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Local historians’ popular ‘What if?’ game

A favorite mind game played by a lot of historians is wondering how things might have been, if only…

For instance, what would have happened had Lee won at Gettysburg? How would North America have fared had George Washington been killed during Braddock’s Defeat in the French and Indian War? What if the Nazis had been first to invent the atom bomb? How would Abraham Lincoln’s life been changed had his mother not died of the “milk sick” when he was a child?

Those kinds of historical speculations are in the cosmic realm—things that might or might not have changed our whole world. But there are thousands of historical micro-events at the local level that have had huge impacts on the ways in which the Fox River Valley grew and developed. Many of those incidents seem minor, but had they turned out differently, our communities would have been profoundly changed.

In the first half of the 19th Century, Montgomery was on the move as the U.S. Government’s official 1842 survey map of Aurora Township illustrates. The road from Naper’s Settlement is shown as a dotted line heading west by southwest, crossing the Fox River on “Gray’s Bridge” marked with the red arrow. (Illinois State Archives Federal Township Plats of Illinois collection)

In the first half of the 19th Century, Montgomery was on the move as the U.S. Government’s official 1842 survey map of Aurora Township illustrates. The road from Naper’s Settlement is shown as a dotted line heading west by southwest, crossing the Fox River on “Gray’s Bridge” marked with the red arrow. (Illinois State Archives Federal Township Plats of Illinois collection)

For instance, what if Daniel Gray, the energetic founder of Montgomery, had not succumbed to illness and died during the winter of 1854? Gray was the founder and the soul of Montgomery. He was reportedly an indomitable force for development and business activities. Upon his death, Montgomery failed to live up to the potential Gray had mapped for it. Had Gray lived, the town could well have grown to rival its neighbor to the north, Aurora, in terms of its industrial base. Gray had, at the time of his death, a number of manufacturing operations going on, including a foundry and a large factory manufacturing farm equipment. At the time of his death he was working on a steam engine factory, something that would have added greatly to the village’s industrial base, not to mention that of the entire Fox Valley.

An even bigger question is what might have happened had the CB&Q Railroad crossed the river at Oswego instead of Aurora when it was extending its tracks west of Chicago in the 1850s?

That the railroad favored the crossing at Oswego was mentioned in several early histories and in at least one newspaper account from the 1850s. Whether the railroad was serious about the whole thing was somewhat questionable—after the fact stories like that are a dime a historical dozen. At least they were until I ran across a map in the Library of Congress’s collections. The map, published in 1854— “Rail road and county map of Illinois showing its internal improvements”—was designed to show the existing and proposed public improvements, including roads, canals, and railroads, in the state. The map illustrates a number of rail lines radiating west from Chicago, including the main line from Chicago to Galena, which included the Aurora Branch line.

Today, that line crosses the river at Aurora before trending generally west southwest through Kendall County on its way to the Mississippi River.

The blue line on the Rail Road and County Map of Illinois Showing Its Internal Improvements, 1854 by Ensign, Bridgeman & Fanning, New York marks the proposed route of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad as it was supposed to cross the Fox River at Oswego. After Oswego turned the railroad’s backers down, the line crossed at Aurora instead. (Library of Congress American Memories Collection)

The blue line on the Rail Road and County Map of Illinois Showing Its Internal Improvements, 1854 by Ensign, Bridgeman & Fanning, New York marks the proposed route of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad as it was supposed to cross the Fox River at Oswego. After Oswego turned the railroad’s backers down, the line crossed at Aurora instead. (Library of Congress American Memories Collection)

But that’s not what the plans were in 1853 when the information for the map was gathered. Instead, the railroad wanted to cross at Oswego, and that’s exactly what the map shows. The map shows Aurora Branch line extending west from Turner’s Junction, now West Chicago, southwesterly to Batavia before heading south to Aurora. From Aurora, the line continues south along the Fox River to Oswego, where it is shown crossing the river where it is at its narrowest point, before heading southwesterly once again.

