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Stagecoaching west of Chicago in the 1830s and 1840s was not for the faint of heart

John Taylor Temple was a young professional man on the make. And he happened to be in the right place for someone with the initiative—not to mention the connections and cash—necessary to make his ideas become reality.

To take advantage of the new roads being pushed west and south from Chicago, the travelers anxious to use them and, even more importantly, the new U.S. Mail contracts being awarded by Congress, Temple established a stagecoach company at Chicago in 1833.

Stagecoaches were so called because they completed their routes in stages, traveling from stop to stop on regular schedules, exchanging tired horses for fresh ones, and giving passengers a chance to rest, eat, and sometimes sleep. Although called stagecoach companies, the firms did not always operate what are commonly considered stagecoaches. Often, especially early in the region’s history, stages were usually little more than light wagons sporting (reportedly uncomfortable) seats and canvass covers.

Image result for John Taylor TempleFollowing the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, a succession of postmasters general headed the office until John McLean was appointed in 1823. McLean, it turned out, was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system and developed the system whereby the post office department controlled the mails in individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mails from office to office. By 1828, McLean’s system of private stage contractors was in place and working very well. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract was required to sell its stock and other assets to the successful bidder.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from Detroit. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon was placed in service between the two towns followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

With mail (and its related passenger) service set to be extended southwest of Chicago to Ottawa that same year, Temple saw an opportunity.

John Taylor Temple was born in Virginia and married in 1822. He graduated from Middlebury College in Casleton, Vermont on Dec. 29, 1830, and apparently arrived in Chicago a year or two later.

He quickly became involved in local politics, and probably had inside knowledge that the road the Cook County Board had laid out along the High Prairie Trail to Ottawa would soon become a mail route.

Thanks to a likely combination of hard work, foresight, sufficient funds, and help from his political friends, in 1833 Temple was awarded the contract to carry the mail between Chicago and Peoria via Ottawa.

Stagecoach model

Stagecoaches like this model of an Abbott-Downing stagecoach, manufactured in Concord, New Hampshire, were the favored vehicles until the stagecoach era ended.

Whether he had inside knowledge about the route’s immanent establishment or not, Temple was somehow able to plan far enough ahead to order what the Chicago American described as an “elegant, thorough-brace post carriage” from the East. He had the coach shipped to Chicago via the Great Lakes from Buffalo before ice closed navigation on the lakes for the winter of 1833-34 in time for it to be used to deliver mail starting in January of 1834.

Temple had most likely seen the newly-developed Concord Coaches making their runs while he lived and went to school in Vermont, and undoubtedly figured these most modern of conveyances would be perfect for his new Illinois venture.

According to most early Illinois historians, the first coach on Temple’s new stage line left Chicago on Jan. 1, 1834 with John D. Caton, a rising young lawyer, at the reins of the four horse team.

Word quickly spread concerning the new stage line. The Sangamo Journal in Springfield reported on Feb. 1, 1834, just a month after Temple’s coach made its first run: “We understand that there is now a line of stages running regularly once a week between Peoria and Chicago.”

But shortly after the establishment of Temple’s line, it appears he was already being challenged by more experienced operators, even though he held the all-important mail contract.

John D. Winters had been engaged in staging in Illinois for almost a decade by the time Temple began his line from Chicago to Ottawa. Winters first ran stages on the leg of the St. Louis to Galena route from Peoria north starting in the 1820s.

1840s-stage-road-map

John D. Caton drove the first stagecoach west of Chicago in January 1834, when he piloted a coach on the first leg of the trip to Ottawa.

In 1834, Winters, by then an experienced stage operator, established a stage company at Chicago, apparently to directly compete with Temple though without the vital mail contract. Given his personality, Winters may well have felt young Dr. Temple was out of his depth trying to run a stage company. According to a notice in the Feb. 18, 1834 Chicago Democrat, passengers were invited to try “The New Line of splendid four horse Post Coaches in Illinois—From Ottawa by way of Holderman’s Grove [in Kendall County], Walker’s Grove [Plainfield] and Laughtons [Riverside] to Chicago, once a week, 80 miles, through one and one half days, fare $5.”

Various histories of the region also state that John S. Trowbridge, who apparently established a competing line about 1835, also challenged Temple.

Trowbridge got his first experience with mail contracting when he submitted the low bid to carry mail on horseback on the Chicago Road between Niles, Michigan and Chicago.

Both the competing Temple and Trowbridge stages stopped at Elijah Wentworth’s tavern in Western Springs.

As late as Aug. 6, 1836, the Chicago American was reporting that “John T. Temple & Co. are proprietors of a stage line from Chicago to Peoria.” The paper noted that “the through trip is made in two days—to Ottawa the first day.” The newspaper reported the company’s stages left Chicago at 4 a.m. and arrived at Joliet in two hours on the southern route. Tickets were sold at Markle’s Exchange Coffee House in Chicago for passage.

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John Frink and Martin O. Walker’s stagecoach office in downtown Chicago.

Then in 1837, the stagecoach game in northern Illinois changed forever when John Frink arrived on the scene. Frink wasted no time in getting into the thick of the Chicago-area stagecoach competition.

Born at Ashford, Connecticut in 1797, Frink reportedly “begun life as a stage driver” before becoming a successful stage line operator, establishing lines between Boston, Mass. and Albany, N.Y. as well as a line linking New York City and Montreal, Canada.

He was described as “A man of limited education and without cultivation, yet he was a man of strong mind, wonderful natural intelligence, indomitable will, great sagacity and a remarkable knowledge of human nature.”

Frink had his dark side, too, one that would eventually result in the dissolution of his successful partnerships and his estrangement from his family.

Railroads, when introduced into the areas Frink’s lines served, seriously undermined the stage business. As a result, Frink and his first wife, Martha R. Marcy Frink, decided to emigrate west to Chicago about 1836.

Meanwhile, a steadily growing number of competitors challenged Temple’s stage line. A medical doctor and an active politician, he was apparently better at dabbling in Chicago politics than making sure mail and passengers got delivered on time. As a result, few tears shed when he finally decided to give up the business and sell out to Winters. In the April 1, 1837 Chicago American, a news item headlined “South-Western Mail” reported that “It affords us much pleasure to be enabled to inform our readers that Dr. J.T. Temple has sold out his Stage line to the Illinois Stage Company. Our only regret is, that the arrangement was not sooner made. Success to the new line.”

But although Winters temporarily had the company, it was incumbent on him to obtain the all-important mail contract. And apparently that he was unable to do.

1840 Arrivals of the Mails

Late June 1840 mail routes from Ottawa carried in Frink, Walker & Company stagecoaches.

The post office sought new bids on all Illinois postal routes in 1837. And with Temple and his political connections out of the way, the way was open for someone else to step in. Frink was ready, willing, and able to successfully seek the mail contract what would allow him to build a new business in Illinois.

Frink, seemingly always looking for a knowledgeable partner, apparently decided the experienced Trowbridge fit the bill, and the two agreed to merge their operations. About the time Frink and Trowbridge joined forces, a man named Fowler then reportedly joined Frink and Trowbridge to form Frink, Fowler & Trowbridge.

