house. But in 1920, my grandmother—a country girl—persuaded my grandfather to move out of town to a farm. She promised to actually do all the farming to start, including milking cows, if they’d only move out of the city (and away from fractious in-laws) and back to her beloved country.

My grandparents moved from the east side of Aurora to this decrepit farmhouse in Wheatland Township in June 1920, where they joined the rural community.

So out to Wheatland Township they went, moving from their nice big Queen Anne two-story home on Hinman Street into a dumpy little one-story house on one of the Lewis McLaren farms. The farm they rented was less than a half-mile from the Tamarack School, but that was about place’s only positive attribute.

My grandfather continued in his job in Aurora for a couple years, walking the mile and a half down what’s today 127th Street to the interurban line where he caught a trolley into town, worked his 10 hours, and commuted home again. Meanwhile my grandmother milked cows to sell the butter, milk, and cream; raised chickens; tended a huge garden and large orchard; took care of the kids; and kept house.

It was about the same time my father, figuring the frequent drifts of dust blocking the back door of his family’s Kansas farmhouse were bad omens, decided to go with his buddy and a cousin to California to join the Navy. They stayed overnight at another cousin’s place in western Kansas, who talked them out of joining the peace-time Navy. The cousin added he heard there were jobs to be had in Illinois, so the trio turned their Model-T Ford around and headed back east, winding up in Ottawa. There they worked as steeplejacks at the glass factories for a couple years before my dad decided he wanted to get back into farming. He took the interurban trolley from Ottawa to Joliet and from there to downtown Aurora, making sure to arrive on a Saturday night when farm families came to town for their weekly shopping.

My dad (back row in black hat and white shirt and tie) poses with his parents and siblings(and little niece and nephew) as he says good-bye to Kansas.

He walked down Broadway, asking the first person he saw that looked like a farmer if he was hiring. No, the man said, but he knew who was. And so, with a few detours, my father found himself working for Jim and Bess McMicken out in the same Scots neighborhood my mother’s parents had moved to. My grandfather and my dad met during a volunteer project at the Wheatland United Presbyterian “Scotch” Church. Grandpa was impressed by how hard a worker my dad was, and so invited him home for a meal. Where he met my mom, and where, nature taking its course, after their marriage in February 1930, my two older sisters and I eventually showed up.

But why did they pick February for their wedding date? Well back then, many if not most farmers rented and did not own their own land. Farms were rented every spring, generally at the end of February or the first of March. And so if you were a young couple looking to rent a farm, it was smart to get chores—like your marriage, for instance—out of the way so you’d be ready to jump on the first available farm that came up for rent.

Throughout the region, families moved from farm to farm, leaving old neighborhoods, churches, and one-room schools behind to take up another farm elsewhere. Keeping everyone abreast of the area’s moves, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Feb. 28, 1930: “Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kuhns have moved to the L.D. Judd farm near Sugar Grove. Mr. and Mrs. Henry Meyer and family have moved into the place vacated by the Kuhns.”

My folks, dating the year before they got married.

In 1939, so many farm families were moving that the correspondent ran a special story on it each week during the spring season. “’The time has come, the Walrus said’ for many farmers to pack up their household and farm equipment and move to another farm,” she wrote on March 1, before listing several family moves, and adding, “Other moves in this annual checker game will be given next week.”

In 1930, my newly married parents found a farm over on what’s now Ill. Route 126 between Plainfield and Yorkville. An old house even then, it needed fixing up, which my grandfather, who by then had left the Burlington shops and was farming and doing carpenter work on the side, did. Establishing a precedent, he went into town and bought whatever wallpaper was the cheapest and everyone pitched in to paper the walls and paint the woodwork.

From there, my folks moved to another one of the McLaren farms. With the farm came old Mrs. McLaren, who my mother was expected to care for and who was then well into dementia, her paranoia dictating that she never turned her back on my father, even when climbing the stairs to go to bed, which she did by walking backwards. Mr. McLaren (who was an engineer and inventor) and his wife came to stay on the farm on a regular basis, but his penchant for year round nude bathing in the farm stock tank persuaded my parents (especially my outraged mother) it was perhaps not the best environment to raise their two small daughters.