According to a newspaper account from an 1857 edition of the Kendall County Courier published in Oswego, the village fathers were enamored with plank roads, not railroads. In fact, the Chicago, Naperville and Oswego Plank Road company was busy extending a plank road west from Chicago on what would one day become Ogden Avenue—U.S. Route 34. Oswego was to be the terminus of the new road, something that would have greatly enhanced its economic standing. In addition, the Oswego and Indiana Plank Road Company was busy selling shares in their road, which was to connect Oswego with an undesignated place in Indiana. So with the chance to become a plank road hub, Oswego apparently told the railroad company to take a flying leap, which they did, deciding to cross the Fox River at Aurora instead of Oswego. And as a result of that decision, Aurora got the CB&Q shops, the roundhouse, and all the other accouterments of railroading that turned it into one of Illinois’ largest cities.

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Oswego, meanwhile, lost out all the way around. The Chicago, Naperville & Oswego Plank Road Company went broke after extending the route to Naperville; the section to Oswego was never built. In addition, the only stretch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road built connected Joliet with Plainfield on the modern route of U.S. Route 30, plus an extremely short stretch west from Plainfield. It never reached Oswego, either.

It turned out that plank roads were expensive to maintain, and the tolls never covered the construction expenses, much less necessary maintenance. And they were being built just as timber was becoming scarce in northern Illinois thanks to the building boom the area was experiencing.

But the railroad did prove successful. Crossing as it did at Aurora, the line passed two miles west of Oswego, and about that far from Bristol—then the north side of Yorkville. Both towns established stations on the main line, but not until 1870 did the two towns get their own rail line, and then it was a branch line and not a main line.

What would have happened to Kendall County had Oswego accepted the rail crossing in 1853? The county seat might well have stayed in Oswego instead of being moved to Yorkville in 1864, and economic growth would likely have been significant for the whole county.

It’s an entertaining game, historical speculation is. What would have happened had the government followed through with their 1867 survey of the Fox River and made the river navigable from Ottawa to Oswego? What if a con man hadn’t sapped the economic strength of the Illinois and Midland Railroad from Newark to Millington? It’s a great game; anyone can play, and it’s free!

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Transportation

Pre-Christmas nostalgia seizes blogger…

So Thanksgiving is over and now we can start looking towards Christmas?

Although merchandisers have been looking towards Christmas since before Halloween, I always try to restrain myself until all the turkey leftovers have been eaten, the leaves taken back out of the dining room table, and all the glassware and silverware has been shined and put away.

Just a bit ago, I noticed it was flurrying past my office window here at History Central in downtown Troy, which is a lot better than the rain that was falling when I got up this morning. To me, there’s not much more miserable weather than 35° and rain.

At this time of the year, it’s difficult not to reflect on Christmases past. The holiday was a big deal when I was a kid. My grandfather was an enthusiastic fan of Christmas, although at the time I would not have said my grandfather was enthusiastic about anything. He was, with us younger kids at least, gruff and a man of very few words. I don’t remember him ever calling me by my first name, in fact. But at Christmas he became a much more mellow fellow, wandering through the crowd of children and grandchildren, and later, great-grandchildren, with a grin on his normally uncommunicative face.

The CB&Q Aurora Shops car department, woodworking mill in 1898 where my grandfather worked building boxcars and cabooses. The smaller building at right was the steam power plant where my great-grandfather worked.

The CB&Q Aurora Shops car department, woodworking mill in 1898 where my grandfather worked building boxcars and cabooses. The smaller building at right was the steam power plant where my great-grandfather worked. (Library of Congress photo)

His family were Germans from Germany, as opposed to my grandmother’s family, who were Germans from Pennsylvania. Both of them grew up speaking German at home, even though my grandmother’s family had immigrated to the colonies back in 1750, while Grandpa’s family arrived in the early 1880s. But while Grandma’s family wasn’t much on religion or holidays, Grandpa’s certainly were. He brought those family traditions with him when he and Grandma and their three kids, at my grandmother’s increasingly desperate pleas, moved out of Aurora to a decrepit Wheatland Township farm.

In Aurora, they’d lived in a new house—my great-grandfather gave them a lot in between the great-grandparents’ house and the lot they’d already given to their daughter and her husband—who was my grandmother’s brother. It was a situation that led, a century later, to make for some interesting genealogy charts.

