Category Archives: Women’s History

Wheatland’s remarkable, scientific plowing match

The other day on Facebook, a guy got to wondering about an old sign he’d come across that advertised the Wheatland Plowing Match, which was once a big deal in eastern Wheatland and eastern Oswego townships here in northern Illinois.

Noting some of the information on the sign, he wondered: “Apparently plowing competitions were once a thing, but I am stumped as to how they incorporated a ‘ladies fair’ into such an event…:

To dig into this topic, we’ve got to go back in time to the region’s pioneer era. In the 1840s and 1850s, farming families from Scotland and Germany immigrated to the United States, and they wound up settling in northeastern Kendall and northwestern Will counties.

1911 Wheatland Plowing Match 1911

The landscape in this Malcolm Rance snapshot of the 1911 Wheatland Plowing Match, held that year on the John Hafenrichter farm, looks more like South Dakota than northern Illinois. By that hear, the match was one of the most popular agricultural events in the region. (Little White School Museum collection)

The Germans brought their rigorous work ethic to an area that was also being populated by their German-speaking cousins from the Pennsylvania Dutch region, who were arriving here in northern Illinois about the same time, and the two groups formed a cohesive German-speaking settlement that soon became known for its prosperous, well-run farms.

The Scots came seeking better, cheaper farmland than their thin-soiled rocky homeland, as well as more opportunity. Scotland was in the throes of a socio-economic revolution as large landowners forced farmers off their rented lands in an effort to maximize wool production. But Scotland’s loss was our gain, as dozens of skilled farmers decided to cross the Atlantic and try their luck with the rich prairie soil of Illinois.

The hardworking Germans and the canny Scots soon came to respect each other’s strong points. And the main strong point of the Scots farmers was their scientific approach to tilling the land.

Wheatland Plow Match Rumley Oil

The 1911 Plowing Match included plowing by farm tractors like this Rumely Oil Pull that would gradually supplant draft horses as the prime motive power for plowing. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the early years of the 19th century, the British Isles had become the center of an agricultural revolution, combining increasing mechanization with scientific techniques to increase the yield of both crops and livestock through genetic manipulation and land use practices. Farmers experimented with machines like seed drills, invented in the early 1700s, that proved superior to the old method of broadcast seeding and faster than planting individual seeds by hand. New plow designs were created, wet land was drained, crop rotation was analyzed and scientifically improved, and livestock breeding was placed on a scientific footing.

These techniques and more were brought to eastern Oswego and western Wheatland townships in the 1840s by Scots farming families with names like Patterson, Clow, Stewart, Ferguson, McMicken, and Harvey. By the 1870s, they were operating successful, growing farms and had also built churches and helped establish public schools they shared with their German-speaking neighbors.

1905 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

This 1905 photo of the Wheatland Plowing Match grounds gives a flavor of the event’s popularity. (Little White School Museum collection)

In an effort to promote best practices in agriculture and to recognize those who were excelling, three prominent Scots and English farmers decided to use that idea to establish a new kind of farming festival. At the urging and invitation of James Patterson, Henry Massey and A.S. Thomas, a dozen farmers met at a one-room country school in Wheatland Township on July 15, 1877 and voted to establish what eventually became the Wheatland Plowing Association. The first competitive plowing match was set for Sept. 22 of that year on the farm of Alexander Brown.

The idea behind the match was to assess skill in plowing. Plowmen were to be judged on straightness, neatness, and evenness of their furrows. Depth of the furrow was to be no less than five inches and each plowman was required to plow a half-acre in no more than three and a half hours. The grand prize winner that year was James King, who took home the $15 prize. His descendants would continue to excel at the craft of plowing until the last match was held. Runners-up were John Thompson, Henry Westphal, Edward Green and Chris Catchpole, while the boys’ category winner was John Netley, who took home a neat $8—$187 in today’s dollars. The

1907 Wheatland Plowing Match ladied

My great-grandmother and my grandmother are both in this photo of the women who were tasked with preparing the noon meal at the 1906 Wheatland Plowing Match. The match had been held on their farm in 1895.

first match also reportedly had exhibits of farm implements displayed by local dealers, a feature that would grow during the next century.

By the next year, the plowing match had started to turn into an event whose size surprised everyone—perhaps even its creators. As the Sept. 26, 1878 Kendall County Record reported: “Saturday, Sept. 21st was the day advertised by the farmers of Wheatland township, Will county, (better known as Scotch settlement) for their annual plow trial. The trial was held on the farm of Robt. Clow Esq., about nine miles east of Oswego. To our great surprise the attendance was as large as the first day of the Will County Fair. A better show of plowmen and plowing would be hard to find. As the plowing progressed it was generally conceded that the Sulkies [riding plows] did better work than the Walking Plows, the work being side by side could be easily compared.”

And the Wheatland Plowing Match was off and running.

In those early years, the match was shared around the neighborhood, the neighborhood being the area along modern Ill. Route 59 from today’s White Eagle Club south to 127 Street, east to the DuPage River and west to the Kendall County line. And it didn’t take any time at all for the area’s German-speaking farmers to join in the event. After all, the Scots and Germans had already begun to intermarry, with, for instance, Minnigs, Lantzes and Schals marrying into the Patterson clan.

1939 abt Wheatland Plowing Match

Graeme Stewart competes in the Wheatland Plowing Match in this photo taken about 1940. By that time, horses had mostly supplanted horse-drawn plows. (Little White School Museum collection)

So by 1895, it was common for the match to be hosted by German farmers, including my Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandfather. The Record’s NaAuSay correspondent reported in the paper’s Sept. 25 edition that: “The plowing match at Wheatland on Saturday on the farm of Peter Lantz was a great attraction for farmers for many miles around. NaAuSay had a good share of its farmers there. It was estimated there was about nine to ten thousand people present.”

You read that right: nine to ten thousand attendees in the days of travel by horse and buggies.

1955 Wheatland Plowing Match

Aerial shot of the 1955 Wheatland Plowing Match in the late afternoon shows most of the spectators’ cars have left. Note the plowed strips at right where competition plowing was held. (Little White School Museum collection)

The plowing match became so much a part of the local farm calendar that other unrelated events were scheduled around it. Starting in 1933, for instance, my family simply stated the usual time for their annual family reunion would be the second Sunday after the plowing match.

The matches gradually grew in size, too, eventually incorporating such county fair-like attractions as baking and sewing contests. School kids submitted samples of their cursive handwriting for prizes and agricultural-based businesses flocked to set up booths to advertise their wares. My favorite was always the fire insurance booth that featured a miniature house that would catch fire after being struck by static electricity-generated “lightning.” The displays of the latest farm equipment offered irresistible opportunities for youngsters to climb on. I even took my first airplane ride at a Wheatland Plowing Match. We must have been 7 or 8 years old when my buddy Bob Chada and I were strapped into the front seat of Earl Matter’s bright yellow J-3 Piper Cub and were thrilled to see our farm neighborhood from the air.

