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The great catalpa railroad tie bust and fence post scam

It was just the kind of throw-away line that makes my historical spidey sense kick in. Reading over Oswego Township native Paul M. Shoger’s autobiography a while back, I came across a brief mention that two of his uncles carefully cultivated catalpa trees as ornamentals on their farmsteads: “This was the only practical use I ever saw of the catalpa trees which had been sold by a traveling salesman to many of the German farmers along Wolf’s Crossing Road.”

2017 Oswego catalpa tree

A Common Catalpa in its spring finery just down the street from the Matile Manse here in Oswego. The blooms are showy and fragrant, but the trees constantly drop twigs, branches, seed pods and other annoying parts of themselves.

When I was growing up, catalpa groves still dotted the Fox Valley’s countryside, something that fascinated me from an early age. They clearly were not natural—the trees were planted in straight rows. There was one just down the road from my grandparents’ farm, and another on my Uncle Henry’s farm and others scattered all through the area. Questioning my parents and other adults about who planted those groves and why were always met with shrugs.

And then came that mention in Paul Shoger’s reminiscence about life in the German farming community out on the Oswego Prairie. What was the deal with those catalpa trees, anyway?

It took a little digging, but I soon found out the famously untidy flowering trees were the study subjects of an intense effort to find a fast-growing alternative for slow-growing hardwood trees used for railroad ties and fence posts

Railroads, which were expanding explosively in the late 19th Century, used prodigious amounts of wood for the construction of rail cars, bridges, and, especially, for the ties or sleepers (it takes 3,520 of them per mile) that supported the steel rails. White oak was commonly used for ties back in the early days, but it was found it was extremely difficult to remove the spikes used to secure the rails to the ties. And removing spikes was a constant job as ties deteriorated in those days before treated lumber. American Chestnut was found to be the best for the job, but both chestnut and oak were slow-growing trees.

Enter Robert Douglas of Waukegan here in Illinois, who became a fervent apostle of the catalpa. Douglas claimed that catalpa trees were fast-growing and resisted rotting when in contact with the ground. He sponsored planting large experimental catalpa plantations in Kansas and Missouri as a proposed antidote to the expense of chestnut and oak ties. And railroad man E.E. Barney became the catalpa’s greatest propagandist when he published Facts and Information in Relation to the Catalpa Tree in 1878.

Serendipitously, it was right around this same time that a DeKalb farmer, Joseph Glidden, and Isaac Elwood, a DeKalb hardware dealer, patented their popular barbed wire fencing.

Virginia rail fence

A fine Virginia Rail fence. If made correctly, a Virginia Rail could even keep hogs in—or out depending on the purpose.

During pioneer times, fences were vital to keep crops and livestock safe and secure. So from the earliest colonial times as the frontier moved west, developing good, economical fences became a priority because good fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. During that era, most livestock was allowed to roam free, so crops had to be protected from hungry cattle, horses, and hogs with fences. And prized livestock had to be fenced in to prevent breeding with inferior bloodlines.

During the settlement era, fences were most often built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails. The technique of building rail fences was developed as the frontier moved west and perfected as the Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fence. The technique produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Which was just fine in the eastern part of the country—millions of trees in that region needed to be cut to clear farmland anyway. But as the pioneers moved ever farther westward they finally encountered the tallgrass prairies that began in western Indiana and central Illinois. And there they ran out of enough trees to provide fence rails as well as all the other things timber was needed for.

Barbed wire fence

Glidden and Elwood’s barbed wire fencing was patented just in time to replace the tried and true Virginia Rail fences so common east of the Mississippi River. But the wire required wooden fence posts, a LOT of wooden fence posts.

It took a lot of trees to build the cabins, outbuildings, and fences pioneers needed. James Sheldon Barber, who got to Oswego in 1843, wrote in a letter back to his parents in New York that it was generally agreed that Kendall County settlers needed about 10 acres of timber to provide sufficient firewood, building materials and fences for an 80-acre farm

Rail fences weren’t the only way to enclose fields and animals, of course. For instance, ditch fences were also sometimes built by cutting sod and piling the strips along the ground. Then a ditch was dug in front of the pile of sod about four feet wide and three and a half feet deep with the dirt thrown up on the stack of sod. The resulting rampart created a serviceable fence. But what with northern Illinois’ annual average of about three and a half feet of rain, ditch and sod fences tended to melt back into the prairie fairly soon.

Osage orange hedge

Osage Orange hedge fences have become seriously overgrown during the last half-century due to lack of annual maintenance. They steal thousands of acres of farmland from production throughout the Midwest, although they do provide windbreaks and badly needed wildlife habitat.

So when it was discovered the Osage Orange tree, when planted closely in hedges along field boundaries, made dense, tight, living fences, it didn’t take long for the idea to spread. Osage Orange isn’t just good for hedge fences, either. Settlers found the tough dense wood was perfect for wagon wheel hubs and other items that required wood that would bend but not break. And Osage Orange also proved to be excellent firewood. When burned, it produces more heat—32.9 million BTUs per cord—than any of 37 species on a University of Nebraska firewood list that included two kinds of hickory and three of oak.

Osage orange wood

Heavy, close-grained, and a distinctive orange in color, Osage Orange is ideal for making mallets, tool handles, wooden wagon wheel hubs, and other items requiring a tough wood. It’s also excellent firewood.

When planted close together for a hedge, Osage Orange grows 20 to 30 feet tall, and, since the trees propagate not only by seeds but also from shoots growing from their bases, they create a dense, impenetrable barrier.

But Osage Orange grows slowly. With hedge fences taking a while to grow and wood running short for rails, when Glidden and Elwood introduced their barbed wire fencing, it found a ready market, not only in the tallgrass prairie states east of the Mississippi River, but became even more popular on the treeless shortgrass plains west of the river.

Barbed wire, however, did require wooden fence posts, so farmers and experts at the new Midwestern land grant universities experimented on the best fence post wood. Oak and hickory, it was found, were surprisingly fragile as fence posts, tending to rot fairly quickly. No one was really surprised when it was found that tough, dense Osage Orange made long-lasting posts. Best of all, existing hedges didn’t even have to be cut down—dozens of fence posts could be harvested through the normal (though often neglected) annual hedge pruning process.

But there was still that slow growth problem with Osage Orange.

