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Vacuuming our way to a cleaner America

If you have a hobby or passion, these days all you have to do learn about it is cruise the Internet. For those of us fascinated with history, the Net is a positive gold mine of information. But there are electronic niches out there for just about anyone.

My wife, for instance, has lately been obsessed with housecleaning ideas. And so she spends time watching YouTube videos of ladies all over the world explaining how they clean their houses and on what schedules, which might seem odd to some, but are of surpassing interest to her.

Actually, housecleaning here in the U.S. is big business. If you don’t believe me, just watch daytime TV for about a half hour and count the number of commercials for household cleaning products, or walk down the housewares aisles in your average Meijer or Walmart store.

Although I’m not down with housecleaning as a major facet of my life, I have to admit I do enjoy watching those vacuum cleaner commercials on TV. The machines look all shiny and futuristic, and that Dyson guy you used to see all the time had a cool British accent, which, I imagine, got the attention of the ladies, at least. Even though all he really was was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Consumer Reports remains unconvinced that paying many hundreds of dollars for one of Dyson’s creations (or anyone else’s, for that matter) makes much financial sense when you can pick up a perfectly good vacuum at Meijer or Sears or Best Buy for about $100 that performs as well if not better.

Grandma's Kenmore

My grandmother’s Kenmore canister vacuum was our first in 1966 and soldiered on until the 21st Century.

After we got married, our personal vacuum cleaner experience began with my grandmother’s late 1940s vintage Kenmore tank-type machine, which we were gifted along with the family refrigerator and family apartment-sized gas stove. The Kenmore was nicely torpedo-shaped, and was mounted on a sort of hand-truck so it could be trundled from room to room or up and down stairs. We loved that vac, and I think it might still be out in the barn somewhere

When we moved from my great-great grandmother’s old 1850s-era home into my great-grandmother’s much more modern (definition: central heat) 1908 house in 1976, my mother (my parents preceded us in ownership) left her Hoover upright for us to use. A late 1950s model, it was a lot newer than the Kenmore, and did a better job on wall-to-wall carpeting. The Kenmore was relegated to the second floor, for use on un-carpeted wooden floors. After my grandmother’s death in the late 1970s, we inherited her “new” Hoover upright, purchased in the early 1960s. The old upright went upstairs, and the “new” Hoover became the main vac. The canister went down to the basement to become a shop vacuum. Since then, we’ve purchased three new vacuums, all black, sinister looking Eurekas with fearsome suction power that have been doing good work for about 20 years now.

Back when we bought the first Eureka, we noticed the new vacuum worked a lot better than the old Hoover, which meant we had different standards against which to judge a clean floor.

That’s the thing about “clean;” especially when you’re talking about the past, it’s a relative concept.

For instance, our colonial forebears had a far different concept of “clean” than we do today. Garbage, animal droppings, dirt, and dust were all thrown into the street, creating what was a truly remarkable bouquet on warm, humid summer evenings. Combine that with the general population’s distrust of regular bathing, and the mind boggles at what the aroma must have been like, say, having a beer with the boys down at the local stagecoach tavern.

Half-faced camp

Cleaning house took a backseat to keeping warm and dry for the earliest pioneer families who made due with a half-faced camp while they built their first log cabin.

When the 19th century made its debut, cleanliness appeared to be on the upswing—at least comparatively. But frankly, for most of the Americans who decided to blaze a trail or two west, keeping clean wasn’t a priority. After they arrived along the Fox River following a month or more on the trail, settlers built their half-faced camps (your basic lean-tos) and lived there until their log cabins could be raised. While that process continued, cleanliness was not much of a consideration; keeping dry and warm were the main goals.

Even after a pioneer family’s log cabin was erected, cleanliness wasn’t easy. For instance, most of the earliest cabins had dirt floors. Pioneer women tried to keep the floors swept, and surprisingly, they managed to make some of those early cabins look neat. One trick was to sprinkle salt on the floor while sweeping. Eventually, the combination of foot traffic and sweeping hardened the salt and dirt floor into something resembling thin concrete that could actually be kept sort of clean. Even so, after a few months living with dirt floors, most pioneer wives insisted on a wooden floor made from split logs called puncheons.

rag rug strip

Old clothing could be recycled into rag rugs on looms like my great-grandmother’s. Long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs of just about any size.

Keeping things what we’d consider clean didn’t really get a good push until the germ theory of disease was finally accepted—which didn’t take place, remarkably, until after Robert Koch’s work was published in 1881. Until then keeping things clean wasn’t a priority for many Americans, with the notable exception of New Englanders and Quakers. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard (not the Bible), suggested “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Especially on the frontier, though, folks just weren’t buying it. But from the time germ theory was generally accepted, house cleaning became a major preoccupation of housewives, spurred on by how-to articles in women’s and farm magazines and later pushed by farm and social organizations that stressed its utility is preventing and fighting illness.

By the late 19th Century, area rugs in homes, even farm homes, were common. To create a room-sized rug, long strips of manufactured ingrain wool carpeting or handmade rag rugs were sewn together. My great-grandmother was a rag rug weaver in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—we still have the handmade loom on which she made them—who made money recycling folks’ old clothes into rugs.

Ingrain Carpet strip

Wool cut pile ingrain carpeting was the first commercially available after the proper looms were perfected in the 1850s. Like rag rugs, long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs.