1949 Roger at Plowing Match

The author test-drives a brand new International Harvester Farmall tractor at the 1949 Wheatland Plowing Match.

The matches were only interrupted by the two world wars, skipping one year for World War I and four years for World War II. With peace finally at hand, the Record’s Oswego correspondent gratefully wrote on Sept. 18, 1946: “Nearly everyone and his brother attended the Wheatland Plowing match on Saturday. The weather was perfect for the event and the crowd was very large and happy to meet after four long years.”

The plowing match continued to attract large crowds through the 1950s and 1960s, but then interest began to wane. Increased urbanization in DuPage and Will counties where the matches were held and decreasing numbers of farmers due to technological advances finally led to the event’s last hurrah in 1976.

Today, the Wheatland Plowing Match is but a footnote in our area’s agricultural history and traditions. But its one that left lasting memories for many of us and a lasting legacy of promoting the best scientific farming practices while providing a bit of rural entertainment for hardworking, innovative prairie farmers.

Note: If you’d like more information on the plowing match, the Wheatland Plow Match Association records from 1898 to 1978 are in the Regional History Center at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. The Naperville Heritage Association Library and Archives at the Naper Settlement also has a small, but nice collection of Wheatland Plowing Match memorabilia including several Wheatland Plowing Match Ladies’ Fair booklets from the 1890s and early 1900s.

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Women's History

1873: The year Kendall County farmers flexed their political muscle

Almost, it seems, in spite of their own natural inclinations, the people of Kendall County achieved a position in the first rank of those empowering women in government. It is odd, given the county’s historic conservatism–and by conservatism, I mean the real thing, not this modern conglomeration of far right wing activism with substantial amounts of racial and religious bigotry.

In a column several years ago, I told the story of how Frances E. Lane became the state’s first female circuit clerk in 1920 when she was elected to the office by Kendall County voters [“Frances E. Lane: Kendall County’s unlikely women’s rights warrior,” “Reflections,” March 3, 2010 Ledger-Sentinel].

But it turned out the way for Lane had been paved nearly a half century before during a time of considerable political and economic turmoil in Kendall County, Illinois, and the rest of the nation.

After the Civil War, railroads began a flurry of construction funded through the sale of stocks and bonds. Unscrupulous business practices coupled with a near-total lack of regulation of the nation’s economy (sound familiar?) created a gigantic financial bubble that, in 1873, explosively deflated creating the Panic of 1873, also called “The Long Depression.” [see “We ignore our financial history at our peril”].

1870s CB&Q locomotive

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Railroad Company leased an engine like this one from the CB&Q Railroad while the line was under construction. When the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to wrest ownership away and maintain their monopoly on rail freight in the Fox Valley.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, railroads pursued cutthroat business practices unrestrained by custom or law. Here in Kendall County, for instance, farmers living south and east of the Fox River were eligible for lower shipping rates for grain and livestock than those living north and west of the river because railroad officials wanted to lure business across the river. Prices were increased and services were cut arbitrarily. So local farmers and businessmen strongly backed a scheme to build a local rail line to directly compete with the dominant Chicago Burlington & Quincy. The new railroad was planned to connect coalfields in the Vermilion River region with Geneva, running north up the Fox River from Ottawa through Millington, Yorkville, and Oswego in Kendall County. All three communities had been bypassed when the CB&Q main line was built in the 1850s.

Villages and cities, along with townships and counties, as well as private individuals along the route subscribed to bonds to build the new line, which was to be called the Ottawa Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road. Fundraising was successful, and construction was completed early in 1871.

But too late, the line’s investors found that placing complete financial and operational control in the hands of Oliver Young, the man hired to oversee construction and operations, was a bad idea. Using his contractual power, Young subcontracted C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Young, it later became known, was an owner of Force & Company, meaning he got paid twice for doing the same work. In addition—and this is a classic bit of corporate chicanery—by the time the line was completed, Force & Co. had already signed a secret 99-year lease on the entire rail line to the CB&Q. That they didn’t actually own it was remedied about the time the tracks reached Oswego when Young assigned his entire interest to Force & Co. It was, as engineers like to say, an elegant scheme. Taxpayers and investors built the line for the CB&Q, with the only cost being what it took to buy off Young. And as part of the deal, the CB&Q had assured there’d be none of that pesky competition by writing into the agreement that freight rates on the new line would be the same as on its existing lines.

Add to that the increasingly precarious financial situation of the nation’s workers, and farmers in particular, and it was a recipe for radicalism. Which popped up in Kendall County, of all places, as farmers frantically organized. Granges (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) and Farmers’ Clubs spread throughout Kendall County. They flexed their muscles in the June 1873 judicial elections when farmer-laborer candidate Silvanus Wilcox handily defeated the favored Republican in the race.

Bradwell, Myra

Myra Colby Bradwell worked with her husband, Judge James B. Bradwell, to establish women’s suffrage in Illinois in the early 1870s.

Meanwhile, Judge James B. Bradwell and his activist wife, Myra Colby Bradwell, had been working hard on women’s suffrage in Springfield, starting with legislation to allow women to be elected as county superintendents of schools. The law, “An Act to Authorize the Election of Women to School Offices,” passed April 3, 1873, and went into effect July 1. Women couldn’t vote for themselves, but for the first time they could be elected to a countywide office.

On July 4, 1873, the county’s farmers held a huge Fourth of July gathering at Yorkville to consolidate support for political action against railroads and other monopolies. Interestingly enough, those activist farmers invited laborers to join their ranks as well in order to fight for economic justice. That was followed on Sept. 16 by the first county farmers’ and laborers’ political convention at Yorkville, where a sweeping resolution blasting moneyed interests was overwhelmingly passed.

“We hail with satisfaction the arousing of the farmers and working men to a clear and proper comprehension of their just rights,” the resolution stated. “We take our stand on the principles of equal rights and exact justice for all and exclusive privileges to none…we are opposed to every form of thieving by which the farmers and laboring classes are robbed of the legitimate fruits of their labor…we are in favor of controlling by law the railroad corporations of our State.”

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

German immigrant farmers from the Oswego Prairie Church neighborhood flew this flag on their way to the July 4, 1873 farmers’ and laborers’ picnic in Yorkville. The flag is now in the collections of Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

It was a contentious gathering, with many opposing establishing a third political party to represent the interests of workers and farmers, but the majority favored it. And so the New Party was established.

The eventual result of the convention was the nomination of an entire New Party county officers’ slate, including that of county superintendent of schools, followed by the walk-out of a sizeable minority.

Taking into account the new state women’s suffrage law, the meeting took the momentous step of nominating 26 year-old school teacher Nettie Chittenden for county superintendent of schools.