Enter catalpa evangelist Robert Douglas. Already vigorously promoting catalpas as great for railroad ties, he quickly added posts for barbed wire as an additional use for the trees.

The trees Douglas was touting were the Catalpa speciosa, with the common name Hardy Catalpa. Hardy Catalpas grew relatively (an important modifier ignored by too many customers) quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. It was not to be confused with its closely-related southern cousin, the Catalpa bignonioides, dubbed the Common Catalpa. Common Catalpas produce an extremely soft, light, brittle wood on short, broad, contorted trunks that is useless for fence posts­—and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to tell the two Catalpa breeds apart from their seeds and seedlings. Even more unfortunate was the tendency of Hardy Catalpas to instantly crossbreed when anywhere even moderately close to Southern Catalpas. A 1911 advisory from the Kansas State University Experimental Station strongly warned that in order to safely propagate Hardy Catalpa seeds, Common Catalpas should be allowed no closer than two miles to avoid cross-pollination.

Also unfortunately for farmers, unscrupulous Catalpa salesmen cared not a whit about whether what they were selling were Hardy or Common seedlings. As that Kansas State University advisory put it: “The Common Catalpa is not worth planting and will be a source of endless grief….In case he buys his seedlings, [the farmer] should buy only from reliable nurserymen who make a specialty of Catalpas.”

Removing spikes

Wood used for railroad ties has to firmly grip spikes when they’re driven in but then allow the spikes to be removed when it’s time to replace deteriorated ties. Catalpa ties proved too fragile to be of much use. Nowadays, most ties are of pine treated with creosote or other anti-rot chemical.

Thousands of farmers, including scores in the Fox Valley region, decided not to buy their seedlings from the “reliable” nurserymen strongly recommended by the folks in Kansas, but instead created Catalpa plantations out of the nearly identical Common Catalpas sold by those fast-talking salesmen. The beauty of the con, from the con men’s angle, was that the marks didn’t discover they’d been cheated for years after the salesmen got away with their money.

And even when Hardy Catalpas were produced, they weren’t the wonder trees Douglas hoped they’d be, for either fence posts or railroad ties. In an experiment whose results were published in 1886, a number of different tree varieties were tried for railroad ties. Catalpa ties, it turned out, tended to quickly deteriorate with use, the light wood compressing and then delaminating at their growth rings. Further, it turned out Hardy Catalpas grew fast at first, but when about 3” in diameter, growth quickly slowed, considerably lengthening the time when mature trees could be harvested.

Little did I know that those numerous stands of blossoming catalpa trees that dotted the countryside of my youth were constant reminders that you almost always get what you pay for. And in the case of catalpa trees, what folks got who tried to save a few bucks on a fast-growing source of firewood, fence posts and railroad ties were groves of trees useless for fence posts, railroad ties, or firewood.

Today, a few local reminders of the dangers of those silver-tongued door-to-door salesmen of long ago still remain. Although the number is steadily declining as development gradually snaps them up, the ones remaining are monuments to a time when some things, at least, were regrettably not so much different from the way they are today.

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation

Bicycling all the way to women’s rights

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

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

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

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

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

Wheelman and his wheel

A wheelman and his wheel, about 1890.

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

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

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

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

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

1890 abt Cutter & Sierp

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

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

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

Safety bicycle

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

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

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

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

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

Wheelmen race

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

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

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

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

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

1896 abt Haines, Irvin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1918 Henry and Gertie Heffelfinger

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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No need to drive: When we took the trolley to our neighborhood amusement park

As the calendar moves steadily towards summer, area residents are looking forward to a season when entertainment opportunities seem to be never-ending. From community celebrations like Oswego’s PrairieFest to Yorkville and Plano’s Hometown Days, to Montgomery’s MontgomeryFest to community swimming pools to family reunions and picnics, there’s always plenty to enjoy here at home.

Of course lots of local folks also enjoy traveling to some of the Midwest’s theme parks to enjoy roller coasters and all the other amusement rides that only show up locally when carnivals briefly visit.

Fox River Park siteAt the turn of the 20th Century, though, Kendall County residents didn’t have to drive for hours or wait for the next carnival to arrive to enjoy amusement rides. Rather, all they had to do was come up with the five cent fare for the interurban trolley ride to extreme northeast Oswego Township, just south of Montgomery, where Riverview Park stood along the west bank of the Fox River. Today, the park grounds are an expanse of grass and mature trees, the former location of a massive manufacturing plant operated by AT&T Technologies. The plant was demolished in 1997, returning the land back to the grassy oak and hickory savanna it was more than a century ago.

The amusement park and the interurban trolley line from Aurora to Yorkville were built at the same time. Indeed, both trolley and park depended upon each other for financial survival.

In April 1897, Ill. State Sen. Henry Evans of Aurora incorporated the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway Company with the goal of connecting Morris on the Illinois River with Aurora, the terminus of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroads suburban service, and an important stop on the CB&Q’s main line.

Interurban trolleys powered by overhead electrical wires were the nation’s first mass transit system that served large metropolitan areas as well as rural areas. Starting in the last two decades of the 19th century, a web of interurban lines was built crisscrossing the nation, connecting villages and cities across the country, and along the way providing convenient passenger links to thousands of farm families. At one time, it was possible to ride, using transfers, from the Mississippi River to the East Coast wholly on interurban cars.

While Sen. Evans’ proposed line was to be just one strand in this interurban web, it was nonetheless an important one for the Fox Valley and Kendall County. In the days before paved roads, it was often impossible for residents to travel other than by rail during certain seasons of the year. That was especially true of rural residents.

The new trolley line aimed to help with that problem. The right-of-way for the line left Aurora on the west side of the river, and proceeded south to the end of River Street in Montgomery. From there the tracks passed under the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch line tracks just south of Montgomery, and then followed the river south paralleling today’s Ill. Route 31. At the intersection of today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego, the tracks turned east and crossed the Fox River on the Oswego bridge. At the top of today’s Washington Street hill, the tracks turned south again, running down the middle of Oswego’s Main Street to modern Ill. Route 71, which they followed to Van Emmon Road. The trolley line then curved toward Yorkville, paralleling Van Emmon Road the line’s southern terminus at Van Emmon and Bridge Street—today’s Ill. Route 47.