It was about this time as well that Frink successfully acquired the mail contract he needed to move ahead with his stage line connecting Chicago and the head of navigation on the Illinois River.

Trowbridge and Fowler left the scene and Frink teamed with Charles K. Bingham to form Frink, Bingham & Company. The partners apparently ran stages over the old Temple routes, as well as establishing new lines to the northwest to serve Galena. After working with Bingham for a short time, the partner Frink had been looking for all along, one with seemingly deeper pockets and more business skills than any previous associate, was found. Martin O. Walker joined the partners either in late 1839 or early 1840, making the company a three-way venture.

Although the company was still known as Frink, Bingham & Company, Walker was apparently a full, although silent, partner in that firm as early as February of 1840.

The Fergus Directory of the City of Chicago for 1839 reported that Frink, Bingham & Company were doing business at 123 Lake Street. A concern called simply Frink & Walker was also in business at the same location, and Martin O. Walker was listed as one of the principals. In the directory, Walker’s occupation is listed as “mail contractor.”

1840 Frink & Walker formed

By early June 1840, Frink, Walker & Company had been established. It wou1d go on dominate the stagecoach business in the Midwest for many years.

Like all Frink’s earlier partners, Bingham soon left the scene. In a legal notice published in papers in the area dated June 1, 1840, it was announced that “The Co-partnership heretofore existing between John Frink, Charles K. Bingham and Martin O. Walker, under the firm of Frink, Bingham & Co, was dissolved on the 28th day of May, 1840. The business of the late firm will be settled by either of the subscribers.” John Frink and Martin O. Walker signed the notice.

A second notice followed the first stating: “The undersigned have formed a Co-partnership and will continue the Stageing [sic] business under the firm of Frink, Walker & Co., and hereafter no notes of hand or writing obligatory will be allowed other than signed by a member of the firm or an Agent duly authorized for that purpose.” The notice was signed by Frink, Walker, and Cunan Walker. Whether Bingham left the firm voluntarily or involuntarily is unknown.

It’s likely Walker provided sufficient cash and business acumen for the operation while Frink furnished the political and operational savvy to operate the company without the need for additional partners. Historian Milo M. Quaife (Chicago Highways Old and New, 1923) appeared to agree, at least in part, with this interpretation, reporting that Frink was the partner in the new stagecoach business responsible both for operations and for negotiating the vital mail contracts.

Whatever their relationship, Bingham and the rest of Frink’s former partners with the exception of Walker left the public scene after May of 1840. From then on, the company, although formally Frink, Walker & Company, was known throughout the Midwest as Frink & Walker.

In 1849, Walker once again apparently became a silent partner in the company, which by now included a number of business partners. That year, the firm became known simply as John Frink & Company, the name it operated under until Frink’s death in 1858.

1830s Arrival of the Stage

Thanks to a commitment on the part of the Federal government, newspaper exchanges were carried free of charge from community to community during the 19th Century. The arrival of the mail stage in town instantly drew crowds to the post office to hear the latest state, regional, and national news carried in the mail.

Frink, as Quaife reported, appears to have had excellent political connections, and was able to procure the all-important mail contracts for the company. In June 1850, a St. Louis newspaper’s Washington, D.C. correspondent reported that Frink and Walker’s mail contracts in Illinois totaled $78,000 per year, a substantial sum for the time. In addition, the firm also had contracts to deliver mail in Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan that totaled another $50,000 per year. The company’s mail contracts often earned more than $150,000 annually.

As Quaife so aptly put it: “In a day when the spoils principle was accorded universal recognition in the realm of politics, it is evident that someone connected with the firm must have been possessed of no mean order of political talent to obtain, year after year, the extensive contracts of which the figures cited afford evidence.”

If Frink had the political and personal connections, Walker seemed to have the financial knowhow.

Martin Walker was born in Hubbardton, Rutland County, Vermont on June 9, 1809. As a youngster he worked in the dry goods business before moving to Albany, N.Y., where he worked in the stage line office of Baker & Walbridge. Upon Walbridge’s death, Walker bought his interest in the company before selling out to Baker in 1838 and moving to Chicago, where he almost at once joined Frink in the mail contracting business.

But in fact, their success may have come in spite of Frink’s partnership with Walker. Walker was reported to have had a personal dispute with Postmaster General Amos Kendall, after which Kendall supposedly ordered that Walker was to have no more mail contracts. That the firm did is either testament to Frink’s business acumen or Walker’s ability to keep his interests secret. Walker’s bad relations with the post office may also been one reason the firm’s name changed to John Frink & Company in 1849.

Martin Walker had varied interests in transportation companies in and around Chicago. In addition to stagecoach companies, Walker, according to the Proceedings of the City Council of Chicago, was, with Samuel B. Walker, his older brother, operating horse-drawn omnibuses in Chicago in 1855 and 1856. During that year, the bad condition of South Clark Street apparently damaged the pair’s omnibuses and injured some of the horses used to pull them, and they filed claims for damages with the city. The pair again applied for recompense the following year for more harm done to one of their horses due to “a defective plank on Clark St.” In 1867, the Proceedings reported Walker was a partner with Guy Cutting in the Chicago South Branch Dock Company, another transportation-related venture.

Samuel Walker arrived in Chicago two years after Martin, and proceeded to become involved in a variety of businesses, including the omnibus operation and livery stables. According to the 1850 Chicago Census, he lived relatively nearby Martin Walker’s household. In Gager’s 1857 Chicago city directory, both Martin and Samuel are listed as owning a livery stable at 54 Dearborn Street. Their brother Curran is listed as a bookkeeper who was living at 69 Randolph Street.

In the 1844 Chicago city directory, Martin Walker was listed as living at his home on State Street in Chicago. His only affiliation in that directory was with Frink, Walker, & Company.

To compliment his Chicago business enterprises and his stagecoach partnership with Frink, Martin Walker acquired several hundred acres of land in Seward Township of Kendall County. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that Frink and Walker, on the Seward Township property in Walker’s name, “had stables there for their horses, and a number of houses and farms.”

Raising and resting horses weren’t the only things happening on the Frink and Walker property. Hicks also reported that in 1844, a subscription school operated for a short time in one of the houses on the company’s land.

Besides the Kendall County land, Walker also held title to four lots in blocks 8, 9, and 10 of the original City of Chicago totaling more than $3,000 in value in 1843, and his brother, Samuel B. Walker owned another lot in Block 1 of the city that was worth $2,320 in 1843.

In addition to the land owned outright by Walker, the firm of Frink & Walker owned at least 20 acres in unincorporated Cook County plus other properties.

Frink, Walker & Company, operated from their stage depot at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Clark streets in Chicago. In 1846, the company had applied to move the Illinois Exchange Building, which stood on the site, after which they built their new depot on the site.

The company’s stagecoach storage sheds, where repairs were also done on coaches and where veterinarians treated horses, were located at the northwest corner of Wabash and Randolph streets.