In the November 4, 1873 general election Chittenden ran against popular Republican John R. Marshall (who was also the founder and publisher of the Kendall County Record, the county’s major newspaper) for the office and was soundly beaten, as were the rest of her comrades on the New Party slate. But in the doing, she established a new first for women in Kendall County.

Farmers and laborers elsewhere in Illinois did elect a few New Party candidates, but not enough to really matter. Interestingly enough, the farmers’ and laborers’ efforts were the genesis that eventually led to the formation of the Socialist Workers Party.

Nevertheless, bit by bit progress was made. Populists helped pass the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, which provided some tools to tame rapacious business and industry. But as we’ve seen recently, laws and regulations without enforcement are useless. Not until Republican Theodore Roosevelt—the Trust Buster—became President in 1901 was there official enthusiasm for enforcing the law to rein in business.

Today, that long-ago struggle is one that’s still very much alive, as is the goal of electing both men and women to offices from local school boards all the way up to the President of the United States. But also adding to the interest of those long ago political struggles is the knowledge that our ancestors right here in Kendall County were heavily involved in them right along with the more famous people we learned about in school.

 

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Filed under Business, Farming, Fox River, Frustration, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Law, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Women's History

When giving human beings as wedding gifts was fashionable

It’s always puzzled me why Black History Month (or is it African American History Month? Views differ…) is observed in February. It seems to me it would have been more fitting had it been observed in January, since that’s when the birthday of the nation’s foremost African American civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., celebrated his birthday and when the nation celebrates it to this day.

But February it is, and each year in my “Reflections” column for Shaw Media, Inc., I try to mark the observance with explaining how African Americans affected local history. Which is a surprise to many because that little Kendall County once had a thriving population of black farm families, whose descendants still live in the Fox Valley is one of the area’s little-known facts.

This year, I decided to tell the story of two women who were given away as wedding presents, one local and one not. It strains credulity these days to consider there was a time in this country when one person not only owned another, but could simply give them away as gifts. But the custom was common for the first two centuries of the European settlement of North America. But nevertheless it’s true.

The plight of these two women, one of whom was owned by George Washington, President of the United States, and the other owned and then freed by an eventual resident of Kendall County, came to my attention through the reading list for my daily exercise program.

Exercise is boring, so I try to choose books that are lively reads to make my morning stint on the NuStep machine go faster, and also try to mix fiction with non-fiction. Having just finished Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (highly recommended), I decided to try a book I stumbled across on Amazon with the intriguing title of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.

And it proved as thought-provoking as I suspected it would. In her biography of Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar relates the story of Judge’s early life as a slave at Mount Vernon, how her life changed when George Washington was elected President, and her eventual escape after Martha Washington decided to convert Judge into a wedding present for her granddaughter. After all, Judge was just one more of the Washington family’s possessions.

And the book got me thinking about the similarities between Ona Judge and another enslaved black woman, Ann Lewis, who had also been a wedding present, but who was freed by her owners, moved with them to Kendall County, and started a family that still lives in the area.

Judge began planning her escape from slavery in the spring of 1796, when Martha Custis Washington notified the slave girl that she was being given Washington’s granddaughter as a wedding present.

Image result for escaped female slave poster

After the importation of slaves was outlawed, the price of slaves increased sharply as this poster for a $300 reward for a runaway slave woman from 1853 suggests. In today’s dollars, the reward offered for Emily would equal more than $9,000.

Judge had been born at the Washingtons’ plantation, Mount Vernon, about 1776, from the union of her enslaved mother, Betty, and her white father, Andrew Judge, a Mount Vernon tailor. Ona was trained as a seamstress and body servant by her mother, and when the Washingtons left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia, New York, and Philadelphia again after George Washington’s election as President, she was taken along to serve the First Lady.

Things went well for the slaves who accompanied the President and Mrs. Washington until the U.S. seat of government was moved back to Philadelphia in 1790, where it was to remain until the new capital at Washington City in what was to be called the District of Columbia was built. Before the end of the Revolution, Pennsylvania had passed the Gradual Emancipation Act, a provision of which mandated that if someone brought slaves into the state, they would automatically be freed after six months’ residence. The act was amended in 1788 to close loopholes. Acting on the advice of U.S. Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Washington circumvented the law by sending slaves who were nearing their six months’ anniversary in Philadelphia home to Virginia for a few weeks, before bringing them back again to restart freedom’s clock.

That was undoubtedly annoying enough for the Washingtons’ slaves who understood perfectly well what George and Martha were doing. But when Martha informed Ona Judge she was to be a wedding gift for Martha’s mercurial granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, that was apparently too much. Ona’s plans included gradually taking most of her few possessions to the home of a free black family in Philadelphia and then slipping out of the household in May 1796 while the Washingtons ate dinner.

Judge wanted ad

The Washingtons placed numerous ads promising a reward for anyone who returned Ony Judge to them. Fortunately for her, no one was able to successfully capture her and she lived out her life in New Hampshire. Maybe if they’d offered a bit more reward money, someone might have taken them up on the offer.

She retrieved her possessions and then boarded the sloop Nancy, whose destination was Portsmouth, New Hampshire, making good her escape. In Portsmouth, she found work, got married, and had children with her husband, Jack Staines, a free black seaman, all while fending off slave catchers dispatched over the next several years by the angry Washington family. Meanwhile, Ona learned to read and write—something that was against the law for black people in Virginia. She also became a Christian—it turned out the Washingtons also provided no religious training or services for their enslaved workers.

While he could have engaged the legal system set up under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that he himself had signed into law to legally retrieve Judge, the intensely private Washington wished his slave catching activities to remain discrete. Unfortunately for him, they also remained ineffective, as Judge was determined never to return to enslavement. She remained classified as an escaped slave the rest of her life, as did her three children. Even though they were born in a free state and their father was a free black man, Virginia law insisted since they were the children of an enslaved mother, Ona’s three children, too, were enslaved and were the rightful property of Martha Washington’s heirs.

Ona Judge Staines died in 1848, having outlived her husband and all three of her children. But she managed to snatch a bit of immortality when she gave interviews to abolitionist publications, the only first person accounts by one of the Washingtons’ slaves ever published. She’s also been the subject of a number of books, the most recent being Never Caught.

Ann Lewis, on the other hand, was literally ripped from her family at the age of seven years when her owner, John Gay, a wealthy planter in Woodford County, Kentucky, decided to present the child as a wedding gift to his daughter, Elizabeth, upon her 1842 marriage to Elijah Hopkins. The Hopkins settled with Elijah’s family just across the Ohio River in Ohio. And while Ann started out as a slave, in accord with Ohio law, she was freed the minute she set foot on Ohio real estate. Although free, she continued to live with Hopkins family, helping the couple raise their several children.

When the Hopkins family moved to Illinois in 1857, they bought land along modern Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of today’s Route 71–Route 34 intersection. There the Hopkins family farmed, raised prize-winning horses, and operated their limestone quarries which can still be seen on either side of the road.