1911 FR Park mapSome portions of the old track bed are still visible along Route 31 if you know where to look, and are quite obvious along Van Emmon Road.

Actual construction on the trolley line began during the summer of 1899, with construction of the affiliated amusement park beginning at the same time.

Many of the nation’s interurban lines used the lure of amusement parks located along their rights-of-way to persuade people to ride the trolley on low-ridership weekends and holidays. Since electrical service was necessary for the trolley cars, it was also available to power amusement rides and bright electric lights at the parks. Along with Kendall County’s Riverview Park, other interurban-connected parks in the area included, in 1904, Electric Park along the DuPage River in Plainfield and, later, Exposition Park on Aurora’s north side.

1905 FR Park birdseye color crop

Hand-colored postcard view of the Riverview Park trolley station, taken from the top of the auditorium about 1904. (Little White School Museum collection)

By November of 1899, the trolley tracks had been extended from Aurora to the park site, and on Tuesday, Nov. 7, the first special trolley cars began operating. According to press reports, Montgomery was decorated with flags to greet the 500 people who showed up for the dedication ceremonies. The park, which Evans’ company named Riverview for its location on the banks of the Fox, cost $104,403.03 to build, plus $1,200 for auditorium seats.

In October 1900 the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported the first Aurora, Yorkville & Morris trolley car had reached Oswego, and by December the line was completed to Yorkville. The completion of the line to Kendall County’s seat of government not only opened up a variety of economic opportunities for everyone living along the line, but it also provided entertainment opportunities for thousands of rural families.

1905 FR Park map blue river

Fox River Park map, 1905

Although it closed each winter, Riverview Park was open for spring, summer, and fall activities each year. In 1900, more than 2,000 persons rode the trolley on the park’s opening day. And it didn’t diminish much in popularity as the summer wore on. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on July 18 that “Riverview Park has become very popular with our people. Small parties of both the old and the young frequently spend the afternoon there on fine days.”

By the early summer of 1900 the Aurora & Geneva Railway interurban line had been finished, completing the missing trolley link between Aurora and Elgin, drawing even more visitors south to Riverview Park from upriver towns.

The Record reported that during a game in August, 1906, “A disgraceful slugging match took place Sunday afternoon at Riverview Park, during the playing of the Elgin-Aurora baseball game when, it is alleged, the umpire was unmercifully beaten over the head with clubs and umbrellas.”

1912 FR Park with coaster

From the time it opened, the roller coaster was one of Fox River Park’s most popular attractions. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aurora’s pro baseball team played at the park for a couple years, reportedly with the legendary Casey Stengel on the squad.

Other more sedate entertainment on the park side included visiting the Penny Arcade and the park photographer, or picnicking on the wooded grounds.

On a good weekend during the height of the summer season, as many as 5,000 people a day visited Riverview Park.

Within a few years, the name of the park was changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with the new, and much larger, Riverview Park that had been built in 1904 on a 74-acre site at Belmont and Western in Chicago.

1911 FR Riverview Park boats

A bridge connected the small island just offshore in the Fox River with the rest of the park, providing a place for visitors to enjoy boating. (Little White School Museum collection)

Area residents made frequent use of the park, not only to take advantage of the permanent attractions, but also to attend the annual Chautaquas held there every summer that drew some of the era’s best-known speakers. In 1903, speakers included Wisconsin Gov. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, U.S. Rep. Champ Clark of Missouri, and labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Subsequent years’ Chautaquas featured such well-known personalities as African-American author and educator Booker T. Washington and fire and brimstone evangelist (and former baseball player) Billy Sunday.

1911 FR Park shoot the chutes close

Adventurous visitors could ride the shoot the chutes down a steep incline into the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Residents could rent space in tents on the park grounds and stay for however long that year’s event ran. Most Fox River Park Chautaquas had a ten-day or two-week run.

The concept became so popular that the area’s black residents decided to hold their own event, apparently a novel thing in those de facto segregated days. The July 5, 1911 Record announced that: “You are cordially invited to attend the first Chautauqua ever held by colored people in the north at Fox River Park Tuesday and Wednesday, July 11 and 12, 1911. Entertainment will include a grand concert of 200 voices of the A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] churches of Chicago and baseball, Leland Giants of Chicago vs. Deppens of Atlanta, Ga., two of the greatest colored teams in America.”

1911 FR Park boating.jpg

This hand-colored 1903 postcard showing visitors boating at Riverview Park almost looks like it was a French impressionist painting. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1920s, however, the park’s facilities were getting rundown. The area’s new roads and the increasing use of automobiles meant that those visiting along the banks of the Fox were not only local folks riding to the park on trolley cars. As the Record reported on Sept. 15, 1920: “Sheriff Hextell arrested three men from Chicago Sunday for operating a chuck-a-luck game at Fox River Park. They had driven out from the city and were in the midst of their gambling when the sheriff nabbed them. They were fined $25 and costs each before Magistrate Skinner Monday and the sheriff has some of their diamonds as security for the fines, to be paid the last of the week. Through the efforts of Sheriff Hextell, the park has been remarkable free from gambling. This is only one of many instances when Hextell has brought in gamblers from the park.”

In fact, Henry Ford’s idea to use an assembly line to produce inexpensive automobiles (he invented neither the assembly line nor the automobile but perfected both) affordable by working families eventually killed the interurban trolley industry, along with their associated amusement parks as collateral damage. Autos for the first time gave common people the freedom to travel previously enjoyed only by the rich, and distant attractions proved more popular than small homegrown amusement parks.

As the quality of the park declined, so, apparently did its clientele. On July 6, 1921, a Record editorial complained: “It is time the people of Kendall county woke up to the realization of the moral character of Fox River Park. The sheriff has done his best with what he has to work with to keep order in the place. It is time for Kendall county officials to get some action and protect the morals of the county as well as the reputation of their legal representative, Sheriff Hextell.”

In the end, it turned out Ford’s Model T’s were more potent as moral guardians than the county sheriff, and due to the economics of the situation, both the interurban trolley line and Fox River Park were abandoned in 1925.

Today, the stately hardwood trees shading the old vacant AT&T plant grounds are all that remain of the park enjoyed by so many during those summers more than a century ago.