The Butcher Place, where my parents’ farming career ended and where I lived until I was eight years old.

From the McLaren Place, they moved to Minkler Road and the infamous Gates’ Place. The Gates’ Place forever after was the low point by which all other rented farmhouses were gauged. It was the place where snow drifted through the closed bedroom windows and the teakettle froze on the back burner of the cookstove at night.

But then as the 1930s were drawing to a close, a farm with relatively new house and buildings came up for rent. From the McLaren Place they’d previously rented, the new farm was a short trip down 127th Street to Tamarack Corners and then a couple miles north to the Butcher Place for the final farm my folks rented. It’s where I spent my first eight years. In December 1954, my parents and my sisters and I moved to town and left the farm rental lottery for good.

Today, that once-common late winter-early spring ritual of families moving from farm to farm is almost entirely a thing of the past—as is farming itself in much of the Fox Valley. But at one time, there was a whole lot of movin’ going on around these parts early in every year.

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Feeding the Illinois & Michigan Canal was both an engineering and economic feat

The Erie Canal, championed and promoted by New York Governor DeWitt Clinton opened in 1826 and immediately became a huge economic engine, not only for New York but also for the newly settled states and territories of the Old Northwest.

The canal, 363 miles long, linked the head of navigation on the Hudson River at Albany with Buffalo on the shore of Lake Erie. Commerce on and along the canal absolutely boomed as soon as it opened, making a hero of Clinton (admiring New Yorkers heading west gave his name to counties and towns all the way west to the Pacific) and creating huge markets for Midwestern grain and livestock, not to mention providing an efficient transportation route for many of those westbound settlers.

Jesuit linguist Jacques Marquette and cartographer Louis Jolliet canoed up the Illinois River in 1673, and suggested it wouldn’t be difficult to build a canal linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

The Erie Canal’s success also prompted a frenzy of canal-building elsewhere, especially in Ohio. And it also spurred reexamination of plans to build a canal in Illinois linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River. The idea for such a canal had been first broached in 1673 when Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette paddled up the Illinois, Des Plaines, and Chicago rivers on their way back to Lake Michigan from a trip of discovery down the Mississippi. Jolliet, an experienced cartographer, predicted it wouldn’t take much effort or money to dig a canal from the headwaters of the Chicago River on Mud Lake to the upper Des Plaines allowing boats to quickly pass from the lake to the river and then down the Des Plaines to its junction with the Kankakee River where the Illinois River is formed.

And, in fact, sometimes Mother Nature provided the means to traverse from the Chicago to the Des Plaines River with no portage at all. During spring floods and after heavy rains at other times of the year, the two rivers basically merged. In July 1826, thanks to heavy rains, a crew of 13 voyageurs paddled Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and his secretary, Robert Forsythe, on a desperate 16-day, 1,600-mile journey to warn the frontier that the Winnebago Tribe was on the verge of going to war with the U.S.

The crew started their journey at Butte des Morts on the Fox River of Wisconsin upstream to the portage to the Wisconsin River (today’s Portage, Wis.), and then down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi. From there they paddled down to Jefferson Barracks, the U.S. Army post at St. Louis, spreading the word along the way. Gen. Henry Atkinson lost no time loading soldiers aboard a steamboat and heading upstream to Winnebago territory—Cass, Forsythe, their voyageur crew, and their canoe was also loaded aboard. When vessel reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass, Forsythe, and their crew left Atkinson and headed up the Illinois to warn as many settlers as they could. When they reached the forks of the Illinois where the Kankakee and the Des Plaines join, they were happy to see there was plenty of water in the Des Plaines—the river was notorious for being virtually dry during the summer months. But those July rainstorms had filled it nicely, so they set their course upstream, paddling as fast as they could. They reached the Mud Lake portage as night fell and laid over for fear of wrecking their canoe, but pushed on as soon as the sun rose. As it turned out, they paddled directly from Mud Lake into the Chicago River and got to the American Fur Company’s post at Chicago at breakfast time. After a day’s rest and reprovisioning, they left Chicago and headed back up the Lake Michigan shoreline, setting a canoeing record that will likely never be eclipsed.