After helping the Hopkins raise their children, Ann Lewis decided to start her own, marrying local farmhand Henry Hilliard. As a measure of the high regard in which the Hopkins family held Ann, the wedding was conducted in the Hopkins home. The couple farmed along Wolf’s Crossing Road for some years before moving to Aurora, where they raised their three children and helped establish Aurora’s Colored Baptist Church (now Main Baptist Church) on East Galena Boulevard. She maintained a lifelong attachment to the Hopkins family as well. Ann Lewis Hilliard died at the home of her son, William, on Farnsworth Avenue in Aurora at the age of 106 after an incredible, long life. She is buried in the Oswego Township Cemetery.

Two enslaved females who were given as wedding gifts, something that led to freedom for one and that led to a life of worry about losing the freedom she seized for herself and her children for the other. “In nothing was slavery so savage and relentless as in its attempted destruction of the family instincts of the Negro race in America,” wrote educator and political and women’s rights activist Fannie Barrier Williams. But Ann Lewis and Oney Judge figured out how to defy that very effort. Something to think about during this year’s Black History Month.

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Filed under History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Women's History

Bicycling all the way to women’s rights

The Matile Manse sits right on the Fox River Trail about a half-mile north of its current southern terminus at Oswego’s Hudson Crossing Park. Every day the weather permits, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of pedestrians and cyclists pass by, and all of them seem to be having good times.

The family ramblers are a happy bunch, sometimes pushing strollers or holding hands. The runners, however, all seem to have somewhat pained looks on their faces. But the bicyclists seem the happiest. From family groups herding youngsters on gaily hued bikes to couples easing along on their cruisers to the high-tech folks on their sleek recumbents to the rare tandem, they all whiz by with smiles on their faces. Even the guys and girls with garish spandex duds and aerodynamic helmets seem to have a happy, though sometimes grimly determined look in their eyes and they speed past.

Bicycling has become an extremely popular leisure-time activity in the U.S. for all ages. According to the data I’ve seen, some 100 million Americans bike sometime during the year. And it’s not all just for fun, either. Nearly a million Americans commute to work by bike these days.

But like everything else, cycling had to start somewhere. And around these parts, it was in 1880. The “Oswego” column of the Sept. 16, 1880 Kendall County Record reported something completely different: “Clint Gaylord bicycled our streets Saturday; he came from home and returned in the same manner.”

The Gaylord farm was out on the Plainfield-Oswego Road, and Gaylord pedaled about five miles into Oswego on his new machine.

Wheelman and his wheel

A wheelman and his wheel, about 1890.

The whole cycling craze of the late 19th Century had its genesis with Frenchman Eugène Meyer, who perfected the tensioned wire spoke wheel in 1869. Then English inventor James Stanley perfected the familiar high-wheeled design that became known as the Ordinary. Here in the U.S., Civil War veteran Albert Pope started manufacturing Columbia high-wheelers in a factory just outside Boston in 1878. It was just two years later when Clint Gaylord pedaled into Oswego to see what he could see.

The high-wheeler was not easy to ride. Consisting of a giant front wheel some five feet in diameter and a tiny rear wheel, the operator had to push it in a running start, and then nimbly climb aboard the seat using two pegs on the frame just above the small rear wheel to reach the pedals, which were attached to a crankshaft that formed the hub of the front wheel. No coaster brakes on these bad boys; you just had to keep pedaling or you’d fall over.

From the start, the things were formally called bicycles, but were most often called wheels, and their operators were dubbed wheelmen. Given the acrobatics needed to climb aboard one, and the long, heavy dresses of the day, women riders were vanishingly rare.

By 1884, bicycling was becoming ever more popular. In July of that year, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Thomas Stevens, the man from San Francisco on his way around the world on a bicycle, passed through here the other day. Another bicyclist, namely Harry West of Wichita, Kansas (son of Wm. West, formerly of this place) is here on a visit at his uncle’s, W.H. McConnell. He works the bicycle very easily and gracefully.”

By the summer of 1887, Rank could report that “Oswego has now several quite expert bicyclists.”

1890 abt Cutter & Sierp

Wheelman Joe Sierp (right) and Slade Cutter Sr. pose with their wheels at Oswego about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

One of those experts was Oswego native and Aurora business owner Joe Sierp. Sierp spent a lot of time with Oswego friends, so his love of cycling fit right in with his lifestyle, which included joining the Aurora Bicycle Club. “Nine bicyclists of Aurora came to town one evening; they were joined by Joe Sierp on his wheel and an extensive and imposing ride was enjoyed in our streets,” Rank wrote in the summer of 1888.

Within a decade or so, cycling had become a national craze, which led, oddly enough, to pressure for more and better roads in the nation and Illinois. Before his first campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1897, Carter Harrison got the public’s attention by joining a bicycle club, all of whose members had ridden their high-wheelers the then respectable distance of 100 miles in one day. For his first “century,” Harrison cycled from his home on Chicago’s west side through Wheeling, Waukegan, and Libertyville, and then home. The trip took him nine and a half hours of frantic pedaling on his wheel. That led to the demand of a number of influential people for better roads so they could pedal their bikes faster and farther. At about this same time, the same people were buying horseless carriages and wanted roads on which to drive them.

Safety bicycle

Standard safety bicycle with chain drive and pneumatic tires (introduced in 1888) that produced a bicycling and social revolution.

But that was in the future. While the wheelmen enjoyed their status as men among men, women who wanted to pedal their own bicycles were out of luck until the perfection of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. British engineer Harry Lawson designed the first safety in 1876, featuring two wheels of equal diameter—thus making it lots safer to ride than the ordinary (and thus its name). But it was propelled with a clumsy treadle system that limited its usefulness. But then in 1879, Lawson perfected the design by using pedals on a crankshaft with a sprocket that turned a chain that powered the rear wheel. It would be nearly a decade before the safety made it across the Atlantic to the U.S.

Men, however, still loved their wheels, despite how difficult they were to operate. In the summer of 1893, the Record reported from Oswego that “The road race of the Aurora cyclists Wednesday was attended with some accidents near here. One met a tumble right below town by which he lost a portion of his skin, and another broke down his wheel just after having crossed the bridge. The hurt cyclist was taken home by J.H. Reed in his buggy.”

Bicycling was not only a leisure activity, but had increasing business uses as well. In the autumn of 1897, the Record reported from Yorkville that “We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality.”

So common were high-wheelers that one of them was involved in one of Kendall County’s earliest road rage incidents. In October 1898, Chris Henne was driving his horse and wagon home to his farm from Oswego after having enjoyed the hospitality of one or more of the village’s saloons. Driving his rig erratically west on modern U.S. Route 34, he first ran the driver of the local ice delivery wagon off the road, and then did the same thing to a wheelman who was eastbound to Oswego. Unfortunately for Henne, the wheelman was armed. He climbed back aboard his wheel, caught up with Henne, and shot and killed the farmer as he sped past. The vengeful wheelman was never caught.