It was common to use clean straw as padding for carpeting in those days, with fresh beds of the stuff laid down after spring and fall housecleaning. By the time the household had walked on the straw rug padding for a few months it largely turned into dust, which was another reason good housewives found spring and fall housecleaning necessary.

Until after the first two decades of the 20th Century, housecleaning was virtually all done manually during spring and fall housecleaning. The carpet was taken apart into its component strips, taken outdoors, and the accumulated dirt, straw, and dust was physically beaten out of it with carpet beaters. Dirt and dust indoors was swept up using brooms, or dusted off using dust cloths and feather dusters.

And then came the first un-powered carpet sweepers, which were better than nothing.

But when electricity arrived, even in rural areas, in the 1930s, keeping things clean got a real boost.

My grandfather was always fond of gadgets. He had his farm neighborhood’s first gasoline-powered tractor and its first radio, a battery-powered Neutrodyne 500 five-tube table model made by the Wm. J. Murdock Co. in 1925, with a large horn for a speaker. It also had jacks for two sets of headphones. And, early-adopter he was, after rural electrification got to their farmstead he bought one of the earliest electric vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. He was so proud of it that he took it around to show his Wheatland Township neighbors, using it to vacuum “clean” carpets to show how efficient it was. The amount of dirt that came out of rugs that had just been beaten or cleaned with a carpet sweeper always amazed people. At least one farmer became very upset with his wife after such a demonstration, telling her he thought she said she worked hard cleaning house. From the look of the pile of dust that Grandpa emptied out of his newfangled vacuum, she wasn’t working hard enough, the fellow fumed. My grandfather always said he was sorry his enthusiastic demonstration of his new labor saving tool got his neighbor’s wife in trouble. I’ve always thought that story was interesting because it illustrated that my grandfather, unlike his neighbor, didn’t blame my grandmother for not working hard enough, but was fascinated that a machine could clean more effectively than even the best housewife.

1930s Kenmore upright

With the extension of electrical service, even into rural areas, by the 1930s electric vacuums became the best way to keep carpeting clean.

During the 1930s and 1940s, most homes in the U.S. were wired for electricity and got indoor plumbing, both of which made keeping things clean a whole lot easier. It became so easy, in fact, that cleanliness became the norm, giving rise to whole industries, not the least of which was that fixture of the post-World War II years, the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. That era, too, is pretty much over now with the exception of the occasional Kirby or Rainbow vacuum cleaner salesman who requests an appointment to conduct entertaining (if, at least for us, unproductive) demonstrations.

Benjamin Franklin, as I noted above, writing as Poor Richard, contended that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and from all the soap and cleaning commercials you see on TV, we seem to have taken his aphorism to heart. Nowadays, we’ve got the technology to really do a number on dirt. We mean business, and speaking for my household at least, one of these weekends, we’re really going to clean house.

 

 

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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

Getting enough milk for all those cookies…

We’ve all heard the old joke about the teacher asking her students where milk comes from, with one pupil answering “From the grocery store.”

Time was, even town kids knew milk comes from cows because—especially if they lived in a small town—their family quite likely had their own cow. And sometimes in not-quite-so-small towns. Remember, one story about how the Chicago fire started was because Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the family’s barn.

If a family had their own cow, they had access to fresh milk and cream, and could fairly easily make their own butter and cheese if they wanted.

Otherwise, early in the nation’s history, they could buy milk directly from local farmers who brought their milk to town to sell door-to-door. After bottling technology was developed, wasn’t long before dairies got started, buying milk from nearby dairy farms and selling it to customers.

Larger towns and cities could support more than one dairy, while smaller towns and villages were generally served by only one dairy.

While we’re at it, we should make a distinction between dairies and creameries. Dairies sold fresh milk as well as other products such as cheese and butter to their customers. Creameries processed farmers’ milk into the cheese and butter available in general stores, hotels, aboard railroad dining cars, and from in-town dairies.

By the late 1800s, creameries had popped up all over Kendall County, often, but not always, operated as farmer cooperatives. Along with their larger cousins, tiny crossroads communities like Plattville in eastern Kendall County supported creameries, as did purely rural areas like NaAuSay Township.

Oswego, on the other hand, even though a small rural village, supported two creameries for a while, one a commercial operation owned by the McConnell family and later on, a cooperative creamery established by farmers dissatisfied with the prices they were getting for their milk.

Schickler house

In 1924, John Schickler and his son, Clarence, ran a sizeable distilling operation out of the basement of the Schickler House, located on the west side of Ill. Route 31 just north of Oswego. Later, the Schickler Dairy operated out of the same space. (Little White School Museum photo)

Oswego could even, in the 1920s and 1930s, boast their own dairy, the Schickler Dairy, operated by local businessman John Schickler. Schickler, one of Oswego’s several German entrepreneurs, operated both a grocery and general merchandise store and a saloon. In 1900, he built the Schickler Block at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets to house his grocery and saloon businesses. Gradually, he got out of those retail businesses, especially when the saloon business was eliminated thanks to the nation’s 13-year experiment with prohibition, starting with the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1920.