But Cass and Forsythe knew they were lucky to make it over the height of land from the Des Plaines to Mud Lake. Most summers and autumns, the Chicago portage was some 60 miles all the way down the Des Plaines to the Kankakee, with canoes and cargoes often hauled aboard two-wheeled ox carts.

So the idea of a canal linking the Great Lakes with the Illinois River and the immense Mississippi River watershed was attractive and had been for more than 200 years.

In fact, at the Treaty of St. Louis, signed on Aug. 24, 1816, Fox and Sauk tribes ceded a 20-mile wide corridor to the U.S. Government as part of the treaty terms. The cession ran southwesterly from the shore of Lake Michigan down the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois rivers to the Fox River at modern Ottawa. During the winter of 1818-19, John C. Sullivan and his assistant, James M. Duncan, did the initial survey of the corridor’s boundary lines. The accuracy left a bit to be desired—surveying in northern Illinois in the winter is generally contraindicated due to the ferocious weather.

So while the outlines were drawn, it wasn’t until 1821 that the land between the boundary lines was surveyed in anticipation of a canal being constructed. Already owned by the government thanks to treaties with the local tribes, as soon as the land was surveyed, it was opened to the preemption and homestead claims of settlers and speculators.

The Illinois & Michigan Canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan.

Throughout the 1820s, Illinois’ Congressional delegation pushed the Federal Government to appropriate funds and grant lands to finance canal construction. In the meantime, a number of issues concerning canal construction had been discovered. When more thorough surveys were done and elevations measured, it was found that the original idea of a simple ditch from Lake Michigan to LaSalle on the Illinois River simply wasn’t possible. The height of land where drainage divided, flowing either to Lake Michigan or to the Illinois River was found to be comprised of extremely hard limestone, creating a barrier that would be costly to burrow through. So engineers came up with a plan for a canal with several locks to get cargo boats up from Lake Michigan across the height of land, and then down 141 feet of fall between Chicago and LaSalle.

The final plan called for a canal 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. The Erie Canal had been built 40 feet wide and only four feet deep, a size found inadequate almost immediately after opening, so the I&M Canal’s engineers determined to build it big enough to start. They planed to use 15 locks to get down the 141 feet of fall to LaSalle. Because no water would be flowing into the canal from Lake Michigan, three feeder canals were required (Calumet, Kankakee, and Fox), along with one grade-level crossing and feeder combination of the DuPage River. Feeders were a common solution to maintaining canal water levels. The Erie Canal, for instance, had dozens of feeders to regulate its depth.

Lock 14 on the I&M Canal near the Little Vermilion River aqueduct has been restored.

Another engineering problem was how to get the canal across two other rivers (the Fox and the Little Vermilion) and two creeks (AuSable and Nettle) and their respective valleys. Again, the Erie Canal’s engineers had solved a similar problem by building 18 aqueducts to cross streams and valleys along the canal’s course. For the much shorter I&M, just four aqueducts were built, along with one at-grade crossing of the DuPage River.

Construction finally began with great fanfare on July 4, 1836. Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837, a severe national financial depression created by President Andrew Jackson’s monetary policies, brought construction to a halt and essentially bankrupted the State of Illinois. It took several more years for the finances of the nation and Illinois to recover to the point that construction could be finished. The I&M didn’t open to traffic until 1848.

A lot of water was needed to maintain the I&M’s depth as boats and barges locked up and down the canal. As noted above, three smaller canals and one grade-level river crossing were constructed to maintain the I&M’s depth. Feeder canals were dug from the Fox River at Dayton to Ottawa; from the Kankakee River to the canal at Dresden, and from the Saganashkee Slough, the “Sag,” and the Calumet River to the canal near its northern end. The DuPage River was crossed at grade near Channahon.