Wheelmen race

League of American Wheelmen last sanctioned high-wheel race in Chicago, 1893, probably at Washington Park Racetrack. (Chicagology web site: https://chicagology.com/cycling/)

Century rides and county fair high-wheel races became common entertainments during the 1890s. But after their U.S. introduction in 1887, those safety bikes were slowly making inroads, mostly because women could use them right alongside their male friends. In the June 3, 1891 Record, Rank noted that “Coming down the road by Squires [modern U.S. Route 34] to this place and returning on the west side of the river is a much-frequented route of the Aurorians for a pleasure drive on Sundays. On the last, a party of four each of ladies and gentlemen on bicycles came also over that route. Ladies will have to get a new costume for that purpose in order to look graceful on bicycles.”

And there Rank made an observation of some portent. While women were anxious to enjoy the freedom of cycling, they were constrained not only by the social conventions of the time, but also by the fashion dictates of the era. Long, heavy skirts, corsets, and voluminous undergarments all conspired against cycling, even on the user-friendly safeties. But the urge to glide off on their bikes to the freedom of the open road was so strong that it soon led to major changes in everything from women’s wardrobes to social rules of how single men and women interacted away from the confines of chaperones.

The changes were so profound that Susan B. Anthony remarked to investigative journalist Nelly Bly in an 1896 interview: “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.”

Locally, women’s strong attraction to bicycling was chronicled in the local press, and that included the controversy over female cyclists’ new use of loose pantaloons called bloomers. Bloomers had been a hallmark of the original women’s rights agitators in the 1850s, but quickly fell out of fashion. But by the 1890s, there was not only an ideological reason to wear them, but a practical one, too.

1896 abt Haines, Irvin

Irvin Haines’s self-portrait with his safety bicycle about 1896 (note the twine running from his foot into the foreground to trip the shutter). The photo was taken along Wolf’s Crossing Road just east of Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

In June 1895, the Record’s Bristol correspondent remarked: “While lying in my hammock today two ladies rode by on bicycles, dressed in bloomers (the first I have seen), and I thought why this hue and cry against that style of dress. I cannot see anything improper about them….If riding a bicycle is healthy for woman and the dress skirt is in the way, that surely is the best costume.” And, in fact, bloomers quickly became a signature of the growing women’s rights movement—thus Anthony’s remark to Nelly Bly.

For his part, Rank couldn’t figure out what the bloomer hubbub was all about, commenting in August 1895: “According to those newspaper fellows that are commenting on bloomers, it would appear that all what makes women pretty is their dress. Don’t mind those fellows.”

A month later, in a comment with surprisingly modern overtones, he was still contending it was silly to judge people by the way they dressed.

“The ‘new woman’ is for independence; she will require the man to make himself attractive and that not merely by his clothes; she is for being no more anxious of getting left than the man shall be. In short, she is for the enjoyment of equal privileges. Again, beauty, grace, taste, and style are to a great extent mere notions, cultivated conceptions. Old style costumes look ridiculous now, but they were pretty and tasty when in fashion,” he suggested, adding a political note referring to the looming Spanish-American War, “That bloomers were downed 30 years ago is no reason why they should not succeed now. Many good things fail in their first effort; the Cubans have been defeated heretofore in several revolts, but that is no reason that they should not succeed now.”

As a way to make a practical statement of freedom, it was hard to beat a woman’s bicycle. They were relatively inexpensive and were easy to care for. It wasn’t long before they became not just pleasure vehicles but also work transportation.

Searching for a way to describe this newfangled trend, Rank commented in March 1895: “Edith Edwards has become a bicyclestrain.”

1918 Henry and Gertie Heffelfinger

By 1918 bicycles were passe, and motorcycles and automobiles were in, as Gertie and Henry Heffelfinger get ready for an outing. (Little White School Museum collection)

Adding in September of that year that “Misses Cora and Ella Willis, engaged in Aurora, were seen several times in town on their bicycles.” A year after that, he noted that biking to work by at least one of the community’s one-room schoolteachers was the latest thing, “Anna Robinson commenced to teach the school in the Wormley district last Monday and got herself a bicycle for journeying to and from it.”

Throughout the balance of the 19th Century, well into the first decades of the 20th Century, women’s use of bicycles for transportation to work and as a leisure activity continued to grow until that was supplanted by the automobile craze.

But bicycling never entirely went away. Always popular among youngsters—I still fondly remember my first bike, a used blue Schwinn I bought from Bob Bower for $5—bicycling is booming again as people look for the freedom of coasting along on their bikes. And today, millions upon millions of women in the United States regularly bike, thanks, in part, to a leisure craze that turned out to be a route to women’s social and political freedom.

 

 

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Clarissa Stewart Hobson: A savvy, resolute pioneer wife and mother

March is Women’s History Month, and every year about this time I can’t help but think about the contributions women made to the settlement of Illinois in general and Kendall County in particular.

From Christiana Holmes Tillson, who drove in a carriage from Massachusetts to Illinois with her husband in the 1820s to Juliette Kinzie who traveled on horseback with her husband from Prairie du Chein to Chicago in 1830 to the women who came to the Fox River Valley that was then the western frontier later that same decade, it’s hard to deny these were a special, hardy group females.

Hobson, Clarissa

Clarissa Stewart Hobson about 1870

Of that group the one that always seems to stick in my mind is Clarissa Stewart Hobson, who followed her husband west and found herself in circumstances that were not only isolated and extremely lonely, but which could also be profoundly dangerous.

Clarissa Hobson’s husband, Bailey, had located the family in southern Ohio near the banks of the Ohio River. Hobson soon despaired of ever clearing the heavy forest on the land he’d claimed, and so decided to prospect farther west into Illinois, where he heard there was good prairie land that didn’t need to be cleared of trees.

In May 1830, Hobson left his family and his claim in Ohio for a prospecting trip west. As Richmond and Valette put it in their 1857 history of DuPage County, “Without arms amounting to more than a jack-knife, for defense, he mounted his horse, and destitute of chart or compass, groped his way, as best he could, through the dense forests and deep ravines, and forded the bridgeless waters that lay in his course.”

He roamed as far as the Fox River of Illinois, choosing a spot in what was then called Hollenback’s Grove, now the location of Newark in southwestern Kendall County.

Hobson didn’t get back from his prospecting trip until the first of July, when he began making arrangements to sell his Ohio claim, load up the family’s possessions in a wagon, and head west. The Hobsons, their five children, and Hobson’s friend and brother-in-law, Lewis Stewart, weren’t ready to leave for their new home until Sept. 1, 1830.

Hobson seems to have been a determined person, but one without much common sense. Traveling so late in the season necessarily meant no crop could be planted upon arrival in time for it to be harvested and that virtually every bit of food the family would need would have to be purchased. Further, it also meant that only the rudest sort of cabin could be erected in the short period of time until winter struck the Illinois prairies. But he didn’t let those concerns bother him.