At first, Schickler decided to try opposing prohibition by building a substantial, illegal, distilling operation in the walk-out basement at his Oswego farmhouse, located just north of Oswego on the west side of Ill. Route 31. In the effort, he was assisted by his son, a college grad who taught in the West Aurora Schools. But word got out and his operation came to the attention of local and federal law enforcement officials. As the Kendall County Record reported on March 28, 1923:

The big haul was made on the farm of John P. Schickler, known as the Paul Hawley farm, north of Oswego on the west side of the river. Here, on Monday morning, the officers found a modern still working at full tilt turning out alcohol. The still was of 23 gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloon keeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol. This was housed in tins of a gallon each. When the raid was made the officials found 39 gallon cans and three 10-gallon cans of alcohol, 60 cases of the rubbing alcohol, and 75 pints of whisky. The plant, in the basement of the home, was one of the most modern the law enforcers had seen and it was bubbling merrily away at 6 o’clock in the morning, turning out its intoxicating product. Schickler was brought to Yorkville where he gave bond on the sum of $5,000 being released till Tuesday morning when he asked a continuance until Monday morning at 9:30 before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner.

On April 4, the Record reported the Schicklers had appeared before the local judiciary:

John P. Schickler and Clarence Schickler of Oswego were arraigned before Police Magistrate Frank R. Skinner on Monday morning and bound over to the Kendall county grand jury under bonds of $5,000 each. There are several counts against each of the defendants including the sale, possession, transporting for illegal sale and illegal manufacture of intoxicating liquor and the illegal possession of a still. This is one of the biggest “booze” cases that has come up in this part of the country and is being watched with interest. The tales of the extent of the operations are fabulous–the amount of alcohol which is said to have been turned out at this place being beyond belief.

It was after his arrest for bootlegging that Schickler decided to go into the dairy business, and until larger dairies in Aurora absorbed the local business, he provided milk and other dairy products to Oswego residents.

Lantz Dairy receipt

A receipt from the Lantz Dairy, located near Plainfield. Note the phone number.

Small dairies like Schickler’s popped up all over the place. For instance, my great uncle and his wife, the Lantzes, had a dairy they ran out of their farm over on what’s now Route 59 between Plainfield and Naperville.

As the 20th Century wore on technology and the consolidation mentioned above had big impacts on the dairy industry. Gradually, smaller dairy operations were either bought up by the big companies or were driven out of business as a result of improved transportation that benefited large, centralized operations.

Advances in animal husbandry also had a big effect, as cows were bred to give more milk, which meant fewer cows were needed to produce the same volume of milk. When the Great Depression hit in the late 1920s, dairy farmers were hard-hit. They fought back by forming cooperative organizations like the Pure Milk Association that were labor unions in all but name. The struggle for higher dairy prices resulted in some violence, not to mention a lot of milk intercepted and dumped on its way to dairies that refused to deal with organized farmers.

The height of Kendall County’s dairying was in 1890, when the U.S. Farm Census counted 9,500 milk cows in the county that fed milk into small creameries located in the villages of Oswego, Yorkville, Montgomery, Millington, Plattville, and Lisbon and in rural NaAuSay and Wheatland townships.

From that high point, the numbers steadily declined. The decline accelerated during the 1950s due to a number of factors, including the amount of labor required to run a dairy herd and the mechanization of the milking process. Not every dairy farmer could afford the new equipment or wanted to take the trouble to comply with increasingly strict heath regulations. By 1954, the county’s dairy cow population was down to 4,000 and five years later it had dropped by nearly half to just 2,300. In the 2012 farm census, there were so few dairy cows in Kendall County that they weren’t even counted.

And that’s despite the huge increases in the amount of milk, butter, and cheese the nation consumed. For instance, after World War II, someone decided it was vital that all us school kids drink lots of milk, so we had milk breaks at school. You could get either plain or chocolate, and at first it came in little glass bottles. But then it started coming in half-pint waxed cardboard containers, each of which cost, as near as I can remember, three cents, thanks to a generous government subsidy.

Guernsey cow

Our family cow was a Guernsey named Daisy who looked a lot like this classic example.

That only accounted for a portion of the nation’s increasing love affair with milk, which was also spurred by an innovative dairyman right here in Illinois. Joseph Kraft invented processed cheese, cleverly naming it American Cheese, and packing it in tin cans for shipment to Europe during World War I. After the war, Kraft began selling his processed cheese in two and five pound boxes, and also directed his team of dairy experts to find more ways to use the stuff. Those efforts resulted in discovering that American Cheese melts really smoothly without getting tough or separating. And that led to the invention of the cheeseburger, which is generally credited to Kraft’s Chicago labs. And then, in 1936, Kraft introduced his boxed Kraft’s Macaroni and Cheese Dinner, the staple of kids (and many parents) the nation over to this day.

Out on the farm, we had our own cow when I was really little, but then my dad got tired of milking Daisy twice a day, every day, all year round, and we started buying our milk in town. My dad favored Guernsey cows because of the high butterfat content of the milk they produced. After he milked Daisy (squirting some of as a treat it at the barn cats who gathered around as he worked), he took the bucket of milk in the house and down the basemen where the separator was. The raw milk went in the top, and cream and mostly de-creamed milk came out the bottom. The cream was either saved to take into Yorkville to the cream station to sell or sent to my grandmother to be made into butter. We drank the milk, but every once in a while, my folks would take a few gallons over to my Aunt Bess McMicken to be made into cottage cheese.