The problem was that my great-grandmother and her daughter did not get along. There was constant yelling back and forth between the two, with my grandmother literally caught in the middle of their incessant arguments after which either or both would take to their beds whereupon Grandma would be forced to care for either or both of them. After 11 years of that nonsense, she’d had enough and began begging Grandpa to move to a farm, where, she promised, she’d milk cows, feed pigs and chickens, can fruit and vegetables, and generally run the place all on her own, if he wanted.

My grandparents, my Uncle Earl (center, first row), my Aunt Evelyn (left, standing), my Uncle Gerald, who my grandparents raised and then adopted after his mother (my grandmother's sister) died in childbirth, and my mother, about 1944.

My grandparents, my Uncle Earl (center, first row), my Aunt Evelyn (left, standing), my Uncle Gerald, who my grandparents raised and then adopted after his mother (my grandmother’s sister) died in childbirth, and my mother, about 1944.

At the time he had a pretty good job as a crew supervisor working in the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops in downtown Aurora, a job he didn’t want to give up, at least not right away. But luckily enough, there was an interurban trolley line about a mile and a half from the farm they rented. So every morning four days a week (according to his paybooks, which I still have, his crew worked four 10 hour days a week) he’d walk down and catch the interurban to downtown Aurora, work his 10 hours, and then take the trolley home, and walk the mile and a half home. On his three-day weekends, he’d do the heavy farming work out in the fields while Grandma, true to her word, milked eight or 10 cows, fed the pigs and chickens, tended the garden and the orchard, canned and otherwise preserved the fruit and vegetables she grew, and took care of her three kids, one of whom, my Uncle Earl, was afflicted with infantile paralysis and had to be carried just about everywhere.

1920 Holzhueter farm moving day

Moving day in 1920 at the Wheatland Township farmhouse my grandparents rented from Louis McLaren. It took a few weeks to make the place livable and was a far cry from their two-story Queen Anne house on Aurora’s East Side.

But even as hard as their lives were, Christmas on the farm was an important piece of the family’s year. They’d go into Aurora on Christmas Eve so Grandma and the kids could go to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church for the German language service while Grandpa went in search of a Christmas tree and other holiday goodies. He always maintained the best deals on Christmas trees were found on Christmas Eve, in which he was entirely right. It’s just that the trees were always—and this continued right up through the day and age when I was married with my own baby girl—about as forlorn looking as the one made famous by Charlie Brown. But after the bubble lights, ornaments, and the tinsel were applied, they looked festive enough.

Grandpa was startled to find that in the country, living as they did among English and Scots neighbors, Christmas just wasn’t that big a deal. Their neighbors across the field had a son who, like my Uncle Earl, was crippled and who one summer day happened to mention to my grandfather that he loved looking across the frozen, snowy fields at Christmas and seeing the gaily lighted tree in my grandparents’ window. The child’s father offered that Christmas decorating was foolishness that cost a lot of money for no gain to the farm at all, an attitude my grandfather had a hard time getting his mind around.

So the next Christmas, my grandfather bought two Christmas trees at Joe Hauser’s store on Aurora’s East Side, plus some extra decorations. After putting up the family tree, he decorated the other one, and carried it across the field to the neighbors’ house where the youngster was absolutely shocked to find this bit of Christmas cheer was for him to enjoy. And Grandpa did the same thing for the few years the child had left before he died.

My mother and father made a big deal out of Christmas, too. On Christmas Eve, we all went to the church Christmas program, and then enjoyed the gift exchange after. Then it was off to the Bower’s house next to the church where we admired their tree and drank a little eggnog before heading home. Once in a great while, I’d get to open a gift on Christmas Eve, not often. That was saved for Christmas morning. Later that morning, we’d pack up the car and head the two or three miles to my grandparents’ farm, where we’d have Christmas dinner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, eating around the big table in the long, narrow dining room that, outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas, was used to feed threshing and bailing crews, followed by a gift exchange (we drew names at Thanksgiving). The thrill of the day was when my mother wandered around handing out envelopes with $5 bills to all us grandkids from Grandpa and Grandma.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn's 1956 catalog.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

I can still remember the thrill of opening the Lionel train I got one Christmas morning, with switches and a signal tower and a boxcar with a guy who actually slid open the door and popped out! After we moved to town, I found a brand new Schwinn bike standing by the tree one Christmas morning. It was a honey, too, a Schwinn Corvette, with chrome fenders and a three-speed gear shift, not to mention caliper brakes, which took some getting used to.