The family spent 21 days on the road before arriving at Hollenback’s Grove, where Hobson immediately set out to build a cabin to house the family and to sow a few acres of winter wheat on the adjacent prairie. The Hobsons finally moved into their cabin in October, but the lack of supplies was already becoming a problem. So Hobson mounted his horse and, leaving the family to fend for itself, rode east looking for some food to buy. He finally found someone with some preserved pork to sell out on the Oxbow Prairie near modern Magnolia, Illinois, about 60 miles southwest of Hollenback’s Grove.

Hobson, Bailey

Bailey Hobson, about 1845

Hobson returned home, but instead of immediately hitching up his yoke of oxen and going to get the pork to stave off the family’s looming lack of food, he decided to go prospecting for better land. Leaving his family at home again with Stewart, he rode across the prairie to the DuPage River, where on the east side of the stream he found the land he thought would be a better claim.

By that time, the weather was getting pretty cold. In fact, the winter of 1830-31 would become fabled in frontier tales as “The Winter of the Early Snow.”

After being gone five days, Hobson got back home, and again deciding against going and getting the pork he’d already purchased, he and Stewart instead set off for the new claim.

By then it was December and brutal winter weather was starting to set in. Reaching the DuPage, the oxen refused to cross the stream, which was covered with ice ice, so Hobson had to break it up by walking in front of the wagon leading the team. Almost as soon as they arrived, the first major snow of that long winter hit, driving the two men from their tent camp to find shelter with a nearby settler where they waited out the storm. Then they headed back across the prairie to rejoin the Hobson family.

At this late date we can only speculate what Clarissa Hobson was thinking as her footloose husband continually wandered around the countryside instead of going and getting food for his family, which was in increasingly dire straits as Hobson and Stewart finally straggled home across the snowy prairie tired, wet, cold, and hungry.

The initial snowstorm changed to rain, then again to snow, and more rain, and then the temperature plunged, freezing the prairie solid. When the storm passed, Hobson finally decided it was time to go to the Oxbow Prairie to get the pork, leaving Stewart to look after the family. He planned to be back in ten days, but in the end, it took more than 20 days for him to return, and that without the promised pork, which had to be left behind due to continual snowstorms.

At that point, the family’s prospects were REALLY bleak. They had been subsisting solely on corn for two months, and were rapidly running out of that. The only thing Hobson could think to do was take Stewart and go back for the load of pork, reasoning that maybe the two of them could get the food through the increasingly deep snow somehow or another.

According to the account of that harrowing winter Clarissa’s family gave to Richmond and Vallette for their 1857 history of DuPage County, she reluctantly agreed, “Brushing the tears from her face, and summoning all the courage and resolution she could command, entreated him to go and leave her to do the best she could.”

Hobson and Stewart took one yoke of oxen to break a trail through the deepening snow, leaving Clarissa and the children to look after 13 head of cattle and three horses and themselves.

I’ll let Richmond and Vallette tell Clarissa’s story from that point on:

On the second day after the departure of Messrs. Hobson and Stewart, it commenced snowing and continued without interruption for two days and nights, covering the earth upon a level, three feet deep. On the third day, just at sunrise, the wind began to blow with fury from the west, and continued like a hurricane, without cessation, for three days, sweeping the snow from the ground and piling it in drifts twenty, thirty, and even forty feet high, while the atmosphere was so thick with the driving snow, as almost to turn daylight into darkness.

On the first morning of the wind storm, Mrs. Hobson, taking a pail, went to a spring a few yards from the house for some water, but before reaching the house she was compelled to throw the water upon the ground and make all possible haste back. The children opened the door for her, which, being in the west side of the house, it required all their strength to close again. It was not opened again until after the storm had subsided. The snow, which was constantly driving into the house, supplied them with water; but who shall describe the feelings of that mother, as alone with her little ones, the days dragged wearily along, while her mind was filled with the most fearful apprehensions. Husband or brother she should in all probability see no more. Her children might perish in her sight, while a like fate awaited herself. It was, indeed, a severe trial of endurance, and needed all the fortitude of her soul to sustain such agonizing reflections while the raging storm swept around her solitary dwelling.

After the wind had ceased, Mrs. Hobson went out to look after the cattle and horses, but could discover nothing of them, and concluded they had been covered in the snow-drifts and perished. The day passed without any of them making their appearance. The next morning they all came around from the east side of the grove, whither they had fled and remained during the storm.

The fuel which had been prepared and put in the house was now exhausted, while that which had been left outside was embedded in a deep snow drift. The only alternative was to dig this wood out of the snow with a pick-ax, and Mrs. Hobson accordingly set about it, working and resting alternately, as her strength would permit. Weak and faint from hunger, and with hands frozen and blistered, she worked on day after day, unable to get out more wood than would barely serve from one day to another. A cow, that was accustomed to being fed at the door came into the house one day and seemed to reel, as if about to fall. Mrs. Hobson pushed her outside of the door, when she immediately fell dead. Fearing that the wolves, which were very plenty and hungry, would come to the door to feed upon the carcass, she covered it deep in the snow.

On the fourteenth day after his departure, Hobson returned with some provisions, leaving Stewart at Holderman’s grove with a part of the oxen that were unable to finish the trip. On his arrival, he found the wood which they had prepared, all consumed, and Mrs. Hobson tearing down a log stable and chopping it up for fuel.

Hobson, Clarissa Stewart

Clarissa Hobson, about 1880

The Hobsons were an extremely lucky family in that they survived “The Winter of the Deep Snow” with their lives, because so many other prairie settlers did not.

When Spring finally arrived, Hobson left Kendall County for good, and moved his family to their new claim on the DuPage where he built the gristmill that became the basis for his later fortune. There, Clarissa bore seven more children.

Hobson died in 1850, but Clarissa lived on at the claim the family moved to in 1831 for three more decades until her death in 1884 (outliving six of her children), her life a testament to the hardihood, resilience, and bravery of the women who pioneered the Illinois prairies alongside their husbands.

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Observing Women’s History Month with the stories of three strong women

In the 19th Century, women were still legally considered the property of, first, their fathers and later their husbands. Denied the right to vote, they were likewise often denied the right to manage their own affairs.

Not that some pretty strong characters didn’t manage to succeed on their own, of course. During the pioneer era here in Kendall County a number of women patented land when it was first offered for sale by the government. Granted, some of those women were acting on behalf of their husbands, but some were trying to make their way on their own. Eliza Moore, for instance, entered 80 acres of land in 1839 in what eventually became Big Grove Township. By 1850, the U.S. Census reported her farmland and private property was worth $1,500, more than most of her neighbors.

But it took women of unusually strong drive and personality to fight their way out of the boxes in which society insisted they belonged. A close reading of history, though, suggests there were a number of strong female personalities, women who proved they could do the same jobs men traditionally held if they could only get the chance to do so.