The Kankakee Feeder was one of three 40-foot wide canals dug to supply the I&M Canal with sufficient water. (Map by the Kankakee Daily Journal, 2018)

Commercial traffic on the canal utilized nine canal basins; 12 widewaters for canal boat storage; sundry backwaters; the three feeders, also called lateral canals; and two hydraulic basins. Eleven towns developed along the I&M Canal, six of them founded by the canal commissioners, including: Ottawa, Chicago, LaSalle, Lockport, Channahon, and Morris.

In general it took between 22 and 26 hours to traverse the entire canal. The quickest recorded passage was 17 hours and 35 minutes. Canal boats traveled about 4 miles per hour.

While the canal itself had a huge economic impact on northern Illinois, the three feeder canals also had major economic effects on the areas surrounding them.

The Calumet Feeder Canal ran from the huge Saganashkee Slough at Blue Island, where the Little Calumet made a hairpin turn toward Lake Michigan, to meet the canal northeast of Lemont at the village of Sag Bridge.

The Kankakee Feeder ran northwest from a dam on the Kankakee River six miles north of Wilmington to the Des Plaines River. There, the feeder canal crossed the river on an aqueduct, to feed the canal just upstream from where the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers join to form the Illinois River.

At Channahon, there was no feeder as such. Instead, the I&M crossed the DuPage River, creating a grade-level feeder for the canal. The Canal Commission built a dam across the DuPage just below where the canal crossed, creating a pool that was on the same level as the canal, allowing canal boats to cross the river with locks providing additional water for the canal as needed.

The Fox River Feeder for the I&M Canal ran south down the west bank of the Fox River to intersect the canal in Ottawa. From the canal, the feeder ran farther south before making a 90-degree turn to reenter the Fox River. (Click here to enlarge)

The final I&M feeder canal was the 40-foot wide Fox River Feeder. It began above the dam in Dayton and extended for nearly five miles south along the west bank of the Fox River to Ottawa where it crossed the I&M. From there, it extended seven blocks due south where it made a 90-degree turn to the east, where it abruptly narrowed to half its width to create more hydraulic power before emptying back into the Fox River. As wide as the original Erie Canal, the Fox River Feeder had its own towpath and could handle canal boats.

A number of businesses located along the Fox River Feeder in Ottawa to use the water power the feeder provided. Just south of the I&M, the I&M Canal Commission itself maintained a boat yard just a short distance from the canal itself. The 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of downtown Ottawa shows that the H.C. King Box Factory, Pump and Cooper Shop’s machinery was powered by the feeder’s flow, as was the J.A. Koeppen Machine Shop, William Colwell’s plow works, the Grove and Hess Feed Mill and Cider Press, and the D. Sanderson Refrigerator Factory. And those were just the ones located immediately south of the I&M. From there, the feeder—also called the lateral canal—flowed due south to two blocks north of the Illinois River where it made a 90-degree turn to the east to enter the Fox River again. Along its length were located dozens of businesses from grain elevators to lumber yards to warehouses to factories of various kinds.

The Fox River Feeder’s course from Dayton through Ottawa on its way to empty back into the Fox River. (Click to enlarge)

The problem with the feeder canals is that the region’s floods—called freshets at the time—regularly damaged the dams that fed them. And when that happened, it wasn’t only the I&M that sustained losses but so did the businesses that had located along the feeders.

In March 1873, for instance, the ice went out of the Fox River suddenly after a cold winter. The thick ice rampaged down the river demolishing bridges and dams, including the dam at Dayton that fed the Fox River Feeder. The March 27, 1873 Kendall County Record reprinted the account of the effects the disaster had on Ottawa:


The ice that went out of Fox River recently gave the manufacturing interests of Ottawa a serious blow, two dams being damaged to such an extent as to stop many establishments for a short time. The [Ottawa] Republican of the 20th says:

The dam across the Fox River at Dayton, owned by the State, is to all appearances a total wreck. Some ten days ago a part of the comb of this dam on the east end, about a third the length of the dam and apparently about two feet in depth, went off. The damage seemed to be trifling but on Friday last a field of ice came down with such force that it racked the whole structure downstream and as the ice moved off leaving the water clear, there seemed to but little left of the old Dayton dam. The river fell almost instantly, and the water of the feeder [canal] turned in its course and ran back into the Fox river, leaving the Dayton mills and factory without propelling power.