Fruit Juice House bottle

Aurora’s Fruit Juice House, Inc. had several locations in the city where they sold fruit juice by the gallon, along with milk in their wide-mouth gallon jugs, and great ice cream.

After getting rid of Daisy, we bought milk in town. Since we went into Montgomery every week for my sisters’ piano lessons, we stopped on the way home at the Fruit Juice House on Hill Avenue and got our milk in gallon glass jugs—along with their great-tasting orange juice. And, every once in a great while, an ice cream cone or chocolate malt. A great place, the Fruit Juice House was.

After we moved to town, we got milk delivered by Oatman’s Dairy. My Uncle George worked for Pike’s Dairy in Aurora where he delivered milk in Pike’s familiar brown bottles, but they didn’t deliver to Oswego so Oatman’s it was.

Les Weis was the Oatman milkman who brought half-gallon glass jugs to our door. I can’t remember the exact schedule, but I do remember my mother would put the empty, washed jugs out for him to pick up when the brought a fresh supply a couple times a week.

Back when we owned our own cow, we knew exactly where the milk we drank came from. These days, food production is far less transparent—it’s almost impossible to figure out which farm the milk you buy at the supermarket came from. But on the other hand, thanks to modern dairy technology and government health regulations, we don’t have to worry about contracting one disease or another from the groceries we buy. This modern life of ours is certainly different, which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

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When the Fox River was known for its pearls—and pearl buttons…

Last week, the good folks over at the Aurora, IL Then and Now page on Facebook got to discussing Fox River clams and their uses, and it got me to thinking about the topic in its historical context.

We look on the Fox River nowadays as a major recreational resource for anglers and boaters—as we should—but it was much more than that during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Fox Valley’s pioneer millwrights lost no time in throwing dams across the river up and down its length to power mills that did everything from grind grain into flour to saw wood. The river water itself was harvested during the winter months as ice, which was marketed by commercial firms in those days before mechanical refrigeration.

Another of those little-known, but both interesting and lucrative, industries on the Fox involved harvesting clams. In the days before plastic became a practical alternative, buttons were made of metal as well as natural materials, including bone, wood, and mother of pearl from the inside of clam shells.

Seeking shells for buttons, the clamming industry got its start on the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, clamming had become a fairly big business on the Fox River, too.

One of Muscatine, Iowa’s button factories in the early 1900s.

One of the mother of pear button factories in Muscatine, Iowa that made the city the button capital of the U.S. for several years.

At first, clams had been harvested for the occasional pearls found in them. But when it financially worth while to ship clamshells off to button factories along the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, the clamming industry on the Fox really got going.

By 1907, hunting for pearls from clams in the river had become a popular social activity for both men and women. On weekends, couples and groups would head off to the river, with the men wading in the stream collecting clams and women riding in boats accompanying them, opening the shells looking for pearls.

And occasionally, the hunters struck pay dirt. Natural pearls were extremely valuable during those years before the development of cultured pearls, and some dandy examples were taken from the Fox. Pearls selling for $200—about $4,500 in today’s dollars—and up were not uncommon.

Fox River pearls

Freshwater pearls my great-grandparents and other relatives found in clams on the Fox River at Oswego.

“Now what do you know about that?” marveled Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, in September 1909. “There has been more or less pearl hunting near here for several months, but since the lucky find made by Raymond Ness on Saturday—woe be unto the few remaining in clams. Saturday afternoon, Ness opened a small shell and out rolled a pearl that weighed 32 grains. It is nearly round and a pink pearl. Monday, William Strokmeier of Muscatine, Iowa came to town and gave Ness $725 for it. Trask & Plain and other Aurora jewelers had given offers on it but not so much as the Iowa buyer gave.”

That pearl really was a dandy, too, and would be worth more than $17,000 in today’s dollars—still a tidy sum indeed.

A 1911 article in the Record reported that some $2 million in freshwater pearls were being harvested in Illinois annually. And in July 1913, a doctor from Sheridan struck the freshwater pearl mother lode. According to the July 9, 1913 Record:

Muscatine buttons

Drilled clam shells, button blanks, and finished buttons from a Muscatine, Iowa factory.

“The most valuable pearl ever found on the American continent was brought into Chicago Wednesday to be appraised, says the Inter Ocean. It was valued at $8,700. The pearl was found several days ago by Dr. Jesse Carr of Sheridan on the banks of the Fox river. It weights 62 grains, and is a perfect specimen.”

But while pearls were an interesting and lucrative product of the Fox River, buttons made from the shells of the clams that created the pearls were an even bigger business.

The July 14, 1909 Record reported from Yorkville that:

“Fox river is being raked in the neighborhood and is giving up its wealth of clam shells to the manufacturers of the pearl button. About a month ago two young men, Milo Smith and Harry Rogers of Muscatine, Iowa, came to Yorkville and began to prospect for clams. Last week they shipped their first carload of shells and already there are two more parties of men interested. The river is rich in shells of the class that is required for the industry. Smith and Rogers, were about some time before they began active operations, but are now employing five or six men in the business. The raker goes out in a boat and scoops the clams out of the water and throws them in a pile. They are then taken to the shore where the raker is paid for them by the hundred pounds. Then they are steamed until the shells are opened and the clam is taken out and the shell is ready for shipment to the factory. Here they are cut into the size of the button required and finished, the polish being one of the delicate parts of the operation. Lawrence Hafenrichter has been working with them for some weeks and he has added much to his stock of river pearls. Friday of last week the men loaded a [railroad] car and shipped it to the factory at Muscatine. It is possible, should the supply of clams continue, that this nucleus may grow into a full fledged button factory in Yorkville.”