The combination of Frink’s expertise and energy and Walker’s money was a potent one. According to one account, “This became one of the most powerful business concerns in the Northwest, and its operations eventually extended [west] to Des Moines, Iowa and [north to] Fort Snelling, Minnesota.”

Stagecoaching, of course, was not the only sort of transportation John Frink and Martin Walker dabbled in. But it got them their start. In the future, we’ll look at other transportation technologies that were used to tie our corner of northern Illinois to the rest of the nation.

 

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When express riders carried the U.S. Mail at a gallop

The Pony Express became the stuff of American legend, mostly thanks to William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his world-famous Wild West shows.

Businessman William Russell established the Pony Express in April 1860 as a publicity stunt he hoped would help him win a contract to carry the U.S. Mail by stagecoach from Independence, Mo. to California. In reality, Russell’s ploy lasted only 18 months, and never carried the U.S. Mail. Rather Russell’s venture was a private express service. As one of his riders later put it, the Pony Express was a stunt, “a put-up job from start to finish.”

Image result for pony express

The Pony Express is one of the most enduring legends of the Old West. Unfortunately, most of the legend is historical bunk.

Despite the Pony Express’s short, ineffective run, thanks to Buffalo Bill (who as William Cody was one of the young men who rode for the company) and his entertaining wild west shows, the Pony Express has gone down in American history as a noble effort to provide speedy transcontinental communications. In fact, since 1907, it has been the subject of 15 movies, two made for TV movies, and a 1959 television series.

Although most of us seem to believe Russell’s effort was the first of its kind, people living at the time knew it was not. In fact, the U.S. Post Office itself ran a much more effective and heavily used Express Mail service that connected much of the nation during the 1830s. And unlike Russell’s PR stunt, it actually carried the U.S. Mail.

Designed primarily to carry financial news linking important, but far-distant cities in the West such as New Orleans and St. Louis with Eastern markets, the Express Mail had a couple branches. One of those Express Mail branches passed through our state of Illinois on the National Road (now U.S. Route 40), connecting Dayton, Ohio with St. Louis, passing through Vandalia, Ill.

John McLean, postmaster general, 1823-1829

Express Mail differed from the regular mail in that it was carried by a single man on horseback who was required to make the best time possible. Unlike the contracts for carrying the regular mail by stagecoach and wagon, Express Mail carriers could lose their contracts if they were late or missed a delivery.

Actually, Express Mail service was sporadically established at many times during the nation’s early history. Private express riders carried messages during the colonial period, then after the Revolution, most expresses were part of the military communications network.

The need for fast, universally available long-distance communications service became apparent in the spring of 1825. When a fast sailing ship arrived from England, New York cotton merchants, learned that cotton prices on the London market had skyrocketed. They then bribed the contractor carrying mail between New York and New Orleans to delay the news of the price jump. Meanwhile, the merchants rushed their buy orders to New Orleans ahead of the news so they could buy all the cotton they could find at low prices. When they sold the cheap cotton at the high prices in London, they made hefty profits. The cotton merchants who weren’t let in on the deal were not happy.

Postmaster General John McLean, who served from 1823-1829, vowed such a thing would never happen again, and prohibited mail contractors from carrying private messages “outside the mail,” meaning any messages carried by regular mail contractors, but not carried in the official portmanteau. During that era, the U.S. Mail was strictly defined as matter that was carried in the official portmanteaus, large canvas sacks with special locks. Mail contractors were threatened with loss of their contracts if they informally carried any messages that weren’t the mail. And that was a big deal, since without a mail contract, a stagecoach company simply couldn’t be profitable. In fact, at one time if a mail contractor lost his contract, he was obliged to sell his coaches, horses, and other equipment to the successful bidder.

In an effort to get the most important economic news delivered as quickly as possible, McLean decided to establish an Express Mail to travel what was called the Great Mail Line from New York to New Orleans. McLean’s expresses, however, only traveled a few times a year. It would be up to one of his successors to create a true Express Mail service.

Image result for amos kendall

Amos Kendall, postmaster general, 1835-1840

In 1835, Amos Kendall took over the job of Postmaster General for President Andrew Jackson following a scandal that erupted when Postmaster General William Barry, who was not only incompetent, but also allowed politics to enter the mail carriage contract system. Barry’s corrupt incompetence drove the previously financially healthy postal service into bankruptcy.

Enter Kendall—our county’s namesake. Kendall was a former Tennessee newspaper publisher and crony of Jackson who turned out to have a genius for organization. In taking over from the corrupt Barry, he instituted a wide range of reforms, which, combined with a nationwide financial boom created huge postal revenue surpluses.

Kendall decided to spend his newfound surplus cash on a comprehensive Express Mail service carrying regular mail and newspaper “slips” along the New York to New Orleans route. Regular mail was carried in the Express Mail at three times the normal postage, while newspaper slips (described as “small parts of newspapers, cut out, or strips specially printed…to convey the latest news, foreign, and domestic”) were carried free of charge from town to town to spread the news. During that era, newspapers were considered vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, and thus the government had an interest in seeing the news of governmental happenings was spread as widely and as quickly as possible. Quite a difference from today.

President Jackson signed Kendall’s bill creating the Express Mail into law in July 1836, and the service began that same autumn. Within a few weeks, another express route was added from Philadelphia to Mobile, Ala. In 1837, two Missouri legislators prevailed on Kendall to establish a branch of the Philadelphia to Mobile express that branched off from Dayton, Ohio to St. Louis. The Illinois state capital at Vandalia was on that branch line of the Express Mail.

Starting on Oct. 1, 1837, express riders traveled from Dayton to Richmond, Ind. and on to Indianapolis. From Indianapolis, the route ran 72 miles to its terminus at Terre Haute, Ind. Two months later, on Dec. 10, 1837, the route was extended across the 99 miles of prairie from Terre Haute to Vandalia, and from there, 65 miles to St. Louis. Each stage of the trip was made daily by express riders.

The daily expresses made a considerable difference in the time it took for news to make its way west. In 1835, it took letters an average of 11 days and 15 hours to get from New York to Vandalia. Thanks to the Express Mail, that time was cut by almost two-thirds to just 4 days 15 hours.

But by late 1838, the days of the Express Mail were numbered. Thanks to the accelerating pace of railroad construction and major improvements to the nation’s road system, the regular mail had become nearly as fast as the express riders. As a Louisville, Ky. newspaper put it in 1838: “The rapidity with which the ordinary mail now travels from New York…makes it practically an express without the charge of triple postage.”

While overland travel was quickly improving the speed of the mails, the nation was also on the cusp of a telecommunications revolution that would, in less than a decade, supersede all existing communications technology. Samuel F.B. Morse invented his electric telegraph in the 1830s, and had largely perfected by 1845. In March of that year Morse and his partner Alfred Vail hired none other than former Postmaster General Amos Kendall (who’d left government service in 1840) to manage their business. Kendall, no fool he, agreed to work for a ten percent stake in the new company, which he incorporated as the Magnetic Telegraph Company. The expansion of telegraph service throughout the nation soon meant that spreading vital economic information was no longer limited to the speed of a horse, but could instead speed along copper wires. It revolutionized communications—which it continues to do to this day.