This dam was built some years before the opening of the canal, which took place in 1848. John Green had constructed a dam at the same place to create a water power, with which he ran a flouring and saw mill. The State having established that point as the place from which to take water from the Fox river to feed the canal, made an arrangement with Green by which he was secured in the perpetual use of water power much greater than has ever yet been used. This dam was built of timber crib work, just above the old one, and in the filling up, both the old and new were consolidated making it a very strong structure. It has stood many shocks in the years that have intervened, with slight repairs and little care. It will of course be rebuilt as soon as the stage of water will permit, as canal navigation can hardly be carried on without the use of this feeder. In the meantime, serious inconvenience and loss will be suffered by the numerous manufacturers of Ottawa whose mills are propelled by water from the “side cut” and hydraulic basin, which are supplied by this feeder.

The Fox River Feeder was maintained as long as the I&M needed it. But after the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal opened shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, there was no longer a need for the I&M or its network of feeders and aqueducts. Businesses that once looked to the feeders for flowing water to power them had long since started relying on steam and then electrical power.

By 1931, the Fox River Feeder had become an unsightly, dangerous, economic liability through Ottawa’s downtown. The city hired workers unemployed by the accelerating Great Depression to fill in the feeder, thus ending a lively era of northern Illinois transportation history and one of the city’s links to the region’s canal age.

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It seems I’ve been doing microhistory all these years…

After all these years, I finally find out that I am apparently a microhistorian.

Not that I’m that small, of course. Just like you, I could stand to lose a little weight. No, I’m talking microhistorian as a person engaging in a specifically narrow kind of history.

According to biographer Jill Lepore, microhistory can be defined as the history of “hitherto obscure people” that “concentrates on the intensive study of particular lives” to reveal “the fundamental experiences and mentalités of ordinary people.”

And what, I imagine you are wondering, is a mentalité? Well, according to Wiktionary, it’s a French word meaning “A person’s feelings about the wider society and world they live in, and their place within it; a worldview, outlook.”

From my point of view, microhistory is all about telling the stories of mostly unheralded people and how those people’s stories fit into the overall flow of the rest of history. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do on this here blog since my first post back in early March 2010—not to mention the local history column I started writing for the old Fox Valley Sentinel back in 1977, and continued after the creation of the Ledger-Sentinel in 1980.

Local history is replete with people who slogged their way through exciting times, made their contributions, and then faded from view after making their presence known, sometimes locally, sometimes statewide, and sometimes nationally. Those are the stories that fascinate me. And there are a lot of those stories to tell right here in our own Fox River Valley of Illinois.

A July 1893 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Hughes. The descendants of Hughes, an escaped slave and Civil War veteran, went on to become educators, jurists, and other professionals. (Little White School Museum collection)

There were, for instance, the African American farm families that moved to Kendall County after the Civil War, settling out in the Minkler-Reservation Road area south of Oswego. Almost all were former slaves who, for one reason or another, decided to settle amongst an entirely white neighborhood after the Civil War to farm and raise their families. The Lucas, Washington, Hughes, and a few other families eventually made their mark, not only on the Oswego area, but also on the nation as a whole.

One of those settlers, Nathan Hughes, not only escaped from slavery in Kentucky, but also volunteered to fight for his own freedom against the south during the Civil War, where he was wounded, recovered, and then went back to fight and be wounded again.

His son-in-law, Robert Ridley Smith, likewise escaped enslavement and then fought for the Union during the war before coming to Kendall County, where he married one of Hughes’ daughters. After the war, Hughes went back down to Kentucky to find his family and bring them north. He brought his children, although his wife decided to stay in a place that was familiar to her and not come north to the strangeness of the Illinois prairies.