1910 clammer at Beloit

A clammer and his catch on the Rock River near Beloit, Wisconsin about 1910.

The Record’s prediction proved accurate, and it wasn’t long before enough clamming was going on in Kendall County to attract that button factory to Yorkville, thanks to a bit of early 20th century community economic development. In the summer of 1911, the Record reported that: “The Rehbehn brothers of Muscatine, Iowa, were the first to establish a factory for boring out button blanks in this vicinity, starting a small concern about a mile down the river from Yorkville. As the work grew on them they desired better quarters and an association was organized here by a number of the citizens who bought the old City Hotel property on the river bank from the Cassem estate and gave the use of it to the Rehbehns. It has been fitted with necessary machinery and about 15 or 20 men and boys are employed about the premises, boring blanks, which are shipped to Muscatine, where the product is finished into buttons for various uses. The residue of the shells makes a big pile at the east end of the factory.”

Shells drilled for buttons

Clam shells drilled for button blanks at the Rehbehn factory in Yorkville, Illinois. Recovered from the Fox River at Yorkville by by friend Mark Harrington.

Which brought to the fore the problem of what to do with all those clamshells. Over in Somonauk, the city fathers had a great idea: Use the piles of shells from the Somonauk button factory on the village’s gravel streets. Several loads of clamshells were dumped on the streets and leveled, the idea being that street traffic would quickly grind the shells into small pieces. But, alas, it was not to be. A note in the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way is one of my favorite newspaper names) reported the problem: “Owing to the fact that as soon as the shells become partly broken they will be very hard on horses’ hoofs, travel over them will be exceedingly light, as they will be avoided whenever possible. Consequently it will be a long time before they will become desirable roads.”

So, for the most part, they were disposed of the way just about everything else was during that era: They were dumped in the river, where some of them can still be found, holes made by the button blank drills nicely intact.

As for the clam meat cooked during the opening process, it was either discarded or, which happened most often, was either given or sold to a nearby farmer to be used for hog or chicken food. As Eugene Matlock recalled of clamming on the river at his family’s farm south of Yorkville: “That cooked clam was taken back to our farmstead where it was a most welcome diet for the pig crop we seemed always to have.”

Misner Shop

The historic old Misner Wagon and Machine Shop in Millington, Illinois housed a button blank factory as late as the 1930s.

Despite those problems, the button blank business was apparently fairly successful until October 1914, when the button factory was destroyed by fire. By that time, though, the river had become badly polluted, and that, combined with growing pollution and over-harvesting had severely decreased the clam population. In addition, techniques had finally been developed to create inexpensive plastic buttons in colors other than black. As a result of that combination of factors, the Rehbehn brothers never rebuilt their factory.

Clamming wasn’t entirely dead, however. In 1937, Fred Leonard was operating a button blank factory in Millington’s historic old Meisner wagon and machine shop, but he had to partially rely on imported clamshells as well as those locally harvested.

Today, the catastrophic pollution that helped destroy the clamming industry has almost disappeared from the Fox River—thanks to those pesky clean water regulations so disliked by certain political factions—and its clam population is healthy and booming once again. But the days of clamming, button factories, and those lucky pearl hunters are gone, receding into the Fox Valley’s rich past.

 

 

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Ghosts of Christmas Past are sort of fun folks…

Listening to an on-line holiday music channel and looking out to see another frosty morning here at the Matile Manse leads me to the conclusion that there’s no time of the year that stimulates a person’s nostalgia gland like the Christmas season.

Just about everybody has at least a few, and sometimes lots more, wonderful memories of Christmases past.

For the declining percentage of those of us who’ve lived their entire lives in the Fox Valley, the warm memories of those days gone by are tempered by the shear amazement with which we’ve been watching so many changes in our little corner of northern Illinois happen so quickly.

As part of that change, folks who live in Kendall County towns along the U.S. Route 34 corridor can now reasonably expect to do their holiday shopping in their own communities (and thereby making sure the resulting sales tax benefits themselves instead of residents of neighboring towns), something that, for several decades, was not possible. With the construction of shopping centers up and down the corridor from Sandwich east to Montgomery, shopping without leaving town has become not only possible, but with the traffic, preferable.

The thing is, though, that back in the day, Oswego, Yorkville, Plano and Sandwich residents could once do their holiday shopping in their own towns before the advent of regional shopping centers siphoned off those areas’ shoppers.

1950 Shulers Drugs

On a winter day in the 1950s, paper boys and girls wait for the Beacon-News to be dropped off at Shuler’s Drug Store so they can start their paper routes. Shuler’s annual toy sales area was in the hall above the store marked by the second story windows in this photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

Here in Oswego, I always figured that Al Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Drug Store on Main Street, must have been a huge fan of Christmas. When I was a kid, he’d order up a giant supply of the latest toys, which were sold from the large meeting hall on the floor above the drug and dry goods stores. On the way home from school, we’d make almost daily stops at that toy display, tromping our way up the steep stairs to make holiday wishes, our four-buckle boots jingling and swishing.