Three of those strong female personalities were born here in Kendall County. Sadly, two of them were forced to carry on some of their most important activities in secret while the other apparently denied herself the lifetime fulfillment most women today take for granted: Emily Murdock was born into a poor but influential Oswego family in 1853; Mary Rippon was born on a farm near Lisbon Center in Lisbon Township in 1850; and Sarah Raymond was born in 1842, also in almost entirely rural Lisbon Township.

Of the three, two became respected educators, while the third became a mystery novelist, all during an era that if not actually frowning on, didn’t exactly encourage their career choices.

Van Deventer, Emily M

Emily Murdock Van Deventer became a mystery novelist, publishing at least 21 books under the pen name Lawrence L. Lynch. (Little White School Museum collection)

Emily Murdock’s father, Charles, was a justice of the peace and prominent Republican official in Oswego. Her brother, Alfred X. Murdock, was a lively young man who marched off to fight in the Civil War with his comrades in the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Unfortunately, Alfred was killed at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta.

For her part, Emily followed tradition, marrying Lawrence L. Lynch, a traveling salesman, when she came of age. The Kendall County Record reported from Oswego on April 19, 1877: “Mr. and Mrs. Lynch, a recently married couple and late of Cheyenne, Wyo., are now stopping at C.L. Murdock’s, the bride’s parents, she being the veritable Miss Emma Murdock.”

At least at first, her friends in Oswego had little idea that Emily  led a secret life as a successful mystery novelist. In a field then almost solely the purview of men, she apparently realized her chances for success were slim under her own name. Instead, Emily chose a man’s pen name. And for that name she picked “Lawrence L. Lynch,” the name of her first husband. In order to be successful at her chosen field, then, Emily had to pretend—in print at least—to be a man.

Local news accounts reported that Emily traveled throughout the U.S. with Lawrence Lynch until he disappeared from the scene in 1886. Exactly what happened to Lawrence is a local mystery; he simply drops out of news items. The earliest novel she wrote that I’ve been able to track down was Shadowed By Three, published in Chicago in 1882. Interestingly enough, the book was published while she was still married to Lynch. According to a note in the Feb. 28, 1884 Kendall County Record, two years after her first book was published: “The Murdock family—which now consists of three members—has been having a pretty hard time of it, the daughter, Mrs. Lynch, is just recovering from a spell of sickness; Mrs. Murdock is yet disabled from a fall on the ice several weeks ago; Mr. M. was down during the biggest part of last week but now is up and out again, and while thus at home, Mr. Lynch, an absent member of the family, was said to be snowbound out in Dakota.”

The last newspaper mention of Lawrence was in the Nov. 11, 1885 Record: “L.L. Lynch has come home from a long absence in Michigan, during which he has experienced a railroad accident, but got over the effects of it some time ago.” In March 1886, Emily is still going by the Lynch name, but in July 1887, when she remarries Dr. Abraham Van Deventer, a prominent local physician, she’s again using her maiden name, Emily Medora Murdock.

By 1905, her secret vocation as an author of mystery thrillers was well-known throughout her home town. In November of that year, a reporter for the Kendall County Record noted she had published 20 novels, with her 21st just sent off to the publisher. Her books were translated into French and German, and she also sold serials to popular magazines.

Emily died May 3, 1914 in Oswego. She is buried beside Dr. Van Deventer in Montgomery’s Riverside Cemetery.

1914 Raymond, Sarah E

Sarah Raymond Fitzwilliam became the first female superintendent of a major public school system in the nation. (Little White School Museum collection)

Sarah Raymond, born in Lisbon Township in 1842, was educated in her local one-room school. She was unusual in that her parents decided to send her on to the Lisbon Academy—one of the county’s private high schools. After graduation, she taught in the county’s rural schools before enrolling at Illinois State Normal University—today’s Illinois State University at Normal. She graduated in 1866 and was hired to teach in the Bloomington public schools. Apparently an educator of considerable talent, Sarah gradually worked her way up to the post of principal of Sheridan School, and then moved on to become first assistant principal and then principal at Bloomington High School.

On Aug. 4, 1874, Raymond was appointed superintendent of the Bloomington School District, the first woman in the nation to hold such a position. She continued in that capacity until she decided to retire from education in 1892. In 1896, she married Capt. F.J. Fitzwilliam of Bloomington, although her joy was short-lived—the captain died in 1899. During her time with Bloomington’s schools and later during a few years spent in Boston, she rubbed elbows with such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Julia Ward Howe. Sara Raymond Fitzwilliam moved back to Illinois, and in 1907 she was named executrix of the will of James Trotter, and oversaw the design of a memorial fountain by famed Illinois sculptor Lorado Taft in Trotter’s memory on the grounds of Bloomington’s Withers Public Library. Dedicated in 1911, the landmark Trotter Memorial Fountain is still a Bloomington landmark in Withers Par. In 1914 she was one of the co-authors of the history of Kendall County published that year. She died Jan. 31, 1918 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Yorkville. The Bloomington School District’s Sarah E. Raymond School of Early Education is named in her honor.

Although she lived an exceedingly successful life for a woman born in a rural farming community, a person can’t help but wonder, though, whether she wouldn’t have been a happier woman had the conventions of the time allowed her to marry and have children while she continued to be an educational leader.

Rippon, Mary full

Mary Rippon was appointed as the first female professor at what is now the University of Colorado, Boulder. The school’s Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre is named in her honor. (Little White School Museum collection)

Mary Rippon did marry and have a child, although no one but a few close friends ever knew it. Her life took a tragic turn early on when her father died on their farm near Lisbon Center when Mary was just 10 months old. Fortunately, her extended family valued learning and she was well-educated, even being sent to Normal, Illinois for her high school education. There, one of her instructors was Joseph Sewall; the two would continue a professional relationship for decades.

After graduating from high school in 1867, Mary studied in universities in Germany, Switzerland, and France. In 1878, after having taught high school for a year and a half, she joined the faculty of the brand new University of Colorado. Her old teacher, Joseph Sewall, was the university’s first president and she became the school’s first female professor. Teaching French and German, Rippon was offered a full professorship in 1881 and was appointed to the prestigious position of German Language and Literature Department chair 10 years later.

But Mary Ripon carried a shattering secret with her: In 1887 she met young Will Housel, a student in her German class. Unknown to virtually anyone, she and Housel were secretly married in 1888, and she bore him one child, a girl, Miriam. Had anyone known she had married much less bore a child, her career as a college professor would have been destroyed. To keep her marital status a secret, she traveled to Europe ostensibly on sabbatical where she gave birth of Miriam. She then returned to the U.S. where she continued her career—alone. For the rest of her life, however, Mary helped financially support Miriam.