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The Bridge on the River Fox at Oswego: A concrete reminder of pioneer days

After the last glaciers retreated from northern Illinois, releasing their melt waters’ titanic forces that created the state’s Fox River Valley, the area that would one day become the Village of Oswego was rewarded with a landscape that included the narrowest stretch along the entire stream’s course as well as a smooth limestone shelf that created a great place to ford the river.

The Oswego ford was located somewhere between today’s North Street and the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Old township maps show the original road on the west side of the river where the Galena Road emerged from the ford. It was an excellent ford, with its smooth rock bottom making for easy passage by horses, freight wagons, and stagecoaches. Since traffic had to slow down, and even stop, before crossing the river, the area on the bluff above the ford became a good spot for an inn. It all helped the new village founded there in 1835 grow.

Although it was a really excellent fording place, as area population increased a bridge was clearly needed. Some temporary structures may have been built earlier, but in 1851, Oswegoans got serious about providing a permanent bridge. The county seat had been moved to the village in 1845, and county residents desiring to use the court system or conduct other county business probably demanded a bridge be provided. Community pride was also probably involved.

1851 Double Arch Chord bridge plan

Plan of a typical timber double arch chord bridge with braces of the kind built at Oswego in 1851

As indicated above, there’s some question about when the first bridge was built across the river at Oswego. The Rev. E.W. Hicks, in his 1877 history of Kendall County, reported that that first bridge at Oswego was built in 1848. However, the July 13, 1851 issue of the Aurora Daily Beacon suggests the Fox wasn’t bridged at Oswego until that year. A short note in that edition of the paper reported: “We are happy to learn that our enterprising neighbors down the river are really engaged in constructing a bridge opposite their town. It is to be 300 feet long upon the approved plan of double arch chords and braces, with spans about 72 feet. J.W. Chapman has contracted to build it for $2,250 to be completed this fall.”

1846 Chapman land patent.jpg

John W. Chapman’s 1846 patent for land he purchased in Oswego Township. The original parchment patent is in the collections of the Little White School Museum in Oswego.

Chapman was an established local builder who had also been the general contractor for the new Kendall County Courthouse in Oswego in 1848. He arrived in Oswego in 1835, the same year the new village was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold, stayed a few months, and then moved on to Dickson. Chapman returned to Oswego in 1842 where he remained until his death in 1883.

The new bridge proved popular. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, the anonymous correspondent who signed himself “Plow Boy” boasted that in Oswego “We have one of the most substantial bridges, which spans the Fox River.”

Nevertheless, Oswego’s “substantial” bridge faced some tough times, and was even washed out by spring floods. The relatively new Oswego bridge, along with every other bridge across the river from Batavia south to Ottawa was washed away during the destructive Freshet of 1857. But the bridge was rebuilt as needed until 1867, when the wooden 1851 structure had become badly deteriorated.

In late July, the Oswego Township Board of Trustees condemned the bridge. At the trustees’ Aug. 7, 1867 meeting, they voted to replace the old timber bridge with a modern iron bridge. An amendment proposed by Chapman, then serving on the township board, to allow township voters to decide whether to build a timber or an iron bridge was defeated in favor of specifying an iron bridge.

At the trustees’ Sept. 3 meeting, they decided to spread the estimated $13,000 cost of the new bridge over three years.

1890 abt Tied Arch Bridge

The elegant bowstring arch truss King’s Patent iron bridge built across the Fox River in 1867 sat on native limestone piers built by Oswego contractor John W. Chapman. (Little White School Museum collection)

Work on the new bridge began in October 1867 and continued through the fall. As Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 14: “The piers of the new bridge are now being put up, by J.W. Chapman, Esq., who is sub-contractor for this part of the work, and we will soon have a splendid Iron Bridge (King’s Patent) which will excel any on the Fox River.”

The new structure, built by the King Iron Bridge & Manufacturing Company of Cleveland, Ohio, was a tied arch (also called a bowstring arch) truss iron bridge. The design was patented by the company’s owner, Zenas King in 1861 and improved through a second patent issued in 1866. Bowstring arch truss bridges were some of the earliest iron bridge designs that became popular as transportation needs moved away from the more maintenance-intensive and less robust timber bridges. Because they required less maintenance, iron bridges proved less expensive during their service lives. Although the bridge superstructure was entirely of iron, the bridge deck was of six-inch oak planks.

Even the new iron bridge had its limits, however, and during yet another destructive spring flood in 1868 it was damaged—but notably not destroyed—by the rampaging river.

Chapman’s new piers were built with sharpened iron-clad “icebreakers” on their upstream sides. According to a note in the March 15, 1893 Record, the icebreakers were torn off the piers when the ice went out that spring.

Tied arch bridges had their limits, especially weight limits. In addition, the 1867 structure had been weakened by a variety of other factors, including using dynamite to break up ice jams at the bridge in March 1893, the concussions reportedly weakening the piers’ mortar joints.

In 1897, the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad (later the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric Railroad) proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south along the west side of the Fox River to Oswego, right next to the West River Road (today’s Ill. Route 31) where the line would turn east, cross the river on the existing bowstring arch bridge, and then turn south to downtown Yorkville. The AY&M proposed to strengthen, at its own expense, the old bridge with steel beams and promised they’d widen it so that a team and wagon could pass by a trolley car on the bridge. However, despite the best efforts of John D. Russell, Oswego Township’s county board representative, when the Kendall County Board approved the franchise agreement with the trolley company, it only stipulated the firm would be liable for $3,500 if the bridge needed to be replaced due to the demands placed on it due to trolley traffic.

At first, the trolley company proposed crossing the river about a mile above Oswego on their own bridge, but they apparently quickly realized how expensive that would be. In late May 1900, representatives of the company, Oswego Township, and the township’s bridge consultant decided that if the trolley was to cross at Oswego, a new bridge would be needed to carry the additional weight of the rails and the trolley cars.

The decision to stick taxpayers with most of the bill for a new bridge caused some local grumbling. “Who would have thought that our bridge wasn’t all O.K. if no electric road was being built?” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wondered.

By late June 1900, the trolley tracks had reached the west end of the Oswego bridge and limited passenger service from that point north was ready to begin.