I didn’t know then, in the mid-1950s,  that the tradition of Oswego’s drug store selling an elaborate line of holiday merchandise extended nearly a century into the past, back to when pioneer druggist Levi Hall began the practice. As the Dec. 18, 1874 Kendall County Record reported:

Santa Claus in Oswego: This fine old gentleman, the patron saint of the children, has his Oswego headquarters this month at the drug store of L.N. Hall, and he requests all who love Christmas to call there on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week and see what beautiful goods Mr. Hall has to sell. In the evening of those days, a beautiful Christmas tree will be lit up at 7 o’clock for the admiration of customers and little folks.

Image result for fanner 50

All the guys wanted a Fanner-50 under the tree. My buddy Glenn was the only one of my friends lucky enough to get one.

That was all fine, but from my point of view, as a confirmed television-watching youngster of the ‘50s, when the Christmas shopping season began the most wonderful place on earth had to have been Amlings Flowerland. Which might seem a bit odd, to the uninitiated, especially since I never actually went to Amlings. But Amlings (“conveniently located”) was a frequent sponsor of children’s TV shows like “Elmer the Elephant” and “Garfield Goose.” For about two months a year, Amlings’ commercials bombarded us with the lure of every wonderful toy imaginable. Fanner 50 revolvers, lever-action carbines like “The Rifleman” used, dolls that walked, real two-way radios, —Amlings had them all. I made frequent requests to be taken to this magical toy shopping Mecca, but to no avail. I had no idea where Hinsdale or Ogden Avenue was, but it didn’t sound very far away. Of course, Antarctica wouldn’t have seemed too far for the chance to visit Toy Nirvana. But as far as my parents were concerned, Amlings might as well of been on the far side of the moon.

But while Amlings was definitely out, downtown Aurora was definitely in. Aurora was only about six miles up the river on Route 25, which turned into Broadway–downtown Aurora’s main street–once we passed the city limits. My family had considered Aurora our main shopping town for at least a couple generations.

Back then, Sears was located in the middle of the downtown area on Broadway. At Christmas, they’d open a special toy department up in what was apparently the attic. I remember taking the elevator as far as it would go and then climbing the steep, narrow crowded stairway to a huge room filled, mostly it seemed, with frantic parents trying to get the latest Hasbro doll or Tonka truck for their kids.

1972 Aurora

When this photo was taken in 1972, downtown Aurora still hadn’t changed all that much from the way it looked in the late 1950s. You can just make out the Korn Krib sign at right partially obscurred by Lyon & Healy’s sign. (Little White School Museum collection)

It was surprisingly similar to Al Shuler’s toy emporium—except I don’t think as many people visited Shuler’s toy display in an entire season as did the customers who shopped at the Sears display on a single frenetic Friday night.

And it wasn’t only Sears that was such a kid’s delight. Downtown Aurora as a whole at Christmas was a fascinating place for kids. There was The Book Shop on Stolp Avenue that not only sold books, but also had a wonderful selection of “educational” toys. Microscopes, real miniature steam engines, Erector sets, Gilbert chemistry and microscope sets—The Book Store was an always excellent place to while away a half-hour.

The dime stores, Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, had toy departments that were okay, but were nothing special. Grant’s, which wasn’t quite, but was pretty close to a dime store, had a passably good toy department, along with a truly excellent selection of comic books, including a good supply of Classics Illustrated, one of my favorite comic series.

For model kits and the only place in the south Fox Valley that sold British-made Dinky Toys, you had to take a walk south on Broadway to Fagerholm’s. They specialized in model kits, including gasoline-powered model planes, and had all the special paints needed to get just the right effect on that World War II Fletcher class destroyer or the Cutty Sark clipper ship model under construction up in my bedroom. And every once in a while I’d have enough money to add to my collection of Dinky Toy military vehicles.

Right across the street was Main Surplus where military surplus clothing and equipment shared store shelves with—bowling balls. It was the best place in town to pick up a new ball, get your old one drilled out, or get a nice bowling bag, your private towel, or your own pair of shoes.

1959 Route 25

After a hard day’s shopping in downtown Aurora, driving back south to Oswego down Ill. Route 25 offered some of the area’s nicest winter scenery. In fact, it still does. (Little White School Museum collection)

Out the door and walking north to Downer Place, a left turn took the discriminating shopper to May Electric where Lionel trains reigned supreme—at least for us kids. Parents were more interested in boring stuff like washing machines, but in the upstairs loft was the most complete selection of Lionel trains and equipment in our area. New switches, bottles of those tiny pills that made your steam locomotive smoke, signal bridges, and freight cars with little guys that actually unloaded crates of who knows what were all there, along with the newest diesel and steam engines and other rolling stock. I had my eye on a great Santa Fe diesel switch engine one year, and was almost beside myself when I found it under the tree Christmas morning.

Looking back, the amazing thing is that parents during that era thought nothing of letting their kids roam around downtown Aurora all by themselves, even at night. It was a wonderful place: the Korn Krib for some great caramel corn; or Reuland’s for hot, fresh giant cashews; or the Fox Valley Snack Shop for cantaloupe à la mode for the sophisticated palate (or a Belly-Buster for the audacious); or browsing the coming attractions posters at the Paramount or the Isle theater.