And Kendall had a hand in that success. After leaving the post office, he tried journalism and went broke (not uncommon even today) and was nearly a subject for debtor’s prison when Samuel F.B. Morse and his partner, Alfred Vail, decided to hire Kendall as their business manager to manage the business of promoting their new telegraph invention. It turned out to be a genius move as Kendall turned his organization skills to promoting the telegraph. And tt ended up making Kendall a multi-millionaire.

Kendall’s Express Mail, as a stopgap while the nation improved its transportation infrastructure and communications technology, was a success, keeping the nation tied together via the most sophisticated information technology the era offered. And it might be interesting to note that sending a one-page letter by Express Mail from New York to Vandalia here in Illinois in 1837 cost 75 cents—a time when land in Illinois was selling for $1.25 per acre. That certainly puts our seemingly endless modern postal rate increases into some historical perspective.

 

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Buying history is sometimes the only way it can be saved

A few years ago, I got an email from my friend Lyle Rolfe, who covers the Oswegoland Park District for our local community newspaper, the Ledger-Sentinel. He’d gotten a copy of the report I do every month for the board of the Oswegoland Heritage Association about the Little White School Museum here in town, and he noticed that we sometimes purchase items for our collections on eBay.

We don’t do a lot of that, but we probably average one item every couple months over a year’s time.

And thanks to those occasional eBay purchases, we’ve been able, for instance, to fill in the gaps of our collection of plaques manufactured by the Christian Art House here in Oswego from the 1930s to the early 1950s, and we’ve acquired a number of historically important postcards over the years, too.

One interesting postcard we purchased thanks to eBay ended up, like so many artifacts acquired for the museum, leading to us becoming more familiar with a couple interesting fragments of the Oswego area’s history.

1910 Horse tower trestle A b&w

The 1910 postcard showing the bell tower added to the old town hall in 1895 and the trolley trestle over the CB&Q tracks on Washington Street.

This particular postcard was mailed in 1910 from Oswego, and at first we thought the message on it was written in German. But it wasn’t necessarily the message on the postcard that caught our eye anyway. Instead, it was the view. The postcard’s photo was taken behind the retail businesses on the west side of Main Street, between Main Street and the (then) Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad tracks, looking south. As a result, it showed the trestle on Washington Street that carried the interurban trolley tracks up and over the CB&Q tracks, which was interesting. But even more interesting was the view of the old Oswego Town Hall on Washington Street. It was one of the best views we’d seen of the hose tower that had been added to the hall after Oswego’s first pressurized water system was built and a fire brigade established.

2008 Twp Hall

The old town hall on Washington Street fell to the wrecker’s ball last year.

The tower was added to the town hall (built in 1884 as the village hall) in 1895 to house the village’s fire bell, and also to hang and dry the fire brigade’s canvas hoses after they were used.

The venerable old frame building was torn down last year to make way for a new business.

The bell the tower once housed, and which once called the village’s firefighters to action, is today the subject of a nice memorial out at the Oswego Fire Protection District’s new Station One on Woolley Road.

So we really wanted that postcard, and we were able to buy it very cheaply.

2010 March 5 fire bell remove

In March 2010, the old fire bell was moved from downtown Oswego to the new fire station on Woolley Road.

When we received the card, I immediately scanned it, and emailed a copy of the scan to a friend I knew could read German. He, however, informed me the card was not written in German, but in Danish!

Danes? In Oswego? Why, yes, actually. Turns out there was a small contingent of Danes living here, one of whom was Johann Schmidt, who had sent the postcard from Oswego to Denmark in 1910.

So we had a couple tasks. First, find someone to translate the card’s message, and second figure out who the heck Johann Schmidt was.

For help translating the card, I went to hNet, an Illinois network of professional historians. While I’m not one, they graciously allow me to participate from time to time. With their help we found native Danish speaker Anni Holm at Waubonsee Community College, who volunteered to translate the postcard.

According to her, the card was sent by Schmidt to his nephew, Max Schmidt, in Marstal, Denmark, congratulating the younger Schmidt on his recent confirmation, and explaining about the elder Schmidt’s prize stallion. Here’s Anni’s translation:

“Dear brother son Max S.

Have received your card and thank you for the applications. Yes, I am well and have it good. Hope the same for you and will I here wish you congratulations and a blessed confirmation, it is sad that I could not attend [unreadable word] to your confirmation

Your uncle Hans J. S.”

1910 Horse tower trestle B

The message side of the 1910 postcard, which turned out to have been written in Danish.

On top of the card the upside down text says the following: “this stallion as you see of the picture has been mine and it is hyre [Danish for hired] man who walked with it”

And who was Johann Schmidt? Turns out he was a prominent Oswego saloonkeeper during the early 1900s. Going by the names Johann Schmidt, John Schmidt, Shorty Smith, and John Smith, he owned The Oswego Saloon, which, when it was under construction in 1897, Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent, predicted:

“It will by far be the most gorgeous establishment of the kind that Oswego ever had.”

Just to sow a little more local history confusion, Rank added in March 1898:

“J.A. Schmidt and Ira Ackley have been doing the decorating of the new saloon building, all of which is most magnificent. Every room is of different color and pattern. The wine room–well, gorgeous or splendid–fail to express the sight of it.”

The J.A. Schmidt doing the decorating was not the Johann Schmidt who eventually bought The Oswego Saloon. J.A. was a German, a native Berliner, who worked around the Oswego area doing painting and wallpapering.

Johann Schmidt the saloonkeeper was a Dane who bought The Oswego Saloon from Al Cole in November 1904, and continued to run it as Oswego’s premier drinking establishment until prohibition closed it down.

So successful was he, in fact, that Schmidt was the victim of a strong-arm robbery. According to the Oct. 16, 1907 Kendall County Record:

HIT WITH AN AX;

ROBBED OF $300

John Schmidt, Oswego Saloon-Keeper,

Knocked Unconscious Last Night.

John “Shorty” Schmidt, one of the Oswego saloonkeepers, was going home last night from his place of business about 11 o’clock when he was attacked from ambush, hit on the head with an ax, and relieved of a roll if bills amounting to $800.

Mr. Schmidt lives in one of the small cottages along the railroad track below the village hall and it is his custom to go around the end of the town house, taking a shortcut to his own rear door. At the end of the village building is a clump of bushes and as he was passing those bushes he was suddenly felled to the ground with a heavy blow on the head. He was unconscious for about 15 minutes, and while he was senseless the hold-up men took his money. He is confined to his home this morning with a deep gash on the back of his head, which came near being a fractured skull.

So we gained a lot of interesting Oswego history with a vanishing small investment in a single postcard we were able to find thanks to eBay. And that’s the way local history rolls. Bit by bit, you build up a store of information that you can, when a key part finally becomes available, synthesize and arrive at some valuable insights.