1912 abt look east

The Joliet Bridge and Iron Company’s iron box truss replaced Oswego bowstring arch bridge in 1900. The bridge deck was shared between interurban trolley cars and road traffic. (Little White School Museum collection)

The new bridge was an iron box truss bridge manufactured by the Joliet Bridge and Iron Company. While the bridge superstructure and deck would be new, plans called for reusing the original 1867 piers. Work on the new bridge began in mid July, when Chapman’s 1867 piers were repaired in preparation for the new bridge superstructure. The first iron for the new structure was delivered in early August.

The new bridge was up and in place by early November 1900, allowing trolley cars to cross the river and stop in downtown Oswego. The trolley tracks occupied the north side of the bridge, while a one-lane road surface occupied the downstream side.

That bridge lasted almost 40 years before being replaced with a continuous steel beam bridge with concrete deck and concrete decorative railings.

On Oct. 2, 1935, the Kendall County Record reported a new bridge would be built at Oswego to replace the old 1900 structure, and would be designed to carry the heavier truck and auto traffic state officials predicted would be generated when Oswego and Naperville were finally connected by a paved road.

1937 Oswego bridge const

Work on the new continuous beam steel and concrete bridge at Oswego began in the summer of 1937. Chapman’s 1867 piers were retained but strengthened and widened to carry the new bridge deck. The newer, lighter colored limestone pier additions are visible in the above photo. (Little White School Museum collection)

“A new bridge and paving, which will connect Routes 25 and 65 [modern U.S. Route 34 between Oswego and Naperville] with Route 34 at Oswego, has been approved by the state, according to C.H. Apple, district state highway engineer,” the Record reported. “The bridge and connecting highways will be constructed at an approximate cost of $200,000. [Oswego Township] Supervisor Scott Cutter tells us that surveying of the new project will begin today, Wednesday.

“The bridge will be built on the site of the old iron bridge, which has been condemned for the past three years, and will be built of steel and concrete, 300 feet long and with a 40-foot roadway. The new paving will extend from the east end of the bridge east in Washington to Madison street, north in Madison to the intersection with 65 and 25, the East River Road, and then east in the old Chicago road to the Jim Pierce farm, where it will connect with the already paved road on the outskirts of Oswego.”

As in years past, the old 1867 piers were retained, although they were lengthened and significantly strengthened, with new concrete icebreakers installed at the base of each pier.

The Record reported on July 14, 1937 that “The steel bridge, which has carried traffic across the Fox river at Oswego for so many years, is being torn down and a new and more modern structure will replace it. The west span has been removed and we expect that the other two will follow as soon as possible. How many of you gals and guys remember when the old AE&C cars ran between Aurora and Yorkville, climbed a trestle at Oswego and went across the Fox on the old bridge and then bounded along on their way? It was always our secret fear that some day the trestle would be too weak to hold the car and would break, and we always felt better when we were past that mental hazard. After automobiles and trucks became more popular and the street cars were discontinued the bridge was subjected to heavy traffic, and was too narrow to be comfortable or very safe. The new one will be built to take care of the heavy loads which it must carry. No temporary bridge is being built at Oswego according to [Township] Supervisor Cutter, who says that the expense of such a structure would be prohibitive.”

1938 Oswego Bridge

Oswego’s new bridge opened in December 1937. This photo was taken the next summer after the steel bridge beams had been painted. (Little White School Museum collection)

Instead of a temporary bridge, motorists who needed to cross the river at Oswego made the last known regular use of the old stagecoach and wagon ford that played such a major role in the village’s early history.

Then on Dec. 1, 1937, the Record reported: “The new Oswego bridge will be opened to traffic this week. Foot passengers were using it last week.”

Wrote the Record’s editor on Jan. 12, 1938: “We traveled over the new Oswego bridge several weeks ago and up through the town on the new highway. The bridge is a ‘dandy’ one and the highway certainly smoothed out the bumps that were on the stretch by the railroad. Oswego business men are glad to have traffic again able to get into town and those who seek the short cut from 34 to Naperville are happy too. It is a big improvement.”

2008 Oswego bridge & bridge park

Oswego’s new four-lane bridge (right) now shares the river crossing with Hudson Crossing Bridge Park (left). (Photo by John Etheredge. Little White School Museum collection)

The 1937 bridge served motorists well during the next 53 years, although normal wear and tear took their toll. Then in 1993, the Illinois Department of Transportation proposed to replace the bridge as part of their plan to widen Route 34 through Oswego to four lanes. Original plans called for a completely new four-lane prestressed concrete I-beam bridge to be built immediately downstream from the 1937 bridge. According to the original plans, the old bridge would be open to traffic during construction, after which the old bridge would be demolished.

2003 Hudson Crossing Bridge Park

Hudson Crossing Bridge Park offers a place to sit and enjoy the Fox River, to walk, and to ride bicycles while preserving an important part of Oswego’s history.

But some Oswego residents had another idea. Naturalist, author, and former public official Dick Young, and his nephew, Glenn Young, then an IDOT bridge inspector, wondered why the old bridge couldn’t be left in place after the new one opened, with the old one to be turned into a bridge-park. They approached the Oswegoland Park District’s executive director, Bert Gray, with the plan. As Glenn Young told Gray as he successfully persuaded him the plan was eminently doable, the old bridge would “stand forever if we get the trucks off it” and that “it will cost the state a lot more to demolish it than to fix it up for pedestrians.”

The bridge-park concept was growing in popularity as communities tried to find innovative ways to increase recreational opportunities while, at the same time, preserving their architectural and engineering heritage. In Oswego, a bridge-park would provide a handy connection for pedestrians and bicyclists to the west bank of the river, where, even then, plans were percolating to build a new village hall. It would also offer a link to proposed cycling and walking trails that were being planned to link new subdivisions west of the river. And, as Young pointed out, it would not only save IDOT the expense of tearing it down and the cleanup of the environmentally sensitive site, but, if properly renovated, would stand virtually forever as long as there was no motor vehicle traffic on it.

Gray then took the proposal back to IDOT, which, with some prodding by local politicians, eventually agreed, although with the caveat that the bridge-park could not be owned by the park district. According to state law, the bridge could only be transferred to an agency that had roadway and highway responsibilities. So Gray then negotiated with the Village of Oswego and with the approval of village president Jim Detzler—because the village does have roadway responsibilities—the trade with the state was made.