It was a time of shared experience now long gone, but far from forgotten. We like to look back and believe it was a simpler time, but it really wasn’t. The challenges were just different and us kids didn’t yet have to worry about the kinds of things our parents did. It’s entirely likely modern kids will look back on today in exactly the same way. It’s the “Good Old Days” syndrome. Thing is, some—even if not all—of those old days actually were pretty good.

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Visitor from the past would find a confusing modern farmscape

While development has taken a substantial toll on agricultural land here in Kendall County, there are still plenty of planted fields left for farmers to harvest this time of year. From the county’s congested tier of three northern-most townships, just take a drive west on Galena Road, or south on Route 47 or southwest on Route 71, and it doesn’t take long to leave tract homes and strip centers behind, and find yourself surrounded by fields that grow corn and soybeans, just as they have for generations.

It’s easy to think that our forebears would find the landscape on Route 47 down near Lisbon Center or on Grove Road south of Route 126 familiar. It’s rural; many of the farm homes are products of the late 19th century and early 20th century. There are even a few (very few) gravel roads to reinforce the feeling of stepping back in time.

But assuming we could crank up the Wayback Machine, and send Mr. Peabody and Sherman back to, say, 1870, to bring a farmer back for a brief summer visit to his future, he might find some similarities, but mostly he’d be struck by profound differences.

First and foremost, even if plunked down in a completely rural area, out of sight of any buildings, our farmer of the past would undoubtedly be struck by the odd uniformity of the agricultural landscape. Familiar, though unusually large and densely planted corn fields would stretch in every direction, but what, he would wonder, are those other row crops that seem to have bean leaves? And where in the world are the familiar fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rye? What’s happened to the pastures and the hay fields?

And where have all the fences gotten to? How on earth do modern farmers keep the neighbors’ cattle and hogs from eating growing crops with no fences to keep them out of the fields?

1890 abt Otto Johnson farm

The Otto Johnston farmstead in 1890 had a barn, a corn crib, and a chicken house, but no machine shed–the simple farm equipment of the era was stored in the barn and crib. (Little White School Museum collection)

That nearby farmstead looks odd, with no barn, and only some cylindrical metal buildings with conical roofs and one very large shed that looks as if it, too, is made of metal. And such a huge door it has. No cattle shed; no corn crib; no chicken house; no hog houses. The farmhouse lawn seems trimmed so neatly it’s almost unnatural, but where is the orchard?

Unlike our visitor from the past, today’s farmers operate in an either-or environment. They’re either grain farmers or livestock farmers. Our visitor from the past came from an era when every farmer grew both grain and livestock. Moreover, both were integral to the economic heath of every farmstead.

Grain was not only grown for market, like it is today, but was also grown for use on the farm to feed hogs, cattle, and poultry. Hogs and cattle were driven to market, meaning less grain had to be hauled over the abominable roads of the era. Poultry was kept for the eggs produced–which were traded for groceries in town–and used for meat on the farm and also to trade in town.

1947 July prob Russell Rink bailing

Russell Rink had plenty of business for his custom baling operation in East Oswego Township in 1947 when this snapshot was taken, since alfalfa, timothy, and other hay crops were common on area farms. (Little White School Museum collection)

The manure produced as a byproduct of feeding hogs, cattle, and poultry was, in turn, used to fertilize the farmer’s grain fields.

A variety of crops were grown every year, and the fields in which they were grown were rotated each year, with pasture or hay land part of the rotation so the land could lay fallow for at least a year with no crops leaching nutrients out of the soil. The Anglo Saxon root of the word fallow refers to the colors of pale red or pale yellow—the color of fields tilled but not sown with seed.

Soybeans were not part of that rotation until they were popularized in the 1930s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. County agricultural agents instructed farmers in the fine points of their cultivation and harvest, and soon they became a popular cash crop—one probably unfamiliar to our visitor from the past.

2017 fenceless landscape

DeKalb County’s fenceless landscape is common on northern Illinois farms these days, With no livestock on farms, there’s no need to waste productive land with fence rows.

What happened to the crops with which our visitor was familiar? Where are the oats, the wheat, the rye and barley? Farmers not only specialize these days, but so do regions of the country. Illinois’ humid climate is not conducive to growing wheat, so its cultivation has migrated west of the Mississippi to drier the Great Plains. Oats were once necessary to feed the millions of horses that powered the nation’s farms and cities, and for on-farm livestock feed, needs that have largely disappeared today. So too have modern times sharply reduced the use of rye and barley.

Pastureland—where are the county’s pastures? Most have been plowed for cropland in the absence of livestock. The same with the hay fields that once covered thousands of Kendall County farmland acres. The sight of rolling stands of clover, timothy, and alfalfa rippling in the wind of mid-summer is largely a thing of our past that faded away with the livestock that once required them for food. It makes a person wonder what Timothy Hansen would think, the Norwegian immigrant who imported the nutritious forage grass named Phleum pratense to his farm in Virginia in 1721. So well did he conduct his campaign in its favor that farmers nicknamed the grass “timothy” in his honor. Where once timothy grew on virtually every farm, today its presence has dwindled, another victim of changes in farming.