Miriam first lived in a series of orphanages, with Mary paying her expenses, before the girl finally went to live with her father, Will, who by that time had divorced Mary and re-married. Mary lived with her secret the rest of her life, revealing it only to a few of her closest friends. She died Sept. 9, 1935 and is buried in Columbia Cemetery in Boulder, Colorado. The Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was named in her honor (for the whole fascinating tale see Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon by Silvia Pettem, The Book Lodge, Longmont, CO, 1999).

Three very strong-willed women, all with Kendall County roots. And three stories of women working to make their way as best they could in what was very much a man’s world, stories that are well worth revisiting during this year’s Women’s History Month.

(Note: A shorter version of this post was published in the March 2, 2017 Oswego Ledger.)

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Two Christmas stories: Things were different then…

Roughly every other year or two around Christmas time, I re-run a column in the Record Newspapers that I first did back in the late 1970s that featured interviews with my mother and my grandmother concerning their holiday experiences as youngsters. This is an off year, so thought I’d run it here while it’s waiting for its next turn.

Christmas in America has drastically changed through the years. When the Puritans stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock, the furthest thing from their minds was celebrating Christmas. They didn’t celebrate much, in fact, except getting rich. And as soon as they were assured they weren’t going to starve to death or be overrun by the local Native American tribes they were busy killing off, they prohibited celebrating Christmas.

But wet blanket Puritans aside, things have been looking up in terms of a “Merry Christmas” ever since more holiday-loving folks arrived. Probably the biggest shot in the arm the Christmas celebration ever got was the arrival in North America of large numbers of German Protestants in the mid-1700s. They brought Christmas trees, and all manner of cookies and pastries and other good things to eat, among other things.

In the last 60 years, Christmas has arguably undergone the most change in its entire history, thanks in part to us Baby Boomers, who have been moving through the economic gut of the United States like a large mammal lurching through a python’s digestive tract creating all sorts of distortions. But back in the late 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s, things were different. A LOT different.

1977-sylvia-mabel

Back in 1977, the same year this photo was taken, I interviewed my mother, Sylvia Holzhueter Matile (left) and my grandmother, Mabel Lantz Holzhueter about how they celebrated Christmas when they were youngsters.

Way back in 1977, when I’d just started writing a local history column for the old Fox Valley Sentinel, I interviewed my Grandmother, then aged 88, and my mother, then aged 67, about how they celebrated Christmas when they were young members of German-American families. My grandmother’s Pennsylvania Dutch relatives moved to Illinois from the Keystone State in 1850, and settled on a Wheatland Township farm in Will County. She married my grandfather, a city kid from Aurora, and moved to a beautiful new home on the city’s far East Side in what was then called “Dutch Town” because of its overwhelmingly German population. Since my grandmother’s family still spoke German at home despite having lived in North America since 1750 and my grandfather’s family, who arrived in the early 1880s—before Ellis Island was established—also spoke German at home, there was no language barrier.

In 1920, pining for country life once again, she talked my grandfather into moving back out into Wheatland Township onto a farm. They rented the farm from Louis McLaren that came with a truly decrepit house and buildings, which was no problem for my grandfather, a skilled carpenter. But it certainly meant a changed life for my mother and her two siblings as well as their mother.

My Grandmother died in 1979 after a long, hard, but happy life. My mother followed after a typically energetic battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1987, significantly bowed but still unbeaten. Here are their Christmas stories, complete with a bit of Pennsylvania German syntax.

1895-abt-amelia-edith-mable-lantz-lantz-farm

Left to right, my great-grandmother, Amelia Minnich Lantz; my great-aunt, Edith Lantz Leppert; and my grandmother at their Wheatland Township farmhome about 1895. Today’s Tommy Nevin’s Pub in Naperville is located almost exactly where the house was situated.

Grandmother’s Story:

Q: When you were a little girl, what did you get for Christmas?

A: Well, dear me, we didn’t get much! When my Grandpa was alive yet, we always had a Christmas tree. That’s all I can tell you. Santa Claus used to come, but he never brought us much…a doll once in a while maybe.

Q: Do you remember what the Christmas tree looked like?

A: Ya, it was real nice. I think we had candles on it. And we used to string popcorn.

Q: Did you get any fruit or nuts or anything special?

A: Well, we’d set a cookie sheet down, Mother and Father had the big ones and there they’d put our nuts or whatever candy we got, and an orange probably, or an apple. We’d put the cookie sheets on the floor in a row. The oldest child got the one next to Mother and Father, and so on down. There were eight children. Each cookie sheet got a little smaller, you see, so we knew which one belonged to us!

Q: You didn’t hang up stockings?

A: No, just the cookie sheets. We’d set them on the floor.

We didn’t have as much furniture as we do now. I remember our living room had ingrain carpeting, and under that we had straw, if you can imagine that! And by spring when you’d houseclean, that was nothing but dust.

Q: You said the you got oranges…

A: Ya, one orange. We never got oranges through the year, but at Christmas time, there we had an orange.

Q: What about presents?

A: “Well, after Grandpa was gone, we didn’t have no Christmas tree then. I remember one Christmas when we had just gotten a new buggy, well we called it a carriage you know. The night before Christmas, they must have taken a board and run it down the siding of the house outside. What a racket it made! We got under the covers because we thought old Santa Claus was coming. We weren’t supposed to see him, you know. Then in the morning, there lay the harness, a new double harness. That was our Christmas that year.

Q: Did you ever go to anyone’s house for Christmas dinner?

A: No, I don’t think that we ever had what we call a Christmas Dinner nowadays.

Q: Did you ever have sleigh rides or anything like that?

A: Well, that was the only way you could go in the winter time! We’d drive right through the fields, you know.

 

1920-holzhueter-farm-crop-ii

The dilapidated farmhouse my grandparents rented from the MacLarens in 1920. It was a big step down from the large two-story home they’d owned in Aurora, but my grandmother had had it mediating between overwrought in-laws. Thus the escape to rural Wheatland Township.

Mother’s Story:

Q: Was Christmas any different when you lived in town than when you moved to the farm in 1920?

A: Ya, it was different! When we lived in Aurora, there was evidently some money, and when we moved to the farm there wasn’t any. When we lived in Aurora, Mother and us kids went to church every Christmas Eve, and when we came home, Dad would have the Christmas tree up. We had candles on it, and they would be lit, but Dad would be very careful. We would go to everybody’s house to see their Christmas trees.

Q: Everybody in your neighborhood?

A: To the relatives, my great aunts and uncles. And then when we moved out to the farm, we always had a Christmas tree, we always had nuts and candy and fruit. I always got a new dress so I could speak my piece at the church program. We always had a Christmas program at school. We worked for weeks and weeks. We would march and sing and give a play…everything had to be perfect.

Q: Did you send or receive Christmas cards?

A: We didn’t have money to spend on things like that. We went to visit the people. Things were different then.

 

And from me to you, from here at the Matile Manse, have a Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season.

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