Meanwhile, the engineering challenges of having two bridges and their piers so close together were all worked out and the new bridge was completed, opening in November 1993,

Then, instead of being demolished, the old bridge and its 121 year-old native limestone piers were saved as well. After it was reconditioned and renovated by IDOT as part of the construction project, the 1937 bridge was turned over to the village, which then made the Oswegoland Park District responsible for operating the park. It was renamed the Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, and officially opened in September 1994, with a dedication ceremony presided over by Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar.

The Hudson Crossing Bridge Park, named after what the village was called by its founders before it was changed to Oswego in 1837, is now a centerpiece of the adjoining Hudson Crossing Park. And for those who know a bit about its rich history, it’s also a direct connection to the community’s pioneer past, a place where visitors can still enjoy seeing the piers that were originally built by a man who was present at Oswego’s founding in 1835.

 

 

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Prizefights, Vice Presidents, and trolleys: When rails connected us to everywhere else…

Every couple of months stories pop up in the local media about the possibility of extending commuter rail service west of Aurora to Montgomery or even as far as Oswego here in Kendall County.

Given how large our area has grown, and how crowded the roads have gotten around these parts, offering direct commuter service from here to towns east along the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe’s main line all the way to downtown Chicago seems reasonable.

But extending the tracks out here would be expensive, as would adding a station and all the infrastructure it would require, not to mention additional rolling stock and other things no one’s even thought of yet.

Time was, of course, we had passenger service here, first by rail and then by trolley and rail, and then, finally, by bus and rail before affordable, dependable autos and tax-supported roads for them to drive on killed passenger rail service off.

Kendall County, at least the northern part of it, got connected to the rest of the United States when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad pushed its tracks west of the Fox River in the early 1850s. After attempting to persuade Oswego officials to allow the crossing at their village—the narrowest part of the Fox River along its entire course—the river crossing was made at Aurora, which also became the site of the railroad’s sprawling shops.

After crossing the river, the line did not run through any established county towns. Instead, it bypassed both Oswego and Yorkville. Residents who wanted to board the regular passenger trains had to travel a couple miles north and west of the two towns to do it. Plano, of course, was served because it was built as a railroad town in the first place, landowner Lewis Steward promising to build a town if the right-of-way would pass through his land.

1949 Fox River Branch steam loco

A steam locomotive pulls a train on the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch in 1949.

To serve both Oswego and Yorkville, stations were built on the main line. At Oswego Station, some lumber yards and a few other businesses grew up, while at Bristol Station (the north side of Yorkville was then the independent Village of Bristol) an actual small town grew up. Horse-drawn coach service connected the two towns with their stations.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Millbrook got their own direct rail link following completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road that ran from Streator and its regional coal fields up the Fox River through Ottawa to Yorkville and on to Aurora.

Nicknamed the Fox River Branch after it was acquired by the CB&Q, the line offered freight and passenger service to the towns dotted along the southern reaches of the Fox River. Two freight trains each direction ran on the line. Regular passenger service included one round trip each morning and afternoon, allowing residents to easily travel to the wider world. And it allowed the wider world to travel here, too.

1890 abt Depot

Passengers wait for the next train at the Oswego Depot about the same year Bull Howson and Tom Ryan and their fans and promoters arrived for an illegal prizefight in 1891. Station agent Henry G. Smith is standing in shirtsleeves fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

For instance, Vice President Schuler Colfax, who served with President U.S. Grant, had friends in Oswego, and he occasionally visited. As the Sept. 19, 1872 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “Vice President Schuler Colfax arrived here last week Tuesday on the 1 o’clock train for a visit and immediately repaired to the house of Mr. Sutherland. Hardly anyone outside of the Sutherlands knew of his presence until after he had gone; he wanted his visit to be a strictly private one, and such it was.”

And then there were the illegal prizefights that so infuriated local residents. In June of that year, a new business opened designed to cater to the latest leisure time craze—roller-skating. In the June 17, 1885 Kendall County Record, Oswego Correspondent Lorenzo Rank grumpily noted: “The grand opening of the [roller] skating rink occurs this evening, which doubtless will make the town tremble, for even the minor opening which took place last Saturday caused a lot of racket.”

The rink building was not only fine for roller-skating, however. It’s large open floor proved to also be a fine place for a bare-knuckle prizefight ring. Exactly who agreed to host the fights, which were illegal at the time, that seemed to magically appear was unknown, or at least kept pretty quiet. The first of the bouts was held in February 1890, with two or three subsequent contests before the big fight in 1891.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 8, 1891, a special passenger train pulled into the Oswego depot from Chicago. A crowd of Chicago gamblers and two boxers trudged up the Jackson Street hill to the skating rink. Boxers Tom Ryan and Bull Howson warmed up while the ringside crowd placed their bets. According to the Chicago Daily News, in a story with the plaintive headline, “Another Prize Fight—Is There No One to Enforce the Law?” the 14-round fight was one-sided. “Ryan pounded Howson into jelly and won over $8,000 for his side,” the Daily News reported.

While two trains a day to and from Chicago was okay for local residents, it didn’t allow people to easily commute to jobs or to school or other tasks. Then in 1900, an interurban trolley line that was eventually known as the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago was built linking downtown Aurora with downtown Yorkville via Oswego.

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main

In this 1903 photo, the AE&C trolley has just dropped off two ladies and is heading south on Main Street towards Yorkville. (Little White School Museum collection)

Trolley cars made the Aurora to Yorkville trip hourly, and that did create a true commuter system allowing Yorkville and Oswego residents to work in Aurora’s many factories and businesses and shop in the city’s big stores. In the days before Oswego had a four-year high school, the trolley allowed students to commute to East Aurora and West Aurora high schools.

For two decades, trolley and railroad passenger service made it convenient for local residents to travel virtually anywhere in the United States by rail.

But by the 1920s, the U.S. was undergoing a transportation revolution. Not only were motor vehicles, from autos to trucks to buses, being constantly improved, but so were the roads on which they traveled. And unlike the privately-owned tracks that trains and trolleys traveled on, roads were built and maintained by tax dollars. As a result, passenger rail service was being squeezed badly.

1915 Trolley AE&C livery

There was no missing the brightly painted AE&C interurban trolley cars as they rattled up and down the line from Aurora to Yorkville.