Though the Schwinn is long gone, I still have my Lionel O-gauge train set, packed in a couple boxes in the attic. The engine still smokes if you put the little white pills down the stack, an the man in the orange boxcar still opens the sliding door and pops out when it’s over that special piece of track. And as the holiday season progresses, I’m hoping I can infuse a little of the Christmas spirit that my grandfather so loved into my own grandchildren.

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Filed under Aurora, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events

So what’s the deal with all these school districts?

It’s hard to blame folks for being confused about which school district their kids should or do attend. Currently, the Oswego School District serves students who live in unincorporated Kendall, Kane, and Will counties, plus the municipalities of Oswego, Aurora, Montgomery, Yorkville, Plainfield, and Joliet. Most of the towns, of course, have their own school districts. So why do kids living in Joliet find themselves going to school in a school located inside Plainfield’s municipal limits that belongs to the Oswego School District?

For the answer, we need to go back to the 1930s, when it was decreed that high school districts should be formed to include every place in Illinois. Eventually, most–but not all–of those high school districts merged with elementary districts within their bounds to form unit school districts educating children from kindergarten through the senior year of high school. But for most districts, that was some decades in the future.

About 1929, Alex Harvey posed with the district’s only bus he drove to collect Oswego High School students in the rural areas served by the school. When the photo was snapped, his only passenger was his sister, Virginia. (Little White School Museum photo)

In this area, the educators and school boards of the 1930s knew it made a lot of fiscal sense to persuade as many farmers as possible to annex to their school districts. That’s because while a farm might cover hundreds of acres, generally there was just one family of children living on it. So property tax on farmland was a winner for the districts. Lots of revenue rolled in, but few students had to be educated.

It was the same with industrial and other commercial property, but back then there was relatively little of that in Kendall County outside Plano, which had been in industrial town since it’s inception as a stop on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.

So school superintendents drove all over the countryside talking up the advantages of annexing to their school districts. In general, farmers picked a district to which their families had ties, either through shopping or where their relatives lived. That resulted in school districts large in area but, until the latter years of the 20th Century, quite small in enrollment, meaning school officials made pretty shrewd bets on protecting taxpayers.

But then enter the era of fast growth, and all that rich farmland was eyed by ambitious developers. The first of the major post-World War II developers was Don L. Dise, who, with a consortium of investors, bought the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm between Oswego and Montgomery owned by the Bereman family and turned it into one of the largest unincorporated subdivisions in Illinois. All those Baby Boomer kids living in new houses on what had previously been crop and pasture land were funneled into Oswego’s schools.

As growth accelerated through the end of the century and into the new 21st Century, those 60 year-old decisions to annex as much farmland as possible began looking more and more shortsighted. But to be fair to those long-ago officials, no one, even as late as the 1960s, ever expected the municipal boundaries of Plainfield and Aurora to touch, nor those of Plainfield and Oswego, or of Yorkville and Sugar Grove as they do today.

In fact, it’s still hard for many of us today to realize just how large our once-tiny farming communities have grown. At a school board meeting somewhere around 2000, Joel Murphy, then the Oswego School District’s business manager, suggested that when fully developed, an area requires about one elementary school per square mile. That means that the Oswego School District, with 68 square miles, can eventually expect to build and maintain more than 60 elementary schools along. Yorkville, with its 85 square miles, can eventually expect to have more than 80 elementary schools.

If only we could accurately predict the future, how much easier we could make life. However, all we can do is use the best evidence we have at the time decisions are to be made, and inform it with whatever wisdom we’ve been able to acquire over the years. Even then, many of the most momentous decisions must be approved by voters who often have little in-depth knowledge of what goes into making those decisions, and who can be easily swayed by those with their own personal axes to grind. It’s an often cumbersome and expensive system resulting in many expensive false starts as decisions have to be redone again and again as they are found to be faulty. And then done again as the lessons they should have taught are promptly forgotten. But it’s the system we have to work with, which is why it’s important to make absolutely sure the people we elect have the best interests of all at the forefront, not just the interests of themselves or this or that small pressure group.

Looking for more Kendall County history? Go to their web site to see my weekly Reflections column in the Ledger-Sentinel.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events