“How do you go about researching local history,” a friend asked me not long ago. He’s right to be perplexed. It’s not like you can go to some Internet source and find out all about early 20th Century Oswego saloonkeepers of Danish descent.

Rather, this is how we do it, one bit at a time, until a key piece drops into place and makes the story whole, or at least as whole as it can be until the next bit is discovered and, in turn, drops into place.

 

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Coal powered Illinois’ industrial history…

When I was a lad living on a farm, I remember well my father’s morning ritual during the cold weather months of stoking up the furnace with coal. I have heard it said by those who had to contend with those old coal-fired furnaces that the sweetest sound in the world is the noise a modern gas furnace makes when it kicks on early on cold winter mornings.

Today, coal is still an economic factor in Illinois (although a fast-diminishing one), although the uses to which it is now put have drifted far from home heating and firing kitchen cookstoves. Its modern uses would no doubt astound the explorers who discovered the mineral in the Illinois of the 1600s.

Marquette & Jolliet

Cartographer Louis Jolliet and missionary Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., were the first Europeans to discover coal in what would one day become the State of Illinois.

In 1673, Marquette and Jolliet were on their way up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan when they discovered an outcrop of what they called “Charbon de Terre” near the present city of Utica. Father Hennepin also saw the deposit in 1682, noting in his diary that he had “found in Several Places Some Pit-Coal.”

These two instances were, in point of fact, the first discoveries of bituminous coal on the North American continent. Nothing was done with the coal deposits of Illinois for many years, however.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, coal’s efficiency for home heating was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until 1810 that coal was first commercially mined in Illinois along the Big Muddy River in Jackson County. Several barges of coal were shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans that year.

As settlements moved further north in Illinois, coal continued to be found in some abundance. Coal was found near the salines (salt producing areas) in Gallatin and Vermillion Counties, and as early as 1822 coal was shipped down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers from Peoria to New Orleans.

19th Century coal mining

Coal mining has always been a dirty, dangerous business. But it helped power Illinois as one of the nation’s premier industrial states.

Like the first settlements, early coal mines bordered the state’s rivers because of the problems transporting the stuff to market. Beginning in 1823, the growing city of St. Louis used coal that was mined from the bluffs along the Illinois side of the Mississippi for heating and to fuel steam engines.

John Reynolds, an early governor of Illinois, helped promote one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies in order to increase the production of coal. The line’s cars were horse-drawn from the mines over six miles of wooden rails to Illinoistown—modern East St. Louis—where their cargo of coal was loaded on boats and shipped down the Mississippi.

And the first macadam road in the state, from Belleville to the Illinoistown ferry, was built to accommodate heavy coal wagon traffic.

By 1840, Illinois was producing 424,000 bushels of coal regularly—measurement in tons was several years in the future. The measurement in bushels indicates that at that time, coal was shipped in burlap bags, each of which had to be filled, and then moved on and off transports, from wagons to rail cars to riverboats for shipment.

Most of the early coal came from drift or slope mines exploiting easily-reached coal seams exposed along hillsides, river bluffs, or stream banks. Shaft mines were needed to reach the rich, thick veins of coal that lay deep under the prairie soil of central Illinois. As early as 1842, shaft mining was taking place at Belleville. Strip mining had to await a more advanced and rapacious generation.

marseillesilonimcanal.jpg

Tons of coal were hauled annually through Ottawa on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, cheaper than by rail. But the canal was closed due to winter freezes for several months a year.

By 1841, coal was hauled overland to Chicago from mines in the upper Illinois River Valley. Mines on the east bank of the river were easily accessible to boats traveling on the new I&M Canal when it opened in 1848, which provided means to deliver coal to the growing city cheaper than it could be shipped via the Great Lakes from Erie, Penn.

Even before it was known that coal was a more efficient source of fueling locomotives than was wood, the Illinois Central Railroad leased coal fields in the Du Quoin area in order to procure fuel for their trains when they crossed largely wood-free prairies in the central part of the state. Other railroads soon followed their lead, and shaft mines were sunk along the Rock Island’s right-of-way in Grundy, Bureau, and Rock Island Counties. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad located and developed coal deposits in Stark and Knox Counties, and the Great Western Railroad found, to its pleasant surprise, that its right-of-way crossed a large coal bed in Vermilion County.

Here in the Fox River Valley, coal was a vital resource for homes and businesses, and the CB&Q’s monopoly on transporting it, and therefore feeling free to gouge it’s customers, led to building the independent Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad linking the Vermilion coal fields in Streator with Geneva. From Ottawa north through Yorkville and Oswego on north, the tracks paralleled the course of the Fox River. But literally the minute the line was completed, the CB&Q managed to seize control of the new line and so was still able to dictate coal prices. The first railcar loads of coal on the new line arrived in Kendall County towns in January 1871, priced one-third higher than it had been promised when the line was being built.

As John R. Marshall, editor and publisher of the Kendall County Record complained in the paper’s Nov. 21, 1872 edition: The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”

Throughout the 19th Century, continual efforts were made to secure adequate coal supplies for Kendall County’s farms and villages, even to the point of looking for it inside the county. And occasional coal seams were located. In 1887, coal was discovered by well-drillers in Fox Township, in Lisbon Township and in Oswego Township. But all the discoveries were too deep underground and the seams too thin to warrant sinking mine shafts.

Cliggitt Grain Elevator, Oswego, Dec. 2, 1911. Photo by Dwight S. Young.

The coal sheds at Oswego were located across the tracks of the CB&Q Railroad’s Fox River Branch from the Oswego Grain Company’s elevator. Oswego businessman John W. Chapman received the line’s first shipment of coal in January 1871. (Dwight Young photo in the collections of the Little White School Museum)

Since railroads, mining, and manufacturing—particularly producing iron and steel—were all interrelated, abundant coal reserves fueled Illinois’ explosive growth in the mid-1800s. Coal also helped Illinois’ farmers to become independent of wood for heating, contributing to the growth of prairie farming.

At the start of the Civil War, iron and steel production was a growing, but still not an overly important industry. With the outbreak of war, however, domestic sources of these important metals were badly needed, and during the next 25 years, the United States grew to become the world’s leading steel and iron producer.

Because of Chicago’s strategic location between the iron mines of Lake Superior and the coal fields of central Illinois, the city soon became one of the nation’s leading centers of manufacturing and transportation. That also spread to the areas nearby, particularly Joliet, where starting in 1869 the Joliet Iron & Steel Works produced pig iron and in 1873 started out producing thousands of miles of railroad rails from its rolling mill. The Joliet Iron & Steel Company owned a dam on the DesPlaines River that powered four blast furnaces that could turn out 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. The iron mill closed in 1936, and the steel mill was finally completely shuttered in the early 1980s.

Coal mining underwent many changes over the years, too, with shaft mines being gradually replaced by huge open pit mines, such as those operated by the Peabody Coal Company in Grundy County, just south of the Kendall County line.

Image result for DeKalb County Illinois wind farm

Wind farms like this one in DeKalb County have popped all over northern Illinois’ rural countryside, part of the effort to replace fossil fuels to generate electricity.