The first component to succumb to the competition with motor vehicles was the interurban trolley industry. By the early 1920s, most interurban lines were hanging on by a thread, and one by one, they failed. Finally, it was the turn of the AE&C.

On Aug. 9, 1924, the Record reported: “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued as soon as buses are provided to take care of the traffic. This permission comes after a long battle with the commission and a period of wretched service by the street car company at this end of the line.”

1942 Dinky at Streator

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s passenger motor car gets ready for a run from Streator up the Fox River Branch to Aurora in this 1942 photo.

The bus service started on Feb. 1, 1926, charging a 40 cent fare from downtown Yorkville to downtown Aurora. Within a couple years, the bus line was bought out by the CB&Q.

Meanwhile, the railroad, which had discontinued regular passenger trains on the Fox River Branch, introduced passenger service by what they officially called a passenger motor car and that the residents living along the line nicknamed “The Dinky.” The Dinky used a gasoline engine to power and electrical generator that, in turn, powered the motors on the car’s trucks.

Dinky plan

The CB&Q’s passenger motor car designed crammed a passenger section (with smoking section), a baggage/freight compartment, and a U.S. Railway Mail Service post office into it’s 78-foot length. (Little White School Museum collection)

While service was not nearly as handy as the old interurban service had been, it did provide regular passenger service up and down the Fox River Branch line. Each car, 78 feet in length, had a passenger section, along with a baggage section for light freight, and most interestingly, a small railway post office. Mail was collected from each post office along the route, sorted while the car was traveling, and either delivered at the next stop along the way or carried on to the collecting office at either end of the route.

1943 Train-Dinky Wreck 2 B&W

The crumpled and gutted wreckage of the Dinky after the April 1943 collision with a steam engine between Montgomery and Oswego near the site of today’s Oswegoland Civic Center in Boulder Hill. (Little White School Museum collection)

The big drawback with gas-electric cars was the gasoline that powered their engines. That problem became starkly apparent on a warm afternoon in April 1943 when miscommunication resulted in a head-on collision between the northbound Dinky and a southbound steam engine near present-day Boulder Hill. Motorman F.E. Bishop along with baggage man Chalmers Kerchner and the Dinky’s two post office employees, mail clerk Paul Chrysler and assistant chief clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, all riding in the front of the car, were killed as the car’s 200-gallon fuel tank burst, spewing flaming gasoline everywhere. Subsequently, one additional person died, high school student Harold Alderman, who’d been on his way from Oswego to Aurora.

Despite the inherent danger posed by the car’s gasoline engine, the passenger motor cars continued to provide service. In August 1950, the CB&Q announced it was reducing its Dinky service to just one run per day. And then on Feb. 2, 1952, the last passenger motor car up the Fox River Branch made one last stop at Oswego and Yorkville, ending a tradition of passenger rail service that began in 1870.

Nowadays, autos have become so successful that we can barely travel local roads, so choked are they with traffic. And so transportation planners seem these days to be looking back rather than ahead for solutions to the region’s increasing vehicle gridlock. Trolley cars—renamed “light rail”—and commuter rail service are both increasingly popular, at least as concepts, as solutions are sought. It really does go to show that there really are few new things under the sun, which is another fine argument for studying history.

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Filed under Business, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

How Presbyterians, John Dillinger, and the Depression helped create an Oswego business…

Kendall County has never exactly been considered the artistic capital of the Fox Valley, but the time was, the work of a local commercial artist was sold nationwide. And as part of that process, jobs were created for many local residents at a time when cash was extremely hard to come by.

Larsen

The Rev. Horace Larsen

In the late 1930s, the Oswego Presbyterian Church was looking for a new pastor after the Rev. John Klein accepted a call to a church in Denver, Colorado. After a search, they reached out to the Rev. Horace Larsen who was then filling the pulpit at West Liberty, Iowa, inviting him to come to Oswego to see how he and the congregation liked each other. He spoke at the service in Oswego on the last Sunday in April 1938, and on March 8 the congregation voted to offer him the position.

When Rev. Larsen moved his family to Oswego, he also brought along the tools of his avocation as a commercial artist. For a few years, Larsen had been creating plaques with Biblical themes that he sold through religious supply houses. For each plaque, Larsen hand-carved the armature from which a latex mold would be made. Then the mold was filled with a relatively new plaster-like product being manufactured by U.S. Gypsum called Hydrocal.

Plaque graphic color

The small “Love Never Faileth” (1 Corinthians, 13:8) was first manufactured in Oswego in 1939, and was one of the Christian Art House’s more popular designs. (Little White School Museum collection)

Deposits of gypsum were discovered in the late 1840s along the Des Moines River near Fort Dodge, Iowa. After mining began in 1872, millions of tons of the stuff have been removed from the extensive gypsum beds. Over the years U.S. Gypsum—now known as USG—developed a number of gypsum-based products, including Hydrocal. The company still markets Hydrocal, advertising it as a “Multi-purpose gypsum cement ideal for both solid and hollow casting of lamp bases and figurines. High green strength minimizes breakage during removal from the most intricate latex molds. Achieves a stark, white color, making it ideal for accepting colorants.”

For Larsen’s purposes, Hydrocal was perfect. It’s drying time was not overly fast, and the plaques made from it dried extremely hard, durable, and dead white in color, which meant it was easier to paint them.

Larsen had produced plaques for a year or two in West Liberty, and continued to do the same when he arrived in Oswego. At first, he worked alone in the basement of his home, the church parsonage. As he chatted with members of the congregation, he found at least one who was interested in partnering in producing the plaques.

That was young Ron Smith, who was looking for a new career. After high school, Ron had decided he was interested in learning the undertaking business. So he joined Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home as an apprentice trainee. But it didn’t take long before he began seriously questioning his career choice.

Which is where the Dillinger Gang enters the story.

Thorsen Funeral Home

Ron Smith was a young undertaking apprentice at Oswego’s Thorsen Funeral Home at the southwest corner of Madison and Van Buren Street. When he was tasked with processing John Hamilton’s badly decomposed body, he decided he should get into another line of work. That meant he was available to partner with Horace Larsen to form the Christian Art House. (Little White School Museum photo)

On April 22, 1934, gang members John Dillinger, John “Red” Hamilton, and Homer Van Meter were ambushed by law enforcement officers near St. Paul, Minnesota. Hamilton—nicknamed “Three-Fingered Jack” by the press—was seriously wounded by a rifle bullet in the back as the gang fled in their car. They headed to Aurora here in Illinois where one of the gang’s hangers-on named Volney Davis had an apartment with his girlfriend, Edna “Rabbits” Murray. There they cared for Hamilton until he died, after which Dillinger, Van Meter, and Davis drove Hamilton’s body south along the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) to a spot just north of Oswego, opposite today’s Violet Patch Park, where they buried him in a shallow grave, pouring lye on his hands and face to hide his identity.