Smith’s children became the first African Americans to graduate from high school in Kendall County, Ferdinand with the Oswego High School Class of 1903 and his sister, Mary, with the OHS Class of 1904. Their descendants went on to contribute to the nation as they carved out careers as public school educators, college professors, and, for at least one of them, as a federal judge who eventually served on the FISA Court.

Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam in a 1914 portrait. (Little White School Museum collection)

Strong women made their marks in local history as well. Sarah Raymond began her educational career teaching in one-room Kendall County schools during the Civil War and ended it as the superintendent of schools down in the normal college town of Bloomington. She was the first female school district superintendent in the nation when she was appointed in 1874. After her retirement in 1896, she moved to Boston for several years where she married and hobnobbed with such luminaries as Jane Austin, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Emily Murdock lost her brother, Alfred, to a rebel bullet during the Civil War Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. She went on to become a mystery novelist, writing several bestsellers under the pen name of Lawrence L. Lynch, the name of her first husband. This was at a time when women simply didn’t write mysteries, so she adopted the subterfuge of writing using a male pen name.

Emily Murdock Van Deventer wrote mystery novels under the pen name, Lawrence L. Lynch. (Little White School Museum collection)

Other local historical heroes include Alfred Browne, who came and went in Kendall County’s history, first as a young soldier in the Union Army. He was tapped as one of the honor guards for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral car at Springfield after the President was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After the war, Browne, a strong believer in emancipation and racial equality, joined the Freedman’s Bureau in Montgomery, Alabama during Reconstruction to help educate former slaves. He found the struggle against the violent racism and terrorism turned against the South’s former slaves too much to bear, and returned to Kendall County. Taking up agriculture on the family farm outside Newark, Browne taught himself Norwegian so as to better communicate with his numerous Norwegian immigrant neighbors.

Maggie Shepard Edwards and her husband pose with her bicycle outside their Oswego home and millinery shop about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

Margaret “Maggie” Shepard started out teaching country school before moving to Oswego to open her own millinery business. It proved so successful she became a major property owner in the village as well as a businesswoman. She also bucked the odds to adopt a daughter while still an unmarried single woman, before later marrying Oswego hardware retailer Tom Edwards.

Indefatigable educator Nancy Hill.

And we can’t forget Nancy “Nannie” Hill, a Yorkville girl who went into teaching Kendall County rural schools before moving to Aurora to eventually become principal of Oak Street School on the city’s West Side. While she and one of the school’s female teachers toured Europe in the summer of 1914, World War I broke out. That required Hill and her companion to display large helpings of both pluck and luck to make their way through war-torn Europe to England and then back to North America despite the dangers of armies clashing on land and the threat of German submarines on the sea voyage home.

In April 1892, Florence K. Read became the first woman office-holder in Kendall County when she was elected to the Oswego School Board, which was quite an achievement.

But she wasn’t the first Kendall County woman actually nominated by a political party for a countywide office. That honor goes to Nettie Chittenden. She was nominated by the New Party in 1873 as the nation was beginning to suffer from one of its longest financial depressions. Called the Long Depression and the Panic of 1873, economic conditions didn’t improve for a decade. Farmers and laborers, desperate for change and fair treatment from railroad and other monopolies, formed the New Party in 1873 to elect candidates sympathetic to their issues. Chittenden, 26, was nominated for the office of county superintendent of schools, running against the GOP’s popular candidate, John R. Marshall, publisher and editor of the Kendall County Record, the county’s newspaper of record. Although they managed to elect a local circuit court judge, the rest of the New Party’s candidates, including Chittenden, did not fare well in the November election. Even so, a few New Party candidates were elected to the Illinois General Assembly as well as to local offices elsewhere in Illinois.

So, yes, there’s plenty of microhistory around these parts. Sometimes, those whose stories I’ve told realized they were having an impact beyond their small community on the wider world. Most did not, as they just kept on living their lives as best they could given the circumstances in which they found themselves. Their stories, and how they fit into the great mosaic of the history of the region, state, nation, and world continue to offer plenty of interesting grist for a microhistorian’s mill.

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