Today, coal’s use as a fuel for electrical generating plants is rapidly dying out as more efficient and less environmentally damaging ways of producing power, such as wind and solar energy are displacing it. A new study released this past May found that replacing 74 percent of coal plants nationally with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, with wind power in particular at times cutting the cost almost in half. Overseas, Sweden is pledging to be coal-free by 2040 and in South America, Costa Rica plans to be carbon-neutral by 2021.

Coal isn’t just inefficient and expensive, it’s also dangerous to the environment. Burning coal spews a dismaying amount of aggressive pollutants into the atmosphere, many of which have been proven to worsen global climate change. Climate data captured in tree growth rings; ocean and lake sediments; ice cores; and other forms of data show that the effect on the world’s climate by burning coal began to show up almost as soon as coal began to power the Industrial Revolution—and that was on top of climate changes already put in place as early man began farming and otherwise changing the landscape to suit himself.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the average coal generating plant, because of the trace elements coal contains, leaks more radiation into the environment than does a nuclear power plant. So it’s a good thing coal’s on its way out as a way to produce electrical power and that renewable resources from solar and wind to hydro and thermal are quickly replacing it.

But for decades, coal not only powered the nation in general, but it also powered Illinois’ ascension as one of the nation’s industrial powerhouses. Today, the challenge is to try to deal with all of the environmental problems we created for ourselves during that era.

 

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Local history firsts are often fleeting, coming and going rapidly

One of the interesting, and not infrequently frustrating, things about studying local history is the speed at which significant individuals made their appearances and then disappeared from the historical record.

During the settlement era this was largely due to the kind of people—pioneer farmers—who settled in our neck of the woods. A footloose lot, they often remained in one place for only a short period of time. Down in the Yorkville area, for instance, Lyman Bristol settled, gave his name to a new village and eventually a township, and then headed farther west where he was killed in a wagon accident in California.

William and Rebecca Pearce Wilson settled at the busy modern intersection of Routes 34 and 25 in Oswego in 1833, becoming the village’s first residents.

Meanwhile in 1834, one of Rebecca’s brothers, Elijah Pearce, settled with his wife and children at today’s Montgomery with his son-in-law’s family where Pearce built and operated a stagecoach inn on the east bank of the Fox River.

On page 270 of the 1878 history of Kane County, The Past and Present of Kane County, Illinois, the author claims of Pearce that “for years he kept entertainment for man and beast” at his one-room log cabin inn on the banks of the Fox River.

But by “years” here, the author means two years. Because in 1836, the families of Elijah Pearce and William Wilson moved farther west in what would become Kendall County to a claim on Big Rock Creek near modern Plano, where the two men built a sawmill. And then, just a few years later, they sold the sawmill and moved their families out of Illinois altogether, settling in Jasper County, Missouri before moving even farther west to Kansas.

Levi F. Arnold, who with Lewis B. Judson mapped out the original village of Oswego in 1835 was also instrumental in Plainfield’s history—he was the first postmaster of both villages. He, too, appears and then quickly disappears from local history, but not by choice. Arnold died in 1844 in the same unrecorded epidemic that claimed his 2 year-old daughter, Josephine.

1902 abt Downtown look north

Main Street, Oswego, looking north about 1902. The building with the flagpole at right is the Star Roller Skating Rink. The Shoger-Park Building is at left center. (Little White School Museum collection)

This quick entrance and exit of folks who made important contributions to Oswego didn’t end with the settlement era, either, but continued right up through the 20th Century. A really good example of this phenomenon is A.P. Werve, who owned Oswego’s first automobile.

Anthony Peter Werve (pronounced WERE-vie) was born April 3, 1870 in Kenosha, Wis. He married Anna Margrete Christine Alsted on Oct. 4, 1893 in Kenosha, and the couple had two children.

A.P. was trained as a jeweler, but he also had a fascination for the new craze of automobiles and the internal combustion engines that powered them.

In 1899, Werve decided to move his family to Oswego where there was an open opportunity for a jeweler, since the community didn’t have one. On Sept. 6, 1899, the “Oswego” news column in the Kendall County Record reported that “A.P. Werve of Kenosha, Wisconsin, has opened a jeweler’s shop in the south room of the Shoger block.” The Shoger Block was a two storefront commercial block at the southeast corner of Main and Jackson streets. It was eventually torn down to built the Oswego Tavern—now the Oswego Inn.

1927 Zentmyer Garage

The Shoger-Parke Building has been used for many purposes including the first Zentmyer Ford Garage in 1927. (Little White School Museum collection)

According to his business’s advertising, he dealt in watches, jewelry and musical instruments. He also gradually branched out in business. In the fall of 1901, he opened a feed mill in a frame addition at the rear of the limestone Shoger-Parke building kitty-corner across the street—better known today as the location of the former Jacqueline Shop, today’s Bella-gia Boutique and The Prom Shoppe. Within a few months, Werve moved his family to the upstairs apartment of the stone, and then in November 1901, he moved his jewelry store across the street into the same building.

There was plenty of room in the stone building where Werve’s jewelry and musical instrument business was located, and in April 1902 he was granted a license by the Oswego Village Board to install two pool tables.

1904 abt first Oswego auto

A.P. Werve’s friction-drive auto, that he built in 1903. Taking a spin in the spring of 1904 are (L-R) Anna and Hattie Werve, Clarence Smith, Werve, and John Varner. (Little White School Museum collection)

But along with engaging in several kinds of businesses, Werve was also pursuing his automotive hobby. And in the spring of 1903 he unveiled the thing for which he became famous in Oswego history. As the Record’s “Oswego” news column reported on Oct. 28, 1903: “It should have been mentioned heretofore that Oswego has its first automobile. A.P Werve bought some of the parts, the rest he made himself and he has it now in successful running order.”

We should be ignorant of what Werve’s home-built auto looked like had not one of his tinkering buddies, Irvin Haines not snapped a photo of it while the Werve family took it out for a spin. Werve reportedly repurposed a used an inboard boat engine to drive the car, with power transmitted to the rear wheels via a friction pulley.

In Haines’ photo, Anthony Werve is at the wheel with his wife riding in back with their oldest daughter, Nettie. Also along for the ride were fellow auto enthusiasts Clarence Smith, riding in back with Mrs. Werve and Nettie, and John Varner in front with A.P. Both Smith and Varner were, at one time or another, employed as steam engineers to run Oswego’s water pumping operation. In addition, Varner was a skilled cyclist on the high-wheel bicycles of the era, while Smith enjoyed working on engines and, eventually, other Oswego autos.

1905 abt Clarence Smith

Clarence Smith tinkers with an auto engine about 1905. Note the chassis on sawhorses behind Smith. (Little White School Museum collection)

Although A.P. Werve was celebrated for a significant Oswego first, he didn’t hang around very long to enjoy his fame as a local hero. In January 1904, he continued expanding his business by installing Oswego’s second bowling alley, also in the Shoger-Parke Building. Bowling had come to Oswego just weeks earlier with an alley being installed in the old Star Roller Skating Rink Building to capitalize on the latest community sports craze. As the Record reported on Dec. 23, 1903, “Oswego has been struck with a streak of unusual enterprises. The bank will soon go into operation and about the same time another new institution, a bowling alley. At the one where we can get money and at the other where we can spend it.”