Fast-forward to Aug. 28, 1935, when a team of FBI agents, learning of the location of Hamilton’s body from Davis, exhumed the body. Conferring with local lawmen, Hamilton’s badly decomposed body was removed to the Thorsen Funeral Home, where young Ron Smith was assigned to process and embalm it. Which was the point, Smith told me five decades later, that he decided he needed to make a different career choice.

Fortunately, Larsen arrived a couple years later looking for help, and Smith was willing, ready, and able to get involved in a new Oswego business that didn’t involve decomposed bodies.

The pair called their new company the Christian Art House.

1944 Christian Art House

The employees of the Christian Art House in 1944 with the photo taken outside the firm’s Polk Street factory.

They began manufacturing their plaques in the parsonage basement, but it was soon apparent that more room was needed. So Smith conferred with his in-laws, Fred and Lettie Willis, and the operation was moved to a small addition to the Willis tin shop in downtown Oswego. But that space, too, was quickly outgrown and so Larsen and Smith again approached the Willises, who owned a city lot on Polk Street. With local financial help the Christian Art House built a two-story concrete block building on the lot to serve as their factory. With an eye towards the uncertain future, especially given the on-going Depression, the structure was built as a factory, but was also designed to be easily remodeled into apartments in case their plans fell through.

But the plans did not fall through, and in May, 1940, the new factory was completed.

The May 8, 1940 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego that “In February of this year a building permit was granted and the erection of a new plant began. It is a two-story structure, sturdy and attractive, made of concrete blocks and built in such a way that it may be converted into living quarters in later years if desired… The building, designed by Dr. Larsen, will adequately care for the increased volume of business and make possible a more efficient service to the trade.”

Manufacturing plaques began almost immediately.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner with Christian Art House delivery truck.

Ron Smith (left) and Les Fechner pose with the Christian Art House’s delivery truck shortly after the company’s new factory opened in Oswego. (Little White School Museum collection)

Each plaque’s armature was hand-carved by Larsen. On plaques with relief carving, he was careful to make all angles slope inwards so the latex molds made from the master could be easily removed and that the plaques themselves would easily slip out of the molds. On one of each plaque’s edges, he added an incised copyright notice along with his name, “H.A. Larsen,” the plaque’s item number, and the place the plaque was made, either in West Liberty or Oswego.

After Larsen produced a master carving, it was taken to the factory where molds were prepared by spraying the master with a mold release and then spraying liquid latex onto the master. The latex was allowed to dry and was then peeled off the master, and another mold was prepared the same way.

The latex mold was sunk into a shallow box filled with liquid Hydrocal™, which was allowed to dry, thus providing a firm base for the mold. This was especially important for the larger plaques because the weight of the wet Hydrocal™ could distort the mold and ruin the plaque.

World Plaque

Larsen produced this unusual round design for the Christian Art House in 1940, featuring the verse from John 3:16 on a scroll superimposed on a cross, which is superimposed on the Earth. At 8.25″ in diameter, it’s one of Larsen’s larger efforts. (Little White School Museum collection)

After the plaques dried, they were removed from the molds and taken to the drying room. There, they were allowed to cure in the room’s elevated heat and lowered humidity.

After the plaques had thoroughly cured, they were taken to the paint room and were sprayed with a brown tinted antiquing paint. The plaques were then ready for final decorating, a job that was done by local women who worked at the Christian Art House part time.

During the late depression years of the late 1930s and the immediate pre-war years, the Christian Art House offered local women the chance to earn cash wages. While wages were only about 25 cents an hour, that was a fair amount in those years when a loaf of bread cost a nickel.

According to interviews with former paintresses, a specific color was painted each day. For instance, on a given Monday, everything green on whatever plaques to be decorated was painted. On Tuesday, blue portions of the plaques were painted, and so on.

Besides it’s women employees, the Christian Art House provided jobs for a number of men. Men engaged in the actual production work and other jobs that required heavier manual labor. In addition, part-time male workers were also employed from time to time for such labor-intensive tasks at unloading railcar loads of Hydrocal on the siding at the Oswego Depot. The men not only earned cash for this work, but were also sometimes also given complimentary plaques, a practice that spread them throughout the community.

2009 Plaque Factory

The old Christian Art House factory as it looks today as an apartment house on Polk Street in Oswego.

Besides the firm’s Oswego factory, plaques were also reportedly produced in Chicago, where female students from the Moody Bible Institute were employed part-time as paintresses. Also, the firm had a Toronto, Canada factory during the 1940s.

Christian Art House wall plaques were marketed on nationally-broadcast radio programs such as “The Lutheran Hour.” In addition, they were sold through religious supply houses including Zondervan Publishing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Larsen’s designs included both relief and incised schemes, and almost always featured familiar Bible verses. Along with Bible verses, each plaque included various religious images familiar to Protestants. These included the empty Cross, signifying the risen Christ; oak motifs, including leaves, twigs, and acorns, relating back to the cross, which was thought to have been made of oak; lilies; open books representative of the Bible itself; and others.

Besides purely religious imagery, however, Larsen also experimented with a variety of other motifs, including the globe and also tried out various textures. He also combined standard motifs, such as small scrolls, with others, such as crosses, to come up with compound motif plaques.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The Christian Art House exhibit at Oswego’s Little White School Museum.

The smaller plaques made inexpensive gifts, and were often given by Sunday school teachers to their students. Larger plaques were given as gifts and purchased as home decorations.

The Christian Art House business was finally dissolved in 1958. But even today, more than a few Oswego homes still sport some of Horace Larsen’s plaques. In total, his output still stands as probably the largest body of work by any Oswego artist.

Today, you can see some examples of Larsen’s work at Oswego’s Little White School Museum, which has an entire exhibit dedicated to Larsen and the Christian Art House.

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