Farm orchards, too, have largely departed leaving only memories of stands of apple, plum, pear, and cherry trees once prized for their abundant fruit. As have the dirt roads with which our farmer of the past would have been familiar. When studies were done in the early 20th century, it was found farmers’ cars and trucks got much better gas mileage on gravel roads, road maintenance costs were less, and wear and tear on vehicles was far, far less. And asphalt roads were far, far better than gravel roads in terms of damage to vehicles, mileage, and maintenance costs. So dirt roads have disappeared. Gravel roads, at least in most of Kendall County, have disappeared, too, because they’re expensive to maintain.

As our visiting farmer leaves to head down-time to his home, he is probably happy to get back to where farming makes some sense and where the parts of the landscape make cultural and economic sense to him. As for us, it’s another late autumn of taking life the way we find it in Kendall County.

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A tale of two towns…

Just got back from our annual early October trip up to the Northwoods to close our fishing cabin for another season.

My buddy, Paul and I, have known each other for more than 60 years, having met in third grade when my family moved off the farm and into town. Paul, I, and my wife Sue pooled our resources back in 1972 and bought five acres of wild land along the South Fork of the Flambeau River up in Price County, Wisconsin. Camping got old after six or seven years, so in 1980 we bought a fishing cabin a couple miles north of Park Falls—then, as now, Price County’s largest municipality—on Butternut Lake.

2017 10-10 Paul fishing

The sunset on Butternut Lake on Oct. 10 proved to be a spectacular one as we attempted to invite a few walleyes for supper.

We open the cabin each spring so as to be ready for opening day for walleye season on the first Saturday in May. And since it’s a three-season fishing cabin, we close it down for the winter each autumn, generally around Columbus Day.

As I sat out fishing with Paul as our annual autumn trip drew to a close, I started thinking about the big changes we’ve seen in northern Wisconsin, as well as the changes in my hometown of Oswego here in Illinois’ Fox River Valley. In both cases, those changes have been profound, generally in a good way for Oswego but not so much for Park Falls.

Park Falls, like most of the municipalities in Price County, was established during the lumbering boom of the late 19th Century, growing faster than its neighboring villages when a paper mill was built there. It was not only the industrial center of the surrounding hinterland, but was also the agriculture market center for nearby farms, which were mostly dairy operations. Today, the paper mill is still busy, turning pulpwood harvested from the surrounding managed forests into paper.

The town’s businesses and industry led to construction of a large stock of housing, smaller worker’s cottages for industrial workers and retail employees, with larger homes built by executives and successful merchants.

Paper Mill

The Flambeau River Papers mill still dominates Park Falls’ downtown while providing jobs for residents.

But like so many small towns in overwhelmingly rural areas like northern Wisconsin, Park Falls has seen its population decline sharply over the years. When we bought our fishing cabin back in 1980, Park Falls’ population stood at its historic peak, 3,192. The town’s downtown sported a stock of substantial brick storefronts that housed two grocery stores and a fair variety of retail businesses.

That same year, Oswego’s population was reported by the U.S. Census Bureau at just slightly below Park Falls’, 3,021. Oswego was still the market town for the surrounding agricultural hinterland, but was rapidly changing into a suburban bedroom community. Residential and commercial development took a breather during the 1980s, but then in the 1990s it began again, surging strongly into the early 2000s. In fact, during that era, Kendall County, in which Oswego is situated, became (in percentage terms) the fastest growing county in the entire nation.

Meanwhile, Park Falls and Price County were steadily losing population. Young people graduating from high school found decreasing opportunities for economic advancement, leading to a population drain.

2017 10-6 Fall color at the lake.jpg

Autumn color was hitting the peak on Oct. 6 when I snapped this shot down towards Butternut Lake.

The paper mill continued to provide jobs, but increasing automation meant there were fewer of those available. Then in 2006, the factory closed, shocking the entire community. But with private and governmental economic cooperation, it reopened after a few months, and has continued operating since. In addition, St. Croix Rods opened a manufacturing plant in Park Falls for high-end fishing equipment, and later, the Weathershield company opened a state-of-the-art window factory in town, providing more relatively good-paying jobs.

Even so, the community’s population continued to decline. The 2016 population estimate for Park Falls was just 2,292, a decrease of nearly 30 percent since 1980.

In comparison, Oswego’s population surged during that same period, growth fueled by northern Illinois’ powerful economic engine. In 1990, Oswego’s population had grown, but not sharply, to 3,879. But then the frenetic growth of the 1990s and early 2000s hit and by the new millennium Oswego’s population had grown to 13,326. The growth explosion continued through the 2000s, despite the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, the village’s population stood at an astonishing 30,355. Between then and 2016, population went up another 10 percent or so to an estimated 34,571.

2008 Oswego look E from W bank

These days, there are more traffic signals on Oswego, Illinois’ Washington Street than in all of Park Falls, Wisconsin—one of the prices residents pay for the community’s growth.

Not sure what all this proves, other than the old cliché that the three most important factors contributing to real estate values is location, location, and location.

Park Falls’ population declined by nearly 30 percent during the same period when Oswego’s population grew by 10 times, mostly, but not entirely, based on where the two towns were situated, Park Falls largely isolated in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, Oswego adjacent to the Chicago suburban economic powerhouse.

Those of us who have lived through Oswego’s growing pains often grumble about the area’s extreme changes. But all things considered, it’s been a lot better watching a community grow and prosper rather than slowly evaporate as its young people leave for places where there are opportunities to make a successful family life.

 

 

 

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