Werve’s bowling alley, installed by Lou Young, Lew Inman, Irvin Haines, and Art Roswell, opened at the end of January, but even then, he was apparently looking to change professions and get into something where he could practice his automotive hobby—and get paid for it.

On April 13, 1904, the Record’s “Oswego” column reported that “A.P. Werve, our jeweler, is getting ready to move to Benton Harbor, Mich., where he has accepted a good position with the Searchlight Manufacturing Company.”

Searchlight manufactured internal combustion engines for early autos, along with other mechanical products, and Werve apparently found a good fit there. Unfortunately, Searchlight apparently got caught up in the financial Panic of 1907 and its operations were thrown into confusion, although it continued operating at Benton Harbor for a few years afterwards. According to a 1907 Benton Harbor city directory, Werve had gone back to his core business of owning a jewelry store.

Then, the Werve family, like so many others, headed west in search of new opportunities, and by 1914 were living in southern California where he ran a garage.

Werve also maintained his fascination with automobiles. In 1914, the Werve family came back to the Midwest to visit friends and family in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, stopping for a few days in Oswego. The Record reported on July 29, 1914 that “Mr. and Mrs. A.P. Werve and children left Monday morning for Los Angeles, Cal., expecting to make the trip by auto taking from four to six weeks.” A hardy and adventuresome crew indeed during an era when there really were few, if any, marked interstate roads.

The couple remained in southern California for the rest of their lives. After a career as a jeweler, business owner, Oswego automobile pioneer, mechanic, and rancher, A.P. Werve died on Aug. 8, 1951 in Imperial County, California. He and his wife are buried in Riverview Cemetery in Brawley, California with nothing to mark his brief, though significant, claim to fame here in northern Illinois.

Want to do your part to preserve and protect the history of the Oswego, Illinois area at the Little White School Museum? Join the Oswegoland Heritage Association–dues are just $20 per person per year. Send your check made out to the Oswegoland Heritage Association to Box 23, Oswego, IL 60543.

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The huge impact of 19th Century roads on area towns is largely unappreciated

Downtown redevelopment frenzies seem to come and go with some regularity. From Montgomery to Yorkville to Plano and Sandwich, towns around this area keep looking for ways to revitalize their historic downtown business districts.

For instance,  back in 2005, Oswego wrapped up a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment project. Montgomery got into the act, too, with the end result being their wonderful new village hall, historic Settler’s Cottage, and extensive cleanup. Most recent was Yorkville’s (so far successful) attempt to preserve its downtown in the face of the widening Ill. Route 47 to five lanes right smack through the middle of their historic Bridge Street business district.

2001 Aug 23 N from Van Buren.jpg

Oswego’s downtown business district (looking north from Van Buren Street) under construction in August 2001. The project wasn’t completed for a few more years. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each of these communities faces its own challenges, even though each town’s business district is so much different than the others.

Talk to an economic historian about why communities develop the way they do, and you’ll likely get an eye-glazing lecture on, among other things, modern interpretations of S.H. Goodin’s central place theory and the definition of hinterlands. Those things certainly have had great effects on municipal development. But here in the Fox Valley area, the single most important aspect of why and how our communities evolved the way they have seems to have had more to do with transportation—in particular, transportation routes that existed in the middle two-thirds of the 19th Century—than other factors.

The results are interesting to contemplate. Plainfield, for instance, has a large downtown business district situated along what used to be U.S. Route 30, which ran through the middle of its business district until it was rerouted around downtown some years ago. Oswego’s business district is bordered on two sides by busy U.S. Route 34, the main, and often traffic-snarled, route through the village. Montgomery’s tiny downtown is flanked to the west by Ill. Route 31 and to the east by the Fox River. Yorkville, in a situation somewhat similar to Plainfield, has its respectable downtown business district bisected by busy Ill. Route 47.

Meanwhile, the tiny Kendall County community of Plattville has what once passed for a business district that meandered along Plattville Road, which runs through the middle of the village. Likewise, the hamlet of Little Rock in northwestern Kendall County also rambles along the road through town, in this case the old state stagecoach road to Galena. Plano’s downtown was designed to be bisected by the main line of the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad while Sandwich’s Main Street (not to be confused with the street the business district is on) is perpendicular to the main line tracks, which inconveniently arrived after the village was platted.

1900 abt Gray's Mill & bridge

Although Montgomery has a Main Street running parallel to the Fox River, it’s main business district became oriented to Mill Street and its bridge across the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

In each case, transportation routes arguably had the largest influence on how and where these business districts were located and eventually laid out, while each community’s location in the hinterland of a nearby larger community had an important impact on the size and makeup of each downtown.

Although Montgomery has a Main Street, the business district is located to its east and stretches along Mill, River, and Webster streets, similar to the meandering layouts of the hamlets of Little Rock and Plattville. Oswego’s main business district, a three block section of Main Street, is located parallel to the Fox River while Yorkville’s, which is about the same size, is sited perpendicular to the river. How did it all happen?

Montgomery’s founder, Daniel Gray, actually laid the village out with a Main Street that, like Oswego’s, ran parallel to the Fox River. But economic realities changed Gray’s vision so that businesses gradually grew up along the streets that led to the modern bridge (located north of Gray’s original 1830s bridge) across the river. Thus the gentle S route formed by Mill, River, and Webster streets became the de facto business district.

Meanwhile, Oswego’s founders laid out Main Street along the economically vital Chicago to Ottawa Road and immediately adjacent to the Joliet to Dixon road that crossed the river at Oswego on its way west across the prairie. Probably because the Ottawa Road was the more economically important connection in the 1830s and 1840s, the business district remained strong along Main Street. By the time the first bridge was built across the river in 1848, Main Street was established as the business district.

1893 Bridge Street, Yorkville

Yorkville’s Bridge Street, shown here looking north in 1893, became the town’s main thoroughfare, even though it ran perpendicular to the community’s two Main Streets. (Little White School Museum collection)

But in Yorkville, a different dynamic was at work. The Fox River Road, the stagecoach and mail route from Ottawa to Geneva, did not pass through Yorkville. Instead it ran through neighboring Bristol on the north bank of the Fox River. And the post road from Ottawa to Chicago (now Ill. Route 71) bypassed Yorkville to the south. Yorkville had been named the county seat by a state commission in 1841, but voters decided to move it to Oswego in 1845. As a result, Yorkville didn’t get a post office until 1864 when the county seat moved back from Oswego (Bristol’s post office had been established in 1839). Because the post office used by Yorkville residents was on the north side of the river in Bristol, along with connection to the busy Fox River Trail, and the location of the Chicago to Ottawa Road was well south of the river, Yorkville’s business district grew in a north-south orientation. The main route through the business district is called Bridge Street, denoting the importance of the river crossing to the city’s economy. And that’s despite two Main Streets in Yorkville, one on either side of the river. one in the old village of Bristol running parallel to the river on the north side and one in Yorkville proper, running perpendicular to the river on the south side.

Just as their orientation and layout is different, so too are the sizes of the three communities’ business districts, which grow in size the farther they are from Aurora.

Plainfield, on the other hand, is far enough from either Aurora or Joliet to have developed its own large independent business district, similar to Naperville’s. Plano and Sandwich, both fairly typical railroad towns, were mercantile centers in their own right early on with downtowns fueled by the passenger and economic traffic brought by rail lines. Compare them to Little Rock and Plattville, hamlets that owed their existence to the roads to Galena and Ottawa, respectively. The two villages declined precipitately when the rail lines extending west of Chicago missed both.

Today, 170 years after most of Kendall County’s town-founding took place, transportation is still shaping the towns we live in—for better or (more often) for worse. And as change occurs, it might be useful to recall that this isn’t the first time such major transformations and dislocations took place. Nor, I think it’s safe to say, will it be the last.

 

 

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Getting down to brass tacks on early carpeting

Watching television when I was a youngster was always a treat, especially when “The Cisco Kid” or one of the other westerns was on Sunday afternoons.

But often just as entertaining were the commercials. CET, a Chicago retailer, sold televisions featuring a very deep-voiced fellow singing to the beat of a tom-tom about CET and television, always ending with the phone number, “MOhawk four, four one hundred.”

Rug cleaning companies also advertised a lot back in those days before ScotchGuard and other stain resistant carpeting systems. Magikist was a prominent television advertiser, as was Boushelle. Boushelle also had a catchy jingle (not as catchy as CET’s Mohawk Indian tom-tom, but close) sung by another very deep-voiced fellow that ended with him singing the company’s phone number, “HUdson three two-seven-hundred.”

I checked on-line the other day, and Magikist went out of business in 2001, although some of its signature signs with huge Magikist lips, soldiered on (I remember a big one on the Kennedy Expressway) for a few more years before being dismantled.

Boushelle, however, is still very much a going concern—with the same phone number no less, although you have to dial a 773 area code first. (All you kids out there can listen to a 1970s era Boushelle commercial on YouTube.)

Back in the day, companies like Boushelle would come right to your home, roll up the area rug, and take it off to a large factory-type building, where it would be cleaned. Gradually, though, wall-to-wall carpeting came into favor as prices dropped far enough so that just about everyone could afford it. And with the disappearance of area rugs went some of the earliest area rug cleaning companies.

Rugs and carpeting—and keeping them clean—have been major preoccupations here in the Fox Valley almost from the time the pioneers arrived. Especially at this time of year, spring cleaning was a major thing, as was fall house cleaning after the summer season had ended.

Log Cabin

Some of the earliest log cabins built by the pioneers had packed earthen floors, later replaced by puncheon floors.

The earliest pioneer cabins, at least some of them anyway, didn’t even have floors, much less carpeting. Often, a pioneer family’s first cabin was built with a dirt floor inside. The soil was compacted into a hard surface that the wife swept daily. Sometimes pioneer women who missed their carpets and rugs back East drew designs on the packed earthen the floor and used crushed chalk to create colorful designs.

Not until the family got settled were logs split in half and planed smooth to create puncheons that were laid on the packed earth, flat sides up, to create wooden floors.

As soon as the first pioneer millwrights arrived, their sawmills began turning out sawn lumber for floors. And remarkably soon after that, Chicago became a giant lumber clearinghouse for pine, fur, and other timber cut up in Wisconsin and Michigan and shipped down the lake to the fast-growing city. Wooden floors—and frame houses—quickly became cheap enough for everyone.

Rug technology for the masses stayed pretty simple throughout the 19th century. Rag rugs were very popular with newly settled areas because they were relatively simple to make and were inexpensive because their main ingredient was recycled cloth. During the winter, women would sit (sometimes in groups to provide a social respite from the daily grind) and tear rags into 1″ wide strips, sew them together end-to-end, and roll the strips into large balls. When enough of the right colors were stockpiled, they were taken to the local rug weaver.

Rug looms were simple, but rugged affairs. They only needed to be two-harness looms, the most simple kind, which used mechanical means to separate the strings that formed the warp so that the shuttle carrying the end of a rag strip could be fed through. After each pass of the shuttle, the beater was pulled back smartly packing the cloth strip tightly against the previous strip. The tighter the weaver made the rug, the longer it lasted. But this created a dilemma for the rug maker. A rug not packed as tightly was easier and quicker to make; but customers might not return if the resulting rug didn’t hold up well.

rug loom in use

A rug weaver using a loom very similar to the one my great-great-grandfather built for my great-great-grandmother and which is still a family keepsake.

My great-great-grandmother made rugs on a homemade loom in her home here on North Adams Street to supplement her family’s income. The loom, which we have today in our son’s basement, is of 3” thick oak timbers and is of a very old design—old even in the 1870s when this one was likely built by my great- great-grandfather. We saw one exactly like it in the Pennsylvania Farm Museum. That loom was said to have been more than 200 years old. Looms of roughly the same design date back many hundreds of years.

Rag rugs were generally woven in varying lengths and were usually about 30 inches in width. The great advantage of rag rugs was their flexibility—they could be woven in virtually any length and in any color. In those days, they weren’t only used for hall runners or throw rugs, either. To create room-sized rugs, several 30-inch wide rag rugs of the correct length were sewn together to create a single carpet wide enough for a full room.

rag rugs

Traditional rag rugs are still pretty useful things; we’ve got several in our house. The trick is finding ones that have been woven tightly enough that they will last.

Padding for those early carpets was, on the farm at least, often a layer of straw under the rug. Fresh straw was laid down in the fall under the rug to help insulate against the cold and offer a bit of cushion. Then in the spring, the rug was taken apart into its component strips and hauled outside to be cleaned. Cleaning was generally accomplished by beating the straw dust and other dirt out of the rug using a wooden-handled rug beater.

Gradually other kinds of carpeting became available. Oriental rugs were always available for the rich, but the Industrial Revolution made other kinds of carpeting available, too. Dark red “ingrain” carpeting was the first non-rag rug carpeting to become popular. We found threads from such a kind of carpeting wound around tiny carpet tacks driven into the original floor of the Little White School Museum when we were restoring the building. The carpeting was apparently used on the building’s two aisles when it was the Oswego Methodist Episcopal Church from 1850 to 1912.

Nowadays, we’ve got synthetic yarn carpeting in all kinds of shades and colors with many styles to choose from. And on television, the ads of industrial carpet cleaning companyes have been replaced by those of carpet sellers and the makers of home carpet cleaning machines. But, while Empire Today’s commercials do tend to stick in one’s mind, no one has commercials quite as memorable as Boushelle; at least I can’t remember a modern phone number as easily as Boushelle’s HUdson 3-2700.

 

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